Tag Archives: Reading

Review: Expectation by Anna Hope

2019 seems to be the year for novels about modern womanhood. Following Hannah Beckerman’s If Only I Could Tell You and Katy Mahood’s Entanglement comes Expectation from Anna Hope.

You may know Hope from her historical novels, The Ballroom and Wake, but this is a departure from those to modern day London. We meet three friends, Hannah, Cate and Lissa, sharing a house in East London with great expectations for their futures. Careers, romance, fun and above all, friendship, are their goals.

Ten years on, we meet them again and, you may have guessed it, life has not panned out how they wanted. Lissa is still trying to make it as an actor, battling against industry prejudice on middle aged women; Hannah is trying her third round of IVF and desperate for a child; and Cate has recently moved to Kent with her new baby and a husband she is no longer quite sure of, especially feeling isolated but near his family.

Anna Hope’s great strength in her historical novels was her characters, and Expectation is no exception. The three women are well drawn, and we see their flaws, irritations and good points in all their glory – well rounded, real people on the pages. As such, reading Expectation feels like it does when you catch up with your mates after a few months apart.

Expectation, along with the novels I mentioned earlier, are all honest about womanhood, discussing what we ask of women – what society expects – and how we can never live up to this. Expectations of women, from their parents to the glossies, from their partners to their employers, are examined here – how can anyone live up to these? All three characters at some point feel like a failure, through no fault of their own.

And yet, how glorious to feel like we’re finally being seen properly. While reading I nodded several times in recognition, and said ‘yes’ as the characters were allowed to behave badly, to make their mistakes and not be punished for them. Not too much anyway.

I read this quickly, it’s an enjoyable and engaging book full of life, good sense and real people. And occasional moments of drinking too much and saying what you’ve always wanted to say to some pompous overbearing arsehole. (I particularly enjoyed that scene – no further spoilers coming.)

Thanks to Alison Barrow for my proof copy of Expectation.

Review: Somewhere Close to Happy by Lia Louis

How exciting to review a book by someone I know. (To clarify, I do not actually know Lia but we chat on Twitter – she posts about food, parenting, exhaustion and Bon Jovi, and who am I to diss any of that?)

Somewhere-Close-to-Happy-1-1Somewhere Close to Happy is Lia’s debut novel and has the loveliest cover with a dear little caravan on it (the significance of this becomes clear when you read the book). It is the story of Lizzie James, in her twenties and working in a steady but dull job, living at home with her dad, and trying to deal with a family wedding where she’s been invited to be a bridesmaid out of obligation on the bride’s part. So far, so ‘women’s novel’ but the book soon tells us more about Lizzie’s life so far.

For into her life comes a letter, from Roman, a boy who was Lizzie’s best friend, her rock, her salvation when she struggled with terrible mental health issues as a teenager. Lizzie met Roman in a youth facility for ‘troubled teens’ and together they helped each other survive. Until Roman disappeared. Now, 12 years later, Lizzie takes his letter and, with her friend Priscilla, tries to track him down.

Once in a while you read stories in the media about how children are growing up too fast and what they can and can’t handle, what we should or shouldn’t be teaching them etc. And oftentimes, you forget what reality is like for many kids across the country. But Lizzie and Roman are trying to deal with divorce, bereavement, alcoholism and neglect, even before you talk about their mental ill health. Their story is told through a mixture of present scenes, flashback scenes and instant messaging chats that Lizzie finds in the attic. This way, Louis tells us just enough at a time, while giving us accomplished glimpses of their characters.

There is some wicked humour here. Lizzie’s family, in the pre-wedding scenes, are ghastly, and her best friend Priscilla is a blast, despite facing sad times of her own. The humour is there to offset some poignant scenes, as the truth of Roman’s disappearance comes to light. But the main story is Lizzie’s, a girl who starts out just trying to manage but ends up lifting herself higher. This is a deftly told tale, and we are in the hands of a talented new writer. Louis’s next book has already set the publishing world aflame – so once you’ve finished this one, get waiting impatiently for the next!

Somewhere Close to Happy is published on Thursday by Orion Books and you can find it at all good bookshops. Thanks to Netgalley for my advance copy.

