Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrink

Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrink

Published by Picador on 17th September

Available from All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

For as long as she can remember, Cathy Rentzenbrink has lost and found herself in stories. Growing up she was rarely seen without her nose in a book and read in secret long after lights out. When tragedy struck, books kept her afloat. Eventually they lit the way to a new path, first as a bookseller and then as a writer. No matter what the future holds, reading will always help.

Dear Reader is a moving, funny and joyous exploration of how books can change the course of your life, packed with recommendations from one reader to another.

What I Say

“And I know that whatever else may happen in my life, I will love talking to strangers about books. Once upon a time there was a little girl who loved books. She still does. She always will.”

I was going to do a video review for Dear Reader – you know me, there’s nothing better I like than having an opportunity to talk about books I adore to an audience – no matter how few people are watching! To be honest, I realised that two minutes twenty seconds of a Twitter video isn’t long enough to tell you why I loved Dear Reader.

Life at the moment doesn’t really lend itself to me shouting about books on Twitter and Instagram. Personal circumstances have meant that books and blogging have had to take a total back seat whilst I concentrate on looking after my family. Just between us, not having to do it has felt like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders too.

I wanted to tell you that because that’s why I needed to take a break from book blogging and social media. Suddenly shouting about books and retweeting things didn’t seem that important. I’ve still been scrolling through Twitter and Instagram don’t get me wrong, but it’s been a strange experience. It’s as if you are standing outside the school playground when you can still see everything going on through the fence – who is playing nicely together, who is shouting the most, or the loudest, and who is picking on who – I just decided not to step through the gate for a bit.

I posted the blog posts I had promised, as well as pictures of the books that had arrived (thank you so much to everyone who sent me something) but for the last two weeks I have been existing in some kind of bookish limbo – aware of my commitments to people, but having absolutely no desire to pick up a book and read anything.

When the fabulous Camilla Elworthy at Picador very kindly sent me a copy of Cathy’s book a while back, I put it on my shelf to read later because I didn’t feel like I needed it. The past fortnight has been one of huge ups and downs, and on Saturday, feeling slightly overwhelmed and a little concerned by my complete and total lack of bookish enthusiasm, I pulled it down from my shelves and started reading.

The thing is, I couldn’t stop.

Dear Reader made me laugh, made me cry (a lot!), and also made me nod furiously as I read it. I was reading about myself in these pages. Finally someone had totally articulated the pure unadulterated joy of books and reading, and I loved every single page.

I remember the numerous times I have put off doing something so I can squeeze in another chapter, the sheer delight of choosing a book and curling up with it uninterrupted, and the quizzical looks from someone who just doesn’t understand the joy that reading brings. All of this is in Cathy’s book – I said in a comment on Instagram to Cathy that I had never felt so seen!

Cathy intersperses chapters from her own personal life – how she started reading, her career as a bookseller at Waterstones and then working for Quick Reads before becoming a writer, with almost prescriptions for us, books on different topics and themes, to help and educate, to reignite the reading passion we may have lost.

The most poignant part of the book for me is when Cathy talks about her grief in losing her brother Matty. I read Cathy’s memoir The Last Act of Love when it was published, and apart from openly sobbing at some points, I remember feeling her pain and loss so acutely, and was in awe of the all encompassing love she felt for Matty and how she described the feelings of grief so perfectly.

When my Mum passed away last year, I turned to reading as I talked about here – it became the cure to the uncharted heartbreak I was drowning in. Yet this time things are different. I feel overwhelmed by the world beyond my living room, and can’t really connect with anything. As I sit writing this, to my right are my bookshelves, groaning with so many unread books to read that it’s ridiculous – and yet I still ordered two more yesterday. That’s the thing that Cathy understands so well – that the way we feel about books is in our subconscious, and however unlikely it seems, it is always there whatever life may throw at us.

Dear Reader really made me stop and think about my whole approach to reading. In saying this, I am probably ending any chance of ever being sent a proof again, but here’s the thing. Why as a reader and blogger have I become so hung up on having the latest releases to shout about? When I started blogging I simply read what I fancied and talked about it, but as I have told you before, I have noticed recently how having the latest releases it is seemingly all that matters and honestly, I am weary of it.

Cathy’s book gave me the breathing space I needed. She made me realise that reading is not a race, that there is nothing wrong with simply stepping back and looking at the books I already have, rather than being desperate to have the books everyone is telling me I need to be a contented reader. It was as if the answer to my literary dilemmas had been sitting in this book all the time, and now I finally understand it.

Dear Reader is absolutely the book I wish I had had when I was younger. As a teenager I was frequently teased about my love of books and reading. People just didn’t seem to understand my need to have books, the delight in searching other people’s bookshelves, the satisfaction in working my way round the library from children’s fiction to the tantalising moment when I started reading adult fiction. I was lucky in that both my parents read avidly, and when my mum passed away, the only thing I really wanted of hers were the books on her bookshelf, still with the bookmarks in, even though forensic science and social workers memoirs were never my kind of read!

Books give me that emotional connection, an unspoken link with someone else, and a shared memory that can never be forgotten. They are a way for me to start a conversation, to escape from my world for a little while and to learn about new ones, and for me nothing feels better than finding a novel you want to tell everyone they need to read.

Quite simply, books and reading bring me joy, and Dear Reader is an unapologetically glorious love letter to both. I would go as far to say that it is required reading for anyone who has ever felt that they are alone in their love of books. Dear Reader will help you see that in fact that there are numerous people who feel exactly the same way as you do – and it’s a revelation!

It is a book that not only reignited my passion for reading, and added a lot of books to my reading list, but in reading Cathy’s story it made me feel that like her, I will carry on talking to people about books for as long as I can, and reminded me that little girl who loved reading is always there too.

Thank you so much to Camilla Elworthy for my gifted copy.

