Shtum by Jem Lester

Shtum

‘He’s not just my autistic son, he’s my son.’

Where to start? I finished this book on Boxing Day 2015 and it’s still with me. I couldn’t possibly have tried to review it before now – I needed a bit of distance.

Most of us *think* we know a bit about autism. Some of us may *think* we know quite a lot. For nearly all of us, this is a ‘leave your pre-conceived ideas at the door’ kind of read. It was without doubt one of my top reads of 2015 and now has a pretty secure spot in my Top Ten of all time.

‘I lived a fairy-tale life in my head before I even met Emma and the fairy-tale became real for two years. Then Jonah was born and it was fluffy clouds and sleepless nights. But as he reached three, the fairy tale revealed itself an imposter – the red hood fell away to show the Big Bad Wolf of autism’.

So what’s it about?

Ben Jewell has hit breaking point.

His ten-year-old son, Jonah, has never spoken. So when Ben and Jonah are forced to move in with Ben’s elderly father, three generations of men – one who can’t talk; two who won’t – are thrown together.

As Ben battles single fatherhood, a string of well-meaning social workers and his own demons, he learns some difficult home truths.

Jonah, blissful in his ignorance, becomes the prism through which all the complicated strands of personal identity, family history and misunderstanding are finally untangled.

Sounds pretty serious, eh? And it is. It’s about as serious as you can get. This is no wishy-washy, ‘barely scratches the surface’ account of Autism. This is a warts and all view of Autism at its most severe. Jonah’s Autism leaves him silent but we soon learn that it also leaves other, far more tangible marks too: ‘One more for the album of cuts and bruises, smashed glasses, plates and picture frames.’ The writing can be hard-hitting and shocking. At times you want to put your hands over your eyes whilst simultaneously not being able to stop reading.

Despite scenes like the one above, as readers we are never in any doubt about the depth of Ben’s love for his son. You can’t help but like Ben. He’s so imperfect and human. This is no two-dimensional, flawless character with the patience of a saint. On the contrary, Jonah’s autism leaves Ben an alcoholic single dad, terrified of the future: ‘What’s going to happen when he’s older? When he’s too big for even me to handle. Will he kill someone? Maim them? What happens when I’m dead?’ What must it be like to live every day with that kind of fear?

He battles to not only get his son the help he needs (even when this goes against his own desires) but also to understand this condition and how it affects Jonah specifically. You soon realise that Autism for one is not the same as Autism for another but equally, Jonah’s Autism today is not his Autism of tomorrow: ‘The only thing predictable about Jonah is his unpredictability.’

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it is almost unbearably sad at times. I certainly got through a respectable amount of tissues whilst reading it but that didn’t stop me wanting to pick it up. In fact I couldn’t wait to. I read it in 24 hours (perhaps not the most Christmas-sy read I could have chosen, granted) but I HAD to know how it ended. The tears came from trying to imagine that absolute helplessness, the terror, the sheer and utter exhaustion but also in trying to imagine what it must be like to NOT be able to connect with your child, even on the most basic level: ‘So few moments feel like true connection with him, I almost grieve when each one ebbs away.’

Ben’s dad provides another lens through which to view the situation and Jonah more specifically. It works, and despite that part of the story also requiring some tissues, it also prevents the story from becoming too dark and introspective.

Perhaps the best way to describe this book is as a book of strong emotions. As well as tears and laughter I also admit to a healthy dose of hate for Jonah’s mum, Emma. I can’t explain why without spoilers so I’ll leave it at that. But if you have read it, it’d be nice to rant about that with you.

An absolutely stunning read, from a (unbelievable though it may sound) debut author. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next. Highly, highly recommended.

‘This wonderful, exhausting, terrifying, vulnerable, beautiful son of mine.’

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This is Your Life Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison

This is your life Harriet Chance

There was a lot of buzz surrounding this in the ‘book-terverse’ and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy. Having finished it, I’m not entirely sure why I’ve waited so long to read any Jonathan Evison. His ability to write what appears at first to be a really ‘sweet’ story, but which in reality is anything but, is superbly clever.

So what’s it about?

With Bernard, her husband of fifty-five years now in the grave, seventy-eight-year-old Harriet Chance impulsively sets sail on an ill-conceived Alaskan cruise that her late husband had planned. But what she hoped would be a voyage leading to a new lease of life becomes a surprising and revelatory journey into Harriet’s past.

There, amid the buffets and lounge singers, between the imagined appearances of her late husband and the very real arrival of her estranged daughter mid-way through the cruise, Harriet is forced to take a long look back, confronting the truth about pivotal events that changed the course of her life. And in the process she discovers that she’s been living the better part of that life under entirely false assumptions.

