This Little Bag of Dreams

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

Category: Books

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!)

 

 

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. 

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.

 

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.

Blog Tour Day 8: Beyond the Sea by Melissa Bailey With A Guest Post From Melissa

9780099584957If I came face to face with a mermaid, I will hand her the jar, my heart bottled and    stoppered and offered freely.  And if she sees how much I love you, perhaps she shall speed me on my way.

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I’m so excited I’m not sure I’ll be able to sleep tonight.

I wish Mum could come with us.

But I can tell her all about it when she’s back.

Freya, grieving widow and mother, packs in her job and returns to the lighthouse-keeper’s cottage on the Scottish island where she, her husband and son, Jack and Sam, spent so many happy summers.  Her parents and sister are amazed at her decision; after all, it has only been a year since Jack and Sam went missing at sea, presumed drowned.  But Freya feels she must be near them, even if they are no longer here, as those of you who have grieved will understand.

However, despite losing the two loves of her life, Freya is not alone for long.  Soon enough, her foul-mouthed, fiercely independent sister Marta descends on her, and provides some much needed comic relief from Freya’s grief, which has supposedly turned her hair white overnight (flippant as it sounds, this was yet another thing which made me feel sorry for her).  Opinionated and straight to the point, she is the perfect foil to our introverted protagonist.  One of my favourite moments in the novel occurs when Freya and Marta have just visited Fingal’s Cave, one of the trips Sam and his father made and which Sam mentions in the diary Freya discovers.  Freya thanks Marta for accompanying her, to which she replies: ‘No problem.  It’s amazing.  As Sam said, even the guy who got nits still enjoyed the visit.  So it says a lot for the cave.’.

Another foil in the novel comes in the shape of Daniel, the haunted-looking man whom Marta and Freya rescue from his storm-wrecked boat one night.  Compared to Pol, the initially gruff but kindly man from the lighthouse board, and Callum, island tour guide who offers Freya a shoulder to cry on (and without whom the novel could have ended very differently), Daniel seems secretive and even offhand at points.  I was surprised somewhat at how suddenly his character changed, but arguably, he is the catalyst for Freya to accept that she cannot change the past, but she can, if not embrace, then at least hold the future’s little finger.

I underestimated Beyond the Sea initially; I dismissed the writing as too Anita Shreve, a bit ‘mid-brow chicklit’ (I appreciate that makes me sound like a book snob).  For the novel is beautifully researched (I loved discovering how Irish and Scottish folklore intertwine), and captures fictional grief as precisely as Cathy Rentzenbrink captures true grief in The Last Act of Love.  What’s more, how could I fail to love a story which brings to mind the great J. Alfred Prufrock?

 
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

To paraphrase the great Will Shakespeare, ‘though [it] be but little, [Beyond the Sea] is fierce’.

Many thanks to Melissa for the review copy and asking me to be part of the blog tour.

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And here’s a guest post from Melissa – enjoy!

My top five books

I hesitate to say that these are my five favourite books of all time – that choice is perhaps too difficult to make – but they are five of my very favourite books. So on that basis here they are:

  1. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. This strange and surreal tale follows the life of everyman Toru Okada, after first his cat, and then his wife, disappear. Okada’s mundane world, in which he cooks spaghetti, drinks beer and listens to jazz, is suddenly transformed by a succession of exotic and menacing characters who propel him on a dangerous odyssey of self-discovery. Set in contemporary Japan, still haunted by the brutality of its past, it is a tale of love and war, dreams and reality, of what has been lost and can never be recovered. It is a powerful, philosophical story, told in Murakami’s perfectly pared down prose. And I promise, if you read it, you will never look at a well in quite the same way.
  2. Under the Skin is Michel Faber’s first novel and has one of the most exciting opening chapters I’ve ever read. Isserley, driving through the Highlands of Scotland, in her decrepit little car, is eyeing up hitch-hikers. But not just any old hitch-hiker will do. She wants a buff one, a hunk on legs, as she says. What does she want them for? As the novel takes off, and that question is answered, the reader is taken on a journey they could never have predicted. A twisty turny sci-fi fantasy adventure, it’s a wild rip roaring ride.
  3. The Passion is my favourite of Jeanette Winterson’s novels. An eclectic blend of history, fantasy and dark fairy tale, it follows the intertwining paths of Henri, a young French soldier cook, tasked with satisfying Napoleon’s immense appetite for chickens and Villanelle, the web footed daughter of a Venetian boatman, who miraculously can walk on water but who has lost her heart to the mysterious Queen of spades. ‘Trust me. I’m telling you stories,’ is the self-referential refrain the characters repeat. And trust me when I tell you that this story of love, betrayal and passion, exquisitely told in Winterson’s spare yet poetical prose will not disappoint.
  4. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is one of the best ghost stories ever. At its heart is the governess, despatched to an isolated house in Essex, to care for two young orphans. She soon begins to suspect that the children are being haunted by the ghosts of her predecessor, Miss Jessel and her lover Peter Quint. Written from the perspective of the governess, the novel’s brilliance lies in the way it sheds doubt on the reality of the ghosts, questioning instead her sanity. James ratchets up the tension and the book’s thrilling denouement still haunts me to this day.
  5. Owen Meany, small in stature, with a damaged larynx and a permanently high-pitched voice, is the unlikely hero of my favourite John Irving novel (A Prayer for Owen Meany). At the outset of the book, Owen hits a foul ball at a baseball match, which accidentally strikes and kills his best friend’s mother. But Owen doesn’t believe in accidents. He believes he is God’s instrument. A story of faith, fate and friendship, comic and tragic by turns, this is a perfectly plotted novel in which the ending, although foreshadowed throughout, feels not predictable but simply inevitable. Irving himself said, ‘I have the last chapters in my mind before I see the first chapters…I usually begin with endings, a sense of aftermath, of dust settling, of epilogue. I love plot, and how can you plot a novel if you don’t know the ending first?’

