The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

Published by Picador Books on March 4th

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Cornwall, 1972. Three keepers vanish from a remote lighthouse, miles from the shore. The entrance door is locked from the inside. The clocks have stopped. The Principal Keeper’s weather log describes a mighty storm, but the skies have been clear all week.;
What happened to those three men, out on the tower? The heavy sea whispers their names. The tide shifts beneath the swell, drowning ghosts. Can their secrets ever be recovered from the waves?
Twenty years later, the women they left behind are still struggling to move on. Helen, Jenny and Michelle should have been united by the tragedy, but instead it drove them apart. And then a writer approaches them. He wants to give them a chance to tell their side of the story. But only in confronting their darkest fears can the truth begin to surface . . .
Inspired by real events, The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex is an intoxicating and suspenseful mystery, an unforgettable story of love and grief that explores the way our fears blur the line between the real and the imagined.

What I Say

I have to be honest, when I first received a copy of The Lamplighters I wasn’t sure that it would be my kind of novel. The story of three lighthouse keepers going missing? I just didn’t think it would engage me at all.

I was completely wrong. The Lamplighters is a remarkably haunting and compelling story of how important our memories are, of those left behind when the unthinkable happens, and how the only people we truly know are ourselves.

In 1972, three Lighthouse Keepers; Arthur Black , Bill Walker and Vincent Bourne simply disappear from the Maiden Rock Lighthouse in Cornwall. The door is locked from the inside, the place is clean and the table is set for two people, and the clocks are set to 8.45. That’s it. No Lighthouse Keepers, no clues, and a mystery that lies unsolved for twenty years.

In 1992, an author called Dan Sharp wants to try and solve the locked door mystery that has had such a huge impact on the families that were left behind and the communities that had to deal with all the attention this brought on them. Dan decides to get in contact with the wives and girlfriend of the Lighthouse Keepers, and we meet Helen, who was married to Arthur, Jenny who was Bill’s wife, and Michelle who was going out with Vinnie at the time of his death. Helen and Jenny are keen to speak to Dan, but for some reason they are estranged from each other at a time when they should have been closer than ever. Michelle doesn’t want to get involved, and initially decides not to speak to Dan. What was interesting for me was that how in the background of this narrative, always seeming slightly ominous, was the ever present Trident organisation that has effectively paid off the families to ensure their silence and the women are very mindful of this.

The novel moves seamlessly between the two narratives – that of 1972 and 1992, where we see the reality of life for the men in a lighthouse, and the lives of the people who are left behind after they disappear. What Emma does so well when describing the daily routines of the men, is to show how repetitive and mundane but entirely necessary their roles are. Arthur as the senior lighthouse keeper is meticulous and incredibly proud of what he does, and he wants the other men to appreciate how important their jobs are. He may seem aloof and introspective, but his dour demeanour hides a tragedy that has served to put a wedge between himself and Helen. Bill seems to always be slightly resentful of Arthur, and although initially we may believe it is because he covets Arthur’s job, the truth is far more destructive. Vinnie is the youngest and enthusiastic about his new job, but we learn that he has spent time in prison, and has brought and hidden a gun onto the Lighthouse.

With all three men hiding something from each other, we start to see just how claustrophobic and isolated they are. Stuck in an inaccessible lighthouse, having lots of time to think about things as they do their jobs, little by little, cracks start to form between them. The fact that they have to work night shifts in rotation too, all add to the fact that the lines between daytime and night time become blurred, and their imaginations start to work overtime and we are never quite sure what is real and what is imagined. All the time, ever present is the unforgiving and powerful sea all around them, and as a reader you are all too aware of how all encompassing and dangerous nature is, and how they are completely at its mercy.

Meanwhile back in the Keeper’s Cottages, we see how Jenny and Helen are poles apart in their personalities, and we also discover that Bill constantly makes Jenny feel inadequate as he holds Helen up as to the wifely example she should aspire to. As we hear their stories in 1992, in the form of monologues they deliver while speaking to Dan, it adds an authenticity to the narrative. They tell us not only the reality of having to be a Lighthouse Keeper’s wife, but also help to fill in the stories of their husbands, so we start to fully understand exactly why Arthur and Bill living together in such an enclosed space can only lead to tragedy.

Emma’s slow drip feed of revelations about each character’s personalities adds to the undeniable tension both in the Lighthouse and between the women at home. No one is without fault or flaw, and it is impossible to not empathise with each person as their story is slowly revealed. The moment that Arthur makes a discovery that changes everything he believed he knew about his wife is beautifully understated, and this devastating revelation sets in motion a chain of events that culminates in Dan Sharp trying to uncover the mystery twenty years later.

