Blog Tour Review: Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten

I seem to say this a lot…but I do love historical fiction. I love the places it takes me, it’s ability to transport me away from the daily reality and deposit you somewhere entirely different.

So I always have my eye out for new historical fiction and find it very hard to resist signing up for blog tours when the past is on the cards. When Anne Cater offered me the chance to get on board with Ellen Alpsten’s debut novel Tsarina, published by Bloomsbury, I didn’t even try to resist; I jumped at the chance.

Tsarina begins in 1699. On the cusp of a new century, Russia is in the grip of the Great Northern War. Led by Tsar Peter I, the country is under going a transformation. Peter is well travelled, ambitious and ruthless. His desire to modernise and transform his domains is all consuming, and he will stop at nothing to achieve the Westernised Russia he craves.

Rewards for loyalty and bravery are lavish, but punishment for deception , perceived or otherwise, are brutal in the extreme. The chasm between rich and poor gaps. It is both an exciting and terrifying time to be alive.

As Peter wages war throughout the Baltic, Marta, an illegitimate peasant girl is sold by her family aged just fifteen. Finding herself miles from home and surrounded by brutally, she fears the worse when fate leads her to a Russian battle camp. Here she catches the eye of Peter himself and so begins her spectacular rise to power.

Peter is brutal, but he is also brilliant and charismatic. There is an immediate connection between Marta and himself. She is thrown into the world of excess and riches, becoming Peter’s mistress, living openly with him at court. Showered with material pleasures, Marta is all too aware that her existence hangs continually in the balance. She needs to provide Peter with a true heir, and she needs to maintain his interest in a court full of attractive and ruthless women.

This is a true rags to riches story; the story of how a peasant girl became a Tsarina; the infamous Catherine I of Russia, ultimately a ruler in her own right.

I devoured this book! There is a richness and vitality to the writing that mirrors the turbulent opulence contained within it’s pages. Alpsten is master of the detail. Her ability to transport me from lockdown Britain to 18th Century Russia, never failed to amaze or delight me.

This is one of those novels you get hopelessly lost in, immediately immersed in the prose. Historical fiction fans will undoubtedly love it, but anyone who is looking for a breathtaking story spectacularly told need look no further.

The story of Catherine I has everything, and the writing wrapped around it here gives it that little bit more. I guarantee that once you pick up Tsarina, you won’t be able to put it down.

Ellen Alpsten has created something infused with magic.If you love historical fiction …this one is a feast for the senses and the soul! Enjoy the ride!

Rachel x

And there is more…

For more reactions and reviews check out the rest of the Tsarina Blog Tour …

Blog Tour Review: I Am Dust by Louise Beech

It is my absolute pleasure today to be taking my turn reviewing I Am Dust by Louise Beech. Huge thanks go to Louise, Anne Cater and Orenda Books for inviting me along to celebrate this truly unique novel.

The novel spans two time frames, both encompassing the central character Chloe. In the earliest timeframe, Summer 2005, we met Chloe as a teenager. In love with her best friend Jess and involved in the local youth theatre production of Macbeth, she is wrapped up in those heady days of summer.

However when Ryan, Jess’ ‘on/off’ boyfriend suggests dabbling with a Ouija board events take a much darker turn. All three teenagers are talented, all three are looking for bigger and better things, but which one of them has the power to command the game they have begun? And what will the consequences be?

For there are consequences, even if they are not feel until much later.

Fast forward 14 years and Chloe is working as an usher in the iconic Dean Wilson Theatre. She is coasting, unfulfilled both personally and professionally. The scars of her past are emotional and physical. No one, can explain the blackouts she has suffered for years and she hides evidence of longstanding self abuse from her friends and colleagues. Working alone in her room, writing her script she dreams of bigger things, without really daring to reach for them.

Suddenly Chloe‘s world is turned upside when the ailing theatre announces the return of it’s most successful ever show. The musical Dust was the venue’s first performance, frozen forever in cult status. An incredible production made iconic due to the death of it’s leading lady Morgan Miller, murdered in her dressing room during opening week.