Part-dysfunctional love story, part exploration of the relationship between mothers and daughters, nothing is what it seems in this charming tale of what it truly means to begin again.

Through Harriet’s interactions with her ‘difficult’ daughter Caroline, her son Skip, and Bernard himself (is she going a bit mental? The reader, and her offspring, are never quite sure…), we are given an incredibly vivid look at her life so far. Finally released from the shackles of a marriage in which her daughter describes her as ‘servant, nurse… practically his mother’, we are introduced to a 78 year old woman whose relationship with her children is beginning to show all the signs of suffocating role reversal.

Harriet is no longer a pushover. Bernard’s illness has taken its toll and changed her forever. Just when you think you know where the story is going, another layer is peeled away and the story takes off in an entirely new direction. Similarly, just as you feel you’re getting to know the ‘gentle’, strait-laced Harriet Chance she comes out with something like: ‘Admit it, the real reason you chose cremation was because you yearned to see his mortal shell pulverized’. By the end of the novel, the reader is left in no doubt about the horrifying reality of Bernard’s final 18 months.

Harriet certainly has regrets and, particularly in the case of her daughter, is sad at how their relationship has turned out but she doesn’t over-indulge in vast quantities of misplaced guilt. I found this a great relief – after all, I didn’t particularly like the insufferable Caroline and actually identified more with the mother than the daughter. Harriet is, despite everything, a very practical and (perhaps surprisingly) a very independent woman: ‘Darlings, if you really want to help me, fix that garage door… if you want to comfort me, how about sending an Easter card?’

Evison’s ability to capture the somewhat fraught mother-daughter relationship is just brilliant. Does he have sisters I wonder? ‘Why does it always come to this between her and Caroline? As though they’re out of patience before they’ve even begun… after the briefest of exchanges their relationship devolves into this prickly state of nervous exhaustion’.

Her children may be concerned about Bernard’s continued ‘presence’ in her life. She categorically is not and it undoubtedly serves a very real narrative purpose: ‘Just suppose I took a little comfort in it… I suppose you two would want to deprive me of that, wouldn’t you?’

The various threads of conflict (and there are a lot of them!), as well as the uncovering of some fairly earth-shattering secrets creates a delightfully uncomfortable, unpredictable and gripping read. One of my favourites of the year.

About the author

Jonathan Evison is an American writer best known for his debut novel All About Lulu published in 2008, which won critical acclaim, including the Washington State Book Award. In 2009, Evison was awarded a Richard Buckley Fellowship from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation. A second novel, West of Here, will be released in February 2011 from Algonquin. Editor Chuck Adams (Water for Elephants, A Reliable Wife, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers Homes in New England) has called West of Here the best novel he’s worked on in over four decades of publishing.

In his teens, Evison was the founding member and frontman of the Seattle punk band March of Crimes, which included future members of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.

Born in San Jose, California, he now lives on an island in Western Washington.

The Medici Mirror by Melissa Bailey

The Medici Mirror

Back in the summer I read a wonderful novel called Beyond the Sea by Melissa Bailey. I loved it and was swept away by Melissa’s ability to create atmosphere and such a vivid sense of place – you can read my review here. I loved it so much that I (maybe a little cheekily!) asked Melissa if she’d send me a copy of her first book. Well she did, and I’m so very glad because I loved this one too. Check out the cover above – that in itself rang a whole lot of my bells. Doesn’t it just invite you in?

So what’s it about?

‘I have heard, but not believed, the spirits of the dead may walk again…’

A hidden room

When architect Johnny Carter is asked to redesign a long-abandoned Victorian shoe factory, he discovers a hidden room deep in the basement. A dark, sinister room, which contains a sixteenth-century Venetian mirror.

A love in danger

Johnny has a new love, Ophelia, in his life. But as the pair’s relationship develops and they begin to explore the mystery surrounding the mirror, its malign influence threatens to envelop and destroy them.

A secret history

The mirror’s heritage dates back to the sixteenth century, and the figure of Catherine de Medici – betrayed wife, practitioner of the occult, and known as the Black Queen.

The Medici Mirror is a haunting story of jealousy, obsession, and murder, perfect for fans of Kate Mosse and Barbara Erskine; a story about the ability of the past to influence the present and of love’s power to defeat even the most powerful of curses.

