Some Body to Love by Alexandra Heminsley

Some Body to Love by Alexandra Heminsley

Published by Chatto and Windus

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

‘Today I sat on a bench facing the sea, the one where I waited for L to be born, and sobbed my heart out. I don’t know if I’ll ever recover.’
This note was written on 9 November 2017. As the seagulls squawked overhead and the sun dipped into the sea, Alexandra Heminsley’s world was turning inside out.
She’d just been told her then-husband was going to transition. The revelation threatened to shatter their brand new, still fragile, family.
But this vertiginous moment represented only the latest in a series of events that had left Alex feeling more and more dissociated from her own body, turning her into a seemingly unreliable narrator of her own reality.

Some Body to Love is Alex’s profoundly open-hearted memoir about losing her husband but gaining a best friend, and together bringing up a baby in a changing world. Its exploration of what it means to have a human body, to feel connected or severed from it, and how we might learn to accept our own, makes it a vital and inspiring contribution to some of the most complex and heated conversations of our times.

What I Say

Not that you all know, but this is actually my first blog review of 2021. I am sat in my dining room typing away, listening to the radio, with a cup of coffee to the right of me, and am very pleased to be able to be sitting upright to type this. Why is any of this remotely relevant to my review?

As I sit here typing this, I am currently recovering from Covid. Being able to read has not been possible for a few weeks, as the amount of energy required to pick up a book and read was way beyond my capabilities for a while. The thing is, I am so very pleased that I chose Alexandra’s book Some Body To Love, because her writing about her relationship with body and her life experiences could not have come at a better and more appropriate time for me, as mine was taken over by a virus that I had been trying so hard to avoid.

Alexandra’s book starts off making you believe it is heading in one direction, but when you start to read it, you realise that it is in fact epic in its scale, and certainly for me, made me think about not only what Alexandra has been through, but also how we view our own bodies and often internalise our own experiences.

When Alexandra married the love of her life, they decided after a time to try IVF, and it seemed like Alexandra was going to have the family life she longed for. However, things in her marriage had not been going well, and initially she believed it was due to the immense pressure the couple were under as they tried to get pregnant. In fact, her husband had decided that now he wanted to transition, and Alexandra was left reeling by the decision. Coupled with the fact that they had gone through immense emotional distress during her pregnancy when there was doubt that the embryo that had been implanted was hers, Alexandra was devastated. The idea of a cosy family unit was no more, and Alexandra had to determine what this meant for her and their son as they were now facing a very different life to the one she had anticipated.

This is not just a book about Alexandra’s marriage, or the reality of someone transitioning. Some Body To Love is profoundly affecting as it goes so much further and is also Alexandra’s candid and intensely personal memoir about her relationship with her body. She explains how when she was heavily pregnant, she was sexually assaulted on a train, and the immense pressure this put on her as she decided to press charges against the man. It is unbelievable to see the way in which she is treated, and the way in which her pregnancy is used against her by the defence.

What always seems to be in Alexandra’s mind is the importance of making her voice heard, to show people that this behaviour is not acceptable, and the way in which she is treated by some people as simply nothing more than a pile of pregnancy hormones is shameful.

At the centre of this book is always Alexandra’s relationship with her body, and how we are all complicit in how we present ourselves and react to others too. I am endlessly fascinated by the power and lure of Instagram, and the pressure that we are under to conform and be seen in a certain way. Alexandra writes so incisively about how even when you try to work within the seemingly open image of body positivity, that there are still ways in which it is seen as acceptable to do so. I loved the story of how Alexandra was meeting journalists to promote her book Running Like A Girl, and even though she wanted to present an honest and natural face to show people her real self, she was not deemed newsworthy until she adhered to the narrative that other people wanted to create for her.

I think that this is such an incredibly honest book that should start so many conversations about the realities of motherhood and parenting, the narratives we create for ourselves, and most importantly of the realities of what it means for someone to transition.

Hand on heart, I have had no experience in my life of anyone I know deciding to transition, and I had no frame of reference to understand the massive personal and emotional demands this has on both the person who is transitioning and those closest to them. I was also astounded by the misconceptions and attitudes of other people who projected their own thoughts and opinions onto an incredibly personal situation, and I think it is testament to Alexandra’s incredible resilience and empathy for her husband that you see how they adapt their family life to their new reality.

I finished Some Body To Love last week, and am constantly thinking about it. As a reader, Alexandra’s accessible and absorbing writing made me feel that it was as if she was sat next to me telling me what has happened in her life. I feel very privileged to have read it, and know that my knowledge and understanding of my own personal experiences, my relationship with my body and what it means for someone to transition have changed as a result of reading this book.

It is a raw, visceral and an incredible testament to the power of love and family, which permeates every single page and makes you feel hopeful about the world once again.

Thank you to Lucie Cuthbertston-Twiggs for my copy in exchange for an honest review.

The First Rule About Book Clubs is…we should talk about Book Clubs.

As 2020 drags itself into December and towards the end of the year (thank goodness), I was thinking about how this year, I can honestly say hand on heart, that talking about books to other people (and copious quantities of almond magnums) has been the one thing that has made 2020 bearable.

I don’t think it’s any secret how much I love reading and talking about books, and I often forget I only started Years Of Reading just over three years ago.

What you probably don’t know about me is how way before I got to this point, that a Book Club in a local library helped me from falling deep into depression and kickstarted my love of reading again. I was finding things really tough at work, with no support and even though I was in a relationship and had a few good friends, I was feeling alone, bone tired and some days couldn’t see the point in getting out of bed.

