Category Archives: Review

The Parentations – Kate Mayfield

One of my favourite books of the year so far (and if you want to see my top books and possibly win a selection of them, then head here) is without question Kate Mayfield’s debut novel The Parentations. Now I mention getting nervous about books quite a lot, like I am constantly having to smell salts in my library which is not the case, but the size (500 pages) and premise of this book (immortality) did originally give me pause for thought. Yet I was swiftly enveloped in this novel and reminded that there can be nothing more rewarding than a big chunky book with an incredible tale to tell, and this is quite the tale indeed.

OneWorld, hardback, 2018, fiction, 500 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

They aren’t even sure he’s still alive. They’d tossed around ideas about him so often and for so many years that they’d created a shared fantasy about the kind of man he might have become. He might still be a boy, they reasoned. They considered, too, that he might be dead. They have no way of knowing.

The Parentations starts in 2015 as the Lawless sisters wait for three things. The first is the day that they can go and look for a boy who they see as a son, in a designated place they return to each year not knowing if he is still alive but always hoping. The second is for a regular sleep that each of them takes for a long time while the other watches over. The third is a delivery of some kind of medicine. We then flit across London to the Fowler household where a similar shipment is due to arrive and where some members of the house are also trying to find a secret stash of it they believe has been hidden. To find out what links these two households and why they are awaiting this tincture we must head back several hundred years to a volcanic eruption in Iceland that reveals a pool of immortality.

Now initially I admit I was a little bit ‘riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight then’ however we are soon completely with Stefan in 1783 as this volcanic eruption takes over the island and how once having stumbled across this pool he soon becomes a guardian of sorts for it. Over a few hundred years (which Mayfield deftly and swiftly moves us through) more people drink from the pool who create a secret community. These include a couple who have a child with special gifts, who needs to be sent away and hidden as it seems their immortal secret has been discovered by those who wish to use it for harm. This is how we end up back in London in the early 1800’s and from here the story, which has already been brimming, takes its full gothic turn and force as we join the lives of the Fowlers and Lawless sisters and see how their lives become entwined. I will say no more on the plot because I wouldn’t want to spoil the twists, turns and delicious romp you have ahead.

At nine o’clock no movement is detected. A group of women have come forward. They have paid a large sum to test the miracles of the gallows. One woman bares her breasts. The hand of a hanged man is believed to cure tumours. She mounts the scaffold. She has no fear, no hesitation, as she takes Finn’s hand in hers. Just as she raises it to her breast, his head rolls and his eyes open and meet hers. The woman faints clean away.

If you love all things gothic then you will adore this book, especially if you like your gothic Victorian, and who doesn’t? Mayfield takes us through the darker parts of the societies and streets of London from orphanages to grand houses, from prisons to the gallows and everything in between. We have dramatic deaths, murders, saucy shenanigans of all sorts all with that ‘sensationalist’ pace and plotting that the likes of Wilkie Collins revelled in so much. You know Mayfield is having a huge amount of fun as she writes this and it’s an utter pleasure to be along for the ride, she also builds this dark and brooding London fully to life, in all its shadowy layers. What you also have is Clovis Fowler, who is one of my new favourite wicked women of fiction. I will just give you a little glimpse of how her husband sees her below, just to whet your appetite, she could almost give Mrs Danvers of Lydia Gwilt a run for their money.

‘Finn, I prefer that you not eat in the bedroom.’
‘You prefer? Another word you’ve picked up at those lectures of yours? I’ll eat where I like.’
‘I thought it would please you. I try to improve my English.’
Clovis waits for a response, but he eats and drinks and grows weary – weary of her. His wife’s beauty no longer interests him. There is no gown, no simple or complicated design that is capable of dimming her voluptuous body, yet he no longer has the addiction he once did for her. In this, most men would think him quite mad, or a sodomite, but a man, especially a man like Finn, does not like to be used, and the feeling in his tackle goes limp whenever he thinks of her trickery. So he dines in silence.

Yet amongst all this romp and sensation there is some incredibly moving moments and thoughts subjects The Parentations. The immortality which I initially felt a bit ‘riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight then’ about goes from being the best thing you could wish for to the ultimate curse. How do you have to look after yourself if you have to try and live forever? What situations must you avoid? How do you cope as some of those around you that you live age and die? How must it be to want to die and be unable? The other particularly poignant strand of the novel is how we see society and culture progress and change over the years and how some of the characters we come to love, but might not live to see these changes, would benefit from them. I found that incredibly emotive.

