Book Review: Pondweed by Lisa Blower

I open this review with a confession…

This is the first Lisa Blower book I have read. In fact until I stumbled across Pondweed on my Twitter feed and the lovely Emma Dawson, at Myriad very kindly sent me a copy, I hadn’t hear of this author at all.

What an addition to my life and my bookshelves this discovery is! I love coming across new authors, but when you find someone whose writing is sharp, original and wholly clear sighted, writing infused with wit and empathy in perfect balance, the joy is very real.

So bookish friends let me tell you about Pondweed, released on 9th July by Myriad Editions.

This is the story of Selwyn and Ginny. They are both of retirement age and have recently found each other again after having a relationship in their youth. Although they are currently living together, there is an unease within their relationship. It seems immediately unorthodox, filled with tension and the boundaries are not clear. As a reader I was continually attempting to define their roles; old friends or lovers? Or something between the two and altogether more complex ?

The story begins with Selwyn, arriving home unexpectedly in the middle of the day, towing a caravan. It is a van that belongs to the aquatic supplies business he has recently become a partner in, investing all his retirement fund. Selwyn is agitated and demands that Ginny get in the car immediately.

Something is wrong. Ginny is confused and angry. Why are they leaving? Where are they going? All Selwyn will tell her is they need to leave now and they are going on holiday to Wales.

Against her better judgement and resentfully, Ginny gets in the car, and so begins a strange journey. Filled with many detours of both an tangible and emotional nature, this is journey across the country but also into the past. A journey that will begin to define and redefine the couple’s relationship.

It quickly becomes clear that the business has failed, Selwyn has been cheated out of his nest egg by his unscrupulous business partner. The journey seems to be punctuated by visits to various ponds, where Selwyn always seems to be meeting up with old friends, completing favours, business transactions and encountering the past. Ginny is frustrated, often angry, that Selwyn doesn’t share his plans and their route with her. The air of unease and tension between the couple grows, but there is an underlying sense that they need each other in some unexplained but instinctive way.

The plot, the journey, the relationships within this novel are all gloriously fragmented. And it is the tension that is created by this that pulls you as a reader into the slipstream and propels you forward. The story is filled with strange, half explained facts and relationships; the two mothers that Ginny grew up with, the fact her daughter, Mia, is living in New Zealand with one of Ginny’s old flames. All these references are cast out casually like nets into the prose and you are hooked, puzzled and primed to seek answers.

Ginny pushes continually for answers and clarity from Selwyn but is not prepared to reveal any level of truth about herself. Wrapped in decades of damage and repression the journey and it’s events slowly peel back layers until the secrets of both the present and the past are slowly revealed. Ginny and Selwyn slowly begin to expose , assimilate and come to terms with events. This story may be framed by days but really it spans a lifetime .

Edgy, raw and just a little bit dark Lisa Blower’s prose is biting and fresh. This is a book that makes you work, and it’s a joy. It is a book to lose yourself in, filled with simple yet devastating truths and razor sharp observations. And it is funny, laugh out loud funny. In that way that snatches of life and over heard conversations take on meaning and mirth. For every pool of darkness, there is a glorious patch of light.

Without a doubt one of my reads of the year.

Rachel x

Book Review: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

I read this book against the back drop of the #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations gathering momentum across the globe. It is hard to imagine a more momentous time to have engaged with this particular novel, but I am quite convinced that whenever I had met The Vanishing Half , it’s impact would be have been the same.

Brit Bennett has created a mesmerising, immersive and critically important novel. Published by Dialogue, I am so grateful to Millie Seaward for sending me a gifted copy.

The story begins in Louisiana 1954, where twins Desiree and Stella Vignes are growing up in small town named Mallard. Mallard is unique. A black community, but one whose history is built on years of marriages between ‘mulattos’. It’s inhabitants are black but ‘each generation (is) lighter than the one before’.

But make no mistake, this is not a white community. When their father is killed in a klan style lynching, part of which the girls witness, their dreams of school and better life are snatched away. By 16 they are working for white families.

It is free spirited Desiree who persuades Stella to break free, and head to New Orleans. But it is Stella whose life takes the most dramatic turn. When she is mistaken for a white woman, a whole new life opens up before her. What starts as an honest mistake takes on a life of it’s own. One that will pull her away from her family and her old life forever.

But can anyone truly leave their heritage, race and identity behind them? This is the question that is explored throughout out this beautiful and perceptive novel.

In the case of Stella, Brit Bennett, has created a complex and multilayered character. It is all too tempting to dismiss and judge the decisions that Stella has made. It is in the gift and skill of the author to make the reader to stop and reflect on the choices Stella makes.

