Beyond the Sea by Melissa Bailey

Beyond the Sea

‘The power of the sea always prevails…’

Once in a while, the right book comes along at just the right time. On holiday in the South of Wales surrounded by stunning countryside and views of the sea was the perfect setting in which to lose myself in this wonderful novel.

So what’s it about?

One summer’s day, Freya’s husband and son vanish at sea.

A year on, and struggling to cope, Freya returns to the lighthouse-keeper’s cottage on a remote Hebridean island, where she and her family spent so many happy times.

Haunted by visions of her old life, Freya’s dreams are dark and disturbed. And when a stranger, Daniel, is washed ashore during a storm, they turn even more menacing.

As dream and reality start to merge, Daniel seems to be following Freya’s every move. What does he want from her and is he everything he seems to be?

Is her mind playing tricks? Or is the danger that she senses very real?

On the one hand this is a poignant story of love, loss and grief which is set beautifully against the wild, untamed backdrop of the Hebridean Islands. Melissa Bailey’s masterful descriptions of her setting transported me right there with Freya from the very beginning: ‘The shingle beaches, the wild machair, the glistening burns catching the sunlight as they drained to sea’.

But this is no simple one-dimensional tale. The descriptions of Freya’s grief are raw and true. Her story is also interwoven both with extracts from her son’s diary which she finds on her return to the Island and also with that of Edward, one of Cromwell’s soldiers whose love letters from 1653 come to light (in a bottle – of course!). Through Sam’s diary she comes to learn more about his last days and in being able to read his words and hear his voice, she begins both a literal and metaphorical journey of healing: ‘She knew in that moment that if the diary told of other places Sam and Jack had been to, she would follow’.

Sam was fascinated with all things nautical – particularly myths and legends about the sea and shipwrecks. Such mythical references and folklore regarding mermaids, sirens and much more are scattered liberally throughout this novel – stories I found just as fascinating as Sam.

Reading Edward’s letters also seems to have a cathartic effect on Freya and adds to the magic of the story. He writes that: ‘The more I hear these tales… and Duncan speaking with such reverence about the air, the water, the unexplained miracles of these isles, the more I feel he believes that we have entered a magical kingdom’. His references to the blind old man who he felt could see ‘deep inside me’ just have to be considered alongside Freya’s friend, Torin. I think I fell a tiny bit in love with Torin in the same way I fell a tiny bit in love with Gandalf. He even has a Dwarvish kind of name! Torin has second sight and as he stares at Freya ‘she felt herself becoming as transparent as a pane of glass’. This is just one example of the symmetry of the novel which I found so very satisfying.

This is a hauntingly beautiful, gentle, novel but with such depth that it has stayed with me long after I put it down. It was a perfect summer read for me but I can just as easily imagine reading it curled up in front of a roaring fire on a cold, winter’s evening. Without a doubt, one of my favourite reads of 2015 so far. Huge thanks to Melissa Bailey.

‘I looked at the impenetrable darkness of the water once more. It was like a veil drawn over the past’.

Beyond the Sea is available on kindle: Beyond the Sea

Or paperback: Beyond the Sea

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The Whispering Skull (Lockwood & Co. #2) by Jonathan Stroud

Lockwood2

Have you ever walked into a bookstore and bought a book you’ve never heard of by an author you’ve never come across, purely on the strength of a recommendation from the staff? That’s how I came across the first Lockwood & Co. book (The Screaming Staircase) – and I am so glad I did. I LOVED it so was over the moon to be sent the second instalment to review.

What the blurb says:

Ghosts and ghouls beware! London’s smallest, shabbiest and most talented psychic detection agency is back.

Life is never exactly peaceful for Lockwood & Co. Lucy and George are trying to solve the mystery of the talking skull trapped in their ghost jar, while Lockwood is desperate for an exciting new case.

Things seem to be looking up when the team is called to Kensal Green Cemetery to investigate the grave of a sinister Victorian doctor. Strange apparitions have been seen there, and the site must be made safe. As usual, Lockwood is confident; as usual, everything goes wrong – a terrible phantom is unleashed, and a dangerous object is stolen from the coffin.

Lockwood & Co must recover the relic before its power is unleashed, but it’s a race against time. Their obnoxious rivals from the Fittes agency are also on the hunt. And if that’s not bad enough, the skull in the ghost-jar is stirring again.

