Book review: Snow Country by Sebastian Faulks

This world is full of beautiful books and equally beautiful storytellers. And Sebastian Faulks comes up as one of those word weavers you can always count on. Last week his latest novel Snow Country was released by Hutchinson Heinemann and I was lucky enough to receive a gifted copy.

Set in Austria in a period that spans the earlier part of the 20th Century this story examines the lasting impact of World War One on individual relationships, on enduring mental health and the political landscape of Europe. Through the eyes of Lena, a young Austrian women who has grown up surrounded by poverty and Anton Heideck, a journalist who is searching for the woman he loved and lost at the outbreak of war we come to see a different side of story we might think we know well.

When both Lena and Anton come together in the mountains, at the acclaimed and mysterious Schloss Seeblick, they are both searching for answers to questions that have haunted them for years. Schloss Seeblick is a retreat, where progressive therapists of all kinds seek to help those troubled both by the world at large and their own inner thoughts.

Even though this story is concerned with some of the greatest, most terrible events of the past hundred years, this is in essence a quiet, rather introspective story. A story that looks inwards, to the core of the human and the centre of the soul. Faulks is one of the greats; one of those magicians who takes a story and makes it beautiful by it’s simplicity. Faulks’ use of language, the way he weaves small details brings each character, each twist and turn to life.

The feeling of mistakes made and mistakes destined to be repeated runs right through this novel. The quest for understanding of the human condition is reflected by both the characters and the era. Trapped between two wars, there is a feeling of bitter sweet inevitably, that both stirs and soothes the narrative.

Pop this one on your Autumn reading list and you won’t be disappointed .

Rachel x

Book review: Human Terrain by Emily Bullock

If you follow me on Twitter or are a regular reader of the blog you will know that over the past year or so I have been drawn further and further into the web of short fiction. So when Reflex Press approached me about Emily Bullock’s new collection Human Terrain I was very excited to get my hands on a copy.

Human Terrain is a collection of 20 short stories, some almost flash length, which concentrate very much on the human condition; on those things that motivate and bind us. The things that both hold us back and drive us forward.

Within these pages are snapshots of lives. From an elderly man revisiting his childhood home, to the young girls groomed by extremists; we move seamlessly from the everyday to the extreme. And whatever the focus, the content or the characters each story is as vivid and alive with connections as the next. No setting feels mundane, no seems character forced or unbelievable. Here is a writer who has harnessed, embraced and extended the human spirit in multitude ways, harnessing each stories energy and going where it might take her.

Diversity and adversity run through this collection like welcome silver threads. We meet characters who are up against it, who are doing what they need to do to survive both physically and emotionally. We witness self destruction and self awareness in equal measure, but we are invited to view them through a three dimensional, empathetic lens.

This is a sparkling collection with humanity at it’s heart. Beautifully balanced and constructed, it is a perfect short story collection.

Rachel x

Book Review: No Touching by Ketty Rouf

This month is Women in Translation month. And the stark fact is I don’t read enough translated fiction. So this month I have been trying to put that right and when Europa Editions contacted me about No Touching by Ketty Rouf , translated from the French by Tina Kover I had a strong inkling this one was for me.

This is the story of Josephine, ground down by her job as a high school philosophy teacher, who finds a new way of living when she walks into a Champs-Elysee strip club.

Here begins her double life. Tired and uninspired teacher by day, risqué dancer by night. Her life in the club provides her with a new insight on the world and her own being. Through her night time persona, Rose Lee, she learns to fall in love with her body. She learns about the power of dancing for men, about how she can manipulate and stoke their desire. From the other women she learns the rules both spoken and unspoken and begins to find strength in female company, something she has never experienced before.

But this is a dangerous game. Working day and night leaves Josephine tired and keeping the two worlds separate is a challenge. One night the inevitable happens; her two worlds collide and she is forced to reassess where her life is heading, forced to decide if the risks she takes are worth the pay off.

This is a novel that gets to the heart of desire and power. It is dappled by light and shade, forcing the reader to reevaluate their expectations and stereotypes, whilst at the same time encouraging to look beyond the norm.

Josephine is a complex character; she is intelligent and increasingly aware of her own being. Brave enough to step outside of her world but wary of choices which might take her too far. She isn’t static, she is continually evolving. She is written with challenge and complexity at the fore.

It is a novel dripping in richness. Each page is evocative of a time and place. Be it the ridiculous and absurd directives of the Education system, or the dark seductive underworld of the strip club, these pages will tease, tantalise and challenge you. They will pull you right into the heart of the action and hold you just where you need to be.

