Book Review: Shtum

shtum

Shtum, by Jem Lester, tells the story of a family caring for a severely autistic ten year old boy, and their struggles to cope with him whilst their own lives fall apart. It is a searingly honest exploration of a marriage at breaking point, of problems with communication, and of generational resentments. It demonstrates love in action when the words cannot be found.

Life for the protagonist, Ben Jewell, is not going well. To further the case of an upcoming tribunal regarding his son Jonah’s ongoing care, Ben’s wife, Emma, suggests a temporary separation. Ben and Jonah move in with his father, Georg, who Ben has not spoken to for months. As if this were not enough, Ben’s business is suffering due to his neglect. He gets through each day by drinking. He drinks a lot.

Georg accepts that his assistance is required but makes it clear that he is not impressed with his son’s behaviour. When Ben overhears Georg chatting to Jonah about his past, something that he has always avoided doing with Ben, he feels anger towards the old man. Their relationship is filled with unspoken resentments stretching back to Ben’s childhood. Now Georg disapproves of Ben’s plans to send his son away.

Emma has all but vanished from their lives so Ben is forced to deal with the cost and organisation of Jonah’s case for the tribunal. He is perplexed by his wife’s behaviour and starts to suspect an affair.

Jonah’s days revolve around routine; when this is upset his reactions become unpredictable, sometimes violent. He is a strong, lively, hungry boy. He is also incontinent. Much of his care involves providing the foods he will eat and cleaning up the mess that is subsequently produced. He is mute and it is unclear how much he understands of what he is told. The vivid portrayal of such a child makes his parent’s actions understandable if not commendable.

This is an emotionally charged read yet is written with humour and frankness. The plot is compelling but it was the character development that particularly impressed. I especially enjoyed the way the author presented Georg, and then revealed why he acted as he did.

A remarkable, moving book that deserves to be read widely. Put this on your wish list for next year.

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

Advertisement

Author Interview: Eva Holland

 

evaholland

Photo © Jessica Alexander for Good Housekeeping UK

When I discover a new author whose work I admire, I try to find out a little bit about them. I check their social media output, search for interviews, and read their blog posts. I find myself warming to them when they express opinions rather than just promoting their book. It is pleasing when they come across as real.

I have picked out two Twitter posts on Eva Holland’s feed which made me smile. In the first she described herself as a huge Margaret Atwood fan (we have something in common!). In the second she posted this:

 

Having read her book (click here for my review) I can understand why she wished to make this clear.

I say in my review that this book made me angry. It truly did. I kept having to put it down and walk around the room to prevent myself from throwing it at walls as the mother failed her daughter yet again. All credit to Eva for writing a novel which provoked such emotion while keeping me hooked; I had to keep picking it back up to find out what happened next.

Today I am delighted to have the opportunity to learn a little more about this author whose work I will now be following with interest.

Please welcome to neverimitate, Eva Holland.

 

Where do you typically write?

I have a desk in my spare room where I write every morning. It overlooks a park which is full of dog walkers in the summer and crows in the winter. If I have a full day of writing I try to get out of the house in the afternoon and often spend a couple of hours with my laptop in a coffee shop or the café at my gym. Of course I also scribble things in notebooks and tap them into emails on my phone as I go about my day. My handbags and pockets are always full of scrawled notes to myself and I often have things written on the backs of my hands.

Tell us about your writing process.

I don’t have a structured writing process and I don’t make detailed plot plans or even lists of key scenes. I start with a handful of characters and a scenario into which I want to put them. By the time I start writing I also have an idea of the period of time over which the plot will unfold and what will happen at the end. My first drafts are incredibly rough and full of plot holes and unnecessary backstory. Once I have a first draft I go back to the beginning and pick it apart word by word, sentence by sentence. It is in the second draft that the story really starts to take shape.

Tell us about your publishing experience.

My publishing experience has been rather unusual. In 2014 I entered the first 5,000 words of my work in progress and a synopsis of the remainder of the novel into the Good Housekeeping magazine novel writing competition. I was stunned to win the competition and find myself with a publishing deal with Orion and an agent. It has been an intense but amazing experience.   

In what ways do you promote your work?

The Daughter’s Secret is my first novel so I am very new to promoting my work. I am really pleased to be doing a blog tour to celebrate the publication of the trade paperback. Connecting with bloggers through Twitter over the past year has been a major perk of becoming more active on social media. Writing can be a lonely business and it is hugely motivating to know that there is such a passionate community of readers actively seeking new books to discover and love.

What are some of your current projects?

I’m currently working on a second novel. It is a psychological thriller with a dark mystery at its heart. I am really excited about the story and am spending every moment I can writing it.  

Where can my readers find you?

Twitter: Eva Holland (@HollandEva)

Blog: www.Eva Holland.net

.

A lifelong lover of words and stories, Eva Holland was the winner of the 2014 Good Housekeeping novel writing competition. She grew up in Gloucestershire and studied in Leeds before moving to London. When not writing or reading fiction she works as a freelance PR consultant and copywriter.

The Daughter’s Secret is Eva’s first novel.

