Book review : The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead.

When I manage to get a publication day review out then it is a pretty good indication that I feel strongly about a book.

And few books I have read this year have provoked such strong feelings as The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Huge thanks to Fleet for sending me a digital copy in return for an honest review.

I found myself reading and reacting to this novel in so many different guises; as a mother, as an educator and most importantly of all simply as a human being.

So when I found myself doubting my credentials to response to and review this important book; a book whose power is magnified by the fact that it is firmly rooted in truth, I reminded myself that this is a story that everyone needs to hear. This is a story that everyone needs to read, to absorb and to react to.

Set this book against today’s climate, against a US President standing smugly in front of a baying crowd, shouting ‘Send her back’, against a rise of right wing politics and populations more polarised than they have been for generations. Set the book right there and we can feel it’s power. Set it right there and Jim Crow’s laws seem all too recent and all too real.

So, let us start with the book’s beginnings, the kernel of truth from which the tale has sprung. For Nickel Academy is the fictional brother of The Doizer School for boys. Established in Florida in 1900, Dozier was a reform school, taking both white and black boys. For over a hundred years, for this school only closed in 2011, hundreds of boys passed through its gates. Exposed and subjected to the most horrendous physical, psychological and sexual abuse, not all of these boys left Dozier. It was an institution that preyed on the most vunerable, those without families, wealth, education or hope.

Dozier School, Florida

It is their story that Colson Whitehead takes up. Through the character of Elwood he begins to give generations of boys a voice, and gives us a timely reminder of where we have been and where we currently find ourselves.

Set in the early 1960’s, against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, we follow the story of Elwood, an adolescent black boy. Abandoned by his parents but raised by his loving Grandmother, Harriet, Elwood is full of promise. Elwood is on a journey, inspired by the speeches of Dr Martin Luther King, he works and studies hard. Flirting with activism, watching the wider community, he believes in his future. He has hope, hope that the world is changing and that America is finally ready to embrace a new way of thinking. Others see his potential and chances are thrown his way, but one innocent mistake and Elwood’s life heads in a completely different direction. For Elwood finds himself sentenced to a spell in the infamous Nickel Academy, a school whose’s stated aims and practices are worlds apart from it’s realities. Even in Nickel segregation exists. No matter what your colour, life is hard and unpredictable, but for black boys it will always be that bit harder.

What now for Elwood? Can he hold true to Dr King’s words? Can he find love where others sow hate? Can he rise again, stronger and empowered? Or will Nickel break his spirit and throw him off course forever?

For we are under no illusions that Nickel breaks the spirit, minds and bodies of boys and future men. Their stories litter the pages.We are ushered in to the novel by 21st Century archaeology students, students who are trying to identify remains in unmarked graves. We meet men huddled in online chat rooms, or in kitchens over beers or flinching at the mere mention of Florida, never mind Nickel. Men who are trying to confront and come to terms with their stories. Men looking for justice and their own individual peace. Whitehead leaves us in no doubt that Elwood is one of many, a link in a chain and each story deserves to be heard.

For this tale is not told in a linear fashion. Other stories are repeatedly woven into the narrative, stories that cover the life time of the school. Through the eyes of Elwood we see friendships forged and bonds created under the most difficult of circumstances. The story of Elwood and latterly his friend Turner, builds immediate, often unbearable tension. Elwood is our eyes and heart. Through him we see and feel the horrors of Nickel. He draws upon our empathy and our trust and leaves us exposed to the abuses within it’s walls. Whitehead makes sure that we see first hand, over and over, the very real and human cost of Nickel.

Add in the testimonies of ‘Old Boys’ in their many forms and the author brings in to sharp focus the long term and wider cost of such abuse. Colson Whitehead places this story squarely in today’s consciousness, revealing it’s societal causes and consequences, challenging us to assess whether this could happen again. It represents a period in time that you think you know well, that you may think has lost the power to shock. Read The Nickel Boys and remind yourself just how wrong you are.

Yes, this is a tale partly rooted in ‘Black History’, however we may choose to define that, but in truth this is everyone’s history. It is everyone’s past and it should shape our present and our futures.

