Book Review: Pondweed by Lisa Blower

I open this review with a confession…

This is the first Lisa Blower book I have read. In fact until I stumbled across Pondweed on my Twitter feed and the lovely Emma Dawson, at Myriad very kindly sent me a copy, I hadn’t hear of this author at all.

What an addition to my life and my bookshelves this discovery is! I love coming across new authors, but when you find someone whose writing is sharp, original and wholly clear sighted, writing infused with wit and empathy in perfect balance, the joy is very real.

So bookish friends let me tell you about Pondweed, released on 9th July by Myriad Editions.

This is the story of Selwyn and Ginny. They are both of retirement age and have recently found each other again after having a relationship in their youth. Although they are currently living together, there is an unease within their relationship. It seems immediately unorthodox, filled with tension and the boundaries are not clear. As a reader I was continually attempting to define their roles; old friends or lovers? Or something between the two and altogether more complex ?

The story begins with Selwyn, arriving home unexpectedly in the middle of the day, towing a caravan. It is a van that belongs to the aquatic supplies business he has recently become a partner in, investing all his retirement fund. Selwyn is agitated and demands that Ginny get in the car immediately.

Something is wrong. Ginny is confused and angry. Why are they leaving? Where are they going? All Selwyn will tell her is they need to leave now and they are going on holiday to Wales.

Against her better judgement and resentfully, Ginny gets in the car, and so begins a strange journey. Filled with many detours of both an tangible and emotional nature, this is journey across the country but also into the past. A journey that will begin to define and redefine the couple’s relationship.

It quickly becomes clear that the business has failed, Selwyn has been cheated out of his nest egg by his unscrupulous business partner. The journey seems to be punctuated by visits to various ponds, where Selwyn always seems to be meeting up with old friends, completing favours, business transactions and encountering the past. Ginny is frustrated, often angry, that Selwyn doesn’t share his plans and their route with her. The air of unease and tension between the couple grows, but there is an underlying sense that they need each other in some unexplained but instinctive way.

The plot, the journey, the relationships within this novel are all gloriously fragmented. And it is the tension that is created by this that pulls you as a reader into the slipstream and propels you forward. The story is filled with strange, half explained facts and relationships; the two mothers that Ginny grew up with, the fact her daughter, Mia, is living in New Zealand with one of Ginny’s old flames. All these references are cast out casually like nets into the prose and you are hooked, puzzled and primed to seek answers.

Ginny pushes continually for answers and clarity from Selwyn but is not prepared to reveal any level of truth about herself. Wrapped in decades of damage and repression the journey and it’s events slowly peel back layers until the secrets of both the present and the past are slowly revealed. Ginny and Selwyn slowly begin to expose , assimilate and come to terms with events. This story may be framed by days but really it spans a lifetime .

Edgy, raw and just a little bit dark Lisa Blower’s prose is biting and fresh. This is a book that makes you work, and it’s a joy. It is a book to lose yourself in, filled with simple yet devastating truths and razor sharp observations. And it is funny, laugh out loud funny. In that way that snatches of life and over heard conversations take on meaning and mirth. For every pool of darkness, there is a glorious patch of light.

Without a doubt one of my reads of the year.

Rachel x

June Wrap Up…Half way through 2020?!

Can you believe that we are already halfway through this strange and defining year? Never have I been so grateful for books, and once again June was a pretty spectacular reading month.

As there as been a slow shift back to some kind of normal, whatever that has become, then I haven’t read quite as much as in previous months but as you will see the quality over quantity rule definitely applies.

And on that note on to the books…

The first book of the month was a book club read, in fact a re-read for me, Geraldine Brook’s , Year of Wonders. This is the story of Eyam, the small Derbyshire village which, in 1665, completely and voluntarily, cut itself off from the rest of the world in order to stop the spread of The Plague. This book was a conscious, if some what tentative choice by our bookclub, made entirely due to current circumstances. Read in our current context this book takes on a whole new depth and suddenly changes from a story very much of the past to something relevant and relatable.

