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”

Advertisements

What will you be reading over the festive season?

cropped-wordcloud-7.jpg

Apologies for going AWOL for a while everyone! I’ve been working on another project related to my on-going health conditions for the last few months, which has required doing quite a bit of research because I’m seeing a specialist in the New Year, and I’ve just started working with a relevant charity – Mast Cell Action.

I have not been the best book blogger this year as there has been quite a lot of change going on in my life, and that pattern is set to continue for a while yet. I’ve been experiencing temporary brain seizures as part of my medical condition that also leave me immobilised for a few minutes, and then I’m usually wiped out for 48 hours afterwards. However, I’m no longer bouncing back like I normally do after one of these episodes at the moment, hence the need to see a specialist in January 2018. As you can imagine this is having an impact on my reading ability, among other things, and I’m finding that I tire much faster these days. I’ll have a better idea of where my future lies in March 2018.

If there’s one thing I’m really proud of this year it’s the series of interviews that I’ve done with many writers called Changing Lives. Every story those writers shared touched me in many ways and has also given me strength and hope in what has been quite a challenging year, those stories have also helped others going through change as I’ve shared them. A huge heartfelt thank you to everyone who has taken part in this series so far. If you would have story of change that you would like to share, please do use the ‘contact me’ form on my blog.

You’ll be pleased to hear that I finally have some book review requests lined up. In the New Year you can look forward to reviews of the following:

The Alarming Palsy of James Orr by Tom Lee

James Orr – husband, father, reliable employee and all round model citizen – wakes one Unknownmorning to find himself quite transformed.

There’s no way he can go into the office, and the doctors aren’t able to help. Waiting for the affliction to pass, he wanders the idyllic estate where he lives, with its pretty woodland, uniform streets and perfectly manicured lawns. But there are cracks in the veneer. And as his orderly existence begins to unravel, it appears that James himself may not be the man he thought he was.

 


The Earlie King and the Kid In Yellow by Danny Denton

Ireland is flooded, derelict. It never stops raining. The Kid in Yellow has stolen the babba Unknown-1from the Earlie King. Why? Something to do with the King’s daughter, and a talking statue, something godawful. And from every wall the King’s Eye watches. And yet the city is full of hearts-defiant-sprayed in yellow, the mark of the Kid. It cannot end well. Can it? Follow the Kid, hear the tale. Roll up! Roll up!

 


Come and Find Me by Sarah Hilary

On the surface, Lara Chorley and Ruth Hull have nothing in common, other than their nyKUrxNr6EMuR1i0.jpginfatuation with Michael Vokey. Each is writing to a sadistic inmate, sharing her secrets, whispering her worst fears, craving his attention.

DI Marnie Rome understands obsession. She’s finding it hard to give up her own addiction to a dangerous man: her foster brother, Stephen Keele. She wasn’t able to save her parents from Stephen. She lives with that guilt every day.

As the hunt for Vokey gathers pace, Marnie fears one of the women may have found him – and is about to pay the ultimate price.


 

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

I tattooed a number on her arm. She tattooed her name on my heart.36468473

In 1942, Lale Sokolov arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau. He was given the job of tattooing the prisoners marked for survival – scratching numbers into his fellow victims’ arms in indelible ink to create what would become one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust.

Waiting in line to be tattooed, terrified and shaking, was a young girl. For Lale – a dandy, a jack-the-lad, a bit of a chancer – it was love at first sight. And he was determined not only to survive himself, but to ensure this woman, Gita, did, too.

So begins one of the most life-affirming, courageous, unforgettable and human stories of the Holocaust: the love story of the tattooist of Auschwitz.

I’ll end this post by wishing you all a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, and if you’d like to share which books you hope Santa’s going to be delivering this festive season, or what you’re planning on reading over the holiday, please post in comments!

 

 

 

Review of My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

Fourteen-year-old Turtle has been brainwashed by her father, Martin, to hate my-absolute-darling-by-gabriel-tallent (1)herself and the rest of the female sex while he conducts an incestuous relationship with her. To say that love and violence are closely aligned in Turtle’s mind would be an understatement. Yet Turtle has absolute faith in the idea that her father loves her, even as he forces her to do chin-ups by positioning the sharp end of a knife between her thighs as part of his ‘survivalist’ training regime.

