Mount TBR challenge

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Two O’Clock Boy (DI Ray Drake #1) – Mark Hill

Published September 15, 2018 by bibliobeth

What’s it all about?:

‘A fantastic debut: dark, addictive and original. I couldn’t put it down
Robert Bryndza, author of The Girl in the Ice

Discover the gripping, twist-filled start to a fantastic new London-set crime thriller series starring morally corrupt DI Ray Drake – the perfect new addiction for fans of LUTHER. 

TWO CHILDHOOD FRIENDS… ONE BECAME A DETECTIVE… ONE BECAME A KILLER…

Thirty years ago, the Longacre Children’s Home stood on a London street where once-grand Victorian homes lay derelict. There its children lived in terror of Gordon Tallis, the home’s manager.

Then Connor Laird arrived: a frighteningly intense boy who quickly became Tallis’ favourite criminal helper. Soon after, destruction befell the Longacre, and the facts of that night have lain buried . . . until today.

Now, a mysterious figure, the Two O’Clock Boy, is killing all who grew up there, one by one. DI Ray Drake will do whatever it take to stop the murders – but he will go even further to cover up the truth.

What did I think?:

Two O’Clock Boy (also published as His First Lie) was a very welcome discovery for me on Netgalley after I had heard a little bit of buzz about the author so thank you so much to Little, Brown publishers for approving my request and apologies it has taken so long for me to get round to reviewing it! The author, Mark Hill has previously worked as a journalist and an award-winning music radio producer and now he can add another string to his bow because he is without a doubt, an accomplished crime fiction author. The first book in the DI Ray Drake series is filled with drama, betrayal, dark secrets and lies and it’s one of those delicious narratives that keeps you on tenterhooks throughout, always teasing just a little bit but never giving too much away until the final, cataclysmic showdown where all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle finally fall into place.

Mark Hill, author of Two O’Clock Boy/His First Lie.

This startlingly good debut novel incorporates two separate time periods. The first, is set at Longacre Children’s Home in the 1980’s where a group of children were terrorised, used and brutally victimised by the manager, Gordon Tallis. In the present time, our male lead, DI Ray Drake, a widower with a rather interesting past of his own has just promoted one of his members of staff, Flick Crowley. He insists she should take the lead in the next murder case they happen upon, where almost an entire family is butchered to death in the most horrific way. However, he is not prepared for what Flick will discover as she starts to investigate the suspicious deaths. It all harks back to Longacre and the abuse that happened in the home in the 80’s, with one maverick murderer appearing to be targeting every single one of the individuals that were present at that moment in history. As Flick gets closer to the truth, DI Ray Drake must do everything possible to try and steer her away from it – for very intriguing reasons of his own.

London provides the setting for Two O’Clock Boy/His First Lie.

Two O’Clock Boy was such a pleasant surprise that has made me so keen to read further books in the series. I think you might instantly expect with all crime fiction/thriller novels to have a fast-paced plot and unexpected twists and turns but for some reason, this novel felt really different and unique. If I could compare it to anything, I might compare it to Tana French who I feel writes crime novels with a bit of a literary edge and her stories are quite slow-burning, which you take a while to become invested in but once you do, it’s thoroughly worth the effort. The similarity with Mark Hill is the slow-burning element to the narrative and how it seems to be much more focused on getting to know the characters intimately, flaws and all (which I always appreciate in a novel!).

However he does differ in that there are darker moments of the narrative, particularly those scenes set in the children’s home, which although they are never gratuitous, still leave you feeling slightly uncomfortable and a bit uneasy. Stories about child abuse are NEVER going to be nice to read about but the author deals with the topic intelligently and sensitively and I was compelled throughout, transfixed by both the characters and the plot and never sure what exactly was going to happen next. As I’ve alluded to, our characters are far from perfect, including our male lead Drake who has secrets from his past and in the present, a very difficult relationship with his teenage daughter. I didn’t always agree with his actions in both time periods and at times, did want to shake him for the way he acted and treated people close to him, particularly his new Detective Sergeant, Flick Crowley. Nevertheless, I found his flaws, misdemeanours and difficulties were what made him so hugely interesting, relatable and readable in addition to the multitude of other characters we also meet from all different walks of life that all have their own individual personalities and quirks.