Continuing in the vein of reading influenced by wider events I made a pledge at the beginning of the month to read more BAME authors. In June I have had the absolute pleasure to read two stunning and equally thought provoking books that fall into this category. Firstly, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, whose review you can find here. And secondly, The Girl With The Louding Voice by Abi Dare. Released by Sceptre, it is the story of Adunni, a 14 year old Nigerian girl who passionately wants an education. It is the story of her reality and how hard she has to fight for what in the West we take for granted .

I have also been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to take part in five blog tours this month. I am determined I will never take this particular pleasure and privilege for granted and this month it has lead me to some beautiful new reads. Firstly, The Light Keeper by Cole Moreton and What Doesn’t Kill You edited by Elitsa Dermendzhiyska, both of which I read last month and had to wait impatiently to review.

Other blog tours can you find on the blog this month are The Family Holiday by Elizabeth Noble, Anna by Laura Guthrie and Sea Wife by Amity Gaige. All an absolute pleasure to take part in.

June has been a slower but immersive reading month. There have been books that have challenged and there have been books that have stepped up and soothed my soul. Firmly in the second category is the delightful and recently published The Phonebox at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina. A unique and moving exploration of grief and healing, I am busy recommending this to everyone.

And again, very much in the soul soothing category is the charming and quite stunning Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession. The whole of Book Twitter has been recommending this one to me for a very long time. I still have no explanation as to why I waited so long to fall under it’s spell. It is unique and filled with joy. Just read it!

Perhaps one of the most exciting things to happen over the last month has been the reopening of bookshops. I know I am not alone in the fact I have missed my book browsing fix. As a family we have escaped a couple of times to the Northumberland Coast, which has meant a couple of visits to the ever glorious Barter Books. The TBR is nicely topped up and I have started to make a dent in my recent purchases. Two of which are the very definitely unique (!) Wetlands by Charlotte Roche and Booker nominated The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh.

So looking ahead to July(!)… There are two books I read in June whose reviews are ready and waiting to go. Both have July release dates, both books you won’t want to miss. They are Pondweed by Lisa Blower, published by Myriad on 9th July, and Boy Parts by Eliza Clark published by Influx Press on 23rd July. Impatiently waiting to share my thoughts on both!!

I have also tentatively committed myself to #20BooksOfSummer challenge! I am slightly nervous having failed spectacularly last year to stick to the plan but heigh ho! So far I have read 2 and 1/2 on this list, the brilliant and award winning Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson being one. Watch this space…

If you have managed to get to the end of that bookish June ramble many thanks and see you on the other side of July!!!

Rachel x

Blog tour : Sea Wife by Amity Gaige

Sometimes you stumble across a book that you think you have wired in the first few pages. You think you understand what the focus and impetus of the story is and then you sit back to watch it all unfold.

And then quite suddenly the literary ground shifts and you are reassessing what you think you know. And the story is flying and pulling you along with it.

This has absolutely been my experience with Sea Wife by Amity Gaige, published 2nd July, by Fleet. And this is why I was so thrilled to be invited on to the blog tour.

Sea Wife is the story of a middle class American couple from Connecticut, Juliet and Michael. Michael, growing increasingly disenchanted and restless in his daily life persuades Juliet to rent out their house, plough their savings into a yacht and take their two young children off on the adventure of a lifetime.

From the beginning the reader is aware that all is not well. We begin with Juliet’s narrative. She is back home in Connecticut, hiding out in the closet, reading Michael’s ‘Captain’s Log’. The adventure is over and it is clear it has ended in undefined tragedy. Already the author is weaving tension into the telling of this tale. Using the dual narrative of Juliet’s reflections and Michael’s log, we are driven towards the conclusion of the voyage, tension ebbing and flowing, leading us on.

This book is an illuminating and sometimes dark portrait of a marriage. Juliet and Michael’s discord and lack of harmony slowly emerge as the novel progresses. This trip is a gamble, a chance to repair and heal divides which has emerged and grown over the years. Divided by Juliet’s postnatal depression, by increasing political differences, their marriage is floundering. At points it even seems that maybe this is a marriage that never should have been.

