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: This Way to Departures

This Way to Departures, by Linda Mannheim, is a collection of eleven short stories by an author capable of using the form to impressive effect. Each tale is expertly crafted, evoking a passionate response in the reader. That this is achieved by harnessing everyday language and action – nothing feels overdone – makes for an immersive reading experience.

The collection opens with Noir, a tale set in Miami. Laura and Sam are enjoying their fledgling relationship when Laura, a journalist growing bored with her mundane assignments, is approached by a handsome but sad eyed stranger, Miguel from El Salvador. He is trying to track down missing friends.

“I remembered the instructions Inez and I had been handed when, as children, we went out to play in the street: strangers should be left as you found them, sob stories promptly returned to their owners. Somewhere along the way, Inez had decided to dismiss this as cynicism rather than wisdom; no one we knew had ever stayed safe by avoiding risk.”

Laura agrees to help Miguel. To do so she must involve one of Sam’s good friends.

Missing Girl, 5, Gone Fifteen Months explores the world of youngsters placed under the care of the Department of Children and Families. Every year hundreds disappear. Foster parents take on their role as it is a chance for them to earn a little extra income in areas where jobs are hard to find. Overburdened caseworkers struggle to deal with every query and reported incident. When the papers or television pick up on an individual missing child, the Secretary of the Department must offer a response.

“Every time, the panels have come to the same conclusions – that we must invest more in the programs. And every time, the state has said it cannot provide that funding.”

The story offers a concise indictment of the fickle nature of public outrage and then insouciant acceptance.

Butterfly McQueen on Broadway provides a glimpse of the problems faced by a successful actress of colour when she refuses to take stereotypical roles in films. The titular actress appeared in Gone With the Wind yet ended up accepting any available casual work in Harlem. Her career is compared to another actress of colour who went on to win an Oscar, yet whose story remained peppered with shocking racism.

The Place That He Can Never Return To recalls the narrator’s childhood visits, with their father, to a restaurant frequented by fellow exiles. Here they would be served German food and encouraged to speak the language while being told tales of a homeland, recalled with nostalgia.

The lasting impact of the immigrant experience is a theme that runs through each of these tales.

This Way to Departures is one of several stories set in or around an American campus. Danny was born in Poland but his parents were determined to start afresh somewhere they regarded as better.

“He would know Evanston, Illinois, where his parents tried and tried to become middle class and American. And if they failed, well, they were not the only ones failing to become happy Americans after the war.”

Danny becomes a successful economist but, as a committed socialist, needs to follow his ideals. His wife, who compromises her career for him, must make further difficult choices. Danny thinks he knows what she wants but can only see this through the prism of his own needs.

“He leapt up when he saw me, took me in his arms, gave me more of a clinch than an embrace. At first I half-believed he knew what I was going to tell him, sensed it. But he hadn’t of course. His anticipation – the way he held his breath, watched me carefully, and could barely sit – all that was because he had something to tell me.”

Facsimiles is set in New York City, mid September 2001. The narrator and her girlfriend survive the attacks but, like so many who had worked at the World Trade Centre, were deeply affected. The story is heartbreaking yet beautifully rendered.

The World’s Fair tells of a young couple eager to escape the confines of their neighbourhood – built on what was once landfill – and their stifling upbringing.

“‘All of this,’ she says, looking out at the garden apartments broken up by big brick buildings, ‘it used to be garbage.’
‘When did it stop being garbage?’ I want to ask her.
‘Before you were born,’ she offers, ‘this neighbourhood was beautiful.’
As if my being born ruined it.”

The author captures the hemmed in frustrations teenagers suffer yet never overplays them.

Waiting for Daylight is another campus story exploring the abuse of power. Like the following story, The Young Woman Sleeps While the Artist Paints Her, the protagonists are not depicted in the way most books, films or TV shows paint American college kids. There are drugs and sex but these students are more universally real, more nuanced in their wider trials and experiences. Studies may be neglected but their importance feels understood. The difficulty of funding them remains an issue.

