2020! – The year reading should have been on prescription! – Top 25 reads!

There are two indisputable facts about 2020..

Firstly, for good or ill, it’s been a year like no other! And secondly, I wouldn’t have survived it without reading a lot of books.

Each month I have shared a monthly wrap up, and I am finishing the year with my top 25 books. Not all of them I reviewed, some I just devoured. Not all were published in 2020, but it was the year I personally discovered them. The list is arranged in the order I read them, not in any kind of preferential order. It is also worth noting that over the last month or so I have read some cracking 2021 proofs. These are not included here, but there will be a most anticipated list coming very soon.

So, deep breath, here goes …

1. Three Hours- Rosamund Lupton

This book blew me away right at the beginning of the year. I read it from cover to cover on one rainy Sunday.

Set in a progressive English private school, this is the story of a school shooting, but my goodness, it is so much more! Perfectly plotted, with pinpoint accurate writing and a level of complexity that astounded me, I am still recommending it now.

2. The Mercies – Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The first historical novel to make the list, and this one is a cracker.

Set in Norway in the 1600’s, based on a true story, it is the portrait of a remote but tight knit community being slowly ripped apart by suspicion, vindictiveness and worse. It is so vividly told and my full review can be found here.

3. My Dark Vanessa – Elizabeth Russell

Unsettling, thought provoking and I feel essential reading this book hasn’t left me yet.

It is a tale of power, manipulation and inappropriate relationships. It will provoke strong emotions, and intense debate and my review can be found here.

4. Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell

This book!! I read it back when it first came out in April and from the first few pages I fell in love! I have long admired Maggie O’Farrell, but this book feels like her masterpiece.

On the surface it is story of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet , who died in childhood but in reality it is so much more. It is one of those rare novels where each word is perfectly placed. Despite having read it and revisited it in audiobook I haven’t reviewed this book. Quite simply I knew I couldn’t do it justice!

5. Conjure Women – Afia Atakora

This book was just bursting with every emotion going!! This is the story of Miss Rue. Rue is a black woman, healer and midwife to the recently freed black community on an American plantation.

Humour, love, life and grief of every shade is found within it’s pages; a unique and special tale. I was lucky enough to be on the blog tour for this one and my review can be found here.

6. The Mirror and The Light – Hilary Mantel

This book needs no introduction from me!

The final instalment in Mantel’s epic Trilogy, this book that details the downfall and fate of Thomas Cromwell. Long listed once again for the Booker, Mantel amazes me every time I read her. Quite simply stunning!

7. A Thousand Ships – Natalie Haynes

I love a Greek myth retelling and this book is right up there with the best.

A retelling of the story of the Trojan war, Haynes focuses on and brings to life, the unique perspective of the woman involved. Beautiful and heartbreaking from beginning to end, this novel thoroughly deserved it’s place on the Women’s Prize Shortlist.

8. The Bass Rock – Evie Wyld

This one was getting so much attention on Twitter, so many people whose opinion I trust were raving about this one, that I knew this was a winner. A beautiful inter generational story that will linger for a long time.

It is fair to say that I have recommended this book to so many people and to find out why you can find my review here.

9. Saving Lucia – Anna Vaught

BlueMoose Books never ever let me down. This year they have published only books by women authors and what an absolute treat it has been. Saving Lucia begins with the narrative of two women, both incarcerated at St Andrew’s Hospital in Northampton. Both women are public figures; Lady Violet Gibson was sectioned after attempting to assassinate Mussolini, Lucia Joyce is the daughter of poet James Joyce, a talented dancer and artist in her own right.

This unique story by Anna Vaught was another book I devoured in a day. My review can be found here.

10. Summerwater – Sarah Moss

It’s hard for me to pick a favourite author, there are way to many to choose from! But Sarah Moss has to be pretty near the top spot.

Summerwater is perfection. Written across the period of one day, in one remote place, from the point of view of several diverse characters this work is an absolute joy. In fact it was so good I read it twice. My review can be found here.

11. The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett

I read this book against the back drop of the #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations gathering momentum across the globe. It is hard to imagine a more momentous time to have engaged with this particular novel, but I am quite convinced that whenever I had met The Vanishing Half , it’s impact would be have been the same.

It was an absolute pleasure to read and review.

12. Leonard and Hungry Paul – Rónán Hession

Ok, I know I am really late to the party with this one but I honestly believe that this is one book everyone needs to read.

In a time of darkness Leonard and Hungry Paul is a ray of hope and light.

