May Wrap Up!

May is almost done and it seems my reading speed as picked up! From struggling with my reading mojo at the beginning of lockdown, I now seem to be finding my retreat in books the longer the situation continues.

With the ever more crazy situation in politics and current affairs in general, books seem a safer refuge. Beautiful weather has taken my reading outside, and the world has seemed blissfully far away.

So, what I have I read! Well quite a lot actually, and I have finally begun to get through some of my ‘overlooked’ titles. Books that have been sitting on my shelves for ages. One such book was The Confession by Jessie Burton. Published last year, I was late to the party but it was completely worth the wait. I hadn’t planned to review this one but I was so surprised and delighted by it that I felt I had to.

Another ‘catchup’ book, was The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey. Set at the beginning of World War Two, and with strong female characters, this one was always destined to be a winner for me. My review can be found here.

I also finally got around to reading Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. I particularly enjoy the setting of this novel. It was one of those books where you became completely transported and immersed. It brought to mind one of my all time favourite reads To Kill a Mockingbird.

I embarked upon a couple more catch up reads as part of my book club reading. The first was the gentle and delightful Saving Missy by Beth Morrey. I read it and enjoyed it but it really came alive in our book group discussion. So many layers are cleverly woven into this novel, it made for a great Book Club book.

My second book club read of this month was Normal People by Sally Rooney. I have to admit here and now that I have avoided this book for a long time. I know it came out to universal praise, but I was quite reluctant to read it. I had read and not enjoyed Conversations With Friends and this quite simply put me off. I haven’t had my book club discussion on this one yet, so I am playing my cards close to my chest…Watch this space!

This month I also completed my self imposed challenge to read the Women’s Prize Short List . Let’s not kid ourselves, this has been no great hardship. I can honestly say that I have enjoyed each book on the short list this year. I finished my reading with Dominicana by Angie Cruz and Weather by Jenny Offill. I will be watching with interest when the winner is announced on 9th September. I have my favourite, but that is for another time.

Other books I have read and reviewed in May have included some fascinating historical fiction. The witty and observant Chatterton Square by E.H Young was recently re-released by British Library Publishing. Set in the summer of 1938, against the backdrop of appeasement, it is a wonderful commentary on a women’s perspective on marriage.

From 1930’s London to 1700’s Imperial Russia, allow me to present Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten. This was a book I reviewed as part of a blog tour. Filled with opulence and cruelty in equal measure it is the story of Catherine I of Russia and her remarkable rise from peasant to Tsarina. You can fine my review here.

One of my favourite books of the month, both to read and review was the extraordinary Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught. Published earlier this month by Blue Moose Books, this book is the story of four women. All incarcerated within asylums, all infamous , but at the same time all desperately misunderstood and overlooked. This novel is a beautiful reimagining of their stories, offering them freedom through their own voices.

My final review of the month was an Instagram Review of A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet. Focusing on the approaching global emergency that is Climate Change, the author explores what happens when theory becomes reality and how the older generations struggle to adapt to the sudden and necessary changes needed. A powerful warning to all.

The vast majority of my reading this month has been fiction, but there have been two notable and worthy exceptions. Firstly I dabbled in poetry, picking up Matthew Francis’ The Mabinogi. I heard of this retelling of the ancient Welsh epic from not one but two podcasts, Backlisted and Hay Festival Podcast. I have to say, I loved it. Evocative and lyrical it was a unexpected and welcome change.

Secondly, I come to my one nonfiction read of the month Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker. The fascinating, and often heart breaking story of the Galvin family. A fine all American family to the outside world, 6 of their 12 children were diagnosed with schizophrenia. This book examines the realities of life in the Galvin household, and explores how this family helped unwittingly to inform future research in to and treatment of schizophrenia. Thank you to Amanda @BookishChat for putting this one on my radar.

Finally I come to what I am thinking of as ‘Treats yet to come.’ These are the books that I have read this month that either have reviews pending or are yet to be published. And there are some crackers!

I am so excited to currently be working on my review of Summerwater by Sarah Moss. Sarah Moss is a genius in my eyes, and Summerwater is just a delight. This review is taking an age to write, as I am determined to do the book justice. Due out in August of this year, it is not to be missed.

A couple of books that I have reviews written for and ready to share in the next week or so are Walter & Florence and other stories by Susan Hill and The Light Keeper by Cole Moreton. Neither of these books were on my radar at the beginning of the month and both have been a delight. Watch out for the reviews!

