Book Review: She Clown and Other Stories by Hannah Vincent

I keep questioning , as I am writing my current reviews; Should I mention the strange world we are living in? Or is everyone sick to death of hearing about COVID-19 and do they just want to come places like book blogs for escape?

But I have come to the conclusion that any review is about my response to a book and my response is always going to affected by the context in which I read. For example in the last month I have abandoned more books that I have finished. My brain is struggling to cope, and so something has got to be pretty special to get me interested and keep me there. I strongly suspect that I would have continued and enjoyed those discarded books in normal times.

But these are not normal times, and so ignoring that fact seems pretty pointless to me.

But, what you may ask does this long winded justification have to do with She Clown By Hannah Vincent?

Well, to be honest finding a volume of well written and engaging short stories is always a welcome and wondrous thing but at time like this it is a life saver. The short, snappy but beautifully formed stories were just perfect for my current reading style. Like a delicious box of chocolates I could ration myself to grabbing one here and there as my work load and wandering attention allowed or I could gorge on a few given the inclination and opportunity.

She Clown is a relatively thin volume, containing 16 short stories. All the stories concentrate on the life of women, of all ages, social classes and races. But all have names that begin with ‘C’…

With some of the women I formed an immediate connection. Charlotte, for example, the hen pecked and suppressed daughter living with her mother in The Poison Frog. A story with a strong leaning towards the darkest of fairy tales, she is rescued by a frog prince in the most unusual way.

And Caro, the young working mother, exhausted, trying to keep everyone happy and finding her balm in work ( An Extra Teat)

Conversely, there are women that I actively disliked. Bella, for example, the rich, privileged mother, looking constantly to blame others for the things that go wrong in her life, biting her own child in a rage, made me recoil from the page! ( Granny’s Gun) . ( NB I know her name doesn’t begin with ‘C’ – but all becomes clear…read the book!)

But all of these women have a tale to tell. And that is the point.

Hannah Vincent has created a series of tales that are snapshots of women’s lives. These snapshots are a ‘warts and all’ portrayal and celebration of women. Not one women is held up as a saint. All are working within the boundaries of their lives and experiences, all shaped by their past, present and future. Each women is presented within their own social context and connections. Some seem trapped, but others show remarkable abilities to make subtle and sometime dramatic changes to their lives. Here there is no feeling of ‘one size fits all’ but a recognition and embracing of diversity.

The stories are, by definition short. In some cases the snapshot only provide the smallest glimpse of a situation, dilemma or lifestyle. Sometimes we see or feel a sense of resolution, sometimes we don’t.

The final story, Woman of the Year, brings the whole collection together. By taking each central character and putting them together in one story, one social situation, the author offers us further insight into each character but also strengthens and enhances her message of diversity and celebration

She Clown and other stories is a collection of short stories that that both challenges and comforts and one I would heartily recommend, especially in times when we could do with both these qualities in our lives.

Thank you Emma Dowson at Myriad Editions for my gifted copy.

Rachel x

P.S You can buy She Clown by clicking here

Book Review : The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson

A while ago, in what seems like another reality, I was on a train. I was complaining to myself about the terrible service – oh, little did we know!!! – and trying to get to my first meet up with 4 other lovely book bloggers.

To take my mind off the journey, I scrolled through Twitter and came across the announcement of Sally Magnussons impending new release. Excited I sent out an email asking for a proof , not honestly fancying my chances, as I was sure the whole world was probably asking too.

But the good people at Two Roads were so kind and within a week I had a copy in my grubby little mitts. (Which are obviously only metaphorically grubby! Wash your hands people!!)

And let me tell you bookish people of the world…it is a beauty!!

Beginning in 1856, we are introduced to Alexander and Isabel Aird , a young middle class couple living in Glasgow.

