Robyn Reviews: The Ghost Tree

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This is a very difficult book to review. It has great elements, but certain parts of it make me very uncomfortable. I’m hesitant to recommend it because certain problematic aspects are never called out.

The Ghost Tree centres on the town of Smiths Hollow, a small town on the outskirts of Chicago known for being peaceful and prosperous. While towns around it have suffered from job losses and escalating crime, Smiths Hollow has flourished. However, there’s a dark secret behind that prosperity – and a cascade of events have been set in motion which might lead to it all falling down.

I want to start by explaining my primary issue with this book. It features a developing relationship between a fourteen-year-old girl who has yet to start high school and an eighteen-year-old college student. This relationship is never challenged or spoken of in any negative way. I’m enormously uncomfortable with the idea of young teenagers reading this book and thinking that relationships with adults are acceptable or even cool. There’s a huge inherent power and maturity imbalance here, and whilst it’s natural for teenagers to fantasise about relationships with those older than them, relationships between children too young for high school and actual adults should never be portrayed as normal. This isn’t being marketed as a young adult book, but in many ways it reads as one. I don’t understand why the fourteen-year-old wasn’t aged up to at least sixteen – this wouldn’t have affected the plot in any way, and would have made this feel less uncomfortable.

It’s a shame, because the characters in this are excellent. For a short book it has many point-of-view characters, but this works, creating a real small-town feel. There’s nuanced discussion about the difficulties of being a single parent, the difficulty of raising teenagers, racial tension, and being a teenager changing and growing apart from your family and friends. Many of the characters think uncomfortable things – one is unapologetically racist, another has very problematic thoughts about sex and virginity – but this actually works well, because many people do believe those things, and as long as those beliefs and opinions are challenged by other characters it becomes clear that they’re not being condoned. It captures the feeling of being a teenage girl very well, and whilst I haven’t been a single parent, the way it describes how this feels is also very nuanced and thought-provoking. Through the lens of all the different characters, it manages to show a variety of opinions on each event in a very eye-opening way.

To be honest, I think this would work better as a contemporary rather than a horror story. The horror elements felt unnecessary and a tad contrived compared to the cleverness and insightfulness of the characters and social commentary. They also weren’t particularly scary – I don’t know if this was the intent, but it combined with the age of some of the primary characters to give this a more juvenile feel. Personally, I would have preferred two separate stories – one a contemporary with this cast of characters, and one a gothic horror story about witches and the monster in the woods.

Having said that, the plot wasn’t bad, and I did enjoy reading this. Certain elements were very gripping, and I was really rooting for certain characters – especially Alex Lopez. Those looking for a basic horror story with an intriguing and varied cast of characters will probably enjoy this – I just think every reader needs to be aware that it’s not without its issues.

Thanks to Titan Books and NetGalley for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 8th September 2020

Book Review: Only Ever Yours

Only Ever Yours, by Louise O’Neill, is set in a dystopian future where ice caps have melted, sea levels risen, and survivors are concentrated within three main zones: Euro, America and Chindia. In the early days of this new world order the people who survived wanted only boy babies. Potential parents purchased gender specific fertility drugs. Unwanted daughters were considered unworthy of increasingly scarce resources and were dumped in mass graves. With families unwilling to countenance raising girls, extinction loomed as a possibility.

“Genetic Engineers were forced to create women to ensure the survival of the human race. And since they had the opportunity, it would have been foolish not to make necessary improvements in the new women, the eves.”

These lab grown babies are placed in nurseries until they are four years old when they move to schools. For the next twelve years they are educated for their role in society. Some will become companions to the Inheritants – the boy babies born more naturally – and be required to birth and raise their sons. Others will become concubines, providing whatever sexual favours the Inheritants demand. A few will become chastities and help educate the next batch of girl babies.

The rules state that women must be beautiful, look youthful and weigh in at a target weight.

“Fat girls are disgusting. Fat girls are lazy. No one will ever love a fat girl. […] Fat girls should be made obsolete.”

Women must be calm, quiet and compliant, never crying or showing any signs of Unacceptable Emotions. Failure to follow the rules can lead to being sent Underground or to the Pyre. Those women who please the men sufficiently may continue to exist until their Termination Date. Even those who are granted a redesign to preserve their youthful looks are not permitted to live beyond forty years of age.

“All eves are created to be perfect but, over time, they seem to develop flaws. Comparing yourself to your sisters is a useful way of identifying these flaws, but you must then take the necessary steps to improve yourself. There is always room for improvement.”

