Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura.

This was an unexpectedly quirky and refreshing take on the obsessional friendship trope, a theme I’ve loved ever since watching Single White Female back in the 1990’s. This is the first of the author’s novels to be translated into English from the original Japanese. I was surprised by that, because there was something about the writing style and the main character that I thought would appeal to the British reader. I thought earlier novels might have also appealed to British readers. The daily eccentricities of the the Woman in the Purple Skirt the man m were charming and intriguing, so it was that and my curiosity about the motives of the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan that drew me in to the story. There is also an interesting, melancholic sense of humour that struck me as something British reader would enjoy.

There are some characteristics that the two women share, such as living standards and finances. It’s possible that both are lonely and are living from hand to mouth, but what drives the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan to get up and watch her every move? What does she want? Eventually, she lures the Woman in the Purple Skirt to a job with the cleaning agency where she works as a hotel housekeeper. This brings the women into proximity, but instead of a friendship emerging, the Woman in a Purple Skirt falls into an affair with the boss. This is the main difference between the women; the Woman in a Yellow Cardigan only watches, while the Woman in a Purple Skirt actually lives. I felt this distinction very strongly and wondered whether there would be resentment or even anger towards the Woman in a Purple Skirt. This is where the book really ventures into thriller territory as the women meet and we see the dynamics of female relationships, the obsessiveness and that human need to be seen, recognised and even desired. This woman simply wants to be noticed and considered by someone else. Why do people recognise the Woman in the Purple Skirt? What does she have that makes people sit up and take notice?

I found myself thinking about the word ‘sonder’ – one I’m using for my own writing at the moment. It’s a German word to describe the realisation that every random passer by has a life as rich and varied as our own. This seems to be what the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan wants to know, the rich complexity of the Woman in the Purple Skirt’s life. The woman always wears a purple skirt, it is possibly this and her set daily routine that makes people notice her. As she leaves her apartment every day she is followed and insulted by neighbourhood children, in fact she’s great entertainment for the neighbours who seem equally fascinated by her set routine. Every day she walks to the bakery and buys a single cream cake, takes it to the same park bench and eats it. No one knows who her family are or where she’s from. Her jobs are temporary, she lives alone and doesn’t even attempt to relate to others. She is an enigma, and the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan watches her every move, until she knows her daily routine uby heart. Even her appearance is intriguing. From a distance she could pass for a schoolgirl, but up close she has liver spots that belie her age. Her hair is dry, she lives in a small, shabby apartment and is short on money. She looks like one thing, but could very well be another. She’s different, but seems to have carved a life out in the world, something that the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan seems to find so difficult.

I thought it was wonderful to have two such complex and multi-dimensional female characters, especially where the relationship between them is the focus. There was a peculiar creeping unease built into the narrative. Japan seems to exude ‘otherness’ like nowhere else, a theme explored in the film Lost in Translation. I lived next to a Japanese Garden for seven years, where English plants and trees were pruned into the shapes of Japanese topiary. Stepping into it from my cottage garden made felt like entering a surreal and alien landscape. That’s a little bit what this book felt like. It was original and refreshing, perfect for if you’re in a reading slump, and a fascinating take on the thriller genre.

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

The Therapist by Helene Flood.

Helene Flood has written a fascinating thriller about a therapist, set in Oslo. It’s complexity of character and their motivations probably comes from the fact that the author is a psychologist. Straightaway, I was invested and really excited me to get inside the character’s minds. Sara. and her husband Sigurd live in his family home, a large three storey house they’re currently renovating. Next door is a small addition to the property, housing Sarah’s office and therapy room. On this Friday, Sara is seeing three clients and then settling in for a quiet weekend while Sigurd is on a boy’s weekend away with his best friendS. At lunchtime he leaves Sara a message to say they’ve arrived safely at his family’s cabin and his friend is gathering firewood. She expects to speak to him that evening, so is shocked when one of his friends calls to ask where Sigurd is, as he hasn’t arrived yet. In the days following Sigurd’s disappearance Sara must cope with a very thorough detective searching her house and dissecting her relationship, an intruder breaking into the house, breaking the news to her distracted and narcissistic father, and constantly wondering where Sigurd has gone. On top of everything, she has clients to see.

The story is told in two narratives from Sara’s point of view. In one, we’re in the present day, experiencing the investigation and Sara’s interactions with family and friends in the wake of Sigurd’s disappearance. In the second we meet a very different Sara, as she first meets Sigurd, spends time with friends and makes the decision to move to Oslo. This Sara seems lighter mentally, she’s obviously younger but not by much, so what has changed? The past Sara seems to be enjoying life, despite a stressful clinical post with drug users. Sigurd is also completing his training in architecture and is incredibly busy. The distance between them is something she hadn’t anticipated, she knew they would both be busy, but thought the strength of their feelings would keep them on track. A brief interlude away at a festival with friends sees Sara’s mood lift completely. She starts to relax and enjoy herself. However, there will be secrets kept about this weekend that have huge implications for her future.

