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

Book Review – Dear Reader: The Comfort and Joy of Books by Cathy Rentzenbrink

Since all this Covid madness began the one thing I have been missing hugely is hugs. Not being able to throw my arms around a friend or give a colleague a reassuring squeeze is just the hardest thing in the world. So if you, like me are missing your fix, get your hands on Dear Reader: The Comfort and Joy of Books by Cathy Rentzenbrink, because this my friends is a book hug! Huge and heartfelt thanks to Camilla Elworthy at Picador for my gifted copy.

It’s not often these days I sit down to write a blog post with no notes. As I am reading I am usually scribbling away, trying to get my thoughts down. But this review has come from a place of love and instinct; I don’t need any notes to tell you this book spoke immediately to me.

Any book that has embraced and celebrated Rebecca and The Chronicles of Narnia within the first 10 pages is guaranteed to touch a special place within me. These are the books that I return to time and again, that are tied up within my life, woven into the fabric of growing up. So many familiar and favourite books are to be found here. The Cazalet Chronicles, for example provokes an almost identical reaction within me as it does the author; a beautifully constructed time-gone-by saga which gives more of it’s self every time you read it.

And there are books celebrated here that remind me of those I love. I have never read a Catherine Cookson in my life but these novels were the backdrop to my childhood, exchanged every other Sunday by my Mum and my Grandad, each new release eagerly awaited and devoured.

Cathy Rentzenbrink reads compulsively and with passion. I am told I am a quick reader, but I am in awe of her ability to devour three books a day. This book felt like sitting down with a kindred spirit and comparing notes. This isn’t a list of books the author has read; it isn’t a volume of put together reviews; it is a tale of how reading had underpinned, shaped and support a life, through all it’s challenges and joys. And I feel a deep connection with that.

You see reading has helped to build me and it always has the power to put me back together again. For me reading is like breathing. I need to read. In this world of box sets and social media the amount I read each year often seems to provoke constant comment, as if compulsive reading is some kind of disease or affliction. Maybe it is but like the author I am powerless to change now.

Cathy Rentzenbrink has made books her salvation and her career. It is a source of regret to me that no one ever told me and the teenage me never realised, that I could make books the centre of my professional life. Maybe my blog is part of the desire to address this. Or maybe it is way of fulfilling that desire to recommend books to complete strangers in libraries, in book shops and in public transport.

This book felt like coming home to an old friend. My reading list has grown beyond all measure and so has my bookish heart.

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

Book Review : The Harpy by Megan Hunter

Well, where to begin!! If I tell you that I practically devoured this book in less that 24 hours on our first journey south since lockdown, pretty much oblivious to everything and everyone around me then you should get a good idea of it’s impact.

The Harpy by Megan Hunter will literally make your heart stop. I suspected when Camilla Elworthy sent me a proof I had a little treasure in my hands, but I couldn’t have imagined how much I would enjoy this book. Originally due for publication by Picador in June, but like so many books, delayed due to ‘the current situation (!)’, until 3rd September, The Harpy is waiting, coiled to blow everyone’s literary socks off this autumn!

It is the story of Lucy. With a degree in Classics, Lucy is now working from home as a part time copy writer. She is committed to her family; husband Jake, who is an academic at the local university and her two young boys Ted and Paddy. She is secure in her relationship , making her marriage and the boy’s childhood work in a way her own parents failed to do.

And then quite suddenly she receives a phone call. The husband of one of Jake’s colleagues phones to tell her that his wife, Vanessa, and her husband have been having an affair. Her world collapses. In shock and disbelief she confronts Jake. He is contrite and offers a way forward; a way to repair their marriage and even the score.

Lucy will hurt Jake three times. He will not know when or how. This will avenge his wrong doing. This is the first echo of the modern day mythology that reverberates through out this book. Suddenly Lucy’s lifelong interest and learning in Classical Mythology is much more than a detail. Woven together with her past childhood experiences of domestic abuse the scene is set for a tale of revenge and power. A tale where actions speak louder than words and nothing can be undone.

Enter the Harpy. A mythical bird-woman, the embodiment of revenge; powerful but dark, feared. She has been Lucy’s obsession in her childhood and through her youth, sparking her interest in Classical literature , sustaining her through dark times. But in her marriage Lucy had found peace, laid the Harpy to rest. But it the Harpy is just sleeping, waiting coiled to renter Lucy’s consciousness and life. To change things. The Harpy is a lynchpin, an idea, a motif that becomes more vivid, more solid as the novel progresses.

