“The Widow’s Confession” by Sophia Tobin – review

It feels like ages since I posted a book review so I’m really pleased to be back with the second novel from Sophia Tobin whose debut, “The Silversmith’s Wife”, I very much enjoyed.  I’ve been particularly keen to read this one since it’s set in a part of Kent not far from where I live and with which I’m familiar having visited many times over the years; it’s not often you get to read a novel set in a place you know well and in which you can picture the buildings, streets, landmarks and landscapes exactly as they are in reality, and it gives the story a unique and personal flavour.  More than ever, I could imagine that the characters were truly there, walking in the places I’ve walked and seeing the things I’ve seen.  But of course, this is ultimately a gripping and deeply atmospheric tale whether you know the backdrop or not.

The quote on the front cover describes the novel as having “a dash of Wilkie Collins” and I’d definitely concur.  If you’re enticed by a nineteenth century setting, an enigmatic widow, priests with dark secrets and of course the appearance of a few dead bodies then you won’t be disappointed.  The titular widow is Delphine, who turns up in the seaside town of Broadstairs with her cousin Julia after ten years of travelling around Europe.  This lengthy trip is no indulgence, but rather one the pair was forced to make, fleeing their native USA after Delphine – we know not quite how – brought shame to her family through certain choices she made.  After being caught up in the bustle of a London overcrowded with people following the installation of the Great Exhibition, the women are hoping to find a quiet location in which to fade into obscurity, but it is not to be.  They soon become sucked into an unlikely social group, almost all of whom have come to the furthest reaches of Kent in an attempt to escape from their sorrows, hide from their past or to battle their emotional and spiritual demons.  Edmund Steele is escaping an aborted love affair and has come to stay with Theo Hallam, the local clergyman whose unexplained lapses into melancholy hint at some unexpressed inner torment.  Mr Benedict is an artist dragged down, it seems, by the mundanity of everyday life and whose desire for stimulation leads him to conduct himself in a questionable – potentially dangerous – way.  Miss Waring is a somewhat formidable middle-aged woman who’s come to Broadstairs to benefit from the sea air, but her niece Alba who has accompanied her is a strange, disquieting girl who veers between coquettish, manipulative and disarmingly childlike and divides the opinion of the party.  When the first body is found on the beach, the assumption is that a murderer is hiding somewhere within the coastal community.  When the second appears, suspicions begin to turn inwards and what trust there was within this group of outsiders starts to crumble.

There are so many things this novel does well.  I’ve already talked about the sense of place, which is so sharp it’d be almost as vivid to readers who haven’t been there as it is to me.  Then there’s the mystery of the murdered girls, which kept me guessing (and I guessed wrongly a few times) until the finale’s big reveal; I hadn’t worked out who the killer or killers were and I certainly wouldn’t have figured out the motive in a month of Sundays.  For me though, the triumph was the nuanced portrayal of a group of characters whose unlikely companionship, which has essentially been forced upon them by circumstance, is gradually pulled apart.  Under the stress of their proximity to the murders and their individual secrets and past tragedies, the party begins to splinter into factions united in mistrust of others.  Focussing on a tight group of people really allows the author to get under the skin of each and every one, and also creates a claustrophobic feel that’s shared by a growing number of the group as they long to be able to escape yet cannot quite extricate themselves.  She also takes great delight in playing with our perceptions of her creations, teasing us with clues as to their true character, which may or may not be red herrings.  Our opinion of almost everyone shifts back and forth as their stories are unwrapped layer by layer; beneath the gothic intrigue there’s a pertinent truth here, namely that all of us are guilty of making assumptions about others before we’re in full possession of the facts.  The question of who killed the girls found on the shore drives the story forward, but the mystery of who all these characters really are behind their various masks is almost more intriguing, and in many ways of more lasting significance once the tale comes to an end.