Martin has trained Turtle to fire a gun from the age of six, she’s more at home in nature than in the house, and has been struggling at school. Their home is on a hill in northern California but they are not entirely isolated, as Turtle’s grandfather lives nearby. He often tries to intervene to protect Turtle but he has a fractious relationship with his son. A teacher also offers support but Turtle automatically rejects it and many people, both male and female, are reluctant to view Martin as anything other than a ‘charmer’ or a ‘good guy’.

The first indicator of Martin’s skewed perspective of the world comes early on in the first chapter, as he walks Turtle down to the school bus. It’s part of their morning ritual and as Martin looks out over Buckhorn Bay he explains to Turtle how looking at the ocean view before them is meant to ‘be good for the soul’, and then goes on to explain how one day it failed to move him at all, and how that revelation shattered his ability to hold back the darkness that descended on him.

… One day you don’t know what the hell you’re looking at. It’s irreducibly strange and its unlike anything anything except itself and all that brooding was nothing but vanity, every thought you ever had missed the inexplicableness of the thing, the vastness and its uncaring. You’ve been looking at the ocean for years and thought it meant something, and it meant nothing.

The entire novel builds the tension towards the moment that Turtle has a similar revelation about the relationship she has with her father. The turning point for Turtle begins when she stumbles across two teenage boys – Jacob and Brett – who have got lost in the wilderness beyond her home. Through her friendship with these two bantering boys, Turtle discovers that there are other ways to live, other ways to survive, other ways to love as they tease her and welcome her into their lives.

When Martin senses that his daughter is pulling away from his control he goes on the attack to reinforce his sense of ownership over her. She is his ‘whole world’, his ‘absolute darling’, made by him, moulded by him, owned by him. His nickname for her is ‘kibble’, which is a dry feed for animals, so even a term that on the surface appears affectionate is in fact derogatory. One of Martin’s favourite punishments is to make Turtle kneel on a bed of kibble when he feels she has stepped out of line.

Turtle is frequently deemed a ‘bitch’ by Martin and by herself but for different reasons. For Martin the word creates a sense of detachment so he can abuse his daughter and defer the guilt of his actions onto her, for Turtle it’s a method of self-talk that helps her withstand Martin’s onslaught.

The idea of his daughter becoming independent and unpredictable makes Martin lash out viciously with devastating consequences. He bolts, leaving Turtle to deal with strong feelings of misplaced guilt, grief and relief, as she wonders if or when he’ll return.

Even though the pacing and scene setting moves the story along swiftly, I did find myself having to close the book occasionally just to give my visual cortex a break. Tallent does not hold back during scenes of violence and he’s good at building tension through the repetitive rhythm of the family’s rituals, so that the reader’s senses are stretched thin while waiting for the next outburst. Turtle’s resilience despite the physical and emotional battering her body and mind takes often put me in mind of Lisbeth Salander from the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson.

Tallent’s descriptive powers are particularly strong when he writes about nature, especially when Turtle and her new friend, Jacob, have to fight for their lives when they are swept away by a strong tidal surge and she learns first-hand just how uncaring the ocean can be. The scenes that follow explore whether or not Turtle is product of her genes or her life experience to date.

To have a chance of survival Turtle has to fight the mental conditioning she has been subjected to all her life from her father. As awareness of her true reality rises, Turtle experiences both love and loathing for Martin, craving his touch while also feeling repelled by it, which is a challenging dynamic of an abusive relationship to depict with authenticity in a novel. I think Tallent conveys the complexity of Turtle’s fight with the self fairly well, particularly in the final chapters.

I wouldn’t class My Absolute Darling as a masterpiece, as there are many other real-life and fictional accounts of abusive relationships that are equal to this novel, and some that explore the emotional impact on a deeper level. The two non-fiction books that I’d recommend reading are Strong at the Broken Places: Overcoming the Trauma of Childhood Abuse by Linda T. Stanford and Breaking Free: Help for survivors of child sexual abuse by Carolyn Ainscough.

That said I do think My Absolute Darling is a great début novel. Tallent is definitely a writer to watch as he has a good sense of pace, a perceptive eye for describing the natural world and relating it to the human experience, and he has created a truly memorable character in Turtle. I think Tallent’s real masterpiece is yet to come.

I bought my copy from Waterstones.

Published by Fourth Estate.

Review of Charlotte by David Foenkinos

Unknown (7)

I was standing in Waterstones when a slim novel caught my eye and I withdrew it from the bookshelf.

A large letter C framed the following passage on the cover:

Franziska wants to call her Charlotte,

in homage to her sister.