One day when I was in a library in Leeds, I saw an advert for a Book Club starting right there in the library, and just thought it could be something to not only get me out of the house, but also to meet the other people who loved books too. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.

We were a mixed bunch, and to be honest, I was probably the youngest person there, but do you know what? It didn’t matter. We were all there because we loved books, and for that midweek monthly evening, the upstairs meeting room in that library was our wonderful, inclusive, bookish heaven.

Not only did we get the chance to talk about the books we loved and the ones we didn’t, but for those two hours, I was with a group of people who completely understood what books and reading meant to me. They knew what it felt like when you read that book that meant everything, how thrilled you were when you found out your favourite author had a new book coming out, and what it felt like to have a stack of new books on your bedside table.

For me at that time in my life, the Book Club was a thing to look forward to, a definite date in my calendar and a goal I had to work towards – because if I hadn’t read the book, how could I take part? Listening to other people who loved reading as much as I did, gave me a connection, an unspoken understanding with someone else, and it slowly made me feel more like me again and genuinely interested in reading again.

As the Book Club took place in a library, we could get there early before it started. I could choose the books I wanted at leisure and have them nestled in my bag ready to look through on the bus home. As we all surely know by now, libraries are incredibly important for so many people for so many reasons too.

In my case, at various points in my life, libraries have been the thing that has got me through the week. They were the place I could go to when I didn’t have a job and very little money, where I could choose books to take home and lose myself just for a little while without worrying about the world outside. They have been my safe haven when I needed to have some time to myself and when I was alone in Leeds, talking to the library staff was often the only human contact I had aside from talking to my parents in Wales.

This is why the Generation Book Club – which is being set up by Louie Freeman-Bassett, is so important – perhaps now more than ever. When Louie contacted me to ask if I would talk about what he is doing, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.

Louie is single handedly trying to create a network of Book Clubs so that anyone who loves reading but is not sure where to find their local group can search online on his site.

Generation Book Club is aiming to not only get as many Book Clubs signed up as possible, but is also attempting to get a Book Club signed up in every county in the UK by World Book Day – the 4th March 2021.

If you run a Book Club, or want to find one in your area, have a look at Louie’s site to see how you can get involved. Even if you could just share Louie’s site on Twitter or follow Generation Book Club on Instagram it would really help to get the word out. He’s doing this all on his own – and I am in awe of him and want to help. It’s undeniable that Lockdown has had a massive impact on our lives, and loneliness is hard to bear at the best of times, but there is no doubt that sharing the love of reading can help.

The Book Club in Headingley Library was one of those times in my life where books and reading were truly what kept me going. It helped me understand that meeting and talking to other bookish people is not only the best feeling in the world, but that when you can share the love of reading with someone else who absolutely understand what books mean to you – you are never on your own.

The Swallowed Man by Edward Carey

The Swallowed Man by Edward Carey

Published by Gallic Belgravia

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

From the acclaimed author of Little comes this beautiful and haunting imagining of the years Geppetto spends within the belly of a sea beast.

Drawing upon the Pinocchio story while creating something entirely his own, Carey tells an unforgettable tale of fatherly love and loss, pride and regret, and of the sustaining power of art and imagination.

What I Say

I was lucky to read Edward’s novel Little before it was published, and it has since that time always had a special place in my reading heart, because it was such a perfectly written and absorbing novel.

When I heard that his next novel The Swallowed Man was about Pinocchio’s father Geppetto imprisoned inside a sea beast, I just didn’t know how it could compare to Little.

In fact, and to be completely honest with you, when I finished it, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. Then I sat and thought about what I had just read, and slowly realised just how powerful and incredibly poignant it really is.

Geppetto, after losing his son Pinocchio who has run away from him, had taken a boat to try and find him after an alleged sighting. That is when he is swallowed by a sea beast and wakes up to find he is a prisoner inside the animal with no way of escape.

Little by little, Geppetto starts to tell us the story of his life as he tries to navigate his new home. He finds a whole ship inside the sea beast which gives you an idea as to the scale of the world he now finds himself in. This becomes his place of safety. He raids the ship for supplies, takes over the Captain’s rooms, and starts to write down everything in an attempt to keep his mind focussed on his plight, and his belief that one day he will find a way out.

As the novel progresses, he starts to reminisce, and look back on the life he has led, the women he has loved, and most importantly, the life he created. He made Pinocchio out of wood, so that he could say he was a father. What he didn’t anticipate was Pinocchio’s free will, and his desire to be like the other boys he saw from the windows of his home.

This is what Geppetto found so hard to understand. He had created his son, but wanted to control him, and when he couldn’t, he punished him and made Pinocchio so miserable that he ran away.

For me, this was the theme that ran so clearly through the novel. How that at the heart of this story is a man who realises not only what he has lost, but also by losing Pinocchio, what being a father actually means. He now understands that not only did he need a connection to someone, but that Pinocchio also needed other human connections to flourish too.

Little by little Geppetto loses his grip on reality, and wracked with grief he tries to make other Pinocchios to try and ease his pain. They never turn out the same, and are often grotesque. He believes one of them is actually haunting him, and his descent into madness becomes more painful to witness, and his journal entries become increasingly erratic.

