Leonard and Hungry Paul is a book whose brilliance and reputation has spread like well deserved wildfire. It is a book with empathy and humanity at it’s heart. And quite possibly a tough act to follow.
So when Bluemoose Books announced the publication of Ronan Hession’s next novel Panenka, I for one was both thrilled and intrigued. Huge thanks as always go to Kevin at Bluemoose for my gifted copy.
A couple of weekends ago, I settled down and dived in. And resurfaced just about 24 hours later. It took less that two pages for me to be completely hooked.
Panenka is the story of a life. Of a man shaped and defined by a moment in time. A moment that changes not just his outlook, his family but even his name. For the footballing moment that turned Joseph to Panenka is embedded not just in his DNA but the fabric of the community he remains within.
When we join Panenka’s story he is middle aged, his life is tainted by the past but there are shoots of hope in the form of his newly nurtured relationship with his daughter, Marie -Therese and his beloved grandson Arthur. But Panenka is keeping a secret and it is a secret that threatens to bring down everything he holds dear.
A chance encounter with a newcomer to the town Esther gives Panenka the chance to momentarily leave his past behind. When he is with Esther he can become Joseph again, move through the streets he knows well but look around with fresh eyes. Esther allows him to step outside the events that have come so long to define him and begin to contemplate what is next in this uncertain world.
And while Panenka’s story is at the centre of this novel it is far from the only life on show here. For the true magic of this tale lies within the characters that populate it. Their motivations, their decisions, their complexities and their charm are all tangible. They move gently on your mind and form a community of personalities that bring the novel to life. Each character has made decisions that define them, each clings to things that make them whole, while at the same time wondering if life has more to offer. Each character has a backstory, a time and space within which they exist. Ronan Hession is the master at allowing all his characters, however small they might appear, space and time to breathe.
Panenka has just as much heart and soul as Leonard and Hungry Paul. The tone and message are undeniably different, and this novel has a quiet melancholy that runs throughout. But at the heart of both books is the spirit of humanity, the celebration of what makes each of us tick and the things that drive us forwards each day.
I love a book that makes me laugh. But actually finding genuinely funny novels is really quite a challenge. It is not often that a writer comes along and is able to weave a story that is filled with humour without tipping over into the unbelievable and absurd.
But Jane Ionsin her recent offering, Domestic Bliss and Other Disasters published this week by Bluemoose has managed to pull it off! Welcome to the world of Sally Forth!
Sally is a semi retired teacher, working just a few afternoons a week at the local school supporting Lee , her wayward but strangely charming student. Sally is married to Bill, a senior and increasingly high profile politician. Sally’s children have left home and she is looking forward to space for herself. An chance to start a new chapter and redefine her own role in the world.
Life, however, seems to have other ideas. Other people’s lives are complicated and some how Sally seems to be at the centre of them all. Her son Dan returns and, equipped with a new passion for environmental awareness, he sets about building an Eco extension to the family home. This attracts attention and a surprising amount of people, many of whom seem to become unexpected but quite permanent fixtures in Sally’s life.
Add in her rather strained and at times uncomfortably competitive relationships with lifelong friends Jen and Judith, and her daughter Emma, who is straining at the leash of recent motherhood, and Sally’s life suddenly seems rather complicated.
This novels is a delightful mesh of the everyday, a celebration of how life can suddenly take off in directions we never ever imagined and the all the humour that accompanies that. It is filled with a host of characters, each with there own motivations and wry asides on life. And it is a cast list that comes together to provide light hearted, simple joy.
Quite simply, I enjoyed this book. I appreciated the humour, and the skill with which the domestic is woven into a plot that leaves no stone unturned, and gives every character within a perspective and importantly a voice. Our narrator Sally is intelligent, insightful and importantly for a novel of this kind, very, very funny!! A middle age women with spark, opinions and wry perspective on everything life throws her way.
This book is unlike anything else I have read this year and it was a welcome oasis from a world that increasingly seems to take it’s self far too seriously.
I have always hated January. There is just no getting away from the fact that it is dark, cold and ridiculously, almost supernaturally long. Add in another Covid lockdown and this month was destined to be a bit of a trial!
