Saturday 31 December 2022

Farewell 2022

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There’s just a few hours left of 2022, and whether you’re full of optimism for the new year or full of dread at the twelve months stretching out ahead of you, know that you’ll get through whatever the new year throws at you, and that you are enough, just as you are right now, in this moment.

When I think back to this time last year, months of ill health had somewhat broken my spirit, and I admit that I wasn’t full of the joys of the season. Instead, I was worried about going back to work, and desperate to get my health under control. This year has been kinder to me and I’ve been able to take part in a number of activities that meant a lot to me. Perhaps most importantly, I got to see my brother get married to a lovely human being I’m very glad to include in my family. 

I haven’t done a very good job of keeping track of everything I’ve experienced this year, nor in
producing as many blog posts and pieces of art and craft. That’s OK though, other things have filled my days and I do not regret them. A lot of my possessions have also been shut away in boxes for large chunks of the year which impacts what you can do and when. My theatre highlight of the year has to be Moulin Rouge the musical, a remarkable spectacle that’s worth seeing even if you’re not that interested in the story. Carrying on our tradition of giving experience gifts, I’m lucky enough to have tickets to see Hamilton in a few weeks, as well as the Bake-Off musical in March. I have no idea what to expect from it but I think it’ll be good fun. 2022 saw some breathtaking live music. I saw my wedding song played live by the composer, and had the great good fortune to see my favourite artist live after twenty years of loyal fandom. I’m not ashamed to say I cried when I got the tickets, and it was the best gig I’ve ever been to. It’s been a great reminder of the power of music, the way it wraps itself around your life in the good times and bad. How hollow our lives would feel without it.

I’ve read less books this year than I have since starting to keep a log back in 2018. Aside from the inclusion of a few chunky books I’m not entirely sure why but I don’t obsess about numbers, more important to have found books to treasure. Some highlights include The Versions of Us, a spontaneous selection that had me completely hooked. I’ve never been one to read the most popular, current reads, but this year I did dive in to The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and wasn’t disappointed. An incredibly absorbing book with a protagonist that feels so real you have to remind yourself she’s fictional. I only read one classic this year, Madame Bovary, but it was a good one, hopefully 2023 will include more. I’ve been craving a bit of Dickens recently, what would you recommend? A lot of my reading this year has been on a deadline and this has meant putting books down partway through to read the most pressing deadline, and I’m sorry to say, sometimes slightly rushed reviews. I regret that Little Dancer didn’t get a more thorough post as I did enjoy it. This coming year I’m not doing any blog tours and have only signed up to one reading challenge. The 12 books my friends chose for me look set to provide a brilliant year of reading. Unfortunately, I didn’t do very well with last year’s selections, but many of them are on my TBR as they sound like excellent reads which I don’t want to let pass me by.

I have no travel plans for 2023, and it’s likely none will materialise, but armed with my National Trust membership I’m sure to explore some fascinating and beautiful places closer to home. One thing I have managed to work on this year is my novel, and I’m hoping that my first draft will be completed in 2023.

Wishing you all a wonderful year full of the things that bring you joy.

Wednesday 7 December 2022

Barcelona, Robert Hughes

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Written on the cusp of Barcelona’s transformation for the 1992 Olympic Games, Robert Hughes takes us on a journey through the city’s tumultuous past and incredible creative output. We go back to the early days of the city and learn about how the Catalan language developed independently of Spanish and the reasons behind this. Hughes explains the poor way many in Catalunya were treated over the centuries, but does not shy away from pointing to the times when they also had the opportunity to be the oppressors and took it. This is a fascinating look at a city that continues to capture the imagination.

There’s a large focus on the architectural development of the city. Walking around it today, it feels like a city made for people, with children’s play areas dotted around the place, cycle lanes, and pedestrian crossings that prioritise those on foot over those in cars. Even at the time the book was written, it seems to have been a very different story, with overly congested roads and building regulations which allowed once well-thought out developments to become overcrowded, with outdoor space being sacrificed. Hughes walks us through the different ages of the city, each one wrapping around the previous. It was fascinating to learn about the political motivations for long straight roads as opposed to the maze of streets in the Gothic Quarter, and to learn about thoughtful city planning that makes a positive impact to this day, in ways that couldn’t have been imagined at the time of conception. 

Gaudí has an entire section dedicated to him, but Hughes is also set on making other great Catalan architects known, most notably Lluís Domènech i Montaner, architect of the beautiful Palace of Catalan Music, and Josep Puig i Cadafalch. Hughes is opinionated throughout and offers interpretation of many of Barcelona’s most famous buildings, closing with some scathing remarks on the continued work on the Sagrada Familia. His section on Gaudí reveals an eccentric genius who left an indelible mark on the fabric of Barcelona. 

He writes about the landscape surrounding the city and the ways in which this has had an impact over the years, including making the sewerage system a challenge, something the casual visitor will realise after a short while. He speaks also of the pride that its residents take in Catalan culture and language, and the barriers that those who do not understand the language have in accessing its remarkable history and cultural output. Hughes does us a great service in having written such a fascinating history of the city, a rarity in the English language. 

