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.

Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor

Age of Vice

Deepti Kapoor

Published by Fleet Reads

Published January 3rd 2023

What They Say

This is the age of vice, where pleasure and power are everything, and the family ties that bind can also kill

New Delhi, 3 a.m. A speeding Mercedes jumps the kerb, and in the blink of an eye five people are dead. It’s a rich man’s car, but when the dust settles there is no rich man at all, just a shell-shocked servant who cannot explain the strange series of events that led to this crime. Nor can he foresee the dark drama that is about to unfold.
Deftly shifting through time and perspective in contemporary India, Age of Vice is an epic, action-packed story propelled by the seductive wealth, startling corruption, and bloodthirsty violence of the Wadia family-loved by some, loathed by others, feared by all.

In the shadow of lavish estates, extravagant parties, predatory business deals, and calculated political influence, three lives become dangerously intertwined: Ajay is the watchful servant, born into poverty, who rises through the family’s ranks. Sunny is the playboy heir who dreams of outshining his father, whatever the cost. And Neda is the curious journalist caught between morality and desire. Against a sweeping plot fueled by loss, pleasure, greed, yearning, violence, and revenge, will these characters’ connections become a path to escape, or a trigger of further destruction?

Equal parts crime thriller and family saga, transporting readers from the dusty villages of Uttar Pradesh to the urban energy of New Delhi, Age of Vice is an intoxicating novel of gangsters and lovers, false friendships, forbidden romance, and the consequences of corruption. It is binge-worthy entertainment at its literary best.

What I Say

Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor was published on January 3rd, and hand on heart when I read the synopsis, I didn’t think that it was my kind of novel at all. A high octane thriller set in India which is about the Wadia family and the vice and corruption that permeates it? Absolutely not my sort of thing thank you.

Yet one thing I have learned since I started blogging is to never dismiss a book until you have tried it, and as soon as I started reading it, I knew that this was an incredibly special novel. It may be 560 pages long, but I promise you, that is the last thing you are thinking about when you read it.

This is a story of a family – The Wadias, who seemingly are everywhere in India. From the very top of the social and political worlds, right down to the people who may otherwise be disregarded. Their power and influence permeates every single part of society – and they refuse to be stopped by anyone.

The novel starts with a fatal car crash, and a young man called Ajay who survives it. Alongside Sunny Wadia, and a journalist called Neda, Ajay provides the third main narrative of this novel, from which an incredible and far reaching epic novel spins out. Age of Vice may cover politics, corruption, power and addiction, but it is also a story of a family who are so used to being in control, that they cannot imagine a world where their very presence does not imbue those around them with an instant mix of fear and respect.

The novel starts with Ajay’s story. A young man who lives with his mother and sister in Uttar Pradesh after his father is murdered, he is sold by his mother to child traffickers, who in turn sell him to a man and his wife who ‘employ’ him (they tell him his wages are being sent to his mother). When he meets the irrespresible Sunny Wadia, Ajay recognises that his best hope for the future is to become Sunny’s servant, the silent and accommodating person who effortlessly runs Sunny’s life and caters to his every whim whilst never drawing any attention to himself.

Sunny comes to absolutely rely on Ajay for every aspect of his life, and in turn, as well as finding stability and a regular wage, Ajay is now subsumed into and inextricably linked to the Wadia family for as long as he is alive. Sunny Wadia is regarded as a hedonistic playboy, whose life is one long party and in spite of him seemingly projecting a confident and assured persona, what we discover is all that he wants is the approval and love from his father Bunty, and acceptance from his uncle Vicky, who takes the family business to such a level that he seems unreachable. Yet Sunny also realises that being Bunty Wadia’s son means that his own identity and life has to take second place – unless he is brave enough to stand up for what he wants.

As Sunny spins increasingly out of control, and Ajay is left to ensure no traces of his wrongdoings are left in plain sight, Neda, a journalist, finds herself drawn to him, as she wants to understand the man behind the myths, but she too falls prey to the world that the Wadias have created. Her life changes in ways she could never have imagined, but in spite of it all, even when they are separated by thousands of miles, she feels inextricably drawn back to him.

Age of Vice is a bold, no holds barred novel about the realities of what it means when one family has such power over the world it is in. It is a totally immersive and epic novel that pulls no punches in its graphic depiction of the violence and horror that is part of the fabric of their every day lives.

