HISTORICAL//Crimson and Bone- Marina Fiorato*

Crimson and Bone (Jun) On New Year’s Eve, Annie Stride, a desperate and pregnant young woman stands on the edge of a bridge, contemplating the icy water below. As she’s about to step off the ledge, a gentleman appears in a hansom cab and saves her. What seems to be a blessing quickly turns into something strange…

This novel is being touted as one for fans of The Crimson Petal and the White (which I loved) and does have some similar themes: a Victorian prostitute is saved from poverty by a richer man with a good reputation- in this case, a talented Pre-Raphaelite painter, for whom Annie becomes a muse and his ‘wife’. But no matter what her new life brings her, she’s still haunted by her past- and the friend whose death led to Annie’s life spinning out of control. It’s a novel about one man’s obsession and the woman who is unwittingly trapped in a gilded prison- and I bloody loved it.

To be honest, this book had me at ‘Victorian’ and ‘Pre-Raphaelite’; I also noticed that the names of Annie and her protector Francis have a link to another famous Victorian person of interest (which I won’t give away here- you’ll have to read the book!) It’s a great book that really took me on a journey to Victorian London and Florence through wonderfully vivid descriptions, and there’s undercurrent of menace that lurked beneath the shiny, respectable exterior of Annie’s new world is ever present. It’s one of those stories where you know there’s something not quite right, but you can never quite put your finger on it- only for the ending to make you realise it all makes sense.

This is a satisfyingly brooding novel that never lets you trust yourself- or any of the characters- until the final page is finished.

 

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//Riders-Jilly Cooper*

Riders (May):  Riders came out the year after I was born and I remember seeing it in the library and bookshops quite frequently (and probably being scandalised by THAT hand placement, which seems to have become smaller on the cover of the copy I was sent.) I never knew anyone who read it, though, and it never featured in my teenage book list. To be honest, I’m not sure how I would have responded to it- I don’t know an awful lot about either posh people OR horses. Fun fact: I am actually terrified of horses.

Anyway, I’m a huge believer of reading the right book at the right time, which I’m sure must drive some of the publishers who send me books mad, but I tend to enjoy a book more if I’m in the right frame of mind. I read this book during a really stressful time at work- I didn’t want philosophy or deep thinking. Riders was perfect. It’s cheerfully bonkers (and there’s lots of bonking as well, although there was  one dubious ‘episode’ early on in which straw from a stable is used for… clean up. I winced. Surely that’s not comfortable OR hygienic.)

Characters are straightforward. The animals are noble. The people less so.  Rupert Campbell-Black is a git; albeit a handsome one. His wife is irritating and hysterical. I found myself cheering on Fen and furious with Billy when he broke her heart. Adultery is committed and then forgotten very quickly. The world in this book is so far removed from one I know that I was able to fully immerse myself, like in a good hot bath, and just let it wash over me. It’s a cheerful book- Cooper never lets us get bogged down in heartbreak for long (although there’s at least one scene where I thought ‘that’d never get in now without a lot of outrage’) and boring characters and plot are either resolved baffling quickly or they just… disappear. It’s a big book, but it’s not complicated. You’ll not be drawing up Game of Thrones style family trees here, I promise you.

 

FICTION//Into the Water- Paula Hawkins*

Into the Water (Apr):  I’m aware how lucky I am to be given a copy of Paula Hawkins’ much anticipated second novel; after the huge success of The Girl on the Train, everyone is going to be looking at this. I remember being vaguely ambivalent about The Girl on the Train- I neither loved nor loathed it- so I went into this with an open mind.

The narrative features around the death of Nel Abbott, a woman known in her town as an artist obsessed with the Drowning Pool, a local beauty spot known for the high numbers of dead women turning up in its waters. In the novel, we’re told the stories of these women,  from a young woman drowned for witchcraft hundreds of years ago, the wife of a respected policeman in the 80s, up to Nel and, a few months beforehand, a fifteen year old girl, who happens to be Nel’s daughter Lena’s best friend. All of these deaths may be connected, but it takes a while for the story to unravel.

