I love finding ‘new- to- me’ authors. Those gems – and I know there are hundreds of them- that I haven’t discovered. I particularly enjoy finding female authors whose work throughout the 20th Century has slipped out of memory and is now being rediscovered and reprinted.
So when I was sent two works by author Rose Macaulay I was intrigued. I knew nothing about this writer at all. But hearing that she was writing in the early part of the 20th Century my interest was piqued.
On 27th August Handheld Press published Potterism: A Tragi-Farcical Tract, alongside a new collection of Macaulay’s pacifist writings from 1916 to 1945, Non-Combatants and Others: Writings Against War.
Potterism focuses primarily on the years directly after the First World War and the newspaper empire of the Potter family. It highlights a movement entitled by it’s detractors as ‘Potterism’; a view of the world based on suspicion, fear and the creation of fake news. There are, it has to be said comparisons to be drawn with certain sections of today’s press and political agenda.
Percy Potter, aka Lord Northcliffe is the newspaper magnet and head of the Potter Family. His wife Lelia Yorke is a romantic novelist, entirely caught up in fiction and entertaining the spiritualism so popular towards the end of the war. Her eldest daughter Clare is dull but dutiful, unlike her spirited and intelligent twins Jane and Johnny Potter.
The Twins are both Oxford educated, both take delight in aligning themselves against their parent, alongside the anti- Potter faction. Within this movement we are introduced to Arthur Gideon, devotee of fact and Katherine Varick, pragmatist and scientist. The battles lines of fact and fiction are drawn early on and it is the twins, most specifically Jane that play around their fringes.
The novel is structured in a unique way. The first and final sections are narrated by Rose Macaulay herself. She sets out the characters and ties up the loose ends, but within the central sections she hands both narration and perspective over to her characters. And when a tragedy strikes at the heart of the Potter family it threatens to drag everyone into it’s wake.
Here is a murder mystery, but it is so much more. Wrapped up in the actions and words of this cast of characters is a timely and authentic portrait of the time. There is a simplicity to the writing, a wit that is stark, sharp and revealing. The novel is steeped in the feeling of the age. Tackling subjects such as spiritualism, rise of socialism, emerging changes in class structure, antisemitism and much more, here is a biting social commentary on the press; it’s uses and misuses.
Having never read Macaulay’s work before I am thrilled to see I have a whole back catalogue to get through. First up, and already started (!), is Dangerous Ages published by British Library Publishing, another lovely gifted copy.
May is almost done and it seems my reading speed as picked up! From struggling with my reading mojo at the beginning of lockdown, I now seem to be finding my retreat in books the longer the situation continues.
With the ever more crazy situation in politics and current affairs in general, books seem a safer refuge. Beautiful weather has taken my reading outside, and the world has seemed blissfully far away.
So, what I have I read! Well quite a lot actually, and I have finally begun to get through some of my ‘overlooked’ titles. Books that have been sitting on my shelves for ages. One such book was The Confession by Jessie Burton. Published last year, I was late to the party but it was completely worth the wait. I hadn’t planned to review this one but I was so surprised and delighted by it that I felt I had to.
Another ‘catchup’ book, was The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey. Set at the beginning of World War Two, and with strong female characters, this one was always destined to be a winner for me. My review can be found here.
I also finally got around to reading Where the CrawdadsSing by Delia Owens. I particularly enjoy the setting of this novel. It was one of those books where you became completely transported and immersed. It brought to mind one of my all time favourite reads To Kill a Mockingbird.
I embarked upon a couple more catch up reads as part of my book club reading. The first was the gentle and delightful Saving Missy by Beth Morrey. I read it and enjoyed it but it really came alive in our book group discussion. So many layers are cleverly woven into this novel, it made for a great Book Club book.
My second book club read of this month was Normal People by Sally Rooney. I have to admit here and now that I have avoided this book for a long time. I know it came out to universal praise, but I was quite reluctant to read it. I had read and not enjoyed Conversations With Friends and this quite simply put me off. I haven’t had my book club discussion on this one yet, so I am playing my cards close to my chest…Watch this space!
This month I also completed my self imposed challenge to read the Women’s Prize Short List . Let’s not kid ourselves, this has been no great hardship. I can honestly say that I have enjoyed each book on the short list this year. I finished my reading with Dominicana by Angie Cruz and Weather by Jenny Offill. I will be watching with interest when the winner is announced on 9th September. I have my favourite, but that is for another time.
Other books I have read and reviewed in May have included some fascinating historical fiction. The witty and observant Chatterton Square by E.H Young was recently re-released by British Library Publishing. Set in the summer of 1938, against the backdrop of appeasement, it is a wonderful commentary on a women’s perspective on marriage.
From 1930’s London to 1700’s Imperial Russia, allow me to present Tsarinaby Ellen Alpsten. This was a book I reviewed as part of a blog tour. Filled with opulence and cruelty in equal measure it is the story of Catherine I of Russia and her remarkable rise from peasant to Tsarina. You can fine my review here.