Present day Sara seems very controlled and reserved. The author creates this interesting gap between Sara’s interior world and the way she presents herself to the world outside. She is always thinking, analysing and wondering, but her conversation is minimal and gives very little away about how she feels. There’s something called cognitive dissonance going on here, a huge gap between the Sara she presents to others and how she truly feels. There are three core values a therapist should have when seeing clients: authenticity, non-judgement and prizing the client. Sara seems strangely detached from her emotions – still seeing clients even after Sigurd’s disappearance as if nothing’s happened. While this is great for continuity, it isn’t very authentic and I felt that instead of practicing authentically she is wearing her therapist’s role like a mask. Even before she knows about her husband, Sara’s thinking is very ordered. She has the day split into therapy hours, admin time, lunch until she can throw on some pyjamas and chill out. It feels like she’s listing tasks just to get through the day, mentally ticking it off seems like a habit borne out of anxiety or trying to keep motivated when depressed. I wouldn’t say she’s enjoying life much. Their home seems the same, with plans for a beautifully finished house, that are currently a list of tasks they can’t afford. In trying to achieve something ambitious and beautiful, they’ve made their current lives very uncomfortable and messy. The state of the house seems to get Sara down and Sigurd wants her to take on more clients so they have more money to get on with the plans. However, I don’t think Sara is in the mental state to cope with more therapy hours.

I loved the author’s creation of Sara’s narcissistic father, a professor and philosopher with controversial right wing views about crime, family and vigilantism. Sara describes talking to her father, almost like an audience with royalty. It’s so rare to have all his attention on you, it’s difficult just to be his daughter. He seems to give off the sense they should be grateful for his unwavering attention and if either daughter struggles to make use of the time, conversation soon turns to him, his work or one of the many students who seem to loiter round the house like acolytes. In fact Sara is so bewildered by his attention on this occasion she doesn’t tell him her devastating news, but instead debates something totally unrelated with him then goes home again. It’s no surprise that she keeps her vulnerabilities and worries to herself – there’s never been anyone interested in hearing them. Even her sister Annika, although she looks after Sara, drops into her role as lawyer as well as sister. This is partly to remind Sara how she’s being viewed by the police, to remind the police not to take liberties, but also to give herself a professional role to hide behind. It is only when one of Sara’s friends arrives and acts naturally by hugging her, that she even feels like crying.

As Sara starts to undertake her own investigation, secrets start to emerge about the couple’s life together. There has been some distance between them for a while. Her relationship with his family is not a warm one, with Sigurd’s mother resentful that they live in her childhood home – left to Sigurd by his grandfather. They don’t even attempt to look after h er and she foresees a long wrangle over Sigurd’s will. There were arguments at Sigurd’s work with differences in architectural perspectives, and who is the mystery blonde that sometimes wait for Sigurd after work? If his work on the Atkins house was finished long ago, why is it still in his diary and where is he really spending his time. The author keeps us brilliantly on edge with red herrings and reveals galore. We see the police through Sara’s eyes, which might explain why they seem curiously non-committal about everything. We never truly know how they feel about Sara or where the investigation is going. Obviously she is a possible suspect. However, there are points in the investigation, when Sara is sure there is an intruder at the house, where they seem indifferent to her worries and her safety. I was never quite sure whether Sara was the ultimate unreliable narrator and would turn out to be implicated in her husband’s disappearance. She seemed detached from the reality of it, even within the context that their relationship has deteriorated over time. The ending was a surprise and the double reveal was beautifully done, and very satisfying. I stayed up late to finish the last few chapters, because I was so hooked on the story. This was a psychological thriller I would definitely recommend.

Meet The Author

Helene Flood is a psychologist who obtained her doctoral degree on violence, revictimization and trauma-related shame and guilt in 2016. She now works as a psychologist and researcher at the National Centre for Violence and Traumatic Stress. She lives in Oslo with her husband and two children. The Therapist is her first adult novel. It has been sold in 27 counties and film rights have been bought by Anonymous Content. Her second novel, The Lover, will be published in English in 2022.

Posted in Netgalley

The Conductors by Nicole Glover.

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.

Posted in Netgalley

Violeta Among The Stars by Dulce Maria Cardoso.

