Notes from my bookshelf #7: Great British Summer reading

I’m having one of those “can I head back to bed” days, not helped by the steadily falling rain as the summer draws to a close, but I have no good reason for hiding under the duvet with a book at 10am, even if the weather is pants. Although an avid reader at the best of times, my summer holiday gives me an opportunity to get through more books than usual, generally from a deckchair with sand between my toes and a packet of Hula Hoops in hand (or huddled under an umbrella with a blanket on my knees and a flask of tea at the ready as my annual holiday is in Cornwall).

I’m not a particularly fast reader, so I tend to be picky about what I read and quite cutthroat in accepting that if a book hasn’t grabbed my attention by the end of the second chapter, then it is resigned to the “don’t bother” pile. Books that others thought were works of literary genius have not cut the mustard with me, such as “The Help”, “The Book Thief” and “Fifty Shades of Grey”.

This summer, I have been on a roll and managed to get through a number of great reads, helped by the great British summer weather more than anything else. I won’t bore you with the full list, but I have picked my three favourites as recommendations:

  • IMG_0973Bitter Fruits by Alice Clark-Platts. I admit that I am biased with this one, since I had the pleasure of reading it in an early draft when I attended the Curtis Brown writing course with Alice shortly before she signed with her agent. The plot of the book has essentially remained the same since then, but it is now a tighter, more engaging and gripping novel. Set in Durham University, it follows a police investigation after a girl is found murdered on campus and explores the murky world of slut-shaming, revenge porn and online trolling. The whodunit was not as I expected – and I thought I’d figured it out from the start! Now I’m looking forward to reading the second book in the DI Martin series.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. For me, the summer is the perfect time to revisit a classic. Since I have great intentions to read Go Set a Watchman, I figured a reread of Harper Lee’s original book was in order. It was one of my favourites when I was a teenager with dreams of being Harper Lee and rereading it as a 41-year-old with the same dreams – as yet unrealised – I was not disappointed. It is still a favourite and I took so much more away from it this time around (not least of which was a new appreciation of Jem). But most importantly, I completely fell in love with Scout as a character all over again. Now I’m not sure if I want to ruin this by reading Go Set a Watchman in case I’m left disappointed.
  • The Sudden Departure of the Frasers by Louise Candlish. This is one of those reads where you really dislike the main character – in this case Amber Fraser – and you are essentially hoping she comes to a bitter end at some point, which leaves me with a strange unfulfilled and slightly dirty feeling afterwards, but also means the novel stays with me. The plot follows a young couple as they move into their dream house after purchasing it at a bargain price when the previous owners, the Frasers, disappear overnight. The taut atmosphere with their new neighbours intrigues Christy, to the point where she becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to Amber Fraser to make them leave so abruptly. There are elements of Hitchcock to the story and of Gone Girl in the narrative. The drama and tension is elevated from start to finish and, although I did find some of Christy’s actions a little unfathomable, I was completely caught up in her investigations. If you like Gillian Flynn, you’ll enjoy this one.

Now onto my autumn reading list, when I really can hide under the duvet because the weather is pants. I’m starting with The Maze Runner, my oldest daughter’s recommendation and in honour of her starting high school next month. Put the kettle on, would you?

Notes from my bookshelf #6: First One Missing – Tammy Cohen

  • Thrilled to be invited to write this post as part of the Tammy Cohen blog tour and thanks to Sarah Harwood for sending me a copy to review.

I love a good psychological thriller, whether it involves a crime or not, and having recently read Tammy Cohen’s The Broken, I was really looking forward to reading her new novel, First One Missing.

Published yesterday (2 July 2015) by Doubleday, the novel tells the story of four grieving families who are living through every parent’s worst nightmare: the murder of their child. The plot follows the police investigation upon the discovery of another body of a young girl on Hampstead Heath, as told through the eyes of not only Family Liaison Officer Leanne Miller, but also the other forgotten victims of such crimes – the families – as they try to support each other in getting on with their lives.

This is not just a police procedural narrative. Cohen expertly provides a raw, naked insight into familial grief, whether a parent or sibling. The story is told from a number of characters’ points of view, all distinctive from each other, showing how a split-second twist of fate can ripple in numerous directions.

Weaving through the entire narrative is the anti-hero in Jason. I don’t want to reveal any spoilers, but he is painted so clearly as the suspect initially that I began to worry that there would be no Big Twist, as I have come to expect from such novels. As it turns out, I was not disappointed and I never did guess how it would end.

