Life on Other Planets by Matt Cook

It’s 1997 and Ben Carters Great Aunt Pearl has just died. Ben arrives with his Dad, Victor, and various Aunts and Uncles meet at the dilapidated old house in order to get cracking with the sorting out and organising of the funeral. Nothing unusual about that, where there’s life, there’s death. Where there’s families, there’s stress. Goes hand in hand.

However, no one can seem to find Aunt Pearls Will, which is a tad problematic. Patience is tested, the families true colours begin to emerge and relationships take a bit of a toxic turn. And then there’s the discovery of something called the ‘Church of The Holy Heavens’ which causes no end of questions and suspicions. Things begin to get as messy as the stale old house itself.

At first glance the title and cover hints that the story is going to be somewhat ‘out there’. Other planets, things that are not of this world, the suggestion of alternative life and beyond.

But the story within couldn’t be more grounded to planet earth and the people on it if it tried. I found myself becoming quickly absorbed and at one with the trials and tribulations of the Carter family.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 47 years of being on planet earth, it’s that humans can be pretty crap when it comes to familial stress. Moving house, new jobs, new schools, relationships, babies, doing the monthly ‘big shop’, health, money, death. It all plays a part in what we all become as we age and slide into that older generation category. (I’m not quite there, yet…!)

As we age, the more knowledgeable we become, yes? Well, actually, having just spent 266 pages with fourteen year old Ben and seeing his family unit through his young eyes has triggered a bit of a rethink actually.

Matt Cooks writing gave me a bit of a zap when I started reading. I knew from a very early point that this was going to be a thoughtful, relatable story, with nuggets of dark humour dropped in throughout.

So, this zap, let me explain. On starting a book, sometimes you read a paragraph, or one sentence in the first few chapters and you already know that you’ve got yourself some quality writing. That’s exciting. That’s the zap.

‘The refrigerator was a riot of mould and malfunction; ancient foodstuffs of unknowable content glistened and furred and hatched plans.’

I mean, who’d think to link crusty-labelled jars of the unknown with dodgy best before dates in the back of a cupboard with the ‘hatching of plans’? Matt did, and it made me laugh far too hard, I completely got it. I’ve rummaged through a similar cupboard or two myself!

That’s how Matt writes. His humour has a slightly dark, yet soft, spiritual side. He has a real understanding of the human psyche, which shines throughout the book. This is particularly prominent with his characters. He must of cast his mind back to his fourteen year old self numerous times.

Matt has created a heartfelt story that is full of life, even though the plot is predominantly about death. Humans are simply being human. Teenagers loitering on the sidelines, often invisible, yet brimming with ideas and carefully trying to work out their own lives. Adults in the thick of it, unknowingly (and probably knowingly) cocking things up.

Many of us have been there, lived it, seen it.

But have we properly seen it?

Fact: Matt has.

I think he’s a bit of a ‘people watcher’. He sees things from a different angle, this helped in creating his characters, the descriptions and situations.

‘I tried again to speak, to clear things up, but my voice was a chewy substance that fell straight out of my mouth on to the floor’.

Matt has a way with words, his story telling has a flow that is so immersive. Before I knew it I had read well over half the book, I’d only picked it up for a chapter or two. A sure sign of a great book is when you’re lost in those pages and don’t realise you have been until you stop, and jump back out into real life.

I would highly recommend Life on Other Planets to everyone. It’s the kind of book which would appeal to adults, teenagers, or a senior human being. It’s got an abundance of emotion, and what stood out most of all was it’s readability. It’s so readable, you don’t even feel yourself getting sucked in. I felt like I was hiding in a cupboard in Pearls hallway, earwigging and spying on the family.

So as you’ve probably gathered, I absolutely loved it and I’m looking forward to seeing what else Matt has up his sleeve. Marvellous stuff!

Thank you Matt for sending me a gifted copy, it’s found it’s comfy slot on my forever shelf.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss

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On the longest day of the summer, twelve people sit cooped up with their families in a faded Scottish cabin park. The endless rain leaves them with little to do but watch the other residents.

Summerwater was inspired by a family holiday that Sarah Moss had in Scotland where it relentlessly rained.

‘You can’t wait for the fucking weather, not here, you’ll be dead before it stops raining.’

The story revolves around twelve very different families over a twenty four hour period. But in fact, they have a lot more in common with each other than they actually realise.

‘…who the fuck goes on holiday where there isn’t even a chippy?’

This book is a ‘people-watchers’ dream. After all, what else is there to do when it’s pouring down outside? You’ve just spent a small fortune on a musty old cabin in the woods, and the sun seems like a long distant memory. You’d sit and watch the world go by from inside that cabin and judge each other of course! That’s what I would do anyway. Get my moneys worth one way or another. British holidays are a lot to be desired at times.

‘People get on best, in Claire’s view, when they’re apart at least half the time…’

We get to meet bored young children and angsty teenagers, newly engaged young things and married couples whose relationships have become stagnant and barely tolerable as they approach old age.

What they all have in common is they are disgruntled by the weather, their lives in general, and most of all each other.

‘What do you want, Josh whispers in her ear. A cup of tea and a bacon bap, she thinks, would be excellent, but she says kiss me…’

We’ve all been there, those family holidays where we try our hardest to make the best of a bad situation. Sitting indoors with no phone signal or WiFi can force our minds back into the real world, whether we like it or not. What is it about the British, is it really such a strain to talk and connect with each other?

