FICTION//Gather the Daughters- Jennie Melamed*

Gather the Daughters (May):  Sometimes, a book seems to just capture the mood and Gather the Daughters feels like one of those books. It’s a book that’s unnerving and hard to pin down, but one that feels relevant right now- a gripping cross between The Handmaid’s Tale and Lord of the Flies, but with elements of the paranoia of The Hunger Games too.

A religious society lives on an isolated island, controlled by a group of men known as wanderers; these men are the only ones allowed to leave the island, to visit a place known as the wastelands- a place destroyed by war, disease and environmental disaster. Cut off from the world, the women on the island suffer a hard life as secondary subjects, brought up to be obedient from birth, pliant and available as wives, as taught by the ‘ancestors’, using biblical rhetoric to control the small population.

People are only allowed to have two children and are  Children are allowed to run feral in the summer and young women marry at the end of their ‘summer of fruition’, after their period. This way of life remains largely unchallenged until one of the girls witnesses a catastrophic event as her summer comes to a close, which leads ultimately to large scale rebellion.

The novel is told through the eyes of various women on the island: Amanda, a young woman pregnant with her first child; Vanessa, the intelligent daughter of one of the wanderers; Caitlin, an abused daughter of one of the few families to migrate to the island in recent times; and Janey, a rebel against the restrictive life prescribed to her. Through these narrations, we become aware of the disturbing lives these young women lead (at one point, it dawned on me that the girls are expected to do something pretty horrifying from a young age- it kind of creeps up on you.) It’s a claustrophobic atmosphere that not only shows horrendous oppression but also the enormous strength women can have in such situations- and the amazing defiance of young girls.

I found the novel quite similar to Station Eleven, even down to its ambiguous ending (how I would love to read a sequel!) but it’s also one that has stayed with me. Although not clear when the novel is set, it has the feeling of a dystopia that’s all the more scary for feeling quite possible.

FICTION//The Many Colours of Us- Rachel Burton*

The Many Colours of Us (Mar):

Full disclosure: Rachel is a Twitter friend of mine and I’ve seen her go through part of the process of getting her novel to publication. It’s a huge thrill to see her book finally come to print- and OF COURSE I wanted to have a read of it before it’s released.

Julia is in a rut that most of us find ourselves in at some point in our lives: she hates her job, her relationship is stalling and her relationship with her mother is strained. Everything changes, however, when she finds out that she is the sole beneficiary of the will of a man she has never met- her father. Suddenly finding herself single and wealthy enough to do whatever she likes, Julia begins to really learn who she is and what- and who- she wants in her life. Unfortunately, though, life is messy and the course of… well, pretty much anything, never did run smooth.

I read this novel quickly; I was stressed at work and it was the perfect antidote to that stress (I strongly believe in the right book for the right time, by the way.) On days where I felt I could cry with workplace frustration, I would come home and read a chapter with a cup of tea. It’s the sort of novel that just feels like a hug, a welcome relief and escape from the outside world. AND it made me wish that I was better at sewing. Again.

This is definitely a book that I’d recommend if you’re feeling a bit fed up and fancy a bit of summer-time romantic escape. It’s sweet, rather than raunchy, and would go well with a nice cold g&t (but maybe that’s just me…) It may also just make you evaluate your life- what would YOU do if you suddenly got a no-strings attached at a fresh start?

 

FICTION//See What I Have Done- Sarah Schmidt*

See What I Have Done (Nov):  I have been DYING to tell you about this book since I read it at the tail end of last year, but the publicist asked me to hang fire until March. It is now March. I can now tell you more about this novel other that the occasional tweet singing its praises.

Because OH MY GOD, it’s good. I see great things in this book’s future, I really do.

Everyone knows the poem about Lizzie Borden, right? ‘Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.’ I remember first reading about this case as a kid in a book of unsolved mysteries and I’m pretty sure it sparked my life-long interest in true crime. It’s a case many of us are familiar with, even if we’re not so sure about the ins and outs of it.

The crime is told from multiple viewpoints, including Lizzie and her sister, which lends the story an air of confusion and danger- exactly how I imagine the Borden house would have felt in the aftermath of such a crime. Unreliable narrators mean that this is often a gripping, if somewhat uncomfortable read. After all, if you can’t trust the characters who act as your eyes, who can you trust? NO ONE. Of course, there’s never been a definitive answer to whodunnit (Lizzie was tried but acquitted, because according to the all-male jury no woman, let alone a respectable middle class spinster, could ever be so brutal as to murder her pillar-of-community father and obedient step-mother), but there is a sense that Schmidt has an idea of who committed the crime. Ultimately, though, it’s up to you to decide.

