Book Review: The Roanoke Girls

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The Roanoke Girls, by Amy Engel, is a darkly disturbing story set in and around Osage Flats, a small town in Kansas, America. Roanoke is a rambling farmhouse a few miles outside of the town that has been added to over the years giving it a bizarrely gothic feel. The wealthy family who own it and much of the surrounding land have lived there for generations. Its comfort and isolation have been an aid to their lifestyle.

Much of the tale is told from the point of view of Lane who moves to Roanoke from New York when she is fifteen years old following her mother’s suicide. She and her mother, Camilla, had a toxic relationship so she feels little grief at her death. She is aware that Camilla was raised at Roanoke but has not been told further details of the family history.

Underage and alone, Lane has little choice but to comply when her maternal grandparents offer to take her in. She is eagerly welcomed to Roanoke by her cousin, Allegra, who is of a similar age and possesses similar traits. Allegra’s mother, Eleanor, ran away just after she had given birth and has neither been seen nor heard from since. When Lane is shown old family photographs she realises that Eleanor looked just like Camilla. They had another sister, Emmeline, who died as a baby. The previous generation endured similar fates.

‘Hearing their stories turned the faces in front of me from beautiful to tragic. They watched me now with haunted eyes. The only one left was Allegra. And me. I suddenly didn’t want a place on the wall. “Wow,” I said, goose bumps sprouting along my neck, even in the closed-in heat of the hall. “That’s a lot of dead girls.” Allegra did a quick pirouette away from me, her smile a little too wide. “Roanoke girls never last long around here.” […] “In the end, we either run or we die.”‘

To the outside world it would appear that these girls have it all. They are beautiful, wealthy, and allowed to live much as they please. Lane has never known love so is drawn to her doting grandfather who willingly provides whatever she desires. Her grandmother remains more distant.

The story unfolds over two time periods – that first long hot summer during which Lane discovers why the Roanoke girls consider themselves special, and another summer a decade later when she is forced to return to the farm because Allegra has gone missing. It is clear that although Lane may have escaped she still carries the mental scars of the family secret. The details of this are revealed to the reader early on, but the devastating effect on each of three generations of Roanoke girls is more gradually peeled away.

Although repellent to consider in places the narrative deals sensitively with the issues explored. There is a sinister undercurrent that had me desperate to know what was to happen next yet fearful of what would be revealed. The tension never lets up as Lane seeks answers to her cousin’s disappearance.

This is not a story for the faint-hearted. It is tightly constructed and stunningly written but broaches topics few lay bare despite knowing they exist. The sex, drugs and small town thinking are mere backdrops to the damaging impact on all who attempt to breach the brittle Roanoke family circle.

A remarkable story that I recommend to any willing to dare. This is an electric read.

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

Book Review: Martin John

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Martin John, by Anakana Schofield, takes a challenging subject and presents it in an offbeat style, yet somehow creates a story that draws the reader in to the eponymous protagonist’s strange and disturbing life. It generates more questions than answers but this seems fitting. Martin John is inherently unlikeable. His actions are loathsome yet the author presents his plight in such a way as to engender a degree of sympathy however discomfiting this may feel.

Martin John is a sexual predator. His mother, despairing of his behaviour and determined to minimise the inevitable disgrace in his home town when a young victim threatens legal action, banishes him to London with a stream of invective and instructions designed to prevent him from repeating his misdemeanours. He is to get a job, keep busy, avoid triggering situations, and visit his aunt every week to reassure her that all is as it should be.

Martin John does his best but the temptation to give in to his urges proves hard to resist. He takes on a house when an acquaintance goes to prison, letting out the top room to illegals who are easy to move on. When his nemesis gets past the rules and defenses he has put in place to protect his solitary habits and routines, Martin John’s precarious existence begins to slowly disintegrate.

The background and details are peeled back with a tender precision that is at odds with what is being revealed. The often profane language employed is fitting. Martin John’s predilections are described in gross and graphic detail from the point of view of the perpetrator and are disturbing to consider.

