Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke

Foreign Soil
Maxine Beneba Clarke
Publication Date: 29th April 2014
Publisher: Hachette
Pages: 285
Format: Paperback | Purchased
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Rating: ★★★★☆
Summary: In Melbourne’s Western Suburbs, in a dilapidated block of flats overhanging the rattling Footscray train-lines, a young black mother is working on a collection of stories. The book is called FOREIGN SOIL. Inside its covers, a desperate asylum seeker is pacing the hallways of Sydney’s notorious Villawood detention centre, a seven-year-old Sudanese boy has found solace in a patchwork bike, an enraged black militant is on the war-path through the rebel squats of 1960s’ Brixton, a Mississippi housewife decides to make the ultimate sacrifice to save her son from small-town ignorance, a young woman leaves rural Jamaica in search of her destiny, and a Sydney schoolgirl loses her way. The young mother keeps writing, the rejection letters keep arriving…

My thoughts: I don’t often read collections of short stories – I like to get really invested in a story, and I find it easier to do so with a full-length novel – but I really loved Beneba Clarke’s memoir, The Hate Race, and thought I’d check out this collection. I’m glad I did, because this book is an absolute gem. The stories are character-driven and well-paced.

You’ll forgive me if my review seems unbalanced – I know I should focus on the collection as a whole (as you would a volume of poetry), but there are some stories that stick out in my mind more than others, and I do want to gush about them because I walked away from them with a heavy heart (in the best way possible). I think great literature is literature that makes you think, and Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil has definitely done that.

Australian media isn’t exactly known for its diversity and inclusiveness – Beneba Clarke has mentioned before that winning the Victorian Premiere’s Unpublished Manuscript Award was instrumental in her securing a publisher, if that’s any indication (given the quality of the short stories, I can only imagine the reason why it got rejected so many times was a fear that audiences wouldn’t connect to characters of colour) – so I appreciated that Beneba Clarke gave a voice to people who aren’t often heard.

One thing that is obvious is Beneba Clarke’s abilities (and experience) as a slam poet. She relies on cadences of the voice to tell her stories, and this comes across more effectively in some stories than others (as to be expected). For instance, I struggled quite a bit with the story Big Islan, which was written entirely in Jamaican patois. I struggled to connect with the stories that were accent-heavy, and I didn’t feel that narrating in an accent added to the story (Big Islan, David), given that Beneba Clarke has such a knack for dialogue that that alone gave me such a strong sense of place. Given that the stories followed characters living in London, Sydney, Melbourne, Mississippi, Jamaica and the Sudan (to name a few), this was no easy feat. Nevertheless, I appreciated what Beneba Clarke was trying to do with this device.

My favourite stories were Shu Yi, The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa, and Aviation (which, I understand, is a new addition to the edition I purchased), although Beneba Clarke has an ability to create stories around characters you seemingly have nothing in common with, and make you care about them desperately (and given that the longest story in this collection is around 50 pages… again, no easy feat). The only story in the collection that is even remotely autobiographical is The Sukiyaki Book Club, which references earlier stories in the collection and seemed to document Beneba Clarke’s own struggles in getting published.

Much like The Hate Race, it will be impossible to walk away unaffected by Foreign Soil. With a voice unlike any other, Beneba Clarke is an author who makes me excited for the future of Australian publishing.

The Fifth Letter by Nicola Moriarty

The Fifth Letter
Nicola Moriarty
Publication Date: 20th February 2017
Publisher: HarperCollins
Format: Paperback | Purchased
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Rating: ★★★☆☆
Summary (from GR): How do you know if your friends actually like you? Joni, Deb, Eden and Trina try to catch up once a year for some days away together. Now in their thirties, commitments have pulled them in different directions, and the closeness they once enjoyed growing up seems increasingly elusive. This year, determined to revive their intimacy, they each share a secret in an anonymous letter to be read out during the holiday. But instead of bringing them closer, the revelations seem to drive them apart. Then a fifth letter is discovered, venting long-held grudges, and it seems that one of the women is in serious danger. But who was the author? And which of them should be worried? The Fifth Letter examines the bonds of women’s friendship groups, and the loyalty and honesty they demand, along with letting go of relationships that once seemed essential but are now outgrown.

