The Ends of the Earth

Given the amount of air time “mental health” has had over the last 12 months on social media, you would be forgiven for thinking it is no longer a taboo.  Living through a global pandemic and the ensuing corona-craziness has led to a huge focus on how we cope with emotional challenges and I wholeheartedly applaud anyone who has courageously shared their story in the hope of helping others.  But truth is there is still so much prejudice towards those of us with psychological conditions and at times it can feel like we have a long way to go in challenging the stigma surrounding them.  One of the starkest examples is how difficult it can be for men to talk about how they feel and to seek help when they are struggling, a fact tragically reflected in the number of suicides seen amongst young males. This is a taboo so deeply enshrined in gender expectation that at times it seems impossible to untangle. Literature can play a pivotal role in inspiring us to approach problematic societal issues from a whole new angle and The Ends of the Earth by Abbie Greaves is a brilliant example.  This book tackles the subject of male mental health with a sensitivity and compassion that blew me away and I highly recommend this book.
 
This is the story of Mary, whose partner disappeared suddenly 7 years ago.  Jim was the love of her life and she has never found a way to move on, standing vigil every day at the local tube station with a sign saying “Come Home Jim” in the hope he will realise how much she still misses him.  Following a series of unexpected calls received at the local crisis centre where she volunteers – and an unfortunate incident at the station that leads to her predicament going viral – Mary’s friends decide it is time to find out what really happened, to try and help her move on from her loss. The events that follow will change all of their lives.
 
Unsurprisingly, loss is one of the key themes of this novel and Greaves portrays how overwhelming this can be with heart-breaking precision.  Mary is mourning for her soulmate; Ted is struggling with the death of his wife; Alice has never truly processed her dad leaving the family home when she was a child.  In skilfully exploring the impact of trauma on each individual, the author has created characters that literally come alive on the page and it is impossible not to feel huge empathy for all of them.  But the real power in this tale comes from the mental health issues many of the male characters experience. Not only does this highlight the diversity of difficulties that men can experience – and how life-changing the impact can be – but it also clearly shows that these challenges do not define them, no matter how overwhelmed they may feel at times by their problems. All of them have rich lives that reach beyond the limitations that are often assumed with a diagnosis of depression, grief or addiction and for me this is an incredibly powerful message. The reality is that anyone can experience mental health problems at any stage of their lives and the sooner we normalise this, the sooner we can end the stigma and focus on helping people through those tough times and back to relative health.
 
I am a big believer that sometimes certain books come along just when you need them and for me this is a classic example.  It is important for me to remember that there is more to my life than my mental health issues and this book provided a timely reminder.  I was surprised by how intensely this book captivated me and how bereft I feel having finished it, ironically now experiencing my own sense of loss as a result.  Maybe one day there will be a sequel – until then I will resist the temptation to stand outside the author’s house with a banner beseeching them to come back…

Did Not Finish – George Mahood

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I have always been Little Miss Pedantic.  As a child I would take great pleasure in challenging other people’s spelling errors and was especially fond of playing “summer school”, which primarily involved taking a teacherly red pen to some poor friend’s writing all in the name of “fun”.  Whilst I have attempted to curtail this activity in my adult life (turns out it doesn’t make you very popular), there have still been moments when I have longed to launch myself into a frenzy of infuriated feedback – like the time my boyfriend sent me such a poorly devised goodbye letter that my heartbreak was over-shadowed by horror that I had dated someone with such poor linguistic skill.  (I resisted annotating it and returning to sender.  I wish I had).  When I am given a valid reason to be constructively critical, I am like a kid in the proverbial candy store and recently I have had a chance to be that child. I have just finished proof-reading an amazing new series of 6 books by the inimitable George Mahood, allowing me to indulge luxuriously in 2 of my favourite pastimes: devouring the work of one of the funniest contemporary writers of recent years AND eliminating typos.  Does life get better than this?
 
If you are already familiar with the hilarious real-life tales of George’s previous publications, you will be unsurprised to hear that the Did Not Finish books focus on physical challenges attempted by the author over the last few years, from epic cross-country bike rides to wild swimming, to running every single street of his local town. (I did this once by accident when I was late for a job interview and got ridiculously lost. Next time, George, try it in heels.) Always up for a challenge, his path to physical fitness is without doubt deeply inspiring and rammed full of top tips if you want to explore pushing your own body to the limit, like drinking a pint of Guinness the night before a marathon and always carrying a bag of salt and vinegar hula hoops for emergencies.  One of the best things about the events George chooses is their location, and I love the way he brings places as varied as Barcelona, the hills of Dartmoor and the lanes of Northern France to life with such richness that you feel like you are actually there.  Which is a relief, because I am unlikely to ever cycle 110 miles in the lashing rain cross country no matter how amazing it must make you feel on completion. 
 