Again, this shows the brilliance of Mayfield’s writing. Her characters are wonderful, even the ones you are meant to hate (yes, the fabulous Clovis) and come fully formed with all their complexities and how they change in the subtlest of ways along with the times – another interesting element of the book – and as they try to survive what life throws at them. Mayfield also writes the shifting of these time periods and the atmosphere and changes in London as it moves towards 2015, without hitting you over the head with changes in technology, décor, etc she fully evokes exactly whichever decade you are in.

The room is dripping in tat. A frayed lampshade sends a sickly, yellow glow into a grey corner that rivals the afternoon’s clouds. Puckering across the single bed a dingy, blue blanket fails to disguise the lumpy mattress. A weathered, Lusty chair, meant for a garden and cocktails, sits beside a small, unused Victorian fireplace in this rented room in Pimlico. It’s noisy, a bit smelly, and a hidden paradise. Kay Starr sings from a beaten up portable gramophone, two men stand entwined in a small moon-shaped space in the centre of the room. To dance naked is unbearably exciting. Jonesy lets David take the lead.

As I said earlier The Parentations was an instant hit with me, hence being one of my books of the year so far. I have no doubt that it will be one of my books of the year full stop as ever since I closed the final page these characters and their stories have held a place in my heart which continues to grow. Go and get your hands on it. Right now.

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Filed under Books of 2018, Kate Mayfield, OneWorld Books, Review

West – Carys Davies

One of the best discoveries of my time blogging has to be the fiction of Carys Davies. I first read her short story collection The Redemption of Galen Pike, when I was judging Fiction Uncovered back in 2015 as a submission and remember pondering if we could give it all of the prize money, it was that good. Every tale defied expectation, without the need for twists in the tale, and each had an epic scope even if it was a pages long. I then read her debut collection Some New Ambush at the start of 2016 and was blown away once more. So I was very, very, very excited when I heard that she had written her first novel, West, though of course instantly got nervous as to whether I would love it or not. I finally turned to it earlier this month and once again fell helplessly in love with Davies’ writing.

Granta, hardback, 2018, fiction, 160 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

 “Look you long and hard, Bess, at the departing figure of your father,” said her aunt Julie from the porch in a loud voice like a proclamation.
“Regard him, Bess, this person, this fool, my brother, John Cyrus Bellman, for you will not clap eyes upon a greater one. From today I am numbering him among the lost and the mad. Do not expect that you will see him again, and do not wave, it will only encourage him and make him think he deserves your good wishes. Come inside now, child, close the door, and forget him.”

So says Bess’ aunt Julia as Cy Bellman leaves his family home in Pennsylvania in search of the ‘mammoth beasts’ whose remains have been found ‘in the West’. The discovery or even capture of these beasts Cy believes will be the making of his name and, much more importantly to him, improve the life of himself and his daughter who he is heartbroken to leave behind. Many think him mad for going on such a journey that will certainly involve many dangers, in fact many people believe he will not make it back again. Yet go he does, leaving his daughter Bess behind in the safe care of his sister, yet what he hasn’t thought of is that there may be as many dangers to Bess back home as there could be if he had taken her.

It is at this early stage that the novel splits in to the two stories of Bellman and his daughter as time moves forward. We follow Cy as he heads out on a journey that could lead him anywhere, through small towns, where in one he hires the help of a young native Shawnee boy called Old Woman From A Distance to help him journey further with added knowledge of the perils that might lie in store. Back in Pennsylvania, while her aunt reminds her regularly that she is probably now an orphan, Bess has to deal with the arduous danger or a young farmhand and an older librarian both who have their sights set on her and not necessarily for marriage. I found this nod to the fact men must go and seek out danger far and wide whereas danger will seek women out closer to home both a brilliant analogy of both the 1800’s when the book is set and also still as prevalent right now rather poignant.

I won’t give anything more about the book away, I will say though that the sense of dread and the brooding atmosphere for both Bess and Cy as the book goes on pulses through every line to its unforgettable conclusion. Not a word is wasted as Davies takes us over hundreds of miles trekking through vast expanses with Cy or hundreds of days back home working out the way society and the world works for Bess. It is a mini epic in its truest form.

For a week he lay beneath his shelter and didn’t move. Everything was frozen, and when he couldn’t get his fire going he burned the last of the fish because it seemed better to be starving than to be cold.
And then one night he heard the ice booming and cracking in the river, and in the morning bright jewels of melting snow dripped from the feathery branches of the pines onto his cracked and blistered face, his blackened nose.
Later that day he caught a small fish.
Berries began to appear on the trees and bushes.
Winter ended and spring came and he continued west.

What adds to its epic nature all the more is the interweaving of both huge topics of the time and mini stories that might take a mere sentence or two, or a paragraph at the maximum. The early 1800’s were a turbulent time in the US with Native American’s being displaced and plundering of their lands and indeed there people. This is never explicitly discussed or shown, the tension between Cy and Old Woman From A Distance says it all as their power struggle develops with no common language, just common ground which both are trying to gain ownership of over the other. Back in Pennsylvania as we meet some of Bess’ fellow townsfolk we discover stories of love that almost was and innocent seeming folk with much darker hearts.