Books as always have been my salvation, my salvation and often my window on the world. So welcome to January’s round up; I hope you find something here to catch you eye.
I started the month with a very special book, special initially because it was given to me by one of my oldest and dearest friends. Life in Pieces by Dawn O’Porter was a reflection on the authors time in lockdown with her young family in LA. There was much we could all identify with here; the sense of panic and disbelief, the fluctuation of emotions, the inability to stop eating or to remember which day it is. But there were also personal challenges too, because Dawn entered lockdown in a state of grief having lost her dear friend Caroline Flack to suicide just weeks before. This book is raw, heartbreaking and hilarious, sometimes at the same time. A delightful first read of the year.
Next up was Old Bones by Helen Kitson , published this month by Louise Walters Books this is a delightful story of regret, loss and evolving friendships. You can fine my review here.
I am thrilled, as always, to be supporting some cracking blog tours this year. Laura Purcell’s The Shape of Darknesswas another perfect gothic offering, and next week I will be sharing my blog tour reviews of Lucy Jago’s A Net for Small Fishes and Inga Vesper’s A Long, Long Afternoon. Both very different books, but both completely immersive and vibrant in their own unique ways.
My month has been pretty fiction heavy this month as far as new releases are concerned. But Alexa, what is there to know about love by Brian Bilston was a delightful detour into poetry. Anyone who has spoken to me in real life this month has had this book continually and wholeheartedly recommended. And I have been making quite a bit of Twitter noise about it too.
My one and only non fiction book this month has been How to be a Refugee by Simon May.An incredible story of survival at any cost, you can find my Instagram review here.
And finally to two more books I have read but not reviewed. The first of my Daunt Books subscription books was Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor and it was a cracker! This is the tale of Sir Henry Irving, Ellen Terry and Bram Stoker. With Oscar Wilder and Jack the Ripper as bit players this book was just incredible!
And in a bid for just good old fashioned comfort reading I have persuaded my book group to read the first of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles The Light Years . I have been bathing in the warm glow of the audio book but also slightly dreading what will happen if my book friends don’t love these stories as much as me!!
And there ends January! Who knows what February has in store – but remember there are always books!
Bluemoose Books were one of my reading heroes last year. And having read their upcoming release Captain Jesus by Colette Snowden I see no reason why this year is going to be any different.
Released on 28th January this book is tender, touching and full of emotion. Just what the world needs in abundance right now.
The story unfolds through a dual narrative. Firstly from the perspective of Jim; a 10 year old boy growing up in the present day. A member of a loving family, who are about to experience an unimaginable and unbearable tragedy. The second perspective belongs to his mother Marie and takes the reader back to her teenage years, growing up in a single parent Catholic family; feeling different and tainted by a shame that she doesn’t understand.
Through the eyes of these two young people we see the world within this novel come to life. Colette Snowden has created two very distinct characters and given them powerful and unique narrative voices. At no point does the style of either narrator jar, or feel disconnected, rather there is a complete blanket of authenticity wrapped around their words. Giving life to young characters, giving them a steady believable voice is not always easy, but Snowdon pulls it off with style.
This is a story that has grief and loss at it’s core. It touches upon the physical and emotional toll that grief takes on a family not just in the aftermath of loss but also through the long term effects. The web that loss spins through this novel is far reaching and indeed loss comes in many forms. It is not just the loss of a loved one that drives this story, but the loss of a dream, the loss of faith and the loss of what makes you whole.
The multigenerational perspective is inspired. For Marie, growing up in small, constrained family, has had far reaching and long lasting effect. Her childhood is marked by a strange silence where truths were occasionally spat out only to be swallowed back and then never spoken of again. She is attempting to create a different life for her children.
But will the tragedy that befalls her small family be too big for her to deal with and what will be the impact on Jim and his siblings life?
From laughter, to religion, to growing up and beyond, this story crosses so many divides and offers an insight into grief, but also joy. It is beautifully told and reflects the best and the worst of the human spirit.
As always I am honoured to have had a sneak preview of this very special Bluemoose release. Roll on 28th January!
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.
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 Mirrorby 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 Harpyis 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!!
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 Retoldby 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 lifeis 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 Behindwas 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 Atkinson’s 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 NightingalePoint 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 – andThe 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.
