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