The story is told from the point of view of sixteen year old frieda as she enters her final year of school. Her best friend, isabel, has become distant over the summer break leaving frieda unmoored and afraid. She has a deep seeded need to be accepted, harbouring thoughts that she is not good enough or beautiful enough. She feels forced to try to befriend megan who oozes confidence and uses her acolytes to ensure she retains her power within their year. megan is ambitious and voices frustration when she is not provided with benefits she hears others are granted elsewhere.

“I can understand her wanting to leave the Euro-Zone, with its four thousand inhabitants and increasingly limited budget, but most of the world’s money is in Chindia now. It may have been the Americas who came up with the idea for the Noah Project, but it was the Chindians who funded the development and construction of the Zones. Np one else could afford it.”

Over the course of the school year the reader learns of life within the school and the limitations girls are required to accept. In the final few months, under strictly controlled conditions, they begin interactions with the Inheritants. These boys will then choose who they want as their companions, most of the remaining girls being transported to the Main Zone to become concubines.

The opening chapters set the scene and introduce this appalling world. Towards the middle of the book the pace slows, the daily activities and concerns growing repetitive. There are only so many descriptions of clothes, shoes, hair styles and make-up along with associated insecurity, jealousy and bitching that I wish to read – even though it is this preoccupation with female looks that is being addressed in the tale. The tension ratchets up as the Ceremony – when the girls will learn what their future is to be – is just a few days away. The denouement is devastating yet perfectly encapsulates the society that has been created.

The author writes in her Afterword

“It is the story of every teenage girl who secretly believes that she doesn’t belong and that she probably never will. It’s the story of every woman who feels under pressure to look a certain way, to conform to a certain behaviour, and who doesn’t even understand why she does so. It’s the story of what it even means to be a woman in a world that constantly devalues you just because of your gender.”

Written with young adults in mind this is a book that can also be appreciated by an older audience who may benefit from a reminder of the pressures faced by young women in our contemporary society. Despite my criticism of the pace, it is a story well worth reading.

Only Ever Yours is published by riverrun.

My copy of this book was given to me by my sister.

Book Review: Expectation

“We fought for you. We fought for you to be extraordinary. We changed the world for you and what have you done with it?”

“Our best. We’re just doing our fucking best.”

Expectation, by Anna Hope, is a book that centres on three female friends and the complexities of their lives and relationships. It offers a reality check for those who believe close friendships exist under a perpetually glowing halo.

Set mostly in the early years of the twenty-first century, the three women attend university before the introduction of tuition fees. They live together in London before rent hikes make such carefree lives in the capital the preserve of the rich. Growing up, both they and their families encourage and take pride in their burgeoning potential. The women are not so well prepared for dealing with future disappointment or perceived failure.

Cate and Hannah meet in school where they are academic rivals. Whilst Cate is accepted into Oxford, Hannah ends up at her home university in Manchester where she meets the carelessly beautiful Lissa. Lissa’s mother is an artist, former teacher and activist. In raising her daughter she wished to instil an understanding that women can have lives outside the role of parenting.

The story opens in 2004 when the three friends are sharing a shabby townhouse in London. They are all single, enjoy good food and mediocre wine, attend small gigs and gallery openings, nurse hangovers with strong coffee. They are twenty-nine years old and believe they have time to become who they are going to be.

“They do not worry about nuclear war, or interest rates, or their fertility, or the welfare state, or aging parents, or student debt.”

“Life is still malleable and full of potential. The openings to the roads not taken have not yet sealed up.”

The timeline then jumps forward six years and much has changed. Hannah – married and financially successful – is undergoing her third round of IVF. Cate has moved out of London, to Canterbury where her in-laws live. She is struggling to cope with the exhaustion of caring for a six month old child who regularly interrupts her sleep. Lissa is auditioning for a role in a play that will enable her to leave her job in a call centre. Her longed for big break as an actress remains a dream.

Moving back and forth in time, snapshots are presented of key moments in the women’s lives: first meetings; holidays and wedding days; moments of conflict. A melancholy permeates the main, linear narrative. Each of the friends looks at what the others have achieved and compares their own life unfavourably.

“why should it matter what her friends are doing? Why should her happiness be indexed to theirs? But it is.”

Hopes and love, sharply focused on a particular wedding day, fade. The paths the women’s lives have taken are not what each believes they deserve. They try to swallow the bitterness they feel, to cope with their current reality. They turn to their friends but do not find the succour they crave, which leads to resentment.

The brief portrayals of the older generation throughout the story offer wider context and understanding. It is only in rare glimpses that any of the characters can see the others as they see themselves. Parents are blamed and also envied. There is a longing for the success that was expected.