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

 

VErsionsOfUsCover

 

It was as if she had been split into two, even three versions of herself – living, breathing simulacra – and lost sight of the original. 

The Versions of Us has been called the new One Day.  Well frankly – and don’t tell David Nicholls – I think it’s better than that.  (Plus I have great hopes that it will be made into a great film, unlike One Day.)

I was very privileged to attend the launch for Barnett’s debut at Daunt Books.  It was not only my first trip to this bookselling Mecca, but also the first time I had felt such a concentrated shock of love within one room for a book.  There was a very fitting sense that this much-awaited novel, fought over at auction by so many publishers, had been a long time coming.  (You will know what I mean by ‘fitting’ if you have read the book.  If not, what are you waiting for?)

The novel, as you might have guessed, tells three different ‘Versions’ of a relationship.  The ‘Us’ of the title is Cambridge students Eva and Jim, who meet by chance one day when a cycling Eva swerves to avoid a dog.  Thereon in, Jim and Eva’s lives are in some way intertwined, whether as acquaintances, lovers or spouses.

What I found particularly clever, and what made the novel far more plausible, was Barnett’s easy way of incorporating events in more than one version of the story.  For example, early on in the novel, in Version Two, Jim’s friend Peter tells him about a girl’s failed suicide attempt (she is saved by her ‘billowing’ skirts, which form a sort of ‘parachute’).  Much later on, the same story is told again, only this time, Jim merely overhears it in the pub, and yet the man’s face is strangely familiar to Jim.  This strange familiarity, or deja vu, which Jim experiences is something we have all felt at times, and emphasises just how true to life Barnett’s characters are.

My only quibble with The Versions of Us would be the concentration required to keep abreast of the three different versions.  So do not read this too late at night!

It’s difficult to say much more about the novel without giving the plot (or plots) away.  Suffice it to say, this is a truly sparkling debut, and the honesty and love within will break your heart not once, not twice, but thrice.

Many thanks to Rebecca Gray at Weidenfeld & Nicolson for the  review copy.

You can see the different covers Weidenfeld & Nicolson toyed with here and also a fabulous blog on how they decided on the final cover here.

There is an interview with Laura Barnett on the W H Smith blog which you may find interesting.

The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink

I had a brother. I learned about love by loving him. He had the first bits of my heart. He died.

I wanted this book to be a work of fiction.  It would make a wonderful, albeit incredibly sad, story. But unfortunately, it is true.  Fortunately for us, however, Rentzenbrink writes so gloriously that we are glad, for all its tragedy, that she has shared her story – Matthew’s story – with us.

It was a summer’s night in 1990, much like any other one for Cathy and Matthew Mintern, a sister and a brother with barely a year between them. They had worked a shift at their parents’ pub and then carried on the night at a disco nearby. The turning point for Cathy was when a friend offered her a lift home. With awful irony, Matty declined, saying that he ‘might get lucky’.  Barely a couple of hours later, he was knocked down by a car, and Cathy prayed that he would not die. Little did she know that death would be a better fate than what lay ahead for Matty.

For Matty did die – but only after the Mintern family brought a court order seeking permission to withdraw all hydration and nutrition. This was after 8 painful years of no progress, and their parents looking after him 24 hours a day for most of those 8 years.

This is a truly tragic, but nonetheless inspiring, story.  I am so glad that Cathy shared it with the world, that she realised it wouldn’t be ‘imposing…heartbreak’ on us, but rather encouraging others to share their own tragedies. What’s more, her writing is stunning, and I very much look forward to seeing what she does next. (I have a feeling it will be fiction.)

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