There is an unsettling mystery at the heart of Bianca Zander’s debut novel, The Girl Below, a tale of family secrets and self-discovery set in modern-day London. When Suki Piper was a little girl, she lived with her parents in a basement flat in Notting Hill. One night, her parents threw a party in their building’s courtyard. During the revelry, Suki and a few others became trapped underground in a World War II-era air raid shelter on the property. Suki has no memory of how she escaped, and this incident haunts her repeatedly, in dreams and also in waking moments when she is suddenly transported back to the party. She has other strange memories, including a hand which would reach out to her from a wardrobe and an unnerving statue of a girl in her neighbor’s flat. In the present day, Suki is in her late twenties and having a tough time. After a decades-long lonely existence in New Zealand trying to reconnect with her father, she has returned to London. Having little success with a job search or friendships, she becomes reacquainted with her former neighbors, a nice but dysfunctional family. Suki is once again launched into her past and must make sense once and for all of her fractured family and the missing pieces.
Suki can be a frustrating narrator, coming across as fairly lazy, impulsive and immature. Yet as she embarks on her search and more is revealed about her unstable family and upbringing, she becomes a more sympathetic character. Childhood events are relayed as Suki remembers them, giving a large portion of the story a fantastical, magical bend. Among her influences, Zander cites authors as diverse as Haruki Murakami, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sarah Waters. From these inspirations, a unique story is spun.
It has now been a full year since Amanda Knox, tried and originally convicted of murdering her British roommate in Perugia, Italy, was freed from the Italian prison where she spent almost four years. In A Death in Italy: The Definitive Account of the Amanda Knox Case, John Follain provides an exhaustive look at the proceedings. He builds background, from the personal histories of Knox, her roommate Meredith Kercher and others intimately involved with the case, to the details of Knox’s and Kercher’s first days in Perugia and their social activities in the days leading up to the attack. He then follows the investigation, trial and subsequent retrial, ending with statements from the courts as to why Knox and her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, were both freed. A third person who was also convicted, Rudy Guede, remains in prison.
Follain is a crime reporter, and at times the narrative can feel bogged down with details and interviews which are not particularly relevant to the investigation. But overall it provides a good perspective on the case, and shows where errors on both sides were made. It also is a solid testament to the emotional impact of the crime on involved individuals, even those not related to the victim or the accused. A good companion to this book is Nina Burleigh’s The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox. It was published in 2011 before Knox’s and Sollecito’s convictions were overturned. Having lived in Perugia for the duration of the trial, Burleigh provides an impressive history of the Italian justice system, and how conservative religious theory, ancient paganism and organized crime all played a role in the outcome of the first trial. Both books are excellent reads for people interested in the case, and readers will return to the media version of the investigation and trials with a newfound perspective.
It all begins with a boy, a father and a busy street. Christopher Wakling’s latest book, What I Did, shows how one small incident can become a case study in multiple viewpoints, having a much greater impact on people as a result. Billy runs into the road ahead of his father on an outing to the park. His father reacts with the typical fury of an overworked parent, cursing and roughly handling his son. What takes this incident from minor to major is a woman who sees him disciplining the boy and calls child protective services, who launch an investigation. What is equally intriguing and at times baffling for the reader is trying to determine the details of what actually happened, since the story is told by an unreliable narrator--six-year-old Billy.
Despite the serious plotline, the narration is often laugh-out-loud funny. Billy’s voice is similar to the young narrators of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and Emma Donoghue’s Room. Lacking in social skills, he is imaginative and has a unique perspective of the world around him. He also has a fascination with animals and science, and his commentary is interspersed with random bits of trivia. Still, the reader only has Billy’s perspective, and his actions are steered by a six-year-old’s intellectual capacity for understanding what to do and say in order to bring this incident into proper perspective. A few sections read like a “Who’s on First” routine, when Billy misinterprets what is being asked by social workers and doctors. Wakling has an interesting background, and mentioning on his website that this book was in part inspired by his own experience with fatherhood and the character flaws it has exposed in him. This is a unique, engaging read where the reader roots for Billy and his parents, despite their flaws.
Benjamin Wood’s debut novel The Bellwether Revivals begins with a mystery: a crime scene with two people dead and a third barely alive. But what happened prior? The rest of the book is about the events leading up to that moment. Oscar Lowe is a working-class twenty-something who makes a living as a care assistant at a nursing home. Eden and Iris Bellwether are ambitious siblings from a privileged background who both study at Cambridge. A chance meeting brings Oscar into their elite circle, which he soon finds is convoluted and laden with social traps. Oscar begins a relationship with Iris but finds that threatened by the increasing eccentricities of Eden, who believes himself capable of healing through hypnosis and the power of his music. Eden is also the clear leader of their group of friends, which begins to take on cult-like characteristics as Eden’s delusions become more grandiose. When Eden starts to feel he’s losing control of Iris and his parents, real tragedy ensues.
A classic story in one sense of the clash between the haves and have nots of society, this is also a gothic tale which delves into diverse topics such as mental illness, social isolation and music theory. Moreover, it is an intergenerational story, where those who were once young and charting the pathway to new innovations are now dependent upon and look up to the younger generation of today. Similar to The Talented Mr. Ripley or School Ties, Wood paints a picture that shows that being wealthy isn’t all it is cracked up to be. Fans of British novels and psychological drama will enjoy this story of complex relationships and intrigue.
