This Little Bag of Dreams

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

Category: Book review

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. 

Today Will Be Different: Maria Semple Q & A, Review and Giveaway

Hello all!  I am very excited about this blog post.  Not only am I reviewing Maria Semple’s new novel, Today Will Be Different, I am also posting a Q & A with the author and giving all you lovely readers a chance to win a copy of the novel.  All you have to do is RT my tweet today mentioning the giveaway, so keep an eye on my feed: @AmyPirt.

So, to start with, here is my question to Maria:

maria-twitter-graphic-amy-pirt

And here is her answer:

Because it’s mine for the taking. I write my first drafts in a fevered rush. I don’t keep notebooks of ideas and observations to draw from. I’d say half the details in Today Will Be Different I threw in because they happened or occurred to me that day. If I didn’t set the novel in Seattle, it would be stripped of caprice and vitality.

If this Q and A has whetted your appetite and you fancy finding out just why Today Will Be Different, why not read my review of the novel below?

Today Will Be Different will appeal to all of you who wake up every day, vying that today will be the day you actually live out the #MotivationalMonday quote you post, that today you will complete your to-do list, that today you will be Wonderwoman.  And whilst I hesitate to designate books to particular genders, Today Will Be Different will certainly appeal to mothers, sisters, wives and partners, because Semple nails exactly what it is to be a woman today.  Because, despite the triumphs of feminism, it is still women who feel they have to try harder, and it is still women who shoulder the burden of the past more than men, arguably. (But do feel free to argue with me about that; I love nothing  more than a debate).

The novel starts and ends in the same way: our protagonist, Eleanor Flood, determines, in the words of the title, that, ‘Today will be different’.  She will, in essence, be the perfect woman: a great mother, a great lover and her ‘best self’.  Whole industries have been built around women’s desire to be the best in all their incarnations; magazines, books, websites, personalities.  Witness Sheryl Sandberg, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marissa Mayer.  And to me, this is so clever, because despite the journey on which Eleanor goes and the knowledge she acquires, in some ways, she does not change at all.  For she is still that perfectionist woman at the end that she was at the beginning.  The woman who believes that she must constantly be all things to all people.

Like Ulysses, Today Will Be Different takes place over a single day, but it recalls things from Eleanor’s past which inform her present, such as her unpublished, autobiographical graphic novel, The Flood Girls, and her complex relationship with her sister, Ivy.  There are points where I would have liked the novel to be a little sleeker, but the sheer originality, bizarreness and truth of it all more than made up for this.

There are several mysteries in Today Will Be Different: where is Eleanor’s husband Joe and why is he not at his office?  Why does Eleanor not speak to her sister?  Why does Eleanor hate her ‘friend’, Sydney Madsen?  And why is her son called Timby? (Sorry Maria, but that is a bizarre choice, even in America!)

I must say, I struggled with Semple’s style at points, and it took me a while to get into the novel and to warm to Eleanor.  But I ultimately loved this novel about sisters, marriage and motherhood.  Semple’s observations and stunning and so true:

I knew then: if under all anger was fear, then under all fear was love.  Everything came down to the terror of losing what you love.

Many thanks to Rebecca Gray at Orion for the review copy and chance to be part of this blog tour.

 

Blog Tour: Wicked Game by Matt Johnson

  

As Costello watched the scene, he smiled.  It was a twisted, sadistic expression.  The smile of a killer experiencing a cruel sense of satisfaction at a job well done.

I’ve got to be honest: Wicked Game is not a novel I would normally pick up. I think we all have ideas of ourselves when we walk into a bookshop; I tend to head for anything looking quirky and a bit obscure, a bit Iris Murdoch. So I’m really glad that I was asked to read Matt Johnson’s debut novel. Not only did it totally destroy my pretentious, narrow-minded idea of what I ‘should’ be reading, it also allowed me to become more familiar with PTSD, which interests me as I work in and am passionate about mental health.

Wicked Game begins in India, and the setting as well as the style reminded me of an earlier Orenda Books novel I reviewed, The Abrupt Physics of Dying.  Johnson artfully and yet sparsely sets the scene, masters the foul-mouthed conversation of two middle-aged men and, setting the tone for the rest of the novel, throws in a surprise just when you think you know what is about to happen.  Just as you get acquainted with one set of characters at a particular time, the scene switches to another decade and another country.  

I developed quite a fondness for the novel’s protagonist, Bob Findlay. Ex-SAS, he attempts to shed his past and find a role which fits in better with family life, and so he becomes an Inspector in the Met Police. But of course, there is a catch: Findlay’s past is about to come after him.   As not one, but two colleagues from his SAS regiment are murdered, he realises that he is likely to be next. Yet who exactly wants him dead? Is it a forgotten enemy from the Iranian Embassy siege? Is it an MI5 acquaintance? Or is the truth, in fact, much more complicated?

I devoured Wicked Game on a gloriously silent April afternoon.  I hope you too will devour it (even if, like me, you’re a sucker for Iris Murdoch).

Many thanks to Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books for the review copy.

 

Blog Tour: The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas by David F. Ross

  
  

On Christmas Day, 1995, The Miraculous Vespas appeared on the live festive edition of Top of the Pops.  After more than ten years in the musical wilderness, the band’s re-released, remixed debt single ‘It’s a Miracle (Thank You)’, was back in the UK Top Five……

Those of you who have read David Ross’s debut, The Last Days of Disco, will already be familiar with some of the characters in The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas.  However, Vespas, as it is not a sequel to Disco, but rather a parallel story, can be read independently without prior knowledge of Disco being required.

