Here we are in 2022, leaving behind another year of highs and lows, of things that we could never have foreseen happening, nor would have chosen to happen, and yet 2022 hurtled out of nowhere before I really had chance to take in everything that 2021 threw my way.
Last year, I felt that I did quite well in reading lots of books – many of which I loved, and putting together my end of year #MostSelfishReads2021 proved to be even harder as my reading had been in fits and starts according to who I had at home and when!
Still, as always happens at this time of year, I sit and think about book blogging – largely because I am feeling increasingly like I am not very good at it, and as always that I spend too much time reading and not enough time reviewing. I also hit December and felt overwhelmed with it all – not just reviewing, but setting up Two Fond of Books with Amanda (which I am so extraordinarily proud of) and a series of personal events I could not have foreseen last year knocked me for six, including Covid and becoming a full time carer to my adult son when I least expected it .
I think all the things that were happening to me at home meant that for a time I had to put my reading as my last priority rather than my first, and had to admit that I just couldn’t keep up with everyone else who seemed to be posting and blogging so frequently. Then I did that thing I guess lots of bloggers do, and started to question what the point of it all was – I don’t mean that to sound melodramatic, but when life means you can’t read as much as you think you should, you start to wonder what the point of it is. Then I just lost every creative impulse in my body and simply stared at the screen, attempting to write blogs so I could at least have something to show for my reading.
I couldn’t find the words. I can’t tell you how many draft and deleted posts I have on here, but all I know is that for a woman that could previously produce blogs at the drop of the hat, now I was completely lacking in confidence – they all sounded the same, and I felt I was just regurgitating all my previous posts. So I stopped writing reviews, and instead of picking the next book off my pile to make sure I could read and review it for publication day, I picked up a book that I wanted to read, and I can’t tell you how much better I felt as I finally lost myself in a book again without the slightest inclination to review it.
Why am I telling you all this? I guess it’s because I need somewhere to write down what I am feeling – and to let other people know that if you feel that too, it’s ok to admit it. I forget a lot of the time that I am doing all this for free, and sometimes my worry of letting publicists and publishers down (who by the way are the kindest and most supportive people ever) means that I forget this is and always should be a hobby.
Anyway, I think what I am trying to tell myself and anyone else feeling baffled by the world and not quite sure where their blogging is going, is to maybe know that you are not the only one who feels like it, and theres no shame in admitting you can’t find the words at the moment. The books will always be there, and I love the feeling of finding that book that sparks something in me that means I need to write a review all about it to tell the world. I know it will come back, and in the meantime am just enjoying reading for reading’s sake again – and it feels wonderful!
Here’s to 2022, and whatever and whenever you feel like reading, and know that blogging will always be there for you whenever you are ready to return to it.
At dusk on a November evening in 2020 a woman slips out of her garden gate and turns up the hill. Kate is in the middle of a two-week quarantine period, but she just can’t take it any more – the closeness of the air in her small house, the confinement. And anyway, the moor will be deserted at this time. Nobody need ever know.
But Kate’s neighbour Alice sees her leaving and Matt, Kate’s son, soon realizes she’s missing. And Kate, who planned only a quick solitary walk – a breath of open air – falls and badly injures herself. What began as a furtive walk has turned into a mountain rescue operation . . .
Unbearably suspenseful, witty and wise, The Fell asks probing questions about the place the world has become since March 2020, and the place it was before. This novel is a story about compassion and kindness and what we must do to survive, and it will move you to tears.
What I Say
To write about a family going through a period of self isolation many of us have lived through is an interesting premise. In some ways, we may feel exasperated that we are reading about something that was so all consuming that we don’t need to see it in our literature, but at the same time for me, reading about other families experiences and ways of dealing with it made me feel more connected to others.
In The Fell, Sarah Moss has perfectly articulated what it means to live through such a complicated and unsettling time, whilst also ensuring there is a very human and relatable story at the heart of the novel.
Kate, like so many people is being forced to self isolate after being in contact with someone who has Covid. Having no symptoms herself, she and her son Matt are stuck in their cottage in the Peak District. Matt seemingly loves the prospect of lie ins, massive gaming sessions and a break from everyday life. Kate on the other hand is not coping at all. Right from the start you can see how she feels confined by the rules which means she can only venture as far as the garden.
Tired of cleaning the house, unable to settle on ways to keep herself occupied, she is left alone with her thoughts and she is not coping. For a woman who is used to taking a backpack and walking wherever she likes, whenever she likes, we understand how frustrated and hemmed in she must feel by the law which is imposed on her and how little control she has over her situation.
When she decides to leave the cottage and go for a walk, rationalising that as it is at dusk she won’t see anyone, and her familiarity with her environment means she can be out and back without anyone knowing, I completely understood why she decided to do it.
Their next door neighbour Alice, is widowed and her immediate family live far away. She is shielding due to her immune system being compromised by chemotherapy. Alice has been relying on Kate and Matt to help her get the supplies she needs as well as them giving her some much needed human interaction. Alice’s narrative is an interesting and necessary one, because on the one hand she realises how much she has in terms of financial security and a family at the end of a zoom call, but she misses the basic human interactions. As a daughter whose widowed Dad was in Wales during the lockdown, it was at times hard to read Alice’s words, because I kept thinking of my Dad, and although he is not an emotional man, he too had so little face to face interaction or hugs during that time, I just wanted to get in my car and drive to see him.
This is also why Kate’s actions are understandable. Many people would try and rationalise it by focusing on reasons why in our situation it doesn’t count, and why it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, and that everyone else is doing it, but always at the back of our mind are the same concerns Kate has. She is meant to be self isolating, and being found out means she could be faced with a fine she can’t afford – especially now the café she works in is closed, and she can’t get gigs singing at the pub like she used to.