Gretchen Waters had an exciting life, one tragically cut short by a fall down an icy set of library stairs. In Miss Me When I’m Gone by Emily Arsenault, her accidental death turns out to be much more when her best friend, Jamie Madden, begins researching Gretchen’s papers and her past.
This story is a unique blend of southern honky-tonk country and New England mystery. Gretchen’s success had come via a book, Tammyland, which she wrote following her own divorce. A travel memoir of sorts, Gretchen toured the southern states, visiting sites of famous female country music stars and writing about their lives while reflecting on her own. A second book was in the works, and Jamie soon discovers that it is an even more personal investigation into Gretchen’s own life and childhood. As she talks with more people, Jamie senses that Gretchen’s death may not have been simply an accident.
Although a mystery, this book has elements of fun and quirkiness, especially the interspersed biographies on country music singers which are excerpted from the fictitious Tammyland. It’s hard to imagine how one chapter about Tammy Wynette could lead seamlessly into another chapter about a quest to find one’s biological father, but Arsenault makes it work and keeps the story fresh and engaging. This book is an enjoyable read; it may even provide inspiration to visit some country music sites, or at least sing along to a few Dolly Parton tunes!
“Schizophrenia is a little like cancer. You can’t trust that it will ever go away completely.” Michael Schofield begins with these reflections as he chronicles his journey to understand and combat his daughter January’s mental illness in January First: A Child’s Descent into Madness and Her Father’s Struggle to Save Her. For the first five years of her life, Michael and his wife Susan knew only a few certainties about January. First, she was a genius, with an IQ of 146. Second, she had an extremely active imagination, to the point where she created her own private world and hundreds of imaginary friends. Third, she rarely slept and needed constant stimulation, keeping both parents in a state of total exhaustion and often despair. January was also more prone than the average child to tantrums and fits of rage, which intensified after the birth of her brother, Bodhi. The Schofields had hoped that a sibling would give January a much-needed companion, but were horrified when she tried time and again to physically harm the infant. After many wrong turns and countless battles with California’s mental health and education systems, January was diagnosed with childhood schizophrenia, a condition much more severe in children than in adults.
Schofield’s complete honesty, even when it means portraying himself in a less than flattering light, is one of the most powerful draws of this book. He lays bare the family’s physical, emotional and financial struggles. Conveyed particularly well are the immense frustrations the Schofields experience on a daily basis, as they deal with insurance companies, doctors who won’t return calls, and a child who does not respond to traditional reinforcements or punishments. At present, the situation with January has improved, thanks in large part to a creative living situation – for several years the Schofields kept two apartments so January and Bodhi could live apart - and a drug cocktail which has reduced the severity of her hallucinations. As Schofield concludes, the family has learned to embrace the positive in each day but know that January’s condition may still deteriorate.
A couple and their infant daughter move from the hustle and bustle of London to a remote cottage in North Yorkshire. Soon after, the husband Adam disappears, leaving the baby in her carriage on the front doorstep. So begins Sara Foster’s debut novel, Beneath the Shadows. A haunting, psychological tale, the reader is transported to a beautiful but desolate English village, complete with secretive townspeople and a history of ghosts and unexplained occurrences.
When the wife, Grace, returns to the village the next year, she begins talking to the locals and discovers more about her husband’s boyhood. She also learns about more unsettling issues, including hauntings, characters from local folklore and even strange details about the cottage her husband inherited from his grandparents. Her city friends and family are encouraging her to sell the cottage and run, but Grace cannot yet bring herself to do that. Even as an unknown person or people are sending her increasingly sinister warnings to leave, she needs to know the fate of Adam and if he really did abandon his family.
This book has all the elements for a good autumn read: the moors, cold weather, snowstorms threatening to cut off the village, hints of the paranormal and the ever-present danger of harm coming to a mother and daughter trying to rebuild their lives. Fans of the Bronte sisters, Daphne du Maurier or Jennifer McMahon will be intrigued by this story which slowly unravels to lay bare a town’s and a family’s history and secrets.
Waiting for one’s life to begin often means missing out on the present. In An Uncommon Education, Elizabeth Percer presents a reflective, coming-of-age story. Naomi Feinstein spends her childhood waiting for circumstances to change, especially hoping for more friends and freedom from her classmates’ cruelty. As a young adult, she gradually comes to terms with her life, embracing both its imperfections and possibilities.
More than one person’s reflections, however, this book is also an immigrant story and family saga. Naomi chronicles her lonely childhood with first-generation immigrant parents who were often in poor health. Her father was Jewish and her mother a Catholic who converted to Judaism, which furthers her feelings of isolation and confuses her sense of identity and where she belongs. Gifted with a photographic memory and fascinated from an early age with saving lives and curing illness, Naomi goes to Wellesley College to become a doctor. Her time at the school is heavily influenced by her initiation into a secret Shakespeare society comprised of students who are all unconventional or outsiders in some capacity.
Although a large part of this story takes place at a university, Naomi’s true “education” is the life lessons she receives along the way, particularly when a scandal threatens her hard-earned friendships. Percer’s writing is very poetic and lyrical. As a narrator, Naomi is smart and insightful, and as her character matures, so does her narrative style and thought process. Readers will relate to her journey, which is less heroic than it is a series of wrong turns and learning by trial and error. A good recommend for book clubs.