Book reviews – Catching up or three for the price of one!

Since contracting Covid last month I have been struggling to keep up with life. Reading, working, parenting, blogging, writing – just generally living(!) seem to have taken up more time than usual!

However, I have been reading and some of the words have encountered have been nothing short of amazing!!

So in a bid to catch up on this blogging life I am hoping you will forgive me this 3 for 1 post. And indulge me in this celebration of three cracking titles that have kept me company on these dark Autumn days.

First up is one of my favourite all time poets who I have been reading in a very different form. Huge thanks to Clara Diaz from Fleet for sending this bang up to date adaption of Antigone by Hollie McNish my way.

Anyone who has encounters Hollie’s poetry will know that she isn’t a woman to mince her words and that her finger is firmly on the pulse of women’s rights. And Antigone continues in the same inspired vein. This reimagined Greek tale is littered with references and parallels to modern society and politics. It is witty, accessible and sometimes downright shocking. Having been performed at Storyhouse Chester in late October, I can only hope there will be another chance to catch this one soon.

Amazing read number two is the latest collection of flash fiction by Laura Besley. Published by Irish Indie publisher Beir Bua Press (Un) Natural Elements is ready and waiting to blow your literary socks off!

Each of these stories has it’s origins in the daily Twitter writing prompt #vss365 – Very Short Stories 365. Having followed and interacted with Laura on Twitter for a while now I can tell you she is the absolute master of these tiny tales!

In this latest collection Laura brings together her work and divides them into their written themes. Each is unique and each has the Besley sting in it’s tale. Humour, grief and wry aside wait around every corner; these stories might be short but man! Can they pack a punch!

And last but by no means least is the wonderful collection of short stories Safely Gathered In by Sarah Schofield. Published by Comma Press this is a collection of stories that will haunt you in all the right ways.

Each tale probes at the heart of what it is to be human and examines the things that make it’s protagonist tick. Sometimes heart breaking and sometimes surreal, each is a story that will stop you in your tracks and make you think.

As an added bonus I was lucky enough to chat to Sarah about her work as part of The Northern Connection Podcast’s Northember series. This episode is coming soon and is one not to be missed!

So thank you fellow bookworms for allowing me this catch up and for forgiving a girl when life gets in the way!!!

Until the next time …

Rachel x

#BookReview – Chouette by Claire Oshetsky

Ever read a book that stops you in your tracks? A book that takes a situation that millions of people all over the world are experiencing and looks at it through an entirely different lens. If fact through a lens so magical that it takes your breath away?

That’s exactly what happened when I read Chouette, beautifully crafted by Claire Oshetsky and released this week by Virago . A huge thank you goes to GraceVincent

for my gifted copy.

Chouette is the story of Tiny and her child Chouette. Chouette is not a typical child. According to her mother Chouette is an Owl Baby; a child beautiful, individual and complex, a child with her own very specific needs.

Tiny is tune with her daughter. She understands her needs, is prepared to shape family live to fit in with her child and feels no need to change her. Chouette’s father on the other hand longs for a normal child, refusing to accept her into the wider family until she has been ‘fixed’.

But fixing Chouette is a thankless and cruel task. The world into which she is born isn’t made for Owl Babies and the interventions and treatments her Father insists upon grow more extreme and cruel as time goes by.

This story is a unique parable about the joys and challenges of raising a child that does not conform to the norms of society. It is about the power of a mother’s love; love that will bend in every way to accommodate a child’s needs. But it is also about isolation; about the fear that builds when things go wrong repeatedly and the rest of the world turns away.

This is a lyrical and beautifully woven story charting the experiences of thousands of families raising children with complex needs. It is about the incredible highs and lows, the unbreakable bonds they forge, but also the fracturing of relationships that occurs everyday.

This novel shines a ghostly light on things we sometimes refuse to see. In parts tender, in parts brutal, it is a fable for all those unique and special families who we too often leave behind.

