Book Review: Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth MacNeal

Ever wanted to join the circus? Well now might be your chance. But just a word of warning there is a darker side to the brightest of lights. But take a step inside the Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal and have a closer look.

A huge thank you goes to Camilla Elworthy for my gorgeous gifted copy. Having fallen in love with The Doll Factory I was very keen to read this one!

It’s 1866 and Nell lives on the edge of her community. Set apart by her curious speckled skin, she picks violets and is wrapped in the love of her devoted brother. Nell’s dreams are small but when the circus comes to town she is just as fascinated as the rest of the village.

Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrival leads to the biggest betrayal of Nell’s young life. Sold to the show by her father, Jasper makes Nell his newest attraction, his amazing ‘leopard girl.’ Life on the road is hard but there is also a glamour and a growing sense of adoration that Nell has never experienced before.

Reborn as the magical ‘Nellie Moon’ London is soon abuzz with her name. Friends are found in the other performers and Toby, Jasper’s younger brother brings a gentleness to her life she has long been missing.

But Jasper’s show and Jasper’s life are both built on tentative and shaky ground. Debts and his past are always one step behind him and when his star threatens to outside her creator the world of the circus suddenly turns very dark.

Set in an age of invention, of trickery and spangled appearance, this is the tale of both how things appear and how they really are. It is a life built on illusion and show, of light and dark and the struggle it takes to stay on the right side of each. For each dream that is made another is crushed and the thread that binds exploitation and empowerment glows brightly throughout. A connection that is impossible to ignore m.

This is a story filled with contrast and partnerships, both within its characters and it’s themes. It is an exploration of how dark can turn to light and how redemption can be found in the most unexpected of places. The story is filled with both the constraints and loyalty found in love, and what happens when we claim too much too fast.

The pictures that Elizabeth Macneal paints are vivid, alive and vibrant. It is a book that reaches out to each sense and brings the reader inside. Whether at the heart of the circus, in a money lenders lair or in the ruins of the Crimea the sense of place is second to none.

Keep your eyes on the Circus! It’s never what you think!

Rachel x

Review: Love Stories for Hectic People by Catherine McNamara

People who follow me on Twitter may or may not had noticed that over the past few months I have fallen increasingly and hopelessly in love with Flash Fiction. So when David Borrowdale from Reflex Press asked me if I would be interested in reading and reviewing Love Stories for Hectic People by Catherine McNamara I jumped at the chance.

Flash fiction is an art, a beautiful elusive skill. The ability to encapsulate, convey and develop a story in under 1,000 words is something to be cherished and admired. And within these pages are found thirty three fantastic examples.

The over arching theme is, as the title suggests, love. And it is love in it’s many and varied forms. Here, drawn with clarity, wit, empathy and razor sharp precision are stories of couples the world over. Couples in love, couples in lust and everything in between.

Here are relationships that are at the beginning, relationships in their death throes and relationships that have developed to stand the test of time.

Brevity might be the key in this collection, but each tale has as an impeccable structure, a view point that pans like a camera, zooming in and out, drawing the readers eye to the heart of each matter every single time.

If you are looking for something new, something biting, raw and fresh, then grab yourself a copy and feast away. I promised myself that this would be book to be taken on board in bitesized chunks. Turns out I gorged on it, one glorious tale after the other.

Rachel x

Love Stories for Hectic People by Catherine McNamara is available to order here.

It has been Shortlisted for The Saboteur Awards 2021 Best Short Story Collection.

Review: On Hampstead Heath by Marika Cobbold

Looking for a novel alive with the sharpest of prose and filled with heart and wit?

Then look no further than this week’s new release On Hampstead Heath by Marika Cobbold, published by Arcadia Books. Thank you to Georgina Moore for my gifted copy.

Thorn Marsh is a journalist, whose career is the most important thing in her life. The pursuit of a story and the integrity within it is a fundamental part of her identity. And since her marriage break up it is close to the only thing in her life.

So when The New London Journal takes a new direction, one which Thorn can neither understand or support, she finds her world crashing down around her. Her questions and confrontational manner see her sidelined from her job as News Editor, and moved to the mid week supplement. Her new role involves seeking out good news stories, and it couldn’t be further from Thorn’s skill set!

