Posted in Netgalley

The Amazing Grace Adams by Fran Littlewood

It’s possibly way too early to start picking candidates for favourite books of 2023 – I’m still deliberating over 2022 – but I think this book is certainly going to be in contention. Grace is one of those characters that you fantasise about having cocktails with and you already know you’d have the best time. Grace is stuck in traffic, it’s a boiling hot day and she’s melting. All she wants to do is get to the bakery and pick up the cake for her daughter’s birthday. This is one hell of a birthday cake, not only is it a Love Island cake; it has to say that Grace cares, that she’s sorry, that will show Lotte she loves her and hasn’t given up on their relationship. It’s shaping up to be the day from hell and as Grace sits in a tin can on boiling hot tarmac, something snaps. She decides to get out of the car and walk, leaving her vehicle stranded and pissing off everyone now blocked by a car parked in the middle of a busy road. So, despite the fact her trainers aren’t broken in, she sets off walking towards the bakery and a reunion with Lotte. There are just a few obstacles in the way, but Grace can see the cake and Lotte’s face when she opens the box. As she walks she recounts everything that has happened to bring her to where she is now.

When we first meet Grace she’s living alone, estranged from husband Ben and even from her teenage daughter Lotte. She’s peri-menopausal, wearing trainers her daughter thinks she shouldn’t be wearing at her age and she’s had enough. There’s that sense of the Michael Douglas film Falling Down except when the meltdown comes all she has is a water pistol filled with river water, an embarrassingly tiny Love Island cake and a blister on her heel. Then in flashbacks we can follow Grace all the way back to the start, to when she and Ben met at a competition for polyglots. We also get Ben’s point of view here too, so we see her through his eyes and fall in love with her too. He describes her as looking like Julianne Moore, her hair in a messy up do with the odd pencils tucked in. She suggests that, should she win the prize of a luxury hotel break in Cornwall, they should go together. It’s a crazy suggestion, but deep down, he really wants to go with this incredible woman. Once there, the first thing she does is dive into the sea to save a drowning woman. Ben has never met anyone so free and fearless. Yet on their return four months pass before Grace tracks him down and they meet at the Russian Tea Room. There Grace tells him that he’s going to be a father, he doesn’t have to be in, but can they come to an agreement? Of course Ben is in, he was never out. There love story is touching and yet honest at the same time, it’s not all schmaltzy romance – for example after coming together in Cornwall, Grace’s bed is full of sand. It’s so sad to contrast these early months with the distance between them now, what could possibly have brought them to this place.

I eagerly read about Grace and Lotte’s relationship because I’m a stepmum to a 13 and 17 year old girl. I thought this was beautifully observed, with all the ups and downs of two women at either end of a battle with their hormones. There’s that underlying sadness, a sort of grief for the child who called out for her Mum, who let Mum play Sutherland her hair and would lie in an entwined heap on the sofa watching films. Grace aches to touch her daughter in the same way she did when she was a toddler, but now Lotte watches TV in her bedroom and shrugs off cuddles and intimacy of the physical or emotional life. Pulling away is the normal process of growing up and reminds me of the ABBA song ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’. In the film Mamma Mia, Meryl Streep plays Donna as she helps her daughter get ready for her wedding. In the cinema with my Mum I could see she was emotional and now with my own stepdaughters I can understand it. I just get used to them being a certain age and they’ve grown, with one going to university next year I’m going to be so proud of her, but I’m going to miss her terribly. There’s also a terrible fear, as Grace sees her daughter’s behaviour at school deteriorate and her truant days start to add up, she’s desperate to find out what’s wrong, but Lotte won’t talk. She’s torn between Lotte’s privacy and the need to find the problem and help her daughter, but some mistakes have to be made in order to learn. Grace might have to sit by and watch this mistake unfold and simply be there when it goes wrong. No doubt, she thinks, Grace is involved with a boy and it will pass, but the reality is so much worse.

The truth when it comes is devastating, but feels weirdly like something you’ve known all along. Those interspersed chapters from happier times are a countdown to this moment, a before and after that runs like a fault line through everything that’s happened since. As Grace closes in on Lotte’s party, sweaty, dirty and brandishing her tiny squashed cake, it doesn’t seem enough to overturn everything that’s happened, but of course it isn’t about the cake. This is about everything Grace has done to be here, including the illegal bits. In a day that’s highlighted to Grace how much she has changed, physically and emotionally, her determination to get to Lotte has shown those who love her best that she is still the same kick-ass woman who threw caution to the wind and waded into the sea to save a man she didn’t know from drowning. That tiny glimpse of how amazing Grace Adams is, might just save everything.

Published by Michael Joseph 19th Jan 2023.

Posted in Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight! Memoirs and Non-Fiction

I’m continuing my look at the books that have had a huge effect on me personally or helped me to make a difference in my life. If I’m facing a difficulty, challenge or setback in life I usually look for something to read about it. My late husband used to say that knowledge can’t be taken away from you and that the more knowledge you have, the more options you have too. I’m looking at four books today, all of them memoirs in different forms, but each quite different in how they communicate to the reader. Each one did make me think and I can honestly say I came out of each book feeling changed a little: whether it was energised and inspired; feeling less alone in the world; learning how to face life’s obstacles or reaching an emotional catharsis.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.

Joan Didion’s memoir is award winning for a reason. I found it a dense read in parts, but then my intelligence is probably far below Ms Didion’s level. However, there’s no denying the power of her opening chapter as she and her husband are preparing the table for dinner. Joan and her husband John had already been given the terrible news that their daughter had been placed on life support. Quintana had been suffering with flu symptoms, that became pneumonia and eventually septic shock. In the throes of grief, they are preparing for dinner when with no warning John collapses. John died from a heart attack instantly. In the maelstrom of emotions surrounding his death, Joan writes to make sense of what she’s thinking and feeling.

