Thursday 31 December 2020

2020 Wrap-Up

Writing a summary of 2020 feels an almost impossible task. It’s been a surreal and challenging year, and there’s little enthusiasm surrounding the new year as the pandemic ramps up once again. I hope you have found moments of joy nonetheless, and that any wounds the year has inflicted will heal over the coming months and years. There’s a sense of collective trauma that has encouraged more open discourse around mental health, and this is one thing that I hope we’ll continue into the years ahead. Our worlds have shrunk this year and for many, the pace of life has slowed dramatically with empty days stretching out, yet months passing rapidly, leaving a sense of disorientation when we realise quite how much time has passed. It’s been surreal and often lonely, but there has been beauty within it, communities coming together, time to contemplate the things and people that mean the most to you, and a chance to look more closely at your surroundings. In walking the same streets over and over I’ve noticed little details I would previously have marched past in a rush to get home or to go to work. The changing of the seasons has garnered far more attention as we see the increasingly familiar landscapes change, flowers blooming, trees turning golden, and for some, the first laying of snow. This increased connection to and appreciation of nature has been another slice of light in a dark year, and one that I hope I don’t lay aside carelessly when life offers some return to ‘normal’.

I have become more involved in the wider book blogger community this year, cheering each other on, encouraging endlessly increasing to-be-read piles, and taking part in virtual readalongs that have made the act of reading more social, allowing us the chance to discuss books as we read them. It’s been an invaluable source of joy, thank you to each and every one of you who has been part of this in any way. Regular readers will have noticed a new presence on the blog this year - blog tour posts. These have been a great opportunity to broaden my reading, bringing some contemporary fiction into my book pile. Many of the books I would never have picked up otherwise, and although they weren’t all to my taste, there have been some real standout reads, notably The Beast and the Bethany and Amari and the Night Brothers.

I’ve read slightly more books this year than the past few and it’s been quite a mixed bag. My first read of 2020 remains a highlight - The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose, a

beautiful novel connecting disparate lives through art. Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser also had me thoroughly engaged in a story that spans decades and continents. On the non-fiction front The Moth: Occasional Magic had me marvelling at the strength of the human spirit and the huge breadth of experience. Van Gogh: A Life was one of the biggest books of the year and succeeded in bringing to life the intricacies of this most famous of artist’s journeys. Finally, a book that topped the non-fiction bestseller charts, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, a book that everyone should read at least once.

I’m not one for planning my reading too far in advance, but my short-term reading list includes The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, which I’ve heard wonderful things about; The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante; and a spot of Agatha Christie. The latter part of 2020 has been somewhat lacking in non-fiction and so I intend to jump back on that bandwagon, recommendations always welcome. 

I hope your shelves are overflowing with excellent books to dive into and that the new year holds some wonderful things for you all. And remember, after every storm the sun will shine again. Wishing you peace, love, and good health for the days to come.

Wednesday 30 December 2020

A Sparrow Alone, Mim Eichmann

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This post is part of the blog tour for the novel. Thank you to The Write Reads and the author for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

In 1890s Colorado in the midst of the Cripple Creek gold rush, we find teenaged Hannah Owens suddenly without a mother. She becomes a domestic apprentice in the home of a wealthy doctor but soon finds herself once again being tossed around by fate. She encounters a huge amount of suffering and is forced to act well beyond her years, desperately trying to avoid the perceived taint of prostitution that afflicted many women, often victims of sexual assault. We watch helplessly as a tangled web of intrigue and dishonesty forms around her, tripping her up every time she looks about to get ahead.

A number of the characters are drawn directly from history, including Winfield Scott Stratton who discovered a huge gold mine that started the Cripple Creek gold rush, and Pearl de Vere, the infamous owner of high-end brothel ‘the Old Homestead.’ The sudden huge population growth, and the resulting high demand for prostitutes, the local devastating fires, as well as unrest among the miners, provide a dramatic backdrop for Hannah’s story.

There’s a fairly large host of characters and it can take a little while to understand who they all are and how they fit together, especially as some appearances are fleeting. Eichmann provides moving back stories for many of the characters, fictional or otherwise, which help the reader appreciate the person behind the legend. There is great camaraderie between many of the women who have often faced similar challenges. The poverty that many live in, however, does on occasion lead to some callous behaviour as they desperately strive for some stability for their offspring. Stratton himself refuses any kind of commitment and takes advantage of many women who receive only coldness when they find themselves with child. John Barrington also positions himself to take what he wants, manipulating situations so his victims feel themselves to be completely out of options.

The mistreatment of women and the perception of them as commodities is a recurring theme. There are scenes of assault that can be difficult to read, and it is made clear that their lives can be ruined by it. Pearl is described as having great talent and compassion but is forced to put her dreams aside when she is impregnated by her father and labelled a ‘whore’. Hannah herself is used as part payment for her family’s debts, completely without her knowledge or consent. She hears tales of other women who have died as a result of such arrangements. There is no paternal affection evident, just businesslike transactions with the lives and bodies of their daughters. Hannah despairs and feels defeated when she realises the truth, but is determined and resilient, doing all she can to avoid a life of abuse, aided by those who were not able to save themselves.

