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REVIEW: The Trophy Child by Paula Daly

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Released May 18 with Transworld, available here.

I have only read one Paula Daly book before, Just What Kind Of Mother Are You?, and although I enjoyed it, I felt as though the writing was a little stilted and not particularly vivid. However, I thought The Trophy Child was fab and very much improved (which makes sense as it’s her fourth as opposed to her first novel). It’s an example of the grip lit/domestic noir genre, which is something I’ve delightedly fallen face first into and have been wallowing in for years now. (The phrase ‘like a pig in shit’ comes to mind but obviously I am far too elegant for that! Obviously! OBVIOUSLY!!) There is honestly no better feeling than sitting down with a great domestic noir book – and something that I really enjoyed about The Trophy Child is that it was also extended a little into police procedural (although I would add that it’s less procedural and more character-driven).

I really liked Joanne Aspinall. I found that she was an incredibly engaging and warm character to read. I enjoyed her presence in the other Daly book I read and came to like her even more in this one. I liked her dark humour – which is a theme of the whole book, actually, and something that I really welcomed because frankly grip lit can get a little exhausting and self obsessed if it isn’t shot through with at least a little humour. (This is also true of human beings in general.) I liked that she fucks up and is still professional – she’s competent and intelligent and imperfect, and the way that she was seen through Noel’s eyes gelled well with the way that she sees herself. I liked that she’d had a breast reduction – which sounds like a small thing to like about a character but I honestly don’t think it’s something I’ve ever read about before and it made her all the more human and interesting.

I thought that the plot itself was good. I saw – on goodreads, maybe? – that Daly was described as one of the more cosy grip lit writers and I can see that – maybe because of that extremely welcome humour. Despite occasionally having very dark themes, this book was very easy to enjoy. I sort of vaguely guessed that the end perpetrator (sort of) would have something to do with what went on but I didn’t at all guess how exactly it would work, so that was a nice surprise and also something that felt very satisfying and like the right ending – it was a very well-formed plot. I liked Noel and his family – although I wanted to know more about Karen. Why was she the way that she was? I am maybe too sensitive about Evil Cow Women in a way that I am not about Evil Bastard Men, but I felt as though she was a vicious villain who didn’t have enough backstory for me. Her father was unpleasant but not enough to make her into the person that she was – and Noel wanting to make his marriage work for his children didn’t feel like enough to excuse his staying with her for so long, especially as the children weren’t happy. In a way, I did not feel as though he was remotely good enough for Joanne – he felt weak (if funny and interesting) and overly passive. (Another random point: I liked the mentions of his vitiligo. It’s just nice to have things like that in books that the characters aren’t obsessed by and that don’t remotely impact on the crimes, but that add a little representation in there.)

Verity was a fab character and so was poor little Bronte. Although appalling, Karen was charismatic and entertaining and the sort of person who is ghastly but a very welcome character to read about because she was unpredictable and interesting. I felt as though the book was less about ‘tiger mom’ parenting as it was about Karen specifically – I would have maybe liked to see the way that the other kids at Bronte’s school were affected by their multiple tutors and lessons and so on so that the theme was spread out more widely in the book.

In all, this was a good and really solid book with a satisfying ending and engaging characters. I’m looking forward to reading Daly’s next book – hopefully about Joanne Aspinall again – and I’m definitely going to purchase her other two books as well.

reviews

REVIEW: The Lying Game by Ruth Ware

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This evening I was in a no good very bad mood, so I knew I had to read something that was engrossing, not too challenging, and able to hold my interest – which meant that Ruth Ware’s new novel, The Lying Game, was the perfect choice. I ploughed through the entire thing and now I feel a lot better, which means this book was basically excellent and has done the exact thing that all books should do: to take the reader out of their skin and to put them back in it at the end feeling a lot more whole and happy.

I really enjoyed Ruth Ware’s first two books, which I read in similar fashion last summer: while feeling rotten in the head and while being very sweaty in the middle of a heatwave. They did the same as The Lying Game in that they pulled me out of myself and took me away for a few blissful hours – except I think that The Lying Game is a much better written book than either of those two. It’s a very different sort of book too, I think – slower and knottier and more character driven. Ware is great at atmosphere and setting, but The Lying Game was the best of the three – the seaside town it’s set in is extremely real, as is the boarding school, as is Kate’s old rickety house, surrounded by an ever more encroaching moat. The setting contributed huge amounts to the story and to the atmosphere of it and was conveyed really successfully. I love that hazy dream world that some authors are able to conjure up that was popularised by the haziness of The Secret History. It’s like Erin Kelly’s The Poison Tree, Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, Louise Candlish’s The Swimming Pool, of course The Virgin Suicides – there’s something dangerous and slightly malevolent about that slow, lazy, sticky heat, which I thought was conveyed really beautifully through the first part of this book. The way that Luc was described, for example – the gold and brown of him, it felt somewhat familiar but that didn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy it. It all felt languorous and dangerous.

