Category Archives: Book reviews

The Things We Thought We Knew by Mahsuda Snaith

The Things We Thought We Knew - eBook Cover

Today sees the new eBook launch of The Things We Thought We Knew by Mahsuda Snaith, with the paperback publication to follow on 9 August.  I was lucky enough enough the take part in the blog tour for the original publication of this novel last year, and I’m sharing my review again to celebrate the new launch and that lovely new cover!

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.

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Dunbar by Edward St Aubyn

dunbar

Dunbar is the third book I’ve read from the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, in which eight authors were invited to reimagine a Shakespeare play of their choosing.  I loved Tracy Chevalier’s take on Othello in New Boy, as well as Hag-Seed in which Margaret Atwood gave The Tempest a new lease of life.

Dunbar is the first that I’ve read with absolutely no prior knowledge of the play upon which it’s based, however, and before reading Dunbar I couldn’t have told you a single thing about King Lear beyond its ultimately tragic nature.  Whilst I was a little daunted by this and unsure as to whether I’d “get it” without knowing something about the play from which it takes its inspiration, I was relieved to find that Dunbar does work as a standalone novel with no prior knowledge needed to enjoy it, although I do wonder at the subtleties I might have missed within its pages.

Henry Dunbar, the all-powerful head of a global media corporation, is a man who is used to getting what he wants, and so the refusal of Florence, his youngest daughter, to become involved in the family business leaves him seething, and he reacts vindictively, cutting her and her children out of his will and leaving everything to his two older daughters, Megan and Abby.  Whilst Florence accepts this (thereby robbing Henry of the satisfaction of any sort of reaction), Megan and Abby decide that they want more, and stage a coup to take Henry out of the picture, removing him to a small nursing home in the Lake District.

As Megan and Abby manoeuvre the board towards a vote of no confidence in Henry, which would remove him from the company permanently, Henry escapes from the nursing home, and now Florence has to find him before Megan and Abby do.

Dunbar is filled with a cast of largely unlikeable characters.  Megan and Abby are selfish and almost Machiavellian in their betrayal of their father, although it seemed to me that it was a case of the apple not falling far from the tree.  To become the head of a global corporation takes some degree of ruthlessness, I think, and he’s showed his own malicious nature in his treatment of Florence, however much he regrets it once Megan and Abby have started to remove him from power.  I did feel some sympathy towards Henry, however, although this was perhaps driven by a desire for the lesser of two evils to emerge victorious.

I thought that the characters of Megan and Abby were perhaps a little over-exaggerated, so much so that I struggled to take them seriously at times.  They seemed quite one-dimensional and I didn’t get much of a sense of a personality from either of them.  I also wasn’t sure of their motives for seeking to displace their father, other than their obvious greed, and I would have a like a little more exploration of why they were going to such lengths to take over their father’s business.

Henry’s escape from Meadowmeade allows him time to reflect upon past transgressions, and in particular his treatment of Florence, and I enjoyed the change in his world view as he comes to appreciate the strength of character it would take to be honest and to tell him that she has no interest in his legacy.  To say that I enjoyed the scenes where Henry is lost on the moors isn’t quite right, but I thought that setting him adrift from everything to allow him to reflect upon his life in this way was brilliantly done, and I did hope that Florence would find him first to allow him his chance at redemption.

At approximately 210 pages, Dunbar is a short novel, and the pace is relatively slow as Henry, with varying degrees of lucidity, has time to think about what’s he done and how he’s got to where he is now.  I did have a couple of unanswered questions by the end of the novel, and I didn’t (in my naivety of the original play) expect it to end quite as it did, although I wasn’t expecting a happy ending, given the nature of the play.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

A Noise Downstairs by Linwood Barclay

a noise downstairs

A Noise Downstairs is my first Linwood Barclay novel, but it won’t be my last, as I absolutely loved this novel.

EVERY STEP…

Paul Davis forgets things – he gets confused, he has sudden panic attacks.  But he wasn’t always like this.