I found her writing raw and painful. I read this in my own grief and I recognised so much of the past year of my life in her descriptions. The way mind and body become disconnected; one carrying out the duties and routines of everyday life while the other is in another place. I felt like the bit that’s me, my ‘self’ had hunkered down deep inside the shell of my body, unable to cope with the shock of what happened. We were now in a world without my husband, where he didn’t exist. I think my ‘self’ was still in the one where he did. With her beautiful choice of words, Didion articulated a grief I didn’t have words for yet.

Illness by Havi Carel.

I came across this lesser known book when I was researching for a PhD. I was interested in the gap between a person’s perspective of their illness and the self presented in disability memoirs. My argument being that people write about their disability using certain tropes and archetypes – such as Christopher Reeve still presenting himself as superman. There is often a narrative of redemption or triumph that doesn’t relate to someone whose illness or disability is lifelong. I didn’t know whether these tropes were so ingrained in our society, there was only one acceptable way of writing about disability experience, or whether the truth simply doesn’t sell so publishers pressure writers to frame their disability this way. My supervisor suggested I needed to read Havi Carel’s book, because not only was she a professor in philosophy, she also had a long term illness that affects her lung function. What I was floundering around trying to describe was the phenomenology of illness – the ‘lived experience’ to you and me.

In some ways this is a text book, as Carel looks into what is illness? Is it a physiological dysfunction, a social label, or a way of experiencing the world? How do the physical, social, and emotional worlds of a person change when they become ill? Can there be well-being within illness?Carel explores these questions by weaving together the personal story of her own illness with insights and reflections drawn from her work as a philosopher. Carel’s fresh approach to illness raises some uncomfortable questions about how we all – whether healthcare professionals or not – view the ill, challenging us to become more thoughtful. A scene where Carel is devastated during a test of her lung function, because the result shows a decline, is so much worse because of the cold, unfeeling, practitioner. I had tears in my eyes reading it. Illness unravels the tension between the universality of illness and its intensely private, often lonely, nature. It offers a new way of looking at a matter that affects every one of us, because every one of us can become ill or disabled in our lifetime.

Before I Say Goodbye by Ruth Picardie.

Back in 1998, way before Dame Deborah James and You,Me and the Big C, there was Ruth Picardie. Her column in The Observer was read by millions and it was the cancer experience laid bare. Searingly honest and raw about her illness one minute and the next the day to day routine of being a Mum to two small babies. I loved how Picardie debunked those myths and archetypes of illness. How people still associate being ill with the old Victorian consumptive idea of wasting away. Those who are ill should at least be thin. However, as a result of steroid treatment for a secondary brain tumour, Picardie gains weight and has the characteristic ‘moon face’ that I remember from my own steroid days. She is angry with herself for being shallow, especially when she has to dress up for a wedding and nothing fits. She expected that being faced with death, she might be able to let go of the small stuff that doesn’t matter. It does matter though and she goes to Ghost to buy one of their flowy maxi dresses to make herself feel beautiful. She documents the progress of her cancer without holding back and when she can no longer do so, around two days before she died, her husband and sister Justine conclude.and put a frame around this collection of diary events from The Observer. This is a tough one, because I know the context is needed, but losing her narrative voice and hearing her sister Justine’s still chokes me up today. Ruth died from complications following the misdiagnosis of breast cancer in September 1997, leaving a young husband and two-year-old twins.

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

I read Gilbert’s book before all the hype and the film version. I’d been on holiday and picked it up as an easy read and I was hooked by page one. Liz Gilbert has a way of writing that makes the reader feel like it’s just you and her, two friends having a catch up after a long time apart. It’s an intimate and honest account of how she found herself again after a marriage breakdown and a long term relationship that wasn’t healthy. She decided to take a long trip and broke it into sections, each one to feed part of her: body, spirit and heart. First she went to Italy for the eating part, then India for spirituality, then Bali which sounds like an absolute paradise and the perfect place to conclude a healing journey. If you read this as a simple travelogue you won’t be disappointed. Her descriptions of the food in Rome and Naples made me want to book a plane and the warmth in the friends she made there were really heartwarming. I found the discipline and struggle of ashram inspiring, it was her time to really go inside and work things out. She needed to confront what had happened in her marriage, forgive her husband and herself, then remember the parts that were good.

Bali is a like a warm place to land after all that mental work, where the people are welcoming and Liz finds work with a holy man transcribing his prayers and wisdom to make a book. Here she learns to love again and there was something that really chimed with me, when Liz meets a man at a party and they have a connection, she’s absolutely terrified about what it might lead to. She has worked hard and found her equilibrium and now her emotions are stirred up and unpredictable. She felt safe and grounded before, so she doesn’t want to lose it. I’d spent six years on my own, after the death of my husband I’d ended up in an abusive relationship and it had taken me a long time to recover. Then I met my current partner and I remembered back to this book and the wise friend who advised Liz to think of her life as a whole, it could only be balanced if it has periods of imbalance. Sometimes we have to throw ourselves into life. I used meditation a lot to keep grounded and it has changed my life in terms of improving mood and helping me cope with life’s difficulties. However, we can’t avoid life and stay in neutral all the time. When I read this with my book club there were mixed responses, the most negative being ‘it’s okay for some, able to swan off round the old and get paid for it’. It’s a valid point, but I never felt that. I thought she was in need of something drastic to get her life back on track and I didn’t begrudge her a moment of it. You might also like to try Eat, Pray, Love Made Me Do It. A series of stories about women’s journeys inspired by the book.

Posted in Throwback Thursday, Uncategorized

Throwback Thursday! Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters.

Hardback with Masters’s original drawings.

