Book review: The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

The book:

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley
Published by John Murray in 2016
Pages: 368

My copy: Secondhand paperback

The blurb:

Two brothers. One mute, the other his lifelong protector.

Year after year, their family visits the same sacred shrine on a desolate strip of coastline known as the Loney, in desperate hope of a cure.

In the long hours of waiting, the boys are left alone. And they cannot resist the causeway revealed with every turn of the treacherous tide, the old house they glimpse at its end . . .

Many years on, Hanny is a grown man no longer in need of his brother’s care.

But then the child’s body is found.

And the Loney always gives up its secrets, in the end.

My thoughts…

A creepy setting, mysterious goings on, a silent boy and some religious fanatics. Good ingredients for a novel! From the very start, the atmosphere is created with descriptions of a violent storm and a dead baby. We are then plunged back 30 years where we find out more about our narrator, nicknamed Tonto, and his older, mute brother Hanny. Desperate for a cure for his muteness, their devout parents take them on an annual pilgrimage to the Loney where they carry out a range of rituals designed to heal their son. Tonto is about 15 or 16 when most of the action takes place, as they travel to the Loney for Easter once again, despite not visiting for several years following the death of their priest…

I found the build up of this novel to be really tense and gripping. It reminded me in some ways of The Wonder by Emma Donoghue, which was also set in a brooding, atmospheric place and featured characters with strong religious views – but also of His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnett in the way the tension and mystery slowly builds.

I liked learning about all the characters, and I found the way that the narrator behaves towards his older brother to be very sweet and touching, especially in contrast to his mother’s acts of desperation to get him to talk and be ‘normal’. Tonto is more accepting of his brother the way he is, and has learnt to communicate with him, whereas his mother will not rest until God cures him.

There is something sinister about the place they spend their Easter holidays from the very start, and there is a real feeling of creepiness about the setting, that adds to the tension in the novel. There are lots of little hints and clues scattered around the novel, such as a mysterious locked room, the strange locals (you have to have strange locals when a novel is set in a place like this!), and a range of unsettling events taking place around the area. Again, this helped to build up a real sense of tension – but then as the novel reaches it conclusion, I felt that the story just fell a little flat.

This book leaves a lot of elements unexplained – and while I don’t necessarily need everything tied up beautifully at the end of a book, this one perhaps took it a little too far and left a few too many questions and loose ends. There could have been a little less build up and a little more conclusion. There is a lot left unsaid, which is good as it leaves you thinking – but a little more clarity on some of the points might have been nice!

Despite this, I still really enjoyed reading this book and loved the sense of atmosphere it created. There are many parts of the book that will stay with me for a long time, and overall I enjoyed it.

My rating: 7 out of 10

Book review: The Comfort of Others by Kay Langdale

The book:

The Comfort of Others by Kay Langdale
Published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2017
Pages: 256

My copy: Library

The blurb:

Minnie and her sister Clara, spinsters both, live in a dilapidated country house in the middle of a housing estate, built when their father sold off the family’s land. Now in their seventies, their days follow a well-established routine: long gone are the garden parties, the tennis lessons and their suffocatingly strict mother. Gone, too, is any mention of what happened when Minnie was sixteen, and the secret the family buried in the grounds of their estate.

Directly opposite them lives Max, an 11-year-old whose life with his mum has changed beyond recognition since her new boyfriend arrived. Cast aside, he takes solace in Minnie’s careful routine, observed through his bedroom window.

Over the course of the summer, both begin to tell their stories: Max through a Dictaphone, Minnie through a diary. As their tales intertwine, ghosts are put to rest and challenges faced, in a story that is as dark as it is uplifting.

My thoughts…

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the books I tend to love most are those picked up completely on a whim, rather than those I have been dying to read for ages! This is a case in point – grabbed completely randomly in the library, and ended up loving every page of it. The novel tells two stories that are not directly related – other than that the two narrators are neighbours – yet despite the flitting between mainly unrelated tales this works brilliantly.

On one side of the road, living in a small house on an estate with his beautician mum, is Max. He’s enjoying the summer holidays before he starts secondary school – until the boiler repairman turns up and ends up dating his mum. The man, who is nameless throughout most of the novel, is pretty horrendous to Max, but the stoic boy suffers mainly in silence as he can see his mum is happy, but occasionally he pops to the huge manor house over the road to speak with Minnie.

