An Unexpected Book Review: Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

I wasn’t going to review this book. I had every intention of reading, enjoying but not putting pen to paper. But, lovely bookish people, Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers is just too good a book to pass by without a review to wish it well and tell everyone what a gem it is.

Not that this book published last month by W & N needs any help from little old me. This book has been praised by greater voices than mine and there is an all around buzz about it’s brilliance pretty much everywhere you look.

At the heart of this novel is a strange tale, based in truth. Jean Swinney is a journalist working on the local paper, approaching forty, she is leading a sheltered, some might say half life, with her difficult mother. When the paper runs a short, almost hidden article, on a study regarding parthenogenesis in mammals, in layman’s terms ‘virgin births’, Jean’s working and then personal life is transformed.

The article prompts a letter from a local woman, Gretchen Tilbury who claims that her daughter, Margaret, is the result of such a process and she is willing to give the newspaper more details. Jean is duly dispatched to meet Gretchen and discover more about her extraordinary claim. According to Gretchen her pregnancy was a complete surprise and she is convinced that Margaret was conceived whilst she was a young patient in a closed ward. During this time Gretchen in her late teens was being treated for rheumatoid arthritis. The ward was strict, partially run by nuns and the girls were never left unsupervised. Hence her belief in an immaculate conception.

So Jean begins an association with Gretchen that begins on professional terms; accompanying her to medical investigations and interviewing former acquaintances, all to aiming to collaborate her strange story. But quickly this develops into a more personal relationship, as Jean is welcomed into the Tilbury family, not only by Gretchen but also her intriguing daughter Margaret and her intelligent and unassuming husband, Howard.

Howard fully supports his wife and having married her when Margaret was a baby, has raised the child as his own. On the surface this family seem to live an suburban dream, but as Jean gets to know them and her relationship with each family member deepens in unique ways, she is aware that all is not quite as it seems. But despite this her new friendships are providing a welcome respite from her stifling relationship with her mother and a break from her routine.

This is a novel that absolutely draws you and then won’t let go. The characters are beguiling and intriguing, particularly those of Jean and Howard. I immediately had a real sense of investment in the characters which meant I cared, quite intently, about what happened to them in the future and what had happened to them in the past. Because all these characters have a backstory and this is crucial to the layers and direction of this story.

There is so much to be considered and discussed in this novel. There is, for example, the age old ‘problem’ of the spinster; women like Jean who are intelligent, have much to offer but are trapped within duty and obligation, looking after older relatives because society and circumstance have dictated their fate. Equally as continually the novel explores the sense of self in a relationship, and asks what level of sacrifice can one person make for another before a denial of individual feelings and needs becomes intolerable. Each of these characters and their situations provide depth and heart to the plot and it’s conclusion.

The sense of place in this novel is stunning. It is set in 1957 and the atmosphere of the writing perfectly conveys the period detail of this time. It is rare to encounter a novel which so beautifully immerses you into it’s time period, so completely that you feel you have time travelled, but that is exactly what Clare Chambers achieves here. After reading Small Pleasures I experienced that delicious book feeling of ‘coming up for air’. That feeling you get when you have been completely taken over by a narrative and you don’t want to leave the characters and the setting behind. For someone who gets twitchy if she doesn’t have a book ‘on the go’ at all times, I found it impossible to bounce on to the next book. I needed time to peel myself away from these characters and their stories and to come to terms with what I had read. In short I missed this book, and I still miss it now.

I am not sure I have managed to convey in this short review even half of what I loved about this book. It was a beautiful surprise to me to find it so beguiling and complete. If what I have written here encourages just one more person to pick it up and become lost within it’s pages then my work here is done.

Rachel x

#BlogTourReview: Below The Big Blue Sky – Anna McPartlin

Oh my goodness! Rabbit Hayes! I am coming completely clean now; I had never met or even heard of Rabbit Hayes before the blog tour invite for Below The Big Blue Sky ( thank you Tracy Fenton!) popped up in my inbox. I loved the sound of the story so much I signed up without a clue that there was a prequel, The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes. A prequel that had completely past me by. But, hey, no matter this meant I got two for the price of one.