This is another novel with an incredible sense of place. I was fascinated by the descriptions of the old, derelict shoe factory with all its machinery and materials still in situ. I could almost smell the dust and leather and was just as keen as the protagonists to see it brought back to life. But nothing lies dormant for decades without accumulating its fair share of secrets and this factory is no different.

From the very beginning the reader realises that this narrative will be split. It opens with Catherine de Medici and her concerns regarding her husband’s affair before moving to the modern day and Johnny’s story. Johnny is at a vulnerable stage in his life and very early on meets the somewhat mysterious love interest, Ophelia – who happens to be a fashion photographer specialising in shoes. As the two of them and Johnny’s beautiful colleague Tara start to dig away at the history of the factory you just can’t help but want to know how the two eras will be linked. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to point out the significance of the mirror in the title at this point…

The narrative deftly switches between Contemporary London, Victorian London and 1540’s France bringing in some incredible historical detail which Melissa must have spent considerable time researching. I love novels which lead me off on a ‘Google tangent’ and this had me looking up Victorian shoes, Venetian mirrors and the story of Catherine de Medici and her husband (the King of France) in more detail.

Melissa writes strong, female characters particularly well but all the characters in this novel are well-rounded, if flawed – as they should be. The story is excellently plotted with a very satisfying ending – a compelling mix of murder, passion, intrigue and the supernatural. It’s a ghost story in the vein of my favourite Victorian ghost stories; eerie, spooky and chilling rather than terrifying but no less accomplished because of that. It’s gripping and smart – and unbelievably, a debut novel. A perfect read to curl up with on a winter’s evening. Thank you so much Melissa! I can’t wait for book number three.

Go on, treat yourself: The Medici Mirror

The Ghost Tree by Sara Bain

The Ghost Tree by Sara Bain

Those of you who have followed my reviews for some time may remember me going on about how much I loved The Sleeping Warrior last year. It was without doubt one of my top reads of 2014. Well, Sara Bain has done it again with The Ghost Tree – her second novel, and one of my top reads of 2015. I’m now chomping at the bit for the finale of the trilogy.

So what’s it about?

Five years after the death of his wife, MacAoidh Armstrong moves into a smallholding in southern Scotland with the intention of living a self-sufficient existence. In the nearby town solicitor Libby Butler is trying to find peace after her recent deadly brush with the unknown.

On a hill by the steading stands The Ghost Tree: all that remains of the former Ringcroft of Stocking. Local legend says that when the last Ghost Tree dies, the Rerrick Parish Poltergeist will return.

Just days after MacAoidh moves in, he is forced to contend with a number of strange events that distance him from the local community. Turning to Libby for help, they find themselves challenged by a series of bizarre and terrifying occurrences which defy all logical and scientific explanation.

As the phenomena become increasingly violent and lives are threatened, Libby must delve into closely guarded secrets to discover the reason for the present terror… and come to terms with her growing feelings for MacAoidh. Can she save the pragmatic Highlander from an ancient evil, and in doing so will she lose her heart?

This is no ‘ordinary’ story. In fact Sara Bain just doesn’t do ‘ordinary’ – thank goodness. What she does do, she does brilliantly. This novel isn’t easily classified and certainly can’t be pigeon-holed into a nice, neat category. In fact I’m not even going to try because to do so would do it a disservice. For those that have read the first book, this is less ‘gentle’ than The Sleeping Warrior and really does pack a punch in places but on the other hand, it’s also more romantic – whatever it ‘is’, it just works. Again.

Firstly, the setting is perfect. What could be a better place for what is ultimately a rather frightening tale than an isolated smallholding in Southern Scotland? ‘I grew up with tales of haunted ruins by Loch Assynt, Lochan Dubh and Achmore; strange beasts in the water in Lochan Feith an Leothaid; dead sailors walking and mermaids at Sandwood Bay’.

One of the many other things that Sara Bain does brilliantly are her heroes. I honestly didn’t think anyone could top Gabriel from the first novel who I’m not ashamed to admit I fell in love with. But actually, MacAoidh is anything but disappointing: ‘He’s a wonderful, gentle human being. What’s not to love about him?’ I don’t know how she does it, but I’m certainly not complaining.

Don’t believe in ghosts? Don’t worry, MacAoidh Armstrong doesn’t either. Not even when one of the barns on his land completely disappears: ‘it’s space filled with empty, dark, countryside’. And others are similarly disbelieving: ‘So you’re saying all this can be put down to a physical expression of psychological trauma?’ Is it or isn’t it?