The Christmas Story offers a glimpse of the festive season through the eyes of those living with poverty and illness in a capitalist society. The narrator is now grown and living in comfort but the time she recalls is seared in her memory. As a child she lived in an apartment with broken heating. Her Jewish mother would not bow to the conventions of Christmas. The young girl’s furtive prayers to the Jesus she finds in a ‘comic book’ represent just another of life’s empty promises.

Dangers of the Sun covers a court case in which a widow is suing her late husband’s doctor for negligence. Told from the point of view of an old friend, the reader is shown the machinations of the legal system. It is a painful portrayal of distancing.

What these stories have in common is the feeling of disconnection as people grow and change. Many of the characters have roots in different countries. Past experiences haunt what their present can be. The author pierces each topic with intrepid yet empathetic succinctness – I couldn’t be more impressed with the quality and style of her writing.

This is a gratifying and recommended read.

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

Book Review: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, by Peter Hedges, was first published in 1991 by Simon & Shuster. This 2014 edition is a re-release from Fox, Finch & Tepper, the publishing arm of Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, whose aim is to “rediscover undercelebrated books with a strong sense of place and memorable characters.” The Grape family, of whom the titular Gilbert is the fourth of six mostly grown children, are certainly memorable. Their father committed suicide by hanging himself in their basement fifteen years before the story opens. Their mother reacted to this family tragedy by consuming so much food over the intervening period that her weight has made the floor sag beneath the television chair she all but lives in. If something isn’t done soon she will likely meet her end in the same room as her late husband by falling through the floor.

Gilbert hates what his family has become. His Elvis loving eldest sister, Amy, is run ragged trying to look after everyone since their mother abandoned maternal duties to concentrate on eating while watching endless TV. His elder brother, Larry, who discovered their father’s body, left home when he could no longer bear to spend time in the place. Their sister, Janice, was sent to college and now flies in to offer advice before escaping to her life free from the drudge of daily family obligation. It is left to Gilbert to support Amy in looking after their younger brother, Arnie, a seventeen year old who was not expected to live beyond toddler-hood and who has many mental and physical conditions that keep him thinking and acting that age.

Gilbert has worked in the same local grocery store since he was at school, going full time as soon as he finished with formal education. He is in a rut but, with his family as it is, cannot see a way to climb out and change the direction his life is taking. The small town where the Grape family has always lived offers no privacy, from either the well-intentioned residents or the voyeuristic. Gilbert has ended up conducting an affair with an older, married woman. He despairs of what he has become and dreams of escape.

The plot weaves itself around two pivotal events.

Firstly, a pretty young girl, Becky, arrives in town leading to jealousy from Gilbert’s younger sister, fifteen year old Ellen, and a flurry of eager interest amongst Gilbert’s male friends who are desperate to acquire girlfriends for the bodily benefits this brings. Gilbert is also enchanted by Becky but what remains of his self-esteem requires that he not admit to how he feels, about this or anything else.

The second event is Arnie’s impending eighteenth birthday. His mother has, for many years, repeated a mantra:

“I don’t ask for much. Just let me see my boy turn eighteen. That’s not too much to ask, is it?”

Her children are therefore organising a party to celebrate their brother’s big event. Organising anything is a challenge in a home where essential chores go undone and siblings rant and rail against the hand life has dealt them. Not only is the house under strain but so are each of the family members. There is constant tension between the siblings. This is a family that has been in crisis for more than a decade, holding together by the most tenuous threads of thankless duty that, along with the trauma of past events, have strangled the spaces where love should be.

As the seismic plates under the Grapes’ shift an earthquake is all but inevitable. What is in question is the magnitude and what will collapse as a result of the oscillations.