I enjoy reading memoirs, especially when they’re innovative and try to show life in a different way. This fantastic biography does both. It’s unique in it’s subject – a homeless man the author meets while volunteering at a charity. It’s also unique because it’s told backwards- a device that has a massive emotional impact. Despite it’s subject, this isn’t a misery memoir. I’m not a fan of them myself, although I accept their therapeutic value, both as catharsis for the writer and as a powerful shared experience for the reader who’s survived similar experiences. I always feel prurient reading such personal and traumatic testimony. Although Stuart’s life is undeniably traumatic I never get that uncomfortable feeling when reading.

Stuart Shorter is a homeless, ex- junkie and possible psychopath. Alexander Masters first met Stuart out begging, then continues to spend time with him after securing a role as a fundraiser for Wintercomfort. His job is to make funding applications to different benefactors to keep the charity providing a day centre for homeless people in Cambridge. Set up in 1989 the charity worked with some of the worst cases living rough, giving them somewhere with supportive staff to spend time in. The founder was hoping to help individuals and reduce anti social behaviour in the city. However, when the main staff members, Ruth and John, were arrested for allowing drugs to change hands on the premises, Masters found himself at the centre of a protest movement. He also had to be more ‘hands on’ with the centre’s many users. This was when he met and formed a tentative friendship with Stuart Shorter. They were paired up to give talks around the country about the values of the charity and the campaign to free Ruth and John. They were the only people who had the time and Masters becomes intrigued with Stuart, who more often than not received a standing ovation after speaking – even if he did let out a stray ‘fuck’ from time to time. Stuart is intrigued to spend time with middle class people. ‘I thought middle class people had something wrong with them’, he says ‘but they’re just ordinary.’

This I think is the key to Master’s tale. Stuart, and some of the situations he finds himself in are genuinely funny. I also felt as if Stuart was looking at me as much as I was looking at him. The jarring contrast of Stuart’s everyday life to that of Masters, or to the reader really does hit hard. He’s a person whose life would be described as chaotic by social services or a mental health team. One or the other have been a constant in Stuart’s life, an amorphous mass of middle class do-gooders he calls ‘The System’. He’s had one service or another observing or judging his life since he was twelve years old. Like most homeless people he despises the system, because agencies that are supposed to support and help those who are struggling, are actually duplicitous. Using their observations to record and relay information to other agencies in a carrot and stick approach. Most people would assume the system is there to help, but it patronises, damages and blames too. There are welfare benefits and back to work schemes, but if the person doesn’t cooperate in come the police and prison. We learn that Stuart has been bounced round the care system, has been placed in a group home run by paedophiles, then placed into a brutal juvenile detention centre when he strays from their control. It’s easy to see why homeless people even become suspicious of things that are supposed to help, because once one part of the system comes in, everything else follows. He knows he was placed with paedophiles unwittingly, but as he points out, that doesn’t really matter when you’re 14 years old with a ‘grown man’s dick in your throat.’

It’s a brutal read in parts, but it has to be. I didn’t realise how dysfunctional the lives of my clients were, until I tried to describe to someone what my job entailed while at a ball. I was starting my career as a mental health support worker and my everyday was working with people like Stuart. I would help them with day to day tasks like shopping and budgeting, cleaning the house, and even just getting out of bed if they were struggling. People at my table couldn’t believe there was a job that entailed these things. It’s when I realised that there was a class of people more successful than me, who never learned about these incredible people and their difficult lives and I was proud to be someone who did know. The book is honest about what it was like to be a friend and supporter of Stuart. Sometimes it was frustrating, moving, devastating and other times it felt incredible. Yet we really hear Stuart’s voice too. Really the book is written by both of them. Masters never takes over or forgets that this is a collaborative effort. It’s not sugar-coated and at the beginning it’s Stuart who first reads Master’s manuscript and says he could do better. He needs to make it more readable, Stuart says, because people should want to read it, like a Tom Clancy novel.

‘Do it the other way round’ he tells Masters, ‘make it more like a murder mystery. What murdered the boy I was? See? Write it backwards’.

The BBC film starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy
Posted in Squad Pod Collective

All About Evie by Matson Taylor

This novel is the second in Matson Taylor’s series following Evie Epworth (Yorkshirewoman, Fashion Lover, List Maker). So now, I can categorically say that each time I finish a book about Evie I have a big sunny smile on my face. Of course all books make us feel things, even if it’s to throw them out of the nearest window, but it’s a rare book that gives us a real physical reaction such as the spooky ones that give us goosebumps on the arms or lift the hairs on the back of our neck. I’ve only spontaneously burst into tears once, thanks to David Nicholls’s One Day and that twist none of us saw coming. Not only is Matson is great at those laugh out loud moments, such as the ‘cow incident’ that precipitated her car accident in the first book. As I finished All About Evie I found myself unable to stop smiling. This book feels like liquid sunshine being poured into your veins.

Our previous book ended as Evie is being waved off to an adventurous new life in London, alongside mentor Caroline, the unconventional and glamorous daughter of Evie’s lifelong neighbour and baking partner Mrs Scott-Pym. All About Evie starts ten years later in 1970’s London, where Evie is working in a junior role on BBC Radio Four’s Women’s Hour. Previously, we met Evie at time of great change and this novel is no different. Thanks to a terrible incident with a visiting Princess Anne and the misuse of a mug Evie is sacked from the BBC. Does this mean her life in her little London flat is in jeopardy? Caroline thinks this is an opportunity to try something new so Evie tries working in an art gallery. When it turns out art, particularly the modern variety, isn’t for her she lists things she’d like to do and falls upon the idea of writing for a magazine. She finds the magazine Right On in an office above a sex shop – handy windows for checking one’s hair before walking into the office – and asks for a job. Assuming she’s been a journalist at the BBC, NickStickUpBum and NickWithCollars agree to give her a trial on the listings pages, essentially long lists of what’s on in London across the arts from opera to poetry evenings. With the offer of help from Lolo (Radio Three producer, homosexual, basset owner) on the classical music listings, Evie decides to give it a go and sprinkle some sunshine over her work, in her own inimitable way.

