The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell

The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell

Published by Bloomsbury Raven on February 2nd 2023

Available from West End Lane Books and All Good Bookshops

What They Say

Be careful what you wish for… it may just come true.

At The Mercury Theatre in London’s West End, rumours are circulating of a curse. It is said that the lead actress Lilith has made a pact with Melpomene, the tragic muse of Greek mythology, to become the greatest actress to ever grace the stage.

Suspicious of Lilith, the jealous wife of the theatre owner sends dresser Jenny to spy on her, and desperate for the money to help her family, Jenny agrees. What Jenny finds is a woman as astonishing in her performance as she is provocative in nature.

On stage, it’s as though Lilith is possessed by the characters she plays, yet off stage she is as tragic as the Muse who inspires her, and Jenny, sorry for her, befriends the troubled actress. But when strange events begin to take place around the theatre, Jenny wonders if the rumours are true, and fears that when the Muse comes calling for payment, the cost will be too high.

What I Say

I have been a Laura Purcell fan from the first moment I read her debut novel The Silent Companions (if you haven’t read that yet – I would absolutely recommend it, but please don’t come back to me if you need to sleep with the lights on for a week after reading it!).

As well as being brilliantly written, and evoking period detail and palpable tension in every page, I love Laura’s novels because they depict women who face situations where their resolve and morality is tested, and show how even though they may be constricted by the social expectations of the time, that they want only to do what is right for them and their family.

In The Whispering Muse, the protagonist is a young woman called Jenny Wilcox, who finds herself as the head of the family after her elder brother Greg leaves the family in disarray after stealing from Jenny’s employer and taking all they have. Jenny is dismissed from service, and she and her siblings face an uncertain future.

When she secures a job as a dresser at The Mercury Theatre, where Greg worked before her, due to the generous and gregarious Mrs Dyer, the owner’s wife, it seems that maybe Jenny has a chance to secure a future for her family.

Jenny is made dresser to the star of the theatre, a fiery and demanding woman called Lilith, who is determined to be famous and adored, and seemingly has Mr Dyer enthralled and ready to indulge his leading lady on and off stage. Mrs. Dyer is not blind to what is happening, and tasks Jenny with spying on Lilith, and offers her money to do so. Although she is torn, Jenny understands the difference this money could make to her family and agrees to become her spy.

Right from the start, Jenny and Lilith clash. Lilith is every inch the diva Jenny suspects her to be, and her dedication to her acting is bordering on the obsessive. Lilith is consumed by her desire to be the most feted actress of her generation, whatever the cost. There is an incredibly awkward scene at a party when Lilith is given a watch depicting Melpomene, the Greek muse of tragedy by Mr Dyer. This turns out to be the very watch Mrs Dyer was desperate to own, having belonged to an actor she adored, and this only fuels her suspicion and hatred of Lilith even further. Bound by circumstance, Jenny now becomes another pawn in Mrs. Dyer’s game, as she forces her to carry out schemes to attempt to drive Lilith away from the stage and the precious watch she desires.

As Jenny gets closer to Lilith with the aim of helping Mrs Dyer, Jenny sees Lilith in an altogether different light. A young woman who is driven to succeed certainly, but also a woman who is vulnerable, who knows that her worth is measured in the tickets she can sell and the money she can make for the theatre. Jenny and Lilith form an unlikely friendship as they understand who is actually the biggest threat to both their lives, and by coming together, they can both get what they want -at a price.

Ever present is the spirit of Melpomene, the muse which seems to not only push Lilith to give the best performances of her career, but also starts to take her over and seep its way into every part of the theatre, causing accidents that cannot be explained, and deaths that create such distress and uncertainy, that no one feels safe. Laura does this so convincingly, that it never feels forced or simply done for shock value. From the very start of the novel, the spectre of The Mercury Theatre looms large, and the world inside seems so far removed from the one outside, that you feel a real sense of dislocation and wariness from the start.

It would have been very easy to make The Whispering Muse melodramatic, and reliant on tried and tested gothic tropes to unsettle the reader. However, in the hands of Laura Purcell, it becomes a novel that places Lilith, Jenny and Mrs Dyer directly at the heart of the narrative, and their needs and desires are the driving force behind the decisions they make. The consequences of all their actions come together to propel the story forward, but it is the unknown force of Melpomene, and the havoc that she wreaks as she seeks to possess the theatre and all those on the stage that is the most dangerous and unstoppable part of the novel that we cannot predict.

The Whispering Muse is a novel filled with dramatic tension, but it also brings to the fore issues such as the commodification of women, duty and desire, social classes, and the transient nature of fame. In having Lilith, Jenny and Mrs Dyer as the main characters, we see three women all at different stages of their personal and professional lives, and I felt that their depiction showed that they had more in common that they would ever want to admit. Melpomene may be the undefinable spirit that wreaks havoc on those who fall prey to her, but the desires and drive of the women inside the Mercury Theatre imbues the novel with an even more compelling and powerful story.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Bloomsbury Raven for my gifted proof copy.

The Year Of The Cat by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

The Year of the Cat by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

Published by Tinder Press on 19th January

Available from West End Lane Books and

All Good Bookshops

What They Say

I looked around at my flat, at the woodchip wallpaper and scuffed furniture, and realised that I did have a life after all. What it didn’t have in it was a cat.