The Swallowed Man may be a short novel, but it is intensely affecting. As a reader we suspect that Geppetto will not survive his ordeal, but Edward makes you engage so much with him that you are hoping for a miracle, and that the father and son will be reunited. The incredible illustrations by Edward throughout the book really gave the story an extra dimension, and made Geppetto feel more authentic as well as giving the reader that connection to him.

If you are looking for a rose tinted retelling of the Pinocchio story you knew as a child, this is not for you. However, if you want to read a story about the immense power of love, loss and the instinctive need we have to connect to someone to feel human, this is the book for you.

I loved it.

Thank you so much to Isabelle at Gallic Belgravia for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.

Leave The World Behind by Rumaan Alam

Leave The World Behind by Rumaan Alam

Published by Bloomsbury

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

A magnetic novel about two families, strangers to each other, who are forced together on a long weekend gone terribly wrong

Amanda and Clay head to a remote corner of Long Island expecting a holiday: a quiet reprieve from life in New York City, quality time with their teenage son and daughter and a taste of the good life in the luxurious home they’ve rented for the week. But with a late-night knock on the door, the spell is broken. Ruth and G. H., an older couple who claim to own the home, have arrived there in a panic. These strangers say that a sudden power outage has swept the city, and – with nowhere else to turn – they have come to the country in search of shelter.

But with the TV and internet down, and no phone service, the facts are unknowable. Should Amanda and Clay trust this couple – and vice versa? What has happened back in New York? Is the holiday home, isolated from civilisation, a truly safe place for their families? And are they safe from one another?

What I Say

Hand on heart, I was slightly hesitant about starting Leave the World Behind. I am not good with horror books, and especially gory things. It has been all over social media, with no one really explaining why it is so disturbing, so I started to read it with more than a little trepidation.

The thing is, the reason Leave The World Behind is one of those novels that leaves you more than a little stunned and a lot speechless, is because of what is not said, what is not explained, and how you as the reader are left to fill in the blanks of the story.

Amanda and Clay, and their teenage children Archie and Rose seem to be the embodiment of the picture perfect American family. Both Amanda and Clay have successful careers, and their children lead full and privileged lives. When Amanda decides to book a luxurious holiday home in Long Island, it seems like the most wonderful plan.

In a remote location, with little or no internet connection, the house is beautifully furnished, filled with everything the family could wish for. Little by little the family start to unwind and enjoy their time together. That is until one night there is a knock at the door, and it is an elderly couple called the Washingtons who claim that this is their home, and they need to be there because there has been a massive power cut throughout New York and this is their place of safety.

Reluctantly Amanda and Clay let them in, and are obviously uneasy and mistrustful of them – and although they never explicitly say it, we as a reader absolutely know it is because the Washingtons are black. It is that unspoken and ingrained racism that permeates their unconscious reaction to them, however liberal they may claim to be.

As the strangers are thrown together, unable to find any concrete information about what has happened as they cannot connect to the internet, they are forced to confront the fact that they have no way of knowing what will happen next. While they are adjusting to the new set up, slowly strange, inexplicable things start to happen. There are spontaneous incredibly loud noises that sound almost like sonic booms, Clay takes the car out and cannot find his way anywhere except back to the house, beyond the perimeter of the fence, hundreds of deer are congregating, and when Archie is suddenly taken poorly, his teeth start to fall out.

We are also drip fed snippets of information in incidental paragraphs as to the scale of the horrors that are happening beyond the world of the families, and how the world is slowly heading towards natural and technological disasters on an unprecedented scale. Yet they have absolutely no clue, and instead start to relax in each other’s company, confident that they will be able to find solutions soon. It is interesting to note how when they are dislocated from the social and economic constraints and expectations of the world that they start to live more freely.

It is only when the families decide they need medical help for Archie that they make a life changing decision.

Rumaan Alam’s novel succeeds precisely because it is set in a world we all recognise and are comfortable in. We can relate to both families – we see the family familiar to lots of us; trying to have a relaxing time balanced with the demands of their teenagers, being in someone else’s home so you are always slightly on edge, and the frustrating lack of technology when it has become second nature to you. Yet we also empathise with the Washingtons, who faced with a world of uncertainty simply want to find comfort and reassurance in the very place they call home. They too are away from what they know and cannot reach their daughter, and the place that should be a place of comfort and peace is occupied by strangers who are sleeping in their bed and taking over every part of their house.

I felt that the narrative moved along at the perfect pace, and I thought it was interesting to see the development and flourishing of the characters as they become more reliant on each other. I thought that the Washingtons as the novel progresses became almost surrogate parents and grandparents. I also liked how the seemingly quiet and unassuming Rose was actually the character with the most resilience and resolve, and seemed to understand what her family would have to do to survive for as long as they can.

Leave The World Behind left me with lots of questions when I had finished it. What would happen to the families? When the supplies run out, what is next for them all? What caused these events in the first place? That for me is the quiet and understated brilliance of this novel. The reader is not given a neat and convenient ending to smugly close the book, instead the resolution is as easy or as complicated as you want. Your imagination is the deciding factor in the final reading of the novel, and that is what makes it so difficult to describe to others, and so absolutely impossible to forget.

Thank you so much to Emilie Chambeyron at Bloomsbury for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.

Is There Anybody There..?

Let’s be honest here, 2020 has been a challenging and emotional year for all of us. I didn’t realise the impact of Covid as I talked hopefully about going to New York for my 50th, or those wonderful weekend visits to my Dad in Wales, or the relaxing days out my husband and I would have together as our boys were in school.

