The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

Published by Picador Books on March 4th

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Cornwall, 1972. Three keepers vanish from a remote lighthouse, miles from the shore. The entrance door is locked from the inside. The clocks have stopped. The Principal Keeper’s weather log describes a mighty storm, but the skies have been clear all week.;
What happened to those three men, out on the tower? The heavy sea whispers their names. The tide shifts beneath the swell, drowning ghosts. Can their secrets ever be recovered from the waves?
Twenty years later, the women they left behind are still struggling to move on. Helen, Jenny and Michelle should have been united by the tragedy, but instead it drove them apart. And then a writer approaches them. He wants to give them a chance to tell their side of the story. But only in confronting their darkest fears can the truth begin to surface . . .
Inspired by real events, The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex is an intoxicating and suspenseful mystery, an unforgettable story of love and grief that explores the way our fears blur the line between the real and the imagined.

What I Say

I have to be honest, when I first received a copy of The Lamplighters I wasn’t sure that it would be my kind of novel. The story of three lighthouse keepers going missing? I just didn’t think it would engage me at all.

I was completely wrong. The Lamplighters is a remarkably haunting and compelling story of how important our memories are, of those left behind when the unthinkable happens, and how the only people we truly know are ourselves.

In 1972, three Lighthouse Keepers; Arthur Black , Bill Walker and Vincent Bourne simply disappear from the Maiden Rock Lighthouse in Cornwall. The door is locked from the inside, the place is clean and the table is set for two people, and the clocks are set to 8.45. That’s it. No Lighthouse Keepers, no clues, and a mystery that lies unsolved for twenty years.

In 1992, an author called Dan Sharp wants to try and solve the locked door mystery that has had such a huge impact on the families that were left behind and the communities that had to deal with all the attention this brought on them. Dan decides to get in contact with the wives and girlfriend of the Lighthouse Keepers, and we meet Helen, who was married to Arthur, Jenny who was Bill’s wife, and Michelle who was going out with Vinnie at the time of his death. Helen and Jenny are keen to speak to Dan, but for some reason they are estranged from each other at a time when they should have been closer than ever. Michelle doesn’t want to get involved, and initially decides not to speak to Dan. What was interesting for me was that how in the background of this narrative, always seeming slightly ominous, was the ever present Trident organisation that has effectively paid off the families to ensure their silence and the women are very mindful of this.

The novel moves seamlessly between the two narratives – that of 1972 and 1992, where we see the reality of life for the men in a lighthouse, and the lives of the people who are left behind after they disappear. What Emma does so well when describing the daily routines of the men, is to show how repetitive and mundane but entirely necessary their roles are. Arthur as the senior lighthouse keeper is meticulous and incredibly proud of what he does, and he wants the other men to appreciate how important their jobs are. He may seem aloof and introspective, but his dour demeanour hides a tragedy that has served to put a wedge between himself and Helen. Bill seems to always be slightly resentful of Arthur, and although initially we may believe it is because he covets Arthur’s job, the truth is far more destructive. Vinnie is the youngest and enthusiastic about his new job, but we learn that he has spent time in prison, and has brought and hidden a gun onto the Lighthouse.

With all three men hiding something from each other, we start to see just how claustrophobic and isolated they are. Stuck in an inaccessible lighthouse, having lots of time to think about things as they do their jobs, little by little, cracks start to form between them. The fact that they have to work night shifts in rotation too, all add to the fact that the lines between daytime and night time become blurred, and their imaginations start to work overtime and we are never quite sure what is real and what is imagined. All the time, ever present is the unforgiving and powerful sea all around them, and as a reader you are all too aware of how all encompassing and dangerous nature is, and how they are completely at its mercy.

Meanwhile back in the Keeper’s Cottages, we see how Jenny and Helen are poles apart in their personalities, and we also discover that Bill constantly makes Jenny feel inadequate as he holds Helen up as to the wifely example she should aspire to. As we hear their stories in 1992, in the form of monologues they deliver while speaking to Dan, it adds an authenticity to the narrative. They tell us not only the reality of having to be a Lighthouse Keeper’s wife, but also help to fill in the stories of their husbands, so we start to fully understand exactly why Arthur and Bill living together in such an enclosed space can only lead to tragedy.

