Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal

Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal

Published by Picador Books on 13th May

Available from West End Lane Books,

All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

1866. In a coastal village in southern England, Nell picks violets for a living. Set apart by her community because of the birthmarks that speckle her skin, Nell’s world is her beloved brother and devotion to the sea.

But when Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in the village, Nell is kidnapped. Her father has sold her, promising Jasper Jupiter his very own leopard girl. It is the greatest betrayal of Nell’s life, but as her fame grows, and she finds friendship with the other performers and Jasper’s gentle brother Toby, she begins to wonder if joining the show is the best thing that has ever happened to her.

In London, newspapers describe Nell as the eighth wonder of the world. Figurines are cast in her image, and crowds rush to watch her soar through the air. But who gets to tell Nell’s story? What happens when her fame threatens to eclipse that of the showman who bought her? And as she falls in love with Toby, can he detach himself from his past and the terrible secret that binds him to his brother? 

Moving from the pleasure gardens of Victorian London to the battle-scarred plains of the Crimea, Circus of Wonders is an astonishing story about power and ownership, fame and the threat of invisibility.

What I Say

I could be very coy and give you little hints about what I thought of Circus of Wonders, but I think we know each other well enough for me to start off by saying that I completely fell in love with this novel. If you loved Elizabeth’s debut novel The Doll Factory, then I can absolutely tell you that Circus of Wonder will not disappoint you – in fact I think I loved it more!

Nell leads a life where she is constantly aware she is different from those around her. She has birthmarks all over her body, and has only known that she should be ashamed of how she looks and hidden away from the world. Her brother Charlie tries to protect her from those who make comments about her, and her father doesn’t know how to react to Nell and is ashamed of his daughter.

When Jasper Jupiter and his Circus Of Wonders comes to their village, Nell’s father sees an opportunity to make some money and take away his shame, and he sells Nell to Jasper for £20. What Jasper doesn’t know is that his brother Toby, who works at the Circus, has already seen and spoken to Nell and is totally captivated by her.

The thing is, although at first Nell fights tooth and nail to escape from the Circus, she starts to realise as she sees the other performers, that this in fact might be the very place that allows her that freedom to be herself that she has never experienced before.

Nell becomes Nellie Moon, and is the star of Jasper’s show, which the showman loves, until her popularity eclipses his. When Queen Victoria finally attends the Circus, it is Nell she invites to the palace and Jasper is devastated. The persona he has created for Nell is more adored than him, and this is what he is unable to handle.

While Jasper is dealing with his waning popularity and ever mounting debts due to an ominous lender nicknamed the Jackal, Nell finally seems to have found her place in the world. The public adore her, she has found a group of friends in the Circus, and in Toby she has found a man who loves her for who she is.

Toby undoubtedly loves Nell, but he and Jasper are bound not only by their familial bond, but also a devastating secret that happened when they were in the Crimea War. Nell asks Toby who he would choose, and ultimately it is his choice that changes both their lives forever.

The beauty and power of Circus Of Wonders are the things that are not explicitly stated, it is the things the reader can determine that adds to the poignancy of Elizabeth’s writing. The performers at the Circus know that Jasper employs them, but they believe he has also given them the chance to finally be themselves, to be seen for who they truly are.

However, we can see that Jasper views them as commodities, things to be bought and sold for the best price to give him the biggest opportunity to make the most money. When Nell’s fame eclipses his, he has no hesitation in deciding to dismantle the Circus and rebuild it, discarding the performers without a second thought in order to maintain the ultimate control over his Circus.

This was for me, also a novel of identity and free will, where Nell and the other members of the Circus are trying to find a voice, a place where they can fit in without prejudice or judgement, and on the surface, the Circus seems to be this utopia. As we spend more time with them, we can see how every aspect of their lives is controlled by Jasper’s will – they can express themselves as long as it fits in with what he wants, and what he finds impossible to handle is when someone like Nell finds who she truly is, and then decides she wants to be in charge of her own fate. This is what Jasper cannot accept, that those he believes he has saved to line his own pockets have through him found their own voice which is not what he wants to hear.

