Something To Live For by Richard Roper

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Richard Roper: Something To Live For

Published By: Orion Books

Buy It: here

 

What The Blurb Says: 

All Andrew wants is to be normal.

He has the perfect wife and 2.4 children waiting at home for him after a long day. At least, that’s what he’s told people. The truth is, his life isn’t exactly as people think and his little white lie is about to catch up with him. Because in all Andrew’s efforts to fit in, he’s forgotten one important thing: how to really live.

And maybe, it’s about time for him to start…

 

What I Say:

You can see from the photo that is at the top of the blog post, that this is a proof that was carried everywhere with me.  I first started reading it at 9.32 on Saturday 25 May in the quiet carriage on the train (spookily very apt as you will discover!) to London Marylebone.  I am telling you this seemingly irrelevant fact as a way to apologise to anyone in that Quiet Carriage, because it made me laugh – loudly, and I didn’t even care I got tutted at – twice!

The thing is, Something To Live For is one of those books.  You know when you have read something so perfect, that when you meet someone else who has read it too, all you need to do is look at each other and say ‘I know’, with an acknowledgement that you are both now part of that club.  It is the book I needed to read at this point in my year, because it is a fabulous, life affirming novel that made me stop and think about how I interact with everyone and the world around me.

The hero of this story is Andrew.  He works for the Local Council and is tasked with finding if people who pass away alone have any relatives or friends who can be informed.  This means that Andrew has to go into houses that are left in the state when the person passed away.  Some are pristine, and some are not, but all of them contain the life and story of the person, and Andrew has to try and find any connections to others that they may have.

In cases where they don’t, Andrew takes it upon himself to attend their Council provided funerals to make sure that someone is there for them.  As far as his colleagues are concerned, every night Andrew goes home to his wife Diane, and his two children, and falls into the usual mundane domestic routines we all know and recognise. 

The thing is, there is no Diane and no children.

Andrew has invented them, using a complex set of spreadsheets and fabricated memories and anecdotes to make sure that he blends in seamlessly with everyone else around him.

Andrew’s actual home life is that of a man without a Mum and Dad, an estranged and erratic sister called Sally, a dismal flat where his only solace is his model trains (told you it was spooky!), and the online friends he has made in his model train forum.

One day, a new employee called Peggy starts working with Andrew, and a whole new world that Andrew could never have envisaged, opens out before him.  Peggy bursts into his world and Andrew starts to realise he is drawn to her and that maybe he is entitled to be happy. Except Peggy who is unhappily married, believes that Andrew is a happily married father of two. 

In an excruciating turn of events, Andrew’s boss Cameron decides the team building exercise should be a Come Dine With Me experience, with each employee hosting a dinner party at their house. How can Andrew possibly take part and risk his carefully constructed reality come crashing down around him. Should he risk telling his colleagues and more importantly Peggy the truth, and lose everything including her friendship, or say nothing?

This dilemma is intertwined with Peggy and Andrew on their own mission to find a lady simply known as ‘B’ who is in a picture found at the house of one of their clients called Alan Carter. They head off to Northumberland to attempt to trace her, and it is there that away from other people that their relationship changes for ever.

Richard’s writing is pitch perfect the whole way through. His innate skill in making Andrew a character you root for from the very first time you meet him, and the fact you feel every pain, disappointment and glimmer of joy that Andrew does, is testament to his talent as a novelist. It is also witty, clever and filled with passages of such poignant writing on love and loss that it made me stop and re-read them.

I am not ashamed to say that this novel made me cry several times, as Andrew relived his estrangement from his sister and mother, and the awful heartbreaking incident that stopped him living his life. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is simply a light hearted, fluffy novel, because it isn’t. It is a beautifully written story of one man slowly finding his way back to the world he has shut out, and a novel of love, hope and connection.

Something To Live For is a very special novel, that I will insist everyone makes time to read., It has a wonderful, likeable protagonist at the centre, and in a world where we are so reliant on connecting with people via screens, we learn that Andrew and people like him, simply need us to put down our phones and take a minute to look up and speak with the people we might otherwise never see.

I loved it.

Thank you so much to Gigi from Orion for my copy in exchange for an honest review.

Grief is the Thing With Reading

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At the start of 2019, after having a bit of a confidence knock and a reality check about being a blogger, I wrote a post all about how sometimes as a blogger you can lose your way a little bit, and that I was going to step back and think about what I was doing  – you can read that post here if you are interested.