My thoughts: I’m a huge fan of the Moriarty sisters (Nicola is the younger sister of Liane and Jaclyn), and I was so excited to see that Nicola was publishing another book. She has a really distinctive voice that has a certain quirkiness to it. The Fifth Letter is an easy read – I finished it in an afternoon – although it has darker undertones that give it more of an edge than your average chick lit novel (I hate to compare to one of her sisters, but think Liane’s Big Little Lies, although not as extreme). This could’ve so easily entered psychological thriller territory (and I’m a little disappointed it didn’t).

We get the story as a flashback, with Joni recounting the story to a priest, and present day. I’m not sure how I felt about the talks with the priest – I personally would’ve preferred the story without them, but that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with Moriarty’s writing. Moriarty skillfully weaves her story, surprising you with a new twist every few chapters. Each character’s secret is played close to the chest and when the final reveal comes, everything makes sense. Unfortunately, I found the identity of the fifth letter-writer and her reasons for doing so quite far-fetched, and probably the most unbelievable element of the plot.

I would’ve liked to see a little more character development – Deb, Eden and Trina didn’t feel as fleshed out as Joni did. That said, there was a really nice relationship between the four of them, one that anyone who has had a friendship that has lasted a lifetime would relate to. I related to Joni and her attempts to keep her friendship with her high school group alive, because balancing adulthood with maintaining relationships isn’t always the easiest thing in the world – life gets in the way. As can be expected in a book about female relationships, there was a lot of gossip and drama, but it felt realistic and true to character. I do think the dialogue alternated between being a little wooden and a bit cheesy – this isn’t something that Moriarty had a problem with in previous novels, so I was a bit surprised by it.

All in all, this one’s a great summer read – it’s light and easy, and one you’d probably enjoy lying on the beach.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld
Series: The Austen Project
Publication Date: 19th April 2016
Publisher: Borough Press
Pages: 514
Format: Paperback | Purchased
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Rating: ★★★☆☆
Summary: Liz and Jane are good daughters. They’ve come home to suburban Cincinnati to get their mother to stop feeding their father steak as he recovers from heart surgery. With five sisters under the same roof, old patterns return fast. Soon enough they are being berated for their single status and it really is too much to bear. That is, until the Lucas family’s BBQ throws them in the way of some eligible single men…
My thoughts: Here’s the thing about Jane Austen: people are so busy talking about how much she contributed to English literature and holding up her books as examples of Great Literary Works, that they forget that Austen spent a lot of her time poking fun at others and her books were intended to be parodies of the social conventions of her time. Pride and Prejudice comments on social class, and largely mocks the idea of marriage as some kind of game. I’m probably going to have my Austenite card revoked for saying this, but in this sense Eligible is a great adaptation of the original.

Easily the best book to come out of The Austen Project, Sittenfeld has avoided the mistakes made by other authors in the series (Val McDermid – Northanger Abbey, Joanna Trollope – Sense and Sensibility and Alexander McCall Smith – Emma), by updating Austen’s novel so that it works in a modern context, and still retaining the original spirit of the characters (sorry, but what’s with your Emma Woodhouse, McCall Smith? I’m still offended – yes, offended – by that retelling).

In this adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Liz and Jane Bennet are single thirty-somethings that have returned home to help out their family after their father’s heart attack. All five of the Bennet sisters have been updated wonderfully. They are adults and, with the exception of Jane and Liz, are still living at home and doing absolutely nothing with their lives. All are true to the original – I have a soft spot for Mary Bennet (probably because I spent five months of my life being her) and tend to argue that she got an unfair rap, but even I couldn’t help but giggle at Sittenfeld’s Mary.

It always strikes me how hard it must be to write Liz(zy) – she’s judgemental, but cannot come across as hypocritical or a bossy know-it-all. She’s intelligent, but constantly misjudges those around her. She manages to find the humour in almost every situation – she’s kind of like wonder woman. Toss in the fact that she is one of the most beloved character in English literature, and there must be an enormous amount of pressure on your shoulders. Sittenfeld did an admirable job in creating a modern Liz, although I did feel there was something lacking in Liz and Darcy’s romance.

