Gig Review: New Voices of 2018 from Headline

Much as I enjoy my trips into London for book events, and am grateful to all the publishers who invite me, it was pleasing to learn that a team from Headline Publishing Group were taking five of their up and coming debut authors around the country to meet booksellers, librarians and reviewers closer to home. The Headline New Voices 2018 Roadshow travelled to Glasgow, Manchester and Bristol before returning to London where they will host a Rooftop Book Club next week, on Tuesday 23rd January at Carmelite House. I was delighted to receive an invitation to the Bristol roadshow event which I attended last Thursday evening.

Held in The Boardroom in central Bristol I spent an interesting few hours chatting to publicists, authors and other attendees about a wide range of book related issues. Although run to promote the five highlighted debuts the conversation and achievement of the event was wider ranging. There was a willingness to talk about the challenges of increasing sales in today’s market. There was palpable excitement from the authors at their creations being released into the wild.

Becky Hunter kicked proceedings off by introducing each book and author. Attendees were then left to mingle and chat while the publicity team – which included Georgina Moore, Millie Seaward and Jenny Harlow – ensured that nobody was left out and that the authors talked to each little group. The wine flowed and delicious canapés were served. The atmosphere was welcoming and convivial.

I managed to fit in conversations with Phoebe Locke (author of The Tall Man), Leo Carew (author of The Wolf) and Nick Clark Windo (author of The Feed). As a medical student, Leo was subjected to my parental pride in my daughter – also a medical student in London. I believe she would be most envious of his time spent in Svalbard, although perhaps not the tent accommodation. I also raised the daughter inspired medical theme with Nick, this time discussing neurology as we discussed how the brain would be changed by an implant as imagined in his book.

I chatted to a poet bookseller from Rossiter Books who was eager to pick up publishing advice from Georgina. I snuck into a conversation with a lovely bookseller from Griffin Books who spoke of the next day service they can offer customers (better than Amazon!). I met lovely library assistant Leah, and was delighted to catch up with my on-line friend, Sue.

I was also pleased to have several opportunities to talk to Georgina, who was candid about the challenges of marketing any book however appealing and well written; and also to Becky, about bloggers and proof distribution. Despite what I have been advised by others it seems that publicists are happy to be approached for review copies. Having said that, no reviewer should feel they ‘deserve’ any particular book. With so many bloggers eager to spread the word about the books they enjoy, not all can be recipients of every ARC.

At this event, though, I came away with copies of each book offered. Having now heard so much about them I am keen to read each one. The roadshow was well worth braving the cold for – thank you Headline for hosting, and for coming to us.

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Book Review: The Immortalists

The Immortalists, by Chloe Benjamin, tells the story of four siblings who, as children, visit a fortune teller and are told the dates of their deaths. Although dismissing the predictions as nonsense, knowledge, once planted, cannot be forgotten. Each of the children goes on to live their lives with the possibility that what has been revealed to them could come true.

The novel follows the siblings individually as their death dates approach. The youngest, Simon, is predicted to die first. Wishing to make the most of the few years he has left he runs away from home, to San Francisco, aided by his sister, Klara.  Granted the hitherto unknown freedom to act as he wishes without censure, Simon embarks on a hedonistic lifestyle. Appalled and hurt by her favourite’s unwillingness to bow to her will, his newly widowed mother disowns him as do the elder two siblings, an action they will come to regret. Guilt over the family’s inability to support choices that do not follow the Jewish family script will shape the survivors’ remaining years.

Klara dreams of being a magician but struggles to break into the profession. She survives by petty thievery, drowning her sorrows and setbacks in alcohol. Eventually she meets Raj and they form a partnership, but now her own death date looms. Unhappy and unsure of her place in life Klara tries to communicate with the dead.

Daniel is the sibling whose trajectory runs closest to that which their mother desires. He is a doctor, married and enjoying material success. As his death date approaches he finds his job security threatened. He is contacted by an FBI agent who is investigating the fortune teller. Daniel blames the woman for his family’s misfortunes. Despite their freedom of choice, each follows the path set.

The eldest sibling, Varya, was predicted to live the longest. In practice this means she must shoulder the heaviest burden of grief and guilt. She has chosen to live a life that revolves around the denial of personal pleasure in an attempt to secure her longevity. When one of her early choices returns to confront her she is forced to recognise the unnecessary limitations she has placed on herself.

