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

Publication Day Review: A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth – Daniel Mason

I am intrigued by short stories. I make no secret of my admiration for writers who can weave a spell in this particular way. I am always on the look out for well put together collections that show off the skills and diversity of an author. This collection, A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth by Daniel Mason, published by Mantle is a stunning example of it’s genre. Heartfelt thanks go to Camilla Elworthy for my gifted copy.

Right from the beginning this books feels like a journey. It has the quality of a genuine collection, in the truest sense of the word. Opening it’s pages is like stepping into the beautifully curated museum of curios. Each chapter is flanked by a beautiful engraving and stories are presented with craft, care and love. Like exotic winged specimens within a case they will provoke so many emotions, but I guarantee you will be marvelling at the beauty that they possess.

From the first story; of the bare knuckle fighter, clawing his way through the ranks one bloody fight at a time; to the desperate and driven mother looking for the answers to her sudden’s debilitating illness, there is a sense of awe and wonder. A pervading sense of a world filled with secrets, a world of treasures and happenings still undiscovered, unexplained and unexplored.

Like a A Victorian specimen collector the reader is invited to travel through time and over distance. Each story holds its own miracle, it’s own way of questioning the world as we know it and it’s own way of imparting new knowledge and perspective. The human spirit of adventure and it’s thirst of knowledge drives us through the collection, pausing to appreciate the known and to push the boundaries of the unknown, one delightful story at a time.

Stories such as the tale of Alfred Russel Wallace and his communications to Darwin, Psammeticus I and the beginnings of psychological experimentation, all highlight humankind’s ongoing and instinctive search for truth. And crucially while as a species we explore the truth created around us, we all instinctively need to make our own to make a mark upon the earth.

This collection is a jewel. It has certainly made it’s mark on me. Time to get exploring.

Rachel x

Book Review: She Clown and Other Stories by Hannah Vincent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel x

P.S You can buy She Clown by clicking here

Book Review : To The Volcano and Other Stories by – Elleke Boehmer

I finished last year with an unexpected short story collection review and looks like I am starting 2020 the same way.

Here is the point in the blog where I have to hold my hands high in apology to the good people at Myriad Editions.

Because last summer I remember requesting a copy of To The Volcano by Elleke Boehmer and then life got in the way. It has sat on the book trolley, shamefully neglected…until yesterday …

Yesterday I opened it up, read a page… which turned into a whole story…which turned into another story…and…

You get the idea! Long story short, I finished it in a day! So now is the time to review.

When I read a collection of short stories I tend to look for a theme, something that binds the whole together, without losing the individuality of each tale. It’s a tall order I know, but To The Volcano did not disappoint.

There isn’t one over riding theme but many that run through the collection. Firstly, this is a selection with a international and cosmopolitan feel. Settings range from a University town in England, to South African, to Argentina, to Paris. And beyond. In addition characters are constantly travelling, on the move looking for answers, trying to fulfil dreams and escape.

And yet for all the feelings of excitement and discovery there are equal and, sometimes, overwhelming feelings of fear, displacement, unease and straightforward homesickness.

Take for example Luanda, the accomplished ‘African’ student who featured in The child in the photograph. When we meet her she has fulfilled her dream of attending a world renowned western university only to realise that the key to her happiness and fulfilment lies back where she first began.

Similarly Lise ( South, North) has travelled half way around the world only to discover the Paris she fell in love through the pages of Zola and Balzac isn’t the reality of modern day.

There is an underlying and ongoing commentary here about the fact that all destinations come with preconceived ideas and expectations. In the title story, To The Volcano, a group of university employees and students go on a field trip to an elusive and extinct volcano. Each visitor has very different experience of the same place, leaving us questioning is the destination itself really shape shifting or is it merely a mirror for the emotions of its visitors?

For this collection isn’t just about geographical travel, it is very much concerned with our journey through life, how we interact with others and how those relationships change through our daily experiences and expectations.

It is a collection about fine lines, and how they shift constantly throughout our lives. It is about the appropriateness of relationships, love/ hate (Powerlifting), concern/ control, swimming/ drowning (Synthetic Orange), youth/ age (The Biographer and The Wife).

It delivers thoughts on how we create relationships and what we take away from them. Boehmer continually poses that age old question; Do we take and give in equal measure?

There are 12 intelligent and individual stories to discover in this collection. Unsurprisingly I have my favourites, which I am loathe to disclose, because I feel the take home message from To the volcano and other stories is that life is an individual journey and your favourites are pretty much guaranteed not to be mine.

Signing off with a huge thank you to Myriad Editions and Elleke Boehmer for gifting me this copy for review.

Rachel x

To The Volcano and other stories can be purchased by clicking here