Mr & Mrs Bennet have been drawn beautifully – Mrs Bennet is everything I imagined a 21st-century version of her behaving: she’s racist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-feminist and constantly waxing on the importance of social propriety and is casually cruel to her family (all the while being completely oblivious). Mr Bennet retains his signature dry wit (and neglectful parenting style).

Sittenfeld includes her own social commentary – not just limited to televised love stories, but also weaving in identity politics (race, gender) into the mix. It was refreshing to see a transgender character, even if I did think the handling of it was a little clunky.

A few little complaints (teensy, tiny ones!):

  • As a result of the updated setting and moving the story to the US – Cincinnati, to be exact – the humour is a lot cruder and more in your face than I was expecting it to be.
  • I will never be a fan of the short chapters- you know, the ones that are a page or two long? This book had a few, and it annoyed me no end.

Also, there were a lot of filler scenes and Sittenfeld would often go off on unnecessary tangents. This book could’ve been a lot shorter, although Sittenfeld has a distinctive voice and her work has this readability factor, so even though this book was 500+ pages long, it felt more like 300.

All in all, a wonderful nod to Pride and Prejudice and probably the saving grace of the Austen Project.





Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

Jane Steele
Lyndsay Faye
Publication Date: 22nd March 2016
Publisher: Headline Review
Pages: 432
Format: Paperback | Purchased
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Rating: ★★★☆☆
Summary: Like the heroine of the novel she adores, Jane Steele suffers cruelly at the hands of her aunt and schoolmaster. And like Jane Eyre, they call her wicked – but in her case, she fears the accusation is true. When she flees, she leaves behind the corpses of her tormentors.

A fugitive navigating London’s underbelly, Jane rights wrongs on behalf of the have-nots whilst avoiding the noose. Until an advertisement catches her eye. Her aunt has died and the new master at Highgate House, Mr Thornfield, seeks a governess. Anxious to know if she is Highgate’s true heir, Jane takes the position and is soon caught up in the household’s strange spell. When she falls in love with the mysterious Charles Thornfield, she faces a terrible dilemma: can she possess him – body, soul and secrets – and what if he discovers her murderous past?

My thoughts: This book is easily one of the most over-hyped books I’ve read all year. After being promised that it was one of the best retellings of Jane Eyre ever published, I was let down a few pages in when Jane Steele started referencing Jane Eyre and I realised that this was actually just published fan fiction – you know, when the authors begin inserting themselves in their stories? It was a bit like that.

Regardless, it was a compelling read. Jane Steele has such a present voice, and is driven by her desire for vengeance. Despite it being increasingly clear that Jane is a bit cray-cray, Faye somehow manages to convince the reader that the crimes that Jane commits are completely warranted and her victims deserved to die. Attempted rapists, husbands who abuse their wives, religious hypocrites – the world that Jane lives in is filled with horrible people, and it is possible to understand her motivations.

The second third of the book where Jane is at boarding school and later moves to London is probably the high point of the book. Honestly, it was filled with such misery and mistreatment that it made me angry while reading, and I always appreciate a book that can elicit that kind of emotional response in me. There were also some great female friendships (hurrah for females supporting one another), and Jane ran around behaving kind of like I expected Celaena Sardothien to behave (should the infamous assassin ever actually kill anyone, ever).

Once Jane returned to her childhood home and settled into life with Mr Thornfield, the pacing of the novel slowed right down and I found my attention wandering while reading. The romance was okay – it wasn’t instalove, Jane and Mr Thornfield accepted each other warts and all, and they became better people because of the other’s influence – but I picked up the book because I was intrigued by the “Jane Eyre if Jane was a serial killer” hook, so it didn’t really do anything for me. Also, Thornfield didn’t have half as much personality as Rochester, so the story really lagged.

