Book No 35 (2015) : The Daughter’s Secret

daughters secretHalf way through reading Eva Holland’s novel I dreamed that I had killed my baby: she had got too hot, so I wrapped her in cling film for warmth. Unfortunately though, I left her outside a lift and she died. The reason I mention this, is because ‘The Daughter’s Secret‘ tapped into that deep seam of anxiety which comes as part of the package of motherhood. Most of us are able to suppress it most of the time, telling ourselves that serial rapists, ravaging fire and motorway pile-ups are the exception rather than the norm. We push our fears to the back of our minds and get on with the school run. But Rosalind, mother of Stephanie, struggles to keep her anxiety under control at the best of times. So when her daughter goes missing and is found to have disappeared in the company of her Geography teacher, Nate Temperley, Ros’ worst fears are realised.

The novel opens at the point where Ros discovers that Temperley is about to be released from prison. Stephanie is struggling to cope at University, resorting to alcohol to blot out her pain and so her parents bring her home. Desperate to protect her daughter from her abductor’s influence, whilst battling her own personal demons, Rosalind is once again caught in a spiral of distress. The author exposes secrets and lies, as well as the role of instinct and desire within her character’s lives.

This thriller was the winner of the Good Housekeeping Novel Competition in 2014, an accolade which may send out a subliminal message that it is cosy, chick-lit fiction for women. But it is certainly not a comfortable read, concentrating as it does on the tensions of motherhood; as we try guide our children safely into adulthood, we crave to pull them back when they are threatened. The writing is taut and incisive, keeping me occupied for several hours and lingering in my mind even when I wasn’t reading. A great debut, although probably not for you if you tend to worry about your kids!

Thank you to NetGalley for my copy of this book.

Book No 32 (2015) : The Girl Who Wasn’t There

girl who wasnt thereMy immediate impression of Ferdinand von Schirach’s book was that it reminded me very much of Albert Camus’ ‘L’Étranger‘. Mainly, I think because the central character, Sebastian von Eschburg, seems to epitomise existentialist concepts.  Also, although I read the book in English it was written in German; however good a translation is, somehow translated work has a certain timbre to it.

Sebastian has had a difficult childhood, which ended abruptly when his father committed suicide. As an adult he seems to be on the outside of life, looking in. He doesn’t seem to engage fully with others and his reactions are not what one would normally expect (hence the Meursault connection). It is not surprising then, that Sebastian’s career as a photographer develops into that of a more sophisticated artist, famous for his installations exploring themes of pornography and voyeurism. The first part of the novel builds a picture of von Eschburg.

The second part introduces one of the most superb fictional lawyers I have ever come across. I know we have been all over Atticus of late, but Konrad Biegler is grouchy, sardonic, intuitive and brilliant at his job. A wonderfully imagined character, he is appointed by Sebastian to defend him against a series allegation. I am not a big fan of courtroom dramas but the account of the case against von Eschburg, its presentation and the final verdict, had me hooked.

Throughout the novel (which is short, by the way, easily read in one sitting), the author’s use of language is precise and somehow sparse, with no flowery prose, but nevertheless totally fitting for the examination of themes such as truth, reality, evidence and art.

Personally, I found ‘The Girl Who Wasn’t There‘ fascinating. But it also felt like a book to be studied, discussed and probed, rather than just read for the fun of it: I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned up in an ‘A’ level German syllabus! You will either love this book, or think it is pseudo-philosophical claptrap. Either way, you really do need to read it so you can make up your mind, and I think as a Book Group choice it may divide the readership!

Thank you to NetGalley for my  copy of the book.

Book No 31 (2015) : Something to Hide

something to hideRebecca‘ by Daphne du Maurier is my favourite book. One of the things that intrigues me about it is that I always find myself rooting for the bad guy. Maxim has committed a terrible crime, but I want him to get away with it. And so it was with Petra in Deborah Moggach’s latest offering, ‘Something to Hide‘.