This is a brilliant book to read if you’re planning a visit to Barcelona, or indeed to read after returning home as it will add much depth to your understanding of the buildings and structure of the city, as well as understanding the tensions that bubble just under the surface. Reading this at a remove of several decades from when it was written is deeply interesting, as Hughes discusses the potential for change that many planned works promise for the city. At times he is unconvinced by some of the proposals and so it is interesting to consider how the experience of the city has changed, where the plans were well executed, and where things maybe didn’t achieve what they hoped. At over six-hundred pages this isn’t a quick read, but the writing is absorbing, the tales interesting, and the city complex and at times contradictory, so it doesn’t feel like a slog.  

Wednesday 16 November 2022

A Dream of Sadler’s Wells, Lorna Hill

We meet Veronica on a train taking her away from her beloved London to live with relatives she barely knows in Northumberland. Her mood is dark and she compares the north of England unfavourably to her home city. When she meets a curious boy while escaping an increasingly smoke filled carriage she reveals that her father has recently died, as well as her secret dream of becoming a ballerina. The boy shares his own secret aspirations with her and they pass the rest of the journey in relative peace. On arriving with her family it soon becomes clear that they don’t have much in common - Veronica rushes to help the chauffeur and can’t understand why this is forbidden. Her cousin Caroline is friendly but Fiona is unpleasant throughout, jealous of Veronica’s toned body and talent. Veronica is dedicated to her art and practices diligently in secret until she is given a glimmer of opportunity, her aunt agreeing to her training as a dance teacher. Will she be able to persuade her society family that dancing is not to be looked down upon and achieve her dream of joining the Sadler’s Wells School of Ballet?

This is a cosy, innocent read with many a picnic and pony ride and the only peril being Fiona’s sharp tongue and the possibility of a missed train. They live a privileged life, and although this can be constraining, ultimately their voices are listened to far more than many would have been. Veronica’s ‘sort-of a cousin’ Sebastian is kind and understanding of her dreams. He is also the only person that can put Fiona in her place. Reading this felt very reminiscent of books like The Railway Children or The Famous Five where many a simple adventure is had, idyllic days are spent exploring, and small battles are fought with adults. 

As Veronica is not yet a student at Sadler’s Wells the focus is less on ballet than I imagine the rest of the series might be, but there is still plenty to keep fans interested. Hill shows both the glamorous, elegant side of performance with the beautiful costumes and union with music, but also the daily grind of attaining the skill to create such moving displays. Veronica has a deep appreciation for the art and finds herself lost in the music and surrounds, performing above and beyond anything she has attained previously. She is also lucky to have supportive adults around her. Her beloved Madame back in London and her new teacher Miss Martin go out of their way to support her in achieving her dreams, an indication of the talent they see in her.

Despite Veronica’s reservations when first arriving in her new home, she comes to appreciate the landscape and enjoys summer days spent with her cousins and Sebastian. Nonetheless, she offers us plenty of glimpses of her life in London and we get a good sense of the characters she knew there. Mrs Crapper, her landlady, and the artist Jonathan who lived above them and encouraged her creativity to flourish. She reflects on the shift from leaving London and feeling as though she were losing her home and returning and feeling still that she is leaving home. Her feelings are conflicted and realistic as she grows into her new life.

This is a delightful read with amusing misunderstandings and all the joy of the freedom of youth. Veronica is an amusing narrator, brutally honest in some of her opinions, but ultimately kind and hardworking. The writing is richly descriptive and absorbing. The perfect cosy read for the colder months.

Wednesday 14 September 2022

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón (translated by Lucia Graves)

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Daniel Sempere is ten years old when his father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and instructs him to choose one book which will become his responsibility to keep safe. He chooses The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax, an author whose novels have all but disappeared. In this first beguiling chapter, which reads something like a love letter to literature, neither Daniel nor the reader are aware of how much his book choice will change his life. 

Having devoured the novel, Daniel goes in search of more of Carax’s work, only to be met with disappointment. He is offered large sums of money to part with the book but he refuses. Soon, he encounters a mysterious figure named after a character from the book, hellbent on finding all copies of Carax’s work and destroying them. Daniel finds himself engulfed in a world of mystery, heartache, and revenge, as he seeks to uncover the truth about Carax.

Alongside the mystery and intrigue is a coming-of-age tale of love. Daniel falls for his best friend’s sister, much to the anger of her family. His story mirrors Julián’s own troubled love story in unsettling ways, and the reader is torn up hoping for a less tragic outcome. As Daniel gradually discovers the truth of Julián’s life, he realises that he must learn lessons from the past and try to avoid the kind of fallout experienced by the previous generation. His family friend, Fermín, aids him in his search for the truth, but his association with him further leads Daniel into danger. Inspector Fumero is looking for him and is willing to punish anyone with an association, and, as it turns out, also has a vendetta against Julián, putting Daniel in double danger.