Woolf Works: my month of reading Virginia Woolf

My reading group’s choice for March was The Waves by Virginia Woolf. I have a lot of Woolf on my shelves but haven’t got round to reading very much so I was glad at the choice. Until I picked it up and tried to read it.

virginia_woolf_1902It’s well known as her most challenging work and for good reason. There is a rhythm and an order to the words but it is very poetical, at times random and mostly quite a difficult read.

I put it down again.

I needed to get into the flow of her writing and I looked at my shelves of Woolf and decided an experiment – I would read only Woolf or Woolf-related works all month and immerse myself in her and then near the end of the month, I would try The Waves again.

I owned five volumes of her diary and decided to start with those, reading her fiction simultaneously as she wrote it, and supplement the whole thing with biographies, criticism and essays, and ideally read some contemporaries too. It was an ambitious ask for someone with a full time job, a small child and a novel of their own to rewrite but I decided to see what I could do.

The diaries start in 1915 and so far this month I’ve managed to read two and a half volumes of them so I’m at 1927. We’ve witnessed the end to the war, the flu outbreak, a range of political changes and the general strike. The Woolfs (they referred to themselves as the Woolves) have moved back to London from Richmond, and bought property, started the Hogarth Press, taken a variety of writing jobs, and Virginia has written The Common Reader, a range of Short Stories, Jacob’s Room, Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse. Of these, I have read the stories, Jacob and Mrs Dalloway. I’ve also managed to read some biographical and critical books too, supplementing my own books with a trip to the library.

V Woolf olderWhat has this experiment achieved? I’ve absolutely loved the immersion in Virginia’s world. It’s a confusing whirl of dinners and teas with famous people, setbacks and illnesses, lost dogs, arguments with the servants, and heaps of books. She reads and writes and reads some more. I tried reading her diaries before but spread them out and spent too much time trying to remember who everyone was. This was a mistake. It is easier to let the detail wash over you and read them in big chunks as many of the same people come in and out. She is a writer who rewards you with a big reading exercise like this – with her letters, diaries, novels and range of articles there is a lot to get through and they provide you with a full honest picture.

Woolf is racist, anti-semitic, and a terrible snob. While much of this could be excused as being a product of her time (and class), it is still galling to read some of her dreadful thoughts and then be told that her set believed they were intellectually superior and open to more ideas. Nevertheless, she has great insight into other people, and offers that insight into her own marriage and her own resilience in dealing with a mental illness for which there was no real treatment at the time. She has humour, a healthy sense of competition and criticism, and a real sense of injustice that can at times transcend her snobbery. She was, in short, a real contradictory, flawed person – and one with a wonderful writing gift.

I have resumed my diary in response to hers and admire her experimental writing techniques in hers as a place to try new things. I would love to continue the experiment and immersion as I still have so much to read but I also have reviews piling up to get through (Virginia would approve of this as much of the time she had to put aside what she wanted to do in order to write reviews that brought money in) so hopefully in May I can resume with To The Lighthouse.

I did read and finish The Waves, which was still challenging but without the immersion I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t have finished it. The only disappointment is that I didn’t read it in order alongside the diary, because I haven’t got that far yet but I may dip into it again when I get there and see if I find it different.

 

#BookReviewGift: Three Sisters of Stone by Stephanie Hutton

Before this year I’d not heard of the concept of novella in flash so this was the first one I’d read. I know Stephanie via Twitter where she often links to her other excellent flash fiction pieces and shares her time and comments generously on other people’s writing.

For the uninitiated, a novella in flash is a short novel told in short chapters, each a stand alone flash fiction story but when put together build layers of a longer narrative. I’m attempting to write one at the moment and it’s pretty challenging. If you’re interested in how this works, I recommend reading Three Sisters of Stone.

Agnes, Bella and Chloe are the three sisters of the story, and the novella draws on folklore and fairytale, including the three little pigs. A father’s cruelty and how it echoes down the years is the broad theme, but it’s fascinating to watch how so much information and rich characterisation is conveyed in so few words.

Three Sisters is published by small press Ellipsis, and is a richly deserving piece of writing. You can read it in one go, or take tiny bites and allow the interest to build slowly. Like all good books, it warrants re-reading also.

You can buy Three Sisters here.

