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The Natural Way Of Things – Charlotte Wood

Published December 17, 2016 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

Two women awaken from a drugged sleep to find themselves imprisoned in an abandoned property in the middle of a desert in a story of two friends, sisterly love and courage – a gripping, starkly imaginative exploration of contemporary misogyny and corporate control, and of what it means to hunt and be hunted.

Strangers to each other, they have no idea where they are or how they came to be there with eight other girls, forced to wear strange uniforms, their heads shaved, guarded by two inept yet vicious armed jailers and a ‘nurse’. The girls all have something in common, but what is it? What crime has brought them here from the city? Who is the mysterious security company responsible for this desolate place with its brutal rules, its total isolation from the contemporary world? Doing hard labour under a sweltering sun, the prisoners soon learn what links them: in each girl’s past is a sexual scandal with a powerful man. They pray for rescue – but when the food starts running out it becomes clear that the jailers have also become the jailed. The girls can only rescue themselves.

The Natural Way of Things is a gripping, starkly imaginative exploration of contemporary misogyny and corporate control, and of what it means to hunt and be hunted. Most of all, it is the story of two friends, their sisterly love and courage.

With extraordinary echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale and Lord of the Flies, The Natural Way of Things is a compulsively readable, scarifying and deeply moving contemporary novel. It confirms Charlotte Wood’s position as one of our most thoughtful, provocative and fearless truth-tellers, as she unflinchingly reveals us and our world to ourselves.

What did I think?:

First of all, a huge thank you to New Books Magazine and the Real Readers program for sending me a copy of The Natural Way Of Things which was not only a stunning piece of cover art as you can see from the image of the book but was also a thought provoking and, at times, terrifying read. The horror in this novel isn’t from anything supernatural or paranormal however, the monsters in this case are humans that commit the most atrocious crimes and appear to be completely lacking in moral fibre or decency. These are the scariest creatures to encounter, because it reminds you that these type of people do actually exist.

The Natural Way Of Things was inspired somewhat by The Hay Institution For Girls, a real life prison in Australia in the 1960’s that locked up young girls that wouldn’t comply with the strict regime in the Parramatta Girls Home. The routine that the girls had to go through was completely inhumane. They were forced to keep their eyes on the ground at all times, they were kept in cells better fitting an animal and made to undergo hard labour on a daily basis. This is pretty much the situation that two of our main characters, Yolanda and Verla find themselves in when they wake up drugged and isolated with just the Australian outback and a high electrified fence for company.

The two girls find they are part of a larger group of young women whom have all been taken away from the lives they once knew because of some sort of sexual scandal. Each girl is punished immediately by having their heads shaved and their diet severely restricted whilst undergoing back-breaking work in the vicinity of their prison. Their jailers are Teddy, Boncer and Nancy (who masquerades as a nurse, but believe me, doesn’t have a caring bone in her body!) and the girls are constantly mocked, threatened and even beaten if they step out of line. I don’t want to say too much more about the plot but I will say that things are not always as they seem. The jailers themselves end up in a tricky situation that they hadn’t anticipated, one girl becomes a plaything for brutal Boncer in order to receive greater favours and other girls start to go slowly and irrevocably mad.

There is so much darkness and despair in this novel, I fear it might not be for everyone. Some parts you’ll need quite a strong stomach, other parts might make you shake your head in disbelief at the humanity (or lack of) it all. What I can guarantee is that you won’t be able to stop thinking about this book. Parts of it might re-play in your heads for nights to come and the shocking ending might have you wondering, like me, what on earth would happen next if the author chose to continue the story? I haven’t read anything by Charlotte Wood before and this is in fact her fifth novel. What I am certain of is that I’ll be checking out her back catalogue now because if her previous novels are half as disturbing as this one, I’m in for one hell of a ride.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

 

Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense Of The Twentieth Century – J.M.R. Higgs

Published September 4, 2016 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

The twentieth century should make sense. It’s the period of history that we know the most about, an epic geo-political narrative that runs through World War One, the great depression, World War Two, the American century and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But somehow that story doesn’t quite lead into the world we find ourselves in now, this bewildering twenty-first century, adrift in a network of constant surveillance, unsustainable competition, tsunamis of trivia and extraordinary opportunity.

