Free Love by Tessa Hadley – A Review

Publisher: Jonathan Cape

Publication Date: 20th January 2022

I am somewhat loathe to admit that this was my first Tessa Hadley book! Now that I have read it I am thrilled that Tessa has such an extensive backlist for me to work my way through!

Free Love is set in the late 1960’s in London, a time when the world was a changin’! We meet 40 year old Phyllis (Phyll), her husband Roger, her teenage daughter Collette and 9 year old son Hugh. Phyllis lives the epitome of a suburban life and the book opens with her getting ready for a dinner guest to arrive, Nicholas, the twenty-something son of Roger’s friends.

Both parties are a bit reluctant about the dinner having last seen each other once, briefly, when Nicky was a child. However, he has recently moved to the area and his parents have arranged the dinner on his behalf. During the course of the meal Phyllis, having recently touched a cold ice bucket, lightly touches Nicky on the shoulder. The young man flinches from the cold, but Phyllis wrongly assumes he’s flinching from her touch which makes her feel a certain way about her age/attractiveness to men in her head.

When later on an event means Nicky and Phyllis are left alone outside in the dark and share a passionate kiss, a chain of events are set in motion.

Phyllis questions her safe suburban lifestyle, her marriage and her parenting role. She decides to leave the family and live a rather bohemian lifestyle with Nicky, in a less than desirable part of London.

This act of desertion deeply affects not only her relationship with her husband, but severs the extremely close bond she has with her young son Hugh. Perhaps the most affected is teenager Colette, who is desperately trying to galvanise her own identity in the absence of a mother figure at a time that is often tricky enough to handle without your family fracturing around you.

Tessa Hadley perfectly depicts family life, marriage and parenthood. I also felt transported back in time to the late 60’s with all of the cultural, social and political changes. In the opening chapters describing the evening as Phyllis is getting ready for the dinner party I could almost hear the children playing in the street and feel the sticky heat. I was hugely invested right from the start and flew through the whole book in 24 hours.

I always enjoy books about struggling mothers or women to fight against the societal norm of what a ‘good’ mother should be. Tessa Hadley makes you think about the moral implications of Phyllis and her actions and it is often not clear who’s side you should fall on. I like a book that makes you think!

I am now really excited to work my way through Tessa Hadley’s backlist. Don’t you just love it when that happens?!

Thank you to Jonathan Cape and Isobel Turton for my review copy.

See you all soon.

Amanda xx

Looking Forward – Books I’m Excited About In 2022

Hello!

I wasn’t sure whether I was going to do a Most Anticipated Books Of 2022 post but here we are! This list is not exhaustive of course! These are just some of the books I have on my radar which have piqued my interest. There are some absolute corkers coming our way.

I of course haven’t read them yet so I’ll just be giving you blurb after blurb but you might see something you fancy!…Just to say that some of these books might not have a UK publication date but I’ve checked that they can be ordered through Blackwells etc.

Let’s go!

The Empty Greatcoat by Rebecca F John – Aderyn Press January.

When Francis House enlists in the British Army in 1907, at the tender age of fifteen years and three months, he is not thinking about war. He imagines he simply wants to earn his stripes – to ease his traumatised father’s Boer War memories, or perhaps to please his favourite sister, Lily, with whom he has always dreamt of adventure. But he soon discovers that simply becoming a soldier is not enough and, against the advice of his sergeant, he determines to seek out a real fight. Wading ashore at Gallipoli seven years later, Francis thinks he might just have found the site of his greatest opportunity. Here, he thinks, he might finally prove himself a man. First, though, he must find his missing friend Berto. He needs to say sorry. He cannot yet imagine the ghosts that might stand in his way.

A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Rowe – Faber & Faber January.

It is October 1966 and William Lavery is having the night of his life at his first black-tie do. But, as the evening unfolds, news hits of a landslide at a coal mine. It has buried a school: Aberfan. 

William decides he must act, so he stands and volunteers to attend. It will be his first job as an embalmer, and it will be one he never forgets. 

His work that night will force him to think about the little boy he was, and the losses he has worked so hard to forget. But compassion can have surprising consequences, because – as William discovers – giving so much to others can sometimes help us heal ourselves.

New Animal by Ella Baxter – Picador February.

Amelia is no stranger to sex and death. Her job in her family’s funeral parlour, doing make-up on the dead, might be unusual, but she’s good at it. Life and warmth comes from the men she meets online – combining with someone else’s body at night in order to become something else, at least for a while.

But when a sudden loss severs her ties with someone she loves, Amelia sets off on a seventy-two-hour mission to outrun her grief – skipping out on the funeral, running away to stay with her father in Tasmania and experimenting on the local BDSM scene. There she learns more about sex, death, grief, and the different ways pain works its way through the body.

It takes two fathers, a bruising encounter with a stranger and recognition of her own body’s limits to bring Amelia back to herself.

What A Shame by Abigail Bergstrom- Hodder & Stoughton February

There is something wrong with Mathilda.

She’s still reeling from the blow of a gut-punch break up and grieving the death of a loved one.
But that’s not it.

She’s cried all her tears, mastered her crow pose and thrown out every last reminder of him.
But that’s not helping.

Concerned that she isn’t moving on, Mathilda’s friends push her towards a series of increasingly unorthodox remedies.
Until the seams of herself begin to come undone.

Tender, unflinching and blisteringly funny, What a Shame glitters with rage and heartbreak, and offers up the joy of self-acceptance through an extraordinary rite of passage to overcome the prickly heat of female shame.

One Body by Catherine Simpson – Saraband February

In August 2018, 50-something Catherine Simpson’s world was upended with a diagnosis of breast cancer. One long, hard year later, the cancer was in remission – yet Catherine felt changed. She couldn’t simply move on as if nothing had happened. Coming face to face with her mortality had altered her entire perspective.

From puberty onwards, Catherine had experienced body-shaming, sexual harassment, menstrual pain, severe morning sickness, postnatal depression, weight gain and hair loss. She had been catcalled, ogled, propositioned, judged, dismissed. In other words, she’d gone through things many women can relate to. And she’d responded with dieting, fasting, shaving, plucking, tanning, toning, covering up in baggy or too-tight clothes, and finding ways to hide.

Of course, she’d had plenty of joy and laughter, too. She’d had far more freedoms than her mother. But had things been easier or better for her daughters, so far? And how did her path through cancer treatment alter her feelings about her body?

