Book Review: The Porcelain Doll by Kristen Loesch

What the blurb says…

In a faraway kingdom, in a long-ago land …

… Rosie lived peacefully in Moscow and her mother told her fairy tales. One summer night, all that came abruptly to an end when her father and sister were gunned down. Now, Rosie’s only inheritance from her reclusive mother is a notebook full of eerie, handwritten tales, but there is another story lurking between the lines.

Currently studying at Oxford University, Rosie has a fiance who knows nothing of her former life. Desperate for answers to the questions that have tormented her, Rosie returns to her homeland and uncovers a devastating family history which spans the 1917 Revolution, the siege of Leningrad, Stalin’s purges and beyond. At the heart of those answers stands a young noblewoman, Tonya, as pretty as a porcelain doll, whose actions reverberate across the century …

What do I say?

Historical fiction is an obsession of mine. The ability to travel into the past and peer into the windows of those who walked before us. To breathe the same air and taste their food. To hear their stories and sing their songs. The sensory details within this novel are plentiful and perfectly placed, transporting the reader to Russia in all her many guises.

The Porcelain Doll is an example of historical fiction at its very best. The stories of Rosie and Tonya guide the reader through some of the most turbulent and fascinating times in modern history. The enormity of change and it’s far reaching consequences are told through pitch perfect prose, run through with empathy and understanding.

And The Porcelain Doll embodies the concept of history in its very truest sense. The narrative of both women, the weaving of their tales and the symbolism used, all conspire to illustrate how history is both around and within us.

Each twist, each turn, each layer of the novel demonstrates how the stories of the past lie at our core. How they wait to be discovered, retold and shape identities far into the future.

This novel is a triumph, waiting to be discovered. Published by Allison & Busby on 17th February, it is a must read for 2022.

Rachel x

Book Review : The Queen’s Lady by Joanna Hickson.

What the blurb says…

Raven-haired and fiercely independent, Joan Guildford has always remained true to herself.

As lady-in-waiting and confidante to Queen Elizabeth, wife of Henry VII, Joan understands royal patronage is vital if she and her husband, Sir Richard, are to thrive in the volatile atmosphere of court life.

But Tudor England is in mourning following the death of the Prince of Wales, and within a year, the queen herself. With Prince Henry now heir to the throne, the court murmurs with the sound of conspiracy. Is the entire Tudor project now at stake or can young Henry secure the dynasty?

Drawn into the heart of the crisis, Joan’s own life is in turmoil, and her future fat from secure. She faces a stark choice – be true to her heart and risk everything, or play the dutiful servant and watch her dreams wither and die. From Joan, and for Henry’s kingdom, everything is at stake…

What I say…

It is no surprise when I say I love historical fiction set in the Tudor era. I have said it before and no doubt I will say it again!

The story of Joan Guildford which spans the reign of two great Tudor kings is a classic tale of intrigue and power.With skill, attention to detail Joanna Hickson weaves a saga of womanhood throughout the years.

The character of Joan Guildford leaps from the page. It is hard not to be drawn into her story, and to root for a woman of such intelligence and strength. Time and fortune are not always kind to Joan but her story is full of colour, full of heart and full of truth.

If you want a trip back in time then The Queen’s Lady by Joanna Hickson could just be the ticket you need.

The Queen’s Lady by Joanna Hickson is published by Harper Collins on 20th January 2022.

Rachel x

Book review: In The Shadow of Queens by Alison Weir

Historical fiction is my thing. No point in dressing it up. I love escaping to the past, safe in the knowledge I can turn the page and escape right back again anytime I like. Put a gun to my head and demand my favourite era and it is likely to the Tudor times I return to.

Alison Weir is one of the best when it comes to compelling historical fiction. Her Six Queens Series which tells the stories of each of Henry VIII wives in turn is second to none. Her ability to bring each woman to life, to see beyond the story everyone thinks they know to the person beneath shines through novel .

Her latest book In The Shadow of Queens goes one step further. This is a collection of stories, both real and imagined of the women who surrounded those Queens. Each section is filled with colour and engrossing Tudor detail which brings life and context to the court and is a testament to the level of research Alison Weir has completed in creating her portraits of Henry’s six wives.