The Harpy on some level represents Lucy’s past; her childhood tainted by domestic violence. Like her obsession with the Harpy these memories are lying dormant. When the marriage she has created with Jake starts to fall down her memories resurface. The effect her past experiences have had on her break through and begin to unsettle Lucy. Through his proposal Jake has introduced domestic violence to their relationship. Suddenly this horror is almost sanctioned, and Lucy and the reader are left in a turmoil. The feeling that emotional betrayal has to be physically avenged is accepted within classical mythology, but within a modern marriage? Is this allowed? Does the desire or the need for revenge cancel out the reality of abuse? Have the past examples of Lucy’s own upbringing instilled within her an almost default mechanism? Will she always return to type in a crisis, following the example of her parents? And what cost revenge; not just to Jake but also to Lucy? How does this overwhelming sense of vengeance change her, emotionally and physically?

The Harpy is a modern day myth. It steeped in the feelings of a dark fairytale, bound up with classical mythology. There is a a recurring motif of natural disaster; physical descriptions of bodies, references to like gods or warriors are scattered through the text. Time and again we return to the tension created by forgiveness verses revenge. It is embodied within the characters of both Lucy and David Holmes, the wronged partner of Vanessa. The sense of myth and the blurring of reality increases as the time moves on, moving towards the climax.

The Harpy is fresh, dark and raw. It has a simplicity but also a complexity which is impossible to define. There is so much to digest and discuss in this book. If you are looking for something unique, which will both challenge and entertain, then this my friends is the book for you!

Rachel x

Book Review: The Lamplighter By Jackie Kay

I have admired Jackie Kay‘s work for a long time. Ever since I found Trumpet tucked away on my Mother-in-Laws shelves one summer. Jackie Kay can weave magic with words, in what every form she chooses. So I was genuinely thrilled when Camilla Elworthy sent me a gifted copy of The Lamplighter.

I have sat for an age trying to start this review. There seems to be no catchy or clever way that feels appropriate to open a discussion of a work such as this. I am left with the slightly uneasy feeling that I using use words as ‘important’ and ‘heartbreaking’ will feel trite and insignificant, and that they are words I have over used in the past. This is a book that has truth at it’s core, and a beauty and darkness I fear I don’t have words to convey.

The Lamplighter is the story of slavery, portrayed in a work that reads as a lyrical, mesmerising poem and has been performed both as radio and stage plays. Taking the stories of 5 slaves; four women and one man, here is presented the story of the slave trade. Through a fragmented and tortured narrative we move from the slave forts in Africa, to the slave ships, to Britain and finally the plantations. Through each stage we follow their story.

With a unique rhythm and song, the stark realities of the slave trade and most importantly it’s legacy are presented. This is a collective chorus of loss, shared experiences and histories, there is a sense of one terrifying, appalling, overwhelming story. And yet it is compiled and defined by individual tales.

The power of the collective chorus does not diminish Aniwaa’s experiences as an 11 year, ripped from her family, alone and frightened in a slave pit. Or Mary’s beatings. Or Black Harriot’s life of selling her body to only half survive. These stories, presented as part of a larger whole are a powerful and dark swelling song.

There is a consistent sense of fragmentation to be found here a nonlinear narrative that is allowed to repeat in a dark cycle. The refrain often repeated; ‘I remember, I forget’ gets to the heart of the message. This is the story of not just the past, but how slavery has and continues to affect society today.

Here is the legacy of slavery. From the smell of the slave ships, two days out of dock, to the wealth this trade created, Jackie Kay places this legacy firmly on British soil. Heralded by list of transactions and place names, descriptions of slave markets in Bristol, Liverpool or Glasgow; there is no escaping the fact that this is a British legacy. It is part of the fabric on which our society is built. The wealth it created are the shoulders on which our civilisation, ( and you will question that word, I guarantee) has risen . We could pull down a hundred statues and we won’t change that history. That we can’t alter this legacy is indisputable, but we must acknowledge it, own it and learn from it.

Is this an easy read? Or course it’s not. Is it essential? Absolutely.

Jackie Kay, thank you.

