When I Ran Away by Ilona Bannister

When I Ran Away by Ilona Bannister

Published by Two Roads Books

Available from West End Lane Bookshop, All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

This morning Gigi left her husband and children.

Now she’s watching Real Housewives and drinking wine in a crummy hotel room, trying to work out how she got here.

When the Twin Towers collapsed, Gigi Stanislawski fled her office building and escaped lower Manhattan on the Staten Island Ferry. Among the crying, ash-covered and shoeless passengers, Gigi, unbelievably, found someone she recognised – the guy with pink socks and a British accent – from the coffee shop across from her office. Together she and Harry Harrison make their way to her parents’ house where they watch the television replay the planes crashing for hours, and she waits for the phone call from her younger brother that never comes. And after Harry has shared the worst day of her life, it’s time for him to leave.

Ten years later, Gigi, now a single mother consumed with bills and unfulfilled ambitions, bumps into Harry again and this time they fall deeply in love. When they move to London it feels like a chance for the happy ending she never dared to imagine. But it also highlights the differences in their class and cultures, which was something they laughed about until it wasn’t funny anymore; until the traumatic birth of their baby leaves Gigi raw and desperately missing her best friends and her old life in New York.

As Gigi grieves for her brother and rages at the unspoken pain of motherhood, she realises she must somehow find a way back – not to the woman she was but to the woman she wants to be.

What I Say

Over recent months, the role of mothers in the home has never been out of the spotlight as women have been juggling home life, professional life, home schooling and keeping everything going whilst attempting to process what has been happening in the world around us as we deal with the pandemic.

I read Ilona’s novel a few weeks ago, and can hand on heart say that I have never read a book that more perfectly gets right to the heart of what it means to be a mother. It is funny, heartbreaking, unflinching and true, but it also absolutely articulates what it is like to have a baby when you are a stranger in the country you live in, and you don’t have the in built support system it is assumed by the medical professionals that you must have to function.

If I also tell you that a lot of the action takes place in a single day in a London hotel while our protagonist Gigi is watching The Real Housewives of New Jersey, and you know how much I love the Real Housewives, I don’t think it’s difficult to see why I loved this novel so completely.

Gigi Stanislawski is caught up in the aftermath of 9/11, and it is there as she tries to get home to her parents that she meets Harry, an Englishman who she knows from coffee shop. It is when they eventually stumble to her parents house that she discovers her brother has lost his life. Harry and Gigi part, but fate brings them together ten years later, and they fall completely in love.

After losing her brother Frankie, Gigi discovered that his girlfriend Danielle was pregnant by her new boyfriend, and with no one willing to take the baby, Gigi did and became a single mother. While she works incredibly hard to balance her working life with looking after Johnny and dating Harry, nothing seems to phase her. When she marries Harry and they decide to move to London, and Gigi discovers she is pregnant, it finally seems like Gigi has the perfect life she has always deserved.

The brilliantly constructed dual narrative means we see Gigi holed up in a London hotel very close to where she lives watching Real Housewives. We don’t know why she is there, what has prompted her to run away, but what we do know is that Gigi is not coping with motherhood. This means that Gigi can share with the reader how she came to adopt Johnny, the reality of moving to a new country with a whole set of customs and social niceties that no one has explained, and most importantly how her experiences of being a mother have led to her running away from her husband and children

One of the many things I loved about this novel are the excruciatingly accurate scenes where Gigi has afternoon teas with other local mothers. However much they try and convince themselves and each other that they are completely supportive of every choice each parent makes, the passive aggressive statements and transparently superior side swipes that effortlessly fall from their lips were all too familiar. Gigi feels at a double disadvantage to these women as she has come to the UK from America, but also had a traumatic and difficult birth with her son Rocky. Ilona innately understands the social conventions and moral complexities of these events, and the language and dialogue is completely unforgettable.