The writing is subtly evocative in its depiction of life’s challenges. The author is skilled in her use of language. The structure and flow are well balanced, although the pervasive despondency at times felt oppressive. There is a raw honesty in how the three friends regard each other and the mistakes they make.

An interesting study of varied relationships and the difficulties encountered when individual needs are not understood, acknowledged and met. Although the protagonists’ lack of contentment at times felt dispiriting, this was a poignant and candid read.

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

Book Review: The Carer

The Carer, by Deborah Moggach, is a bittersweet story of two sexagenarian siblings. It presents their personal travails as they navigate the murky waters of remaining independent whilst dealing with a frail elderly parent. Their eighty-five year old father, James, is a retired Professor of Particle Physics. He was married for sixty-four years to the equally intelligent but now dead Anna. Since breaking his hip, James cannot manage the stairs in his cottage so sleeps alone on a single bed at street level. His children, Robert and Phoebe, wish to continue with their own lives unencumbered by their father’s practical needs. They therefore hire a live-in carer to enable him to stay in his own home several hours drive from where they live.

Finding a carer willing to move to a sleepy Cotswold village and give James the attention he requires proves a challenge. After a couple of false starts they find Mandy, an overweight and garrulous fifty-two year old who arrives with impeccable references. The recently morose James is transformed under her care. Gone are the stimulating conversations and intellectual musings. In their place is an interest in village gossip, scratch cards, daytime TV and visits to shopping centres.

Robert and Phoebe retreat feeling both relieved and guilty. Robert is writing a novel in his garden shed in London, avoiding his beautiful and successful wife who goads him about his failures. Phoebe, an artist living in a small Welsh town where every second person harbours artistic tendencies, is indulging in an affair with a local woodsman. Both siblings feel frustrated at the direction their lives have taken, blaming parents they remember from childhood as neglectful.

Mandy berates Robert and Phoebe for still harbouring grudges against their parents. She has little time for such self-pity when they are farming out their father’s care. As her employers, the siblings do not appreciate being spoken to so plainly. Privately they worry that what Mandy is saying may be true.

Story chapters are told from key characters’ points of view. The reader learns the bare bones of the siblings’ backstories, their thwarted desires and concerns. As Robert and Phoebe go through their days, James and Mandy appear to be getting on well. There is, however, a growing suspicion that the affable carer is not trustworthy. Phoebe and Robert prevaricate over whether they are being paranoid or if they should be concerned. And yet, do the family want to lose a carer doing a job they are unwilling to take on themselves?

There is a gentle humour in the writing as key events unfold and threads are spun together. The author captures the pathos of aging, both the elderly James and his no longer young children. It is a nicely structured depiction of some of the challenges and risks inherent when bringing a stranger into intimate contact with a loved one. There are gently mocking observations to lighten any darkness in the tale.

The final third of the book adds an unexpected dimension. It offers an interesting exploration of familial secrets and their impact on relationships.

I found the pace somewhat slow in places but then this is not to be the sort of book I normally read. The topic is timely given our aging population. A complex issue wrapped within a wider, droll tale – easy but not empty entertainment.

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

Book Review: The Late Season

The Late Season, by Stephen Hines, is a collection of twelve short stories that ooze atmosphere and an air of dislocation whilst also being intimate and revealing. They explore the isolation and detachment of everyday life across contemporary North America. There is an earthy reality to the settings and characters that is in contrast to the shiny veneers presented on TV. The depth of the storytelling is impressive, especially given the succinctness of each tale.

The book opens with the eponymous the late season in which a salesman has outstayed his welcome at a remote motel. He does little with his days other than swim in the ice-encrusted pool and quietly drink from a flask, allowing time to pass him by. The couple in charge of the accommodation wish to close up for the winter but are reluctant to face the potential unpleasantness of evicting their quiet guest. Their young daughter regards the salesman, and his effect on her parents, with curiosity and fear.

honeymoon introduces a couple and their daughter who have suffered a series of family bereavements. On vacation the wife takes her daughter out on a boat and fails to return. As friends and neighbours help to search for them, the husband stands apart playing out possible future scenarios in his head. His mistake is in subsequently sharing these inner meanderings; some thoughts are best left unsaid.

Inner monologues from several of the characters reveal how socially unacceptable the workings of the mind can at times be. They also enable the reader to empathise with those society avoids engaging with due to their inability to fit within acceptable bounds of normalcy.

in early February tells of the death of a young boy’s mother who had been severely overweight. Adult attempts at offering support and comfort are misunderstood causing the child further consternation. The boy hears what is being said but misconstrues intention. It is a reminder that children and grown ups speak the same words but interpret differently.

the book cellar is set in a downtown bookshop where a young employee is struggling to appear as casually confident as he wishes in order to appear attractive to his boss. She is kind but more tolerant than interested in his attentions. His unrequited love, which he continues to feed with her every small gesture, threatens to bring down the carefully constructed social acceptability of his day to day existence.

