#Book Review: Peach by Emma Glass

peachSomething terrible has happened to Peach, but she just wants life to go back to normal.

Something terrible has happened to Peach, but her parents are too wrapped up in themselves and their new baby to notice it.

Something terrible has happened to Peach, so she cleans herself up and self-administers stitches, tries to ignore the stench of meat and oil that follows her everywhere, tries to ignore flashbacks of a strangers gaping mouth and sausage fingers.

This short powerful book is visceral. Several of the passages are painful to read, they are so harrowingly descriptive. Peach starts off in shades of Eimear McBride and ends up in shades of Beckett, while always holding its own distinctive style. It is utterly absorbing – the reader is sucked into the impressionistic world (Peach is soft and easily bruised, sweet baby leaves powdered sugar on the lips that kiss him…) without question. A heart-breaking examination of the traumatic aftermath of sexual assault, it is astounding that this is a debut novel. Not an easy read, but a hugely important one.

Peach will be published by Bloomsbury in January 2018. I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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The Signal Flame by Andrew Krivák – book review

The Signal FlameSet in a small town in Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains in 1972, The Signal Flame is a lyrical, quietly beautiful novel about a family awaiting the return of their youngest son from the Vietnam War. The family has just lost their patriarch, Jozef Vinch, who survived WWI as an Austro-Hungarian conscript and travelled to American to build a life for his family. If you have read The Sojourn you are already aware of Jozef Vinch, and of the power of Krivák’s writing – but this is not a sequel per se, and knowledge of the events of The Sojourn is not necessary.

“The trees were always the first thing his grandfather spoke of in the morning, weaving a forecast for the day based on the curve of leaves or a bird he might see nesting in the branches. Or he would tell a story that began with the planting of a particular sapling…its root pack bound in burlap and sitting in the front seat of his rig like a passenger…”

The Signal Flame centres on Jozef Vinch’s stoic grandson Bo is left to work the family’s 2000 acres of logging land and hope that this newest war will return his brother safely to him. However, Sam is MIA in Vietnam, and he has left behind a pregnant girlfriend – whose father killed Sam’s father in a hunting accident. This isn’t an action-packed plot fuelled rollercoaster – it is something more. I was utterly absorbed in this immersive portrait of a family and community in this wooded territory where the cycles of soil and weather set the rhythm of the days. There is a quiet dignity to the portrayal of grief, endurance, and the importance of forgiveness in The Signal Flame, and Krivák’s sense of pace and place is close to flawless. There is a lot of sorrow in this book, and perhaps January was not the best month to read it – so I have waited until now to recommend it to you. And I highly recommend it.

The Signal Flame is published by Scribner, who provided a free copy in return for an honest review.

Four short-ish book reviews (one is more a dire warning!)

Yet again, life has flared up in unexpected, time-consuming, sometimes work but often health related ways, so poor old Eats Plants, Reads Books has been neglected of late. I even let its one year anniversary pass unmarked *shameface* I’ll make up for it with a giveaway later in the year. I’m going to try out combined posts for a while – not just to clear the backlog, but to give shorter reviews a go, because as my lovely subscribers know I am normally a ranter! If you strongly approve/disapprove, lemme know in the comments*.

gallery-1466012493-emma-cline-the-girlsThe Girls – Emma Cline

This was one of the big hype books of summer 2016, and, ever the contrarian, this made me predisposed to dislike it. It didn’t help that press kept breathlessly hailing Emma Cline as the voice of her generation – making me think of Hannah Horvath in HBO’s cult hit Girls “”I think that I may be The Voice of My Generation… or at least a voice of a generation”.

Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get. The treacled pop songs, the dresses described in the catalogues with words like ‘sunset’ and ‘Paris.’ Then the dreams are taken away with such violent force; the hand wrenching the buttons of the jeans, nobody looking at the man shouting at his girlfriend on the bus.

