The Girl in the Van by Helen Matthews

Traumatic events in Laura’s past forced her to retreat into a solitary existence filled with regret, denial, hurt and yearning for her daughter, Ellie. Six years ago, Laura left behind in Wales her husband Gareth and Ellie, and ran away to London. On a mental and emotional level, she’s been running ever since. But the time comes when she attempts to reclaim her life, buys a campervan and goes on a singles holiday in Pembrokeshire.

She meets new people and tentatively, cautiously begins to form a new relationship with Ben, but he doesn’t take the centre stage. The most significant new arrival on the scene is Miriana, a young woman who breaks into Laura’s campervan, and more importantly, into Laura’s life and conscience. Miriana is a reincarnation of Ellie and her background bears many uncomfortable parallels to Laura’s own past. There are ulterior motives and secrets galore, twists and turns which I couldn’t predict but which, when they came, made perfect sense and lent this family noir thriller an air of chilling authenticity.

Matthew’s writing is inobtrusive but also rich and lyrical. She is an accomplished plotter and handles the time slips and complex character-building techniques with mastery. Nothing is obvious or trite. The atmosphere of dread and foreboding penetrates every new development – the author never lets up.

This is the second book I read by this author and I am in awe of her ability to combine a thrilling piece of fiction with social conscience and her well-oriented moral compass. Don’t get me wrong – there is no moralising in Matthew’s stories. She doesn’t shy away from difficult, uncomfortable topics of domestic violence, County Lines, grooming, modern-day slavery and gruelling mental health issues, but she does it without judgment and with great sensitivity.

A deeply affecting read.

Lessons by Ian McEwan

“Lessons” is a fictional memoir of Roland Baines, a boy of great promise, a man of negligible achievement.

His story spans his lifetime, the second half of the twentieth century, and bears ongoing references to the historic events of that period. Many of those events have an immediate effect on Roland’s life, in some cases derailing it, in others only forcing him to change the direction of travel. His story begins in Libya where his stern Scottish father, Sergeant  Baines, is posted, and traverses through the aftermaths of WW2 in divided Germany, the Suez Canal crisis, the Cold War, Chernobyl disaster and the dawn of New Labour, to mention a few.

The two pivotal events for Roland are the Cuban Missile Crisis and the fall of the Berlin War. These two events intervene directly in his personal life and in the choices he makes that will irreversibly distort his future. The theme of history and political changes on the global scale making life-changing incisions into individual lives is convincing, even compelling.

It is a memoir but it doesn’t present a linear sequence of events in Roland’s life in a conventional way. Two events cast a long shadow over his story and they keep re-appearing to haunt him, to provide justification and generate further questions, and to make him revisit and re-examine them. The first event is his juvenile affair with his piano teacher, passionate and obsessive on both sides. It is instrumental in transforming a promising young musician and academic into a wayward drifter, addicted to sex and averse to permanency and commitment. The second event is his abandonment by his wife Alissa who leaves him and their son in order to pursue a literary career unhindered by family and duty. One can’t help wondering if Roland is not only hurt by her departure, but also in some way jealous that it is her and not him who is able to detach herself so completely from the mundanity of the ordinary, pedestrian life he is obliged to live in order to take care of their son Lawrence. But perhaps that is Roland’s ultimate saving grace. Something that roots him in reality. “Lessons” is an intelligent, deeply introspective and emotionally loaded book. It has made me stop and think at every corner, at every twist and turn of Roland’s private life and its contemporary context.  

