Today I’m part of the cover reveal for this interesting book about suffragette Edith Rigby. Check out the blurb below.
The suffragette movement swept the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Led by the Pankhursts, the focus of the movement was in London with demonstrations and rallies taking place across the capital. But this was a nationwide movement with a strong northern influence with Edith Rigby being an ardent supporter. Edith was a controversial figure, not only was she was the first woman to own and ride a bicycle in her home town but she was founder of a school for girls and young women. Edith followed the example of Emmeline Pankhurst and her supporters and founded the Preston branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union. She was found guilty of arson and an attempted bomb attack in Liverpool following which she was incarcerated and endured hunger strike forming part of the ‘Cat and Mouse’ system with the government. During a political rally with Winston Churchill Edith threw a black pudding at a MP.
There are many tales to tell in the life of Edith Rigby, she was charismatic, passionate, ruthless and thoroughly unpredictable. She was someone who rejected the accepted notion of what a woman of her class should be the way she dressed and the way she ran her household but she was independent in mind and spirit and always had courage in her own convictions. As a suffragette, she was just as effective and brave as the Pankhurst women. This is the story of a life of a lesser known suffragette. This is Edith’s story.
Wow! June has been quite a month when it comes to fiction releases and I’ve had an absolute blast reading them. I think this is the biggest number of five star reads I’ve had in one month – usually I might include a couple of four star books here and there on the list, but not this month. There was a point when I’d read four, 5 ⭐️ novels in a row and was scared to pick up another in case I was disappointed! This is going to be a bumper year and I may have to do a ‘21 of 2021’ to accommodate everything I want to include in December. I’m hoping that my reading luck continues into July. Happy summer reading everyone!
I must give special mention to Karen at Orenda Books who said to me back in March that I needed to read the Jubilant June books they were publishing, particularly Everything Happens For A Reason. She said I would cry and I cried buckets, but I absolutely loved it too. Rachel is struggling to cope with the grief, after her baby son, Luke, is stillborn. Using the type of platitude many people resort to in the face of such terrible loss, she is told that ‘everything happens for a reason’. Unable to cope with the idea that Luke’s death is senseless, Rachel latches on to the idea. She thinks about saving the man who wanted to throw himself onto the train tracks and wonders if it is a coincidence that this was the very same day she found out she was pregnant? Rachel looks for the man she saved, in order to find the meaning in her experience. This is a stunning story of love, loss and hope.
In One Last Time we meet Anne, long term carer for her husband Gustav after a series of strokes. Not long after Gustav is transferred to a nursing home, Anne is diagnosed with cancer. This novel is an exploration of living, while dying. However, it’s also about motherhood and the relationship Anne has with her daughter, which was complicated by her caring role. Daughter Sigrid believes she was neglected by Anne, who chose Gustav’s needs over those of her children, but we also see Sigrid’s mothering skills and how they are interpreted by her daughter. This is a novel about the things we want to say to those we love, how they are meant and how they are received. Brilliantly perceptive, moving, honest and real.
Finally from Orenda is This Is What It Means To Be Human. Veronica lives in Hull with her adult son Sebastian. Sebastian is on the autistic spectrum and in a lot of ways acts the same way he did when he was small, even continuing to attend his childhood swimming club. However, there is one new interest in his life; Sebastian wants to have sex and although he is quite humorous in the way he expresses this, it is a natural urge. Usually Veronica helps with his hobbies, but she doesn’t know what to do with this one. After fruitless visits to their GP and a sexual health clinics, Veronica considers an escort. Could this be the answer to Sebastian’s prayers? This is a brilliantly ground breaking book that shows disabled people do have sex. You will laugh and cry at Sebastian’s quest to find a partner and Veronica’s realisation that her son is becoming a man. This really is am incredible novel from a writer at the peak of her skills.
This is a truly exceptional novel, one I’m sure I’ll read again and again. Ruth is struggling for direction in life and thinks she has chosen a path with Alex – a married man who left his wife and children to live with her in her tiny flat. Yet it doesn’t feel like the right fit. Can Ruth end the relationship knowing the havoc caused to Alex’s family? Yet she can’t remain, knowing this wasn’t what she expected. She takes a drastic decision, to leave London and work in a whale sanctuary in New Zealand. However, during her flight the unthinkable happens, Europe is wiped out in some sort of nuclear event that is also on its way down under. Ruth tries to find her destination and ends up on a beach, with a dying stranded whale and a man called Nik. Miraculously saved by climbing inside the whale, Ruth knows they are possibly the last people on earth. This book is extraordinary, not just the post-apocalypse survival story but the examination of love. Is it flowery exclamations or simply working together every day, them waking up one day with the realisation you’re a team and you couldn’t live without each other. It’s also about our definition of ‘self’ and who we are when everything we know and love is stripped away. I absolutely love this stunning novel and expect it to feature in my best books of 2021.
After my love of Elizabeth Buchan’s previous novel The Museum of Broken Promises, I was really excited about reading this on NetGalley. It follows two British women, living and working in Rome; one in the 1970’s as Italy is struggling out of fascism and one in the present day. Lottie has moved to Rome to live with her husband and work at the Archivo Espatriati. Her first job is to catalogue the papers of a woman called Nina Lawrence who worked in Rome in the 1970s as a garden designer, redesigning some of the gardens ruined by war. However, it seems that Nina is a woman of secrets and once Lottie starts to unravel her life and murder, she finds she may be in danger herself, attracting the attention of spies and the Catholic Church alike. The descriptions of Italy, and it’s incredible food, are vividly brought to life by the author and it’s a great chance to enjoy the Eternal City, However, the novel also asks serious questions, about where we belong, whether we drift through life or whether we make decisions based on a deep sense of duty to our religion, our family and our country. I think this novel cements Elizabeth Buchan as a ‘go to’ author for her sense of place, interesting and complicated women, and her wonderful historical detail.