Set in 1960s California, inspired by Charles Manson and his ‘Family’, The Girls is suffused in a sun baked headiness of social and sexual awakening. The book is told from the point of view of teenage Evie Boyd, who becomes embroiled in the cult not because of the cult leader Russell but because of her need to be accepted by his female followers. She sees them as impossibly cool and beautiful, and as her family falls apart Evie’s longing to be loved and accepted by these women is almost a physical need.  There is something languid, blurry, and vaguely stoned about the writing that captures the situation and time-period perfectly. In short – it turns out this was an increasingly rare case of justifiable hype. It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel, and I can’t wait to read more from Emma Cline.

Fates and Furies – Lauren Groff fates-and-furies-cover-image

This is another hyped book, that it took me a while to get around to because I couldn’t face another book described as the next Gone Girl. First things first – this book is not at all like Gone Girl. A book with different points of view on a marriage is not automatically like Gone Girl – just as, sadly, my dark hair and green eyes do not make me like Olivia Wilde.

As the blurb would have it – every story has two sides. Every relationship has two perspectives. And sometimes, it turns out, the key to a great marriage is not its truths but its secrets. Fates and Furies skips forward and back through the 24-year marriage of Lotto and Mathilde, telling the story firstly from his point of view, then from hers. Gone Girl fans who go in for the thriller pace and big twists are set up to be disappointed, as this book is more about subtle complexity and some truly beautiful writing.

Neither Lotto nor Mathilde are particularly likeable – they are beautiful, rich, privileged white people – but they are interesting, which is better. Reading this book is reading the same story twice, but the different viewpoint recasts everything you think you knew. Lotto is the ‘Fates’ seeing his relationship as a great love story; Mathilde the ‘Furies’ who has a surface that belies her true interior.

Fates and Furies isn’t the easiest read – if you want a turn off your brain thriller, you’ll find it hard work. However, once you get past the slow pace of the start, it becomes extremely rewarding – there is a reason Barack Obama named this his book of the year shortly after its release. It is a dream book for book clubs – holding a mirror up to real life in a way that is bound to get the conversations flowing at your BC meeting. If you have already read it – I’d be interested to hear if you are Team Lotto or Team Mathilde!

The_Blade_ArtistThe Blade Artist – Irvine Welsh

BEGBIE IS BACK!!! Ok, got that out of the way… but really that was my first, and repeated, thought when I first heard about this book. Franco Begbie is an electrifyingly realised amoral psychopath, undoubtedly Irvine Welsh’s greatest character (and brilliantly portrayed by Robert Carlyle in Trainspotting). But this is Begbie as we have never seen him before… now known as Jim Francis, he is a successful sculptor with a beautiful wife and two adored daughters, living the good life in California. He has had a lot of therapy (he is married to his art therapist from prison) and he has become skilled at anger management. He is also (as ever) played by Robert Carlyle in my head.

Begbie’s past actions are put in the context of being the anger response of the trapped working class with a horrifically violent childhood. As he works on his breathing to push down his anger, as he makes his art over Guns n Roses blaring, Welsh makes us wonder – has Begbie broken free of his conditioning into violence? Or has he learned a veneer of behaviour to hide his true nature?  The death of his son brings him home to Scotland, and it is here, in the face of the expectation of those who know him as a psychotic violence machine, not to mention the endless irritation of dealing with Tesco mobile, the Begbie we know and fear comes closer to the surface…  if you liked Trainspotting, you have to read this. If you don’t like Trainspotting – you won’t. If you haven’t read/watched Trainspotting – what have you been doing with yourself?!?!?! Rectify that, and then see advice above for The Blade Artist.

Behind Closed Doors – B A Paris Behind-closed-doors-cover

Oh jaysus. This book.

In general, I try not to be savage in my reviews. Books are subjective just like everything else, and even when something isn’t really my cup of tea I try to figure out who would enjoy it so I can pitch it to the correct audience in my review. I’m always very conscious of the time and effort an author put into their work, and small though my sphere of influence is I am always hesitant to be utterly damning. However, since this book is mystifyingly popular, I have no fear my unfettered opinion is snatching bread from the author’s mouth, and so can tell you I loathed it with a fiery passion and resent every second of time I spent between its pages. (I only finished it because it was one of my book club selections, otherwise I would have read 30 pages and then gifted it to someone I hated).