Rachel x

The Lamplighter by Jackie Kay is available now, published by Picador

Book Review: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

I woke up this morning and Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart was on The Booker Prize long list. And my heart leapt. Because hands down this has been one of the most accomplished, raw and heart breaking novels I have read in a very long time. And I have read some great books this year.

Published by Picador and due for release on 6th August, I am indebted to Camilla Elworthy for my copy.

I have been hoarding this one away for a while now, waiting for a space in time when I could immerse myself in it. And immerse myself I did.

This debut novel is set in working class Glasgow. It spans the early 80’s, through to the early 90’s and encompasses a period of huge social decline. Thatcher is in power, heavy industry is closing. The Clyde’s ship yards are in free fall, as are the mines on the edge of the city. Mass unemployment, social deprivation and poverty is the backdrop to this story.

For this is the story of a boy, Hugh ‘Shuggie’ Bain and his adored mother Agnes. Proud and striking, Agnes adores her boy in return. But he is in a continual fight for her attention, first and periodically with the men of her life, his own father Shug included. But continually and crucially with alcohol. For Agnes is an alcoholic. A proud, feisty alcoholic, with standards of cleanliness and a show for the neighbours. An alcoholic who believes that a better future is always just around the corner. But an alcoholic just the same.

When Agnes follows her husband to a mining town on the edges of the city, chasing the promises of a better life Shuggie’s world turns upside down. The estate they find themselves on is broken and in free fall. His father disappears, leaving the family with nothing but a crowd of suspicious neighbours and a weekly benefits cheque.

It is here that Agnes’ drinking begins in earnest and slowly as his older siblings distance themselves from the inevitable, it is Shuggie who is left to pick up the pieces. Shuggie who is no more than a child and a child who is struggling to fit in to his surroundings, who is living on the very limits of his endurance, whilst grappling with his own emerging sexuality.

Shuggie Bain is written from the heart. This is, I am aware, an over used phrase. But sometimes you read something that you know comes from the core of someone’s being. That is written with such accuracy and authenticity that no amount of research could replicate, no matter how hard it tried.

The sense of time and place that encompasses this novel draws you in and pins you there. There are times in this story when you will want to look away, when the unfolding events make for more than uncomfortable reading and your heart will break again. But the narrative won’t let you look away, if you are with Shuggie at the beginning I can guarantee you will be with him at the end.

The characters in this novel are real. They command the story, they drew you back in and their experiences explode across the page, pulling your sympathies this way and that. You will scream at them, cry with and laugh out loud. And surprisingly, it will be very hard to judge. For even on her darkest days, even at her lowest ebb Agnes will command your sympathies. This is the skill of Stuart’s writing. He presents Agnes as a whole. She is more that her illness, more that the can of Special Brew waiting under the sink. She,and all those around her, live and breathe in these pages. Alongside the tragedy, the deprivation and the waste, there is humour, solidarity, fight and so much love.

This is a story about what people, and particularly women, will do to survive. Nothing in this novel is linear. It is about life, love and everything in between. It is about the way life can soar and then can crash, how things can flip in a heart beat but how life can slowly creep up when you are not looking and change the world for good or ill. You will find no stereotypes here, just people, with all their joys and faults. And just like the people of this novel your heart will break and your heart will soar. Through the vulnerability of a child you will see this story laid bare, both hope and hopelessness.

Sometimes a book comes along that all politicians, civil servants and social policy makers should read. When anyone of these people is becoming jaded and seeing only numbers and caseloads , making sweeping statements and generalisations someone needs to march along and shove a copy of Shuggie Bain right under their noses.

This one is a belter. And it’s my Booker Prize winner right there.

Rachel x

Book Review: The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

On 23rd June Picador published the latest novel from Emma Donoghue, celebrated author of The Wonder and Room. I was lucky enough to get my hands on a proof, a massive thank you goes to Alice May Dewing, and The Pull of the Stars has leapt on to my books of the year list.

The novel is set in Dublin in 1918. It is November and the armistice is actually only days away. But after 4 years of fighting, political unrest and now a crippling Flu pandemic, hope seems out of reach. The novel’s title is in fact taken from the Medieval Italian translation of influenza; influenza delle stelle- ‘the influence of the stars’.