The story itself was great. I also love that tightly knit and almost hypnotic group of friends thing – it has been done before in fiction, again The Secret History and Tana French’s The Secret Place, also The Poison Tree, but it’s something that I personally love to read. That being suckered into a group and terrible things happening because of it thing is exactly My Kind Of Thing, that found family going terribly wrong vibe. The only thing was that I didn’t feel that the lying game went far enough, and I also didn’t know if I felt like it applied strongly enough to the actual plot. I wanted the internal story to be more connected to something that the protagonist, Isa, had done – it felt sometimes as though it was someone else’s story and she was just the person who was telling it, as though we were set up for something more terrible than what had actually happened. I felt as though I wanted the eventual conclusion to be more linked to their thoughtless lies, if that makes sense. But the conclusion that we got was still really excellent and there were some great and unforgettable images at the end, along with a twist that worked well. I liked all four women – Isa was a great protagonist even though I felt that her identity might have been tied too strongly to her role as a mother for me. Thea was fragile and less dangerous than she initially appeared, Kate was tough and vulnerable and full of secrets, and Fatima was probably my favourite – I loved the fact that she had her shit together but she was still under the spell of her old friends. I also liked the fact that she’s a Muslim and the way that her faith is described through the book – it’s the kind of thing that you don’t see much in fiction so I was really delighted to see it here.

I don’t know if I think this was great literature – it might not stick in my head forever and I don’t think it was the most original thing in the whole world. But it really, solidly did its job, it totally gripped me for the whole evening and made me want to read on and on. The descriptions of Freya were gorgeous, and I liked the way that each woman(/girl) was differentiated carefully from each other. There’s nothing I love to read about more than friendship between women, how fucked up it can be and how it can be the most important thing in the world when you’re younger and how the ties of it will stay with you forever, and how that sort of teenage loyalty can make you do really terrible things and keep its hold over you way into adulthood. This book was a great example of that and I think that was its main strength – the relationship between the four central characters was thoroughly believable to me. This book did exactly what it should have done – it made me forget the rest of my life for the evening and totally immersed me in its story. I’m definitely going to be buying Ruth Ware’s next book as soon as it comes out.

reviews

REVIEW: The Death House by Sarah Pinborough

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FIRST OF ALL: Thank you so much to Stevie at Gollancz for sending this book to me! Sarah Pinborough is an awesome writer and I was really excited about reading this book. It’s YA and a kind of dystopian romance, following the story of Toby, who lives in the Death House, which is on an uninhabited island and is where children who’ve tested positive as Defectives are sent before they start to show symptoms of a mysterious disease and are sent to a sanatorium, never to be seen again.

First and foremost: I liked this book a lot. I thought that Toby’s voice was warm and well-written, and I liked all the other characters. The whole concept of the story was well introduced and I thought the flashbacks were great. I’ve seen reviews that were slightly critical about how much the reader’s told about the world that the characters are in, but I enjoyed that slight vagueness. One thing that a lot of dystopian novels get wrong is that the characters ruminate too much on their world and tell the readers more than they naturally would – these characters just lived in their world and took it for granted and I thought that worked well. I liked the small glimpses that we got of the outside world – the Black Suits and the lack of snow, for example. I would have liked to know more about it but at the same time it wasn’t necessary to the story and would possibly have felt clumsy if it had been shoehorned in. There are things that I wanted more of, though: why didn’t Toby try to explore the sanatorium? That could have been fantastic.

I liked Toby’s relationship with his dorm mates and I thought that Louis and Will’s friendship was extremely adorable. I also liked the way that Toby and Josh found a sort of tentative truce through the book – character development, what’s upppppp. I had a lot of affection for Tom and wanted better for him. I also liked the way that faith was brought into the book – in dire circumstances, people do find these things to hold onto. Another thing that I really enjoyed was the ambiguity of to what extent Matron was straight up murdering them all – were the pills making them worse? Was she meant to be evil? Did she actually kill The Nice Nurse? Who knows what the fuck was up but I liked that we didn’t have to know – it felt as though I as a reader was fully in this world, which meant that not everything was tied up neatly. I liked Will’s plot arc a lot – the way that he and Louis were written was really charming and lovely, and it definitely made me pretty emotional.

My only real problem was with the central romance, and I’m absolutely willing to accept that it’s because I’m a hundred years old and extremely cranky, as opposed to any defects in the book. I felt as though Clara wasn’t the best of characters – I could see why Toby would fall in love with her but she definitely seemed like a bit of a manic pixie dream girl. She sometimes felt like more of a character than a person, and in a novel full of well drawn people, she stuck out like a sore thumb. Still, it was sweet to watch the love story play out until – UNTIL!! – the end, which frustrated the crap out of me. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but Toby made the World’s Most Stupid Decision and it pissed me off hugely. I get that for teenagers Love Rules All but I am an adult woman and even looking at it through the lens of ‘ahh well, maybe it’s supposed to be clear to adult readers that he’s making a dumbass decision’, I was not okay with it. The deep infatuation that he finds with Clara (I’m not going to say ‘love’, because in a word: nah), was sweet but it was also supposed to be a healthy relationship until he made the Most Unhealthy Decision Of All Time. I liked what happened to Louis at the end, but God. GOD. FUCK. IT COULD HAVE BEEN SO MUCH BETTER. And another plot decision could have been ten times more emotional and heartbreaking! It would have been like “Toby is strong and Clara is sacrificing the last minutes of their togetherness and Toby is striking out to make the world a better place” and instead it was just full of poor decisions and frustrating shit.

I MEAN! WHATEVER! I’M SURE THAT TONS OF PEOPLE LOVED THE ENDING! I’M NOT AT ALL EMBITTERED! But the story that came before this ending was wonderful and deserved so much more. I really enjoyed this book up until my irritation at the last page. The lives that these characters led were interesting and sad and the world felt very whole and well-created. I liked the mermaid imagery throughout the book, I liked the coldness and emptiness and the friendships that were formed between the characters. If the ending hadn’t left a sour taste in my mouth, this would be a solid four star book instead of three.

reviews

REVIEW: The Last Piece Of My Heart by Paige Toon

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It is with a heavy heart that I must announce I have underestimated Paige Toon.