Imagine a cross between a teenage, modern day London-based Ghostbusters (without the cheese) and Harry Potter and you’ll have a vague idea of just how great these books are. They are marketed as YA but are just as much fun for adults.

The three main characters – Lockwood, Lucy and George make up the Lockwood ‘Ghost busting’ Agency. They provide a familiar (in a Harry Potter-esque way) dynamic which is full of humour and completely works. I like them all, from the dashing, ‘never breaks a sweat’ Anthony Lockwood, to the completely kickass, gutsy Lucy Carlyle (who I suspect fancies Lockwood just a little) to the rather unattractive but studious, clever and ever curious George Cubbins. They all have their strengths – both psychic and otherwise. Lockwood’s strength is Sight – he can see ghostly disturbances and manifestations before the other two. Lucy’s ‘Talent’ is in detecting aural phenomena and George specialises in the research of cases; trawling through dusty old manuscripts, visiting old libraries and archives as well as doing a considerable amount of tea-making and baking.

In the first book we followed Lucy through a series of interviews until she was ultimately hired by Lockwood and the three of them got into (and out of) all sorts of trouble. In this instalment, a year on and the three of them still live in Lockwood’s big old family home (not an adult in sight), getting into (and out of) all sorts of trouble.

In this world, only children and teenagers are sensitive enough to psychic phenomena to deal with ‘The Problem’ (the ‘ghostly epidemic that besets us’) and so are hired by agencies in order to find, and eradicate the source of their power. All of this is (supposedly) regulated by DEPRAC (Department of Psychical Research and Control), which is based at Scotland Yard and which I think of as the Lockwood version of a kind of Ministry of Magic.

This time around, the trouble involves a ‘whispering skull’ (in a jar, which communicates with scathing sarcasm and seriously winds up Lucy), lots of catacomb / churchyard / coffin based action, deadly artefacts that have been stolen and need to be found, lost manuscripts written in dead languages and of course, a fair smattering of pretty terrifying ghosts and spectres. There are rapiers, magnesium flares and salt bombs; spiders, rats and desiccated corpses. What’s not to like?

The story is creepy, fast paced and full of action – it absolutely gallops along with the action nicely interspersed with brief homely scenes usually involving copious amounts of tea, sandwiches and cake (baked by George of course).

Further intrigue (as well as lots of humour) is created by the presence of rival agency members – mainly those of the original, (in)famous Fittes Agency, ‘where psychic detection had been raised to an art-form’, particularly Quill Kipps (who we met in the first book). As Lucy tells us:

‘Being diplomatic, I’d say Kipps was a slightly built young man in his early twenties, with close-cut reddish hair and a narrow, freckled face. Being undiplomatic (but more precise), I’d say he’s a pint-sized, pug-nosed, carrot-topped inadequate with a chip the size of Big Ben on his weedy shoulder. A sneer on legs. A malevolent buffoon. He’s too old to be any good with ghosts, but that doesn’t stop him wearing the blingiest rapier you’ll ever see, weighed down to the pommel with cheap paste jewels. Anyway, where was I? Kipps. He loathes Lockwood & Co. big time’.

I loved it just as much as the first book. The ending is brilliantly satisfying and sets things up wonderfully for Lockwood #3…

**

Get it on Kindle now for only £4.35: Lockwood & Co: The Whispering Skull: Book 2 (Lockwood & Co 2)

The hardcover is out on 25th September: Lockwood & Co: The Whispering Skull: Book 2 (Lockwood & Co 2)

The paperback can be pre-ordered for April 2015 :Lockwood & Co: The Whispering Skull: Book 2

BUT read the first book (The Screaming Staircase) first! On Kindle: Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase: Book 1 (Lockwood & Co 1)

Paperback: Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase: Book 1 (Lockwood & Co 1)

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Bel Canto

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

I’ve been holding off from reviewing this because it was the book my Book Group met to discuss tonight. Now the meeting is over I can click that ‘publish’ button….

I had never heard of Bel Canto despite it being short listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction, nor had I heard of Ann Patchett before this was chosen as the Book Group Book. As I do every month, I ordered a used copy of the book from Amazon and couldn’t wait to make a start.