To say anything about what happens next would spoil The Lamplighters for you, and I have no intention of doing that! What I will say is that as the novel draws to its conclusion, you really feel the sense of panic and despair that permeates the Lighthouse, and there is a sense of other worldliness which only serves to add to the tension as little by little the plots seamlessly falls into place. You understand how incredibly frustrated and bewildered the women must be, and how they are unable to really live their lives after what has happened to them, and that the burden on them since the disappearance has been all consuming and overwhelming.

The Lamplighters worked so well for me because it absolutely wrong footed me – I had it all worked out. Until I really didn’t! Emma has written a novel that not only captures the physical and emotional toll of working in a Lighthouse, and the secrets that are held within, but also gives a voice to those who are so overlooked in history – the women who are left behind to run the men’s world when they are not there. It is a sensitive and emotional novel that perfectly articulates how memory can be an all encompassing force, and that when we are left alone with our thoughts for a long time, they can be just what we need to comfort us, but also the very things that serve to destroy us.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Camilla Elworthy and Katie Bowden for my gifted copies.

Bernard and Pat by Blair James

Bernard and Pat by Blair James

Published by Corsair

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

I suppose that these are the horses from which we are thrown.
We see things as we are, not as they are.
How do we best see? With eyes old or new?
How well do we rise after falling?

Catherine is small and everyone else is big. The world has lots of rules which she cannot keep up with, and lots of things happen that just don’t feel right. With Dad gone and Mum at work, Catherine spends her days with Bernard and Pat. These are days that she will never forget but never quite remember, either.

Bernard and Pat is a tour-de-force, a novel deeply aware of the peculiarities of memory and the vulnerability of childhood. Catherine’s voice is unforgettable.

What I Say

“I need it all, I need to know everything so that I can be anything because I do not know what to be, not what I am.”

How often do with think about our childhood, and the memories that make up that time? Do you remember every detail as if it was yesterday, or do you select the best and worst parts and the rest swims in front of your eyes definitely there, but you can’t be absolutely sure of every detail.

In Catherine, the narrator of Bernard and Pat, her memory is elusive. Sometimes she can recall every little thing, events and occasions are remembered with a piercing clarity that many of us can recognise, but seemingly without the comprehension and realisation that viewing them through adult eyes can bring. Catherine is being looked after by the apparently ordinary and overtly Christian Bernard and Pat while her Mum goes to work after her father passes away. Her brother James goes sometimes too, but what is very clear from the first few pages is that Bernard is sexually abusing Catherine.

The novel is told in short, sharp chapters that perfectly echo the concentration span and understanding of a young child, but as the novel progresses and the vocabulary becomes more sophisticated and erudite, it becomes clear to the reader that Catherine is now an adult narrating her story. Catherine has been profoundly affected by the trauma, and copes by dissociating her adult self from her experiences by using her childish voice. The story is punctuated by snapshots of Catherine’s life and especially her time at Bernard and Pat’s house. Little by little, from things she tells us about Bernard, we start to see how he engineered certain situations in order to molest Catherine.

As a reader it is heartbreaking to read Catherine’s story, to understand that this was happening when she was supposed to be safe. More shocking is that even when she tells her Mum that Bernard has been showing her pictures of naked women, and he is confronted, he manages to explain it away by saying that Catherine saw him looking at a catalogue to choose a birthday present for Pat. Bernard is respected in the community, is intelligent and plausible, so Catherine stays in his care. We are also completely aware of what is happening to Catherine, and Blair drips tension into every page as we wait to see what will happen to Catherine next as we are powerless to do anything other than be a helpless bystander.

I thought that the relationship between Bernard and Pat was also an interesting if troubling dynamic. Does Pat know or suspect anything about Bernard’s behaviour, and if so, why does she do nothing about it? I felt that there were hints to suggest that she did know, and that is what makes this novel even more upsetting, in that there is an adult in the situation who could have done something, but chose not to. Catherine subsumes her anger at what is happening to her, but in a series of recollections, we see how she is directing her anger at other, more weaker children around her.

As Catherine tells her story, we see how deeply she grieves for her Dad, and wishes that he was still there, because then she wouldn’t need to go to Bernard and Pat’s house, and this awful experience would never have happened. What becomes evident through the novel is that she is so devastated by what has happened to her that she even has to eventually change her name to Katy to dissociate herself from the horror of what has happened, and that she will never be truly free of it. When as an adult she sees Bernard in a supermarket, all the feelings come back and she has to relive it all again, trapped by her history she could not escape.

