The Glass Hotel – Emily St John Mandel

Some authors tend to write in one style – if they started off having some success with a cosy crime novel they stick to what works, with what they know. There’s nothing wrong with this, I’m not sure that Jane Austen could have written a convincing police procedural for example, but it can sometimes mean that when you pick up a much-anticipated book from a writer you have previously enjoyed there can be a moment of cognitive dissonance. Having loved Mandel’s Station Eleven (not her first novel but certainly the one which got her noticed…) and its atmosphere of hope for mankind in the aftermath of a global apocalypse I guess I expected more of the same in her latest. I didn’t get it (unless you count the 2008 financial crisis as an apocalypse, which it was for some) but I was not disappointed in what I did get.

9781509882809The Glass Hotel largely follows the life of Vincent Smith, a young woman raised in a remote village, on an island in a huge lake, in British Columbia. Vincent moved away for a time as a child, after her mother’s death in a boating accident, but returns to work in a luxury hotel built to take advantage of the area’s beauty and isolation. There she meets up with her troubled older brother and also Jonathan Alkaitis, a financial mogul who owns the hotel. She leaves with Alkaitis, telling the world that they are married, and remains with him, kept in luxury, until his financial misconduct is discovered during the banking collapses of 2008. After that she disappears, taking advantage of her earlier years spent as a bartender and training as a chef, and takes a job as a cook on a container ship. Finally, she vanishes from this vessel, during a storm and presumed dead.

The bald outlining of the plot – which moves back and forth through time and tells both Vincent and her brother, Paul’s, stories as well as touching on those of people they encounter on the way – doesn’t do the book justice at all, however. Don’t get me wrong, the plot itself kept me thinking all the way through, and I loved the way that everyone we meet is eventually entwined into it, but it is the way that it was written that really grabs you. Whether describing the remote beauty of the Canadian wilderness or a storm off the coast of Mauritania you are drawn into each setting and I felt that I really saw each character clearly (even if I disliked many of them). Beautiful writing, insightful and intelligent – this is easily as good as Station Eleven. And I did find the apocalypse I wanted – it was financial rather than medical but, for those it hit, it was every bit as devastating.

Jane

Charlotte – Helen Moffett

Another book in my series of ‘books based on Jane Austen and her novels’ and we are back in the world of Pride and Prejudice. I’ve read and reread P&P many times and, as I’ve grown older, I’ve realised that although Lizzie Bennet and Mr Darcy are the characters whose lives grip you on a first reading there is a lot to be said for the other inhabitants of Meryton, Pemberley and Rosings. I sometimes wonder if Austen knew we would. as readers, be drawn to inventing our own lives for all those lesser characters? This particular book suggests what may have happened mainly to the families at Rosings – the de Bourghs and Mr and Mrs Collins – and is told from Charlotte Collins (nee Lucas) point of view.

9781785769108Austen never really went beyond the wedding day of her characters – it would have been hard for a genteel audience of the day to read about the problems of a marital relationship – so it is fascinating to hear about issues faced by both Charlotte and Lizzie. In Lizzie’s case a life of riches and plenty can’t prevent frequent miscarriages and for Charlotte, although she has two happy, healthy daughters, the loss of a young son – born with a life-limiting disability – is a heavy burden. What the two friends have in common is not only the lack of an heir but also the inability to speak honestly to their husbands about their sorrow and fears.  In true Austen fashion it is the issue of inheritance which is their biggest worry – as practically-minded women they know that, like the Bennet girls in Pride and Prejudice, they can’t inherit in their own right but must have a son to do it for them. This situation is interspersed with that of another woman – Anne de Bourgh – whose mother was able to claim her husband’s property on his death but is unable, despite her best efforts, to secure it for an unmarried daughter.

This isn’t a book which Jane Austen could ever have written as it is – the secrets of the marriage bed were not her area of expertise – but I think she would have great admiration for the way it looks at the challenges Lizzie, Charlotte and Anne have to face. I particularly liked Anne de Bourgh – who was giving off strong Anne Lister vibes – as the one of the three who had little interest in the inheritance of property but wanted the right to dispose of her own money (and was not afraid to send even the most eligible suitor away). In fact, she is not the only Austen character to be given a new, more sympathetic angle, with Mr Collins and even Lady Catherine being shown in a much more favourable light overall. A good read for anyone who enjoys Austen but doesn’t get too precious about her creations, perhaps.