I was absolutely enthralled by this great thriller from one of my favourite authors Lisa Jewell. In fact I read it in a weekend as a treat. Sophie and Shaun haven’t been together very long, but when he gets a teaching job at the exclusive private school Maypole House she decides to move out to the country with him. As a crime writer she can work anywhere, but she soon sniffs out a real-life mystery on her new doorstep. One year ago, in the woods behind their new house, Sophie learns that a young couple disappeared after a party. When she finds a buried box in her garden with the invitation to ‘Dig Here’, she can’t resist and unearths an engagement ring. Now she’s determined to find out what happened to young couple Tallulah and Zach, destined for a night in the pub, only to end up at a party at Dark Place – an historic house, situated in the woods. How did they end up with Scarlett Jacques and her friends when neither of them knew her. Mum Kim knows Tallulah would never have voluntarily left her baby, and neither would Noah. Yet neither of them have ever been found. Rumours abound about secret tunnels in the woods and they’re not the only twists and turns in this great thriller, along with a few red herrings and a totally unexpected ending. This book is ‘stay up till 3am’ sort of addictive.
An excellent thriller, filled with childhood trauma, psychological problems and the dynamics between people damaged in this way. Over two timelines we follow Nell in her final year of foster care and in a group home run by foster mum Meagan Flack, then one year later, living on the street in London. There’s a secret, deep down, that Nell can’t share or talk about, but it was the catalyst for her move to London with Joe. However Joe hasn’t weathered a winter on the streets as well as Nell, and when she discovers him entering a house with a blonde woman, she wants to know where he’s been, Nell observes Starling Villas from the coffee shop across the road. She doesn’t see Joe, but notices a young woman leaving the house and heading for a coffee. Thinking on her feet, Nell pretends to be in recruitment and when the girl opens up about the job at the house she concocts a story. Telling the girl her would- be employer is known to sexually harass his staff, she then poses as a potential employee and meets Robin, owner of the house. Now starts a game of cat and mouse, but who is the real predator? This is a great thriller, trying to solve two mysteries – what happened back in Wales a year ago and where are Joe and the blonde woman? Fragile is complex and atmospheric, exploring what happens when psychologically damaged people come together.
This was a book I’d been waiting to read – historical fiction with a focus on the treatment of women and those with mental health issues. Eugénie is the daughter in a middle class Parisian family, who has a very strong affinity with her grandmother. However, Eugénie has been keeping a secret from her whole family; since adolescence she has seen and been able to communicate with the dead. Trusting her grandmother, she confides in her about the presence of her grandfather who wishes to communicate with his wife. Despite seeming calm about Eugénie’s gift, the very next day her father takes her out in the carriage alongside her brother Theo, This is no ordinary outing. As the infamous Saltpétrière Asylum looms into view, she realises her grandmother has betrayed her and that the two men she should be able to trust most in the world are committing her to an asylum. Saltpétrière is run by Dr Charcot who has enthralled Paris society with his use of mesmerism on the women in his care. Coming up is the highlight of Paris’s season – the MadWomen’s Ball – where patients are given costumes to appear in for the amusement and fascination of the Paris elite. This is a book about women and the barbaric ways they could be treated and displayed, at the behest of the men in their family who have found them either mad, too intelligent, too excitable or struck with melancholy. I loved the strong female characters in the asylum, and the complicated relationship between Eugénie and Geneviéve. The novel’s strength is in these fascinating women and the way they defy the rules.
It’s been a very busy reading month with thirteen other books read over the last four weeks! Here are just a few of the books on my TBR in July. I’m hoping to have a quieter August and September so I can catch up on my NetGalley list and some great proof copies sent in the last few weeks. See you in July. Hayley xx
‘The Lord has instructed me to take of your number, seven virgins for comfort and succour.’
In 1830, as he thought the end of the world approached, the charismatic, hunchbacked prophet of a religious sect settled in Lancashire heeds the biblical injunction and chooses seven virgins ‘for comfort and succour’. Basing her novel on the life of the real John Wroe, a leader of a group called the Christian Israelite Church, Rogers crafts an impeccable narrative, interweaving the diverse mindsets of some of the chosen women and the prophet during the nine months of complex interaction. Part morality tale, part history, packed with accurate details of early 19th century life, the stories of Leah, Joanna, Hannah and Martha unfold as they cope with the hypocrisy, blind beliefs and idealism of the sexually threatening prophet. Told with humour, irony and a generosity that embraces even the sinister Wroe, this is a compelling story of astonishing depth, elucidating religious idealism, the beginnings of socialism and the ubiquitous position of women as unpaid labourers.
I came across this novel, even before the BBC TV series of the same name. Having seen/read both, I can recommend them equally, although I think the novel is slightly more successful in a few different ways. The way the book is structured into four different narratives allows the women’s characters to develop fully, as over nine months, the story of their lives unfold. Through them we come to experience all seven women: a pious believer; two sisters, still too young to understand their place in the world; a disabled woman; a beautiful, but egotistical woman; a mute and badly beaten woman; a girl donated by her aunt and uncle, who doesn’t believe in the prophet or his religion. It is only through the women that we experience the prophet, a clever reversal of power. In fact these narratives are the only power the women have at first, these are their only words free from restriction or religious dogma. This power shift is especially interesting when it comes to Martha, who is mute. When I first encountered her narrative I thought I’d bought a book with pages missing. However, it’s just Martha trying to express herself the only way she knows – depicted in staccato monosyllabic language, Martha writes about what she knows, eating and sleeping in the first instance. Yet instead of cutting off her narrative, Rogers leaves a blank page. This is the space into which Martha can develop and come to know herself. One of the most powerful parts of the book is watching this transformation.
