Children Of Paradise By Camilla Grudova – A Review

Publisher: Atlantic Books

Publication Date: 7th July 2022

I read Camilla Grudova’s short story collection The Dolls Alphabet and absolutely loved it. Infact it has pride of place on my Forever Shelf and I don’t hang on to many short story collections usually.

Her stories are perfectly ‘on the wonk’ for me, off kilter and unusual, and that was the same for Children Of Paradise in absolute spades!

Holly takes a job as an usher at a once popular, grand and glamorous cinema known as The Paradise. Now however, it has lost its appeal, it’s funding and it’s glamorous opulence. Now it is run down, grubby, tatty and coming loose at it’s frayed edges.

Holly is initially ignored by her work colleagues, an unlikely band of twenty-something misfits and she feels terribly lonely. However, after a few weeks of being iced out she infiltrates their gang and gains trust enough to join in their nightly clandestine screenings of films once the cinema is closed and falls silent.

This group seem to only survive through their work at The Paradise and their love of film. They exist within the dark rich red walls of The Paradise as if the world outside isn’t real. They cruise the aisles of the cinema screen collecting discarded alcohol and drugs (prescription or otherwise) and pocketing lost jewellery or clothing.

They put up with the ever present irritation of the owner of The Paradise, an eccentric old woman who comes in to eat the food and watch the films. However when she dies the current employees are faced with a corporate take over and it’s from here that their lives both together in their misfit group and as individuals start to unravel in catastrophic and dark ways.

I tweeted about this book whilst halfway through it that it was grubby and gross and that is exactly what it is. And I mean that in a very positive way! The depictions and detailed descriptions of the now delapidated cinema made it so easy to imagine. The descriptions of cleaning up bodily fluids left behind after screenings, the blocked toilets and the rat infested popcorn were just stomach churning. Even though the cinema’s finery was fading fast the descriptions were vivid and visceral and unpleasant. Everything I love!

The characters are an unusual bunch, you get to see glimpses of each personality individually and how that fits with the coalescence of the group as a whole. Holly’s transformation from a quiet and unassuming usher from when she first was employed at The Paradise to when she has been absorbed fully into the group and is stealing and drug taking and having sex during screenings is interesting. You are taken on a slowly unfolding journey with her.

It’s also a quite sad depiction of capitalism and the pursuit of profit.

Overall it was a grimy, filthy, unsettling, grubby little novel and I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Harry at Atlantic Books for my review copy.

See you all soon.

Amanda x @bookishchat

Still Born By Guadalupe Nettel (translated by Rosalind Harvey).

Publisher: Fitzcarraldo Editions

Publication Date: 22nd June 2022

I feel like a stuck record when I continually say that I love books surrounding the subject of struggling mothers. This book however looks at the flip side of that I suppose whilst still dealing with the many and varied complexities of motherhood and what that means in its various forms. The flip side in this case being choosing not to have children.

Set in Mexico (translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey) Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel tells the two contrasting stories of friends Laura and Alina, both in their mid-thirties. From their early life together both women have always stated that they didn’t want to have children and Laura in particular looked down on women who did. However, Alina then changes her mind and decides she wants to try for a child whilst this decision cements Laura’s feelings that she wants to remain childless and so takes the decision to be sterilised.

Laura then develops an interest in her neighbours child, an 8 year old boy who regularly throws tantrums and can be heard through the walls verbally abusing his single mother. As Laura watches the pigeon nest in her garden bear eggs then fledgling birds, she contemplates the meaning of motherhood and what makes a mother, whilst getting closer to the boy next door.

Alina’s pregnancy journey is not an easy one, far from it, and she has to make some difficult decisions which in turn lead to a difficult start to motherhood.

Both women have to come to terms with their feelings around motherhood and caring for children in vastly different ways.

I enjoyed the fact that the main narrator is Laura throughout. We learn of Alina’s struggles through Laura’s eyes but still with a close attention to detail which allows us as the reader to become invested in Alina’s journey.

It is not only the two main characters and their views on motherhood we see, there is also Laura’s relationship with her own mother, and the relationship between the single mother next door and the young boy. This book makes you think about the decisions women have to make with regards to having children and the way they are treated based on those decisions.