This is an exciting and brilliant debut novel from Mark Hill and sets him up as a force to be reckoned with in the British crime fiction genre. I for one can’t wait to read the second in the series, It Was Her that sits on my Kindle already, just begging to be started!

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

Two O’Clock Boy by Mark Hill was the forty-fourth book in my quest to conquer Mount Everest in the Mount TBR Challenge 2018!

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Tin Man – Sarah Winman

Published August 28, 2018 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

This is almost a love story.

Ellis and Michael are twelve when they first become friends, and for a long time it is just the two of them, cycling the streets of Oxford, teaching themselves how to swim, discovering poetry, and dodging the fists of overbearing fathers. And then one day this closest of friendships grows into something more.

But then we fast forward a decade or so, to find that Ellis is married to Annie, and Michael is nowhere in sight. Which leads to the question, what happened in the years between?

This is almost a love story. But it’s not as simple as that.

What did I think?:

I’ve had this book on my TBR shelves since a little while after it was released and I picked myself up a gorgeous signed copy coincidentally in the same place the majority of the book is set, Oxford on a wonderful bookshop crawl. I was however, VERY nervous to start reading it for a number of reasons. The first is that whilst I enjoyed Sarah Winman’s debut novel, When God Was A Rabbit (which I read in my pre-blogging days), I unfortunately didn’t get on so well with her second, A Year Of Marvellous Ways. When I initially heard that this was coming out, I wasn’t even sure I was going to read it but then the buzz started with a lot of reviewers whose opinion I trust praising it to the hills. Well, then I just knew that I had to be part of the phenomenon and discover what everyone was talking about. Can I see what all the fuss was about? The short answer to that is yes I can – Winman is a fabulous wordsmith with the English language and I was immediately enraptured by the characters of both Ellis and Michael. Whilst it wasn’t necessarily a five star read for me personally, for the lyrical beauty of the narrative alone I simply have to recommend it to others.

Sarah Winman, author of Tin Man.

The synopsis of this novel is suitably vague, other reviews I have read have been mostly quite mysterious and now having read this novel, I can see why and will continue to do the same in my own review. It is a love story (of sorts) but it’s also about friendship, loss, grief, despair, not being able to be the person that you want to be and how chasms in your life can be bridged if you have the right person there with you, holding your hand and offering support during tough times. Initially, we focus on Ellis and Michael who have both struggled with issues at home and develop a fast, meaningful friendship which helps both boys deal with their personal demons in similar (and very different) ways. However, when we first meet Ellis, he is on his own, suffering in stoic silence once more and Michael is nowhere to be seen. During the second part of the narrative, we find out where Michael is, more about him as a character and what happened during the years of their friendship that led both men to the point they now find themselves.

The city of Oxford, England where Tin Man is set.

Tin Man is a book that can easily be read in one sitting being a mere 208 pages long in paperback format. I read it in two sittings as I was in the middle of a few different books at the time but I still managed to finish it within a day as I found the writing style to be absolutely delicious, delving deep into my mind and senses like melted butter and it was easy to become immersed in the story. There were some truly beautiful moments that stand out and some incredibly poignant, heart-breaking ones too but I have to admit, the style might not be for everyone. Winman plays around with words, phrases and the emotions of our characters so gorgeously that the effect of it all wasn’t really evident for me until I had reached the final page and it was only then I realised the impact of what I had just read.

However, it is written in a sort of stream of consciousness way and often the reader is left to connect the dots themselves regarding certain things the author is alluding to that are left pretty much unsaid but gently suggested. Personally, I enjoy a novel where parts are more vague, left up in the air and the reader is left to draw their own conclusions about aspects of the story but I do understand it’s not everyone’s cup of tea so just throwing that out there! I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading this novel but I completely understand what the author was trying to do and applaud her for it. The writing as I’ve mentioned (probably too much now!) was magical, there was tenderness, devastation and nothing was ever really resolved by the end which made it all the more gut-wrenching as a result.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

Tin Man by Sarah Winman was the forty-third book in my quest to conquer Mount Everest in the Mount TBR Challenge 2018!

