The Blessed Girl by Angela Makholwa

The Blessed Girl by Angela Makholwa

Published by Bloomsbury

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say.

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

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

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

What I Say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I loved it.

Comedy Women In Print Shortlist – Frankisstein by Jeanette Winterson

Frankisstein by Jeanette Winterson

Published by Vintage

Available from all good Bookshops and Online

What They Say..

As Brexit grips Britain, Ry, a young transgender doctor, is falling in love. The object of their misguided affection: the celebrated AI-specialist, Professor Victor Stein. Meanwhile, Ron Lord, just divorced and living with his Mum again, is set to make his fortune with a new generation of sex dolls for lonely men everywhere.

Ranging from 1816, when nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley pens her radical first novel, to a cryonics facility in present-day Arizona where the dead wait to return to life, Frankissstein shows us how much closer we are to the future than we realise.

What I Say..

“Love is a disturbance among the disturbed”

Deciding which novel to choose first from this brilliant Shortlist was always going to be one of the best problems to have lets be honest! After asking the brilliant Twitter Bookish People, and fuelled by my own curiosity, I picked up Frankisstein.

It tells the story of a doctor called Ry Shelley in 2016, who has fallen in love with Professor Victor Stein who is highly regarded as a maverick pioneer in the world of AI. He is determined to use his knowledge to attempt to bring human brains back to life and to work with and repackage them in whatever form he desires to introduce them into the world. Thrown into the mix is an ambitious but naive Welsh Businessman called Ron Lord, who is making lots of money thanks to his thriving sex doll business – and his Mum is his unofficial adviser! An ambitious journalist called Polly that Ry meets is highly suspicious of Victor and his motives. Polly is determined to uncover what Stein is really up to, and for me provided the moral voice of the novel in the modern narrative.

Frankisstein has two narrative strands, and the novel opens with Mary Shelley, her husband Shelley and their friends Byron, Polidori, and Byron’s mistress and Mary’s stepsister Claire holidaying in Switzerland in 1816, much to the bewilderment and delight of the locals. Mary wants to write a novel and while there, with time to think about what she wants to achieve, she finds the inspiration to start writing Frankenstein.

As we switch between the two stories, we learn that Ry Shelley is transgender, and was in fact born Mary Shelley. From the moment you understand the parallels between the two stories, the narrative becomes inextricably linked, and we see how the prevalent themes and ideas in Mary Shelley’s world of 1816 are still very much in evidence in Ry’s 2016.

As Mary struggles with the notion of identity, creation and women’s place in the world, Ry questions the morality of Ron reducing women to machines that are objects to be used to fulfill sexual needs and packaged away by men when they are finished. The ideas of creation and morality are central to both plot lines too- Mary is writing a novel about a man creating a human, and Victor is using humans to harvest the parts he needs in his quest to create new minds.

Ry becomes more involved with Professor Stein and they sleep together and have a secret relationship. Stein refuses to publicly acknowledge Ry, and admits if they had a penis he wouldn’t get involved with them which is extremely uncomfortable for us to read and upsetting for Ry too

In Ry’s world, they are becoming more embroiled in Victor’s megalomaniacal scheme, and all of the characters are hurtle towards a cataclysmic final event that will change their futures forever. Mary Shelley writes Frankenstein, and is satisfied creatively, but this is set against the backdrop that her children pass away, and her husband becomes involved with her friend Jane Williamson with devastating consequences. Her future looks brighter when she meets Ada Lovelace and a mysterious Victor Frankenstein, which was a clever device that completes the plot.

I felt that little by little, the plots started to move closer and closer together, and the two narrative strands are eventually almost one and the same, which is undoubtedly an intriguing device. I have to be honest and admit that I found certain parts of the novel I had to reread as I didn’t completely understand them. There were so many themes that were consistent across both timelines, such as creation, morality, identity and artificial intelligence, and I felt that I learned a lot.

However at times for me it felt that the plot was overwhelmed by the number of themes and heavy scientific and philosophical theory, and I felt that I had to wade through those sections in order to reconnect with the story. It is certainly a novel that will make you stop and think about the themes, but also the idea of how a novel is created, how form and narratives can be shaped and convention overturned in order to push the reader out of a traditional understanding of what a novel should be.

For me, the character I thought the most interesting was Mary Shelley. Her desire to be recognised as a writer irrespective of her sex, and her recognition that her ability and insight is disregarded because of her gender was unsettling but also still relevant for today.  I thought it was also interesting to see how her novel was the starting point and the end point for both plots, and that her narrative provided the driving force for so many ideas and issues that were relevant in 1816 and are still relevant today.

