A Tidy Ending by Joanna Cannon

A Tidy Ending by Joanna Cannon

Published by The Borough Press

Available from West End Books

and all Good Bookshops

What They Say

A NICE, NORMAL HOUSE

Linda has lived around here ever since she fled the dark events of her childhood in Wales. Now she sits in her kitchen, wondering if this is all there is – pushing the Hoover round and cooking fish fingers for tea is a far cry from the glamorous lifestyle she sees in the glossy catalogues coming through the door for the house’s previous occupant.

A NICE, NORMAL HUSBAND

Terry isn’t perfect – he picks his teeth, tracks dirt through the house and spends most of his time in front of the TV. But that seems fairly standard – until he starts keeping odd hours at work, at around the same time young women start to go missing in the neighbourhood.

A NICE, NORMAL LIFE…

If Linda could just track down Rebecca, who lived in the house before them, maybe some of that perfection would rub off on her. But the grass isn’t always greener: you can’t change who you really are, and there’s something nasty lurking behind the net curtains on Cavendish Avenue…

What I Say

How often in our lives do we walk around not really noticing the people who are right in front of our eyes? As the world becomes a place where women are expected to conform to a certain aesthetic and behaviour to be deemed normal and seen, there are so many women for whom simply existing and settling for what they have means that they become invisible to the world around them, in spite of the hopes and dreams they may have once had.

Linda could easily be described as one of those women. She is married to Terry, and her life is now best described as one of routine and mundanity. While Terry goes out to work, Linda splits her time between looking after their house and working part time in a local charity shop. So far so unremarkable.

Yet as the novel’s narrative slowly and deliciously unfurls, we start to see that Linda has not only had an unsettling childhood, due to her father being alleged to have done something while he was a piano teacher, but that she also seems fixated on ensuring that she and Terry move into a very specific house. Linda seems to know what she wants and won’t rest until she gets it, and right from the start, where we realise Linda is in some kind of psychiatric ward, do we understand that this is a layered and intriguing story.

As catalogues arrive at Linda and Terry’s house for the previous tenant Rebecca, Linda starts to open them and is transfixed. They promise a world filled with glamour and sophistication, and Linda starts to wonder if she tried to be more like the person Rebecca clearly is, whether she would have a chance to finally be seen at last.

Meanwhile, Terry is going to work and coming home, and expecting his dinner on the table, and for Linda to be there for him. As he increasingly spends more time at work, the news is filled with stories of young girls going missing, and as the reader, our imagination starts to wonder exactly where Terry has been and what he has been doing when he isn’t at work and hasn’t arrived home..

While Terry becomes increasingly absent from the house and their marriage, Linda becomes more and more obsessed with Rebecca. Using some incredibly clever deduction, she manufactures ‘bumping’ into Rebecca and her boyfriend Jolyon. Meeting them only fuels Linda’s desire to be more like Rebecca, copying her hair and clothes, and believing that she has found a new friend. Yet Rebecca and Jolyon see her as an unwitting victim for their money making ‘scheme’. In a heartbreaking scene for the reader, Rebecca believes she has found the perfect candidate to be her new cleaner – which Linda sees as an extension of their friendship – and a way to really get close to Rebecca.

From the moment that Linda slides into Rebecca’s life, Linda starts to feel more confident and ready to have the life she feels she truly deserves. In doing so, she sets off a chain of events that no one could ever have foreseen, and one thing is certain – everyone in Linda’s life will never be the same again.

A Tidy Ending is a brilliantly thoughtful and captivating novel that shows the lengths we will go to in order to protect those we love. Joanna’s prose completely articulates the minutiae and at times mundanity of every person’s every day life, our hopes and dreams, and there were lines and paragraphs that were so perfectly written I wanted to underline them. Joanna understands emotion and the psyche of people so well, that she really effortlessly connects you with the characters, because although you may not like what they do, you understand why they do it.

Joanna has written an absolutely absorbing and utterly convincing story about a woman who refuses to be ignored. Linda is a wonderful character, whose seemingly insignificant life and treatment by those around her, makes us want to protect and look after her, and want only what she wants for herself. What Joanna’s pitch perfect characterisation and writing shows us, is that the people we pay the least attention to, sometimes should be those we watch the most.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Ann Bissell and The Borough Press for my gifted proof copy.