C word aside, 2020 has been a year of reading and reflection for me like no other, especially about my whole online presence as Years Of Reading.

I have read more books than I have ever done this year (I’m not saying how many, reading is not a competition thank you!), attended virtual events with authors I would never normally had the chance to do in ‘real life’, and discovered novels and authors that might have usually passed me by.

This is the thing. I love shouting about books, nothing apart from The Real Housewives, almond magnums and The Queen’s Gambit brings me more joy, but I’m not sure what’s the best way to do it anymore..

Years Of Reading Selfishly started out purely as a blog in 2017, then with tentative tweets and random bookish Instagram posts (I don’t have the props, white duvet, patience or amazing creativity to do anything else other than post a picture of a book on a standard filter background), and that seemed to work. Once I realised setting all my accounts to private were also quite probably not helping me get the word out, there was nothing more I loved than writing a blog post about a brilliant book I wanted to tell you all about too.

It’s just right now, ironically writing a blog post, I don’t know the most effective way of communicating about books I have loved any more, and it’s playing on my mind.

If I get 50 views on a book review post that I’ve spent two hours writing (not including the time I’ve spent reading the book) then I’m lucky. On a side note, it also really frustrating if you’ve spent a long time writing it, posting it, tagging the publisher and author and then no one acknowledges it – because you love this book so much and want everyone to know about it.

Surprisingly it is the posts about general bookish things that get far more likes, which is interesting and shows that the right topic at the right time can definitely strike a chord with a lot of people too.

My Instagram posts get far more likes, but I wonder if that is a case of people just scrolling through and double clicking to like it because you know them? Are the people who like it reading my review and know why exactly this certain novel resonated so personally with me?

Tweets just don’t seem long enough to tell everyone how fabulous a book is – 280 characters is one heck of a concise review, and no edit button either. Plus you need to tag everyone in it, which takes up vital space. Don’t even get me started on those Fleets..

I’ve cut back on my video reviews because I don’t feel confident enough at the moment to do them, and worry that the Bookish world is heartily sick of my face. It’s also trying to find the time and place to do them when your other half currently works from home, your Springer spaniel is crazy, and you don’t live in a house with calm and beautifully organised bookshelves.

Ask any committed Blogger, we all know that reviews still need to be done – you can’t go round asking for books and then never review them just because you don’t feel heard. How is that fair to the author and publisher who have taken the time to send you a book? Anyone can take a picture of a book, but that doesn’t tell anyone what you thought of it, how it made you feel or why you think the people who take the time to follow you would love to read it too.

Which is where I am at the moment. Wondering what to do for the greater Bookish Good and for all those fabulous books that deserve to be shouted about as loudly and widely as possible.

I’ve talked with Amanda (BookishChat) numerous times as we have both been thinking about this a lot. I know that Janet was asking the very same question on her Twitter account too, to try and work out the best way forward with reviews.

Maybe the bookish world has shifted to a more double tap and scrolling culture, and my blogs are simply a way for me to have a written record of the books that I have loved and have shaped my reading journey. Perhaps I have to put aside the worries about not being heard, and instead recognise that talking about books in whatever way I want to is still sharing the Book Love – no matter how many or few people hear me do it.

Love

Clare xx

Rachel to the Rescue by Elinor Lipman

Rachel To The Rescue by Elinor Lipman

Published by Eye Lightning Books

Available from All Good Bookshops and online

What They Say

Rachel Klein is sacked from her job at the White House after she sends an email criticising Donald Trump. As she is escorted off the premises she is hit by a speeding car, driven by what the press will discreetly call ‘a personal friend of the President’.

Does that explain the flowers, the get-well wishes at a press briefing, the hush money offered by a lawyer at her hospital bedside?

Rachel’s recovery is soothed by comically doting parents, matchmaking room-mates, a new job as aide to a journalist whose books aim to defame the President, and unexpected love at the local wine store.

But secrets leak, and Rachel’s new-found happiness has to make room for more than a little chaos. Will she bring down the President? Or will he manage to do that all by himself?

Rachel to the Rescue is a mischievous political satire, with a delightful cast of characters, from one of America’s funniest novelists.

What I Say

There are times as a reader when you discover an author, and wonder how you could possibly have not known their books, and then you want to read everything they have ever written.

This happened to me when Scott Pack and Sarra Manning recommended Elinor Lipman – and I hope that lots of you will trust me when I tell you that you really should read Elinor’s novels too.

Elinor’s latest novel Rachel To The Rescue from Eye Lightning Books, is an absolute joy from the very first page to the last, and one that needs to be on your reading radar immediately.

Rachel Klein reluctantly works at the White House where she is tasked with sticking back together all the correspondence that President Trump rips up, as all correspondence must be kept. Rachel is far from a Trump fan, and when she accidentally sends an email to everyone telling them what she really thinks of him, unsurprisingly she is fired and abruptly escorted from the White House.

As she leaves, she is knocked over by a speeding car, and the next thing she knows, she is waking up in hospital with her parents beside her, and some very unsettled lawyers from the White House who are very keen to talk to Rachel about what happened, and how they can ‘help’..