West once again showed me why I love Carys Davies writing so much. Within her vast landscapes Davies also creates mini worlds which is the power of all her prose and storytelling. In fact let’s call it story weaving, because it does feel like it has been so intricately woven together. Yet there is no mucking about with never ending floral prose, it is beautifully crafted short and sweet sentences that condense what would take some authors a chapter potentially. She also has the power to make you darkly chuckle before having your heart broken. It is for all these reasons that I would highly recommend you read West and get lost for a few hours in some of the most wonderful writing, then head straight to Davies’ short stories if you haven’t already.

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Filed under Books of 2018, Carys Davies, Granta Books, Review

Whistle in the Dark – Emma Healey

Another book that I was hugely anticipating the arrival of this year, especially when the magpie part of my brain started seeing the gorgeous proofs going out, was Emma Healey’s Whistle in the Dark. Her second novel following Elizabeth is Missing which I absolutely adored when I read it back in 2014, so much so it was in my top three reads for that year. So no pressure for Whistle in the Dark then…

Penguin Books, hardback, 2018, fiction, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The sun had sunk behind the building and all the previously golden edges were now grey. The relief Jen felt at seeing Lana again was turning into something else, and though she mostly wanted to bundle her up and rock her and feel the weight of her and do anything she could to convince herself that her daughter was really okay, there was a thin thread of dread within her too. She was frightened to tug on it but knew she wouldn’t be able to resist for long.
‘How did you get lost?’ she said to Lana, who opened and shut her eyes.

As Whistle in the Dark opens we join Jen at the hospital some hours after her daughter has been found following her disappearance several days before. We soon learn that Jen has had an extra sense of guilt as Lana went missing on an artistic retreat with her mother, to bring them closer together after some difficult times of late. The question that soon comes to obsess Jen, becoming the focus of the novel for us as readers, is where on earth Lana went for those four days and what may or may not have happened to her. Lana stays silent but what, if anything, might she be hiding or simply too scared to share?

Lana feigned sleep all the way to London: Jen knew she was feigning because she’d seen her sleep, the corners of her mouth wet, her arms twisted around each other, her legs splayed. She knew this neat, dry sleeper on the back seat of the car was a fiction.

Where I think Healey excels in her second novel is with the tension and the atmosphere. Not simply when the book begins, with a real momentum from the off, it remains throughout those first adrenaline fuelled days to weeks later when things start to settle and get back to normality. Well, as normal as things can be when your daughter is starting to talk a little differently, only be able to sleep when she can see the sky and a mysterious cat keeps turning up inside your house.

Linking in with the brooding atmosphere, one of other the elements that I enjoyed, if that is the right word, in Whistle in the Dark is the sense of ‘other’ that sometimes comes to the fore. We are told of a time when Jen believes that she met a modern incarnation of Rumpelstiltskin, we learn there are groups online who are all trying to work out what happened to Lana from being lured into a reservoir by a mermaid, spirited away by ghosts, dragged to hell by the devil, abducted by aliens (my hometown getting an infamous mention, which I kind of loved) who reportedly appear with flashing lights in the woods or forced into rituals of a local cult. This online fever, a part of which becomes a bigger strand in the story, shows the dangers of the digital world let alone the supernatural one or the real one as Jen remains convinced her daughter has been part of some kind of assault and kidnapping.

Bonsall is at the centre of what is known as the Matlock Triangle, where there are often reports of strange lights, eerie noises and things hovering in the sky, and one of the reports comes from the night of Lana Maddox’s disappearance. Did aliens come down and kidnap her before wiping her memory and dropping her back off on Earth?

You may sense there is a ‘but’ coming here, and you would be right. I found after the first third of the novel there was a complete change in momentum as Lana and Jen both try and get on with their lives whilst not getting on with their lives at all, more so in the case of Jen. As they both find themselves stuck at home with each other there becomes a claustrophobic, cloying, slightly repetitive nature which started to feel like wading through treacle. I know, that sounds harsh. BUT and here is another ‘but’ to combat the last one, having had distance from the book I think that is how you are meant to feel. After such a heightened drama in anyone’s life at some point things return to ‘normal’ and in many ways there can be a huge comedown from the adrenalin when something huge happens in your life. The mundanities of life can return, only they seem even more mundane in comparison. So, I think that was Healey’s intention. It also serves as a quieter phase in the novel where suspicions and theories are mulled over further, before the tension is racked up again towards the ending which I thought Healey wrote brilliantly.