Albert does not want his daughter

to bear a dead woman’s name.

Still less one who committed suicide.

But he senses that conflict is pointless.

Besides, who ever feels like fighting

during a war?

So Charlotte it will be.

 

Hooked I opened the book,

and discovered a piece of history that is relatively unknown.

A true story about a young woman called Charlotte Saloman written in single lines.

One perfect line after another.

 

My heartbeat quickened with excitement.

As it always does when I’m intrigued by an original voice. 

 

Foenkinos shares the heartbreaking tale of a German-Jewish child called Charlotte,

who is born into a family haunted by multiple suicides.

Charlotte develops a natural gift for creating modern art through words, paint and music.

Her greatest achievement is a work titled Life? Or Theatre? A Song-play,

an autobiographical expression of Charlotte’s interpretation of life, 

and the impact of World War II, both within and around her.

 

In the past, Charlotte falls in love,

with a man who does not appreciate the influence he has on her,

as the Nazis march across Europe.


In the present, Foenkinos shares his passion for his subject,

and the parallels he discovers between his own life and Charlotte’s.

 

In the past, Charlotte is compelled to leave the people she cares about

and is lost for a while in her pain.

Until love finds her again.

But there is nowhere to hide when deception is rife,

and the price of betrayal is a life for a life.


In the present, Foenkinos writes his way into Charlotte’s world,

describing how she infiltrates his work,

how hard it is to convey the influence she has had on him.

He shares the moment he understood how to tell Charlotte’s story,

and why the discovery of her work was profoundly moving

for those who had sent her away in good faith,

believing it was the best way to keep her safe.


For years, I took notes.

I pored over her work incessantly.

I quoted or mentioned Charlotte in several of my novels.

I tried to write this book so many times.

But how?

Should I be present?

Should I fictionalise her story?

What form should my obsession take?

I began, I tried, then I gave up.

I couldn’t manage to string two sentences together.

At every point, I felt blocked.

Impossible to go on.

It was a physical sensation, an oppression. 

I felt the need to move on to the next line in order to breathe.

 

So, I realised I had to write it like this.


Foenkinos made me live this moment in history.

And I wept for a woman I never knew existed,

until I read this beautifully conceived and executed tale.

One that marks the life of a remarkable young artist,

her grand passions, frustrations, sadness and joys,

leading up to the moment the Nazi’s ‘final solution’ 

murders any thoughts of hope, of finding a resolution.

As one heartbeat stops, followed by another and then millions more. 


Foenkinos has created a work of art in Charlotte

Line by perceptive line.


This is a masterclass in the emotional power of structure, of form.

And the enduring level of insight that can be shared in a single line of prose.

 


Charlotte often looks at the piano.

She is incapable of touching it.

She can still see her mother’s fingers on the keyboard.

On this instrument, the past is alive.

 Charlotte has the feeling that the piano can understand her.

And share her wound.

The piano is like her: an orphan.

Every day, she stares at the open sheet music.

The last piece her mother ever played.

 A Bach concerto.

Several Christmases will pass this way, in silence.


Interview Paula and Albert Salomon for Pariser Journal, 1963


Charlotte has won the Prix Renault and the Prix Gonccourt des Lycéens and more than half a million copies have been sold to date in France. Charlotte has been translated into nineteen languages.

Follow the author on Twitter: @DavidFoenkinos

Buy the book.


 

130 word review: The Angry Chef by Anthony Warner

The Angry Chef by Anthony Warner asks why so many people are choosing Unknown (6)to starve themselves of one of the greatest pleasures in life – food – if there is no scientifically backed medical reason to do so.

Note the words ‘scientifically backed’, they’re a key feature in this book that debunks ‘clean eating’ among many other food fads.

The main thing that riles Warner is the language around food where it is deemed to be ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’, and anyone seen to lacking the willpower to be purely ‘clean’ eaters is viewed as imperfect.

Warner’s writing is engaging, informative and thought-provoking throughout. Read this book and then ditch the fads. Unless your doctor has told you to avoid a food for a medical reason you can enjoy everything in moderation,

I bought my kindle copy from Amazon.

Check out the website: The Angry Chef: Exposing lies, pretensions and stupidity in the world of food.

Follow the author on Twitter: @One_Angry_Chef

The Pool meets The Angry Chef


I have challenged dangerous pseudoscience, and fought hard to protect the world of food. Hopefully along the way I have made people laugh, despair, and most importantly relax a little about the food they are eating.