Death, poverty and social dislocation are pivotal in many of the tales yet this is not a dour collection. The characters are confronting conventional issues and moving forwards, not necessarily to anything better but to the next stage in their lives. This movement offers the prospect of change even if it is not yet realised. The ordinary can feel extraordinary to the individual dealing with their personal concerns.

An impressive debut that introduces an author bringing to life people overlooked and less than ideal. The weak-willed and vulnerable are portrayed with sympathy and perceptiveness. This is a recommended read.

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

Book Review: Light Box

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Light Box, by K.J. Orr, is a collection of eleven short stories exploring the multitudinous ripples caused by people as they interact and react to life’s experiences. The writing is vivid and sharply felt. As each of the characters is affected by the actions of others and their surroundings there is a shift in perceptions, be it a realisation of regret or the understated recognition of required change.

In The Inland Sea two brothers skip school to set out on an adventure. Although no strangers to personal loss they have lived a sheltered life within a close community. Recent visitors from abroad expanded their vision and now they can envisage a wider world than they have known thus far. They do not yet comprehend the potential cost of broadening their horizons seeing only the beauty and excitement of new experience.

The Shallows and Blackout look at the impact of small decisions made by young people which have far reaching effects, not only on themselves. Although not dwelling on how they cope with any regrets there is a knowledge that life has many such ‘what if’ situations and that even inadvertent wrongs cannot be undone, becoming hard to forget.

Disappearances and The Ice Cream Song is Strange offer perspectives from those approaching the latter stages of their lives when what they have made for themselves, what seemed important, is somehow stripped back and laid bare offering a discomforting insight on what they are and what could have been.

“What do you do when you stop? When you have been up and running for such a long time, what is it you do? When you’re used to a schedule that takes care of each second of the day? When there is no goal?”

In several stories the dislocation of travel is explored, both the getting away and the return. There is the seeking out of an expected satisfaction that may prove difficult to attain. There is the repulsion felt when personal space is invaded.

By the Canal and The Island present young men acting in ways that cause their partners to view them in a new light. How they are subsequently perceived is altered; going forward requires a change of direction. Partners are chosen based on an image created by the beholder which will always be at risk unknown by the beheld.

The snapshots of each life look at what is shown to the world, what is hidden and what seeps out anyway. The stories are intricate webs of emotion as much as action. They speak of the shifting sands of each protagonist’s inner thoughts and how these are shaped by the ripples caused by those they meet.

The writing is subtle, precise and elegantly put together. Each tale offers a clarity of thought that demands careful contemplation. I thoroughly enjoyed reading each work and especially what it revealed about wider peoples. This is a recommended read.

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

Book Review: Treats

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Treats, by Lara Williams, is a collection of twenty-one short stories exploring the challenges of navigating modern life in the twenty-first century. With insight, poignancy and wit the author presents her cast of independently minded, mainly youngish adults who are each searching for love, meaning, or simply a way to get through each day in a British city.

My favourite story was the first in the collection, appropriately titled ‘It Begins’. In this an arts graduate returns to the parental home ready to start the next stage of her journey. All too soon she is assailed by reality.

“You get an office job. You assimilate with business graduates, with their hearty sense of cynicism, a premature world-weariness, worn with a badge of honour. So pleased with their early resignation, their: this, this is life. […] Imagine being that lacking in wonder, aspiring to jobs in logistics or IT services, imagine never entertaining frothy careers […] Did it make the heartbreak easier or earlier? You grip your rosy ideals, your soppy security blanket.”

Subsequent stories look at the excitement of lust, falling in love, and the inevitable disappointment. There are attempts to make a solitary life enough. For all the progressive ideals the various characters espouse there are still expectations to be met, small lies being told, frowned upon behaviours downplayed in order to impress. There is the hankering after a mate despite the recognition that this is unlikely to fill any void more than temporarily.

Dates are recognisable. There are backhanded compliments, men whose eyes linger on vaporous women passing by, excuses pouring forth for behaviours deemed inappropriate as these condescending alphas attempt to maintain the false idea they have formed of the woman they asked out.

Throughout each story the protagonists endeavour to mould themselves and those granted access to private spaces and lives. There is a strong desire for acceptance.

The freedoms offered by contemporary life in a metropolis come at a cost which these stories present with acuity and compassion, concisely voicing the equivical experiences of many. Although sharp in focus, harshness is avoided. This is an empathetic, satisfying read.

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