Book Review: Animal by Lisa Taddeo

This week sees the long anticipated publication of Animal by Lisa Taddeo, by Bloomsbury. It follows the success of her 2019 release Three Women; a work of nonfiction that detailed and examined the sexual and emotional lives of three women living in the USA. Three Women was a book filled with insight, hard truths and untapped emotion.

In many ways Animal has many of the same qualities. The biting intelligence and sense of raw perspective is present throughout this novel, as is the unguarded examination of a women’s sexual and emotional choices. But nothing you have read before will quite prepare you for meeting Joan.

The novel opens in New York City, and the suicide of a lover. It is bloody, brutal and public. One lover shoots himself in front of Joan and her other lover. So the scene is set.

Both Joan and the story move painfully and at pace, trying to escape the horrors of the immediate and distant past. Final destination: California. And while Joan is running away from the past, she is also running towards it. Heading to meet the shadowy Alice.

Here among the dust, the heat and crucially the circling coyotes, Joan starts anew. But life it seems is finally catching up with her. From the outset we are aware that Joan’s life is unorthodox, unstable and filled with trauma. Her parents loom large in her life. Both died when she was young and the manner of her death stalks her lived experience. It is never far from the decisions she makes.

Joan’s life is marked by her relationships. Her sexual relationships with men, in which she seeks both comfort and revenge, and which ultimately leave her hollow. Her relationships with women are complex and often filled with regret. All roads seem to lead back to her parents. It’s a truth that could seem clinched. But it never does. It feels honest, brutal and ultimately real.

Joan is our narrator, our guide and she leads us over some pretty bleak terrain. She is often hard to trust, hard to like and at times abandoning yourself to her damaged hands can feel terrifying. The scent of blood lingers on Joan, growing stronger as the story unfolds. And like the coyotes, the past is moving in.

This is a novel where the boundaries are blurred. It’s is a landscape filled with sharp edges and sudden drops. You aren’t meant to to feel comfortable here. You are meant to feel alive, you are meant to be in your guard.

It is a novel that is alive with the effects of trauma, it bubbles and boils with pain and the ways we deal with disturbing and life altering events. Sex in this both is complex and ever present. Sometimes a security blanket, some times a weapon and more often than not a punishment.

Animal is unforgettable. It is raw, it is dark and it is not for the faint hearted. I wanted to devour this novel, but the story itself had other ideas. It is a tale too rich, too spicy to be rushed. You need to take it in steady gulps and let each one digest.

Rachel x

Book Review: Lives Like Mine by Eva Verde

I begin this review with an apology. I read this book a couple of weeks ago, and I really wanted to get a review up for it’s publication date which was 10th June. However this proved to be one of those books where the reading experience continued long after I had turned the final page. It was a book that I needed time to consider, a book that just needed to ‘sit awhile’.

Lives Like Mine tells the contemporary story of Monica. Married to Dan, with three children, she is a stay at home mum. Monica is of dual heritage and her husband is white.

Her in-laws are ever present in her life. She finds solidarity and support in her sister-in-law Nancy, but she is very much the exception. There might be a veneer of acceptance as far as Monica is concerned but Dan’s family are racist to the core. And the mask of tolerance slips again and again.

Monica has spent years shaping herself into something she’s not. Denying her heritage, her identify, her very being and trying to fit in, trying to keep the peace, trying to maintain family harmony for the sake of her children. But the support from her husband Dan is weak at best and he repeatedly fails to challenge the embedded attitudes of his family.

Add in the fact that Monica is estranged from her own parents, still coming to terms with the events of her youth that drove them apart, then by the time we meet her Monica is desperate for change. And it is at this point Joe enters her life.

A simple connection on a school trip soon develops into something more and their relationship is both a catalyst for change and a mirror in which Monica sees just how conflicted and at odds with herself her life has become.

Eva Verde has created a story that is powerful, painful and wholly believable. Themes of love, loss and cultural identity are woven together, held in place by strong multilayered characters and contemporary events. There is a genuine exploration of the motivations and experiences of each character, even those whose views are very hard to tolerate. No one is perfect, and everyone is flawed. And the book is all the better for that.

The story happens in real time, with a relatively compact timeline, a normal few months in the life of a family. But the exploration and unpicking of attitudes, events and feelings goes far beyond this. Eva Verde explores with sensitivity, wit and searing honesty the impact of generations on today’s lived experience.

This was a book that provoked every emotion. It made me gasp with shock and anger, it made me laugh and it made me cry. Beautifully written from a place of honesty and reflection, this one is a keeper.

