Fiction

The Feed – Nick Clark Windo

Title – The Feed

Author – Nick Clark Windo

Published – Jan 2018

Genre – Fiction

This is another debut that I picked up at the Headline ‘New Voices 2018’ event I attended in January. I have to say that the description of the book didn’t do it justice – it packs a whole lot in and it’s difficult to know where to start with a review. The book is a dystopian, post-apocalyptic, speculative, thriller with a range of themes from technology to identity.

We’re introduced to a future where technology has been extrapolated to a believable conclusion. The Feed is social media to the max – it’s in your head and it goes beyond sharing news and information but it’s also thoughts and memories. For most people it’s impossible to be without it – it’s the way everyone communicates and it’s a hundred times more addictive than social media is now.

And then a cataclysmic event ends The Feed. Six years or so on and Kate and her husband Tom are about to celebrate the birthday of Bea, their daughter. The world has changed and we’re now in territory familiar to readers of Station Eleven or viewers of The Walking Dead. Without The Feed civilisation has collapsed – no-one knew how to do anything without it, all the knowledge was stored digitally, they don’t know how to cook a meal or grow crops.  Some people were so addicted to The Feed that its loss lead to their death – corpses littering the towns and cities and the infrastructure of society has failed.

So that’s the setting and a story of survival could have been enough – but there are two more key aspects to the book. The first is that you have to have someone watch you sleep as you could be ‘Taken’ and if this does happen you need your watcher to act. But what does being Taken mean, what is it that happens to people…? And the other driver for the story is the loss of Bea – she goes missing and Tom and Kate have to embark on a search for her, leaving the safe haven they’ve established. As the story unfolds and Tom and Kate search for Bea the gaps are filled in and the reader learns more about what caused The Feed to collapse.

But there is even more to the book than this and I don’t want to give too much away. The main crux of the story seems to be a warning of the dangers to relying too much on technology, the importance of family and the lengths people will go to to survive.

There is a lot going on which means this isn’t necessarily an easy read. It’s definitely thought provoking and disturbing and it kept me guessing. As I said it’s not a genre I often read so my perception of the book will no doubt be different to those who read more sci-fi / dystopian fiction than I do. Although quite dark, without some of the lighter moments of Station Eleven, I’m not sure that it really delivered on horror or tension, I think there was room to push both a little further than they went. I didn’t find Kate or Tom to be particularly likeable, they have flaws which outweigh the more positive aspects of their characters but I don’t think that necessarily detracted from the book. It’s not a story I’ll forget in a hurry!

If you need any encouragement to put your phone down and step away from social media then The Feed should do the job! Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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In Her Wake – Amanda Jennings

Title – In Her Wake

Author – Amanda Jennings

Published – 2016

Genre – Fiction

I first came across Amanda Jennings at Crimefest a few years ago just before she announced a new deal with (then fledgling) publisher Orenda books. I duly received a review copy of In Her Wake and it has sat on my TBR for well over a year. It was one of those books that I was put off for two reasons – one was that it wasn’t an obviously ‘crime fiction’ book and the second was the overwhelming amount of positive reviews I saw the book receiving. It might seem odd to delay reading a book because of the second point but if a book is getting such a lot of coverage then my blog post won’t add anything to what’s already been said and the other reason is that often books with such overwhelming praise can be disappointing when your expectations have been raised.

We all imagined when were young that we were adopted or somehow came to be living with wrong family, what we picture as our ‘real’ family is a sort of idyll of family life.  When both Bella’s parents die in quick succession she discovers that there is some truth to this feeling – her parents have deceived her for years and her seemingly perfect life is torn apart. Bella embarks on a journey (to Cornwall) to find out more about her real identity in what becomes a journey of self-discovery. What Bella finds isn’t what any young girl would dream up as their ‘real’ family. The aspects of a more female-centric book are balanced by the events that lead to Bella’s new life and the truth behind the events adds a more thrilling aspect as they are uncovered during the course of the book.

The author definitely  has an eye for character, it was easy to empathise with Bella and the writing made the behaviour of other characters credible. Interestingly the one person whose point of view the reader never gets to understand is the person Bella thought of as her mother, the driving force behind the events in the book. As Bella learns more about her childhood she can see how it’s shaped her life and the decisions she’s made, whether for better or worse.

For me, and it’s not the first time I’ve criticised this aspect of a book, I wasn’t too keen on the more supernatural elements. Just me, just not a fan. But that aside this was a compelling book that mixed a character-driven story with a mystery. It was beautifully written and captured the emotional rollercoaster of Bella’s grief and discovery as she reevaluates everything she thought she knew.

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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The House We Grew Up In – Lisa Jewell

Title – The House We Grew Up In

Author – Lisa Jewell

Published – 2014

Genre – Fiction

I’m still trying to clear a  backlog of book reviews that I should have written / published so this will be a shorter than normal review.

