How Do You Keep The Passion Alive?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Published by Trapeze

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

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

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

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

What I Say

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Blessed Girl by Angela Makholwa

The Blessed Girl by Angela Makholwa

Published by Bloomsbury

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say.

Young, beautiful and ambitious, Bontle Tau has Johannesburg wrapped around her finger. Her generous admirers are falling over themselves to pay for her Mercedes, her penthouse, and her Instagrammable holidays. It’s her duty to look fabulous – after all, people didn’t sacrifice their lives in the freedom struggle for black women to wear the same cheap T-shirts they wore during apartheid.

Bontle’s come a long way, and it hasn’t been easy. Her shrink keeps wanted to talk about a past she’s put firmly behind her. And what she doesn’t think about can’t hurt her, can it?

Blessed adj. [pronounced bles-id] 
The state of being blessed, often referring to a person, usually female, who lives a luxurious lifestyle funded by an older, often married partner, in return for sexual favours.

What I Say.

“All men are dogs, and I’d rather be crying in a Ferrari than in a Polo Playa, honey.’

I had actually bought a copy of The Blessed Girl before I was asked to be a Shadow Judge for the Comedy Women In Print Prize because it looked just the kind of novel I was looking for! I was thrilled to see it being Shortlisted and now I had the perfect reason to sit down and read it!

Let me tell you right from the very first page, I am so pleased I did.

Make no mistake, Bontle Tau is a protagonist quite unlike anyone you have ever met before. From the moment you start reading The Blessed Girl, it is abundantly clear this young woman is passionate, determined, and defiantly unapologetic for the life she is leading. She seems to live and narrate her life directly to us as if she exists on social media, and is constantly filtering and editing her world until it gets the maximum number of likes.

Bontle has a lifestyle that many of us would be envious of. A gorgeous apartment, designer clothes, a fabulous car and Instagrammable holidays we could only dream about. The thing is, and as she tells us from the start, Bontle is a blessed girl, which means that her lifestyle is solely funded by the powerful and rich older men she sleeps with.

She also knows exactly what she has to do and how she has to look to ensure that the men who bless her stay with her and continue to fund her day to day existence.

We find out that Bontle is actually still legally married to a man called Ntokozo. They met when they were young and got married, much to the disdain of Ntokozo’s family, and for a time seemed to be happy. Unfortunately Ntokozo’s work as a doctor, and the pressure he was under, led to him becoming addicted to drugs. Bontle felt isolated and unhappy, and decided she needed to find a way to live her own life and be free from him.

As Bontle decides to pursue the life of a Blessed Girl, she seems to relish the fact that these men will give her whatever material things she wants in exchange for sleeping with them. Bontle knows this, but doesn’t have a problem with it, and is also running her own hair weave business. She regards these men as transactions in her life as a means to her achieving her own dream of opening up her own boutique. While it may be uncomfortable for us to read about Bontle’s choices, for me, the fact that she was so direct and aware of what she is doing and why, helped my understanding.

As the novel progresses, Bontle is regularly sleeping with three men – Teddy Bear, Mr Emmanuel and Papa Jeff and she has no qualms about stealing them from other women – even her friends, if they will give her what she wants. When Teddy Bear needs her to be the front of his building development she does so half heartedly, but is motivated by the fact that she will receive a nice big payment for doing so!

To assume that this book is simply a light hearted, fluffy story about Bontle’s Blessed world would do Angela Makholwa’s novel a huge disservice. What works so brilliantly is the way in which in a slow and understated way, we start to see how Bontle’s childhood and relationship with her mother and brother Golokile has shaped the choices she makes now. The perfection of her present world is set against the harsh and uncompromising reality of Bontle’s past childhood home, and the way her mother raised her and failed to protect her.

We see how Bontle is trying to cope with both of her lives, help her brother make a better life for himself and for her mother to understand what she did affected Bontle so deeply. When we finally see what happened to Bontle, suddenly I understood why the life she leads now is the one she feels will help her achieve her dreams. It may seem like the men are using her, but Bontle is using them too.

Hand on heart, I absolutely loved The Blessed Girl. It is funny, fast paced and opened my eyes up to a whole new world of Blessed Girls and Blessers that I had never heard of before. It may be uncomfortable reading at times, but the thing about The Blessed Girl is that as readers we need to understand the world Bontle came from and why. Angela’s writing is incisive, smart and puts Bontle front and centre of everything, which is where she absolutely deserves to be.

I loved it.

Thank Goodness I Can Tell You…!

