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//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//The Power- Naomi Alderman

The Power (Hardback)

Imagine, if you will, that thanks to a biological anomaly, women discover they have the ability to produce electricity. At first it’s a novelty, something that fascinates society. But then it becomes scary; girls and women start using the power against men and boys and world order is freaked out and threatened. There are protests and laws passed in order to curb the women, but they keep getting stronger and stronger. Men feel threatened. The world is turned on its head and, eventually, women become the ‘stronger sex’.

This is the story told in The Power, a futuristic feminist dystopian novel in the tradition of books such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Only Ever Yours. The world is seen through the eyes of some of the women: a religious mystic, a gangster’s daughter, a politician and her daughter; as well as from the viewpoint of a young male reporter who has documented the rise of the power and the overthrow of centuries of cultural realities. And, like a patriarchal society, this new world order does have problems. Resentment breeds terrorism. People get out of control. One of the most shocking incidents in the book is a scene in which there are war crimes committed against the most vulnerable. There’s no way that the writer of Zombies, Run would allow her creation to be a Utopia.

I think I read this book at the right time: we’re living in an age where politicians are threatening to roll back hard-won rights for women and we have a president in the White House who is considering all kinds of problematic policies relating to reproductive rights. Women are marching and making their voices heard (albeit without using electric shocks). It’s tempting to think about what would happen if a woman was in the White House, if for whatever reason, patriarchal society was turned on its head. One of the things Naomi Alderman’s work does for me is that it makes me think very hard about what I would do in certain situations (I am still plotting how I would survive the zombie apocalypse and I haven’t played Zombies, Run in ages. My answer would be: I’d survive on nettles and other bits that grow near by; offer my knitting skills to make socks for those more equipped for fighting; loot other people’s houses/Waterstones for books at the first chance. I’d probably not survive long, to be honest.)

But what would I do if I suddenly came to possess a strange new power? Would it alienate me from my husband and son? Would I use it for good? I honestly don’t know. But I do know that I am watching the world with bated breath and I just can’t get this novel out of my head at all.

 

FICTION//A Dangerous Crossing- Rachel Rhys*

A Dangerous Crossing (Feb):  I’ve always found the 1930s fascinating- a glamorous world on the cusp of irreversible change and the lives of people unwillingly  hurtling towards that change always makes for fascinating reading. This book is a story of people on a life-changing journey: physically, as they leave for Australia for new lives and metaphorically, as war looms and follows them wherever they go.

Lily, a young woman travelling on an assisted passage ticket, is leaving her life as a waitress and her secrets behind in a bid to start a new life in a strange on the other side of the world. As she becomes used to life on-board the ship, the old ways of class and privilege become blurred and allow Lily to socialise with people who would not usually give her the time of day. She becomes embroiled in scandal, love affairs and a mysterious disappearance during the course of the voyage, as well as confronting her past and the realities of her future.

The characters are relatable, yet somewhat unpredictable; there was a point about halfway through where I gasped when I suddenly realised that one character was not at all who I thought he was, although I was not entirely sure until the end what that meant. The novel is full of things you think you know with certainty, only to suddenly find the rug very cleverly and swiftly pulled from beneath your feet. I loved not being able to predict the who/what/when/where/how of this book. It really is stellar writing and not at all what I was expecting (I think I was ready for a Poirot-esque drawing room mystery on a ship…) Imagine a Golden Age of crime story, but brought up to date for an audience hooked on tense thrillers and you’ll have this book.

I loved this book whole-heartedly. Rachel Rhys is the alter-ego of Tamar Cohen, a writer whose dark psychological novels I have read and enjoyed. What amazes me is how effortlessly she has slipped into her Agatha Christie-esque other self; this really is like reading a completely different author and I enjoyed every second of reading it. I honestly didn’t want it to end. I am very jealous of those who have yet to read it.

FICTION//The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley- Hannah Tinti*

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley (Nov) One of the best things about being sent books for review is when you get something you wouldn’t normally read, but then fall in love with it. This book is one of those. It arrived one morning and the cover quote intrigued me- Tarantino and the storyteller of Arabian Nights together? That’s quite an interesting prospect! Also, the cover of the proof is gorgeous- all Van Gogh stars- and, contrary to popular beliefs, sometimes it’s a good thing to judge a book by its cover.

