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 Photographer

This review was written for and originally published on Bookmunch.

The Photographer by Meike Ziervogel is proof that a consuming and fully detailed story may be told in under two hundred pages. The depths of the novel are to be found as much in what is implicit as from the elegantly crafted prose. There is insight and interest, flavour and nuance. Such writing deserves appreciation.

Set in Germany around the time of the Second World War, the protagonist is a young woman named Trude who lives with her controlling mother, Agatha. The generation before suffered hardship due to scandal which Agatha and her war scarred husband toiled to put behind them. Agatha is determined that her daughter will be the fruit of their labour.

Trude understands that her mother wants only what is best for her yet has a need to live her life for herself. When she meets a young photographer named Albert, who makes her feel joyously alive, she ignores Agatha’s derision for this boy ‘from the gutter’. They marry, travel and have a child who they name Peter.

Albert and Trude have a somewhat turbulent marriage, the negative aspects of which drive Agatha to intervene. She regards her actions as necessary for the good of her child and beloved grandson. The result is Albert being sent to fight in the war leaving his small family to seek a means to survive without him. Trude must decide how to deal with her mother’s betrayal.

The war reaches its conclusion and there follows a massive and confusing exodus from east to west. In a refugee camp near Hamburg the family are reunited but much has changed. Peter is not the son Albert envisaged, the child is unused to the presence of a father. Between them stand Trude and Agatha who must make difficult choices with the balance of their family, the direction of their futures lives, at stake.

Told from each of the imperfect characters’ points of view this tale offers a candid look at family dynamics and hurts caused as assumptions are made. At its heart is a love story, not a romance, that spans the three generations. Pragmatic decisions have led to difficult truths being accepted. The challenge is to leave them at rest.

Any Cop?: The writing is spare yet strikingly affective, touching the essence of each individual with precision. This is an impressive work of literary fiction that remains compelling and accessible. Like fine wine, it is best savoured and shared.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Doll Funeral

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The Doll Funeral, by Kate Hamer, is a story of ghosts and the lasting influence of family and upbringing. Its protagonist is Ruby who is informed by her parents on her thirteenth birthday that they adopted her when she was just a few months old. Ruby is ecstatic at this news – suddenly she has hope. If she can find her birth parents she may escape the vicious physical abuse regularly inflicted on her by Mick, the man she believed was her dad.

For as long as she can remember Ruby has seen shadow people, some only once but others come and go. Living in the Forest of Dean she has grown up surrounded by trees and finds comfort in their protection. She decides to try to summon her birth parents by copying mystical techniques she remembers from her late grandmother. What follows weaves a poignant tale of a child desperate for love with elements of the supernatural.

Ruby meets Tom who has been abandoned with his teenage siblings by their hippy parents who have travelled to India to find themselves. They live in a huge, dilapidated house where they are expected to survive on food farmed or hunted. With winter approaching these young people are now struggling. They also harbour a terrible secret.

Both Ruby and Tom have been damaged by their forebears. It is not just the direct actions of parents but the lasting impact of their upbringing and the wider prejudices of those who live in the forest that has shaped how Ruby and Tom have been raised. Each generation inflicts their values, beliefs and aspirations on those who come next. Psychological inheritance can be devastating.

The story is bleak, filled with restless ghosts and crippled potential. The fluid construction of the tale makes it easy to read but the unremitting darkness of the subject matter offered little prospect of cheer for any of the characters.

As a parent it is hard to read a book such as this without considering how one’s own children may have been affected by values passed on to them. Ghosts need not take physical form to exert influence.

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

Book Review: Starlings

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Starlings, by Miranda Gold, is an intense and evocative journey through the mind of a troubled young woman haunted by her family history. Sally lives with her elderly parents in their home in London. Her mother has been ill for almost as long as Sally can remember, suffering from debilitating paranoia. She is cared for by her long suffering husband, a man who has had to put his wife’s needs before his own and their children’s. Sally’s grandparents, now dead, were Jews caught up in the holocaust of the Second World War. The lasting effects of the trauma they suffered left its imprint on Sally and her younger brother, Steven. Steven left home four years ago, escaping to Brighton without luggage or plans.

