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.’

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.

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

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The Storied Life of A J Fikry

‘Sometimes books don’t find us until the right time’.

I rarely re-read books because let’s face it, there are just too many new things out there to read. I found this book by chance in the library last year and it was absolutely a case of ‘right book, right time’. So much so that I jumped at the chance to re-read it and review it for the publisher this year. AND I’ve chosen it as my book club book of the month – I hope the group like it as much as I do.

What the blurb says:

“Who the hell are you?” A.J. asks the baby.
For no apparent reason, she stops crying and smiles at him. “Maya,” she answers.
That was easy, A.J. thinks. “How old are you?” he asks.
Maya holds up two fingers.
“You’re two?”
Maya smiles again and holds up her arms to him.”

A.J. Fikry, the grumpy owner of Island Books, is going through a hard time: his bookshop is failing, he has lost his beloved wife, and a prized rare first edition has been stolen.
But one day A.J. finds two-year-old Maya sitting on the bookshop floor, with a note attached to her asking the owner to look after her. His life – and Maya’s – is changed forever.

If you’re a parent or a booklover, or a booklover parent – this book is for you.

You just can’t help but love Ajay. Even his grumpiness is endearing – eventually – once you’ve seen him with Maya and Amelia is also fantastically, unconventionally fabulous: ‘She had looked like a time traveller from 1990s Seattle with her anchor-printed galoshes and her floral grandma dress…’ You’ve got to admire her dating technique: ‘Amelia had not allowed herself to be certain until dessert, when she’d asked him about the book that had to greatest influence on his life and he’d replied Principles of Accounting, Part II’.

Maya is simply adorable; so smart and sweet in her childlike observations: ‘The store is fifteen Mayas wide and twenty Mayas long… It is fortunate that it is not more than thirty Mayas long because that is as far as she could count on the day the measurements were taken’. I challenge any reader not re-live some of the magic in discovering books and bookshops for the first time through her: ‘The place Maya loves most is downstairs because downstairs is the store, and the store is the best place in the world’.

Incredibly, the novel manages to deal with the themes of love, death, grief and parenthood without once becoming sentimental or overly saccharine. In fact, this book is honest, forthright and FUNNY! I actually chuckled out loud – more than once: ‘A.J. has never changed a diaper in his life though he is a modestly skilled gift wrapper’ and in describing his long-suffering sister –in-law: ‘Pregnant, she is like a very pretty Gollum’. I just chuckled again 😉

But even more than that, there are so many acute observations in this novel (particularly for readers) that had me nodding my head frantically. A few of my favourites:

‘Remember, Maya, the things we respond to at twenty are not necessarily the same things we will respond to at forty and vice versa’.

‘I assure you that prize-winning can be somewhat important for sales but rarely matters much in terms of quality’.

‘Infinite Jest is an endurance contest. You manage to get through it and you have no choice but to say you like it. Otherwise, you have to deal with the fact that you just wasted weeks of your life’.

Oh yes indeed!

The story is simple but Zevin ensures it is utterly endearing. I guess it was ‘right book, right time’ again this year.

‘You know everything you need to know about a person from the answer to the question: What is our favourite book’.

Only £3.99 on kindle at the moment: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

NB: This was previously published as The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry.

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh

I Let You Go

As soon as I finished this book, I tweeted: ‘Wow. Now I have to find the words to review this in more than that one word’. I’ve left it a few days and the story is still firmly with me.

What the blurb says:

A tragic accident. It all happened so quickly. She couldn’t have prevented it. Could she?

In a split second, Jenna Gray’s world is shattered. Her only hope of moving on is to walk away from everything she knows to start afresh. Desperate to escape her past, Jenna moves to a remote cottage on the Welsh coast, but she is haunted by her fears, her grief and her memories of the cruel November night that changed her life for ever.

DI Ray Stevens is tasked with seeking justice for a mother who is living every parent’s worst nightmare. Determined to get to the bottom of the case, it begins to consume him as he puts both his professional and personal life on the line.

As Ray and his team seek to uncover the truth, Jenna, slowly, begins to glimpse the potential for happiness in her future. But her past is about to catch up with her and the consequences will be devastating . . .

Which rather cleverly (and from the perspective of someone who has now finished it), actually tells you everything and nothing all at once. At more than one point in this novel I thought I knew what I was reading and what was coming; each time I was wrong.

This novel just breaks all the rules – brilliantly and over and over again! I couldn’t put it down, despite the fact (and probably partly because) it is an intensely uncomfortable read for a variety of reasons. The first of which becomes clear very early on in the story and which I am therefore going to tell you about; I promise it will be the ONLY spoiler in this review.

The story opens with the tragic accident referred to in the blurb: ‘hit-and-run in Fishponds, guv. Five-year-old boy killed’. If, like me, you routinely avoid novels that might make you feel sad, I promise you won’t regret giving this one a go. Although the accident is the catalyst for the novel, there are SO many layers to this story: ‘I’ve told him more than I ever intended to, but I can’t tell him everything. If I do, he’ll leave, and I’ll have no one to stop me from falling’. Sooooo many questions!