An Archive of Happiness by Elizabeth Reeder

An Archive of Happiness by Elizabeth Reeder

Published by Penned in the Margins on 15th September

Available from all Good Bookshops or Online

What They Say

An Archive of Happiness is set in the Scottish Highlands over the course of one day during the Avens familys annual get-together. Its the summer solstice and theirs is a fractured family, broken by arguments, by things said and not said, by a mother who has left and a father who was left behind. What happens on this day will force them to cleave together to survive and redraw the traditional bonds of family.

What I Say

As soon as I heard about Elizabeth Reeder’s novel, I was immediately intrigued, as a fractured family coming together for one day is something that always draws me to novels. As I have a very small family, geographically distanced, and with our own personal challenges, getting us all together is not a common event.

In this novel, it is clear that the Avens family may be separated too, but that the familial bond, fuelled by childhood disappointments and issues that have dogged them for years, draws them back together more tightly than they could ever have envisioned.

The story seemingly takes place over one day, but in fact the novel is made up of all their life stories, the choices they have made and the lives they have lived until this point. When the plot culminates in them coming together one Summer Solstice Day – it paves the way for a tragic event that will mean they have to come together and face the world as a united family.

The Avens family we meet is made up of very different characters. The father Sonny, the mother Viv who one day simply disappears, and their children Ben, Nic and April. Viv’s sister Grace also lives nearby and has become a surrogate mother to the children, and a shoulder to lean on for Sonny, who has struggled with the challenges of looking after three children on his own. The ramifications of Viv’s disappearance affects each child in very different ways, and is felt intensely by each of them, although they show it differently.

Ben we learn was physically assaulted by Viv and he retaliated. His life after her leaving is peppered with anger and his inability to settle, and his sensitivity and unhappiness and distance from his Dad at one point led him to attempt suicide – when his sister covered for him.

Nic has a determination to lead her own life and is fiercely independent. She decides to buy a Croft on her own, and wants to set herself up in business fixing and designing tools. Even when she meets Charlie, her future husband, she is insistent that she does what she wants, and will not be limited by other people’s expectations.

April and Nic have always been close, and after not being able to find a job April likes, she has started working in a local pub, and has found her own happiness and talent in working there. She has also met someone – Col, who is going through his own challenges and is quietly undergoing his own personal transformation.

As the novel moves through the day to the time when the family are due to meet up, each chapter has a timeline at the top with the current time in bold lettering, and also there are clock symbols depicting the current time through certain chapters. This stylistically gives a sense for the reader as to where we are in the day. Right from the start, you are aware that something momentous is going to happen – you don’t know when and how. Elizabeth Reeder pushes and pulls the reader through different times – the past, the present and the future, and the only way you know this is by looking at the clock and the chapter headings. It serves to bring you closer to the characters as each time shift tells us more about them.

At times, this can be slightly disorientating – you have to concentrate and I found myself trying to focus where I was in terms of the time of the characters stories. However, I think this works, because it also gives the story that sense of how our memories and recollections work. We may start at one place and find ourselves somewhere totally different- but the fact of the matter is that this is what our memories of families are – disjointed, sprawling, true and unique to each of us.

It is impossible to talk about this novel without acknowledging it is firmly rooted in the natural world, and the Avens family’s daily lives and experiences are absolutely intertwined with the environment around them. The language is poetic, the descriptions of the landscape and the weather are evocative and you feel you could lose yourself in this world. There is always the sense of the magnitude of nature, and how insignificant we are, but this is balanced by the fact that the characters also feel hemmed in at times by this place, and the need to forge their own identities.

An Archive of Happiness is a novel that for me defies categorisation. There are so many different themes carried throughout the pages – love, grief, parenting, anger and LGBTQ are just some of them. The thing is, it works well because they are integrated seamlessly into the plot, and I genuinely liked all the main characters too. They felt real, relatable and you understood why they did what they did – and at times your heart aches for them. There is a huge life changing event for all of them – (no, I’m not going to tell you) and this not only was totally unexpected, but was also the very thing that made everyone realise how crucial they really all are to each other’s lives and happiness.

If you love novels that are not usual linear narratives, and really push the reader in terms of emotional connection and an understanding of the inner workings of a real family, this is just the novel you are looking for.

Thank you so much to Kate at Penned In The Margins, for my gifted proof copy in exchange for a review.

The Harpy by Megan Hunter

The Harpy by Megan Hunter

Published by Picador Books on 3rd September

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Lucy and Jake live in a house by a field where the sun burns like a ball of fire. Lucy works from home but devotes her life to the children, to their finely tuned routine, and to the house itself, which comforts her like an old, sly friend. But then a man calls one afternoon with a shattering message: his wife has been having an affair with Lucy’s husband, he wants her to know.

The revelation marks a turning point: Lucy and Jake decide to stay together, but in a special arrangement designed to even the score and save their marriage, she will hurt him three times. Jake will not know when the hurt is coming, nor what form it will take.

As the couple submit to a delicate game of crime and punishment, Lucy herself begins to change, surrendering to a transformation of both mind and body from which there is no return.

Told in dazzling, musical prose, The Harpy by Megan Hunter is a dark, staggering fairy tale, at once mythical and otherworldly and fiercely contemporary. It is a novel of love, marriage and its failures, of power and revenge, of metamorphosis and renewal.

What I Say

I asked my mother what a harpy was; she told me that they punish men, for the things they do.

There are few novels that serve to unsettle the reader so deliciously and perfectly, blurring the lines between the mythical and the real. The Harpy is a novel that may be short, but it builds in momentum to a moment that is the perfect ending to a story of love and revenge and imprisonment and freedom.

Lucy and Jake seemingly have an idyllic marriage. They have two sons called Ted and Paddy, and are caught up in the usual concerns and constraints of parenting and marriage. Lucy works at home as a copy writer, and juggles parenting with her job, while Jake works long hours as a University academic.

Then one day, Lucy receives a phone call which shatters the world she knows. Jake has been having an affair with a woman called Vanessa that he works with. Lucy’s world has changed forever and she has to face the man she thought she knew better than anyone.

