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The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett - Review

Friday, October 29, 2021

This is a brilliant book and I'd like you all to go and read it immediately! I first heard of it ages ago and bought it when it was cheap on Kindle, but hadn't got around to reading it. Then my friend Ingrid said they were going to have it for their next book club meeting, so I knew I needed to get around to reading it! I started it just before we went on holiday at the beginning of October and finished it there. I loved the book, it's quite complex but still easy to read.

At the beginning of the book the town of Mallard is abuzz because Desiree Vignes is back in town. Several years ago she and her twin sister Stella left town without saying goodbye, leaving behind their mother. No one really expected either of them to return, but Desiree has - with her child, Jude, in tow. She quickly enrolls Jude in school and gets a job in the diner, but doesn't know where Stella is. 

Mallard is a tiny town in Louisiana, and isn't on any maps. It was founded by a Black person, and all its inhabitants are Black, but over time they have become paler and indeed, Stella can later be mistaken for a white woman, although we don't find that out until later. But there is an emphasis on the light skinned people who live in the town, and when Desiree arrives with Jude everyone is incensed because Jude is dark skinned. The family have to cope with prejudice against her in the time she lives in Mallard. 

We next go back in time to when Desiree and Stella were teenagers. Stella wants to stay in school but their mother insists she leaves and gets a job. Desiree is desperate to leave their small town but also has to get a job. Then Stella says she'll go with Desiree, so one night they leave and go to New Orleans. We follow Desiree as she gets a job and falls in love with Jude's father. He beats her and treats her badly which is why she then escapes back to Mallard and her mother. We learn that Stella left one night and Desiree has no idea where she is. She's never been in touch with her mother either. 

Jude grows up and heads to LA for college. She meets Reese, a trans man who has escaped his own small town in Texas I think. This is the late 70s so transitioning is in no way easy, but Reese was one of my favourite characters throughout the whole book. I loved him and Jude. They make friends with drag queens around the area and find a found family. I loved their relationship too. 

Jude starts waitressing in LA and at the very middle of the book, she's at a swanky party when Stella walks in. Jude smashes a bottle of wine and is fired... and then we go over to Stella's story. She found she could pass as a white woman and that's what she's done all her life. She is married and has a daughter, Kennedy. She has spent her whole life terrified of being 'found out' and trying to bury her past. I liked her story too, even though she's not exactly the hero in her story. 

I loved the book and thought it was really deftly woven together and kept my interest. I'm giving this five out of five and am looking forward to seeing what everyone else thought of it!

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss - Review

Monday, October 25, 2021

Ghost Wall was my choice for our book club for this year. When I was trying to choose a book I asked my friend Laura for recommendations and she said this as I wanted something a bit gothic. I hadn't realised until my copy arrived that this is a novella, it's really short. That's good for book club as it means more people manage to finish it! I only bought Summerwater by Sarah Moss because I knew I would be reading this soon, and now I've read two of hers I can say that I really like her style. It's concise and to the point, which I appreciate! 

So in this book, seven people are in Northumberland reenacting the Iron Age lives of people who lived nearby. Sylvie is there with her parents; she's around fifteen and named after an ancient goddess, Sulevia. Her dad is a bus driver and her mum is a cashier in a supermarket. Her dad is abusive; there are bruises on Mum, and he beats Sylvie pretty severely with a leather belt after finding her bathing naked in the stream. This is not a one off occurrence and she is really quite frightened of him, trying her best to not set him off and wishing everyone else wouldn't make him angry. 

The others on camp are a professor, Jim, and three of his students; Dan, Pete, and Molly. They are archaeology students or similar, and are doing the reenactment in their summer holidays. It's not explained how Jim and Sylvie's dad know each other or exactly why Sylvie and her family are there, except that her dad is an enthusiast about the time period. He insists the fire isn't allowed to go out, and while the professor and the students sleep in modern tents, Sylvie and her parents sleep in an authentic hut on uncomfortable beds. Everyone also has to wear linen tunics and moccasins. 

The girls are mostly sent off foraging for food. One day all the young people go to the sea and swim, and Sylvie finds herself watching Molly swim naked. This is partly why she strips off to bathe later in the sream. The men set traps for rabbits and later have to skin them for a stew. Food is scarce, though.

Sylvie knows a lot about the countryside because she often goes hiking with her dad and has picked things up from him. She also knows how obsessed he is with the bogs and bog people - people who were sacrificed to the bogs by their communities. Their relationship deteriorates, and Sylvie finds herself fighting for her life. 