I chose this book based on a recommendation from Markus Zusak at an event on his Bridge of Clay Tour last year. In many ways the first half of the Gilbert Grape reminded me of Bridge of Clay. This concerned me somewhat while reading. I wondered if Zusak had not been as original as I had given him credit for. I need not have worried. The second half of the book took the Grape family in a different, equally compelling, direction. The denouement is somewhat shocking but also moving and quite brilliantly rendered.

Although sizable, albeit not excessive, the story warrants its number of pages. Character development is key but the reader is trusted to understand what is being portrayed. The writing is taut yet engaging with tightly plotted action and droll witticisms. Emotion is more powerful because it is underplayed.

In the introduction the publisher writes:

“the Grapes aren’t exactly the most pleasant company – most of the time they’re a bunch of dysfunctional, warring oddballs, and arguably Gilbert is the worst of them all.”

It is the complexity of the family interactions, the despairing dark humour of Gilbert’s responses, that invoke reader sympathy. I came to care what happened to each of the Grape siblings. They may not be ‘nice’ but this is reassuringly authentic. Their travails and stuttered team work in the face of societal judgement, their inability to move forward anchored as they are by their mother’s behaviour, has the reader cheering from the sidelines in hope of them somehow finding a way out of the mire they had no choice over being submerged in.

A strong story that grew more enjoyable as I came to understand why the characters behaved as they did. A satisfying and recommended read.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is published by Fox, Finch & Tepper.

 

Book Review: Ducks, Newburyport

“the fact that what is it with this constant monologue in my head, the fact that why am I telling myself all this stuff”

Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann, is mostly written in the form of a single sentence, containing many commas, and running across almost one thousand pages. Add in the notes at the end, expansion of the acronyms scattered throughout the text, and it easily breaks this tally. It also weighs more than a kilogram – a Big book in every sense of the word.

I mention that it is mostly written as a single sentence. There is a story within about a mountain lion that runs in parallel. This is presented in a more conventional format and provided relief from the frantic intensity of the stream of information and opinion pouring from the narrator’s head. The two tales increasingly segue and enable a devastating denouement. The final line was breathtaking, and not just because the book was finally finished.

I recently read Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession and it was like being enveloped in a welcome hug – it is quietly splendid. While Leonard and Hungry Paul is a story that makes me feel good about the world, Ducks, Newburyport is its opposite. Over the course of its thousand pages it lists many, many ways in which man is a scourge on our planet. I’m still not sure I can forgive the author for putting the picture into my head of the teenagers with a baby dolphin – just one horrific scene in a multifarious outpouring. By the end of the book I was believing the world would be a better place if we all followed the lead of several minor characters and removed ourselves. This tome is depressing.

Set in Ohio, America, the sentence is the internal monologue of a middle-aged wife and mother of four children. She bakes cinnamon rolls and pies in her home, supplying select eateries around her local town. She keeps hens in her backyard. She misses her dead parents, especially her mum. We learn of her history and current concerns between ephemera meandering around such subjects as: baking, films, actors, popular culture, books she has read to her children. She watches the news and bemoans the state of modern America – the atrocities enabled by American gun laws and the thoughtless self-entitlement of humans.

“the fact that nothing you do seems innocent anymore, the fact that even baking a pie has many ramifications”

The woman’s history does provide interest. She has lived in Europe as well as America. She has suffered serious health issues. The facts and feelings engendered by these nuggets sown within the digressive text need to be sieved from the stream of facts that are often inane: types of pie, the contents of cupboards, shopping lists. She details her dreams, her worries about her children and the type of mother she is.

“the fact that I’m only doing it to help my family, and yet to make any profit on these pies, I have to ignore my poor family half the time”

The reader is taken on trips to a shopping mall and a visit to the dentist but mostly the woman is in her kitchen, baking and watching news on TV. She is thinking about her shyness, looking back on all the incidents in her life she feels bad about, remembering her parents. She is considering the way Amish people live and how simple their lifestyle appears.

