Larchfield – Polly Clark – Published 23 March 2017 by Quercus Books

Confession time: I haven’t read any poetry since completing my A Levels, 15 years’ ago. In all honesty, it’s not a genre I ever consider reading and I don’t really know why. Polly Clark’s, debut novel, Larchfield, may be about to change all that.

Cleverly weaving the lives of modern-day poet, Dora, with W.H Auden, one of the 20th century’s most established poets, Clark has created gorgeous prose wrapped in a halo of poetic rhythm. Dora’s life is about to change beyond recognition following a move to remote Scottish town, Helensburgh. Newly married and pregnant with her first child, change is inevitable, but what Dora hopes will be a move to inspire, turns out to be a life from which she craves escapism. And escape she does.

We first meet Auden as semi-established poet. The year is 1930 and much like Dora, he makes the move to Helensburgh in the hope it will spur on his creativity. Larchfield, the independent boys’ school Auden finds himself ‘teaching’ at, is everything you’d hope a boys’ school would not be. Littered with bullies (staff and pupils alike), lacking funds, enthusiasm and any sense of welfare, it’s no place for the likes of Auden and anyone who dares sway from the text-book masculine image young boys are expected to emulate. A joke to both colleagues and pupils, Auden is no walkover, and leaves more an impression on these young boys than he dares to realise. His kindness towards Jamie, a lonely, sickly boy, is so selflessly genuine that Auden’s character traits, so publically mocked, are what serve him so well in this case.

Leading two completely different lives, Dora and Auden, share such fragile symmetry that collides perfectly through Clark’s imagining of their stories, past and present. And their first ‘encounter’ is the stuff of childhood fantasy. Who could resist a message in a bottle?

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As Dora battles to find her place in this new world, her hellish Christian neighbours’, Mo and Terrence, torment and plague her every move; much of which goes unnoticed, adding more fuel to the fire between Dora and husband, Kit. As a mum, my heart ached for Dora’s desperate and often cruel situation. So-called ‘support’ pumped full of hatred and pre-conceived notions about Dora’s choices as a mum, made me wince, especially knowing Clark drew on personal experience as a catalyst for this book – I sincerely hope both Clark and Dora put to bed any such criticism. My heart goes out to any mum facing any such ridicule.

Decades apart, Auden, is battling his own life choices. As a homosexual in the 1930’s, he is far from socially acceptable, despite his knack for conversation and thoroughly fascinating take on life. Trying desperately to seek his own escapism, he finds a friend in Larchfield’s, Daphne, the headmaster’s dying wife. A lady in need of uplifting, she takes an instant shine to Auden’s rather eccentric approach. Their regular meetings make for some beautiful and rather amusing scenes.

Clark has pulled off a debut novel that has not only struck a chord with me, but has fired up a desire to delve into the often-misunderstood world of poetry. In some ways, poems are the ultimate short story, crammed full of emotion, passion, shock, heartache. Perhaps poetry could provide that daily dose of escapism or realism, we all sometimes need?

 

This copy of Larchfield was provided for review purposes by Elizabeth Masters, at Quercus Books.

Paula Hawkins – Into the Water (Release date 2 May 2017 – Doubleday Publishers)

Paula Hawkins has done it again. Into the Water, her latest thriller, is all I’d hoped it would be. Hawkins’ distinctive and free-flowing way with words once again takes the reader on a journey crammed full of suspense, anticipation and a wow-factor ending I certainly didn’t see coming.

Set in the quiet English village of Beckford, Into the Water, meanders and weaves beautifully from character-to-character both past and present. We first meet Jules, traveling back to Beckford following the sudden death of sister, Nel – it’s a place she’d hoped was firmly set in her past. As we are introduced to figures from a life Jules has tried to forget and the pain and anxiety this brings, she finally sees things a whole lot clearer than first thought. But is it all too late?

On top of dealing with the guilt and mystery surrounding Nel’s death, Jules is thrust into the role of surrogate mother to Nel’s teenage daughter, Lena. A feisty young woman with her fair share of complications, Lena provides a hot-headed narrative that Nel would be proud. Into the Water, is as much Lena’s story as it is everyone else’s, but I took a shine to her and was so willing Lena to come out less tainted than people gave her credit for.

As is so often the case with tight-knit communities, people start talking and people start believing. Hawkins’ ability to create convincing characters makes reading, Into the Water, so believable that you can’t help but get wrapped up in their tales and theories. There a few likeable characters in this story; everyone has such a troubled past or present that friendliness is all but void. But that makes wanting to get to the bottom of the gossip all that more vital. Men in positions of authority give opinions and show stature, but as with Hawkins’ highly acclaimed debut, The Girl On The Train, it’s the strong-minded female protagonists that show their worth.

Stripping back the murky waters of Beckford and its ‘troubled women’, Hawkins, in my opinion, so poignantly conveys the importance of family ties and talking things through. A simple miscommunication can carry such lasting affects and in the case of Jules and Nel, it’s simply beyond repair.

Into the Water, is a powerful read that will no-doubt cause more than a few waves throughout 2017 and beyond.

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This copy of Into the Water was kindly provided by Alison Barrow at Transword Books for review purposes.      