Little is told of how the mother copes with the unfolding tragedies. There is reference to parental suffering and the holocaust but it is hard to envisage any mother not being devastated by the deaths of her children, even those who would not tread the paths she had anticipated and prepared them for.

The novel is an interesting exploration of the power of suggestion. The siblings each followed their dreams yet struggled to find happiness on these paths and resented the choices the others made. There was recrimination rather than support and a denial of the prophecy rather than shared discussion. Although well written and structured, with an original premise, I found the gloomy outcomes neither enjoyable nor satisfying to read.

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

Book Review: Gather the Daughters

Gather the Daughters, by Jennie Melamed, is a dystopian novel that rings all too possible in a world ruled by zealous men. Set on an island, the exact time or place never specified, it revolves around a community whose elders, the wanderers, ensure that no knowledge of the world beyond may be shared. Rules are rigidly adhered to, the aims of the founding fathers both cherished and feared. Impropriety is viciously punished by family or, at worst, public shaming.

Within this community the girls are required to submit to their fathers and then husbands, willingly and with grace. They know of no other way to live. Each summer the children are allowed to run free, a break from the rigidity of their community life. For the girls this annual freedom ends as soon as they bleed. Marriage is mandatory once they can conceive.

Each girl may bear a maximum of two healthy children; defectives are not permitted to survive. Once children have borne children the grandparents drink a final draft. Those who can no longer contribute are deemed a burden and join the victims of childbirth or disease, becoming fertiliser on the farms.

The wanderers bring goods from outside, referred to as the wastelands, but no other islanders may leave. They are told stories of fire, plague and desolation to instil loyalty and fear. Few openly question how items that appear wondrous can exist in such a barren land. Those who do ask are ignored, persistence silenced.

The story follows a group of girls who dream of changing how they must live. Such a lack of willing submission will not be tolerated by the men who benefit.

Vanessa Adams knows that she is nearing her first bleed. She is fond of her father despite what he does with her, what every daughter must submit to. Mr Adams is a wanderer, proud of his status and the good house where his family reside. He permits Vanessa to read the books he has collected from the wastelands and commends her intelligence. She is eager to know more of the world beyond their island but cannot pierce the veil of secrecy that enables this way of life.

Amanda Balthazar is married to Andrew and expecting their first child. Desperate to get away from her father she had looked forward to this stage in her life. When she is told that the child growing in her belly is a girl a sense of dread descends from which she struggles to emerge. The idea of a beloved daughter having to submit to a father, which her kind-hearted Andrew will soon become, is more than she can bear.

Janey Solomon is older than the other unmarried girls but has starved herself to prevent the bleeding. She does her best to protect her younger sister, Mary, but despairs that she cannot keep her safe forever. It is Janey who arranges an illegal gathering, getting the island girls together in an attempt to make them question the truth of all they have been told to keep them compliant. She suggests that another way is possible and perhaps exists elsewhere.

These three girls set in motion events that will shake the community to its core. The hopelessness of their situation resonates, the sickening righteousness of the men as they guard their all-powerful positions evocative of many religions.

The writing is taut and engaging even though the content is deeply disturbing. I had no idea how these girls’ stories would end, and I needed to know.

A powerful, dark tale of the powerless attempting to assert themselves; a warning to women everywhere of the compliance some men still crave. Although challenging this tale is unreservedly compelling. The issues raised linger beyond the final page.

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

Book Review: Letters From The Suitcase

Letters From The Suitcase, edited by Rosheen and Cal Finnigan, is exactly what it says on the cover. It chronicles the wartime love story of Rosheen Finnigan’s parents, David and Mary, in epistolary format. The correspondence started in 1938 soon after the couple first met in London. It continues until 1943 when David died of smallpox in India.

The letters are grouped to cover significant changes in the couple’s circumstances over the years. Each chapter is prefaced with a short introduction by Rosheen putting the letters that follow into context. Although the world was changing around them due to the Second World War, many of the letters contain details of the minutiae of their day to day lives alongside ceaseless outpourings of their love for each other.

At the beginning of the book Rosheen explains how she was first given the letters just prior to her mother’s death. She had not previously understood the intensity of her parents’ relationship which flourished despite the fact they spent much of their married life apart. An epilogue explains how reading the letters enabled Rosheen to understand how important she had been to both David and Mary. This was a moving denouement to what is a lengthy work.