There is a great deal of repetition: polluted water supplies, bottled water, plastic pollution; how inspectors drive around gathering samples and thereby contribute to air pollution; cruelty to animals, factory farming, the billions of chickens raised in cages to sate man’s wasteful food preferences.

“the fact that there’s a lot you just have to blank out if you want to get through life”

The narrator is neurotic – well meaning but selfish. The narrative is all over the place and this appears to be deliberate – that thoughts will wander as connections with memory are triggered by current events.

“the fact that I do feel guilty though, bringing kids I love into a world we’ve trashed”

This trashing of the world along with the senseless cruelties inflicted by man are, of course, done for money – personal gain.

“the fact that it was the costliest natural disaster in Ohio history, the fact that it’s always about money, the fact that they think that’s the only thing that interests people, the fact that they can’t just talk about a violent storm, they always have to translate the damage into cash terms”

The woman regularly mentions her money worries, blaming the cost of medical care. She worries about environmental issues but mainly their impact on human health.

Trump is mentioned along with his Make America Great Again slogan. This is backed up by national educators’ desire to instill patriotism, optimism and contentment in their students.

“the fact that a lot of American history is nothing to be proud of, the fact that it makes you pretty sick, but my students didn’t want to hear any of that, the fact that they wanted everything to make a pretty picture, upbeat”

To get to the story there is a need to read through page after page of frenetic, often upsetting and then inane, tortuous facts.

“the fact that celery puts so much effort into being celery, just to end up filling the plastic lunch box of a not particularly hungry American kid”

I wondered why this structure had been chosen. It is audacious and ambitious but felt done for the sake of it.

Amongst the many books I have not read, or not finished, are tomes such as Don Quixote and Ulysses – books that certain people seem to believe should be appreciated by anyone who wishes to have their opinions on literature taken seriously. Ducks, Newburyport may well end up sitting amongst these supposed greats. Making it through to the last page certainly felt like an achievement.

There is much to ponder within its pages but also a great deal that felt like filler. Had the book been a quarter of its size, had it told the family story and the lion story but without quite so much litany, then perhaps I would have been more impressed. As it is, the sheer number of words and the form in which they were written overwhelmed the beating heart of what is a devastating take-down of human consciousness and behaviour. The issues confronted may be worthy, but I am glad to have finished reading.

Ducks, Newburyport is published by Galley Beggar Press.

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: Why Stuff Matters

Why Stuff Matters, by Jen Waldo, is a story of grief, avarice, ageing, and the suspicious resentments that define those whose lives have amounted to little more than material possessions. Set in a run down mall in small town Texas, USA, its cast of characters would garner sympathy if they weren’t so ornery and grasping. Into this mix is thrown the protagonist, Jessica, who has inherited the mall from her mother and moved in to escape the pain of the life she had built and then lost. Her moral compass has been displaced by anger and heartache.

Jessica sleeps in the cavernous third floor of the mall. Unlike her elderly tenants she has few possessions. When the story opens a tornado is building that passes through the town leaving a trail of devastation in its wake. Hard won belongings stand no chance against such a capricious force of nature.

Amongst the dead is an octogenarian named Pard Kemp who had rented a booth in Jessica’s mall. Pard left no family and had never specified what was to become of his stock in the event of his death. The remaining tenants waste no time in dividing his stuff amongst themselves. They vie with each other in an attempt to ensure that if anyone gets more than the others it should be them.

It falls to Jessica to arbitrate, despite knowing that whatever decisions she makes will be regarded as unfair. When guns are found in Pard’s booth she puts them in her safe, giving the tenants two weeks to agree how they should be removed as she refuses to allow unlicensed firearms to remain on her property. Another tenant, Roxy, asks to borrow one as her ex-husband is in town and she claims she is in danger. Within days Roxy has shot the man dead.

