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The Treatment by Michael Nath #The Treatment #QuercusBooks

This is a really unusual novel and probably one I wouldn’t have found in the course of my usual reading choices. I’m really glad I chose to give it a try. Written almost completely like a stream of consciousness, this is a novel that feels very relevant. The events feel entirely real, probably because they echo the murder of teenager Stephen Lawrence. Young, black teenager Eldine Matthews is murdered at a South London bus stop. The racist gang, L Troop, who are responsible for the killing, escape justice. Now, twenty years later, the leaders of the gang are untouchable by the law. Through years of police corruption and intimidating witnesses, they have carried on with their violence. However, even twenty years later, Eldine’s murder is not forgotten. His story is once again moving through the communities of south London. The blurb describes L Troop’s characters as ‘rambunctious dandies and enchanting thugs’ and there is something very interesting about them. Journalist Carl Hyatt wants to get to the truth, but knows that it will mean challenging Mulhall, the secret kingpin of L Troop and defender of Eldine’s killers. This will put everything and everyone he loves on the line.

Hyatt is a washed up journalist, disgraced after being prosecuted for libelling Mulhall. He is now working for the local free paper The Chronicle, which is a career dead-end. As whispers start to reach him of corruption, and the disappearance of a key witness, possibly orchestrated by Michael Mulhall. He pulls together an unlikely band of brothers: Victor Hanley, a criminal defence lawyer; the lawyer’s minder; a one-eyed comic; and a rent boy he happened to interview for the paper. They bounce off each other well and seem determined to achieve what the Criminal Justice System failed to do twenty years ago; get justice for Eldine Matthews and his family. Their enthusiasm and energy carry them forwards, but the closer they get, the less distance there is between their loved ones and a ruthless gangster.

I loved Nath’s depiction of London. It is edgy, vibrant and full of unusual characters and colour. It gave me a sense of 18th Century novels like Moll Flanders, because there’s a bawdy element to the language and a similarity in the various settings of bars, brothels and other disreputable establishments. The language of the characters is unusual too, they are unexpectedly erudite and articulate. Nath explores the issue of race, breaking it into three strands; individual, institutionalised and societal. He also tackles weighty subjects like justice, revenge, homophobia and religion, but it never feels worthy. These subjects are simply introduced through characters interacting with each other. The most compelling characters for me being Mulhall with his darkly magnetic personality and terrible hold on the community, and rent boy Donna Juan who could easily be the central character of his own book. Despite the dark subject matter there’s a strange exuberance about the novel, and it’s those contradictions, both in character and tone that kept me reading. The best thing we can say about a book is that it will stay with us and make us think. With this book Michael Nath has managed to do both.

Thank you to Quercus and NetGalley for my ARC of this novel.

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The Long Call by Ann Cleeves #TheLongCall #MinotaurBooks

I’ve been a fan of Ann Cleeves’s Shetland series for many years now and the TV adaptation is a viewing must for me. I love the sense of place she creates, the history of the islands woven into the stories and of course Jimmy Perez, the tragic widower wedded to his work. I also love his relationship with Duncan, and the two dads working together to bring up their daughter. I watched Vera on TV before reading any of the novels so now she is inextricably linked with Brenda Blethyn. Yet again, on reading, it is the landscape that’s the star of the show. I think, after reading this first novel in her new series, North Devon will always be the territory of Matthew Venn.

The long call is part of a seagull’s repertoire and is usually associated with warning and aggression; ‘the sound naturalists named the long call, the cry which always sounded to him like an inarticulate howl of pain’. DI Matthew Venn is a local boy, now working for Barnstaple CID. He picks up his first murder enquiry when a body is found on the sands. The man, who looks to be in his forties, has been stabbed. There is nothing to identify him, except a tattoo of an albatross on his neck. Immediately, my mind went to Coleridge and the Ancient Mariner, a man who is cursed after he kills an albatross. The tattoo hints at a heavy burden and the need for a constant reminder. The victim turns out to be a man called Simon Walden, who once killed a child when drunk driving, and lost everything in his life. Depressed and suffering from alcoholism, Simon had been working as a seasonal chef in a local hotel. As Matthew starts to investigate, the links between the case and his personal life start to emerge. At what point should he step back from the case?

