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.

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.

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.

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.