Jane

Help needed!

Anyone visiting the store I work in has probably done the following: walked in, stopped and stared at the roof. I certainly can’t blame them – it is glorious!

 

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But a closer look will reveal that, at the base of each arch thing (can you tell I don’t know that much about architectural terms?) is a figure holding a shield. These have always fascinated me. For a start, I don’t quite know what to call them. They have wings so I suspect they may be angelic in some way but they also, mostly, have crowns. So, are they kings of some sort? I have toyed with calling them King-gels and Kingy-wingies (and usually go for the former) but would love to know what they really are. Surprisingly, I don’t seem to be able to find a comprehensive history of the Wool Exchange Building so the field is open for any local historians. That would probably involve a huge amount of research so I thought we could start off by trying to identify the shields the King-gels are holding – which I understand represent Yorkshire Wool towns. I’m going to post a picture of one a week on the shop’s Facebook and Twitter feeds and see if the power of social media can find me the information. Also, if anyone wants to think of names for each of the King-gels I’d be more than happy….

Jane

Rewild Yourself – Simon Barnes

Happy, happy days! At last we have been able to reopen the shop, get back to all the books and see our customers again! Lots of little changes have been made – tables moved, just a little, to help people stay a couple of metres apart when browsing, plenty of PPE for staff, a LOT of cleaning and a bit of a one-way system with doors and tills – but so many things are unchanged. We still get to chat to customers about the books we’ve read and the books they want to read and we still have our regulars. We’ve seen most of them in the last few days and it is such a joy to see that they are well (although there are still a couple of the most vulnerable ones who we are not expecting to see for a while) – not something any web-based retailer can say 🙂 One thing from the ‘old normal’ which we still have at work are our Books of the Month and, although I have not been reading anywhere near as much as I thought I would during furlough, I have already read the children’s book of the month, I’m two thirds of the way through the fiction and I’ve finished the non-fiction. And the non-fiction is the first up for a review…

42593946._SY475_Rewilding, as a concept, has been around for a while and there have been fascinating books written on it by George Monbiot and Isabella Tree but they are very much aimed at what society, governments and landowners can do. This book is far more about how ordinary individuals can get themselves more in touch with the natural world – about how we can all learn to spend quality time with nature. In some ways it is the perfect book for those emerging from a lockdown cocoon and wanting to see things beyond their own four walls – introducing the reader to common butterflies, birds and animal footprint (and droppings…). But it also gives some suggestions about how to alter your mindset and your relationship with flora and fauna: sitting still, looking and listening. This is a book suitable for all ages and would be great for adults to share as a learning experience with children. I feel that I am already on my way (not showing off, but I already knew all the butterflies…) but also that I have plenty to learn.

Jane

 

 

Oh joy…..

The middle of lockdown is, we are told, a good time to try something new. To learn a language or an instrument. To take up a hobby or write a book. All good options to choose – but what about the bits you don’t get to pick? Well, I’m now pretty proficient at social distancing (to be fair, not a totally new concept for me), my cleaning skills are vastly improved and I’ve perfected eye-rolling at stupidity on the news so I thought I’d go for the next skill being forced on me. Yes, its time for learning a new style of WordPress post – just be glad you can’t hear the swearing as I try to find out where they’ve hidden the button that makes it do the one simple thing I need…..

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Final round-up for May – this one is all about the ladies…

My final round up for May seems to have fallen into a theme since all three books are centred around women’s experiences. One is a proper sci-fi spaceship-based adventure, one a dystopia (because I sometimes think every third or fourth book I read is dystopian) but the first is a bit more of a traditional Jane read. Which means a bit quirky…

Do Not Feed The Bear – Rachel Elliott

9781472259424Sydney Smith’s family were creatures of habit who holidayed every year in St Ives (progressing from caravans to, gasp, a holiday cottage when Sidney was ten) but that all changed after a terrible tragedy. Now Sidney is returning to St Ives (alone and without telling her partner, Ruth, or her father, Howard) and we see her trying, and initially failing, to come to terms with what happened nearly four decades before. Her hobby, free-running, brings her to the attention of the town (who seem to mistake her need to climb onto and jump off buildings as a suicide bid) and to at least one person whose past intersects with hers.