This is not a straightforward story of a woman scorned and a penitent man. At the heart of the story is The Harpy, a mythical creature which has a woman’s head and body and a bird’s wings and claws. It is here the novel shifts between magical realism and the claustrophobic domestic narrative.

The narrative is physically split in the novel between Jake and Lucy, and the other story – how Lucy has always been fascinated by the story of The Harpy. There is the underlying notion that her interest comes from the fact that Lucy is closer to understanding a what a Harpy is than we could possibly imagine.

As Jake and Lucy struggle to repair their marriage, and acknowledge the pain that Lucy is suffering, Jake tells Lucy that she can hurt him three times – he will have no forewarning, and when it’s done, Lucy’s revenge will be complete.

This turns the novel in a new and dark direction. We know that Lucy feels an affinity with The Harpy, and has done since she was a child, and has studied it extensively. The clues in the text seem to suggest it is a side of Lucy’s personality she has subsumed for a long time. Now it has been awakened, and Lucy is ready to fully embrace all the chaos and mayhem the Harpy will bring to ensure that Jake is published for his betrayals.

For so long Lucy has done exactly what is expected of her in the marriage and has played the role of dutiful wife and mother. Now she has this immense power and tantalising freedom to do what she wants when she wants, this is tempered by the fact that this is not easy for Lucy, but for her to move on it she knows has to be done.

After she has hurt Jake twice, things start to twist and turn and Lucy’s world is shaken by a decision Jake makes after everything he promised. As the novel draws to its heartstopping conclusion, the spectre of the Harpy looms ever closer, and it becomes more difficult to see where Lucy ends and the Harpy begins. There is a building tension and as Lucy physically runs away from her marital home, the descriptions become more raw and sensory as she is aware of the environment around her. It is as if Lucy is leaving behind her domestic world and entering the magical and natural one to absolve herself of what pain she has inflicted on Jake and the pain he has caused her.

The Harpy works so well because of how Megan Hunter has captured the reality and limitations of the domestic sphere and the grinding reality of a world where Lucy is constrained by the expectations of her husband and her sons. You feel her frustration as if she is caged, her desperation as her marriage implodes, and her realisation of the power she has if she gives finally gives way to the Harpy. It is a chilling and beautifully written book that may be short, but perfectly captures both the nuances of a marriage in crisis, and a woman who unearths the strength she has kept buried for so long.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Camilla Elworthy at Picador for my gifted copy of The Harpy.

Sad Janet by Lucie Britsch

Sad Janet by Lucie Britsch

Published by W&N Books on 3 September

Available from All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Meet Janet. Janet is sad. Not about her life, about the world. Have you seen it these days? 

The thing is, she’s not out to make anyone else sad. She’s not turning up to weddings shouting that most marriages end in divorce. She just wants to wear her giant coat, get rid of her passive-aggressive boyfriend, and avoid human interaction at the rundown dog shelter where she works. 

That is, until word spreads about a new pill that promises cynics like her one day off from being sad. When her family stages an intervention, and the prospect of making it through Christmas alone seems like too much, Janet finally decides to give them what they want. What follows is life-changing for all concerned – in ways no one quite expects. 

Hilarious, provocative and profound, Sad Janet is the antidote to our happiness-obsessed world. 

What I Say

Love is like gluten, I should have told the doctor. I can’t process it properly.

I know I should start with some measured and profound statement about Sad Janet, but I’m just going to say this. I absolutely and completely LOVED this book. One of my #MostSelfishReads2020 without a shadow of a doubt.

Right, now we have got that out of the way, you need to know why don’t you?

Janet lives her life in a perpetual state of sadness, but she is aware of it. She is fine just working and being at home and doing little else. The thing is, everyone else wants to ‘fix’ her, and mould her into the person they think she should be – happy, sociable and basically no trouble to her family. They want her to fit in, so they no longer have to explain her to anyone.

After graduating, she has decided to work in a crumbling dog shelter out in the middle of nowhere, with the formidable feminist powerhouse that is Debs, and Melissa, a positive and happy soul who is the exact opposite of Janet.

When she separates from her boyfriend, and aware that it actually doesn’t upset her that much, Janet starts to think about her life. All around her, people are happy- but not authentically. Self medication is mainstream, and viewed as the norm. When Janet is offered the opportunity to be part of a trial for a new pill claiming to provide happiness for the person taking it, and the prospect of a horrendous family Christmas on the horizon, Janet decides to sign up.

Part of the trial involves Janet going to an excruciating weekly meeting, with other trial participants, and it is there she sees a group of people who are just like her, and are really just there to talk about themselves or get the necessary boxes ticked to complete the trials. It’s run by a group leader called Karen who has a badly prepared marketing script and intends to stick to it, and a man from the Pharmaceutical company who is rather chillingly observing the group.

As Janet goes through the trial, her family are eagerly waiting for the new and transformed ‘happy’ Janet, and especially Janet’s Mother, who is eager for a daughter she can finally show off and bond with. This for me is the crux of the novel, and what makes it so relevant and true. We are so insistent on presenting and wanting ours and others best selves constantly, using filters and editing what we show people, making sure our lives are liked and retweeted. Our stock answer to any question about ourselves is ‘fine’, because to be truthful is unpalatable to hear. Janet is unique because she doesn’t subscribe to that – and it unsettles people because it means she is an individual in a world of sameness.

Little by little, Janet apparently seems to be benefitting from the medication, and is more aware of her feelings and those of other people. She even agrees to take an agonising trip to the Mall with her mother under duress in an attempt to try and feel what she thinks she should. That scene for me encapsulated perfectly the divide between how Janet functions and what her Mother wants her to be, and I absolutely felt Janet’s awkwardness and horror at being at the Mall!

Does this magical pill work? You will have to read Sad Janet to find out because I’m not giving any spoilers..

What I will say, is this novel repeatedly made me laugh out loud, and there were lines and paragraphs I wanted to underline because they were so perfectly written. Although it may seem that Sad Janet is a humourous novel about a woman trying to find happiness – that is not doing it the justice it deserves. It’s so much more.

