In Between by M. A. Fernández review

Hi everyone! Today I will reviewing In Between by M. A. Fernández, which was kindly sent to me by the author. The novel is a new adult romance following Rachel Scott, a young secretary working in New York and living with fiancé Ethan Callum. Her life quickly becomes complicated when lawyer Tom Cooper joins the company she works for. The two have an instant connection, and Rachel finds herself torn between two men.

Fernández effectively conveyed Rachel’s thoughts and emotions, which become increasingly complex as the story unfolds. As a reader you were able to understand her dilemma and sympathise with her. Her relationships with the two men were also nicely drawn, particularly Ethan. I felt the portrayal of their relationship was very realistic, depicting the highs and lows every couple experiences. However, I probably would have liked to have seen Rachel’s relationship with Tom developed a bit more. It happens quite suddenly at the beginning and, aside from a physical attraction, I was never sure what Rachel saw in him. It just occurs and that was that. As a result, the Tom/Rachel relationship didn’t feel as fleshed-out as the other one, thus making the reader’s choice of man an obvious one. If we read more of Tom and Rachel perhaps that choice would have been trickier.

The plot twists in the narrative are well done and genuinely surprisingly. I never expected the novel to go the way it did, which was refreshing. It wasn’t just a typical love triangle that appears far too frequently in storytelling and I liked how Fernández did something different. However the second half of the novel felt a bit rushed, going at a much faster pace than the first. Due to this, the events that happen towards the end are crammed in close together, and there isn’t a lot of time for the readers to make sense of all that is going on. Perhaps having them more spaced out with quieter moments in between (no pun intended), would make it feel less rushed.

In Between has a lot of potential. Fernández can write incredibly well, and there were numerous times I wanted to underline a paragraph or a turn of phrase. There were a couple of spelling mistakes, particularly towards the end, but they didn’t really bother me. I would have liked more character development and I think the pacing was a bit off at the conclusion, but overall this was a very good debut romance.

In Between is published independently and you can find more information here.


Rain by Kirsty Gunn review

Hi everyone! My review today is Rain, the debut novel by Kirsty Gunn. Jane Phelon reflects back to the summer of 1972, when her family made the annual trip to their holiday home by the lake. Jane and her little brother James, affectionately nicknamed Jim Little, explore the lake and surrounding countryside. They are gone for long periods of time, as their parents host nightly parties and are often too hungover during the day to spend a lot of time with the kids. And on this particular year tragedy strikes.

It is an incredibly hard book to describe, mainly because there is no plot. You can easily guess the conclusion from the opening paragraph, and Gunn makes various allusions to it throughout the narrative. The novel seems less about what happened and more how did it happen, and what impact that had on Jane. However I’m not sure if it fully succeeded in this.

The relationship dynamics between the family members were really well done. Gunn effectively puts up a barrier between the children and their parents, using distancing language to highlight the disparity amongst them. The mother’s emphasis on makeup and fancy clothing hints at the facade they put on when with others. I also enjoyed the sibling relationship. Gunn really captured Jane’s mentality as both an older sister who has to take care of her brother but is also a child herself – she is only 12 and Jim is 5. You pity her as she has to act as a de facto mother.

However none of the characters felt particularly well-developed. None seemed to have an arc in the story and there didn’t appear to be any depth. Perhaps because it is being told through one perspective that I felt this way, but I came away from the novel indifferent to the characters. Also the plot takes a really dark turn near the end, but we never know how that affects Jane either at the time or in her future. It just happens. That moment seemed more of a shock tactic than an integral part of the story. It was completely unnecessary and left a bad taste afterwards.

Gunn’s writing is very beautiful and poetic, some of her descriptions are so vivid it is easy to picture yourself by this lakeside. However, I did have a couple of minor issues with this as well. Some moments were very lyrical while others were quite stale. Gunn used some tired similes and metaphors in her writing, one eerily similar to another I had read years ago at school. It was frustrating as Gunn clearly showed she was capable of stunning prose elsewhere. The descriptions were occasionally overwritten. She would linger on a scene longer than necessary, and I felt frustrated that we were not progressing with the story.