As you may have gathered by now, keeping quiet is perhaps a challenging thing for me at the best of times – especially when it comes to talking about books!

For a while now, I have been keeping a secret that has been so hard not to share with you all because I am really excited about it!

Well, today is finally the day I can reveal all!

I am so thrilled to tell you that I have been asked by the fabulous Comedy Women In Print Prize to be part of their very first Shadow Blogger Panel!

Over the next few months, myself, Susan Corcoran, Janet Emson, Stacey Garrity and Danielle Price will be reading and reviewing all the novels on the Shortlisted Published Comic Novels Authors Shortlist who are:

 

Michelle Gallen for Big Girl, Small Town from John Murray

 

Beth O’Leary for The Flatshare from Quercus Books

 

Angela Makholwa for The Blessed Girl from Bloomsbury Books

 

Nina Stibbe for Reasons to be Cheerful from Penguin

 

Candice Carty-Williams for Queenie from Trapeze Books

 

Abbi Waxman for The Bookish Life of Nina Hill from Headline

Jeanette Winterson for Frankisstein from Vintage

You can read more about all the fabulous authors and their novels here

The winner of our Shadow Panel Winner will be announced in early September, and the Judge’s decision will follow.

It feels SO much better to finally be able to tell you all, and I can’t wait to start reading all these novels and telling you all about them as I go.

Here’s hoping you all follow along with all of us and the hashtag #CWIP and do please tell us what think about the shortlist. As you can guess, I’ll be talking about this a lot, all over Twitter and Instagram- it’s so important to me that you all feel involved with this amazing prize too!

So, what do you think? Any there you can’t wait to read? Any that you have read already and loved? Please do let me know – I love to chat to you all about books, so any feedback or anything else you would like to see from me, just let me know.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I have some rather fabulous books to read…

Love

Clare xx

This Lovely City by Louise Hare

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This Lovely City by Louise Hare

Published by HQ Stories

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

 

What They Say

The drinks are flowing.
The music is playing.
But the party can’t last.

With the Blitz over and London reeling from war, jazz musician Lawrie Matthews has answered England’s call for help. Fresh off the Empire Windrush, he’s taken a tiny room in south London lodgings, and has fallen in love with the girl next door.

Touring Soho’s music halls by night, pacing the streets as a postman by day, Lawrie has poured his heart into his new home – and it’s alive with possibility. Until, one morning, he makes a terrible discovery.

As the local community rallies, fingers of blame are pointed at those who had recently been welcomed with open arms. And, before long, the newest arrivals become the prime suspects in a tragedy which threatens to tear the city apart.

What I Say

I need to start this Blog Post with an apology to Louise.  I read This Lovely City in May, and adored it, and started a blog post straight away, but I just couldn’t find the right words to tell you all about it.  We were in the middle of lockdown, adjusting to life with all four of us – five if you include our dog, at home, all the time, and we didn’t know what was going to happen next.  Juggling everyday life, school work, new rules and not being able to go out as and when we wanted hit me hard.  The world beyond our house was also facing an unprecedented time, people were protesting throughout the world about Black Lives Matter, and my words somehow didn’t seem important enough to publish.

The thing is, that Louise’s novel is on the bookshelf in my dining room, and every time I went in there, it was sat there waiting for me in its bold and beautiful cover.  I need to tell you about this novel, about Lawrie and Evie, about why their story is so important for us all, and how we think everything has changed in our society, but in so many ways, there are so many attitudes that have not moved on from the time where Lawrie and Evie’s story is set.

Lawrie is part of the Windrush generation, who has come to our country in search of a better life for himself and his family.  He is in love with Evie, the girl next door, who lives with her mother Agnes, and they are like most young people, trying to find a way to spend some time together in a world where it is not seen as appropriate for unmarried couples to spend time together alone. Lawrie is working as a postman, but at night time, he and his friends form a jazz group and play at venues around London.  It seems that this is when Lawrie and London really come alive – Louise’s descriptions of the sights and sounds of this world which where Lawrie really can be himself are so vibrant and real that you feel you are sat in the corner watching these friends enjoy their lives.

One day, when Lawrie is on his post round, he is approached by an hysterical woman who has found the body of a baby in a nearby pond. When Lawrie is taken to the station to give his side of the story, it is clear from the moment that he enters the room, that the police are certain Lawrie killed the child. What is so unnerving and uncomfortable to read about this incident, is not only the judgements that the police unquestioningly put on Lawrie, but how casually and unconsciously their attitude and manner towards him is dripping with the racism they are so comfortable with.