Bernard and Pat is unflinching in its depiction of child abuse, but it engages the reader because the horror of the situation is what is in the narrative we don’t know. We fill the gaps with our imagination and knowledge as adults, and like Catherine, are able to understand the severity and awfulness of what is happening to this child. A novel with this as the subject matter is undoubtedly hard to read, but Blair James instinctively understands exactly how to tell this sensitive and traumatic story with compassion and power.

Is it challenging to read? Absolutely. Yet at the heart of Bernard and Pat and testament to Blair’s writing is our total connection to Catherine. Our understanding of the unthinkable situation she is in, and how totally vulnerable she is makes Catherine’s story absolutely devastating but impossible to ignore.

I loved it.

Thank you so much to Kimberley Nyamhondera for my gifted copy.

Here Comes The Miracle by Anna Beecher

Here Comes The Miracle by Anna Beecher

Published by W & N

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online from 18th February

What They Say
It begins with a miracle: a baby born too small and too early, but defiantly alive. This is Joe.
Decades before, another miracle. In a patch of nettle-infested wilderness, a seventeen year old boy falls in love with his best friend, Jack. This is Edward.
Joe gains a sister, Emily. From the outset, her life is framed by his. She watches him grow into a young man who plays the violin magnificently and longs for a boyfriend. A young man who is ready to begin.
Edward, after being separated from Jack, builds a life with Eleanor. They start a family and he finds himself a grandfather to Joe and Emily.
When Joe is diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, Emily and the rest of the family are left waiting for a miracle. A miracle that won’t come.

Here Comes the Miracle is a profoundly beautiful story about love and loss; and about the beautiful and violent randomness of life.

What I Say

In 2017, my Mum was diagnosed with lung cancer and started her chemotherapy treatment, and she passed away in March 2019. Just less than two years from diagnosis, and she was gone. A fiercely determined and private woman, she didn’t want to tell my sister and I exactly what she was going through – possibly she wanted to shield us, more likely she didn’t want to worry us, and as we both live far from our childhood home, we relied on my Dad to keep us posted on what was happening.

Since she passed away, I have not been able to read a single book where the characters have cancer. I just can’t deal with the fact that they are still existing in their story and my Mum isn’t here to tell me not to be so bloody daft and get on with it.

When Lettice from W & N approached me to ask if I would like a copy of Here Comes The Miracle, I said yes and then put it on a shelf because I realised what it was about and quite frankly didn’t want to read it. A few weeks ago, I was having a real problem choosing a book to read. Every book I picked up just irritated me (my problem not theirs!) and then I saw Here Comes The Miracle. I reckoned that if I started it and couldn’t handle it that I could put it back and no one would ever know.

The thing is, it is absolutely absorbed me, and in fact I messaged Lettice as soon as I started reading it, because it is everything I needed to read at that moment to help me understand my grief and move on. It is so beautifully written, and deals with the subjects of living and dying, and most importantly the unspoken connections you have to your family in times of grief. How you have to carry on with your life existing with the knowledge that the person you love so much cannot be helped, and all that you can do is to be there for them, to reassure and comfort them as you see them slip away before your eyes.

From the moment he was born, Joe was the miracle baby. Premature and in an incubator, it was touch and go whether he would survive. He did, and then Emily came along and the family was complete. It is obvious throughout the book how close that Joe and Emily are, and that they are just like so many brothers and sisters in so many ways – loving each other one minute and then irritated completely by each other the next. Emily has moved out and is living with her boyfriend Solomon, studying at University and trying to make a go of her life. Joe is a quiet and sensitive soul who finds joy in his music and has feelings for a man who has returned to Boston, and is now finding his way in the world.

The narrative moves between Joe and Emily’s story, and also of their Grandfather Edward, who fell in love with his best friend called Jack, but is forced to leave the home when his mother sees them together in his bedroom. Shunned by his family, Edward finally finds solace with a teacher called Eleanor, who has left behind a violent husband, and they find comfort and stability in each other’s arms and have two children together. Their marriage is safe and solid, and though it might not be passionate, it provides both of them with the respectability society requires.

As the plot moves forward, Emily returns from a trip to Ireland with Solomon to be met at the airport by her parents with the devastating news that Joe has Stage Four cancer. From that moment on, everything Emily and her family have known is turned on its head, whilst Joe sits in the middle of it all, bringing his family even closer, and dealing with the realisation that he is facing death. What I found incredibly real about this novel is how life simply carries on, and that whatever situation you may be dealing with behind closed doors, to the outside world, nothing has changed. What Anna captures so perfectly in this novel is not the grand gestures or huge events, but the mundane and everyday realities that still have to happen however much we are hurting inside.