Mary was a feisty young woman determined to live her own life even after marriage and motherhood. She suffered depressive periods and would call David out if she did not feel supported. David seemed more typical of the period with his concerns that she retain her slim figure, although his love for her and desire for her wider well-being are clear. They both reference a mutually satisfying sex life and there is jealousy if any unfaithfulness is suspected.

The letters are deeply personal and provide a picture of day to day life during a war. As well as the loneliness of separation there are financial hardships. These do not prevent them from enjoying a lively social life both when together and with their many friends. They reference books read, films watched and the politics of the day. Privations are mentioned although the letters are written with largely good humour.

Despite some interest in the wartime detail this was not a book for me. I found the letters repetitive and the book overly long. I had hoped for something along the lines of Chris Cleeve’s Everyone Brave Is Forgiven. I can understand their value to Rosheen, but these letters did not provide enough to keep me interested for close to five hundred pages.

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

Book Review: Tin Man

“And I wonder what the sound of a heart breaking might be. And I think it might be quiet, unperceptively so, and not dramatic at all. Like the sound of an exhausted swallow falling gently to earth.”

Tin Man, by Sarah Winman, is a hauntingly, achingly beautiful story of friendship and love. It opens with a night out at a community hall in 1950 when young mother-to-be, Dora Judd, wins a painting of sunflowers in a raffle, her first ever act of defiance. The timeline then moves to 1996 when Ellis Judd is living alone in a house that has stood still in time for several years. He works nights at a car plant in Oxford. He is struggling to survive.

Ellis’s life, like most people’s, has had its ups and downs. He once had a best friend, Michael, and a wife, Annie. He dreamt of being an artist until his father got him an apprenticeship at the local factory, a potential job for life. Ellis is good at this job where he is accepted and respected. He understands that he has made choices and must somehow learn to live with their consequences.

The story takes the reader back through Ellis’s memories: of his beautiful and loving mother; his distant, angry father; and to Michael, his charismatic friend. Michael came to live with Mabel, his grandmother, when he was twelve years old. Both boys were made welcome in Mabel and Dora’s homes, treated as if their own.

Michael was the exuberant, risk taker in the friendship but it was Ellis who enabled him to shine. When Annie arrives on the scene she is determined not to come between these two young men. The weight of life’s continuing experiences increasingly stunts all of their abilities to fly.

Following on from the short prologue, the book is written in two parts telling the story of Ellis and then of Michael with intersections offering depth to each other’s tales. The language throughout is artistry in prose. The imagery feels so rich it is almost decadent. The grief is raw and heart-rending to read.

The author has woven a love story that is intensely moving yet avoids all the cliches and banality typical of the genre. It does nothing for effect even though deeply affecting. Despite presenting each life lived with a stark actuality, this is a tale oozing colour and possibility.

I have read many excellent books this year but have no hesitation in saying if you buy only one then let it be this. A glorious, heartfelt read.

“I look at these young men, not in envy but in wonder. It is for them now, the beauty of discovery, that endless moonscape of life unfolding.”

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

Book Review: See What I Have Done

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See What I Have Done, by Sarah Schmidt, is a reimagined account of the notorious case of Lizzie Borden. On the morning of 4th August 1892 the mutilated bodies of Andrew Borden and his wife, Abby, were found in separate rooms of their large house in the town of Fall River, Massachusetts. They had both been murdered with what was suspected to be an axe. Andrew’s younger daughter, Lizzie, was first on the scene. His older daughter, Emma, was away from home at the time, visiting a friend. The girls’ Uncle John had been an overnight guest. Also in the house was the maid, Bridget.

The author has taken the known facts of this true crime and woven a chilling story which takes the reader inside an unhappy household where resentments run high. Events are presented through the eyes of each of the surviving key players.

Following the death of their beloved mother, Emma was tasked with caring for Lizzie, her junior by almost a decade. Lizzie was not an easy responsibility to manage. She has always felt entitled to her sister’s affection and attention. Both desire their domineering father’s love. The girls regard his remarriage as a betrayal. Andrew is a cruel and controlling figure. Despite his wealth he keeps a tight rein on all expenditure.

The oppressive heat of the summer permeates each scene. This is a house filled with adults who do not get on yet who can see no way of changing how they live. They feel hard done by, often with good cause. The hurts bubble over into heated exchanges.

The writing evokes an atmosphere dark and chilling despite the heat. Sweat blooms on constricted skin. The sounds of scraping and swallowing grate the inmates sensibilities in the brooding silences. Body odours are rife, breath rancid as food that spoils in the heat must still be eaten; waste will not be tolerated. Boredom and the prospect of endless confinement together allow grievances to fester.