We are forced to question whether it is Stella who chose to redefined herself or was it society. Is it so wrong that Stella, bone tired from the daily fight against prejudice and injustice, takes the way to a life less fraught, less dangerous? Think of the town she grew up in, it could be argued that she is just taking the town’s philosophy one step further. Or is she crossing an unforgivable line, by turning her back on her life, family and denying her race?

Stella’s story is at the heart of the novel, but the impact of her choices and what it takes to live with these decisions are felt across the generations. Through the eyes of her daughter Kennedy, raised with money and opportunity, we get an emerging understanding of operational and inherent white privilege. Compare Kennedy’s life to her cousin Jude; as black as Kennedy is white, their lives cross but struggle to connect.

The comparison of the direction of the next generation gets starkly and comprehensively to the nub of institutional and long standing racism. By exchanging a black life for a white one Stella seems, almost effortlessly to rise. But is Stella’s life a true life or a half life? Does she exchange one type of fight, complication and heartbreak for another one?

Within the novel Stella is not the only character looking to redefine herself. Reese, partner of Jude, is transsexual, moving forward, and like Stella looking to make sense of a hostile and changing world. The introduction of Reese further enhances the question of where your sense of self comes from. Is it an inherent need, rising from deep inside yourself, or is it something created from your experiences, environment and inheritance?

This is a novel filled to the brim with complexities, joy and pain, truth and lies. The title, The Vanishing Half, is so relevant to and representative of the events and characters within it. It’s generational span is a showcase for a cast of strong, multilayered and authentic women. This novel raises awareness, provokes discussion and offers hope. At any time I would recommend this book, at this time it is a must read.

Rachel x

Publication Day Review: A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth – Daniel Mason

I am intrigued by short stories. I make no secret of my admiration for writers who can weave a spell in this particular way. I am always on the look out for well put together collections that show off the skills and diversity of an author. This collection, A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth by Daniel Mason, published by Mantle is a stunning example of it’s genre. Heartfelt thanks go to Camilla Elworthy for my gifted copy.

Right from the beginning this books feels like a journey. It has the quality of a genuine collection, in the truest sense of the word. Opening it’s pages is like stepping into the beautifully curated museum of curios. Each chapter is flanked by a beautiful engraving and stories are presented with craft, care and love. Like exotic winged specimens within a case they will provoke so many emotions, but I guarantee you will be marvelling at the beauty that they possess.

From the first story; of the bare knuckle fighter, clawing his way through the ranks one bloody fight at a time; to the desperate and driven mother looking for the answers to her sudden’s debilitating illness, there is a sense of awe and wonder. A pervading sense of a world filled with secrets, a world of treasures and happenings still undiscovered, unexplained and unexplored.

Like a A Victorian specimen collector the reader is invited to travel through time and over distance. Each story holds its own miracle, it’s own way of questioning the world as we know it and it’s own way of imparting new knowledge and perspective. The human spirit of adventure and it’s thirst of knowledge drives us through the collection, pausing to appreciate the known and to push the boundaries of the unknown, one delightful story at a time.

Stories such as the tale of Alfred Russel Wallace and his communications to Darwin, Psammeticus I and the beginnings of psychological experimentation, all highlight humankind’s ongoing and instinctive search for truth. And crucially while as a species we explore the truth created around us, we all instinctively need to make our own to make a mark upon the earth.

This collection is a jewel. It has certainly made it’s mark on me. Time to get exploring.

Rachel x

Publication Day Review: The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

I am starting this review with unadulterated and profound gratitude to Katie Green at Picador for gifting me a copy of The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave.

The Mercies is Kiran’s first adult novel, an absorbing and powerful read. This atmospheric tale weaves a spell, delighting the senses and lingering with me long after I had closed it.

Based on a true story, we begin in Vardo, a remote fishing community in North Eastern Norway, in 1617. Here, on Christmas Eve, a young woman, Maren Magnusdatter, watches from the cliffs as a freak storm claims the lives of forty men. In an instant the community’s male population is wiped out, her father, brother and betrothed included.

Suddenly the survival of the community rests entirely in the hands of the women. Once the grieving and rituals are completed, the women, led by fiery and practical, Kirsten, must do what they have never done before and take to the sea, fishing for their survival.

Life is hard, but despite tensions within the community, the women craft a life for themselves. Maren learns to live with her grief and begins to put the past behind her. She acts as the practical mainstay of her small family, absorbing and tempering the grief of both her mother and her sister- in- law Diinna.

