The River Within by Karen Powell

  • The River Within by Karen Powell
  • Published by Europa Editions UK
  • Available from All Good Bookshops and Online

    What They Say:

    It is the summer of 1955. Alexander, Tom and his sister Lennie, discover the body of their childhood friend Danny Masters in the river that runs through Starome, a village on the Richmond estate in North Yorkshire. His death is a mystery. Did he jump, or was it just an accident?

    Lady Venetia Richmond has no time to dwell on the death. Newly widowed, she is busy trying to keep the estate together, while struggling with death duties and crippling taxation. Alexander, her son and sole heir to Richmond Hall, is of little help. Just when she most needs him, he grows elusive, his behaviour becoming increasingly erratic. Lennie Fairweather, ‘child of nature’ and daughter of the late Sir Angus’s private secretary, has other things on her mind too. In love with Alexander, she longs to escape life with her over-protective father and domineering brother. Alexander is unpredictable though, hard to pin down. Can she be sure of his true feelings towards her?

    In the weeks that follow the tragic drowning, the river begins to give up its secrets. As the truth about Danny’s death emerges, other stories come to the surface that threaten to destroy everyone’s plans for the future and, ultimately, their very way of life.

    What I Say

    “People talked about love as though it was a blissful state, to Lennie it seemed something taut and perilous’.

    I have read lots of books this year, some because they were all over the internet, others because I was asked if I would like to, but sometimes, you discover a real treasure all by yourself.

    The River Within is just that book.

    It is a story of restraint and understated emotions, of the power of things that are not said, and the tremendous impact on many lives that not speaking up can have. The natural world is an important and ever present theme, with the river quietly and ominously winding its way through the pages of the novel, as we wait for it to again assert its silent authority over everyone.

    As soon as Alexander, Tom and Lennie find the body of their lifelong friend Danny Masters, who has drowned in the river, their whole world starts to shift and fall away beneath them. Without realising it, their lives have changed and Danny’s death will be the catalyst for a chain of devastating events.

    Lady Venetia Hamilton who has been widowed, after her husband Angus has died, has been left in charge of the family estate – something she finds uncomfortable to deal with. As well as trying to run things the way her husband would have wanted, she is trying to look after their son Alexander – a petulant and entitled young man who is pulling further away from his mother. He seems troubled and unfeeling towards her, and has so much anger inside him that as a reader we know that it is only a matter of time before he erupts.

    Tom and Lennie (short for Helena) are the children of Fairweather, who is the private secretary for the Hamilton family and right from the start their lives are inextricably linked with those of the Hamiltons. The Fairweather children’s mother passed away, and Lennie has taken over her role, having to do everything for her father and brother. Lennie has also fallen hopelessly in love with Alexander – although he treats her more as a plaything to pick up and put down whilst refusing to allow anyone else to get close to her.

    At the heart of the novel is Danny Masters and his untimely death. A good, hardworking and solid soul, who loved Lennie so completely, but realises he could never compete with the love that Lennie felt for Alexander. How and why did he die, and what part if any did Lennie, Tom and Alexander play in it?

    As the novel starts to unfold, we move backwards and forwards in time, learning how the relationships between the children and adults develop and the reality of their lives in a world where appearances and societal expectations are everything.

    It is heartbreaking for us to see how every single ambition and dream Lennie has is crushed. She wants to pursue a career that will enable her to move away and make something of herself, but her father refuses to allow her, as he sees her place is with him, looking after him and Tom.

    Similarly, Lady Hamilton we discover, was attracted to Angus’ brother James, but married Angus when he decided that she was the woman for him. Although she has undeniably enjoyed a privileged lifestyle, she is not happy, and has spent her married life uncomfortably navigating what she is expected to do as Lady of the Manor. I really felt that Karen wrote her character so well, restrained and impeccably behaved to the world outside, whilst inside she is actually a passionate and intelligent woman who has been forced to subsume everything for the sake of appearances.

    What works so well in this novel is Karen’s measured and understated narrative. The characters all seem to be dealing with their own private pain, but can’t articulate what they are feeling which means that it will manifest itself in other more extreme ways. Alexander’s rage eventually explodes, Tom’s refusal to deal with things means his life takes an unexpected turn and Lady Hamilton we learn has her own secrets she has been struggling to live with.

    However, it is Lennie whose life starts to unravel and slips away from her as the novel moves towards its emotional and heart wrenching climax. Karen writes with such tenderness and understanding, that it is impossible not to become involved with Lennie’s pain and understand the choices she eventually makes.

    I loved this novel because for me it dealt with many themes such as love, the role of women, class and mental illness in a way that never felt forced or didactic. The characters each hold their own, and as a reader I really understood their motivations and actions, which meant that it was impossible not to be captivated by the story and its outcome.

    The River Within found its way onto my reading pile purely by chance, and I am so glad that it did. It is a quietly assured, beautifully written and thought provoking novel, that deserves to be widely read and appreciated.

    I loved it.

    Thank you so much to Daniela Petracco at Europa Editions UK for my gifted copy.

    The Lies You Told by Harriet Tyce

    The Lies You Told by Harriet Tyce

    Published by Wildfire Books

    Available from all Good Bookshops and Online.

    What They Say

    Sadie loves her daughter and will do anything to keep her safe.

    She can’t tell her why they had to leave home so quickly – or why Robin’s father won’t be coming with them to London.

    She can’t tell her why she hates being back in her dead mother’s house, with its ivy-covered walls and its poisonous memories.

    And she can’t tell her the truth about the school Robin’s set to start at – a school that doesn’t welcome newcomers.
    Sadie just wants to get their lives back on track.

    What I Say

    I was lucky enough to read Harriet’s debut novel Blood Orange as a proof, and absolutely loved every single page. When I heard that she had written The Lies You Told, I really wanted to read it. The thing is, when someone’s first novel has been so memorable, I am always worried that the second novel may not live up to the first one.

    I could not have been more wrong. In fact, just between us – I think The Lies You Told is even better.