Bluemoose Books haven’t let me down yet. And in this year of 2020, when the rest of the world seems out of kilter, their unique commitment to publishing only women writers seems spot on.
Their latest title, published on 20th October Should we fall behind by Sharon Duggal, is yet another triumph. A testament to people, a patchwork of individual stories that weave together to form a community. Stories that sometimes go unheard, even untold but nevertheless form the bedrock of actions and reactions and affect the lives of others around them.
At the heart of this story is Jimmy. Young, troubled and homeless, he finally seems to find a human connection with another young homeless girl, Betwa. When Betwa disappears Jimmy finds himself drawn to the neighbourhood she has described, desperate to find the warmth and humility she has awakened within him.
Within this novel are a cast of people waiting to be found. Multigenerational, multicultural, these skilfully drawn characters all come together in one place. But each have different stories that have modelled and shaped them.
Here are a collection of lives that haven’t taken the course individuals have hoped. In each case familial relationships have both nurtured and disappointed; at times they have twisted, at times they have broken. Each character harbours their losses and regrets, there is a tangible sense of each holding themselves still and close , trying to not to crack as they get through each day.
The arrival of Jimmy within their community, a human being at his lowest ebb, acts as a catalyst. For Rayya, looking after her dying husband, watching the love of her life disappear before her eyes, her long buried maternal feelings are reignited and she reaches out with compassion and empathy.
Ebele, running from her past, protecting her young daughter, reacts with hostility and fear. While landlord, Nikos Makrides, can barely lift himself from his own grief and loss to feel anything at all.
With insight and clarity Duggal brings the community of characters together, woven tight with a gentle prose, sharpen with an edge of humanity and reality that brings some sense of resolution to each character. Here is a story that effortlessly pulls the reader into the depths of character’s hopes, dreams and despair. Here is a commentary on how we treat our fellow man, when our fellow man is in desperate need. This is a window on what individuals truly see when they encounter a homeless person or more specifically when they fail to see. Why, for example, do we equate possessions with actual human worth? When does a person stop being seen as a person? With intelligence and perception this writing sweeps away the myths surrounding street dwellers and forces us to look beyond what we think we see.
The relationship developing between Betwa and Jimmy , shows us the best of human connections. It is this relationship that reawakens him and gives him purpose, and it is a process repeated within the story of other characters . This novel is a web of human connection, radiating outwards in the most joyful way.
Thank you Bluemoose for the chance to read this special title, another gem in the crown.
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 killher 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.
I have been aware of this book for a long time. It seems that everyone whose bookish opinion I trust has read and worshipped this book. Honestly, the praise has been overwhelming and wholly positive. There is so much love and admiration out there for Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession published by Bluemoose Books.
So why you may ask has it taken me so long to get around to reading it? Well, firstly, the usual and quite boring answer is I have so much stuff to read I haven’t found the time. But the second is, if I am honest I found all that love a bit overwhelming. What if I didn’t feel the same? Would I be the one who missed the magic? Not sure if this is an example of my stubbornness or insecurity but I didn’t want to be the one who didn’t love Leonard and Hungry Paul.
I am here today to tell you I was an idiot. When I finally dived into this book I didn’t come up for air. For 24 hours I was immersed in a quieter, gentler, less judgemental world and I didn’t want to leave. When I started this book it was a ‘read but not review book’, but there is no way I can put this one on the shelf without sharing my thoughts and adding my own small stitch to the blanket of love that is quite rightly wrapped around this book.
This is a novel centred on the friendship of two men; Leonard and Hungry Paul. Both in their thirties, both reserved, unassuming but both equipped with a perception of thought and emotional intelligence that is so often missing in today’s crazy world. Leonard, works as a ‘content supervisor’ for children’s factual books. He has until recently always lived with his mother and is currently mourning her passing. Hungry Paul lives at home, working on a casual basis as a postman. He is close to his parents Peter and Helen and his sister Grace, successful and high achieving, is about to marry. It is the run up to and culmination of the wedding which frames the novel.
This is a novel truly driven by and filled with it’s characters. The plot is the stuff of their hopes, fears and achievements. The novel focuses on their domestic challenges and changes; those things that may seem insignificant, but are in truth the stuff that makes the world go around.