My Lady Jane: The Not Entirely True Story (The Lady Janies #1) – Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows

Published August 20, 2018 by bibliobeth

What’s it all about?:

A comical, fantastical and witty re-imagining of the Tudor world, perfect for fans of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Lady Jane Grey, sixteen, is about to be married to a total stranger – and caught up in an insidious plot to rob her cousin, King Edward, of his throne. But that’s the least of Jane’s problems. She’s about to become Queen of England. Like that could go wrong.

What did I think?:

I chose this book as one of my recent Chrissi Cupboard Month picks because of the rave reviews I had heard about it, particularly from one of my favourite bloggers, Stephanie over at Stephanie’s Novel Fiction and of course, my sister whose opinion on books I trust implicitly. I’ve got to admit, I did keep putting it off, for two reasons which are both as silly as the other. The first is that I wasn’t completely sold on the cover (of the edition I have, please see image above) and I should know by now that judging a book by its cover is a very dangerous thing to do – who knows what you could be missing? Indeed, I’ve almost missed out on some amazing stories i.e. Me Before You by Jojo Moyes just because I mis-judged the cover and thought it would be something it wasn’t.

From top to bottom: Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows, authors of My Lady Jane.

The second reason (and probably the silliest) is that I’m a huge fan of the Tudor period of history and adore fiction re-telling lives of the real people in this moment of history, particularly in the style of Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir. As a result, I’m very familiar and fond of the tragic story of Lady Jane Grey and the thought of it being re-written to be completely different from the actual history with a humorous edge didn’t sit well with me and made me feel slightly uncomfortable, goodness knows why? Now I’ve experienced all the joy, brilliance and wit that Hand, Ashton and Meadows have brought to this tale I am a fully fledged convert to these new imaginings of history and am thoroughly berating myself for leaving it so long before reading in the first place.

My Lady Jane is the story of the Tudor dynasty, particularly the point where Lady Jane Grey ascends to the throne of England, like you’ve never heard about it before. It’s a land where there’s two classes of people, those that can turn into animals, otherwise known as Eðian (eth-y-un, for the uninitiated) and then there’s those who can’t. There’s a reason why Henry VIII was compared to a lion, you know! There’s quite a bit of bigotry and prejudice against people who assume their animal forms and huge factions of the country are at war with the young King Edward struggling to maintain control of his kingdom. It also doesn’t help that he’s dying and the succession for the throne is becoming very hazy indeed, particularly as Edward is certain if he chooses his sister Mary, she will be all too delighted to extinguish every last Eðian in England. Edward is also attempting to marry his cousin, Lady Jane Grey off so her future will be secured but the groom in question, Gifford is unable to control his urge to turn into a stallion every evening as soon as the sun goes down. Then all three become embroiled in a dangerous conspiracy for the throne that threatens not only their own lives but the whole future of England.

A portrait of the “real” Lady Jane Grey, also known as the Nine Day Queen.

This book was so much fun! I immediately texted my sister about twenty pages in and told her just how much I was enjoying it and could almost hear her sigh of relief from over fifty miles away. No, it’s not in any way a true account of the life of Lady Jane Grey but that’s one of the reasons why this book is so exciting. It feels fresh, unique, incredibly different and was so light-hearted and hilarious, it was a pleasure to settle down with it whenever I had a minute. It felt like re-visiting characters you know and love, like Jane herself, Edward and his sisters Mary and Elizabeth but also it painted them in such a distinct, new manner that it felt like you were getting to know them all over again. Gifford was a very welcome addition to the pack (or should that be herd?!), I loved his excursions as a horse, the way he opens up ever so gradually and ultimately, the growth of his relationship with Jane which was nothing short of adorable.

I really wasn’t sure whether the fantastical edge was going to work for a story about the Tudors but the authors have pulled it off magnificently. As a huge animal lover myself, I always enjoy animals within narratives but to have characters that can turn into animals? My heart was so happy. This novel was both a huge surprise and an absolute delight to read and I was completely won over by the wonderful ridiculousness of the narrative and how easy it was to devour.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

My Lady Jane by Hand, Ashton and Meadows was the forty-second book in my quest to conquer Mount Everest in the Mount TBR Challenge 2018!