A childhood in books

As promised, I wanted to write about a childhood in books with a few featured. I have also decided to commit to blogging and reviewing every day in December and tagging authors to give them a boost about how much we appreciate them. (You can find out more about this here on Twitter – do think about joining in!) So here’s day 1.

I was reading Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm and thinking about the books I loved, the ones I return to, the ones I leave safely in the past but whose footprint is still with me, the ones I want to pass on. The passing on is especially important – I read a blog a while ago about a mother who had saved up a trip to Prince Edward Island with her daughter so they could share the wonder of Anne of Green Gables together and her daughter just didn’t like Anne. My heart! How awful – I dread this happening with E.

jonathan crombieSo as you can imagine, Anne of Green Gables is one of my absolute favourites. Yes, she talks too much, hugs trees too much and could be seen by some as utterly irritating but none of that ever bothered me. She was aching for love that girl, and had so much to give. My copies of the books are all TV tie in editions of the Kevin Sullivan production (the ONLY version worth watching) with Megan Follows as Anne, Colleen Dewhurst as Marilla and the lovely Jonathan Crombie as Gilbert. Gilbert Blythe was my first literary crush and remains to this day, one of the only decent men in the whole of literature. He spurs Anne onto greater academic achievement, allows her to voice her opinions and in every way respects her. You can count men who do that in books or onscreen on ONE hand. Anne of Green Gables also has one of the most heartbreaking scenes ever written in it – the death of Matthew Cuthbert – something that can make me cry at any time. Half my copies were presents from my Grandma, who bought them for me on a rare trip into Croydon together and whose kindness completed my collection, so I also think of her when I read them.

Going back a bit, my earliest book favourites were Rapunzel and Beaky the Greedy Duck. My mother hates both of them because she had to read them so often, and I think both were Ladybird editions. I’m not a massive fan of Ladybird books despite these, simply because when I was ill in bed as a child, a neighbour gave me the Ladybird version of The Little Mermaid and I was so upset by the awful ending I never read any more – Ladybird or Hans Christian Andersen. Give me the Disney version any day.

Of course I had an Enid Blyton phase, not the Faraway Tree, but straight into the Secret Seven, Famous Five, and the school books of Malory Towers and St Clares. The famous Five were favourites because of George and Timmy, who were something to aspire to – George being possibly the first tomboy character I was drawn to. A few years ago staying at a friend’s house overnight I came across a Secret Seven book that belonged to his son and started reading it out of curiosity. God it was awful.

mildred and maudOne set of books I loved and now E loves too is The Worst Witch. It’s not clear which of us is more excited by the new books in the series that Jill Murphy has started to bring out again – we have the new one ready for Christmas. Mildred Hubble is a great heroine. I was drawn to her because her hair was messy and her bootlaces were undone and she made mistakes but she had a good heart. I still love her while E is more drawn to Mildred’s steadfast friend Maud. E is too messy and disorganised herself to be anyone other than Mildred but I like that she values Maud. (Other characters I value because their bootlaces were undone also include Katy Carr from the ethically dodgy What Katy Did, which I acknowledge has dreadful morals but still has a place in my heart because of the bootlaces.)

What else? My mum worked in an infants school for a while and when I came to meet her from junior school one evening one of the teachers gave me a book from

daddy long legs

their library that was too old for their children. I still own it. It’s called A Fox in Winter by John Branfield and tells the story of a teenage girl who befriends an old Cornish farmer and listens to him while he tells her of the old mining days. It’s quietly compelling and explores isolation and generational differences and connections or disconnections between people. I also love and still own my copy of Jean Webster’s Daddy Long Legs, a sweet and little celebrated epistolary novel of an orphan and her guardian.

I also remember something I was gripped by and reread called Vipers and Co which was a kind of crime book I think. I can’t find any information about it now but I remember loving it. I also got a Robert Cormier book out which was called The Bumblebee Flies Anyway which I read more than once simply because it was disturbing – about a boy called Barney who lives in a medical facility for experimentation.