Kapoor is not afraid to show how deeply and absolutely this world is controlled by those that have, and feared by those who have not. It looks at so many issues such as poverty, wealth, corruption, drug addiction, family and duty, but for me something else sits at the heart of this incredible novel. It is the fact that Sunny simply wants to be loved by his father, and by Neda unquestioningly. His erratic and self destructive behaviour hides the fact that he simply wants to be seen by his father and that when it becomes obvious that is not happening, he makes a series of decisions that change his life forever,

Age of Vice is a novel that makes you care about all the characters in it, as we start to understand how much of their selves and their identities are wrapped up in the all consuming reign of the Wadias. It is a world where you never know who you can trust, and that tension and sense of foreboding seeps through every single page, making it impossible to look away.

This is a novel that if I had simply read the synopsis, honestly, I wouldn’t have picked it up. Age Of Vice is that very rare thing, it is a novel that may seem epic and all encompassing in its scope, but you connect to it on an individual level because of the masterful way in which Deepti Kapoor writes with such understanding about the different worlds so many people inhabit, understanding that all human experience is important, and that the most vital connection of all relies not on money or wealth, but simply to find their place in the world and to love and be loved without conditions or fear.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Celeste Ward-Best and Fleet Reads for my gifted proof copy in exchange for an honest review.

Age of Vice is available from West End Lane Books and all good bookshops now.

And Just Like That, 2022 is done

I’m not quite sure why I am writing this blog post on the last day of 2022. I haven’t read a huge number of books this year, I’ve been at times lackadaisical in posting on my blog, and have often felt like Twitter and Instagram have been changing the rules so often that I have no clue as to what the best way is to shout about books anymore!

Book blogging has been my thing for such a long time now, and while it’s introduced me to a world where I finally feel that I belong, has given me opportunities I could never have dreamed of, and has given me incredible friendships I now couldn’t be without, I am ending 2022 feeling a bit lost.

I am a firm believer in being honest about my blogging, and as 2022 comes to a close, and 2023 looms large, honestly, I have been feeling overwhelmed with it all at the moment. It’s hard to keep the energy and enthusiasm sometimes – I still love reading but by December (probably like lots of you!) I felt a bit like I was back on the bookish conveyor belt of reading books in a certain order so that I am ready to review them for publication date.

I have taken a complete break from social media over Christmas – and it’s been lovely. I’ve watched a lot of films, spent a lot of time with my family and put my phone down for days – which not surprisingly has meant I have read a lot more! It has been so refreshing to just sit and read without constantly thinking of what I am going to say in my review, and instead have just read for the sake of reading!

There are a few things I know I want to do now. I need to feel confident in my voice again, and find the joy in blogging. For me, it’s hard to keep posting when you feel like no one is listening – I know it shouldn’t matter, but when I read a brilliant book, I just want to make sure as many people as possible know, and honestly, I still get frustrated sometimes because I don’t know the most effective way to do it, and feel like I have let the authors down.

Having a chance to pause over Christmas has also given me time to think and reflect on Years Of Reading Selfishly and what I want it to be going forward next year. I am sure no one is really bothered, but for me I need to feel enthusiastic about it or I just won’t do anything! Perhaps in writing this blog post I am making myself accountable and can look back on it in 2023 to make sure I actually do what I say.

When the brilliant author Harriet Evans wrote her article for The Bookseller this year about how women over 45 love books, and that the book trade should love them back, I was lucky enough to be quoted in the article, and I also felt that Harriet perfectly articulated what I have been thinking for a long time too. As a 52 year old woman, at times I have felt invisible, at one point this year seriously contemplated stopping blogging – but do you know what – I don’t want to lose my voice or feel my thoughts about books don’t matter. There should be room for everyone to talk about the books they love, however they want to do it, and my voice and opinions count – I need to remember that, and make sure that we support each other too.

The other thing I have been thinking about a lot, is how to combine book blogging with being a carer for my adult son. I told you all this year that I am going to keep talking about the realities of caring, because as a society we don’t, and books have given me the perfect peace and space I have needed to recharge this year – because it’s hard and full on sometimes.

In 2023, I want to read and share books written by people who are carers like me, to use my blog as a way to amplify the voices of people whose stories you may not know but need to be heard. I am pulling together a reading pile of books, and am having a think about the best way to do it – more on that soon, but in the meantime I’d also really love it if the publishing industry didn’t do away with online events. Just because book lovers can’t physically be somewhere doesn’t mean we don’t want to take part…

Looking back on what I’ve written it seems like such a lot. It’s up to me now to practise what I have been preaching, but the one thing I know for sure is that while at times I do feel like I am done, that there is also something that keeps me here – and that’s the fact that sharing my love of books and reading brings me joy – and I know that I need that in my life now more than ever.

Here’s to 2023, and all the books we have waiting for us, the love of books that we want to share, and to you, the incredible bookish community who absolutely understand the joy of books, reading and shouting about them!

Lots of love,

Clare

Xxx

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.