‘Before I Let Go’ – Marieke Nijkamp

I’d really enjoyed This is Where it Ends, so was excited to be authorised to read an ARC of this by NetGalley and the publishers. Unfortunately, it didn’t hold quite the same appeal.

While the story focuses on some interesting topics – mental health, sexuality, suicide – it’s not the kind of book I think I’ll remember much about later. A bit like The Smell of Other People’s Houses there was something that jarred with me.

Our main character, Corey, has been at boarding school for a few months, and she’s desperate to get back to Lost Creek (her remote Alaskan village of 247 residents). Unfortunately, just before her scheduled return she gets the news that her best friend is dead.

Corey returns home, but she is treated as an outsider. People don’t talk to her, she is convinced she hears strange things outside her room and she can’t reconcile what she remembers of the place with what is in front of her months later. Nothing is as she left it, and though she has questions about what happened to her friend, nobody seems willing to give her answers. Corey is determined to find out what happened, but she isn’t aware of what price she may have to pay.

The depiction of the Alaskan village was atmospheric, but we got very little about the other characters which made it hard to understand their motivation. The timeframe jumped all over the place, and this gave everything a disjointed feel that I found off-putting.

 

‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ – Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant…a truly remarkable character.

Honeyman strikes a perfect balance in her portrayal of Miss Eleanor Oliphant. She is socially awkward, blunt to the point of rudeness, and has a clear defined structure to her life. All the signs point to her being on the autistic spectrum, possibly the quirky kind of character that you may find it hard to understand. Though it’s clear that people who encounter her think she’s somewhat bonkers, I never felt that we were given anything other than a sympathetic account of her.

The narrative is split into three sections: good days, bad days and better days. As you’d expect, we see Eleanor go through her daily life and we slowly come to see there’s a bit more to her than the surface oddness.

Our understanding of Eleanor comes as she becomes friends with her co-worker, Raymond. It would have been easy for this to turn into a romance, and I was pleased that Eleanor and Raymond’s relationship focused on the platonic bond, and the benefits to each of them of having someone to share things with. There were some genuinely funny moments as these two awkward people find a way to interact with someone else. Yet there were genuinely emotional moments that rather wrung me dry.

I felt somewhat awkward as I read about Eleanor’s visit to a salon for a waxing session, or her comment ‘it sounds gibberish’ to the hairdresser setting up her new style…there are definite traits that many of us could recognise in ourselves.

It’s not until quite late on in the novel that we learn the truth about Eleanor Oliphant, and by this point I admit to being quite beguiled by this woman. She is, indeed, completely fine.

‘Splintered’ – A.G. Howard

Wonderland and Alice’s adventures are very appealing, but what would you do if these things were real? For Alyssa Gardner, that is not something she has to worry about.

Ever since she was younger she’s been aware of the fact that she has a bond with Wonderland. She’s been teased throughout school for the rumours that she’s a descendant of Alice Liddell…but what would her peers do if they ever learned the truth about why her mother doesn’t live with them?

There’s all sorts going on here, and initially it felt a bit of a struggle to get into. Alyssa hears voices from bugs etc talking to her, and seems totally paranoid that she may be going mad (like her mother). What is clear early on is that strange things are afoot for her.

Alyssa ends up going down the rabbit hole and finds herself part of a twisted plan to end the curse on her family/sort out who should be Queen. She recognises Morpheus, the friend from her childhood who certainly appeals to her passionate inner self. But Alyssa also has to consider the love of her life, Jeb, who ends up journeying with her.

A rather surreal experience. We recognise characters from the story but there’s a ghoulish element to them…I imagine this could be turned into a great movie.