It transpires that she was knocked over by President Trumps alleged lover, and from that moment on, Rachel’s life changes forever. The details of the accident find their way onto the internet, and Rachel suddenly becomes very interesting to a lot of people. Unemployed and facing the prospect of having to move back in with her parents, Rachel realises she needs to find a job. She eventually manages to find work with a writer called Kirby Champion, whose speciality is writing lengthy books about political figures. In his eyes, Rachel offers a way for him to get a chance to work on the most explosive story he has heard, and gain the attention and notoriety he craves. Together, they try to work out who Trump’s elusive alleged lover is, and as they get deeper into their investigations, they stumble into a complex world of lies, complex relationships and unhappy marriages.

At the same time, Rachel is tentatively taking steps towards romance. When she meets Alex who works in the local wine store, with the help of her roommates, she plucks up the courage to go out with him.

Little by little, Rachel’s different worlds start to come closer together, until everyone knows each other’s business, and Rachel realises that amid the chaos finally she has found the happiness and life she really wants.

If I had to tell you why I recommend this (and all of Elinor’s writing) to you, I would say that Elinor’s writing is just glorious. The dialogue is perfectly pitched and zings off the page, and the plot is fast paced which works so well- it never feels forced or contrived. It genuinely made me laugh out loud, and is consistently so funny and smart that it is begging to be made into a film.

Another reason why I loved it is because quite frankly, it is just so refreshing to read a novel where the main character is the sort of person you would want as a friend! Rachel undoubtedly faces challenges in her professional and personal life, but her warmth and candour only make you hope that it all works out for her. She is neither self pitying or looking for sympathy, Rachel just genuinely wants to get on with her life and be happy – and I loved that about her.

For me, I thought the idea of family and belonging was also a strong theme throughout the novel. Rachel is lucky to have such devoted and involved parents, but the novel also shows that family doesn’t have to only be those people you are related to. Her friends, boyfriend and boss all become inextricably linked, but it only adds to the fabric of her life and there was a real sense of community and belonging in her world. It is an encouraging and hopeful idea, especially as the novel is so firmly rooted in the realities of America in 2020 – the Trump Administration and the Covid -19 pandemic.

Rachel To The Rescue wasn’t able to find a publisher in the United States because of the plot, which is why EyeLightning Books published it here. I for one, as a new Elinor Lipman fan, am so incredibly glad they did.

If you haven’t read any Elinor Lipman, or are looking for a novel that simply lifts you up and brings you joy, then you need to read Rachel to The Rescue. This is the second Elinor Lipman novel I’ve read, and if I tell you I hunted down three more since I finished it, you can see just how much I love Elinor’s writing, and I hope that lots of you quite rightly fall in love with her novels too.

Thank you so much to Dan and Scott at Eye Lightning Books for my gifted copy.

How Do You Do It?

As well as writing reviews and talking about books I have loved, I often find myself thinking about Book Blogging and the marvellous world I fell into three years ago.

For me, part of doing all this is sometimes to stop and take stock of where I am and where I want to be, and well, seeing that this is my blog, I guess it is also my space to talk about things that I think about when I am talking to you about all things bookish.

I have to tell you that something has been really bothering me for a while, and so I am just going to put it out there.

How do you deal with all the books you have on your teetering TBR? The books that have been on your bookshelves for so long that you stumble upon them by surprise? The ones you promised yourself you would definitely read and review for a publisher this month – but never do..

I want to ask specifically about the books you have asked for – when the fabulous publicists ask for Bloggers and Bookstagrammers to put their hands up for a copy.

That’s right, how do you feel when you have asked for a book – and you don’t manage to read it- even though at the time you told yourself you definitely would?

Do you try and post a picture and a tweet/post about the book on publication day, or do you do nothing? Or are you disciplined and you only ask for those books you know you will definitely read and review?

We’ve all done it, fallen down that rabbit hole where the delicious promise of the new book being offered is too hard to resist, and that ever present Fear Of Missing Out kicks in. It makes us believe that if we don’t manage to get a copy of the book everyone is talking about, that we are losing out on some shared bookish wonder, and that we are not part of the ‘gang’..

If you are lucky enough to get a copy of the book, it arrives, you post it on your social media channels, making sure you tag and thank all the people you know you should, put it on your bookshelf ready to read at the right moment – and sometimes, for whatever reason – you don’t.

My Bookshelves are right next to where I sit, and as I am typing this and glance to my right, there are all my latest books and proofs filed in publication date order, patiently waiting for their chance to fall in my hands so I can read and shout about them to you all.

I would love to hear how you deal with your ever increasing reading pile and especially the books that you have asked for. I’ve done it, and have got to the point where I have had so many sitting on my shelves that I feel completely embarrassed and honestly, truly guilty for asking for a book when I have no clue when I will actually have time to read and review it.

Recently, sometimes when I have emailed to request a proof, I have been asked where my review will appear with a request that I tag the appropriate people when I do it. I completely understand that. Proofs cost money to produce, and in recent times that is more pertinent than ever, so if a physical copy is being sent out, it seems only right to me that you should be asked where your review will be posted.

I like the fact that I am being held accountable for asking for a book, and I always keep in the back of my mind the fact that lots of other Book Bloggers would love the chance to read and review it. By reading and reviewing, I feel I am helping show the publishers how crucial and dedicated Book Bloggers are in spreading the word about their books.

How as Bloggers do we find the balance between wanting to shout about books we are excited about, but also in being honest to the people who follow us and trust our book recommendations? Can you request a book, post about it and then never read it? Do people ever ask you what you thought about a certain book and you haven’t actually read it, and if so, did you feel embarrassed about admitting it?