Emma’s slow drip feed of revelations about each character’s personalities adds to the undeniable tension both in the Lighthouse and between the women at home. No one is without fault or flaw, and it is impossible to not empathise with each person as their story is slowly revealed. The moment that Arthur makes a discovery that changes everything he believed he knew about his wife is beautifully understated, and this devastating revelation sets in motion a chain of events that culminates in Dan Sharp trying to uncover the mystery twenty years later.

To say anything about what happens next would spoil The Lamplighters for you, and I have no intention of doing that! What I will say is that as the novel draws to its conclusion, you really feel the sense of panic and despair that permeates the Lighthouse, and there is a sense of other worldliness which only serves to add to the tension as little by little the plots seamlessly falls into place. You understand how incredibly frustrated and bewildered the women must be, and how they are unable to really live their lives after what has happened to them, and that the burden on them since the disappearance has been all consuming and overwhelming.

The Lamplighters worked so well for me because it absolutely wrong footed me – I had it all worked out. Until I really didn’t! Emma has written a novel that not only captures the physical and emotional toll of working in a Lighthouse, and the secrets that are held within, but also gives a voice to those who are so overlooked in history – the women who are left behind to run the men’s world when they are not there. It is a sensitive and emotional novel that perfectly articulates how memory can be an all encompassing force, and that when we are left alone with our thoughts for a long time, they can be just what we need to comfort us, but also the very things that serve to destroy us.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Camilla Elworthy and Katie Bowden for my gifted copies.

Bernard and Pat by Blair James

Bernard and Pat by Blair James

Published by Corsair

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

I suppose that these are the horses from which we are thrown.
We see things as we are, not as they are.
How do we best see? With eyes old or new?
How well do we rise after falling?

Catherine is small and everyone else is big. The world has lots of rules which she cannot keep up with, and lots of things happen that just don’t feel right. With Dad gone and Mum at work, Catherine spends her days with Bernard and Pat. These are days that she will never forget but never quite remember, either.

Bernard and Pat is a tour-de-force, a novel deeply aware of the peculiarities of memory and the vulnerability of childhood. Catherine’s voice is unforgettable.

What I Say

“I need it all, I need to know everything so that I can be anything because I do not know what to be, not what I am.”

How often do with think about our childhood, and the memories that make up that time? Do you remember every detail as if it was yesterday, or do you select the best and worst parts and the rest swims in front of your eyes definitely there, but you can’t be absolutely sure of every detail.

In Catherine, the narrator of Bernard and Pat, her memory is elusive. Sometimes she can recall every little thing, events and occasions are remembered with a piercing clarity that many of us can recognise, but seemingly without the comprehension and realisation that viewing them through adult eyes can bring. Catherine is being looked after by the apparently ordinary and overtly Christian Bernard and Pat while her Mum goes to work after her father passes away. Her brother James goes sometimes too, but what is very clear from the first few pages is that Bernard is sexually abusing Catherine.

The novel is told in short, sharp chapters that perfectly echo the concentration span and understanding of a young child, but as the novel progresses and the vocabulary becomes more sophisticated and erudite, it becomes clear to the reader that Catherine is now an adult narrating her story. Catherine has been profoundly affected by the trauma, and copes by dissociating her adult self from her experiences by using her childish voice. The story is punctuated by snapshots of Catherine’s life and especially her time at Bernard and Pat’s house. Little by little, from things she tells us about Bernard, we start to see how he engineered certain situations in order to molest Catherine.

As a reader it is heartbreaking to read Catherine’s story, to understand that this was happening when she was supposed to be safe. More shocking is that even when she tells her Mum that Bernard has been showing her pictures of naked women, and he is confronted, he manages to explain it away by saying that Catherine saw him looking at a catalogue to choose a birthday present for Pat. Bernard is respected in the community, is intelligent and plausible, so Catherine stays in his care. We are also completely aware of what is happening to Catherine, and Blair drips tension into every page as we wait to see what will happen to Catherine next as we are powerless to do anything other than be a helpless bystander.

