Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal

Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal

Published by Picador Books on 13th May

Available from West End Lane Books,

All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

1866. In a coastal village in southern England, Nell picks violets for a living. Set apart by her community because of the birthmarks that speckle her skin, Nell’s world is her beloved brother and devotion to the sea.

But when Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in the village, Nell is kidnapped. Her father has sold her, promising Jasper Jupiter his very own leopard girl. It is the greatest betrayal of Nell’s life, but as her fame grows, and she finds friendship with the other performers and Jasper’s gentle brother Toby, she begins to wonder if joining the show is the best thing that has ever happened to her.

In London, newspapers describe Nell as the eighth wonder of the world. Figurines are cast in her image, and crowds rush to watch her soar through the air. But who gets to tell Nell’s story? What happens when her fame threatens to eclipse that of the showman who bought her? And as she falls in love with Toby, can he detach himself from his past and the terrible secret that binds him to his brother? 

Moving from the pleasure gardens of Victorian London to the battle-scarred plains of the Crimea, Circus of Wonders is an astonishing story about power and ownership, fame and the threat of invisibility.

What I Say

I could be very coy and give you little hints about what I thought of Circus of Wonders, but I think we know each other well enough for me to start off by saying that I completely fell in love with this novel. If you loved Elizabeth’s debut novel The Doll Factory, then I can absolutely tell you that Circus of Wonder will not disappoint you – in fact I think I loved it more!

Nell leads a life where she is constantly aware she is different from those around her. She has birthmarks all over her body, and has only known that she should be ashamed of how she looks and hidden away from the world. Her brother Charlie tries to protect her from those who make comments about her, and her father doesn’t know how to react to Nell and is ashamed of his daughter.

When Jasper Jupiter and his Circus Of Wonders comes to their village, Nell’s father sees an opportunity to make some money and take away his shame, and he sells Nell to Jasper for £20. What Jasper doesn’t know is that his brother Toby, who works at the Circus, has already seen and spoken to Nell and is totally captivated by her.

The thing is, although at first Nell fights tooth and nail to escape from the Circus, she starts to realise as she sees the other performers, that this in fact might be the very place that allows her that freedom to be herself that she has never experienced before.

Nell becomes Nellie Moon, and is the star of Jasper’s show, which the showman loves, until her popularity eclipses his. When Queen Victoria finally attends the Circus, it is Nell she invites to the palace and Jasper is devastated. The persona he has created for Nell is more adored than him, and this is what he is unable to handle.

While Jasper is dealing with his waning popularity and ever mounting debts due to an ominous lender nicknamed the Jackal, Nell finally seems to have found her place in the world. The public adore her, she has found a group of friends in the Circus, and in Toby she has found a man who loves her for who she is.

Toby undoubtedly loves Nell, but he and Jasper are bound not only by their familial bond, but also a devastating secret that happened when they were in the Crimea War. Nell asks Toby who he would choose, and ultimately it is his choice that changes both their lives forever.

The beauty and power of Circus Of Wonders are the things that are not explicitly stated, it is the things the reader can determine that adds to the poignancy of Elizabeth’s writing. The performers at the Circus know that Jasper employs them, but they believe he has also given them the chance to finally be themselves, to be seen for who they truly are.

However, we can see that Jasper views them as commodities, things to be bought and sold for the best price to give him the biggest opportunity to make the most money. When Nell’s fame eclipses his, he has no hesitation in deciding to dismantle the Circus and rebuild it, discarding the performers without a second thought in order to maintain the ultimate control over his Circus.

This was for me, also a novel of identity and free will, where Nell and the other members of the Circus are trying to find a voice, a place where they can fit in without prejudice or judgement, and on the surface, the Circus seems to be this utopia. As we spend more time with them, we can see how every aspect of their lives is controlled by Jasper’s will – they can express themselves as long as it fits in with what he wants, and what he finds impossible to handle is when someone like Nell finds who she truly is, and then decides she wants to be in charge of her own fate. This is what Jasper cannot accept, that those he believes he has saved to line his own pockets have through him found their own voice which is not what he wants to hear.

From the moment you turn the first page of Circus of Wonders you are totally immersed in a world where you absolutely see, hear and feel everything that is happening around you. It’s hard to describe how affecting Elizabeth’s prose is, but for me, it is a novel that is impossible to stop thinking about when you have read it. In Nell, Toby and Jasper, Elizabeth has created incredible and truly real characters whose lives will undoubtedly and indelibly stay with you for a long time after you have read the perfect final pages.