It is an astute and incisive commentary about our world today, and possibly a near future where worryingly self medication becomes the norm, to deal with the fact we are not feeling or reacting in the way others believe we should. The story moves at a perfect pace, and as the novel progresses, you understand that Janet is finding what works for her, and she has exactly what she needs around her already – she just has to see it. Janet is a character who not only thoroughly entertained me, but also kind of made me feel that perhaps being more Janet is exactly what we all need to be right now.

I absolutely loved it.

Comedy Women In Print Shortlist Shadow Panel – The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman

Published by Headline

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Meet Nina Hill: A young woman supremely confident in her own. . . shell.

Nina has her life just as she wants it: a job in a bookstore, an excellent trivia team and a cat named Phil. If she sometimes suspects there might be more to life than reading, she just shrugs and picks up a new book. 

So when the father she never knew existed dies, leaving behind innumerable sisters, brothers, nieces, and nephews, Nina is horrified. They all live close by! She’ll have to Speak. To. Strangers. 

And if that wasn’t enough, Tom, her trivia nemesis, has turned out to be cute, funny and interested in getting to know her…

It’s time for Nina to turn her own fresh page, and find out if real life can ever live up to fiction. . .

What I Say

“Biology is not destiny, and love is not proportionate to shared DNA.”

This is the final novel I have to review for the Comedy Women In Print Shadow Panel, and apart from it having been an absolutely brilliant experience, and opening my eyes to lots of different authors, it has also challenged my preconceptions of what a ‘comedy’ novel is.

In judging this shortlist, sometimes it is a scene or a description, a character or an incident, or even the words that are used at a particular time.

Nina Hill sparkles because of her wit and smart one liners – her ability to comment with the perfect line with perfect timing means this novel zings off the page. If I was to tell you that I could absolutely see it being made into a film, and that it would be one of those quirky romantic comedies that I am a complete sucker for (When Harry Met Sally anyone?) does it sound intriguing?

Nina works in Knights Bookshop and manages her day to day life by writing copious to do lists. While this seems an endearing trait, it is also a way for her to control her anxiety, and gives her a focus. She feels that this way she can compartmentalise and cope with the world outside her apartment and at her job. I thought it was really interesting to see how Nina’s anxiety is portrayed, and that in making it a part of the main character it brings it to the forefront of the story, whilst at the same time it is dealt with in such a way that it deepened my understanding of how crippling anxiety can be.

What is evident from the writing in this book is how much love Abbi Waxman has for books, reading and bookshops. She absolutely understand the joy it brings so many people (myself included!)! I found myself nodding along as she describes the joy Nina gets from her job, from finding books for readers, to setting up all the different clubs and events, and the genuine delight she has when she helps children engage with books.

Nina is seemingly contented, living with her cat Phil, and filling her days with work, and her evenings attending book groups and taking part in quizzes with her team. Nina’s mother is a photographer who has assignments all around the world, checking in with Nina as and when she can. We learn that Nina considers her Nanny Louise her real mother, and Abbi deftly shows the reader how sometimes the strongest bonds are not necessarily blood ones.

One day, Nina’s life is changed forever when she is told the father she never knew has passed away, and she now has a rather large and complicated family who live tantalisingly close to her. Nina discovers that her father was married multiple times until his death and she has inherited a whole family. Bursting into her life is a new and opinionated family, a plethora of brothers, sisters, step mothers and cousins. As she starts to meet them, Nina realises that maybe her way of living is not the only way if she could just start to have a little more confidence.

Alongside this, Nina is in denial about her attraction to Tom, a member of a rival quiz team – who she can’t stop bumping in to and absolutely everyone can see they are meant to be together. It’s just that Nina and Tom can’t.

After Nina attends the reading of the will, she starts to learn about who her father really was. Everyone has a different relationship and perception of him, and Nina has to try and fit together these very different snapshots of a man she never knew. As Nina spends more time with her family, she starts to see how some of them have similar traits to her, and Nina starts to understand that this group of strangers might become the very family she has needed for so long.

The different family members are captured perfectly, and I thought the way in which they react to Nina and deal with this stranger coming into their lives was dealt with so well. Some embrace her instantly, some are reserved, and one (Lydia) decides that Nina is out for all she can get- but I liked them all!

When Nina discovers that her beloved Knights Bookshop is threatened with closure as Liz the owner hasn’t been able to pay the rent, Nina has to try and find a way to save it as well as finally admit to herself that she and Tom are destined to be together. It could be that the inheritance from her father could be the very thing that changes her future and finally brings her family together as one.

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill is a novel that is like falling into a huge marshmallow filled with books! It is comforting and sweet, with a heroine who is endearing and kind, characters who are unique and interesting, and is impossible to dislike. It is the perfect novel for losing yourself in entirely. If you are looking for a gritty and action packed novel that is emotionally challenging to read, then this is not your next book. If however you want to read a feel good story about love, new opportunities, families and finding the courage to change your life however scary that may be, then you need to meet Nina Hill very soon.

Imperfect Women by Araminta Hall

Imperfect Women by Araminta Hall

Published by Orion Books

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Nancy, Eleanor and Mary met at college and have been friends ever since, through marriages, children and love affairs. 

Eleanor is calm and driven, with a deep sense of responsibility, a brilliant career and a love of being single and free – despite her soft spot for her best friend’s husband.

Mary is deeply intelligent with a love of learning, derailed by three children and a mean, demanding husband – she is now unrecognisable to herself and her friends.

Nancy is seemingly perfect: bright, beautiful and rich with an adoring husband and daughter – but beneath the surface her discontent is going to affect them all in terrible ways. 

When Nancy is murdered, Eleanor and Mary must align themselves to uncover her killer. And as each of their stories unfold, they realise that there are many different truths to find, and many different ways to bring justice for those we love…

What I Say

Women, Eleanor thought, carry guilt and responsibility like a second skin, so much it weighs them down and stops them ever achieving quite everything they should.

