Grief is the Thing With Reading



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


After The End by Clare Mackintosh


Clare Mackintosh: After The End

Published By: Sphere

Buy It: here

What The Blurb Says:

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

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

What I Say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I loved it.

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


The Body Lies by Jo Baker



Jo Baker: The Body Lies

Published By: Doubleday Books

Buy It: here


What The Blurb Says:

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

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

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


What I Say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I loved it.


The Rapture by Claire McGlasson


Claire McGlasson: The Rapture

Published By: Faber Books

Buy It: here


What The Blurb Says:

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

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

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


What I Say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I loved it.

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

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

Author Picture Of Claire McGlasson.


Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott


Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott: Swan Song

Published By: Hutchinson Books

 Buy It: here


What The Blurb Says:

They told him everything.

He told everyone else.

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

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

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

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


What I Say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I loved it.

You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr


Damian Barr: You Will Be Safe Here

Published By: Bloomsbury

Buy It: here

What The Blurb Says:

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

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

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

What I Say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I loved it.

The Doll Factory By Elizabeth Macneal



Elizabeth Macneal: The Doll Factory

Published By: Picador Books

Buy It: here


What The Blurb Says:

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal is the intoxicating story of a young woman who aspires to be an artist, and the man whose obsession may destroy her world for ever.

London. 1850. The greatest spectacle the city has ever seen is being built in Hyde Park, and among the crowd watching two people meet. For Iris, an aspiring artist, it is the encounter of a moment – forgotten seconds later, but for Silas, a collector entranced by the strange and beautiful, that meeting marks a new beginning.

When Iris is asked to model for pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost, she agrees on the condition that he will also teach her to paint. Suddenly her world begins to expand, to become a place of art and love.

But Silas has only thought of one thing since their meeting, and his obsession is darkening . . .


What I Say:

This year, for me, I have been determined to read more fiction which comes from those voices which may not previously have been heard.  I knew as soon as I read about The Doll Factory, and its story of a young woman who aspires to be an artist in Victorian London, that I had to read it.

From the first turn of the page, and our introduction to Silas, you are drawn into a darker world where collection and possession is the very lifeblood of the characters who weave their way through this thoroughly engrossing and immersive novel.

Silas spends his days in his curiosity shop perfecting his latest acquistions to be displayed and sold.  A young man at odds with his world and angry for people not understanding his talent, Silas is an unsavoury and menacing man who is desperate for recognition and for a connection with a woman. He is often visited by Albie, a young street urchin, who brings him the corpses of animals he needs, and is a street smart child on the look out for himself and his sister. Albie’s finds prove to be a useful way for Silas to enter the exclusive world of the notorious Pre-Raphaelite Painters, as he is able to procure a variety of props for them to use in their paintings.

The Doll Factory of the title refers to the Emporium where Iris and her sister Rose work for the awful Mrs Salter.  Iris paints the doll’s faces, while Rose sews the dolls clothing.  Both are struggling with their sense of worth and self – Iris has a clavicle which is twisted and Rose has been left with facial deformities after an illness.  Rose silently resents Iris, believing that she is in some way responsible for their current predicament. Trapped together and desperately unhappy, reliant on Mrs Salter for work, Iris yearns to be free to pursue her dreams of becoming a painter.

The ever magnificient, ever imposing London is readying itself for the spectacle of the Great Exhibition, which finally provides a chance for Silas to get the recognition he craves as he is desperate to get his latest taxidermy into the Exhibition – a double headed puppy.

It is there that Silas, thanks to Albie, finally meets Iris.  He believes that this striking woman with the bewitching red hair is is the one with whom he can ultimately connect. It is only a fleeting moment for Iris, but for Silas, it is life changing, and from that point on, Iris seeps into his consciousness and becomes the very thing Silas is desperate to possess.

When Louis, a Pre-Raphaelite Artist is looking for a model for his painting, Silas suggests Iris.  This being Victorian London, the very idea of modelling for an artist for an unmarried young woman has all sorts of ramifications and social implications.  It is simply not the done thing, and the shame that Iris would bring on her family for doing so is overwhelming.  However, Iris also knows that being given the opportunity to escape from the Doll’s Emporium for a chance to be near an artist would be life changing. She agrees to model for Louis on the condition that he teaches her to paint.