I absolutely loved Circus of Wonders, and it will be one of my #MostSelfishReads2021

Thank you so much to Camilla Elworthy at Picador Books for my gifted proof and finished copies.

You can visit the West End Lane Bookshop here for your copy and all your Bookish Needs!

Luster by Raven Leilani

Luster by Raven Leilani

Published by Picador

Available from All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Edie is just trying to survive. She’s messing up in her dead-end admin job in her all-white office, is sleeping with all the wrong men, and has failed at the only thing that meant anything to her, painting. No one seems to care that she doesn’t really know what she’s doing with her life beyond looking for her next hook-up. And then she meets Eric, a white, middle-aged archivist with a suburban family, including a wife who has sort-of-agreed to an open marriage and an adopted black daughter who doesn’t have a single person in her life who can show her how to do her hair. As if navigating the constantly shifting landscape of sexual and racial politics as a young black woman wasn’t already hard enough, with nowhere else left to go, Edie finds herself falling head-first into Eric’s home and family

What I Say

When I was asked if I would like to read and review a book from the Dylan Thomas Prize Shortlist, I knew immediately that Luster was the novel I wanted to read.

There’s always a slight trepidation for me in picking up a novel that has been all over social media, because there is always that nagging doubt that it’s a case of hype over substance, and that you won’t understand why it’s been so lauded.

Let me start by telling you about myself. I’m a 50 year old white woman, have been married for nearly twenty five years and have two teenage sons. On paper, a novel about a young black woman who faces prejudice and rascism and ends up living with her lover’s wife and daughter, and who is unapologetic in her sexuality and lives life day to day sounds a million miles away from my life. How could this novel possibly appeal to me? Well, do you know what? It absolutely and completely did.

To simply categorise Luster in such a simplistic way does not do it justice. For me, this is a novel about a woman who is trying to make her way in the world, to try and find out where she fits in and what she wants, to have an emotional connection and sense of love from someone and for someone. Isn’t that what we all want?

Edie works in a publishing house, at a job she likes, in an apartment she tolerates, and has had numerous relationships with men at the office. When she is fired from her job for her behaviour and sending inappropriate emails, and then loses her apartment, Edie has no clue what she is going to be able to do.

After a disastrous relationship with Mark, and a whole host of office relationships, Edie has been seeing Eric who she met on a dating app. They have spent a long time talking to each other, and eventually they decide to meet. An older married dad of one, whose wife Rebecca, knows he is sleeping with Edie, theirs is a strange and complicated relationship. Punctuated by lust, and Edie wanting to be loved but at the same time not knowing what she wants that to be, they always seem to be slightly disconnected.

When Edie has nowhere else to go, she ends up moving into Eric and Rebecca’s home, where she can see how Akila, their adopted black daughter is struggling at home and school. There is almost an unspoken agreement that Edie will support Akila, but it is also interesting and incredibly uncomfortable to see how she becomes part of this barely functioning household.

When Eric is out of town, Rebecca and Edie are thrown together, and their relationship is undoubtedly unsettling. They vacillate between tentative friendship and outright hostility and Edie is never quite sure if she is a guest or an unofficial housekeeper for them, which also makes it unsettling reading for us too. For Rebecca, it almost seems to be a case of keeping your friends close, and your enemies closer.

I thought it was also interesting to see how Edie is longing to be an artist, and is trying to find a way to use her personal experiences as an impetus for her art. She is constantly striving for a way of expressing herself, and as the novel progresses, we learn of the fractured relationship with her parents, her own traumatic experiences including her abortion and falling pregnant with Eric. It seems that only by living through, and accepting what she has lived through that she finds her artistic voice and expression.

Luster is a frank, unfiltered look at what it means to be a young black woman in America. Raven Leilani has created a character in Edie who goes through so much, and has experienced a world that is so far removed from mine, but I found myself protective and enamoured by her. Her desire to love and be seen for who she is and what she wants is real, refreshing and engaging. We may never really understand what Rebecca’s motives were in asking her to move in, or why Eric had a relationship with her. Yet we absolutely understand Edie’s need to feel a connection to someone, to be seen, to be part of the world around her.

Ultimately for me, the one thing that resonated so completely about Edie is what she herself says at the end of the novel:

‘And when I am alone with myself, this is what I am waiting for someone to do to me, with merciless, deliberate hands, to put me down onto the canvas so that when I’m gone, there will be a record, proof that I was here.’