Frankisstein is an ingenious and extremely ambitious novel, there are pages of perfect prose and undoubtedly it has given me much to think about. It is a creative and thought provoking novel, with moments of humour, but most importantly, it show us how little we know about the possibilities of the future, the potential of humans and Artificial Intelligence and most devastatingly what the unforseen cost could be for humans and the world.

I am extremely proud to be a Comedy Women in Print Shadow Judge for 2020. Why don’t you check out their quite frankly fabulous website here

Thank Goodness I Can Tell You…!

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

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

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

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

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

 

Michelle Gallen for Big Girl, Small Town from John Murray

 

Beth O’Leary for The Flatshare from Quercus Books

 

Angela Makholwa for The Blessed Girl from Bloomsbury Books

 

Nina Stibbe for Reasons to be Cheerful from Penguin

 

Candice Carty-Williams for Queenie from Trapeze Books

 

Abbi Waxman for The Bookish Life of Nina Hill from Headline

Jeanette Winterson for Frankisstein from Vintage

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love

Clare xx

This Lovely City by Louise Hare

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This Lovely City by Louise Hare

Published by HQ Stories

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

 

What They Say

The drinks are flowing.
The music is playing.
But the party can’t last.

With the Blitz over and London reeling from war, jazz musician Lawrie Matthews has answered England’s call for help. Fresh off the Empire Windrush, he’s taken a tiny room in south London lodgings, and has fallen in love with the girl next door.

Touring Soho’s music halls by night, pacing the streets as a postman by day, Lawrie has poured his heart into his new home – and it’s alive with possibility. Until, one morning, he makes a terrible discovery.

As the local community rallies, fingers of blame are pointed at those who had recently been welcomed with open arms. And, before long, the newest arrivals become the prime suspects in a tragedy which threatens to tear the city apart.

What I Say

I need to start this Blog Post with an apology to Louise.  I read This Lovely City in May, and adored it, and started a blog post straight away, but I just couldn’t find the right words to tell you all about it.  We were in the middle of lockdown, adjusting to life with all four of us – five if you include our dog, at home, all the time, and we didn’t know what was going to happen next.  Juggling everyday life, school work, new rules and not being able to go out as and when we wanted hit me hard.  The world beyond our house was also facing an unprecedented time, people were protesting throughout the world about Black Lives Matter, and my words somehow didn’t seem important enough to publish.

The thing is, that Louise’s novel is on the bookshelf in my dining room, and every time I went in there, it was sat there waiting for me in its bold and beautiful cover.  I need to tell you about this novel, about Lawrie and Evie, about why their story is so important for us all, and how we think everything has changed in our society, but in so many ways, there are so many attitudes that have not moved on from the time where Lawrie and Evie’s story is set.

Lawrie is part of the Windrush generation, who has come to our country in search of a better life for himself and his family.  He is in love with Evie, the girl next door, who lives with her mother Agnes, and they are like most young people, trying to find a way to spend some time together in a world where it is not seen as appropriate for unmarried couples to spend time together alone. Lawrie is working as a postman, but at night time, he and his friends form a jazz group and play at venues around London.  It seems that this is when Lawrie and London really come alive – Louise’s descriptions of the sights and sounds of this world which where Lawrie really can be himself are so vibrant and real that you feel you are sat in the corner watching these friends enjoy their lives.

One day, when Lawrie is on his post round, he is approached by an hysterical woman who has found the body of a baby in a nearby pond. When Lawrie is taken to the station to give his side of the story, it is clear from the moment that he enters the room, that the police are certain Lawrie killed the child. What is so unnerving and uncomfortable to read about this incident, is not only the judgements that the police unquestioningly put on Lawrie, but how casually and unconsciously their attitude and manner towards him is dripping with the racism they are so comfortable with.

With seemingly little to go on, Lawrie is released – to find that the tyres on his bike have been slashed.  This is what makes This Lovely City so difficult but so necessary to read. This is London in the 1950s. Lawrie and his friends were actively encouraged to come here by the government as part of the Windrush generation, to help Britain rebuild after the Second World War, but the shiny pamphlets and promises of a better life failed to mention the way in which they would be treated and the racist attitudes that they would encounter at every turn.

Lawrie may have been released, but as the baby who passed away was black, the police are convinced that the person who committed the crime must be too, and they step up their threats and intimidation, seemingly randomly targeting people in an attempt to illicit a confession from someone. The interesting thing in this investigation too is that Mrs Barratt, a white woman who found the child’s body is automatically discharged from the enquiry.

As the investigation continues, what is so strong in this narrative is that all this tension, suspicion and sobering sense of unease is set against the love story of Evie and Lawrie.  Her love binds him to her unquestioningly, and her determination to prove that Lawrie is innocent is the driving force throughout the novel.  Evie also faces casual racism on a daily basis, from people not taking her seriously at work, to those not wanting to sit near her on a bus. For me, these scenes were shameful to read, because they were so casual yet so ingrained in so many people.

