See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

“Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.”

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I’d never heard of Lizzie Borden before I read about this book. The topic instantly grabbed me, and I knew I had to have it. I was crossing my fingers every time I searched for it on NetGalley, and, lo and behold, it came up. And I was approved!

When her father and step-mother are found brutally murdered on a summer morning in 1892, Lizzie Borden – thirty two years old and still living at home – immediately becomes a suspect. But after a notorious trial, she is found innocent, and no one is ever convicted of the crime.

Meanwhile, others in the claustrophobic Borden household have their own motives and their own stories to tell: Lizzie’s unmarried older sister, a put-upon Irish housemaid, and a boy hired by Lizzie’s uncle to take care of a problem.

This unforgettable debut makes you question the truth behind one of the great unsolved mysteries, as well as exploring power, violence and the harsh realities of being a woman in late nineteenth century America.

I love a good historical fiction, particularly one based on a true story. Lizzie Borden is famous (or infamous) for being acquitted for the murders of her father and step-mother in 1892. Told from the perspectives of Bridget the maid, a troubled young man called Benjamin, Emma the eldest daughter, and Lizzie herself, we’re thrown into a whirlwind of a whodunit.

There’s clearly something very strange about the Borden family. Lizzie is in her thirties, Emma in her forties, and neither of them have ever married or moved away from their childhood home. Emma, the eldest, gave up a large part of her life to care for Lizzie, when they were left motherless after their mum died. Their father married Abby a few years later, and it seems the sisters made a decision to never love their stepmother.

There are also clear signs of abuse. Andrew Borden is often violent and quick to anger, and Lizzie too has a fiery temper. Emma has escaped to her friend’s house when the murders occur, and is dragged back by the tragedy. You can almost feel her desperation to cling on to her freedom. It’s Emma who I identify with the most: the eldest daughter, older by a fair few years, forced to give up childhood and become a parental figure.

See What I Have Done is full of secrets, and Schmidt doesn’t give them up easily. This is a triumphant debut, wonderfully written and well-researched (Schmidt stayed in the Borden house while writing this book, which is actually now a creepy hotel!). Lizzie Borden dug her claws into me and didn’t let go until the very final page.

See What I Have Done is due out in May 2017, and you really don’t want to miss it.

Goodreads | Amazon UK

Larchfield by Polly Clark

I review Larchfield by Polly Clark.

‘We need the courage to choose ourselves’ W. H. Auden

It’s early summer when a young poet, Dora Fielding, moves to Helensburgh on the west coast of Scotland and her hopes are first challenged. Newly married, pregnant, she’s excited by the prospect of a life that combines family and creativity. She thinks she knows what being a person, a wife, a mother, means. She is soon shown that she is wrong. As the battle begins for her very sense of self, Dora comes to find the realities of small town life suffocating, and, eventually, terrifying; until she finds a way to escape reality altogether.

Another poet, she discovers, lived in Helensburgh once. Wystan H. Auden, brilliant and awkward at 24, with his first book of poetry published, should be embarking on success and society in London. Instead, in 1930, fleeing a broken engagement, he takes a teaching post at Larchfield School for boys where he is mocked for his Englishness and suspected – rightly – of homosexuality. Yet in this repressed limbo Wystan will fall in love for the first time, even as he fights his deepest fears.

The need for human connection compels these two vulnerable outsiders to find each other and make a reality of their own that will save them both. Echoing the depths of Possession, the elegance of The Stranger’s Child and the ingenuity of Longbourn, Larchfield is a beautiful and haunting novel about heroism – the unusual bravery that allows unusual people to go on living; to transcend banality and suffering with the power of their imagination.

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I confess, I knew nothing of W.H. Auden before downloading Larchfield, but he seems like an incredibly fascinating individual. Clark introduces us to Auden as a recently published poet, heading north to join the teaching staff at a school in Helensburgh, Scotland. A homosexual in a time where being gay was illegal, Auden is careful and secretive, but he cannot help how deeply he falls in love – or with whom.

Dora, too, is a great character. Newly married, mother to a premature baby, Dora loses herself in the daily grind, the humdrum of life. A poet, with artistic friends stuck in their youth, Dora feels her own youth, her artistic reputation, slipping away – along with her senses. The neighbours upstairs are making her life hell; the small town is tightening around its own, forcing her out. After a particularly nasty encounter, Dora takes Bea, her daughter, down to the sea. There, she finds a bottle, and inside is a note from W.H. Auden. Already on the brink, Dora takes a step, and finds herself in a world that isn’t her own.

