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Category Archives: book review

Fell by Jenn Ashworth

Fell by Jenn Ashworth

I blooming loved Fell. Loved it. What a treat to read such an engaging and immersive story. Jenn Ashworth has always been an interesting writer, but it feels to me that she’s hit new heights of awesome with this novel.

The book begins with the awakening of Netty and Jack who have spent death in a place of nothingness and are startled into a watchful, skittering existence by the arrival of their adult daughter at the old family home. Annette has inherited the house from Candy, Jack’s second wife, and, uninhabited for years, it’s a decrepit building; rotting, damp, mouldy, invaded by nature and filthy. The huge Sycamore trees outside have encroached and pushed inside. It’s dangerous and will cost a fortune to fix up. Annette calls a tree surgeon, Eve, who refuses to agree to set to it before a structural engineer takes a look, leading Annette to take matters into her own hands.

Meanwhile, Netty and Jack seem helpless to do anything other than watch scenes from their lives play out, which they narrate with one voice. We see Netty’s struggles to look after lodgers as her terminal illness progresses. We watch as, on a rare family day out to the lido, Jack meets Tim, an enigmatic young man who moves in with them after displaying mysterious powers, bringing hope and and intrigue to the story. As Jack tends Netty, Annette is left alone to entertain herself and Tim works on his dreams of becoming a tailor.

Switching between past and present, Morecambe Bay isn’t so much a backdrop to the novel as a surrounding atmosphere and Ashworth’s descriptions of it are superb, rendering it vivid in all its beauty and ugliness.

“The woods seem to last forever. He finds his pace and continues upwards, tripping over roots and slipping, sometimes, on exposed slabs of limestone, greasy with moss. All the while he is relishing the cold muddy smell of the first fresh air he’s had in days. Netty is rotting; she stinks, and there was no way to cover it up any more. In the spring these woods will reek of bluebells, wild garlic and fox bitches in heat, but there’s nothing in the air today except the scent of musty leaves and stagnant pools of rainwater. It’s still early; a hard bluish light shines between the stripped boughs. The fell slopes steeply upwards, covered in close cropped grass and heather. The sky is low and almost white. No one would put this on a postcard…”

She’s equally magical at conjuring the bits and bobs that make up our day to day – the sweets, crockery, pencils, leaves, the ordinary things that forge our connections with the world.

Forced to bear witness to their daughter’s isolation can Netty and Jack somehow help?

All in Fell is flawed; the characters, the landscape, even the magic. What shines through is the hope, that necessary ingredient that keeps us pushing on through life come what may, and kindness, which may be the best that humans have to offer each other.

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A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold

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A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold

This isn’t the kind of book I would usually read. I am not someone who thrills to tales of real life violence; the True Crime section in the bookshop is of no interest to me and although I do read in-depth newspaper and magazine articles, I try to steer clear of sensationalist nonsense that seems to glamorise crime. There’s a ton of that crap about though, so clearly there’s an audience.

Sue Klebold is the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of two teens who murdered 13 people at Columbine High School in 1999. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris injured another 24 people, attempted to kill many more with home made bombs which failed to detonate, and committed suicide. I haven’t read anything beyond news reports at that time, did not want to read assumptions and theories about what happened, but was interested to hear that Sue Klebold had written a book and curious to know what she had to say. I imagined it would be a painful read, and I approached it with empathy – I am a mother of teens, I know our teens make choices that aren’t comfortable for us, but this horror is unimaginable and unbearable. There are those who squarely blame the parents  – how could they not have seen who their sons were? That’s not how I think, but how do you live with that anger against you, that level of blame? How do you endure when your son is revealed to be a hate filled murderer?

This book is Sue Klebold’s attempt to do something positive. She wants to alert people to the signs she missed in her own son (that he had “brain illness”, that he was depressed, bullied, at break point. She aligns herself with other mothers of kids who committed suicide, albeit murder-suicide, and speaks about how her son wanted to die. Unlike Eric Harris, who wanted to kill. There is a clear distinction.)