As she and Louis become closer, and cross the line from model and artist to lovers, Iris finds happiness in her new life until a revelation from Louis’ past threatens to unravel everything for them. Headstrong and passionate, Iris is unaware of Silas’ increasing obsession.  He finds alarmingly more outlandish and frightening ways of getting closer to her, with the aim of making Iris his ultimate experiment and complete possession. Albie is aware that Silas’ obsession is growing, but is powerless to do anything as Silas seeks to control him too.

The sublime skill of Elizabeth’s writing is that with every character, every plot twist, you become more and more deeply involved with this story.  Her detailed and unflinching descriptions of London and the worlds the characters inhabit, only serves to add to the tension and growing sense of unease that permeates this novel.

It is a story of outsiders, those who do not fit in with the world around them, and are searching for a way to belong.  Silas, Iris, Rose, Louis and Albie are all at odds with the society they live in, and each struggles with knowing that they are on the outside looking in. For Silas, it is finding a companion and feeling seen. For Iris, it is going against what is expected and being true to what she really wants from life.  Rose’s facial deformities and lack of husband leave her facing a life alone, on the perimeters of her world. Louis’ style of painting, as well as his views on marriage means that he is at odds with the society that he inhabits. Albie is surviving on his wits and street knowledge, and is desperate to belong, to feel part of a family.

Although it might seem that Silas is the man who wishes to possess Iris, I thought it went far deeper than that in The Doll Factory.  Iris is Louis’ model, and he in my mind also owned her in a way too. She was totally reliant on him for her new life, and without his favour and dotage, Iris always runs the risk of being the latest in a line of women who are useful until they are no longer needed, and a new muse arrives.

The Doll Factory is a novel which raises many questions about love, obsession, the perception and treatment of women, and the notion of what possession truly means. It is a novel in which you can only lose yourself and be in awe at the evocative descriptions and incredible characters who move in and out of the novel, drawing you in and keeping you there until the very last page.

Elizabeth Macneal has written an absolutely astounding debut novel. I could not turn the pages fast enough, but at the same time wanted to savour every last chapter. The Doll Factory is a novel I will telling everyone they need to read, and I am not going to forget Iris, Louis and even Silas for a very long time.

I loved it.

Thank you so much to Camilla Elworthy for my review copy in exchange for an honest review.

Tiger by Polly Clark


Polly Clark: Tiger

Published By: riverrun Books

Buy It: here

What The Blurb Says:

Set across two continents, Tiger is a sweeping story of survival and redeeming love that plunges the reader into one of the world’s last wildernesses with blistering authenticity.

Frieda is a primatologist, sensitive and solitary, until a violent attack shatters her ordered world. In her new role as a zookeeper, she confronts a very different ward: an injured wild tiger.

Deep in the Siberian taiga, Tomas, a Russian conservationist, fears that the natural order has toppled. The king tiger has been killed by poachers and a spectacular tigress now patrols his vast territory as her own.

In a winter of treacherous competition, the path of the tigress and her cub crosses with an Udeghe huntress and her daughter. Vengeance must follow, and the fates of both tigers and people are transformed.

Learning of her tiger’s past offers Frieda the chance of freedom. Faced with the savage forces of nature, she must trust to her instinct and, like the tiger, find a way to live in the world.

What I Say:

For those who know me, and for those who don’t, I absolutely adored Polly Clark’s first novel Larchfield.  To be given the opportunity to read and review her second novel, Tiger, was something I just didn’t want to miss.  I have to admit from the outset, when I heard it was about Tigers and central Siberia, I was sceptical.  I am not a fan of novels about animals, and wasn’t sure how I could relate to Siberian tigers or the terrain they inhabit.

What becomes clear from reading the novel is that although the tigers are absolutely at the heart and permeate every part of this epic and majestic story, it is also about humans, and how we want to feel part of the world around us.  To matter to someone, to have that bond with another human being is everything, and that sometimes we have to go far beyond our limits and experience to do so. It also unashamedly tackles issues of addiction, motherhood, love, loss and unresolved grief and is all the richer for doing so.