When Rhiannon fell in love with, and eventually married her flatmate, she imagined they might one day move on. But this is London in the age of generation rent, and so they share their home with a succession of friends and strangers while saving for a life less makeshift. The desire for a baby is never far from the surface, but can she be sure that she will ever be free of the anxiety she has experienced since an attack in the street one night? And after a childhood spent caring for her autistic brother does she really want to devote herself to motherhood?

Moving through the seasons over the course of lockdown, The Year of the Cat nimbly charts the way a kitten called Mackerel walked into Rhiannon’s home and heart, and taught her to face down her fears and appreciate quite how much love she had to offer.

What I Say

The pandemic and lockdown we all went through now seems for me to be a time I can remember parts of, but also feels slightly surreal, like it happened to someone else. It is also undeniably a shared collective memory that will forever unite a generation who lived through it, and I am endlessly fascinated to read people’s accounts of their experiences as a way to understand mine.

The Year of the Cat by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett takes us through that period as Rhiannon and her husband decide to get a kitten, and while this memoir may start as a love letter to cats, and the irrefutable impact that they have had on women’s lives and the stories that surround them, this book evolves beautifully into one that holds so much in its pages.

This is a book not only about Rhiannon’s experiences of owning cats through her life and how Mackerel her kitten came to be such a part of it during the pandemic, but it is also an honest and visceral memoir about trauma, PTSD, mental health, motherhood, family and caring.

Adopting Mackerel during such a strange and unknown time, when going outside became something we would never take for granted again, means that as well as focussing on Mackerel and how to look after him, Rhiannon has plenty of time to be alone with thoughts and memories. Unimaginable events that Rhiannon has lived through – a vicious assault by a stranger, and being in Paris at the very time terrorist attacks were taking place, leads her to think about her past and future, as she contemplates whether having mental health issues impact her ability to be a mother.

What Rhiannon captures so perfectly in these pages is the thoughts that so many of us have, but are afraid to articulate for fear of being judged for having them. I had an overwhelming desire to have children, but believing that my own emotional shortcomings and the fact that I didn’t know if I could care for a human being when I found it difficult to look after myself, led me to write my own lengthy diary entries as to the pros and cons of me taking that step. Reader I did, which for my first child led me down paths I never dreamed I would ever follow.

This leads me to the other part of Rhiannon’s memoir that resonated deeply with me as a full time carer, and led me to use up all the post it notes I had to hand. Rhiannon’s brother is severely autistic and in a care home, and the lockdown leads to a heartbreaking separation for them. What Rhiannon does so wonderfully in her memoir is not only to articulate what it means to not be able to visit the ones we love, but also what it means to care for someone who has special needs. The love you have is overwhelming, but like Rhiannon and her Mum, you cannot explain to someone what it means to be a full time carer unless they have lived it. To understand what it means to be in a constant state of fighting for everything and explaining repeatedly the same story told in numerous ways according to which professional and which department you are talking to. Rhiannon writes with an innate compassion and understanding that made me teary a few times, because I knew exactly what she and her Mum were feeling.

To read Rhiannon’s memories of living with her brother and mother, and the highs and lows of that time, along with some brilliant anecdotes – including an unforgettable supermarket visit I don’t think anyone will ever forget, added another layer of humanity to this unforgettable memoir, and I loved it. As Rhiannon starts to question her own ability to be a mother, we as readers already know that her lived experiences have given her so much experience already, and that we will her to see what an amazing Mum she will be, and hope she gets exactly what she desires.

The Year of The Cat will connect with many people in many different ways because Rhiannon writes about her own experiences with such candour that you cannot fail to be moved. It is also the first time I have read a book that describes so perfectly the numerous internal conversations about motherhood and the responsibilities of caring for someone else which I had before having children, and that that are still part of my world twenty one years after having my first child, which is why I will endlessly recommend Rhiannon’s book.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Mary-Anne Harrington and Tinder Press for my gifted proof copy.

We All Want Impossible Things by Catherine Newman

We All Want Impossible Things

by Catherine Newman

Published by Doubleday Books on January 12th

Available from West End Lane Books and all Good Bookshops

What They Say

Who knows you better than your best friend? Who knows your secrets, your fears, your desires, your strange imperfect self? Edi and Ash have been best friends for over forty years. Since childhood they have seen each other through life’s milestones: stealing vodka from their parents, the Madonna phase, REM concerts, unexpected wakes, marriages, infertility, children. As Ash notes, ‘Edi’s memory is like the back-up hard drive for mine.’

So when Edi is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Ash’s world reshapes around the rhythms of Edi’s care, from chipped ice and watermelon cubes to music therapy; from snack smuggling to impromptu excursions into the frozen winter night. Because life is about squeezing the joy out of every moment, about building a powerhouse of memories, about learning when to hold on, and when to let go.

What I Say

There are novels you read and love, and then there are novels you read and love and nod your head in recognition, that make you laugh and add lots of post it notes so you can go back and reread the passages because they are so wonderful – and We All Want Impossible Things is one of them.

If you are looking for a sweet, subdued book about friendship – then this is not for you. If however like me, you love novels that show friendships in all their glorious, messy and magical forms, then this should absolutely be on your reading list.