We also hear about Minnie’s past, through a diary she starts writing, and we find out why she and her sister Clara live such quiet and isolated lives in the big house. Her story is terribly sad, and somehow worked perfectly set against Max’s modern day worries. The two voices were very distinctive and again worked perfectly, giving the contrasts between the present day and Minnie’s tragic past. Max’s story, although sad too, still has lighthearted touches, and this helped to lighten the novel and offered a different tone to Minnie’s story.

I loved both our narrators and found myself rooting for them both, and hoped they would form a strong friendship with each other, which slowly starts to develop over the course of the book. This is a short novel, but it is so beautifully written that you feel you really get to know the characters, even the minor ones.

I had never even heard of this author until I picked this book up in the library, but I went straight out and grabbed two other novels by her as soon as I had finished this one. If they are half as good as this I will be a happy reader. This novel was perfect and I absolutely loved it, and was only disappointed when it ended.

My rating: 10 out of 10

Book review: Hate List by Jennifer Brown

The book:

Hate List by Jennifer Brown
Originally published in 2009
Pages: 432

My copy: Paperback

The blurb:

5 months ago Valerie Leftman’s boyfriend opened fire on their school cafeteria, killing five students and one teacher before turning the gun on himself. Valerie, who was shot trying to stop him, is initially implicated in the shootings because of the hate list she helped create. The hate list her boyfriend used to pick his targets.

As Valerie integrates back into school, more of an outsider than she ever thought she was before, she is forced to confront her feelings of guilt and loneliness. Exploring the gray area between hero and villain, she navigates the rocky relationships with her family, her former friends, with the memory of the boyfriend she still loves, and with the girl whose life she saved five months ago. As she moves toward graduation and the year anniversary of the shooting, Valerie must come to grips with the tragedy that took place and her role in it all in order to make amends and move on with her life.

My thoughts…

Five months after a fatal school shooting, the girlfriend of the now dead shooter has to return to school and face the music. Will everyone blame her for the shooting? After all, she did write a hate list which included the names of some of Nick’s victims – but she never really wished anyone dead.

I thought this was such an intriguing premise for a book, and I whizzed through the first half. The flashbacks to the day of the shooting were particularly interesting, and there was a lot of tension as you piece together what has happened on that awful day. But although the events are tragic, and we get another dimension by hearing more about the victims via newspaper accounts, the novel makes us really think about other issues such as bullying and its impact on the victims.

Where the book fell down for me was the focus on Valerie, mainly around her recovery from the incident – physically and mentally. I really wanted to find out more about Nick and what made him carry out the shooting. Early in the novel we find out he had a new friend called Julian, a bit of a loser by all accounts, and there are hints that Nick might have been influenced by Julian, and was dabbling in drugs. I would have loved more from Nick’s perspective or more insight into his family life and so on, as the small hints we get suggest he was a kind boyfriend to Valerie with a loving mother – not the typical villain at all. But these themes are never explored and Julian also disappears completely early on in the book, which felt like a really missed opportunity.

Also Valerie’s parents are just utterly horrendous, and seem to blame and – at times – almost despise Valerie for what has happened. I really wanted Valerie or someone else in the book to confront these horrible parents, but it never happened.

I think this book held a lot of promise but it didn’t all quite click for me. The novel felt too long, and by the second half my interest started to wane as all the attention was on Valerie. I wanted more about Nick and what made him tick, and why he finally flipped and carried out the shooting, but sadly this ever came. 

My rating: 6 out of 10

Book review: A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard

The book:

A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard
Originally published in 2017 by Macmillan Children’s Books
Pages: 320

My copy: Paperback

The blurb:

Steffi doesn’t talk.
Rhys can’t hear.
They understand each other perfectly.
Love isn’t always a lightning strike. Sometimes it’s the rumbling roll of thunder…

Steffi has been a selective mute for most of her life – she’s been silent for so long that she feels completely invisible. But Rhys, the new boy at school, sees her. He’s deaf, and her knowledge of basic sign language means that she’s assigned to look after him. To Rhys it doesn’t matter that Steffi doesn’t talk and, as they find ways to communicate, Steffi finds that she does have a voice, and that she’s falling in love with the one person who makes her feel brave enough to use it.

