The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell

The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell

Published by Bloomsbury Raven on February 2nd 2023

Available from West End Lane Books and All Good Bookshops

What They Say

Be careful what you wish for… it may just come true.

At The Mercury Theatre in London’s West End, rumours are circulating of a curse. It is said that the lead actress Lilith has made a pact with Melpomene, the tragic muse of Greek mythology, to become the greatest actress to ever grace the stage.

Suspicious of Lilith, the jealous wife of the theatre owner sends dresser Jenny to spy on her, and desperate for the money to help her family, Jenny agrees. What Jenny finds is a woman as astonishing in her performance as she is provocative in nature.

On stage, it’s as though Lilith is possessed by the characters she plays, yet off stage she is as tragic as the Muse who inspires her, and Jenny, sorry for her, befriends the troubled actress. But when strange events begin to take place around the theatre, Jenny wonders if the rumours are true, and fears that when the Muse comes calling for payment, the cost will be too high.

What I Say

I have been a Laura Purcell fan from the first moment I read her debut novel The Silent Companions (if you haven’t read that yet – I would absolutely recommend it, but please don’t come back to me if you need to sleep with the lights on for a week after reading it!).

As well as being brilliantly written, and evoking period detail and palpable tension in every page, I love Laura’s novels because they depict women who face situations where their resolve and morality is tested, and show how even though they may be constricted by the social expectations of the time, that they want only to do what is right for them and their family.

In The Whispering Muse, the protagonist is a young woman called Jenny Wilcox, who finds herself as the head of the family after her elder brother Greg leaves the family in disarray after stealing from Jenny’s employer and taking all they have. Jenny is dismissed from service, and she and her siblings face an uncertain future.

When she secures a job as a dresser at The Mercury Theatre, where Greg worked before her, due to the generous and gregarious Mrs Dyer, the owner’s wife, it seems that maybe Jenny has a chance to secure a future for her family.

Jenny is made dresser to the star of the theatre, a fiery and demanding woman called Lilith, who is determined to be famous and adored, and seemingly has Mr Dyer enthralled and ready to indulge his leading lady on and off stage. Mrs. Dyer is not blind to what is happening, and tasks Jenny with spying on Lilith, and offers her money to do so. Although she is torn, Jenny understands the difference this money could make to her family and agrees to become her spy.

Right from the start, Jenny and Lilith clash. Lilith is every inch the diva Jenny suspects her to be, and her dedication to her acting is bordering on the obsessive. Lilith is consumed by her desire to be the most feted actress of her generation, whatever the cost. There is an incredibly awkward scene at a party when Lilith is given a watch depicting Melpomene, the Greek muse of tragedy by Mr Dyer. This turns out to be the very watch Mrs Dyer was desperate to own, having belonged to an actor she adored, and this only fuels her suspicion and hatred of Lilith even further. Bound by circumstance, Jenny now becomes another pawn in Mrs. Dyer’s game, as she forces her to carry out schemes to attempt to drive Lilith away from the stage and the precious watch she desires.

As Jenny gets closer to Lilith with the aim of helping Mrs Dyer, Jenny sees Lilith in an altogether different light. A young woman who is driven to succeed certainly, but also a woman who is vulnerable, who knows that her worth is measured in the tickets she can sell and the money she can make for the theatre. Jenny and Lilith form an unlikely friendship as they understand who is actually the biggest threat to both their lives, and by coming together, they can both get what they want -at a price.

Ever present is the spirit of Melpomene, the muse which seems to not only push Lilith to give the best performances of her career, but also starts to take her over and seep its way into every part of the theatre, causing accidents that cannot be explained, and deaths that create such distress and uncertainy, that no one feels safe. Laura does this so convincingly, that it never feels forced or simply done for shock value. From the very start of the novel, the spectre of The Mercury Theatre looms large, and the world inside seems so far removed from the one outside, that you feel a real sense of dislocation and wariness from the start.

