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”

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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

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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: 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.

 

130 word review: Watch Me by Angela Clarke

When one girl dies it’s thought to be suicide, until a second girl goes missing and 19875562_1402019266554722_2852950708373285752_nthe following message is sent to DS Naz Cudmore’s snapchat account:

‘You have 6 seconds to read this and 24 hours to save the girls’ life’

Naz turns to her friend and journalist Freddie Venton for help. Their research leads them into the murky world of revenge porn across social media, where a manipulative and devious killer treats vulnerable young women as disposable victims. In addition, both Naz and Freddie have to deal with memories from their shared past while managing casual sexism disguised as male banter from elements of the investigation team. This is a fast-paced, relevant and thought-provoking thriller that challenges perceptions around safety online and victim blaming. Absolutely riveting.


Published by Harper Collins. I bought my copy in Waterstones.

Follow the author on Twitter: @TheAngelaClarke

I recently interviewed Angela as part of the ‘Changing Lives’ series.


This is a fast-paced, relevant and thought-provoking thriller that challenges perceptions around safety online and victim blaming.

#Bookreview: Odd Girl Out: An Autistic Woman in a Neurotypical World by Laura James

This is an enlightening account of James coming to terms with learning that she’s 9781509843060autistic in her forties. All her life James has known that she was different to other people but never understood why.

The writing is open, honest and riveting as James takes the reader from the present to the past as she goes through her personal history and the challenges she faced in childhood, young adulthood and then as a working adult, wife and mother due her then undiagnosed condition.

James likes her coffee to be made in a particular way, she has sensory issues, she finds it difficult to get on the tube or the train and even leaving the house or remembering to eat can be a challenge some days. She has ‘special interests’ and is aware that that she can bore people by going on about them, she doesn’t initiate social interaction and rarely responds to invites to socialise.

How to build a routine into her day to take the pressure off does not occur to James naturally, she only considers doing something as simple as creating a meal planner after reading a novel called The Rosie Project (which features a Professor who devises a scientific test to find love). James has a hard time reading other people yet has still managed to hold down a job as journalist, bring up four children and navigate the challenges of creating a loving relationship with her husband, Tim.

Journalism is the perfect job for someone with autism as they can legitimately bring their hyper-focus to any topic and drill down into it to feed their desire for knowledge. This where a ‘special interest’ in reading can go unnoticed by others and be seen as normal. One of the biggest clues that you might be in the presence of someone with autism is the info dump.

‘Did you know 87 per cent of people with an autism diagnosis are unemployed? Or that 42 per cent of autistic women have previously been misdiagnosed. Can you believe that the vast majority of research has only looked at boys? Also, I found out the life expectancy of an autistic person is between ten and thirty years shorter than for a neurotypical person, I will probably die way before you.’

After James does the classic info dump above on her husband, Tim, she describes trying to decipher the expression on his face and what he is feeling.

‘I have all these thoughts in my head and I have to get them out. Even if the listener is so bored they are contemplating throwing themselves off a cliff to get away from my incessant chatter, I simply cannot stop.’

Another myth James dispels is the idea that those who are autistic lack empathy, because her memoir is full of empathy for strangers, her family and most particularly her husband, Tim. James is deeply aware of how autism affects her and the impact that her diagnosis is having on everyone, including herself and Tim, and shares how she processes and comes to terms with it all in incredibly moving language.

This memoir is one woman’s experience of living with autism, it doesn’t represent all aspects of the condition as every person with autism has different symptoms on the spectrum and experiences it in their own way. Throughout the memoir James shares the deeper research she’s done into the subject but not in an intense or overwhelming manner. The references and extracts she recommends for further reading are filtered into the text naturally.

The alternate chapters where James shares passages from her life, written in the voice representing the age she was at the time, work particularly well to express the sense of isolation, misunderstanding, loneliness and confusion she often felt as she tried to fit in with everyone around her.

Reading Odd Girl Out has enhanced my understanding of autism generally but particularly the impact is has on females and has prompted me to research the topic further. I think this book will be incredibly useful for people with autism and for those who care for or treat anyone with autism, as it offers a unique insight to the way James’s mind works.

I bought my copy from Waterstones.

Read an extract here.

Published by bluebirdbooksforlife.com

Here’s a clip of Laura James being interviewed about her experience on Lorraine.

I think this book will be incredibly useful for people with autism and for those who care for or treat anyone with autism, as it offers a unique insight to the way James’s mind works.

#BookReview: Quieter Than Killing by Sarah Hilary

There are many things that Hilary excels in and one of them is writing scenes that show the fear of child rather than telling you. In the fourth instalment of the DI Marnie Rome series Hilary explores this through the perspective of ten-year-old Finn, who has been missing for weeks and is locked up in a house where he’s virtually a slave. The first time the reader meets Finn he is trying to kill a fly and becomes both fascinated and repelled by the fly’s determination not to die. The hopelessness of the little boy’s situation is poignantly reflected in this brief encounter.

Meanwhile, Rome and her sidekick, DS Noah Jake are investigating a number of random assaults. When Rome’s tenants are assaulted in her childhood family home, a place she actively chooses to avoid to protect her emotional wellbeing, Rome begins to wonder if the cases are connected in some way. The common denominator between the random assaults is that the victims all have a history of violence and when one of them dies the case becomes a murder investigation. In order to solve the case Rome is forced to confront her past and consult the killer of her parents, her foster brother – Stephen.

There is a creeping sense of menace throughout this well paced thriller, as each seemingly random thread is woven together to explore the complexity of families and how a history of violence and abuse can either make or break a person.

Hillary’s descriptive powers are pinpoint sharp and original but it’s the empathy that she builds on continually throughout this series that makes her writing memorable. As Rome seeks to understand the motives behind the behaviours of both victims and protagonists in order to try and come to terms with the emotional trauma within her own past.


With thanks to Headline for the review copy.

Follow the author on Twitter: @sarah_hilary


Hillary’s descriptive powers are pinpoint sharp and original but it’s the empathy that she builds on continually throughout this series that makes her writing memorable.