I liked the book a lot - it's set in a heatwave and I liked how gothic the searing sunshine was and how it added to the stress of the book. I liked Sylvie and wanted her to succeed. I'm giving this five out of five and definitely definitely will read something else by Sarah Moss!

Rust Belt Femme by Raechel Anne Jolie - Review

Thursday, October 21, 2021

I got this book on Netgalley, so thank you very much to Belt Publishing for the opportunity to read this. I received a free electronic copy of the book for review purposes, but was not otherwise compensated for this review. All thoughts and opinions are my own. ]

I will also give a trigger warning for sexual assault within the book. 

Raechel grew up in rural Ohio, in poverty. When she was four her father was hit by a driver and left disabled by the crash. He came home but was very angry (caused by his injuries) and eventually went to live with his mother. Raechel and her mother eventually lost their house. They lived with a few of Raechel's mum's boyfriends, including one who sexually assaulted Raechel when she was a young teenager. Raechel was close to her mum's parents and their partners, all of whom seemed to have more money than Raechel and her mum. Raechel talks candidly though about how hard her mum had to work to keep them afloat and keep them together.

Raechel also is queer, so she talks about that too, about her first sexual experiences, about the queer men she grew up around, and about the boys she first fell in love with and all that they gave her. She and I are clearly of an age because her experiences at gigs as a teenager resonated very strongly with me. Plus she saw Against Me! way back when which is pretty cool! 

Raechel is also a fierce femme and talks about femininity and femme as a performance. This is something I really empathise with too. She talks about her glamourous grandma and how she learnt femme from her. The book really resonated with me and made me think about a lot of things. It's not too long but it is really good, I'm giving it five out of five. 

Cuckoo by Sophie Draper - Review

Monday, October 18, 2021

I can't remember why I got this book, although maybe someone recommended it to me or maybe it was cheap on Amazon - I'm not sure. It's been on my Kindle for ages so when I was heading away on holiday I started it. This turned out to be a bad idea because the book is set in a creepy manor house and I was staying in what turned out to be a creepy manor house! I ended up finishing the book when I came home instead!

So, Caro is in her late twenties and is estranged from her sister Steph, who is her only living relative. Their stepmother Elizabeth has just died in an accident in the house that belonged to the girls' dad, and it turns out the house will go to them. Steph has been living and working in New York for a long time, and she says she doesn't want any of the money from the house or the estate. She comes over for Elizabeth's funeral, and encourages Caro to go to the house in Derbyshire and live there while everything is sorted out. Caro is subletting her friend's flat after a bad break up, so she's keen to move. Caro is an illustrator of children's books and she has a new commission to work on, so she packs up and heads to Derbyshire. 

She had a traumatic upbringing with Elizabeth, who always seemed to hate her. The girls' dad died when Caro was small, and Elizabeth was abusive towards both girls but especially Caro. Steph left the home at sixteen when Caro was just nine, and never returned. Caro, in her turn, left for university and never returned. She goes to the village for provisions and gets an unwelcome welcome from shopkeepers there. She overhears someone describe her as 'the nutcase' and isn't sure why exactly.

The house is really creepy. Things go bang in the night and there's the bloodstain on the hallway floor from where Elizabeth fell. Then there's the pear drum. It's a musical instrument, a bit like a hurdy gurdy, and Elizabeth used to torment Caro with it, telling her a folk tale about it and asking if she had been 'bad enough yet'. The thing used to be kept in a crate in the study, but now it's packed away in the attic... until it appears next to Caro one morning. 

Then there's the neighbour, Craig. He's adopted Elzabeth's dog, and when a man starts shouting at Caro in Ashbourne, Craig is there to rescue her. But is he a little TOO nice? Caro is wary of men after her relationship with Paul, but she wants to trust Craig. 

All this is basically the premise of the book, which did intrigue me. But the actual writing didn't quite get there for me. It is confused and confusing in parts, and I'm sure Steph says they have stepsisters who then never materialise. Plus I really hate books that use amnesia as a plot device, it's lazy. This reminded me of Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson, and if you know the twist in that book you'll understand why I disliked this... I'm giving it three out of five. 

Blackout by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D Jackson, Nic Stone, Ashley Woodfolk, Angie Thomas, and Nicola Yoon - Review

Thursday, October 14, 2021

I saw someone reading this book on instagram and thought it looked good, so bought it a few weeks later. I'm lucky that I can often afford books when I want to just pick them up. I also do like to support authors of colour, especially black authors, and I'm lucky I can afford to do that too!

