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Megan Nolan – Acts Of Desperation

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Publisher: Jonathan Cape (PRH)
Pages: 279
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-787-33249-2
First Published: 4th March 2021
Date Reviewed: 21st June 2022

Our unnamed narrator recounts the time of her long-term toxic relationship a short while previously, showing us exactly why things happened and what happened, whether or not she fully understands it yet herself.

Acts Of Desperation is a compelling tale; the plot is scant and not much actually happens, however it is in the telling of the story that the interest lies – Nolan’s writing, both the literal words and the way she imparts meaning and uses subtext to very often show more to the reader than the narrator may even know herself, takes this far beyond the simple plot and character development it has (character development’s scant also) and elevates it to something unique, different, and of page-turning quality.

Others have produced a similar effect before but on a different ‘pathway’; the book that most reminded this reviewer of what she was reading in Nolan’s prose was Rebecca, the comparisons being in the extremely self-minded narrative (I hate to say ‘self-concerned’ because that’s not quite right) and the way the background context is so important. (There are no ‘ghosts’ in Nolan’s book and whilst there’s the equivalent of a first wife, it’s not something to be used in a comparison. Indeed liking the du Maurier is in no way a factor in how much you may or may not enjoy Acts Of Desperation no matter my comparing them.)

The book at hand is, then, the story of a young woman who is obsessed with the initial feelings of falling in love – or what she misinterprets her feelings of addictive ‘romance’ to be – who falls for a toxic older man who she thinks is a catch (unnecessary spoiler alert: he isn’t) and finds herself at the mercy of his whims. The ending that you hope for from very early on is the one Nolan delivers – that the plot is predictable may indeed be part of the author’s point.

On points, the predictability shows that women and people in general are apt to fall for the personality that we see in Ciaran (he is graced with a name when the narrator is not – likely another point), and arguably the biggest point of the novel is to show how often it happens, that it’s understandable, and to present the reasons why young people in particular get caught up in it, as well as showing hope for the future, even if that hope is tempered by the fact that true healing and personal growth away from the mindset that allows that kind of thing to happen (and its been noted many times that women are taught by society to expect certain things for a relationship to be true, so I won’t continue there) can take a while, much like this sentence. The narrator is not a completely new person at the end. She may make mistakes again – it’s likely. But they won’t be the same mistakes and it’s unlikely that she will fall for the same personality in future. We hope.

So our narrator is annoying, childish, ruminating, and utterly hard to enjoy reading about. She’s also someone to root for, understandably immature, and ‘writes’ well enough that you will speed through the book.

Is this story a thinly-veiled memoir? It’s difficult to say that it could be; unlike other novels that are situated in thoughts, there is a study here that suggests a lot of planning and research, a lot of consideration of many stories. It also doesn’t really matter.

The shortness of this review is owing to the plot and character development which, as said, by design is contained. Which is, especially considering a book tends to at least have one or the other if not both, a testament to Nolan’s talent. Is Acts Of Desperation actively enjoyable in that escapist way? No. Is it a stunning example of the literary fiction genre and enjoyable in that vein? Absolutely. This is a particular book for a particular mood and time, and you have to match those correctly. But do that and you’ll have an exceptionally literary experience.

I received this book during the promotion of the Young Writer of the Year Award.

 
Marianne Holmes – All Your Little Lies

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Things stands to get better.

Publisher: Agora Books
Pages: 237
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-913-09969-5
First Published: 22nd October 2020
Date Reviewed: 23rd October 2020
Rating: 5/5

Annie struggles greatly with people – she has only one friend who is often busy, she doesn’t fit in at work, and she’s in a situation where Paul’s suddenly treating her badly after all those times he’s spoken to her nicely, sat on her desk whilst going through statistics… Annie’s always known it’s better to be on her own. After Paul escorts her out of the bar and into a taxi after she’d tried to open up to him, she travels back to the neighbourhood they share, takes his car keys from his exhaust pipe, and lets herself into his flat, eventually falling asleep. A noise wakes her up. She leaves. The next day, the local news reports that a young girl called Chloe has gone missing, and the CCTV image of Chloe, walking away from the train station, includes Annie’s car, headlights on. No one’s likely noticed it’s Annie’s car, but if she was the last person around, then she needs to say something, and that would likely lead to being found out for drinking and letting herself in to Paul’s flat. It’ll also mean having to go against her mother’s sensible advice of staying away fro people.

