Sorrow And Bliss By Meg Mason – A Review

Publisher: W&N

Publication Date: 10th June 2021

This book took me completely by surprise in a brilliant way! I’ve just finished reading it and had to sit down and get some words down straight away. This is always a good sign with me!

I’d seen Sorrow And Bliss by Meg Mason doing the rounds on Twitter and when a proof copy dropped through my door I placed it on my proof pile ready for photographing. One night on a whim I picked it up, started reading and after a mere few pages I knew I was in for something GOOD.

The book opens at the point that 40 year old Martha’s marriage to Patrick is disintegrating. There doesn’t seem to be any anger or blame there appears to be a sad resignedness surrounding the end of their relationship.

From here we go back in time through Martha’s early life with her sister Ingrid, and somewhat bohemian parents, her father an unpublished poet and her mother who ‘re-purposes’ items as sculptures. Martha and Ingrid are extremely close siblings and look after each other when their mother is off sculpting in her studio or making a show of herself by drinking too much.

At 17 Martha starts to suffer from an unnamed mental illness which manifests itself with her sitting for days under her desk in her bedroom, barely eating or sleeping. She’s dispatched to the family GP who prescribes antidepressants and sends her on her way. She goes through very dark periods in her life where she can barely get out of bed, interspersed with times where she feels almost ‘normal’. But the dark periods are always hanging over her, lurking around the corner.

We follow the family through the siblings teenage years, spending Christmas and family events at their wealthy Aunt and Uncle’s house with their cousins and cousins friend Patrick, who later of course becomes Martha’s husband.

As the girls grow up Ingrid becomes a mother and Martha is staunchly against motherhood herself for her own private reasons which become painfully apparent as the story progresses.

I loved so many elements of this book! It’s difficult to know where to start and what to focus on first!

For a kick off it’s so funny! Painfully funny, awkwardly funny, darkly funny. The writing is so astute and sharp and Meg Mason really nails ‘normal’ interaction and dialogue between the characters. The little asides and ‘in-jokes’, the portrayal of differing personalities in such an authentic way. I’ve seen other quotes and reviews drawing parallels with Fleabag and I can absolutely see why.

Each of the peripheral characters are fully formed and fleshed out, each with their own idiosyncrasies, and the depiction of the varying interactions between them all is just perfect. The relationship between Martha and Ingrid is gorgeous, they have their own in jokes and shared experiences and an extra special sibling bond. I think for me the relationship between Martha and her Father is particularly beautiful and poignant. He takes her under his wing when she’s ill. He protects her in the smallest of ways without being overbearing. He lets her talk when she needs to but also let’s her sit in his study with him whilst he writes, silently together. Such a special relationship.

The element I loved the most is the way that nothing is tied up neatly in a bow. Nothing is conveniently ‘fixed’ for the sake of the story. Martha’s life is messy, her road to recovery from her mental illness is not linear and a full recovery is not something that is expected of her. She has to deal with life as we all do, the huge up’s and downs, the difficulties in relationships of all kinds, the bumps in the road.

She’s not always a likeable character but I was always rooting for her.

The writing is bang on and I just know that this book will be one of my books of the year. Just brilliant.

Thank you so much to the publisher for my review copy (and can a UK publisher please publish Meg’s back catalogue because it’s expensive to buy them from Australia! Please and thank you most kindly!)

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xxx

Circus Of Wonders By Elizabeth Macneal – A Review

Publisher: Picador

Publication Date: 13th May 2021

I will always read anything Elizabeth Macneal writes, and this is due to the fact that she not only writes great books, she weaves some kind of magical literary spell around your heart. Her books are perfect pieces of fiction that fizz with vibrant colourful ‘warts and all’ life and burst with animated, lively characters.

I read and ADORED The Doll Factory back in 2019 (my review is here ) and it made it onto my books of the year list aswell (and OF COURSE sits in pride of place on my forever shelf).

Elizabeth’s second novel, Circus Of Wonders transports us back in time to both Victorian London and the Crimean War. It is 1866 and Nell, a flower picker from a southern coastal village is living frugally with her brother Charlie and drunken father. Nell has birthmarks over her body which set her apart from the other people in her village and mark her out as a second rate citizen, someone to be ignored or feared, someone who is even considered cursed.