This is a curious book that stirs up a lot of emotion. The parallel trajectory of Julián and Daniel’s lives seems a little overdone, and it is Julián’s tale that you really long to know the conclusion to, but overall it is gripping. There’s an interesting host of characters, all seemingly with secret pasts, and Daniel is never quite sure who to believe. There is much honour to be found in the actions of a number of characters, and much shame in others. Father figures, especially those with daughters, do not come off well as a whole, treating their families with violence and causing huge amounts of grief. Daniel’s father is the exception to his, quietly supporting his son while worrying as he becomes increasingly distracted and unreliable. There are some truly harrowing tales within the unravelling of Julián’s sad story, and most often it is young women who are the victims.

There are notes of other great tales mixed in - Fumero is a kind of Javert, obsessed with an individual to an unhealthy degree. Lain Coubert, the mysterious arsonist, has parallels to the Phantom of the Opera - a disfigured face, living in the shadows, and carrying out abhorrent deeds while somehow maintaining a certain level of sympathy from the reader, at least as the novel progresses. 

Set between 1945 and 1955 (in Daniel’s timeline), there are shadows of the real-life upheaval and atrocities that were carried out in Barcelona, adding motive and a sense of history and context to the novel. Zafón does not shy away from the darker side of life, and his characters reflect this, all fallible and making unwise decisions at times. He nonetheless infuses the novel with a sense of humour which helps prevent it becoming too heavy.

Overall, a wonderful read that fits in an awful lot of life. There are mysteries and revelations aplenty, and characters that you become quite attached to. A great pick for anyone looking for a well-written page turner and a spot of armchair travel. 

Wednesday 24 August 2022

A Corruption of Blood, Ambrose Parry

This post is part of the blog tour for the novel. Thank you to Random Things Tours and Canongate for providing me with a copy in exchange for an honest review.

Dr Raven and Sarah Fisher are back and investigating the mysterious death of a baby, washed up  on the shore of the Leith with a length of white thread round its neck. Not long after witnessing this upsetting sight Raven receives the news that another acquaintance has been found dead and that the son is the prime suspect. New love for Raven forces him deeper into the mystery as he searches for an answer that might set an old adversary free.

For the most part the mysteries seem almost secondary to Raven’s complicated love life, Sarah’s crushed ambitions, and commentary on the poor position of women in Victorian Edinburgh and the ways in which they are taken advantage of. In the final handful of chapters as the truth is slowly revealed in a series of twists and revelations you are drawn into the drama however and gripped in anticipation of the next bombshell.

The position of women in society takes a central role, with Sarah battling her competing desires for love and career. She is intelligent and accomplished but constantly ignored and belittled by men unable to imagine that a woman would have any useful insight. Her confidence has been knocked in her travels to meet Dr. Blackwell, the first registered female doctor, and she questions if she should ever have hoped for a future of medical pursuit. The need to help solve the mysteries and help her friends draws her back into the world which ultimately makes her life feel fulfilled. We are reminded of the importance of marriage in a woman’s opportunities. As a widow Sarah has more status and financial freedom than she had previously, but does she have the will to resist future marriage in order to retain some of that independence? Her former life as a maid both helps and hinders her. She is able to relate to those in need, but those who know her past are often inclined to let it colour their vision of her.

Women are shown to be vulnerable, whether through the contagious diseases legislation based on the infamous real-life Contagious Diseases Act, at risk of assault in their homes and workplaces, and at the mercy of society’s view of them. It is all too easy to be forced into prostitution and to suffer the associated judgment. At the heart of the novel is an abuse of vulnerable women, and those who seek to gain from their misfortune. It is a sad tale and one that won’t have a happy ending for many.

I haven’t read the previous two novels in the series but did not feel at a loss because of it, although it’s clear that much has been missed in the relationships presented, which can largely be intuited. The book wasn’t as atmospheric as I’d perhaps expected from reviews of the first two but it was nonetheless an interesting read. The medical detail and focus on the very real issues that haunted those alive at the time make this a moving read. A slow burn but ultimately worth the time.

Friday 22 July 2022

Little Dancer, Melanie Laschallas

Paris, 1878. Ballet dancer Marie van Goethem is chosen by the unknown artist Edgar Degas to model for his new sculpture: Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen Years.

But Marie is much more than she seems. By day she’s a ‘little rat’ of the opera, contorting her starving body to entertain the bourgeoisie. By night she’s plotting to overthrow the government and reinstate the Paris Commune, to keep a promise she made to her father, a leading communard who died in the street massacres of 1871.

As Marie watches the troubling sculpture of herself come to life in Degas’ hands, she falls further into the intoxicating world of bohemian, Impressionist Paris, a world at odds with the socialist principles she has vowed to uphold.

With the fifth Impressionist Exhibition looming, a devastating family secret is uncovered which changes everything for both Marie and Degas.

As Degas struggles to finish his sculpture and the police close in on Marie, she must decide where her loyalties lie and act to save herself, her family and the Little Dancer.