There are undertones of discrimination throughout, and racism is often alluded to. When a white mother gives birth to a baby of colour they are forced apart, being told in no uncertain terms that they would not be accepted. We see later in the novel the impact of racial segregation and the way it deprives so many of an education. As a modern reader it is a stark reminder of the inequalities that have existed for centuries and have not yet been fully eradicated.

This is an interesting read that highlights the imbalance of power and expectations, with victim blaming rife. It is easy to forget just how young Hannah is, having been through so much in her short life. The particular historic setting was new to me but fascinating to learn about. There is great strength in many of the characters as well as villains that make resistance feel futile, so uneven is the playing field. Nonetheless, Hannah persists and is a gentle light in a dark world.

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Monday 28 December 2020

Amari and the Night Brothers, B. B. Alston

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This post is part of the ultimate blog tour for the novel. Thank you to Egmont Publishers and The Write Reads for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Amari’s brother Quinton has been missing for months, and she spends her evenings posting his photo on as many sites as she can in the hopes of finding out what happened to him. When she receives a mysterious delivery, her world is turned upside down as she discovers the supernatural world and Quinton’s place in it. What follows is a wonderful adventure reminiscent of some of the very best children’s books.

Amari is strong willed and talented, but living in the shadow of her brother’s brilliance means she never noticed how much she excelled. She has a scholarship to a well-respected school where she struggles to fit in because of the colour of her skin and the neighbourhood she lives in. When she goes to the Bureau’s summer camp it seems like she’s finally found somewhere that people won’t treat her differently. She soon comes to realise, however, that the supernatural world isn’t all that different, with Legacy families having a sense of superiority, and some special abilities treated with fear. Despite some setbacks she learns to value her own skills and flourishes as she grows in her self-belief.

The mystery of what happened to her brother and why plays out alongside tryouts for budding junior agents, and although the conclusion wasn’t entirely surprising, there were some great twists and turns along the way. The tryouts themselves are cleverly constructed and reveal more about the world Amari is just discovering. The world building is brilliant and it’s great fun experiencing it for the first time through Amari’s eyes. She makes some great friends, but is always slightly wary, not knowing who can be fully trusted. The existence of illusion magic makes this all the harder as you can never be sure that what you’re seeing is real.

This is a fantastic book that deals with difficult subjects thoughtfully and realistically, such as discrimination and the pressure it puts on people to never slip up. The writing style flows easily and will draw you into Amari’s world, conjuring up the weird and wonderful, that you just won’t want to leave. Whether or not you’re usually a fantasy reader, I can’t recommend this highly enough.

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Wednesday 23 December 2020

The Quest of the Absolute, Honoré de Balzac

Balzac’s 1834 novel considers the nature of genius and the lengths it will take people to. Balthazar Claes devotes himself to the pursuit of the philosopher’s stone, spending his own fortune and that of his family in the process. Joséphine has always been a devoted wife, but despairs at the destitution he is leading them into, fearing for the life their children will have once she is gone. Early in the novel Balzac writes ‘Too often, vice and genius produce similar results, which mislead the multitude. Genius is nothing more than constant excess, which devours time, money, and the body, and which leads to the poorhouse even more rapidly than evil passions.’, setting the tone for the story to come.

Frequently you will despair as Balthazar’s seeming obliviousness to the needs and lives of those who love him. Despite the failure of his experiments, his family are compelled to offer what they can to help him. The other characters cannot think poorly of him, seeing the agony of a frustrated mind, and so, ultimately, the final line inflicts a sharp wound to the reader.

The family dynamics and role of women in the novel are interesting. Both mother and daughter, Marguerite, try to curb Balthazar’s recklessness to little avail. Indeed, there are moments of softness and affection, where we see that even in the midst of his mania a small part of him remembers his family. On the other hand, these can feel like small consolations of a family desperate to find some evidence of paternal affection. They live in fear of what he will do to himself if his experiments are taken away, and ultimately sacrifice themselves for his intellectual pursuits.

Balthazar is a conflicting figure - his behaviour is unacceptable in many ways, but, near the end of the novel Balzac writes ‘That colossal sorrow, so courageously restrained, had its effect on both Pierquin and Emmanuel, who sometimes felt so deeply moved that they were inclined to offer him the money necessary for a series of experiments: so infectious are the convictions of a genius!’ Whether or not you believe he is a genius, or feel any sympathy for him in his depressed state, Balzac is here offering us a chance to see him through the eyes of those close to him. As an outsider, the willingness to repeatedly bail him out may seem illogical, even foolish, but we are reminded how convincing such a level of conviction can be, drawing all those around him into the pursuit of the absolute.