All Lawrie and Evie want to do is to have the chance to be married, and to embrace the life that was tantalisingly promised to them by the very country that is so intent on destroying it. As the novel moves forward, it becomes clear that both Lawrie and Evie have hidden secrets from each other, frightened that revealing them could end their relationship.  Ultimately, it is only by realising that their love for each other is the most powerful and immovable force, that they can finally be honest with each other and live the life together that they deserve.

From the very moment you turn the first page, in This Lovely City, Louise Hare immerses you absolutely in London in the late 40’s and early 50’s.  The sights, sounds and world Lawrie and Evie are in are so clear and vibrant that it makes you lose yourself totally.  Both Lawrie and Evie are characters that not only are trying to find their way in this huge and sometimes cruel city, but they are also trying to find a way to be together totally honestly, when both have secrets they are desperately trying to hide from the person they love the most.

This Lovely City is a novel that will educate you, make you see how far we think we have come in terms of our understanding and condemnation of racism, but unflinchingly shows us how much there is still to do and how much further we have to go. At the heart of this unforgettable story and in every single page is the love story of Lawrie and Evie. All they want is to live together in peace, in the city they love, and their innate capacity for love and tolerance is perhaps the most important lesson we need to take from their enduring narrative.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you very much to Joe Thomas and HQ Stories for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.

 

All Adults Here by Emma Straub

 

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All Adults Here by Emma Straub

Published by Penguin Michael Joseph

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

 

What They Say..

Coming of age isn’t just for kids.

Astrid Strick has always tried to do her best for her three children. Now, they’re finally grown up – but you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

Elliott doesn’t have any idea who he really is, or how to communicate with his own sons. Porter is, at last, pregnant – but feels incapable of rising to the challenge. Nicky has fled to distant New Mexico, where he’s living the bohemian dream.

And Astrid herself is up to things that would make her children’s hair curl.

Until now, the family have managed to hide their true selves from each other. But when Nicky’s incorrigibly curious daughter Cecelia comes to stay, her arrival threatens to upturn everything . . .

What I Say

Let me start this blog post by making a confession to you all.  I had never read any Emma Straub before All Adults Here. If I tell you that during reading it I had to tell Gaby at Michael Joseph how brilliant it is, and that I have just ordered Emma’s novel Modern Lovers, that should give you some indication as to how much I loved this book. I was also going to do a video review for this blog tour, but after several (five) failed attempts, it seems that the only way I can articulate how much I loved this novel is to write it down.

Why did All Adults Here resonate so much with me so quickly? I just loved the characters in this novel. Emma’s skill in her writing is that she builds up a world where you can vividly see them as they are if they are existing in ours. Every page adds another layer of understanding and connection between Astrid Strick and her children.  They do things that all of us do – the everyday and mundane, they worry about each other, and often try to find the right words to talk to each other too, whilst all the time trying to navigate their way through their own lives the best they can.

Astrid is the matriarch of the family, and having lost her husband Russell a while ago, she is starting to realise that although she loved him, perhaps it is only now that she can really start to be herself as oppose to a wife and a mother.  Her children, Porter, Elliott and Nicky have all made lives for themselves, but perhaps not in the way that Astrid would have expected. Porter, desperate for a child has decided to use a sperm donor to ensure she becomes a mother. Elliott is married to Wendy, and they have twin sons – but Elliott is finding it hard to adapt to fatherhood, and he and Wendy are struggling to communicate.  Nicky and his wife Juliette and their daughter Cecelia haven’t seen Astrid for a while, and after Cecelia is bullied for protecting her classmate from a man they met on the internet, the decision is made to send Cecelia to live with Astrid for a while to give her the distance and stability she needs. It is interesting to see how when Cecelia is away from her parents and free to be who she wants, that she not only finds her voice again, but also makes a friendship with August that will change their lives for ever.

This is what worked so well for me about All Adults Here.  The children may have grown up, but they still need care and reassurance from Astrid.  When Astrid witnesses the death of her friend Barbara, she realises life is too short and decides to make certain decisions about her future that cause different reactions in each of her children – including telling them that she is in a relationship with her female hairdresser called Birdie. Astrid also realises she has not been the best mother to her children, and that she needs to address this with each of her children – but especially Elliott before it is too late.

For me, the novel also unflinchingly addressed many issues in an engaging and emotional way- there is adultery, the notion of parenting and motherhood, gender and sexuality, and ultimately how difficult it can be to stand up and tell people how you really feel, and what you really want – however old you are. It is touching to see Astrid attempt to reach her children by being open, but also to see how each child struggles with the different recollections of their childhood and relationship with their parents and each other too. Little by little, we learn not only about Astrid and her past, but each character is given the chance to absolutely come into their own, and we can start to understand why they behave as they do.