‘Why don’t you take a photo of this for Instagram? The colours are so vibrant.’
‘No one is interested in a pissing scone, Mum. That’s not the point. Strawberry jam is lame.’

I should also add her that one of the things that I loved throughout was how well Healey writes about teenagers, the mother and daughter bond and ever so wryly depicts middle class life and family domesticity. From the outside world in instances such as the art retreat where they meet Peny, a woman who insists “she could tell if you pronounced her name with two n’s”; to the interiors of the family home where Jen’s obsession with social media, and totally not getting it but desperately tries to use it to engage with her daughter. The novel also looks at single motherhood, sibling rivalry, the cracks in marriages and much more, all written with such wonderful observations of human nature.

Following Elizabeth is Missing, which was so loved, was going to be a hard act. Healey has proved again with Whistle in the Dark, interestingly once again with lost memories, she can write the lives and scenarios of everyday people going through extraordinary times with compassion, emotion, wry wit and an eye for the subtleties and complexities of human nature that makes her fiction so compelling and poignant. I will be very much looking forward to book three.

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Filed under Emma Healey, Penguin Books, Review

From The Wreck – Jane Rawson

Sometimes you hear about a book that might be somewhat off your usual and possibly well worn and beaten fictional path, yet it calls to you. This was the case with Jane Rawson’s From The Wreck a book I knew very little about other than it was very quirky and all the people in Australia (which I still believe is my spiritual home and the reason I haven’t been is because I might love it so much I wouldn’t come back) were loving it, no one in bloody Britain was publishing it though. By this point I was so desperate to read it, I sent out a small Twitter plea and who came to the rescue but Jane herself winging a copy over oceans (aptly) to get here. No sooner had I got it in my hand than I started getting nervous about it, what if I didn’t like it… the author had sent it me. But I reminded myself of my initial instincts and so I started it and fell in love with it, even though it started on a boat and longstanding readers of this blog will know I do not like books about boats, but I was hooked – line and sinker, sorry.

Transit Lounge Press, paperback, 2017, fiction, 390 pages, kindly sent by the author

It is 1859 and not long after seeing a mysterious woman talking to the horses aboard the SS Admella, George Hills finds himself next to her on the floating wreckage of the boat out in the open water. What the pair endure together George believes links them forever, however once they are rescued this woman, Brigid, vanishes. Many people believe she was taken to a different place to recover, some believe she might not even have been there, George is certain that this woman was real. And he is right, she was, what George doesn’t realise was that she was also a telepathic shape shifting alien cephalopod who once on land turned into a cat to escape and carry on trying to find another of ‘her’ kind. Some of you might now be thinking ‘WTF that sounds bonkers/ridiculous’, some of you might be thinking ‘Simon have you gone crazy’, you might be right on both counts, what I am certain of is that give this stunningly written book a chance and you will absolutely love it.

One eye open, then the other.
Am I still me? I touch here, taste this, smell that. I remember. I am still me. One thing holding fast in this shifting, blurring mass.
But the rest of it? None of the shapes are right. Is that a life form? Is that? There is neither the sight nor feel of wrapped tight energy, of breathing hot, of burning fuel, of soul-filled bursting selfness that is like anyone I have ever seen. I don’t even know who to eat.

After the shipwreck George is haunted, in part by what he had to do to survive but also by the seeming phantom of the women he knows he was with. Yet he must try to carry on as normal, he must start a family and make a future for himself. What he doesn’t realise is that unable to trace another of ‘her’ kind, the alien cat has been drawn to George again and soon transforms into the birthmark of his newly born son Henry.

This is where I think the book gets even better as it divides into further strands. You have the strand of George who has become haunted by the wreck and slightly unhinged with an obsession to find this woman. You have an alien cephalopod who is trying to find the rest of her kind who becomes more and more lonely and potentially more and more needy and dangerous. You also have the story of a young boy Henry who grows up a little bit different, slightly creepy and who desperately tries to understand human kind, his place in it and what it means to be human if only to quiet the strange voice he has in his head. All this delivered in the form of a ripping romp of speculative historical sci-fi yarn. I will say it again. It. Is. So. Bloody. Good.

‘Men are prone to overreact. They meet a woman, she’s beautiful, she talks to them and they think, oh, she likes me, we’ll get married. And she doesn’t return the favour, doesn’t like him as much as he likes her, so then she’s evil, isn’t she. She’s some kind of hell-spawned bitch to spurn him in this way. And he has dreams where he’s tupping her and she laughs at him and then that’s it, she’s haunting him, she really is a witch. Is that what happened with your… friend, did you say it was?’