So what do you need to know? Well Below The Big Blue Sky by Anna McPartlin, like it’s predecessor is written with heart, humour and compassion. This book picks up where the first left off. We find the quirky, close knit Hayes family in a hospice immediately after the death, from breast cancer, of their beloved Rabbit. Rabbit is, or was, a journalist; but most importantly she was a mother, daughter, sister and friend. A fiery, fighter of a 30-something woman taken before her time and kicking cancer’s sorry ass right until the end.

If The last days of Rabbit Hayes is about coming to terms with Rabbit’s diagnosis, Below the Big Blue Sky is about how the Hayes family begin to cope with life without Rabbit. And it isn’t easy.

For Juliet, life without her mother is numbing. She is now the ward of her Uncle Dave, and this means moving away from Dublin and starting a new life in the United States, a life that fits around Davey’s commitments as a touring drummer. And for Davey himself, grieving his baby sister while parenting a teenager, stretches him to the limit.

Grace is coming to terms not only with Rabbit’s death but also with the fact that she, herself, carries the gene which killed her sister. The decisions that come with this revelation are not to be taken lightly and become a source of family tension.

Losing their daughter rocks the marriage of Jack and Molly Hayes. Both seem changed beyond measure, faith is no longer the bedrock it was and suddenly everything seems to be spiralling out of control.

And what of Rabbit’s best friend Marjorie? Suddenly she is facing huge life changes and chances but without her sounding board and support at her side.

This is a novel that deals with those strange and disorienting days after a death. A novel that faces down the immediate practicalities and the lingering, roaring pain. It details the way a family comes together and equally the way it sometimes fragments as the individual members find their own pathways through their loss. Anna McPartlin creates stunning characters, that convey quite beautifully how unique grief is. And how loss and pain manifests itself in any number of different ways.

This is a novel that focuses on the process of grieving and coming to terms with loss. It is about the things someone will compromise on and the things that really matter. It is about that balancing act of bringing everyone’s beliefs and opinions into play, whilst holding on to the essence of the person who is lost. This novel deals with death in a warm, human and deeply humorous way. The narrative raises all those tricky, but important questions. In a society where we speak of death in whispers and veiled words this book faces things head on. Yes, there is tragedy, but this novel is filled to the brim with humour and humility.

Anna McPartlin’s screen writer background is wonderfully apparent in the novel; the dialogue in these pages is absolutely spot on. These are characters you can see, feel and almost touch. Having read the two novels back to back I felt like I had spent days in the arms of the Hayes family and it was a lovely place to be. And just as the sense of character is grounding, the sense of place, history, back story is equally impressive.

This is the story of family tested to it’s limits. A family that has to refine itself and at the same time remember just what it is that makes them strong and unique.

And always …


Rachel x

And there is more…

Catch up with the rest of the Below The Big Blue Sky Blog Tour…

Monthly Wrap up time again! Bye, bye July!

Every month I seem to be starting these posts with ‘It’s been a cracking reading month’… Well guess what? Welcome to Groundhog Day! So much good stuff this month!

I have discovered new authors, revisited old favourites, flirted with and got a weeny bit annoyed with the Booker Prize long list, made progress with and shamelessly cheated on my #20BooksOfSummer list and just generally read fabulous books. So without further ado, here goes July’s wrap up!

And let’s begin with the Booker Prize shall we? And let’s get the gripe out of the way first. Now, rarely do I gripe on the blog, in fact as many of you know, I received an unsolicited DM on Twitter this month complaining that I never write negative reviews. But today I am making a weeny exception to the rule. Because as exciting as the Booker long list looks, it is, in my humble opinion, and it seems quite a lot of Bookish Twitter agree, flawed. Put simply, WHERE IS HAMNET????? Maggie O’Farrell’s masterpiece deserves it’s place on this list, it is nothing short of stunning. Madness rules in my opinion!!! And if that is your opinion too, do me a favour and nominate this work of genius for The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize, but be quick nominations close just before midnight tonight, 1st August 2020.

That moan out the way the long list does contain some fabulous stuff. In terms of The Booker Prize and my own reading, I have neatly ended this month with Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, which I enjoyed and been wholly transported to Glasgow of the 1980’s by the beautiful and heartbreaking Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. Since finishing this book I haven’t stopped tweeting and talking about it. It is incredible, and if you missed my review you can find it here.