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

Posted in Netgalley

The Maidens by Alex Michaelides

There’s probably a word in another language that properly describes the weird combination of trepidation and excitement a bookworm feels when they see a second book coming. You see they loved the first one. It was different. With an incredible twist that no one saw coming! It was like seeing The Sixth Sense for the first time, being blown away, then wondering what M. Night Shymalan could possibly do to follow it? If this is what it likes for the reader, imagine the writer’s fear in following such a smash hit as Alex Michaelides’s The Silent Patient. It must have been incredible. So I approached The Maidens as if it was a piñata filled with bees!

The premise sounded interesting. Psychologist Mariana Andros is summoned to Cambridge University by her niece Zoe. It’s a place filled with memories for Mariana, because it’s where she met her late husband Sebastian. For Zoe it is now the place where her best friend Tara has been murdered. Zoe is very special to her aunt, because they are each other’s only family. They have been closer since the death of Sebastian, who drowned on a romantic holiday in the Greek Islands only a year ago. Mariana knows how desperate Zoe must feel, so cancels her group therapy clients and sets off to meet her in Cambridge, where she stays in university lodgings. Here she meets the charismatic and Byronic Professor Fosca who teaches Classical Philology. Mariana is disturbed by him and his habit of gathering together ‘special scholars’ who receive group tuition from him. They are called The Maidens – although whether this is Fosca’s invention or the girls we are never sure and, of course, each one of them is incredibly beautiful, including their missing member, Tara.

Zoe is convinced Fosca is behind the murder, but with no evidence except a strange feeling and dislike of his odd circle of academic groupies, nothing can be done. I had the feeling that this tutor was perhaps a genius in his field, but was socially awkward and unaware of societal norms. Did he think his maidens gave him an air of eccentricity perhaps? However, he was too obvious to be the real villain of the piece. Yet, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t guess the answer. Thankfully the book had a great pace and once it had it me hooked, I just couldn’t leave it alone. I read it in my car on the way to our holiday cottage, in the bath, and in the park. However, I still couldn’t possibly have guessed at the incredibly tense showdown at the end.

For me there were some negatives. I had difficulty connecting to the characters emotionally, especially Mariana who never fully came to life for me. The Greek tragedy element was clever, as quotes on postcards sent to the victims felt like clues to the killer’s identity. However, I was taught classics at school so these references were familiar to me and I wondered how this whole theme would be received for someone without any knowledge of Greek myths. I also felt that how Mariana inserted herself into the investigation was highly unlikely. However, I did enjoy the academic setting and I felt the author captured that sense of importance academics can have about their subject area. I thought the he represented academia well, like being in a bubble, living and breathing your passion. The murders punctured their way through this protective layer, bringing the real world into a rarefied way of life. The passing connection to The Silent Patient wasn’t needed, but did add an interesting aspect to the ending; I now have my own epilogue running in my head, following certain characters into that other fictional world.

I was disturbed by the visitation of a swan, described as having black eyes that bored right through Mariana. I wondered what this represented and thought of the famous Greek myth of Leda and the swan – where Zeus disguises himself as a swan in order to rape/seduce Leda who has no knowledge of the swan’s true identity. For me this conjured up ideas around love or infatuation being blind, loving and trusting someone who isn’t what they seem. What I loved most of all though, was perhaps linked to the swan. The author has created a therapist with all the skills of perception and understanding in her toolbox, but an inability to apply them in her own life. She loves those closest to her blindly, never seeing their true nature just as Leda only sees a swan. Swans are also our analogy for someone very serene on the surface, but masking anxiety or the great effort it takes to be present. Swans look beautifully calm and composed above the water and this reminded me of Mariana; the calm and stability is only skin deep. I thought the novel was part psychological suspense, part crime fiction, and part gothic novel, but it was definitely all thriller.

Meet The Author.


Alex Michaelides was born and raised in Cyprus. He has a MA in English Literature from Trinity College, Cambridge University, and a MA in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. The Silent Patient was his first novel. It spent over a year on the New York Times bestseller list and sold in a record-breaking 49 countries. He lives in London.

Posted in Netgalley

For The Wolf by Hannah Whitten.

The first daughter is for the throne. The second is for the Wolf.

Every so often I venture into reading fantasy and have been enchanted by some of the books I’ve stumbled upon, often because of their stunning covers in the first instance. When I think of my favourite books – The Night Circus, Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic series and Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell – all come up very high on the list. Yet I certainly don’t think of myself as solely a fantasy blogger, I don’t have enough knowledge of the genre. I love that sense of total escape and I often read with a smile on my face because I’m so charmed by the audacity of these writers and how they bend the rules of our world with some magic realism or create a beautiful wild new world for the reader to explore. I was drawn to this book by a very beautiful cover and the thought that someone would be playing with the boundaries of a well known fairy tale.