The novel begins with an interview with the manager of the eponymous band, The Miraculous Vespas, the pretentiously named Max Mojo.  Mojo is certainly the quirkiest character in the novel.  As a result of an attack, he has developed a combination of what appears to be Tourettes and schizo-affective, and is pretty rigid when it comes to control of the band and its image.  In terms of structure, the novel alternates between the band’s infancy in 1982 and the interview, which takes place in 2014.

Those of you who are unfamiliar either with Ross’s earlier work or Trainspotting, for instance, may struggle initially with the Scots dialogue, but do read on: there is both much humour to be found in the rise and fall of the band, and darkness in the shape of Alzheimer’s and gang warfare.

I enjoyed Vespas enormously; Ross expertly details the pitfalls of being in a band, namely playing grotty venues and being the support act to a nobody.  He also doesn’t shy away from depicting the realities of teenage love, as proven in the love scenes between the band’s lovebirds, Maggie and Grant.  Moreover, it was good to see the return of Disco’s lovable rogue, Fat Franny Duncan, battling to find who has stolen his money and unsuccessfully trying to get his girlfriend to move in with him.

Many thanks to Karen at Orenda Books for the review copy.

The Followers by Rebecca Wait

The Followers

Stephanie, a single mother, lives a dreary existence with her daughter Judith.  Working in a coffee shop and getting pissed every so often is, it would seem, as exciting as it will ever get for Stephanie.  Meanwhile, Judith, her precocious 12 year old, goes to school and has her friend Megan round for tea.  A future lawyer in the making, she is always asking questions.  And that endless curiosity which children have, which most adults sadly lose, is really what is at the crux of The Followers.  If you stop asking questions, you lose not only that curiosity, but also self esteem and identity.  You stop thinking your voice deserves to be heard.  You become vulnerable to those seeking followers.  And what does a manipulator, a leader of cults, need but recognition and worship from such followers?

Enter gorgeous and charismatic Nathaniel.  Everyone in Stephanie’s coffee shop fancies him, but it turns out he only fancies Stephanie.  They begin to date, and soon he makes an offer to Stephanie of a new life for Judith and her.  But there’s a catch: they must leave their old life behind.  Forever.

Once they arrive at the Ark, Stephanie, being needy and vulnerable, adjusts fairly well.  Despite questioning the fact that the women never leave, and that Nathaniel appears to have clandestine night time activities, she soon learns to stop asking questions.  Judith, however, is not so ready to accept this new life.  She refuses the new name she is offered, makes only a feeble attempt at adopting the Ark’s zealous religiosity and even tries to run away.  What’s more, the arrival of Judith and Stephanie sets in place a chain of events, the repercussions of which both women will struggle with for years.

I had never really thought very much about cults before I read this book.  Sure, I’d heard of Charles Manson, and I remember vaguely some plot involving cults on Eastenders years ago.  But Wait has proven to me in this novel that despite there being nothing glamorous or heroic about them, anyone can fall victim to their charms.

I devoured the final 2/3 of The Followers today, and my partner will testify to the fact that I’ve not talked so much about a novel for ages.  This is even better than The View on the Way Down: I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Many thanks to Francesca Main at Picador for the review copy.

The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas

The Seed Collectors‘I have no idea why everyone thinks nature is so benign and glorious and wonderful.  All nature is trying to do is kill us as efficiently as possible.’

I could easily do a one line review, Twitter-style, for this novel: Like sex and plants?  Then you’ll love The Seed Collectors.  (Fear not, at no point in The Seed Collectors do carnal relations between humans and plants feature.  That would be a mite odd, even for Thomas.)

But a one line review would fail to do justice to this dazzling novel.

The eponymous Seed Collectors were Grace, Plum, Quinn and Briar Rose: Clem’s and Charlie’s mum, Bryony’s parents and Fleur’s mother, respectively.   They went missing on an expedition in the Eighties where they were trying to find a miracle plant.  But this novel is less about these Seed Collectors, and more about their children and their children’s children: in other words, it is less about their lives, and more about their legacy.  And what ‘legacies’ they are: Clem is, like Thomas, a university lecturer, who was Oscar-nominated for a film about the walking palm; Bryony is, rather less interestingly, an estate agent and part-time literature student; Charlie is a botanist who works at Kew; and Fleur runs Namaste House, a celebrity retreat.  Successful as they all are, like nature, they are not as pretty and glossy as their surfaces initially suggest.  Underneath it all, they are fickle, vain and rather quite nasty at points.  It is to Thomas’s credit that, despite her characters being intensely unlikeable, the novel is nevertheless a great success.

I read an article in the Guardian weekend a few months ago in which Thomas detailed her increasing obsession with her Fitbit.  Surely, herein lies her inspiration for her Madame Bovary-esque character, Bryony?  Conversely, however, it is not fitness Bryony is obsessed with, but food – and shopping. (I’m guessing she’s seen the magnificent play, Shopping and Fucking.)  In my favourite scene in the novel, she embarks on a post-prandial, drunken shopping spree which culminates in a rather hot scene in a Southeastern train toilet (I’ll let you read it, rather than reveal anymore.  Let’s just say, you’ll never look at those loos in the same light again.)

My one issue would be that, as with Laura Barnett’s fantastic debut, The Versions of Us, I had to keep flicking back to the family tree at the beginning to remind myself who people were and how they were related.  (N.B. There is a more accurate family tree at the end – but no peeking!)  But then, social media has arguably addled my brain.  Clearly, this is never an issue for this original, and shocking as ever, writer.

Many thanks to Anna Frame for the review copy.