With seemingly little to go on, Lawrie is released – to find that the tyres on his bike have been slashed.  This is what makes This Lovely City so difficult but so necessary to read. This is London in the 1950s. Lawrie and his friends were actively encouraged to come here by the government as part of the Windrush generation, to help Britain rebuild after the Second World War, but the shiny pamphlets and promises of a better life failed to mention the way in which they would be treated and the racist attitudes that they would encounter at every turn.

Lawrie may have been released, but as the baby who passed away was black, the police are convinced that the person who committed the crime must be too, and they step up their threats and intimidation, seemingly randomly targeting people in an attempt to illicit a confession from someone. The interesting thing in this investigation too is that Mrs Barratt, a white woman who found the child’s body is automatically discharged from the enquiry.

As the investigation continues, what is so strong in this narrative is that all this tension, suspicion and sobering sense of unease is set against the love story of Evie and Lawrie.  Her love binds him to her unquestioningly, and her determination to prove that Lawrie is innocent is the driving force throughout the novel.  Evie also faces casual racism on a daily basis, from people not taking her seriously at work, to those not wanting to sit near her on a bus. For me, these scenes were shameful to read, because they were so casual yet so ingrained in so many people.

All Lawrie and Evie want to do is to have the chance to be married, and to embrace the life that was tantalisingly promised to them by the very country that is so intent on destroying it. As the novel moves forward, it becomes clear that both Lawrie and Evie have hidden secrets from each other, frightened that revealing them could end their relationship.  Ultimately, it is only by realising that their love for each other is the most powerful and immovable force, that they can finally be honest with each other and live the life together that they deserve.

From the very moment you turn the first page, in This Lovely City, Louise Hare immerses you absolutely in London in the late 40’s and early 50’s.  The sights, sounds and world Lawrie and Evie are in are so clear and vibrant that it makes you lose yourself totally.  Both Lawrie and Evie are characters that not only are trying to find their way in this huge and sometimes cruel city, but they are also trying to find a way to be together totally honestly, when both have secrets they are desperately trying to hide from the person they love the most.

This Lovely City is a novel that will educate you, make you see how far we think we have come in terms of our understanding and condemnation of racism, but unflinchingly shows us how much there is still to do and how much further we have to go. At the heart of this unforgettable story and in every single page is the love story of Lawrie and Evie. All they want is to live together in peace, in the city they love, and their innate capacity for love and tolerance is perhaps the most important lesson we need to take from their enduring narrative.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you very much to Joe Thomas and HQ Stories for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.

 

Sea Wife by Amity Gaige

 

 

Sea Wife by Amity Gaige

Published by Fleet

Available online and at All Good Bookshops

 

What They Say

Juliet is failing to juggle motherhood and her anemic dissertation when her husband, Michael, informs her that he wants to leave his job and buy a sailboat. The couple are novice sailors, but Michael persuades Juliet to say yes. With their two kids – Sybil, age seven, and George, age two, Juliet and Michael set off for Panama, where their forty-four-foot sailboat awaits them – a boat that Michael has christened the Juliet.

The initial result is transformative: their marriage is given a gust of energy, and even the children are affected by the beauty and wonderful vertigo of travel. The sea challenges them all – and most of all, Juliet, who suffers from postpartum depression.

Sea Wife is told in gripping dual perspectives: Juliet’s first-person narration, after the journey, as she struggles to come to terms with the dire, life-changing events that unfolded at sea; and Michael’s captain’s log – that provides a riveting, slow-motion account of those same inexorable events.

What I Say

“I had held myself together all my life. Then I became a mother, twice, and I was not fine. I was the opposite of me.”

When I heard about Sea Wife, I was really interested to read it, because for me, a life on the ocean is one that I have never contemplated nor ever experienced.  I also thought it was interesting that the title immediately categorises Juliet, the main character  in such a powerful and definitive way.

At first glance, it might seem like Juliet and Michael have it all  – a home, two children and a life that they have constructed for themselves that satisfies what everyone in their social circle expects. They are the epitome of the American Dream. Michael works for an insurance company, and Juliet, a poet, is attempting to complete her PhD.

Unfortunately, beneath the veneer, Juliet and Michael are struggling. Both with their own emotional state, and their marriage. Juliet suffers from depression and has also suffered sexual abuse as a child and now her ‘ugly angels’ torment her, and and she is plagued by the feeling that she simply is not fit to be a mother. Michael feels trapped in his job, and is increasingly realising that he needs to do something to help Juliet and to try and open communication between them before their marriage disintegrates.

