This Little Bag of Dreams

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Blog Tour, Day 7: The Lido by Libby Page

Lido blog tour (002)

I have always wanted to go to a lido.

I know not why I haven’t.

There used to be one near me: Cliftonville Lido, in which Tracy Emin herself learned to swim.

But oddly, I don’t consider myself a particularly good swimmer.

I digress!  If you are a lido frequenter, or outdoor swimmer, or even if you can’t remember what chlorine smells like, you will find much of yourself in this delightful debut.  That’s the beauty of the novel: you can take from it what YOU want.  And that’s the way it should be: I’m not exactly shouting, ‘The author is dead!’ at you, as once was shouted at me in an Eton classroom, but the more scope there is for a reader to choose what to identify with, the better.  You may be a Kate; you may be a Rosemary.  You may be a George; you may be a Jay.  You  may be an Erin; you may be an Ahmed.

So The Lido – water novel! (Sorry, had to be done.)  Despite not being a massive fan of present tense prose, I adored this tale of journalist Kate battling loneliness in London.  Asked by her boss to cover the story of Brockwell Lido’s threatened closure, she finds an unlikely inspiration in the form of 86 year old widow Rosemary, who has swum at the lido all her life.  Slowly, she starts to live rather than merely survive: she cooks again, instead of preparing a ‘ping’ meal; she dips her toes, literally, in the lido; she throws herself into a cause bigger than herself.  And ultimately, that was the biggest success of the novel for me: that if you need saving, find a cause to fight for, and remember than only you can save you.

Anyone who has experienced the shakes, sweats and sheer terror of a panic attack will find consolation in Kate.  The fear grips her at the strangest of time and places, and that’s the thing about anxiety: it does not discriminate.  I have had a panic attack at work twice; the first time, I said I had toothache, the second time, I told no one.  Both times, I left and drove down to the sea.  Because it’s immensely comforting to find, at times of distress, something which is so much bigger than you and your anxiety, which has been there before you felt like this, and will be there afterwards.  Perhaps the sea is my lido.

But who is my Rosemary?  I had an actual Rosemary, in the shape of my A-Level Latin teacher.  She was frighteningly clever and Jean Brodie-esque, and I was one of her creme de la creme.  In some ways, she did a lot for me, but for reasons too private and complicated to mention here, she cannot be my Rosemary.  I’m going to swim against the tide here (sorry) and nominate my dad as my Rosemary.  He has been there for me at the best and the bleakest of times.  When I suffered crippling depression during my Finals, he came and slept on the floor of my poky university room.  When my heart was broken, he came and stayed at my house.  When I got a 2:1, he yelled triumphantly down the phone; the people of Coventry still complain of hearing problems.  My dad, who never had a dad and didn’t have much of a mother, has been there, unquestionably, all my life.

Thank you to Rebecca Gray at Orion for sending me the proof and inviting me to join this blog tour, and to Libby Page, who has stood up for all the infallible heroines.

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Fear by Dirk Kurbjuweit

Fear Dirk Kurbjuweit

You’d die for your family.

But would you kill for them?

Fear is a fascinating novel to read in today’s climate of gun debate, and if you are interested in the real-life background which inspired Kurbjuweit, there is a great Guardian article by him here.  The situation in the novel is, of course, totally different from America’s horror story, but the ‘us against them’ trope is firmly relevant here.  When we rely on the law to solve our problems and the law fails us, what do we do?

Randolph Tiefenethaler lives with his wife and two children in a Berlin apartment.  Their life is largely pleasant: they love their children and are comfortably off due to Randolph’s architecture career.  However, their neighbour in the basement decides that they are sexually abusing their children.  What’s more, he is also in love with Randolph’s wife.  They seek legal advice and tell the police; they also offer to buy the neighbour’s apartment.  We are always being told that ‘money talks’.  But in Fear, ultimately, money means very little: it buys you neither peace nor happiness.  But a gun? Now you’re talking.   But who is to do the murder?  Randolph, a father of young children, or his elderly father, an avid collector of weapons?

