Monthly Archives: May 2016
As If I Were a River – Amanda Saint
The Last Word Review
Through 2016 we have seen some remarkable debut novels and As If I Were a River by Amanda Saint is one I am happy to add to the list of quite outstanding debuts.
One aspect of this novel is just how compelling read it turns out to be, when it arrived on my desk I have to admit I was not sure how the story would move, but I am delighted that it did land on my desk.
I like that every chapter was told by one of the three generations of women involved and each one really does just grab the reader’s attention. The story starts with Kate, and that one evening Jimmy her husband left to just go to the local shop to buy some cigarettes and failed to return. From this moment you feel like you are watching through a window helpless as Kate’s life goes out of control.
What Kate has to go through is quite startling as she now faces a similar abandonment scenario from when she was much younger as her mother also walked out on her. Kate now has to understand why her mother just left her to understand why Jimmy also walked out on her. Kate has not seen her mother for 25 years.
We then meet Laura and facing a tragic moment in her young life and now at the age of 20 has to cope with two children how Laura’s life just seems to have also abandoned her to pick up the pieces. Now facing some life changing decisions that will have profound consequences for herself and her family and the future.
The novel weaves its way from the 1970’s through to current day and we see how people cope in situations of one extreme of happiness to being left alone and then losing someone close in a tragic moment in their life. And add in secrets and lies and you have a recipe for a very dramatic story.
When we get to meet Una the grandmother and we soon understand that she is the key and some of information that leads a journey to the other side of the world for some and an emotional ending awaits.
The message that comes out of this story is that sometimes our past shapes our futures and how we handle situations that we find ourselves involved in. An emotional and tragic story that will move any reader. Saint’s writing allows the reader to become involved with the story and each reader will form their own opinion of the leading characters.
A beautiful story and an exceptional debut and I am now looking forward to seeing how Amanda Saint follows on for this.
As If I Were a River by Amanda Saint published by Urbane Publications was published on 11 April and is available to order through Waterstones and Amazon.
Stalin’s Englishman by Andrew Lownie
The Last Word Review
Imagine spending 20 years researching a book, well this is exactly what Andrew Lownie the country’s foremost literary agent has done with Stalin’s Englishman – The Lives of Guy Burgess.
This is truly an outstanding biography of a member of ‘The Cambridge Spies’ just mentioning the names Maclean, Philby, Blunt and Burgess is enough to send a shiver down the spine of anyone in the Foreign Office. Burgess climb to fame through the BBC to MI5 and MI6 via the Foreign Office then in December 1934 joined the Cambridge Spy ring.
There has always been a question mark over just how significant Guy Burgess’s role was in the spy ring and was the information passed on, what Lownie has done has done in writing Stalin’s Englishman is to look deeper into the life of Guy Burgess and for the first time we see the real ‘Englishman’ and the role he really did play. The story goes that while the others did the ‘Spying’ Burgess spent his time getting fired from various roles and getting drunk. Was this how he actually planned it, so that many would think differently of him. In the end Lownie’s book debunks that myth forever.
In the end it was Guy Burgess’s own KGB leader who said the Burgess was in fact the real leader and held the group together. High praise for someone who many believed played a minor role. During his time as a spy it now transpires that Burgess actually supplied the Russians with much more information that was first thought. He was a major player in the spy ring after all.
Stalin’s Englishman does not read like a biography or an historical account, from the first page I was completely immersed into a book that reads more like a page turning spy thriller this is great testament to Lownie and how he both planned and wrote this meticulous book.
Burgess could be cold and calculating and would happily betray his country and would even make shocking sacrifices to help his cause even to the point of offering to ‘liquidate’ a friend if his role was under threat.
Photo: Guy Burgess
The character that is Guy Burgess is incredibly fascinating to read about he was in fact as different the heads and tails of a coin. Charming to his friends and admirers but on the flip side often found drunk and reeking of tobacco and alcohol and rude to many others. In 1951 after being kicked out of Washington he along with Blunt fearing they were about to be found out fled to Moscow and remained there until his death in 1963 at the age of 52. His ashes were secretly interred at the family plot in Hampshire.
After reading this incredible account I have the feeling that the story of Guy Burgess and his fellow spies will still be talked about many years from now as the true extent of the information passed to the Russians was never truly exposed.
Incredible research and brilliant writing go to make up an outstanding account of Guy Burgess and one book I highly recommend it is eye opening as an historical account and if you enjoy reading spy stories then this is one book that must not be overlooked.