When Jasper Jupiter’s Circus Of Wonders arrives in the village, the villagers are beside themselves with excitement. Jasper Jupiter has brought along not only his menagerie of wild animals to exhibit but other special acts such as Stella the bearded lady and Brunette the giantess. Nell’s hard-up father sees an opportunity and siezes it, selling Nell off to Jasper as a ‘leopard girl’.

Nell is at first desperately upset at having been betrayed but soon realises that life in the circus might not be as bad as she initially feared. She becomes close to the other acts and especially close to Toby, Jasper’s brother, a photographer and general dogsbody and muscle around the circus.

Jasper has high hopes and lofty aspirations to be the owner of the greatest show on earth and uses Nell’s unique looks along with some mechanical trickery to raise the profile of the show and get the customers flocking in to see ‘Nellie Moon – Queen Of The Moon And Stars’. With some backstreet financial assistance, he takes his circus to the pleasure gardens of Victorian London, with dreams of putting a show on for the Queen herself. Nell begins to enjoy being looked at and admired by the crowds, their chanting and adoration sweeping her up. But what will happen when Jasper’s main act starts to become bigger than him?….

This book just bursts with life and Elizabeth Macneal’s writing draws you in right from the off. The sights, sounds and smells of the circus are written in such brilliant detail that they are an assault on your senses, in a good way! You are right there in the centre of the action and I could imagine every tiny detail.

The level and quality of historical detail that has gone into this book is just mind blowing. I absolutely loved the references to Queen Victoria as I have a bit of an obsession with her!

Elizabeth Macneal crafts such an brilliant tale that takes you soaring high in the sky (quite literally) and brings you back down to the dark underbelly of circus life with a bump.

It tackles the subject of agency over your own body and whether these circus acts are being exploited for their differences or rescued from a life of exclusion and poverty. It’s certainly something to think about and had me googling the likes of P J Barnam and his contemporaries who are also mentioned in the book.

The ending of the book to me was just perfect. It doesn’t get all tied up in a heartwarming perfect bow and I love that.

Elizabeth Macneal has done it again and written a perfect tale that I will recommended again and again!

Thank you so much Camilla Elworthy and Picador for my review copy and my beautiful finished copy which will sit next to The Doll Factory on my Forever Shelf.

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xx

The Child By Kjersti A. Skomsvold (translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken) – A Review

Publisher: Granta

Publication Date: 6th May 2021

If I’m honest I’m not sure where I saw this book. It was one of those ones that pops up on social media or as a suggestion when you’re googling and I decided to do the cheeky ask and Granta willingly obliged.

What drew me to this book was the fact that it explores new motherhood which as you know is something I am particularly interested in for lots of reasons and is one of the main reasons I pick books like this up. This one was also blurbed by Sarah Moss so who am I to argue?

It is a very short and punchy book at a mere 155 pages and feels even more sharp for its vignette style.

We meet our narrator, a Norwegian woman living in Oslo, a writer and mother of two very young children born within 18 months of each other. The story is told from the perspective of the mother talking to her second child, a girl, as she writes about her first child, her son.

It starts off from the birth of the son which is written very viscerally yet also with a poetic and lyrical edge. It is from the springboard of birth that we then go on to learn more about our narrator. She is a woman who has been previously ‘ill’. This illness is never named but it is quite apparent to me that this illness was depression. She is fearful of this illness returning, particularly after the birth of her son but is also steeped in anxiety even before her first child is born. She is worried that if she accepts she is pregnant and tells people about it, that she will lose the baby.

She is desperate to see her stomach grow with the life inside her in order for the child to be safe whilst at the same time being in awe of her body and the odd sensation of it holding a human being inside it.

After he is born she struggles to write and spends her days worrying about all the potential harm that could come to her precious child. The seemingly innocuous everyday occurrences that could turn lethal.