Winner of the prestigious Prix du Premier Roman 2020 this is the perfection addition to you Women in Translation reading list. Be prepared to be dazzled.

Rachel x

Book Review : An Approach to Black by Emily Jeremiah

Over my time as a blogger one of the biggest delights has been discovering indie presses and in turn being introduced to a whole treasure trove of work that I was previously unaware of. A particularly delightful discovery has been Reflex Press. Over the past year I have been lucky enough to read several of their titles and, honestly, not one of them has let me down.

Yesterday one of their newest releases An Approach to Black by Emily Jeremiah dropped through the letter box. Within two hours I had devoured it and was settling down for a reread! This slim little novella packs a mighty punch.

The story centres around a 19th Century Finnish artist, Anna S, who married a fellow artist, Eino. Eino’s career flourished while Anna’s stalled with the arrival of children and it’s associated domesticity. Anna was subsequently committed to an asylum.

In London, in the present day, Anna appears to be little more than a footnote to Eino’s history but two people have taken an interest in her fate. One is is her great- great- great grandson Jonathan, a struggling and rather lost young artist, who has almost stumbled into Anna’s path. The other is Emma, a retired Finnish academic, who is writing a book about Anna.

Both Emma and Jonathan are looking for ways to take them out of their own lives and begin to strike up a friendship as they delve deeper into Anna’s story. Details are sketchy, but Emma particularly is determined to give Anna a story of her own.

This book is beautifully written with precise, sharp prose that perfectly conjures both setting and tone. In both Anna and Emma we see intelligent and talented women who are pushing at the boundaries of creativity, while bearing the burden of complex and sometimes destructive family life.

There is a deep sense of regret and indeed rage around Anna’s story. It is a familiar but no less tragic scenario, whereby a strong and talented women fails to conform to a stereotype or convenient role and ends up paying the ultimate price. It speaks for generations of women denied access to self expression, fulfilment and indeed basic liberty.

Skilfully woven and painted in the most delightful shades, take some time to wander among the images created by this work. It’s is a rare treat.

Rachel x

Book Review: Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson

It’s been a while since I wrote a review as I have been having myself a little summer break. But this barnstormer of a book; Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson published this week by Tinder Press, has inspired me to hop back on the blog.

Set on the Californian coast, amongst the logging community of the 1970’s this is a novel that will touch every part of you. It is beautifully told, beautifully constructed and worth every single minute of your reading time.

It is 1977 and Rich Gunderson’s family have been logging the giant redwoods for years. His father lost his life in one of the all too frequent logging accidents and Rich wants a better future for his son Chub. With this in mind he buys up a local plot of land, the yield of which could set his family up for life. But only if he can get to it and that’s a risk of it’s own.

His wife Colleen is the community’s unofficial midwife, a role that she finds both fulfilling and heartbreaking in equal measure, as she longs for a second child of her own. After suffering several miscarriages Colleen is desperate and grieving.

When a face from the past arrives in the town then something rotten at the core of the community threatens to rise to the surface. Each family has a different opinion, but the very survival of this way of life suddenly seems to hang in the balance.

Written with passion, heart and breathtaking complexity, this is the story of all sides of the argument. It is the story of economics and the survival of a way of life that finds its self pitted against the continuation and protection of the landscape that supports it existence.

By creating characters with honest and complex motivations, characters who lives are laid bare for all to see Davidson brings this debate to life. Nothing in this story is ever as clear cut as we would imagine it to be.

This is a story of powerful motivations, strong people, and ultimately love; all set against the fragile and majestic beauty of the land.

One of my books of the year so far. Thank you Caitlin Rayner for my gifted copy and the very welcome introduction.

Rachel x

#BlogTourReview: Lying with Lions by Annabel Fielding

Today it is my pleasure to take my turn on the blog tour for Lying with Lions by Annabel Fielding. I was approached by Annabel a while ago to ask if I would be interested in reading her historical novel set at the turn of the 20th Century. A quick read of the blurb – see below- and my interest was piqued!

The Blurb…

Edwardian England. Agnes Ashford knows that her duty is threefold: she needs to work on cataloguing the archive of the titled Bryant family, she needs to keep the wounds of her past tightly under wraps, and she needs to be quietly grateful to her employers for taking her up in her hour of need. However, a dark secret she uncovers due to her work thrusts her into the Bryants’ brilliant orbit – and into the clutch of their ambitions.