The Last Time We Say Goodbye – Cynthia Hand

Published August 4, 2018 by bibliobeth

What’s it all about?:

There’s death all around us.
We just don’t pay attention.
Until we do.

The last time Lex was happy, it was before. When she had a family that was whole. A boyfriend she loved. Friends who didn’t look at her like she might break down at any moment.

Now she’s just the girl whose brother killed himself. And it feels like that’s all she’ll ever be.

As Lex starts to put her life back together, she tries to block out what happened the night Tyler died. But there’s a secret she hasn’t told anyone-a text Tyler sent, that could have changed everything.

Lex’s brother is gone. But Lex is about to discover that a ghost doesn’t have to be real to keep you from moving on.

What did I think?:

The title of this book might give some clues as to the themes within but even still, I wasn’t prepared for the immense sadness and depth of emotions that would continue to surprise me as I read through it. I first came across Cynthia Hand’s writing in her Unearthly series (which I highly recommend to lovers of YA fiction) but I haven’t read anything else by her for a while so I was intrigued as always, to read something else by an author that I’ve previously enjoyed. Hand is a master of beautiful, lyrical prose for young adults and with her writing, you always feel that you’re tapping into something a little bit special and I definitely found this was the case with The Last Time We Say Goodbye.

Cynthia Hand, author of The Last Time We Say Goodbye.

Based around the traumatic topic of suicide, it’s always going to be an unsettling read and I did find myself moved considerably by the whole narrative but I also want to press the fact that I think it’s an important read for teenagers that find themselves in that horrendous situation where they’re dealing with the loss of a family member and they need to have that reassurance that they’re not in it alone, no matter how isolated and devastated they may feel. Sadly, Cynthia herself has personal experience with the loss of a close family member and this really came across in her writing. Essentially, (and the synopsis above really says it all) it’s about a teenage girl, Lex who is struggling to deal with the suicide of her younger brother, Tyler and discover the reasons behind why he wanted to end his own life. As well as this, she’s just trying to live her normal life – keep up her relationships with friends, support her mother who becomes increasingly fractured in the days after Tyler’s suicide and try to come to terms with the fractured love she has with her father who has separated from her mother and built his own, new life away from the family.

I found The Last Time We Say Goodbye to be an incredibly haunting, thoughtful read about such a crucial subject that I really think people need to be more open and honest about. If we have the opportunity to help even one more person and prevent them from taking their own lives, that can only be a good thing. Depression and anxiety is such an isolating, terrifying condition that has the power to overwhelm a normally rational mind and unfortunately, I speak from personal experience. In the novel, Tyler feels that he’s not able to talk to anybody else about what he’s going through, especially not his own family for reasons that become clear as the novel continues.

Obviously, this is clearly a case of his poor mental health over-riding the more reasonable parts of the brain and the fact that his family is having their own issues prevents him from speaking up, and as a result, they are so completely unaware of his dangerous misery in the first place. The sadness about this whole story is that if he had spoken up, especially to his sister Lex, whom he had a previously close relationship with, his death may have been preventable. Afterwards though, there’s that horrible guilt that Lex feels regarding the fact that if he WAS trying to reach out, she may not have realised how crucial it was that she should have talked to him at that particular time.

The Last Time We Say Goodbye is another powerful and emotive read from Cynthia Hand that cements her place as an insightful, talented young adult fiction author that is definitely one to watch in the future.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of five):

four-stars_0

The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand was the forty-first book in my quest to conquer Mount Everest in The Mount TBR Challenge 2018!

Beth And Chrissi Do Kid-Lit – JULY READ – Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens

Published July 30, 2018 by bibliobeth

What’s it all about?:

Deepdean School for Girls, 1934. When Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong set up their very own deadly secret detective agency, they struggle to find any truly exciting mysteries to investigate. (Unless you count the case of Lavinia’s missing tie. Which they don’t, really.)