We hear that Mr Wroe is a powerful speaker, and we can hear his preaching and religious teaching. However, we don’t fully come to know and understand the man. He doesn’t get to construct himself through language. So, we know something of his belief system and his interpretation of the Bible, but nothing personal. This could be because he is a conduit of God, simply meant to deliver God’s teaching. It also leaves him as something of an enigma. Why and when did he become the person he is today? The belief system he has is very selective, patriarchal and seems to benefit him more than his congregation. He sees no problem in allowing Leah to bring her illegitimate child to live with them. He accepts Hannah into the fold despite her lack of faith, and her doubts allow him to admit his own. He uses all the women as unpaid domestic servants and the exploitation doesn’t end there. He seduces the pious Joanna by convincing her that they will beget the new Messiah. For each woman his approach is different, but it works. I found his exploitation of Martha particularly difficult to read and his ability to take Joanna’s faith and use it against her in such a manipulative way is despicable. I don’t want to ruin the ending, so I’ll reserve any more detail, but such an arrangement can’t last and I kept reading hoping for the women’s emancipation.
I have always enjoyed this book and further reading shows it has stood the test of time. The historical detail is so accurate and the scene she sets is vivid – Martha’s time in the pig sty with the animals really sticks in my memory. It may seem hard to believe that any parent would willingly give up their daughters to this man. However, I understand how religious fervour can sweep through a community. Having family on my Dad’s side from the Isle of Axeholme, I know my ancestors would have experienced the Methodist revival started by John Wesley who hailed from Epworth. The real life Mr Wroe’s congregation firmly believed he was a holy man. Maybe they felt that God would look favourably upon them if they supported his vision. There were of course monetary reasons too; offloading a disabled or mute woman who would never earn money or marry could have helped a family who were stretched financially. Also, the stigma of having a disabled daughter, an old maid still living at home or a a girl who has a child out of wedlock could be wiped out by their inclusion in the prophet’s household, This can be a challenging read in parts, but worth the work as you become pulled in by the voices of these women. Little is known about the real ‘virgins’, but here Rogers gives them a voice and a power they clearly didn’t have in life.
Meet The Author
Jane Rogers has written 10 novels ranging from historical to contemporary to sci fi. Books include Mr Wroe’s Virgins (which she dramatised as an award-winning BBC drama serial), Island, and The Testament of Jessie Lamb (ManBooker longlisted, winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award 2012). Her short story collection Hitting Trees with Sticks was shortlisted for the Edgehill Award. She also writes radio drama and Classic serial adaptations (most recently of John Wyndham and R.L. Stevenson). Jane has taught writing to a wide variety of students, and is Professor Emerita at Sheffield Hallam University. She’s a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Her latest novel, Body Tourists, is a dystopia set in 2040.
The Conductors is set in post Civil War, Philadelphia and is firmly within a genre of historical fiction that has a whisper of magic. Benjy and Hetty are a married couple, united in their purpose. They are renowned, ten years on from the end of the civil war, as conductors – guides who helped slaves escape the south through the Underground Railroad. Interestingly I had only recently come across the railroad when reading another book about magic set in an historical context – Alix E Harwood’s The Once and Future Witches. Hetty and Benjy used celestial magic to aid their rescues and for this they use sigils, which are usually a pictorial symbol of a god or spirit, but here are a symbol of their desired outcome. Ten years on, they use their magic to solve murders and missing person’s cases, particularly those with black victims where discriminatory authorities may not have investigated properly, even in the more forward thinking Northern US states. Their skills are frequently called upon in their district of Philadelphia but this time is different, this time the murder victim is an old friend and they will have to investigate within their own community.
Trying to investigate and unearth who can’t be trusted amongst their own friends and neighbours is really tough, especially when their suspicions start to take them very close to home. They have to use all their magical powers and experience, because stirring up secrets buried for this long turns out to be very dangerous for the pair. How much do they really know about their friends and neighbours? Trying to bring together historical facts and fiction can be hard enough for a writer, but to stir in fantasy and magic too takes great skill. The author must get us to feel like we’re in the past, but a past that’s brought alive by magic. The balance has to be perfect, or the end result can feel messy and chaotic. Instead this feels fresh and leaps off the page vividly. I was drawn in quite early on, by the characters and the incredible world the author has built – especially the fantasy side. It moves slowly at first, which draws the reader in, but also allows us to settle into these characters and their world before letting the rest unfold. Then when it does, the story is believable, rich and vivid. I believed in this couple’s relationship and I was invested in them as characters. So, when the tension did start to build, I was hooked – hoping they would solve the case and emerge unscathed. I thought the magical explanation for systemic racism was interesting and I would be fascinated to see how that resolves in future novels. This is definitely a writer to watch.
Meet The Author
NICOLE GLOVER works as a UX researcher in Virginia. She believes libraries are magical places and problems seem smaller with a cup of tea in hand. Her life outside of books include bicycles, video games, and baking the perfect banana bread. The Conductors is her debut novel. She can be found at nicole-glover.com
The film rights to this novel have been bought by Queen Latifah.
I think this beautiful novel was sent to me at the right time. Two things have happened lately. I’ve had a relapse of my long term illness Multiple Sclerosis, and it has affected my sight, balance and vertigo. Secondly, I’ve been reading several books where the central theme is that even small lives can be extraordinary or have a huge effect in the world. I think the two things are linked, because I’m a big believer in finding the right book at the right time. When I don’t have a groaning TBR bookcase, I tend to choose my reading very emotionally. What do I feel like reading? I can’t understand readers who are able to read books in chronological order, whatever the subject or however they’re feeling. I really have to be in the mood. It took me several years to read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, but when I did I absolutely loved it. I think this is the reason many bookworms have buckling shelves – we know we’ll want to read that new book, just not right now. Well, this book was the right one for right now – a look at how the ordinary life of one woman, becomes extraordinary because of the way it is told. A reminder for me that though I may live a quiet and often restricted existence, I can still have an impact on the world.