As I mentioned, I quite regularly read around the subject of motherhood but I rarely read from the perspective of someone so assured in their decision not to have children. This was an interesting angle for me. The writing is sharp and the chapters are short which makes for a propulsive read.

I am now keen to read any other translated Guadalupe Nettel books so I’ll be on the look out!

Thank you to Clare Bogen and Fitzcarraldo Editions for my review copy.

See you all soon.

Amanda x

The Cherry Robbers By Sarai Walker – A Review

Publisher: Serpents Tail

Publication Date: 2nd June 2022

I went into this book knowing very little. I latched onto certain words and phrases in the blurb such as ‘palatial Victorian wedding cake house’ and ‘troubled haunted mother’ and I was in!

Let me start by saying that this book totally consumed me for days. If you follow me on social media you will see that I was waxing lyrical about it and probably getting on peoples nerves (ok ok Mand we get it, you LOVE the book!).

So what’s it all about?

The book opens with Sylvia Wren one of the most important American artists of the past century receiving a letter which alludes to the fact that she is not who she says she is and has a secretive past. We then go on to learn that Sylvia was infact born Iris Chapel, the second youngest of 6 sisters who grew up in a Victorian wedding cake house in New England, as part of the Chapel firearms dynasty.

Iris’s father is a workaholic and very detached from his family, often only eating meals with them and then disappearing to his study. Their mother Belinda is a haunted woman, often visited in the night by what she deems to be the spirits of all the people who have died as a direct result of one of the Chapel firearms. Not only this, she is haunted by the idea that she and the women in the family are cursed, particularly as her mother died in childbirth and her mother before her and her mother before her. It is said that Belinda was born hearing her mothers death screams and continues to hear them still.

The six sisters are all named after flowers. There’s Aster, Rosalind, Calla, Daphne, Iris then the youngest Hazel who is know as ‘Zelie’. When Aster meets a young man on holiday she quickly falls in love and plans to marry. Belinda is horrified and is convinced that something dreadful is going to happen to Aster if she marries. Everybody else in the family dismisses this as one of Belinda’s ‘moments’ and they take very little notice of her. However, when Iris starts to see and hear some strange things she slowly comes to learn that her mother may be right.

It isn’t a spoiler for me to say that Aster does indeed die the morning after her wedding of mysterious causes that are written off as flu by their father and the family doctor. Not long after this Rosalind the second sister dies after her wedding, again from mysterious causes…..what follows after this is the rest of the sisters trying to navigate their grief and trying desperately to make their escape from a house which holds nothing but fear and upset.

We follow the story from Iris’s perspective as she tries to figure out the curse that has befallen her family whilst trying to avoid the mental asylum that her mother has so often been incarcerated in for stating her beliefs. Iris is desperate to make her escape from the house and the family name without losing her life along the way.

This book hooked me in from the outset, with its depiction of a gothic Victorian building housing this set of six siblings who are somewhat sequestered away and have only each other for company. It is assumed that they will learn homemaking and etiquette skills at the local ladies college and then be married off one by one. They live a life under the shadow of their strange mother who they mostly ignore the ramblings of and a father who is cold and almost fearful of them and their moods.

The atmosphere in the house is oppressive and you can feel why the girls each want so desperately to escape. I love a good family mystery particularly when a so called ‘curse’ is involved and I was utterly invested in the search for answers. There is a ghostly atmosphere in certain places but also an insidious feeling of something not being quite right all the way through. You just know that the Chapel family are gossiped about in the village and rightly so. All eyes are on them and their continuing grief.

This books gave me huge Shirley Jackson vibes and I loved the 1950’s setting. A time when there were still certain expectations of women even if some young women were beginning to rail against them.

This has been described as a gothic ghost story with a fiery feminist zeal and I couldn’t agree more!

I was completely hooked and didn’t want to put it down! I’m still thinking about it now, some weeks after finishing it. It is the best book I’ve read so far this year and it will take something very special indeed to knock it off the top spot.

Thank you so much to Lisa Shakespeare and Serpents Tail for my review copy.

See you all soon.

Amanda x

The Dance Tree By Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Publisher: Picador

Publication Date: 12th May 2022

This book is my first Kiran Millwood Hargrave, god knows why I haven’t read The Mercies up to this point! I haven’t picked up much historical fiction for a while but can truly say that if you only pick up one historical fiction book this year make it The Dance Tree.

