Book Review: We All Begin as Strangers, by Harriet Cummings

Publisher: Orion

Publication date: 20th April 2017

We All Begin as Strangers reveals the deeply disguised strengths and vulnerabilities of neighbours in a 1980’s English Village.  Their hospitality and habits largely escape scrutiny until “the Fox” breaks through the frontier of their doorstep to intrude on their closely guarded private time.

Some consider their home a sanctuary, a place to feel relieved that the reality of their life is no longer on public display. Any hint of intrusion is understandably unsettling causing people to become fiercely protective of their little spaces, and when the going gets tough the odd mask starts to slip.

This story of “the Fox” is told in four parts where a different neighbour effectively becomes an unreliable witness to the bizarre antics of an intruder whose motives remain uncertain until the end. Their passion for justice is further ignited when a young, church-going woman goes missing from her own home and their main suspect the elusive character they have yet to identify.

How this unknown presence affects each of them and how their reactions manoeuvre in and out of each other’s stories is very interesting. The opinion they hold of each other alters as their lives are put under the microscope: the ‘Dallas’ / Sue-Ellen wannabe, a troubled lay preacher, an unexpected guardian of the vulnerable, and she who wears her dressing gown in public with pride.

Reading this made me consider just how well I really know the people living on my street, and I mean know. Yes, I see them coming and going on occasion and I’m free to make as many assumptions about them as I’d care to, but I’d most likely be wrong. Imagine how many people are walking around with a smile plastered on their face as they battle to control the isolation or misery they suffer from someone else’s ego in a silent, daily ritual. All of us try not to alert people to our problems to some degree or other, but if we disappeared without a trace while a predator stalked the neighbourhood our secrets would undoubtedly creep into the public domain, whether we wanted them to or not.

If you’re looking to be blown away by something wild and reckless with a breakneck pace then We All Begin as Strangers is not the book for you.  It is, however, a thought-provoking human mystery where people respond to their diverse crises in completely different ways. The actual news story that relates to this fictional take on the dreadful activities of the real-life “Fox” and the 80’s nostalgia makes for intriguing reading too.

Rating:  3.5/5

(I was lucky enough to win a signed proof copy of this title in a Twitter giveaway run by the publisher, Orion – it will have a special place on my shelf, so thank you.)

(Courtesy of Amazon UK)

If you loved THE TROUBLE WITH GOATS AND SHEEP by Joanna Cannon, ELIZABETH IS MISSING by Emma Healey and THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY by Rachel Joyce, you’ll adore this wonderful British debut novel.

It’s 1984, and a heatwave is scorching the ordinary English village of Heathcote.

What’s more, a mysterious figure is slipping into homes through back doors and open windows. Dubbed ‘The Fox’, he knows everything about everyone – leaving curious objects in their homes, or taking things from them.

When beloved Anna goes missing, the whole community believes The Fox is responsible.

But as the residents scramble to solve the mystery of Anna’s disappearance, little do they know it’s their darkest secrets The Fox is really after…

Inspired by real events, and with a brilliant cast of characters, WE ALL BEGIN AS STRANGERS is a beautiful debut novel you’ll want to recommend to everyone.

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(Courtesy of Author’s Website)

Represented by Janklow and Nesbit, Harriet is a debut novelist with a background in history of art and gender studies. As a script writer, she’s had work performed at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, as well as independent venues around London.

While studying at Faber Academy, Harriet threw herself into her first novel and hasn’t looked back since. She is currently working on her second novel – another dark drama, set in Whitby.

She lives in Leamington Spa with her husband and Springer Spaniel.

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Book Review: The Mountain in my Shoe, by Louise Beech

Publisher:  Orenda Books

Publication Date:  30th September 2016 (Paperback) 

the-mountain-in-my-shoe-my-review

a-mountain-in-my-shoeGuiding me through tainted and tender moments, and the unspoken ones that bring you back down to earth with a bump, The Mountain in my Shoe wrapped its words around my heart. There is no doubt this is one reading experience I will never forget.

From the immense expression of the writing to the skilled switch of characters patiently taking turns to tell the story, we are introduced to an artistically gifted boy who is waiting for his whole life to take off but his unsettled past remains an anchor at times.

Those who care for him record their contributions in a special book, Conor’s “Life Book”. The additions to the book include reports from social workers, heartfelt letters from foster carers, or a simple memory of a treasured day trip, something, anything for Conor to reflect on when he’s grown when hopefully he will have the strength to process the intimate snippets of both the good times and the upheaval.