As the novel moves through Gigi’s world, little by little the pieces fall into place and we understand what made her pick up her keys and phone and leave. Ilona draws us close to her, and as we see all her worries and internalised pain, Gigi is so real and relatable that you just want to reach her into the book and tell her it will be okay. The narrative moves forward and brings us along with it, and I read every single line because it resonated with me so deeply. You absolutely feel Gigi’s sense of not fitting in, and her bewilderment as to why she is not enjoying motherhood as everyone tells her she should.

When I Ran Away starts so many difficult and necessary conversations about the realities of motherhood and parenting. Ilona unflinchingly shows us the repetitiveness and absolute mundanity of motherhood, but also for me highlighted the incredibly common assumption that you automatically have an inbuilt family support system ready to leap in when you need it. If you do, that’s wonderful, but those who face parenthood without it need to be heard and understood too. If you take one thing away from this incredible novel, it should be that motherhood is not a competition, and that the most powerful thing we can do as women is to acknowledge that. To truly try and be real about motherhood, rather than falling into the trap of filtering and editing our world to give the illusion of being the picture perfect version we have been made to feel we should project is hard, but necessary if we really want to start talking about motherhood.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Rachael Duncan at Two Road Books for my gifted proof copy.

You can buy your copy from West End Lane books here.

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

Published by W&N on 10th June

Available from West End Lane Books, All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Everyone tells Martha Friel she is clever and beautiful, a brilliant writer who has been loved every day of her adult life by one man, her husband Patrick. A gift, her mother once said, not everybody gets.

So why is everything broken? Why is Martha – on the edge of 40 – friendless, practically jobless and so often sad? And why did Patrick decide to leave?

Maybe she is just too sensitive, someone who finds it harder to be alive than most people. Or maybe – as she has long believed – there is something wrong with her. Something that broke when a little bomb went off in her brain, at 17, and left her changed in a way that no doctor or therapist has ever been able to explain.

Forced to return to her childhood home to live with her dysfunctional, bohemian parents (but without the help of her devoted, foul-mouthed sister Ingrid), Martha has one last chance to find out whether a life is ever too broken to fix – or whether, maybe, by starting over, she will get to write a better ending for herself.

What I Say

There are characters you meet when you are reading who instantly take a piece of your heart, and as soon as I met Martha Friel, I knew she was one of them. Flustered, unfocused and just separated from her husband Patrick, she has to move home to live with her parents. This may sound like a novel you have read many times before, but trust me, Sorrow and Bliss is a brilliant, beautiful and unique novel about love and family, motherhood and parenting and mental illness.

From the very start of the novel, it is clear that Martha has mental health issues, and has been dealing with them ever since she was seventeen years old when she was taking her A Levels. Martha ended up coming home and taking refuge under her father’s desk for three days, and from then on, her life has been punctuated by episodes that have impacted on her life and her family who have endlessly tried to help her.

Her father Fergus is a slightly well known poet, her mother Celia a sculptor, and her sister Ingrid is currently a stay at home Mum, married to Hamish whilst attempting to juggle looking after her children and keeping everyone else on the straight and narrow.

Thrown into the mix are Martha’s Aunt Winsome and her Uncle Rowland, who live in a beautiful house in Belgravia, in direct contrast to Fergus and Celia’s chaotic house in Shepherd’s Bush. It is there that every year they attempt to host impossibly perfect Christmases for the whole family. One Christmas, when Martha is 16, their son Oliver, brings his friend Patrick home from Boarding School. The family discover that Patrick’s Dad, enamoured with his latest wife, has neglected to organise a plane ticket for Patrick to fly home to Hong Kong, and from then on Patrick becomes part of the fabric of Martha’s family.

Patrick and Martha weave their way in and out of each other’s lives over the years, and each have been involved with other people, including Martha’s disastrous marriage to the hideous Jonathan. His penchant for white jeans and cocaine and an sneering contempt for her mental issues that the marriage is annulled. It is only when Patrick and Martha come together later on in life do they realise they are meant for each other and finally get married.