One Body is the frank and very often funny story of how Catherine came to appreciate the skin she is in – to be grateful for her body and all that it does and is.

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka – Fig Tree February

Alice is one of a group of obsessed recreational swimmers for whom their local swimming pool has become the centre of their lives – a place of unexpected kinship, freedom, and ritual. Until one day a crack appears beneath its surface … 

As cracks also begin to appear in Alice’s memory, her husband and daughter are faced with the dilemma of how best to care for her. As Alice clings to the tethers of her past in a Home she feels certain is not her home, her daughter must navigate the newly fractured landscape of their relationship.

A novel about mothers and daughters, grief and memory, love and implacable loss, The Swimmers is spellbinding, incantatory and unforgettable. The finest work yet from a true modern master.

Dance Move by Wendy Erskine – Picador February.

Meet Drew Lord Haig, called upon to sing the obscure hit from his youth at a paramilitary event. Or Max, who recalls an eventful journey to a Christian film festival. Meet Mrs Dallesandro, in the tanning salon on her wedding anniversary dreaming of a teenage sexual experience. And Sonya, who scours the streets of Belfast for the missing posters of her dead son.

In Dance Move, the new collection of stories from Wendy Erskine, we meet characters who are looking to wrest control of their lives, only to find themselves defined by the moment in their past that marked them.

In these stories – as in real life – the funny, the tender and the devastating go hand in hand. Full of warmth, the familiar and the strange, they are about what it means to live in the world, how far you can end up from where you came from, and what it means to look back.

A Very Nice Girl by Imogen Crimp – Bloomsbury February

Anna is struggling to afford life in London as she trains to be a singer. During the day, she vies to succeed against her course mates with their discreet but inexhaustible streams of cultural capital and money, and in the evening she sings jazz at a bar in the City to make ends meet. 

It’s there that she meets Max, a financier fourteen years older than her. Over the course of one winter, Anna’s intoxication oscillates between her hard-won moments on stage, where she can zip herself into the skin of her characters, and nights spent with Max in his glass-walled flat overlooking the city. 

But Anna’s fledgling career demands her undivided attention, and increasingly – whether he necessarily wills it or not – so does Max.

Woman, Eating by Claire Powell – Virago March

Lydia is hungry. She’s always wanted to try sashimi, ramen, onigiri with sour plum stuffed inside – the food her Japanese father liked to eat. And then there is bubble tea and the vegetables grown by the other young artists at the London studio space she is secretly squatting in. But Lydia can’t eat any of this. The only thing she can digest is blood, and it turns out that sourcing fresh pigs’ blood in London – where she is living away from her vampire mother for the first time – is much more difficult than she’d anticipated.

Then there are the humans: the people at the gallery she interns at, the strange men who follow her after dark, and Ben, a goofy-grinned artist she is developing feelings for. Lydia knows that they are her natural prey, but she can’t bring herself to feed on them. 

If Lydia is to find a way to exist in the world, she must reconcile the conflicts within her – between her demon and human sides, her mixed ethnic heritage, and her relationship with food, and, in turn, humans. Before any of this, however, she must eat.

At The Table by Claire Powell – Fleet March

To Nicole and Jamie Maguire, their parents seem the ideal couple – a suburban double act, happily married for more than thirty years. So when Linda and Gerry announce that they’ve decided to separate, the news sends shockwaves through the siblings’ lives, forcing them to confront their own expectations and desires.

Hardworking – and hard-drinking – Nicole pursues the ex she unceremoniously dumped six years ago, while people-pleasing Jamie fears he’s sleepwalking into a marriage he doesn’t actually want. But as the siblings grapple with the pressures of thirtysomething life, their parents struggle to protect the fragile façade of their own relationship, and the secrets they’ve both been keeping.

Our Wives Under The Sea by Julia Armfield – Picador March

Miri thinks she has got her wife back, when Leah finally returns after a deep sea mission that ended in catastrophe. It soon becomes clear, though, that Leah may have come back wrong. Whatever happened in that vessel, whatever it was they were supposed to be studying before they were stranded on the ocean floor, Leah has carried part of it with her, onto dry land and into their home.

To have the woman she loves back should mean a return to normal life, but Miri can feel Leah slipping from her grasp. Memories of what they had before – the jokes they shared, the films they watched, all the small things that made Leah hers – only remind Miri of what she stands to lose. Living in the same space but suddenly separate, Miri comes to realize that the life that they had might be gone.

Careering by Daisy Buchanan- Sphere March

Imogen has always dreamed of writing for a magazine. Infinite internships later, Imogen dreams of any job. Writing her blog around double shifts at the pub is neither fulfilling her creatively nor paying the bills.

Harri might just be Imogen’s fairy godmother. She’s moving from the glossy pages of Panache magazine to launch a fierce feminist site, The Know. And she thinks Imogen’s most outrageous sexual content will help generate the clicks she needs.

But neither woman is aware of the crucial thing they have in common. Harri, at the other end of her career, has also been bitten and betrayed by the industry she has given herself to. Will she wake up to the way she’s being exploited before her protégé realises that not everything is copy? Can either woman reconcile their love for work with the fact that work will never love them back? Or is a chaotic rebellion calling…

Post Traumatic by Chantal V Johnson – Dialogue April.

To the outside observer, Vivian is a success story – a dedicated lawyer who advocates for mentally ill patients at a psychiatric hospital. Privately, Vivian contends with the memories and aftereffects of her bad childhood, compounded by the everyday stresses of being a Black, Latinx woman living in a white society. She lives in a constant state of hypervigilant awareness that makes even a simple tube ride into a heart-pounding drama.

For years, Vivian has self-medicated with a mix of dating, dieting, dark humour and smoking weed with her best friend, Jane. But after a family reunion prompts Vivian to take a bold step, she finds herself alone in new and terrifying ways, without even Jane to confide in, and she starts to unravel.

Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart – Picador April

Born under different stars, Protestant Mungo and Catholic James live in a hyper-masculine world. They are caught between two of Glasgow’s housing estates where young working-class men divide themselves along sectarian lines, and fight territorial battles for the sake of reputation. They should be sworn enemies if they’re to be seen as men at all, and yet they become best friends as they find a sanctuary in the doocot that James has built for his prize racing pigeons. As they begin to fall in love, they dream of escaping the grey city, and Mungo must work hard to hide his true self from all those around him, especially from his elder brother Hamish, a local gang leader with a brutal reputation to uphold.