TAKES YOU CLOSER…

Eight months ago, Paul found two dead bodies in the back of a co-worker’s car.  He was attacked, left for dead, and has been slowly recovering ever since.  His wife tries her best but fears the worst…

TO THE TRUTH…

Therapy helps during the days, but at night he hears things – impossible things – that no one else can.  That nobody else believes.  Either he’s losing his mind – or someone wants him to think he is.

Just because he’s paranoid doesn’t mean it’s not happening…

I found A Noise Downstairs to be a little different to most thrillers, in the best possible way.  This is the story of Paul Davis, who is recovering from a brutal attack eight months earlier.  Whilst therapy has helped, he still experiences lapses of memory, and suffers from horrific nightmares.  His wife, Charlotte, suggests confronting the experience head on as a way of dealing with the attack, and Paul begins to research the crime his co-worker, Kenneth, committed and that Paul unwittingly stumbled into.

They are two puzzles main puzzles here, and I found both of them riveting.  Firstly, there is Kenneth’s attack on Paul and the two bodies he was disposing of (no spoiler here – it’s all in the prologue and the blurb).  And then there’s Paul’s experiences as he conducts his investigation.  I won’t go into the details of this, as it would be all too easy to move into spoiler territory, but things take quite a strange turn and Paul, having exhausted all other explanations, comes to a rather odd conclusion, and one not shared by those around him.  I found myself questioning Paul as a narrator, much as those around him begin to have doubts, and I loved trying to work out what was really going on.

Whilst I did puzzle out some elements of the novel, something happens about two thirds of the way in that completely knocked me for six.  THAT I did not see coming!  And, if some of my guesses were right, there were other elements that I missed completely, leading me to conclude (once again) that anything I figured out was more luck than judgement.  Either way, I absolutely loved this novel, and found it to be incredibly suspenseful.  The short chapters make it all too easy to read “just one more”, and I could have happily read this in a single sitting had real life not so rudely interrupted.  A Noise Downstairs is a brilliantly written character driven thriller, and I can’t recommend it enough.

A Noise Downstairs was published on 12 July by Orion.  Many thanks to Rebecca Gray for the review copy.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Trust No One by Anthony Mosawi

trust no one

I think that the synopsis has an incredible hook in it.  A young girl found locked in a sensory deprivation tank?  Colour me intrigued.

THEY FOUND HER WHEN SHE WAS TEN.

Locked in a sensory-deprivation tank.  Trapped for days in the dark.  Listening to the same message over and over: ‘My name is Sara Eden.  My name is Sara Eden’.

Her memory gone, this is all Sara knows about herself.

There were a handful of clues.  A battered necklace.  A few scraps of paper.  And a polaroid of a stranger with a handwritten note: ‘Don’t trust this man’.

Now an adult, Sara knows a few more things.

That the government agents pursuing her will never stop.  And that the only path to her identity is to find the man she must not trust.  But there is something else in Sara’s past that is more dangerous, more deadly, than her pursuers.  And the only thing she knows for certain is that she must TRUST NO ONE.

I’m not going to go into the plot in any detail, but Trust No One moves along at an incredible pace from start to finish.  There is always something happening, and as the narrative moves around in time (more so to begin with than at the end) and is told from various character points of view, I did find it a little hard to follow at times.  There is very little information given to the reader initially, and it takes quite a long time before any of the questions posed by the characters and events are answered.  This does make it a little confusing at times, although after the half way mark things do start to become clearer.

Sara’s character is an interesting one.  Found in a DIY sensory deprivation tank by the police and social services at the age of ten, she instantly captures the imagination.  Who is she?  Who did this to her?  And, perhaps most importantly, why?  The reader sees Sara at various points in her life, but never really gets a sense of who she really is.  Given Sara’s experiences in the sensory deprivation tank listening to the same message on repeat:

My name is Sara Eden

I thought that this was well done by Mosawi – Sara doesn’t know who she is, and neither do we, but both learn as the novel progresses.  I also liked that certain characters never refer to her by her name, and act as though she is little more than an experiment.  This dehumanisation is neatly balanced by the chapters told from Sara’s perspective, which remind us of her youth, and the confusion around her circumstances.