‘I put the child in the horrid pram. I didn’t want to think about all the things that could happen, but I couldn’t stop myself. I imagined how every car that came towards us would swerve onto the pavement and mow us down, and I gripped the handle as if my treacherous hands might let go at any moment…’

It is in writing about this and ridding herself of these feelings that she can go on to relax a little more with her second child. She uses writing about her difficulties with sleeping and anxieties and intrusive thoughts as a kind of therapy which enables her to bond with her daughter more easily.

The timeline is not linear and it took me a few pages to realise what was going on and who the narrator was taking to. However I soon got into my stride and fully understood how the narrator was portraying her story.

We also learn about her husband Bo and their relationship prior to deciding to have a family and even as far back as them meeting and embarking on a difficult time in actually getting together. I enjoyed this element of the book which came fairly near the end as it gave Bo a more rounded background and allowed me to understand his personality a little more.

The writing is at times pinpoint sharp and based firmly in the sometimes messy realities of babies and motherhood and yet there are also moments of dreamlike sequences which are poetic and almost ethereal. I think this was helped by the sleepless fugue that the narrator floated through each day. The bone weary exhaustion of early motherhood.

I sat down and devoured this book in one sitting and really enjoyed it. It is a look at motherhood, family, marriage and bonding. If that sounds like you’re kind of thing, I highly recommend you get your hands on a copy.

Thank you as always to the publisher for my review copy.

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xxx

Featherweight By Mick Kitson – A Review

Publisher: Canongate

Publication Date: 6th May 2021

Featherweight by Mick Kitson dropped through my letterbox unexpectedly one day and when I opened the parcel and read the blurb I knew it had the potential to be a right corking good read……and boy was it!

Set in the early 1800’s in the Black Country at a time of industrial revolution, we meet Annie Loveridge and her Romi family. Annie’s father Big Tom has died in an accident and the family of seven soon to be 8 have been left destitute and penniless.

With no other choice Annie at the age of 9 is taken by her older brother Tommy to be sold at a local fair. It’s at this particular fair that feared and revered pugilist Bill Perry or ‘The Tipton Slasher’ as he’s known, is fighting in one of his last boxing matches. Bill buys young Annie for the princely sum of 6 guineas and they, together with Bill’s friend and agent of sorts The Gaffer, take to the waterways in their barge.

Annie is immediately enamoured with Bill and they develop a lovely father/daughter relationship. Bill however is ageing and his health is fading. He has a great love of not only Queen Elizabeth but the ale aswell. It’s his love of drinking that pushes him to buy his own public house and spend his days drinking himself into a stupor, telling tall tales with his patrons and knocking out anyone who brings trouble to his doorstep. But when his money dwindles from handing out too many free flaggons of ale to his pals and facing numerous fines for non payment of bills, The Tipton Slasher attempts to get into the ring one last time to win some money to save himself and Annie.

Unfortunately Bill is not up to the job and fearing for his life young Annie steps into the ring against Jem Mason otherwise known as ‘The Bilston Bruiser’. This fight changes her life along with Bill’s and Jem’s and takes them on a whirlwind adventure of ups and downs together.

I really could sit here and type out the whole story but why would I do that and spoil your pleasure in reading this book? which you SURELY MUST.

It is ram jam packed with colourful characters who jump straight off the page. There are Annie and Bill themselves who are not backwards in coming forwards and certainly do not pull their punches. There are various peripheral characters around them that make up an odd family unit of sorts who all stick together and look out for each other through thick and thin.

There’s Janey who teaches Annie to fight and is a sort of common law wife of Bill’s. There’s The Gaffer a close friend and confidante to both Bill and Annie. Then we have Jem who becomes Annie’s love interest and fight show partner at the fairs, and Paddy his agent.

Aswell as this strange family unit there are also numerous contenders in the ring. My favourite of which being Molly Stych who is perfectly depicted:

‘She was a broad woman of around forty years, her hair pulled back from her ruddy face in a bun, and her arms were thick and fleshy, ending in, what seemed to some, unnaturally large hands for a woman. She wore a billowing dress of green silk, with bunched sleeves and a floor length skirt fringed with grimy white lace. Her wide flat face was coloured with rouge and thick powder, and her eyes and eyebrows lined heavily with black kohl. She looked more of a fit for the stage than the boxing ring.

We follow this motley crew of folk along their various adventures. Not all of them successful and not all of them safe but you find yourself swept away and rooting for them all the time.

