Category Archives: Book reviews

Blog Tour: The Things We Thought We Knew by Mahsuda Snaith

the things we thought we knew

I’m delighted to be taking part in the blog tour for Mahsuda Snaith’s debut novel, The Things We Thought We Knew.

Ravine and Marianne were best friends. They practised handstands together, raced slugs, and looked up at the stars and imagined their own constellations. And then, one day, Marianne disappeared.

Ten years later, Ravine lies in a bed in her mother’s council flat, plagued by chronic pain syndrome, writing down the things she remembers. As her words fill page after page, she begins to understand that the only way to conquer her pain is to confront the horrors of her past.

The Things We Thought We Knew is set in the present day with flashbacks to Ravine’s childhood as she writes down what she remembers from ten years earlier.  For me, the flashbacks were the best part of the novel.  I loved hearing about the antics that Ravine, Marianne, and Marianne’s brother, Jonathan, got up to, and found much that was familiar about it from my own childhood.  Both Ravine and Marianne came from single-parent households, but while Ravine’s “Amma” (the Bengali word for mother) was ever present, Marianne’s mother was often drunk if she was there at all, and didn’t seem to take care of her children the way you might hope.

It’s clear from the beginning that something significant happened, and that since then, Ravine has lived with chronic pain syndrome, unable to do much of what the most of us take for granted, and that she has not seen or heard from Marianne since.  The reveal as to what happens comes quite late on in the novel, and, to me, wasn’t entirely surprising.  That said, this is definitely a book in which the journey is as important as the destination, and I don’t think that it’s meant to come as a big shock to the reader.

The Things We Thought We Knew is a coming of age story, and to me is one of the more relatable examples of this type of novel.  Snaith has managed the difficult trick of creating characters that are the completely see them on the street everyday kind of normal that you don’t always find in novels.  These are real people, with real troubles, and there are tears and tantrums and laughter and forgiveness and the whole spectrum of human emotions presented here.

Whilst the novel is told from Ravine’s perspective, it’s her mother that I liked best.  Referred to only as Amma throughout, I loved her determination to be herself and to not adhere to traditional customs, particularly those that say a woman should act in a certain way.  She’s vibrant and sassy and independent, and whilst she plays a relatively minor role in the novel, she adds a lot of warmth to it.

The Things We Thought We Knew is an incredibly well written debut, and to me the voices of the young Ravine and Marianna reminded me a little of Grace and Tilly in Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble with Goats and Sheep.  I can’t wait to see how Snaith follows this up.

The Things We Thought We Knew was published by Doubleday on 15 June.  Many thanks to Thomas Hill for providing a copy for review.

Make sure you check out the other stops on the blog tour:

the things we thought we knew

The Magpies by Mark Edwards

the magpies

When Jamie and Kirsty first move into their flat on Mount Pleasant Street, they feel optimistic for their futures.  The flat was at the upper end of their budget, yet worth more than they paid for.  Here, they can see the future mapped out – marriage, children.  And their neighbours all seem friendly – there’s Brian and Linda on the top floor, the somewhat eccentric Mary on the floor above them and the Newtons in the garden flat.

But then things take a strange turn.  They start receiving anonymous letters complaining about the noise they’re making, and dead rats are left outside their door.  Then Jamie’s best friend is involved in an accident, one that leaves him comatose, and Jamie and Kirsty find that they are slowly driven to despair, powerless to stop the campaign launched against them.

The Magpies is the June book for Janel’s (@ Keeper of Pages) Criminally Good Bookclub, and one that I was instantly intrigued by upon reading the blurb.  A psychological thriller, it touches lightly on horror related themes – not horror as in the ghosts or monsters, but the kind of horror that happens in real life.  That’s not to say that this is a scary novel, because I didn’t find it so, but there are certainly some creepy elements to it.

