Welcome to my occasional posts discussing my recent reads – usually either particularly enjoyed books, or those that left a big impression on me. I’d recommend them all.
The Girl in the Letter by Emily Gunnis
Published August 1st 2018 by Review
The Girl in the Letter was one of my favourite books of 2018 – listens, at first, only I switched to the Kindle version when I found myself constantly going back to previous sections to try to work out what was going on. Reading was so much easier than listening given the structure of the novel, with sections from the present day back to the 1960s, and multiple third person POV characters, some of whom don’t return and some who become important characters. Once I got into it though, this novel totally did it for me.
By the time I actually read it, I’d forgotten the blurb so had no idea what was coming. It seemed at first to be more of a historical mystery, then the suspense ramped up and it veered towards a crime thriller. (Though there are a few rather grisly moments, be warned, when certain characters meet their untimely ends. There’s also some highly atmospheric descriptions of nasty things happening in dark, murky, confined spaces…)
The novel’s subject matter is the dreadful treatment of unmarried mothers in ‘mother and baby homes’ run by priests and nuns in the 1960s, and the exploitation of those within for spurious purposes. The Girl In The Letter is centred around the fictional St Margaret’s Mother and Baby Home in Sussex; the author’s note suggests that institution she describes was inspired by actual ones which were commonplace in the UK as well as in Ireland.
Samantha is the main character in the present-day sections, a journalist hungry for a story that will lift her career past her death-knocking tabloidy job. She’s a battler, a more-or-less separated mum, living with her Nan and trying to look after her small daughter. Sam finds herself embroiled in a mystery when she discovers some letters at her Nan’s written by an Ivy, the ‘girl in the letter’. In them, Ivy begs her baby’s father to get her out of the hell hole of the mother and baby home she’s been incarcerated in – she was forced to work in the laundry after her mother can’t afford to pay the home’s fees, and to give her baby up for adoption.
Why the letters are at Sam’s Nan’s is part of the mystery, which is eventually revealed. As I read the last half of the book, I found myself impatient to find what was really happening, and the significance of certain characters and events. The Girl In The Letter skillfully utilizes the art of delayed gratification – the poor reader is kept hanging on for as long as possible!
I found the combination of in-depth characterisation and vivid descriptions compelling, to say the least. Emily Gunnis has the gift of making you care about her characters, and transporting the reader into her scenes. The descriptions of the nuns’ cruel treatment of the young women incarcerated within St Margaret’s was hard at times to read (especially the horrors of giving birth without sterile instruments, stitches, painkillers, etc). But for me, knowing that this kind of thing may well have happened made the book even more powerful. At times I yelled out in horror and outrage at what the characters had to endure, it felt so real!
Emily Gunnis has created an ingenious, twisty, dramatic and highly emotive debut novel that doesn’t flinch from exploring the psychological impact of the crimes committed in the name of religion and later covered up. It also reflects on who should be held responsible for the crimes committed in such places – the nuns and priests who were running the homes, or the adopting parents, doctors, social workers and everyone else who facilitated/turned a blind eye to what was going on? HIGHLY recommended.
Valentina by S.E. Lynes
Published August 13th 2018 by Bookouture (and in 2016 by Blackbird)
First of all, I loved this book and will no doubt be reading all of S.E. Lynes’ novels at some point!
As the blurb says, the plot concerns a former career woman, Shona who is persuaded to move into a remote cottage in Scotland with her newish partner Mikey and their baby girl. Unfortunately, she finds out her partner is going to be away for long periods working on an oil rig. Then she meets the (at first) pleasantly distracting, elusive and rather enticing Valentina, who is a most welcome companion and antidote to the smothering isolation of the Aberdeen countryside.
Shona thinks she has the perfect relationship and the perfect family, which will withstand anything. But as Valentina slowly takes up residence in her life, the reader begins to guess that perhaps nothing could be furthest from the truth.
I enjoyed very much the deft way in which this story is told, with the ominous foreshadowing of a terrible ending, and first-person sections from both Shona and, later on, Valentina, which let the reader know more than Shona about what’s really going on. The novel has several plot surprises as it moves towards its high-drama ending. The ground is well laid though and even the somewhat unlikely scenario described at the end felt believable.
For me, apart from the wonderful sense of place, isolation and the eerie atmosphere of the cottage that is – and the great dialogue, I should add – the strongest element of the novel is the changing relationship between the two women. Lynes has nailed the complicated nature of female friendship with all its nuances, insecurities and paranoid moments.
Beautiful by Anita Waller
Published August 31st 2015 by Bloodhound Books
I found Beautiful thought provoking and at times disturbing – also, very well written. At the start we’re introduced to a small girl who’s been brutally sexually attacked by a stranger. Her parents who do their best to help her heal from her terrible psychological injuries. (There’s a minimum of explicit description thankfully.) I was pulled in from the start and had to find out what happens to her. The characters are well developed, the dialog convincing. There are some quite chilling moments from early on and a great twist later… (There are some annoying formatting issues in the version I read – the section breaks have not been marked.)
I have to say that I was shocked and quite disturbed by the ending – it certainly made a deep impression on me. The novel explores themes of responsibility and revenge. To what extent can we hold someone responsible for the crimes they commit, when they themselves have been deeply hurt by the crimes of others?
Highly recommended if you can take a novel that deals with dark subject matter – and doesn’t pull its punches!
Other books I’ve enjoyed lately: Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty (interested to see the TV version) and Don’t You Dare by AJ Waines.
Before I go, THE GIRL IN HIS EYES e-book is now discounted on Amazon for a limited time to 99p/99c (it’s also available on Kindle Unlimited). So, if you’re into chilling psychological suspense and haven’t bought TGHIE yet, this could be a good time to snap it up! Local Amazon store: http://hyperurl.co/0cx7pa