Edi and Ash have been friends for longer than they can remember, and have that wonderful connection that comes with a lifetime of shared experiences and moments they only understand.

When Edi is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Edi’s husband Jude decides that to avoid their son Dash having to see his Mum pass away, that Edi will move into a hospice close to Ash, and Ash will provide the daily support she needs.

The power of Catherine’s storytelling is steeped in every single page of this novel. Not only must Edi and Ash now navigate a new and uncharted path through their friendship, but dealing with the day to day unglamorous realities of cancer, the etiquette of grief and dying, and the ever present knowledge that Edi is not going to be here for much longer, makes the women appreciate what they have now and all the things they have ever had together.

Ash seems to be split in two – dealing with Edi and being the present and unshakeable friend in her presence, but at the same time unravelling when she is away from Edi, seemingly separated from her husband and ricocheting from relationship to relationship as she tries to hold everything and everyone together. At times I felt completely frustrated with her, but it also makes you understand that there is no prescriptive way to deal with grief, and while we may not understand why Ash behaves as she does, it is not for us to judge her.

It is also important to say that this novel does not shy away from Edi’s condition, and this is not some airbrushed version of cancer. The day to day realities of what it’s like to have a terminal illness, and the physical, emotional and medical stresses that Edi and her family go through are laid bare. It was at times undoubtedly hard for me to read, having lost a Mum to cancer, but at the same time I was pleased that Catherine told Edi’s story with compassion and candour.

Catherine Freeman also perfectly understands the complicated and awkward nature of dealing with a loved one who is dying, and that there should be no shame in acknowledging the humour too. If Edi’s heart’s desire is to taste the cake from a recipe no one can find, that Ash will do everything she can to get hold of it, whilst at the same time Ash wonders when the most appropriate time would be to ask Edi if she can have the favourite t-shirt back she borrowed! This is what Catherine does so well – her characters are real, relatable and not perfect – and it made me love them even more.

We All Want Impossible Things is a glorious love letter to female friendships in all its unremarkable, remarkable and perfectly imperfect forms. Edi and Ash are characters who not only have the emotional shorthand that so many of us long for in friendships, but also resonate so deeply because they are just like us – not perfect, not always likeable, but they would do anything for each other however difficult that might be, and I completely loved them for it.

Thank you so much to Alison and Doubleday books for my gifted proof copy.

Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor

Age of Vice

Deepti Kapoor

Published by Fleet Reads

Published January 3rd 2023

What They Say

This is the age of vice, where pleasure and power are everything, and the family ties that bind can also kill

New Delhi, 3 a.m. A speeding Mercedes jumps the kerb, and in the blink of an eye five people are dead. It’s a rich man’s car, but when the dust settles there is no rich man at all, just a shell-shocked servant who cannot explain the strange series of events that led to this crime. Nor can he foresee the dark drama that is about to unfold.
Deftly shifting through time and perspective in contemporary India, Age of Vice is an epic, action-packed story propelled by the seductive wealth, startling corruption, and bloodthirsty violence of the Wadia family-loved by some, loathed by others, feared by all.

In the shadow of lavish estates, extravagant parties, predatory business deals, and calculated political influence, three lives become dangerously intertwined: Ajay is the watchful servant, born into poverty, who rises through the family’s ranks. Sunny is the playboy heir who dreams of outshining his father, whatever the cost. And Neda is the curious journalist caught between morality and desire. Against a sweeping plot fueled by loss, pleasure, greed, yearning, violence, and revenge, will these characters’ connections become a path to escape, or a trigger of further destruction?

Equal parts crime thriller and family saga, transporting readers from the dusty villages of Uttar Pradesh to the urban energy of New Delhi, Age of Vice is an intoxicating novel of gangsters and lovers, false friendships, forbidden romance, and the consequences of corruption. It is binge-worthy entertainment at its literary best.

What I Say

Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor was published on January 3rd, and hand on heart when I read the synopsis, I didn’t think that it was my kind of novel at all. A high octane thriller set in India which is about the Wadia family and the vice and corruption that permeates it? Absolutely not my sort of thing thank you.

Yet one thing I have learned since I started blogging is to never dismiss a book until you have tried it, and as soon as I started reading it, I knew that this was an incredibly special novel. It may be 560 pages long, but I promise you, that is the last thing you are thinking about when you read it.

This is a story of a family – The Wadias, who seemingly are everywhere in India. From the very top of the social and political worlds, right down to the people who may otherwise be disregarded. Their power and influence permeates every single part of society – and they refuse to be stopped by anyone.

The novel starts with a fatal car crash, and a young man called Ajay who survives it. Alongside Sunny Wadia, and a journalist called Neda, Ajay provides the third main narrative of this novel, from which an incredible and far reaching epic novel spins out. Age of Vice may cover politics, corruption, power and addiction, but it is also a story of a family who are so used to being in control, that they cannot imagine a world where their very presence does not imbue those around them with an instant mix of fear and respect.

The novel starts with Ajay’s story. A young man who lives with his mother and sister in Uttar Pradesh after his father is murdered, he is sold by his mother to child traffickers, who in turn sell him to a man and his wife who ‘employ’ him (they tell him his wages are being sent to his mother). When he meets the irrespresible Sunny Wadia, Ajay recognises that his best hope for the future is to become Sunny’s servant, the silent and accommodating person who effortlessly runs Sunny’s life and caters to his every whim whilst never drawing any attention to himself.

