Book Review: Close To Me

Close To Me, by Amanda Reynolds, is a domestic thriller in which a woman suffers memory loss following a head injury. The protagonist is Jo Harding, an affluent stay-at-home wife and mother of two grown children. When the story opens she is lying at the bottom of a flight of stairs in their luxurious home. Her concerned husband hovers over her and medical assistance is on its way. Jo remembers little of what happened but is aware that she does not want her husband near.

The tale progresses along two timelines, the first starting from her fall, the second from a year ago. It is Jo’s memories of this year that she has lost. Gradually fragments return but she struggles to place them in context. She discovers that the settled family life she has relied upon, the life she still remembers, has fallen apart.

Jo’s husband, Rob, is reluctant to fully fill in her blanks. She finds his proximity and concern stifling. Their two children, Sash and Fin, are also reticent and more distant than she expects. Initially Jo feels too battered and exhausted to fight back against their secrecy. She also grows afraid of what she may discover when her memory returns. As her recovery progresses she sets about reclaiming her life.

There are the requisite twists and turns as the reader is fed suggestions of disagreements, infidelity and violence but must wait for the truths to be revealed. Jo volunteered at a drop-in centre where she befriended Rose and Nick whose existence Rob deleted from her digital records following her fall. Sash has an older boyfriend whose image triggers disturbing recollections. Fin appears estranged for reasons Jo cannot recall.

Jo is a needy mother, mourning the role she assigned herself in life now that her children have flown the nest. She is aspirational on their behalf, convinced that her offspring could have fabulous futures if they would only do as she says. Jo struggles to move on, to accept the decisions they make for themselves.

I read this book in a sitting; the writing throughout is taut and engaging. There were, however, aspects that grated. Jo and Rob played a ‘game’ where they discussed the method they would choose to kill each other, a conversation I found weird. Jo opines that “Rob’s love and loyalty are two things I never have to worry about” which came across as glib.

As a novel to provide escapism this is a well constructed thriller even if personally I prefer stories with more breadth and depth. For those looking for easy entertainment, with an added touch of the disturbing, this could be a good book to read.

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

Book Review: The Other Twin

The Other Twin, by LV Hay, is a thriller set in Brighton about families and the dark secrets they keep from each other and their friends. The protagonist, Poppy, is living in a rundown flat in London when she receives a phone call informing her that her estranged sister, India, is dead. Still reeling from shock, Poppy abandons her chaotic city lifestyle and returns to the family home. Her step-father is trying to hold the threads of their lives together while her mum falls apart. India fell to her death from a nearby bridge, into the path of a moving train. A post on her blog could be a suicide note, but Poppy cannot believe that the sister she once knew well would have chosen to die.

Childhood friends attend the funeral including Matthew, a boyfriend Poppy left behind when she moved away. Matthew’s twin sister, Ana, treats Poppy with disdain. Ana is in a struggling relationship with Jayden, the playboy son of wealthy hotel owners. Their two families are well known in the area, valuing the image they project alongside their reputations.

Poppy determines to find out more about her sister’s death and soon comes across a name on line, Jenny, of whom everyone she asks denies knowledge. Through India’s blog she tracks the girl down but learns only that there is a secret Jenny will not share. She is wary and elusive but had obviously been close to India. Poppy begins to suspect each of her old friends in turn, that they know more about her sister’s death than they are willing to tell.

As Poppy persists in her somewhat haphazard investigations, Matthew and she feel a rekindling of desire. Poppy also realises that since they were last together, the Matthew she thought she knew so well has changed.

This is a competently put together thriller but I struggled to engage with the plot progression or to empathise with Poppy’s singular mission. Clues are dropped in plain site and not pursued with the determination she grants nebulous suspicions. Her mother is struggling yet Poppy appears largely unsupportive, concentrating on what happened to the sister she had not been in touch with for many years.

An enjoyable enough tale but not one that resonated with me as it has for others. With the work required to create, it is a shame that we cannot adore every book we read.