While there were good elements in Rain, I don’t know if the novel worked as a whole. It was hard to care about the characters, and I found one plot twist to be in poor taste. Gunn can certainly write, though I did feel like it was a mixed bag in terms of imagery. Gunn has had high praise for her later novels so if you are interested in giving her a try, I would maybe start with them and give Rain a miss.

Rain is published by Faber & Faber and more information can be found here.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy review

Hi everyone! Today I’m reviewing Leo Tolstoy’s famous (and ridiculously long) novel Anna Karenina, which has been translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude. Set in 19th century Russia, the novel tracks the lives and loves of a whole cast of characters. At the centre of the story is the eponymous Anna, a married woman who begins an affair with the charismatic Count Vronsky. Their relationship ultimately becomes the catalyst for her downfall. There is also Constantine Levin, a landowner who is in love with Princess Kitty, who in turn has her eye on Vronsky.

This is a stunning, sweeping story of epic proportions. Tolstoy manages to cram so much plot and character development into the narrative that it seems impossible for me to write about them fully. So instead I have decided to focus on the characters of Anna and Levin in my review, as they are the two main players and I feel best exemplify Tolstoy’s writing prowess.

The characters are incredibly well-developed. Both Anna and Levin at first appear likeable, interesting people. You cannot help but sympathise with them at the beginning, especially Levin during his early scenes with Kitty. His love for her is evident, but so is her attraction to Vronsky and as a reader you cannot but help pity him and his inevitable heartache. Yet as the novel progresses, we begin to see their flaws. Anna and Levin seem to have the same insecurity, namely jealousy which threatens to destroy their respective relationships. In these moments I felt frustrated at them, and began to even dislike them. By the end I wasn’t sure how I felt about either, the complexities in their characters making them simultaneously admirable and flawed, but ultimately human.

The language as well is beautiful. With translated work I’m never sure how much credit goes to the author or translators, but regardless here it was stunning. The descriptions of the natural world in particular were very evocative, and I liked how the seasons were used as a device to reflect characters’ moods at various points. The scything scenes with Levin are perhaps my favourite passages. They showed how difficult the work could be but also how fulfilling. It felt almost calming reading about it, Tolstoy describing the surroundings and the men working in the fields. There was something languid that recalls sunny days in the countryside.

Tolstoy also discusses Russian society during this period. There is notably the hypocrisy of an elite group avoiding being seen with Anna, when they themselves had affairs with apparently no consequence. He also talks about the changes in farming, mainly due to technology. This is often debated between Levin and his fellow landowners. Yet these conversations are not dry and dull, but are rather fascinating and show a snippet of life from that period. It is interesting to reflect on the developments described in the novel, and our own technological advancements.

I could probably write a 10,000 review on Anna Karenina and still be unable to do it justice. Initially I was apprehensive about picking it up, mainly due to its size. However it is a classic for a reason. The characters are so well fleshed-out and believable that I didn’t want to leave them by the end. I became so invested in their journeys that I could’ve read more. The prose is amazing, and how Tolstoy weaves the story of a nation into a story of one group of people is incredible. There was never a dull moment and I highly recommend it.

Anna Karenina is published by Vintage and you can find more information here.


Gary, the Four-Eyed Fairy and Other Stories by Frank Mundo review

Hi everyone! This week I’m reviewing Gary, the Four-Eyed Fairy and Other Stories by Frank Mundo, which I kindly received from the author and Booktasters. This collection of short stories revolve around a particular character, J.T Glass who works as a security guard at various establishments. The stories are snippets of his life, from his childhood and relationships with his family, to his escapades at work.

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection. Mundo really captures Glass’ voice, who is our narrator for the majority of the stories, and it never falters. It is very dry, occasionally black humour laced with moments of reflection. As a result, Glass comes across as a very well-fleshed out character. He is relatable even in the most bizarre of scenarios, and you cannot help but laugh at some of the predicaments he finds himself in.

The idea of telling this story in fragments was also cleverly done. As a reader you are left to fill in the blanks and come up with your own ideas about what happens to these characters next. This narrative also reflects real life experiences. We only see people in snippets of their lives, and you may not be privy to the events or people that shape them. So it was interesting to witness these various fragments which make up a whole life and see how these affect Glass.

