books

‘Stolen Summers’ by Anne Goodwin @Annecdotist #RBRT

I read and reviewed ‘Stolen Summers’ for Rosie Amber’s book review team.

All she has left is her sanity. Will the asylum take that from her too?

In 1939, Matilda is admitted to Ghyllside hospital, cut off from family and friends. Not quite twenty, and forced to give up her baby for adoption, she feels battered by the cruel regime. Yet she finds a surprising ally in rough-edged Doris, who risks harsh punishments to help her reach out to the brother she left behind.

Twenty-five years later, the rules have relaxed, and the women are free to leave. How will they cope in a world transformed in their absence? Do greater dangers await them outside?

The poignant prequel to Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home is a tragic yet tender story of a woman robbed of her future who summons the strength to survive.

It isn’t all that long ago that women who stepped outside of convention were ‘sent away’ for the good of society. This is what happens to Matilda in this short novella that explores how someone can be institutionalised in such a cruel and unfeeling way, but still manage to keep that spark of who they really are.

Told from Matilda’s point of view, this is a really well-written story, that deals with its subject matter sympathetically and unflinchingly. The coldness with which she is treated is horrible, but completely believable, unfortunately, and is written with authenticity. That aspect was, for me, the strongest part of this story and the writing – the way in which Matilda is tossed aside and treated as if she has no feelings, no worth.

There are moments of real humour and levity here too, which are a relief and which lift this novella above those that dwell in misery.

I would have liked more exploration of the way Matilda felt about giving up her child – for me this wasn’t developed enough. But that aside, this is a well-written and worthwhile read, and one that I definitely recommend.

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‘Open Water’ by Caleb Azumah Nelson #BookReview #TuesdayBookBlog

Two young people meet at a pub in South East London. Both are Black British, both won scholarships to private schools where they struggled to belong, both are now artists – he a photographer, she a dancer – trying to make their mark in a city that by turns celebrates and rejects them. Tentatively, tenderly, they fall in love. But two people who seem destined to be together can still be torn apart by fear and violence.

At once an achingly beautiful love story and a potent insight into race and masculinity, Open Water asks what it means to be a person in a world that sees you only as a Black body, to be vulnerable when you are only respected for strength, to find safety in love, only to lose it. With gorgeous, soulful intensity, Caleb Azumah Nelson has written the most essential British debut of recent years.

This is such an unusual book. On the surface, it is a simple story, of two young people who fall in  love. But it is so much more than that. Through the two protagonists, the author explores so much of life, and love, and society – it’s expectations, it’s cruelty, the freedoms it seems to offer that can be utterly superficial. It’s a story about being young, and hopeful, and about trying to make a life, a good life, in a world where those hopes are dashed.

I can’t fully understand the complex issues that this book raises – I have never had the experiences that are written about here, but this novel, as well as being utterly compelling and a joy to read for the beauty of the writing, goes a long way to show these experiences. It is written in second person – which does really take some getting used to – but it is so worth persevering, because the writing is so good. Not many authors could have done this so successfully, and it is a testament to the author’s talent that this is such a beautiful novel.

Hilary Mantel – A Tribute

I was so upset to hear of the death of Hilary Mantel a few weeks ago. She was a writer I had admired for a very long time and one of the few authors whose works I could read more than once, each time finding something new to enjoy. I enjoyed her books not only as a reader but as a writer looking to improve my own craft. She was truly inspirational, intelligent, inventive, bringing characters, history, emotion, and the nuance of politics and power to life with a few strokes of her pen.

I was lucky enough to hear her speak a few years ago, at Austin Friars, Thomas Cromwell’s home in London. Afterwards I queued with my copy of ‘A Place of Greater Safety’ clutched in my hands, nervous and so excited to actually meet Mantel in person. She was kind and gracious, and this photo is something that makes me smile every time I look at it (apologies for the terrible quality!).

‘A Place of Greater Safety’ is my favourite of her books and one that I know Mantel kept in a drawer for a few years before it was published. Set during the French Revolution, the book is a page turning tour de force that is an absolutely astounding achievement. I devoured every page, tears streaming down my face at the end. I’ve read it three times, which for me is incredibly unusual – I never read books more than once!

Of course the ‘Wolf Hall’ trilogy consists of three books that are absolute masterpieces. The opening lines of ‘Wolf Hall’ get me every time:

‘So now get up.’

Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned towards the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out. One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.

What a way to introduce us to Thomas Cromwell.

‘Bring up the Bodies’ manages to be emotional while being a clear-headed account of dreadful politics in which people were pawns and lives mattered only in how much they could add to another person’s power, wealth, or standing. Things haven’t changed that much! The final in the trilogy, ‘The Mirror and the Light’ took a long time to be written and it was a long, long wait to read. Reading it was a strange experience. I couldn’t wait to turn each page but that was bittersweet knowing that each page turned led to the end of the trilogy. There aren’t many authors that can say they have that effect on the reader.