Sophia Tobin has cemented herself as one of those authors whose novels I’m pretty sure I’ll keep buying as long as she keeps writing them.  Easy to read yet with a satisfying amount of depth to them, for me they’re the epitome of reading entertainment.   I very much hope there won’t be as long a gap between this review and the next as there has been between many of my scribblings of late; there’s at least one more in the pipeline, but in the meantime I’d love to hear your thoughts on this or indeed anything book-related!  Thank you for reading as ever.

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July blogging update!

I can’t believe it’s July already.  I also can’t believe how much time has gone by since my last blog post so I thought I’d better check in and let everyone know I’m still here!  Honestly, I have so many great books either on the go or imminently pending, but there just aren’t enough hours in the day right now to get all my reading done, let alone writing.  For a start, it’s Wimbledon – and as a bit of a tennis lover, even my beloved books are going to have to take a bit of a back seat for the next fortnight.  Work is mental (no change there then!) but there’s never a dull moment and the days pass in a whirlwind of activity until someone gently reminds me I should be going home.  And since I’ve turned into a bit of a slug recently I’ve resolved to get back to doing at least a little bit of yoga every day.  Which doesn’t always happen.  BUT I’m determined to share some of my July reads with you soon.  I’m just about to start “Wives and Daughters” as part of my challenge to get back into the classics, and I’ve just started what promises to be an amazing book, “These Dividing Walls” by Fran Cooper.  Should I admit that I’m STILL going with “4 3 2 1”?  It’s a bit embarrassing since I distinctly remember posting about that very book in my April reading round-up and am still barely a quarter of the way through, but I have no bookish secrets from you all, my lovely followers!  I’m sure we’ve all been there though, with those books that for some unfathomable reason you enjoy at the point of reading yet don’t feel any burning desire to come back to once you’ve put them down.  Paul Auster’s latest is one of those, but I’m sufficiently invested to keep going with it, albeit at a slower pace than normal.  I’m also excited to be taking part in the Quercus Summer Reads competition and as part of that I’ll be reading and blogging about “The Little Theatre by the Sea” by Rosanna Ley, so look out for that review coming your way soon.

I’ll do my best to get something online before too long – in the meantime enjoy the sunshine!

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A generous helping of guilt for a Tuesday evening…

A few days ago I took myself off to Whitstable (a picturesque, characterful town on the Kent coast) and, predictably, ended up in a bookshop.  It was one of those small but perfectly formed independents that somehow manage to cram an impressive literary catalogue into the space of a living room, and in the corner near the till my attention was caught by the best collection of Wordsworth Classics I’ve seen anywhere for a long time.  I’m sure book lovers everywhere will agree there’s something about classics by any publisher – Wordsworth, Penguin, Oxford, whoever – all grouped together that’s pretty intoxicating to us book addicts.  There was no way I was going to be able to leave without buying one, but even as I handed over my £2.50 (bargain!) for Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Wives and Daughters” I was already trying to ward off the nagging awareness that although I do still love to buy classics sometimes, in truth I’ve almost entirely stopped reading them.

I honestly feel quite guilty about this; after all, I was brought up on the great Victorian classic novelists, reading those way before I moved on to contemporary adult literature, which I only really got into in my early twenties, and I’m an English Lit grad too, which I still feel marks my reading card sometimes though it was many years ago.  A year or so ago, when I tried to get back into classics with “Armadale” by Wilkie Collins – an author who wrote two of my all-time favourite novels – I was horrified to admit I found it so…. hard-going.  The language and the pace of this kind of fiction is worlds away from so much modern literature to be sure, but I was still ashamed at how bogged down I felt while trying to read it.  Have I got so out of the habit of reading classics, I thought, that I just can’t cope with them anymore?  And have I got so used to the ease and familiarity of the modern writing style that I’ve lost my ability to absorb, concentrate on and enjoy anything that sounds remotely archaic?  If that’s true, then what a massive failing for someone who claims to be a book lover!