But then Hazel discovers the Science Mistress, Miss Bell, lying dead in the Gym. She thinks it must all have been a terrible accident – but when she and Daisy return five minutes later, the body has disappeared. Now the girls know a murder must have taken place . . . and there’s more than one person at Deepdean with a motive.

Now Hazel and Daisy not only have a murder to solve: they have to prove a murder happened in the first place. Determined to get to the bottom of the crime before the killer strikes again (and before the police can get there first, naturally), Hazel and Daisy must hunt for evidence, spy on their suspects and use all the cunning, scheming and intuition they can muster. But will they succeed? And can their friendship stand the test?

What did I think?:

I’ve had this middle grade novel on my TBR for a long time now, wondering when on earth I was going to get round to reading it. Then I thought I could suggest it to Chrissi as part of our next Kid Lit list, of course! So on it went and I’m so pleased it did. Everything about this book is so appealing, from the eye-catching cover design to the clever title but most importantly, the story within is so charming and utterly delightful that I was captivated throughout. This is the sort of book that obviously isn’t marketed towards someone of my age range but if I had read this as a child I would have fallen head over heels in love with it and would probably have begged my parents for the next one in the series immediately. I have a very small, hardly worth mentioning niggle but it’s nothing to do with the writing and is purely because of my own individual experience with attending boarding school from the ages of 11-16.

Robin Stevens, author of Murder Most Unladylike.

This is the story of two young girls, Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells who attend Deepdean School For Girls in 1930’s England. The two become fast friends and decide to set up a detective agency to solve mysteries – even if their most exciting case so far is their dorm-mate’s missing tie. However, things are about to get a whole lot more interesting when Hazel finds the body of Miss Bell lying in the gym, only to disappear when she runs to get help. As Watson to Daisy’s Holmes, Hazel’s job is to keep meticulous notes about the evidence they manage to collect, their suspects for the horrendous crime and any motives they might have for killing the Science teacher. Thus, the two girls begin their mission to crack the case and bring the perpetrator to justice, not realising that their investigations could be proving very dangerous for themselves if they are discovered with a murderer on the loose.

An example of a dormitory in a boarding school – looks kind of familiar to me!

One of the most endearing things about this novel was how similar it felt to the boarding school stories I used to read as a child by Enid Blyton. It reminded me of the Malory Towers/St Clare’s adventures (I’m not sure if anyone else remembers them?) and it was these tales that made me desperate to go to boarding school in the first place. However this was also my tiny little niggle. Boarding school is often given the representation in fiction as being all “jolly hockey sticks,” midnight feasts and sharing bedrooms with your best friends but unfortunately, the reality of being away at school is quite different and often a very difficult experience, especially if you have troubles whilst at school i.e. bullying and are unable to escape back home on a nightly basis. For this reason, it was why I had mixed feelings. On one hand it was lovely and comforting to be taken back to a more innocent time fictionally speaking, but on the other hand, having lived through that experience myself, I couldn’t quite believe in it as much as I wanted to (and certainly as much as I did when I was a child) because I’m all too aware of what really goes on behind closed doors.

Saying that, if you’re after a fun, easy and exciting reading experience for your middle grade reader, especially if they’re a budding detective, you can’t go wrong with this novel. It’s got everything you could want from a mystery story plot wise, and also has the advantage of having some terrific female lead characters for children to enjoy and connect with. There’s nothing but pleasure to be had for youngsters from this entertaining, well-written series and it deserves a spot alongside Blyton’s Malory Towers as an excellent boarding school adventure story.

For Chrissi’s fabulous review, please see her blog HERE.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

COMING UP IN AUGUST ON BETH AND CHRISSI DO KID-LIT: The Creakers by Tom Fletcher.

Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens was the fortieth book in my quest to conquer Mount Everest in the Mount TBR Challenge 2018!

How Not To Disappear – Clare Furniss

Published July 26, 2018 by bibliobeth

What’s it all about?:

Our memories are what make us who we are. Some are real. Some are made up. But they are the stories that tell us who we are. Without them we are nobody.

Hattie’s summer isn’t going as planned. Her two best friends have abandoned her: Reuben has run off to Europe to ‘find himself” and Kat is in Edinburgh with her new girlfriend. Meanwhile Hattie is stuck babysitting her twin siblings and dealing with endless drama around her mum’s wedding. Oh, and she’s also just discovered that she’s pregnant with Reuben’s baby.