I started this month with reading a couple of cracking books for blog tours. I was thrilled to be asked to read and review Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld. She is such a versatile author and with the US elections fast approaching, (grab some popcorn ladies and gents!) this felt like a timely read.

I followed that up with thought provoking Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Sharp, insightful and full to the brim with ideas, I can certainly see why this one made the Women’s Prize Long list. It would, I think, make a wonderful book club book.

Talking of book club reads they have accounted for two of my titles his month. Firstly My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, which I know has a special place in lots of hearts, but unfortunately failed to hit the spot for me. And secondly The Carer by Deborah Moggach; thats for next month’s meeting so can’t give anything away about that one yet!

This month I have read a real balance of familiar and brand new authors; just the way I like it! On the new entrances list we have the brilliant and quite hilarious debut from Matson Taylor, The Misadventures of Evie Epworth, which you haven’t read, you need to!! Another new-to-me author is Heidi James. Having just finished and reviewed her upcoming novel The Sound Mirror I am off to read everything else she has ever written!! Review coming next week, keep your eyes peeled, but BlueMooseBooks have knocked it out the park once again!!

Continuing the theme of ‘new’ authors leads me to a confession. I had never before read any Jenny Eclair. I know! I have been to her live show, listened to her podcasts etc but not read one of her books. Well now I have and it’s a cracker. You can find my review of Older and Wider on Instagram.

And my final new discovery is a flipping gem. In preparation for next months blog tour slot I read Below The Big Blue Sky by Anna McPartlin. And before I did I embarked upon it’s prequel The Last Days Of Rabbit Hayes. These are two books that depict a family coming to terms with a daughter’s terminal cancer diagnosis and examines how we cope when someone far too young is taken from us. They are written with passion, heart and so much great Irish humour. My review is out next month, but these are special books.

Back in the camp of old favourites I was thrilled when I received a gifted copy of Emma Donoghue’s new novel The Pull of the Stars. Dealing with the 1918 Flu epidemic, set on a Dublin maternity war, this one is timely and stunning. It has crept on to my books of the year list without a doubt.

For the next new discovery from an old favourite I have Amanda at Bookish Chat to thank. The northern streets of Pat Barker’s Blow Your House Down have made a diverting and dark interlude. Loved it!

And finally we come to Summerwater, the latest masterpiece from Sarah Moss. And it is a masterpiece, so much so I had to read it twice before I could compose my review. Both the novel and my review are out next month and the former is not to be missed, as for the review, I hope I have managed to convey something of the awe I felt for this novel.

I can’t sign off without an update on my #20BooksOfSummer challenge. 8 out of 20 read! As predicted I am woefully distracted and fickle, but I am trying!

Hope you all had great reading months and let’s catch up at the end of August!!

Rachel x

Book Review : The Sound Mirror by Heidi James

The Sound Mirror by Heidi James has been bobbing around on my radar for a while now. It is published by BlueMoose Books this month and is part of their fantastic initiative to publish only women writers this year. BlueMoose have never let me down yet, and hey, it looks like they are some of the few people on the planet getting 2020 nailed!!

Everything I had heard, and indeed continue to hear, about The Sound Mirror is overwhelming positive. Twitter is alive with fantastic reviews every day and this book has created a buzz even before it has been published. Who doesn’t want to read a book like that?? So thank you Heidi and Blue Moose for my gifted copy, and spoiler alert; it’s going on the forever shelf.

Anyway, enough of me blathering, let’s get to the meat of the matter… What is The Sound Mirror all about?

This is the story of three women; Tamara, Ada, and Claire. Each story is told gradually, each interspersed with the other. Their stories are told in the third person, but in the present tense, which became very important to me as the novel progressed. Because it is through the use of the present tense that you have a sense of really getting to know these women. The writing and the way it is constructed is a window into their thoughts, preoccupations and struggles.

The three stories span different times and places. Tamara’s story in grounded in the present, with a sense of looking back. Her narrative is less linear and much more fragmented that the other women. This fractured narrative reflects the nature of Tamara’s story, adds a sense of intrigue and tension which runs throughout the novel, driving it forward. And Tamara’s story begins the novel with a blinding opening line…

She is going to kill her mother today.

The Sound Mirror – Heidi James

I mean who doesn’t want to follow that line up!!!