Tiger is about Frieda, a primatologist who is sacked from her job at the Institute for being caught using drugs, and is given a final chance as a zookeeper at Torbet Zoo in Cornwall. It is about Tomas, a Russian conservationist working with his father, who has given up everything to protect the tigers of Siberia.  We meet Edit and her daughter Zina, who has left her husband and her life in the Undeghe tribe to survive in a cabin in the wilds of Siberia.

All these people are linked by the tigers of Siberia, and have to reassess everything they know in order to survive. When Frieda is picked to observe the new tiger, Luna, at Torbet Zoo, she believes she is starting to form a bond with her. Frieda also has to deal with a fellow employee Gabriel, the son of the owner who resents Frieda for being asked to look after the new tiger, and is a mixture of bully and protector.  At the heart of it all, Luna is still a wild animal, trapped in a cage, whose instinct to attack when she smells blood means that Frieda ends up being a victim of the very animal she was attempting to help.

For Tomas, his compassion and understanding for the animals that surround his camp, means he is finely tuned to their needs and desires, but he has to face the fact that he is lonely and has rejected his chance of a family and a way to feel loved and needed.  He has prioritised his father and the tigers, and is drifting around the landscape, rootless and unsatisfied by his endless quest to ensure the tigers are safe.

Edit has tried to be the woman that her father and husband expect, she has struggled with her feelings for her husband, and come to realise she actually doesn’t love him and likes him even less.  Frustrated by the constraints others put upon her, and desperate to ensure her daughter doesn’t follow in her footsteps, she decides to leave the safety of her village and put herself at the mercy of the wild to learn to live and find herself again.

Polly has created a barren and starkly uncompromising landscape  – where you are never sure what is going to happen next, and you are absolutely aware the sense of isolation that the characters feel. It doesn’t matter what continent they live in, their loneliness is only magnified by the magical and poetic language that weaves its way through the pages and around them all. I always felt that the humans were at the mercy of the tigers.  The intelligence and survival instincts the humans have, mean that although they know the rules of the wild, and believe that they have the upper hand, in fact, as we discover, the tigers are the true rulers of Siberia, and the humans are subjects in their kingdom.

Tiger is a novel that moves stealthly along, that seamlessly moves between characters and continents, strong and sure like the animal itself.  Polly has achieved many things in this novel.  It is an education for someone like me who knew nothing of tigers and tigresses, or Siberia or even how a zoo works, and it gives the reader much food for thought as to our place and responsibilites to the world around us.  I have to say, that the overriding lesson I took away from my reading of Tiger, is that no matter how much we try to convince ourselves, every single one of us needs to feel a connection to both the natural world around us and to someone else to truly feel alive.

Thank you so much to Katya Ellis, Ana Sampson McLaughlin and Elizabeth Masters for asking me to be part of the Tiger Social Media blast in exchange for an honest review.

Why don’t you see what everyone else is saying about Tiger too…

Things In Jars by Jess Kidd



Things In Jars by Jess Kidd

Published by Canongate

Buy It: here


What The Blurb Says: 

London, 1863. Bridie Devine, the finest female detective of her age, is taking on her toughest case yet. Reeling from her last job and with her reputation in tatters, a remarkable puzzle has come her way. Christabel Berwick has been kidnapped. But Christabel is no ordinary child. She is not supposed to exist.

As Bridie fights to recover the stolen child she enters a world of fanatical anatomists, crooked surgeons and mercenary showmen. Anomalies are in fashion, curiosities are the thing, and fortunes are won and lost in the name of entertainment. The public love a spectacle and Christabel may well prove the most remarkable spectacle London has ever seen.

Things in Jars is an enchanting Victorian detective novel that explores what it is to be human in inhumane times.

What I Say:

Sometimes, when you least expect it, you find a novel that absorbs you so completely, that you wish there were another hundred pages.

What I did know, was that everyone who had read Things In Jars, had loved it and could not stop recommending it. When I saw that my Bookish Sister, Bookish Chat had awarded it six stars (you can read her review here), I knew that Things In Jars was going to be very special.

Bridie Devine is the heroine, a woman who bursts into the novel and out of the pages with such passion and strength, and into the 1800’s of London’s streets and alleyways with such force that we know she is absolutely in charge of her destiny.  She is working for the police – usually Inspector Rose and actually not officially, to help them solve crimes.  Bridie is still smarting from her failure to reach her last victim in time, and is wary of getting involved with police work again.  However, when she hears about the case of Christabel Berwick, the daughter of Sir Edmund Berwick, who has apparently been kidnapped, she is intrigued and cannot resist getting involved.