Time, then, for a new perspective. With John Higgs as our guide, we step off the main path and wander through some of the more curious backwaters of the twentieth century, exploring familiar and unfamiliar territory alike, finding fresh insight on our journey to the present day. We travel in the company of some of the most radical artists, scientists, geniuses and crazies of their age. They show us that great innovations such as relativity, cubism, quantum mechanics, postmodernism and chaos maths are not the incomprehensible, abstract horrors that we assume them to be, but signposts that bring us to the world we live in now.

John Higgs brings us an alternative history of the strangest of centuries. He shows us how the elegant, clockwork universe of the Victorians became increasingly woozy and uncertain; and how we discovered that our world is not just stranger than we imagine but, in the words of Sir Arthur Eddington, ‘stranger than we can imagine’.

What did I think?:

First of all, a huge thank you to New Books Magazine and http://www.nudge.com for providing me with a copy of this book in return for an honest review. When I first read the synopsis for John Higgs’ fascinating narrative about the twentieth and early twenty-first century I was instantly intrigued and had to know more. What I found within the brilliantly concise chapters was both interesting and highly educational with a dash of humour on the side and I really feel I’ve learned a lot about subjects I had previous little or no knowledge about.

The author takes a variety of different topics – with chapter headings such as Modernism, War, Individualism, and Uncertainty to name just a few and takes the reader on an epic journey to discover why exactly the twentieth century was so pivotal. Although I still have to admit to being none the wiser about Einstein’s theory of relativity, I count that as my own personal demon as Higgs explains theories, ideas and notions in a very down to earth and comprehensible fashion that will instantly make you want to go out and do further research of your own into certain topics.

Personally speaking, I’ve always been fascinated by psychology and the author’s chapter on the “id,” Freud’s model of our basic human instincts was a joy to read. However, there are so many other examples of interesting subjects that I’m certain every reader will find something meaningful and informative to connect with. For example, did you know that the author H.G. Wells predicted machines that could fly, wars fought in the air, fascist dictatorships and even the European Union? Or that the term “genocide” was only coined in 1944 to describe “a deliberate attempt to exterminate an entire race?” The word hadn’t even existed before then!

As a piece of non-fiction, this book ticks all the right boxes for me. It’s insightful, holds your interest with short, snappy chapters that get over what the author wants to say in perfect fashion and is a unique way of looking at certain concepts that are not really covered in other works. I didn’t connect with every single chapter but then again, I didn’t really expect to, everyone is different in their own personal interests. However, I did find it a solid, brilliant piece of writing that taught me much more than I could have expected.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

3-5-stars

 

Gold Fame Citrus – Claire Vaye Watkins

Published February 22, 2016 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

In a parched southern California of the near future, Luz, once the poster child for the country’s conservation movement, and Ray, an army deserter turned surfer, are squatting in a starlet’s abandoned mansion. Most “Mojavs,” prevented by armed vigilantes from freely crossing borders to lusher regions, have allowed themselves to be evacuated to encampments in the east. Holdouts like Ray and Luz subsist on rationed cola and water, and whatever they can loot, scavenge, and improvise.

For the moment, the couple’s fragile love, which somehow blooms in this arid place, seems enough. But when they cross paths with a mysterious child, the thirst for a better future begins.

Immensely moving, profoundly disquieting, and mind-blowingly original, Watkins’s novel explores the myths we believe about others and tell about ourselves, the double-edged power of our most cherished relationships, and the shape of hope in a precarious future that may be our own.

What did I think?:

I was sent a copy of Gold Fame Citrus by the lovely people that run the Real Readers review scheme who are also responsible for the fabulous magazine that I subscribe to, New Books Magazine and the website Nudge.com. Many thanks to them as this has proved not only an interesting book to read but also one incredibly tricky to review due to my mixed feelings on it. Claire Vaye Watkins’ debut novel falls essentially in the dystopian genre but in reality, is so much more. Set in California in the not too distant future, the author paints a picture of a completely dry and barren landscape where all sources of water have disappeared and in its place reveals a desert wilderness, dwarfed by tremendous sand dunes that bury and destroy everything they roll over.

