2020! – The year reading should have been on prescription! – Top 25 reads!

There are two indisputable facts about 2020..

Firstly, for good or ill, it’s been a year like no other! And secondly, I wouldn’t have survived it without reading a lot of books.

Each month I have shared a monthly wrap up, and I am finishing the year with my top 25 books. Not all of them I reviewed, some I just devoured. Not all were published in 2020, but it was the year I personally discovered them. The list is arranged in the order I read them, not in any kind of preferential order. It is also worth noting that over the last month or so I have read some cracking 2021 proofs. These are not included here, but there will be a most anticipated list coming very soon.

So, deep breath, here goes …

1. Three Hours- Rosamund Lupton

This book blew me away right at the beginning of the year. I read it from cover to cover on one rainy Sunday.

Set in a progressive English private school, this is the story of a school shooting, but my goodness, it is so much more! Perfectly plotted, with pinpoint accurate writing and a level of complexity that astounded me, I am still recommending it now.

2. The Mercies – Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The first historical novel to make the list, and this one is a cracker.

Set in Norway in the 1600’s, based on a true story, it is the portrait of a remote but tight knit community being slowly ripped apart by suspicion, vindictiveness and worse. It is so vividly told and my full review can be found here.

3. My Dark Vanessa – Elizabeth Russell

Unsettling, thought provoking and I feel essential reading this book hasn’t left me yet.

It is a tale of power, manipulation and inappropriate relationships. It will provoke strong emotions, and intense debate and my review can be found here.

4. Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell

This book!! I read it back when it first came out in April and from the first few pages I fell in love! I have long admired Maggie O’Farrell, but this book feels like her masterpiece.

On the surface it is story of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet , who died in childhood but in reality it is so much more. It is one of those rare novels where each word is perfectly placed. Despite having read it and revisited it in audiobook I haven’t reviewed this book. Quite simply I knew I couldn’t do it justice!

5. Conjure Women – Afia Atakora

This book was just bursting with every emotion going!! This is the story of Miss Rue. Rue is a black woman, healer and midwife to the recently freed black community on an American plantation.

Humour, love, life and grief of every shade is found within it’s pages; a unique and special tale. I was lucky enough to be on the blog tour for this one and my review can be found here.

6. The Mirror and The Light – Hilary Mantel

This book needs no introduction from me!

The final instalment in Mantel’s epic Trilogy, this book that details the downfall and fate of Thomas Cromwell. Long listed once again for the Booker, Mantel amazes me every time I read her. Quite simply stunning!

7. A Thousand Ships – Natalie Haynes

I love a Greek myth retelling and this book is right up there with the best.

A retelling of the story of the Trojan war, Haynes focuses on and brings to life, the unique perspective of the woman involved. Beautiful and heartbreaking from beginning to end, this novel thoroughly deserved it’s place on the Women’s Prize Shortlist.

8. The Bass Rock – Evie Wyld

This one was getting so much attention on Twitter, so many people whose opinion I trust were raving about this one, that I knew this was a winner. A beautiful inter generational story that will linger for a long time.

It is fair to say that I have recommended this book to so many people and to find out why you can find my review here.

9. Saving Lucia – Anna Vaught

BlueMoose Books never ever let me down. This year they have published only books by women authors and what an absolute treat it has been. Saving Lucia begins with the narrative of two women, both incarcerated at St Andrew’s Hospital in Northampton. Both women are public figures; Lady Violet Gibson was sectioned after attempting to assassinate Mussolini, Lucia Joyce is the daughter of poet James Joyce, a talented dancer and artist in her own right.

This unique story by Anna Vaught was another book I devoured in a day. My review can be found here.

10. Summerwater – Sarah Moss

It’s hard for me to pick a favourite author, there are way to many to choose from! But Sarah Moss has to be pretty near the top spot.

Summerwater is perfection. Written across the period of one day, in one remote place, from the point of view of several diverse characters this work is an absolute joy. In fact it was so good I read it twice. My review can be found here.

11. The Vanishing Half – 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.

It was an absolute pleasure to read and review.

12. Leonard and Hungry Paul – Rónán Hession

Ok, I know I am really late to the party with this one but I honestly believe that this is one book everyone needs to read.

In a time of darkness Leonard and Hungry Paul is a ray of hope and light.

13. The Miseducation of Evie Epworth – Matson Taylor

It’s fair to say that 2020 has sometimes fallen short on laughs! But this book helped to raise mirth and spirits alike.