In desperation, and almost accidentally Thorn files a story that takes the world by storm. The story of the celestial being doing good works on Hampstead Heath is an overnight sensation. Aided by social media, word of mouth and everything in between Thorn has suddenly broken the biggest story of the year.

The problem is it isn’t true.

And now Thorn finds herself in a race to undo the damage, whilst trying to maintain her reputation. For someone who has always prided herself on embracing the truth, what ever the cost, Thorn finds herself in entirely unknown terrain.

On Hampstead Heath is a brilliant exploration of how we live our lives and the fragile relationship the world around seems to share with truth. It explores the way social media has shaped not only the way events are reported but also the way society reacts to them.

Through razor sharp prose and glorious wit it highlights how we allow ourselves to manipulate truth and in turn to be manipulated by what we believe truth to be. It is a immersive novel, alive with flawed yet believable characters and a pacy prose.

One not to be missed.

Rachel

#BookReview: Tall Bones by Anna Bailey

I always try to stop myself mentally compiling my ‘Books of the Year List’ long before the year is out. But sometimes you come across a book that is special. A book that you know it is going to be pretty hard to top. And when the book in question is a debut, with all the promise of more great things to come, then you know you are on to a winner.

Let me introduce you to Tall Bones by Anna Bailey. Set in a small Colorado town, this is, on the face of it, the story of a teenage girl gone missing. But it is the story of so much more…

When 17 year old Abi Blake vanishes in the woods after a teenage party, Emma her closest friend is filled with remorse. Blaming herself for the disappearance of her only friend, Emma’s life in Whispering Ridge, shifts from difficult to unbearable.

Being of mixed race and growing up without her father, Emma has always been an outsider, on the edges of this strange and insular community. Now, alone and grieving for her only friend, she seeks refuge in alcohol and the company of Rat, a Romanian immigrant, recently arrived and equally remote.

But as the investigation into Abi’s disappearance progresses, more than just the secrets of that one night rise to the surface. For Whispering Ridge is a very murky pool indeed. Families, like the Blake’s, are held together by bonds of fear and twisted religion and no one is willing to challenge long held stereotypes and distorted views.

In a community where the local pastor reigns supreme, where domestic violence is an open secret and everyone is busy turning the other cheek; will what happened to Abi every be known? Or will it be another dark secret buried under an avalanche of bigotry, hatred and fear?

This novel is an incredible debut. It is raw, dark and beautifully powerful. The plot races ahead, but never feels anything other than considered and authentic. Characters are painted in detail. They are alive, complex, bursting from the page and provoking strong emotions within the reader. These are characters that span generations and are woven together in a web of small deceits and complex connections, each keeping the secrets of the next. Many are accepting and complicit in maintaining and masking the darkness of the community they are a part of.

And yet, despite all of this, there is a pervading and tangible feeling of change, a feeling of hope and of challenge. It is the outsiders who facilitate this feeling, who bring the possibility to the community. But only those within can take the steps that are needed to save themselves.

It was fitting that I read this a buddy read alongside Jules, Rebecca, Emma and Siobhain. Because this feels like a book that encourages connection, that shows us the power of community both for good and for ill. Ultimately, it is the choice of the human spirit how we choose to take that forward.

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again. Tall Bones is going to be huge; everyone is going to be talking about this one. So clear some space in your reading schedule and settle in!

Rachel x

A review : The Drowned City By K.J. Maitland

Published this week by The Drowned City By K.J. Maitland is a historical mystery, full of intrigue. If you are looking for a page turner with a difference this Easter weekend then look no further! Huge thanks to Caitlin Raynor for my gifted copy.

The story begins in the depth of Newgate Jail. It is the strange and dangerous year 1606 the Gunpowder Plot still dominates the political and religious temperature of the time. Suspicion permeates every quarter and the hunt for sorcery, witchcraft and other unholy arts is at it’s peak.

