Daisy by J.P Henderson #DaisyBook #BlogTour #NoExit #RandomThingsTours

I was so happy, with the world seemingly going mad outside, to read this humorous and charming book with such a distinctive lead character. This is the first time that Herod ‘Rod’ Pinkney has fallen in love with someone he’s seen on television, apart from that passing crush on the late-night presenter of Sky News. This is definitely the first time he’s flown across the Atlantic to find them, but he’s very sure this is love and he’s destined to marry Daisy, who he saw on a ten year old episode of Judge Judy. This is Rod’s story, in his own words, guided by a man who collects glasses in the local pub. Rod is an unlikely hero, starting out as a ‘disappointment’ to his late parents, whose deaths left him a millionaire. He lives comfortably in London with a basement extension that houses his large collection of books as well as a man from next door called Donald who looks like Charles Manson. Donald fought in tunnels during the Vietnam War and now has a purpose built tunnel into Rod’s basement so he can breakfast on the grapefruit banned by his wife. Just occasionally, he also uses the basement to practice his trombone. On Thursday nights he forms a duo with Rod’s Peruvian friend Edmundo who plays pan pipes. However, to start their evening the three friends always open a bottle of wine and watch Judge Judy, which is how Rod first sets eyes on Daisy Lamprich.

If all this sounds a little eccentric to you, you’d be right. This is a gloriously eccentric book, filled with interesting characters and all narrated with Rod’s deadpan delivery and unique logic. There are so many laugh out loud moments, where Rod has no idea that he’s given anything but the logical answer. He worries about bringing his friends Donald and Edmundo together because one fought vehemently against communism in Vietnam whereas the other fought for communists in Peru. As it happens they get on famously, because they’re both musicians, both veterans and have mellowed with age. Until they met, Rod observed that that the only thing they have in common is being married to large women. Aside from the basement extension Rod’s home is kitted out with every conceivable disability aid. There are stairlifts to each level, bathrooms with grab rails, a wheel-in shower and a bath lift. He even invests in a mobility scooter to get around town, which gives him an eight mile radius. He doesn’t however, have a disability. He’s simply thinking ahead, to him it seems perfectly logical to conserve his energy now so his body doesn’t wear out. In fact once he’d had the stairlift idea he was a salesman’s dream, simply agreeing to every new modification suggested.

In these scenes we see he’s actually very vulnerable. I think underneath the light as air writing style and gentle humour the book does have something important to say. Rod’s money takes away any constraints on what he can do and spend, but given different economic circumstances I can imagine him getting into real trouble. He’s very trusting and therefore very lucky in the friends he meets. Although, that does work both ways – there probably aren’t many people who would make friends with a stranger they find tunnelling into their basement. Rod doesn’t judge, and his reward is an eclectic, but incredibly loyal group of friends. They form a supportive community that felt quite poignant at a time when we’re creating new connections and trying to support our neighbours. I loved being inside Rod’s head and seeing the world as he does, his narration reminded me of Eleanor Oliphant or The Rosie Project. I was totally immersed in his world and I was frequently chuckling to myself. It was the perfect antidote to the lockdown for me and I heartily recommend spending some time with Rod Pinkney, who was far from a disappointment to me.

The River Home by Hannah Richell #Orion #TheRiverHome #NetGalley

It’s something she learned years ago -the hard wayand that she knows she will never forget: even the sweetest fruit will rot and fall into the earth, eventually. No matter how deep you bury the pain, the bones of it will rise up to haunt you ….like the echoes of a summer’s night, like the river flowing relentlessly on its course’.

I truly enjoyed this beautiful, haunting and heart rending book. Margot Sorrell couldn’t stand the idea of going home. She believed in moving forward, not looking back. But she receives a text from her sister Lucy in Somerset, saying simply ‘I need you’. So Margot, Lucy and the oldest sister Eve, congregate in the house they grew up in, beside the river. In such close proximity, it becomes difficult to keep the secrets they have been hiding, from themselves as much as each other. A wedding has brought the sisters together but the past may well tear this family apart. This gathering will change them all forever. They will have to confront terrible sorrow before a healing can begin, but only if they are open and tell the truth.