We, as readers, know from the very start of the novel that Christabel is not a normal child, and she seems to possess supernatural powers as well as very sharp set of teeth and a fondness for eating slugs and snails!  She is taken from her bed in the middle of the night, but as Bridie starts to investigate, it is apparent that not only do lots of people seem very interested in Christabel, but that also no one is really as innocent as they may seem.  We learn that Christabel is actually a merrow – a magical creature that has the ability to affect the emotions of a person who looks upon her, and that she can also influence the weather.  This of course means that she is a highly valuable prize, who is being touted around until her kidnappers can find the highest bidders.

The London that we are presented with in Things In Jars, is one teeming with life, a world filled with fantastical sights, disorienting sounds and powerful smells that overwhelm and envelop us constantly. London is not presented at its tourist friendly, picture perfect best. This London is one of poverty and suffering, where things that might be ignored in other novels are pushed right in front of our faces so that all we can do is look at them and feel a sense of unease and discomfort. Bridie on the other hand knows exactly how to navigate it to get what she wants.  Bridie is not alone in her endeavours to find Christabel.  She has a maid called Cora, who is a seven foot woman with facial hair and a whole lot of attitude, as well as a fighter called Ruby Doyle who is a ghost, and only Bridie can see him. As the novel progresses, Ruby and Bridie form a powerful and nearly romantic bond which delights and also frustrates them, as they know they can never truly be together.

This is one of the many things I loved about Things In Jars – the fact that what could have been an ordinary ‘whodunnit’ is elevated way beyond any usual reading experience, and it makes you sit up and take notice from the very start.  There is a sense of the magical, surreal and supernatural which weaves its way into the fabric of the story from the moment you turn the first page. As a reader you are pulled along with Bridie and her unrelenting determination to find Christabel, but Jess’ writing is so wonderful, that the magical elements seem to fit perfectly and are not at all out of place.

Along the way, Bridie and Ruby meet a plethora of interesting and unusual characters, all with a story to tell and more often than not, a score to settle. As Christabel is moved around the capital, and the kidnappers try to find a buyer, there is a sense of unease that starts to unsettle the natural order of the city.  Birds start to congregate, the Thames starts to rise, and London’s inhabitants sense that all is not well with the world and unbeknown to them, Christabel is at the heart of it all.

Although there is lots of humour in the novel, it is a very real depiction of the grim reality for many of those living in London, far away from the wealth and privilege of the monied classes.  Jess is not afraid to show the dark and often grim side of life. People and children are killed, a decapitation occurs, and we also see how awful it was for those who had to have operations in a time where there was no anaesthetics. It also shows us how difficult it was for women like Bridie, who are fiercely intelligent and refuse to be limited by society’s expectations and have to constantly battle to ensure that they are heard.  This made me love Bridie even more, and at the heart of her character lies kindness and compassion and an overwhelming desire to find Christabel in time.

Things In Jars is a novel that is breathtaking in its scope, that delves into the dark underbelly of London and captures our attention and heart from the very first page.  Bridie is a fierce and captivating character, who defies the limits that others place on her and is reassuringly comfortable with who she is and what she wants. Jess Kidd has boldly taken a familiar genre, unapologetically turned it on its head, added elements of the supernatural and magical and created a fantastic and vibrant world filled with amazing characters that quite simply that leaves us wanting more.

I loved it.

The Language Of Birds by Jill Dawson



Jill Dawson: The Language Of Birds

Published By: Sphere

Buy It: here 

What The Blurb Says:

In the summer of 1974, Mandy River arrives in London to make a fresh start and begins working as nanny to the children of one Lady Morven. She quickly finds herself in the midst of a bitter custody battle and the house under siege: Lord Morven is having his wife watched. According to Lady Morven, her estranged husband also has a violent streak, yet she doesn’t seem the most reliable witness. Should Mandy believe her?

As Mandy tries to shield her young charges from harm, her friend Rosemary watches from the wings – an odd girl with her own painful past and a rare gift. This time, though, she misreads the signs.

Drawing on the infamous Lord Lucan affair, this compelling novel explores the roots of a shocking murder from a fresh perspective and brings to vivid life an era when women’s voices all too often went unheard.