The majority of the previous dwellers have been packed onto buses heading eastwards apart from a brave few who exist on ration cola and crackers from the black market as they try to figure out what to do next. This is the situation that Luz and her boyfriend Ray, a former soldier with a murky past, find themselves in. At first, they are happy to remain in an abandoned mansion just trying to get through each day but then they meet a young girl called Ig. She is being “looked after” by a group of drug addicts but Luz cannot morally stand by and do nothing and fearing for her safety they spirit her away to look after her themselves.

Luz and Ray have now found another reason to survive in baby Ig and they both decide to head eastwards, in search of a better life for their new daughter. Before long, in dangerously hot temperatures, things start to go terribly wrong for the trio. First Ray disappears, then Luz and Ig who are close to death’s door themselves are “saved,” by a group of people headed by a charismatic leader who promises a better life for all that follow him. Luz is desperately grateful for his assistance and soon falls under his spell which could have devastating consequences, especially when a familiar face returns.

When I first read the synopsis of this book it sounded like a perfect and intriguing read. Unfortunately, that was not quite what I found. So, the good things (of which there were many!) – the prose was absolutely stunning. I mean, it is clear that this author can write damned well and her use of vocabulary is poetic without ever seeming over-done:

“We fill our homes with macabre altars to the live things we’ve murdered—the floral print of the twin mattress in her childhood bedroom, stripped of its sheets when she soiled them; ferns on throw pillows coated in formaldehyde; poppies on petrochemical dinner plates; boxes and bags of bulk pulpstuffs emblazoned with plant imagery the way milk cartons are emblazoned with children. A rock on a window ledge, cut flowers stabbed in a vase, wreath of sprigs nailed to the front door—every house a mausoleum, every house a wax museum.”

Just gorgeous! I can however, see how this may distance some other readers who are not fans of flowery prose but for me it gave the narrative a vibrance and energy that made it possible to picture the somewhat alien surroundings with ease. At times, there was an almost dream-like quality to the writing and, as a result, it’s not exactly what you would call a fast-paced novel which again, could irk some readers but personally, I found the action picked up slightly when Luz met the cult leader, Levi with all the drama that entails. My favourite part of all had to be the fantastical bestiary of all the animals in the desert which is written by Levi and presented in a pamphlet to Luz, the details of which are also provided in full glorious detail to the reader.

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Anyone else want The Stiltwalker Tortoise to be real?! For sure, it’s definitive evidence of a vivid imagination that knows no bounds and was greatly appreciated by this animal fanatic. I have to admit to flipping through the book when I received it and when I noticed these illustrated pages just over halfway through I immediately had to sit down and read them in their entirety before starting the novel from the usual place i.e. the beginning!

For these reasons, there is a lot that is positive about this original and in some points, captivating novel but there were also various chunks that led to me giving the rating I have. At times, I did feel a little overwhelmed with all the information I was being given and this led to it being slightly confusing and occasionally vague at the same time. I felt fairly muddled throughout as I struggled to come to terms with what exactly had happened to the world and why, which was never really explained in as much detail as I would have liked. The dream-like nature of the writing which I mentioned earlier, while obviously beautiful, also served to make the novel a bit clunky at times and difficult to absorb and enjoy fully.

My biggest bugbear however had to be the character of Luz. She was flawed and vulnerable which should have made her more accessible and easier to relate too but I found myself becoming quite annoyed with her, especially with her reliance on men to become her white knight and to make her life complete. Saying all this, if you can negotiate a few tiny obstacles and enjoy the magic that comes from reading some alluring writing you should definitely give this book a shot.

Would I recommend it?:

Probably!