As this isn’t strictly crime fiction I might never have picked it up but it was in a goody bag I got from … somewhere which I opened on the train home and was gripped. Although billed as ‘fiction’ the heart of the story is a family secret and a tragedy that has shaped the lives of the Birds so it certainly shared some characteristics with crime fiction, particularly the desire for the reader to figure out what had taken place before the author revealed it.

The opening makes the book feel as if it will be a twee domestic drama; a mother and daughter returning to the mother’s childhood home to clear the house and discovering that her mother had developed into an extreme hoarder. While this is set in the present day there are two other threads to the story which are told in parallel – the first is an exchange of correspondence between the late Lorelei Bird and a man that she’s met through the internet. This has quite a poignant quality to it as it’s one sided, a bit like an Alan Bennett ‘Talking Head’ but it’s through these emails that we learn about how Lorelei sees her family. The second thread starts back in 1981 and tells the story of the Bird family through their annual Easter Egg hunt and gives the reader the opportunity to follow the family as it slowly disintegrates.

It soon becomes clear that in all times and all ways this family is pretty dysfunctional, it paints a dark picture of family life and the impact of unrecognised or untreated mental health issues. The fallout affects the different members of the family in different ways – I thought the characters were well written and even though I didn’t particularly like Lorelei I was still interested in her. The pressing reason for reading on, however, was the need to discover what the pivotal event was that was at the heart of the story.

If there was something that I wasn’t happy about it was actually the nature of the secret. When you’ve built a whole book around something shocking that has taken place you need it to really shock the reader, perhaps I read too much crime fiction where ‘anything goes’ but I did feel a little underwhelmed by the actual event.

Not a book I might normally choose for myself but nevertheless an enjoyable read.

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Rescue – Anita Shreve

51COB0351LLTitle – Rescue

Author – Anita Shreve

Published – 2010

Genre – Fiction

I have to confess to being a huge fan of Anita Shreve. I enjoy her prose and her (usually) female-centric novels which have relationships – often under stress – at their core. In Rescue the main character is a chap – paramedic Peter Webster. Now in his forties bringing up his teenage daughter alone, the story tells how as a rookie he begins an affair with Sheila, a young woman that he treats at the scene of an accident. Webster is a small town guy and Sheila is more worldly-wise – things are never going to run smoothly.

I’ll stop describing the plot there – the blurb on the book gives a lot more away but not having read it (I never read the blurb before the book) I enjoyed the story as it unfolded.

The two characters start a relationship without really knowing each other and they have their own issues and obsessions. In part the story deals with obsession and addiction but it’s also about the importance of family and what sacrifices parents are prepared to make.

I’m impartial enough to say that this probably isn’t Shreve’s best book, the characters aren’t all as fully drawn as those in some of her other novels and I didn’t find the main ones particularly engaging. I just wanted to tell Webster to get a grip! I did enjoy the main themes of the story and I wanted to know what happened, but I did’t quite care enough.

If I haven’t put you off completely I would suggest reading Fortune’s Rocks or The Weight of Water.

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The Well – Catherine Chanter

51yfvMatgNLTitle – The Well

Author – Catherine Chanter

Published – 2015

Genre – Fiction

Hard on the heels of The Testimony this is another book that’s hard to categorise. Although there is a more traditional element of crime fiction, The Well is set in a near future where there is some sort of climatic disaster taking place, which puts this on a “semi-post-apocatlytic” footing. Unlike The Testimony, however, there is just a single voice and a single point of view; our narrator is Ruth who has recently returned to her home under a version of house arrest.

Home for Ruth is The Well, a literal oasis in a drought stricken country. Ruth and husband Mark set out to escape to the country from a turbulent time in London. When they chose The Well it was a smallholding like any other in a rural English village. When a lack of rain started to affect the country the change passed them by because The Well seemed unaffected. As their continued ‘good fortune’ alienated them from their neighbours word spread and people arrived to see for themselves. These arrivals included Ruth’s daughter and grandson and a group of nuns the ‘Sisters of the Rose of Jericho’. The Sisters see Ruth as an essential part of their worship and as she becomes increasingly estranged from her husband she is drawn into the women-only group and their religious fervour.

The book opens as Ruth is returned to The Well and her contemplation of the events that brought her there provides the backstory. Gripped by grief over the cataclysmic days that led to her incarceration she doesn’t prove to be a particularly reliable narrator but Chanter manages to hold back the key events from the reader until quite a way into the story. The threads of the story mix together the mystery that surrounds Ruth’s incarceration with the unusual climate at The Well. During her incarceration Ruth is grief-stricken and withdrawn and her interaction is limited to only a handful of characters, meaning that a lot of the story is told as she reminisces on events before the pace picks up when the events reach a climax both in the present and in her memory.