Emily is completely devastated by Joe’s diagnosis, and like any of us that have been in that situation, she tries to bargain with a higher power to save Joe. All her family are looking desperately for some hope, some sign that they can find the miracle that will save Joe and help their family heal. As Joe’s condition deteriorates, the family pull together to look after him and give him some comfort and release from the pain he is going through.

Anna’s stunning and multi-layered writing just perfectly portrays the stress and disbelief they are going through, the novel is filled with passages that will make you stop and re-read them because she absolutely articulates what it means to feel completely helpless in the face of this disease. Medical terminology becomes your new language, you find strength you can’t comprehend, and you learn that the most important lesson of all is to tell your family that you love them as often as you can.

Here Comes The Miracle completely stopped me in my tracks. When I finished it, I finally felt that someone else understood exactly what it is like to live with the knowledge that something you can’t control is going to take away someone you love – and you are powerless to stop it. It is an incredible novel of love and loss, of family and grief, but most of all, it is a brilliant and visceral story about the realities of living with and loving someone with cancer unequivocally.

I absolutely loved this novel, and it is going to be one of my #MostSelfishReads2021. If this novel is not on your bookish radar, please, put it on there.

Thank you so much to Lettice Franklin at W & N for my gifted copy.

Alexa, what is there to know about love by Brian Bilston

Alexa, what is there to know about love? by Brian Bilston

Published By Picador Poetry

Available from All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Brian Bilston is clouded in the pipe smoke of mystery.
He has been described as the Banksy of poetry and Twitter’s unofficial Poet Laureate. With over 50,000 followers, numbering J. K. Rowling, Roger McGough and Frank Cottrell Boyce amongst many, many other luminaries, Brian has become truly beloved by the Twitter community. His first collection, You Took the Last Bus Home, was published by Unbound.
He won the Great British Write Off competition in 2015 – and was the Poet in Residence for the World Economic Forum in 2016. There have been features on him on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the BBC news website, the Irish Times, the Independent and the Smithsonian Magazine. Most of these features seem to have largely centred around his pipe.?

What I Say

I have to be honest with you, I started out this writing this revew as an Instagram post, but do you know what? Sometimes when you love a book so much, the limited text of Instagram is quite frankly not enough to say everything!

First of all, let me get this out of the way and say right now that Alexa, what is there to know about love? is absolutely the perfect present for Valentine’s Day, or any day to be fair! This latest collection from one of my favourite poets tackles the age old question of what love is. It is almost a poetic journey through history at first, as we see how that thorny question is tackled at different times, but this is not just a collection of poems about love. It is a stunningly curated collection that also comments on Brexit, immigration, the former president Donald Trump, and homelessness amongst its many different themes.

In Three Postcards for example, we see the shared history of a husband and wife through three postcards that depict key moments in their life, until it ends with the line;

“The telegram had come two days before”

The wife has lost her husband at war, and now she is pregnant and widowed. This works so well because the poem taps into our own memories not only of sending postcards, and how the snatched snippets of our lives can mean so much, but also how seemingly everyday and mundane things can have the most impact. It is heartbreaking as a reader to slowly realise that the latest official postal communication is the one that will change their lives forever. Brian Bilston has the innate ability to turn a poem on a single sentence, and in this case, it makes you absolutely stop and re-read the poem.

For me, the way in which the poetry is collected and presented is really interesting. When you have laughed at one, the next one makes you cry, and another poem is just so beautifully written you have to pause for a moment before you read any further.

To try and choose a few examples from this book to illustrate the scope and skill of this poetry is really challenging, because they are all wonderful. Poetry has always been a slightly daunting genre for me, feeling that I wouldn’t ‘get’ what the poet was trying to say. I think that the way in which Brian writes is unique because his poems are accessible, they draw the reader to them as they refer to things that are happening in our lives that we can relate to, but also because they talk about themes so many of us can connect to and feel understood.

I loved As Easy as Alpha Bravo Charlie where the Narrator runs through their very personal rendition of the NATO phonetic alphabet. It just made me laugh because I always struggle with trying to remember it, and resulted in me telling my local garage that the last three letters of my number plates were and I quote: “Uterus Dominos Yummy”. This is one of the many reasons I love reading Brian’s poetry, because you realise that you are not the only one to have experienced these situations!

Meet Cutewhich is the term used when a couple meet for the first time, really struck a chord with me too. In the course of the poem, Brian builds up the dramatic tension by alluding to different cinematic situations, and highlights exactly how complicated and at times convoluted these set ups really are.