I was talking about reading guilt with someone at work not long ago and we agreed that it can sometimes be a bit difficult to admit you don’t particularly like certain books or authors regarded as “classics” from any era.  In the spirit of honesty I’m going to hold my hands up and say here and now that I can’t stand Dickens.  I’ve started five (never let it be said I don’t give people a fair shot!) and only managed to finish one.  From an objective point of view I can completely see why he’s a literary genius – but I don’t get on with him because he just doesn’t resonate with me.  And that’s ok, my colleague and I decided, because why should anyone be obliged to enjoy certain things?  What’s bothering me about my falling out of love with classic literature isn’t to do with that “shame” of only reading contemporary fiction, as I don’t believe one kind of fiction is more or less worthy than another, but rather what it says about me that a style of writing that once gave me so much enjoyment suddenly feels inaccessible.

I’ve come across quite a few bloggers who set themselves reading challenges, maybe to read a certain number of books a year or to read genres they’d usually avoid.  As yet I’ve never felt I wanted to set myself a challenge of this kind, because a) I don’t like pressure! and b) I’m a reasonably changeable soul and would much prefer to read as the mood takes me; but now I’m thinking that a little, informal challenge might be what’s needed to get me back into classics again.  Quite simply, instead of passing over my unread classics in favour of something shiny and new, I’m going to make sure I start one within the next week.  I bought “Wives and Daughters” – so I’m going to read it!

Maybe this is all an unnecessary hang-up, but I’d really like to feel engaged with older literature like I used to, as it gave me so much pleasure before.  I’ll let you know how progress goes!  I’d also love to hear your thoughts if you’ve ever felt the same, or indeed if you have a completely different take on my predicament – if that’s even what it is.  See you back on the blog very soon, hopefully with a classic book review!

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“Swallowing Mercury” by Wioletta Greg – review

I can’t quite call this a novel.  I can’t describe it merely as a story.  It’s a beautiful oddity, an experience, a sensation.  Reading it was a bit like being in a dream where the mundane is periodically punctuated by the surreal and you find yourself shadowed by a vague feeling of menace despite the familiarity of the everyday surroundings.  I bought it a few days ago knowing nothing at all about either book or author, but it’s a title I’m going to be championing for some time to come.

Poland: the early 1980s.  The country is a one-party state known officially as the Polish People’s Republic, with a communist government under the influence of the Soviet Union.  Following a succession of challenges to the state’s authority, the Military Council of National Salvation seized power and imposed martial law.  Everyday life for millions of Polish citizens is now fraught with difficulty: there are frequent power cuts and a shortage of many basic necessities, with shop shelves often bare.  This brief political context is provided by the translator in a short explanatory section at the back of the book and if, like me, your knowledge of 1980s Polish history is non-existent, it’s a useful addendum to give a bit of background to some of the novel’s references.

