Sunday, 25 January 2015

Review of How to Make a Friend by Fleur Smithwick

How to Make a Friend revolves around the story of Alice Byrne who has survived a car crash that killed her best friend. 

Alice spends three weeks in a coma and when she wakes up she has an unexpected visitor, Sam, her invisible friend from childhood. As Alice tries to go back to normal life she finds Sam to be a much more troublesome friend in adulthood. Sam depicts many of the classic behaviours of a misogynist and the reader will find themselves frustrated by Alice's apparent tolerance of this manipulative creature in her life. But this is woman who has spent much of her childhood and adult life feeling insecure and unloved, which is fertile feeding ground for Sam. 

Obviously an adult woman with a invisible friend who appears to have a malevolent streak puts a strain in all of Alice's relationships with family and friends, and they become increasingly worried about her mental health. 

The reader is gradually given insights to Alice's past and the reasons why she turned to an invisible friend as a child in this story of possession and control. As the adult Alice comes to terms with her troubled childhood she begins to appreciate that she deserves love and happiness, while struggling with a growing resentment at Sam's continued presence. 

When the story takes a much darker turn the reader, like Alice's family and friends, begins to wonder how much is real, how much is a product of Alice's imagination and who actually is behind the events that follow. A spine-tingling level of tension keeps the pages turning as Alice is tormented by the untenable situation she finds herself in, where every choice she makes threatens those she cares about.

How to Make a Friend had me gripping my kindle in fear for Alice as the final scenes unfolded, it's one of those novels where you sense what's coming and you're peeking at the pages between your fingers willing the opposite to happen. The skill in this novel is how quickly Alice's reality is accepted by the reader in order to suspend disbelief. Smithwick's assured characterisation of Sam makes him a fully realised character in your imagination, meaning you see what Alice sees, as a growing sense of menace crawls under your skin. How To Make A Friend is a good psychological thriller with a hint of the supernatural that made all the hairs on my arms rise during the final chilling scene. Perfect for fans of The Woman in Black.

Published by Transworld on 29 January.
My copy was supplied by Transworld via NetGalley.
Follow the author on Twitter: @FleurSmithwick.
Find out more about the author here.


Friday, 23 January 2015

Be kind in the light of success

What kind of reader are you? Are you:

A) Someone who, when you find an author you like, reads everything they’ve written and then waits impatiently for their next book, or

B) Someone who reads a variety of authors within a specific genre but never reads outside of it, or
C) Someone who reads widely, across many genres, who loves discovering new voices?

I fall into the C) category. I specialised in finding new writers and sharing my passion for them long before I had a book blog or a book club. I have a knack for instinctively recognising a writer whose work will be successful. Just take a look at my blog, it’s packed with début novelists, many of whom have gone onwards and upwards. The second book I reviewed on here was The Silver Lining’s Playbook by Matthew Quick, long before his novel became an Oscar-winning movie, after he tweeted me to say how much he had enjoyed my review of The Rapture by Liz Jensen.

Matthew also gave me some good advice early on after I posted a not so flattering review for another writer’s work. He suggested that I be kind because every writer puts their heart and soul into their work.

I returned to the review in question and asked myself if I had been fair in what I had written. I quickly realised that I had not been fair and that the novel had pushed a hot button for me, that the novel had made me feel uncomfortable.

I then asked myself if I’d written the review based on my sense of discomfort or the writing. I soon acknowledged that it was the former and rewrote the review, because the novelist had achieved what they had set out to do in well written prose.

It was a good learning curve for me and I have Matthew to thank for that. Since then I work on being kind but fair in my reviews. 

Over the years I’ve witnessed just how subjective reading is, both online and in book clubs. Some people judge a book on whether they’ve engaged with the characters, others refuse to read anything violent or psychologically disturbing and some will only read romance. Some people derive their reading pleasure from well written prose and for others well written prose is an irritation that’s often classed as ‘trying too hard to be clever’. 

As I said, reading is subjective. It’s the reason we need diversity in writers and it’s also the reason writers shouldn’t become too hung up on negative reviews. People read for many reasons and they’re not going to like every book that’s ever been written, the fact that they like a few and keep reading is a good enough.

Many people will discover an author they love and will read their entire back catalogue while waiting for the next book to come out, some will experiment within a genre and others, like me, will push the boundaries to encourage wider reading.