If you are looking for a novel packed with twists and revelations, then All Adults Here is probably not for you. I am a huge fan of novels about families – and for me, the more dysfunctional the better! Astrid, Porter, Elliot, Nicky, but especially for me Cecelia, are beautifully written characters, whose lives may seem far from our own, but just like us they have the same worries and concerns, and that is what makes this novel so special.

Emma Straub’s writing is tender, nuanced and understated, which packs such an emotional punch when you least expect it. I could have quite happily spent far more time with this family – and would love to see a sequel..!

All Adults Here is an intelligent and sensitive novel, that recognises we all may lead seemingly disparate and different lives, but understands absolutely that at the end of the day, our greatest need is to feel that we belong somewhere and with someone.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Gaby Young at Michael Joseph for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review and a place on the Blog Tour.

Please do check out what these other fabulous bloggers are saying too..

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Sea Wife by Amity Gaige

 

 

Sea Wife by Amity Gaige

Published by Fleet

Available online and at All Good Bookshops

 

What They Say

Juliet is failing to juggle motherhood and her anemic dissertation when her husband, Michael, informs her that he wants to leave his job and buy a sailboat. The couple are novice sailors, but Michael persuades Juliet to say yes. With their two kids – Sybil, age seven, and George, age two, Juliet and Michael set off for Panama, where their forty-four-foot sailboat awaits them – a boat that Michael has christened the Juliet.

The initial result is transformative: their marriage is given a gust of energy, and even the children are affected by the beauty and wonderful vertigo of travel. The sea challenges them all – and most of all, Juliet, who suffers from postpartum depression.

Sea Wife is told in gripping dual perspectives: Juliet’s first-person narration, after the journey, as she struggles to come to terms with the dire, life-changing events that unfolded at sea; and Michael’s captain’s log – that provides a riveting, slow-motion account of those same inexorable events.

What I Say

“I had held myself together all my life. Then I became a mother, twice, and I was not fine. I was the opposite of me.”

When I heard about Sea Wife, I was really interested to read it, because for me, a life on the ocean is one that I have never contemplated nor ever experienced.  I also thought it was interesting that the title immediately categorises Juliet, the main character  in such a powerful and definitive way.

At first glance, it might seem like Juliet and Michael have it all  – a home, two children and a life that they have constructed for themselves that satisfies what everyone in their social circle expects. They are the epitome of the American Dream. Michael works for an insurance company, and Juliet, a poet, is attempting to complete her PhD.

Unfortunately, beneath the veneer, Juliet and Michael are struggling. Both with their own emotional state, and their marriage. Juliet suffers from depression and has also suffered sexual abuse as a child and now her ‘ugly angels’ torment her, and and she is plagued by the feeling that she simply is not fit to be a mother. Michael feels trapped in his job, and is increasingly realising that he needs to do something to help Juliet and to try and open communication between them before their marriage disintegrates.

Michael’s decision is to buy a boat which he renames Juliet – something he later discovers is regarded by those in the sailing world as a bad omen.  He has to then persuade Juliet that by taking a year off, and having their children Sybil and George with them, that this is just what they all need to try and find their way back to each other.

The novel is told from a dual narrative perspective – via Juliet’s memories and the Captain’s Log that Michael keeps whilst on board.  Stylistically and linguistically it also creates two distinct stories for the reader as Michael’s writing is in bold and to the right hand side of the page, and Juliet’s is more free flowing and lyrical and it seems more at times to be a flow of consciousness. As the voyage progresses, it is interesting to see how Michael becomes less analytical and logical and instead uses his journal as a way of not only tracing his relationship, but also gaining a deeper understanding of the issues and divides within their marriage.

As they undertake their voyage, it seems like Michael was right, and that in moving away from the constraints they have so strictly adhered to, that Juliet and Michael are slowly able to see the person they fell in love with.  All the time, Amity ensures that the ocean is an ever present and omnipresent force.

At times it is passively part of the backdrop, which makes Michael and Juliet feel that they are in control and have done the right thing in coming away together.  However, they are also reminded of how dispensable and unimportant they are in the world when they have to tackle the storms and ferocious unpredictability of the sea.  It is those times that their marriage is most put to the test as Juliet has no experience of sailing and she is totally reliant on Michael’s knowledge to keep them all safe.

They may be on this voyage as a family, but the limited living space and emerging tensions in their marriage mean that as time passes, Juliet and Michael finally start to see each other at their most open and honest. They realise that politically they are poles apart, that Michael has secured a loan for the boat against their house, and they start to wonder whether they really have a future when the voyage is over.