The Australian edition of Fear

The ‘monster in the basement’ is not only their stalker neighbour, but also a metaphor for the couple’s various fears: for Randolph, that he does not love his wife anymore, that she is, in fact, abusing their children, and that he is becoming his father; for his wife, that Randolph is an abuser, that he does not love her anymore, and that she will never craft out a career for herself.

I was hoping, from seeing the cover, that Fear would be more a fast-paced, than psychological, thriller, and for me, the twist was unsurprising.  But is remains an original and brave work.

Fear works backwards, much like Amis’s Time’s Arrow.  It is not so much a whodunnit, as a whydunnit – indeed, some might call it a whydidyounotdoitsooner?  You will have to read the novel and decide for yourself what you think.

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

Three Things About Elsie.jpgThere are three things you should know about Joanna Cannon.

1)  She wrote her first novel, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, on breaks from her psychiatrist job and at Crazy O’Clock in the morning.  Haven’t read it? Where have you been?!

2) She trained to be a doctor in her thirties whilst working in a pizza shop to support herself.  Yes, not only is she a sickeningly talented writer, she is brainy AF too.

3) Having been assessed by several professionals, it was found that she did not meet the criteria to be diagnosed with Difficult Second Novel Syndrome.

That’s right, folks – Joanna has done it again.  I was slightly concerned on seeing the novel’s cover, as a non-lover of Battenberg, that the marzipan-covered cake would play a central role in the book.  Also, given its setting in sheltered accommodation, would the novel itself be one giant Battenberg – pretty on the outside, but sickly sweet to consume?  I was wrong to have this fear.  For our protagonist, Florence, and her friends Elsie and Jack, are not remotely twee, nor is the mystery in which they find themselves.

The novel begins, like Eliot’s poem, at the end.  Florence has had a fall, and from her horizontal position, considers her life’s trajectory.   Most of her thoughts are about her childhood: her lifelong friend, the eponymous Elsie, who always knows the right thing to say, Elsie’s Old Woman in the Shoe style family, with her numerous siblings, and the tragedy with which she has still not come to terms.  Much of the novel’s humour derives from the setting, Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly, which, despite the name, has a distinct lack of fruit trees, a largely absent owner, the somewhat delicate Miss Bissell, and a typically patronising range of activities on offer (accordion afternoons, anyone?).  What cuts through the potentially all-consuming sentimentality is the arrival of a figure from Florence’s past.  Is he who he claims to be, or is he, in fact, the evil Ronnie Butler?  Florence, Elsie and Jack make it their mission to find out, a mission which takes them geographically to Whitby, and emotionally to hell.

Three Things About Elsie took me a few pages to get into.  But like an initially cool bed, once you warm up, you will cocoon yourself in its duvet and never want to leave.  Just make sure you take sweet tea and fig rolls with you. (I’m still not touching Battenberg – sorry, Joanna!)

 

 

Hot Mess by Lucy Vine

If you’ve ever woken up feeling like The Apex of Shite, next to a hungover questionable decision and the remains of a kebab, then congratulations, you are a hot mess.  Other telltale signs of a hot mess include supposedly sorted friends, a job which you are desperate to leave and a flat on a road which may well have inspired AC/DC’s Highway to Hell.  But do not fear!  Other hot messes are out there, most notably in the form of Ellie Knight, whom you will meet/drunkenly walk into in Lucy Vine’s debut novel, which, you’ve guessed it, just so happens to be called Hot Mess.

I’d been seeing a buzz build up around Hot Mess for a while, and follow Vine both on Twitter and through her gutsy Grazia columns, so was thrilled to receive a review copy.  And reader, from its hot pink cover to its porn-writing character (more on that later!), it does not disappoint.

