In/Half: Jasmin B. Frelih

It takes a lot for me not to finish a book. In the past, I’ve forced myself through novels in the hope they’ll suddenly improve, because I hate leaving things incomplete. But now, dear reader, I have been defeated. Perhaps it’s my time of life. Being in your mid-thirties brings a deeper awareness of mortality, and the fact that time is finite. Perhaps I have less free time than I used to have, and am disinclined to spend that time on things that don’t actually bring me pleasure. Or perhaps it really is the case that this book, like an obnoxious person at a party, just wants to show off that it’s far cleverer than anyone else in the room. That’s how it felt to me, much of the time. And so, in the interests of a full disclaimer, this is not technically a book review because I’ve stalled at 30%.

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The Thing About Clare: Imogen Clark

★★★

The sprawling Bliss family revels in the kind of chaos you’d expect when you have four characterful siblings, a wordy, slightly feckless father and a doughty Irish mother. The children have, with varying amounts of grace, embraced the roles thrust on them by their order of birth: Miriam, the eldest, the organiser; Sebastian, the unexpected baby, coddled and charming; Anna, the cherished, spoiled favourite, who has been supported no matter what she does. And then Clare, the second child: troubled, troublesome and fractious. As we follow the Bliss siblings through their lives, we gradually come to understand them better and to grasp the complicated network of allegiances and obligations that binds them together when we first meet them, as adults, standing around the grave of their mother. But Dorothy Bliss, deceased, has one final surprise to levy upon her children.

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The Water Cure: Sophie Mackintosh

★★

This seems to be a ‘love it or hate it’ kind of book: literary Marmite. The omens were good. The publishers managed to get a cover blurb from Margaret Atwood, and implied that this was a new feminist classic: the Handmaid’s Tale for the next generation. It was longlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize and, to give credit where it’s due, the writing is beautiful – but in the way that an art-house film is beautiful: stylised and a little self-indulgent. Hyped as a fable for the #MeToo era, this unsettling story centres on three sisters living on a remote island: Grace, Lia and Sky. They have been raised in isolation from infancy, protected from the poisonous toxins of the mainland, and treated with therapies to contain their burgeoning emotions. Complicated rituals devised by their New Age parents protect them further. But what are they being protected from? No one will explain. One day, shortly after their father disappears, they face an unprecedented threat. Two men and a boy wash up on their beach, disrupting the balance. The island’s prophylactic seclusion will never be the same again.

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Blueeyedboy: Joanne Harris

★★★

On a web-journal mailing list, blueeyedboy holds court. He is the ringmaster of his own little circus, the svengali to his audience of adoring readers, the puppetmaster of their fantasies. World-weary and nihilistic, he begins to tell the fable-like story of three brothers, brought up by their widowed mother and each, for ease, given their own signature colour: Black; Brown; and Blue. Struggling against each other, and against the mercurial furies of their dangerous, unpredictable mother, the boys try to carve out their own identities in their bleak little town. But this isn’t just a story of three boys coming of age. It’s a tale of ambition, obsession and, most fascinating of all, murder. Don’t get over-excited, though, blueeyedboy coyly reassures his readers: it’s only a story. The problem is that not everyone seems to believe him. Setting her story in the same town as her St Oswald’s novels, though in a far less privileged neighbourhood, Joanne Harris invites us to come down the rabbithole of internet anonymity, where everyone wears avatars and usernames, and no one is quite what they seem.

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Lights All Night Long: Lydia Fitzpatrick

★★★★

Passing through Arrivals at Baton Rouge airport, Louisiana, is the most significant moment in Ilya Alexandrovich’s young life. On one side of the door he can pretend that this is all still a dream: that he’s still just the bookish student in his remote Russian hometown, cherished by his teacher, mocked affectionately by his peers, with a vague prospect of getting to America one day. But, on the far side of the door, his reality must be faced: his host family, the Masons, who have agreed to let Ilya live with them for a year while he attends school, improves his English and assimilates to a Western view of life. Ilya is profoundly aware of his good fortune in coming here, in escaping the dead-end lifestyle that faces so many of his friends; but that isn’t only reason he feels unhappy. His guilt is sharper, more focused, for in coming to America Ilya has been forced to leave behind the person he loves more fiercely than any other: his troubled brother Vladimir, who has recently been sent to prison for murder – a crime that Ilya passionately believes he didn’t commit. This evocative, moving story asks us what it means to belong – what we do when we don’t fit in – and how we can redeem ourselves when all hope seems lost.