Both Michael and Juliet seem to have lost their sense of identity . We are presented with breathtaking and lyrical descriptions of the crippling depression which Juliet suffers. It’s becomes clear that she has lost her sense of self, dropping out of her graduate programme. Michael too is searching for a sense of purpose and identity, caught up in increasingly right wing politics and dreaming of escaping from the daily grind with his family. Both struggling to hold on to their own identities, they are therefore struggling to hold to what binds them together and defines them together as a couple.

The family’s journey is not linear. It is filled with light and shade; one minute this adventure seems to have brought them to paradise, the next they seem so far away from that. The obvious and increasing differences between this couple are compounded by emerging secrets; events that they are struggling to keep in the past and move beyond.

The two different view points continue throughout the novel, moving close together only to diverge again at moments notice. It is this unpredictably that builds this a underlying sense of tension.

This is a book that takes you out of your comfort zone and leaves you trying piece together a sense of what is to come almost from the first paragraph. There is a sense of inevitability that pushes the reader forward. And yet it is not a story without hope. It is a story about limits, and what happens when we move beyond them. It’s is a story that will linger for a long time.

Rachel x

And there is more…

For more reviews and reactions to Sea Wife by Amity Gaige check out the rest of the Blog Tour below…

Bookstagram Tour: Anna by Laura Guthrie

At the moment I feel like I am regularly starting my reviews with a confession. But here is another one for you. I rarely read YA books. But when I was asked to take part in the Bookstagram Tour for Anna by Laura Guthrie published by Cranachan Books I felt I should make an exception

Anna is the story of a teenage girl who has recently lost her Father. We meet her as she is travelling alone by coach from London to Scotland to begin a new life with her reclusive Mother. A mother she has had no contact with since she was a baby.

The thing that really drew me to this book was the fact that Anna, our grieving teenage protagonist, has Asperger’s Syndrome. A good deal of my professional life involves working with young people like Anna, and I am constantly searching for authentic and positive representations of ‘Aspie’ characters in literature.

I am delighted to report back that Anna does not disappoint. Anna is grieving, her Father has been her ‘go-to guide’ through a complex and sometimes hard to read neurotypical world. He has been her protector and her champion. With the help of some clued up outreach workers, her Father has helped Anna negotiate the mine field of social constructs and constraints. He has given her coping strategies, such as her ‘Happy Game’. He has nurtured her talents, home educated her and given her a sense of purpose and well being. And now, suddenly, he is gone.

In his place is her Mother, Patty. Reclusive, vulnerable and scared, her Mother seems barely capable of looking after herself let alone a grieving teenager whose world has been turned upside down. Patty is remote and, at first, borderline neglectful. Anna works hard to fit into her Mother’s world but everywhere she looks she seems to find mysteries and closed doors. Who for example is the Skeleton Man, and why is her mother so wary of him? Why won’t her mum register at the local GP? What does Ben know that her Mum doesn’t want Anna to find out? There is so much that Anna cannot understand.

Slowly barriers begin to come down and the relationship between mother and daughter begins to grow. However Anna finds that this relationship might impinge on her memories of and cherished beliefs surrounding her Father. How can she reconcile the things she is learning and the very different life she is now beginning to enjoy? Will there be a happy ending for Anna? And if so what will be the cost of that happiness?

As I had hoped when I seized upon this book it’s strength lies in the presentation of Anna. There is an overwhelming truth and an honesty to her narrative but also a vulnerability. Anna can’t possibly have all the answers to the strange and raw situation she finds herself in. No teenager could be expected to. And yet Anna’s condition has somehow forced her to be more self aware and more analytical.

There is a crazy but often repeated misconception that Autistic individuals don’t feel or express emotions . This is ridiculous of course; individuals in this situation may struggle with standard forms of expression but they feel everything just as deeply. Imagined for a second how hard negotiating this whole new world of grief, change and new relationships would be, when you don’t fully grasp the rules, when the implied social niceties are impossible to read. It is this Laura Guthrie has encapsulated and portrayed beautifully.