The Bookish people on Twitter and Instagram could not have been kinder, or more supportive, and it was down to my Mum to eventually tell me to ‘For God’s Sake Clare,  just bloody pick up a book’!

At the same time, my Mum was fighting lung cancer, and as I have told you all before, our love of books was the very much needed attention diverting tactic from the realities of what was about to happen to our world.

When Mum passed away in March, yet again, the people I have met purely since I started shouting about books were the ones who surrounded me and kept me going.  Tweets were sent, DMs from people checking in on me (having your Mum pass away eleven days before Mother’s Day really sucks big time let me tell you), and stepping away from books and blogging seemed to be the right thing to do, to be respectful.

The thing is, when your Mum dies, no one really tells you what it’s really like.  The news spreads, sympathies are sent, and the funeral is planned, almost on a socially expected auto pilot.  My family came together and said goodbye to Mum,  but the next day, life started all over again, meals were made, Bertie was walked and housework needed doing.  You see everyone doing what they have always done, carrying on as usual, and you want to stop and say, but how can you do this? Don’t you know my Mum isn’t here any more.

Yet, this blog post is not me asking for your sympathy or your pity, it is a post that wants to tell you that in the midst of all this pain, there was one thing that genuinely saved me, and it was reading.

Simply the act of picking up a book and for an hour, half an hour, or even a snatched ten minutes while I was waiting for the oven to warm up was the very medicine I needed to stop me being consumed by grief.  Going to my parent’s house and bringing home the books I knew my Mum loved, to add them to my bookshelves somehow brought her closer. Nestling her books about forenscic science and pathology next to mine meant that she was always there  – they are not my choice of subject, but it was always a standing joke at the library we went to that while other Mums were scouring the fiction shelves, mine was ordering all the forensic science and memoirs of social workers and healthcare professionals she could get her hands on!

The books I read drew me in and helped me put one foot in front of the other – they were a way for me to connect with the world again.  If you know me at all, you know that the one thing that keeps me going is being able to talk about books and reading to all of you, and in the months afterwards, I slowly started to find the joy in reading again.

I read Dignity by Alys Conran, You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr, The Language of Birds by Jill Dawson, The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary, Saltwater by Jessica Andrews, Tiger by Polly Clark, The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal, The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins, The Rapture by Claire McGlasson, Crushed by Kate Hamer, My House is Falling Down by Mary Loudon, Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, Something to Live For by Richard Roper, Lowborn by Kerry Hudson, The Heart Beats in Secret by Katie Munnik, Looker by Laura Sims and After The End by Clare Mackintosh.

Looking at that list now, I have amazed myself, that in the three months since Mum passed away I have managed to read this much. Each book has brought me something different, has pushed me out of my comfort zone or soothed me when I was stressed. The books I have chosen educated and fascinated me, absorbed me completely and above all, however fleetingly, slowly helped me carry on, putting one foot in front of the other, and brought me back to the wonderful world of reading and blogging, and the fantastic people who have been there for me every step of the way.

Grief is the thing with Reading, and as I approach the Summer without the other member of my Exclusive Book Club, I am more ready than ever to ‘just pick up a bloody book’.  Never lose the joy in simply picking up a book, remind yourself that books were here long before social media, and for me, the greatest tribute to my Mum is for me to just keep reading selfishly, because life really is too short to read books you don’t love.

 

After The End by Clare Mackintosh

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Clare Mackintosh: After The End

Published By: Sphere

Buy It: here

What The Blurb Says:

Max and Pip are the strongest couple you know. Only now they’re facing the most important decision of their lives – and they don’t agree.

As the consequences of an impossible choice threaten to devastate them both, nothing will ever be the same again.

What I Say:

As I sit writing my review, my husband is in the dining room as our dog sleeps in the hallway, and my thirteen year old is resentfully buried under a pile of biology homework in his bedroom. My seventeen year old son, is lost in a world of Thomas the Tank Engine and Paw Patrol on his laptop, happy to be home, anxious that tomorrow he has to help serve teas to the parents at his Sixth Form College.  He has a chromosome disorder, global development delay and moderate learning difficulties.  Our world has always been one of appointments and hospitals, battles and exhaustion, understanding that our life is not like everyone else’s, and that the things everyone else takes for granted are giant steps forward for us.