Before I went to an event at Waterstones Piccadilly a few weeks ago with her, Holly Bourne, Rachael Lucas and Tamsyn Murray, I’d – obviously! – heard of her books, but I hadn’t bought or read any of them. I got copies of books by all of those authors that day and this was the first out of the four that I picked up. And God, I loved it. I was expecting to like it but somehow I didn’t know that I would love it. I thought it would be a relatively generic romance (although I don’t know why I thought that!! Stupidity, I guess?), but it was a lot more than that. It was a sunshine-ray of a book, and completely charming.

There is something to be said about a book that is intensely enjoyable the whole way through. I thought it was an incredibly successful novel. Some of the time I barely noticed I was reading – the writing was simple and lovely, and it was paced absolutely perfectly. If anyone ever needs to pick apart a novel to somehow calculate an algorithm for how to pace a book exactly correctly, this would be a great choice. I was never bored, I always looked forward to picking up this book again when I wasn’t reading it, and there were points when I was reading it in public that I almost had to shove my fist in my mouth to stop myself shrieking loudly about the romantic tension between Charlie and Bridget (page 198 was the point at which I had to shove it back in my bag because it made my heart Actually Lurch and my face started to do strange things). It was just so delicious to read. The last few weeks have been a strange combination of really great and staggeringly shit for me and my mind has been totally full of crap most of the time, so this book was exactly what I needed to read.

Anyway! The plot. Everyone has a few plotlines that twang on their specific heartstrings, and I think this was the sort of plot that’s pretty much tailor made for me. (You know, we all have the tropes we love. For me: pretending to be dating and then actually falling in love! Suddenly having to take care of a kid! That sort of thing.) Anyway, dishy widower, travel writer, cute kid, falling into a family and finding your place in it (does that count as found family?) – God. Paige Toon knew what I, me, I specifically, wanted to read, and bless her, she wrote it. There was warmth and love and people treating each other well because they were decent kind human beings, and genuine pain at times that people worked their way through in a relatively healthy way, and no drama for the sake of drama. Bridget was recognisable as someone you would want to be friends with, or at least someone who all of us has met once upon a time. Nicole felt like a real person and the glimpses we got of her were great – she wasn’t the perfect angel dead wife, she was just human, and loved and missed. And I liked the way that April was written. Some children in fiction are obnoxious, but April was adorable. All the side characters were fab and well drawn too.

Was it formulaic? I mean, maybe. Kind of. It followed that incredibly reassuring plot structure that a lot of romance novels have – the slight frostiness to start with, the slow burn, the frisson, the crush, the sex, the spanner in the works, the happy ending. But no one reads a book like this for a plot twist – you read it because you want to feel happy. The key to a successful romance is falling in love with the characters as they fall in love with each other, and I absolutely did that here. Bridget was so bright and lively and engaging, and Charlie was such a great hero. A little broken but not completely, and vulnerable but strong, and also kind of sulky? Which I liked, because it made him more imperfect, yet it wasn’t the sort of personality trait that seems very red flag-ish, which has been the case with some heroes I’ve read about. Instead he disappeared into his head sometimes and Bridget was fine with it. These two characters treated each other well, and when they didn’t, they apologised for it. There’s something joyful about reading about two well-drawn characters with missing pieces who find what they needed in each other. It was sweet and lovely to read about how happy they made each other. I’m looking forward to buying and reading the rest of Paige Toon’s books.

reviews

REVIEW: He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly

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Released April 20th with Hodder and Stoughton, available here.

I’ve seen Erin Kelly speak at a couple of events – firstly at a Valentine’s Day killer women talk earlier this year and then again at one of Goldsboro Books’s Monday crime nights (speaking of: I went to another one on Monday night with Jane Casey, Chris Brookmyre, Michelle Adams and Mark Hill, and it was excellent but I was tired and a bit squashed so I was a big flop and did not take notes). My point here is that she’s fantastic and I have been looking forward to reading this book since February.

It follows the story of Kit and Laura. Kit is an eclipse chaser and has drawn his wife Laura into that life too. The book moves between their life together in the present day – Laura is pregnant with much longed for twins, while Kit is off chasing an eclipse – and their past, which starts in 1999 when they go to a festival in Cornwall to watch an eclipse and Laura interrupts a rape that’s taking place. The repercussions of that day affect pretty much their entire life together.

So, that’s the premise, and it’s so much better than I’ve made it sound. I think that what makes this book work so well for me was the sheer quality of Kelly’s writing. Since reading He Said/She Said on Sunday, I’ve also read her novel The Burning Air, which absolutely hooked me even though I would argue that the plot isn’t quite as fantastic as He Said/She Said. The reason for that is that her character creation is so great. There’s something really incredible about the way that she seems to let us fully inside her characters and keeps things hidden at the same time. Doing that with such ease is really skilful. Both these books had huge twists that genuinely stunned me and made me flip back through the book to reread the parts leading up to them.

Kelly is clearly an absolute master at writing a novel with a twist. I think twists can sometimes be overrated – they feel cheap or they’re not that interesting or you feel as though they’ve been shoved in there to make you gasp and tell everyone about the twist in your novel. But these ones made total, total sense in retrospect – and I think the novels could definitely be reread and seen through fresh eyes with this new perspective, especially as they were such page-turners that made me read extremely quickly and probably, tbh, miss a few clues.

