Robyn Reviews: Divine Heretic

Divine Heretic is the story of Jeanne d’Arc, more commonly known in the UK as Joan of Arc. Jeanne is a saint of the Roman Catholic church for her role in the Hundred Years War, a battle between the French and the English for dominion over France. Jeanne claimed to have visions of angels – specifically the Archangel Michael, Saint Margaret, and Saint Catherine – instructing her to support the incumbent King Charles VII in his quest to reclaim France. Her actions aided him in ascending to the throne, but she herself was captured by the English and burnt at the stake for witchcraft.

The book more or less follows the common story, but diverges on Jeanne’s opinion of the angels. Here, the angels are more like demons who plague her. It starts with their first visit, when Jeanne is five, and follows as they torment her, cursing her with pain and horror for her family until she agrees to carry out their will. They claim she is the fabled Maid, but Jeanne doesn’t believe herself to be the Maid – she’s just a peasant girl. As time passes, the control these demons have over Jeanne appears to wax and wane – but they’re determined to ensure she fulfils her destiny no matter what the cost.

Jeanne is an intriguing protagonist. She’s exceptionally devout, but equally sure that these beings are not divine. She’s a strong character with clear desires – even when she seems powerless to achieve them. Her life is regularly awful, and she hates the demons she blames this on with burning passion. There’s a certain level of detachment between her and the reader – this seems to be common in historical novels – which can make her hard to connect with, but it’s hard not to sympathise with her inability to control her own life.

Unfortunately, the secondary characters are particularly two-dimensional. Her Grand-mere is an intriguing character – chosen to be the Maid before Jeanne until circumstances prevented her from fulfilling her destiny – yet this thread, and the impacts on her character, are never explored. Jeanne’s sworn protector, Ethan, also has brilliant potential – mixed-race in an era and place where that’s uncommon, he’s a strong knight with a heart of gold. However, he’s reduced to the cardboard love interest, never doing anything for himself. This would be a much stronger story if anyone except Jeanne felt like a real person.

I enjoyed the plot – despite telling a well-known tale it maintained interest, with less predictable twists thrown in alongside the predictable ones. However, I disliked what was done with the ending. It felt unnecessary – after the darkness of the rest of the book, throwing in fluffiness felt trite.

I struggle with historical fiction more than many other genres because it’s often written in a very detached style, and I need to connect with the characters to really enjoy a story. This is no different. It’s well-written, but the impersonal nature of it lessens its appeal. Fans of historical fiction and plot-driven novels likely won’t mind this, or may even prefer it – but I want it to delve deeper.

Overall, this is a solid historical fiction novel about an interesting, well-known figure that takes a slightly different spin to what is often portrayed. Recommended to fans of historical fiction, especially Roman Catholic history, and strong female characters.

 

Thanks to NetGalley and Quercus for providing me with an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

 

Published by Quercus
Paperback: 20th August 2020

Robyn Reviews: A Girl Made of Air

“All we can do is perform our lives as gloriously as possible.”

This is spellbinding. The entire novel is slightly ethereal – like every good circus trick, your senses create an illusion and it’s never certain what’s truly going on. It weaves its tale slowly, drawing you in like the sight of the tents in the distance. Then you step across the threshold, the lights go out, and the show begins.

The protagonist is Mouse – the greatest funambulist who ever lived. World-renowned, Mouse is now retired and gives one last interview. In the aftermath, she sits down and goes over her diaries, reminiscing over her life. She has a tale to tell, and wants to entertain her audience one last time.

Mouse is fascinating. She goes from a naive, innocent child, navigating the murky world of a circus where she doesn’t know her place, to a precocious child star, to an intelligent young woman with ideas of her own. We spend the entire novel in her head yet in many ways she remains a mystery – probably because she is a mystery to herself. Her relationship with Serendipity Wilson is enthralling and multifaceted. The writing exquisitely captures the love, the hate, the dependence, the worship, and the evolution of feeling throughout Mouse’s life. Similarly, Mouse’s interactions with Manu and Marina were sometimes heartbreaking but always exquisitely rendered.

I was impressed with how Mouse always felt her age. We followed her from childhood right through to her retirement, and each entry felt authentic. The flashbacks to young Mouse felt young – her thoughts and words were immature, her perspective narrow, her emotions all hot or all cold. It was rarely confirmed what age she was as she grew, but it didn’t need to be because the writing conveyed it perfectly. Her words and feelings matured, her perspectives on relationships changed. The little interjections from adult Mouse looking back helped to show how much she’d changed – or not changed.

