Book Review: Last Ones Left Alive

Orpen has been raised on the island of Slanbeg, off the west coast of Ireland. She has known only two other people in her life – Mam and Maeve. From reading old papers and listening in on conversations she has gleaned that these two women once lived in Phoenix City but managed to escape. They have instilled in her the knowledge that the mainland holds many dangers. There are the skrake – powerful, crazed, half dead beings who hunt the living and whose bite will turn their victim into one of them. There is hunger because, since the Emergency, the plentiful supplies of foodstuffs people once took for granted are now scarce. And there are men. Neither Mam nor Maeve have explained exactly why but Orpen understands that men are to be feared.

Last Ones Left Alive opens with Orpen taking a bitten Maeve east in the hope of finding Phoenix City. Mam is dead. Orpen brings with her a crate of chickens and her dog, Danger. She has been trained since she was seven years old to tackle the skrake. Nevertheless she is afraid – she has been raised to fear this place. The island was safe but also lonely. She has a deep anger that Mam and Maeve refused to answer her burning questions and now it may be too late. They regarded her as a child to be protected when she felt a need to understand the reasons the world changed.

The Ireland in which this story is set is a dystopian future with many familiar elements. The rules appear to favour the suppression and control of women. The skrake are the stuff of nightmares.

Told from Orpen’s point of view, the timeline jumps between the girl’s past and present difficulties. It could be a coming of age tale. Dig deeper and it is a study of loneliness, trauma, grief, and the power of determination. Orpen feels anger that Phoenix City, a place where other people may live, has never been explained to her. All but alone now in her world, she is afraid it may not exist.

The writing is taut and vivid with a strong sense of place including a lingering Irish vernacular from the young narrator. Encounters throughout add volatility. Alongside the violence is the risk inherent in trusting, and the mental difficulties of solitary living.

At times I questioned the direction of the plot but the denouement provides a satisfying conclusion. Not all questions are answered but plenty is inferred and a circle is completed. This could easily be the start of a series.

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

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Book Review: Our House

I had been eager to read Our House since I heard Louise Candlish speak at a Greenwich Book Festival event last year. I now understand why so many readers have enjoyed this cautionary tale.

Set in an affluent and still upcoming residential street in South London, where house prices have quadrupled in a decade and aspirational families enjoy good schools and a sense of like-minded community, the story is told from the points of view of a middle aged married couple who have recently separated. Unwilling to sell the valuable family home, which in their time living there has been subjected to near constant ‘improvement’, they agree on what is known as a birds nest arrangement. At weekends the husband, Bram, will sleep at the house and look after his two sons. During the week the children’s care will fall to their mother, Fi. A small flat is rented nearby offering a bed for whichever parent requires it. Thus the children may always sleep in their own rooms, cared for by a loving parent without having to shuttle between residences to fulfil custody agreements. Each parent is free to do as they please when in the flat but will respect the children’s need for constancy and stability in their home.

This apparently amicable arrangement is shattered when Fi returns from a few days away to discover strangers moving into the family home, which has been emptied of all possessions. Doing their best to deal calmly with a distraught women on their moving day, the new couple assure her that they have legally purchased the property. A neighbour steps in to support Fi while lawyers are tracked down and the situation clarified. Bram cannot be reached.

Events of the preceding months are then recounted. Fi’s side of the story is told in the form of a transcript from a popular and sensationalist podcast featuring crime victims. Bram writes his version of events in a lengthy word document, describing it as his suicide letter.

The picture that emerges is one of a marriage where each party is striving to create what they regard as an ideal. Each recognises the attractions of the other yet requires them to be different.

Fi was drawn to Bram for the excitement – he is the fun parent for their boys – yet tries endlessly to tame him. Bram understands the stability Fi offers but struggles to control his need for occasional release. Fi turns to her close circle of female friends for day to day support. Bram keeps to himself the guilty secrets he accumulates as he finds outlets for his frustrations – ultimately these lead to tragedy.

There is a reason why books like this sell. The writing is engrossing and easy to read. The structure and flow are well balanced. The plot is fast moving with an underlying tension that encourages questions and second guesses. The twists and turns encourage the reader to turn the next page.

I did find the middle section – the why such a mess could occur – irritating, despite it being well enough developed. I struggled to accept that such a course of action would be contemplated by Bram despite the reasons given (as an aside, in the past I have been informed by authors that such difficult to believe situations have been based on real events, so what do I know?). It is fiction – I accepted to move on.

Threads are brought together in a devastating denouement, again with a few details that I struggled with given previous character development. The ending – the final lines – bring with them an ‘oh shit’ moment, although by this time I had little sympathy for the protagonists given their previous actions. I was left to ponder motives and consequences. I wonder why, as a reader, I insist on taking a story intended to entertain so seriously.