13. The Miseducation of Evie Epworth – Matson Taylor

It’s fair to say that 2020 has sometimes fallen short on laughs! But this book helped to raise mirth and spirits alike.

It is the story of 16 year old Evie, a Yorkshire lass, living on a farm with her Dad Arthur. It’s 1962 and having lost her mother as a baby Evie is close to her Dad, so her world is rocked when the indomitable Christine appears on the scene. With her entirely pink wardrobe, over bearing mother Vera and grand plans for the family – none of which actually involve farming or Evie – Christine is a force to be reckoned with and it seems she has Arthur under her spell.

What happens next is a glorious riot of a story!

14. The Pull of the Stars – Emma Donoghue

Considering I have been living through a pandemic you might have thought I would avoid books that reflected that world back to me.

However The Pull of the Stars, set in Ireland in 1918 flu pandemic made me realise just how lucky we are today. Here was a civilisation, still coping with the ravages of war, poor sanitation, economic hardship and limited communication, dealing with challenges we could only imagine.

This book was profound, moving and in many ways hopeful.

15. Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart

This book needs no introduction from me. A Booker Prize winner that I will forever feel privileged to have read in proof form; this book went to the core of my soul.

So beautifully written, full of heartbreak and joy; light and shade in equal measure. Shuggie Bain is a present and future classic.

16. The Sound Mirror – Heidi James

Back to Bluemoose Books (there is a delightful pattern developing here!!) and this time to the raw and rather special The Sound Mirror by Heidi James.

If I can write just one paragraph with the skill, beauty and sharpness of Heidi James I will die a happy woman. This is the story of women, of families and the mark they make, for good or ill, on the lives they touch.

This one is unsurpassed.

17. Supporting Cast – Kit De Waal

Short stories continue to delight me, and these are up there with the best of them. They are made all the more delightful by linking to Kit’s previous novels.

Touching, tender and immersed in compassion, these stories were like revisiting old friends and peeking into their hearts and souls.

18. Small Pleasures – Clare Chambers

I read this book back in the summer and I still haven’t been able to get it out of my head since. This is an unusual and atmospheric tale and one which perfectly radiates and reflects the period in which it is set.

My review is here and I know this is one I will be rereading in the not too distant future.

19. The Harpy – Megan Hunter

There was no other book quite like this one in my reading pile this year!

A tale of betrayal, deceit and the ultimate revenge, this novel is heavy with mythological reference and symbolism. The Harpy is once read and never forgotten.

20. A Ghost in the Throat – Doireann Ni Ghriofa

This book was an unexpected find and joy this year. A book that introduced my to the idea of ‘Women’s Texts’ and spoke to me in a myriad of ways.

This book is a celebration of women’s lives through the ages, of women telling their own and each other’s stories, of celebrating the extraordinary and the domestic with equal gravity and relish. My review is here.

21. The Night of the Flood – Zoe Somerville

I always get excited when I am introduced to a new author, especially when that author is right at the beginning of their publishing journey. Because it means there are more exciting things to come.

This was most definitely the case with The Night of the Flood. Set against the backdrop of the 1953 Norfolk flood, this story is exciting, tender and robustly told.

22. Dear Reader: The Comfort and Joy of Books – Cathy Rentzenbrink

If there has been one more thing comforting than books and reading this year, it has been sharing that love with other people. Be that through the giving and receiving of books, blogging, zoom book clubs or through wonderful books like Dear Reader that focus on what it is that books mean to the author.

This one was such a treat; a beacon in a very dark time. My review, I hope, will explain why this is a not be missed book.

23. Should we fall behind – Sharon Duggal

This year has been an opportunity to embrace and celebrate the power of community. To remind ourselves once more of the individual stories and experiences that come together as a whole to make us what we are.

And this book is a true reflection of that philosophy. Another Bluemoose offering, Should We Fall Behind is the story of what happens when we look beyond the surface and start to let others in. It was a glorious book to lose myself in this autumn.

24. When I Come Home again – Caroline Scott

Literature set around the First World War has it’s own special place in my heart. There is something so individual about this period, about the challenges, the loss and in a strange way, the gains, that I will always seek out these stories.

When I Come Home Again is a perfect example of this canon of literature and it was my absolute pleasure to read and review as part of the blog tour.

25. The Thief on the Winged Horse – Kate Mascarenhas

Set in the modern day but in a world more magical than our own, this story of family tradition, magic and rivalry captures both my heart and my imagination.