The original run of Dust holds many special memories for Chloe, but it’s return is about to bring the past and present together in a spectacular way. The return of a familiar face means that Chloe is forced to face long ignored demons and suppressed memories begin to come to the fore…

I Am Dust is quite simply a book that almost defies classification, It is very much a ghost story, and a breathtaking one at that, but it is so much more.

It is a story which deals with complex relationships. It questions how we define ourselves through the eyes of others and what that means for our personal growth. It considers the lengths people will go to satisfy their desires and how power is a game played with dangerous rules and unforeseen consequences.

The plot and character dynamics of the chosen summer play, Macbeth, are matched by the characters with in the novel. This ‘story within in a story’ sheds new light on the power balance between the three experimenting teenagers. The roles they take on in Macbeth offer insight into their personalities and ultimately clues to their fates.

Ryan is Macbeth; desperate for the power but weaker than he seems. Jess is Lady Macbeth; initially appearing submissive but driven to ruthlessness and regret. Chloe is one of the witches; nameless, overlooked but possessing the ultimate power.

Throughout the novel there is a feeling of duality. Love quickly spills into hate, admiration into envy, life into death, truth into lies. The dual time frames are skilfully and seamlessly woven together to create a feeling of reckless inevitability as history looks destined to repeat it’s self.

If you are looking for a cracking ghost story look no further. But I repeat my assertion that this novel is so much more.

I Am Dust is a book that drives you forward in a mesmerising rush. But stop…take some time to savour what Louise Beech has created here…

Because, believe me, it is special…

Rachel x

And there is more…

For more reviews of this gem of a book, check out the rest of the tour …

Blog Tour Review: Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

When the invite for this Blog Tour popped up in my Inbox I was intrigued and thrilled in equal measure. Promises of writing that evoked Toni Morrison were more than enough to get me interested, and what a pleasure it has turned out to be.

Conjure Women by Afia Atakora is a debut novel published by 4th Estate Books on 16th April. This book is already drawing some pretty heady comparisons, including the work of Sara Collins (The Confessions of Frannie Langton) and Yaa Gyasi (Homegoing).

And in my humble opinion it is entirely worthy of all the praise being heaped upon it. Quite simply it is remarkable . And for a debut novel it is exceptional, both in content and style. Thanks go to Lindsay Terrell for my gifted copy.

This is the story of Miss Rue. Rue is a black woman, healer and midwife to the recently freed black community on an American plantation. Rue has followed her mother Miss May Belle in taking on this role.

But her mother’s shoes are proving hard to fill and times have changed since the Civil War brought the nominal freedom of the plantation’s slave community. Rue continues her mother’s work but finds the community’s loyalty and unquestioning respect is no longer the same.

As the novel begins Rue attends the birth of a child; a pale skinned, black eyed and strangely watchful boy who is quickly known as Bean. Bean’s birth seems to herald unsettled times for the community as a strange sickness moves unchecked through it’s people. First affecting the young and then the old, it strikes fear amongst people’s hearts.

As the villagers look for someone to blame they look upon the strange untouched child and a perceived kinship between Bean and Rue, the woman who delivered him.

When Bruh Abel, a celebrated but transient preacher visits the village, suspicion against Rue and her practises increases and she begins to be further cut off from the people who have looked to her to sustain them for years. Talk of the strange spirit or ‘haint’ that roams the woods magnifies their fear and ultimately their distrust of Rue and her ‘hoodoo’ ways.

But can Bruh Abel provide the answers everyone is desperately searching for ? Or are there more similarities between Bruh Abel and Rue than it would appear at first glance? And by attempting to destroy Rue does the community risk it’s own safety in a way it can not comprehend?

For Rue, like her Mother before her is more that the healer of the sick, guardian of the dead and experienced midwife. She is also the keeper of secrets. Secrets that are woven into the fabric of the past, present and future, and whose exposure would jeopardise the community’s very existence.

