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 Fieldby Robert Seethaler is published by Picador and is out today
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.
And there is more…
For more reactions and reviews to Dangerous Women check out the rest of the blog tour below…
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!!
If you like a locked door mystery, and a locked door mystery with a very unusual setting then this week sees the perfect book for you published. Welcome to The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex. And yet while this might appear to be a locked door mystery it is so much more!
Although this book is set across two time periods, 1972 and 1992, the inspiration for this story comes from a real life event which took place in December 1900. It was then that three lighthouse keepers disappeared from an isolated rock lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides.
Within the novel the three keepers in question are Arthur Black, Bill Walker and Vincent Bourne. All different in character, all with their own stories and secrets, all missing in the strangest of circumstances.
Fast forward 20 years and the women left behind are still no nearer to understanding what happened to the men they loved. When author Dan Sharp approaches them regarding the incident, old memories resurface and Helen, Jenny and Michelle are all forced to relive the past.
Through immaculate retelling and beautifully paced prose the story of the three keepers and their families begins to unfurl. Against the rugged background of the winter sea the voices of the missing men are finally heard and they have surprising things to say.
This is a novel told by a chorus of voices, each story layered upon the other, providing clarity and then taking it away, moving slowly towards it’s conclusion. This is story telling at it’s absolute best, building tension and empathy as it’s story moves beautifully to it’s conclusion.
It is a story with a vivid setting, where the sea is a force in it’s own right, and it’s presence is continual, relentless and essential to put understanding of what really happened to those men. Although this is a novel with a mystery at it’s heart, it is a story alive with characters, emotion, love and grief.
The Lamplighters hits the shelves this week and, believe me, it is one not to be missed.
Finally, finally it feels like the world is getting a little bit lighter and brighter. Signs of spring are peeping through in greater numbers everyday and it feels like everyone is daring to hope again.
After a long, cold January, February seems to have rushed past me. There have been so many interesting and amazing books published this month and March looks like a pretty bumper month too. As well as reading as much as I can, when home school, online and in school teaching has allowed(!), I have been trying to write; working on my never ending WIP!
As far as new releases go this month I have had the pleasure to read some absolute crackers. I started the month pleasantly lost in both the possibilities of time travel and 70’s childhood nostalgia with the quirky Space Hopper by Helen Fisher. And ended it immersed in the mind blowing book that is The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward . Published next month my review is in the pipeline, but there is so much to assimilate first!
Back to this month’s releases and I was thrilled to be reading PatriciaLockwood’s first novel No one is talking about this. I found her memoir Priestdaddy a truly unforgettable book and as you will see from my review her first novel was equally as impressive and challenging.
Continuing the theme of challenge and rawness and we come to Daisy Buchanan’s Insatiable. An exploration of sexuality, lust and pushing all boundaries this book is not easily forgotten!
While we find ourselves still in lockdown, travelling through my reading has become even more important to me. This month I have found myself ‘back’ in places familiar; the streets of Paris in Jane Smiley’s gorgeous The Strays of Parisand in places totally foreign and waiting to be explored. From 1970’s Uganda in the wonderful debut novel Kololo Hillby Neema Shah to the battlefields of France, and the streets of New Orleans in Michael Farris Smith’s Gatsby inspired Nick.
Next month is filled with absolute treats of new releases and I am working my way through some of them. I have just finished the wonderful mystery that is The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex and my review is out this week.
And looking ahead to April I loved my buddy read with four fab book friends, Emma (@corkyorky), Jules (@julesbuddle), Rebecca (@_forewoodbooks) and Siobhain (@thelitaddict_). Tall Bones by Anna Bailey kept us all on the edge of our seats, full review on it’s way very soon!! As is our next buddy read!
And in amongst all these varied novels, I have been dipping in to the oasis of poetry that is Empty Nest: Poems for families edited by Carol Ann Duffy. This is the perfect collection for these times when family can seem both really close and yet so, so far away. Beautifully put together, diverse and insightful. Just lovely in every way.