Taking my copy to Brighton with me, I sat down at a dubious looking pub and gulped down half the novel, much like our hapless protagonist might down an Apple Sours.  It opens on Valentine’s Day, traditionally a day loathed by single people – hell, make that all SANE people – and Ellie is waiting for a date, arranged by her well-meaning but miserable sister, who never appears.  The novel continues in this vein, Ellie’s life, not measured out in Eliot’s coffee spoons, but in Tinder dates.  We meet her mostly hideous colleagues, at her mostly hideous job; we see her avoid her flat because it is unforgiveably hideous, and inhabited by a flatmate with a penchant for empty shower gel bottles.  What saves the novel itself from being unbearably depressing is how funny and relatable it all is.  Plus, Ellie’s widower dad’s homage to E L James, relayed to us in handy chunks, is hilarious.

And Vine nails it the whole way through, she really does: who hasn’t drunk-dialled a would be date, or slept with a housemate, or been harassed endlessly by their friends and family with the question, ‘Have you met someone special?’?  It gets right to the core of what it is to be human, in fact, never mind female and single.  Witness the scene where Ellie has fallen out with her best friend, Sophie, and Ellie’s acknowledgement of how awful it is that life goes on, despite dark times: it’s almost like life is mocking her.  Luckily for her, and for us, life gets bitch-slapped, and whilst she may still be hot at the novel’s end, she is no longer a mess.

Many thanks to Elaine Egan at Orion for the review copy.

 

The Man Who Loved Islands by David F. Ross – Blog Tour

‘Come on, man,’ says Bobby.  ‘Let’s fuckin’ go for it.’

‘How dae ye know this is whit he would’ve wanted?’ says Joseph. 

Max gets up and walks through into the main house, leaving the two other men on the stage. Darkness is descending outside, but not in Bobby Cassidy’s heart.

‘The words…his story, it’s aw there, man.  It wis you that showed me them!’

‘But they last sentences…the ones about killin’ somebody.  That doesn’t indicate happiness.’

‘The Man Who Loved Islands…it’s right there in the title.  He’s the man.  It’s him!  We’ve got tae dae it there!’ says Bobby.

 

I’ve always loved the parts of novels when you discover why they have that particular title: there’s something so satisfying about that mental click, that last piece of the jigsaw slotting into place.  I experienced a similar feeling when I finished the novel itself – The Man Who Loved Islands, that is – largely because it is the last in David F. Ross’s Disco Days Trilogy, which began, fittingly enough, with The Last Days of the Disco, which I reviewed here, and continued with The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas, which I also reviewed here.

When I started the Disco Days trilogy, I struggled with the Scots dialect, to be honest (which is basically why I’ve never read Trainspotting – sorry, Irvine).  I remember having a similar issue with the second novel, but for some reason, I had no problem with the dialogue in The Man Who Loved Islands (TMWLI).  I don’t know if that’s because I had got used to the Scots by this final novel, was familiar with the characters’ ways of speaking or Ross’s writing had reached peak excellence by TMWLI.  Perhaps it was a combination of all three. Anyway, dear reader, if you know what ‘ken’ means, you’re sorted (clue: the answer is in this sentence).

For those unfamiliar with the trilogy, or wanting to read the book independently, let me give you a bit of background.  Bobby Cassidy and Hamish May have spent 25 or so years living it up in Ibiza; Bobby as a DJ, and ‘Hammy’ as his ‘PA’.  However, Bobby is now bloated, out of work and basically an alcoholic, Hammy is in a wheelchair and they spend their days fighting.  Meanwhile, Joey Miller, Bobby’s lifelong best buddy, is in China writing and trying to escape his albatross of an architecture practice.  Bobby misses Joey, Joey misses Bobby, but both men are too stubborn to do anything about it.  It takes a woman on the run, Bobby’s dead brother, Gary, and a crazy idea to reunite them.