Then Michael falls seriously ill, and Juliet is forced to make a decision that alters the course of their lives forever, and it ultimately means Juliet has to face the reality of her marriage and confront her own mental health issues too.

Sea Wife is an emotionally challenging and taut novel that will make you think about the relationships with those people closest to you, and how much we take for granted in the way we seamlessly go about our daily lives together. For Michael and Juliet, they chose to embark on this seemingly idyllically journey in an attempt to salvage their fractured marriage. Amity Gaige’s intriguing and realistic portrayals of Michael and Juliet’s world in all its brutal and unfiltered reality, make us understand that we may never truly know the person closest to us until we have no choice. Sea Wife also unapologetically makes us realise, that perhaps we never really knew them at all.

Thank you very much to Grace Vincent at Fleet for my gifted copy of Sea Wife in exchange for an honest review.

Please do see what the other bloggers on the tour are saying too..

The Cat And The City by Nick Bradley

 

The Cat and The City by Nick Bradley

Published by Atlantic Books

Available at all Good Bookshops and Online

 

What They Say:

In Tokyo – one of the world’s largest megacities – a stray cat is wending her way through the back alleys. And, with each detour, she brushes up against the seemingly disparate lives of the city-dwellers, connecting them in unexpected ways.

But the city is changing. As it does, it pushes her to the margins where she chances upon a series of apparent strangers – from a homeless man squatting in an abandoned hotel, to a shut-in hermit afraid to leave his house, to a convenience store worker searching for love. The cat orbits Tokyo’s denizens, drawing them ever closer.

 

What I Say:

As soon as I had seen the cover (shallow I know!) of Nick Bradley’s novel The Cat and The City, I knew I wanted to read it.

The novel is set in Tokyo, and each of the chapters could be read as a short story in its own right. Honestly, when I started the novel, I thought this is what I was reading. We meet a seemingly disparate cast of people, whose only connection to the plot seems to be that they live in Tokyo.

This is the brilliance of Nick’s writing, because as you read on, the same names start to appear, locations and families become common, and throughout it all, weaving its way through the streets of Tokyo is the singular figure of the cat. By the end of the novel, you understand that everything and everyone is connected, and Tokyo is a city where the actions of one person have unforeseen and sometimes life changing consequences for others.

We start with a young enigmatic woman called Naomi asking to have a map of Tokyo tattooed on her back, done in a traditional manner which will take months to complete. As a rebellious gesture, Kentaro the tattooist adds a cat to the design- except the cat moves around the design every time he works on it, and he starts to doubt his own sanity.

The story moves on to a homeless man called Ohashi, who once was a well known storyteller, but now makes his living by selling crushed cans he scavenges around the streets of Tokyo. He lives with the cat in a derelict hotel, after losing everything he had to drink and has been relentlessly haunted by the fact he left his daughter who was dying. He is estranged from his brother Taro who drives a cab and has his own story to tell.

Taro’s passengers include characters we meet further on in the book, including Flo, who works as a translator for a PR firm, and has dedicated her spare time to translate a novel by one of her favourite Japanese authors to give to her friend. Unfortunately, Flo is shattered when her friend presents her with a copy of one that has just been published, and wonders about what she is doing in the world and why. Flo was a really interesting character for me. She is an American living in Tokyo, and although she tries to fully submerge herself into Tokyo and the cultural life, you always get the sense she is slightly on the edge, and is trying to find her way and sense of identity in the world. Flo desperately wants to belong in Tokyo, and it is only by admitting this to her co-worker Kyoto that she can make her first tentative steps to do so.

Nick also constantly plays around with the novel as a stylistic genre. There are chapters which is the translation of the novel Flo has been working on, there are photos that one character posts to his social media on an evening out, and one of my favourite chapters – Hikikomori, Futoko & Neko is illustrated in the style of a manga novel – and it works perfectly!

The story of Hikikomori, Futoko & Neko was simply and cleverly told, as an agoraphobic young man finds his way back to the world through his friendship with Ken and their shared care of the cat who has been injured. When you find out that Ken asks Nao to write to him, and Nao is spotted by the cat going to the postbox;

He was going from lamppost to lamppost, hugging one as he went. A step at a time, cautious as a man in a war zone“.

It is writing like that, that honestly made me take a breath as you absolutely understand what Nao has gone through to reach that point. It is the realisation of how we are all linked by the things we do and the actions we take, which adds another level to this intricate and absorbing novel.