You can buy your copy of A Tidy Ending here.

One Day I Shall Astonish The World by Nina Stibbe

Published by Penguin Viking on April 21st 2022

Available from West End Lane Books

and all Good Bookshops

What They Say

Susan and Norma have been best friends for years, at first thrust together by force of circumstance (a job at The Pin Cushion, a haberdashery shop in 1990s Leicestershire) and then by force of character (neither being particularly inclined to make friends with anyone else). But now, thirty years later, faced with a husband seeking immortality and Norma out of reach on a wave of professional glory, Susan begins to wonder whether she has made the right choices about life, love, work, and, most importantly, friendship. 

Nina Stibbe’s new novel is the story of the wonderful and sometimes surprising path of friendship: from its conspiratorial beginnings, along its irritating wrong turns, to its final gratifying destination.

What I Say

Before I tell you about Nina’s novel, and what I think of it, I have a confession to make. I usually write my reviews by referring to the notes I have taken as I write it,

I didn’t write a single note about One Day I Shall Astonish The World because I was too absorbed, and didn’t want to put it down! I was sat outside on my patio on Easter Sunday (possibly with an Easter egg!) reading it, laughing out loud and reading numerous passages to Mr Years of Reading.

It’s a brilliantly funny, incisive and emotional novel that absolutely understands not only the complexities of female friendships, but also the realities of life for so many women that it’s impossible not to be genuinely moved by it.

Susan and Norma are lifelong friends, who first meet when Susan starts working in The Pin Cushion, the haberdashery shop that Norma’s family owns. Norma breezes into Susan’s life and wants to learn about literature from her so that she can apply for courses and leave her life at The Pin Cushion behind.

While Norma forges ahead with an academic career, Susan has stayed in Brankham, married Ray – the marketing manager of the local golf club and and has dropped out of her degree course to be a full time Mum to their daughter, Honey. Norma seems scornful of the life choices that Susan has made, and yet makes her own romantic choices based on the opportunities the men afford her. She marries her first husband, Hugo Pack-Allen, the man who has invested in The Pin Cushion, and Susan cannot understand what the attraction is. Unfortunately, after they Norma and Hugo are married, certain proclivities come to light that reveals Hugo to be someone who is not what Norma thought, and a twist of fate means that she finds herself alone a lot sooner than she thought.

As Norma sets on a path of carving out a career in academia for herself, Susan is feeling increasingly trapped at home. She is knows she is ever more isolated from Ray, and when they discover Ray has a daughter called Grace from a previous relationship, Susan starts to question exactly what she is getting from the life that seems to be whizzing past her without her making any mark in the world.

It’s also important to say that Norma and Susan’s relationship is an interesting one. They are in each other’s lives, but there always seems to be an ebb and flow in the relationship, and they seem to take a delight in the passive aggressive towards each other. Yet that is what made me love them even more. The fact that they quite frankly wind each other up and sometimes seem to take delight in the other woman’s misfortune is what adds another dimension for me. I loved the fact that their friendship wasn’t saccharine sweet and cosy confidences – because friendship isn’t always like that.

The turning point is when Susan decides to apply for a role at the local University – first in the Estates Office and eventually she ends up working for the Vice Chancellor. As someone who worked in a University, I can tell you that Nina has absolutely nailed what it is like to work in a place like that! On the one hand it is steeped in tradition with a dedicated group of people determined to ensure the University never changes, on the other is the outside ever changing world and the voices of those who know that in order to thrive, it has to understand the very students it needs to come through it’s doors.

Susan feels herself increasingly drawn towards the enigmatic VC and finds herself romantically imagining a life with him, Norma is suddenly again putting herself front and centre into Susan’s life. She decides she wants the VC for herself – while also keeping other relationships on the back burner just in case! Norma soon marries the VC and Susan wonders if she ever really had a friend in her at all.

As we follow both women through their lives from 1990 right up to the onset of the Covid-19 Pandemic, we see how their worlds weave in and out of each others, and how whether they like it or not, in the absence of other female friends, they have this really deep, but not always comfortable bond that always brings them back together.