The story is set over a twenty-four hour period during which Sally visits Steven, an annual excursion fraught with emotion. The sibling’s relationship, although close and happy in childhood, is now shadowed. Sally is afraid that if she raises certain topics in conversation she will lose what is left of the brother she remembers and loves. She clings to those memories and longs for their closeness to return.

It took a few pages before I found the rhythm of the prose. It has a depth that demands concentration but the reward makes any effort worthwhile.

Growing up Sally did not comprehend much of what was happening around her and her brother as they played. They were offered “a palimpset of stories and silence”. Sally ponders how many of her memories are based on first hand knowledge, how much is accurate and what she has missed from the snippets shared or overheard.

The adults survived in a kind of denial caused by fear. Sally’s grandfather was hospitalised when his wife tried to burn off the camp numbers tattoo’d on his arm. The children watched as she wielded her cigarette, yet heard it talked of as an accident. When the truth was suggested the speaker was talked down.

Sally is often told that she has her grandfather’s eyes and understands that this causes her mother pain. Her inability to prevent this adds to the hurts which permeate the family.

Internalising so much from the generations before has left Sally unsure of how to function in company. She longs to spend time with her brother, to leave the never discussed difficulties and the soundtrack of her mother’s demands behind. When the reality of her trip to Brighton does not match the plans she had conjured in her head she recalls other visits dogged by disappointments which she blames on herself. Her mind overflows with comments and questions that she dare not voice for fear of Steven’s reaction. She tries to fathom what his life has become when her own, it seems, cannot move on.

I found the story challenging but deeply moving. It reveals an effect of the holocaust that I had not considered before. Having discovered that it is inspired by the author’s own family history I am impressed by its lack of rancour.

The disconnect between Sally and the more typical Brighton nightlife offers a poignant juxtaposition. She longs to repeat actions that formed her happier memories. Her travel bag contains little, yet she is burdened with thoughts almost too heavy to bear.

The poetic imagery and loneliness of the protagonist create a powerful voice. This is a beautifully written book that I recommend you read. It is a story that I will be contemplating for some time to come.

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

Book Review: The Couple Next Door

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The Couple Next Door, by Shari Lapena, is a psychological thriller that explores every parent’s worst nightmare – the abduction of a child. This is no ordinary abduction though, if such a thing can be possible. Six month old Cora has been taken from her crib while she slept in the tastefully decorated nursery of her parent’s upstate New York home. She has been taken in the middle of the night when she was home alone.

Her parents, Anne and Marco, had not intended to leave their baby girl alone when they agreed to attend their next door neighbours’ birthday dinner party. A sitter had been booked but then she cancelled just an hour before the event. The childless couple next door had clearly stated that this was to be an evening for adult’s only. They could hear how much Cora cried through the shared wall and had no intention of allowing this difficult to settle baby to disrupt their plans.

Marco, keen to enjoy an evening out, persuaded Anne that they should still attend. They took with them their baby monitor and popped home every half hour to ensure Cora was fine. When they eventually returned in the wee small hours, drunk on wine and irritated by each other’s behaviour, they found their front door ajar and their daughter gone.

The prose has a dispassionate quality that enables the reader to discern each of the main characters thought processes. There is the mother, heaping guilt on herself for her post partum depression, for not appreciating the perfect baby she has been gifted, for allowing her husband to persuade her to go out when she knew it was wrong. There is the father, shocked and numbed, fearful of the impact this is having on his fragile wife and their relationship, aware that the police investigation will bring to light financial troubles he has not divulged. There is the lead detective, meticulously carrying out his investigations, aware that in cases like these the parents are most often to blame, determined to uncover how and why.