I loved it.

Thank you so much to Bei Guo at Midas PR for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.

Greenwich Park by Katherine Faulkner

Greenwich Park by Katherine Faulkner

Published by Bloomsbury Raven

Available in All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Helen has it all…

Daniel is the perfect husband.
Rory is the perfect brother.
Serena is the perfect sister-in-law.

And Rachel? Rachel is the perfect nightmare.

When Helen, finally pregnant after years of tragedy, attends her first antenatal class, she is expecting her loving architect husband to arrive soon after, along with her confident, charming brother Rory and his pregnant wife, the effortlessly beautiful Serena. What she is not expecting is Rachel.

Extroverted, brash, unsettling single mother-to-be Rachel, who just wants to be Helen’s friend. Who just wants to get know Helen and her friends and her family. Who just wants to know everything about them. Every little secret.

Masterfully plotted and utterly addictive, Greenwich Park is a dark, compelling look at motherhood, friendships, privilege and the secrets we keep to protect ourselves.

What I Say

If there is one thing guaranteed to get me to pick up a novel, it’s one where motherhood and parenting is involved. I was drawn to Greenwich Park because the idea of a world where the filtered facade presented to the world doesn’t match the fractured reality is something I am always fascinated reading about.

Helen, Daniel, Rory and Serena inhabit a world where they have never had to worry about money and are very comfortably off. Having met at Cambridge, the two couples have been inseparable. Following the death of her parents, Helen and Daniel now live in their former home in Greenwich Park which they are having renovated before their baby arrives. Having endured the trauma of losing babies before, Helen is understandably nervous about ensuring everything goes smoothly before the birth of their child. Rory is Helen’s brother, and with his glamorous and seemingly unflappable wife Serena, he now runs his father’s architectural practice along with Rory.

Serena is pregnant too, and although she and Rory have signed up to childbirth classes with Helen and Daniel, Helen finds herself on her own when they don’t show up. She has felt increasingly disconnected from Daniel who is spending more time at the office, lots of money on their renovations, and is receiving calls from the bank about remortgaging the house. While thinking of leaving the class, it is then that Rachel, bursts into the classroom and Helen’s life. Brash, vibrant, unapologetic and loud, Rachel is everything Helen isn’t, and although at first Helen might find this slightly refreshing, little by little she realises that somehow, everywhere she goes, Rachel seems to appear.

Helen’s friend Katie is a journalist who is covering a rape case where two privileged young white men are accused of raping a young woman, and initially I thought it was just part of the narrative to introduce Katie. However, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that something similar happened when Helen, Rory, Daniel and Serena were at Cambridge, and that their involvement on that night means that they are now very much in danger of losing everything.

Rachel slithers her way into their lives and little by little she manages to get her feet firmly under the table in Helen and Daniel’s house with both of them too polite to ask her to leave. She eats all their food, leaves the house in disarray and has no qualms about making herself completely at home.

That is until an irate Helen who has been pushed to breaking point confronts Rachel on the night of her bonfire party, and she finally leaves them. Or so Helen believes – until the police arrive at her house with a lot of questions.

From that moment on, the fragile world that Helen, Daniel, Rory and Serena have been living in starts to crack and splinter, in ways they could never have imagined. Rachel’s disappearance is the catalyst to their lives unravelling, and suddenly the couples have to face the fact that they are far more involved in Rachel’s life than they ever thought possible.

Greenwich Park works so well as a novel because it manages to balance a fast paced and deliciously unpredictable plot with brilliantly in-depth and engaging characters. You understand how Helen is not only feeling isolated and vulnerable, but also that she has always felt she is the consolation prize throughout her life, overshadowed by the aloof and majestic Serena. Smug Rory and seemingly sensitive Daniel are not what they appear, and I loved the fact that their sense of almost untouchability due to their upbringing means that what happens to them is beyond their comprehension.

Did I always like them? No, but that for me is testament to Katherine’s writing, because the brilliant plot and my absolute need to know what has happened, and why Rachel came into their lives makes this novel one that is impossible to put down. Greenwich Park is an absorbing and intelligent novel which manages to do that very rare thing of having characters who we may dislike, but creates such a connection with them that means we are compelled to follow their stories right to the end.

I absolutely loved it – and you if you think it sounds heart stopping, just wait for those deliciously perfect last two lines!

Thank you so much to Emilie Chambeyron and Amy Donegan at Bloomsbury for my gifted copy.

Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding

Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding

Published by Bloomsbury

Available from All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

An immensely powerful and compulsive novel of maternal love, control and a woman at the mercy of addiction.

What I Say

From the moment you open the pages of this book, Sonya a single mum living in Dublin, this protagonist of Bright Burning Things bursts into the plot and seems to be an all encompassing passionate and vital woman, determined to ensure that her son Tommy has an unforgettable childhood with her.

What we learn about Sonya very quickly is that she is an alcoholic, dealing with a very real and invasive disease that is affecting her ability to care for Tommy and means that at times, this four year old boy is caring for his Mum. Make no mistake about Sonya, her love for her son is all encompassing and he is her world, but it is also evident to us from the start that her addiction to alcohol means that she is unable to care for him properly. Food in in short supply, he is not attending school, and there seems to be little or no routine for him as he helplessly watches his Mum try to exist in a world where what matters most is getting a drink.

Her Dad watches helplessly as his daughter slips further away from him, determined to do what she sees best for her and Tommy, even though we can see that unfortunately Sonya is not coping at all and needs help. Even when her Dad asks a neighbour Mrs O’Malley to be his eyes and ears and to make sure that she is coping, Sonya spirals into a world where Tommy is being neglected and she is unreachable. When finally Tommy is at risk, her Dad intervenes and facilitates an admission to a Rehab unit for twelve weeks, and if she refuses, he will remove Tommy from her care permanently.

Sonya ultimately knows that in order to keep Tommy, she has no choice but to agree, and has to deal with the reality that her son is living with foster parents and will do so until she can prove that she is fit to care for him. The description of Sonya’s time in rehab is hard to read, and you absolutely understand the huge emotional and physical demands that are placed on her, but at the heart of this experience is her realisation to fail would means losing the very thing that is keeping her there.

It is while she is in rehab that she meets David, a counsellor and former addict, and he seems to be the stability and hope that she needs. What becomes obvious to the reader is that she is relying on a man who seems intent on almost smothering her in his insistence at running the relationship his way, and her deep fear of losing her son means that for a while she is unable to articulate that she needs to be on her own with her son.

Lisa Harding is brilliant at showing us how chaotic, undisciplined and shifting Sonya’s world is, and while there is never any doubt as to the depth and breadth of her love for her son, there is also never any doubt as to how her alcoholism permeates every part of her life and world and she is constantly trying to ensure her addiction doesn’t lead to the loss of her son. As a reader with no experience of alcoholism, this novel was absolutely an education about this disease, and how the craving for drink obliterates reason and rationale. However on a human level, you cannot be failed to be moved by how much Sonya is aware of the struggle she is facing, and you feel her shame and anger at herself too. She knows this is not what a mother should be, but her fierce love and determination means that she understands that rehab is the only way in which she can give herself a chance at spending the rest of her life with her son.

Bright Burning Things is undoubtedly a raw and unflinching book about the realities of alcoholism, and to see how Tommy is trying to look after his Mum and be there for her at such a young age is difficult to read. What I loved about this book, is the way in which Sonya grows from defining her world by men and needing to have a drink, to realising that her best hope of change is to put herself and Tommy firmly at the front of everything she does.

I also felt like the book was split stylistically- pre-rehab, where her world seems surreal at times as she is unconfined by rules and regulations and pleases herself, and post-rehab, where she slowly understands the power she holds within herself and the realisation that she needs to be Tommy’s mother. The writing is at times hypnotic and immersive as you find yourself absorbed and disconnected from reality in Sonya’s world, and there were passages that were so beautifully laid bare for the reader, that it was impossible not to be moved.

In Bright Burning Things, Lisa Harding has created a protagonist in Sonya who may exasperate us at times, delight us often and may infuriate us at others. Yet above all she has created for us that undeniable emotional connection where all you want is for Sonya to get the chance to be the mother you know she can be, and the Mum that Tommy truly deserves.

I loved it.

Thank you so much to Laura Meyer at Bloomsbury for my gifted copy.