It would have been very easy to make The Whispering Muse melodramatic, and reliant on tried and tested gothic tropes to unsettle the reader. However, in the hands of Laura Purcell, it becomes a novel that places Lilith, Jenny and Mrs Dyer directly at the heart of the narrative, and their needs and desires are the driving force behind the decisions they make. The consequences of all their actions come together to propel the story forward, but it is the unknown force of Melpomene, and the havoc that she wreaks as she seeks to possess the theatre and all those on the stage that is the most dangerous and unstoppable part of the novel that we cannot predict.

The Whispering Muse is a novel filled with dramatic tension, but it also brings to the fore issues such as the commodification of women, duty and desire, social classes, and the transient nature of fame. In having Lilith, Jenny and Mrs Dyer as the main characters, we see three women all at different stages of their personal and professional lives, and I felt that their depiction showed that they had more in common that they would ever want to admit. Melpomene may be the undefinable spirit that wreaks havoc on those who fall prey to her, but the desires and drive of the women inside the Mercury Theatre imbues the novel with an even more compelling and powerful story.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Bloomsbury Raven for my gifted proof copy.

The Year Of The Cat by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

The Year of the Cat by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

Published by Tinder Press on 19th January

Available from West End Lane Books and

All Good Bookshops

What They Say

I looked around at my flat, at the woodchip wallpaper and scuffed furniture, and realised that I did have a life after all. What it didn’t have in it was a cat.

When Rhiannon fell in love with, and eventually married her flatmate, she imagined they might one day move on. But this is London in the age of generation rent, and so they share their home with a succession of friends and strangers while saving for a life less makeshift. The desire for a baby is never far from the surface, but can she be sure that she will ever be free of the anxiety she has experienced since an attack in the street one night? And after a childhood spent caring for her autistic brother does she really want to devote herself to motherhood?

Moving through the seasons over the course of lockdown, The Year of the Cat nimbly charts the way a kitten called Mackerel walked into Rhiannon’s home and heart, and taught her to face down her fears and appreciate quite how much love she had to offer.

What I Say

The pandemic and lockdown we all went through now seems for me to be a time I can remember parts of, but also feels slightly surreal, like it happened to someone else. It is also undeniably a shared collective memory that will forever unite a generation who lived through it, and I am endlessly fascinated to read people’s accounts of their experiences as a way to understand mine.

The Year of the Cat by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett takes us through that period as Rhiannon and her husband decide to get a kitten, and while this memoir may start as a love letter to cats, and the irrefutable impact that they have had on women’s lives and the stories that surround them, this book evolves beautifully into one that holds so much in its pages.

This is a book not only about Rhiannon’s experiences of owning cats through her life and how Mackerel her kitten came to be such a part of it during the pandemic, but it is also an honest and visceral memoir about trauma, PTSD, mental health, motherhood, family and caring.

Adopting Mackerel during such a strange and unknown time, when going outside became something we would never take for granted again, means that as well as focussing on Mackerel and how to look after him, Rhiannon has plenty of time to be alone with thoughts and memories. Unimaginable events that Rhiannon has lived through – a vicious assault by a stranger, and being in Paris at the very time terrorist attacks were taking place, leads her to think about her past and future, as she contemplates whether having mental health issues impact her ability to be a mother.

What Rhiannon captures so perfectly in these pages is the thoughts that so many of us have, but are afraid to articulate for fear of being judged for having them. I had an overwhelming desire to have children, but believing that my own emotional shortcomings and the fact that I didn’t know if I could care for a human being when I found it difficult to look after myself, led me to write my own lengthy diary entries as to the pros and cons of me taking that step. Reader I did, which for my first child led me down paths I never dreamed I would ever follow.

This leads me to the other part of Rhiannon’s memoir that resonated deeply with me as a full time carer, and led me to use up all the post it notes I had to hand. Rhiannon’s brother is severely autistic and in a care home, and the lockdown leads to a heartbreaking separation for them. What Rhiannon does so wonderfully in her memoir is not only to articulate what it means to not be able to visit the ones we love, but also what it means to care for someone who has special needs. The love you have is overwhelming, but like Rhiannon and her Mum, you cannot explain to someone what it means to be a full time carer unless they have lived it. To understand what it means to be in a constant state of fighting for everything and explaining repeatedly the same story told in numerous ways according to which professional and which department you are talking to. Rhiannon writes with an innate compassion and understanding that made me teary a few times, because I knew exactly what she and her Mum were feeling.