You can’t help but want to embrace him as people shift in and out of his life. Heck, I wanted to embrace the book itself when I’d finished it. The confusion and rejection was torturously overwhelming – I can’t even begin to imagine this level of emotional chaos.

Bernadette is just one such contributor to Conor’s Book as she is a registered volunteer who reaches out to those children affected by circumstances which see them in foster care. Bernadette was matched with Conor and meets him every other Saturday, without the knowledge of her husband who has some disconcerting ideas on how a marriage should be conducted. She chose this, to dedicate a regular visiting day to Conor, and it proves to be a decision that is as beneficial for her as much as it is for him.

Bernadette’s bravery to finally leave her husband of ten years coincides with the disappearance of Conor’s life book from her bookshelf where she’d hidden it. It’s missing, along with lots of other things from her life: understanding, independence, being worth something. But more importantly, so is the moment she gets to announce she’s walking away from him a man who expects precision-timed dinner as he walks through the door of their flat, but tonight he is late from work and her exit stalls.

In the midst of her trauma, a worrying phone call shadows everything, and she pushes the biggest decision of her own life away as she learns Conor has gone AWOL after leaving school. A traumatic journey to track Conor down involving Bernadette and his long term carer, Anne, see us learning the vulnerabilities of most characters. In no way does it attempt to excuse behaviour, it’s simply a testament to how anyone can take the wrong turn and become hopelessly lost and deserted.

There are admissions and reasoning I would never have anticipated in The Mountain in my Shoe, and there’s so much life nestled among the pages of this boy’s early years that his special yellow book could draw breath. I was willing him to find contentment, no matter how fleeting, not only for the boy but for Bernadette, his young mum, and the countless others who find themselves in similar, distressing situations.

This is an astonishing yet humbling book written with a sensitivity that cannot, and will not, fail to move you.

Rating:  5/5

(I received a copy of this title from the publisher with my thanks, and this is my unbiased review.)

the-mountain-in-my-shoe-book-summary

(Courtesy of Amazon UK)

A missing boy. A missing book. A missing husband. A woman who must find them all to find herself.

On the night Bernadette finally has the courage to tell her domineering husband that she’s leaving, he doesn’t come home. Neither does Conor, the little boy she’s befriended for the past five years. Also missing is his life book, the only thing that holds the answers. With the help of Conor’s foster mum, Bernadette must face her own past, her husband’s secrets and a future she never dared imagine in order to find them all.

Exquisitely written and deeply touching, The Mountain in My Shoe is both a gripping psychological thriller and a powerful and emotive examination of the meaning of family … and just how far we’re willing to go for the people we love.

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the-mountain-in-my-shoe-author-profile

(Courtesy of Amazon UK)

louise-beech-profile-picture

Louise Beech remembers sitting in her father’s cross-legged lap while he tried to show her his guitar’s chords. He’s a musician. Her small fingers stumbled and gave up. She was three. His music sheets fascinated her – such strange language that translated into music. Her mother teaches languages, French and English, so her fluency with words fired Louise’s interest. She knew from being small that she wanted to write, to create, to make magic.

She loves all forms of writing. Her short stories have won the Glass Woman Prize, the Eric Hoffer Award for Prose, and the Aesthetica Creative Works competition, as well as shortlisting twice for the Bridport Prize and being published in a variety of UK magazines. Her first play, Afloat, was performed at Hull Truck Theatre in 2012. She also wrote a ten-year newspaper column for the Hull Daily Mail about being a parent, garnering love/hate criticism. Her debut novel was a Guardian Readers’ pick for 2015.

She is inspired by life, history, survival and love, and always has a story in her head. Her debut novel, How to be Brave, came from truth – when Louise’s daughter got Type 1 Diabetes she helped her cope by sharing her grandad’s real life sea survival story. Her second novel, The Mountain in my Shoe, will be released in September 2016 and was inspired by her time working with children in the care system.

When she was fifteen Louise bet her mother ten pounds she’d be published by the time she was thirty. She missed this self-set deadline by two months. Her mother is still waiting for the money.

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Book Review: The Day I Killed My Father, by Mario Sabino

Publisher: Scribe  Publication date: 1st August 2014

The Day I Killed My Father My Review

The Day I Killed My Father Kindle CoverThis is an impressively written if somewhat grim tale of a son’s bleak relationship with his father.

