The Dollmaker By Nina Allan – A Review

Publisher: Riverrun

Publication Date: 4th April 2019

For a kickoff this proof is beaut! Black sprayed edges? Yes please, but enough of that.

Andrew Garvie is considered the odd kid in school, he’s shorter than everyone and has a keen interest in collecting dolls. This interest sweeps him along into adulthood and becomes more of an obsession.

When Andrew sees an advert in the personal ads at the back of his doll collecting magazine, asking for pen-pals sharing the same interest in dolls and particularly doll maker and author Ewa Chaplin, he responds. Despite not really having an interest in Ewa, Andrew would just like a companion with a common interest who shares his love of dolls, it helps that the advertisers name is Bramber Winters, a whimsical name that Andrew is drawn to.

Andrew and Bramber correspond with each other via letter and Andrew soon discovers she is living in a remote mental institution on Bodmin Moor. As they reveal more about their earlier lives to each via their correspondence, Andrew has the notion that he would like to make a surprise visit to Bramber, to rescue her and share their love of dolls in real life.

Andrew takes a book of stories written by Ewa Chaplin with him during his trip across the country to surprise Bramber.  On reading these short stories he begins to draw parallels between his life and the lives of the characters in the story. They are macabre, creepy, insidiously strange stories which have similar themes and threads running through them.  Dwarves, odd characters and gruesome fairytale-esque qualities. Andrew is disconcerted but determined to complete his journey to save Bramber.  But how will Bramber react when he finally makes it to Bodmin moor?…

This story is told via Andrew’s narrative, Brambers’ letters to Andrew and interspersed with the stories of Ewa Chaplin.  It is a quirkily told tale, the like of which I don’t think I’ve ever read before.  The short stories themselves would make an absolutely fantastic short story collection with a creepy undertone running throughout.  They are just the kinds of stories I love to read! I enjoy stories with a creeping sense of forboding and a sense that something is not quite right…. The only ‘issue’ i had with these stories was the lack of time and place. Whilst reading the first couple I found myself trying to grasp onto any details which would give me a sense of what time period I was in.  I found I was flipping the pages back and forth looking for details.  It was difficult because the language and tone of these stories made them feel very fairytale like, which in turn made me feel as if I was in a bygone era, however occasionally modern references were made.  In the end I decided to give up looking for clues and just immerse myself in the stories and enjoy them for what they were.

Character wise Bramber and Andrew are both very interesting.  Having said that I’m not sure I found them very likeable, Andrew more so than Bramber.  I just felt a slight disconnection with them and didn’t really understand their odd relationship.  Even though Andrew’s narrative is told in a modern setting, his demeanour and language made it feel a little dated to me.  Again I found it hard to develop a real sense of time and place.

I have read reviews on Goodreads from people saying they didn’t engage with the interspersed short stories and even thought they might have got a bad print copy.  Conversely I thought the opposite, as I mentioned above, I would have much preferred the short stories as a standalone collection without Andrew and Bramber’s narrative.  Sorry!

I was enthralled by the first two thirds of this book but then I have to admit I lost interest a little by the latter third and found myself racing through to finish.  Overall I would say that this is certainly a quirky read, some moments of brillance and some moments where it lost it’s way a little. Not a book I would reccommend to everyone but one that needs to be experienced if you are in the mood for something a little on the strange side!

Thank you so much to the publisher for the proof copy.

 

See you soon

Amanda – Bookish Chat xxx

 

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The Choke By Sofie Laguna – A Review

Publisher: Aardvark Bureau

Publication Date: 28th March 2019

Early 1970’s in an Australian rural town next to the Murray river, 10 year old Justine Lee is struggling with life. Her mother left when she was a toddler, her father, Ray is somewhat of a wanderer, dipping in and out of little Justine’s life as and when he sees fit. Where he goes and what he does during his many absences in anyone’s guess.

Justine lives with Pop, her paternal grandfather. A man who is psychologically scarred by the horrors of the Boer war. A man who struggles with not only looking after a 10 year old girl, being her sole carer, but also who struggles deeply with looking after himself, battling his internal demons each and every day.