What is also brilliant about From The Wreck is that is an insight into the social constructs and mores of Australia at that time, with a worrying amount of them still being rife now, especially in the respect to women which Rawson really delves into. Women are wives, mothers, daughters, ladies, lovers, whores or witches and there doesn’t seem to be anything in between, or at least in the eyes of most of the men. Rawson therefore brings all the women around George and Henry to the fore, interestingly with the exception of George’s wife – I couldn’t work out if Rawson was trying to say something there. (Doubly interesting that this shipwreck was real and Jane is one of George’s descendants, a twist to the whole thing I also love.) Our cephalopod is seemingly female, though gender isn’t really a construct for ‘her’ which is also fascinating, and often the questions asked internally of Henry do have a feminist leaning. One of my favourite characters is that of Beatrice, a woman many believe a witch, who has a wonderful back story to tell which I found very moving.

Beatrice Gallwey had come to South Australia from the colony of New South Wales. Her husband had died, the way husbands so often do. A bite from a flea or a mosquito, they said, and some infection of the blood. It hadn’t taken terrifically long. They didn’t like each other much, Bea and her husband, and she didn’t miss him but still, she’d rather they’d got around to leaving one another than that he was cold in the ground. She wouldn’t have held it against him had he found somewhere else to go.

So what more can I say? This book had it all for me; originality, wonderful writing, a brilliant twisting plot, fantastic characters and some themes within it that you can really get your teeth into, should you want to – though obviously there is nothing wrong with reading a book to simply escape. I feel that this book has it all and can almost 100% promise you that if you give it a try you will love it. What I can also promise you is that just when you think the book is going to go a certain way, it just won’t (which you will love it all the more for) instead it will probably head somewhere a bit stranger and almost definitely somewhere a bit darker.

He suddenly remembered: the mark was back. No surprises there. You can’t erase wickedness that easily. It had to go. The mark had to go or the boy hard to go. ‘You saw what he had in that cupboard? Bodies, corpses. Festering jars of muck. And those things he draws. He’s not normal. He’s not a normal boy. We need to fix him, William. The women can’t do it. Eliza can’t do it, she doesn’t even see it. She thinks he’s sweet. She doesn’t know anything about what the world is like. But you and I do. I’ve seen terrible things. You’ve read terrible things. Tell me what to do.

Without a shadow of a doubt From The Wreck is my book of 2018 so far. Now if you are despairing that you might not be able to get your hands on this book any time soon there is some exciting news, since I waxed lyrical about it on my channel and on social media, Picador will be publishing this in the UK next April, I’ll be reminding you to get it then and sincerely hope it will be winning many awards this side of the pond in 2019.

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Filed under Books of 2018, Jane Rawson, Review, Transit Lounge Press

Moonstone – Sjon

One of the things that I have always wanted to do with this blog, and I suppose my reading by default, is find some lesser known gems that I would love to get to more readers. Nothing against the big books that get a lot of buzz, as they can be irresistible, there is just something wonderful about finding a book that hasn’t had much buzz (or as much as I think it should) and getting it into the hands of eager readers. Moonstone by Sjon is one such book. This was a book that I discovered towards the end of last year and has become one of my favourite reads of the last several years. I loved it when I read it; the more time away from it I have had the more wonderful I think it is. Yes, one of those.

Sceptre, paperback, 2017, fiction, 156 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Moonstone is set in the Reykjavik in 1918. Iceland is a country that is on the cusp of huge changes. Some it is aware of like the decreasing amount of coal resources , along with the eruption of the Katla volcano. Some are happening along in the background, such as the Great War. Some it is yet to know will happen, like the craze for film and cinema or something much, much darker that will change the country and its people forever, the Spanish Flu. Yet aware or not, the people of Reykjavik carry on as normal and we follow one of those people, a young man named Mani.

Mani is unaware of all these things going on in the background because as Moonstone begins it is more the day to day dramas that are at the forefront of his mind. For Mani is a young gay man who is paid for sex, which on the whole he enjoys, both the act and the money. However this is a time in which homosexuality is not something that the people of Iceland believe in and so one of his biggest thrills, and of course income, is also one of his biggest dangers.

After the boy had crawled in through the window of his hotel room and they had begun to take off their clothes, the man unfastened the artificial leg made of hardwood that was attached with a leather harness to his right thigh.
The boy had never seen such a device before and examined the leg from every angle until the man took it away from him and hung it from the foot of the bed. He drew Mani Steinn under the covers to join him:
– Moonstone.

What I found so gripping about Moonstone is firstly the story of Mani, but also the story of Iceland itself and then how the two intertwine and almost shadow the other. In many ways Iceland, and really more specifically Reykjavik, is the second biggest character in the whole book, and we follow them both as Mani has his most personally tumultuous time yet and Iceland has its most historically tumultuous time yet.