Redarys has always known her fate. As the kingdom’s second daughter, she is doomed to become a sacrifice to the wolf who keeps Wilderwood’s gods captive in the forest. Red seems to have acquiesced to this fate and her mother’s cool and distant attitude tells Red that she too has prepared herself for this moment, by never becoming close with her daughter. Red’s sister Neve wants to rage against the kingdom and tempts Red to run away that night, as far as she can. She has even spoken to the man who loves Red and sets up a secret moment where he can declare his plans to help her run away. He is promised to Neve, but vows to help Red escape her fate. But does she want to? Red has a hidden power deep within that scares her, and she never wants to hurt someone she loves again. She feels the woods luring her and her power is exactly what they need. The stories she’s been told from childhood are not the full truth. The spirits have weakened. The wolf is just a man, as pushed into his fate as she is. Can Red use her power for good and set them all free?

From the very first pages I was drawn into this other world by the author’s use of detailed imagery. She builds an incredible new world, from words: the sumptuous clothing and the meaning behind their colours, the rooms of the castle and even the dark woods beyond are all rendered beautifully. As guests gather for a celebration on the eve of the sacrifice, Red has chosen a blood red dress contrasting strongly with her mother and sister’s choices and making it very clear who she is. There’s a certain pride in her, of who she is and the role she’s decided to accept. I enjoyed the sisterly love between Red and Neve. We do have sections narrated by Neve to give some contrast from Red’s point of view. Although they’re quite different Neve and Red are incredibly close, they have each other’s backs and in a difficult situation I have no doubt each would fight for the other. I liked both characters, but Red is definitely the more dominant sister despite their opposing fates. Her bravery in accepting her fate and her sense of duty to the kingdom were very admirable. She has some attitude too and I loved that feistiness in her. She’s also a voracious reader and the magnificent library was like something out of my dreams.

There is romance too, a slow burning attraction between Red and her unusual beau. I liked that it wasn’t overdone or flowery, and that Red didn’t lose any of her feistiness in the relationship. She wants to be loved for the person she is, not to change. I won’t reveal her love interest, but it’s their feeling of being trapped into a life they didn’t choose that brings them together. They are bound by blood and sacrifice. He’s a proper Gothic hero too, just as strong and fierce as Red but with an edge. He’s definitely the boyfriend you wouldn’t take home to Mum. It’s a complete awakening once Red enters the wood and she learns that the myths she’s been told about the world are far from the truth. I really enjoyed my foray into the world of fantasy. We all need a brooding love interest, with dark woods and crumbling castles. This isn’t all romance though, it’s more reminiscent of the original blood thirsty fairy tales where women are willing to saw off their own toes to fit a glass slipper or where an enchantment forces them to dance every night till their feet are bleeding. There is blood, so if you’re thinking of sweet, fluffy, fairy tales it might be better to imagine Disney meets Game of Thrones. This is a well written Gothic fairy tale, with a heroine who can not only save herself, but the world as well.

Meet The Author

Hannah Whitten has been writing to amuse herself since she could hold a pen, and sometime in high school, she figured out that what amused her might also amuse others. When she’s not writing, she’s reading, making music, or attempting to bake. She lives in Tennessee with her husband and children in a house ruled by a temperamental cat.

Posted in Netgalley

The Madwomen’s Ball by Victoria Mas.

The Salpêtrière asylum, 1885. All of Paris is in thrall to Doctor Charcot and his displays of hypnotism on women who have been deemed mad or hysterical, outcasts from society. But the truth is much more complicated – for these women are often simply inconvenient, unwanted wives or strong-willed daughters. Once a year a grand ball is held at the hospital. For the Parisian elite, the Mad Women’s Ball is the highlight of the social season; for the women themselves, it is a rare moment of hope.

There are definitely some interesting women living in the asylum at Saltpiétre, under the care of Dr Charcot. We are introduced to Eugénie first, who lives with her parents, brother and grandmother in Paris. While she seems like an archetypal society young lady, there’s something more to Eugénie. Since she was an adolescent she has been seeing and communicating with dead people. This isn’t something she wanted and she’s been keeping it a secret for many years. Not even her brother Théophile or her grandmother know what’s been happening. She finds herself having strange physical symptoms like her limbs feeling heavy, then someone might come to her. One evening while attending to her grandmother before bed, her grandfather appears and starts to tell her that something precious, thought lost forever, is caught under the drawers of her dressing table. Sure enough, as Eugénie takes the drawers out she finds a sentimental piece of jewellery that her grandmother never imagined she’d see again. She trusts her grandmother, so out pours the story that she can communicate with dead people. Eugénie trusts that her secret is safe and never suspects that she could be betrayed by those she loves the most.