Then Gloria, Hattie’s great-aunt who no one even knew existed, comes crashing into her life. Gloria’s fiercely independent, rather too fond of a gin sling and is in the early stages of dementia. Together the two of them set out on a road trip of self-discovery — Gloria to finally confront the secrets of her past before they are erased from her memory forever and Hattie to face the hard choices that will determine her future.

Non Pratt’s Trouble meets Thelma and Louise with a touch of Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, Clare Furniss’ remarkable How Not To Disappear is an emotional rollercoaster of a novel that will make you laugh and break your heart.

What did I think?:

This review comes with a big thank you to my wonderful sister and fellow blogger Chrissi Reads for recommending this book as part of my most recent Chrissi Cupboard Month, a bi-annual event where I attempt to get through some of the huge pile of books she has loaned me! I was first compelled to read this novel after being initially attracted by the front cover. Now I don’t normally like “people” on covers but for some reason, I find this one really appealing, there’s something about the colours and the attitude of the woman on the front that makes me smile. Then I read the synopsis and when I realised it touched on the subject of dementia, it was a no-brainer that I had to read it. Dementia is a topic really close to my heart for personal reasons, it’s probably my worst fear of getting older and I was completely right in thinking this would be a touching, emotionally poignant exploration of what it’s like to suffer from it.

Clare Furniss, author of How Not To Disappear.

This is the story of a young woman called Hattie who finds herself unsure about her future path in life, exasperated with her siblings, mother and stepfather and abandoned by her best friends whom it seems, have moved so far away (Edinburgh and Europe) that keeping in touch via email and the occasional text is the best form of contact she can hope for. Worst of all, she now finds herself pregnant with her friend Reuben’s baby and completely stuck as what to do as it seems unlikely Reuben would be willing to settle down. Surprisingly, Hattie then finds herself in contact with an old relative on her late father’s side, Gloria who also finds herself alone, troubled and in need of a friend. Gloria suffers with dementia and whilst her memories are starting to fail her she is determined to travel the length and breadth of the country with Hattie in tow in order to tell her story and make sense of a shattered past. As the two women travel and get to know each other, Hattie might just find the comfort and answers she desperately desires and Gloria may finally find peace along the way.

Hattie and Gloria go on a road trip across parts of the U.K. as we get flashbacks from Gloria’s past.

This book really knew just how to tug on your heart-strings. The dementia is obviously a huge part of the story and it’s absolutely gut wrenching to see how Gloria deteriorates, even in the short time that Hattie has with her but I also found it all so life affirming if that makes any sense? Gloria writes down everything in her little notebook, including tid-bits that Hattie shares with her about her own life and her problems regarding the pregnancy (in that she doesn’t know HOW to feel about it). It really warmed my heart the lengths Gloria went to and how hard she concentrated on trying to get to know Hattie better by any means necessary despite the failures in her own brain. One of my favourite things about this story just has to be Gloria as a character however, she was quite simply wonderful in every aspect of the word. From a very young age, she’s independent, says what she thinks and has a bright spark of a personality that refuses to be tamed. She goes through so much in her life, huge events that attempt to dampen that spark and sadly, they kind of succeed in one way but in another way, you can still see that old Gloria in there, refusing to lie down and be silenced. That just broke my heart.

This is a work of young adult fiction but to be perfectly honest, at no time when I was reading it did it feel that way for me. It delves into some very dark, difficult areas including teenage pregnancy, mental illness, domestic violence and emotional abuse and the intricacies of family relationships and these were all subjects that were handled so sensitively and intelligently that I constantly wanted to read on and uncover the mystery of Gloria’s life. This is a novel that has so much heart and soul emanating from every page and although it made for some tough, bitter-sweet reading moments at points, I’m ever so glad I read it and will certainly be watching out for anything Clare Furniss writes in the future.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

How Not To Disappear by Clare Furniss was the thirty-ninth book in my quest to conquer Mount Everest in the Mount TBR Challenge 2018!