And finally we come to What Doesn’t Kill You – Fifteen Stories of Survival. A collection of moving and deeply personal accounts of individual experiences of surviving mental ill health. It is my pleasure to be part of the blog tour beginning early next month, organised by Anne Cater, which celebrates this very important book.

So, all in all a very busy reading month. I think it is far to say that what is getting me through lockdown are family, ice cream and books!! Bring on June!

Rachel x

Blog Tour Review: Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten

I seem to say this a lot…but I do love historical fiction. I love the places it takes me, it’s ability to transport me away from the daily reality and deposit you somewhere entirely different.

So I always have my eye out for new historical fiction and find it very hard to resist signing up for blog tours when the past is on the cards. When Anne Cater offered me the chance to get on board with Ellen Alpsten’s debut novel Tsarina, published by Bloomsbury, I didn’t even try to resist; I jumped at the chance.

Tsarina begins in 1699. On the cusp of a new century, Russia is in the grip of the Great Northern War. Led by Tsar Peter I, the country is under going a transformation. Peter is well travelled, ambitious and ruthless. His desire to modernise and transform his domains is all consuming, and he will stop at nothing to achieve the Westernised Russia he craves.

Rewards for loyalty and bravery are lavish, but punishment for deception , perceived or otherwise, are brutal in the extreme. The chasm between rich and poor gaps. It is both an exciting and terrifying time to be alive.

As Peter wages war throughout the Baltic, Marta, an illegitimate peasant girl is sold by her family aged just fifteen. Finding herself miles from home and surrounded by brutally, she fears the worse when fate leads her to a Russian battle camp. Here she catches the eye of Peter himself and so begins her spectacular rise to power.

Peter is brutal, but he is also brilliant and charismatic. There is an immediate connection between Marta and himself. She is thrown into the world of excess and riches, becoming Peter’s mistress, living openly with him at court. Showered with material pleasures, Marta is all too aware that her existence hangs continually in the balance. She needs to provide Peter with a true heir, and she needs to maintain his interest in a court full of attractive and ruthless women.

This is a true rags to riches story; the story of how a peasant girl became a Tsarina; the infamous Catherine I of Russia, ultimately a ruler in her own right.

I devoured this book! There is a richness and vitality to the writing that mirrors the turbulent opulence contained within it’s pages. Alpsten is master of the detail. Her ability to transport me from lockdown Britain to 18th Century Russia, never failed to amaze or delight me.

This is one of those novels you get hopelessly lost in, immediately immersed in the prose. Historical fiction fans will undoubtedly love it, but anyone who is looking for a breathtaking story spectacularly told need look no further.

The story of Catherine I has everything, and the writing wrapped around it here gives it that little bit more. I guarantee that once you pick up Tsarina, you won’t be able to put it down.

Ellen Alpsten has created something infused with magic.If you love historical fiction …this one is a feast for the senses and the soul! Enjoy the ride!

Rachel x

And there is more…

For more reactions and reviews check out the rest of the Tsarina Blog Tour …

Book review: The Confession by Jessie Burton

Sometimes a book creeps up on. You begin reading and you think it is one thing, and then quite suddenly you realise it is something quite different; something all together more complex and thought provoking.

This was exactly my experience with Jessie Burton’s The Confession, published September 2019, by Picador.

From the beginning this novel was absorbing and well plotted, and I was immediately entertained. But it wasn’t until the final third when the book ambushed me. The writing throughout is, as you would expect spectacular, but suddenly the book’s message crystallises, and this book moves to another level.

This is the story of two generations, told across two time periods; it is the story of a search for identify and roots.

Firstly, in the early 1980’s Elise Morceau, young, beautiful and but seemingly directionless, embarks upon a relationship with an older woman. Constance Holden, Connie, is a confident and successful writer. At the top of her game, Connie’s work is gaining international acclaim, and Hollywood beckons as her first novel is being made into a star studded film.

Following her lover to LA, Elise begins to question their relationship and importantly her own sense of identity. As events take a dramatic turn, Elsie’s life changes forever.

Thirty years later we met Rose, who has been brought up by her father; her mother having disappeared when she was just a baby. Finally her father begins to open up about her mother’s disappearance, telling Rose that Connie Holden was the last person to see her mother. Now in her thirties, Rose begins to question her own path through life and she has a renewed need to find out more about her past. Armed with her father’s fragmented memories she looks for a way to connect with Connie, who has cut herself off from the world.

