The Vanishing – Sophia Tobin

51cdq2vnfvl-_sx328_bo1204203200_The Vanishing is another book that I’ve been waiting to come into paperback for ages. It looks exactly up my street: Victorian era, the Gothic, moors, a wealthy family, dark secrets – what’s not to love? I had made plans to purchase it on my next trip into Birmingham but I came upon it in a local Tesco, a single copy waiting on a shelf just for me, so I snatched it up.

I settled myself down on a dreary Saturday morning and started to give myself over to Miss Annaleigh Calvert, a Foundling who grew up in London and was adopted by a Painter and his family. As her life becomes more romantically entangled she is sent to Yorkshire to work as a housekeeper for a wealthy family.

For the first hundred pages or so I found the characters really hard to connect with, and for a book that had promised me so much in the way of dark secrets and lies, there wasn’t really much going on. Annaleigh is the main character and the narrative is told first person through her eyes. She’s an interesting character, though I found that I didn’t really connect with her straight away and although awful things do happen in this book, I had to force myself to care. Her upbringing as a adoptive child is quite rare in Victorian society as most children are just ‘taken in’, and it gives a good perspective of someone caught between two families, who doesn’t really fit into either.

Miss Calvert ends up in the employ of the Twentyman’s, also originally from London but retired from the city. The introduction of the looming character of Marcus Twentyman, master of the house, is probably the first time I started to feel the book turning sinister. He emanates fear and danger and at every meeting you’re really urging Annaleigh to run away from him. His sister, Hester, is probably the character I feel the most sorry for, as she is a reflection of all the women who were trapped by the ideas and morals of men.

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Perfect – Cecelia Aherne

This review may contain spoilers for the first book, Flawed.

51zieaqoswl-_sx324_bo1204203200_I first read Flawed about two years ago while I was selling books at The Rep in Birmingham, and in between showings I absolutely devoured it. I wasn’t expecting to like it; a colleague had recommended it to me and I thought I’d give it a go. I was going through a stage of thinking that 99% of YA dystopian novels are exactly the same plot written under a different name (I’m still partly thinking this), and I’m not going to pretend that Flawed breaks the mold, but I couldn’t help enjoying it.

I waited an age for this, the second book in the duology, to come out in paperback and it’s is just as thrilling as the first. Celestine North is still in hiding from Judge Crevan and the rest of the government. Her face is everywhere and she’s dangerously close to being caught. Luckily for Celestine, she has a fantastic cast of fellow evaders behind her at every turn. Most of these are bit characters but they managed to make exciting what would be lulls in the narrative. This team is headed up by Carrick, who we are introduced to in the first book. I actually quite like him, and although it feels that every story in this genre has to have a central love story I actually didn’t hate it.

Celestine is a good character, too. She’s not your usual selfish girl, with a ‘woe is me’ narrative – she’s actually quite humble. There are times when she could have had a power trip, and although she’s incredibly naive at times, there are also moments of insight. I think mostly she’s normal, and that’s actually rare for this genre. However I did tire of hearing about her sixth brand quite early on.

There are parts that really tried to push beneath the very plot driven narrative, to talk about what it is that makes us human and how our flaws are important. I’m cringing a little saying that because it really isn’t a morality tale no matter how much it, ironically, talks about morality. I can’t say that the book is anything more than a really enjoyable story, and that’s no a bad thing. There was a faint echo of 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale in the air but obviously comes no where near to making the same points. I’m actually glad that it doesn’t really try to carry a message because it would detract from the plot, which is its best feature.

The pace of the book is what makes it such a winner. I read the whole thing over a few hours on a lazy Sunday. There are so many twists and turns, and the short chapters make the writing even more punchy. I highly recommend this to anyone who needs to escape for a few hours and likes a story that will help you lose the world.

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The Sacrifice Box – Martin Stewart

51wictpwi5l-_sx324_bo1204203200_Set in the 1980’s on a vague island off the mainland, which I guess to be Scotland, although it’s not implicitly said. The story follows a group of young people, who a few Summer’s before had chosen to each leave an item in the Sacrifice box; a stone chest half buried in the middle of a forest. Each speaks the rules, but who goes on to break them?

The Sacrifice Box is wonderfully reminiscent of Stephen King, though much more light hearted. There are elements of the horror that is Pet Semetary but more so the friend group in IT. The ‘banter’ the kids have is simply hilarious and their punchy little one-liners never failed to make me laugh. The whole atmosphere of the book is steeped in 1980’s nostalgia and as someone born in the 80s I was immediately thrown back to the things that we still popular when I was young.

The plot builds nicely, mainly focusing around the experiences of Sep, but intersected by strange little vignettes. It starts off by being simply eerie, and becomes an absolute whirlwind of crazy. Each chapter makes you want to move on the next and I found it really difficult to put down on an evening.