Rachel x

#Bookreview: Burntcoat by Sarah Hall

I am aware that I sound like a broken record but once again I apologise for taking longer than I would have like to review this captivating book. Huge thanks to Kate Burton for my early copy of Burntcoat by Sarah Hall.

Given what we have all been through these past two years there is going to be an inevitable rise in ‘Pandemic Stories’. It is inescapable and unrealistic to expect that artists of all kinds won’t want to record and respond to these world changing events. We are after all, living through history.

But as you would expected from established and talented Cumbrian author Sarah Hall her approach to this telling is unique, heartbreaking and painfully beautiful.

Hers is the story of Edith, talented sculptor and her lover Halit. Immediately but newly connected when the first lockdown begins, the pair hide from the world in her huge studio, Burntcoat. Their world is one of fear but also of love, of discovering each other and building a new and strengthening relationship.

This part of the novel captures beautifully the intensity and unreality of those initial lockdown days. The writing is sensual, vital and pulls at the edges of a collective experience.

Edith’s story is largely told in retrospect. When we meet her she is preparing for her death. Her work, waiting in the studio below is her testament, but it is her love for Halit and the short time of their togetherness that she returns to again and again.

Sarah Hall is unique in her story telling. Her boundaries are wide but her edges are sharp. This story cuts through experience and turns the collective experience of the pandemic on it’s head.

This one is going down in history.

Rachel x

Book Review : Dead Relatives by Lucie McKnight Hardy

Dead Relatives. Well where do I start?!? Maybe firstly with a thank you and an apology.

The Thank You going to Jordan at Dead Ink Books for sending me an copy of this stunner before publication day.

And the apology again to Jordan and author for Lucie McKnight Hardy for the delay in getting the review written. I know it’s so last year but blame Covid!

Dead Relatives is a collection of short stories with a deeply delicious and unsettling tone. From the title story, whose last paragraph made me throw the book in surprise (only to grab it straight back hungry for more) to the last tale, there is glorious sense of horror and unease.

Comparisons to Shirley Jackson are wholly justified, but there is no doubt that Lucie McKnight Hardy has a style completely of her own. These stories are all the more powerful for being rooted firmly in the every day. These tales hang themselves on the domestic, on family dynamics and deep seated emotion; elements that combine to develop an unstopped and unbearable tension that spills over in the macabre and delights in it’s power to both shock and delight.

It is also impossible to ignore and wonderful to celebrate the strong female characters within these stories. There is a sense of long held wrongs being righted, often in the most unexpected and darkest ways.

If I had to choose a favourite tale, if you really, really pushed me, I would plump for Dead Relatives but the gloriously dark Resting Bitch Face and The Pickling Jar are screaming at me from the sidelines!

If you want an October read to push the boundaries of darkness, malevolence and everything in between than Dead Relatives is just the book for you!

Rachel. X

#BlogTour Review: The Hiding Place by Amanda Mason

It’s October; the month where everything spooky, creepy and the wrong side of the light come out to play! So what better time of the year to be releasing a novel with an intriguing supernatural twist?

Welcome to my blog tour review of The Hiding Place by Amanda Mason, published today – 14th October – by Zaffre. It is an absolute pleasure to be sharing my review on publication day.

Nell Galilee is a jewellery designer, married to Chris, trying to co-parent her troubled stepdaughter Maude. A family party has brought the trio back to Nell’s home town of Whitby, and they are staying in the ancient Elder House, tucked against the cliff, at the end of one of town’s historic yards.

The family arrive looking to escape domestic problems, but Nell’s unease only seems to grow as they are consumed by the strange old house and its inexplicable presence. Maude on the other hand, furious with the adults in her life, seems strangely drawn to the old house; fascinated by it’s strange markings, hidden places and untold history.

But it isn’t only Nell and Maude who have strong feelings about the Elder House. In the days that follow their arrival female faces from the past emerge, each one tied to the house in some way. Each one hiding their own secrets and looking for their own answers…

From beginning to end The Hiding Place had me hooked! The female perspectives from which this story is both seen and developed are strong, troubled and believable. There is just the right amount of shadow and light, of doubt and truth to maintain the flame of intrigue and make this a truly great supernatural tale.