A doctor, Alexander is concerned with the health of the city, particularly the poor. A passionate champion of improving public health, he is following closely the ambitious scheme to bring clean water from the Trossachs to the people of Glasgow. It is his dedication to reducing cholera within the population that sees him accept the job of site doctor at the developing waterworks by the banks of Loch Katrine

Uprooted from her Glasgow life, Isabel finds herself isolated amongst in a strange new landscape; one which is being changed by the intense and relentless blasting of the surrounding hill side to create the series of tunnels and aqueducts needed to complete this mammoth feat of engineering.

Alone for much of the time, Isabel is also grieving. For since the beginning of their marriage Isabel and Alexander have lost seven children to still birth or miscarriage. When we meet Isabel she is carrying her eighth child. She has no hope left, and is waiting painfully for what she feels is the inevitable.

The couple are disconnected, both grieving but both internalising their grief. Alexander has his work to distract him but for Isabel distraction comes in a different, more unconventional and dangerous form…

Loch Katrine and the nearby Doon Hill are steeped in Folklore. They are the haunt of the fairies, the sithichean, and all the recent industrial activity is disturbing the ground and it’s secrets. So when a mysterious, old fashioned but rather charismatic man, going by the name of Robert Kirke appears in Isabel’s life alarms bells start to ring. When Isabel, listens wrapt to his strange story, she offers to help. But the price she is unwittingly agreeing to pay is far too high.

The strange friendship which springs up between Isabel and Robert is of deep concern to Kirsty McEchern, a navvies wife, who has become a house keeper of sorts to The Airds. She is the voice of reason, a pragmatic narrator in the style of Nellie Dean. She has an insight into the minds and marriage of the Airds, recounting the tale years after the event, trying to explain the inexplicable.

And with her own strong sense of tradition and folklore running alongside her day to day reality Kirsty is also the embodiment of one of the novels key themes. The juxtaposition of folklore and superstition with science and progress. Themes that run throughout the history and literature of the Victorian era.

Alexander and his social circle are the embodiment of the progress that is made in public health, medicine and engineering. It is a world that the grieving and unfulfilled Isabel tries desperately to reach. She is constantly rebuffed and discouraged on the basis of her sex.

It is the character of Isabel which is the very core of this novel for me. Her fight to be a mother, in an era when women were judged by their ability to bear children but obstetrics and women’s health, both physical and mental, remained a low priority. Her fight to be more that just a wife, to find purpose in her daily life and efforts to support her husband in meaningful and practical ways.

For me, a successful novel is one which shows a development of not just plot, but character. And Isabel is a key example of this. The Isabel we are introduced to at the beginning of the novel is very definitely not the Isabel we say goodbye to at the end.

Another key strength of the novel is it’s sense of place in both location but very definitely period in time. It feels like a Victorian novel. The themes, language and pace are all authentic, all reminiscent and evocative of that fast moving and strangely conflicted time in history.

The sense of Victorian-a is cemented by a parallel strand of the story, a plot line involving Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. This thread reflects the key themes of the novel; juxtaposition of progress and tradition, women’s role in society, its attitudes to child bearing. It is a thread that is neatly woven throughout and comes to a natural conclusion at the climax of the novel.

Sally Magnusson has mastered the art of weaving stories around a series of facts and bringing them together into intriguing and thought provoking novel. It is a unique story, with a unique approach. Beautifully plotted and at times heartbreakingly poignant, it is one of my reads of the year so far.

Blog Tour Review: The Unreliable Death of Lady Grange by Sue Lawrence

So there is no getting away from it…life is pretty crazy at the moment. And for the first time in a long time ‘real life’ had intruded on my bookish life to such an extent that my reading mojo seemed to vanish.

So The Unreliable Death of Lady Grange by Sue Lawrence was, I have to, up against it. But do you know what? The past was actually the perfect place to be!!!

Based on a true story, we begin in Edinburgh, 1742. The tale begins at the funeral of Lady Grange. Her sudden death has shocked her family.

But the real shock is that the spirited Rachel, Lady Grange is actually still alive.

Kidnapped by her husband, the father of her five surviving children Lady Grange is banished to the remote Hebridean Monach Isles. Fiery and defiant, certainly not a women of her time, Rachel is paying the price for pushing back against Lord Grange’s infidelity and her own ill treatment.