It’s attention to detail was exquisite, and it’s strong female characters, intent on reclaiming a stolen birthright, was just the boost I needed. This book is powerful and just a little bit special. And it was a privilege for my review to be catching a ride on the blog tour.

So there, are my top 25! So many fabulous books read and shared this year. And so many people to thank. Huge thanks to everyone who has sent me books to read, review and generally worship; it is a privilege I will never take for granted.

Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read the blog this year and connect with me on Social Media. It’s always a pleasure but this year it has literally been a lifeline.

Here’s to 2021 – whatever it brings, let’s remember there are always books!!

Rachel x

Book Review: The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn

I love historical novels. There is something comforting about being able to escape completely to a time far away, so finding a great immersive historical read always is always a huge pleasure for me. And The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn more than fits the bill.

The buzz around this January 2021 release has been building for a while and heartfelt thanks go to Jess Barratt for my gifted copy.

This is the story of Nat Davy. Growing up in Oakham, Nat has just one wish; to grow. To grow and be like the other boys in the village. To grow and be accepted by his father. To grow and start living the life he believes is waiting for him.

But destiny has other plans for Nat Davy. When it is clear that he has stopped growing, his father sells Nat, quite literally to the highest bidder. It is just a shilling that keeps Nat out of the travelling freak show and sees him dressed in finery and presented as a gift to the Queen of England.

In a giant pie no less!

Finding himself at court, Nat strikes up a relationship with the young lonely Queen. Both have been torn away from their families, both labelled as outsiders; Nat for his size, the Queen for her religion. Both have something to prove.

Becoming widely known and accepted as ‘The Queens Dwarf’ makes Nat his share of both friends and enemies, all of whom will help to shape his fortunes. And when after years of luxury but growing unease, the country descends into civil war Nat finds his allegiance to the Crown puts him in danger.

The Smallest Man is a story that will stay with you. On a personal level it was a story that brought to life the period around the English Civil War; a period I knew very little about. But this story in it’s own right was a triumph. From the off it was entertaining and alive. It is a narrative filled with vivid characters, believable and authentic, and all provoking strong reactions.

It is a story that flits across the continent and through time, harbouring fortunes that change quicker than the blink of an eye. This is a story filled with action and pace, but also with a depth that grabs your attention throughout.

It is a story of courage and opportunity, both of which are found in the most unlikely of places. It is a tale of what can be achieved when you challenge expectations. A tale of friendships made in unlikely places and how kindness well placed will be repaid in kind

And it is the story of what happens when you learn to love your own being and accept that different doesn’t equate to inferior.

Quite simply I loved this book. January 2021 is in for a treat!!

Rachel x

The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn is published by Simon and Schuster on 7th January 2021

#BlogTour Review: When I Come Home Again by Caroline Scott

Last year I read a beautiful, thought provoking book called The Photographer of the Lost by Caroline Scott. Set in the period of and immediately after the First World War it was one of those books that stayed with me. It took me to places I hadn’t been and gave me knowledge and perspective I didn’t expect. So when Anne Cater invited me on to the blog tour for Caroline’s latest book When I Come Home Again I jumped at the chance.

In her second novel Caroline returns to the First World War. We begin in the final week of the war, when a soldier is arrested in Durham Cathedral. Scared, confused and totally alone, ‘Adam’ as he is named, has no memory of who he is or where he has been.

He is released to the care of James Haworth and his superior Dr Alan Shepherd, both specialists in treating men traumatised by war. Adam is taken to Fellside House in the heart of the Lake District where his therapy begins. Over the course of years there seems to be little progress. Adam shows an innate empathy for nature and skill for tending the overgrown gardens, as well as a talent for drawing but he is unable or unwilling to open the locked box of his past.

When, two years after the war, an article about Adam runs in the national press, three women come forward to claim him as their own. Celia is a mother, stuck in time, still believing that Robert her son will come home. Anna has been running the farm single handedly since her husband Mark left abruptly for war. Lucy is struggling under the weight of raising her brother’s children after he failed to return from the front.

Each women has a credible case, each women is convinced that Adam belongs in their lives. But Adam is unable to wholly connect with anyone. The only tangible clue to his past is the face of a women he draws over and over again, a woman he claims has revisited him in the woods that surround Fellside House.

The effects of war are beautifully and painfully presented here not only in the character of Adam and the other men who are treated at Fellside. Beyond just these collection of men Scott has created a cast of characters that are all touched, even years on, by the four years of fighting and absence. Each of the women who come forward to claim Adam have a story to tell; a story of loss, of struggle and of learning to cope in a world that will never be the same again.