The story moves back and forth in time to the holidays of the past and to the present day and is told from many points of view (including the odd dog). We revisit the first dead body Sidney ever saw – from both his and Sidney’s side – and are later reunited with the dead body’s bereaved fiancé. In fact, all the people we meet seem to be interlinked in some way – perhaps a hint of the fact that, no matter how hard you try, no life fails to impact on many others. Many of the characters we meet have great sadness in their lives but most of them (apart from a couple who, I’m willing to bet, nobody could like) are able to find a way back to at least the start of happiness by the end. An enjoyable lockdown read, with interesting characters and a sense of warmth.

Goldilocks – Laura Lam

9781472267641A bit of a change here – Goldilocks is not a fairy-tale retelling but science fiction. Goldilocks, in this case, refers to the habitable zone around a star – not too hot and not too cold to potentially sustain human life. In the case of this book this zone is needed since mankind’s refusal to change lifestyle, even in the face of brutal climate change, means that a fresh start is needed sooner rather than later. Of course, this is a fairly common occurrence in ecologically inclined sci-fi: what is new here is the undercurrent of Gilead-style political misogyny. Yes, if you forced me to do the ‘x meets y’ definition I’d have to call it Handmaid’s Tale meets The Martian (and you’d have to force me – I made this comparison as I was reading the book – now I see that everyone is using it. Bah!). With a strong hint of reportage in characters that reminded me of both Trump and Elon Musk….

Naomi Lovelace is part of the crew of the Atalanta, a spaceship making its way to Cavendish, a distant planet which offers mankind an escape from the mess they’ve made of Earth. The mission and the ship they are on were the brainchild of Lovelace’s adopted mother, Valerie Black, and the crew were hand-picked by Black but, because of a repressively patriarchal political system, they are only there because, well, they stole the ship. Initially the crew, all women, are positive about what they have done – trusting Black to deal with demands from Earth to return the ship – but an atmosphere of mistrust soon emerge. Things begin to go wrong with the ship, Lovelace has health issues which will affect the whole crew and, it seems, Black is keeping secrets from them all. We move between the time on board the Atalanta and back to Lovelace’s childhood and youth – discovering more about the real character of Valerie Black as we go – and, finally, to a future where Lovelace is looking back and, finally, telling the truth about what happened on this fateful journey. This is good, thoughtful, science fiction which should suit readers of Becky Chambers – especially if they are also Atwood fans.

Q – Christina Dalcher

9780008303372Another book for the Atwood enthusiasts and another which looks at a near future world in which life has become increasingly difficult for women. At first glance is seems as if some things in life have improved, at least from the point of view of Elena Fairchild, a teacher at one of the country’s elite schools. But we soon realise that the very fact of these high-level schools means that there must be other institutions with much lower standards. The constant testing of pupils has been increased, with previously high achievers suddenly losing so many marks (known as Q, standing for Quotient) that they drop from the highest-level schools to the lowest – large, residential facilities where parental visits (or trips home) are rigorously deterred. Which, in effect, means children taken from their homes with only a few days’ notice and never seen again. Despite Elena’s husband being instrumental in this educational policy she finds, to her horror, that her younger daughter, Freddy, has fallen into this group and that he is not willing to do anything to save her. Elena, however, spurred on by hearing about her beloved grandmother’s experiences in Nazi Germany, is forced to make some almost impossible choices.

Like most of the best dystopian novels this one is chillingly close to current reality. Not just in the control some governments (I’m looking at you, America) feel they need to have over women and their bodies but also in attitudes to education. Yes, I can see how testing can help to establish how well individuals are progressing, but when it becomes a purpose in itself it tends, as happens in this book, to be prejudiced against anyone who doesn’t conform to an artificially set norm. The story draws explicit parallels with the eugenics movement (beloved of fascist regimes everywhere) adding another level of worrying contemporary similarity. I was particularly fascinated by Elena and her husband’s backstory – former school geeks whose plans for revenge on high school bullies become a brutal repressive regime – and how she turns her back on what those plans have become.