From the moment you turn the first page of Circus of Wonders you are totally immersed in a world where you absolutely see, hear and feel everything that is happening around you. It’s hard to describe how affecting Elizabeth’s prose is, but for me, it is a novel that is impossible to stop thinking about when you have read it. In Nell, Toby and Jasper, Elizabeth has created incredible and truly real characters whose lives will undoubtedly and indelibly stay with you for a long time after you have read the perfect final pages.

I absolutely loved Circus of Wonders, and it will be one of my #MostSelfishReads2021

Thank you so much to Camilla Elworthy at Picador Books for my gifted proof and finished copies.

You can visit the West End Lane Bookshop here for your copy and all your Bookish Needs!

Luster by Raven Leilani

Luster by Raven Leilani

Published by Picador

Available from All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Edie is just trying to survive. She’s messing up in her dead-end admin job in her all-white office, is sleeping with all the wrong men, and has failed at the only thing that meant anything to her, painting. No one seems to care that she doesn’t really know what she’s doing with her life beyond looking for her next hook-up. And then she meets Eric, a white, middle-aged archivist with a suburban family, including a wife who has sort-of-agreed to an open marriage and an adopted black daughter who doesn’t have a single person in her life who can show her how to do her hair. As if navigating the constantly shifting landscape of sexual and racial politics as a young black woman wasn’t already hard enough, with nowhere else left to go, Edie finds herself falling head-first into Eric’s home and family

What I Say

When I was asked if I would like to read and review a book from the Dylan Thomas Prize Shortlist, I knew immediately that Luster was the novel I wanted to read.

There’s always a slight trepidation for me in picking up a novel that has been all over social media, because there is always that nagging doubt that it’s a case of hype over substance, and that you won’t understand why it’s been so lauded.

Let me start by telling you about myself. I’m a 50 year old white woman, have been married for nearly twenty five years and have two teenage sons. On paper, a novel about a young black woman who faces prejudice and rascism and ends up living with her lover’s wife and daughter, and who is unapologetic in her sexuality and lives life day to day sounds a million miles away from my life. How could this novel possibly appeal to me? Well, do you know what? It absolutely and completely did.

To simply categorise Luster in such a simplistic way does not do it justice. For me, this is a novel about a woman who is trying to make her way in the world, to try and find out where she fits in and what she wants, to have an emotional connection and sense of love from someone and for someone. Isn’t that what we all want?

Edie works in a publishing house, at a job she likes, in an apartment she tolerates, and has had numerous relationships with men at the office. When she is fired from her job for her behaviour and sending inappropriate emails, and then loses her apartment, Edie has no clue what she is going to be able to do.

After a disastrous relationship with Mark, and a whole host of office relationships, Edie has been seeing Eric who she met on a dating app. They have spent a long time talking to each other, and eventually they decide to meet. An older married dad of one, whose wife Rebecca, knows he is sleeping with Edie, theirs is a strange and complicated relationship. Punctuated by lust, and Edie wanting to be loved but at the same time not knowing what she wants that to be, they always seem to be slightly disconnected.

When Edie has nowhere else to go, she ends up moving into Eric and Rebecca’s home, where she can see how Akila, their adopted black daughter is struggling at home and school. There is almost an unspoken agreement that Edie will support Akila, but it is also interesting and incredibly uncomfortable to see how she becomes part of this barely functioning household.

When Eric is out of town, Rebecca and Edie are thrown together, and their relationship is undoubtedly unsettling. They vacillate between tentative friendship and outright hostility and Edie is never quite sure if she is a guest or an unofficial housekeeper for them, which also makes it unsettling reading for us too. For Rebecca, it almost seems to be a case of keeping your friends close, and your enemies closer.

I thought it was also interesting to see how Edie is longing to be an artist, and is trying to find a way to use her personal experiences as an impetus for her art. She is constantly striving for a way of expressing herself, and as the novel progresses, we learn of the fractured relationship with her parents, her own traumatic experiences including her abortion and falling pregnant with Eric. It seems that only by living through, and accepting what she has lived through that she finds her artistic voice and expression.

Luster is a frank, unfiltered look at what it means to be a young black woman in America. Raven Leilani has created a character in Edie who goes through so much, and has experienced a world that is so far removed from mine, but I found myself protective and enamoured by her. Her desire to love and be seen for who she is and what she wants is real, refreshing and engaging. We may never really understand what Rebecca’s motives were in asking her to move in, or why Eric had a relationship with her. Yet we absolutely understand Edie’s need to feel a connection to someone, to be seen, to be part of the world around her.