‘Freshers’ – Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison

Any book that can have you snorting with laughter and welling up (sometimes, simultaneously) gets a big thumbs up!
Freshers week is a particularly odd experience, and some of the memories are better than others. What this summed up so well was that mix of heady excitement at being independent, and utter terror at having to find your own way through things without relying on your safety-net.
Told through alternating views this was great fun. Phoebe and Luke have had very different school experiences…and their first term at university is similarly different. We veer from the first night Freshers ball, to the awkward moments as you try to remember any of the people you spent the first week glued to, through seminars and awkward relationship moments to the end of the first term..and so on.
A wonderful ensemble of characters. Some great comic moments, while also raising awareness of some more important issues.
It’s been a long time since I was in this situation, but it brought it all back. Bittersweet.

‘Eliza and her Monsters’ – Francesca Zappia

On the surface, this is a clever book packed full of graphics and interesting text to support the main narrative. But, beneath the surface, it’s a story about finding yourself, coming to accept your strengths/limitations and – in part – addressing mental health issues and thoughts about the role the internet has in our lives.

Eliza has always been introverted. She feels she doesn’t fit in with her sporty competitive family, preferring to spend her time online. Here she is not the oddball she feels in real life; here, she’s Lady Constellation, creator of Monstrous Seas…a webcomic like no other.

When new boy Wallace joins her school, she finds an unlikely ally. The growing friendship between these two was well-handled, and I liked that Zappia showed us suffering can come in numerous ways and it’s all about how we deal with it.

Of course, not everything goes as smoothly as we’d like. There are bumps along the way, but Eliza comes through a pretty tough time…smiling. For those who like their reading a little different, this will be right up their street.

‘You Don’t Know Me’ – Imran Mahmood

An unnamed defendant stands accused of murder. Just before the Closing Speeches, the young man sacks his lawyer, and decides to give his own defence speech. 
He tells us that his barrister told him to leave some things out.Sometimes, the truth can be too difficult to explain, or believe. But he thinks that if he’s going to go down for life, he might as well go down telling the truth. 
There are eight pieces of evidence against him. As he talks us through them one by one, his life is in our hands. We, the reader – member of the jury – must keep an open mind till we hear the end of his story. His defence raises many questions… but at the end of the speeches, only one matters:
Did he do it?

This was an interesting format-told through transcripts from court. We focus on our unnamed narrator, who is on trial for murder, and who gets to tell his story in his own words. This created a rather claustrophobic atmosphere, and though you wanted the narrator to stop talking at times – you can picture just how well some of the information given would have gone down – I admired the voice and the insight he tried to give into his existence.

Part of me expected a straightforward retelling of a story with a final focus on the decision. While we were given a story, it didn’t quite go as expected.

The actual telling of the story building up to the shooting for which he is in court meanders all over the place. We twist and turn as details are passed over because they don’t quite fit at this moment, and we have to trust our narrator knows what he’s doing. Given his position, it does make it hard to decide to what extent we’re getting a brave attempt to recreate his life for us, and how much we’re listening to the delusions of someone trying to escape justice.

The voice of the narrator is, sadly I think, representative of many young black men in court. Much is made of the advice he is given to ‘play the jury’ and to present himself in the best light possible. Does the truth matter? Our narrator thinks so, even if it doesn’t present him in the most favourable light. He is keen to stress that those judging him don’t know the reality of his life and are judging stereotypes.

The story unfolds quite slowly, but it worked. We learn what our narrator tells us about the events he is caught up in. Did he shoot the man? It almost doesn’t matter, as we’re so focused on his account of what he recalls. What I was frustrated by was the sense of inevitability to his experience.

I would like to thank NetGalley and publishers Michael Joseph for the opportunity to read this in exchange for my honest review.

‘Yesterday’ – Felicia Yap

Described as the thriller of the year, I was intrigued when I saw this on NetGalley and, while I enjoyed it, I think there are some aspects that stopped it from being quite as good as I hoped.

In this world we have two types of people, Duos and Monos. Their whole existence is dominated by the need to record everything on Idiaries as their memory is limited.

So, what do you do when a murder is committed and you can only remember events of the day before? It makes it extremely difficult for those investigating the crime also.

