Book Review: One Little Mistake

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One Little Mistake, by Emma Curtis, starts out as a comfortable, middle-class, smug mummy story but soon morphs into something a great deal more sinister. It focuses on a small clique of aspirational young marrieds who mostly know each other from the school gate. They help each other out with emergency childcare and provide eager, listening ears over coffee or glasses of wine. They admire each other’s home projects aimed at increasing resale value as much as providing congenial living space. They share gossip and offer sympathy whilst feeling both superiority and resentment about their own lives.

Vicky Seagrove has three healthy children, a supportive and loving husband, and a newly renovated home, yet still she wants more. When she is tempted to indulge in an affair she shares this sordid secret with her best friend, Amber. Although promising to keep it to herself, Amber is not impressed with such behaviour. Vicky has everything Amber aspires to but cannot quite acquire. When Vicky’s poor judgement puts one of her children at risk, Amber decides she can use her friend’s fear of being found out, especially by her husband, to her advantage.

Amber and Vicky have been close since meeting at their first NCT class and are constantly in and out of each other’s homes. Amber is possessive of her friend and is piqued when Vicky spends time with Jenny, a young mum new to their neighbourhood. When Amber and Vicky both decide they would like to buy the same rundown house as a doer upper, their friendship is put under strain.

Vicky is naive and trusting but as dark undercurrents bubble to the surface even she begins to question Amber’s loyalty. She is shocked and embarrassed when her friend asks for help with a down payment. She does not anticipate that money is the least of her blessings that Amber intends to take.

Interspersed with the unfolding tale of potential domestic crisis is a story set eighteen years before. A young girl has lost her mother to a drugs overdose and ended up in care. She is uncomfortable with the family who foster her, fixating on her social worker as a potential parent. She finds that her desires are deemed unreasonable and her fears ignored.

The final third of the book is pure psychological thriller. The denouement is masterfully played. The outcome may be extreme, but in this rarefied world it seems love and loyalty rely on self interest. This is an engaging and darkly entertaining read.

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

Book Review: Gone Without A Trace

Gone Without A Trace, by Mary Torjussen, is a psychological thriller that takes a while to get going but ends up packing an almighty punch. Set in and around the Wirral Peninsula in Northern England, its protagonist is a young and ambitious professional woman, Hannah, who lives with her boyfriend, Matt, and socialises with a group of similarly minded friends. She is closest to Katie who she has known since childhood. They have a competitive relationship, likening themselves to the sisters neither of them have.

When the book opens Hannah is returning from a training course in Oxford where she has been commended by her employers for her recent performance and told to expect the promotion she has been working towards for some time. Happy and excited she is eager to share this news with Matt, picking up champagne on her way home to enable them to celebrate. After a long drive she opens their front door and immediately realises something is wrong. Every trace of Matt’s occupation has been removed. She has been left no explanation.

What follows is shock, distress, despair and then determination. Hannah discovers that Matt’s phone number is no longer available. He has left his job and removed himself from all social media. He has not just left her but also disappeared. She can find no one who knows where he has gone.

Hannah will not give up. She sets out to track Matt down, believing if she can talk to him he will want to return. Her work suffers and her friends worry but she refuses to be deterred. When she starts to receive texts from unknown numbers and realises that someone has been in her house when she is not there, she believes Matt is behind the intrusion and will not be persuaded otherwise.

I couldn’t empathise with this Hannah. For a successful, professional woman she seemed blinkered and irritatingly unable to face reality. She did not seek time off work despite recognising her performance was now well below par. I struggled to push through this section of the book.

The shocking explanation, when it eventually came, made sense of most of what had gone before. The pace picked up, the tension rose and the denouement was impressively constructed with a chilling finish.

Narrated in the first person, this was not a comfortable read but explores interesting topics. Before knowing why, Hannah’s dogged determination to find Matt and the personal cost she seemed willing to pay came close to making me set the book aside. I am glad that I persevered.

I am somewhat reluctant to recommend a book that I struggled with in part, yet the ending made the reading worthwhile. There are complex issues to ponder, not least how much support friends can be expected to offer. Once understood, Hannah is a fascinating creation.

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

Book Review: Larchfield

Larchfield, by Polly Clark, is an intricately constructed tale of the devastating impact of prejudice and hate. Set over two distinct yet entwined time periods, it introduces the reader to two young poets – Wystan Auden and Dora Fielding. Both have recently had their debut collections accepted for publication but, for personal reasons, have left the supportive circle of the Oxford literary elite to live in the Scottish coastal town of Helensburgh.