I just honestly wonder now whether increasingly sometimes the thrill of the chase and the collecting of the books takes precedence over actually reading and reviewing them. Perhaps it’s when you are confronted by the groaning bookshelves in front of you do you realise you are never going to be able to read them all – and that’s a difficult thing to admit to yourself, and even harder to say to everyone else too.

I don’t have an answer, and I am sure lots of you have your own opinions about how you deal with your TBR pile, and the right and wrongs of asking for books. I feel like I just needed to put my thoughts down in a post to get them straight!

2020 has been a pretty challenging year for lots of us for many reasons, and in my toughest months, it has been reading and sharing with you about books I have loved that quite honestly, have kept me going this year. Perhaps I need to remember that the very reason I started Years of Reading was not to be in some sort of bookish race – be it reading the most or having the latest releases, but quite simply to be totally authentic about books I have read and loved, so I can be honest in my recommendations to you and help you find the books that you love as much as I do.

Love

Clare xx

The Lies You Told by Harriet Tyce

The Lies You Told by Harriet Tyce

Published by Wildfire Books

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online.

What They Say

Sadie loves her daughter and will do anything to keep her safe.

She can’t tell her why they had to leave home so quickly – or why Robin’s father won’t be coming with them to London.

She can’t tell her why she hates being back in her dead mother’s house, with its ivy-covered walls and its poisonous memories.

And she can’t tell her the truth about the school Robin’s set to start at – a school that doesn’t welcome newcomers.
Sadie just wants to get their lives back on track.

What I Say

I was lucky enough to read Harriet’s debut novel Blood Orange as a proof, and absolutely loved every single page. When I heard that she had written The Lies You Told, I really wanted to read it. The thing is, when someone’s first novel has been so memorable, I am always worried that the second novel may not live up to the first one.

I could not have been more wrong. In fact, just between us – I think The Lies You Told is even better.

Sadie’s marriage to Andrew has ended, and she has left him in the United States to bring their daughter Robin back to the UK. They have to move back in to Sadie’s now run down childhood home which in a calculated decision by Sadie’s late mother Lydia, has only been left to Robin. Lydia and Sadie had no relationship, she resented Sadie for ruining her chance at a career, and was cruel and indifferent towards her. Lydia could not forgive her daughter for giving up her promising career in law to have Robin and destroyed everything in her bedroom as a way of showing her anger. Even from the grave, Lydia has exacted her revenge, by stipulating that Sadie and Robin can only live there if Robin attends Ashams school – the same school Sadie went to, and hated.

Just as Robin is petrified of attending a new school as a Year 6 student, Sadie also has to deal with the group of über parents at Ashams – led by Julia, the unequivocal Queen Bee. What Harriet captures so well in this novel is the absolute awfulness of people like Julia and her school mum clique which sent a chill down my spine, as it all seemed too familiar! The way in which they decide who is to be talked to and who is to be ignored. The desperate need those around Julia – like the subservient Nicole, have, to be acknowledged by her to feel that they exist. Perhaps even more troubling is the way in which these parents project their own aspirations and drill their children into believing that passing the eleven plus to get into the best secondary school is the only thing that matters.

It is clear from the start that neither the other pupils or mothers want Sadie and Robin there, even more so when Robin performs brilliantly academically, proving to be a real threat to the chances that the other girls will have for getting their place in secondary school. Sadie is trying to navigate the social minefield of school life, whilst at the same time is trying to make an impression at work in chambers. She is helping with the defence for a case where a teacher called Jeremy has been accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a pupil called Freya, and she and her colleagues are working to prove that he is telling the truth, and that Freya is the one lying.

As Sadie strives to resurrect her career, she finally reaches breaking point with the vindictiveness of Julia, Nicole and their clique. It is only when she shows them that she used to attend Ashams herself, suddenly the defences are down and chillingly she is welcomed unquestioningly into the group with open arms. Although Sadie might believe this will make her and Robin’s life far easier, this acceptance into the Queen Bee’s world triggers a chain of events that shows how disturbingly far some parents will go to get what they believe their children are entitled to (no spoilers here, you need to read the book!)!

The Lies You Told works so well, because Harriet has recognised and honed absolutely in on what drives so many parents – the need to be able to show how much more their child has achieved than everyone else’s. It is a novel that totally absorbed me, and Harriet knows exactly when to turn up the pace and when to slow down the plot so that the relationships between the characters can come to the fore. Her depiction of Sadie and Robin’s relationship really resonated with me, as she perfectly describes the love, protectiveness and sheer frustration that you can have with your children – often within the same ten minutes!

It is also a very insightful and articulate novel about the pressure and stress we increasingly put our children under, believing that we know best as to what they should be achieving, as oppose to sometimes stopping to listen to what they are telling us. I loved how when Sadie is ‘allowed’ to join the clique, that little by little, Julia and Nicole slowly reveal themselves as their guards come down. Initially you start to feel empathy with these women and the immense strain they are putting on themselves to appear to be the perfect parents, but Harriet skilfully and slowly reveals how these women are anything but defenceless.

It was also interesting how the narrative was split between Robin and Sadie’s experience of Ashams School, and the legal case Sadie is working on. At work, as well as having to prove herself after a long absence, she starts to sense that Jeremy is not as innocent as he pleads, and is being protected by those around him. One of the themes in this novel I felt, was the notion of identity and fitting in. We see how Sadie has to try and find her place at the school and work, as does Robin. Jeremy presents one identity to the court to seem like the innocent party, but slowly starts to reveal who he really is. Julia, Nicole and the parents at Asham, show how their identities are inextricably linked with their children, and how they have to mould themselves into what is expected of them, so that they seamlessly fit in – irrespective of how much that goes against who they really are.