Each tale, from the romantic to the macabre, is rich in imagery and detail. Each looks beyond the immediate inner circle of the court and shows a society steeped in constraints, traditions and so often fraught with danger. It is the lesser know stories that seem to add a new perspective just when you think there was nothing left to tell.

Huge thanks go to Caitlin Raynor at Headline for my review copy. Published today this is a book to get lost in, to discover new stories, new angles and long forgotten women.

Take a trip back in time and see what you discover !

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

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

February wrap up and it feels like Spring is on the way!

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 Patricia Lockwood’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 Paris and in places totally foreign and waiting to be explored. From 1970’s Uganda in the wonderful debut novel Kololo Hill by Neema Shah to the battlefields of France, and the streets of New Orleans in Michael Farris Smiths 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!!

Rachel x

January round up … the longest month ever!

I have always hated January. There is just no getting away from the fact that it is dark, cold and ridiculously, almost supernaturally long. Add in another Covid lockdown and this month was destined to be a bit of a trial!

Books as always have been my salvation, my salvation and often my window on the world. So welcome to January’s round up; I hope you find something here to catch you eye.

I started the month with a very special book, special initially because it was given to me by one of my oldest and dearest friends. Life in Pieces by Dawn O’Porter was a reflection on the authors time in lockdown with her young family in LA. There was much we could all identify with here; the sense of panic and disbelief, the fluctuation of emotions, the inability to stop eating or to remember which day it is. But there were also personal challenges too, because Dawn entered lockdown in a state of grief having lost her dear friend Caroline Flack to suicide just weeks before. This book is raw, heartbreaking and hilarious, sometimes at the same time. A delightful first read of the year.

Next up was Old Bones by Helen Kitson , published this month by Louise Walters Books this is a delightful story of regret, loss and evolving friendships. You can fine my review here.

In fact this month has been an absolute gem for new releases and I am thrilled to have been able to read and review a fair few. Whether it’s the competitive world of snowboarding, found in the thriller Shiver by Allie Reynolds, the complexities of growing up in Catholic Ireland, The Rosary Garden by Nicola White or the beautiful and deadly beaches of Barbados, How the one armed sister sweeps her house by Cherie Jones the books published this month have literally had something for everyone.

Sticking with new releases, one of the patches of light in these strange dark days has been the opportunity to attend online book launches and events. It was a joy to see both Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden and Captain Jesus by Colette Snowden off on their publishing journeys.

I am thrilled, as always, to be supporting some cracking blog tours this year. Laura Purcell’s The Shape of Darkness was another perfect gothic offering, and next week I will be sharing my blog tour reviews of Lucy Jago’s A Net for Small Fishes and Inga Vespers A Long, Long Afternoon. Both very different books, but both completely immersive and vibrant in their own unique ways.

My month has been pretty fiction heavy this month as far as new releases are concerned. But Alexa, what is there to know about love by Brian Bilston was a delightful detour into poetry. Anyone who has spoken to me in real life this month has had this book continually and wholeheartedly recommended. And I have been making quite a bit of Twitter noise about it too.

My one and only non fiction book this month has been How to be a Refugee by Simon May. An incredible story of survival at any cost, you can find my Instagram review here.

And finally to two more books I have read but not reviewed. The first of my Daunt Books subscription books was Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor and it was a cracker! This is the tale of Sir Henry Irving, Ellen Terry and Bram Stoker. With Oscar Wilder and Jack the Ripper as bit players this book was just incredible!

And in a bid for just good old fashioned comfort reading I have persuaded my book group to read the first of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles The Light Years . I have been bathing in the warm glow of the audio book but also slightly dreading what will happen if my book friends don’t love these stories as much as me!!

And there ends January! Who knows what February has in store – but remember there are always books!

Rachel x

Book Review: The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn

I love historical novels. There is something comforting about being able to escape completely to a time far away, so finding a great immersive historical read always is always a huge pleasure for me. And The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn more than fits the bill.

The buzz around this January 2021 release has been building for a while and heartfelt thanks go to Jess Barratt for my gifted copy.