Stalin’s Englishman by Andrew Lownie is published by Hodder & Stoughton and is available through Waterstones and all good bookshops. Paperback is due for release on 2 June.
Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
The Last Word Review
I wonder how many reading this have thought when hearing about someone coming into a lot of money either through a lottery win or inherited will love the debut novel The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney.
We join the dysfunctional Plumb siblings enjoying life and waiting for the day when their long awaited father’s inheritance lands in their lap. Their father had not anticipated that this fund would not be as big but following his death the Plumbs learn that their ‘Nest’ has been inflated way beyond anything that they could imagine this thanks to the ‘markets’ out of control valuations. The Plumbs are not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination and are already eying the Nest and how they want to spend their inheritance that is until one night one of the Plumbs crashes his car.
Leo is the older of the Plum siblings at 46 and not too responsible considering his age and a rather unhappy marriage to go with it. So when he is involved in a car crash overdosed on alcohol and drugs, that in itself is not good news but add in a 19- year-old waitress he picked up at a wedding and who is badly hurt The Nest is raided to ‘shush’ this up. The Nest was not in any way meant for a situation such as this and Leo’s indiscretion has now put a very large hole in their inheritance.
One aspect of the story that I enjoyed was how the author takes the reader on a grand tour of New York through the pages of The Nest, it really worked for me, whether it was Grand Central Station or Central Park or the famous Natural History Museum it really added to the how the story plays out for the Plumbs.
With the other siblings Melody, Bea and Jack now looking at vastly depleted inheritance pot, they meet Leo and want to know two things, how and when is the fund going to be replaced. It is like watching a comedy film through the pages of a wonderfully written novel.
This is actually a very clever ploy that Sweeney has pulled on the reader, as you now start to ask yourself about how you or any of us come to think of it would handle this situation. Some families are close knit but sometimes all it takes is a hair-trigger moment and sibling rivalry breaks out and with the Plumbs it is their fiscal aspirations and The Nest that was their inheritance but that now has gone thanks to the eldest of the sibling’s Leo’s behaviour, replacing that now depleted cash fund is not easy for Leo especially when his wife just likes to spend his money.
I really enjoyed how each character has been created each one a pure individual, even their late father described each of them brilliantly. Look out for some sub-plots within the main thread of the story but does not distract the reader from the main family fiscal drama that is being played out on a grand scale.
Sweeney’s debut novel is a joy to read and is full of wit and humour as well as the family dramas and some home truths as well as the lies and jealousies. Just throw money into a family circle and you have the perfect storyline. A great read.
My thanks to Hayley Camis for an advanced review copy.
The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney is published by The Borough Press and was released on 19 May and is available through all branches of Waterstones and all good bookshops.
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
The Last Word Review
The first thing that hits the reader as they settle into the debut novel Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh is just what an angry and dark novel this is. With Moshfegh being the first person narrator of Eileen much later in life and looking back on her younger life and the sheer lack of ideals and beliefs. The year is 1964 and we enter the life of Eileen who is sharing what can only be described as a disgusting excuse for a home with her alcoholic ex-police office father and that her relationship with him borders nothing short on murder bottle after bottle of gin is obtained to keep her father in the drunken stupor and life that he only now knows.
I will not hold back here Eileen is a deeply disturbing read and at times leaves you feeling down, but there is a real fascination with Eileen who seems to be on a complete ‘downer’ all hours of the day.
There are times in the first part of the book that Eileen talks of shovelling laxatives down her throat “empty and spent” or just plainly not disguising the fact she just hates her own body. Eileen is only living for herself and seems absorbed in having a relationship with her own body and how she uses her finger as well as flicking through pages of old porn magazines. These are difficult moments for the reader and I was not sure if there was sympathy or just disgust or a mix of both.
By day Eileen works in an office at a correctional facility for male offenders and seems to have a daily crush on some of the guards who work there and then one day Eileen’s life changes when in walks the glamorous red-haired Rebecca who carries herself in a manner that only Eileen can see and is attracted to and becomes intoxicated with the story now moving into the next stage.
The story is carried along on a steady pace but the mood of the story is one of a dark psychological narration and just reading each piece of gut wrenching self-pity or how she reveals a new low like stalking one of the correctional facility guards or the continuing fascination with her father’s gun. Is this leading us somewhere is something I kept asking myself as I became more and more entranced in Eileen, you can’t help yourself. There are little moments of humour but this is more disguised wit.