Effects of the war radiate through and permeate each character and each strand of this beautifully woven story. James might be striving to fix the men in his care but he too has been left broken by the horrors of war. Haunted by his experiences in France and visions of the death of his brother- in- law, Nathaniel, James is slowly unravelling. His night terrors and daytime drinking are pushing his wife Caitlin further and further away. He is trapped in his memories as much as Adam is trapped by his inability to remember.

This novel is a sensitively and beautifully crafted tribute to those who survived. It examines in detail, through individual stories, the aftermath of war, the changes that it wrought on society, both on a national and individual level and acknowledges that loss, grief and death did not end on the final day of the war. This is a story of afterwards. Told without sentimentality but with swathes of empathy and realism, these characters tell their own tales of trying to move forward in a time when every has changes beyond recognition.

When I come home again is a portrait of memory. Of how each of us remember in different ways, how each of us construct and hold those memories close to help us cope with events and the world around us. This novel also asks the question of what happens when memories fail us. Not just by refusing to unlock their secrets, but also by distorting and dominating our present. Each character in this book is held in time by the past, one way or another.

This November, over 100 years since the end of The Great War, I heartily recommend you take some time to read this novel and consider the legacy of the war. I guarantee that this story will hold you still and will linger long. And that is just as it should be.

Rachel x

And there is more…

For more reactions and reviews, check out the rest of the blog tour, listed below…

October Wrap Up – Escaping from the world…

It’s been a strange old October. The world shows no sign of getting any calmer and in general things feel trickier than at any point in the year. My reading, the book community and the friends I have within it seem like a focal and high point in my life at the moment. And I continue to be grateful for that.

In terms of blogging this month there has been the inevitable slowing of posts. I am working on roughly a post a week at the moment; the Autumn return to school necessitates a slow down! But the blog is still alive and kicking!! Just a wee bit slower!

I have been involved in some fantastic bookish events this month. High on this list was the Blog Tour for A More Perfect Union by Tammye Huf. This is a beautiful story of love that transcends barriers but also a study of true freedom and what it costs us.

I was thrilled to be able to take part in the cover reveal for Medusa Retold by Sarah Wallis, published by Fly on the Wall Press next month. I often say I don’t read enough poetry, but this myth interpretation is firmly in my sights.

Talking of November releases please don’t miss the unique and beautifully crafted novel by Catherine Cusset about the genius that is David Hockney! David Hockney – A life is published by Arcadia Books on 12th November.

One of the most beautiful and moving books I have read this year has been published this week by the wonderful BlueMooseBooks. Sharon Duggal’s Should We Fall Behind was a joy from the first sentence to the last; the perfect antidote to the craziness of the world around us. It is out now, and everyone needs a copy in their lives.

As well as new releases this has also been a month of dipping into the TBR pile and getting to those books that have been waiting for too long. I finally got around to polishing off Kate Atkinsons latest Jackson Brodie novel Big Sky, as always a pleasure. I read my first, and definitely not my last (!) Donal Ryan, the haunting All We Shall Know. And I was lost in the beauty that is Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie, the Women’s Prize nominee which deals with one fateful day in a tower block’s history; a day that will change the world forever.

And of course with Hallowe’en upon us October isn’t complete without some haunting reads. Tick off one long delayed visit to The Haunting of Hill House and an often trodden path to Wuthering Heights and spooky reads are accounted for.

I have also spent the last week looking forward. November promises to be a bumper month of reading and new releases. I am lucky enough to be part of four blog tours, all unmissable reads. Look out for the latest release from Caroline Scott. Following on from the wonderful Photographer of the Lost, Caroline returns to WW1 in her latest novel When I come home again. It is looming large in my mind still, and already causing a well deserved Twitter storm after it’s release earlier this week.

Dipping into the magical and the next two blog tour reads are The Thief On The Winged Horse by Kate Mascarenhas – perfect for fans of The Doll Factory and Once upon a river – and The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow. Any story that combines witches and suffragettes gets my vote!!

The final blog tour read ready for next month was the delightful How to belong by Sarah Franklin. Set in the Forest of Dean and populated with a cast of authentic characters this one was an absolute joy. I can’t wait to share my review.

My final book of October was a dip into my pile of 2021 proofs. I am squirrelling away information ready for my Most Anticipated Reads of 2021 blog posts later next month. And my goodness did I start my 2021 reading with a bang! I am still finding the words to describe The Push by Ashley Audrain, but this one is going to be HUGE!!!