I’ve enjoyed being a small part of many writers’ success. Some aren’t even aware that I’ve championed their work from the start. Nothing pleases me more than the moment when these writers land publishing deals, or brave the indie market and exceed expectations, or find themselves on awards lists, or secure a TV series or movie deal based on their novels, because it validates what I already knew the first time I turned the first page of their first book and started to read.

Would I want those writers who’ve achieved great success to stop writing? No, because it would be like asking them to stop breathing. No amount of money will ever make up for a writer not having the room to breathe, to create, to dip into a deep well of ideas to bring something new into the world.

Each time a successful writer gives birth to a new novel it drives traffic into book stores, libraries and online. Some people will only buy the new book by their favourite author while others will remember the joy of reading and seek out books by other authors, and some people may even be inspired to write.

The light of success can shine in many different directions, if you have the heart to be kind and let it glow.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Review of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Every morning the train Rachel catches into London passes the house she used to live in, where her ex-husband, Tom, still lives with Anna and their new baby. Due to a faulty signal on the line the train regularly stops outside Rachel's former home, torturing her with the memories of what she has lost. To distract herself from looking at Number 23, Rachel imagines the perfect lives of 'Jason and Jess' in Number 15 on the same row of houses. 

The train signal isn't the only thing giving off faulty signals in this psychological thriller as it hurls you down the tracks into Rachel, 'Jess' and Anna's lives. All three women suffer from misplaced anger, blinding them to the signals that threaten to derail their lives.

Rachel is depicted as an overweight, self-pitying, occasionally spiteful drunk who's prone to phoning or emailing her ex at all hours. This deeply unsettles Anna, who both loathes and fears Rachel because she's so unstable. Caught in the middle, Tom tries to pacify Anna and his former wife, Rachel, but he has his limits.

Jess's real name is Megan, a woman who cannot settle into a comfortable life with Scott (Jason). When Megan goes missing Rachel goes to the police as she witnessed something from the train that could help with the case. Unfortunately, due to Rachel's drinking history and shambolic physical state the police don't take her seriously. Determined to do something to help Scott, whom Rachel has idealised, she decides to take matters into her own unreliable hands, and discovers that Megan wasn't the perfect woman in the perfect relationship as she had imagined.

It's so refreshing to have a female lead character that's as flawed as Rachel. The depiction of alcoholism and it's impact on her is raw and realistic. Her self-esteem is low and she is vulnerable and scared by how far her life has gone off the rails. She leaves a trail of destruction and worry in her wake after each binge drinking blackout session and her behaviour makes her a dislikeable character. Yet Rachel's voice is compelling, you want to know what drove her to drink and why her relationship broke down with Tom.

Anna as 'the woman who stole another's husband' automatically appears dislikeable because she revels in having made that choice and is resentful of Rachel's continued presence in their lives. Meanwhile, Rachel believes Anna is living her perfect life but there are unhappy undercurrents in Anna's relationship with Tom that Rachel's not aware of. 

Megan's discontent also drives her to behave in a dislikeable way. Nothing is as obvious as it seems. The secrets hidden in each woman's past are crafted with skill, generating empathy as each one's complex history is revealed. 

The pacing and tension throughout is phenomenal. The ending feels like coming out of dark train tunnel into the light of awareness only to find your senses jarred all over again, as Rachel is brought to a halt by another faulty signal. The Girl on the Train is an original, compelling, compulsive, exceptionally well crafted psychological thriller.

With thanks to who ensured I received a copy of The Girl on the Train during the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival 2014

This post was originally written as a competition post to win a copy of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. The winner was Christina Philippou (@CPhilippou123).

Catch up with the other bloggers on the tour to find out more and follow the author on Twitter at @PaulaHWrites 

The Girl on the Train is published by Doubleday, as part of Transworld publishers

Monday, 12 January 2015

Review of The Offering by Grace McCleen

Madeline Adamson has been a patient in the Lethem Park Mental Infirmary for over 20 years. She was placed there when she was a young teenager and has no memory of how she came to be there. There is a detached tone to Madeline's voice, it has the quality of one who observes others as she herself is observed, like an unusual specimen in a jar.