I thought that the relationship between Bernard and Pat was also an interesting if troubling dynamic. Does Pat know or suspect anything about Bernard’s behaviour, and if so, why does she do nothing about it? I felt that there were hints to suggest that she did know, and that is what makes this novel even more upsetting, in that there is an adult in the situation who could have done something, but chose not to. Catherine subsumes her anger at what is happening to her, but in a series of recollections, we see how she is directing her anger at other, more weaker children around her.

As Catherine tells her story, we see how deeply she grieves for her Dad, and wishes that he was still there, because then she wouldn’t need to go to Bernard and Pat’s house, and this awful experience would never have happened. What becomes evident through the novel is that she is so devastated by what has happened to her that she even has to eventually change her name to Katy to dissociate herself from the horror of what has happened, and that she will never be truly free of it. When as an adult she sees Bernard in a supermarket, all the feelings come back and she has to relive it all again, trapped by her history she could not escape.

Bernard and Pat is unflinching in its depiction of child abuse, but it engages the reader because the horror of the situation is what is in the narrative we don’t know. We fill the gaps with our imagination and knowledge as adults, and like Catherine, are able to understand the severity and awfulness of what is happening to this child. A novel with this as the subject matter is undoubtedly hard to read, but Blair James instinctively understands exactly how to tell this sensitive and traumatic story with compassion and power.

Is it challenging to read? Absolutely. Yet at the heart of Bernard and Pat and testament to Blair’s writing is our total connection to Catherine. Our understanding of the unthinkable situation she is in, and how totally vulnerable she is makes Catherine’s story absolutely devastating but impossible to ignore.

I loved it.

Thank you so much to Kimberley Nyamhondera for my gifted copy.

Insatiable by Daisy Buchanan

Insatiable by Daisy Buchanan

Published by Sphere on February 11th 2021

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Stuck in a dead-end job, broken-hearted, broke and estranged from her best friend: Violet’s life is nothing like she thought it would be. She wants more – better friends, better sex, a better job – and she wants it now.
So, when Lottie – who looks like the woman Violet wants to be when she grows up – offers Violet the chance to join her exciting start-up, she bites. Only it soon becomes clear that Lottie and her husband Simon are not only inviting Violet into their company, they are also inviting her into their lives.
Seduced by their townhouse, their expensive candles and their Friday-night sex parties, Violet cannot tear herself away from Lottie, Simon or their friends. But is this really the more Violet yearns for? Will it grant her the satisfaction she is so desperately seeking?

Insatiable is about women and desire – lust, longing and the need to be loved. It is a story about being unable to tell whether you are running towards your future or simply running away from your past. The result is at once tender and sad, funny and hopeful.

What I Say

Now, if you know me at all by now – and let’s face it, you have had to hear my shouting about books for nigh on four years, you will have realised that I am somewhat a fan of Jilly Cooper. Why is that remotely relevant I hear you cry? Well, if you like me you love Jilly Cooper novels, you will adore Insatiable by Daisy Buchanan.

Yes, it is stuffed full with lots of sex, in every way you ever imagined, and for some scenes to be honest, I had to sit and work out how it was physically possible! It is also pertinent to mention that there is a sexual assault, and Daisy handles it sensitively and appropriately.

I have to say that you need to understand that Insatiable is so much more than a novel about sex. Daisy Buchanan has written a timely and thought provoking novel that addresses so many of the issues and concerns we all have – however old we are. It is a novel about greed and lust, of how we are all trying to work out who we are and how much of ourselves we want to share with the world, and most imporantly I felt, about how we are all increasingly falling for the idea that somehow the grass is always greener.

Violet is working in a seemingly thankless job in the art world, having little inclination and even less money, she exists from day to day and paycheck to paycheck. She ended her enagement to Mark as she realised she wasn’t in love with him, and couldn’t bear the thought of trying to pretend to be the perfect trophy wife. In the process she also lost her best friend Nadia after a furious row. Alone and needing company, she is using dating apps. When she uses her boss’ tickets for an art exhbition to meet her date – who stands her up, it is there that she meets the enigmatic and impossibly glamourous Lottie and Simon. They are in the process of starting an app for selling art, and want someone to help with their social media, and Violet seems to fit the bill perfectly.