This novel is a story that spans two distinct time frames. The ‘past’ refers to the time immediately preceding the American Civil War, up to it’s conclusion, ending with the freeing of the plantation slaves and the burning of the big house. The ‘present’ is a new time, of both nurtured hope and long held fear, of white men roaming the woods, unaccustomed freedom and loose ends that need to be explained away.

In the past, in the time of Rue’s girlhood,the figure of Varina, the white daughter of the plantation, owner looms large. She and Rue are of an age. On some level playmates but never to be equals, their destinies are tied together in a way that only Miss May Bell could foresee.

The two girl’s individual losses and trials run parallel to each other, two sides of the same coin, reflected in the unusual doll stitched by Miss May Bell. Over a period of years, the rise and fall of their fortunes seem to mirror one another, in an uncanny and almost predestined way. Change is coming, but change is hard for all involved.

There is a tangible sense of the complex history of the time; the feeling that changes brought about by the end of slavery open a gateway to a new era. And each step along this new path is fraught with fear and only achieved through the presence of hope. The ties to the past are strong, not easily shrugged off in this new world where rules are still being written and the past still lingers in the air.

There is natural pacing to the narrative, it is a story of individual lives woven together; tragic at times but with glimpses of light and colour providing balance. It is a story told with pathos, in lyrical, flowing prose. There is a tangible and authentic ‘voice’, a real sense of a story being told, a history being passed on to those that need to know.

This is ultimately a story of women. Of their bodies, their lives, their hopes, dreams and sorrows. It is a chronicle of motherhood, it’s complexities, sacrifices and joys.The characters that populate the pages of this novel are strong, flawed but genuine.

Everything adds up to make this a beautiful, reflective novel. Afia Atakora has created something that is, quite simply, stunning. Take some time to immerse yourself in the world of Miss Rue. You won’t regret it.

Rachel x

And there is more…

I guarantee I won’t be the only person to fall under the spell of Conjure Women. For more reviews and reactions check out the rest of the blog tour …

Blog Tour Review: The Unreliable Death of Lady Grange by Sue Lawrence

So there is no getting away from it…life is pretty crazy at the moment. And for the first time in a long time ‘real life’ had intruded on my bookish life to such an extent that my reading mojo seemed to vanish.

So The Unreliable Death of Lady Grange by Sue Lawrence was, I have to, up against it. But do you know what? The past was actually the perfect place to be!!!

Based on a true story, we begin in Edinburgh, 1742. The tale begins at the funeral of Lady Grange. Her sudden death has shocked her family.

But the real shock is that the spirited Rachel, Lady Grange is actually still alive.

Kidnapped by her husband, the father of her five surviving children Lady Grange is banished to the remote Hebridean Monach Isles. Fiery and defiant, certainly not a women of her time, Rachel is paying the price for pushing back against Lord Grange’s infidelity and her own ill treatment.

With the aid of the unscrupulous Lord Lovat, Lord Grange imprisons his wife on a series of remote islands, transporting her from a life of privilege to a life of hardship and deprivation.

Unable to speak the native tongue, deprived of books, writing materials and the love of her family, Rachel has been effectively obliterated. Her husband has not only taken her freedom, he has taken her identity and denied her existence.

His motives reach beyond the personal. Encapsulating a turbulent political time in history, Lady Grange has uncovered her husband’s Jacobite sympathies. Terrified that she will put not just his reputation but also his life in danger, James enacts his terrible revenge.

This is a story that is driven by power . Rachel is the very embodiment of female power in a period of time when woman had very little. Even when her circumstances are altered beyond recognition she is determined to maintain her dignity, sense of self and try to return to her current life.

Ultimately and unavoidably it is a commentary on the historical power imbalance between men and women, and how this was used and abused.

This is a powerful book, of a dark but in some ways uplifting story that might just take you away from our current craziness. Thank you Kelly @LoveBookTours for asking me along.