The writing is this book’s strength. It’s exquisite. It transports you into the world of the circus, into Mouse’s daydreams, into bedtime stories told by Serendipity Wilson. You can almost hear the clicking of knitting needles or the roar of the crowd. It’s a fully immersive experience and it’s glorious – a triumph of literature. The plot is clever and twisty but secondary to the imagery evoked.

It’s always a brave move to compare a book to The Night Circus, but this truly deserves the comparison. Is it the same? No, not at all – the only tangible similarities shared are that both books contain a circus, and both books are driven by imagery over plot. But they both create a whimsical, almost fairytale atmosphere, casting a spell with words to take the reader someplace else. Those who liked The Night Circus should like this book.

Overall, this is a brilliant book. It won’t appeal to everyone – some might find it slow, or lacking in plot, or generally too filled with whimsy and not enough with substance – but for the dreamers, the believers, the ones who want to be entertained by the whimsical and the fantastic, this is a book for you.

 

Published by Quercus
Hardback: 3 September 2020

Book Review: Hidden Valley Road

Hidden Valley Road, by Robert Kolker, tells the true story of the Galvin family and their lives growing up in post war America. It was written in collaboration with all living family members, along with many of their friends, relatives, and the medical professionals who tried to help them. Of the twelve Galvin children, six were diagnosed with schizophrenia. The family became an important case study in the genetics of mental health.

The author is a journalist who agreed to tell this story if it could be fully fact checked. He makes clear his sources and looks at key incidents from various perspectives. The style and structure adopted enables the reader to observe each Galvin as an individual with personal feelings and grievances. Their problems are real and often horrifying but the details are never sensationalised.

There are discussions around nature vs nurture, and of the wisdom of having so many children. Each of the Galvins had to cope with trauma that, from the outside, appears unimaginably harrowing. That they wanted to share their experiences, and also contribute to medical research, demonstrates their wish to help others avoid the pain they suffered – and still struggle with.

Alongside the family story are chapters on the treatment of mental health issues, particularly schizophrenia, throughout and beyond the twentieth century. These are written to be accessible and provide a picture of changing attitudes and the focus of research. What comes through is the way medical experts in the field of neuroscience can be quick to blame parents for their children’s afflictions – be it in how they were raised or the problems passed on in genes.

Don Galvin and Mimi Blayney first met at a swim competition as they were entering their teenage years. He was handsome, serious minded and personable. She came from troubled wealth, appreciating high artistic endeavours and harbouring a need to impress. They married when Don was called up to fight in the Second World War, by which time Mimi was already pregnant.

The couple went on to have their twelve children over the course of twenty years – ten boys followed by two girls. Don’s work often took him away from home. He regularly mixed with the rich and famous. Mimi was left to care for the house and children, tasks she undertook with fierce determination. It mattered to her how the family were regarded – moreso than how they behaved privately. Home never felt a safe space for any of the young offspring.

The synopsis ensured that I opened the book ready to sympathise with the parents. This was almost immediately brought into question. Don and Mimi captured and trained wild birds of prey. Their methods suggested they had little empathy with the suffering of living creatures, focusing more on what Don and Mimi would gain. Likewise, their children were allowed to fight viciously and bully each other with impunity. So long as they did their chores, publicly achieved, and turned up for mass on a Sunday in their smart clothes, Mimi felt she was mothering well. Don encouraged her to leave the children to sort out grievances between themselves. This resulted in numerous injuries – many serious – and a culture of fear that manifested in hatred, and a determination to get away.

When, as young men, the sons started to fall ill, Mimi undertook what care she could offer when they were not hospitalised. She focused on her sick boys, resulting in her well children feeling overlooked. Any complaints were met with an impatient reminder that the others had it worse.

The two girls contribute many details that shine a light on the horror of their existence – including abuse. All of the children appeared to idolise Don while blaming Mimi for not doing enough for them as individuals. They question why she chose to have so many children. In an interview, near the end of her life, Mimi states that she considered herself a good mother – not a view apparently shared by those on the receiving end of her mothering. When their mental illnesses could no longer be kept hidden, Mimi stated that she felt embarrassed by her children.

Details provided of the young Galvins’ habits suggest there was a great deal of drug taking. In amongst the many details of medical research and treatments, the potential impact of this is not mentioned, and would have been of interest.

An aside I found saddening, if not surprising, was the focus of pharmaceutical companies on making money over finding a cure. Several paths of promising research were abandoned when it became clear they could not be quickly monetised.