They are prepared to take the new century head-on and fight for their preeminent position and political survival tooth and nail – and not just to the first blood. With a mix of loyalty, competence, and well-judged silence Agnes rises to the position of a right-hand woman to the family matriarch – the cunning and glamorous Lady Helen. But Lady Helen’s plans to hold on to power through her son are as bold as they are cynical, and one day Agnes is going to face an impossible choice…

My thoughts…

This is a book absolutely buzzing with period detail. It is a story of family secrets, intrigue and a fight for survival as the world heads towards irresistible and irreversible societal change.

The characterisation is strong, direct and you will find yourself drawn towards points of view and sympathies you never expected. Of particular strength is the considered and careful portrayal of both Agnes and Lady Helen. Born in different eras, both from different social classes theirs is a meeting of minds and a testament to what happens when strong, intelligent women come together, working to common ends. It is tale of unexpected courage and unexpected love.

The plot is dark and twisting. There are many skeletons rattling within these Edwardian cupboards and at times it is hard to see where morality and necessity both begin and end. But for a family with such a chequered past the Bryant’s passage through life was always going to be eventful.

From beginning to end this story has you guessing, has you reeling and has you hooked! If you love historical fiction and want to dip you toe into some Edwardian intrigue then Lying with lions could very well be the place for you to go.

Rachel x

Book Review: The Thin Line Between Everything and Nothing by Hannah Storm

Flash Fiction rules! And for this week Hannah Storm is the Queen! Thank you Reflex Press for sending me a copy of The Thin Line Between Everything and Nothing. Released this week it is my absolute pleasure to be able review.

I have made no secret of my deepening love affair with flash fiction and the fact that I can’t cram enough of it through my eyes and into my brain. Good flash fiction is compulsive stuff, tiny morsels of yummy delights that linger on your palate for days, sometimes weeks at a time. The kind of experience that makes your brain zing and then yearn for more. And that kind of flash is exactly what Hannah Storm is serving up here.

What always truly amazes me is the depth that you find in excellent short fiction and running throughout Hannah’s work is a tangible sense of humanity, humility and understanding. This is the human condition laid bare. These stories touch upon all corners of life, they take you to the highest heights and the lowest lows, sometimes just within the space of a few lines. But always they feel so real.

There are many themes that bind these stories together but the thread that seems to bind them all is the lived female experience. The empowerment and definition of women’s lived experiences and a clear acknowledgement of the challenges, abuse and extremes they face. At times these stories feel like spells or incantations. Places where women can see each other, hold out their hands and say ‘I feel that too’.

The arc of experiences and perspectives within this collection are vast. Each reader will naturally gravitate towards individual pieces, each reader will be drawn to stories that chime with them. For myself, wrestling through the first week of the holidays and with reluctant, dare we say difficult teenagers, pieces like ‘Octopus’ and ‘Birth Plan’ hit me with a thump. It is also proving impossible to get beautiful, lost Amy from ‘Birthday Girl’ to stop dancing in the corners of my brain.

This book is masterclass in flash. It’s a master class in knowing how to grab you by the heart and give it a beat stopping squeeze. Congratulations Hannah, you have a triumph on your hands.

Rachel x

Book Review : Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder

Often these days I find myself wondering how on earth I am going to put into words the feelings a book has provoked within me. Sometimes it seems like a mountain to climb and this was definitely the case with Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder.

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t struggle to read Nightbitch; on the contrary I gulped it down in big messy mouthfuls. It was like some dark delicious treat that I kept finding waiting for me in the cracks of an insanely busy and stressful week. It was the kind of book I wanted to read non stop but knew it would be all the better for savouring. In all honesty I failed with the slow savouring part; I was just too greedy and impatient. Maybe that will come on the reread; because there will be a reread. This book is too deep, too delicious, too beautifully complex for anyone to take in first go.

This is the story of a mother, a mother never identified by her name, who is exhausted, lost in the forest that we know as motherhood. A women who feels she has lost her identity. Having been a successful artist she has paused her career to look after her young son. Believing she would be fulfilled by this she finds herself feeling bored, unseen and diminished. She still loves her son but motherhood alone is simply not enough. And admitting that makes her feel like she has failed. Admitting that makes her feel alone.

That premise right there ‘motherhood alone is not enough’ is at the centre of what this story is about. That is the place of honesty from which this story grows. It is something that is so true for many many women but it is still taboo, an often unspoken truth even amongst women themselves. There are no taboos in Nightbitch; Rachel Yoder smashes them one by one.