Jane

 

 

Another mixed bag catch-up – this time its still a bit unthemed to be honest…

The second of my round-ups. There may need to be a third as the unreviewed titles are still stacking up a bit (but in my defence I made a smashing lemon drizzle cake…)

The Dark Lady – Akala

9781444943696I first came across Akala two years ago when I read his fabulous and thought-provoking book on race and class in modern Britain. The folk at the Bradford Literature Festival that year agreed with me and it was our fastest selling book of the festival (we sold slightly more of the A A Dhand that year but the queue for Natives was, I’m told, brutal!) This book, on first glance, looks to be a different kettle of fish – a historical adventure story for teens/young adults – but, I’m glad to see, Akala has been able to wind the themes of race, class and power into the book without detracting from the storytelling.

Henry is an orphan, fifteen years old and living in Elizabethan London with a rag-tag group of other street children. (Incidentally, one of the online courses I’ve been doing in lockdown was on Tudor and Elizabethan history – it covered the role of a black population in that period so there is no element of jarring in the fact that Henry is, also, black). He is intelligent, brave and street-smart but also has a skill, a power, which sets him apart: he can not only read but also translate any language he reads. At the beginning he uses this skill to help his group of friends to steal a living but later, once his powers are discovered, they are put to use for the gain of others. To discover who he could become. Henry must find out who he is and what made him that way.

An interesting book which shows a different view of young black boys. They can be adventurous and self-reliant, sure, but also intelligent, cultured, caring and vulnerable. And if they want to be part of Shakespeare’s world? That’s fine too…

The Book of Koli – M R Carey

9780356509556A book which features another young man of colour, one of only a few mixed-race people in an isolated community in a future post-apocalyptic world. Yay! I’m back to the post-apocalypses I love…..

Koli is, like so many boys his age (mid-teens), a bit angry, a bit in love and quite confused about his future. He lives in Mythen Rood (I loved the fact that I knew exactly where that is), a village surrounded by forests which are full of carnivorous trees and clearings full of desperate men (who would probably also eat you). He has fallen in love with a motherless girl but loses her to his closest friend so his one hope is to do well in the coming-of-age ceremony that the three of them must undergo. This world has lost all of the technology we take for granted and the ceremony is to find out who is worthy to join the elite group who lead by virtue of their mastery of the vanishingly few pieces of tech left to them. Koli doesn’t see, until it is too late, that the power is confined to one family and that he will never be considered good enough.

Koli manages to steal one small electronic item – a music player – which leads to him being expelled from the only safe society he has ever known. Thrown into a world of killer trees, cannibalistic tribes and personality cults his only help comes from Ursala (a sort of wandering healing woman who visits Mythen Rood on her regular rounds of the few remaining communities with her own tech – which doubles as weapon and diagnostic tool) and the music player, Monono Aware, whose personality develops when she decides to run some updates.

This is the first part of a trilogy so I’ll be looking out for the next set of Koli’s adventures – where we may learn more about what happened to all the technology and why (and how) the trees became killers.

Green and Pleasant Land – Ayisha Malik

Back to the real, modern day world for this last book – Malik’s latest look at contemporary life through Muslim eyes, placed, this time, in a very, very English setting.

36660586._SY475_Bilal (Bill) Hasham and his wife Mariam and stepson Haaris live in the quintessentially English village of Babbel’s End*.  She writes for a local paper, he runs an accountancy firm and is on the parish council. His best friend seems to be the local vicar. They are accepted, it seems. Bilal’s family are back in Birmingham, where the couple originally met, although, after his mother dies his closest relative is his aunt, Khala Rukhsana. When Ruhksana has a fall, however, Bilal cannot let her stay alone in the home she shared with his mother so he brings her back to Babbel’s End. Her visit reminds Bilal of the promise he made to his mother on her deathbed – to build a mosque in the village – and these things combine with Bilal’s own grief to bring issues of race, religion, acceptance and prejudice to the fore. If the Parish Council (or rather the leader of the Council, Shelley Hawking) were upset about an overgrown shrub they are about to become hysterical about even the idea of a mosque. Divisions within the seemingly idyllic village go far beyond the issue of the mosque as past tragedies are dug up and old scores are settled.

