The Fell by Sarah Moss

The Fell by Sarah Moss

Published by Picador on November 11th

Available from West End Lane Books and

all Good Bookshops

What They Say

At dusk on a November evening in 2020 a woman slips out of her garden gate and turns up the hill. Kate is in the middle of a two-week quarantine period, but she just can’t take it any more – the closeness of the air in her small house, the confinement. And anyway, the moor will be deserted at this time. Nobody need ever know.

But Kate’s neighbour Alice sees her leaving and Matt, Kate’s son, soon realizes she’s missing. And Kate, who planned only a quick solitary walk – a breath of open air – falls and badly injures herself. What began as a furtive walk has turned into a mountain rescue operation . . .

Unbearably suspenseful, witty and wise, The Fell asks probing questions about the place the world has become since March 2020, and the place it was before. This novel is a story about compassion and kindness and what we must do to survive, and it will move you to tears.

What I Say

To write about a family going through a period of self isolation many of us have lived through is an interesting premise. In some ways, we may feel exasperated that we are reading about something that was so all consuming that we don’t need to see it in our literature, but at the same time for me, reading about other families experiences and ways of dealing with it made me feel more connected to others.

In The Fell, Sarah Moss has perfectly articulated what it means to live through such a complicated and unsettling time, whilst also ensuring there is a very human and relatable story at the heart of the novel.

Kate, like so many people is being forced to self isolate after being in contact with someone who has Covid. Having no symptoms herself, she and her son Matt are stuck in their cottage in the Peak District. Matt seemingly loves the prospect of lie ins, massive gaming sessions and a break from everyday life. Kate on the other hand is not coping at all. Right from the start you can see how she feels confined by the rules which means she can only venture as far as the garden.

Tired of cleaning the house, unable to settle on ways to keep herself occupied, she is left alone with her thoughts and she is not coping. For a woman who is used to taking a backpack and walking wherever she likes, whenever she likes, we understand how frustrated and hemmed in she must feel by the law which is imposed on her and how little control she has over her situation.

When she decides to leave the cottage and go for a walk, rationalising that as it is at dusk she won’t see anyone, and her familiarity with her environment means she can be out and back without anyone knowing, I completely understood why she decided to do it.

Their next door neighbour Alice, is widowed and her immediate family live far away. She is shielding due to her immune system being compromised by chemotherapy. Alice has been relying on Kate and Matt to help her get the supplies she needs as well as them giving her some much needed human interaction. Alice’s narrative is an interesting and necessary one, because on the one hand she realises how much she has in terms of financial security and a family at the end of a zoom call, but she misses the basic human interactions. As a daughter whose widowed Dad was in Wales during the lockdown, it was at times hard to read Alice’s words, because I kept thinking of my Dad, and although he is not an emotional man, he too had so little face to face interaction or hugs during that time, I just wanted to get in my car and drive to see him.

This is also why Kate’s actions are understandable. Many people would try and rationalise it by focusing on reasons why in our situation it doesn’t count, and why it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, and that everyone else is doing it, but always at the back of our mind are the same concerns Kate has. She is meant to be self isolating, and being found out means she could be faced with a fine she can’t afford – especially now the café she works in is closed, and she can’t get gigs singing at the pub like she used to.

Then Kate falls and badly injures herself. With no phone she realises that by alerting people, she runs the risk of legal action and losing what little stability she and Matt have. She is completely conflicted, but the thought of Matt is what makes her determined to try and get home in spite of her extensive injuries. It is only when Matt becomes concerned and attempts to talk to Alice in a really touching scene where he is making sure he is following the rules and is always at an appropriate distance, Alice realises what has happened and raises the alarm.

The interwoven narratives of the four main characters are an effective device for Sarah Moss to give us different perspectives on Kate’s actions. Matt doesn’t know where his Mum is, and can’t reach her because she has left her phone behind, Alice sees her leave but doesn’t know what to do and doesn’t want to get her into trouble, and for Rob, part of the Rescue Team who is mobilised to help find her, he has to explain to his self obsessed daughter why he has to find the missing woman and cut short their time together.