All Your Little Lies is a character-driven thriller, a book that balances well the elements of page-turner with the requirement to get its protagonist to where she needs to be, which is somewhat independent of the mystery that pushes it on. It’s a particularly winning formula, a pacey crime novel with a slice of the kind of atmosphere that readers who have read and enjoyed Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine will likely be drawn to.

Whilst the book is written in the third person, Holmes’ attention to Annie’s thought processes blurs the boundaries at the same time as it provides an important ‘outsider’ aspect that allows that crucial reader comprehension of the character’s perception of reality and how and why they got there. This is paramount to the narrative – where you’re effectively in Annie’s head, Holmes’ approach is constantly employed to the extent that whether you can relate to any of the character’s worries personally or not, a relation between character and reader is created.

Is it difficult being in Annie’s head? Yes; this is part of the point. Seeing Annie missing the mark, and, more frustratingly, often just missing the mark, or seeing things correctly but then dismissing it, pushes you on, the drive to continue reading and hope for better for Annie a constant.

It is perhaps needless to say that Annie’s thoughts and world-view have been created and confirmed over the years due to a series of traumatic experiences. Beginning with and most determinedly, in her early years, the resulting poor social experiences have combined to leave Annie with extreme anxiety, paranoia, and a fair amount of PTSD/C-PTSD.

As you might expect, a second story thread comprising of the reason for the most damning trauma runs alongside the main thread of Annie’s obsession with Chloe’s disappearance. This thread is fairly predictable from early on, which is a good thing because it helps you understand Annie, however if there’s anything that might, possibly, be considered a draw back in this otherwise stellar book, it is the execution of the thread – it’s perhaps a bit too drawn out in terms of its telling, where reader understanding of the basic problem at hand means it’s not quite the shocking reveal it was likely intended to be. (Though this doesn’t mean it’s any less damning to read; it’s horrible.)

As we’re noting sections near the ending it’s probably worth saying that the ending chapters of the story, and the place Annie ends up in all senses of the word (physical, mental, and so on), may be quite different to what you’ve been expecting. With Holmes’ attention all on Annie, the ending isn’t particularly ‘juicy’. But it is certainly highly appropriate, and very good. Holmes never breaks away from what she’s trying to achieve, keeping the focus on Annie and her progression. Any questions you have, you’ll be well able to work out for yourself.

All Your Little Lies is absolutely fantastic. It has been well planned, well written, and the entire package is excellent. Whether you begin by liking Annie or not (either is possible) you will be hoping for her to excel in the end. Heck knows she’s going to need therapy, and here’s hoping she gets it.

I received this book for review.

 
Camilla Bruce – You Let Me In + Podcast

Today’s podcast is with debut novelist Camilla Bruce! Email and RSS subscribers: you’ll need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie Place and Camilla Bruce (You Let Me In) discuss the darker side of faerie, being as in the dark about answers as your readers are, survival and coping methods following trauma, and the habits of cats inspiring your work.

To see all the details including links to other apps, I’ve made a blog page here. You can also subscribe to the podcast via RSS.


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It is effectively all up to you.

Publisher: Bantam Press (Random House)
Pages: 259
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-787-633136-2
First Published: 5th March 2020
Date Reviewed: 4th March 2020
Rating: 5/5

Cassie has disappeared; the elderly romance writer has left a manuscript for her niece and nephew to read that contains the password they require in order to get their inheritance. Cassie wishes to tell them her side of her life’s story, and weaves in excerpts of the book her therapist wrote about her. It’s a dark story – faeries, husbands murdered and recreated, family problems and ownership.

You Let Me In is a Gothic faerie-inspired thriller that makes you want to speed-read it until you get more information.

The book is incredibly well-written and structured; using two effective stories, one Cassie’s narrative, and the other content from the book written by her therapist, you get two sides of the same basic story. This allows you to form your own conclusions, which is very much the point. There are no full answers in this book, it’s one for thought and reader decision, enough that it will linger in your mind for some time whilst you come to your own conclusion as to what really happened and who is telling the truth (though truth in itself is not necessarily easy to delineate out to the people involved). There are no right or wrong answers – again, this is very much a book for readers.

Bruce’s narrative for Cassie is wonderful; Cassie’s story is in the form of a manuscript – you are reading the manuscript-sized letter that she has left for her niece and nephew – and it’s a clever one, because whilst you’re reading about the various family members and finding out what they are doing, so to speak, you’re also not actually doing that at all. Everything you read – potentially even the excerpts of the Doctor’s book – is seen through Cassie’s viewpoint; for all you know, the niece and nephew may well never read the book.

