Isabelle in the Afternoon by Douglas Kennedy

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Douglas Kennedy – Isabelle in the Afternoon

Published by Hutchinson Books on 9th January

Available from All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say:

Before Isabelle I knew nothing of sex.
Before Isabelle I knew nothing of freedom.
Before Isabelle I knew nothing of life.

Paris in the early Seventies. Sam, an American student, meets a woman in a bookshop. Isabelle is enigmatic, beautiful, older and, unlike Sam, experienced in love’s many contradictions. Sam is instantly smitten – but wary of the wedding ring on her finger.

What begins as a regular arrangement in Isabelle’s tiny Parisian apartment transforms into a true affair of the heart, and one which lasts for decades to come.

Isabelle in the Afternoon is a novel that questions what we seek, what we find, what we settle for – and shows how love, when not lived day in, day out, can become the passion of a lifetime.

What I Say:

“Love when declared after a desperate misstep – it’s the hardest love to embrace”.

I think it is always important to be honest about the books I choose to review on Years of Reading. First of all, this is the first Douglas Kennedy novel I have read (don’t @ me!), and I wanted to read it because I thought the cover looked beautiful. I mean, that is not really the way a book blogger should choose their next novel is it?

Anyway, Isabelle at ed.pr contacted me to ask if I would like a copy, and I can tell you what is inside the novel is just as wonderful as the outside.

Isabelle in the Afternoon is a novel about love, expectation and societal expectations, and I could not put it down.

Sam is an American student who finds himself in Paris before he starts the next chapter of his life at Harvard University.  His mother has passed away, and his father is emotionally distant, who seems almost relieved at the fact that he won’t have to deal with his son over the summer. As Sam navigates Paris alone, he starts to tire of the endless days he has to fill, and finds himself at a Bookshop where he meets Isabelle.

The attraction is instant, and Sam seems slightly overwhelmed at the thought that this elegant woman could possibly find him of any interest.  What is so refreshing about this novel is that right from the start, it is Isabelle that sets the parameters of the relationship.

Isabelle tells Sam that they will only meet at her apartment in Paris between the hours of five and seven in the afternoon.  They will never be seen out in public, and this is all that Isabelle will give to Sam. If he cannot comply with the rules of their relationship, it is over.  The arrangement is complicated by the fact that Isabelle is married, and she will not leave her husband Charles. She is absolutely aware of what is expected of her in Parisian society, and that to veer from that in any way would be catastrophic to the reputation of her husband and herself.

Sam at first accepts this arrangement, and is in the thrall of his older and more experienced lover.  As he settles into the affair, and is seemingly happy with their relationship, he also realises he is falling in love with her, and naively cannot understand why she cannot be with him and leave her husband.  It is interesting to see how Isabelle is unwavering in the rules she has created for their affair, in spite of her passionate relationship with Sam, she refuses to give in to his increasingly desperate demands.

To say that Isabelle is an unfeeling and stoic character, incapable of compassion, would be misleading.  She is in a claustrophobic and cloying marriage, where she has to appear to be the collected and contented wife, in order to comply with what is expected of her in the world she inhabits. Isabelle is very aware that her husband is also far from faithful, and it emerges that both partners seem to be resigned to keeping the marriage intact. It  is only when she is with Sam, that she can be free to express her feelings, desire and sexuality.

Unfortunately, the summer has to come to an end, and Sam has to return to the United States, and Isabelle has to seamlessly move back into her role of wife.  What I loved about this novel, is the way in which the two central characters have to continue the route their lives are expected to follow, whilst at the same time they are suppressing what they really want and feel.

For Sam, he studies, becomes a successful laywer, and meets Rebecca, a woman who in love with him, but you always get the sense that Sam is not absolutely in love with her.  Rebecca, to everyone else is perfect for him, but as the reader you see that she will never emotionally fulfill him.  In Paris, Isabelle is a devoted wife and mother, but similarly, you feel that her heart is always with Sam in America. Both Sam and Isabelle attempt to forget about each other, by conforming to what they are supposed to do, but you know that their lives are only being half lived, and this is what makes their stories so absorbing.

They cannot break the bond, and as their lives go on, the connection between them is constantly tested but never fades.  Sam and Isabelle are characters you feel empathic towards, because they have faults and foibles.  They are not always likeable, in fact at times you feel increasingly frustrated with both of them. However, the skill that Douglas Kennedy has as a writer means that you really do engage with them and want to find out what happens.

The plot moves along at the perfect pace, I always felt that the story was natural and spent enough time engaging with both characters.  The whole premise of the novel, that these two people who are meant to be together, but can’t be, is absorbing and believable.  The novel also addresses many different themes sensitively and effectively, I found the portrayal of Sam’s son’s issues were realistic and affecting, and Rebecca’s mental health  was handled by Douglas in such a way that you really felt for what Rebecca was going through, and the effect that this has on her relationship with Sam and everyone around her.

The twist and turns of Sam and Isabelle’s relationship is played across the decades, and the notion that these two people so obviously in love with each other but cannot completely be together is a delicious one for me.  They spend time together in Paris and America over the years, but the reality is that they are always playing at being a couple, they cannot absolutely commit to each other. The lives of Isabelle and Sam play out, and neither of them can let go of the other, however hard they try.  Do they finally reconcile? You are just going to have to read it to find out.