I learned so much about Tokyo and its culture and tradition from reading The Cat and The City, but do not think that this is an Instagram filtered perfect version of the world. You are taken to the heart and soul of Tokyo, and it is at times brutal, unpalatable and difficult to read about. Sex is often regarded as a soulless transaction and a means to an end, and some of the situations the characters face were very challenging for me to read, but I appreciate it is integral to the cohesion of the novel and the plot.

For me, at the very heart of The Cat and The City, is the notion of a human need to connect with others and to belong – be it to society or to another person. The central figure of the cat winds its way through the story, paving the way for people to find themselves and their families again. The cat is the impetus to help them understand that even in a huge city like Tokyo, sometimes you need to look around you to understand that life is waiting for you if you just have the courage to take the first step.

The Cat and The City is a brave, different and at times very unsettling novel, but one that will stay with me for a long time, and I am so glad I read it.

Negative Capability by Michèle Roberts

Negative Capability by Michèle Roberts

Published By Sandstone Press

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say:

Yesterday ended in disaster. Very late at night, I decided to write down everything that had happened; the only way I could think of coping.
So here goes.
 

So begins Michele Roberts’s intimate and honest account of the year after her latest novel has been rejected by her then publisher. Written with warmth and sensitivity, she navigates the difficult road from depression and anxiety to acceptance and understanding of the value of the friendships which nurture her and make life worth living – whatever happens.

 

What I Say:

“I’d rediscovered, recording them, the pleasures of doing ordinary things,

the pleasures of living day to day.”

I think like many people, I had always assumed that once an author has had a book published, every book they write is edited and it is a done deal that we will see it in the Bookshops.

Negative Capability is Michèle’s Diary – a book about what happens when her latest novel is rejected by her publishers. It is obviously a painful and awful experience for her, and I can imagine that everything you had planned about that book being published suddenly slips out of your hands slowly and absolutely out of your control.

As a response to this, she writes about what it is like to be an author with no book being published on the horizon. This is where it becomes a really absorbing and revealing read, as Michèle opens her heart and life totally to the reality of having to accept that you have no plans. The Negative Capability of the title refers to the idea that instead of reacting to a negative situation, you instead allow yourself to resign to the fact that yes, this is not a good place to be, but that it will get better.

What I really loved about Michèle’s writing is the fact that it is not linear, and it slides beautifully from one moment to the next. One minute she may be talking about her gardens, the next the passing of one of her friends, but it works so well because it is and authentic and visceral experience, and I felt as if I was sat having a drink with Michèle as she talked about her life.

Memories slide from one to the next, we learn about the families she comes into contact with, the lovers she has had, her visits to France and all the social niceties there and the etiquette one is expected to follow. I also felt that it was almost Michèle’s love letter to France, a way for us to understand the deep emotional connections she has to the country and to the people she loves there.  It is also a complete treat for our senses – her pitch perfect and evocative descriptions of the places she visits and the countryside she is in, only serves to draw us closer to her.

I felt that reading Negative Capability was like sitting with a friend who is chatting with you about what they have been going through. It is conversational, clever, witty and so refreshing to read a book by someone who is absolutely candid about every aspect of their life, be it positive or negative.

It is also absolutely impossible to talk about this book without making reference to the many and glorious references to all things food related!  There are descriptions of wonderful informal and simple breakfasts and lunches, of dinner parties and get togethers, and I defy anyone not to read this book and not immediately feel hungry.  The act of eating and being with other people and enjoying the preparation and eating of meals is also a major part of this book, and it made me think about how often for me, the act of eating and being with my family is a rushed and thoughtless one.  We need to understand the importance of being with each other and the joy that sharing food and conversation can bring, as oppose to wolfing down a meal and disconnecting from each other by going to different rooms, or staying in the same one and just looking at our screens.

As we follow Michèle through her year, she offers us insights into the world of writing and her processes.  I am not a writer, just a reader, but I found it really interesting to see how Michele explains the process of writing and the way in which a book goes from a creative impulse to a finished novel on a Bookshop Shelf.  Michele is always honest about every part of it, and I think that it made me understand and appreciate the art of writing so much more.  I realised how much I took for granted about the act of writing something, that I believed it was much more of a formulaic process and that the author went from A to B, but Michèle absolutely dispels that theory.

It is difficult to review Negative Capability, because although it is a relatively short book, it encompasses so much.  Within these pages, all life and death is here.  You are absolutely and totally in Michèle’s life constantly, and feel every emotion with her.  For me, one of the most affecting parts of the book, is when she is talking about grief, after losing people close to her.  Her pain and incredulity at the fact these people are no longer here are translated to the page so sensitively, that for anyone who has lost someone, the words absolutely resonate with you.

Negative Capability is a book that defies categorisation, but it is all the more richer for it. It is a book to be savoured and lost in, and one that will absolutely make you think about many of the things you take for granted on a daily basis, and stop and appreciate everything and everyone around you even more.