Michael’s decision is to buy a boat which he renames Juliet – something he later discovers is regarded by those in the sailing world as a bad omen.  He has to then persuade Juliet that by taking a year off, and having their children Sybil and George with them, that this is just what they all need to try and find their way back to each other.

The novel is told from a dual narrative perspective – via Juliet’s memories and the Captain’s Log that Michael keeps whilst on board.  Stylistically and linguistically it also creates two distinct stories for the reader as Michael’s writing is in bold and to the right hand side of the page, and Juliet’s is more free flowing and lyrical and it seems more at times to be a flow of consciousness. As the voyage progresses, it is interesting to see how Michael becomes less analytical and logical and instead uses his journal as a way of not only tracing his relationship, but also gaining a deeper understanding of the issues and divides within their marriage.

As they undertake their voyage, it seems like Michael was right, and that in moving away from the constraints they have so strictly adhered to, that Juliet and Michael are slowly able to see the person they fell in love with.  All the time, Amity ensures that the ocean is an ever present and omnipresent force.

At times it is passively part of the backdrop, which makes Michael and Juliet feel that they are in control and have done the right thing in coming away together.  However, they are also reminded of how dispensable and unimportant they are in the world when they have to tackle the storms and ferocious unpredictability of the sea.  It is those times that their marriage is most put to the test as Juliet has no experience of sailing and she is totally reliant on Michael’s knowledge to keep them all safe.

They may be on this voyage as a family, but the limited living space and emerging tensions in their marriage mean that as time passes, Juliet and Michael finally start to see each other at their most open and honest. They realise that politically they are poles apart, that Michael has secured a loan for the boat against their house, and they start to wonder whether they really have a future when the voyage is over.

Then Michael falls seriously ill, and Juliet is forced to make a decision that alters the course of their lives forever, and it ultimately means Juliet has to face the reality of her marriage and confront her own mental health issues too.

Sea Wife is an emotionally challenging and taut novel that will make you think about the relationships with those people closest to you, and how much we take for granted in the way we seamlessly go about our daily lives together. For Michael and Juliet, they chose to embark on this seemingly idyllically journey in an attempt to salvage their fractured marriage. Amity Gaige’s intriguing and realistic portrayals of Michael and Juliet’s world in all its brutal and unfiltered reality, make us understand that we may never truly know the person closest to us until we have no choice. Sea Wife also unapologetically makes us realise, that perhaps we never really knew them at all.

Thank you very much to Grace Vincent at Fleet for my gifted copy of Sea Wife in exchange for an honest review.

Please do see what the other bloggers on the tour are saying too..

The Cat And The City by Nick Bradley

 

The Cat and The City by Nick Bradley

Published by Atlantic Books

Available at all Good Bookshops and Online

 

What They Say:

In Tokyo – one of the world’s largest megacities – a stray cat is wending her way through the back alleys. And, with each detour, she brushes up against the seemingly disparate lives of the city-dwellers, connecting them in unexpected ways.

But the city is changing. As it does, it pushes her to the margins where she chances upon a series of apparent strangers – from a homeless man squatting in an abandoned hotel, to a shut-in hermit afraid to leave his house, to a convenience store worker searching for love. The cat orbits Tokyo’s denizens, drawing them ever closer.

 

What I Say:

As soon as I had seen the cover (shallow I know!) of Nick Bradley’s novel The Cat and The City, I knew I wanted to read it.

The novel is set in Tokyo, and each of the chapters could be read as a short story in its own right. Honestly, when I started the novel, I thought this is what I was reading. We meet a seemingly disparate cast of people, whose only connection to the plot seems to be that they live in Tokyo.

This is the brilliance of Nick’s writing, because as you read on, the same names start to appear, locations and families become common, and throughout it all, weaving its way through the streets of Tokyo is the singular figure of the cat. By the end of the novel, you understand that everything and everyone is connected, and Tokyo is a city where the actions of one person have unforeseen and sometimes life changing consequences for others.

We start with a young enigmatic woman called Naomi asking to have a map of Tokyo tattooed on her back, done in a traditional manner which will take months to complete. As a rebellious gesture, Kentaro the tattooist adds a cat to the design- except the cat moves around the design every time he works on it, and he starts to doubt his own sanity.