Isabelle in the Afternoon is a thoughtful and passionate novel, epic in its scope and ambition, and it is a bold move to ask readers to engage with two characters for such a long period of time – especially when they are seemingly thwarted at every turn.  The reason it works so well for me, is that Douglas Kennedy has created a novel where you are absorbed by the characters, their world, and the choices they make.  They matter to you, and as you see how passionate and complete their relationship is, I really wanted Sam and Isabelle to have the life they both desperately wanted. That for me is the sign of an amazing novel, and the mark of a novelist who understands the importance of the reader connecting with their characters.

I loved it.

Thank you so much to Isabelle at ed.pr for my gifted copy, and I decided to write a review simply because I loved it so much! 

 

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha

 

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Steph Cha – Your House Will Pay 

Published By Faber and Faber on 16th January

Available from all good Bookshops and Online

What They Say:

Grace Park and Shawn Mathews share a city – Los Angeles – but seemingly little else. Coming from different generations and very different communities, their paths wouldn’t normally cross at all. As Grace battles confusion over her elder sister’s estrangement from their Korean-immigrant parents, Shawn tries to help his cousin Ray readjust to city life after years spent in prison.

But something in their past links these two families. As the city around them threatens to erupt into violence, echoing the worst days of the early 1990s, the lives of Grace and Shawn are set to collide in ways which will change them all forever.

Beautifully written, and marked by its aching humanity as much as its growing sense of dread, Your House Will Pay is a powerful and urgent novel for today.

What I Say:

“Yet it came with a heightened awareness of all that had brought them here, the past clinging to them in thin, sticky layers”.

To try and review Your House Will Pay is a difficult task, not because of the novel itself, which is filled with the tension and pain that permeated 1990’s Los Angeles and its aftermath, but because it is impossible to adequately convey the passion and emotion that Steph Cha has poured into her work.  It examines hugely emotive issues such as race, violence, family and retribution, but does so in a way that never feels didactic.

On the surface, this story of two families in Los Angeles seems at the start to be disconnected.  Why are we learning about what Shawn Matthews and Grace Park are going through, what could possibly link these two seemingly incredibly disparate families? What happened in the 1990’s that could possibly bring them together? The timeline runs between 2019 and the 1990’s and by moving back and forth, we start to understand the realities for Korean and black families living in Los Angeles at that time. It was also an education for me, and I spent some time reading about what happened to try and appreciate more what life at that time was like.

Grace’s Korean family now run a pharmacy, and are apparently settled in their ways and lifestyle, while Shawn who comes from a black family have a chaotic and chequered past which has resulted in him and his cousin Ray spending a lot of time in prison, and his sister has passed away.

Although these two families seemingly have nothing in common, as a reader, you initially feel that slightly disorientated by the switch in focus and storyline.  The absolute skill that Steph has, is that she takes away any pre-conceptions or stereotypes you may expect, and brings the families down to the most basic level. They are simply people who are there for us to see with all their flaws and faults. The issues that the families are going through are set against the backdrop of a world where there are constant tensions between different cultures, and the Korean and black communities are at odds with each other.

In both worlds there is prejudice and inequality – there is a sense that the tensions that are always present in the everyday world are ready to explode at any moment, and you feel it in every page you read. You know that events of the 1990’s Los Angeles has had wide ranging and life changing effects for these families, but you don’t know what they were.  The ever present and all consuming city of Los Angeles is the one constant in this mesmerising and absorbing novel. As the narrative switches between Shawn and Grace, you not only feel that you are slowly starting to understand the very different families, but that there is a constant sense of something seismic about to happen.

Grace is an educated and intelligent woman, who lives at home with her parents, seemingly stuck between trying to please them and be a good daughter, whilst at the same time being aware that there is so much more to the world if she would only have the courage to embrace it.  Her sister Mariam, has been estranged from her parents for a while and lives with her elder boyfriend free from their expectations.

Shawn on the other hand, has become almost a surrogate father to his cousin’s children, and looks after Ray’s family as almost a penance for the life he lived before.  He had a troubled childhood as he attempted to fit in with a world of gangs and crime, and his loyalty to his friends and their beliefs meant that he ended up in prison.  Since his release, he has been determined to ensure he doesn’t make the same mistakes, and is trying to educate Ray’s children so they too can make the correct choices.

For me, what I really enjoyed about Your House Will Pay was the immersive way you are drawn into Grace and Shawn’s world. It addresses the realities of being a young person in a world where you don’t quite fit, and that others expectations mean the choices you make can have a huge impact on not only your world, but those who live in it with you too.  They are people you really believe in, and the way in which we follow their lives serves to underline not only the huge differences between them, but also how similar their beliefs and concerns are.

To try and review this novel is a complicated task, because it is so many things in one book.  When the devastating connection between the family is revealed, trust me, it is one of those jaw-dropping chapters you dream of as a reader! It is thrilling, unexpected and almost like a crime novel as you try and work out who could have done what and when.  However, for me, always at the heart of this book is the notion of family, of belonging.  The secrets they hide in order to protect others, the unspoken bonds that mean it comes before everything, and how your world can be turned upside down by the people you thought you knew the best.

From the moment where we find out how the two families are known to each other, it is a compelling novel that has you turning the pages trying to decide what possible resolution there could be.  I loved the balance between the 1990’s and the modern day, the fact that as a reader you are looking for clues, any little thing you can ascertain that will bring you closer to understanding what has happened and why.

The characterisations are always well rounded and serve to bring you closer to the novel because you really feel invested in what happens to all of them, irrespective of what they have done. There are so many touching familial scenes, acutely and perfectly observed, cut through with reality and humour, with nuances and in jokes that every family has.  This is also what helps to drive the story forward, as you really care what has happened and will happen to the Matthews and Parks.