    Sadie’s marriage to Andrew has ended, and she has left him in the United States to bring their daughter Robin back to the UK. They have to move back in to Sadie’s now run down childhood home which in a calculated decision by Sadie’s late mother Lydia, has only been left to Robin. Lydia and Sadie had no relationship, she resented Sadie for ruining her chance at a career, and was cruel and indifferent towards her. Lydia could not forgive her daughter for giving up her promising career in law to have Robin and destroyed everything in her bedroom as a way of showing her anger. Even from the grave, Lydia has exacted her revenge, by stipulating that Sadie and Robin can only live there if Robin attends Ashams school – the same school Sadie went to, and hated.

    Just as Robin is petrified of attending a new school as a Year 6 student, Sadie also has to deal with the group of über parents at Ashams – led by Julia, the unequivocal Queen Bee. What Harriet captures so well in this novel is the absolute awfulness of people like Julia and her school mum clique which sent a chill down my spine, as it all seemed too familiar! The way in which they decide who is to be talked to and who is to be ignored. The desperate need those around Julia – like the subservient Nicole, have, to be acknowledged by her to feel that they exist. Perhaps even more troubling is the way in which these parents project their own aspirations and drill their children into believing that passing the eleven plus to get into the best secondary school is the only thing that matters.

    It is clear from the start that neither the other pupils or mothers want Sadie and Robin there, even more so when Robin performs brilliantly academically, proving to be a real threat to the chances that the other girls will have for getting their place in secondary school. Sadie is trying to navigate the social minefield of school life, whilst at the same time is trying to make an impression at work in chambers. She is helping with the defence for a case where a teacher called Jeremy has been accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a pupil called Freya, and she and her colleagues are working to prove that he is telling the truth, and that Freya is the one lying.

    As Sadie strives to resurrect her career, she finally reaches breaking point with the vindictiveness of Julia, Nicole and their clique. It is only when she shows them that she used to attend Ashams herself, suddenly the defences are down and chillingly she is welcomed unquestioningly into the group with open arms. Although Sadie might believe this will make her and Robin’s life far easier, this acceptance into the Queen Bee’s world triggers a chain of events that shows how disturbingly far some parents will go to get what they believe their children are entitled to (no spoilers here, you need to read the book!)!

    The Lies You Told works so well, because Harriet has recognised and honed absolutely in on what drives so many parents – the need to be able to show how much more their child has achieved than everyone else’s. It is a novel that totally absorbed me, and Harriet knows exactly when to turn up the pace and when to slow down the plot so that the relationships between the characters can come to the fore. Her depiction of Sadie and Robin’s relationship really resonated with me, as she perfectly describes the love, protectiveness and sheer frustration that you can have with your children – often within the same ten minutes!

    It is also a very insightful and articulate novel about the pressure and stress we increasingly put our children under, believing that we know best as to what they should be achieving, as oppose to sometimes stopping to listen to what they are telling us. I loved how when Sadie is ‘allowed’ to join the clique, that little by little, Julia and Nicole slowly reveal themselves as their guards come down. Initially you start to feel empathy with these women and the immense strain they are putting on themselves to appear to be the perfect parents, but Harriet skilfully and slowly reveals how these women are anything but defenceless.

    It was also interesting how the narrative was split between Robin and Sadie’s experience of Ashams School, and the legal case Sadie is working on. At work, as well as having to prove herself after a long absence, she starts to sense that Jeremy is not as innocent as he pleads, and is being protected by those around him. One of the themes in this novel I felt, was the notion of identity and fitting in. We see how Sadie has to try and find her place at the school and work, as does Robin. Jeremy presents one identity to the court to seem like the innocent party, but slowly starts to reveal who he really is. Julia, Nicole and the parents at Asham, show how their identities are inextricably linked with their children, and how they have to mould themselves into what is expected of them, so that they seamlessly fit in – irrespective of how much that goes against who they really are.

    I found The Lies You Told impossible to put down. As with all accomplished writers, just when you smugly assume you know where the novel is going, Harriet pulls the rug from under you and you realise you were absolutely wrong. The pieces of the puzzle fall slowly into place, and the truth starts to emerge at a deliciously perfect pace. The novel pulls us towards a breathtaking conclusion that when you have finished, leaves you questioning every line you have just read and wondering how you missed the clues – and that for me really is the sign of a brilliant book.

    I absolutely loved it.

    Thank you so much to Rosie Margesson for my gifted proof copy of The Lies You Told in exchange for an honest review.

    Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrink

    Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrink

    Published by Picador on 17th September

    Available from All Good Bookshops and Online

    What They Say

    For as long as she can remember, Cathy Rentzenbrink has lost and found herself in stories. Growing up she was rarely seen without her nose in a book and read in secret long after lights out. When tragedy struck, books kept her afloat. Eventually they lit the way to a new path, first as a bookseller and then as a writer. No matter what the future holds, reading will always help.

    Dear Reader is a moving, funny and joyous exploration of how books can change the course of your life, packed with recommendations from one reader to another.

    What I Say

    “And I know that whatever else may happen in my life, I will love talking to strangers about books. Once upon a time there was a little girl who loved books. She still does. She always will.”

    I was going to do a video review for Dear Reader – you know me, there’s nothing better I like than having an opportunity to talk about books I adore to an audience – no matter how few people are watching! To be honest, I realised that two minutes twenty seconds of a Twitter video isn’t long enough to tell you why I loved Dear Reader.

    Life at the moment doesn’t really lend itself to me shouting about books on Twitter and Instagram. Personal circumstances have meant that books and blogging have had to take a total back seat whilst I concentrate on looking after my family. Just between us, not having to do it has felt like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders too.

    I wanted to tell you that because that’s why I needed to take a break from book blogging and social media. Suddenly shouting about books and retweeting things didn’t seem that important. I’ve still been scrolling through Twitter and Instagram don’t get me wrong, but it’s been a strange experience. It’s as if you are standing outside the school playground when you can still see everything going on through the fence – who is playing nicely together, who is shouting the most, or the loudest, and who is picking on who – I just decided not to step through the gate for a bit.