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

This post is a stop on The Other Twin Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

The Other Twin is published by Orenda Books.

Book Review: Ornithology

Ornithology, by Nicholas Royle, is a collection of sixteen short stories interwoven with recurring references to birds. Within each plot these avian creatures provide interest, distraction, disturbance. They, along with the human protagonists, are transformed into both predator and prey.

The stories explore ordinary situations and events, places and people. The characters go on holiday, form and break relationships, observe their surroundings from inside homes, rural locations, cities and at work. The locations are as much characters in the tales as the people. The prose radiates quiet menace.

The collection opens with Unfollow. Written in the first person it chronicles an obsession with a woman known only through Twitter and with whom there is little interaction. The narrator and their cat form a deadly pact to gain her attention.

In Murder a group of academics take a holiday together. Their relationship is tenuous having developed mainly through correspondence. The shadow of a couple who do not attend casts an eerie darkness over what should be straightforward diversions.

It is the recurring darkness that makes these stories so delicious to read. It is subtle, creeping through the cracks like an icy breeze.

Several of the stories veer into the surreal. There is violence, transformation, a stretching of possibilities and belief.

In The Nightingale the boundary between people and computers becomes blurred and a hacker takes advantage.

In The Lure, which is set in Paris, a young teacher struggles to translate more than simply spoken language. His minimal contact with others in the city leads him to pursue ill advised interactions, but is he stalker or victim?

Several stories use books to provide a theme that then spills out into action. A knowledge of the many bird species referenced may add further depth. I know little of such things which did not detract from my enjoyment. Throughout I remained engaged.

The writing is fluid and precise with a haunting undercurrent that at times manifests as horror but is more often suggestion. An uncanny, mesmerising read.

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

Book Review: Gather the Daughters

Gather the Daughters, by Jennie Melamed, is a dystopian novel that rings all too possible in a world ruled by zealous men. Set on an island, the exact time or place never specified, it revolves around a community whose elders, the wanderers, ensure that no knowledge of the world beyond may be shared. Rules are rigidly adhered to, the aims of the founding fathers both cherished and feared. Impropriety is viciously punished by family or, at worst, public shaming.

Within this community the girls are required to submit to their fathers and then husbands, willingly and with grace. They know of no other way to live. Each summer the children are allowed to run free, a break from the rigidity of their community life. For the girls this annual freedom ends as soon as they bleed. Marriage is mandatory once they can conceive.

Each girl may bear a maximum of two healthy children; defectives are not permitted to survive. Once children have borne children the grandparents drink a final draft. Those who can no longer contribute are deemed a burden and join the victims of childbirth or disease, becoming fertiliser on the farms.

The wanderers bring goods from outside, referred to as the wastelands, but no other islanders may leave. They are told stories of fire, plague and desolation to instil loyalty and fear. Few openly question how items that appear wondrous can exist in such a barren land. Those who do ask are ignored, persistence silenced.

The story follows a group of girls who dream of changing how they must live. Such a lack of willing submission will not be tolerated by the men who benefit.

Vanessa Adams knows that she is nearing her first bleed. She is fond of her father despite what he does with her, what every daughter must submit to. Mr Adams is a wanderer, proud of his status and the good house where his family reside. He permits Vanessa to read the books he has collected from the wastelands and commends her intelligence. She is eager to know more of the world beyond their island but cannot pierce the veil of secrecy that enables this way of life.

Amanda Balthazar is married to Andrew and expecting their first child. Desperate to get away from her father she had looked forward to this stage in her life. When she is told that the child growing in her belly is a girl a sense of dread descends from which she struggles to emerge. The idea of a beloved daughter having to submit to a father, which her kind-hearted Andrew will soon become, is more than she can bear.

Janey Solomon is older than the other unmarried girls but has starved herself to prevent the bleeding. She does her best to protect her younger sister, Mary, but despairs that she cannot keep her safe forever. It is Janey who arranges an illegal gathering, getting the island girls together in an attempt to make them question the truth of all they have been told to keep them compliant. She suggests that another way is possible and perhaps exists elsewhere.