To read Rhiannon’s memories of living with her brother and mother, and the highs and lows of that time, along with some brilliant anecdotes – including an unforgettable supermarket visit I don’t think anyone will ever forget, added another layer of humanity to this unforgettable memoir, and I loved it. As Rhiannon starts to question her own ability to be a mother, we as readers already know that her lived experiences have given her so much experience already, and that we will her to see what an amazing Mum she will be, and hope she gets exactly what she desires.

The Year of The Cat will connect with many people in many different ways because Rhiannon writes about her own experiences with such candour that you cannot fail to be moved. It is also the first time I have read a book that describes so perfectly the numerous internal conversations about motherhood and the responsibilities of caring for someone else which I had before having children, and that that are still part of my world twenty one years after having my first child, which is why I will endlessly recommend Rhiannon’s book.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Mary-Anne Harrington and Tinder Press for my gifted proof copy.

We All Want Impossible Things by Catherine Newman

We All Want Impossible Things

by Catherine Newman

Published by Doubleday Books on January 12th

Available from West End Lane Books and all Good Bookshops

What They Say

Who knows you better than your best friend? Who knows your secrets, your fears, your desires, your strange imperfect self? Edi and Ash have been best friends for over forty years. Since childhood they have seen each other through life’s milestones: stealing vodka from their parents, the Madonna phase, REM concerts, unexpected wakes, marriages, infertility, children. As Ash notes, ‘Edi’s memory is like the back-up hard drive for mine.’

So when Edi is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Ash’s world reshapes around the rhythms of Edi’s care, from chipped ice and watermelon cubes to music therapy; from snack smuggling to impromptu excursions into the frozen winter night. Because life is about squeezing the joy out of every moment, about building a powerhouse of memories, about learning when to hold on, and when to let go.

What I Say

There are novels you read and love, and then there are novels you read and love and nod your head in recognition, that make you laugh and add lots of post it notes so you can go back and reread the passages because they are so wonderful – and We All Want Impossible Things is one of them.

If you are looking for a sweet, subdued book about friendship – then this is not for you. If however like me, you love novels that show friendships in all their glorious, messy and magical forms, then this should absolutely be on your reading list.

Edi and Ash have been friends for longer than they can remember, and have that wonderful connection that comes with a lifetime of shared experiences and moments they only understand.

When Edi is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Edi’s husband Jude decides that to avoid their son Dash having to see his Mum pass away, that Edi will move into a hospice close to Ash, and Ash will provide the daily support she needs.

The power of Catherine’s storytelling is steeped in every single page of this novel. Not only must Edi and Ash now navigate a new and uncharted path through their friendship, but dealing with the day to day unglamorous realities of cancer, the etiquette of grief and dying, and the ever present knowledge that Edi is not going to be here for much longer, makes the women appreciate what they have now and all the things they have ever had together.

Ash seems to be split in two – dealing with Edi and being the present and unshakeable friend in her presence, but at the same time unravelling when she is away from Edi, seemingly separated from her husband and ricocheting from relationship to relationship as she tries to hold everything and everyone together. At times I felt completely frustrated with her, but it also makes you understand that there is no prescriptive way to deal with grief, and while we may not understand why Ash behaves as she does, it is not for us to judge her.

It is also important to say that this novel does not shy away from Edi’s condition, and this is not some airbrushed version of cancer. The day to day realities of what it’s like to have a terminal illness, and the physical, emotional and medical stresses that Edi and her family go through are laid bare. It was at times undoubtedly hard for me to read, having lost a Mum to cancer, but at the same time I was pleased that Catherine told Edi’s story with compassion and candour.

