Book Review: Rebound


Rebound, by Aga Lesiewicz, is a tense and tightly written psychological thriller set in and around Highgate in London. Its protagonist, Anna, is a thirty-something, single female who enjoys a successful career in the media. With no partner and no children she offers the reader a refreshing glimpse of a woman living a life of her choosing, whose only real tie is her much loved dog. This is not a book that relies on gender stereotypes or cliché. Its characters are varied and rounded, as in life.

When the story opens, Anna is on the verge of breaking up with her boyfriend of three years. James is handsome, loving and successful but Anna has had enough. His previously endearing habits now irritate. When she meets with her best friend, Bell, to drink and discuss what she has done, Bell advises her to stay single for a time, not to rebound into the arms of the first available replacement as she has been wont to do in the past.

Anna unwinds by running, usually on Hampstead Heath which is close to her home. When she observes two men enjoying an assignation in the bushes she starts to fantasise about such an encounter.

She follows an habitual route on her runs and starts to notice a handsome stranger running the same paths. She shocks herself by playing out her fantasy. When the local news outlets report details of rapes on the heath she worries that she has somehow triggered these awful events. Her rational side recognises how unlikely this would be but nagging doubts remain.

Anna has good friends in whom she confides. She also starts to meet neighbours when one returns her dog, found wandering in the road despite being left secured in her garden. There are other unexplained occurrences: her car is vandalised; roses are left outside her front door. With the added pressures of overseeing major restructuring at work she has little time to consider her continuing interest in the handsome stranger.

Anna is required to travel to Paris on business. While she is away tragedy strikes and she returns home to find herself implicated in a murder investigation. Her personal space has been invaded; nowhere feels safe.

The darkness of the woods, emptiness of the heath, and the pounding of Anna’s feet as she runs, provide a dark and tense backdrop to this fast paced tale. As the reader tries to guess which of the characters may be capable of the heinous crimes being committed, a brooding fear seeps in.

The denouement does not disappoint. The darkness is exposed with minimal contrivance.

A deftly put together thriller that benefits from the inclusion of Anna. It is rare to be offered a fictional woman who makes her own choices – professional, sexual and personal – without regrets. Woven around Anna is a compelling plot that avoids condemning her chosen lifestyle. She is allowed to be female and independent whilst enjoying liaisons and relationships on her own terms.

This was a highly enjoyable read; a fine thriller, well written, that I devoured in a sitting. Recommended.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Macmillan. 



Book Review: Beside Myself


Beside Myself, by Ann Morgan, is a powerful exploration of family, identity and mental health. It examines a fractured family whose matriarch believes individuals should take responsibility for their problems; that they should be contained, hidden from the outside world; that to make a fuss is worse than whatever the cause may have been.

Ellie and Helen are twins, as alike as two peas in a pod. Helen is the leader, the good girl who has to look out for her stupider sister. Sometimes this means giving her a lesson, inflicting cruelties which Helen enjoys. One day she decides that they will play a game. Helen will pretend to be Ellie and Ellie is to pretend to be Helen. They swap the clothes and hairstyles that their mother gives them that people may tell them apart. Except the day they choose to play the game is the day that Mother moves her new man into their home. Everyone is fooled by the girls’ deceit, and then Ellie refuses to swap back.

This is Helen’s story, the twin who is now known as Ellie. Alternate chapters deal with her childhood and adulthood, the timelines converging as her tale is told. When we first meet her as an adult it is clear that her life is a mess. She is hungover, living in poverty, estranged from her family. When she hears that her sister is in a coma following a car accident she doesn’t wish to become involved. Her sister’s husband will not accept this.

From the first page I was hooked. The premise is intriguing but it is the development that really impressed. There is no filler. Every chapter offers up yet another reveal, another punch in the gut. Ellie is constantly reaching out to those around her and finding emptiness. It is an aloneness that hurts in its realism.

