Book Review – The Swap – Fiona Mitchell

It’s a bit of a nail-biting time when the first copies of a new book go out into the world, so I’m absolutely delighted with this first review of The Swap. Huge thanks to bestselling author Louise Jensen for saying such lovely things about my second book.

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Ever since I read The Maid’s Room, which I gushed about here, I’ve been waiting eagerly for Fiona Mitchell’s second book, The Swap.

And oh how it was worth the wait! Fiona has crafted an emotive and credible read centred around Tess who, during her IVF treatment, had her embryo mistakenly swapped for a stranger’s. For two years Tess and Annie, the other woman, have been unknowingly raising each other’s children.

Tess has never bonded with her son, Freddie, so when she meets Annie’s daughter, Willow, she’s determined she and Annie swap their children back. But Annie won’t let go of Willow without a fight.

Harrowing in parts, but uplifting in others, Fiona keeps the pace constant, never letting the story become pulled down by legal jargon, although it is obvious she’s carried out much research. For the last half an hour of reading, I was literally holding my breath…

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The Flower Girls by Alice Clark-Platts

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This is a book about a subject everyone has an opinion about, yet no one wants to think about too deeply – why a child would murder a toddler. The Flower Girls asks that question and more – how such a crime ripples out and virtually buries all the people affected, and what does rehabilitation even mean in the context of a young child who commits a crime? Readers will undoubtedly draw parallels with the James Bulger case, so this is tricky fictional ground to tread. Clark-Platts doesn’t shirk the responsibility. This is brave writing at its very best – beautiful, accessible, utterly compelling. Clark-Platts peels each of the characters’ layers away to scintillating effect – from the has-been journalist, Max, desperate for a scoop, to Joanna, a member of the dead toddler’s family, who is drowning in rage. I felt so invested in all the characters that I kept reading far into the night. Not only is The Flower Girls a truly original book, it is an unforgettable one too. I can almost guarantee you’ll be altered by it.

Review by Fiona Mitchell, author of The Swap, published on 18th April 2019 by Hodder & Stoughton.

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Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak – Book Review

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This book brought me so much joy. Strikingly funny, well-observed, and addictive, it is peopled with superbly drawn characters. I read it in about two days (and when I wasn’t reading it, I was wittering on about how much I was loving it).

It’s Christmas and a family are in quarantine as daughter Olivia, a medic, returns from a stint treating a deadly and highly contagious epidemic in Liberia. Most of the family members she’s with are guarding secrets and when an unwelcome visitor arrives, the already strained atmosphere reaches boiling point.

How I savoured this book and was sorry to finish it. The fact that it’s about an entitled upper class family may put some readers off, but the Birch’s country manor house, Weyfield Hall, dished up some delicious escapism as did their luxury Camden pad. Emma was the most privileged of the characters, but she was so funny and sympathetic that I fell head over heels in love with her. All of the characters made me smile though – Phoebe, George, Jesse et al. I simply couldn’t get enough of them.

The book is pacey and oh, that ending – to say more about it would involve spoilers, but it was totally unpredictable.

I loved everything about Seven Days of Us – the writing has real quality to it. It is the perfect festive read and is one of the best books I’ve read in months. An unstinting five stars.

 

Review by Fiona Mitchell, author of The Swap, published on 18th April 2019 by Hodder & Stoughton.

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The Boy Made of Snow by Chloe Mayer

An enchanting and devastating book that will make your throat seize up with dread. There’s a German POW working in the woods in rural Kent during World War Two – cutting down trees for fuel for the villagers. Friendly and with something of the forbidden about him, he’s an intriguing addition to the village where nine-year-old Daniel and his repressed mother Annabel don’t quite fit in. But just what does Hans want from the unsuspecting pair?

The story doesn’t pick up pace until about 80 pages in, but it is well worth the wait because what unfolds next is so compelling, mind-blowing even, that you won’t be able to turn the pages fast enough. Tension builds as it becomes increasingly likely that Annabel and Daniel’s fragile lives are about to shatter into pieces, but not in any of the ways that you might expect. Twisty and beautifully written, with intelligent observations – take note of the Home Guard with their jobsworthy puffed-up pride for instance – The Boy Made of Snow is a remarkable read. And since this is Mayer’s debut, it is just the beginning.

 

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The Lion Tamer Who Lost by Louise Beech

The Lion Tamer Who Lost is set in two places: Zimbabwe in the present, where a traumatised Ben is working in a lion sanctuary bonding with an orphaned lion to enable her to be released once again into the wild; and England in the past, where Ben meets and falls in love with Andrew.

