Autumn Leaves

There are some real crackers in my selection this autumn. Settle down and enjoy… 

I’m Sorry You Feel That Way by Rebecca Wait ****

Sister, mothers, daughters… this novel plunges the reader into the world of dysfunctional families with wisdom, humour and poignancy.

Growing up isn’t easy for Alice and Hanna. Their parents divorce and their mother is needy, confrontational, bad at communicating, no good at apologising (hence the title) and obsessed with her own childhood experience of being both ‘unloved and unlovely’. The two sisters try to cope, each in their own way, but trouble and trauma is never far from home and both have to make an emotional journey in order to repair the damage to themselves and their relationship.

Rebecca Wait is fair to their mother Celia though. Through flashback chapters, we learn about her childhood experiences, and knowledge can lead to understanding…

Men feature too. But they take the shape of Michael their disapproving elder brother who has plenty of his own problems to face and their absent father, who is mostly hopeless.

Alice and Hanna though, are both warm and engaging characters and the dialogue in the book – not to mention the set pieces – is hilarious. Highly recommended.

In Little Stars by Linda Green ***

This is a topical novel, based on real-life events, as Linda Green states in her acknowledgements, at least as a starting point for the fiction.

The story features two families: one predominantly Moslem, although the mother, Sylvie is of French origin. Her husband Bilal is a successful consultant and traditionalist – he wants to bring up their teenagers Rachid and Amina in the faith.

The second family are working-class Northerners. The father Neil has been brought up by a (carelessly racist) father and Neil’s wife Donna struggles with many of his views, especially when their son Sam appears to be adopting similar principles. Their teenage daughter Jodie, however, takes the opposite stance. She is fierce in her anti-Brexit opinions and unshaking belief in equality.

When Rachid and Jodie meet on the train to college, they are immediately attracted to one another and soon start a relationship and fall in love. But how can they tell their families? And what will they do when circumstances spin out of their control?

The narrative is written from the perspectives of the two mothers Sylvie and Donna with text messages between Rachid and Jodie and sections in their viewpoints too. It is a shocking and powerful story. Linda Green does not hold back and in consequence this is an authentic and thought-provoking read.

Strange Sally Diamond by Liz Nugent ****

When Sally’s beloved father died, she did what he told her to do and put him out with the bins – to be incinerated. She doesn’t understand why that’s so odd and that’s our first glimpse into the strange and sheltered life of Sally Diamond. Her father Tom (a psychiatrist) and mother Jean adopted Sally with full knowledge of her childhood trauma. But although they loved her, Tom was also interested in his daughter as a case study and he firmly believed that allowing her to be isolated was the best way forward.

But now, as the story begins, Sally becomes the centre of attention from the media, the police and a sinister voice from a past she has no memory of. Her father’s notes enable her to discover the horrors of her childhood, but she must also undergo therapy to enable her to find independence, make friends and learn to control her anger. When a stranger appears in her life (a stranger who has his own narrative voice in this novel) Sally has to decide whether or not to trust him, whether she can let him in.

Sally’s perspective is believable and interesting and I enjoyed the questions thrown up by this novel. Can someone truly escape from a trauma of their childhood or will they be scarred and influenced for ever?

I found it dark, heart-breaking and chillingly compelling…

The Flames by Sophie Haydock ****

Vally (his long-term lover and model), Gertrude (his sister), Edith (his wife) and Adele (his sister-in-law) are the four women who surround the Austrian artist Egon Schiele during his short lifetime.

They all loved him and they all modelled for him and the author has taken the few facts known about their lives and crafted them into a highly readable fictional account of Egon and his ‘flames’.

The story is split into sections, taking the viewpoints of each woman in turn, along with their portrait, interspersed with the perspectives of Adele (as an old woman) and Eva (who meets her when she knocks her over with her bicycle). The story concludes with the view of the artist himself and is also informed by his remarkable paintings.

I became highly involved with each perspective one by one. Each woman is a fascinating individual, the character deftly drawn, and each is given a voice which is both authentic and highly interesting. Events may have taken a different course in reality – who knows? – but the author bases her story on certain intriguing pieces of evidence that cannot be ignored. The greatest evidence though, is in the faces and poses of the women themselves. A gorgeous novel. I loved it.

Foster by Claire Keegan ***

In rural Ireland, a young girl is taken by her father to stay with some unknown relatives. Her mother is about to have another baby and there are too many children in the family to manage. At first, the girl is anxious, but during that summer with the Kinsellas, she grows up; she blooms.

Keegan writes about the landscape, about loss and belonging and character emotions in subtle and spare prose that cuts with precision to the heart of things. The story is short and has a simple structure, but the layering of characters, dialogue and actions is highly complex. Keegan plunges us into the perspective of the young protagonist, and as readers, we learn as she does. There are moments of tension, of foreshadowing and of pure poignancy. Much to be admired.

Tell me How This Ends by Jo Leevers ****

I loved this story about grief and loss that turned into a bit of a murder mystery.

The eccentric and lonely Henrietta gets a new job at the Grief Centre – her brief: to interview the terminally ill and create a Life Story for them and their relatives. There is a strict protocol to follow, but when Henrietta starts talking to Annie Doyle, it becomes impossible to stick to the script. Annie – who will not survive past Christmas – lost her sister in a drowning accident many years ago when Kath was only eighteen and she also lost her husband Terry to a motorway accident three years ago.

But there is a mystery behind the drowning which intrigues Henrietta and she starts to investigate further. To her surprise, she finds herself wanting to confide her own story to Annie and as she delves deeper, Annie becomes a friend.

There is a wonderful sense of character journey in this novel. The characters of Annie and Henrietta – who take alternate viewpoints for most of the story – are interesting and appealing, but despite lovely touches of humour, there is a huge sadness and a sense of a life wasted. However, this story about loss and grief is also about putting the past to rest and even about second chances, so there is also a reassuring sense of hope. Highly recommended.


© Rosanna Ley
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