 Although, as a rule, little in the papers captures his interests – anything that happens in Iceland seems too small, while overseas events only affect him if they are grand enough to be made into films – the news in the last few days about the “Spanish Flu” has held a lurid fascination for the boy:
He has a butterfly in his stomach, similar to those he experiences when he picks up a gentleman, only this time it is larger, its wingspan greater, its colour as black as the velvet ribbons on a hearse.

Throughout the book there are many heart breaking moments, something I do really love in a book which I am aware makes me sounds rather like a weirdo. There is firstly the fine line between Mani’s  There is a poignant element of the cinema craze story line, which we see as Mani becomes almost as addicted to the cinema as he does to sex with men. As more films come to the city the more the religious and traditional members worry that it is a sign of the devil, leading teenagers into sexual temptation, or worse, modern thinking. This belief of evil gains all the more traction when Spanish flu hits and it becomes one of the places that causes the most contagion without anyone knowing. Imagine then how homosexuality might be treated, if cinema can cause such outrage. This is an unwritten realisation that comes to Mani creating a danger in being caught but a potential financial opportunity in the need to keep everything all the more secret. Things take a darker turn but I don’t want to spoil that for any of you.

In the Irish Times review of Moonstone Ruth McKee describes it as “Opening with a graphic scene of oral sex and closing with penetrating philosophical questions, Moonstone is quite a ride.” And she is completely right. This is a mini epic that gives and gives to the reader. Every page thrums, hums and/or brims with feelings, atmospheres, tensions and emotions. Whether it be with the wonders of cinema that fascinates the villagers or the natural awe of a volcanic eruption. Whether it be with a sexual thrust (quite literally) or with the panic and horror as a plague takes over the country.

Reykjavik has undergone a transformation.
An ominous hush lies over the busiest, most bustling part of town. No hoof-beats, no rattling of cart wheels or rumble of automobiles, no roar of motorcycles or ringing of bicycle bells. No rasp of sawing from the carpenters’ workshops, or clanging from the forges, or slamming of the warehouse doors. No gossiping voices of washerwomen on their way to the hot springs, no shouts of dockworkers unloading the ships, or cries of newspaper hawkers on the main street. No smell of fresh bread from the bakeries, or waft of roasting meat from the restaurants.
The doors of the shops neither open nor close – no one goes in, no one comes out – no one hurries home from work or goes to work at all.
No one says good morning. No one says goodnight.

I could wax lyrical about Moonstone for much, much longer, however I feel that a succinct rave suits a succinct masterpiece. Yep, I said it, I think that this is genuinely a mini epic masterpiece. It is a book that brims with emotion, has an incredible momentum and shines a light on both a period of a (possibly grimly) fascinating period in history that I knew nothing about and also many voices that went unheard and even unseen. I wanted to go and read it all over again when I was choosing the quotes to include in this review. I also now want to read everything that Sjon has written so far and go back to Iceland and explore it all over again. Utterly fantastic, if you haven’t read it then please, please, please, please get your hands on it.

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Filed under Books of 2017, Review, Sceptre Publishing, Sjon

Red Dust Road – Jackie Kay

One of the joys of working in a library is that when a whim to read a specific book suddenly overtakes you the chances are it may well be in the building. This was the case with Jackie Kay’s memoir Red Dust Road, which I actually thought I had read but realised I hadn’t? Small aside, does anyone else do this? If so please let me know. Anyway, one of the challenges for the #PrideMonthReads challenge, which George Lester and I started this month, was to find or recommend and own voices book. With adoption being on my mind rather a lot at the moment, the tale of Jackie’s adoption and search for her birth parents had been one I had been contemplating reading. With that and her being an out member of the LGBTQ community Red Dust Road seemed like the perfect read for me RIGHT NOW, fortunately there was one on the shelves. So I started it that very day on my lunch break, I wasn’t expecting a book that would chime with me in the many ways that it did.

Picador Books, paperback, 2017, fiction, 320 pages, borrowed from the library

As Red Dust Road opens, Jackie is about to meet her biological father for the very first time in Nigeria. This is quite a different setting from the hotel foyer in Milton Keynes where she met her mother for the first time some years before, we learn. From this point the book then weaves backwards and forwards through time as she embarks on the potential relationship with her father, who happens to be a born again Christian and sees her as living proof of the sins of his past, deal with the maintaining of the relationship with her birth mother and look back her childhood with her adoptive parents before and after the moment she realised that she was not theirs biologically.

