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: 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

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…