July 18, 2019

There is a lot wrong with The Binding. For all the luscious language, not much happens in the first third. It’s mainly the painstaking building of a skillset that’s never used, which feels a tad wasteful. And it commits a book sin I normally find unforgivable — it teases. It feels like hundreds of pages of circling and nudging and side-stepping the truth before we finally get to it. 

Because the magical concept at the core of the novel is that people can tell their traumatic memories to a book binder and the stories are stored in the book, not their minds. Like a gothic Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And it’s narrated from the point of view of Emmet, who, it gradually becomes clear, has some crucial missing memories too. So the secret staying hidden does make sense, while frustrating.

 But despite all its flaws, The Binding is a love story so pure that by the end I wanted to shout from the rooftops and share this book with whoever would read it. So, all is forgiven.

April 5, 2019

This is as uncomfortable a read as it is compelling; whether in the stifling heat of the Jamaican plantation or the damp, grimy cells of a Georgian London prison cell, the setting feels right for the people and deeds endured in Frannie Langton’s life.

A slave since birth, a teenaged Frannie is forced to become a lab assistant to her owner’s dark experiments as he tries to prove the origin of racial difference. He uses his slaves as non-consenting lab rats, and his investigations go more than skin deep. When he takes Frannie with him to England, she ends up in the home of another scientist, and his charming and sympathetic wife, Marguerite. Frannie’s fortunes seem improved, but the couple end up dead, and we meet Frannie when she is on trial for their murder. The book’s narrative takes us back through her history as she tries to remember what happened the night they died.

It’s psychologically complex and and beautifully peopled, but the suspense and horror are laid a little thick.

January 10, 2019

The stark, brooding beauty of Skye looms over The Story Keeper, setting the tone for an atmospheric and dark tale, where the line between reality and superstition is tantalisingly blurred.

In 1857 Audrey Hart arrives on the island; ostensibly to help collect the folk and fairy tales of the highland communities, but also to escape a story of her own and learn more about her mother, who died long ago on the island. But soon after she arrives, she discovers the body of a young girl washed up on the beach.

The pages keep on turning, as all the wonderful, historical detail is wrapped up in a clever and satisfying whodunnit. But my favourite aspect of the book was discovering, alongside Audrey, the tales and superstitions that form the background of so much of our culture. Mazzola references the real-life contemporaries to the fictional Audrey; the Brothers Grimm. The twisted tales uncovered in The Story Keeper are the dark roots of the fairy stories we still tell our children now. Fascinating...

May 28, 2018

Such a neat concept for this book: an alien invasion has never been so subtle and insidious!

Samantha’s scumbag boyfriend, Edward, is injured in a car crash and seems to die before making a miraculous recovery. It turns out a weird new virus has something to do with it, and lots of other men are coming back too, albeit changed.

The book twists quite a few notions on their heads, starting with the image of the girlfriend at a hospital bed guilty that she wished her boyfriend dead not too long ago. Then we see Sam knowing things aren’t right when Edward is way too nice. Still Life poses lots of interesting questions, and I especially enjoyed how the characters cling to what they’re familiar with, even when they know deep down the familiar is masking a creepy and disturbing threat.

There’s also a love triangle and plenty of surprises. It’s gripping and accessible with a subtly dry tone, and the author skillfully navigates dark concepts while never slowing the pace.

April 23, 2018

I went through quite a journey with this book. To start with, I was tempted to just stop reading it. I found the characters unbearably irritating and the situations they were in banal. It follows three women, Tara — a single mum, TV producer, Cam — a feminist lifestyle blogger, and Stella — processing the death of her mum and twin sister to cancer. Some people might love this, but I personally enjoy characters a bit further from everyday life.

Just as I was about to concede this wasn’t for me, I hit the incident that gets the plot rolling, and I was reluctantly hooked. I was swept up, but a little resentful about it. By the time I got to the end, however, I had to admit I was impressed. You have to wade through a lot of seemingly nice characters judging others for how judgemental they are, before their character arcs finally deliver them a bit of self-awareness; but in the end it's a cleverly done book with a lot of heart and empathy and some thoughtful reflection on modern feminism.