Sunny comes to absolutely rely on Ajay for every aspect of his life, and in turn, as well as finding stability and a regular wage, Ajay is now subsumed into and inextricably linked to the Wadia family for as long as he is alive. Sunny Wadia is regarded as a hedonistic playboy, whose life is one long party and in spite of him seemingly projecting a confident and assured persona, what we discover is all that he wants is the approval and love from his father Bunty, and acceptance from his uncle Vicky, who takes the family business to such a level that he seems unreachable. Yet Sunny also realises that being Bunty Wadia’s son means that his own identity and life has to take second place – unless he is brave enough to stand up for what he wants.

As Sunny spins increasingly out of control, and Ajay is left to ensure no traces of his wrongdoings are left in plain sight, Neda, a journalist, finds herself drawn to him, as she wants to understand the man behind the myths, but she too falls prey to the world that the Wadias have created. Her life changes in ways she could never have imagined, but in spite of it all, even when they are separated by thousands of miles, she feels inextricably drawn back to him.

Age of Vice is a bold, no holds barred novel about the realities of what it means when one family has such power over the world it is in. It is a totally immersive and epic novel that pulls no punches in its graphic depiction of the violence and horror that is part of the fabric of their every day lives.

Kapoor is not afraid to show how deeply and absolutely this world is controlled by those that have, and feared by those who have not. It looks at so many issues such as poverty, wealth, corruption, drug addiction, family and duty, but for me something else sits at the heart of this incredible novel. It is the fact that Sunny simply wants to be loved by his father, and by Neda unquestioningly. His erratic and self destructive behaviour hides the fact that he simply wants to be seen by his father and that when it becomes obvious that is not happening, he makes a series of decisions that change his life forever,

Age of Vice is a novel that makes you care about all the characters in it, as we start to understand how much of their selves and their identities are wrapped up in the all consuming reign of the Wadias. It is a world where you never know who you can trust, and that tension and sense of foreboding seeps through every single page, making it impossible to look away.

This is a novel that if I had simply read the synopsis, honestly, I wouldn’t have picked it up. Age Of Vice is that very rare thing, it is a novel that may seem epic and all encompassing in its scope, but you connect to it on an individual level because of the masterful way in which Deepti Kapoor writes with such understanding about the different worlds so many people inhabit, understanding that all human experience is important, and that the most vital connection of all relies not on money or wealth, but simply to find their place in the world and to love and be loved without conditions or fear.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Celeste Ward-Best and Fleet Reads for my gifted proof copy in exchange for an honest review.

Age of Vice is available from West End Lane Books and all good bookshops now.

And Just Like That, 2022 is done

I’m not quite sure why I am writing this blog post on the last day of 2022. I haven’t read a huge number of books this year, I’ve been at times lackadaisical in posting on my blog, and have often felt like Twitter and Instagram have been changing the rules so often that I have no clue as to what the best way is to shout about books anymore!

Book blogging has been my thing for such a long time now, and while it’s introduced me to a world where I finally feel that I belong, has given me opportunities I could never have dreamed of, and has given me incredible friendships I now couldn’t be without, I am ending 2022 feeling a bit lost.

I am a firm believer in being honest about my blogging, and as 2022 comes to a close, and 2023 looms large, honestly, I have been feeling overwhelmed with it all at the moment. It’s hard to keep the energy and enthusiasm sometimes – I still love reading but by December (probably like lots of you!) I felt a bit like I was back on the bookish conveyor belt of reading books in a certain order so that I am ready to review them for publication date.

I have taken a complete break from social media over Christmas – and it’s been lovely. I’ve watched a lot of films, spent a lot of time with my family and put my phone down for days – which not surprisingly has meant I have read a lot more! It has been so refreshing to just sit and read without constantly thinking of what I am going to say in my review, and instead have just read for the sake of reading!

There are a few things I know I want to do now. I need to feel confident in my voice again, and find the joy in blogging. For me, it’s hard to keep posting when you feel like no one is listening – I know it shouldn’t matter, but when I read a brilliant book, I just want to make sure as many people as possible know, and honestly, I still get frustrated sometimes because I don’t know the most effective way to do it, and feel like I have let the authors down.

Having a chance to pause over Christmas has also given me time to think and reflect on Years Of Reading Selfishly and what I want it to be going forward next year. I am sure no one is really bothered, but for me I need to feel enthusiastic about it or I just won’t do anything! Perhaps in writing this blog post I am making myself accountable and can look back on it in 2023 to make sure I actually do what I say.

When the brilliant author Harriet Evans wrote her article for The Bookseller this year about how women over 45 love books, and that the book trade should love them back, I was lucky enough to be quoted in the article, and I also felt that Harriet perfectly articulated what I have been thinking for a long time too. As a 52 year old woman, at times I have felt invisible, at one point this year seriously contemplated stopping blogging – but do you know what – I don’t want to lose my voice or feel my thoughts about books don’t matter. There should be room for everyone to talk about the books they love, however they want to do it, and my voice and opinions count – I need to remember that, and make sure that we support each other too.