Review: See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt (Released with Tinder Press – May 2017)

There are few literary texts that have left me looking over my shoulder and perhaps a little jumpy upon completion; scenes playing over in my mind, questioning a character’s thoughts and actions. Then along came Sarah Schmidt.

Her debut novel, See What I Have Done, explores the infamous Lizzie Borden story; a young woman tried and later cleared of the brutal axe murders of her father and stepmother. If the tale is perhaps unfamiliar, there’s little doubt the sinister rhyme associated with the killings will offer up some familiarity:

Lizzie Borden took an axe

And gave her mother forty whacks

When she saw what she had done

She gave her father forty one.

Schmidt’s fascination with the Borden murders was triggered by a chance find in a second-hand bookstore, which unintentionally led to a self-confessed: “Ten year creative obsession.” And what an obsession she’s created. From the get-go we are placed at the heart of this gloriously gruesome tale. Lizzie Borden requires little introduction. We, the reader, peer over her shoulders as she stares seemingly unfazed at her father’s broken body. It is clear from Schmidt’s brilliant turn-of-phrase, that Lizzie is not your average 31-year-old woman.

Each chapter brings with it a new perspective. Experiencing this heinous crime through different eyes, conjures up more ‘who actually dunnits?’ than I was expecting. Perhaps that’s just my interpretation (there’s no denying nearly all fingers point to Lizzie) but this case is still unsolved and Schmidt’s natural art for story telling, and superb characterisation, definitely left me questioning ‘who?’

The entire Borden family appear to live life in Fall River, under a thickening cloud of doom and self-destruction. Lizzie’s older sister, Emma, was inevitably going to get sucked into her sister’s turmoil – that was clear from the start – and I so wished her inner warrior would take flight. Emma is ever the protective older sister standing in Lizzie’s shadow – the perfect ‘fall of trust’ partner. Extended family didn’t fare much better. Uncle John: yuck. A dressed-up thug with a pen chant for all things vile. And a chance encounter with a young lad called Benjamin, gives him the perfect violent partner-in-crime. Benjamin, born into violence and brought up to behave as such, it’s inevitable his life’s journey was never going to be a positive one. But does Uncle John provide him with more or less than he bargained for? Another soul lost to the Borden name was Irish maid Bridget. How I longed for her to escape at nightmare at Fall River under the Borden name. We watch as life drains from her very being and I sincerely hope she managed, one day, to return to her loving home.

Schmidt has not only written an intriguing take on the Borden story, but has left a lasting impression that will impact on those who are familiar and unfamiliar with the story. A dazzling debut that should be read with the lights switched on. And preferably away from any possible sightings of pigeons and pears…you’ll see…

 

This copy of See What I Have Done was kindly provided for review purposes.  

Sophie Kinsella – My Not So Perfect Life

At the end of last year I deleted my Instagram account. It wasn’t something I used religiously; a couple of posts per week, mainly images from river walks, the occasional mani or magazine front cover. I wasn’t one for filters or tweaking light effects, but I was conscious that the images I posted (in the main) looked appealing. So why delete my account? In all honesty, I would sometimes find myself endlessly scrolling through ‘recommended images’ thinking to myself, do I really need to see another picture of a matcha latte (utterly revolting, in case you’re wondering)? Or someone’s latest ‘in action’ purchase from Sweaty Betty? The answer – no! Instagram added nothing to my life and it isn’t missed.

When I heard about Sophie Kineslla’s latest book, My Not So Perfect Life, it instantly spoke to me. Following new-to-London-life protagonist, Katie (aka Cath or Cat, depending on her perceived status in life and which one of her colleagues has a good-enough memory), the reader is instantly placed in a rather accurate London-life scenario – that of the infamous daily commute. No bells. No whistles. No filters. Katie originates from Somerset but has always had eyes for The Big Smoke. And now she’s arrived, those rose-tinted spectacles are turning a rather different colour. Working in branding for the most sought after name in the business, she finds herself not only struggling with the day-to-day hardships of city life, but the reality of where she sees herself and those around her.

On the surface, Katie’s peers and superiors are everything she wants to be. So, naturally, she emulates this through her online profile. Some clever photos here and there, a cultural knowledge to rival that of a Mastermind champion – all captioned with happy thoughts – and voila. Katie is hip, happening and where it’s at. But when life around her takes an unexpected downfall, Katie is forced to face reality. In doing so, she learns not only about herself, but also far more than she bargained for when it comes to her esteemed colleagues. What follows is a tantalising story full of revenge, a lot of mud, a rather irresistible meadow and some blue hair dye.

My Not So Perfect Life, makes you laugh-out-loud and is coupled with the perfect dose of romance. But it has its fair share of upset, embarrassment (own it!) and moments of total frustration. This is a must-read for anyone who is fed up with 21st century self-obsession, millenials who think the world owes them a favour and anyone who has it all (in theory and in practice). Kinsella creates a thoroughly believable story with characters that are so well-observed; we’ve all met, heard of and perhaps are the likes of De-meeee-ter (shuddering sympathy), Steve (hilariously huh?) and Flora (definitely a Kale fan).