The other women’s stories are set over a comparable time frame. We meet them in the 1940’s and move with them through the narrative to the end of their lives. Claire is one of a large catholic Italian family, living in London, helping out with the family grocers business, falling in love and moving forwards. Ada is mixed race, leaving India at the end of British rule, the fall of the Raj. Used to a life of colour, warmth and plenty, the grey skies and constraints of a life in England are hard to adjust to.

These two women are different on many ways. There are clear differences in lifestyle, class, opportunities and outlook. But equally there are many things that bind them, both are constrained in many ways. Expectations and the judgement of society continually intervene to change the course of their lives. The frustrations they both feel in different ways about their own wishes, wants, talents and needs being ignored shape the choices they make, their interactions with others, their own mental health and ultimately future generations. Heidi James shows us how other characters perception of these women begin to colour their sense of self . How much, we are encouraged to ask, are we a product of our experiences and how far does this reach into our lives and the lives of those around us?

All three of these women are multi layered, complex and ultimately flawed. They are relatable, believable and even though they are sometimes hostile, and unsettling, as a reader we care about their narratives. These are women each with a clear voice who aren’t static in their representation. They change throughout the novel, life and experiences change them. And consequently our opinion of them changes too.

For the majority of the novel these narratives move along quite separately. Although themes and issues unite them, the characters themselves don’t interact. But then, suddenly, the narratives come together in a way that is perfect, not contrived not forced, just a reflection of the skill and care the author has displayed throughout.

Running through out this novel is an exploration of the theme of motherhood in all its forms and guises. Heidi James depicts and equally challenges the accepted societal definition of motherhood. She raises a myriad of questions throughout. What happens if you don’t want children? What gives society the right to impose motherhood and it’s impossible standards on all women, regardless of their own ambitions and inclinations? What makes a ‘good mother’, and who indeed defines what a good mother is? What is the effect of a ‘bad mother’? What does it takes to be a mother emotionally and physically? Is the balance of motherhood’s rewards and trials equal for all women, and what happens when everything becomes overwhelming? Is a mother’s love unconditional ? What do you bring from one generation to the next and is the past always going to be a defining part of you?

This book is packed with questions, considerations and empathy. It takes the traditional lot of women, grabs it by the ankles and gives it a damn good shake. At times it will make you smile, you will nod along in understanding, you might just feel uncomfortable and it will definitely ignite the fires of injustice and anger in your belly. Thank you Heidi for the chance to read this beauty. You have a winner on your hands here.

Rachel x

Book Review: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

I woke up this morning and Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart was on The Booker Prize long list. And my heart leapt. Because hands down this has been one of the most accomplished, raw and heart breaking novels I have read in a very long time. And I have read some great books this year.

Published by Picador and due for release on 6th August, I am indebted to Camilla Elworthy for my copy.

I have been hoarding this one away for a while now, waiting for a space in time when I could immerse myself in it. And immerse myself I did.

This debut novel is set in working class Glasgow. It spans the early 80’s, through to the early 90’s and encompasses a period of huge social decline. Thatcher is in power, heavy industry is closing. The Clyde’s ship yards are in free fall, as are the mines on the edge of the city. Mass unemployment, social deprivation and poverty is the backdrop to this story.

For this is the story of a boy, Hugh ‘Shuggie’ Bain and his adored mother Agnes. Proud and striking, Agnes adores her boy in return. But he is in a continual fight for her attention, first and periodically with the men of her life, his own father Shug included. But continually and crucially with alcohol. For Agnes is an alcoholic. A proud, feisty alcoholic, with standards of cleanliness and a show for the neighbours. An alcoholic who believes that a better future is always just around the corner. But an alcoholic just the same.

When Agnes follows her husband to a mining town on the edges of the city, chasing the promises of a better life Shuggie’s world turns upside down. The estate they find themselves on is broken and in free fall. His father disappears, leaving the family with nothing but a crowd of suspicious neighbours and a weekly benefits cheque.

It is here that Agnes’ drinking begins in earnest and slowly as his older siblings distance themselves from the inevitable, it is Shuggie who is left to pick up the pieces. Shuggie who is no more than a child and a child who is struggling to fit in to his surroundings, who is living on the very limits of his endurance, whilst grappling with his own emerging sexuality.

Shuggie Bain is written from the heart. This is, I am aware, an over used phrase. But sometimes you read something that you know comes from the core of someone’s being. That is written with such accuracy and authenticity that no amount of research could replicate, no matter how hard it tried.

