March 2021 Reading: The Push; Call Me Mummy; Backstories; Little Bandaged Days; From My Balcony to Yours; Manipulated Lives; The Smash-Up; Bright Burning Things; My Brother the Messiah; What Beauty There Is

March has been a great month of reading. My reading pace seems pretty set at around 10 books a month – I do wish I could read more, just because I have so many amazing-sounding books on my TBR, but one of my intentions for this year was to focus less on numbers and more on quality, and that I have certainly achieved. I began this month with a really strong theme of dark books about motherhood, and that kind of continued throughout the month, interwoven with my usual fairly eclectic mix of books! Here’s a quick round-up of my March reading, with links to my full reviews should you care to read more!

The Push by Ashley Audrain (2021)

This novel is excellent. Compelling, disturbing, and sharp, it is a gripping read that had me holding my breath as I turned the pages. I highly recommend The Push if you like your books intelligently written and tinged with darkness. You can read my full review here.

Call Me Mummy by Tina Baker (2021)

I loved Call Me Mummy. It is so disturbing, but it is also surprisingly funny. The humour is dark, of course, but that’s my favourite type. My full review of this brilliant, terrifying book is here.

Backstories by Simon Van der Velde (2021)

This brilliant collection of short stories offers a unique reading experience. One not to be missed, I can see myself revisiting these stories often. You can read my full review here.

Little Bandaged Days by Kyra Wilder (2020)

The language in this portrait of a descent into madness is exquisite, and though it is not an easy book to read in terms of subject matter, I was completely absorbed by it. My full review of Little Bandaged Days is here.

From My Balcony to Yours by Nino Gugunishvili (2020)

This is the first book I have read which directly references the current pandemic. And yet, it is full of humour, uplifting anecdotes, and hope. It is a slim book, and a total joy. You can read my full review of this lovely book here.

Manipulated Lives by H.A. Leuschel (2016)

I was on the Damp Pebbles blog tour for this interesting exploration of narcissistic personalities and manipulation. My full review of Manipulated Lives is here.

The Smash-Up by Ali Benjamin (2021)

This was my second buddy read with the good people at riverrun books. It is always such a pleasure to chat with like-minded bookish folk, and we had so much fun delving into the complex, highly relevant issues explored in this novel. You can read my full review here.

Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding (2021)

My final ‘dark side of motherhood’ book this month, and one that had a really strong emotional impact on me. You can read my full review of Bright Burning Things here.

My Brother the Messiah by Martin Vopenka translated by Anna Gustova Bryson (2021)

This book is a gem, a fascinating, surprisingly tender dystopian novel which places the focus firmly on the characters rather than the dystopia. The premise is incredibly powerful, and it’s executed brilliantly. You can read my full review here.

What Beauty There Is by Cory Anderson (2021)

My final read of the month was something of a last-minute surprise – I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I absolutely adored this book. It hits so many sweet spots for me as a reader – it is “Cormac McCarthy does YA” (meant as an enormous compliment!) and I can’t stop thinking about it. My review is out today as part of The Write Reads blog tour, and you can check it out here.

It has been another fabulous month for reading, and as always, I am SO grateful to the authors, publishers, publicists and blog tour organisers who have introduced me to such a range of fantastic books. I feel so lucky to be a part of the bookish community. I’d love to hear what you’ve enjoyed this month, so do comment below!

Happy reading!

Ellie x

Review: What Beauty There Is by Cory Anderson (2021) #TheWriteReads #BlogTour

What Beauty There Is by Cory Anderson

Blurb

When everything you love is in danger, how long can you keep running to survive?

Life can be brutal
Winter in Idaho. The sky is dark. It is cold enough to crack bones.

Jack knew it
Jack Dahl has nothing left. Except his younger brother, Matty, who he’d die for. Their mother is gone, and their funds are quickly dwindling, Jack needs to make a choice: lose his brother to foster care, or find the drug money that sent his father to prison.

So did I
Ava lives in isolation, a life of silence. For seventeen years her father, a merciless man, has controlled her fate. He has taught her to love no one.

Did I feel the flutter of wings when Jack and I met? Did I sense the coming tornado?
But now Ava wants to break the rules – to let Jack in and open her heart. Then she discovers that Jack and her father are stalking the same money, and suddenly Ava is faced with a terrible choice: remain silent or speak out and help the brothers survive.