    I posted the blog posts I had promised, as well as pictures of the books that had arrived (thank you so much to everyone who sent me something) but for the last two weeks I have been existing in some kind of bookish limbo – aware of my commitments to people, but having absolutely no desire to pick up a book and read anything.

    When the fabulous Camilla Elworthy at Picador very kindly sent me a copy of Cathy’s book a while back, I put it on my shelf to read later because I didn’t feel like I needed it. The past fortnight has been one of huge ups and downs, and on Saturday, feeling slightly overwhelmed and a little concerned by my complete and total lack of bookish enthusiasm, I pulled it down from my shelves and started reading.

    The thing is, I couldn’t stop.

    Dear Reader made me laugh, made me cry (a lot!), and also made me nod furiously as I read it. I was reading about myself in these pages. Finally someone had totally articulated the pure unadulterated joy of books and reading, and I loved every single page.

    I remember the numerous times I have put off doing something so I can squeeze in another chapter, the sheer delight of choosing a book and curling up with it uninterrupted, and the quizzical looks from someone who just doesn’t understand the joy that reading brings. All of this is in Cathy’s book – I said in a comment on Instagram to Cathy that I had never felt so seen!

    Cathy intersperses chapters from her own personal life – how she started reading, her career as a bookseller at Waterstones and then working for Quick Reads before becoming a writer, with almost prescriptions for us, books on different topics and themes, to help and educate, to reignite the reading passion we may have lost.

    The most poignant part of the book for me is when Cathy talks about her grief in losing her brother Matty. I read Cathy’s memoir The Last Act of Love when it was published, and apart from openly sobbing at some points, I remember feeling her pain and loss so acutely, and was in awe of the all encompassing love she felt for Matty and how she described the feelings of grief so perfectly.

    When my Mum passed away last year, I turned to reading as I talked about here – it became the cure to the uncharted heartbreak I was drowning in. Yet this time things are different. I feel overwhelmed by the world beyond my living room, and can’t really connect with anything. As I sit writing this, to my right are my bookshelves, groaning with so many unread books to read that it’s ridiculous – and yet I still ordered two more yesterday. That’s the thing that Cathy understands so well – that the way we feel about books is in our subconscious, and however unlikely it seems, it is always there whatever life may throw at us.

    Dear Reader really made me stop and think about my whole approach to reading. In saying this, I am probably ending any chance of ever being sent a proof again, but here’s the thing. Why as a reader and blogger have I become so hung up on having the latest releases to shout about? When I started blogging I simply read what I fancied and talked about it, but as I have told you before, I have noticed recently how having the latest releases it is seemingly all that matters and honestly, I am weary of it.

    Cathy’s book gave me the breathing space I needed. She made me realise that reading is not a race, that there is nothing wrong with simply stepping back and looking at the books I already have, rather than being desperate to have the books everyone is telling me I need to be a contented reader. It was as if the answer to my literary dilemmas had been sitting in this book all the time, and now I finally understand it.

    Dear Reader is absolutely the book I wish I had had when I was younger. As a teenager I was frequently teased about my love of books and reading. People just didn’t seem to understand my need to have books, the delight in searching other people’s bookshelves, the satisfaction in working my way round the library from children’s fiction to the tantalising moment when I started reading adult fiction. I was lucky in that both my parents read avidly, and when my mum passed away, the only thing I really wanted of hers were the books on her bookshelf, still with the bookmarks in, even though forensic science and social workers memoirs were never my kind of read!

    Books give me that emotional connection, an unspoken link with someone else, and a shared memory that can never be forgotten. They are a way for me to start a conversation, to escape from my world for a little while and to learn about new ones, and for me nothing feels better than finding a novel you want to tell everyone they need to read.

    Quite simply, books and reading bring me joy, and Dear Reader is an unapologetically glorious love letter to both. I would go as far to say that it is required reading for anyone who has ever felt that they are alone in their love of books. Dear Reader will help you see that in fact that there are numerous people who feel exactly the same way as you do – and it’s a revelation!

    It is a book that not only reignited my passion for reading, and added a lot of books to my reading list, but in reading Cathy’s story it made me feel that like her, I will carry on talking to people about books for as long as I can, and reminded me that little girl who loved reading is always there too.

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

    The Harpy by Megan Hunter

    The Harpy by Megan Hunter

    Published by Picador Books on 3rd September

    Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

    What They Say

    Lucy and Jake live in a house by a field where the sun burns like a ball of fire. Lucy works from home but devotes her life to the children, to their finely tuned routine, and to the house itself, which comforts her like an old, sly friend. But then a man calls one afternoon with a shattering message: his wife has been having an affair with Lucy’s husband, he wants her to know.

    The revelation marks a turning point: Lucy and Jake decide to stay together, but in a special arrangement designed to even the score and save their marriage, she will hurt him three times. Jake will not know when the hurt is coming, nor what form it will take.

    As the couple submit to a delicate game of crime and punishment, Lucy herself begins to change, surrendering to a transformation of both mind and body from which there is no return.

    Told in dazzling, musical prose, The Harpy by Megan Hunter is a dark, staggering fairy tale, at once mythical and otherworldly and fiercely contemporary. It is a novel of love, marriage and its failures, of power and revenge, of metamorphosis and renewal.

    What I Say

    I asked my mother what a harpy was; she told me that they punish men, for the things they do.

    There are few novels that serve to unsettle the reader so deliciously and perfectly, blurring the lines between the mythical and the real. The Harpy is a novel that may be short, but it builds in momentum to a moment that is the perfect ending to a story of love and revenge and imprisonment and freedom.

    Lucy and Jake seemingly have an idyllic marriage. They have two sons called Ted and Paddy, and are caught up in the usual concerns and constraints of parenting and marriage. Lucy works at home as a copy writer, and juggles parenting with her job, while Jake works long hours as a University academic.

    Then one day, Lucy receives a phone call which shatters the world she knows. Jake has been having an affair with a woman called Vanessa that he works with. Lucy’s world has changed forever and she has to face the man she thought she knew better than anyone.