The mother’s discontentment takes on its own physical manifestation. The mother gradually begins to believe that she is turning into a dog. What begins as a strange patch it hair and possible extended canines, turns into wild changes of behaviour and a whole new way of looking at the world.

The process of change is symbolic of a mother rediscovering herself, of finding space for what she needs in the tiny slots of time that parenting affords us. It is about the way The Mother transforms to Nightbitch, about the risks and chances she takes. It is about how she finds her pack; others who are feeling the same and are willing to join her on the path to rediscovery and freedom.

This is a book filled with emotion. It is filled with heart, soul and truth. It makes you laugh, cry, scream and rage, but also it makes mothers feel seen. It is the book that every women struggling out of the depths of cartoons, playdough and sleepless needs to read.

I flipping loved it!

Rachel x

#Blogtour : Everyone Is Still Alive by Cathy Rentzenbrink

Having read and been deeply moved by Cathy Rentzenbrink’s memoir The Last Act of Love and devoured her wonderful celebration of a lifelong love of reading Dear Reader, I could not believe my luck when the chance to read and review her first novel came my way. Everyone is still alive was published on 8th July by Phoenix and it really is a truly incredible debut.

This is the story of Juliet, recently bereaved, who decides to move her family into her late mother’s home, on the quiet suburban street of Magnolia Road. Her son Charlie is just about to start school and her husband Liam is a writer working, somewhat sporadically, on his second novel. Juliet herself is the main breadwinner and in addition to being side swiped by grief, finds herself juggling all the demands and guilt associated with the life of a working mother.

Magnolia Road has a close knit community; the heart of which are a hub of middle class parents whom Liam seems quickly to become absorbed by. At first Liam views the group as fodder for his new book and claims his daily meet ups are purely for research purposes. But as the weeks go on and bonds of friendship seem to grow Juliet increasingly feels as if she is on the outside looking in.

The dynamics of the group are further complicated when one seemingly stable marriage suddenly crumbles and Liam is pulled further into the emotional turmoil left in it’s wake. Juliet starts to question the foundations of her own marriage and wonders if moving to Magnolia Road was really the solution it seemed to be. As doubt continues to creep closer, life changing moments are just around the corner.

This novel commands with an air of authenticity from the first page to the last. It is populated by a cast of believable and well rounded characters who act with both spontaneity and comforting predictability . Characters who in short make you believe in them. The population of Magnolia Road feels like a community you could walk into, with lives you can both visualise and care about.

Cathy Rentzenbrink has created a plot that pulls you, that shows how the day to day of our lives is just as complex and engaging as events further afield and how the answers to the questions we ask ourselves are actually often not that far away.

Once I stepped into Juliet and Liam’s lives it was actually surprisingly hard to leave! This one of those novels that compelled you to keep turning the pages, but once you got to the end the characters lingered for a good long while. Complex emotions and solid story telling make this a must read of the summer.

Rachel x

And there is more…

For more reviews and reactions to Everyone is still alive check out the rest of the blog tour below…

Book Review: Dreaming of Rose by Sarah LeFanu

Just this week a group of friends and I were discussing the reason we read. Since then it has occurred to me that my answer was missing one vital element. I read because I am nosey. I want to know what it is that makes people tick, what is behind the decisions they make. In short I want to know their secrets.

So being given the chance to read and review Dreaming of Rose : A Biographer ‘s Journal by Sarah LeFanu was an absolute gift. A gift of a chance to see into the lives and minds of not just one great writer but two!

In 2003 Sarah LaFanu published her biography of 20th Century author Rose Macaulay. During the period of her research and writing thoughts of Rose, unsurprisingly came to inhabit her head and somewhat overtake her life. First published in 2013 Dreaming of Rose is the story of what it took to create such an accomplished biography and the trial LeFau went through to get there.

This is a glimpse of one writer trying to pin another to the page. Through the pages of Sarah LeFanu’s journal we are able to both witness and share in the triumphs and despair born of hours of research. The frustrations of contacts who seem willing to talk but then mysteriously clam up and the difficulties of prizing fact from fiction, a little more each day.

Throughout this time, when money is tight and work on the biography is somehow fitted in between writing for the BBC and teaching, Sarah is determined to find and represent the true Rose. However frustrating and difficult that maybe.

The journal is a window on her world, a fascinating insight into how a book morphs into being. Of the process and the doubts, of agonies around structure and tone and the sweet joy when something sits just right.

This book has so much to say on so many levels. It’s is testament to the work ethic, creativity and determination of two great female writers, and my heartfelt thanks to Handheld Press for sending a gifted copy my way.

Rachel x