The blurb says:

Kidnappers storm an international gathering hosted by a poor Latin American country to promote foreign trade. Unfortunately, their intended target, the president, has stayed home to watch his favourite soap. The takeover settles into a siege, bringing together an unlikely assortment of hostages, including a beautiful American opera diva, a Japanese CEO who is her biggest fan, and his unassuming translator, Gen. Two couples, complete opposites, fall in love and a horrific imprisonment is transformed into an unexpected haven on earth.

I quite often find I read my monthly Book Group book too quickly so that by the time I go to the meeting a lot of the little details have been forgotten. If I start the book later in the month though, I feel like I’m rushing to finish it! So instead I start early and try to note down anything important that occurs to me whilst I’m reading. I only made two notes on this book and they are: ‘I’m 75 pages in and nothing has happened yet…’; ‘110 pages in and still nothing more…’ at which point I gave up writing notes.

In order to finish reading this in time for the meeting (it takes a lot for me to give up on a book completely), I actually had to adopt a ’12 page a day rule’ which I studiously stuck to, with a quick burst of energy last weekend to finish it completely. I didn’t enjoy it; it was a chore rather than a pleasure. But why?

Looking at other people’s reviews on Amazon today the book has been described as ‘poignant’, ‘very funny’, ‘crisply written’, ‘immaculately plotted’. So what’s the story and why didn’t I ‘get’ it? I guess I can just about get the ‘poignant’ bit; the ending could be described as poignant and was by far the bit I enjoyed the most. ‘Very funny’ however, makes me question whether the person writing that had actually read the same book I did. There may be one (or even two at a push) mildly humorous parts, but ‘very funny’ is absolutely outside the realms of reality here. ‘Crisply written’ I would also dispute. ‘Crisp’ to me describes a certain clarity of writing with an obvious purpose, maybe even a little sparse, where every word has been selected for a specific purpose. I didn’t get that at all from this. And as for ‘immaculately plotted’, well…

The basic plot concerns a group of terrorists who storm a party being held at the Vice President’s house, intending to kidnap the President of an un-specified country. Unluckily for the terrorists and even more so for the other guests that did attend, the President decided to ditch the party at the last minute in favour of his on-screen soap-opera crush. Put in an understandably awkward situation, the terrorists ‘wing it’ and decide to take everyone at the party hostage. For what seemed a very long time after this very little happens. I remember thinking ‘when are we actually going to find out why they’ve done this and what their demands are?’ Yes, the terrorists interact with the hostages and there is one ‘incident’ that if you were at all engaged with the novel so far, could elicit an emotional response but for me, it just didn’t.  For me there were just endless pages talking about lots of people in a house.

The next bit of action only materialises when the terrorists are convinced to let some of the hostages go by the only regular character that appears from outside the house – the Swiss Red-Cross representative,  Messner. ‘Things are starting to look up’, I thought. ‘We’ll get some action now’! Not so. All of the women bar one are released, along with anyone that was ill. That’s it. Action over and done within a couple of pages.

With no action whatsoever, the ‘story’ can only concern the characters of and the interaction between the hostages and the terrorists. Who are, by the way, the least frightening terrorists you have ever met – right from the start. Some of them are only in their mid-teens, two of them are girls and the reader just knows from the offset that these people are not going to starting shooting the hostages. These 58 people live together in the Vice President’s house for nearly 5 months with Messner visiting daily to bring provisions, and so the reader has plenty of time (oh my god, soooo much time) to see the hostage-terrorist dynamic change and develop. I am enough of a seasoned reader to see how the changes to this dynamic could appeal to readers. Unfortunately it just didn’t do it for me.  I just didn’t really care and all I kept thinking was ‘Hmmm. Why aren’t more of them reading and asking for books? How many books could I devour in 5 months?’

The other key strand to the narrative is the importance of music and more specifically, opera. The only woman hostage not released is Roxanne Coss – an American soprano who the terrorists keep as a bargaining chip (although thinking about it, she’s never really used as one). Her music is key in bringing the characters together (hostages and terrorists alike) and her singing becomes a kind of universal language that overcomes the barriers between the Japanese, Russian, Spanish, French and Italian inmates. Key to the story is the character of Gen, a Japanese translator who interacts with everyone, on behalf of everyone and without whom there really wouldn’t be a story at all. Lastly, there are of course a few love interests, or ‘lust’ interests if you’re being more accurate about it.