In between Evie’s story there are a couple of flashbacks to other character’s lives. Evie’s neighbour Mrs Scott-Pym has died recently and we see her packing a case for Evie, with little artefacts to remind Evie of their time together – including a pestle and mortar wrapped in a tea towel of Bolton Abbey. Evie is grieving for her old friend, but the reminiscences become even more emotional when we realise that Mrs Scott-Pym was, aside from Dad Arthur, the only link back to Evie’s mum Diana. Preserving her memories of their friendship for Evie is so poignant and it does make Evie think about her future. Can she keep dating totally unsuitable men, who she carefully and comically lists for us, or does she want to meet someone she can share her life with? I thoroughly enjoyed the tension between Evie and her rather hippy dippy workmate Griffin. Griffin is a proponent of high culture and wants the magazine to remain intellectual rather than popular. So to try something a little more highbrow, Evie accepts Lola’s invitation to her first opera. Afterwards, NickWithCollars suggests she write a review for the magazine. This infuriates Griffin who thinks Evie is definitely low culture and would rather they published one of her own poems. When the men are out of the office, Griffin places herself in charge and gives Evie petty tasks to fulfil, often creating a mistake to trip Evie up or keep her working late. Evie tries to take the high road, but her yoga chant trick is absolutely brilliant and well deserved. I couldn’t wait for Griffin to receive her real comeuppance! Meanwhile, there’s a lovely friendship forming between Evie and Lolo, as well as his basset hound.

Yet underneath the humour, there’s so much more going on. A beautifully poignant thread running through the novel is that of motherhood. There are memories of Evie’s mum of course and we’re aware of all the life experiences Evie would have loved to share with her. Evie’s mum never got to see her grow and all that promise is encapsulated in one little throwaway object from the suitcase. Evie has many mother figures though, obviously Mrs Scott-Pym and her friend Mrs Swithenbank who gives Evie a call every week just to check in. Caroline and her lover Digby are disagreeing over the possibility of becoming parents, particularly as Caroline would have to carry the child and believes she doesn’t have that maternal instinct. However, both women have been invaluable to Evie, she even loves popping in and watering their plants while they’re away. Their house gives her the sense of having a family in the city, an anchor that keeps her from being swept away amongst the crowds. We see Evie draw on all these maternal figures when Mrs Swithenbank’s daughter Genevieve turns up in London in search of a fashion career. Genevieve carries just one suitcase, but is full of ideas and her outlandish outfits were so funny – one inflatable hoop dress brought back terrible memories of being stuck in a dress in Laura Ashley’s changing rooms and having to ring my Mum to get me out. Evie feeds Genevieve, lets her stay and starts introducing her to the right people. Every day she comes home, dejected from receiving lots of knockbacks, despite her inventive fashion portfolio. Every time Evie props her up and brings her spirit back. It was lovely to see Evie in this life stage, being the mentor and feeling so confident. As much as I love London, it was also nice to see her at home on the farm with old friends reunited and new ones being introduced, plus a very exciting finale which gives us a nod towards what Evie might do next. I can’t wait to celebrate this fantastic novel with a 1970s party. I’m hoping for a cheese and pineapple hedgehog and Babycham to toast this joyful new stage in the Evie story.

Published 21st July 2022 by Scribner UK

Meet The Author

Matson Taylor grew up in Yorkshire (the flat part not the Brontë part). He comes from farming stock and spent an idyllic childhood surrounded by horses, cows, bicycles, and cheap ice-cream. His father, a York City and Halifax Town footballer, has never forgiven him for getting on the school rugby team but not getting anywhere near the school football team.

Matson now lives in London, where he is a design historian and academic writing tutor at the V&A, Imperial College and the Royal College of Art. Previously, he talked his way into various jobs at universities and museums around the world; he has also worked on Camden Market, appeared in an Italian TV commercial and been a pronunciation coach for Catalan opera singers. He gets back to Yorkshire as much as possible, mainly to see family and friends but also to get a reasonably-priced haircut.

He has always loved telling stories and, after writing academically about beaded flapper dresses and World War 2 glow-in-the-dark fascinators, he decided to enrol on the Faber Academy ‘Writing A Novel’ course. All About Evie is his second novel.

Posted in Netgalley

A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting by Sophie Irwin.

This book really was fun with a capital F! If you enjoy Jane Austen or Bridgerton then this is a book you’ll love. It has that clever ability to be frothy and witty, while actually bringing up some important issues, especially about the woman’s role in Regency society. It takes a look at class and what is really expected of those in the very highest society, or the ‘ton’ as they are dubbed here – I’ll be honest and say I’ve watched two whole series of Bridgerton and wondered what ‘ton’ meant, now I’ve finally looked it up! This brilliant debut rackets along at a fantastic pace, with glorious balls and luxurious fashions one minute, then adventurous rescues the next. Our heroine is Kitty Talbot, eldest of five girls who live in the Dorset countryside. As the book opens Kitty is responsible for her sisters, since both of their parents have died. Mr and Mrs Talbot were ostracised from high society before the girls were even born and the family have lived a relatively quiet life. Unfortunately, Mr Talbot had kept a taste for the gaming tables and while his debt grew he also turned to drink. On their death Kitty was left in charge of four sisters, a badly trained dog, a leaking roof and a threat from the debt collectors that payment must be made soon. Luckily, four years ago Kitty secured a proposal of marriage from Mr Linfield, a local squire with a reasonable fortune. Horrifyingly though, a few months before their debt is due, Mr Linfield withdraws his offer of marriage, leaving Kitty solely responsible for her sister’s home and their future. There is only one solution; Kitty needs a fortune and she needs it fast. So, she pawns the last of their mother’s jewellery for costs and decides that she and her sister Cecily will visit their Aunt Dorothy in London where they may be able to gain introductions into society. The season has begun and every eligible bachelor with a fortune will be in attendance. Can Kitty find her fortune before her time runs out, or the secrets about their parent’s departure from London are made known?