Rachel

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead is published by Fleet on 1st August 2019

Blog Tour : In The Company of Strangers – Awais Khan

I am delighted to be taking my turn today on the blog tour for In the Company of Strangers by Awais Khan. Thank you to Rachel of Rachel’s Random Resources for inviting me to take part. 

About the book…

Let us take a step into Lahore, a city of extremes. Amongst the wealthy we find Mona, a woman who appears to have everything but is in truth merely existing within a gilded cage.

Her turbulent and often violent relationship with her husband leaves her searching for emotional fulfilment and a wider sense of purpose.

Reconnecting with an older college friend Meera takes her life in a new and unexpected direction. Meera is glamorous, successful and embroiled in a risky world. She introduces Mona to Ali, a younger intriguing model.

Ali is struggling with his own demons, both past and present. Finding himself drawn to to Mona, despite the differences in age and circumstance, and so begins a dangerous game of love and deceit.

For Ali has has once turned his back on the world of modelling and parties. It is only the immediate and desperate needs of his family that pull him back into this world. His return is triumphant but there are continual references to past secrets and an air of foreboding hangs over the novel.

Mona too is a woman with a past. Just why has she been out of contact with Meera for so long? Moving further away from her successful but cruel husband Bilhal, bypassing his clumsy attempts at rekindling their marriage, her friendship with Meera seems from the outset to be doomed.

Appearances through out this novel are very definitely deceptive. Everything that glitters is certainly not gold, and nobody gets something for nothing. A lesson that Ali is to learn to his very great cost.

For in addition to tangled pasts and illicit affairs a much darker beast is stalking Lahore, and indeed Pakistan as a whole.

Terrorism.

The reign of terror and its associations run through out the book. They provide the motivation for Ali’s return to the limelight when his younger brother is critically injured. Throughout we encounter underlying causes of terrorism and it’s very human cost.

One of the strengths of this book is the fact that it doesn’t operate on simple principles of good and evil. Whilst there is no glorification of the its horrors it acknowledges and explore the complexities of terrorism and the things that accompany it.

Ali’s storyline is poignant, thought provoking and sheds a shaft of light on some of the real and terrifying choices people are making everyday in order to preserve their loved ones and their way of life.

In the Company of Strangers is a an unlikely and illuminating love story, set against a backdrop of complexity and duality. There is nothing predictable in its pages and it will leave you guessing to the last, as it’s characters try to pick their way through their tangled lives.

About the author

Awais Khan is a graduate of Western University and Durham Univeristy. Whilst studying at Faber Academy, London, he began working on In The Company of Strangers which is his first novel.

His work has appeared in Daily Times, Missing Slate Magazine and MODE. He is the founder of The Writing Institute, one of the largest institutions dedicated to Creative Writing in Pakistan.

And there is more…

For more reviews and reactions to In The Company of Strangers check out the blogs below for the rest of the tour.

Book Review: On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

I seem to be continuing my entirely unplanned literary trip back to the landscape of my youth. This time we are on the Lincolnshire the coast Chapel St Leonard’s in fact, just along the way from Skegness and all it’s seaside paraphernalia.

It is the setting of the beautifully crafted On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming, published by Chatto and Windus. It is the telling of a family history, moreover it is the telling of a family mystery, one that has remained in the shadows for many years.

Before I start I need to say that I nearly didn’t review this book.

Not because I didn’t enjoy it. I was utterly entranced. The story captivated me in that special way that only true stories can, as I listened to my constant inner voice repeating ‘My God, this actually happened…’

I hesitated about reviewing because I was worried that I would give something away.

For this is a story that needs to discovered. Piece by piece, layer by layer, just as the author and her family have uncovered, assessed and redefined their truth. I knew I needed to tread lightly.

So in terms of ‘plot’, ( and using the word plot feels wrong when you are dealing with someone’s life !) I will give you the merest hint. Just enough to whet your appetite, but trust me this is a feast waiting to be discovered.

The story begins in 1929, a young girl Betty is playing in the warm autumn sunshine on Chapel beach. She is 3 years old. Her mother, Veda, is sitting near by. Her father, George, a travelling salesman is away from home.

In the blink of eye she is gone.

Vanished.

Betty is missing for 5 days. She is finally discovered unharmed, dressed in new clothes, in a house a few miles away.