So am I an action junkie? If I’d been asked that question a month ago I’d definitely have said no; now I’m not so sure. I was undoubtedly craving something whilst reading this that I just wasn’t getting, but was it just action? Or was it a certain credibility to the story that I just didn’t get? I think I can say what I’m going to say without putting you all on spoiler alert, but the idea that all 57 hostages and terrorists alike, were on some level in love with Roxanne Coss by the end of the novel did nothing for me. Nor did the appearance of the next big male opera sensation well over three quarters of the way through the story. Similarly, I found it unbelievably lucky that they managed to find a perfect piano-playing accompanist amongst the gathering to assist Roxanne to practice, and despite him not speaking English, they manage to communicate perfectly.

The ending of the hostage situation was how I expected it to be, and was the only part of the novel that elicited any kind of emotional response in me. It wasn’t a huge response, but there was a response there nevertheless so I guess I must have cared about a few of the characters on some level. The actual ending to the novel however, again, just wasn’t credible on any level. I can’t explain why without spoilers but honestly, really??? Ms Patchett’s desire or need to tie up the novel nicely has seriously pushed the boundaries of credibility here.

But maybe I’m just feeling sore because I truly didn’t experience this novel in the same way that thousands of others have. Perhaps it was just a case of ‘wrong book, wrong time’? Another reviewer described the books as ‘About finding beauty in unexpected places’. I really wish it had been like that for me.

The longest 336 pages of my life:  a disappointed 1/5 for me and it’s such a shame because her third novel, The Magician’s Assistant (for which she won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2002) sounds interesting… but can I bring myself to try another one?

Bel Canto

The Sea Sisters by Lucy Clarke – spoiler free!

The Sea Sisters

The Sea Sisters by Lucy Clarke

So first up is this gem of a debut novel by Lucy Clarke. I came to read this after hearing and reading about it so many times that the recommendations reached a kind of critical mass in my brain. This is very often how I read these days; rather than spontaneously choosing something that has a great blurb, I’m tending to choose things I’ve heard about numerous times through a combination of my regular podcasts (the subject of another blog post I think!), reviews via twitter or Writer’s Forum magazine, friends recommendations and author interviews.

(Quick aside – the latter is an interesting one actually as it has prompted me to try books by authors I wouldn’t normally buy. If the author sounds interesting and can describe really well what their motivation was for writing a certain novel, I almost can’t bear NOT to read it. I’m really interested in this, how do you choose what to read? Leave me a comment).

Anyway, on with the actual subject of this blog post! Lucy’s novel ticked a lot of boxes for me; it was a debut novel from a British author (with a great name!) who had struggled initially to get published and who, after studying English at University, ended up working in the business world despite the strong signs that writing was what she should do. Her story struck a nerve with me, so much so that I actually started reading her novel on kindle when I was already in the middle of two other books – something I NEVER do. Once I’d downloaded it, I read over 40% of the 400 pages in one sitting.

The blurb says:

Two sisters, one life-changing journey…

There are some currents in the relationship between sisters that run so dark and so deep, it’s better for the people swimming on the surface never to know what’s beneath . . .

Katie’s carefully structured world is shattered by the news that her headstrong younger sister, Mia, has been found dead in Bali – and the police claim it was suicide.

With only the entries of Mia’s travel journal as her guide, Katie retraces the last few months of her sister’s life, and – page by page, country by country – begins to uncover the mystery surrounding her death.

What she discovers changes everything. But will her search for the truth push their sisterly bond – and Katie – to breaking point?

The Sea Sisters is a compelling story of the enduring connection between sisters.

Which I’ll be honest, wasn’t enough for me to read it. In fact, it was enough for me to pick it up from the virtual book-shelf at Amazon and discard it a few times. Not having a sister (or even a brother), the way the blurb positions the story with the sibling relationship as the central theme was a big turn off. Having now finished it, a far greater hook for me as a reader would have been the mystery surrounding Mia’s death which doesn’t feel strongly emphasised enough in the few lines above.

Anyway, as the blurb suggests, at the news of her sister’s death in Bali, the flying-phobic Katie drops everything, leaving behind a successful job and a fiancé she is due to marry in a few months’ time, to travel around the world  in her sisters footsteps by following her travel journal entries. She flies where Mia flew, stays in the same hostels and eats in the same restaurants. The story is told in two halves with one following Katie’s experience and the other following Mia, before they converge at the end in a satisfying denouement.

