Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

only ever yous

I am extremely grateful to Hannah Robinson at Quercus books for a review copy of Louise O’Neill’s ‘Only Ever Yours’. An updated adult version of this young adult text is published on July 2nd 2015.

frieda is an eve, a created female whose role in life is to be good, be pretty and do as she is told. As she approaches the Ceremony when her future life will be allocated, as a companion, a concubine or a chastity, the constant need to be perfect takes its toll and her life begins to unravel as she tries to conform.

I cannot say that I enjoyed ‘Only Ever Yours’ as that would be an incorrect verb to apply. Its dystopian content is stark and bleak, being unnervingly, chillingly, possible. Reading it put me in mind of Attwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ or Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’.

I found the constant competition between the girls as wearing as did frieda and it took me a while to empathise with any of the characters. I think this is part of the skill of the writing. O’Neill makes them generic and only physically distinguishable to start with because that’s how they have been created. The mysterious isabel is thoroughly spurned by society and the gradual unfolding of her story adds another layer to the text. By the conclusion my heart went out to isabel and freida in particular.

The writing is highly skilful. None of the girls is given a capitalised name to reinforce their inferiority to males and to the Father in particular. Frequently referred to by number, they are not allowed an identity of their own unless it is based on physical image and cruel comparison. The sadness is that this is how many girls and women feel today. Although men control women, the story isn’t totally misandrist. The aptly named Darwin’s frequent injuries illustrate that men can, and do, suffer too.

There are challenging themes in ‘Only Ever Yours’ and the book can be read on many levels. Bullying, the sense of being an outsider, physical perfection, the use and abuse of drugs, genetic engineering, homosexuality and identity are laid bare and underpinned by clever references such as Rainbow 24 as an homosexual gene or the capitalisation of pronouns to describe the Father.

I’m not sure how many reading ‘Only Ever Yours’ will be able to say they enjoyed it, but I’d challenge any reader not to be horrified and, ultimately, moved by a society that may not be too far removed from our own. The messages in ‘Only Ever Yours’ will reverberate in my mind for some time.

Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton

Little Black Lies

I am indebted to Alison Barrow at Penguin Random House for my advanced reader copy of ‘Little Black Lies’ by Sharon Bolton. It is published in hardback by Bantam Press on 2nd July 2015.

After Rachel’s negligence has killed Catrin’s two sons their childhood friendship is ripped apart and, three years on from the deaths, Catlin is plotting her revenge. However, when another child goes missing in the Falkland Islands, events lead to some uncomfortable truths.

Sharon Bolton builds the tension in ‘Little Black Lies’ from the first sentence and I was unable to tear myself away. I read the book in one go with my heartbeat increasing the nearer to the end I got. What is so clever is that, whilst the plot is natural and not contrived as I have found some psychological thrillers, just when you think it is resolved one small word or phrase sends the bottom dropping out of your perceptions. It’s a truly captivating read. I was convinced I had worked out exactly who was guilty and who innocent. I was wrong.

The story is divided into a series of days surrounding the third anniversary of the deaths of Catrin’s boys and is told through the first person eyes of three people; Catrin, Callum and Rachel so that the story builds and builds with mounting tension as different perceptions and truths are revealed. It is utterly engaging.

The setting of the Falklands had real appeal to me, having been there en route to Antarctica, and I could easily picture the bleakness of the settings. I also thought the references to the agony in Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ that weave through the text were subtle and highly effective. The burdens so many are carrying – Rachel’s guilt, Catlin’s sorrow and desire for revenge and Callum’s PTSD – are like a weight around their necks and there is a burning desire to put things right however misguided the reasons for doing so might be. Characters are flawed, human and believable.

I found the dialogue natural and the emotions portrayed utterly convincing. I thoroughly enjoyed reading ‘Little Black Lies’ and will be recommending it to everyone.

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Caribbean Modern by Shivi Ramoutar

Caribbean Modern

I entered a competition on the Olive Branch Facebook page (where I confessed to using olive oil mixed with descaler to clean up Roman coins) and was delighted when I found I had not only won a bottle of Olive Branch olive oil (which WON’T be used for coins) but also a signed copy of this gorgeous book. Not having posted a non-fiction book review before I thought I would!

The premise of this book is to challenge the perception of Caribbean cooking as just ‘Jerk Chicken, Rice and Peas’ and it certainly manages that. Well organised into types of recipe such as ‘One Pot’ or ‘Sweet Things’ rather than individual foods, it is beautifully produced. Within the recipes are ingredients that anyone can obtain and where there are unusual elements where I thought ‘Oh, I haven’t heard of that’ such as amchar masala, the easily made recipe for them is included at the end of the book.

I love the slightly faded title and headings so that it feels as if the Caribbean sun has bleached some of the writing. The photographs illustrate that this is not a ‘cheffy’ book, but one that has recipes easily cooked by anyone.

However, there is more to ‘Caribbean Modern’ than the recipes. Shivi Ramoutar provides a fascinating background to the food with insights into the geography and history of the Caribbean as well as practical advice about tackling the cooking. I shall certainly be taking up the Trinidadian concept of ‘liming’.