About the author

As well as writing popular historical thrillers, including Down to the Sea, Sue Lawrence is a leading cookery writer. After winning BBC’s MasterChef in 1991, she became a regular contributor to the Sunday Times, Scotland on Sunday and other leading magazines. Raised in Dundee, she now lives in Edinburgh. She has won two Guild of Food Writers Awards.

And there is more

For other reactions and reviews check out the rest of the blog tour below…

Blog tour review: The Foundling – Stacey Halls

A little while ago I had to have a stern word with myself. I had to remind myself that I can’t do every single blog tour that comes my way.

But sometimes a blog tour lands in the inbox that I practically beg to be involved in! The Foundling was one such book. Having read Stacey Halls incredible debut novel The Familiars last year i couldn’t wait to get on her newest offering.

It did not disappoint.

From the very minute I opened the book I was drawn in. Stacey Hall’s historic London pulled me into it’s spell and held me there.

The story begins with Bess, an unmarried and desperately poor woman, taking her child to The Founding Hospital, hoping they will agree to care for her. Leaving the baby girl, Clara in their care she leaves a token and a promise. A promise that she will return to reclaim her daughter when her circumstances improve.

Fast forward 6 years. Finally Clara has enough resources to reclaim her daughter. She arrives at the Hospital full of hope, only to be told her daughter was claimed by her mother the very day after her entry, six years previously. How is this possible?

Other than to say that the plot is beautifully crafted, I don’t want to give very much away about the plot at all. It is enough to say that from the beginning it is a story of mysteries and I don’t want to spoil any of them!

The story is set in London of the 1700’s. The setting is skilfully depicted as a city of two halves. The rich living comfortably, often extravagantly, the poor just about surviving. This juxtaposition of London life is immediately portrayed within the four walls of the Foundling Hospital. Bess takes her newborn to be entered in to the admission lottery, racked by both physical and emotional pain. That same impossible lottery is source of entertainment for the wealthy patrons of the hospital, all gathered to witness the women bringing their children and asking for help.

This duality forms the very core of the novel. Rich compared with poor. Two mothers, Bess, poor, a street hawker and Alexandra a rich widow; two backgrounds. The Foundling raises questions about what does it take to be a good mother. Through these two women we explore the many faces of motherhood. Stacey Halls asks us to consider whether material comfort alone can replace the bond of a mother whatever their circumstance. Or does every child deserve the chance to escape the crippling poverty if they are given the chance.

Through two heartfelt and beautifully crafted portraits of two very different women the role of nature and nurture is explored. How does the experience of a women’s own life shape her ability to be a mother to her own children ?

I have made no secret of my love for historical fiction. It makes up a considerable portion of my reading material, and done well I think it is hard to beat.

The Foundling is a superb example of it’s genre. From the beginning the impeccable research is apparent. Each detail highlighting the skill of an author who not only takes the time to build the foundations of their novel but weaves the knowledge in a meaningful and relevant way.

There is no research dumping to be found here, just tantalising nuggets of information which add to the overall beauty of the book and, like all the best historical fiction, make you want to find out more.

The Foundling is a quite simply a beautiful book. It is the kind of book you will remember long after reading and the kind of book you will recommend throughout the year.

And there is more…

For other great reviews of this winning novel check out the rest of the blog tour below…

January!! A Monthly Wrap Up.

I am going to come clean right at the start and say I am one of the those people who has an almost pathological hatred of January. I know it is probably a state of mind issue but I honestly can’t get over how long it goes on for and how grey it is.

That said despite the dark mornings and the hundreds of days, it has been a cracking reading month!

To start with I seem to have got my blogging mojo back again. After a bit of a dip in the autumn I am now right back in the swing of it. The TBR piles are still huge but they aren’t intimidating me anymore and I have requested and received some lovely and most welcome books this month. Something I never take for granted and I always genuinely touched and grateful for.

If we are talking numbers then I have read 14 books in January ( I told you it was a supernaturally long month!!) and listened to 1 audiobook.