So this book was the brain child of Dhonielle Clayton, who I have not yet read anything else by. It is set in a New York black out and has a bunch of different characters, all of whom are connected but they may not realise exactly how. Each set of characters has a love story and they are all SO CUTE. All of the characters are black, I think, which was great to read. 

The main characters are Tammi and Kareem. They both turn up for the same internship and just as they're getting stuff sorted the black out starts. They used to be a couple but have broken up. Tammi had different plans for the two of them post school and for college, but now she's got plans of her own to get out of the city. Hence the internship. But now she and Kareem need to walk back to Bed-Stuy together. Tammi is still angry at him but also full of regrets... 

Next, two boys get stuck together on a subway train. They kind of know each other - and had an encounter in a gay club not too long back. JJ knows that Tremaine is very claustrophobic so he breaks them out of the train and gets them to safety. I loved this story, I could have read a whole novel about these two!

Two girls meet at the home one of their grandparents lives in. He knows they will hit it off so sends them off on a wild hunt around the home. Lana and Tristan are in the library when the black out happens and are trying to find their favourite books of all time. Lana has a huge crush on Tristan but daren't tell anyone. Her two dads had a very meet cute beginning to their relationship and Lana really believes in love. A girl visiting from North Carolina or something has a crush on one of the boys in her class, who she's also travelling with, but there's the problem of her boyfriend... And Seymour and Grace meet when he's her cab driver trying to get her to Bed-Stuy for a party - the same party that Kareem is supposed to DJ at. 

Between each story we go back to Tammi and Kareem and watch them trying to make their long way home. 

It's an interesting concept for a book and I think it worked really well; I liked the back and forth and the little vignettes. I loved the setting of the black out and how it made familiar things unfamiliar. I liked how New York City looked through all of the characters. I'm giving this five out of five, I loved it! 

Summerwater by Sarah Moss - Review

Sunday, October 10, 2021

So I was reading The Trans Issue by Shon Faye and then I had an iced coffee incident in which I upended a nearly full iced coffee over a pile of books. I ruined three books, made a few more quite sticky, and had no coffee. I was absolutely fuming, I'm sure you can imagine. I reordered the books I'd ruined, but had to pick something else up in the meantime. 

So I chose this because it was very short and I knew the replacement copy of The Trans Issue would arrive probably a couple of days later. However, when it arrived, it was damaged, so that was out of the window as it had to go back, and copy THREE had to make its way to me... But I had started and finished reading this in the meantime. I had bought it the previous week on buy one get one half price in Waterstones. 

It's set on the Summer solstice on a Scottish loch. There's a few log cabins around the loch, some of which are owned by the occupiers as holiday homes, and some of which are rented out as holiday cottages. And it's raining, it's raining all day so no sunshine is seen, and as it's Scotland in mid-summer it's light for hours, so it's just a kind of grey light all day. 

The book is made up of little vignettes of some of the people staying around the loch. To begin with, a middle aged mum goes running, even though she shouldn't be. She casts judgement on everyone else staying at the loch, including the mum and child who arrived the previous day and started playing loud music. They are some kind of Eastern European (I'm not sure it says exactly where from, but I'm sorry if it did and I missed that) and almost everyone in the book is very judgemental of them. 

A man helps his ailing wife and the two go on a trip to the far end of the loch. He thinks she can do much more than she does, but further on we see her point of view and see she's suffering from some kind of dementia and forgetting a lot of things. A teenaged boy, annoyed by his family and sick of sharing a room with his sister, goes out kayaking and is nearly taken out by the bad weather. Two young children, whose mother has agoraphobia and worries endlessly about them, go out to play on the rope swings on the beach. They meet the little Eastern European girl. 

A young couple has sex. A dad worries about his family. A teenager sneaks out. Each vignette shows us something unknown about the people in each cabin, and something which an observer may not see. I knew the book was going to end in tragedy, I could just feel it, and indeed, the ending is shocking but brilliant. I really enjoyed this book and am giving it five out of five. 

