When I Ran Away by Ilona Bannister

When I Ran Away by Ilona Bannister

Published by Two Roads Books

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.

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

Published by W&N on 10th June

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.

Still Life by Sarah Winman

Published by 4th Estate on June 1st

Available from West End Lane Books, All Good Bookshops and Online.

What They Say

1944, in the ruined wine cellar of a Tuscan villa, as bombs fall around them, two strangers meet and share an extraordinary evening.

Ulysses Temper is a young British soldier, Evelyn Skinner is a sexagenarian art historian and possible spy. She has come to Italy to salvage paintings from the wreckage and relive memories of the time she encountered EM Forster and had her heart stolen by an Italian maid in a particular Florentine room with a view.

Evelyn’s talk of truth and beauty plants a seed in Ulysses’ mind that will shape the trajectory of his life – and of those who love him – for the next four decades.

Moving from the Tuscan Hills and piazzas of Florence, to the smog of London’s East End, Still Life is a sweeping, joyful novel about beauty, love, family and fate.

What I Say

When I finished reading Still Life I was faced with a problem. I honestly didn’t know how I was going to review it because I had no idea how I could do it the justice it deserves. This is a novel that encompasses so much so effortlessly, and the sheer scale and intricacies of everything Sarah Winman talks about within these pages is impossible to distil into a review.

From the moment you turn the first page, Sarah Winman pulls you into the world of Ulysses, Col, Evelyn, Peg, Cress, Pete and Alys. They are all seemingly disparate individuals who are simply connected by the fact that Ulysses is part of their lives. This gentle, kind and truly compassionate man has fought for his country in Italy, stopped a man from committing suicide and on returning home, discovers that his wife Peg has had a relationship with an American called Eddie and now has a daughter. Ulysses and Peg try to make a life together, but Peg loves Eddie, and wants only him.

When Ulysses is left an apartment by the man he saved in Florence, he makes the life changing decision to move there with Cress, his friend from the East End, and Peg decides to let him take Alys too. They also manage to sneak Claude the parrot from under the nose of Col, who runs the Stoat and Parot pub, and together they start a new life far away from the lives they have known.

Moving to Italy is the fresh start they all seem to need. The apartment is beautiful, the life seems idyllic, and they decide to turn the apartment into a Pensione named Bertolini. This is the world in which our characters show themselves at their most real and vulnerable, and Sarah’s incredibly perceptive and immersive writing means that you feel you absolutely know and understand every character by the end of the novel.

It is as if when people come to the Pensione, they can be their true and authentic selves. Free from preconceptions and assumptions, they have the chance to live the life they deserve rather than the one that society tells them they should have. The group of people who live and visit there are family to each other, and for me that was one of the most poignant parts of the novel – that these people have met by chance, but that their love and connections to each other is absolutely unbreakable. I loved the way in which the world of London, the East End and Italy are constantly intertwined, as Col, Peg and Pete regularly come to visit, and the tantalisingly missed chances for Evelyn and Ulysses to reconcile when they initially keep missing each other purely by chance are simply devastating!

For me, the women in Still Life were incredible to read about because while you may not always understand their decisions, you absolutely know that they are striving against all odds to live the lives they want. Peg is brutally honest about her maternal instincts and disinterest in parenting and knows that Alys will flourish if she lives with Ulysses. Evelyn has had to hide her sexuality for years for fear of being ostracised and condemned, irrespective of what she feels and has to constantly prove her academic worth in a male dominated world. Alys is truly her mother’s daughter, and her dogged determination to forge her own independent path in life and also be open about her sexuality is portrayed perfectly. Still Life as the title suggests also talks about the depiction of women in art, how the academic gaze has always been predominantly male. Evelyn is a tireless advocate of the need to recognise the importance of female artists and their works in the history of art, and I found that a really interesting viewpoint throughout the novel.

To read this novel is to live it completely. Sarah’s exquisite and sensory descriptions of life in Italy mean that as a reader you feel that somehow you are completely in the heart of the action. You feel the heat of the sun on your neck, taste the incredible food that makes you yearn for a plate of pasta, and the look and feel of the town is so incredibly clear in your mind that you can picture every room in the apartment and every landscape that you read about. As Still Life moves through the decades, we are witness to what is happening in the world around them. We learn about the impact it has on those who live in this seemingly idyllic place, but in a cleverly layered turn of events, we also see the effect that Evelyn has had on the work of the novelist E M Forster too, and specifically his novel A Room With A View.

