#Book Review: The Gingerbread House – Kate Beaufoy

the_gingerbread_house_1I read this little gem months ago and am shamefully only getting to writing the review now. This is a deceptively simple tale of teenage Katia, unable to help her family as her recently unemployed mother moves in with her aged grandmother as her carer to save money. We see the family through Katia’s eyes – how desperately her mother missed her father during the week; how cruel the toll of dementia is on an individual and their loved ones; and slowly as the book evolves we uncover another tragedy that sheds light on why a profound sadness is just below the surface in every interaction.

The Gingerbread House is gentle yet gripping – I had to find out what was going to happen, even though much of the book is a skilful capturing of moments and character development rather than driving plot. Little details are softly devastating “On the table next to her is a large-print book, a glasses case and a magnifier. Granny doesn’t read anymore, but she likes to pretend she can. She wears a wrist watch so that she can tell the time, but because she can’t decipher the numerals the time for Granny is always day or dark night or the dusky in-between”. Katia is a beautifully drawn character, and I loved getting to know her. This is a bittersweet, but ultimately life-affirming story, and I highly recommend it.

The Gingerbread House is published by Black & White publishing. I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

 

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#Book Review: The Many Selves of Katherine North – Emma Geen

9781408858431This book has such an original concept, so well executed, that I can’t believe I haven’t heard more hype about it. In a bleak near future, Katherine ‘Kit’ North is a nineteen-year-old woman who has been working for seven years as a phenomenaut. Her role is to project her consciousness into the bodies of lab grown animals to study creatures in their natural settings, and the ‘plasticity’ of brain required to do this usually only exists for a short time in young teenagers. When we first meet Kit, she is a fox, and throughout the book we experience several glorious sections of total immersion in another environment as Kit embodies creatures from whales to snakes. However, Kit has begun to have doubts about the ethics of her company, and embarks on a dangerous investigation in the ‘real’ world.

At the moment of projecting consciousness into another creature, phenomenauts experience ‘Sperlman’s Shock’ – a painful sensory overload and panic as they adjust to their new forms. One of the best elements of the book is the bleeding of the rich life of any other being to the paucity of reality for humans “where Sperlman’s Shock is temporary torture, Come Home is insidious chronic doubt”. Kit’s identity crises readjusting to the human world will resonate with anyone who struggles to feel at home where they are supposed to belong.

“I weave through the morning commute. The humans here always strike me as improbably perpendicular, every chin thrust out with the confidence of a silverback. What is it that gives them such assurance? As if they’re all alphas. A suited man jostles past and I bare my teeth at his glare. This is what the city reduces you to – meat, meat that’s in the way”.

The Many Selves of Katherine North is more of a psychological book than it is purely science fiction, but the best speculative fiction is always more than the setting. This is a skilful examination of empathy and the capacity of the written word (and perhaps ultimately technology) for embodied simulation. As Kit’s perception of the world begins to fragment, the narrative of course becomes more disjointed and paranoid – but in a completely convincing way. This book deserves to be more widely read, and I look forward to more from Emma Geen.

The Many Selves of Katherine North is published by Bloomsbury Circus. I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

 

Moonglow – Michael Chabon (book review)

26795307I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advanced copy of this book, but waited until I reread on holiday to review. I have to put in a disclaimer – I love Michael Chabon. Love him. Except Telegraph Avenue, the last of his I read before this. The problem with loving an author is that you get really nervous about their new books (what if I hate this one? What if I hate it so much it puts me off all the previous ones?!) and so I wanted to be sure that I really did love Moonglow and didn’t just feel relief that he had returned to glowing form.

Moonglow begins with an author’s note that states “I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it”. The book blends facts and fiction as a writer called Mike Chabon listens to the deathbed confessions of his grandfather in this novel/memoir hybrid that unfurls in no particular chronological order and plays with our perspective at every turn.

This is not a dry exercise in literary fiction however, showcasing technical skill with no soul. We come to care deeply for the characters, and despite hurtling from Baltimore to Florida to Germany to a New York prison, forward and back from the 1940s to the present, it all feels effortless and surefooted. Chabon has such a particular way of describing objects vividly, and occasional sentences that stop the heart “She was always threatening rain; he had been born with an umbrella in his hand”.