Eileen’s relationship is developing into one worryingly dark bond and with Eileen now totally under the beautiful Rebecca’s spell. Rebecca has plans to seek justice for an injustice and Eileen falls into line, this is now no longer just a friendship this story has an explosive ending and is worth persevering with as it rewards the reader.
For a debut novel this is a brave storyline with a character in Eileen that is so twisted and narration that is raw that some may be put off reading before the end. But Eileen Dunlop is fractured character and then Rebecca of who I wanted to learn more about but never did.
At the very start of the book she states “This is story of how I disappeared” Then the story begins as the now Eileen in 70’s narrates the younger life that was hers. Was this story of Eileen set out to shock the reader is up for debate and one down personal feelings.
This is no Summer Sunday afternoon read in the park but one book that I loved and one I won’t forget in a hurry.
Now I am looking forward to seeing what Ottessa Moshfegh has in-store for us next.
Eileen written by Ottessa Moshfegh and published by Jonathan Cape and is available through Waterstones and all good bookshops.
The Swimming Pool by Louise Candlish
The Last Word Review
What does a long summer mean to you? Holidays in the sun by the beach? Ed and Natalie Steele are both teachers and are looking forward to six weeks together with their daughter Molly.
Following on from the best-selling The Sudden Departure of the Frasers this is latest thrilling novel from Louise Candlish called The Swimming pool is a dark page turning thriller that will make it very hard for you to put down so my advice, cancel that night out and set yourself up for a long night of reading, once started you will not want to put this one down.
Set in Elm Hill, London and it is a classic sweltering shimmering summer. The good news for Elm Hill is that the Lido is about to re-open after being left abandoned and closed for many years and that in no small part to the former actress and glamorous Laura Faulkner.
Natalie is now enjoying socialising with new found friends and has struck up a friendship with Laura that will have dire consequences come the summers end. The Lido is fast becoming an attraction and for Natalie the hum drum of her own life seems a world away while she is at the Lido and is fast falling under the spell of Laura Faulkner. Come August the summer holiday is in full swing and Natalie wants to forget life as a teacher and spends time swimming determined to get fit as well as tanned. Molly her teenage daughter there is a fear of being in the water after an accident some years before. Fear lurks beneath the surface.
There is a sense that Natalie is becoming intoxicated by her new friend and spends more and more time in her company to the point that her life at home starts to feel the strain. To Ed this is a worrying time as he does not like the way that Natalie is behaving but his wife seems to have become detached and now spends more and more time with the glamorous Laura and now starts to enjoy afternoon drinks at the home of Laura and her husband Miles, there is something very dark and sinister lurking here and I found that as I read through this part of the story it felt as though the walls were actually closing in around me. The story moves on at a fast pace and now you don’t dare to put the book down the tension is mounting with every page.
We now share flashbacks to Natalie’s past and the summer of 1985 and how along with her then best friend both teenagers spent that summer something happened and the dark past is bubbling to the surface. Did this time shape Natalie into the protective mother that she is now? The dark truths are exposed secrets from the past always come back to haunt those harbouring them. The climax of this gripping thriller are tense and leaves you perspiring and on the edge of your seat. This is a dark foreboding story that will you want to take away with you on holiday and one definitely that you should not miss. This is a clever and compulsive psychological summer read.
Thank you to Penguin Books for an advanced review copy.
The Swimming Pool by Louise Candlish was released on 5 May by Penguin Books and is available through all branches of Waterstones and all good bookshops.
Jihadi: A Love Story by Yusuf Toropov
The Last Word Review
There are times when you come across a novel that really takes your breath away and Jihadi: A Love Story by Yusuf Toropov is one such book. Many will look at the title and may be confused by the title. Do not be deterred. Read on!
This is a novel that starts slowly and gathers pace and hits the reader like an express train. Persist with this and it delivers on all fronts and the writing from Toropov is nothing short of exceptional.
The story is written and presented as a memoir of the former CIA agent Ali Liddell who has been incarnated in a secret prison overseas and has been accused of turning to terrorism and his words are being read by his brilliant psychologist.
What this memoir contains are details of his conversion to Islam but the psychologist is making her notes against those written by Liddell, as your read through you start to ask questions and just who are you believing. Just how Toropov has managed to create this outstanding and beautifully crafted debut novel left me breathless. This is writing of an experienced author with many books behind him. I found my pulse rate quickening as you got deeper in the novel.