If you’ve never read any Mantel, then I envy you. I heartily recommend that you read these wonderful novels. I’m about to read them for the fourth time. Of course, Mantel wrote other books. ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’ is a fabulous collection of short stories. Then there’s ‘Beyond Black’, ‘Fludd’ and a host of other works that aren’t nearly so well-known but just as beautifully written and just as much pleasure to read.

It’s so sad that we will not get to share more of Mantel’s wonderful imagination or amazing skill as a writer. The way the publishing world is going, with its endless book deals for celebrities and politicians and actors, there is less and less room for new talent, and unknown talent, writers out there that have so much to tell and so much to give. Yes, there’s self-publishing, which is fast becoming the best route for those authors without connections, an illustrious film career, a cooking show, or a former royal husband, but it is practically impossible for authors to be able to make a living wage simply through their writing. So it seems very unlikely that we’ll ever get the chance to share the wonderful stories of another writer like Hilary Mantel.

“Some of these things are true and some of them lies. But they are all good stories.”
― Hilary Mantel ‘Wolf Hall’

‘It Never Rains but It Paws: A Road Trip Through Politics and a Pandemic’ by Jacqueline Lambert #RBRT #TuesdayBookBlog

I read ‘It Never Rains but It Paws’ for Rosie’s Book Review Team.

Five years after giving up work to travel full time, Dog-ma Jacqueline (Jackie) and Dogfather Mark race against time to leave the UK before Britain exits the EU. If Brexit happens, their four Cavapoos (Cavalier/Poodle cross) Kai, Rosie, Ruby, and Lani will lose their puppy passports, and the Lambert Family will be unable to travel together. But Brexit isn’t their only obstacle. A few months into their adventure, the pandemic suddenly shatters their plans, and leaves them trapped in the epicentre of Europe’s No. 1 coronavirus hotspot.

The fourth road trip Europe adventure in author Jacqueline Lambert’s “inspirational and hilarious” series of true travel memoirs invites you to join the couple as they discover even more amazing and little-known places, this time in France and Italy. However, this isn’t just a priceless escape travel story filled with humorous mishaps and mountain adventure. The coronavirus pandemic separates the family from their loved ones at home, and leaves Jackie stranded alone during a blizzard in a remote Italian village, with Mark thousands of miles away, back in the UK.

Between terrible weather, political mayhem, and a global pandemic, Jackie and Mark try to take lessons from each hardship. Yet, even with a positive attitude, a sense of adventure, and a caravan full of loved ones, you can’t stop all the obstacles life rolls your way. These “amusing and informative” travel stories are certainly proof that It Never Rains… But It Paws!

I chose to read this book because we are planning to buy a campervan in the next few years when we retire and travel with our four dogs – so this sounded like a very good way to find out what the reality of that dream might be.

And it didn’t disappoint. The book is full of the ups and downs of a life on the road, and doesn’t shy away from telling it like it is – there are problems and mishaps galore, and life isn’t always a comfortable idyll.

But despite the often terrible weather, the financial worries, the sometimes seemingly insurmountable problems caused by ridiculous politics, the genuine love that Jackie and Mark have for their life and their dogs shines through.

There are wonderful descriptions of glorious countryside, and some interesting history too, along with some very entertaining anecdotes. This is a very light-hearted and enjoyable read.

And it certainly hasn’t put me off my dream!

‘Last One at the Party’ by Bethany Clift #BookReview #FridayReads

December 2023. The human race has fought a deadly virus and lost. The only things left from the world before are burning cities and rotting corpses.

But in London, one woman is still alive.

Although she may be completely unprepared for her new existence, as someone who has spent her life trying to fit in, being alone is surprisingly liberating.

Determined to discover if she really is the last survivor on earth, she sets off on an extraordinary adventure, with only an abandoned golden retriever named Lucky for company.


Maybe she’ll find a better life or maybe she’ll die along the way. But whatever happens, the end of everything will be her new beginning.

This is such an interesting novel. It’s such a good idea to have the protagonist in a situation like this be someone relatively normal who has absolutely no survival skills at all – it makes the everything so relatable. Most people’s reaction, mine at least, to being the last person on Earth would be to get very drunk!

There’s a great deal of very dark humour here, as well as a good dose of what the reality would probably be like – I mean, what would happen to all those bodies if everyone died? The author doesn’t shy away from describing what that would be like. And the narrator’s unflinching honesty as she looks back on her life before the virus is done beautifully. I loved her and related to her and so wanted her to succeed. The addition of a faithful dog just made the novel even better.