The author tells the story of the Sorrell siblings through different perspectives. Current events are happening in the brief ten day period of Lucy’s sudden wedding, so there’s tension straight away in the tight time period – these three have a lot of past hurt to get through. We also visit events in the past, in longer chapters that really evoke their time periods of the late 1980s, 2005 and finally 2009-10. These chapters provide a forensic analysis of the family and how they’ve suffered, with so little closure that there is still simmering hurt just under the surface. We see how the girls parents, Kit and Ted, met each other and came to be at the house. Their usual roles reversed when Kit’s career grew and suddenly she didn’t have the same time for the girls as before. She would forget things she’d promised and couldn’t be relied upon. This affected the girls badly, it stopped them bringing friends home and when their parent’s relationship finally broke down it was Margot, the youngest sister, who was stuck at home with grieving Kit while her sisters went to college. These strands are woven together very skilfully by the author to show that the emotions stirred up by the family unit being back together are hard to manage.

I loved how the sisters fall back into their long defined family roles as soon as they were within the family home. The atmosphere at Windfalls is darkly evocative and nostalgic. Like any family home, it is the space of our best memories, but also our greatest sorrows. The description is densely layered so I felt I was there in the room with these characters, feeling their emotions. There is duplicity, uncertainty, yearning and regret between these family members and all of it just under the surface. Cleverly, the author chooses to keep Margot’s secrets for the end of the novel and that creates another layer of tension as the time is whiled away and yet there are still so many things left unanswered. Once we get to the pivotal moments that still affect Margot to this day, it’s so painful and distressing. The family have always put her behaviour before she left home down to the family upheaval, but there is so much more than that and we really understand why she becomes the woman she is now. The shock of this is compounded by another event, this time in the present.

Margot changed deeply. What happens starts a long held resentment towards the family and her estrangement from her sisters, but also begins a cycle of self loathing and destruction. It’s not just the pain of the incident itself, it’s the fact that no one noticed. No one delves deeper or offers to help, and in these circumstances the family member turns their anger inward – how can someone develop self-worth when they’re so overlooked? Any attempt to help would now be too late and suddenly Margot’s actions make more sense. I shed tears for Margot, but also felt very deeply for Lucy. There are many dysfunctional family novels out there, but I felt that the author was psychologically astute and insightful. The characters are so well drawn and I felt completely swept away with their story and how this homecoming feels for them. My parents moved out of our childhood home a few years ago and it was strangely painful. I still haven’t been able to go back because it would feel odd to see strangers playing in the garden, where so much family drama played out. I would feel like a ghost, haunting the place I couldn’t leave behind. Where we grow up has seen so much; the full ebb and flow of family life. The energy of these events is somehow imprinted on the atmosphere like an emotional photograph. Sometimes, we have to to go back and confront these events, before we can truly understand them, to process them as a family and finally move forward with some sense of healing and acceptance.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

I was so excited when I noticed last week that NetGalley had made this book available for request again. I almost had a party when my wish was granted and I got the chance to read one of my most anticipated books of the year. What an absolute privilege it has been to read this incredible story. It is truly the best book Maggie O’Farrell has ever written and I’m a huge fan, having loved her previous novels, especially The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. The scary part is now trying to do this incredible work justice in my review.

Despite his place in literature as our most famous playwright, not a lot is known about Shakespeare’s life with his wife and children. Until reading this, and despite doing a module in Renaissance Literature at university, my only knowledge was of a wife called Anne Hathaway. Any other knowledge has rather embarrassingly been gleaned from Upstart Crow, which depicts his eldest daughter Susannah as an intelligent, outspoken and boy crazy teenager. I also remember a visit to Anne Hathaway’s home many years ago and being shown the outside of a picture perfect cottage. This was Hewlands where Anne was born, and after her marriage, the home of her brother Bartholomew. There has always been this hole in my knowledge, and when watching the totally inaccurate Shakespeare in Love I do remember wondering whatever happened to his wife. Did he love her and if so, how did he spend so much time away from her and their family? Also, with his success down in London, what did Anne do with her life? I wondered whether she was weighed down with the care of children, as well as her elderly in-laws with whom they lived.