I am seven years old. My mum, my brother and I have just watched a cowboy and Indian film. I’m sad because the Indians have lost again, and I wanted them to win. It suddenly occurs to me that the Indians are the same colour as me and my mum is not the same colour as me. I say to my mum, Mummy why aren’t you the same colour as me? My mum says, Because you’re adopted. I say, What does adopted mean, my brother scoffs; Don’t you know what adoption means. He’s eating a giant-size bowl of cornflakes. He eats cornflakes for nearly every meal. No, I don’t know. I’m nearly in tears. I’ve heard the word before but I don’t really understand it. My mum says, It means I’m not really your mummy. What do you mean, you’re not really my mummy? I say. I am crying for real now because I love my mum so much and I want her to be my real mummy and I’m worried she means she is not real and that something is going to happen to her, that she is going to disappear or dissolve. She says, Your real mother couldn’t keep you so she gave you to me so that I could be your mummy. Yes, that means you’re not really my sister, my brother laughs. Ha ha. Do you get it? Are you making this up? I ask my mummy. Is this one of your stories? She’s so good, my mummy, at telling stories. No, it isn’t, she says. She’s in tears herself too.

One thing I particularly loved about Red Dust Road is the open honesty with which Jackie Kay tells her story. There are no hero’s or villains in this piece, though I have to say I think Jackie’s mother and father John and Helen and their love for their daughter and support in her finding her birth parents is utterly wonderful. Everyone has their quirks and their flaws, because that is what all humans do. Make no mistake this is not a misery memoir, Jackie is perfectly happy, she just wants to know more especially when she is pregnant herself with her son. She isn’t expecting a perfect ending; sometimes it can be about a happy imperfect ending after a journey of discovering more. Even when things take a wobble there is still vibrancy to Jackie’s writing which I also love, with parents like John and Helen though whatever the outcome you feel Jackie knows she has already got a winning combination and security in them, which always gave any scenario this positive undertone which I really loved.

Now I don’t want to make this all about me because it is very much Jackie’s book and her story… However sometimes a book will get you on a personal level and with this being my personal blog, admittedly more with a bookish twist than on my personal life, it would seem remiss of me not to share the two levels with which this book had a deep resonance with me and made me rather emotional on several occasions.

The first of these was the fact that starting the adoption process myself, thanks to Jackie’s honesty (as I mention above) this is the first time I have really read such a frank and intimate set of thoughts about what it is like to be adopted. The role of the adoptive parent seems to be much more documented and whilst I have lots of friends who have been adopted it has never really been something I have brought up with a lot of them, I assumed that it might be prying a little too much into their lives. Interestingly I have pried into many of the lives of my friends who have adopted.  I do wonder if it because the process has happened while I have known them as adults adopting, whereas I didn’t know my friends as children when they were adopted. Anyway, this was the first time I had encountered such a frank depiction. The love Jackie felt for her adoptive parents, who she considers her parents end of, made me cry as did the way they unwaveringly supported her in finding her parents as an adult, highly emotive indeed.

The other big element was that in some of the pages, passages of Jackie’s story felt like they could be my own. You see whilst I am not an adopted child myself, I didn’t meet my father until I was sixteen years old. And so when Jackie is writing about both imagining what her biological parents might be like and also the strange feeling of having some of your identity missing – which is no fault of the loving parents you have – and needing to discover more were very much like the questions I had in my head. Though my father was from Derbyshire like my mother not from another country, I still had this huge gap if not culturally then just in a sense of myself. I haven’t experienced having those thoughts shared by someone else before. Frankly at some point I might have to hunt Jackie Kay down for a cup of tea, a cake and a good old natter about it in more detail.

‘Maybe your father was an African chief,’ my mother used to say, and, ‘Maybe you are an African princess.’ I liked that. In my imaginary princess picture, I am wearing a traditional African dress, purples and oranges and yellows. ‘Maybe you will own land,’ my mother said. I liked that too. I pictured the plots of my land in the African landscape of my imagination. It was flat land, not like the Highlands of Scotland. The earth was dark and rich. There was a red-dust road. I couldn’t really get much further than that.

So a huge thank you to Jackie for writing such an honest and open account of several parts and elements of her life. Thank you for sharing in the laughter, tears, joy and fears of the journey of discovery that she has gone through. If you a looking for writing on adoption or just a memoir with a difference then I would recommend red Dust Road very much indeed. I was also thinking it would make a very interesting companion read to Kit De Waal’s My Name is Leon, which I also really loved when I read that a year or so ago. A gem from the library shelves, hurray for libraries, they are brilliant aren’t they?

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Genuine Fraud – E. Lockhart

There are some books that are almost too twisty to review. One such book, which also came with the instruction that you should lie about it anyway, was E. Lockhart’s previous novel We Were Liars. A book so hard to try and write about to make everyone want to go and read without giving anything away, or lying so much you might not sell it to people, it seems I decided to not review it. I raved about it to people in person or on The Readers podcast instead. Having been such a fan of that book when I heard Genuine Fraud was just as twisty and also gave a nod to Patricia Highsmith (who I adore) I was of course sold. Now, how to tell you about it without spoiling it? Blimey, this will prove tricky.