This is a well constructed and chilling domestic thriller that does a fine job in making the reader question if events could truly happen, especially the selling of a house without one owner knowing. I read it in a day which demonstrates how addictive such a tale can be.

Our House is published by Simon & Schuster

Monthly Roundup – December 2018

And so we reach the end of another year and my final monthly roundup. I have decided not to continue with this feature in 2019 as I am unconvinced it adds value. Do let me know if you disagree.

I hope you have enjoyed the festive season and found time to read many good books. I posted reviews for 14 titles in December, thereby bringing my total for the year to 167. This was down on 2017 but I console myself with the thought that I attended more literary events this year and provided detailed write-ups of these alongside my reviews of the titles being promoted.

I publish my books of the year around mid December that anyone interested may purchase them as Christmas presents. 15 books made my books of 2018 list, with Little by Edward Carey coming top by virtue of being a fantastic read and offering wide appeal. By posting my list before the year ends there is a risk that a deserving title will be missed as I do not, of course, cease reading. And lo, this was indeed the case. In the week before Christmas I read an astonishing work of fiction. Ezra Maas is original and compelling – read it and question everything.

The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas by Daniel James, published by dead ink

 

December was a month when I tried to make inroads into my vast TBR pile, particularly the books from small publishers who send me generous quantities of ARCs to review. I found those I picked up a mixed bag.

Fiction

 

Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar, published by Pushkin Vertigo
The Teahouse Detective: The Old Man in the Corner by Baroness Orczy, published by Pushkin Press

   

Trap by Lilja Sigurðardóttir (translated by Quentin Bates), published by Orenda Books
The Man Who Died by Antti Tuomainen (translated by David Hackston), published by Orenda Books

   

The Book of Alexander by Mark Carew, published by Salt
Liminal by Bee Lewis, published by Salt

A Small Dark Quiet by Miranda Gold, published by Unbound

Short stories

Quartier Perdu by Sean O’Brien, published by Comma Press

Poetry

Sincerity by Carol Ann Duffy, published by Picador

Non fiction

In the Restaurant by Christoph Ribbat (translated by Jamie Searle Romanelli), published by Pushkin Press

 

I then ended my reading year by starting on my 2019 ARCs, introducing these with a post about the books I have on my New Year pile and those I am looking forward to in the coming year.

I managed to review three upcoming titles over the festive season.

Fiction

   

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, published by Atlantic Books
The Beat of the Pendulum by Catherine Chidgey, published by Lightning Books

Poetry

Vertigo & Ghost by Fiona Benson, published by Jonathan Cape

 

I will be starting the New Year with a short holiday away with my boys and have no reviews scheduled as our destination offers limited internet access. After this brief hiatus expect more reviews and event write-ups, both here and over at Bookmunch where I am pleased to remain a contributor.

As ever I wish to thank the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel makes my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. I don’t say it enough but your support is always appreciated. Here’s to a happy and good book filled 2019 for all.

Book Review: Vertigo & Ghost

Vertigo & Ghost, by Fiona Benson, is the second full poetry collection from this multi-award winning poet. It is divided into two parts. The first part is a sequence of poems featuring Zeus as a being who regards sex as his right and women as objects existing to satisfy his often brutal urges. The second part explores motherhood and the challenges of birthing and then keeping daughters safe in a world filled with multiple dangers. The themes explored are visceral, powerful, disturbing in their authenticity.

The collection opens with Ace of Bass which is, perhaps, the best depiction of young females on the cusp of becoming sexually active that I have ever read. It brings to the fore their natural desires inhibited by fear born of societal expectation. There is an innocence to the girls’ chatter about boys and music, their dreams of love as a follow-up to sexual satiation.

“and sex wasn’t there yet, but it was coming,
and we were running towards it,
its gorgeous euphoric mist”

This opener is all the more affecting given what comes next. Zeus the abuser, the rapist, the taker of young girls for his own warped and savage pleasure. He is caught and imprisoned but incarceration is temporary in a hat-tip to real life examples of the treatment of rapists.

“The judge delivers
that he is an exemplary member
of the swimming squad;
look at his muscular shoulders,
the way he forges through water;
as for the girl”

Zeus is the hunter and women the prey, yet the hounds are everywhere. The hares can run until they drop exhausted, tormented, broken. Zeus represents the worst of men who lust after pretty women, young girls, even babies. They feel entitled to sexual gratification, uncaring of damage inflicted on their disposable victims. And they are allowed to get away with it.

“I came to understand
rape is cultural,
pervasive;
that in this world

the woman is blamed.”

One of the most terrifying pieces suggested that, if there is life after death, women would remain powerless and abused, surviving in fear – that death may not bring the relief of an ending.