Catherine Freeman also perfectly understands the complicated and awkward nature of dealing with a loved one who is dying, and that there should be no shame in acknowledging the humour too. If Edi’s heart’s desire is to taste the cake from a recipe no one can find, that Ash will do everything she can to get hold of it, whilst at the same time Ash wonders when the most appropriate time would be to ask Edi if she can have the favourite t-shirt back she borrowed! This is what Catherine does so well – her characters are real, relatable and not perfect – and it made me love them even more.

We All Want Impossible Things is a glorious love letter to female friendships in all its unremarkable, remarkable and perfectly imperfect forms. Edi and Ash are characters who not only have the emotional shorthand that so many of us long for in friendships, but also resonate so deeply because they are just like us – not perfect, not always likeable, but they would do anything for each other however difficult that might be, and I completely loved them for it.

Thank you so much to Alison and Doubleday books for my gifted proof copy.

Where I End by Sophie White

Where I End by Sophie White

Published by Tramp Press 13th October 2022

Available from West End Lane Books and all good Bookshops

What They Say

My mother. At night, my mother creaks. The house creaks along with her. Through our thin shared wall, I can hear the makings of my mother gurgle through her body just like the water in the walls of the house… Teenage Aoileann has never left the island. Her silent, bed-bound mother is a wreckage, the survivor of a private disaster no one will speak about. Aoileann desperately wants a family, and when Rachel and her young baby move to the island, Aoileann finds a focus for her relentless love.

What I Say

When the first line of a novel starts ‘ My mother. At night, my mother creaks’, you know that this book is certainly going to be nothing like you have read for a while!

In Where I End by Sophie White, we are introduced to Aoileann, a young woman who lives with her grandmother and bed bound mother in a remote cottage, where they can live their lives away from the curious and disgusted looks from the locals on the island. Aoileann’s mother is not from the island, but her father was. He is now only a monthly visitor to the island, and every day Aoileann and her grandmother are responsible for the daily care of her mother.

Let’s be clear from the start, that this is not a caring and loving relationship that exists within the walls of the crumbling and decrepit cottage. Aoileann’s mother has physically degenerated, and is referred to as ‘it’ or ‘bed thing’ by the women. They have a daily routine in place to care for her, and they rely on rope and winches to lift and move the mother to the bathroom where she is cleaned and to the kitchen where she is strapped in to eat, and back to her bedroom where she is stripped, cleaned and changed.

They resentfully clean her and change her nappies, hurl insults at her, talk over her and treat her in ways that are incredibly emotionally difficult to read. and make us aware of how inhumane they are in their treatment. We are given no explicit reason as to what happened to Aoileann’s mother or why, but all we are witness to is the incredible anger and resentment that both women – but especially Aoileann have towards her.

Aoileann’s daily life is punctuated by routine and thankless tasks, interspersed with taunting and humiliating her mother for the life she cannot have and the mother she cannot bond with. It is while scrubbing the floor of the cottage that she starts to see markings scratched on the floors where she realises that her mother has attempted to escape during the night, and when Aoileann writes them all down, she realises her mother has secrets and a past that that will slowly come to light which will impact her world in ways she cannot imagine.

Aoileann is treated with suspicion and malice by the islanders, and doesn’t interact with them. She has no friends and little time for herself. Her only respite is when she can escape to swim in the sea, away from the responsibilities and demands that caring for her mother brings.

It is when she is on the beach that she meets Rachel, an artist and single mother of a young baby that Aoileann finds herself immediately drawn to. Watching Rachel with her baby causes Aoileann to see the maternal connection that she has never had, the love that so many take for granted she has never experienced. She becomes fixated with Rachel and longs to be as important to her as her baby seems to be.

When the local wool factory is deemed by the mainlanders as ripe for redevelopment and investment, Aoileann’s grandmother is employed to collate her remembrances of the island, which means she now leaves Aoileann alone with her mother. Aoileann sees this as a way for her to spy on Rachel, to ingratiate herself into her lfe so that she will become indispensible to her, and this where the novel becomes even more unsettling as events spiral and twist in ways you cannot possibly imagine.