Anne has wealthy parents and hopes that Cora has been kidnapped for a ransom. As the days pass and the media circus outside their home condemns them for leaving an infant whilst they partied, the police begin to believe the worst. There are possible motives – Anne’s mental history, Marcus’s financial distress – but leads are scarce. The detective digs deeper in an attempt to uncover the truth and loses the trust of the family. They decide to take matters into their own hands.

A good thriller will keep the reader hooked, offering clues but hiding the big reveal until the end. As the denouement approached and the threads came together I couldn’t read fast enough. I had not anticipated those final twists in the tale.

It is terrifying to consider how an ordinary life can be picked apart. Seemingly innocuous details were construed to imply guilt, secrets unearthed and their importance inflated. The shock and stress of the unrolling events are finely depicted. The analysis of a relationship will always bring to light flaws.

A tense and taut tale, cleverly constructed. The quality of the writing offers enough originality to make it worth selecting from a crowded genre. I finished this in a sitting and felt sated. A fast moving and enjoyable read.

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

Book Review: In Her Wake

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In Her Wake, by Amanda Jennings, is a psychological thriller that crosses genres into literary and women’s fiction. If, like me, you dislike pigeon holing books then this is a good example of why doing so can limit the potential outreach of what is a great read. It has well developed, believable characters and a plot that has breadth and depth. The tension required for a thriller is there in spades but this is also a story about people and the importance of family. It will leave the reader pondering well beyond the final page.

The protagonist is Bella, a compliant young librarian married to an older man who wants them to have a baby. Her husband likes to look after her. His need to control every aspect of her life appears creepy but Bella’s acceptance of it becomes more understandable when the details of her childhood are revealed.

Bella was sheltered from the outside world by her devoted if neurotic mother. She was home schooled, rarely permitted to leave their home where doors were triple bolted and curtains remained drawn. Links with the outside world were strictly limited; television was forbidden. Bella’s father, a doctor, was a kind but distant parent whose main concern was protecting his wife from the upsets which caused her to self harm.

The story opens with Bella’s return to the family home for her mother’s funeral. Her father has something he needs to tell her but cannot find the words. Following his death Bella finds a letter revealing that their close family unit was a sham. Twenty-five years ago her parents committed a heinous crime, the consequences of which led to their need to raise her as they did.

Bella is grieving, not just for the parents she now feels she did not know, but for the person she could have been if they had not acted as they did. She travels to Cornwall to confront her past, to try to reclaim what was stolen from her.

Life is rarely simple; people are never solely good or bad. Throughout her secluded childhood Bella was surrounded by love. So long as she remained compliant her parents and then her husband provided for her every need. Now she discovers the harsher realities of what could have been. Her life of ease, albeit in a gilded cage, came at a terrible cost both to those who were given no choice and to those who were complicit.

The opening chapters of this tale were pacy and powerful. I then felt some impatience with subsequent chapters in the first third of the book as they did not quickly satisfy my desire to find out what would happen next. It was necessary to understand the nuances of Bella’s life up to this point. The descriptions of place beautifully evoked the majesty and danger of the Cornish landscape which became an integral part of the story. I was still relieved when the pace picked up. It did not then relent until the well executed denouement tied up the many threads.

The narrative probes the meaning of family and how expectations of the roles within it shape character and relationships. It is also about the complexity of love. What an individual is attracted to in another may not be what the loved one wishes to be themselves.

I enjoyed Bella’s development but, for me, Dawn was the hero. The contrast between the experiences of these two young women offers an interesting exploration into the importance of nature vs nurture.

A well written book with a multi layered plot populated by believable characters. This was an enjoyable and satisfying read.

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

3P6A0204  In Her Wake Blog tour

This review is the penultimate stop on the In Her Wake blog tour. Do check out the other posts in the tour, detailed above.

This coming weekend, Amanda will be a featured author at Newcastle Noir.