One Day I Shall Astonish The World is an incredibly funny and touching novel about women, friendship and the lives we somehow find ourselves in. For me, one of the many brilliant things about Nina’s writing is that she has that perfect balance of humour and emotion. She intuitively understands her characters and it is testament to her writing that each and every one of them is unforgettable and relatable, and that is why you can’t put this book down.

If I had to tell you just one reason why I loved One Day I Shall Astonish The World, I would say that in a world which at the moment for me seems unsettling and confusing, this book brought me such utter joy, that to be able to lose myself completely in it was just what I needed until I really did have to put it down. That for me is the sign of a brilliant writer, and Nina Stibbe is undoubtedly that.

I absolutely loved it, and this is without doubt one of my favourite books of this year.

Thank you so much to Ella Harold and Penguin Viking for my gifted Proof copy.

You can buy your copy from West End Lane Books here.

Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart

Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart

Published by Picador on April 14th 2022

Available from West End Lane Books and

all Good Bookshops

What They Say

Born under different stars, Protestant Mungo and Catholic James live in a hyper-masculine world. They are caught between two of Glasgow’s housing estates where young working-class men divide themselves along sectarian lines, and fight territorial battles for the sake of reputation. They should be sworn enemies if they’re to be seen as men at all, and yet they become best friends as they find a sanctuary in the doocot that James has built for his prize racing pigeons. As they begin to fall in love, they dream of escaping the grey city, and Mungo must work hard to hide his true self from all those around him, especially from his elder brother Hamish, a local gang leader with a brutal reputation to uphold.

But the threat of discovery is constant and the punishment unspeakable. When Mungo’s mother sends him on a fishing trip to a loch in Western Scotland, with two strange men behind whose drunken banter lie murky pasts, he needs to summon all his inner strength and courage to get back to a place of safety, a place where he and James might still have a future.

What I Say

The thing about reading a Douglas Stuart novel is that you know your heart at some point is going to break, because the incredible beauty of his writing pitched against the unforgiving and brutal world his protagonists live in, only serves to make you want to save and protect them. To read Young Mungo is a challenging, at times incredibly upsetting and heart rending experience, but one that gives you hope as to the power and overwhelming nature of love in all its forms.

Young Mungo lives with his erratic alcoholic mother nicknamed Mo-Maw, his sister Jodie and his brother Hamish on the Protestant side of a Glasgow housing estate. While Mo-Maw disappears for days leaving her children with no food and a stack of unpaid bills, Jodie is dreaming of a life far away from the Glasgow housing estate and her relationship with her teacher, while the tyrannical Hamish is spending his days leading a group of young Protestant men, as well as terrorising anyone that dares to cross him.

The narrative moves between two stories. That of Mungo and his day to day existence on the estate, and of a fishing trip his mother arranges for him to take with two extremely dubious individuals, St Christopher and Gallowgate. They are attempting to ‘make a man of him’, and by taking him far away into the Scottish countryside, it soon becomes clear that the men have much more sinister intentions towards Mungo, and will use him however they want.

As we read about the fishing trip early on, we aren’t sure as to why this has happened and what Mungo is supposed to be getting out of it. Yet as the story of his time on the estate is revealed, we start to understand why his mother was so insistent he went. Mungo is gay and has fallen in love with James, a Catholic boy who lives on the other side of the housing estate, who finds solace in looking after his doocot and pigeons. Like Mungo, he comes from a fractured family – his mother has left, and his father works on the oil rigs leaving James alone for long periods of time.

Mungo and James become closer, and it is clear that the attraction they feel towards each other is also clouded by the fact that they know the incredible prejudice and immense danger they will face from those around them if they are seen together. Their idyllic bubble is soon burst, and Mo-Maw makes the decision to send Mungo away with two men who in fact turn out to be the ones who treat him as nothing more than their plaything.

Young Mungo shows the depth of love that Mungo has for his family, wanting to feel loved by his mother, knowing that Jodie needs to leave their lives to grow, and in spite of the violent and destructive way Hamish lives his life, Mungo still turns up for him when they need to face the Catholic gang on his estate. Ultimately they will show their love for Mungo, and that is what makes us realise that love comes in many forms.