Thank you so much to Kealey Rigden at FMcM Associates for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.

It’s Not You, It’s Me..

The subject of this Blog Post is possibly highly controversial, and no doubt I am going to lose a few (lots) of followers after posting it, but right from the start, I have always promised to be honest with you all.

Deep breath, here goes.

I can’t do electronic books. I just can’t.

I know that especially in these challenging times when the amazing and hardworking publicists I talk to have been kind enough to offer electronic versions of their novels without hesitation to help me blog, when it is environmentally a better option, that it seems the sensible and correct choice, but honestly, it’s not for me.

My head tells me that using Netgalley opens up a whole world of bookish possibilities, that right at the click of a button I can ask to read advance copies of hundreds of the newest releases. A whole new library of tantalising choices are mine, just there for the clicking. I can buy an e-book and it can be ready to read on my device in seconds, and yet the very thought of doing it turns me cold.

Believe me when I tell you I’ve tried. I fired up my old Kindle Paperwhite (after spending an hour trying to find the charger!), I have downloaded an e-reader app to all my Devices, and I even briefly re-instated my Netgalley account just for this reason.

I can do this, I thought, the book is exactly the same, it’s just the pages have to be swiped instead of turned, and I can’t use an almond magnum wrapper as a bookmark (might have done this once), but I was telling myself it’s just the same thing in a different format.

The thing is, no matter how much I tried to convince myself, and attempted to read the words on screen, for me, it really wasn’t the same.

I love everything about having a physical book in my hands. From the moment in the library or Bookshop you see a cover that pulls you towards it and you can’t help but pick it up and feel the weight of it in your hands. The feeling you get when you have it put in a bag (pre-lockdown) and handed to you or the parcel delivered in an appropriately socially distanced manoeuvre (during lockdown), the delicious sense of anticipation as you take it out and read the blurb, and check that the corners haven’t been bashed and that it looks even better than you remember. All of that is before you have even opened it to read it.

Why do I love reading physical books so much? For me, like lots of other people, the majority of my life is increasingly governed by my need to be in stretching distance of a screen. My husband jokingly refers to my phone and laptop as my office, and he is right. Every piece of my life is stored in these pieces of equipment, and they are undoubtedly a vital part of my day.

Truthfully, I just want to disconnect from the digital world for a while and lose myself completely in the act of reading. Snuggled up in bed, or lying on a sofa, mug of coffee and some biscuits in front of me, just me and my book is my idea of heaven. The only sounds are the pages being turned and the crunching of the biscuits, and that’s enough.

It’s also the fact that seeing all my books on my shelves is not only something visually beautiful, but that each one of them has a memory folded into their pages. I remember where I was when I read this book, or who bought me that one and why. Maybe the person who left me this novel may not be here any more. I can still open the book using the bookmark on page 217 when she had to stop reading because she didn’t have the strength to turn the pages. I can hold it in my arms and remember her for a moment, and how she was the one who helped me fall in love with books.

Do e-books bring the same memories to your reading? Maybe I’m missing something, and I’ve got this all wrong? Without a doubt having all the books on a device means you can access lots of books at any time, and it’s a lot easier to take on holiday. Yet one of the few joys of packing for me is going through my bookshelves and deciding which books I am going to squeeze into my case, and adding a couple (four) into my handbag just to make sure I don’t run out. Don’t even get me started on the joy that is finding a Bookshop in the place you are staying!

One of the many realities that has come to light during this strange time is that as we come out of Lockdown that it’s a real possibility going forward proofs of new releases may be only available to bloggers digitally. With my rational head on, that absolutely makes sense. Much less cost for the publisher, the ease of sending the book, and the fact you can start reading immediately.

It’s just not for me. All it means is doing what I’ve been doing for years – using the brilliant libraries, treating myself at a Bookshop or simply selecting one of my own books from my crowded shelves.

Book Blogging is just that – talking about the books you have read whenever they were published, and sometimes I have forgotten that and have put the Fear Of Missing Out above taking the time to look at the books I already have – and that’s another blog post entirely!

Reading is reading however you choose to do it, be it on an e-reader, on a phone or a physical book and this is only my opinion. What ultimately unites us all especially in these strange times is our love of books and the joy we get from talking about them, however we choose to read.

My name is Clare Reynolds and I don’t like reading e-books – and I feel so much better for telling you!

Love

Clare xx

Break These Chains by Kirsteen Stewart

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Break These Chains by Kirsteen Stewart

Published By White Fox Publishing

Available from all good Bookshops and online

What They Say.

London.
1965.
It is not all wonder and delight.