If I had to sum this book up in one word it would be ‘Chabonesque’ – a stunning return to form from one of my all-time favourite authors.

Moonglow is published by 4th Estate (Harper Collins). I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

A History of Running Away – Paula McGrath

41DUL6765KL._SY346_Three women: Jasmine, running away from her drunken mother in rural Ireland in the early 1980s; Ali, an American teenager whose mother has just died tragically, and an unnamed doctor in Dublin, torn between her career and her commitment to care for her elderly mother.  I’m not sure whether it’s a pattern becoming entrenched in writing generally, or just a fluke occurrence in many of the books I have read recently, but here we have another narrative following three different characters until it is revealed how their lives intersect. This book falls into this category, but while we might sometimes have preferences across three equal stories in this book it feels as though the author has a favourite child, and only Jasmine’s story is given sufficient room to breathe.

Jasmine’s story is rollicking, with tense and gritty scenes in London and Dublin, although there are shades of Million Dollar Baby in the boxing mentoring storyline that develops, and a coach who is a tad too pure and wise to ring true. The central female characters are the best written, but among the various people who cross their paths Aidan (a truly horrible, uniquely Catholic sanctimonious git) is particularly well drawn.  The scenes relating to the horror that is the mother and child homes that are a shame on Ireland’s history are also deftly evoked. While there are elements of this book I liked, it felt very uneven – much like an actual braid, if one of the three strands is thicker it all starts to fall apart.

A History of Running Away is published by John Murray. I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Fierce Kingdom – Gin Phillips

FIERCE-KINGDOM-DEMY-HB-REVISEI look forward to a time when the plot of this book seems insane and far-fetched, but that’s not the world we live in. I read this book in the shadow of an American mass shooting; and I write this review in the shadow of another. Always bigger, always worse, ever more common, ever more normalised – never once decried as terrorism by a nation who have covered themselves in true weapons of mass destruction. If I hear one more person with a platform to influence gun control sending “thoughts and prayers” to victims I think I’m going to lose my mind. But I digress.

Lincoln is a good little boy who loves the zoo. He’s four, so he doesn’t like the dinosaur attraction quite so much as when he was only three – he wants to hear about real animals, and figure out how everything works, and play with his superhero ‘guys’. His mother Joan always knew she would do anything to protect him… but never in her worst nightmares imagined she would have to protect him from something like this. As they make their way towards the exit of the closing zoo, shots begin to rain down into the crowd. Those who survive to flee back into the zoo begin to be hunted down one by one.

Fierce Kingdom is almost unbearably tense in places, and while the ending did seem rushed it was almost a relief that it was. My heart. I don’t have any children, but due to the skilful drawing of Joan and Lincoln’s relationship it reminded me of Room, as I wondered ‘what would I do?’. As a lone adult looking at the timeline of the book (set over a couple of hours) it seems like lunacy to risk being found to go looking for food, but as a mother trying to avoid explaining to her hungry child that he needs to stay perfectly silent or he will be another statistic murdered by lunatics it makes sense.

For a book set in a zoo there isn’t a lot about animals, but the setting couldn’t be more perfect. Innocent creatures, trapped behind bars, unable to be free and live their lives, being observed, feeling ever exposed and threatened. Unspeakable creatures, roaming free, who should be behind bars but will never be, picking off those they perceive to be weaker. I’d recommend Fierce Kingdom as a fast-paced topical thriller to anyone with an interest in the genre.

Fierce Kingdom is published by Random House. I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Some quick reviews for some quick reads

BeFunky CollageCan you Keep a Secret? by Karen Perry

The well written prologue of Can You Keep a Secret? sets the book in motion – Lindsey’s work leads her to the vicinity of Thornbury Hall, the now crumbling ancestral home of the Bagenal family. Lindsey used to be best friends with Rachel Bagenal, but twenty years ago, something happened to end their friendship. Rachel’s brother is now the caretaker of the estate, and Lindsey’s appearance prompts him to gather their old teenage group back together for one weekend before shutting up the house for good. But this reunion is going to uncover a lot of buried secrets…

The rest of the book is told in alternating chapters – now, and twenty years ago- and we are slowly drawn into the intrigue of what happened. Karen Perry is skilled at description (hypochondriacs beware, she will make you paranoid you have an eye tumour!). I really enjoyed Perry’s Girl Unknown and so I was looking forward to this. However, I never got caught up in this one – it was a slow burner, I didn’t particularly warm to the characters, and I guessed most of the plot. I didn’t dislike it, but I certainly wouldn’t rave about it either.