But the real joy of any Mahood manuscript is the humour, with comical anecdotes accompanying every single experience. Honest about his own limitations and willing to share even the most embarrassing of memories (one particular section had me running to the toilet repeatedly in sympathy), these stories are a light-hearted look at what it means to be human in all its awkward, challenging and incredible beauty. Regular readers will be pleased to note the ever-growing presence of George’s 3 children, each of whom bring their own special something to the narrative, and of course Rachel, who is such a star she should really have her own breakaway series of books. With a smattering of in-jokes and a healthy dose of self-deprecation from the author, I truly feel like a friend welcomed back into the family fold and cannot wait for the next instalment of their adventures.  All I can hope is that laughter burns calories. These tales come as a timely reminder of what truly matters in life and how important humour is in keeping our perspective and I would thoroughly recommend bagging yourself a copy as soon as they are published. 
 
A friend recently tried to convince me that if you visualise a full 26.2 mile marathon in your head, it’s as good for you as if you actually run it.  Sadly I can report that having joined George on 6 books’ worth of running, cycling and swimming, I am still an overweight couch potato, so have entirely disproved her theory.  That being said, I am feeling inspired and who knows what random challenge I may be encouraged to set myself. Maybe I should dig out that letter from the ex after all…

The Debt Diary

I have a confession to make, Bookaholics: I am a total wuss. I am terrified of scary movies, avoid horror stories at all cost and have even been known to hide behind the sofa whilst watching magic acts on Britain’s Got Talent (and not just because of Simon Cowell’s teeth). I know from painful experience the hours of sleep I will lose from doing any of these things, convinced that a flesh-eating zombie is going to break in and devour me, which has been the usual outcome of all these activities in the past. (Losing sleep, I mean, not being feasted on by zombies). But by far the scariest thing of all is a book that presents a dystopian future that genuinely feels inevitable and likely to happen within our lifetime. Such is the case with The Debt Diary by Joshua Neal, a deeply chilling novel that I was lucky to receive an advance copy of to review.

This is the story of Harry, a young man living alone on the hostile streets of the city he calls home. As he struggles to source the basics such as food, water and shelter, he maintains a meticulous record of anything he borrows or steals within the pages of his debt diary. But as circumstances worsen – and Harry finds himself taking more desperate measures to just get through the day – mysterious entries begin to appear that are not from his own hand. As one by one these predictions begin to come true, Harry is faced with some tough decisions about what those messages really mean.

The most chilling aspect of this novel is the context behind the dystopian world our protagonist lives in, primarily in terms of climate change. Where Harry lives, the heat each day has now become unbearable – with people simply avoiding being outside on the worst days – but his story is also interspersed with newspaper reports from countries around the world experiencing horrific hurricanes, fires and droughts caused by environmental change. If this was not bad enough, it is clear that racism is rife, as borders are tightened to stop those fleeing this devastation from reaching relative safety, and the persecution of foreigners has clearly become a state-sanctioned sport. With echoes of the last few years in Britain, this book represents many of my worst fears for the future and it genuinely scares me that these events are already well on their way to fruition.

Neal’s strength as a writer lies in his ability to present a scene in vivid detail and I really felt like I was there. Harry is a complex and fascinating character – both skilled in deception yet simultaneously bound by an admirable moral code – and I felt significant empathy for him from the very start. I found the second half did not quite deliver the same pace as the first – and I was disappointed the two main stories did not converge – but this did not detract from the overall power of the book, which comes from its political relevance to our world in 2021. In taking 2 of the most pertinent issues facing us right now – the rise of nationalism and the impact of climate change – the author has created a chilling prediction of where our current trajectory will lead us. For that reason alone, this is a novel that everyone should read.

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House

Whilst inside my head I still feel like a student, it is 21 years this month since I graduated from university with a degree in English.  Like many teenagers, I chose to study literature because I literally had no idea what to do with my life and the only thing I really loved was books.  (To be fair I also loved Gary Barlow, but I couldn’t find a course on him).  Little did I know the passion it would ignite in me during that three year period and I truly believe the decision was meant to be.  (I also thought Gary and I were meant to be, but you can’t win ‘em all).  I really miss being able to discuss and analyse texts with other people and just occasionally I read something that makes me wish I had a reason to write a dissertation again.  How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones is one of those books.  It is outstanding.
 
