Daughter by Jane Shemilt

DaughterDaughter by Jane Shemilt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. It’s rare that I would describe a novel as gentle and brutal, delicate, and devastating, but Jane Shemilt’s debut Daughter manages to be all these things and more, making it one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Daughter is a slow burn of a tale which will appeal to fans of Broadchurch and the works of Tana French. The story is told in chapters alternating between the past (mostly set in Bristol) and the present (mostly in Dorset).
Our first person narrator is Jenny, a wife, family-practice doctor, and mother of three teenaged children. Jenny’s husband Ted is a neurosurgeon with a thriving practice in Bristol, Jenny’s daughter Naomi is a bright and lovely 15-year-old with a starring role in the school play, and Jenny’s twin sons Theo and Ed are each their own unique, apparently functional, people.
The kids are showing what Jenny assumes to be normal signs of teenage rebellion, but Jenny knows that she loves them, tries to communicate with them in the times when she is home, and more or less assumes that all is well.
However, when Naomi disappears after her performance as Maria in West Side Story, Jenny’s seemingly reasonable ideas about her family begin to fall apart.
As if she is peeling an onion, and with results which bring real tears, Jenny begins to look carefully for the first time beneath the surface of her daily life. As she searches for answers to her daughter’s disappearance, she uncovers truths about her husband, sons, daughter, and ultimately, about herself, which irrevocably change her world.
In this way, although Daughter has a catastrophic event as its starting place, Naomi’s disappearance is really just the opening that author Jane Shemilt needs to begin to deftly explore the dynamics of family, motherhood, and growing up.
Shemilt is a gifted writer. She is herself a family-practice doctor with children and a husband who is a neurosurgeon. Thus, her descriptions of balancing family and a career, as well as her insight into doctor/patient dynamics are intelligent and thought-provoking.
Shemilt also has a talent for evoking a sense of place. Both Bristol and Dorset are described with affection, familiarity, and an artist’s attention to detail.
Daughter becomes more and more powerful as it progresses, until, in the final pages, I literally could not put it down. It left me feeling emotional, amazed, sad, but also, deeply satisfied. I think that the story will continue to resonate with me for a long time. I highly recommend it.
Thank you to William Morrow/Harper Collins Publishers for the arc of Daughter, by Jane Shemilt.

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The Paying Guests: Spotlight on Sarah Waters