Our tour guide through these challenging times is Wiola, who is a young child when the book begins.  Everything that happens we see through her eyes as she grows up on the family farm in the tight rural community of Hektary.  The real cornerstone of the book is the way in which wider events creep into Wiola’s life yet all the while it’s the smaller, more personal and immediate happenings that most colour her impression of the world.  A lost kitten, a llama on show at the church fair, the humiliation of her first crush seeing her at the local market as she helps her grandmother sell cherries; these are the things that stick in the little girl’s mind most clearly, as we move through her life in a succession of vignettes, fragments of memory that combine to form her sense of self.  The author nails precisely how we all see ourselves and make sense of our existence; when we look back at our past it’s never a simple linear progression but rather isolated memories, often with significant gaps in between – and why we remember certain events so vividly and forget others is a mystery.  What’s also incredibly clever is the way in which Wioletta Greg ensures her readers have a level of knowing way beyond that of her narrator.  If any of you have read “The Trouble with Goats and Sheep”, then this works in a similar way: the young protagonist mentions things in passing that we as adults realise have a far greater significance than she can yet comprehend.  On the very first page there’s a quick, matter-of-fact reference to the fact that Wiola’s father was imprisoned for deserting the army just before she was born and remained inside for almost two years, but the emotional impact this would have had on him is beyond the scope of a child’s understanding.  When it becomes clear a few years later that he has a problem with alcohol the connection is never made in writing, although it most certainly is in our heads.  Some episodes are terrifying to us while merely mystifying to Wiola, the most striking example being the school art competition that attracts the sinister attention of the government authorities.  Wiola paints a picture of Moscow but unfortunately the ink cartridges in her schoolbag burst and the painting in ruined.  Too late to be withdrawn, it gets sent off to the provincial authorities for judging and Wiola forgets all about it, until a month later when two officials turn up at the school wanting to speak to her.  She assumes they’ve come to award her a prize, and is completely nonplussed when they start quizzing her on who gave her the idea to depict Moscow in such a way, deface (deliberately they believe) with dark ink.  Of course Wiola has no conspiracy about which to tell them, but we turn cold as we read, horrified by the level of state scrutiny, the intimidation of a child and the very real threat of arrest for perceived treasonous acts that dog this surveillance society.

There are many more episodes like this throughout the novel, and Wiola suffers some truly horrendous treatment at times by a number of unpleasant characters.  It seems bizarre to say then, but I found the book absolutely beautiful.  To see the wonder a child finds even in a world we know to be brutal, cruel and dangerous is quite humbling and immensely moving.  It’s also about the places we call home and the love that ties us to them even when logic tells us that circumstances could be so much better elsewhere.  It’s a very short book but it has an intensity meaning it punches well above its weight in terms of lasting emotional impact.  It hasn’t had widespread reviews or lots of publicity as far as I know, but it’s become my personal mission to get as many people reading it as I can.  I do hope this review is a good start.

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Bookshop haul – a moment of heatwave madness!

It’s quite clearly not unusual for me to indulge in a bit of book-shopping.   It is unusual for me to lose all self-control and succumb to not just one but multiple hardbacks in a single splurge.  Honestly, I don’t know what came over me.  Maybe it’s the knowledge that it’s payday tomorrow or maybe I was just slightly high on the prospect of a week off with the forecast of blazing sun every day and absolutely no commitments beyond my blog and my books; whatever the (100% valid) excuse I’m now the proud owner of a diverse and somewhat unexpected pile of reading happiness.  So what is this booky bounty?

“Silk” by Alessandro Baricco – since I’m still going with “4 3 2 1” I’m in desperate need of something short to make me feel like I’m achieving something!  I would never have picked this up off my own bat but two colleagues at work have recommended it so I have faith that it’s going to be a good ‘un.  As an added bonus the chapters are about a page each, so if that doesn’t make me feel like I’m making progress nothing will.

“These Dividing Walls” by Fran Cooper – I find Twitter such a great way of discovering new and forthcoming titles, and this is one that I’ve seen mentioned or reviewed several times with almost universally favourable comments.  The premise sparked off comparisons in my mind with “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”, which I adore, due to its Parisian apartment block setting.  The style and indeed the substance may well turn out to be completely different of course, but nevertheless I have a feeling I’m going to enjoy it.

“Swallowing Mercury” by Wioletta Greg – this is a bit of a risk in a sense since I know nothing at all about either novel or author.  Yet something about it kept nudging at me as I was browsing the shelves and eventually I decided to take a punt.  The cover art is stunning for a start, and the impression I get from the tiny sections I’ve dipped into is that it has a slightly strange, dreamlike and almost musical quality that I found magnetic, even without knowing anything about the story or setting.  Watch this space.

“Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman – I read an excerpt from this novel in a magazine a while back and immediately thought: I AM Eleanor Oliphant!  I was intrigued by the heroine and the idea that life can be, well, absolutely fine, and yet missing something very fundamental at the same time.  There’s been so much love for this all over social media and I can’t wait to read it.