As with Austen, there are serious issues and themes underneath the glamour and witty repartee. There’s an absolute honesty in what Kitty is trying to do, both with her family and herself, if not with her potential suitor. She soul searches about whether she can live with the decision to marry purely for financial protection, but when she thinks of her sisters she finds she can live with it quite comfortably. She knows each of them so well, that she can imagine their future needs – the one who wants to learn, the one who needs to marry for love and the one who might never marry. She’s happy as long as her sacrifice means they can have what they need and I found that an admirable quality. Yet, polite society and certainly those of the ‘ton’ find this deceitful and vulgar. The author is highlighting the double-standard here, it’s only Kitty’s gender and class that make her actions vulgar. Men in high society can pick the most eligible woman based on her looks, her age, her child-bearing possibilities and even her fortune, should his be lacking. Should a society gentleman, even a Duke, chooses a young woman of a lower class to him then his actions are accepted. There may be gossip, but whether it’s for love, lust, money or breeding ability no one truly cares as long as she is of good character and virtue. Kitty is simply doing the same, there’s a commodity she needs and marriage is her only means of achieving it. In the ballrooms and salons of London, all young women in the act of finding a match are sparing with the truth. They are making the best of their looks, inventing accomplishments and laughing at awful jokes. They make themselves less: less intelligent, less witty, less feisty. They have to flatter, make the man seem superior in all these things. So, why is Kitty’s plan any different? Her class is the deciding factor, breeding being all important for men of the peerage particularly, it is desirable to meet a woman of a similar class and not marry down. It is Kitty’s dishonesty about her class and lack of money that condemn her.

Once settled at her Aunt’s house, they ‘accidentally’ meet the de Lacey family, one of the most respected families here for the London season. It is the younger son Archie that Kitty thinks might be a suitable candidate and since Cecily went to school with his younger sister Amelia they have a connection. However, it’s with Archie’s elder brother that Kitty can be truly open and honest. James is now Lord Radcliffe after the death of his father but has spent most time at their country seat in Devon. He is in hiding, alongside fellow officer Captain Hinsley, with whom he shared the experience of fighting at Waterloo. He’s superior, intelligent and doesn’t suffer fools, but he’s also holding a lot of emotions in check and felt he wasn’t ready to be the head of his family. Once alerted to the possibility of an alliance between Archie and a young woman who appears to have no breeding or family fortune, he rides back to London determined to sever the connection. He and Kitty’s exchanges are probably the most honest and equal in the book, as well as making me laugh. He can see her ability to charm and once they’ve been honest with each other they seem to relax in each other’s company and Kitty grows in confidence. She makes it clear that no matter what he may see her as – a fortune hunter – her only other choice is to let the family home go and for the sisters to look for paid work that will separate them. I admired her honesty and her ability to see the objections to fortune hunters as hypocrisy. The whole London season is about making matches, sometimes for very similar reasons to Kitty’s own.

I thoroughly enjoyed the ups and downs of her mission and her determination to become an integral part of the season. The setting is beautifully described, especially the culture shock of a dirty and sooty London as compared to the country. I loved the image of higgledy-piggledy buildings that are bowed or look ‘haphazardly drawn as if by a child’. The detailed description of the latest fashions and how the girls have to craftily accessorise so they look like they’re wearing something new. Even so, Kitty is outed in the mind of Lady Radcliffe who notices a shoe with a wooden button that marks them out as from Cheapside. There are also other plot lines that feed into the central premise that work very well too: the story of Kitty and Cecily’s parents and why they were unwelcome in polite society; the identity of Aunt Dorothy and her reluctance to follow Kitty’s forays into high society; Kitty’s insistence that Cecy isn’t looking for a husband while her sister has her own plans; Archie’s discovery of gambling clubs and the predatory lords who frequent the clubs looking for young, inexperienced men who are about to come into their fortunes. I felt the author had the balance just right between humour and frivolity and the darker sides of the story. It gallops along at a jolly pace and it’s very easy to keep on reading into the night. The excitement peaks one evening as two very different rescue missions are undertaken; one to save a reputation and the other to save a fortune. These missions are taken at a breakneck pace and it’s impossible to put the book down once you’ve reached this point – you will simply have to keep reading to the end. The author has written a wonderfully satirical and deceptively light novel, with plenty of intrigue and some darker undertones. I enjoyed the Talbot sisters and wondered whether we’d be seeing more of them in the future, if so they’ll definitely be on my wishlist.

Published by Harper Collins 12th May 2022

Meet The Author

Sophie has spent years immersed in the study of historical fiction, from a dissertation on why Georgette Heyer helped win World War Two, to time spent in dusty stacks and old tomes doing detailed period research when writing this book. Her love and passion for historical fiction bring a breath of fresh air and a contemporary energy to the genre. Sophie hopes to transport readers to Regency London, where ballrooms are more like battlegrounds.

A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting is Sophie’s debut novel and it has already sold in twenty territories worldwide.

Twitter @SophieHIrwin

Instagram @sophie.irwin

Posted in Publisher Proof, Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight: All About Evie by Matson Taylor

So I’m having a book blogger’s dilemma. The arrival of this book through the door made me do a little Snoopy dance! There are a few books I’ve earmarked as my most anticipated summer reads, but this is right up there as my mostest anticipated novel. I know, we bloggers do love to throw out superlatives here and there, but I’ve honestly been waiting for this book ever since I finished The Misadventures of Evie Epworth two summers ago. Now I’m in an awful quandary. I want to devour it in one go, but once I do, the moment will have passed and Evie is gone again. I don’t know whether Evie’s story ends this time, or whether there’s more to come, so I’m trying to hang on for a little while, at least until my fellow Squadettes are reading so we can talk about it.