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.

What happens next is a glorious riot of a story!

14. The Pull of the Stars – Emma Donoghue

Considering I have been living through a pandemic you might have thought I would avoid books that reflected that world back to me.

However The Pull of the Stars, set in Ireland in 1918 flu pandemic made me realise just how lucky we are today. Here was a civilisation, still coping with the ravages of war, poor sanitation, economic hardship and limited communication, dealing with challenges we could only imagine.

This book was profound, moving and in many ways hopeful.

15. Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart

This book needs no introduction from me. A Booker Prize winner that I will forever feel privileged to have read in proof form; this book went to the core of my soul.

So beautifully written, full of heartbreak and joy; light and shade in equal measure. Shuggie Bain is a present and future classic.

16. The Sound Mirror – Heidi James

Back to Bluemoose Books (there is a delightful pattern developing here!!) and this time to the raw and rather special The Sound Mirror by Heidi James.

If I can write just one paragraph with the skill, beauty and sharpness of Heidi James I will die a happy woman. This is the story of women, of families and the mark they make, for good or ill, on the lives they touch.

This one is unsurpassed.

17. Supporting Cast – Kit De Waal

Short stories continue to delight me, and these are up there with the best of them. They are made all the more delightful by linking to Kit’s previous novels.

Touching, tender and immersed in compassion, these stories were like revisiting old friends and peeking into their hearts and souls.

18. Small Pleasures – Clare Chambers

I read this book back in the summer and I still haven’t been able to get it out of my head since. This is an unusual and atmospheric tale and one which perfectly radiates and reflects the period in which it is set.

My review is here and I know this is one I will be rereading in the not too distant future.

19. The Harpy – Megan Hunter

There was no other book quite like this one in my reading pile this year!

A tale of betrayal, deceit and the ultimate revenge, this novel is heavy with mythological reference and symbolism. The Harpy is once read and never forgotten.

20. A Ghost in the Throat – Doireann Ni Ghriofa

This book was an unexpected find and joy this year. A book that introduced my to the idea of ‘Women’s Texts’ and spoke to me in a myriad of ways.

This book is a celebration of women’s lives through the ages, of women telling their own and each other’s stories, of celebrating the extraordinary and the domestic with equal gravity and relish. My review is here.

21. The Night of the Flood – Zoe Somerville

I always get excited when I am introduced to a new author, especially when that author is right at the beginning of their publishing journey. Because it means there are more exciting things to come.

This was most definitely the case with The Night of the Flood. Set against the backdrop of the 1953 Norfolk flood, this story is exciting, tender and robustly told.

22. Dear Reader: The Comfort and Joy of Books – Cathy Rentzenbrink

If there has been one more thing comforting than books and reading this year, it has been sharing that love with other people. Be that through the giving and receiving of books, blogging, zoom book clubs or through wonderful books like Dear Reader that focus on what it is that books mean to the author.

This one was such a treat; a beacon in a very dark time. My review, I hope, will explain why this is a not be missed book.

23. Should we fall behind – Sharon Duggal

This year has been an opportunity to embrace and celebrate the power of community. To remind ourselves once more of the individual stories and experiences that come together as a whole to make us what we are.

And this book is a true reflection of that philosophy. Another Bluemoose offering, Should We Fall Behind is the story of what happens when we look beyond the surface and start to let others in. It was a glorious book to lose myself in this autumn.

24. When I Come Home again – Caroline Scott

Literature set around the First World War has it’s own special place in my heart. There is something so individual about this period, about the challenges, the loss and in a strange way, the gains, that I will always seek out these stories.

When I Come Home Again is a perfect example of this canon of literature and it was my absolute pleasure to read and review as part of the blog tour.

25. The Thief on the Winged Horse – Kate Mascarenhas

Set in the modern day but in a world more magical than our own, this story of family tradition, magic and rivalry captures both my heart and my imagination.

It’s attention to detail was exquisite, and it’s strong female characters, intent on reclaiming a stolen birthright, was just the boost I needed. This book is powerful and just a little bit special. And it was a privilege for my review to be catching a ride on the blog tour.

So there, are my top 25! So many fabulous books read and shared this year. And so many people to thank. Huge thanks to everyone who has sent me books to read, review and generally worship; it is a privilege I will never take for granted.

Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read the blog this year and connect with me on Social Media. It’s always a pleasure but this year it has literally been a lifeline.

Here’s to 2021 – whatever it brings, let’s remember there are always books!!

Rachel x

#BlogTourReview: WinterKill by Ragnar Jónasson

Welcome to my last blog tour review of 2020. And I couldn’t have a better choice to finish the year with!!

A few months ago I shared a post on Twitter about an Icelandic tradition called Jolabokaflod The idea behind this is simple and quite brilliant; on Christmas Eve people give gifts of book and chocolate and then retreat to their beds to enjoy them. For a book worm, especially one at the end of exhausting year this sounds like the perfect plan.

And what better book to snuggle up with than Ragnar Jónasson’s WinterKill published this month by Orenda . It’s Icelandic setting and air of intrigue make it the perfect Jolabokaflod read.

Set in Siglufjörður, a small but growing tourist town in the north of Iceland, we find Ari Thor. It is the beginning of the Easter weekend and the Police Inspector is awaiting the arrival of his estranged partner and young son. But his weekend takes a unexpected turn when in the early hours he is called to attend the body of a young teenage girl.

Found lying on the pavement in the street, the girl appears to have jumped from the balcony of an empty flat. The victim, Unnur is a local teenage; studious, quiet and close to her mother, it is impossible to see why see might have taken her life.

As the investigation develops and the weather closes in, it seems that there are many pieces of this jigsaw. But none of them seem to fit.

With Unnur’s mother adamant that her daughter wouldn’t have killed herself and only one tantalisingly out of character reference found in Unnur’s diary the leads are slight, and Ari Thor’s frustration mounts along with the encroaching storm.

But then a resident in a local care home scrawls the message ‘She was murdered’ over and over again on the walls of his rooms. How does this relate to a young girl he appears to have no links to?

Jónasson is the master of gentle, building suspense, of leading the reader down blind alleys and switching tack at the last minute. The whiteout that wraps it’s slowly around the action and climax of this novel keeps the reader guessing in more ways than one.

Yet again Ragnar Jónasson has pulled off the perfect crime novel. Authentic characters and skilled plotting are in evidence throughout. This is the perfect Christmas Eve read.

Huge thanks to Orenda Books and Anne Cater at Random Tours for the chance to take part in this blog tour.

And there is more…

For more reviews and reactions, check out the rest of the #WinterKill blog tour …

#BlogTourReview: The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields

It is more than a pleasure to be taking my turn on the blog tour for The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. I first encountered this wonderful author when I read Larry’s Party many years ago. Carol Shield was a writer of impeccable timing and insight; some one who could get to the heart of the human condition and bring the magic of life to a wide audience. She was particularly skilled in her portrayal of women. She saw the joy in the everyday and brought those stories to life.

The Stone Diaries, first published in 1993, and now reissued by World Editions is widely regarded as Shield’s masterpiece. It’s reissued coincides with the launch of the first Carol Shields Prize, created to honour women in literature.

The Stone Diaries is the story of one women’s life through out the Twentieth Century. Spanning major historical events and travelling between Canada and America, with a little bit of the Orkneys thrown in, the novel concentrates on the life and evolution of Daisy Goodwill Fleet. From her unexpected and eventful birth, through to her death we follow Daisy, through each era, incarnation and event.

The sense of perspective within the novel is unusual and ever changing. Shields seems to both acknowledge, play with and disparage the notion that a life is seen and judged through many windows, often not those best informed. Any perception or judgement of an individual is tainted by our own views or preconceived ideas; and as such how close do we get to knowing the truth of some and their life.

Daisy’s story appears symbolic of many women of the past twenty years. At times she seems in control of her own destiny, at others very much trapped and defined by the role she finds herself in. As a daughter, mother, wife, it seems that society has a place for Daisy. But who is the real Daisy Goodwin Fleet?

With her usually eye for detail, Shields builds up layer upon layer of information and insight. Some seems domestic, easily dismissed as trivial, but it is this pinpoint accuracy that gives the novels it’s depth of perception and marks Shields out as a compassionate and empathetic mouth piece for Daisy and hundreds of women like her.

Beginning with Daisy’s stone mason father, who is devoted to the memory of his wife, devastated by her loss, the motif of lasting memorials runs throughout the book. How do we choose to spend our lives with someone? How do we evaluate and express their worth? And what testaments do we raise to them after they have gone? Shields poses all these questions and more, pushing at the edges of the readers responses for answers, showing us how one person, one life lived can be so different in each different interaction and at different times of their lives. Shields quietly and insightfully questions the markers we use to evaluate a life and questions whether we can ever truly know someone entirely.