Book Review: The One-In-A-Million Boy

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The One In A Million Boy, by Monica Wood, tells the story of an eleven year old, his twice divorced parents, and his only friend, a one hundred and four year old sagacious and independent woman named Miss Ona Vitkus. The boy likes lists and order and Guinness World Records. Ona finds herself talking to him about her long life, offering up secrets she has held close alongside cookies and card tricks. They makes plans, start projects, and enhance each other’s lives.

Then, on the tenth Saturday, the boy does not turn up. Nor does he appear the following week. Just as Ona is concluding that this boy may not have been so different to the rest after all his father, Quinn, arrives determined to complete his son’s commitment. It is the only thing his ex-wife, Belle, has asked him to do and he needs to do something.

Quinn struggled to interact with his son. His peripatetic life as a musician mattered more to him than fatherhood. Now he must find a way to live with his regret.

Belle is falling apart. Her friends and family have rallied round but cannot understand how she feels. Ona understands having been there herself.

Alongside their grief each must find a way to move forward. Ona decides that the prospects opened up for her by the boy should be pursued. When Quinn and then Belle offer to assist she realises that she need not live as if she is soon to die. She has seen so many elderly place themselves in care facilities to await the inevitable. She decides that she still has life goals.

At the heart of this story is a boy who struggled to fit with what all around expected of him. Miss Ona Vitkas appreciated the qualities others thought should be fixed. She has spent a lifetime quietly working to be allowed to be herself. Quinn and Belle reach out to her as someone who enriched their son’s life and discover she can also enrich theirs.

The narrator’s voice is gentle but this story has depth and never descends into schmalz. There are lists and observations, insights into the human psyche and the impact of societal ideals. Alongside the poignancy is much humour. The randomness of death offers an incentive to appreciate life. Having lived for so long Ona understands that there is always more to experience and to learn.

A beautifully told, uplifting tale of the realities and loneliness of family, friendship and love. I recommend this to all.

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

Book Review: Beside Myself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Forget Me Not

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Forget Me Not, by Luana Lewis, is a psychological drama about grief, guilt and family secrets. It explores the emotional impact of upbringing, the guilt of a working mother, and the tightrope family members walk between confronting difficult issues and maintaining a comfortable home life.

Most of the story is told from the point of view of Rose, a senior neonatal nurse whose grown up daughter, Vivien, has been found dead in her bathroom. It is unclear if Vivien took her own life or if she was murdered. An injury to her head could have been the result of an attack or caused by a fall.

Rose is an emotional mess. She raised her daughter alone whilst forging her career, and now feels guilt that much of the child’s care was the responsibility of others. Money was tight and Rose felt more at home at work than in her damp, council flat with her wilful child.

Vivien married Ben, whose business acumen brought them wealth and comfort. Rose believed that they were happy together although she saw little of the family. She visited for her granddaughter’s birthdays and at Christmas, to keep up appearances, but knew little of the detail of her daughter’s life.

Now that Vivien is dead, Rose wishes to ingratiate herself with her little girl, Lexi. I found this creepy. The child still had a loving father who was perfectly capable of caring for her without his mother in law, who had shown little interest in Lexi’s well being before Vivien’s death. Rose pushes her way into the grieving family, openly criticises her son in law, and tries to mother a child she barely knows.

Another key character in the book is Chloe, a childhood friend of Vivien’s, who had a relationship with Ben before he and Vivien got together. Rose does not trust Chloe, especially when she appears to be helping Ben out, a role that Rose wants for herself.

As the police investigation uncovers details of Vivien’s life in the months leading up to her death it becomes clear just how little Rose knew about her daughter, yet still she insists that she should be the one to watch over Lexi. Rose’s instability manifests itself at work. Ben’s willingness to let her near his child can only be down to pity, although why he feels this after the way she has neglected his family over so many years is unclear.

The plot progresses, family secrets are uncovered, and it is shown just how damaged Vivien was. The denouement is satisfactory, although I remained unconvinced that Ben would be so tolerant of his mother in law given her penultimate actions in the tale.

Some of the details of the way Rose was written grated. No matter how much she ate or drank she was always described as having a dry mouth. When talking she complained repeatedly of a lump in her throat.