Looking back, I think I did . . .

Perfect for fans of Patrick Ness, Meg Rosoff and Daniel Woodrell, What Beauty There Is an unforgettable debut novel that is as compulsive as it is beautiful, and unflinchingly explores the power of determination, survival and love.

Review

Huge thanks to The Write Reads, Penguin and the author for my spot on the blog tour, and for providing me with a beautiful proof copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

I’m going to get straight to the point: What Beauty There Is is something special. This book had me hooked from the opening pages, from the first lines, in fact, and I was in thrall to the exquisite prose and heart-breaking story until the very end. I didn’t know what to expect from this book – I certainly wasn’t prepared for such a powerful, emotional reading experience.

There are clear influences here from literary giants such as Cormac McCarthy – and as I read, in my head, I affectionately called it No Country for Young Kids (the naming of the antagonist after the actor who plays Anton Chigurh in the Coen Brothers film is surely no coincidence). The Coen Brothers’ film Fargo is also called to mind by the stark, snowy setting and the delightful banter between the amiable cops. But this is no pastiche – this is homage paid and knowingly referenced by a writer who is aware that she is working within a tradition but expanding it and utilising it to focus on next generation and the awful price they pay for their parents’ crimes. In that sense, it also reminded me of David Joy’s brilliant novel Where All Light Tends To Go, which I read a couple of years ago, in which the young protagonist struggles to escape the cycle of poverty and crime and drug abuse that seems laid out for him as an inevitable path.

What is so incredibly special about this book is that while it wears its influences openly and proudly, it also manages to be startlingly unique. Anderson’s writing is what I call ‘crystalline’ prose – each phrase seems hewn from glittering rock or ice, beautifully carved, sparkling like sun on snow. I adore her writing, especially Ava’s first person narrative, which drifts gently to the head of each chapter, settling on top of Jack’s third person story, gilding it with beautiful, poetic words. Ava is a mesmerising, enigmatic character – both the heart and the head of the narrative, and I know I’ll be thinking about her for a very long time. Her transformation and the opening of her heart is beautiful to witness: delicately heroic, she carries the story.

The relationship between Jack and Matty is beautifully drawn, too. There is so much hope, I think, in the love the brothers show each other, despite the traumas of their upbringing and the horror of their current situation. There is much that is bleak in this book, but the bond between Jack and Matty is absolutely a thing of beauty. Their story is so tense, so wrenching – it is impossible not to be totally caught up in it. If I was being super pernickity, I might be able to pick out one or two points where the drama goes a tiny bit too far, or the co-incidences stack up a bit too neatly, but I don’t want to pull this novel apart – it’s a bit like how I felt about Where The Crawdads Sing – yes, maybe, possibly, there are one or two tiny signs of it being a debut novel, but I DON’T CARE! The emotional resonance of this novel overwhelms any urge I might have to turn ‘literary critic’ with this book; I love it fiercely, and it means a great deal to me, and that is such a thrill and a privilege as a reader.

I am by no means an expert on YA fiction – I don’t read nearly as much of it as many of my blogging friends, not for any particular reason, and quite possibly to my detriment as a reader – but if it can in some ways be seen as a transition, I can imagine a reader (not too young – there is a lot of violence and some pretty graphic descriptions, especially of Jack’s wounds) discovering Cory Anderson’s writing and then, in time, moving on to McCarthy’s The Road, to Denis Johnson, to Donald Ray Pollock – to writers who, like Anderson, explore the clash between violence and beauty, who sculpt gorgeous shapes out of the harsh realities of our brutal world, and show us the core of humanity. I for one am extremely grateful to have had the chance to discover this outstanding writer, and I can’t wait to see what she produces in the future.

What Beauty There Is by Cory Anderson is published in the UK by Penguin on the 8th April and is available to purchase here.

About the Author

Cory Anderson is a winner of the League of Utah Writers Young Adult Novel Award and Grand Prize in the Storymakers Conference First Chapter Contest. She lives in Utah with her family. What Beauty There Is is her debut novel.