The-Daughters-Secret-164x250

 

Book Review: The Daughter’s Secret

The-Daughters-Secret-164x250

The Daughter’s Secret, by Eva Holland, made me angry. I was angry with the teacher for taking advantage of a vulnerable child in his care. I was angry with the father for being unable to see past his idea of what his children should be. Most of all I was angry with the mother; I was bloody livid with the mother. Well done to the author for creating such an emotive, plausible and compelling story. It kept me up into the wee small hours because I just had to find out what happened next.

When Stephanie was fifteen years old she ran away with Nate, her twenty-four year old Geography teacher. She was unhappy with her home life and had fallen in love. When Nate offered her the chance to start over with him in a far away land she was ready to comply.

Six years later Nate is due to be released from prison having served his time. He will never teach again but this is not enough for Stephanie’s mother, Rosalind. Rosalind wants him to suffer as she has been made to suffer. She imagines scenarios where he is beaten to a pulp, injected with drugs, suffers debilitating, life threatening, grotesque illnesses.

She is terrified that Stephanie, now living in London with her best friend Sarah, will want to see him again. In the six years since it happened they have never discussed why Stephanie ran away or what exactly went on in the days before they were found. As the story unfolds the reader begins to understand why.

Rosalind is paranoid and has been for many years. She allowed random dangers elsewhere to feed her imagination to the extent that she kept her children off school until her husband discovered what she is doing and, ashamed, she allowed them to return. She followed the school coach on an outing, taking her daughter in the car, because she worried that the coach could crash. She imagines objects falling out of the sky and crushing their skulls.

“I had caught a snippet of news coverage about a plane accidentally releasing its cargo of holidaymakers’ luggage into the sea off Spain and hadn’t been able to shake myself free of the fear that it could happen above St Albans. Could a suitcase […] smash through the roof if it fell from a thousand metres?”

Rosalind chews her lips until they bleed, cannot talk because her anxiety drains her mouth of saliva and makes her tongue feel dry and swollen in her mouth. She has panic attacks where she forgets to breath and comes close to passing out.

This is the mother her children have grown up with, in a house where voices are never raised and their father is rarely home from his demanding job in the city.

Occasionally Rosalind catches sight of her daughter in moments when Stephanie is unaware of Rosalind’s presence. There is laughter and chat with her brother, relaxed smiles and casual flirting with her peers. When the story opens Stephanie has been drinking heavily and is brought back to her parents’ house to recover. It soon becomes clear that the family home is no sanctuary. Her father wishes to outsource the problem, to send Stephanie away to rehab that she may be mended and returned as the little girl he wants rather than the runaway he is still unable to countenance. Her mother chews her lip and worries about Nate regaining access to her child.

The tale unfolds during the ten days leading up to Nate’s release from prison, with flashbacks to the abduction. Stephanie needs support yet Rosalind is unable to move beyond her own paranoia. She tries, but always there is a tipping point and she descends into her fears. Stephanie’s upbringing left her vulnerable to a predatory teacher; the guilt she carries for the punishment he suffered has never been assuaged.

I am always reluctant to blame parents for their children’s mistakes. It seems too easy an excuse for what is usually a much more complex set of circumstances. Rosalind undoubtedly loves Stephanie but cannot seem to see her as beyond the baby she breastfed, the toddler she slept beside to ward off bad dreams. When Stephanie bitterly points out that her forty year old mother is flirting with a twenty four year old fellow student at the art college she attends Rosalind is shocked that her daughter can draw comparisons with Nate. Stephanie needs the support of a loving parent but not one who has compartmentalised her as a child.

I enjoyed the penultimate scenes when Stephanie’s relationship with her boyfriend was further developed. The denouement was nicely done but just a tad too open ended to leave me satisfied. I wondered if the family would ever confront their problems or if they would always skirt around issues for fear of the lip chewing and irrationality of the mother. There was a tidying up of the plot, but left in abeyance were many interesting issues around the characters which I would like to discuss. This is the perfect read for a Book Group.

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

 

Book Review: Pretty Is

prettyis

Pretty Is, by Maggie Mitchell, is a book about loneliness and longing. It tells the story of two young women who were abducted by a stranger and held for six weeks in a remote woodland cabin when they were twelve years old, an experience which has haunted their lives ever since. It is an exploration of how family and society expect children to behave; of complex relationships, jealousy and a child’s singular need for attention and admiration.

Carly-May is a pageant princess from a remote town in Nebraska. She despises her step-mother and resents that her father defers so many decisions to this brash and narcissistic interloper. Carly-May is intelligent but has been led to believe that her beauty will be of more use to her in the adult world. She dreams of escape and fame, of returning to her father as a grown up and basking in the acclaim she longs for. When a stranger tells her to climb into his car she feels trepidation, but is almost happy to be driven away.

Lois is a spelling bee champion who lives with her parents in their up market guest house. They are always busy with guests leaving her alone with her books. She has been raised to be polite so agrees to help the stranger who pulls up alongside her in his car.

The abduction is that simple; children doing as they are told, behaving towards an adult as they have been taught, and then responding to the kindness and attention they are starved of at home.