Ultimately for me, the one thing that resonated so completely about Edie is what she herself says at the end of the novel:

‘And when I am alone with myself, this is what I am waiting for someone to do to me, with merciless, deliberate hands, to put me down onto the canvas so that when I’m gone, there will be a record, proof that I was here.’

I loved it.

Thank you so much to Bei Guo at Midas PR for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.

Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding

Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding

Published by Bloomsbury

Available from All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

An immensely powerful and compulsive novel of maternal love, control and a woman at the mercy of addiction.

What I Say

From the moment you open the pages of this book, Sonya a single mum living in Dublin, this protagonist of Bright Burning Things bursts into the plot and seems to be an all encompassing passionate and vital woman, determined to ensure that her son Tommy has an unforgettable childhood with her.

What we learn about Sonya very quickly is that she is an alcoholic, dealing with a very real and invasive disease that is affecting her ability to care for Tommy and means that at times, this four year old boy is caring for his Mum. Make no mistake about Sonya, her love for her son is all encompassing and he is her world, but it is also evident to us from the start that her addiction to alcohol means that she is unable to care for him properly. Food in in short supply, he is not attending school, and there seems to be little or no routine for him as he helplessly watches his Mum try to exist in a world where what matters most is getting a drink.

Her Dad watches helplessly as his daughter slips further away from him, determined to do what she sees best for her and Tommy, even though we can see that unfortunately Sonya is not coping at all and needs help. Even when her Dad asks a neighbour Mrs O’Malley to be his eyes and ears and to make sure that she is coping, Sonya spirals into a world where Tommy is being neglected and she is unreachable. When finally Tommy is at risk, her Dad intervenes and facilitates an admission to a Rehab unit for twelve weeks, and if she refuses, he will remove Tommy from her care permanently.

Sonya ultimately knows that in order to keep Tommy, she has no choice but to agree, and has to deal with the reality that her son is living with foster parents and will do so until she can prove that she is fit to care for him. The description of Sonya’s time in rehab is hard to read, and you absolutely understand the huge emotional and physical demands that are placed on her, but at the heart of this experience is her realisation to fail would means losing the very thing that is keeping her there.

It is while she is in rehab that she meets David, a counsellor and former addict, and he seems to be the stability and hope that she needs. What becomes obvious to the reader is that she is relying on a man who seems intent on almost smothering her in his insistence at running the relationship his way, and her deep fear of losing her son means that for a while she is unable to articulate that she needs to be on her own with her son.

Lisa Harding is brilliant at showing us how chaotic, undisciplined and shifting Sonya’s world is, and while there is never any doubt as to the depth and breadth of her love for her son, there is also never any doubt as to how her alcoholism permeates every part of her life and world and she is constantly trying to ensure her addiction doesn’t lead to the loss of her son. As a reader with no experience of alcoholism, this novel was absolutely an education about this disease, and how the craving for drink obliterates reason and rationale. However on a human level, you cannot be failed to be moved by how much Sonya is aware of the struggle she is facing, and you feel her shame and anger at herself too. She knows this is not what a mother should be, but her fierce love and determination means that she understands that rehab is the only way in which she can give herself a chance at spending the rest of her life with her son.

Bright Burning Things is undoubtedly a raw and unflinching book about the realities of alcoholism, and to see how Tommy is trying to look after his Mum and be there for her at such a young age is difficult to read. What I loved about this book, is the way in which Sonya grows from defining her world by men and needing to have a drink, to realising that her best hope of change is to put herself and Tommy firmly at the front of everything she does.

I also felt like the book was split stylistically- pre-rehab, where her world seems surreal at times as she is unconfined by rules and regulations and pleases herself, and post-rehab, where she slowly understands the power she holds within herself and the realisation that she needs to be Tommy’s mother. The writing is at times hypnotic and immersive as you find yourself absorbed and disconnected from reality in Sonya’s world, and there were passages that were so beautifully laid bare for the reader, that it was impossible not to be moved.

In Bright Burning Things, Lisa Harding has created a protagonist in Sonya who may exasperate us at times, delight us often and may infuriate us at others. Yet above all she has created for us that undeniable emotional connection where all you want is for Sonya to get the chance to be the mother you know she can be, and the Mum that Tommy truly deserves.