This particular novel is unique, because it carries a whole lifetime suspended in a single moment. Violeta is drunk and in utter despair when she crashes her car. As she’s thrown around in the car, her seat belt locks and she’s left suspended both physically and metaphorically. As she hangs between life and death, memories of her life flash before her all at once and in no particular order. Memories of her distant mother collide with her everyday life on the road selling waxing products. She remembers moments fumbling on toilet floors with truck drivers she barely knows at motorway service stations. A thousand seemingly ordinary encounters pass through her mind and make up a life. Her past comes up for scrutiny, culminating in how she sacrificed the dreams she had for adolescent relationships that simply let her down. Through this poetic meditation, an ordinary life becomes epic.
This whole book is written as a stream of consciousness so don’t expect tidy chronological memories or carefully constructed sentences. This is one, long paragraph without punctuation, cleverly keeping the reader hanging in the same position as the author. This is a raw examination of the ‘self’, how it is constructed and whether it is ever a constant, unchanging thing. Or is it more like Frankenstein’s creature? Hastily stitched from parts of our parents, our experiences, and those things we like and dislike. An ever changing collage rather than a single, fixed identity. Memories weave in and out of each other, past and present collide and sentences drift away unfinished. We are listening in on Violeta’s inner thoughts so they are never censored or tidy. This is a troubled woman. She’s at war with her family, her own body and her own anonymous sexual conquests. Yet, even though there’s no real structure or plot, we start to understand her. She has an incredible sense of humour and there is a feminist element too, particularly the way we wage war on body hair – Violeta sells waxing products. There’s also the open expression of sexuality, when young she would experiment with local boys and age now visits truck stops for anonymous sexual with strangers. What is transgressive about these encounters, is that the narrator’s active sex life should not be available to a fat woman. I’m a bigger woman, we’re not meant to be attractive in our imperfect bodies. Yet, just like Violeta, I’ve never had a problem finding someone to have sex with. Men are not meant to want sex with fat women, but the truth is, they do.
However, it’s not just other people and our identity under scrutiny. The physical world and concept of time also shifts around us; the reader’s perception of this world expands alongside Violeta. She stands beside us. She experiences the world around her as layers of time, shown in time-slip moments such as when she recalls the previous day’s meal at a restaurant, but simultaneously remembers visiting the shop when it was a hair salon, alongside her mother. Places and people exist simultaneously in the past and future, something I can definitely understand as I get older. Violeta awoke a fire in me. I had a few moments full of emotion and kinship for those bigger women who accept being the butt of a joke, feel inadequate or even hate their bodies so much they accept the abuse meted out by others. There are elements of the book that are painful, especially when we read about her childhood. This goes some way to explaining the detachment we see in the interactions with her own daughter, highlighting the concept of inter-generational pain. I’ve never read a book like this one, especially the structure and the leaps from poetry to philosophy. It reminds me of another book I recently read, where the author attempts to grasp what it is to be a human being. A wonderful, occasionally dark, but unusual look at life from the perspective of someone whose life is, quite literally, hanging in the balance.
suddenly I should have stayed at home, I should have stayed at home, I should have stayed at home, for some time, seconds, hours, I can do nothing, suddenly I stop
Flora and Julian struggled for years, scraping together just enough acting work to raise their daughter in Manhattan and keep Julian’s small theatre company—Good Company—afloat. A move to Los Angeles brought their first real career successes, a chance to breathe easier, and a reunion with Margot, now a bona fide television star. But has their new life been built on lies? What happened that summer all those years ago? And most importantly, what happens now?
GOOD COMPANY follows two couples entering the midpoint of their lives, against the backdrop of the New York theatre scene and Hollywood. It tells a story of what it means to, as the author says, “truly love but never truly know another person”.
By chance this week I’ve read two books that focus on that mid-point in life, either that or the universe is trying to tell me something. It seems to be a time of shake-ups and regrets. The time when we look at life and either wonder where our younger selves and their vitality disappeared to, or take stock and realise if we don’t make our dreams a reality soon, we never will. It’s the archetypal mid-life crisis on one hand and we shake things up – buy a motorbike, a sports car or trade in our partner for a different type of ‘racy little number’. Other people throw out the ordinary life and go travelling, create a micro-brewery or start a bucket list. For me it means getting some writing experience and gaining confidence with an MA, while finally sitting down and starting to write my book (wish me luck).
Flora meanwhile, is feeling the need to catalogue the years of mementos and evidence of what she and husband Justin have achieved in life. Whether it’s through the theatre group Good Company that they work on together, or through the family they’ve created. The author sets the scene with something familiar that we’ve all done, clearing out old cupboards and storage spaces we’ve been neglecting for years. Flora is looking for a photograph, but is also enjoying reminiscing over the years they’ve spent together professionally and personally. The photo she’s looking for is from when their daughter Ruby is about five years old and they’re staying in Julian’s family mansion in upstate New York for the summer. At the bottom of the filing cabinet she finds it, an envelope of photographs marked ‘KEEP’ from that very summer. Under it is another envelope with an object in, so Flora opens it to find Julian’s wedding ring. This is nothing new. He’s had at least three since they’ve been together. However, on closer inspection this is their first ring, she had engraved especially for him. We all know that feeling. When you discover something that makes the bottom fall out of your world. Julian claimed to have lost this ring on their summer vacation, somewhere outdoors. So how did it get here, carefully sealed and buried under years of family detritus?