Daniel Pursglove, as we come to know him, is being held, awaiting sentence for suspected sorcery. But when, a year to the day from the Gunpowder plot, a strange tidal surge floods the city of Bristol many miles away, Daniel unexpectedly earns a reprieve. Sent by the shadowy and powerful Charles FitzAlan to investigate, Daniel’s continued freedom relies entirely on what he discovers.

King James, paranoid and in fear of losing his power, requires absolute proof of a Jesuit plot. A plot he believes to have been aided by the power of witchcraft. And there is one particular conspirator that is wanted above all others; Spero Pettingar. If Daniel can deliver news of this man, his freedom is certain. If he can’t, then an uncertain fate awaits him.

But the town of Bristol is in turmoil. At the best of times this port is a shadowy place, full of outcasts and spies, hidey holes and a ruled by a violent gang living with the castle walls. And this isn’t the best of times. The flood and it’s aftermath have reeked havoc on the place and everyone is intend on surviving in anyway they can.

Shortly after his arrival Daniel finds himself caught up in a series of grisly murders, each connected by something only he connects with. But the link between the victims is unclear and at times strays too close to home.

Do these murders hold the key to wider intrigues and plots? Or are they leading Daniel down a false and dangerous path, one that leads even further from his potential freedom?

This is novel to lose yourself in. With a plot that twists and turns, but never disappoints, it is a story that never stands still but rather claims and reclaims your attention again and again.

The foulness of the age, both in sounds, sights and beliefs resonances throughout. This is an underworld of filth, of crime but also of hard won survival. Everyone is trying to stay one step ahead and no one is quite what they seem.

The sense of tension, the feeling of the world being unstable, uncertain and not to be trusted is present and tangible throughout. The text is alive with possibilities and the reader is never quite sure where you are going to end up next.

This is the first in a new series of historical mysteries and the scene is most definitely set for more intrigue and excitement to come.

I can’t wait!

Rachel

The Drowned City by K.J.Maitland is released by Headline on 1st April 2021

Domestic Bliss and Other Disasters by Jane Ions – A Review

I love a book that makes me laugh. But actually finding genuinely funny novels is really quite a challenge. It is not often that a writer comes along and is able to weave a story that is filled with humour without tipping over into the unbelievable and absurd.

But Jane Ions in her recent offering, Domestic Bliss and Other Disasters published this week by Bluemoose has managed to pull it off! Welcome to the world of Sally Forth!

Sally is a semi retired teacher, working just a few afternoons a week at the local school supporting Lee , her wayward but strangely charming student. Sally is married to Bill, a senior and increasingly high profile politician. Sally’s children have left home and she is looking forward to space for herself. An chance to start a new chapter and redefine her own role in the world.

Life, however, seems to have other ideas. Other people’s lives are complicated and some how Sally seems to be at the centre of them all. Her son Dan returns and, equipped with a new passion for environmental awareness, he sets about building an Eco extension to the family home. This attracts attention and a surprising amount of people, many of whom seem to become unexpected but quite permanent fixtures in Sally’s life.

Add in her rather strained and at times uncomfortably competitive relationships with lifelong friends Jen and Judith, and her daughter Emma, who is straining at the leash of recent motherhood, and Sally’s life suddenly seems rather complicated.

This novels is a delightful mesh of the everyday, a celebration of how life can suddenly take off in directions we never ever imagined and the all the humour that accompanies that. It is filled with a host of characters, each with there own motivations and wry asides on life. And it is a cast list that comes together to provide light hearted, simple joy.

Quite simply, I enjoyed this book. I appreciated the humour, and the skill with which the domestic is woven into a plot that leaves no stone unturned, and gives every character within a perspective and importantly a voice. Our narrator Sally is intelligent, insightful and importantly for a novel of this kind, very, very funny!! A middle age women with spark, opinions and wry perspective on everything life throws her way.

This book is unlike anything else I have read this year and it was a welcome oasis from a world that increasingly seems to take it’s self far too seriously.

Rachel x

#BlogTourReview : The Shadow in the Glass by JJA Harwood

Welcome to my turn on the blog tour for The Shadow in the Glass by JJA Harwood published by Harper Voyager. If you like your novel’s Victorian, gothic, with more than a hint of the unexplained then this novel is for you.