Like many young people with an Asperger’s diagnosis Anna struggles with change, and for this reason Anna clings to the familiar. She is, for example, drawn to the outcast Jamie, a foster child, on the edges of the world they have both found themselves in.

It was a great sense of joy to myself as a reader that I found a balanced and positive portrait of Asperger’s Syndrome within the character of Anna. Take for example her eye for detail, her ability to pick apart a situation with fresh perspective and inject a simple enthusiasm missing for so long in her mothers life.

Or her ability to think laterally and logically about a problem. Making soup for an elderly neighbour, bringing someone a kindness when the rest of the world has forgotten to see beyond their pain.

Anna is a novel filled with joy and hope. It is a story of light and shade but at it’s heart it celebrates what we all need in our lives; a little bit of diversity and a lot of kindness.

Rachel x

And there is more…

For the rest of the Anna Bookstagram Tour look no further …

#20BooksOfSummer…maybe…

I tried this last year and failed miserably! Planning my reading is something I have never been great at.

Don’t get me wrong, if I am on a Blog Tour I will be 100% reliable, if I request a proof I will always read it. But sometimes a glittery new book grabs my attention and I am off, like a magpie, eyes wide, chasing the shiny thing.

So don’t hold me to this list. This is the list I came up with today after days of leaving piles in random places around the house and manically counting, groaning and changing my mind. Ask me tomorrow and who knows!

But I need to get this post written, I need to commit, so this is the stack…

I think…

They are a complete mixture of new releases, books I have had for ages, second hand copies and lovely gifted proofs.

I solemnly swear to do my best…

The List…#20BooksOfSummer…

  • Sea Wife – Amity Gauge
  • Exciting Times – Naoise Dolan
  • The Back Up Plan – Elsie McArthur
  • The Night of the Flood – Zoe Somerville
  • The Cat and The City – Nick Bradley
  • The Sound Mirror – Heidi James
  • It’s Gone Dark Over Bill’s Mother’s – Lisa Blower
  • The Pull of the Stars – Emma Donoghue
  • The Misadventures of Evie Epworth – Matson Taylor
  • Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart
  • Constellations – Sinead Gleeson
  • On Beauty – Zadie Smith
  • The Harpy – Megan Hunter
  • Fleishman is in Trouble – Taffy Brodesser-Akner
  • On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong
  • The Most Fun We Ever Had – Claire Lombardo
  • Gingerbread – Helen Oyeyemi
  • My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante
  • A Closed Eye – Anita Brookner

So, Three months, 93 days and 20 books…

And I am already behind the curve!!! The idea of #20BooksOfSummer is the fab idea of @cathy746books.

This summer I promise I will do my best!

Rachel x

Blog Tour Review: The Family Holiday by Elizabeth Noble

It is a pleasure to be taking my turn on the blog tour today for Elizabeth Noble’s latest novel The Family Holiday published on 25th June and destined to be one of the most popular summer releases.

The novel centres around Charlie; approaching his 80th Birthday, he feels the need to pull his family close to him. In a generous and unexpected gesture he hires a beautiful renovated farmhouse for 10 days and asks all his children to join him.

Charlie is a widower, still very much grieving his wife who passed away several years before. Without the glue of it’s matriarch, the family of three adult children has drifted further apart. Scott the eldest is finally married, to a driven and beautiful American with two teenage girls. After yesterday of living the wealthy bachelor life style he now finds himself with a ready made family.

Nick is struggling. Recently and tragically widowed he is trying to bring up three young children single handedly. Convinced that asking for help means he will have failed Carrie, his adored late wife, he is running on empty,

And finally Laura, the only daughter, who is also at a low point in her life. Her husband, Alex, has left for a younger woman and her teenage son Ethan’s first love affair had gone spectacularly wrong, with potentially serious consequences.