Initially, the story moves between that of DI Stevens and his team investigating the accident, and that of those involved with Jacob (the five year old boy) himself. The police sections (ironically) serve as a palate cleanser in-between the faster-paced, higher-tension parts of the story. Don’t get me wrong, there are tensions there too:”‘Ray, you said no work!’ Ray was confused. ‘But the kids are in bed.’ ‘Yes, but I’m –‘Mags stopped…”. But without this part of the story, the reader would quite probably be holding their breath continually…

I honestly can’t remember the last novel I read that was comparable in terms of emotional experience. I felt all the same emotions as Jenna, deeply and compellingly. From grief: ‘Such a small impact on the world, yet the very centre of my own… The grief I feel is so physical it seems impossible that I am still living’; to anger and disgust: ‘You can’t do anything by yourself, Jennifer’; to guilt: ‘Each time a wave of fear hits me, I remind myself what I did, and that I have no right to be frightened’; and finally, complete and utter fear: ‘I will find you… Wherever you’ve gone to, I’ll find you. And then I will come for you’. Just imagine welcoming the idea of Prison, simply for the security and safety it provides. Chilling.

Later on in the story, the narrative is split further between Jenna and Ian, her husband. I would love to ask Clare Mackintosh whether writing Ian’s parts in the first person were as difficult to imagine and write as they are for the reader to read? Just incredible – infuriating, jarring and brutally honest.

I can’t talk in specifics about themes and events without spoiling the story, so I won’t. Suffice it to say, this novel will NOT let you go. Just read it.

‘You must remember that he was a boy. That he had a mother. And that her heart is breaking’.

I Let You Go on Kindle: I Let You Go

The 13th Gift: A True Story of a Christmas Miracle by Joanne Huist Smith

Gift

Imagine you have lost your husband of 20 years three months previously, and its Christmas time. Everywhere you go there is happiness in the form of Christmas music, decorations and lights. You try your best to ignore it, but worst of all, your 10 year old daughter is constantly asking you to buy a Christmas tree and start decorating the house.

This book is the true story of exactly this experience. Jo lost her husband in September 1999 and was determined to ignore Christmas completely that year. Her eldest teenage son agreed with her, but her two youngest children as well as her ‘true friends’ certainly did not. The novel tells how this family overcame their grief enough to carry on; but only with some rather unconventional help.

What the blurb says:

For readers of Richard Paul Evans and Greg Kincaid comes The 13th Gift, a heartwarming Christmas story about how a random act of kindness transformed one of the bleakest moments in a family’s history into a time of strength and love.

After the unexpected death of her husband, Joanne Huist Smith had no idea how she would keep herself together and be strong for her three children–especially with the holiday season approaching. But 12 days before Christmas, presents begin appearing on her doorstep with notes from their “True Friends.” As the Smiths came together to solve the mystery of who the gifts were from, they began to thaw out from their grief and come together again as a family. This true story about the power of random acts of kindness will warm the heart, a beautiful reminder of the miracles of Christmas and the gift of family during the holiday season.

Jo is grieving but acknowledges that to a certain extent she is beginning to come out the other side. She realises that her determination to avoid all things Festive is in part out of a sense of loyalty to her husband. She says: ‘I’m not sure if this longing I’ve been feeling lately to get a grip and move on is natural, or if I am somehow betraying him’ and later ‘What harm would it do, really, if I give in to Christmas for the sake of the kids? Is it disrespectful to Rick’s memory, or is it what he would have wanted me to do?’

Through the help of her sister in law, a number of random strangers, her husband’s amazing work colleagues and her ‘true friends’ who leave the gifts, she comes to realise what affect her behaviour is having on her children, specifically Megan her youngest child. She says: ‘I have been emotionally absent from our children’ and ‘It wasn’t until I nearly stumbled over that poinsettia that I began to see how much my kids needed me’.

Initially she resists the power of the gifts and becomes almost unhealthily obsessed with discovering the identity of the givers. Eventually however, when she realises that the gifts are beginning to bind her broken family back together, she accepts that ‘Help comes in all kinds of packages’ and worries less about who is to thank.

If I do have a criticism of the novel, it is that I felt the author to be a little detached from the story and the emotions she was describing. In a way I wanted my heart to be wrenched just a little bit more. Perhaps this is the way it had to be in order for Ms Huist Smith to tell the story at all, or perhaps this is the natural result of a gap of 15 years between the publication and the events described.

The novel IS about how an act of random kindness can transform a family, but it is also about the power of friendship and solidarity; about how it’s OK not to be able to cope without some outside help and without others to show you the way. It also illustrates beautifully how being the recipient of such random acts of kindness is likely to encourage other acts – a kind of ‘do unto others…’ idea. Indeed, in Jo’s own words ‘What better way to honor our loved ones, past and present, than to reach out and change a life for the better?’

You can purchase part 1 and part 2 of the story on kindle for 99p each at the moment.

The 13th Gift: Part One (HarperTrue Life – A Short Read)

The 13th Gift: Part Two (HarperTrue Life – A Short Read)

The 13th Gift: A True Story of a Christmas Miracle