This is a fascinating, absorbing book that takes you into the struggles of many Parisians in the late nineteenth century. Marie's life is hard, and her love of the part of Les Miserables that she managed to get her hands on is a constant reminder that the lives of the poor was an issue that was hard to ignore at the time. Her time at the Paris Opera is thankless and relentless, and although nervous of Degas to begin with, she finds the time in his studio becomes a safe haven. Heartbreak over her father's fate runs through the novel alongside the struggle it brought upon her remaining family, who act like he never existed. Marie desperately wants to keep his spirit alive but at what cost? As life becomes increasingly desperate and the move toward a more violent course of action becomes more prominent, she must decide how far she is willing to go.

Marie van Goethem was the real-life model for Degas' famous Little Dancer of Fourteen Years. Her story ended without a trace. Leschallas brings her back to life in this evocative novel which doesn't hide from the gritty reality of life for those struggling to get by. 

Tuesday 19 July 2022

Hotbed: Bohemian New York and the Secret Club That Sparked Modern Feminism, Joanna Scutts

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This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thank you to Duckworth Books and Random Things Tours for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

In the early 1900s a group of women began meeting weekly to discuss feminism and its intersection with political and social issues of the day. The women were largely well educated and financially comfortable, and the group became known as Heterodoxy. They were aware of the narrowness of their diversity but this didn’t always mean they avoided falling in to common prejudices. There was, at times, a disconnect between understanding that what they saw as rebellion and independence wasn’t viable or desirable for women in other situations. For example, some rejected marriage, but for many in less privileged positions marriage was essential for being seen as respectable or to move away from unpleasant stereotypes. Nonetheless, they endeavoured to help in situations far removed from their own, and although sometimes there were clashes, it was clear that they had a certain amount of protection from the law that working class women and women of colour did not have, and that this could be used to the advantage of all.

Hotbed discusses the huge range of topics that Heterodoxy were interested in, from same sex relationships to workers’ rights, psychoanalysis, theatre, and the right to birth control. Many of the issues will seem uncomfortably familiar to many a modern reader. This is particularly evident in the uneven opportunities afforded to different groups, and to the difficult balance of motherhood and a fulfilling work life. The Feminist Alliance proposed a dedicated apartment complex for families where cooking, cleaning, and childcare were organised communally and undertaken by professionals. The idea was appealing to many but it soon became clear that the costs of such an endeavour were well beyond the reach of the average family. There was also pushback from external parties who believed entrusting the raising of children to professionals showed a lack of concern for the wellbeing of the child. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was adamant that many parents were not good at raising their children and that women did not have an inherent knowledge of what was best. She believed that society was failing children by leaving their upbringing to the chance of birth. The apartment complex idea was eventually scrapped due to internal disagreements, spiralling costs, and the outbreak of War in Europe. Members continued to work hard to support mothers who wished to, or indeed needed to, keep working, and eventually made some progress whereby women were to take two years (unpaid) leave. It was far from ideal, but the presence of a policy indicated that mothers belonged in the workplace, a novel idea.

The group supported the movement that grew around the Triangle Fire tragedy, whereby 146 factory workers died in a fire, the doors to escape routes locked, and internal conditions a perfect storm for the quick spread of fire. It was a horrifying tragedy that shook the population of New York. Sadly, the new factory that they moved in to afterward showed no more concern for employees’ wellbeing. At times efforts to highlight poor conditions could be thought to be in poor taste with pageants recreating the appalling positions many found themselves in, turning it into a spectacle. There was some resentment between the workers and the glamorous, wealthy activists who took up all the limelight, but they did help to mobilise and publicise issues.

Hotbed portrays a creative, intelligent group, determined to bring about change and experiment with different ways of living. Scutts doesn’t shy away from the in-fighting and contradictions however. We see how open relationships caused great strain on many members, how the sheer volume of interests involved could sometimes hamper progress, and the dismissal and condescension shown to those from different backgrounds. For women who were apparently so enlightened it can be hard to reconcile such blindness to other issues. This is a fascinating read that sheds light on many aspects of early twentieth century life and demonstrates how inequality permeated all aspects of society. 

Tuesday 5 July 2022

The White Hare, Jane Johnson

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This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thanks to Random Things Tours and Head of Zeus for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

It’s 1954 and Magda, Mila, and Janey Prusik are on their way to White Cove, their new home and future guest house. Originally from Poland, Magda and Mila moved to England during World War Two. A disastrous end to a relationship, the cause of which is only hinted at for large sections of the book, forced them out of London and to Cornwall to start a new life. It is isolated but beautiful and is full of promise in Magda’s eyes. Mila is less certain that she wants to be shut away from the world with her unloving, demanding mother, wishing she could be back with her husband. It soon becomes clear that there’s a lot of local legend that causes fear of the house, and many try to dissuade them from staying and trying to make their home hospitable. 