As adults it is too easy to look at a troubled child and believe that, with the right support, they could be mended. This story demonstrates that much of that support is misplaced. A child struggles to speak the language of adults who will always consider that they know best. Like many youngsters, Ellie tells stories as she grasps for attention. Her attempts to explain the truth then flounder, the words she struggles to find treated with contempt.

Ellie is labelled as backward and troublesome. Her hopes of fresh starts are blown away by the reports that go ahead of her, passed between the adults charged with her care. As realisation dawns that she has no power to change her situation she finds a way to cope by ceasing to care. With nothing now to lose, rules and conventions may be ignored.

I felt anger and sadness as Ellie’s story unfolded. I was awed at the author’s accomplishment in the telling. Difficult issues of nature, nurture, how adults treat children and society judges; are woven into a compelling story of relationships, and the blame apportioned when outcomes clash with ideals.

The denouement provides explanations for many of the problems Ellie faced. There are no easy answers but it is a satisfying end to the tale.

This is a remarkable work of literature that I have no hesitation in recommending. It will be amongst my best reads of the year.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bloomsbury Circus.

Book Review: Only We Know


Only We Know, by Karen Perry, tells the story of three childhood friends who harbour a dreadful secret. They were complicit in the death of another child, but what exactly happened must on no account be shared. Their parents, now dead, made them promise never to tell anyone for fear of repercussions. The guilt they carry has haunted them for more than thirty years.

The story opens in Kenya, in the summer of 1982. Eight year old Katie has befriended Luke and Nick, the similarly aged sons of her mother’s friend who they have spent the summer with. Before they return home to Ireland a three day safari to the Masai Mara is arranged. On the last day, as the children play by a river close to the families’ campsite, a tragedy unfolds.

The story jumps to 2013. Katie is a journalist and has been asked to write about Luke, now a successful businessman who has recently captured the public’s interest. Katie has seen little of him over the years, a state encouraged by their parents. Whilst at university Katie briefly rekindled her friendship with Nick, but he has now returned to Nairobi where he plays piano in the clubs and bars.

The tale is told from each of the protagonists point of view, moving between 1982 and 2013. On several key points the reader is led to think one thing only to have it revealed as incorrect. This is clever but somewhat confusing at times.

The slow reveal of what happened on that day by the river is well done, with the impact of the parents’ actions shown to be the catalyst for subsequent events. I did question why, as they matured, the childhood trio didn’t challenge the continued need for secrecy, but am aware that family foibles and feelings can be a tricky minefield to navigate.

In both time periods the development of the characters was believable, their flaws recognisable and sympathetically presented. The denouement, however, stretched this and felt somewhat contrived.

It is a slickly written tale with a compelling plot that I read easily in a day. Looking back though I am left feeling somewhat ambivalent. I suspect it is a book that would be enjoyed most by fans of classic whodunnits. Personally, I prefer a little more depth and challenge.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the Curtis Brown Book Group.

Thoughts on recommending a book


With the end of the year approaching I am starting to consider which books to include in my annual round-up of recommended reads. As I do this I have, in the back of my mind, a second reason to think about the year’s books. My sister’s birthday falls in January and we have a tradition of sending each other a few works of fiction on these occasions. Careful selection is required as our reading tastes do not always overlap.

When we were at school, while I was thinking about maths and computers, my sister was studying Chaucer, Shakespeare and the modern classics. She is a qualified teacher and has worked in a bookshop. She has a particular type of book that she prefers to read.

Whereas I would claim to read eclectically, seeking out the quirky and unusual alongside the literary masterpieces, thrillers, crime fiction, gothic horror and character driven stories of life, love and loss; my sister has more focused interests. She is conservative in her views and likes to be able to relate to her reading matter. She has an interest in modern history, tales of family, and prefers not to be disturbed. As an example of this, she did not wish to read ‘The Wasp Factory’ by Iain Banks, which is one of my all time favourites, after she was told it contained some gruesome scenes.