In particular my favourite stories revolved around Glass and his siblings. Mundo does an excellent job of portraying their relationship, and the banter between them felt very realistic. I found reading those stories very nostalgic, and couldn’t help but remember the ridiculous things my brother and I got up to when we were younger. Those moments were very evocative and I was moved by them. Every time I started a new story and realised it was about his childhood I got really excited.

Overall this is a collection well worth checking out if you’re a big fan of short stories. They are very witty and I found myself giggling away at points. The characterisation of Glass is also incredibly well-done and the writing is very vibrant and engaging. If you’re needing a bit of a pick-me-up then this might be the book for you.

Gary, the Four-Eyed Fairy and Other Stories is published independently and you can find more information here.

Little Deaths by Emma Flint review

Hi everyone! This week the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 will be announced on Thursday 8th. To mark the occasion I’ve decided to review one of last year’s nominees, Emma Flint’s debut Little Deaths. Set in Queens, New York, 1965, Ruth Malone wakes up one day to find her two young children missing. Almost instantly she is suspected to be involved by the police due to her lifestyle. A young, intrepid journalist called Pete Wonicke is assigned to report on the case, one of his biggest breaks to date. As the case goes on however, Wonicke starts to believe Ruth may actually be innocent. But if Ruth wasn’t responsible for the children’s disappearance, then who was?

Flint successfully tackles the idea of social expectations placed on women, particularly mothers. Ruth is vilified by both the police and her neighbours because she does not behave like a ‘normal’ mother should. She drinks, has affairs and wears a lot of make-up and more provocative clothing. In one scene, we are told that two women in the neighbourhood dress similarly, which is never mentioned again. However there is constant reference to Ruth’s appearance, implying it is significantly at odds with the community. There is a feeling of anger and frustration when you realise that Ruth is being suspected simply because she doesn’t conform to expectations. In this way she almost reminds me of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, they are different therefore they are bad. This idea was compounded at the end of the novel.

Ruth’s grief was also beautifully written. Flint captures the anguish of losing one’s children, writing in heart-breaking detail the thoughts and feelings Ruth experiences. You cannot help but feel sorry for her, and hope she can find justice. Her attempts to escape this grief, either through drink or sex, were also sensitively handled. Despite being the primary suspect in the case, I found her really likeable as a character and felt sympathy for her.

However while Ruth came to life on the page, Pete was as flat as a pancake. He felt like a plot device a lot of the time, as he would have various conversations with police where they discussed new details about the case. Those conversations felt quite stilted to me, like Flint needed us to know information to drive the plot along so got the characters to explicitly talk about it. Once those were done, I wasn’t entirely sure why Pete was there. His obsession with Ruth also felt unnatural. It reminded me a little of Marc Behm’s The Eye of the Beholder, but I felt Behm’s character was more believable in a sense as he doesn’t have much to live for at the beginning, so he clings to this woman. Pete’s dream is to work as a reporter in New York, so it just felt unlikely that when he had reached his goal, that he would risk throwing it all away for someone he doesn’t know. There were many times when I wished I could skip the Pete parts and go on to Ruth.

Despite my problems with the characterisation of Pete, I think Little Deaths is an assured debut. Flint is a very capable writer and there are passages, mostly from Ruth’s point of view, which are beautiful. She was inspired by a real-life case and her writing did make me want to research the case and know about it. My issues with Pete did mean I felt the middle section of the novel dragged. However when Flint was at the top of her game, her prose was stunning. Overall the novel felt like a mixed bag but I am interested to see Flint develop as a writer.

Little Deaths is published by Picador and you can find more information here.


The Fading of Lloyd by Kit Crumpton review

Hi everyone! Today I will be reviewing Kit Crumpton’s second novel The Fading of Lloyd, which I kindly received from the publisher and Booktasters. The novel begins in 1941 and a 30-year-old man, Lloyd Huttleston, lies dead. He had been receiving insulin shock therapy, a way to treat schizophrenia, at Elgin State Hospital in Illnois. The novel then travels back in time to when Lloyd’s father, Clifford, is a young boy and runs away from home. We see him grow up and start a family, and the book slowly begins to reveal why Lloyd was placed in the psychatric hospital.