As always, Douglas’ writing is utterly captivating, with the every day mundane reality of life on the housing estate contrasted with the beauty and peace of the natural world, seen through the eyes of a young man who is experiencing it for the first time. The characters are not perfect, but that is what makes them three dimensional and real. They are all in their own way trying to make the best of what they have, and their ways of coping may not be easy to read, but you understand how they are all trying to find their place in the world.

I have to be honest and say that at times I had to put Young Mungo down because the sexual and physical violence were too much for me. The thing is, in spite of that, I still came back to it and carried on reading because Douglas instinctively knows how to make you feel this deep connection to all the characters and for me, especially Mungo and Jodie.

Mungo and James and the love they have for each other is not understood or accepted by all the people around them. You want Mungo and James to have a life together because you understand that they need each other to feel alive. In a world where so many people do what others want them to, we learn from Mungo and James that the bravest thing of all is to be with the person who gives you the strength to stand up for what you truly want and deserve.

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

You can buy Young Mungo from West End Lane books here.

The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson

Published by Mantle

17th March 2022

Available from West End Lane Books and all Good Bookshops

What They Say

Meet the Hanrahan family, gathering for a momentous weekend as famous artist and notorious egoist Ray Hanrahan prepares for a new exhibition of his art – the first in many decades – and one he is sure will burnish his reputation for good.

His three children will be there: beautiful Leah, always her father’s biggest champion; sensitive Patrick, who has finally decided to strike out on his own; and insecure Jess, the youngest, who has her own momentous decision to make . . .

And what of Lucia, Ray’s steadfast and selfless wife? She is an artist, too, but has always had to put her roles as wife and mother first. What will happen if she decides to change? For Lucia is hiding secrets of her own, and as the weekend unfolds and the exhibition approaches, she must finally make a choice.

The longer the marriage, the harder truth becomes . . .

What I Say

When Camilla at Picador very kindly sent me a copy of The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson, I knew right away that it ticked a lot of the boxes of things I love in a novel.

Obnoxious characters? Check.

All about love and marriage? Check.

Looking at women as mothers and wives? Check.

A plot about art? Check.

The fact is, The Exhibitionist has all these elements, and is also a very incisive and funny novel, filled with moments that make your toes curl, and nod your head in recognition.

The Hanrahan family live in a rundown house in North London. Lucia and Ray Hanrahan have three grown up children – Jess, who is emotionally and geographically distant, stepson Patrick, who is awkward and uneasy and has moved to a caravan in the garden, and the precocious Leah, who has appointed herself Ray’s guardian and protector.

Lucia and Ray are both artists, and on a weekend in February 2010, Ray is having an exhibition of his work.

Here’s the thing. Ray Hanrahan is quite frankly one of the most awful, self absorbed, narcissistic and controlling characters you will ever meet. He is so hideous to everyone around him – especially Lucia, that it is painful to watch.

His belief in himself as an artist and the adoration he demands, dominates everything in the Hanrahan household. Lucia is a successful artist in her own right, yet she has spent her life suppressing her own dreams and ambitions to ensure everyone else in the Hanrahan household can achieve theirs.

Now that the children are grown up, for the first time she is realising that not only do people recognise her artistic worth and prowess, but is also acknowledging that she has her own needs and desires. Her involvement with a local MP called Priya is making her see that underneath all those years of subjugation, there is a woman who has a whole world of possibilities just waiting for her. Lucia just needs to find the strength to assert herself.

As the weekend builds to an unexpected crescendo, Lucia starts to see her life through the gaze of others, and feels upset at what others may believe to be her life. All her children are struggling to articulate what they actually want as they are afraid of upsetting Ray in any way, while Ray blusters around behaving like the egotistical maniac he is. We also discover from Lucia’s narrative that Ray cheated on her when she was recovering from cancer – and has invited his former mistress to the exhibition.

The unveiling of the lauded exhibition provokes many different reactions from those who have been assembled by Leah and Ray, and to say too much would spoil your enjoyment. Suffice it to say that the grand reveal also seems to ignite something in Lucia and her children, especially Patrick and Jess, and it is as if being confronted with the reality of Ray’s work wakes them up and leads to them to making decisions they may never have believed possible.