We are told the tale from Mila’s perspective, but it is her five year old daughter Janey, alongside her toy rabbit, that steal the show. Janey seems connected to the history of the property, of the mysterious lady so many make reference to. Rabbit also takes on new powers, communicating to Janey secrets that she wouldn’t have had any knowledge of otherwise. Mila is disconcerted when Janey begins drawing the same symbol over and over, that is also mysteriously scratched into her bedroom wall, and near the graveyard in Eglosberyan. What supernatural forces might be acting upon her daughter? The workmen they enlist to help with the renovations have accidents and are reluctant to continue work on the property. With so much superstition surrounding the place and the constant turning up of strange objects and notes, Mila begins to wonder if there is something to the legends. 

Aside from the supernatural elements, there is a strong focus on familial relationships. Magda is overbearing and seems unhappy with everything Mila does. She orders her around and terrorises the two of them when she loses her temper. The close contact that is forced upon them causes Mila to begin to dwell on her childhood, with distressing memories coming to the fore which leads their already strained relationship to falter still further. Their cold relationship is in stark contrast to that between Mila and Janey. Although living within the confines of Magda’s demands, we see a lot of love and affection between the two. Mila seems to have a much better understanding of how to nurture a child than her own mother, and she is kind and generous with her. Cowed under a domineering mother, her desire to protect Janey overrides any sense of duty. 

The local community are very present in the book. Jack Lord, a kindly but mysterious man, appears early on and forms an affinity with Janey. He is helpful but closed off, seemingly full of secret knowledge. Keziah and Ariadne, a local healer and artist, welcome them warmly, supplying cures and edible treats, but leaving Mila with a sense of unease at their unconventional lifestyle and belief in the supernatural. Casworan Martin, the local vicar, although outwardly friendly leaves her with a sense of discomfort, and when he manoeuvres himself into performing an exorcism on the house she reaches the end of her politeness. The Prusiks are positioned as outsiders, with local residents assuming they will be a certain type of Londoner without any respect for the land and customs. 

The opening of the novel is gripping and disturbing, and there’s a generally unsettling mood that hangs over it for the duration, but it doesn’t always grab your attention fully. Some of the mysteries feel easy to unpick, although far from all. The story passes at a gentle pace before ramping up in the final sections with loose ends tied together. Johnson describes the locations in vivid detail so you feel connected to the land. An intriguing novel that explores themes of family, the damage secrets can inflict, and the power of history.

Thursday 30 June 2022

The Draw of the Sea, Wyl Menmuir

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This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thanks to Random Things Tours and Aurum Press for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

In this meditative memoir Menmuir explores the appeal of the sea, its danger and healing powers. In short chapters he meets an eclectic host of characters, from those who spend hours searching beaches for washed up treasure to photographers, surfers, amateur marine biologists, and free divers. His focus is largely on the coast of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly but he also ventures as far as Svalbard. For many the sea provides a sense of peace, but its danger is never far from mind, nor the struggles of those trying to make their home in small coastal communities.

Menmuir enthusiastically (and occasionally tentatively) throws himself into the pursuits of those he meets. Beachcombing (or wrecking, as it’s known in Cornwall) becomes an absorbing pastime, but he comments on the conflict between the joy he feels at finding small pieces of plastic toys and the guilt at taking more pleasure in them than his natural finds. He is all too aware of the damage human activity is wreaking on the natural world. He meets a lobster fisherman, Jof Hicks, who goes about his work consciously and sustainably, handcrafting the lobster pots and fishing only in small quantities. When questioned on whether it’s worth the time he replies that it’s good exercise, peaceful, and time that millions of others fritter away staring at screens.

He introduces us city-dwellers to a different way of life, where families head straight to the beach for some surf time after school and where your plumber might vanish for weeks in the middle of a job on getting wind of some irresistible waves. Threats to the way of life are also highlighted with communities decimated in a wave of second homes that remain empty for the majority of the year. This, and other factors such as the profitability of short-term lets, means that many locals are being priced out of the areas they were born.

Despite the challenges and conflicts of coastal life it’s also clear that the connection to the water can be hugely beneficial for mental health. The peace and exhilaration of free-diving and the integral focus on controlling your breath turns it into an almost meditative exercise. I was also absolutely fascinated to learn about the mammalian dive reflex which allows humans to hold their breath for much longer under water than they would above the surface.

In the early days of the Covid pandemic photographers Mike Guest and Nick Pumphrey began the Dawn Days of May project, in which they took a wetsuit and camera into the sea at dawn every day of the month. It quickly became clear how grounding and calming the experience was. Enthralled by the changing nature of the waterscape and the beauty of the dawn, the project garnered a following on Instagram and inspired others to set out on similar adventures.

This is a fascinating, varied book that gives an insight into many lives and the central role the sea plays in them. You are able to easily dip in and out, never knowing quite what you’ll find in the next chapter. It certainly made me want to spend more time exploring our coastline. Special mention should also be given to the Holly Ovenden, designer of the physical book, for its entrancingly beautiful cover and endpapers that will give you a little taste of the sea wherever you’re reading.