This is a novel that begins in both birth and death, and comes full circle. It is a novel that challenges us to look for the extraordinary in ordinary and reevaluate what we might find there. It deserves every accolade and truly is a modern classic.

Rachel x

And there is more…

For more reviews and responses to this book, please check out the rest of the blog tour, listed below…

#BlogTour Review : How to Belong by Sarah Franklin

Today it is my turn on the blog tour for Sarah Franklin’s latest release, How to Belong published by Zaffre on 12th November. And I am thrilled to be able to add my own small voice to the avalanche of warmth and praise that is, quite rightly, wrapping it’s self around this book.

This is the story of two women, both at turning points in their lives, both trying to establish a sense of belonging. It is a feeling that life has slipped through their fingers and they are desperately trying to reconnect.

Jo Butler, was born and bred in the Forest of Dean. Her parents, stalwarts of the local community, have run the family butchers for years. Her hometown is a constant in Jo’s life, a place to return to, away from her legal career in London. Jo is the local girl made good.

But when the family business is due to be sold, Jo feels like her safety net is slipping and all her insecurities about her own unsatisfyingly career bubble up to the surface. She persuades her parents to give her a trial period running the shop and she moves back home.

But the question that quickly rears its ugly head is , is this actually home? Does Jo still belong in this community and does the connection she craves with her long term friend Liam, the Forest and the shop still exist?

Tessa is the local farrier and Jo’s landlady. She operates on the edge of the community and her sense of belonging seems permanently adrift. Tessa is struggling in every sense of the word and living a closed, half life in an attempt to protect herself and her secrets.

The two women are brought together by circumstance and although their situations seem miles apart, they have more in common than they think. Their stories of attempting to move forward and find their way become interwoven, in a narrative that is filled with authenticity and empathy.

This is a novel rich in a sense of place. Both the physical place of the Forest of Dean, which provides a tangible and beautiful backdrop to the story within these pages. But also the sense of place that comes from knowing when you are home, and how dislocating and disturbing it is when the things you have taken for granted, the bed rock on which your very being is build, suddenly seem to shift away from under your feet.

Sarah Franklin frames difficult and all too familiar questions within this story. For example, how far is our own identify tied up with our sense of place and past? Can you ever truly return to a time and space to find answers to the present ? And what happens when life changes before you are ready to move on?

The story of Jo and Tessa, both individually and together, will linger long after you close the final chapter. This is tale of looking in, before you can look out.

Rachel x

And there is more…

For other reviews and reactions to this beautiful book, check out the rest of the blog tour, detailed below…

#BlogTour Review : The Thief On The Winged Horse by Kate Mascarenhas

If you are looking to inject some magic into your life this winter, then look no further than the enchanting and evocative read that is The Thief On The Winged Horse by Kate Mascarenhas published on 12th November by Head of Zeus.

It’s always a promising sign when I finish a book in day, pushing aside all other chores and commitments to lose myself entirely in it’s pages. It’s an even better sign when the plot, character and general magic of the book in question are still dancing around my head several days later. It was hard to pull myself from the world created by this book, but for all the right reasons.

Welcome to Kendrick’s Workshop; a firm specialising in the creation of enchanted dolls since 1820. The firm was established by four unique women; the Peyton sisters, whose own births were shrouded in an air of magic and mystery. The four sisters; Lucy Kendrick, Rebecca Jackson, Sally Botham and Jemima Ramsay all married, but Jemima died young and left no heirs.

Fast forward 200 years and Kendrick’s is still trading, it’s dolls, each bearing it’s own particular enchantment or ‘hex’ are collected across the world. The business is tucked away on the Eyot, a small river island in Oxford. Only descendants of the four founding sisters are employed here and the community that has grown up around the company is insular, cloaked in traditions, festival and an unchallenged hierarchy which hands all the power to men.

For despite the creation of the company being down to four gifted and powerful women, since their death only men are allowed to work as sorcerers with the workshop. Women are employed in various capacities such as dolls house creation, working in sales but they are forbidden from obtaining the prized position of making and enchanting the dolls the world covets.

