This Little Bag of Dreams

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

Category: Books

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.

Lost & Found by Brooke Davis

Brooke-Davis-Lost-Found1

Lost & Found has been described by many as that ubiquitous thing, ‘quirky’.  Well, yes, it is certainly that, but it is also honest, funny, lovely and downright bizarre at times.  The main plot – small child is abandoned by mother – is pretty fairy tale in nature, and the quest on which the characters embark is also standard, but otherwise, I found this to be a delightfully unique read.

Millie Bird finds herself an ‘almost orphan’; her father is dead and her mother has left her in a department store, with only a little food and only a little hope that she will actually come back for her.  Luckily, despite what the makers of Father Ted may claim, she is discovered by the shop manager, and arrangements are made for foster care.  But Millie is no ordinary child, and refuses to go meekly and give up on her dream to find her mother.  Befriending Karl the Touch Typist, who spends his days lurking in the department store café, the enlist the help not only of ‘Manny’, an unsurprisingly mute mannequin, but also Agatha Pantha, a rather angry old lady who is housebound by choice since her husband died.

What I loved the most about Lost & Found was that honesty I mentioned earlier.  Davis doesn’t shy away from the taboo, and that is evident mostly in Millie, in the fact that her mother, usually the most important individual in a child’s world, has abandoned her.  But there is also love, and yes, sex, which can be extraordinarily difficult to write about well.  Yet Davis manages this with ease, portraying passion balanced with the inherent messiness of relationships.

Lost & Found is a fantastic debut, and I very much look forward to what Davis will do next.  Many thanks to Hutchinson for the review copy.

The A-Z of You and Me by James Hannah

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It only takes a few words to change your world.

Ivo lies in bed, refusing to see anyone.  He can’t help thinking of the past and all the mistakes he is unable to undo.  Once he had family, friends.  Once there was a girl.  But now there is nothing but endless days, and pain.  At least, the days can seem endless when you aren’t going anywhere.  For Ivo is no reclusive teenager, holed up in his bedroom listening to The Smiths.  Ivo is 40 years old, and he is in a hospice.

As today’s Guardian review says, it is difficult to get the balance right with a review of The A-Z of You and Me.  Inevitably, most reviews will mention that Ivo is dying, but to be fair, the reader realises this almost from the beginning.  Plus, integral to the plot as his demise is, his journey has almost ended when we encounter him; it is no plot twist.  Rather, to give prospective readers spoilers, I would have to say too much about Ivo’s relationships, particularly the ‘You’ to whom he addresses the novel.  Suffice it to say, they are as tangled as the crocheted knots in his precious comfort blanket.

Refusing these to address his relationships any longer by denying access to visitors makes Ivo’s days drag somewhat.  In order to appease his boredom, his ever cheerful nurse, Sheila, suggests that he plays The A-Z Game of the title: come up with a body part for each letter of the alphabet and tell a story about it.  Being a bloke, Ivo tends to go for the more smirk-inducing body parts, and the sections where he tells these stories make for light relief from the novel’s darker moments.  All I will add here is that Q was pretty interesting….

What is clever about The A-Z of You and Me is that Hannah doesn’t shy away from making his characters questionable.  Ivo is never cast in an idealised, Beth from Little Women light, nor do we judge him too harshly for his past actions.  Likewise, the ‘ You’ of the title, his former romantic interest, may be romanticised in Ivo’s memory, but she is certainly not half as popular with his friends. But that’s all you’re getting as I don’t do spoilers….

I really enjoyed The A-Z of You and Me.  Hannah is am accomplished novelist, and I look forward to what he does next.  Many thanks to Alison Barrow for the review copy.

The Last Days of Disco by David F. Ross



‘The room’s too wee! The room’s too dark! The cake’s no big enough! The bar’s got nae Pernod. The disco husnae turned up!’

For fuck’s sake, none of these things were his fault. Frank King was getting increasingly annoyed. He didn’t even want to be here, far less to have to deal with his daughter’s high-pitched carping. Anne had even made him wear a suit and tie. He felt as if he was going to court.

Remember being eighteen and wondering what the hell you were going to do with your life? Like a challenge? Then The Last Days of Disco is for you.

The reason I ask whether you, dear reader, like a challenge, is because initially, I found Ross’s use of Scots dialect, well, challenging (and it’s the reason I abandoned Trainspotting. Sorry, Irvine).  But please don’t be put off by it, because in continuing, you will discover a wonderful debut about adolescence, family, music, emerging sexuality and war. (Sex and death: what else is there?)

It is the morning after the night before. Bobby Cassidy, massively hungover, has received some rather unusual birthday presents. One, a rather unfortunate set of tattoos, will not be spoken of again. The other, a phone number on his leg, will set him off on a DJing adventure around Ayrshire (naturally). Whose number is it? What does the unfortunate tattoo say? Patience, guys! You’ll just have to read it, won’t you?

Of course, being young, Bobby and Joey, his DJing partner in crime, have little business sense.  By the time they’ve hired someone to get them to their gigs, help shift the equipment and ventured to Cold Comfort Farm’s Scottish equivalent to actually get the equipment (which makes for one of the novel’s most entertaining passages), they are left with less money than they started with.  But they have far bigger problems than being broke, and the main one comes in the shape of Fat Franny Duncan and his gang of cronies, who were, until Bobby and Joey turned up, the number one DJs in Ayrshire.  After all, if you can throw your rivals’ mate into the river, then what future awaits your rivals?

Just as you think things can’t get any more disastrous for our DJing couple, a family secret is uncovered which threatens to rock the Cassidy family to its core.  Worse still, Gary, Bobby’s brother, is called to serve in the Falklands, leaving behind not only a new relationship in London, but also a brother who may or may not have turned to crime, and a mother who may or may not be going crazy. 

The Last Days of Disco is a strange mix of drama and farce. From about halfway through the novel, the Eastenders-esque drum bash moments, revelations where your mouth will drop, come thick and fast. That said, Ross is the master of bad taste comedy. Fancy a children’s entertainer who makes phallic balloon animals? Or sex in a shed involving a dry ice machine? Honestly, they say you couldn’t make it up, but Ross really can.

I can’t wait to see the return of Joey in Ross’s next novel, and I’m hoping that some of the other characters join him for a boogie and a Pernod, too.

Thank you to Karen at Orenda Books for the review copy.