What I Say:

At the moment, I am finding myself increasingly drawn to novels that place unheard people at the centre of them, which allow us to hear their voices and lives that might otherwise be silenced by the weight of more prominent ones.  The Language of Birds by Jill Dawson is one of those novels.

It recounts the story of Mandy River, who arrives in London in the summer of 1974 with her friend Rosemary.  Both are nannies (Rosemary is a Norland Nanny) and Mandy becomes Nanny to Lord Dickie and Lady Katharine Morven.  They have two children, a baby called Pamela and a young boy called James.

If you believe that this is simply a coming of age novel in the heydays of swinging London, filled with young women finding themselves and loving life, it is not.  That is a very small part of an intelligent and thought-provoking retelling of the infamous Lord Lucan case.  Lord Lucan is notorious for his alleged part in the murder of his nanny Sandra Rivett, and his subsequent disappearance.  His story has been told numerous times, and in all this, Sandra’s story has been lost. Until now.

Little by little, the story of Rosemary and Mandy before they came to London starts to unfold.  They meet while they are in The Poplars, a psychiatric unit, and their friendship grows as each tries to come to terms with their lives and what has brought them to this point.  Both have troubled relationships with their mothers, and have tried to be the daughters their mothers wanted, but with little success.  We discover that Mandy has had two children, one of whom lives with her parents as their son, and the other child was given up for adoption.

As the young women finally start to forge new lives for themselves, free from familial interference and guilt, Mandy is intoxicated by the life she has fallen into.  Lady Morven lends her clothes so she and Rosemary can go out nightclubbing, Mandy loves looking after Pamela and forms a close bond with James, and is instantly attracted to a young man called Neville who lives over the pub she visits.

The unnerving reality however, is that Mandy finds herself in the middle of a bitter divorce between Dickie and Katharine, both desperate for some sign of personal or parental failing which will strengthen their legal position.  Lord Morven no longer lives with his family, but has the house constantly watched, anonymous phone calls taunt them day and night, and he is determined to ensure that Katharine fails in her role as mother, so he can have sole custody of the children.

Mandy and her friend Rosemary find themselves drawn into this privileged world, as Lord Morven realises by charming those closest to Katharine, he can gain the evidence he needs to humiliate his wife and not only ruin her social standing but ensure his children are removed permanently from her care.  When Lord Morven asks them to accompany him with their charges to Scotland, Rosemary and Mandy blindly believe they will be treated as guests, as oppose to members of the staff. However, when they are there, Mandy finds herself reassessing her opinion of Lord Morven and starting to question her loyalty to Katharine.

The narrative switches between Mandy and Rosemary, and in understanding both of the women, we also see how Rosemary is haunted by the fact that as her mental health worsens, she is able to hear voices – the language of birds which taunt and torment her, and also foretell Mandy’s fate.  There is a sense of foreboding which only adds to the tension that underpins every page.

I loved the fact that this novel is filled with so many different ideas, of motherhood and what it means to be a mother.  It is a novel about class and privilege, and that just because you may have the financial means, it does not necessarily bring you happiness and fulfillment. It is also about language, and the power that it holds. Mandy cannot find the words to tell her son that he is hers, Rosemary is haunted by the language that she hears and cannot tell anyone else about, and both of the young womens’ Mothers cannot find the words to communicate with their daughters.

As the novel reaches its awful conclusion and the repercussions of the case for those who are left behind, instead of focussing on the man who is at the root of all of this, we are  look at the young woman.  As the reader, we are made to confront the reality of how an inquest like this is dealt with.  Mandy is fodder for the press, her attractiveness is a selling point that seemingly adds to the glamour of this case.  Lord Morven is portrayed as a dashing Lord with a penchant for fast cars, gambling and a plethora of aristocratic friends who are ensure he is able to evade the justice he should face.

What Jill Dawson brilliantly achieves is in The Language of Birds is to make us question ourselves and the ingrained social norm which is to see the woman as a faceless victim.  In creating a character like Mandy, and following her life, her hopes and dreams, we understand that she is a living, breathing woman. We all need to start looking beyond the sensationalist headlines and instead acknowledge that behind every victim is a life lived, a person loved and in this case, a world shattered.

I loved it.