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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What Does a Three-star Book Review Actually Mean?

I don’t dread reading reviews of my book as much as I thought I might before I got published. But then maybe that’s because The Maid’s Room is a few weeks into paperback publication. I know there are readers out there who love it (thank you, lovely readers – I appreciate all of you) and this makes the inevitable fact that some people don’t and won’t like my book easier to bear.

But there’s a kind of review that leaves me flat – the oh-so-beige three-star review.

According to Goodreads, the three-star review means, ‘liked it.’ Not a horrendous verdict then. But log onto the WHSmith website, and you’ll find three stars mean ‘average.’ On Wordery, a three is a mere ‘acceptable.’ Oh.

To many of us – readers and authors alike – Goodreads stars equate with school grades:

5 stars = A.

4 stars = B.

3 stars = C.

2 stars =D.

And 1 star = someone who’s very cross indeed.

If you look more closely at three-star reviews, you’ll notice that they’re sometimes attached to opinions that are polar opposites.

Rick from Petersfield might say, ‘I can’t believe the publisher has charged £7 for this muck,’ and then award three stars. While Sal from Worcester ‘liked it a lot’, such a lot in fact that she mentions the number 3.95 in her review, then lights it up with three stars only. Oh go on, Sal, couldn’t you have rounded up and given a four?

For me, a three is a book that I liked in places, but there were a few things that weren’t quite right about it. Maybe I couldn’t quite lose myself in the narrative and was always aware of the book in my hands and the words on the page.

But if a Goodreads three means, ‘liked it,’ perhaps it’s higher than a grade C. A B- possibly? And though the pushiest of parents might disagree, a B- isn’t too shabby at all.

I think I might have just made peace three stars. I felt a bit mean giving them out – but now I don’t feel quite so bad.

What does a three-star review mean to you, readers and writers?  I’d love to know.

Photo by Paul Bergmeir on Unsplash

 

The Best #Books to Read in November

I’m thrilled to bits that The Maid’s Room has been chosen as one of the best books to read in November by Red Online. I’m especially pleased because the feature also lists my debut novel alongside books that I’m desperate to read.

Red describes The Maid’s Room as ‘. . .fascinating, thought-provoking and sometimes heartbreaking. . .’

Publication day for The Maid’s Room is only ten days away now, so I’m on countdown, and super excited.

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