Still Life is an exquisite and totally compelling novel about lives lived, loves won and lost, and the incredible strength and resilience we discover within ourselves when we need it most. When I finished this novel, I was really sad that my time with these people had come to an end, such was my love for them all. It is a novel that absorbs you so completely that you truly feel that you are right there with the characters for every step of their journeys. Its enduring message for me is that it makes you understand the immense power of love and friendship that we often take for granted, and in recognising it and accepting it, we can perhaps finally find peace. One of E.M. Forster’s most famous quotes is ‘Only Connect’, and in Still Life this is what is ultimately right at the very heart of this incredible novel for everyone in it, and for those of us who read it, it is something we should always endeavour to remember.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Liv Marsden at 4th Estate for my gifted proof copy.

If you would like to purchase a copy from West End Lane Books, you can click here

Fault Lines by Emily Itami

Published by Phoenix Books on 27th May

Available from West End Lane Books, and all Good Bookshops

What They Say

Mizuki is a Japanese housewife. She has a hardworking husband, two adorable children and a beautiful Tokyo apartment. It’s everything a woman could want, yet sometimes she wonders whether it would be more fun to throw herself off the high-rise balcony than spend another evening not talking to her husband or hanging up laundry.

Then, one rainy night, she meets Kiyoshi, a successful restaurateur. In him, she rediscovers freedom, friendship, a voice, and the neon, electric pulse of the city she has always loved. But the further she falls into their relationship, the clearer it becomes that she is living two lives – and in the end, we can choose only one.

Alluring, compelling, startlingly honest and darkly funny, Fault Lines is a bittersweet love story and a daring exploration of modern relationships from a writer to watch.

What I Say

Now more than ever, today’s mothers are met with a constant onslaught of online perfection and ideals even before most of us have managed to get dressed and eat breakfast. Every day and in numerous ways we are bombarded with different information telling us how we should look after our children and families, all the things we should be doing and lots of things we shouldn’t.

Mitzuki, the protagonist of Emily Itami’s brilliant debut novel Fault Lines, finds herself not only submerged in a world of expectation and comparison, but is also trying to face the cultural expectations that are placed on Mitzuki as a Japanese housewife. In a country with a myriad of customs and social conventions, she is constantly trying to be what everyone else wants her to be, and has learned to put her own needs and desires reluctantly to one side.

The thing is, right from the start, we are absolutely aware that Mitzuki is unhappy with her life, but rationally she knows she shouldn’t be. She has a part time job as a Inter Cultural Consultant, a hardworking husband, two beautiful children and an apartment that is amazing. If I tell you that at the beginning of the story that she botches an attempt to throw herself off her balcony, it is easy to understand that something is very wrong in her world.

Emily’s measured and taut writing means you totally feel the claustrophobic and limited world that Mitzuki is part of. She feels trapped by the world that everyone else tells her she should embrace, and simply being someone’s wife and someone’s mother is not enough. Her identity is being subsumed by everyone else, and she is wondering where Mitzuki is.

That is why when she meets restauranteur Kiyoshi by chance when she is working, she feels such an intense chemistry with him that suddenly she understands exactly what has been missing from her life. Passion. Being seen for being Mitzuki in her own right and not as a part of someone else’s life. The tension between them is palpable, and when Mitzuki meets Kiyoshi at a Tokyo Fashion Week Event, she knows that he will eventually be her lover.

Beautifully balanced with the present, we learn about her childhood in a series of interwoven narratives. When Mitzuki was presented with an opportunity to take part in a student exchange to New York, it was her father that convinced her to take part. It meant that a whole new world of spontaneity and opportunity opened up to her, which she loved being part of and presented her with numerous opportunities to pursue a completely different life as a singer. After a time, she missed her family and decided to come back to Japan, but to move out of the family home instead and assert her independence.

When Mitzuki starts to spend time with Kiyoshi, they explore the city together, and she sees the world with fresh eyes. I thought it was poignant how the calmness and dullness of the life she leads at home is contrasted with the vibrancy and cacophony of colours, sights and sounds she is met with when she and Kiyoshi are together. She is now living two lives – one of dutiful wife and mother, and one with Kiyoshi where she can finally be exactly who she wants to be again.

Ultimately, Mitzuki realises that she will have to make some incredibly difficult choices and sacrifices, and which ever ones she makes, it means that she has to compromise again for the sake of her family. You really get a sense of the internal struggle and moral dilemmas that she has to face, and how like numerous women you have to subsume what you really feel in order to maintain the equilibrium of your world.

It’s really hard to tell you all how much I loved Fault Lines, because I want you to read it to see for yourselves. Emily Itami has written an incredible debut novel that works so well because although we may not always condone the choices that Mitzuki makes, we can understand why she does. It may be a short novel, but I loved the fact it tackled so many ideas so perfectly. It talks about motherhood, parenting, marriage, identity, love and passion, but above all Fault Lines was completely and undoubtedly Matzuki’s story, and I thought she was fabulous.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Gigi Woolstencroft and Phoenix Books for my gifted copy.