This is an interesting, accessible book with characters that will keep you pondering after the last page. A great one to try if you want to broaden your classics reading.

Wednesday 16 December 2020

Ducks, Newburyport, Lucy Ellmann

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Ellmann’s epic stream-of-consciousness novel takes the reader into the mind of an Ohioan mother of four. Her narrative is interrupted every hundred pages or so with passages about a mountain lion’s separation from her cubs. This provides a nice juxtaposition, as well as offering an alternative view of humanity. Buried within the main narrative, amid musings on popular culture, politics, police brutality, and all the general concerns and anxieties, is a story of an ordinary life with some very real emotional challenges.

One of the main themes of the novel is motherhood - the narrator’s feelings of incompetence and unworthiness, as well as her grief and guilt over the loss of her own mother. The lion narrative also draws on the devotion of a mother and the lengths she’ll go to in order to protect her offspring. Our narrator, who remains unnamed throughout, worries about not being able to look after her children properly, of being neglectful. She variously acknowledges the importance and difficulty of parenting, and questions whether she should have become a mother. ‘the fact that making food for people is actually a highly pressured, skilled, responsible job, just like motherhood, but nobody seems to notice,’ gives us a sense that she feels strongly that making a living baking pies while looking after her children is not valued by society, and this feeds in to her own sense of self-worth. That she can acknowledge that her occupations are important and demanding gives the reader some hope that she has the potential to see value in herself.

Anxiety plays out for her in almost every aspect of her life, but perhaps never more so than when it comes to her children. She admits to feeling shy around them and being afraid to tell them what to do, but it this line on people deciding to try for a baby, that really resonates, ‘the fact that nobody ever tells them that the terror of what could happen to your kids cripples your life, the fact that all mothers are going through this all the time, I think; but we never talk about it,’

Fear of death and loss hangs heavy over her, the repeated mantra of having been broken by the death of her mother is present throughout. She talks of not being able to love fully since because she can’t bear to go through that pain again. Her own cancer journey contributed to the sense of fragility of life and yet she offers herself no compassion, feeling instead that she failed her family during her treatment and recovery. Reading this during 2020 made the fears and anxieties all the more pertinent and difficult to read and sit with.

Alongside the personal worries and dramas are a lot of references to awful real life events - school shootings, assault, and a myriad of other violent crimes. Some topics are familiar to the international reader but many may not have made the news outside of the U.S. It had me researching names and events that I hadn’t come across before and sharing some of the despair.

The impact of human activity on nature is also present and plays along neatly with the lion’s tale, although it is often the negative impact on humans with the likes of the proliferation of PFOA in almost everything that captures most of the narrator’s attention. She reminds us all of the way people carelessly poison the planet, and that it’s being destroyed for all living creatures, ‘the fact that the good news right now is that animals don’t yet know we’ve wrecked the place, or they don’t know we did it at least, or they’d come after us, red in tooth and claw, the fact that it’s actually pretty lucky they don’t blame us for it,’

The climax of the novel builds, the lion sections appear more frequently as the two lives seem on the cusp of overlapping. Despite there being some dramatic events, the end of the novel feels somewhat anti-climactic as the narrator continues in her never-ending monologue, her sense of inadequacy still intact. For some, this technique will be happily received as we bid farewell to the characters, safe in the knowledge that their lives will continue without our prying eyes. It feels as though her general anxiety and disappointment in herself turns every event, whether it’s a lemon drizzle cake that didn’t rise properly, or a brush with death, into another reason why she is not good enough.

This is a beast of a book, and one that will not be universally loved. The constant repetition of the phrase ‘the fact that’ can be grating and yet at other times you almost don’t notice it. It is, however, a book that will really make you think, and is an interesting glimpse into life in America. The references may be specific but the themes are recognisably relevant to the general human experience. An interesting read, but possibly not one to pick up if you’re trying to soothe your mind from the ills of the world.

Sunday 13 December 2020

The Cousins, Karen M. McManus

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This post is part of the Ultimate Blog Tour for the novel. Thank you to Penguin and The Write Reads for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

The Story family is infamous. Wealthy and fractured, the four children of Mildred Story were disinherited with no explanation beyond a note that read ‘you know what you did.’ Except, they don’t, and have each become closed off in their other relationships as well as to each other. Over two decades later and the next generation is invited to Gull Cove Island for the summer. Their parents are not going to let the opportunity pass them by and soon cousins Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah are reluctantly on their way to the island for a summer they’ll never forget.

The cousins take it in turn to narrate the chapters, and Allison, Milly’s mother, also has some sections detailing the events of the year before her family were cut off. McManus sets the tone straight away, giving us a taste of each teenager’s personality, family relationships, and priorities. They each have their own secrets and varied thoughts on the Story family saga. The narrative style is chatty and believably youthful, although the voices lose some of their distinctiveness as the novel progresses.