The Galvins were not wealthy but seem to have managed financially. The benefits system in America is portrayed as more generous than was my understanding. There are brief mentions of wider family and I pondered if any practical help came from them. Mostly it is wealthy friends who are cited as benefactors, although the children still had issues with the fine opportunities this offered them. They wanted their parents to behave differently – to focus more on them.

And it is this honesty – the desire even grown children retain for parental attention and appreciation – that is a strength of the story. Each of the children needed their needs to be noticed.

The horrors inflicted run alongside details of sporting and artistic achievements that were supported by the Galvins as a family, even when siblings expressed little interest. What is most remembered looking back, though, is the impact of living with schizophrenics. Whether the illness to come caused the early and ongoing violence is not delved into in detail.

A cure for schizophrenia has yet to be found, and the next generation of Galvins has not survived unscathed. The denouement gives cause for hope if not full closure of the issues investigated.

This is a fascinating if disturbing account of large family dynamics and the impact on all of mental illness. The resentments of the well siblings as the family aged resonated.

“From her family, Lindsay could see how we all have an amazing ability to shape our own reality, regardless of the facts. We can live our entire lives in a bubble and be quite comfortable. And there can be other realities that we refuse to acknowledge, but are every bit as real as our own. She was not thinking of her sick brothers now, but of everyone – all of them, including her mother, including herself.”

An illuminating story that disturbs as much as it engages and informs the reader. A window into living with and alongside compromised mental health – the cost to all involved, not just the patient.

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

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.

Gig Review: Christopher Fowler in Bath

This year I spent Halloween at Waterstones bookshop in Bath where Christopher Fowler was in conversation with Steve Andrews, a Senior Bookseller at the store and obvious fan of his amiable guest. The event was the final stop on a tour for The Book of Forgotten Authors which I review here. Although I am only familiar with this and a handful of the author’s more recent Bryant and May series of crime novels, Christopher has published over forty books that cross several genres. As well as books, his other works include screenplays, video games, graphic novels, audio and stage plays. He writes a weekly column in The Independent on Sunday where the idea for this most recent publication germinated.

Steve described The Book of Forgotten Authors as a cornucopia of author delights including excellent digressive essays. He read out the names of a number of the authors included, many of which the audience were familiar with. Christopher commented that although their names may still be recalled, few of the readers he has asked could list these authors’ books. I got the impression that he was addressing a well read audience in Bath, perfect for the discussion that ensued.

In whittling down his list of hundreds of forgotten authors to the ninety-nine featured, Christopher was not interested in the obscure but rather recognisable writers whose books have been eclipsed. After mentioning them in his newspaper column, he received letters, often from author’s families. They subsequently corresponded and set up meetings, thereby enabling Christopher to gather the fascinating snippets of data he cites in his book. He made the decision not to include anyone living in case of upset by being listed as forgotten.

Christopher is obviously well connected within the arts. There were references to films he has been involved with and mentions of writers who are acquaintances and personal friends. Most of the discussion though was of his interest in books, how they are valued and how this changes over time.

He talked of pulp fiction from the sixties found in paperback fairs, some of which were written by well known names under pseudonyms, with artwork from highly regarded sources. Having grown up in a house containing few works of literature he spent much of his childhood in a library, frequenting second hand bookshops when he had money to spend. He now takes an interest not just in titles considered collectable but in the treasures that can be found tucked away between their pages – letters, notes and similar ephemera.

Christopher talked of the peaks and troughs in book fashion, how an experimental novel from the sixties is now being sold as a mass market paperback. He applauded the small presses such as Persephone who are republishing works that do not deserve to remain forgotten. He is a fan of ebooks as they enable out of print books to be more widely shared which may help prove there is demand for them in hard copy.

He also mentioned the books that deserve to be forgotten. He believes some authors whose work has remained popular had contemporaries who were even better yet disappeared from retail shelves. As he talked of books I was not familiar with, although Steve and several in the audience were agreeing with his words, I pondered how much book appreciation is a matter of personal taste.

In his Bryant and May books Christopher told us that the weirdest things are often based on fact, toned down because readers would find them too unrealistic. He does not like writing gore, preferring to create unease and trust reader’s imagination – disturbing rather than distressing. His books have been optioned by the BBC although he believes the scripts may not have captured the essential quirkiness of his elderly detectives. He mentioned that he bought back the rights of one book he was unhappy with after publication.

Christopher’s next book, due out in 2018, is based around the theme of a country house murder. The one after that will explore the theme of loneliness. His many fans will be happy that there are plenty more books in the offing. He has also written a fantasy epic but has yet to have it accepted for publication.

Steve had ensured that there was a good stock of a variety of Christopher’s books available to purchase. Those queuing to acquire his signature each presented sizeable piles of his works. It was good to see Christopher taking the time to chat as he signed. All seemed to have enjoyed the event.