Some great characters – I loved Ruhksana and the ebullient Birmingham gang of aunties – and some interesting points made about the fact that essential similarities are far more important than perceived differences. And, of course, when a common foe presents themselves a sensible community learns to appreciate the other’s point of view. (And we are all ‘other’ to someone).

Ah, I’ve just noticed that there was a theme to this post – although it wasn’t planned. These three were just the next ones on my ‘arranged in date order’ spreadsheet – but they all look at being ‘the other’ either partly, or largely, because of race.

Jane

*Although in a very English way I can’t decide if this is the correct spelling – should it be Babbels End without the apostrophe? Answers on a postcard (or comment), please…

 

A mixed bag catch-up 1

I don’t know what’s up with me at the moment – lots of reading, running, walking, gardening and cooking but can I get myself into the frame of mind to do a simple book review? Can I eck as like….. Maybe it’s because I miss being at work, I miss talking to customers about books I’ve read and loved, but I’m finding it the easiest job to put off. This means I’ve got getting on for ten books from April waiting for reviews so, although I don’t really enjoy doing round up posts, sometimes needs must! They will be a mixed bag because if I start trying to group them by theme I’ll just procrastinate more – as they are listed on my beloved spreadsheet it is….

The Austen Girls – Lucy Worsley

I think I’m being stalked by Jane Austen at the moment. I’ve done a three week course on her life and work with Futurelearn, the Bradford Literature Festival online book group is reading Pride and Prejudice this month and, of course, I’ve been watching Colin Firth in wet shirts on BBC4. In terms of new books I’ve already written about Gill Hornby’s recent look at sister Cassandra’s life so now for historian Lucy Worsley’s book, which focuses on two of Jane Austen’s nieces and their introduction into the adult world of balls, marriage prospects and adult responsibilities.

9781526605450Jane herself is actually a more minor character in this book, acting as an advisor and advocate for the girls – cousins Anna and Fanny. They both know that it will be their duty to marry but Anna, whose family is quite poor, must try for a rich husband. Fanny will, maybe, be able to look for love also but, if she remains a spinster, her wealth will count for little in the eyes of society. But things get even more exciting than Anna’s engagement to a (rather boring) clergyman when the girls decide they have to clear the name of another man of the cloth, accused of theft and at risk of transportation to Australia, Mr Drummer. With Aunt Jane’s help they solve the mystery and discover that there could be more to life than just becoming a wife.

This book is aimed at younger readers (I’d say from about 9 upwards) and is probably more suited to girls, since it does feel quite feminist. The girls themselves, as I said before, learn that women can have a value beyond being a wife or mother, and we know, even if the other characters don’t, that Aunt Jane is writing novels, not letters, up in her room and is a paid author rather than ‘just’ a spinster. Worsley obviously enjoys giving a solid historical basis to her stories – all the Austen family are fairly realistically drawn – but then adding an angle. In this case a bit of crime solving (although the crime – in fact a scam, a trick played on the unsuspecting Mr Drummer – was one which had been used on Austen’s own aunt, causing great scandal at the time) which shows the girls that there are options for women to use their minds.

The Garden Jungle – Dave Goulson

Like a lot of people lucky enough to have a garden I’m spending quite a lot more time there than usual. I’ve enjoyed messing about with plants and soil since I was little – I loved spending time with my Grandad so fuschias, tomatoes and runner beans were on the list of things I learned to looked after. We still grow the first two of those things but at the moment I am also trying to break my seedling curse – so far, I have failed to kill off lettuce, radishes, thyme and broad beans. This is an improvement but we haven’t actually grown anything big enough to eat yet. Part of my preparation for the spring and early summer’s garden-based efforts was reading Dave Goulson’s latest book. I’ve read one of his previous works – where I learned lots about bees and other pollinators – but this one was about the garden itself, a place where I could, if I chose, make choices to help bees, biodiversity and the planet.