Your House Will Pay is a timely and devastating novel, that works so well because Steph Cha has created a world where your connection to the characters and the plot mean you only want the best outcome for the Parks and Matthews family.  Who are we to judge the mistakes made by those closest to us when we are far from innocent ourselves? Surely, in times of crisis, the true notion of family and belonging is knowing that by forgiving and protecting those closest to us, we can truly be free. Your House Will Pay makes you stop and think, and want to understand why and what happened to these families. For me, that is truly a sign of a novel that has made a profound impact and changes and educates you as to your view of a world you naively thought you understood.

 

Many Thanks to Lauren Nicoll from Faber and Faber for a gifted copy of this book and for inviting me to take part in this Blog Tour in exchange for an honest review.

Have a look at what my fellow bloggers below are saying about Your House Will Pay..

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Mr Nobody by Catherine Steadman

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Catherine Steadman: Mr Nobody

Published By: Simon and Schuster UK

Available online and from all good bookshops

What They Say:

When a man is found on a Norfolk beach, drifting in and out of consciousness, with no identification and unable to speak, interest in him is sparked immediately. From the hospital staff who find themselves inexplicably drawn to him; to international medical experts who are baffled by him; to the national press who call him Mr Nobody; everyone wants answers. Who is this man? And what happened to him?

Neuropsychiatrist Dr Emma Lewis is asked to assess the patient. This is her field of expertise, this is the chance she’s been waiting for and this case could make her name known across the world. But therein lies the danger. Emma left this same small town in Norfolk fourteen years ago and has taken great pains to cover all traces of her past since then.

But now something – or someone – is calling her back. And the more time she spends with her patient, the more alarmed she becomes.

Has she walked into danger?

What I Say:

When I read and reviewed Catherine’s previous novel, Something In the Water , I realised I had found that rare thing, an author who had written a novel where I could not guess one of the twists!

I love the fact that sometimes as a reader, you are as much in the dark as the protagonist, and that the discoveries they make along the way are just as fresh for you as for them. When I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Catherine’s latest novel Mr.Nobody from the wonderful LoveReading I have to admit I was a little concerned that it wouldn’t be able to live up to the brilliance of her first novel.

I think it’s even better.

A man, bruised, battered and absolutely bewildered is found wandering on a beach in Norfolk. He is unable to speak, has no memory of who he is or how he got there.  Added to this, he has no identification on him and no one has reported him missing. He is taken to a local hospital where no one is able to reach him, until the renowned Dr Emma Lewis is hand picked to work on his case.  Her curiosity is piqued as she has to go through various faceless bureaucratic hoops to gain access to Mr. Nobody, and none of her contacts will truly tell her what is happening, or why they are so evasive.

So far so straightforward. However, Emma was not always called Emma Lewis.  It transpires she has a very chequered past with the same small town in Norfolk, after a family tragedy (of course I am not going to tell you what that is – you need to read it!) which meant that she and her family had to move far away and assume new identities.

You can imagine the jaw dropping moment for Emma – and for us as a reader, When she meets Mr Nobody, he calls her by her previous name as soon as he sets eyes on her! He also knew very private information about the Nurse called Rhonda who he has formed a bond with, which he could not have possibly known. Already there is a huge sense of unease in the novel, a delicious sense of anticipation as to what is come, and for me, that is what elevates a story from readable to unmissable, and Mr. Nobody has that in spades.

As this case is so high profile, and potentially dangerous for Emma, she is given police protection.  One of the police officers assigned to the case is her old friend Chris who knew her when she lived here before, and recognises her immediately – he is now married to a story hungry and not particularly likeable journalist called Zara who will stop at nothing to get to the heart of Mr. Nobody, and will use anyone, even her husband to get to the story before everyone else.  As appalling as Zara’s ethics were, it was interesting to see how someone so driven was so willing to put the story above everything else.

Told in alternating viewpoints from The Man and Emma – this device works well and switches easily and also keeps us on our toes.  Mr. Nobody starts to remember things and flashes of memory come back, and we follow him as he attempts to try and piece together what is happening to him now, and what has brought him to this specific beach in Norfolk.

The brilliance of the novel is compounded by the fact that the style is pacy, the narrative believable, and it also brings up many issues of how we as a society cope with people who do not function in the way we do. We get a real sense of the frustration Mr Nobody feels and his bewilderment as to his mental state. Also the book is very frank in its treatment of people who are guilty by association and when Emma’s identity is revealed, we see the way in which the press move and how ruthless Zara is to be the first person with the story.

I also thought that it was interesting to see how both Emma and Mr. Nobody have to deal with the themes of identity and belonging.  Even though Emma grew up there, she no longer really belongs, and has had to create a whole new identity to survive.  Similarly, Mr. Nobody has no idea where he is from or where he has been, and he survives by trying to remember anything to give him that sense of place or time.  The brief flashes of recollection are peppered with a sense of fear and pain, as he cannot put them into any tangible order and this adds to his sense of dislocation even further.

As the novel hurtles towards its conclusion, Emma unravels Mr.Nobody’s true identity and reason for appearing on that particular beach at that particular time. It is an intricate and detailed plot, which means that you are fully engaged with it, but also that you turn the pages faster as you want to see who Mr. Nobody truly is! It was for me, one of those novels where it is so tightly plotted and executed that you absolutely understand every character’s motivation and actions – although you might not always like them, they are real and fallible, and that is what makes the story work so well.

In the hands of a lesser writer, Mr. Nobody could have been a novel that seemed too bizarre and ambitious to work effectively.  However, Catherine Steadman not only engaged me from the outset of the novel, but her clever and intelligent story had me absolutely hooked and the fact that I could not guess where the narrative was going next, only added to my enjoyment of it.