Saturday 18 June 2022

(M)otherhood: On the choices of being a woman, Pragya Agarwal

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In this blend of memoir and essay, Agarwal takes a deep dive into reproductive health while exploring her own motherhood journey with great honesty. She lays out in her introduction that she is writing from personal experience and that the book will therefore not cover every scenario. Nonetheless, she reminds us of the intersectional nature of the subject throughout, detailing how various factors can lead to very different experiences and outcomes.

An overarching theme is that of stigma and control in the way female bodies are viewed and treated. She demonstrates how this is true from the first signs of menstruation through to problems with fertility and the lack of purpose ascribed to women once they are beyond their childbearing years. The discussion of control over women’s bodies and the right to access safe and legal abortion feels particularly pertinent at the moment.

A lot of research supports the writing of this book. I was especially interested to learn about the realities of ageing sperm and how the age of men impacts fertility. It is a widely held belief that for women there is a ticking clock for having a baby, but that for men it is possible to father a child at any age. Although this might technically be true, the quality decreases greatly, potentially causing health issues in the foetus and playing an important role in miscarriage. Another area I’d never thought much about is how pregnancy tests were carried out before the ones we’re so familiar with today. It turns out injecting mice and frogs with a woman’s urine was used well into the twentieth century!

Alongside these fascinating tidbits and thought-provoking discussions is the tale of Agarwal’s own journey with fertility. Her first pregnancy which almost killed her was later followed by secondary infertility, punishing rounds of IVF, and ultimately surrogacy. Amid her desperation to become a mother again she considers what it is that drives her. Looking into surrogacy opens a discussion about ethics, guilt, and the narrow definitions society uses for pregnancy and motherhood. She struggles against doubts that she’s not a real mother because she’s not able to carry her babies or breastfeed them. New motherhood also wracks her with guilt not just about her newborns but also her teenaged daughter who’s increasingly fending for herself. It is an emotional book, evoking the endless worries and conflicts of trying and becoming a parent. Her husband’s presence in the book is on the periphery, appearing to reassure her against her concerns and providing a supportive presence. We don’t see much of how the process affects him.

This is a moving, well-researched book that will make you angry at times and deeply moved at others. The focus is on the impact of a woman’s body, and society’s view of it, on her life choices, but Agarwal also touches on other subjects. Most notably, her feelings of displacement, having grown up in India but now living in the UK. Both countries simultaneously feel like home and don’t. Her feeling of otherness comes through gently to start but more forcefully as her story develops. An engrossing, informative read.

Friday 10 June 2022

Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert

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We first meet Charles Bovary as a schoolboy mocked for his outlandish fashion and an unfortunate mispronunciation of his name due to nerves. His mother dotes on him, focusing her attention on him and the running of their household instead of her increasing frustration with her husband. After one short marriage he finds himself enjoying the freedoms of single life, but then he meets Emma Rouault. He is completely besotted with her and she assents to marriage, imagining her life as a newlywed will meet all of her romantic dreams. Unsurprisingly, life doesn’t quite match up to her imagination, and she embarks on a series of affairs with tragic consequences.

Emma is immature, vain, and foolish. She abuses her husband’s naivety and love for her, thrusting them into grave financial difficulties. She tries only vaguely to conceal her misdemeanours and many of their friends suspect her indiscretions. Charles is loyal and blind to the reality of his marriage. Emma resents him for his happiness while she is so disappointed in her choice of spouse. Her expectations, however, were unlikely to be met, believing that he should know everything and excel in many fields. Charles is broadly mediocre, but in her distress she misses the value of his devotion. Despite her many flaws, Emma is not an unlikable character. Indeed, her belief that everyone else is living a far more exciting, lavish life is one that many can relate to. For those who have felt the depths of darkness descend, her despair at thinking about a future of misery will be familiar, the feeling of panic and helplessness at a future she does not want is claustrophobic and intensely upsetting.

This is a book of high drama and hoped-for passion. Emma does not do emotions by half, imagining herself in a great romantic story. It also deals with the more mundane aspects of married life, so despised by Emma. Charles feels the familiar conflict between pleasing his wife and obeying his mother’s wishes. He is stuck in a difficult situation with a demanding wife who doesn’t love him (a fact he remains blissfully unaware of for the most part) and a mother jealous of the affection he has for his wife, perceiving it to be a rejection of the love she has provided. He is no great romantic hero, but he is kind and loyal. Unfortunately, his story is never destined to end well. He is somewhat reminiscent of Emily Brontë’s Edgar Linton.

Flaubert is famous for having spent years writing and re-writing Madame Bovary, obsessing over every sentence. The result is a compelling read with a dramatic conclusion. 

Wednesday 1 June 2022

Tasting Sunlight, Ewald Arenz (trans. by Rachel Ward)

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This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thanks to Random Things Tours and Orenda Books for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

On a hot September morning Sally runs away from the clinic where she is being treated for anorexia. Liss is steadily going about her business in the fields when her tractor gets caught in a ditch. Sally stopping to help sets in motion a friendship that will change both of their lives. Liss invites Sally to stay the night and soon she’s been there for several weeks, eagerly absorbing information about the farm. Her parents are searching for her, and the new friends can’t stay in their little bubble forever - will the progress they’ve made be strong enough to survive the intrusion of the outside world?