It’s a relatively short account told in two parts. The first part begins with our protagonist narrating his experiences by addressing the reader to offer philosophical explorations as to why he felt compelled to abruptly end his father’s life. As a result, frequent literary and religious references are woven into the text to support his reasoning.

The second part is actually an excerpt of a book he has written, which at intervals he appears to invite us, the readers of said book, to give him honest feedback during sporadic visits to his place of incarceration. Although the conversations are entirely led by our narrator, occasionally he responds directly to the reactions of ‘the reader’ based on the assumed dialogue that is taking place as his book is being discussed.

During these visits the subject of the day he killed his father inevitably crops up. Any justification he offers for his actions is fuelled by psychosis and the lack of empathy his parent expressed toward him. They exchanged few words, zero love, yet a never-ending stream of money flowed into our narrator’s account – and this money was about the only bond they shared.

His emotionally constipated father figure funded his lifestyle in Paris, and this is where he met his drop-dead gorgeous wife. His father said this was the only decent thing he ever did and rewarded him by promptly increasing his allowance.

I can’t say for sure if any discussions in part two were intended to be reality, or if it was merely a projection of the fractured mind of our narrator and I was listening to his one-way conversation. Either way, I felt deeply ‘involved’ in his world, wherever that may be.

And here endeth all I can offer, as this book goes way beyond my limited comprehension for all things deep and meaningful. While this book is intelligent, regrettably I am not. Although it tip-toed into the realm of ‘challenging’ reads for me it still provided a truly fascinating break from the norm, and I’m always grateful for the opportunity to be introduced to an author I’m not familiar with.  It’s quite an unusual tale.

Rating: 3/5

(The kind folks of Scribe Publications ran a giveaway for this book some while ago, so my thanks again to them for plucking my name from the hat to receive a copy.)

The Day I Killed My Father Book Summary

So begins the unforgettable debut of Mario Sabino: a work of suspense, tragedy, and profound reflections on the human soul that marks him as one of Brazil’s most exciting novelists. In charming and chilling prose, Sabino draws the reader directly into the mind of a man who has committed patricide. Readers will hang on every word of this bold and stark book, which calls on complex themes of religion, philosophy, and literature in seeking to understand the nature of evil. Part psychological thriller, part intellectual puzzle, this novel plays on some of humankind’s most profound archetypes and fables, all the while lulling the reader with the brilliance of its voice.

Translated by Alison Entrekin.

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The Day I Killed My Fahter Author Profile

Mario Sabino was born in São Paulo in 1962. He is editor-in-chief of Veja, Brazil’s most influential weekly magazine. In 2005 he published O Antinarciso (The Anti-Narcissus), a collection of twelve tales on the theme of loneliness, and it won the Melhor Livro de Contos de 2005 prize (Fundacao Biblioteca Nacional). His new collection of stories The Mouth of Truth was published by Record Brazil in early 2009. His stories have appeared in English in The Drawbridge Magazine and Words Without Borders.

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Book Review: The Insect Farm, by Stuart Prebble

Publisher: Alma Books   |   Publication date:  15th March 2015

The Insect Farm My Review

The Insect Farm Kindle CoverConsidering I finished this book in just a few hours you can safely say I was absorbed by the McGuires’ story. It’s fascinatingly engineered, although I would say it’s more of an intriguing read than a thrilling one.

You will learn of the ending at the beginning. Yes, that’s right. The prologue states that the authorities have made a rather grim discovery on an allotment, a thought that hangs in the air with creeping suspense. This is the driving force throughout, as nothing is revealed until the bitter end and even then it’s not handed to you on a plate.

It’s up to Jonathan McGuire to narrate his family’s story. Only by traveling full circle through their lives until you revisit the gruesome destination again will you have an understanding of that initial opening scene.

Jonathan candidly shares the routines of his life and the relationship with his older brother, Roger, who has learning difficulties. To occupy Roger’s time their parents invest in an ant farm. The introduction of bug life to the garden shed leads to more and more exotic species arriving in the post to quench the thirst of this new hobby. Roger thrives on his new obsession for all things creepy-crawly, observing the behaviour of these creations in their human-controlled environment of which he is in sole charge. The topic of his insect farm allows Roger a rare time to shine, as he can hold court with complete strangers about environments and life cycles. Yet when he is away from The Insect Farm he retreats from the world again, back into a routine of marmite on toast before he sees his mate Terry on the bus for their daily art and craft activities.