Nurse Julia Power is working long and impossible days on a maternity ward, where expectant mothers who are suffering from the Flu are quarantined. The hospital is understaffed, running low on supplies and Dublin is descending into chaos. Julia travels across town each day, leaving her brother Tim alone, a brother rendered mute by his experiences in the War.

The novel takes place over the course of three days, and centres on Julia and two other key women characters. Doctor Kathleen Lynn is compassionate, controlled and a political revolutionary, hiding from the police under the cover of the hospital. Bridie Sweeney is a volunteer, raised by nuns in a local orphanage. Bridie is quick to learn, intelligent but has lived a life of unspeakable hardship and deprivation.

The three women are thrown together in the most extreme of circumstances. The pandemic is unchecked, the disease is not behaving in the way other influenzas have and medical professionals are learning on the job. The advice to the public is changing daily but the obvious and harsh reality is that the poor of Dublin can not afford to suspend their lives, and the disease continues to thrive. Death is everywhere and often sudden.

Under such circumstances the usual hierarchies and routines of the hospital are hard to maintain. The three central women characters are learning from each other, in all of kinds ways. It is fair to say that the three days depicted here change all the women in ways they would never have imagined.

Here are three women of different social standing, working seemlessly together. Bridie is the conduit through which the reader begins to understand the realities of maternity care and childbirth during this period. She also teaches the assured but socially naïve Julia about the realities of poverty in Dublin at the time.

It is through Bridie that Julia, and indeed the reader, begin to understand the foundations that underpin the poverty of the time. Foundations that often begin and end with the Catholic Church. Bridie’s experiences lay bare the cruelty of the Irish Homes run by the Church, where children weren’t told birth dates or their given names. Where families were separated and their relationships erased and denied. Where twisted morality was used as a pretence to divide families and where unmarried women where made to work off their stays in the homes for years, the time dependent on how many children they had out of wedlock, no mitigating circumstances considered .

All of this knowledge, translated by Bridie to Julia through the circumstances of the women that they care for, is powerful and shocking. It is the connections and bonds that forms between these two women that push their relationship forward into new and unfamiliar territory.

Following the theme of social awareness and learning, Dr Lynn, a revolutionary and member of the Irish Citizen Army, offers Julia a unique inside the Dublin’s political struggle, taking her beyond the propaganda of the nationalist press and offering her an alternative perspective.
Each women offers the other knowledge, experience and an alternative viewpoint. Even in the darkest of times, these are women empowering each other.

This novel is the best kind of historical fiction, where research and detail are woven beautifully into the narrative. It is a book which I learnt from continually, but at no point did the flow of the characters story feel compromised or interrupted.

Of course as this is a novel about a pandemic, all sorts of parrallels can be drawn our current situation. But imagine a pandemic at the end of a war, in a country that is half starved, fighting it’s own internal political and religious struggle, where communities are pitted against each other. Imagine what it would be like to not have the technology allowing loved ones to keep in touch, to not have any government support to enable workers to self isolate and still feed their families. For the poor of Dublin not working equated to certain death for themselves and their families.


But this story is also about another pandemic. The realities of a child bearing at the beginning of the last century in a country that refused to allow any form of family planning. Where large families were the norm and a women’s health came a poor second. Where a potentially viable fetus would be delivered post-mortem regardless of what it chances of survival would be and whether anyone would be able to care for it. Of a time before antibiotics, when the period after a delivery was as perilous if not more so than the birth its self.

This is a story that is told with skill and heart. At a time of great challenge, when the world seemed to be falling into despair and disrepair, the interactions and friendship of these three women, over these three days, are the spark of hope which pulled the world along .

This is a must read.

Rachel x

Book Review: Summerwater by Sarah Moss

No one writes like Sarah Moss. When you open a novel by Sarah Moss you are going to fall down a rabbit hole and not come up for air. Her writing is sharp, detailed and quite frankly amazing, so best clear your schedule if you are about to start one of her books.

So when I heard there was a new Sarah Moss, Summerwater , on the horizon I was desperate to read it. Thank you to Camilla Elworthy for the chance. Back in May I devoured it, loved it, sat down to write my review and failed…

Not because Summerwater isn’t a great book, it is. It’s a fabulous book with bells on! I started and stopped my review because I was convinced I couldn’t convey even half of it’s brilliance. So I wrote one line and stalled; chickened out basically.