Every male descendant of the Kendrick’s sister is bestowed one hex on his thirteenth birthday, and it is his to lay upon a doll of his creation. In a continuation of the patriarchal hierarchy that runs through this community each daughter’s hex is given to her father and only shared at a time of his choosing.

When we step onto the Eyot in 2020, there is a feeling of change in the wind. Conrad Kendrick, descendant of Lucy Kendrick is head of the firm. At war with his alcoholic brother Briar, Conrad is the undisputed ruler of the Eyot. His housekeeper Hedwig, is young and ambitious and is making herself indispensable by attending to Conrad’s every need. She is intelligent and wily and looks for opportunity to work within the system for her own empowerment and gain.

Persephone Kendrick, Briar’s daughter is frustrated. Deprived of her hex by her father she works in the company shop, but is desperate to fulfil her ambition of working as a Sorcerer. She, like many on the Eyot, is discontented with her lot on the island and is straining at the boundaries of what is accepted.

When a young, charismatic and talented doll maker by the name of Larkin arrives in their midst the community and it’s order is shaken to it’s core. Larkin seems to possess proof that he is descended from the younger and childless sister, Jemima. Conrad takes Larkin into the firm, employing him as doll maker. He is, however forbidden the knowledge of enchantment.

Larkin and Persephone, drawn together by a common goal, strike up and alliance. And when the rare and priceless doll ‘The Paid Mourner’ is stolen from under their noses the order of Kendrick’s is threatened. Conrad is of the belief that the doll has been taken by the fae folk, a long held belief in the community. Tales of the mysterious Thief on a winged horse have provided the basis of the customs and way of life on the Eyot for hundreds of years. It is the disappearance of the doll that provide the catalyst for the events that follow.

The Thief on the Winged Horse is a skilled tale of female empowerment, of women reclaiming their birthright in a world of tangled belief and tradition that seek to deny them. The story and it’s telling weave together a curious and beguiling mix of fantasy and ordinary. The tale might be set in the modern day but it is rich and alive with feelings of other worlds and a time gone by.

Here is a skilled and tangible feeling of reality and fantasy intertwined, a feeling that this all this magic, enchantment and unsettling beauty could be found amongst us, if only we had the skill to find it.

As well as being a tale of magic, it is a tale of duplicity and deviousness operating both within the close circle of the Eyot and the world beyond. It is a narrative driven forward by many varied and carefully constructed agendas and intrigues. It is a fable that teaches us about the imparting of knowledge and the power it brings. It has things to say about equality, what true equality means, and how the pursuit of equality is bound tightly to the welcoming of truth and self discovery.

The Thief on the Winged Horse is truly unique. It is a beauty of a book and it has been my absolute pleasure to support it’s journey into the world by taking part in these blog tour. I recommend that you inject a little magic into your lives this Christmas by getting this one on your wish list.

And there is more…

For other reactions and review to The Thief on the Winged Horse check out the rest of the blog tour listed below…

#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…

#BlogTour Review: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Last year I read and fell in love with Ten Thousand Doors of January , Alix E. Harrow’s debut novel. So when I was given the chance to join the blog tour for The Once and Future Witches I jumped at the chance. Grateful thanks as always to Tracy Fenton of Compulsive Readers for my invite.

This book is astounding. Let me just get that out there right at the start!! Set in 1893, in New Salem, it is the story of three sisters. Born in poverty, with an unpredictable and abusive father the Eastwood sisters are used to living on their wits. Bitter necessity and circumstance have divided them but now they are unexpectedly reunited and there is change in the air.

As the novel begins James Juniper Eastwood, the youngest and most fiery sister, has arrived in New Salem. She is a fugitive, wanted for murder and witchcraft in her home town. A chance and strange meeting brings all three sisters together.

The sisters, James Juniper, Beatrice Belladonna and Agnes Amaranth are currently divided by circumstance and fear. Beatrice is working as librarian, Agnes is a mill worker. Unlike their rebel sister they are trying to bite back the witchcraft and power of their ancestry and keep a low profile in a city which has a history of persecution of witches. For New Salem is build on the site of Old Salem, and in this novel Old Salem was burnt to the ground at the end of the infamous witch trails hundreds of years previous.

New Salem is currently is in the midst of political change. Fighting a mayoral election is the unsettling and shadowy figure of Gideon Hill whose proclamations against witchcraft create fear and suspicion. And at the same time there is a powerful call to arms by the women of the city, as the suffragette movement grows and women all over the world begin to call for the vote.