But the threat of discovery is constant and the punishment unspeakable. When Mungo’s mother sends him on a fishing trip to a loch in Western Scotland, with two strange men behind whose drunken banter lie murky pasts, he needs to summon all his inner strength and courage to get back to a place of safety, a place where he and James might still have a future.

That Green Eyed Girl by Julie Owen Moylan – Michael Joseph – May

1955: In an apartment on the Lower East Side, school teachers Dovie and Gillian live as lodgers. Dancing behind closed curtains, mixing cocktails for two, they guard their private lives fiercely. Until someone guesses the truth . . .

1975: Twenty years later in the same apartment, Ava Winters is keeping her own secret. Her mother has become erratic, haunted by something Ava doesn’t understand – until one sweltering July morning, she disappears.

Soon after her mother’s departure, Ava receives a parcel. Addressed simply to ‘Apartment 3B’, it contains a photo of a woman with the word ‘LIAR’ scrawled across it. Ava does not know what it means or who sent it. But if she can find out then perhaps she’ll discover the answers she is seeking – and meet the woman at the heart of it all . . .

Hush by Kate Maxwell – Virago – May

After five exhilarating years in New York, Stevie has a successful career and a glamorous social life. But what she most wants is a baby, an aspiration that feels impossible given that she is single, thirty-eight and living in a tiny apartment in Manhattan, far away from most of her family in England.

Determined to become a mother, Stevie returns to London and has a baby on her own. When she gives birth to Ash, she finds motherhood painfully at odds with her former life and her expectations. 

She begins to wonder if having a child was a mistake – and what she might be willing to do to escape. As she struggles with her new reality and what her future might hold, revelations from the past change everything she believed about family and love.

Vladimir by Julia May Jonas – Picador – May

When I was a child, I loved old men, and I could tell that they also loved me.

And so we meet our deliciously incisive narrator: a popular English professor whose husband, a charismatic professor at the same small liberal arts college, is under investigation for his inappropriate relationships with his former students. The couple have long had a mutual understanding when it comes to their extramarital pursuits, but with these new allegations, life has become far less comfortable for them both. And when our narrator becomes increasingly infatuated with Vladimir, a celebrated, married young novelist who’s just arrived on campus, their tinder-box world comes dangerously close to exploding.

Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh – Jonathan Cape – June

Little Marek, the abused and delusional son of the village shepherd, never knew his mother; his father told him she died in childbirth. One of life’s few consolations for Marek is his enduring bond with the blind village midwife, Ina, who suckled him when he was a baby, as she did for many of the village’s children. Ina’s gifts extend beyond childcare: she possesses a unique ability to communicate with the natural world. Her gift often brings her the transmission of sacred knowledge on levels far beyond those available to other villagers, however religious they might be. For some people, Ina’s home in the woods outside the village is a place to fear and to avoid, a godless place.

Among their number is Father Barnabas, the town priest and lackey for the depraved lord and governor, Villiam, whose hilltop manor contains a secret embarrassment of riches. The people’s desperate need to believe that there are powers that be who have their best interests at heart is put to a cruel test by Villiam and the priest, especially in this year of record drought and famine. But when fate brings Marek into violent proximity to the lord’s family, new and occult forces upset the old order. By year’s end, the veil between blindness and sight, life and death, the natural world and the spirit world will prove to be very thin indeed.

Acts Of Service by Lillian Fishman – Europa – July

If sex is a truth-teller, Eve―a young, queer woman in Brooklyn―is looking for answers. On an evening when she is feeling particularly impulsive, she posts some nude photos of herself online. This is how Eve meets Olivia, and through Olivia, the charismatic Nathan―and soon the three begin a relationship that disturbs Eve as much as it delights her. As each act of the affair unfolds, Eve is left to ask: to whom is she responsible? And to what extent do our desires determine who we are?

Schmutz by Felicia Berliner – Atria – July

Like the other women in her Brooklyn Hasidic community, Raizl expects to find a husband through an arranged marriage. Unlike the other women, Raizl has a secret.With a hidden computer to help her complete her college degree, she falls down the slippery slope of online pornography. As Raizl dives deeper into the world of porn at night, her daytime life begins to unravel. Between combative visits with her shrink to complicated arranged dates, Raizl must balance her growing understanding of her sexuality with the more conventional expectations of the family she loves.

Milk Teeth by Jessica Andrews – Sceptre – July

A girl grows up in the north of England amid scarcity, precarity and the toxic culture of heroin chic, believing that she needs to make herself smaller to claim presence in the world.

Years later, as a young woman with unattainable ideals, she meets someone who calls everything into question, and is forced to confront episodes from her past. Their relationship takes her from London to Barcelona and the precipice of a new life, full of sensuality. Yet she still feels an uneasiness. In the sticky Mediterranean heat, among tropical plants and secluded beaches, she must decide what form her adult life should take and learn how to feel deserving of love and care.

The Nightship by Jess Kidd – Canongate – August

1629: A newly orphaned young girl named Mayken is bound for the Dutch East Indies on theBatavia, one of the greatest ships of the Dutch Golden Age. Curious and mischievous, Mayken spends the long journey going on misadventures above and below the deck, searching for a mythical monster. But the true monsters might be closer than she thinks.1989: A lonely boy named Gil is sent to live off the coast of Western Australia among the seasonal fishing community where his late mother once resided. There, on the tiny reef-shrouded island, he discovers the story of an infamous shipwreck…

Mother In The Dark by Kayla Maiuri- Riverhead Books – August

When Anna’s sister calls with an urgent message, Anna doesn’t return the call. She knows it’s about their mother.Growing up in working class Boston in an Italian American family, Anna’s childhood was sparse but comfortable–filled with homemade pasta sauce and a close-knit neighborhood. Anna and her sisters are devoted to their mother, orbiting her like the sun, trying to keep up with her loving but mercurial nature as she bounces between tenderness and bitterness.When their father gets a new job outside the city, the family is tossed unceremoniously into a middle-class suburban existence. Anna’s mother is suddenly adrift, and the darkness lurking inside her expands until it threatens to explode. Her daughters, trapped with her in the new house, isolated, must do everything they can to keep her from unraveling.