What has stayed with me more than anything in the months since I read this book is the use of language. I have honestly never read a novel so creepy and unsettling. Little things like clocks and pigeons become threatening and defining. This is a novel that is as claustrophobic as the house in which the crime itself was committed. It’s also a clever way of conveying the sense of underlying madness and hysteria that the Borden sisters had to deal with as they closed themselves off from media sensation that was going on around them. You really understand the oppressive atmosphere in which the narrative takes place and the toll this takes on the already strained relationships between those who live in the Borden household after  the horrific murder.

It’s a quiet menace that runs through the novel and one that resonates eerily afterwards. That’s the appeal of this novel, I think. It’s not a big, showy novel that smacks you in the face from the first page, but one that slowly creeps up on you and, by the time you’ve finished, you realise that it’s firmly embedded in your brain. Good stuff.

Oh, and you’ll never look at mutton in the same way again. Promise.

 

FICTION//Back to Moscow- Guillermo Erades*

Back to Moscow (Jan):  Anything Russian interests me; I’m not sure why, maybe because despite it being ostensibly ‘European’, it’s also so foreign and unknown. This novel is about Martin, a European student of indeterminate nationality studying Russian literature in Moscow at the turn of the 21st century. As he adapts to life in a strange country- deciding to dedicate his work to understanding Russian women both in real life and literature (*insert eye roll here, if you like*)- Martin discovers its nightlife, its women and its sudba.

Oh God, I hated Martin. He and his friends trawl clubs for women (who they refer to as dyevs, which according to Google Translate translates as ‘virgins’. Nice.), trading on their ‘exotic’ appeal as ‘ex-pats’. Martin views his many girlfriends as anthropological studies, to write notes about in his ‘little red book’, linking them to tragic Russian heroines and discussing them often in reference to their male creators. Yes, I learnt about Russian literature, but it was through a very masculine prism. It became wearying to read about a bevy of Russian women being charmed by what appear to be quite mediocre men. When Martin confronts an ex-girlfriend for being a prostitute, I found myself cheering for her as she gave him the equivalent of a ‘so?’ He’d treated her badly. She didn’t care and neither did I.

What did appeal to me were the descriptions of Moscow itself, although again as seen from an outsider. Erades has lived in Moscow, and it shows. Despite a lot of the action taking place in either seedy clubs or Martin’s flat, there is a lot of love for Moscow evident in the writing.

So why did I keep reading, if I hated a lot about the character? A quote on the back promised me a startling ending- and it did deliver on that, an unexpected twist. It felt strange and maybe a little rushed, but it did pack a bit of a punch. I also relished the chance to understand a bit about Moscow before the scariness of modern times (Putin is a newly elected president in the novel and the Russians approach the news with a stereotypical fatalism. But of course.)

Despite it all, I guess it’s good to be brought out of my comfort zone and read something that I found so at odds with my own beliefs. And I do really want to read Anna Karenina, even if this novel contains MASSIVE SPOILERS*.

 

 

*As comedian Rachel Fairburn says of Dracula- if it’s over 100 years old, it’s been around too long to get narked about spoilers.

 

HISTORICAL//The Witchfinder’s Sister- Beth Underdown*

The Witchfinder's Sister (Jan):  When I was about nine, I remember my grandma giving me a book about the history of witchcraft in the British Isles. I was a slightly strange little girl and I think that she realised that the book would appeal to me. It did- I remember reading it more than once and looking at the strange figures in the woodcut illustrations. None seemed stranger than the images of Matthew Hopkins, the feared Witchfinder General of the Civil War years. He seemed like an ogre from a story book, a giant of folklore. I was interested, then, when I received a package with this novel, a letter that read as if in some guarded code and some pressed flowers with medicinal properties. (The way to get my attention is with something intriguing…)

In The Witchfinder’s Sister, the protagonist is Hopkins’ pregnant sister Alice, who returns to Essex from London after the death of her husband. Alone in the world, she turns to the household of her seemingly pious brother and observes him as he begins to work for powerful men, hunting out so-called witches. At first, Alice believes that the witch hunts are nothing more than local retribution games, acts of spite that will quickly be thrown out by the courts. She becomes more horrified as she realises that her brother is taking his work seriously- and drawing her further and further into the orbit of his work.