Like the trilogy’s previous books, TMWLI flits back and forth between decades – the 80s, 90s and ’00s, in this instance – and characters.  We have Bobby Cassidy, Lizzie King and Hamish ‘Hammy’ May in various parts of Spain, Joey Miller in China and then everyone reunited back in Kilmarnock at the end of the novel.  What I loved so much about TMWLI was Ross’s ability to marry absurdity and tragedy: to have middle-aged men’s ridiculous antics be such great bedfellows with deep human emotion is not an easy achievement, but achieve it he does.  Witness the two main male friendships in the novel, Bobby and Hammy, and Bobby and Joey.  Both sets of men fight frequently, sometimes over small things, sometimes over massive things, but they remain fiercely loyal throughout the book, and indeed their lives.  TMWLI is essentially a love letter to Gary, and as such, the novel culminates in an event dedicated to his memory.  But don’t get out your hankies yet, folks: Max Mojo is here to do some truly embarrassing television interviews, and ol’ dark horse Hammy has a Spanish mistress with some pretty inventive sex games up her sleeve……

Many thanks to Anne Cater for organising this blog tour and Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books for the review copy.

The People at Number Nine by Felicity Everett

Meet the new neighbours. Whose side are you on?

I have to confess: on first receiving The People at Number Nine, I was worried that I was about to read The Girl on the Train (TGOTT) No. 2.  Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, as I enjoyed TGOTT very much, but it’s hard to miss the number of thrillers which have been released in its wake, as publishers hope to capitalise on the success of its literary forebear.  Thanks are due to Everett, however, who not only has chosen to branch out and use the term ‘The People’, as opposed to ‘The Girl’, in her title, but who has also written an unmistakably great thriller.

What I love about this book is the buzz it has already generated on Twitter (think what will happen come publication day: there will be a whole swarm of booky bees gunning for Gav and Lou, or slagging off Neil and Sara!).  Just last night, I was debating with several people about which side I was on, and it was so interesting to see who supported whom, and the topics which came up: parenting, home education, pretentiousness.

So we have two couples: firstly, Sara and Neil, a copywriter and a housing association CEO respectively.  Secondly, we have Gav and Lou, and their lovable children, Dash, Arlo and Zuleika. (Yes, Zuleika, last seen in the title of a Max Beerbohm novel circa 1910.) Gav and Lou are artists, darling: Gav’s medium is plaster, and possibly paperclips, and Lou’s is short film.  In their favour, they bring joy and vitality to Sara’s and Neil’s lives; previously, the only friends they had were dull Carol and duller Simon.  But that, to me, is their only plus point.  Reader, they are UNBEARABLY pretentious.  Their kids’ names, their jobs, their deliberately shabby house all suggest  that they think they are better than everyone else.  What’s more, they see nothing wrong with using Sara and Neil for free childcare and a loan for Lou’s film, and as a substitute school.  Their behaviour, quite frankly, borders on child abuse at times.  And it gets worse……

Many people have come out and said on Twitter (listen to me, talking about these characters as though they were real!) that they think Sara and Neil are worse people than Gav and Lou.  They feel that the former couple are, in fact, the pretentious ones, whereas at least the latter do not lie about just how crap they are.  But reader, it doesn’t really matter whose side you’re on…..as long as you pick one, and get talking about this book!

My only criticism about The People at Number Nine is that, at times, the writing felt a bit self-conscious.  But otherwise, this is a very fine thriller.

Many thanks to Kate Mills at Story HQ for the review copy.

 

The Trophy Child by Paula Daly

UK edition

Rewind four years, back to when I was a Waterstones assistant manager, and I remember cheerleading Paula Daly’s debut, Just What Kind of Mother Are You? (JWKOMAY). Well, Daly has done it again with her latest novel, The Trophy Child.  Once again, missing persons is her theme, but do not fear: this is not the same novel.  Despite being as compelling as JWKOMAY, you are in for a treat with some brand new characters and story lines.