So, a week off awaits and I have a stack of new books, so the reviews should be coming thick and fast before too long!  Here’s hoping your week is as sunny as mine, see you back on the blog soon.

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“The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue – review

I had a job interview and assessment day last week, which meant a very long train journey to Birmingham during which I was somehow going to have to distract myself from the horrors to come.  The book I shoved into my handbag on a whim was “The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue; by the time I’d reached my destination I was almost halfway through, and even the hideous claustrophobia of a Virgin train carriage and the prospect of the next day’s Powerpoint presentation couldn’t draw my mind away from this most mesmerising story.

Anna O’Donnell is an eleven year old girl living in nineteenth century rural Ireland who’s become something of a celebrity.  Her family claim she hasn’t eaten a single bite of food for months and yet is thriving, a fact attributed to a religious miracle.  Lib Wright, an English nurse who worked in military hospitals under Florence Nightingale, is sent on a mission along with a Catholic nun, Sister Michael, to watch the girl round the clock and find out whether she is indeed blessed by God or whether it is in fact a clever hoax.  Lib arrives in Ireland a confirmed sceptic and is convinced she’ll uncover foul play within days.  Things, however, prove to be much more mysterious than she’d anticipated.  She’s been given fourteen days to observe before reporting her findings to a local committee, and as the clock ticks down she finds herself much more emotionally involved with the case than she could have imagined.

The novel’s simplicity is striking.  There aren’t huge numbers of characters vying for your attention.  The setting is pretty much limited to Anna’s cottage, the inn in which Lib is staying and her walk in between the two.  Even the events are repetitive (although I must stress that, very cleverly, they never read as such) in the sense that Lib’s routine is to sit or stroll with Anna, watch her sleep, read or pray and then get some brief rest herself before doing it all again.  There’s a metronomic quality to the march of the days, yet they are always punctuated with just enough disquieting moments to give us an uneasy feeling about the way events may unfold.  Even the most mundane of incidents take on an air of foreboding inside this strange bubble: the accidental breaking of a Virgin Mary figurine or the incomprehensible prayer that Anna mumbles over and over again.  In fact, as the novel goes on, more and more references to superstition, if not quite the overtly supernatural, creep in, to the point where I started to wonder if what I had in front of me was developing into a horror story.  The touches are always subtle – the locals’ fear of the “little ones”, the mischievous sprites who would cause untold havoc if not placated; the mysterious tree outside the village hung with decomposing rags; the disturbing photograph in Anna’s room that isn’t quite what it seems – but the sense of fear, and of something otherworldly potentially being involved here, is palpable.  Even religion, which features very heavily in the story, is not the comforting presence you would hope, since Lib strongly suspects that the Church and some of its loyal, blinkered followers are actually conspiring to put little Anna at risk for the sake of publicising a supposed “miracle”.  Whether or not there is any supernatural activity at work or whether there is in fact a very human, worldly explanation for everything is not something I’m going to give away here.  What I will say is that by hinting at multiple possibilities, the author evokes in her readers the same sense of doubt and disorientation felt by Lib as she grapples with the confounding mystery laid before her.

The fact that I, with my notoriously poor attention span and butterfly-like approach to reading, managed to finish the entire book in just two sittings is a ringing endorsement of its compelling readability.  I honestly can’t remember the last time a novel sucked me in so completely.  Maybe it’s because the setting is the same chapter after chapter that you feel you’re actually there in the hovel, watching the girl who has now become so familiar to you it’s as if you know her for real.  The fact that Lib and Sister Michael have been given a time limit of two weeks to verify or disprove the miracle also drives the book forward as we know that, for good or ill, a conclusion is coming.  I must confess that, when I read the final chapter, I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about the ending; on reflection though, I’m pleased the author chose the outcome she did.