While Roger is consumed by his brave new world, Jonathan leaves for Newcastle University. He gets married to Harriet and life seems good. That is, until his parents perish in a house fire and the authorities are unable to discover the cause of the blaze.

As Roger is now alone, Jonathan voluntarily returns from University leaving his wife to continue her studies, ever supportive of his new role as sole carer for his brother. The couple continue to have a long distance relationship but an unsettling jealousy, fuelled by the revelation of a noxious secret, risks upsetting the harmonious balance they all enjoy.

The story stealthily explores the unpredictable waves that can knock life off course. It’s a kind of fly-on-the-wall documentary of a close family unit occupying their own unique habitat, not dissimilar to the observations of an insect farm. The only difference being was Roger could intervene to control the residents of his world when they became unruly. He could easily rehouse, restock, and restore the equilibrium. If only life could be as simple as that…

Rating: 4/5

(My thanks to Alma Books for the copy of this book, which I was lucky enough to win in a generous giveaway they ran.)

The Insect Farm Draft Book Summary

(Courtesy of Amazon UK)

A cleverly plotted mystery of love, jealousy and suspense, Stuart Prebble’s eagerly awaited new novel – The Insect Farm – will linger long in the mind of its readers. Brothers Jonathan and Roger Maguire each has an obsession. For Jonathan, it is his beautiful and talented girlfriend Harriet. For Roger, it is the elaborate universe he has constructed in a shed in their parents’ garden, populated by millions of tiny insects. But Roger lives in an impenetrable world of his own and, after the mysterious death of their parents, his brother Jonathan is forced to give up his studies to take care of him. This obligation forces Jonathan to live apart from Harriet — further fuelling his already jealous nature.

Their lives are abruptly shattered by a sudden and violent death, and Jonathan is drawn into a cat-and-mouse game with the police. Does Roger know more than he is letting on? A cleverly plotted mystery with a shock ending, The Insect Farm — Stuart Prebble’s awaited new novel — will linger long in the mind of its readers.

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The Insect Farm Author Profile

(Courtesy of Amazon UK)

Stuart Prebble is a former television executive and CEO of the UK television network ITV. “The Insect Farm” is his first novel to be published in the United States. He is currently a producer and director at StoryVault Films. He lives in London.

THE INSECT FARM won the Polarlens prize for crime fiction, awarded by the jury in Lens, Pas-de-Calais.

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Book Review: Beneath The Surface, by Heidi Perks

Publisher: Red Door Books   |   Publication date: 24th March 2016

Beneath the Surface my review

Beneath the Surface

Beneath The Surface plays its cards incredibly close to its chest as it poses disastrous dilemmas for one family under the microscope.

Step into the shoes of a seventeen year old girl with a whole lot to say for herself, who left the house one morning only to return to an empty one. Her mother and her two year old sisters weren’t home, and as time went on it appeared they had no intention of ever coming back.

Unfortunately, this stuff of nightmares happened to Abigail. At first she didn’t could quite understand the bizarre situation she found herself in. She knew she had a difficult relationship with her mother, but surely this was a punishment too far? Surely she couldn’t hate her so much to up and leave without telling her?

When realism finally kicked in Abigail called the authorities and reported her family missing.  The only assistance she received was from her narcissistic grandmother who arrived on the scene to take control, just like she with everything else.

Her future became dominated by that day. As a young girl without stability or guidance and only her grandmother throwing money at her, she was condemned to make one bad decision after another. Over the course of fourteen years Abi carried the burden for the loss of those she cared for. She couldn’t even tell all of the facts to her husband, Adam, placing their own relationship under a significant strain.

As she struggles to piece together the puzzle of her life her therapist, Maggie, suggests she put pen to paper and vent her emotions by writing a letter to Adam. This may bring clarity to her life, even though both he and her family are not currently part of it.  The letter carefully reveals tiny snippets of Abi’s past and increases the suspense at a perfect pace. You just can’t help being intrigued as to what on earth transpired, compelling you to read on!

The remaining story is told from scenes that are happening in an obscure seaside village, where there’s a family facing a few trials of their own and the suspense is steadily rising. But more significantly there’s an elaborate lie that’s so huge it’ll smack you right between the eyes – heck, my reader radar didn’t see that one coming! There were a few moments that left me, well, pretty gobsmacked if I’m honest!

