Another Unplanned Book Review : The Secrets We Kept – Lara Prescott

I have said it before and I will say it again but the thing I love most about Book Twitter is the unexpected gems it throws in your path. Earlier this week I seized upon the offer of a copy of The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott. The gifted copy, sent by Sarah Ridley was awaiting me later in the week and it quickly threw all my weekend reading plans into disarray…

And I am so glad it did!

You could classify this novel as ‘the story of a story’. For at it’s heart it is the story of how Dr Zhivago, written by Boris Pasternak behind the Iron Curtain, made it to the Western world. It is the story of the price that was paid and the repercussions that were felt in both the East and West following the novels publication and international reception.

Named after the heroine of Doctor Zhivago, Lara Prescott has scrupulously researched and represented this extraordinary tale. Her portrait of Pasternak is of a complex, driven man, willingly to suffer for his art, passionate but sometimes blind to the consequences of his actions, both for himself and those around him.

The novel opens with his longtime and pregnant lover Olga Vsevolodovna being set to Gulag for her association with Boris and her refusal to betray him and his work.

And from this beginning we are left in no doubt who be the focus of this story.

For it is the women who drive this incredible narrative forward, both in the East and the West. And equally it is the women who are chronically underestimated.

Told by alternating from East to West,the story has all the hallmarks of a classic Cold War tale of spying and intrigue. But it is so much more. And it’s power lies within it’s characterisation.

Each chapter marks the evolution of the women at the stories heart. The changing character of the women as they move along their journeys of intrigue are marked, quite literally, in the changing nature of the titles.

There is real and genuine sense of voice in this book. Take for example the character of Sally, an experienced agent, a Swallow; her narrative manages to be both breezy and heartfelt, driving the plot along .With an inner steel, she is playing the long game, embracing duality and a changing persona. And ultimately revenge.

Or Irina, in whose heritage East and West come together, who is quickly proven to be so much more than a typist and who finds an unexpected and powerful connection with Sally. The relationship that develops between these two women might appear to be a subplot, but it is in fact intrinsic to the body of the novel.

Far more than the sum of it’s parts this is a celebration of love, sexuality, belief and talent, all wrapped up in a cloak of power, glamour and danger.

So glad I found it!

Rachel x

Publication Day Review: The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

I am starting this review with unadulterated and profound gratitude to Katie Green at Picador for gifting me a copy of The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave.

The Mercies is Kiran’s first adult novel, an absorbing and powerful read. This atmospheric tale weaves a spell, delighting the senses and lingering with me long after I had closed it.

Based on a true story, we begin in Vardo, a remote fishing community in North Eastern Norway, in 1617. Here, on Christmas Eve, a young woman, Maren Magnusdatter, watches from the cliffs as a freak storm claims the lives of forty men. In an instant the community’s male population is wiped out, her father, brother and betrothed included.

Suddenly the survival of the community rests entirely in the hands of the women. Once the grieving and rituals are completed, the women, led by fiery and practical, Kirsten, must do what they have never done before and take to the sea, fishing for their survival.

Life is hard, but despite tensions within the community, the women craft a life for themselves. Maren learns to live with her grief and begins to put the past behind her. She acts as the practical mainstay of her small family, absorbing and tempering the grief of both her mother and her sister- in- law Diinna.

Diinna, who gave birth shortly after the accident, is right on the fringes of the community. Her heritage lies with the Sami people and her customs, particularly those bound up in grief and mourning, drew some suspicion within the community. There are whispers that the storm was unnatural, sent or conjured by an unseen force.

It is upon this unconventional community that Absalom Cornet and his young wife Urla are thrust, three years after the accident.

Their marriage is young and arranged; Ursa has been married off by her father for the family’s financial gain. She has left behind a settled, if somewhat sheltered life in Bergen, as well as her beloved but ill younger sister.

Ursa has arrived naive, lonely and unprepared for life in such an inhospitable place. Seeking both practical and emotional support, Ursa strikes up a relationship with Maren. The two women form a connection that is originally based on need and practicality, which grows to something far beyond.

Ursa’s unease about her new life is compounded and subsequently magnified as her understanding of her husband’s role within the community develops. For Commissioner Absalom Cornet has been appointed by the authorities to bring morality, Christianity and order to this unconventional community of women. And he means to do so by any means.

This book is a stunning portrait of the power of women and how this power is harnessed in the solidarity of hardships, domesticity and knowledge passed down through the years . It returns to that haunting truth that the power of women taken by the wide reaching Witch Hunts of the 1600’s. When religious fevour began to turn against ancient knowledge and spirituality, branding strong wise women as witches and demons. It gives credence and strength to petty jealousies that build to levels of cruelty and destruction.