I will tell you of two more. Obviously Judy Blume must figure. My favourite was Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, but obviously I had the Forever rite of passage. As with so many, the library copy was so battered every time someone returned the librarians tried to mend it only to have to hand it over immediately to another teenage girl who wanted to read it. I also made the mistake of asking my mum what some of the phrases during the sex scene meant (well, if you’ve not come across it before, saying somebody ‘came’ is very confusing) and she shrieked “What ARE you reading?” Oops.

alcott houseFinally, of course, my spiritual sister Jo March has reminded me that I must mention Little Women. We read this a few years ago at my reading group and one of the group said she couldn’t finish it because they were all so pious. I was heartbroken. Of course they are. But Little Women is part of me and, like practically every bookish woman, I am Jo March, although she is clearly a better person than me because if Amy burnt my book I would have left her to drown in the pond. Pious indeed. In the US I made a trip out to Concord to go round the Alcott house, visit their graves and generally worship – it’s fascinating, I do recommend it.

I would love to hear your childhood favourites! Drop a comment below – and don’t forget to keep reviewing books, visiting libraries and buying books from flesh and blood bookshops.

 

Booky spaces, growing a reader and more…

So two things have happened recently. The first is that I started to read E (6) The Railway Children as her bedtime story. The second is that I have been reading Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading.

These are clearly related. For those of you unfamiliar with the Mangan, it’s her childhood told the books she read, the history of them, what they taught her and how they have altered over time and rereading. In many chapters it’s like holding up a mirror to my own childhood (we are similar ages) – she dislikes Seuss, was traumatised by Strewelpeter, but loved The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Little Women and Teddy Robinson. Lucy is also reading books to her own child, hoping he finds the same joy in reading as she did.

Which brings us back to The Railway Children, one of my favourites. For someone who dislikes TV tie in editions, some of my most treasured childhood books are TV tie in editions and I love them for it. The Railway Children has Jenny Agutter (as Bobbie) and co on the front from the 1970 film. E and I are five chapters in and she’s enjoying it, taking the historical differences in her stride, though she did ask why they were all wearing wedding clothes on the cover.

When she was born, my main ambition was for her to be a good reader. Others state that they just want their children to be happy but I feel that’s so woolly and out of your control, I figured that if I instilled a love of reading she’d at least have a means to happiness, advice, and life lessons and adventure and excitement and understanding and empathy. We read stories to her at bedtime before she could hold her head up.

When we were in Amsterdam on holiday earlier this year, we stopped in at Waterstones. This was twofold: first in a family of bookworms, it’s difficult to walk past a bookshop; and second, it had aircon and Amsterdam was very humid. S had stopped on the mezzanine, and I was ambling around the second floor browsing and cooling, while keeping an eye on E. She found a book to read, clambered onto the window seat and made herself at home. The sight of her so absorbed in her book filled me with joy, she seemed so serene.

Because that’s the other gift of being a bookworm. You get booky spaces too. When I was little, our village got a new library building where previously there had been nothing. We went along the opening where I refused to talk to local media about what the library meant to me. However, if the reporter had a secret camera he would have seen me frequent it for years afterwards on an at-least-weekly basis, until I left for university. It was a safe space, calming and full of possibility and new discoveries.

At university the second hand bookstall appeared every Tuesday and I haunted that, as well as the second hand shops in Brighton as I tracked down old books by Jeffrey Farnol for my grandpa. Later, finding myself in Ann Arbor, Michigan as an exchange student, I discovered that Borders stayed open until 10pm most nights. A nightmare for the staff but a quiet warm haven of classical music and coffee smells and books for the customers. So civilised.

This changes for a while when you actually work in a bookshop. For two years once I had stopped working for them, I found I had no interest in reading at all. And then the day came when I stepped back into Waterstones and found the new book smell had been restored to me. I haven’t looked back since.

This is part one (of… who knows?) on this subject. Next up, I will blog again about childhood books because thinking about them this week has made me very happy.

Review: How We Remember by JM Monaco

How We RememberToday I’m hosting the blog tour for JM Monaco’s how We Remember, a debut novel of dark family secrets and their after effects.

Jo O’Brien, Irish-American professor of Art History living and working in London, returns home after her mother’s death and, in the process of clearing out her mother’s diary and papers, is reminded of an incident from her teenage years which stirs up all kinds of memories. Family secrets come to the fore, as the three family remaining family members deal with a history of addiction, mental ill health, and bitter confrontations.