Perhaps it was my dislike of Rose which coloured my views of this book. I felt compassion for Ben and even more for Lexi. Amidst the twists and turns of suicide or murder, and if so who was to blame, several of the characters appeared sinister. I found it hard to focus on others when Rose was so consistently Machiavellian.

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

Book Review: Asking For It

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Asking For It, by Louise O’Neill, takes the difficult subject of the alleged rape of a beautiful but drunk teenage girl at a party, and explores society’s reaction when the details are graphically shared in the public domain. It is a challenging read because it tackles so many issues that are rarely discussed between victims and the people they know. The subject may be debated by strangers, but close to home it causes embarrassment and discomfort. Large numbers of women have lived through such experiences but choose not to share, because this is the reaction they expect.

Emma O’Donovan is eighteen years old, beautiful and confident, loved by her family. For as long as she can remember she has been Daddy’s princess. Her mother tells her that with looks like hers she will have the world at her feet and she anticipates this shining future. At school she is surrounded by girls who admire her, whose jealousy she feeds off. Boys cannot help but look her way and she knows she could have any of them. She tests this regularly.

Emma once overheard a boy describe her as boring, a comment which still smarts. When others are lauded for any achievement, attribute or possession, she will quietly disparage. She works hard to appear kinder and more interesting than she feels; what matters is that she is noticed and admired. She is attracted to boys others want.

Emma despises her mother for the way she puts on a front for the neighbours and tries to maintain her aging looks, subduing the fear that they are alike. Mother’s passive criticism of her daughter irritates. Emma requires approbation so hides all traits that she knows would garner disapproval. Her parents believe she is a good girl, raised in a good family, and that she will behave in the way they have programmed her.

The pivotal night is a typical party until Emma loses control. Her friends blame the alcohol and leave her to it, distracted by their own dramas. The next morning Emma cannot remember what happened. Her friends are furious with her for how she behaved but she believes, if she remains strong, all will blow over and she will be forgiven. Then pictures appear on social media.

The fallout is depressingly accurate in its portrayal of how society reacts to allegations of rape. Emma was drunk and dressed in revealing clothes. She led a boy into a bedroom. In many people’s eyes she was asking for it and should not complain, the case should not be brought to court. Boys will be boys, what else did she expect?

Emma’s parents try to be supportive but cannot move beyond their own shattered illusions. They struggle with the concept of having a daughter who does not behave as they were convinced their daughter would. From basking in their child’s reflected glory they must now face a community that is blaming her for ruining the glorious futures of young men from good families such as theirs. Several of their parents were long time friends.

Emma herself has no idea how to cope and cannot talk about how she feels. She is adept at burying her true thoughts deep. All she can see in her head are the photographs. All she can hear are the comments that were posted underneath by those she considered her minions, her friends. This is a child on the cusp of adulthood, a teenager with all the difficulties and peer pressure that entails.

The judgements of others can be devastating, how much more so for a young person whose life revolved around garnering adulation. In the wider public eye she is That Girl about whom everyone now has an opinion. She is surrounded by pity and contempt.

The author wishes this book to trigger wider discussions about consent. Society continues to blame rape victims for not acting in a manner that they can approve rather than blaming the perpetrator for assuming that they have rights over someone else’s body for spurious reasons. Victims are shamed; bringing shame on one’s family is treated harshly. Sexual conquests continue to be admired.

Although written for young adults this is also an important book for parents. Emma’s experiences were harder to deal with because of her parent’s reaction, their palpable disappointment when she did not turn out to be the daughter they wanted.

Ultimately though it is society that needs to change. Sex is not shameful. Those mature enough to indulge should be mature enough to ask for consent. Giving consent is a personal choice, not one that should be frowned upon due to gender. This story raises the issues. Let’s be brave enough to discuss openly and respectfully with all.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by Annette, whose blog may be found here: Sincerely BookAngels  I am grateful for her generosity is sending it to me.