Book Review : The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson

A while ago, in what seems like another reality, I was on a train. I was complaining to myself about the terrible service – oh, little did we know!!! – and trying to get to my first meet up with 4 other lovely book bloggers.

To take my mind off the journey, I scrolled through Twitter and came across the announcement of Sally Magnussons impending new release. Excited I sent out an email asking for a proof , not honestly fancying my chances, as I was sure the whole world was probably asking too.

But the good people at Two Roads were so kind and within a week I had a copy in my grubby little mitts. (Which are obviously only metaphorically grubby! Wash your hands people!!)

And let me tell you bookish people of the world…it is a beauty!!

Beginning in 1856, we are introduced to Alexander and Isabel Aird , a young middle class couple living in Glasgow.

A doctor, Alexander is concerned with the health of the city, particularly the poor. A passionate champion of improving public health, he is following closely the ambitious scheme to bring clean water from the Trossachs to the people of Glasgow. It is his dedication to reducing cholera within the population that sees him accept the job of site doctor at the developing waterworks by the banks of Loch Katrine

Uprooted from her Glasgow life, Isabel finds herself isolated amongst in a strange new landscape; one which is being changed by the intense and relentless blasting of the surrounding hill side to create the series of tunnels and aqueducts needed to complete this mammoth feat of engineering.

Alone for much of the time, Isabel is also grieving. For since the beginning of their marriage Isabel and Alexander have lost seven children to still birth or miscarriage. When we meet Isabel she is carrying her eighth child. She has no hope left, and is waiting painfully for what she feels is the inevitable.

The couple are disconnected, both grieving but both internalising their grief. Alexander has his work to distract him but for Isabel distraction comes in a different, more unconventional and dangerous form…

Loch Katrine and the nearby Doon Hill are steeped in Folklore. They are the haunt of the fairies, the sithichean, and all the recent industrial activity is disturbing the ground and it’s secrets. So when a mysterious, old fashioned but rather charismatic man, going by the name of Robert Kirke appears in Isabel’s life alarms bells start to ring. When Isabel, listens wrapt to his strange story, she offers to help. But the price she is unwittingly agreeing to pay is far too high.

The strange friendship which springs up between Isabel and Robert is of deep concern to Kirsty McEchern, a navvies wife, who has become a house keeper of sorts to The Airds. She is the voice of reason, a pragmatic narrator in the style of Nellie Dean. She has an insight into the minds and marriage of the Airds, recounting the tale years after the event, trying to explain the inexplicable.

And with her own strong sense of tradition and folklore running alongside her day to day reality Kirsty is also the embodiment of one of the novels key themes. The juxtaposition of folklore and superstition with science and progress. Themes that run throughout the history and literature of the Victorian era.

Alexander and his social circle are the embodiment of the progress that is made in public health, medicine and engineering. It is a world that the grieving and unfulfilled Isabel tries desperately to reach. She is constantly rebuffed and discouraged on the basis of her sex.

It is the character of Isabel which is the very core of this novel for me. Her fight to be a mother, in an era when women were judged by their ability to bear children but obstetrics and women’s health, both physical and mental, remained a low priority. Her fight to be more that just a wife, to find purpose in her daily life and efforts to support her husband in meaningful and practical ways.

For me, a successful novel is one which shows a development of not just plot, but character. And Isabel is a key example of this. The Isabel we are introduced to at the beginning of the novel is very definitely not the Isabel we say goodbye to at the end.

Another key strength of the novel is it’s sense of place in both location but very definitely period in time. It feels like a Victorian novel. The themes, language and pace are all authentic, all reminiscent and evocative of that fast moving and strangely conflicted time in history.

The sense of Victorian-a is cemented by a parallel strand of the story, a plot line involving Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. This thread reflects the key themes of the novel; juxtaposition of progress and tradition, women’s role in society, its attitudes to child bearing. It is a thread that is neatly woven throughout and comes to a natural conclusion at the climax of the novel.

Sally Magnusson has mastered the art of weaving stories around a series of facts and bringing them together into intriguing and thought provoking novel. It is a unique story, with a unique approach. Beautifully plotted and at times heartbreakingly poignant, it is one of my reads of the year so far.

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…

February Reading Roundup!

Wow! The end of February already! Where did that month go???

The big change in the BookBound household has been the arrival of Orla! This bundle has turned our lives upside down and is definitely getting way more likes and retweets than any blog I could produce!!

In other news, unless you are reading this blog from sunnier climes and distant shores, February seems to have passed in a haze of wind, sleet, snow and of course copious amounts of rain. I know it is a very British thing to harp on about the weather but… Even those of us living in the Lake District have found the last month remarkable for all the wrong reasons! As I write now the windows are rattling yet again as Storm Jorge makes it’s presence felt.

The upside of stormy weather? Plenty of reading time, because no one wants to go out!

So… what have I read this month?

Well I began with an absolute treat! My first, but definitely not my last Carol Lovekin novel, was the perfect novel to begin a wild February! Steeped in mysticism and feminine power it was an absolute pleasure to read and review as part of the Wild Spinning Girls blog tour.

Carol was so lovely to work alongside and took the time to show her appreciation for the dedication of bloggers everywhere. In case you missed it you can find my review right here

Carrying on with Blog Tour theme I was lucky enough to manage to grab a spot on the blog tour for The Foundling by the incredible Stacey Halls.

As expected the novel was stunning! Immersive and impeccably researched. My blog tour review goes live tomorrow…watch this space…

As always I have to say a huge thank you to those lovely people who have sent books for me to enjoy this month. I honestly never take this privilege for granted. This month I have read three such books ; all very different but all equally delightful. My blogger reviews of the gripping The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott and life affirming Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano can be found on the blog.