Restored to her family, Betty’s life continues and, although the ‘kidnap’ is common knowledge within the tight knit community, it is never discussed.

But the reasons behind it and the effects it has on this family will define not only this but generations to come.

And so begins the telling of a complex tale. A tale that is told with remarkable skill and originality. At no point does the reader feel lost in the tangle of truths. There is a structure and fluidity to the retelling which drives the tale onwards, not withstanding it’s many twists, turns, even dead ends that appear along the way.

This is a unique family story and it needs to be told in a unique way. Laura Cumming harasses all her skills as an art critic, systematically analysing family photographs taken through out her mother’s childhood, almost exclusively by her Grandfather George.

These photographs are the chronicle of her family, and Cumming assesses each one, looking to discover the subject’s intent and their emotion. Timelines, settings, clothing and scribbled captions are all scrutinised to build a picture of her mother; her childhood, her beginnings and the very essence of identity.

Throughout there is that familiar feeling of trying to make sense of the past. The way we all grasp at the scraps others have left behind. The way we try to fill in the gaps with ancestors thoughts, feelings and motivations. Cumming and her mother are trying to join the dots on a masterpiece, and it is a process that will take the whole of the book.

Art is a constant ribbon running through the fabric of these words. Beyond the carefully crafted photographs of George, both Laura’s parents were artists, she herself has made her life in artistic circles. Art in this book is a mirror and sometimes a magnifying glass, offering escape, clarity and a whole new perspective on an intriguing and sometimes painful puzzle.

Cumming’s voice throughout is one of intelligence and integrity. Her love for her mother seeps from the pages and yet she allows others in this story their voice. One of the most poignant elements of her work is the fact that the perspective and viewpoints we encounter are not static. In true art critic style we are encouraged to throw off our preconceptions and look at this from all angles.

And the story and it’s conclusion are all the better for this.

I have no doubt that this book will stay me for a long time. For anyone who has ever looked back at their own family story and wished for a second of clarity, for anyone who has unanswered questions, quite possibly lost to the mists of time, this book will hold a special charm.

See you on the sands.

Rachel.

My ManBooker Prize Reaction

Good Morning!

This is a bit of surprise blog post! I wasn’t planning to blog again until the weekend and hadn’t particularly expected to blog about the Booker Prize Long List.

However, due to a number of factors, mainly extreme heat, the mother of all thunderstorms and a flatulent dog(!) the Long List hit my radar a lot quicker than I expected.

I was scrolling through Twitter in an insomnia induced rage and, ‘PING!’, it popped up before my very eyes.

And I have to admit I was excited.

I might have wept inwardly for my proposed Summer Reads. (See Sunday’s blog post!)

And then I went straight back to being excited again.

So I have given my head a little wobble, reminded my inner goblin of self doubt, that my opinions are as valid as the next book geek and decided to crack on.

It’s not a long post, but very much my initial raw reaction to the list.

And so…

…books I have read…

My Sister, the Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite– I read this one earlier in the year. Review if you are interested can be found here. I loved the author’s economic but precise use of language, the dark humour and perfect plotting. I think that as debut novel it is impressive.

 Lost Children Archive – Valeria Luiselli – This one was another Women’s Prize read. Very well researched, very well written and so relevant with its focus on America and Mexico’s lost children. Multi layered and complex, there is so much to discuss and motifs of childhood run throughout.

It certainly wasn’t the easiest book I have read this year, either in subject matter or style. I also found the protagonist and some-time narrator quite hard to connect with. So I guess the jury is still out on this one.

Moving on…

…books I am definitely going to read…

Let’s begin with…

The Testaments – Margaret Atwood – It was never, not even for one single second, in doubt that this book was going on to my TBR pile. It is the LONG awaited sequel to the 1985 cult novel The Handmaid’s Tale and the anticipation of it’s September release has been bouncing around my bookish brain all year.

This book and I have history! I have stubbornly refused to watch anything beyond Series 1 of the recent TV adaption, as I believe the power of the first book is rooted firmly in it’s unresolved ending.

And the only person I want to hear what happens next from is Atwood!

Night Boat to Tangier- Kevin Barry – Another one that was already on my radar. It’s been getting a lot of interest in the last week or so in the blogs I follow. Two Irish gangsters, sex, death and narcotics seem to be to make a pretty interesting combination.