Then Kate falls and badly injures herself. With no phone she realises that by alerting people, she runs the risk of legal action and losing what little stability she and Matt have. She is completely conflicted, but the thought of Matt is what makes her determined to try and get home in spite of her extensive injuries. It is only when Matt becomes concerned and attempts to talk to Alice in a really touching scene where he is making sure he is following the rules and is always at an appropriate distance, Alice realises what has happened and raises the alarm.
The interwoven narratives of the four main characters are an effective device for Sarah Moss to give us different perspectives on Kate’s actions. Matt doesn’t know where his Mum is, and can’t reach her because she has left her phone behind, Alice sees her leave but doesn’t know what to do and doesn’t want to get her into trouble, and for Rob, part of the Rescue Team who is mobilised to help find her, he has to explain to his self obsessed daughter why he has to find the missing woman and cut short their time together.
The novella is written as almost a stream of consciousness which I have to admit took me a few pages to get into, but once you start, you understand exactly why this is the perfect form. You are party to each character’s thoughts, and see like us the way their minds dart around from topic to topic. We learn about Alice’s happy marriage and Kate’s experience of a violent relationship and a dull marriage, of Matt’s worries about his Mum and Rob’s determination to both try and do his job and keep his daughter happy.
The Fell perfectly captures what it felt like to live through this lockdown. We rationally understood how it was critically important to ensure we we stayed at home, even when it made no sense, but it seems that the enforced isolation also made what we weren’t allowed to do seem even more desirable and necessary. The sense of claustrophobia, families forced to spend all day every day together without respite or a chance to see others only served to exacerbate our need to do the most basic of things we had never considered before. To be able to walk and experience nature, to go to the shops, to see and connect with people outside our bubbles became things we understood we had so often taken for granted. This is why I believe TheFell will resonate so deeply with so many people.
Sarah Moss’ writing works so well because it is not the grand gestures or explosive events she talks about, it is the small things and everyday routines we all understand and connect with. There is also this sense of how nature and the world beyond our doorstep is so incredibly important, and how small and insignificant we can feel when we are lost in it. It is another thing we can’t control, and Sarah’s beautiful and measured prose only adds to the sense of awareness as to how fragile our world is.
The Fell may not be very long, but when I had finished it, I kept thinking about it, especially what Kate had gone through, because I had felt it too. You can feel Kate’s frustration at her situation seeping through the pages, and her rationale for stepping out of her front door is understandable because hand on heart, we all felt it, lived through it and have had to deal with a new and unpredictable world that we have been forced to navigate.
I absolutely loved it.
Thank you so much as always to Camilla Elworthy for my gifted proof copy.
Available from West End Lane Books and All Good Bookshops
What They Say
A fierce and darkly joyful fable about mothering an unusual child from an electric new voice.
Tiny is pregnant. Her husband is delighted. ‘It’s not yours,’ she tells him. ‘This baby will be an owl-baby.’ Tiny’s always been an outsider, and she knows her child will be different.
When Chouette is born, Tiny’s husband and family are devastated by her condition and strange appearance. Doctors tell them to expect the worst. Chouette won’t learn to walk; she never speaks; she lashes out when frightened and causes chaos in public. Tiny’s husband wants to make her better: ‘Don’t you want our daughter to have a normal life?’ But Tiny thinks Chouette is perfect the way she is.
As Tiny and her husband fight over what’s right for their child, Chouette herself is growing. In her fierce self-possession, her untameable will, she teaches Tiny to break free of expectations – no matter what it takes.
Savage, startling, possessed of a biting humour and wild love, Chouette is a dark modern fable about mothering an unusual child. It will grip you in its talons and never let go.
What I Say
When I heard about Chouette, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The premise that a woman is carrying an owl-baby that she has conceived after sleeping with an owl just seems to be so incredibly eccentric that it couldn’t possibly work.
The thing is, it absolutely does. Chouette may be like nothing you have read before, but this is a novel about parenting a child who does not conform to what the world expects, and as a Mum of a child with special needs, it could not have been more pertinent and emotional.
When Tiny discovers that she is pregnant, she is stunned. She doesn’t want a baby, but is insistent that this is an owl-baby, not as she calls the other babies, a dog-baby. Her husband doesn’t understand what she means and is concerned for her mental health. Yet as the pregnancy progresses, Tiny becomes bonded to the owl-baby she is convinced she is carrying, and is determined to love it.
As Chouette grows in Tiny’s womb, she starts to understand the intense ferocity of maternal love, and irrespective of her husband and his family, she is driven by a need to ensure that she keeps her baby safe. Having always felt to be an outsider herself, she doesn’t feel that she fits in with her husband’s family, and Chouette’s behaviour during pregnancy only serves to distance her from her husband who feels unable to connect with his wife. When Chouette is born and taken to the special babycare unit, her husband is away, and her in-laws rush to her side, but Tiny decides to take her daughter home in spite of the medical advice to the contrary. Tiny is literally blinded by love, and knows already that although her daughter is very physically and intellectually different to other babies, she is hers, and only she can understand what Chouette needs.
While up to this point the novel has seemed to have a strange and mythical tone, as you are never really quite sure what is real, what is imagined, and whether Tiny’s insistence as to the identity of Chouette’s father is representative of an altered mental state or is in fact a reality, suddenly one thing becomes very clear.
Chouette is not like other children.
The way in which Tiny and her husband and his family react to her is an interesting and at times startling one. Tiny sees Chouette as a child to be cherished and loved, that her need to be fed differently and her lack of social skills and non-conformity is something to be sympathetic to, while her husband sees her as something to be ‘cured’.
Her husband refuses to rest until Chouette is like all the other children, so he decides to consult as many experts as he can, to undertake whatever therapy they recommend so that his daughter who looks and acts so differently can be moulded to fit in and not stand out in a crowd. While he wants to ‘fix’ Chouette however he can, Tiny can’t understand why the world can’t accept her daughter as she is. This for me is the crux of the novel. Oshetsky has to make this difference so extreme in a way, so the reader can see how polarised Tiny and her husband are.