The ending was so much weaker than the beginning, so it’s hard for me to form a coherent opinion on it. I couldn’t even tell you if I would recommend it to a friend – is it possible to recommend the first half?



Girl at War by Sara Nović

Girl at War
Author: Sara Nović
Publication Date: 12th May 2015
Publisher: Random House
Pages: 320
Format: Paperback | Purchased
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Rating: ★★☆☆☆
Summary: Zagreb, summer of 1991. Ten-year-old Ana Jurić is a carefree tomboy who runs the streets of Croatia’s capital with her best friend, Luka, takes care of her baby sister, Rahela, and idolizes her father. But as civil war breaks out across Yugoslavia, soccer games and school lessons are supplanted by sniper fire and air raid drills. When tragedy suddenly strikes, Ana is lost to a world of guerilla warfare and child soldiers; a daring escape plan to America becomes her only chance for survival. Ten years later Ana is a college student in New York. She’s been hiding her past from her boyfriend, her friends, and most especially herself. Haunted by the events that forever changed her family, she returns alone to Croatia, where she must rediscover the place that was once her home and search for the ghosts of those she’s lost.

My thoughts: There is nothing that really distinguishes Girl at War from its counterparts. Although I am not an avid reader of historical fiction or war stories (despite what my recent reading history would have you think), I’ve read enough to know that the premise is hardly original, and in overcrowded market I expected Girl at War to give me more. I am not saying that it is a bad book: there were some solid foundations here.

War is an unthinkable evil, and it does not discriminate – nobody is left unscathed. It is particularly devastating to think about through the eyes of a child.

But the blood formed a pattern like a map to comprehension and I understood the differences all at once. I understood how one family could end up in the ground and another could be allowed to continue on its way, that the distinction between Serbs and Croats was much vaster than ways of writing letters. I understood the bombings, the afternoons sitting on the floor of my flat with black fabric covering the windows, the nights spent in concrete rooms. I understood that my father was not getting up.

Told in four parts, the book easily moves back and forth between pivotal moments in Ana Juric’s life – saying goodbye to her childhood as her parents are killed, her life in America, her time as a childhood soldier, and returning to Zagreb as a young adult. In all honesty, I found the book to be well-paced and well-written, however it felt like I was being told a story, rather than experiencing one.

There is an emotional detachment in the narration that I could not get past. On the one hand, I preferred it to the overwrought sentimentality that so many authors chose to employ when dealing with the effects of war. On the other hand, it was bland. Ana was angry – angry at the UN for their lack of action, angry at journalists, angry at Americans – but there was no fire behind her words. A few pointed remarks, but nothing that suggested passion.

What war meant in America was so incongruous with what had happened in Croatia – what must be happening in Afghanistan – that it almost seemed a misuse of the word.

And yes, Ana is quite obviously dealing with some kind of trauma brought on by her childhood, but if readers are having trouble connecting to your protagonist, then perhaps first person narration is not the way to go. Free indirect discourse would’ve been a much better narration technique with such an emotionally distant character.

Also, I had no context for the events unfolding in the book. I could’ve done with some background information – at one point I found myself wishing for an information dump. While it isn’t the author’s job to educate a reader on a certain subject, if the reader has to research the backdrop of your novel while reading, you have not done your job as an author. There were glancing references to certain events that led to the war, but I got the feeling that Nović knew as much about the war as I did: very little.

If you do like historical fiction and are looking for something a little different, this may be a book for you. Also, despite being marketed as an adult fiction novel, it reads like a young adult novel, so I’d also recommend it to YA’ers who are looking to move into adult fiction or who are willing to give adult fiction a go – I think it would work well as a bridging novel, so to speak.


Lost and Found by Brooke Davis

Lost and Found
Author: Brooke Davis
Publication Date: 24th June 2014
Publisher: Hachette
Pages: 272
Format: Paperback | Purchased
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Rating: ★★★☆☆
Summary: Millie Bird is a seven-year-old girl who always wears red wellington boots to match her red, curly hair. But one day, Millie’s mum leaves her alone beneath the Ginormous Women’s underwear rack in a department store, and doesn’t come back.