Petra is having an affair with a married man; the man married to Bev, her best friend. Everyone thinks that Jeremy and Bev have the perfect marriage, despite not being blessed with children. But Petra knows differently, because Jeremy is going to leave his wife to move into Petra’s Pimlico pad. At least, that is the plan. Of course things don’t go to plan, this is a novel, for heaven’s sake! When Jeremy is taken ill, it is Petra whom Bev calls upon for support, flying her out to the African home she shared with her husband. Dramatic irony is used to great effect as Petra tries to hide Jeremy’s adulterous love affair from his wife.

Wang-Lei, a successful Chinese businessman, hires a surrogate mother when he and his wife are unable to have children. The surrogate, Lorrie, needs the money from the surrogacy to replace the life savings she lost in an internet scam. And what exactly is the nature of Wang-Lei and Jeremy’s business in Africa – there are rumours of poaching? So, everyone has something to hide.

Moggach creates charismatic people;  such was my empathy for her characters that I was quietly willing them on to succeed in their respective deceptions. Set in England, Africa, China and the US, ‘Something to Hide‘ has a cleverly constructed plot, with several unforseen twists.   Like a good jigsaw, this book will keep you quiet for a couple of hours and you won’t be happy until you have slotted together all the pieces. Definitely one for your holiday suitcase.

Thanks to NetGalley for the copy of this book.

Book No 29 (2015) : The Other Side of the World

other side of the worldCharlotte is happiest outside, wandering the fields, taking in nature. She loves the leaves and the seasons, the cool and unpredictable English weather. But the house she shares with her husband and their baby daughters is cramped and mouldy, leaving Henry yearning for warmth and sunshine.  When he persists with his suggestion that the family emigrate to Perth, Australia, Charlotte is exhausted by motherhood and too lacking in energy to resist. So they make the journey with their young family and Henry takes up his post at the University. His wife however, has no reason to leave the house and she becomes increasingly isolated and frustrated by motherhood. Until she meets Nicholas. When Henry has to travel to India to be with his ailing mother, Charlotte makes a decision which will change her life and her marriage, possibly irrevocably.

The descriptive powers of Stephanie Bishop make this book read like poetry; I could feel the oppressive Australian heat, English rain and Indian humidity. Whilst the plot is simple enough, the evocative writing makes this an engrossing read. It seemed to me a very honest picture of the realities of marriage and motherhood, as Charlotte loves her children but struggles with the loss of her own identity and craves time to be alone, to express her creativity through her painting. In her resentment, she ‘takes it out’ on her daughters; whilst no-one would condone such behaviour, Bishop’s portrayal makes Charlotte a highly credible character.

Born in India but sent to England, Henry struggles with his own sense of not belonging there; ‘England was always secondary.’ Once away from the fens, Charlotte yearns to return. The author uses ‘The Other Side of the World‘ to make her reader really think about what home is, and how the pull of a place can be overwhelmingly strong. What happens when our homing instincts conflict with where we believe our duties lie?

This is a thought-provoking and moving read, one of those rare books whose imprint lurks in the memory long after the final page.

Thank you to NetGalley for the copy of this novel.

Book No 27 (2015) : The Lives of Stella Bain

stella bainI used to read Anita Shreve all the time, and ‘Fortune’s Rocks’ is up there with my favourite books. However, I lost interest in her work a bit after she produced a few duds. ‘The Lives of Stella Bain‘ has restored some of my faith.

Stella is a nurse’s aide in a field hospital during WW1 and she bears daily witness to harrowing scenes of pain and suffering as she assists the doctors working to help injured soldiers. ‘Always look the patient in the eye’, she is told. But when Stella herself is badly hurt in a blast, she comes round again, but has lost her memory. Driven by an inexplicable urge to reach ‘the Admiralty’, she makes her way to London. Arriving alone, she falls ill with pneumonia, only to be taken in by Lily and August Bridge. August is a cranial surgeon but he has a keen interest in psychiatry and the work of Sigmund Freud. He also has contacts in the Admiralty. With August’s help, Stella begins to recover her memory. Only to discover that she is not called Stella Bain at all, and the life she left held as many fears for her as those of the French battlefields.