A key part of the book is Cassie’s mental health and situation. There are a number of possibilities in regards to the meaning behind her experiences of the faerie world. Has she been abused by parents? Can she actually simply see faeries where others cannot? Is she just a liar? Without narratives from those she mentions it’s obviously harder work to come to a conclusion but it keeps you reading.

Bruce’s use of Cassie’s narrative also the Doctor’s aids you in your quest. The Doctor’s book gives you a more practical (if that word can be used when the faerie world may be real) idea of what Cassie might have gone through. The excerpts from this book in a book show potential coping methods.

It’s difficult to say that You Let Me In doesn’t provide answers, even though it doesn’t really. Similarly it’s difficult to say it doesn’t end with the threads tied; as said, this is a book for readers. If you are happy to come to your own conclusions when reading fiction you will enjoy it a lot, but even if you prefer more answers you won’t necessarily dislike it because in its own way, the answers are there for the taking, it’s just that what you find might be different to another reader’s.

And that is all rather fitting; a book potentially about faeries, a being that we still ponder over.

It is an incredible book, difficult at times but very much worth it and for all its relatively short length it has a great deal of staying power.

I received this book for review.

 
E C Fremantle – The Poison Bed + Podcast

On today’s podcast I’m joined by E C Fremantle (Elizabeth Fremantle) author of The Poison Bed; also Queen’s Gambit, Sisters of Treason, Watch the Lady, and The Girl in the Glass Tower. We discuss changing pen names, a horrific murder case in the Stuart nobility, coping as a new mother in a one-of-a-kind situation, and the historical line between witchcraft and ‘simple’ superstition.

Email and RSS subscribers: you’ll need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

The main episode page, which includes the full episode details, the transcript, and a question index, is here. The podcast is also available on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, and via RSS.


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In all senses of the phrase, do not take it lying down.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 403
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-405-92007-0
First Published: 14th June 2018
Date Reviewed: 26th January 2020
Rating: 5/5

Frances Howard is in the Tower of London, accused on murder. She has confessed. Now, as she awaits trial, she tells her story to Nelly, the girl assigned to look after the baby. Also in the Tower is Frances’ husband, Robert Carr, charged for the same reason. He too tells his story, of a man who was once the King’s favourite. Who is telling the truth? Who is lying? Or are they both doing the same thing?

The Poison Bed is a fictionalisation of a true event in history; Frances – a member of the family in a rivalry to be top dog at court – and her husband were brought to trial for the murder of a lower member of the nobility. Using facts wherever possible, bringing in likelihoods and possibilities where information is debated, and creating elements where there is less or no information, the novel pulls the history towards us in a way that makes the thoughts and reasonings of the time very understandable. The book has been described as a historical Gone Girl and it’s a very apt description – the atmosphere of thriller and the manipulative quality is similar, as is the structure.

The book begins with a sense of vagueness – if you don’t know what it’s about (and the blurb on the back is suitably vague) it can take a couple of chapters to get to grips with what’s going on. Some readers may find this difficult – certainly you might feel like a fish out of water – but it’s something to stick with; the confusion is very fitting and in keeping with the genre, and it primes you for the work you will want to do to get to the bottom of what’s happened and is happening – whilst Fremantle gives you all the information by the end, not leaving you wondering at all, you’ll want to do your own detective work on the fly.

The narrative voices may also take some getting used to. The book is formed of two narratives – Frances tells her story for a chapter, then we turn to Robert, and back again. Frances’ narrative is mostly in the third person but sometimes switches to first – the change is intentional, the extra thinking you do keeps the novel in that psychological zone – and Robert’s is in the first person. The characters also deal with their stories differently; both look to the past but Frances’ is more your usual flashback retelling whereas Robert’s sounds more present. Interestingly, for all that Robert appears to speak directly to the reader, he is more distanced than Frances. However, Fremantle’s use of the third person for Frances permits a highly informative look at her thoughts.