The story moves on to a homeless man called Ohashi, who once was a well known storyteller, but now makes his living by selling crushed cans he scavenges around the streets of Tokyo. He lives with the cat in a derelict hotel, after losing everything he had to drink and has been relentlessly haunted by the fact he left his daughter who was dying. He is estranged from his brother Taro who drives a cab and has his own story to tell.

Taro’s passengers include characters we meet further on in the book, including Flo, who works as a translator for a PR firm, and has dedicated her spare time to translate a novel by one of her favourite Japanese authors to give to her friend. Unfortunately, Flo is shattered when her friend presents her with a copy of one that has just been published, and wonders about what she is doing in the world and why. Flo was a really interesting character for me. She is an American living in Tokyo, and although she tries to fully submerge herself into Tokyo and the cultural life, you always get the sense she is slightly on the edge, and is trying to find her way and sense of identity in the world. Flo desperately wants to belong in Tokyo, and it is only by admitting this to her co-worker Kyoto that she can make her first tentative steps to do so.

Nick also constantly plays around with the novel as a stylistic genre. There are chapters which is the translation of the novel Flo has been working on, there are photos that one character posts to his social media on an evening out, and one of my favourite chapters – Hikikomori, Futoko & Neko is illustrated in the style of a manga novel – and it works perfectly!

The story of Hikikomori, Futoko & Neko was simply and cleverly told, as an agoraphobic young man finds his way back to the world through his friendship with Ken and their shared care of the cat who has been injured. When you find out that Ken asks Nao to write to him, and Nao is spotted by the cat going to the postbox;

He was going from lamppost to lamppost, hugging one as he went. A step at a time, cautious as a man in a war zone“.

It is writing like that, that honestly made me take a breath as you absolutely understand what Nao has gone through to reach that point. It is the realisation of how we are all linked by the things we do and the actions we take, which adds another level to this intricate and absorbing novel.

I learned so much about Tokyo and its culture and tradition from reading The Cat and The City, but do not think that this is an Instagram filtered perfect version of the world. You are taken to the heart and soul of Tokyo, and it is at times brutal, unpalatable and difficult to read about. Sex is often regarded as a soulless transaction and a means to an end, and some of the situations the characters face were very challenging for me to read, but I appreciate it is integral to the cohesion of the novel and the plot.

For me, at the very heart of The Cat and The City, is the notion of a human need to connect with others and to belong – be it to society or to another person. The central figure of the cat winds its way through the story, paving the way for people to find themselves and their families again. The cat is the impetus to help them understand that even in a huge city like Tokyo, sometimes you need to look around you to understand that life is waiting for you if you just have the courage to take the first step.

The Cat and The City is a brave, different and at times very unsettling novel, but one that will stay with me for a long time, and I am so glad I read it.

Negative Capability by Michèle Roberts

Negative Capability by Michèle Roberts

Published By Sandstone Press

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say:

Yesterday ended in disaster. Very late at night, I decided to write down everything that had happened; the only way I could think of coping.
So here goes.
 

So begins Michele Roberts’s intimate and honest account of the year after her latest novel has been rejected by her then publisher. Written with warmth and sensitivity, she navigates the difficult road from depression and anxiety to acceptance and understanding of the value of the friendships which nurture her and make life worth living – whatever happens.

 

What I Say:

“I’d rediscovered, recording them, the pleasures of doing ordinary things,

the pleasures of living day to day.”

I think like many people, I had always assumed that once an author has had a book published, every book they write is edited and it is a done deal that we will see it in the Bookshops.

Negative Capability is Michèle’s Diary – a book about what happens when her latest novel is rejected by her publishers. It is obviously a painful and awful experience for her, and I can imagine that everything you had planned about that book being published suddenly slips out of your hands slowly and absolutely out of your control.

As a response to this, she writes about what it is like to be an author with no book being published on the horizon. This is where it becomes a really absorbing and revealing read, as Michèle opens her heart and life totally to the reality of having to accept that you have no plans. The Negative Capability of the title refers to the idea that instead of reacting to a negative situation, you instead allow yourself to resign to the fact that yes, this is not a good place to be, but that it will get better.

What I really loved about Michèle’s writing is the fact that it is not linear, and it slides beautifully from one moment to the next. One minute she may be talking about her gardens, the next the passing of one of her friends, but it works so well because it is and authentic and visceral experience, and I felt as if I was sat having a drink with Michèle as she talked about her life.