I loved it.

Thank you as always to LoveReadingUK and SimonSchusterUK for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

that Emma and Matthew are both having to deal with the notion of identity and belonging, of celebrity and loss.

I loved it.

Thank you as always to LoveReadingUK for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.

Bone China by Laura Purcell

Laura Purcell: Bone China

Published By: Bloomsbury Raven

Available online and from all good bookshops

What They Say:

Consumption has ravaged Louise Pinecroft’s family, leaving her and her father alone and heartbroken.

But Dr Pinecroft has plans for a revolutionary experiment: convinced that sea air will prove to be the cure his wife and children needed, he arranges to house a group of prisoners suffering from the same disease in the cliffs beneath his new Cornish home.

Forty years later, Hester Why arrives at Morvoren House to take up a position as nurse to the now partially paralysed and almost entirely mute Miss Pinecroft. Hester has fled to Cornwall to try and escape her past, but surrounded by superstitious staff enacting bizarre rituals, she soon discovers that her new home may be just as dangerous as her last.

What I Say:

‘Can a woman control a house, a family, through something as brittle as porcelain?’

If you have learned anything about me in our time together, you will know that The Silent Companions is quite possibly my favourite novel. If you need to know why, you can read my review here. I also adored Laura’s next novel, The Corset – and of course I reviewed it!

What you also need to know about me, is that if everyone is raving about a novel at a particular time, I tend to put it to one side to read later. If there is a lot of hype, I need to step away and read the novel when I’m ready without everyone else’s opinions! With Bone China, I wanted to appreciate it when I was ready to read it without everyone else telling me what I should think because I wanted to make my own judgements.

I decided that I wanted to read Bone China before Christmas, and I’ll explain why on Twitter and Instagram very soon.

Well, what can I tell you?

Laura Purcell has written another novel that is so perfectly pitched, which draws you in from the first page and holds you in its thrall to the last. I loved the fact that her writing of landscapes, of lives, of a world which is so close to our own, yet so far from our understanding is one which you cannot help but sink in to from the first chapter.

This is the story of the Pinecroft family, who live in the family home called Morvoren in Cornwall. When Hester Why arrives to take up a post there, she is assigned to look after Miss Pinecroft, who is vulnerable and unable to speak, and sits in her room surrounded by piles and piles of blue and white bone china.

Hester is not an innocent woman who happens to find herself here, she has a past and former identity as Esther Stevens, and as a maid to Lady Rose. She has left behind her a trail of destruction and damage, and has picked up an addiction to gin and laudanum which makes her far from a paragon of virtue – but endeared her even more to me!

For me, the notion of a woman who is slightly disclocated from the world is a delicious and absorbing one. Hester finds herself in this world that is so far removed from the society she has come from, but at the same time, she brings with her the understanding and acceptance of how servants should behave. Her departure from Lady Rose’s employment was far from auspicious, but at the same time, she knows in order to survive, she has to fit in with what is expected of her.

Morvoren is a house creaking with secrets and unspoken understanding. We learn that Miss Pinecroft has a young charge called Rosewyn who is hidden away from the world, and although in her early twenties, is like a child and is fiercely protected by the ferocious Creeda. A woman who has been with the Pinecroft family for a very long time, and rules the house with a devotion that is bordering on the obsessive.

Added to this domineering woman at the head of the household, there are unexplained noises and lights when the household tries to go to sleep, and Miss Pinecroft’s refusal to communicate or move from the room filled with china. This is why Laura Purcell is such a brilliant writer, her talent is the teasing of the unknown, the suggestion of something that we want to discover, but at the same time unsettling us so we are reluctant to confront it.

The narrative switches between the time of Hester Why, and Miss Pinecroft’s story as an assistant to her Father, who is a Doctor on a mission. He has decided that he wants to find the cure for consumption, a disease that left him widowed and without two of his children. Louise is enlisted to help him tend to a group of convicts who are suffering from consumption, and her father has decided to bring them to the caves that are under Morvoren in an attempt to cure them.

In my opinion, this is where Bone China elevates itself above a traditional gothic novel. Louise has not been allowed to ever express herself, she has always had to follow her father’s wishes and help him in his quest to find a cure for consumption. What we see in these pages is an intelligent and inquisitive young woman who has no choice in her destiny other than to appease her father. Her sense of duty means that she has pushed all her feelings and emotions away functions only as a living reminder to her father of the wife he has lost.

As preparations are made for the arrival of the prisoners, a young woman called Creeda is sent to Morvoren to serve the family in exchange for medical help from Dr Pinecroft. As the reader, we soon realise that this mysterious woman who is so entrenched in the traditions and folklore of the Cornish people is the catalyst for a chain of events that will permeate the whole of the Pinecroft family and Morvoren forever.

The prisoners are treated by Dr Pinecroft and Louise, and as the days pass, unexplained things start to happen. Cupping glasses find their way from the treatment table back into boxes, marks appear on the men, and they are convinced that there are fairies trying to drag them away.

Could this be true? After all these men are seriously ill and could be hallucinating, but also they are criminals who could be lying as a means to escape. Added to this sense of confusion and tension, Louise finds herself attracted to one of the prisoners called Harry, and in this underground world unlike any other, she starts to discover who she really is as a woman with devastating consequences. The caves are filled with the sensation that the Pinecrofts and the prisoners have disturbed something no one can explain, and that all of them will have to pay the price.