The portrait of a remote but tight knit community being slowly ripped apart by suspicion, vindictiveness and worse, is vividly told. The women are beautifully painted, each character coming alive through their grief, hopes and dreams. There is a feeling of connectivity and kinship on the behalf of the reader which denies the centuries that separate. In many ways this story feels all too raw and vivid; a female fight for survival which is very much relevant and pertinent today.

I read The Mercies at the tail of last year. I was quite simply entranced. I have waited to write and published my review, in no small part because I was looking for the words to do the novel justice. As I write now I am longing to reread it, to soak up the details once more.

There are certainly books this reminds me of and comparisons I could make. But I am loathe to do so. The Mercies is a book that should stand alone.

I hope it flies!

Rachel x

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??

Book Review : Our Fathers by Rebecca Wait

Whenever a book drops through my door I am always, without exception, excited and grateful. The arrival of Our Fathers by Rebecca Wait , however provoked even more excitement than usual. Having seen this on several ‘One to watch lists’, including Siobhan’s, @TheLiteraryAddict, then I had high hopes. I wasn’t disappointed.

The novel centres around the character of Tom, who has returned to the island of his birth, Litta after many years absence.

On this Hebridean island 20 years ago, when Tom was 8 years old, his father killed the rest of his family and then took his own life. Losing his mother, father, brother and baby sister, Tom was the only survivor; found huddled and terrified in his parents wardrobe.

Trying to run from his past, wrapped up in his own guilt and anger Tom has stayed away. But now, unable to lay the past to rest he returns, quite unannounced, to try and piece together what made his father, this seemingly quiet, stable family man commit such a terrible crime.

This is a story which has a truly awful event at it’s heart but the focus is on the before and after of this event. And the cause and effect of the tragedy is beautifully, slowly revealed.

It is the feeling of community that pushes at the sides of this novel. The community that welcomes new comers but equally holds them at arms lengths, unwillingly to disturb a delicate balance between conventionality and morality. It is a community struggling to come to terms with such senseless violence in it’s midst, keen to look for a simple answer to a difficult question. Not quite ready to look beyond the obvious and probe deeper into a families life and a man’s character.

When Tom returns the events, so long buried, but certainly not forgotten, come back to the surface and it is not only Tom who is forced to question what happened and their own part within.

Malcolm, Tom’s uncle, brother of his father, looks back not just to that time but to his own childhood and the way his family relationships developed. Neighbours start to question, albeit internally their own role and responses to the family. And the truth about Tom’s parents relationship is slowly pieced together.

The skill of this book lies in it’s paradox. For a book that has such violence at it’s heart, there is a real air of normality and gentleness about the setting, character and prose. The horror of what has happened is rationalised and cloaked in a conspiratorial silence, all too familiar in cases of domestic violence.

Through skilled and lyrical prose Rebecca Wait builds a powerful portrait of a marriage steeped in control and tension, a warning against silence and inaction. It tackles head on the way abuse, emotional, financial, physical, moves from generation to generation, eroding confidence and becoming blunted and normalised by those in the thick of it and on the fringes.

Given the subject matter, to say that Our Fathers is easy to read sounds glib and inappropriate. And yet it is. But it is east to read not in a light way, but in the sense that story is cohesive. It has an organic flow. It is populated with believable, ultimately flawed characters, brought to life through thoughtful dialogue.

This novel is about much more than one terrible event. It is a representation of the events leading up to and following that event. It shows how shocking events are rarely one off, out of the blue incidents, but that they are the culmination of other more complex and often harder to resolved events and feelings.

This novel focuses on psychology. The psychology of families, of love, control and abuse. And importantly the psychology of community and it’s responses to the actions of individuals within it.

Rachel x

Our Fathers – Rebecca Wait was published on 23rd January by RiverRun

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!

Blog Tour Review: Payback by R.C. Bridgestock

Sometimes an offer comes your way and there are one or two words in the inquiry email that grab you immediately.

This is what happened when Dome Press asked me if I would like to be involved in the Blog Tour for Payback.

And those two words were Happy Valley. You see the pen writing duo that created Payback, Carol and Bob Bridgestock, were previously storyline consultants for the gripping TV series, starring Sarah Lancashire and also the equally wonderful Scott and Bailey. Just reading those two words and I was pretty sure I would be in for a damn good story.

And I wasn’t disappointed!