You can buy your copy of Fault Lines from West End Books here.

Panenka by Rónán Hession

Panenka by Rónán Hession

Published by Bluemoose Books

Available from Bluemoose Books, West End Lane Books and From All Good Bookshops.

What They Say

His name was Joseph, but for years they had called him Panenka, a name that was his sadness and his story. Panenka has spent 25 years living with the disastrous mistakes of his past, which have made him an exile in his home town and cost him his dearest relationships. Now aged 50, Panenka begins to rebuild an improvised family life with his estranged daughter and her seven year old son. But at night, Panenka suffers crippling headaches that he calls his Iron Mask. Faced with losing everything, he meets Esther, a woman who has come to live in the town to escape her own disappointments. Together, they find resonance in each other’s experiences and learn new ways to let love into their broken lives.

What I Say

Sometimes, you discover an author and their novel, and it just completely takes you by surprise, because it is so incredibly perfect you cannot understand why everyone doesn’t know about it. When I first read Leonard and Hungry Paul, and told everyone I could to read it, it was so amazing to eventually watch the United Kingdom fall in love with this devastatingly quiet, but total powerhouse of a novel.

As soon as I knew that Rónán was writing a second novel – hand on heart? I was worried for myself and for Rónán. How could anything possibly match up to Leonard and Hungry Paul? Yet as soon as my copy arrived from Kevin, I knew I had to read it.

Panenka is a beautiful, measured and incredibly powerful novel about love and acceptance. It recognises how we may believe that we are better off on our own, but ultimately that interaction and connection with other people is the very thing that brings us peace and contentment and a sense of purpose.

Joseph, who is also known as Panenka, was playing for his local team Seneca FC. During a vital match, he used a technique in football during a penalty kick where the taker gently kicks underneath the ball, causing it to rise and fall within the centre of the goal, which fools the goalkeeper. Unfortunately that move cost his team the game and they were relegated.

Panenka and his family had to move, and his marriage ended. Now a grandfather and loving father to his daughter Marie-Thérese, Joseph has debilitating headaches and facial pain so severe that he nicknames it The Iron Mask. When he eventually decides to find out what is happening, he discovers that he has an inoperable tumour.

While Marie-Thérese deals with being a single working mother to Arthur, as well as having to decide whether to take a promotion at the Supermarket chain she works at, she is also conscious of how her Dad is on his own.

When Panenka goes to get his hair cut at a Barbers, Esther is the hairdresser who does it for him. The thing is, he has not been touched by anyone in such an innocent yet intimate way, and the intensity of Esther being so close to him, touching his neck and hair is so overwhelming he breaks down. Honestly, this scene makes me cry every time I think about it. Reading Panenka during the Lockdown, where my widowed Dad had been living on his own in Wales, no one from his family allowed to visit him, that solitary space in his life where my Mum should effortlessly be made me think about him endlessly. Can you imagine being on your own with no human touch or hugs for such a long time? That is what Rónán captures so succinctly and is heartbreaking for us to read – because it could be any one of us, and now more than ever we absolutely understand how that would feel.

As Panenka and Esther becomes closer, he does not tell her about what he is going through. Their tentative steps towards each other take an unforeseen turn when Panenka has an awful attack. Everything everyone thought about Panenka is about to be changed forever, and he has to decide whether he wants to live a life of solitude or find the strength to finally admit what he truly wants.

It is also important to note that Panenka is not some sort of heroic, perfect man. He is flawed, and knows that he is, he has had his fair share of of hurtful life experiences and as a result has shut himself away and disconnected himself from any sort of emotional connection beyond his immediate family. This vulnerability is the very thing that made me feel even closer to him, and that is why Ronan is so skilled as a writer, because he understands that in order to empathise with a character, we need to see something of ourselves in them.

For me, the reason that Panenka worked so well because it is set in a world we can all relate to and understand. This is not a universe of grand gestures and bold declarations of love. Panenka and Esther move closer together because they simply recognise in each other the desire to feel that emotional and personal connection to someone who takes them for who they truly are, without any need for pretence or facade.

As the novel does not rely on massive dramatic events, the power and the beauty of this novel comes from the portrayal of the characters and their dialogue. Ronan makes sure that we see every person for who they really are, Their hopes, dreams and fears are laid bare for us on the page, and by slowly unravelling their histories and regrets, their joy and pain, do we align our empathy and understanding with each one.

Panenka shows us so much of the world and lived experiences in so few pages, How that we may believe we are alone, but that we only have to look around us to see how loved and needed we really are. It is also a novel that is about how the everyday and the mundane may seem unremarkable, but in fact the little gestures and quiet actions are the ones that have the most power to change our world should we choose to see them.