There are a lot of twists and turns along the way as the cousins size each other up and wonder why their grandmother invited them to the island only to completely ignore them once they’ve arrived. Mildred herself is a bit of an enigma, largely absent but commanding a lot of attention. She has loyal advisers and you begin to wonder if she is being manipulated. The flashback sections show her struggling to keep up appearances after the death of her husband. Being in possession of a huge fortune, it’s not hard to imagine the vultures circling. 

For the cousins, who have had very little interaction with their aunts and uncles, it’s disorienting being on the island, where the locals seem to know more about their family history than they do. Could it be that one of them holds the key to unlocking the Story mystery?

An enjoyable read that will keep you guessing throughout. All the smaller reveals help build suspense and ensure you’re never quite certain that all is as it seems. You see the cousins grow closer and support each other yet also lash out and accuse when their reality is thrown off kilter. The Story siblings may not come off as all that likeable but their offspring have fortunately avoided some of the less desirable family traits. Love, mystery, and murder collide in this YA thriller whose conclusion is more heart wrenching than I could have imagined. 

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Wednesday 2 December 2020

Victorian Sensation, Michael Diamond

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In the mid-nineteenth century a number of factors came together that made the spread of scandal much easier. Newspapers became cheaper with the removal of taxes, meaning that a much wider readership were able to afford them. The opening of the Divorce Court in 1858 also offered a new source of scandal - court proceedings included personal details that newspapers would not have been able to print. Diamond, in an attempt to show that the Victorians were not all that different to us, walks us through some of the popular scandals of the time. 

There are some famous occurrences that modern readers will be familiar with, such as the Jack the Ripper murders, but Diamond doesn’t dwell too long on these and there’s a wealth of other sensations that the common reader will likely not have come across before. The Tichborne Case, for example, captured the public imagination. Roger Tichborne, heir to title and fortune, was presumed dead after being involved in a shipwreck in 1854. His mother believed there was a chance he was still alive and advertised widely, offering a reward for information. An Australian butcher saw the advert and made his way to England to claim his position as the lost son. Some were happy to accept him whereas others were more sceptical. The court case that ensued was the longest on record. It became a huge rallying point for the public who remained firmly on the side of the Claimant, despite evidence suggesting he was not the Tichborne heir. 

Diamond sets each scandal within its social and political context and reveals patterns in some of the deeds and defences. He also reminds us that Britain was less revolutionary than its continental neighbours, and that events considered sensational would not have been elsewhere. He discusses the role of celebrity, both in the context of crime, and entertainment. Oscar Wilde had very deliberately created a public persona for himself, but this made his fall from grace that much more severe, and his every move was tracked. Diamond closes with a discussion of P.T. Barnum, the great showman, and his focus on creating spectacle and sensation. He seemed to believe in the oft-repeated phrase ‘all publicity is good publicity’, and had huge success despite causing outrage in some circles. ‘Barnum, an impressario not a performer, had become a star in his own right, and gives a lesson in how to create sensations through size, planning, advertising, and razzmatazz. … Barnum had led the way into the twentieth century.’

This is an accessible book that helps to break down the commonly held view of Victorians as prim and proper with very rigid morals. The popularity of sensation novels and dramas show the huge appetite for such tales. He guides us through the real life events that inspired fiction and the response to these forms of entertainment. He writes also of the role of women’s writing and strong female characters that dominated the genre. The book offers a glimpse into the subjects that titillated and shocked, and the laws that made them possible. There was a fascination with poison as a means of murder, and we learn that arsenic could be freely sold without a licence, whereas items such as tea and coffee, which we consider every day essentials, could not. This is a great read for those who want to dive into the world of Victorian reporting and entertainment, offering summaries and context for a broad range of events. Diamond sets them firmly in their time while allowing us to see that the subjects that capture public interest haven’t changed all that much in the intervening years.

Wednesday 25 November 2020

Dead Rock Stars, Guy Mankowski

Thanks to the author for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Emma Imrie had always dreamed of being a rock star, of writing songs that really meant something. She’d been on the cusp of success when her life was cut tragically short, leaving her younger brother Jeff to navigate his grief without the support of his distant parents. He is sent to spend the summer on the Isle of Wight with a childhood friend who is unlikely to provide much emotional support. Finding himself truly alone for the first time since his bereavement leads him to releasing some of the emotion he’s been holding back, and reading Emma’s diary to discover what really happened.

The two narrative strands - an older Jeff remembering that strange summer, and Emma’s narrative through her detailed diary entries run parallel, but it is Emma’s voice, her story, that looms largest, as it seems she did in life. The diary entries come thick and fast and so we don’t get to know Jeff as deeply, to start with at least. It leaves a slight disconnect and a sense of apprehension of how the space will be filled when we reach the last entry. There’s plenty still to come however, and although there were parts of the story that didn’t feel quite right, the way Mankowski writes grief is raw and honest. Jeff’s need to understand what happened, his feelings of wanting to keep reading the diary because it feels like it’s keeping part of his sister alive, are heart wrenching and relatable. Mankowski’s strength lies in the contemplation of life and death and the places in between.

