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Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

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The one who survived…

Black Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin

Black eyed susans The ARC I was sent of this stylish psychological thriller came bound in black ribbon with a silk flower of the title.

I was expecting the book, but wasn’t expecting a daisy – it turns out that what is known as Black eyed Susan in the US is Rudbeckia hirta – of the aster family. It is the state flower of Maryland and grows all over North America.  If you look up Black eyed Susan in UK catalogues however, you’re more likely to find a totally unrelated herbaceous perennial, Thunbergia alata, which emanates from Eastern Africa originally.

black-eyed-susan-vine-thunbergia-alata1Thunbergia is a scrambling vine with heart-shaped leaves which I used to grow up a trellis as an annual (it’s rather tender to frost). The simple five-petaled flowers can vary from creamy white to deep orange. I wasn’t going to let myself be sidetracked by these botanical considerations though, so I mentally rebooted and started reading.

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When she was 16, Tessa became famous for being the one who survived.  A group of girls were abducted and their bodies dumped in a patch of Black-Eyed Susans, except Tessie, as she was known then, wasn’t quite dead.

This happened twenty years ago, and Tessa has moved on and got a life as an artist and single mum to Charlie, her teenaged daughter.  Life is good when she can stop thinking about the past, but it is all opened up again when a patch of the yellow daisies appears under her window. They must have been planted there, but by whom? Is the man on Death Row for the murders not the killer? Scared again for her own life and that of her daughter, Tessa agrees to work with the lawyers who believe that the man who is locked up and due for execution is innocent.  Cans of worms are opened, almost literally, for the other victims’ bodies are exhumed. Forensic science has progressed far in the intervening years and experts in mitochondrial DNA are brought in to find new evidence.

Tessa’s present day story alternates with that of Tessie, now 17, in the past. Having survived such a terrible ordeal, Tessie is traumatised and is under the treatment of a therapist as she is prepared for the trial of Terrell Goodman, the man they have put in prison. He is convicted on her evidence, despite the huge gaps in her memory.  Her best friend Lydia is a huge support to her through all the build up to the trial.  The conviction doesn’t make it right though and after the trial, Tessie becomes mute for a long time.

It is clear that she buried things back then and more since, unable to comprehend how they fitted into the picture. Throughout the novel, this information will be teased out in both past and present, with evidence leading one way then another until a startling conclusion is reached. I loved the way that the dual time-frame added to the complexity of what you think was happening at any time, vs what she said had happened then, what she remembered happening then now and what really happened, then and now. This deliberate confusion did diffuse the tension at times but certainly keeps the intrigue going.

Heaberlin has done her research well and blended it into the novel without the details intruding too much – the DNA forensics was fascinating and well presented for example. The other area of her research was into Death Row and the work of attorneys like David Dow (see his Ted talk here) and Brit Clive Stafford Smith (I will never forget his TV documentary from 1987, Fourteen Days in May).  Heaberlin’s young lawyer Bill who took charge of the case when the veteran defense lawyer passed away has his job cut out, but proves a sympathetic character and a good balance to Tessa.

I would have reviewed this novel for Shiny New Books, but it’s one of those books that is best recommended without going into much detail. I didn’t want to write a lengthy review, but believe me, I really enjoyed it. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin. Penguin: Michael Joseph. August 2015, hardback, 368 pages.

It's a break-up novel…

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

10798418Daniel Handler, best-known as the author of the Lemony Snicket series of books for children has also written several novels for adults; I reviewed one of them – Adverbs here. Like Lemony Snicket, Adverbs was quirky and full of off-beat humour. Why We Broke Up is a little different in style. It’s still quirky, but its humour is more ironic and very bittersweet – it is, after all, a break-up story.

It sits firmly in crossover territory – being published in the UK under Egmont’s YA imprint, Electric Monkey, but is actually a sophisticated tale that teens and adults can enjoy alike. Each chapter is prefixed by a colour illustration by Maira Kalman and these are equally quirky and fit the novel’s style perfectly. One last bonus is that on the inside cover – instead of publicity puffs from other authors and celebs, there are short paragraph teenaged break-up stories from the likes of Neil Gaiman, Brian Selznick, David Levithan and Holly Black – some of the cream of current YA writers – a neat touch. This is backed up by a Tumblr blog where readers can share their own break-up stories.

Why We Broke Up is the story of the short-lived relationship between Min Green and Ed Slaterton, as told by Min. It starts:

Dear Ed,
In a sec you’ll hear a thunk. At your front door, the one nobody uses. […]
The thunk is the box, Ed. This is what I am leaving you. […] Every last souvenir of the love we had, the prizes and the debris of this relationship, like the glitter in the gutter when the parade has passed, all the everything and whatnot kicked to the curb. I’m dumping the whole box back into your life, Ed, every item of you and me. I’m dumping this box on your porch, Ed, but it is you, Ed, who is getting dumped.