The novella is written as almost a stream of consciousness which I have to admit took me a few pages to get into, but once you start, you understand exactly why this is the perfect form. You are party to each character’s thoughts, and see like us the way their minds dart around from topic to topic. We learn about Alice’s happy marriage and Kate’s experience of a violent relationship and a dull marriage, of Matt’s worries about his Mum and Rob’s determination to both try and do his job and keep his daughter happy.

The Fell perfectly captures what it felt like to live through this lockdown. We rationally understood how it was critically important to ensure we we stayed at home, even when it made no sense, but it seems that the enforced isolation also made what we weren’t allowed to do seem even more desirable and necessary. The sense of claustrophobia, families forced to spend all day every day together without respite or a chance to see others only served to exacerbate our need to do the most basic of things we had never considered before. To be able to walk and experience nature, to go to the shops, to see and connect with people outside our bubbles became things we understood we had so often taken for granted. This is why I believe The Fell will resonate so deeply with so many people.

Sarah Moss’ writing works so well because it is not the grand gestures or explosive events she talks about, it is the small things and everyday routines we all understand and connect with. There is also this sense of how nature and the world beyond our doorstep is so incredibly important, and how small and insignificant we can feel when we are lost in it. It is another thing we can’t control, and Sarah’s beautiful and measured prose only adds to the sense of awareness as to how fragile our world is.

The Fell may not be very long, but when I had finished it, I kept thinking about it, especially what Kate had gone through, because I had felt it too. You can feel Kate’s frustration at her situation seeping through the pages, and her rationale for stepping out of her front door is understandable because hand on heart, we all felt it, lived through it and have had to deal with a new and unpredictable world that we have been forced to navigate.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much as always to Camilla Elworthy for my gifted proof copy.

You can buy it from West End Lane Books here.

Beautiful World Where Are You by Sally Rooney

Published by Faber & Faber on September 7th

Available from West End Lane Bookshop,

All Good Bookshops And Online

What They Say

Alice, a novelist, meets Felix, who works in a warehouse, and asks him if he’d like to travel to Rome with her. In Dublin, her best friend Eileen is getting over a break-up and slips back into flirting with Simon, a man she has known since childhood.

Alice, Felix, Eileen and Simon are still young – but life is catching up with them. They desire each other, they delude each other, they get together, they break apart. They worry about sex and friendship and the world they live in. Are they standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something? Will they find a way to believe in a beautiful world?

What I Say

Because in my deepest essence I am just an artefact of our culture, just a little bubble winking at the brim of our civilisation. And when it’s gone, I’ll be gone. Not that I think I mind.

I never thought that being in possession of a book would be so difficult. Over the past few weeks, as the publication of Sally Rooney’s latest novel has come closer and closer, social media has become filled with many different opinions both of this novel and the marketing surrounding it.

I was even hesitant to post a picture of my copy because there seems to be such a complicated and intricate discourse about it, and in doing so am I now making myself part of that too?

I thought long and hard about this post, because my commitment to you in having Years of Reading Selfishly is to be honest about what I am reading. If I love it, I tell you all about it, if I don’t then I choose not to review it.

This is what is at the heart of the discussion for me. I am coming to this novel not as some puppet in a marketing strategy, but purely and simply as a reader, the person who ultimately when all the noise has stopped, picks up a book and reads it. If that novel doesn’t connect with me or it’s not for me, then that’s fine – you can’t love everything you read, and we can’t all like the same books. If however I loved it, and I know lots of you will too, of course I want to tell you about it because I want you to share that experience, for us to be able to talk about books in a positive and intelligent way.

If you want to read what I thought, then this is the post for you.

I read and loved both of Sally’s previous novels. When it comes to Beautiful World, Where Are You?, we again meet a group of people, all of whom have their own flaws and insecurities, and the fact that they are at a pivotal point in their lives where they have the opportunity to make certain choices.

This novel is about three friends. Alice, Eileen, and Simon, and Felix who has just met Alice. While Alice, Simon and Eileen have know each other for a long time, Alice met Felix on a dating app, and whilst their first date was filled with promise but ended with miscommunication, the second date where they spend time together ends up with Alice asking Felix to travel to Rome with her as she promotes her latest novel.