I did have a few issues with the novel, although I expect that this is a case of the novel just not being right for me.  I thought that some elements of the plot weren’t fully explained, and I still had some unanswered questions when I reached the end of last page.  I also felt that some points were contradictory, although this may be down to my confusion as to what was going on at times.  I think that Trust No One will appeal to those who enjoy spy thrillers but this one just wasn’t for me.

Trust No One is available now as an eBook and will be published on 23 August in paperback.  Many thanks to the publisher, Michael Joseph, for the opportunity to read and review this title via Netgalley.

Suicide Club by Rachel Heng

suicide club

Happy publication day to Rachel Heng whose debut novel, Suicide Club, is published today!  As you’re probably aware, I love a dystopian novel, and I was thrilled when my request to read Suicide Club via Netgalley was approved by the publisher.

What are you doing to help yourself? What are you doing to show that you’re worth the resources?

In a near-future world, medical technology has progressed far enough that immortality is now within grasp – but only to those who show themselves to be deserving of it.  These people are the lifers: the exercisers, yogacisers, green juicers and early nighters.

Genetically perfect, healthy and wholesome, one hundred-year-old Lea is the poster girl for lifers, until the day she catches a glimpse of her father in the street, eighty-eight years after their last encounter.  While pursuing him, Lea has a brush with death which sparks suspicions.  If Lea could be so careless, is she worthy of immortality?

Suicide Club wasn’t always an activist group.  It began as a set of disillusioned lifers, gathering to indulge in forbidden activities: performances of live music, artery-clogging meals, irresponsible orgies.  But now they have been branded terrorists and are hunted by the state.

And Lea has decided to give them a call.

On the surface of it, there are many elements of the world in which Suicide Club is set that appeal.  Longer life spans, and with the technology to prevent and repair the wear and tear on our bodies, people can actually enjoy those extra years to the full, retaining their good looks and youthful vigour.  Work is strictly 9 ‘til 5, any longer hours seen as being stress-inducing and counter-productive to society.  It’s sounds ideal.  But dig a little a deeper, and, as with all great dystopian fiction, you find the price that people have had to pay to achieve this might outweigh the benefits.  Meat, alcohol, and sugar (even those naturally occurring in fruit) are all restricted if not banned outright, and real food is prepared less and less often with people often relying on nutritionally balanced “nutripaks” instead of trad(itional) cooking for sustenance.  There are restrictions on music, and oh so many directives to protect ourselves from any kind of potential damage.  This is a society that stops just short of literally wrapping its people in cotton wool, and I wonder whether all those extra years are worth it if you can’t enjoy all of the things that you might like to do.

At the outset of the novel, Lea is a model citizen.  She is healthy, exercises regularly, and takes care of herself in all of the prescribed ways (and there are MANY prescribed ways to take care of yourself).  Successful, she is being considered for promotion at work, and will be eligible for true immortality, rather than just long life, once available.  The only slight blip on her record is her father who left years ago and who is now considered “antisanct” or non-lifeloving – just about the worst thing you can be in this world.  But a small incident puts her on a watch list as someone with potential suicidal tendencies, and Lea’s eyes are opened to the realities of the world she lives in.  In some ways, Lea’s character is quite a difficult one, and I struggled to like her as I found her to be selfish, proud, and dismissive of others, although she is very much a product of her environment in this respect.  She is fascinating though, particularly as the reader gets to know more about her past, and the story was thoroughly engaging even if I didn’t love Lea’s character immediately.

With people living longer, there might be concerns around overall population figures and overcrowding, but in Suicide Club, the population figures are dwindling due to falling birth rates.  Why the birth rates were falling, and why the population was reducing so drastically wasn’t fully explored, and I would have liked to have understood this element of the world more fully.  There are a distinct lack of children in the novel, and I expect that with people living longer, they are able to put off having children for some time, focussing on their careers, friends, social lives etc. with having a family something to consider further down the line.