Don’t let the paranormal aspect put you off. This is no sentimental ghost story. As in the first book, Libby’s completely down-to-earth character and Bain’s exceptional writing style ensure the book remains firmly grounded. Libby is still as wonderfully flawed and straight-talking as ever: ‘I’ve got an attitude problem. I’m excellent at making enemies but not so good at keeping friends… I don’t deserve someone to share my life with. I was a really horrible person two years ago and I’m still a bit of a bitch’. Some of her conversations with MacAoidh’s mother are laugh out loud funny. She’s just brilliant. I’d love to take her to the pub and buy her a beer.

Do you ever finish a novel and wish you could read it again for the first time? I feel that way about both of Sara’s books. They are unlike anything else I’ve read in the last two years and I can’t wait for the third part in the trilogy. Thank you so much to Sara for sending me a copy.

‘It’s only through the conservative rules of science and Christianisation that we, as a modern race, have stopped believing in anything that can’t be plausibly predicted by mathematical formulas or the Bible. What if we’re wrong?’

Get The Ghost Tree on kindle for only £2.63 at the moment – a complete bargain: The Ghost Tree

And if you want to read them in order (not a requirement but they’re both excellent reads), The Sleeping Warrior is only £1.99: The Sleeping Warrior

The Venus Trap by Louise Voss

The Venus Trap by Louise Voss

‘I love you, Jo, and I want you to love me. I want to have a future with you’.

I’ve read a lot of thrillers this year. And I really do mean A LOT. Many of them were really good but this one completely and utterly creeped me out. I’ve been trying to work out exactly why and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s probably because I found the premise so terrifyingly plausible. There are no super-intelligent detectives in this story and no heart-racing pursuit and capture. There’s just one woman in her own home, with one man.

So what’s it about?

Jo Atkins’ sixteenth year was disastrous: she lost her dad, was assaulted by a stranger, and then had her heart broken. For the last twenty-five years, she’s believed that nothing could ever be as bad again.

She was wrong.

Now, still smarting from her recent divorce, pretty, self-effacing Jo finally gathers the courage to enter the dating scene. She meets Claudio, whom she vaguely remembers from her youth, but after a few dates decides he’s creepy and politely tells him ‘thanks but no thanks’.

But Claudio has no intention of letting her go.

Instead of never seeing him again, Jo wakes up sick and terrified, handcuffed to her own bed. She is given a week to prove her love for Claudio—or he will kill her.

Claudio, it turns out, is a man with nothing left to lose.

Jo is kidnapped by Claudio with the help of a healthy dose of Rohypnol. She is kept as a prisoner in her own home by a man who became obsessed with her years before her marriage, and whose obsession has never dwindled. Jo remembers him as someone who’d ‘always kind of given me the creeps’ – it turns out with very good reason. When she comes around from her drug-induced state, she realises that he has screwed her windows shut and removed anything from her flat with which she could do herself, or him, any harm.

In the course of searching for anything that could help her in her plight, Jo comes across her old diary. Claudio is delighted: ‘This will give us a perfect talking point. I want to know everything about you, everything. We have so many years to catch up on, to find out where we went wrong – and we have all the time in the world to do it’. From this point on, the narrative splits. On the one hand we witness Jo’s terrifying reality and on the other, her flashbacks to 1986 – the year she met Claudio – and the events that have helped to shape her future.

We are with Jo as she starts to blame herself for her situation: ‘If I had different instincts, I’d never have walked down that alley’ and when she considers her best route to survival: ‘Surely it’s better to sit passively and mentally practise how to convince him of my ‘love’, than risk disaster by provoking him?’

Somehow, Voss manages to pack a little bit of everything into this story without ever making it feel as though it’s been shoe-horned in. As well as her divorce, we learn of Jo’s infidelity, of her struggle to conceive, of her friendships and her grief: ‘The pain that sweeps over me at this realisation makes me truly believe I could die from grief’.

I’m not going to talk about the ending as I don’t want to give anything away. Suffice it to say that his novel is an all-rounder that packs a real punch. I couldn’t put it down. Huge thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for a review.

‘I think he has broken me, not just my heart. I feel broken’.

The Venus Trap is only £3.98 on kindle right now: The Venus Trap

The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes by Anna McPartlin

Rabbit

This is one of the Richard and Judy Book Club picks for Spring 2015 so is getting quite a lot of publicity at the moment. I actually read it some time ago and it is a novel that has stayed with me ever since; it will definitely be one of my top reads for 2015 – and we’re only in March people! If you are one of those readers put off by the hype, make an exception for this. Huge thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy.

What the blurb says:

Here is a truth that can’t be escaped: for Mia ‘Rabbit’ Hayes, life is coming to an end . . .
Rabbit Hayes loves her life, ordinary as it is, and the extraordinary people in it.