Rachel x

#BlogTourReview: Mrs England by Stacey Halls

There are some blog tours I will always jump at the chance of being on, pretty much setting the keyboard on fire with the speed of my response. And when the new Stacey Halls lands in your inbox this exactly one of those times!

Welcome then to my stop on the blog tour for Mrs England, published today, 10th June, by Manilla Press. Huge thanks to Tracey Fenton at Compulsive Readers for my blog tour invite and Francesca Russell and Eleanor Stammeijer for my gifted copy.

It is 1904 and Ruby May is a children’s nurse. Recently graduated from the prestigious Norland Institute Ruby is a poor girl made good. Dedicated, skilled and hard working Ruby loves her job and wants the best for the children in her care. But when an unforeseen circumstance forced her to take a position in a remote Yorkshire village Ruby wonders if she has bitten off more than she can chew. Four children of different ages and the isolated position of Hardcastle House make this situation seem daunting and unfamiliar. Little does Ruby know that these are the easier ingredients of her new life.

The marriage of her new unemployed Mr and Mrs England is immediately unusual. Having married into his wife’s large and wealthy mill owning family, Charles England is undeniably in charge. The household, including the nursery is under his control, while Lilian England is nervous and often absent.

As time passes and Ruby becomes more established in her role the cracks in the household begin to show and she is left wondering just what does form the basis of the upper class family and Edwardian marriage. And when things take a darker turn Ruby’s own past threatens to overwhelm her.

From beginning to end this a story of depth and complexity. Stacey Halls’ writing is a masterclass in perfect plotting and building of tension. Each chapter, indeed each sentence reveals just enough, no more, no less, to keep you reading, to keep you guessing. To keep you wanting more.

This is a gripping tale, immersive and created with intelligent attention to detail. The social standing of the Edwardian up class family is explored and laid bare. The veneer of perfection is carefully dismantled to show the secrets that might just lurk beneath. Add in to the mix Ruby May’s own unique story and the scene is set for a groundbreaking and unexpected tale.

If you are looking for spellbinding historical fiction, then this could be right up your alley. Stacey Halls strikes again!

Rachel x

And there is more…

For more reviews and reactions to Mrs England check out the rest of the blog tour below…

Book Review: This is how we are human by Louise Beech.

This book has been creating a buzz on Twitter for several months now. It’s author Louise Beech is always generous in the way she shares her creative process and everything she and publisher Orenda Books were saying about this story interested and intrigued me.

As an SEND practitioner the premise of this book had me hooked. Books that portray characters with autism are few and far between, and it’s fair to say that some are more successful than others. So I was waiting with baited breath to see how Louise would rise to this particular and unique challenge. It’s fair to say I wasn’t disappointed.

Right at the heart of this book is Sebastian. Sebastian is 20 years old, lives with his Mum Veronica in Hull. He likes eggs, swimming and Billy Ocean. Sebastian is autistic and like most young men of his age Sebastian is interested in sex.

His Mum Veronica loves her son, and is broken hearted that he is lonely, confused and frustrated. Desperate to find a way to help her son she begins to consider paying to give him the experiences he desperately wants.

Isabelle is lost. Working as an escort under the name of Violetta, she is struggling to pay her father’s medical bills and keep up with her nursing degree.

When the paths of all three characters cross some solutions are found but lives are changed forever. Decisions that are made with the best of intentions begin to take on a life of their own with far reaching and unforeseen consequences.

Within this story Louise Beech tackles a complex and little discussed issue head on. She acknowledges and explores what society to often chooses to ignore; that young people and adults who are neurodivergent still want and need to engage in healthy sexual relationships. They still have thoughts, feelings, wants and desires just like the rest of this crazy world. And the challenges they face around understanding social constraints and boundaries, including issues of consent, need thought, discussion and appropriate support. Not to be ignored or worse condemned.

With skill and compassion Louise has created a cast of three dimensional, sympathetic and beautifully flawed human beings. No one is perfect but everyone is striving to stay one step ahead of the game. Autism might be at the centre of this novel but it is human nature that gives this story it’s beating heart.

This novel will surprise you in every way.

Rachel x

#Blogtour Review: 100neHundred by Laura Besley

The qualities I admire in fiction are vast but variety and pin point accuracy are pretty high on my list. Over the past few months I have increasingly been scratching these particular literary itches by devouring flash and micro fiction. In all it’s many forms !