Undoubtedly this is one of those rare novels that not only shows that for each of us there is hope and a chance to love and be loved, but also that in being willing to open ourselves up to those around us, we can finally find the connections and comfort we all deserve. Having the courage to speak up and make ourselves vulnerable may seem impossible, but Panenka so perfectly illustrates the joy and possibilities that await us when we do.

I absolutely and completely loved it.

Thank you so much to Kevin at Bluemoose Books for my gifted proof copy.

You can order Panenka at Bluemoose Books here or at West End Lane Books here.

Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal

Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal

Published by Picador Books on 13th May

Available from West End Lane Books,

All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

1866. In a coastal village in southern England, Nell picks violets for a living. Set apart by her community because of the birthmarks that speckle her skin, Nell’s world is her beloved brother and devotion to the sea.

But when Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in the village, Nell is kidnapped. Her father has sold her, promising Jasper Jupiter his very own leopard girl. It is the greatest betrayal of Nell’s life, but as her fame grows, and she finds friendship with the other performers and Jasper’s gentle brother Toby, she begins to wonder if joining the show is the best thing that has ever happened to her.

In London, newspapers describe Nell as the eighth wonder of the world. Figurines are cast in her image, and crowds rush to watch her soar through the air. But who gets to tell Nell’s story? What happens when her fame threatens to eclipse that of the showman who bought her? And as she falls in love with Toby, can he detach himself from his past and the terrible secret that binds him to his brother? 

Moving from the pleasure gardens of Victorian London to the battle-scarred plains of the Crimea, Circus of Wonders is an astonishing story about power and ownership, fame and the threat of invisibility.

What I Say

I could be very coy and give you little hints about what I thought of Circus of Wonders, but I think we know each other well enough for me to start off by saying that I completely fell in love with this novel. If you loved Elizabeth’s debut novel The Doll Factory, then I can absolutely tell you that Circus of Wonder will not disappoint you – in fact I think I loved it more!

Nell leads a life where she is constantly aware she is different from those around her. She has birthmarks all over her body, and has only known that she should be ashamed of how she looks and hidden away from the world. Her brother Charlie tries to protect her from those who make comments about her, and her father doesn’t know how to react to Nell and is ashamed of his daughter.

When Jasper Jupiter and his Circus Of Wonders comes to their village, Nell’s father sees an opportunity to make some money and take away his shame, and he sells Nell to Jasper for £20. What Jasper doesn’t know is that his brother Toby, who works at the Circus, has already seen and spoken to Nell and is totally captivated by her.

The thing is, although at first Nell fights tooth and nail to escape from the Circus, she starts to realise as she sees the other performers, that this in fact might be the very place that allows her that freedom to be herself that she has never experienced before.

Nell becomes Nellie Moon, and is the star of Jasper’s show, which the showman loves, until her popularity eclipses his. When Queen Victoria finally attends the Circus, it is Nell she invites to the palace and Jasper is devastated. The persona he has created for Nell is more adored than him, and this is what he is unable to handle.

While Jasper is dealing with his waning popularity and ever mounting debts due to an ominous lender nicknamed the Jackal, Nell finally seems to have found her place in the world. The public adore her, she has found a group of friends in the Circus, and in Toby she has found a man who loves her for who she is.

Toby undoubtedly loves Nell, but he and Jasper are bound not only by their familial bond, but also a devastating secret that happened when they were in the Crimea War. Nell asks Toby who he would choose, and ultimately it is his choice that changes both their lives forever.

The beauty and power of Circus Of Wonders are the things that are not explicitly stated, it is the things the reader can determine that adds to the poignancy of Elizabeth’s writing. The performers at the Circus know that Jasper employs them, but they believe he has also given them the chance to finally be themselves, to be seen for who they truly are.

However, we can see that Jasper views them as commodities, things to be bought and sold for the best price to give him the biggest opportunity to make the most money. When Nell’s fame eclipses his, he has no hesitation in deciding to dismantle the Circus and rebuild it, discarding the performers without a second thought in order to maintain the ultimate control over his Circus.

This was for me, also a novel of identity and free will, where Nell and the other members of the Circus are trying to find a voice, a place where they can fit in without prejudice or judgement, and on the surface, the Circus seems to be this utopia. As we spend more time with them, we can see how every aspect of their lives is controlled by Jasper’s will – they can express themselves as long as it fits in with what he wants, and what he finds impossible to handle is when someone like Nell finds who she truly is, and then decides she wants to be in charge of her own fate. This is what Jasper cannot accept, that those he believes he has saved to line his own pockets have through him found their own voice which is not what he wants to hear.

