A Tidy Ending by Joanna Cannon

A Tidy Ending by Joanna Cannon

Published by The Borough Press

Available from West End Books

and all Good Bookshops

What They Say

A NICE, NORMAL HOUSE

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

A NICE, NORMAL HUSBAND

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

A NICE, NORMAL LIFE…

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

What I Say

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I absolutely loved it.

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

You can buy your copy of A Tidy Ending here.

One Day I Shall Astonish The World by Nina Stibbe

Published by Penguin Viking on April 21st 2022

Available from West End Lane Books

and all Good Bookshops

What They Say

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

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

What I Say

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Beautiful World Where Are You by Sally Rooney

Published by Faber & Faber on September 7th

Available from West End Lane Bookshop,

All Good Bookshops And Online

What They Say

Alice, a novelist, meets Felix, who works in a warehouse, and asks him if he’d like to travel to Rome with her. In Dublin, her best friend Eileen is getting over a break-up and slips back into flirting with Simon, a man she has known since childhood.

Alice, Felix, Eileen and Simon are still young – but life is catching up with them. They desire each other, they delude each other, they get together, they break apart. They worry about sex and friendship and the world they live in. Are they standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something? Will they find a way to believe in a beautiful world?

What I Say

Because in my deepest essence I am just an artefact of our culture, just a little bubble winking at the brim of our civilisation. And when it’s gone, I’ll be gone. Not that I think I mind.

I never thought that being in possession of a book would be so difficult. Over the past few weeks, as the publication of Sally Rooney’s latest novel has come closer and closer, social media has become filled with many different opinions both of this novel and the marketing surrounding it.

I was even hesitant to post a picture of my copy because there seems to be such a complicated and intricate discourse about it, and in doing so am I now making myself part of that too?

I thought long and hard about this post, because my commitment to you in having Years of Reading Selfishly is to be honest about what I am reading. If I love it, I tell you all about it, if I don’t then I choose not to review it.

This is what is at the heart of the discussion for me. I am coming to this novel not as some puppet in a marketing strategy, but purely and simply as a reader, the person who ultimately when all the noise has stopped, picks up a book and reads it. If that novel doesn’t connect with me or it’s not for me, then that’s fine – you can’t love everything you read, and we can’t all like the same books. If however I loved it, and I know lots of you will too, of course I want to tell you about it because I want you to share that experience, for us to be able to talk about books in a positive and intelligent way.

If you want to read what I thought, then this is the post for you.

I read and loved both of Sally’s previous novels. When it comes to Beautiful World, Where Are You?, we again meet a group of people, all of whom have their own flaws and insecurities, and the fact that they are at a pivotal point in their lives where they have the opportunity to make certain choices.

This novel is about three friends. Alice, Eileen, and Simon, and Felix who has just met Alice. While Alice, Simon and Eileen have know each other for a long time, Alice met Felix on a dating app, and whilst their first date was filled with promise but ended with miscommunication, the second date where they spend time together ends up with Alice asking Felix to travel to Rome with her as she promotes her latest novel.

Alice is a very successful writer, and I feel that she is used as Rooney’s mouthpiece to tell us what it’s really like to be her – to deal with the expectations and pressures of being feted and adored on one hand, and then having everyone just waiting for you to fail on the other. She makes lots of observations about the realities of being a writer who has success, and the unfounded preconceptions people have about you and your writing. Alice also shows us how when you are doing all the book promotion and marketing, that you are doing what is required of you as oppose to being free to do what you really love – which is writing.

Felix works in a warehouse, and although surprised by Alice’s invitation, he is intrigued by her and accepts. They don’t know each other at all, but undoubtedly right from the start there is something between them, and the tension is palpable as they visit Rome, seeing each other at their most vulnerable but also trying to maintain the facade the other expects. Little by little they edge closer together and Felix starts to understand what life is like for Alice and they start to be more open with each other.