Alternating between childhood and Anna’s twenties, when she receives a shattering call about her mother that threatens to blow up her own precariously constructed life in New York, Mother in the Dark asks whether we can ever really go back home when the idea of home is so unstable. Whether we can escape that instability or accept that our personalities are built around the defenses we put up. Maiuri is a master at revealing the fragile horrors of domestic family life and how the traumas of the past shape the present and generations of women. A story about sisterhood, the complications of class, and the chains of inheritance between mothers and daughters, Mother in the Dark delivers an unvarnished portrayal of a young woman consumed by her past and a family teetering on the edge of a knife.

There you go! I hope you’ve seen something that floats your boat. Let me know if you read any of of these.

See you all soon.

Amanda xx

Best Books Of The Year 2021

Here we are again folks!

I have to be honest and say I didn’t know if I was going to write a Best Books post at all on here. I’ve not posted anything on here for a few months now and have been doing all my reviewing over on Instagram and it’s been very liberating! I’m sure I’ll use this platform to review books every now and again depending on my mood and it’s handy to have for posts like this one.

Anyway, enough of that! You’re here for the books so let’s crack on! I have no rules for choosing my best books of the year. I simply scroll down through my Goodreads and any book that gives me ‘the feeling’ makes the list! Simple. I don’t limit numbers and I don’t impose the rule that it has to have been a book published this year. This is basically just a list of books I’ve loved regardless of when they were/are going to be published.

Bernard & Pat by Blair James – Corsair

Bernard and Pat tells of Catherine’s fractured memories of a time in her childhood when she was looked after by Bernard and Pat whilst her Mum was working. Bernard is a devout Christian but also abuses little Catherine whilst she is in the care of him and his wife.

Told in short sharp vignette style chapters each focussing on an object or person, room or event from Catherine’s childhood. Fragments of memory, the feel of an object, the smell of a house, how Catherine was feeling at the time.

The narrative is told from the perspective of Catherine as an adult, looking back on her childhood, the loss of her Dad, feeling small and excluded. The narrative style is portrayed as quite childlike and I initially thought this was young Catherine’s voice narrating, then there would be flashes of adult language to jolt you out and make you aware that this is infact an adult who is in a lot of pain, questioning her early life.

Catherine wonders why the adults around her didn’t realise what was going on, she questions why she has an innate need to please men who don’t deserve her time or her love. She yearns for her Dad, the man who could have rescued her. She doubts her own memories and feelings and wants validation. The events of her childhood have shaped the woman she is in adult life and she is trying her best to come to terms with that.

I hate to use the old reviewing cliché of describing a book as ‘unflinching’ but Bernard And Pat most definitely is just that. It’s a book you cannot look away from despite feeling quietly horrified at what is playing out in front of you. It is sharp, it is brilliant, it is heartbreaking and I am astounded and hugely excited that this is Blair James’ debut novel.

Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding – Bloomsbury

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.

My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley – Granta

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.

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.

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.

Sorrow & Bliss by Meg Mason – Picador

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 knew that this book would be one of my books of the year. Just brilliant.

The Stranding by Kate Sawyer – Coronet

We meet Ruth, a woman who has travelled to New Zealand on her own from London. At the start we know very little about her other than the fact that she is on a beach in NZ, deserted but for a beached whale and a man she meets called Nik. There is a bad vibe in the air and know that something bad has happened or is about to happen.


When the bad thing happens (I can say no more than that! 😆), Ruth and Nik take refuge in the carcass of the whale, thus enabling them to survive the event but leaving them in a list apocalyptic world.

From here we go back in time to Ruth’s life back in London before the disaster, where she has been having a secret affair with a married man named Alex. Despite the disapproval of her friends and family, Ruth pursues this relationship and Alex leaves his wife and children. Over time, Ruth questions whether this relationship is really everything she wanted….

The timeline shifts with each chapter and we follow present day Ruth and Nik in NZ struggling to survive in a new world. Scavenging for food and hoping there is life out there and they will eventually be saved. Then we follow Ruth in the past following the timeline of events that lead to her arrival in NZ.

What I loved about this book (besides the dual timeline which you know I love) is that you never really know what the disaster is, Ruth steadfastly avoids the news even though she aware that something is brewing. In doing so we avoid the news too and are never fully aware of the details of what exactly had happened. This allows you to follow the story on a deeper character level rather than getting caught up in the details of the disaster. This is a story of love and survival high mentally and physically and I was HOOKED!

I had the pleasure of chatting to Kate about the book over on @twofondofbooks Instagram with Clare. Check it out here

Sundial by Catriona Ward – Viper Books

I can’t say anything about this one as my review will be posted in January! Soz! Just know that I loved it and you need to get your hands on it.

The First Day Of Spring by Nancy Tucker – Hutchinson

The story starts with eight year old Chrissie Banks giving the reader her murderous bombshell confession in the most calm and contained of ways. We know from the outset that little Chrissie has indeed murdered two year old Steven and left his body in the ‘blue house’ in the alleys. 

The close knit community of families are shaken to the core at the grim discovery and mothers are extra vigilant over the safety of their little ones. They are appalled that something so terrible could happen in their neighbourhood and are determined to keep their own children safe and find out who could have perpetrated this heinous act upon an innocent boy. 

Chrissie meanwhile is wandering the neighbourhood with her dark secret ‘fizzing like sherbet’ in her belly. She is giddy with the power she felt whilst she choked the life out of little Steven. 

Chrissie doesn’t hold any power at home. In fact, Chrissie has a very sad and lonely life at home. Her father is absent ‘at her majesty’s pleasure’ most of the time, flitting in and out of Chrissie’s life as and when he pleases. Chrissie’s mum quite clearly has mental health issues and often isn’t even aware where Chrissie is. The child is neglected and has a constant gnawing hunger. 

Despite the terrible neglect, Chrissie still champions her mother and sees the positive in the smallest of concessions, like her mother leaving the kitchen window ajar so she can climb back through at night. 

With her friends and other adults Chrissie is somewhat of a force to be reckoned with. She stands for no nonsense and can quite easily handle herself. She thinks nothing of a swift kick to the shins or shoving someone over. The other children are very wary of her bolshy ways and have to keep their wits about them. They are well aware that she has a vicious and mean streak which frightens the majority of them. 

The adults in the neighbourhood see a pest, a nuisance and a trouble causer and not the lonely and forgotten little girl who is forced to grow up far too quickly. 

The story then flits forward some 20 years later and we follow Chrissie, now given a new identity as Julia, and her young daughter Molly. Julia is working at a fish and chip shop and trying to keep her daughter safe but in only the most physical of ways and struggles to connect with her emotionally. Due to her past and the terrible crime she committed, Julia is well aware of how easily children can come to harm if you are not watching them carefully. 