The other thing I have been thinking about a lot, is how to combine book blogging with being a carer for my adult son. I told you all this year that I am going to keep talking about the realities of caring, because as a society we don’t, and books have given me the perfect peace and space I have needed to recharge this year – because it’s hard and full on sometimes.

In 2023, I want to read and share books written by people who are carers like me, to use my blog as a way to amplify the voices of people whose stories you may not know but need to be heard. I am pulling together a reading pile of books, and am having a think about the best way to do it – more on that soon, but in the meantime I’d also really love it if the publishing industry didn’t do away with online events. Just because book lovers can’t physically be somewhere doesn’t mean we don’t want to take part…

Looking back on what I’ve written it seems like such a lot. It’s up to me now to practise what I have been preaching, but the one thing I know for sure is that while at times I do feel like I am done, that there is also something that keeps me here – and that’s the fact that sharing my love of books and reading brings me joy – and I know that I need that in my life now more than ever.

Here’s to 2023, and all the books we have waiting for us, the love of books that we want to share, and to you, the incredible bookish community who absolutely understand the joy of books, reading and shouting about them!

Lots of love,

Clare

Xxx

My Best Books of 2022 – or not…

As always, I want to start out by saying that this blog post is purely my opinion, and that what I say here are only my views. I have always said, your social media, your rules – so I am exercising that here and now!

It’s always a big thing as a blogger isn’t it – putting together your best books of the year, trying to work out if you have kept all your notes up to date so that you know exactly which ones have made the list, and which ones you loved but didn’t quite make the cut.

I have been thinking about my list since January to be honest. Wondering how many will be on it (never stuck to ten I don’t think!), should I make it 22 for 2022, or throw caution to the wind and add as many as I want.

Then I started to see tweets and posts from authors, reassuring each other that they weren’t to worry if they didn’t make a list, that their words and efforts were appreciated, and in having a novel published they had already achieved something incredible.

Two Fond of Books, the second bookish account that I run with Amanda @bookishchat is something that not only brings me such joy, but with the Two Fond Showcases that have kind of become our thing, means that we speak to authors all the time. As well as being the kindest and most helpful people you could ever wish to meet, they have constantly told us how much they appreciate us taking the time to focus on them, and often how difficult they find it to get their voices heard, and their books reviewed or shouted about.

That got me thinking too. I have always told you that if I talk about a book on my social media, then I love it and would love you to read it too. I worked out I have read over eighty books this year, and honestly, I don’t want to pick a top ten, or a top twenty, or even a fifty like I did a few years ago to celebrate my 50th birthday (that took ages to do and I’m not sure anyone really cared to be honest!)

I guess this is my roundabout, clumsy way of saying this year that I’m not doing a Best Books of 2022, because I don’t want to choose! If I have told you all about a book this year, either on Twitter or Instagram – then I have loved it. If you want me to personally recommend some cracking reads to you, you can always ask me and I’m more than happy to help. Truthfully, and for full transparency, I haven’t loved every book I have read this year, and as my ethos on Years Of Reading is that life is too short to read books you don’t love, of course there have been books that weren’t for me but I felt no shame in not finishing them.

Becoming a full time carer has also shifted my priorities and perspective a bit to be honest. Now, more than ever, being able to pick up a book after a long, sometimes challenging, sometimes fabulous day has felt more and more like a delicious treat to be savoured. I don’t want to pick out the books I have loved the most, because all of the ones I have read and loved this year have given me different things at different times for different reasons, and made 2022 much more bearable.

To every author whose book I loved and raved about, to all the authors who wrote such incredible books and introduced me to worlds and places and people and things I had never met before, I hope you understand what an impact you had.

To all the authors whose books found their way onto my shelves and into my hands this year. I hope you know that your words and stories brought me delight, comfort, solace and hope on days when the world seemed too much to take in, and your books were the escape I needed.

Here’s to 2023 and all the stories that I can’t wait to read and the books I can’t wait to shout about on Years Of Reading Selfishly.

Have a wonderful Christmas and a fabulous New Year,

Lots of love,

Clare

xxx

Where I End by Sophie White

Where I End by Sophie White

Published by Tramp Press 13th October 2022

Available from West End Lane Books and all good Bookshops

What They Say

My mother. At night, my mother creaks. The house creaks along with her. Through our thin shared wall, I can hear the makings of my mother gurgle through her body just like the water in the walls of the house… Teenage Aoileann has never left the island. Her silent, bed-bound mother is a wreckage, the survivor of a private disaster no one will speak about. Aoileann desperately wants a family, and when Rachel and her young baby move to the island, Aoileann finds a focus for her relentless love.

What I Say

When the first line of a novel starts ‘ My mother. At night, my mother creaks’, you know that this book is certainly going to be nothing like you have read for a while!

In Where I End by Sophie White, we are introduced to Aoileann, a young woman who lives with her grandmother and bed bound mother in a remote cottage, where they can live their lives away from the curious and disgusted looks from the locals on the island. Aoileann’s mother is not from the island, but her father was. He is now only a monthly visitor to the island, and every day Aoileann and her grandmother are responsible for the daily care of her mother.