Serious, violet-eyed 19-year-old Lydia is scared of love and passion, handicapped by the secrets and trauma of her childhood on the Solway Firth. But she is ready for real life to begin.

In a world before the pill, her defences are tested when she falls in love with a sports car mechanic, part of a smart, shady circle. Weaving her uncertain way through the glittering opportunities and pitfalls of a changing society, the old-fashioned values of her doting grandmother and her serious civil service job, it is when Lydia inherits a brasserie in run-down Notting Hill that her journey really begins.

But can she find her way through love and loss, family secrets and the first stirrings of feminism?

What I Say.

I saw a picture of Break These Chains by Kirsteen Stewart from White Fox Publishing, and read that it was all about a young woman in London in the Sixties trying to find her own identity in a world that was in a great state of change. I have to tell you that I was absolutely drawn to it straight away – not to mention the fabulous cover!

Fortunately, the lovely people at White Fox Publishing very kindly agreed to send me a copy, and I am so very glad that they did.

Lydia is a young girl who has had to deal with an absent father and a disconnected and hostile mother in the Solway Firth. When her mother is unable to cope with Lydia, but seemingly cannot stop looking for relationships with a number of unsuitable men, her Grandmother Eveline steps in and takes over. Lydia is sent to spend her childhood with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Edmund. When she is accepted to University, Lydia is suspended after she bites another student for taunting her about her mother.

Eveline decides that the only thing to be done is for her to take charge of Lydia’s wellbeing, and is determined that she should follow what is expected of her and find a nice young man to marry and settle down with.

The only thing is that no one has actually asked Lydia what she wants. A sympathetic University tutor secures an interview for Lydia at the Department of Education, and she decides that working there temporarily has to be better than simply settling for a life limited by the social aspirations of her family.

What is so refreshing about Kirsteen’s writing is not only do you absolutely feel you are seeing and feeling the whole world around you due to the evocative descriptions of the Sixties, but that Lydia’s frustration at being shaped into a role she doesn’t want is always right at the heart of the narrative.

Lydia meets her former University friend Fred, as he is released from prison for theft. Standing right next to her are Dave and Marcus – two of Fred’s friends. They are part of the London social scene that has eluded Lydia for so long, and along with their friend Auriol, she suddenly realises how much the world has to offer beyond the confines of her Grandmother’s world. Marcus and Lydia start a relationship, and his job as a sports car mechanic to the rich and famous means that Lydia gets the chance to travel with him and finally experience life.

At the same time, Eveline has met a young playwright called Arthur Shawcross outside a theatre, and slowly they embark on an unexpected and mutually beneficial friendship. Arthur finds a mother figure who can give him the reassurance and guidance he needs, while Eveline starts to confide in Arthur about the complicated and challenging secrets of her family. As they grow closer, little by little, Eveline starts to understand the way in which the world around her is changing and understands it is not as foreboding as she believed. She also asks Arthur to write a play about her family, and gives him access to all her family documents and correspondence, with Lydia as an integral part to the plot.

When Eveline passes away, her family is shocked to hear that Lydia is left a brasserie in Notting Hill. No one knew that it was part of the family property portfolio and are even more confused as to why she has left it to Lydia. This is a huge decision for Lydia. Although she and Marcus are in love, he has moved home to look after his late father’s farm and wants her there with him.

The thing is, now Lydia finally has the chance to shape her own future and find her own identity free from the constraints of her family.

Break These Chains is a clever and engaging story of a time that doesn’t seem so long ago, but was a very different world for young women. Their identity and self worth is inextricably linked with how much they conform to what is expected of them, and for those, like Lydia who choose to make their own decisions, are regarded with disdain and treated with suspicion.

There is also the idea of women belonging to men and being reliant on them too throughout the novel. Marcus loves Lydia, but he lays down the rules for their relationship, he buys the clothes for the way he wants her to dress, and he becomes resentful when she doesn’t spend enough time with him at the farm – although we learn why later on in the novel. Lydia’s boss at the Department of Education believes she has the potential and intelligence to progress in her career – with a caveat that if she is ‘nice’ to him, he can put in a word for her. This is the underlying notion of Break These Chains – it might be a man’s world, but can Lydia find the self belief and determination to do what she wants as oppose to what society expects.

Break These Chains was a revelation for me, in terms of the fact that not only did the perfect descriptions make me love London even more, but really brought home not only how far we have come in terms of women’s rights, but also how much further we have to go. You cannot help but like and admire Lydia and Eveline, both who may be separated by their generations and outlook, but are in reality far more alike than they could imagine. It is a love letter to both the Sixties and to the women who were determined to ensure future generations are finally able to be in charge of their own destinies.

Thank you very much to White Fox Publishing and Kirsteen Stewart for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.