From the moment you turn the first page of Circus of Wonders you are totally immersed in a world where you absolutely see, hear and feel everything that is happening around you. It’s hard to describe how affecting Elizabeth’s prose is, but for me, it is a novel that is impossible to stop thinking about when you have read it. In Nell, Toby and Jasper, Elizabeth has created incredible and truly real characters whose lives will undoubtedly and indelibly stay with you for a long time after you have read the perfect final pages.

I absolutely loved Circus of Wonders, and it will be one of my #MostSelfishReads2021

Thank you so much to Camilla Elworthy at Picador Books for my gifted proof and finished copies.

You can visit the West End Lane Bookshop here for your copy and all your Bookish Needs!

Luster by Raven Leilani

Luster by Raven Leilani

Published by Picador

Available from All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Edie is just trying to survive. She’s messing up in her dead-end admin job in her all-white office, is sleeping with all the wrong men, and has failed at the only thing that meant anything to her, painting. No one seems to care that she doesn’t really know what she’s doing with her life beyond looking for her next hook-up. And then she meets Eric, a white, middle-aged archivist with a suburban family, including a wife who has sort-of-agreed to an open marriage and an adopted black daughter who doesn’t have a single person in her life who can show her how to do her hair. As if navigating the constantly shifting landscape of sexual and racial politics as a young black woman wasn’t already hard enough, with nowhere else left to go, Edie finds herself falling head-first into Eric’s home and family

What I Say

When I was asked if I would like to read and review a book from the Dylan Thomas Prize Shortlist, I knew immediately that Luster was the novel I wanted to read.

There’s always a slight trepidation for me in picking up a novel that has been all over social media, because there is always that nagging doubt that it’s a case of hype over substance, and that you won’t understand why it’s been so lauded.

Let me start by telling you about myself. I’m a 50 year old white woman, have been married for nearly twenty five years and have two teenage sons. On paper, a novel about a young black woman who faces prejudice and rascism and ends up living with her lover’s wife and daughter, and who is unapologetic in her sexuality and lives life day to day sounds a million miles away from my life. How could this novel possibly appeal to me? Well, do you know what? It absolutely and completely did.

To simply categorise Luster in such a simplistic way does not do it justice. For me, this is a novel about a woman who is trying to make her way in the world, to try and find out where she fits in and what she wants, to have an emotional connection and sense of love from someone and for someone. Isn’t that what we all want?

Edie works in a publishing house, at a job she likes, in an apartment she tolerates, and has had numerous relationships with men at the office. When she is fired from her job for her behaviour and sending inappropriate emails, and then loses her apartment, Edie has no clue what she is going to be able to do.

After a disastrous relationship with Mark, and a whole host of office relationships, Edie has been seeing Eric who she met on a dating app. They have spent a long time talking to each other, and eventually they decide to meet. An older married dad of one, whose wife Rebecca, knows he is sleeping with Edie, theirs is a strange and complicated relationship. Punctuated by lust, and Edie wanting to be loved but at the same time not knowing what she wants that to be, they always seem to be slightly disconnected.

When Edie has nowhere else to go, she ends up moving into Eric and Rebecca’s home, where she can see how Akila, their adopted black daughter is struggling at home and school. There is almost an unspoken agreement that Edie will support Akila, but it is also interesting and incredibly uncomfortable to see how she becomes part of this barely functioning household.

When Eric is out of town, Rebecca and Edie are thrown together, and their relationship is undoubtedly unsettling. They vacillate between tentative friendship and outright hostility and Edie is never quite sure if she is a guest or an unofficial housekeeper for them, which also makes it unsettling reading for us too. For Rebecca, it almost seems to be a case of keeping your friends close, and your enemies closer.

I thought it was also interesting to see how Edie is longing to be an artist, and is trying to find a way to use her personal experiences as an impetus for her art. She is constantly striving for a way of expressing herself, and as the novel progresses, we learn of the fractured relationship with her parents, her own traumatic experiences including her abortion and falling pregnant with Eric. It seems that only by living through, and accepting what she has lived through that she finds her artistic voice and expression.

Luster is a frank, unfiltered look at what it means to be a young black woman in America. Raven Leilani has created a character in Edie who goes through so much, and has experienced a world that is so far removed from mine, but I found myself protective and enamoured by her. Her desire to love and be seen for who she is and what she wants is real, refreshing and engaging. We may never really understand what Rebecca’s motives were in asking her to move in, or why Eric had a relationship with her. Yet we absolutely understand Edie’s need to feel a connection to someone, to be seen, to be part of the world around her.