There’s something else that I really like about these books and I’m not completely sure how to phrase it without being spoilery and awful. Basically, in both of these novels, for a while things go in the direction of Women Being Awful Because They’re Crazy. And that is a plotline that is obviously more than a little tired and that has been done a thousand times before – and I’m really glad that it was steered away from in both of these books. I felt as though they were written in a really clear-eyed and intelligent way, and none of the humanity of the characters was sacrificed for the sake of the plot. Both of the endings of these books were incredibly satisfying, particularly He Said/She Said. Sometimes books have fantastic premises but as you read through them, part of you is saying ‘No. No, that isn’t how this should be done. No. Oh God’, but with these books it felt as though the story was formed and the endings were the only way they could have been resolved – despite me not guessing at all what was going to happen.

Back to the point of this review/ramble, which is He Said/She Said: I think it may be my favourite thriller that I’ve read so far this year, and I don’t know how it’s going to be topped. I loved that the characters were shits but recognisably human, I loved how deeply satisfying it was, I loved the relationship between Kit and Laura and of course the relationship between Beth and the pair of them. I love that Erin Kelly writes in shades of grey in which women are allowed to be unapologetically human. I’m looking forward to reading all her books – The Poison Tree is next, and frankly I can’t wait.

reviews

REVIEW: The Night Visitor by Lucy Atkins

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Released May 4th, with Quercus Books.

The Night Visitor is one of this month’s hottest new releases, and with good reason. Lucy Atkins is already a pretty well known author thanks to her previous novels The Missing One and The Other Child but it looks like The Night Visitor is the one that’s really going to add her name to the ranks of today’s must-read thriller writers. I’ve been seeing buzz about it on Twitter for months – I think I remember seeing Clare Mackintosh mentioning how good it was ages ago – and I’ve been super excited to read it ever since then. And hooray – thanks to Hannah at Quercus I’ve got my grubby little paws on a copy.

First and foremost: this is a Good Book. It is a very high quality piece of writing and I think that the incredible characterisation of the two central characters is what makes it stand out from other similarly themed titles. I suppose this is part of the ‘grip lit’ genre but im-not-so-ho this book stands head and shoulders above a lot of the others. It’s firmly literary as well as thrilling – very solidly written. I felt thoroughly as though the action was driven by the realistic wants of the characters instead of the needs of a thriller plot – which is, of course, the best sort of thriller.

Vivian in particular was a triumph of a character. She was creepy and insidious and alarmingly believable. I understood that she could exist in the world at her current level of Odd. Sometimes in books like this, the villain (is Vivian a villain or just extremely damaged?) is a bit of a cardboard cut out and it’s hard to see why they are the way they are, but Vivian made a lot of sense and seemed as though she could be a person who manages to function in the world while seeming a bit off. In some other books it can be hard to understand why no one’s pointed out that the villain is a psychopathic monster before. I also thought that Olivia was a great character – again, she felt extremely real, as did all of her friends and family members. This may sound ridiculous but all the characters were well-drawn in just a few words – it was easy to tell them all apart (this sounds like damning praise but it’s not! Sometimes background characters are hard to distinguish but it felt as though all these characters were distinct people with their own lives).

The settings were great and extremely evocative. I enjoyed the way the book moved between them – Vivian’s inability to deal with the heat in the south of France, the tower that the children slept in, the woods in the countryside in Sussex, the old house – I felt very much as though I was there. I liked how green and leafy and wet-smelling the woods were – does that make sense? They were described really excellently and were incredibly familiar and atmospheric. I also thought that the pacing of the novel was fantastic – the action unfolded perfectly in a way that meant I didn’t particularly notice the plotting – which is a compliment. I didn’t notice any dragging, I wasn’t bored for a single paragraph, I wasn’t confused and I didn’t feel that any of it was rushed. I was carried along on the story very comfortably – it felt effortless to read and to get lost in.

My one criticism of this novel was that I didn’t love the ending. It was a little too open-ended for me – although I’m completely aware that’s a totally subjective feeling and a lot of people will probably respond very well to it. To me there were two open-ended bits at the end (let’s describe them as Olivia’s personal life and Olivia’s Vivian life…) and although they were both resolved to some extent, I think my slightly anally retentive brain would have enjoyed a little more certainty at the end. Having said that, it probably isn’t really a criticism because I don’t think it lessened the quality of the book at all – and it has certainly made me think about future possibilities for the characters more than the ending of most thrillers.

In conclusion, this is a clever, clever book. It kept me hooked, it was deliciously creepy, and it’s absolutely worth reading. Thank you again to  Hannah at Quercus for sending me a copy.

events

EVENT: #BadGirls In Crime

On Tuesday night I went off to the Piccadilly branch of Waterstones for the #BadGirls In Crime event, starring See What I Have Done author Sarah Schmidt, The Fatal Treauthor Jake Arnott, The Unseeing author, and Little Deaths author Emma Flint, who I saw speak at Foyles a few months ago. There’s something about Little Deaths that has appealed to me since I first flipped through a copy of it last year at work, but for some reason it hasn’t made its way to the top of my book pile yet. Actually, when I say ‘some reason’, what I actually mean is ‘logistics, because of how they will all fall on me if I pull out books from certain angles’. God grant me some more shelves, tbh.