Isaac and the Egg by Bobby Palmer

The day Isaac and the Egg popped up on my twitter feed I knew straightaway that I had to take a closer look at the pair of them. The premise of the book was intriguingly bizarre and that meant that it had the potential to join the pantheon of my favourite if rather surreal books of last year, which included Piranesi and The Porpoise. I am delighted to say that Isaac and the Egg have lived up to their potential.
The story starts with almost an ending as Isaac Addy hovers over the parapet of a bridge, readying himself to jump to his death. He gives one last, gut-wrenching and harrowing cry of pain – and is answered by one of equal, gut-wrenching and harrowing quality. And so Isaac and Egg find each other, or rather Isaac finds the egg.
This is a surreal tale, just about tittering on the edge of reality, but that does not detract from its raw emotional authenticity. Both Isaac and Egg are lost and confused, frightened and grieving the loss of what each used to consider their whole world. Their friendship is built on their mutual need for each other and their joint discovery of what lies beyond bereavement, because there is always something out there to live for.
I don’t know what tragedies life has thrown at the young author to drive him to write this book, but, by golly, he knows what he’s talking about. Isaac is palpably throbbing with emotions and Egg is like a big, fluffy plaster to cover the open wounds and make their ragged edges come together in the end.
But what a crazy journey it is before that ending arrives! I wept, I gasped, I sniffled, and I laughed, too. Yes, you will laugh too because as much as this book is poignant and vivid in its description of loneliness and pain, it is also incredibly funny. The gentle humour makes it all so much better for the reader, for trust me, you as a reader will need your heart rescuing by the book’s subtle comedic quality.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Perhaps because my expectations of The Midnight Library were sky-high, I was slightly underwhelmed by it.
It is a sweet, inspiring, life-affirming book, but it isn’t quite a cracking story.
The main character, Nora Seed, commits suicide and is given a chance to live many of her alternative lives. The conclusion is predictable, of course, and I won’t go into that.
For me, the problem lay with Nora skimming through her different lives’ options, not quite living them, not quite engaging with them, not even knowing what to say and do as she seems to parachute into this life and that without any prior briefing. So, it is all very superficial and intermittent. The other characters can’t come into their own because there simply isn’t enough time for them to grow. And as I said, there is no overarching story (other than Nora’s returns to the library to grab a ticket to another life).
There were a few fun moments, the polar bear being my favourite, but even they were heavily saturated with poignant messages and didactic wisdoms.
I am sure (and I’m not surprised) that other readers love this book as it is so reassuring, but for me it was more of a mindfulness expose than a tale of amazing fiction. Three stars, it is.
I loved Humans and other stories by Matt Haig. This was just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Facade by Helen Matthews

Following the death of her husband abroad, Imogen returns to England. She is impoverished and bitter. By contrast, her sister Rachel appears to be a successful business woman, happily married and a mother. She has all that Imogen doesn’t, and more.
While Imogen has to rely on pity and handouts, Rachel is supporting their parents in the upkeep of their beautiful home called the Old Rectory. The title of the book, Facade, aptly represents that old family home but it also has another deeper and more sinister meaning – it’s about all the secrets and sins that are hidden behind the facade.
Twenty years earlier, Rachel’s baby brother drowned. An air of mystery and unspoken secrets lie behind that death. With Imogen’s return and her embarking on a vicious campaign of revenge, the silence will have to be broken and the secrets will drift to the surface.
Facade is a complex, gripping and unputdownable psychological thriller. With every new page and every new revelation you will be drawn deeper into it, and you won’t be able to take a break until the very last page when everything is finally revealed.
Matthews has achieved huge depth in her portrayal of her protagonists, Imogen and Rachel, who narrate this twisty tale. Their perspectives are diametrically different to begin with, but then as you go on, you begin to discover disturbing overlaps and similarities.
This book is really well written and the storyline structured to perfection. Highly recommended.
The author has recently released another thriller, The Girl in the Van. It promises to be as good as Facade. It’s already on my list.

Being Alert by Charlie Laidlaw

Charlie Laidlaw has smashed it with Being Alert! I read it in a couple of seatings, chortling and snorting with amusement right through it.

Being Alert is political satire at its best, in the same league as Yes, Prime Minister and In the Thick of It. The author has a sharp eye for the outrageous and the absurd. He captures with flair and unforgiving astuteness the nonsensical antics of the ruling elites occupying the corridors of power in today’s Britain.

The main players are only thinly disguised under their new aliases: Winston Spragg (the PM), Derek Goings (his right-hand man), Kevin Kock (Health Secretary), Mick Gore, Vijay Patel (Chancellor), Timothy Raambo (the Foreign Secretary) and so on, and so on . . . ignorant advisers, slap-dash dilettante decision-makers, fantasists, sycophants and downright idiots ramble, strut and swagger through the pages of this brilliant book in a show of their abject and irredeemable incompetence.

The story is set during the turbulent time of the pandemic and while it is a satire and the author’s dry humour will have you in stitches, it is also a damning account of how badly the British government handled the crisis. There are sections in italics where Laidlaw reports the actual events and shocking statistics that require no commentary. In that respect, Being Alert is a tragicomedy – it is incredibly funny but is is also terribly poignant. Laidlaw holds Tory political elites to account, and he is merciless.

Not My Brother’s Keeper by Colette McCormick

Reading Not My Brother’s Keeper I was reminded of the biblical story of Cain and Abel, the two brothers at odds with each other because of the catastrophically bad choice made by Cain. Living with the consequences of that choice was damning.
In Not My Brother’s Keeper, the older brother Robert is a bit like Cain: he makes the wrong – even immoral – choice and takes the wrong turn in life, a decision that will haunt him for years. He abandons his pregnant girlfriend Michelle and leaves town, asking his brother Tom to watch out for her.
Tom is to some extent the equivalent of Abel – the good brother who stays behind, picks up the loose ends, keeps the family together and ultimately is rewarded with love and happiness with Michelle. Until, that is, Robert decides to come back and open old wounds.
Not My Brother’s Keeper is a thought-provoking tale about family, morality, decency and second chances. The story will stay with you long after you read the last sentence. Highly recommended.