When Sally arrives she is angry and distrustful, tired of the endless fake concern of those paid to look after her. She finds Liss refreshing - she doesn’t ask probing questions, and when she asks for assistance Sally knows she can say no if she wants to. Her life has so often felt out of her control and disjointed, as though she were born into the wrong family, that this new-found autonomy does her the world of good. She loves being around nature and learning how to use the produce to make food and drink. On the farm exercise feels purposeful, and it helps her begin to reframe her relationship with her body.

Liss harbours a lot of hurt - ghosts of her father make it hard for her to enjoy the land, and there’s an unspecified loss that sucks the meaning out of her life. Sally’s presence gives her company for the first time in many years, and her innocent wonder at her home offers her the opportunity to see her life through new eyes. She resists the temptation to intervene, but there are moments where she slips up and things become fraught between the two of them. Sally sometimes pushes too hard to get to the bottom of Liss’s secrets, seemingly unaware of the contradiction between her own desire for privacy and her actions.

In the latter parts of the book we learn more about Liss’s past and why she has ended up alone, living a life she never wanted. It is a sad tale, and when Sally learns snippets of it through third parties she is forced to confront how much she really knows about this woman who she lived with for a month.

Farm life is described vividly, and although the hard work and less desirable aspects of it are not hidden, it sounds quite idyllic. The changing of the seasons and the shifting landscape are brought to life. You can clearly picture the colours, the drops of rain on the plants, the smells and noises. Ultimately it feels peaceful and wholesome and it is this combined with friendship that helps both Liss and Sally see a little hope in the world.

This is a beautiful, evocative book that will transport you to another life. I didn’t want to leave.

Tasting Sunlight is out on 23rd June 2022, pre-order your copy:

Wednesday 25 May 2022

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Taylor Jenkins Reid

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Evelyn Hugo has had a rollercoaster of a career, with smash hits and near career-ending moments aplenty. One thing that’s always remained, however, is people’s interest in her seven marriages. Now seventy-nine and having refused publicity for many years, she’s finally ready to tell the whole truth. What secrets will she reveal, and why has she chosen Monique Grant, an unknown journalist, to share her story?

Evelyn knows from a young age that she wants to make something of her life, and it soon becomes clear that her looks will help her get there if she’s willing to give men what they want from her. She has no problem using people to achieve her goals, and that includes her various husbands. Some of her marriages are more like good business deals, others genuinely based in love. The older she becomes the more she longs to be loved for the real Evelyn, not the construction she has created for the public. This wrestling with a desire for an extraordinary life and the opposing craving for privacy is played on often. She encourages co-stars to be seen on the arms of men they can’t stand for the headlines. She is calculated and ruthless but she is not shamed for it. There may be things she regrets, but her ambition is not portrayed as a failure as it so often is in a female character.

She is well aware of the power of her sex appeal yet also feels the shallowness of it. Her beauty is not a moral virtue but rather something she was born with. She finds it odd to be admired for something she didn’t achieve herself, and the more she is in the world of the Hollywood elite the more keenly she feels the difference between being desired and being loved.

You may expect from the title that this will be a book full of drama and heartache, and although this is true, a lot of it has nothing to do with the husbands. Really this is a love story, of Evelyn and her one true love, of loving someone the world would condemn you for, and the lengths you’d go to in order to protect it. This central love story is realistically drawn. Neither partner is perfect, and they allow their flaws and pride to tear them apart. Evelyn struggles to put her career second and it is a painful lesson to learn what she can lose. With time, she comes to reflect ‘You have worked so hard for a life so grand. And now all you want are the smallest freedoms. The daily peace of loving plainly.’ Will she be able to attain the quiet, loving life she craves?

We meet Evelyn when she is all alone, everyone she truly loved departed. Her story is all-consuming and it can be frustrating when the narrative cuts back to the present. The mystery of why she chose Monique hangs over these sections but it doesn’t feel as though you get enough time with her to really care. Monique learns some important lessons through her time with Evelyn, but in the early sections her story can be slightly muddling and always pales in comparison to Evelyn’s. The moment you realise what the reveal is going to be still sends shockwaves through you however.

An enthralling novel with such a compelling protagonist that you’ll forget she’s not real.

Thursday 19 May 2022

Elizabeth of York: The Last White Rose, Alison Weir

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This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thanks to Random Things Tours and Headline Review for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Weir starts her new Tudor Rose trilogy with an exploration of the life of Elizabeth of York. Eldest daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, she is brought up to rule. Her life from a young age is full of danger and disruption however, as she goes into sanctuary while her father is briefly in exile. Once he returns things don’t settle down for long with family losses, betrayal, and her father’s untimely death which throws her life into disarray. Her uncle takes the throne and there’s rumours he murdered her brothers, before plotting to marry her to make his reign more legitimate. The Wars of the Roses are a dangerous time, with the country in an almost constant state of flux. The promise of a marriage to young Henry Tudor seems to be the clearest way to get Elizabeth a crown and secure the dynasty, bringing an end to the wars between the Lancastrians and Yorkists. It’s a decision that will have huge consequences for the course of English history.