The sense of time and place that encompasses this novel draws you in and pins you there. There are times in this story when you will want to look away, when the unfolding events make for more than uncomfortable reading and your heart will break again. But the narrative won’t let you look away, if you are with Shuggie at the beginning I can guarantee you will be with him at the end.

The characters in this novel are real. They command the story, they drew you back in and their experiences explode across the page, pulling your sympathies this way and that. You will scream at them, cry with and laugh out loud. And surprisingly, it will be very hard to judge. For even on her darkest days, even at her lowest ebb Agnes will command your sympathies. This is the skill of Stuart’s writing. He presents Agnes as a whole. She is more that her illness, more that the can of Special Brew waiting under the sink. She,and all those around her, live and breathe in these pages. Alongside the tragedy, the deprivation and the waste, there is humour, solidarity, fight and so much love.

This is a story about what people, and particularly women, will do to survive. Nothing in this novel is linear. It is about life, love and everything in between. It is about the way life can soar and then can crash, how things can flip in a heart beat but how life can slowly creep up when you are not looking and change the world for good or ill. You will find no stereotypes here, just people, with all their joys and faults. And just like the people of this novel your heart will break and your heart will soar. Through the vulnerability of a child you will see this story laid bare, both hope and hopelessness.

Sometimes a book comes along that all politicians, civil servants and social policy makers should read. When anyone of these people is becoming jaded and seeing only numbers and caseloads , making sweeping statements and generalisations someone needs to march along and shove a copy of Shuggie Bain right under their noses.

This one is a belter. And it’s my Booker Prize winner right there.

Rachel x

Book Review: The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

On 23rd June Picador published the latest novel from Emma Donoghue, celebrated author of The Wonder and Room. I was lucky enough to get my hands on a proof, a massive thank you goes to Alice May Dewing, and The Pull of the Stars has leapt on to my books of the year list.

The novel is set in Dublin in 1918. It is November and the armistice is actually only days away. But after 4 years of fighting, political unrest and now a crippling Flu pandemic, hope seems out of reach. The novel’s title is in fact taken from the Medieval Italian translation of influenza; influenza delle stelle- ‘the influence of the stars’.

Nurse Julia Power is working long and impossible days on a maternity ward, where expectant mothers who are suffering from the Flu are quarantined. The hospital is understaffed, running low on supplies and Dublin is descending into chaos. Julia travels across town each day, leaving her brother Tim alone, a brother rendered mute by his experiences in the War.

The novel takes place over the course of three days, and centres on Julia and two other key women characters. Doctor Kathleen Lynn is compassionate, controlled and a political revolutionary, hiding from the police under the cover of the hospital. Bridie Sweeney is a volunteer, raised by nuns in a local orphanage. Bridie is quick to learn, intelligent but has lived a life of unspeakable hardship and deprivation.

The three women are thrown together in the most extreme of circumstances. The pandemic is unchecked, the disease is not behaving in the way other influenzas have and medical professionals are learning on the job. The advice to the public is changing daily but the obvious and harsh reality is that the poor of Dublin can not afford to suspend their lives, and the disease continues to thrive. Death is everywhere and often sudden.

Under such circumstances the usual hierarchies and routines of the hospital are hard to maintain. The three central women characters are learning from each other, in all of kinds ways. It is fair to say that the three days depicted here change all the women in ways they would never have imagined.

Here are three women of different social standing, working seemlessly together. Bridie is the conduit through which the reader begins to understand the realities of maternity care and childbirth during this period. She also teaches the assured but socially naïve Julia about the realities of poverty in Dublin at the time.

It is through Bridie that Julia, and indeed the reader, begin to understand the foundations that underpin the poverty of the time. Foundations that often begin and end with the Catholic Church. Bridie’s experiences lay bare the cruelty of the Irish Homes run by the Church, where children weren’t told birth dates or their given names. Where families were separated and their relationships erased and denied. Where twisted morality was used as a pretence to divide families and where unmarried women where made to work off their stays in the homes for years, the time dependent on how many children they had out of wedlock, no mitigating circumstances considered .

All of this knowledge, translated by Bridie to Julia through the circumstances of the women that they care for, is powerful and shocking. It is the connections and bonds that forms between these two women that push their relationship forward into new and unfamiliar territory.