Crumpton cleverly charts the development of a nation through one man. As Clifford grows from a boy into a man, the reader also witnesses the advancements in American society. These are primarily shown through technology, such as the railways, and science with a scene from a medical conference. There are also references to both World Wars and women’s suffrage. Crumpton effectively weaves these historical events into the narrative, discussing the changing landscape of a country while still dealing with the personal events of Clifford’s life, without making the story feel cluttered.

The amount of research that went into the novel is clearly evident, and enhanced my enjoyment of the book. I only had rough idea about mental health care during this period previously, but Crumpton goes into detail. It was very fascinating and I will be diving into the bibliography at the end to find out more. But the novel isn’t burdened with massive information dumps. Instead, you learn about medical practices quite organically through plot development.

The development of the characters was also well-done. Clifford in particular was a very well-rounded character. He felt very much like a man of his time, and though he does some problematic things, Crumpton still makes you sympathise with him. She doesn’t retroactively judge him which I liked. Lloyd’s three sisters were also a highlight for me. They all had distinct personalities that shone in the scenes they were in. I particularly liked the character of Jean, who appeared to have quite a complex relationship with her brother and struggled with his mental health.

However at times the novel was awkwardly written. One example occurs at the end of a chapter, as Clifford leaves home;

‘It was beyond Clifford’s imagination that several years later he would see a shirt stained with blood, inflicted by his own hand, using his own belt, on his own son, Lloyd’. pg 32.

Out of context this sentence seems perfectly fine. However, we had previously been told Lloyd is Clifford’s only son so the last part seems superfluous. Just having either ‘his own son’ or ‘Lloyd’ would have worked. There is also a moment where ‘The Great War’ is mentioned and immediately after Crumpton writes WW1. Because the term ‘The Great War’ is commonly associated with the First World War, and given the year is printed with the chapter title, it felt unnecessary to write both names for the war. Moments like these felt a little clunky, and would make me pause, taking me out of the story.

Overall The Fading of Lloyd was a very quick, interesting read, and I found it a fascinating look at mental health at the beginning of the 20th century. The characters and prose were well-written, and I could quite happily have spent more time with them. Crumpton also manages to evoke the time period well. If you are interested in historical fiction I think you may enjoy this.

The Fading of Lloyd is published by Golden Word Books and you can find more information here.

Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala

Hi everyone! Today I will be reviewing Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil, which I gratefully received from John Murray and Netgalley. Our protagonist is Niru, a teenager living in Washington DC. He appears to have it all: a star track runner bound for Harvard who is surrounded by friends and family. Except Niru is gay, something his strict Nigerian parents find sinful. With his life flipped upside down, Niru must try and navigate the precarious situation he is in.

Iweala does an excellent job of capturing the experience of being a teenager, filled with all the anxieties and hopes during that period. Whenever an adult tries to write in the style of somebody younger, I very often roll my eyes at the tired (and often wrong) cliches they spout out. Here however, Iweala successfully manages to pull off a teenage voice. The pop culture references are not shoe-horned in, but rather naturally appear in conversations. The stresses of exams and extra-curricular activities are so well-done, they reminded me of my own experience at that time in my life.

The difficulties of being a teenager are successfully blended together with wider themes of identity. Niru and Meredith, Niru’s best friend who is the first to find out he is gay, struggle to find their place in the world, as many teenagers do. But being gay when it is forbidden, and being black in a predominantly white city, adds more pressure and Iweala captures Niru’s confusion and frustration beautifully. He is discovering his identity as a teenager but that identity is seen as different by his family and peers. This plays into a much more broader discussion, namely the treatment of black people and the LGBTQ+ community in the USA, as well as movements such as Black Lives Matter. Iweala navigates between the personal and the political very well.

However where the novel really excels is through its imagery. The language is beautiful and evocative, in particular a scene where Meredith is walking through Washington DC. I felt like I was pounding the pavements alongside her, so vivid Iweala had painted that picture. The recurring imagery of running laced throughout the story was also great. Both Niru and Meredith are into athletics, and we see them at various practices. Yet the physical act of them running becomes a metaphor, whether that is leaving the city or going to college, they are escaping from their lives here in search of a better one.