Links

Twitter: @coryanderwrites

Author website: https://coryanderson.us/

Review: My Brother the Messiah by Martin Vopenka translated by Anna Gustova Bryson (2021)

My Brother the Messiah by Martin Vopenka translated by Anna Gustova Bryson

Blurb

It’s 2096. Scientists work to protect a baking planet. What a drought-stricken Europe needs is rain. What it gets is a messiah.

Eli is born in a suburb of Prague. A rainstorm heralds the birth. Perhaps this messiah is for real. Eli’s father abandons the family to become the dictator’s right-hand man. Eli’s elder brother Marek guides Eli through his short and powerful life.

Can tales of a messiah be enough to heal a ravaged planet in which few babies are born? If so, Marek works with the zeal of a prophet. Aged 72, he’s still going strong. A new follower joins Marek’s community, young Natalia. She awakens the old man to the joys of the body. But what’s the worth of a human love when the environment is collapsing? Marek sets out to find his answer.

My Brother the Messiah is a story about daring to seed the future of our planet.

Translated from the Czech by Anna Bryson Gustova.

Review

Thank you to (the other) Martin at Barbican Press for reaching out and offering me a copy of My Brother The Messiah in exchange for an honest review. I am always delighted to discover a new-to-me indie press, and Barbican has some excellent titles. Do check them out.

My Brother the Messiah would have made a great addition to my long-ago uni dissertation on dystopian fiction, in which I discussed 1984, Brave New World, and Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale, if I remember rightly (like I say, it was a long time ago!). It is terrifyingly believable to see the planet’s climate ravaged by global warming and the ill-advised attempt to reverse it that follows, and the way society breaks down in pockets, the migration from uninhabitable areas, the collapse of democracy – it all rings scarily true.

And yet, in this novel, the dystopia is a backdrop rather than the main focus. This is, at its heart, a story about the relationship between Marek and Eli, his brother, whom Marek absolutely believes is the Messiah. What I found fascinating is that as I read Marek’s third person narrative, I absolutely believed it, too. For the purposes of this story, yes, Eli is the Messiah. His followers are the only ones who are unaffected by the declining birth rate. Even as an atheist, I didn’t feel that this was a story about figuring out the truth or otherwise of this claim (which isn’t even one that Eli himself makes) – it is about what it means for Marek to be the brother of such a man. And that is SUCH an interesting premise.

The narrative moves back and forth in time, so that Eli’s life story is intercut with ‘present day’ Marek’s struggles to stay true to his brother’s legacy. Natalia, the woman who becomes Marek’s lover, is a wonderful character, and I liked both the past and ‘present’ narratives just as much. The writing is beautiful – taut and spare and at times appropriately biblical. Indeed, despite the future setting of the book, there is a kind of historical feel to it, as if we are being gifted the story of Eli in a similar way to how the story of the previous Messiah was passed on. It is interesting to consider this in the light of the appearance of a note-taking student later on in the book, but I’ll leave that for you to discover if you read this brilliant book (which you should!)

The ending of My Brother the Messiah is perfect – I had no idea how it was all going to wrap up, and I was genuinely surprised and elated by the final pages. This is such an interesting, different novel – it is intelligent without being pretentious or difficult, unnerving yet also enormously tender, a story that will stay with me. I urge you to check this one out. It is a hugely thought-provoking read with love and warmth at its centre.

My Brother the Messiah by Martin Vopenka translated by Anna Bryson Gustova is published by Barbican Press and is available to purchase here.

Review: Backstories by Simon Van der Velde (2021)

Blurb

Dreamers, singers, heroes and killers, they can dazzle with their beauty, their talent or their unmitigated evil, yet inside themselves they are as frail and desperate as the rest of us. But can you see them? Can you unravel the truth?

These are people you know, but not as you know them.

Peel back the mask and see.

Review

Okay, so here is a rundown, in order, of who the famous people are in these stories: 1)…NO, I’m just kidding, I wouldn’t do that to you!

Thanks so much to the author for reaching out and for sending me a copy of Backstories in exchange for an honest review. I am really enjoying seeing how many of my blogger friends are also reading this book – I like the thought that we’re all trying to puzzle out the identities of the protagonists!