‘Caribbean Modern’ is published by Headline and is available from Amazon and all good book shops.

If you want an excellent olive oil too see:

@olivebranchfood or https://www.facebook.com/enjoyoliveoil

Interview with Kathryn Joyce, author of Thicker Than Soup

Thicker than soupKathy

‘Thicker Than Soup’ is published by Troubador on 28th June 2015 and is available from the publisher and all good bookshops.

Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed for my blog Kathy.

Thank you, too, Linda. It’s a great pleasure to be invited.

‘Thicker Than Soup’ is your debut novel. I know that you’ve got personal experiences that helped in the writing. Could you tell us a bit more about the inspiration for your story?

The inspiration for Thicker Than Soup came from several directions. Firstly, I’d just finished a year of working with VSO in Pakistan and it was very fresh in my mind. And, whilst there, a couple of vaguely related books had impressed me greatly: Oswald Wynd’s The Ginger Tree and Francis Osborne’s Lila’s Feast; both stories of strong women whose lives were greatly changed by Asian cultures.

On my return, a friend who had read some travel writing I and my husband had done, suggested I wrote a book – it struck a chord.

But writing a book about travelling didn’t feel like the right sort of challenge.  I read a lot. So, I wondered, could I write a novel?

You cover huge themes in your writing. Why did you decide to explore them through fiction?

I worked in HR, I’ve trained people, I read psychology at uni – I’m curious and fascinated by people. I love the justifications we make for our decisions, the vulnerabilities that make us human, the inexplicability of emotion. And I love peeling back the layers.

One of the strange things that happen through writing is one uncovers old truths, and one I recently recalled was the excitement of my late and lovely father uttering “Once upon a time, in a far off land, there lived a…” Is it surprising I love travel and fiction!

If ‘Thicker Than Soup’ could be made into a film, who would you cast as Sally and John?

It’s certainly a visual story, and emotional too. Hmm, how about the beautiful Aishiwarya Rai, or perhaps Kate Beckinsale as Sally, and chunky loveable James Cordon as John – if he can play a hard man too.

Will the short stories that you’re currently writing have similar themes to ‘Thicker Than  Soup’?

The ones I’ve written so far certainly explore relationships and the human condition, some of them are set abroad, and food seems to crop up in a variety of guises. But this is where my writing comes from and there aren’t any deliberate links.

Which aspects of your writing do you find easiest and most difficult?

I like writing dialogue. It ‘says’ so much and can be used to disclose or mislead or disguise. And, as you might have already gathered, characters are at the core of my writing. But I also like to settle into a space and absorb it. It might be a local café or (one of my favourites) a Norfolk beach in the winter.  I once tried my hand at watercolours, and rightly gave up very quickly. But the effort wasn’t wasted –  describing a setting needs the same deep analysis, and at least with writing I can shape and re-shape for as long as I need to.

And that’s where my frustrations lie. I’d love to be a poet. But I’m not. And finding the right words and putting in the right order so that the hairs stand on the back of the neck is something I spend far too much time trying to do. It took me around three years to write Thicker Than Soup, and another three years turning it into a jig-saw and putting it back together before it was published. It’s a better book for it, but over that time, the story hardly changed!

What are your writing routines and where do you do most of your writing?

I write in my spare time, which in reality means, I write instead of doing the housework!

When I started Thicker Than Soup I had no intention of publishing it. I write because I love writing. I write where I’m comfortable; in my study – a lovely garden room with lots of light, or in the winter, I write with my feet up on the sofa in front of a log fire. Or anywhere I can get into that place in my head where ideas and connections happen, which is a great place to be. Of course, it’s not always like that, but time flies when it is.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?

I read every day – I have to have my fix! My favourite genre is literary fiction, and I like easy poetry too. I’m currently reading Mr Mac and Me by Esther Freud. It’s a compelling story told by a poor Suffolk boy who befriends Rennie Macintosh during the WW1. And I’ve just read The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraidi – a must for cat lovers.

The last poetry I read was Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wives, which is another must, this time for all women.

Do you have other interests that give you ideas for writing – I’m assuming travel and cooking might be some of them?

You’ve hit the nail on the head. Cooking and travelling, yes. And of course, reading. Then there’s walking, opera, the theatre…. I’m compulsive.

As for ideas– they’re everywhere. I just pick them up and re-shape them a bit.

What advice would you give to someone thinking of changing career and becoming a writer?

Go travelling first.

It has been brilliant having Kathy on my blog and I’m sure you’ll want to find out more about her so here are some links:

Web – http://www.kathyjoyceauthor.co.uk

Twitter – @kathyAnnJoyce

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/Kathryn.Joyce.Author?fref=ts

Wish You Were Here by Catherine Alliott

wish you were here

I am very grateful to Gaby Young at Penguin Random House for providing an advanced reader copy of Catherine Alliott’s ‘Wish You Were Here’. It is published on 2nd July 2015.