That strange little girl in me was not disappointed by this novel. The paranoia, dread and cruelty of the real-life events jumped from the page and I felt Alice’s pain and angst vividly. She struggles with her grief and depression, as well as a mounting horror at the actions of those around her. Hopkins himself is monstrous, but Alice attempts to piece together the human source of this monstrosity. He is cruel to everyone, including her. The whole novel is claustrophobic and frightening. It also feels timely: the women targeted by Hopkins are old, strange, out-of-place. They do not have a voice and the men in the novel ride roughshod over them. Alice is never allowed to forget that it is a man’s world she inhabits, no matter how hard she fights for herself and the women caught up in the nightmare. There is something potentially rewarding about the ending, but I’ll not spoil that for you here!

Beth Underwood’s great-uncle was an historian of the period and this passion clearly flows from one generation to the next. This is a well-researched, interesting novel.

CRIME//Ragdoll- Daniel Cole*

Ragdoll (Oct):  There are books that I see being mentioned loads on social media and this is one of them. I’m lucky enough to be able to sometimes get my hands on some of these books before they’re published. Some of them are worthy of the hype, some not so much. This one is one of the most hyped of recent months (it’s not published until February) and I can tell you now- this is going to be HUGE.

Imagine, if you will, that you’re a police detective newly accepted back onto the force after a traumatic experience. You’re divorced, living in a tiny flat… and a killer leaves a corpse nearby as a warning. Oh, and that corpse is made up of six bodies and there’s a list of future murders: names, dates and times- and your name is on it. What do you do? If you’re Wolf, you work doggedly to solve the crime, all while the media is watching your every move. As well as all that, you’re sort of involved in a dysfunctional relationship with your co-worker and the boundaries between you and her are really blurred. All fine and normal, yes?

This is a crime novel that takes the crime novel and has glorious, gory fun with it. It’s fast and funny, and it looks askance at our reality TV obsession with crime (there is literally a ‘death clock’, counting down the time until the next murder.) In an age in which we’ve just seen a reality TV star voted to the White House, it doesn’t really seem hugely far fetched, does it? And the media, led by Wolf’s ex-wife, is almost a character in itself. As a news junkie, I found this fascinating and frightening: I couldn’t tear myself away. A cliche, but it’s true.

Without giving too much away (you really need to read it yourself) I’d like to request a series, please. Thanks.

 

 

HISTORICAL// The Unseeing- Anna Mazzola*

The Unseeing (Jun):  One of my interests is in notorious murder cases… growing up, my mum would have true crime books around the house and when I was old enough, I was allowed to read them. As I’ve got older, I’ve been more interested in historical cases and I particularly enjoyed reading Judith Flanders’ The Invention of Murder (I have been reliably informed that it was!), which told the tale of how appearances and crime became so intertwined in the 19th century. I can’t remember if the Edgeware Road Murder was one that was included in the book, but it is the subject of Anna Mazzola’s debut novel.

The plot of the novel is a fictionalisation of the life of Sarah Gale, the co-accused in the trial for the murder of Hannah Brown. A young lawyer, Edmund Fleetwood, is charged with investigating whether Sarah has reason to appeal the death sentence that has been handed down; she has been found guilty of concealing the death and dismemberment of her love rival by James Greenacre, an altogether shady character. Desperate to save her life and her son, what will Sarah do in order to survive? And, most importantly, will Edmund be willing to fight for her life? Throughout, we meet a cast of characters that takes us throughout the ranks of society from the very poor to the top of government.

Told from the points of view of both Sarah and Edmund, the novel takes the reader through the murky world of London just before Queen Victoria ascended the throne. The contrast between Edmund’s middle class life and that of Sarah, stuck in hellish Newgate, is keenly observed and highlights the hopelessness that was rife in the legal system. Anna Mazzola is also a lawyer, and a legal eye is very much in evidence here, although it is worn lightly (there is no fear of heavy explanations of the law interrupting the flow of a good story!)

I very much enjoyed the novel; there are some pretty stonking twists, including one near the end about something which had been mentioned in passing and that I’d almost forgotten about. There were suspicions that were proven right, too. It was a highwire act of a story- enough to make the reader have those ‘aha!’ moments, but also those ‘where did THAT come from?!’- that make a story so exciting and enjoyable to read. It can be very easy for novels based on real life to list facts and lose the essential thread that’s so important when writing a good narrative. Thankfully, The Unseeing does not fall into that trap and is a very satisfying read indeed.