    This is not a straightforward story of a woman scorned and a penitent man. At the heart of the story is The Harpy, a mythical creature which has a woman’s head and body and a bird’s wings and claws. It is here the novel shifts between magical realism and the claustrophobic domestic narrative.

    The narrative is physically split in the novel between Jake and Lucy, and the other story – how Lucy has always been fascinated by the story of The Harpy. There is the underlying notion that her interest comes from the fact that Lucy is closer to understanding a what a Harpy is than we could possibly imagine.

    As Jake and Lucy struggle to repair their marriage, and acknowledge the pain that Lucy is suffering, Jake tells Lucy that she can hurt him three times – he will have no forewarning, and when it’s done, Lucy’s revenge will be complete.

    This turns the novel in a new and dark direction. We know that Lucy feels an affinity with The Harpy, and has done since she was a child, and has studied it extensively. The clues in the text seem to suggest it is a side of Lucy’s personality she has subsumed for a long time. Now it has been awakened, and Lucy is ready to fully embrace all the chaos and mayhem the Harpy will bring to ensure that Jake is published for his betrayals.

    For so long Lucy has done exactly what is expected of her in the marriage and has played the role of dutiful wife and mother. Now she has this immense power and tantalising freedom to do what she wants when she wants, this is tempered by the fact that this is not easy for Lucy, but for her to move on it she knows has to be done.

    After she has hurt Jake twice, things start to twist and turn and Lucy’s world is shaken by a decision Jake makes after everything he promised. As the novel draws to its heartstopping conclusion, the spectre of the Harpy looms ever closer, and it becomes more difficult to see where Lucy ends and the Harpy begins. There is a building tension and as Lucy physically runs away from her marital home, the descriptions become more raw and sensory as she is aware of the environment around her. It is as if Lucy is leaving behind her domestic world and entering the magical and natural one to absolve herself of what pain she has inflicted on Jake and the pain he has caused her.

    The Harpy works so well because of how Megan Hunter has captured the reality and limitations of the domestic sphere and the grinding reality of a world where Lucy is constrained by the expectations of her husband and her sons. You feel her frustration as if she is caged, her desperation as her marriage implodes, and her realisation of the power she has if she gives finally gives way to the Harpy. It is a chilling and beautifully written book that may be short, but perfectly captures both the nuances of a marriage in crisis, and a woman who unearths the strength she has kept buried for so long.

    I absolutely loved it.

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

    Sad Janet by Lucie Britsch

    Sad Janet by Lucie Britsch

    Published by W&N Books on 3 September

    Available from All Good Bookshops and Online

    What They Say

    Meet Janet. Janet is sad. Not about her life, about the world. Have you seen it these days? 

    The thing is, she’s not out to make anyone else sad. She’s not turning up to weddings shouting that most marriages end in divorce. She just wants to wear her giant coat, get rid of her passive-aggressive boyfriend, and avoid human interaction at the rundown dog shelter where she works. 

    That is, until word spreads about a new pill that promises cynics like her one day off from being sad. When her family stages an intervention, and the prospect of making it through Christmas alone seems like too much, Janet finally decides to give them what they want. What follows is life-changing for all concerned – in ways no one quite expects. 

    Hilarious, provocative and profound, Sad Janet is the antidote to our happiness-obsessed world. 

    What I Say

    Love is like gluten, I should have told the doctor. I can’t process it properly.

    I know I should start with some measured and profound statement about Sad Janet, but I’m just going to say this. I absolutely and completely LOVED this book. One of my #MostSelfishReads2020 without a shadow of a doubt.

    Right, now we have got that out of the way, you need to know why don’t you?

    Janet lives her life in a perpetual state of sadness, but she is aware of it. She is fine just working and being at home and doing little else. The thing is, everyone else wants to ‘fix’ her, and mould her into the person they think she should be – happy, sociable and basically no trouble to her family. They want her to fit in, so they no longer have to explain her to anyone.

    After graduating, she has decided to work in a crumbling dog shelter out in the middle of nowhere, with the formidable feminist powerhouse that is Debs, and Melissa, a positive and happy soul who is the exact opposite of Janet.

    When she separates from her boyfriend, and aware that it actually doesn’t upset her that much, Janet starts to think about her life. All around her, people are happy- but not authentically. Self medication is mainstream, and viewed as the norm. When Janet is offered the opportunity to be part of a trial for a new pill claiming to provide happiness for the person taking it, and the prospect of a horrendous family Christmas on the horizon, Janet decides to sign up.

    Part of the trial involves Janet going to an excruciating weekly meeting, with other trial participants, and it is there she sees a group of people who are just like her, and are really just there to talk about themselves or get the necessary boxes ticked to complete the trials. It’s run by a group leader called Karen who has a badly prepared marketing script and intends to stick to it, and a man from the Pharmaceutical company who is rather chillingly observing the group.

    As Janet goes through the trial, her family are eagerly waiting for the new and transformed ‘happy’ Janet, and especially Janet’s Mother, who is eager for a daughter she can finally show off and bond with. This for me is the crux of the novel, and what makes it so relevant and true. We are so insistent on presenting and wanting ours and others best selves constantly, using filters and editing what we show people, making sure our lives are liked and retweeted. Our stock answer to any question about ourselves is ‘fine’, because to be truthful is unpalatable to hear. Janet is unique because she doesn’t subscribe to that – and it unsettles people because it means she is an individual in a world of sameness.

    Little by little, Janet apparently seems to be benefitting from the medication, and is more aware of her feelings and those of other people. She even agrees to take an agonising trip to the Mall with her mother under duress in an attempt to try and feel what she thinks she should. That scene for me encapsulated perfectly the divide between how Janet functions and what her Mother wants her to be, and I absolutely felt Janet’s awkwardness and horror at being at the Mall!

    Does this magical pill work? You will have to read Sad Janet to find out because I’m not giving any spoilers..