The audiobook ‘thing’ is a relatively new addition for me. I have made the decision to stop listening to the news on the way too and from work. It’s is, I have decided bad for my mental health in the the current climate, I can’t physically read, unless I want to end up in a ditch (!), so audiobook it is. January has been a comfort listen, as I am revisiting the delightful Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard, my literary fluffy jumper. Just finished Marking Time and nicely stuck into Confusion.

Revisiting fiction has been a bit of a theme this month, as in preparation for the much anticipated release of The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel I joined in my first blogger read along. Embarking on Wolf Hall this month and Bring Up the Bodies next is nicely stoking the fires of excitement . Wolf Hall is as brilliant as I remember, but I do concede that it take a while to get into the rhythm. If you stick with it I promise it is worth it!

I began 2020 with a collection of short stories; Sudden Traveller by Sarah Hall. Hall is an accomplished writer and Queen of the short story. Her collection Madame Zero still looms large in the memory. It was a great start to the month and whetted my appetite for more great short stories.

Luckily I had To the Volcano and other stories -Elleke Boehmer from Myriad Editions waiting patiently for me. Another feast of short stories whose review was an absolute pleasure to write.

I am very much a physical books girl but I do read on the Kindle from time to time. And this month I read The Hunting Party By Lucy Foley. This novel had been getting loads of attention on Twitter last year and it was chosen as my book club read for January, mainly due to it’s setting, both in place and time. The remote Scottish Highlands at New Year with a murderer on the loose provided a welcome distraction from the rapidly ending Christmas holidays! I read it at the perfect time!

Talking of Christmas, my ‘other half’ did me proud and came up with a bumper stack this year. I have been slowly working my way through, deviating, as you do, alongs paths of proofs and ‘accidental’ book purchases!

Some were devoured and worshipped in that rather strange and chocolate filled time between Christmas and New Year, but this month I have indulged in just a few more.

The Offing by Benjamin Myers needs very little introduction. Such a beautiful book, filled with eloquence and stunning descriptions of the natural world, it offered a gentle escape to the East Coast of Yorkshire. A strong story of friendship and support unexpectedly found I honestly loved every word.

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams was another delight. It is initial tone is quite deceptive. It seems lighthearted, is certainly humorous but as the novel progresses it’s true depth is revealed. Make no mistake, there is a lot going on here. Concentrating on Queenie a young black woman, it embraces her life, her mental health and everything that has affected it. This novel is a must read. And it is also just out in paperback so this is the perfect time to dive in!

Finally from the Christmas stack was my only nonfiction read of the month Lady in Waiting by Anne Glenconner. Lady in Waiting to the late Princess Margaret, it is Anne’s own marriage that provides the most colour in this book. Her husband, Colin Tennant, was flamboyant and charismatic, the brain child behind the exclusive private island of Mustique. He was also mentally ill and prone to tremendous ‘meltdowns’, one of which earned him a lifetime ban from British Airways! Anne has lived a colourful, privileged but also at times tragic live, and I challenge you to read this one without your mouth hanging open!

On the whole though, January has definitely been a fiction heavy month. For example I finally embarked on The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker. This story, of a strange sleeping sickness that strikes down a Californian town, beginning in the college dorms and leading to the town’s complete isolation, was addictive and unsettling. The feelings were heighten by the fact that no sooner had I closed the book than the Coronavirus outbreak began to be reported.

I was lucky enough to read two gifted books this month. Firstly the spectacularly haunting Our Fathers by Rebecca Wait, whose review can be found here, and the historical novel The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire by Brian Kearney from Holland House Books, Instagram mini review can be found here

Reading aside perhaps the most lovely bookish thing to happen this month was my first blogger meet up. With nearly all of us fighting the Great British Rail Network to the last (!), I met up with four lovely bloggers in Manchester. Huge thanks go to Emma, @corkyyorky, Jules, @julesbuddle, Siobhan, @thelitaddict_ and Rebecca, @_forewardbooks, for inviting me along.

Aside from great conversation, food and a teeny bit of wine it was fairly inevitable we were going to land up in a bookshop!