Part two has a very different feel although continues with dark themes. After a few introspective pieces, Haruspex turns a corner and the focus changes.

“my mind has been wrong
for a long long time.

Here is its fruit.
It is true,
I hear voices
and talk to myself.
I am done with shame.”

The author writes of a failed pregnancy and then a successful one leading to the birth of a second daughter, and the effects of motherhood on body and mind. Daughter Drowning is an excellent depiction of the changes inflicted on a previously born child.

“Now she’s trying to get me to look,
and I almost can’t do it, some weird switch flipped
that means I watch the new-born like a hawk
afraid she’ll forget to breathe, or her heart will stop
or she’ll choke on her own tongue if I look away,
even for a second. Meanwhile here’s the first-born
fighting for attention, as if it were oxygen
and she were drowning”

With Termite Queen the poems revert to wider issues facing women, now from a mother’s perspective.

Illness is explored alongside conflict, where women are powerless to protect their offspring.

In Hide and Seek the author muses on the game her daughters play, on how to keep them safe in a world of war and men.

“I don’t know who
I’m teaching you to hide from, but look
how eagerly you learn.”

The final poem in the collection, Eurofighter Typhoon, has the two daughters happily playing in their garden when a fighter jet flies overhead terrifying them both before they can be reached and hugged close by their mother.

“always some woman is running to catch up her children,
we dig them out of the rubble in parts like plastic dolls”

There is an empathy with those who suffer in war zones – their helplessness in the face of man’s selfish, greedy games.

This is a raging, powerful collection that pierces the armour we build to allow us to ignore what goes on in plain sight around the world. The voices are evocative and often painful. They demand and deserve to be heard.

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

Book Review: The Beat of the Pendulum

“We’re not bold enough about telling the truth. We mask it and muffle it.”

The Beat of the Pendulum, by Catherine Chidgey, is a depiction of one year in the author’s life created using fragments of conversation. Each day has an entry. Some of these are a few words long while others go on for pages. The conversations are with key figures, mainly family members. They cover the mundane minutiae of life including: looking after a baby; visiting elderly relatives whose minds are slipping; medical consultations; discussions with husband. As a writer the author has thoughts on her peers and on critics. The conversations transcribed have been recorded and are presented in a manner that appears unadorned. It is a brave approach as the portrayal may be real but is not flattering – which may be the point of the exercise.

“I had the idea that I could run very expensive, very exclusive creative writing workshops for wealthy tourists. But I’d have to look at a lot of shit writing.”

Chidgey teaches creative writing at the University of Waikato, New Zealand. Her views on her students are at times searing.

With a new novel due to be published she is concerned about its reception. There is resentment that her work is not appreciated as she believes it deserves. At the same time she is highly critical of books she reads, damning one with the faint praise: “onerous”, “not horrendous”.

“I’m sick of reading about stunning first novels by stunning debut novelists. They can all piss off. What about bitter disillusioned mid-career novelists?”

She is suspicious of anyone appearing to offer friendship then mentioning their own literary aspirations.

When her new book is released she instructs her husband to post about how proud he is of his talented wife on his Facebook timeline. She also adds a mention of the novel to her mother’s Christmas letter. Such self promotion is not a surprise but the manner in which it is done adds to her feelings of resentment at how her work is received.

Interactions with her elderly mother, who lives in a care home and is growing ever more forgetful, are more nuanced. Whilst recognising the repetitiveness and frustrations of these conversations – as will anyone with elderly relatives – they were lengthy. The whole book felt lengthy.

Family and friends get together and catch up on news of people known to an inner circle. Photographs are poured over in attempts to work out who is who and reminisce. Strangers to the group would be unable to follow the conversation and, as a reader, there is a need to care enough to concentrate. There are nuggets but also much repetition.

“I’m not missing Mum as such – I’m missing a memory.”

There are numerous entries on Chidgey’s health issues which she seems to think about a great deal. She also concerns herself with cleanliness, describing her daughter’s library books as “filthy”.

The author muses on her looks, especially her eyebrows when her photograph is to be taken. There are mentions of past acquaintances and a hope that they only see her more flattering images. Little interest or care is shown about what they may have achieved.

“I googled a lost loves’s name and found his obituary”

Chidgey is often on the lookout for ideas for a next book. Some of these would be funny if there were not an underlying cruelty.

“Book of unused acceptance speeches. I would contact celebrities and invite them to contribute.”

She shares her thoughts on literary events and interviews.

“You always say brilliant things.
No I don’t.
You do.
It makes me feel sick. I’ve said everything in the book, so just fuck off and read it.”

“I’m having to tell a story about the telling of the story, because telling the story isn’t enough these days.”

Many of the conversations are notably lacking in PC editing. Such honesty can be caustic.

Described as creative non fiction, this is a book that may appeal more to other authors. As a reader it made me question how authors truly regard us.