The world inhabited in Where I End is a finely balanced and yet all encompassing one. When you are reading the scenes set in the cottage, you feel how incredibly claustrophobic and exhausting the domestic sphere is, where everything is tightly controlled. Every day is centred around caring for the mother, with three women trapped in a world with no joy. Yet this is also balanced by the wildness and uncontrollable and mystical natural world of the island, that Aoileann yearns for, and the other residents who are grotesquely fascinated by Aoileann and her mother.

It is a novel that encompasses so many things. What it means to be a mother, the mother daughter relationship, duty, desire and anger too. In Aoileann, White has created a character who works so well because we are fascinated as to why she hates her mother, yet still cares for her. We see how Aoileann is desperate to love and be loved, but comes to hate her mother for the life she is forced to live.

Where I End is an incredibly layered and nuanced novel and White does not shy away from tackling challenging themes, and continually confronts the reader with events and interactions that are at times very difficult to read. At the heart of this novel is Aoileann and all the thoughts, feelings and emotions she has never been taught to express. We are witness to a young woman’s twisted logic as we come to understand she can only articulate what she wants in an increasingly destructive and horrific way as she finally decides to take control over her future.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Sarah Davis-Goff and Tramp Press for my gifted proof copy.

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.

What To Do in 2022?

Here we are in 2022, leaving behind another year of highs and lows, of things that we could never have foreseen happening, nor would have chosen to happen, and yet 2022 hurtled out of nowhere before I really had chance to take in everything that 2021 threw my way.

Last year, I felt that I did quite well in reading lots of books – many of which I loved, and putting together my end of year #MostSelfishReads2021 proved to be even harder as my reading had been in fits and starts according to who I had at home and when!

Still, as always happens at this time of year, I sit and think about book blogging – largely because I am feeling increasingly like I am not very good at it, and as always that I spend too much time reading and not enough time reviewing. I also hit December and felt overwhelmed with it all – not just reviewing, but setting up Two Fond of Books with Amanda (which I am so extraordinarily proud of) and a series of personal events I could not have foreseen last year knocked me for six, including Covid and becoming a full time carer to my adult son when I least expected it .

I think all the things that were happening to me at home meant that for a time I had to put my reading as my last priority rather than my first, and had to admit that I just couldn’t keep up with everyone else who seemed to be posting and blogging so frequently. Then I did that thing I guess lots of bloggers do, and started to question what the point of it all was – I don’t mean that to sound melodramatic, but when life means you can’t read as much as you think you should, you start to wonder what the point of it is. Then I just lost every creative impulse in my body and simply stared at the screen, attempting to write blogs so I could at least have something to show for my reading.

I couldn’t find the words. I can’t tell you how many draft and deleted posts I have on here, but all I know is that for a woman that could previously produce blogs at the drop of the hat, now I was completely lacking in confidence – they all sounded the same, and I felt I was just regurgitating all my previous posts. So I stopped writing reviews, and instead of picking the next book off my pile to make sure I could read and review it for publication day, I picked up a book that I wanted to read, and I can’t tell you how much better I felt as I finally lost myself in a book again without the slightest inclination to review it.

Why am I telling you all this? I guess it’s because I need somewhere to write down what I am feeling – and to let other people know that if you feel that too, it’s ok to admit it. I forget a lot of the time that I am doing all this for free, and sometimes my worry of letting publicists and publishers down (who by the way are the kindest and most supportive people ever) means that I forget this is and always should be a hobby.

Anyway, I think what I am trying to tell myself and anyone else feeling baffled by the world and not quite sure where their blogging is going, is to maybe know that you are not the only one who feels like it, and theres no shame in admitting you can’t find the words at the moment. The books will always be there, and I love the feeling of finding that book that sparks something in me that means I need to write a review all about it to tell the world. I know it will come back, and in the meantime am just enjoying reading for reading’s sake again – and it feels wonderful!

Here’s to 2022, and whatever and whenever you feel like reading, and know that blogging will always be there for you whenever you are ready to return to it.

Lots of love,

Clare

xxx

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.