I am not telling you this for attention or pity, for you to tilt your head as if you understand, because unless you have lived it you really don’t.  This is why After The End, Clare’s most intensely personal and emotional novel is just so pitch perfect in every way.  Clare has lived it, breathed it and her family’s real life experience of life with a child with a critical illness is absolutely entrenched in every page of this novel, which makes it even more heartbreaking.

Pip and Max, are parents to Dylan, who is critically ill with a brain tumour. When they are asked to make a choice about what happens next by Leila, Dylan’s doctor, they both want what’s best for him, but unfortunately they have completely opposing views as to what that should be.

This novel is not only about what happens next and why, it is a story about what it means to be a parent, and how the love we have for our children can make us realise that the most heartbreaking decision is the most selfless one we can make. Pip and Max are bound together by their love for Dylan, but it is also the very thing that seeps into the cracks that are starting to form in their marriage, and takes them on a journey neither could have envisioned.  Pip is the parent who stays with Dylan while Max commutes between here and America, and what is pertinent about this is that she absolutely understands every single thing that she has to do for herself and Dylan.  While there is absolutely no doubt of the love Max has for his son, he does not understand the immense emotional and physical demands devoting yourself to your child brings.  This is something that also frustrates Pip as she attempts to simply get through each day with her own needs and desires pushed to the bottom of the list.

Pip and Max have to decide what to do next for Dylan, and from that point on, we see the outcome of the two decisions.  The novel moves between Pip and Max, and the realities of ‘After’ their choices.  This is where After The End becomes so much more than a simple linear narrative, with a neat conclusion.  As it weaves through the aftermath of their choices, we see how relationships break down and realign, it shows us the positivity and harm that social media can do, as assumptions are made, hashtags are created, and parents are vilified whatever they choose to do.  Clare has also astutely highlighted how the press represents men and women, mothers and fathers, with different ways of writing headlines according to whether the subject is male or female, and what cultural background they are from.  Lives are reduced to a quick soundbite and a fleeting appearance in an ever changing timeline of headlines, with the people behind the stories left to deal with the aftermath of press intrusion.

This is not however only Pip and Max’s story.  We also learn about Leila, the Doctor who has told them the choices they must make.  Far from being a peripheral figure who is nothing more than a plot device, Leila is a living and breathing part of the story.  Her relationship with the parents does not end the minute she walks out of the consulting room, she is constantly haunted by the realities of what she has confronted them with, and is unwittingly drawn into their battle by simply talking to someone who is not what they seem.  Clare shows us that in a situation like this, the ramifications of caring for and knowing a critically ill child impact far more people than just the parents.

When you write a novel that comes out of such a devastating and intense personal experience, it adds a new level of intensity and connection to the plot and the characters.  From this standpoint, you are able to inform and educate and tell people what life for parents of a seriously ill child is really like.  For me, some of the most powerful parts were not the major story points, it was the minutae of Pip and Max’s everyday life which were the most poignant- the worries about the best way to pay for the parking, the smells and sounds of the wards, and the endless hours when nothing changes but you can’t possibly be anywhere else apart from next to your child.

This novel is a very difficult one to review, firstly because I don’t want to give anything away, and I want you to read it, but secondly, because to try and tell you all about everything that is contained within its three hundred and seventy pages would never do it justice.  It is a novel of life, of loss, of grief and pain, but also at its heart is two people, two parents, Max and Pippa, who are living a life they never could have imagined and for which there is no convenient ‘How To’ manual. Like all of us, they simply try to do the best they can and love their son.

Clare Mackintosh has written an intensely personal and truly remarkable novel, which not only deals with the day to day realities of being parents to a very sick child, but also unflinchingly holds up a mirror to us all and asks – when you are faced with the most heartbreaking decision, what would you do for your child?

After The End is a novel which I will never forget and will recommend endlessly. It is a devastating and yet life affirming story of love and hope, of two people who are united in their wish to only do the best for their son, whatever it means for their future and marriage.

I loved it.

Thank you so much to LoveReadingUK for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.