This is the story of Nat Davy. Growing up in Oakham, Nat has just one wish; to grow. To grow and be like the other boys in the village. To grow and be accepted by his father. To grow and start living the life he believes is waiting for him.

But destiny has other plans for Nat Davy. When it is clear that he has stopped growing, his father sells Nat, quite literally to the highest bidder. It is just a shilling that keeps Nat out of the travelling freak show and sees him dressed in finery and presented as a gift to the Queen of England.

In a giant pie no less!

Finding himself at court, Nat strikes up a relationship with the young lonely Queen. Both have been torn away from their families, both labelled as outsiders; Nat for his size, the Queen for her religion. Both have something to prove.

Becoming widely known and accepted as ‘The Queens Dwarf’ makes Nat his share of both friends and enemies, all of whom will help to shape his fortunes. And when after years of luxury but growing unease, the country descends into civil war Nat finds his allegiance to the Crown puts him in danger.

The Smallest Man is a story that will stay with you. On a personal level it was a story that brought to life the period around the English Civil War; a period I knew very little about. But this story in it’s own right was a triumph. From the off it was entertaining and alive. It is a narrative filled with vivid characters, believable and authentic, and all provoking strong reactions.

It is a story that flits across the continent and through time, harbouring fortunes that change quicker than the blink of an eye. This is a story filled with action and pace, but also with a depth that grabs your attention throughout.

It is a story of courage and opportunity, both of which are found in the most unlikely of places. It is a tale of what can be achieved when you challenge expectations. A tale of friendships made in unlikely places and how kindness well placed will be repaid in kind

And it is the story of what happens when you learn to love your own being and accept that different doesn’t equate to inferior.

Quite simply I loved this book. January 2021 is in for a treat!!

Rachel x

The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn is published by Simon and Schuster on 7th January 2021

#BlogTour Review: When I Come Home Again by Caroline Scott

Last year I read a beautiful, thought provoking book called The Photographer of the Lost by Caroline Scott. Set in the period of and immediately after the First World War it was one of those books that stayed with me. It took me to places I hadn’t been and gave me knowledge and perspective I didn’t expect. So when Anne Cater invited me on to the blog tour for Caroline’s latest book When I Come Home Again I jumped at the chance.

In her second novel Caroline returns to the First World War. We begin in the final week of the war, when a soldier is arrested in Durham Cathedral. Scared, confused and totally alone, ‘Adam’ as he is named, has no memory of who he is or where he has been.

He is released to the care of James Haworth and his superior Dr Alan Shepherd, both specialists in treating men traumatised by war. Adam is taken to Fellside House in the heart of the Lake District where his therapy begins. Over the course of years there seems to be little progress. Adam shows an innate empathy for nature and skill for tending the overgrown gardens, as well as a talent for drawing but he is unable or unwilling to open the locked box of his past.

When, two years after the war, an article about Adam runs in the national press, three women come forward to claim him as their own. Celia is a mother, stuck in time, still believing that Robert her son will come home. Anna has been running the farm single handedly since her husband Mark left abruptly for war. Lucy is struggling under the weight of raising her brother’s children after he failed to return from the front.

Each women has a credible case, each women is convinced that Adam belongs in their lives. But Adam is unable to wholly connect with anyone. The only tangible clue to his past is the face of a women he draws over and over again, a woman he claims has revisited him in the woods that surround Fellside House.

The effects of war are beautifully and painfully presented here not only in the character of Adam and the other men who are treated at Fellside. Beyond just these collection of men Scott has created a cast of characters that are all touched, even years on, by the four years of fighting and absence. Each of the women who come forward to claim Adam have a story to tell; a story of loss, of struggle and of learning to cope in a world that will never be the same again.

Effects of the war radiate through and permeate each character and each strand of this beautifully woven story. James might be striving to fix the men in his care but he too has been left broken by the horrors of war. Haunted by his experiences in France and visions of the death of his brother- in- law, Nathaniel, James is slowly unravelling. His night terrors and daytime drinking are pushing his wife Caitlin further and further away. He is trapped in his memories as much as Adam is trapped by his inability to remember.