For the author it was a different absence that became her way into the story. She had always wondered why the Black Death or ‘pestilence’ never featured in any of Shakespeare’s works. It’s absence seemed odd, considering that, in this time period, it killed large swathes of people. From 1575 in Venice over 50,000 people died as a result of plague over two years, thought to be caused by troop movements associated with The Thirty Years War. The beautiful cathedral Santa Maria Della Salute was built after a third of the population was wiped out in a return of the plague in 1630. The city still celebrates the Festival of the Redeemer today as a thank you that the city and some of its residents survived these pandemics. In England in 1563 the plague killed 20,000 people in London alone. Historical sources cite the plague as cause of death to extended members of Shakespeare’s family and possibly his sisters. His work was also affected, with all London playhouses closed down in 1593, 1603 and 1608. However, the biggest loss of all was his only son Hamnet, who is thought to have contracted the disease and died, aged 11, in 1596. O’Farrell takes these facts as the bare bones and fleshes out a more human story, weaving the life of a boy and his family with empathy, poetry and a touch of magic.

One of my favourite passages of the book focuses on the transmission of this horrific disease via some fleas and the beautiful millefiore glass beads crafted on the Venetian island of Murano. It takes accident, upon chance, and coincidence to carry the deadly disease all the way back to Stratford. A glassmaker burns his hand, so someone else packs his beads into some soft rags he finds lying around, instead of their usual packaging. A merchant ship bound for England has docked and these beads must be on it. A cabin boy from the ship searches Venice for cats to combat rats on board, when he is diverted by a monkey in a waistcoat. The monkey clings to his hair and, much to the boy’s delight, doesn’t want to let go, until his keeper roughly pulls him away. Left behind are a few fleas, some of which make their way onto new hosts in the shape of the ship’s cats. A crew member who tends to sleep with cats in his cabin doesn’t report for duty and is found to have a fever and the telltale ‘buboes’ or swelling of the lymph glands. These swellings turn black and the smell of the dead man is so repugnant that other crew members are relieved to heave him overboard for burial. He isn’t the last. Only five crew members remain as the ship docks in London and one box of beads from Murano makes its way to a Stratford dressmaker, where a customer is determined that only Murano glass beading would do for her new dress. The dressmakers assistant unpacks the beads from their ragged packaging and as she does a flea jumps from the fabric to its new host. The dressmaker’s assistant is Judith Shakespeare, Hamnet’s twin sister. This is typical of the author’s signature style of layering description to create depth and its effect is like an assault on the senses. I can smell the sweat of the glassmaker, feel the fur of the monkey, hear the creak of the boats in the canals and the shouts in the market, and feel the swell of the waves and ruts in the road as the package takes its journey, delivering both beauty and death at the same time.