Memories slide from one to the next, we learn about the families she comes into contact with, the lovers she has had, her visits to France and all the social niceties there and the etiquette one is expected to follow. I also felt that it was almost Michèle’s love letter to France, a way for us to understand the deep emotional connections she has to the country and to the people she loves there.  It is also a complete treat for our senses – her pitch perfect and evocative descriptions of the places she visits and the countryside she is in, only serves to draw us closer to her.

I felt that reading Negative Capability was like sitting with a friend who is chatting with you about what they have been going through. It is conversational, clever, witty and so refreshing to read a book by someone who is absolutely candid about every aspect of their life, be it positive or negative.

It is also absolutely impossible to talk about this book without making reference to the many and glorious references to all things food related!  There are descriptions of wonderful informal and simple breakfasts and lunches, of dinner parties and get togethers, and I defy anyone not to read this book and not immediately feel hungry.  The act of eating and being with other people and enjoying the preparation and eating of meals is also a major part of this book, and it made me think about how often for me, the act of eating and being with my family is a rushed and thoughtless one.  We need to understand the importance of being with each other and the joy that sharing food and conversation can bring, as oppose to wolfing down a meal and disconnecting from each other by going to different rooms, or staying in the same one and just looking at our screens.

As we follow Michèle through her year, she offers us insights into the world of writing and her processes.  I am not a writer, just a reader, but I found it really interesting to see how Michele explains the process of writing and the way in which a book goes from a creative impulse to a finished novel on a Bookshop Shelf.  Michele is always honest about every part of it, and I think that it made me understand and appreciate the art of writing so much more.  I realised how much I took for granted about the act of writing something, that I believed it was much more of a formulaic process and that the author went from A to B, but Michèle absolutely dispels that theory.

It is difficult to review Negative Capability, because although it is a relatively short book, it encompasses so much.  Within these pages, all life and death is here.  You are absolutely and totally in Michèle’s life constantly, and feel every emotion with her.  For me, one of the most affecting parts of the book, is when she is talking about grief, after losing people close to her.  Her pain and incredulity at the fact these people are no longer here are translated to the page so sensitively, that for anyone who has lost someone, the words absolutely resonate with you.

Negative Capability is a book that defies categorisation, but it is all the more richer for it. It is a book to be savoured and lost in, and one that will absolutely make you think about many of the things you take for granted on a daily basis, and stop and appreciate everything and everyone around you even more.

Thank you so much to Kealey Rigden at FMcM Associates for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.

It’s Not You, It’s Me..

The subject of this Blog Post is possibly highly controversial, and no doubt I am going to lose a few (lots) of followers after posting it, but right from the start, I have always promised to be honest with you all.

Deep breath, here goes.

I can’t do electronic books. I just can’t.

I know that especially in these challenging times when the amazing and hardworking publicists I talk to have been kind enough to offer electronic versions of their novels without hesitation to help me blog, when it is environmentally a better option, that it seems the sensible and correct choice, but honestly, it’s not for me.

My head tells me that using Netgalley opens up a whole world of bookish possibilities, that right at the click of a button I can ask to read advance copies of hundreds of the newest releases. A whole new library of tantalising choices are mine, just there for the clicking. I can buy an e-book and it can be ready to read on my device in seconds, and yet the very thought of doing it turns me cold.

Believe me when I tell you I’ve tried. I fired up my old Kindle Paperwhite (after spending an hour trying to find the charger!), I have downloaded an e-reader app to all my Devices, and I even briefly re-instated my Netgalley account just for this reason.

I can do this, I thought, the book is exactly the same, it’s just the pages have to be swiped instead of turned, and I can’t use an almond magnum wrapper as a bookmark (might have done this once), but I was telling myself it’s just the same thing in a different format.

The thing is, no matter how much I tried to convince myself, and attempted to read the words on screen, for me, it really wasn’t the same.

I love everything about having a physical book in my hands. From the moment in the library or Bookshop you see a cover that pulls you towards it and you can’t help but pick it up and feel the weight of it in your hands. The feeling you get when you have it put in a bag (pre-lockdown) and handed to you or the parcel delivered in an appropriately socially distanced manoeuvre (during lockdown), the delicious sense of anticipation as you take it out and read the blurb, and check that the corners haven’t been bashed and that it looks even better than you remember. All of that is before you have even opened it to read it.

Why do I love reading physical books so much? For me, like lots of other people, the majority of my life is increasingly governed by my need to be in stretching distance of a screen. My husband jokingly refers to my phone and laptop as my office, and he is right. Every piece of my life is stored in these pieces of equipment, and they are undoubtedly a vital part of my day.