“that real life is not a Hollywood movie,

that romance need not begin

with a set-to or a spillage”

The couple in the poem eventually meet in such an ordinary and understated way, it really helps ground the reader and makes us realise that the best and most wonderful relationships simply start with two people meeting in the most boring way.

I think Brian’s poetry is intelligent and creative, and the familiarity and accessibility of his poetry does that very rare thing in that it makes the reader feel connected to his work. It references situations and topical events that we are all part of, as well as embracing all encompassing themes such as love, marriage, and life itself. The poems change constantly in tone and pace, which not only keeps us engaged, but surprises us as we move from poem to poem.

Alexa, what is there to know about love? takes moments of humanity in its many forms and reflects it back to us. We see ourselves when we are at our most vulnerable when we declare our love, but also at our most courageous when we are fighting for what we truly believe in. One of the many reasons I constantly recommend Brian’s poetry to everyone is for the very simple fact that in these uncertain and unsettled times, his wonderful poetry provides us with a way to try and make sense of the world we live in, a chance to see truly how many shared stories we have, and most importantly at a time where we can’t physically be together, these poems unite us in our experiences of the world today.

I absolutely loved it.

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

Insatiable by Daisy Buchanan

Insatiable by Daisy Buchanan

Published by Sphere on February 11th 2021

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Stuck in a dead-end job, broken-hearted, broke and estranged from her best friend: Violet’s life is nothing like she thought it would be. She wants more – better friends, better sex, a better job – and she wants it now.
So, when Lottie – who looks like the woman Violet wants to be when she grows up – offers Violet the chance to join her exciting start-up, she bites. Only it soon becomes clear that Lottie and her husband Simon are not only inviting Violet into their company, they are also inviting her into their lives.
Seduced by their townhouse, their expensive candles and their Friday-night sex parties, Violet cannot tear herself away from Lottie, Simon or their friends. But is this really the more Violet yearns for? Will it grant her the satisfaction she is so desperately seeking?

Insatiable is about women and desire – lust, longing and the need to be loved. It is a story about being unable to tell whether you are running towards your future or simply running away from your past. The result is at once tender and sad, funny and hopeful.

What I Say

Now, if you know me at all by now – and let’s face it, you have had to hear my shouting about books for nigh on four years, you will have realised that I am somewhat a fan of Jilly Cooper. Why is that remotely relevant I hear you cry? Well, if you like me you love Jilly Cooper novels, you will adore Insatiable by Daisy Buchanan.

Yes, it is stuffed full with lots of sex, in every way you ever imagined, and for some scenes to be honest, I had to sit and work out how it was physically possible! It is also pertinent to mention that there is a sexual assault, and Daisy handles it sensitively and appropriately.

I have to say that you need to understand that Insatiable is so much more than a novel about sex. Daisy Buchanan has written a timely and thought provoking novel that addresses so many of the issues and concerns we all have – however old we are. It is a novel about greed and lust, of how we are all trying to work out who we are and how much of ourselves we want to share with the world, and most imporantly I felt, about how we are all increasingly falling for the idea that somehow the grass is always greener.

Violet is working in a seemingly thankless job in the art world, having little inclination and even less money, she exists from day to day and paycheck to paycheck. She ended her enagement to Mark as she realised she wasn’t in love with him, and couldn’t bear the thought of trying to pretend to be the perfect trophy wife. In the process she also lost her best friend Nadia after a furious row. Alone and needing company, she is using dating apps. When she uses her boss’ tickets for an art exhbition to meet her date – who stands her up, it is there that she meets the enigmatic and impossibly glamourous Lottie and Simon. They are in the process of starting an app for selling art, and want someone to help with their social media, and Violet seems to fit the bill perfectly.

When they meet up to discuss the role, it seems very far from an ordinary job interview. Violet has done her social media research and has stumbled into Lottie and Simon’s world and has witnessed the seemingly insta perfect lives they lead. Understandably, she has started dreaming about how her life could change by being in their orbit. From the moment Violet sits down, she realises that she is totally attracted to Lottie, and the feeling seems to be mutual. By being so open, Violet gains herself entry into the world that Lottie and Simon inhabit, and a chance to meet their friends. The only thing that isn’t mentioned is that the group – Mimi, Richard, Max, Sasha and Lottie and Simon may swap anecdotes – but they also swap partners.

Violet’s introduction to them is eye opening as she seems to almost be a prize for Lottie and Simon to show off and share. Violet participates, but it’s never made clear what the rules are and what is appropriate to for her to do or not do. That for me was somewhat unsettling as a reader, in that Violet seems dazzled by their life, and wants to be part of it, but you always wonder how much Lottie and Simon actually cared for her. As the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Lottie and Simon have created a persona which when you look beyond the surface is far from the glossy, carefree existence they are showing to the world.