It is under these varied and somewhat strained circumstances that this multigenerational familial group comes together, trying to put on a united front for their father’s sake. And it isn’t long before the challenges and differences come to the fore. Take for instance the relationship between the resident sister- in – laws. With Laura feeling inadequate and low, the breezy, super organised, even Instagramming Heather was never going to be easy to take. Add to this the fact that the ever single Scott is now the only sibling with a settled family, throwing establish family dynamics into chaos, and there is a lot of unspoken tension bubbling under the surface.

Their time in the house is filled with incidents, conversations and memories. Some pulling the group further together, some pushing them further apart, all observed by Charlie, wistfully wishing that the Captain that held his family together, his beloved wife Daphne, was still there to steer the ship through this troubled time.

This is a story propelled by any number and scale of domestic dramas. I am very aware that such a description makes this novel sound light, maybe even frivolous, but nothing could be further from the truth. Because in truth the world often hinges on domestic drama. It is within our families, with all their challenges, ups and downs, that we learn to form close bonds, it can be our bedrock and sometimes our undoing . It is our first window on the world.

This is a novel about a family learning to come together again. About those that love each other learning to fill the holes that have appeared over time and to re-evaluate the bonds within a family, both extended and nuclear .It is about learning to welcome the new and let go of the old, learning to live with what is lost and come to terms with what remains.

Reading this after the extended lockdown of recent months, that enforced period of absence from those we love and cherish, this book made me ache for those time with friends and family. And turned my thoughts to happier times.

Rachel x

And there is more…

For more reactions and reviews to this charming novel check out the rest of the blog tour below…

Book Review: Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession

I have been aware of this book for a long time. It seems that everyone whose bookish opinion I trust has read and worshipped this book. Honestly, the praise has been overwhelming and wholly positive. There is so much love and admiration out there for Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession published by Bluemoose Books.

So why you may ask has it taken me so long to get around to reading it? Well, firstly, the usual and quite boring answer is I have so much stuff to read I haven’t found the time. But the second is, if I am honest I found all that love a bit overwhelming. What if I didn’t feel the same? Would I be the one who missed the magic? Not sure if this is an example of my stubbornness or insecurity but I didn’t want to be the one who didn’t love Leonard and Hungry Paul.

I am here today to tell you I was an idiot. When I finally dived into this book I didn’t come up for air. For 24 hours I was immersed in a quieter, gentler, less judgemental world and I didn’t want to leave. When I started this book it was a ‘read but not review book’, but there is no way I can put this one on the shelf without sharing my thoughts and adding my own small stitch to the blanket of love that is quite rightly wrapped around this book.

This is a novel centred on the friendship of two men; Leonard and Hungry Paul. Both in their thirties, both reserved, unassuming but both equipped with a perception of thought and emotional intelligence that is so often missing in today’s crazy world. Leonard, works as a ‘content supervisor’ for children’s factual books. He has until recently always lived with his mother and is currently mourning her passing. Hungry Paul lives at home, working on a casual basis as a postman. He is close to his parents Peter and Helen and his sister Grace, successful and high achieving, is about to marry. It is the run up to and culmination of the wedding which frames the novel.

This is a novel truly driven by and filled with it’s characters. The plot is the stuff of their hopes, fears and achievements. The novel focuses on their domestic challenges and changes; those things that may seem insignificant, but are in truth the stuff that makes the world go around.

Painted with true care and addition to detail, these are characters that feel so real you could almost touch them. Each character has a depth, a past, opinions and a true motivation, all seamlessly constructed and conveyed. In short here are characters you can believe in. I revelled in the quiet voices of Leonard and Hungry Paul, with their board game evenings, sense of duty and gently harboured dreams. I sympathised with Grace, close to her parents, loving her brother but equally frustrated and worried about his future and how his unwillingness to leave the nest might impact upon her. And the marriage of Helen and Paul was an untold and insightful joy; devoted to their children but still in love with each other, and trying not to lose sight of their own identify as a couple.

Rónán Hession has blessed us with an intensity of writing that is a simple joy. Throughout the prose possesses a targeted accuracy and undeniable reality; words are constructed in such a way that you are pulled into a novel that is truly immersive and authentic. There is a gentle and perceptive humour, threading it’s way like silk throughout the book. At times provoking a wry smile, at others a deep and genuine belly laugh. And for all that humour and reality, there is a bedrock of wisdom. And it was this I appreciated and adored the most.