It is particularly pleasing to find a cast of female characters that are placed across the range of age and experience. Each one is compellingly and skilfully drawn, each one adding their own dimension and depth to the story. A wonderful lesson in careful characterisation.

This is a novel with truth and the search for truth at it’s heart. It has a strong sense of place, both within the unsettling atmosphere of the Elder House but also within the wider setting of Whitby. There is a tangible feeling throughout of the past reaching through into the present and the lessons that there still are left to be learned.

If you are looking for a perfect October read, then I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending The Hiding Place. It has been a joy to both read and review; thank you Amanda, you have done it again!

Rachel x

And there is more…

For more reactions and reviews to The Hiding Place check out the rest of the blog tour below…

#Blog Tour Review: How To Bring Him Back by Claire HM

Fly On The Wall Press are one of my favourite discoveries of the past couple of years. From their literary stable has bolted some of the best poetry and flash fiction. And their latest release How To Bring Him Back: A story by Claire HM is no exception.

A novella in flash set across two time frames, roughly 20 years apart, this is story of Cait. Present day Cait is on her yearly writing retreat, trying to conjure up a long overdue apology which only now is she ready to write.

The Cait of the mid 1990’s seems lost and wandering. She is living post-university and has recent stepped away from her Masters degree. Working in a bar, living hand to mouth in a bed sit, Cait’s life is held up by the strings of alcohol and drugs, compounded by a unstopped sexual attraction to Rik.

Stadd is her friend. He looks out for her, steadies her and quietly worships her, but despite all this it is Rik, the archetypal bad boy that Cait is drawn too.

In her haze of self destruction Cait bounces between the two men and in the process sets about breaking Stadd’s trust and his heart. The story is a simple one; one often told and often repeated but with a sharpness of language and a sting in the tail, Claire HM brings this inflammatory situation to a new life.

Weaving the magic that keeps great flash fiction alive Claire creates and then develops three believable and compelling characters. Each has their own motivations, each with their own exploitable flaws, which burst from the page. Their interactions are by turn tender, disturbing, painful and delightfully complex.

It is the dual timeline that really makes this a novella such a triumph. Cait’s later reflections are heartfelt and lyrical. They provide the perfect balance to the earlier lost and lonely Cait. This is a character who grows, who develops and who takes heed of her past.

Thank you Fly On The Wall for inviting me to be part of this tour. It has been a pleasure to read and review such a punchy little book.

Rachel x

And there is more…

For more reactions and reviews to How To Bring Him Back check out the rest of the blog tour below…

Book review: In The Shadow of Queens by Alison Weir

Historical fiction is my thing. No point in dressing it up. I love escaping to the past, safe in the knowledge I can turn the page and escape right back again anytime I like. Put a gun to my head and demand my favourite era and it is likely to the Tudor times I return to.

Alison Weir is one of the best when it comes to compelling historical fiction. Her Six Queens Series which tells the stories of each of Henry VIII wives in turn is second to none. Her ability to bring each woman to life, to see beyond the story everyone thinks they know to the person beneath shines through novel .

Her latest book In The Shadow of Queens goes one step further. This is a collection of stories, both real and imagined of the women who surrounded those Queens. Each section is filled with colour and engrossing Tudor detail which brings life and context to the court and is a testament to the level of research Alison Weir has completed in creating her portraits of Henry’s six wives.

Each tale, from the romantic to the macabre, is rich in imagery and detail. Each looks beyond the immediate inner circle of the court and shows a society steeped in constraints, traditions and so often fraught with danger. It is the lesser know stories that seem to add a new perspective just when you think there was nothing left to tell.

Huge thanks go to Caitlin Raynor at Headline for my review copy. Published today this is a book to get lost in, to discover new stories, new angles and long forgotten women.

Take a trip back in time and see what you discover !

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