Let’s be clear from the start, that this is not a caring and loving relationship that exists within the walls of the crumbling and decrepit cottage. Aoileann’s mother has physically degenerated, and is referred to as ‘it’ or ‘bed thing’ by the women. They have a daily routine in place to care for her, and they rely on rope and winches to lift and move the mother to the bathroom where she is cleaned and to the kitchen where she is strapped in to eat, and back to her bedroom where she is stripped, cleaned and changed.

They resentfully clean her and change her nappies, hurl insults at her, talk over her and treat her in ways that are incredibly emotionally difficult to read. and make us aware of how inhumane they are in their treatment. We are given no explicit reason as to what happened to Aoileann’s mother or why, but all we are witness to is the incredible anger and resentment that both women – but especially Aoileann have towards her.

Aoileann’s daily life is punctuated by routine and thankless tasks, interspersed with taunting and humiliating her mother for the life she cannot have and the mother she cannot bond with. It is while scrubbing the floor of the cottage that she starts to see markings scratched on the floors where she realises that her mother has attempted to escape during the night, and when Aoileann writes them all down, she realises her mother has secrets and a past that that will slowly come to light which will impact her world in ways she cannot imagine.

Aoileann is treated with suspicion and malice by the islanders, and doesn’t interact with them. She has no friends and little time for herself. Her only respite is when she can escape to swim in the sea, away from the responsibilities and demands that caring for her mother brings.

It is when she is on the beach that she meets Rachel, an artist and single mother of a young baby that Aoileann finds herself immediately drawn to. Watching Rachel with her baby causes Aoileann to see the maternal connection that she has never had, the love that so many take for granted she has never experienced. She becomes fixated with Rachel and longs to be as important to her as her baby seems to be.

When the local wool factory is deemed by the mainlanders as ripe for redevelopment and investment, Aoileann’s grandmother is employed to collate her remembrances of the island, which means she now leaves Aoileann alone with her mother. Aoileann sees this as a way for her to spy on Rachel, to ingratiate herself into her lfe so that she will become indispensible to her, and this where the novel becomes even more unsettling as events spiral and twist in ways you cannot possibly imagine.

The world inhabited in Where I End is a finely balanced and yet all encompassing one. When you are reading the scenes set in the cottage, you feel how incredibly claustrophobic and exhausting the domestic sphere is, where everything is tightly controlled. Every day is centred around caring for the mother, with three women trapped in a world with no joy. Yet this is also balanced by the wildness and uncontrollable and mystical natural world of the island, that Aoileann yearns for, and the other residents who are grotesquely fascinated by Aoileann and her mother.

It is a novel that encompasses so many things. What it means to be a mother, the mother daughter relationship, duty, desire and anger too. In Aoileann, White has created a character who works so well because we are fascinated as to why she hates her mother, yet still cares for her. We see how Aoileann is desperate to love and be loved, but comes to hate her mother for the life she is forced to live.

Where I End is an incredibly layered and nuanced novel and White does not shy away from tackling challenging themes, and continually confronts the reader with events and interactions that are at times very difficult to read. At the heart of this novel is Aoileann and all the thoughts, feelings and emotions she has never been taught to express. We are witness to a young woman’s twisted logic as we come to understand she can only articulate what she wants in an increasingly destructive and horrific way as she finally decides to take control over her future.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Sarah Davis-Goff and Tramp Press for my gifted proof copy.

When Your World Changes Unexpectedly

In September 2021, for a myriad of reasons that are far too complex and far too emotional to explain in a blog post, I found myself in the slightly unexpected position of now being a full time carer to my adult son.

I say slightly unexpected, because I knew the day would come, but to suddenly find out in the space of three weeks that the placements you had envisioned would be available for the next three years, turn out to be so completely wrong you can’t quite believe what you were thinking when you applied on your son’s behalf, it’s a shock, trust me.

I now found myself the primary, full time carer for my adult son, and it changed everything. I have always looked after him from the moment he woke up to the time he went to school, and from when the school day had finished until he went to bed, but now, there is no break. From the moment T gets up, to the moment he goes to bed, I am looking after him – and it’s exhausting, physically and mentally.

Due to various elements of T’s condition, respite isn’t an option at the moment, so it’s up to me to be here and be present for him. Meeting friends for a coffee or a lunch during the week are no longer an option, and the only free time I get is when my husband comes home from work, or at the weekends.

I can imagine you reading this, wondering why I am writing a post like this – I mean, after all, you are thinking, this is meant to be a blog about books for goodness sake.

I guess it’s just that I want to try and tell people what it is like being a full time carer. It’s not easy, it’s full on, and it takes over your life. Suddenly, all the things you thought you wanted to do are put on the back burner, and honestly, I came very close to stopping running Years of Reading a number of times. How could I be a good blogger if I can’t find the time to read, to write reviews.

It can absolutely feel like you are being left behind if you can’t read and review. I feel guilty for all the books I haven’t been able to read, for all the reviews I want to sit down and write, and for all the times I can’t attend events or take part in bookish things because to be honest – T has to come first. It makes you doubt yourself and your love of reading. Am I still a book blogger if I don’t actually blog about books? In the ever increasingly growing and fast moving book blogging community, where do I fit in if my life changes and I am simply too exhausted to be part of it anymore?