Larchfield is easy to fall into. Clark is an incredibly talented writer, who evokes 1930’s and draws the reader in from the present day. Her characters are well-crafted, and the story flows beautifully.

I’m not entirely certain what happened at the end. Was it real, or was it all inside Dora’s head? Perhaps Clark meant for it to be ambiguous. I think I’ll choose to believe it was real – whether it happened inside Dora’s head or not is an entirely different matter.

Larchfield is due out at the end of March.

Goodreads | Amazon UK

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

I review History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund.

Linda has an idiosyncratic home life: her parents live in abandoned commune cabins in northern Minnesota and are hanging on to the last vestiges of a faded counter-culture world. The kids at school call her ‘Freak’, or ‘Commie’. She is an outsider in all things. Her understanding of the world comes from her observations at school, where her teacher is accused of possessing child pornography, and from watching the seemingly ordinary life of a family she babysits for. Yet while the accusation against the teacher is perhaps more innocent than it seemed at first, the ordinary family turns out to be more complicated. As Linda insinuates her way into the family’s orbit, she realises they are hiding something. If she tells the truth, she will lose the normal family life she is beginning to enjoy with them; but if she doesn’t, their son may die.

Superbly-paced and beautifully written, HISTORY OF WOLVES is an extraordinary debut novel about guilt, innocence, negligence, well-meaning belief and the death of a child.

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History of Wolves is another coming-of-age story that will resonate with many people. Linda, mostly left to raise herself by hippy, laid-back parents, lives in Northern Minnesota, on grounds that used to belong to a commune, of which her parents were members.

“Winter collapsed on us that year. It knelt down, exhausted, and stayed.”

Linda is fourteen, melodramatic, poetic. She’s somewhat obsessed with a classmate, Lily, who spread rumours that their teacher, Mr Grierson, took her off and molested her. Linda’s narrative often veers off into dark corners, and the way the story is told (bouncing back and forth, from teenage Linda to older Linda, reminiscing) only serves to increase the feeling of unease as the reader continues through the story.

Linda also spends a lot of time babysitting Paul, a toddler who moved into a cabin across the lake with his mother, Patra. Paul’s father, Leo, is often working away, but when he arrives, Linda’s relationship with Patra becomes strained. Patra is young, closer to Linda’s age than to what Linda might consider a parent, and her youth becomes glaringly obvious when her older husband appears. You know that something happens, something bad, but Fridlund trickles the information into your mind, keeping you hooked until the very last page.

I did want to know more about the commune. Perhaps Fridlund will consider writing a prequel to History of Wolves. If so, I’d love to read it. The crisp writing reminded me of books like Winter’s Bone and Eileen. Dark, wintry, honest. Fridlund is an extraordinary writer, and History of Wolves is a haunting debut.

Goodreads | Amazon UK

Final Girls by Riley Sager

I review Final Girls by Riley Sager.

Many thanks to the author, publisher, & NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Ten years ago, college student Quincy Carpenter went on vacation with five friends and came back alone, the only survivor of a horror movie–scale massacre. In an instant, she became a member of a club no one wants to belong to—a group of similar survivors known in the press as the Final Girls. Lisa, who lost nine sorority sisters to a college dropout’s knife; Sam, who went up against the Sack Man during her shift at the Nightlight Inn; and now Quincy, who ran bleeding through the woods to escape Pine Cottage and the man she refers to only as Him. The three girls are all attempting to put their nightmares behind them, and, with that, one another. Despite the media’s attempts, they never meet.

Now, Quincy is doing well—maybe even great, thanks to her Xanax prescription. She has a caring almost-fiancé, Jeff; a popular baking blog; a beautiful apartment; and a therapeutic presence in Coop, the police officer who saved her life all those years ago. Her memory won’t even allow her to recall the events of that night; the past is in the past.

That is, until Lisa, the first Final Girl, is found dead in her bathtub, wrists slit, and Sam, the second, appears on Quincy’s doorstep. Blowing through Quincy’s life like a whirlwind, Sam seems intent on making Quincy relive the past, with increasingly dire consequences, all of which makes Quincy question why Sam is really seeking her out. And when new details about Lisa’s death come to light, Quincy’s life becomes a race against time as she tries to unravel Sam’s truths from her lies, evade the police and hungry reporters, and, most crucially, remember what really happened at Pine Cottage, before what was started ten years ago is finished.