The characters were well drawn and I could easily see them in a Stranger Things type show, each interaction they have rounding them more. They’re all quite vile to each other at times and it nailed my experience of school life completely. The narrative quietly makes that point that childhood doesn’t change that dramatically from generation to generation and that no friendship is ever perfect. I was really on board with Stewart’s writing style and didn’t even roll my eyes at the ridiculous nicknames that every character seems to have.

The humour is offset by some of the truly awful and horrific events that happen to and around the kids, to the point where I wanted to tear my eyes away from the page. I certainly had to put my childhood teddy bear in a box with a heavy lid for awhile. For those who are wanting to read more horror this year I would highly recommend  The Sacrifice Book, it a good way to ease you in.

Bad Girls With Perfect Faces – Lynn Weingarten

61qmmo2b6uxl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Bad Girls With Perfect Faces is the second book from Lynn Weingarten. The first book, Suicide Notes From Beautiful Girls never really appealed to me but when I read the synopsis I was instantly intrigued. I picked it up on my birthday weekend and ended up reading the whole thing in a couple of hours in a waiting room.

The story follows Sasha and her best friend Xavier, who is trying to get over his toxic relationship with now ex-girlfriend Ivy. Ivy is your typical beautiful, perfect, manipulative character who is hell bent on getting what she wants. When Ivy reappears and persuades Xavier to give her another chance, Sasha knows she needs to do something to convince him Ivy is dangerous. In this media age it has become more and more easy to become tangled in somebody else’s life, and thats what Sasha does.

It’s told mostly from the first person viewpoint of Sasha and the 3rd person narrative of Xavier, however there are unnamed sections in between. There were so many times when I thought I knew what had happened, who had done it and who was talking. I changed my mind so many times and still didn’t get it right.

The pace builds slowly, like a stoking a fire, but when it really gets going it rages out of control. There’s so much to love in this book. It made me sit and think about how you can never really know who somebody is or how they’re going to act, and I thought about how we just fill in the blanks with our assumptions, and how that can go so wrong. The book touches on depression and mental health, and actually asks a lot of existential questions about how we should live our lives. It exploits a lot of moral grey areas and you have to ask: and what point would you have stopped helping your best friend? Who is in the right? Is anyone ever really innocent? There’s so much you can get out of this book.

It really made me reflect back on when I was a teenager and my relationships with my best friends. Although the way we present our relationships to the world has changed, how we feel about each other and the pressures of growing up really haven’t, and I think about this whenever someone says that YA isn’t for adults. What young adults are reading and experiencing now, people like me in their 30’s are reading and reflecting on and I don’t think there’s as much of an emotional gap as people believe.

One thing that bothered me is the prevalence of the use of drugs and alcohol. They’re 16/17 and there’s no voice saying you shouldn’t be drinking or doing drugs. I know that teenagers push the boundaries in terms of experimentation but it’s just, normal. It’s easy to see why young people get mixed messages when doctors give them drugs to help with everything then tell them they can’t use recreational drugs, or alcohol until they’re 21. But that’s another story.

The Fourteenth Letter – Claire Evans

9780751566406The Fourteenth Letter opens with poor Phoebe Stanbury having her throat slit by a mysterious stranger, who is covered in mud and strange tattoos, at her own engagement party. The beginning sets a high impact pace that does not drop for the whole story.

It’s set in London in the 19th Century, which is one of my favourite times to read about. The historical setting is brilliantly painted and bought to life and serves the perfect backdrop for this grim mystery.

The story follows a host of characters, each having alternating chapters in the book. There’s Will, a young solicitors apprentice; Harry, a detective reaching the end of his career; and Savannah, an American illegal immigrant who is still trying to live under the radar of the law. Each of them will be drawn into a story that doesn’t belong to them, but together they will make a fantastic team.

I love a yarn that is constantly taking me in a different directions and this absolutely did not disappoint. It’s so difficult to describe the plot without giving too much away but I will try: when Will goes to visit a mysterious client in lieu of Mr. Bridge, his employer, he accidentally sets of a series of events that will unravel his whole life before his eyes. Women are kidnapped, men are murdered and there is corruption rife in all institutions. There’s plenty of running through dark alleys, fighting off intruders, rifling through ancient manuscripts and some cheeky little British humour to top it off. It gets pretty dark, sometimes it really goes there, and I didn’t think it would be just a grim as it is in places but it adds an extra layer to the

The story itself is a little bit hard to believe but I absolutely didn’t care. It’s full of action and the paces manages to keep up the whole way through. I was a bit worried because of the length and the size of the text (I like a book to be a comfortable 300 pages!) but I flew through it, not wanting to put it down.