At a time when it seems that loud voices and grand gestures are the things being lauded and sometimes demanded, this book is a welcome change of pace and perspective. This book embraces, empowers and champions the introvert. It is a celebration of those who truly observe and move gently on the backroads of life. They are no less important, no less relevant and often filled with a perception and vision others have lost.

A true novel of still waters running deep, I can’t help thinking the world might be an easier and more harmonious place if we were all a bit more Leonard and Hungry Paul.

Rachel x

Book Review: The Phone Box at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina

When this book caught my eye on Twitter, I was instantly drawn to the idea behind it. So I was thrilled to receive a gifted copy, for which I offer heartfelt thanks. It has been a pleasure to read and review this unique work. Please, let me introduce you to The Phone Box at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina.

Inspired by real places and true events this story is of an exploration of grief and, at the same time, a celebration of life. It is one of those stories where you find yourself nodding and smiling in recognition at the truths you find within it. And maybe sometimes wiping away a tear…

Yui, lives in Tokyo. She works at a local radio station and she is grieving. Like thousands of others her life was changed beyond recognition on 11th March 2011 when an unprecedented tsunami hit the north- east of Japan. The disaster claimed the lives of both Yui’s mother and young daughter, leaving her entirely alone. For a while her family were among the yukue fumei, ‘whereabouts unknown’. During this time Yui lived in a school gymnasium, on a sheet of canvas, waiting with scores of other grieving souls, for news of their loved ones. All trying to cope with unbearable pain and loss in their individual ways.

When we first meet Yui she is still wrapped tightly within her grief. Life is about coping, about counting the hours and trying to function. Her grief does not have a voice, she does not talk about what happen, it is ‘the deep abyss she carried inside.’

Then she presents a radio programme about coping with loss. A programme in which people share the ways they have found to cope and move forward. It is here that Yui first becomes aware of Bell Gardia, a place offering comfort to those who are lost and grieving in the most unique way.

At Bell Gardia, is a Phonebox, disconnected but still well used. Set in remote gardens, on the top of a hill, it is a place that grieving relatives go to speak to their loved ones. Their words are carried away by the wind, scattered to the four corners of the earth, but providing comfort just for being spoken.

And so begins Yui’s pilgrimage to Bell Gardia. She arrives at the Phone box, but for a long time she is unable to use it. For Yui her journey to this place provides a different lifeline. It is here she meets new people, people who become important to her and help her to find a way forward; Suzuki-san and his wife, guardians of Bell Gardia, Shio, a young man whose own family was torn about by the tsunami, Keira, a high school student grieving for his mother. And most importantly Fujita- san, or Takeshi, a Tokyo doctor, mourning his wife and trying to find a way to help his daughter find her voice again.

It is this relationship that becomes the bedrock of the story and the path to Yui’s own recovery. It is this relationship that the gentle prose wraps itself around, and shows a couple who are learning to be together, celebrating life, whilst at the same time learning to embrace their grief.

For at the heart of this novel is the true but often unspoken fact that life and death are intertwined, that there is a natural symbiosis to be found and celebrated here. This novel is full to the brim with examples of the way the dead touch our daily lives. There are fascinating insights into Japanese culture which highlight just this attitude.

For example, the butsudan; a altar found in many Japanese homes where families honour their dead, talking to them , making them part of everyday life. There is a belief that the dead don’t leave us, they just move to a different place in the house. That the dead are always with us and that the key to moving forwards is to find a way to make the dead part of your life, no matter what form that may take.

That silencing a man was equivalent to erasing him forever. And so it was important to tell stories, to talk to people, to talk about people.

The Phone Box at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina.

This idea extends to and is part of the very structure of the novel. Every second chapter is like a snapshot in time, some relating to the present but many offer a glimpse of the people who have passed. They may seem like mundane lists of favourite foods or sayings, but in fact they reinforce the fact that the importance and essence of people, both living and dead, lies in the individual details. These snapshots reinforce one of the novel’s core messages; that life and healing are to be found in the everyday. That details are important and often they provide crumbs of hope, restoration and salvation.