Venn is an interesting character. He is very quiet and thoughtful. His upbringing was in the strict religious environment of the Barum Brethren. Having rejected this strict evangelical faith, he found himself ostracised by both the congregation and his parents. We meet him just as he’s grieving for his father, filled with guilt and regret for not being able to see him before he died. His husband Jonathon is supportive though and has settled with him in the area after finding a job as head of the The Woodyard – a community venture focused on the arts for people with learning disabilities and their families. Unfortunately, connections between The Woodyard and the murder case start to surface. Walden was living with two workers from the hub, Caroline Preece, charity worker and daughter of the local vicar rents out rooms in her home. Along with current lodger and art therapist, Gaby Henry, Chrissie decides to take a chance on Walden when she finds out he is homeless. Another connection comes in the form of a young woman with learning disabilities who talked to Walden on the bus each morning on her way to The Woodyard. Her father is alarmed to find out this stranger has befriended his daughter, and suspects an ulterior motive. What could possibly be the connection between them?

Venn is constantly treading a fine line ethically with this case. His local knowledge and insider information on the Brethren are making a big difference to the case. However, his personal links to the day centre, and particularly his husband’s role as Manager could jeopardise any future legal case should it come to court. He is ably assisted by DS Jen Rafferty though, who works very instinctively and with great empathy. She has left an abusive relationship in Liverpool to lose herself somewhere more rural and I think her own troubles have given her great empathy and insight. I felt this book was very much about establishing these characters for the future, and that created a relatively slower pace to the novel. I enjoyed how the variety of characters allowed Cleeves to explore societal assumptions and prejudices people have about same sex relationships and people with learning disabilities.

The location, as always, is a character in its own right. The community is nestled where two rivers, the Taw and Torridge, meet at the coast. It’s the perfect place for people who want to escape the rat race, for artists attracted by local scenery and wildlife, for tourists and for those wanting to disappear. Towards the end of the novel, as the suspense begins to build and those threads start to come together, the pace picks up and I found myself more engaged. I think this bodes well for the future novels in the series now these characters are established. I’m looking forward to seeing more of the complicated, but intelligent Matthew Venn (although I will always love Jimmy Perez). I also look forward to seeing more of his relationship with Jonathon because I think their differences – Matthew always smart in a suit and Jonathon in shorts and sandals whatever the weather – could create opportunities for the both drama and humour. Cleeves has another hit on her hands and since it’s already been optioned for a TV series I’m already mentally trying to cast the characters.

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The Switch by Beth O’Leary

Well, I seem to have been well and truly ‘Eileened’. This was the perfect lockdown read for me. Funny, moving, romantic and uplifting all at once. One year on from the death of her sister Carla, Leena is treading water. She’s still living down in London, still doing the same job and is still with the same boyfriend, Ethan. She lives in the same flatshare in Shoreditch with her friends Fitz and Martha. She and her best friend Bee have talked about setting up her own business, but she’s still waiting for the right time. She’s still not talking to her mother either; since Carla died their relationship has been very strained. In fact, the best relationship Leena has is with her namesake, her grandmother Eileen. Eileen still lives in Leena’s home village and is a force to be reckoned with; she organises village events, coordinates the Neighbourhood Watch scheme and knows everything going on in the surrounding Dales villages. So, when Leena makes mistakes at work and is asked to take a sabbatical, Bee thinks Eileen is the best person to get her back on track and she is packed off to stay for a few days.