The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames by Justine Cowan

The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames by Justine Cowan

Published by Virago Press

Available from All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Growing up in a wealthy enclave outside San Francisco, Justine Cowan’s life seems idyllic. But her mother’s unpredictable temper drives Justine from home the moment she is old enough to escape. It is only after her mother dies that she finds herself pulling at the threads of a story half-told – her mother’s upbringing in London’s Foundling Hospital. Haunted by this secret history, Justine travels across the sea and deep into the past to discover the girl her mother once was.
Here, with the vividness of a true storyteller, she pieces together her mother’s childhood alongside the history of the Foundling Hospital: from its idealistic beginnings in the eighteenth century, how it influenced some of England’s greatest creative minds – from Handel to Dickens, its shocking approach to childcare and how it survived the Blitz only to close after the Second World War.
This was the environment that shaped a young girl then known as Dorothy Soames, who was left behind by a mother forced by stigma and shame to give up her child; who withstood years of physical and emotional abuse, dreaming of
escape as German bombers circled the skies, unaware all along that her own mother was fighting to get her back.

What I Say

There are times when books bring you joy, or solace, or help you understand something that has come into your world which you need to find answers for. My Mum was adopted from a Barnado’s home when she was very young, and my Grandparents will always be Marjorie and Frank, who right from the start made sure that she knew how loved and wanted she was, but also made her aware of where she came from. More recently, a family member made the decision to adopt, and after an emotional time, they were able to adopt a child from Coram, which is the charity established by Sir Thomas Coram, who founded The Foundling Hospital in London.

When I saw Justine’s book appearing on my social media, which describes her search for the truth about her mother’s childhood and time at The Foundling Hospital, I knew I needed to read more.

The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames is undoubtedly an emotional and at times challenging read. To witness what the children went through in their time at The Foundling Hospital, as these young children were shaped into the moulds that the people running the institution believed were best for them seems so far away from the approach and understanding we have about children today. More than this, and at the heart of this book, is Justine’s quest to try and understand the woman who was her mother. Why did she seem so distant from Justine? What prompted the episodes where she would be unreachable, peppered with moments of maternal love and closeness, so Justine never really knew what to expect every time she went home?

Justine had a fractured relationship with her mother, who in spite of everything was determined that Justine should be raised as a well bred and respected young lady, and her life was filled with classes and activities at a relentless rate. As soon as she was able to, Justine moved as far away as possible and became a successful environmental attorney. However, her mother always kept pulling her back, and when Justine was nineteen, she had returned to the family home when her mother was having one of her episodes and found that her mother had written Dorothy Soames Dorothy Soames Dorothy Soames on a piece of paper.

When her mother passed away, Justine kept coming back to the fact her mother had mentioned the fact that she was a foundling, and decided to try and find out exactly who Dorothy Soames was. When her mother was admitted to The Foundling Hospital, it had moved from London to Berkhamsted, but it was the same austere Institution. It fostered the children out to paid members of society, who then had to return them to The Foundling Hospital when they turned five, irresepective of what bonds they had formed, or even if the foster family wanted to adopt them.

Justine’s search for the truth about her mother uncovered a whole world where children were placed in an Institution and raised explicitly with the idea of them becoming useful members of society – but there were undeniably instances of emotional and physical abuse. Children including Dorothy were placed in solitary confinement, had their heads held under water as a punishment and were left to wet themselves in bed as they are not allowed to get up during the night. In spite of The Foundling Hospital having great acclaim for what it was doing, it is interesting to see how that worked in reality at that time in history. I thought it was particularly heartbreaking to read how each parent who left a child there, also provided a token too, as a way to claim back that child -although once admitted that was very unlikely to happen.

That’s why Dorothy’s case was so groundbreaking in that her mother battled to get Dorothy back – and succeeded. As Dorothy struggled to come to terms with what she had gone through, she attempted to make a life for herself, and emigrated to America and becoming Eileen.

Justine also balances her personal search with the history and influence of The Foundling Hospital, and how Sir Thomas and his contemporaries helped to establish The Foundling Hospital as a way to look after the children who needed it. I thought that it was interesting to learn how the historical and social conventions of the time helped to create an overall picture of The Foundling Hospital, but I suppose I was impatient as I wanted it to be focussed mostly on Justine’s investigations and her relationship with her mother.

There is no doubt from reading this memoir that both Justine and her mother Eileen as well as Justine’s father, suffered immeasurable heartbreak as a result of Dorothy’s life in The Foundling Hospital. Eileen had been shaped by a life of uncertainty and routine, a world where her childhood was regulated and controlled so closely that to be a mother with all the emotion and chaos it sometimes brings was perhaps why she tried to push Justine to be what she wanted her to be. I also got the sense from reading this book the sense of immense control and purposefulness Justine had in trying to piece together the puzzle of her mother’s life to try and rationalise her actions. I wondered if Justine did this because she had been used to living her life with a guard up, and to reveal everything that she has gone through would be too much.