It is not very often I say this as it’s usually the other way round, but this book could have been longer! For a quickish read there are a lot of sub-plots and themes, some of which warranted deeper exploration. There were echoes of Louisa Young’s ‘My Dear I Wanted to Tell You‘ as the issue of soldiers’ facial injuries features in Shreve’s novel. One of the things I particularly liked about this book though, were the various styles of narrative, including prose and description, correspondence and the transcript of a court case. Together with the settings in France, London and Canada, the mingled styles resulted in an interesting and engaging read. Definitely recommended and if you like ‘Stella Bain’, you might want to dip into some of Shreve’s other novels. As well as ‘Fortune’s Rocks and ‘Testimony, I’ve also enjoyed ‘The Weight of Water, The Pilot’s Wife and All He Ever Wanted. I read the last of these some years ago, but scenes from it still linger in my memory; proof that when Shreve gets it right, she produces compelling, memorable fiction.

Thanks to NetGalley for the digital review copy of this book.

Book No 26 (2015) : The Artificial Anatomy of Parks

anatomy of parksThe absolute best thing about Kat Gordon’s debut novel is the central character, Tallulah Park, often known as Tallie. She is twenty-one and she wants to be a nurse, but hasn’t got herself sorted out yet. Tallie lives in a grotty flat by herself and works as a waitress in a cheap cafe for a boss she hates. Her Dad is a doctor and she used to study his textbook, so her medical terminology and knowledge of anatomy is actually very good. This comes in handy when she gets a call from the hospital to say her father is unconscious in hospital following a heart attack. Tallie and her Dad’s sisters, Gillian and Vivienne, keep vigil by his bedside. It turns out though, that Tallie has not spoken to her Dad for 5 years and has lost contact with virtually all of her family other than a cousin, Starr. Using flashbacks to the past, the reasons for the rift between the emotionally damaged Tallulah and her family are gradually uncovered.

All of the characters in this novel are intriguing although I found the plot slightly less so. There is a big ‘reveal’ towards the end of the book which I would have preferred to have happened sooner, especially as the reader is made aware of the situation quite early on. It would have been interesting to see how Tallie re-adjusted after the revelation about her family.

The young Tallie really resonated with me. Gordon has captured very well the confusing world in which children sometimes live, catching snatches of adult conversation, witnessing behaviour they don’t understand and being fobbed off with half-hearted explanations. This is especially obvious when Tallie is bereaved and finds herself isolated from her peers. I read in the Acknowledgements that Tallulah was ‘a lot like’ Kat Gordon and wondered if the character was semi-autobiographical. Struggling with grief, not making friends and forming a close relationship with her grandmother, Tallie certainly brought to mind a younger me!

Thanks to NetGalley for the digital review copy of this book.

Book No 27 (2014) : After I Left You

after i left youThrough hanging around on the Internet, I discovered ‘NetGalley’. It’s a site which allows reviewers to request complimentary copies of books, on the understanding that in return for the free copy, they
review the work and give feedback to the publisher. ‘After I Left You’ was the first of my requests to be accepted, so I was excited!

‘After I Left You’ is the story of Anna Jones, an Oxford graduate. Having moved on in life after University, an unexpected encounter with a former lover causes her to confront the traumatic events which over-shadowed her final days at St Bartholomew’s College. After so many years, can she gain some closure?

The book is written in the first person, switching between Anna’s current and former lives as she is drawn to reminisce about her student days spent in the company of a close circle of friends – Clarissa, Meg, Victor, Barnaby and Keith. As well as flashback, it uses several plot devices to progress the story, and also has some literary references. There are twists and turns, leading to the revelations of what happened to Anna at the Summer Ball.

I found this novel frustrating. I am extremely familiar with Oxford and felt that Ms Mercer failed to capture the magic of the city or the complexity of student life. Her characters felt flat, one-dimensional. Although the plot draws events to a conclusion, the whole book left me feeling dissatisfied. Sorry, but not a book I feel able to recommend.