Eleanor lives in a grand London house, slowly sinking into decay and despair as it’s master,Mr Pembroke, drinks away his fortune. And the house is not the only thing brought low by his behaviour.

Eleanor, once the much loved ward of the late Mrs Pembroke, has been put to work as a maid since her death. Iron beds and kitchen suppers have taken the place of silk sheets and fine dining. Even Eleanor’s name has been reduced to Ella. Her days are spent cooking, cleaning and along with the other maids evading the sinister and unwelcome attentions of Mr Pembroke.

Her only comfort is found after dark, in her late night and clandestine trips to the house’s great library. Here, after hours, Eleanor loses herself in works of fiction, is transported to times and places far away. But one night the books open up a world that Eleanor could never have dreamed existed.

When Eleanor’s reading summons a strange dark eyed woman, her world changes and forces she never imagined begin to weave their way through her destiny. The woman offers her the chance to make seven wishes; wishes that could take her away from her life and give her everything she has ever dreamed of.

But there is a price to pay. With the granting of the seventh wish this strange Fairy Godnother will take her fee. She will claim Eleanor’s soul.

And so begins our tale. A tale of poverty and desperation, of the terrible price that must be paid by someone, somewhere when ever a wish is made and granted. Of what it will cost Eleanor to live the life she feels is her due.

This is prose dripping with the gothic, it’s Victorian setting providing the perfect backdrop to this dark version of the Cinderella story.

Through the choices of Eleanor and the consequences these choices bring we see the subtle changes of circumstances and character. How what was unthinkable at the beginning of Eleanor’s story slowly becomes necessary and commonplace.

This is tale of creeping horror, tantalising, drawing you into it’s web of the fantastic and macabre. With Eleanor’s twists and turns of fortunes, there is a sense of time ticking by, in which the race to escape your fate is futile.

This is book is perfect for fans of gothic literature with just a hint of magic and madness!

Rachel x

And there is more…

For more reviews and reactions to The Shadow in the Glass check out the rest of the blog tour below…

Book Review : The Field by Robert Seethaler

A beautiful book in translation is something I don’t read enough of. So this month I have been indulging myself. The Field by Robert Seethaler translated from the German by Charlotte Collins has been, quite simply perfect.

This is the story of a field, a field now a graveyard. The final resting place for the villagers of this provincial town. And with death, which is the ultimate leveller, comes a series of stories told by the grave’s inhabitants. It is an idea that is quite breathtaking, both in it’s simplicity and it’s flawless execution.

Each story is unique, both in content and style. These are are told by people young and old, rich and poor. Those who lived lives that were full and content, that died fulfilled. Those whose lives were short, bitter and brief. And those who fall in between.

Some stories focus on just one event, however trivial or unimportant it may seem. Some stories are longer, comprehensive and encompass the full course and content of life, loss and love. Each on their own is a gem, a window into a community. Taken together, threaded into a single strand they form a picture of a town. A community shaped by those who have worked, lived, loved and died there.

This collection of tales, woven together, is a lesson in how life is layered over time, over generations and with small interconnecting stories that both strengthen and fracture the community they encounter.

A web of styles, of emotions and characters, this is a book that will keep you reading to the end. As always Camilla Elworthy has sent me a smasher.

The Field by Robert Seethaler is published by Picador and is out today

Rachel x

#BlogTourReview : DangerousWomen by Hope Adams

Today I am taking my turn on the blog tour for Dangerous Women by Hope Adams published earlier this month by Michael Joseph Books. This is historical fiction at it’s finest and all the more compelling for the fact it has it’s roots in fact.

Dangerous Women is the story of The Rajah and the women who sailed on her. The Rajah was a convict ship, leaving Britain for Van Diemen’s Land in April 1941. On board were 180 women, all convicted of crimes deemed serious enough to warrant transportation. In addition to the crew and the ship’s Captain, Charles Ferguson, they were accompanied by a clergyman, Reverend Davies and the ship’s surgeon James Donovan MD. A handful of the women were also accompanied by their children.