This novel’s strength lies in the portrayal of it’s women and the shocking truth of how easy it is for a man to have a woman placed in an asylum. Even more horrifying for me was how the women became objects: a father’s cold decision to choose his reputation and offload her like a defective belonging; a doctor using the women in his performance as an expert in his field; the grotesque spectacle of dressing up the women in costumes to be paraded around in front of Paris society at the ball. The interesting relationship between Geneviève and Eugénie kept me reading, but there was also a fascinating role for the older woman Therése. She seems to be quietly knitting in the corner, but there’s a lot more going on with this woman and she is vital to the smooth running of the ward. This is a fascinating piece of historical fiction, with a feminist perspective and the added bonus of a supernatural element. It questions what makes us ‘mad’ – is someone who believes in spiritualism any more mentally ill than someone who believes in God and the events of the Bible? I definitely recommend this and have to mention the absolutely stunning cover too.

Posted in Netgalley

Waiting for the Miracle by Anna McPartlin

I loved The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes and it’s sequel, both written by this talented author, so I looked forward to starting her new one as soon as NetGalley granted it. As usual for this author it was full of big emotive issues, mixed with the funniest dialogue, strong female characters and an interesting set up. In the narrative from 2010, our four characters meet at an infertility support group. There is a second narrative from 1976 where we meet Catherine, a young girl from Ireland who becomes pregnant as a teenager and is sent to one of the now infamous homes for young mothers, run by the Roman Catholic Church. Coming from a Catholic family myself and finding out I would find it hard to conceive at the age of 25, I was concerned the storyline might be too close to home. I remember being given a list of telephone numbers at the hospital, of women who volunteered for a charity supporting those who had miscarried. I only called one number. Next to the names on the list was a little warning that some of these women had gone on to have healthy pregnancies and there might be children in the house when I called. I knew my outcome would be different by this point. I didn’t have the mental or physical strength to keep getting pregnant, then lose the baby multiple times. I had decided after losing my fourth child that I couldn’t keep going. It was a very hard choice, but the right one for me. I can remember ringing that number for support, only to hear a baby crying in the background. I put the phone down and locked myself in the bathroom so I could grieve in peace. As I read though, I found a kinship with these characters and wished I’d had a group like this to belong to, at a time when my family and friends were supportive, but really didn’t know what it felt like.

Within the group there are women at different stages of this difficult journey. There are so many different reasons for infertility and the author covers most situations within the group: those pursuing IVF; some going through the adoption process; some using donor sperm to have a baby with their same sex partner; women with medical conditions like endometriosis. One has anti-phospho lipid syndrome (often named Hughes Syndrome after the doctor who discovered it) which is my diagnosis and means that it’s possible for patients to get pregnant, but difficult to sustain a pregnancy. Patients with Hughes have sticky blood, making it very difficult to for blood flow to go through the placenta and to the baby. Pregnancies usually fail within the first trimester, my latest miscarriage was at just 12 weeks with twins. As the character in the book relates to the others, often it isn’t detected until the first scan and then an operation must be performed to ‘to remove the products of conception’. As she points out, the medical language may create a distance for the doctor, but for the patient it feels very wrong to see the words ‘termination’ on the consent forms and even harder to sign away the baby you have wanted for so long. The interactions with the NHS were so true to life it felt like the author had popped inside my head and rifled around in my memories. However, there was comfort in knowing this was a shared experience and that other women had been through this feeling exactly the same as I did.

Four women with very different reasons for their fertility problems are drawn together in the group and slowly develop a very strong friendship. A new face in the group sessions seems to bring them together. Ronnie is challenging at first. She seems super confident, asks uncomfortable questions, and invites the others to the pub. She has a strange ability to pull uncomfortable truths and intimate details from those around her, but never seems to disclose much of herself. I found myself starting to question why she was there in the group. Yet as time went on I warmed to her, she seemed feisty and frequently made me smile. Caroline is just about to hit rock bottom in her fertility journey. They have spent a lot of money on medical bills and rounds of IVF, but have never conceived. After discussion with her husband some time ago, they are meant to be never going through it again. Yet Caroline can’t stop yearning for a baby of her own and in her desperation she’s driving her husband away. To make things worse her beloved dog has just died. In a very fragile state she starts to consider just one more round of fertility treatment but her husband isn’t on board. She has to face a very hard decision; is her desire to be a mother, stronger than her love for him? Natalie and her girlfriend have decided to have children using a donor who is very close to home – her girlfriend’s brother. Her girlfriend thinks that if the baby is a blood relative to her, she might be more invested in the idea of becoming parents. Janet’s husband may be having an affair with one of the receptionists from his work place. How can she find out what’s going on? The women are very much a team and support each other, even if one of them is doing something crazy.