Martha is not always kind to those closest to her. She treats her family appallingly when they do not put her at the centre of their world, and Patrick is always there, doggedly attempting to keep Martha happy. Over the years, she has also never had a particularly close relationship with her mother, and there seems to be a disconnect between them, never quite knowing how to be together in that effortless way so many of us take for granted. It is her father and sister who are closest to Martha, and try to help her as best they can.

Ingrid and Martha’s incredibly close relationship is one of the many joys of this novel. Martha and Ingrid have that amazing sisterly shorthand, where they know each other so well that they are able to be incredibly honest with each other, but also understand what they both really want without having to say it. Their in-jokes, their shared history and often bewilderment at their parents will resonate with so many people, and will make you squirm with recognition and laugh out loud.

This novel was such a joy to read. There are undoubtedly really sobering moments of pain, and you absolutely feel Martha’s pain and bewilderment at not being able to explicitly state what she is going through. Meg Mason is incredible at articulating the experience if mental illness, and the way in which it permeates every part of Martha’s world constantly. The moment someone offers her their diagnosis that seems to explain what she has been going through, we as the reader are never told – it is always referred to as ‘- -‘. I thought it was a printing error, but then realised this was a clever device by Meg to ensure that we read about Martha and don’t bring our assumptions or preconceptions about conditions to our reading of the novel.

For me, something that also resonated with me was the way in which the impact of Martha’s mental issues on her family, but especially Patrick is depicted. Patrick completely loves Martha, and he repeatedly tries to stand by her and do everything in his power to be there for her, but she veers between contented and hateful, all the time needing Patrick to be there for her. To see them separate is heartbreaking, but to see Martha slowly realise what she has lost is even more upsetting. It is also incredibly touching to see that in her darkest days, it is her Mum who is finally able to connect with Martha again by literally encouraging her to put one foot in front of the other.

Sorrow and Bliss perfectly articulates so many things. What it means to be part of a family, and how wonderful, exhausting, flawed and thankless it can be at times. It is also a novel about the realities of love and marriage after the honeymoon period is over, and the decisions we make about whether or not we have children, and more importantly the fact that everyone else believes they have the right to comment on the choices people make.

However, for me, this novel is utterly and completely Martha’s story, and her voice is so captivating and unique, I promise you will love her and despair of her as much as I do. Put it this way, I loved this book so much I want to read it again very soon, and savour every page for a second time.

I absolutely and completely loved it.

Thank you so much to Gigi Woolstonecroft at W&N for my gifted proof copy.

You can buy your copy of Sorrow and Bliss from West End Lane Books here.

Still Life by Sarah Winman

Published by 4th Estate on June 1st

Available from West End Lane Books, All Good Bookshops and Online.

What They Say

1944, in the ruined wine cellar of a Tuscan villa, as bombs fall around them, two strangers meet and share an extraordinary evening.

Ulysses Temper is a young British soldier, Evelyn Skinner is a sexagenarian art historian and possible spy. She has come to Italy to salvage paintings from the wreckage and relive memories of the time she encountered EM Forster and had her heart stolen by an Italian maid in a particular Florentine room with a view.

Evelyn’s talk of truth and beauty plants a seed in Ulysses’ mind that will shape the trajectory of his life – and of those who love him – for the next four decades.

Moving from the Tuscan Hills and piazzas of Florence, to the smog of London’s East End, Still Life is a sweeping, joyful novel about beauty, love, family and fate.

What I Say

When I finished reading Still Life I was faced with a problem. I honestly didn’t know how I was going to review it because I had no idea how I could do it the justice it deserves. This is a novel that encompasses so much so effortlessly, and the sheer scale and intricacies of everything Sarah Winman talks about within these pages is impossible to distil into a review.

From the moment you turn the first page, Sarah Winman pulls you into the world of Ulysses, Col, Evelyn, Peg, Cress, Pete and Alys. They are all seemingly disparate individuals who are simply connected by the fact that Ulysses is part of their lives. This gentle, kind and truly compassionate man has fought for his country in Italy, stopped a man from committing suicide and on returning home, discovers that his wife Peg has had a relationship with an American called Eddie and now has a daughter. Ulysses and Peg try to make a life together, but Peg loves Eddie, and wants only him.