9781784709914With the help of this book you can discover how not all plants are bee-friendly (no matter what their labels say) and why we should be avoiding peat-based composts (and plants grown in them). Goulson is not afraid to call out various parts of the horticultural industry (or environmental groups) for inconsistencies, but is also keen to give practical things which can be done to help. Of course, most people know they should try to make compost but Goulson introduces us to the multitude of bugs, worms and flying things which would benefit from it as much as the plants would. And as for pests? Well, the kind of gardening described here encourages other insects, birds and small mammals who will gladly snack on the more undesirable inhabitants of your plot. Which means not only fewer chemicals and a cleaner planet but less work and expense for me: result! It can come across as a little gloomy in places but, for every example of poor practice in the gardening industry, there is a positive idea to try instead. Goulson is also not beyond admitting that he does give in to impulse in garden centres – my problem too – so maybe we need to make sure we keep away from the big chains and stick to the local nurseries* who will be more likely to enter into a conversation about their part in helping everyone garden in a more environmentally friendly way.

The Last Paper Crane – Kerry Drewery

The final book in this little group may seem like an odd one to choose during a lockdown – a story based on survivors of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima doesn’t sound like a comfort read – but it was well worth the read. In the same way that my lockdown diet – much as I’d like it to – can’t consist only of crisps, cake, pizza and wine my reading still has some adventure, darkness and post-apocalyptic drama as it did before to mix in with the romance, history and downright quirkiness. I leave it to you to decide which is the meat, the fruit and veg, the comfort-eating and the booze…

9781471408472A Japanese man, Ichiro, nearing the end of his life, becomes withdrawn and unhappy – much to the distress of his family. His grandaughter, Mizuki, is finally able to get him to talk about the events, seventy years ago, when he, his best friend Hiro and Hiro’s five-year old sister Keiko, live through the events of August 1945 in Hiroshima. The book moves from the present day, narrated largely by Mizuki and written in verse (including some haiku), and the past, told in bleak but still beautiful prose, by Ichiro. Nothing is missed: the horror of the initial explosion, the confusion of the immediate aftermath or the long and painful recovery which followed. Ichiro and Hiro, injured in ways they don’t yet know by the blast, go to search for little Keiko – as if their only salvation lies in protecting the girl. The emotions are raw, but somehow restrained, in a potent mix of love, honour and searing guilt.

This is a wonderful book. Although it is aimed at children it doesn’t talk down to them or attempt to cover up the terrible consequences of conflict – but there is still enough hope and beauty in there to convince them that they will be able to improve on the world their parents and grandparents leave them. Inspirational.

 

*You’ll need to check your own area but in this corner of West Yorkshire I’ll be sticking to New Coley and Nord Green

 

Finally got round to these…..

I am so late to the game with some authors who are some people’s absolute favourite. There are some I suspect I won’t ever get round to (sorry George R R Martin, it’s not you, it’s me) but in the last few weeks I’ve been catching up with a couple of writers who’ve been recommended to me by multiple colleagues/customers/friends. The second review is for an author whose debut was a big hit with colleagues but the first is for someone who has been suggested to me by many, many people including Bex….

Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell

I think I was always lucky in my English teachers. They not only got me through all the important exams, nurture43890641._SY475_d my lifelong love of books (I’ll give Bob Ainsley credit for my love of keeping a track of my reading) and introduced me to authors from across the world and through the ages but they also began filling my brain with all kinds of book-related gossip.  The fact that Beckett wrote many of his plays in French first and translated them back to English in order to be sure he used exactly the right words, and that almost every poem by Emily Dickinson can be sung to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas, you know the kind of stuff. What I’m really getting to is the fact that, although I’d never read any Maggie O’Farrell previously to picking up this one, I did know that Shakespeare’s only son was one of fraternal twins and was named Hamnet. But knowing that fact already did not detract in the slightest from my enjoyment in reading this book.

This book is not so much about Shakespeare as it is about his wife and his twin children, Hamnet and Judith. Although it culminates with his masterpiece, Hamlet, he is not present for most of the book and, really, that is almost the point. He is never even referred to by name but by his relationship to others – father, son, tutor, husband. The children are back in Stratford with their mother (Agnes – I know she is usually known as Anne but she was named as Agnes in her father’s will) while Will himself is away so he would always be less physically present in the story but, like so many parents who need to be distant for work, personal or health needs, he is felt in the emotional response to his absence. So many relationships are explored beyond just that between Shakespeare, his wife and their children – it is the strain between the playwright and his father which is pivotal in his departure to London – but the most interesting to me are any which involve Agnes. She is shown as a child of the forest and nature and, therefore, an object of suspicion to many including her own step-mother. She is a dedicated wife, mother and sister and shown to be vastly more three-dimensional than the minimal historical evidence shows.