Truthfully, I just want to disconnect from the digital world for a while and lose myself completely in the act of reading. Snuggled up in bed, or lying on a sofa, mug of coffee and some biscuits in front of me, just me and my book is my idea of heaven. The only sounds are the pages being turned and the crunching of the biscuits, and that’s enough.

It’s also the fact that seeing all my books on my shelves is not only something visually beautiful, but that each one of them has a memory folded into their pages. I remember where I was when I read this book, or who bought me that one and why. Maybe the person who left me this novel may not be here any more. I can still open the book using the bookmark on page 217 when she had to stop reading because she didn’t have the strength to turn the pages. I can hold it in my arms and remember her for a moment, and how she was the one who helped me fall in love with books.

Do e-books bring the same memories to your reading? Maybe I’m missing something, and I’ve got this all wrong? Without a doubt having all the books on a device means you can access lots of books at any time, and it’s a lot easier to take on holiday. Yet one of the few joys of packing for me is going through my bookshelves and deciding which books I am going to squeeze into my case, and adding a couple (four) into my handbag just to make sure I don’t run out. Don’t even get me started on the joy that is finding a Bookshop in the place you are staying!

One of the many realities that has come to light during this strange time is that as we come out of Lockdown that it’s a real possibility going forward proofs of new releases may be only available to bloggers digitally. With my rational head on, that absolutely makes sense. Much less cost for the publisher, the ease of sending the book, and the fact you can start reading immediately.

It’s just not for me. All it means is doing what I’ve been doing for years – using the brilliant libraries, treating myself at a Bookshop or simply selecting one of my own books from my crowded shelves.

Book Blogging is just that – talking about the books you have read whenever they were published, and sometimes I have forgotten that and have put the Fear Of Missing Out above taking the time to look at the books I already have – and that’s another blog post entirely!

Reading is reading however you choose to do it, be it on an e-reader, on a phone or a physical book and this is only my opinion. What ultimately unites us all especially in these strange times is our love of books and the joy we get from talking about them, however we choose to read.

My name is Clare Reynolds and I don’t like reading e-books – and I feel so much better for telling you!

Love

Clare xx

Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins

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Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins

Published by Quercus on 2 April 2020

What They Say

When the eight-year-old daughter of an Oxford College Master vanishes in the middle of the night, police turn to the Scottish nanny, Dee, for answers.

As Dee looks back over her time in the Master’s Lodging – an eerie and ancient house – a picture of a high achieving but dysfunctional family emerges: Nick, the fiercely intelligent and powerful father; his beautiful Danish wife Mariah, pregnant with their child; and the lost little girl, Felicity, almost mute, seeing ghosts, grieving her dead mother.

But is Dee telling the whole story? Is her growing friendship with the eccentric house historian, Linklater, any cause for concern? And most of all, why is Felicity silent?

Roaming Oxford’s secret passages and hidden graveyards, Magpie Lane explores the true meaning of family – and what it is to be denied one.

What I Say

Make no mistake, reading in these strange times has been a real challenge for me, and I am guessing lots of you at the moment. Having daily, hourly and instant news about the coronavirus is not overly condusive to wanting to pick up a novel is it really?

The thing is, Magpie Lane is one of those novels you can lose yourself in completely, whilst at the same time, feeling a slight (huge) sense of trepidation that something you can’t predict is going to happen. From the moment you turn the first page and meet Dee, Nanny to Mariah and Nick and their daughter Felicity, you realise this is going to be something very different and deliciously unnerving.

The novel starts with Dee being interviewed at a police station by Faraday and Khan, as her charge, Felicity has gone missing and they are desperately searching for clues as to why and where she could have gone. Prompted by Felicity’s parents, she has been asked to come in for questioning as she was close to her, was one of the few people that Felicity would speak to. An added complication to the eight year old’s disappearance is that she has elective mutism, and refuses to speak to anyone except her Dad, Dee and Dee’s friend Linklater – more of Mr Linklater further on in this review..

Right from the start of Magpie Lane, Dee is a very calm, together and perhaps slightly distant character, who seems to be at odds with the extrovert and opinionated Mariah. Like Dee, Mariah feels she is somewhat the outsider in her husband’s world, as he becomes the new Master of an Oxford College. She has no concept of the innate traditions and expectations of the wife of the Master, she decides to renovate the Lodge as she wants, infuriating the other College staff, who cannot abide this confident and vibrant woman who has come into their world.