Ducks, Newburyport – Lucy Ellmann This novel is everywhere!! So I wasn’t in the least bit surprised to find it nestling on the Long List. 1,000 pages, and a single sentence? Unique certainly! Winking at me on the desk as I type.

Girl, Woman, Other – Bernardine Evaristo Hands up this one had completely past me by. And I am not really sure why because it sounds like some I would really engage with. The story of 12 characters, mainly Black British women and their experiences through several decades. Really hoping to read this one

LannyMax Porter. – Heard this one mentioned on the Backlisted Podcast a couple of months ago and if my memory serves me rightly then there were comparisons made to the style of Lincoln in the Bardo. Add in a recommendation from @BookishChat and I am sold. This one was a ‘2am- post-announcement-order‘. Arrives tomorrow...

Frankissstein – Jeanette Winterson – Already earmarked for my summer holidays! Have loved everything I have ever read by Winterson and I was captivated when I heard her talking about this one earlier this year. A look at the future of our planet in the grip of AI, with more than a nod to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. If anyone can pull it off it’s Winterson.

and the rest?

So those are my initial thoughts. Not especially deep or erudite but just my initial gut reaction to what is an exciting list.

The remaining 5 books listed below haven’t quite spoken to me yet, but give them time!

  •  The Wall – John Lanchester
  • The Man Who Saw Everything – Deborah Levy
  • An Orchestra of Minorities – Chigozie Obioma
  •  Quichotte – Salman Rushdie
  • 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World – Elif Shafak

Thanks for indulging my ramblings. Following this with interest and looking forward to hearing others thoughts! Especially the ones you think I have missed from my list!

Happy LongList Reading !

Rachel x

Book Review: Don’t Think a Single Thought by Diana Cambridge

So one of the most exciting and, honestly, most unexpected bonuses of blogging about books is the chance to discover and engage with some fabulous and very talented independent publishers.

One such publisher is Louise Walters of Louise Walters Books. Based in Oxford and founded in 2017 Louise was one of the first publishers to take a chance on a newbie blogger – a.k.a moi(!)- and send me a real life proof. The Naseby Horses by Dominic Brownlow, out December 2019.

Louise has a gift for discovering unique voices in literature and none more so than that of Diana Cambridge author of Don’t Think I Single Thought.

This is a truly incredible novel. It is like nothing else I have read this year. In fact it is like nothing else I have read in a very long time.

It has a quality to that seems to transcend it’s setting. It feels very much grounded within it’s timeframe, chiefly 1960’s / 70’s USA, and yet it’s message and impetus are so up to date and relevant.

The book is centred on Emma a women who seems ‘perfectly packaged’. Intelligent and a skilled writer, she is stylist, beautiful, and married to a brilliant doctor. Money is clearly not an issue; maids and Picasso’s are standard in Emma’s life.

And yet Emma’s life is a struggle, a continual struggle to deal with events of her past and their longtime impact on her mental health. Her life is a roller coaster where significant, and sometimes seemly insignificant events cause her to spiral back into deep depression.

We see Emma living without truly occupying herself. She is intelligent woman, successful in her own right but depression robs her of her ability, time and again, to take control of her own life. There is a continual trend of deferring to her husband Jonathan, asking him wittingly and unwittingly to take control when things get too much.

Unable to understand Emma’s fragile mental health, Jonathan dresses up her world in money and treats. New clothes, a nice hotel, good food; all designed to smooth the road and maintain, at least superficially, the calm equilibrium of their privileged life.

A sterile world of maids, therapists, bought in meals, new clothes and expensive kitchen gadgets is created to cocoon, protect and maintain.

Until the problem is too big.

Until Chanel and a nice holiday stop working

Emma’s past is complex. Without giving spoilers her whole early life, and indeed beyond, is filled with loss and misplaced guilt. A young life filled with trauma is slowly revealed, Cambridge expertly shifts our sympathies and makes us question.

For the sands of this story are continually shifting. For someone in the depths of a depression isn’t always the most reliable of narrators, and it is up to us, the reader, to piece together Emma’s fragmented story. A process almost akin to that of a therapist.

And yet what treatment would we prescribe ? Where exactly does the trouble lie?