I was aware of significant buzz around this book when it was published and the title alone intrigued me.  Early in the novel the story of the one-armed sister is told by Wilma to her grand-daughter Lala as a warning, a moralistic fable with the powerful message that girls who reach beyond the boundaries of their gender role will be punished in dreadful ways.  This sadly becomes the theme for everything that follows.  Fast forward 5 years and Lala is expecting her first baby with Adan, who makes a living through criminal activity and is an emotionally and physically abusive husband.  Intertwining each of their stories with that of Mira – the woman whose husband is killed when a burglary goes wrong – and a cast of other characters who leap off the page with vivid clarity, Jones creates a harrowing world full of violence and suffering which genuinely broke my heart.
 
There are so many things I loved about this book: the way the writing shifted between different perspectives yet never lost its thread; the author’s skill in bringing alive the smallest details of each and every scene, meaning I felt like I was actually in Barbados where the story unfurls. But what makes this tale most moving of all is the way Jones adeptly unpacks the powerful links between trauma and violence as each back-story unfolds.  Women are undoubtedly possessions in the world she presents us with but the more I read, the more I realised the men are also trapped by the expectations of their gender and this is a key theme throughout.  The strength and control that comes with naming someone is also pivotal: Baby is utterly powerless, a fact emphasised by their failure to name her; Adan exerts power over Lala through his attempts to find the perfect tone her dead mother used to speak her name when she was a child.  Each time a woman attempts to better her situation, tragedy seems to strike.  This is a damning reflection of a patriarchal society where no-one ever truly wins.
 
It’s not often I am moved to blog the instant I finish a book, but in this case – even on a Saturday night – I couldn’t stop myself.  How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House is an incredible first novel and I am excited to see what this author does next.  Most importantly, I need you all to read it immediately, so that we can discuss it at length. Just don’t expect me to be able to use the long, pretentious words that came so easily at the age of 18.  That was a long time ago.

Poison in the Pills

Last April I was in a local supermarket when I suddenly realised something was wrong with my fingers: my hands had turned bright red, swollen to twice their normal size and were itching like crazy.  Thinking I had reacted to the chemicals used to keep the trolley handles clean – and with a rising sense of panic – I tracked down a shop assistant and gained access to the staff toilets where I doused myself in cold water. This seemed to do the trick.  But then two days later I was peeling a carrot for dinner (as an accompaniment, that is, I am not actually a rabbit) and the same thing happened again. Even more scarily the following week my lips and tongue swelled up after simply drinking some juice.  Having now spent 12 months on a waiting list to see a specialist who can help identify the cause (Doctor Google and I have agreed a preliminary diagnosis of an allergy to the cold, but neither of us have actually attended medical school) I felt an immediate empathy for the characters of Poison in the Pills by August Raine, who are seeking to understand the cause of a mystery illness that has swept the nation. There is nothing worse than not knowing the cause of specific symptoms.
 
Jack is a scientist working for a pharmaceutical company seeking to find a cure for the Itch, a horrific skin condition that causes “burning agony” and forces sufferers to take increasingly extreme action to escape the terrible sensations. (Think dousing yourself in paint-stripper or taking a knife to your body to cut out the pain). The cause is believed to be a recreational drug called Dose, now banned by the authorities, but the protagonist is increasingly doubtful that this is really the case.  When 7 patients die whilst taking an experimental cure as part of a medical trial, Jack decides he has to find out the truth, a decision that is catalyst for the action-packed adventure that follows.
 
From the very first chapter this novel has real pace and I found myself captivated immediately.  As thrillers go, this has all of the essential ingredients: a hero you can relate to, plenty of action to hook you in, a feisty female love interest to offset the darker elements of the tale and just the right balance of scientific information to make the plot plausible without being intellectually inaccessible. Jack is portrayed with enough detail to make him a realistic and empathetic hero, yet the author cleverly scatters mysterious references to his past throughout the narrative to make you want to know more and this made the book hard to put down. I also found the dialogue particularly well-crafted and engaging.

One of this story’s greatest strengths is its universal appeal in a world where we all know the fear of living through a pandemic and it is almost impossible not to draw comparisons between this and the last 15 months. Echoes of familiar experience litter the book: people are scared of physical contact, avoid busy places and are unsure whether to trust the science behind the cure. This definitely made the plot more vivid for me. Overall the writing is excellent and the few, very minor criticisms I have (the physical interaction between Jack and his lover occasionally felt awkward; the book could have used a more thorough proof-read) are simple to resolve and, if this is the quality of his first novel, I think we can expect great things from Raine moving forward.