Between the present day sections there is the story of a girl called Catherine, back in 1976. Catherine finds herself pregnant after her very first sexual experience with a boy from school. He claims to love her, but she is about to be let down very badly. Catherine’s family are poor, whereas her boyfriend’s family are wealthy and well known in the area. His father is a local magistrate. So when Catherine tells her religious parents what has happened they immediately summon the parish priest and before she knows it Catherine is sitting at the back of his back being shipped off to the nuns at a mother and baby home. We already know the terrible way young girls were treated in these places from films like The Magdalene Laundries and Philomena, but I must admit there were parts of Catherine’s story that genuinely made me cry. I couldn’t believe the casual brutality of these nuns, who are supposed to be women of God. They really made my blood boil. I found it was Catherine’s story that drove the book for me, her plight kept me reading and there were a couple of moments in her story where I was so involved I forgot everything going on around me! The heartbreak, betrayal and psychological abuse this girl goes through is horrendous and her ability to keep going and survive is incredible.

I think that this author enjoys writing about women’s issues and their friendships. She has an awareness, that although we love our partners in life, it is often our female friends that hold us up and keep us going through the worst times. I refer to my best friends as my non-sexual life partners! I had an inkling about the mystery at the centre of the story. What did happen to the baby Catherine had stolen from her at the mother and baby home? I read this in a day, because I was so drawn in by the story and these women who felt completely real to me. Anna McPartlin has such a storytelling skill. She has a way of mining your emotions until you’re sobbing over someone who isn’t even real. For those who’ve been through any of the experiences featured, it might be a difficult read in parts, but I promise you won’t feel let down or misrepresented by the way she depicts your experience. This was sad, funny, warm and poignant. A little bit like life.

Meet The Author.

From Anna’s Amazon Author Page.

Hello reader, 

I’m an Irish novelist and a TV scriptwriter. Currently with 7 fiction titles available to buy online and one children’s title under the name Bannie McPartlin. As of August 2019 I’ve just finished writing ‘Under The Big Blue Sky,’ the follow up to international best selling title ‘The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes.’ This title will be published by Bonnier Zaffer and will be available UK &I IRE and amazon Summer 2020. 

My previous short incarnation as a stand-up comedian left an indelible mark. I’m described by all who know me as a slave to the joke and my work focuses on humour and humanity in even the darkness situations.

So if you’d like to take a trip to the dark side and if you are a fan of big, bold characters check out my titles and I hope you enjoy.

PS

If you are not a fan of moderate to severe cursing, best to move on. Either way good luck to you. 

PPS

I dabble in twitter but often forget it’s there (@annamcpartlin). I’m better on Facebook but not brilliant Anna McPartlin and I really giving it a good old go on instagram #Trying (mcpartlin.anna) and my website is annamcpartlin.com.

Anna McP XXX

Posted in Netgalley

Two Women in Rome by Elizabeth Buchan.

Regular readers may remember how much I loved Elizabeth Buchan’s last novel The Museum of Broken Promises, in fact it was one of my top twenty of the year. So, I was very excited to be approved to read this via NetGalley. The story is split into two timelines and follows the lives of two British women who spend some time living in Rome. Lottie Archer arrives at the Eternal City as a new wife and with a new job as an archivist at the Archivo Espatriati. Her very first task is to archive the papers and journal of a woman called Nina Lawrence who worked as a gardener in Rome in the late 1970s. This was a difficult time for the country socially and politically, known as the ‘Years of Lead’ – a period which stretched from the 1960s to the 1980s and resulted in many incidents of far right and far left terrorism. Nina’s task was to redesign gardens that still lay devastated by WW2, something she was passionate about and very talented. Within her papers, is a large leather journal, rather worse for wear and full of drawings and pressed plants. However, Lottie also finds a painting of the Annunciation – the moment where the Virgin Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel to tell her she will be the mother of Jesus, the son of God. Lottie thinks it may be medieval, due to the colours used and the iconography. This piques her interest and she is disturbed to learn that Nina was murdered in Rome, and that very few people attended her funeral in the Protestant cemetery. Interestingly though, one mourner was a Catholic priest, which strokes Lottie as very unusual. She wants to find out more about the painting, but she also finds herself sucked into the mystery of what happened to Nina, who murdered her and why did she seem so friendless in this beautiful city?