When Juniper joins the fight despite her sisters’ initial reluctance and fear, despite the differences between them, their sisterhood and their shared inheritance come together. Women across the city from all backgrounds, classes and racial divides start to rediscover their lineage.

Women’s very names reflect the legacy of their parents. Each women has two names; their first name is given by their father, but their second and more powerful name is given by their mother. Juniper from the beginning shuns her patriarchal name, taking the maternal line and embracing it. Beatrice, on the other hand moves between the two, changing as the novel and her experience progress.

The power of women past is found in the words passed down from mother to child. Fairy stories are redefined by their very nature as Witch stories and the women of New Salem begin to reclaim their power. The words muttered by grandmothers and mothers are reestablished as spells and retellings. They pepper the narrative, giving it a rich sense of history and being, grounding it in folk lore and all our shared histories. And they give the women power to rise up.

Here they find the power of women, encapsulated in their shared oral history. There is true and grounded sense of women reclaiming a power lost to them.

Women’s rights run throughout this novel like its life blood and in every form. This unique narrative encompasses all manner of women’s issues . It faces head on issues of gender, sexuality, abortion, equal pay, sexual harassment and domestic violence. In a seamless and powerful story, fantasy and history are woven together. For example just like in the historical record of women’s struggle for suffrage there is disagreement and discord about the way to proceed.

Alligences are uncomfortable and there is mistrust even between the three sisters and others; take, for example, the mysterious black lover of Beatrice, Cleopatra Quinn. The reader is forced to continually question who such characters really are, what is their motivations and where do their loyalties lie. Equally the chaos these women create in their wake has more than echoes of the disruption caused by the ‘real life’ suffragettes. The witches network of safe houses, and constant movement between sympathetic patrons reflects Mrs Pankhursts days of evading arrest by flitting from house to house.

It is worth noting and indeed important to do so, that this novel doesn’t offer up a clear divide on the basis of sex. Throughout the novel witchcraft is not portrayed as solely the device of women. Men can practise witchcraft too. But the important take away from this novel, the message that we have seen time and time again throughout our history is that when it is practised by men, that is, when men have the power, it is some how sanctioned. The power and the possible corruption that comes with witchcraft is allowed for men. This story encapsulates that long held and still present double standard; that power in the hands of men is expected and strong, in the hands of women it is somehow tainted and unnatural.

This novel is a handbook of female power and rebellion. In modern times when the outgoing President of the US says openly there will not be a socialist female president this novel feels like a mystical call to arms. I am tempted to send Kamala Harris a copy.

And there is more…

For further reaction and reviews of The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow check out the rest of the Blog Tour 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

Blog Tour Review: A More Perfect Union by Tammye Huf

Today I am thrilled to be taking my turn on the Blog Tour for A More Perfect Union by Tammye Huf, published by Myriad Editions . Thank you to Emma Dowson for my gifted copy and blog tour invite.

It’s 1848. In Ireland the potato famine has the country in it’s grip and families are being ripped apart. The combination of hunger, economic ruin and unjust British Rule is driving more and more Irish families to seek a life across the Atlantic.

When Henry O’Toole arrives in New York, it seems that anti- Irish feeling is as rife here as in the land he left. But when a violent twist of fate and a change of name pushes him in a different direction he finds himself in Virginia and a world he never knew existed. In amongst the booming cotton plantations of the South, Henry encounters the horror of slavery for the first time.

Establishing regular work on the Jubilee Plantation Henry falls deeply in love with Sarah, a house slave. Not long sold to this establishment, Sarah is mourning the loss of her family. The situation seems hopeless, their union is not only considered a moral abomination but also illegal.

And so begins a tale of developing feeling, of trying to establish a union when all the world is against you, and the inequalities within the relationship threaten to destroy it at every level. For Henry believes that he has known what it is like to live under unjust rule. He tries to compare his experiences back in Ireland, working for British landowners, to Sarah’s situation. And it is not long before he sees that comparison comes up short. For Sarah being a slave mean that every part of her life is controlled. What she eats, who she talks to, where she goes, who she marries. Despite his love and empathy Henry can never truly understand this.

Yet he is determined to try, and equally as determined to get Sarah away from the life she lives and make her a free woman, and his wife.