Sometimes people speak passionately and the words are vivid and maybe a little messy, but heartfelt, and other times, usually when professionals speak, each word has been carefully chosen and the delivery is dry and careful. This book is the latter. It reads as if lawyers have combed through it 1,000 times for anything potentially damaging. There is nothing here but a few descriptions of her son, meaningless to anyone except her family, a few anecdotes that present him as “normal”, a lot of scientific evidence of brain illness, and an avoidance of anything potentially controversial. The first few chapters describe her disbelief as the police turn up at her home immediately after the shootings. She has no access to news but bits filter through as she waits outside while the house is searched, enough that she understands her son was involved. She assumes he was an unwilling participant, or didn’t understand what was happening, or was in thrall to Eric Harris. But she won’t describe the actual events, or what it felt like to comprehend the truth.

There is a necessary need not to offer a template for others, but what is left is not a compelling read. It’s a terrible story, but we do not learn anything here and Klebold seems reluctant to go beaneath the surface. Perhaps she can’t, our minds protect us from unbearable things, but it makes me wonder why she wrote this.

The most valuable thing in the book is not written by her. In the introduction, Andrew Solomon says, “…we want to believe that parents create criminals because in supposing that, we reassure ourselves that in our own house, where we are not doing such wrong things, we do not risk this calamity. I am aware of this delusion, because it was mine…

I came away thinking that the psychopathy behind the Columbine massacre could emerge in anyone’s household. It would be impossible to predict or recognise; like a tsunami, it would make a mockery of all our preparations.”

Which is chilling, but feels true to me. There is a tipping point when our children, necessarily so, grow away from us and all we can do is hope the foundations we have laid hold them steady. We can’t be responsible for their actions. Klebold’s efforts to get more recognition and support for people suffering mental illness is admirable and I applaud her determination to use this awful notoriety she has to do something positive. I don’t think this is a good book though. There are a variety of assertions made – “We’ve all felt angry enough to fantasise about killing someone else.” Well, no, actually I haven’t. “Most of us can’t name a single celebrity who has struggled–successfully anyway–with depression or another mood disorder…” Erm, well actually I can… There’s an attempt to present Dylan Klebold as a “normal” teen but offers scant evidence of it and all the while we know that behind his mother’s back he was writing diaries planning his suicide, filming vitriolic segments with Eric Harris, playing with guns, getting into trouble with the police.

Why would we want to judge Sue Klebold? Why would we need to? I hope she finds a peace in her activism and support. But this is a book review and this book is not great.

Tastes Like Fear by Sarah Hilary

Tastes Like Fear by Sarah Hilary

Sarah Hilary’s London is full of shadows, darkness, underground places where people can vanish; places full of people, estates, tower blocks, all with blind spots and corners around which people disappear. A young girl running away from something, or someone, causes a car crash. Another girl is missing. Around a table, three well behaved young girls eat dinner served by a slightly older girl, presided over by a man. His name is Harm. On an estate an elderly woman watches warily from her window, noting names and times of the kids outside running riot. What links these people?

This is the third DI Marnie Rome book and if you are a fan of the others in the series you won’t be disappointed. Hilary’s customary intelligence and storytelling verve are in full force. It’s amazing how chilling words on a page can be. There’s a smashing twist that I genuinely didn’t see coming, oh, and tantalising snippets woven in about Stephen Keele, the killer of Rome’s parents, whose story we MUST learn one day.

I can’t say more for fear of spoilers, so I’ll leave you with this:

“The kitchen reeked of wax. Fourteen candles burning but they didn’t make it brighter, just dragged in more of the darkness. Greedily, the way his pain pulled at her, at everything.”

The Museum of You by Carys Bray

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When Carys Bray writes, woah, she sure does get you in the feels. Both “The Museum of You” and Bray’s first novel, “A Song for Issy Bradley,” deal with the aftermath of death, but Bray has a wonderful way of illuminating darkness with humour and empathy so the novels remain a pleasure to read.

Clover Quinn’s mother Becky died six weeks after Clover was (unexpectedly) born. Now 12, Clover lives with her bus driver dad, Darren, whose silence on the subject of her mum only fuels her desire to know more. In the long summer holidays, inspired by a school trip to the Merseyside Maritime Museum, Clover attempts to curate an exhibition of her mum, using bits and bobs of belongings that have remained in a cluttered, untouched bedroom for years. Where the novel is strongest is in the relationship between Clover and her dad and in the depiction of him adapting to a life that looks entirely different from how he’d once hoped. Darren is a wonderfully sympathetic character, flawed as all of us are, and very recognisable in his attempts to be the best parent he can.