It’s 1518 and a blisteringly oppressive summer heat in Strasbourg. Crops are failing and animals are sweltering and people are starving. One day, a woman named Frau Troffea starts dancing in the heat of the dry and dusty city square and keeps up the dancing for days on end. Being forced home briefly by her husband to sleep for an hour before heading back out to dance. Amongst her audience are members of the council know as The Twenty One. This lone woman has caught their attention and her dancing is considered a religious mania.

But soon there are more feet added to dance as more and more women join in until there are hundreds of women seemingly taken over by this dancing hysteria.

On the outskirts of the city Lisbet a bee-keeper lives with her brusque mother-in-law, her husband and his sister who has recently returned from a 7 year penance deep in the mountains, for an untold crime. Lisbet is pregnant with her 13th child, having lost all of her previous babies at various points in her pregnancies. When the families farm is threatened so is their livelihood and Lisbet’s precious bees who have long since been a source of salvation for her are potentially going to be removed from her life.

As the heat continues to beat down on the city and more and more women are added to the dance Lisbet finds herself desperate to uncover secrets but also protect the things she holds dear.

I love a novel that centres around an actual point or event in history and uses that as a springboard for some amazing fiction. I found the authors note from Kiran Millwood Hargrave fascinating as she talks about the real life Frau Troffea who did indeed start dancing one day in Strasbourg and didn’t stop. Indeed there are apparently various points in history where choreomania (yes that’s what it’s called!) have occurred, each time religious mania is cited as the reason.

This book doesn’t just deal with the dancing event it is essentially a close look at the lives of three women and the bonds they have with each other and how they have been repressed at the hands of men in a patriarchal society. I loved the rich tapestry of historical detail and felt fully immersed in the narrative, building up a clear picture of each scene as it played out.

We are not only given the protagonists main narrative we are also treated to short interspersing chapters introducing us to selected women who have joined the dance and the painful reasons why. I really found this to be such an emotional touch.

Kiran’s writing is just stunning and her scene setting and character development are some of the best I’ve ever read. This is a book of love, superstition, folklore and power and I cannot recommend it enough. In fact I think I’ll be bold and say it will be one of my books of the year. Now If you’ll excuse me I’m off to pick up a copy of The Mercies immediately!

Thank you to Kate Green and Picador for my review copy.

See you all soon.

Amanda. Xx @bookishchat

Hush By Kate Maxwell – A Review

Publisher: Virago Press

Publication Date: 12th May 2022

I feel like a bit of stuck record, but if there is book that deals with the subject of a struggling mother I will be there in a flash with bells on!

When I read the synopsis for Hush by Kate Maxwell I knew it would be a book for me and let me tell you, it very much was!

We meet Stevie who is quite a driven, successful and hard working woman who has moved back from New York where she went to help set up a new business. She’s back home in London having made the decision to embark on having a baby on her own terms via artificial insemination using a sperm donor.

The book opens at the point that Stevie has not long since had her new baby son, Ash. She is deep in throws of post natal depression and is struggling to bond with her baby despite wanting him in her life so desperately.

Stevie has two older sisters, Rebecca at home in London and Jess working in New York. Both sisters look out for her in their own ways, however she finds it difficult to open up to them about how she’s feeling. We travel back and forth in time from watching Stevie building her career and relationships in New York, her success in her role and her attachment to her sister, to her current life with the baby.

In the present day Stevie struggles with not having a tight and controlled hold on her life, and she feels lost and wonders where she now fits and what her purpose is other than to keep this small human alive. She makes some questionable choices whilst in the exhausting fugue of sleep deprivation.

We also find out details of Steve’s family dynamic, not only her two much older sisters but her detached and unemotional father and her coddling mother. I really enjoyed the exploration of family and the various strains and tensions.

I suppose for me, (the woman who loves to read about a struggling mother!) the chapters in the present day dealing with Stevies day to day inertia surrounding her new baby were the most pertinent to me. This is a woman who was so adamant that she wanted to forge ahead with her plan to have a baby under her own rules and raise it alone, only to find that it’s not as easy as that!