Both Annie and Bill are brilliant characters, the kind who stick with you for a long time after you’ve closed the book. Annie is a quick thinker and has bravery in spades. She’s the homemaker and the breadwinner with her fighting skills and she is steadfastly attached to Bill and is constantly looking out for him.

Bill is a man who was once feared and respected who is now unfortunately losing his health due to his own battles with the demon drink. He is ferociously protective of Annie and his friends. Loyal and trustworthy to those who respect him.

It is not just the vividly portrayed characters that make this book such a joy to read, it is also the historical detail which really transports you back in time and envelops you in atmosphere.

I could wax lyrical about this book all day but I’ll leave it there and let you decide for yourself if it’s a book for you. If you love historical fiction bursting with colourful characters you really do need to get your hands on this one.

Thank you as always to the publisher for my review copy.

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xxx

The Others By Sarah Blau – A Review

Publisher: Pushkin Press

Publication Date: 13th April 2021

This book, on paper (oh the irony) shouldn’t be one I would like. In fact I recently took to Twitter to list some of the topics/tropes in books that I instantly take against, one of them being ‘something happens to a group of friends in the past which now comes back to haunt them in the future’. This books very much has that element. BUT it also looks at motherhood and I am endlessly fascinated by this.

Also, THAT COVER. Creepy doll head? YES PLEASE.

I’m so glad that I cast aside my assumptions and gave this book a whirl because it was a triumph that I gobbled up in a couple of hours after it dropped through my letterbox one dull Friday afternoon.

The Others is translated from the Hebrew by Daniella Zamir and is set in Tel Aviv where a serial killer has struck. The book opens with the body of Dina Kaminer having just been discovered, naked, hog tied to a chair, a baby doll glued to her hands and the word MOTHER carved into her forehead.

The narrative is told from the perspective of Sheila, a one time friend of Dina from university days. Sheila is questioned by police officer Micha in regards to Dina’s murder. Dina is somewhat of a public figure, given that she has written an article based on the women in the bible who did not have children, seemingly by choice and Dina herself has gone on record to say she herself will never have children, much to the chagrin of a lot of people.

In fact, it’s not just Dina who publicly declares her desire to never have children, another woman in their university friendship group, Ronat, now an actress, has given interviews declaring the exact same thing.

It later transpires that the group was originally a foursome, Sheila, Dina, Ronat and Naama. All tentatively brought together during their class Women In The Bible. The girls are fascinated by the concept that not all women are put on the earth to reproduce and they can identify with the likes of Lilith, Miriam the prophetess, Michal (King David’s wife) and the Witch Of Endor.

There is a party where the women dress up and eminate the ‘baron’ women from the bible and it is during this party that something happens to fracture their friendships.

In the present day, the serial killer seems to know things from the party. Symbols and clues are strewn around the bodies which indicate that the killer knows the groups secrets. The investigation rumbles on with Micha trying to glean from Sheila any information he can whilst she is initially a little tight lipped, she eventually gets closer to Micha by degrees and starts to divulge more and more information about her dark past.

What I absolutely loved about this book was Sheila’s character. She’s a very bold and no nonsense protagonist with a wicked almost gallows sense of humour which gave me slight Sweet Pea by C J Skuse vibes. She is caustic and guarded, and a little abrasive and that made me love her all the more.

The ‘something happened in the past’ trope didn’t put me off in any way with this book because what actually did happen was quite dark and it’s sinister tendrils crept forward to infiltrate the future in a ‘you can run but you can’t hide’ way.

I also found myself fascinated by the women in the bible and had to go and Google their stories. I love books that make you go and Google and research for yourself.

All in all I really enjoyed this book. It kept me hooked and had me guessing and who doesn’t love that?

Thank you to the publisher for my review copy.

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xx

My Phantoms By Gwendoline Riley – A Review

Publisher: Granta

Publication Date: 1st April 2021

I read First Love by Gwendoline Riley a few years back, right at the start of my book blogging days. When I saw that she had a new book coming out I jumped at the chance to review it.

I did a quick scan of the blurb and what I got from that was not what the book was at all! But in a brilliant way.