But what I found most revealing about this book was my perception of the characters and how Kinsella cleverly creates them in a kind of metaphorical if-Instagram-were-real guise. And boy did my perception change by the end of the book. My Not So Perfect Life = a pretty perfect read.

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My copy of, My Not So Perfect Life, was provided for review purposes. Available 9 February 2017. 

Umbrella Man

One of my most vivid, non-family-related childhood memories, is of a man walking along the street in a thunderstorm holding a massive garden table umbrella. Not particularly exciting, granted, but I’m talking supersized golf umbrella kinda scale. As a six-year-old, this was unusual to say the least and if I remember correctly, utterly hilarious. Had the young ‘PeakTimeTaler’ in me had the nerve, I would’ve grabbed my disposable camera and voila, captured the moment for all eternity.

Fast-forward more than a couple of decades, and I found myself being treated to a trip down memory lane. While enjoying a delightful riverside lunch with my Mum on Friday, I was left reliving said thunderstorm moment all over again. As we gazed out across the water, sipping extra cool beverages (overpriced coconut water & cranberry juice) and putting the world to rights, I saw a vaguely familiar silhouette approaching. Could it be Umbrella Man in another form? Surely not? Surely yes! My face lit up, conversation came to a standstill and I reached for my camera phone. Sailing along in a tiny wooden boat, enjoying the sun and the views, were two people keeping cool under the shade of a GIANT. BLUE. PARASOL. They had no idea the simple delight they brought to my afternoon. I all but swam across and joined them.

Yes, the context and the weather may be completely different, but the impact – priceless. I chuckled to myself as they sailed on by, perhaps making a memory for another young onlooker…highly unlikely.

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More of this Please!

Today’s Peak Time Tale took me no further than the end of my road. Now I’ve written about Acts of Random Kindness before (A.R.K) > here< and I consider them one of the simplest ways to experience a feel-good boost. Whether you’re the recipient, giver or happen to witness an A.R.K, there’s little else that will give you that instant heart-warming, happy buzz – and who would ever complain about an endorphin overload?

As I left the flat this morning, I noticed what appeared to be a rather fancy looking basket outside the front door or the property at the end of the road. The property in question is marketed for short-term-lease, so it’s not unusual to see boxes and furniture toing and froing every six months’ or so. Upon closer inspection, (by which I mean squinting my eyes and showing neighbourly* interest) I could make out a jar of coffee, some washing up liquid, a candle and an envelope with the word ‘welcome’ written on the front. All finished off with a red bow! A bow people! The previous tenants had obviously left a ‘welcome’ basket filled with a few house-warming essentials to greet the new residents. What a thoughtful gesture to make someone feel welcome on what is likely to be a stressful and hectic day.

I’ve created a few house-warming hampers in my time for friends and family, but never have I considered doing this for the new resident of a property I may be selling. I will definitely take this on board as and when my husband and I decide to sell up and move to our next home (and with our beautiful baby daughter growing up far too quickly, that’s likely to be sooner rather than later!).

A.R.K needn’t be grand gestures done publically with an audience in tow, and this small token proved exactly that. More of this please!

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*Read: nosey

The Wedding Watcher

I consider myself quite the wedding connoisseur. There’s something about the romance of a wedding that captures my full attention.

Like having a sixth sense, I reckon I can spot a weeding a mile off. I’m not talking the obvious; a blushing bride or a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud floating by on a Saturday afternoon, I’m talking about those surreptitious little moments that could go unnoticed to the untrained eye.

On Friday, I saw what could only be described as a ‘plethora of palm trees’. Being delivered en masse, to a local island venue (yep, island!) members of staff could be seen scuttling around with all the energy of an Oompa Loompa, transporting palm after palm. Naturally my mind began to conjure up endless uses for these exotic plants:

  • A tree-lined aisle
  • A unique (if rather impractical to carry home) favour
  • A foliage-themed ceremony backdrop. Well, if it’s good enough for Kanye and Kim…

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During a mid-week stroll I spotted a tray of dainty buttonholes being delivered via the side entrance to a rather beautiful local property. What things they’ll see while in prime position, delicately pinned to someone’s lapel.

And how could I miss a Vera Wang dress bag as it elegantly hung from a car passenger window as I sat in rush hour traffic. If only I could’ve caught a glimpse of the dress.

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But my favourite wedding spot has to be one from last year. The 17.28 to London Waterloo was always relatively empty, making Peak Time Tales far easier to witness. As the train left Richmond station I noticed a man furiously making notes. Perhaps I was being Peak Time Taled? Thankfully, I wasn’t. I caught a glimpse of Mr Frantic’s reading material, ‘The Best Man Speaker’. These words alone are enough to send the most confident of public speakers into a state a panic. Was this a last-ditched attempt to write that showstopper of a speech? Had Google’s ‘Best Man Jokes’ search failed him? Had his other half heard a preview of said speech and demanded a rewrite or perhaps he was the groom, had heard a preview of the speech and was rewriting it for himself? Now wouldn’t that be something? Whatever his role, I hope the speech was a success and managed to get a few belly laughs. Or at the very least, make the bride blush!