Agatha Pantha is an eighty-two-year-old woman who hasn’t left her home since her husband died. Instead, she fills the silence by yelling at passers-by, watching loud static on TV, and maintaining a strict daily schedule. Until the day Agatha spies a little girl across the street.

Karl the Touch Typist is eighty-seven years old and once typed love letters with his fingers on to his wife’s skin. He sits in a nursing home, knowing that somehow he must find a way for life to begin again. In a moment of clarity and joy, he escapes.

Together, Millie, Agatha and Karl set out to find Millie’s mum. Along the way, they will discover that the young can be wise, that old age is not the same as death, and that breaking the rules once in a while might just be the key to a happy life.

My thoughts: This review is long overdue! Seriously, it’s been sitting in my drafts for over a month (I actually forgot it was sitting there…). This book is quirky and humorous, and a best-seller that has already had much said about it, so I don’t know if I can really bring anything new to the table.

At face value, Lost and Found is the story of seven-year-old Millie Bird, who has been abandoned by her mother at a shopping centre and enlists Karl the Touch Typist, a nursing home escapee, and Agatha Pantha, her reclusive, cranky neighbour, to help her find her.

Although there is a universality to the themes explored in the book – death, abandonment, companionship, love – Davis cleverly looks at each of these and how they relate to each individual character; while these themes are equally relevant to each character, it is executed through circumstances and personal histories.

I particularly loved the chapters from Millie’s point of view. Davis is quite good at getting inside a child’s mind and looking at life from a child’s perspective – this is true not only of Millie, but also of her friend Jeremy (aka Captain Everything). Millie’s yearning for her mother felt earnest, heartfelt, and authentic. It broke my heart whenever Millie left a note for her mum telling her where to find her. It was, in all honesty, the little things that made this book for me, whether it be Millie’s notes, Karl’s letters to his dead wife, or Agatha’s routine. Characterisation is where Davis truly succeeds, making up for the over-the-top and almost slapstick situations the characters find themselves in.

I did find the ending quite abrupt, and although it was a somewhat-satisfying conclusion, I would’ve liked information about Millie’s mum. I also found the play on Agatha Pantha quite irritating after awhile (for those who are unaware, Agathapanthus is a flowering plant that is largely considered to be a weed in Australia). It seemed heavy-handed in an otherwise delicate book.


The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale
Author: Kristin Hannah
Publication Date: 13th February 2015
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Pages: 440
Format: Paperback | Purchased
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Rating: ★★★★☆
Summary: Despite their differences, sisters Vianne and Isabelle have always been close. Younger, bolder Isabelle lives in Paris while Vianne is content with life in the French countryside with her husband Antoine and their daughter. But when the Second World War strikes, Antoine is sent off to fight and Vianne finds herself isolated so Isabelle is sent by their father to help her.

As the war progresses, the sisters’ relationship and strength is tested. With life changing in unbelievably horrific ways, Viann and Isabelle will find themselves facing frightening situations and responding in ways they never thought possible as bravery and resistance take different forms in each of their actions.

Vivid and exquisite in its illumination of a time and place that was filled with atrocities, but also humanity and strength, Kristin Hannah’s novel will provoke thought and discussion that will have readers talking long after they finish reading.

My thoughts: I didn’t really know what to expect going into The Nightingale. From its blurb, I suspected it would be a romance set during World War II – The Bronze Horseman, French Edition. And honestly, it has been sitting on my bedside table for the last five or six months because of my suspicions.

Although there are elements of a romance to this book, it is so much more than that. It is often assumed that war is all about men, and we forget about those on the home front. The Nightingale is about the unsung heroes of our history books, the women of WWII. It is about the Nazi occupation of France, and the women who fought to survive. It is about women who wish they could fight for their country, and women who secretly do. It is about the mothers, daughters, wives and sisters who were left behind and forgotten.