The one important aspect of this story is how the author has created each of the characters and how every reader interoperates each of them, relationships are built with each of them. Is this how Toropov wanted the reader to become involved with the novel? Liddell’s story is one that one that makes the novel very absorbing to the reader. The psychologist Firestone is an interesting character and how she changes from the consummate professional to one that is somewhat unstable as she annotates Liddell’s words.
The story moves between the US and Iraq and the stories of the characters we meet in both countries leads to us to ask so many questions about how we view other cultures and religions through the media and the spin of propaganda.
Jihadi: A Love Story is very much a book of our time and is relevant to the world we all live in and although this can be a painful read there is some black humour that comes out of the story. It is also a book that once you have read it does cry out for you to stop and think about what is happening in ‘our’ world despite the fact we feel that there are times that we cannot influence those that make the decisions for what they deem as the greater good.
I won’t give away the detailed storyline as this will ruin it for any reader about to read it but there is much to take in about the character that is the CIA agent Liddell and his life.
This is a thumping good read and a five-star thriller and one very special debut novel that gives so much to the reader but also one not to be taken lightly.
Jihadi: A Love Story by Yusuf Toropov was released on 15 February and is published by Orenda Books and is available through all good bookshops.
Thank you to Karen at Orenda Books for a review copy.
Now & Again by Charlotte Rogan
The Last Word Review
Following on from her 2012 debut novel “The Lifeboat” which was in my view extraordinary and an incredible read, now just released by Fleet comes Charlotte Rogan’s latest Now & Again and if you enjoyed Rogan’s debut like me then this is one book you must add to your Summer reading list.
Now & Again although land based still delivers on a number of fronts that will have the reader thinking along the lines of justice, ethics & morals. Rogan’s latest is set during the last years of the presidency of George W. Bush and opens with Maggie Rayburn who works in a munitions plant discovers a cover up after finding a secret document, smuggling the document out of the plant means her life is about to be turned on its head. After spending time working through the detailed report Maggie comes to realise that there is a more than just a cover up involving her employers and now starts to realise that there is a connection to the environment and birth defects and all this stems from the munitions plant and the work carried out there.
For the community of Red Bud, were they rely on the plant for work, Maggie comes to realise very quickly that the locals are turning against her but Maggie is not one for burying the evidence and her quiet steely resolve makes her a character that you want to get behind and will want to support as she goes about uncovering the truth in a situation like this there is usually a price to pay and for Maggie that price is her relationships with her husband and teenage son.
Meanwhile three soldiers have returned home from a tour in Iraq but they are uneasy and what has gone on and are determined to tell the world the truth about the war headed by Captain Penn Sinclair they set up WarTruth.com. The three soldier’s role in Now & Again is well constructed and totally believable all are carrying the weight of burden on their return and want the world to know what is really going on in Iraq.
The opening scenes in Iraq are hard hitting and bring the story of the three returning soldier’s alive and also tells of how veterans are treated on their return home. Some may find the two separate stories here confusing and may be left wondering what the connection really is, but for me I think this just confirms my belief that Charlotte Rogan is an author of ‘our’ time and is telling a topical story from Maggie uncovering injustice on the home front to the story of the three soldiers and the war in Iraq.
Now & Again is totally absorbing to read and one that helps us to understand how we as individuals deal with our fight against all form of injustice in public life.
Thank you to Ursula Doyle and Zoe Hood for an advanced review copy.
Now & Again written by Charlotte Rogan is published by Fleet and is out now through Waterstones and all good book shops.
Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave
The Last Word Review
War can throw people together unlike anything else in life and in the new outstanding historical novel Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave we meet three people who will leave a lasting impression on the reader.
London in 1939 and war has just been declared and hopes and dreams of many people are about to be crushed by war, for some who believe the war will be over quickly are about to be proved sadly wrong. Loosely based on the story of the authors grandparents we follow the main characters Mary, Tom and Alistair through the war years based in London and Malta in a story of love, hopes and dreams to put it simply this is their story.
What we see in Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is how the lives of ordinary people have been shaped by events completely out of their control for which they have no influence people and lives torn apart and shaped by the events of WWII.
