#BlogTourReview: Below The Big Blue Sky – Anna McPartlin

Oh my goodness! Rabbit Hayes! I am coming completely clean now; I had never met or even heard of Rabbit Hayes before the blog tour invite for Below The Big Blue Sky ( thank you Tracy Fenton!) popped up in my inbox. I loved the sound of the story so much I signed up without a clue that there was a prequel, The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes. A prequel that had completely past me by. But, hey, no matter this meant I got two for the price of one.

So what do you need to know? Well Below The Big Blue Sky by Anna McPartlin, like it’s predecessor is written with heart, humour and compassion. This book picks up where the first left off. We find the quirky, close knit Hayes family in a hospice immediately after the death, from breast cancer, of their beloved Rabbit. Rabbit is, or was, a journalist; but most importantly she was a mother, daughter, sister and friend. A fiery, fighter of a 30-something woman taken before her time and kicking cancer’s sorry ass right until the end.

If The last days of Rabbit Hayes is about coming to terms with Rabbit’s diagnosis, Below the Big Blue Sky is about how the Hayes family begin to cope with life without Rabbit. And it isn’t easy.

For Juliet, life without her mother is numbing. She is now the ward of her Uncle Dave, and this means moving away from Dublin and starting a new life in the United States, a life that fits around Davey’s commitments as a touring drummer. And for Davey himself, grieving his baby sister while parenting a teenager, stretches him to the limit.

Grace is coming to terms not only with Rabbit’s death but also with the fact that she, herself, carries the gene which killed her sister. The decisions that come with this revelation are not to be taken lightly and become a source of family tension.

Losing their daughter rocks the marriage of Jack and Molly Hayes. Both seem changed beyond measure, faith is no longer the bedrock it was and suddenly everything seems to be spiralling out of control.

And what of Rabbit’s best friend Marjorie? Suddenly she is facing huge life changes and chances but without her sounding board and support at her side.

This is a novel that deals with those strange and disorienting days after a death. A novel that faces down the immediate practicalities and the lingering, roaring pain. It details the way a family comes together and equally the way it sometimes fragments as the individual members find their own pathways through their loss. Anna McPartlin creates stunning characters, that convey quite beautifully how unique grief is. And how loss and pain manifests itself in any number of different ways.

This is a novel that focuses on the process of grieving and coming to terms with loss. It is about the things someone will compromise on and the things that really matter. It is about that balancing act of bringing everyone’s beliefs and opinions into play, whilst holding on to the essence of the person who is lost. This novel deals with death in a warm, human and deeply humorous way. The narrative raises all those tricky, but important questions. In a society where we speak of death in whispers and veiled words this book faces things head on. Yes, there is tragedy, but this novel is filled to the brim with humour and humility.


Anna McPartlin’s screen writer background is wonderfully apparent in the novel; the dialogue in these pages is absolutely spot on. These are characters you can see, feel and almost touch. Having read the two novels back to back I felt like I had spent days in the arms of the Hayes family and it was a lovely place to be. And just as the sense of character is grounding, the sense of place, history, back story is equally impressive.

This is the story of family tested to it’s limits. A family that has to refine itself and at the same time remember just what it is that makes them strong and unique.

And always …

#RememberRabbitHayes

Rachel x

And there is more…

Catch up with the rest of the Below The Big Blue Sky Blog Tour…

Blog Tour Review: Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser- Anker

I am thrilled to be finally taking my turn on the Blog Tour for Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodessor- Anker, in order to celebrate the UK paperback release. Huge thanks to Anne Cater for putting this one my way!

This is a book which has already received huge acclaim and attention. Labelled ‘Astonishingly brilliant’ by Dolly Alderton and ‘Rare and delicious’ by Maria Semple, it has gone on to be long-listed for The Women’s Prize for Fiction. In short this book has been every where!

So, what’s it all about and does it live up to it’s hype…?

Welcome to the story of Toby Fleishman. A 40 something NYC Doctor, who is on the cusp of divorce from his wife Rachel. The couple have two children of whom they share custody. It is the long summer break and Rachel has disappeared…

Through what appears to be Toby’s eyes we see him struggle to juggle his work commitments, children and social life. We also see his perspective on his failed marriage, his future and his very dark view of Rachel.

Toby presents a very clear view of his marriage and the reasons it has failed. Rachel is successful, running, what emerges to be, a multi million dollar talent agency that she has built up herself. Toby portrays his soon-to-be-ex-wife as self centred and selfish. Her priorities are work, social climbing and she is neglectful with regard to her children.

At first, pulled into to Toby’s view point, the reader is very firmly on his side. He presents his case forcefully, and of course the facts back him up. I mean what kind of mother just leaves her children, right?

But then a shift begins. Almost imperceptibly at first Brodesser- Anker begins to lift the veil on Toby’s version of events and our perspective begins to change. At first the discord is created by Toby’s actions. We see this devoted father, claiming to put the needs of his children first, but at the same time desperately engineering any time he can to slip away for sexual encounters with women he has met through a host of dating apps. We become aware of Toby’s own physical insecurities, which begin to make him seem defensive, even combative. We seen him fire a loyal employee for one potential mistake.