The entire story revolves around the choices we make and how they affect others, even if we can’t see it at the time.  With unimaginable spite emanating from a matriarchal shrew, the placating reactions of those tip-toeing around her, and the ignorance toward the subtle hints of mental illness, the drama is SO well played.  The constant state of wondering whether Abi will ever find the answers she’s looking for keeps the tremendous tension simmering throughout. Yep, it’s very well played indeed.

Rating: 4.5/5

(Huge thanks to the author for generously providing a digital copy of her book for review.)

Beneath the Surface book summary

(Courtesy of Amazon UK)

I donʼt know where you are…
I donʼt know what Iʼve done…

Teenager Abigail Ryder is devastated when she gets home from school to find her family gone.

Nothing makes sense. Things are missing from the house and her stepsistersʼ room is completely empty. But the police think sheʼs trouble, and when grandmother Eleanor tells her to forget them all and move on, there’s no choice other than face the future – alone.

Fourteen years on, Abi and Adam are a happy couple on the verge of parenthood. But when the past comes back to haunt Abi, the only way forward is to go back and uncover the truth – and reveal the dreadful secrets a mother has been hiding all these years.

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Beneath the Surface author profile

(Courtesy of Amazon UK / Photo used with author’s permission)

Heidi Perks PolaroidHeidi Perks was born in 1973. She lives by the sea in Bournemouth with her husband and two children.

Heidi graduated from Bournemouth University in 1997 with a BA (Hons) in Retail Management, and then enjoyed a career in Marketing before leaving in 2012 to focus on both bringing up her family and writing.

Heidi successfully applied for a place on the inaugural Curtis Brown Creative online Novel Writing Course and after that dedicated her time to completing her first novel, Beneath The Surface.

She has a huge interest in what makes people tick and loves to write about family relationships, especially where some of the characters are slightly dysfunctional.

Heidi is now writing her second novel.

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The Silk Factory, by Judith Allnatt

Publisher: The Borough Press  |  Publication date: 21st May 2015  |  Edition: Hardback (review copy)

The Silk Factory by Judith Allnatt

“Anyone who’s ever lost someone is haunted”. Two seamless timelines. One beautifully told story.

Brooding and atmospheric , The Silk Factory embraces two life stories set in dual periods of history. With the gentlest of touches, Judith Allnatt has spun her gorgeous threads with care, so they interweave seamlessly.

The divine prose, magnificent scene setting, and energy of the individual personalities that appear throughout, have truly brought this story to life.

Here’s an example of some of those wonderful words:

In the unheated workshop, the workers’ breath misted the rows of windows, as if their spirits were drawn out of them and pressed ghostly against the glass.

So, so perfect.  Anyway, a little about the story:

In the present day we arrive in the parish of Weedon Bec, at the door of a property inherited by Rosie. She’s had her fair share of trials recently; her mother has passed away, she’s not long separated from her husband, plus she has financial burdens to contend with.

Whilst coping with her two young children and the emotional upheaval of their new circumstances, her awkward ex-husband and his new partner, and an elderly Aunt residing in a care home, Rosie still finds herself very much alone. She’s spinning so many plates that most are crashing to the ground.

With all this stress, Rosie begins to believe her mind is playing cruel tricks. Shortly after moving in she experiences some subtly placed, yet disturbing phenomena. She attributes this to anxiety as a result of the bereavement and her current status, and desperately tries to ignore her ‘uninvited house guest’.

Soon she discovers a something that her family had previously laid to rest, something that would draw her back to a traumatic period in her own childhood. But piecing together the fragments of a mystery when your only living relative is stricken with dementia will not be an easy task for this young mum.

Nestling in between Rosie’s story, the location remains, but we take a step back to a time to the 1800’s where another young family are struggling to cope with the harshest of lives and making ends meet. The cruelty and the blatant spite and greed of their employer, the silk factory owner, are depicted to perfection, until the young family of Effie, Tobias and Beulah would never be the same again.

At the root of both timelines is ordinary life – warts and all: tragedy, endurance, and love, in all its many guises. Although it’s apparent that their paths will never cross directly, they are touched by the unravelling threads of The Silk Factory.

This is a story that should be savoured, not devoured. It’s one I felt quite at peace with when I closed the cover. Very nicely done.

Rating: 4/5

(My sincere thanks to the publisher for sending this beautiful hardback copy for review. It really is difficult to capture that fine detail on the cover – all credit to the designer for this one @fictionpubteam)


You can follow the author on Twitter: @JudithAllnatt  |  Publisher: @BoroughPress