Fiction, Reviews

Elmet by Fiona Mozley (2017) – shortlisted for The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick

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image via hodder.co.uk

Elmet has been nominated for a lot of awards, most famously the Man Booker Prize in 2017, but I have to admit I hadn’t heard of it before it came to me as part of the shortlist for the Young Writer of the Year Award 2018. Once I started reading I wasn’t surprised that it has garnered so much praise and attention, especially given that it’s a first novel. Elmet is a visceral and gritty story that is filled with intense emotion.

Initially I was wary of the young narrator, as Daniel is only in his mid-teens, but I could see why this choice was made. He and his sister Cathy live with their father – ‘Daddy’ – in a remote home in Yorkshire, where they live off the land and keep to themselves. They are isolated and you can see how this strange life has affected the young Daniel throughout his narrative. Their father is a bare-knuckle boxer, fighting for money, and there is a strong element of danger and the threat of violence running through the story.  Seeing the story from Daniel’s perspective means that we don’t always get the full picture, but as adult readers we can infer the rest, which is sometimes darker than Daniel realises.

The title comes from the old Celtic name for the section of northern England where the characters live, and there is a timeless element to the story, especially as everything seems to happen so far away from normal society. The family very much live in their own world, where there is a blend of folklore and modern life. As a reader you wonder why they are so isolated, what has happened to the children’s mother, and what drives the father to be so intense and scary, frankly. They do have some neighbours and it soon becomes clear that there may be issues over who actually owns the land on which they live, and from this there comes discussion of rights and class, as well as the importance of home and belonging. These themes run throughout the book, right through to the dramatic conclusion.

I quite liked the premise of Elmet, but for me the style and the setting was a little too affected, and I didn’t warm to any of the characters. Like their father, Cathy is tough and secretive, and Daniel clearly needs more from both of his relatives. Their situation is extreme and unhappy, and the reading experience is hard going. While I admired Mozley’s skill with scene setting and atmosphere, I found the novel quite hard to engage with. However, I think Elmet will still find a lot of fans who will enjoy the interesting family dynamics and the multi-layered issues and theme throughout the novel.

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Published in 2017 by John Murray, an imprint of Hodder. My copy was provided for review in conjunction with the Young Writer of the Year Award 2018.

Purchase from FoylesBlackwell’sBlackwell’s, and Wordery.

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Fiction, Reviews

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar (2018) – shortlisted for The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick

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image via penguin.co.uk

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock continues the trend of historical novels that are filled with rich detail, the glamour and grunge of the city, and a vivid cast of characters. This novel also brings in a slightly fantastical element with the mermaid, which I think makes it a bit more original than some other novels in this vein. From the start the novel is very engaging and immersive, full of descriptive detail and a wide cast of characters. It is written in the present tense, which I wasn’t sure about at first as this can often be misused, but I was quickly convinced that it was the right choice for this novel.

We are introduced to Jonah Hancock, a merchant who has recently lost his wife and son. He owns several ships, and it is the captain of one of these ships who comes to him with the mermaid – a small creature caught from the sea. It appears to be dead by the time it makes its way to Mr Hancock, but it is a marvel nonetheless. They quickly come upon the idea of displaying it to the public for a fee. We then meet Angelica Neal, a courtesan striving for more independence. Her world is just as vividly drawn as that of Mr Hancock, if not more so, and we are drawn into her story from the start. These two characters are drawn together and it all goes from there…

There were times when I thought the language got a little too flowery or affected, especially with the use of the present tense, but I don’t think it went over the top – rather it served to create another world for the characters and the story. It is a very dense and developed world, filled with well-developed characters, both the central couple and those around them. Their relationship is very interesting, as they are drawn to each other but you’re not always sure how much of a game is also being played, on either side. As my fellow shadow panel members Susan and Amanda have pointed out in their reviews, this novel could be read as a morality tale and there are shades of ‘be careful what you wish for’, in terms of relationships but also the mermaid itself and everything it brings with it.

I’m not sure I would have got around to picking up this book if it were not for the Young Writer of the Year shortlist, but I’m glad I did. I have observed several other novels in this trope, but I’m glad I haven’t actually read too many of them, so it didn’t feel tired to me. Imogen Hermes Gowar obviously researched the time period thoroughly, and she does well with the world building. The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is an engaging and intriguing novel that I can just see being made into a BBC drama – no lack of visual and atmospheric details! I think anyone who enjoys historical fiction of this type will love it.