The introduction, in a very clever and emerging sense, of the character of Libby allows the author another lens through which to see Toby and his marriage. Libby likes, even loves Toby, but as a very old friend she sees him with clarity. She knows his flaws. In terms of Rachel, Libby herself is going through her own struggles with career and motherhood. She understands what it is like to be a successful woman in man’s world and try to juggle the expectations of marriage, career and society at large. Libby seems to provide the reader with the perfect bridge between the couple, a much needed dual perspective. But in fact, in a stroke of genius, she actually provides so much more..

Finally the novel allows Rachel her voice, and we get to see this marriage from her point of view. Rachel is the chief bread winner in their family. It is her hard work and success that allows the Fleishman’s to move in the upper reaches of New York society. She has taken society at their word, followed the American Dream and achieved what she has been promised. Namely that a woman can have everything. Successful career, happy family life, contented husband, perfect children. And suddenly in achieving this she has become a piranha, a perceived monster, guilty of neglect, hard and unfeeling.

With this glorious shift in perspective the author is showing us what happens when roles are effectively reversed and a woman steps up to the traditional man’s role in a marriage and society. Does that role bend to accommodate all the challenges and expectations of motherhood, childbirth and general domestic today life? Or does it harden into a trap or another stick to beat women with? Societal double standard are woven throughout the novel. They overwhelm Rachel’s perspective but they also invade the story of her daughter. On the cusp of teenage hood and punished for a mistake at camp, while her male counterpart has his role downplayed and ignored.

There is so much within this novel. It is skilled and multilayered, feminist commentary on societal expectations, marriage, divorce, childbirth, consumerism, upbringing and so much more. It looks at core values, both on an individual and societal level, and asks what happens, both in marriage and society when those core values are incompatible or misunderstood.

This novel challenges the stereotypes of women and asks that all important question. Can we have it all? If so, who decides and who will judge? It suggests that for women to truly rise and not be broken in the process there needs to be a far reaching shift in not only opportunities but attitudes from both genders within society.

The title ‘Fleishman is in Trouble’ seems very clearly at the beginning of the novel to apply to Toby. It is a traditionally masculine statement, referring to the character by their surname. But by the end of the novel you will certainly be questioning just which Fleishman is really in trouble.

There is humour in this novel, a wit and understanding that pulls the reader in and holds you there. But quite suddenly the author shifts and you find yourself staring into the face of pathos and real sadness. This is a book to challenge, to push those boundaries and ignite discussions. Finishing this book doesn’t feel like an ending; it feels like a beginning. The start of a long overdue and complex conversation.

Rachel x

And there is more…

I guarantee that everyone who reviews this book is going to pick up on a different angle, different issue and perspective. So for more reviews and reactions check out the rest of the blog tour below…

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…

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…

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…

Blog Tour Book Review: The Light Keeper by Cole Moreton

This book crept up on me, and then, all of a sudden I was ambushed. It was such an unexpected joy I immediately took to Twitter to praise and recommend. Then I sat down to write this review. Huge thanks go to the author, Cole Morton for allowing me to read, and to Rhoda Hardie, Marylebone House for my gifted copy. It is my absolute pleasure to be taking my turn on the The Light Keeper Blog Tour today.

So what is so special about this book? I suspect for every reader the answer to this question is likely to be different . For The Light Keeper is that kind of book, so full of life experiences that everyone is likely to take something quite unique away from it.

The novel begins with the story of Jack and Sarah. Jack comes home and finds Sarah is missing. They are coming to the end of their IVF journey; the money has run out and the impending pregnancy test represents their final chance at parenthood. Jack believes that Sarah has buckled under the pressure and is headed to Beachy Head to end her life.

He dashes out of London, but when he arrives on the cliffs Sarah is no where to be found. Jack finds himself in a community that seems governed by the fact the cliffs regularly attract souls who are lost and looking to end their lives. The cliffs are patrolled by The Guardians, on the watch for jumpers; hoping to intervene.

Living on the cliff edge is The Keeper. A former war reporter, living in a semi renovated lighthouse; a man is dealing with his own demons. Trapped inside his grief, he is sustained and at times tormented by imagined conversations with his dead partner Ri. So isolated, his actual name isn’t revealed until towards the end of the novel, when his barriers start to come down.

The lighthouse acts, unintentionally as a meeting place. It is the focal point of the novel where the complex stories of the characters come together and in some cases collide. Slowly a web of connections and stories are woven, stories that span generations and bring influences together from across the globe.

The characters of this novel are it’s strength; it’s backbone. Each character brings their own battles and scars to the plot, all authentically brought together. Lives are complex and this is sympathetically acknowledged; indeed, it is integral to the success of the plot and the novel itself. Nothing here is what it seems at first glance. The past and the present are constantly competing, as characters try to carve their way forward.

Cole Moreton has fashioned a vivid and multilayered portrait of grief, presenting the reader with sensitive and individual reactions to loss and trauma. There are no standard responses, no cliches, but rather a host of characters with their own story to tell, each trying to overcome and cope.