So often, people who either have no experience of children who are different, or for whom the thought of having a child that does not fit in is overwhelming, will seek to find a way in which they can make that child fit into the world around them.
All too often, and I am absolutely speaking from experience here, your child is regarded as either a problem that needs to be solved, or an issue that they don’t know how to deal with, because they have no clue what to do with them. It is far easier to attempt to fit them into a convenient societal box, or give up when they can’t be fixed as oppose to looking at the child and working out a bespoke plan to try and give that child the best life possible. We have been stared at, avoided, commented on and made to feel unwelcome numerous times. Children like Chouette are not things to be mended or moulded, they are individuals who deserve love and understanding in order that they are able to fulfill their potential.
The reason this novel works so well for me aside from the emotional connection I feel to the subject matter, is the sense that you never really know what is real, what is mystical, what is imagined and what is the truth. Claire Oshetsky has created a world so like our own, but is always slightly removed and the prose and events in this novel seem to have a sense of other worldliness about them. Tiny’s understanding of how important nature and the environment is to Chouette for her well being is balanced by her husband’s insistence on science and theory, and culminates in him making a devastating choice as to how Chouette should be cured. His decision sets off a chain of events that no one could have foreseen, and Tiny is forced to make some life changing decisions.
The prose is all encompassing and filled with a real sense of the power of nature and its inablity to be contained. Tiny and Chouette are always right at the heart of the novel, and the way in which they are portrayed serve only to make the reader want them to live the life they want. Tiny’s husband, and indeed all the other characters aside from Tiny and Chouette are portrayed as almost annoyances, in that their self serving interference only makes the reader want Chouette to find her own way even more deeply.
If you are looking for a straightforward narrative novel, then Chouette is probably not your kind of book. If however, you want to read a story that blurs and pushes the boundary of the everyday and the magical, and also exquisitely details the frustrations, heartache and joy of having a child that is different to others, then Chouette should absolutely be on your reading pile.
I absolutely loved it.
Thank you so much to Celeste at Virago for my gifted finished copy.
You can buy your copy of Chouette at West End Lane Books here.
Alice, a novelist, meets Felix, who works in a warehouse, and asks him if he’d like to travel to Rome with her. In Dublin, her best friend Eileen is getting over a break-up and slips back into flirting with Simon, a man she has known since childhood.
Alice, Felix, Eileen and Simon are still young – but life is catching up with them. They desire each other, they delude each other, they get together, they break apart. They worry about sex and friendship and the world they live in. Are they standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something? Will they find a way to believe in a beautiful world?
What I Say
Because in my deepest essence I am just an artefact of our culture, just a little bubble winking at the brim of our civilisation. And when it’s gone, I’ll be gone. Not that I think I mind.
I never thought that being in possession of a book would be so difficult. Over the past few weeks, as the publication of Sally Rooney’s latest novel has come closer and closer, social media has become filled with many different opinions both of this novel and the marketing surrounding it.
I was even hesitant to post a picture of my copy because there seems to be such a complicated and intricate discourse about it, and in doing so am I now making myself part of that too?
I thought long and hard about this post, because my commitment to you in having Years of Reading Selfishly is to be honest about what I am reading. If I love it, I tell you all about it, if I don’t then I choose not to review it.
This is what is at the heart of the discussion for me. I am coming to this novel not as some puppet in a marketing strategy, but purely and simply as a reader, the person who ultimately when all the noise has stopped, picks up a book and reads it. If that novel doesn’t connect with me or it’s not for me, then that’s fine – you can’t love everything you read, and we can’t all like the same books. If however I loved it, and I know lots of you will too, of course I want to tell you about it because I want you to share that experience, for us to be able to talk about books in a positive and intelligent way.
If you want to read what I thought, then this is the post for you.
I read and loved both of Sally’s previous novels. When it comes to Beautiful World, Where Are You?, we again meet a group of people, all of whom have their own flaws and insecurities, and the fact that theyare at a pivotal point in their lives where they have the opportunity to make certain choices.
This novel is about three friends. Alice, Eileen, and Simon, and Felix who has just met Alice. While Alice, Simon and Eileen have know each other for a long time, Alice met Felix on a dating app, and whilst their first date was filled with promise but ended with miscommunication, the second date where they spend time together ends up with Alice asking Felix to travel to Rome with her as she promotes her latest novel.
Alice is a very successful writer, and I feel that she is used as Rooney’s mouthpiece to tell us what it’s really like to be her – to deal with the expectations and pressures of being feted and adored on one hand, and then having everyone just waiting for you to fail on the other. She makes lots of observations about the realities of being a writer who has success, and the unfounded preconceptions people have about you and your writing. Alice also shows us how when you are doing all the book promotion and marketing, that you are doing what is required of you as oppose to being free to do what you really love – which is writing.
Felix works in a warehouse, and although surprised by Alice’s invitation, he is intrigued by her and accepts. They don’t know each other at all, but undoubtedly right from the start there is something between them, and the tension is palpable as they visit Rome, seeing each other at their most vulnerable but also trying to maintain the facade the other expects. Little by little they edge closer together and Felix starts to understand what life is like for Alice and they start to be more open with each other.
Eileen and Alice have been friends for a long time, and after Eileen’s relationship with her boyfriend Aidan ends, she sees her long standing friend Simon in a new light. They realise that they are absolutely attracted to each other, and the familiarity and sense of comfort they find in each other seems natural and a perfect fit. Their relationship is played out in front of us, and appears to be the one they both unquestionably need. I really loved this part of the story, because it seems so utterly obvious to the reader they belong together, and as the narrative progresses, you want them to see it too.
This novel moves between the two love stories and the long emails that Alice and Eileen send each other. In those correspondences, they both ponder their relationships, the world around them and the uncharted political and social landscape they find themselves in. At times I had to sit and reread paragraphs to make sure I fully appreciated what was being said, and that distanced me slightly from the flow of the narrative to be honest, but I felt it was a device that it gave me a deeper understanding of the characters outside of their love interests.