Anyway, I was really looking forward to this event and BOY OH BOY DID IT LET ME THE FUCK DOWN. Not really. It was excellent! See What I Have Done is a book that I’ve been looking forward to reading for ages. It’s a Tinder Press book and there is pretty much no publicity team that’s more awesome than them at getting things out on Twitter – I’ve been seeing pears around for ages and getting more and more excited about the novel. If I am 100% deadass honest I am one of those extremely gross people who loves true crime, so See What I Have Done, which is based on Lizzie Borden, sounds like it’s going to be right up my street. I’ve had the proof for a while and started reading it on the train on the way to the event, and boy oh boy is it good so far. Visceral and sticky and incredibly atmospheric. I’m extremely excited about reading the rest of it (although I have Erin Kelly’s new book, He Said/She Said, to read first – I’ve seen her speak at a couple of events and bought all her books because I thought she was wonderful and I still !! haven’t !! read !! them !! When will I address this precarious book pile problem? Probably never).

Anyway, because I am me, I bought copies of all the books. They are very beautiful, and also, thank God for my Waterstones discount.

Less of the faffing. I’m sure we’d all like to know more about the event. What drew me to it was two things: firstly, listening to writers speak is my favourite thing because they’re all so interesting and clever, and secondly, true goddamn crime. All of the writers were inspired by real life events – Jake Arnott by Edgeware Bess, Anna Mazzola by Sarah Gale, Sarah Schmidt by Lizzie Borden, and Emma Flint by Alice Crimmins. (I remember talking to a friend about a similar book a few months ago. “Is it… is it real person fanfiction about murderers?” I asked him. He laughed at me, which was rude and not untypical). I was wondering just how okay I am with the idea of using real life murders in fiction – it’s something that’s been done over and over again in TV shows and books and there is definitely something that sits with me strangely about the concept of having that creative spark lit up by a real life event in which someone – or multiple people – suffered greatly. As someone who also likes to write, I can understand that. There’s a sort of dispassionate line in your head – as one part of you thinks ‘That is truly terrible’ and is sincerely sad like the rest of the world, another part of you sits back and starts thinking about what exactly’s going on in people’s heads and how you could write it and what you could do with it. It’s an odd feeling, and one that sometimes leads people to think that you’re strange and sometimes overly disconnected from things. Being able to disconnect the intellectual shaping of a story from your own emotions, and yet to still feel those emotions to inspire your writing, is a handy writerly trick.

Anyway. The panel was led by Alex Clark, who is great and who was wearing an absolutely incredible dress. The first question was essentially: what is your novel about?

JA: The Fatal Tree is slang for the gallows. It’s set in the 1820s and tells the story of Elizabeth Lyon, or Edgeware Bess, who was part of a criminal partnership with Jack Shepherd, a bit like Bonnie and Clyde. He wanted to look at the way that women are often portrayed as either a femme fatale or a victim.

AM: The Unseeing was set in 1837 and was based on the Edgware Road Murder and the story of Sarah Gale.

SS: See What I Have Done is based on the story of Lizzie Borden. A pamphlet almost fell on her at a second hand shop and later that night she had a dream about Borden sitting at the end of her bed. (At this point, Sarah mentioned something REALLY GREAT that dream!Lizzie said to her, but like a genius I was too busy going ‘Ooooh’ in my head to write it down. It was essentially about Lizzie’s father, and the portion of blame on him.)

EH: Her central character, Ruth Malone, is based on Alice Crimmins. ‘I don’t know if she did it or not, but I know she didn’t have a fair hearing.’ That fair hearing and the lack of it is really what inspired all these writers in their books, imo.

The next question was about GENDER. That’s all I’ve written. I am a champ.

JA: It’s about women having to be punished in history – they always seem to not get a fair deal, particularly in regard to crime. They’re seen either as victims or as the worst possible – no in between. It comes from the idea of original sin and the Garden of Eden and the concept of all sin coming from women. The crimes are seen as more sinister because women committed them.

EF: Women are doubly damned: they’re condemned for the crime and also for being women. ‘None of our women conform to norms.’

SS: Female enjoyment was punished – see: Lizzie’s life after she was acquitted. Wanted to get inside Lizzie’s head – if she did it, why would she kill her parents? Everything else came after she was acquitted. Before that she had made two mistakes: firstly, showing no emotion, and secondly, becoming trapped in her lies. After the acquittal she and her sister moved into a mansion and started spending the money they’d inherited, which was when the local people really became unsettled re: her. In terms of research Schmidt felt that she needed to be comfortable with certain facts, but she didn’t want to write non fiction. Historical fiction means you can work in the current world while using the distance of history.

JA: He came across Edgeware Bess by chance – women’s stories aren’t often told which makes them a great opportunity for historical fiction writers. Bess was as important as Jack was, and a woman’s POV is often more interesting as their stakes are higher. In the criminal underworld, women have to be tougher to survive. They’re bright, damaged and resourceful. (This reminded me of that Josephine Hart quote: “Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive.”) In fiction, women’s stories work because they’re not told in history so they’re an opportunity for creativity.

EF: Because her story is set in the more recent past, there’s more documentation than the other authors had, but there was absolutely nothing with Alice’s voice. Writing non fiction would have been a rehash of other books – fiction was an opportunity to make the characters come to life. Ruth was a bit of a femme fatale but not in a one dimensional Raymond Chandler way. As a character, Ruth was intended to be powerless, but to the men in the novel she’s either desirable or dangerous because she’s sexy.

AM: Thought that it would be easier to base a novel on a real story. She’s also a solicitor, which probably led to the fact that her agent (Juliet Mushens, I think? Who is amazing) spotted that her novel needed to be taken away from the real case more. In the Old Bailey transcript, only the man’s POV was heard. Her book is about the lies we tell ourselves.

SS: She felt fine writing about Lizzie Borden because there’s already been so much written about her already. She wanted to figure out what hadn’t been told already – what was actually happening in that house?