The Paying GuestsThe Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am a huge fan of Sarah Waters’ novels. Waters is one of those authors who I think is truly exceptional and extraordinary.
There are a lot of things about Waters’ fiction that, to my mind, make it something precious. Here, in no particular order, are what come to mind.
First, her amazing, meticulous, meaningful, attention to detail. Waters’ novels are long, and they are dense. But the thing is, when you read them slowly, and literally pay attention to the details of place, and what the characters are doing in every ordinary moment, it matters.
Whereas a lot of authors of historical fiction (or fiction in general) rely on generalities to create a sense of place…for example, throwing a few words around, say, “misty moors” or “crumbling old mansion” and expect readers to mentally fill in a generic sense of place, Waters describes her world in particular, carefully chosen detail. When Waters writes, no description of washing dishes, or cleaning the stairs, is ever just the thing itself. It is an opportunity to create the feeling of being there, with the character, in that moment in history and in their life.
Second of all, Waters is a master of creating bubbling, under the surface, menace. In The Paying Guests, especially, this darkness is so woven into the fabric of the ordinary, that it is all the more chilling.
Waters’ thrillers are powerful in that they are not melodramatic (except when she does this purposefully). The Paying Guests is always about “real” people. There are no utter villains, no monsters. The characters are all flawed and human. They show impulses to love, but they also suffer cowardice, selfishness, and fear.
One underlying theme in The Paying Guests is the exploration of grief. Waters places this novel historically after World War I, when the world, and individuals, were grieving the loss of so very much. The menace that Waters creates in The Paying Guests, the secrets, and guilt, and fear, are related to her exploration of life in London after the Great War. Waters’ characters are struggling with the loss of the geographical boundaries of the world as they knew it, as well as the loss of a way of life and a class and gender system that is falling apart. They are grieving the loss of their brothers and lovers and sons. And in The Paying Guests, the main characters of Frances and Lilian are grieving a loss of their own innocence and of their own dreams.
Which brings me to the plot of The Paying Guests, which, as with pretty much every novel I’ve read by Sarah Waters, is not what it first appears. The basic premise is that Miss Wray-Francis-and her widowed mother, have fallen on hard times after the War, and, unhappily, find it necessary to allow lodgers to live in their home, in order to make ends meet. These lodgers, whom the Wrays refer to as “paying guests,” are a young married couple named Lilian and Leonard Barber. When the Barbers enter the Wrays’ home, all their lives will change in irrevocable and unimaginable ways.
What you need to know about The Paying Guests, if you’re considering reading it, is that, on the good side, it is among the very best of Sarah Waters’ work in its creation of a powerful, intimate sense of place. After reading this novel, I’m picking up historical fiction by other authors, and finding that the characters and their world feel like shadows in comparison. This creation of a wholly absorbing, authentic, fictional reality, is one of Waters’ great talents. As I read The Paying Guests, I thought (whimsically) that her characters must really exist, in some parallel universe.
On the other hand, Waters’ world and character building takes a lot of words. It can be an exhausting pleasure to read.
Also, if you’re considering reading The Paying Guests, you should know that, having read Affinity and Fingersmith previously, I found this novel to be less “shocking twist” and more grave and thoughtful in tone. When I think of Fingersmith, I think of fun, “oh my gosh!” moments of revelation, and a (with reservations) happy, hopeful ending. When I think of Affinity, I think of wonderful eerie spookiness, but also, great emotion and loss. Both these novels contained major twists I didn’t see coming.
To my mind, The Paying Guests didn’t have that twist aspect, at least not to the same degree. The last third of the novel was almost more of a courtroom drama. And I think, some of the choices that Frances and Lilian made, and even, especially, the options they had, made me sad. In the end, The Paying Guests had a plot that resonated with the postwar setting and the themes of grief, loss, change, and living with an uncertain future. But these themes are not easy ones to confront. As such, I found myself feeling sad at the end of the novel, feeling unsettled.
The Paying Guests is extraordinary, but it is also exhausting. When you start The Paying Guests, make sure you’ve got something light and bright to read or watch after.

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The Girl with All the Gifts by M. R. Carey