This book is a celebration of humanity. An understanding of the human spirit, an acknowledgment of what happens when hope is gone but someone takes time to listen to your story, to offer hope and see beyond the difficulties. A rare and unexpected treat.

Rachel x

And there is more…

For other reviews and opinions on The Light Keeper check out the rest of the blog tour below…

May Wrap Up!

May is almost done and it seems my reading speed as picked up! From struggling with my reading mojo at the beginning of lockdown, I now seem to be finding my retreat in books the longer the situation continues.

With the ever more crazy situation in politics and current affairs in general, books seem a safer refuge. Beautiful weather has taken my reading outside, and the world has seemed blissfully far away.

So, what I have I read! Well quite a lot actually, and I have finally begun to get through some of my ‘overlooked’ titles. Books that have been sitting on my shelves for ages. One such book was The Confession by Jessie Burton. Published last year, I was late to the party but it was completely worth the wait. I hadn’t planned to review this one but I was so surprised and delighted by it that I felt I had to.

Another ‘catchup’ book, was The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey. Set at the beginning of World War Two, and with strong female characters, this one was always destined to be a winner for me. My review can be found here.

I also finally got around to reading Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. I particularly enjoy the setting of this novel. It was one of those books where you became completely transported and immersed. It brought to mind one of my all time favourite reads To Kill a Mockingbird.

I embarked upon a couple more catch up reads as part of my book club reading. The first was the gentle and delightful Saving Missy by Beth Morrey. I read it and enjoyed it but it really came alive in our book group discussion. So many layers are cleverly woven into this novel, it made for a great Book Club book.

My second book club read of this month was Normal People by Sally Rooney. I have to admit here and now that I have avoided this book for a long time. I know it came out to universal praise, but I was quite reluctant to read it. I had read and not enjoyed Conversations With Friends and this quite simply put me off. I haven’t had my book club discussion on this one yet, so I am playing my cards close to my chest…Watch this space!

This month I also completed my self imposed challenge to read the Women’s Prize Short List . Let’s not kid ourselves, this has been no great hardship. I can honestly say that I have enjoyed each book on the short list this year. I finished my reading with Dominicana by Angie Cruz and Weather by Jenny Offill. I will be watching with interest when the winner is announced on 9th September. I have my favourite, but that is for another time.

Other books I have read and reviewed in May have included some fascinating historical fiction. The witty and observant Chatterton Square by E.H Young was recently re-released by British Library Publishing. Set in the summer of 1938, against the backdrop of appeasement, it is a wonderful commentary on a women’s perspective on marriage.

From 1930’s London to 1700’s Imperial Russia, allow me to present Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten. This was a book I reviewed as part of a blog tour. Filled with opulence and cruelty in equal measure it is the story of Catherine I of Russia and her remarkable rise from peasant to Tsarina. You can fine my review here.

One of my favourite books of the month, both to read and review was the extraordinary Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught. Published earlier this month by Blue Moose Books, this book is the story of four women. All incarcerated within asylums, all infamous , but at the same time all desperately misunderstood and overlooked. This novel is a beautiful reimagining of their stories, offering them freedom through their own voices.

My final review of the month was an Instagram Review of A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet. Focusing on the approaching global emergency that is Climate Change, the author explores what happens when theory becomes reality and how the older generations struggle to adapt to the sudden and necessary changes needed. A powerful warning to all.

The vast majority of my reading this month has been fiction, but there have been two notable and worthy exceptions. Firstly I dabbled in poetry, picking up Matthew Francis’ The Mabinogi. I heard of this retelling of the ancient Welsh epic from not one but two podcasts, Backlisted and Hay Festival Podcast. I have to say, I loved it. Evocative and lyrical it was a unexpected and welcome change.

Secondly, I come to my one nonfiction read of the month Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker. The fascinating, and often heart breaking story of the Galvin family. A fine all American family to the outside world, 6 of their 12 children were diagnosed with schizophrenia. This book examines the realities of life in the Galvin household, and explores how this family helped unwittingly to inform future research in to and treatment of schizophrenia. Thank you to Amanda @BookishChat for putting this one on my radar.

Finally I come to what I am thinking of as ‘Treats yet to come.’ These are the books that I have read this month that either have reviews pending or are yet to be published. And there are some crackers!

I am so excited to currently be working on my review of Summerwater by Sarah Moss. Sarah Moss is a genius in my eyes, and Summerwater is just a delight. This review is taking an age to write, as I am determined to do the book justice. Due out in August of this year, it is not to be missed.

A couple of books that I have reviews written for and ready to share in the next week or so are Walter & Florence and other stories by Susan Hill and The Light Keeper by Cole Moreton. Neither of these books were on my radar at the beginning of the month and both have been a delight. Watch out for the reviews!

And finally we come to What Doesn’t Kill You – Fifteen Stories of Survival. A collection of moving and deeply personal accounts of individual experiences of surviving mental ill health. It is my pleasure to be part of the blog tour beginning early next month, organised by Anne Cater, which celebrates this very important book.

So, all in all a very busy reading month. I think it is far to say that what is getting me through lockdown are family, ice cream and books!! Bring on June!

Rachel x

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 …