In my review of ‘A Little Life’, by Hanya Yanagihara, I stated that it was, quite possibly, the best book I have ever read. I will not, however, be buying it for my sister. Although the study of the characters is one of its strengths, and she likes this in a story, I am unsure how she would react to the detail of Jude’s childhood abuse and his subsequent sexual experiences.

Reviews contain personal opinions. I can enjoy a book immensely but still see that it would not appeal to everyone. What I look for when I am choosing a book for someone else is a tale that I hope will be right for them.

For this reason I do not select an overall book of the year in my annual round-up. Instead, I will set out categories and include favourites in each of these. It is my hope that this will prove more useful for future readers. Hyped books can be disappointing when tastes do not match.

Although I claim to read eclectically there are certain types of books which I will choose to avoid. Unlike many, I do not enjoy romances, erotica or books that linger over sex scenes. I prefer suggestion to explicit detail. I struggle to empathise with a character who is attracted to body over mind.

My sister has opined that I must find her preferences shallow but I refute this. We both read for pleasure and should be free to make choices for ourselves. I like to be challenged by a book’s arc yet sometimes look for a title that I expect to be entertaining more than thought provoking, because that is what I need at that time. I do not wish to judge any reader whose life I have not lived.

A good book needs to be well written and put together, but beyond that the definition depends on the reader. I will not be a literary critic who looks down on any book that encourages reading and provides pleasure, even if I would not choose it for myself.


Book Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry


The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, is a road trip story with a difference. The protagonist is sixty-five years old and is travelling on foot. Although his journey teaches him a great deal about himself, others and life, the lessons learned by those he leaves behind are at least as powerful. This is a story of loss, and of the particular loneliness experienced by those who build walls around their emotions.

Harold Fry has been retired for six months and rarely goes out. He worked the same job for forty-five years but has few friends. His wife spends her days cleaning their already clean house and finding reasons to berate him. His days stretch before him with little purpose.

Into this sterile world arrives a letter from a former work colleague, Queenie Hennessy, who Harold has neither seen nor heard from in twenty years. He learns that Queenie is in a hospice with terminal cancer. Unsure how to respond, he pens a brief reply and sets out to post it. When he reaches the post box at the end of his quiet, residential road he keeps on walking.

Harold has no plan and cannot explain his actions, even to himself. A chance encounter with a young cashier at a garage where he stops for food places the seed of an idea into his head. Rather than go home he decides that he must continue to walk, from Devon to Berwick, a journey of over five hundred miles. He will reunite with Queenie and somehow keep her alive. He is wearing yacht shoes, his usual shirt and tie; he has his wallet but no provisions and no phone.

As he walks Harold mulls over his life. He has many regrets but also imponderables over how he could have engineered more favourable outcomes. As well as this self analysis he starts to appreciate his surroundings, to which he had previously paid little attention. He encounters strangers and starts to listen to their stories.

Harold’s wife, Maureen, is left to come to terms with her husband’s inexplicable behaviour. She first feels anger and then bereft. A lifetime of not talking about how they feel prevents meaningful communication. Each must find their own way forward, one step at a time and alone.

This is a poignant and beautifully told tale. Harold and Maureen are recognisable to anyone who knows people of this age. How they are seen by others matters to them yet has stifled their potential. Their journeys are both physical and metaphorical.

I loved the language and imagery, how ordinary the cast of characters felt in what is an extraordinary tale. Those who helped along the way offered hope in a society that can seem so flawed. There remained selfishness, especially when the press became involved, but individuals shone through the collective toxicity.

A feel good tale with depth, advocating a willingness to look beyond the net curtains that shield inhabitants from the outside world. Read this book; laugh, weep and remember what it is to express love. I recommend it to all.

Book Review: A Boy Called Christmas


A Boy Called Christmas, by Matt Haig, is the spirit of the season wrapped up inside the covers of a book. It is funny, poignant, mischievous, magical and joyous to read. It provides all the warm fuzzies without ever descending into schmaltz.