The book focuses on two sisters who have two very different ways of survival. Vianne, the elder of the two, has a husband who is imprisoned in a Nazi war camp and a Nazi soldier billeting in her home. She frustrates her sister, Isabelle, with her compliance. Isabelle is brash and bold, and does not understand why Vianne is so reluctant to rebel against the Nazis. In all honesty, I found Isabelle to be quite a frustrating character, but also one who you can’t help but become invested in. She has a brilliant character arc, and the growth she displays is astonishing. Isabelle is loosely based on Andrée de Jongh, who risked her life to save countless American and British serviceman escape from Nazi-occupied France and Belgium.

Hannah’s writing is vivid and evocative, conjuring up the horrifying nature of war without being overtly graphic. You can feel Vianne’s hunger, desperation, guilt and terror. When Isabelle joins a rebel group, and no point do you feel that the stakes aren’t high enough for her. The relationships between characters are well-developed and I found myself becoming really emotionally invested in them.

If I had one complaint, it would be this: plausibility is often sacrificed in the name of ‘keeping the reader on the edge of their seat’. For example, Vianne’s Jewish neighbour is told that Nazis will arrive at her house and take her away. In the space of two hours, she is able to acquire false identity papers, and then when trying to cross a peaceful checkpoint, the German guard inexplicably machine guns everyone down (taking special care to shoot the woman’s nine year old daughter).

Also, Hannah is quite obviously done her research into the Nazi occupation of France, but I couldn’t help but feel that some of it could’ve been edited out. A lot of the story took place in a rural village, yet it seemed overrun with the Gestapo, SS, and German soldiers as if it were the Nazis’ headquarters. I don’t doubt that there were some kind of German authority running French villages, but there would’ve been a difference between the number of soldiers stationed in a village, and the number of soldiers stationed in Paris. German resources were not infinite.

I did suspect the plot twist at the end, but I still found it genuinely moving and I think that Hannah managed it well. If you’re looking for a book with a cast of three-dimensional female characters from all walks of life, then I would highly recommend you pick up this book. If you’re a historical romance fan, please keep in mind that romance does take a bit of a back seat in this one – it’s there, just in the background.




I’ll See You in Paris by Michelle Gable

256638101 Title: I’ll See You in Paris
Author: Michelle Gable
Publication Date: 9th February 2016
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Pages: 400
Format: Ebook | ARC
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Rating: ★★☆☆☆
Summary: After losing her fiancé in the Vietnam War, nineteen-year-old Laurel Haley takes a job in England, hoping the distance will mend her shattered heart. Laurel expects the pain might lessen but does not foresee the beguiling man she meets or that they’ll go to Paris, where the city’s magic will take over and alter everything Laurel believes about love.

Thirty years later, Laurel’s daughter Annie is newly engaged and an old question resurfaces: who is Annie’s father and what happened to him? Laurel has always been vague about the details and Annie’s told herself it doesn’t matter. But with her impending marriage, Annie has to know everything. Why won’t Laurel tell her the truth?

The key to unlocking Laurel’s secrets starts with a mysterious book about an infamous woman known as the Duchess of Marlborough. Annie’s quest to understand the Duchess, and therefore her own history, takes her from a charming hamlet in the English countryside, to a decaying estate kept behind barbed wire, and ultimately to Paris where answers will be found at last.

My thoughts: I finished this book a few weeks ago, left it a week to mull over my thoughts, realised I didn’t know how I felt about this book, decided to re-read it and I still don’t know how I feel about this book. I think it was a good idea, it could’ve just been better executed. There was so much going on, yet it felt like nothing was happening. The writing felt a little clumsy and flat, and the main characters didn’t really have any personality.

I’ll See You in Paris has two different time frames – the Vietnam War and the War on Terror, and would often change, without warning, between the two. I didn’t really feel this added anything to the book – except for perhaps some clumsy parallels between mother and daughter – and would’ve thought a more linear structure would’ve worked better (or even if Annie’s parts had bookended – no pun intended – Pru’s).

This book and I, we struggled. I’m usually a fairly focused reader, but I found my attention drifting while reading. The scenes seemed to drag along and sometimes without adding anything to the story – I didn’t really need the emails to/from Annie’s fiance, for example, and some of the interviews between Win and Mrs. Spencer dragged on far too long and felt indulgent – and I felt like nothing was really happening. It was fairly obvious how the story was going to pan out – I guessed who Pru and Win were in the ‘2001’ parts of the book fairly quickly. I also felt the book ended somewhat abruptly, and wish there was some kind of closure – perhaps an epilogue.