Eileen and Alice have been friends for a long time, and after Eileen’s relationship with her boyfriend Aidan ends, she sees her long standing friend Simon in a new light. They realise that they are absolutely attracted to each other, and the familiarity and sense of comfort they find in each other seems natural and a perfect fit. Their relationship is played out in front of us, and appears to be the one they both unquestionably need. I really loved this part of the story, because it seems so utterly obvious to the reader they belong together, and as the narrative progresses, you want them to see it too.

This novel moves between the two love stories and the long emails that Alice and Eileen send each other. In those correspondences, they both ponder their relationships, the world around them and the uncharted political and social landscape they find themselves in. At times I had to sit and reread paragraphs to make sure I fully appreciated what was being said, and that distanced me slightly from the flow of the narrative to be honest, but I felt it was a device that it gave me a deeper understanding of the characters outside of their love interests.

Rooney’s prose is straightforward and I suppose almost matter of fact in its execution, but it also feels real and I like all the intricate and precise details of their everyday lives. Life is not always about the huge gestures and the drama, more often than not it is about the routine and the mundane and the minutiae of sex and relationships. You want to find out what happens to all the characters because there is that sense of connection to them and I didn’t always like how they behaved, but at the same time Rooney makes you feel invested in them, and that’s what I want in a novel. When the four characters finally come together towards the end of the novel, it feels natural and engaging to see how they all interact.

Beautiful World, Where Are You? is a novel about people seeking connections with each other and our existence in a world that is rapidly changing in unexpected and surprising ways. The focus on the mundanity and often the surprises that each day bring, is written in an understated way that made me sit and think about things I recognise in the novel about myself too – like being in an art gallery and rushing to get to the toilets and ignoring all the great works of art to do so! I also think it is absolutely a novel that asks us to see that beyond the written word and acknowledge that behind it all there is a living breathing person who has emotions and feelings, and has to process what is said about her, when people don’t actually know her at all. How difficult must it be to simply sit and write, when the whole world seems to have an opinion about you based on what other people have written.

You may like this novel or you may not, and as a reader of course that is absolutely your prerogative. I will only say that in an ever more tense and emotionally charged world where social media reigns supreme, we are always telling each other to ‘be kind’, and perhaps that’s what we need to remember about everyone involved in the production of a novel, from Rooney herself to those who are working incredibly hard behind the scenes to tell us readers all about it. We need to understand that behind this novel is a person who just wants to write for her readers, and maybe that’s all we should be concerned with.

This reader loved it.

Thank you so much to Josh Smith at Faber Books for my gifted copy.

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

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

Published by Picador Books on March 4th

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Cornwall, 1972. Three keepers vanish from a remote lighthouse, miles from the shore. The entrance door is locked from the inside. The clocks have stopped. The Principal Keeper’s weather log describes a mighty storm, but the skies have been clear all week.;
What happened to those three men, out on the tower? The heavy sea whispers their names. The tide shifts beneath the swell, drowning ghosts. Can their secrets ever be recovered from the waves?
Twenty years later, the women they left behind are still struggling to move on. Helen, Jenny and Michelle should have been united by the tragedy, but instead it drove them apart. And then a writer approaches them. He wants to give them a chance to tell their side of the story. But only in confronting their darkest fears can the truth begin to surface . . .
Inspired by real events, The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex is an intoxicating and suspenseful mystery, an unforgettable story of love and grief that explores the way our fears blur the line between the real and the imagined.

What I Say

I have to be honest, when I first received a copy of The Lamplighters I wasn’t sure that it would be my kind of novel. The story of three lighthouse keepers going missing? I just didn’t think it would engage me at all.

I was completely wrong. The Lamplighters is a remarkably haunting and compelling story of how important our memories are, of those left behind when the unthinkable happens, and how the only people we truly know are ourselves.

In 1972, three Lighthouse Keepers; Arthur Black , Bill Walker and Vincent Bourne simply disappear from the Maiden Rock Lighthouse in Cornwall. The door is locked from the inside, the place is clean and the table is set for two people, and the clocks are set to 8.45. That’s it. No Lighthouse Keepers, no clues, and a mystery that lies unsolved for twenty years.