The novel opens in June 2010 before moving back to January 2010 to introduce the sports car loving Dr. Lucas, who has taken an interest in Madeline's case. While his big personality sweeps through the corridors of the infirmary charming the nurses, Madeline has a rather more clear-eyed view of the man. Dr. Lucas believes that hypnotherapy will help Madeline to uncover the past that has been locked away in her mind with a view to rehabilitating her for release. He overrides Madeline's concerns about the punishing schedule he plans to put her on and the sessions begin. 

Madeline walks the reader through her past in the voice of her childhood self, as that is the state she regresses to during hypnotherapy. The reader learns that her father was a minister of God who believed in signs who read passages from the Bible to his wife and daughter every night. Young Madeline is fascinated by the jewel coloured template of a garden on the Bible's cover: from the use of light and shade, to the personalities given to the animals and the depiction of the man and woman who are almost hidden from view sitting in a tree, his head held high while the woman's is bowed.  

One day Madeline's father decides to move the family to an isolated farm house on an island. While her father has absolute control over his family he has none over the community they now live in, when he struggles to blend in work becomes scarce.

The father's anger and frustration at his own failings is continually directed towards Madeline and her mother, and the form it takes is contrasted with the clinical way Dr Lucas claims to encourage openness and questioning, as he removes the channels for patients to report anything they are worried about at Lethem Park. Both men are manipulative and both hold a God-like status in Madeline's mind. 

Due to her father's unsettling behaviour and her mother's inability to challenge her husband leading to increasingly severe episodes of depression, Madeline runs wild and finds comfort in the natural world with her beloved pet dog for companionship. The descriptions of Madeline's communion with nature are sensual and extraordinarily evocative. There are murky undercurrents in the intensely vivid experiences that Madeline shares with the reader that reflect the themes in the garden on the cover of the family Bible. 

As the pressure builds in the family home, Madeline is forced to reflect on her relationship with God and the nature of sin. The offering of the title is horrifying, yet one that is completely understandable when you consider Madeline's interpretation of her faith. It's no wonder that this memory makes Madeline's mind slip away from the light and into the shadows with devastating consequences.

The Offering is a haunting and powerful novel about the impact of neglect on an innocent child, who is sheltered from everything but the limited perspective of two parents who are struggling to cope with the challenges and disappointments of life. It's an intense and provocative read. The scenes on the farm have a cinematic, dreamlike quality that makes the secret buried in Madeline's mind all the more harrowing when it is revealed. 

The Offering by Grace McCleen is published by Sceptre on the 15 January. 
With thanks to the publishers for the NetGalley copy for review.
Find out more about the author here.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Review of No Other Darkness by Sarah Hilary

No Other Darkness by Sarah Hilary is the second novel to feature DI Marnie Rome. 
The opening chapter is absolutely heart-breaking, as Hilary introduces the reader to two little boys whose lives are snuffed out slowly in a concrete bunker as they cling on to each other for comfort. The love and care that the older brother has for the younger moved me to tears.

Five years later their small bodies are discovered in the back garden of a house on a new housing estate, and DI Marnie Rome is called in to investigate one of the most emotionally charged and complex cases imaginable. A little more of Rome's traumatic past is revealed as the case progresses, and each insight serves to enhance Rome's high level of empathy and flexibility to solve the mystery behind the murder of the two boys. Rome is tough and ballsy when she needs to be but she's also thoughtful and compassionate when she perceives the truth of a situation. The case has an emotional impact on everyone involved in it, including Rome's right-hand man, DC Noah Jake, who's also dealing with a troublesome brother while investigating the case.

I love the way Hilary builds, develops and weaves multiple plot strands, she excels at writing about themes that explore prejudice towards the perpetrators, victims and survivors of a crime with the aim of demonstrating that the truth of the matter is far more complex, as is the resolution. I was as moved by the ending of the novel as I was by the beginning. No Other Darkness is outstanding, this is powerful and emotionally intelligent writing that will make you question what you think you know about the motivations behind the crime and the escalating repercussions that follow, pre-order it here now, you won't regret it.

A huge thank you to Sarah Hilary for the advanced proof copy of No Other Darkness for review. It was an honour to be one of the first people to read it.

Published by Headline as a trade paperback and ebook on 23 April 2015 and as a paperback on 30 July 2015. 

