Review of Tastes Like Fear by Sarah Hilary

91d+hP7-FELMy word Hilary’s latest novel will make your stomach churn with tension. The opening features a barely dressed young girl running out into the road inadvertently causing a car crash before disappearing. There are mixed reports about whether or not a girl was there but those who claim to have seen her report that she was in a severely distressed state.

D.S. Noah Jake is just tucking into his breakfast when he takes a phone call ordering to join D.I. Marnie Rome at the crash site. As the pair interview the witnesses they begin to gather a disturbing picture and go in search of the missing girl.

These scenes are interspersed with a graphically depressing picture of youth homelessness on the streets and chapters titled ‘Aimee’, a character who represents the voice of the homeless who’ve been taken in by a man called Harm.

And this is where the story becomes genuinely disturbing. Hilary ramps up the sense of oppression and fear in that house through Aimee’s experience with Harm. Right from the off Aimee talks about the dead spaces, the places where people don’t really see what’s right in front of them. Hilary cleverly experiments with this construct throughout the entire novel in ways you won’t even see coming.

Harm is a menacing presence at all times, the kind of presence that is immobilising, the kind that makes time slow down as you become hyper aware of every gesture he makes, until you’re left wondering, like those in his care, what his motives are and what will happen next. Everyone has to obey Harm’s rules in order to live under his roof; he controls everything they do, think and eat. The scene setting is incredibly visual, when those girls sit down at the table to eat with Harm, so do you, and their experience becomes yours.

Meanwhile, DI Marnie Rome and DS Noah encounter both resistance and help from the people who witnessed the events that led up to the car crash and some have issues of their own that blur the truth. They’re negotiating with gang culture on an estate and children who are witnesses to things they never should have been exposed to. Rome is also trying to come to terms with her traumatic history as she tries to place herself in the missing girl’s shoes and retrace her footsteps. Meanwhile, Noah’s relationship with Dan is warming up nicely despite being called out to crime scenes at all hours. This third outing for D.I. Marnie Rome retains the humanity she is known for as the truth of the situation unfolds even as she puts herself in danger to protect the innocent.

Tastes Like Fear is an extraordinary depiction of psychological, emotional and economic violence that is genuinely chilling.

With thanks to Headline for the review copy.

Tastes like Fear by Sarah Hilary is the 3rd novel in the D.I. Marie Rome series and is due to be published on 7 April.

Follow the author on twitter: @sarah_hilary

 

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Book buying binge

I had a lovely Saturday morning donating clothes and shoes that I no longer wear to Barnardo’s in town before strolling down to Five Leaves book shop. I’ve been decluttering my place. I have a habit of having a clear out every six months of the things I know I’m not going to use again. I think it comes from all the years I spent in bedsits. One room living teaches you to be quite ruthless if you want to have enough space to move freely.

It’s also the Easter weekend and as chocolate eggs aren’t an option for me I treated myself to some new books. 

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Anyway, it’s been a while since I explored Five Leaves. I initially went in to buy a copy of Melissa by Jonathan Taylor, which has been shortlisted for the East Midlands Award 2016.

Publisher synopsis: At roughly 2pm on 9th June 1999, on a small street in Hanford, Stoke-on-Trent, a young girl dies of leukaemia; at almost the same moment, all her neighbours on the street experience the same musical hallucination. The novel is about this death and accompanying phenomenon – and about their after-effects, as the girl’s family gradually disintegrates in the wake of a terrible trauma.

Doesn’t that sound fascinating? I may pass this on to my aunt in France when I’m done, I think she’ll love it.

The next book I picked up was I Shall Not Hate by Izzeldin Abuelaish. The quote on the back says this memoir is ‘a journey of exception humanity’. Well anyone who knows me will know I can never resist books with themes like this.

Publisher synopsis:  A London University- and Harvard-trained Palestinian doctor Unknown-1who was born and raised in the Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip and ‘who has devoted his life to medicine and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians’ (New York Times), Abuelaish is an infertility specialist who lives in Gaza but works in Israel. On the strip of land he calls home (where 1.5 million Gazan refugees are crammed into a few square miles) the Gaza doctor has been crossing the lines in the sand that divide Israelis and Palestinians for most of his life – as a physician who treats patients on both sides of the line, as a humanitarian who sees the need for improved health and education for women as the way forward in the Middle East. And, most recently, as the father whose three daughters were killed by Israeli shells on 16 January 2009, during Israel’s incursion into the Gaza Strip. It was his response to this tragedy that made news and won him humanitarian awards around the world. Instead of seeking revenge or sinking into hatred, Izzeldin Abuelaish called for the people in the region to start talking to each other. His deepest hope is that his daughters will be ‘the last sacrifice on the road to peace between Palestinians and Israelis’.