Jeff’s parents are largely absent from the novel, but we do get a good sense of Emma’s relationship with her mother. The opening passages detail Jeff’s single experience of seeing his sister perform in Camden, of his mum’s disgust at the world she has chosen to make her own. Throughout the diary entries we see many examples of them being unable to compromise or understand each other’s point of view. They are clearly neglectful as parents, leaving the siblings with damaged self-esteem and a desperate need to feel wanted. As Jeff matures over the course of the book however, he comes to understand how his mum was also just human like them, trying her best to cope with difficult situations and relationships.

Mankowski’s skilful world-building is demonstrated successfully in this novel, whether it be the beauty and peace of the sea, or the London of Emma’s dreams. He teases out the contrast between reality and fantasy. Never is this more clearly drawn than in Jeff’s memories of going to collect Emma from hospital after her first overdose. He encapsulates the many faces of the city and its potential for both good and bad.

There’s a strong sense of a coming-of-age novel in this book, both for Emma as she tries to cope with her disillusion, and for Jeff as he struggles to make sense of his grief at such a formative age. The combination of Emma’s diary entries and his own memories show how her unfortunate relationship experiences turned him away from the idea of love, afraid of letting people in for fear of the damage they could cause. Perhaps because Emma’s character is so strong, his own self-doubts and dreams get a little lost. It feels slightly out of character or unexpected when he expresses certain views, but they are also authentic representations of the teenage experience. In a way, his summer on the island is a chance for him to find out who he really is, although the shadow of his famous sister is never far away.

A compelling read that might try to cover a little too much ground, but nonetheless does so with style. References to the Riot grrrl movement and other cultural references from the 1990s had me diving into online research and opened up some interesting topics. This is a well-written book which manages to make an absent character incredibly present and nuanced. A great read if you’re interested in the 1990s Camden music scene, the idea of the tortured genius, or a coming-of-age book that will fully immerse you in the world of its characters.

Wednesday 18 November 2020

Polina, Bastien Vivès, Translated by Polly McLean

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Polina follows an aspiring dancer from auditions as a child through to adulthood, trying to find her way in the world while reluctant to let go of what she was taught in her formative years. Bojinsky is famed for his high standards and often reduces students to tears, leaving them convinced they should quit dancing for good. He is no less exacting in his training of Polina, but she is determined to stick with it. When she moves on, she begins to realise others see his technique as old-fashioned and try to get her to forget what he taught her. She finds herself torn between the two, studying with him in secret and jeopardising her position at the theatre school. There is a sense of Polina being over-burdened and pulled in too many directions throughout which adds a sense of heaviness, of enclosure, to the novel.

The depictions of ballet training play on some of the over-done stereotypes - her mother tells her not to show if it hurts when the teachers test her suppleness in the early pages of the book. Bojinsky’s views that you can’t be taught grace and other basic elements required of dancers also feels at odds with reality. He is an unsettling character, demanding and unreasonable, and I spent large sections of the book worried that his behaviour was going to escalate. Polina’s devotion to him seems illogical on the surface, but she feels a sense of loyalty to him because he saw something in her and kept her working hard to achieve her potential. There’s a sense that he shaped her as a dancer, even though her career diverts from his technique. Their relationship made me quite uncomfortable, but it was interesting to see the dynamic between mentor and pupil explored.

Polina rarely seems happy, caught in constant conflict with herself and eager to please others before herself. When she suffers setbacks that would be fairly devastating they are quickly passed over and this can create a slight distance with the emotional side of the characters.

The plot progresses at quite a pace, leaving much left to be assumed as we jump forward across the years. This can help sweep you along with the story with no time to stop and dwell, but it can also be a bit jarring as you have to discern how much time has passed and where we find Polina now.

This was my first time reading a graphic novel and although it was easy to get wrapped up in, I was left wanting something more from it. The illustrations themselves nicely capture movement and resist being bogged down in too much detail. For fans of ballet and coming-of-age stories, this is an interesting book to pick up.

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Wednesday 11 November 2020

Shirley, Charlotte Brontë

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Shirley is perhaps Charlotte Brontë’s least read novel today, but this historic, social novel, has a lot to offer. The book doesn’t have one overarching narrative thread - there are the industrial depression and Luddite uprisings, some elements of romance, and plenty of social commentary. Most prominent however, are the two main female characters - Caroline Helstone and Shirley Keeldar. Their positions are opposite - Shirley has money and is strong-willed and defiant, Caroline has no fortune and is more obliging, but both find difficulties in their status. It becomes clear that for many, money takes precedence over all else, meaning that Caroline cannot marry the man she loves, and Shirley is wary of potential suitors, as well as being reluctant to give up the liberty her single status affords. 