The Book of Sand by Theo Clare

The Book of Sand by [Theo Clare]

The Book of Sand starts as a story of two worlds – almost two different dimensions. There is the desert with shifting sands and dunes that are capable of burying whole cities; the nights are haunted by monstrous, blood-thirsty beings who are neither dead nor alive and who don’t seem to have a stable physical form. In that world a group of strangers is thrown together by fate or rather by mysterious design. The group – referred to as Family – travels by day in search of Sarkpont (a holy grail that has the power to end their apocalyptic ​desert trek). By night they cower in their shuck which is detached and suspended in mid-air to protect them against night-time perils. Spider, possibly of French heritage but that is only implied, is the focal character. We see the Family’s endeavours through his eyes.

In parallel to the desert world, there is the contemporary world of a teenage girl called McKenzie, a science geek, fascinated  with sand and desert ,who one day wakes up to find a lizard in her bed. Her world, though seemingly safe and ordinary, begins to undergo a strange transformation. Others can’t see what she is seeing and soon her mental health comes into question. 

You know that in time the two worlds will collide or merge in some way. The story leads that way. I found McKenzie’s story unremarkable at first, but soon it absorbed me and at some point took over from the fantastical world of the desert. Although you will have six hundred pages to plough through, this book is worth persevering with. Your time will be well invested.

The Book of Sand is a reflective and mesmerising tale set in a dystopian reality which tests man’s resilience. It is about interdependence and commonality of purpose.  It is about togetherness and the intrinsic value each of us represents. All in all, it is an exquisite and thought-provoking story. The ending will take you deep inside yourself, into your past and even your beginning.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

This wasn’t my first read by Susanna Clarke so I knew to expect something magical and otherworldly, but “Piranesi” surpassed my expectations. It isn’t about magic, but it certainly is otherworldly, and more. There is something profound, almost biblical about this book.

The House, which is immeasurable and whose kindness is infinite, is the only world Piranesi knows. And it is that knowledge, or its limitation, that are pivotal here. For Piranesi a house of many chambers and vestibules, rising from the waves, filled with statues depicting real-life and mythical scenes, but otherwise devoid of our modern-day props, constitutes his whole universe. He recognises it as his creator, guide and protector – the House is God-like. The House defines Piranesi’s identity. He worships it, but he also explores and studies it. In a way, he reinvents it: its topography, its dead, its beauty and kindness. The whole premise of one man detached from reality but insistently scientific in his understandings, alone but not lonely, innocent through his ignorance of the existence of others is fascinating. His awakening and transition to the truth seems almost cruel although, despite his naivete, he deals with it admirably.  

“Piranesi” isn’t about action or relationships, at least not in the conventional sense, but it is utterly compelling and it will draw you in and make you forget about everything else.

The Whistleblower by Robert Peston

The Whistleblower is a vivid and authentic political thriller.
Gil Peck, its protagonist and narrator, is an unapologetic anti-hero. Like a shark, he cannot stand still – he has to be on the move constantly, chasing scoops and grabbing new headlines. He is a political reporter with links to those in power (an in opposition) in the 1997 fictional Britain (although the fiction is just thinly veiled reality). His contacts are as morally corrupt as he is: sex, drugs, underhanded manoeuvres and few regrets. Everyone in this book has a political agenda and seems to live on knife’s edge. The vibe of the late nineties – as Labour led by the then charismatic Tony Blair consolidated its grip on power – is depicted with vibrant authenticity. The frenzied media of that era are depicted honestly and without disclaimers.

On top of his professional intensity, Gil Peck is deeply flawed on a personal level: obsessively washing his hands and mumbling superstitious chants when distressed (which is pretty much all the the time), drinking excessively and snorting cocaine in order to keep going. He has detached himself from his Jewish roots and antagonised his family, and in particular his sister Clare (a high flying government figure). All in all, he is a fantastically fleshed out character. As the story unfolds and he begins to dig deeper in his sister’s last cry for help and her suspicious death, his softer, more human side starts to emerge.

If this book was a film it would probably be categorised as a dramatised documentary rather a feature movie. It does feel very real and utterly credible, and that’s what makes it unputdownable. Reading it you will feel like you’ve been let in a big fat state secret.