 

The Body Lies by Jo Baker

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Jo Baker: The Body Lies

Published By: Doubleday Books

Buy It: here

 

What The Blurb Says:

When a young writer accepts a job at a university in the remote countryside, it’s meant to be a fresh start, away from the big city and the scene of a violent assault she’s desperate to forget. But when one of her students starts sending in chapters from his novel that blur the lines between fiction and reality, the professor recognises herself as the main character in his book – and he has written her a horrific fate.

Will she be able to stop life imitating art before it’s too late?

At once a breathless battle-of-wits and a disarming exploration of sexual politics, The Body Lies is an essential book for our times.

 

What I Say:

The Body Lies is a novel that presented me with a dilemma.  It is a wonderfully immersive and absorbing novel to read, but it is so difficult to review.  This is nothing to do with the novel itself, but more my response to it, and the fact that it makes you think about the very act of writing.

I am not someone who is talented enough to write a novel, so my blog is my creative outlet, and I happily type away, reviewing a book or musing on bookish things, writing how I want, when I want.  Jo Baker’s timely and crucially important novel in the era of #MeToo has opened up a new literary debate of how we present ourselves and others when we write anything that others may read.

The Body Lies is seemingly a straightforward story of an unnamed Narrator, who after being assaulted one evening, starts to fear being in this place which has brought her so much pain, and eventually makes the decision that she and her family need to move away.  She secures a job teaching a Creative Writing Course at a University in the countryside, and believes that this could be the fresh start they all need.

Unfortunately, Mark, her husband who is a teacher, decides that he cannot make this situation work and has to stay in the city and come up to see his wife and toddler son Sam when he can.

The narrative is interspersed with descriptions of an unnamed female body lying motionless outside, which leads us to wonder who it is, and why they are there.  The fact that it has no name adds not only a layer of mystery, but also almost adds a distance between us.  If we knew the body’s name, we would subconsciously start to make assumptions about her.  We would be able to work out an approximate age, a life story borne from our imagination and our preconceptions – but how can you do that when you don’t know what they are called.  This is why having an unnamed Narrator also works so well – we can’t make any assumptions about them, we as readers can only rely on the written word as it it is presented to us to make our own history for this character.

It is also interesting that the Narrator teaches a Creative Writing Course, where students are encouraged to write what they want, with the only limits being their imaginations.  The students that take part all bring their own ideas and histories to the course, but it is Nicholas who strives to continually disrupt the class.  He aggressively challenges the other students on what they have written and why they have chosen the words they have – especially in their depictions of women and their bodies.

The students bring their work to class, and as Nicholas’ work is read out, it is a very dark and disturbing story, which raises questions about how much is real, and how much is fiction.  Events take an even more unsettling turn, when the Narrator realises she is becoming the focus of his stories, and her private world is seeping into his public fiction.

Nicholas is an intoxicating figure, who charms and beguiles many of the people around him, and the Narrator finds herself drawn to this troubled young man.  As readers we can see that the professional boundaries are starting blur.  The Narrator is lonely, her husband is emotionally and geographically distant, and she is taking the tentative steps to re-integrating herself back into the world after the violent assault she suffered.

When she attends a party with her students at Nicholas’ house, she finally seems to be starting to relax and unwind.  Her rented cottage is nearby, and when Nicholas offers to walk her back, we are witness to a disturbing sexual assault which removes the line between student and lecturer, and puts her into a situation which will have devastating consequences for all involved.  The most unsettling part of it is that the Narrator believes the best way to react is to let it be over with, and tries to get back to her normal routine.

From this point on, the novel moves forward with the Narrator now part of Nicholas’ story.  This is why The Body Lies works so well.  We see different viewpoints of the same events – people have their own narratives, all with distinct voices and preconceptions of all the characters, and as the Reader, we move between them, trying to determine what we believe to be the truth.  When we see work from the other students in the class, the font is different, the styles are distinct, and the words chosen reflect the personality of the writer.

Jo Baker has written a relevant, intelligent and thought provoking novel, that turns the traditional concept of a linear plot and narrative on its head.  It is a perceptive and truthful story, about what it means to be a woman in fiction and in reality.  Irrespective of who you are and what you have achieved, assumptions will be made, and judgements passed.  The Body Lies makes us think about how much we take for granted when we read a work of fiction, and more importantly how we need to challenge the subconscious notions of what being a woman in today’s society means.

I loved it.