The sister’s travels are not centred on local tourist attractions or ‘places’ as such. Mia’s choice to depart England is written very much as a ‘running away’ rather than a desire to actually see and experience the places she visits (with one exception). Interestingly, this was one aspect of the novel I was partially dreading; I think I had pictured a kind of Dan-Brown-esque romp around Australia and Indonesia, but in the end I was actually left a little dissatisfied at the lack of local colour and detail. I’d have liked a little bit more.

One landscape that is painted in great detail throughout the novel though, as indeed you may expect from the title, is that of the sea. If I hadn’t already heard Lucy Clarke in an interview describing how she lives by the sea and completes much of her best writing on the beach (another ‘hook’ that drew me to the novel in the first place), I think I would still have been able to glean a special relationship with the sea from the story. It is interesting though that despite her obvious love for it, in the Sea Sisters the sea is more often painted as dangerous, frightening and uncontrollable than as serene, inspiring and comforting.

When I try and describe the two sisters on paper, they sound drawn as stereotypical polar opposites but I have to say that wasn’t something that bothered me too much when I was reading. Even in appearance Katie is fair and Mia dark and their characteristics bear that distinction out. Katie likes to be in control and as such, has a fear of flying and the sea; she has a good, steady job with a good,
steady income and a steady man waiting in the wings. She is the ‘good sister’ who looked after her mum in her decline and was holding her hand when she died.

Mia is wild and unruly. She loves the sea and far from having a fear of flying, is quite happy jumping out of a plane in her search for the next adrenaline rush. She moves from job to job and never has enough money. She found facing up to her mother’s illness hard and so avoided it, thereby missing her mother’s death and running from difficult situations ever since.  She has no steady, romantic interest in her life and tends to make bad decisions when it comes to love and sex.

Both characters actually come across in the novel as very human. I didn’t love either of them, but I did come to understand their various drives, motivations and desires. Woven into the main story is a sub-plot about Katie and Mia’s absent father which added depth to the story and helped explain some of this. I can’t go into more detail about that without spoilers so I’ll stop there…

Of all the characters in the novel, my favourite by far was Finn; Mia’s lifelong friend who drops everything to accompany Mia on her travels. Finn is amazing. There’s a part of me that wants a friend like Finn but another part that wants to mother him, wrap him up in a blanket and feed him chicken soup.

On the flip side, I really hated Ed – Katie’s fiancé. It’s very hard to write dialogue in a novel that sounds meaningful when it is peppered with as many ‘darling’ references as Ed uses. It just sounds patronising and for a woman drawn as strong and independent as Katie, I couldn’t imagine why in the world she would choose a man that spoke to her like a child. But perhaps that was the point…

Despite the obvious differences between the sisters, at the end of the novel you’re left wondering how different they actually are. Part of the tragedy certainly comes from the fact that despite not having the best relationship when Mia was alive, deep down both sisters envied those characteristics of the other that had most obviously come to define them. Perhaps the real conclusion to the novel is that to get the most from life we should all aim for some kind of ‘balance’ and ‘middle ground’, neither sitting wholly at one end of the spectrum of control, or the other.

The main plot question – did Mia commit suicide or not – is answered at the end of the novel. For a moment I did wonder whether it was going to leave me hanging and I’m not sure how I would have felt about that. I did feel that the way it came to be answered was a little too neat and tidy but I was also grateful I knew. Bit of a paradox there. I certainly wasn’t sure which way it was going to go until the end so it did keep me guessing nicely. Did it make me cry? No, but there were occasions in the novel where I did have a lump in my throat.

Overall I really did enjoy the novel. I read it at the right time too – with the sun just beginning to make its appearance in the UK which made the references to the sun and heat in Bali all the more poignant. The only thing that would have made the physical reading experience better would have been a beach to read it on! Of course you can’t write a review without touching on what you didn’t like but these were all minor points and shouldn’t be over-emphasised. Any novel that I can escape into for 170 pages in one go is a good ‘un as far as I’m concerned and I will definitely read Lucy Clarke’s next novel with interest.

I’m always a little dubious about giving books a grade or a mark but this one gets a 4/5 from me. Read it and let me know what you think.

The Sea Sisters