And then there’s suicide, which is the antithesis to this society.  With the technological advancements that enable us to live longer, it has become increasingly difficult to end your own life should you wish to do so.  Technology such as DiamondSkinTM (making our skin impervious to damage and healing rapidly) and SmartBloodTM protect us not only from our environment and those that would cause us harm, but also from ourselves.  Whilst this could be considered a good thing, for those who don’t want to live forever, having immortality forced upon them is unpalatable, and some are willing to resort to drastic measures to avoid this fate.  Of course, the Ministry – the mysterious power behind it all – don’t care about this.  What they care about are the population figures, which suicide reduces further.

There are certain elements of dystopian novels that I always look out for, and one of those is a class structure.  I like to see how authors use the world they’ve developed to set some apart from others, and Heng does this really well in Suicide Club with life expectancy being the key differentiator.  At birth, everyone is given their number – their life expectancy, based upon their genetic make-up.  For people like Lea – “lifers” with significant age spans – it’s a ticket to the upper echelons of society, as opposed to the “sub 100s”.  I thought that this element of the novel was done brilliantly, and it works so well, with the lifers largely ignoring those beneath them, and everyone else feeling subservient to these near perfect beings.

I thoroughly enjoyed Suicide Club, and I loved the world in which it’s set and the way that Heng brought this to life.  The technological advancements sound wonderful in many ways, although how these are used would need to be considered carefully should such things come to pass.  This is a dark novel, and one that I highly recommended.

Suicide Club is published today (10 July) by Sceptre.  Many thanks to the publisher for the opportunity to read this title ahead of publication via Netgalley.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Blog Tour: When I Find You by Emma Curtis

when i find you

Welcome to my stop on the blog tour for Emma Curtis’s latest novel, When I Find You.  I thoroughly enjoyed Emma’s debut, One Little Mistake, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to read her follow up, When I Find You, ahead of publication, and to be able to take part in the blog tour.

What do you do when someone takes advantage of your greatest weakness?

When Laura wakes up after her office Christmas party and sees a man’s shirt on the floor, she is horrified.  But this is no ordinary one-night-stand regret.

Laura suffers from severe face-blindness, a condition that means she is completely unable to identify and remember faces.  So the man she spent all night dancing with and kissing – the man she thought she’d brought home – was ‘Pink Shirt’.

But the shirt on her floor is blue.

And now Laura must go to work every day, and face the man who took advantage of her condition.  The man she has no way of recognising.

She doesn’t know who he is… but she’ll make him pay.

Face-blindness, or Prosopagnosia, is a condition that I didn’t know much about going into this novel, other than it being an inability to recognise faces.  I’d never really thought beyond this, in terms of the impact that this condition would have on a person and those close to them, and the difficulties it would cause in everyday life.   It’s something that Curtis has researched thoroughly for this novel, and I thought that she brought Laura’s daily struggles to life brilliantly, including the question of whether or not to tell people.  It’s a real dilemma – if people know, they can introduce themselves when they speak to you, but there’s always going to be the one bad egg who will take advantage of the condition.

Of course, this is the situation Laura finds herself in after he office Christmas party when she realises the morning after that the man she took home with her is not the man she had been canoodling with all evening, the difference highlighted by the colour of the shirt she finds on the floor.  Coward that he is, he does a runner before she can confront him, and she is left to work out who it was, why they would commit such an act, and how they knew, given that she has only told her boss, Rebecca – no one else knows.  And Laura feels unable to report the incident to the police, fearing that they won’t believe her “sorry, officer, I don’t who he was because I don’t recognise faces”.  Laura is left in a situation of not knowing who she can trust, and takes the only option available to her in not trusting anyone, attempting to cope on her own.