I really liked Jamie and Kirsty, and found myself sympathising with their situation.  They are a young, hard-working couple who are trying to make a life for themselves together and start a family.  With some novels, it doesn’t matter too much if you don’t like the protagonist, but in this case I felt that it was important, as they haven’t done anything wrong or committed any great crime, and it was easy to identify with their anger and frustration.  And they react the way that any normal couple would – they try to ignore it, hoping it will go away, they try to discuss the situation with those that they believe to be behind it all, they eventually call the police who, of course, can’t really do anything.  It was so easy to imagine this happening to someone you know, and I was constantly thinking “what would I do in this situation?”.  Needless to say, this makes it an engaging read.

If there was one aspect of the novel that I wasn’t particularly keen on, it was the detail around the nightmares that Kirsty in particular suffers from.  It’s not a big focus of the novel, and this is purely my opinion, but it just didn’t add anything to the novel for me.  I can understand that that the stressful situation they are in would cause someone’s sleep to suffer, and that their stress is likely to manifest itself in a person’s dream, but I thought that this was a little overdone.  As I say, that is just my opinion, and as it isn’t a significant part of the novel it didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment at all.

I’ve deliberately not said much about the plot for The Magpies, as it would be all too easy to give the ending away for other readers.  It didn’t turn out how I expected it to, however, and I was pleased by this.  Reading a lot of psychological thrillers, you start to see where a story might go, and it’s always nice to find one that can surprise you.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Final Girls by Riley Sager

final girls

Ten years ago, Quincy Carpenter was the sole survivor of a tragedy at Pine Cottage – a small cabin in the woods where she and five friends were staying to celebrate a birthday.  Quincy doesn’t remember much of what happened that night, and she doesn’t want to.

Such cases cause media frenzy, however, and she was immediately dubbed a “Final Girl” – a horror movie term used to refer to the lone female who escapes whatever horror was involved.  And, of course, the media are desperate to bring Quincy together with two other final girls – Lisa, who survived a massacre at her sorority house, and Sam, who survived similar torture at a motel.  They all survived, but none of them was left unscathed, either mentally or physically.

The final girls have never met, although Quincy and Lisa have spoken on the phone.  But Quincy then hears that Lisa has committed suicide.  And then Sam, who had fallen off the radar, comes out to meet her.

I found this to be a refreshingly original concept.  There are plenty of tales of being caught up in a massacre, but very few that look at what happens to the survivors afterwards.  I think that Sager captured this perfectly, from the difficulties in dealing with the media frenzy, being recognised for the wrong reasons and the difficulties in returning back to a normal life.

And whilst there are flashbacks to the events at Pine Cottage, the majority is set in the present day as Quincy tries to get on with her life, yet is obviously still suffering from the events at Pine Cottage, her days made more bearable by a lifetime prescription of Xanax.  She has a partner who seems to be on the verge of proposing, and has stayed in touch with Coop – the police officer who was first on the scene at Pine Cottage ten years ago – but has few friends beyond these two.  I particularly enjoyed the flashbacks to the events at Pine Cottage as I desperately wanted to know what happened.  It started out as a typical getaway involving drinks and a little matchmaking, before building up in tension as events take a sinister turn.  I liked the way in which the present-day scenes were told in the first person, but the Pine Cottage scenes were told from a third person perspective.  To me this suggested that Quincy was (understandably) trying to distance herself from those events, and I thought that this was a clever narrative device.

As Sam enters Quincy’s life, it’s clear that things are a little off.  Quincy seems like a quiet and slightly reclusive individual dedicated to running her baking blog, while Sam has a “don’t fuck with me” attitude.  Whilst they’re inextricably linked by the media’s bestowed “final girls” label, they are very different characters, and even though Quincy doesn’t know anything about Sam (other than what has been covered by the media), Quincy lets Sam stay for a few days, and the two get up to some rather unexpected activities.  This part of the book fell a little flat for me.  I understand that for Quincy it’s something of a release – throwing off the shackles of the Xanax and her deliberately normal life, but some of her actions are extreme and borderline implausible.  That’s just my opinion, however – this aspect of the book just wasn’t to my taste.

That said, the novel soon picked up again as it became clearer what was going on.  I had several theories whilst reading this, but none of them were correct.  I loved how everything was wrapped up at the end of the novel – it was clever and twisted and unexpected, and I would definitely recommend Final Girls to fans of psychological thrillers.