She treats her life with Molly as being very regimented. Their schedule is timed down to the minute in order to fill their days and not allow Julia a moment to stop and think or have to bond emotionally with her daughter. A daughter who she feels she doesn’t deserve. 

But when the phone rings, and keeps on ringing, Julia is forced to confront her dark past in order to have a hope of salvaging her future. 

Well, this book from start to finish was so compelling. The narrative voice of young Chrissie is so immature yet insightful. To see the adult world through an eight year old’s eyes and experience what it is like to be inside her head is at times hard to handle. She lives such a terrible life at home and on the one hand, of course you feel sad for her but then you are hit over the head by the horrifying fact that she is a murderer. 

Chrissie revels in her secret and yearns to feel the fizzy sensation of power again. She only feels momentary jolts of remorse, not enough to make her feel truly sorry for her actions. This is in direct opposition to how she feels as an adult looking back on her crimes. 

It’s interesting to revisit the relationship she had with her troubled mother and feckless father. Seeing her mother through little Chrissie’s eyes then seeing how the relationship has changed over the years of Chrissie’s incarceration and beyond. 

I think the most notable element for me was witnessing a truly shocking event through the eyes of such a young child. It goes against everything we expect and is made extra shocking by the fact that the naivety and childishness of the perpetrator is jarring with the act itself.

This is a book that I think will pull people in opposite directions. I battled with my conflicting feelings whilst reading it and I just know that for some people it won’t be palatable. I however LOVED it!

Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder – Harvill Secker

When I first saw Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder on Twitter, I was initially drawn to the cover and title and scuttled off to Google more. When I read the blurb I got the book tingles before I’d even got my hands on a copy. An exhausted struggling mother who thinks she’s turning into a dog?…..YES PLEASE. 

If you’ve been here for a while you’ll know I love books about motherhood. Particularly when that mother is having problems. But I also love weird fiction that deals with transformation or shapeshifting of sorts (think The Harpy by Megan Hunter or the short story collection Foxfire Wolfskin by Sharon Blackie). 

Nightbitch tells the story of a woman and mother in her thirties. She has a young toddler son and a husband who works away for most of the week, returning only at weekends. The woman is referred to only as ‘the mother’ in the first half of the book, later becoming Nightbitch. 

The mother used to be an artist but left behind the artistic world to focus on caring for her young son. A boy who at two years old is quite demanding, doesn’t sleep much and subsequently ends up in his parents bed most nights. 

It is during one of these restless, sleepless nights that the mother feels such absolute rage at her husband and the life she has been left with and this prompts the start of her strange transformation. 

It is a transformation that begins slowly and insidiously, a small patch of fur like hair on the back of her neck, her teeth seeming much sharper and canine like, a very heightened sense of smell and hearing and an urge to buy copious amounts of red meat in the supermarket and taste tiny morsels of it raw. 

Her husband laughs off her concerns and her young son is absolutely beside himself with joy as his mother begins to slowly abandon herself to her canine longings. They spend their days playing ‘doggy’ games, chasing each other across the grass, playing with balls, drinking water from a dog bowl and letting the boy sleep in a kennel. When her husband returns from working the mother returns the house to its normal state and tries to play down the doggy games as just a bit of fun with her son, bending to his childish wants. 

But in reality the mother feels like a much more accomplished parent when she gives in to her urges to nurture the child as a dog would it’s pup. She battles with the internal struggle of whether she is a good mother or a terrible mother for allowing the dog games to happen and whether they will damage her son in later life. 

Ultimately this is a story transformation borne of a deep rage. It is an utterly enthralling, rich an vivid tale of the way women have to find their way in the new role of ‘mother’ that is cast upon them, and leave their old selves behind. 

It is feral and bloody and visceral and pulsing with raw anger and rage and I loved it. An interesting take on motherhood that I won’t be forgetting in a hurry

The Melting by Lize Spit – Picador

Set in rural Flanders, #TheMelting tells the story of Eva and her two male friends Pim, the son of a local dairy farmer and Lauren’s the son of the village butcher. This unlikely trio are thrown together at school as they are the only three children born in the village in the same year. They are grouped together in lessons and spend a lot of their free time together outside of school.

Eva is looked on by the boys as one of them. Their adolescent sights are firmly set on the local girls who they give a number rating to for their attractiveness. It’s this ‘game’ that leads the boys into taking their fun further. They ask Eva to devise a riddle that the girls must solve, each question they ask they have to remove a piece of clothing….

Eva desperately wants to fit in with the boys as her home life with her detached father,alcoholic mother and troubled sister is difficult for her.

The game takes on a very sinister turn when Eva decides to tell the answer to the riddle to a girl the boys have given the highest rating to. A girl that Eva very much looks up to….

In the present day, Eva receives an invitation from Pim to return to her childhood village. Eva has thoughts of the summer of 2002 on her mind and packs a huge block of ice in her boot….but what could she possibly need this for?….

This book deals with a very dark side of coming of age. The burgeoning relationships between the friends and the battles with new and intense sexual feelings give the childhood pranks a dark edge.

The tone put me in mind of The Discomfort Of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, which is a book that I know divides opinion.

This is by no means an easy read! Some of the things these children do are pretty grim! You need to have quite a strong stomach.

That said, I found I couldn’t put it down and thought about it A LOT when I wasn’t reading it. I don’t often enjoy books that deal with ‘coming of age’, but this book was just the right amount of dark to keep me hooked. Give it a whirl!

Burntcoat by Sarah Hall – Faber & Faber

It tells the story of sculptress Edith Harkness who is making preparations for the end of her life. She knows she’s not got long left and along the way we find out why.

The narrative flits back and forth between childhood, her early sculpting success and a brief but intense love affair she has with a Turkish man she meets in a local restaurant.

We learn of her mother’s brain haemorrhage when Edith is only 8 years old, her father’s retreat from their lives and her mother’s battle to re-learn everything and take care of her daughter.

Edith gains acclaim for her sculpting after landing some high profile commissions and is able to buy Burntcoat a big old house with a huge studio space. This is to become the place she is holed up with her lover when a virus hits (sound familiar!) and the world begins to crumble.

The virus isn’t covid, it’s more harmful and the public react to lockdown in much more violent ways. Edith and Halit are thrown together in lockdown and their passion and intimacy builds as they hunker down, doing their best to evade the virus that is taking hold of the world whilst learning about each other.