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I know, I know, another book with “girls” in the title. But Final Girls actually works. It’s the term given to the last female character standing in a horror film. Even though these female characters have obviously been through hell and back, they’re still referred to as girls. But what’s worse is that this term is applied to real women who go through hell and come out the other side. Misogyny at it’s finest.

Quincy (sorry, horrible name) is a Final Girl, as the lone survivor of a massacre at Pine Cottage, a cabin in the woods, when she was nineteen. It’s the typical slasher storyline – a bunch of teenagers are drinking in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, their phones are all left in the car, there’s sex and booze and a weird stranger that turns up and gets invited to stay, to join in the fun. And the birthday girl, Janelle, is your typical slasher movie victim. Despite any descriptions, I envisioned her as a blonde cheerleader, curvy, excitable, experienced. She encourages Quincy to sleep with Craig, and when Quincy changes her mind (hello almost rape-not-rape scene, where Quincy says stop and Craig says come on, we agreed, let’s do this), Janelle fucks him instead. Quincy sees them, her feelings are hurt, but does she turn to murder? Mystery, mystery. It really couldn’t be more predictable.

This review sounds negative, but actually, Final Girls was extremely enjoyable. Despite – or, perhaps, because of – the predictability, you’re lulled into a false sense of security. Come on, you think, as you read with bated breath. It’s got to be X, or Y. You can’t fool me, Sager! But actually, Sager can, and did, fool me. The ending took me by surprise, and the final 30-ish% was utterly engrossing.

Quincy is your typical unreliable narrator, doped up on Xanax and hiding away from her memories of Pine Cottage. She’s not a Final Girl, she says, her mother says, her boyfriend says. She’s moved past it. She’s bigger than that, stronger. But when she hears of Lisa’s suicide, and Sam shows up on her doorstep, it becomes clear that Quincy is barely holding on.

Just an odd side note: Anitrophylin is mentioned a few times as an antidepressant that is also used as a sleep aid. After a quick Google, it became clear that anitrophylin doesn’t exist. Perhaps the author meant amitriptyline? Because I’m on amitriptyline for fibromyalgia, & I can confirm that it is quite capable of knocking someone out. I’m not sure if the author meant to make a name up, or if they just couldn’t remember amitriptyline, but there it is. Anyway.

Final Girls is thrilling. It’s one of those engrossing guilty pleasures, like those slasher films that still make you jump, even though they’re crap. But Final Girls isn’t crap. It’s full of twists and thrills that will mess you up, and keep you hooked. Apparently it won’t be released until July, so, if you want to read it, sucks to be you.

Goodreads | Amazon

Feminist February: The Awakening by Kate Chopin

The Awakening by Kate Chopin was my first book for the Feminist February reading challenge. I chose The Awakening because it was first published in 1899, and apparently caused a scandal with its descriptions of female infidelity. (It’s also free on Kindle!)

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When first published in 1899, The Awakening shocked readers with its honest treatment of female marital infidelity. Audiences accustomed to the pieties of late Victorian romantic fiction were taken aback by Chopin’s daring portrayal of a woman trapped in a stifling marriage, who seeks and finds passionate physical love outside the confines of her domestic situation.

Aside from its unusually frank treatment of a then-controversial subject, the novel is widely admired today for its literary qualities. Edmund Wilson characterized it as a work “quite uninhibited and beautifully written, which anticipates D. H. Lawrence in its treatment of infidelity.” Although the theme of marital infidelity no longer shocks, few novels have plumbed the psychology of a woman involved in an illicit relationship with the perception, artistry, and honesty that Kate Chopin brought to The Awakening.

Why is it that, although written in the 1800’s, that The Awakening is still relevant today? The protagonist, Edna Pontellier, speaks of how a woman is expected to give herself up for her children, and rages against this notion. Today, we still speak of women in terms of their relationship to other people (mother, grandmother, wife, sister). Think of the headlines involving women: “Mother, 35, eats ice cream at the park!” “Wife of celebrated politician wears leopard print dress to charity ball!” It’s quite ridiculous, isn’t it? And yet we are still subjected to this form of sexism, sometimes without even noticing.

Edna’s lover, Robert, mentions dreaming that Edna’s husband would free her, give her up, for Robert to have:

“You have been a very, very foolish boy, wasting your time dreaming of impossible things when you speak of Mr. Pontellier setting me free! I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose. If he were to say, ‘here, Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours,’ I should laugh at you both.”