Final Girls will be published on 13 July – many thanks to Ebury Publishing for providing a copy for review via Netgalley.

Rating: ★★★★☆

For the Winner by Emily Hauser

for the winner

I really enjoyed For the Most Beautiful, Hauser’s debut novel, which told the tale of the siege of Troy from the perspective of two women caught up in the battle – an unusual and likely unique perspective from which to share that well-known story – and I was absolutely delighted when I was sent a copy of Hauser’s follow up, For the Winner, to review.

Some three thousand years ago, in a time before history, the warriors of Greece journeyed to the ends of the earth in the greatest expedition the world had ever seen.

One woman fought alongside them.

Abandoned at birth on the slopes of Mount Pelion, Atalanta is determined to prove her worth to the father who cast her aside. Having taught herself to hunt and fight, and disguised as a man, she wins a place on the greatest voyage of that heroic age: with Jason and his band of Argonauts in search of the legendary Golden Fleece.

And it is here, in the company of men who will go down in history as heroes, that Atalanta must battle against the odds – and the will of the gods – to take control of her destiny and change her life forever.

With her unrivalled knowledge and captivating storytelling, Emily Hauser brings alive an ancient world where the gods can transform a mortal’s life on a whim, where warriors carve out names that will echo down the ages… and where one woman fights to determine her own fate.

As with her previous novel, Hauser presents the reader with a tale from Greek mythology, but told from the perspective of a female character.  In this case, we have Atalanta, abandoned on a mountain at her father’s command during a winter storm, but rescued and taken in by a peasant family.  Growing up, she learns to wield a bow and a sword, and, upon discovering the truth about her heritage, seeks out the father who abandoned her, determined to prove her worth.

I absolutely loved Atalanta.  She is smart and capable, and if ever there was ever a feminist in ancient Greece, it is surely her.  I loved her determination to prove herself, her pride and unwillingness to concede defeat, even when faced with daunting odds.  I also loved her desire to go on an adventure, and to be comparable to the heroes of the time – her attitude spoke to the part of me that always wanted adventures as a child.

Also present in For the Winner are the meddling Gods and Goddesses of the time, most notably Hera who loves to involve herself in human affairs.  I loved the portrayal of these beings as proud, manipulative and self-obsessed, yet ultimately fallible and capable of being outwitted, often by each other, and I think that the inclusion of these beings in the tale adds a little something extra to the story.

If I enjoyed For the Most Beautiful, I absolutely loved For the Winner.  I think that part of this was because I’m less familiar with the story of Jason and the Argonauts than I am with the siege of Troy, although I remember watching a film of Jason and the Argonauts with my dad while growing up (although it bore little resemblance to this novel).  If you’re interested in mythology, this is definitely a novel worth reading, but even if that element doesn’t appeal, I think that fans of historical fiction and / or fantasy adventures would find much to enjoy in Hauser’s novels, which can be read as standalone tales, despite being loosely linked.

For the Winner was published on 15 June by Doubleday – many thanks to Hannah Bright for providing a copy for review.

Rating: ★★★★★

Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett

greatest hits

I really enjoyed Laura Barnett’s debut novel, The Versions of Us, and I was absolutely delighted when I was sent a copy of her follow up, Greatest Hits, ahead of its publication.

Greatest Hits features Cass Wheeler, a famous singer songwriter who withdrew from the public eye ten years ago, and who is now looking to release a very personal greatest hits album – not of the songs that were the most popular with her fans or of the tracks that sold the most, but the ones that were inspired by the key moments in her life:

Not, she’d said, the obvious songs – the label had put that record out long ago – but the songs that meant the most to her.  The songs that tracked the arc of a lifetime.

Over the course of a single day, Cass, alone, listens to her music, and reveals her story to the reader from her childhood to the current day.

The idea of a character revealing the highs and lows of their life isn’t a new one, but I really enjoyed Barnett’s unique approach to this type of story.  There are sixteen chapters, and each one starts with one of Cass’s songs, the lyrics for which have been written by Barnett in collaboration with acclaimed singer songwriter Kathryn Williams, and which will be released as a studio album to coincide with the publication of Greatest Hits.