I loved it.

Thank you so much to Laura Meyer at Bloomsbury for my gifted copy.

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

Published by Picador Books on March 4th

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

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

What I Say

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I absolutely loved it.

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

Bernard and Pat by Blair James

Bernard and Pat by Blair James

Published by Corsair

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

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

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

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

What I Say

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I loved it.

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

Insatiable by Daisy Buchanan

Insatiable by Daisy Buchanan

Published by Sphere on February 11th 2021

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

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

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

What I Say

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I absolutely loved it.

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

A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies

A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies

Published by Sceptre Books

Available from All Good Bookshops and Online

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Night New York by Lara Thompson

One Night, New York by Lara Thompson

Published by Virago on 14th January 2021

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

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

What I Say

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Swallowed Man by Edward Carey

The Swallowed Man by Edward Carey

Published by Gallic Belgravia

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

From the acclaimed author of Little comes this beautiful and haunting imagining of the years Geppetto spends within the belly of a sea beast.

Drawing upon the Pinocchio story while creating something entirely his own, Carey tells an unforgettable tale of fatherly love and loss, pride and regret, and of the sustaining power of art and imagination.

What I Say

I was lucky to read Edward’s novel Little before it was published, and it has since that time always had a special place in my reading heart, because it was such a perfectly written and absorbing novel.

When I heard that his next novel The Swallowed Man was about Pinocchio’s father Geppetto imprisoned inside a sea beast, I just didn’t know how it could compare to Little.

In fact, and to be completely honest with you, when I finished it, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. Then I sat and thought about what I had just read, and slowly realised just how powerful and incredibly poignant it really is.

Geppetto, after losing his son Pinocchio who has run away from him, had taken a boat to try and find him after an alleged sighting. That is when he is swallowed by a sea beast and wakes up to find he is a prisoner inside the animal with no way of escape.

Little by little, Geppetto starts to tell us the story of his life as he tries to navigate his new home. He finds a whole ship inside the sea beast which gives you an idea as to the scale of the world he now finds himself in. This becomes his place of safety. He raids the ship for supplies, takes over the Captain’s rooms, and starts to write down everything in an attempt to keep his mind focussed on his plight, and his belief that one day he will find a way out.

As the novel progresses, he starts to reminisce, and look back on the life he has led, the women he has loved, and most importantly, the life he created. He made Pinocchio out of wood, so that he could say he was a father. What he didn’t anticipate was Pinocchio’s free will, and his desire to be like the other boys he saw from the windows of his home.

This is what Geppetto found so hard to understand. He had created his son, but wanted to control him, and when he couldn’t, he punished him and made Pinocchio so miserable that he ran away.

For me, this was the theme that ran so clearly through the novel. How that at the heart of this story is a man who realises not only what he has lost, but also by losing Pinocchio, what being a father actually means. He now understands that not only did he need a connection to someone, but that Pinocchio also needed other human connections to flourish too.

Little by little Geppetto loses his grip on reality, and wracked with grief he tries to make other Pinocchios to try and ease his pain. They never turn out the same, and are often grotesque. He believes one of them is actually haunting him, and his descent into madness becomes more painful to witness, and his journal entries become increasingly erratic.

The Swallowed Man may be a short novel, but it is intensely affecting. As a reader we suspect that Geppetto will not survive his ordeal, but Edward makes you engage so much with him that you are hoping for a miracle, and that the father and son will be reunited. The incredible illustrations by Edward throughout the book really gave the story an extra dimension, and made Geppetto feel more authentic as well as giving the reader that connection to him.

If you are looking for a rose tinted retelling of the Pinocchio story you knew as a child, this is not for you. However, if you want to read a story about the immense power of love, loss and the instinctive need we have to connect to someone to feel human, this is the book for you.

I loved it.

Thank you so much to Isabelle at Gallic Belgravia for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.

Leave The World Behind by Rumaan Alam

Leave The World Behind by Rumaan Alam

Published by Bloomsbury

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

A magnetic novel about two families, strangers to each other, who are forced together on a long weekend gone terribly wrong

Amanda and Clay head to a remote corner of Long Island expecting a holiday: a quiet reprieve from life in New York City, quality time with their teenage son and daughter and a taste of the good life in the luxurious home they’ve rented for the week. But with a late-night knock on the door, the spell is broken. Ruth and G. H., an older couple who claim to own the home, have arrived there in a panic. These strangers say that a sudden power outage has swept the city, and – with nowhere else to turn – they have come to the country in search of shelter.