The third book I picked up was White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen, which is a Finnish Unknown-2novella that explores what it takes to survive. Publisher Peirene say: “Let me be honest: there will come a point in this book where you can take no more of the snow-covered desolation. But then the first rays of spring sun appear and our belief in the human spirit revives. A stunning tale.”

Sold.

Publisher synopsis: 1867: a year of devastating famine in Finland. Marja, a farmer’s wife from the north, sets off on foot through the snow with her two young children. Their goal: St Petersburg, where people say there is bread. Others are also heading south, just as desperate to survive. Ruuni, a boy she meets, seems trustworthy. But can anyone really help?

 The final book that I selected was Party of one: The Loner’s Manifesto by Anneli Rufus. I’m interested in different perspectives of the solo experience as I do enjoy spending time alone. I also like spending time with other people, so you could say I have the best of both worlds.
9781569245132-usPublisher synopsis: The Buddha. Rene Descartes. Emily Dickinson. Greta Garbo. Bobby Fischer. J. D. Salinger: Loners, all—along with as many as 25 percent of the world’s population. Loners keep to themselves, and like it that way. Yet in the press, in films, in folklore, and nearly everywhere one looks, loners are tagged as losers and psychopaths, perverts and pity cases, ogres and mad bombers, elitists and wicked witches. Too often, loners buy into those messages and strive to change, making themselves miserable in the process by hiding their true nature—and hiding from it. Loners as a group deserve to be reassessed—to claim their rightful place, rather than be perceived as damaged goods that need to be “fixed.” In Party of One Anneli Rufus — a prize-winning, critically acclaimed writer with talent to burn — has crafted a morally urgent, historically compelling tour de force—a long-overdue argument in defense of the loner, then and now. Marshalling a polymath’s easy erudition to make her case, assembling evidence from every conceivable arena of culture as well as interviews with experts and loners worldwide and her own acutely calibrated analysis, Rufus rebuts the prevailing notion that aloneness is indistinguishable from loneliness, the fallacy that all of those who are alone don’t want to be, and wouldn’t be, if only they knew how.
That wraps up my book buying for this weekend. The reason I enjoy going to Five Leaves is because I’m more likely to find some unusual reads in there. They do stock some of the best selling books and they have an incredibly fast order service, but their real focus is on sourcing and supplying more challenging and thought-provoking reads.
Have you been buying books over Easter? Feel free to share your thoughts on my buys or yours in comments. 

 

Review of Jane Steele by Lynsday Faye

I was fascinated by Faye’s concept of creating a serial killer called Jane Steele, who has ‘just been reading over and over again the most riveting book called Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Brontë.

Like Miss Eyre, Miss Steele is an orphan with a cruel aunt and a mother who has recently9781472217554passed away. Her aunt takes the opportunity to get rid of her deceased sister’s daughter and plans to dispatch her to Lowan Bridge School. But Jane rebels and runs off, only to be hunted down by her lecherous first cousin who can’t keep his hands off her nine-year-old body. The situation escalates, Jane commits her first murder and decides to accept the offer of going to Lowan Bridge School despite instinctively knowing what kind of man the cruel headmaster is.

Lowan Bridge is a clever play on words referencing the terrible conditions of the Cowan Bridge School that Charlotte went to in real life and the fictional horror that is the Lowood School that Jane Eyre was sent to. Jane Steele has a fair few unpleasant experiences at Lowan Bridge School but unlike Jane Eyre who stoically manages to survive them with patience and fortitude, Jane Steele turns her hand to murder for the second time to forge her own path in life and to save her friend, Rebecca.

As Jane learns to negotiate the rules of Victorian life in order to survive she becomes as conscious of the disparity between the sexes as Jane Eyre does in the original novel, and like Eyre she strives for recognition and equality in her own unique way.

When an opportunity presents itself for Jane Steele to return to the family home in disguise as governess, she sets out to discover whether or not her mother’s belief that she is the heir of the estate is true.

I loved how the author began each chapter with an extract from the original Jane Eyre signifying what was to follow. It doesn’t matter if you’ve not read Jane Eyre as you will enjoy this novel in its own right and it may even inspire you to read the original. But if you have read Jane Eyre, these chapter introductions and other references scattered throughout are highly entertaining as Faye uses them to strengthen or reflect on whatever course of action Steele chooses to take.