Rooney’s prose is straightforward and I suppose almost matter of fact in its execution, but it also feels real and I like all the intricate and precise details of their everyday lives. Life is not always about the huge gestures and the drama, more often than not it is about the routine and the mundane and the minutiae of sex and relationships. You want to find out what happens to all the characters because there is that sense of connection to them and I didn’t always like how they behaved, but at the same time Rooney makes you feel invested in them, and that’s what I want in a novel. When the four characters finally come together towards the end of the novel, it feels natural and engaging to see how they all interact.
Beautiful World, Where Are You? is a novel about people seeking connections with each other and our existence in a world that is rapidly changing in unexpected and surprising ways. The focus on the mundanity and often the surprises that each day bring, is written in an understated way that made me sit and think about things I recognise in the novel about myself too – like being in an art gallery and rushing to get to the toilets and ignoring all the great works of art to do so! I also think it is absolutely a novel that asks us to see that beyond the written word and acknowledge that behind it all there is a living breathing person who has emotions and feelings, and has to process what is said about her, when people don’t actually know her at all. How difficult must it be to simply sit and write, when the whole world seems to have an opinion about you based on what other people have written.
You may like this novel or you may not, and as a reader of course that is absolutely your prerogative. I will only say that in an ever more tense and emotionally charged world where social media reigns supreme, we are always telling each other to ‘be kind’, and perhaps that’s what we need to remember about everyone involved in the production of a novel, from Rooney herself to those who are working incredibly hard behind the scenes to tell us readers all about it. We need to understand that behind this novel is a person who just wants to write for her readers, and maybe that’s all we should be concerned with.
This reader loved it.
Thank you so much to Josh Smith at Faber Books for my gifted copy.
You can buy your copy from West End Lane Books here.
In Jake, Marisa has found everything she’s ever wanted. Then their new lodger Kate arrives.
Something about Kate isn’t right. Is it the way she looks at Marisa’s boyfriend? Sits too close on the sofa? Constantly asks about the baby they are trying for? Or is it all just in Marisa’s head?
After all, that’s what her Jake keeps telling her. And she trusts him – doesn’t she?
But Marisa knows something is wrong. That the woman sleeping in their house will stop at nothing to get what she wants.
Marisa just doesn’t know why.
How far will she go to find the answer – and how much is she willing to lose?
What I Say
I am going to start this review by telling you this will be a bit of a different post from me.
This is largely due to the fact that to tell you really anything too much about the plot of #Magpie would be to ruin it completely – I’m not even joking!
What I can tell you is that as a fan of Elizabeth Day’s writing, Magpie is a brilliantly observed and incredibly compelling novel about the way in which a woman’s worth is measured by her ability to have children and be a mother. It is also a sensitive and empathic depiction of a woman who has been raped and has spent her adult life searching for a way to love and feel loved again, as well as dealing with her complex and at times overwhelming mental issues.
When Marisa moves in with Jake, it seems like she has finally found the emotional stability she is looking for. A beautiful house from where she can write and illustrate her children’s books, and an attentive and understanding boyfriend is everything she has ever wanted. When the glamorous and confident Kate enters the mix and lives in the house too, Marisa starts to compare herself to Kate, and begins to suspect that Kate and Jake’s relationship is more involved that she wants to admit.
Little by little the housemates are starting to impact on each other’s lives, and the once peaceful and idyllic house rapidly becomes a place of unease and tension. Jake, Marisa and Kate may live under the same roof, but slowly each of them realises that they don’t really know each other as well as they may think. The sanctuary they believed they had is slowly slipping away from them. Kate and Marisa clash more and more, and each becomes convinced that the other is going out of their way to upset them – until it becomes clear that something catastrophic is going to happen.
This is the perfect thing about Magpie, because the revelation is one simple line, and with that, everything you thought you knew about Jake, Kate and Marisa is turned on its head. I guarantee it will stop you in your tracks, and you then find yourself flipping back in the book looking for clues. They are there – you just didn’t know because you were too busy becoming absorbed in Marisa, Kate and Jake’s lives.
Added to the mix is Jake’s mother Annabelle, a woman who is besotted with Jake, initially hesitant about Marisa and less than enamoured with Kate. Annabelle seems to have an opinion on everything and a disdain for those who do not agree with her. Whilst she lavishes Jake with love and attention, she remains emotionally distant from Marisa and dismissive of Kate with a plethora of passive aggressive put downs that ensure they know exactly who is Queen Bee.
Make no mistake, this is a novel that is absolutely about women and how our lives are scrutinised and categorised according to our maternal instincts and ability to bear children. We see the sheer physical and emotional toll that IVF and pregnancy can have on a woman, and that how being pregnant means that somehow your body and well-being becomes public property and up for discussion and comment. Magpie undoubtedly also shows us that a mother’s love for her child, and what she will do to protect them is one of the most powerful and passionate things can ever be experienced.
The absorbing narrative that moves backwards and forwards slowly pulls you towards the characters and lets you make your own conclusions about them as you start to discover more about their lives and experiences. Elizabeth’s measured prose and immersive descriptions of Marisa, Kate and Annabelle, mean that you cannot help but feel some connection to them because you understand them so completely. They are not perfect, but who is? If they were, they would not resonate with us as deeply as they do.
Magpie is one of those books that you desperately want people to read so that you can talk about what happens! It is so cleverly written, and sensitively handles many different issues which helps us as readers to understand others lived experiences and to only deepen our emotional connections to the characters. The Magpie of the title shifts its form throughout the novel, as you learn how it is always present, ready to pounce as soon as vulnerabilities are exposed, poised to take what it thinks is rightfully theirs – but be warned – it’s not always who you expect, which is exactly why this novel is so chillingly perfect and utterly captivating.