This has got to be up there with my top reads of 2017 so far.  Five stars, full marks and any other accolade you can think of, this book gets it.  Oh, and I didn’t get the job – but since it would have meant leaving my beloved book trade behind, I think I’m okay with it.

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“Western Fringes” by Amer Anwar – review

I’ve got something a bit different for you on the blog today!  If you’re a regular visitor to Girl, Reading you’ll know I don’t read an awful lot of crime thrillers but I was lucky enough to be sent a free reading copy by the author and hey, I’m never one to turn down an opportunity to try something a bit different!  It sounds pathetic in the extreme, but one of the main reasons I’m wary of the crime genre is that I have a real aversion, almost hypersensitivity if you will, to any kind of violence or psychological cruelty whether it’s in books or TV and movies.  This novel does undoubtedly have its occasional brutal moments (and one particularly grim one) but in spite of this I was pleased to discover I quite enjoyed it, racing through at breakneck speed, anxious to find out if the characters I was rooting for would emerge from the action unscathed.

Zaq, the novel’s hero, isn’t exactly squeaky clean – he’s recently been released from prison after serving a sentence for manslaughter – but you can’t help feeling from the off that he’s less of a thug and more a man who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Anyway, as it turns out someone who was squeaky clean wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in the situation in which the unfortunate Zaq finds himself.  The owner of the builders’ yard where he works, Mr. Brar, calls him into the office out of the blue and demands that Zaq track down his daughter Rita, who’s gone missing.  If he fails, or even lets slip to anyone else that’s she’s disappeared, Mr. Brar will make sure Zaq’s back in prison before he knows it.  The Brars are a Sikh family, and Zaq assumes this is a case of wanting to protect the family honour, and in all likelihood the end result of the daughter’s liaison with someone of whom her father and brothers don’t approve.  His first instinct is to try and do the bare minimum to get Rita found, pass on her whereabouts to the family and wash his hands of the whole business as soon as possible, but the deeper he’s drawn into the case the more unexpected he finds its complexities and the realisation soon dawns that stepping away with a clear conscience isn’t going to be the option he assumed it would be.

In terms of the plot, I’m stopping right there as I have no intention of spoiling the mystery or suspense for anyone who hasn’t yet read it.  There is a genuine sense of tension throughout as the author isn’t afraid to ramp up the stakes for his characters; suffice to say not everyone will make it through to the final page.  If you like your bad guys unequivocally bad then you won’t be disappointed – there are no mitigating circumstances or tortured psychological explanations for the brutality, just out and out bare-knuckle thuggery.  It makes sense too that the protagonist, although essentially good-hearted, is no stranger to the world of street violence, shady dealing and macho intimidation, as his ability to navigate his way through the various perils becomes infinitely more credible that way.  It’s a world with which I am (very clearly) not familiar, having spent most of my formative years in a picture-postcard village a million miles away from Southall, where the novel is set, so I’m working on the assumption that the author knows his stuff and that this is indeed an accurate reflection of the capital’s criminal underbelly – but even if it isn’t it felt authentic enough that I totally believed it.  It was also interesting from a cultural perspective to read a story set in a section of society where honour violence, while not universally condoned by any means, is a familiar and predictable occurrence.  As a female reader I have to say I found it immensely satisfying to see female characters who took on the predominantly masculine world around them with barely a second thought.  Huge credit has to go to the author too for refusing to fall into the trap of thinking that Strong Female Characters have to be signposted to the reader by having men comment on their fortitude and gutsiness every five minutes.  For that reason alone I’d recommend it!

As I say, it was something quite different for me, and while I confess I do miss the corsets and bustles if I’m away from them for too long, it was interesting to undertake an excursion into unfamiliar territory and try something I wouldn’t normally read.  Am I going to develop a new obsession with dark, gritty thrillers?  Honestly no, but what “Western Fringes” goes to show is how much books can keep on surprising you even when you thought you had yourself pegged!

See you back on the blog soon…