But with the TV and internet down, and no phone service, the facts are unknowable. Should Amanda and Clay trust this couple – and vice versa? What has happened back in New York? Is the holiday home, isolated from civilisation, a truly safe place for their families? And are they safe from one another?

What I Say

Hand on heart, I was slightly hesitant about starting Leave the World Behind. I am not good with horror books, and especially gory things. It has been all over social media, with no one really explaining why it is so disturbing, so I started to read it with more than a little trepidation.

The thing is, the reason Leave The World Behind is one of those novels that leaves you more than a little stunned and a lot speechless, is because of what is not said, what is not explained, and how you as the reader are left to fill in the blanks of the story.

Amanda and Clay, and their teenage children Archie and Rose seem to be the embodiment of the picture perfect American family. Both Amanda and Clay have successful careers, and their children lead full and privileged lives. When Amanda decides to book a luxurious holiday home in Long Island, it seems like the most wonderful plan.

In a remote location, with little or no internet connection, the house is beautifully furnished, filled with everything the family could wish for. Little by little the family start to unwind and enjoy their time together. That is until one night there is a knock at the door, and it is an elderly couple called the Washingtons who claim that this is their home, and they need to be there because there has been a massive power cut throughout New York and this is their place of safety.

Reluctantly Amanda and Clay let them in, and are obviously uneasy and mistrustful of them – and although they never explicitly say it, we as a reader absolutely know it is because the Washingtons are black. It is that unspoken and ingrained racism that permeates their unconscious reaction to them, however liberal they may claim to be.

As the strangers are thrown together, unable to find any concrete information about what has happened as they cannot connect to the internet, they are forced to confront the fact that they have no way of knowing what will happen next. While they are adjusting to the new set up, slowly strange, inexplicable things start to happen. There are spontaneous incredibly loud noises that sound almost like sonic booms, Clay takes the car out and cannot find his way anywhere except back to the house, beyond the perimeter of the fence, hundreds of deer are congregating, and when Archie is suddenly taken poorly, his teeth start to fall out.

We are also drip fed snippets of information in incidental paragraphs as to the scale of the horrors that are happening beyond the world of the families, and how the world is slowly heading towards natural and technological disasters on an unprecedented scale. Yet they have absolutely no clue, and instead start to relax in each other’s company, confident that they will be able to find solutions soon. It is interesting to note how when they are dislocated from the social and economic constraints and expectations of the world that they start to live more freely.

It is only when the families decide they need medical help for Archie that they make a life changing decision.

Rumaan Alam’s novel succeeds precisely because it is set in a world we all recognise and are comfortable in. We can relate to both families – we see the family familiar to lots of us; trying to have a relaxing time balanced with the demands of their teenagers, being in someone else’s home so you are always slightly on edge, and the frustrating lack of technology when it has become second nature to you. Yet we also empathise with the Washingtons, who faced with a world of uncertainty simply want to find comfort and reassurance in the very place they call home. They too are away from what they know and cannot reach their daughter, and the place that should be a place of comfort and peace is occupied by strangers who are sleeping in their bed and taking over every part of their house.

I felt that the narrative moved along at the perfect pace, and I thought it was interesting to see the development and flourishing of the characters as they become more reliant on each other. I thought that the Washingtons as the novel progresses became almost surrogate parents and grandparents. I also liked how the seemingly quiet and unassuming Rose was actually the character with the most resilience and resolve, and seemed to understand what her family would have to do to survive for as long as they can.

Leave The World Behind left me with lots of questions when I had finished it. What would happen to the families? When the supplies run out, what is next for them all? What caused these events in the first place? That for me is the quiet and understated brilliance of this novel. The reader is not given a neat and convenient ending to smugly close the book, instead the resolution is as easy or as complicated as you want. Your imagination is the deciding factor in the final reading of the novel, and that is what makes it so difficult to describe to others, and so absolutely impossible to forget.

Thank you so much to Emilie Chambeyron at Bloomsbury for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.