As well as the pleasure of meeting Christopher I was able to introduce myself to his publicist, Elizabeth Masters. It is always lovely to meet those who kindly send me the books I review.

The Book of Forgotten Authors is published by Riverrun, an imprint of Quercus, and is available to buy now.

   

Book Review: How to Play the Piano

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How to Play the Piano, by concert pianist James Rhodes, is the first offering in Quercus’s new ‘The Little Book of Life Skills’ series. I received the book just before it was published six weeks ago and read it through almost immediately. I decided not to post my review until I had attempted to follow its instructions that I may report back on how effective they had been at teaching me to play Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C Major within the time period proscribed. In the interests of full disclosure I posted details of my musical background here. The key points are that I have never had a formal piano lesson but I did have some musical training on other instruments as a child.

The book opens with advice on how to master a piece of music. It is important to take things slowly and to practice regularly. To play the piano it is necessary to be able to read music, and to understand the correlation between the symbols on a musical score and a piano’s keys. Explaining this vital information takes up about half the book. It is then time to start to play.

A copy of the score is included and may be cut out or scanned. A few annotations have been added which are pointed out as progress is made.

The importance of correct fingering is explained. To navigate a keyboard smoothly this is a necessary skill to master. Timing is also important and to demonstrate this, and to give some idea of the sound being aimed for, the reader is directed to a series of short videos the author has posted at http://www.jamesrhodes.tv  I found these helpful.

The next twenty pages take the reader through the score, two bars at a time, explaining the tricky sections and offering advice on how to move the piece along. Getting through this section took me about four weeks. I was diligent with my practice, although I may have averaged closer to half an hour, five days a week rather than the three quarters of an hour, six days a week suggested. As much as anything I found the muscles in my hands would start to ache after this length of time and wanted to maintain my enjoyment even if it was to the detriment of the musical skill I could aquire.

Having more or less mastered the notes, albeit at quite a slow pace, there is then a chapter on performance and instruction on how to use the piano pedals. I found this tricky. Remembering the pedal affected my concentration on the notes and I struggled to play without mistakes. I also wished to add the suggested interpretation which, again, led me to flounder on the bars where notes move between octaves and fingering positions must be changed. The author suggested that, having played through the piece so many times, the score would no longer be required. My memory does not work in this way and I continued to need the score in front of me in order to play.

There is a lot to take in and remember but the book is clear in its instruction and eager to remind the reader that they started out unable to play the piano. To be able to get through the piece, even if not to as high a standard as desired, is very pleasing.

The final chapter offers a pat on the back and suggests some other pieces that the reader may wish to tackle should they choose to continue their musical journey. Using the advice gleaned from this book I can see that this is possible. I now feel that I have learned to play this particular piece, which is satisfying. It has also been a lot of fun.

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An example of how it should sound: Prelude No 1 in C Major by J.S. Bach, BWV 846 | The Well-Tempered Clavier

And my less than perfect performance, affected by knowing I was being recorded, although the mistakes and hesitations are still typical when I play.

 

Thanks to my younger son for jumping the hoops needed to get my mobile recording onto YouTube – the only way I could think of to share the results of my 6 week challenge.

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

Learning to play Bach on the Piano

howtoplaypiano

How to Play the Piano, written by concert pianist James Rhodes, is published today by Quercus. It promises to teach anyone with two hands and access to a piano or electronic keyboard how to play Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C Major within six weeks, so long as they are willing to practice for 45 minutes each day.

When the book started showing up on my twitter feed I became curious. When I was offered a copy I jumped at the chance to accept the challenge and see what I could achieve in this time frame. I am currently four days in and can report that it is an accessible and fun way to learn. I am practising hard and the few bars that I am slowly mastering already sound almost as they should.

It is early days but I am hopeful that I can achieve the stated aims if I persevere. That being said, in the spirit of full disclosure, I feel that I should share a few facts about my musical background.

I have never had a formal piano lesson in my life. I was, however, taught the basics by my father as a child. My father was a skilled musician. Largely self taught, he took piano to diploma level and his playing formed the soundtrack to my childhood. It instilled in me a love of classical music, particularly when written for his instrument.

Although I tinkered on the piano I never practised enough to play well.

At primary school I learned recorder and then cornet, joining the terrible sounding junior brass band. I disliked having to carry a heavy instrument on the long walk to and from school so when I moved to secondary school I took up the oboe. I played this instrument for seven years, joining several youth bands and orchestras. Eventually I achieved my ABRSM Grade 8. A throwaway comment from my tutor suggesting I didn’t possess the required musical feeling to gain my diploma was all it took to discourage me. I abandoned my lessons.