This is an expansive book, covering Elizabeth’s life from the age of four through to her death. Her life is naturally very different to that of the average reader, but there are still hints of the normal embarrassments and challenges of growing up. She struggles to come to terms with the reality of some of her relatives’ behaviour, so starkly contrasted to the way they’ve always treated her. Elizabeth and her sister Cecily are close, and they delight over beautiful gowns and comfort each other in moments of difficulty. It is her interactions with her siblings that make her feel most human, the constant desire for power and the complex games of betrothal put her at a distance.

Indeed, Weir does not shy away from the suffering caused to the family when young children die, or siblings are killed for others’ gain. Often when people think of history and the prevalence of death there is a perception that maybe the losses didn’t hit as hard as they would today. This novel counters that, with every loss being a devastating blow, every child loved deeply, despite at times appearing to be mere pawns. 

Weir centres women in many of her books, and this is no exception. Where history may have silenced them, fiction brings to life their internal lives. Elizabeth’s mother is no helpless maiden, forcefully putting across her point and influencing her husband’s decisions. Elizabeth herself plays an active role in trying to secure the throne and is willing to do what is required to get what she wants.

Personally, I found it hard to connect to characters whose main motivation was securing power for themselves, but for many history enthusiasts I’m sure this book will be a delightful dive into an important historical figure whose story is often overshadowed by the men around her. Full of historical detail and dealing with some famous mysteries from the time, there’s a lot to sink your teeth into.

Wednesday 11 May 2022

The Vanished Bride, Bella Ellis

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Elizabeth Chester has vanished in mysterious circumstances. Without disturbing anyone in the night she appears to have been the victim of a gruesome crime. Matilda French, the Chesters’ governess, is an old friend of the Brontë sisters and has the misfortune of being the one to discover Elizabeth’s room covered in blood but with no sign of a body or forced entry. Mr. Chester is not keen on an investigation, and with the over-zealous housekeeper Mrs. Crawley thoroughly scrubbing the room clean shortly after discovery, there’s not an awful lot of leads. The Brontë sisters, looking for some adventure and anxious that the disappearance of a woman should not go unnoticed, step up to do some detecting.

The story unfolds with a few red herrings and some incredibly dark character development, but I was never really swayed from my initial conviction. I’m usually fooled by every wrong turn an author lays out so it felt as though the truth was only thinly concealed, although I admit there were some details I didn’t see coming. As a mystery I’m not sure it would satisfy a more seasoned reader of the genre.

The characters are really the main heart of the novel. The Brontës, of course, but the side characters also contain a wealth of interest with complex motives and conflicting emotions. The Brontës feel like a realistic family with bickering and teasing commonplace. They seem occasionally to be a tad one-dimensional with very clear roles to play that they don’t often diverge from.

There are a lot of nods to events and characters from their novels, as well as real-life locations associated with them. I’m unusual in not particularly enjoying easter eggs in my books and films, but I’m sure for readers who do enjoy such things this book will utterly delight. Ellis draws on many well-known events and circumstances for the Brontë enthusiast but there are also many that could easily be missed. This is obviously an author who knows the Brontë story well and does something new with it.

Branwell’s presence is a worry to the sisters as they hope to help him out of his downward spiral. They’re all too aware of the limitations of their gender and his inclusion in some of their activities serves in both giving them a veneer of authority and keeping him away from the pub. There are some sweet moments in which he is loveably hopeless, yet they remind us that it is the women who have done the hard work.

Gender roles are central both to the plot and the general feel of the novel. The sisters are consistently frustrated by the limitations placed on them as women and the need to pretend they are working for men to have people take them seriously. Anne is still smarting from having lost her role as governess due to Branwell’s antics, yet we also see what a difficult, often unenviable life it is. Elizabeth Chester was not much better off - married to a man who would increase her material wealth but not make her happy. This seems to be the two unhappy options for women, and the Brontës are outliers who are aware of the precarity of their situation. They nonetheless focus their investigations on men, missing potential clues. The darker side of this is of course the awareness of the prevalence of male violence and the often helpless situations women find themselves in.

There are some quite gothic moments in the novel, and as you might imagine, Ellis often centres them around Emily. With mysterious signs of the first Mrs. Chester in the attic, some genuinely disturbing scenes involving a human skull, and hints at the other-worldly, there are definitely some hair-raising moments. Chester Grange itself is quite the gothic construction with its hidden passageways and secrets.

This is an easy read with a fun premise. The three sisters complement each other nicely to form a successful team of detectors. For fans of cosy crime and the Brontës this is a great choice.