The strictness, as it were, of the narratives – this back and forth between only two characters – is one of the biggest strengths of the book. Constrained (or should that be condemned?) to spend your time with only two of the fair-sized cast of characters hones your focus and increases the darkness. Of the darkness it is almost absolute, with the novel situated in the Tower; despite the numerous time spent in sunnier locations during flashbacks and Robert’s storytelling, the despair of the Tower is ever-present. For her second book, Sisters Of Treason, Fremantle spent most of the novel’s pages in the Tower with the sisters of Lady Jane Grey, weaving a tale that was very dark and foreboding; with The Poison Bed the author has managed to take that further with the addition of the psychological thriller aspect and in this regard the book is absolutely stunning. Owing to the nature of it, the story isn’t always pacey, if you want to take breaks (you may well – these are not particularly pleasant characters) you can; rested assured the narrative will hold your attention even when it’s not speeding along. There is manipulation in the book and the list of those at the receiving end has your name on it.

Moving on to the historical concepts, Frances’ value to women at court as a palm reader begins the look at the balance between witchcraft and what was not considered witchcraft. You will most likely learn something new from this book on the subject, and various ideas under the umbrella subject are done so with aplomb. In regards to Robert Carr being a favourite of James I, Fremantle has looked at the potential of the intimacies in terms of sexual connotations. The novel also looks at the position of women in society not ‘just’ in terms of Frances’ place in it but in terms of business, and reputation both general and more specific to the time.

In terms of the historical event, it is a relief, after you’ve turned the last page, to leave the world The Poison Bed steeps you in. In every way beyond that – as a work of fiction, in the planning and storytelling, the attention to historical detail, its literary merit and overall value – the novel is fantastic. And it is most definitely worth the read.

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Julia Armfield – Salt Slow + Podcast

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Short periods of the paranormal.

Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan)
Pages: 189
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-529-01256-9
First Published: 28th May 2019
Date Reviewed: 10th November 2019
Rating: 5/5

A girl with a skin condition grows more and more different to everyone around her; in a city people start to awaken to Sleeps – their sleeping self – and find they can stay awake all the time, the ghostly beings following them; a stepmother’s adoption and humanisation of a wolf signals her stepdaughter’s decent into animalism.

Salt Slow is a stunning collection of short stories that differ in their subjects but share an eerie quality. All the stories are about women, with men featuring in only a few.

This is a collection that is from start to finish absolutely brilliant. Every one of the stories makes for a good read, studies of ideas and playings with extreme versions of everyday occurrences that are a literary delight – to be sure this isn’t a fun read in the usual sense (it’s far too weird for that) but the literary experience is wonderful.

A lot of this has to do with Armfield’s choice of which angle to take. The stories balance well morals, with a starting point that makes the story easy to understand; this is to say that whilst you’ll want to pay attention anyway, the collection is one that’s very accessible. This in turn adds to the enjoyment of it, the ease at which each story moves to the next; whilst there are few shared specific subjects, you can read the collection as the well-planned series it is.

When we were younger, our mother told us warning stories about the proliferation of ghosts in big cities; ghosts in office chairs and office bathrooms, hot and cold running ghosts on tap (p. 24).

The first story, Mantis, where a girl finds friends and seeming support enough but still a pull of something else more dark and unarguably paranormal, introduces this whole concept. But it’s perhaps in the second story, The Great Awake, which looks at the idea of our twenty-first century attentions pulled in every direction 24 hours a day that the concept is solidified. It’s hard to call any one story better than the others, such is the strength of the book, but of meanings and relatability, The Great Awake is perhaps the best, Armfield’s paranormal expression of something that is widely known and studied bringing with it, for all its fictional aspects, the very real truth behind this particular reality. Another standout, Formally Feral, looks at the anthropomorphism of animals – in its extremes, of course – and offers a look at how animals can be just as aware, juxtaposing where a wolf takes on the parenting for a child who is meant to follow suit with her parent’s strange choices and decisions pertaining to siblings.

Salt Slow‘s offering is long-term; whilst the book may have the most impact the first time around, there is plenty to take from it on subsequent readings where you can pick your favourites and delve into them more. The themes of identity – both the basic sense of self, and in relation to others – the themes of relationships, and the various concepts intrinsic to them (as well of those that are intrinsic in the sense of being away from them), and possible effects of religion, are a joy to discover. Armfield’s collection both sits well alongside others and carves a place all of its own, at once a great new work in the genre and a fantastic voice completely unique. It’s weird and wonderful and utterly worth it.

I received this book for review; the book is on the 2019 Young Writer of the Year shortlist.


Today’s podcast

Tune in with Orlando Ortega-Medina and me as we discuss celebrity fictional reincarnation, writing short stories that don’t have messages, and working with ideas that could – if misinterpreted – look like something else.

If you can’t use the embedded player above or want to access the purchase links, click here to go to the hosting site. The podcast is now also available on Spotify.

 

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