From the start we meet Mary from a wealthy young lady and the daughter of an MP, she leaves finishing school and ends up as a teacher to children who have become rejected by the those in the countryside after the evacuations and through the job soon meets up with Tom and the two start a love affair, meanwhile Tom’s closest friend Alistair who is in art as a trade and soon enlists but what happens when Mary meets Alistair means there is a tragic and emotional love story involving all three protagonists the war is raging and London is in the midst of the blitz and the bombs fall like rain the face of London is changing by the day. During this part of the story you can almost hear the air raid sirens wailing around you and taste the smell of death and destruction this is the testament to how Chris Cleave writes as he involves the reader in every aspect of the story.
For Alistair he soon finds himself embroiled in the siege of Malta were tomorrow could well be your last. We learn that the author’s grandfather served in the siege of Malta during the war and there are photographs at the back of the book of his grandfather in uniform as well as together with his grandmother in 1944 that help bring the story to life.
The sheer detail is down to the immense research undertaken by Cleave and he does not hesitate to describe the horror of war whether it is in London as we see Mary and her fiend Hilda driving an ambulance through the blitz and London burnt as the bombs fell.
For me this has just become one of my top two books of 2016 and will be very hard to beat an incredible absorbing story that is both brutal and also incredibly humorous at times. The book is beautifully presented the cover is split between the top half of the book as a black and white photograph of a smartly dressed lady posting a letter surrounded by bombed out buildings and the bottom half mainly in red with the page edgings also in red giving a stunning feel and look to the book.
Without doubt Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is a book that will leave a mark on anyone who loves historical novels and proves that Chris Cleave is a writer at the very top of his game and master of telling a story. I do not ever recall ending a book and holding it with a tear knowing that we are leaving some characters behind that I wanted to know more about. “Brilliant, devastating, humorous and heart-breaking.”
Everyone Brave Is Forgiven written by Chris Cleave and published by Sceptre is available in Hardback through all Waterstones and good shops.
A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz by Göran Rosenberg
The Last Word Review
As the name of the title suggests A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz for so many Jews entering the infamous Nazi death camp there would be no road leading away the gas chambers, it would only be that death would be waiting for them when they entered the gates of Auschwitz.
Rosenberg the son of two Polish Jews that survived the hell that was Auschwitz and here is a deeply moving account written as a memoir of David his father and this is his story of survival and his road from Auschwitz and then trying to make a new life and living with the memories at a time when most were doing their best to ignore the plight of those survivors.
Rosenberg writes with incredible and breath-taking clarity that moves the reader from the first page. As Rosenberg starts to tell the story of his father a survivor of the Lodz ghetto as Rosenberg says “Luck, chance and freak are the stones with which every road from Auschwitz is paved. There are no other roads from Auschwitz but those of improbability” Was it luck for his father as along with a few hundred others who were on their way from Lodz to the death camp when they suddenly found themselves on route to the heart of Germany as slave workers for the Nazi war machine. But the Nazis are in their death throws it is 1944 and the war and time is not on the side of the Nazis and their 1000 – Reich is crumbling in crazed frenzy of destruction and death.
Rosenberg’s father now in his early twenties finds himself being moved from camp to camp and by the time he was liberated he weighed on 80 pounds. David Rosenberg decided to head to Sweden and make this is home, once here he then sets about arranging for Hala to join him as she was still in the Polish ghetto that was Lodz. They would then marry and settle down and try and make a new life for themselves.
For any survivor of the death camps there are physical and also the mental consequences of their experiences during these years and this they will have to carry around with them for the rest of their lives but for David and Hala Rosenberg there is now the gift of life and they must make the most the fact they have survived and now can look forward despite the past that haunts them.
Then in 1953 the West German government passes a law to compensate the survivors of the Holocaust. But the shocking truth is that when David Rosenberg is assessed he is deemed not to have suffered as much as others and loses out on compensation. This has a devastating effect on Göran’s father and never recovers from this traumatic experience.
A poignant and heart-wrenching memoir of his father’s experiences of unimaginable this is a story that is totally unforgettable and Göran’s incredible and detailed research of his father’s past so that he can learn of what his father endured at a time when millions were sent to their death and the slave labour camps were his father spent some of his time.
A story that brings to life his parents lives the fact that they survived and then a world that looked away after the war ended which proves even at the end of war there are many who still have to suffer and endure more pain that the survivors had to carry around with them and for some it was too much to bare.
Beautiful and tender is how this is written and one that has deserved the accolades that has been come its way. Translated by Sarah Death she manages to keep the story in its incredible emotion and detail.
A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz by Göran Rosenberg and published by Granta Books is available through Waterstones and all good book shops.