The writing is fresh and the scene setting in New York is vibrant and bustling. There’s a clean contemporary sharpness which I loved. The two timelines really compliment each other and I enjoyed the building of an important backstory which inevitably shapes the story in the present day.

If you want to read about motherhood, family, ambition, identity and love then this book really is for you.

I can’t recommend it enough.

Thank you to Kate Maxwell and Virago Press for my review copy.

See you all soon.

Amanda xx @bookishchat

Sedating Elaine By Dawn Winter – A Review

Publisher: Fleet

Publication Date: 5th May 2022

When I was very kindly offered a proof copy of Sedating Elaine by Dawn Winter I knew I had to jump at the chance as it sounded so wild! On the surface it’s a book about a young woman who goes about sedating her girlfriend so that she can pay off her drug dealer and finally get a bit of peace and quiet, BUT underneath it is so much more!

So we meet Frances, a young woman who at the start of the book has completely had enough of her girlfriend Elaine, a larger than life character who is constantly on the go, making noise, bothering Frances for sex and generally being ‘too much’ for Frances to deal with. Frances is very tempted to call it quits with Elaine but she’s fallen into almost an inertia with the relationship. She does however have a regular relationship with her drug dealer, a little too regular some might say, and she’s run up quite the debt with him. He’s now making threatening noises if he doesn’t get what he’s owed soon.

Frances in her desperation asks Elaine to move in with her and pay an extortionate amount towards the ‘rent’ (or Frances’ drug dealer!) knowing her family is not short of money. However the plan backfires when Elaine blasts into Frances’ flat, a previous haven of quiet for Frances. Just when she is wondering what the hell she’s done, Frances has a bright idea, she will sedate Elaine to get some peace and quiet…..just until the first ‘rent’ payment comes in…..what could possibly go wrong?…..

Frances is a fascinating character. She has suffered a broken relationship with a woman she deeply loved, this has broken her heart and led in part to her falling into the relationship with exuberant Elaine and being swept along almost against her will with very little strength in her to fight it. She just goes along with the life that she’s been dealt, using drugs and alcohol as a crutch and a means to get through day by day.

Over the course of the story we also learn about snapshots of Frances’s childhood, a very lonely childhood with no mother in her life and a father who tried his best but was very distant. Frances also alludes throughout the narrative to the fact that she killed a little boy when she was young, something which is later unravelled for us.

This is most definitely unlike any book I’ve read. In a good way. It’s crazy and perhaps on paper shouldn’t be 100% believable yet it absolutely is! It has a dark humour running all the way through it but moments of such tenderness and emotion too.

It was an absolute blast and I really enjoyed it! I think this is Dawn Winter’s debut novel which makes me very excited about what she will think of next.

Thank you to Emily Moran and Little Brown for my review copy.

See you all soon.

Amanda xx @bookishchat

Oxblood By Tom Benn – A Review

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Publication Date: 28th April 2022

When I read that Oxblood by Tom Benn was set in Wythenshawe near Manchester which is very close to where I live I knew I wanted to read it.

Set in between the 1960’s and 1980’s Oxblood tells the story of the notorious Dodds family. We have Nedra who is the matriarch and widow of Jim Dodds. She is living with Carol her daughter in law and widow of her son Sefton. Carol has two children, Kelly her 23 year old son, fresh out of Strangeways prison and her 15 year old tearway daughter Jan, who has just given birth to a very much unwanted baby.

These three generations of Dodds live together without the two main men of the family after they are killed when their car is run off the road. The two men were prominent in the Manchester underworld and have paid the price for their criminal connections. Nedra and Carol have to succeed their dead husbands and live under the shadow of their reputations and violent acts.

Nedra is the homemaker trying to keep the family together. She is the areas most popular dinnerlady and takes in all the local waifs and strays, feeds them and makes sure they get to and from school safely.

Carol is very disillusioned and in her daughter Jan’s words ‘lives in her own head’. Carol is mourning the loss of the true love of her life, Vern a man who still visits her in ghost form, a man who lost his life at the hands of her husband Sefton. Carol doesn’t really have any interest in her children Kelly and Jan, and leaves the parenting to Nedra.