JA: When researching, he looked at the journalism of the time – this is how people were preserved. Also mentioned the oranges and lemons rhyme and its more serious undertones (SIDENOTE: I LOVE ANYTHING ABOUT HOW GODDAMN CREEPY NURSERY RHYMES ACTUALLY ARE).

EF: Didn’t go to Queens to research but used google street view. Her second book is set in London and she finds that physical details help.

AM: Walked around London a lot to research and also went online. She wants to visit Dead Man’s Passage (same).

SS: Went and stayed overnight in Lizzie Borden’s house, in her bedroom. (What the ever living fuck.) She wanted to see specifically that house, but she based the book also on her own creepy house experiences. The house she wrote about is almost a character in the book. It was initially the second narrator. A little like a Shirley Jackson book.

HOW DO YOU STOP YOURSELF BRINGING IN MODERN SENSIBILITIES?

AM: Immerses herself in the time period. Her second novel is based in Skye so she’s been using the Napier commission to hear the voices of the people around there in that time period. She also reads newspapers, trying to link everything back to what’s still important, which is the fact that women are still vilified by the media.

JA: Reads court testimony, which is great because it’s verbatim. Also reads first person narratives, along with a dictionary of slang. The criminal classes used slang in a creative and vibrant way. Vernacular is often richer, and more articulate and intelligent.

SS: She’s more interested in characters and people than time periods – she focuses on bringing the characters alive. It’s all about people and what they’re thinking. Everything else can be built around that.

HOW DO YOU CHOOSE THE NARRATOR?

AM: She always knew that it would be Sarah, but she changed it from first person. She also needed a second narrator, to pull the story out of Sarah.

SS: She was interested in the arrested development of Lizzie. Lizzie would tell her things and sometimes act like a petulant child refusing to say anything so she had to bring in other narrators to open Lizzie up. She liked to move in and out of the different narrators.

EF: Knew it would be Ruth’s story, because she was the main suspect – although it was hard to know how much to give away. She had to bring in a second narrator because Ruth wasn’t aware of everything going on during the story and investigation. She decided to make the second narrator fall in love with Ruth because ‘I didn’t like him very much’. (HA!)

JA: Using a second narrator opened up the story. First person narration helps you to become the character.

(I found the whole thing about first/third person narration fascinating, partly because I sometimes feel as though first person narration can distance you from a character more than close third does. Speaking fully in a character’s voice means that you can hide the things the character doesn’t want to talk about from the reader more easily than you can in third person. To me, third person can reveal more about the character than first. This was super interesting to listen to.)

WAS IT HARD TO MAINTAIN GOOD HUMOUR WHILE WRITING A GRIM STORY?

SS: It took about ten years to write and it was hard. She’s interested in everyday violence and found it liberating to write a character who enjoys being violent and is very uninhibited.

AM: Being a criminal justice solicitor is much harder – for her, writing is escapism. For her, writing in third person felt like taking a step back.

EF: Found herself obsessed with Ruth while she was writing her, almost like being in a relationship. It was hard to let go of her in the end.

DO THEY THINK THE OUTCOME WOULD BE DIFFERENT NOW?

AM: For Sarah, things would have been different. Back then there was an all male jury who would have known her background and been swayed by it.

EF: Now individuals have much more of a voice – you can find your own platform on social media. She would also hope that now the police would be more open. Back in the 50s, Alice Crimmins was shown her dead daughter’s body without being told what was about to happen so the police could gauge her reaction – this would never happen now and would hopefully be grounds for a mistrial.

JA: The early 18th century was very brutal – there was a lot of worry and fear about crimes against poverty and assault on the poor. Back then, murder was seen as treason, which means that women could be burned instead of hanged as punishment. The poor stole so little and got hanged for it. The rich stole more and got nothing. (This is still true now.)

SS: You can use mythology. The town that Lizzie Borden lived in thinks it’s cursed because it’s built on a land where indigenous people were massacred. We protect ourselves through mythology.

AND THAT’S IT. You can see that my hand got tired halfway through as I wrote down less and less of their answers – whoops. It was a really fascinating talk and I can’t wait to read these books. I have a ticket for the Rooftop Book Club tomorrow night, where Sarah Schmidt will be talking again alongside Sarah Winman, who I got to speak to at the Headline press night earlier in the year. I am so so excited about Tin Man coming out but also slightly gutted that it isn’t until July because I am absolutely desperate to read it. Anyway, that’s not the point. Fingers crossed SS doesn’t think I’m stalking her if she recognises me. This was a great evening – I’m so glad I went to it.

reviews

REVIEW: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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Released May 18th, with HarperCollins.

This book was spectacular. I read it in a day, even though I was at work for most of that day. Over my lunch break, and when I got home and then late into the night – too late, probably, but it was absolutely worth it. It was without a doubt one of the best books I’ve read this year and one of the best debuts too. Although nothing’s going to topple The Hate U Give for me, this is probably my favourite non-YA debut I’ve read this year.

I saw a Goodreads reviewer say that this novel reminded them of Otessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, which I can understand. Both protagonists are prickly and difficult and faintly pathetic and sometimes disgusting, and the writers let us see them as the world sees them through clever throwaway lines. But Eleanor is much less revolting than Eileen, and considerably more sympathetic too. She feels more and more like a lost soul as the book moves on, even as she’s unpleasant and completely fails to understand the normal rules of interaction. What really impressed me about this book was the way that I as a reader was thoroughly taken on Eleanor’s journey with her. I wanted the best for her; every time her plans for her future with Johnny were mentioned I was anxious and desperately hoping that she wouldn’t humiliate herself too badly.