 

The Rapture by Claire McGlasson

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Claire McGlasson: The Rapture

Published By: Faber Books

Buy It: here

 

What The Blurb Says:

Dilys is a devoted member of The Panacea Society, populated almost entirely by virtuous single ladies.

When she strikes up a friendship with Grace, a new recruit, God finally seems to be smiling upon her. The friends become closer as they wait for the Lord to return to their very own Garden of Eden, and Dilys feels she has found the right path at last.

But Dilys is wary of their leader’s zealotry and suspicious of those who would seem to influence her for their own ends. As her feelings for Grace bud and bloom, the Society around her begins to crumble. Faith is supplanted by doubt as both women come to question what is true and fear what is real.

 

What I Say:

When I think of the word ‘cult’, I immediately think of an American organisation, loud, proud and overt in their operation and recruiting.  Not for one minute would I have imagined that there would be a society nestled in Bedford, hidden behind pristine walls with a beautiful garden that would strive in its mission to convince the world that the Daughter of God was residing behind them, ready to eventually take her rightful place.

That is the belief behind the Panacea Society, a group of predominantly women, who are seemingly quiet and unassuming, and are united behind Mabel Barltrop, wife of a Vicar and mother of four. Mabel has decided that she has been chosen by God to be his Daughter, and that she and the Society need to persuade the Bishops to visit their home so they can open together the infamous box which was sealed by the Prophetess Joanna Southcott who has placed items of great religious importance inside. Then they can prepare for the Second Coming where Mabel can finally fulfill her prophecy.

Mabel has now been reborn as Octavia, and with her devoted disciples, she now rules the Panacea Society, dispensing advice and stringent religious fervour as she sees fit. 

Dilys is the eyes and ears for the reader, we see the Panacea Society through her experiences and day to day existence.  It is not a life punctuated by fervour and passion, instead, the members of the Society seem to live an almost genteel life, united in their unquestioning following of Octavia, and their desire to be present when Joanna Southcott’s mysterious box is finally opened.

Dilys is a young and seemingly unquestioning recruit to the Society, but she starts to wonder what they are doing and why.  As well as the members within the walls of the house, they receive communication from believers who live all around the world, all looking for help and cures for ills from Octavia. She has a productive sideline of sending out pieces of linen that have been blessed by her, as well as a newsletter and healing water, all of which Octavia uses to occupy the increasingly questioning Dilys.

When Dilys meets a young woman called Grace, she is immediately drawn to her, and as they start to form a friendship, Grace decides to devote herself to the Panacea Society too. Due to her social position, Grace is unable to afford to contribute any money, so instead she works as a maid for them.

This is the catalyst for a chain of events which slowly pulls at the very seams of the Panacea Society.  We may believe that this group of individuals are leading a religious and innocent life, but Claire has skilfully and gently pulled us in to their world, whilst at the same time showing us that the very concerns and worries they believe they are immune from, are seeping into the cracks that are now starting to form.

As Dilys and Grace become closer, Dilys cannot hide from the fact she is attracted to Grace, and The Rapture of the title for Dilys is not a religious awakening, but a sexual one.  As she falls in love with Grace, she starts to look at her closeted world with new eyes, and realises that this claustrophobic world may not be all there is.

While Dilys is starting to unfurl from her shell, the rest of the Panacea Society is starting to shift and question the teachings and leader that they follow.  Emily, one of Octavia’s trusted followers, now claims she is possessed by a spirit which tells Octavia and the society what she must do next.  However, Dilys knows that Emily’s sudden channelling of spirits may have more to do with her desire to take over the Panacea Society as oppose to any religious fervour.

Little by little, the foundations of the Panacea Society are slowly crumbling, and they are unable to stop the outside world from creeping in. The seemingly omnipotent Octavia and her closest allies are not only hiding from the outside world, but are also keeping secrets from the rest of the Society.  Behind closed doors and in hushed whispers, allegiances are formed, secrets are shared, and a Mother and Daughter are aware of the fact that the origins of the society are borne out of a spell in a psychiatric institution that devastated their childhood and subsequent lives. When Grace becomes all too aware of what is really happening, she is ‘let go’. Dilys’ love for Grace leads her to finally find the strength to try and live her own life – outside of the Panacea Society at a cost she could not possibly have predicted.