My introduction to flash fiction proper was somewhat delayed, but finally came in the form of Laura Besleys wonderful book, The Almost Mothers. My reading was delayed due to my own tardiness and the fact my teenage daughter pounced on the book the minute it was delivered to our lockdown abode!

But when I finally got my hands on the collection I was just blown away. And so when Saira Aspinall from Arachne Press approached me to ask if I would like to be part of the blog tour for Laura’s latest collection 100neHundred I nearly bit her hand off!

100neHundred is a collection of 100 pieces of the best not just flash, but micro fiction, all exactly 100 words long. The stories are divided equally into ‘seasons’, each season filled with colour, emotion and gloriously diverse subject matter. Each piece of writing is a pearl, unique and unexpected all woven together by a ribbon of ingenuity and skill.

Laura has created beautiful snapshots, each one alive with precision and emotion. Each story excels in it’s originality, each one a complete tale, each carefully crafted without a word to spare. The skill of creating an engaging story, alive with meaning, that both fulfils and leaves the reader wanting more is something to be admired. To be able to produce a series of these stories, is nothing short of mind blowing!

This collection is diverse and genre defying. It is as book filled with every kind of emotion. It will make you laugh, make you smile and sometimes make you cry. Laura is a master of commanding few words for maximum impact. From the thoughts of a grieving mother, to realms of outer space, this volume becomes a beautiful, engaging and colourful journey.

It is one I recommend you take.

Rachel x

And as a special treat

It is my pleasure and absolute privilege to be able share one of Laura’s stories with you here. A special shout out for publication day!

Death in Suburbia

Nice neighbourhood, I think, driving down the quiet morning streets.

My partner opens the door. ‘No blood, no murder weapon. Wife’s in the kitchen. Completely distraught.’

‘Morning to you too.’

The husband is slumped in a chair, dead.

‘Any sign of forced entry.’

‘Nope.’

‘Overdose on alcohol, pills?’

‘Wife said he was clean living.’

I take a closer look and notice a piece of paper in his shirt pocket. I slip on some gloves and carefully prise it out.

Stop contacting me, Dad. It’s too little, too late.

‘Get the pathologist to check his heart,’ I say.

‘It’s probably broken.’

Page 49 – 100neHundred by Laura Besley.

And there is more…

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

Book Review: Panenka by Ronan Hession

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.

Rachel x

Book Review : Slug by Hollie McNish

I bloody love Hollie McNish! I was going to try and be all grown up and scholarly and serious in this review. I had decided I was going to style it out and not gush and fangirl my way through the whole review.

But then I thought, ‘Sod it, what’s the point?’ So be prepared for unbridled enthusiasm!

I will start by saying that I honestly couldn’t believe my luck when Clara Diaz at Little Brown emailed me and asked if I would be interested in receiving and reviewing a finished copy of Slug and other things I have been told to hate. I don’t think I have every replied so quickly to an email.

And the magic Google Lens Thing that happens when you hover your phone over the book is bloody amazing!!

But what is inside just this book genuinely blew me away.

Firstly let me say that I read this book cover to cover, word to a word in 3 days. A rainy bank holiday weekend was my friend as I lost myself in the wisdom and hilarity that is Hollie McNish’s trademark.

You see Hollie writes about life. About the things we all know but no one likes to talk about. About the things that keep you awake at night and the things that keep you sane. She will write about something that is closer to your heart than you ever knew. It will be her words that will make things suddenly click into place. This collection is a celebration of the things in life that have always been considered taboo, not for polite conversation. But they are actually the things that make the world go around.

This book is bursting, literally bursting at the seams with poetry, prose and stories that are run through with honesty and naked truth. Sometimes it will make you shout out loud in recognition and sometimes it will make you uncomfortable. But you will recognise it as the truth just the same.

This is one of the most human collections of work I have had the joy and pleasure of reading in a very long time. It is this kind of brave humanity and humility that I want to gift to my children every single day.

Thank you Hollie for sharing these words. Roll on the tour. Seat already booked x

Rachel x

#BlogTour Review : Ariadne by Jennifer Saint

It is my absolute pleasure to be part of the blog tour celebrating the publication of Ariadne by Jennifer Saint. I am delighted to be able to add my own small voice to the chorus of those already singing it’s well deserved praises. Many thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for the blog tour invite and to Caitlin Raynor for my beautiful gifted copy.

Following in the footsteps of such great titles as Circe and The Silence of the Girls Jennifer Saint takes on the myth of the Minotaur but places the women firmly at it’s heart. In this stunning retelling Ariadne and her sister Phaedra, daughters of the tyrannical King Minos are thrown into the spotlight, and their story casts a long shadow over the acclaimed hero of Theseus and the men who surround him.