Then we have Jan, a girl who hits out at authority, sleeps around with the local boys and gets herself a reputation around the area. Nobody messes with Jan! But when she has a one night stand with a lad and then falls pregnant, Jan can’t bring herself to take any interest at all in her baby, leaving the day to day care to Carol.

This is a story of a dysfunctional family living under the shadow of its dead men. I love a good book about strong, northern working class women and this book is no exception despite the women having their own flaws. There is grit and determination and the struggle to carry on and remain stoic in the face of adversity.

All three of the women are standout characters and I know I won’t forget them in a hurry, women who live the legacy of the dead patriarchs who paid the price for their violent underworld actions. These women have to decide whether to accept their legacy or break away.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book with its familiar places and familiar voices. The Manchester dialect was a comfort to me and I identified with certain working class family traits (minus the criminal underworld part of course!). I Loved it and would throughly recommend it.

Thank you to Beth and Bloomsbury for my review copy.

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookishchat xx

Woman, Eating By Claire Kohda

Publisher: Virago

Publication Date: 21st March 2022

When I heard this book had a woman in it who only ate pigs blood I knew it was a book for me. I’ve been really enjoying books about women who are ‘other’ (The Harpy, Nightbitch, Come Closer) and I had good vibes. However when it arrived and I realised it was about a vampire I was dubious. I’ve never been a fan of the vampire trope so I was a little unsure (and kicking myself that I hadn’t made the link between blood/vampire!). However, I gave it a whirl and absolutely loved it! I’m now a modern vampire fan! Who knew?

Lydia is a young woman in her early twenties. She has a Japanese father and a half Malaysian (and half vampire!) mother. Lydia’s mother turned her into a vampire a few days after she was born. The story opens at a point in Lydia’s life where she has just put her mother in a home and she has rented a studio as she is a performance artist. She has also taken an internship at a local art gallery.

But Lydia is hungry. Hungry for blood. Her and her mother have always fought their demon side and never partaken in ‘hunting’ human blood. They have always sourced pigs blood from their local butchers, no questions asked. But when the butchers closes, Lydia finds herself trying to source the pig blood from elsewhere whilst trying not to succumb to human hunting, which proves more and more difficult…..

Food, hunger and appetite are large themes in this book along with how food can connect us to our culture. There is a lot of talk about rumbling stomachs, and almost obsessive intake of social media surrounding food, for example YouTube ‘what I eat in day’ videos that Lydia likes to torture herself by watching.

I really enjoyed the half human/half demon aspect of Lydia’s character. She explains that her and her mother ate just enough to keep their human side alive and not enough to continually feed their demon side, the side which constantly had the urge to ‘sin’. They were not out hunting humans, instead they were assuaging their urges with the pigs blood. Doing their bit for society!

The book also explores the themes of connection, identity and loneliness in a fresh and clever way. There are quite a few ‘millennial struggling young women’ books out at the moment but this one is a new and interesting take which I absolutely devoured! (No pun intended!).

A brilliant debut that I would thoroughly recommend. Thank you to Celeste and Virago for my review copy.

See you all soon.

Amanda xx

Sundial By Catriona Ward – A Review

Publisher: Viper

Publication Date: 10th March 2022

‘It’s possible to feel the horror of something and to accept it all at the same time. How else could we cope with being alive?’

Well…..yet again I find myself in a situation where I’ve read an an absolute stormer of a book that I want you all to read IMMEDIATELY…BUT I can’t tell you too much about the plot because that would just ruin the experience for you! This was the case with The Last House On Needless Street (which I did manage to review spoiler free here), and Catriona Ward has done it AGAIN.

Sundial was a proof I was lusting after and when one dropped trough my letterbox I knew I couldn’t wait until closer to publication, so I read it straight away over pretty much 24 hours.

So what’s it all about?

The book opens by introducing us to a family, Rob, her husband Irving and their two daughters Callie and Annie. Annie has contracted chicken pox and this is an indication to Rob that Irving has been having yet another affair, this time with the neighbour.

There is definite tension in the family and when Rob’s 12 year old daughter Callie starts to act strangely, collecting animal bones and potentially harming her little sister Annie, Rob has to make some tough decisions.

It’s decided that both Rob and Callie will take some time away, just the two of them and go and stay at Rob’s family home, Sundial, deep in the Mojave desert.