Shtum – Jem Lester

Published July 17, 2018 by bibliobeth

What’s it all about?:

Powerful, darkly funny and heart-breaking, Shtum is a story about fathers and sons, autism, and dysfunctional relationships.

Ben Jewell has hit breaking point. His ten-year-old son Jonah has severe autism and Ben and his wife, Emma, are struggling to cope.

When Ben and Emma fake a separation – a strategic decision to further Jonah’s case in an upcoming tribunal – Ben and Jonah move in with Georg, Ben’s elderly father. In a small house in North London, three generations of men – one who can’t talk; two who won’t – are thrown together.

What did I think?:

There were a few things that first attracted me to Shtum by Jem Lester. Initially, I couldn’t fail but to be pulled in by that gorgeous cover and the way it was published as a naked hardback (one of my favourite types of hardbacks) then I read the synopsis and the early reviews and I got The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time vibe from it which intrigued me and made me more keen to check out what it was all about. Now I ordinarily hate comparing books to each other but did Shtum live up to the dizzying heights of Curious Incident? Unfortunately, not quite but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad book by any stretch of the imagination. I think when you go into something expecting a direct copy, it’s never going to end well and Shtum deserves to stand on its own as the story of a very different and fascinating family that I did end up feeling a range of conflicting emotions for.

Jem Lester, author of Shtum.

In a nutshell, this is the story of Ben Jewell who has recently separated from his wife, taking custody of his severely autistic son Jonah and living with his father, Jonah’s grandfather Georg. The interesting thing about Ben and Emma’s struggles is that their separation is staged, purely so that they have a better chance of getting Jonah into the residential school of their dreams that will offer them a much higher level of support than they have previously been receiving. Both parents are at breaking point, with Jonah and with each other and Ben has turned to drinking heavily as a way of escaping rather than helping to run the family business. He is also dealing with a difficult relationship with his father, Georg and as the fight to get Jonah the best care rumbles on, everything comes to a head for all parties concerned and they must learn to pull together as a family if they are all going to get through this hardest of times unscathed.

An indication of the main problems that a child with autism spectrum disorder can present with.

Now, I’m in no way, shape or form an autism expert but I had no idea how devastating an effect severe autism can have on a family. Compared with Curious Incident, where our protagonist is on the milder end of the spectrum, Shtum gives a no holds barred account of the “other” end where lack of speech, continence and occasional aggression seem to be the norm. I cannot imagine how debilitating it must be for the child and for the family as a whole and it was certainly an eye opener into a different, very cruel world. On further reading, I’ve discovered Jem Lester happens to have a severely autistic child so presumably has drawn on a lot of his own personal experiences to tell Ben and Jonah’s story and this makes the narrative all the more poignant, increasing my admiration and respect for the author ten-fold.

As for the conflicting emotions I mentioned earlier, that was mainly directed towards the behaviour of certain characters in the novel whom I found endlessly frustrating at points. Yes, we understand why Ben drinks and also why he shirks work. In the horrendous situation that he finds himself where his child requires constant, specialist care, you can’t blame him for becoming depressed and losing himself in something that will make him forget his troubles and responsibilities for a while. But this was also the reason why I just wanted to shake him. Him and Emma, for burying their heads in the sands and ignoring the issues or not asking for the appropriate help that they obviously deserve. Ben’s love for Jonah completely shines through and this is lovely to see, despite his misgivings and considerably “human” reactions to an awful situation BUT there were so many opportunities that he had the chance to turn his life round, build his fractured relationship with his father, sort his drinking out and each time, he just failed miserably.

Of course, it is always difficult to get that happy ending and it was authentic in the way that Ben took his sweet time to address his troubles but personally, I just found myself getting annoyed with him too quickly for his occasionally ridiculous actions. However, if you can get past this, this is a heart-breaking read that is well worth the time and investment purely for the different slice of life that this kind of challenge brings to thousands of families all over the world every day. I appreciated the sentiment, the volatile relationships and the humble way in which the author approaches a difficult and emotional subject area.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

3-5-stars

Shtum by Jem Lester was the thirty-eighth book in my quest to conquer Mount Everest in the Mount TBR Challenge 2018!