Following the theme of social awareness and learning, Dr Lynn, a revolutionary and member of the Irish Citizen Army, offers Julia a unique inside the Dublin’s political struggle, taking her beyond the propaganda of the nationalist press and offering her an alternative perspective.
Each women offers the other knowledge, experience and an alternative viewpoint. Even in the darkest of times, these are women empowering each other.

This novel is the best kind of historical fiction, where research and detail are woven beautifully into the narrative. It is a book which I learnt from continually, but at no point did the flow of the characters story feel compromised or interrupted.

Of course as this is a novel about a pandemic, all sorts of parrallels can be drawn our current situation. But imagine a pandemic at the end of a war, in a country that is half starved, fighting it’s own internal political and religious struggle, where communities are pitted against each other. Imagine what it would be like to not have the technology allowing loved ones to keep in touch, to not have any government support to enable workers to self isolate and still feed their families. For the poor of Dublin not working equated to certain death for themselves and their families.

But this story is also about another pandemic. The realities of a child bearing at the beginning of the last century in a country that refused to allow any form of family planning. Where large families were the norm and a women’s health came a poor second. Where a potentially viable fetus would be delivered post-mortem regardless of what it chances of survival would be and whether anyone would be able to care for it. Of a time before antibiotics, when the period after a delivery was as perilous if not more so than the birth its self.

This is a story that is told with skill and heart. At a time of great challenge, when the world seemed to be falling into despair and disrepair, the interactions and friendship of these three women, over these three days, are the spark of hope which pulled the world along .

This is a must read.

Rachel x

Book review: The Miseducation of Evie Epworth by Matson Taylor

I needed this book!!! Honestly it arrived in my reading life at a time when I was looking for something quirky, fresh and full of humour… And believe me The Miseducation of Evie Epsworth by Matson Taylor ticked all those boxes and more.

Huge thanks to Jess Barratt for my gifted copy and to Matson for my gorgeous sunshine yellow Evie tote bag.

So, what is this delicious debut all about? Because yes, IT IS A DEBUT(!), sorry for the shouty capitals but this still makes me very excited. Because a debut means the tip of the iceberg and more goodies to come…

But I am digressing and rushing ahead, which is what happens when a book makes me EXCITED!!! (Sorry, shouty capitals again)

So, calm, down… What is this book all about?

It is the story of 16 year old Evie, a Yorkshire lass, living on a farm with her Dad Arthur. It’s 1962 and having lost her mother as a baby Evie is close to her Dad, so her world is rocked when the indomitable Christine appears on the scene. With her entirely pink wardrobe, over bearing mother Vera and grand plans for the family – none of which actually involve farming or Evie – Christine is a force to be reckoned with and it seems she has Arthur under her spell.

Evie, however has her doubts and sets about trying to uncover the true Christine. She is skillfully aided and abetted in her mission by her slightly eccentric and very well healed neighbour, Mrs Rosamund Scott-Pym. And when Mrs Scott-Pym is suddenly indisposed reinforcements arrive in the shape of her daughter, the outspoken, modern and throughly charming Caroline.

Caroline is the catalyst in this glorious story. Not only does she fight Evie’s corner with wit and cunning, she opens her eyes to the possibilities of the future. Evie is at a crossroads in her life; O-levels taken and adult hood just around the corner. The problem is she has no idea which path she wants to follow. Plenty of people have their own ideas, but none of them appeal to Evie.

By pushing the boundaries and generally shaking things up Caroline allows Evie to see the world afresh, but also gives her the confidence to make her own decisions based on her own strengths and ambitions.

The whole novel is popping with energy. From the hilarious opening sequence, ( red sports car, milk round,rogue farmer, cow – you join the dots!!), this is a novel brim full with humour. It’s not just mildly funny, it’s flipping hilarious! You won’t just titter, you will roar!

And adding to that energy is the perfect 60’s vibe. It’s 1962, and we know, with the benefit of hindsight, that the decade is about to explode in all kinds of ways. The introduction of the ‘Four boys from Liverpool’ is a tantalising tease of what is to come. As a reader, we know that Evie is about to launch herself into a period of huge social change and liberation, and the anticipation and thrill generated by this bursts from the pages.