Another thing I really enjoyed about this novel was the way that Eleanor changed throughout it and how she developed. I thought that her arc was interesting and extremely satisfying – and the way that the details were revealed about her life was cleverly done. There was one twist that really sincerely surprised me, which I really enjoyed as I felt as though it would all turn itself out as I was expecting it to.

My only slight issue with this book – and it is slight – was that I felt as though the ending had something missing, as though it was all tied up too neatly or quickly. But perhaps that was just because I wanted more of Eleanor and of Raymond too, and of their relationship which was so much fun to read. Speaking of Raymond, he was such a brilliant character. I feel as though I have met him several times, and probably not paid enough attention to him. What I liked the most about him was his sheer ordinariness and the clever way that he was described and how the reader knows the truth about him and understands him far before Eleanor does. Writing a character who’s as un-self aware as Eleanor is and doing it so successfully is a really big triumph – not least because Eleanor was so likeable despite the way that she was.

This book was easy to read – in a great way – and compelling both in its plot and in the emotional arcs of the characters. I’m really excited about recommending it to everyone who comes into my branch of Waterstones. It’s a really great debut and, specifically, the sort of book that I absolutely love – the sort that proves that no matter what your plot is (although this plot was good), a novel is pretty much nothing without a great central character. I’m going to remember this book, and Eleanor, for a long time.

 

The proof of book was sent to me earlier in the year (thank you!). This is a completely honest review.

reviews

REVIEW: The Dark Circle by Linda Grant

First and foremost: I liked this book. When I heard about its subject matter I immediately knew that it’d be the first book that I’d be reading from the Baileys Prize shortlist (so far it’s also the only one, oops). I’ve always been fascinated by illness and medicine, because I am a creep like that – and I’ve also always been interested in old hospitals. I live near Princess Park, which was for a long time a mental asylum called alternatively Friern Hospital and the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum. For a while it also held patients suffering from TB.  These days it’s a load of luxury flats which quite frankly I would rather die than live in (unless I got one of the ones that a member of One Direction lived in, in which case I will cut out little squares of the carpet to glue into my stalkers’ scrapbook). Otherwise I don’t think I could do it. The walls of a place like that would hold appalling memories. There’s something so terribly bleak about these places where people went to die. The image of Miriam and Valerie heaped in blankets on balconies in the fresh air is something that has really remained with me. The treatments that these characters – and that real people – were oppressive and terrible. Valerie propped up in bed alone after her operation is something that I have remembered a couple of times after this book was finished.

Actually, this book had a lot of images that stayed with me. The way people were described through each other’s eyes, particularly Miriam and Lenny. I thought they were great characters and brightened up what would otherwise have been a pretty dry at times novel – the physical descriptions of them were glorious, particularly of Miriam, her hair and curves and colours. As a London girl, I love any characters who are London as fuck, and that was exactly what I got with Miriam and Lenny. One thing that I loved about this book was how fully formed the characters felt – although some of them were peripheral and drifting in and out, I felt as though they had rich lives away from the information on these pages – or poor lives, but lives nonetheless. I also liked the fact that London felt like a character – crater-scarred, being rebuilt by people like Uncle Manny. There was a completely delicious contrast between that and the Gwendo. One character that I didn’t connect well with was Arthur Persky – I felt that he was more of an idea than a person, although maybe in hindsight that works perfectly because that was how the other people at the hospital saw him.

I will add that sometimes there were too many different POVs for me. Sometimes it was hard to connect to the character whose eyes we were seeing through simply because on occasion it was hard to remember who was who. However: I am perfectly willing to accept that that was user error and my appalling memory and attention span as opposed to any fault of the author’s. I liked the detail about the medical procedures, although sometimes there was a bit of a ‘Look how much research I’ve done’ vibe. Another thing that I really enjoyed was the class divide in the book and the subtle ways that it was drawn. It’s a truly fascinating time in history – as the NHS is brought in, meaning that the lives of people like Miriam and Lenny could be saved – and the contrast of the new NHS patients to the older private patients was really fascinating. I thought the minutiae of all the different stories was great, and would be interested to learn which ones were specifically inspired by the history of real TB patients.

The ending was something that I didn’t adore. It felt a little Return of the King-esque in that it had quite a few ending scenes, meaning that each of them was a little diluted. I think that one leap forward into the future would have been enough for me. I felt as though there could have been a bigger emotional punch, somehow, although part of me worries that I missed some of the subtleties and delicacies of the novel. I think that is probably my fault and not the author’s. The atmosphere was wonderful, and the characters as well – and of course the language was precisely evocative of the time that she wanted to convey. The small observations of humans and their odd behaviours were perfect, and there were huge swathes of this book that I really enjoyed. I felt as though there was a bigger point being dangled in front of me that I didn’t quite manage to grasp, but this book will stay with me, and has inspired me to look for more works on similar themes.

events

EVENT: Sarah Perry at Waterstones

If you like books, you’ll have heard of Sarah Perry’s second novel, The Essex Serpent. It was released in May 2016 and promptly became an absolute sensation across the whole of the UK. It has sold a phenomenally huge amount of copies considering that a) it’s literary fiction and b) it only just came out in paperback. It was Book of the Year in Waterstones last year and with good reason – I started work in my local branch of Waterstones in the beginning of December and let me tell you, we got through a LOT of copies of that book. Naturally, I bought one for myself, for a number of reasons:

  1. It sounded interesting.
  2. If there’s that much hype, then let’s face it: there’s no smoke without fire.
  3. I have followed Sarah Perry for a while on Twitter, and she is excellent on there.
  4. Okay, fine: the cover. Good god, the cover is beautiful.