My thoughts…

Last year I read Beautiful Broken Things by Sara Barnard, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I was really looking forward to reading this, her new book, but sadly, overall, this book didn’t quite live up to her first for me personally.

Stefi is a selective mute. Rhys is deaf. They are able to communicate with each other using sign language, which works for both of them, and they find themselves forming a strong bond with each other almost immediately. I found the different ways the two found to communicate with each other to be really interesting, and I also felt for Rhys, who had decided to attend a normal sixth form but wasn’t well provided for. Despite this, he’s a strong and determined character. Stefi, meanwhile, battles her own demons, but finds that having someone to communicate with in sign language helps her to regain some confidence.

It was also interesting reading about Rhys and Stefi’s families, and I felt that I could definitely see where Stefi’s parents were coming from when they worried about her so much – even when this worry was sometimes unjustified. 

I sometimes find in young adult novels that diverse characters are shoehorned in, and it can often feel contrived. But I think this book really nails the diversity aspect incredibly well, and what made this work for me was that the characters were a natural part of the story, instead of it being obvious.

However despite the positives, this novel didn’t seem to me to be as complex or interesting as Beautiful Broken Things, and it did feel like a fluffy romance a lot of the time. Beyond the issues faced by the two protagonists, there just wasn’t enough here to keep me interested, and although the book was perfectly nice and easy to read, there really was nothing that made me want to pick it up each time I stopped reading. Rhys and his family are all just a bit too sweet and perfect, and there just didn’t seem to be a meaty enough plot here to keep me going, and it definitely lacked something for me overall.

But there is still enough here for me to think this is a good, worthwhile book with very positive representations of a range of characters. I wish there had been a bit more plot-wise, but I think many readers of young adult novels will still enjoy this. 

My rating: 6.5 out of 10

Book review: The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan

The book:

The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan
Originally published in 1995
Pages: 362

The blurb:

Set in 1978, the political drama and familial tensions of the 1960s form a backdrop for the world of Phoebe O’Connor, age eighteen. Phoebe is obsessed with the memory and death of her sister Faith, a beautiful idealistic hippie who died in Italy in 1970. In order to find out the truth about Faith’s life and death, Phoebe retraces her steps from San Francisco across Europe, a quest which yields both complex and disturbing revelations about family, love, and Faith’s lost generation.

My thoughts…

Although I am aware of this author, this was the first novel by her that I had read. I enjoyed the beginning of the novel a lot and I liked the tense relationship between Phoebe and her mother. Phoebe is still devastated following the death of both her sister and her father, and she struggles to fill the void they have left. She is detached from others and also struggles to get on with her mother and brother, who have more successfully moved on in different ways.

I thought this opening part of the book worked really well as we get a sense of Phoebe’s grief and her detachment from her family. I really felt for her, and found myself sympathising with her a great deal and could relate to her desire to be reconnected with her sister in some way. Eventually, she decides that the best way to do this is to follow in the footsteps Faith had travelled, when she went around Europe in the months leading up to her death. Using the postcards that Faith had sent her while on her travels, Phoebe starts her journey. 

It was at this point that, sadly, the book lost its way for me. There just wasn’t really enough here to keep me interested, and while I had some interest in what happened to Phoebe, I didn’t feel so invested in Faith’s story. I don’t think this was helped when Phoebe got rid of Faith’s postcards – these had been interspersed throughout the start of Phoebe’s travels and I found this other voice refreshing and was disappointed when this stopped quite abruptly.

By the end of the novel I must admit I was struggling to stay interested, and found Phoebe’s journey became tedious and the novel fell flat. However I did like earlier parts of the novel and the overall writing style, so I would look out for more of Egan’s books. But sadly, this one didn’t really do it for me.

My rating: 5 out of 10

Book review: Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

The book:

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
Published in 2017 by Fig Tree
Pages: 304

The blurb:

Gil’s wife, Ingrid has been missing, presumed drowned, for twelve years.

A possible sighting brings their children, Nan and Flora, home. Together they begin to confront the mystery of their mother. Is Ingrid dead? Or did she leave? And do the letters hidden within Gil’s books hold the answer to the truth behind his marriage, a truth hidden from everyone including his own children?

My thoughts…

In 2015 I read and reviewed Our Endless Numbered Days, the debut novel by Claire Fuller. I enjoyed much about this book, but with some reservations, so was really keen to check out her latest book, Swimming Lessons. 