The Girl with All the GiftsThe Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Girl With All the Gifts was both more and less than I had expected.
I first became aware of this novel months ago through a seemingly huge promo campaign labeling it the next “big” thing. Because it was labeled a sci/fi thriller, not my favorite genre, I ignored the hype for awhile.
Anyway, I eventually picked up the audio version of The Girl with All the Gifts, and was very pleasantly surprised to be drawn in immediately by the character of Melanie, a little girl living in a post-apocalyptic version of our world.
Melanie has no memory beyond her current situation, where she is locked in solitary confinement in an army/prison complex. Each morning, soldiers with guns tie Melanie to a wheelchair, and she is transported to a classroom. There along with fellow “students,” she receives an education. The world Melanie learns about is the reader’s world, the world before the apocalyptic “breakdown” of the novel, when hungries, a mutant life form, invaded and destroyed humanity.
As the novel begins, the reader knows a little, but like Melanie, we’ve also got a million questions. Why is Melanie tied up, fed once a week, handled like she is dangerous? What exists beyond her cell and the classroom?
All too soon, a catastrophic event occurs that will start to unravel Melanie’s insular world, and she, along with four other people, will share an adventure that will reveal the deepest character in each of them.
The other important characters, whose perspective the reader is privy to, include Miss Justineau, Melanie’s beautiful, gentle teacher, and the subject of a childish crush. A polar opposite to Miss Justineau is Dr. Caldwell, a scientist with laser focus to find a cure for the hungry plague. And accompanying these women, we have Sergeant Eddie Parks, a burned out but experienced soldier, and Private Gallagher, a brand new recruit who has joined the danger of the army to escape the danger of an abusive, alcoholic, family.
What I really loved about The Girl with All the Gifts was the exploration of character. The novel was much more than just a bright series of explosions and gunshots. All five main characters were unique individuals, and their reactions to a disaster scenario were fascinating and thought provoking.
The Girl with All the Gifts made me think a lot about what I would do in case of a major disaster. Mostly, this was in a fascinated, slightly frightened, “what if” kind of way, but the novel also spurred me on to be more informed about disaster preparedness.
On that note, the second thing I really enjoyed about the story was M.R. Carey’s world building. His depiction of how a bio-terrorism disaster of world-wide proportions would play out was logical and well-thought out. The world of the novel was bleak and terrifying, but also, utterly absorbing.
So the strongest parts of the novel for me were the characters themselves and the world they found themselves in.
The reason I didn’t give The Girl with All the Gifts five stars is that somehow, it didn’t achieve the impact that I felt primed for (after all the amazing character development and world building). I’m not sure quite why this was, because I did find the ending somewhat satisfying. Or at least, the ending was original, and logical within the framework of the story.
But I found the second half of the book, which was a bit more about survivalist action, less interesting than the setup. I also felt sad about the way the story ended, even though it made narrative sense. And finally, despite all the big scientific language that Dr. Caldwell used as she, against all odds, attempted to explain the mystery of the hungries, I found the her final explanation to be a disappointment.
Ultimately, this story began with an amazing idea, and I think, will stay with me and continue to make me think. I recommend The Girl with All the Gifts to anyone who enjoys apocalyptic novels with great characters and plot. This novel may not have fully realized it’s potential, but it is still, to me, one of the standout novels of 2014.

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The Swallow: A Ghost Story by Charis Cotter

 

The Swallow: A Ghost StoryThe Swallow: A Ghost Story by Charis Cotter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Swallow: A Ghost Story, is such a wonderful, special book that I would pretty much recommend it to anyone.
This novel by Charis Cotter tells the story of the friendship between two 12-year-old girls living in Toronto in 1963. Polly is outgoing, bubbly, and passionate, with a love for books and chocolate, and a huge, busy family. Rose is introverted, pale, quiet, and loves to sing. Rose lives in a house adjoining Polly’s, and spends her time more or less alone, as her parents work long hours, and their housekeeper, Kendrick is a silent, brooding presence.
One afternoon, the two girls meet each other unexpectedly (in a very funny scene, which I won’t give away) and a very special friendship develops between these two seemingly opposite, but both, lonely, souls.
What follows is a story that is hard to describe, part mystery, part drama, part ghost story, but ultimately, a tale about friendship that transcends time and place.
In The Swallow, Charis Cotter has created something magical, something ineffable. Her story contains something that is more than the sum of its parts, or of its words and plot. The Swallow walks this fine line, like the crack between two worlds, or the mysterious space between life and death. The beautiful book cover captures the feel of this enchanting, ghostly, sad yet joyous novel perfectly.
The Swallow is the best of books, a middle grade novel that will appeal to adults as well as children, and a book that takes its readers into the creative space of imagination, in which anything is possible.

I received an advanced review copy of The Swallow: A Ghost Story, from the publisher via NetGalley.

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Before I Wake (1 June 2014) by C.L. Taylor