What follows is a series of events leading inexorably towards a reckoning. A body must be disposed of, the police distracted from the scent of wrongdoing. Into this mix arrives Lizzie, the twelve year old daughter of Jessica’s husband from his first marriage. Without agreement Lizzie is foisted on Jessica for the summer. The girl quickly finds herself a place within the politics of the mall, a young novelty fawned over by the elderly tenants eager to profit from her presence. Lizzie and Roxy each trigger further situations against which Jessica quietly rages.

The plot is in many ways farcical yet it is presented with an adroitness that enables the author to portray issues of loneliness, ageing and the value of humanity over things. Each of the cast of characters has reason to rail against much that life has demanded of them. Their greed, foolishness and sense of righteous entitlement were still frustrating to read.

The writing flows and the plot is well paced leading to a satisfactory denouement, possibly the only uplifting part of the tale. I suspect other readers may find humour in many of the scenes depicted. With more people living into old age the growing elderly population will be as mixed in morality as any other demographic. It is interesting to see them cast here as rogues, using their ailments to gain advantage.

A well constructed, thought-provoking read but, for me, too relatable not to be dispiriting.

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

Book Review: Sorry To Disrupt The Peace

Sorry To Disrupt The Peace, by Patty Yumi Cottrell, tells the story of a suicide and its effect on the family, particularly the sibling. It is told from the point of view of Helen, born in Korea and adopted when a baby by Paul and Mary Moran of Milwaukee, USA. Helen was raised in her adoptive parents’ large if frugal home alongside her younger brother, also born in Korea and adopted when a baby. Their upbringing was not a happy one for multiple reasons, poignantly portrayed.

Helen now lives in New York City, in a shared studio apartment, where she is phoned by an uncle to be told of her adoptive brother’s demise. She describes herself thus:

“At the time of his death I was a thirty-two-year-old woman, childless, irregularly menstruating, college-educated, and partially employed. If I looked in the mirror I saw something upright and plain.”

Helen decides that she will fly to Milwaukee, despite not having contacted her parents in several years, to provide comfort and discover why her brother took his life. Arriving at their childhood home without warning she resents that the welcome given is less than effusive. She is irritated by the presence of a grief councillor as this was the role she had assigned herself.

In the days leading up to her brother’s funeral, Helen questions those who had spent time with him in the years since she left. He had remained in Milwaukee and still lived with their parents. Helen’s interrogations prove upsetting. Even her attempts at being helpful are not well received.

It is clear from early in the story that something about Helen is out of kilter. She prides herself on her ethical practices and reliability, that she has transformed herself into someone she regards as virtuous. She aims to offer succour yet seems incapable of empathy.

The narrative voice has a disturbing undercurrent. Helen’s scattered thoughts, inappropriate sharing, her ragged memories and attempts at fitting in, can erupt into antisocial behaviour. She believes her needs are often ignored in favour of others. She has cultivated a strategy for survival that proves brittle under stress.

There are moments of humour, particularly around Helen’s work as an after-school supervisor of troubled young people. That she can support herself in this way perplexes those who knew her from Milwaukee. She feels satisfaction that she managed to get, and stay, away.

The restless prose travels inexorably towards a climax that is deeply disturbing yet brilliantly rendered. Helen’s isolation pulses with dark energy.

A powerful evocation of a family damaged despite well meaning intentions. A tragedy of the living as well as the dead.

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

Book Review: Geekerella

Geekerella, by Ashley Poston, is a contemporary retelling of the story of Cinderella with the eponymous heroine cast as a lonely fandom nerd. Aimed at young adult readers it explores a world influenced by social media updates and special interest blogging; where fan fiction, cosplay and science fiction conventions provide outlets for those who feel alienated by what the cool kids and aspirational adults regard as desirable.

Ellie Wittimer lives with her dead father’s second wife, Catherine, and Catherine’s two daughters, Cal and Chloe. These three mock Ellie for expecting that she could ever make anything of herself. While she works on a fast food van, coming home to cook their meals, they socialise at an upmarket Country Club where the girls play tennis in the hope of gaining college entry. They encourage their friends to join them in putting their step-sister down.

