Book Review: Claudia

Claudia, by Anthony Trevelyan, interweaves two stories – one set in contemporary time and the other in an imagined future. It opens in a dystopia where an unlikely assassin is sent a message by a former employer who she then travels to meet. Her journey and reflections offer a window into a world that has been damaged by an event, Helios, gradually explained. There are four short parts to this tale, the final one revealing the links between it and the rest of the book.

The contemporary plot begins with an unexpected visit. The protagonist, Dia, is working in an office in Birmingham when she is called to reception to meet a man she hasn’t spoken to in fifteen years. Samson Glaze is a highly successful businessman but when Dia was a child he lived in a campervan. They met when he and his companions, the Thin Love Collective, parked up near the shabby tower block where Dia lived with her often distracted and regularly drunk mother. His visits became annual events until Dia turned thirteen when Samson left the travellers to set up his solar panel business. To her mother’s chagrin, Dia hero worshiped the man. With his stories, games, grungy coteries and dogs, he was the most fun she’d ever known in human form. He paid her attention, never patronising because of her age. He told her she was destined to do great things.

Dia was not the only child entranced by this nomad and his lifestyle. Samson’s son, Reggie, harbours happy memories of those years. Younger than Dia, he grew up through the changes in his father’s fortunes. They do not appear to have been of the benefit some may expect. Samson tells Dia that Reggie is troubled. Attempts to help him have led to rows, the latest to a fight that ended with Reggie cutting off communication. Samson asks Dia if she will try to talk to Reggie and report back. The boy now lives in a flat close to her own.

Dia would do anything for Samson, but when she calls at Reggie’s flat it is revealed that he has gone away. He has joined a strange group who call themselves Tarantula. Samson is concerned it could be a cult and that his son is being held under duress. When Dia’s ordered world suddenly becomes disordered she decides to take some time out and show her gratitude to Samson by bringing Reggie back to him.

The twists and turns of the plot keep the reader guessing who the bad guys might be. There are business rivals with the power money brings, Tarantula and its leaders offering troubled young people an alternative to modern society, shady characters who turn up in unexpected places. All have a history, a reason for their actions and connections.

The writing is well structured and easily retains reader attention. Descriptions of Manchester, with its new build architecture and ultra cool Northern Quarter, are deliciously entertaining. The irony and humour throughout neatly balance the more serious aspects. The power of the sun, literally and metaphorically, is an effective motif.

I was concerned that the message, the warning in the story, would veer into partisan territory and affect enjoyment. This is avoided – Helios is believable. There is a degree of ambiguity in certain threads but these do not obviate resolution of the various intrigues.

A witty and at times poignant observation of human behaviour. This is a recommended read.

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

Book Review: Harmless Like You

Harmless Like You, by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, tells the dual stories of Yuki and her son, Jay, who she left with his father as an infant and has neither seen nor contacted since. It is a tale of loneliness, identity and survival. It is beautifully written.

The prologue is set in 2016 Berlin where sixty year old Yukiko Oyama is living in a cold and shabby apartment. Jay has tracked her down as he has paperwork he needs her to sign. He has not explained to her who he is.

The main narrative opens in New York, autumn 1968. Sixteen year old Yuki is living between two cultures. Her Japanese parents keep their apartment as they would in Tokyo. She does not know what an American style home is like as she has never had friends. Her mother dresses her in stiff skirts and starched blouses. Yuki hankers after the clothes and other accoutrements that the cool kids at her school wear with ease.

Yuki does not remember living in Japan but the family plan to return there the following spring. She knows she will not fit in with her American mannerisms and expectations. Her father is eager for her to gain good grades in maths and science that she may apply to study a respected subject at university. Yuki struggles to pass tests in anything other than art. It is her father’s view that good girls do not become artists.

When Yuki meets Odile, a beautiful wild child who lives with her novel writing mother, she believes she has finaly found her longed for friend. Between them they hatch a plan that will enable Yuki to stay in New York. Freed from the protective gaze of her parents, Yuki settles into her new home, until Odile leaves her too.

Alongside this narrative is the story of Jay. He is married to Mimi who has recently given birth to their daughter, Eliot. Jay and Mimi were very much in love, happy together before the pregnancy. Now, burdened with a constantly crying child, Jay contemplates following the example of the mother he never knew and walking away.

As Yuki’s story unfolds the reader is drawn into her evolving thoughts and desires. She aches to belong yet whatever direction she takes continues to feel out of place. In her head she can see and believe in the art she wishes to create. She struggles to transfer this into a form that conveys the intensity of meaning envisaged. She also struggles to cope with what she is in her Asian skin.

