Review of Two Steps Forward by Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist

My first introduction to the Camino de Santiago was when I went to watch The Way starring Martin Sheen with my friend Christine. Both of us felt the pull of the walk by the end of that movie and Christine set about making plans to actually do it, but then her life was ended by illness within a short time of announcing her plans.

Christine’s desire to walk the Camino came flooding back the second I withdrew the advanced review copy of Two Steps Forward by Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist from the envelope, and I couldn’t help smiling and thinking about her, while also feeling sad that she never had the chance to fulfil that last ambition. I wish I could share this book with Christine because she would have loved it as much as I do.

 

Only three things are certain on the Camino… The first is blisters. The second is that when you arrive at the Santiago Cathedral, you will cry. The Camino will change you. It changes everyone.

 

The novel is told from two alternate perspectives and each voice is completely unique imagesand compelling. Californian Zoe is a broke artist whose husband has passed away, while Yorkshireman Martin is an engineer who’s feeling bitter after divorce and he’s looking for a way to make money. Both are walking the Camino, the pilgrim’s passage from Cluny in France to the Compostela de Santiago in Spain, where the remains of St. James are said to buried. Along the Way they both begin to untangle a lot of emotional baggage.

Martin is clever, stubborn, determined to do everything on his own terms and has a sarcastic wit which can come across as arrogant and brusque at times, an attitude which can occasionally places stumbling blocks along the road for him.

Zoe is warm, friendly and engaging but has lost her sense of identity in some ways, which can lead her to make assumptions at times that can set her back.

The title ‘Two Steps Forward’ is perfect for this novel as it epitomises the phrase ‘two steps forward and one step back’ as Zoe and Martin are brought together and pulled apart along this journey. At times they don’t feel that they’re moving forward at all on their individual journeys but they are every step of the way despite the occasional set back.

 

As readers follow Martin and Zoe along the Camino they will learn many useful tips and how to avoid the mistakes that these two characters make. The trials and tribulations along with the joy and camaraderie of falling into step with complete strangers at different points along the Way are vividly brought to life, as are the key points of interest and spectacular scenery.

You may find yourself drawn towards walking the Camino by the end of this wonderful life-enhancing reading experience. Which is exactly what authors Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist, who have have walked the Camino, hope you will do:

 

This book was inspired by the people who walked with us, who welcomed us, and who mark and care for the Way. We hope it will inspire others to undertake their own journeys.

 

With thanks to Two Roads publishers for this unexpected treat.

Buy the book here.

Follow the authors on Twitter: @GraemeSimsion @anneebuist

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Review of The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow by Danny Denton

Here’s a novel that explores the origins of myths, legends and faith through a vision of a dystopian Ireland set sometime far in the future. A rain soaked landscape run by gangsters, despair and relentless misery. A place where a little golden flame of hope flickers in the form of young boy in yellow skins who falls in love with T, the daughter of the Earlie King, and who vows that he will protect T’s child after she dies in childbirth.

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The story is told from three perspectives: Word of Ward – Fran Ward, former officer of the law and the last true Irishman, who is the storyteller and recorder of the events that follow, and contact of O’Casey – the journalist who is determined to record every vicious crime and death at the hands of the Earlie King and his Earlie Boys, despite the fact that no one will have the courage to print it. The second perspective is that of Mr Violence – the ever present voice of death that haunts rain slashed pages and the last comes from The Play – a production set in the lounge bar of the Pit & Pendant Pub, which gives voice to the Early King and his leftenants.

A digital downfall is on the way and the whole of society is crumbling, lost in the war between the Earlie King, the vigilante Vincent Depaul (the pyrotechnic champion of the poor) and the uselessness of the police, known as the Heavies. Independent thought is crowded out by the onslaught of technology and insight is lost along with the illumination of the sun. While the continuing environmental disaster escalates the rot, poisons the fish in the seas and deforms the children.

People find escape through drugs or they’re glued to TeleVisio, and when they’re not subjecting themselves to that they’re bombarded by the city intercom or trying to evade the radar of the Early Boys, a group of young men who take great pleasure in executing brutal levels of violence at the behest of the Earlie King for the slightest reason. Mothers of their victims don’t even have the energy to grieve, instead they accept the slaughter of their loved ones as inevitable.

At no point in this novel will you know who speaks the absolute truth, yet the story resonates with many multifaceted truths about life and how it can drag people into a pit of misery and despair but also give them an anchor for hope.

Which is why the heroic efforts of the Kid in Yellow to reclaim the child that he believes is his and T’s stirs the spirits of the community and the likes of O’Casey, who is determined to track the Kid down.