The One by John Marrs

The premise is simple. A decade after the discovery of a gene that everyone shares with just one person, a DNA based dating website has completely changed the world. One tiny mouth swab and you will find your perfect partner. The One follows the fate of five people who take the test – the scientist who discovered the gene; a graduate downhearted she had to move back in with her parents; a psychopath with a big project; a woman starting to despair she will never get her happily ever after; and a happily engaged man whose fiancée insisted they both take the test.

This is a really snappy read – five people, five stories, told in alternating short chapters each with a mini-cliffhanger ending. It’s next to impossible to put down – the chapters are short enough you will say ‘just one more’, but each chapter ending will make you say ‘just one more’ again. I read it in one sitting (or lying to be precise!) and it was a great holiday read. In the cold light of the next day I realised that the plots had gotten pretty ludicrous in places but you are highly unlikely to care when you are rattling through it. Great fun!

Skintown by Ciaran McMenamin

Set in a vividly captured Northern Ireland in the early 90s, this could well be a marmite book for readers … there’s some brutal and detailed descriptions of violence that aren’t for the queasy. Our narrator is 18 year old Vinny – expelled from school, getting stoned working in the local Chinese, drinking heavily, and getting into fights. Following a chance encounter with some drug dealers, we embark on a long drug fuelled adventure.

There are shades of Trainspotting here, and of 24 Hr Party People, but Skintown is very much its own animal. This is the type of story I am more likely to follow in film than in a book, so I had mixed feelings at times, but this is crying out to be adapted for the screen so can someone make that happen please? McMenamin has a gift for black humour and acerbic asides (“…takes a couple of plastic bags from behind the bar to the toilets and splits the drugs into two smaller prison sentences”) and this is a cracker of a debut novel with a distinctive voice.

My thanks to Penguin books for the opportunity to read an advanced copy of Can You Keep a Secret?; to Penguin Random House for the opportunity to read an advanced copy of The One; and to Random House Transworld for the opportunity to read an advanced copy of Skintown – all in return for an honest review.

Book Review: The Break – Marian Keyes

20767869_1939520436324407_7739785559456958976_nI was insanely excited to get an advance copy of Marian Keyes’ new novel The Break but as it arrived as I was packing to head off on honeymoon I thought it might be safest if I saved reading it until I got home! You see this book is about the difficulties of sustaining a long-term relationship, and what happens to a woman in her forties when her husband decides to take a break from their lives together.

Amy is working in PR, in a job simultaneously glamourous and not glamourous at all, and living a mostly contented life in Dundrum until her father-in-law dies and her husband declares he is ‘taking a break’ and vanishes to South East Asia for six months. A break isn’t always a break up… but a lot can happen in 6 months, and Amy is getting a lot of advice from opinionated family, friends and frenemies alike as the gossip ghouls sweep into her life “Never ask for whom the ‘U OK Hun’ tolls – it tolls for thee”. I’m not saying a word about the plot because I’m not a massive killjoy – suffice it to say that if her husband is on a break, you better believe Amy is too.

Ultimately, this is a story about what it means to stay in love rather than fall in love- and whether the enduring marriages of our parents generation are possible in our bonkers world. Marian’s signature warmth and humour suffuses The Break, turning what could have been a bleak navel gazing examination of the trials of blended families; affairs; bereavement; caring responsibilities; and unwanted pregnancy into a life-affirming feel-good read filled with wit and compassion. I would strongly recommend it for Amy’s parents alone (“BRING ME MY STICK! I’M GOING OUT TO LOOK FOR MY WIFE!”) and they are only minor characters. I devoured it over a weekend as I slumped in bed like a Victorian woman in need of some smelling salts, traumatised by the end of my holiday and my impending return to work – and even in my tragic self-pity I was reduced to snorts of laughter several times. It’s been a long wait for new Marian Keyes fiction – but it was worth it.

The Break is published by Michael Joseph (Penguin) and will be available in good bookstores from September 7th. I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.