    What I will say, is this novel repeatedly made me laugh out loud, and there were lines and paragraphs I wanted to underline because they were so perfectly written. Although it may seem that Sad Janet is a humourous novel about a woman trying to find happiness – that is not doing it the justice it deserves. It’s so much more.

    It is an astute and incisive commentary about our world today, and possibly a near future where worryingly self medication becomes the norm, to deal with the fact we are not feeling or reacting in the way others believe we should. The story moves at a perfect pace, and as the novel progresses, you understand that Janet is finding what works for her, and she has exactly what she needs around her already – she just has to see it. Janet is a character who not only thoroughly entertained me, but also kind of made me feel that perhaps being more Janet is exactly what we all need to be right now.

    I absolutely loved it.

    Imperfect Women by Araminta Hall

    Imperfect Women by Araminta Hall

    Published by Orion Books

    Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

    What They Say

    Nancy, Eleanor and Mary met at college and have been friends ever since, through marriages, children and love affairs. 

    Eleanor is calm and driven, with a deep sense of responsibility, a brilliant career and a love of being single and free – despite her soft spot for her best friend’s husband.

    Mary is deeply intelligent with a love of learning, derailed by three children and a mean, demanding husband – she is now unrecognisable to herself and her friends.

    Nancy is seemingly perfect: bright, beautiful and rich with an adoring husband and daughter – but beneath the surface her discontent is going to affect them all in terrible ways. 

    When Nancy is murdered, Eleanor and Mary must align themselves to uncover her killer. And as each of their stories unfold, they realise that there are many different truths to find, and many different ways to bring justice for those we love…

    What I Say

    Women, Eleanor thought, carry guilt and responsibility like a second skin, so much it weighs them down and stops them ever achieving quite everything they should.

    Over the years, I have come to realise that the kind of novels I love to read are ones where they are female led, the same age as I am, but most importantly with a moral and ethical code far removed from mine. Why? Well, in my opinion they make the most interesting and compelling stories.

    Close enough to me so I can relate to their hopes and fears, but just deliciously twisted enough so that I can delight in the dilemmas and situations they find themselves in!

    Do I seem that sort of person? Maybe you have a different view as to what kind of person I am, and that right there is the whole crux of Imperfect Women. Who really knows us, and what is the difference between our public and private selves? After all, we know that #PerfectionIsOverrated don’t we?

    Three seemingly close friends Mary, Nancy and Eleanor met at University and have been together ever since. They have been there to support each other through affairs, marriage, childbirth and secrets.

    These women seem to be the perfect and supportive friend group – until one day Nancy goes missing after having dinner with Eleanor and she is found dead. Instantly their world is turned upside down, and when Eleanor goes to Nancy’s house, Nancy’s husband Robert, confesses he believed that Nancy was having an affair. The thing is, Eleanor knew – but only that the man was called David and she had met him at work.

    From this point on, the lives that these women have held together for so long starts to unravel in ways they could never have imagined. Eleanor and Mary are left facing the reality that the woman they believed they knew so well was someone they didn’t really know at all. Eleanor and Mary are desperate to find out what happened to their friend, but don’t for one minute think this novel is a murder mystery.

    Imperfect Women is so much more.

    As we hear the stories of each of the women – each has a section of the novel’s narrative to herself, what becomes increasingly apparent is this is a novel about the choices women make or are expected to make. It also shows the unpalatable truth that whichever one you choose it won’t be the right one. Nancy is a stay at home mum with an apparently fabulous and carefree lifestyle, Eleanor has dedicated her life to her career working for charity, and Mary has put aside any ambitions to dedicate her life to her ungrateful academic husband and her three children – and she has become invisible to society.

    Little by little we start to understand what exactly is going on for each of the women, and how the lives they have lived and projected to the outside world may have seemed to be one thing, but in fact it is only when we read each of their narratives do we understand the way in which they constantly judge themselves and their friends.

    Nancy is apparently living a fabulous life – she doesn’t have to work, she has a house in the city and one in the country for weekends, and a husband called Robert who adores her and their wonderful daughter Zara. Scratch beneath the surface and you see a woman who is living in a gilded tower, whose husband has basically forbidden her to work, and has struggled with the isolation and mundanity of motherhood and bringing up a child. It seems understandable that she should be drawn to seeking something beyond the confines of her marriage. I really felt Nancy’s frustration and desperation to feel something, anything that wasn’t what she was told or expected to feel. It seemed almost logical that an affair would give her this sense of liberation from her life – but not that it would culminate in her death.

    Eleanor has established herself as the career woman, who is apparently the most independent and driven of the three. She works hard and loves what she does, but as a reader you get the sense that she does question whether she has made the right choices. Having children was not part of the equation for her, and it is interesting to see how everyone else felt it was their place to comment on her choices. I felt she was envious of Nancy, and when the opportunity comes up for her to be closer to Robert – she has no qualms about taking it. This is the thing with all these women. They assure each other that their bond is unbreakable, but at certain key moments, they each prove their morals take second place to their own needs and wants.

    Mary was the character I felt closest to. She is married to the unappreciative and quite frankly odious Howard. He has systematically stripped away her self belief and confidence over the years as he slides from affair to affair, all the while berating Mary for not living up to his expectations. Her intelligence and own hopes and dreams have been disregarded as she has to look after her three children (four if you count Howard!) and she is becoming increasingly jaded and accepting of her own life. She loves her children passionately and devotes her life to them, but she has also lost her own identity and I think this is so true of many women over forty. We are someone’s wife, someone’s Mum, but as Mary realises, when the chance presents itself, she has to find the courage to change everything and become Mary again.

    As I read the novel, what worked so well for me were the revelations not only about each of the women, but also about the connections they had with each other too. Little by little, Araminta Hall drip feeds little pieces of information that slowly start to come together, and then the realisation hits you as to how much and how little these three friends really know about each other!

    When the identity of Nancy’s lover is revealed (no of course I’m not going to tell you, read the book!) the lives of the women are changed forever, and I loved how this gave Eleanor and Mary the impetus to take control of their lives. As the novel moves to its conclusion, which is done so well and is not what I expected, I thought it was poignant how Mary and Eleanor reconnected and how the longevity and unspoken bond of their friendship was what gave them strength to carry on- even though they still weren’t being entirely honest with each other.