Brontë is forthcoming with depictions of the plight of women. 

What do they expect them to do at home? If you ask, they would answer, sew and cook. They expect them to do this, and this only, contentedly, regularly, uncomplainingly all their lives long, as if they had no germs of faculties for anything else - a doctrine as reasonable to hold as it would be that the fathers have not faculties but for eating what their daughters cook, or for wearing what they sew. Could men live so themselves? Would they not be very weary? And, when there came no relief to their weariness, but only reproaches at its slightest manifestation, would not their weariness ferment in time to frenzy?

Caroline has very little autonomy, even being refused the opportunity to make her own money as a governess, and so finds herself with no occupation to stimulate her mind or add interest to her days. She ponders what her life will be like with very little chance of marriage. Her home life is unhappy; she has no contact with her mother, her father is dead, and her uncle is not pleasant company.

As is often the case in Brontë’s writing, the characters are well-drawn. She is expert in providing descriptions that instantly give a sense of personality, revealing anecdotes that show their true nature. The opening chapter introducing the three local curates contain cutting appraisals and touching stories that will keep you amused and curious. Some parts of the novel drag a little, but the character sketches are little gems scattered throughout. 

Despite there being hardship and unrest present, the main characters are not suffering themselves from the downturn in industrial work, so this always feels like a background feature rather than the main thrust of the book. In our introduction to Robert Moore we are told that he little thinks or cares where his workers get their daily bread when he lets them go, which may fool you into thinking the plight of the industrial worker will play a much more prominent role. In fact, little space is given to the working man.

This is a novel that’s hard to define. Some sections are slow but others are utterly gripping. The headstrong Shirley, famously based on what Charlotte imagined her sister Emily would have been if she’d been born into wealth and health, is a force to be reckoned with, and shows herself to be more than capable of holding her own time and again. There are some touching moments that some may find a little twee but which I enjoyed. Illness and mortality are a concern, and remind us of the fragility of life. It’s said that Gaskell’s Mary Barton, and the loss of her siblings during the writing process, changed the course of the story. We’ll never know for certain what Charlotte had originally intended for it, but what has come down to us is worth picking up, with Brontë's command of the language in her beautiful prose evident throughout.

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Friday 6 November 2020

Second Cousin, Once Removed, Kenneth L. Toppell

This post is part of the Ultimate Blog Tour for the novel. Thank you to the author and The Write Reads for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Henry Atkinson is an ageing attorney who has taken up genealogy to fill the gap left by his now separated family. To his surprise, he discovers a professional hitman in his family tree, and when he makes contact becomes convinced he is responsible for the death of his uncle Ira. When a woman, Carolyn, turns up from his uncle’s business he is certain his life is in danger. What follows is a race across states both running from, and searching for, his cousin Shelley.

The premise is a tad unusual and you find yourself wondering why the characters are acting as they are. They seem to very easily adapt to life on the road, discarding their true identities, and predictably, falling in love with the person they’re pretending to be married to. The search for Shelley and the twist that makes them re-assess their morals are not particularly engaging. There are attempts to build suspense and mystery with repeated mentions of an incident that happened long ago, but it doesn’t quite hit the mark. The reveal is also fairly inconsequential and largely a device to progress an already convoluted plot.

The characters don’t have a lot of depth - Henry develops a lack of self-confidence for a while and Shelley apparently only accepts jobs where the target is not a good guy, but there’s little in the way of real development. Carolyn is quite an outdated portrayal of a female character. There’s a lot of descriptions of her physical appearance that will make you cringe and she’s often demure and subservient. Despite some blatant gender stereotyping, Toppell does at least give Carolyn and Marian, the only two female characters, an active role in the denouement.

Each chapter is narrated by either Henry, Carolyn, or Shelley. For the most part they pick up where the previous chapter left off, but there is occasional overlap to show scenarios from multiple points of view. The first chapter from Shelley’s perspective is one of the more exciting moments in the book as up until then he is shrouded in mystery and conjecture. 

Overall, not to my taste, but if you enjoy dialogue-heavy writing and exploring the mindset of a professional killer, you might enjoy it more than I did.

Wednesday 28 October 2020

The Doll Factory, Elizabeth Macneal

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Set against the backdrop of Victorian London, Macneal’s debut is part thriller, part love letter to art. Iris works in a doll factory with her sister Rose, painting faces on dolls and unable to resist trying to divine whether the child its meant to represent is dead or alive. This little tinge of darkness that appears at the start will set the tone for much of the book. Louis is a budding artist and member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, desperately working on a piece for consideration at the Royal Academy. When he sees Iris he knows she is perfect as the inspiration for the Queen in his painting. Silas spends his life away from polite society, preserving and stuffing dead animals, often selling them to artists, but ultimately hoping to open his own museum. The Great Exhibition, in construction at the time the book is set, is his immediate focus. Their lives intertwine in a tale of passion, obsession, and ambition.