The Exhibitionist is a brilliant and thought provoking novel, that I really loved. Charlotte Mendelson has created a character in Ray Hanrahan that will make your jaw drop and your skin crawl, but I think we needed to have a character like him to make this narrative so effective. Ray is emblematic of those men who believe that their creativity and talent is always superior to the women who love them, because the thought that their partner might in fact be the more talented and more lauded person is more than their artistic ego can handle. Watching Lucia slowly recognise the innate power she has had all along in the marriage and in her art is a joy to behold, and Charlotte Mendelson slowly and deliciously unfurls Lucia’s self awareness with incredibly satisfying results.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Camilla Elworthy at Picador for a finished copy of The Exhibitionist.

You can buy your copy from West End Lane Books here.

The Fell by Sarah Moss

The Fell by Sarah Moss

Published by Picador on November 11th

Available from West End Lane Books and

all Good Bookshops

What They Say

At dusk on a November evening in 2020 a woman slips out of her garden gate and turns up the hill. Kate is in the middle of a two-week quarantine period, but she just can’t take it any more – the closeness of the air in her small house, the confinement. And anyway, the moor will be deserted at this time. Nobody need ever know.

But Kate’s neighbour Alice sees her leaving and Matt, Kate’s son, soon realizes she’s missing. And Kate, who planned only a quick solitary walk – a breath of open air – falls and badly injures herself. What began as a furtive walk has turned into a mountain rescue operation . . .

Unbearably suspenseful, witty and wise, The Fell asks probing questions about the place the world has become since March 2020, and the place it was before. This novel is a story about compassion and kindness and what we must do to survive, and it will move you to tears.

What I Say

To write about a family going through a period of self isolation many of us have lived through is an interesting premise. In some ways, we may feel exasperated that we are reading about something that was so all consuming that we don’t need to see it in our literature, but at the same time for me, reading about other families experiences and ways of dealing with it made me feel more connected to others.

In The Fell, Sarah Moss has perfectly articulated what it means to live through such a complicated and unsettling time, whilst also ensuring there is a very human and relatable story at the heart of the novel.

Kate, like so many people is being forced to self isolate after being in contact with someone who has Covid. Having no symptoms herself, she and her son Matt are stuck in their cottage in the Peak District. Matt seemingly loves the prospect of lie ins, massive gaming sessions and a break from everyday life. Kate on the other hand is not coping at all. Right from the start you can see how she feels confined by the rules which means she can only venture as far as the garden.

Tired of cleaning the house, unable to settle on ways to keep herself occupied, she is left alone with her thoughts and she is not coping. For a woman who is used to taking a backpack and walking wherever she likes, whenever she likes, we understand how frustrated and hemmed in she must feel by the law which is imposed on her and how little control she has over her situation.

When she decides to leave the cottage and go for a walk, rationalising that as it is at dusk she won’t see anyone, and her familiarity with her environment means she can be out and back without anyone knowing, I completely understood why she decided to do it.

Their next door neighbour Alice, is widowed and her immediate family live far away. She is shielding due to her immune system being compromised by chemotherapy. Alice has been relying on Kate and Matt to help her get the supplies she needs as well as them giving her some much needed human interaction. Alice’s narrative is an interesting and necessary one, because on the one hand she realises how much she has in terms of financial security and a family at the end of a zoom call, but she misses the basic human interactions. As a daughter whose widowed Dad was in Wales during the lockdown, it was at times hard to read Alice’s words, because I kept thinking of my Dad, and although he is not an emotional man, he too had so little face to face interaction or hugs during that time, I just wanted to get in my car and drive to see him.

This is also why Kate’s actions are understandable. Many people would try and rationalise it by focusing on reasons why in our situation it doesn’t count, and why it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, and that everyone else is doing it, but always at the back of our mind are the same concerns Kate has. She is meant to be self isolating, and being found out means she could be faced with a fine she can’t afford – especially now the café she works in is closed, and she can’t get gigs singing at the pub like she used to.