One of the reasons for this is that there are FOURTEEN narrators, their stories told in a mixture of first and second person, past and present tense. This can take a bit of getting used to and I did wonder if all of these characters were necessary; I wasn’t sure if they were all useful to moving the plot forward and it did feel a bit wearying to try and remember who said what when I read the book the day before. However, towards the middle of the book, three voices become stronger and easier to follow: Jules, estranged sister of the deceased Nel, who finds herself in loco parentis of a niece she’s never met; Lena, the fifteen year old daughter of Nel, who hides more secrets than anyone ever should; and Erin, a policewoman who’s new to the area and has no idea of the town’s dark past. Once you untangle the confusing web of subplots, unreliable narratives and pile of themes, these three women come across as strong voices. I wish that the novel had focused on these three from the start- although I do understand what the author was trying to do, but it’s sometimes hard to pull off and some voices get lost in the mix.

The story is an interesting one, and one that I’m glad I persevered with. I also know that this book will be huge and that many people- especially those who enjoy twisty, dark thrillers with complex plots- will love it.

FICTION//Homegoing- Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing (Apr):  Homegoing is a lush, far-reaching novel that tells the story of a fractured family tree across two continents and seven generations: a beautiful girl, born on the Gold Coast (modern day Ghana) on the night of a devastating fire, grows up to be the ‘wench’- or unofficial wife- of a British officer whose job it is to procure slaves for the late 18th century slave trade. At the same time as she lives a life of relative luxury in a fortress called ‘The Castle‘, her unknown half-sister  is suffering horrifically in the dungeons below, waiting for the day she will be shipped halfway across the world to work on American plantations. Each of the following chapters tells the story of the descendants of these two women: the loves, lives and choices each generation makes. Although this is a novel and each story is presented as a chapter, each felt more like a complete short story in its own right.

This is a novel that literally took my breath away at points; I found myself rushing home from work to snatch five minutes to read it whilst the house was quiet. I wanted to give this story my full attention. The struggle for survival, the theme of resilience and resistance runs deeply throughout the novel. The characters survive a multitude of challenges: slavery, racism, drug abuse, domestic violence, mental illness. But there is also hope in this novel- a young girl learns where she comes from, thanks to her grandmother; a young man convicted thanks to racism goes on to make a life for himself and his family. Like life, this novel is a rollercoaster and I loved every second of it.

The writing is wonderful- poetic and evocative. The family legacy runs deep within the narrative- it is not always obvious, but it’s there.  This is a rich novel that teaches as much as it engrosses. It has the potential to become very important indeed.

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//Fierce Kingdom- Gin Phillips*

Fierce Kingdom (Mar):

What would you do if your life was turned upside down in a second? If everything was OK until you heard a sound that changed everything? This is the premise in Gin Phillips’ novel, Fierce Kingdom.

Joan and her four-year-old son, Lincoln, are enjoying an early evening visit to the local zoo when gunshots ring out at closing time. Over the next couple of hours, Joan must protect herself and her son from a massacre. How can you persuade a pre-schooler to behave in a situation like this?

As the mother of a four-year-old boy with the same obsessions as Lincoln, I really did find myself wondering at how I would respond to such a scenario (although I *did* slightly wonder at some of the language Lincoln used and the wisdom of Joan’s admission that she let him watch Predator, even without the swearing. I’m a fairly laissez faire parent, but that was a bit weird, even for me.) I also found myself wondering how my son would react. These are not comfortable thoughts, but they are compelling ones that meant I raced through the book. There were moments that Joan makes really difficult choices (including one that made me very uncomfortable) and although she’s not likeable, per se, you do see the logic of her actions.

Although Joan’s the main narrator, we also see glimpses of other characters- a young girl working in a cafe, one of the shooters, and a retired teacher- who happens to have taught Robby when he was in junior school. I would have liked more of this side of the story to have been explored, maybe because I know four-year-olds can be pretty boring sometimes (even in high-danger situations, probably) and also because as a teacher myself, I know that there are kids you look back on and think about what might have made them into the adults they ultimately became. It’s often the quiet ones that surprise you the most.

Overall, this is a compelling read that will make you question how you would respond to a dangerous situation: would you run, or would you hide?