Within this story there is a continual avoidance of emotion and not just on the part of Emma. Difficult emotions are continually bubbling under, never confronted; all wrapped in a frosting avoidance.Emma is our key focus but other friends and acquaintances reflect the pattern.

Diana Cambridge presents with stark and devastating accuracy a pervading lack of understanding. And most shockingly a continual and woefully inadequate level of treatment.

Emma is repeatedly given means of escape, ways of blunting the edges, but never true support. Every time something happens that brings Emma to the edge of confronting emotion or past experiences, someone offers her a shield. Be it a holiday, a dress, a blank cheque, a pill.

This novel raises questions about the wider societal experience of and reaction to mental health. It reflects the knee jerk reaction to create immediate calm, offer temporary balm and paper over cracks. It reflects with pinpoint accuracy and terrible consequences a wider inability to truly listen, to understand and to encourage confrontation.

The style of the prose reflects the protagonist; alternating between calm and chaos but with an veneer of sophistication and chic. The style is sparse, understated but also devastating.

There is an unnerving, but powerful feeling of the protagonist moving away from you and coming back into sharp focus as her life and mental health ebbs and flows.

This is a novel that is painfully relevant, to yesterday, to today and beyond.

It is a warning, dressed up in couture and sleeping pills. And one we all need to hear.

Don’t Think a Single Thought by Diana Cambridge is published by Louise Walters Books on 26th September 2019.

Preorder here!

My Summer Reading Plans* (*please note these may be subject to sudden change!)

This blog post started life as a #20booksofsummer post. It was going to be really easy to write…

Then I realised that 20 books were definitely not going to Be enough, so it expanded to 30 books of summer…

Now it is completely and utterly out of control! The lists and notes have been rewritten so many times. Every time I have opened my emails, checked my Twitter and said hello to the Postman the plans have changed…

But school finished on Friday . It might be raining in Cumbria, but my summer is officially here. I can delay this no longer.

So here goes, tentative summer reading plans, which are very likely to expand at a moments notice!

And I will begin with…

Beautiful proofs just begging to be read…

Having just devoured Don’t Think a Single Thought by Diana Cambridge in almost a single sitting, I can’t wait to get my teeth into The Naseby Horses by Dominic Brownlow. Both books are published by the very talented Louise Walters, and Naseby Horses is set in the Fens, my childhood playground. With a ‘silent and mysterious setting’ and a local curse to boot this one is right up my street. And who can resist a proof that comes bagged up in lavender!!

Next up is The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow. I have had this gorgeous looking proof winking at me for a good few weeks now and I am so excited to be on the blog tour for this one, leading up to it’s publication on 12th September with Little Brown. Set in a ‘sprawling mansion filled with exotic treasures’ and billed as being perfect for readers of The Night Circus, The Thirteenth Tale and The Binding, my hopes are high.

The next two books in this category are late entries, having just come to my attention in the last week and for that I am very grateful!

The first was so beautifully reviewed recently by Amanda @BookishChat, the intriguing Witches Sail in Eggshells by Chloe Turner, published by Reflex Press. After rediscovering my love for short stories in the past 12 months I can’t wait to embark on this one. Thank you David Borrowdale for my gifted copy.

The second is the long awaited sequel to Bluebird Bluebird by Attica Locke. Having discovered this huge talent at the end of last year I was thrilled to be offered a proof of Heaven, My Home. Set in Texas against a backdrop of racial violence following the election of Donald Trump, a black man is implicated in the disappearance and potential murder of a white boy : the son of an Aryan Brotherhood captain.

This book feels like an important and timely read and I am very grateful to Hope Ndaba at Serpent’s Tail for sending this one my way.

American Dirt by Jeannie Cummins has been getting a whole lot of love on Twitter recently and I am so grateful to Louise Swannell for her super speedy response to my begging for a proof. This is (I think!!) my first 2020 proof. The story of a mother’s love and desperate efforts to protect her son as circumstances force them to flee Mexico, riding the ‘la bestia’; dangerous freight trains crossing the US – Mexican border. Published by Tinder Press this too feels like an important novel of it’s time.

Now I am very definitely a ‘physical books’ kind of a gal, however when I really, really, really want to read something I will turn to NetGalley!