In the present day, Edith reflects on this time as she prepares for the inevitable end of her life.

Sarah Hall is such a great writer. I have only ever read her short story collections but I count some of her stories as the most memorable I’ve read. This novel is about love, passion, resilience and power. It burrows under your skin and completely takes over. I read it in one evening and was completely consumed by it. I was pleased that there were certain distinctions between the virus and covid. If it had been covid I think I would have felt a little more uncomfortable reading about it. However, there are certain similarities which help you understand the intensity of lockdown and what Edith and Halit are going through.

Dead Relatives by Lucie McKnight Hardy – Dead Ink

This is the only short story collection to make the cut this year and boy is it a belter! Lucie makes the ordinary extraordinary and tinges her stories with darkness and oddness and insidious feelings of things not being quite right….

Myself and Clare had the absolute pleasure of chatting to Lucie on our joint Instagram account @twofondofbooks which I urge you to watch here

If you like short stories that are creepy and odd and crawl under your skin, you need this collection.

Free Love by Tessa Hadley – Jonathan Cape

Annoyingly I’m going to have to keep you hanging on this one aswell! My review will be up in January. Safe to say, I loved it!

Skin Lane by Neil Bartlett – Serpents Tail

SkinLane tells the almost fairytale fable-esque story of Mr F, a furrier working at Scheiners making items of fur clothing. Set in London 1967 against a backdrop of social and political change, we follow Mr F a 47 year old fastidious and taciturn man who sticks rigidly to his routines and schedules. He lives alone and keeps himself to himself. We join him at a point in his life when he has started experiencing a recurring nightmare of finding a dead, naked young man hanging by his feet from his bathroom rafters. This dream troubles Mr F greatly and he cannot fathom what it can mean of who the young man is.

When 16 year old Ralph (who the machinists dub ‘Beauty’ on account of his dark good looks) joins the company under Mr F’s tutelage, Mr F fuses his recurring nightmare with this broodingly good looking boy and a frightening obsession begins to form.

This story is told to you as if you are having a fairytale read to you which I enjoyed very much. This writing style put me in mind of the start of The Crimson Petal And The White and Melmoth. It also riffs off Beauty And The Beast but in a very dark way. The writing is detailed and does often deal with the minutiae of everyday routines. The pacing is torturously slow but builds amazing tension and atmosphere that seems to crackle off the pages.

I’m so glad I eventually picked this one up. Although I am a little mad at myself for leaving it for so long. Oh and if you don’t want to read about animal skins give this one a swerve.

So there we have it! See anything you like? Have you read any of these and did any of them make your list too?

Here’s to more amazing books in 2022!

See you soon.

Amanda xx

The Apparition Phase By Will Maclean – A Review

Publisher: William Heinemann

Publication Date: 29th October 2020

I picked up The Apparition Phase from my shelf on a whim one Saturday afternoon after hankering after a classic ghost story.

I love a good haunted house story but often find I’m left wanting in some small way…..luckily with this book I was left fully satisfied and my ghostly tastes were more than catered for!

Set in the 1970’s in the Home Counties, the story kicks off with teenage twins Tim and Abi and their quest to fake a ghost photograph. The twins have an innate interest in anything paranormal and supernatural and spend much of their time in their attic reading books on the subject and debating the various myths and legends surrounding notable ghost stories. They are very much intertwined in their tastes and isolate themselves at school.

Once they have faked their ghost photograph, they figure the only way to test out its success would be to show a pupil at their school and gauge their reaction. They choose Janice Tupp, a girl who is herself isolated and quiet. The experiment doesn’t quite pan out how the twins expect when Janice is completely taken in by the photo and later that day faints in the classroom and knocks herself out.

The twins figure the only way to set the record straight and stop Janice from telling anyone what they’ve done is to tell her that the photograph has been faked. Janice doesn’t take too kindly to the news and insists that the twins have infact taken a picture of a ghost. They invite her round to their house to show her the attic and how they faked the image, however whilst there Janice suffers an episode which looks like a possession of sorts and starts to relay information to the twins that they cannot fathom.

After this incident, a couple of years pass and Abi goes missing one day after school. Tim is distraught and tries to pin her disappearance on the things that Janice foretold in her possession. This unsettles his parents who refer him to a psychologist. This psychologist attempts to prove to Tim that his belief in the supernatural is unfounded by taking him to a country house called Yarlings where a ghost investigation is underway with a small group of ghost hunters who are yet to come up with any supernatural evidence.

This backfires and only serves to pique Tim’s interest more. Over the course of a couple of weeks Tim becomes embroiled in the group’s studies at Yarlings and finds himself at the centre of happenings and disturbances. But just how much of the evidence is real and who at Yarlings can be trusted?….

This book for me was an absolute treat and I almost wish I’d left it closer to Halloween to read. It had all the elements of a ghost story that I absolutely love, made all the more spooky by the 70’s retro vibe. It has lots of information about ghost stories that were reported in books and the press at the time which I found fascinating and I could even remember the famous images of supposed ghosts that were mentioned from looking at the same books in my school days. I have also recently been reading about the Chinnery Ghost which makes an appearance in the book too.

This is an atmospheric read that I absolutely flew through. A perfect read for the spooky season. I loved it!

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xx

Still Life By Sarah Winman – A Review

Publisher: 4th Estate

Publication Date: 10th June 2021

Have you read Tin Man by Sarah Winman?….if not go and read it IMMEDIATELY.

With that said, when I knew that Sarah Winman had a new book coming out this year I was proper excited! When I got a beautiful limited edition proof through my letterbox I nearly POPPED!

It took all of my willpower not to read it too soon ahead of publication so it sat taunting me on my book trolley for a few months. Pure torture!

Still Life tells the story of two central characters Evelyn and Ulysses who meet briefly at the opening of the book. It’s 1944 in Italy and young British soldier and former globe maker, Ulysses meets art historian Evelyn Skinner, a woman in her sixties who has come to Italy to rescue works of art caught up in the war. But there are also whispers that she is actually a spy…

When the two of them spend a night in a Tuscan villa wine cellar during a raid, they make a connection based on art and Ulysses positive mental attitude towards life and his own mortality.

Back home in London, Ulysses has left behind a wife, Peggy. A barmaid at an east end pub called The Stoat And Parrot, Peggy is a woman who loves a drink, perhaps a little too much, and is head strong and quite detached. Despite really loving and respecting Ulysses, she does enjoy a little action on the side, especially with a particular American GI named Eddie who she falls hook line and sinker for.