We also get to take a look at Flora’s friend Margot, who alongside Ben and Julian used to tread the boards with Good Company. She was one of those friends so interwoven in their lives she’s like family. In fact a five year old Ruby was so taken with Margot that she was always on her knee and being cuddled. Another photo from that summer shows them all, each intertwined in some way with the other. When people are that close, boundaries can be forgotten and it’s hard to see where your ‘self’ ends and the other begins. When one boundary is crossed, others can be breached too. We see that Margot could be overbearing, even interfering, especially back when Flora is planning to marry Julian. Now a famous actress, with a lead role in a hospital soap, we start to see her personality emerging during an interview with a very well informed journalist. It’s clear that she’s well versed in avoiding the difficult question and very willing to manipulate to get what she wants.
I found the setting fascinating, whether it was a beautifully realised New York or sunny LA I felt like I’d escaped into a different world world while reading. I love the idea of Broadway, it was the only thing I wanted to do when I turned 40 – go to Manhattan and see a Broadway show. To be able to read behind the scenes made me feel like I was reading an episode of Smash, a series that I used to watch with a stupid grin on my face. I love to see people perform so it was an absolute joy to have that feeling after being barred from live theatre for so long now. As we sit back and observe the ins and outs of these characters, we can really observe and analyse their behaviour. We see the individual behaviour but also how it feeds into the group dynamic. I could see the established roles, the shorthand they have developed when communicating, and some undercurrents that even the group aren’t aware of. Margot’s controlling ways have followed her through life, Julian is more passive and even powerless in some situations, and Flora is awakening to the fact that sometimes the individual is more important than the group. Many people in middle age are ‘stuck’ in friendship dynamics that are unhealthy and need to change. It can be impossible to change within the group and only by walking away can the individual put themselves first or initiate change in their own life. Our friends can be used to us being one way and may even actively try to manipulate or force us to stay in our little box. I could see all of this here and for a therapist it’s a delicious psychological puzzle to unravel.
I can see why the author’s debut novel was such a success. This was a great character driven read, with a great sense of place to get lost in. I became fully immersed in Flora’s life and all the complexities of these interwoven friendships and marriages. A wonderful ‘holiday read’ to get lost in from a novelist well-versed in the dynamics of people and their friendship circles. It might even make you think about your own friendships. I must just mention that stunning cover art too.
Thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours and Ecco Harper Collins for having me on the tour.
Meet The Author
Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s debut novel, The Nest, was a smash success, receiving widespread critical acclaim and named a Best Book of 2016 by many, including The Washington Post. Much of what made The Nestbeloved is back in play with GOOD COMPANY, including Sweeney’s distinctive wit and her incisive examination of the way people, and their relationships—with others and themselves—evolve over decades.
An uplifting story of love, loss and second chances that celebrates friendship and human connections.
Netta Wilde was all the things Annette Grey isn’t. Netta Wilde was raw, unchecked and just a little bit rebellious. She loved The Clash and she loved being Netta Wilde.
Annette Grey is an empty, broken woman who hardly knows her own children. Of course, it’s her own fault. She’s a bad mother. An unnatural mother. At least, that’s what her ex-husband tells her.
The one thing she is good at …
the one thing that stops her from falling …
is her job.
When the unthinkable happens, Annette makes a decision that sets her on a journey of self-discovery and reinvention. Along the way, her life is filled with friends, family, dogs, and jam. Lots of jam.
Suddenly anything seems possible. Even being Netta Wilde again.
But, is she brave enough to take that final step when the secrets she keeps locked inside are never too far away?
I chose to read this novel, purely because I am a middle-aged woman who looks back to the nineties from time to time and wonders what would that girl think of who I am now? I still wear floral dresses, Doc Marten boots and big slouchy cardigans. I still listen to the same music sometimes, go to gigs and read, constantly. Of course there are times I think I’ve lost myself – that underneath the avalanche of life experience I’ve taken on a different shape. There are times life has been so difficult I haven’t been able to find the girl I was. I’m at my happiest when I’m close to her. When I feel we’re still connected. The times when I can’t find her and I feel completely lost, she’s still there. She never really goes away.
Annette Gray doesn’t know that. She thinks she’s lost her self. She’s become drab, miserable and as Gray as her name suggests. I thought it was clever to create a structure where the actual story feels dull and slow, just as Annette does. It just didn’t come alive at first. Then I realised what the author was doing. As we see flashbacks to her university days they do come alive like the bit in Wizard of Oz where Dorothy wakes from her black and white world to glorious technicolour. It isn’t surprising that she feels so drained. Under the pressure of a terrible marriage where all of her confidence was eroded, it was no surprise to me that she had lost herself. Colin, thankfully now her ex-husband, is unfortunately still playing a huge role in her life. Not only is he a spiteful bully, he has conditioned his children to treat their mother the same way. While working she has footed the bill for their life, while never getting chance to see her children or even put across what life was life was like for her. Even now they’re grown up, their Dad still influences how they feel about her.
When Netta is made redundant I worried that this was another setback for her and when Colin starts complaining about his hand-outs I worried she would crumble. However, this is where the book really does take on some colour and Annette Gray starts to find her inner Netta Wilde again. I loved the joy she found at the foodbank and the new friends she makes there. She also has time for a new hobby that brings her happiness and self-fulfilment – jam making. As a jam maker, I know the satisfaction that comes from a completed batch on the pantry shelf. Like Sophie’s mum in Peep Show, I like to give my batches quirky names that remind me of when I made them – Blair Resignation Plum and Downton Abbey Zingy Damson being two from my shelves! This new lease of life and financial upheaval really opens Netta’s eyes. She can no longer afford to subsidise Colin or her children the way she has, and when she realises she’s been taken for a ride, even more revelations come to light that made me furious. I was dying for the children to realise what a thoroughly unpleasant man Colin is. I also wanted them to see the real person Netta was, someone willing to give up her home to live more simply so she could look after others. Her fellow volunteers at the foodbank really do rally round and become the family she’s been missing for so long.