Whilst Sarah and Henry are at the heart of this story, this is a novel populated with vivid characters, all with their own unique stories to tell and all add a different dimension to the tale of this plantation and it’s place in history. There is Maple, cook and house slave, gifted to Miss Martha on the occasion of her marriage, and forced to leave her family behind. Each day she is tormented by the fear of what is happening to her mother and daughter; both left at the mercy of Master Jeremiah. Bessie, the old cook and childhood nurse of Master Johnson, now widowed and blind, who is set free in a perceived gesture of kindness but cannot comprehend life beyond the plantation walls and her family. Red, young and with fire in his belly, refusing to accept his lot and silently looking for a way to escape.

The plantation owner, Master Johnson, believes himself to be progressive and just. He claims his slaves are treated well, and while it is true he spares the lash more than most of his society, he still sees his slaves as no more than his property. The concern he has for their treatment stems from a desire to pacify the growing anti-slavery movement of the North rather than genuine concern for their welfare.

Here is a detailed, complex and beautifully drawn portrayal of a relationship tied down with complexities and opposed from all sides. Each individual story, each character, each carefully placed word within this web of beautiful prose, provides strength to it’s authenticity and power. It is a story of the greatest adversity and the struggle of love in the darkest of times.

It has been an absolute pleasure and privilege to have had the chance to read this book, and to add my voice to it’s supporting blog tour. Tammye Huf, your book is a triumph and I wish it every success as it makes it’s way out into the world.

And there is more…

For more reviews and reactions to A More Perfect Union check out the blog tour below…

September’s gone??! Here’s a quick wrap up!

So autumn is very much upon us and September seems to have disappeared in the blink of an eye. For me September is always about the start of the school year, always busy, but this year unsurprisingly it has presented it’s own unique challenges!!

As such the reading totals are way down on last month and the type of books I have read have varied enormously!!

For example, there have been a number of books which I think of as ‘dip in and out books’, books perfectly suited to grabbing when I have five minutes to indulge myself. Keeping me company throughout the whole month has been the glorious Poems to live your life by collected and illustrated by the wonderful Chris Riddell. It’s been the perfect bedside companion to busy days and early mornings.

Entirely different and accidental poetry and very light relief has been found in The beautiful poetry of Donald Trump by Rob Sears. Each poem is a little gem created by the author from actual Trump quotes. As with anything surrounding the current US President it is hilarious and scary in equal measure.

My final ‘dip in and out’ read has been the excellent The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla. This is a collection of experiences and essays by a multicultural cast of voices, focusing on what being a immigrant in Modern Britain really means. Illuminating, sometimes heartbreaking, this collection is likely to provoke every emotion going but it is an absolute must read.

Immigration seems to have been a bit of a theme in my reading this month. I started the month with the fabulous, if some what challenging Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar, part fiction, part fact this is an honest account of what it is like to grow as a Muslim in the USA.

And in a similar vein the month drew to a reading close with the beautiful The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim. My Instagram review can be found here

In a bid to escape the reality of daily news I have reawakened my habit of listening to an audiobook on the drive to work. I am almost at end of my life long love Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, performed by the talented Joanna Froggat. and l have also listened to this month’s book club pick Rules for Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

I have been involved in two cracking blog tours this month. One was the mammoth but delightful undertaking of Unto This Last by Rebecca Lipkin, a detailed and compelling retelling of the complex loves of John Ruskin.

The second was an absolutely fascinating series of essays focusing on female philosophers too long over looked and unappreciated. The Philosopher Queens by Lisa Whiting and Rebecca Buxton . It’s already on my Christmas Gifting list for this year!

I am sent so many fabulous books to read and review and I am genuinely appreciative and overwhelmed by them all. But I wanted to take this opportunity to say a special thank you to Camilla Elworthy from Picador. This year, thanks to her, I have had the pleasure to read some amazing books, including the incomparable Shakespearean by Robert McCrum; my Instagram review can be found here

But this month Camilla sent me a book that literally saved me. In all kinds of ways this has been a tough month but sinking into the pages of Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrink was like being enveloped in a warm and book lined cloak. I am so grateful for the chance to read and review this book. Camilla, from the bottom of my heart, Thank You!

I have ended the month with two cracking books which have both come highly recommended and neither disappointed. I delighted in the short but deliciously dark Sisters by the super talented Daisy Johnson. And lost myself in the workings of the Royals with The Governess by Wendy Holden.

So there we have it; September’s reading laid bare. On to October…

Rachel x