Follow the author on twitter: @sarah_hilary
Find out more about the author here.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Review of The Crooked House by Christobel Kent

The Crooked House is harrowing from the start as teenage Esme puts her hands over her ears to shut out the booms that reverberate through the walls of her home. It doesn't take the reader long to work out what's happening in the isolated crooked house out on the marsh.

The novel then switches to Alison, who wakes suddenly in her boyfriend Paul's flat. Alison has a secret and has built strategies to cope when she's in an intimate relationship. When Paul announces that he wants to attend a wedding in Saltleigh, Alison has to face the nightmare that's hidden in her past, that she is Esme Grace, a survivor of the slaughter at the crooked house in Saltleigh. 

When Alison returns to Saltleigh with Paul she starts to uncover the past, as the gossip mongers go into overdrive to inform Paul of the murders out at the crooked house. The sense of isolation that surrounds Esme/Alison is expressed through the way she appears slightly detached from herself and in her dealings with anyone else, leaving her vulnerable in some ways and persistent in others. It's as though she constantly expects the worst and doesn't feel she deserves better, then when the worst happens it doesn't shock her quite as much as it will shock the reader.

The novel is infused with a sense of menace that creeps along the pathways of the past to the present, as Alison begins to contemplate the idea that the police may of charged the wrong person with murder. Alison is not the only person with secrets and lies, as each layer of deception is uncovered the reader is left with a mounting sense of horror as Alison is manipulated by those with vested interests in the closed community of the village that was once her home. 

I was totally and completely hooked by this novel and found myself unable to put it down once I'd started it. Kent vividly draws a picture of what life is like for a survivor of a major murder who is forced by circumstances to view it as an outsider. The Crooked House is an excellent, thought-provoking psychological thriller. Switch off the TV and settle down for a gripping read that will keep you hooked until the last page.

Published by Sphere on 8 January.
Find out more about the author here.
My copy was supplied by the publisher via NetGalley.

Review of The Dead Wife's Handbook by Hannah Beckerman

The Dead Wife's Handbook is an emotional roller-coaster of a read. I felt the tears prick behind my eyelids a few pages in as I was introduced to the main character - Rachel - whose heart stopped pumping when she was thirty-six.

Rachel is grieving for her loss of life. She seems to be caught between two worlds unable to let go of the past and is lost in an vast empty space filled with the mists of time, which part occasionally to give her glimpse of the loved ones she has left behind. This turns out to be both a blessing and a curse. 

It's an interesting concept to view the world through the grieving view point of the recently deceased, and it's handled with great sensitivity within these pages. Rachel is desperately lonely as she watches those she loves try to cope with their grief, and it worries her that she'll be forgotten and that she hasn't left a permanent mark on the world. 

Rachel's husband Max hasn't socialised in a year, his whole world revolves around work and their adorable seven-year-old daughter Ellie. His mother, his wife's best friend and his brother are all encouraging Max to start thinking about going out and meeting new people, but he thinks it's too soon, as does Rachel.

But as Max dips a toe into the dating world (with initially hilariously disastrous results) Rachel begins to realise just how big a legacy she has left behind and how her legacy will continue even in death. 

The complexity of relationships between the family and friends left behind are rendered thoughtfully and with care. The misunderstandings and reconciliations have an authentic feel, are often moving and will make you think about death and its impact on many levels. This is a hauntingly beautiful novel, full of love and compassion as it guides the dead and the living though the seven stages of grief to find acceptance and hope.

Published by Penguin.
I bought my copy from Amazon.
Find out more about the author here.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Review of Advantages of the Older Man by Gwyneth Lewis

The voice of the narrator, Jennie, hooked me from the first line and I was compelled to read on until I'd finished the novella a couple of hours later. 

Jennie's not into poetry, she can't understand why someone would write in a way that's 'designed to put other people off them'. Despite poetry's lack of appeal, Jennie applies for a job at the Dylan Thomas Art Gallery in Swansea and gets it, much to her mother's horror.

Jennie can't understand her mother's reaction and she's not really that interested after a chance encounter with the denim clad Peter Hodson, a moody writer and poet, in the Gallery. Jennie will do anything, including developing a sudden deep appreciation of poetry, to capture Peter's attention. When Peter is drawn to another girl, Jennie is visited by the ghost of Dylan Thomas who offers to help draw Peter's attention 
back in her direction, with hilarious and touching results.