At the end of the war Ulysses returns to London to help out at the pub run by landlord Col. On his return he finds that times have changed, and not only has Peg found a new love, she’s also had a daughter Alys, and wants a divorce.

Ulysses and Peg have a lovely relationship. They respect each other massively and care about each other deeply, however Peg’s heart now belongs to Eddie who has returned home to America never having known about Alys.

From here we get to know some of the best characters I have ever had the pleasure to read about. We have Col the pub landlord, a sometimes abrasive man with an acid reflux problem. Then there’s his daughter Ginny who has special needs and is such a sweet and much loved girl. Then there are various regulars to the pub, most notably Pete who plays the piano and Cress, a regular who fits neatly into the ‘family’ at the pub. Cress is an intelligent man who looks out for everyone, erudite and in touch with everything around him with a propensity to have ‘visions’ in dreams which quite often turn out to be quite lucrative. Last but not least is resident parrot Claude. A bird who can talk and certainly makes his voice heard!

When Ulysses life in Florence during the war is brought once again to the forefront, an event from the past sees him returning to Florence to set up a new life, along with Alys whom he considers his own daughter, and Cress. The story then spans many years of their lives in Florence, the people they meet there, the friends they make and the strong bonds they form. Various people from the pub back in London come and go and treat Florence as a second home.

It is here in Florence, a good many years after their first meeting that Ulysses and Evelyn’s lives converge again.

I just absolutely adore Sarah Winman’s writing. She portrays an eclectic mix of characters so well. The relationships between them all are just so beautiful and natural and really do warm your heart. This whole concept of a ‘found family’ really fascinated me and the crew from The Stoat And Parrot pub are no exception. They look out for each other, they lift each other up and intuitively know each other inside out.

I was so swept up in Ulysses story and read long after I should have been asleep because I just loved being in his world. I have to admit that I much preferred Ulysses narrative to Evelyn’s. As Evelyn is an art historian her narrative often included references to works of art and artists which I have no knowledge of so in fairness I just let those bits wash over me and I still enjoyed the story.

I really enjoyed the scene setting and the beautiful depictions of Florence which almost becomes a character within itself. The descriptions of food and lovely Italian coffee and wine had my tastebuds tingling and I really wanted to just close my eyes and imagine sitting out in a square as the sun is setting and sipping a good red and eating a delicious bowl of pasta.

This is once again an absolutely stunning book which will leave you a little bereft after reading it. I miss Ulysses and the crew!

Get your hands on a copy for sure!

Thank you to Matt Clacher and 4th Estate for my review copy.

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xx

Nightbitch By Rachel Yoder – A Review

Publisher: Harvill Secker

Publication Date: 22nd July 2021

This book is strange and dark and fierce and positively pulsating with rage and I BLOODY LOVED IT.

That’s it.

That’s the review.

But if you need more, read on…..

When I first saw Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder on Twitter, I was initially drawn to the cover and title and scuttled off to Google more. When I read the blurb I got the book tingles before I’d even got my hands on a copy. An exhausted struggling mother who thinks she’s turning into a dog?…..YES PLEASE.

If you’ve been here for a while you’ll know I love books about motherhood. Particularly when that mother is having problems. But I also love weird fiction that deals with transformation or shapeshifting of sorts (think The Harpy by Megan Hunter or the short story collection Foxfire Wolfskin by Sharon Blackie).

Nightbitch tells the story of a woman and mother in her thirties. She has a young toddler son and a husband who works away for most of the week, returning only at weekends. The woman is referred to only as ‘the mother’ in the first half of the book, later becoming Nightbitch.

The mother used to be an artist but left behind the artistic world to focus on caring for her young son. A boy who at two years old is quite demanding, doesn’t sleep much and subsequently ends up in his parents bed most nights.

It is during one of these restless, sleepless nights that the mother feels such absolute rage at her husband and the life she has been left with and this prompts the start of her strange transformation.

It is a transformation that begins slowly and insidiously, a small patch of fur like hair on the back of her neck, her teeth seeming much sharper and canine like, a very heightened sense of smell and hearing and an urge to buy copious amounts of red meat in the supermarket and taste tiny morsels of it raw.

Her husband laughs off her concerns and her young son is absolutely beside himself with joy as his mother begins to slowly abandon herself to her canine longings. They spend their days playing ‘doggy’ games, chasing each other across the grass, playing with balls, drinking water from a dog bowl and letting the boy sleep in a kennel. When her husband returns from working the mother returns the house to its normal state and tries to play down the doggy games as just a bit of fun with her son, bending to his childish wants.

But in reality the mother feels like a much more accomplished parent when she gives in to her urges to nurture the child as a dog would it’s pup. She battles with the internal struggle of whether she is a good mother or a terrible mother for allowing the dog games to happen and whether they will damage her son in later life.

Ultimately this is a story transformation borne of a deep rage. It is an utterly enthralling, rich an vivid tale of the way women have to find their way in the new role of ‘mother’ that is cast upon them, and leave their old selves behind.

It is feral and bloody and visceral and pulsing with raw anger and rage and I loved it. An interesting take on motherhood that I won’t be forgetting in a hurry. Nightbitch is a give star read and will definitely be on my books of the year list.

Thank you to the publisher for my proof copy.

See you soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xx

Magma By Thora Hjörleifsdóttir – A Review

Publisher: Picador

Publication Date: 8th July 2021

I did the cheeky ask for this one when I saw it on YouTube. Any book that tackles difficult relationships is always a draw for me.

In Magma by Thora Hjörleifsdóttir (translated from the Norwegian by Meg Matich) we meet twenty year old Lilja, a woman who has fallen hard for a slightly older man who attends her university. The opening chapter details the fact that Lilja has given her new partner chlamydia and his disgusted reaction to this.

At first their relationship is somewhat casual. The narrative is told in the first person perspective of Lilja as she divulges brief snapshots of their difficult union, referring only to ‘him’ and never telling us his name.

He is a conceited and controlling man who consistently cheats on Lilja and makes very little effort to hide it. In fact returning home to tell her in detail who he has hooked up with. Lilja, for her part blames herself for his infidelity, believing she’s not enough for him in bed and berating herself for not making the effort to go out with him to the bar on that particular evening.