April 7, 2018

It’s always a good sign when you miss a book once it’s gone, and I wished I could have stayed inside this one a little longer. Never has the word ‘heartwarming’ been more appropriate.

Set during WW2, Emmeline Lake is disappointed to find her new journalistic job isn’t as a chipper reporter, working up to War Correspondent; but as an admin assistant to the women’s advice columnist, Henrietta Bird, who dismisses nearly every genuine problem as “unpleasantness.”

I found the homely style a little awkward at first — was everyone really so ‘jolly upbeat’ in WW2? Isn’t it a little patronising? But I soon realised that getting beneath the veneer of putting on a good show and whatnot is really the heart of the book, and it’s actually very sweetly done.

It’s a gentle and moving book that celebrates female friendship and good-heartedness, while reminding us to be grateful for the everyday.

March 9, 2018

There is a murder in Rainbirds, and it’s certainly mysterious; but beyond that, banish any thoughts of a ‘murder mystery’. This is a book with drift.

It opens with post-grad student Ren Ishida transporting the ashes of his murdered sister, and then he drifts, passively, into her old life. He moves into her apartment in a small Japanese town, takes over her teaching job, even lies down on the path where her body was found. Clues to what happened float like those ashes on the wind, and Ren seems to experience life through a filter, a gauze. Hazy. Indistinct.

It may sound frustrating, but the effect is actually pleasantly hypnotic. Ren’s dreams are recounted more than once, and that dreamlike atmosphere soaks through to the rest of the book. It is sensory and compelling, and, despite the drift, there is a certain taut rope that tugs you through the shifting currents to the end.

February 14, 2018

There is much to admire in this book. I loved the Britishness of it: situations, places and character archetypes that are so familiar from real life, but so unfamiliar on the page. The characters are beautifully done; subtle and believable. I was thoroughly rooted in the Dad, Rob’s, blinkered viewpoint. I particularly appreciated the moral complexity of the character Nev. It’s actually a wonderful love story, and there is one especially moving conversation towards the end.

But this is a hard subject. Most people may find it sweeps them up, but personally I could never quite relax into it. The story follows Rob and Anna, who have an idyllic life with their son Jack, until Jack faints and their perfect bubble is popped. As the story went on, I generally felt more uncomfortable, than involved. Awkward, than emotional. This may be an irrational response, but I didn’t want my heartstrings tugged by this fictional child, when there are so many real ones in the same situation.

July 13, 2017

I cried on the first page of Together - how amazing to pack that emotional punch into so few words. But it’s appropriate to start sobbing, as this is a book written backwards. You meet Robbie and Emily at the end of their long romance, then trace back to its shocking beginning. You’re already invested, as you can see how much their love has weathered storms. In that respect, there’s a touch of The Notebook to it. But it’s clear that this lovely couple are keeping secrets.

There’s a certain jigsaw puzzle delight in working out how everything fits together and it’s very skilfully done. But while the backwards timeline works well as a breadcrumb trail of clues, I found the dangling of the ‘big secret’ slightly heavy handed. At the end, I felt more intellectual satisfaction as the last piece clicks into place, than the emotional climax I’d been expecting - my tears from the first page didn’t return at the end.  But the characters are wonderful, and the unusual format makes a fun read.

June 29, 2017

This is a love story, with believable time travel - so it’s already onto a winner. And it’s not just romantic love, but also mother/daughter and sister/sister love that seeps through the pages. It starts with Luna processing her mother’s suicide. Her mother has left video messages, explaining a traumatic event in her youth, and how she could never escape it. When Luna finds she can go back in time, she tries to change to past to save her mother.

It’s a sweet, engrossing, page-turner, and I was completely sucked in. Beautifully written and based on a wonderfully sad premise. I loved the action and the romance and the sisters, as well as the deft way Coleman dealt with the ramifications of time travel. But I felt the dark heart of Luna’s predicament could have been explored more. The tagline reads: “Luna is about to do everything she can to save her mother's life. Even if it means sacrificing her own.” But while that threat is ever-present, I wanted more from it.

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