The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell

The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell

Published by Bloomsbury Raven on February 2nd 2023

Available from West End Lane Books and All Good Bookshops

What They Say

Be careful what you wish for… it may just come true.

At The Mercury Theatre in London’s West End, rumours are circulating of a curse. It is said that the lead actress Lilith has made a pact with Melpomene, the tragic muse of Greek mythology, to become the greatest actress to ever grace the stage.

Suspicious of Lilith, the jealous wife of the theatre owner sends dresser Jenny to spy on her, and desperate for the money to help her family, Jenny agrees. What Jenny finds is a woman as astonishing in her performance as she is provocative in nature.

On stage, it’s as though Lilith is possessed by the characters she plays, yet off stage she is as tragic as the Muse who inspires her, and Jenny, sorry for her, befriends the troubled actress. But when strange events begin to take place around the theatre, Jenny wonders if the rumours are true, and fears that when the Muse comes calling for payment, the cost will be too high.

What I Say

I have been a Laura Purcell fan from the first moment I read her debut novel The Silent Companions (if you haven’t read that yet – I would absolutely recommend it, but please don’t come back to me if you need to sleep with the lights on for a week after reading it!).

As well as being brilliantly written, and evoking period detail and palpable tension in every page, I love Laura’s novels because they depict women who face situations where their resolve and morality is tested, and show how even though they may be constricted by the social expectations of the time, that they want only to do what is right for them and their family.

In The Whispering Muse, the protagonist is a young woman called Jenny Wilcox, who finds herself as the head of the family after her elder brother Greg leaves the family in disarray after stealing from Jenny’s employer and taking all they have. Jenny is dismissed from service, and she and her siblings face an uncertain future.

When she secures a job as a dresser at The Mercury Theatre, where Greg worked before her, due to the generous and gregarious Mrs Dyer, the owner’s wife, it seems that maybe Jenny has a chance to secure a future for her family.

Jenny is made dresser to the star of the theatre, a fiery and demanding woman called Lilith, who is determined to be famous and adored, and seemingly has Mr Dyer enthralled and ready to indulge his leading lady on and off stage. Mrs. Dyer is not blind to what is happening, and tasks Jenny with spying on Lilith, and offers her money to do so. Although she is torn, Jenny understands the difference this money could make to her family and agrees to become her spy.

Right from the start, Jenny and Lilith clash. Lilith is every inch the diva Jenny suspects her to be, and her dedication to her acting is bordering on the obsessive. Lilith is consumed by her desire to be the most feted actress of her generation, whatever the cost. There is an incredibly awkward scene at a party when Lilith is given a watch depicting Melpomene, the Greek muse of tragedy by Mr Dyer. This turns out to be the very watch Mrs Dyer was desperate to own, having belonged to an actor she adored, and this only fuels her suspicion and hatred of Lilith even further. Bound by circumstance, Jenny now becomes another pawn in Mrs. Dyer’s game, as she forces her to carry out schemes to attempt to drive Lilith away from the stage and the precious watch she desires.

As Jenny gets closer to Lilith with the aim of helping Mrs Dyer, Jenny sees Lilith in an altogether different light. A young woman who is driven to succeed certainly, but also a woman who is vulnerable, who knows that her worth is measured in the tickets she can sell and the money she can make for the theatre. Jenny and Lilith form an unlikely friendship as they understand who is actually the biggest threat to both their lives, and by coming together, they can both get what they want -at a price.

Ever present is the spirit of Melpomene, the muse which seems to not only push Lilith to give the best performances of her career, but also starts to take her over and seep its way into every part of the theatre, causing accidents that cannot be explained, and deaths that create such distress and uncertainy, that no one feels safe. Laura does this so convincingly, that it never feels forced or simply done for shock value. From the very start of the novel, the spectre of The Mercury Theatre looms large, and the world inside seems so far removed from the one outside, that you feel a real sense of dislocation and wariness from the start.

It would have been very easy to make The Whispering Muse melodramatic, and reliant on tried and tested gothic tropes to unsettle the reader. However, in the hands of Laura Purcell, it becomes a novel that places Lilith, Jenny and Mrs Dyer directly at the heart of the narrative, and their needs and desires are the driving force behind the decisions they make. The consequences of all their actions come together to propel the story forward, but it is the unknown force of Melpomene, and the havoc that she wreaks as she seeks to possess the theatre and all those on the stage that is the most dangerous and unstoppable part of the novel that we cannot predict.