Currently waiting for me on my shelf are four crackers which I am planning to devour on the long car journey to France in a couple of weeks time!

Let’s begin with the incredible talent that is Laura Purcell and her upcoming release Bone China. A historical thriller set in Cornwall and inter woven with superstition and intrigue, this one is just brimming with promise! Published on 19th September by Raven Books this one looks like a gem.

The Underground Railroad launched Colson Whitehead into my reading consciousness with a bang. His latest work The Nickel Boys is set in 1960’s Florida and, just like Railroad finds it’s foundation very much in reality. Here is the story of a Reform School that twists and destroys the lives of the boys within it. I am not anticipating an easy read but certainly an important one.

Tracy Chevailer‘s new offering is up next! A Single Thread is set between the Wars. Focusing on Violet, mourning the loss of her brother and fiancé, one of a generation of women unlikely to marry, she strikes out alone. Looking for independence and seeking a purpose in her life, this book seems full of promise and empowerment! Published by HarperCollins UK on 5th September

And finally Jeanette Winterson has held me under her spell since discovering Oranges are not the only fruit as a wide eyed teenage. To have a digital copy of her latest book Frankissstein seems like a true honour! Within these pages Winterson tackles the thorny issue of AI and asks the difficult question of what will happen when humans are no longer the most intelligent creatures on the planet? Published 1st October by Grove Press.

New, shiny, recently released books that are singing to me…

First on this list has to be The Moss House by Clara Barley. Just published by BlueMoose Books and hot on the heels of the fabulous Gentleman Jack, this is the book for anyone looking to immerse themselves once more in the story of the awe inspiring Annie Lister and her lover Anne Walker.

(And interesting fact Clara Barley and my good self shared an A level English teacher, the wonderful Linda Hill of Linda’s Book Bag.)

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo, Bloomsbury is quite literally EVERYWHERE this summer. Already a Sunday Times #1 bestseller this imitate portrait of the lives and desires of three very different women is widely tipped as the nonfiction read of the summer.

On Chapel Sands: My Mother and Other Missing Persons by Laura Cumming, Chatto &Windus is about as compelling a family history story you will find this year. With the story of her mother’s kidnap in childhood at it’s heart this is Cummings exploration of a Lincolnshire coastal hamlet and it’s secrets.

And the finally – Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann, Galley Beggar Press. I have made absolutely no secret of the fact that this book scares me and intrigues me in almost equal measure. Approximately 1000 pages long and largely told through a single sentence, it is certainly unique. It’s on order…I am waiting with bated breath

Books that I have missed…

These are books that have been published for a while now, books the world has been raving about but books I haven’t quite caught up with yet.

The first had been recommended most heartily by Claire @yearofreading and who am I to disagree! Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott was long listed for this year’s Women’s Prize and is the story of Truman Capote and his ‘Swans’, the wealthy, beautiful women he courted but ultimately betrayed.

And continuing the theme of hedonism, let us look next to Daisy and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. It feels like every single person in the bookish world and beyond has read this tale of a 70’s band rise and fall. And I want to join the party!

Heading in a completely different direction now, for I can’t go long without venturing into the world of Victorian England. Particularly the grimy streets of London where there is a mystery to be solved. The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O’Donnell looks like a promising way of scratching my Dickensian itch. This first hit my radar through the Backlisted Podcast and I have been running to catch up with it ever since.

Sneaking another one in here, let me introduce Heroes by Stephen Fry. Around this time last year I read and thoroughly enjoyed Mythos. Heroes is the last of my Christmas present books and it seems a perfect read for basking (please God!) in the summer sun!

And finally…my blasts from the past my TBR pile…

Blogging has thrown up so many welcome literary discoveries that I have, inevitably been cheating in my ‘To be read pile’. So in no particular order below are the books I am determined to get to this summer!

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke – This has been by my bed for a least two years! Another one that scares me a wee bit. Time to face my fear I think!

Stoner – John Williams – I have been meaning to read this for time immemorial. Who thinks the time is right?

Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien Everyone has read this tale of revolutionary China, right? Wrong!! Need to sort it out!

Frankenstein– Mary Shelley Strictly speaking this is a reread, having read this many years ago at University. Having just completed the brilliant Arguing with the dead by Alex Nye, which focuses on Mary’s tangled relationship with Percy Shelley, and having access to Winterson’s Frankisstein, it feels the time is right to reacquaint myself with the monster!