Despite being incredibly busy, Eileen also needs a change. She has been supporting her daughter who has had several breakdowns since Carla’s death. They call them ‘wobbles’ but it has been a far more serious depression than Leena knows. Eileen feels a bit jaded and would like to meet a man and have an adventure. They come up with the idea of a switch. Leena could move back to the Dales and take over her grandmother’s life, while Eileen moves in with Martha and Fitz down in London. Leena will be able to use her organisational skills to manage the annual village festival. Meanwhile, Fitz will help Eileen set up a dating profile online and she will get to feel the excitement of living in a city. What could possibly go wrong?

I fell in love with Eileen straight away, she’s ballsy and packed full of energy. She’s also incredibly loving and generous. Despite going through her own grieving process she has been supporting her daughter and granddaughter, as well as trying to cope with the tension between them. Eileen is a ‘fixer’ at heart too, she won’t let anyone go unnoticed or be ignored. Not only does she make friends with Fitz and Martha, she also wants to meet and befriend Bee. Here she really does start meddling in order to help Bee out with her own dating dilemmas. She wants to make use of the communal space in the block of flats and comes up with the idea of social club for Shoreditch’s elderly residents. She soon gets everyone on board, except for one resident who is worried about strangers coming in and out. Eileen visits her in person and answers each of her concerns, eventually getting her involved too. She befriends Letitia, whose flat is full of incredible antiques, and won’t let her be a recluse. I love how Eileen never judges anyone. Despite what I might have expected of someone her age, she accepts everyone’s different way of living. When she meets a man who offers her a no-strings affair while she’s in London, she doesn’t dismiss it. She accepts his offer and sees it as an adventure. The group help Eileen too, by advising on some wardrobe updates (culottes are back) and giving her an insight into a younger generation. Despite all this excitement, she surprises herself by chatting to Arnold, her neighbour back home who also has an online dating profile. She’s always seen him as a grumpy old man, and they’ve always had a prickly relationship. Will they get on any better online?

Leena also starts a tentative truce with Arnold. He’s typically grumpy at first but she perseveres and finds herself popping over for mid-morning coffee. The many committees Leena has to attend on Eileen’s behalf don’t go according to plan at first, not helped by a first impression of her losing one member’s dog. Leena remembers Jackson from school and he is now a primary school teacher with a rather unruly dog. When Leena loses him the whole village is on the alert and he’s found wrecking a neighbour’s garden. Not everyone is as forgiving as Jackson. They’re also not keen on new ideas, however well researched and organised. Leena finds that her event planning skills need something extra, local knowledge and know-how. Leena’s relationship with her Mum is at best frostily polite, but things take a bad turn when they have a screaming match in the street. It seems that Marian supported Carla’s choice to stop treatment, whereas Leena felt there were more options and tried to push her sister into fighting on. For Leena, this is the first time she has met an obstacle she can’t climb over. In her eyes, Marian failed Carla, then failed Leena by being so caught up in her own grief she stopped being a Mum. Eileen worries that instead of their proximity forcing them to work through their differences, it has made things even worse. It becomes clear that Marian has been so fragile, Eileen has feared she might commit suicide. Can they get past this, or are they destined to remain estranged forever?

It was interesting that Eileen and Leena are both similar in their approach to life, but by switching have still made differences to those around them. Leena thinks she has been spending time with Arnold and her Gran’s best friend Betty, because they’re isolated and lonely. There’s a point in the novel where she realises that they’re becoming friends in their own right and she looks forward to spending time with them. I particularly enjoyed how she realises that Betty’s husband might be abusive and controlling. Betty is very nervous when her husband phones to ask about his tea and when Leena pops round unexpectedly. It’s something all the friends have been aware of, but they’ve been too scared to tackle it. Leena has nothing to lose, she’s only there for a short time, so she tells Betty that she doesn’t have to live like this. She also offers a bed, if ever she should need it day or night. In London, Eileen talks to Martha about her relationship with Yaz and worries that she’s still over in the US, rather than with her pregnant partner. However, she is quick to accept that this generation does things differently. She’s not so hands off with Bee though, taking her on a blind date with a young man from Yorkshire who she thinks will fit the bill. Both learn how important their support networks are, despite having generational differences, the bonds run just as deep.