In the present time, Hester is aware that even though she cannot be certain as a woman reliant on drugs and alcohol, something is very wrong in Morvoren. The way that Creeda exerts control over the household, fixated in her belief that the fairies are intent on their desire to take back with them any woman of child bearing age, disorientates Hester even further, as we are never quite sure what is real and what is the product of Hester’s drink and drug induced reality.

Laura Purcell’s measured and controlled writing means that Bone China is a novel that never falls into the unbelievable. It is not a tick the box clichéd gothic novel, but a sublimely disturbing piece of fiction that disorientates and delights with each chapter. Every character is flawed, hiding from a world they don’t fully understand, but that only serves to make them believable and relatable.

Bone China is an exquisite exploration of a world we cannot explain and do not want to face. As you race to the conclusion, you understand just like Hester, that sometimes the only way to confront your demons is to face them head on whatever the cost.

I loved it.

The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer Award – The Shadow Panel Winner.

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For the past three weeks, I have been reading and reviewing The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award Shortlist.  It’s been an incredible experience – to read books that have challenged me, frustrated me, and made me sometimes stop in my tracks and love the words inside them.

As you may or may not know, on Thursday 21st November, I met with Anne , David, Linda and Phoebe at a meeting chaired by Houman Barekat to discuss who we wanted to be the Shadow Panel Winner.  It was a lively discussion, and it was fantastic to finally meet the very people who I knew so well on Twitter and Instagram! I really found it intriguing to see what we all thought of the Shortlist, and at times how similar our views were, but believe me, there were a few instances where we were poles apart in our opinions!

Before I reveal who we chose as our winner, here is a recap of each of the shortlist for you.

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Kim Sherwood was born in Camden in 1989 and lives in Bath. She studied Creative Writing at UEA and is now Senior Lecturer at the University of the West of England. Her pieces have appeared in MslexiaLighthouse, and Going Down Swinging. Kim began researching and writing Testament, her first novel, after her grandfather, the actor George Baker, passed away and her grandmother began to talk about her experiences as a Holocaust Survivor for the first time. It won the 2016 Bath Novel Award, was longlisted for the 2019 Desmond Elliot Prize and shortlisted for the 2019 Author’s Club Best First Novel Award.

Testament by Kim from riverrun which is an imprint of Quercus Books, was actually the first book from the Shortlist that I decided to read.

You can read my review here,

If you would like to buy a copy, you can of course buy one from all good bookshops, or online or from the riverrun website here.

 

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Yara Rodrigues Fowler is a British Brazilian novelist from South London. Her first novel, Stubborn Archivist, was published in 2019 in the UK and USA. It was called ’stunning’ by Olivia Laing, ‘visceral and elegant’ by Claire-Louise Bennett and ‘breathtakingly written’ by Nikesh Shukla. Yara was named one of The Observer’s nine ‘hottest-tipped’ debut novelists of 2019 and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize. Yara is also a trustee of Latin American Women’s Aid, an organisation that runs the only two refuges in Europe for and by Latin American women. She’s writing her second novel now, for which she received the John C Lawrence Award from the Society of Authors towards research in Brazil.

Yara’s book, is published by fleet, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group. It was my next choice to read and review for the Shortlist, and here’s my review of Stubborn Archivist.

If you would like to buy a copy, you can do from all good bookshops, online, or from fleet directly here

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Julia Armfield lives and works in London. She is a fiction writer and occasional playwright with a Masters in Victorian Art and Literature from Royal Holloway University. Her work has been published in LighthouseAnalog MagazineNeon Magazine and The Stockholm Review. She was commended in the Moth Short Story Prize 2017, longlisted for the Deborah Rogers Prize 2018 and is the winner of The White Review Short Story Prize 2018.

Julia’s book of short stories Salt Slow, published by Picador was my third read for the Shortlist, and you can read my review here.

It is available to buy from all good bookshops, online, or from Picador directly here

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Raymond Antrobus was born in Hackney to an English mother and Jamaican father. He is the recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem, Complete Works III and Jerwood Compton Poetry. He is one of the world’s first recipients of an MA in Spoken Word Education from Goldsmiths, University of London. Raymond is a founding member of Chill Pill and Keats House Poets Forum. He has had multiple residencies in deaf and hearing schools around London, as we as Pupil Referral Units. In 2018 he was awarded the Geoffrey Dearmer Award by the Poetry Society (judged by Ocean Vuong). The Perseverance (Penned In The Margins, 2018), was a Poetry Book Society Choice, the winner of the Rathbones Folio Prize and the Ted Hughes Award, and was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize and Forward Prize for Best First Collection.

Raymond’s book of poetry, The Perseverance, is published  by Penned In The Margins and was my final read for the Shortlist.  You can read my review here.

It is available to buy from all good bookshops, online, or you can buy it directly from Penned In The Margins here.

There you have it, the four finalists and the four works we as Shadow Panel Judges had to read and review.

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I am very proud and honoured to reveal, that The Sunday Times/University Of Warwick Young Writer Award Shadow Panel Winner Is…

Salt Slow by Julia Armfield from Picador Books!

Many Congratulations to Julia and Picador Books!

I am not ashamed to admit that I am absolutely thrilled with this decision.  I also have to tell you that once I finished this book, as I was writing my review I read some of the stories again, and it just confirmed what I already knew, that they are brilliant.

The panel was unanimous in their praise for Julia’s book, and it was really interesting to see not only how we all loved the same and we all loved different stories, but that we all saw something that spoke to us in them. For me, it was the amazing untapped power that the female protagonists have within them, and that their transformations and experiences show us that we all have the potential within us to achieve what we truly deserve.