The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames is a thoroughly absorbing and incredibly revealing book that makes the reader aware of how imposing and overwhelming The Foundling Hospital must have been for both the children and the parents who made the devastating decision to leave them there. However, for me, this book was unquestionably Justine attempting to try and find a way to collect and process the very difficult relationship she had with her mother. Maybe in being able to articulate and write down her journey in this memoir Justine now has a way to connect with her mother and although she may not have loved her, she can at least try to rationalise the immense and life changing impact of being a foundling.

Thank you so much to Grace Vincent at Virago for my gifted copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

When Is A Book Blogger Not A Book Blogger?

This is probably the blog post that I have started to write and delete more than any other. I have to tell you that what I am going to say is not pretty, and to be honest, am probably totally messing up any chance of ever having any proofs ever again, but I can’t sit by and say nothing.

Ready? Deep breath..

Please don’t call yourself a Book Blogger if you don’t read and review books or as has quite rightly been pointed out, if you don’t talk about books or authors on your social media.

Collecting all the books and posting pictures of them is not reviewing them.

I am usually a mild mannered, perfectly likeable 50 year old woman, who came late to book blogging. However, in the three years since I started, there has been an issue that has got me more and more frustrated, and I’m just putting it out there.

There is a whole army of hardworking bloggers out there, who read, review and post about books constantly. It doesn’t matter if it’s a tweet, on goodreads, Amazon, Instagram, your own blog, a podcast, a YouTube video or a witty poem. You have read and reviewed a book and that is all that matters. I am very lucky that some of the Book Blogging community have become my incredibly close friends, and they understand my frustrations and it is with them that I have chatted about not understanding the shift that has happened over the last year or so.

What really got me thinking about this, was a Twitter thread I saw a couple of weeks ago, where a man was saying that he had just finished A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, and wanting to know what people thought, had sought out some book blogger reviews. What I thought was really interesting, was that he found some reviews, which acknowledged how traumatic and challenging the book was, but that he also saw many artfully staged pictures, where the book was used as a prop, a cosy backdrop with a mug of coffee and arranged props, and he questioned if the person curating that picture actually understood what the book was about. That opened up a whole debate as to whether people were really reading and reviewing books, or whether it was more about getting likes for the aesthetic of the post. People were also discussing book bloggers generally, and whether they actually read the books they received, or whether it was a case of just being ‘seen’ with the latest books in order to boost their profiles.

This has been something that has been going round in my mind for a while, and I think as a genuine book blogger, it is always really important to step back and think about what I am doing, and how I am presenting myself to the Bookish Community. I have said it before, and I will say it again, it is so easy to get caught up in believing you NEED the latest releases, when in actual fact to be a Book Blogger all you need to do is pick a book, any book and talk about it – that’s it.

Why am I so agitated that I needed to write a blog post about it? Honestly because I think I don’t understand it. How can you call yourself a book blogger if you don’t review any books?

I know how much effort it takes to post about, read and review books. How annoying it is when you have worked really hard to write a review – then no one acknowledges it. What it feels like when you keep shouting about a book you want everyone to know about, and then worry that the author and publisher will get fed up of seeing you talk about it. How gutting it is to see people receiving a book you wanted to read and review, then never hearing them mention it again. The buzz you get when the author tells you they loved your review, the joy you get when they retweet or quote your review. The fact that sometimes the publisher or publicist you contact will agree to send you the book you ask for – because they know you will genuinely read and review it. The absolute best thing for me is when you have talked about a book, and someone contacts you to tell you that they bought a book you recommended – and loved it.

I guess what I’m trying to say is ask for and collect all the books you want, that’s brilliant that you love books just as much as I do. Fill your boots – take all the pictures you want, and get all the likes you can, and show them off however you want. Just please, for all our sakes, don’t call yourself a Book Blogger – because until you start reading and reviewing those books – I don’t think you can call yourself one.

The Rathbones Folio Prize Shortlist 2021

I have to admit that when FMcM got in contact and asked me if I was interested in working with them to help talk to you all about The Rathbones Folio Prize Shortlist, I couldn’t quite believe it!

This literary prize, which awards a £30,000 prize for the best fiction, non-fiction and poetry in English from around the world, always adds lots of books to my Reading List. In 2021, six of the eight titles are written by British and Irish writers, and what I also think is brilliant is that independent publishers and small presses make up five of the Shortlist.