With the aid of the unscrupulous Lord Lovat, Lord Grange imprisons his wife on a series of remote islands, transporting her from a life of privilege to a life of hardship and deprivation.

Unable to speak the native tongue, deprived of books, writing materials and the love of her family, Rachel has been effectively obliterated. Her husband has not only taken her freedom, he has taken her identity and denied her existence.

His motives reach beyond the personal. Encapsulating a turbulent political time in history, Lady Grange has uncovered her husband’s Jacobite sympathies. Terrified that she will put not just his reputation but also his life in danger, James enacts his terrible revenge.

This is a story that is driven by power . Rachel is the very embodiment of female power in a period of time when woman had very little. Even when her circumstances are altered beyond recognition she is determined to maintain her dignity, sense of self and try to return to her current life.

Ultimately and unavoidably it is a commentary on the historical power imbalance between men and women, and how this was used and abused.

This is a powerful book, of a dark but in some ways uplifting story that might just take you away from our current craziness. Thank you Kelly @LoveBookTours for asking me along.

About the author

As well as writing popular historical thrillers, including Down to the Sea, Sue Lawrence is a leading cookery writer. After winning BBC’s MasterChef in 1991, she became a regular contributor to the Sunday Times, Scotland on Sunday and other leading magazines. Raised in Dundee, she now lives in Edinburgh. She has won two Guild of Food Writers Awards.

And there is more

For other reactions and reviews check out the rest of the blog tour below…

Book review: Dear Edward – Ann Napolitano

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano is a book I have had sitting on my book trolley since the summer of last year, when the gifted copy ( plus very welcome chocolate!) dropped through the letter box.

I haven’t deliberately neglected or avoided this book. Far from it, in fact I have been drawn to it just about every week. Instead I have been saving this book, hoarding it you might say. Because I knew from the premise, the reactions of other trusted bloggers and the overall buzz surrounding it I was going to love it.

And, fickle and rather shallow book beast that I am, when I really love a book I struggle not shout about it almost immediately. So I have waited until just before publication day to read it, and by the time you read this review it will be available for you to enjoy.

191 DIE IN PLANE CRASH; 1 SURVIVOR.

This statement of fact is indeed the crux of this story. It’s the truth at the centre and the catalyst for everything that happens within it.

It is also the reason my husband wrinkled his nose and declared, sarcastically; “Looks like a cheerful book.”

And I suppose that there is every reason to think this might be a dark read, wrapped up in tragedy and fear. But actually nothing could be further from the truth.

The story centres around Edward Alder, a twelve year old boy who is the only survivor of a plane crash in June 2013 which kills 191 others; his father, mother and older brother, Jordon are amongst the dead.

Getting on the plane as a family of 4, flying to begin a new life in California, Edward wakes up in the hospital, an orphan. Known as Eddie before the crash, this young boy has to come to terms with his loss and trauma. As part of coping strategy, he chooses to abandon the name Eddie, becoming Edward instead.

From the beginning of his new life, with his Aunt Lacey and Uncle John, Edward is fighting to create his own normal. His new room is the unoccupied Nursery in John and Lacey’s house, the room created for the babies that never came. Unable to sleep here, unable to find peace anywhere, Edward connects with Shay, the girl next door. Individual, quirky, with demons of her own, Shay offers no judgement, has no emotional baggage and lets Edward come to terms with things in his own way. It is in Shay’s room that he sleeps, comforted by her steady presence in the same way he was anchored in a previous life by his brother.

The story of Edward’s gradual return to being is one time frame in the book. It is juxtaposed, chapter by chapter by another; that of the final hours of Flight 2977. Here we come to know something of the other passengers, see inside their lives and know them as more than just nameless victims .

We meet Florida, a vivacious woman, alternative in her outlook, possessor, she believes, of many previous lives, with bells on her skirts and an abandoned husband behind her.

There is her ‘row- mate’, Linda. Desperate for the love and acceptance she never found from her parents, she is flying out to LA to meet her new boyfriend, harbouring a secret and hoping he will propose.