I have slowly started to read short story collections recently, and Julia’s book has made me want to read even more.

It is a book I will absolutely recommend endlessly, and is one that undoubtedly can be re-read and treasured.

Trust me when I tell you that this was a really difficult decision, all the works on the shortlist are brilliant, unique works that I would urge you all to read. They are all very different, but the one thing they have in common is that they reveal the wealth of literary talent that is all around us, and that for me, the most important thing I can do as a reader, is challenge myself to read more widely, and take a chance on something completely different.

So, what do you think of the Shadow Panel decision?

The final decision now rests with The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer Award Judges – Andrew Holgate, Kate Clanchy, Victoria Hislop, Gonzalo C. Garcia and Nick Rennison.

The Winner will be announced on 5th December at the London Library, and I wish the judges and the shortlisted authors lots of luck – trust me, it is not an easy choice to make!

Follow #youngwriterawardshadow and @youngwriteryear on Twitter and Instagram to hear more about The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer Award Shortlist, and of course, to find out who the Overall Winner will be..

The full article about the Shadow Panel is here

You can also read the blogs of the other Shadow Panel Judges to see what they thought too..

Anne Cater at Random Things Through My Letterbox

David Harris at Blue Book Balloon

Linda Hill at Linda’s Book Bag

Phoebe Williams at The Brixton Bookworm

I will be letting you all know what I think about the Winner too, in my final blog post as part of the Shadow Panel (sob!)!

 

The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer Award Shortlist – The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus

Raymond Antrobus: The Perseverance

Published By: Penned In The Margins

Available to Buy From All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say:

An extraordinary debut from a young British-Jamaican poet, The Perseverance is a book of loss, language and praise. One of the most crucial new voices to emerge from Britain, Raymond Antrobus explores the d/Deaf experience, the death of his father and the failure to communicate. Ranging across history, time zones and continents, The Perseverance operates in the in betweens of dual heritages, of form and expression emerging to show us what it means to exist, and to flourish.

What I Say:

I think the idea of reading this collection was something from the start of my experience as a Shadow Judge that I was slightly anxious about. I was aware that Raymond Antrobus had burst onto the British Poetry scene in a blaze of glory, but having to review his collection for the Sunday Times/ University of Warwick Young Writer Award was absolutely out of my comfort zone. The last time I read poetry critically was probably when I was in University over 25 years ago.

Right from the start, and the very first poem, Echo, you are aware as a reader that this is an intensely personal and autobiographical collection from Raymond Antrobus. He is deaf and as if that was not isolating enough, he is also the child of an English mother and a Jamaican father. Raymond Antrobus has always been at the edge of a society that seemingly continues to move all around him, not understanding either his needs or his heritage. How do you attempt to find your place in a world when you are not recognised by it at all?

The Perseverance is an unapologetic debut that not only recounts his own experiences as a deaf British-Jamaican poet, but also makes the reader (as I did) stop and look up the references to other people from history to understand the importance of their inclusion in the work. We learn about his fractured relationship with his father, the life of his family, and there are also poems which feature deaf people who have their own stories to tell. I thought that this was an eclectic mix which worked well – quite simply because it often disrupts the rhythm of the poems, and whereas in one I could understand and appreciate it, others made me stop and read about the subject and then apply that knowledge to my re-reading of them.

What I thought was very clear about the work, is that Raymond Antrobus wants us to listen to him. How can we possibly understand what it means to be deaf, when we are hearing? We cannot possibly know the reality of being deaf – we may be able to make sweeping generalisations, but it is the minutiae, the day to day things that we take for granted that we need someone to articulate for us, to help us truly understand what we need to do to foster inclusion as oppose to exclusion. The addition of sign language symbols, and the redaction of Ted Hughes’ poem ‘Deaf School’ which was filled with misconception and ignorance, immediately addressed by his poem After Reading ‘Deaf School’ by the Mississippi

In the poem Dear Hearing World, I felt it was really Antrobus’ manifesto, a way of detailing exactly what the hearing world need to understand in order for us to make any progress. It is raw, visceral and real, borne of a life lived and ignorances exposed. The writing is sublime, the imagery is authentic, and there is the absolute sense that our inability to fully appreciate what barriers we have created in our society, that there is a whole world of experience which has been denied a history.

He says:

“I mulled over long paragraphs because I didn’t know

what a natural break sounded like, you erased

what could have always been poetry

This for me is a theme that runs all through his collection. That you have standing in front of you a man who wants to be heard – not only for his own story, but for all of those other deaf people who have come before and after him. There is no one better qualified to educate others about the reality of being deaf than those who are.

In the title poem of the collection, The Perseverance is the pub where his father spends a lot of his time, with Raymond stood outside, waiting for him to return. Theirs is a difficult relationship – it seems that this is a pattern of behaviour that is usual in their lives, and interestingly, Antrobus is excluded from that world too. He is neither Jamaican nor British, not allowed inside the pub as he is a child, but cannot hear what is going on anyway. His own perseverance is deeper than simply waiting for his Dad to emerge and take him home. Even knowing that he is beaten by hs father, Antrobus seems to simply want to be acknowledged and loved by him. There is no doubt that Antrobus’ father loves him, and is fiercely defensive of his son, but their relationship is far from a traditional one, with his father open about his sexual conquests and his treatment of him is at times upsetting to read.

We learn that Antrobus’ father has dementia, and I thought it was incredibly poignant that the final poem in the collection Happy Birthday Moon, is about that most intimate and traditional idea, of a Dad reading his son a bedtime story. In that moment, where they are completely alone and just being with one another is the most real and exquisite recollection of what every child wants. To be heard.