It is clear that even in its own right the story is strong. The writing is sharp and insightful, there is just the right sense of urgency in relation to pace and tension. But it is the underlying questions and themes that book both embraces and raises that make this such an insightful and memorable read.

This a novel that questions our relationships and how they define us. It asks poignant and often difficult questions about the way we establish our own identity. Burton looks at the way we often rely on others to give us a sense of our own worth, and asks whether it is someone’s else’s responsibility to make us whole.

She examines relationships, highlighting both extreme highs and lows. She explores how her characters seem to cling to the familiar, and the need to be wanted even when things are falling apart. Each relationship within the novel is flawed, each is not an equal sum of it’s parts. We see the immediate and dramatic effect of cruelty and betrayal, but also the slow decline brought about by apathy and boredom.

There is a clear focus on the need to establish a sense of self. For Connie, this seems to be tied up with her writing, for Elise, ironically, she finds out more about her true values by taking on the role and persona of another.

Continuing the theme of self and identity, Burton tackles head on the theme of motherhood. Sometimes brutal in her honesty, she explores the idea that, on some level, a women’s identity is bound up in her sexuality and biology. She questions, for example, the assumption that all women have the capacity to be a ‘mother’. Or maybe that all women, should feel the social and personal pressure to mother.

It is often said of a woman that she is foolish to consider herself the mistress of her time. Her body had other plans. When it comes to children, people parrot, ‘there’s never a good time’ – but I would counter that with that with the truth that there can be a bad time, too. When it isn’t their own body and life – their own time – under discussion, people blithely generalize, even prioritize the myth of the perfect unborn over more complicated existences already here, now. It’s only those who have become mothers who might put their hand on your arm, and tell you, wait

The Confession- Jessie Burton – pg 438

Burton explores the idea of how effective can you be as a mother , shaping and nurturing the identify of another, if you don’t have a true sense of your own worth and identify. In fact how secure is any relationship where one individual is lost or unsure?

The messages and context of this book seemed to grow the more I read. I do believe that this is one of those books that will give up yet more secrets each time you read it. This one is a keeper.

Rachel x

Book Review: Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught

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 on 30th April by Bluemoose Books, this book has been 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.

Rachel x

You can purchase Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught from Bluemoose Books right here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel x

Book Review: Chatterton Square By E.H. Young

I love social history. I am fascinated by the past and how it has shaped the present. I love to see the way attitudes and views have changed over the years, particularly with regard to the lives of Women.

So when I connected with the fact that British Library Publishing were re-releasing a series of books from 1910 through to 1940 with just this premise in mind, I knew I wanted to be involved. The only problem was which title to choose…

In the end I went for Chatterton Square By E.H. Young. Published in 1947, on the surface it is the story of two households, both living on opposite sides of a square in Bristol. But scratch the surface and the richness of the prose reveals so much more.

With breathtaking wit and a keen observational eye, E H Young presents us with a beautifully drawn portrait of two very different families. Throughout 1938, the summer of appeasement, when the possibility of war was stalking the country we are introduced to the Frasers and the Blacketts.

The Frasers are a large and genial household, comprised of matriarch Rosamund, five children and long time family friend and lodger, Miss Spanner. Their’s is a predominately happy household, and crucially they live without a father figure, Fergus Fraser having walked out years before. Rosamund lives as if widowed.

The Frasers seem to live a free and happy life. Their mother is unusual; concerned for her children, she has the rare ability to love them without stifling them. They are largely self sufficient but they confide in her, without fear of judgment or reproach.

The contrast between the Blackett and the Fraser households is stark and rests almost entirely with it’s patriarch. There is no missing father figure here. On the contrary Mr Herbert Blackett is very much present and in control. He believes his will and his beliefs are unequivocally right and they govern all the interactions and limited freedoms of his family.

His three daughters Flora, Rhoda and Mary are repressed and his long suffering wife Bertha is trapped in a marriage she has regretted since her honeymoon in Florence.

The two families seem entirely separate, both in out look and lifestyle but as the spring and summer progress, circumstances and relationships bring them closer together.

One such circumstance is the reappearance of Piers Lindsay, cousin and former sweetheart of Bertha Blackett. Disliked by her husband, Piers’ presence and growing relationship with Rosamund Fraser brings years of Bertha’s repressed anger and frustration to the surface.

Against the backdrop of approaching war, Young explores the realities and finality of marriage for women. In a time when obtaining a divorce was a practically impossible for a wife, Chatterton Square is a stark reminder of the fact a women’s identity was perceived by wider society in terms of her marital status.