2021 judge Roger Robinson says: “It was such a joy to spend detailed and intimate time with the books nominated for the Rathbones Folio Prize and travel deep into their worlds. The judges chose the eight books on the shortlist because they are pushing at the edges of their forms in interesting ways, without sacrificing narrative or execution. The conversations between the judges may have been as edifying as the books themselves. From a judges’ vantage point, the future of book publishing looks incredibly healthy – and reading a book is still one of the most revolutionary things that one can do.”

The Rathbones Folio Prize Shortlist

The 2021 shortlist features Amina Cain’s Indelicacy – which is a feminist fable about class and desire. We also see the exploration of the estates of South London through both poetry and photography in Caleb Femi’s Poor, and also a formally innovative, genre-bending memoir about domestic abuse in Carmen Maria Machado’s In The Dream House. In Monique Roffey’s The Mermaid of Black Conch, we read a feminist revision of Caribbean mermaid myths.

In her darkly comic novel As You Were, poet Elaine Feeney tackles the intimate histories, institutional failures, and the darkly present past of modern Ireland, while Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost In The Throat finds the eighteenth-century poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill haunting the life of a contemporary young mother, prompting her to turn detective. Doireann Ní Ghríofa is published by Dublin’s Tramp Press, which also publishes Sara Baume’s handiwork – it details the author’s daily process of making and writing, and shows what it is to create and to live as an artist. In her acclaimed debut My Darling From The Lions, poet Rachel Long’s examines sexual politics, religious awakenings and family quirks with wit, warmth and precision.

The winner of the Rathbones Folio Prize will be announced in a digital ceremony with the British Library on Wednesday 24 March.

Who Are The Judges?

Roger Robinson, chair, won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2019 and RSL Ondaatje Prize in 2020 and is currently on the shortlist for the Derek Walcott Prize for Poetry. He has performed all over the world and was chosen by Decibel as one of 50 writers who have influenced the Black-British writing can-on. His latest collection‘A Portable Paradise’ was a ‘New Statesman’ Book of the Year. As well as leading workshops and touring extensively with the British Council he is lead vocalist and lyricist for King Midas Sound and has recorded solo albums.

Sinéad Gleeson was shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize 2020 with Constellations: Reflections from Life which won the Non-Fiction Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards and the 2020 Dalkey Literary Award. Her short stories have appeared in a number of collections and she is the editor of four anthologies of short stories, most recently published The Art of the Glimpse: 100 Irish Short Stories. She is now working on a novel.

Jon McGregor is the author of four novels and a story collection. He has been longlisted for the Booker prize three times, was shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize in 2019, and his books have won a Betty Trask Prize, a Somerset Maugham Award and the International Dublin Literary Award. He was named 2002 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year in 2002 and in 2010, received an honorary doctorate from the University of Nottingham. His new novel, Lean Fall Stand, will be published in 2021.

What is The Rathbones Folio Prize?

The Folio Prize was established in 2013 as the first major English language book prize open to writers from around the world. It is the only prize in which all the books considered for the prize are selected and judged by an academy of peers. When new sponsors, Rathbone Investment Management, came on board the prize was expanded to include all works of literature, regardless of form. Previous winners were George Saunders in 2014, Akhil Sharma in 2015, Hisham Matar in 2017, Richard Lloyd-Parry in 2018, Raymond Antrobus in 2019 and Valeria Luiselli in 2020.

I would love you to join in the online conversation about The Rathbones Folio Prize using #RathbonesFolioPrize and #WritersPrize – if you want to find out more, head to rathbonesfolioprize.com or @RathbonesFolio and tell us what you think about the Shortlist!

I’ll be talking about the Shortlist in the run up to the announcement on March 24th, and I can’t wait to hear what you think.

Thank you so much to Megan Thomas at FMcM for all her help and for my copies of The Rathbones Folio Prize Shortlist.