“I’d like to be the Moon, the bear, even the rain

Dad makes the Moon say something new every night

and we hear each other, really hear each other,

As Dad reads aloud, I follow his finger across the page.”

Perhaps this is the point of The Perseverance. Antrobus has honestly and unapologetically showed us what his life is like. The passion and determination that permeates the poems in this collection is a way of standing in front of us and asking us to hear each other. Truly hear each other. It is at times, not an easy work to read, and honestly, at times I was frustrated with Antrobus for making me stop to find out what he was talking about. I felt it disrupted my experience as a reader, but it was balanced with moments where I was just blindsided by the most beautiful poetry that just mesemerised me .

The Perseverance is a poetry collection unlike anything I have ever read. In its pages it encompasses so many themes such as love, loss, grief and the unique life that Antrobus has lived. To read it is to be party to his world and his frustations, his realities and his relationships, and his desire to ensure that his history and those of deaf people is no longer sidelined by those who should know better.

Read it and learn from it, let it make you understand the way in which our society has not listened to those who don’t automatically fit in, and then like Antrobus tells us, understand that that we need to really hear each other.

Raymond Antrobus was born in Hackney to an English mother and Jamaican father. He is the recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem, Complete Works III and Jerwood Compton Poetry. He is one of the world’s first recipients of an MA in Spoken Word Education from Goldsmiths, University of London. Raymond is a founding member of Chill Pill and Keats House Poets Forum. He has had multiple residencies in deaf and hearing schools around London, as we as Pupil Referral Units. In 2018 he was awarded the Geoffrey Dearmer Award by the Poetry Society (judged by Ocean Vuong). The Perseverance (Penned In The Margins, 2018), was a Poetry Book Society Choice, the winner of the Rathbones Folio Prize and the Ted Hughes Award, and was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize and Forward Prize for Best First Collection.

Follow #youngwriterawardshadow and @youngwriteryear on Twitter and Instagram to hear more about The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer Award Shortlist, the authors and what the Shadow Panel think too.

The Sunday Times/University Of Warwick Young Writer of The Year Award – 2019 Shortlist Revealed.

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I am hoping that you have all been excited as I have to find out which authors have been shortlisted for this year’s Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of The Year Award 2019!

It is an amazing and intriguing shortlist, featuring authors who will entertain and educate you, challenge your perceptions and preconceptions and draw you completely into their worlds.

Are you ready?

Sure?

Want to go and make a cup of coffee first?

Is the suspense killing you?

 

It is my privilege and honour to reveal the four shortlisted authors:

 

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I am incredibly excited to read and review these books, and to discuss them with you and my fellow Shadow Judges.

So, the works are:

Testament by Kim Sherwood – Published By riverrun

The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus – Published By Penned In The Margins

Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues-Fowler – Published By Fleet/Little, Brown

Salt Slow by Julia Armfield – Published By Picador

Here is a little more about each book.

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Testament by Kim Sherwood from riverrun tells the story of Eva and her relationship with her Grandfather.

She is making a film about his life, and when he passes away, Eva discovers a letter from The Jewish Museum in Berlin asking if they can use his testament of Holocaust experiences.  Eva realises her Grandfather Silk endured many things during the Holocaust, and in uncovering his unspoken history, she is forced to confront her own. By exploring the past, Eva will change the future of her family forever.

I haven’t read this one, and am so looking forward to losing myself in this novel. It ticks all my historical fiction boxes, and am always interested in learning about the lives of those whose unheard voices form such an important part of the world around us.

I will of course, be blogging about Testament and all the books on the Shortlist, and hope you join in the discussion too.

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The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus from Penned in the Margins, is a book of poetry which is also his debut work.

It is a collection of Raymond’s life experiences about language, history and identity, and also is a profoundly personal work which details the reality of being a deaf person and all the judgement that brings. The Perseverance is about Raymond’s relationship with his family, the importance of communication and the things that are not said as much as those that are.

I have to admit, that I was slightly nervous about the idea of reading and reviewing a collection of poetry, although I love reading it. Suffice to say, that I have started dipping in as I couldn’t wait, and I know it is going to be an awe inspiring book that will create lots of discussion.

I can already see the immense power that Raymond’s words have on the page and am ready to educate myself about a world I currently know nothing of.

 

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Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler from Fleet/Little, Brown is the only book on the Shortlist that I have prior knowlege of.

I was lucky enough to see Yara in conversation with Zeba Talkhani and Daniel Hahn at the Henley Literary Festival earlier this year.  The passion and emotion with which she spoke about her life experiences and the search for identity when you don’t apparently fit in to the culture you live in was intensely moving.

The Stubborn Archivist is a novel that uses other people’s perceptions and conversations to form a picture of the protagonist. At the same time she is attempting to find her own identity in a world trying to find a way to be seen, and she is also dealing with the knowledge her body has been traumatised. It is told in fragments and challenges the preconceptions we have about a traditional novel.

I know it is going to be a unique and thought provoking insight into the meaning of identity, culture, self and belonging.

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Salt Slow by Julia Armfield from Picador, is a new title to me.

It is a collection of short stories, which uses the body in all its forms as its inspiration. I am being completely honest when I tell you that short stories are not something that I would usually pick up, however, as part of being on the Shadow Panel, this is as much a chance for me to put aside my own preconceptions, and to challenge myself to read more widely.