The writing is impressive. There is much repetition but this works in portraying the mindset of a man trying to control the perversions to which he seems addicted. His brushes with authority demonstrate society’s inability to help those such as him, who are widely and vocally disdained.

Knowing a little of what Martin John was about I was surprised by how engaging the book turned out to be. It defied my expectations. An intriguing and rewarding read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, And Other Stories.

Book Review: Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine

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Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, by Diane Williams, is a collection of forty very short stories exploring such wide ranging themes as life, death, love, sex and associated, often fractious, relationships. There is a rough honesty to the thoughts and interactions in each snapshot – for a snapshot is all that can be offered in a tale that plays out in so few words. These are little moments of detail, vividly recalled with a point that is not always clear.

The opacity adds to the sense that the reader is observing rather than participating in each scenario. Characters share their thoughts with a dark, sometimes fevered intensity. There are moments of quiet reflection, gatherings where participants seem barely able to tolerate each other’s company, family groups displaying their love and despair at behaviours. Partners and friends huff over habits that grate.

A number of the stories provide observations on possessions when moving house or dealing with inheritance. The changing dynamics of relationships caused by the passage of time and a perceived lack of appreciation are touched upon. There is an apartness to each individual with occasional geysers of feeling spilling over those who happen to share proximity. Participants wade through many petty vexations.

Although easy enough to read and offering plenty to ponder I did not find this collection satisfying. As with incidents in life few tales offer a tidy conclusion. They are ripples in time, keenly considered, but sometimes frustratingly opaque. There is depth and immersion but too often I missed the point, if there was one, being made.

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

Book Review: The Storyteller

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“Do not take this moment lightly. Tread gently on its paths. This time too will never come again.”

The Storyteller, by Kate Armstrong, is a tale woven from the intricate threads of a life damaged by tragedy. Iris Buchanan is teasing the details from Rachel Miller, a young woman she has come to know in the psychiatric hospital where they are both being treated. Iris tells Rachel that she used to write romantic novels and wishes to lay down her life story in this vein. The book is their discussion told from Iris’s point of view.

As Rachel talks of her experiences the reader can see that Iris is adding in her own. She is possessive, at times voyeuristic in her fact gathering. There are echoes of Barbara from Heller’s ‘Notes on a Scandal’ although this is a very different work.

The events recounted are almost an aside to the heightened level of consciousness detailed. Rachel feels deeply: her isolation, the beauty of a sunrise, background noise, the tidy formation of geese in flight. She knows that she must move beyond her sharpened sensory perceptions and her tendency to repeatedly overthink interactions if she is to appear as those she cannot avoid expect.

After a spell in hospital Rachel is discharged and returns to her empty flat. She forms a relationship with a man from downstairs which Iris attempts to weave into a form that she finds pleasing. Rachel insists that elements of the truth as she sees it be made clear.

The setting of the story changes as the narrative progresses. The true and fictional accounts intertwine offering questions of what is memory and what desire.

This is a complex novel with moments of clarity offering hints as to the cause of the women’s mental distress. What is happening can at times be bewildering but is intriguing to read. The women’s quest for social normalcy remains hauntingly elusive, the personal cost of their mental breakdown becoming clear. It is interesting to consider how normal anyone truly is inside their own head; if given the option who would choose to start again.

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

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: The Girl in the Red Coat

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The Girl in the Red Coat, by Kate Hamer, tells the story of Beth and her daughter Carmel who is abducted when she is eight years old by an elderly man claiming he is her estranged grandfather. Beth is recently divorced from Carmel’s father, Paul, who left them for his girlfriend, Lucy. Where Beth is bohemian in dress and behaviour Lucy is chic and conventional. Sometimes Carmel would prefer if her mother were more ordinary. She resents that she feels constantly watched and constrained. Beth is doing her best but still suffers the aftershocks of the failure of her marriage. She seeks comfort from like-minded friends. She has not spoken to her parents in years.