Claire’s pitch and pace of the novel are perfect, as it starts seemingly so innocently and in fact, delighting in its mundanity.  However, as the novel progresses, there are little hints, verbal clues and Dilys’ deadpan observations about the Society that starts to add to the tension and sense that something is shifting and starting to unravel.  The Panacea Society is no longer their safe haven, ready for the Bishops to come and see the Daughter of God. It is a place where lies are told, secrets are shared, lives are destroyed, and vulnerable people are the playthings of the leaders.

The characters are all worthy of a novel in their own right, and Claire writes with such clarity and compassion about them all. However awful Emily might be, or when Octavia tries to implement new commandments as Dilys yearns to be her own woman, you understand that all these people want is to be part of something, to belong to a group which will define them and reveal to them their ordained purpose.

Claire McGlasson has written a novel which examines so many ideas and themes.  Obviously the overreaching one is one of religious devotion, of giving oneself without question to someone else whatever the cost, but it would be naive to only see that.  The Rapture is a story of love and power, of what happens when a daughter like Dilys devotes herself completely to assuaging her mother, until someone like Grace comes into her life to show Dilys what real love is.  It is a story of how Dilys strives so desperately to finally be free and live her life as she chooses, but that for a young unmarried woman after the First World War, freedom of life, love and choice is never ever their own.

The Rapture is not simply a novel about the disintegration of a Society, which is forced to confront its limitations and didactic nature of its leaders.  It is a finely tuned and thought provoking contemplation of how a group of people who unite to seek solace in a belief system, find themselves lost when the idyllic religious Paradise they were promised, slips uncontrollably from their grasp.

I loved it.

Thank you very much to Lauren Nicoll and Faber for asking me to be part of this Blog Tour in exchange for an honest review.

You can see what these other brilliant bloggers are saying about The Rapture by following them here.

Author Picture Of Claire McGlasson.

 

Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

 

Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott: Swan Song

Published By: Hutchinson Books

 Buy It: here

 

What The Blurb Says:

They told him everything.

He told everyone else.

Over countless martini-soaked Manhattan lunches, they shared their deepest secrets and greatest fears. On exclusive yachts sailing the Mediterranean, on private jets streaming towards Jamaica, on Yucatán beaches in secluded bays, they gossiped about sex, power, money, love and fame. They never imagined he would betray them so absolutely.

In the autumn of 1975, after two decades of intimate friendships, Truman Capote detonated a literary grenade, forever rupturing the elite circle he’d worked so hard to infiltrate. Why did he do it, knowing what he stood to lose? Was it to punish them? To make them pay for their manners, money and celebrated names? Or did he simply refuse to believe that they could ever stop loving him? Whatever the motive, one thing remains indisputable: nine years after achieving wild success with In Cold Blood, Capote committed an act of professional and social suicide with his most lethal of weapons . . . Words.

A dazzling debut about the line between gossip and slander, self-creation and self-preservation, SWAN SONG is the tragic story of the literary icon of his age and the beautiful, wealthy, vulnerable women he called his Swans.

‘Writers write. And one can’t be surprised if they write what they know.’

 

What I Say:

‘And perhaps it was then that he had his great idea to seek us out.  To befriend us.  To punish us for a crime we hadn’t the faintest idea we’d committed.’

I had a copy of Swan Song on my shelf which I had bought as soon as it was published.  I had also treated myself to the audio book of Swan Song, narrated by Deborah Weston, and it is divine.  Truman Capote and his Swans burst out of the stereo and into my head, but it wasn’t enough.

I pulled my copy off the shelf and started to read, and lost myself completely in the sumptuous world of Truman Capote and his Swans.

Swan Song is the story of the American writer Truman Capote, and the six women in his life, who provide his social calendar, masses of gossip and scandal, and give him the social acceptance he needs to secure his place in the ever changing, vicious and glittering world he longs to be part of.

There are six women he considers closest to him, who earn the title of Swan.  They are Babe Paley, Slim Keith, Lee Radziwill, C. Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness and Marella Agnelli. He is their confessor, their friend and the one person that gives them unequivocal love and support. Each of them give him something different, and he has no qualms about using them to gain what he wants too. He is adept at flattering and cajoling each of them, to make them feel that they are the most important women in the world to him, and to make sure that they grant him access to the most exclusive social circles and help him become a darling of the social scene.