Nick on the other hand, believes that this position will give him the social standing and recognition he craves. He has taken the role on after a position at the BBC has come to an end, and his drive and ambition has brought his family here to ensure that he is able to fulfill his dreams and his need to be respected and looked up to by other people. With them, they bring eight year old Felicity, who it transpires, is actually the daughter of Nick and his first wife, whose death is referred to in whispers and subtle glances between Nick and Mariah.

Felicity feels like an outsider in her own family, and her mutism and inability to connect with her parents means that she is often overlooked and disregarded. She seems at times to be almost an inconvenience to them, who needs to be looked after in order for them to furt her their own careers. This isn’t to say Nick and Mariah don’t love her – they just seem unsure as to what to do with her.

This sense of disconnection and dislocation is an important theme that runs throughout Magpie Lane. Dee has no family to speak of, and is wary of making a connection with anyone for fear of getting hurt. Mariah is not allowed to be part of her husband’s world unless she adheres to what is socially expected of her, and when she doesn’t, she is disregarded. Linklater, who is hired by Mariah and Nick to uncover the history of the Lodge is living a solitary academic life in Oxford, and seems to be happy in his own world, but at the same time seems to feel a connection to Dee, although she tries to ignore it.

So far so straightforward – why is Magpie Lane so engrossing? Well, what I haven’t told you yet is what happens when Felicity goes to sleep..

In Felicity’s bedroom in the Lodge, is a locked door which is discovered to be a locked priest’s hole. At night, Felicity is disturbed by noises that come from it, and Dee often finds her distressed and telling her about what she has heard and seen coming from it. As Felicity withdraws further into her silent world, her behaviour becomes more and more erratic, and Dee keeps her off school without telling her parents, to keep her safe from the constant bullying and upset she endures from her peers.

As readers, we are drawn into this other world, as we see what Dee and Felicity are witnessing, but Mariah and Nick only see their daughter becoming more distant, and a seemingly indispensible Nanny who is able to form a bond with their daughter that they cannot. The plot moves along at a perfect pace, balanced between Linklater’s investigations into the history of the Lodge, the consequences of it for Felicity, and the slowly disintegrating marriage of Nick and Mariah, as they struggle to cope with what they believe would be the making of them. As they try to present a united and indefeatable face to the College, Mariah discovers she is pregnant.

What worked so well for me about Magpie Lane, was that Lucy Atkins’ writing is always so tightly controlled, and is impossible to determine which way the novel was going to turn next, and I loved that. For me, as a reader, especially at a time like this, I want to lose myself completely in a book, and Magpie Lane draws you in right from the start. Lucy also writes absorbing and relatable characters that serve to bring the reader closer to the novel and become increasingly invested in their lives.

I thought it was also interesting that my allegiances changed towards the characters as the plot developed. Initially, I thought that Dee was a cold and menacing woman, whose relationship with Felicity was going to be the unsettling thread in the novel. However, as the narrative moved forward, instead I felt she was like Felicity, searching for the one thing we all strive for – a sense of belonging and true connection to other people. Similarly, Mariah is someone who initially seemed to be this force of nature, determined to have it all and to ensure she was not forced to stay in her husband’s shadow. Little by little her insecurities and real self was revealed, and we saw a woman who like many of us is just getting by at parenting, and is blindsided by the reality of caring for a child who won’t talk to her and a baby who is not a perfectly behaved insta perfect infant.

Linklater is really the catalyst for the plot to drive forward and also for Dee to start to realise that she may have found someone with whom she can be her authentic self without fear of ridicule. He, like Dee has always been slightly disconnected from the world around him, but together they seem to edge towards some sort of understanding and realisation that in each other they have found what has been missing from their lives. As they work together on the history of the Lodge, Dee sees that Felicity has found her voice, and is being listened to by people who really understand her. From that point on, leading up to Felicity’s disappearance, the novel twists and turns and not only reveals the secrets of the Lodge, but of those who live and have lived there.

Magpie Lane is a novel that is not easy to categorise, and is all the more powerful for it. For me, it was the female characters who were at the heart of the novel, and it was all the more relatable because of it. It is a brilliant and engaging novel, that not only has the traits of an unnerving mystery, but is a heartfelt and emotional novel about our need to belong, to connect with someone else, however difficult and ultimately life changing it might be.

I absolutely loved it, and I think you will too.

Thank you so much to Ella at Quercus Books for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review and a chance to be part of the Magpie Lane Social Media Blast.

Why don’t you check out what my fellow fabulous Bookish Friends are saying too…