The one thing that has got me through this huge life change is reading, and the bookish friends that I have made since I started blogging. Before I started blogging, I was always a little sceptical that you could have friendships with people you have never met, but they have been the very thing that have kept me going through the last year. I am so lucky to have such incredible friends in my life who have been there for me when I needed to vent, or to simply just talk about books for a while. Amanda (@bookishchat) has been the best bookish friend I could have wished for. We have both had a lot to deal with personally this past year, but as well as chatting non stop about books and Real Housewives, for me, having Amanda there to talk to, and us having created @twofondofbooks has meant everything.

Honestly? We don’t talk enough about what it means to be a full time carer. Of the immense isolation and loneliness that you feel, of how your world often shrinks to the four walls you have to live in for much of your day. It really hurts sometimes as you see friends and family doing all the things you wish you could, without a second thought or a whole load of planning and complicated strategies that you have to put into place before you can even step outside of the door.

Reading has always been my escape, my time away from reality, but over the past year it has become so much more. It is a snatched ten minutes of joy for myself when I am not needed, it is a chance to lose myself for just a little while in worlds like and unlike my own, and it is way to be constantly connected to those who love reading and books just as much as I do. I have never appreciated books, reading and the friends I have made in the bookish community as much as I do now.

If you have read to this point in my blog post, thank you. I felt I needed to explain just why writing and blogging has had to take a back seat for a while, and to share that if you are going through something similar too, I hear you, and we need to talk openly and honestly about what being a carer is really like. It’s hard, it can be relentless and like you are constantly trying to be heard, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

All I can say is thank goodness for books, reading and the incredible bookish community I am so pleased to be part of, because I really don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have them, and my life would certainly be a lot less brighter without them.

Lots of love,

Clare

xxx

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there are more things by Yara Rodrigues Fowler

there are more things

by Yara Rodrigues Fowler

Published by Fleet

Available at West End Lane and all Good Bookshops

What They Say

there are more things is a novel about two women – Melissa and Catarina.

Born to a well-known political family in Olinda, Brazil, Catarina grows up in the shadow of her dead aunt, Laura. Melissa, a South London native, is brought up by her mum and a crew of rebellious grandmothers.

In January 2016, Melissa and Catarina meet for the first time, and, as political turmoil unfolds across Brazil and the UK, their friendship takes flight. Their story takes us across continents and generations – from the election of Lula to the London riots to the darkest years of Brazil’s military dictatorship.

there are more things builds on the unique voice of Yara’s debut to create a sweeping novel about history, revolution and love. In it we see sisterhood and queerness, and, perhaps, glimpse a better way to live.

What I Say

I read Yara’s brilliant first novel The Stubborn Archivist when I was asked to be a Shadow Judge for the Sunday Times Young Writer Award in 2019. I’m not trying to show off by telling you, but if I hadn’t been part of that, I would never have read it, and would have missed out on discovering an incredible writer whose books are now both firmly on my list of all time favourite novels.

there are more things is the story of Melissa and Catarina, two young women who meet in London in 2016. Catarina has been raised in Brazil and her family are well known for their political views, while Melissa has been born and raised in South London. When they meet, their worlds collide and change in ways they could never have imagined, and it is their friendship and histories that form the basis of this intricately layered and unique novel.

While London has always been home to Melissa, who has had a vibrant and supportive upbringing, populated with aunties and her Mum, Catarina has made the move to London with her boyfriend Pedro, unsure of what the future holds for them and leaving a prominent political family behind.

When Catarina moves into Melissa’s flat, their lives intersect and each becomes undoubtedly a part of the other’s world. Yara uses this as an opportunity to move us backwards and forwards through the narrative, to learn not only about the womens lives and how they got to this point, but also of their histories and heritage. We see where they have come from and how Brazil has been shaped by the political events over the years. There is a whole narrative about the political events in Brazil in the 1970s and 1980s, which for me was initially daunting, but also made me sit and look things up, to read about a world I had no knowledge of, to understand how the events then shaped the world now. This novel is undoubtedly epic in its scale, but Yara’s writing makes the reader feel intimately part of it, that you are not being lectured to, but are instead being asked to read, to understand and to appreciate the experiences of a country that you know little of.

I loved the way that Yara uses the blank page so creatively to tell the story in so many different ways, that this is not line after line of text, but plays with our expectations as to what a novel should look like. Words meander across the pages, there are pages of dense text, of poetry, recipes, texts, pages where the only text is a a sound reported, pages of Portuguese and short sharp vignettes. Our histories and worlds are not neat and linear, they are peppered with half remembrances, solid facts, different stories and explanations and no one will tell the same story twice – and this is why there are more things is so vibrant and authentic.

This novel also perfectly articulates so many things about the realities of flat sharing (especially when the flats aren’t particularly great!), of going out, of needing your phone to be welded to your hand, of living for the weekend, and always having your friends around. I love the depiction that time of immense freedom in your 20s when you are not answerable to anyone, and can live and love as you want, with the energy and stamina I could only read about with envy. Melissa has this incredible vibrancy and drive, her commitment to make this world better for those in it, and when she and Catarina join a grass roots group who are determined to stop deportations, seeing how these women work together is something that was a learning experience for me.

there are more things is a brilliant and unapologetic novel about being who you are and not trying to fit in to the world around you. By having sections of the text in Portuguese, it really makes you stop and think, because we are so used to everything being accessible for us, expecting everyone to use English so we are included always. This device serves to exclude us momentarily from the narrative, as so many people have felt excluded from ours for so long. World and historical events happen around Melissa and Catarina as the story moves on, but they are not the focus of the plot – as for so many of us, they are incidental details, part of the backdrop as we try to carry on with our own lives, and this for me helped the novel feel truly realistic.