The book opens in 1930 when Wystan travels north to take up a post teaching English and French at a small boarding school for boys, named Larchfield. His part in the tale is loosely based on known facts. The reader will know him as W.H. Auden and he wrote The Orators during the two years he spent in this place. The poem is a meditation on paranoia and repression set in Helensburgh. The author also lives here and mined her experiences to portray the suspicion with which those regarded as outsiders are treated.

Alternate chapters follow modern day Dora, recently married and expecting her first child, who moves to a seafront apartment constructed when a large house, once owned by a wealthy shipbuilder, was divided up into more affordable living spaces. Dora’s husband, Kit, was raised in Scotland and has an involving job as an architect so is easily accepted. Bereft of her friends and facing the challenges of new motherhood, Dora struggles with the local’s expectations of how she should behave.

Kit and Dora live below an elderly couple, Mo and Terence, who are popular members of the community and church. Dora finds her neighbours’ blatant antagonism difficult to bear. Kit is sympathetic but believes his wife is over reacting. When the health professionals also berate her, making thinly veiled threats for the choices she makes in caring for her child, Dora seeks solace in escape.

Wystan is barely coping with the legally required suppression of his desires. He visits a good friend in Berlin where their lifestyle is overlooked, but in early 1930s Germany this is about to change. The consequences when an individual will not conform to what an intolerant society considers necessary for the wider good has been proven to be devastating.

The comparative similarities in how Wystan and Dora are treated will be recognisable to any modern mother, as will Kit’s assumptions that his wife’s complaints are overplayed. When both protagonists refuse to back down and act as is demanded, the ramifications, although shocking, seem inevitable.

Like its protagonists, this is a book that does not conform to a standard. The originality is never a challenge as the prose is so satisfying to read. I felt Wystan and Dora’s pain and frustration, their determination to remain true to themselves. As Dora realised early on, belonging requires giving up something of self.

“Dora suspected she had probably never belonged anywhere […] while many thought her shy and brainy to the point of passionlessness, they were wrong. There had been love affairs […] These had always fallen apart at the point where she was expected somehow to change, to accommodate them in some profound way. She never wanted to, enough, and they certainly seemed to have no notion of accommodating her, and her need to scribble and read.”

The plot threads are intense but also entertaining. The writing throughout is utterly captivating. I enjoyed everything about this book but especially how it made me think and feel. It is a literary depth charge that I recommend you read.

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

Book Review: An Ounce of Practice

This review was written for and first posted on Bookmunch.

Leo Zeilig’s An Ounce of Practice is a sweeping exploration of human connections and a search for meaning beyond mere existence. It is a journey driven by sex, politics and idealism. The flawed characters are radicals fighting for personal freedom and a better way of living. They are striving for a Promised Land, unable to be present and satisfied, unwilling to accept.

The protagonist is Viktor, a member of the teaching staff at a London University where he is prevaricating over completing his PhD. Viktor struggles with his everyday situation and seeks a cause to champion. Having befriended members of the outsourced cleaning staff, many of whom are illegals, he becomes involved in their campaign for worker’s rights. His contribution is to document their protests on his blog.

Through these workplace connections Viktor is put in touch with a group of resistance fighters in Zimbabwe and acquires an interest in their struggle. Eventually he will be coerced into visiting, to gain his ‘ounce of practice’.

In London, Viktor lives with Nina. They embarked on a passionate love affair but soon grew discontented. Viktor has detached himself from Nina’s attempts to facilitate understanding of her needs, leading to rows that drain his energy. Despite moments of clarity when he recognises his flaws they serve only to pull him further into self-contemplation. For all his efforts to make a positive difference in the world, his focus remains on himself. Even their daughter, whom Viktor adores, struggles to maintain his attention.

When Viktor travels to Harare he is perturbed by the crumbling infrastructure and disparate living conditions. He joins a small group of socialists who eagerly pontificate on revolution. He meets NGOs enjoying their pampered lifestyle whilst ‘helping’ poverty stricken locals. He is told of the former socialists who gained power but then grew out of touch, travelling the world fund-raising, always business class.

The sweeping narrative can at times feel bogged down in the details of the radicals’ polemic. It is worth wading through these sections for when the pace once again picks up. The section set in Bulawayo is tense and pivotal, although does little to improve Viktor’s naval gazing and insatiable need for affirmation.

Viktor is not the only conundrum. Biko, the cogent student radical, the future hero of the movement, trades the fine jacket his dying mother worked and saved for a year to buy for a few moments on a sofa with a girl. Details are shared of sweat, phlegm, mucus and semen. The reader is offered little respite from the messiness of being alive.

Although this is partly a tale of a white man’s attempts to save Africans, there is no glossing over the locally endemic corruption. Easy answers do not exist for a problem centuries in the making.

Their flaws may make many of the characters difficult to like but they add depth to the complex personal and political situations.