The Whispering Muse is a novel filled with dramatic tension, but it also brings to the fore issues such as the commodification of women, duty and desire, social classes, and the transient nature of fame. In having Lilith, Jenny and Mrs Dyer as the main characters, we see three women all at different stages of their personal and professional lives, and I felt that their depiction showed that they had more in common that they would ever want to admit. Melpomene may be the undefinable spirit that wreaks havoc on those who fall prey to her, but the desires and drive of the women inside the Mercury Theatre imbues the novel with an even more compelling and powerful story.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Bloomsbury Raven for my gifted proof copy.

The Year Of The Cat by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

The Year of the Cat by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

Published by Tinder Press on 19th January

Available from West End Lane Books and

All Good Bookshops

What They Say

I looked around at my flat, at the woodchip wallpaper and scuffed furniture, and realised that I did have a life after all. What it didn’t have in it was a cat.

When Rhiannon fell in love with, and eventually married her flatmate, she imagined they might one day move on. But this is London in the age of generation rent, and so they share their home with a succession of friends and strangers while saving for a life less makeshift. The desire for a baby is never far from the surface, but can she be sure that she will ever be free of the anxiety she has experienced since an attack in the street one night? And after a childhood spent caring for her autistic brother does she really want to devote herself to motherhood?

Moving through the seasons over the course of lockdown, The Year of the Cat nimbly charts the way a kitten called Mackerel walked into Rhiannon’s home and heart, and taught her to face down her fears and appreciate quite how much love she had to offer.

What I Say

The pandemic and lockdown we all went through now seems for me to be a time I can remember parts of, but also feels slightly surreal, like it happened to someone else. It is also undeniably a shared collective memory that will forever unite a generation who lived through it, and I am endlessly fascinated to read people’s accounts of their experiences as a way to understand mine.

The Year of the Cat by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett takes us through that period as Rhiannon and her husband decide to get a kitten, and while this memoir may start as a love letter to cats, and the irrefutable impact that they have had on women’s lives and the stories that surround them, this book evolves beautifully into one that holds so much in its pages.

This is a book not only about Rhiannon’s experiences of owning cats through her life and how Mackerel her kitten came to be such a part of it during the pandemic, but it is also an honest and visceral memoir about trauma, PTSD, mental health, motherhood, family and caring.

Adopting Mackerel during such a strange and unknown time, when going outside became something we would never take for granted again, means that as well as focussing on Mackerel and how to look after him, Rhiannon has plenty of time to be alone with thoughts and memories. Unimaginable events that Rhiannon has lived through – a vicious assault by a stranger, and being in Paris at the very time terrorist attacks were taking place, leads her to think about her past and future, as she contemplates whether having mental health issues impact her ability to be a mother.

What Rhiannon captures so perfectly in these pages is the thoughts that so many of us have, but are afraid to articulate for fear of being judged for having them. I had an overwhelming desire to have children, but believing that my own emotional shortcomings and the fact that I didn’t know if I could care for a human being when I found it difficult to look after myself, led me to write my own lengthy diary entries as to the pros and cons of me taking that step. Reader I did, which for my first child led me down paths I never dreamed I would ever follow.

This leads me to the other part of Rhiannon’s memoir that resonated deeply with me as a full time carer, and led me to use up all the post it notes I had to hand. Rhiannon’s brother is severely autistic and in a care home, and the lockdown leads to a heartbreaking separation for them. What Rhiannon does so wonderfully in her memoir is not only to articulate what it means to not be able to visit the ones we love, but also what it means to care for someone who has special needs. The love you have is overwhelming, but like Rhiannon and her Mum, you cannot explain to someone what it means to be a full time carer unless they have lived it. To understand what it means to be in a constant state of fighting for everything and explaining repeatedly the same story told in numerous ways according to which professional and which department you are talking to. Rhiannon writes with an innate compassion and understanding that made me teary a few times, because I knew exactly what she and her Mum were feeling.

To read Rhiannon’s memories of living with her brother and mother, and the highs and lows of that time, along with some brilliant anecdotes – including an unforgettable supermarket visit I don’t think anyone will ever forget, added another layer of humanity to this unforgettable memoir, and I loved it. As Rhiannon starts to question her own ability to be a mother, we as readers already know that her lived experiences have given her so much experience already, and that we will her to see what an amazing Mum she will be, and hope she gets exactly what she desires.

The Year of The Cat will connect with many people in many different ways because Rhiannon writes about her own experiences with such candour that you cannot fail to be moved. It is also the first time I have read a book that describes so perfectly the numerous internal conversations about motherhood and the responsibilities of caring for someone else which I had before having children, and that that are still part of my world twenty one years after having my first child, which is why I will endlessly recommend Rhiannon’s book.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Mary-Anne Harrington and Tinder Press for my gifted proof copy.