Yuki’s loneliness stems as much from her inability to integrate as from those who leave her through the years. Her increasing volatility is presented with emotional intelligence and a rich use of language that vividly paints each scene.

Jay’s story appears more straightforward yet his life has also pivoted on the impact of being abandoned as a child. He will learn from Yuki that the stories we tell, even of ourselves, are blinkered versions of a wider truth.

The poignancy of the story is tempered by the quality of the writing and the empathy evoked for each character’s behaviours. This is a nuanced, thought-provoking, addictive read.

Harmless Like You was shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2017.

Book Review: When the Floods Came


When the Floods Came, by Clare Morrall, is set in a future Birmingham, England. A virus has wiped out the majority of the population of Britain resulting in the whole island being quarantined by the rest of the world. Climate change has caused unpredictable weather – freak snowstorms, intense heat, and winter floods that take months to dissipate. Survival is possible throughout the country due to there being so few people to use the resources left behind by a previously advanced and acquisitive society, but the majority of the sparse population choose to live in Brighton where the government attempt to control essential services and supplies, along with access to information.

The protagonist, Roza Polanski, lives with her family in an empty tower block on the outskirts of the old city centre. Her mother and father, Moth and Popi, refused to heed advice and relocate south. Unlike most survivors their fertility has not been affected by the virus. They have raised their four children and ensured they are as well educated as possible under the circumstances. They recognise that young people are to be valued in a land with so few people, but have not grasped just how enticing and valuable a young child now is within an aging population lacking the ability to procreate.

Through her work for a Chinese technology company Roza has met Hector on line. She finds him clever and funny so has agreed to their engagement. Young people are required to marry before they are twenty-five years old. Hector plans to cycle to Birmingham and then escort Roza and her family to Brighton for their state sanctioned wedding.

Although Moth and Popi are wary of living within the constricts of government control their children are excited about gaining access to others of their age. The only people they have had contact with are those of their parent’s generation, and even they live so far away that visits are few and far between. Brighton beckons and the children secretly hope that they will be permitted to remain.

Just as Hector is about to set off on his journey to meet Roza for the first time face to face, a stranger is discovered in the tower block where the Polanski’s have made their home. This enigmatic young man, Aashay, ingratiates himself into their family life, winning them over one by one. The frisson Roza feels when they are together disturbs her. His claimed first hand knowledge of their country brings into question the official view of events as provided by the government censored computer systems.

Aashay offers the possibility of a life lived beyond the laws laid down in Brighton, suggesting that there are more survivors in the surrounding countryside than the Polanski’s had realised. What he does not reveal is why he wishes to instigate change in their routine and plans, what may be in it for him.

The dystopian future that the author has created is stark yet believable. The writing is gentle on the surface but there is a sharp undercurrent of brooding malice. It is not just the weather that is dangerous, nor the precariousness of solitary survival. There may be safety in numbers but greed creates danger.

It is hard not to compare this to Margaret Atwood’s dystopias and it stands up well beside such impressive works. An enjoyable read that made me ponder how much we now take for granted. The denouement may be disturbing, but it says much about modern sensibilities and current suspicion of central control.

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

Book Review: Everyone Brave Is Forgiven


“against the great theatre of world events, it is the intimate losses, the small battles, the daily human triumphs, that change us most.”

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave, is a story of friendship and love set against a backdrop of the unimaginable suffering of the Second World War. It brings home to the reader how it must have been to watch the known world crumble, and why many of those who lived through it baulked from talking of their experiences in any personal detail afterwards.

When war was declared Mary North was eighteen years old and saw it as her chance to begin life beyond the shadow of her mother’s expectations. A society beauty, Mary and her best friend, Hilda, had no need to work but longed for more excitement than was offered by the social conventions of their privileged circle of acquaintances. Mary volunteered and was surprised when assigned a position as schoolmistress (she had wondered if she might be made a spy). Hilda was less ambitious, seeking only opportunities to meet handsome young men in uniform.

Tom Shaw regarded the war as a foolish endeavour and did not believe it would last long. When his flatmate, Alistair Heath, enlists he comes to realise that, despite his ambivalence, life is about to change. One of these changes is his promotion to supervisor at the Education Authority when his work colleagues leave to join up. Having a school district to run would have been more rewarding had most of the children not been evacuated.

Tom meets Mary when she arrives at his office demanding he find her a school, having been sacked from her first for behaviour deemed unsuitable in a teacher. Bowled over by her beauty, wit and persistance he agrees to reopen a class for those children rejected by host families in the countryside. The evacuation, it seems, was a beauty contest from which the coloured, disabled or in any way different were rejected.