I absolutely and completely loved it.
Thank you so much to Liv Marsden at 4th Estate Books for my gifted proof copy.
You can buy your copy of Magpie from West End Lane Books here.
It is summer on Magnolia Road when Juliet moves into her late mother’s house with her husband Liam and their young son, Charlie. Preoccupied by guilt, grief and the juggle of working motherhood, she can’t imagine finding time to get to know the neighbouring families, let alone fitting in with them. But for Liam, a writer, the morning coffees and after-school gatherings soon reveal the secret struggles, fears and rivalries playing out behind closed doors – all of which are going straight into his new novel . . .
Juliet tries to bury her unease and leave Liam to forge these new friendships. But when the rupture of a marriage sends ripples through the group, painful home truths are brought to light. And then, one sun-drenched afternoon at a party, a single moment changes everything.
The fiction debut from Sunday Times bestselling author Cathy Rentzenbrink, Everyone Is Still Alive is funny and moving, intimate and wise; a novel that explores the deeper realities of marriage and parenthood and the way life thwarts our expectations at every turn.
What I Say
Let’s be honest here. As soon as I heard that Cathy Rentzenbrink was writing a novel, I really wanted to read it. I have read all her non-fiction books, and Dear Reader was the book that finally made me feel seen! I was thrilled when Leanne Oliver very kindly sent me a proof copy, but it also came with that real uneasiness that bloggers have – what if I don’t love it?
Dear Reader, I loved it.
Juliet, Liam and their son Charlie have moved into a beautiful and deceptively quiet street in Hammersmith called Magnolia Road. Juliet’s mother has passed away, so they have moved into her former house, which brings up many memories for Juliet as she attempts to settle her family in as well as deal with the very raw grief of losing her Mum.
While Juliet works full time- and attempts to juggle her professional and home life, Liam is a stay at home dad, trying to write a novel. What becomes evident is that Juliet is still doing everything while Liam spends time ingratiating himself with the ‘Magnolia Wives’ the clique of women who spend their days having coffee mornings and constantly trying to one up each other – all he claims, in the name of novel research.
Although on the surface, Sarah (definitely the Queen Bee!), Helen and Lucy seem to be the epitome of everything you would see in an insta perfect post, all the women are dealing with their own issues that they can’t vocalise. To say anything or to be seen as less than perfect, means that they are not the strong. capable women they want the world to see.
Make no mistake, these families are living seemingly charmed lives, but always slightly simmering under the surface is the tension that is ever present when they all get together, and bizarrely keeps them coming back for more. The marriages in the novel all have their flaws, with some falling apart and others holding on by a thread, and the pressure placed on the children to be the best are an unconscious but all too familiar feature of their daily lives.
Cathy Rentzenbrink absolutely understands the intricacies and minutiae of married life. For me, a novel where the characters and dialogue come to the fore as oppose to a story where you are constantly bombarded with event after event makes this a really engaging and absorbing novel. That is why when something happens that no one could have foreseen, it not only stops you in your tracks, but Cathy uses this event to slowly turn the narrative gaze back on the reader. As you keep reading, the scope of the novel changes and you realise that everything you thought about the characters will slowly shift.
There is so much in the pages of Everyone Is Still Alive that I think it is a novel that absolutely needs to be reread to appreciate the layers that are embedded so effortlessly. As well as looking at marriage and relationships, parenting, grief, work and the notion of the way we present ourselves, this novel is testament to how the community we live in can at times infuriate us, but also be the very thing that brings us together when we need it most.
Everyone Is Still Alive resonates so deeply with so many of us, because we see ourselves in it and connect with the characters on the page. The power and force of Cathy’s novel comes not only from the plot and narrative, but also the fact that the little niggles and routine domestic issues so many of us deal with every day are given a stage to be played out in front of us. It also serves to remind us that we are not the only people living the life we do, and that in this insta perfect and filtered world, the majority of us are just doing the best we can as we try to love our families and feel loved and appreciated in return too.
I absolutely loved it.
Thank you so much to Leanne Oliver at Phoenix Books for my gifted proof copy.
You can buy your copy from West End Lane Books here.
Available from West End Lane Books and All Good Bookshops
What They Say
Before anyone else is awake, on a perfect August morning, Elle Bishop heads out for a swim in the glorious freshwater pond below ‘The Paper Palace’ — the gently decaying summer camp in the back woods of Cape Cod where her family has spent every summer for generations. As she passes the house, Elle glances through the screen porch at the uncleared table from the dinner the previous evening; empty wine glasses, candle wax on the tablecloth, echoes of laughter of family and friends. Then she dives beneath the surface of the freezing water to the shocking memory of the sudden passionate encounter she had the night before, up against the wall behind the house, as her husband and mother chatted to the guests inside.
So begins a story that unfolds over twenty-four hours and across fifty years, as decades of family legacies, love, lies, secrets, and one unspeakable incident in her childhood lead Elle to the precipice of a life-changing decision. Over the next twenty-four hours, Elle will have to decide between the world she has made with her much-loved husband, Peter, and the life she imagined would be hers with her childhood love, Jonas, if a tragic event hadn’t forever changed the course of their lives.
Tender yet devastating, The Paper Palace is a masterful novel that brilliantly illuminates the tensions between desire and safety; the legacy of tragedy, and the crimes and misdemeanours of families.
What I Say
Do you ever pick up a book assuming it is going to be one thing when in fact it is something completely different and all the better for it?
I am going to be honest and say when I first read the synopsis for The Paper Palace I really thought it was not my kind of thing. I thought it would be a novel where the well off and distant characters would be worrying about things of little consequence and even lesser relevance. I picked it up because I thought I should, because it had kindly been sent to me. The thing is, once I started reading it, I could not put it down.