All in all I would highly recommend The Fourteenth Letter if you’re looking for a fun read to lose yourself in, full of conspiracies and hidden identities. I just loved it and if this is Evan’s debut then I can’t wait for what she brings us next.

Goodbye, Perfect – Sara Barnard

9781509852864Goodbye, Perfect tells the story of Eden, whose 15 year old best friend Bonnie has run away with a man. And not just any man; their Music teacher Mr Cohn. This is the first YA book I’ve read in 2018 and I actually loved it. I have to admit that it’s not something that I would normally have picked up myself, but a friend gave me the advise that it’s like Me and Mr J by Rachel McIntyre, which I also loved.

I really like the idea of the position that Barnard has put her main character, Eden, in. The focus of the book isn’t actually about what Bonnie has done, but about the impact that it has on those left behind, and the moral and legal arguments that surround it. I think the unbiased presentation of every side of the argument is very clever and demands empathy.

The story is mostly told through Eden’s first person narration, but there are visual conversations between her and Bonnie over text that just felt spot on. The book is split in to ‘days missing’ and has newspaper articles at the beginning of each chapter that sheds light on what society as a whole thinks about the situation too. This, along with the reflection on previous conversations that have taken on new meaning to Eden, keeps the pace of the story moving quickly.

The more I read the more I was thrown back to my teenage years, how you feel that you’re an adult because your own body and the world are basically telling you are. Even school is preparing you to be one. Except you don’t realise or understand the emotional responsibility that comes with that until you actually are an adult. I connected with the story instantly and felt a real nostalgia for the fierce loyalty and love I had for my best friend. I understood how I would have felt if she had run away too (I’d have told straight away, just for the record, I wouldn’t have been able to live with the guilt).

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See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

51jusb2bhkbl-_sx324_bo1204203200_See What I Have Done brings to life the real murder case of Mr and Mrs Borden, who were famously brutally murdered by an axe in their own home in 19th Century America. No one has ever officially been imprisoned for the murders, but the imagination of the world believes the daughter, Lizzie Borden, to be the true killer. What this novel does is try to give life to what could have happened based on the original testimonies.

The novel is told from the point of view of three characters: Lizzie, youngest daughter of Mr Borden (Mrs Borden is their stepmother). She’s notorious, but how much does the world truly know about her as a person? Then there’s Emma, who is a devoted daughter and longs to move away from a controlling Lizzie. Finally there’s Benjamin who has a weird Strangers on a Train pact with the sister’s Uncle John. The use of multiple viewpoints is clever, because every chapter you think, ‘them, they definitely did it’, and you never know -that’s history, not a spoiler!

Lizzie’s voice is obviously the most interesting as she’s one of the most portrayed ‘killers’ in America. I’d been waiting for the paperback of this book to come out for ages because I really wanted to see how it had been done. Schmidt actually makes a very hazy case for Lizzie, and I mean that in the best possible way. I find myself making so many excuses for her – like the reason she acts so bizarrely is because of grief, and everyone knows how close grief and madness come when under pressure.

But the most interesting idea about Lizzie is she might actually have had learning difficulties. Schmidt doesn’t straight out make this point, and maybe she doesn’t make it at all, I just read it like that – but the way she clings to her sister, her temper, her love of her pigeons, and her perceived manipulations. Is there some misunderstood condition that made her seem guilty? As the novel progressed my thoughts about Lizzie being an unreliable narrator started to matter less, as I found myself getting bored and wanted the story to give more.

I have to admit that my mind started wandering about halfway through the book. It’s not that it wasn’t a good story, and its vagueness makes the narrative quite interesting, but I just didn’t care about what happened to any of the characters. I almost wish the book did draw some kind of conclusion of its own just so I had an proper ending to mull over. In the end I almost gave up, realising that I wasn’t going to get what I wanted, but I persevered. I have to say that it’s a good book, but I perhaps I overhyped it in my own mind. The case a Lizzie and her family is so interesting that I thought a dramatisation might be revealing but, I wasn’t sold.

 

Dark Asylum – E. S. Thomson

51e2yqbjigl-_sx323_bo1204203200_My big plan for 2018 is to read a heck of a lot more Gothic fiction and what better way to start the year than to revisit my old pals Jem Flockhart and Will Quartermain over in (a very grimy) 19th Century London. This is the second book in the series; the first is Beloved Poison, which sadly I didn’t write a review for, but don’t expect many spoilers – this is the type of series that has recurring characters and themes but is a new mystery. You could easily pick up either book and not spoil much of the other.