Alistair completes military training and is sent to France. Mary and Tom fall in love. Hilda is introduced to Alistair when he returns home on leave but he has been forever changed by what he has seen and done. The war’s progression is about to change them all.

This is more than a simple love story. The author is a wordsmith, an artist who paints the world he is creating with a depth and hue that brings it to life. Amongst the rubble and despair, the hunger and desperate humour, he makes each character believable with their flaws and foibles. There are acts of bravery but also betrayal. There are enduring prejudices amidst the dreams of a better future.

Immersed in the pleasure of reading this prose I did not want the story to end. I savoured each chapter and cared for each character, grieving when their impossible situations forced them to act in ways that would haunt them. There is no sugar coating but neither is the horror dwelt upon. The narration balances perfectly between the poignancy of an horrific war and the hope to be found in love.

A rare and affecting account of friendship in adversity; a compelling love story that is beautifully told. Although fiction it is inspired by the author’s grandparents’ experiences. The authenticity shines through, yet it is the skill with which the tale is woven that makes this such a satisfying read.

Book Review: The Bone Clocks


The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell, is a story about mortality. Using a series of interwoven vignettes set over a sixty year time period it combines a character led drama with century spanning fantasy elements. The author is undoubtedly a talented writer. The prose is neat and perceptive with plenty of humour and insight. However, the plot centers around warring Anchorites and Horologists, beings who can live forever if certain conditions are met, and whose raison d’etre failed to either move or inspire me.

The book opens in 1984 when a love struck fifteen year old, Holly Sykes, gets into an argument with her mother over an older boyfriend and decides to leave home. As may be expected from such an inauspicious beginning, things do not go according to plan. The reader can see the potential importance of the various people and events Holly encounters in her few days away, but at this stage none are explained. Holly’s character development is nicely done, she is a believable young teenage rebel, but the fantastical action in this section comes across as extraneous.

The next vignette is set seven years later and introduces the reader to four students at Cambridge University. Their interactions are interesting and well developed, their aspirations recognisable to anyone who has experience of Oxbridge students. The confidence, self-entitlement and resentments combine to provide compelling storylines which I would have been happy to follow further. I found myself enjoying all but the recurring fantasy elements which, once again, did not draw me in.

Part three is set thirteen years later at a wedding in Brighton. Holly now has a daughter and a war correspondent partner. The subplots impressed while the slow burning main plot development did not. I enjoyed the quality of the writing but by this stage was beginning to wonder about the point of this book.

Having said that, the next section was my favourite. It opens in 2015 at the  Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival and proceeds to bite big, bitter chunks out of authors, critics, editors, publishers and readers. This was not what why I liked it, indeed I felt rather put out that the fictional author and protagonist, Crispin Hershey, should look on those who have supported his work and provided his income with such disdain. It is perhaps unfortunate that he came across as so believable; it was almost enough to put me off literary events. Unlike the previous sections this one covers a longer time frame, five years,, which allowed for a good progression of the story. A number of previous characters are reintroduced. In these chapters the main, fantasy plot seems to fit more naturally into the story being told.

The penultimate section starts in 2025 and is the only one which revolves around the Anchorites and Horologists rather than merely mentioning them in passing. The threads from preceding stories are drawn together and the reason for certain recurring characters explained. There is a battle and an outcome, neither of which excited me. I found myself counting the pages to the end.

The final section is set in a dystopian future and reminded me of Ben Elton’s early works when he attempted to show his readers what a mess man is making of the world. Set in a rural Ireland, now being run by wealthy Chinese, it covers a pivotal three days during which the fragile infrastructure cracks and violent lawlessness becomes a reality. It was interesting to ponder the possibilities, particularly the way the author saw the role of women regressing in a time of anarchy, but at times it came across as rather too preachy for my liking. The denouement was reasonable even if it felt a tad contrived.

My main problem with this book was that the fantasy elements bored me. I thoroughly enjoyed the characters and each of their stories, but I wanted to get back to these each time the overall plot became the focus. I found the the women more likable than the men who seemed overly influenced by sex. I am unable to comment on the fairness of such a representation.

Having read this book I will be removing Cloud Atlas from my wish list. However well he may write and be regarded by others, it would seem that David Mitchell’s work may not be for me.

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


Book Review: My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises


My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises, by Fredrik Backman (translated by Henning Koch), tells the story of Elsa who is almost eight years old and different. The headmaster at her school tells her that she needs to fall into line in order to achieve a better fit with her peers. Her grandmother reminds her that it is only different people who change the world.