‘Have a bath, he said’ …Women’s magazines always say that, a long scented bath, as if everything from baby weight to infidelity will dissolve in enough hot water, as if you can spend enough on bath salts to cover the smell of self-loathing and rage.’

In between each chapter, Moss delicately brings in another aspect to the story. Brief, evocative description of the surroundings, vignette style chapters which connect the surrounding natural world to the characters. Whilst reading these, they gave me welcomed respite from the character-driven trope. A breather almost, to prepare me for the next ‘human’ instalment.

‘You probably don’t notice when you’re in your prime, do you; in fact, if you’re thinking about your prime it’s almost certainly over.’

What I loved most about Summerwater was it’s simple concept mixed with the complexities of being human, being loved and being angry.

This story is littered with a dark humour I wasn’t expecting. I experienced real hearty belly laughs on numerous occasions. I read some of it in the bathtub too, soaking away my own ‘self-loathing and rage’! At one point I looked up into the bathroom mirror and saw my facial expression which I think was mixture of a ‘knowing smirk’ and a deep connective understanding. I read about 30 pages towards the end out loud to myself as I had a few hours on my own. I wanted to properly ‘hear’ the characters’ voices. The dialogue was chatty, easy. The descriptions breathtakingly beautiful.

The final few pages of Summerwater was phenomenal. I’ll say no more on that subject, I suggest you read it.

This is the first time I’ve read anything by Sarah Moss, and I’m delighted to discover she has a back catalogue which I will definitely get through.

I’ll leave you with a final quote, from Justine. She’s a Mum of two with a running-obsession, but what is she REALLY running from? She was definitely my most favourite character of all;

‘…old ladies, powder and lipstick to totter to the corner shop with one of those trolleys because they’ve not bothered to lift anything heavier than a biscuit since the menopause…’

Big thanks to Sarah Moss and Picador for sending me an advanced copy via the NetGalley platform in exchange for an honest review.

The People at Number 9 by Felicity Everett

The People at Number 9 by Felicity Everett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The People at Number 9 is a slow-burning, character-driven story about the dynamics of friendship. Sara and Neil have new neighbours move in next door and over a period of time, they become very close to the quirky Lou and Gav.

As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that Sara’s outlook on life is being subtly manipulated by this new friendship. The two couples’ children become close, and it slowly evolves into something Sara thought was for the greater good.

Lou is an up and coming screenwriter and Gav is a sculptor, they have hardly any house rules and seem to have the perfect marriage. Their lifestyle is carefree and fun, and soon Sara and Neil spend every spare moment with them, making their own lives a little less mundane and regimental.

This was an unusual read for me, I was up and down with it like a yo-yo. What I thought was going to be a slightly dark, twisty character study, actually turned out to be an extremely slow moving, intense look at how people interact with one another. It was ultimately about how changing attitudes and decisions can have an adverse impact on life, family and future.

If you’re looking for a story with lots of psychological thrills and plot twists, choose something else. However, if you enjoy reading about how relationships stand the test of time, and don’t mind feeling uncomfortably up close and personal with the protagonists, I’d recommend this.

I found at times, I was wondering if anything was ever going to happen. Did this even have a plot?! At half way through, I was contemplating calling it a day, but something was driving me on. When I got to around 70%, and still nothing in particular was going on, it dawned on me that this wasn’t the kind of book I thought it would be. What I did realise though was that I was so intrigued by the two couples relationships, I absolutely needed a conclusion.

Felicity Everett’s writing was a bit hit and miss. It was easy to read with a slow but steady flow, but occasionally I felt that the use of flowery language didn’t belong. I would be in mid-sentence and then some obscure word would be thrown in purely to try and impress the reader. Instead of adding a bit of intellect, it stuck out like a sore thumb, screaming ‘here’s a good word for you, I’m such a wordy author’. For example, when the word ‘nascent’ cropped up, I’d not heard of it and looked it up in the dictionary. When it appeared again a few chapters later, I rolled my eyes I’m afraid. Some stories suit a bit of arty-farty language, it didn’t do this one any favours.

And while I’m on the subject of the writing style, some of the descriptions made me cringe! I’m not squeamish by a long chalk, but up close and personal it definitely was.

‘….relishing the ripe, mushroom-y scent of him’.

‘….with her husband’s semen coagulating on her inner thigh..’

Urgh! No! Too much, too much! If my other half had a ripe, mushroom-y scent, I’d be suggesting a bath, or a trip to the doctor. And I really don’t want to think about coagulation of bodily fluids thanks.

Aside from my gripes, The People at Number 9 was different and I was surprised, intrigued, and irritated by it’s style. I was glad I kept at it as the conclusion was satisfying. What kept me going was the tiniest hint all the way through that some serious shit was going to hit the fan. It just took an eternity to get to there.

This story wasn’t about getting to the conclusion, it was about the journey. I can see Everetts vision with this, and she did a good job at keeping me ticking over. This book is for patient readers who don’t mind waiting for something to happen. It simmers with very little mystery, but for me, there was something that hooked me, but I’ve no idea what.

I’d like to thank the publisher, HQ, the author, Felicity Everett and NetGalley for the opportunity to read this in exchange for an honest review.

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