Over the years, I have come to realise that the kind of novels I love to read are ones where they are female led, the same age as I am, but most importantly with a moral and ethical code far removed from mine. Why? Well, in my opinion they make the most interesting and compelling stories.

Close enough to me so I can relate to their hopes and fears, but just deliciously twisted enough so that I can delight in the dilemmas and situations they find themselves in!

Do I seem that sort of person? Maybe you have a different view as to what kind of person I am, and that right there is the whole crux of Imperfect Women. Who really knows us, and what is the difference between our public and private selves? After all, we know that #PerfectionIsOverrated don’t we?

Three seemingly close friends Mary, Nancy and Eleanor met at University and have been together ever since. They have been there to support each other through affairs, marriage, childbirth and secrets.

These women seem to be the perfect and supportive friend group – until one day Nancy goes missing after having dinner with Eleanor and she is found dead. Instantly their world is turned upside down, and when Eleanor goes to Nancy’s house, Nancy’s husband Robert, confesses he believed that Nancy was having an affair. The thing is, Eleanor knew – but only that the man was called David and she had met him at work.

From this point on, the lives that these women have held together for so long starts to unravel in ways they could never have imagined. Eleanor and Mary are left facing the reality that the woman they believed they knew so well was someone they didn’t really know at all. Eleanor and Mary are desperate to find out what happened to their friend, but don’t for one minute think this novel is a murder mystery.

Imperfect Women is so much more.

As we hear the stories of each of the women – each has a section of the novel’s narrative to herself, what becomes increasingly apparent is this is a novel about the choices women make or are expected to make. It also shows the unpalatable truth that whichever one you choose it won’t be the right one. Nancy is a stay at home mum with an apparently fabulous and carefree lifestyle, Eleanor has dedicated her life to her career working for charity, and Mary has put aside any ambitions to dedicate her life to her ungrateful academic husband and her three children – and she has become invisible to society.

Little by little we start to understand what exactly is going on for each of the women, and how the lives they have lived and projected to the outside world may have seemed to be one thing, but in fact it is only when we read each of their narratives do we understand the way in which they constantly judge themselves and their friends.

Nancy is apparently living a fabulous life – she doesn’t have to work, she has a house in the city and one in the country for weekends, and a husband called Robert who adores her and their wonderful daughter Zara. Scratch beneath the surface and you see a woman who is living in a gilded tower, whose husband has basically forbidden her to work, and has struggled with the isolation and mundanity of motherhood and bringing up a child. It seems understandable that she should be drawn to seeking something beyond the confines of her marriage. I really felt Nancy’s frustration and desperation to feel something, anything that wasn’t what she was told or expected to feel. It seemed almost logical that an affair would give her this sense of liberation from her life – but not that it would culminate in her death.

Eleanor has established herself as the career woman, who is apparently the most independent and driven of the three. She works hard and loves what she does, but as a reader you get the sense that she does question whether she has made the right choices. Having children was not part of the equation for her, and it is interesting to see how everyone else felt it was their place to comment on her choices. I felt she was envious of Nancy, and when the opportunity comes up for her to be closer to Robert – she has no qualms about taking it. This is the thing with all these women. They assure each other that their bond is unbreakable, but at certain key moments, they each prove their morals take second place to their own needs and wants.

Mary was the character I felt closest to. She is married to the unappreciative and quite frankly odious Howard. He has systematically stripped away her self belief and confidence over the years as he slides from affair to affair, all the while berating Mary for not living up to his expectations. Her intelligence and own hopes and dreams have been disregarded as she has to look after her three children (four if you count Howard!) and she is becoming increasingly jaded and accepting of her own life. She loves her children passionately and devotes her life to them, but she has also lost her own identity and I think this is so true of many women over forty. We are someone’s wife, someone’s Mum, but as Mary realises, when the chance presents itself, she has to find the courage to change everything and become Mary again.

As I read the novel, what worked so well for me were the revelations not only about each of the women, but also about the connections they had with each other too. Little by little, Araminta Hall drip feeds little pieces of information that slowly start to come together, and then the realisation hits you as to how much and how little these three friends really know about each other!

When the identity of Nancy’s lover is revealed (no of course I’m not going to tell you, read the book!) the lives of the women are changed forever, and I loved how this gave Eleanor and Mary the impetus to take control of their lives. As the novel moves to its conclusion, which is done so well and is not what I expected, I thought it was poignant how Mary and Eleanor reconnected and how the longevity and unspoken bond of their friendship was what gave them strength to carry on- even though they still weren’t being entirely honest with each other.

Imperfect Women is a novel that will reinforce what you already know about women today – that they can be career orientated or stay at home to raise their families, but that both choices are seen as imperfect, and to mix the two is regarded as taking neither seriously enough. It also raises many complex questions about who decides what women should do, and why we still allow ourselves to be defined by others expectations and needs and desires, and still lack the confidence to put our own demands first.

I loved it.

Thank you very much to Francesca Pearce at Orion for my gifted copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Check out what these other brilliant bloggers have been saying too..

Comedy Women In Print Shortlist Shadow Panel – The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary

Beth O’Leary:  The Flatshare

Published By: Quercus Books

Buy It: here

 

What They Say: 

Tiffy and Leon share a flat

Tiffy and Leon share a bed

Tiffy and Leon have never met…

Tiffy Moore needs a cheap flat, and fast. Leon Twomey works nights and needs cash. Their friends think they’re crazy, but it’s the perfect solution: Leon occupies the one-bed flat while Tiffy’s at work in the day, and she has the run of the place the rest of the time.

But with obsessive ex-boyfriends, demanding clients at work, wrongly imprisoned brothers and, of course, the fact that they still haven’t met yet, they’re about to discover that if you want the perfect home you need to throw the rulebook out the window…

What I Say

I have a little confession to make here, seeing as I am (hopefully) amongst friends. Unlike the other books on the Comedy Women In Print Novel Shortlist, I read and loved The Flatshare when it originally came out.