Any Cop?: There is little to raise the spirits in this tale despite the many well meaning efforts. What it does provide is rich food for thought.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Six Stories

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Six Stories, by Matt Wesolowski, is a murder mystery told in the form of transcripts from a series of podcasts. This original construction took some getting used to, perhaps because I do not choose to listen to the popular broadcast medium. I am not a fan of audio or visual discussion or reporting, also eschewing vlogs and their ilk. I prefer to savour the written word, which to be fair is exactly what is offered here.

The tale is told in the six broadcast episodes. To be more precise, the same tale is told from six differing perspectives. The concept for these podcasts is that the reader (listener) should be offered up the facts of a now forgotten, never fully explained controversial incident and then be left to make up their own mind as to what actually happened. In this way it is similar to recent TV programmes such as Making a Murderer – which I watched a few times before growing bored with the repetition. Six Stories also contains repetition but, despite this, the author has succeeded in maintaining the intrigue and tension. Its approach reminded me of local gossip, where behaviour is dissected and judged based on personal prejudices and ideals.

The incident being investigated is the unexplained death of a fifteen year old boy, Tom Jeffries, who disappeared twenty years ago whilst away from home on an informal outward bound type weekend. His badly decomposed body was discovered after a year by a group of twenty-something year old privileged young men, one of whose father still owns the land.

Tom had been one of a group of five teenagers who had been regular visitors to the area, Scarclaw Fell, which harbours the raft of spooky myths common for an isolated location. The young people are tracked down by the podcast maker and interviewed, along with family members, former teachers and local residents, to determine if the interactions and dynamics within the group could shed light on what happened so long ago.

What they relate of the trips away is that the adults believed they were enabling the supposedly sensible teenagers to enjoy healthy, outdoor pursuits while the youngsters took the freedom granted as an opportunity to ingest copious quantities of alcohol and other drugs. There were the usual plays for power and some all too typical bullying.

“You see, the thing is, unless you’ve been on the other end of bullying, you don’t really know how much these smaller things can affect you. People’s perception of bullying is still so archaic or cliched: the ‘give us your dinner money’ schoolyard stuff, or else the ‘OMG you’re so ugly’ stuff online. [] bullied [] in a professional way. […] It’s the little things – the name-calling, the comments, the giggles when your back’s turned. That’s how the professionals do it. Like water-torture, or death by a thousand cuts. ‘Professional’ bullies crush your soul a sliver at a time.”

The alphas were mimicked by those who admired them and had yet to find their own niche, something recognised and derided by their peers.

“He didn’t have any personality of his own. He borrowed everything.”

The background and exploits shared demonstrate how self-absorbed and fickle memory can be. I did wonder why these now settled thirty-five year olds, who no longer interact, would agree to talk to someone about their teenage high jinks – which are always likely to contain embarrassing details – knowing that they will then be publicly shared. However, the popular and enigmatic investigator has a reputation for presenting his findings without the usual edits and distortions. He creates a compelling story, although if other media outlets take an interest the risk of public judgement and condemnation for the participants is only likely to increase.

There is much to be said for presenting a murder mystery in an original format and I was quickly drawn into this tale. The denouement was unexpected with a few threads left for the reader to interpret. Just as the podcasts were designed to encourage discussion amongst listeners, so the tale raises issues it would be interesting to further consider. With this in mind, it would be a perfect choice for a Book Group.

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

This review is a stop on the Six Stories Blog Tour. Do check out the other posts, detailed below. 

Six Stories is published by Orenda Books.

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Book Review: Counternarratives

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Counternarratives, by John Keene, is a collection of historical fiction pieces imaginatively written in the style of reportage. Most are set in America through the centuries of slavery leading up to the practice’s eventual abolition. The exploration of ingrained and continuing racial prejudice is percipient and depressing.

The ownership of people, the cruelties inflicted and the effect this had on all is presented in a variety of settings. The attitude that troublesome slaves should be broken, that they were property to be used or traded, reminds the reader of the entitlement the paler skinned fully believed was their due. They could think ‘only of their own disappearing universe’, not that of those on whose lives they viciously inflicted their ideas.

These jaundiced views remain recognisable in the world we live in today. There were instances of comeuppance but only the occasional glimmer of positivity:

“we must never let the lies and the tears devour us, we must deliver and savor the years.”

The essence of the subject matter and the breadth and depth of each short story is impressive. However, although the author takes an innovative approach to presenting his themes I found the writing dense and often challenging to read. The stories are substantial with a strong evocation of time and place. What was a struggle was maintaining engagement.

There are many who appreciate strong, literary prose and this may well be a book more suited to them. As a reader who wishes to relax and enjoy a book these tales proved heavy going. Creatively constructed and thought provoking though each piece is, this is not a book that I can personally recommend.

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