When James administers an EpiPen to a child on a flight from Paris, he, and Flora his wife, are given the opportunity to stay in a house in the south of France as a reward. As they, family and friends, jump at the chance of a free holiday, events don’t always turn out as they thought.

I found it interesting that the title didn’t come with a question mark as we usually associate with ‘Wish You Were Here’ and I feel that this omission helps create the framework for the story as the characters find their own paths through life and no longer need to ask questions about themselves.

‘Wish You Were Here’ is exactly the kind of novel I enjoy on a warm summer afternoon or on holiday. In some ways the plot is quite predictable, but this is part of its appeal and there are sufficient twists to elevate it beyond an ordinary read. The back stories are seamlessly woven into the narrative, providing depth and richness that is highly satisfying.

Alliott introduces the numerous characters very skilfully and although the story is told from Flora’s first person perspective, all of them are rounded and convincing. I particularly liked Flora’s mother who retains a bohemian attitude to men and life regardless of other people’s opinions.

The conversational style works extremely well and at times Flora addresses the reader almost directly so that reading ‘Wish You Were Here’ is akin to participating in the events. There is wit and charm in the writing.

‘Wish You were Here’ is an easy, feel good read, but this is not to say that it lacks depth as it is totally absorbing and engaging. I would highly recommend packing ‘Wish You were Here’ in your suitcase this summer.

Close of Play by P J Whiteley

close of play

My huge thanks to Urbane Publications for my review copy of ‘Close of Play’ by P J Whiteley

Brain Clarke is a typical middle aged, middle classed, unmarried cricket fanatic of middle England. Still living in a deceased relative’s house he sees little point in developing any romantic relationship whilst he has cricket and pub quizzes to occupy him. The Reverend Godfrey Charlton, whilst convinced Brian is called Colin, has his best interests at heart and introduces Brian to Elizabeth Giles. However, Brian is more comfortable with cricket than a relationship because ‘well, in cricket there are rules.’

I would say at the outset that I loathe cricket! Occasionally I didn’t want to hear the post match dissections or references to aspects like silly point. However, that said, I really enjoyed ‘Close of Play’. There is a warmth and humour in the writing so often missing from life as Brian finds himself trying to work out Elizabeth’s intentions as well as his own. Brian made me smile and frequently laugh aloud. You’ll have to read the book and I don’t want to spoil the plot, but his comment about the frog is just beautifully inappropriate and mistimed.

The first person narrative gives a refreshing male perspective and there is honesty and humility in Brian’s perception of the world that makes him totally endearing. His cricket team collectively constitute a kind of Everyman so that there are characters every reader will feel they can identify with and relate to.

What I liked most about ‘Close of Play’ is P J Whiteley’s ability to entertain without sensationalism. This is a nostalgic, gentle read about events that took place twenty years ago, with our universal desire for love at its centre and it succeeds brilliantly.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice

Lost art of keeping secrets

My huge thanks to Bookbridgr and Georgina Moore at Headline for my limited edition signed Advanced Reader Copy of this tenth anniversary edition of ‘The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets’ by Eva Rice. This version of the book is published on 1st July 2015 and is available on Amazon and from all good book stores.

In that tricky time after the war and before the swinging 60s Penelope Wallace finds herself unexpectedly taking tea with Charlotte and Aunt Clare. After that, her life will never be the same as she struggles to deal with her young widowed mother, her younger brother Inigo, a crumbling family home and Charlotte’s odd eyed cousin Harry.

If enjoying ‘The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets’ isn’t enough in its own right, this anniversary edition comes with a foreword by comedian, actress and writer, Miranda Hart and a bonus short story, ‘The Moth Trap’ (the title of which has a multitude of meanings) which prequels the main narrative. ‘The Moth Trap’ can be read as a stand alone story.

It was an absolute pleasure to read ‘The Lost Art of keeping Secrets’. I can’t believe it took me until its 10th anniversary to find this book.

Written in the first person from Penelope’s point of view it is as if she is explaining to you as a friend what has been happening in her life. I loved her as a character, partly because, as Miranda Hart says, she’s tall and generally slightly awkward, like me and partly because she seemed to live every emotion I ever had as a teenager. Even her crush on singer Johnnie Ray echoed mine on Bryan Ferry! Reading ‘The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets’ was unnervingly like reading my own diary.

The plot rattles along at a hugely entertaining pace and really evokes life in 1950s England. Admittedly, the characters live in a privileged upper middle class world, but this is part of the appeal of the novel. Their world does have glittering parties and champagne, but it has endearing mundanity and insecurity too, making it all the more believable.

The writing is humorous and lively. Even the chapter headings are entertaining and it is often very funny. I loved the idea, for example, of a someone being described as a trifle – ‘irresistible, but too much made one feel distinctly queasy’. There are convincing but subtle cultural references throughout of literature, theatre, film and music so that the era and setting are thoroughly convincing.

I found ‘The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets’ a brilliant read. It is perfect summer reading.