The protagonist, Nikolas, is a woodcutter’s son living in Finland more than a hundred years ago. He and his father, Joel, are very poor, subsisting on berries, stale bread and soup made from foraged mushrooms. When a hunter appears unexpectedly at their remote home offering untold riches if Joel will join him on an expedition to the dangerous north, Nikolas is left in the care of his cruel aunt. Even hungrier now, desperate and unhappy, Nikolas counts the days to his father’s return. When he does not reappear the boy determines to follow in the woodcutter’s footsteps and search him out.

The dangers Nikolas encounters and the friends he makes on his adventures offer explanations for many of the traditions now associated with the festive season. We learn how reindeer fly, why presents are placed in stockings, how crackers save lives, and the origins of the naughty and nice lists.

The author slips in many points to consider about humanity, greed, and how grown ups seek to justify their selfishness. He also reminds us of the joy of giving, the value of a clear conscience, and the power of hope.

If I had read this book years ago then I would not have told my growing children that Father Christmas was not real. Why limit life by accepting what others regard as impossible?

“An impossibility is just a possibility you don’t understand yet…”

This is a book that deserves to appear in every stocking on Christmas Eve. I have no doubt it is destined to become a perennial festive favourite with child and adult alike.

Book Review: The Last of the Wine


The Last of the Wine, by Mary Renault, was hard work to read, although not without some reward. The writing style brought to mind the classics, the ancient texts of Homer, of Plato and his contemporaries, several of whom are name checked within these pages. Although I noted certain wisdoms it was not on a par with these venerated teachers. This was a story, but not one that held my attention sufficiently to enjoy.

The protagonist is Alexias, a young Athenian of good family whose fortunes are undermined by the ongoing Peloponnesian War. The causes of this conflict, along with many of the day to day customs and activities of the time, are not explained. The reader is expected to understand, or perhaps research, what many of the words and references mean. I found this frustrating. In my view, historical fiction works best when the reader is transported back to a place and time where they may experience the life lived for themselves. I did not feel this immersion as, too often, I could not picture what was going on due to the unfamiliar terminology.

Alexias is raised by his father, young stepmother, and slaves. Due to his standing in society he has time to listen to philosophers who oversee discussions in public places. News and views are shared orally with weighty debates encouraged, although the older generation are as wary as now of anyone promoting change or views which differ from their own.

Alexias also trains with athletes, representing Athens in prestigious games. It was interesting to note the celebrity status granted successful sportmen and artists. The ruling class were landowners, with tradesmen considered below them in status. Alongside the veneration of beauty and youth this all seemed depressingly familiar.

One custom which differed was the expectation that young men would take lovers of the same sex. Wives were considered possessions, required for housekeeping and procreation. Many girl babies were taken to the wilderness and left to die within hours of their birth as they were regarded as a burden to the family.

Alexias spurns the older men who approach him, choosing instead a lover, just a few years his senior, named Lysis. Together these handsome, privileged young men go into battle, first defending their home town from Spartan raiders and then later sailing to nearby islands to fight on land and at sea. When the war does not turn in their favour they must survive a lengthy siege. Much of the book describes these conflicts.

More of interest to me were the descriptions of home life and relationships, although the large cast and unfamiliar naming conventions made these difficult to follow over time. Women were ancillary, of use only as required by men. Animals were disposable and cruelty rife.

Alexias and Lysis support the Demokrats over the Oligarchs. After years of conflict they noted that amongst their compatriots were:

“men who had wanted, not freedom and justice, but only what some other man had”

“Democracy is only as good as the people, or as bad”

Describing a leader they could have been talking of today’s politicians:

“lives by denouncing and exposing while he is in credit, and, when he is out, by sycophancy and informations, with a little perjury thrown in.”

Alexias is advised to swallow lies if they are expedient. Despite the differences in customs, it seems little has been learned in two millennium.

Perhaps this is a book that will appeal more to those with a prior knowledge of Ancient Greece. I struggled on to the end and then wondered why I had granted it so much time. I did acquire some new knowledge, but it was hard won.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the Curtis Brown Book Group.