So there ends the month of October. I have a few reads on the go which are hanging on in there and will pop in next months round up. Happy reading and stay safe.

Rachel x

September’s gone??! Here’s a quick wrap up!

So autumn is very much upon us and September seems to have disappeared in the blink of an eye. For me September is always about the start of the school year, always busy, but this year unsurprisingly it has presented it’s own unique challenges!!

As such the reading totals are way down on last month and the type of books I have read have varied enormously!!

For example, there have been a number of books which I think of as ‘dip in and out books’, books perfectly suited to grabbing when I have five minutes to indulge myself. Keeping me company throughout the whole month has been the glorious Poems to live your life by collected and illustrated by the wonderful Chris Riddell. It’s been the perfect bedside companion to busy days and early mornings.

Entirely different and accidental poetry and very light relief has been found in The beautiful poetry of Donald Trump by Rob Sears. Each poem is a little gem created by the author from actual Trump quotes. As with anything surrounding the current US President it is hilarious and scary in equal measure.

My final ‘dip in and out’ read has been the excellent The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla. This is a collection of experiences and essays by a multicultural cast of voices, focusing on what being a immigrant in Modern Britain really means. Illuminating, sometimes heartbreaking, this collection is likely to provoke every emotion going but it is an absolute must read.

Immigration seems to have been a bit of a theme in my reading this month. I started the month with the fabulous, if some what challenging Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar, part fiction, part fact this is an honest account of what it is like to grow as a Muslim in the USA.

And in a similar vein the month drew to a reading close with the beautiful The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim. My Instagram review can be found here

In a bid to escape the reality of daily news I have reawakened my habit of listening to an audiobook on the drive to work. I am almost at end of my life long love Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, performed by the talented Joanna Froggat. and l have also listened to this month’s book club pick Rules for Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

I have been involved in two cracking blog tours this month. One was the mammoth but delightful undertaking of Unto This Last by Rebecca Lipkin, a detailed and compelling retelling of the complex loves of John Ruskin.

The second was an absolutely fascinating series of essays focusing on female philosophers too long over looked and unappreciated. The Philosopher Queens by Lisa Whiting and Rebecca Buxton . It’s already on my Christmas Gifting list for this year!

I am sent so many fabulous books to read and review and I am genuinely appreciative and overwhelmed by them all. But I wanted to take this opportunity to say a special thank you to Camilla Elworthy from Picador. This year, thanks to her, I have had the pleasure to read some amazing books, including the incomparable Shakespearean by Robert McCrum; my Instagram review can be found here

But this month Camilla sent me a book that literally saved me. In all kinds of ways this has been a tough month but sinking into the pages of Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrink was like being enveloped in a warm and book lined cloak. I am so grateful for the chance to read and review this book. Camilla, from the bottom of my heart, Thank You!

I have ended the month with two cracking books which have both come highly recommended and neither disappointed. I delighted in the short but deliciously dark Sisters by the super talented Daisy Johnson. And lost myself in the workings of the Royals with The Governess by Wendy Holden.

So there we have it; September’s reading laid bare. On to October…

Rachel x

Better late than never … My August Wrap up!

August is always my Happy Reading month! A combination of so much good stuff coming out at the beginning of September and the fact I am not in school, means I can truly indulge myself, and my reading totals tend to climb. This month I have read 21 books in total. It’s been bliss! Back to school this week and I suspect that September’s totals will struggle to reach double figures! August is definitely the purple patch!

August’s books were really varied. I read both physical and eBooks, and was able to catch up with several books I have been meaning to get to for a while. These included Breaking and Mending by Joanna Cannon, Himself by Jess Kidd, Keeper by Jessica Moor , Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield, Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore . Each one was a book neglected for too long and it’s own unique way a delight.

Another book that I finally got round to reading cover to cover was Hollie McNishs Nobody told me. I am way behind with this one but if you don’t know it is a collection of prose and poetry written during the author’s pregnancy and the first weeks, months and years of her daughter’s life. It is perfection. It sums up the terror, exhaustion, love and exhilaration of that unique time so beautifully. And for this mum about to send her eldest off to the big wide world of University it was a reflective trip down memory lane.

Another book I had been saving for a special, uninterrupted reading time was Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers. Honestly it was one of the best books I have read this year. I wasn’t planning to review it but having been totally immersed in it there was no way I could pass this one by!

Similarly hoarded and enjoyed have been In The Sweep of The Bay by Cath Barton and Alison Weir’s fifth Tudor Queen book; Katheryn Howard: The Tainted Queen.