Ellie has been miserable since her parents died. She cherishes the fond memories she retains of watching every episode of Starfield, a classic sci-fi series, over and over again with her dad, Robin, and then writing related fanfiction for him to read. Robin Wittimer founded the ExcelsiCon, an annual sci-fi event still held in LA. Ellie’s parents would go each year, cosplaying as Prince Carmindor and Princess Amara from the Starfield series, taking young Ellie along to soak up the atmosphere.

There is to be a reboot of Starfield and Ellie is wary of what will be done to something so important to her and other cult followers. When she hears that teen hearthrob, Darien Freeman, is to be cast as Carmindor she is horrified, unaware that he too is an informed and passionate fan. She writes cuttingly of him on her blog, which suddenly gains an increase in readership.

The story alternates between Darien’s story and Ellie’s. As part of his promotion for the Starfield film Darien will be required to attend ExcelsiCon and judge the cosplay competition. In an attempt to get out of this role, in which he would have to stick to his professional brand, he tries to contact the organisor. He ends up texting Ellie who still uses her Dad’s old phone. Without knowing who the other is they are drawn to each other. Communications continue, offering an escape from their unsatisfactory lives.

When Ellie decides to go behind her step-mother’s back and enter the cosplay competition she hopes to meet this unknown boy with whom she now feels such an affinity. Her carefully laid plans hit problems when Cal and Chloe decide to attend ExcelsiCon too.

I was surprised at how well this cast of characters fitted with the traditional story. Despite knowing what must happen the author creates tension and emotion as both Ellie and Darien push back against parental binds. The rarefied world of celebrities and their fans of fame are well evoked alongside the escapist geeky world in which Ellie resides.

An enjoyable romp that remained engaging and entertaining throughout. I pondered the issues raised of family loyalties given the modern, western world’s often complex households. The importance of standing up for kindness and friendship offer lessons all would benefit from learning.

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

Book Review: Dark Rooms

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Dark Rooms, by Lili Anolik, is set in and around a private, American boarding school and is largely populated by the privileged teenagers whose parents can afford the fees. Alongside the sex, drugs and decadent parties, which literature and the media portray as the staple activities in this demographic, we are offered an insight into the damage caused by petty bullying and loss of trust in significant adults.

The protagonist, Grace, is in her final year at the school. She is presented as a good student although this does not preclude her from attending the parties. She envies her younger sister, Nica, who is one of the popular, cool kids. Nica has friends who deal in drugs and, at sixteen, has been actively exploring her sexuality for some time.

The story opens at a party and we discover that Nica has been murdered, shot and left to die in a graveyard that abuts the school grounds. Grace is not coping well with her sister’s death. Her family has fallen apart and Grace seeks oblivion in drink and drugs. Although the murder case has been closed, the supposed perpetrator having hanged himself, there are many unanswered questions about Nica’s behaviour in the last few months before her death. As Grace considers all that she knows about her sister’s secrets she concludes that there is more behind the death than has been acknowledged. She decides to dig deeper.

I found it hard to empathise with the characters. Grace and Nica’s mother came across as sociopathic, but to blame her for all the daughters’ flaws seems too trite. The tough, poor guy who helps Grace out is beating a face to pulp one minute, the next he is gentle and caring. What he does to Grace shows a flaw in his psyche that I find it difficult to believe she could forgive.

The plot is intriguing and held my attention as it twisted and turned, easing out each of Nica’s secrets and showing how wrong initial impressions can be. It is not necessary to like characters to appreciate their value in a story but, in this case, I struggled to accept that so many of the cast could ever be real. Nica especially, with her ridiculous ‘titty hard-on’, repelled.

The idea behind the story, that a murder is not all it seems, is well executed. After a slow start I wanted to know what happened, and the denouement tidied up the loose ends. It was the development and depth of the characters that limited my enjoyment. This is not a book that I would recommend.

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