Diinna, who gave birth shortly after the accident, is right on the fringes of the community. Her heritage lies with the Sami people and her customs, particularly those bound up in grief and mourning, drew some suspicion within the community. There are whispers that the storm was unnatural, sent or conjured by an unseen force.

It is upon this unconventional community that Absalom Cornet and his young wife Urla are thrust, three years after the accident.

Their marriage is young and arranged; Ursa has been married off by her father for the family’s financial gain. She has left behind a settled, if somewhat sheltered life in Bergen, as well as her beloved but ill younger sister.

Ursa has arrived naive, lonely and unprepared for life in such an inhospitable place. Seeking both practical and emotional support, Ursa strikes up a relationship with Maren. The two women form a connection that is originally based on need and practicality, which grows to something far beyond.

Ursa’s unease about her new life is compounded and subsequently magnified as her understanding of her husband’s role within the community develops. For Commissioner Absalom Cornet has been appointed by the authorities to bring morality, Christianity and order to this unconventional community of women. And he means to do so by any means.

This book is a stunning portrait of the power of women and how this power is harnessed in the solidarity of hardships, domesticity and knowledge passed down through the years . It returns to that haunting truth that the power of women taken by the wide reaching Witch Hunts of the 1600’s. When religious fevour began to turn against ancient knowledge and spirituality, branding strong wise women as witches and demons. It gives credence and strength to petty jealousies that build to levels of cruelty and destruction.

The portrait of a remote but tight knit community being slowly ripped apart by suspicion, vindictiveness and worse, is vividly told. The women are beautifully painted, each character coming alive through their grief, hopes and dreams. There is a feeling of connectivity and kinship on the behalf of the reader which denies the centuries that separate. In many ways this story feels all too raw and vivid; a female fight for survival which is very much relevant and pertinent today.

I read The Mercies at the tail of last year. I was quite simply entranced. I have waited to write and published my review, in no small part because I was looking for the words to do the novel justice. As I write now I am longing to reread it, to soak up the details once more.

There are certainly books this reminds me of and comparisons I could make. But I am loathe to do so. The Mercies is a book that should stand alone.

I hope it flies!

Rachel x

Book review – Expectation by Anna Hope

Ever get an Advance Reader Copy of a book that makes your heart sing?

That’s what happened to me when I was approved for Expectation by Anna Hope. So thank you Transworld Books for making a middle aged blogger very happy!

Anna’s post World War 1 novel Wake has lived large in my memory for a number of years. I vividly remember reading it on a 5 hour train journey north. Spellbound and moved, I finished it almost in one sitting. Thank goodness my stop was the end of the line, as I would have undoubtedly missed it otherwise.

Hence my excitement about the release of Expectation.

And I wasn’t disappointed.

Expectation is a novel about three women, all ploughing their own furrow. All following their own and others expectations, none of them completely fulfilled.

Cate, Hannah and Lissa have been friends for years. Connected by past events and shared memories, all three are at a crossroads in their lives.

Lissa is an actress, not quite fulfilled, still seeking success, constantly in awe and frustration with her artist mother.

Hannah is successful, married but desperate for a child, and facing down the process of IVF and all that it brings.

Cate is a new wife and mother but feels life has over taken her and that somehow she has missed out; that she has taken a wrong turn and is not fulfilling her potential.

Throughout the novel we see each woman peering in at the lives of their friends, and building their own expectations and desires. Each woman is questioning what they have achieved and quietly coveting what the other has.

Hope has created a believable portrait of friendship that houses underlining tensions and unspoken truths. Events and emotions in both the past and future seek to undermine the foundations of their friendship and those of people surrounding them.

The power of this novel lies, undoubtedly, in the authenticity of the characters. Their dilemmas and stumbling blocks aren’t outlandish or unusual. In fact that they are common, some might say mundane but they are all the more powerful and heartbreaking for that.

There is a real sense of empathy with these characters. We care what happens to them.

More than that we feel what happens to them. We have been Cate, or Hannah or Lissa. Surely is a rare individual who hasn’t questioned where their life is heading or where they have ended up.

And it is this quiet simmering undertone of dissatisfaction and re evaluation, which drives the story along. Can these characters make the changes they need, even if means changing the course of their lives and not fulfilling their own and others exacting expectations? Or are they destined to live up to Expectation but live unfulfilled?

Hope is showing us that fulfilling ‘Expectation’, is not necessarily the key to happy and successful life. In doing so she has created a novel that refines the terms and phases of our everyday lives.

Is fulfilling Expectation a mark of success? Or do we judge our lives through different eyes?