    Imperfect Women is a novel that will reinforce what you already know about women today – that they can be career orientated or stay at home to raise their families, but that both choices are seen as imperfect, and to mix the two is regarded as taking neither seriously enough. It also raises many complex questions about who decides what women should do, and why we still allow ourselves to be defined by others expectations and needs and desires, and still lack the confidence to put our own demands first.

    I loved it.

    Thank you very much to Francesca Pearce at Orion for my gifted copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Check out what these other brilliant bloggers have been saying too..

    Comedy Women In Print Shortlist Shadow Panel- Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen

    Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen

    Published by John Murray Press

    Available at all Good Bookshops and Online

    What They Say

    Routine makes Majella’s world small but change is about to make it a whole lot bigger.

    *Stuff Majella knows*
    -God doesn’t punish men with baldness for wearing ladies’ knickers
    -Banana-flavoured condoms taste the same as nutrition shakes
    -Not everyone gets a volley of gunshots over their grave as they are being lowered into the ground

    *Stuff Majella doesn’t know*
    -That she is autistic
    -Why her ma drinks
    -Where her da is

    Other people find Majella odd. She keeps herself to herself, she doesn’t like gossip and she isn’t interested in knowing her neighbours’ business. But suddenly everyone in the small town in Northern Ireland where she grew up wants to know all about hers. 

    Since her da disappeared during the Troubles, Majella has tried to live a quiet life with her alcoholic mother. She works in the local chip shop (Monday-Saturday, Sunday off), wears the same clothes every day (overalls, too small), has the same dinner each night (fish and chips, nuked in the microwave) and binge watches Dallas (the best show ever aired on TV) from the safety of her single bed. She has no friends and no boyfriend and Majella thinks things are better that way.

    But Majella’s safe and predictable existence is shattered when her grandmother dies and as much as she wants things to go back to normal, Majella comes to realise that maybe there is more to life. And it might just be that from tragedy comes Majella’s one chance at escape.

    What I Say

    As I have got more and more into judging the novels on the Comedy Women In Print Shortlist Prize, one of the many things I have learned is that it means I have a responsibility to read all the books, whether it is one I would choose to read or not. That is the wonderful thing about reading, that in picking up books outside my comfort zone, I have not only found new authors, but also have had the chance to step into the worlds of unlikely protagonists like Majella O’Neill.

    Big Girl, Small Town is absolutely and completely Majella’s story and we are with her every step of the way.

    It takes place in a Northern Irish town called Aghybogey where Majella lives and works. In fact she has never been anywhere else, and the town she lives in is her world. She works for the minimum wage in a fish and chip shop, and is also dealing with her Mum who is an alcoholic and utterly dependent on Majella. Her father is no longer living with them, having vanished as The Troubles raged around them.

    The domestic and mundane life that Majella and her family has, is set against the world around them, and although The Troubles are known as an historical event, in Majella’s world they are part of the fabric of her family’s history too. We learn that her Granny has been murdered in her own home, and in spite of it, Majella has to carry on as normal for her Mum and for herself.

    Majella is autistic, although that is never explicitly stated, and we see how she has to naviagate her life by establishing routines and strategies for dealing with the world around her. Everything is very black and white for her, and to cope with situations like the suggestive and rude male customers at the Chippy, she had to ‘learn’ the socially acceptable way to deal with them so that she can function.

    I thought Michelle handled this really sensitively – Majella copes by stimming – which for her is rocking on the balls of her feet and flicking her fingers. This isn’t made into a huge part of the story, but as readers we can see it, and it is the little details and quietly mentioned rituals and routines that add poignancy and emotion to what Majella is dealing with.

    Her bedroom at home becomes her haven – a place where she can make it just as she wants it, even though the rest of the house is like a bomb site. It is her place to eat, to watch her Dallas DVDs, to think and to be in peace. For me, one of the most touching scenes in the book is when Majella treats herself to a new luxurious duvet set that she has paid for herself. It is joyous to see how wonderful it makes her feel, but tinged with sadness that she has no one to do that for her.

    Majella and her mother almost become local celebrities because of her Granny’s murder, but as awkward and uncomfortable as it is for Majella, it almost gives her an air of untouchability and celebrity by association. In a strange way, this helps Majella exist in a world where repetition and the tedium become her comfort.

    I would have to say that Big Girl, Small Town is not a cosy, comfortable read. The humour and laughter is balanced by the less than palatable part of Majella’s life. She has unromantic sex with Marty her married work colleague because she wants to have sex, not because she is attracted to him, and through the novel the sex she has is unemotional and without passion. The sex scenes and the way sex is talked in almost a biological sense fit in with the story because Majella is very matter of fact and direct too.

    The novel also shows us the stark reality of life for people in a town who do not have a lot of money, and are trying to survive the day to day grind. At times this may seem bleak, but it is also important to note that there is an innate sense of community and at times humour too. Everyone knows everyone else, although it might seem like they don’t, they look out for each other and try to help as much as they can.

    Majella’s life outside work consists of her looking after her alcoholic Mum and eating food from the chippy alone in her bedroom. She seemingly just accepts that this is her life, and gets on with it, however heartbreaking it may be for us as the reader to see.

    I thought that it was a brilliant plot device of Michelle’s to have Majella working in a chippy, as it is a focal point for the town, and gives the reader a chance to meet all the different characters who go there. It may seem like nothing much happens on a daily basis, but by hearing their stories, we learn about the reality of life in Aghybogey. Going to the chippy is part of their routine and gives some people structure, other people a place to gossip, and for some characters it is their connection to the world beyond their front doors.

    Big Girl, Small Town finally offers some hope for Majella after her Grandmother passes away, and a will is read, and when she realises that someone believes in her she finally starts to believe in herself. Majella understands that she has the potential to change her life – all she has to do is to find her courage. If you love a novel that is packed with larger than life characters and writing that moves from laughter to sadness and back again, then Big Girl, Small Town should absolutely be on your reading list.