I think many women lose each themselves, because of the expectation that we’re the caregivers in life. Not just for children, but for elderly parents, disabled siblings and sick spouses. Instead of rebelling, we internalise this and blame ourselves for our rebellious and ‘unnatural’ feelings if we don’t want to do it. Often we don’t even stop and ask ourselves if the men in our family and of our age have the same expectations placed upon them. I think the book captures an experience familiar to many middle aged women. It is peopled with great characters and has a real sense of someone awakening to who they want to be for the next chapters of their life. Someone who’s still a little bit Netta Wilde of yesteryear, but brought bang up to date. The Netta Wilde for now.
Meet The Author
Hazel Ward was born in a back-to-back house in inner city Birmingham. By the time the council knocked the house flat and packed her family off to the suburbs, she was already something of a feral child who loved adventures. Swapping derelict houses and bomb pecks for green fields and gardens was a bit of a culture shock but she rose to the occasion admirably and grew up loving outdoor spaces and animals. Especially dogs, cats and horses.
Strangely, for someone who couldn’t sit still, she also developed a ferocious reading habit and a love of words. She wrote her first novel at fifteen, along with a lot of angsty poems, and was absolutely sure she wanted to be a writer. Sadly, it all came crashing down when her seventeen-year-old self walked out of school after a spot of bother and was either too stubborn or too embarrassed to go back. It’s too long ago to remember which. What followed was a series of mind-numbingly dull jobs that paid the bills but did little to quell the restlessness inside.
Always a bit of a smart-arse, she eventually managed to talk herself into a successful corporate career that lasted over twenty years until, with the bills paid and the children grown up, she was able to wave it all goodbye and do the thing she’dalways wanted to do. While taking a fiction writing course she wrote a short story about a lonely woman who was being made redundant. The story eventually became her debut novel Being Netta Wilde.
Hazel still lives in Birmingham and that’s where she does most of her writing. When she’s not there, she and her partner can be found in their holiday home in Shropshire or gadding about the country in an old motorhome. Not quite feral anymore but still up for adventures.
Mum-to-be Rachel did everything right, but it all went wrong. Her son, Luke, was stillborn and she finds herself on maternity leave without a baby, trying to make sense of her loss.
When a misguided well-wisher tells her that “everything happens for a reason”, she becomes obsessed with finding that reason, driven by grief and convinced that she is somehow to blame. She remembers that on the day she discovered her pregnancy, she’d stopped a man from jumping in front of a train, and she’s now certain that saving his life cost her the life of her son.
Desperate to find him, she enlists an unlikely ally in Lola, an Underground worker, and Lola’s seven-year-old daughter, Josephine, and eventually tracks him down, with completely unexpected results…
Both a heart-wrenchingly poignant portrait of grief and a gloriously uplifting and disarmingly funny story of a young woman’s determination, Everything Happens for a Reason is a bittersweet, life- affirming read and, quite simply, unforgettable.
When I first talked to Karen Sullivan at Orenda about this incredible book – part of the Jubilant June publishing event – she told me I would cry but I would love it. She was right. I did cry. I cried buckets. I did love it too. This novel reminded me so much about my own loss. I cried for Rachel, I cried for the author, and I cried for anyone who has suffered this terrible loss. Mostly, and selfishly, I cried for myself. I do know the profound sense of loss Rachel goes through, because I lost three pregnancies, one with twins, when I was in my twenties. Of course these were miscarriages, not full term pregnancies, and as someone once tactfully told me ‘better to lose them earlier, than to actually have to give birth, or to have your baby die after a few days’ as if we were playing some sort of ‘Grief Top Trumps’. I was told many things in the months after each miscarriage: there was probably something wrong with the baby; we don’t always understand God’s plans; maybe it wasn’t meant to be. People don’t say these things because they’re malicious. They say these things because they don’t know what to say and silence seems unacceptable. The most useful thing anyone said was from the nurse who discharged me the first time. I was so traumatised by the past 24 hours I was staring ahead, not really seeing and not really listening. She touched my hand and said ‘it isn’t your fault, remember that’.
However, as it happened again and again, I did feel guilty and wracked my brain looking for things I might have done wrong. Rationally I knew it was not my fault, but I wasn’t always rational. Was this to do with my MS? Did I take a tablet I shouldn’t? Should I have helped in the charity shop sorting and labelling clothes, moving boxes? I wasn’t trying for a baby so was it the lack of vitamins? No folic acid? My body felt like such an inhospitable place. It was already attacking itself, now it was attacking my babies. Is it because I shouldn’t be a mum? Did I have a right to bring a baby into my already imperfect world, with my imperfect body? My brain switched off. My heart broke. I was told I had incomplete miscarriages, the baby dies but doesn’t ‘come away’. I then had to read and sign a clinical form that referred to my baby as the ‘products of conception’ and was headed ‘Consent for Termination’. My guilt clicked in again. What if they were wrong and I was killing my baby? To really complete the trauma I contracted an infection after my third miscarriage, and the doctor who had to examine and admit me to hospital actually slapped me on my bare leg because I wasn’t moving fast enough. I felt like my body wasn’t mine anymore. It broke my relationship. It took me on a long, painful journey of finding out that becoming a Mum was going to be more difficult for me because I had Hughes Syndrome, a clotting abnormality. It would be so difficult that I had to choose my own mental health over becoming a mother. I couldn’t make sense of what I’d done wrong to deserve this, on top of my other disabilities.