This book is a celebration and exploration of the process of grief. It offers a sympathetic acknowledgment that loss is part of life and how we deal with that is very much an individual process. The novel details the physical manifestations of grief, the changing stages one person’s grief moves through and draws out cultural differences along the way. I particularly like this summation of the grieving process …

Yui and Takeshi gradually realised that the Wind Phone was like a verb that conjugated differently for each person: everybody’s grief looked the same at first but, ultimately, was completely different.

Pg 126 The Phone Box at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina

Laura Imai Messina has created something truly unique. This novel has a dreamlike quality, but unpick the layers and you will find everything about it is grounded in truth. In a world where we are rushing ahead, shouting out loud, this is a book to draw you back in and make you think about what is truly important and inescapable; life and death, and our attitudes to them both.

Simply lovely.

Rachel x

The Phone Box at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina is published 25th June 2020 by Manila Press/ Bonnier Books.

More information can be found here

Book Review: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

I read this book against the back drop of the #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations gathering momentum across the globe. It is hard to imagine a more momentous time to have engaged with this particular novel, but I am quite convinced that whenever I had met The Vanishing Half , it’s impact would be have been the same.

Brit Bennett has created a mesmerising, immersive and critically important novel. Published by Dialogue, I am so grateful to Millie Seaward for sending me a gifted copy.

The story begins in Louisiana 1954, where twins Desiree and Stella Vignes are growing up in small town named Mallard. Mallard is unique. A black community, but one whose history is built on years of marriages between ‘mulattos’. It’s inhabitants are black but ‘each generation (is) lighter than the one before’.

But make no mistake, this is not a white community. When their father is killed in a klan style lynching, part of which the girls witness, their dreams of school and better life are snatched away. By 16 they are working for white families.

It is free spirited Desiree who persuades Stella to break free, and head to New Orleans. But it is Stella whose life takes the most dramatic turn. When she is mistaken for a white woman, a whole new life opens up before her. What starts as an honest mistake takes on a life of it’s own. One that will pull her away from her family and her old life forever.

But can anyone truly leave their heritage, race and identity behind them? This is the question that is explored throughout out this beautiful and perceptive novel.

In the case of Stella, Brit Bennett, has created a complex and multilayered character. It is all too tempting to dismiss and judge the decisions that Stella has made. It is in the gift and skill of the author to make the reader to stop and reflect on the choices Stella makes.

We are forced to question whether it is Stella who chose to redefined herself or was it society. Is it so wrong that Stella, bone tired from the daily fight against prejudice and injustice, takes the way to a life less fraught, less dangerous? Think of the town she grew up in, it could be argued that she is just taking the town’s philosophy one step further. Or is she crossing an unforgivable line, by turning her back on her life, family and denying her race?

Stella’s story is at the heart of the novel, but the impact of her choices and what it takes to live with these decisions are felt across the generations. Through the eyes of her daughter Kennedy, raised with money and opportunity, we get an emerging understanding of operational and inherent white privilege. Compare Kennedy’s life to her cousin Jude; as black as Kennedy is white, their lives cross but struggle to connect.

The comparison of the direction of the next generation gets starkly and comprehensively to the nub of institutional and long standing racism. By exchanging a black life for a white one Stella seems, almost effortlessly to rise. But is Stella’s life a true life or a half life? Does she exchange one type of fight, complication and heartbreak for another one?

Within the novel Stella is not the only character looking to redefine herself. Reese, partner of Jude, is transsexual, moving forward, and like Stella looking to make sense of a hostile and changing world. The introduction of Reese further enhances the question of where your sense of self comes from. Is it an inherent need, rising from deep inside yourself, or is it something created from your experiences, environment and inheritance?