This novel is a sensitively and beautifully crafted tribute to those who survived. It examines in detail, through individual stories, the aftermath of war, the changes that it wrought on society, both on a national and individual level and acknowledges that loss, grief and death did not end on the final day of the war. This is a story of afterwards. Told without sentimentality but with swathes of empathy and realism, these characters tell their own tales of trying to move forward in a time when every has changes beyond recognition.

When I come home again is a portrait of memory. Of how each of us remember in different ways, how each of us construct and hold those memories close to help us cope with events and the world around us. This novel also asks the question of what happens when memories fail us. Not just by refusing to unlock their secrets, but also by distorting and dominating our present. Each character in this book is held in time by the past, one way or another.

This November, over 100 years since the end of The Great War, I heartily recommend you take some time to read this novel and consider the legacy of the war. I guarantee that this story will hold you still and will linger long. And that is just as it should be.

Rachel x

And there is more…

For more reactions and reviews, check out the rest of the blog tour, listed below…

October Wrap Up – Escaping from the world…

It’s been a strange old October. The world shows no sign of getting any calmer and in general things feel trickier than at any point in the year. My reading, the book community and the friends I have within it seem like a focal and high point in my life at the moment. And I continue to be grateful for that.

In terms of blogging this month there has been the inevitable slowing of posts. I am working on roughly a post a week at the moment; the Autumn return to school necessitates a slow down! But the blog is still alive and kicking!! Just a wee bit slower!

I have been involved in some fantastic bookish events this month. High on this list was the Blog Tour for A More Perfect Union by Tammye Huf. This is a beautiful story of love that transcends barriers but also a study of true freedom and what it costs us.

I was thrilled to be able to take part in the cover reveal for Medusa Retold by Sarah Wallis, published by Fly on the Wall Press next month. I often say I don’t read enough poetry, but this myth interpretation is firmly in my sights.

Talking of November releases please don’t miss the unique and beautifully crafted novel by Catherine Cusset about the genius that is David Hockney! David Hockney – A life is published by Arcadia Books on 12th November.

One of the most beautiful and moving books I have read this year has been published this week by the wonderful BlueMooseBooks. Sharon Duggal’s Should We Fall Behind was a joy from the first sentence to the last; the perfect antidote to the craziness of the world around us. It is out now, and everyone needs a copy in their lives.

As well as new releases this has also been a month of dipping into the TBR pile and getting to those books that have been waiting for too long. I finally got around to polishing off Kate Atkinsons latest Jackson Brodie novel Big Sky, as always a pleasure. I read my first, and definitely not my last (!) Donal Ryan, the haunting All We Shall Know. And I was lost in the beauty that is Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie, the Women’s Prize nominee which deals with one fateful day in a tower block’s history; a day that will change the world forever.

And of course with Hallowe’en upon us October isn’t complete without some haunting reads. Tick off one long delayed visit to The Haunting of Hill House and an often trodden path to Wuthering Heights and spooky reads are accounted for.

I have also spent the last week looking forward. November promises to be a bumper month of reading and new releases. I am lucky enough to be part of four blog tours, all unmissable reads. Look out for the latest release from Caroline Scott. Following on from the wonderful Photographer of the Lost, Caroline returns to WW1 in her latest novel When I come home again. It is looming large in my mind still, and already causing a well deserved Twitter storm after it’s release earlier this week.

Dipping into the magical and the next two blog tour reads are The Thief On The Winged Horse by Kate Mascarenhas – perfect for fans of The Doll Factory and Once upon a river – and The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow. Any story that combines witches and suffragettes gets my vote!!

The final blog tour read ready for next month was the delightful How to belong by Sarah Franklin. Set in the Forest of Dean and populated with a cast of authentic characters this one was an absolute joy. I can’t wait to share my review.

My final book of October was a dip into my pile of 2021 proofs. I am squirrelling away information ready for my Most Anticipated Reads of 2021 blog posts later next month. And my goodness did I start my 2021 reading with a bang! I am still finding the words to describe The Push by Ashley Audrain, but this one is going to be HUGE!!!

So there ends the month of October. I have a few reads on the go which are hanging on in there and will pop in next months round up. Happy reading and stay safe.

Rachel x