Laura’s character is one that it’s so easy to get behind.  Her ways of coping with her condition show such determination, and whilst her intent to take her revenge on the culprit, once she works out who it is, maybe isn’t entirely advisable, I couldn’t help but admire her spirit, and I wanted her to succeed.  I think that Laura also inspired sympathy in the way that those around her treat her.  Most don’t know about her face-blindness, and so find her to be anti-social and standoffish, but even Rebecca is unsympathetic towards her, and makes things harder for Laura than they need to be.  It has to be said that the other characters in the novel, for the most part, aren’t all that likeable, making it easier to support Laura in her quest for revenge.

When I Find You is an incredibly fast-paced story, and I couldn’t wait to find out what happened.  I thought I’d been really clever in working it out, and whilst I got some elements right, the final twist was absolutely brilliant, and completely unexpected.  This is a fantastically original thriller, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.

When I Find You was published as an eBook on 1 July, and will be out in paperback on 8 August.  Many thanks to the publisher, Black Swan for the review copy, and to Anne Cater for inviting me to join the blog tour.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐


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

When I Find You Blog Tour Banner

Blog Tour: Call of the Curlew by Elizabeth Brooks

call of the curlew

Virginia Wrathmell knows she will walk on to the marsh one New Year’s Eve, and meet her end there.

One snowy New Year’s Eve, at the age of eighty-six, Virginia feels the time has finally come.

New Year’s Eve, 1939.  Virginia is ten, an orphan arriving to meet her new parents at their mysterious house, Salt Winds.  Her new home sits on the edge of a vast marsh, a beautiful but dangerous place.  War feels far away out here amongst the birds and shifting sands – until the day a German fighter plane crashes into the marsh.  The people at Salt Winds are the only ones to see it.

What happens next is something Virginia will regret for the next seventy-five years, and which will change the whole course of her life.

Call of the Curlew is a novel that had me hooked from the very first page.  Who is Virginia Wrathmell, and why is she so certain that she would meet her end on the marsh?  The first of these questions was answered earlier than the second, as the reader gets to know Virginia both now (in 2015) and as a child at the outset of the Second World War.  Both storylines reveal much about her, although I did prefer the earlier sections as the reader begins to understand the burden that she has carried throughout her life.  What this is takes some time to be fully revealed, and I couldn’t turn the pages quickly enough to find out what had gone so horribly wrong.

As an orphan, it would be easy to assume that her childhood was an unhappy one, and yet that doesn’t seem to be the case here.  The orphanage was kind to her prior to her adoption by Clem and Lorna, and her adoptive parents treat her well, even if Lorna doesn’t exactly exude maternal instinct.  I loved the way her relationship with Clem developed into something that’s not quite father and daughter, but close enough to be enjoyable for them both.  The other characters in the novel are also well-developed, particularly the ever present yet rarely welcome neighbour, Max Deering, and it’s no surprise that he has his role to play in what comes to follow.

I found the present-day storyline to be extremely thought-provoking, as Virginia seeks to wrap up loose ends before heading out into the marsh.  Things don’t entirely go to plan, however, as she has an unexpected visitor, and one that has her own links to Virginia’s past, stirring up more memories.  Whilst this might seem coincidental, I thought that this development was explained well, and I thought that this was a brilliant way of sharing the outcome for other characters in the novel, without resorting to Virginia simply telling the reader what happened.

The dual timeline means that this is a novel that will appeal to those who enjoy historical fiction, and the mystery which slowly unravels will keep you hooked until the end.  It’s not a fast-paced novel, but I thoroughly enjoyed the slow unravelling of events.  Call of the Curlew is brilliantly written and atmospheric throughout and is imbued with a fantastic sense of place, so much so that the marshes almost seem like a character in themselves, and I liked the constant they provided in the story whilst everything else changes over time.  This is a poignant story, and one that will stay with me for some time.

Call of the Curlew was published by Doubleday on 28 June.  Many thanks to Anne Cater and Hannah Bright for the review copy and the opportunity to join the blog tour.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐


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

Call of the Curlew Blog Tour Poster