Beth is naturally devastated when her daughter vanishes whilst on a rare day out together. The subsequent chapters told from Beth’s point of view cover the shock of loss, the need to keep searching, and then the painful coming to terms and finding a way to survive.

The chapters told from Carmel’s point of view are disturbing due to the situation in which she finds herself. Lies have been told to keep her from trying to return home. She is confused and unhappy but children have little control when the adults caring for them make decisions. She longs for love but can see no practical escape from the circumstances imposed.

Carmel has a gift which I felt was a weakness in the plot. Whilst I accept that there are happenings in the world than cannot yet be rationally explained this was a struggle to go along with. The attempts to monetise what she could do were plausible, but by making her abilities apparently real my engagement with the tale was weakened.

The writing is polished and I wanted to know the outcome so read on. I found the denouement something of an anti-climax. It was not that it was difficult to believe events could be concluded in this way but rather that it felt abrupt. I was looking for more nuance and depth.

I know that many other readers have adored this book so perhaps my expectations were too high. It is not one that I can recommend.

Book Review: Everlasting Lane

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Everlasting Lane, by Andrew Lovett, explores the effects of trauma on both the present and memory. Told from the point of view of ten year old Peter Lambert, who moves with his mother to a cottage on Everlasting Lane in the village of Amberley following the death of his father, it is a poignant tale of the difficulty of communication and lack of understanding between children and adults. It is about choices and their consequences, of the dangers of secrets and what reality means to each individual.

On his first day in his new surroundings Peter meets Anna-Marie, a slightly older girl who appears to spurn authority. Anna-Marie possesses a curiosity apparently lacking in Peter. The boy lives for the moment, conjuring from his surroundings imaginary worlds that he weaves into his games. What may appear obvious to adults, there in plain sight, he ignores fearing what he may learn and have to face.

Set in the mid 1970s the village harbours damaged survivors from the Second World War attempting to cope with their experiences amidst the disparagement of those who do not understand why they act as they do. It also has a sadistic headmistress whose religious vehemence borders on the deranged. Other than inciting fear, the eccentricities of these adults are accepted by the children. Adults, after all, rarely act in ways that children can reason with. Words that are understood by both are hard to find; deeds are done to the young over which they exert scant control.

Anna-Marie introduces Peter to a classmate, Tommie, and the three form a fractious friendship group with the girl as their leader. They wander the village exploring places where they often shouldn’t be. When Peter mentions that there is a room in his cottage which his mother keeps locked and has never talked of, the trio set out to discover what it contains.

Their findings offer up a mystery to be solved. Anna-Marie uses this as a distraction from her own fears of impending secondary school little realising the effect their discoveries will have on Peter, who himself lives unaware of the traumas in his friends’ lives.

Although childhood contains the innocence of a lack of wider knowledge and understanding there is little serene about living with the cruelties and constant oneupmanship of peers and the frustrations of rules imposed by the plethora of micromanaging adults. This world is brilliantly, painfully evoked. Peter’s mother is doing her best but has her own demons to face. Neither can effectively communicate to the other how they feel.

“he was talking like he thought things that weren’t real weren’t as important as things that were. […] But I think they’re wrong in a way because there was a lot of stuff in my head that wasn’t real but was really important: like the things I wanted to happen or the things I wished had happened instead of the things that had.”

Peter is living with the consequences of actions that set off chains of events affecting the people he relied on for love. The story is told as a simple childhood mystery yet it contains layers of emotion. The writing is subtle yet devastating in its perceptiveness.

Whilst empathising with each of the main characters I could see no way around the dilemmas they faced. Peter was urged to focus on what was important, but those urging could only comprehend what seemed important to them.

The story got under my skin. It is distressing in places yet woven together with skill and sensitivity. It is a reminder that words needed at a critical moment can too often prove elusive. This is a tale worthy of wider consideration.