If I were to draw comparisons I would say that this was somewhere between Joanne Harris’s Chocolat and Our Lady of the Forest by David Guterson. There’s a mix of religion and religious fervour that they all touch on with women at the heart of the story. They also mix religion with the unexplained (which of course The Testimony deals with too). Chanter’s prose is beautifully written and evokes the charm of The Well and its idyllic setting.

I found it hard to ignore, however, the occasional break with the fictional setting that had been created (how do you get flowers from a garage during years of drought …?) and the odd anachronistic detail could be jarring – better to not think about the impact on the outside world too much. As with The Testimony the first person approach does mean that the true external impact on the rest of world isn’t really communicated which isn’t always so easy to ignore as a reader – there are some ‘whats, whys, hows’ that could have been answered.

The Well won Chanter the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize in 2013, which is for an unpublished debut novel by a woman. Thank you to Peters Fraser + Dunlop for the review copy of the book.

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Blink of an Eye – Cath Staincliffe

blinkofaneyeTitle – Blink of an Eye

Author – Cath Staincliffe

Published – April 2013

Genre – Fiction

After reading a stack of books which deal with the investigation of crimes it’s refreshing to look at things from another angle. In Blink of an Eye we follow the impact of an accident that changes the lives of those involved ‘in the blink of an eye’.

The story is told from the viewpoint of two main characters – Naomi and her mother Carmel. After leaving a summer barbecue at her sister’s house Naomi is involved in a horrific accident. In that moment her life and the lives of those closest to her are irrevocably changed. The story is about the emotional fallout from this event and the impact it has on the relationships of Naomi and her family.

There is also something of a crime fiction element to the book. Naomi seemingly can’t remember the details of the accident and a remark made by her sister prompts their mother to try to piece together what happened. Despite the fact that Carmel is a social worker she is unable to deal with the crisis in the way that she knows she should, so she begins to try to piece together what happened to Naomi – quizzing those who were at the barbecue.

The stresses and strains that the accident puts on the family and particularly Naomi are very credible and it brings to the fore some of the tensions within the family and Carmel’s reminiscences fill in the background.

I have to confess that I didn’t find Naomi a completely likeable character but I did feel for Carmel and her husband. And it’s all too easy to imagine yourself in the shoes of someone who makes a small error which has such devastating consequences. I was really drawn into the story and like the Nicci French books the characters’ lives are rich in detail, which really brings them to life.

Thanks to the publisher for the review copy. You can see another point of view at Reviewing the Evidence.

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A Gathering Storm – Rachel Hore

Title – A Gathering Storm

Author – Rachel Hore

Published – 2011

Genre – Fiction

This is the fifth title by Rachel Hore, following on from the success of A Place of Secrets, which was a Richard & Judy Bookclub selection. I have to confess that I didn’t enjoy Place of Secrets when I read it, and I nearly gave up when I thought that A Gathering Storm was going to follow the same formula. Fortunately I didn’t, as it actually turned out to be an enjoyable read.

After Lucy Cardwell’s father dies she discovers references to Rafe Ashton, her great-uncle and someone she had never heard mention of, amongst his things. Lucy’s father seemed to have been troubled before he died and when she is presented with the opportunity to visit the village where her grandmother grew-up she takes it. In fact after a disagreement with her boyfriend she makes a spontaneous decision to spend a week there.

Trying to find out more about her family’s history, Lucy is introduced to Beatrice Ashton, an elderly village resident in her eighties, who happens to be Rafe’s widow and the former best-friend of Lucy’s late grandmother Angelina.

So the similarities to the previous book are an “intrepid” young woman in the present in an unsatisfactory relationship who has a chance meeting with a handsome stranger. At the same time she becomes involved in finding out more about a story from the past.

But there the similarities end. Beatrice herself tells Lucy her story, and it’s told in a very straightforward way. During her stay in Cornwall Lucy visits each day and over the week Beatrice tells the story of how she met Angelina, grew up alongside her family, and then how their lives took separate paths after the breakout of World War II. Beatrice’s story is fascinating. There’s obviously a secret that she’s been keeping all these years and this is alluded to very early on, but the reader doesn’t have their suspicions confirmed until almost the end of the book. Beatrice’s story is of her coming of age during the early years of WWII, and I have to confess to having a soft spot for these stories (Sarah Harrison’s Flower’s of the Field comes to mind, although set in WWI).

Lucy’s own story is a simple romance, but ties neatly into the story Beatrice is telling, as her love interest is a soldier on leave. The threads of sacrifice for your country are mirrored without it feeling contrived.

There were one or two places I felt a little let down by the book, a few mysteries which went unsolved, but as one of my complaints from the previous one was that all the loose ends were tied up to neatly, it’s hard to be critical. The story had none of the supernatural elements of its predecessor and although I wasn’t too fussed by Lucy, Beatrice’s character was welll written and I really felt for her.

Score – 4/5