She’s not bitter at all then?!  They meet at a party, not the usual type of one Ed goes to. He’s a jock, one of the stars of the basketball team – he only goes to non-jock parties when they lose.

– and then you asked me my name. I told you it was Min, short for Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom, because my dad was getting his master’s when I was born, and that, don’t even ask, no you couldn’t, only my grandmother could call me Minnie because, she told me and I imitated her voice, she loved me the best of anyone.

You said your name was Ed. Like I might not know that. I asked you how you lost.

“Don’t,” you said. “If I have to tell you how we lost, it will hurt all of my feelings.”

I liked that, all of my feelings. “Every last one?” I asked. “Really?”

“Well,” you said, and took a sip, “I might have one or two left. I might still have a feeling.”

I had a feeling too. Of course you told me anyway, Ed, because you’re a boy, how you lost the game.

We then go on to work our way through the box with Min explaining each item’s significance chronologically. The first item is a movie ticket from their first date. Min is an arts student and an aficionado of old movies. She and Ed go to see Greta in the Wild, which stars the beautiful, young Lottie Carson. As first dates go it’s a success and Ed is amazed by this quirky ‘different’ girl who persuades him that an old black and white film is the business! He indulges Min who is convinced that an old lady who goes to see all these vintage films is Lottie Carson herself – and this becomes a bit of an obsession for Min which escalates throughout the novel.

Romance blossoms for Min and Ed, despite Min’s BF Al and Ed’s older sister Joan knowing it’ll never work. Geeks and Jocks just aren’t really made for each other – they’re too ‘different’. Min has a go at watching basketball practice along with all the other jock’s girlfriends who seem happy to be bored out of their brains on the benches – it’s so obviously not her and naturally, Al feels ignored missing their after-school chats.

It works for a while though…

I loved this novel. Its monologue style reminded me of The Perks of Being a Wallflower (review here). They may share a High School setting, but Why We Broke Up is a good old-fashioned romance, it’s not issue-led like TPOBAW, although that is one of my favourite novels of this type. The added mystery over Lottie Carson gives Why We Broke Up all the side-plot it needs although that was rather over-extended. It was, however, a relief to read compared with all the dark Issue lit on the YA shelves these days. It’ll make a great movie …

Sophisticated, tender, bittersweet, quirky, funny – this is a YA/Crossover novel to savour and enjoy. (8/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler (2012), illus Maira Kalman. Paperback (Jun 2015) Electric Monkey, 368 pages.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, paperback.

From one dystopia to another …

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

The shipI’m on a watery/eco-thriller/dystopian reading binge at the moment, set off by picking up this novel – I couldn’t resist the colourful cover with its silhouette of a broken London landscape and a nod to the film Titanic.

It’s the near-future; the world as we know it is broken. Five hundred specially selected people escape the hell of the dystopian society left on land to live on ‘The Ship’ and the alternative nightmare of being on an everlasting cruise.

Apart from having poor sea-legs, the idea of living aboard one of those huge cruise-liners fills me with utter dread – yet people already do! However, you can get off for an excursion … this isn’t the case for The Ship‘s 500.

Fowey 024 (2) (800x417)

‘The World’ moored at Fowey, Cornwall, summer 2010. Gorgeous tiny town with a deep-water harbour that can fit this behemoth!

The story is narrated by Lalage ‘Lalla’ Paul*, who is just turning sixteen. She lives in an apartment in London with her mother and father, although he is often not there. They live entirely within the law of the military government, obeying all the rules imposed on them, but they manage to continue to live well by the standards of others. Lalla’s life is sheltered, totally unlike those of the tent-dwellers in Regent’s Park, or the gangs in the underground. Being outside in London is a dangerous place, the nearby British Museum – whose treasures are a shadow of their former glories, is their only cultural retreat. Lalla tells us about the beginning:

I was seven when the collapse hit Britain. Banks crashed, the power failed, flood defences gave way, and my father paced the flat, strangely elated in the face of my mother’s fear. I was right, he said, over and over again. Wasn’t I right? Weren’t we lucky that we owed nothing to anyone? That we relied on no one beyond our little trio? That we had stores, and bottled water? Oh, the government would regret not listening to him now. … and for months we did not leave the flat.

