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

It’s Women’s Prize Short List week!!

Just that really! On Tuesday of this week the Short List for the 25th Women’s Prize for fiction will be announced.

The Long List this year is :

  • Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara
  • Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
  • Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
  • Dominicana by Angie Cruz
  • Actress by Anne Enright
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
  • Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie
  • A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
  • How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Led
  • The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo
  • The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
  • Girl by Edna O’ Brien
  • Hamnet by Maggie O’ Farrell
  • Weather by Jenny Offill
  • The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
  • Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

Every year I set a completely unrealistic goal of reading each book before the Short List is announced and every year I fail spectacularly. I always forget how many other brilliant books I want to read that aren’t on the list!

This year out of 16 books I have managed 6. In fairness one was 900 pages long, so could actually count as 3 books! And I have 6 more waiting on my shelves.

But I can’t let Women’s Prize Short List week go by without marking it in some way, so I bring you my thoughts on those I have read.

Red at the Bone – Jacqueline Woodson

I thought this was an incredible book. It was short and I read it quickly. Probably too quickly. I am convinced that it is one of books that you need to reread to pick up all the inferences and cleverness you missed first time around.

It is an inter generational novel, set in NYC, chronically the changing fortunes of one black family. It had a time frame that reaches as far back as 1920’s, detailing the Tulsa Massacre and encompasses the 9/11 tragedy.

For a book with relatively few pages it paints a detailed picture of a family beautifully and effectively. I love a long book, but I also really appreciate a book that uses words sparingly and makes every paragraph count. This is one of those rare books.

Queenie – Candice Carty-Williams

This one was a Christmas gift. I had heard lots of good things and was intrigued.

Set in London this is the story of Queenie, a young black woman whose life is spinning out of control. There is so much humour, love and life in this book.

And there is also darkness and pain.

It is a book that creeps up on you. At the beginning it seems light, easy to read, unassuming, but as the story develops it becomes clear that this a skilled exploration of mental struggles and the journey back to health. It is about how our past shapes us, can scar us but how sometimes the support we need can be found where we least expect it .

Girl, Woman, Other – Bernardine Evaristo

Twelve black women of Britain, all different ages, all with a different story to tell.

This book is a collection of perspectives and experiences bringing seemingly separate stories together; all cleverly intertwined through the characters within their tales.

When I heard about this volume I wondered if I would find it disjointed and disconnected. Nothing was further from the truth.

It is a glorious melting pot of sexuality, gender, politics and family identify. A triumphant representation of Black Women in Britain today.

I adored this book. It is going on the forever shelf.

The Dutch House – Ann Patchett

I might as well come clean now and say I am a huge fan of Ann Patchett. Her novel Commonwealth has stayed with me for a long time, so I had high hopes for this one.

Again, in the interest of transparency I think it is only fair that I admit that I listened to this book. With Tom Hanks narrating it was likely to be a winner, but it was so much more than that.

The story of Maeve and Danny, growing up in The Dutch House in the suburb of Elkins Park, Philadelphia. When their Father remarries, they find themselves increasingly isolated.

It is a story that spans five decades, told in detail, a beautiful portrait of siblings tied together through hope and adversity. In their lives the unique and beautiful house in which they spent their formative years becomes a symbol and a focal point.

This is a story that is told with the attention to detail and the understanding of family dynamics which is Ann Patchett’s own particular strength. It is a joy.

The Mirror and The Light – Hilary Mantel

This needs very little, if any introduction from me. The third book in her epic Trilogy documenting the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, it is quite simply a masterpiece.

At over 900 pages it is a challenging read, but in all the right ways. A host of complex and vivid characters, each vividly painted and woven into the novel seamlessly.

The historical research and accuracy of this novel is quite simply staggering. But for all that attention to detail, nothing of the emotion of the situation is lost. Quite simply this novel broke my heart. Being a Tudor geek I knew in glorious technicolour what Cromwell’s end would be. But Mantel had me believing that we could rewrite the story, she summed in me a hope that was cruelly dashed.

Simply brilliant.

And have producing one volume of this brilliance seems impossible, to have produced three is staggering.

It is hard to believe that this won’t win awards. Possibly it will follow it’s predecessors and claim the Booker, completely the Triple. Will it win the Woman’s Prize ? Who knows, but I will be amazed if it isn’t on the Short List.

Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell

And finally we come to Hamnet.

I am not sure where to start with this book. It may not be the 900 pages of The Mirror and The Light. But it is a little drop of perfection.

I love Maggie O’Farrell’s writing. I find her one of the most skilled and versatile contemporary authors whose work I have read. Hamnet is, I feel, her masterpiece.