As we flit between perspectives and time I have to confess it felt like we were being fed false details throughout. It was hard to work out who was reliable, and to what extent we should trust what we were seeing.

I enjoyed seeing Claire try to work out just how her husband knew the woman pulled from the river. It was interesting to try and put together just what secrets she was hiding. I really liked the character of the Detective-his obsession was understandable, and it certainly gave us an insight into the effect our identity has on our actions.

Where I lost interest somewhat was in the closing stages, once we thought we’d sorted out what had happened…only to have a whole new layer added in. This felt a step too far for me.

‘Reservoir 13’ – Jon McGregor

As in ‘If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things’ we focus on the little details, the easily forgotten minutiae of peoples’ lives…and it will not be to everyone’s tastes.

The story opens with a couple holidaying in an unnamed Peak District village desperately seeking help as their thirteen-year-old daughter has gone missing. Anyone expecting an action-packed thriller as we race to discover the girl/body – or establish what happened to her – will be left wanting. Rebecca, or Bex, fades into the background though her presence remains palpable for those left behind. What we get instead is a languid, dare I say it poetic, account of how this major event affects the village and those living in it.

We watch a huge cast of characters resume their daily lives, getting to know some in detail, and we follow them through the thirteen years following this event.

Setting in a novel such as this is everything, and there’s a real sense of beauty created here by McGregor. I wonder if it would still seem as beautiful if I didn’t live in a village very similar to that described here. Perhaps not, but I admired the sense of charm given to the everyday, the ordinary. Charting the ebb and flow of this village and those who live in it seems to have been a real labour of love.

Thank you to NetGalley for the advance copy in exchange for my review, and though we’re never given all the answers we feel we want there’s plenty to satisfy us.

‘Witchtown’ – Cory Putman Oakes

When I saw this on NetGalley I, along with many others I would imagine, was expecting lots of details about witchcraft and perhaps some focus on exploring how it impacted on people’s lives in this imagined future. I got it, but not quite in the way I expected.

Macie and her mother, Aubra, move into his safe Haven called Witchtown. It is a safe community for those ostracised from the rest of the world when their talents become known. Sadly, it’s the latest mark in this pair’s thieving trail. Only this time, things are different.

Macie has always felt rather reliant on her mother. As a Void (someone with no magic) Macie has depended on her mother’s Natural ability to protect her. This leaves her vulnerable as she can rely on no-one. Yet we are told that in their last residence Macie did exactly that, and it started off what can best be described as an unstoppable source of tension.

Macie is a character who comes into her own in this, with the help of new friends Talya and Kellan. She learns more about who she is, what she wants from her life and what it might cost her to achieve it. Even though her mother is depicted in a rather caricature fashion, there’s something rewarding about watching Macie take a stand against what she’s been told her entire life.

Though there’s some interest in watching Macie learn the truth about herself (which we suspect from quite early on), there’s a lot that just doesn’t add up and this is, ultimately, frustrating.

‘Odd and True’ – Cat Winters

Cat Winters is fast becoming one of my favourite go-to authors for a read that is just that little bit different. Due for publication in September 2017, Odd and True is no exception.

Trudchen and Odette are two sisters who have spent their lives hunting monsters and telling fantastic stories of their family’s involvement with mysterious creatures. A fairytale quality pervades this novel, but it is a world of darkness that will send little shivers down your spine.

The novel begins quite slowly, but we piece together the reality of the girls’ lives. The narrative is split between the present – voiced by Tru – and the past – voiced by Od. Just as one sister claims to no longer believe in the monsters of her childhood, the other sister arrives to take her on a journey that will see them face some of their ‘monsters’. Their family background is intriguing, but I really liked the way we learn the details of their past gradually.

When Tru follows Od on an adventure, following predictions read in teacups, we are plunged into a world of strange creatures. Their relationship was well-depicted, and I became quite absorbed in their story.

Thank you to the publishers and NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication. And a huge thank you to Cat Winters for coming up with yet another deliciously dark delight.