This is a fast-paced and enjoyable read for anyone looking for a slightly different type of thriller and I definitely recommend it.
 

Booktails

In a moment of genius last night – at some point in the hallucinogenic haze that followed my third alcoholic beverage – I had a startling revelation about reading: books are exactly like cocktails. Now before you dismiss this as the random ramblings of a lightweight literary lush, let me explain. Not only are both highly addictive (just take a glance at my “to be read” pile as exhibit A) but they also come in so many different flavours: some are sweet and slide down your throat with ease; some have a sour after-taste that’s bitter and unappealing on your tongue; and some leave you craving so much more. Therefore in honour of this booze based brilliance, I decided to share with you some of my holiday reads as compared to cocktails. (If the concept doesn’t work, we can pretend I was drunk and never discuss this again, right?)

If Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen was a cocktail, it would definitely be a Cosmopolitan. Much like the drink (which, for a certain generation of women, is synonymous with Sex and the City) I had heard a lot about this before I picked it up for the first time and had high expectations. This is the story of Majella, living in small town Northern Ireland with her alcoholic mother and working in the local chip shop. We very quickly learn that she is a creature of habit, wearing the same clothes and doing the same things each day, whilst processing the loss of both her missing father and dead grandmother. But like the very first time I drank a Cosmo, I was left thinking “was that it?” when I reached the end – the book was over before it felt like anything had really happened and I was left wondering what all the buzz was about. Sometimes both books and drinks do not live up to the hype.

In contrast, if The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin was a cocktail it would be a deliciously sweet Pina Colada. From the very first sip, this novel was a joy to ingest. Lenni is a 17 year old girl who is dying when she meets 83 year old Margot in an art class at the hospital. Forming an instant bond – and realising their ages collectively add up to 100 – they set out on a mission to produce a hundred paintings of their lives, telling the stories as they go. Like the drink itself, this is a tale I simply wanted to down in one brief sitting, engaged as I was by both the protagonists and their fascinating lives. There was also a hidden complexity reminiscent of the way a true tropical cocktail will slowly reveal the fruit, the cream and then the kick of rum: this novel layers story upon story until you are left both bereft by its ending and longing for more. I cannot recommend this book enough.

This morning I have embarked on Living Better by Alistair Campbell, the story of his battle with depression. At face value this sounds like one of those spicy drinks like a Dark and Stormy that entices you into its depths but we will see. I will keep you posted.  For now, Bookaholics, bottoms up!

Reading Revelations

When I was younger I was a certified literary snob.  A book had to be at least 100 years old, shortlisted for a minimum of one prestigious award and / or recommended by folk of significantly higher intellect than I could ever dream of for me to even consider consuming its contents.  I looked down my nose snootily at others who passionately embraced cheap thrillers and cheesy chick-lit, whilst arrogantly congratulating myself for being so superior. I was, in a word, obnoxious. I could find a million different excuses for my awful attitude: the fact my degree was heavily focused on the classics; my failure to find anything written more recently that reflected my own life experience; or my desire for a shield to conceal the fear I wasn’t as intelligent as everyone thought. (Spoiler alert: I’m not). But these are simply poorly presented pretexts for one fact I truly cannot avoid: I was an idiot.  I am thoroughly ashamed.
 
Fortunately as I have matured (it took a while) I have realised several important factors I blindly over-looked in my youthful naivety. I would never contest that the legacy of literature from previous centuries has immense value and can even be surprisingly relatable – after all, whilst technology and medicine have evolved, human existence continues to be driven by the same core emotional needs – but I have since discovered this to be true of many books, regardless of their age.  Bridget Jones’ Diary is often dismissed as chick-lit, yet the heroine is a multi-faceted character who spoke to a whole generation of women struggling with the contradiction of being an independent woman in a patriarchal world.  The Overstory by Richard Powers was published in 2018 yet the prose is of such high quality, and the content so pertinent to every human on this planet, that I can see readers raving about it for centuries to come (as long as the planet still exists, that is).  In dismissing these texts, I was the one losing out.
 