If you haven’t read Matson Taylor’s first novel then where have you been? I think this is one book where reading the previous instalment of Evie’s adventures is really helpful. You have a whole new literary heroine to meet and I think knowing where Evie comes from is vital in understanding her. I’m not going to use spoilers so it’s safe to read on. In book one we met Evie in the 1960’s, the summer after O’Levels and before A Levels. Her only plans for the summer are reading, helping their elderly neighbour with her baking and, most importantly, getting rid of her dad’s girlfriend who would like to see Evie working through her summer at the local salon. Christine has moved in and is slowly trying to erase everything Evie loves about the farmhouse, including her Adam Faith wall clock and that won’t do. Evie and her dad would like things to stay as they were when her Mum was alive. They love their Aga and old country kitchen, but Christine wants Formica and a new cooker that’s easier to clean. Her wardrobes are wall to wall pink, synthetic fabrics and she colonises the kitchen with her Mum and lumpen friend, who’re usually in tow. Her dad can’t seem to see that his girlfriend and daughter don’t get along, there’s quite a lot of avoidance practised here, he’s often got his head in the newspaper or listening to the cricket scores, or just popping out for a pint. Whatever the tactic, it means he hasn’t heard anything. This problem needs another woman to solve it. So, when her neighbour has an accident and her daughter Caroline arrives to look after her, the three women put their heads together to deal with the problem, just in time for the village fete and baking competition.

All About Evie starts ten years on from the previous novel with Evie settled in London and working at the BBC. She has all the things a 70’s girl could wish for – including an Ozzie Clark poncho. Then disaster hits. An incident with Princess Anne and a Hornsea Pottery mug means she must have a rethink about her future. So what can she do next? Will she be too old to do it? Most importantly, will it involve cork soled sandals? I have no qualms in saying this is my most anticipated book of the summer. I think I’ll have to compromise and as soon as I have a two week gap from blog tours I’ll be delving in to find out what happens next….

I’ll keep you informed.

Published by Scribner U.K. 21st July 2022.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Final Testimony of Raphael Ignatius Phoenix by Paul Sussman.

Something very strange happened while I was reading Paul Sussman’s book. I was up at night feeling unwell and made it half way without even taking a break. I had never read any of his books so as far as I knew this could have been a debut novel or one of hundreds. I launch straight into books without reading introductions, forewords or acknowledgements because I don’t like to be swayed by them. I don’t want someone else to tell me how to read a book, or in what context; I like to make up my own mind and read them later. I must admit on this occasion I was drawn in by the cover, but beyond that and the back cover blurb I knew nothing.


I realised half way through that I was reading with a smile on my face, despite feeling physically grotty! It made me smile because of the dark subject matter, the humour and sheer ingenuity of Raphael. I put it to one side and thought ‘I really wish my husband Jez had been around so I could read this to him’. He died 7 years before I found this novel and prior to his death he couldn’t read himself. He couldn’t hold a book and couldn’t see to read for himself. He could get listening books but there were certain, funny, books that we liked to share so we could fall about laughing together. They would usually be ingenious, darkly comic and just a little bit bad – rather like this. This was definitely one of those books. I then turned to the foreword and noticed it was written by Paul Sussman’s wife Alicky. I was so sad to read that she had been through the same loss I had, but amazed by the parallel. I contacted her and she was lovely, sharing about her loss and listening to mine.

The character of Raphael Phoenix is irresistible. A cantankerous old pensioner, living alone in a castle, he decides that 100 years of living is enough. He has a plan and he also has a pill. He has had the pill his whole life since his birthday party with his childhood friend Emily. Emily’s father is a chemist and in his poison cupboard, among the ribbed glass bottles, is an innocuous white pill with a simple nick in one side. It has very particular ingredients that ensure an almost instant and painless death and it is the only thing he wants for his birthday so the pair replace the pill with mint of the very same size, with a nick from the edge to match. Raphael keeps the pill with him through his incredible life either in his pocket, in a gold ring or in more difficult circumstances, sellotaped under his armpit. He trusts his pill and knows that it will deliver the death he wants as he sits in his observatory, with an expensive glass of red wine (over £30 a bottle) watching the millennium fireworks. However, before then he has a story to tell us, several stories in fact, which take us through some of the most important periods of the 20th Century and he has a very peculiar way of splitting these stories into sections. Raphael has had some very singular life experiences, and has a talent for getting into scrapes and challenges. Even more surprising are his ways of getting out of them.

I had no idea what to expect and so I was surprised and charmed by this magical piece of work. It manages to be both, earthy and funny, but also incredibly poignant. The only two things he can depend on through his life are the pill and his friend Emily. Emily isn’t always by his side, but just manages to be there at the right times and seems to set his various destinies in motion. Raphael works backwards with his tales until the reader is desperate to know how all of these incredible twists and turns are set in motion and also whether his trusty pill will work so he gets the end he has been working so hard towards. I would read this if you enjoy dark humour and tall tales and like your narrators to be, ever so slightly, morally ambiguous. It is darkly enchanting and I fell in love with it.

Published by Doubleday 22nd March 2014.

Posted in Personal Purchase

Woman of a Certain Rage by Georgie Hall.