So there we so. A whistle stop tour of February’s reading. Hold on to your hats for March!!
It is my absolute pleasure to be taking my turn on the blog tour for Nick by Michael Farris Smith, published on 25th February by No Exit Press. The book will be launched online, and Michael will be joined to discuss his book by The Guardian’s Alison Flood. A link to this live event can be found here.
It is quite feat to take up a character from any classic novel and weave a story around them. To do so is to take on the expectations of generations of readers, each with their own thoughts, feelings and perceptions. And when that novel is one of the most iconic stories of the Twentieth Century, the task seems a mammoth one.
And yet that is exactly what Michael Farris Smith has set out to do. Plucking Nick Carraway from his role in F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the author takes us back in time, back to the years before the wild hedonistic days of the West Egg mansions, and back to an even bleaker darker time.
When we first meet Nick he is caught up in the First World War, having joined up to serve his country. With a few days leave in Paris he meets a mysterious, evocative young women Ella. Scratching a living selling homemade goods and living illegally in a theatre garret, Ella is unlike any woman Nick has ever met before; he is entranced.
Forced back to the battle field, back an existence of daily horror, Ella both haunts his thoughts and sustains him.
By the end of the war, when it is time to return to the US, Nick like many of those around is scarred by experiences both on and off the battlefield. Finding it impossible to return to his family in the MidWest, he is drawn to the chaotic and semi lawless street of Frenchtown, New Orleans.
Here, with the country on the brink of prohibition, in a society of gangsters and Madams, he tries to both lose and find himself. To make sense of what he has seen and work out how to reconcile his experiences and build some kind of future.
Nick becomes embroiled in the messy, feuding relationship between Colette and Judah, another relationship ravaged by war. In fellow veteran Judah Nick recognises his own hopelessness and is drawn towards it, like a moth to the flame.
This is a story of the time in between. Of that brutal and dark period when the horror of war stops for the wider world but it’s after effects are felt by veterans everywhere. It is an examination of how lives and minds were changed, and how returning to normal life was an impossibility.
Through intense and unsettling prose Farris Smith creates a period in time that brings to life the horror of war. It lays bare it’s lingering effects; the desire to forget, whilst at the same time feeling an overwhelming need to remember, the sense of everything lost and the relentless search to find it all again.
Compelling and dark, this is a clear eyed story of men who have lost everything and are trying to claw it back in whatever way they can.
I thought this book was darkly evocative of a period in time that fascinates me. And it is my pleasure to be able to share with you a clip of Michael himself reading from his work.
This book will linger with you long after the last page. There will be times you want to turn away and times that events will threaten to overwhelm. This is the power of what is written here, and I guarantee you will be with Nick to the very end.
And there is more…
For more reactions and reviews to Nick, then check out the rest of the blog tour below…
It feels like it’s been a long time coming but I am finally able to to share my blog tour review for the wonderful The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot, the debut novel (Yes!!! Debut!!!) by Marianne Cronin. Huge thanks to Alison Barrow for my gifted copy and Anne Cater for my blog tour invite.
Lenni Pettersson is 17 years old. Margot Macrae is 83. Put them together and they have lived for a hundred years. Both are reaching the end of their lives, but neither of them are done with living quite yet.
In the newly built hospital Art Room the two meet, kindred souls, both looking at life in a different and uplifting way, both ready to face what ever remains to them head on. And so begins as beautiful friendship as they set out together to tell the story of their hundred years, a project painted in words and pictures and wrapped up with enduring love.
I read Lenni and Margot’s story many months ago. I read it a time, a time that seems to be persisting still, when the world needed hope, light and understanding. I found all of these rare and elusive qualities in the pages of this book.
The relationship between Margot and Lenni is the best that people can be. An acceptance that age, experience and circumstances don’t need to be the boundaries we all perceive them to be. That true wisdom and kindness can be found at any age and is always best when it is shared around. It is a celebration of both age and youth, a symbiotic relationship of support and love.