Many people, even in apparent forward-thinking cultures, still believe that women are property. If challenged, they may deny it, but you only have to speak to a group of people about a woman keeping her own surname upon marriage, or the husband taking his wife’s surname, to discover just how backwards their views actually are. I kept my surname upon marriage, yet I have received negative comments from several places – not just online trolls, but members of my own and my husband’s family. I have even broken ties with some family members because of their downright nasty response to my decision. How ridiculous that, in this day and age, some people feel so strongly about what is and isn’t acceptable for a woman to do.

The Awakening, with its incredibly apt title, is a great read. It’s wonderfully written, and very enjoyable. If you’re participating with Feminist February, this is an excellent book to pop on your list. Actually, even if you’re not participating, you should read this book.

Goodreads | Amazon UK

The Girl Before by J.P. Delaney

I review The Girl Before by J.P. Delaney.

Please make a list of every possession you consider essential to your life.

The request seems odd, even intrusive—and for the two women who answer, the consequences are devastating.

Emma
Reeling from a traumatic break-in, Emma wants a new place to live. But none of the apartments she sees are affordable or feel safe. Until One Folgate Street. The house is an architectural masterpiece: a minimalist design of pale stone, plate glass, and soaring ceilings. But there are rules. The enigmatic architect who designed the house retains full control: no books, no throw pillows, no photos or clutter or personal effects of any kind. The space is intended to transform its occupant—and it does.

Jane
After a personal tragedy, Jane needs a fresh start. When she finds One Folgate Street she is instantly drawn to the space—and to its aloof but seductive creator. Moving in, Jane soon learns about the untimely death of the home’s previous tenant, a woman similar to Jane in age and appearance. As Jane tries to untangle truth from lies, she unwittingly follows the same patterns, makes the same choices, crosses paths with the same people, and experiences the same terror, as the girl before.

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I am on the fence about this book. I enjoyed reading it – it was gripping and exhilarating, but it also got under my skin in quite a negative way. 1 Folgate Street is an ultra-modern, minimalist house, full of cutting edge technology. Those who want to rent the place must submit to intense questioning about their lives, and why they want to live there.

Controlling men. Why must we continue to suffer them? Edward Monkton’s display of toxic masculinity is right on point. It seems as if 50 Shades of Grey has normalised the controlling (read: abusive) relationship. [Spoiler alert] It transpires that Monkton had slept with both Emma and Jane (and probably others), embarking on casual relationships with them, before suddenly moving in, and slowly taking over their lives. The typical abuser, Monkton uses money and power to control these women.

Both Emma and Jane are troubled, having suffered from some kind of trauma. All is not as it seems, and I won’t delve too far into this side of The Girl Before, but it’s definitely intriguing, and the twist surprised me. I’m just a bit fed up with reading about men taking advantage of women, especially when it’s romanticised.

Also, a very good point has been made about books with the word “girl” in the title. The Girl On The Train, Gone Girl, Girls On Fire… while all of these are great works of fiction, the use of the word “girl” when really they mean “woman” (maybe not in the last one) is an example of the denigration of women. Reducing us to girls strips us of our adulthood.

I gave The Girl Before 3 stars, because I really can’t make my mind up whether I loved it or not. The story was thrilling, but aspects were really disappointing, and, at time, infuriating. Read it and make up your own mind, if you can.

Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney

I review Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney.

Many thanks to the author, publisher, & NetGalley for providing an ARC.

My name is Amber Reynolds. There are three things you should know about me:

1. I’m in a coma.
2. My husband doesn’t love me anymore.
3. Sometimes I lie.

Unnerving, twisted and utterly compelling, you won’t be able to put this new thriller down. Set to be the most talked about book in 2017, it’s perfect for fans of Behind Closed Doors, The Girl on the Train and The Widow.

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I downloaded Sometimes I Lie with zero expectations. I had no idea what was going to happen, but what I got will exceed what any lover of psychological thrillers expects from such a book. Amber Reynolds is in a coma, after what seems like a tragic car accident. She can hear some of what’s going on around her, but she can’t speak or move. We get her strange, unreliable point of view from a coma, her remembering the week before she crashed the car, and her childhood diaries.

Everyone is a suspect, to begin with. Or, at least, everyone is suspicious. Amber’s husband Paul, her tyrant colleague, her perfect sister, her successful ex-boyfriend. Nothing is really as it is first presented to us.

I really can’t say much without giving something away, and I want all readers to head into Sometimes I Lie with a fresh mind, no spoilers, no expectations. Just let the story carry you along. It twists and turns, it will confuse and terrify you, but the ride will be thrilling.

Sometimes I Lie is due out in March 2017.

Goodreads | Amazon UK