Alice is a very successful writer, and I feel that she is used as Rooney’s mouthpiece to tell us what it’s really like to be her – to deal with the expectations and pressures of being feted and adored on one hand, and then having everyone just waiting for you to fail on the other. She makes lots of observations about the realities of being a writer who has success, and the unfounded preconceptions people have about you and your writing. Alice also shows us how when you are doing all the book promotion and marketing, that you are doing what is required of you as oppose to being free to do what you really love – which is writing.

Felix works in a warehouse, and although surprised by Alice’s invitation, he is intrigued by her and accepts. They don’t know each other at all, but undoubtedly right from the start there is something between them, and the tension is palpable as they visit Rome, seeing each other at their most vulnerable but also trying to maintain the facade the other expects. Little by little they edge closer together and Felix starts to understand what life is like for Alice and they start to be more open with each other.

Eileen and Alice have been friends for a long time, and after Eileen’s relationship with her boyfriend Aidan ends, she sees her long standing friend Simon in a new light. They realise that they are absolutely attracted to each other, and the familiarity and sense of comfort they find in each other seems natural and a perfect fit. Their relationship is played out in front of us, and appears to be the one they both unquestionably need. I really loved this part of the story, because it seems so utterly obvious to the reader they belong together, and as the narrative progresses, you want them to see it too.

This novel moves between the two love stories and the long emails that Alice and Eileen send each other. In those correspondences, they both ponder their relationships, the world around them and the uncharted political and social landscape they find themselves in. At times I had to sit and reread paragraphs to make sure I fully appreciated what was being said, and that distanced me slightly from the flow of the narrative to be honest, but I felt it was a device that it gave me a deeper understanding of the characters outside of their love interests.

Rooney’s prose is straightforward and I suppose almost matter of fact in its execution, but it also feels real and I like all the intricate and precise details of their everyday lives. Life is not always about the huge gestures and the drama, more often than not it is about the routine and the mundane and the minutiae of sex and relationships. You want to find out what happens to all the characters because there is that sense of connection to them and I didn’t always like how they behaved, but at the same time Rooney makes you feel invested in them, and that’s what I want in a novel. When the four characters finally come together towards the end of the novel, it feels natural and engaging to see how they all interact.

Beautiful World, Where Are You? is a novel about people seeking connections with each other and our existence in a world that is rapidly changing in unexpected and surprising ways. The focus on the mundanity and often the surprises that each day bring, is written in an understated way that made me sit and think about things I recognise in the novel about myself too – like being in an art gallery and rushing to get to the toilets and ignoring all the great works of art to do so! I also think it is absolutely a novel that asks us to see that beyond the written word and acknowledge that behind it all there is a living breathing person who has emotions and feelings, and has to process what is said about her, when people don’t actually know her at all. How difficult must it be to simply sit and write, when the whole world seems to have an opinion about you based on what other people have written.

You may like this novel or you may not, and as a reader of course that is absolutely your prerogative. I will only say that in an ever more tense and emotionally charged world where social media reigns supreme, we are always telling each other to ‘be kind’, and perhaps that’s what we need to remember about everyone involved in the production of a novel, from Rooney herself to those who are working incredibly hard behind the scenes to tell us readers all about it. We need to understand that behind this novel is a person who just wants to write for her readers, and maybe that’s all we should be concerned with.

This reader loved it.

Thank you so much to Josh Smith at Faber Books for my gifted copy.

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

Magpie by Elizabeth Day

Magpie by Elizabeth Day

Published by 4th Estate Books

Available from West End Lane Books,

All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

In Jake, Marisa has found everything she’s ever wanted. Then their new lodger Kate arrives.

Something about Kate isn’t right. Is it the way she looks at Marisa’s boyfriend? Sits too close on the sofa? Constantly asks about the baby they are trying for? Or is it all just in Marisa’s head?

After all, that’s what her Jake keeps telling her. And she trusts him – doesn’t she?

But Marisa knows something is wrong. That the woman sleeping in their house will stop at nothing to get what she wants.

Marisa just doesn’t know why.

How far will she go to find the answer – and how much is she willing to lose?

What I Say

I am going to start this review by telling you this will be a bit of a different post from me.

This is largely due to the fact that to tell you really anything too much about the plot of #Magpie would be to ruin it completely – I’m not even joking!