Swan Song takes us all the way back to Truman’s childhood, and his complicated relationship with his Mother.  From an early age, Truman is determined and driven when it comes to his career, and we also see how his physical limitations and childlike voice are the very things he uses to create his larger than life and eccentric persona.

As Truman becomes more and more involved with his Swans, you understand that behind the seemingly glamourous facades of their lives, they face the same issues and insecurities as we all do.  The real lives of the Swans are laid bare to Truman, and he makes sure he becomes indispensible.  He is always there to accompany them to lunches at places like The Plaza and Le Cote Basque, and to be their plus one at parties and on holiday too.  The women need Truman as much as he needs them.

When he decides to hold The Black and White Party, very quickly it becomes THE social event of the decade. People are desperate to be invited, and will do anything to secure one of the crisp hand written invitations.  Truman’s place as a doyen of society, with his jubiliant Swans at his side, finally seems to be within his reach.

Truman has been riding high on a wave of notoriety since the publication of his non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, and is desperate to ensure he stays in the limelight.  His desire to be loved and adored, coupled with his intimate knowledge of the lives and loves of his Swans, culminates in him publishing the most incendiary writing of his career, but for all the wrong reasons.

His work called Answered Prayers is serialised in Esquire Magazine, and is essentially very thinly veiled attacks on the very women who have helped him get where he is today.  The New York Social Scene has no difficulty in identifying the ‘stars’ of this particular story, which pushes the Swans into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

Truman’s decision to effectively commit social suicide leaves him isolated, bereft, and spiralling downwards in an ever increasing haze of drugs and alcohol.  From being a celebrated and admired novelist, he is reduced to making appearances at the notorious Studio 54, where he is more a figure of ridicule than an esteemed writer. For Truman now, the very women who could rescue him, are the ones he can never talk to again.

There were so many things I loved about Swan Song. Truman’s perfectly calculated detonation of his articles, were so vividly brought to life by Kelleigh.  It is impossible not to feel the devastation of the Swans about what has happened.  You feel their betrayal, their disbelief that the man who had been taken so easily into their confidence could hurt them all so knowingly and deeply.

Kelleigh’s own non-fiction fiction novel is one you simply sink into, and lose yourself in completely. It is a world of privilege, of decadence and beautiful people and clothes, where you were judged by what you wore, who you lunched with and who dressed you.

I think this is one of the interesting and relevant issues throughout Swan Song, that although it is very much of its time, many of the themes around the notion of celebrity, the role of women in society, and how important it is to be liked, and have followers who dote on your every word, is still as relevant if not more so today.

Swan Song may have been published last year, but it will be in my Book of The Year list for 2019.  It is a stunning and revelatory exploration of celebrity and how Truman was desperate to stay relevant within a world which is ever changing and looking for the next big thing.  Once you pick up this novel, it is impossible to put down. The way in which Kelleigh weaves not only the main narrative, but also the stories of the Swans too, is a feat of storytelling that will leave you wondering where the time has gone!

It is so difficult to put into words how much I loved this novel.  I sat with a copy of The Party of The Century by Deborah Davis next to me, because this book is such an immersive experience, you don’t just want to read about the women, you want to see them, to determine what attracted them to Truman.

Kelleigh’s exquisite writing and pitch perfect social commentary, helps us to understand why they unquestioningly accepted Truman into their lives, only to be voiceless bystanders as he set alight the very world he was so desperate to be part of.

I loved it.

You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr

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Damian Barr: You Will Be Safe Here

Published By: Bloomsbury

Buy It: here

What The Blurb Says:

The book that will change the way you see the world.

2010. Sixteen-year-old outsider Willem just wants to be left alone with his books and his dog. Worried he’s not turning out right, his ma and her boyfriend send him to New Dawn Safari Training Camp. Here they ‘make men out of boys’. Guaranteed.

1901. The height of the second Boer War in South Africa. Sarah van der Watt and her son are taken from their farm by force to Bloemfontein Concentration Camp where, the English promise: they will be safe.

What I Say:

It’s not often that a novel renders me speechless, overawed and ashamed at my lack of knowledge about the world, but You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr is that novel.

It is the story of Sarah van der Watt and her son Fred,  who are sent to the Bloemfontein Refugee Camps during the Boer War.  Sarah’s husband has left their farm to fight the British Troops, and she is left with her son and servants, aware that soon everything they own will be destroyed according to the British Army’s Scorched Earth missive. Sarah’s story is revealed to us through the diaries she keeps to tell her husband what has been happening to them.