Iris is keenly aware of the precarious position of women in society. She watched as Rose’s life fell apart when the man she was due to marry broke off contact when she fell ill. They’re now stuck in unhappy lives with parents willing to cut them off if they do anything considered inappropriate. Rose dreams of owning her own shop and Iris longs to create art. She spends her evenings working on paintings considered scandalous, scraping together dregs of art supplies. When Louis shows interest in her she sees her chance to be trained as an artist, but her association with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and her role as model means she is shunned by society, who consider her little more than a prostitute. As time passes it becomes apparent that Louis is oblivious to her diminished status, and that even his peers do not take women seriously. We are reminded time and again how fraught a woman’s position is and how vulnerable to male violence. 

Iris’s sections of the book are nonetheless the much lighter - her budding talent and enthusiasm for a life different to the one she has grown to expect are heartening, as is her first taste of love. The sections focussing on Silas however, become increasingly sinister as the book progresses. In early passages you almost feel pity for him - he is an oddball and an outcast and mourns the loss of his childhood sweetheart. It soon becomes apparent however, that he has a violent streak and an unhealthy obsession with women with red hair, such as that of Iris. We are given hints that his violence may have led to fatality and it makes the book unputdownable as you want to discover the truth of his past and how it will impact on the other characters. He is entirely delusional, imagining an elaborate love story between himself and Iris, and unable to cope when she doesn’t behave as he’d like. The reader is led to worry for her safety as we see how easily he snaps, how other characters seem to remember attacks he has carried out, yet Silas has convinced himself an innocent party, misunderstood and mistreated. He is an extremely unpleasant character, yet fascinating to read.

Fans of the period will enjoy references to famous personalities and the art world, Macneal seamlessly placing the fictional Louis in the company of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Her descriptions of the capital ooze with atmosphere and danger, and shines a light on the lives of those struggling to survive. The compassion and generosity of Albie, an orphan who sells animal corpses to Silas in order to save for a new pair of teeth, is touching. He has his own dreams but puts his younger sister, who has been forced to sell her body, before himself. Iris is like a sister to him and he is wracked with guilt when he realises what he’s brought upon her in introducing her to Silas. Albie is one of the most likeable, sweet characters in the book, and you root for him to have a happy ending.

Despite dealing with dark subjects, Macneal succeeds in bringing some lightness to the book with moments of touching emotion and humour, often provided by Louis’ pet wombat Guinevere. This is a promising debut with evocative writing and intriguing characters. There are perhaps a few too many side stories of no real consequence, but once you’ve got your head around who is who it’s a hard book to put down.

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Wednesday 14 October 2020

In Search of Victorian London

When wandering the streets of London it’s not hard to see remnants of the nineteenth century city - from the grand sweep of John Nash’s parks and surrounding streets, the extravagant museums of South Kensington to the imposing memorials in the likes of Highgate cemetery, and many churches dotted across the city. In honour of Victober, a month-long celebration of literature from Britain’s golden age of writing, I’ve put together this post of places to visit to walk in the footsteps of some of your favourite creatives.

Charles Dickens Museum at Christmas
Charles Dickens

The author most closely associated with Victorian London, famous for walking the streets at night, his writing evokes the darkness and squalor of many of the areas he knew. A great place to start in your search for Dickens’ London is the Charles Dickens Museum. His home between March 1837 and December 1839, it is decorated similarly to how it would have been when he lived and worked there. The museum also owns the property next door, meaning they’ve been able to expand their exhibition space. The interior has been digitised on Google maps, so even if you can’t get there in person, you can still explore the home of this most famous of authors.

If you really want to experience London through Dickens’ eyes, why not indulge in a self-guided walking tour, this one put together by the BBC is excellent.

Mary Shelley

St. Pancras Old Church
A little north of the site of Dickens’ home lies the birthplace of Mary Shelley, in Somers Town. The building itself is no longer standing, having been demolished in 1904, and now being home to Oakshott Court, a plaque nonetheless commemorates her birth on 30th August 1797. Not far away is the grave of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, in the graveyard of St. Pancras Old Church. Those familiar with the legend of Shelley will know that it’s believed her father taught her to write her name by tracing the lettering on her mother’s grave, as well as being a meeting place for secret liaisons with Percy Bysshe Shelley in the early days of their relationship. The house where she lived her final five years is still standing at 24 Chester Square, a blue plaque marks its historic significance.