When they meet up to discuss the role, it seems very far from an ordinary job interview. Violet has done her social media research and has stumbled into Lottie and Simon’s world and has witnessed the seemingly insta perfect lives they lead. Understandably, she has started dreaming about how her life could change by being in their orbit. From the moment Violet sits down, she realises that she is totally attracted to Lottie, and the feeling seems to be mutual. By being so open, Violet gains herself entry into the world that Lottie and Simon inhabit, and a chance to meet their friends. The only thing that isn’t mentioned is that the group – Mimi, Richard, Max, Sasha and Lottie and Simon may swap anecdotes – but they also swap partners.

Violet’s introduction to them is eye opening as she seems to almost be a prize for Lottie and Simon to show off and share. Violet participates, but it’s never made clear what the rules are and what is appropriate to for her to do or not do. That for me was somewhat unsettling as a reader, in that Violet seems dazzled by their life, and wants to be part of it, but you always wonder how much Lottie and Simon actually cared for her. As the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Lottie and Simon have created a persona which when you look beyond the surface is far from the glossy, carefree existence they are showing to the world.

The thing is, as a reader you do understand Violet’s actions. Stuck in a seemingly thankless job, living in a far from glamourous bedsit, Lottie and Simon offer her that glimpse into a life she has only dreamed of. Violet is invited to Ibiza with the group, and it is there that things eventually come tumbling down after a shocking revelation. She is forced to face the fact that Lottie and Simon view her as little more than a plaything. It is testament to Daisy’s writing that you absolutely feel Violet’s pain and confusion, and also understand why she still makes excuses for their behaviour – however despicable it may seem to us. Violet is a young woman who is trying to determine who she is and wants and although initially she seems in control of her situation, increasingly it becomes clear she can only really take charge by making some life changing decisions.

I think that the novel worked so well because you get to know all the characters and the motivation for why they act as they do, and I felt that they were rounded and believable . You may not like them, or understand why they behave as they do, but Daisy succeeds in showing not only how they control the persona they present to the world, but also how even the seemingly most assured and confident people are peppered with self doubt and flaws.

Insatiable is defined as being impossible to satisfy, and as well as this being relevant to Violet in terms of sex, I also felt it applied to her relationship with food and eating. There are constant references to what people are eating, the meals that are being prepared, and I thought it was interesting how Violet uses food as a form of medication to soothe herself or to block out what she is going through. This is a subtle plot device which I felt added to the sensory experience this novel really is.

I really hope that Insatiable finds its way onto your bookish radar, and that people don’t focus on the fact that it has lots of sex, because I absolutely feel they would be doing a major disservice to this fabulous novel and Daisy’s brilliant writing. This is a novel about trying to find your way in the world when everyone else seems to have what you want and seems so much better at making a success of it all. It is about what we expect from women, from relationships and the increasing power that social media seems to have over all our lives. Perhaps most importantly it is about acknowledging and recognising female desire, and understanding that we can edit and filter our lives all we want, but only by being honest can we really find happiness.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you very much to Millie Seaward for my gifted copy.

One Night New York by Lara Thompson

One Night, New York by Lara Thompson

Published by Virago on 14th January 2021

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

A thrilling debut novel of corruption and murder, set in the nightclubs, tenements and skyscrapers of 1930s New York.
At the top of the Empire State Building, on a freezing December night, two women hold their breath. Frances and Agnes are waiting for the man who has wronged them. They plan to seek the ultimate revenge.
Set over the course of a single night, One Night, New York is a detective story, a romance and a coming-of-age tale. It is also a story of old New York, of bohemian Greenwich Village between the wars, of floozies and artists and addicts, of a city that sucked in creatives and immigrants alike, lighting up the world, while all around America burned amid the heat of the Great Depression. It also marks the arrival of an exciting new talent on the Virago fiction list.