I also firmly believe in the power of literature to transform lives on so many levels and that can be the product of something written last week or 200 years ago.  If someone is in need of a friend or inspiration in their time of need, what does it matter if that support comes from the more dated words of Jane Eyre or from Elizabeth Wakefield of the Sweet Valley High series?  Whilst some people may seek solace in the great philosophers or psychoanalysts that have graced our shelves with their learned acknowledgement of human complexity, someone else may take similar consolation from reading the deceptively simple words of an author like Beth O’Leary, who explores many of the same topics in a more contextually accessible way.  Our brain’s capacity to visually ingest words and convert them to meaning in our imagination is a super power we often take for granted, and it hardly matters whether the author has a statue somewhere commemorating their life or has only ever been read by 3 other people.
 
With maturity has come a greater comfort in my own skin and the ability to acknowledge when I was wrong.  I no longer feel the need to pretend I am more clever than I am nor to make excuses for what I enjoy and when, and that liberation has opened up a whole new world of stories I never even knew I would love so much.  So if you take one piece of advice from wise old Bex, keep an open mind and never say never.  Books can (and continue to) surprise me all the time and this is why they will always be my passion.

Mum’s the Word

I am blessed with some incredible female friends, Bookaholics. There’s the pal I picked up at a wedding having followed her into a bush (true story); the buddy I bonded with on a particularly tough training course (made exponentially harder each afternoon by the enormous puddings they served at lunchtime); and even my work wife, who is a truly loyal office spouse (when she isn’t off having another man’s babies). When push comes to shove, my girls are always there for me and have carried me through many a tough time. As such, it was the principles of female solidarity that drew me to accept a review copy of Mum’s the Word by Lorraine Turnbull and it did not disappoint – this fast-paced and humorous tale is a homage to the unbreakable bonds between women.

Ann-Marie has had enough of her abhorrently abusive husband and decides to kill him, feeding him to the pigs to make it look like an accident. Her best friend Elaine helps her as they set out to cover up this morbid murder. Once freed from her husband’s tyrannical tortures, our protagonist begins to build their farm into a thriving new business and life begins once more to have hope. But can you really get away with murder? As other relationships around her deteriorate and events threaten to destroy the new life Ann-Marie is building, will she live to regret committing such a reckless crime?

Believe it or not from that description, this is a story told with gentle humour and a sense of empathy that brings the reader close to each of the characters in turn. With a quintessentially British balance of drama interspersed with cups of tea and slices of cake, Turnbull portrays both the idyllic Scottish countryside and the folk inhabiting it with great skill, bringing to life individuals so creatively that I can genuinely picture them in detail in my head. Yes there is death (although we are spared too much gore) but there’s also romance, friendship and even love, all delivered with humour and compassion.  It is refreshing to have older female characters being offered a new start and I really enjoyed the fact that even Ann-Marie’s mother was allowed a shot at love, despite being nearly 80. This book tells us that life doesn’t begin at 40 – life begins whenever you want it to. And your girls will be there for you no matter what.

It may sound a bit gruesome but this is a well-structured and creative concept and I would certainly recommend you give it a go. Yes you may have to suspend your disbelief just a touch but it’s worth it to enjoy this random romp. I look forward to reading this author’s other work.

Motigraphs

Despite my deeply cynical and often sarcastic exterior (I know, I hide it well), I am a sucker for a bit of schmaltz.  The sort of social media sentimentality that most people instinctively shun can genuinely lift my mood, with the right motivational quote at the right moment lifting my sensitive soul no matter how ridiculously photo-shopped the accompanying sunset picture is.  In fact, I am so often inspired by the words of others that I have developed a whole new hobby taking what I like to call Motigraphs – photos of uplifting or moving passages from the books that I read to be saved in a special folder on my phone for future reference. Not only does this mean I have instant access to them whenever I feel in need of emotional encouragement but it also ensures I can point others in the direction of words that may bring them comfort in times of need. However there is one small catch – I have entirely failed to record which text each extract comes from. So I hereby present to you some of my favourite book quotes, without context and without any authorial acknowledgement at all.  (I was going to try some dubious argument about art being stand-alone from its creator, but basically I’m just an idiot.  Sorry!)
 
1) “The desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience.  And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience in itself is a positive experience”.
I like to think one of my key skills is reframing negatives into positives (although admittedly I am more effective at doing this for other people than in relation to my own life) and this statement supports that way of thinking.  Ultimately it tells me that nothing is ever entirely good or bad and that can be an empowering frame of mind when life is getting you down. It’s an approach worth trying when you are struggling.
 