Ultimately for me, the one thing that resonated so completely about Edie is what she herself says at the end of the novel:

‘And when I am alone with myself, this is what I am waiting for someone to do to me, with merciless, deliberate hands, to put me down onto the canvas so that when I’m gone, there will be a record, proof that I was here.’

I loved it.

Thank you so much to Bei Guo at Midas PR for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.

Greenwich Park by Katherine Faulkner

Greenwich Park by Katherine Faulkner

Published by Bloomsbury Raven

Available in All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Helen has it all…

Daniel is the perfect husband.
Rory is the perfect brother.
Serena is the perfect sister-in-law.

And Rachel? Rachel is the perfect nightmare.

When Helen, finally pregnant after years of tragedy, attends her first antenatal class, she is expecting her loving architect husband to arrive soon after, along with her confident, charming brother Rory and his pregnant wife, the effortlessly beautiful Serena. What she is not expecting is Rachel.

Extroverted, brash, unsettling single mother-to-be Rachel, who just wants to be Helen’s friend. Who just wants to get know Helen and her friends and her family. Who just wants to know everything about them. Every little secret.

Masterfully plotted and utterly addictive, Greenwich Park is a dark, compelling look at motherhood, friendships, privilege and the secrets we keep to protect ourselves.

What I Say

If there is one thing guaranteed to get me to pick up a novel, it’s one where motherhood and parenting is involved. I was drawn to Greenwich Park because the idea of a world where the filtered facade presented to the world doesn’t match the fractured reality is something I am always fascinated reading about.

Helen, Daniel, Rory and Serena inhabit a world where they have never had to worry about money and are very comfortably off. Having met at Cambridge, the two couples have been inseparable. Following the death of her parents, Helen and Daniel now live in their former home in Greenwich Park which they are having renovated before their baby arrives. Having endured the trauma of losing babies before, Helen is understandably nervous about ensuring everything goes smoothly before the birth of their child. Rory is Helen’s brother, and with his glamorous and seemingly unflappable wife Serena, he now runs his father’s architectural practice along with Rory.

Serena is pregnant too, and although she and Rory have signed up to childbirth classes with Helen and Daniel, Helen finds herself on her own when they don’t show up. She has felt increasingly disconnected from Daniel who is spending more time at the office, lots of money on their renovations, and is receiving calls from the bank about remortgaging the house. While thinking of leaving the class, it is then that Rachel, bursts into the classroom and Helen’s life. Brash, vibrant, unapologetic and loud, Rachel is everything Helen isn’t, and although at first Helen might find this slightly refreshing, little by little she realises that somehow, everywhere she goes, Rachel seems to appear.

Helen’s friend Katie is a journalist who is covering a rape case where two privileged young white men are accused of raping a young woman, and initially I thought it was just part of the narrative to introduce Katie. However, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that something similar happened when Helen, Rory, Daniel and Serena were at Cambridge, and that their involvement on that night means that they are now very much in danger of losing everything.

Rachel slithers her way into their lives and little by little she manages to get her feet firmly under the table in Helen and Daniel’s house with both of them too polite to ask her to leave. She eats all their food, leaves the house in disarray and has no qualms about making herself completely at home.

That is until an irate Helen who has been pushed to breaking point confronts Rachel on the night of her bonfire party, and she finally leaves them. Or so Helen believes – until the police arrive at her house with a lot of questions.

From that moment on, the fragile world that Helen, Daniel, Rory and Serena have been living in starts to crack and splinter, in ways they could never have imagined. Rachel’s disappearance is the catalyst to their lives unravelling, and suddenly the couples have to face the fact that they are far more involved in Rachel’s life than they ever thought possible.

Greenwich Park works so well as a novel because it manages to balance a fast paced and deliciously unpredictable plot with brilliantly in-depth and engaging characters. You understand how Helen is not only feeling isolated and vulnerable, but also that she has always felt she is the consolation prize throughout her life, overshadowed by the aloof and majestic Serena. Smug Rory and seemingly sensitive Daniel are not what they appear, and I loved the fact that their sense of almost untouchability due to their upbringing means that what happens to them is beyond their comprehension.

Did I always like them? No, but that for me is testament to Katherine’s writing, because the brilliant plot and my absolute need to know what has happened, and why Rachel came into their lives makes this novel one that is impossible to put down. Greenwich Park is an absorbing and intelligent novel which manages to do that very rare thing of having characters who we may dislike, but creates such a connection with them that means we are compelled to follow their stories right to the end.

I absolutely loved it – and you if you think it sounds heart stopping, just wait for those deliciously perfect last two lines!

Thank you so much to Emilie Chambeyron and Amy Donegan at Bloomsbury for my gifted copy.

Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding

Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding

Published by Bloomsbury

Available from All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

An immensely powerful and compulsive novel of maternal love, control and a woman at the mercy of addiction.