Eileen learns that as an independent woman she can choose whether a romantic relationship is for life, as it would have been when she was young, or just for a season. She most definitely has an adventure, but will it be so transformative that she makes long term changes to her life? For Leena the experience shows her she could choose to live at a different pace. In this small village, where she and Carla grew up, people talk about her sister quite naturally and it helps. Here she can’t avoid her grief and has to slowly work through it, alongside others who loved and miss Carla too. If she were to stay, there are so many things to think about: her relationship with Ethan; her friendship and possible business plans with Bee; whether to go back to her flat and her job. Could a tall, handsome primary school teacher feature in those plans? This book is light and uplifting, despite visiting some tough themes with Betty’s story and the loss of Carla. I found myself wondering what life changes I could make and Inexplicably ended up clearing out the wardrobe! The characters are eccentric but very lovable, especially grandmother and granddaughter. It gives a great message for these trying times – life is short, and if you’re not happy, you have the power to make changes. Happiness and peace can be found whether you’re in Thailand on a yoga retreat, in Shoreditch or in a picturesque little village in the Yorkshire Dales. It’s within all of us to choose it.

Thank you to NetGalley for an advanced copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

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Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins

I have enjoyed Lucy Atkins other novels and it seems they get better and better. I love the character of Dee and became drawn in by her straight away. There is a sense that she doesn’t really belong anywhere but she is curiously at ease with who she is. Some thing of an outsider in Oxford, she doesn’t belong to any of the colleges but is one of those invisible people who provides services to those who do belong. Dee is a nanny and makes a very disturbing observation about the academics who use her services – when desperate, people will let a near stranger look after their child. The new master and his wife, Nick and Mariah, hire her after a chance meeting on a bridge early one morning and one hasty conversation. They do not ask for references or do a police check. If they had, they would have found that Dee has a criminal record.

It is no coincidence that Mariah restores old wallpaper. She is adept at papering over cracks. She tells Dee that Felicity is selectively mute, that she met Nick after his wife died from a longstanding illness and that they both did everything to get Felicity talking again. There us a stifling atmosphere in the lodgings and the author carefully links the house with the people in it – with both there is a long history being erased and retold through renovation or retelling. Is the start of this couple’s relationship as simple as they portray? Mariah’s chirpy and wholesome exterior might, just like the new decor, might hint at a darker, more murky interior world. The house’s history is slowly being unearthed by Linklater, a social historian hired by Nick. It shows how out of step these two characters might really be. Nick wants to disturb and discover the chequered past of their new home, while Mariah is whitewashing it. Linklater discovers family dramas, haunted occupants and a possible answer for the ‘priest’s hole’ in Felicity bedroom that may be even more malign than the poisonous Victorian wallpaper.

Felicity isn’t just mute. She is a very distressed child, seemingly obedient but full of simmering anger and confusion. She roams the house while still asleep, makes patterns on the floor with her collection of bones and artefacts, and seems to be drawn by the ‘priest’s hole’ in the middle of the night. She slowly starts to speak to Dee, but also makes a surprising connection to Linklater when the three of them start to take tea together after school. They are a group of misfits, finding each other and developing trust. There seems to be a distinction made between those who appear genuinely themselves, however odd they may seem, and those who are putting on an act; a natural family forming where there is a forced family unit at home. It has to be significant that the one person Felicity never speaks to at all is Mariah. Dee becomes more than a passing childcare worker, she is deeply involved with this little girl. I like the way the author foreshadows this relationship as Dee sees Felicity for the first time and notices her curls, just like those of another child she once knew. Is this another nanny’s role or is she giving hints of a past we don’t know about? If Dee once had a family what happened to them? We have to question Dee’s role as narrator and whether she is not as candid with us as she seems.