Before I WakeBefore I Wake by C.L. Taylor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Before I Wake by CL Taylor is the kind of book that kept me up late at night reading, and the kind of book that, after I finished it, I fell asleep thinking about.
It falls into the same genre as many recent novels I have read, such as Under Your Skin, by Sabine Durrant, Jellybird, by Lezanne Clannachan, Precious Thing, by Collete McBeth, and the novels of Samantha Hayes, Julia Crouch, and Claire McGowan. These novels have a lot of things in common; they usually have a female protagonist who may or may not be losing her mind, and they usually deal with female friendships, or the relationships between mothers and daughters, or husbands and wives. There is often a tragedy, either a murder, a kidnapping, or an act of violence, there is usually some kind of obsession, and there is often narrative from both the past and present. There is usually a strong mystery/thriller element, and almost always, some type of twist or reveal.
With that said, these novels are currently popular for a reason…the combination of elements mentioned above are an addictive concoction, even when thrown together in a less than stellar fashion. I think that part of the appeal of “domestic noir” as it has recently been coined by author Julia Crouch, is that it deals with real, normal women, presumably similar to the reader, who are dealing with relationships that are easily relatable.
Most of us have a mother, a friend, a child, or else the lack of those things, and that impacts us in deep ways. So the subject matter of these novels touches the heart of some universal experiences and fears, and allows us to get the voyeur’s thrill of reading about someone else overcome a problem.
To me, many of these novels are like a chocolate bar at the checkout counter of a supermarket; there is a whole selection of similar choices, each with slight variations: milk, dark, caramel, peanuts- it’s very easy to pick one up in passing, to consume it quickly, and to forget about it afterwards. And just like inexpensive chocolate bars, these types of novels pretty much always look tasty.
That said, I love chocolate, including the generic supermarket variety. I also seem to love this domestic-noir genre, and find that some authors who write this type of novel are truly gifted storytellers who are able to touch my emotions deeply. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of writers in this genre, probably because it is such a hot sell for publishers right now, who are simply mediocre.
Luckily, Before I Wake by CL Taylor is one of the more solid offerings in the domestic-noir genre. The story follows Susan, whose daughter Charlotte is in a coma. Despite the assumption of everyone around her that this coma is the result of an accident, Susan suspects that Charlotte was trying to kill herself because she had a terrible secret. What follows is a mystery with many of the aforementioned elements, and a story in which we aren’t sure until the very end who to trust.
Before I Wake is also, to my mind, a successful novel because as well as being a roller coaster of a thriller, it also chronicles the emotional journey and changes that Susan goes through as a result of what happens to her, and her response to it. Is Susan a victim? A murderer? Paranoid? Or is she the only person who can save her daughter? To avoid spoilers, all I will say is that the story ends with a rip-roaring, satisfying conclusion.
One more thing that Before I Wake made me think about was how many publishers and reviewers are comparing this type of fiction to Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, and usually stating that these “imitations” fall short of that inspiration. I had accepted that premise, since domestic noir has definitely seemed to flourish in years following the publication of Gone Girl. However, after reading Before I Wake, I began to think differently.
To me, there are crucial, basic differences between Gone Girl, and the novels categorized as domestic noir. Domestic-noir novels deal with issues primarily pertaining to women. These include the experiences of pregnancy and motherhood, the particular relationships between female friends, mothers and daughters, or of a woman being abused by a man who is physically, clearly stronger than she is. Gone Girl did none of these things.
To my mind, Gone Girl deals with issues that apply to both sexes. It chronicles a twisted marriage from the perspective of both the husband and the wife. It is more about power dynamics, rather than about a specifically female experience. So to me, the basic appeal of Gone Girl is completely different from the basic appeal of domestic noir.
This is not to say that men won’t enjoy reading novels in this genre, but it is interesting to note that domestic-noir authors are mostly (if not totally) women, and that in the novels I have read, there is almost never a male first-person perspective given. All that is NOT to say that domestic noir is better or worse than Gone Girl, but simply to say that I think the two have some fundamental differences. Although novels like Before I Wake are often compared to Gone Girl (perhaps initially in order to promote sales), reading them with that comparison in mind will often lead to judging them negatively.
Instead, I think novels like Before I Wake will be more enjoyed if read on their own terms. When I do this, I find that some of these novels are well written, and contain characters with whom I empathize deeply. I am happy to say that Before I Wake was a well-written novel, a chocolate confection with hidden depths, and I will be going back to the checkout counter gleefully looking to buy the next literary treat that CL Taylor has to offer. I received a review copy of Before I Wake from the publisher through NetGalley.