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The Lost Art of Letter Writing: Menna van Praag

★★★

Recent travelling has got in the way of blogging again. I’m not complaining, mind you: this trip involved Rome, Naples and a mind-boggling amount of fabulous art. Perhaps I’ll post about it when my brain has calmed down slightly. Otherwise, life has been extremely busy (in a good way), and so tonight I picked up a novel for the first time in a month – shame on me! I was looking for something undemanding and The Lost Art of Letter Writing seemed a perfect choice for an autumn evening with the nights drawing in. It turned out to be a bit too self-consciously quaint for my taste, but it’s as cosy and feel-good as a page of motivational quotes. It centres on our heroine, Clara, who runs a very special stationer’s shop in Cambridge. Here, customers are invited to write the one heartfelt letter they’ve always meant to send, and Clara gets satisfaction from helping them tie up their loose ends. When she discovers some of her own, in the form of a bundle of old family papers, her curiosity propels her into a serendipitous adventure.

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Life for Sale: Yukio Mishima

★★★

Yukio Mishima’s name has been appearing on my recommendation lists ever since I started reading Japanese fiction, but this is the first of his books that I’ve read. Newly published by Penguin Modern Classics, in a fresh translation by Stephen Dodd, it tells the story of Hanio Yamada, who is thoroughly disillusioned by the world around him. Having failed in a suicide attempt, feeling crippled by the sheer meaninglessness of existence, Hanio comes up with a plan. He places an ad in the paper: ‘Life for Sale. Use me as you wish. I am a twenty-seven-year-old male. Discretion guaranteed. Will cause no bother at all.’ He simply doesn’t care any more. Let someone else make the decisions for him! He’s prepared to relinquish his entire existence to the whims of another person. His offer leads him into a series of bizarre adventures which foreshadow Murakami’s surreal worldview, and which force Hanio to confront how he really feels about life.

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The Stranger Diaries: Elly Griffiths

★★★½

Clare Cassidy is au fait with Gothic drama. She’s an English teacher at Holland House school, formerly the home of the reclusive Victorian author R.M. Holland, whose eerie short story The Stranger is one of Clare’s favourite pieces. But Clare prefers the Gothic to remain within the pages of her books. When her friend and colleague Ella Elphick is murdered, it initially seems to be just that: a shocking, upsetting, horrifying crime. Yet there are disturbing elements to Ella’s death. A scribbled note is found beside her body: a line from The Stranger. Her murder bears some resemblance to one of the deaths in that story. And worse is to come. For Clare, a committed diarist, suddenly discovers that someone else has been leaving notes in her journal – someone who apparently has knowledge of the crime, and has been able to get access to her most personal possessions. Griffiths’s novel is a satisfying combination of old-school Gothic and thoroughly modern thriller – even if its final denouement is a bit limp.

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The Heart Goes Last: Margaret Atwood

★★★

Society has collapsed. The crumbling economy has snatched away the chance for most people to have jobs, homes, security. Vicious, drug-addled gangs roam the streets, preying on the vulnerable. Charmaine and her husband Stan have lost their house and are now living on the street in their car, scraping a meagre existence thanks to Charmaine’s work as a waitress in a dive-bar. They still have their pride, but it’s on the blink; and Stan is on the point of turning for help to his estranged criminal brother (the aptly-named Con) when Charmaine sees an advert that changes their lives. It offers hope. The chance to have dignity restored. A roof over their head; a purpose in life. In return, they just have to take part in a social experiment. Oh, and, once you’re in, there’s no turning back. As you’d expect from Margaret Atwood, this is a high-concept dystopian fable about the corruption of power and the subjugation of the individual for the ‘good’ of the whole. It lacks the taut urgency of The Handmaid’s Tale and veers into absurdity in the later chapters, but it’s nevertheless a sobering vision of a not-too-distant future.

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Valencia and Valentine: Suzy Krause

★★★

Suzy Krause’s debut novel is a charming low-key tale of two women whose lives have been formed by stories. On the one hand is garrulous old-age pensioner Mrs Valentine, always ready with a twinkle in her eye and a new instalment of her colourful life-story. On the other is Valencia, crippled by neuroses and social anxiety, stuck in a dead-end job as a debt collector. Her stories are within her mind: the relentless litany of things that might go wrong if she forgets to do one tiny little things. Crushed by past guilt, Valencia has limited her life to her flat and the four walls of her work cubicle; but, as her thirty-fifth birthday approaches, she begins to long for change. And then, quite of the blue, the possibility of change appears: in the form of a new colleague and an unexpectedly friendly client. Could this be the start of a new life? Or will it be simply the same old tale of opportunities missed through fear, shame and cowardice?

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