The Murder at Redmire Hall by J R Ellis - Review

Thursday, October 7, 2021

I got round to reading the third in the DCI Oldroyd series at the beginning of September, I have previously read the first two and another one in the series and enjoyed them, and I really liked the premise of this book. It's a typical 'locked room' mystery and I thought it sounded really interesting. However, it didn't live up to my expectations. Not a lot happens, which I found annoying. There's a lot of annoying conversations between suspects which don't really further the story and which just lead to all the suspects suspecting each other. And it's overwritten - there's quite a lot of pompous language that I haven't noticed in the other books. So, maybe it's a blip. But those are my thoughts, so I'll write them down. But they do explain why I haven't given this as high a rating as the other books in the series. 

So, at the beginning, Oldroyd is invited to Redmire Hall to see the current Lord Redmire, Freddy, perform a magic trick that was previously performed by his father, Vivian, to great acclaim, in 1980 I think. Oldroyd asks Stephanie along. When they get there, there's a live TV crew there and many other people, including all of Freddy's family and close friends, including an ex business partner and an ex mistress. The trick involves a locked room - everyone is invited to examine it to make sure there's no way out of it, and then Freddy is locked in. The curtain is drawn back - and Freddy has disappeared! The idea then is that Freddy will reappear after the curtain is closed and opened again, but when he does, he is dead. He has been stabbed in the back.

Shortly after, an ex employee of the estate, Harry Robinson, is murdered in his cottage. Oldroyd and Stephanie immediately jump into action, forbidding the family and friends from leaving and starting their investigation. They can't work out the locked room trick, although they try hard to. All the family seem to have a motive for killing Freddy. He inherited the estate but has gambling debts and had been planning to sell off part of the estate. His son Alistair will inherit and become the new Lord. Freddy's daughter Poppy has had a lot of money out of her dad, and her boyfriend Tristram has gambling debts too - but would they have killed him? His brother Dominic has always been jealous that Freddy inherited the estate from their father, and his own business is not doing too well. Freddy was unfaithful to his wife Antonia, including with Alex, who is also present. Are either of them angry enough to kill Freddy? Alex's partner James was ripped off by Freddy in their business, so has he finally got his revenge? And what about all the estate staff? What did Harry Robinson know about the trick that led to his murder? 

I really liked the mystery but my criticisms are as above - there just wasn't enough depth in it for me. No mind, I will read the other and see what I think about them. But I'm giving this three out of five. 

Watch Her Fall by Erin Kelly - Review

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Watch Her Fall was published on April 1st 2021 by Hodder & Stoughton. I was provided with an electronic copy of the book for review purposes but was not otherwise compensated for this post. All thoughts and opinions are my own. 

I've read a couple of books by Erin Kelly before and there's always a massive twist in them that makes you rethink the whole of the book that has gone before. So I was prepared for that! And it did happen but in no way the way I thought it would. Erin is such a good writer, adeptly weaving mane strands of story together. 

At the beginning we meet Ava Kirilova, principal dancer with the London Russian Ballet. The company is run by her father, Nikolai Kirilov, better known as Nicky. He rules the company with an iron fist - dancers live in dormitories, aren't permitted to have phones, and are moulded from the age of twelve to become exactly the dancers Nicky wants them to be. Ava, as Nicky's daughter, is in a certain place of privilege, but is also held somewhat apart from the other dancers. 

The company is about to stage Swan Lake, with Ava playing the twin roles of Odette and Odile, the white swan and the black swan. They have been rehearsing for months and are a couple of weeks away from their opening night in London. The whole company will then go on tour around the world, while Nicky undergoes hip replacement operations and recuperation, and the theatre gets a full makeover, costing millions. That's the plan, anyway...

At the beginning of the book Ava arrives at the theatre to find that the 'second swan' - the girl who plays Odette while Ava is being Odile - has been fired and a replacement must be found immediately. Nicky asks Ava to help him choose. She will eventually take over the company and must keep up his vision. But she has a little rebellion inside her - she wants to dance some things her own way, and she siphons off the money that Nicky gives her, stashing it away for some future event. She disappoints Nicky when selecting the new second swan and takes it out on the new girl over the next couple of weeks. 

The novel swaps point of view throughout, which leads to the twists, and I don't want to give too many spoilers. But there are life changing injuries, which every dancer dreads. You don't have to know a lot about dancing to understand the book (although I did look up what a fouette is!). This is a cloistered, sticky, competitive world, and I loved it. The settings were brilliant and I wanted the main characters to succeed in life. There's also a lot about immigrants from eastern Europe and the basically slave conditions that they live in. I really liked this aspect of the book too. 

I'm giving it four out of five and can't wait to read something else by Erin!

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