The thing is, as a reader you do understand Violet’s actions. Stuck in a seemingly thankless job, living in a far from glamourous bedsit, Lottie and Simon offer her that glimpse into a life she has only dreamed of. Violet is invited to Ibiza with the group, and it is there that things eventually come tumbling down after a shocking revelation. She is forced to face the fact that Lottie and Simon view her as little more than a plaything. It is testament to Daisy’s writing that you absolutely feel Violet’s pain and confusion, and also understand why she still makes excuses for their behaviour – however despicable it may seem to us. Violet is a young woman who is trying to determine who she is and wants and although initially she seems in control of her situation, increasingly it becomes clear she can only really take charge by making some life changing decisions.

I think that the novel worked so well because you get to know all the characters and the motivation for why they act as they do, and I felt that they were rounded and believable . You may not like them, or understand why they behave as they do, but Daisy succeeds in showing not only how they control the persona they present to the world, but also how even the seemingly most assured and confident people are peppered with self doubt and flaws.

Insatiable is defined as being impossible to satisfy, and as well as this being relevant to Violet in terms of sex, I also felt it applied to her relationship with food and eating. There are constant references to what people are eating, the meals that are being prepared, and I thought it was interesting how Violet uses food as a form of medication to soothe herself or to block out what she is going through. This is a subtle plot device which I felt added to the sensory experience this novel really is.

I really hope that Insatiable finds its way onto your bookish radar, and that people don’t focus on the fact that it has lots of sex, because I absolutely feel they would be doing a major disservice to this fabulous novel and Daisy’s brilliant writing. This is a novel about trying to find your way in the world when everyone else seems to have what you want and seems so much better at making a success of it all. It is about what we expect from women, from relationships and the increasing power that social media seems to have over all our lives. Perhaps most importantly it is about acknowledging and recognising female desire, and understanding that we can edit and filter our lives all we want, but only by being honest can we really find happiness.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you very much to Millie Seaward for my gifted copy.

Bolt From The Blue by Jeremy Cooper

Bolt From The Blue by Jeremy Cooper

Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions on 27th January 2021

Available From All Good Bookshops and Online
What They Say

In Bolt from the Blue, Jeremy Cooper, the winner of the 2018 Fitzcarraldo Editions Novel Prize, charts the relationship between a mother and daughter over the course of thirty-odd years. In October 1985, Lynn moves down to London to enrol at Saint Martin’s School of Art, leaving her mother behind in a suburb of Birmingham. Their relationship is complicated, and their primary form of contact is through the letters, postcards and emails they send each other periodically, while Lynn slowly makes her mark on the London art scene. A novel in epistolary form, Bolt from the Blue captures the waxing and waning of the mother-daughter relationship over time, achieving a rare depth of feeling with a deceptively simple literary form.

What I Say

As a Book Blogger, I am very lucky to receive books to read and review. Some I have asked for and some are a lovely surprise, and just sometimes you get a book sent to you that would never have been on your radar and you are so very glad it now is.

Bolt From The Blue by Jeremy Cooper is one of those books. I don’t expect many of you will know about it yet, but take it from me, this is a unique and brilliant novel that is absolutely going to be on my #MostSelfishReads2021.

It is the story of a mother daughter relationship told over thirty years in postcards, letters and emails, and it works beautifully. There are times when they communicate constantly, and other times when a wrong word means that their correspondence becomes sporadic or even stops completely.

Lynn, the daughter, decides to move to London to take up a place at the Saint Martin’s School of Art, leaving her Mum behind in Birmingham. Lynn’s correspondence with her Mum at the start of the novel really reminded me of when I first went to Leeds Uni in 1989 (pre mobile phones and social media!). You have to communicate every sight, sound, thought and feeling through your writing, and although it might be slightly overwhelming, you want to tell your parents everything and try to make them understand exactly what you are going through.

As Lynn starts to study, she talks at length about the art and artists she meets, and her thoughts and feelings about art as a commodity. As she becomes more successful, she starts to question the monetisation of art and the way in which art galleries and dealers operate, as well as her own feelings as to her personal integrity about making money versus maintaining control over her art and career.

What I also really enjoyed was all the references to art and artists, and I spent a lot of time googling them alongside this novel which added another dimension, and for an art lover like me was just perfect. It really gave the writing a sense of time and place, and put Lynn firmly in the centre of the action.