The characters are colourful and fully rounded with Dickensian style names, and the novel is full of atmospheric action packed detail that captures the sense of time and place. Ultimately this is a novel about a young woman with a quick wit and sharp insight who tries to protect herself and those she cares about. I thoroughly enjoyed this imaginative homage to Jane Eyre. I suspect I will enjoy re-reading Jane Steele as much as I do the original.

Published by Headline, with thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

Follow the author on Twitter: @LyndsayFaye

Review of Girl at War by Sara Nović

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‘The war in Zagreb began over a packet of cigarettes.’

 

Ten year-old Ana is sent out on an errand to buy a packet of cigarettes but is unsuccessful when the shopkeeper ask her if she wants Croatian or Serbian. The scene leading up to this moment is of a normal family life in Zagreb, a city that ‘sweltered in the summer’. Ana’s young age is reinforced through the familiar conversations with those who love and care for her, and in Ana’s initially naive point of view. The significance of Ana’s age becomes clearer later in the novel, when the full horror of what she had to endure becomes apparent as the war between Croatia and Serbia escalates. 

 

The first third of the book follows Ana’s family as the world they knew disintegrates around them. New rules come into force, rules which change constantly creating a sense of imbalance as the Croatians try to adapt. Ana and her friend, Luka, constantly question in the way that children do and it’s heart-breaking to see how hard her parents try to shield her from the worst effects of the war. This is possible within the four walls they call home but once Ana is outside with Luka they have no control. 

 

The refugees flooding into Zagreb are haunted by the things they have suffered, witnessed and heard, and these horrors pour out of them to anyone who will stand still long enough to listen. These scenes are incredibly powerful because the children don’t know how to respond to what they’ve heard. In one scene they’re are too scared to move until Ana’s father appears, oblivious to what has just gone on before, and asks her a normal question. The children latch on to it like a life raft and let it carry them away to safety as though the refugee hadn’t spoken. In many ways, scenes like this one become a reoccurring theme in the book, as Nović turns up the volume for the many voices who feel unheard.

 

Meanwhile, Ana’s parents are forced to seek help for her younger sister Rahela, who is seriously ill. The fear in the adults is palpable, yet they still try to preserve Ana’s innocence and this is what is so heartbreaking. I’m in tears typing this as that last beautifully written yet harrowing scene replays in my mind, it’s a scene that reminds you that while this is a work of fiction it is based on real events and real people. My heart was thumping so hard as the next stage of Ana’s life unfolded, as I knew Ana’s character would be irrevocably changed by what had just happened.

 

The second third of the novel is titled Somnambulist, which is an apt term for the life that Ana is leading as an adult in America. She’s twenty years old and has a boyfriend, Brian, and she’s not impressed by the United Nations. The tone of Ana’s voice is detached and the youthful innocence of her childhood voice is gone. It is clear from the way she is behaving that Ana is trying to be what other people expect her to be, and the weight of what’s left unsaid is crushing her. Unlike the refugees who spewed out the horrors they had witnessed in the streets of Zagreb, Ana has no one she can talk to. 

 

This isolates Ana, making her appear cold, detached and unreachable. As an adult Ana is now wary and observant, and beneath that reserved surface there is a volcanic level of anger about the lack of action around what had happened to herself and others, and the general level of ignorance shown to survivors. I thought Nović really excelled here as she drew the contrast between Ana as a child and Ana as an adult, these chapters resonate with authenticity, especially when you learn a little bit about how Ana survived before she arrived in America. They also enable Nović to set the scene ready for the final third of the novel, where’s she explores Ana’s feelings around survivor guilt, as Ana returns to the place of her birth in search of those who meant the most to her and for some sense of closure. girl-at-war-sara-novic

 

Girl at War is an outstanding debut novel that brings home how complex the issue of survival can be when the normal rules of life are obliterated by war. Nović has written a book that asks the reader not to turn away but to be a witness: to listen to the horrors, to empathise, to see, feel and hear those human beings who were the victims of circumstance, survivors who should never have been used or abused as weapons of war.  

Published by Little, Brown UK. With thanks to the publisher for review copy on NetGalley.

Find out more about the author.

Follow the author on twitter: @NovicSara

Read an excerpt here or listen to an audio excerpt below:

The paperback edition will be published on 24 March 2016.

Long listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for fiction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review of Fever at Dawn by Péter Gárdos

In 1998 Gárdos was given a pack of letters that were written in the aftermath of the Holocaust depicting the early courtship between his father and his mother, and it’s these letters that have inspired this novel. 