But now it’s August and this book needs a review. I need to pay some kind of tribute to this clever and complete book, even if it falls short. And I need to pay tribute to an author I have mentioned numerous times on the blog but never reviewed. So I have embarked on my first reread of the year, put my big girl pants on and here goes…

Summerwater is the story of one day. Set in a small holiday park of log cabins, deep in the Scottish hills, on the shores of a Loch. It is midsummer and it is raining. Raining relentlessly, set in, a constant drumming backdrop to the unfolding events of the day. The rain is fraying tempers, stretching the edges of tolerance, already tested by the late night parties of the Eastern European woman saying in one of the lodges.

Each cabin holds a family, each family has their own story, their own reason for being there. Within each lodge we find a microcosm, the story of a family, but also the story of individuals. There are many lives depicted here; it feels like there are seeds of many novels waiting to be written, nestled in the pages, beneath this rainy Scottish sky. But nothing about these snapshots, these glimpses of each life feels superficial or shallow. Nothing feels incomplete. On the contrary it all feels rich, textured, multilayered and tantalising.

Take for example Justine, mother and wife, walking early and slipping out to run, to find her escape from family life whatever it might cost. Or Josh and Millie, engaged and looking forward, but each pulling in slightly different directions. Or David and Mary, retired and veterans of the holiday park. Both ageing, but at different rates, both aware of but ignoring a growing problem in their lives. And the small inappropriately dressed girl, often seen alone at the edge of Loch, daughter of those who party late into the night. All of life it seems is trapped in theses lodges, bored teenagers , struggling mothers, wayward children, babies and misfits.

It is Sarah Moss’ particular skill that crafts beautifully observed, honest and authentic characters. Characters that live lives filled with dark humour and uncomfortable truths. It seems that people’s inner most thoughts are her speciality, particularly the thoughts of women. Her writing is precise, intuitive and relevant, presenting a series of portraits expertly drawn. Everyone’s strengths, flaws and frustrations are laid bare, all building towards the novel’s climax. Each portrait provides a critical layer of tension, a layer of depth and investment. So many times I felt myself move deeper into the story, sure I was reaching a pivotal moment of crisis or intrigue, but then the writing veered away, pulling me in a different direction, on to a climax I didn’t see coming.

Quite simply there is so much in this book. So much to digest and discuss, so many places the story and events could go. Moss is the master at painting complex authentic pictures in a small window. These are snapshots that get to the heart of a character, their thought feelings and preoccupations, some problems momentary and easily resolved, others deeper brewing and more threatening, maybe not yet fully realised.


Authentic is the word I keep returning to time and again. Sarah Moss gets it! Her detail is all so real, tangible and so beautifully observed.At a stroke she encapsulates a sense of time and place. I found myself nodding along as she conveys the nothingness of holidays with small children in the rain. Or that feeling of setting out on a run when your body is screaming and then it all clicks. Or that feeling of quietly lamenting the life before small children, whilst simultaneously being unable to let go of the day to day realities of life and unwind. All of this matters, all of this is real.

And throughout there is an under current, maybe more than an under current linked to Brexit and it impact. Woven neatly into the narrative, without being intrusive is evidence of the changing of attitudes. Lola, a confident bully of a child, tells Violetta, to go home, rehearsing the xenophobia rhetoric she has learnt from her father. Justine laments the choices that will be denied to her children. And the in antisocial behaviour of women in the cabin, much is made of her nationality, as if this will explain away her behaviour, as if this defines her.

I am a huge fan of Sarah Moss. I don’t even try to deny it. I love the way she doesn’t waste a word, the way she uses language to weave a web and trap you, all the while getting to heart of what she has to say. Summerwater is up there with the best of this year’s publications and this review is my own small way of banging it’s drum. If you haven’t read Sarah Moss before, please do. And if you have, Summerwater is another perfect stop off along the way.

Rachel x

Book review: The Confession by Jessie Burton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Confession- Jessie Burton – pg 438

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

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

Rachel x

Review: The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

Before I start , quick question would writing in loud, shouty capitals

“THIS BOOK IS AMAZING, I COMMAND YOU TO BUY IT!”,

 cut it as a book review?

No? Thought not. Well then we have a problem because I am actually a bit – well, very – scared to review this book. I enjoyed it so much that I am worried that I can’t do a good enough job in conveying how beautiful and complex it is. I just don’t know if I can do it justice, I feel I might some how break the spell it wove around me by trying to write about it. 