One of my favourite passages of the book focuses on the transmission of this horrific disease via some fleas and the beautiful millefiore glass beads crafted on the Venetian island of Murano. It takes accident, upon chance, and coincidence to carry the deadly disease all the way back to Stratford. A glassmaker burns his hand, so someone else packs his beads into some soft rags he finds lying around, instead of their usual packaging. A merchant ship bound for England has docked and these beads must be on it. A cabin boy from the ship searches Venice for cats to combat rats on board, when he is diverted by a monkey in a waistcoat. The monkey clings to his hair and, much to the boy’s delight, doesn’t want to let go, until his keeper roughly pulls him away. Left behind are a few fleas, some of which make their way onto new hosts in the shape of the ship’s cats. A crew member who tends to sleep with cats in his cabin doesn’t report for duty and is found to have a fever and the telltale ‘buboes’ or swelling of the lymph glands. These swellings turn black and the smell of the dead man is so repugnant that other crew members are relieved to heave him overboard for burial. He isn’t the last. Only five crew members remain as the ship docks in London and one box of beads from Murano makes its way to a Stratford dressmaker, where a customer is determined that only Murano glass beading would do for her new dress. The dressmakers assistant unpacks the beads from their ragged packaging and as she does a flea jumps from the fabric to its new host. The dressmaker’s assistant is Judith Shakespeare, Hamnet’s twin sister. This is typical of the author’s signature style of layering description to create depth and its effect is like an assault on the senses. I can smell the sweat of the glassmaker, feel the fur of the monkey, hear the creak of the boats in the canals and the shouts in the market, and feel the swell of the waves and ruts in the road as the package takes its journey, delivering both beauty and death at the same time.In one timeline Judith and then Hamnet succumb to the plague, while unwittingly the family go about their usual day. There is a clever nod to the cross dressing in Shakespeare’s comedies here in the likeness of the twins, but this is anything but funny, it’s a disguise to cheat death. As the family slowly discover what fate has in store, our timeline jumps into the past following Agnes and Hamnet’s father. Although she is more widely known as Anne, she was recorded in official records as Agnes so the author chose to stick with that name. The author always refers to him as the tutor, the husband or the father and never by name. The absence of his name creates a sense of two people; the London’s celebrity playwright and the family man. We start to see what an extraordinary woman Agnes is in her own right. The object of gossip in town, people say the daughter at Hewlands is a very singular character. She has a friend who is a priest, she has her own hawk and can charm bees. In truth she knows a lot of old country ways such as foraging, hawking and bee keeping as well as what plants to grow for household ailments. She often roams barefoot in the forest and her stepmother Joan despaired of her a long time ago. In fact, she has suffered years of psychological abuse at the hands of her stepmother who is jealous of the love her husband held for his late wife. When Agnes meets her brother’s Latin tutor, she uses her method of reading people and pinches the flesh between his thumb and forefinger. Here she sees depths and universes within, that his surface youth and inexperience didn’t even hint at. It is this promise, these unseen layers, that she falls in love with. For his part, it is her difference he finds intoxicating. He realises that he will never see another woman who walks barefoot, with lose hair and a hawk on her arm. However much they accept each other, will their families accept their choice and will those untapped depths come between them?

I enjoyed the way these two timelines intersected, each informing the other and adding layers of understanding. How both families assimilated and worked together over time was really interesting. In each generation sibling relationships were particularly important, with their rivalries, but also their unspoken trusts and understandings. The idea of ‘doubling’ and disguise around siblings, especially where there are different genders such as Judith and Hamnet, makes us think again about a play like Twelfth Night. Disguise allows women to do things they would normally be excluded from and I enjoyed the industriousness of women in the novel. This wasn’t just based around domestic matters but planning and running businesses. Agnes grows medicinal plants and creates cures, with people often knocking on the door to be seen. As a country girl I also liked the depiction of her relationship with the land. When I stand on the bank of the River Trent, I feel an urge to go barefoot and ground myself. I was born there, so when I moved next to the river recently grounding and feeling the earth felt so powerful. Agnes is the same with the land at Hewlands, particularly the woods, and she chooses to give birth there to Susannah. Agnes feels cradled by the earth, it protects, cures and grounds her. She also has great ‘countrycraft’ such as being able to control bees – something I’ve seen my own father do with a swarm- there’s a practicality but also a mysticism to these abilities.