What I Say

From the moment you open the pages of this book, Sonya a single mum living in Dublin, this protagonist of Bright Burning Things bursts into the plot and seems to be an all encompassing passionate and vital woman, determined to ensure that her son Tommy has an unforgettable childhood with her.

What we learn about Sonya very quickly is that she is an alcoholic, dealing with a very real and invasive disease that is affecting her ability to care for Tommy and means that at times, this four year old boy is caring for his Mum. Make no mistake about Sonya, her love for her son is all encompassing and he is her world, but it is also evident to us from the start that her addiction to alcohol means that she is unable to care for him properly. Food in in short supply, he is not attending school, and there seems to be little or no routine for him as he helplessly watches his Mum try to exist in a world where what matters most is getting a drink.

Her Dad watches helplessly as his daughter slips further away from him, determined to do what she sees best for her and Tommy, even though we can see that unfortunately Sonya is not coping at all and needs help. Even when her Dad asks a neighbour Mrs O’Malley to be his eyes and ears and to make sure that she is coping, Sonya spirals into a world where Tommy is being neglected and she is unreachable. When finally Tommy is at risk, her Dad intervenes and facilitates an admission to a Rehab unit for twelve weeks, and if she refuses, he will remove Tommy from her care permanently.

Sonya ultimately knows that in order to keep Tommy, she has no choice but to agree, and has to deal with the reality that her son is living with foster parents and will do so until she can prove that she is fit to care for him. The description of Sonya’s time in rehab is hard to read, and you absolutely understand the huge emotional and physical demands that are placed on her, but at the heart of this experience is her realisation to fail would means losing the very thing that is keeping her there.

It is while she is in rehab that she meets David, a counsellor and former addict, and he seems to be the stability and hope that she needs. What becomes obvious to the reader is that she is relying on a man who seems intent on almost smothering her in his insistence at running the relationship his way, and her deep fear of losing her son means that for a while she is unable to articulate that she needs to be on her own with her son.

Lisa Harding is brilliant at showing us how chaotic, undisciplined and shifting Sonya’s world is, and while there is never any doubt as to the depth and breadth of her love for her son, there is also never any doubt as to how her alcoholism permeates every part of her life and world and she is constantly trying to ensure her addiction doesn’t lead to the loss of her son. As a reader with no experience of alcoholism, this novel was absolutely an education about this disease, and how the craving for drink obliterates reason and rationale. However on a human level, you cannot be failed to be moved by how much Sonya is aware of the struggle she is facing, and you feel her shame and anger at herself too. She knows this is not what a mother should be, but her fierce love and determination means that she understands that rehab is the only way in which she can give herself a chance at spending the rest of her life with her son.

Bright Burning Things is undoubtedly a raw and unflinching book about the realities of alcoholism, and to see how Tommy is trying to look after his Mum and be there for her at such a young age is difficult to read. What I loved about this book, is the way in which Sonya grows from defining her world by men and needing to have a drink, to realising that her best hope of change is to put herself and Tommy firmly at the front of everything she does.

I also felt like the book was split stylistically- pre-rehab, where her world seems surreal at times as she is unconfined by rules and regulations and pleases herself, and post-rehab, where she slowly understands the power she holds within herself and the realisation that she needs to be Tommy’s mother. The writing is at times hypnotic and immersive as you find yourself absorbed and disconnected from reality in Sonya’s world, and there were passages that were so beautifully laid bare for the reader, that it was impossible not to be moved.

In Bright Burning Things, Lisa Harding has created a protagonist in Sonya who may exasperate us at times, delight us often and may infuriate us at others. Yet above all she has created for us that undeniable emotional connection where all you want is for Sonya to get the chance to be the mother you know she can be, and the Mum that Tommy truly deserves.

I loved it.

Thank you so much to Laura Meyer at Bloomsbury for my gifted copy.

The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames by Justine Cowan

The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames by Justine Cowan

Published by Virago Press

Available from All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Growing up in a wealthy enclave outside San Francisco, Justine Cowan’s life seems idyllic. But her mother’s unpredictable temper drives Justine from home the moment she is old enough to escape. It is only after her mother dies that she finds herself pulling at the threads of a story half-told – her mother’s upbringing in London’s Foundling Hospital. Haunted by this secret history, Justine travels across the sea and deep into the past to discover the girl her mother once was.
Here, with the vividness of a true storyteller, she pieces together her mother’s childhood alongside the history of the Foundling Hospital: from its idealistic beginnings in the eighteenth century, how it influenced some of England’s greatest creative minds – from Handel to Dickens, its shocking approach to childcare and how it survived the Blitz only to close after the Second World War.
This was the environment that shaped a young girl then known as Dorothy Soames, who was left behind by a mother forced by stigma and shame to give up her child; who withstood years of physical and emotional abuse, dreaming of
escape as German bombers circled the skies, unaware all along that her own mother was fighting to get her back.

