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.  

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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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“Those bagpipes sound lovely.” Did I just say that out loud?

I live opposite a saxophonist. I consider this an absolute pleasure as I often leave the flat to what feels like my own personal theme tune. This may not be the opinion of his actual neighbour’s in situ, but my goodness, a sax solo creeping its way above rush hour traffic is enough to make me go weak at the knees.

So as a lifelong muso and champion of the art form, it pains me to say this, but the mind-boggling instrument they call bagpipes, have never really been my (ahem) bag. As much as I’ve tried, my ears simply cannot compute the torturous sound that, in my opinion, is up there with foxes crying and the universally annoying moped engine. Shudder.

I fully appreciate the skill involved in mastering the tartan beast, but the effects…not so much. So why did I find myself drawn to their non-dulcet tones on a recent trip to Hampton Court? Perhaps it was the setting or the glorious sunshine, but something strange happened and I found myself enjoying bagpipe music. I may’ve even done a little jig the sound thrilled me so.

It turns out that a gentleman had placed himself in a park opposite the palace and was filling the air with a fantastic array of Scottish folk music. The outdoor acoustics were staggeringly appropriate and carried his melodies far and beyond. As young and old stopped to enjoy his performance, it really made me smile. Something as simple as taking a practise session al fresco, sent myself and many others on our way, with a very Scottish spring in our step.

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Mr Bagpipe – music to my surprised ears

Hoop Hoop Hooray

I’ve never quite mastered the art of hula hooping – much to my utter frustration. I was really sporty as a child and couldn’t (and frankly still can’t) fathom how a piece of circular, fluorescent plastic had me stumped. Well, my hips won’t lie, thus the hoop won’t hula.

While out recently, I was delighted* to see a man honing his skills in the local communal gardens. That he had chosen to put on a public display pre-9.00am, was not only refreshing to all those commuters and early risers, but also rather encouraging. Monday mornings aren’t for the faint hearted and something as innocent and fun as a hula hooping adult, could be just the caffeine alternative we all need to get the week started. As I carefully observed his technique, so did many a passer-by, some of whom stopped to watch his rather impressive physical display (please note: I’m not going to buy a hoop and realise said dream any time soon, I’m a new-ish mum, hula hooping can wait!). My imagination began to conjure up endless reasons as to who, what, why? Perhaps he was a circus escapee, a BGT hopeful or a performance artist carrying out a smile-inducing one-man protest?

Hula

Well readers, I clearly wasn’t the only person intrigued by his act. A far more outgoing, and dare I say it, ‘egged on by his friend’ observer decided to yell across the street. “What’s that all about mate?” while chuckling into his smartphone. To which the hula hooping man replied: “I don’t like yoga.”

Ha! I couldn’t have wished for a better response.

*read: furious and regressed straight back to childhood

Review: Fever at Dawn by Péter Gárdos

Imagine the perfect love story; finding your heart’s desire through the beauty of putting pen to paper. You fall in love and a whirlwind romance leads to a life of happiness. Now imagine this story set against the backdrop of the end of World War II. Then add to that the unimaginable horror of having survived life inside a concentration camp.

We won’t speak of those times.

Fever at Dawn, is film director, Péter Gárdos’, debut novel. What makes his story all the more compelling is the fact that it isn’t just a story; it’s a true story of how his parents’, Miklós and Lili, came to meet and fall hopelessly in love. The reader is introduced to Miklós as he faces death on-board a ship heading towards Sweden. Suffering from what is considered (at the time) a life-threatening case of TB, he is taken to convalesce and it is here, his ambition to find a wife and his subsequent romance with Lili, begins. In the hope of finding a spouse, Miklós tracks down the details of women convalescing in Sweden, who originated from or near his hometown, and sets himself the task of writing to all 117 of them. Lili thinks little of her letter, surely sent in error? But as she lay in her hospital bed one bleak evening, she is decides to reply.

It’s an age-old cliché but the rest, as they say, is history. Lili and Miklós share delightful quips and details about their lives, more present than past, and gradually become acquainted through the beauty of the written word. With the help of their delightful (in most part) friends, their romance blossoms into something that you, the reader, relish being a part of. Knowing that the snippets of their love letters are real, makes Gárdos’ narrative come alive. He adds a welcomed humour to his characterisation and you really feel Lili and Miklós growing as a couple with every turn of the page.

There are times when their romance seems destined to fail; those in authority clearly do not favour young lovers or, ‘cousins’, as they are otherwise known. It is somewhat of a milestone when the pair finally meet. All the nerves of a first date coupled with their obvious ailments do not make for a particularly romantic encounter, but Gárdos’ makes it so with his beautiful prose. However, awkward silences are filled with harrowing thoughts and images of the past.

We won’t speak of those times.

This unlikely romance works against all the odds and you will find yourself spurring the couple on as they live out their young love. Fever at Dawn, is wonderfully innocent, harmless and as genuine as love should be. The truth behind the words makes it very special indeed.

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Fever at Dawn is released on 7 April 2016 through Doubleday and Transworld Publishers.     

Thank you to Alison Barrow at Transworld Publishers for providing me with a proof copy for review purposes.

Review: The Widow by Fiona Barton

In Fiona Barton’s debut novel, The Widow, the unimaginable is brought to life as we follow the lives of those involved in the case of missing child, Bella Elliott.

Barton’s detailed approach leaves no stone unturned. We witness this tragic story, told in past and present, through the eyes of all who are regretfully living the nightmare.

The widow, a.k.a Mrs Taylor, or Jeanie, as we come to know her, is a complex character who invokes pity, frustration and disbelief. Her somewhat Jekyll and Hyde nature echoes that of her husband, Glen, the main suspect in the case of missing child, Bella. It is only in the final stages of this story that their part in this tragic tale comes to light. Although I was still left contemplating the truth and the role they both played, given Jeanie’s convincing and contrasting performance as the widow.

What makes Barton’s novel so effective is the depth of character she manages to create amid this gut-wrenching theme. Understanding the role of each character and watching their experience unravel, gives Barton’s, The Widow, a documentary-like quality; each chapter offering up a new episode in this grim thriller. As a result, the reader can place themselves in the unenviable shoes of everyone from the widow, to highly committed D.I Sparkes and cutthroat reporter, Kate.

There are times when Bella’s case seems to lose its way, leaving D.I Sparkes, Bella’s mother, reporter Kate and the reader, wondering whether it will ever be resolved.

There is no escaping the mark this novel will leave. It may sound odd, but Barton’s written word somehow brings to life those all too familiar television news reports that frequent our screens.

The Widow, is already proving essential reading for 2016 and if you are looking for an addictive yet harrowing storyline, look no further.

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The Widow is out now via Transworld Publishers.