But,  on the other hand, I can’t ignore it. It is one of the most amazing books that I have read this year. So I can’t be a ‘proper’ book blogger if I don’t write about, so here goes. 

 

 The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal is set in Victorian London. It is 1850 and the Great Exhibition is on the verge of opening. Iris and her twin Rose are working in a Doll Makers shop. Discontented with her lot Iris dreams of being an artist. A chance meeting leads her to the Pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost. She becomes his model, his muse and a developing painter in her own right, changing her life completely. But in escaping her life in the doll shop Iris incurs the disapproval of her parents and her sister. Cut loose from her family ties Iris is drawn further into the artist’s world, becoming Louis lover and caught up in his desires for a a place in the Academy Exhibition. 

Silas Reed is watching Iris. Introduced to her by street urchin Albie, he is convinced that she is the girl he needs to make his life complete. A loner, working as a taxidermist, dreaming of creating his own exhibition, he is waiting to make Iris his own. 

From the beginning of the novel Macneal’s sense of place and time is impeccable and vivid. There is a vibrancy within the writing which speaks to the reader, drawing them into the streets of London. From the outset that tradition and mainstay of Victorian literature is present; the duality of the city. The ever present fact that grime and art, wealth and poverty exist together, and that neither is ever far from the other. Moreover one feeds and enables the other. For example Albie, brings his dead rotting animals to Silas; who in turn stuffs them and sells them on to Louis and his Brotherhood. Nothing in this city is what it seems, appearances are most definitely deceptive.

And once you have picked up on this motif of duality you find it expertly woven everywhere. It’s in the characters of Iris and her twin Rose. One outward looking, seeing beyond her own limitations and reaching for freedom; the other constrained by her physical scars and trapped in the doll shop, resentful of her sisters choices.

Albie, with his poverty but keen emotional intelligence is the nemesis of Silas. Silas, brooding, resentful and increasingly menacing. We seem him develop from a vaguely ridiculous man with harmless delusions of grandeur to a threatening presence. It is Albie, watchful and wise beyond his years who sees the danger.

But what of Louis, where does he fit into this web of duality? Louis and his brotherhood are devoted to capturing life in art, making a true and accurate presentation of what is before them. Like Silas’ taxidermy, their art is striving to preserve an image for posterity. Life in Victorian London is fragile, easily taken away. Be it a stuffed dog, an Academy painting or a doll modelled on a dead child, everyone is in a race to preserve precious life.

Everyone except Silas. Silas has slipped beyond presentation and duplication and into the sinister realms of possession. The possession of life and all that entails. In Silas we see the ultimate duality, just how easily love and affection can fester and tip into the dark realms of obsession and hate. Compare the twisted longing of Silas to the open enabling affection of Louis and we are right back in the arms of duality. Genuis stuff!

Genuis rides again by making the backdrop to this novel the Great Exhibition. Throughout the novel the motif of display is present. Louis and his Brethren dream of the Academy, Silas is looking to create a museum of curios, Iris wants to exhibit her work , the Doll shop and it’s wares; all build a picture of art imitating life but also they force us to question how real they actually are. London itself could be seen as one big exhibition, where nothing is quite as it seems.

For every major character in this novel is an outcast, an anomaly, working on the edges of society. Albie; an urchin, ducking and diving. Silas; social awkward, ridiculed and alone. Rose; disfigured by illness and Iris; born with physical imperfection. Louis and his artistic circle; all working outside the bounds of accepted norms and techniques. It is a cast of misfits. Or curiosities in an exhibition.

This plot is a living museum, where the reader can peek in and see how the characters make the best of the hand they are dealt. Do they turn their differences into strengths, striding forwards like Albie, Louis and Iris to make their mark on the world? Or do they let past misfortunes turn inwards and fester, leaving them bitter, constrained and resentful like Rose and Silas? How do they achieve freedom and how do they use the freedom they gain?

I adored this novel. I loved it’s characters, watching them grow either with confidence and bravado or quiet, creaking menace. I loved the setting, the creeping poverty in juxtaposition with bright lights of London. I loved the plot, infused with humour, pathos and terror. I loved it all.

Thank you Elizabeth Macneal. How long before I am allowed to reread?