The game element of this collection is tremendous fun. Each story withholds just enough of the key details to make it a true guessing game. I got an inkling of about half of them before the ‘reveal’ but there were plenty of cool surprises. It is addictive as well – I read all fourteen stories in one sitting because I wanted to keep playing! The author handles the reveals skilfully, and they never come at the expense of the realism of the story. This interactive element makes for a really engaging, highly original reading experience, and I loved it.

What is also great about Backstories is that it is so much more than just a gimmick. These are also well-written, intelligent, varied short stories that stand up to repeated reading even once the jig is up and the identities are known. I read them through quickly for the fun of figuring out who each protagonist was, and then reread them as a more ‘conventional’ short story collection. There is a fantastic mixture of voices and styles, and it is impressive how well the author manages to convey different places and eras so effectively across a short span of pages. The stories are punchy, powerful, with beautifully written dialogue and a strongly visual quality. Van der Velde is a chameleon author, inhabiting different characters and voices subtly and skilfully. It all adds together to create a kind of ‘anthology’ feel to the collection, as if these really are written by different people, and it works very well.

I’m very keen to read more by this talented author, and I am delighted to hear that there is going to be a Backstories II. If you want a preview of one of the stories, head to the author’s website. I think this is a great collection for everyone, including people who maybe don’t ‘do’ short stories, or don’t read them often – I guarantee this collection will change your mind!

About the Author

Simon Van der Velde has worked variously as a barman, labourer, teacher, caterer and lawyer, as well as travelling throughout Europe and South America collecting characters and insights for his award-winning stories. Since completing a creative writing M.A. (with distinction) in 2010, Simon’s work has won and been shortlisted for numerous awards including; The Yeovil Literary Prize, (twice), The Wasafiri
New Writing Prize, The Luke Bitmead Bursary, The Frome Shortstory Prize, The Harry Bowling Prize, The Henshaw Press Short Story Competition and The National Association of Writers’ Groups Open Competition – establishing him as one of the UK’s foremost short-story writers. Simon now lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, with his wife, Nicola, their labradoodle, Barney and two tyrannical children.

Links

http://bit.ly/Goodreads-Backstories

http://bit.ly/Amazon-Backstories

http://bit.ly/BookBub-Backstories

 AUDIBLE

https://adbl.co/3rw4boT

www.simonvandervelde.com

Review: Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding (2021)

Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding

Blurb

Being Tommy’s mother is too much for Sonya.

Too much love, too much fear, too much longing for the cool wine she gulps from the bottle each night. Because Sonya is burning the fish fingers, and driving too fast, and swimming too far from the shore, and Tommy’s life is in her hands.

Once there was the thrill of a London stage, a glowing acting career, fast cars, handsome men. But now there are blackouts and bare cupboards, and her estranged father showing up uninvited. There is Mrs O’Malley spying from across the road. There is the risk of losing Tommy – forever.

Review

I am very grateful to Laura Meyer at Bloomsbury for sending me a proof copy of this book. In a month in which I’d already read The Push, Call Me Mummy and Little Bandaged Days, Bright Burning Things could not have been more thematically appropriate, and like those books, it gripped me tight in its twisted claws.

I am not going to be able to write a long review of this book, for two reasons. The first is that I don’t want to give away too much of the plot. In itself, the story is quite straightforward – an alcoholic mother goes into rehab and returns home – but there is so much more to this book. Every page is stuffed full of tension and small, horrifying moments. It is the sort of book where you reach the end of a chapter and realise you’ve been holding your breath. The structure is surprising, in that the ‘rock bottom’ moment seems to occur earlier than you might expect, but Harding is doing something more with this book than just a ‘road to recovery’ story, and the narrative arc never plays out in a predictable way.

The second reason for keeping this review short is that I haven’t sorted through my feelings properly yet. I have a personal connection with this book, knowing and loving someone who is in recovery, and parts of this book felt so raw that I am not sure I want to share my full emotions here. It is a testament to Harding’s skill that it resonated so deeply. Sonya is such a complex, fascinating character – even though the story is told in the first person, I still felt as if I couldn’t quite get to the core of her, and I wonder if this is because she doesn’t even know herself fully. Her impulsive, reckless instincts take over often and sometimes in quite terrifying ways, and it was an oddly unnerving experience to be inside the mind of a protagonist I didn’t trust. And Tommy – oh Tommy! The depth of emotion I felt for him as I read was almost too real. There are hints and lines within this book that suggest that in some ways this is more his story than his mother’s. My heart broke for him so many times.