As the story progresses there are more and more red flags coming to the fore. None of Lilja’s friends like him and he’s sullen and rude around her parents and is resentful of the time she spends with them. He spends lots of his time chatting online to various women, again making little or no effort to hide it, and spending time with his ex-girlfriend who he won’t have a word said against. This man is the archetypal gaslighter and Lilja is far too forgiving due to her low self esteem.

As he makes her feel more and more worthless about herself and debases her with acts of sexual degradation, Lilja begins to self-harm and spiral down into a deep depression.

This is one of those fascinating books that drags you in with its short sharp writing style but frustrates you to the core when you read about smart young women who can’t see their self-worth.

The book is quite short in itself but the chapters are essentially very brief vignettes, almost snapshots along the timeline of their relationship. Each vignette is headed up with a different subject, for example ‘The Ex’, ‘Hygiene’, ‘Chlamydia’, ‘Anal Sex’ etc and deals with that particular topic. There are lots of very frank sexual details which can be quite jarring, especially as they are delivered in such a matter of fact unemotional, almost detached way. This only served to make me feel more empathy for Lilja, as she knows the things he’s asking her to do are not to her sexual taste and she’s doing them wholly to please him, as humiliating as that is.

As I’ve previously mentioned, books which revolve around these types of insidiously vile male characters who have a hold over vulnerable women can be extremely frustrating to read and this one was but totally kept my interest.

The writing is sharp and fresh and to the point and feels pacy due to the short vignette style. I really enjoyed it even though ‘enjoyed’ is probably not the right word in this books case!

Thank you so much to Katie Green and Picador for my review copy.

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xxx

The First Day Of Spring By Nancy Tucker – A Review

Publication Date: 24th June 2021

Publisher: Hutchinson

Child narrators have always been a little bit tricky for me. But I when I read that the eight year old girl at the centre of The First Day Of Spring by Nancy Tucker had killed a two year old boy I knew I had to give this book a whirl! And with a first line of ‘I killed a little boy today. Held my hands around his throat, felt his blood pump hard against my thumbs’….I knew this book would be somewhat of a jaw dropper…..IT WAS.

The story starts with eight year old Chrissie Banks giving the reader her murderous bombshell confession in the most calm and contained of ways. We know from the outset that little Chrissie has indeed murdered two year old Steven and left his body in the ‘blue house’ in the alleys.

The close knit community of families are shaken to the core at the grim discovery and mothers are extra vigilant over the safety of their little ones. They are appalled that something so terrible could happen in their neighbourhood and are determined to keep their own children safe and find out who could have perpetrated this heinous act upon an innocent boy.

Chrissie meanwhile is wandering the neighbourhood with her dark secret ‘fizzing like sherbet’ in her belly. She is giddy with the power she felt whilst she choked the life out of little Steven.

Chrissie doesn’t hold any power at home. In fact, Chrissie has a very sad and lonely life at home. Her father is absent ‘at her majesty’s pleasure’ most of the time, flitting in and out of Chrissie’s life as and when he pleases. Chrissie’s mum quite clearly has mental health issues and often isn’t even aware where Chrissie is. The child is neglected and has a constant gnawing hunger.

Despite the terrible neglect, Chrissie still champions her mother and sees the positive in the smallest of concessions, like her mother leaving the kitchen window ajar so she can climb back through at night.

With her friends and other adults Chrissie is somewhat of a force to be reckoned with. She stands for no nonsense and can quite easily handle herself. She thinks nothing of a swift kick to the shins or shoving someone over. The other children are very wary of her bolshy ways and have to keep their wits about them. They are well aware that she has a vicious and mean streak which frightens the majority of them.

The adults in the neighbourhood see a pest, a nuisance and a trouble causer and not the lonely and forgotten little girl who is forced to grow up far too quickly.

The story then flits forward some 20 years later and we follow Chrissie, now given a new identity as Julia, and her young daughter Molly. Julia is working at a fish and chip shop and trying to keep her daughter safe but in only the most physical of ways and struggles to connect with her emotionally. Due to her past and the terrible crime she committed, Julia is well aware of how easily children can come to harm if you are not watching them carefully.

She treats her life with Molly as being very regimented. Their schedule is timed down to the minute in order to fill their days and not allow Julia a moment to stop and think or have to bond emotionally with her daughter. A daughter who she feels she doesn’t deserve.

But when the phone rings, and keeps on ringing, Julia is forced to confront her dark past in order to have a hope of salvaging her future.

Well, this book from start to finish was so compelling. The narrative voice of young Chrissie is so immature yet insightful. To see the adult world through an eight year old’s eyes and experience what it is like to be inside her head is at times hard to handle. She lives such a terrible life at home and on the one hand, of course you feel sad for her but then you are hit over the head by the horrifying fact that she is a murderer.

Chrissie revels in her secret and yearns to feel the fizzy sensation of power again. She only feels momentary jolts of remorse, not enough to make her feel truly sorry for her actions. This is in direct opposition to how she feels as an adult looking back on her crimes.

It’s interesting to revisit the relationship she had with her troubled mother and feckless father. Seeing her mother through little Chrissie’s eyes then seeing how the relationship has changed over the years of Chrissie’s incarceration and beyond.

I think the most notable element for me was witnessing a truly shocking event through the eyes of such a young child. It goes against everything we expect and is made extra shocking by the fact that the naivety and childishness of the perpetrator is jarring with the act itself.

‘I was sitting next to Donna who I didn’t like because she was a goody-goody and she was also fat. I counted the dimples in her puddingy knees while Mr Michaels talked, and I wanted to put my finger inside one, just to see how it would feel, but she shoved my hand away when I tried.

I cupped my hands around my mouth and pressed them against her ear. ‘I was there,’ I whispered. ‘When they found him I was there.’

‘Get off,’ she whispered.

She flicked her head round to look at me. Our mouths were very close together, close enough that I could have kissed her, except obviously I was never ever going to do that because she was a fat goody-goody. Her breath smelt of jam.

What did he look like?’ She whispered

‘There was loads of blood everywhere,’ I whispered. ‘It was spraying out all over everywhere. Some of it even got on me’……

This is a book that I think will pull people in opposite directions. I battled with my conflicting feelings whilst reading it and I just know that for some people it won’t be palatable. I however LOVED it!

Chrissie has a shocking and compelling story that has to be told no matter how hard it is to hear and I will never ever forget her narrative voice.

Please give this book a try! I am certain it will be on my books of the year list.

Thank you to the publisher for my proof copy.

See you soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xx

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