The entire plot is basically summarized in the blurb on the back, posing the question ‘the perfect marriage or the perfect lie?’ What a shocker – it’s the latter. Jack, the psychopath husband, is So Very Villainous I wouldn’t have batted an eye if he started ‘mwah ha ha’-ing into his elbow as he wrapped a cape around himself after a good old mustache twirl. This is not domestic noir, it’s pantomime – and his threats of ‘asylums’ belong in a Gothic novel, not a contemporary setting. This isn’t Gotham City, and besides Millie is a smart, capable girl with Downs Syndrome who attends a prestigious boarding school. Despite the borderline offensive portrayal of Downs in the book, Millie is still clearly more capable of adult functionality than Grace is. Grace, the trapped wife, is in her situation because of such abysmal life choices it’s impossible to pity her. Hot tip – don’t give up your career prospects, your family, your friends to focus exclusively on one person – anyone who allows you to do that, let alone encourages you to, is a controlling ball of negativity, and you will end up regretting it wholeheartedly. Always. Now take this universal advice to Grace’s extreme of choosing someone that you know for less than six months over your beloved sister for whom you are guardian. Then have that person vanish on your wedding night, and rock up the next day demanding you not make a fuss and you hand over your passport to him as you go on honeymoon. Sorry what? What?! “I can’t help thinking it’s a shame he’s such a sadistic bastard, because he has wonderful manners” – classic Grace. Honestly, I have nothing good to say about this, despite the piles of 5-star reviews from other bloggers (including ones whose opinions I usually value). I warn you you read at your own risk – and know before you do that Jack also horrifically kills a puppy.

*hmmm, these aren’t actually that short! Brevity never my strong suit – oh well. I received copies of The Girls, Fates and Furies and The Blade Artist from their respective publishers in return for an honest review.

The Countenance Divine – Michael Hughes

countenancedivine-3_921x1417_acf_cropped-666x1024I hate the word ‘compelling’ in reviews. It is to literary fiction what ‘stunning’ is to the wedding industry – but unfortunately sometimes it’s the word that keeps coming to mind. Michael Hughes’ debut novel The Countenance Divine is a compelling read: clever; multi-layered; riotous and occasionally hallucinatory. I suspect this book isn’t for everyone – if you don’t like David Mitchell you are unlikely to enjoy this – but I found it very rewarding. Please don’t hold the ‘compelling’ against it.

The book starts off straightforwardly enough, in London with mild mannered Chris in 1999. He is a computer programmer working to ensure the Y2K bug doesn’t bring about the end of the world as we know it. He tries to ignore both his growing attraction to his goth colleague Lucy (who kinda hopes the end of the world is nigh), and the return of his childhood belief that he is in fact the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Meanwhile, in 1888 women are being brutally murdered in the East End by a young man who writes graphic letters ‘from hell’ outlining his crimes. In 1777 an apprentice engraver, artist and poet called William Blake has a defining spiritual experience which leads him down an extraordinary path; while in 1666 poet and revolutionary John Milton sacrifices his eyesight and much more to ensure his name lives through the centuries by completing his epic Paradise Lost. All of these characters are connected through the age old fight between good and evil, between heaven and hell – and in other more concrete ways they could not have expected.

Chris is a lovely warm character, and his story was the one I connected with most because I was rooting for him. The Ripper letters are lurid, nightmarish, and convincingly capture the viewpoint of a disturbed, not very literate individual being manipulated by someone/something else. The William Blake story line was probably the least satisfying – although this is probably only because I’m a bit obsessed with William Blake! The collision of sweet simplicity and the unnerving supernatural does capture the spirit of Blake perfectly however… and indeed the Milton sections have him as the dry pain-in-the-hole he is in my mind! Fair warning though that the ending of the book is mildly unsatisfying, partly because of a slightly fumbled ‘catch’ of all the narrative balls in the air, partly because the distinct idioms of each of the timelines becomes cacophonous when the stories cleave together. This, however, is a relatively mild quibble about a deeply interesting book that could never have been heading toward a pat conclusion. If The Countenance Divine is a highly ambitious debut, it is because Michael Hughes is a considerable talent. Fans of Hilary Mantel and David Mitchell in particular would do well to check this one out.

The Countenance Divine is published by John Murray Ltd. I received a copy of this book in exchange for an impartial review