Evie’s story is a delight. It’s filled with ups and downs and I am not going to spoil the party by telling you who wins the day, but, flipping heck, I can guarantee you will enjoy the ride!! And as an extra temptation, should you need one, there is quite a lot of cake!

Thank you Matson Taylor for sharing this joy of a book. I hope it enjoys all the glory it deserves, and you need to know, I am sitting here…DESPERATE for a sequel!!

Rachel x

Blog Tour Review : Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

It is rare that I commit to post on two blog tours in one day, but when the invite for Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld came my way there was no way I was going to miss out on this one!!! Having read and enjoyed The American Wife several years ago, I was keen to throw myself back into US politics Sittenfeld- style! Huge thanks to Anne Cater for another stunning opportunity to read and review.

Rodham is a fictionalised account of Hillary Clinton’s life, but with one important twist…

You see, for a start, Hillary isn’t called Clinton…because crucially, she never married Bill.

It is this decision which lies at the heart of this story and which may just be the key to the shaping of Hillary’s future career in politics.

The first part of the book follows Hillary’s childhood and adolescence as she grows up in the 50’s and 60’s. Intelligent, driven and ‘awfully opinionated for a girl’ Hillary is destined for great things. She impresses both at Harvard and then Yale, where she meets Bill.

The attraction is instant and enduring. It is meeting of both minds and physical attraction. For a woman who has continually found that her intelligence has been a barrier to any meaningful relationship, Hillary is somewhat overwhelmed by the fact that this tall, charming and vibrant man is declaring his commitment to her.

Bill, it is fair to say, is a man of extreme appetites! Certainly he soaks up knowledge and experience but his sexual conquests seem to be wide and far reaching. The novel does not shy away from divulging and detailing this aspect of their relationship, and it is here, after a while, that the alarm bells start to ring.

The early years of Hillary’s life and career, ‘ The Bill Years’, if you will, are broadly factual. Believe me this novel will have you reaching for Google on a regular basis to separate fact from fantasy! Things start to branch away from ‘real life’ when Hillary decides that Bill’s sexual appetite and continued infidelity is just too much for her to live with, despite their deep intellectual and emotional connection.

From this moment onwards her work is her focus and the trajectory of her political career is up for grabs. The following decades see her rise through the political spectrum, meeting a few familiar faces along the way. The book ends with her final chance to run for President. And her opposition will take you completely by surprise!

This is a page turning portrayal of a savvy, accomplishment woman battling and rising through a predominantly male oriented world. Hillary’s determination to further not only own career but the lot of American women in general is one of the novel’s mainstays.

The continued casual and debilitating sexism, in the home and the work place, is depressing but sadly not surprising. The campaign trail is portrayed as a tough and lonely route to travel, particularly for a women who is under constant scrutiny in a way her male counterparts never are. Appearance is king; policies are all too often second to hairstyle and clothing choices. When Hillary is forceful in her address, crowds begin to chant ‘Shut her up’, a throwback to the recent Trump/ Clinton campaign where cries of ‘Lock her up’ rang through the media.

Here is a fascinating if some what disturbing insight into American’s political system. A system where only those who either have money, or the backing of people with money, have a chance of running for President. Where your every move is watched, nothing is forgotten and the past can come back to haunt you at anytime. Your only hope is how good your ‘team’ is at adding the necessary spin to any given eventuality.

The characters that populate this novel are vivid and plentiful . Some are familiar, some are factual but their voices all burst forth from the page. Love or loath the man, Donald Trump is here, very definitely making his presence felt, although not in the way you might expect. Curtis Sittenfeld has his voice nailed. Be warned dear reader, Donnie will be booming from the book in all his questionable glory.

If you want a page turner this Summer, this is it. There is just the right about of humour, pathos and let’s face it, sex to make this pretty hard to put down. As we head towards the next American election, grabbing our popcorn as we go, Rodham gives us the opportunity for a wry smile and a potential ‘If only’ moment.

Rachel x

And there is more…

For more reactions to Rodham check out the rest of the tour. Details below…

Blog Tour Review: Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser- Anker

I am thrilled to be finally taking my turn on the Blog Tour for Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodessor- Anker, in order to celebrate the UK paperback release. Huge thanks to Anne Cater for putting this one my way!