That this is a debut is really impressive.

Compelling, funny, sad, honest and skillfully crafted.

Highly recommended.

‘The Twins’ by J.S. Lark #BookReview

Susan and Sarah. Sisters. Best friends.
Together…forever?

Nothing could break them apart.

Until they meet him.

And he can only choose one…

Now Susan is back. Determined to reclaim everything Sarah has taken from her.
 
Her home, her husband…her life?

This novel has a really interesting and clever premise. It is well-written and gripping at times. I felt that the parts of the novel set in the twins’ childhood was the strongest part of the book – tough to read at times, but very well drawn and very sympathetic to two little girls who are let down by just about everyone.

The present day sections didn’t work so well for me. I found it hard to like Jonny, and was frustrated that Sarah didn’t speak up. I also wasn’t completely convinced by the final plot twist and whether it was really feasible.

But a good read, and I’d definitely read more by this author.

‘When I Ran Away’ by Ilona Bannister #BookReview

This morning Gigi left her husband and children.

Now she’s watching Real Housewives and drinking wine in a crummy hotel room, trying to work out how she got here.

When the Twin Towers collapsed, Gigi Stanislawski fled her office building and escaped lower Manhattan on the Staten Island Ferry. Among the crying, ash-covered and shoeless passengers, Gigi, unbelievably, found someone she recognised – the guy with pink socks and a British accent – from the coffee shop across from her office. Together she and Harry Harrison make their way to her parents’ house where they watch the television replay the planes crashing for hours, and she waits for the phone call from her younger brother that never comes. And after Harry has shared the worst day of her life, it’s time for him to leave.

Ten years later, Gigi, now a single mother consumed with bills and unfulfilled ambitions, bumps into Harry again and this time they fall deeply in love. When they move to London it feels like a chance for the happy ending she never dared to imagine. But it also highlights the differences in their class and cultures, which was something they laughed about until it wasn’t funny anymore; until the traumatic birth of their baby leaves Gigi raw and desperately missing her best friends and her old life in New York.

As Gigi grieves for her brother and rages at the unspoken pain of motherhood, she realises she must somehow find a way back – not to the woman she was but to the woman she wants to be.

An unforgettable novel about love – for our partners, our children, our mothers, and ourselves – pushed to its outer limits.

This is a very well-written, smart, sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreakingly sad novel with a very likeable and relatable main character.  

My children are adults now but I remember clearly that being at home alone with babies could often be lonely and boring and was absolutely exhausting. It’s still taboo to say so, even more so now, I feel, with these ‘influencer’ mums who are always immaculate (and so are their homes). So honesty like this is always refreshing. I would have loved to have read this when my children were little.

The characterisation is fabulous, and very well-observed. There are some wonderful observations of middle-class life here, and how it feels to not really fit in. There’s an understanding too of how past events continue to have ramifications on our emotions, our choices, our lives, however long ago they happened.

Recommended.

‘The Art of Falling’ by Danielle McLaughlin #BookReview #FridayReads

Nessa McCormack’s marriage is coming back together again after her husband’s affair. She is excited to be in charge of a retrospective art exhibit for one of Ireland’s most beloved and enigmatic artists, the late sculptor Robert Locke. But the arrival of two outsiders imperils both her personal and professional worlds: a chance encounter with an old friend threatens to expose a betrayal Nessa thought she had long put behind her, and at work, an odd woman comes forward claiming to be the true creator of Robert Locke’s most famous work, The Chalk Sculpture.

As Nessa finds the past intruding on the present, she must decide whether she can continue to live a lie – or whether she’s ready to face the consequences once everything is out in the open. In this gripping debut, Danielle McLaughlin reveals profound truths about love, power, and the secrets that rule us.

This is quite a slow-paced novel, almost gentle in its composition, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an absorbing read. It really is.

Nessa is a well-drawn main character, and it’s a relief to read about a middle-aged woman who has a lot of the faults and worries and insecurities that most of us do. She’s at a point in her life when things should be going smoothly – her career is established, her marriage has survived an affair, her daughter is growing up, she lives in a beautiful house – but it doesn’t take much for it all too start falling apart.

The little details of ordinary life really add something to the narrative. It makes it all feel so real, so authentic. And Nessa isn’t some sugar-coated super woman. She has her faults, can be childish and petty, selfish and shallow. But aren’t we all, sometimes?

It’s skillfully written, every word well-chosen. It’s one of those books that forces you to slow down, to read carefully, to enjoy every page.

My only gripe was that I did feel that Nessa let her husband off the hook rather too lightly, and I did feel we could have known a bit more about him, and his motivations.

But this is a thoroughly enjoyable novel.

