Book review: Walter and Florence and Other Stories by Susan Hill

The thing I love about Bookish Twitter is that you discover new and unexpected gems every single day. A few weeks ago I responded to a tweet from writer Susan Hill, asking for book bloggers to be in touch. Under a week later I was sat in my garden, enjoying a copy of her latest collection of short stories.

Walter and Florence and Other Stories was published on 10th May 2020 by Long Barn Books, and for short story lovers it is a must read.

This is a collection of ‘real’ stories. This may seem a strange thing to say and maybe it is. But what I mean by this is that from the beginning I was enthralled by each tale , I was captured. I wasn’t looking for the deeper meaning, my attention wasn’t wondering, I wasn’t even pausing to make notes.

I was just enjoying that simple but honest pleasure of being told a good story.

The subject matter found within the collection is diverse, and showcases the author’s skill, experience and versatility as a writer. There is a gentleness, and a beguiling charm to the stories that are woven here. There isn’t a story in this collection which I was able to break away from.

To those of you who have read, and marvelled at Hill’s The Woman in Black it will come as no surprise when I tell you that the two ghost stories within this volume are special.

The title story Walter and Florence begins as the tale of a quiet domestic life. A couple drawn to each other, childless but happy; their marriage is the very model of ‘for better, for worse.’ But when one spouse dies, the other is left vulnerable. The ending is unexpected but triumphant. And steeped in the supernatural.

The Quiet House again centres around a widow. Lost, lonely and barely recovered following the death of his beloved, the unnamed widow takes refuge in the The Quiet House, trying to escape the demands of Christmas. But what he finds there is most unexpected. So too is what he discovers about himself.

There is a feeling in several of these stories of a reawakening. Of characters finding answers, or even asking new questions; a sense that a life they thought was mapped out for them might not be as secure as they thought. For example in Irish Twins we see Fern struggling to find her place in the world when the ties between her and her sister begin to break. This is the bond she has always relied on begins to give her life shape and meaning. How does she move forwards now?

And similarly Paula, the wife of Adrian, captured so perfectly in Hunger, finds moving to the country is not what she anticipated it would be. But the reality might something all together more liberating.

Each story has a clear sense of pace and purpose. Sometimes rooted firmly in the domestic, but never humdrum or dull, the characters are beautifully drawn. They speak to the reader and take the mind’s eye into their own world. This is never more true than in the case of the final story Reader, I Married Him.

This piece was published in a collection of stories of the same title, edited by Tracey Chevalier. This was a collection of works connected to and inspired by Jane Eyre, published by Harper Collins.

In this story Hill has painted a haunting, sometimes quite heartbreaking portrait of an ageing Duchess of Windsor. We find this infamous woman looking back on her life and the choices she made, with a raw frankness. It is a simple yet compelling challenge to the long held view of the manipulative femme fatale, who stole a king.

This is a collection of stories that will charm and entertain. They are written with authority. There is a sense of an author in charge of her craft throughout, drawing her audience in and holding them lightly in her hand. This is story telling at it’s best.

Rachel x

May Wrap Up!

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 Crawdads Sing 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 Tsarina by 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!

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