Through the stories these characters share with the reader and each other, a bond of understanding and knowledge. This book is a celebration of life long learning and of squeezing every last drop out of what has gone before and what is yet to come.
Most of the story takes place physically with the hospital, and the sense of place the author has created here is spot on. For anyone who has ever spend a few days or longer in a hospital will instantly recognise the vibe! The descriptions of the unique hospital community, the way time moves in it’s own strange and inexplicable way, the rules and hierarchies and all the stories found within it.
Through Lenni and Margot’s creations they escape the confines of the ward. Because when when you can’t step outside, you travel within stories, within pictures and memories. At a time of lockdown this book brings alive the power of imagination and artistic communication.
This is the story of not one but two special lives, sympathetic and beautifully told.A story alive with it’s share of sorrow and joy, where strong emotions are continually welcomed and embraced
Lenni and Margot will make you roar with laughter and make you weep with empathy, but never will they let you feel regret. In the darkest of times this story is a light shining gently on the world.
And there is more…
For more reviews and reactions to this beautiful book, check out the rest of the blog tour below…
I have put off this review until today. I can’t put it off any longer. But from the outset I accept there is just no way I can do this incredible book justice but equally no way I am not going to review it.
When I read Priestdaddy two years ago, I knew I had found a writer who I would read for the rest of my life. As a it was memoir was biting, edgy funny and raw. The talent of Lockwood to pull you into this family and push at all your boundaries was just extraordinary and I instantly wanted more. So when I knew this novel was on the horizon I was delighted to managed to obtain a proof. And it was perfection all over again.
This is a story told in bites; delicious, sharp, salty bites by an unnamed but vivid narrator. It is a tale of two halves, two perspectives and from two very different places and spaces.
Our narrator lives her life on and through the ‘portal’, a social media platform which seems to be a thinly disguised Twitter. She is an internet sensation, regularly travelling the globe to talk about the internet and her life within it. Set in the age of Trump, we see how life online is all consuming, all pervading and impossible to both quantify and escape. There is a air of unreality to the first half, which shocks even more when we start to recognise that it is all based on and in crazy truth.
Like all great writing with a nod to the dystopian, there nothing that Lockwood explores that isn’t already happening. From cancel culture, to online shaming, to the every changing goal posts of judgement and perceived morality, Lockwood lays it all bare. And makes us all complicit.
And then life gets real. Away from the portal the narrator’s sister is pregnant. Her unborn child has a rare genetic defect and life is scary, uncertain and totally consuming. Real life has broken in and suddenly the heated and theoretical discussion of women’s reproductive rights in right wing America isn’t a hashtag, or a thread to hang your buzz words on. It’s real. And so is life, and love and grief.
Throughout this novel the prose is like poetry , challenging, biting and evocative. It is one of those rare and beautiful books where each line is perfectly constructed . Where each sentence, each phrases seem to be competing with the next, whilst at the same time complimenting it and holding it up.
This is a novel you could read a thousand times and find something different each time. In fact, scrap that, you could probably read just a single page, a paragraph, even a line a thousand times and find something new each time. You will read this book with your eyes wide open and your brain screaming, “Pay Attention!”
This is a novel both alive with disconnect and stark, alarming reality; both present at the same time and both demanding your attention. It explores how true connection if found, made and sustained in this age where we believe we more connected than ever before. It is about what matters and what doesn’t, and how the two seem to have merged, how the digital and actual seem to have meshed into one, each feeding the other. And it’s about the extremes that are needed to break this spell
Words can’t express this importance of this book. It needs to absorbed, mere reading won’t do.
I have long been a fan of Jane Smiley. Her work has never failed to captivate me. The versatility and scope of her writing has never failed to surprise me. So when Camilla Elworthy sent me a beautiful copy of Jane’s latest work The Strays of Paris, I was extremely excited.