The Paper Palace of the name is the place where Elle and Jonas and their families go to every Summer and have done since they met as children. It has undoubtedly seen better days, but it gives them that escape and distance from the realities and stresses of modern life and marriage. After a dinner party, Elle leaves table as does Jonas, and they have sex – bearing in mind Elle’s husband Peter, and Jonas’ wife Gina are sat at the table just out of sight.
The novel then follows the next twenty four hours in Elle and Jonas’ life, as they try to make sense of what they have done. What slowly and delicately unfurls is a whole shared history that Elle and Jonas have. Heller takes us right back to the moment Elle was born, which in turn allows us to see how her parents own experiences and behaviour influenced Elle’s decisions and actions. It seems that all Elle wants is a stable family with her sister Anna and a mother and father, what she actually gets is a chaotic and disruptive childhood, peppered with different father figures until her mother marries a man called Leo. Her mother has endured much through her own life, including being sexually abused by her step father, but this means that she now cannot emotionally connect with her children either.
Leo brings with him two children. Rosemary who tends to stay with her mother, and Conrad. An awkward, resentful and intrinsically desperately unhappy boy who longs for his father to pay him some attention. After initially being an irritating and awful stepbrother to Elle, things become incredibly sinister.
He starts coming into her room at night and watching her while she sleeps. It is important at this point in my review to say that his sustained attention becomes sexual, and culminates in events which are absolutely distressing to read but absolutely crucial and integral to the plot and narrative. What makes it even more horrific is the fact that Elle is unable to tell anyone and carries round her secret, still having to face Conrad every day. Until the moment Jonas works out what has happened to Elle, and their lives are changed forever.
The Paper Palace is a completely immersive novel- you can see the beautiful landscape, feel the coolness of the water and taste the leisurely breakfasts and dinners that the families have. You are part of the languid unstructured summer as the family spill in and out of the house and onto the beach and into the water. If they see other people nearby they feel they are intruding on their sacred peace, and as a reader you absolutely understand why.
Heller draws you in from the very start, and the way in which the lives of Elle and Jonas are revealed to us connects us deeply to them. Their histories and shared experiences are depicted in such a way that you cannot fail to feel a connection to them, and the drastic decision they make is at the heart of the novel, and drives the narrative without ever feeling forced or laboured. The characters work so well because you can see them standing in front of you, and understand how their past lives have shaped their present, but also make you see that their futures are up to them – if they are brave enough to take the chance.
I thought that The Paper Palace was going to be a linear, routine narrative about two people who have to deal with the consequences of a rash mistake. What I didn’t anticipate was that this novel is in fact always Elle and Jonas’ story, that their love for one another would permeate every single page and every decision they made, and that to follow their lives through this book is to know them and want only what they truly deserve. Is it each other? You will have to read it to find out.
I absolutely loved it.
I am also thrilled to announce that I have a copy to gift to one of you on my Twitter account @yearsofreading – please do have a look.
Thank you so much to Hannah Sawyer and Alexia Thomaidis at Viking Books UK for my gifted proof copy.
You can order your copy from West End Lane Books here
Available from West End Lane Books, All Good Bookshops and Online
What They Say
London, September, 1941.
Following the departure of the formidable Editor, Henrietta Bird, from Woman’s Friend magazine, things are looking up for Emmeline Lake as she takes on the challenge of becoming a young wartime advice columnist. Her relationship with boyfriend Charles is blossoming, while Emmy’s best friend Bunty, is still reeling from the very worst of the Blitz, but bravely looking to the future. Together, the friends are determined to Make a Go of It.
When the Ministry of Information calls on Britain’s women’s magazines to help recruit desperately needed female workers to the war effort, Emmy is thrilled to be asked to step up and help. But when she and Bunty meet a young woman who shows them the very real challenges that women war workers face, Emmy must tackle a life-changing dilemma between doing her duty, and standing by her friends.
What I Say
I will tell you all straight away that I utterly loved Dear Mrs Bird, the debut novel from A.J. Pearce. It was funny, wise and perfectly pitched and Emmy Lake, the heroine, was just what I needed at the time. When I heard that A.J. had written another novel with Emmy at the helm, I could not have been more delighted.
Honestly? I loved Yours Cheerfully even more. From the moment I turned the first page, you fall into wartime London and are completely immersed in the sights, sounds and realities of living in a world in a state of chaos whilst everyone in it is trying to Keep Calm and Carry On.
Emmeline Lake is still working at the Woman’s Friend magazine, but now that Mrs Bird has departed, she can breathe a sigh of relief as Mrs Mahoney who now runs the page is far more amenable and they make a formidable team.
With lots of the men away fighting in the War, the government are increasingly reliant on the women who are left behind to step up and help with the war effort. The Ministry Of Information need to recruit as many women as possible to ensure the factories can keep running, and realise that using women’s magazines to reach as many of them as possible is the way forward.
Women’s Friend is asked to be involved, and Emmy is tasked with writing about it. When she and her best friend Bunty meet a young widow called Anne with two children who is about to start working in one of them called Chandlers, Emmy realises she has the contact she needs.
However, when she goes to interview Anne and her workmates, what becomes incredibly evident is that although the government want the women to work, some factory owners have not anticipated what the women need for their welfare to be effective members of the workforce. Emmy is faced with a dilemma. Should she write the recruitment piece the government want, or could this be the perfect opportunity for her to write a crucial piece that really shows what life is like for the women who are giving everything for the war effort.
As well as juggling her demanding professional life, Emmy is totally in love with Charles, and snatching every moment they can be together. Their relationship seems to be what so many people went through in the war, where the future you once believed was certain is no longer so, and the fear that the one you love won’t return makes you realise that seizing the moment is all the more poignant. Emmy and Charles make a decision that changes their lives forever, which shows us how much they truly love each other.
I wish I could articulate how truly wonderful this novel is. It made me laugh out loud, cry, and google obsessively about the women who were part of the war effort. Make no mistake, you might think this is a light hearted and breezy take on the Second World War, but Yours Cheerfully is so much more.