Painted with true care and addition to detail, these are characters that feel so real you could almost touch them. Each character has a depth, a past, opinions and a true motivation, all seamlessly constructed and conveyed. In short here are characters you can believe in. I revelled in the quiet voices of Leonard and Hungry Paul, with their board game evenings, sense of duty and gently harboured dreams. I sympathised with Grace, close to her parents, loving her brother but equally frustrated and worried about his future and how his unwillingness to leave the nest might impact upon her. And the marriage of Helen and Paul was an untold and insightful joy; devoted to their children but still in love with each other, and trying not to lose sight of their own identify as a couple.
Rónán Hession has blessed us with an intensity of writing that is a simple joy. Throughout the prose possesses a targeted accuracy and undeniable reality; words are constructed in such a way that you are pulled into a novel that is truly immersive and authentic. There is a gentle and perceptive humour, threading it’s way like silk throughout the book. At times provoking a wry smile, at others a deep and genuine belly laugh. And for all that humour and reality, there is a bedrock of wisdom. And it was this I appreciated and adored the most.
At a time when it seems that loud voices and grand gestures are the things being lauded and sometimes demanded, this book is a welcome change of pace and perspective. This book embraces, empowers and champions the introvert. It is a celebration of those who truly observe and move gently on the backroads of life. They are no less important, no less relevant and often filled with a perception and vision others have lost.
A true novel of still waters running deep, I can’t help thinking the world might be an easier and more harmonious place if we were all a bit more Leonard and Hungry Paul.
Sometimes a book arrives on the scene and it seems that everyone is talking about it. That is precisely what happened with Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught, Published by Bluemoose Books, this book was all over my Twitter feed for weeks. And as I have never coped well with feeling like I am missing out on something it was inevitable that a preorder was going in!
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.
Violet is approaching the end of her life. Virtually silent, she finds tranquility feeding the birds in the hospital grounds. She invites Lucia to join her, and begins to impart her story, her imaginings and her hopes for other women in their situation.
The birds that Violet attends to become a symbol of the women’s quest for freedom, for a voice and a way to transcend their confinement and redefine their lives and histories.
The narrative of Violet and Lucia swells to include two other women; Anna O, the first patient of psychoanalysis, restored here to her true, but forgotten name Bertha, and Blanche Wittmann, ‘Queen of the Hysterics’.
In recognition of all these women and their untold stories, the narrative breaks the boundaries of time and space, and the four women, each defined by Violet as a different bird, soar back into their pasts, beyond their ‘madness’. Here,connected through the ages by their experiences, they are given one more chance to change their lives forever.
This is a novel where the characters are very much at it’s heart. It is the experience, feelings and crucially the imagination of the four women that drive the narrative forward, and give the writing it’s depth and compelling nature. All these women have been confined, their very natures controlled and defined by someone else. Each bears the label of ‘madness’ and each has, in their own way, been silenced.
These women, by telling their stories and reshaping their lives, find their own truths. Through lyrical prose, heavy with a feeling of magic and transcendence, we embark on a mediation of what society has always defined as madness. We see what has happened to these women, what has lead them to this place; the emphasis is very much on who they have been and how life as brought them to where they are.
The prose of these women is non linear, but it is illuminating and insightful. This is their own self analysis. With an awareness and intelligence repeatedly lacking within their own carers and physicians, the women lay bare the facts of their lives and let the reader see how circumstance has shaped their choices, how events, emotions and other people have lead the women to where they are.
These stories challenge the definition of madness, both in the past and present. The women’s stories expose time and again the injustices and indignities suffered at the hands of others. How mental illness left these women at the mercy of their families and how once incarcerated it was practically impossible to reverse your diagnosis and control your lives.
This novel is quite simply a joy. Anna Vaught has taken these women and given them a fresh voice. By reframing their stories, she is bringing them and others like them to our attention and demanding they are heard. This is a beautiful piece of writing, and this is an important piece of writing. It is the chance to take these women to your heart, embrace their stories and learn from them.
It is the very best kind of writing and I thrilled to have discovered it.
You can purchase Saving Lucia byAnna Vaught from Bluemoose Books right here