Elsa’s grandmother is almost seventy-eight years old and some people say she is mad. She used to be a doctor, a surgeon who traveled all around the world saving people’s lives in dangerous places. Now she stays at home and is Elsa’s only friend. She acts outrageously and cares little for what others think of her behaviour. She is also dying.

When Elsa’s parents divorced it was Granny who showed her how to deal with the nightmares by telling her fairy stories. Together they would travel to the six kingdoms in the Land-of-Almost-Awake where they had adventures involving cloud animals, regretters, wurses, snow-angels, dragons, princesses and knights. Elsa loves to read books, especially the Harry Potter series, but Granny’s stories were special because Elsa believed that they were hers.

When Granny knows that she is going to die she asks Elsa to complete a mission, a treasure hunt involving the delivery of letters. Elsa is to guard the castle, which is how they refer to their home, and to look after their friends. Elsa does not understand as Granny is her only friend, but they both love treasure hunts so she agrees.

What follows is the story behind the fairy tales and the person that Granny had been before she became a grandmother. Elsa comes to realise that the precious stories were not hers alone, that Granny was not as wonderful as she believed, but that superheroes do not have to be perfect.

This book should be read by every adult who is put in charge of a child. It is a reminder that the most frightening things are those which are not understood, and that understanding can only be achieved through explanation. Children notice more than adults realise, but do not see the world in adult terms. Adults attempt to protect children from things that would make the adults uncomfortable, yet fail time and again to protect children from each other.

At times, early on, I found the fairy tale elements in the story a tad obtuse and repetitive. However, as the meaning behind them was revealed the wonder of the narrative took hold. By the last quarter of the book I was immersed, enchanted and could not hold back my tears.

This is a beautiful story of flawed people and the good that can be found when one takes the time to look. It is a celebration of difference; a chance to see our imperfect world through the eyes of a very special, and perhaps not so unusual, child.

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



Book Review: A Man Called Ove


A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman (translated by Henning Koch), is beautifully, painfully moving and funny. I laughed, I cried, I recognised so many irritating traits in the cantankerous protagonist. I wished that every community could have a man like Ove, and then wondered how most would put up with him.

Ove is fifty-nine years old and spends much of his time feeling angry. He has been an angry, old man for much of his adult life. He knows how to build a house, rebuild a car, but not how to get on with others. It is his view that most people are complete idiots, especially those who drive Audis or, even worse, French cars. He believes that the type of car a person chooses to drive says a great deal about their character.

Ove approves of loyalty and routine. He worked in the same place for a third of a century and has always driven a Saab. He keeps tools and other useful stuff in his shed, and patrols the neighbourhood early each morning to ensure that the Residents Association rules are being adhered to. He has no time for consultants, bureaucrats or computers.

Ove can see that the world around him has changed and he does not like it. He plans his demise. Time and again his plans are foiled when he is forced to act in order that he may deal with some stupidity caused by the irritating fools who surround him. He knows how the world should be and cannot comprehend why others do not follow the rules.

Each short chapter tells a story whilst progressing the core narrative, the story of Ove’s life. We are introduced to his family, his neighbours and the many, many people who he reluctantly helps. Ove’s quiet value, often hidden behind his grumpy intransigence, is recognised by more than he realises.

This is a story of people, tolerance and the inadequacies of society. It is an unusual and satisfying tale filled with mindful observations. I recommend that you read it.

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



Book Review: Adult Onset


Adult Onset, by Ann-Marie Macdonald, is a powerful and hard hitting story about parenting, depression, memory and the scars that are carried within families.

The protagonist, Mary Rose, is a successful author who has put her writing career on hold in order to raise her two young children. She lives in fear of something hurting them, especially herself.

During the week in which the story is set her wife is working out of town leaving Mary Rose to cope on her own. As she struggles with the insatiable demands of her intransigent two year old daughter she considers her own upbringing and her sometimes fraught relationship with her parents, especially her mother.

When Mary Rose was her daughter’s age her mother gave birth to a son who died. In the months that followed she struggled to cope, relying on her older daughter, Maureen, for help. However, when Maureen was at school she would be alone with Mary Rose, often ignoring her and leaving her to cry. She was depressed and incapable of dealing with her younger child’s needs. Mary Rose has hazy memories of this time but struggles to order them or to fill in certain blanks that she believes hold the key to an injury which coloured her childhood.

Even aside from this traumatic time theirs was not always a happy home. Due to the Rh factor in her mother’s blood she suffered multiple miscarriages and a still birth as well as this early loss of a living child. Her three surviving children grew up aware of their dead siblings and Mary Rose carries guilt for the negative thoughts that she had about them at the time.