My Phantoms tells the story of Bridget, a woman in her 40’s originally from the north but living in London with her partner John. Bridget is essentially recounting for us some salient points of interest in her childhood with her sister Michelle, their mother Helen (known as Hen) and their father. In fact we come to the story after the divorce of Hen and Bridget’s father and start from a point of Bridget recounting the awkward and uncomfortable weekend visits with her father.

The section involving her father is quite short but brilliantly written and if I’m honest I would have liked to have found out a bit more about him. He’s a strange character but also he has qualities of many a northern Dad. He makes cringey ‘Dad’ jokes and fools around in public to make his two young daughters embarrassed. The girls for the most part stay quiet and don’t really react to his ‘acting the goat’. However, there are times where the good natured ribbing becomes spiked with small acts of almost cruelty, where the humiliation of the girls become the main aim.

‘That outlaws camp was what Michelle and I were bundled into when we got into his car. A rough-and-tumble territory where saying hello was a discardable courtesy, for a start. Instead our father would open with ‘Lock!’ even as we were pulling on our seat belts. If the weather looked cold, he might say ‘Jumper!’, meaning we were to show him that we were wearing one, and if we weren’t, by barking the word again – ‘Jumper!’ – he communicated that we were to go back in to the house and get one. ‘Haircut!’ meant one of us had had a haircut, and would be followed up, as we waited to turn out of our cul-de-sac, with, ‘Did they catch whoever did that? And, ‘Hey? Deaf lugs. Did they catch them?’….’

The majority of the rest of the book focusses on Bridget’s relationship with her Mother Helen. most of this is told from Bridget’s adult perspective. The two of them fall out of contact for a few years and we’re never really told why. Their relationship is strained and is reduced at one point to an annual birthday visit from Hen to London during which the two women meet for a meal and a drinks. These meals are awkward and Bridget veers from desperately trying to keep her mother engaged in conversation to becoming weary of the treading on eggshells and almost goading her mother into arguments.

The dialogue between the two characters in these scenes is just perfectly true to life and utterly toe-curlingly awkward. Bridget tries to wring dry any subject she can think of to make conversation with her mother without inadvertently upsetting her. Hen is an inscrutable character but it is clear that she doesn’t like to be left out. She joins all manner of clubs and groups and is always on the go. She becomes subdued and sulky almost when Bridget recounts anything positive that is happening in her life.

‘Conversely, if I let slip about anything lucky, or nice, in my life, that could be tricky. Once, when I mentioned that I’d been to a Christmas party, she looked very hurt. ‘You’ve just told me about all sorts of festive drinks dos’ I said. ‘This was just like them’. She wasn’t convinced though. When I didn’t tell her enough about it, she said, ‘oh tell me. Oh let me live vicariously, Bridge!‘. ‘There’s nothing else to tell!’ I said, and I searched my memory for a detail I could share. ‘I got stuck with a really boring woman for about ten minutes’, I said. ‘Oh no!’ my mother said. ‘So typical,’ I said, ‘in a room full of interesting people.’ That was a slip up. I knew it as soon as I’d said it. ‘Mmm,’ she said bravely. I tried to get her back: ‘The dreadful thing is, I think she felt she’d got stuck with me too! But neither of us had the wherewithal to break it off.’ ‘Aargh!’ Said my mother. And encouraged, I went on, ‘I think it’s worse when you feel you’re the boring one!’ I said. But there again, that was wrong: I’d given the impression now of such a party-rich life that I could make generalisations. ‘Mmm’, she said, again. And then, again, she smiled bravely and looked at me expectantly. What to say? What else was there?…’

The tension in these scenes is palpable and what I found so fascinating was the fact that I didn’t really know who to side with between mother and daughter. I was fully expecting at the start of the book to find a poor downtrodden woman who has been so ground down in life by her overbearing and cruel mother. This is absolutely not how it turned out and my preconceived ideas were very incorrect!

I loved this book despite its low level tension throughout. It’s easy to draw parallels with real life relationships and identify small personality traits within the characters that I could see in myself or my family relationships.

Gwendoline Riley’s writing is sharp and focussed and I’ve now enjoyed both of the books I’ve read of hers, which of course means I now need to visit her back catalogue.