I found the novel a little slow at first. I didn’t click with Lottie straight away, the detail and discussion of medieval art was quite dense (or I was) and the complexity of the political situation wasn’t always easy to follow. I also thought the intricacies and machinations of the Catholic Church might be a little difficult to penetrate for those who don’t know much about Catholicism – luckily I am one, with convent teaching under my belt, so this was not so difficult for me. However, I did like that the author didn’t simplify these areas of the book because in a way they added to the mystery of a city that has an incredibly complicated history. I was drawn in most by the story of Nina, just like Lottie is. I could understand why her story would get under your skin as someone interested in the past and trying to make sense of it. There is a kinship between the two women, even though they can never meet. Lottie is unsure of her position in Rome for several reasons. Firstly, when she arrives to work at the archive, her new role hasn’t quite been vacated. She moves into the apartment that her husband Tom shared with his previous partner Clare, and all around her are memories that don’t belong to her (including an ugly lamp, that should be kept because it works perfectly well, according to their formidable housekeeper). All of this is compounded by an underlying sense of abandonment, formed because she was left by her birth mother. There’s something lost about Nina that she latches onto and the more she finds out, the more she wonders whether Nina was more than a gardener?

Nina is a rather fascinating woman, who shares Lottie’s sense of rootlessness and lack of ties. There is definitely a deeply woven reason for Nina’s death, involving politics, security services, the church and a rather unwise, but beautiful love affair that unfolds in her journal. It is this aspect of her character that really humanises her for me, she becomes a real, living and breathing person and it is then even more tragic when the end comes. One thing both narratives capture beautifully is the city itself. Just like the narrative structure of the book, we get a sense of Rome as place where the past is very closely layered under the present. I thought about the tunnels and cave structures that run under the city’s streets, some still populated with WW2 vehicles, as an embodiment of this feeling. The present is full of tourists, rushing around on their itineraries getting a sense of the past and present city, but not necessarily the world underneath their feet. The author evokes the sights and smells beautifully: describing the less followed paths, the street fountains carved with dolphins and maidens, the detail of the plants so precious to Nina, the smells and sight of the deli counters full of salami, olives and beautifully ripe tomatoes. I found myself craving a trip to Italy all the time while reading!

However, she also shows its impenetrability to outsiders who know nothing of Catholicism, Roman etiquette or it’s slightly corrupt ways of getting business done. This is captured most beautifully in Lottie’s burgeoning relationship with their housekeeper. I also enjoyed her friendship with the book binder, who she asks to authenticate the painting she finds without understanding his significance. The background on medieval painting is vital here, not just to understand the symbolism within the traditional aspects, but to identify those that are far more transgressive and intensely personal. This is a complicated mystery/thriller, mixed with a travelogue of Rome and an intense love story. It asks questions about where we belong and whether our final destinations have been reached by choice, accident or a deep sense of duty to our family, our religion and our country. By the end I realised I’d become so enthralled, I was very sad to leave Rome behind.

Thank you to Atlantic Books for my digital copy via NetGalley.

Posted in Netgalley

The Stranding by Kate Sawyer.

I know that a book is extraordinary when I finish it and feel changed in some way. I’m never sure what has happened, but there’s a tiny, imperceptible change, to the air around me, how I feel and even the way I perceive the world. The Stranding left me feeling calm, thoughtful and as if a lot of the small things worrying me didn’t really matter in the big scheme of things. I cared deeply for the characters and their grief, and strangely proud of them for what they managed to achieve. The author created an incredible sense of New Zealand and the whale that becomes Ruth’s saviour, and mother – birthing her and Nik into their new world and sustaining them. Her detailed descriptions left me fully immersed in this world, so much so that when I finished reading, it took a while to adjust back to being in Ruth’s ‘before’ and my 21st Century world.

Ruth is an endearing character and someone I could relate to enormously, especially when thinking back to my younger self. She makes mistakes and doesn’t fully know herself yet. She’s a primary school teacher and serial monogamist living in London. She has a best friend called Fran and really supportive parents who live a train journey away. However, her love life is complicated with even Fran saying that she needs to spend some time alone between relationships. So, Ruth has kept her current relationship under wraps. She loves Alex, and she’s sure the way she feels is different from her previous relationships, but he comes with complications. He’s married, with two small children. There’s a restlessness about Ruth, something she thinks will disappear if Alex makes a commitment. Then he does and he’s there in her small flat all the time, she’s a ready made step mum and as time goes on, she wonders whether she really wants this version of her life? She struggles to cope with someone so physically close to her, sharing her space.

‘Ruth had noticed a new loo brush beside the toilet. She reddened to realise that Alex had felt the necessity to purchase such an item, and her cheeks burnt even more when she wondered whether it was her or him who had made that requirement apparent. It wasn’t the only scatological matter that raised the colour in Ruth’s cheeks. Alex was opposed to the use of any chemical or aerosol-propelled household products. Over the past week, on several occasions, Ruth had found herself wafting pungent air out of the window and running the tap to foam soap in the hope of masking the smell of her natural functions. Though it was worse when she had walked in and been greeted with air almost warm with the memory of Alex’s recent visit’.