Hawley has lived a hell of a life- and he has the bullet scars to prove it. But now he just wants to live quietly with his daughter Loo in the small town where his wife grew up. For years, it’s just been him and Loo on the run from things that she will never really understand, and so Hawley sees it as his job to protect her from his past. Until one day, that past comes knocking on the door and knocks him off his feet.

The story itself is woven around Hawley’s past- each of his scars is revisited throughout the novel- and Loo’s present, as she learns about growing up in a small American town. The pain of being an outsider is coupled with the strength she gains from her relationship with her father, as well as his struggles to accept the death of his wife, Lily, when Loo was tiny. It’s a big sweep of a novel, both literally (it takes in a huge chunk of the States as its setting, thanks to Hawley’s nomadic existence) and emotionally, as we travel with two people who love each other desperately but due to their nature and the fact that one is a teenager, they can never really talk about things until dramatic events force them to. As a reader, I really felt Loo’s frustration with her life and her father, and the tension she feels about never really living up to his memories of Lily. I felt, too, for Hawley, trying to make a life for his daughter that was free of his dysfunctional past and never quite managing it. In some ways, it’s quite a claustrophobic novel, but this is not a criticism- it means that we can really start to get beneath the skin of the two main characters.

And yes, it IS a combination of Tarantino- there are gunfights and getaways, robberies and murders- and Scheherazade in its intricately woven plot. The past and  the present weave together to create Loo’s future and it’s an exhilarating ride. I can see this as amazing film in the near future (Kiernan Shipka would be a perfect Loo. Not so sure about Hawley, off the top of my head) and the book itself should do great things once it’s released.

FICTION//The Stranger In My Home- Adele Parks*

The Stranger in my Home (Oct):

Before reading this, my only experience of Adele Parks’ work was reading her historical novels (which I enjoyed, FYI), so I was unsure what to expect. However, it arrived in a large red and sparkly jiffy bag, so I was already well-disposed towards it.

The novel focuses on a nightmare premise- what would you do if you found out that you’d taken the wrong baby home from the hospital? And, not only that, but on discovering this you learn that your daughter may have a potentially fatal gene? It is pretty much every parent’s nightmare and it’s one that is played expertly in this novel. I will admit straight up that at times, it was not an easy read (but then, sometimes the best fiction is that which challenges us and makes us think about uncomfortable topics.)

The protagonist, Alison, is not initially a likable character; she’s neurotic, clingy, obsessed with appearances and a bit of a pushy mum. Through flashbacks, we understand more about her, but it takes a while to warm to her. It’s easy to see why her own daughter feels able to keep secrets from her and why her biological daughter angrily rejects her. However, as the plot moved on- you start to suspect that the handsome father of the ‘other’ family is a bit dodgy-I began to understand why Alison is as she is. Eventually, she will be driven to behave in the most extreme way to save her daughter and preserve her family.

This is not a family melodrama, but an investigation into the ties that bind us as families and the lengths we will go to in order to preserve them.

Fiction//Her Husband’s Lover-Julia Crouch*

Her Husband's Lover (Paperback):  What do you do when you’re the only one to walk away from the crash that claimed the lives of your kids and the abusive husband that you were running away from? That’s the problem that Louisa has to face in this dark, gritty novel. That problem would be bad enough- especially when you’ve been through months of coma and rehab- without the woman he was having an affair with blackmailing you.

Despite dodgy odds, Louisa manages to start a new life and begins to move on from her tragedy. A new flat, a new job and new love means that life is looking up for her at last. In all except one area- Sophie, the lover in the title of the novel, looms endlessly in the background, plotting and scheming to disrupt Louisa’s new reality. And this time she has a baby.

This is a rollercoaster of a novel; events and characters are never entirely not what they initially seem and the ending floored me. This is a novel that made me feel like I was on quicksand a lot of the time- I couldn’t trust my judgments… and I liked it. It’s a thriller in every and all senses of the word.