It is a tense, unpredictable, sometimes uncomfortable read and I couldn’t put it down from page 1. If you’ve never read any of Tammy Cohen’s novels, I urge you to as both this and The Broken – a taut, unnerving psychological drTammy Cohen blog tour posterama involving two couples and what can happen when your best friends divorce – will not disappoint (as I’m sure is the case with the other novels she has written).

As this review is part of a blog tour, I (and you too, I hope – see the attached poster for more details) will be reading the other reviews with interest, but I’m sure I will not be alone in saying that this is a must-read. If you’re going somewhere nice on your summer holidays, make sure you’ve got this one packed in your suitcase.

So what will I be reading next? Tammy Cohen was recently asked about her favourite crime reads and she had the following recommendations. There are two on her list that I have not read yet, so I’ll be packing them in my suitcase, along with Bitter Fruits by Alice Clarke-Platts (also published yesterday by Penguin), a fellow ex-Curtis Brown student and good friend of mine. Look out for my review of Alice’s debut novel in the next few weeks.

My 5 Favourite Crime Books – Tammy Cohen

What is a crime book? Is Jane Eyre a crime book? Bleak House? The Great Gatsby? If all it takes to be a crime book is for a crime to happen, practically every book on my shelves could qualify. So to avoid overloading my brain with too much choice, I’m going to narrow it down to the books where the crime, or the lead up to the crime or its aftermath, is the central focus. Here then are my five crime book choices:

  1. The Shining Girls – Lauren Beukes

A time-travelling serial killer? Oh puh-lease. I put off reading this book for ages because of my innate resistance to anything sci-fi and the huge leap of faith this novel demands, but Beukes totally pulls it off. This is a dazzling, stomach-churning book with one of the creepiest villains at its dark, twisted heart.

  1. You – Caroline Kepnes

Told from the point of view of an obsessed stalker, this book fizzes with wit and energy and puts the reader in the uncomfortable position of finding themselves a little bit in love with a seriously messed up, homicidal bookseller.

  1. Apple Tree Yard – Louise Doughty

Gripping, compulsive, brilliantly written. I tore through this book in a fever, desperate to find out why the respected, middle aged scientist protagonist had ended up in the Old Bailey, and was ridiculously thrilled when my fan-girl tweet was included on the inside cover of the paperback.

  1. Broken Harbour – Tana French

French’s haunting, atmospheric thriller masterfully unpicks the events leading up to the deaths of the Spain family in a falling-apart house on an abandoned, half-built executive housing estate in post-building-boom Ireland.

  1. Alex – Pierre Lemaitre

I love it when a book completely wrong-foots you, as this one does, switching from what looks to be a fairly run-of-the-mill kidnapping to something far more subversive. But what really won me over was Lemaitre’s detective hero, Commandant Camille Verhoeven – a stunning creation, psychologically complicated, intellectually brilliant and only 4ft 11ins tall.”

Notes from my bookshelf #5: The Girl in the Red Coat

Yes, followers, the book review returns. This one is slightly different, however. As an ex-Curtis Brown writing course student myself, I always feel obliged to read all of the offerings from my fellow students who have been lucky enough to secure publishing contracts. I admit that this is a bittersweet pursuit, swinging between feelings of hope that if they can, maybe I can too, through to pangs of envy that they got there first, dammit. So I came at The Girl in the Red Coat determined to read it as a show of solidarity more than because I wanted to read a good yarn, as is usually my motivation.

I expected a story loosely based on Red Riding Hood about a lost girl. What I wasn’t expecting was to be completely captivated and haunted by the story in equal measures, and totally caught up in the mother’s suffering and the daughter’s determined spirit.

Similar to other offerings from ex-CB students (such as The Miniaturist, for instance), it is a beautifully written book, which is testament to the team at Curtis Brown and the course tutors who helped us to fine-tune our ideas into workable manuscripts. But this novel goes beyond beautifully crafted syntax and imagery. It is rich with layers of mystery and cleverly dotted with all things red. Carmel is a constructed as the kind of daughter we would all want to have, independent and strong despite the situation in which she finds herself. The mother had me crying on more than one occasion and I empathised with her sense of loss and helplessness.

Parallel to this is Carmel’s “special gift” and why she was chosen by her captor, with the different strands of plot knitting together to form a narrative constructed like a dialogue between the daughter and the mother, as though they are talking just to each other, the bond never broken.

I read it in two days, couldn’t put it down until I had found out what had happened and there are very few books of late that I have connected with so strongly. Do yourself a favour and read it.

Notes from my Bookshelf #4: “Just What Kind of Mother Are you”

I often wonder what people think when they see me on the school run. Some friends say I look calm, unfazed and in control (give me a minute while I laugh hysterically that idea); others have commented that I don’t smile enough (whatever that means). Only I know the truth: that sometimes it feels like I am juggling so many balls in the air that it is inevitable that one will fall, bringing the rest down with it.