2) “Lots of times you think things are healed but they’re only healed partway or they’ve healed wrong and you’ve got to rehurt ’em to get ’em right”.
I am notorious for persistently picking at my own psychological scabs (not physical ones though, eugh).  Someone told me I was fat in 1999?  Yep still hurts to relive that moment.  Fell over on stage about 12 years ago?  I can still feel the humiliation now.  So I probably like this quote because it justifies my tendency to re-open those wounds, especially at 3am when I can’t sleep. But I also think it applies to the complexity of relationships and how sometimes the only way to truly heal is to hurt.  (See how wise I am!?)

3) “Beware of the gap. The gap between where you are and where you want to be.  Simply thinking of the gap widens it.  And you end up falling through”.
This is one I return to continually whenever I feel the pressure of social media become too much.  I know I project an online life far more care-free than I could ever dream of, yet I still choose to believe that everyone else is genuinely living their best life when they post amazing photos of their holidays / children / new hobby that they mastered in 5 minutes whilst simultaneously publishing a new novel, bringing up 6 children and working full time. It makes me long to be different and it is that gap between who I am and who I want to be that can rip me apart. This reminds me how important self-acceptance is and the need to set realistic goals.

4) “If you ever wanted to get an accurate picture of who you are … all you had to do was look at everything you’d Googled over the past 24 hours.  Most people would be appalled to see themselves with this kind of clarity”.
I decided to put this theory to the test whilst writing this blog and I can confirm categorically that I am an appallingly dull human being. Between checking which bin was due out tomorrow and booking a chiropractic treatment, I had Googled such ground-breaking information as whether a particular actor was married and who still stocked my particular shade of hair dye.  I am not living the dream.  I see this quote as a call to action – after all, is this how I want to be remembered?  (Spoiler alert: no it isn’t).

5) “Fabulous and Fucked up. Absolutely Right.  That’s what we all are.  It’s called being human”.
Yes, yes we are.  What truly sucks about being human is also what truly rocks.  It’s a rollercoaster.  This is another example of the power of reframing and the drive to embrace who we are for what we are.  Or in other words, you do you boo. You are amazing.
 
So what about you, Bookaholics?  What’s your favourite Motigraph? I would love to hear what words have inspired you…

Backstories

I find myself increasingly distracted these days, Bookaholics. If I’m watching TV, I’m flicking through Facebook on my phone; if I’m texting I’m also on Twitter – my brain is constantly buzzing. Even when I’m reading I find my mind can still wander and I often pause to Google spurious things like whether Jimmy Tarbuck is still alive (yes, if you’re interested) or whether you can get ill from eating coleslaw 3 days out of date (also yes, don’t do it). So when I find a book that properly captures my imagination and absorbs my full attention, I consider that quite a find. Backstories by Simon Van der Velde is exactly that.

This is unquestionably the most unique text I have read in a very long time. Packaged as a series of short stories, each one captures a snapshot of a famous person’s life with one specific catch – the author never explicitly tells us who they are referring to. This is an incredibly effective hook to draw the reader in.  Cast in the role of detective, I was on the alert immediately, rising to the challenge of piecing together the evidence on offer.  Some individuals were definitely easier to guess than others and I knew within a few paragraphs who they referred to; with others the penny didn’t drop until the final lines of the chapter.  (In the name of transparency I have to confess there is one I still don’t know but NO SPOILERS I AM DETERMINED TO WORK IT OUT). One fact remained consistent right the way through – at the end of every section, my immediate impulse was to go back and reread that particular part to pick up on all the clues I had missed first time.  And believe me, there were plenty.
 
Undoubtedly this is where the magnetism of Backstories truly lies, in the way each clue is hidden within the text without ever being so overt that it ruins the reader’s enjoyment or the climactic sense of achievement in guessing correctly. Van der Velde shows immense skill in creating uniquely different voices for every single chapter, keeping each narrative fresh and individual, whilst also skipping between various periods of history with apparent ease.  The dexterity of this should not be underestimated nor the detailed research it must have required.  If I have one criticism of this book, it would be that I wanted more: each snapshot is so brief yet so engaging that I wasn’t prepared to part with that story when the next began.  This alone tells you how talented this author’s writing is and I look forward to reading anything else he has published.
 
It is difficult to say more without providing spoilers but it probably goes without saying that I fully recommend this to you. I could picture myself with friends reading each chapter aloud and seeing who could guess the subject first or even running competitions to see who could spot the most clues (after all never let it be said I don’t know how to party).  Backstories may be small but it is perfectly formed and is the perfect choice for anyone feeling like all they ever read is the same old stuff over and over again. Try it.  You won’t regret it.