As for the end of the book – all I will say is that is one of those stories where you immediately have to find someone else who has read it so that you can compare notes (thanks Tilly!) – I am offering now to be on hand for anyone who needs an Oh My God moment upon finishing this fiercely uncompromising novel. If you follow my blog with any regularity (thank you, both of you) you’ll know that I love an unsettling read, and this book delivers that feeling in spades. I was physically uncomfortable at points, wanting to look away but unable to put it down. Bright Burning Things had a massive impact on me, and I will be thinking about it for a long time.

Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding is published by Bloomsbury and is available to purchase here.

Review: Manipulated Lives by H.A. Leuschel (2016) #ManipulatedLives @HALeuschel @damppebbles #damppebblesblogtours

Manipulated Lives by H.A. Leuschel

Blurb

Five compelling true-to-life stories each highlighting a narcissist’s manipulative mind games


Narcissists are everywhere.

They can be witty, charming and highly charismatic.

Anyone can be their target.

At first their devious, calculating mind games can be hard to spot because they are masters of disguise, but then they revert to their true self of being controlling and angry in private. Their main aim: to dominate and use others to satisfy their needs, with a complete lack of compassion and empathy for their victim.

All stories highlight to what extent narcissistic abuse can distort lives and threaten our self-worth yet ultimately, also send a positive message that once the narcissist is unmasked, the victims can at last break free.

Review

Firstly, huge thanks to the author and to Emma at Damp Pebbles for my spot on the blog tour, and for sending me a digital copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. I love a good short story collection, and I was very intrigued by the premise of five stories each dealing with the same theme.

From a psychological perspective, this book is very illuminating. I didn’t know a lot about narcissistic personality disorder before I started reading, and I felt like the five ‘cases’ in this book gave me a greater insight into how manipulators work. The book also covers different stages of life in order to show how many people can be affected by the behaviour of narcissists. In ‘Tess and Tattoos’, we meet an older woman in a residential home; ‘The Runaway Girl’ presents a teenager faced with a manipulator, and the final story, ‘The Perfect Child’ takes us back to childhood to examine the early signs of this disorder.

The stand-out story for me was ‘The Spell’ – the narrator meets a young boy and his father and becomes a part of their lives. I really liked the way in which the story twists and turns, so that I wasn’t sure who was the manipulator until quite near the end. It is almost novella-length, allowing the story to stretch out and breathe, and I think this was the most engrossing tale for me. The Narcissist presented some nice variation of form, switching between points of view and allowing for a more medically-based explanation of narcissism, which was useful at that point.

It is an interesting concept to take a particular type of person and explore different manifestations of the effects they can have on others, and I think it works well. There is a lot of psychological insight behind these stories, and they feel, appropriately, like case studies. I would recommend this collection to anyone with an interest in psychology, or in understanding more about how manipulators operate.

About the Author

Helene Andrea Leuschel gained a Master in Journalism & Communication, which led to a career in radio and television in Brussels, London and Edinburgh. She later acquired a Master in Philosophy, specializing in the study of the mind. Helene has a particular interest in emotional, psychological and social well-being and this led her to write her first novel, Manipulated Lives, a fictional collection of five novellas, each highlighting the dangers of interacting with narcissists. She lives with her husband and two children in Portugal.

Social Media

Twitter: https://twitter.com/HALeuschel

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/HALeuschel/

Website: https://www.heleneleuschel.com/

Instagram:  https://www.instagram.com/haleuschel/

Purchase Links

Amazon UK: https://amzn.to/2NJqNDI

Amazon US: https://amzn.to/3bHPLLC

Manipulated Lives by H.A. Leuschel was first published in paperback and digital formats on 28th June 2016

Review: The Smash-Up by Ali Benjamin (2021)

The Smash-Up by Ali Benjamin

Blurb

After years spent in the city, working with his business partner Randy on Bränd media, Ethan finds himself in the quiet, closed-off town of Starkfield. His wife Zenobia is perpetually distracted by the swirling #MeToo politics, the Kavanaugh hearings, and her duties to the feminist activism group she formed: All Them Witches. Ethan finds himself caught between their regular meetings at his home and the battle to get his livewire daughter Alex to sleep.