‘Mirrorland’ by Carole Johnstone #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

One twin ran. The other vanished. Neither escaped…

DON’T TRUST ANYONE
Cat’s twin sister El has disappeared. But there’s one thing Cat is sure of: her sister isn’t dead. She would have felt it. She would have known.

DON’T TRUST YOUR MEMORIES
To find her sister, Cat must return to their dark, crumbling childhood home and confront the horrors that wait there. Because it’s all coming back to Cat now: all the things she has buried, all the secrets she’s been running from.

DON’T TRUST THIS STORY…
The closer Cat comes to the truth, the closer to danger she is. Some things are better left in the past…

The most dangerous stories are the ones we tell ourselves…
No. 36 Westeryk Road: an imposing flat-stone house on the outskirts of Edinburgh. A place of curving shadows and crumbling grandeur. But it’s what lies under the house that is extraordinary – Mirrorland. A vivid make-believe world that twin sisters Cat and El created as children. A place of escape, but from what?

Now in her thirties, Cat has turned her back on her past. But when she receives news that one sunny morning, El left harbour in her sailboat and never came back, she is forced to return to Westeryk Road; to re-enter a forgotten world of lies, betrayal and danger.

Because El had a plan. She’s left behind a treasure hunt that will unearth long-buried secrets. And to discover the truth, Cat must first confront the reality of her childhood – a childhood that wasn’t nearly as idyllic as she remembers…

I’m going to use a cliche because it’s true – I couldn’t put this book down. Every page was a pleasure to read.

The narrative takes you from past to present, as Cat returns to her childhood home to try and make sense of her twin sister’s disappearance. But there are so many reasons she left and coming home brings all those things back to the surface. Switching like this can often be clunky and awkward, but here it works so well and the flashbacks, the details of the twins’ strange childhood, are beautifully done, so evocative and detailed.

As the past is slowly revealed, the tension really grows, and the reader is pulled along by the narrative, as almost every page seems to reveal another piece of the puzzle. It’s expertly done, absolutely gripping.

A very impressive debut. Very much looking forward to her next book.

‘Ash Tuesday’ by Ariadne Blayde #RBRT #FridayReads

I read ‘Ash Tuesday’ for Rosie Amber’s Book Review Team.

In New Orleans, the dead talk and the living listen. 

Giving ghost tours on the decaying streets of the French Quarter isn’t exactly a high-profile career, but the guides at Spirits of Yore Haunted Tours are too strange and troubled to do anything else. They call themselves Quarter Rats, a group of outcasts and dreamers and goths who gather in hole-in-the-wall bars to bicker, spin yarns, and search for belonging in the wee hours of the night after the tourists have staggered home. 

Through the ghost stories they tell, their own haunted lives come into focus. Like the city they call home, these tour guides are messy with contradiction: they suffer joyfully, live morbidly, and sin to find salvation. 

Weaving together real New Orleans folklore with the lives of eleven unforgettably vibrant characters, Ash Tuesday is a love letter to America’s last true bohemia and the people, both dead and living, who keep its heart beating. With her debut, Blayde has carved out a deep and uber-readable interpretation of what it means to live, love, and grieve in New Orleans.

“There’s something about New Orleans. Maybe you can trace it to Latin America or the Caribbean or maybe not, maybe you can’t define it at all. The divine? The diabolical? I don’t know what to call it. But there’s magic, here.” 

New Orleans has a rich and bloody history, so it’s hardly surprising that its streets and buildings should be full of ghosts. And the author of ‘Ash Tuesday’ has found a wonderful way of telling those stories, along with the stories of an eclectic cast of characters, the ghost tour guides of Spirits of Yore.

It is Mardi Gras, and the city is full of tourists. We follow each of the guides as they give their tours, and then stay with them, learning about their lives, their struggles, their hopes, loves, dreams and pasts. And watching over it all is Kat, whose story is saved for the bittersweet ending.

This is one of the most beautifully crafted books I’ve read, every page, every paragraph a pleasure to read. I didn’t know much about New Orleans, but now I feel as though I know it well, and can see it so clearly from the author’s evocative descriptions – descriptions that never interfere with the narrative but provide a clear sense of time and place, conveying the atmosphere of chilly, eerie nights and bright carnival parades with equal skill.

The characters are brought to life with love and honesty. I adored Veda, and lovely Max, and wished so much for the other guides to understand Angela a bit more. The interactions between them all felt so real.

This is a book that will appeal not just to those who enjoy a good ghost story (although there are plenty of those), or those who are interested in history or in New Orleans. Because this is a novel that is fundamentally about people, their faults and their flaws, their mistakes and their victories, their love (and sometimes their hatred) for each other, and the ways in which we can let the past, and the people in the past, break us, or we can find our own ways forward, with people who love us for who we are.

A wonderful book.