At close to five hundred pages of recorded conversations this was a challenge to finish. In writing this review I do not expect my opinion to be welcomed.

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

Book Review: My Sister, the Serial Killer

My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite, tells the story of two sisters living with their mother in Lagos, Nigeria. Their father is dead. He was a successful if corrupt businessman and the family live in a degree of comfort. They have no reason to mourn his demise.

Ayoola is the younger sister. She is considered beautiful and turns the heads of every man she meets. She designs clothes which she then models online, understanding how to dress to flatter her looks and figure. Ayoola enjoys the power her appearance gives her, readily accepting the gifts and attention she receives.

Her older sister, Korede, has been aware since she was a child that she is not regarded as so aesthetically pleasing. Her mother has always expected her to look out for Ayoola. When the story opens she is helping clean up the blood from her sister’s latest murder victim. Unlike the previous men killed, this one continues to play on Korede’s mind as she questions why her sister stabbed him.

At the hospital where Korede works as a nurse there is a coma patient who is not expected to survive. This man is the only person Korede can talk to about her concerns. A young and popular doctor, Tade, who is her friend and who Korede would like to become more, complements her on the care she gives a patient others have given up on. Other colleagues are less than complementary about her efforts here and elsewhere.

When Ayoola decides to visit Korede at the hospital she meets Tade, much to her sister’s consternation. The compassionate, supposedly self-aware and empathetic doctor is then shown to be as facile as other men. Even so, Korede is concerned that his attraction to Ayoola puts his life in danger. She must choose between caring for her sister and the man she had dreamed of winning over for herself.

This is a story of: murder, or perhaps it was self defense; misogynistic abuse and the scars this leaves; corruption that skews the credibility of law enforcement; a society that sees marriage as a woman’s destiny.

The writing has a light almost playful quality yet it pierces the heart of the issues explored. The flow and structure, with short chapters and a fast moving plot, keep the reader effortlessly engaged. It is a surprisingly strong yet entertaining read.

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

Looking forward to 2019

I will be starting to read my 2019 ARCs over the festive break as several are due to be published in early January. Below are those I have received to date. Don’t they look enticing?

Missing from the above pile is my ARC of Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession. Bluemoose Books have, to my knowledge, posted two copies to me, neither of which has yet been delivered. Hopefully the Post Office will rectify this soon.

This is not the only book sent but not received – and an author signed poster sent by Galley Beggar Press hasn’t arrived. The ongoing and apparently widespread issue of missing post is incredibly frustrating for everyone involved.

 

There are always new books being published that I am eager to get hold of, despite the size of my TBR pile. The following are just a few that I would be happy to receive*

(*attempts winning smile at publicists with access to any of these).

  

The Fire Starters by Jan Carson, to be published in April by Doubleday
Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson, to be published in April by Picador

   

Tiger by Polly Clark, to be published in May by Quercus
Lowborn by Kerry Hudson, to be published in May by Chatto & Windus 

  

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, to be published in September by Chatto & Windus
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern, to be published in November by Harvill Secker

Breaking and Mending by Joanna Cannon, to be published in the autumn by the Wellcome Collection and Profile Books
The third novella based on Child Ballads from Joanne M. Harris (illustrated by Bonnie Helen Hawkins), to be published by Gollancz.

.

Not highlighted above but always eagerly anticipated and read as quickly as I can manage are the books I receive from the wonderful small presses. A special thank you and shout out to Galley Beggar Press, Salt Publishing, Peirene Press, Influx Press, Dead Ink Press, Comma Press, Tangerine Press, Eye and Lightning Books, and Pushkin Press who have been generous with their books this past year.

I am constantly considering how I could better run my blog and social media presence but am wary of appearing to consider myself more than a tiny voice in a vast arena. I remain uncomfortable with some of the comments I see online by or about those referred to as influencers, especially when their opinions appear self-important, didactic or even bullying. My aim remains to offer information and, perhaps, inspiration to those looking for their next great read.

As a book blogger privileged to receive ARCs it is too easy to feel a need to provide a regular number of posts that then becomes a challenge to maintain. I would not be doing the books I review justice if they were rushed or read under pressure. I will be seeking a better balance between my online and offline lives in the coming year.

My other resolution is to read more from my TBR pile. I have had some passive aggressive feedback recently from self-published authors whose books I agreed to review before I decided to stop accepting such works – books I have not yet managed to read despite good intentions. While these messages are unlikely to make me prioritise a title they do remind me that I have many books I want to pick up that are not fresh publications.

As an aside, most authors who contact me are lovely. I have received more words of support and thanks than reproval. I believe it is mostly understood that I am doing my best.

What books are coming out in 2019 that I have missed? What are you looking forward to reading?