The writing is sublime, and captures so insightfully what it meant to be around during the Second World War. The fact that every part of the world was dominated by it, the random and senseless loss of life, the determination and compassion that people felt as they attempted to unite against something that was far bigger than was possible to comprehend, and the grim reality that nobody knew what was going to happen next. This is also a novel that unapologetically puts women front and centre of everything. Emmy, her best friend Bunty and Anne are real and relatable women, because they have all experienced life changing events that shape them and have changed their worlds, and we know that these women are symbolic of our own families and what they would have experienced too.
What A.J. Pearce does so beautifully in this novel is make it less about facts and figures, but absolutely about the people who were dealing with the reality of living through the war. You really understand exactly what the women were going through, and how they were striving to keep home life as stable as possible, be seen to be helping with the war effort as well as worry whether they would see their partners again. They were expected to support the war effort, but tellingly the war effort often did not seem to understand how to support them.
Yours Cheerfully is an absolute joy to read. If you don’t love Emmy Lake by the end of this book, then quite frankly you must have a heart of stone. It is just the novel I needed to read at the moment, to see how instinctively and incredibly strong women were, to appreciate everything people did for my generation and to realise how far we have come for women’s rights yet how much more we have to do.
I only have one question. When is someone in T.V. Land going to realise that A.J. Pearce’s novels would make absolutely perfect television series for those gloomy winter evenings? Please make it happen – and soon!
I completely loved it.
Thank you so much to Camilla Elworthy at Picador for my gifted copy.
Available from West End Lane Bookshop, All Good Bookshops and Online
What They Say
This morning Gigi left her husband and children.
Now she’s watching Real Housewives and drinking wine in a crummy hotel room, trying to work out how she got here.
When the Twin Towers collapsed, Gigi Stanislawski fled her office building and escaped lower Manhattan on the Staten Island Ferry. Among the crying, ash-covered and shoeless passengers, Gigi, unbelievably, found someone she recognised – the guy with pink socks and a British accent – from the coffee shop across from her office. Together she and Harry Harrison make their way to her parents’ house where they watch the television replay the planes crashing for hours, and she waits for the phone call from her younger brother that never comes. And after Harry has shared the worst day of her life, it’s time for him to leave.
Ten years later, Gigi, now a single mother consumed with bills and unfulfilled ambitions, bumps into Harry again and this time they fall deeply in love. When they move to London it feels like a chance for the happy ending she never dared to imagine. But it also highlights the differences in their class and cultures, which was something they laughed about until it wasn’t funny anymore; until the traumatic birth of their baby leaves Gigi raw and desperately missing her best friends and her old life in New York.
As Gigi grieves for her brother and rages at the unspoken pain of motherhood, she realises she must somehow find a way back – not to the woman she was but to the woman she wants to be.
What I Say
Over recent months, the role of mothers in the home has never been out of the spotlight as women have been juggling home life, professional life, home schooling and keeping everything going whilst attempting to process what has been happening in the world around us as we deal with the pandemic.
I read Ilona’s novel a few weeks ago, and can hand on heart say that I have never read a book that more perfectly gets right to the heart of what it means to be a mother. It is funny, heartbreaking, unflinching and true, but it also absolutely articulates what it is like to have a baby when you are a stranger in the country you live in, and you don’t have the in built support system it is assumed by the medical professionals that you must have to function.
If I also tell you that a lot of the action takes place in a single day in a London hotel while our protagonist Gigi is watching The Real Housewives of New Jersey, and you know how much I love the Real Housewives, I don’t think it’s difficult to see why I loved this novel so completely.
Gigi Stanislawski is caught up in the aftermath of 9/11, and it is there as she tries to get home to her parents that she meets Harry, an Englishman who she knows from coffee shop. It is when they eventually stumble to her parents house that she discovers her brother has lost his life. Harry and Gigi part, but fate brings them together ten years later, and they fall completely in love.
After losing her brother Frankie, Gigi discovered that his girlfriend Danielle was pregnant by her new boyfriend, and with no one willing to take the baby, Gigi did and became a single mother. While she works incredibly hard to balance her working life with looking after Johnny and dating Harry, nothing seems to phase her. When she marries Harry and they decide to move to London, and Gigi discovers she is pregnant, it finally seems like Gigi has the perfect life she has always deserved.
The brilliantly constructed dual narrative means we see Gigi holed up in a London hotel very close to where she lives watching Real Housewives. We don’t know why she is there, what has prompted her to run away, but what we do know is that Gigi is not coping with motherhood. This means that Gigi can share with the reader how she came to adopt Johnny, the reality of moving to a new country with a whole set of customs and social niceties that no one has explained, and most importantly how her experiences of being a mother have led to her running away from her husband and children
One of the many things I loved about this novel are the excruciatingly accurate scenes where Gigi has afternoon teas with other local mothers. However much they try and convince themselves and each other that they are completely supportive of every choice each parent makes, the passive aggressive statements and transparently superior side swipes that effortlessly fall from their lips were all too familiar. Gigi feels at a double disadvantage to these women as she has come to the UK from America, but also had a traumatic and difficult birth with her son Rocky. Ilona innately understands the social conventions and moral complexities of these events, and the language and dialogue is completely unforgettable.
As the novel moves through Gigi’s world, little by little the pieces fall into place and we understand what made her pick up her keys and phone and leave. Ilona draws us close to her, and as we see all her worries and internalised pain, Gigi is so real and relatable that you just want to reach her into the book and tell her it will be okay. The narrative moves forward and brings us along with it, and I read every single line because it resonated with me so deeply. You absolutely feel Gigi’s sense of not fitting in, and her bewilderment as to why she is not enjoying motherhood as everyone tells her she should.