She loves her spirited daughter, Juliet; her colourful, unruly family; the only man in her big heart, Johnny Faye.

But it turns out the world has other plans for Rabbit, and she’s OK with that. Because she has plans for the world too, and only a handful of days left to make them happen.

Here is a truth that won’t be forgotten: this is a story about laughing through life’s surprises and finding the joy in every moment.

So, now you realise you’ll probably need some tissues at the ready. And if that didn’t give you the necessary clues, the opening line of the novel surely will: ‘Today I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I should be terrified but instead I’m strangely elated’.

What that opening line also hints at however, is that this is no dark and drearily depressing story. In fact that couldn’t be further from the truth. I laughed out loud at parts of this novel. And then promptly felt slightly inappropriate for doing so – which I think is part of the point. People react very unexpectedly to tragedy after all. Anna McPartlin thoroughly explores these varying reactions and how tragedy changes the family dynamic in pretty spectacular ways: ‘Although Grace was forty-six and her brother forty-four, they were reduced to helpless children standing at the end of their little sister’s bed… desperately willing their mammy to make everything all right’.

The sense of utter helplessness perhaps comes through most strongly in the character of Rabbit’s dad: ‘Jack Hayes adored his children and would willingly have sacrificed himself to save each and every one of them’. And ‘He knew it was unreasonable to blame Molly for Rabbit’s condition, but he couldn’t help himself. He relied on her to sort things out… She was a shit-kicker, his missus…’

But, the most heart-breaking moments for me were seen through the eyes (or in the head) of Molly, the seemingly indomitable Irish mammy: ‘Molly didn’t want to wake her because as soon as she did their terrible short future would become the present’. Gulp. I just adored her, with her fierceness and gentleness all rolled up together: ‘She’s not sleeping, eating or drinking but she’s insisting everyone else does’. No mother could help but see herself in Molly’s shoes: ‘She wanted to scream and shout and rage at the world. She wanted to do some damage, overturn a car, set a church on fire and unleash hell’.

Actually, maybe the most heart-breaking moments came through Juliet’s story – Rabbit’s young daughter. Hmmm. It’s a close –run thing. The reader feels Rabbit’s sadness at having to leave her behind so very deeply: ‘… when Rabbit was at her most uncomfortable, Juliet was the only one who knew where to place that extra pillow…’.

Not only is the story told from multiple viewpoints – a device I love, but in addition to the ‘current’ storyline, we are given plenty of flashbacks to Rabbit’s younger life. And boy is it funny! Remember your first period, girls? ‘She took her pants down to reveal something akin to a murder scene’.

I can honestly say that I have never before read a novel with such an amazingly perfect blend of tears and humour. In the About the Author section we learn that Anna McPartlin ‘describes herself as a slave to the joke and finds humour and humanity in even the darkest situation’ which explains a lot. It works. Completely. For goodness sake read it.

And if I’ve managed to interest you sufficiently – YAY! Get it on kindle here:The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes

Once you have read the book, or even if you need some more convincing, I would strongly recommend you listen to Anna McPartlin’s discussion of the book with Richard and Judy. It’s FREE and you can get it here.

Out Now! Cut Too Deep by Marissa Farrar

cuttoodeepadvert

Guys like Ryker Russo don’t notice girls like Jenna Armstrong.

Constantly on the move, Jenna doesn’t want to settle down anywhere. As long as her latest motel room has a television, wi-fi, and a vending machine, she will make do. It isn’t just Jenna’s curves that make her self conscious. Beneath her clothes she hides a secret, one that she is running from.

But when her car breaks down, leaving her without a mode of transport to get to the next town, mechanic Ryker seems to show an interest in her. With his muscles, tattoos, and piercings, Ryker has trouble literally written all over him. Jenna can’t understand why he would want to be seen with a fat girl like her, and besides, she needs to keep moving. Time is running out and she’s terrified if she stays in one place, her past will catch up to her.

No matter where you are, you can get it for only 99c or 99p in the UK at the moment:

Amazon.com
Amazon.co.uk
Barnes & Noble
Apple

Author Bio:

Marissa Farrar has always been in love with being in love. But since she’s been married for multiple years and has three young daughters, she’s conducted her love affairs with multiple gorgeous men of the fictional persuasion.

The author of seventeen novels and numerous short stories, she has successfully self-published for the last five years. She predominantly writes paranormal romance and urban fantasy, but has branched into contemporary fiction as well.

If you would like to know more about Marissa, you can usually find her hanging out on her facebook page. You can also tweet her.