51IABgP0XCL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Miklós is a twenty-five year old Hungarian holocaust survivor of Belsen, one of the most brutal concentration camps run by the Third Reich during WWII. He is in a poor physical state when he is shipped to a hospital barrack in Sweden to recover. There he finds out that his lungs are so weakened by his camp experience he only has six months to live. But Miklós hasn’t survived this long to give up on life now that it’s within his grasp, and sets his mind to finding a wife. He writes the same letter to 117 young female holocaust survivors who come from the  region of Hungary that he does and waits for their responses.

Eighteen-year-old Lili Reich responds to Miklós letter and so the fictionalised true love story between Gárdos’s parents begins.

This is a love story built on hope that there will be a future for Miklós and Lili, one that is vastly different to their recent past, one where love can bring back the humanity and health that they lost in the camps, where it was more important to do what you could to survive than to worry about social niceties.

You can imagine what receiving a beautifully written letter expressing interest in her as a person must have felt like for someone like Lili after life in the concentration camps, where she was just a dehumanised number to be worked to death, tortured, starved or gassed depending on the mood in the camp that day. To receive a letter that says she matters to someone gives Lili the boost she needs as she battles with ill-health, and receiving a letter back from Lili does the same for Miklós. The content of the letters exchanged between them offer a moving insight to the challenges faced by the survivors of the holocaust as they and the world around them readjusted to the impact of war on their mental and physical health and their spiritual  beliefs.

I loved this novel, I love the humanity within it and how the words of two strangers crossed a void of hopelessness and despair to form a strong bonds of hope and joy. There is so much joy in this novel despite the hardships and challenges that Miklós and Lili face as they each move to different rehabilitation centres, struggle with health issues, the memories of what has gone before, jealousy from a third party and the rules in the rehabilitation centres that threaten to keep them apart.

Miklós’s friend, Harry, likes to charm the ladies with flirty coarse banter. Poor Harry is initially horrified by the concentration camp’s effect on his formerly healthy libido and his efforts to reverse this calamity are hilarious. Meanwhile, Lili has also formed friendships with Sára and Judit who are placed on the same ward as she is. Here the moments of joy are gentler as Sára takes great care of Lili, and as the novel progresses we learn why Lili is so delicate yet one of the most courageous survivors of them all. I don’t think I’ll ever forget Miklós and Lili and their life affirming journey from despair to hope and the love of a lifetime. This is story of love overcoming adversity, grab your tissues and settle in for an emotional read.

With thanks to Transworld and NetGalley for the review copy.

Fever at Dawn by Péter Gárdos will be published on 7 April.

You can read an extract here.

Péter Gárdos has also turned the novel into a movie which will debut at a film festival later this year, you can watch a preview clip below.

Review of Anatomy of a Soldier by Harry Parker

Harry Parker gives the reader a unique series of insights into war, death and survival in his debut novel. 

  

When British army captain Tom Barnes loses one leg to an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) and the remains of the other to an infection, the reader learns about how he handles his changing reality through every object involved in the event, both before and after it occurred.

By choosing to tell this story through over forty objects Parker is able to bring each moment of cause and effect in war into sharp focus. The story is told in fragments that are gradually pieced together. Some objects are easy to guess straight away whereas others are a little more challenging. War is disjointed and confusing to navigate especially when you’re not sure what you’re fighting for or who you are fighting against. This is explored from the perspective of the bomb maker and Barnes through over forty objects that they come into contact with. Each object brings the environment it resides in vividly to life, from the dusty motion of a bike being rode across a war torn landscape to the sensation of a saw cutting through bone. Every object objectively shares the thought processes behind each action with a clinical sense of detachment, particularly during the surgical, bombing and shooting scenes. 

The impact of writing this way is incredibly emotionally powerful. There is something deeply intimate about listening to an inanimate object describe what it can see, hear and feel as it encounters the body it is injuring, protecting, healing or enabling.

War is about objectifying those perceived to be the enemy, as if they are dehumanised they are easier to kill. At least that’s the theory. However, by giving inanimate objects thoughts and feelings Parker enables Barnes to reconnect to empathy, to see everyone and everything involved in the bombing and his recovery from a humane perspective. Barnes is not dead, he’s alive and he can choose whether or not to live while acknowledging that others may make a different choice, or may feel they have no choice at all. The objects revealing Barnes moments of self-awareness and the strength he gathers as he learns to master his new body, while adjusting to and exceeding the perception and expectations of others, were some of the most powerful scenes for me. Anatomy of a Soldier is raw, fearless, authentic and emotive account of the impact of violence and the will to survive and thrive despite challenging circumstances. 

With thanks to NetGalley for the review copy. Published by Faber.

Follow the author on twitter: @harrybparker