In 1992, an author called Dan Sharp wants to try and solve the locked door mystery that has had such a huge impact on the families that were left behind and the communities that had to deal with all the attention this brought on them. Dan decides to get in contact with the wives and girlfriend of the Lighthouse Keepers, and we meet Helen, who was married to Arthur, Jenny who was Bill’s wife, and Michelle who was going out with Vinnie at the time of his death. Helen and Jenny are keen to speak to Dan, but for some reason they are estranged from each other at a time when they should have been closer than ever. Michelle doesn’t want to get involved, and initially decides not to speak to Dan. What was interesting for me was that how in the background of this narrative, always seeming slightly ominous, was the ever present Trident organisation that has effectively paid off the families to ensure their silence and the women are very mindful of this.

The novel moves seamlessly between the two narratives – that of 1972 and 1992, where we see the reality of life for the men in a lighthouse, and the lives of the people who are left behind after they disappear. What Emma does so well when describing the daily routines of the men, is to show how repetitive and mundane but entirely necessary their roles are. Arthur as the senior lighthouse keeper is meticulous and incredibly proud of what he does, and he wants the other men to appreciate how important their jobs are. He may seem aloof and introspective, but his dour demeanour hides a tragedy that has served to put a wedge between himself and Helen. Bill seems to always be slightly resentful of Arthur, and although initially we may believe it is because he covets Arthur’s job, the truth is far more destructive. Vinnie is the youngest and enthusiastic about his new job, but we learn that he has spent time in prison, and has brought and hidden a gun onto the Lighthouse.

With all three men hiding something from each other, we start to see just how claustrophobic and isolated they are. Stuck in an inaccessible lighthouse, having lots of time to think about things as they do their jobs, little by little, cracks start to form between them. The fact that they have to work night shifts in rotation too, all add to the fact that the lines between daytime and night time become blurred, and their imaginations start to work overtime and we are never quite sure what is real and what is imagined. All the time, ever present is the unforgiving and powerful sea all around them, and as a reader you are all too aware of how all encompassing and dangerous nature is, and how they are completely at its mercy.

Meanwhile back in the Keeper’s Cottages, we see how Jenny and Helen are poles apart in their personalities, and we also discover that Bill constantly makes Jenny feel inadequate as he holds Helen up as to the wifely example she should aspire to. As we hear their stories in 1992, in the form of monologues they deliver while speaking to Dan, it adds an authenticity to the narrative. They tell us not only the reality of having to be a Lighthouse Keeper’s wife, but also help to fill in the stories of their husbands, so we start to fully understand exactly why Arthur and Bill living together in such an enclosed space can only lead to tragedy.

Emma’s slow drip feed of revelations about each character’s personalities adds to the undeniable tension both in the Lighthouse and between the women at home. No one is without fault or flaw, and it is impossible to not empathise with each person as their story is slowly revealed. The moment that Arthur makes a discovery that changes everything he believed he knew about his wife is beautifully understated, and this devastating revelation sets in motion a chain of events that culminates in Dan Sharp trying to uncover the mystery twenty years later.

To say anything about what happens next would spoil The Lamplighters for you, and I have no intention of doing that! What I will say is that as the novel draws to its conclusion, you really feel the sense of panic and despair that permeates the Lighthouse, and there is a sense of other worldliness which only serves to add to the tension as little by little the plots seamlessly falls into place. You understand how incredibly frustrated and bewildered the women must be, and how they are unable to really live their lives after what has happened to them, and that the burden on them since the disappearance has been all consuming and overwhelming.

The Lamplighters worked so well for me because it absolutely wrong footed me – I had it all worked out. Until I really didn’t! Emma has written a novel that not only captures the physical and emotional toll of working in a Lighthouse, and the secrets that are held within, but also gives a voice to those who are so overlooked in history – the women who are left behind to run the men’s world when they are not there. It is a sensitive and emotional novel that perfectly articulates how memory can be an all encompassing force, and that when we are left alone with our thoughts for a long time, they can be just what we need to comfort us, but also the very things that serve to destroy us.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Camilla Elworthy and Katie Bowden for my gifted copies.