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Before We Met by Lucie Whitehouse

Before We MetBefore We Met by Lucie Whitehouse
4.5 stars

I feel like I just have to write a review for this novel (as well as wanting to) because, unlike many reader reactions I’ve seen, I absolutely loved this third book by author Lucie Whitehouse.
Before We Met is easily my favorite book by this author, but it is a bit of a departure from her earlier writing style, so I can see how some readers might not be pleased. First of all, the plot:
Before We Met introduces us to our main character, Hannah, who seems to have pretty much the perfect life. She is independent, beautiful, and capable, and is recently married to a man she believes to be the love of her life. She met her new husband, Mark, while the two were in New York, and as a couple, they have moved home to their native England. They have a passionate love affair, a beautiful home, and Mark is a successful businessman. As the story begins, however, Hannah’s seemingly idyllic world begins to crumble, as she realizes that Mark has lied to her about where he is going on a business trip. As Hannah investigates the deception, she uncovers more and more lies that will put her world, and ultimately, her life, in danger.
Before We Met is a compelling mystery of the best kind, one in which we have a likeable heroine, layer upon layer of secrets, and a great dose of suspense and action to round out the story.
With that plot intro out of the way, here’s why I liked the story, and why I think some readers might not.
Lucie Whitehouse’s earlier novels, The House at Midnight, and The Bed I Made, share some characteristics and themes with Before We Met. They all have a young female main character who is intelligent, kind, and easy to identify with. They also all involve psychological suspense; The House at Midnight follows a group of friends with buried secrets, The Bed I Made follows a young woman who moves to the Isle of Wight to get away from a bad relationship. And they all deal with issues of trust, abuse, and personal agency.
However, there are some crucial differences in tone between the novels. While to me, The House and Midnight and The Bed I Made were definitely on the literary side, in the sense that to some extent, I found them slow going, Before We Met is a novel that, although just as well written, was fast paced and included more action along with suspense. To my mind, in this way, Before We Met has the potential to appeal to a wider audience. I can see how some readers who were fans of Lucie Whitehouse’s first novels might be unhappy with what they view as a more “mainstream” novel, but to me, Before We Met was just as good as Whitehouse’s earlier works, with the added bonus of a really compelling mystery and a pace that didn’t let up.
I didn’t see Before We Met as any kind of Gone Girl imitation or as succumbing to commercialism. To me, it was a well-plotted, well-written thriller in its own right, and it was a blast to read.
The other thing that I really loved about this novel was how the author described contemporary London-the streets, subway stations, and neighborhoods in detail. As someone who recently visited London, I enjoyed reading about Hannah taking subway lines that I remember taking, and it made her story seem that much more real.
I would highly recommend Before We Met. It exceeded my expectations, and I hope that it will find a wide audience of readers.

The Winter People (11 February 2014) by Jennifer McMahon

The Winter PeopleThe Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In The Winter People, Jennifer McMahon creates a deliciously compelling tale, a dual-time ghost story filled with murder, revenge, hidden caves, secret diaries, and portals to the other world. McMahon’s fans, as well as readers new to her work, will be quickly enchanted by this story, a novel which may be her best yet.
And those readers, who like me, felt that some of her earlier novels were not entirely successful in weaving the disparate genres of horror, fairytale, and family drama together, will be pleasantly surprised with how well the author succeeds in creating a coherent and gripping story this time around.
It is hard to share too much of the plot of The Winter People without giving away spoilers, but in a nutshell, it is the story of a group of characters in the small town of West Hall, Vermont, who are affected by the fallout from a town legend describing a way to reawaken the dead.
McMahon’s work is unique in that it has a joyful tone; her characters are mainly motivated by love for their children and families. And the author clearly loves Vermont; her descriptions of the snowy forests and old farmhouses are the perfect thing to read on a cold winter’s night. But at the same time, The Winter People is truly a thriller and a grown-up fairytale, which explores how love and loss can become perverted into hatred and madness. Ultimately, although The Winter People is a story with multiple narrators, and a complex weaving of the past and present, it manages to be a clear, enjoyable, easy-to-follow read.
In my opinion, Jennifer McMahon is getting better and better as a writer, and I would recommend The Winter People to her fans, as well as anyone who enjoys an atmospheric ghost story. I received The Winter People from the publisher through NetGalley.

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