This book is a fascinating read with wonderful characters. The complex family relationships make each of them into real people – I could feel their pain and joy – and Agnes’ particular history, a blend of herbalism and passion, was pivotal. The twins were interesting too – two children with very different personalities but with an incredible bond which, well……that would be telling…

 

Starve Acre – Andrew Michael Hurley

Hurley’s debut novel, The Loney, was a huge hit with booksellers, including many of my colleagues and went on to win the 2015 First Novel Award. It is, I’m told, a literary gothic thriller full of mystery, suspense and religious themes – it is also a book which gets recommended a lot. Including to me, but I’ve a terrible habit of not reading what I’m pushed towards…However, when Starve Acre came out it was getting such great reviews that I gave in: I never said I was consistent, did I?

45890523._SY475_Juliette Willoughby and her husband Richard are both grieving for their son, Ewan, who died at just five years old but their grief takes very different forms. Richard, whose family have lived at Starve Acre for years, continues with an archaeological investigation of a barren field – which local folklore gives as the site of what was known as a ‘hanging tree – and Juliette clings to the house, spending almost all her time in Ewan’s room, and certain that her son, in some way, is still in the house. This feeling is encouraged by a local group – who can only really be thought of as occultists – who claim to be able to help deal with the lingering spirit but, when they arrive for their ritual things start to go seriously wrong. This, combined with the gradual unfolding of the story of the events leading up to Ewan’s death make for a very dark and disturbing story – but told with style and wonderful timing….

Jane

Keeper – Jessica Moor

I’m spending a lot of time in this lockdown reminding myself how lucky I am. We are healthy, Rob is working from home and I am furloughed with plenty of time to potter around in the garden – which I am also lucky to have. But, most importantly, I am lucky to live in a household which is largely harmonious. I’m not going to say that we don’t snip at each other because we do, from time to time, and the cat is proving herself a world class post-hoovering hair-shedder but I know that we do everything we can to keep each other safe, well and happy. Distressing figures are emerging to show that many, many people aren’t so lucky and, sadly, this isn’t surprising. All the existing problems haven’t gone away during this pandemic – they are just tucked behind closed doors*.  So maybe it was appropriate that I have been reading a novel looking at the circumstances surrounding the death of a young woman working at a women’s refuge…

9780241396841Katie Straw worked at a refuge for women who have fled domestic violence. She was young and seemed to care for the women she helped, both practically and on an emotional level so when the police want to write her death off as self-inflicted – her body pulled from river site commonly associated with suicide – they are adamant that she was murdered. The two officers investigating her death – an older DS with little patience for the abrasive woman running the refuge and a young DC whose sympathetic approach gives some hope for an improvement in attitudes towards crimes involving domestic violence and abuse – discover that Katie Straw was not the victim’s real name and begin to look more deeply into the case. The narrative alternates between this process of investigation – the ‘Now’ timeline – and Katie’s previous life – a ‘Then’ timeline – as a victim of abuse herself. The stories told, Katie’s and those of the women in the refuge, cover a wide range of situations but in all women are subjected to violence – physical, psychological and emotional – by the men in their lives. The descriptions are often brutal and Katie’s story, in particular, runs a familiar path of a seemingly loving partner becoming controlling, possessive and, eventually, violent – in many ways, nothing here is new but it is worth repeating in order for change to happen.

There are some very well-drawn characters in this book – voices are given to a range of very different women from a variety of backgrounds who are often lumped together as just ‘victims’ – and the plot, as it switches between the two timelines, kept me gripped. I began to get a glimpse of the ‘aha’ moment shortly before it happened (and it was reasonably obvious that the Katie in the ‘Then’ sections was the same as the one in the ‘Now’ very quickly) but it still had a strong impact. The sense of injustice and anger which all the women’s stories gave me has lingered, which is no bad thing…

Jane

*Information about domestic abuse is available. Even in a pandemic lockdown if you need to get away from abuse help is out there…