There is feeling that men see women as a constant in their lives, something to be acquired and then bent to their will. Bertha is a wife, not a person; her wishes, opinions and dreams are expected to be a mirror of , and indeed provided by, her husband. It is no accident that the happier, more enlightened house contains both a women with an absent husband and a spinster.

When Herbert Blackett goes away, Bertha Blackett begins to live. She unfurls, creating new connections and relationships; releasing her younger daughters from tyrannical rules and crucially sleeping outside of the martial bed. Her final rousing and illuminating speech to her husband is a work of literary genius. With courage, wit and biting insight she takes down her husbands conceit and ignorance.

But for all of her frustration with the institution of marriage Young does not make this a novel without love. Indeed there is a clear sense that her characters need and want relationships, and the beginnings of love are celebrated. But there is a continued and pointed understanding of the double standards attached to the affairs and marriages we encounter.

The context of war is also crucial to the novel. The spectre of the Great War is felt at every turn. The fact that Mr Blackett didn’t serve, has shaped his own perception of himself. Piers Lindsay did and bears the scars. Miss Spanner is one of the generation of women left without husband due to the lack of returning men. The memories are fresh, and they dictate the atmosphere as the news becomes more perilous.

The two households differ in their attitude to war, just as they do in their attitude to love. Herbert Blackett dismisses the notion outright. But the Frasers, despite having sons who will fight, all feel that war is necessary, and appeasement is morally wrong. The spilt in opinion is a reflection of the wider societal views.

And that is the beauty of this novel. At it’s heart it is a microcosm of it’s age. A snap shot in time of society on the brink of change, bringing us closer to a time in history that has shaped us all for ever.

Rachel x

Book Review : The Animals of Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

Who doesn’t love a beautiful book?

And they don’t come more beautiful, or indeed unique than The Animals of Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey, published earlier this year by Mantle Books. There was much cover gazing and stroking going on before I even got to the prose. And then you have to tear yourself away from the gorgeous end papers…

But if you can run the gauntlet of the book’s physical beauty, and you are looking for a story with a healthy dose of light and shade, then this book will be just what you are looking for.

The story is set right at the beginning of World War Two, when London is preparing for the worst. In an effort to preserve it’s treasures the National History Museum is moving to the country, to Lockwood Manor to be exact. Over seeing the move is Hetty. Recently promoted to Director of the collection, she is keen to prove her worth. Fastidious to the point of obsession, Hetty is determined that this move will be a success and that she will keep the taxidermy collection safe, whatever circumstances might throw at them.

Having made small mistakes in the past that continue to haunt her, Hetty is determined that, she will make a success of the museum’s wartime home.

But Lockwood Manor is a strange place. It’s owner, Lord Lockwood; the ‘Major’, is a brusque and domineering man. Successful, with more than a streak of ruthlessness, he is used to getting his own way. Also living in the house is his daughter Lucy; beautiful, but fragile following the death of both her mother and grandmother in a recent car accident.

It isn’t long before Hetty finds the museum is under attack. Animals go missing, are damaged and the house seems to emit a general air of threat from it’s very being.

Both Hetty and Lucy have endured difficult childhood’s. Hetty was repeatedly neglected and rejected by her adoptive parents, Lucy’s mother suffered from reoccurring bouts of mental illness and she was often caught in the crossfire of her parents volatile relationships.

Both woman are have been left scarred and seem to be struggling to find their own place in the world . Previously friendless, they are drawn to each other, finding a close connection neither has experienced before.

But can this growing bond overcome the malevolent atmosphere of Lockwood Manor? Is Lord Lockwood merely protective of his grieving daughter, or is his concern motivated by his need to control? And what really lies behind the strange occurrences in the house? Is there a supernatural presence stalking the halls or are it’s secrets bound up in something closer to home but all together darker?

The setting of this novel, right at beginning of World War Two seems a perfect reflection of the uncertainty and fear with the Manor it’s self. The world is changing and those both within and without the Manor are struggling to keep pace.

In the two female characters of Hetty and Lucy we see two woman who both feel they have disappointed by the standards of their age. Neither have married, and both feel themselves judged by the men around them. Both express self doubt, but both ultimately question whether the conventional path society expects them to follow is right for them. These women are complex, and skilfully portrayed as such.

Running through the novel is the feeling of change; the feeling that old norms are beginning to crumble and things that have hidden in plain sight will be revealed.

This novel is truly a thing of beauty, both in style but most importantly in substance. Step into Lockwood Manor. You won’t regret it.

Rachel x