Jo is a well written character and the book is shaped around her. She’s not always likeable and she makes a lot of mistakes, but all this makes her recognisable and realistic. What a mess her family life is. But this is not a plot-based book, instead it’s a snapshot of what happens when the stories we tell ourselves in order to make it through the day all start to unravel.

Some passages are hard to read. Jo’s account of the incident in her mother’s diary, a sexual assault by her uncle, made me bite my lip but even worse were the recriminations from her own family members that Jo, a teenage girl, had been ‘asking for it’. And the family dependence on alcohol, the accounts of depression that devastated their family life but was never really treated are heartbreaking.

Despite this, I wouldn’t want you thinking it’s a dreary or sad read. It’s frank, realistic and has passages of tenderness and love that show you that we’re all just trying as hard as we can, sometimes against the odds.

It’s a sure-footed debut and worthy of critical and popular acclaim.

How We Remember is available from Amazon,
Netgalley or Red Door Publishing website.
JM Monaco’s blog can be found here. 

Thanks to Red Door Publishing for the copy of the book in exchange for a review.

Review: Take Nothing With You by Patrick Gale

Take nothing with youA new Patrick Gale is always something to celebrate but in recent years his books seem to have taken on an extra quality. I do feel he’s one of the country’s best writers – portraying empathy, love and the human experience with deftness, wit and a sure touch. We must celebrate him more. Perhaps a knighthood?

It opens like this:

‘At an age when he was reassured that life was unlikely to surprise him further, Eustace found, in rapid succession, that he was quite possibly dying and that he was falling in love for the third time.’

Wham. And you’re in! Eustace is our hero, about to undergo cancer treatment and falling for Theo, who he hasn’t yet met because Theo is on deployment in the Middle East with the army. Their relationship has so far been conducted over the internet, and Eustace is reluctant to tell Theo of his diagnosis. Eustace’s best friend Naomi, a cellist, has made him a playlist to listen to while he takes his treatment and it is this that sparks memories for Eustace.

The bulk of the book is Eustace’s story from his childhood in Weston Super Mare where his parents run an old people’s home. One day, Eustace’s mother takes him to see Swan Lake and later, remembering the music and the athleticism, Eustace dances to Tchaikovsky in front of the old ladies in the home before being severely reprimanded and signed up for clarinet lessons. But the clarinet teacher is sent away and instead Eustace and his mother find Carla Gold, a cellist and teacher. They are both hooked and Eustace begins lessons.

Eustace finds he is a good player, and devotes himself to playing and practicing. Aside from this, his story is that of a boy growing up to discover his sexuality, how he tentatively explores this with his schoolfriend Vernon. It’s standard stuff and yet there is a charm to it, Eustace is a curious and engaging boy.

Things change. Eustace does not win a scholarship to the private music school he wants to go to and his parents, whose relationship is strained, cannot afford the fees. So he has to go to the local comprehensive, nervous of how the others will view him and starts to mix with a broader range of young people than he has before. Eustace gets to go to a cello summer camp with Carla’s celebrated teacher. If he does well there, he could go on to be a professional musician. It is at the camp that he meets Naomi and her friends, and where he feels less isolated. But before he can perform at the camp’s final concert, his father arrives to take him away. His mother has been involved in a car accident and is in hospital.

Like many teens, Eustace senses his sexuality is something he must keep secret and despite experimenting with his friends, he knows he is different. It is at Carla’s house in Bristol where he stays over on Friday nights before lessons on Saturday that he finds allies. But, when something truly shocking occurs in the last 40 pages of the book (I mean, really, I gasped out loud) he also finds he has allies elsewhere.

I won’t say more but this really is a wonderful read. It’s such a cliche to use words like mature, sensitive writing but this is an engaging, absorbing book, with humour and love and awkwardness and wonder. All it needs is an accompanying soundtrack to really take you along with it.

Take Nothing With You is published on 21 August by Tinder Press. Thank you to Georgina Moore for the review copy.

