Robyn Reviews: If We Were Villains

‘If We Were Villains’ is an absolutely spellbinding book. Set in the claustrophobic bubble of a class at drama college, it explores the lines between fact and fiction, right and wrong, and acting and authenticity in a complex and engrossing way. Many have touted it as the natural successor to Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ – having read both, I personally believe this is better, although I imagine many will disagree. Where ‘The Secret History’ is a punch in the gut, this is more the first breath of cold air on a winter’s morning: impactful without leaving the reader feeling quite so eviscerated.

Oliver Marks has just been released from prison, having served ten years for a murder he may or may not have committed. He’s greeted by none other than Detective Colborne, the man who put him in prison all those years ago. The detective is retiring, and he wants to know the truth – what really happened at Oliver’s elite conservatoire. Oliver agrees to tell his tale. Thus begins a story of a group of young actors, each with their own role both in life and on the stage, and what happens when those roles are changed.

Oliver might be touted as the protagonist, but he’s always played the supporting role. He’s a sweetheart – the glue binding his group of friends together. Naive and trusting, Oliver is blissfully unaware of most of what’s happening right under his nose – but he also has insights that others wouldn’t. Reading the novel from his perspective showcases a very different angle to most books, and whilst he can make a frustrating protagonist I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The other six characters, of course, fit into the roles of a Shakespearean play. There’s Richard, the protagonist – traditionally masculine, cocky, the sort who always gets the girl. There’s Meredith, the love interest – beautiful, body confident, content to hang off Richard’s arm. There’s James, the antagonist – more delicate and effeminate than Richard, but otherwise shrouded in mystery. There’s Filippa, the supporting role – a tomboy, renowned for her versatility, but utterly forgettable because of it. There’s Alexander, the fool – a loud, flamboyant gay disaster who flirts with everyone and is always the loudest person in the room. Finally, there’s Wren, the supporting female character – slightly less seductive than Meredith but still beautiful in a quiet way.

Except, of course, they’re not just characters – they’re people, and they don’t slip into their roles as neatly as it might first seem. The protagonist isn’t always the hero. The love interest wants to be seen as more than her body. The antagonist isn’t always wrong. The forgettable character is missed when they’re not there. The fool, always laughing, isn’t always happy. The supporting character sometimes comes first. As each becomes less of the character and more the person, relationships twist, leading to unprecedented levels of damage. With the wreckage mounting, each must decide which role they actually want to play – the one they’ve been assigned, or one they craft for themselves.

This is a story about humanity. It’s about the relationships between the characters – the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s about what happens when actors get so deep into a character they forget how to be themselves. The plot is dark in places, but also far less important than each character and the way they interact with everyone else. There are constant references to Shakespeare, but familiarity with his work isn’t required to appreciate the intricacy and brilliance of ML Rio’s creation.

Overall, ‘If We Were Villains’ is an exceptional piece of literature – fiercely clever and lingering far beyond the last page. It will always be compared to ‘The Secret History’, but it deserves to be talked about in its own right and on its own merit. Recommended for fans of complex character dynamics, dark academia, and what humanity is capable of when left unchecked.

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: June 13th 2017

Robyn Reviews: Normal People

There are some books which are so poorly written they make you cringe. There are some books which are so clever that they make you grin in delight; some that make you laugh out loud; some which are so beautifully written you want to sit and read the same sentence over and over again until it’s imprinted onto your soul. Then there are books like ‘Normal People’ – books which, from the outside, don’t seem that special, but which are so visceral and real that they alter your entire worldview. Reading this leaves you a different person when you put it down to when you picked it up.

This is not a happy story. It’s not a sad story, either – it’s life, distilled into under 300 pages of pure emotional turmoil. Marianne and Connell are intimately relatable protagonists – we aren’t all like them, but we know people like them, and it’s so easy to see how people could become them. This is a coming-of-age story unlike anything else I’ve ever read. There’s no huge drama, because life isn’t full of huge dramas: life is full of little dramas, many of which we create ourselves, that pile up and up until they seem like huge, insurmountable obstacles. This reflects that. There are twists and turns that you always see coming, because life is predictable and people behave in predictable ways. It’s completely excruciating in the best way watching Marianne and Connell fall into the traps that everyone falls into, despite the fact that they’re completely avoidable.