“He could make jam or something. He remembers the things mum used to make with the raspberries: cheesecakes, trifles, tarts, fools and mousses. They could have a go, him and Clover, she’d like that. He has had these ideas before but it’s a struggle to make them materialise; by the time he gets home there will be something else to occupy his thoughts – the detached radiator, the hall walls, the worry that there may be something else she needs.”

The novel features a supporting cast of characters, the most interesting of whom is Jim, Darren’s troubled brother in law who has mental health issues and is hopeless at self-care. Describing Darren’s feelings towards him – “His kindness comes in bursts and he tires quickly. It was easier in the early days, when it seemed as if it was going to be more of a sprint than a marathon,” succinctly describing the fluctuating resolve of trying to help someone desperately needy who doesn’t seem likely to want to, or be able to, ever change.

Mrs Mackeral is the malapropism yelling next door neighbour who is maybe a little too cartoonish to feel fully realised, but provides some amusing moments. Colin is Darren’s best mate who along with his sister, and Darren’s dad, form a kind of family unit around Clover. Whilst death underpins the narrative, there is a sense of optimism that this wonky group provide.

Clover is deftly drawn and is a character to cheer for. The story is heart warming whilst not shying away from truth.

Towards the end of the book Bray writes,“Grief never goes away. And that’s no bad thing – it’s only the other side of love, after all.”
How beautiful is that?

This is an emotionally honest novel written by a writer who marries real insight with engaging writing.

My name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

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My name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Strout is an exemplary storyteller and having adored Olive Kitteridge so damn much, I trust her to tell a quietly unfussy and moving story. MNiLB is narrated by Lucy Barton who looks back at a long stay she had some time in the eighties in hospital recovering from a post-op infection. Her husband and children were largely absent while she recuperated, and her mother, who she hadn’t seen for many years, flew, for the first time, from her small rural home in Amgash to New York. Remaining by her bedside for several days and nights, her mother offers up anecdotes as conversation; tidbits of other’s lives, gossip about neighbours Lucy might recall. Morality tales in the main. Fragments are revealed, as they are in our actual memories, this happened, and this, do you remember? And the pieces of the puzzle are laid out until, oh, yes, we see the picture now. Lucy’s childhood, one of emotional deprivation as well as physical, is revealed. The agonies of not being a fit remaining throughout her life no matter how she learned to blend in with the help of money, husband, kids, a writing career, a New York life.

“Loneliness was the first flavour I tasted…”

Lucy finds a voice through writing, but can’t express herself to her mother. Theirs are conversations where what is not said matters more than what is. We learn obliquely about her father’s PTS and subsequent cruelty, the humiliation he heaped upon her brother, Lucy’s marital problems and her friendship with a neighbour who dies of AIDS.

“It turned out I wanted something else. I wanted my mother to ask about my life. I wanted to tell her about the life I was living now. Stupidly — it was just stupidity — I blurted out, ‘Mom, I got two stories published.’ She looked at me quickly and quizzically, as if I had said I had grown extra toes, then she looked out the window and said nothing. ‘Just dumb ones,’ I said, ‘in tiny magazines.’ Still she said nothing.”

The hopefulness that she can share and connect is calmly devastating.

Glowing at the centre is her relationship with author/teacher, Sarah, who instructs Lucy to write the pages we have read. “This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter,” Sarah says about the writing Lucy has shown her. “Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You are not doing it right.”

This slim novel’s layers peel back to reveal the lumpy truths of a life and its relationships and lays them out for us to examine and recognise. Superb.

The Way We Die Now by Seamus O’Mahony

The Way We Die Now by Seamus O’Mahony

 

My dad died on February 15th and my world transformed. I am grief-stricken. It’s no surprise that I have turned to books seeking solace, or at least some kind of understanding. The first book I read was “When Breath Becomes Air” which in retrospect I found unsatisfactory and unhelpful. “The Way We Die Now” though has been a strangely compelling read despite its rather stark message. Right from the introduction O’Mahony warns us, “This is not a book of consolation; death is simply affliction and the end of our days. We are frail and vulnerable animals.”