Then Kate falls and badly injures herself. With no phone she realises that by alerting people, she runs the risk of legal action and losing what little stability she and Matt have. She is completely conflicted, but the thought of Matt is what makes her determined to try and get home in spite of her extensive injuries. It is only when Matt becomes concerned and attempts to talk to Alice in a really touching scene where he is making sure he is following the rules and is always at an appropriate distance, Alice realises what has happened and raises the alarm.

The interwoven narratives of the four main characters are an effective device for Sarah Moss to give us different perspectives on Kate’s actions. Matt doesn’t know where his Mum is, and can’t reach her because she has left her phone behind, Alice sees her leave but doesn’t know what to do and doesn’t want to get her into trouble, and for Rob, part of the Rescue Team who is mobilised to help find her, he has to explain to his self obsessed daughter why he has to find the missing woman and cut short their time together.

The novella is written as almost a stream of consciousness which I have to admit took me a few pages to get into, but once you start, you understand exactly why this is the perfect form. You are party to each character’s thoughts, and see like us the way their minds dart around from topic to topic. We learn about Alice’s happy marriage and Kate’s experience of a violent relationship and a dull marriage, of Matt’s worries about his Mum and Rob’s determination to both try and do his job and keep his daughter happy.

The Fell perfectly captures what it felt like to live through this lockdown. We rationally understood how it was critically important to ensure we we stayed at home, even when it made no sense, but it seems that the enforced isolation also made what we weren’t allowed to do seem even more desirable and necessary. The sense of claustrophobia, families forced to spend all day every day together without respite or a chance to see others only served to exacerbate our need to do the most basic of things we had never considered before. To be able to walk and experience nature, to go to the shops, to see and connect with people outside our bubbles became things we understood we had so often taken for granted. This is why I believe The Fell will resonate so deeply with so many people.

Sarah Moss’ writing works so well because it is not the grand gestures or explosive events she talks about, it is the small things and everyday routines we all understand and connect with. There is also this sense of how nature and the world beyond our doorstep is so incredibly important, and how small and insignificant we can feel when we are lost in it. It is another thing we can’t control, and Sarah’s beautiful and measured prose only adds to the sense of awareness as to how fragile our world is.

The Fell may not be very long, but when I had finished it, I kept thinking about it, especially what Kate had gone through, because I had felt it too. You can feel Kate’s frustration at her situation seeping through the pages, and her rationale for stepping out of her front door is understandable because hand on heart, we all felt it, lived through it and have had to deal with a new and unpredictable world that we have been forced to navigate.

I absolutely loved it.

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

You can buy it from West End Lane Books here.

Chouette by Claire Oshetsky

Chouette By Claire Oshetsky

Published by Virago Press on 4th November

Available from West End Lane Books and All Good Bookshops

What They Say

A fierce and darkly joyful fable about mothering an unusual child from an electric new voice.

Tiny is pregnant. Her husband is delighted. ‘It’s not yours,’ she tells him. ‘This baby will be an owl-baby.’ Tiny’s always been an outsider, and she knows her child will be different.

When Chouette is born, Tiny’s husband and family are devastated by her condition and strange appearance. Doctors tell them to expect the worst. Chouette won’t learn to walk; she never speaks; she lashes out when frightened and causes chaos in public. Tiny’s husband wants to make her better: ‘Don’t you want our daughter to have a normal life?’ But Tiny thinks Chouette is perfect the way she is.

As Tiny and her husband fight over what’s right for their child, Chouette herself is growing. In her fierce self-possession, her untameable will, she teaches Tiny to break free of expectations – no matter what it takes.

Savage, startling, possessed of a biting humour and wild love, Chouette is a dark modern fable about mothering an unusual child. It will grip you in its talons and never let go.

What I Say

When I heard about Chouette, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The premise that a woman is carrying an owl-baby that she has conceived after sleeping with an owl just seems to be so incredibly eccentric that it couldn’t possibly work.

The thing is, it absolutely does. Chouette may be like nothing you have read before, but this is a novel about parenting a child who does not conform to what the world expects, and as a Mum of a child with special needs, it could not have been more pertinent and emotional.

When Tiny discovers that she is pregnant, she is stunned. She doesn’t want a baby, but is insistent that this is an owl-baby, not as she calls the other babies, a dog-baby. Her husband doesn’t understand what she means and is concerned for her mental health. Yet as the pregnancy progresses, Tiny becomes bonded to the owl-baby she is convinced she is carrying, and is determined to love it.