It’s whilst here in the isolated heat that Rob confronts some deeply buried secrets from her past. A past which involved issues with her twin sister Jack and their commune-like family life at Sundial.

It’s here that I have to pause a little and consider how much to actually tell you. The chapters involving Rob and Jack’s past are complex and twisted but we get to see where Rob’s fears for her daughter originate from.

We also get to see the point that Rob first meets Irving and their ensuing relationship which enables us to better understand why there is a veil of violence and mistrust over their complicated marriage.

Catriona Ward takes you to places you never knew you could go and makes you think about things you never have before. There are times throughout the book where you think you have it nailed, but trust me you haven’t! And I don’t mean that in a glib ‘there’s a twist you won’t see coming!’ kind of way.

This story is dripping with unease, darkness and horror. There is an insidious feeling of the world being off-kilter, of the darkest of secrets beginning to reveal themselves. Once you start on this rollercoaster ride you won’t want to get off!

Having said that, it’s not always an easy read. There is violence, baby-loss, death, animal testing, domestic abuse, drug use. All the grim stuff! Maybe bear this in mind if you’re at all sensitive about reading around these subjects.

The characters are hugely flawed… are they! And you find yourself getting mixed up in their lies and inner demons. Trying to figure them out when really you haven’t a hope in hell!

The desert setting only adds to the ratcheting tension with its arid dryness and intense heat, not to mention it’s predators and dangers. Sundial ranch almost starts to become a character in itself.

I raced through this book and as with The Last House On Needless Street I bloody LOVED IT!

Do yourself a favour and buy yourself a copy immediately.

Thank you to Viper for my proof copy.

See you all soon.

Amanda xx

The March House by Zoë Somerville – A Review

Publisher: Head Of Zeus

Publication Date: 3rd March 2022

This novel has everything I love. When I read the blurb I got a few book tingles which is always a good sign! When it arrived I pushed the 4 other books I was currently reading aside to start this one. It only took me a couple of days to read and I was gripped!

The Marsh House by Zoë Somerville tells the dual timeline stories of two women, Malorie in the 1960’s and Rosemary in the 1930’s. The book opens with Malorie arriving at a property known as the Marsh House on the edge of a marsh in Norfolk. After discovering her husband back in London has been having fun with various other women, Malorie decides to take her 8 year old daughter to the property for Christmas and to escape her troubles at home. The marsh house was first brought to Malorie’s attention after her parents die and she is left an old photograph of the house with no further explanation.

Then we meet Rosemary, a young girl living in the house in the 1930’s with just her father. She has been told that her mother is dead but there are also rumours in the village that she is infact in an asylum. Rosemary is friendly with an old woman, Janet, who lives in a cottage close by and was the person who helped bring rosemary into the world. Janey is somewhat of a local healer, midwife and nurse with some unorthodox methods which lead to much speculation.

Rosemary gets involved with the wealthy family who own Old Hall close to the marsh house and becomes enchanted by the son of the house, Franklin.

Back in the 1960’s, Malorie is struggling to settle at the house and feels an ever growing distance opening up between her and her young daughter. Isolated in snowy weather she begins to experience some strange goings on. Seeing shadows out of the corner of her eye, hearing strange noises, seeing faces at the window and hearing unsettling music.

As Malorie’s and Rosemary’s lives begin to converge, secrets are revealed and family ties are tested.

First off I love a dual timeline! Especially when they centre around one house. I love anything creepy and foreboding with a supernatural edge. I genuinely felt unsettled reading this one before bed. Zoë Somerville perfectly depicts The Marsh House so that you can see it so clearly in your minds eye. The marsh itself is almost another character, misty, damp, cold and often treacherous.

Tracking the lives of these two woman each dealing with their issues in their own times is super compelling. Both times periods are carved out perfectly and I enjoyed being in each of them with no preference (which is always a good sign).

This book is dripping in atmosphere and gets under your skin and chills your bones, in a good way! It explores, anger, madness, family secrets the treatment of women and it’s an exploration of motherhood. It is perfect for getting under a blanket with and giving yourself the chills.

Loved it!

Thank you to Kathryn and Head Of Zeus for my review copy.

See you soon.

Amanda x