Advantages of an Older Man is a little gem of novella with hidden depths. This light-hearted story of a young woman suffering from an unrequited passion explores life, love, death and the fine art of poetry. I loved how Dylan Thomas was portrayed in these pages. Jennie has a tendency to be sarcastic and occasionally vicious in her assessment of Dylan's character. Sometimes he gives as good as he gets and at other times he fades from view and Jennie regrets her harsh words. As they get used to each other, Dylan takes Jennie on a journey of self-discovery that she will never forget.

Published by Seren Books. With thanks to Sarah for the review copy, you were right, I did enjoy this novel very much.

Find out more about Dylan Thomas here.

Find out more about the author:

Review of Harraga by Boualem Sansal

When sixteen year-old Chérifa turns up pregnant and alone on Lamia's doorstep claiming to be sent to her by her beloved brother, Sofiane, Lamia knows her carefully ordered world is about to be turned upside down.

What is she to do with this talkative, unmarried teenager who is dressed like an X-factor contestant in the most conservative part of Algiers, where there are crackdowns every day on women who are not subservient or modestly dressed? Lamia's love for her brother, an Haragga who is trying to flee the country for a better life, compels her to take the girl in, but in her desire to protect the child she drives a wall between them. 

Lamia's voice is filled with an undercurrent of bitterness and resentment for the way women and people are treated in her country. She has chosen to live a life of isolation in order to survive. By day she works as a paediatrician and by night she walks, haunted by memories, through the crumbling mansion that is her home in the slums. Sharp and intelligent, Lamia's frustration with her life is expressed though a sarcastic wit, that can also be caustic and cuts straight through rumour and gossip to the heart of what ails her country and herself.

As Lamia's warnings to Chérifa increasingly fall on deaf ears, they enlighten the reader to the daily judgements Lamia is subjected to via comparisons to movies, and even one memorable journey on a bus, where the driver feels it's his duty to give her a backhanded tongue lashing for travelling without a veil. Harraga is a brave novel, a humane and thoughtful one that is both humorous and horrifying, and is well worth your time.

Born in 1949, Boualem Sansal lives on Boumerdès, near Algiers. His first novel Le Serment des Barbares (The Barbarians' Sermon) (1999) won the Prix du Premier Roman. In 2003 he was dismissed from his government job for criticising the Algerian government and in 2006 his books were banned in his native country following the publication of an open letter to the Algerian government, Poste restante: Alger, lettre de colère et d'espoir à mes compatriotes. Today he is considered one of Algiers most important writers, and a literary figure of international stature. Harraga is the first novel by Sansal to be translated from French into English by Frank Wynne. I hope there will be many more by this unflinching writer.

Published by Bloomsbury, with thanks for the review copy.

Book review: Living With It by Lizzie Enfield

Living With It by Lizzie Enfield amply demonstrates the difficult choices parents have to make day in, day out. This cleverly constructed novel examines cause and effect with thoughtful sensitivity. 

Ben and Maggie are devastated when they discover that their one-year-old daughter, Iris,  is deaf. So are their close friends Isobel and Eric. Years earlier Isobel decided not to have her children vaccinated with the MMR jab due to the controversy surrounding the measles vaccine. The devastating repercussions of that decision are felt when Isobel's daughter, Gabriella, falls ill with measles while both families are on holiday together in France.

The story is further complicated by unresolved issues within both relationships. Ben fell in love with Isobel while they were at university together but she married his best friend Eric. Isobel's life hasn't turned out as predicted and she resents Maggie. Meanwhile, Eric feels increasingly ignored by his wife when it comes to making decisions that affect the family.

When Ben decides to take legal proceedings out against Isobel and Eric everything comes to a head. This bitter game of 'look what you made me do' is told from the point of view of Ben and Isobel in alternate chapters. As these two become locked in a battle of wills the fallout is horrendous, as they become blind to the increasing damage their actions are having on their respective families and friendships. 

The strength of the writing lies in the secondary characters whose perceptions and experiences are deftly used to demonstrate opposing points of view. These perceptive passages explain how there are no right or wrong answers, there is only the choice you make at the time. The denouement of this perfectly pitched novel features a breathtaking twist that reinforces everything that has gone before. Highly recommended.

Published by Myriad Editions (Thanks for the review copy.)
Find out more about the author: Lizzie Enfield