Recently life had a started to get on top of me a little bit. I felt overwhelmed; with my partner being unwell, my MS not coping with the heat, and several things in the house going wrong. The dishwasher flooded the kitchen, then two weeks later the washing machine did the same, but lifted the entire floor too. Finally, I emptied my bath water and came downstairs to find it had christened the kitchen island and we had a lovely new hole in the ceiling. I’m immune-compromised so I’m still avoiding crowds and wearing masks. Finally, there’s the effect of the menopause when dealing with all those things. I’m far more likely to burst into tears these days. Masks mean I sweat more – not just a little glow, I can look like I’ve just got out of the shower in ‘tropical moments’. Then my reading glasses steam up, but I can’t take them off because I can’t read anything. I’ve taken a short break from blog tours and deadlines to deal with some of this and spending some time reading exactly what I want. So, I’m on the couch, a cold flannel on my neck, with two fans pointing at me, as few clothes as I dare to wear, and an ice cold can of coke in my hand. I was browsing my NetGalley shelf when this title jumped out at me. It could not have been more apt.

Eliza feels like she’s going crazy. She’s emotional, keeps forgetting things, feels angry and she’s hot, oh so hot.

This is a smart and funny novel about love, life and a second shot at freedom for rebellious women of a certain age. Late for work and dodging traffic, Eliza is still reeling from the latest row with husband Paddy. Twenty-something years ago, their eyes met over the class divide in oh-so-cool Britpop London, but while Paddy now seems content filling his downtime with canal boats and cricket, Eliza craves the freedom and excitement of her youth. Fifty sounds dangerously close to pensionable: her woke children want to cancel her, a male motorist has just called her a ‘mad old bat’ and to cap it all her hormones are on the run. Who knew menopause was puberty’s evil older sister? But then a moment of heroism draws an unexpected admirer, and Eliza sets out to discover whether the second half of life can be a glass half full after all. She might suffer mental fog and night sweats – and have temporarily mislaid her waist – but this is her renaissance.

I bonded with Eliza immediately and not just because of the menopause. We’re a similar age, so I could identify with growing up in the Britpop era – I fell totally in love with Damon Albarn, a love which has lasted a lifetime. All of our references points were the same, and having inherited two beautiful stepdaughters in their tweens and teens I could really appreciate Eliza’s relationship with her daughter. I also have a strong relationship with an elderly dog. Menopause is causing tension in Eliza’s marriage, particularly annoying for her is the loss of libido. That deep connection she and Paddy once had seems to have gone, lost in the logistics of family life and life stresses around their finances. Eliza’s realisation that she’s becoming invisible has extended into her working life too. She has always wanted to be a stage actress, but her career has never really taken off. Now she’s getting less and less work, and aside from one Japanese tourist who thinks she’s Emma Thompson, she feels very under appreciated. She’s doing voice work, reading audiobooks mainly, plus has a side job showing people around properties for a local estate agent. All of the everyday stresses in her life – marriage, family tensions mixed with financial concerns, having ‘woke’ children, her youngest son who is on the spectrum – leave her feeling exhausted. Into this low point steps a handsome Italian restauranteur, who happens to have taken over her family’s favourite bistro from his uncle. Exuding charm from every pore, he flatters Eliza and makes her feel desirable when of late she’s felt men’s eyes pass over her and to her teenage daughter. It’s like one big ‘hormotional’ perfect storm and I wondered whether anyone would come out of it unscathed.

It’s easy to love Eliza; she’s loving, caring, vivacious and witty. However, her husband Paddy grew on me too and I felt a great deal of empathy for his own middle aged struggles. There is growing evidence of male menopause, despite society being largely dismissive and calling it a ‘midlife crisis’. Jokes about middle-aged men trying to recapture their youth with hair transplants, sports cars and unwise affairs with younger women are still commonplace. Yet the NHS recognises a group of symptoms similar to those experienced by women – irritability, insomnia, weight gain, loss of muscle mass, erectile dysfunction, loss of libido and memory problems. Some doctors have questioned whether these are symptoms of a loss of testosterone, but the NHS classify it as a psychological syndrome characterised by increased levels of depression and raised anxiety amongst men in their late forties and fifties. Paddy is definitely going through something like this, but he has had a lot to contend with. His father’s death and the loss of the narrow boat they worked on together hit him hard. Eliza’s family bought the boat so he could still work on it, but that brings its own guilt and shame because Paddy could not afford to do this himself and run it. His wife earns more than he does and she’s starting acting like a crazy person. He thinks her loss of libido is down to him being a failure as a man. This book hinges on the fact that problems occur when couples stop communicating.

The author really pitched this book perfectly, balanced between the serious issues and the comic moments. Her other characters were well rounded, with interesting quirks to their personalities or hidden depths. I thought her sister was an infuriating superwoman who could juggle everything perfectly, but when she cooked Sunday dinner she was in a complaining, sweaty, heap like I am on Sundays! Her mum had depths of hidden wisdom and despite never seeming to ask, had a pretty accurate idea of what was going on. I found Eliza’s daughter infuriating though. She was very preachy and deeply committed to social justice and women’s rights. Despite agreeing with her in some cases I found her speeches annoying and the long Shakespeare quotes pretentious. I think this is how the author intended her though. She was an exaggeration of my stepdaughter’s generation and I could see a lot of our 15 year old in Summer’s causes and the way she spoke. I think the youngest son’s autism was handled well too. When she found out the real reason he wouldn’t use his allocated transport to get to school I was heartbroken for him. All anyone wants is for someone to understand them and listen to how it feels, rather than dismissing them with a lazy stereotype or the ableism on show here. The final adventure was both funny and poignant, and I left the book feeling like I’d been seen and acknowledged. I also had a huge smile on my face, because it had really lifted my spirits, so much so that I would really love another instalment of Eliza and her family in the future.

Posted in Squad Pod Collective

The Miseducation of Evie Epworth by Matson Taylor.

Happy Paperback Publication Day to Matson Taylor for his joyous novel The Miseducation of Evie Epworth. I’ve wanted to read it again this year I’ve loved it so much. As a reminder here’s my review from last year and don’t forget to join the #SquadPodCollective @squadpod3 on Twitter for the celebratory #cakeblast on Saturday 1st May where we are all sharing our Evie themed bakes across social media.