Payback is the first in a brand new series and introduces the character of Charley Mann. Charley is a ambitious and accomplished police officer. She left her beloved Yorkshire to work in the Met, where she has been fast tracked. Returning now to her home town, she is about to take on the role of DI, the first female officer to rise to this rank in the area.

Coming home is bittersweet. Her love for the locality and it’s people is tainted by previous relationships gone sour, both in the work place and her personal life.

Her former mentor, DCI Roper is one such person. Experience has taken the scales from Charley’s eyes, calling into question everything he stands for and certainly his behaviour in the job.

Closer to home Charley is struggling to deal with the attentions of her childhood sweetheart and ex-boyfriend Danny Ray. Now a local reporter, he seems to be popping up all over the complex murder investigation that she finds herself immediately caught up in.

The murders are fascinating. Brutal, with complex crime scenes and seemingly obvious suspects who don’t just fit the profile. It is here that the experience of the writing team is apparent. The procedural writing is more than plausible, it is authentic and gripping, challenging both character and reader to the end.

Charley is a strong independent woman but she isn’t without her ghosts. The balance of power with her ex partner Danny is an interesting power dynamic and the portrayal of control and it’s misuse in a relationship is fascinating and dark.

Charley is a character on the rise professionally but her personal life is complicated and her methods of escape and release are unorthodox and sometime dangerous. At times she is living on the edge, and risks her personal and professional life colliding.

In addition to strong characters and storylines this novel has a fantastic sense of place. The Yorkshire town and it’s surrounding countryside are affectionately, but accurately portrayed. I particularly enjoyed how local folklore peppered the narrative giving the action a truly grounded feel.

If you are looking for a well written and well rounded crime novel, with just the right amount of bite and heart then look no further.

Enjoy!

Rachel x

And there is more…

For other reactions and reviews to Payback then check out the rest of the blog tour …

Book Review : American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

It seems that this book is popping up on many, many ‘One to Watch’ lists this year…and with good reason.

Back in the long hot summer of uninterrupted blogging and reading that was August 2019, I requested a review copy of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins after seeing a growing buzz on Twitter.

The lovely people at Tinder Press were kind enough to grant my wish and the book has winked at me from the shelf for quite a while.

However, just for once I have made a conscious decision to delay my reading. This was based on the fact that everyone I have spoken to who has read this book has been immediately blown away by it. I quickly picked up the vibe that it was a book I would want to review and probably struggle to contain my enthusiasm for. So I have shown uncharacteristic reading restraint and waited.

And I am so glad I did.

There is no doubt in my mind that this book is going to be huge. It is current, original and filled with compassion and grace. Just what the world needs at the beginning of a new decade which it would appear is getting off to a rather shaky start.

American Dirt is the story of Lydia Quixano Perez and her 8 year old son Luca. A middle class woman, running a book shop in Acapulco, Lydia is married to Sebastian, a talented journalist who likes to push the boundaries. Writing about the drug cartels which infiltrating the city means that Sebastian is, at the very least, a person of interest.

The novel opens with Lydia’s normality being ripped apart by unimaginable tragedy. In the blink of an eye she and Luca are fugitives and their own lives in danger. At risk within their own country their only choice is to flee, to run north to the US border, trying to reach el norte.

Taking cold hard cash and little more the clothes they stand up in, Lydia has to take risks she has never imagined she could. Gone is the life of safety harnesses in cars and worrying about school and vitamins; she is now sleeping with a machete strapped to her thigh and asking her 8 year old to jump on to moving trains, la bestia.

Written largely in the present but interspersed with flashbacks to Lydia’s previous and comfortable life, we become starkly aware of the contrasts and contradictions of Mexico. The rule of the drug cartels is wide reaching and it is clear that is not only Sebastian’s actions that have put the family in danger.

This is far far more than a fugitive story. Within these pages you will find a tender portrayal of grief and loss. Through the characters of Lydia and Luca we see how quickly a life can be torn apart and the lengths people will go to survive.

Their journey brings them into contact with many other migrants, all with individual tales to tell. All moving forwards motivated by desperation, the desire for a better life but overwhelmingly the very human instinct for survival.

There are no cliches in this book. There is just humanity in all it’s heart breaking forms. Not all migrants are saints, but they are all people and deserve to be treated as such whatever their ‘immigration status.’

This is a book that will terrify and move you in equal parts. There is nothing in this life that we take for granted more than freedom. American Dirt might just make you stop, think and even appreciate the more important things in life.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is published on 21st January 2020 by Tinder press. You can preorder here

Rachel