Justine has huge difficulties fitting in at school, a sufferer of dyslexia, Justine is falling more and more behind her peers in their studies. An outcast in the social spectrum of school life, Justine has a very tenuous ‘friendship’ with two girls who have very little respect for her. When she is asked to sit next to Michael one day in class, a boy who is physically disabled and the unfortunate butt of everyone’s jokes, Justine begins to find an affiliation with him, which later forms into a strong bond. Michael understands her, looks past her failings in school and looks out for her, taking her into his family, where she is cosseted and treated to a glimpse of what a real comfortable, normal family life is all about.

Justine, in her loneliness and isolation finds solace in nature and the river. She regularly spends time down at ‘The Choke’, the narrowest part of the river, in her hideout. Imagining a life she feels she’ll never have.

When Ray comes back into town after one of his absences and snarls Justine up in his criminal behaviour and vengeful acts on a neighbouring family, Justine’s life veers down a path she is ill prepared for and ultimately she has to fight harder than any young girl should ever have to.

I think I felt overly emotional reading this book because my own daughter is nearly the same age as Justine at the start of the book. The reading experience, especially of a book like this, is always heightened when you can identify as a reader in some way to the characters.

She is just a confused, lonely, troubled little girl who is crying out for some love and care. Pop, whilst trying his hardest most of the time to care for Justine just doesn’t have the wherewithal to do the job properly. There are days where he forgets to light the fire, doesn’t bother with cooking dinner and takes to his bed with his aching gut and bottles of beer for company. He seeks solace in his beloved chickens, talking more to them than he does to young Justine. But occasionally they come together and his affection for her is shown in the smallest of ways.

I am notoriously bad with child narrators (I have a blog post planned about this subject). But I think because Justine has such a brave and distinct voice, I just gelled with her narrative. I also feel that as I have a daughter who is ten, I could identify with Justine. Reading a book about a character you can equate to someone in your real life always makes a story way more emotive I find.

This story is not an easy read by any means. With themes of neglect, sexual violence, alcoholism and loneliness it isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste. However I feel Justine’s story is an important one. The writing is compelling and Sofie Laguna doesn’t pull any punches. However I was somewhat relieved when a certain scene was left to the readers imagination for the most part.

I was reading this book on my lunch break at work and found myself with a sense of foreboding building in my stomach. I knew what was about to happen but desperately hoped it wouldn’t. I almost wanted to set the book down and hope it would halt the flow of events!

Emotive and raw, dealing unflinchingly with difficult subjects, Justine’s story needs to be heard. Sofie Laguna is a very accomplished story teller and I need to get my hands on more of her work.

The Choke is not a book I would recommend to everyone. You would need to be able to comfortably read about the topics I mentioned above.

I would thoroughly recommend it to those of you aren’t feeling fragile though.

Thank you so much as always to the publisher for the advanced review copy and for having me kick off the blog tour. Make sure you check out the views of the other bloggers on the tour.

See you soon.

Bookish Chat xxx

The Conviction Of Cora Burns By Carolyn Kirby – A Review

Publisher: No Exit Press

Publication Date: 21st March 2019

The Conviction Of Cora Burns is all kinds of the type of historical fiction I absolutely ADORE. Asylum’s, workhouses, prison’s, poverty, social experiments and secrets.

Just the kind of story to get my historical fiction juices flowing!

1800’s Birmingham and Cora Burns has a less than auspicious entrance into the world. Born in a gaol, her mother Mary Burns incarcerated, Cora is destined for a life of institutions.

The book opens with Cora’s imminent release from prison, her crime as yet unrevealed. On the day of her release she is passed a note of details of a position of between-maid at The Larches, the house of Mr Thomas Jerwood.  Although Cora would much prefer a life of freedom she has no money and very little choice but to accept the position.  In any case, Cora is determined to locate her childhood friend from the workhouse, Alice Salt, a girl who she grew very close to but lost touch with.

When she arrives at The Larches She settles in quite quickly to her role as ‘tweeny’ maid due to her previous experience in her various institutions, the workhouse, the asylum and the gaol.  Cora is not afraid of hard work.  However, when her employer, Thomas Jerwood asks her to help him with a social experiment involving a young girl named Violet who also resides at The Larches,  Cora is dubious but agrees to assist, but what secrets will Cora uncover and what will she discover about herself and her past in doing so?