And Benjamin; US solider, flying back home to his Grandma, mentally and physically broken; questioning who he is and where he is going.

These are just a few of the lives that are lost, just a few of the hopes and dreams that die that day. Because what Edward learns as he moves forward is that it isn’t just enough to survive this plane crash. You have to take the life that’s left to you and live it.

The trouble is he isn’t sure how to do this. Equally his Aunt and Uncle, desperate not to cause him further pain, don’t know how to help him. When Edward becomes the focus for the grief of the families left behind John and Lacey do everything they can to protect Edward, to stop him being swept aside by the tide of pain and intensity behind it.

It is in an effort to keep him safe that they choose to hide the letters from him. Letters written to him from the families, pouring out their grief, looking for answers and comfort, seeking affirmation and commitment.

So when Edward and Shay discover these letters late one night, what will they do to Edward? Will they push him further in to pain ? Or will the love of the other families and the very real mark each of the victims has made on this planet start to heal him?

This is a book, that despite it’s central event, celebrates life. In a strange twist this story embraces tragedy and uses it as the catalyst to throw life, in all it’s many and varied forms, into stark relief.

Dear Edward is a celebration not a wake. Make sure you take the time to join in.

Rachel x

Another Unplanned Book Review : The Secrets We Kept – Lara Prescott

I have said it before and I will say it again but the thing I love most about Book Twitter is the unexpected gems it throws in your path. Earlier this week I seized upon the offer of a copy of The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott. The gifted copy, sent by Sarah Ridley was awaiting me later in the week and it quickly threw all my weekend reading plans into disarray…

And I am so glad it did!

You could classify this novel as ‘the story of a story’. For at it’s heart it is the story of how Dr Zhivago, written by Boris Pasternak behind the Iron Curtain, made it to the Western world. It is the story of the price that was paid and the repercussions that were felt in both the East and West following the novels publication and international reception.

Named after the heroine of Doctor Zhivago, Lara Prescott has scrupulously researched and represented this extraordinary tale. Her portrait of Pasternak is of a complex, driven man, willingly to suffer for his art, passionate but sometimes blind to the consequences of his actions, both for himself and those around him.

The novel opens with his longtime and pregnant lover Olga Vsevolodovna being set to Gulag for her association with Boris and her refusal to betray him and his work.

And from this beginning we are left in no doubt who be the focus of this story.

For it is the women who drive this incredible narrative forward, both in the East and the West. And equally it is the women who are chronically underestimated.

Told by alternating from East to West,the story has all the hallmarks of a classic Cold War tale of spying and intrigue. But it is so much more. And it’s power lies within it’s characterisation.

Each chapter marks the evolution of the women at the stories heart. The changing character of the women as they move along their journeys of intrigue are marked, quite literally, in the changing nature of the titles.

There is real and genuine sense of voice in this book. Take for example the character of Sally, an experienced agent, a Swallow; her narrative manages to be both breezy and heartfelt, driving the plot along .With an inner steel, she is playing the long game, embracing duality and a changing persona. And ultimately revenge.

Or Irina, in whose heritage East and West come together, who is quickly proven to be so much more than a typist and who finds an unexpected and powerful connection with Sally. The relationship that develops between these two women might appear to be a subplot, but it is in fact intrinsic to the body of the novel.

Far more than the sum of it’s parts this is a celebration of love, sexuality, belief and talent, all wrapped up in a cloak of power, glamour and danger.

So glad I found it!

Rachel x

January!! A Monthly Wrap Up.

I am going to come clean right at the start and say I am one of the those people who has an almost pathological hatred of January. I know it is probably a state of mind issue but I honestly can’t get over how long it goes on for and how grey it is.

That said despite the dark mornings and the hundreds of days, it has been a cracking reading month!

To start with I seem to have got my blogging mojo back again. After a bit of a dip in the autumn I am now right back in the swing of it. The TBR piles are still huge but they aren’t intimidating me anymore and I have requested and received some lovely and most welcome books this month. Something I never take for granted and I always genuinely touched and grateful for.