The chapters are told in chronological order, and the reader sees Cass as a young girl, taking her first piano lessons, and how, as she grows up, she tries to make her way in the world of music where success is notoriously hard to come by whilst going through the key milestones of life such as love and marriage.  Cass’s life has many highs and lows, and whilst she is successful and realises her dreams, there are plenty of sour notes in her life.  It’s clear from the outset that she’s suffered a great tragedy in her life, although the reader doesn’t find out what this is until later in the novel.

I found Cass’s story to be incredibly compelling – the hints at the tragedy to come are intriguing, as is her decision to withdraw from the public eye, but I also found that Greatest Hits gave an insight into the life of a musician, with everything that entails.  I thought that Cass’s life, from living in relative squalor as she was starting out, touring small towns and trying to get a gig anywhere that would let her have a stage for a fraction of time was an accurate and realistic portrayal of the steps someone has to go through in order to “make it”.  This isn’t a Cinderella story of someone who is transformed into a star overnight, this is a story of hard work and elbow grease as Cass puts everything she has into her music.

Interspersed with Cass’s recollections of the past are snippets from her current day life, and I enjoyed this aspect of the novel too, albeit marginally less than the chapters looking back.  It felt a little as though Barnett was providing a little light relief between those chapters, as these interludes tended to be lighter in tone, even if they weren’t entirely happy either.  I’ll admit that I was always eager to get back to Cass’s past, however – I always wanted to know what happened next in her life.

Greatest Hits is quite different in style and tone to The Versions of Us, and shows that Barnett won’t be the sort of author that sticks to a tried and tested formula.  I absolutely loved Greatest Hits, and I expect it to be one of my books of the year

Greatest Hits is published today (15 June) by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.  Many thanks to Rebecca Gray for providing a copy for review.

Rating: ★★★★★

Blog Tour and Giveaway: The Lighterman by Simon Michael

the lighterman

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the first two novels in the Charles Holborne series, The Brief and An Honest Man, and I was delighted to be invited to join the blog tour for the release of the third instalment, The Lighterman.  I’m also offering one lucky reader to opportunity to win a paperback copy of The Lighterman – see the end of this post for details of how to enter.

Simon Michael’s follow up to the bestselling The Brief and An Honest Man, continues the adventures of criminal barrister Charles Holborne. The Lighterman provides more of Charles’s personal history, dating back to the war years when he worked on the River Thames with his cousin Izzy. Gangland leader Ronnie Kray is not a man to forgive or forget. Holborne has ‘taken liberties’ and revenge will follow. But how to get at a tough and resourceful Brief with his own history of criminality and a penchant for violence? The answer: find a man who can’t be hanged twice. Now Holborne must dig up the secrets of the past to save two lives… one of them his own. Simon Michael brings the past vividly back to life across a beautifully rendered 60s landscape, and delivers a gripping piece of thriller fiction that will excite any fan of the genre.

In the first two novels in the series, the reader is able to pick up little snippets about Holborne’s background, particularly his East End upbringing and the disagreements with his family when he anglicised his name thereby rejecting, in their eyes, his Jewish heritage.  One of the things I loved about The Lighterman was finding out more about his past, particularly his time in London during the Blitz when he worked on the river with his uncle and his cousin, Izzy.  I thought that this allowed the reader to get a more complete picture of Holborne as a character, and helps to show how he got to where he is today.

Both The Brief and An Honest Man have made reference to the infamous Kray twins, and Michael has been building up to clash between Holborne and the two brothers, whose paths he crossed in his last outing.  It was no surprise that they formed a much more significant part of this novel, as the Kray twins, and Ronnie in particular, seek to avenge themselves.   Thus, Holborne finds himself in a great deal of trouble, and I found this to be an incredibly exciting storyline as things come to a head.

I’ve always found Holborne to be something of a loveable rogue, and this book brings out more of this side of his character as he is forced into some misdemeanours of his own in order to save not just his cousin’s life, but his own as well.  It’s sometimes hard to know if a good man doing bad things is meant to garner sympathy from the reader – in Holborne’s case, his motivations are understandable, even if this doesn’t allow the reader to fully condone his actions.  I was completely on board with Holborne, however – it seems that almost everyone in the 1960s was corrupt in some way, and I think that you sometimes have to play the bad guys at their own game in order to resolve a situation.  As Green Day said “Nice guys finish last”.