When I started work and was able to buy a house I decided that I would like to try playing the piano again. I traded the beautiful, French oboe that my parents had provided, that had been gathering dust in a cupboard, and purchased a basic electronic keyboard. My parents were not pleased. Once again I tinkered on the ivories but never practised enough to play well.

However, in my view the keyboard proved its worth. My children showed an interest and I enrolled them in lessons. When their tutor was told that my son had broken a few keys on the keyboard with his toy hammer she offered us an old piano that her church was disposing of as they had been gifted a better model. That ancient instrument was all but impossible to tune but proved adequate for three youngsters, just starting out on their musical journey, to practice on.

As they worked their way through the grades its inadequacies became more of an issue. My ever generous parents stepped in and provided the money that enabled us to purchase a reconditioned Yamaha upright model. Our piano tuner was delighted.

And once again I decided to tinker. And once again I didn’t practice enough to play well.

Now my elder two children live away from home. My youngest will occasionally make music but I hadn’t touched the instrument in many years – until I received this little book.

Thus, I am taking the challenge as a not quite beginner pianist, and as someone who is familiar with music theory. I will not post my review until I have either mastered the Bach Prelude or practised for six weeks. What I hope to achieve is not just the ability to play one piece, but to discover if I can once again enjoy making music. I will keep you posted on my progress.

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

Book Review: Undertow

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Undertow, by Elizabeth Heathcote, is a psychological thriller with an intriguing synopsis, a gripping opening chapter, an acceptable enough denouement, but a plot and character development that just didn’t do it for me. The manner in which the protagonist acted too often lacked plausibility, as did the reaction she encountered from certain minor characters. I struggled to maintain engagement.

Carmen is married to Tom. They both have a history. Prior to meeting her husband, Carmen had been with Nick for fifteen years. Shortly after they split up, due to Nick’s unfaithfulness, the struggling actor got his big break and is now living the celebrity lifestyle in LA. Tom’s background is a part of his and Carmen’s everyday life. He has regular contact with his three children from a twelve year marriage to Laura. However, it is not Laura and the children who his latest wife has difficulty dealing with but the memory of Zena, a beautiful young woman Tom had an affair with, who he left his family for, and who subsequently died in a drowning accident close to their coastal holiday home.

Carmen and Tom had told each other of their pasts when they met. Their romance led to marriage within months and they are trying for a baby. It is only when Carmen starts to learn of the circumstances surrounding Zena’s death that she becomes aware there is much Tom has not shared. He has not, for instance, told her that he was supected of causing his lover’s death.

Carmen is a freelance journalist struggling to find work so her desire to dig out the facts and her doggedness in approaching those who may have known Zena can be explained. What I struggled with was marrying this side of her character with the prevarications she displayed. I perceived too many contradictions in aspects of her behaviour.

Carmen did not wish to believe that Tom could be a murderer as it would shatter the illusions she had created of their happy life together. She was, however, aware that he had a temper that could lead to violence. Her drug addict step brother, Kieran, was with them when Tom attacked a man and left him for dead on a night out. Kieran has, understandably, disliked Tom since.

Carmen cold calls strangers and asks them about Zena. She approaches the victim support officer at the police station which dealt with Zena’s death. I was surprised at how open these strangers were to Carmen’s questions. She pieces together much of what happened the evening Zena went missing. She also meets the woman who found the body washed up on the beach several days later, a neighbour at the holiday home which Tom still owns.

It all slotted together and provided a plot that twisted and turned. For me though it lacked clarity and depth. I was hunting for excuses as to how Carmen could realistically behave in one way and then another. For example:

  • Would a young, professional journalist really not know how to clear the browsing history on a computer? Such a device is an important tool of their trade.
  • She was suspicious enough of Tom to actively investigate his past. I find it hard to comprehend that a woman in love would consider her husband capable of murder, and remain with him if she did.
  • She must have realised it was foolish to let Nick stay the night. Tom had proven himself devious in his previous marriage so would understand how affairs happen. He has also demonstrated violent jealousy, and she still suspects him culpable in Zena’s death.

Laura appeared largely believable until the penultimate events, which struck me as at odds to what had gone before. Tom’s character was more comprehensible. It was, however, Carmen whose varied thoughts and actions I struggled to align.

In writing any negative review I feel I am being harsh on the author. No reader is going to enjoy every book they read. I have tried to explain my reaction in the hope that it will prove useful to future readers. This is not a book I can recommend.

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

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.