Thank you so much to the publisher for my review copy.

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xxx

The Inverts By Crystal Jeans – A Review

Publication Date: 1st April 2021

Publisher: Borough Press

I’d seen this colourful book plenty of times on Twitter and I’d not had the chance to sit down and research it. When I was offered a proof copy I got my chance to have a little look at just what The Inverts by Crystal Jeans was all about. I knew once I’d read the blurb that it was a book I’d be saying a hearty Yes to!

The Inverts is set in the roaring 1920’s and 30’s and tells the story of the relationship between Bettina Wyn Thomas and Bartholmew (Bart) Dawes. They meet when they are children and their parents are friends. We first meet them when they are in their early teens and having spent much of their relationship being ‘just friends’ Bart wants to try out his charms on Bettina.

After a clumsy assignation it becomes blatantly apparent that neither party enjoyed the experience and it is mutually agreed that yes indeed they are just friends. But we soon learn that the reason for this disconnect is the fact that Bart has a penchant for boys and Bettina is finding herself increasingly attracted to one of her girlfriends at school.

What follows on is a tapestry of their failed and successful relationships with the same sex. Their loves, their objects of lust, their dalliances and their deeper connections. These relationships all orbit around the central pairing of Bart and Bettina who decide to marry to conceal their sexual preferences at a time where it could be potentially very detrimental to their lives should they be found out. I found this ‘lavender marriage’ element fascinating.

There are fleeting escapades on both sides, one night stands and assignations. But there are also deeper loved that have to find a place within Bart and Bettina’s relationship and assimilate around them.

They may not always like each other, and indeed there are times where their relationship is tested but there is always a much deeper, stronger bond built on sturdy foundations that cannot be shaken. I loved the fact that their love is not perfect, it gets messy, it gets wild it gets ambivalent over a number of decades but they remain firm in their connection.

This wonderful relationship is mainly set against a backdrop of the roaring 20’s and 30’s. A time period which was by turns both glamorous and debauched. There’s the quaffing of champagne, drugs and casual clandestine sex which are all perfectly depicted and set the scene and tone of the book. You really feel like you are there.

There are highs and lows, funny and tender moments which spirit you away through the book loving every moment you spend with Bart and Bettina. They are characters who I will never forget and I already have the urge to revisit them.

Get your hands on a copy and pay Bart and Bettina a visit. You won’t regret it.

Thank you so much to the publisher for my review copy.

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xxx

Unsettled Ground By Claire Fuller – A Review

Publisher: Penguin Fig Tree

Publication Date: 25th March 2021

I am a huge fan of Claire Fuller’s writing. Her book Bitter Orange was one of my favourite books of 2018. Not only do I love her writing style, I love her book recommendations over on Instagram and have found some great books this way.

Unsettled Ground tells the story of 51 year old twins Jeanie and Julius Seeder who have lived all of their lives in a cottage with their mother Dot. The book opens with the death of Dot and what follows on from this tragic event is Jeanie and Julius slowly discovering that their mother was not as she appeared and a huge part of their lives had been built around secrets and lies.

Dots death is the catalyst for a huge chain of events which leave Jeanie and Julius struggling not only with their grief but the possibility of losing their home and finding themselves plunged into the harsh realities of poverty and financial strain.

The relationship between the twins is ever evolving and morphing after the death of their mother as they strive to find a way to survive in her absence as her secrets are revealed bit by bit.

Claire Fuller’s characters are always fully rounded and so well written. We have not only the two main characters of Jeanie and Julius but the peripheral characters who circle the twins lives be they good in intention or not.

Jeanie is an introverted woman who was essentially cosseted by her mother in childhood due to a heart condition. She even slept in the same bed as her mother right up until the day she died. Despite this, Jeanie does learn to become independent and fend for herself and her brother however she can.

The overall poverty and financial struggle in the twins lives is so sad but written so deftly. It’s hard to imagine being plunged into a new life and having to question your whole past and worry about your future. Essentially the whole foundation of the twins lives is shaken.