Overall, I thought Speak No Evil was a stunning piece of work. Iweala tackles very serious, sensitive subjects such as race and sexuality, as well as weaves a very compelling story. The novel isn’t long but certainly packs a punch. The characters are well fleshed-out and their voices are believable. The imagery used is also incredibly beautiful and poignant. I would highly recommend Speak No Evil.

Speak No Evil will be published in March by John Murray and you can find more information here.

Kaon Rising (Star Traveler #1) by Jonathan J Snyder review

Hi everyone! Today I will be writing about Jonathan J Snyder’s Kaon Rising, which was kindly sent to me for review via Booktasters. Humans have now colonised a lot of space, much to the chagrin of other species. Captain Sinclair Barrett assembles a team for a special mission. Aboard the ship Icarus he reveals his intentions: to track down the mysterious Kaon, a species long thought to have been extinct. This mission takes them further than humans have ever gone before, with unknown dangers lurking.

I really enjoyed this book. It was a fast-paced story, so it became compulsively readable. You wanted to find out more. Snyder also cleverly weaves into the plot the science and history behind this world. There weren’t any massive information dumps that slowed the plot down, yet you were given enough explanation to understand these characters and the universe they inhabit.

The characters as well had very distinct personalities and voices. With quite a large cast it would have been easy for them to blend in and become indistinguishable, but Snyder sidesteps this. Also, Sinclair Barrett is such an interesting person to base the plot around. He appears very straight-laced, yet I suspect his character develops in later books. Here he is very much the straight man, who other, more eccentric characters bounce off of. This worked very well as for readers, Barrett is a kind of window into this world. You can relate to him on some level so you want to follow his journey, plus he lets the readers glimpse the different species and technologies without it being confusing. A more eccentric character would have been less sympathetic and therefore the story wouldn’t have been so readable.

Kaon Rising is a short novel (I read it in a day) but it certainly packs a punch. From the word go you are sucked into this other universe. There were a few spelling mistakes throughout but it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the plot. The world and its inhabitants were so well-written and clearly defined, the book was really interesting and had me hooked. If you are into sci-fi I would check out Kaon Rising. I can’t wait to see where the story goes next.

Kaon Rising was published independently and you can find more information here.

The Eye of the Beholder by Marc Behm review

Hi everyone! Today I’ll be reviewing Marc Behm’s novel The Eye of the Beholder. The narrator is a private investigator, known simply as ‘The Eye’. His latest task is to follow the son of a wealthy couple who has been visiting a mysterious woman. The Eye sets off on his mission and follows the young lovers around town. However, The Eye is drawn to the woman and begins to follow her wherever she goes, crossing the US and leaving murder and mayhem in their wake.

The characterisation of The Eye was the highlight for me. He was very complex and morally ambiguous, which I really liked. You were never sure how you felt about him. There are moments, especially when The Eye reflects on his daughter, which are quite touching, and Behm does an excellent job of humanising him in these scenes. Without those moments, he would have been quite a flat character, and his bizarre actions throughout the novel would have just been inexplicable.

The woman that he follows also has a lot of depth. At first she is sort of a blank canvas, then gradually you find out more about her past. Those sections I really enjoyed as you get a glimpse into what causes her to behave the way she does. But at the end you still don’t know what you thought of her. With The Eye as a highly unreliable narrator, you were never sure if he was projecting his own thoughts on to her, or if she was like how he described her. While these two characters are given a bit of the backstory, the rest of the characters are brushed aside. Normally that would detract from my enjoyment of the novel. However it doesn’t here. It reflects the mentality of The Eye, who has grown more and more obsessed by this woman, that everything else fades into the background. I though Behm handled this really well.

However, I did have a couple of issues. There were a couple of scenes which I felt were superfluous. Looking back, they didn’t really add anything to the plot and if they had been cut I wouldn’t have missed them. As a result I think the novel does drag in these parts, as you are waiting to get to a more interesting episode. The second issue I have is that at times I felt Behm was trying to cram too much stuff into one novel. There are all these murders and alias and intrigue that at points it became totally outlandish. I felt myself being pulled out of the story because of how ridiculous it was.