Wilkie Collins

There is a blue plaque at 65 Gloucester Place, Marylebone, marking the house in which Collins once resided, but it is perhaps Hampstead that is most associated with him. He lived in Hampstead as a child, when it was yet to be consumed by the city. Fans of The Woman in White will delight in walking across the Heath, the location of Hartright’s walk immediately before his first encounter with the eponymous figure at the junction of modern day Finchley Road and Frognal Lane. Hampstead also makes an appearance in both Armadale and The Moonstone. It remains a beautiful place to explore and has retained its village feel despite now being much better connected to the rest of the capital. While you’re in the area, it’s also worth making a stop at another literary location - Keats House. One final stop for those so inclined is Collins’ grave in Kensal Green Cemetery.

William Morris' Red House
William Morris 

The William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow is a wonderful place to start your William Morris journey. Housed in a villa that he lived in during his late teens and early twenties, it is an inspiring museum that delves beyond his famous designs  (although you'll find plenty of them there too) into his wider creative and political work, and it’s free to visit. South of the river is Red House, a home Morris commissioned his friend Phillip Webb to build shortly after his wedding to Jane. The house was designed and decorated by Morris and his friends, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, and has been described as a ‘palace of art’. Sadly, the dream only lasted for five years, when he had to move his family back to central London. Finally, a visit to the William Morris Society, housed in the basement of Kelmscott House where he lived for the final eighteen years of his life. Unfortunately, their exhibition space remains closed due to Covid, but there is a virtual tour available on their website.

The Royal Observatory
Joseph Conrad

You can find a blue plaque on Conrad’s former residence at 17 Gillingham Street, Victoria, but to delve into the London of his novel The Secret Agent, it’s Soho and Greenwich that you want to explore. Soho is the location of Verloc’s shop and the area is portrayed as dark, confusing, and threatening. It oozes with atmosphere and the air of corruption that it was known for during the nineteenth century. The novel revolves around a plot to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, inspired by a real life attempt in the late nineteenth century. It remains a brilliant place to visit and dwell upon the importance of it at its creation, as well as offering panoramic views across the city.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Braddon serialised her novels Birds of Prey and Charlotte’s Inheritance in the magazine Belgravia, for which she was editor. In these novels she places London centre stage as she dissects the veneer of respectability, and the darkness hidden beneath, in areas such as Bloomsbury. The buildings in the area are largely still in tact, and it is a pleasant area to wander around, keeping in mind also, of course, the literary associations of the later Bloomsbury Group. Braddon also has connections to the outer suburb of Richmond. She lived with her husband John Maxwell in Lichfield House from 1874 until her death in 1915. The House no longer stands however, having been replaced by the modern development, Lichfield Court. Her final resting place is Richmond Cemetery, where her grave can still be visited, as well as a commemorative plaque in St Mary Magdalene Church in Richmond.

Another literary landmark not too far from Richmond is Strawberry Hill House, Horace Walpole’s famous Gothic Revival house. In Richmond itself, Virginia Woolf’s former home and the place where Hogarth Press was established, can be seen on Paradise Road. It is now a private residence.

Wednesday 7 October 2020

My Name Is Why, Lemn Sissay

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In 1967 Sissay was born to a young Ethiopian woman in Wigan. The authorities removed him from her despite her refusal to sign adoption papers. He was given a new name, a fact he didn’t discover until a teenager, which made reuniting mother and son more difficult and cut him off from his origins. Official records show that his mother tried to get him back after she’d returned to Ethiopia to be with her dying father, but attempts were blocked. He was never told that his mother wanted him, loved him, and he grew up believing that he was all alone in the world. He was placed in a foster family and subsequently a series of children’s homes that damaged his sense of self-worth and were unhelpful during his periods of depression.

The book consists of his own recollections interspersed with copies from the official files kept on him, which he fought for three decades to be allowed access to. They reveal a system that used bureaucracy to keep him from his mother, for example, sending her a letter with a response deadline of one month when it took that long to reach her. The injustice of ripping him from his family was further exacerbated by the constant interpretation of positive reports from school as being special treatment because of his race rather than acknowledging that he was genuinely a personable and bright child. In reality, he was on the receiving end of a lot of negativity because of racism. 

It was not only the officials chipping away at him. The foster family he was with from birth to around the age of twelve were strictly religious and were unwilling to compromise or accept any differences in behaviour. They taught him that he had evil inside him and that it was his fault he had to leave because he didn’t love them. He was removed from the only family he had ever known and made to believe it was his fault. His social worker, at least, did seem to be on his side, but stuck in a system distinctly lacking in care where his successes were twisted into negativity, it was hard to move forward.

His darkest days were yet to come, when he was sent to Wood End, a remand centre where abuse was common, while a new home was supposedly being sought for him. He includes responses he received from a piece he wrote about his time there, full of trauma and ongoing mental health issues because of the appalling treatment they endured. 

A book that will fill you with a sense of the unforgivable injustice meted out to an innocent child. This is an eye-opening account of life within that care system that lays bare the deception, manipulation, and abuse, that proliferates within the system. Sissay’s determination and talent have meant he has made a success of his life despite all attempts to limit it. 

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