Are Marianne and Connell likeable? Yes, and no – they’re people. Normal people, as it says on the cover. Marianne is from a wealthy Irish family near Sligo who don’t like her very much. Her father passed away and her mother is rarely around – and when she is, her interactions with her daughter are strained. Her brother is a bully who considers his sister to be a weirdo. Marianne drifts through life trying to be completely herself, but her apparent confidence masks an attitude of deep self-loathing from a life of never quite being good enough. She’s the slightly different girl at school who everyone looks askance at, never sure if they hate her or admire her.

Connell, in contrast, is the only child of a cleaner – Marianne’s family’s cleaner. His mother had him as a teenager and raised him alone. They’re poor and very much not the sort of family to be associated with – except that Connell is the smartest person in his class and the football teams star centre forward. He’s a nice guy, effortlessly popular, drifting through life on the coattails of that popularity. He knows Marianne because his mum works for hers, but he can’t associate with her in public – Marianne is Not Cool, and without being Cool Connell has nothing.

Their relationship is both inevitable and doomed. It’s the epitome of first love – needlessly dramatic, messy, beautiful in places but hollow where in matters. Reading about it is excruciating but you can’t look away. At times you want to scream at them or just shove the obvious in their faces – but equally, you can remember a time when you were like that, or your friend was like that, and know that it won’t help.

The writing is brilliant – not overly fussy, just poignant and real. There’s no need for lyrical prose or florid descriptions – instead, Rooney perfectly captures humanity with the thoroughness of her characters. It’s a spectacular achievement and deserves all the praise it’s garnered.

Overall, this is a must-read book. It’s not always conventionally enjoyable, but it’s powerful and moving and poignant and captures feelings on paper in a way that few authors are capable of. The resonance lasts long beyond the final page. I don’t hesitate to call this a masterpiece.

Jackie’s thoughts on Normal People can be found here

Published by Faber & Faber
Hardback: 28th August 2018
Paperback: 2nd May 2019

Robyn Reviews: Red, White, and Royal Blue

‘Red, White, & Royal Blue’ is pure escapist fiction. Since its release it’s garnered constant comparisons to fanfiction for its idealism, tooth-rotting sweetness, and amalgamation of romance tropes between – of all people – the First Son of the first female US President and the Prince of England. Naturally, it’s an absolutely implausible read – but it’s also laugh-out-loud funny, joyously fun, and a much needed ray of light in a genre which contains too much tragedy. If you’re willing to go along for the ride, ‘Red, White, & Royal Blue’ is deserving of its reputation of one of the best books in the LGBTQIA+ romance genre.

Alex Claremont-Diaz is tabloid fodder – the twenty-one year old son of the first female US president, and the first half-Mexican in the White House. His entire life revolves around politics – and with election year approaching, it’s more important than ever that he remains the perfect marketing strategy. So, when photos leak of an apparent confrontation with his arch-nemesis – none other than His Royal Highness Prince Henry, grandson of Her Majesty the Queen of England – damage control is essential. Enter a clever scheme: a fake friendship between Alex and Henry stretching back years. Alex and his arch-nemesis must put their longstanding enmity aside and play nicely for the paparazzi. Except the more time they spend together, the more it becomes clear that they don’t hate each other after all… and the only thing more damaging for both of them than enmity is love.

Both Alex and Henry are instantly loveable characters. Alex is a charmer – intelligent, witty, and determined, he’s the consummate politician, always looking for the right thing to say (unless Henry’s involved). But underneath the politician’s sheen he’s a hot mess – unsure what he wants to have for lunch, let alone the direction of his entire life, and clueless about his own personal life even with things staring him in the face. Alex’s relationship with his sister is heartwarming, and his relationship with his mother complicated, but overall filled with love. (There’s a scene involving a PowerPoint which sums it up perfectly and is one of the funniest scenes ever put to paper).

Henry is, in many ways, an American caricature of what a British person should be like – uptight and repressed, faultlessly polite, but beneath that veneer kind, caring, and exceptionally poetic. It’s impossible not to like him. There has never been an outwardly gay member of the British royal family, and Henry’s relationship with his sexuality – and how it affects his perception of himself – is heartbreaking to read about. However, this is always a hopeful and optimistic book, and it’s always clear he’ll get a happy ever after.