Underpinning all of this, I am in love with Maggie O’Farrell’s flow. It’s a hard book to put down because it reads like one long poem to love, family, and home. Then there is the tension that comes when a member of this family follows their dream and is taken away from that unit. How does a father balance his roles as lover, son, father and still follow his dreams? Especially when those dreams are so big. When he gets that balance wrong will he be forgiven, and will he be able to forgive himself? The book is full of contrasts, from passages so vibrant and full of life, to the devastating silence of Hamnet’s loss. From birth scenes to death scenes. Wild country lanes and the leafy woods compared with the noise and enclosure of town. The routine of daily family life as opposed to a chaotic life in the theatres of London. All of these contrasts exist within one family, and no matter what we know about our most famous and celebrated playwright, this is about family. Finally, the author’s depiction of grief is so moving. Whether quiet and contained, or expressed loudly, we never doubt its devastating power. We never overlook the boy-shaped hole in the life of this family. Whether our response to grief is to run from it, distract ourselves from it or deny it, eventually we do have to go through it. In the life of this couple, will their grief be expressed differently and if so, can they ever make their way back to each other? This is a simply stunning piece of work. Moving, haunting and ultimately unforgettable.

The Other Mrs by Mary Kubica

This was a thriller where I thought I’d guessed the outcome, but the author still managed to surprise me right at the end. Sadie and Will move to an island off the state of Maine with their two sons. The couple’s relationship is strained due to Will having an affair, so when Will’s sister Alice dies, leaving them her house they make a decision to have a fresh start. However, the fresh start isn’t that simple. Alice committed suicide in the house after years of struggling with the pain of fibromyalgia. Also, the house comes with guardianship of her traumatised daughter Imogen. Within weeks of them arriving, one of their neighbours is murdered and Sadie starts to feel uneasy. Is there a killer living on their street? She is also worried about Imogen who is openly hostile and very secretive about her whereabouts.

The author creates a a very uneasy atmosphere. I imagined all the action taking place in fog, the sort that seems to hang heavily around water. It is disorienting and can make you see things that aren’t there. Sadie is mired in this fog, unable to sleep in case of intruders and constantly feeling something is going on, just out of her sight. Sadie is unsure of Imogen immediately, because she is taciturn, secretive and never seems to connect with her. She hears her downstairs speaking to Will and the boys, so thinks Imogen dislikes her. Unwisely, she decides to check out Imogen’s bedroom while she’s out. The tension in this small scene is brilliant, I was on tenterhooks as Imogen walked around the room with her glass of red wine. I imagined her spilling it. When Imogen returns home unexpectedly Sadie only just gets out without being seen. In one of the creepiest scenes, when Sadie wakes that night she sees Imogen in the rocking chair in the corner of the room, watching her. She had left her glass of wine in the rush to leave the room.

I noticed some strange occurrences very early on, that seemed incidental to the story. Sadie and Will’s son Otto is reprimanded at school for taking a weapon in his bag. By way of explanation, he tells the school his Mum told him to carry it because of bullying. Sadie is horrified and knows she would never tell a child to do this, but Otto is adamant. He is indignant and calls his Mum a liar. Her youngest son Todd asks her to play a game with him, but she can’t recall ever playing it. Sadie works as a GP, one day when she is at work, she finds herself behind by several hours. All of this works towards creating an atmosphere of being unsure who to trust. When Sadie finds some disturbing drawings up in the attic, she starts to wonder. Otto is the artist in the family, and after the recent incident at school, could he be disturbed in some way? Did Imogen draw them, and if she did could she have more to do with her Mum’s suicide than we think? She’s also suspicious of Will. He’s always been attractive to women, but Sadie is unsure whether geography will change his tendency to respond. She noticed him talking to Morgan next door before her murder and had been worried she might be another rival.

Interspersed with Sadie’s narrative are two others; Camille is a bold, sensual and unpredictable woman and Mouse is a timid young girl, experiencing terrible abuse at the hands of her stepmother. These narratives muddy the water further. Camille is clearly the other woman but we don’t know if her name is a pseudonym. I wondered if Will’s mistress had followed them to Maine, or whether Morgan had a middle name. With Mouse I thought we might be exploring a character’s childhood, maybe Imogen’s or Camille. Sadie starts to act irrationally in her need to solve who killed their next door neighbour. She’s convinced someone she lives with is a murderer and starts to investigate, often clashing with the police. She stops working and puts all her time into it, but as a reader I was becoming more and more convinced that she is unaware of her own part in events. Mary Kubica is great at showing strained family dynamics and deteriorating relationships. Even though I was pretty sure I had this worked out she still managed to surprise me at the end. It’s clear some form of mental illness is at work here, but I kept veering between Imogen and Sadie herself. The competing narratives also played their part in muddying the waters, and kept me guessing. This was a diverting read with enough psychological suspense to keep me interested, and a heroine I was always a little bit unsure of.