We All Want Impossible Things by Catherine Newman

We All Want Impossible Things

by Catherine Newman

Published by Doubleday Books on January 12th

Available from West End Lane Books and all Good Bookshops

What They Say

Who knows you better than your best friend? Who knows your secrets, your fears, your desires, your strange imperfect self? Edi and Ash have been best friends for over forty years. Since childhood they have seen each other through life’s milestones: stealing vodka from their parents, the Madonna phase, REM concerts, unexpected wakes, marriages, infertility, children. As Ash notes, ‘Edi’s memory is like the back-up hard drive for mine.’

So when Edi is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Ash’s world reshapes around the rhythms of Edi’s care, from chipped ice and watermelon cubes to music therapy; from snack smuggling to impromptu excursions into the frozen winter night. Because life is about squeezing the joy out of every moment, about building a powerhouse of memories, about learning when to hold on, and when to let go.

What I Say

There are novels you read and love, and then there are novels you read and love and nod your head in recognition, that make you laugh and add lots of post it notes so you can go back and reread the passages because they are so wonderful – and We All Want Impossible Things is one of them.

If you are looking for a sweet, subdued book about friendship – then this is not for you. If however like me, you love novels that show friendships in all their glorious, messy and magical forms, then this should absolutely be on your reading list.

Edi and Ash have been friends for longer than they can remember, and have that wonderful connection that comes with a lifetime of shared experiences and moments they only understand.

When Edi is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Edi’s husband Jude decides that to avoid their son Dash having to see his Mum pass away, that Edi will move into a hospice close to Ash, and Ash will provide the daily support she needs.

The power of Catherine’s storytelling is steeped in every single page of this novel. Not only must Edi and Ash now navigate a new and uncharted path through their friendship, but dealing with the day to day unglamorous realities of cancer, the etiquette of grief and dying, and the ever present knowledge that Edi is not going to be here for much longer, makes the women appreciate what they have now and all the things they have ever had together.

Ash seems to be split in two – dealing with Edi and being the present and unshakeable friend in her presence, but at the same time unravelling when she is away from Edi, seemingly separated from her husband and ricocheting from relationship to relationship as she tries to hold everything and everyone together. At times I felt completely frustrated with her, but it also makes you understand that there is no prescriptive way to deal with grief, and while we may not understand why Ash behaves as she does, it is not for us to judge her.

It is also important to say that this novel does not shy away from Edi’s condition, and this is not some airbrushed version of cancer. The day to day realities of what it’s like to have a terminal illness, and the physical, emotional and medical stresses that Edi and her family go through are laid bare. It was at times undoubtedly hard for me to read, having lost a Mum to cancer, but at the same time I was pleased that Catherine told Edi’s story with compassion and candour.

Catherine Freeman also perfectly understands the complicated and awkward nature of dealing with a loved one who is dying, and that there should be no shame in acknowledging the humour too. If Edi’s heart’s desire is to taste the cake from a recipe no one can find, that Ash will do everything she can to get hold of it, whilst at the same time Ash wonders when the most appropriate time would be to ask Edi if she can have the favourite t-shirt back she borrowed! This is what Catherine does so well – her characters are real, relatable and not perfect – and it made me love them even more.

We All Want Impossible Things is a glorious love letter to female friendships in all its unremarkable, remarkable and perfectly imperfect forms. Edi and Ash are characters who not only have the emotional shorthand that so many of us long for in friendships, but also resonate so deeply because they are just like us – not perfect, not always likeable, but they would do anything for each other however difficult that might be, and I completely loved them for it.

Thank you so much to Alison and Doubleday books for my gifted proof copy.

Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor

Age of Vice

Deepti Kapoor

Published by Fleet Reads

Published January 3rd 2023

What They Say

This is the age of vice, where pleasure and power are everything, and the family ties that bind can also kill

New Delhi, 3 a.m. A speeding Mercedes jumps the kerb, and in the blink of an eye five people are dead. It’s a rich man’s car, but when the dust settles there is no rich man at all, just a shell-shocked servant who cannot explain the strange series of events that led to this crime. Nor can he foresee the dark drama that is about to unfold.
Deftly shifting through time and perspective in contemporary India, Age of Vice is an epic, action-packed story propelled by the seductive wealth, startling corruption, and bloodthirsty violence of the Wadia family-loved by some, loathed by others, feared by all.

In the shadow of lavish estates, extravagant parties, predatory business deals, and calculated political influence, three lives become dangerously intertwined: Ajay is the watchful servant, born into poverty, who rises through the family’s ranks. Sunny is the playboy heir who dreams of outshining his father, whatever the cost. And Neda is the curious journalist caught between morality and desire. Against a sweeping plot fueled by loss, pleasure, greed, yearning, violence, and revenge, will these characters’ connections become a path to escape, or a trigger of further destruction?