But the new, stilted rhythm of his life is interrupted when he receives a panicked message. Accusations. Against Randy. A slew of them. And Ethan is abruptly forced to question everything: his past, his future, his marriage, and what he values most.

Unrelenting in its satire, The Smash-up jolts you into the twisted psyche of successful brand advertising, where historic exploitation is only ever a panicked phone-call away. With magnetic energy and doses of comic wit, Benjamin creates a world of social media algorithms, extreme polarization, the collapsing of identity into tweet-sized spaces, and the spectre of violence that can be found even in the quietest places.

Review

I have really enjoyed reading this book as part of a buddy read organised by the wonderful riverrun books. Thanks so much to Ana and all of the team at riverrun/Quercus for running what I think are the best book chats on Twitter, and for my beautiful hardback copy of this book.

The Smash-Up is a hyper-modern book, sharp and spiky and utterly uncompromising in its refusal to take the easy road. Everything is complicated and messy and dusted with layers of ambiguity, from Zo’s activism to Ethan’s ‘good guy’ status. It reminded me a lot of Natasha Randall’s Love Orange (another riverrun delight, and my first buddy read experience), which I said in my review seemed to represent a new way of writing fiction. I think The Smash-Up, though different in many ways to Randall’s book, is part of that same movement towards something exciting and new, an ultra-modern mode of fiction that acknowledges the interconnectedness of family life, politics, social media, violence – everything crashing together and overloading our systems. The ‘domestic space’ no longer exists outside of politics, if it ever really did, and our lives are played out in a kind of public performance that makes the idea of a ‘private life’ seem anachronistic.

Strange to think that if I was writing this review a week ago, I would still be saying how timely it is, how it captures our era of misinformation and disillusionment perfectly, but I would probably be able to write it without tears in my eyes and anger in my heart. It is a very odd experience when the book you are reading, which is already highly relevant and absolutely on point about the issues of modern society and its mad, messy, confusing chaos, becomes more and more impactful by the hour as the news of the past week rolls in. By the end of this book, I was so deeply immersed in the truth of what Benjamin shows us that I was crying both with sadness and with relief that my feelings could have found such a corollary in fiction. If ever there was a book to read RIGHT NOW, this is it.

It is quite hard for me to articulate my thoughts on this book as I have only just finished it, and I know that the final buddy read tonight will help me corral my scattered ideas. I also think this is definitely a book that warrants re-reading – in fact, the geek in me would love to write an essay on The Smash-Up and Love Orange, so perhaps, lucky blog readers, there will be further ramblings from me in the future! For now, let me say that if you want to read a novel that just about sums up what it is to live in the world today, that probes the difficult questions and makes your brain whirr, that is more than just thought-provoking but rather thought-agitating, The Smash-Up will not disappoint. I’m already looking forward to rereading it.

The Smash-Up by Ali Benjamin is out now from riverrun books and is available to purchase here.

Review: Little Bandaged Days by Kyra Wilder (2020)

Blurb

A mother moves to Geneva with her husband and their two young children. In their beautiful new rented apartment, surrounded by their rented furniture, and several Swiss instructions to maintain quiet, she finds herself totally isolated. Her husband’s job means he is almost never present, and her entire world is caring for her children – making sure they are happy, and fed and comfortable, and that they can be seen as the happy, well-fed, comfortable family they should be. Everything is perfect.

But, of course, it’s not. The isolation, the sleeplessness, the demands of two people under two, are getting to Erika. She has never been so alone, and once the children are asleep, there are just too many hours to fill until morning . . .

Kyra Wilder’s Little Bandaged Days is a beautifully written, painfully claustrophobic story about a woman’s descent into madness. Unpredictable, frighteningly compelling and brutally honest, it grapples with the harsh conditions of motherhood and this mother’s own identity, and as the novel continues, we begin to wonder just what exactly Erika might be driven to do.

Review

Huge thanks to Alice Dewing at Picador Books for sending me a paperback copy in exchange for an honest review. I missed this book when it came out in hardback, so I’m delighted to have had the chance to read it now that it has been released in paperback. Little Bandaged Days is another dark, intense story about motherhood, which seems to be the theme I am running with this month, and I absolutely loved it.