All the same, familiarity is a nice foil to crime.  So it is good to see old faces reappear from JWKOMAY and Keep Your Friends Close, including DC Joanne Cunliffe (as likeable as ever and now a DS) and her weight-obsessed aunt, Jackie.  That said, despite this continuity in characters, there is no need to read Daly’s work in order.  (Yes, reader, you are free to read whichever one you like first.  And in this world, with its increasing lack of freedoms, THAT is a privilege.)

So, just to confirm:

  1. The Trophy Child does not ruin your fun by being the third novel in a series.
  2. But Daly does have some other fab novels to discover once you’ve read it.

Right, then.  Let us resume the task at hand.

US edition

The Trophy Child, as the title suggests, explores the effects a pushy mother can have on a child.  Bronte Bloom – and let’s face it, no ordinary parent would christen her child BRONTE – is ten years old and her mother, Karen, has imposed on her harp lessons (yep, you read that correctly), extra Maths, dance, drama and a veterinary degree (ok, one of those is incorrect).  Karen’s husband, Noel, is a GP who not only works long hours, but also prefers to extend his working day by doing overtime (read ‘going to the pub’ for ‘doing overtime’).  Noel tends to leave the parenting to Karen, and poor Ewan, Karen’s 19 year old son from a previous relationship, tends to get forgotten altogether.  The novel starts in the aftermath of Karen’s stepdaughter, Verity, attacking her, and oddly enough, relations between the two are a bit frosty.

But The Trophy Child is not about Verity’s attack on Karen.  Rather, it is about Karen’s relentless ‘attack’ on Bronte, seeking constantly to improve her instead of letting her enjoy her childhood.  And when it is perceived that this tiger mothering has gone too far, Bronte suddenly goes missing……..and soon afterwards, so does Karen.

I enjoyed this novel immensely.  Daly’s style of writing is so natural, and she has the ability to notice the quirks of human behaviour which go unobserved by most authors.  Some people may identify with Karen, although most will find her unbearable, both as a wife and a mother (I know that I was hoping for her downfall, but maybe that’s just me….).  As usual, the other characters are harder to place in terms of morality, which is what makes Daly’s work so true: they are all human and they all make mistakes.

Thank you to Alison Barrow at Transworld for the review copy.

 

Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley

 

lily-and-the-octopus

UK edition

Do you like talking dachshunds?  Is your evening incomplete without a furry companion with whom to while away the evenings, devouring pizza and fighting over who gets to pick the Monopoly car?  Have you been heartbroken recently, or enough that the mere thought of that person still makes you shiver in remembrance?  Well, then Lily and the Octopus is for you.

To be honest, you don’t even need a pet to appreciate this fantastic debut, which has style as well as the all-important substance (check out the gorgeous moody sky blue ribbon bookmark on the hardback).  Granted – and I don’t want to give too much away here, so no spoilers! – it took me a while to get on board with Rowley’s inventiveness, but stick with it.  Trust me, the ride is worth it.

lily-and-the-octopus-2

US edition

I want to tell you just enough to make you want you to read this, and not so much that I ruin it for you.  So meet Ted, a single lonely screenwriter, for whom company consists of his dachshund Lily and a tub of peanut butter ice cream (I presume that there are elements of autobiography here). Ted is trying to get back in the dating game after splitting with his partner, Jeffrey, but his attempts are unsuccessful, and it is telling that much of the novel consists of flashbacks.  Indeed, it is only when the octopus appears that Ted is forced to start giving some real thought to his future, and who might be in it.

So, what is this octopus?  Wrong question, reader – you must discover it yourself.  But suffice it to say, that if you like funny books (and if you don’t, that’s pretty weird) and cute dogs, then you will love Lily.  I’m just debating whether or not it’s wise to lend it to my dachshund-devoted cousin (she had six at one point)……..

Many thanks to Sara-Jade Virtue at Simon & Schuster for the review copy.

P.S.  I want a dachshund now.  Damn you, Steven Rowley.