As the week progresses Mary Rose struggles to deal with her internalised anger, her memories and her feelings of isolation. To those around she appears to be coping but beneath the surface a crisis is brewing. She questions if her fear of abusing her child is because she herself suffered abuse that she cannot now recall. It becomes important to her to find out from her family what went on. Even when raised the detail of their memories often differs from her own, each having lived from their own perspective.

This story is a slow burner. It portrays the frustrations of full time motherhood by allowing the thought processes and narrative to be constantly interrupted by the minutae of life with a toddler and a school aged child. The flashbacks to Mary Rose’s mother’s life seem more compelling in these early pages. I was not truly drawn in until around half way through after which I could not put the book down.

It is easy to blame parents for their behaviour despite being aware that they raised their children by the mores of the time. It is easy to recall things said in anger and grant these words precedence over kinder thoughts. It can be hard to deal with conflicting memories from siblings when what is desired is an ally.

All of this is explored alongside Mary Rose’s current relationships with her family and friends. We see a life that is accelerating towards a precipice.

The denouement is beautifully done. I particularly liked the way in which the plot lines of Mary Roses’s books were woven in. This may not be a tale of happy ever after but neither is life. The important questions were answered, even if these were not always the ones being asked.

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



Book Review: The Chimes


The Chimes, by Anna Smaill, is unlike any book I have read before. Using the language of music it tells the tale of a dystopian world where information is shared through snatches of melody and the written word is banned. Each day is modulated by collective music making, much of it overseen by a ruling Order. A life of repetition is required to keep people grounded and functioning as most personal memories are lost over the course of a few days.

The protagonist, Simon, makes his way to London following the deaths of his parents. With the help of items that he keeps in his memory bag he remembers snatches of his former life but struggles to make sense of the reason he has made the journey from family farm to city. He ekes out a rough existence as a member of a pact whose leader tries to probe for the few memories which Simon can recall. Such interest in the before goes against everything that society has been conditioned to accept. It is considered blasphony.

It took me some time to immerse myself in the story. However, once I had got used to the strange use of words and the references to items I would recognise, I was gripped. The language is not difficult but it is original.

It is interesting to consider the role that memory has in day to day life: its removal minimises grief; change is easier to accept when it quickly becomes all that is known; occupations are necessary as without them skills are forgotten and people are at risk of becoming memorylost, unhinged on the margins of a society which thrives on order.

The story of Simon’s emergence and his acceptance of the role that he is being asked to play follows a well worn path of dystopian fiction. However, the creative use of sound and music adds distinction.

The writing is crafted and orchestrated with a deft touch that holds the reader’s attention. I was eager to know how it was all going to end. I was not disappointed.

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


Book Review: After the Bombing


After the Bombing, by Clare Morrall, tells the stories of two significant time periods in the life of Alma Braithwaite. At the height of the Second World War Alma is a boarder at a girls’ school on the edge of Exeter when it is bombed. This and subsequent events linked to the war have a profound effect on the fifteen year old. Along with so many others she must deal with death, destruction, upheaval and personal loss. Despite the trauma she finds comfort in friendship, music and a burgeoning interest in the opposite sex.

Twenty-one years later Alma is living alone in her large family home and teaching music at the school she once attended. A new head teacher is appointed bringing with her a desire to modernise the trusted regimes. Alma resists the changes being imposed causing the traditionalist and the innovator to clash. However, it is the reappearance of a figure from Alma’s past, one who shared with her the worst experiences of the war years, which forces her to question the life she has chosen to live.

The book tells the stories of these two time periods in parallel, gradually revealing the full horror of the events which have coloured Alma’s life. The narrative immerses the reader in the personal shock and numbness which followed the terrifying aerial bombardments. With so many suffering losses Alma felt it was inappropriate to indulge in visible grief. The suppression of feeling perhaps explains why it took her so long to move on.

The author conveys how life goes on, how humans have to cope with whatever is happening around them because they have no other choice. Alongside grief can be moments of happiness. There was fear when aircraft could be heard approaching, horror as bodies were dug out of rubble, but also joy as the young people learned to dance to the new jazz.

The impact of Alma’s war time experiences was highlighted by the lack of colour in the life that followed. She clung to her past alongside a hope that the missing may return, her messy home a metaphor for her reluctance to do more than deal with the superficial aspects of her day to day existence.

It is a sign of quality writing when a story of this depth can be described as an easy read. There was much to consider yet it entertained. A rich and satisfying story populated by characters who will stay with the reader long after the last page is turned. Authentic, poignant and subtly told.

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