I love a good courtroom scene, and Michael once again delivers a fantastically tense case against seemingly insurmountable odds.  I love those moments – the questioning of the witnesses, and trying to bring the jury round to a particular way of thinking.  Scenes like these, when done badly, can come across as dull and repetitive, but Michael has this down pat, which I’m sure stems at least partly from his own experiences in legal profession.

I think that The Lighterman is the best in the series yet, and I found it to be darker and grittier than the first two novels in the series, although still in keeping with the style and tone set in the preceding novels.  I do recommend reading the first two novels in the series before this one – there are references to the previous stories in The Lighterman, and I think it helps to understand what Holborne has been through in the last two novels in order to get the most out of this one.

The Lighterman was published on 8 June.  Many thanks to Matthew at Urbane Publications for the review copy, and to Michelle Ryles for inviting me to join the blog tour.

Rating: ★★★★★

Make sure you check out the other stops on the blog tour:

thelighterman_tourposter


Giveaway

As part of the blog tour, Matthew at Urbane Publications is very kindly offering a paperback copy of The Lighterman to one lucky reader.  To be in with a chance of winning, either leave a comment on this blog post or retweet my pinned tweet by midnight on 14 June.  UK entrants only please!

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

do no harm

I don’t read a lot on non-fiction, and if I do pick up something of that nature, it’s usually because I’m extremely interested in that particular topic, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when my book group chose to read Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery for our book this month.

What is it like to be a brain surgeon?

How does it feel to hold someone’s life in your hands, to cut through the stuff that creates thought, feeling and reason?

How do you live with the consequences when it all goes wrong?

Do No Harm offers an unforgettable insight into the highs and lows of a life dedicated to operating on the human brain, in all its exquisite complexity. With astonishing candour and compassion, Henry Marsh reveals the exhilarating drama of surgery, the chaos and confusion of a busy modern hospital, and above all the need for hope when faced with life’s most agonising decisions.

I’ll admit, I was pleasantly surprised! This is a well-written account of one man’s experiences in this field or medicine.  And Marsh delivers his account in a very matter of fact way.  Clearly there are some patients who he has been more attached to over the years, but even with those he maintains a relatively neutral tone.  Whilst this might sound as though it would be a bit dry, it’s anything but, and I found it to be as tense as the best psychological thrillers as I became invested in each patient and their situation.

Throughout, Marsh is extremely open and honest about the mistakes he’s made, although the patient details are protected.  I imagine that elements of this book were painful to write, and whilst I’m sure that this book doesn’t cover even a fraction of the patients he’s operated on, he does share both good and bad outcomes.  And reading his accounts of the various kinds of operations that he has dealt with, the reader comes to understand how any slight mistake can have a devastating impact.  Unfortunately, mistakes are easy to make, as the surgeon is often operating within a few millimetres of space at most and they are as fallible as the rest of us.  That said, I think that the overall message imparted here is one of hope, as we can now treat so many patients that we couldn’t have done in years gone past.

Whilst it isn’t central to the book, Marsh also documents his frustration with the increasing bureaucracy that he has had to deal with over time, and the red tape that hinders, rather than helps, him and his patients.  He doesn’t focus on this, nor does he rant and rave about it, but from what he does say, it’s clearly extremely frustrating for him, and understandably so.  Whilst some of the measures he talks about make sense, such as steps taken to reduce infections on a hospital ward, there are others that do seem completely bonkers and come across as box-ticking exercises on behalf of the management.

Whilst Do No Harm is not my usual kind of book, it’s one that I’m glad that I’ve read.  It’s both informative and easy to read, and I think that it removes a little of the mystery, if not the complexity, from this incredibly difficult field of medicine.  And, note to self, if ever in the situation where surgery (brain or otherwise) is an option, ALWAYS ask the surgeon what they would do.

Rating: ★★★★★