I found The Lies You Told impossible to put down. As with all accomplished writers, just when you smugly assume you know where the novel is going, Harriet pulls the rug from under you and you realise you were absolutely wrong. The pieces of the puzzle fall slowly into place, and the truth starts to emerge at a deliciously perfect pace. The novel pulls us towards a breathtaking conclusion that when you have finished, leaves you questioning every line you have just read and wondering how you missed the clues – and that for me really is the sign of a brilliant book.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Rosie Margesson for my gifted proof copy of The Lies You Told in exchange for an honest review.

Ghosts by Dolly Alderton

Ghosts by Dolly Alderton

Published by Fig Tree Books on 15th October

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Nina Dean has arrived at her early thirties as a successful food writer with loving friends and family, plus a new home and neighbourhood. When she meets Max, a beguiling romantic hero who tells her on date one that he’s going to marry her, it feels like all is going to plan.

A new relationship couldn’t have come at a better time – her thirties have not been the liberating, uncomplicated experience she was sold. Everywhere she turns, she is reminded of time passing and opportunities dwindling. Friendships are fading, ex-boyfriends are moving on and, worse, everyone’s moving to the suburbs. There’s no solace to be found in her family, with a mum who’s caught in a baffling mid-life makeover and a beloved dad who is vanishing in slow-motion into dementia.

Dolly Alderton’s debut novel is funny and tender, filled with whip-smart observations about relationships, family, memory, and how we live now.

What I Say

In 1992, when I was 21 years old, I thought that I was going out with the man of my dreams. We had met through some voluntary work I was doing while at Leeds Uni, and he seemed to me to be perfect.

At the time I ignored the fact he didn’t turn up when he said he would, understood how he was always working and that’s why he was never in when I called (these are the days long before mobile phones), and brushed aside the fact that our ‘dates’ lasted no longer than a couple of hours at best. One day he dropped me off at my new house share in Leeds, carefully took (and repeated back!) my new number, promised to call me later and I never saw or heard from him again. That was until I saw him in a Leeds pub with his new girlfriend, and watched the colour drain from his face as he hurried them out of the door.

Six months after the last time I saw him, broken hearted, devastated and with my self confidence in pieces, I went to my friends house for dinner, to discover that they had set me up on a blind date.

Twenty eight years later, and married still to my Blind Date, it was the best dinner party I’ve been to.

The reason I wanted to share that story, is because Dolly Alderton’s first novel Ghosts resonated with me completely. It perfectly captures not only what it feels like when someone ‘ghosts’ you, but also shows how difficult it is to navigate your way through the unexpected demands of adult life when everyone and everything else around you seems to be so organised and settled.

Nina Dean is a food writer who is starting the next phase of her life by moving into a new flat after breaking up with her long term boyfriend Joe. With the encouragement of her quite frankly fabulous (I loved her!) friend Lola, Nina decides to start online dating, and meets Max.

As they tentatively start a relationship, Dolly perfectly captures the delicious anticipation of the first meeting, the first kiss and the long, perfect conversations to try and learn everything about each other as Nina and Max become closer. While Nina starts her relationship with Max, she is also aware that Katherine, her oldest friend, as well as physically moving away, is emotionally becoming distant from her as Katherine deals with the reality of the not always Instaperfect grind of motherhood.

Their once unbreakable bond is starting to fracture, as Nina and Katherine are taking different paths, and neither can fully understand or appreciate what the other is dealing with. Nina finds this hard, and doesn’t want to lose her best friend, but feels that they have less and less in common. Katherine is occupied with her husband, daughter Olive, and being pregnant, while Nina is trying to maintain her career, have a relationship with Max, and deal with what is happening with her parents.

Nina and her Mum Nancy – who has decided she now wants to be called Mandy, in a never ending quest to live her life to the fullest, are having to come to terms with the fact that Nina’s Dad Bill, who was a well loved and respected teacher, is facing the reality of life with dementia. Dolly writes so insightfully and knowingly about the impact of dementia on a family. The creeping realisation of the strain of caring for someone 24 hours a day, and the grieving process you have to go through for the future that you never wanted anyway, elevated Ghosts to another level completely for me.

Nina and Nancy have not been close for a long time, and they know that they have to attempt to connect with each other as they try to navigate this unforeseen life. They have to face the fact that the man who has created so many memories for them and countless others is now increasingly becoming frustrated and bewildered by a world he no longer recognises – and for the reader it is just as heartbreaking to read. I wondered if the title Ghosts was also about the idea that as we grow up, there are times that people can no longer be truly fully present in our lives, and that all we have are the memories of what they once were.

As Nina tries to come to terms with what her dad is going through, the fact that Joe is now happily in another relationship with Lucy, and the publisher’s rejection of her latest book, she believes at least she has a relationship.

Until one day Max simply disappears.

Nina’s attempts to contact him come to nothing, and suddenly the future she believed she was going to have, has been denied by the one person she wanted to share it with.

What worked so well for me about this novel was that Dolly writes such real and believable characters. I felt such empathy with Nina as she tries to process what has happened, and that is because I really liked her. When Lola is ghosted too by her boyfriend Jethro, who has promised to marry her, Nina visits him and in her anger at his betrayal, she perfectly articulates the difference in how men and women are allowed and expected to behave in relationships. That scene works so well and makes such an impact- because it’s true.