As Chouette grows in Tiny’s womb, she starts to understand the intense ferocity of maternal love, and irrespective of her husband and his family, she is driven by a need to ensure that she keeps her baby safe. Having always felt to be an outsider herself, she doesn’t feel that she fits in with her husband’s family, and Chouette’s behaviour during pregnancy only serves to distance her from her husband who feels unable to connect with his wife. When Chouette is born and taken to the special babycare unit, her husband is away, and her in-laws rush to her side, but Tiny decides to take her daughter home in spite of the medical advice to the contrary. Tiny is literally blinded by love, and knows already that although her daughter is very physically and intellectually different to other babies, she is hers, and only she can understand what Chouette needs.

While up to this point the novel has seemed to have a strange and mythical tone, as you are never really quite sure what is real, what is imagined, and whether Tiny’s insistence as to the identity of Chouette’s father is representative of an altered mental state or is in fact a reality, suddenly one thing becomes very clear.

Chouette is not like other children.

The way in which Tiny and her husband and his family react to her is an interesting and at times startling one. Tiny sees Chouette as a child to be cherished and loved, that her need to be fed differently and her lack of social skills and non-conformity is something to be sympathetic to, while her husband sees her as something to be ‘cured’.

Her husband refuses to rest until Chouette is like all the other children, so he decides to consult as many experts as he can, to undertake whatever therapy they recommend so that his daughter who looks and acts so differently can be moulded to fit in and not stand out in a crowd. While he wants to ‘fix’ Chouette however he can, Tiny can’t understand why the world can’t accept her daughter as she is. This for me is the crux of the novel. Oshetsky has to make this difference so extreme in a way, so the reader can see how polarised Tiny and her husband are.

So often, people who either have no experience of children who are different, or for whom the thought of having a child that does not fit in is overwhelming, will seek to find a way in which they can make that child fit into the world around them.

All too often, and I am absolutely speaking from experience here, your child is regarded as either a problem that needs to be solved, or an issue that they don’t know how to deal with, because they have no clue what to do with them. It is far easier to attempt to fit them into a convenient societal box, or give up when they can’t be fixed as oppose to looking at the child and working out a bespoke plan to try and give that child the best life possible. We have been stared at, avoided, commented on and made to feel unwelcome numerous times. Children like Chouette are not things to be mended or moulded, they are individuals who deserve love and understanding in order that they are able to fulfill their potential.

The reason this novel works so well for me aside from the emotional connection I feel to the subject matter, is the sense that you never really know what is real, what is mystical, what is imagined and what is the truth. Claire Oshetsky has created a world so like our own, but is always slightly removed and the prose and events in this novel seem to have a sense of other worldliness about them. Tiny’s understanding of how important nature and the environment is to Chouette for her well being is balanced by her husband’s insistence on science and theory, and culminates in him making a devastating choice as to how Chouette should be cured. His decision sets off a chain of events that no one could have foreseen, and Tiny is forced to make some life changing decisions.

The prose is all encompassing and filled with a real sense of the power of nature and its inablity to be contained. Tiny and Chouette are always right at the heart of the novel, and the way in which they are portrayed serve only to make the reader want them to live the life they want. Tiny’s husband, and indeed all the other characters aside from Tiny and Chouette are portrayed as almost annoyances, in that their self serving interference only makes the reader want Chouette to find her own way even more deeply.

If you are looking for a straightforward narrative novel, then Chouette is probably not your kind of book. If however, you want to read a story that blurs and pushes the boundary of the everyday and the magical, and also exquisitely details the frustrations, heartache and joy of having a child that is different to others, then Chouette should absolutely be on your reading pile.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Celeste at Virago for my gifted finished copy.

You can buy your copy of Chouette at West End Lane Books here.

Yours Cheerfully by A.J. Pearce

Yours Cheerfully by A.J. Pearce

Published by Picador on 24th June

Available from West End Lane Books, All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

London, September, 1941. 