    It is at times undoubtedly challenging to read, as you really feel for Majella and the seemingly bleak life she leads, and it was painful at times to watch what happens to her. This I think is what Michelle is trying to show us – that although Majella is seemingly caught in a world without hope, the chance to change her story is always present – she just needs to believe in herself enough to take the first step.

    Comedy Women In Print Shortlist Shadow Panel – Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

    Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

    Published by Trapeze

    Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

    What They Say

    Queenie is a twenty-five-year-old Black woman living in south London, straddling Jamaican and British culture whilst slotting neatly into neither. She works at a national newspaper where she’s constantly forced to compare herself to her white, middle-class peers, and beg to write about Black Lives Matter. After a messy break up from her long-term white boyfriend, Queenie finds herself seeking comfort in all the wrong places. 

    As Queenie veers from one regrettable decision to another, she finds herself wondering, What are you doing? Why are you doing it? Who do you want to be? – the questions that every woman today must face in a world that keeps trying to provide the answers for them. 

    A darkly comic and bitingly subversive take on life, love, race and family, Queenie will have you nodding in recognition, crying in solidarity and rooting for this unforgettable character every step of the way. A disarmingly honest, boldly political and truly inclusive tale that will speak to anyone who has gone looking for love and acceptance and found something very different in its place. 

    What I Say

    If like me, you are on bookish social media (a lot in my case!) you cannot have failed to have heard about Queenie. When it was published in 2019, it was everywhere, and I have to admit that for that very reason, I bought a beautiful teal hardback signed copy, and then put it on my shelf and promised myself I would read it. I didn’t.

    When I found out it had been shortlisted for the Comedy Women In Print Prize, it was the perfect time to read it, because all the noise around it had quietened down and it meant that I could now give Queenie my undivided attention.

    I am so glad I did, because I loved this novel.

    Queenie seemingly embraces and lives life to the fullest – she has a supportive family, a group of quite frankly fabulous friends, a great job and a relationship with Tom. The novel opens with Queenie at a Sexual Health Clinic with her Auntie Maggie, but it transpires she has suffered a miscarriage, and that actually her relationship with Tom is on an extended break, and he doesn’t want anything to do with her.

    What is also evident throughout the novel is the amount of casual racism which permeates every part of Queenie’s world. Strangers want to touch her hair and men on dating apps make awful sexual and racist comments constantly. Tom is white, and although his family appear to have no issue with him dating a Black woman, it is their thoughtless and internalised racism that comes to the fore in throwaway comments or behaviour.

    Queenie has a brilliant group of friends she nicknames ‘The Corgis’ – the fabulous Kyazike, her kind work colleague Darcy, and the ever analytical Cassandra. Queenie has an amazing and enviable bond with these women, and their WhatsApp exchanges are so natural and real, that it felt as if I was part of the group too! Their sense of protectiveness and being true and real with each other really reminded me of how powerful and needed female friendships are.

    Although Queenie seems to enjoy her job on a national newspaper, she is frustrated by their lack of embracing her efforts to talk about wider issues that affect Black people. Gina her boss is exasperated at times by Queenie’s disengagement with her role, but you get the sense that Gina sees Queenie’s potential if only she could too.

    As Queenie starts to grudgingly accept that she and Tom are over, she starts to meet other men – Queenie wants sex and is unapologetic about it. Some of the sex scenes in Queenie are very graphic, at times brutal and disturbing, and one experience she has with a man called Guy was really difficult to read. In fact when she goes to the sexual health clinic, the staff think she is a sex worker, and that the extent of her injuries give them concerns as to whether she has had consensual sex or has been assaulted.

    The men she encounters are not looking for a relationship, and the fact she is Black is something they almost see as a point on their score card. What becomes evident to the reader as the novel progresses is that Queenie is using sex as a way to try and feel something, a connection, a sense of power, but it is really masking her mental deterioration and subsequent breakdown. There is also the sense that something in Queenie’s childhood is always simmering constantly at the back of her mind, and that is has shaped how she sees her own relationships.

    This is what really resonated with me about Queenie – is that this young woman who seemingly has so much to look forward to is trying so hard to be so many things to so many people, but is also dealing with the fact that she is estranged from her Mum because of the actions of another man. Queenie’s world starts to unravel – a man she has been pursued by and slept with alleges she has been harrassing him, she is then suspended from her job, loses her home and is forced to move in with her grandparents.

    Her decision to seek counselling is something her grandparents find difficult to accept, but eventually they understand why she has to. For me, Queenie’s grandparents were two of my favourite characters. Their love and care for Queenie was such a powerful thing to read, and the fact that they dealt with her in the only way they knew how- by refusing to let her dwell on what she was going through was really affecting for me.

    Slowly by confiding in her therapist Janet, Queenie starts to let her and us as readers into her life, and we see exactly what happened and why she is estranged from her Mum. Little by little, Queenie starts to rebuild her life and when the man who got Queenie suspended at work is found to have lied about their consensual sex, it is finally time for Queenie to take the next steps in life, but this time, she is in control.

    As a forty-nine year old white woman, I thought I was not the target market for this book. I was wrong.

    Candice Carty-Williams has written a novel that draws you in from the first page, and it is witty, warm, and a joy to read. At times it is undeniably challenging too, and honestly I found some of the sex scenes very hard to read. It made me think so much about the world Queenie lives in, and the reality of life for Black women in Britain today. Queenie is a novel that is many things, it is fast moving, funny, tender and at times heartbreaking too.

    What is at the heart of this novel for me is the realisation Queenie comes to as to how important and necessary family and friends truly are. Above all, it introduced me to Queenie and her world, and I very much hope I get the chance to meet her again really soon.

    The Blessed Girl by Angela Makholwa

    The Blessed Girl by Angela Makholwa

    Published by Bloomsbury

    Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

    What They Say.