Finally travelling with the women was 23 year old Kezia Hayter. This young, well connected and educated woman was employed as matron and was to attend to the care and spiritual improvement of the convicted women. As a member of The Ladies Society Kezia had worked in prisons prior to her voyage,and it was she who designed and engineered the project that kept at least some of the women occupied on the long voyage.

For despite the inhospitable living conditions below deck, with nearly two hundred women living cheek by jowl, many of whom were sea sick and generally unwell, a chosen group of women created a masterpiece. Under Kezia Hayter’s tutelage they created the beautiful Rajah Quilt, presented to Van Diemen’s Ladies Society upon their arrival.

All of the above is documented fact, retold in vivid strokes through the words of Hope Adams. But it is the imaginings of the voyage and the twist that the author adds that really fires this story along.

When young Hattie Matthews, a young mother, is stabbed on deck the routine of life that has quickly established is disrupted. Suspicion and fear stalks the ship and an investigation into the crime is hastily begun. The only women on deck at the time were the 18 needle women working on the quilt. But which one wanted Hattie dead? And was willing to jeopardise their own life and future? And will Hattie be the only victim?

As the story unfolds, so do the stories of the women on the ship; each one tied to her own past, each with her own reasons for being there. Some like the infamous Newgate Nannies are repeat offenders, hardened by a life of crime and poverty, some innocent victims of circumstance. And some, like the mysterious Sarah Goodbourne, shouldn’t be there at all…

This is a story told with empathy and skill. It is rich in period detail, the closed atmosphere of the ship’s community is both alive and claustrophobic. Each of these women are given a voice and through their perspectives we see the effects of poverty, lack of opportunity and crucially lack of power. From the well educated Kezia Haynes to every women living below the decks, we see the fight for survival, the fight to have a women’s voice heard and the fight to be valued in their own right.

Alive with strong women characters and a vibrant, well plotted story this is a story to get lost in. It is also a story that will lead you to others. One for the forever shelf.

Rachel x

And there is more…

For more reactions and reviews to Dangerous Women check out the rest of the blog tour below…

#BookReview: The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward

Oh Viper Books , what have you done??? You have sent me a book that I think has actually, really truly, blown my mind!!! Read in one big gulp last weekend, when it was all I could do to remind myself to breathe, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it all week.

I have been recommending this book all week to anyone who stood still long enough to be cornered. The conversation went something like this:

“You have to read this amazing book, The Last House on Needless Street!”

“Really? What’s it about?”

“I can’t tell you! Just read it!”

And there in lies the problem! This book is practically impossible to review without giving huge spoilers and that isn’t going to happen!!

So what can I tell you? Well this is a story that twists and turns continually. Just when you think you have a handle on what might be happening the world flips upside down and your nerves are jangling once more.

I can tell you that it is in part the story of Ted. Ted lives on Needless Street. He lives a strange and secluded life, leaving mainly to visit the forest or the mysterious ‘Bug Man’. But he doesn’t live alone. Keeping him company in the old, rather ramshackle house is his beloved cat, Olivia and his daughter Lauren. They make a curious trio, where the boundaries of their interactions keep shifting.

When Dee moves in next door, life starts to change. Dee’s sister , the Little Girl With Popsicle, disappeared eleven years ago and Dee has been haunted by the event ever since.

But what does Ted have to do with this dark time and what ghosts is Dee about to reawaken?

Catriona Ward’s writing is simply stunning. With shifting perspectives and a nail biting level of detail, her prose literally gets under your skin. I can’t imagine anyone being able to put this book down; once you’re pulled in you won’t be able to climb out! And you won’t want to either!!

Be prepared for that fact that emotion is provoked by this story, and these emotions will change at a seconds notice; in fact scrap the idea of notice!!!

This book is quite simply a stunner. It is mesmerising, elegant and heartbreaking by turns. You won’t have read anything like this, it will stay in your head and you won’t want it to leave. This book needs to read, discussed and shared. It is a book that defies definition, defies any attempt to push it into one genre or another. It is book that stands, quite brilliantly, alone.

Please everyone JUST READ THIS BOOK!!! Thank you!!

Rachel x