This book has myriad different fascinating threads all expertly weaved into a gripping piece of historical fiction.  First up we have Cora’s start in life and how she came to be born in a gaol.  We then have the close friendship between Alice and Cora in the workhouse as children.  A very odd relationship in which the girls are bound very closely together in their own world.  Isolating themselves from others and pushing the boundaries of their friendship to ever more risky levels.  When a particularly harrowing event occurs within the workhouse with Cora at the centre, her life takes an unexpected turn.  I found this part particularly difficult to read, it made me very uncomfortable but I couldn’t look away.

A similarly horrifying event befalls Cora during her time in the local asylum, however this is slowly drip fed detail by detail throughout the story until the full extent is sadly revealed.

The most fascinating element for me is the main thread of the story surrounding the social experiment that is being undertaken at The Larches by Thomas Jerwood.  He is studying the effects of nature versus nurture on people’s social status and the story is interspersed with various research documents and findings, an element I really enjoyed reading.

I am loathe to give away any more details of the plot as I think this is a book which needs to be discovered and savoured by the reader.  I will just say that Cora is such a gutsy, brave and fiercely determined young lady, the word ‘conviction’ in the book’s title takes on a new important meaning towards the end. Cora has lived out her entire life in institutions and is desperate to find her independence and freedom whilst unravelling her true heritage.  She is more or less out there on her own but she has such grit and determination to turn her life around and face the demons of her past.

This is a debut novel but it really does not feel like it one iota. I am always so full of admiration for authors who can produce a work of historical fiction so richly woven with period detail and grim gothic atmosphere.  The sheer amount of research that must be carried out to get the facts just right is to be much admired.  Carolyn Kirby is an author I will most definitely be looking out for in the future.

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

See you soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xx

 

 

Bookish Chat About: Fictionalised Non-Fiction

I tried to think of a snappy title for this particular post but my brain failed me.  What I’m going to talk about is those books where an author has written a fictionlised account either of a real persons life or a real life event.  They may know some details but not all about the person/event but they have imagined the thoughts and feelings of those involved and weaved a story around the bones of the facts.

I didn’t even really know this was a ‘thing’ until I read some absolutely superb books written in this vein last year which blew my mind.

I think that an author must have massive balls to take what they know about someone and dare to imagine the thoughts, feelings, conversations, events that may or may not have actually happened.  I greatly admire this skill, and it is a skill in my humble opinion, to presume how someone may have felt all in the name of fiction.

Now onto the books…..

As I said, I read some corking fictionalised ‘real life’ last year which piqued my interest and got my juices flowing.

First up was the amazing Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg Jephcott (Hutchinson).  

This is a fictionalised account of Truman Capote and the bevy of rich and powerful beauties he chose to surround himself with.  It charts his demise into writers block and his frustration at not being able to produce another acclaimed piece of literary work.  Which in turn lead to him writing a scandalous piece on the secret lives of the ‘Swans’, desperate for material, and his ultimate freezing out from the group.  This book was one of my favourites of 2018, chock full of glamour, betrayal, opulence and secrets.  My review of the book is here.

Next up was the sublime Little by Edward Carey (Gallic), which also appeared on my best books of 2018 list. 

It tells the story of a young Madame Tussauds, or as she is known in the book, Marie or ‘Little’.  This is an imagining of her early childhood and girlhood in France, learning the trade of making moulds of figureheads, criminals and noteworthy folk.  It is grim, gritty and eye opening all with an innate charm.  Marie is bold, brave and gutsy.  I adored this book and I don’t think I read any negative reviews.  My review is here.

I also read and loved See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt (Tinder Press), which tells the story behind the alleged crimes of Lizzie Borden who was purported to have  took an axe to her father and step mother back in the 1800’s. Lizzie was tried and acquitted of the murders which caused quite a stir but this story leaves you questioning what did actually happen that day.  A very compelling (if gruesome!) tale.

Larchfield by Polly Clark (Riverrun) is another story with elements of a real life person woven in.  In this case it is poet W H Auden.  The protagonist Dora, is a newly married and pregnant woman who has just moved to Helensburgh in Scotland.  When small village life becomes very intense Dora finds solace in her connection to W H Auden, also a prior resident of Helensburgh. My review is here.