What I can tell you is that as a fan of Elizabeth Day’s writing, Magpie is a brilliantly observed and incredibly compelling novel about the way in which a woman’s worth is measured by her ability to have children and be a mother. It is also a sensitive and empathic depiction of a woman who has been raped and has spent her adult life searching for a way to love and feel loved again, as well as dealing with her complex and at times overwhelming mental issues.

When Marisa moves in with Jake, it seems like she has finally found the emotional stability she is looking for. A beautiful house from where she can write and illustrate her children’s books, and an attentive and understanding boyfriend is everything she has ever wanted. When the glamorous and confident Kate enters the mix and lives in the house too, Marisa starts to compare herself to Kate, and begins to suspect that Kate and Jake’s relationship is more involved that she wants to admit.

Little by little the housemates are starting to impact on each other’s lives, and the once peaceful and idyllic house rapidly becomes a place of unease and tension. Jake, Marisa and Kate may live under the same roof, but slowly each of them realises that they don’t really know each other as well as they may think. The sanctuary they believed they had is slowly slipping away from them. Kate and Marisa clash more and more, and each becomes convinced that the other is going out of their way to upset them – until it becomes clear that something catastrophic is going to happen.

This is the perfect thing about Magpie, because the revelation is one simple line, and with that, everything you thought you knew about Jake, Kate and Marisa is turned on its head. I guarantee it will stop you in your tracks, and you then find yourself flipping back in the book looking for clues. They are there – you just didn’t know because you were too busy becoming absorbed in Marisa, Kate and Jake’s lives.

Added to the mix is Jake’s mother Annabelle, a woman who is besotted with Jake, initially hesitant about Marisa and less than enamoured with Kate. Annabelle seems to have an opinion on everything and a disdain for those who do not agree with her. Whilst she lavishes Jake with love and attention, she remains emotionally distant from Marisa and dismissive of Kate with a plethora of passive aggressive put downs that ensure they know exactly who is Queen Bee.

Make no mistake, this is a novel that is absolutely about women and how our lives are scrutinised and categorised according to our maternal instincts and ability to bear children. We see the sheer physical and emotional toll that IVF and pregnancy can have on a woman, and that how being pregnant means that somehow your body and well-being becomes public property and up for discussion and comment. Magpie undoubtedly also shows us that a mother’s love for her child, and what she will do to protect them is one of the most powerful and passionate things can ever be experienced.

The absorbing narrative that moves backwards and forwards slowly pulls you towards the characters and lets you make your own conclusions about them as you start to discover more about their lives and experiences. Elizabeth’s measured prose and immersive descriptions of Marisa, Kate and Annabelle, mean that you cannot help but feel some connection to them because you understand them so completely. They are not perfect, but who is? If they were, they would not resonate with us as deeply as they do.

Magpie is one of those books that you desperately want people to read so that you can talk about what happens! It is so cleverly written, and sensitively handles many different issues which helps us as readers to understand others lived experiences and to only deepen our emotional connections to the characters. The Magpie of the title shifts its form throughout the novel, as you learn how it is always present, ready to pounce as soon as vulnerabilities are exposed, poised to take what it thinks is rightfully theirs – but be warned – it’s not always who you expect, which is exactly why this novel is so chillingly perfect and utterly captivating.

I absolutely and completely loved it.

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

You can buy your copy of Magpie from West End Lane Books here.

The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller

The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller

Published by Penguin Viking on July 8th

Available from West End Lane Books and All Good Bookshops

What They Say

Before anyone else is awake, on a perfect August morning, Elle Bishop heads out for a swim in the glorious freshwater pond below ‘The Paper Palace’ — the gently decaying summer camp in the back woods of Cape Cod where her family has spent every summer for generations. As she passes the house, Elle glances through the screen porch at the uncleared table from the dinner the previous evening; empty wine glasses, candle wax on the tablecloth, echoes of laughter of family and friends. Then she dives beneath the surface of the freezing water to the shocking memory of the sudden passionate encounter she had the night before, up against the wall behind the house, as her husband and mother chatted to the guests inside.

So begins a story that unfolds over twenty-four hours and across fifty years, as decades of family legacies, love, lies, secrets, and one unspeakable incident in her childhood lead Elle to the precipice of a life-changing decision. Over the next twenty-four hours, Elle will have to decide between the world she has made with her much-loved husband, Peter, and the life she imagined would be hers with her childhood love, Jonas, if a tragic event hadn’t forever changed the course of their lives. 