Beech sets up the love story quietly and convincingly, with Ben’s reluctance to tell his bigoted dad about his homosexuality. And then – bang – something astonishing and completely unexpected happens to Ben and Andrew. This is where the narrative really gathers pace. I had read patiently until that point then I raced my way to the end. The book digs deep emotionally, but is funny and feel-good too. I enjoyed it immensely – and what a treat, as I have the entire Beech back catalogue to work my way through now. Maria in the Moon – here I come.

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How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee – Book Review

A massive thank you to Oneworld Publications who kindly sent an advance copy of How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee to me – it is published in hardback on 2 May 2019. Here is my review:

How We Disappeared is a shattering, tender and absorbing novel that centres around the unfathomable cruelty that women in Singapore endured when they were snatched by the Japanese Army and forced into sexual slavery during World War Two. It was harrowing to read of Wang Di’s incarceration as a ‘comfort woman’ – far too benign a description for the barbarism that many thousands of women endured across the occupied territories – yet what rings out from the book is human resilience and our capacity to love no matter how damaged we might be.

Not only do we hear from young Wang Di, age just 16 when she is ripped away from her family and locked into the tiny room of her prison, but elderly Wang Di has her own chapters too. Grieving her husband, affectionately known as the ‘Old One, it transpires that neither of them, though traumatised by their experiences during the occupation, have ever shared with one another what really happened to them both. For Wang Di, this is down to the shame that attached to women who had been forced into sexual slavery; their treatment, once released, included being shunned and called traitors. In the aftermath of her husband’s death, Wang Di sets out to discover what he went through during the war.

The third voice in the book belongs to the enchanting teenager Kevin. With his bottle-top glasses and his tape recorder, he starts to unearth a secret that his late grandmother had been keeping for decades. As Wang Di and Kevin set out on their individual quests to uncover the truth, the tension builds while we wait to find out whether their worlds will collide.

The final chapters are suffused with kindness, the power of talking, love. Indeed they are so moving that I read them through a blur of tears.

Meticulously researched, exquisitely written, with characters that will live and breathe in your hearts long after you finish the last page, How We Disappeared is a worthy testament to the women who were forced to become ‘comfort women.’ Not only does Jing-Jing Lee capture the horror of it all, but also the hope. I’m reeling from its power – what an absolute triumph.

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The Necessary Marriage by Elisa Lodato

A gripping read, The Necessary Marriage is tight with tension. When her next-door neighbour Marion disappears, Jane helps out by looking after her sons while their shady, flirtatious father Andrew is out at work. Prone to violence, Andrew is the complete antithesis to Jane’s husband, Leonard, who is twenty years her senior, strait-laced and fusty. An intense attraction between Jane and Andrew starts to simmer, and all the while, the ominous threat of impending devastation looms. Lodato’s writing is subtle, artful even, then all of a sudden she lands a killer phrase that knocks you sideways with its weight. And how gifted she is at writing sex scenes – there’s nothing of the cringe factor here. An atmospheric page-turner, Lodato’s work just gets better and better.

 

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Bitter by Francesca Jakobi

Gilda Meyer loves her son – it’s just she doesn’t know how to show him love. When Reuben marries Alice, who is the very antithesis of his mother, Gilda is consumed by jealousy, and her behaviour starts to unravel. It’s not easy to make a reader fall in love with a character who is as flawed as Gilda. She is difficult, snooty, and unhinged – and I absolutely adored her. She deserves to take her place beside character greats such as Olive Kitteridge and Eleanor Oliphant. The plot moves at a swift pace, interspersed with chapters from Gilda’s past, and the writing is fresh and original. The cast of supporting characters is a marvel, but I particularly loved wheezing, ‘lumbering’ and ever-kind Margo. Although this is an incredibly moving book – I sobbed my way through the final 30 pages – there are some wonderfully funny moments too. Bitter is completely cathartic, but has left me with one of the most severe book hangovers I’ve ever experienced. Frankly, it’s a masterpiece.

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These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper

These Dividing Walls is a beguiling work that started off slowly and gradually grew momentum. I loved it and felt it a book that demanded longer periods of reading rather than just short bursts. The writing is beautiful, the many characters well drawn and the narrative cuts right to the heart of racism in France. If you like Elizabeth Strout, the chances are high that you’ll like this.

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The Cliff House by Amanda Jennings

What a compelling book; I savoured every page. The beautiful, accomplished writing stoked my imagination so much that I felt as if I was right there at The Cliff House, sitting on the terrace, dipping my toes into the pool. Jennings is surely the queen of tension-building and as I read, my fear for the characters escalated. I was hoping hard for an uplifting ending, but Jennings defied my expectations, delivering something completely unexpected and clever. If you like your stories atmospheric and dark, this one’s for you. A summer must-read.

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