The story is told from the point of view of the young women these girls have grown into. Carly-May became Chloe, an actress who has never quite achieved the fame she believed she deserved. Lois is a college professor and novelist, her debut work based on the abduction, now being adapted for the big screen. The girls have not been in touch since they were returned to their families who felt it was best to keep them apart, to have them put the trauma behind them.

The families view this trauma as the kidnap, refusing to entertain the possibility that the girls were more affected by the loss of their kidnapper.

The impact of those six weeks, especially on Lois, seems at times to be overplayed. For an obviously intelligent woman she makes serious errors of judgement when a student takes an unhealthy interest in her past. This does, however, enable the reader to better understand how stalled her development has been.

The writing is compelling; I read this book in a day, and enjoyed the way it made me think. It is rare for children as young as twelve to be given such complex roles, for their feelings and how they respond to experiences to be explored in such depth. It made me wonder if a child can ever feel loved enough to satisfy given their natural introspection.

Although I would describe this as a thriller, and there is pace and tension in spades as Lois’s student closes in on his prey, it is the character development that I admired. The adults could not comprehend why the girls did not do more to try to get away from their captor. They did not recognise that it was the everyday lives imposed on them that they dreamed of escaping.

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

 

Book Review: The Ghosts of Heaven

ghostsof heaven

The Ghosts of Heaven was printed in Golden Ratio, from which the logarithmic spiral can be derived.

The Ghosts of Heaven, by Marcus Sedgwick, contains four separate yet interconnected stories that wind through time like the spiral from which they are each inspired. The writing is lyrical with dark undercurrents, disturbing in places yet full of hope. It is suggested that the tales may be read in any order and still make sense. Certainly each stands on its own but also adds depth to those read before.

The first quarter of the book is set in the time of prehistoric hunter gatherers when marks in caves were linked to magic and writing had not yet been invented. The second quarter introduces us to a young girl, newly orphaned, who becomes the victim of a powerful church hunting down witches. The third quarter is set in the last century at a lunatic asylum where the lines between madness and sanity become blurred. The fourth quarter is set in a futuristic spaceship where a lone sentinel discovers that all is not as it seems.

Each tale is richly imagined with compelling story lines and intelligent, questioning characters. It is the questions that they ask, the thought processes they explore, that add to the intrigue. The reader is lead to philosophise alongside, to consider where they have come from, why they are there, and where they may be going.

Although classified as for Young Adults I enjoyed this book for what it is, a work of fiction that entertains and gently challenges without preaching. The darkness that has always existed in the hearts of some men is examined alongside a perception of supposed progress. The denouement of the final tale is pitch-perfect.

Four quarters make a whole and life goes on, spiralling ever upwards or downwards depending on how it is viewed. It takes skill to present complex ideas in such an accessible way. This book is story telling at its best.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher through Goodreads as a ‘First Reads’ giveaway.

Book Review: Going Back

10593095_4546314871991_2201794824985797615_n

Going Back, by Rachael English, was for me an enjoyable trip down memory lane. It chronicles the life of Elizabeth, an Irish student in the 1980’s whose life is changed forever when she and a group of friends from university decide to spend a summer working in Boston, America.

The book is in two parts. The first covers the fateful summer of 1988, when Elizabeth turned twenty-one and met Danny, a handsome charmer with whom she fell in love. The second part is set in the present day, when her daughter makes the same trip to America where she falls ill, causing Elizabeth to fly to her bedside and return to the scenes of her past.

The whole tale revolves around a summer romance. It explores the impact of making decisions that seem right at the time, of not hurting those one cares about. It offers up a scenario where a memory will colour a life. Elizabeth acted sensibly but then, when things got tough (as life always will from time to time) her memories become ‘what ifs’ and she allowed her regrets to fester. The premise of the story is that it may be better to allow the heart to rule rather than the head, and that secrets are damaging.

With my experience of growing up in Ireland the narrative, expectations and claustrophobia of family were all too familiar. Although I never chose to spend a summer in America I knew plenty of students who did. As the author points out, before mobile phones and Skype it was possible to get away, to disappear and become, even if only temporarily, someone else. It was possible to put aside the guilt and fear of letting down the family, of making mammy cry, and to be one’s self.

It is not, however, a one dimensional tale. Although Elizabeth acted as she thought best, she had friends who were less circumspect and whose lives also progressed through trials and tribulations. To me, these lives seemed more real. Given their ages and personalities, I struggled to believe that all would have been happy ever after for Danny and Elizabeth had she stayed in Boston. I suspect she would merely have harboured different regrets, perhaps about her nice, safe, Irish boyfriend. Knowing the Irish as I do, she would also likely have felt guilt about abandoning her parents. There is rarely only one road to choose and some people will always find happiness elusive. Elizabeth was cited as being uncomfortable admitting to being happy.

The book is, however, a romance. Whilst the characters, scenarios and passage of time are all well written and believable, this is essentially a feel good book about one true love that survives. For fans of love overcoming adversity, it is well worth adding to your bookshelves. A story to curl up with when a little gentle escapism is desired.