However, what is so integral to this story is the relationship between Lynn and her Mum, and the way in which it changes through the years. At times they are really close, other times do not speak, but there is always that bond between them. As Lynn becomes more successful in the art world, she talks to her Mum frequently about what that means to her, yet at the heart of their discussions is her Mum’s desire to become a Grandmother and she at times unashamedly pressures Lynn to become a mother too. There is also the shared memories they have of their past – the uncomfortable discussions about Lynn’s father, as well as the numerous boyfriends that Lynn’s Mum has had over the years.

This novel is also a perfect example of the unconscious and unspoken bonds that exist between some Mums and daughters, the emotional shorthand that only they understand and use to heal or hurt each other. As the novel progresses, it seems that they have more in common that they want to admit, but Jeremy Cooper’s skilful writing always keeps their relationship slightly on edge, which is tempered by the occasional declarations of love and care, but also there are vicious exchanges between them that seems so real too. I think it is testament to Cooper’s writing how authentic these characters are, I really felt at times that this was a non-fiction book of a collection of correspondence as oppose to one imagined for this book.

Bolt From The Blue was for me that perfect mix of familial relationships and a chance for me to really understand and learn about the art scene in London. It was made even better by finding out that the postcards featured in this novel actually exist, which added a whole dimension to this book for me. It is a measured, assured and perfectly paced novel that I might not have known about, but after having read it, I would urge as many people as possible to read it and fall in love with it as much as I have.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Clare Bogen at Fitzcarraldo Editions for my gifted copy.

A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies

A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies

Published by Sceptre Books

Available from All Good Bookshops and Online

A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies from Sceptre Books is a novel that not many of you may be aware of, but I was completely captivated by it when I read it recently. When I started to read it, I thought I would write an Instagram review, but sometimes you read a novel and the limited length of an Instagram post is not enough to convey what it meant to you and why you think lots of people should read it.

It is the story of a married couple, and the road they take to having a baby, as well as everything that follows. It is unusual in that it is written from the male perspective, but for me that was the very thing that drew me to this novel. I have read (and loved) so many books about parenting and motherhood, but they are mostly written from the female viewpoint, and I suppose I wanted to hear the other side of the experience.

A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself is a brilliantly observed and insightful novel about the realities of parenting and the shared experience and competitiveness that are unfortunately part of the everyday life of someone who has a child. The thing that stood out for me undoubtedly throughout reading this book is that this is really truthful and real about the choices and issues that arise when you become a parent.

The novel starts with the couple making the decision to have an abortion, after they discover the baby could have abnormalities. It really resonated with me, because I had to go through that after my son was born, he had to have genetic testing, which determined he had chromosome abnormalities. I really felt for the couple, and completely understood everything they were feeling and going through, because we had been through it too. It is coming to terms with the fact that there is nothing you could have possibly done, but at the same time you now have to navigate a world that you could never have anticipated.

This decision impacts on everything that happens afterwards, and when the wife (we never learn the couple’s names) falls pregnant again, all the same thoughts and fears are always present, and the parents wonder if they did the right thing choosing to have an abortion for their first pregnancy.
I thought it was also interesting to see how when the wife falls pregnant again and has to have a C section, how the mother is prioritised and so the dad has to work out where his place is. It makes you aware how the Mother understandably is the focus, but that the father’s experience is very different.

Peter Ho Davies also absolutely understands and totally conveys the relentless grind and mundanity of parenthood, how you function on so little sleep and how the baby takes over every single part of your life as you try to carry on. As the baby becomes a child, and they start school, there is the daily routine of cooking, cleaning, school runs, school admin as well as trying to cope with your own job, and you feel that your own identity becomes subsumed as you are known as someone’s mum or dad. However, what makes it all worth it, are the moments of pure unadulterated joy, the times when you feel that emotional connection with your child, and you forget everything else, and that is what is so perfectly related in this novel.

I also found it incredibly moving how the father and mother realise that their son is not like other children, and vacillate between wanting to try and find out whether there really are any issues, but at the same time want to protect him from the labelling and prejudice that determining an official diagnosis will bring. Understandably they want to wrap them in cotton wool and protect him from anything awful in the world, but at the same time they understand in finding out they have a way to access the help and support they need for their son.

The narrative is short and sharp, and there are so many lines and paragraphs that I wanted to underline and read again, because they are so perfect. The story of a marriage and the impact deciding to have a child has is something that will resonate with many readers, but it is also such a brilliant novel because it is a story of a marriage, and what happens over the years as you become so familiar with each other. It captures the time when you realise that this is what the rest of your life is going to be like, and that is something you can accept and embrace, or decide to make a change. The couple in the novel are at times very close, at times not communicating well and seem estranged from each other, but what underpins it all is the shared history and life they have lived, and the unspoken bond that holds them together as their child grows up.