Following the departure of the formidable Editor, Henrietta Bird, from Woman’s Friend magazine, things are looking up for Emmeline Lake as she takes on the challenge of becoming a young wartime advice columnist. Her relationship with boyfriend Charles is blossoming, while Emmy’s best friend Bunty, is still reeling from the very worst of the Blitz, but bravely looking to the future. Together, the friends are determined to Make a Go of It.

When the Ministry of Information calls on Britain’s women’s magazines to help recruit desperately needed female workers to the war effort, Emmy is thrilled to be asked to step up and help. But when she and Bunty meet a young woman who shows them the very real challenges that women war workers face, Emmy must tackle a life-changing dilemma between doing her duty, and standing by her friends.

What I Say

I will tell you all straight away that I utterly loved Dear Mrs Bird, the debut novel from A.J. Pearce. It was funny, wise and perfectly pitched and Emmy Lake, the heroine, was just what I needed at the time. When I heard that A.J. had written another novel with Emmy at the helm, I could not have been more delighted.

Honestly? I loved Yours Cheerfully even more. From the moment I turned the first page, you fall into wartime London and are completely immersed in the sights, sounds and realities of living in a world in a state of chaos whilst everyone in it is trying to Keep Calm and Carry On.

Emmeline Lake is still working at the Woman’s Friend magazine, but now that Mrs Bird has departed, she can breathe a sigh of relief as Mrs Mahoney who now runs the page is far more amenable and they make a formidable team.

With lots of the men away fighting in the War, the government are increasingly reliant on the women who are left behind to step up and help with the war effort. The Ministry Of Information need to recruit as many women as possible to ensure the factories can keep running, and realise that using women’s magazines to reach as many of them as possible is the way forward.

Women’s Friend is asked to be involved, and Emmy is tasked with writing about it. When she and her best friend Bunty meet a young widow called Anne with two children who is about to start working in one of them called Chandlers, Emmy realises she has the contact she needs.

However, when she goes to interview Anne and her workmates, what becomes incredibly evident is that although the government want the women to work, some factory owners have not anticipated what the women need for their welfare to be effective members of the workforce. Emmy is faced with a dilemma. Should she write the recruitment piece the government want, or could this be the perfect opportunity for her to write a crucial piece that really shows what life is like for the women who are giving everything for the war effort.

As well as juggling her demanding professional life, Emmy is totally in love with Charles, and snatching every moment they can be together. Their relationship seems to be what so many people went through in the war, where the future you once believed was certain is no longer so, and the fear that the one you love won’t return makes you realise that seizing the moment is all the more poignant. Emmy and Charles make a decision that changes their lives forever, which shows us how much they truly love each other.

I wish I could articulate how truly wonderful this novel is. It made me laugh out loud, cry, and google obsessively about the women who were part of the war effort. Make no mistake, you might think this is a light hearted and breezy take on the Second World War, but Yours Cheerfully is so much more.

The writing is sublime, and captures so insightfully what it meant to be around during the Second World War. The fact that every part of the world was dominated by it, the random and senseless loss of life, the determination and compassion that people felt as they attempted to unite against something that was far bigger than was possible to comprehend, and the grim reality that nobody knew what was going to happen next. This is also a novel that unapologetically puts women front and centre of everything. Emmy, her best friend Bunty and Anne are real and relatable women, because they have all experienced life changing events that shape them and have changed their worlds, and we know that these women are symbolic of our own families and what they would have experienced too.

What A.J. Pearce does so beautifully in this novel is make it less about facts and figures, but absolutely about the people who were dealing with the reality of living through the war. You really understand exactly what the women were going through, and how they were striving to keep home life as stable as possible, be seen to be helping with the war effort as well as worry whether they would see their partners again. They were expected to support the war effort, but tellingly the war effort often did not seem to understand how to support them.

Yours Cheerfully is an absolute joy to read. If you don’t love Emmy Lake by the end of this book, then quite frankly you must have a heart of stone. It is just the novel I needed to read at the moment, to see how instinctively and incredibly strong women were, to appreciate everything people did for my generation and to realise how far we have come for women’s rights yet how much more we have to do.

I only have one question. When is someone in T.V. Land going to realise that A.J. Pearce’s novels would make absolutely perfect television series for those gloomy winter evenings? Please make it happen – and soon!

I completely loved it.

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