If I had to try and describe this novel to you, and tell you why you I think you should read it, I would tell you this. there are more things is a novel that encapsulates so much of the world we have lived in so perfectly, it is a novel that needs the reader to understand that they are not a bystander, but to really appreciate Yara’s writing, you need to be an active participant in the narratives that unfurl in front of you. Most importantly, I think it is a novel that acknowledges we are all searching for the same thing – trying to work out not only where we fit in, but who we are, and how we want to be seen and remembered, whilst ensuring our histories and heritages are acknowledged and not forgotten.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Hayley Camis at Fleet for my gifted finished copy.

You can order your copies from West End Lane Books here.

A Tidy Ending by Joanna Cannon

A Tidy Ending by Joanna Cannon

Published by The Borough Press

Available from West End Books

and all Good Bookshops

What They Say

A NICE, NORMAL HOUSE

Linda has lived around here ever since she fled the dark events of her childhood in Wales. Now she sits in her kitchen, wondering if this is all there is – pushing the Hoover round and cooking fish fingers for tea is a far cry from the glamorous lifestyle she sees in the glossy catalogues coming through the door for the house’s previous occupant.

A NICE, NORMAL HUSBAND

Terry isn’t perfect – he picks his teeth, tracks dirt through the house and spends most of his time in front of the TV. But that seems fairly standard – until he starts keeping odd hours at work, at around the same time young women start to go missing in the neighbourhood.

A NICE, NORMAL LIFE…

If Linda could just track down Rebecca, who lived in the house before them, maybe some of that perfection would rub off on her. But the grass isn’t always greener: you can’t change who you really are, and there’s something nasty lurking behind the net curtains on Cavendish Avenue…

What I Say

How often in our lives do we walk around not really noticing the people who are right in front of our eyes? As the world becomes a place where women are expected to conform to a certain aesthetic and behaviour to be deemed normal and seen, there are so many women for whom simply existing and settling for what they have means that they become invisible to the world around them, in spite of the hopes and dreams they may have once had.

Linda could easily be described as one of those women. She is married to Terry, and her life is now best described as one of routine and mundanity. While Terry goes out to work, Linda splits her time between looking after their house and working part time in a local charity shop. So far so unremarkable.

Yet as the novel’s narrative slowly and deliciously unfurls, we start to see that Linda has not only had an unsettling childhood, due to her father being alleged to have done something while he was a piano teacher, but that she also seems fixated on ensuring that she and Terry move into a very specific house. Linda seems to know what she wants and won’t rest until she gets it, and right from the start, where we realise Linda is in some kind of psychiatric ward, do we understand that this is a layered and intriguing story.

As catalogues arrive at Linda and Terry’s house for the previous tenant Rebecca, Linda starts to open them and is transfixed. They promise a world filled with glamour and sophistication, and Linda starts to wonder if she tried to be more like the person Rebecca clearly is, whether she would have a chance to finally be seen at last.

Meanwhile, Terry is going to work and coming home, and expecting his dinner on the table, and for Linda to be there for him. As he increasingly spends more time at work, the news is filled with stories of young girls going missing, and as the reader, our imagination starts to wonder exactly where Terry has been and what he has been doing when he isn’t at work and hasn’t arrived home..

While Terry becomes increasingly absent from the house and their marriage, Linda becomes more and more obsessed with Rebecca. Using some incredibly clever deduction, she manufactures ‘bumping’ into Rebecca and her boyfriend Jolyon. Meeting them only fuels Linda’s desire to be more like Rebecca, copying her hair and clothes, and believing that she has found a new friend. Yet Rebecca and Jolyon see her as an unwitting victim for their money making ‘scheme’. In a heartbreaking scene for the reader, Rebecca believes she has found the perfect candidate to be her new cleaner – which Linda sees as an extension of their friendship – and a way to really get close to Rebecca.

From the moment that Linda slides into Rebecca’s life, Linda starts to feel more confident and ready to have the life she feels she truly deserves. In doing so, she sets off a chain of events that no one could ever have foreseen, and one thing is certain – everyone in Linda’s life will never be the same again.

A Tidy Ending is a brilliantly thoughtful and captivating novel that shows the lengths we will go to in order to protect those we love. Joanna’s prose completely articulates the minutiae and at times mundanity of every person’s every day life, our hopes and dreams, and there were lines and paragraphs that were so perfectly written I wanted to underline them. Joanna understands emotion and the psyche of people so well, that she really effortlessly connects you with the characters, because although you may not like what they do, you understand why they do it.

Joanna has written an absolutely absorbing and utterly convincing story about a woman who refuses to be ignored. Linda is a wonderful character, whose seemingly insignificant life and treatment by those around her, makes us want to protect and look after her, and want only what she wants for herself. What Joanna’s pitch perfect characterisation and writing shows us, is that the people we pay the least attention to, sometimes should be those we watch the most.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Ann Bissell and The Borough Press for my gifted proof copy.

You can buy your copy of A Tidy Ending here.