What I Say

There are times when books bring you joy, or solace, or help you understand something that has come into your world which you need to find answers for. My Mum was adopted from a Barnado’s home when she was very young, and my Grandparents will always be Marjorie and Frank, who right from the start made sure that she knew how loved and wanted she was, but also made her aware of where she came from. More recently, a family member made the decision to adopt, and after an emotional time, they were able to adopt a child from Coram, which is the charity established by Sir Thomas Coram, who founded The Foundling Hospital in London.

When I saw Justine’s book appearing on my social media, which describes her search for the truth about her mother’s childhood and time at The Foundling Hospital, I knew I needed to read more.

The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames is undoubtedly an emotional and at times challenging read. To witness what the children went through in their time at The Foundling Hospital, as these young children were shaped into the moulds that the people running the institution believed were best for them seems so far away from the approach and understanding we have about children today. More than this, and at the heart of this book, is Justine’s quest to try and understand the woman who was her mother. Why did she seem so distant from Justine? What prompted the episodes where she would be unreachable, peppered with moments of maternal love and closeness, so Justine never really knew what to expect every time she went home?

Justine had a fractured relationship with her mother, who in spite of everything was determined that Justine should be raised as a well bred and respected young lady, and her life was filled with classes and activities at a relentless rate. As soon as she was able to, Justine moved as far away as possible and became a successful environmental attorney. However, her mother always kept pulling her back, and when Justine was nineteen, she had returned to the family home when her mother was having one of her episodes and found that her mother had written Dorothy Soames Dorothy Soames Dorothy Soames on a piece of paper.

When her mother passed away, Justine kept coming back to the fact her mother had mentioned the fact that she was a foundling, and decided to try and find out exactly who Dorothy Soames was. When her mother was admitted to The Foundling Hospital, it had moved from London to Berkhamsted, but it was the same austere Institution. It fostered the children out to paid members of society, who then had to return them to The Foundling Hospital when they turned five, irresepective of what bonds they had formed, or even if the foster family wanted to adopt them.

Justine’s search for the truth about her mother uncovered a whole world where children were placed in an Institution and raised explicitly with the idea of them becoming useful members of society – but there were undeniably instances of emotional and physical abuse. Children including Dorothy were placed in solitary confinement, had their heads held under water as a punishment and were left to wet themselves in bed as they are not allowed to get up during the night. In spite of The Foundling Hospital having great acclaim for what it was doing, it is interesting to see how that worked in reality at that time in history. I thought it was particularly heartbreaking to read how each parent who left a child there, also provided a token too, as a way to claim back that child -although once admitted that was very unlikely to happen.

That’s why Dorothy’s case was so groundbreaking in that her mother battled to get Dorothy back – and succeeded. As Dorothy struggled to come to terms with what she had gone through, she attempted to make a life for herself, and emigrated to America and becoming Eileen.

Justine also balances her personal search with the history and influence of The Foundling Hospital, and how Sir Thomas and his contemporaries helped to establish The Foundling Hospital as a way to look after the children who needed it. I thought that it was interesting to learn how the historical and social conventions of the time helped to create an overall picture of The Foundling Hospital, but I suppose I was impatient as I wanted it to be focussed mostly on Justine’s investigations and her relationship with her mother.

There is no doubt from reading this memoir that both Justine and her mother Eileen as well as Justine’s father, suffered immeasurable heartbreak as a result of Dorothy’s life in The Foundling Hospital. Eileen had been shaped by a life of uncertainty and routine, a world where her childhood was regulated and controlled so closely that to be a mother with all the emotion and chaos it sometimes brings was perhaps why she tried to push Justine to be what she wanted her to be. I also got the sense from reading this book the sense of immense control and purposefulness Justine had in trying to piece together the puzzle of her mother’s life to try and rationalise her actions. I wondered if Justine did this because she had been used to living her life with a guard up, and to reveal everything that she has gone through would be too much.

The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames is a thoroughly absorbing and incredibly revealing book that makes the reader aware of how imposing and overwhelming The Foundling Hospital must have been for both the children and the parents who made the devastating decision to leave them there. However, for me, this book was unquestionably Justine attempting to try and find a way to collect and process the very difficult relationship she had with her mother. Maybe in being able to articulate and write down her journey in this memoir Justine now has a way to connect with her mother and although she may not have loved her, she can at least try to rationalise the immense and life changing impact of being a foundling.

Thank you so much to Grace Vincent at Virago for my gifted copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.