The characters lack any real personality . While Win is, on occasion, charming and Mrs. Spencer is always good for a laugh, although isn’t very likeable, for the most part, these characters don’t seem to act because they are forced to by circumstance. Ultimately, I didn’t really feel anything for any of the characters because they were one dimensional, and that’s probably the nicest thing I can say about any of them.

If I had to say something positive about the book, the last maybe 20% of the book is quite suspenseful – while certain suspicions are confirmed, there’s actually quite an interesting backstory for Laurel revealed, and this was, without a doubt, my favourite part of the book. Despite my complaints about the writing, there is also some nice prose in there if you look for it.

Not necessarily a bad read, but I felt like it was quite clumsy for start to finish, and could’ve done better. Perhaps it just wasn’t the right book for me, and others will enjoy it more! 



ARC | Shtum by Jem Lester

Author: Jem Lester
Publication Date: 7th April 2016
Publisher: Orion
Pages: 368
Format: Ebook | ARC
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Rating: ★★★☆☆
Summary: 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.

My thoughts: I requested this book on NetGalley because I found the premise intriguing, and while I didn’t love this book as much as I thought I would, I found it enjoyable and think it will be a resounding success for Lester.

Shtum is a book about the relationship between fathers and sons – and their inability to communicate with one another. In the case of Ben and Jonah, they are literally unable to communicate because Jonah’s autism means he is unable to speak; Ben and Georg don’t seem to speak about anything of importance. While it was clear that Ben loved his son and would go to great lengths for him, I found the relationship between Georg and Jonah to be poignant and more touching. The level of patience and care that Georg displayed towards Jonah was heart-warming, and the stories he tells the uninterested Jonah (and his reasoning behind telling him) about his family will surprise you.

In all honesty, I found it difficult to connect to Ben. Lester hasn’t shied away from creating a flawed, complex character, and while it makes Shtum a more believable story, I’m not sure it make it a better story. It’s possible to forgive Ben for his faults, but he wasn’t exactly a character I enjoyed spending four hundred-odd pages with. Ben’s problems are understandable – it cannot be easy caring for a child with autism. Ben struggles with the competing demands of Jonah and the family business, so Georg is handed the responsibility of caring for Jonah and the family business is left in the hands of its only employee (besides Ben) while Ben heads to the pub. Ben resents Georg for not being more open with him, but isn’t open with Georg; he’s angry at his (absent) wife, Emma, for wanting out of their relationship. Ben seems intent on creating more problems for himself, to the point it becomes wearisome and you stop hoping he’ll win and start wondering when he’s going to stop sabotaging himself.

Where there was too much of Ben, there was perhaps not enough of the female characters. I’m fine with this being a book about men and their relationships with one another – I expected this from the premise going in. But the female characters were one-dimensional and flat; seemingly used as either pretty ornaments or excuses for Ben’s awful behaviour. Emma is depicted as selfish and cold-hearted for leaving Ben and Jonah (although does get a little redemption arc towards the end);Ben’s mother as an alcoholic who cared little for her husband and son. I probably would have had more sympathy for Ben over the breakdown of his marriage had I a bit more insight into the early days of their relationship, but all we saw was a self-absorbed alcoholic and a woman desperate to be a mother. Ben came across as selfish, hypocritical, rude and drunk (I guess the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree…), so I’m not sure why Jonah’s twenty-something teacher would flirt with Ben (or spend her personal time helping him care for Jonah), or why a blind date would show any interest in him.

Despite my complaints about Shtum, there is still much to love about it. Lester is able to make a novel touching with being overly-sentimental; he writes about serious subject matter while still being able to add a comedic touch when needed. This book ended on such a beautiful note that I finished it crying – and given that I spent a lot of the book being frustrated with Ben, I think it says a lot about Lester’s writing.