Rather than re-invent the wheel, and being completely honest with you, I loved writing this review, and although it is a very different style from what I normally do, I am proud of it. I wrote it as soon as I had read it, and every word came straight from the heart. The Flatshare is the sort of novel that makes you believe in love, joy and happiness and heaven knows we need it at the moment..

Tiffy Moore has just dumped an awful boyfriend called Justin.

Tiffy works at a publishing house and Leon is a Palliative care nurse.

Tiffy has a scatty client called Katherin, who is just about to hit the big time with her book about crocheting, and she needs Tiffy just as much as Tiffy needs her.

Tiffy decides to rent half of Leon Twomey’s bed.

Tiffy is at work when Leon isn’t and vice versa.

Tiffy starts to leave post it notes for Leon, little ones at first, longer ones as they start to communicate.

Leon starts to learn about Tiffy from the notes she leaves him, and Tiffy starts to learn about Leon, and they start to cook and look out for each other.

Leon has a brother called Ritchie who is in prison for an armed robbery he says he didn’t do, and is waiting for his uselesss lawyer to speed up his appeal.

Leon nurses a man called Mr Prior who was in love with a man during World War II and before he passes away, Leon wants him to be reunited with the love of his life.

Leon and Tiffy start to edge closer to each other, realising that they are attracted to each other.

Leon and Tiffy go to Brighton to find Mr Prior’s Mr White, Tiffy hurts her ankle and Leon and Tiffy spend the night together… but nothing happens.

Leon and Tiffy return back to their flat, and suddenly everything has changed between them.

Their Flatshare is no longer as uncomplicated as it should have been, as more things happen and other people get involved.

Leon and Tiffy realise that sometimes, you have to take chances and go beyond what you have accepted for so long, to understand you are worth so much more.

Leon has to try to open his heart and life up to the things he has tried to run away from, to finally find the happiness he deserves.

Tiffy has to realise that the man of her dreams is not the one who controls her every move, and that she has to believe in herself to really find the love she deserves.

Leon and Tiffy are relatable, flawed and fully formed characters who will come into your lives and are impossible to forget.

Leon and Tiffy share the novel with their unique voices and viewpoints, and the story moves along at a perfect pace, filled with normal friends like Mo, Gerty and Rachel.

The Flatshare is the novel we all need to read, especially now when we have been dealing with the strangest and most unfathomable times. It is a gorgeous, joyous, unapologetic, heartfelt book that is impossible to put down, and even harder to forget.

The Flatshare is a novel that restores your faith in people and in love and that sometimes it can come when you least expect it.

The Flatshare shows that you can read a romantic, comedic novel that will turn all the cliches on its head, but at the same time it is whip-smart, genuinely funny, and made me wish I had a Leon of my own in my life.

Beth O’ Leary has written a novel that I absolutely loved, cannot stop recommending, and was just what I needed to read.

Tiffy and Leon share a flat.

Tiffy and Leon share a bed.

Tiffy and Leon finally meet.

Tiffy and Leon’s story is The Flatshare.

I am so glad that I met them, and I think you will be too.

Comedy Women In Print Shortlist Shadow Panel- Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen

Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen

Published by John Murray Press

Available at all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Routine makes Majella’s world small but change is about to make it a whole lot bigger.

*Stuff Majella knows*
-God doesn’t punish men with baldness for wearing ladies’ knickers
-Banana-flavoured condoms taste the same as nutrition shakes
-Not everyone gets a volley of gunshots over their grave as they are being lowered into the ground

*Stuff Majella doesn’t know*
-That she is autistic
-Why her ma drinks
-Where her da is

Other people find Majella odd. She keeps herself to herself, she doesn’t like gossip and she isn’t interested in knowing her neighbours’ business. But suddenly everyone in the small town in Northern Ireland where she grew up wants to know all about hers. 

Since her da disappeared during the Troubles, Majella has tried to live a quiet life with her alcoholic mother. She works in the local chip shop (Monday-Saturday, Sunday off), wears the same clothes every day (overalls, too small), has the same dinner each night (fish and chips, nuked in the microwave) and binge watches Dallas (the best show ever aired on TV) from the safety of her single bed. She has no friends and no boyfriend and Majella thinks things are better that way.

But Majella’s safe and predictable existence is shattered when her grandmother dies and as much as she wants things to go back to normal, Majella comes to realise that maybe there is more to life. And it might just be that from tragedy comes Majella’s one chance at escape.

What I Say

As I have got more and more into judging the novels on the Comedy Women In Print Shortlist Prize, one of the many things I have learned is that it means I have a responsibility to read all the books, whether it is one I would choose to read or not. That is the wonderful thing about reading, that in picking up books outside my comfort zone, I have not only found new authors, but also have had the chance to step into the worlds of unlikely protagonists like Majella O’Neill.

Big Girl, Small Town is absolutely and completely Majella’s story and we are with her every step of the way.

It takes place in a Northern Irish town called Aghybogey where Majella lives and works. In fact she has never been anywhere else, and the town she lives in is her world. She works for the minimum wage in a fish and chip shop, and is also dealing with her Mum who is an alcoholic and utterly dependent on Majella. Her father is no longer living with them, having vanished as The Troubles raged around them.

The domestic and mundane life that Majella and her family has, is set against the world around them, and although The Troubles are known as an historical event, in Majella’s world they are part of the fabric of her family’s history too. We learn that her Granny has been murdered in her own home, and in spite of it, Majella has to carry on as normal for her Mum and for herself.

Majella is autistic, although that is never explicitly stated, and we see how she has to naviagate her life by establishing routines and strategies for dealing with the world around her. Everything is very black and white for her, and to cope with situations like the suggestive and rude male customers at the Chippy, she had to ‘learn’ the socially acceptable way to deal with them so that she can function.

I thought Michelle handled this really sensitively – Majella copes by stimming – which for her is rocking on the balls of her feet and flicking her fingers. This isn’t made into a huge part of the story, but as readers we can see it, and it is the little details and quietly mentioned rituals and routines that add poignancy and emotion to what Majella is dealing with.