I kept waiting for a terrible secret to emerge and for Dee’s reaction to being exposed. The tension is ratcheted up when we learn that Felicity has gone missing and the narrative passes back and forth between the present day and what has happened in these character’s pasts. I enjoyed the ending, although I raced there a little too quickly. I was desperately hoping for a happy ending for both Felicity and Dee. Watching Mariah and Nick’s ‘perfect’ life completely implode was oddly satisfying. With her perfectly calm exterior ravaged by the birth of her first child Mariah struggles to function normally and seems haunted by Felicity’s mother Ana. She starts to spend days in pyjamas, coping with a colicky baby and this break in her usually ordered world threatens to break her.

I was left feeling that Nick and Mariah didn’t deserve Felicity, but was that what the narrator wanted me to feel? I was left wondering whether I’d been manipulated all along. As the police wondered and questioned, the reader does the same. Is Felicity as disturbed as Dee would have us believe? Or was Nick right in his assessment that it was Dee’s presence, her inability to sleep, her encouragement in discovering something supernatural and the constant buckets left in the kitchen to bleach animal skulls that are to blame? Finally, I liked the way maths was used as a theme in their interactions; Dee’s proof is an example of how something seemingly factual and definite can still be manipulated. A maths problem can have two correct answers. It simply has to be worked out differently. Which version do we trust? This is an intelligent, psychological, thriller that keeps you guessing long after reading, Lucy Atkins has done it again! A great read.

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The Silent Treatment by Abbie Greaves

This interesting novel grabbed me right from the start, as Maggie calmly swallows a handful of tablets, then gets up to make dinner for her husband. It takes till half way through prepping the green beans and she has collapsed suddenly, so suddenly there is no time to break her own fall. Frank is so engrossed in his study that the smoke alarm is the first sign of the tragedy that has unfolded in their kitchen. He finds their tea on fire in the oven and a little way away, Maggie is unconscious on the floor. Frank’s voice is hoarse and he’s unused to the sound as he calls the emergency services. This is when The reader first finds out that Frank hasn’t spoken to anyone, even his beloved wife, for the past six months.When I requested the novel from Netgalley it was this premise that first drew me in. Probably because, as my long-suffering partner will tell you, I never stop talking. I imagine that not chatting to the person you live with takes concerted effort. Greaves came across the premise for her novel when she read an article about a Japanese boy who had never seen his parents speak to one another. It’s intriguing and does ensure that you keep reading; I kept wondering why and how this situation could have started.

I hadn’t realised that the book was about pregnancy loss and infertility. Greaves writes about the grief and helplessness of this experience with real insight. Having been through the same experience, it was important to me that Maggie’s response feel genuine. We see the ups and downs of a long term relationship as Frank starts to reminisce, and the romantic beginnings of building their home together. As Maggie lies in a coma at the hospital, her nurse Daisy encourages Frank to talk, to say everything he can to her because the time they have left together may be limited. This Is where Frank’s secret is revealed and we know why he hasn’t spoken for six months.

I enjoyed the novel, even though there were parts I didn’t fully connect with. Although Frank’s narration is emotional I found him difficult to understand. It’s a if there is a barrier between the reader and Maggie, both because she’s in a coma and because we only see her through Frank’s eyes at first until the narrative voice changes. I found myself waiting for a contrasting chapter from Maggie’s point of view early on, then with Maggie’s letters we start to see her inner life. I found this a moving and honest portrayal of pregnancy loss and parenthood. It’s hard to imagine a relationship where all the usual day to day things happen like eating together, sleeping together and sex, without a word passing between them. I guess it shows the strength of love, that Maggie can continue to give while receiving silence. I won’t spoil the ending, but it is emotional and I can see it staying with readers. This is an intriguing debut and I would definitely look out for future novels from this author.