If we are talking numbers then I have read 14 books in January ( I told you it was a supernaturally long month!!) and listened to 1 audiobook.

The audiobook ‘thing’ is a relatively new addition for me. I have made the decision to stop listening to the news on the way too and from work. It’s is, I have decided bad for my mental health in the the current climate, I can’t physically read, unless I want to end up in a ditch (!), so audiobook it is. January has been a comfort listen, as I am revisiting the delightful Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard, my literary fluffy jumper. Just finished Marking Time and nicely stuck into Confusion.

Revisiting fiction has been a bit of a theme this month, as in preparation for the much anticipated release of The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel I joined in my first blogger read along. Embarking on Wolf Hall this month and Bring Up the Bodies next is nicely stoking the fires of excitement . Wolf Hall is as brilliant as I remember, but I do concede that it take a while to get into the rhythm. If you stick with it I promise it is worth it!

I began 2020 with a collection of short stories; Sudden Traveller by Sarah Hall. Hall is an accomplished writer and Queen of the short story. Her collection Madame Zero still looms large in the memory. It was a great start to the month and whetted my appetite for more great short stories.

Luckily I had To the Volcano and other stories -Elleke Boehmer from Myriad Editions waiting patiently for me. Another feast of short stories whose review was an absolute pleasure to write.

I am very much a physical books girl but I do read on the Kindle from time to time. And this month I read The Hunting Party By Lucy Foley. This novel had been getting loads of attention on Twitter last year and it was chosen as my book club read for January, mainly due to it’s setting, both in place and time. The remote Scottish Highlands at New Year with a murderer on the loose provided a welcome distraction from the rapidly ending Christmas holidays! I read it at the perfect time!

Talking of Christmas, my ‘other half’ did me proud and came up with a bumper stack this year. I have been slowly working my way through, deviating, as you do, alongs paths of proofs and ‘accidental’ book purchases!

Some were devoured and worshipped in that rather strange and chocolate filled time between Christmas and New Year, but this month I have indulged in just a few more.

The Offing by Benjamin Myers needs very little introduction. Such a beautiful book, filled with eloquence and stunning descriptions of the natural world, it offered a gentle escape to the East Coast of Yorkshire. A strong story of friendship and support unexpectedly found I honestly loved every word.

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams was another delight. It is initial tone is quite deceptive. It seems lighthearted, is certainly humorous but as the novel progresses it’s true depth is revealed. Make no mistake, there is a lot going on here. Concentrating on Queenie a young black woman, it embraces her life, her mental health and everything that has affected it. This novel is a must read. And it is also just out in paperback so this is the perfect time to dive in!

Finally from the Christmas stack was my only nonfiction read of the month Lady in Waiting by Anne Glenconner. Lady in waiting to the late Princess Margaret, it is Anne’s own marriage that provides the most colour in this book. Her husband, Colin Tennant, was flamboyant and charismatic, the brain child behind the exclusive private island of Mustique. He was also mentally ill and prone to tremendous ‘meltdowns’, one of which earned him a lifetime ban from British Airways! Anne has lived a colourful, privileged but also at times tragic live, and I challenge you to read this one without your mouth hanging open!

On the whole though, January has definitely been a fiction heavy month. For example I finally embarked on The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker. This story, of a strange sleeping sickness that strikes down a Californian town, beginning in the college dorms and leading to the town’s complete isolation, was addictive and unsettling. The feelings were heighten by the fact that no sooner had I closed the book than the Coronavirus outbreak began to be reported.

I was lucky enough to read two gifted books this month. Firstly the spectacularly haunting Our Fathers by Rebecca Wait, whose review can be found here, and the historical novel The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire by Brian Kearney from Holland House Books, Instagram mini review can be found here

Reading aside perhaps the most lovely bookish thing to happen this month was my first blogger meet up. With nearly all of us fighting the Great British Rail Network to the last (!), I met up with four lovely bloggers in Manchester. Huge thanks go to Emma, @corkyyorky, Jules, @julesbuddle, Siobhan, @thelitaddict_ and Rebecca, @_forewardbooks, for inviting me along.