Review: The Lost Letters of William Woolf by Helen Cullen

lost letters william woolfWhat a lovely premise this book has. As soon as I heard it, I wanted to read it. William Woolf works for the Royal Mail at the Dead Letters Depot. Woolf is a Letter Detective,  sorting through all the letters that never get delivered. He tries to deliver or return them, seeking out the stories that led them to be mis-addressed, trying to decipher the smudged writing, the torn packaging or lost street names.

Doesn’t that sound fascinating? I love these sort of things – the element of fantasy, a system that a more generous, more patient world could have had if we wished it. And it features letters – regular readers of the blog will know I love letters and the epistolary style. So I dived in.

Oh! The book blurb mentions missed birthdays, broken hearts, unheard confessions, pointless accusations, unpaid bills and unanswered prayers. But there’s also whale vomit and old medals and stories of kindness, connections and long-remembered deeds. That’s the just the letters. If I’m honest, I would have been happy with just these. But there’s also William Woolf himself.

William is a failed writer married to Clare. They met at university with William tried to start up a book club and only Clare came along. Their early passion has waned, as they all do, into a comfortable companionship, or has it? For Clare is unhappy. She is frustrated that William is content being a letter detective, she isn’t quite happy at her job as a lawyer, she doesn’t want to consider having a family until they are set up better, and their relationship is now a series of misunderstandings and sniping comments. This portrayal of a soured marriage felt well written and realistic, though there was a part of me that wanted to tell them both to grow up and behave. It can be tedious reading other people’s arguments.

Then one day at work, William discovers a special letter, the first in a series, addressed to ‘My Great Love.’ It is the work of someone called Winter, who lives in London and has enough eloquence and mystery to get William hooked on trying to find them. Soon Winter’s letters contain enough for William to start wondering if he is actually the great love mentioned in the letters. As Clare leaves him, his quest to find Winter begins.

This is an accomplished novel with great insight into how relationships change and develop and change again, with ups and downs. It was a little too sentimental in places to completely charm me – I found Winter to be more of an irritant that she was meant to be but I put that down to my misanthropic heart and I know others will love it. For me the great character was William’s slightly bonkers workmate Marjorie, lonely, ample-bottomed, but obsessed with other people’s love letters and Valentines.

Lost Letters is a great testament to the power of the written word, even by the worst point of their relationship, William and Clare still communicate by letter, and it offers hope for second chances and our own powers of resilience.

The Lost Letters of William Woolf is published on 12 July 2018 by Michael Joseph and available in all good bookshops. My thanks to the Michael Joseph team who sent a proof copy for review.

Twenty Four Stories

Five or six years ago I walked through Nottingham’s Old Market Square. It was near Christmas, dark overhead but the Christmas market was in full swing, including the annual ice rink. The scene gave me a ‘what if?’ moment and I turned it into a story.

I wrote and edited and wrote and tinkered, made it longer, cut it down and was finally happy enough to submit it. It didn’t get very far – it was too simple, not enough of a twist at the end, not dark enough for many magazines. I forgot all about it and moved on.

A year ago, we woke to the awful pictures of Grenfell Tower, the smoking black horror dominating the news and the skyline. And a little project was born. Watching the news were people who decided to help, who knew that the trauma experienced by residents of Grenfell and the local area would be incredibly difficult to recover from without support. A fundraising project could ensure that a trauma charity could come in and provide support to the families and help them process their experience.

24 stories book coverTwenty Four Stories is a book for Grenfell Tower – a story for every storey – funded by a crowd of generous souls, edited by Kathy Burke and published by Unbound. Twelve of the stories are by established writers, twelve of them are by us amateurs.

I saw a call for submissions on Twitter.

I dug my story out. I polished it and I submitted it. 500 other people did the same.

A year after Grenfell, our book will be published. Twenty-four stories of hope, unity, community and love, all of them chosen to be positive and uplifting. I’m so proud to be a part of this, so pleased that my little story is helping play its part. There is so much crap out there, so many horror stories, so many people willing to be negative or criticise or dismiss. Sometimes a small gesture, a story, a smile, a kind word is all that’s needed. That’s what this book is about.

All the profits from the book go to the Trauma Response Network to help their work supporting people with PTSD.

Twenty Four Stories is available to buy from all good retailers. It’s filled with fantastic writing and it looks brilliant. A top read and a good cause! Buy it. Play your small part.