The plot is stereotypical romance – enemies forced to play nice and pretend to be friends end up in a secret relationship which will undoubtedly be revealed at the worst possible time – but the characters and writing make it so much more. Alex and Henry get themselves into ridiculous situations and force you to laugh, cry, and gasp right along with them. Their chemistry is electric, but so too is the chemistry between the books many friendships – Alex’s White House Trio, Henry and his sister Bea, Henry and his friend from Eton Pez. There are elements which stretch the bounds of plausibility to its limit, but you want to believe it’s possible – you want to believe that Alex and Henry can beat the odds. (And yes, the Prince probably can’t just conveniently obtain the keys to the V&A for a midnight visit – but everyone wants to believe it could happen).

Overall, ‘Red, White, & Royal Blue’ is the sort of tooth-rotting fluff that everyone wants to read on a bad day. It’s ridiculous and over-the-top, but so likeable that it’s hard to care. Recommended for all fans of romance and LGBT fiction, and everyone who wants something happy and optimistic to get through hard times.

Published by St Martin’s Griffin
Paperback: May 14th 2019

Robyn Reviews: The Cousins

‘The Cousins’ is Karen McManus’s latest YA mystery. It’s slower paced than some of her other novels, with more of a contemporary focus than crime thriller, but equally as enjoyable and compelling. With each new novel, McManus continues to cement herself as a stalwart of the YA mystery genre.

Decades ago, the wealthy Mildred Margaret Story – owner of a lavish resort on Gull Coast Island – suddenly disinherited her four children with a single sentence: ‘You know what you did’. They never heard from her again – until unexpectedly, each of her three grandchildren receives a letter inviting them to work at her hotel for the summer and meet their mysterious grandmother. The three barely know each other, but suddenly find themselves packed off to the island to untangle a family mystery that’s remained buried for years. However, the more time they spend on the island, the more it becomes clear that nothing is as it seems – and some secrets are better left well alone.

The story alternates between four perspectives – the three grandchildren, Milly, Audrey, and Jonah, and flashbacks of Milly’s mother Allison, Mildred’s only daughter. Milly is introduced as the typical heiress – entitled, obsessed with fashion and her appearance, more interested in scoring drinks off men in bars than obtaining the grades for college. However, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s a lot more to her than meets the eye, and once you get past her caustic one-liners she becomes a caring and insightful character. She also shares her grandmother’s name – Mildred Margaret Story-Takahashi, for her Japanese father – and, despite her protestations, is more desperate for her grandmother’s approval than anyone else.

Audrey is an absolute sweetheart and one of the nicest characters in the book – however, she initially comes across as angry and petulant, throwing a competitive swim meet just to spite her instructor. There’s obviously a lot going on in her life behind the scenes, and her character development is probably the strongest of everyone’s. In many ways she’s naive and anxious, but she’s also incredibly smart and always wants to do the right thing.

Initially, Jonah seems like a typical entitled man, complaining about how going to the island is ruining his chances of going to an exclusive science camp and throwing insults left, right, and centre. His attitude and refusal to open up makes him a bit of a mystery – but as the story unfolds, he too becomes a far more sympathetic and intriguing character.

The plot is sedate, with more focus on family dynamics than the mystery until nearly the end of the book – but this works well, allowing each character to become established and their backgrounds to become clear. Towards the end, some of the revelations are pretty far-fetched, but nothing completely breaks the bounds of plausibility and McManus makes you want to believe it. The ending is excellent, with just the right amount of lingering mystery. The only part I’m less fond of is the romantic subplot – McManus always has one, but it doesn’t feel entirely necessary in this book. That being said, there’s a certain scene related to it involving a balcony which is absolutely priceless, so it might be worth it for that section alone.

This is a book about money, and the exploration of the lives of the rich – not the obscenely wealthy billionaires, but the sort of comfortably wealthy people who end up CEOs and politicians – is one of the most interesting parts. Their attitudes to money are so different, and there’s a complete gulf in understanding over what it actually means to be poor. It illustrates perfectly how those who have always had plenty simply cannot understand what it’s actually like to struggle to make ends meet.

Overall, this is a slower story than McManus’s previous books, but equally as well written with excellent characters and an intriguing backdrop. Some may not find it as engaging, but read for what it is rather than what it isn’t it makes a highly enjoyable read.

Published by Penguin
Paperback: 3rd December 2020

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.