Tender yet devastating, The Paper Palace is a masterful novel that brilliantly illuminates the tensions between desire and safety; the legacy of tragedy, and the crimes and misdemeanours of families.

What I Say

Do you ever pick up a book assuming it is going to be one thing when in fact it is something completely different and all the better for it?

I am going to be honest and say when I first read the synopsis for The Paper Palace I really thought it was not my kind of thing. I thought it would be a novel where the well off and distant characters would be worrying about things of little consequence and even lesser relevance. I picked it up because I thought I should, because it had kindly been sent to me. The thing is, once I started reading it, I could not put it down.

The Paper Palace of the name is the place where Elle and Jonas and their families go to every Summer and have done since they met as children. It has undoubtedly seen better days, but it gives them that escape and distance from the realities and stresses of modern life and marriage. After a dinner party, Elle leaves table as does Jonas, and they have sex – bearing in mind Elle’s husband Peter, and Jonas’ wife Gina are sat at the table just out of sight.

The novel then follows the next twenty four hours in Elle and Jonas’ life, as they try to make sense of what they have done. What slowly and delicately unfurls is a whole shared history that Elle and Jonas have. Heller takes us right back to the moment Elle was born, which in turn allows us to see how her parents own experiences and behaviour influenced Elle’s decisions and actions. It seems that all Elle wants is a stable family with her sister Anna and a mother and father, what she actually gets is a chaotic and disruptive childhood, peppered with different father figures until her mother marries a man called Leo. Her mother has endured much through her own life, including being sexually abused by her step father, but this means that she now cannot emotionally connect with her children either.

Leo brings with him two children. Rosemary who tends to stay with her mother, and Conrad. An awkward, resentful and intrinsically desperately unhappy boy who longs for his father to pay him some attention. After initially being an irritating and awful stepbrother to Elle, things become incredibly sinister.

He starts coming into her room at night and watching her while she sleeps. It is important at this point in my review to say that his sustained attention becomes sexual, and culminates in events which are absolutely distressing to read but absolutely crucial and integral to the plot and narrative. What makes it even more horrific is the fact that Elle is unable to tell anyone and carries round her secret, still having to face Conrad every day. Until the moment Jonas works out what has happened to Elle, and their lives are changed forever.

The Paper Palace is a completely immersive novel- you can see the beautiful landscape, feel the coolness of the water and taste the leisurely breakfasts and dinners that the families have. You are part of the languid unstructured summer as the family spill in and out of the house and onto the beach and into the water. If they see other people nearby they feel they are intruding on their sacred peace, and as a reader you absolutely understand why.

Heller draws you in from the very start, and the way in which the lives of Elle and Jonas are revealed to us connects us deeply to them. Their histories and shared experiences are depicted in such a way that you cannot fail to feel a connection to them, and the drastic decision they make is at the heart of the novel, and drives the narrative without ever feeling forced or laboured. The characters work so well because you can see them standing in front of you, and understand how their past lives have shaped their present, but also make you see that their futures are up to them – if they are brave enough to take the chance.

I thought that The Paper Palace was going to be a linear, routine narrative about two people who have to deal with the consequences of a rash mistake. What I didn’t anticipate was that this novel is in fact always Elle and Jonas’ story, that their love for one another would permeate every single page and every decision they made, and that to follow their lives through this book is to know them and want only what they truly deserve. Is it each other? You will have to read it to find out.

I absolutely loved it.

I am also thrilled to announce that I have a copy to gift to one of you on my Twitter account @yearsofreading – please do have a look.

Thank you so much to Hannah Sawyer and Alexia Thomaidis at Viking Books UK for my gifted proof copy.

You can order your copy from West End Lane Books here

Yours Cheerfully by A.J. Pearce

Yours Cheerfully by A.J. Pearce

Published by Picador on 24th June

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

What They Say

London, September, 1941. 

Following the departure of the formidable Editor, Henrietta Bird, from Woman’s Friend magazine, things are looking up for Emmeline Lake as she takes on the challenge of becoming a young wartime advice columnist. Her relationship with boyfriend Charles is blossoming, while Emmy’s best friend Bunty, is still reeling from the very worst of the Blitz, but bravely looking to the future. Together, the friends are determined to Make a Go of It.