 

 

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Above left to right: Australian cover and UK cover

Lizzie Borden took an axe,

And gave her mother forty whacks

When she saw what she had done,

She gave her father forty-one

Myra Hindley, Mary Bell, Lizzie Borden: history is positively brimming with murderous women.  Of course, there are plenty of male butchers too, but nothing quite fascinates us like a woman who has killed.  Why should it be any different?  Surely male and female murderers should have equal rights, and equal gruesome obsession attributed to them?  But they don’t*: it is Hindley on whom an artwork is based, and it is Lizzie Borden who is the subject of Sarah Schmidt’s disturbing debut novel.

Something is rotten in the state of Fall River, and it isn’t just the pears Lizzie Borden is devouring.  No, murder most foul has been committed; ‘Someone’s killed father’, as Lizzie shouts to the maid.  But, oh no, it isn’t just Mr Borden lying ‘cut’ on the sofa, with an axe, as the old rhyme goes, for Mrs Borden has also been murdered.  Whodunnit?  The maid, Bridget?  The uncle, John Morse?  For no one was ever convicted of the killings (only Lizzie was ever on trial), giving writers and directors ripe material for novels and television adaptations.

Madness is as compelling to watch as murder, and it plays a huge part in See What I Have Done.  Lizzie is clearly suffering from attachment disorder, as she misses obsessively not only her long dead mother, but also her sister Emma, who has moved elsewhere to escape the oppressive 92 Second Street.  Moreover, her behaviour is not typical of a recently bereaved daughter or innocent woman; Bridget testified that she heard Lizzie laughing from the top of the stairs around the time of Abby’s murder, and she was reported by police as being calm and confident when questioned.  Schmidt plays on these facts, and presents to us a Lizzie who is both eerily girlish for a woman in her thirties, and clearly suffocating her elder sister with her need for love and company.  In her defence, however, the Borden household is anything but a happy one, and I wonder if the historical allegation that Andrew Borden abused Lizzie may  well be true.  What’s more, Bridget is saving her salary to find a new employer, and Abby is evidently reliant on her for emotional support as well as household duties.

So do we find out who killed the Bordens?  Well, of course not, dear reader, but that’s not the point.  What we do get from the novel is the confirmation that Andrew Borden was both thrifty to a fault and greatly envied in Fall River for his wealth.  We also get a good flavour of Lizzie (hopefully not reeking of rotten pears and mutton stew, for all of you with weak stomachs) and perhaps that’s all we can ever get, given that she said so little herself about the murders.

I found See What I Have Done an immensely compelling read, full to bursting with blood, guts, weirdos and rotting food.  As Georgina said to me, you will never eat mutton stew again!

Many thanks to Georgina at Headline for the proof copy.

*Yes, yes, I know, people are fixated on Jack the Ripper too.

Himself by Jess Kidd

It is a tremendous privilege to review the wonderful Himself on publication day.  And what better time to discover this fantastic debut, immersed as it is in the dead and a forest borrowed from the Brothers Grimm, than a dark autumn evening?

The story begins in that same forest in 1950 and then fast forwards to 1976, just like two other wonderful recent novels, Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions For a Heatwave and Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble With Goats and Sheep.  Furthermore, like those two novels, there is a mystery to be solved. The mystery relates to the parenthood of one Mahony, who arrives dirty and hippyish from the streets of Dublin with only a note and a photo as proof of his origins.  The villagers are adamant that Orla Sweeney departed Mulderrig twenty six years ago in the direction of Ennismore, and they will hear no more about one who, with her brazen ways, was so unpopular.  But Mahony and the eccentric old Mrs Cauley believe differently.  What happened to Orla? Did she leave Mulderrig alive? And if not, who killed her?

Himself is a truly stunning debut. Kidd’s writing is humorous and delightful; it’s original whilst still maintaining that beautiful Irish intonation.  If you like Angela Carter and Roddy Doyle, you will love this.