You do have to suspend your disbelief with The Eye of the Beholder, but once you do it is actually a fun, pulpy romp. There is plenty of action and mystery to keep you on your toes, and you never knew what was going to happen next. The ending I found really touching and bittersweet, and it felt like the perfect send-off for these characters. While I do have a couple of criticisms, I really enjoyed The Eye of the Beholder and would check out Behm’s other novel.

The Eye of the Beholder is published by Arcadia Books and you can find more information here.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym review

Hi everyone! Today I’ll be reviewing Barbara Pym’s second novel Excellent Women, which I won a copy of from a Virago Press competition. In my household I famously never win anything ever so woohoo! Set in 1950s London, our narrator is Mildred Lathbury, a thirty year old, unmarried woman who splits her time between her part-time job and helping out at the local church. However, she quickly becomes entangled in the lives of her glamourous new neighbours the Napiers. Anthropologist Helena, who appears to be the exact opposite of Mildred, and Navy officer Rockingham (the best name in fiction that I’ve read recently), whom Mildred develops a soft spot for, seem to be going through a turbulent patch in their marriage. To complicate her life even further, Helena’s colleague Everard Bone and Mildred’s friend and vicar Julian Mallory also pop up with their own problems.

The decision to tell the story from Mildred’s perspective was brilliant. One of the characters says she is an ‘observer of life’ which is sort of true. Nothing happens to her but to people around her, and she is often left to deal with other people’s actions. Yet she is not a mere shrinking violet, a device to simply tell the narrative, despite her appearance to others (and intially the audience). Mildred has an incredible wit, and her remarks about the often bizarre situations she finds herself in are quite funny. Not necessarily in a laugh out loud way but I found myself smiling at her observations. Pym also instills in her a kind of sadness, a longing for something more. She appears to have suppressed those feelings, and while they are only alluded to, the reader can certainly glean them from the text and have sympathy for Mildred. Perhaps appearing a very one-note person at first, I found Mildred to be a very complex, interesting character.

The supporting characters too were well-written. Mildred’s fellow churchgoers all had a distinctive voice which I admired and the reader was given little snippets into their own thoughts and feelings. Some aspects of their depiction I found quite stereotypical, such as the gossipy nature whenever anything of interest happened, yet I didn’t mind this as it led to some funny dialogue. The three main men in Mildred’s life – Rockingham, Everard and Julian – were also very different from one another. They all had their strengths and weaknesses, allowing the audience to see why Mildred did care for them and also where one seemed a better choice compared to the others. It makes the idea of deciding who would be the best man for Mildred impossible, and I think it is only until the latter half of the novel do you start to get an idea of who it may be. I found this quite refreshing as I find that with romance in stories it is glaringly obvious from the beginning. To not really know was enjoyable and kept me guessing.

Yet the strength of Excellent Women lies within Pym’s writing and observations. The novel is set in post-war London but it remains very much in the background. Instead Pym focuses on the much smaller events that make up a person’s life. Mildred’s sense of what is proper in the most insignificant moments is quite endearing, as we have all worried ourselves about something that is ultimately quite trivial in the grander scheme of things. Pym’s comments about society and the things we do because of societal expectations I found really relatable and could sometimes recognise myself in them, despite the novel being written over 60 years ago. Her understanding of human foibles and a wonderful ability to write them in a truthful and witty manner makes the novel truly great.

Excellent Women is, well, excellent. The characterisation, particularly of Mildred, was well-done and gave you a sense of this community and its inhabitants. Despite finding Mildred’s views quite old-fashioned at times, especially in regards to marriage, she was a delightful, funny and sympathetic character. I was sad when I finished the book because I wouldn’t be spending more time with her. The secondary characters as well were given enough depth that they didn’t feel caricaturish. Yet the novel’s main selling point has to be Pym’s writing. Her observations of the small details of life are often witty and charming. I feel slightly ashamed that I have never read more of Pym’s work but hopefully I can correct this in 2018.

Excellent Women is published by Virago Press and more information can be found here.