I have been saving this book for a quiet space, away from online teaching and the slight chaos of home learning. A time to savour what I expected to be a treat.
And in true Jane Smiley fashion I was surprised. This book was not what I was expecting. And it is all the more charming for that. In a time when all norms feel out of our reach, this novel will ask you to suspend your disbelief just one more time, but in the most beautiful way.
Step onto the streets of Paris. You will find yourself in the company of a young runway racehorse called Paras, a sophisticated and street wise dog called Frida and a worldly old Raven called Raoul. They move through the busy streets unseen by most, not because they aren’t real but because most of the cities inhabitants have simply forgotten how to ‘see’.
But there are those who aren’t completely closed off to what might be happening in the city they call home. Jerome, the grocer who serves the dog each day, accepting her presence and never questioning where she might live and who she might belong to. Anais, the baker who feeds the horse in the early mornings, simply marvelling at her grace and beauty. And Pierre, the park keeper who knows the animals are roaming in his park, but merely observes with mild curiosity and wonder.
All these ‘Strays of Paris’ both human and otherwise come together through the story of one small boy. Living with his aged Great Grandmother on the Rue Marinoni, Etienne is the most accepting of all. And it is the relationships that develop in and around this great, dilapidated house that will ultimately save them all.
This book is a gentle tale, a modern fable of what happens when we open our eyes to the unexpected and what might just be hiding in plain sight. Filled with character and humour, joy and sadness this charming tale will take you out of lockdown and far away to the streets of one of the most magical cities in the world. But make sure you look with eyes wide open, because you never know what you might see.
Published on 18th February by Picador, Kololo Hill by Neema Shah is a debut not to be missed. Striking and heartfelt, this novel has a lot to say. Sincere thanks to Katie Green for my gifted copy.
It’s 1972 and Idi Amin is on the rise. With brutality and fear as his weapons of choice he issues a devastating decree. All Ugandan Asians must leave and leave within 90 days. They can take virtually nothing with them, their property and money are now belong to the state. They can not return.
Through the eyes of one ordinary Ugandan Asian family we experience the fall out of such a situation, and the impossible choices they make; both as families and individuals.
Asha and Pran are a young Asian couple. Married for a short time, after a whirl wind courtship that was hi jacked by their families. They are still in the early days of their relationship, still testing the water and finding the boundaries when suddenly their whole world is thrown into crisis, everything and everyone they hold dear under immediate and terrible threat.
Along with Pran’s parents , Jaya and Motichand, and his younger brother Vijay, their life of relative ease, their business running a local dukan their sense of self and security are lost. The family must begin the painful and seemingly impossible task of looking to the future. But where do they start?
Each have different paperwork, passports and access to different countries. They all have to leave but will it be possible to do that together or will they be spilt even further apart? And how can they protect their house boy December who has served the family loyally for years? For now as a member of one of many ‘wrong’ tribes he too is in danger.
This is a story of displacement, of having to take huge leaps of both faith and fear in order to move forwards. With vivid detail and heart breaking clarity Neema Shah paints a skilful picture of what it meant to be an Ugandan refugee, arriving in the middle of a British winter. Against each slight and knock back we see men and women fighting to both make a new life and hold on to their sense of identity, self and culture.
The characters in the novel maybe experiencing the same trauma but there is no stereotyping of pain or reaction. With well rounded brush strokes each character takes their own path and makes their own distinct choices. For Vijay, his youth and disability shape his reactions, in the same way Pran’s inability to let go of the past shape his .
But for me it was the female characters who really shone through this narrative. Asha is determined, determined not to look back or let her trauma shape the rest of her life. And her mother in law Jaya holds on to the best of what she left behind while struggling to adapt to their strange grey land that is 1970’s Britain.
There are many things I look for in a novel and teaching me about the world I think I know Is pretty high on that list. This episode in history was a complete blind spot for me. I knew nothing about it at all. This novel has opened my eyes, taught me new things and made me thirsty to know more.