Max’s eventual reappearance and remorse for disappearing from Nina’s life, could in a lesser writers hands have been clichéd and formulaic. As Nina comes to terms with what Max has done and what their future holds (no, I’m not going to tell you, read the book!), she has to make decisions about their relationship and her life and Dolly uses the plot and our connection to Nina to do this perfectly – because she makes you really care about all the people in the novel.

The pace and narrative is natural and moves along at just the right speed. There are numerous brilliant observations and scenes which depict the horrors of hen dos, the difference as to how men and women prepare for weddings, and how they deal with parenthood. Ghosts is filled with so many funny and relatable scenes about families and relationships that I just wanted to underline paragraphs and pages to come back to.

Ghosts is a novel not only about the ever shifting social minefield that is the changing friendships and relationships as we get older, but is also a perfectly pitched and tender exploration as to the demands and stresses that a family has to go through when someone you love so deeply is becoming a ghost of their former selves. Dolly Alderton writes with total clarity and insight about love, family and the fear and ultimately grief you have to endure when a family member slips away from you in front of your eyes.

Ghosts undoubtedly for me is that very rare thing – a novel I absolutely didn’t want to end.

I completely loved it, and it will be one of my #MostSelfishReads2020.

Thank you so much to Hannah Sawyer at Fig Tree for my gifted proof copy in exchange for an honest review.

Sisters by Daisy Johnson

Sisters by Daisy Johnson

Published by Johnathan Cape

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Something unspeakable has happened to sisters July and September.

Desperate for a fresh start, their mother Sheela moves them across the country to an old family house that has a troubled life of its own. Noises come from behind the walls. Lights flicker of their own accord. Sleep feels impossible, dreams are endless.

In their new, unsettling surroundings, July finds that the fierce bond she’s always had with September – forged with a blood promise when they were children – is beginning to change in ways she cannot understand.

Taut, transfixing and profoundly moving, Sisters explodes with the fury and joy of adolescence. It is a story of sibling love and sibling envy that fans of Shirley Jackson and Stephen King will devour.

What I Say

“I am a shape cut out of the universe, tinged with ever-dying stars – and she is the creature to fill the gap I leave in this world.”

Sisters by Daisy Johnson was a novel that was firmly on my most anticipated reads at the start of this year, and I was thrilled to be gifted a copy by Mia. However, as any book blogger knows, putting any book on such a list immediately puts a lot of pressure on that book and yourself what if it doesn’t live up to your expectations? How do you review it after hyping it up so much?

Honestly, it was not the novel I was expecting, but it was all the better for it. Sisters is a story that right from the start is filled with the uneasy sense that something is very amiss in the family who have travelled hastily to a remote location in Yorkshire called Settle House.

Sheela and her daughters July and September arrive at their new home and as soon as they get inside, Sheela disappears upstairs and leaves the girls to get on with it. This sets the tone for the novel in that the focus is totally on the sisters, born ten months apart and who are not only inseparable, but also are so close that it is difficult to see where one sister starts and the other one ends.

As the girls explore the delapidated house, which is cold and unwelcoming and still has clothes and belongings from previous residents, they are left to fend for themselves as their mother stays in her bedroom. As they attempt to find something to eat, to amuse themselves and ease into their new house, it seems that they are almost feral and unworldly in their appetites, and their mother has decided to hide herself away from them.

The mother’s immediate disconnection and inability to deal with or care for her daughters makes you wonder what has happened and whether the mother has any maternal feelings for her daughters at all.

The location and inaccessibility of the house adds to the mysterious and unsettling tone that permeates every page of this novel. There is the sense that the intense relationship between the sisters is not quite as straightforward as we would think, and that something we are yet to discover has sent the family to this remote place.

Life at school has been difficult for July, who has been bullied and exploited when she is co-erced into sending an explicit picture to a phone number who she believes is Ryan, the boy she is attracted to. There are also hints that an incident happened at the school tennis courts and that from then on, July and September’s world was never the same again.

Daisy Johnson has created sisters that seem to have this innate unspoken power, existing in a world that they inhabit so completely that to allow anyone else in would some how diminish their bond. This is what makes the novel even more intriguing, as nothing is explicitly stated – it is up to the reader to try and piece the plot together.

I also felt that there were constant connections between how the Settle House is described, and the changes that take place in the girls. At times it seems that the house is creaking, growing and keeping secrets stowed safely in its walls, and now that July and September are living here, they too are part of the life cycle of this house. This connection is depicted even more strongly in Part Two as we see all the events and family events the house has borne witness to over the years.

As the narrative shifts between July, and her mother Sheela we discover both the difficult history of the family and the house. As the novel moves between scenes of domestic life and almost folklore horror, the truth about this family slowly and tantalisingly emerges – and left this reader somewhat speechless.

Sisters is not only an engaging and absorbing novel about the claustrophobic relationship between July and September, it is also a story of a family adrift and in the depths of grief that constantly changes direction and pulls the reader along with it. Daisy Johnson’s narrative moves along so well and with so much conviction in all of her characters, that when you have finished it, you feel that you understand July and September so well that the ending couldn’t possibly have been anything else.

I loved it.

Thank you so much to Mia Quebell-Smith at Jonathan Cape for my gifted copy.