    Young, beautiful and ambitious, Bontle Tau has Johannesburg wrapped around her finger. Her generous admirers are falling over themselves to pay for her Mercedes, her penthouse, and her Instagrammable holidays. It’s her duty to look fabulous – after all, people didn’t sacrifice their lives in the freedom struggle for black women to wear the same cheap T-shirts they wore during apartheid.

    Bontle’s come a long way, and it hasn’t been easy. Her shrink keeps wanted to talk about a past she’s put firmly behind her. And what she doesn’t think about can’t hurt her, can it?

    Blessed adj. [pronounced bles-id] 
    The state of being blessed, often referring to a person, usually female, who lives a luxurious lifestyle funded by an older, often married partner, in return for sexual favours.

    What I Say.

    “All men are dogs, and I’d rather be crying in a Ferrari than in a Polo Playa, honey.’

    I had actually bought a copy of The Blessed Girl before I was asked to be a Shadow Judge for the Comedy Women In Print Prize because it looked just the kind of novel I was looking for! I was thrilled to see it being Shortlisted and now I had the perfect reason to sit down and read it!

    Let me tell you right from the very first page, I am so pleased I did.

    Make no mistake, Bontle Tau is a protagonist quite unlike anyone you have ever met before. From the moment you start reading The Blessed Girl, it is abundantly clear this young woman is passionate, determined, and defiantly unapologetic for the life she is leading. She seems to live and narrate her life directly to us as if she exists on social media, and is constantly filtering and editing her world until it gets the maximum number of likes.

    Bontle has a lifestyle that many of us would be envious of. A gorgeous apartment, designer clothes, a fabulous car and Instagrammable holidays we could only dream about. The thing is, and as she tells us from the start, Bontle is a blessed girl, which means that her lifestyle is solely funded by the powerful and rich older men she sleeps with.

    She also knows exactly what she has to do and how she has to look to ensure that the men who bless her stay with her and continue to fund her day to day existence.

    We find out that Bontle is actually still legally married to a man called Ntokozo. They met when they were young and got married, much to the disdain of Ntokozo’s family, and for a time seemed to be happy. Unfortunately Ntokozo’s work as a doctor, and the pressure he was under, led to him becoming addicted to drugs. Bontle felt isolated and unhappy, and decided she needed to find a way to live her own life and be free from him.

    As Bontle decides to pursue the life of a Blessed Girl, she seems to relish the fact that these men will give her whatever material things she wants in exchange for sleeping with them. Bontle knows this, but doesn’t have a problem with it, and is also running her own hair weave business. She regards these men as transactions in her life as a means to her achieving her own dream of opening up her own boutique. While it may be uncomfortable for us to read about Bontle’s choices, for me, the fact that she was so direct and aware of what she is doing and why, helped my understanding.

    As the novel progresses, Bontle is regularly sleeping with three men – Teddy Bear, Mr Emmanuel and Papa Jeff and she has no qualms about stealing them from other women – even her friends, if they will give her what she wants. When Teddy Bear needs her to be the front of his building development she does so half heartedly, but is motivated by the fact that she will receive a nice big payment for doing so!

    To assume that this book is simply a light hearted, fluffy story about Bontle’s Blessed world would do Angela Makholwa’s novel a huge disservice. What works so brilliantly is the way in which in a slow and understated way, we start to see how Bontle’s childhood and relationship with her mother and brother Golokile has shaped the choices she makes now. The perfection of her present world is set against the harsh and uncompromising reality of Bontle’s past childhood home, and the way her mother raised her and failed to protect her.

    We see how Bontle is trying to cope with both of her lives, help her brother make a better life for himself and for her mother to understand what she did affected Bontle so deeply. When we finally see what happened to Bontle, suddenly I understood why the life she leads now is the one she feels will help her achieve her dreams. It may seem like the men are using her, but Bontle is using them too.

    Hand on heart, I absolutely loved The Blessed Girl. It is funny, fast paced and opened my eyes up to a whole new world of Blessed Girls and Blessers that I had never heard of before. It may be uncomfortable reading at times, but the thing about The Blessed Girl is that as readers we need to understand the world Bontle came from and why. Angela’s writing is incisive, smart and puts Bontle front and centre of everything, which is where she absolutely deserves to be.

    I loved it.

    Thank Goodness I Can Tell You…!

    As you may have gathered by now, keeping quiet is perhaps a challenging thing for me at the best of times – especially when it comes to talking about books!

    For a while now, I have been keeping a secret that has been so hard not to share with you all because I am really excited about it!

    Well, today is finally the day I can reveal all!

    I am so thrilled to tell you that I have been asked by the fabulous Comedy Women In Print Prize to be part of their very first Shadow Blogger Panel!

    Over the next few months, myself, Susan Corcoran, Janet Emson, Stacey Garrity and Danielle Price will be reading and reviewing all the novels on the Shortlisted Published Comic Novels Authors Shortlist who are:

     

    Michelle Gallen for Big Girl, Small Town from John Murray

     

    Beth O’Leary for The Flatshare from Quercus Books

     

    Angela Makholwa for The Blessed Girl from Bloomsbury Books

     

    Nina Stibbe for Reasons to be Cheerful from Penguin

     

    Candice Carty-Williams for Queenie from Trapeze Books

     

    Abbi Waxman for The Bookish Life of Nina Hill from Headline

    Jeanette Winterson for Frankisstein from Vintage

    You can read more about all the fabulous authors and their novels here

    The winner of our Shadow Panel Winner will be announced in early September, and the Judge’s decision will follow.

    It feels SO much better to finally be able to tell you all, and I can’t wait to start reading all these novels and telling you all about them as I go.

    Here’s hoping you all follow along with all of us and the hashtag #CWIP and do please tell us what think about the shortlist. As you can guess, I’ll be talking about this a lot, all over Twitter and Instagram- it’s so important to me that you all feel involved with this amazing prize too!

    So, what do you think? Any there you can’t wait to read? Any that you have read already and loved? Please do let me know – I love to chat to you all about books, so any feedback or anything else you would like to see from me, just let me know.

    Now, I don’t know about you, but I have some rather fabulous books to read…

    Love

    Clare xx