I truly loved A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself for so many reasons. It articulates so perfectly what it means to be a parent; the constant worry, the small victories, the endless comparisons with other parents as to how they raise their children, and the fact that having children seem to entitle everyone to be able to publicly express their opinions about them. It is the most public and private, brilliant and difficult thing we will ever do, and we need more alternative narratives to broaden our understanding of what being a parent means for the fathers too.

Thank you very much to Sceptre Books for my gifted copy.

One Night New York by Lara Thompson

One Night, New York by Lara Thompson

Published by Virago on 14th January 2021

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

A thrilling debut novel of corruption and murder, set in the nightclubs, tenements and skyscrapers of 1930s New York.
At the top of the Empire State Building, on a freezing December night, two women hold their breath. Frances and Agnes are waiting for the man who has wronged them. They plan to seek the ultimate revenge.
Set over the course of a single night, One Night, New York is a detective story, a romance and a coming-of-age tale. It is also a story of old New York, of bohemian Greenwich Village between the wars, of floozies and artists and addicts, of a city that sucked in creatives and immigrants alike, lighting up the world, while all around America burned amid the heat of the Great Depression. It also marks the arrival of an exciting new talent on the Virago fiction list.

What I Say

One Night, New York is a glorious and absorbing delight of a book, that just explodes with energy on every page. It is ambitious in its scope, and perfectly captures the realities and sometimes unsavoury sides of living in New York in the 1930s.

It starts on the 21st December 1932, with two women, Frances and Agnes, on the seventy-second floor of the Empire State Building waiting for an unamed person to arrive. Why they are there, and what they are about to do is not clear, but what is absolutely evident from the first page is that these women have a score to settle – whatever the cost.

The whole book is seeped in the atmosphere and the deceptively glamourous lives led by the artists, creative people and downright unsavoury characters who inhabit this world. New York is evolving and with its changing and growing skyline, and it is the ever present background in this world – all seeing, all encompassing and in every part of the plot. The descriptions of the people, places, clothes and the lives they lead mean that this is one of those novels that is totally entrenched in the world it depicts, that every page, every scene captivates the reader completely.

Frances is fleeing from her controlling parents in Kansas. She boards a train for New York to go and meet her brother Stanley, and it is there she meets the glamorous Jacks and her charismatic friend Dicky. They want to use Frances as part of a makeover for a story Jacks is writing. Dicky gives her his card and asks her to come and see them when she is settled in New York. Frances is unable to read, so has to take his word for what he has told her. From the moment she arrives in New York and meets Stanley, Frances is overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of the city, and you see this vast and confusing place very clearly through her eyes as she struggles to comprehend how she will ever fit in.

Frustrated by Stan’s attempts to keep her in their apartment, she eventually makes her way to Jacks and Dicky’s house, where she meets Agnes, the young woman who will change her life forever. Frances feels a connection and a deep attraction to Agnes, but this meeting also paves the way for Frances to ingratiate herself into the less picture perfect side of New York.

Her relationship with Stanley is becoming increasingly strained, as he refuses to tell her what he does at night, why he has been assaulted, or why there are bundles of money under the floorboards in their apartment. Frances is an incredibly smart and intuitive woman who knows that what Stanley is not telling her is far more worrying than what he is, and when she is faced with an incredible loss, she resolves to find the answers – however distressing that may be.

Agnes confides in Frances about her family, how her Mother is being cared for by nurses, and how her sister committed suicide after being blackmailed by the New York Police for having had risqué photos taken. Now Agnes is being blackmailed too, and Frances realises that in order for them to live their lives in peace, they are going to have to take matters into their own hands.

One Night, New York does not shy away from the darker side of the city at all, and in doing so it opens up a whole new narrative for the novel. It is a world where extortion and corruption at every level is rife, and women are a convenient commodity to be picked up, used and tossed aside when they have outlived their usefulness. The violence is brutal and shocking, but it is completely integral and necessary to understand the way in which this world functions, and why Frances and Agnes are so intent on revenge.

For me, the pace of the novel was perfectly pitched, and you cannot help but feel a connection to all the characters in this novel because Lara Thompson makes you care about what happens to them. One Night, New York is a bold and ambitious novel that works so well because not only does it immediately pull the reader right into the heart of the action, but Lara Thompson has created relatable characters whose flaws and vulnerabilities give them the courage to take matters into their own hands to achieve the lives that they deserve.

Thank you so much to Kimberley Nyamhondera, Grace Vincent and Virago Press for my gifted copy.

Some Body to Love by Alexandra Heminsley

Some Body to Love by Alexandra Heminsley

Published by Chatto and Windus

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

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

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

What I Say

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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