Star rating (out of 5):

3 Star Rating Clip Art

Savage Lane – Jason Starr

Published September 3, 2015 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

EVERY TOWN HAS ITS SECRETS

In Savage Lane, Jason Starr has crafted a searing tale of suspense that proves the adage: Love thy neighbor, but don’t pull down your hedge. Karen Daily, recently divorced, lives with her two kids in a quaint suburb of New York City. She’s teaching at a nearby elementary school, starting to date again, and for the first time in years has found joy in her life. Mark Berman, Karen’s friend and neighbor, wants out of his unhappy marriage, and so does his wife, Deb, but they have stayed together for the sake of their children.

Unbeknownst to Karen, while Mark’s marriage has deteriorated his obsession with her has grown. And as Mark’s rich fantasy life takes on a more sinister edge, rumors begin to spread about Karen and a bigger secret is uncovered. And soon Karen finds that Mark is not the only one who has taken an undesired interest in her…

Jason Starr is one of our most accomplished writers of the darkness that lies within the human heart, and Savage Lane is his most riveting and intimate novel yet—a dark, domestic thriller and an honest, searing satire of a declining marriage, suburban life, and obsessive love.

What did I think?:

First of all, a huge thank you to http://www.nudge.com, No Exit Press and New Books Magazine for sending me a copy of this darkly comic thriller. I’m not actually familiar with any of the author’s work but now I’ve read this novel, I’ll definitely be checking out more from Jason Starr. There are a number of surprises and twists in the plot that made me unsure where he was taking the story but I thoroughly enjoyed everything that happened. We have a number of major and minor characters that make the plot-line interesting and made reading just that little bit further on hard to resist. I can’t really say if there was a main character, the reader sees the story from various perspectives – the first, beautiful Karen Daily who has two children and is divorced but is trying to get her dating life back on track, even if she has to kiss a few frogs in the process. She is close friends with a man called Mark Berman who is married himself but has found himself becoming completely obsessed with Karen as his marriage begins to deteriorate from the inside. The only problem with this is that she does not reciprocate his feelings… cue potential awkward moments? Yes, this novel has them in abundance. Furthermore, life for Karen on Savage Lane is about to get a hell of a lot darker.

It is Mark’s wife Deb who is the focus of the story, in the beginning that is. She becomes convinced that Mark is cheating on her with Karen after she believes that she has seen them holding hands at a dinner party. At first, Jason Starr appears to play with the reader a little bit as we become unsure ourselves whether the pair are actually having an affair. It doesn’t really help matters when we find out that Deb is a little bit too fond of a tipple and her alcohol-fuelled arguments with her husband may give Mark the way out of his marriage that he seems to be searching for. What Mark doesn’t know is that Deb has her own dirty little secret, something so dark and incredible that worrying about what her husband is getting up to might not be her worse problem.

I don’t really want to say too much about the plot for fear of spoilers but it was one of the most unique things I have read this year so far. What makes this story all the more intriguing is that not many of the characters are likeable at all and I did struggle at times to feel any sort of sympathy with them. At first glance, you may think that the story resembles your average psychological thriller and there have been comparisons of this book with Gone Girl and Apple Tree Yard, which are both excellent books in their own right. I’m happy to report however, that Savage Lane stands on its own quite confidently in the genre as it seems to have something a bit different, creepy and wacky at points yes, but certainly a book that cannot be compared. It has all those necessary elements of a great read – an exciting plot with twists I did not anticipate that kept me wanting to turn the pages and interesting (occasionally frightening) characters that show real individuals with flaws, warts and all!

Savage Lane is published by No Exit Press in the UK on the 22nd October 2015.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

3-5-stars

 

 

A Want Of Kindness – Joanne Limburg

Published July 21, 2015 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

Every time I see the King and the Queen, I am reminded of what it is I have done, and then I am afraid, I am beyond all expression afraid.

The wicked, bawdy Restoration court is no place for a child princess. Ten-year-old Anne cuts an odd figure: a sickly child, she is drawn towards improper pursuits. Cards, sweetmeats, scandal and gossip with her Ladies of the Bedchamber figure large in her life. But as King Charles’s niece, Anne is also a political pawn, who will be forced to play her part in the troubled Stuart dynasty.