The plot is straightforward enough: a woman moves to Switzerland with her husband and their two young children. With M out at work all day (and most nights), Erika is left alone with the children in their new apartment. What follows, however, is anything but simple: a gradual but terrifying slide into a strange unreality, the shapeless days unravelling, time stretching itself out and looping around in a thoroughly disconcerting way.

Wilder brings us so deeply into the mind of her protagonist that we see ‘reality’ through her eyes – and as she loses her grip, the reader is thrown headlong into the same sense of confusion and doubt. This is one of the most vivid, immersive portrayals of mental instability I have ever read. Everything that Erika sees and feels is real to her, and so, it becomes real to the reader. We are not allowed to adopt a rational, objective position – we are inside the mind that is coming undone, and it is an all-consuming experience. Terrible things happen in this book, but we rarely see the ‘truth’ until it is too late. Instead we are carried along on Erika’s bright, bubbling stream of enthusiasm that she keeps up with the kids, making everything into a game, constructing a perfect image of her family and willing herself to believe it. The cracks creep in so slowly, hairline fractures that trace their way across the book like veins of mould, so that the true extent of the damage comes as a shock.

The language in this novel is exquisite. The prose is so evocative and sensory, it is like being inside a poem as well as a psyche: the descriptions of food, of the games Erika plays with her children, and above all of the apartment, are so detailed and tactile and tangible – I felt as if I was there alongside them, tasting, feeling, smelling the rotting lemons and peering into the half-light of the darkened flat. It is hard to describe just how clever this book is – it not only pulls you right into Erika’s world, it holds you tightly, floods your senses, refuses to let you go – it is at times uncomfortably like being trapped. And this works SO well for the themes the novel explores – both motherhood and madness feel inescapable here. The only times I was able to pull myself out were in order to huff and puff at M’s behaviour, which Erika is far too accepting of, but my god, if ever there was a partner who misses the signs that all is not well, it is that man!

This is an extremely powerful, really quite harrowing book that left me horrified, but also in awe of Kyra Wilder’s talent as a writer. I don’t think I have read anything quite like this before. I loved the way this book is written: the prose is just so beautiful, sharp and clear and prismatic as cut glass, and I am excited to read more of this author’s work in the future.

Little Bandaged Days by Kyra Wilder is out now in paperback and is available to purchase here.

Review: From My Balcony to Yours by Nino Gugunishvili (2020)

From My Balcony to Yours by Nino Gugunishvili

Blurb

Canceled Plans? –Check! Panic and Fear? – Check! Self- Isolation? – Check! Missing Friends? – Check! Gaining Weight? – Check! Binge-Watching TV? – Check! Lengthy Self – diggings? – Check! Hope? – Check, check, check! Who would have thought that Global Pandemic, Self-Isolation, Cluster, and a Lockdown were to become the trendiest words in 2020? Who would have imagined the world would freeze and people would stay home shattered with fear, panic, uncertainty towards their future? How do we adjust to this changing reality, when none of our questions have answers when plans turn upside down, and things get totally out of control?

In her new book: “From My Balcony to Yours,” author Nino Gugunishvili shares her personal account during the first several months of the COVID -19 global pandemic in the form of short stories and observations.

Nino Gugunishvili’s writing biography includes a collection of short stories “ You Will Have a Black Labrador” and a women’s fiction novel “ Friday Evening, Eight O’Clock.”

Review

Last year, I read Nino’s book You Will Have a Black Labrador and thought it was such a lovely, charming collection – so I was delighted when Nino kindly offered to send me another of her books in exchange for an honest review. From My Balcony to Yours is, I think, just about the first ‘pandemic lit’ I have read (I mean, we’re living it, and reading is my escape, so why would I…) – but somehow I knew that with Nino at the helm, it wouldn’t bring me down.