The fictional account of Shakespeare’s son’s short life and death and the love of a mother, skilled in healing but unable to protect him. It is also a testament to the love between parent and child and how loss shapes our lives.

The characters of this novel, burst off the page. For example Agnes, his wife, individual, strong and devoted; looking into the future with her curious gift of sight, facing down demons and healing the sick. Agnes is a creation of such skill and empathy that it is hard to see another novel being able to topple this from my read of the year so far.

I am going to put my neck on the line and say I would love this to win the Women’s Prize. And I will throw quite an unseemly tantrum if it isn’t shortlisted!

And what of the rest…?

In addition to the six books I have read I have another six waiting for me on my shelves.

I am particularly excited by Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. The publication of this novel as, due to ‘current circumstances’ been delayed. I am scheduled to be on the blog tour for this one later in the year and have a gifted copy waiting for me. For which, I am as always very grateful.

The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo is another one waiting in the wings. After seeing it described on Twitter as a cross between The Cazalet Chronicles and Little Woman, I knew I had to have it. Seriously hoping it lives up to that label!!

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes has been sitting on the book trolley for a while and I am pretty sure that is where I am heading next. Circe, The Song of Achilles and The Silence of the Girls have all been winners for me in the last couple of years; I quite fancy losing myself in Ancient Greece again for a bit.

And finally, Girl by Edna O’ Brien, Actress by Anne Enright, and How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Led have all been waiting for me while. Plenty to be getting on with as always, and plans might well change when the short list is published !

So, a couple of predictions from me, but I haven’t read nearly enough of these stunners to predict the whole short list. I will be watching and waiting with anticipation, and as always really interested to hear your thoughts.

Rachel x

Book review: Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton.

With the announcement of the winner at the beginning of this month, I thought I was done with my Women’s Prize reviewing. But when I finally pulled Remembered from the tottering pile of bedside books I was only 30 pages in when I realised that there was no way I could ignore a book of this power and importance.

Set in 1910 Philadelphia, this is the story of Spring and her journey from freedom, to slavery and back again. Spring recounts her story to her son Edward, who is lying broken and dying on the coloured’s ward of the local hospital. Accused of deliberately running a streetcar into a shop window, Edward is the focus of an angry white mob gathering outside. Neither Spring or the ghost of her dead sister Tempe believe that Edward is guilty. Her son’s time is short and in his remaining hours Spring focuses on attempting to tell him of his roots and of the people who nurtured and created him. We follow both the living and the dead on a journey to impart the history of Edward’s young life.

Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Fenton

Remembered is a vibrant and tragic portrait of the reality of slavery. Told through vivid voices, here is a story alive with ghosts and the heaviness of dark spirituality. Taken from the streets of Philadelphia by a team of slave traders, where she had been living as a ‘free negro’ our story begins with Ella. Alone, abused and struck mute with terror she finds herself enclosed within a slave community who work together to ensure her survival.

Ella arrives on apparently cursed Walker plantation. Apart from Agnes no baby has been born or survived on Walker land for years. Instead there is a unit of strong women working together to break the bonds of slavery. Here are women taking control of their reproductive health , their sexual encounters, all working to ensure that no more children are born into slavery. Here are women working together with a collective knowledge and history to prevent childbirth , prevent intercourse and shape their shared futures, however dark and extreme these actions maybe. These women’s are making choices, even when these choices don’t appear to be desirable. The ability to choice as a push against slavery, however small it may appear to be.

For as much as this is a mediation on slavery this is also an exploration of motherhood. How far will a mother, or even a collective of mothers go to ensure a child’s right to freedom? These women ask and answer the difficult question, is earthly survival the most important prize or is that superseded by gaining spiritual freedom?

Battle- Felton creates striking portraits of women who are prepared to embrace death rather than slavery. With a belief in an afterlife that is strong and sustaining they are prepared to end the life of a child to ensure it’s heavenly freedom. For women used to playing the long game, waiting and hoping for liberty, death is a beginning not an ending.

Just as motherhood can transcend death, then motherhood cuts through the bonds of blood. Women in this novel mother as a collective. They raise each other’s children, drawing strength from a shared belief. We see women coming together to protect and sustain their families, always looking for a better time. Even if gaining ground might involve the ultimate earthly sacrifice.

This novel is a powerful example of the oral storytelling so strongly affiliated with the story of slavery. Here are a group of slaves, holding their own histories and preserving their own identities. There is brutality, but there is hope and a sense of a community which defines characters own lives and identities. There is a need to passon their personal stories and a completeness in doing so.