As Anne grows to maturity, she is transformed from overlooked Princess to the heiress of England. Forced to overcome grief for her lost children, the political manoeuvrings of her sister and her closest friends and her own betrayal of her father, she becomes one of the most complex and fascinating figures of English history.

What did I think?:

A Want Of Kindness was a nice little surprise for me when it came clattering through my letterbox. It’s part of The Real Readers review system from the lovely team over at New Books Magazine (which I receive quarterly) and their companion web site http://www.nudge.com so many thanks to them for the opportunity to read this novel. My first impressions were definitely favourable it being a historical fiction title, a genre which I thoroughly enjoy and it tells the story of Queen Anne, one of our least known monarchs from history here in the UK. My own knowledge about Anne is incredibly hazy I have to admit and I relished the chance to learn more about the last Stuart monarch of England, Scotland and Ireland.

The story is told in chronological order from Anne’s childhood through to just before she ascended the throne with a lovely family tree at the beginning which was very useful as more characters came into play and I flicked backwards to remember where they fit in the scheme of things. As a fictional account it is quite slow going at first but becomes a lot more interesting when Anne’s father, James II is toppled from his throne because of his Catholic faith in favour of Anne’s sister Mary and her Dutch born husband, William. Anne would continue to feel guilty for the manner in which her father was deposed for the rest of her life but is devoted to her Protestant faith.

During her sister’s reign the relationship between Anne and Mary becomes increasingly strained and immediately before Mary’s death, the sisters have barely met or spoken at all. This is mainly down to Mary’s insistence that Anne’s beloved friends should be removed from the inner circle at court, something Anne is adamant will not happen as she relies on them unequivocally and would be distraught without them. Her status and finances are also challenged to the point where the sisters become completely estranged. This is represented beautifully by the author in the form of letters between the sisters (taken from actual letters in the royal archive).

William and Mary died leaving no heirs to the throne and Anne feels under great pressure to produce children. One of the saddest parts of the book for me was the trauma that Anne went through after seventeen pregnancies with her husband, Prince George of Denmark resulted in miscarriages, stillbirths, infants that died shortly after birth or those that died in early childhood. She managed to have one son who lived to the age of eleven but who then succumbed to what was believed to be smallpox or scarlet fever. The way in which Joanne Limburg presents Anne’s struggles with each loss is admirable and no-one can help but be moved by the way in which Anne deals with her grief and tries to move on.

Anne herself was quite a sickly creature and a bit too fond of the sweetmeats and other rich foods available to her which led to her putting on quite a bit of weight. She also suffered from gout, survived a nasty bout of smallpox and had frequent pains in her limbs all of which led to her becoming quite lame on bad days or unable to move at all. She died in the August of 1714 after another bout of ill health but the author does not take us as far as this choosing to end the novel just before Anne begins her reign as Queen.

Overall, I thought this was a clearly well researched and interesting historical novel. I don’t think I could compare it to authors such as Philippa Gregory or Alison Weir as the style of writing was quite different which I found both an advantage and a disadvantage as a reader. I loved that the chapters were short and snappy, some of which only amounted to half a page and as mentioned above, I did enjoy that a lot of the novel was made up of letters. Unfortunately, in my copy I found the font used for the letters quite difficult on the eye and it made reading them more of a chore then it should have been.

There were occasional periods also when the writing felt a bit too stilted as it moved from chapter to chapter which led to the story not flowing as well as I would have liked. It would also have been lovely to read a bit more about Anne as she finally becomes Queen as I was starting to become very interested in how her life would pan out. However, if you’re a fan of historical fiction and, like me, curious about the life of one of the more mysterious monarchs it’s a great read. Warning, be prepared for a rush of emotions as one by one, Anne’s children and potential heirs to the throne pass away – it definitely made an impact on me!

A Want Of Kindness was published on 2nd July by Atlantic Books and is available from all good book retailers now.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

3-5-stars