The Angry Chef

Review of The Answers by Catherine Lacey

If you appreciate The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood you’re highly likely to enjoy The Answers by Catherine Lacey.

18198642_1332296550193661_1534319120535093300_n

My journey towards appreciating this novel began the day it arrived in the post along with the letter below stating that I was applicant #42.

18195163_1332296606860322_1375175219688646477_n

I read that letter and thought ‘now there’s an interesting concept for intriguing character development’. Just look how invasive that application form is into the applicant’s life while giving nothing more than a shallow outline of the person/company they’ll be working with.

Mary Parsons is the applicant to GX, driven there out of a desperate need for easy cash to pay for a new age treatment called PAKing to help relieve the symptoms of her increasingly troubling medical condition. For a year she has had ‘no life, just symptoms’ and is exhausted by them and the numerous tests she’s shelled out for that have failed to get to the bottom of what’s causing her condition.

 For a year she has had ‘no life, just symptoms’ and is exhausted by them and the numerous tests she’s shelled out for that have failed to get to the bottom of what’s causing her condition.

As the novel progresses, the reader begins to realise that many more questions than those around ill-health remain unanswered in Mary’s life at the point she agrees to join the GX experiment.

An experiment where each girl is carefully vetted for their suitability to fit one of five ‘girlfriend’ profiles to cater to Kurt’s physical and emotional needs, while under strict instructions to express no needs of their own.

Check out the questionnaire on the back of the letter for a sample of the process the candidates go through…

18222265_1332296633526986_98374692027286186_n

18193876_1332296766860306_4272512263115668720_n

Alarm bells should be ringing by now when I tell you that Mary is selected to be the Emotional Girlfriend. Obviously there are far more rules than those stated on the card above. Part of Mary’s appeal lies in that she has no real concept of who Kurt is and goes into the experience purely viewing it as a means to an end.

Which leads to a whole slew of perceptive insights into the world of dating, family, friendship, love, self-worth and how to find meaning in the digital age. An age where a public figure with control issues turns ‘romance’ into an experiment to be completely dictated by the mysterious GX, who use the latest technology to predict each girlfriend’s likely response to Kurt and his likely response and impact on them.

But humans can be entirely unpredictable creatures, as Mary well knows, often to her cost.

The real power of the novel resides in how detached Mary is from her own body while her mind grapples with the past and where her own responsibility lies for the self-deception within her own life and that of others.

The Answers is ablaze with intelligence, wit and perceptive insight. The writing resonates with heart-breaking truths around love, particularly around the expectation of others and of the self, in order to fearlessly raise questions that many find hard to ask, let alone face into.

I absolutely loved The Answers, it has to be one of my favourite all time reads because it makes you think and question while taking you through each character’s perception of love and the reasoning behind their choices, which is often distorted by fear of the unknown and unknowable, and periods of significant change in their lives.

As soon as I came to the end of this novel I had to sit quietly for a while to wallow in the sheer pleasure of the reading experience. I loved Lacey’s writing so much I went straight out and bought her first novel Nobody Is Ever Missing.

With thanks to Granta for the review copy.

Unknown (4)

 

Here’s Catherine Lacey reading an excerpt from The Answers and talking about the novel.

Follow the author on Twitter: @_catherinelacey

And out more at: catherinelacey.com


How to best love? How to know anything, for certain, in another’s heart? Such a serious thing we are doing, and no one really knows how to do it.

The Answers by Catherine Lacey

130 word review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant has a job in an office, follows a regular routine, is socially Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fineawkward and has a penchant for downing two bottles of vodka at the weekend.

She also has a tendency to take everything people say at face value, has a direct and formal manner of speaking and is suffering from unrequited love.

One day Eleanor is drawn into a random act of kindness and her carefully constructed existence begins to unravel. As more people enter her life, Eleanor’s pithy observations are both hilarious and heart-breaking as the reasons behind her coping mechanisms are slowly revealed.

Honeyman’s characterisation of Eleanor is an absolute joy to behold. I loved the rich seam of warmth, kindness, understanding and compassion running throughout this beautiful story of recovery, acceptance and hope.


Published by Harper Collins.

I bought my copy from Waterstones.

Follow the author on Twitter: @GailHoneyman


Honeyman’s characterisation of Eleanor is an absolute joy to behold. I loved the rich seam of warmth, kindness, understanding and compassion running throughout this beautiful story of recovery, acceptance and hope.