This book really impressed me. The richness of it’s language and the sense of dark momentum driving it forwards brought to mind the work of Toni Morrison and had much in common with Marlon James’ brilliant Book of the Night Women. This is an empowering and significant novel.

I am so glad that I wasn’t quite done with the Women’s Prize.

Book review : An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

The completion of this book marked the end of a personal mission; my quest to read all of the shortlisted Women’s Prize novels. I managed to squeeze it in just in the nick of time, before the winner’s announcement on 5th June. Last minute as usual!

To be fair I finished An American Marriage a few days ago. As always I like to let a book settle before I try to review it, take a little bit of time to gather my thoughts before I put words down. I was all set to go and then I watched Simon @savidgereads Women’s Prize Final Thoughts with his lovely mum Louise. As usual it was insightful and entertaining, but it did throw me a curve ball. It brought to my rather limited attention that An American Marriage was a retelling of the myth of Penelope and Odysseus, and it was something I hadn’t connected with at all.

Too be honest it threw me off kilter. I was left wondering whether I needed to reassess my responses in the light of this new knowledge. Should I delay my review, while I did a bit more research?

However I have decided that this review will be what all the others before it have been; my initial and personal response to the novel based on what I saw and the knowledge I brought. I could brush up on The Odyssey but it wouldn’t be an honest representation of what i found when I read this book.

So in short, this review has a distinct lack of Greek myth vibe. I hope it won’t be the poorer for it.

So after a rather long winded justification of my blogging choices, lets move on to the book. An American Marriage is the story of Roy and Celestial, a black, recently married couple living in the USA. Roy is wrongly imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. The novel is the story of their time apart, how they cope and what this ordeal means for their marriage. Add in steady, dependable Andre, mutual friend and long time admirer of Celestial and the scene is set for heartbreak.

The structure of the book is clever. It is largely told in a series of short chapters written in the first person, from the point of view of Roy, Celestial and later Andre. Each person has a voice; a powerful, persuasive voice. Just when you think you know where your sympathies lie in this tangled tale, you hear another side, experience another raft of emotions and your perspective changes again. Here is a skilful portrayal of how this couple are ripped apart by this devastating event, but how their experiences and reactions are understandably completely different.

Roughly a quarter of the book is told in a series of letters, written over the five year period that Roy is in prison. To begin with these letters are beautiful, lyrical love letters, holding on to details, trying to keep a young marriage alive. As well as being an exceptionally clever device to show the passing of five long years, they enable us to appreciate how different each characters experiences of those five years are.

Slowly the letters become a source of conflict, revealing how these circumstances have forced the couple into making desperate decisions, decisions that they come to blame each other for. As tensions rise, other letters appear, from other family members and friends, highlighting gaps that are appearing and the way the world is moving on without Roy.

And it is easy to blame the difficulties of this young marriage on the tragedy that befalls it. It seems, and is indeed alluded to throughout the novel, that Jones is retelling that all too familiar tale of a young black man, wrongly punished for a crime he doesn’t commit. Roy’s life is turned upside down, destroyed, his college education, promising career offer no protection as history repeats itself one more terrible time. And all of this is true and relevant. This is undoubtably a comment on the dangers of being a young black male, suspected and victimised. It is a shattering of the illusion that the cycle of racial discrimination has been broken.

But is this the whole story for this particular marriage? In truth, from the beginning, this feels like a marriage built on fractured ground. Even before they are parted both Roy and Celestial are keeping large secrets, coming to terms with different backgrounds and familial tensions, trying to find a solid foundation for their relationship. Right at the start Andre is a presence in their marriage; paradoxically both the one who brought them together and the ultimate potential threat. Even without all the hurdles in it path, would this marriage have survived ?

Celestial and Roy’s is not the only marriage we see portrayed within the novel. Roy’s parents are devoted, traditional; Big Roy’s refusal to allow any hand but his own to bury his wife reflects his final act of love. It is seeing the solid foundation of her own parents marriage as mirror to her own union that compounds Celestial’s doubt about it’s future.

This book throughly deserves it’s place on the Women’s Prize Short List. It does what great books do well, it effortlessly combines the microcosm of a It’s characters, in this case a marriage in crisis, with the wider portrayal of racial tensions and historical factors. So many times over the past months I have heard surprise that this book won a place alongside Diana Evan’s Ordinary People. It was felt by some that it was short sighted to have two books about marital breakdown on the list, just as people felt that two Greek retellings might have been one too many.

Aside from the fact it looks like we have three Greek myths retellings (!), I feel that Ordinary People and An American Marriage are totally different books. They may have similarities, but there is nothing ordinary or everyday about the situation Celestial, Roy and Andre find themselves in. A comparison with Ordinary People feels to me to be superficial.