Thanks to NetGalley for an ARC of this novel in exchange for my review.

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Mexico Street by Simone Bucholz

Translation by Rachel Ward

Thank goodness for Orenda Books. Without them I would have missed out on some amazingly original fiction in the past year and some quirky, unique characters. I’m always surprised and often fascinated with the stories I encounter and Mexico Street was no exception. This is a crime novel with ill-fated lovers on the side, and a wisecracking, badass heroine to tell the story. It’s noir with a sense of humour.

This is the third of Simone Bucholz’s novels to feature state investigator Chastity Riley, but can be read as a stand-alone novel. At first Chastity presents as a bit washed up. She’s unkempt and tired looking. Her hair hasn’t seen a comb in a while, plenty of drinking and smoking as well as a chronic lack of sleep have taken their toll. However, if her looks make you think she’s less than capable, you’d be wrong. She has a very dry sense of humour, a sharp mind and is the best person to get to the bottom of this mystery. Cars are being set on fire all over the world, but here in Hamburg. one car has a man inside. His death needs close investigation, because it could have links to a well known crime family. The victim is Nouri Sarakhan. Nouri is the estranged son of a local gangster, is that the motive or is this just a coincidence?

Chastity’s partner, Stepanovic, is a an insomniac. If he sleeps, he dreams and he needs to avoid those. Chastity and Stepanovic, are a good team. He is supportive and a good friend as well as a partner even though they do spar and bicker. There’s a hint he would like to be more than friends, and the appearance of Chastity’s ex creates a gentle rivalry. Chastity and Stepanovic investigate the Sarakhan family, an immigrant clan denounced both by their own country and Germany. In fact, they are only allowed to stay in Germany, because there is nowhere else to send them. Their culture is very traditional and patriarchal so their treatment of women is misogynistic. The lovers at the centre of the story are our other two narrators. They come from different families so there’s a modern Romeo and Juliet feel to their story. Bucholz is evoking a different Hamburg from the one people might know. This is not on the average tourist trail. Even where one of their number has been killed, these closed communities don’t trust the police and will not cooperate with the investigation. Every scene in the investigation is full of tension and I was never sure of what would happen next.

The author creates s unique reading experience, with a combination of short, punchy sentences and others that read like poetry. It isn’t verbose though, even where a line is poetic, there’s never a word wasted. Through it all Chastity narrates the story with a dry wit that’s irresistible. Chastity’s chapters are alternated with narration from a younger Nouri. He tells us about a forbidden love affair with Aliza Anteri, a young woman from a rival family. These narratives add other layers to the novel, and describe families focused completely on the cohesion of their clan. There’s no room for individualism here, only the clan and their criminal enterprises matter. One man can’t stand against this; he simply doesn’t count. As Aliza has found out, women matter even less. Her story is a complicated one, full of troubles and heartache. As for Nouri, was his death the result of his love for Aliza or was it his desire to move away from his family’s criminal activities towards a more legitimate career?

I had no doubt that Chastity would solve the crime, but that doesn’t mean this is a formulaic crime novel. Far from it. The combination of the author’s unique writing style, Chastity’s dry wit and the young couple’s complex story, creates an original and engaging read. The way Chastity sees her environment and the people in it is so enjoyable. However, she’s not just toughness and dry wit, the author allows her to grow and become more self-aware. The setting comes to life, but it is the seedy, dark, underbelly of the city. Let’s just say I haven’t wanted to put Hamburg on my bucket list! At the centre of it all is a gritty and disturbing story that keeps the attention throughout. Now I need to go away and read the first two novels.