This is another very slim book, the perfect accompaniment to a lazy Sunday morning or a rainy afternoon. In similarly vignette-like chapters to Black Labrador, Nino shares her thoughts and musings on last year’s lockdown, in a way that actually made me nostalgic for Lockdown 1! It brought back a lot of the feelings I had first time round – the sense of time slowing, of the busyness of the outside world subsiding, of the shrinking of horizons to the four walls of home and a few local walks. There is Nino’s signature mix of humour, poignancy and eccentricity here, all written in a chatty, quirky style that I just so happen to adore. She skips through topics, dips in and out of memories, comments on the strangeness that so quickly became our norm, mentions both the boredom and the novelty, makes jokes, shares secrets, and always ends on a hopeful note.

I don’t know quite what it is about her writing, but Nino gives of herself and her thoughts so merrily, so openly, that it creates a real sense of intimacy. I’ve never met her, but I can imagine sitting outside a café in the sunshine with her, whiling away an entire afternoon chatting, laughing and being totally honest, in that way that sometimes you only can be with strangers, and just having the best time. Get this book, and Black Labrador, stick them in your bag, and when we start going places again, you’ll have a little slice of entertaining loveliness wherever you go.

From My Balcony to Yours by Nino Gugunishvili is out now and is available to purchase here.

Review: Call Me Mummy by Tina Baker (2021)

Call Me Mummy by Tina Baker

Blurb

THIS MOTHER’S DAY YOU WILL CALL HER MUMMY

Glamorous, beautiful Mummy has everything a woman could want. Except for a daughter of her very own. So when she sees Kim – heavily pregnant, glued to her phone and ignoring her eldest child in a busy shop – she does what anyone would do. She takes her. But foul-mouthed little Tonya is not the daughter that Mummy was hoping for. As Tonya fiercely resists Mummy’s attempts to make her into the perfect child, Kim is demonised by the media as a ‘scummy mummy’, who deserves to have her other children taken too. Haunted by memories of her own childhood and refusing to play by the media’s rules, Kim begins to spiral, turning on those who love her. Though they are worlds apart, Mummy and Kim have more in common than they could possibly imagine. But it is five-year-old Tonya who is caught in the middle…

CALL ME MUMMY. IT’LL BE BETTER IF YOU DO.

Review

Having just read Ashley Audrain’s brilliantly dark novel The Push, I decided to continue with the theme of twisted motherhood and dive into this debut from Tina Baker. I have absolutely loved Tina’s wondeful promotion efforts on Twitter and Instagram (this seems like a good time to send massive kudos to all the wonderful debut authors launching in lockdown!) and have seen loads of positive – if slightly traumatised – comments from reviewers I admire, so I was excited to read this.

Call Me Mummy is another very dark book, and Mummy is a terrifying creation, not least because she is so convinced of her own righteousness. The style of the novel – short chapters made up not only of straightforward prose but also of Twitter feeds and other points of view, sometimes only a page or less, works really well – we get to see the drama unfold from different angles, and it is very astute on the gap between perception and reality. Kim is a great character – she is flawed, and even at times, dangerous as a parent, but her portrayal by the media is far removed from her internal journey.

The parallels between Kim and Mummy are very cleverly done, and add another layer to the story. The star of the book for me, though, has to be Tonya. In so few lines, so much is conveyed about this fierce, brilliant little girl – and it makes what she goes through all the more heartbreaking. Mummy chilled me to the bone, but Tonya brings a warm light all of her own to the story.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, having seen Tina’s hilarious posts on social media, but it did come as a pleasant shock to discover that this is also a very funny book. The humour is, of course, seriously dark – but I absolutely love that! When the fastidiously tidy Mummy realises that – would you believe it – kids are messy; when she goes from “all I ever wanted was a child” to “all I want is sleep” – I had to laugh. Even the gradual realisation of just how much of a monster Mummy is becomes deliciously tinted with irony as we are presented with her hideously warped view of reality. It’s a real skill to enter into the mind of a character so twisted and compel the reader to want follow you there – Baker achieves this wonderfully.

Parts of this novel are really distressing; others are bleakly funny, but there was never a moment where I wasn’t desperate to find out what happened next. It taps into every parent’s worst nightmare and plays the whole scenario through in technicolour, making for a shocking, all-consuming reading experience which left me feeling breathless. I think Call Me Mummy is a really original book, a fresh and dangerous story that cuts deep and leaves a lasting impression. I would love to read more books by this author.

Call Me Mummy by Tina Baker is out now from Viper Books and is available to purchase here.