Equal parts crime thriller and family saga, transporting readers from the dusty villages of Uttar Pradesh to the urban energy of New Delhi, Age of Vice is an intoxicating novel of gangsters and lovers, false friendships, forbidden romance, and the consequences of corruption. It is binge-worthy entertainment at its literary best.

What I Say

Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor was published on January 3rd, and hand on heart when I read the synopsis, I didn’t think that it was my kind of novel at all. A high octane thriller set in India which is about the Wadia family and the vice and corruption that permeates it? Absolutely not my sort of thing thank you.

Yet one thing I have learned since I started blogging is to never dismiss a book until you have tried it, and as soon as I started reading it, I knew that this was an incredibly special novel. It may be 560 pages long, but I promise you, that is the last thing you are thinking about when you read it.

This is a story of a family – The Wadias, who seemingly are everywhere in India. From the very top of the social and political worlds, right down to the people who may otherwise be disregarded. Their power and influence permeates every single part of society – and they refuse to be stopped by anyone.

The novel starts with a fatal car crash, and a young man called Ajay who survives it. Alongside Sunny Wadia, and a journalist called Neda, Ajay provides the third main narrative of this novel, from which an incredible and far reaching epic novel spins out. Age of Vice may cover politics, corruption, power and addiction, but it is also a story of a family who are so used to being in control, that they cannot imagine a world where their very presence does not imbue those around them with an instant mix of fear and respect.

The novel starts with Ajay’s story. A young man who lives with his mother and sister in Uttar Pradesh after his father is murdered, he is sold by his mother to child traffickers, who in turn sell him to a man and his wife who ‘employ’ him (they tell him his wages are being sent to his mother). When he meets the irrespresible Sunny Wadia, Ajay recognises that his best hope for the future is to become Sunny’s servant, the silent and accommodating person who effortlessly runs Sunny’s life and caters to his every whim whilst never drawing any attention to himself.

Sunny comes to absolutely rely on Ajay for every aspect of his life, and in turn, as well as finding stability and a regular wage, Ajay is now subsumed into and inextricably linked to the Wadia family for as long as he is alive. Sunny Wadia is regarded as a hedonistic playboy, whose life is one long party and in spite of him seemingly projecting a confident and assured persona, what we discover is all that he wants is the approval and love from his father Bunty, and acceptance from his uncle Vicky, who takes the family business to such a level that he seems unreachable. Yet Sunny also realises that being Bunty Wadia’s son means that his own identity and life has to take second place – unless he is brave enough to stand up for what he wants.

As Sunny spins increasingly out of control, and Ajay is left to ensure no traces of his wrongdoings are left in plain sight, Neda, a journalist, finds herself drawn to him, as she wants to understand the man behind the myths, but she too falls prey to the world that the Wadias have created. Her life changes in ways she could never have imagined, but in spite of it all, even when they are separated by thousands of miles, she feels inextricably drawn back to him.

Age of Vice is a bold, no holds barred novel about the realities of what it means when one family has such power over the world it is in. It is a totally immersive and epic novel that pulls no punches in its graphic depiction of the violence and horror that is part of the fabric of their every day lives.

Kapoor is not afraid to show how deeply and absolutely this world is controlled by those that have, and feared by those who have not. It looks at so many issues such as poverty, wealth, corruption, drug addiction, family and duty, but for me something else sits at the heart of this incredible novel. It is the fact that Sunny simply wants to be loved by his father, and by Neda unquestioningly. His erratic and self destructive behaviour hides the fact that he simply wants to be seen by his father and that when it becomes obvious that is not happening, he makes a series of decisions that change his life forever,

Age of Vice is a novel that makes you care about all the characters in it, as we start to understand how much of their selves and their identities are wrapped up in the all consuming reign of the Wadias. It is a world where you never know who you can trust, and that tension and sense of foreboding seeps through every single page, making it impossible to look away.

This is a novel that if I had simply read the synopsis, honestly, I wouldn’t have picked it up. Age Of Vice is that very rare thing, it is a novel that may seem epic and all encompassing in its scope, but you connect to it on an individual level because of the masterful way in which Deepti Kapoor writes with such understanding about the different worlds so many people inhabit, understanding that all human experience is important, and that the most vital connection of all relies not on money or wealth, but simply to find their place in the world and to love and be loved without conditions or fear.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Celeste Ward-Best and Fleet Reads for my gifted proof copy in exchange for an honest review.

Age of Vice is available from West End Lane Books and all good bookshops now.