Finding Clara by Anika Scott , the third of this trio, was an interesting and thought provoking read.

It is set in Germany, just after World War Two and it focuses on what it was like to be within a country that has lost a war. The novel focuses on three characters. Clara, an heiress who’s father is awaiting trial for War Crimes and is herself wanted by the British Military Police. Jakob, a wounded war veteran, doing what he can to support his family and Willy, a teenage boy, living in an abandoned mine, labouring under the misconception that the war is still being fought.

These characters bring to life the reality of defeat and explore the grey areas of war. What is acceptable and who is ultimately responsible for their actions in a time of chaos, when normal rules don’t seem to apply.

It was refreshing and often quite challenging to consider this time in history from a new perspective. Definitely one I would recommend and thank you Klara Zak for my gifted copy.

Finding Clara is published on 5th March by Hutchinson Books and can be preordered here

In other fiction news this month I have been catching up with some longstanding recommendations. When numerous knowledgeable bloggers start shouting ‘You have to read this book!’ experience tells me to listen and obey. Falling into this category this month have been the deliciously quirky The Hoarder by Jess Kidd, (late to the party! I know!) and the recently released and superb The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams. Add to that list the unique and haunting Saltwater by Jessica Andrews and you can see this month has contained some stunners.

It seems to be becoming a theme in my reading at the moment but I have also started to revisit books. This month I read for book club My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier. If you haven’t read it, do! It’s a master class in dramatic tension and plot twists. Audiobook wise I am continuing to work my way through the gorgeousness of The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard; Confusion completed Casting off begun.

This month has contained many treats but I have to say the last day of the month threw me something special! Last night I had the pleasure of experiencing my first Hollie McNish performance. Just amazing!!!

First performance maybe…definitely not my last!

Thank you February! Wild weather aside, it’s been a stonking book month!

Book review: Dear Edward – Ann Napolitano

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano is a book I have had sitting on my book trolley since the summer of last year, when the gifted copy ( plus very welcome chocolate!) dropped through the letter box.

I haven’t deliberately neglected or avoided this book. Far from it, in fact I have been drawn to it just about every week. Instead I have been saving this book, hoarding it you might say. Because I knew from the premise, the reactions of other trusted bloggers and the overall buzz surrounding it I was going to love it.

And, fickle and rather shallow book beast that I am, when I really love a book I struggle not shout about it almost immediately. So I have waited until just before publication day to read it, and by the time you read this review it will be available for you to enjoy.

191 DIE IN PLANE CRASH; 1 SURVIVOR.

This statement of fact is indeed the crux of this story. It’s the truth at the centre and the catalyst for everything that happens within it.

It is also the reason my husband wrinkled his nose and declared, sarcastically; “Looks like a cheerful book.”

And I suppose that there is every reason to think this might be a dark read, wrapped up in tragedy and fear. But actually nothing could be further from the truth.

The story centres around Edward Alder, a twelve year old boy who is the only survivor of a plane crash in June 2013 which kills 191 others; his father, mother and older brother, Jordon are amongst the dead.

Getting on the plane as a family of 4, flying to begin a new life in California, Edward wakes up in the hospital, an orphan. Known as Eddie before the crash, this young boy has to come to terms with his loss and trauma. As part of coping strategy, he chooses to abandon the name Eddie, becoming Edward instead.

From the beginning of his new life, with his Aunt Lacey and Uncle John, Edward is fighting to create his own normal. His new room is the unoccupied Nursery in John and Lacey’s house, the room created for the babies that never came. Unable to sleep here, unable to find peace anywhere, Edward connects with Shay, the girl next door. Individual, quirky, with demons of her own, Shay offers no judgement, has no emotional baggage and lets Edward come to terms with things in his own way. It is in Shay’s room that he sleeps, comforted by her steady presence in the same way he was anchored in a previous life by his brother.

The story of Edward’s gradual return to being is one time frame in the book. It is juxtaposed, chapter by chapter by another; that of the final hours of Flight 2977. Here we come to know something of the other passengers, see inside their lives and know them as more than just nameless victims .

We meet Florida, a vivacious woman, alternative in her outlook, possessor, she believes, of many previous lives, with bells on her skirts and an abandoned husband behind her.

There is her ‘row- mate’, Linda. Desperate for the love and acceptance she never found from her parents, she is flying out to LA to meet her new boyfriend, harbouring a secret and hoping he will propose.

And Benjamin; US solider, flying back home to his Grandma, mentally and physically broken; questioning who he is and where he is going.

These are just a few of the lives that are lost, just a few of the hopes and dreams that die that day. Because what Edward learns as he moves forward is that it isn’t just enough to survive this plane crash. You have to take the life that’s left to you and live it.

The trouble is he isn’t sure how to do this. Equally his Aunt and Uncle, desperate not to cause him further pain, don’t know how to help him. When Edward becomes the focus for the grief of the families left behind John and Lacey do everything they can to protect Edward, to stop him being swept aside by the tide of pain and intensity behind it.

It is in an effort to keep him safe that they choose to hide the letters from him. Letters written to him from the families, pouring out their grief, looking for answers and comfort, seeking affirmation and commitment.

So when Edward and Shay discover these letters late one night, what will they do to Edward? Will they push him further in to pain ? Or will the love of the other families and the very real mark each of the victims has made on this planet start to heal him?

This is a book, that despite it’s central event, celebrates life. In a strange twist this story embraces tragedy and uses it as the catalyst to throw life, in all it’s many and varied forms, into stark relief.

Dear Edward is a celebration not a wake. Make sure you take the time to join in.

Rachel x

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