And so there you have it..

…my somewhat tentative summer reading plans.

There are, however, any number of things which might just sway me off course.

At this moment, for example I am very aware the Man Booker Prize long list announcement is looming. I would like to say I won’t be affected…

…it would be a lie!

Every time I log on to Twitter I will make new golden discoveries, be tempted into requesting proofs and just generally feast myself on the loveliness of fabulous books floating in the ether!

Lovely publishers will hopefully continue to be in contact sending me goodies, (again, Please God!)

And I will wander into beautiful book shops and rescue poor unwanted books… for their own good…naturally!

But I promise that one thing that will definitely happen is that I will read lots of lovely books…

…and it’s always good to have a plan!!!

Happy reading!

Rachel x

Book Review : Beneath the Surface by Fiona Neill

In a land where the sky is king, the weather announces itself hours in advance; the fields, ditches and dykes have a Mondrian‑like geometry, that repeats itself with utter predictability as far as the horizon; and you can see anyone approaching for miles.”

It is rare, in fact so far unheard of, that I start a review with a quote from the book in question. However this quote sums up so perfectly how I remember the Fens of my childhood it was an obvious place for me to begin.

Fiona Neill has hit upon the very openness of the landscape and the huge brooding skies; skies that reached the ground, skirting fields of wheat and barley for mile upon mile. Unlike the rugged Lakeland landscape I now call home The Fens are not beautiful in the traditional sense, but they have a unique quality and one which for me is ever present.

It is this unique quality which Fiona Neill has been so accomplished at embedding into her novel. It is a quiet delight to find a novel with such a strong sense of place, a sense of place which not only grounds the novel but is central to it’s key themes and motivation.

For The Fenland that Neill writes about is seeped in history and that history is cleverly interwoven into the lives of the characters.

Patrick, husband and Art History teacher, is the descended from the Dutch pioneers who drained the land, reclaiming it from the sea.

Mia, younger daughter; eccentric, creative and straight talking, becomes fascinated, some might say obsessed by the Anglo Saxon burials recently uncovered. They offer a glimpse into the past but they also indirectly threaten the future. Tas, Mia’s traveller friend, is likely to lose his site in order to preserve this newly discovered and important site.

The past, seeping through to the present, is a theme running through the very veins of this novel. For when Lilly, fated older daughter and A grade student collapses at school, her parents Grace and Patrick are thrown into a world of turmoil.

Grace has spend years constructing the perfect life for both her girls. The product of a chaotic and abusive childhood, Grace clings to normality and the concrete. Navigating her life with her notebook of Certainties she has suppressed the most traumatic event in order that her girls may thrive. But just like the rising marshland water that is infecting their new home, the more Grace fights her past, the more it threatens her present. Her need for boundaries is ingrained, but what happens when those boundaries stop being healthy and become a cage?

The story is testament to the fact that the past runs through all of us. Deny it and it will find a way to make it’s self known. Neill shows the reader that by suppressing the past we are giving it a momentum of it’s own.

Yet secrets within this novel are not confined to just the past. Here we find a compelling portrait of a family coping with both collective and individual problems . No one person is telling the truth. Each is keeping close watch over their own and indeed other people’s secrets, in a misguided bid to protect the family as a unit.

Lilly, for example, has created a double life; dutiful and driven daughter, competing for a coveted University place, verses young woman experiencing love, sex and deceit for the first time. When the pressure of this charade becomes to much the fallout affects not just Lilly and her family but the wider and surrounding community.

This novel is held together by tight family bonds. The theme of siblings and their unique relationships runs deep. They are a source of tension, humour and unexpected revelations, which once again underline the connections between past and present.

Neill has created a cast of characters that are authentic and believable. Their motivations, however misguided never seem outlandish, such is the skill with which they are drawn. It is a mark of Neill’s accomplishment as an author that the reader finds their sympathies continually shifting throughout the novel.

Should you want to take a trip to the open Fenland landscape the Beneath the Surface is an excellent place to start and one I would recommend.

Huge thanks go to Penguin Random House for sending me a digital copy in exchange for an honest review.