As soon as Sarah and Fred are unceremoniously bundled into a train and sent to Bloemfontein, you know that everything they have ever known is to be snatched away from them and their lives will never be the same again.  When they are told ‘You Will Be Safe Here’, you realise that this will never be true.

The camp is dirty, overcrowded and a place where the people are controlled by numerous, unattainable rules and regulations.  Daily life soon becomes little more than a battle to survive, and Sarah’s refusal to sign a card backing what the English troops have done, move her and Fred down the social scale to that of undesirables.  Their rations are cut further, they have no means of keeping clean, and unsurprisingly, illness and death are rife.

Fred falls ill and ends up in the camp hospital, but the ridiculous bureaucracy mean that Sarah is rarely permitted to even speak to her son let alone comfort him. In this awful place, women are pushed to the limit, and have to use their bodies as currency to get the medicine that their children need.

They are cut off from their husbands with rare if any communication, they have no information, no voice, and are reliant only on the news they are told by those who control them. In spite of the Army telling the women that this is a refugee camp, it is blatantly obvious to us as readers that Bloemfontein is a Concentration Camp.

In spite of all this, the one resounding note that permeates all the way through this part of the novel, is Sarah’s love for her son and husband.  No matter how awful her day to day reality is, she knows that she has no choice but to keep strong for her family. All the people in Bloemfontein are there because they are displaced, dislocated from their world because they do not fit in with what is expected and are punished for it.

In modern day South Africa, Willem is not like the other boys. He finds joy in his books, in learning, in simply loving to dance and sing when he is in the safety of his home. Unfortunately, him not being like the other boys in his class means that he becomes a constant target.

There is a really clever and haunting scene where Willem and his class go to the Bloemfontein Museum, and the students are given identity cards of people who were at the camp, and Willem gets Fred’s.  It is the perfect way for Damian to beautifully bring the two storylines together, to show us that everything and nothing has changed. That although it may seem our society is far more civilised, the very fact Training Camps existed in modern South Africa means that nothing had changed at all. Difference and being unique is not celebrated, it is feared, and the notion of masculinity is so fixed that anyone who falls outside it must be brought into line, to fit into the crowd to avoid any negative attention being forced on the family.

The arrival of Willem’s stepfather Jan, a security guard with a whole lot of determination and a bucketload of testosterone, means that Willem is now seen as a problem to be fixed. When Willem injures one of his bullies, Jan has the perfect reason to insist that he be sent to the New Dawn Safari Training Camp.

From the moment Willem arrives, it becomes clear that this is no ordinary Summer Camp.  His hair is shaved off, and the brutal regime instigated by The General and his second in command Volker starts.  The boys are treated like slaves, they have little or inedible food, are made to take part in intensive exercise regimes, and dig holes all over the camp. The reason for this is that the General in convinced there is buried treasure in the land, and he has the perfect supply of cheap labour to find it.

Willem’s only solace is in his friendship with Geldenhuys, a sensitive boy who has been sent to the camp as his parents fear he may be gay.  Their friendship gives them both the connection and strength they need to survive in this hell, and some of the most beautiful parts of the novel are the way in which these two young men see something in each other and know that together their friendship can overcome everything.

The novel moves towards its profound and devastating conclusion, and at the end I was speechless and humbled.  Ashamed that I had no knowledge of the Boer War, or of these awful Camps that existed.  I have a son with special needs, who would by many be classed as an outsider, someone who does not fit in with what is expected, a perfect candidate for these sorts of camps. The horror I felt reading this inhumane treatment of boys by an awful, power crazed excuse of a human being chilled me to the core.  I am not ashamed to say I cried when I finished reading You Will Be Safe Here, and for a book to move me so deeply, and make me so angry means it is a very special novel indeed.

You Will Be Safe Here is without doubt on my Novel Of The Year List.  It is a mesmerising exploration of what it means to belong, and what happens when you don’t.  It is a harrowing study of a world where the most vulnerable among us are left at the mercy of those who want to dominate. It is appalling to be faced with a world where difference is something to be hidden away and eradicated, rather than loved and celebrated.

If you take anything from You Will Be Safe Here, let it be this. That the voices of those who are different should be heard, and that these atrocities can never be allowed to happen again.

I loved it.