Lalla’s father, Michael, has been planning his big escape ever since. He bought a cruise-ship, he’s been stocking it with everything needed for at least a generation’s life aboard. He’s been recruiting 500 deserving people with essential skills to take with him and they are waiting in the Holding Centre for the word from him that they’re ready to depart. But’s what’s stopping them from going today? It’s Lalla’s mother who is not sure. When Michael comes home for Lalla’s birthday celebration, he and her mother bicker:

‘How much worse do you want things to get?’
‘If you loved me, you’d stop pushing.’
‘If you loved me, we’ve have gone already.’
‘I love you Michael. I just don’t think you’re right.’
I stood in the doorway, forgetting I wasn’t meant to be listening. … ‘I want to go,’ I said. ‘If the ship is real, I want to go on it.’

They bat Lalla back and forth between them in their argument, but the decision is made when, as her mother moves in front of the window, a sniper shoots her. The ship has a doctor and surgery – it’s time to go.

Poor Lalla, her mother will not survive and she begins her life onboard in a state of profound grief, while her father has 500 disciples to lead. Will Lalla be able to overcome her depression at the death of her mother, will she be able to assimilate into life on the ship, make friends, have a useful life, and, dare I say it – help make the next generation?

The Ship is really a two-hander – an on-going battle between Lalla and Michael. All the other characters, even Tom, a young man Lalla is attracted to, are just props and aren’t really developed more than peripherally. Lalla, however, is irritating, selfish and angry, yet loveable, in the way that only teenagers can be and, although Michael is nominally benevolent and peace-loving, we somehow have to suspect his motives. With Lalla as our narrator, we gain no real sense of his long-term plans.

The biblical imagery abounds – apart from the myriad of obvious references to the book of Genesis – you can pick any prophet and see Michael in him. There are are some neat parallels in the military government enacting the Nazareth Act for instance, and could the 500 have been 5000 to feed? I may be a non-believer, but do love a good bible-story, so I enjoyed spotting all these. The questions remain: Is Lalla the new Eve? Will life ever be bearable for her on board this ark?

The Ship was a hugely enjoyable novel, a scarily prescient vision of the kind of future we could have if it all goes wrong. After the riots of a couple of years ago, somehow, I can imagine Oxford Street burning for three weeks as happens here. The combination of coming of age story with a dystopia and this fascinating setting was a winner for me. Highly recommended. (8.5/10)

* I also couldn’t help wondering, especially as I’ve recently read The Bees (review here), if Lalla was named for The Bees author Laline Paull? She does contribute a cover quote…  (P.S. Antonia told me via twitter that ‘Lalla is named for the baby at end of The French Lieutenant’s Woman and St Paul, rescued from the waves’).

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below (affiliate link):
The Shipby Antonia Honeywell, pub W&N, Feb 2015. Hardback, 320 pages.

Hardy & Me…

I’m madd not to have read more Hardy!

I’m just back from the cinema where I saw Far From the Madding Crowd. For anyone suffering from Poldark withdrawal, it has lots of galloping along clifftops and through fields, and scything! Seriously, it was a wonderful film, with a screenplay by David Nicholls. I’ve come away with a serious crush on this Gabriel Oak (Mattias Schoenaerts, a Belgian), I gasped when his sheep became lemmings, I felt so sorry for poor anguished Mr Boldwood (Michael Sheen) and hoped that Katniss Bathsheba wouldn’t marry Sgt Troy (Tom Sturridge). You see despite being in my mid 50s now (eek!) I’ve never seen the earlier film with Christie, Bates and Stamp – just odd clips, I never knew the whole story. I could hardly bear to look at the screen when she nearly let him get away at the end, and had tears of joy rolling down my cheeks seconds later.

– 

ffm

The thing is I love reading Thomas Hardy but I’ve only read two: Jude the Obscure for book club a couple of years ago and Tess of the D’Urbervilles back in autumn 2008. Should I read FFTMC now so soon after the film, or another of his novels – I have quite a few of my late mum’s copies on the shelves.

Which would you suggest I should read next?

A near-future techno thriller…

Deja Vu by Ian Hocking

deja vuThis novel is one of the first publications from a new indie publisher called Unsung Stories, specialising in ‘genre fiction that defies categorisation’. Déjà Vu is essentially near-future science fiction with a techno-thriller slant to it.

It is 2023. Saskia Brandt is a Berlin-based detective in the European FIB. Returning from a stressful holiday during which she became single again, she finds her receptionist has been murdered – and she has been implicated. Her boss Beckmann gives her twelve hours to prove her innocence.

Meanwhile in Oxford a university professor, David Proctor, is getting up – he dresses in ‘his usual loafers, chinos, shirt and blazer; clothes that Joyce, his girlfriend, called CGC, or Consultant Gynaecologist Chic.’ (that tickled me for some reason). David is instructing his prototype AI computer, Ego, when a call comes to tell him the other Ego units have been stolen. No sooner has he finished the call than he realises that a door is open somewhere, then he feels a weapon pressed into his back and Ego starts talking to him telling him it’s been hacked, and that he has return to Scotland when he gets a call from Colonel McWhirter about Onogoro, the virtual world he had created with his old colleague Bruce Shimoda. ‘Onogoro must fall,’ the voice tells him.