What I Say

One Night, New York is a glorious and absorbing delight of a book, that just explodes with energy on every page. It is ambitious in its scope, and perfectly captures the realities and sometimes unsavoury sides of living in New York in the 1930s.

It starts on the 21st December 1932, with two women, Frances and Agnes, on the seventy-second floor of the Empire State Building waiting for an unamed person to arrive. Why they are there, and what they are about to do is not clear, but what is absolutely evident from the first page is that these women have a score to settle – whatever the cost.

The whole book is seeped in the atmosphere and the deceptively glamourous lives led by the artists, creative people and downright unsavoury characters who inhabit this world. New York is evolving and with its changing and growing skyline, and it is the ever present background in this world – all seeing, all encompassing and in every part of the plot. The descriptions of the people, places, clothes and the lives they lead mean that this is one of those novels that is totally entrenched in the world it depicts, that every page, every scene captivates the reader completely.

Frances is fleeing from her controlling parents in Kansas. She boards a train for New York to go and meet her brother Stanley, and it is there she meets the glamorous Jacks and her charismatic friend Dicky. They want to use Frances as part of a makeover for a story Jacks is writing. Dicky gives her his card and asks her to come and see them when she is settled in New York. Frances is unable to read, so has to take his word for what he has told her. From the moment she arrives in New York and meets Stanley, Frances is overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of the city, and you see this vast and confusing place very clearly through her eyes as she struggles to comprehend how she will ever fit in.

Frustrated by Stan’s attempts to keep her in their apartment, she eventually makes her way to Jacks and Dicky’s house, where she meets Agnes, the young woman who will change her life forever. Frances feels a connection and a deep attraction to Agnes, but this meeting also paves the way for Frances to ingratiate herself into the less picture perfect side of New York.

Her relationship with Stanley is becoming increasingly strained, as he refuses to tell her what he does at night, why he has been assaulted, or why there are bundles of money under the floorboards in their apartment. Frances is an incredibly smart and intuitive woman who knows that what Stanley is not telling her is far more worrying than what he is, and when she is faced with an incredible loss, she resolves to find the answers – however distressing that may be.

Agnes confides in Frances about her family, how her Mother is being cared for by nurses, and how her sister committed suicide after being blackmailed by the New York Police for having had risqué photos taken. Now Agnes is being blackmailed too, and Frances realises that in order for them to live their lives in peace, they are going to have to take matters into their own hands.

One Night, New York does not shy away from the darker side of the city at all, and in doing so it opens up a whole new narrative for the novel. It is a world where extortion and corruption at every level is rife, and women are a convenient commodity to be picked up, used and tossed aside when they have outlived their usefulness. The violence is brutal and shocking, but it is completely integral and necessary to understand the way in which this world functions, and why Frances and Agnes are so intent on revenge.

For me, the pace of the novel was perfectly pitched, and you cannot help but feel a connection to all the characters in this novel because Lara Thompson makes you care about what happens to them. One Night, New York is a bold and ambitious novel that works so well because not only does it immediately pull the reader right into the heart of the action, but Lara Thompson has created relatable characters whose flaws and vulnerabilities give them the courage to take matters into their own hands to achieve the lives that they deserve.

Thank you so much to Kimberley Nyamhondera, Grace Vincent and Virago Press for my gifted copy.

Some Body to Love by Alexandra Heminsley

Some Body to Love by Alexandra Heminsley

Published by Chatto and Windus

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

‘Today I sat on a bench facing the sea, the one where I waited for L to be born, and sobbed my heart out. I don’t know if I’ll ever recover.’
This note was written on 9 November 2017. As the seagulls squawked overhead and the sun dipped into the sea, Alexandra Heminsley’s world was turning inside out.
She’d just been told her then-husband was going to transition. The revelation threatened to shatter their brand new, still fragile, family.
But this vertiginous moment represented only the latest in a series of events that had left Alex feeling more and more dissociated from her own body, turning her into a seemingly unreliable narrator of her own reality.