Claire’s writing is just so beautiful and has an underlying tension and sense of atmosphere which builds as the book progresses. I enjoy feeling tense when reading (I’m perhaps a little strange in that respect!) and reading Unsettled Ground made me feel just that, unsettled.

I will always read whatever Claire writes and I have a feeling that I will always enjoy what she writes too. I know I am in safe hands with her excellent writing and storytelling skills.

This book has now been longlisted for the Women’s Prize For Fiction and I couldn’t be more thrilled for Claire. Fingers crossed!

Please do pick up a copy of Unsettled Ground. You won’t regret it!

Thank you as always to the publisher for my review copy.

See you soon

Amanda – Bookish Chat xx

Bright Burning Things By Lisa Harding – A Review

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Publication Date: 4th March 2021

Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding was a book I included in my most anticipated reads of 2021 blog post. I stumbled across it when I was perusing Bloomsbury’s catalogue and was drawn to the struggling alcoholic mother element presented in the blurb.

Set in Dublin, Bright Burning Things tells the first person story of single mum Sonya, a young woman living on benefits with her 4 year old son Tommy and their rescue dog Herbie. Sonya has a troubled past, dogged by signs of anxiety and mental illness after the death of her mother when she was 8 years old. Sonya’s isolation is further impacted by her fractured and distantly tense relationship with her father who struggled with grief after the death of his wife.

Sonya has a very close relationship with little Tommy, which at times proves destructively close. They have their own language, their own in-jokes, their own haphazard way of living life. Unfortunately Sonya is also living with an alcohol addiction and Tommy has to witness her becoming ‘blurry’ and has to deal with the ‘bad fairy’ who comes out of her when she’s been drinking.

Sonya clearly isn’t coping at all with life in general and looking after her son who should by now be attending school. She quite often forgets to feed him and has a propensity to blackout when she’s drunk, which in turn leads to precarious and downright dangerous events around the house.

When Mrs O’Malley across the street threatens to call social services, Sonya’s father steps back into her life and takes the decision to corral Sonya into a rehab facility for a 12 week stay.

Sonya has to suffer the absolute wrench of having Tommy taken from her and placed in the care of strangers and when she emerges from rehab having dried out she has to face the even more daunting fact of putting her family back together and getting her young vulnerable child to trust her again.

This book obviously tackles very difficult subjects, ones which you cannot look away from no matter how uncomfortable they make you feel. To follow the story through the eyes of the person suffering from the alcohol addiction is very compelling. To know that there are times when you can’t completely trust what this person is telling you, and you can see the effect her behaviour is having on this young boy is heartbreaking at times.

I was always willing Sonya on in her recovery and I was pleased in a way that the path back to some semblance of ‘normality‘ was not an easy one. Sonya doesn’t emerge from rehab miraculously ‘cured’ and all shiny and brand new. She still fights her demons daily, hourly. She still has to control the ‘flapping creatures’ that rise up in her chest, the outbursts of anger, the lapses of lucidity. She has to battle all of this whilst trying her utmost to appear stable and ‘normal’ in the eyes of the authorities and the judgemental eyes of her father.

The relationship between Sonya and Tommy is so touching. They are so very close at the start of the book, living in their own little bubble. Making their own way through the days trying to have fun and in no need of help from anyone (in Sonya’s eyes). When they are torn apart it is absolutely heartbreaking even though rationally you know it’s for the best.

Lisa Harding’s writing is beautiful, and given free reign to sound even more lyrical when a small child’s sing-song, innocent voice is added to the mix. I enjoyed the way the writing reflected the times when Sonya was struggling, short clipped sentences not quite fully formed giving the narrative an almost distracted flighty feel.

I absolutely raced through this book and am now tempted to get hold of a copy of Lisa Harding’s first novel Harvesting.

Thank you to the publishers for my review copy.

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xx

The Last House On Needless Street By Catriona Ward.

Publisher: Viper Books

Publication Date: 18th March 2021

If ever there was a book that I wanted to bypass a writing a review and just shout READ THIS IMMEDIATELY!!! It’s The Last House On Needless Street by Catriona Ward.

To be honest I’m so nervous about writing this review because I have a feeling I may short change you on the details but it is nigh on impossible to explain the plot of this wonderful book without ruining it completely for you. Something which I will never do. Spoiler free reviews here as always.