I love short stories, but I don’t feel I have read enough this year. So I have managed to squeeze a couple in to August. First was the newly released Supporting Cast by Kit de Waal. This book was like meeting up with old friends as we gain further insights into the lives of the characters from Kit’s previous novels. This one is going on the forever shelf and is due a reread.

The second collection of stories, arrived through my love of Pondweed by Lisa Blower. It’s gone dark over Bill’s mother’s provoked every emotion going! Highly recommended!

My one and only audiobook this month has been Hamnet. Having read this one back in April, the beauty of this book kept us company on the long drive through France and drew a whole car full of people under it’s spell. I will never fail to be stunned by this book.

I made one foray onto the Booker Prize list with The Redhead By The Side of the Road by Anne Tyler. Always in a safe pair of hands with Tyler!

And, as always this month I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to read some cracking proof copies. Thanks to everyone who sent and continues to send me books. I will never take this privilege for granted.

Camilla Elworthy at Picador has sent me some absolute beauties this year! I have her to thank for the wonderful reading experiences that were The Harpy by Megan Hunter and The Lamplighter by Jackie Kay

A pretty inspirational proof for me this month was Finish your book by Lizzie Enfield. It has given me the writing kick up the backside I needed and August was a really productive month!! Thank you Emma Dowson for sending this one my way.

Gifted books that have thrilled me in every sense (!) this month have been The Heatwave by Kate Riordan, for which I am delighted to be part of the Blog Tour, and After the silence by Louise O’Neill published on 3rd September. Both kept me enthralled and intrigued! Similar responses were provoked by the stunning debut The Night of the Flood by Zoe Somerville published on 3rd September. Review coming next week…

And last but certainly not least are the two gorgeous reads that were A Ghost in the Throat and Potterism. Both unique and both bringing new writers into my life, something which gives me joy.

So it’s been a mammoth reading month! The feast before the famine I suspect, but that’s the way it rolls! Bring on autumn…

Rachel x

Rose Macaulay – A new discovery.

I love finding ‘new- to- me’ authors. Those gems – and I know there are hundreds of them- that I haven’t discovered. I particularly enjoy finding female authors whose work throughout the 20th Century has slipped out of memory and is now being rediscovered and reprinted.

So when I was sent two works by author Rose Macaulay I was intrigued. I knew nothing about this writer at all. But hearing that she was writing in the early part of the 20th Century my interest was piqued.

On 27th August Handheld Press published Potterism: A Tragi-Farcical Tract, alongside a new collection of Macaulay’s pacifist writings from 1916 to 1945, Non-Combatants and Others: Writings Against War.

Potterism focuses primarily on the years directly after the First World War and the newspaper empire of the Potter family. It highlights a movement entitled by it’s detractors as ‘Potterism’; a view of the world based on suspicion, fear and the creation of fake news. There are, it has to be said comparisons to be drawn with certain sections of today’s press and political agenda.

Percy Potter, aka Lord Northcliffe is the newspaper magnet and head of the Potter Family. His wife Lelia Yorke is a romantic novelist, entirely caught up in fiction and entertaining the spiritualism so popular towards the end of the war. Her eldest daughter Clare is dull but dutiful, unlike her spirited and intelligent twins Jane and Johnny Potter.

The Twins are both Oxford educated, both take delight in aligning themselves against their parent, alongside the anti- Potter faction. Within this movement we are introduced to Arthur Gideon, devotee of fact and Katherine Varick, pragmatist and scientist. The battles lines of fact and fiction are drawn early on and it is the twins, most specifically Jane that play around their fringes.

The novel is structured in a unique way. The first and final sections are narrated by Rose Macaulay herself. She sets out the characters and ties up the loose ends, but within the central sections she hands both narration and perspective over to her characters. And when a tragedy strikes at the heart of the Potter family it threatens to drag everyone into it’s wake.

Here is a murder mystery, but it is so much more. Wrapped up in the actions and words of this cast of characters is a timely and authentic portrait of the time. There is a simplicity to the writing, a wit that is stark, sharp and revealing. The novel is steeped in the feeling of the age. Tackling subjects such as spiritualism, rise of socialism, emerging changes in class structure, antisemitism and much more, here is a biting social commentary on the press; it’s uses and misuses.

Having never read Macaulay’s work before I am thrilled to see I have a whole back catalogue to get through. First up, and already started (!), is Dangerous Ages published by British Library Publishing, another lovely gifted copy.

I can’t wait to report in!

Rachel x

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