He argues persuasively and passionately against the over medicalisation of death. As a Consultant Gastroenterologist at Cork University Hospital Dr O’Mahony has seen many people die and he uses a mixture of personal anecdotes, patient anecdotes, and high profile celebrity deaths, to highlight how our society places faith in medicine and expects to live despite disease. He explains how many patients receive what he believes to be useless treatments; procedures that take place for the sake of the hospital being seen to do something, often at the expense of a patient’s comfort. CPR that takes place after death is common apparently (and he is clear that CPR is rarely successful as it is in medical dramas. It’s a brutal technique that can leave people permanently damaged if they do survive.) Speaking about the overuse of PEG feeding he says “The procedure became for me a symbol of the medicalisation of death, and of the failure of modern medicine to care humanely for those most in need of its help.”

He is wonderfully dismissive of Kugler-Ross’s famous five stages; denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. “The power and terror of death refuses to be tamed by workshops, by trite formulae.” The myth of a “good death” is exploded. It is likely we will die whilst sedated and pain-free thanks to a syringe driver. We won’t make profound death bed statements, we won’t even speak. We will be removed from our own death, but that saves us from dying in terror and pain. There is rarely a peaceful, stoic acceptance. That word terror catches me and makes me realise I had some fairy story death narrative in my head where gradually people slip away. Here’s my comfort, such as it is, my dad died unexpectedly. His heart stopped. He did not know he was dying. We did not have the agonies of having to decide for him what interventions he should endure so that we could keep him with us. I fear I would have insisted on all of them, though I hope I would not have.

O’Mahony writes he was “…deeply impressed by how Catholic ritual – after the deaths of my great-uncle and father in-law – guided the bereaved during the days immediately following their deaths.” The issue in a secular society where “Evangelical atheism has accelerated the flight from religion” is how to find this kind of comfort, and he suggests we worry less about believing and be content with simply belonging. This really chimed with me. Dad had a full Catholic funeral; his body was received into church the night before and his priest led us gently through the rituals and beliefs. During the funeral he took the same care to explain. It felt unimportant I don’t share those beliefs. I was immensely grateful for this acknowledgement of loss and grief, this solemnity, this tribute to my dad.

The book explores “deluded optimism” where patients, doctors, and family and friends collude in a pretence there is hope where there is none. What bloody fools we are that we think we can tame death. There is so much that is interesting here; the fact that patients who have combined oncology/palliative care live on average 25% longer than those who forge on with treatment (seeing hospices as an admission of failure), and that doctors apparently often choose not to undergo extensive treatment themselves. The idea that doctors offer treatment because they don’t know what else to do and need to be seen as doing something is troubling, yet the instinct is to want them to do every possible thing to save the lives of those we love.

How afraid we are, of course, and we are right to be. There’s no magic here, but this is a cool, intelligent look at death, right in its ghastly, deathy face.

Your Father Sends His Love by Stuart Evers

  
In this collection, Evers deftly explores fatherhood. He’s an unfussy writer whose clear prose allows the stories to unfold smoothly (before sometimes tripping us up and challenging our assumptions) using small details to great effect;

“A silent cabbie aside from his metronomic sniffing.”

and

“Rosemary moved to be with her parents upsatate. Like Russian dolls, a mother retreating to her girlhood bedroom.”

“These Are The Days” is ostensibly about a relationship between a Grandfather and his Granddaughter. Twenty-one year old Anna unexpectedly turns up at her Grandfather’s home. He appears to be a doting, gentle man, but is unmasked as a negligent father and husband before once again becoming a sympathetic character as his son is revealed as a bully. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, but Evers makes character switches flow naturally and these grey areas are gorgeously insightful.

A man sits in a pub, waiting for his bereaved friend to arrive, rehearsing small talk in “Something Else To Say.”  Repetition is used to convey the sheer lack of anything useful one can say when someone’s child has died. All the vital stuff remains unspoken and yet is beautifully conveyed in this touching tale.

I think the title story; “Your Father Sends His Love” is astonishing. It’s definitely the best story I’ve read this year and is an incredibly powerful piece that I don’t want to ruin for anyone else by attempting to describe. I could not stop thinking about it for days after; I was haunted by it and it’s well worth the price of the book alone. As it’s positioned half way through the collection, the stories after perhaps suffer a little in comparison. “Charter year, 1972” seemed strangely clunky; a set up and a punch line.

The last story “Live From the Palladium” has a similar source to “Your Father Sends His Love” and I’m fascinated by how Evers takes this material and shapes it into such achy and perceptive fiction.

If you’re a fan of quietly powerful stories (and who isn’t?) then do give this a read.