Jem Flockhart is the last in a long line of Apothecaries, and friends with quite a lot of the doctors in London who he visits often at Angel Meadow asylum, with his architect friend Will. The big difference between Jem and the rest of the cast is that Jem is actually a woman, who has been dressing like a man ever since she was raised a boy. It makes very interesting points about gender, but please don’t jump up thinking this is a feminist tale as Dark Asylum is very plot driven.

I love both Jem and Will as characters, both caring and genuine and I can’t help but love the friendly love between them. They’re well developed, both with their little flaws but both adorable. They make a great little investigating team and Gabriel, the almost teenager who strops about in the background, makes a fun 3rd point to their triangle.

The storyline follows Jem and Will as they try to uncover who has been killing doctors, framing patients and generally terrorising their corner of London. There is a lot of subsequent discussion of madness, especially in women, and its a lot of fun to see old and ‘new’ methods of psychology and physiognomy brought to life. I think the medical talk is actually what grounds the book and stops it from being completely ridiculous, it gives the story a little bit more gravity in light of its more larger than life characters. Normally I’d be more than happy to overanalyse any philosophical and psychological talk in a novel, but actually this presents the thoughts of the day rather than making a comment upon them.

The only way I can describe the feel of the plot is a “romp”. I can fully visually Jem and Will running down a filthy backstreet in the main slum in the story, Priors Rents, frock coats flapping, holding on to their stove pipes hats for dear life. I have so much love for its ridiculousness. There’s blood and gore aplenty, savage killings, secret identities,  hidden clues – everything I’ve needed from an easy Gothic read since I read the first book.

Overall, I loved it again. I love to be transported to that era, and the medical and psychological aspects are my absolute favourite. The breakneck speed of the plot stops me from ever losing focus and I always find myself wanting to be back with the characters wondering what situation they’ll get into next.

The Witchfinder’s Sister – Beth Underdown

coverThe Witchfinder’s Sister is a debut novel set in 1600’s Essex and follows Alice Hopkins, brother of Matthew Hopkins, historically and ‘affectionately’ known as the Witchfinder General. It’s set against a back drop of civil and religious war, where superstition is rife.

I went in to the book hoping for a dark exploration of how whispers and paranoia can turn villages into witchy hotspots. I wanted a feeling of claustrophobia, and inevitable peril cast upon characters that I care about. What I ultimately found was a story that hadn’t quite decided what it wanted to say.

As a main character there were times that I was completely indifferent to Alice. I didn’t feel that the relationship between her and her brother was particularly well developed and I just wasn’t on her side. You would expect an examination of family and it touches the surfaces but didn’t quite get deep enough. There were events in Alice’s life that she talks about that did make me almost emotionally connect with her, and I could picture just how hard life must have been as a woman in her era but there were so many opportunities to make her either smarter or more ignorant, but I was bored by her passivity.

It’s not a stretch to say that the events in this book are 99% fictional, and I didn’t really mind that. I wasn’t expecting it to be an accurate history lesson since I know that there isn’t much documented evidence of exactly what happened at the time, but I felt that the actual feeling of the era wasn’t particularly well portrayed, which I think would have been a saving grace. If I’m being kind I’ll argue that the issues it tries to present around attitudes to mental illness and gossip are timeless, and thus it can transcend its historical setting – and perhaps if it was more cleverly written I could argue that.

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2017 Reading Wrap Up

2017 has been a turbulent year. I left my role as a bookseller in tears, and tried to rebuild my life and my career. Now that I’ve been able to distance myself from the drama and I’m not being forced to sell certain books anymore I can finally focus on my style. I can explore new genres and go back to books that I’ve missed over the last 7 years. In 2017 I’ve read almost nothing and yet have still managed to discover a few gems. So far I’ve read 21 books:

I started off the year on a high with Dark Matter by Blake Crouch, a stunning sci-fi time-twisting mind-bending novel that I was shouting about to every one. I absolutely adored it and didn’t expect to have such an existential crisis this early on in the year. Next I went back to The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill, which was an absolute journey of a book.  I’d owned it for a long time and it was definitely different to Dark Matter. I had a few issues with it but I just couldn’t stop reading. If you’re interested in slave narratives or books that examine how horrendous we are as humans, you need to pick this up. It’s been out since 2010 so I’m a little bit behind the times but then historical novels never age.

I love fiction that embodies American history and I’d been searching for something that presented historical New Orleans and I found The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin. It wasn’t perfect but boy did it make me want to jazz it straight to Louisiana. It’s fun and atmospheric and great if you like your serial killers bought to life. With the next book I kept to an historical bent but transported over to London in Beloved Poison by E. S Thompson. If there was a tick-list of things that I love to see in a novel, Victorian and Dark Secret would be right up there. It wasn’t the best written book in the world but I really enjoyed it.

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