When faced with remembering all of the kit that extracurricular activities require, lunch bags, play dates, meetings at work, feeding the dog, cleaning the house, paying bills – the list seems endless – I sometimes think back to my carefree, independent twenty-something years with a pang of envy. All I had to worry about then was which pub I would meet my friends in that night.

I know I am not alone in feeling overwhelmed and out of my depth sometimes. I have discussed this with my friends and we all feel relief when we hear that we are on common ground and floundering, but trying to do our best. When I am at my lowest – usually experiencing a bout of guilt over something I have not done effectively or a situation I have not handled well – I remind myself that my children are happy, always laughing and full of fun, so I can’t be doing too much wrong.

This is why Paula Daly’s debut novel, “Just What Kind of Mother Are You”, struck such a chord with me. Lisa Kallisto is just like me: a working mum juggling a job, the house and a husband, and trying to raise well-rounded and balanced children. One day the unthinkable happens and one of her juggling balls falls. When her daughter stays home from school ill, Lisa forgets to collect her daughter’s friend, Lucinda, from school and Lucinda goes missing.

Lisa’s feelings of guilt, fear and self-loathing are brilliantly conveyed through the narrative as family secrets are revealed and a friendship is put to the ultimate test. The story grips you from the start to the twist at the end, and is unputdownable.

So if you can find some time in the chaos to put your feet up and grab a cuppa, give this one a read. It will be time much better spent than on ironing, promise.

Notes from my Bookshelf #3: “Gone Again”

I finished reading “Gone Again” by Doug Johnstone last night and I have to say, it took me a matter of days to read it because I couldn’t put it down. A really fast-paced, no-nonsense thriller in which you find yourself in the shoes of the main character – just the kind of book I love.

This is a clever thriller that starts with Mark Douglas discovering his wife has gone missing when she doesn’t collect their six-year-old son from school. The police are disinterested initially, especially since she has disappeared before, but Mark takes it upon himself to try and find her. There are some startling twists and turns in the narrative, and you really empathise with Mark, praying he doesn’t do anything silly, but feeling for him when he does and acts on instinct. What really struck a chord with me was how Mark has to juggle worry for his wife with managing his son’s feelings and expectations.

It is a cracking read from start to finish – highly recommended!

Notes from my Bookshelf #2: “Life After Life”

I recently became a fan of Kate Atkinson’s work after stumbling across a copy of Case Histories in a charity bookshop and loved it so much that I then had to go on and read everything else she has written. So I was thrilled when I received an advance copy of her new novel, Life After Life.

The novel follows the life of one girl as she is given the chance to relive her life and correct whatever mistakes have been made. Ironically, as I look out of my window today, everything begins (repeatedly) on a snowy 11 February – a date that becomes a central navigation point for the narrative.

In true Kate Atkinson style, we follow Ursula Todd through two world wars and various relationships as she tries to correct the mistakes of the past and future, all with humour and depth. The story is gripping, unusual, clever and thought-provoking, and told with an abundance of emotion and empathy. I couldn’t put it down.

The book is published in March 2013 and I cannot recommend it highly enough. One of her best.

Notes from my Bookshelf #1: Two Very Different Takes on the Crime Genre

I recently read two very different crime novels in quick succession and, although very different in every respect (apart from the presence of a corpse or two), I loved them both, which got me to thinking about how broad the crime genre is.

One was my first foray into the investigative world of Bryant and May with “Bryant and May and the Memory of Blood” by Christopher Fowler. This was not something I would’ve chosen to read initially, but I was looking for a thriller for my mum as a Christmas present and came across it, then decided to read it myself as I was intrigued by not only the fact that the detectives themselves are elderly, but also by the context of the London theatre scene and Punch and Judy.

Basically, the story revolves around the murder of a theatre company owner’s infant son one night at a party to celebrate the opening night of the company’s new production. All of the main players are reluctantly in attendance; however, the murder is committed behind a locked door with no obvious way in or out, and is somehow connected to the presence of a Punch and Judy puppet. As the investigation unfolds and the bodies stack up, apparently mirroring the narrative of the play itself, it begins to look like the puppets themselves may be committing the murders as there is no other explanation.

Not only does the book look in-depth into the history of the theatre and Punch and Judy, it keeps you guessing until the last page – I am usually pretty good at sussing out the perpetrator by about halfway, but with this one I couldn’t figure it out.

The characters are interesting, multi-dimensional and quirky in many respects, especially Bryant and May who are unlike any other detectives I have encountered. Additionally, as this was my first read of a Bryant and May novel, I was expecting to struggle to get to know the characters and their back story, but this novel could easily stand alone from the rest of the series. Having said that, I will certainly be reading more.

