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