In Nevada, billionaire John Crane arrives in secret at Helix Base. He searches out Jennifer Proctor (David’s daughter) in her lab. Jennifer has been putting the finishing touches to the Déjà Vu project – enabling time travel – and her employer Crane needs her to send him back in time…

Even though they don’t know it, the fortunes of Saskia, David and Jennifer are already closely linked. David had previously been accused of trying to blow up the West Lothian centre, his wife Helen had been killed in the explosion – surely he couldn’t have done it?  Why do they want him to come back there? Saskia has a big personal shock in store for her once her twelve hours are up. Surely the key is going to be Jennifer’s project – is whatever will happen already pre-destined due to the impossible paradoxes otherwise of time travel? It’s telling that Saskia has a recurring dream of the three Fates of Greek myth: Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos who respectively spin, measure and snip the thread of life.

I’m not going to deliberate further on the plot of this novel as it is complicated with the layers of conspiracy and paradox. At its heart though is the simpler re-kindling of the relationship between father and daughter, wrenched apart when Helen died, together with Saskia’s search for her true self. To understand the present you need to understand the past and untangling the threads of what happens when is the key.

Published in print and e-book form by Unsung Stories last year, the technology in the book seemed too futuristic for less than ten years into the future – but doing some digging afterwards revealed that Hocking originally self-published this novel in around 2005 and has penned two more self-published Saskia Brandt novels since. So if it was originally written some more years ago, that definitely fits this vision of the near future better – although Apple are probably not so far off the Ego computer with its fledgling artificial intelligence – Ego could be the iPhone 25 or something! Much more futuristic is the implant chip in Saskia’s brain which controls and modulates her to some extent – does that make her a cyborg or bionic?

Apart from that niggling incongruity between the publishing year and the technology, what also irritated me were little bits of over-writing here and there: “The high ribwork of the orangery joined a sternum thirty feet about the floor.”  In its defence, the techno-thriller plot was quite fun, having a feel of the brilliant 1980s TV series Edge of Darkness to it in many ways (a political/nuclear thriller drama from the BBC). I did like the character of Saskia though and I hope she develops in her further adventures which are to be published too. (6/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Deja Vu by Ian Hocking. Unsung Stories, 2014, paperback 328 pages.
Edge Of Darkness – The Complete Series [1985] [DVD]

Shiny Debuts – Love and Linkiness…

Today’s batch of Shiny linkiness from my reviews in issue 5 of Shiny New Books features three debut novels. All absolute crackers! Please click through to read the full reviews and join in the comments:

Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

eorj This is a quirky quest novel, wherein 80-year-old Etta decides to walk to the sea – 2000 miles from Saskatchewan to the Atlantic Ocean. She leaves behind two men who love her, husband Otto and neighbour Russell, and we’ll find out all about the three of them as her journey goes on. And no, it’s not the Canadian Harold Fry – it’s totally different.

This novel was a quirky yet understated pleasure to read – I loved it.

Click here to read my full review (and see a clip of Emma talking about her grandparents who inspired the book).

Fire Flowers by Ben Byrne

Fire Flowers Europa Editions’ first British novel is a story of lost siblings and romance set in Tokyo following the prolonged firestorm that moreorless destroyed the city, and starts on the day of the Japanese surrender at the end of WWII.

The story is told by four characters. Satsuko Takara and her younger brother Hiroshi have been orphaned and separated by the firestorm. Satsuko will never give up looking for her teenaged brother, whereas he assumes she is probably dead. Then there is Hal Lynch – an American who used to be an aerial photographer, now a photo journalist for the US press in Tokyo. Lastly we follow Osamu Maruki, a writer and Satsuko’s lover before he was sent to the South Pacific. The four have separate lives in the ruined city, and they will cross paths although not necessarily meeting.

Fire Flowers is the first novel I’ve read set during this time and place. It was a gripping historical story, heart-breaking and heart-warming in equal measure. A remarkable debut – I loved it too.

Click here to read my full review

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

fuller I’ll put my cards on the table – as of today, this is still the best book I have read so far this year!

It tells of a girl Peggy, daughter of Ute, a German concert pianist and James – a survivalist. In 1976, James takes little Peggy off to live in a hut in the woods in the Black Forest, telling her the rest of the world has gone. Nine years later she is back, naturally damaged by her experience. We tease out the story of what happened in the book’s present and in flashback. It is full of fairy-tale resonance, very dark, sometimes humorous, but always full of music. Absolutely fantastic!

Click here to read my full review.

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Source: Publishers – thank you all!

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):

 

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