Her bedroom at home becomes her haven – a place where she can make it just as she wants it, even though the rest of the house is like a bomb site. It is her place to eat, to watch her Dallas DVDs, to think and to be in peace. For me, one of the most touching scenes in the book is when Majella treats herself to a new luxurious duvet set that she has paid for herself. It is joyous to see how wonderful it makes her feel, but tinged with sadness that she has no one to do that for her.

Majella and her mother almost become local celebrities because of her Granny’s murder, but as awkward and uncomfortable as it is for Majella, it almost gives her an air of untouchability and celebrity by association. In a strange way, this helps Majella exist in a world where repetition and the tedium become her comfort.

I would have to say that Big Girl, Small Town is not a cosy, comfortable read. The humour and laughter is balanced by the less than palatable part of Majella’s life. She has unromantic sex with Marty her married work colleague because she wants to have sex, not because she is attracted to him, and through the novel the sex she has is unemotional and without passion. The sex scenes and the way sex is talked in almost a biological sense fit in with the story because Majella is very matter of fact and direct too.

The novel also shows us the stark reality of life for people in a town who do not have a lot of money, and are trying to survive the day to day grind. At times this may seem bleak, but it is also important to note that there is an innate sense of community and at times humour too. Everyone knows everyone else, although it might seem like they don’t, they look out for each other and try to help as much as they can.

Majella’s life outside work consists of her looking after her alcoholic Mum and eating food from the chippy alone in her bedroom. She seemingly just accepts that this is her life, and gets on with it, however heartbreaking it may be for us as the reader to see.

I thought that it was a brilliant plot device of Michelle’s to have Majella working in a chippy, as it is a focal point for the town, and gives the reader a chance to meet all the different characters who go there. It may seem like nothing much happens on a daily basis, but by hearing their stories, we learn about the reality of life in Aghybogey. Going to the chippy is part of their routine and gives some people structure, other people a place to gossip, and for some characters it is their connection to the world beyond their front doors.

Big Girl, Small Town finally offers some hope for Majella after her Grandmother passes away, and a will is read, and when she realises that someone believes in her she finally starts to believe in herself. Majella understands that she has the potential to change her life – all she has to do is to find her courage. If you love a novel that is packed with larger than life characters and writing that moves from laughter to sadness and back again, then Big Girl, Small Town should absolutely be on your reading list.

It is at times undoubtedly challenging to read, as you really feel for Majella and the seemingly bleak life she leads, and it was painful at times to watch what happens to her. This I think is what Michelle is trying to show us – that although Majella is seemingly caught in a world without hope, the chance to change her story is always present – she just needs to believe in herself enough to take the first step.

How Do You Keep The Passion Alive?

You know by now that I am honest with you all, and if you didn’t, well you do now, and to be fair, you might want to sit down while I tell you something.

The thing is, over the past few weeks I have been thinking about how to keep Book Blogging. I love books and reading, and trust me that has never changed, but increasingly I have felt like I am on a Bookish Conveyor Belt in an ever changing and increasingly noisy social media world.

I love this Community which I am so proud to be part of – I truly often don’t understand how it works – still. I have learned over time to only review and talk about books I love and ask only for proofs I know I will read and review, but at the moment it sometimes feels like a job – and that’s not right.

Let me give you an example. I am always grateful for any Bookpost I get, especially when a publisher or publicist has sent me something, and I spend a long time taking and editing pictures, tagging the right people, using the right hashtags and then sharing it across my social media platforms, making sure I have the right usernames and hashtags for Instagram which might be different to Twitter! We all do those posts where we show off our bookmail and thank the senders- then when no one says anything you wonder what you did wrong.

Were the pictures not attractive enough? Did I post at the wrong time? What is wrong with my account? I spent three hours doing all that and for what?

Is it just me? Am I too sensitive or is there something more fundamental to consider- that we all need to think about.

Why do so many of us fall prey to the need for likes and shares and the ever present Fear of Missing Out. When I started blogging in 2017, I talked about books from the library I had borrowed or books from my shelves that I loved and then I got my first proof.

Looking back, I openly admit I became a bit of a blogging grabbing monster. Hanging around Twitter, checking to see if any publicists were offering proofs – and I mean any proofs – I got caught up in the thrill of having a book sent to me and posting about it. I’ve talked about this before here and I’ve really tried to not fall into the trap again. It’s hard though, and it’s something I know I have to work on.

How do you keep loving books and talking about them in a unique way after a while? Can you really still be enthusiastic and love ALL of them ALL the time? What about if you have asked for a book because every one else did and you don’t ever read and review it? Do you feel horrendously guilty and silently appalled that you’ve fallen into the trap of wanting that book because it’s everywhere? What do you do with it if you haven’t read it? Do you admit it? Why do we feel the need to ask for proofs and new releases? Does that mean lots of us are talking about the same book and if so, how do we get heard?

When my blog post views dropped, and I knew I was getting jaded with it, I tried to think of other ways to keep my account interesting. I started to do Instagram and video reviews, they feel fun and fresh and I love doing them.

Then someone made a comment to me about how in my video reviews I seemed to always love the books I talk about so much and I couldn’t possibly be that enthusiastic all the time after blogging for so long. I explained that I do read a lot, but I only talk about the books I truly love and I know that lots of people will love them too. It also made me realise that there is a fine line between really reading and appreciating a book, and feeling like I am on a schedule as I try and read a book to ensure that I have read and reviewed it before or on publication day.

What’s the answer to keeping things fresh and authentic and to not be worry about likes and latest releases? Do we as Book Bloggers also have a responsibility to those who follow us to try and be true to why we started blogging, to step back sometimes and admit that many of us have that Fear of Missing Out and it is partly our responsibility- that we add to the hype because we want to read the latest releases too? Why can’t I be content to pick a book off my shelf and read it instead – lots of brilliant bloggers do, so does it mean my need to review new books and to get likes is more important than being true to myself and my reading?