When Ulysses is left an apartment by the man he saved in Florence, he makes the life changing decision to move there with Cress, his friend from the East End, and Peg decides to let him take Alys too. They also manage to sneak Claude the parrot from under the nose of Col, who runs the Stoat and Parot pub, and together they start a new life far away from the lives they have known.

Moving to Italy is the fresh start they all seem to need. The apartment is beautiful, the life seems idyllic, and they decide to turn the apartment into a Pensione named Bertolini. This is the world in which our characters show themselves at their most real and vulnerable, and Sarah’s incredibly perceptive and immersive writing means that you feel you absolutely know and understand every character by the end of the novel.

It is as if when people come to the Pensione, they can be their true and authentic selves. Free from preconceptions and assumptions, they have the chance to live the life they deserve rather than the one that society tells them they should have. The group of people who live and visit there are family to each other, and for me that was one of the most poignant parts of the novel – that these people have met by chance, but that their love and connections to each other is absolutely unbreakable. I loved the way in which the world of London, the East End and Italy are constantly intertwined, as Col, Peg and Pete regularly come to visit, and the tantalisingly missed chances for Evelyn and Ulysses to reconcile when they initially keep missing each other purely by chance are simply devastating!

For me, the women in Still Life were incredible to read about because while you may not always understand their decisions, you absolutely know that they are striving against all odds to live the lives they want. Peg is brutally honest about her maternal instincts and disinterest in parenting and knows that Alys will flourish if she lives with Ulysses. Evelyn has had to hide her sexuality for years for fear of being ostracised and condemned, irrespective of what she feels and has to constantly prove her academic worth in a male dominated world. Alys is truly her mother’s daughter, and her dogged determination to forge her own independent path in life and also be open about her sexuality is portrayed perfectly. Still Life as the title suggests also talks about the depiction of women in art, how the academic gaze has always been predominantly male. Evelyn is a tireless advocate of the need to recognise the importance of female artists and their works in the history of art, and I found that a really interesting viewpoint throughout the novel.

To read this novel is to live it completely. Sarah’s exquisite and sensory descriptions of life in Italy mean that as a reader you feel that somehow you are completely in the heart of the action. You feel the heat of the sun on your neck, taste the incredible food that makes you yearn for a plate of pasta, and the look and feel of the town is so incredibly clear in your mind that you can picture every room in the apartment and every landscape that you read about. As Still Life moves through the decades, we are witness to what is happening in the world around them. We learn about the impact it has on those who live in this seemingly idyllic place, but in a cleverly layered turn of events, we also see the effect that Evelyn has had on the work of the novelist E M Forster too, and specifically his novel A Room With A View.

Still Life is an exquisite and totally compelling novel about lives lived, loves won and lost, and the incredible strength and resilience we discover within ourselves when we need it most. When I finished this novel, I was really sad that my time with these people had come to an end, such was my love for them all. It is a novel that absorbs you so completely that you truly feel that you are right there with the characters for every step of their journeys. Its enduring message for me is that it makes you understand the immense power of love and friendship that we often take for granted, and in recognising it and accepting it, we can perhaps finally find peace. One of E.M. Forster’s most famous quotes is ‘Only Connect’, and in Still Life this is what is ultimately right at the very heart of this incredible novel for everyone in it, and for those of us who read it, it is something we should always endeavour to remember.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Liv Marsden at 4th Estate for my gifted proof copy.

If you would like to purchase a copy from West End Lane Books, you can click here

Fault Lines by Emily Itami

Published by Phoenix Books on 27th May

Available from West End Lane Books, and all Good Bookshops

What They Say

Mizuki is a Japanese housewife. She has a hardworking husband, two adorable children and a beautiful Tokyo apartment. It’s everything a woman could want, yet sometimes she wonders whether it would be more fun to throw herself off the high-rise balcony than spend another evening not talking to her husband or hanging up laundry.