Have I read it yet? Um, actually, no. I have been somewhat reticent to do so, for a few reasons:

  1. Hardback books, man. I do a lot of my reading on the tube and not only are hardback books heavy, but the sheer beauty of this one made me feel particularly strongly about not wanting to let it get battered in my bag.
  2. Despite all the hype, I wasn’t actually entirely certain if it was my kind of book. (Yes: this is idiotic of me.) What’s that I hear you say? ‘BUT LUCY. YOU ARE FREAKING OBSESSED WITH SARAH WATERS.’ Yes, yes, that’s true. But- ‘AND CODE NAME VERITY IS STRAIGHT UP YOUR FAVOURITE YA BOOK OF ALL TIME.’ Valid point. However- ‘AND EVERYONE BRAVE IS FORGIVEN HAS BEEN PRETTY MUCH YOUR FAVOURITE BOOK OF THIS WHOLE YEAR SO FAR.’ Yes!! Fine!! I just need to spread my wings a little more. Broaden my horizons. Read books that have complex, beautiful prose ase well as more cleanly written YA. The fact that this book looked a little dense and that it is also historical fiction put me off a little. I am trash. Forgive me.
  3. I have had a lot of books to read this year. It turned into a book wall. The Essex Serpent has been at the bottom and I feared that if I tugged at it too hard, I would cause a book avalanche. It’s happened before. Blood was drawn.

Let’s face it: none of those reasons are remotely good enough. Now that I have a paperback copy of The Essex Serpent, it has shot right to the top of my to-read list (and also the actual literal top of my book wall). But more so than the paperback, Sarah Perry’s talk at the Piccadilly branch of Waterstones really swung it for me. She is fab. She is so, so fabbity fab fab. She is one of those people where you keep thinking ‘I wish we could be best friends’ and then a moment later you’re like ‘Actually, she’s way too clever to be my best friend’ and then a moment after THAT you’re like ‘Although I think she’s nice enough to pretend I’m cleverer than I am, so maybe I have a chance’. Here is a picture (her back is to me because let us face it: I chose the wrong place to sit).

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Reader, we are not, as of yet, best friends. But her talk was so good. There is a real joy in listening to people who know things, and who are enthusiastic about things, and who have all this interesting information stored in their minds and who can whip out facts and interesting snippets whenever the occasion calls for it. I wish I was one of those people. The only facts I have in my brain are things like ‘Did you know that Harry Styles is an Aquarius?’, which is frankly not as interesting as any of the things that Sarah Perry said at her talk. I had a little notebook with me and I tried so hard to take notes but unfortunately it was so interesting that I was forced to slap my notebook shut and listen instead. But here are a few little snippets from the talk:

  • She attributes her success to ‘having a relatively short attention span and a thirst for knowledge’. Honestly, this sounds like an excellent way to be. She also attributes it to the cover, which I would normally deny, but guys: it is a great cover.
  • She describes her writing process as ‘like being in a basement and striking a match and seeing the pictures that are painted on the walls’. She phrased it much more elegantly than that, but I can only write so quickly. I love that idea: as though she discovers her stories rather than slogging them out.
  • The story came to her on a car journey with her husband through the Essex countryside. JK Rowling came up with Harry Potter on the train from Edinburgh and I remember Adele Parks talking at the Rooftop Book Club about how she comes up with a lot of her plots while she’s driving. There’s something about travelling and movement that sparks imagination, tbh.
  • The book is partly about the conflict between faith and reason, about friendship, and about the modernity of the Victorian age. I didn’t write this part down because I am not the best of note takers, but she mentioned about how a lot of literature supposedly set in the Victorian age is a little inaccurate and more prudish and old fashioned than it should be.
  • Perry talked about how she was brought up in a very religious environment – her father is both a sixth age creationist and a scientist, which means she never thought there was a conflict between the pursuit of science and a person who is very religious – they’re not irreconcilable opposites. The novel asks the question: is it possible to live as a creature of faith and as reason? She thinks there’s a sort of nobility in the pursuit of truth and science – a moral virtue. (I loved this part of the discussion. It made me consider my own views of religion and how I tend to dismiss religious people too easily. Is there ANYTHING better than having your views challenged?)
  • Perry enjoys the sameness of the past – the ways in which it’s the same as the way we live now, and not different. (Does human nature ever really change?) She wanted to un-silence Victorian women. (PS: she phrased it much more nicely than that.)
  • QUOTE OF THE EVENING: “Victorian women did not spend their days on chaise longues hemming handkerchiefs until their husbands came home and impregnated them with their nineteenth child.” VERY GOOD.
  • Perry mentioned the working classes, and how they have historically been the engines of change. She mentioned the 1888 East End Matchgirls’ Strike which ha ha, I, a genius, knew absolutely nothing about and am now very glad that I do. She talked about how working class women and illiterate women in the 19th century were full of intellectual inquiry, and proto-feminists.
  • Those are all the notes I have because I accidentally closed my notebook and listened hard instead, although now I am regretting not writing more down. I remember that she talked a lot about friendship and its important and essential roles in our lives and how it isn’t necessarily lesser than romantic love, which really struck a chord with me and made me extremely excited to read this book.

As a final note, Sarah Perry has nice hair and lovely shoes and a great dress. It may be odd to point these things out, but frankly I would be happy if someone told me about those things at any time. More than the dress and shoes, she was interesting and passionate and brilliant and I loved listening to her, and if I get a chance to go to another one of her events I definitely will. And I cannot wait to read The Essex Serpent.