Book Blogging has undoubtedly been one of the best things I have ever done. It is also one of the most challenging in terms of time, effort and working bloody hard to build up a blog and social media accounts I am proud of, and hopefully a reputation as someone who is always real and truthful about Book Blogging.

Maybe keeping my passion alive for blogging is as simple as this – by admitting that some days I love it, some days I want to give it all up because I can’t stand or understand it, that I spend too much time tweeting and not enough reading, that I get caught up in the clamour wanting all the latest books and most of all, knowing that if I stopped Years of Reading I would hate not talking to you all about books.

How about you? What do you do to keep yourself interested in Book Blogging?

Comedy Women In Print Shortlist Shadow Panel – Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Published by Trapeze

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Queenie is a twenty-five-year-old Black woman living in south London, straddling Jamaican and British culture whilst slotting neatly into neither. She works at a national newspaper where she’s constantly forced to compare herself to her white, middle-class peers, and beg to write about Black Lives Matter. After a messy break up from her long-term white boyfriend, Queenie finds herself seeking comfort in all the wrong places. 

As Queenie veers from one regrettable decision to another, she finds herself wondering, What are you doing? Why are you doing it? Who do you want to be? – the questions that every woman today must face in a world that keeps trying to provide the answers for them. 

A darkly comic and bitingly subversive take on life, love, race and family, Queenie will have you nodding in recognition, crying in solidarity and rooting for this unforgettable character every step of the way. A disarmingly honest, boldly political and truly inclusive tale that will speak to anyone who has gone looking for love and acceptance and found something very different in its place. 

What I Say

If like me, you are on bookish social media (a lot in my case!) you cannot have failed to have heard about Queenie. When it was published in 2019, it was everywhere, and I have to admit that for that very reason, I bought a beautiful teal hardback signed copy, and then put it on my shelf and promised myself I would read it. I didn’t.

When I found out it had been shortlisted for the Comedy Women In Print Prize, it was the perfect time to read it, because all the noise around it had quietened down and it meant that I could now give Queenie my undivided attention.

I am so glad I did, because I loved this novel.

Queenie seemingly embraces and lives life to the fullest – she has a supportive family, a group of quite frankly fabulous friends, a great job and a relationship with Tom. The novel opens with Queenie at a Sexual Health Clinic with her Auntie Maggie, but it transpires she has suffered a miscarriage, and that actually her relationship with Tom is on an extended break, and he doesn’t want anything to do with her.

What is also evident throughout the novel is the amount of casual racism which permeates every part of Queenie’s world. Strangers want to touch her hair and men on dating apps make awful sexual and racist comments constantly. Tom is white, and although his family appear to have no issue with him dating a Black woman, it is their thoughtless and internalised racism that comes to the fore in throwaway comments or behaviour.

Queenie has a brilliant group of friends she nicknames ‘The Corgis’ – the fabulous Kyazike, her kind work colleague Darcy, and the ever analytical Cassandra. Queenie has an amazing and enviable bond with these women, and their WhatsApp exchanges are so natural and real, that it felt as if I was part of the group too! Their sense of protectiveness and being true and real with each other really reminded me of how powerful and needed female friendships are.

Although Queenie seems to enjoy her job on a national newspaper, she is frustrated by their lack of embracing her efforts to talk about wider issues that affect Black people. Gina her boss is exasperated at times by Queenie’s disengagement with her role, but you get the sense that Gina sees Queenie’s potential if only she could too.

As Queenie starts to grudgingly accept that she and Tom are over, she starts to meet other men – Queenie wants sex and is unapologetic about it. Some of the sex scenes in Queenie are very graphic, at times brutal and disturbing, and one experience she has with a man called Guy was really difficult to read. In fact when she goes to the sexual health clinic, the staff think she is a sex worker, and that the extent of her injuries give them concerns as to whether she has had consensual sex or has been assaulted.

The men she encounters are not looking for a relationship, and the fact she is Black is something they almost see as a point on their score card. What becomes evident to the reader as the novel progresses is that Queenie is using sex as a way to try and feel something, a connection, a sense of power, but it is really masking her mental deterioration and subsequent breakdown. There is also the sense that something in Queenie’s childhood is always simmering constantly at the back of her mind, and that is has shaped how she sees her own relationships.

This is what really resonated with me about Queenie – is that this young woman who seemingly has so much to look forward to is trying so hard to be so many things to so many people, but is also dealing with the fact that she is estranged from her Mum because of the actions of another man. Queenie’s world starts to unravel – a man she has been pursued by and slept with alleges she has been harrassing him, she is then suspended from her job, loses her home and is forced to move in with her grandparents.

Her decision to seek counselling is something her grandparents find difficult to accept, but eventually they understand why she has to. For me, Queenie’s grandparents were two of my favourite characters. Their love and care for Queenie was such a powerful thing to read, and the fact that they dealt with her in the only way they knew how- by refusing to let her dwell on what she was going through was really affecting for me.

Slowly by confiding in her therapist Janet, Queenie starts to let her and us as readers into her life, and we see exactly what happened and why she is estranged from her Mum. Little by little, Queenie starts to rebuild her life and when the man who got Queenie suspended at work is found to have lied about their consensual sex, it is finally time for Queenie to take the next steps in life, but this time, she is in control.

As a forty-nine year old white woman, I thought I was not the target market for this book. I was wrong.

Candice Carty-Williams has written a novel that draws you in from the first page, and it is witty, warm, and a joy to read. At times it is undeniably challenging too, and honestly I found some of the sex scenes very hard to read. It made me think so much about the world Queenie lives in, and the reality of life for Black women in Britain today. Queenie is a novel that is many things, it is fast moving, funny, tender and at times heartbreaking too.

What is at the heart of this novel for me is the realisation Queenie comes to as to how important and necessary family and friends truly are. Above all, it introduced me to Queenie and her world, and I very much hope I get the chance to meet her again really soon.