I was only three pages in to this book and I knew that Evie was going to be one of my favourite literary characters. Favourite as in – on my list next to Jo March, Cassandra Mortmain and Adrian Mole, characters I’ve also experienced growing up and setting out into the world. The book was off to a good start anyway, then as we followed Evie jumping into her father’s MG to do the milk round there was a scene so funny I laughed out loud at 2am waking both the dog and my other half. I devoured this book in 24 hours, knowing part of me would be sorry when it ended, but not able to slow down either. 

We meet Evie when she’s at a crossroads in life. She’s in that limbo summer between GCSE and deciding what to do next. Evie’s plan, if she gets the right results, is to do her A Levels. Till then she plans to spend the summer delivering milk from the family farm, baking with Mrs Scott-Pym next door, and reading all the books she can get her hands on. There is only one thing in her way; her Dad Arthur’s girlfriend, Christine. Chrissie has moved into the farmhouse and is setting about making changes. This is 1962 and she’s all for embracing the new. She wants to get rid of the old unhygienic wood in the kitchen, because what they need is some nice modern Formica. She’s already replaced the Range with an electric cooker, because she couldn’t work it. As Evie says, it takes quite an intellect to be outwitted by a kitchen appliance. Worst of all she’s replaced Evie’s Adam Faith clock with a chicken! It has always just been Evie and her Dad, Arthur, as far back as she can remember. Her mum died when Evie was little and she has no memories of her. Chrissie needs to be dealt with, but how? Arthur is a disappointment. Mrs Scott-Pym says he’s like all men, weak and easily confused by a pair of boobs. 

I have lived in villages and on farms for my whole life so I can honestly say that the author’s depiction of the characters and events of country life are not exaggerated – no, not even that cow scene. There are still characters like this in rural villages. The comedy comes from the brilliantly blunt Yorkshire dialogue, the gap between what we as adults understand and Evie doesn’t yet, but mainly the amazing characters created by the author. Mrs Swithenbank is a comedy gem, always at the mercy of her explosive bowels. The long suffering Vera, Chrissie’s mother, who is never far behind her daughter like a human ‘buy one-get one free’ offer. Then, Mrs Scott-Pym’s daughter Caroline, comes into the village like a whirlwind and along with Evie shows that constant dilemma young people in villages face – do they stay put or go out into the wider world, perhaps needing to try the anonymity of the city? It can be hard to develop into your true self in a village where everyone knows who you are and any attempt to change is the object of ridicule. I remember a perm I had at 15, thinking I looked like Baby from Dirty Dancing, only to hear ‘ugh what have you done to your hair’ at every house on the pools round. I loved the depiction of the petty rivalries around the village show and what a surprise it is that Chrissie, who struggles with making toast, wins the best fruit cake. On top of everything else she does, the fact that she possibly cheated at the village show is viewed as the worst crime and given the last reveal. 

Chrissie though is the best comic creation of the lot, but isn’t left to be one dimensional either. Though she is truly awful in a lot of ways, it’s clear that she’s from a poorer family in the village and her upbringing hasn’t been easy. There’s class war over the Range cooker for sure. She lets slip in an exchange with Evie that she’d done every job going, from waitressing to wiping arses. While that might excuse her yearning for an easier life, it doesn’t excuse her way of getting it. There are times when it’s all out war at the tea table and Arthur stays behind his paper hoping it will blow over. I loved her ever present ‘pinkness’ and a crimplene wardrobe that Evie observes doesn’t end in Narnia, but at a bingo hall in Scunthorpe (I love seeing my birthplace in print). Poor Vera is always struggling a few paces behind, usually sweating and doing all the fetching and carrying. Chrissie is always exhausted – I need to put my feet up, Mum put the kettle on – and always rushing towards getting another grasping finger on Arthur, preferably a finger with a ring on it. This should have been a mild flirtation or dalliance at most, everyone can see they are not suited. 

There are interludes between Evie’s chapters where we see the meeting of her parents, Arthur and Diana. They are serene, even romantic chapters where we see them meet at a dance, get married in a rush during the war and settle at the farm. We see Diana form a friendship with Mrs Scott-Pym and rush round to tell her friend when Evie is on the way. There’s so much of this interesting woman left, hidden in plain sight such as a particular teaspoon in the drawer and the recipe book Mrs Scott-Pym has kept for Evie. It’s so sad that Evie and her Dad don’t talk about her more openly and honestly. If wishes and spells aren’t going to change this, there needs to be a catalyst. When Mrs Scott-Pyle falls down the stairs and her daughter Caroline arrives we see a force of nature equal to Chrissie. She wears elegant clothes, big black sunglasses and scarves tied round her neck like the French do. Evie is very impressed with her sophistication, but also her nerve. She cooks up a great scheme to get Evie out of working in the village salon, takes her to Leeds to shop in an Italian deli and has the means by which Chrissie’s true nature can be revealed. She is also the only lesbian Evie has ever met, leading to her asking visiting friends of Caroline’s whether they are a lesbian too as a conversation starter! Evie is trying on different futures, and may be adding Caroline as an extra role model alongside The Queen, Charlotte Bronte and Shirley MacLaine. 

This novel is an absolute joy. A great read to cheer you up and honestly, make you laugh out loud. Every character is beautifully drawn and the comic timing is perfect. I couldn’t believe it was a debut, because it has all the confidence and timing of Sue Townsend and also made me think back further to the blunt Yorkshire characters of James Herriot. On a personal level I needed a lift, after being very strict with lockdown rules due to my MS, and this was just the lift I needed. Thank you Matson, for such a great set of characters and for providing exactly the book I needed at exactly the right time.