In this retelling the sacrifices that Ariadne makes for the love of Theseus are examined and exposed. By giving her would be lover the means to defeat her half brother the Minotaur Ariadne is effectively betraying her family and kingdom. But is the price she pays worth the risk? Will her happiness be guaranteed and is Theseus the hero he seems to be?

With this one event a chain of events are set in motion, one in which the sisters take centre stage. Each brave, brilliant and intelligent in their own right but each betrayed and marginalised not only by the men in their lives but by the way these stories have been traditionally represented and retold.

This is a story of sisterhood, of complex female relationships and the need to look beyond the familiar and find what shines beneath. By focusing on these independent and headstrong women, who overcome all obstacles just to survive, Jennifer Saint brings a fresh perspective and a new, critical eye to these classic tales.

If you think you know this story, think again. For within these pages there is so much more to discover.

Rachel x

And there is more…

For more reviews and reactions to this epic tale, checkout the rest of the Blog Tour listed below…

Book Review: Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth MacNeal

Ever wanted to join the circus? Well now might be your chance. But just a word of warning there is a darker side to the brightest of lights. But take a step inside the Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal and have a closer look.

A huge thank you goes to Camilla Elworthy for my gorgeous gifted copy. Having fallen in love with The Doll Factory I was very keen to read this one!

It’s 1866 and Nell lives on the edge of her community. Set apart by her curious speckled skin, she picks violets and is wrapped in the love of her devoted brother. Nell’s dreams are small but when the circus comes to town she is just as fascinated as the rest of the village.

Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrival leads to the biggest betrayal of Nell’s young life. Sold to the show by her father, Jasper makes Nell his newest attraction, his amazing ‘leopard girl.’ Life on the road is hard but there is also a glamour and a growing sense of adoration that Nell has never experienced before.

Reborn as the magical ‘Nellie Moon’ London is soon abuzz with her name. Friends are found in the other performers and Toby, Jasper’s younger brother brings a gentleness to her life she has long been missing.

But Jasper’s show and Jasper’s life are both built on tentative and shaky ground. Debts and his past are always one step behind him and when his star threatens to outside her creator the world of the circus suddenly turns very dark.

Set in an age of invention, of trickery and spangled appearance, this is the tale of both how things appear and how they really are. It is a life built on illusion and show, of light and dark and the struggle it takes to stay on the right side of each. For each dream that is made another is crushed and the thread that binds exploitation and empowerment glows brightly throughout. A connection that is impossible to ignore m.

This is a story filled with contrast and partnerships, both within its characters and it’s themes. It is an exploration of how dark can turn to light and how redemption can be found in the most unexpected of places. The story is filled with both the constraints and loyalty found in love, and what happens when we claim too much too fast.

The pictures that Elizabeth Macneal paints are vivid, alive and vibrant. It is a book that reaches out to each sense and brings the reader inside. Whether at the heart of the circus, in a money lenders lair or in the ruins of the Crimea the sense of place is second to none.

Keep your eyes on the Circus! It’s never what you think!

Rachel x

Review: Love Stories for Hectic People by Catherine McNamara

People who follow me on Twitter may or may not had noticed that over the past few months I have fallen increasingly and hopelessly in love with Flash Fiction. So when David Borrowdale from Reflex Press asked me if I would be interested in reading and reviewing Love Stories for Hectic People by Catherine McNamara I jumped at the chance.

Flash fiction is an art, a beautiful elusive skill. The ability to encapsulate, convey and develop a story in under 1,000 words is something to be cherished and admired. And within these pages are found thirty three fantastic examples.

The over arching theme is, as the title suggests, love. And it is love in it’s many and varied forms. Here, drawn with clarity, wit, empathy and razor sharp precision are stories of couples the world over. Couples in love, couples in lust and everything in between.

Here are relationships that are at the beginning, relationships in their death throes and relationships that have developed to stand the test of time.

Brevity might be the key in this collection, but each tale has as an impeccable structure, a view point that pans like a camera, zooming in and out, drawing the readers eye to the heart of each matter every single time.

If you are looking for something new, something biting, raw and fresh, then grab yourself a copy and feast away. I promised myself that this would be book to be taken on board in bitesized chunks. Turns out I gorged on it, one glorious tale after the other.

Rachel x

Love Stories for Hectic People by Catherine McNamara is available to order here.

It has been Shortlisted for The Saboteur Awards 2021 Best Short Story Collection.