I have to say that the whole premise of Julia’s book just make me wants to start reading it now! The notion that the everyday world is mixed with the mystical and gothic one is just the sort of genre I love – the sense of unease and tension is an interesting and unsettling one.

I will be sharing my thoughts with you on my blog and Twitter and Instagram, along with the rest of the Shadow Panel Judges.

Well, there we are! What do you think? Have you read any? Are you like me when I see a Shortlist and want to get hold of copies of them right away and follow it (I do it all the time!)

I am really excited to start reading all these titles – they may be outside my comfort zone, but that makes it even more interesting as a reader and Shadow Judge as I will be learning about myself and challenging my ideas about fiction and form. I have to say when I found out which books were on the Shortlist, it made me want to stop and read them all at once!

Over the coming weeks, I will be posting my reviews on my blog, and keeping you all updated as to how I am getting on. I would love to hear what you think, and don’t forget to see what Anne, David, Linda and Phoebe are saying too.

If you want to get involved, please do use #youngwriterawardshadow to chat to us, if there is anything you want to know, or even so you can read along with us all too!

You can also read more about the Award and the Shortlist in more detail here

I will be posting my very first review soon – now my only problem is deciding which one to start first..!

Lots of love,

Clare

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It’s Here..! My Booktime Brunch with Antonia Honeywell on Chiltern Voice

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Thank you so much to Antonia for sending me a copy of the Booktime Brunch Show!

Feel free to have a listen, hear how much #Booklove (I know!), there was in this show, and let me know what you think!

To all the people I tagged in my previous post, have a listen to see what we said about you … (all lovely I promise..!).

Thank you for all the wonderful feedback already, and now you can hear the whole thing..

 

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did doing it, and let me know if you have any suggestions of books we should be talking about for our Autumn and Christmas Special.

Lots of love,

Clare

xxx

Over Forty Shouldn’t Mean Overlooked.

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My name is Clare, I am 48 years old, happily married, two kids, one bonkers Springer Spaniel, and I love to read.  I love reading literary fiction, novels written by women, about women, and have always gravitated towards female authors.

What does this have to do with anything?  Quite simply because sometimes, I would like to read a novel that has an older woman at the centre of it, who is someone I can read about and think – finally, a character who is not an amalgam of all the cliches of every seventies sitcom ever.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about my reading and blogging, and especially how women of my age are represented in fiction.

Here are some depictions of women my age that really get on my nerves.

I am going through the menopause, and although I have hot flushes and occasionally forget things, it also means that I am incapable of functioning and that I am reliant on my 13 year old to show me how to use technology.

I dress how I want, if it’s what I feel comfortable in then I don’t really give a monkeys what anyone else thinks – but apparently my wardrobe should only consist of beige, elasticated waists and comfy shoes.

I am extremely capable of many things, am not meek or mild, but apparently I should be dependent on my husband to mow the lawn or fix the leaky tap while I do the ironing and get flustered about cooking a roast dinner.

Wife, Mum, Daughter, Sister are titles for these women, but they don’t define me.  How I think and behave makes me who I am.

This morning I saw that @MsLisaMilton who is an executive publisher at @HQStories  along with @gransnet  are running a competition for all female writers over forty, where they are asking entrants to write a story which features a leading character over the age of forty.  If you fancy having a go, you can find the link here to enter.

Lisa then tweeted a link to this Guardian article, which talks about the realistic depiction of women over forty in fiction.  In it, Alison Flood talks about the research from HQ Stories and Gransnet which was compiled from a survey of women over forty (I completed it too).  The Survey looks at how women feel they are portrayed, and what their reality is.  Alison notes in her article how it is an important initiative and that there are already some older women characters out there.

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There are of course such characters, but do you know what, we need to start talking about this topic so much more widely now.

As an over 40’s blogger – and bloody proud of it since you ask, I know there are lots of women who really want to see those characters in fiction that we can relate to.

Don’t assume that because we are over 40 we are dead from the waist down, don’t assume that we are always caught in a never ending cycle of housework and shouting at teenagers, resentfully sorting out the laundry while everyone else around us is having lots of sex and are happy in their marriages. Don’t assume we all have a family around us to help with the logistics of childcare, or that we are spending our evenings sorting out our tupperware cupboards while our partners snooze on the sofa.

Over 40 does not mean the end of our lives, in my experience it has been the start of a whole new one.

I want to see older women in my fiction who are made stronger by their experience, who revel in their knowledge of the world and are happy and balanced, who don’t have to be validated by the labels that everyone around them has created.  I want to read about women who have the self-belief to do what they want simply because they can.  I want to read about women like me, and every other woman over 40 I know.

I believe that Book Bloggers are a really important part of any discussion like this.

We love to talk about books, and I know I am always looking for novels I want to read that have a main character that makes me want to turn the pages.  Along with publishers like HQ Stories, there are so many opportunities for this idea to become a reality. There is a huge resource sat only a keyboard away, a whole group of dedicated and enthusiastic Bloggers who would love to help shape the way that fiction is created and consumed, who will happily shout about these books and authors as widely as possible.

The discussion about how women over 40 are depicted in fiction has already started, I for one am going to seek out more novels that already do this, and try to redress this in my own small way. If you are reading this post, and you know of any novels I should be shouting about, tell me.

Together, publishers, readers and bloggers have an amazing opportunity, not only to change the way women are portrayed but to also talk about women over forty who are writing too.  There is an incredible group of women on all sides just waiting for this opportunity, and when we work together we can really make a difference in the world of fiction.

My name is Clare, I am a 48 year old reader and blogger, and I’m from this point on, I’m absolutely #ForTheWomenFromTheWomen

 

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.