Then, one rainy night, she meets Kiyoshi, a successful restaurateur. In him, she rediscovers freedom, friendship, a voice, and the neon, electric pulse of the city she has always loved. But the further she falls into their relationship, the clearer it becomes that she is living two lives – and in the end, we can choose only one.

Alluring, compelling, startlingly honest and darkly funny, Fault Lines is a bittersweet love story and a daring exploration of modern relationships from a writer to watch.

What I Say

Now more than ever, today’s mothers are met with a constant onslaught of online perfection and ideals even before most of us have managed to get dressed and eat breakfast. Every day and in numerous ways we are bombarded with different information telling us how we should look after our children and families, all the things we should be doing and lots of things we shouldn’t.

Mitzuki, the protagonist of Emily Itami’s brilliant debut novel Fault Lines, finds herself not only submerged in a world of expectation and comparison, but is also trying to face the cultural expectations that are placed on Mitzuki as a Japanese housewife. In a country with a myriad of customs and social conventions, she is constantly trying to be what everyone else wants her to be, and has learned to put her own needs and desires reluctantly to one side.

The thing is, right from the start, we are absolutely aware that Mitzuki is unhappy with her life, but rationally she knows she shouldn’t be. She has a part time job as a Inter Cultural Consultant, a hardworking husband, two beautiful children and an apartment that is amazing. If I tell you that at the beginning of the story that she botches an attempt to throw herself off her balcony, it is easy to understand that something is very wrong in her world.

Emily’s measured and taut writing means you totally feel the claustrophobic and limited world that Mitzuki is part of. She feels trapped by the world that everyone else tells her she should embrace, and simply being someone’s wife and someone’s mother is not enough. Her identity is being subsumed by everyone else, and she is wondering where Mitzuki is.

That is why when she meets restauranteur Kiyoshi by chance when she is working, she feels such an intense chemistry with him that suddenly she understands exactly what has been missing from her life. Passion. Being seen for being Mitzuki in her own right and not as a part of someone else’s life. The tension between them is palpable, and when Mitzuki meets Kiyoshi at a Tokyo Fashion Week Event, she knows that he will eventually be her lover.

Beautifully balanced with the present, we learn about her childhood in a series of interwoven narratives. When Mitzuki was presented with an opportunity to take part in a student exchange to New York, it was her father that convinced her to take part. It meant that a whole new world of spontaneity and opportunity opened up to her, which she loved being part of and presented her with numerous opportunities to pursue a completely different life as a singer. After a time, she missed her family and decided to come back to Japan, but to move out of the family home instead and assert her independence.

When Mitzuki starts to spend time with Kiyoshi, they explore the city together, and she sees the world with fresh eyes. I thought it was poignant how the calmness and dullness of the life she leads at home is contrasted with the vibrancy and cacophony of colours, sights and sounds she is met with when she and Kiyoshi are together. She is now living two lives – one of dutiful wife and mother, and one with Kiyoshi where she can finally be exactly who she wants to be again.

Ultimately, Mitzuki realises that she will have to make some incredibly difficult choices and sacrifices, and which ever ones she makes, it means that she has to compromise again for the sake of her family. You really get a sense of the internal struggle and moral dilemmas that she has to face, and how like numerous women you have to subsume what you really feel in order to maintain the equilibrium of your world.

It’s really hard to tell you all how much I loved Fault Lines, because I want you to read it to see for yourselves. Emily Itami has written an incredible debut novel that works so well because although we may not always condone the choices that Mitzuki makes, we can understand why she does. It may be a short novel, but I loved the fact it tackled so many ideas so perfectly. It talks about motherhood, parenting, marriage, identity, love and passion, but above all Fault Lines was completely and undoubtedly Matzuki’s story, and I thought she was fabulous.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Gigi Woolstencroft and Phoenix Books for my gifted copy.

You can buy your copy of Fault Lines from West End Books here.

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.