Chalk-and-cheese sisters Nan and Flora return to their childhood home when father Gil takes a tumble. Younger sister Flora is shocked to find the home, a former swimming pavilion which was always cluttered and crazy, literally full to the brim with old paperbacks. The reader has a little bit of insight into this, as we know that Gil has been searching the novels for letters left by his wife Ingrid who disappeared 12 years before. And it is these letters that make up about half of the novel, as we read their contents and find out more about Ingrid – and also much, much more about Gil himself…

Sometimes when books flit back and forth in time I get frustrated and find myself leaning towards one section of the book over the other. But this wasn’t the case at all here. The present day sections complemented Ingrid’s letters perfectly, and I liked the way it enabled us to build up a much rounder picture of the dysfunctional family – and find out many secrets the two sisters are not party to. Finding out about the past definitely helped not only to fill in some of the gaps, but also to alter the reader’s perceptions of the events taking place, and of one character in particular. 

In the present day, I enjoyed the relationships between the different characters and despite the seriousness of the letters, these sections were sometimes more light-hearted and worked as a good contrast to the heavier stuff – for example Flora’s little comments about Nan’s blossoming relationship with another woman, and a scene where two characters get “high” from an unlit joint. 

I thought this was an excellent book and it has the right mix of elements for me – mystery, sadness, humour – and an interesting island location thrown in for good measure. Now I’m looking forward to Fuller’s third novel! 

My rating: 9 out of 10

Blog tour and book review: The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve

Anita Shreve Blog Tour.jpg

The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve is published in the UK on 2nd May, and I was delighted to be asked to take part in a blog tour to celebrate the upcoming publication. And I’m even more delighted to say that I loved this book!
Read on to find out more and read my honest review.

The blurb:

1947. Fires are racing along the coast of Maine after a summer-long drought, ravaging thousands of acres, causing unprecedented confusion and fear.

Five months pregnant, Grace Holland is left alone to protect her two toddlers when her difficult and unpredictable husband Gene joins the volunteers fighting to bring the fire under control. Along with her best friend, Rosie, and Rosie’s two young children, the women watch in horror as their houses go up in flames, then walk into the ocean as a last resort. They spend the night frantically trying to save their children. When dawn comes, they have miraculously survived, but their lives are forever changed: homeless, penniless, and left to face an uncertain future.

As Grace awaits news of her husband’s fate, she is thrust into a new world in which she must make a life on her own, beginning with absolutely nothing; she must find work, a home, a way to provide for her children. In the midst of devastating loss, Grace discovers glorious new freedoms – joys and triumphs she could never have expected her narrow life with Gene could contain – and her spirit soars. And then the unthinkable happens, and Grace’s bravery is tested as never before.

My thoughts…

It has been several years since I’ve read an Anita Shreve novel, so I was really pleased to have the opportunity to read her brand new novel as part of the blog tour. And I was sucked in from the very start.

Grace is in a difficult marriage – her husband Gene is unresponsive, particularly since the death of his mother, and she struggles with two very young children and a third on the way. She seems very much resigned to her life yet at the start of the novel reminds herself that she is lucky to have what she has. 

But then disaster strikes. Fires are raging through Maine and husband Gene goes off to help, leaving Grace to protect the children. Following some very dramatic scenes, Grace finds herself living in the empty house of Gene’s dead mother – and this is when Grace’s strength and character starts to shine through. 

I absolutely loved this book and was completely mesmerised by Grace’s story and how she dealt with what life had thrown at her. She is incredibly strong yet very real, and I strongly sympathised with her, despite the quite simple writing style. The novel is written in a very factual and matter of fact way, which makes it quick and easy to read, but also worked very well as it lets the reader fill in the gaps. I thought the descriptions of the house in which Grace finds herself were amazing, and I thought it was very interesting of the author to show how something good had come out of something very bad – and in fact Grace’s life might be better for it.

But of course things are never simple and life never runs smoothly for Grace! I certainly don’t want to include any spoilers here but would strongly encourage readers to check this out for themselves. 

This is a novel for anyone who loves character-driven stories, with a real sense of time and place. I find it hard to fault the book as I absolutely loved it, and it has definitely encouraged me to revisit Shreve and read some of her previous novels.

My rating: 10 out of 10