Who Is Maud Dixon by Alexandra Andrews

Who Is Maud Dixon by Alexandra Andrews

Published by Tinder Press

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Florence Darrow wants to be a writer. Correction: Florence Darrow IS going to be a writer. Fired from her first job in publishing, she jumps at the chance to be assistant to the celebrated Maud Dixon, the anonymous bestselling novelist. The arrangement comes with conditions – high secrecy, living in an isolated house in the countryside­. Before long, the two of them are on a research trip to Morocco, to inspire the much-promised second novel. Beach walks, red sunsets and long, whisky-filled evening discussions…win-win, surely? Until Florence wakes up in a hospital, having narrowly survived a car crash.
How did it happen – and where is Maud Dixon, who was in the car with her? Florence feels she may have been played, but wait, if Maud is no longer around, maybe Florence can make her mark as a writer after all…

What I Say

I started writing my review of Who Is Maud Dixon on my Instagram page, but it quickly became clear that there was so much more I needed to tell you about this brilliant novel (yes I have already worked out who would play the main characters if it was made into a TV Series thank you!) that I had to write a blog post all about it instead.

Florence Darrow is a young woman working as an assistant at Forrester Books in New York, and she desperately wants to be a writer. The thing is, she is in a world which values where you come from and what connections you have, far more than genuine talent and hard work. She starts an affair with Simon, her married boss, who infuriates Florence by publishing her work rival’s novel. When he rejects her short stories, she attempts to blackmail him by sending him pictures of his wife and children and she is fired.

Unemployed and desperate to not to have to go back to live with her mother, with whom she has a tense and fractured relationship, Florence is running out of options. That is until she receives a phone call from Greta, who works with the elusive novelist Maud Dixon. Maud has written an incredibly successful novel called Mississipi Foxtrot, but no one knows who she is, and now Maud wants Florence to come and work for her as her assistant.

When Florence meets Helen Wilcox, the woman behind the mystery, she is intrigued by her, and also wants to emulate her to try and be successful and liked. They slowly strike up a good working relationship and it seems that they are on the way to becoming friends too. Helen asks Florence to accompany her on a research trip to Morocco, and Florence believes that her life is suddenly changing for the better. However, Greta is also pressuring Florence to find out what “Maud’s” new novel is all about, as she is desperate to have another bestseller on her hands. As she types up some chapters for Helen, Florence realises it’s nowhere near as good as her previous novel, and surreptitiously starts to edit it and add words and sentences herself.

The thing is, what you need to know about Florence Darrow and Helen Wilcox is that both of them are purely out to get what they want, irrespective of the cost. Florence is desperate to be a writer, a woman of elegance and class, and Helen Wilcox has a plan to ensure that Maud Dixon disappears forever – no matter who gets hurt in the process. It is when they arrive in Morocco that things slowly start to unravel for both women, and from the moment that Helen suggests they go for a meal to a restaurant in the mountains, their lives will never be the same again..

Quite frankly, to say anything else would ruin this novel for you! What I will tell you is that I thought it was so well written, I had no clue what was going to happen next – which thrilled me even more as a reader. It worked so well because you start out by thinking that Florence is the naive and impressionable young woman, but very quickly you understand that she is just as unreliable and manipulative as Helen. Florence will not settle until she has achieved exactly what she wants to do – and that is to become Maud Dixon. Alexandra absolutely convinces us as to how driven and self serving each of the women is, and I felt that you really got a sense of their histories and why they have become the women we see in this novel.

This is a novel where both of the main protagonists are unlikable, driven and ambitious – and which is why it such a refreshing read. I was drawn to Florence because she perfectly embodies that spirit so many young people have when they are starting out in the world – you can’t understand why you can’t get what you want when you want it. It is also interesting to see how Helen absolutely understands that as a writer you are judged by the success of your last novel, and anything less is not an option. To admit that her latest novel is not working is the worst thing that could happen to her, but as a reader it is shocking to see the lengths these women will go to in order to ensure they are victorious. When these two characters are together, it is interesting to see how the power play shifts between them, and their interactions grow in intensity and deviousness as they start to realise how entwined their lives are becoming, and that they both know exactly what they want. The hook for both women is that however much they despise each other, to ensure they can carry out their individual plans – they absolutely need each other, and recognise that in fact they are more alike than they could have ever imagined.

Who Is Maud Dixon is a captivating and engaging novel that moves at a perfect speed, and I loved how everything was worked out (no, I’m not going to tell you, you will have to buy a copy!). It is a novel about the persona we present to the world, our need to be accepted and admired, and ultimately the lengths that people will go to to ensure that they have the ultimate control over the narratives they want to construct and edit. It is a sharp, funny and thrilling novel which unapologetically has Florence and Helen struggling for the ultimate prize. For both women it is the chance for them to live the life they feel they deserve, and neither has the moral compass or compassion to care about who is destroyed in the process.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you very much to Jessica Farrugia for my gifted copy.

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.