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*

Published in 2018 by Harvill Secker, an imprint of Penguin. My copy was provided for review in conjunction with the Young Writer of the Year Award 2018.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth (2018) – shortlisted for The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick

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image via penguin.co.uk

I had not heard of this book when it was shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read it – I have always liked travel writing, and I love to read about places and things I know nothing about, but still find interesting. Kings of the Yukon is based around Adam Weymouth’s journey along the Yukon river (crossing the Canada/Alaska border) in a canoe at the same time of year as the salmon are making their way along the river in the opposite direction, back inland. He writes about the salmon themselves quite a bit, their different species and habits, their life span and their habitat; and he writes about the places he visits and the people he finds there.

I loved the way that Weymouth let the people along the Yukon tell their own stories, and sort of sat back and let them talk on the page. He does not try to impose his own opinions or narrative on things, and this book is much more about the journey, places, and people than about the author. A lot of travel writing is about a personal journey, some sort of self-discovery, but that doesn’t really happen here, and it was actually quite refreshing. I do like reading those more personal travel books, but Kings of the Yukon is about how people interact with nature, and how that impacts the animals, the land, and in the end the people themselves. Weymouth writes about the impact of overfishing and the bureaucracy that is put in place to control it, successful or otherwise. I felt I was learning new things right from the start of the book, which was wonderful.

I also loved Weymouth’s writing style. It is simple and understated, descriptive and yet never overblown or too complex. He is clearly a keen observer, and adds marvellous details in just the right places. His fascination with his subject comes through in his writing, and you can feel that this was a journey, and a book, that came from a passion for nature and this particular area, as well as the people who live there. Stories are told of both the native First Nations people as well as those who came later; we learn about why these people came to the area – the gold rush, farming, and of course the fishing. The history of the place still seems to be present in the lives of the people that Weymouth speaks to, alive in their memories. As a British person who has never visited either Canada or Alaska, it was fascinating to learn this history and the ways in which it has influenced the lives of those in the area.

Reading Kings of the Yukon was a wonderful experience outside of normal life, off to this remote place up near the arctic circle that I now really want to visit. I also loved the hand drawn map at the start of the book that shows the Yukon river and the places mentioned in the book. I very much look forward to whatever Adam Weymouth publishes next!

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*

Published in 2018 by Particular Books (UK), Little Brown (US), and Knopf (Canada). My copy was provided for review in conjunction with the Young Writer of the Year Award 2018.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman (2018) – shortlisted for The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick

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image via orionbooks.co.uk

I’d had The Reading Cure on my GoodReads TBR for a while, so I was pleased to see that it was shortlisted for The Young Writer Of The Year Award, and I would have a reason to actually hurry up and read it. It is a memoir that blends together the personal and the literary, as writer Laura Freeman takes us through her struggles with anorexia and her deep love of reading.

Despite the word ‘cure’ being in the title, and the subtitle being How Books Restored My Appetite, Freeman acknowledges that anorexia is a much more complicated thing than that, and she muses on the fact that it will never completely leave her. I admired her candidness throughout the book, and found her discussions about mental health issues refreshing and down to earth, especially the lasting effects of it both on her and those closest to her. More than once she writes about how isolated she was during the worst points of her illness, whether that was in a literal sense when she was confined to bed, or in a more personal sense when she felt different and weird for having these issues around food.

Her discussions of the possible causes of her anorexia are insightful and fascinating as she takes us through her happy and thoughtless childhood eating through to her gradual realisation as a teenager that food could make her fat, something she didn’t want to be, and that the ideal form was obviously to be thin. Later in the book she also considers how women both in real life and in literature seem required to eat daintily, to prefer neater foods, while the man can glut themselves on pies and meat. This is something that I have observed too. It always seems to be seen as a virtue when a woman denies herself more food than she absolutely needs. Freeman considers this in light of the writers she reads throughout her illness, as she starts with male authors and eventually veers over to more women, such as M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, and Virginia Woolf.

The books she reads are the centre of this memoir. It is as much a reading diary as a book about Freeman’s experience with her illness. She takes us in great detail through her year of reading Dickens, her time reading Laurie Lee, Paddy Leigh Fermor, First World War poets, and then through Fisher, David, Woolf, and on to others. At times I felt like there was a little too much detail from the books (I was glad I actually hadn’t read most of them, otherwise it would be too repetitive), and not quite enough about how it related to Freeman’s life and experience. She is also very obviously influenced by her reading when it comes to her writing style, which is quite flowery and sometimes quite self-conscious. While she discusses her love of new words she learns from her reading, and this is great at the time, her later use of them can come across a bit heavy-handed.

The Reading Cure is a very charming book, filled with Freeman’s love of literature and her appreciation for food, despite her illness. At times I think things could have been delved into a little deeper, or explored from another perspective, but the book is very enjoyable and a great accomplishment nonetheless.

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*

Published in 2018 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, an imprint of the Orion Group. My copy was kindly provided in conjunction with the Young Writer of the Year Award 2018.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery.

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Fiction, Reviews

House of Glass by Susan Fletcher (2018)

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(image via goodreads.com)

I loved Susan Fletcher’s last novel, Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew, so I was very happy to accept a review copy of House of Glass, which was published at the start of November. It’s another historical drama, this time centering on a woman named Clara Waterfield, who is employed to create a greenhouse at a mysterious country estate, Shadowbrook (doesn’t sound creepy at all…). Clara is born with weak bones and lives a very sheltered life until she finds a ‘gentle’ job in the greenhouses at Kew Gardens – and it is from there that she is employed at Shadowbrook.

From the start things are a bit weird, with the house’s owner, Mr Fox, being absent and everyone being a bit cagey about where he is. The housekeeper Mrs Bale is kind but seems fraught with some underlying fear or tension, and evades Clara’s questions; and the two maids at the house are likewise unable or unwilling to give her any more information. She must simply prepare the greenhouse for the plants that are to come, and when they arrive she must plant and look after them. While the house and its owner are a mystery to Clara, she in turn is something of a mystery to everyone she meets – her bones mean that she is short and walks with a cane, and she has unusually light hair, skin, and eyes. She constantly feels looked at wherever she goes, and it takes her a while to settle in. Throughout these introductory sections of the book, Fletcher’s beautiful writing really shines through, as Clara explores the house, grounds, and the local village, observing everything and always wanting to learn more. She also thinks and dreams of her dead mother almost all the time, haunted by her memories.

Soon, Clara starts to hear strange noises in the house, and wonders why there are no pictures on the walls. She learns that there were pictures, but they kept falling down for no apparent reason. So, not only do we have a mysterious house with a mysterious owner, we might also have ghosts. I wouldn’t say that House of Glass is a ghost story or a haunted house story, but it’s certainly Gothic. Clara herself is a great Gothic character with her unusual appearance and sheltered life. She moves about like a little creature, stared at, but still bold. She makes a point of talking to people and asking them about the house and its previous owners, the Pettigrews. Everyone seems to have an opinion about them and they obviously made quite an impact on the village – particularly the daughter, Veronique, who inherited the house and was the last Pettigrew to live there. Clara is fascinated by Veronique and endeavours to find out everything she can about her – while wondering if she is the ghost in the house.

I honestly can’t say too much more without giving things away, as there are several key things that slowly get revealed as the book goes on. An investigator is hired to come and see if there really is a ghost, and from this point Clara digs deeper and does manage to uncover some truths. The story is really well paced, and while things are revealed slowly to the reader, you don’t feel like things are held back, or given too fast. I found Clara to be a really engaging narrator and I loved her bold attitude and determination. As I expected Fletcher’s characterisation (of the whole cast) is excellent, and the world of the novel feels very real, as do the people in it. The novel starts a little slowly, but gets better as it goes on, and I have to say I was not expecting what was revealed towards the end – the truth about Mr Fox, Shadowbrook, and the Pettigrews. It is an ending well worth the time and effort it takes to get there.

*

Published by Virago, an imprint of Little, Brown. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery.

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Fiction, Reviews

A Little Bird Told Me by Marianne Holmes (2018)

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(image: goodreads.com)

As some readers may know, I don’t accept review copies very often, as I always have too many unread books already on my shelves – but I made an exception for A Little Bird Told Me by Marianne Holmes, as it seemed intriguing. A young woman named Robyn returns to her home town, along with her brother Kit, and tries to resolve things to do with their parents, and some mysteries from their childhood. So far, so intriguing…

I tend to have mixed feelings these days about first person narrators, and Robyn did nothing to allay my concerns. She is an engaging narrator, but also infuriating in her obsessions and self-centredness. On several occasions Kit tells her to let things go, but she just can’t, to a degree that goes beyond what seems reasonable. We deduce that their mother appears to be missing, or perhaps dead, and their stepfather has decided to absent himself from this particular trip down memory lane. Few people in their home town seem pleased to see Robyn and Kit, and there are lots of hints at something bad that happened in the past, some big secret that no one wants to talk about.

The story is well constructed, but I felt that there was a little too much teasing and hinting at the truth, beyond what was needed to keep the reader interested. I think the problem occurs because we only know what Robyn knows, and we are taken down all the paths of her thought process, all the leads she pursues to find the truth, and I found it hard to care just as much she did. Robyn’s narrative takes us on a heartrending emotional journey that was somewhat draining to read. I cared about the story and characters, but in general things were too overblown, too over-emotional, too intense – when really the story is not that intense, not that pressurised. It was just that it felt that way to Robyn, because it was so personal. But to the reader, this was hard to connect with, and I felt overwhelmed by Robyn’s intensity.

As Robyn learns more about her mother, and a strange man she knew when she was younger, and how things might all be connected, information is handed to the reader piece by piece. Many things we find out as Robyn does, and so we go through the emotions with her, and this creates much of the structure of the novel. Sometimes this works, and keeps us interested, drawing us in with more revelations; but at some point in the book I realised that there was something we didn’t know, that Robyn might – that was purposefully being held back from the reader. Once I realised this, and the information was revealed, I felt conflicted – surprised and intrigued by the revelation, but frustrated that something Robyn knew was not in her first person narrative. It was an odd trick to use on the part of the author, and I’m not sure how well it worked, given that we are supposed to be on this journey with Robyn. Why else choose to use a first person narrator, and involve the reader so deeply in her emotions, if to withhold information that the narrator already knew, for a big reveal?

Despite all this I did enjoy reading A Little Bird Told Me, even if at times I had to take a break when Robyn got too overwrought. I think the story would have benefitted from a little more introspection on Robyn’s part, and a little less focus on the drama of the whole thing. I felt like the story would make a better TV series than a book in that sense. So, a bit of a mixed bag, but undeniably entertaining and engaging. If you’re here for the high drama, then A Little Bird Told Me is for you.

*

Published by Agora Books in September 2018. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

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Fiction, Reviews

The Women of the Castle by Jessica Shattuck (2017)

[A side note: in the US, the title is The Women in the Castle.]

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Bonnier Zaffre UK hardback (image: goodreads.com)

I’ve always been interested in the literature of the Second World War, ever since a course on the Literatures of Genocide at university. I’ve read history books, personal accounts, and novels such as Alone in Berlin and City of Women; so, I was happy to accept a review copy of The Women of the Castle by Jessica Shattuck when it was offered to me (something I don’t do very often!). What appealed to me about this book were the fact that it is mostly set after the War, exploring its consequences, and that the story centres around the experiences of three German women who are thrown together by circumstance, and who have all had very different experiences of the War years.

Marianne and Benita are widows of resistors and met through their husbands just before the War. Shattuck quietly inserts the husbands into the notorious 20th July plot to assassinate Hitler, led by Claus von Stauffenberg. As we know, the plot failed, and Marianne and Benita’s husbands are executed. Ania’s Polish husband was also involved in the plot, and appears once at the beginning of the novel. He, too, died.

In May 1945 Marianne is living at her late husband’s family estate, Burg Lingenfels. She urgently sets about finding her fellow widows from the 20th July plot and bringing them to live with her at the Burg, to recover and rebuild their lives. She finds Benita, whom she met once before the War, still living in Berlin. Her apartment building has been bombed and she is only alive because a Russian Captain has taken a shine to her, and protects her from the other Russian soldiers who are ransacking the city and raping its women – though of course he rapes Benita, and she lives in squalor in her former home. Marianne literally marches in and takes her away; she also magically manages to find Benita’s son, Martin, who has survived the War in a Children’s Home run by the Nazis.

Ania is located by Marianne in a nearby Displaced Persons camp, along with her two sons. She seems a little reluctant to come to the castle, but once there she sets to work cooking and looking after everyone. She is stoic and quiet, like her children, and does not reveal much, if anything, about herself. She is probably the most complicated of the characters, and her story unfolds slowly throughout the book.

The women and children, including Marianne’s son and two daughters, live in a sort of uneasy harmony for a while. Despite their traumas and their wariness of each other, they become a funny sort of family. When a group of Russian POWs approach the castle looking for food and somewhere to sleep, the women are reminded that they are still vulnerable and that the after-effects of the War will continue for some time. They are safer in the castle than they were before, but the War can still reach them, and their lives are not ‘back to normal’ at all.

The timeline skips about a bit, with the prologue set in 1938, the bulk of the book set in 1945, with a few flashbacks to 1944, the 20s, and the 30s as we slowly learn more about each woman’s past. For me, Marianne and Ania were the most well-rounded characters, and felt like real people with purpose and influence on the story. Benita on the other hand has less impact on the story, and is not quite as full a character. The key thing about her is that as a young woman she was part of her local branch of the BDM, and considered to be the perfect example of a young German woman who would fulfil Hitler’s vision of a wife and mother – and yet her husband was a resistor, she spent time in prison, and was left to rot in bombed out Berlin, raped by Russians and separated from her son. Marianne saves them both, but even then, Benita is a shell of her former self. Perhaps she represents the death of that vision of perfect German womanhood – the follower of the famous motto “Kinder, Küche, Kirche”, who met the Aryan physical standards of the Reich and espoused its ideals. She was blindsided by the War and left broken afterwards. She is a sorry and somewhat wretched character, a figure of the broken domestic ideals of the Reich.

Marianne, meanwhile, is a pillar of strength, German and pragmatic through and through, refusing the submit to the hardships and sorrows. We learn that she was interrogated by the Gestapo more than once over her husband’s resistance activities, and campaigned endlessly to redeem him and those like him. Her determination to gather her fellow widows in 1945 perfectly demonstrates her desire to care for others, and to do what is right. She diligently makes lists of women to find, visits the Displaced Persons camps, and does wonderfully brave things like going back into Berlin to fetch Benita. Though she sometimes comes across as a bit hard and serious, I admired Marianne for her bravery and determination. She isn’t perfect, and makes her own mistakes, but tries her best and looks after other people.

As I said earlier, Ania is the most complicated of the characters. While the women are at Burg Lindenfels, we learn almost nothing about her past until the very end of that section. She is determined to carry on with life and not look back, and she does not seem to have time for affection and laughter. Her two sons, Wolfgang and Anselm, are serious children who grow into serious young men, taciturn and stoic. We learn more about Ania’s life through a series of flashbacks, and these not only paint a broader picture, they also go some way towards explaining her character and behaviour at the castle. I won’t give anything away as there is a lot to learn about Ania’s past. She is a brilliant character and I think she probably represents a lot of ordinary Germans who tried to do the right thing, but were caught up in the circumstances around them.

The last section of the book is set in 1991, and I think it rounds out the story nicely. A time jump at the end of a novel can sometimes feel a bit trite or sentimental, but in this case, it doesn’t. We see the central characters again, forty years later, and it connects their stories with our modern world, in Germany and beyond. We see how their generation adapts to the changing 20th century, and how their children deal with their parents’ past lives. There is a bit of philosophising about the march of time and the inevitability of death, and grief, and change, but Shattuck doesn’t overdo it.

The Women of the Castle is a satisfying novel full of the richness of life and the intricacies of personal experience. I loved the fact that although you get the overarching stories of the War, and each of the three women represent different archetypes, you still get a sense of their individual experiences and inner lives. Some things, like Ania’s past, are revealed more slowly than others, but that only makes the development of the story and characters more intriguing, and satisfying when you reach the end. I loved the fact that this novel covers so many different perspectives and experiences, but doesn’t feel overstretched or overreaching. It isn’t a very long book, only 353 pages, but it encapsulates so much without being overwhelming. I think it’s a wonderful addition to the genre, and covers a period in the lives of ordinary Germans that deserves more attention. I’d recommend this to anyone looking for a more literary take on the post-War experiences of German women. It’s also worth looking at the author’s Acknowledgements at the end of the book for more recommendations of books about the period, and the War itself.

*

Published in the UK by Bonnier Zaffre in May 2017, and in the US by William Morrow in March 2017. My copy was kindly provided by Bonnier Zaffre for review.

Purchase from Wordery, Foyle’s, and Blackwell’s.

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Fiction, Reviews

All the Good Things by Clare Fisher

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Viking UK cover (image: goodreads.com)

This novel was one of four that I accepted for review from Viking, and it was the one I was least sure about. I liked the initial premise, the question of whether doing a bad thing makes you a bad person, and I am always intrigued by debut novels. Not knowing much more than that, I dived in.

All the Good Things is a short book that packs a lot of punch. Our narrator Bethany is only twenty-one but she has had a very eventful and challenging life, and is in prison at the start of the book. The frame of the novel is a task set by Bethany’s counsellor to list all the good things in her life (hence the title!) and each chapter is what she writes about each of these. They range from ‘Smelling a baby’s head right into your heart’ to ‘The promise of a blank page’ and many more in between. Early on we learn that Bethany had a child, and that she loves running, and that she grew up in the foster care system. Her father is absent and her mother suffers from increasingly bad mental health, and so she is put into foster care. The Penguin website states that author Clare Fisher is interested in ‘social exclusion and the particular ways in which it affects vulnerable women and girls’, and this is essentially the topic of the novel. Bethany is let down by so many people, and finds herself easily lead astray. Deprived of parental love, she grabs onto any relationship she can, even if it’s clearly not right. She becomes pregnant, and it’s sort of all down hill from there.

Bethany is very young, and the language and style is appropriate to this. Like any reader, I appreciate an immersive and believable narrative voice (like Jack in Room), but for me reading Bethany’s narrative was like reading a more grown up version of a Jacqueline Wilson novel. You can see that this is a vulnerable young person, and they are in less than ideal circumstances, and you can almost see everything that’s going to happen to them. It’s incredibly sad, and in some ways it felt like a warning or a social message – hence my comparison to Jacqueline Wilson (especially her novel Bad Girls). It’s educational for someone with no experience of the world in the novel, but it lacks a certain finesse and I felt like All the Good Things was meant to be read by someone younger than me (and I’m only 29). Now, I loved Jacqueline Wilson as a child, so I’m not trying to tear down this novel, but for me it was a little too realist, a little too bleak, and I felt like it was trying to teach me something when really I just wanted to try and enjoy the writing and the story. The things that it is trying to teach are very important, but the tough subject matter and style meant that I couldn’t just enjoy it.

I must praise Clare Fisher for her realism, her refusal to shy away from unpleasantness, and her dedication to the narrative voice. There are some really heartbreaking scenes where you just want someone to help Bethany, or for her to help herself, and these are brilliantly written. I think the ending is supposed to be hopeful, but I found that after a whole book filled with disappointment, sadness, and pain it was hard to get on board with the small glint of hope at the end. Once I reached that point I felt horribly sad for Bethany and her misfortune, and I was glad to have reached the end.

All the Good Things is a very accomplished debut novel, but ultimately I think it just wasn’t for me. But, I think a lot of readers will really enjoy it, and I must recommend it for the quality of the writing and the convincing realism.

*

Published in June 2017 by Viking, an imprint for Penguin UK. My thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Gone: A Girl, A Violin, A Life Unstrung by Min Kym

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Penguin UK cover (image: goodreads.com)

This book was one of the few review copies I have been accepting recently, and I’m glad I decided to read and review it, because it’s something a little different – but once I got into it I realised it actually is the sort of thing I like. Gone: A Girl, A Violin, A Life Unstrung is what I would call an unconventional memoir – it is not a straight chronicle of someone’s life, but rather a story from that life that has significance, that means something to the author. It is an unusual story and a special one that deserves to be told.

Min Kym is a concert violinist, and as a child she was classed as a prodigy. Her list of achievements is certainly impressive, with awards and scholarships, huge concerts, and acceptance into the Purcell School of Music as well as the Royal Academy of Music. She has made a few recordings and these are available on iTunes and Spotify. I would recommend listening to the little album she released of songs that feature in this book – it is simply beautiful. One piece on it is very special to me as it will be played at my wedding in a couple of weeks! I’ve decided to use Min Kym’s recording as I walk down the aisle.