Some Body to Love is Alex’s profoundly open-hearted memoir about losing her husband but gaining a best friend, and together bringing up a baby in a changing world. Its exploration of what it means to have a human body, to feel connected or severed from it, and how we might learn to accept our own, makes it a vital and inspiring contribution to some of the most complex and heated conversations of our times.

What I Say

Not that you all know, but this is actually my first blog review of 2021. I am sat in my dining room typing away, listening to the radio, with a cup of coffee to the right of me, and am very pleased to be able to be sitting upright to type this. Why is any of this remotely relevant to my review?

As I sit here typing this, I am currently recovering from Covid. Being able to read has not been possible for a few weeks, as the amount of energy required to pick up a book and read was way beyond my capabilities for a while. The thing is, I am so very pleased that I chose Alexandra’s book Some Body To Love, because her writing about her relationship with body and her life experiences could not have come at a better and more appropriate time for me, as mine was taken over by a virus that I had been trying so hard to avoid.

Alexandra’s book starts off making you believe it is heading in one direction, but when you start to read it, you realise that it is in fact epic in its scale, and certainly for me, made me think about not only what Alexandra has been through, but also how we view our own bodies and often internalise our own experiences.

When Alexandra married the love of her life, they decided after a time to try IVF, and it seemed like Alexandra was going to have the family life she longed for. However, things in her marriage had not been going well, and initially she believed it was due to the immense pressure the couple were under as they tried to get pregnant. In fact, her husband had decided that now he wanted to transition, and Alexandra was left reeling by the decision. Coupled with the fact that they had gone through immense emotional distress during her pregnancy when there was doubt that the embryo that had been implanted was hers, Alexandra was devastated. The idea of a cosy family unit was no more, and Alexandra had to determine what this meant for her and their son as they were now facing a very different life to the one she had anticipated.

This is not just a book about Alexandra’s marriage, or the reality of someone transitioning. Some Body To Love is profoundly affecting as it goes so much further and is also Alexandra’s candid and intensely personal memoir about her relationship with her body. She explains how when she was heavily pregnant, she was sexually assaulted on a train, and the immense pressure this put on her as she decided to press charges against the man. It is unbelievable to see the way in which she is treated, and the way in which her pregnancy is used against her by the defence.

What always seems to be in Alexandra’s mind is the importance of making her voice heard, to show people that this behaviour is not acceptable, and the way in which she is treated by some people as simply nothing more than a pile of pregnancy hormones is shameful.

At the centre of this book is always Alexandra’s relationship with her body, and how we are all complicit in how we present ourselves and react to others too. I am endlessly fascinated by the power and lure of Instagram, and the pressure that we are under to conform and be seen in a certain way. Alexandra writes so incisively about how even when you try to work within the seemingly open image of body positivity, that there are still ways in which it is seen as acceptable to do so. I loved the story of how Alexandra was meeting journalists to promote her book Running Like A Girl, and even though she wanted to present an honest and natural face to show people her real self, she was not deemed newsworthy until she adhered to the narrative that other people wanted to create for her.

I think that this is such an incredibly honest book that should start so many conversations about the realities of motherhood and parenting, the narratives we create for ourselves, and most importantly of the realities of what it means for someone to transition.

Hand on heart, I have had no experience in my life of anyone I know deciding to transition, and I had no frame of reference to understand the massive personal and emotional demands this has on both the person who is transitioning and those closest to them. I was also astounded by the misconceptions and attitudes of other people who projected their own thoughts and opinions onto an incredibly personal situation, and I think it is testament to Alexandra’s incredible resilience and empathy for her husband that you see how they adapt their family life to their new reality.

I finished Some Body To Love last week, and am constantly thinking about it. As a reader, Alexandra’s accessible and absorbing writing made me feel that it was as if she was sat next to me telling me what has happened in her life. I feel very privileged to have read it, and know that my knowledge and understanding of my own personal experiences, my relationship with my body and what it means for someone to transition have changed as a result of reading this book.

It is a raw, visceral and an incredible testament to the power of love and family, which permeates every single page and makes you feel hopeful about the world once again.

Thank you to Lucie Cuthbertston-Twiggs for my copy in exchange for an honest review.

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..