These three girls set in motion events that will shake the community to its core. The hopelessness of their situation resonates, the sickening righteousness of the men as they guard their all-powerful positions evocative of many religions.

The writing is taut and engaging even though the content is deeply disturbing. I had no idea how these girls’ stories would end, and I needed to know.

A powerful, dark tale of the powerless attempting to assert themselves; a warning to women everywhere of the compliance some men still crave. Although challenging this tale is unreservedly compelling. The issues raised linger beyond the final page.

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

Book Review: The Gallows Pole

The Gallows Pole, by Benjamin Myers, is a fictionalised story based on surviving accounts of true events from eighteenth century northern England. In a remote Yorkshire hamlet, on the cusp of the industrial revolution, a local man named David Hartley pronounces himself King. He leads a gang of weavers and land workers in an illegal enterprise that puts food on the tables and clothes on the backs of the poorest in his area at the expense of those who have sufficient. Hartley and his brothers talk of becoming Lords of the woods and moors which they believe belong to the likes of them. Unlike those who more regularly bear such titles, Hartley shares his ill gotten gains. Those who live in abject poverty have little regard for the aristocracy who treat them with disdain.

“Landowners who rarely walked the land […] who spent their days away paving turnpikes and building mills. Sinking canals and striking deals. Buying and selling. Traders. Sons of the empire, the aristocratic archtects of England’s new future. Men for whom too much was never enough.”

Hartley recognises that changes are ahead. He worked for a time in the Black Country and knows of the huge mills that will replace the hand looms still operating in basic homes such as his.

“soon this valley is to be invaded. He spoke of chimneys and waterways and told of work for those that wanted it, but work that pays a pittance and keeps you enslaved to those that make the money.”

An illegal practise had existed in the area for many years, the clipping and forging of coins. Through persuasion and coercion the Hartleys centralise and expand the scale of this operation, thereby disrupting the local economy. With many benefiting, loyalty is assured, until one man grows dissatisfied with his share. Jealous of Hartley’s growing comfort and power he approaches an excise officer, William Deighton, who is determined to bring down those now known widely as the Cragg Vale Coiners and their leader, King David.

Deighton and his friend, a successful young solicitor named Robert Parker, are unused to the base manners and smell of this turncoat, pondering if he deserves any better than the harsh life he leads. As well fed, regularly paid servants of the Crown they do not appreciate how the Coiners value their freedom, and know the land on which they and their forebears were raised. The Coiners are family men, even if they do treat their women as chattels, existing to satisfy men’s needs and provide children. The wealthy may be fatuous and condescending but they have the law on their side, and it exists to protect the lawmakers.

The writing is fluvial, reflecting the stark beauty of the land and the depths of the characters portrayed. The audacity of Hartley’s operation, the cunning with which it was perpetuated, is presented alongside acknowledgement that some suffered from his success. Yet he fed the hungry, cared for the needy, while the wealthy brought industry in the name of progress, costing forgotten lives and keeping the many in poverty. Had Hartley’s criminal activity continued, I wonder would his willingness to share.

A multi-layered account presenting the north and its people with vivid, brutal realism. Although historical, it is a tale for our own changing times. A prodigious, beguiling, utterly compelling literary achievement.

Book Review: Darker With The Lights On

Darker With The Lights On, by David Hayden, is a collection of twenty short stories written in captivating, modernist prose. The language is lyrical, in places magical, the plot progression often surreal. There is a dreamlike quality to many of the tales which explore loneliness and reactions to lived experience. The agitation in the telling adds intensity to even the mundane.

The collection opens with Egress, narrated by a man sharing his observations after he steps off a ledge outside his office, high above street level. Whatever his consciousness may be travelling in has not yet hit the ground after several years.