So for the last two reads of the months I have these lovely ladies to thank. It was Emma who told me had to read Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton. She wasn’t wrong! What a book! I am not saying too much as I have a review in the pipeline but I am seriously wondering whether I haven’t already found one of my books of the year! In January, I know!!

I also came away with The Need by Helen Phillips. A really quirky and original read which offers a very honest and sometimes dark commentary on motherhood. I finished it last weekend and I am still thinking about it everyday.

Add in the fact that I have had the pleasure of being involved in two blog tours this month; Payback by R.C Bridgestock and The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep by H.G Parry , then this has been a pretty full reading month!

Goodbye January and bring on all the bookish goodies that February has to offer!

Rachel x

P.S. Is it spring yet??

Blog Tour Review: The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep By H G Parry

Sometimes a book tour request comes along that is out of my normal reading sphere but nevertheless it speaks to me.

That is exactly what happened when I was given the chance to read and review The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep by H.G. Parry , published on 23rd January 2020 by Orbit.

You see I have a bit of a tricky relationship with fantasy books. Although some of my favourite childhood books have a strong grounding in fantasy I haven’t really read much from this genre at all in the last few years. But the premise of this novel really drew me in.

Because the hero of this book can read characters to life! Can you imagine? Settling down with a cuppa and Jane Eyre and finding Mr Rochester snuggled up on the sofa next to you? Or lounging on the beach and finding Moby Dick washed up on the shore?

It is like all those memes and t-shirts you see advertised on Facebook, proclaiming; ‘Reading is my superpower!’ Only this time it’s true and the reality is exciting, the possibilities endless and quite frankly more than a bit terrifying .

The book is narrated by Rob, a normal middle class lawyer, living in Welington, New Zealand, trying to get on with the day job. The trouble is that his brother Charley, an English Professor at the local university, is far from normal.

After a shaky start in life, still born, only drawing his first breath 20 minutes later lying in his grieving mother’s arms, Charley emerges as a truly remarkable child.

Reading Dickens by 4, at Oxford age 13 and a PhD student before he is twenty Dr Charles Sutherland, Charley, is a prodigy. And one with a remarkable gift. His talent for understanding and interpreting literature allows him to ‘read’ characters into the present. It is a powerful skill, but one which his family have always pressed him to keep hidden fearing ridicule and worse, recriminations.

How many times does it take? Just keep your thoughts under control when you read a book! it shouldn’t be so hard!

The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep. Pg 8

You see it is the interpretation of character that give characters life and lifts them off the page. All of his life Charley has believed he is the only Summoner, but when literary characters start turning up all over the city then it becomes clear this isn’t true.

Not only are literary characters appearing, sometimes in multiples, there are no less than 5 Mr Darcy’s knocking around (!) but also places. A whole street has sprung up and it is mysteriously growing.

And it seems that, while Charley’s intentions might be benign sometimes even accidental , there is another Summoner at work whose intentions are quite the opposite. This mysterious creature makes it clear they are ready for war and they have over a thousand years of literature at their disposal from which to create an army, adding a whole new meaning to ‘Words as weapons’!

Suddenly Charley’s hidden ability is needed to save the city. Torn between family loyalty and his love of the characters he has unwittingly brought into the world, Charley is fighting to maintain control.

This novel is certainly a wonderful, jolting fantasy ride but at it’s heart there are many lessons to be learnt. Not least this book has much to say about the nature of family and what constitutes the ties that bind. It’s about the people we choose to surround ourselves with and the sacrifices we are prepared to make for those people.

This is a book written by a book lover, for book lovers everywhere. It is bursting at the seams with everyone’s favourite characters. I might have let out a little involuntary scream when Heathcliff appeared and the inclusion of a leather clad White Witch astride a Silver Harley Davidson was just sublime!

But most of all this book is fun! It’s like a breath of fresh literary air and there are no limits to what can happen. Sit back enjoy and let your imagination run wild !

Rachel x

And there is more…

For other great reviews and reactions to this unique book, check out the blog tour poster below!