This is a love story, a crime story, a fantastical tale soaked in myth. An origin story, told from multiple perspectives and in an experimental style. The use of slashes instead of speech marks adds a harsh, otherworldly edge to the colloquial dialogue. The writing often has a poetical rhythm that sweeps you deep into the physical and emotional world of The Kid in Yellow, a place where you will be equally moved and horrified by the young teenager’s tentative gestures of friendship towards T, the fury that he feels at being trapped in a downward spiral with no obvious way out and his instinct to protect ‘the babba’, despite not knowing who to trust in world where anything can be bought and sold, and betrayal is the norm.

It’s the complexity of the Kid’s knowledge and innocence that anchors this tale, as all the way through you will hear different impressions of him and his actions from others as the legend builds around the story of The Early King and the Kid in Yellow. I loved how this story was crafted, and I particularly loved how Denton was bold enough to offer no definitive version of the truth, instead he demonstrated how any story can be a variation of the truth, according to the agenda of the teller. Denton is a writer of immense talent and definitely one to watch.

With thanks to Granta for the review copy. Buy a copy here.

Review of The Lost by Mari Hannah

Introducing the first novel in the Stone and Oliver series by Mari Hannah, which is a thrilling piece of sleight of hand that will keep you gripped to the very last page.

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Alex has been away on holiday for a week with her sister, Kat, leaving her 10-year-old son, Daniel, in the care of Tim, her husband. It’s the first time she has been away from the two men in her life that her world revolves around.

Hannah establishes how important Tim is to Alex’s sense of wellbeing right from the first page. However not everyone agrees with Alex’s view of Tim as an ambitious entrepreneur; her sister, Kat, views him as a reckless risk-taker.

Here Hannah delivers the first of many losses, a moving eloquent piece of thoughtful contemplation via Alex that enables the reader to emotionally engage with how the events leading up to this holiday have deeply affected her, and how she feels now the break is nearly over.

Then shortly before Alex’s return to the UK, Daniel goes missing.

As DS Frankie Oliver and DI David Stone investigate Daniel’s disappearance they discover a home full of secrets and deception, and begin to wonder who is telling the truth, especially when possible suspects in the case start to die.

DI David Stone is a Met officer with 15 years experience who has been transferred to Northumberland, and he’s not that keen on being paired with a ‘bolshie’ detective sergeant like DS Frankie Oliver. He can’t see what the fuss is about as in his London patch kids went missing all the time. But DS Oliver is not one for giving up easily, especially when her gut instinct is telling her that something is off about the Daniel’s case.

Oliver is a third-generation copper who’s keen to prove her worth: tenacious, intelligent, challenging and with a depth of empathy that Stone has lost to some degree due to experiences in his own life. However, Oliver can also be impatient and has a tendency to go off and do her own thing without informing anyone, and is willing to bend the rules when she deems it necessary.

Hannah has written a perceptive and insightful story that revolves around how grief can be such an overwhelming emotion it can render the grief stricken blind to any chance of moving past anger to acceptance of the change in their lives.

The novel explores how loss can colour perception, how it can deceive and illuminate at the same time, while playing with the innate sense of bias that comes with a particular set of personal experiences. It also explores how those biases and perceptions can drive someone to behave in ways that are completely out of character, and how they can choose to change course and learn from self-reflection, or suppress them because they are set on a course of action born from unexpressed rage that has no safe place to be heard and defused.

I loved how these contrasting perspectives of loss were explored through the relationships within Daniel’s family and between Oliver and Stone throughout the novel, as Hannah kept the tension tight and the twists coming.

If there’s one thing Hannah excels at it’s leaving a little sense of mystery in the last chapter to keep you coming back for more, so I’ll be amazed if you reach the end of this novel not wanting to know more about DI David Stone and DS Frankie Oliver. The Lost is a cracking start to a new series.

With thanks to NetGalley for the review copy.

The Lost by Mari Hannah is published by Orion on 22 March 2018.

Pre-order your copy here.

Review of Turn A Blind Eye by Vicky Newham

Newham has written a timely and relevant police procedural with a gripping plot that kept me turning the pages from start to finish. The novel features Bangladeshi Detective Inspector Maya Rahman who has just returned home from the burial of her beloved brother, Sabbir, only to be informed that the head teacher of her former secondary school in East London has been murdered. A white card has been left behind with the body featuring one of the five ancient Buddhist precepts:

I shall abstain from taking the ungiven.

This engaging debut explores the challenges of living, working and gaining an education within a multicultural environment. Within the first few pages the reader is introduced to the burial rites of the Bangladeshi faith, which are moving even as it becomes clear that Rahman is incredibly upset about certain aspects of the service due to the treatment of her brother from many quarters.

Meanwhile at the school back in London, new teacher Steven learns on his first day that the lives of the pupils have been disrupted by other forms of violence prior to the murder of their head teacher. Steve’s challenge is how to bond with the pupils in his class and his new colleagues within an atmosphere of escalating distrust and fear.

Maya soon finds she has a complex case on her hands and has to navigate her way through it with the help of her new Australian Detective Sergeant Dan Mcguire, who is being fast-tracked through UK police training system.