Aside from great conversation, food and a teeny bit of wine it was fairly inevitable we were going to land up in a bookshop!

So for the last two reads of the months I have these lovely ladies to thank. It was Emma who told me had to read Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton. She wasn’t wrong! What a book! I am not saying too much as I have a review in the pipeline but I am seriously wondering whether I haven’t already found one of my books of the year! In January, I know!!

I also came away with The Need by Helen Phillips. A really quirky and original read which offers a very honest and sometimes dark commentary on motherhood. I finished it last weekend and I am still thinking about it everyday.

Add in the fact that I have had the pleasure of being involved in two blog tours this month; Payback by R.C Bridgestock and The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep by H.G Parry , then this has been a pretty full reading month!

Goodbye January and bring on all the bookish goodies that February has to offer!

Rachel x

P.S. Is it spring yet??

Book Review : Our Fathers by Rebecca Wait

Whenever a book drops through my door I am always, without exception, excited and grateful. The arrival of Our Fathers by Rebecca Wait , however provoked even more excitement than usual. Having seen this on several ‘One to watch lists’, including Siobhan’s, @TheLiteraryAddict, then I had high hopes. I wasn’t disappointed.

The novel centres around the character of Tom, who has returned to the island of his birth, Litta after many years absence.

On this Hebridean island 20 years ago, when Tom was 8 years old, his father killed the rest of his family and then took his own life. Losing his mother, father, brother and baby sister, Tom was the only survivor; found huddled and terrified in his parents wardrobe.

Trying to run from his past, wrapped up in his own guilt and anger Tom has stayed away. But now, unable to lay the past to rest he returns, quite unannounced, to try and piece together what made his father, this seemingly quiet, stable family man commit such a terrible crime.

This is a story which has a truly awful event at it’s heart but the focus is on the before and after of this event. And the cause and effect of the tragedy is beautifully, slowly revealed.

It is the feeling of community that pushes at the sides of this novel. The community that welcomes new comers but equally holds them at arms lengths, unwillingly to disturb a delicate balance between conventionality and morality. It is a community struggling to come to terms with such senseless violence in it’s midst, keen to look for a simple answer to a difficult question. Not quite ready to look beyond the obvious and probe deeper into a families life and a man’s character.

When Tom returns the events, so long buried, but certainly not forgotten, come back to the surface and it is not only Tom who is forced to question what happened and their own part within.

Malcolm, Tom’s uncle, brother of his father, looks back not just to that time but to his own childhood and the way his family relationships developed. Neighbours start to question, albeit internally their own role and responses to the family. And the truth about Tom’s parents relationship is slowly pieced together.

The skill of this book lies in it’s paradox. For a book that has such violence at it’s heart, there is a real air of normality and gentleness about the setting, character and prose. The horror of what has happened is rationalised and cloaked in a conspiratorial silence, all too familiar in cases of domestic violence.

Through skilled and lyrical prose Rebecca Wait builds a powerful portrait of a marriage steeped in control and tension, a warning against silence and inaction. It tackles head on the way abuse, emotional, financial, physical, moves from generation to generation, eroding confidence and becoming blunted and normalised by those in the thick of it and on the fringes.

Given the subject matter, to say that Our Fathers is easy to read sounds glib and inappropriate. And yet it is. But it is east to read not in a light way, but in the sense that story is cohesive. It has an organic flow. It is populated with believable, ultimately flawed characters, brought to life through thoughtful dialogue.

This novel is about much more than one terrible event. It is a representation of the events leading up to and following that event. It shows how shocking events are rarely one off, out of the blue incidents, but that they are the culmination of other more complex and often harder to resolved events and feelings.

This novel focuses on psychology. The psychology of families, of love, control and abuse. And importantly the psychology of community and it’s responses to the actions of individuals within it.

Rachel x

Our Fathers – Rebecca Wait was published on 23rd January by RiverRun