One of my favourite books of the month, both to read and review was the extraordinary Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught. Published earlier this month by Blue Moose Books, this book is the story of four women. All incarcerated within asylums, all infamous , but at the same time all desperately misunderstood and overlooked. This novel is a beautiful reimagining of their stories, offering them freedom through their own voices.
My final review of the month was an Instagram Review of A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet. Focusing on the approaching global emergency that is Climate Change, the author explores what happens when theory becomes reality and how the older generations struggle to adapt to the sudden and necessary changes needed. A powerful warning to all.
The vast majority of my reading this month has been fiction, but there have been two notable and worthy exceptions. Firstly I dabbled in poetry, picking up Matthew Francis’ The Mabinogi. I heard of this retelling of the ancient Welsh epic from not one but two podcasts, Backlisted and Hay Festival Podcast. I have to say, I loved it. Evocative and lyrical it was a unexpected and welcome change.
Secondly, I come to my one nonfiction read of the month Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker. The fascinating, and often heart breaking story of the Galvin family. A fine all American family to the outside world, 6 of their 12 children were diagnosed with schizophrenia. This book examines the realities of life in the Galvin household, and explores how this family helped unwittingly to inform future research in to and treatment of schizophrenia. Thank you to Amanda @BookishChat for putting this one on my radar.
Finally I come to what I am thinking of as ‘Treats yet to come.’ These are the books that I have read this month that either have reviews pending or are yet to be published. And there are some crackers!
I am so excited to currently be working on my review of Summerwater by Sarah Moss. Sarah Moss is a genius in my eyes, and Summerwater is just a delight. This review is taking an age to write, as I am determined to do the book justice. Due out in August of this year, it is not to be missed.
A couple of books that I have reviews written for and ready to share in the next week or so are Walter & Florence and other stories by Susan Hill and The Light Keeper by Cole Moreton. Neither of these books were on my radar at the beginning of the month and both have been a delight. Watch out for the reviews!
And finally we come to What Doesn’t Kill You – Fifteen Stories of Survival. A collection of moving and deeply personal accounts of individual experiences of surviving mental ill health. It is my pleasure to be part of the blog tour beginning early next month, organised by Anne Cater, which celebrates this very important book.
So, all in all a very busy reading month. I think it is far to say that what is getting me through lockdown are family, ice cream and books!! Bring on June!
I seem to say this a lot…but I do love historical fiction. I love the places it takes me, it’s ability to transport me away from the daily reality and deposit you somewhere entirely different.
So I always have my eye out for new historical fiction and find it very hard to resist signing up for blog tours when the past is on the cards. When Anne Cater offered me the chance to get on board with Ellen Alpsten’s debut novel Tsarina, published by Bloomsbury, I didn’t even try to resist; I jumped at the chance.
Tsarina begins in 1699. On the cusp of a new century, Russia is in the grip of the Great Northern War. Led by Tsar Peter I, the country is under going a transformation. Peter is well travelled, ambitious and ruthless. His desire to modernise and transform his domains is all consuming, and he will stop at nothing to achieve the Westernised Russia he craves.
Rewards for loyalty and bravery are lavish, but punishment for deception , perceived or otherwise, are brutal in the extreme. The chasm between rich and poor gaps. It is both an exciting and terrifying time to be alive.
As Peter wages war throughout the Baltic, Marta, an illegitimate peasant girl is sold by her family aged just fifteen. Finding herself miles from home and surrounded by brutally, she fears the worse when fate leads her to a Russian battle camp. Here she catches the eye of Peter himself and so begins her spectacular rise to power.
Peter is brutal, but he is also brilliant and charismatic. There is an immediate connection between Marta and himself. She is thrown into the world of excess and riches, becoming Peter’s mistress, living openly with him at court. Showered with material pleasures, Marta is all too aware that her existence hangs continually in the balance. She needs to provide Peter with a true heir, and she needs to maintain his interest in a court full of attractive and ruthless women.
This is a true rags to riches story; the story of how a peasant girl became a Tsarina; the infamous Catherine I of Russia, ultimately a ruler in her own right.
I devoured this book! There is a richness and vitality to the writing that mirrors the turbulent opulence contained within it’s pages. Alpsten is master of the detail. Her ability to transport me from lockdown Britain to 18th Century Russia, never failed to amaze or delight me.
This is one of those novels you get hopelessly lost in, immediately immersed in the prose. Historical fiction fans will undoubtedly love it, but anyone who is looking for a breathtaking story spectacularly told need look no further.
The story of Catherine I has everything, and the writing wrapped around it here gives it that little bit more. I guarantee that once you pick up Tsarina, you won’t be able to put it down.
Ellen Alpsten has created something infused with magic.If you love historical fiction …this one is a feast for the senses and the soul! Enjoy the ride!
And there is more…
For more reactions and reviews check out the rest of the Tsarina Blog Tour …