At the other end of the scale is “Sorry” by Zoran Drvenkar. The story unfolds around a group of friends who decide to open an agency that rights the wrongs of their clients. However, when a serial killer hires them, they find themselves involved in a series of murders from which they cannot extricate themselves. The book is written from a number of the characters’ viewpoints and, once you get into the narrative style, it is full of shocks and surprises.

And there are plenty of shocks; in fact, often the narrative is very disturbing and graphic, but you find yourself unable to stop reading until the end. This novel has a very different feel to the Bryant and May story: it is more gripping, edgy and brutal, with all sorts of twists and turns to the plot in a “race to catch the killer” kind of way, whereas the Bryant and May is a safer, gentler and more intellectual whodunnit, and more comparable to a good Miss Marples mystery.

However, albeit very different takes on the crime genre, I absolutely loved both books and would recommend them highly to anyone looking for a cracking thriller.

A Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down

Books have always played a huge part in my life. The smell, feel and presence of them have always settled and calmed my mind. In my opinion, there is nothing worse than not knowing what you are going to read next. That’s not to say that I don’t have a Kindle – I do, but if I fall in love with a Kindle book (which happens often), I end up buying a paperback version for my bookshelf, therefore spending double the money on one title. I doubt I am the only one that does this.

I currently have three piles of books next to my bed waiting to be read. Some will be rubbish – ones where I won’t get further than the first chapter (if it doesn’t grab me straight away, I cannot persevere with it, like the infamous “Fifty Shades” – didn’t even get to the sex bits). Others I need to be in the mood for – I have yet to read the Madeleine McCann biography as I would have to be in a particular mental space for that one. I may never read it.

And as with everything in my life – food, exercise, drink – I binge-read. If I find a new author that I love, I want to read everything they have ever written immediately. My obsession with particular authors began as a child with Enid Blyton. I remember reading a particular story about Pip the Pixie from the library when I was all of about 10 and I loved it so much that I told my mother she had to find a copy for me. However, we couldn’t find it anywhere (these were the pre-Amazon 1980s) until I found it in a second-hand bookshop recently and bought it for my daughter. But Pip has always stayed with me and led me to read every single Enid Blyton book when I was little.

As a teenager, I moved onto harder stuff and became obsessed with Stephen King. The first was “It” and I was so captured by it that I would sit up till all hours reading when my parents thought I was asleep. My ultimate favourite King novel was “The Stand” – I read that just after starting my first job out of school and couldn’t put it down, to the extent that I remember sitting reading in the toilet cubicle at my new job when I should’ve been answering phones. I have now read every single King story and still love them (although his recent ones have been less enthralling, I have to say).

Things haven’t changed since then. I recently started reading Jojo Moyes’ “Me Before You”. Now my normal choice of novel is usually something to do with blood and gore – crime, a thriller, a smattering of horror and a sprinkling of fantasy, just to change it up a bit. I am not really a chick-lit reader, although I have been drawn into the Jodi Piccoult/Diane Chamberlain world on a number of occasions because I love their realistic take on sensitive issues. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Moyes’ book as I had heard that tissues would need to be at the ready, which immediately made me dubious. However, one morning on the way to the station I grabbed it off my “to read” pile as a last-minute choice and started reading it on the train into London. It grabbed me immediately, to the point where I didn’t want to get up out of my seat. Yes, I was the annoying person in the aisle seat that you have to climb over at Waterloo because they want to be last off the train. By the time I got home that evening, I was halfway through and it was all I could think about. I immediately decided that a nice soak in the bath with my book was in order – big mistake. In our house, as soon as you turn off the taps, there is a Pavlovian reaction and three things happen: Mick the dog enters the bathroom and puts his paws on the tub to lick the bubbles out of the water; one of the kids decides they need a very big poo in that particular toilet (we have two others – I’m not bragging, just saying…); and Him Indoors decides to come in for a chat, usually about the mortgage. Needless to say, my stress levels rose and little reading ensued.

The next day, I was wiser – I locked myself in the bathroom without alerting anyone with running water and ignored all knocking, name-calling and door-scratching (from the dog and the kids) in order to finish the book. An hour later, I emerged with a numb bum from sitting on the loo seat, but the satisfaction (and sadness) of having finished such a brilliant, thought-provoking, emotional yet humorous book. Him Indoors raised his eyebrow when I finally surfaced and asked if I was alright (fearing some weird illness had kept me trapped so long). I replied that I had wanted to finish my book and his response was, “There are more comfortable seats in the house.”

There are, but when needs must…