This is a novel filled to the brim with complexities, joy and pain, truth and lies. The title, The Vanishing Half, is so relevant to and representative of the events and characters within it. It’s generational span is a showcase for a cast of strong, multilayered and authentic women. This novel raises awareness, provokes discussion and offers hope. At any time I would recommend this book, at this time it is a must read.

Rachel x

Blog Tour Review: What Doesn’t Kill You…

It is my absolute pleasure today to be taking my turn on the Blog Tour for What Doesn’t Kill You : Fifteen Stories of Survival Edited by Elitsa Dermendzhiyska, published by Unbound.

This is a collection of essay, each written by individuals whose lives have been touched in some way by mental ill health. Their stories are unique, all as a consequence of entirely different circumstances, experiences and illnesses.

But each story is told with a raw honesty; each writer has opened up a small part of themselves to share their experiences sensitively and with compassion.

It seems to cliched to call the writers assembled here brave, but it is also undeniable. In an increasingly challenging world, the acceptance of and discussion around mental ill health still,all too often, feels like a struggle. Wrapped in their eloquence and empathy, each story within this collection offers a glimmer of hope.

Each story is different. That seems a mad and ridiculously obvious thing to write, yet it struck me as I was reflecting on this book, how beautifully these essays collectively illustrate the point that no one person’s story, diagnosis or journey is the same. The complexity and breadth of mental health issues is laid bare within these pages. Yet there is a shared understanding of the fact that no one path of recovery is the same. There is not one catch all drug, no one all encompassing therapy, no magic time limit on recovery. Nothing about mental ill health is linear; recovery is as individual as experience and diagnosis.

But recovery is possible. Each of these stories is a beacon of hope. And each holds that essential element; acceptance and communication. As each story unfolds, it seemed clear to me that the binding thread, the pivotal moment within each account, was the moment when the illness was acknowledged. At this point there was a small shift from a perceived battle, towards a sense of moving on with the illness, diagnosis, condition as a recognised part of life.

As Julian Baggini points out in his contributed essay No Cure for Life , when supporting friends and loved ones who are treading this path you can offer support but no salvation. This journey is unique and often lonely. And, as Baggini rightly states universal happiness is not possible or even desirable. What is labelled here as The Fairy Tale Template, and is perpetuated by our increasingly crazy world of social media and consumerism is one of the biggest barriers to good mental health. Because to appreciate the light, there has to be some dark. The key, and the recognised challenge lies in maintaining the balance,

All stories here contain lifelines, each thrown out by different people, different circumstances, in different times and places. Recovery hinges on catching the right lifeline at the right time and place.

Each story within this collection is an inspiration. It isn’t my intention to talk about each in turn. But like all books there are certain references which will stay with me. For example Rory Bremner’s ADHD and Me was a fascinating insight, particularly for me as an SEN teacher. The acknowledgment of the difficulties but most importantly the gifts his condition presented really struck a cord. His honestly about ADHD being part of his core, part of him, was refreshing,

One of the most powerful depictions of ongoing mental ill health came for me in Eight by A.J. Ashworth. The sense of self laid bare in her vivid descriptions of panic attacks, experienced from a young age, was quite breathtaking. Like so many of these stories, the key to learning to cope comes from acknowledgment and identification. In Ashworth’s case she describes her attacks as ‘a black bulb buried deep that I cannot find the switch for.’

There are so many poignant examples of strength and honesty in this collection I could go on far beyond the edges of this blog post. You need to experience the beauty of Irenosen Okojie prose as she details how her writing slowly brought her through what she describes as her ‘winter’, her silver and grey period.

Or Kate Leaver’s powerful battle with and recovery from anorexia; her turning point coming in the form of Hunger Strike by Susie Orbach. The feminist writings were her way forward to recovery.

What each of these stories by their very nature and being illustrates is the power that we can find in the written and spoken word. Shared experiences and communication won’t eradicate mental health issues, but they bring it out into the open. Acceptance and discussion is a powerful weapon.

It has been my pleasure and privilege to read, and offer my review. I hope this collection is read and appreciated for the gem it is

Rachel x

And there is more…

For more reviews and reactions to this collection, please check out the rest of the blog tour…