Maya experiences sexism and racism from within the force and externally. It’s nothing new to Maya as she and her wider family have had to deal with fear born out of ignorance their whole lives. Dan has also experienced the realities of racism through attitudes to different cultures in Australia, which offer unique insights into the present case. He also feels isolated in some ways living so far away from his family in the hope that he is creating a better life for them all.

The most interesting aspect of Turn a Blind Eye is that almost every key character has experienced being or feeling like an outsider in some form, whether it’s due to an unspoken negative life experience and/or because they’ve moved countries to find a new home or work, which gives Newham an opportunity to explore the subjects of immigration, sexism, abuse of power, cultural differences and race relations from multiple perspectives. How she achieves this is absolutely fascinating and a genuine education in tolerance and how to learn from seeking first to understand rather than turning to prejudice and ignorance from fear of the unknown.

The writing is incredibly perceptive, well researched, balanced and insightful. The use of Buddhist precepts as the killer’s motivation is clever, as it demonstrates that any faith can be bent to the will of the person committing the crime, it is not the faith that’s at fault but the person who is manipulating it to their own ends. There could not be a better time for a novel of this calibre to make its debut, as the call for tolerance and understanding within it is much needed.

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Turn A Blind Eye by Vicky Newham is published by Harper Collins on 5 April 2018, pre-order your copy here.

Psychologist Vicky Newham grew up in West Sussex and taught in East London for many years, before moving to Whitstable in Kent. She studied for an MA in Creative Writing at Kingston University. Turn a Blind Eye is her debut novel. She is currently working on the next book in the series.

Follow the author on twitter: @VickyNewham 

Website: vickynewham.com

With thanks to Harper Collins and NetGalley for the preview copy.

Review of The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

Some stories should be told and never forgotten, especially those where there is a 36468473stark choice of do or die, which can be mistaken for collaboration. Such is the case for Lale Sokolov and his friends in The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris.

As you approach this fictionalised account of the Lale’s true story of how he met the love of his life – Gita – at one of the most brutal Nazi prison camps during World War II – Auschwitz-Birkenau, it’s worth bearing in mind the difference between someone who willingly collaborates with another person and someone who is forced to work for them because to do otherwise equals certain death.

The phrase ‘work will make you free’ is emblazoned above the gates to Auschwitz and for many inmates ‘freedom’ arrived through being worked to death, if they weren’t shot, tortured or sent straight to the gas chambers on the whim of those running the camp.

Lale is a 24 year-old Jew who has volunteered to be the token child taken from his family to work for the Germans, and until the moment he arrives at Auschwitz he’s under the illusion that his choice would keep them safe.

Within minutes of arriving in Auschwitz, Lale is no longer under any illusions about what will keep anyone safe and commits his first small act of rebellion on the way to the showers.

Continue reading “Review of The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris”

Review of The Alarming Palsy of James Orr by Tom Lee

When James Orr wakes up one morning he senses that there’s been a shift in his carefully ordered world, one where he has a good job, the respect of his family and the wider community.

The shift becomes visible as he looks in the mirror and realises that the left side of his face has slid out of place due to Bell’s Palsy. After a brief trip to the doctors in the company of his wife, James finds himself signed off work and without structure to his daily life.

As he tries to come to terms with his new reality, James realises that all the relationship rules have changed due to his medical condition. People don’t know how to be with him now that he has a visible disability and he doesn’t know how to respond to these evident changes in attitude towards him. This leads James to behave in ways he would never have contemplated before.

For example, he becomes obsessed, paranoid and insecure in double-quick time, particularly around a new neighbour called Kit, who is prone to going shirtless in March while fixing the roof. This act brings out James perfectionist streak to be seen doing and saying the right thing, which he miserably fails at because his facial deformity leaves him unable to smile normally or to speak well, making him feel even more depressed as scuttles back indoors.

James’s situation goes from bad to worse as he proceeds to misjudge every encounter with his wife, their friends, neighbours and the local resident’s committee as the thin veneer of respectability he thought he had slips away.

Continue reading “Review of The Alarming Palsy of James Orr by Tom Lee”

Review of Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

Reservoir 13 is definitely one of my standout reads of 2017. It’s one of those beautifully written novels that quietly implants scenes in your memory that you can recall at will. There is a gorgeous fluidity to the writing that makes you forget that you are reading, as you’re drawn into the lives of the people impacted by the disappearance of a 13 year-old girl – known as Rebecca, Becky or Bex.

I loved how McGregor captures the slight sense of disconnection that people feel when they’re trying to make sense of something disturbing, in the short, punchy sentence structure of the opening chapter. There’s a quiet resonance to the chapters that follow, as McGregor delves into the shadow life of each villager, never staying with one for long but giving each enough time so that you have a sense of who they are, how they think and how the unresolved disappearance of the girl has infiltrated aspects of their lives and how it hasn’t. Continue reading “Review of Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor”