Into the Water by Paula Hawkins

In January 2015, British author Paula Hawkins released The Girl on the Train. Little did she know what success it would have; smashing sales records and topping bestseller lists for months on end. Since, it has sold tens of millions of copies worldwide, spawned a hugely successful film adaptation starring Emily Blunt, and has made Hawkins one of the biggest names in popular fiction. The question is: how does one follow that up?

With Into the Water, Hawkins has given it her best shot. Whether this novel – another entertaining, page-turning, psychological thriller – can bring Hawkins the same success as The Girl on the Train remains to be seen, but it has all the elements that made her previous novel so fiendishly gripping.

Nel Abbot is dead, and in the last days before her death she calls her sister Jules – who ultimately does not pick up, ignoring a plea for help with disastrous circumstances. They say Nell has jumped, thrown herself into the place they call the Diving Pool, but the young, ambitious female detective on the case, Erin, thinks otherwise.

In the small British town of Beckford, the Drowning Pool has a dark history, and Nel has been working on a manuscript that will unlock its secrets and unravel the mysteries of a series of female deaths and suicides. Hawkins keeps us suitably confused, tied up in a mass of characters – each of which with their own individual chapters and perspectives – and for the first quarter of the book moves slowly, drip-feeding us snippets of the history of the town and its residents, but never revealing enough to give the reader answers.

Unreliable narrators have become a familiar staple in psychological thrillers over the years and Hawkins follows the same plan that was put to such clever use in The Girl on the Train. Jules, hearing of her sister’s death, must return to the family home to look after Nel’s 15-year-old daughter Lena, who she has never met. Indeed, the estrangement from her family – because of perceived slights that are slowly revealed to us over the course of the book – is important, as Jules and Lena must get to know one another, and indeed trust each other, over time.

Elsewhere we have Sean Townsend, good cop of Brentford, struggling with his own demons. As he investigates Nel’s alleged suicide, Sean remembers that of his own mother, who he saw jump into the Diving Pool when he was just a child. Meanwhile, his wife Helen sleeps in another room and avoids his touch, and his father Patrick, the grizzled ex-cop, prowls the river, unable to rest.

Then we have Louise Whittaker, left devastated by her daughter Katie’s suicide, six months prior to Nel’s. Katie was Lena’s best friend in the world and her mother is convinced that the pair knew more than they let on. Katie is a happy, vivacious 15-year-old with her whole life ahead of her, so what tempted her to creep out late one night, fill her pockets with stones and ultimately give herself to the Diving Pool?

Hawkins intertwines narrative perspectives, time periods, flashbacks and manuscript entries, to tie the reader in knots. The language is compelling, the mysteries interesting enough to have the reader rattling through the pages in a quest for answers. At times Into the Water can become a bit too littered with characters and there is a feeling that the novel would have been improved with a little pruning and tightening of the reins.

Nevertheless, Hawkins hasn’t just stuck to the formula that made The Girl on the Train so successful – instead she has been a bit more ambitious, and Into the Water is better for its bigger scope, taking us through the history of a small town with a big secret at its heart.

Make no mistake about it: Hawkins has another summer blockbuster on her hands, and it would be no surprise to see it make a huge splash in the best-seller charts of 2017.

My thanks to Alison Barrow and Transworld/Doubleday for the ARC. Into the Water is released online and in all good bookstores on May 2.

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Moonglow by Michael Chabon

26795307A lot of talk has surrounded Michael Chabon’s new ‘novel’ – not only because, well, a new Chabon release is enough to wake the literary world up from its slumbers – but because of its clever use of a hybrid of forms. Moonglow straddles the divide between fiction and memoir; ostensibly a narrative born from Chabon’s grandfather’s stories as he lay dying back in 1989, the author freely admits that he was instructed: “Explain everything. Make it mean something. Use a lot of those fancy metaphors of yours.”

So, has he taken liberties with his grandfather’s tales? Chabon confesses in the acknowledgments that Moonglow is a “pack of lies”, but this is merely a plea for the reader not to study every detail, but to enjoy the whole story. Memory is, of course, unreliable at the best of times, and the very nature of the stories being passed on from his grandfather at the end of his life while he’s ill – not to mention the re-telling from Chabon himself – suggests perhaps that we should take everything with a pinch of salt.

Chabon has fun, obeying his grandfather’s wish for a bit of narrative playfulness, as he explores his family’s sweeping history – a past that roams from a synagogue gala in Baltimore in 1947, to an end-of-World War II Germany; across a seemingly endless mishmash of American locations. Moonglow works as a series of vignettes – which Chabon explores with his usual humour and warmth – and at times may seem meandering. Yet this is also the nature of memory, and the book sticks to its own structure; one determined by his grandfather’s reveries. This book is better for its lack of ‘neatness’ and a strict narrative timeline.

Some of the most vivid scenes in the book recall his grandfather’s experiences as a solider in WWII; or the time he was fired from his job and took his anger and frustration out – with terrible consequences – on his boss. Chabon writes with wonderful lyricism and craft, fashioning out of his grandfather’s memories a story of love and loss, but also of laughter and warmth. The reader is also treated to some sharp, evocative passages on Chabon’s grandfather’s obsession with spaceflight. He drives down to Florida for every rocket launch, and is given a job for NASA building model rockets. He promises his wife – a refugee from France – that he will one day fly her “to find refuge on the moon.”

This ‘refuge’ is not only a nod to Chabon’s grandmother’s beginnings – which are explored with some terrific scenes elsewhere in the book – but as we learn more about her, it also suggests a refuge from herself and the “skinless horse” that plagues her waking dreams. Chabon’s grandmother suffered with voices and visions, and some of the most piercing passages in the book explore the repercussions of this.

In Moonglow, Chabon is on top form. Whether he is describing his fear as a child of the evil-looking puppets owned by his grandparents – that he ultimately thought were going to kill him while he slept – or his grandfather’s attempts to search out and kill a snake for the affections of a woman in the twilight of his life – Chabon’s story-telling (or re-telling) is a joy. Forget the issue of categorisation, Moonglow is, fittingly, a beautiful blend of fiction and truth; memoir, but with just the right sprinkling of embellishment.

***

Moonglow is released on November 22. Thank you to Harper Collins for the ARC.

Pendulum by Adam Hamdy

https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1477857046l/27396854.jpgIn a book-selling market where it has become increasingly useful to have an effective social media campaign – as well as the latest super quote from a best-selling author – it is difficult to look past those advertisements that promise so much and deliver so little, to find the real gems. Adam Hamdy’s Pendulum ­arrives this winter championed by author James Patterson, who describes it as “one of the best thrillers of the year.” The difference this time: Pendulum is well worth the hype and attention.

Hamdy, a British writer who is well known for his film work – for instance: the comedy feature film Pulp, which became the first to film to ever premiere on Xbox’s Video platform – has brought that same eye for detail to his writing, and it would be no surprise to see Pendulum adapted for the big screen in the not-so-distance future. From the outset of the novel the action is immersive and the threat dangerously real.

Meet John Wallace, a highly successful photographer – but one who when the story starts is not only mentally hanging from a rope, but literally too. Hamdy pulls no punches, starting this high octane, all-action thriller with Wallace’s death-defying escape from a masked and armoured stranger who has entered his home to execute a forced hanging. Wallace’s death is designed to look like a suicide, but our main character escapes – barely – forced to jump through his upper-story window and flee for his life. He wakes in a London hospital, needing to convince the police that instead of going crazy – and indeed imaging the attack – another threat on his life may be imminent.

This is easier said than done, as Wallace becomes embroiled in a cat-and-mouse chase that takes us through the London streets – via mental hospitals, a ghastly American prison, burning buildings – in a thrilling narrative that never stops to breathe. Not knowing who to trust, Wallace must unravel the clues that are slowly drip-fed to us, as he slowly begins to realise that the attack on his life was no isolated event: past murders bear remarkably similar patterns. Wallace’s attacker is intelligent, resourceful and patient. This will be a battle of wits to the very end.

Wallace is a very likeable character; it’s easy to become invested in his quest to discover the truth, as he tries to battle through the demons of the past at the same time. Hamdy’s main character is strong, well-trained and powerful – with a remarkable, somewhat disbelieving, James Bond-esque tendency to escape certain death at the very last moment – but he is also sensitive, caring, and has psychological depths which give Pendulum a lot more weight.

Hamdy’s novel is a modern one in the traditional sense: it deals with some interesting questions about love, loss and memory – but it is also, at its best, a page-turner that rips you from the comfort of your couch and doesn’t put you down. Some of the best thrillers require a bit of suspended disbelief, and at times Hamdy’s book threatens to let itself go – before just managing to reign in the far-fetched scenarios just in time.

At times the narrative is dark and violent – and the author certainly holds nothing back in that respect, with a Game of Thrones-esque propensity to kill people off when you least expect it – but Pendulum is an immersive book that certainly deserves its plaudits. Make no mistake about it: thriller fans wait with baited breath to see what Hamdy has in store for his fans next.

Thanks to NetGalley and Headline books for making this ARC available. Pendulum is available online and in all good bookstores now.

Public Service Announcement

As winter draws in and a roaring open fire becomes a much more common – and pleasing – sight, the temperature drops and the British nights seem to never end, November seems to become a time for introspection and retrospection – which is, I suppose, what really prompted this blog post.

I recently had some bad news in that I was dismissed from my job, and although there’s never a right time to be fired, this time of year doesn’t seem to lend itself to positive thoughts for the future and seeing things in a more optimistic light. Yet, at the risk of sounding like something you would read out of a fortune cookie, sometimes the most negative of circumstances can be a good thing. I hope that somewhere down the line I retrospectively see this as a turning point; as the moment I was forced to pick  a new – and potentially more rewarding – path to go down. But enough about that.

It has been seven months since I last posted on this blog and that is inexcusable. I could make my excuses, and indeed it has been a tricky year for me, with a lot of personal issues stopping me from turning my attention to writing reviews and posts on a regular basis. However, for all of that, if I’m being honest, the lack of content is my own fault: I’ve become disillusioned with writing, jotting down my thoughts and opinions became a chore. I’ve always been of the mindset that if I didn’t enjoy what I was doing, I would stop: and that is what I did. Instead, I’ve read books without the pressure of deadlines; neglected creative writing to the point where I haven’t written a thing – unless tweets count? – for a very long time.

Yet recently I’ve realised this was a mistake. I enjoy writing, crafting reviews and sharing my thoughts – if not to a wide audience, or even any readers at all – but the actual process is invaluable to me, and it’s time I stopped fighting against that. I’m lucky enough to be in a position where publishers – whether via Netgalley or in physical form – and friends in publishing, will kindly send me books for review. They, and indeed the authors, deserve better than for me to sit looking at said book without ever writing the promised critique.

So it’s time to stop making excuses and start making amends. I hope that in the near future I can blog more frequently – with this website being used as a platform to share whatever I can dreg out from the dusty corners of my creativity. My apologies for being so rubbish – and I hope dearly that you can all jump on board once more.

Shtum by Jem Lester

25369192Good grief, readers, you better hold on to your hats. Jem Lester’s Shtum has been receiving glowing reviews across the board; social media is awash with praise, and the newspapers have been effusive in their compliments.

‘This many people can’t be wrong’ is not always a phrase that rings true, but in this case it does: Lester has created a wonderful, emotion-filled roller-coaster of a novel that will sweep you up and not put you down until you reach its end.

This novel explores the extraordinary lengths that some parents are willing to go in order to protect their children, as we follow Ben and Emma’s troubled attempts to both secure a future for their 10-year-old autistic son, Jonah—a journey which includes their prolonged and difficult legal battle to have him transferred to a high-quality residential school—and solve their marriage, which has dwindled down to just being words on piece of paper.

To make this happen, Ben agrees to move himself and Jonah out of the family home, both to give Emma some time to herself and because it may help their case if they pretend not to be a couple. Ben moves the two of them in with his father Georg, and the character dynamic between the three absolutely brings this novel to life.

Ben carries his own frustrations at Jonah’s inability to communicate, but we soon learn that he has his own crosses to bear: watching his relationship develop with his dad is often funny—Georg’s dialogue sparkles with humour and wit—and always moving.

Shtum really has you going through a whole spectrum of emotions, and although I don’t want to under-sell how good the novel is, if I could use one word to describe it I’d use “readable”: the sentences and pages race by as we become invested in every temper-tantrum and tension-straining scene. You find yourself torn with wanting success for Ben and Emma in their legal battle, but also knowing that to let their son move to a residential home—no matter how difficult it is to cope with his actions—will be the hardest thing they’ll ever have to do.

As a reader, you would expect that a novel packed with such difficult themes as Shtum is, may find itself low on laugh-out-loud opportunities. You would be wrong. Lester breaks up the tension and often heart-wrenching scenes with a lightness of touch that is surprising, but it works.

The reasons for Ben and his best friend wandering around town doing a bit of debt collection are serious, but watching Ben, a father wracked by guilt—and frequently driven to drink—puffing himself up to collect some unpaid debts in an effort to raise legal funds, often brings about some brilliantly amusing passages.

Every now and again a debut author simply gets it right, and Jem Lester has done just that. It’s not an easy read, but it’s a novel that manages to balance insight with a superb story. Shtum is about sacrifice, love—in many forms—and doing the right thing whatever it takes. If you’re considering the plunge with this one, take it. Allow yourself to be swept up; this reader can guarantee you won’t be making a mistake.

Thanks as ever to Sam Eades and Orion Books for the ARC. Shtum is out April 7.

The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood

25862989Make no mistake about it: Monica Wood has delivered a heart-warming gem of a novel this autumn. The One-in-a-Million Boy is a story that plays on the heart strings in a simple but effective way, as the reader witnesses the unlikely coming together of young and old.

Ona Vitkus is 104-years-old, lives alone, and has kept her secrets closely guarded for every last one of those years. She is the last person that expects to find one final, meaningful friendship, but when the boy enters her life—initially to help out with domestic tasks, but instantly bringing the promise of something much more—that is exactly what she finds.

This strange child, just 11 years of age, is absent for the vast majority of the novel, but even though disaster strikes early, events centre around him. His love of words, of Guinness World Records, lists—and an ever-questioning thirst for knowledge and facts—sweeps Ona up as she begins to feel special for the first time in decades.

They form the most unlikely of relationships as they set out on a mission to get Ona into the record books, but when their friendship suddenly comes to a crushing close, Quinn, the boy’s father—guitar player, irresponsible father, but for all his faults loyal at heart—sets out to finish what his son started. He too initially arrives to continue with the odd jobs, but soon bonds with Ona through their shared grief.

Elsewhere, the boy’s mother is the most peripheral figure in the novel—and perhaps, from a character perspective, the least exciting—but The One-in-a-Million Boy bursts into life with an impromptu road trip that is unexpected, but brilliant in its execution. Ona has her own reasons for travelling, as we are drip fed her secrets in superbly crafted flashbacks that show her recorded conversations with the boy for a school history project. Yet she isn’t the only one: all the characters in this novel have their own secrets and crosses to bear.

Wood has written a book that plays on your emotions: it can be sad, funny and uplifting, often within the space of a few paragraphs. The boy is the thread that binds together an unlikely cast, but it is through emotions like grief and loss that we often find out the most about ourselves.

The boy remains nameless because he represents something bigger: in his pleasure for the things he loved—and the pursuit of those interests—he shows people how life should be lived. A valuable lesson, and one which Wood has delivered in what is a wonderful, poetic novel.

My thanks to the wonderful Caitlin Raynor and Headline Books for the ARC. The One-in-a-million-Boy is out April 5.

Look at Me by Sarah Duguid

25863015Look at Me is a beautifully assured novel that crackles with the drama and complex dynamics of family life. So, make no mistake about it: Sarah Duguid has arrived with a debut that is going to whip up a storm this spring.

Our narrator Lizzy is an aspiring actress in her thirties, who lives with her brother and father in London—but also, seemingly, with the ghost of her mother Margaret: loving, caring, lively, fun, someone that held the family together, before she died two years ago. Theirs is a sprawling house which contains multitudes, but suffers from its absences.

Wasting no time in setting the scene, Duguid soon ratchets up the tension a couple of notches when Lizzy finds a letter in her father’s drawers. It soon transpires that Julian had an affair: out in the world is his other child, who, in a sudden burst of defiance and outrage, Lizzy invites into their still-grieving home.

It doesn’t take long before she realises her mistake. Eunice moves into their life in a flurry of pink, fluffy sweaters, ready with her kind words and over-bearing eagerness to be a part of the family. The problem is, Lizzy is far from ready to great her with open arms, struggling to come to grips with the idea of Eunice’s very existence: of a half-sister waltzing into her home and stealing the attentions of her father.

Lizzy’s life up until this point has been a closed book when it comes to outsiders: it’s just her, Ig – her bohemian brother – and her father Julian: a somewhat sheltered existence. That’s what makes this novel so effective: Duguid creates a brilliantly tense atmosphere by introducing Eunice and upsetting the status quo. She quickly makes the rest of the family re-evaluate everything they previously thought about love and loss.

Look at Me is a compelling psychological take on dysfunctional family life and what it means when circumstances beyond your control impact on an existence you have grown accustomed to. The novel is mysterious, intriguing, and probing—often all the same time—as we race to a breathless conclusion where the tension, that has been lurking just beneath the surface, finally boils over in an explosive fashion.

Duguid writes with an assured touch and has given us a debut that will have people wondering what might come from her pen next. I for one am excited to find out.

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My thanks to the wonderful Georgina Moore at Tinder Press for the ARC. Look at Me is out now.

The Women Come and Go…

The Women Come and Go…

Once, one cold autumn night,
I met a girl, singing softly, gently
As she walked abreast of the park;
The leaves crinkling under foot.
A sad song; the words seemed to tilt
Like the blue beret upon her head.
No surprise there: an art student,
With a name that escapes me now,
So long since those final notes.
With a soft smile she drew me in,
A blank canvas: infinite potential.
Words exchanged; no real purpose,
Under that cloudless, starry night.
Picasso, Van Gogh, Michelangelo:
Names that trickled off the tongue,
As I tried to hide my ignorance:
Literature was my real love.
Time: suspended, as our footsteps
Echoed in the light of the pale moon.
A history, painted in broad strokes;
So difficult to capture a single moment.
One solitary shot, as the trees rustle
Overhead, and I peer back longingly,
Through life’s polarising lens.

 

Glass Sword by Victoria Aveyard

https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1436460934l/23174274.jpgRise, red as the dawn…

So here it is, the book hundreds of Victoria Aveyard fans have been waiting for since the explosive conclusion of its predecessor Red Queen—a Young Adult novel that really set the cat amongst the pigeons and had the critics full of praise. If anything, Glass Sword now sets the ceiling even higher than before.

Mare Barrow has fled the capital in stunning fashion, hurried away underground by the Scarlet Gard and reunited with her brother Shade—who she believed was dead. Cal, the exiled prince—believed to have murdered his own father the king—is a reluctant member of a group who burst back into life like they never left: Farley, as battle-scarred and tenacious as ever, is a particular well-crafted highlight throughout.

It doesn’t take long before Mare realises that the Guard is much more than she ever imagined: better prepared, with bigger assets than the Silvers could ever expect; a well-oiled machine ready to cause chaos and bright the fight to King Maven, his sentinels, and, well, his army. As expected, Maven hunts the Guard—and indeed both Mare and Cal—with all his considerable resources and influence, leaving no stone unturned. Yet this is a war between more than just Silvers and Reds.

With Julian’s list in hand, Mare goes with her new friends—but remember, “anyone can betray anyone”—to hunt the “newbloods”, those people that are neither Silver or Red, just like Mare, and who contain powers and abilities far beyond those normally comprehensible. Indestructible humans; those with the ability to fly; young girls who can squeeze the life out from your body until you can no longer breathe and stare death in the face. You can tell Aveyard had fun letting loose with her imagination for this one.

Yet finding these newbloods—training this new “army” to fight Maven and his legions—is evidently not going to be a walk in the park: the new king has the list too, and for every member of the list they track down, there is an increasingly growing likelihood that the King’s men have got there first. Their retribution, as ever, promises to be cold, calculating and ruthless.

Aveyard’s biggest compliment should be the work she has done with Mare. Instead of your usual Young Adult fare, the character development with our chief protagonist is nicely done: after all, with prison breaks and firefights—not to mention the ability to cause lightening storms at will—you would expect her to change. After being forced to make some horrible moral choices, it seems Mare will finally succumb to the pressure heaped upon her shoulders. Or, at the very least, come of out it a different person—and not necessarily for the better.

To be fair to Aveyard, something about this sequel feels more ambitious than Red Queen. There’s a more expansive feel to the second book, as we learn more about the world Aveyard has created, and get to go plunging around its darkest corners and exploring its depths. I got a Game of Thrones-esque feel as I was reading this one: each of our main characters gets their moment of glory, while we’re introduced to a sweeping supporting cast of extras that also play their part.

Aveyard could have gone even further with this, and I’m almost certain she will do in the next book, but at just over 400 pages Glass Sword really does rattle breathlessly along. There’s more twists and turns than a rollercoaster at a national theme park—and good grief, prepare to be bowled over by one of the best cliff-hanger endings I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading—bur I actually enjoyed the slow change in character and temperament for most of our main cast.

This is a solid follow-up from a writer that holds a large audience in the palm of her hand. I for one am excited to see what she has up her sleeves next.

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My thanks as ever to the wonderful Sophie Calder (@SophCalder) and Orion Books for the ARC.

In a Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie

https://i1.wp.com/d.gr-assets.com/books/1438885095l/25923223.jpgRebecca Mackenzie’s debut novel, In a Land of Paper Gods, is surely set to delight readers this spring, as we’re treated to an often startling—and decidedly perceptive—look at one child’s journey into a strange world that is far from home.

Here we see Henrietta—or: Etta to her wild group of girl-friends and fellow classmates—as she spends her days amongst Christian missionaries, at a school in amongst the mountains. Her life is that of a daughter of parents who spread the word of God, as China sits on the brink of war, and all that implies.

Etta is thrust into a world where she is influenced by two separate cultures, and it is fascinating to see how Mackenzie picks through these ambiguities and conflicts, as the tension of the impending war ticks menacingly in the background.

The steadily approaching Japanese soldiers spent the most part of the novel in the background—conspicuous by their absence—before becoming increasingly more important figures in these girls’ lives. Mackenzie writes with a natural touch, contrasting the beauty with the impending war so subtly that you sometimes have to pause for breath before you realise what she’s done. She captures the spiritual world of China and forests, as mountains and waterfalls seem to come alive, leaping off the pages.

Mackenzie’s cast of characters are delightfully strange and innocent, often laugh-out-loud funny. Sarah, Isobel, Fiona, Kathryn, Edith, Flo, Hilary—and let’s not forget Big Bum Eileen—will form the weird and wonderful Prophetess Club.

At first their predictions seem just a little too ridiculous, hard to take seriously, but it’s quickly understood that this is a child’s way of dealing with the circumstances of war: of allowing themselves to disappear, Narnia-esque, away from reality and all that comes with it, in the soon to be war-torn Chinese mountains.

In the latter stages of In a Land of Paper Gods, inevitably the war catches up, as it has threatened to do in patches throughout its pages. At times Mackenzie’s writing can be brutal—but always hauntingly beautiful—as we are swept forward to an emotionally draining denoument that will have the most hardened of hearts aflutter.

This is a book that teems with beautiful images and descriptions—on love, friendship, and mostly: what it means to be human, regardless of your upbringing or culture. Mackenzie has crafted a debut novel that blends the historical with the personal, and she has done so with ease. I for one look forward to the next adventures that surely wait in future pages.

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My thanks, as ever, to the ever-wonderful Ella (@EllaMatildaB) and @TinderPress for the ARC.

In a Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie is available online and in all good bookstores, January 28.