I am no expert in classical music, but I feel I learned a lot about it from this slim book. Kym speaks passionately about her love of music and how it feels to play. Her writing isn’t perfect but it doesn’t matter because she conveys a strong sense of her personality and personal experience, with the music but also with the people in her life, and most importantly with her violin. She repeatedly reminds the reader that it feels like part of her, that she does not feel whole without it, does not feel like herself. She states that she is two people – Min, and Min with a violin.

Gone is quite an emotional book, and you go on the ups and downs with Kym as she experiences huge career success, and intense love for her violin and the music she plays; but she also experiences difficult relationships and setbacks – and of course the biggest setback of all, the theft of her Stradivarius violin. This is the crux of the book, the tipping point in her life. There is the time before, when she had the violin; and the time after, when she is mourning for it, and suffering from its absence. Kym goes through a period of depression, and it takes her a long time to get back to her old life – but while the writing is emotional and personal, it never becomes sensational or melodramatic. Kym is in control of her story.

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Min Kym (image: deda.uk.com)

The writing is at its best when Min Kym is writing about music. Her language flows beautifully as she describes the sounds, the feelings, the images that music brings to mind; the way the violin feels in her hands and when she nestles it into her neck. It is like a child, a sacred object, a beautiful thing. She also talks eloquently about the violins she plays, how they were made and where they came from, and how these things affect the experience of the player as well as the sound that the violin makes. It is utterly fascinating.

I was also fascinated by Kym’s discussions and mentions of her sense of self in relation to the violin, and how this develops as she gets older. She started playing at such a young age that she always sees herself with a violin – it is an integral part of who she is. Her family moved from South Korea to the UK for her musical career, and this relationship between familial and national belonging and the violin and its music is wonderfully explored, from a practical as well as personal point of view.

Though only slim this is a rich volume filled with life and passion, joy and sorrow, silence and beautiful music. I would highly recommend Gone to anyone who loves unconventional memoirs, especially those with a love of or an interest in classical music, and the ways in which our passions shape our lives.

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Published in 2017 by Viking, and imprint of Penguin, in the UK and Crown Publishing, part of PRH, in the US. My thanks to Viking for the review copy.

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

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Fiction, Reviews

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

I have read a couple of books about English witch trials, and the history of why they happened, so this book wasn’t entirely new ground for me – but is certainly an original take on the period the events. The Witchfinder’s Sister gives the infamous Matthew Hopkins a fictional sister in the form of Alice, our narrator. She has quite a strong narrative voice and I think you really get a sense of who she is and how she experiences things throughout the novel. For while the novel is about Matthew and his reign of terror, it is really about Alice and her side of the story.

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As Matthew’s sister Alice has an insight into his personality and some of his reasons for persecuting alleged witches with such fervour, and this exploration of their family psychology and history is well executed. Alice revisits several scenes from their childhood and adolescence, trying to get a clearer picture of Matthew’s state of mind and why he is behaving as he does. This was of looking at Matthew’s story, through the eyes of a fictional sister, was a bold choice, but author Beth Underdown creates a vivid picture throughout with excellent characterisation and imagery. I loved the way that she built up Alice’s character throughout the book and revealed more and more as time went on. We learn about Alice’s late husband, her several miscarriages, and her relationships with her parents, as well as with Matthew while they were growing up. These things all feed into her experiences in the novel, living with Matthew and feeling trapped by him, and dealing with past traumas.

One thing I particularly liked about The Witchfinder’s Sister is the depictions of the lives of the women – there is Alice, but also Matthew’s maid Grace and the cook, Mary, along with the women accused of witchcraft that appear sporadically. We see how easy it is for all these women to be persecuted in some way, both publicly and in the home, in small ways and big dramatic ways. We see how they are all trapped in some form, in ways that the men in the novel just aren’t. Matthew runs a strict household, exercising his power over the women. He is able to enact his warped sense of justice largely because he is a man and so people listen to him. His deep-seated resentments and opinions about women are a huge influence on his pursuit and persecution of alleged witches – and the men who agree with him allow these things to happen. Underdown also demonstrates how these attitudes and opinions get into the minds of women too, so that they believe that the accused really are witches, really are deserving of torture and horrific executions – and they do not fight back against false accusations and obvious injustice.

The Witchfinder’s Sister is a novel that explores a well-trodden path through new perspectives, shining a light on women’s experiences and the things that drive people to do terrible things. While imperfect it is still an excellent debut novel, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Published in March 2017 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin UK. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery.

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