In Hay an engineer is called to solve a problem in a mine being flooded by workers’ tears. His solution turns into a capitalist triumph, for which I constructed my own interpretation. The continuing presence of the giant haystack added to the deviance of this tale.

There follow several stories exploring disconnection: a man coming to terms with the woman in his life leaving by selling their belongings; a house where each physical object is a memory, although it is not clear whose; a man buried in sand as the tide comes in while others dance on the beach; a dinner party where nobody mentions the presence of a charred corpse ceremonially laid on the table.

A number of the tales take enjoyable events and inject them with a quiet malignance. In others there is sudden violence, barely acknowledged in plot progression.

An Apple In The Library has a customer borrowing the eponymous fruit which he consumes and then returns, his hunger sated. At face value this could be a simple metaphor for books, but I consider it unlikely this is all the author intended. In reading prose of such perspicacity I wonder how clever I am expected to be.

Much is left for the reader to ponder; the opacity can be disquieting and sometimes weird. Morbidity and the tarnishing of innocence since childhood is ruminated, although it is not a depressing book.

Dark themes may pervade but attention is drawn by the stunning imagery. Whatever my considerations on each story, I appreciated the author’s weaving of words.

This anthology would, I suspect, offer further insights on repeated readings. It is challenging, vital and eloquent; as unsettling as it is intriguing.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Island Press.

Book Review: My Shitty Twenties

My Shitty Twenties, by Emily Morris, is a memoir focusing on the author’s pregnancy and early years of motherhood. At twenty-two years of age, having just completed her second year of a three year degree course at Manchester University, the author was horrified to discover that she was pregnant. Nevertheless she decided to keep the baby. The father had no interest in either her or his child.

The book recounts how this party loving, messy living student had to defer the university life she loved and work full time whilst continuing to live in shared digs with students. Her mother offered her a room in her childhood home but Emily was reluctant to leave Manchester. Friends and family were supportive but she felt guilty at the prospect of single motherhood instead of a degree.

The account is searingly honest. There is none of the rose tinted, sugar coated wonder prevalent in typical tales of growing a child. This is the reality of a cessation of activities most regard as fun. Emily gave up cigarettes and alcohol. She discovered the long list of banned foods for mothers-to-be, and strangers all too eager to share with her their toxic views on a young, single woman bringing a child into the world alone. Whilst her friends continued to party, Emily grew fat and joined the on line forums frequented by opinionated women, where she learned the passive aggressive language of well-meaning advice.

When the baby was due Emily realised that she would have to move in with her mother. After the euphoria of escape to university this was difficult for all concerned. She would not bow to the popular notion that women should give birth as naturally as possible. She stayed in hospital for as long as they would keep her, eager for the medical professionals’ support.

Once home with her baby Emily endured the loneliness of early motherhood, the difficulties in simply leaving the house with a young child. Health Visitors pressured her into joining mother and baby groups; her experiences of these are painfully recounted. She now had little in common with many of her old friends.

Reluctant to conform to the widely derided stereotype of single mother on benefits, Emily was determined to find a job and fund her own place to live. She learned that employers regard mothers of young children as unreliable, especially when they have no partner to share the burden of the inevitable childhood sicknesses.

When her baby became a toddler Emily decided to use a small inheritance to prove to herself she could still enjoy life despite having a child. She started to find ways to take pride in what she could achieve.

This is not a book about a baby but rather a young woman becoming a mother, who would have preferred not to be single but just about coped anyway. The open and honest style of writing is refreshing and a welcome addition to the often infuriatingly upbeat accounts of parenting, a task that may be rewarding but is rarely easy. Emily’s treatment by the smug mums, signaling their virtues in the guise of advice or minor complaints, reminded me of my own experiences. Guilt and pressure to conform are ever present demons.

Around half of the book recounts the author’s pregnancy with the remainder focusing on the eighteen months after. Although I just occasionally lost engagement, and felt minor irritation when a recollection did not follow the mainly linear construction, this remained an empathetic read that many will relate to.

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