The house is kept tight shut, doors locked, secrets held close. This is a respectable family in a small town. Lizzie is a Sunday School teacher, Emma dabbles in art. Their oppression is hardly unusual for the time. The murders threw a spotlight on what most worked hard to keep private.

I was aware of the Borden story from The Legend of Lizzie Borden (TV Movie 1975), a film I watched as a child. Even knowing what would happen I found this book compelling.

The story is skilfully constructed, the writing taut and evocative. The truth of the denouement may be questionned, as it has been since the conclusion of the murder trial, but this is a riveting tale that I recommend you read.

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

Book Review: In a Land of Paper Gods

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In a Land of Paper Gods, by Rebecca MacKenzie, is a book that I approached with high expectations having read many glowing reviews. Perhaps for this reason it took some time before I felt fully engaged. Yet the early chapters were necessary in order to understand what came next. By half way through my heart was hurting for what had been done to the young protagonist. This was the human cost of religious fervour from a point of view I had not previously considered, and having been inspired by true events was all the more difficult to comprehend.

“Missionary parents need somewhere to send their children so that they might continue their work. […] As Jesus said to Peter, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold.” God will bless us for these sacrifices […] The adults nodded and murmoured. I felt furiously sick.”

Etta is a young schoolgirl born in China, sent away when she was six years old to a boarding school for the children of British missionaries on the distant mountain of Lushan. Prior to this she had spoken Chinese as well as English and answered to her Chinese name of Ming-Mei, which means bright and beautiful. Now aged ten she has only vague memories of her parents having seen them but twice in the interim. She is forbidden to speak Chinese whilst at school.

Etta is a lively, boistrous girl, regularly losing points from her Goodness Card for untidiness and unseemly behaviour. Like all children, she craves admiration. When she believes that God has spoken to her she sets up the Prophetess Club, recruiting the other girls from her dormitory. When one of these girls threatens to gain control Etta dreams up tasks to draw the others back to her. She takes them out of bounds, to a glade she has discovered where a young Chinese girl plays. She proposes that they copy their elders and convert the child, with tragic results.

In the background are the rumblings of the Second Sino-Japanese War. The cruelties of children and loneliness of the school regime give way to the more extreme experiences of wartime occupation. The challenges Etta and her school must face are now physical as well as mental.

The poignancy of children sent away by their parents is painfully presented. When a mother pays a visit to the school her young son breaks down when she leaves and must be manhandled away. A girl from Etta’s dormitory, Sarah Charleston, has her mother come for a short stay. The girls are taken to a mountain pool to play, all eager to experience a mother for themselves.

“We dived – Mrs Charleston, look at me! We bombed – Mrs Charleston, watch this! We roly-polied underwater – Mrs Charleston, did you see that? We swung on the vine, out over the pool – Mrs Chrleston, look, I’m a monkey! Mrs Charleston’s name rang across the forest. Even Sarah leapt up on the vine shouting, ‘Look at me, Mrs Charleston!’ When she caught what she said, a look of pain crossed her face, and she fell into the pool.”

The arrival of the war to their doorstep curtails such visits. The children hear news of parents escaping the country, or being held prisoner in camps. They wonder if they will ever again see these strangers who have become faded memories, black and wight images from the photograph each keeps on their bedside cabinet.

The author brings China, especially the mountain of Lushan with its mists and glades and temples, to life with stunning imagery. Etta’s journey goes briefly beyond, but the girls’ known world is their school until the soldiers arrive. They have learned to follow rules and live within themselves, indoctrinated with the Christian teachings and starved of love. One of the first acts of a threatening Japanese soldier is to free a young boy from a cruel punishment inflicted by a teacher. Etta had once again broken rules by trying to offer comfort.

The war forces the residents of the school to live in constrained and tightened circumstances. It also allows the children to experience more worldly adults and Etta begins to understand that there are other ways to live. Her subversive tendencies become her strength despite the continuing rejection by her peers.

I wondered how the suffering inflicted on these children, instigated by their own parents, would affect them in later life. So much hurt had to be suppressed in order to survive. Perhaps this is why our boarding school educated politicians appear to lack the ability to empathise.

This poignant tale slowly engulfs the reader with its beautifully crafted prose. I ache for what these children were put through, and not just by the war. A highly recommended read.

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