This is all our central character, Rachel, is trying to do. She wants to make sense of why her baby, Luke, died. She latches onto a platitude and weaves a story around it. If everything does happen for a reason, what could that reason be? Then she thinks of that fateful day when she stopped a stranger from jumping in front of a train, the same day she found out she was pregnant. What if he’d been meant to die? Then, because he was saved, someone else had to die in his place. It’s not clear if she truly believes this, or whether she has to think a greater purpose is at play, because if Luke’s death is without a reason she will fall into the abyss. So, we follow her search for the man she saved. Maybe if she sees him making the most of his second chance at life, she can accept her loss. There is, of course, sadness and grief on the journey, but there’s also humour and the hope that Rachel will work through the worst of her loss and find some peace and acceptance in this awful situation.
The writer is incredibly courageous to take her experiences and lend them to Rachel for the purposes of the novel. As we follow her ‘non-maternity leave’ she tells her story with such a frank, raw, and brutal honesty. This could be a difficult read for someone only just going through the same experience, but for me, I felt like someone had finally seen the pain I was carrying. I would no longer have to stand in the Post Office queue, watching people going about their business, with a terrible inner urge to scream ‘my baby died’. Rachel’s story is told through a series of emails addressed to the son she’s lost. In this private correspondence she can express her worst fears and nothing is left unsaid. There is also a sense for her, that she can send them somewhere; that somehow, Luke can see them. The authenticity of this stream of consciousness can only be achieved by letting us delve deeply into Rachel’s feelings and state of mind. It seems so authentic, because it is. Katie has delved into her very soul for this novel and welcomed us in. I can’t thank her enough. I admire her enormously. It inspires me to keep going, to keep writing my own story.
The fact that this is Rachel’s world means that everyone we meet, we can only see through her eyes. I really enjoyed some of these characters and they do bring balance to a tough story by creating some of the lighter, more humorous moments. Josephine, the daughter of a woman who helps Rachel in her search, has an offbeat humour that I really enjoyed. She really doesn’t have the ability to filter her thoughts before they come out of her mouth, and while that’s always funny, it can also be very insightful in a quirky way. The author has a unique ability to affect the reader’s emotions in one way and then switch them round again very quickly. Rachel’s family mean well when they help and hope she can ‘move on’ from her grief. Some don’t fully understand her quest and want the very best for her. I found myself understanding their confusion and agreeing with their wish that she heals emotionally. The next second I’d be furious, because something has been said that’s so glaringly insensitive. I’d want to turn the air blue with a few ‘F’ words.
I know I have rambled about my own experiences here and maybe I haven’t said enough about why you should read the book. However, I can honestly say this is the book about the loss of a baby, and the chance to be a mother, that is the most authentic I have ever read. I felt represented by this story and by this talented debut author. It’s unique structure, it’s rawness and ability to plumb the depths of despair, while still making you laugh and dare to hope, is simply extraordinary. It is beautifully written and captures our human need to make sense of something that is senseless. No one should be told how to grieve. Each person, and each individual loss is different. We humans find it difficult to accept that some life-experiences have no explanations or answers. When we can’t find meaning, we create it. So, we tell each other stories.
I’d like to say a big thank you to Karen at Orenda for putting this book in front of me months ago, then waiting patiently for my response. I’d also like to thank Anne Cater for letting me ramble like this on the blog tour.
Meet The Author
Everything Happens for a Reason is Katie’s first novel. She used to be a journalist and columnist at the Guardian and Observer, and started her career as a Reuters correspondent in Berlin and London. The events in Everything Happens for a Reason are fiction, but the premise is loosely autobiographical. Katie’s son, Finn, was stillborn in 2010, and her character’s experience of grief and being on maternity leave without a baby is based on her own. And yes, someone did say to her ‘Everything happens for a reason’. Katie grew up in Warwickshire and now lives in South London with her husband, children, dog, cat and stick insects. When she’s not writing or walking children and dogs, Katie loves baking, playing the piano, reading news and wishing she had written other people’s brilliant novels.
There’s a lot packed into this complex thriller about human relationships, traumatic childhoods, damaged adults, social justice, and the differences between those who are deemed to be respectable and those society deems outcasts. It’s an addicting and sometimes uncomfortable read, but it’s themes pour scorn on those who dismiss genre fiction as having nothing important to say. Across two timelines, one current and one a year in the past, we follow our main character Nell. Currently she’s homeless and her lover, Joe, has disappeared into the night with a well- groomed older woman. Nell tracks them to a tiny house, almost impossibly narrow, and invisible from certain points in the street. It’s a three storey, possibly Victorian town house and must be worth a fortune. Waiting impatiently for Joe to emerge she spends her last handful of change on a cup of tea in order to sit in the warmth of a cafe. The only person who comes out is a young girl with a blonde plait hanging over her shoulder. As she comes in for a drink Nell makes a choice to go over and talk to her and finds out she’s been interviewed for a position as assistant to the house owner – a man. In her desperation to find Joe, Nell decides she needs to get inside that house and comes up with a plan.
In her past, Nell has been in the care system, ending up in a group home in Wales with a foster carer called Megan Flack. She is a career rather than a vocational carer, collecting the money but rarely doing the job. She is neglectful at best, but there’s much more going on under the surface. Nell has learned to look after a home because she was always picking up the slack with housework, cooking and mothering the younger children, particularly the cute 6year old Rosie who clings to Nell. When Joe first arrives at the home Nell is knocked sideways by how beautiful he is. Two teenagers under one roof, with plenty of time to themselves creates the perfect opportunity and they are soon joined at the hip. In the heat of the summer they go bathing at a nearby pool, but Joe doesn’t always want the younger kids there and Nell is having to make hard choices. What has happened to cause the pair to flee their foster home? They end up in London, sleeping on the streets, until one night Joe disappears into Starling Villas.