When I Ran Away starts so many difficult and necessary conversations about the realities of motherhood and parenting. Ilona unflinchingly shows us the repetitiveness and absolute mundanity of motherhood, but also for me highlighted the incredibly common assumption that you automatically have an inbuilt family support system ready to leap in when you need it. If you do, that’s wonderful, but those who face parenthood without it need to be heard and understood too. If you take one thing away from this incredible novel, it should be that motherhood is not a competition, and that the most powerful thing we can do as women is to acknowledge that. To truly try and be real about motherhood, rather than falling into the trap of filtering and editing our world to give the illusion of being the picture perfect version we have been made to feel we should project is hard, but necessary if we really want to start talking about motherhood.
I absolutely loved it.
Thank you so much to Rachael Duncan at Two Road Books for my gifted proof copy.
You can buy your copy from West End Lane books here.
Available from West End Lane Books, All Good Bookshops and Online
What They Say
Everyone tells Martha Friel she is clever and beautiful, a brilliant writer who has been loved every day of her adult life by one man, her husband Patrick. A gift, her mother once said, not everybody gets.
So why is everything broken? Why is Martha – on the edge of 40 – friendless, practically jobless and so often sad? And why did Patrick decide to leave?
Maybe she is just too sensitive, someone who finds it harder to be alive than most people. Or maybe – as she has long believed – there is something wrong with her. Something that broke when a little bomb went off in her brain, at 17, and left her changed in a way that no doctor or therapist has ever been able to explain.
Forced to return to her childhood home to live with her dysfunctional, bohemian parents (but without the help of her devoted, foul-mouthed sister Ingrid), Martha has one last chance to find out whether a life is ever too broken to fix – or whether, maybe, by starting over, she will get to write a better ending for herself.
What I Say
There are characters you meet when you are reading who instantly take a piece of your heart, and as soon as I met Martha Friel, I knew she was one of them. Flustered, unfocused and just separated from her husband Patrick, she has to move home to live with her parents. This may sound like a novel you have read many times before, but trust me, Sorrow and Bliss is a brilliant, beautiful and unique novel about love and family, motherhood and parenting and mental illness.
From the very start of the novel, it is clear that Martha has mental health issues, and has been dealing with them ever since she was seventeen years old when she was taking her A Levels. Martha ended up coming home and taking refuge under her father’s desk for three days, and from then on, her life has been punctuated by episodes that have impacted on her life and her family who have endlessly tried to help her.
Her father Fergus is a slightly well known poet, her mother Celia a sculptor, and her sister Ingrid is currently a stay at home Mum, married to Hamish whilst attempting to juggle looking after her children and keeping everyone else on the straight and narrow.
Thrown into the mix are Martha’s Aunt Winsome and her Uncle Rowland, who live in a beautiful house in Belgravia, in direct contrast to Fergus and Celia’s chaotic house in Shepherd’s Bush. It is there that every year they attempt to host impossibly perfect Christmases for the whole family. One Christmas, when Martha is 16, their son Oliver, brings his friend Patrick home from Boarding School. The family discover that Patrick’s Dad, enamoured with his latest wife, has neglected to organise a plane ticket for Patrick to fly home to Hong Kong, and from then on Patrick becomes part of the fabric of Martha’s family.
Patrick and Martha weave their way in and out of each other’s lives over the years, and each have been involved with other people, including Martha’s disastrous marriage to the hideous Jonathan. His penchant for white jeans and cocaine and an sneering contempt for her mental issues that the marriage is annulled. It is only when Patrick and Martha come together later on in life do they realise they are meant for each other and finally get married.
Martha is not always kind to those closest to her. She treats her family appallingly when they do not put her at the centre of their world, and Patrick is always there, doggedly attempting to keep Martha happy. Over the years, she has also never had a particularly close relationship with her mother, and there seems to be a disconnect between them, never quite knowing how to be together in that effortless way so many of us take for granted. It is her father and sister who are closest to Martha, and try to help her as best they can.
Ingrid and Martha’s incredibly close relationship is one of the many joys of this novel. Martha and Ingrid have that amazing sisterly shorthand, where they know each other so well that they are able to be incredibly honest with each other, but also understand what they both really want without having to say it. Their in-jokes, their shared history and often bewilderment at their parents will resonate with so many people, and will make you squirm with recognition and laugh out loud.
This novel was such a joy to read. There are undoubtedly really sobering moments of pain, and you absolutely feel Martha’s pain and bewilderment at not being able to explicitly state what she is going through. Meg Mason is incredible at articulating the experience if mental illness, and the way in which it permeates every part of Martha’s world constantly. The moment someone offers her their diagnosis that seems to explain what she has been going through, we as the reader are never told – it is always referred to as ‘- -‘. I thought it was a printing error, but then realised this was a clever device by Meg to ensure that we read about Martha and don’t bring our assumptions or preconceptions about conditions to our reading of the novel.
For me, something that also resonated with me was the way in which the impact of Martha’s mental issues on her family, but especially Patrick is depicted. Patrick completely loves Martha, and he repeatedly tries to stand by her and do everything in his power to be there for her, but she veers between contented and hateful, all the time needing Patrick to be there for her. To see them separate is heartbreaking, but to see Martha slowly realise what she has lost is even more upsetting. It is also incredibly touching to see that in her darkest days, it is her Mum who is finally able to connect with Martha again by literally encouraging her to put one foot in front of the other.
Sorrow and Bliss perfectly articulates so many things. What it means to be part of a family, and how wonderful, exhausting, flawed and thankless it can be at times. It is also a novel about the realities of love and marriage after the honeymoon period is over, and the decisions we make about whether or not we have children, and more importantly the fact that everyone else believes they have the right to comment on the choices people make.
However, for me, this novel is utterly and completely Martha’s story, and her voice is so captivating and unique, I promise you will love her and despair of her as much as I do. Put it this way, I loved this book so much I want to read it again very soon, and savour every page for a second time.
I absolutely and completely loved it.
Thank you so much to Gigi Woolstonecroft at W&N for my gifted proof copy.
You can buy your copy of Sorrow and Bliss from West End Lane Books here.