Hot Key Books, paperback, 2018, fiction, 272 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Jule Williams is 18 and an orphan, these facts and only these facts are genuine truths about Jule as she is a genuine fraud. To the people around her, to herself and also to us dear sweet readers who she takes on a kind of kick ass, psychopathic, warped journey which I loved every minute of. As the book opens she has been hunted down by the FBI for a potential murder, but who has she murdered and why? Oh and why does the book start at Chapter 18? Well because, just to throw you off that little bit more, Genuine Fraud goes backwards in time too, so you have to try and solve the riddle of Jule and the riddle of her involvement in a death in an even more twisted way.

This could prove a twist too much (and there has been a fair amount of discussions around twists too far in the thriller world lately) yet E. Lockhart has a firm grip on the tale even if we don’t. We soon discover, no spoilers I promise, that Jule has been running and trying to survive for years. Both to try and better her life, if somewhat underhandedly, and away from a dark past. Well, dependent on which past you believe, see tricky but all part of the fun.

What we then follows, again no spoilers, is that whilst running she bumps into Imogen who she knew vaguely. Imogen is rich, spoilt and mainly left to her own devices, everything that Jule would like to be. Yet if Jule would like to be you it could be dangerous, for you and those around you. And that is where I will leave it in terms of the plot because to say any more would spoil all the twists ahead, some which seriously took me completely by surprise.

Jule was anxious to say the right thing, but she didn’t know if sympathy or distraction was required. “I read a book about that in college,” she said.
“About what?”
“The presentation of self in everyday life. This guy Goffman had the idea that in different situations, you perform yourself differently. Your character isn’t static. It’s an adaptation.”
“I have stopped performing myself, you mean?”
“Or you’re doing it another way now. There are different versions of the self.”

Whilst Genuine Fraud is in the main a fast moving, slick, Hollywood/Netflix ready thriller, it is also a psychological study (taking that nod to The Talented Mr Ripley) of a young woman trying to work out who she is, where she comes from and what she wants in life. Admittedly she is a little bit of a psychopath or sociopath, or maybe both, yet there is something so determined, survivalist and kick ass about her that you can’t help but become fascinated by her and slightly root for her even though she is rather unlikeable. Not something easy to pull off but E.Lockhart is very good at female spikey anti-heros and dislikeable characters you like despite yourself.

As I mentioned though, amongst all the high jinks and dastardly shenanigans, there is that element of looking at who you are as a person and trying to find your place in the world and also your identity when you feel so lost. How do you decide what your story is? What happens if you want to change that story? What happens if you tell one story to yourself but it isn’t the story that is taken from you by others? And what if you simply don’t, won’t or can’t conform to society’s story in general? There are some really deep layers in the dark depths of this book, be it that you take them and their empowerment subliminally or not.

You are the center of the story. You and no one else. You’ve got an interesting origin tale, that unusual education. Now you’re ruthless, you’re brilliant, you’re practically fearless. There’s a body count behind you, because you do whatever’s required to stay alive – but it’s a day’s work, that’s all.
You look superb in the light of the Mexican bar windows. After a fight, your cheeks are flushed. And oh, your clothes are so very flattering.
Yes, it’s true that you are criminally violent. Brutal, even. But that’s your job and you’re uniquely qualified, so it’s sexy.
Jule watched a shit-ton of movies. She knew that women were rarely the centres of such stories. Instead, they were the eye candy, arm candy, victims or love interests. Mostly, they existed to help get the great white hetero hero on his fucking epic journey. When there was a heroine, she weighed very little, wore very little, and had their teeth fixed.
Jule didn’t look like those women. She would never look like those women. But she was everything those heroes were, and in some ways, she was more.
She knew that too.

I really enjoyed Genuine Fraud. I really like a good anti-hero and Juliette West Williams is just that. In some ways I am not quite the target market for this book, but if I came away feeling empowered by her – despite some of her antics – and wanted to embrace my difference more, then how fantastic that a host of younger readers will go away and do the same. All whilst reading a bloody gripping yarn. I am also hoping that this will send more readers to the waiting arms of the queen of fictional psychopaths, Patricia Highsmith, what joys await them there too. Back to Genuine Fraud though, definitely a recommended reading rollercoaster ride.

If you would like to hear/see E. Lockhart chatting to me about Genuine Fraud, We Were Liars, sociopaths, Patricia Highsmith and more, then you can see me talking to her on my YouTube channel here, she gives great chat.

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Filed under E. Lockhart, Hot Key Books, Review