The book’s structure is clever and works really well to pace the action and build tension. We learn a little bit more about the present, then go back into the past; a past that constantly updates and informs the present again. There was a growing sense of unease, as I got further into the book. I was never sure who was truly playing who. Caroline was unnerving and hard to like, because she never seemed to show any vulnerability. Megan was worse though; cold,manipulative and completely without empathy. The thought that there are people like this looking after children who are already traumatised and suffering from attachment issues. There was a social conscience here. The fact that a magistrate, a man who decides the fate of children like this, can be licentious and exploitative behind closed doors shouldn’t be a surprise, but somehow it was. There was something about Robin that I trusted, despite all the evidence to the contrary. We all know that status is conveyed according to how people appear and what they own. We might automatically assume that the well-read man living at Starling Villas is a fine, upstanding citizen. We also might assume that those brought up in the care system, the homeless and the hopeless, are capable of just about anything. What did drive Nell and Joe to pack and leave Wales, so suddenly? Why is Megan still seeking them out?
Nell is a wonderful character, all tough exterior but marshmallow inside. Her vulnerability is evident in her interactions with Robin, her new employer. She’s a hard worker, trained by a foster mother who seems to have hated some of her charges as much as doing anything that made her break a sweat. Nell’s been a mother figure at an age when she still needed one herself. She’s used to making a home too, making the best of the meagre things she can find to enhance her surroundings and lift her spirits. She’s tough enough to survive most things, even a winter on the streets in the capital, but the things that have happened to her still haunt her mentally. She’s been let down so many times it shouldn’t hurt anymore, but it does, especially when she’s let her guard down and softened slightly. Even though some of her behaviour is morally questionable, she’s so young and has had so few chances in life, I found myself rooting for her. The author’s knowledge about a childhood spent in care and what it can do to the rest of your life shows research, listening to personal accounts and experience. Not everybody survives, some will be institutionalised for the rest of their lives, while those who do survive the system don’t always leave unscathed. I think this was represented so well through the characters in this novel. Thankfully, not all foster parents are like Megan Flack.
This was a great read, compelling and difficult to put down once you’re hooked by the story. Every character has nuance and flaws, meaning in both the past and current narrative, you’re never quite sure who to trust or what to believe. I was haunted by little Rosie, just like Nell is. The author has created an addictive thriller, but given it heart and poignancy too. I was completely drawn in until the very last page and the ending was beautifully written.
Meet The Author
Sarah Hilary’s debut novel, Someone Else’s Skin, won the 2015 Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year and was a World Book Night selection. The Observer’s Book of the Month (‘superbly disturbing’) and a Richard and Judy Book Club bestseller, it has been published worldwide. No Other Darkness, the second in the series, was shortlisted for a Barry Award in the U.S. Her D.I. Marnie Rome series continues with Tastes Like Fear, Quieter Than Killing, Come and Find Me, and Never Be Broken. Fragile is her first standalone novel. –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Ellen and Alexa have survived hangovers, dodgy landlords and most of their twenties together.
But can they survive this?
After waking up with a terrible hangover, Ellen’s day is about to get much worse. It’s Saturday morning and a flooded kitchen leads best friends Ellen and Alexa into their attic looking for a stopcock. Their scream, after finding a mouse, leads their friend and housemate Jack up there too. But when Ben – Alexa’s date from the night before – walks in, the handle breaks, and all are trapped.
While Ellen nurses her hangover, she watches her best friend fall for this gorgeous stranger. Only to come to the horrifying realisation that she knows him from somewhere. Frantically searching her memories, Ellen wonders: is Ben really who she thinks he is?
And more importantly, what on earth is she going to do about it . . . ?
This is a fun rom-com and one of those deceptively light novels, that’s actually very difficult to write. It feels light-hearted and restricts the characters to one space – an attic within their shared home. I need a wee every five minutes, so I’d have ransacked every box in the attic for something to force the door open! I can’t possibly wee in a room with strangers! On a more serious note, the attic is a great dramatic device because it heightens tensions and seeing how that affects characters, is so interesting.
To create a good sense of the shifting perspectives in the room, the author gave each character their own narrative in the novel. It worked brilliantly because we could get a sense of how the existing relationships in the house worked, and how Ben’s presence changed that dynamic. It gave us different perspectives on what was happening too – who is panicking, who is a natural leader in a group, who comes up with creative solutions to the situation they’re in? It also showed how Alex’s presence with a man, a man she seems to be falling for, affects the others. When friends fall in love we’re happy for them, it’s a good thing, but will it change our relationship with them? Is the beginning of their relationship, necessarily the end of an era as single twenty-somethings sharing a home? I felt for Jack, who feels like an outsider in the house. Everything about him told me he was a warm-hearted and kind. Yet he seemed shy and a little bit awkward to. My heart went out to him.
There were some times I felt so old and I’m also completely out of touch with urban Iiving. I’m 47 years old and I’ve lived in a rural county my whole life. There were many references lost on me. Their teenage years may well have been spent on MSN messenger, mine was spent drinking on a riverbank and dancing in a psychedelic hoody to the Happy Mondays. My teenage years are pre-internet, which makes me feel prehistoric. I enjoyed the stories of internet dating, but my dates had to run the gauntlet of my Dad and suffer stifled, anxious, phone calls taking place in our living room with my whole family listening. I’ve heard stories of terrible landlords from friends who have lived in London, but here no one can afford to rent anything till they’re in their thirties. So I had to enjoy this as an amused older generation, learning about the world as it is now or might be for my stepdaughters (although that’s slightly worrying).
This is a great summer read, if you’re looking for something light-hearted with characters you’ll enjoy stuck in a very awkward situation. It’s a very modern room-com, bringing the genre bang up to date with some good laughs along the way.
Meet The Author
Phoebe Luckhurst is a journalist and author, who has written for publications including the Evening Standard, ES Magazine, ELLE, Grazia, Sunday Times Style, Guardian, Telegraph and Grazia. The Lock In is her first novel, and she is currently writing her second.