The book is split into before and after – it’s not explicit exactly what has created this apocalyptic world Ruth eventually finds herself in, but it is catastrophic, wiping out Europe before it reaches where she has travelled in New Zealand. The placement of these sections is incredibly clever. Before takes us back to the world as we know it and follows Ruth to the beach and the stranded whale. After starts at the stranded whale and tells the story into the future. So we are brought full circle and can marvel at the change in Ruth and discover whether she has finally found satisfaction in a life stripped of everything. Nik is, quite literally, the last man on earth. The difference in their characters is shown in the way they cope with the stranded whale. Ruth is immediately desperate to do something. To do anything. She rips through her rucksack for a container to hold water, then pours it over the huge creature. She must know rationally that this tiny amount of water will make no difference. She has been interested in whales since being a small girl so she must know this is a losing battle, but the activity is not for the whale. Ruth chooses activity because she can’t accept the inevitable. Nik is straightforward. He reminds her that her efforts are futile. They can’t save the whale, all they can do is be there in it’s final moments. They are forced into an intimacy that Ruth would normally avoid. Every day they choose to be a team, to use their individual skills to support each other and stay alive. Her father once advised her that love, real lasting love, is quiet and surprising. It’s not Anna Karenina or Wuthering Heights. It’s not drama and heartbreak and flowery exclamations. He tells her that it’s just going about your day and having a realisation that you can’t live without the other person. There’s telling someone you love them, and there’s showing them.

I loved how the author emphasised the importance of stories in the afterward sections. She realises that children in this new world will never know what it was truly like to live in the before. This wild world of survival is their normal. She tells them stories of how she survived the end of the world. She knows they will never know her joy of reading and she thinks of all the children’s classics she could be reading to them:

‘She watches Frankie exploring every stone and shell she comes across and feels a physical ache in her heart that she will never read a book: the words that constructed the worlds Ruth’s imagination inhabited as a child. Instead Ruth tells her those stories herself. She tells her of the Lion and the Witch that lived through the Wardrobe, and great adventures of princesses and princes. Without the books to restrict her, she often switches the genders of the protagonists, waking sleeping princes from their slumbers and sending young women on adventures in mythical lands. Nik watches as Ruth talks softly to the child on her lap in the light of the fire, retelling the stories they know so well; he raises an eyebrow and forms his crooked smile as he hears her adaptations.’

This is a return to oral storytelling, where the story can change according to the storyteller. I also loved Ruth’s changing of the narratives, creating a more feminist type of fairy tale and shaping girls to be powerful, confident and be the ones doing the rescuing.

I was blown away by the author’s own storytelling, from the beautiful and detailed, such as her incredible description of the skin of the whale.

‘The hide of the animal looks like cracked, varnished wood. Like an old piano. A giant grand piano from the ballroom of a wrecked ocean-liner, washed up on the shore. The long white underside of its belly is ridged, like bricks of pale plasticine. The shell-like white, beige, cream skin is flecked with grey, black, coral-orange markings. Around its mouth and eyes the same orange spreads like rust: clumsy make-up that has smudged in the water.’

Yet, it can also be brutal, such as when she’s describing Ruth’s skin in the first few days afterwards. It made me think about the extremes of the world she’s living in, from the quietness and the gradual return of nature to the brutality of the wild dogs and the animalistic aspects of birth. What I was left with though, was something I’ve been thinking about during the pandemic where I’ve been shielding – only seeing my partner and step-daughters. With the pause button pressed on my life, I was able to think about it more clearly. I realised we needed to move house and we are now out in the country, with a garden I can sit in easily and chat to the neighbours over the fence. It made me realise who was important in my life and who wasn’t. I re-evaluated what I wanted to do with my time and decided that now is my time to write. It also made me realise who I am, without people to bounce off, or rushing to different places, or having endless mental stimulation through social media. I was able to apply something I have previously taught in art and writing therapy workshops – the art of being myself. This is Ruth’s journey. With everything removed from her, who exactly is she? There is a time in her life where she would avoid self-examination by jumping to the next thing, the next entertainment, scrolling social media, the next outing, the next man. Afterwards, she is forced to contemplate and to be with the only other person who survived. It is fascinating to watch whether she copes in this situation and whether she can find a way to be happy that eluded her before. This book was incredible, moving, disturbing and deeply philosophical. This is an extraordinary debut and I loved it.

The Stranding is published by Coronet on 24th June 2021