So there we are. All six shortlisted books reviewed and considered. We await the verdict with anticipation. Anyone got a hunch? Because I haven’t got a clue which way this one is going!

Book Review: Ordinary People by Diana Evans

Finally finding time to catch up on my Women’s Prize reading, Ordinary People by Diana Evans has been a welcome addition to my Bank Holiday reading.

Without, I hope, sounding too simplistic or glib this is a book where the title really is a perfect reflection of the book’s content. Because this book is in it’s essence just that; a book about Ordinary People. Ordinary people, living ordinary lives, facing ordinary challenges. And it is all the more powerful for it.

This is the story of two couples; Stephanie and Damian, Melissa and Michael. Stephanie and Damian live in the suburbs, have three small children and problems in their marriage. Damian is grieving the recent loss of his father, but more than that he is grieving the loss of the city. Moving out of London was not his choice, it takes him further away from his dreams of writing, of breaking away from his desk job, further away from his roots. Stephanie loves where she lives, is devoted to her children; it’s Damian and his dissatisfaction that is the pebble in her shoe.

Melissa is striving to embrace her new ‘stay- at- home -mother’ status, whilst trying to freelance and maintain her identity. She is resentful of Michael; watching him moving carelessly through the world she can’t help feel that she is the one making all the sacrifices for their young family. For his part Michael is missing the woman he fell in love with, struggling to connect both emotionally and physically.

The prose of this novel is involved and detailed, and the devil is most certainly in the detail. Writing about the ‘ordinary’, the everyday day details that we too often dismiss as unimportant, is not as easy as it seems. Evans manages to convey that these little details, those that we dismiss as insignificant are actually anything but. The ordinary, however much we might long for the extraordinary, is the bedrock of our day to day lives.

As a reader and as a mother this wasn’t always a comfortable read for me. Like staring into a mirror I often saw myself reflected back. I am a mother, a mother who has over the years worked full time, part time or not at all. A mother who has juggled the need for her own identity with the need to raise her children in the best way possible. There have been times when, like Michelle, I have screamed silently, and may be not so silently, feeling lost and alone in this strange new world, so far from my old self that I was worried I had lost my soul forever. I have zigged zagged between trying to be a domestic goddess and a vibrant independent Mum, trying to the answer that age old question; “Can I have it all?”

Here we see central characters that are moving through that fog of parenthood. Negotiating the paradox of overwhelming love but also that intense craving for your own space, just craving yourself, looking forward to the future and back to that person you used to be. Evans presents a skilful examination of what it means to be a couple, the compromises and sacrifices we make to to keep things moving and what happens when that balance shifts and one person is left feeling adrift and untethered. In Stephanie, for example, we someone settled in her role of wife and mother; her frustration lies in Damian’s unwillingness to keep pace with her.

Evans examines how couples fit together and how that unity changes as life happens around it. Can Michelle and Michael weather the tide of parenthood? Or will the reality of children seep, like water into the cracks of their relationship, splitting them further apart.

Framed by two pivotal moments in recent history, Obama’s Election and Michael Jackson’s death, there is no doubt that race and black cultural identify are key themes within the novel. Damian feels he has betrayed his roots leaving inner city London, Michelle is clinging to those not so small details from her childhood, desperate to pass her cultural identity on to her children. For her is important to make eba and stew just like her mother, just as it is important to eat rice with a spoon and a fork. We are back, once again, to the fact that those small factors add up to a larger, more defining whole . The characters within the novel make us question whether can we hold on to our own identify within a relationship? Can we grow together and as individuals, fitting together but also maintaining the essence of ourselves?

And yet, this book is about more than race. It is about place and how place shapes us. Is your identity tied to a place or is it held within you? Damian and Michael are wedded to the city. Damian has left London and is miserable, feeling he has betrayed his roots. Michael is unwillingly to consider moving, even when increasing street crime comes ever nearer to his door. Stephanie has the house she dreams of, but can’t get Damian to engage. Meanwhile Michelle is trapped in a house she grows to hate, so much so it almost takes on a sinister life of it’s own. It is no coincidence that the catalyst for both couples occurs when all are away from London; a new sense of place, new minor details, a new ‘ordinary’ and things are forced to move on.

By weaving together all these elements Evans brings us a stunning novel with the question of identify and all it’s variants at it’s very heart. It brings into the focus how we hold on to what is important to us as an individual, however big or small that may be. It questions whether the choices you have made have lead you to life you are destined to live or the life you have settled for.

Bravo, Diana Evans; you have made the ordinary extraordinary.