But this does leave me with quite the predicament. All I can do is give you as much as I can of the plot, say some words about how important it is that you go out and buy this book now. Like RIGHT NOW. And then send you on your merry way to buy it. Because you SIMPLY MUST buy it. (I’ll stop with the bold caps now).

Ted Bannerman, our main protagonist voice is a man who lives on Needless Street with his cat Olivia and his young daughter Lauren. Ted is considered strange, a quirky character who from the off has a narrative that feels very off-kilter. You know as a reader that something is very much ‘not right’ with Ted’s life and his way of thinking. This is highlighted by how he lives in his disordered rundown house with wooden planks nailed across the windows.

The story starts with a murder. But not the usual murder you’d be expecting. Ted has a great love of birds and has a garden full of feeders. When someone sets traps to kill these birds, which Ted discovers dead in his garden it sets off a chain of events. The murder of the birds coincides with the 11th year anniversary of a young girl going missing. She’s dubbed Little Girl With Popsicle by Ted and at the time of her disappearance Ted was actually a suspect who was later cleared.

The young girl’s sister Dee has tried and failed over the years to locate the person who took her sister from the lake 11 years ago but she is determined to crack the case and get justice for little Lulu. When Ted comes back on to her radar she takes up residence into the empty house next door to Ted do that she can befriend him and observe his every move.

Along with Ted’s narrative we hear from Olivia the cat. I have to hold my hands up and say I was a little reticent about how this would be dealt with. I cannot get onboard with talking animals in books but Olivia’s voice such as it is was perfectly written. It didn’t ever feel silly and contrived in any way and actually becomes a huge part of the story as time progresses.

We also hear from Lauren, Ted’s daughter. Who is portrayed as a wilful girl with a quick temper, prone to outbursts of anger. Their relationship is tricky, with Lauren coming across as a difficult child to control.

Ted often refers back to his childhood and talks about his ‘Mommy’ in a childlike, immature tone. Mommy is a complex character who wields her power over little Ted and his father. She is quite often cruel which is thinly veiled as ‘caring’ and lots of things are done for Ted’s own good. Lessons to be learned about life which she feels will serve him well in the future.

As a reader you know that there are many holes in Ted’s memory and he is the ultimate unreliable narrator. There are sentences within this book that really make you stop and think ‘that can’t be right’. There are small details almost concealed within the narrative that give you a jolt and have you questioning what you’ve read before. This book gave me frown lines I was thinking that hard! I may need Botox!

You lovely lot know that I love nothing more than a dark and twisty tale where something isn’t right and you can’t put your finger on it. That’s how this story starts out. You know in your heart of hearts that Ted’s whole existence isn’t normal but you’re waiting to discover what and why…..

There is a building sense of unease as you read which ramps up to real tension. And I’m talking shoulders up around your ears, breath holding tension.

I really can’t tell you anything else plot wise. I know, it’s a bit rum of me but seriously, you just to buy this book and put your faith in me!

I have always loved Catriona Ward’s writing and really enjoyed Rawblood and Little Eve. She is a writer who can draw you in completely into dark world’s and each of her books are completely unique. I can honestly say I have never read a book like The Last House On Needless Street. Ever. It tackles a subject I don’t think I’ve ever read about and in such a deft and confident way.

I read this book in one breathless sitting and I feel like this was the best way to consume it. In any case I couldn’t put it down anyway! You emerge at the end with such a strange feeling. One which I’m struggling to label as I write this review less than 24 hours after finishing the book.

It is certainly a book I will never ever forget! I urge you all to pick up a copy! Speaking of which……

Pre-order is currently available for The Last House On The Needless Street from any UK retailer, in hardback, ebook or audiobook. Pre-order your copy now, and send proof of receipt to ineed@viperbooks.co.uk and receive an EXCLUSIVE enamel pin! Get your pre-orders in as soon as possible so you don’t miss out. T&Cs apply. Open to UK only. Closes Wednesday 17th March.

What more can you ask for!

A big thank you as always to the publisher and Miranda Jewess for my review copy. Bloody beltin!

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xxx