This is a book which has already received huge acclaim and attention. Labelled ‘Astonishingly brilliant’ by Dolly Alderton and ‘Rare and delicious’ by Maria Semple, it has gone on to be long-listed for The Women’s Prize for Fiction. In short this book has been every where!

So, what’s it all about and does it live up to it’s hype…?

Welcome to the story of Toby Fleishman. A 40 something NYC Doctor, who is on the cusp of divorce from his wife Rachel. The couple have two children of whom they share custody. It is the long summer break and Rachel has disappeared…

Through what appears to be Toby’s eyes we see him struggle to juggle his work commitments, children and social life. We also see his perspective on his failed marriage, his future and his very dark view of Rachel.

Toby presents a very clear view of his marriage and the reasons it has failed. Rachel is successful, running, what emerges to be, a multi million dollar talent agency that she has built up herself. Toby portrays his soon-to-be-ex-wife as self centred and selfish. Her priorities are work, social climbing and she is neglectful with regard to her children.

At first, pulled into to Toby’s view point, the reader is very firmly on his side. He presents his case forcefully, and of course the facts back him up. I mean what kind of mother just leaves her children, right?

But then a shift begins. Almost imperceptibly at first Brodesser- Anker begins to lift the veil on Toby’s version of events and our perspective begins to change. At first the discord is created by Toby’s actions. We see this devoted father, claiming to put the needs of his children first, but at the same time desperately engineering any time he can to slip away for sexual encounters with women he has met through a host of dating apps. We become aware of Toby’s own physical insecurities, which begin to make him seem defensive, even combative. We seen him fire a loyal employee for one potential mistake.

The introduction, in a very clever and emerging sense, of the character of Libby allows the author another lens through which to see Toby and his marriage. Libby likes, even loves Toby, but as a very old friend she sees him with clarity. She knows his flaws. In terms of Rachel, Libby herself is going through her own struggles with career and motherhood. She understands what it is like to be a successful woman in man’s world and try to juggle the expectations of marriage, career and society at large. Libby seems to provide the reader with the perfect bridge between the couple, a much needed dual perspective. But in fact, in a stroke of genius, she actually provides so much more..

Finally the novel allows Rachel her voice, and we get to see this marriage from her point of view. Rachel is the chief bread winner in their family. It is her hard work and success that allows the Fleishman’s to move in the upper reaches of New York society. She has taken society at their word, followed the American Dream and achieved what she has been promised. Namely that a woman can have everything. Successful career, happy family life, contented husband, perfect children. And suddenly in achieving this she has become a piranha, a perceived monster, guilty of neglect, hard and unfeeling.

With this glorious shift in perspective the author is showing us what happens when roles are effectively reversed and a woman steps up to the traditional man’s role in a marriage and society. Does that role bend to accommodate all the challenges and expectations of motherhood, childbirth and general domestic today life? Or does it harden into a trap or another stick to beat women with? Societal double standard are woven throughout the novel. They overwhelm Rachel’s perspective but they also invade the story of her daughter. On the cusp of teenage hood and punished for a mistake at camp, while her male counterpart has his role downplayed and ignored.

There is so much within this novel. It is skilled and multilayered, feminist commentary on societal expectations, marriage, divorce, childbirth, consumerism, upbringing and so much more. It looks at core values, both on an individual and societal level, and asks what happens, both in marriage and society when those core values are incompatible or misunderstood.

This novel challenges the stereotypes of women and asks that all important question. Can we have it all? If so, who decides and who will judge? It suggests that for women to truly rise and not be broken in the process there needs to be a far reaching shift in not only opportunities but attitudes from both genders within society.

The title ‘Fleishman is in Trouble’ seems very clearly at the beginning of the novel to apply to Toby. It is a traditionally masculine statement, referring to the character by their surname. But by the end of the novel you will certainly be questioning just which Fleishman is really in trouble.

There is humour in this novel, a wit and understanding that pulls the reader in and holds you there. But quite suddenly the author shifts and you find yourself staring into the face of pathos and real sadness. This is a book to challenge, to push those boundaries and ignite discussions. Finishing this book doesn’t feel like an ending; it feels like a beginning. The start of a long overdue and complex conversation.

Rachel x

And there is more…

I guarantee that everyone who reviews this book is going to pick up on a different angle, different issue and perspective. So for more reviews and reactions check out the rest of the blog tour below…

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