When the Ministry of Information calls on Britain’s women’s magazines to help recruit desperately needed female workers to the war effort, Emmy is thrilled to be asked to step up and help. But when she and Bunty meet a young woman who shows them the very real challenges that women war workers face, Emmy must tackle a life-changing dilemma between doing her duty, and standing by her friends.

What I Say

I will tell you all straight away that I utterly loved Dear Mrs Bird, the debut novel from A.J. Pearce. It was funny, wise and perfectly pitched and Emmy Lake, the heroine, was just what I needed at the time. When I heard that A.J. had written another novel with Emmy at the helm, I could not have been more delighted.

Honestly? I loved Yours Cheerfully even more. From the moment I turned the first page, you fall into wartime London and are completely immersed in the sights, sounds and realities of living in a world in a state of chaos whilst everyone in it is trying to Keep Calm and Carry On.

Emmeline Lake is still working at the Woman’s Friend magazine, but now that Mrs Bird has departed, she can breathe a sigh of relief as Mrs Mahoney who now runs the page is far more amenable and they make a formidable team.

With lots of the men away fighting in the War, the government are increasingly reliant on the women who are left behind to step up and help with the war effort. The Ministry Of Information need to recruit as many women as possible to ensure the factories can keep running, and realise that using women’s magazines to reach as many of them as possible is the way forward.

Women’s Friend is asked to be involved, and Emmy is tasked with writing about it. When she and her best friend Bunty meet a young widow called Anne with two children who is about to start working in one of them called Chandlers, Emmy realises she has the contact she needs.

However, when she goes to interview Anne and her workmates, what becomes incredibly evident is that although the government want the women to work, some factory owners have not anticipated what the women need for their welfare to be effective members of the workforce. Emmy is faced with a dilemma. Should she write the recruitment piece the government want, or could this be the perfect opportunity for her to write a crucial piece that really shows what life is like for the women who are giving everything for the war effort.

As well as juggling her demanding professional life, Emmy is totally in love with Charles, and snatching every moment they can be together. Their relationship seems to be what so many people went through in the war, where the future you once believed was certain is no longer so, and the fear that the one you love won’t return makes you realise that seizing the moment is all the more poignant. Emmy and Charles make a decision that changes their lives forever, which shows us how much they truly love each other.

I wish I could articulate how truly wonderful this novel is. It made me laugh out loud, cry, and google obsessively about the women who were part of the war effort. Make no mistake, you might think this is a light hearted and breezy take on the Second World War, but Yours Cheerfully is so much more.

The writing is sublime, and captures so insightfully what it meant to be around during the Second World War. The fact that every part of the world was dominated by it, the random and senseless loss of life, the determination and compassion that people felt as they attempted to unite against something that was far bigger than was possible to comprehend, and the grim reality that nobody knew what was going to happen next. This is also a novel that unapologetically puts women front and centre of everything. Emmy, her best friend Bunty and Anne are real and relatable women, because they have all experienced life changing events that shape them and have changed their worlds, and we know that these women are symbolic of our own families and what they would have experienced too.

What A.J. Pearce does so beautifully in this novel is make it less about facts and figures, but absolutely about the people who were dealing with the reality of living through the war. You really understand exactly what the women were going through, and how they were striving to keep home life as stable as possible, be seen to be helping with the war effort as well as worry whether they would see their partners again. They were expected to support the war effort, but tellingly the war effort often did not seem to understand how to support them.

Yours Cheerfully is an absolute joy to read. If you don’t love Emmy Lake by the end of this book, then quite frankly you must have a heart of stone. It is just the novel I needed to read at the moment, to see how instinctively and incredibly strong women were, to appreciate everything people did for my generation and to realise how far we have come for women’s rights yet how much more we have to do.

I only have one question. When is someone in T.V. Land going to realise that A.J. Pearce’s novels would make absolutely perfect television series for those gloomy winter evenings? Please make it happen – and soon!

I completely loved it.

Thank you so much to Camilla Elworthy at Picador for my gifted copy.

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

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!

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.

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.