Lastly we have Eleanor Anstruther’s A Perfect Explanation (Salt).  

This is the story  of the 8th Duke of Argyll’s granddaughter selling her own child for the princely sum of £500.  The authour Eleanor Anstruther has a close family  connection to this particular story as the child that was sold was her grandfather.  She had access to his records and documents which helped her build a picture of the story.  I absolutely loved this book and my review is here.

Moving on now  to books I have lined up that are fictionlised non-fiction…..(have I made that a thing yet?).

First up we have Graceland by Bethan Roberts (Chatto & Windus).  

I recently read and loved Bethan’s book My Policeman and have also read a short story of hers which appears in the short story collection A Short Affair.  Graceland tells the story of a young Elvis, and focusses in particular on his relationship with his devoted mother.  I have this out from the library at the moment and I am really enjoying it.  I’m not a huge Elvis fan, but I don’t think you need to be to enjoy this book.

Then we have a stonker of a book with a beautiful cover….Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates (4th Estate).

I have a beautiful short story collection by JCO called Night-Gaunts (and when I say ‘beautiful’ I mean cover wise, not content wise!) which I am slowly making my way through and really enjoying her writing style.  Blonde tells the story of Marilyn Monroe (obvs) or more importantly the woman who started life as little Norma Jeane Baker.  This epic (400+ pages) book, takes us right from Norma Jeane’s childhood through to the woman and icon we all know her to be.  I do love Mazza and am looking forward to this one.  As it’s a huge doorstop of a book I’m going to have to plan my time wisely, but i’m hoping to maybe read it this summer.

Last up on my TBR is Stanley and Elsie by Nicola Upson (Duckworth).  

This tells the story of artist Stanley Spencer and his family.  When Elsie Munday takes up the role of housekeeper for the Spencer’s, she becomes entwined in their lives and with Stanley particularly.  I am going to be involved in the blog tour for this one in May and am already intrigued having not known anything about Stanley Spencer before now.  I’m looking forward to getting to this one.

So there we have it!

If you have any other suggestions of fictionlised non-fiction I would be all ears. If you’ve not read any of the above then please do check them out and let me know your thoughts.

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xx

 

 

A Perfect Explanation by Eleanor Anstruther – A Review

Publisher: Salt

Publication Date: 15th March 2019

All I knew about this book going into it was that it tells the story of Enid Campbell, the granddaughter of the 8th Duke Of Argyll, who sold her son to her sister for £500.

What?!?!

Yes.

But that’s all I knew. You make snap judgements about a person when you hear something like that, without knowing the full details of how this situation came about and the reasoning behind it.

The story takes place over two time periods, the late 1920’s and the mid 1960’s when Enid is in a Christian Science nursing home.

It’s after the Great War in which Enid loses her dear brother Ivan and her mother Sybil is left with Enid and her sister Joan. Enid meets and reluctantly marries Douglas, despite having little or no feelings for him. They produce a son named Fagus who is to be the heir to Sybil’s family fortunes and a little girl named Finetta.

Enid struggles with motherhood and is jealous of her sister Joan’s carefree, somewhat hedonistic lifestyle, drinking, sleeping in late and keeping her lesbian relationship with Pat a secret from their mother (despite most of London knowing).

Enid thinks there may be something odd about Fagus, he’s a clumsy boy and is constantly falling down and bumping into things. She secretly thinks that his head is on the large side and battles with herself over whether to say anything to the doctors about her worries.

When tragedy strikes and Fagus is no longer considered a suitable heir, Enid spirals downwards into a deep depression and hangs all her hopes on the Christian Science way of life and their beliefs that sickness is a sin that can only successfully be cured by prayer and worshiping god. When Enid eschews all the assistance of modern medicine for Fagus and decides to rely souly on prayer to cure him, the family become increasingly worried about her mental health and her ability as a mother.

When it becomes clear that Fagus is not recovering and there is serious consideration given by the family as to his future, the decision is taken by Enid to reluctantly try for another baby with Douglas. She hopes she will fall pregnant with a boy who will provide her mother Sybil with her much wanted male heir.

When the baby is born and it is indeed a boy, named Ian, Enid struggles even more with motherhood. As post-natal depression grips her, she makes the difficult decision to leave the family and simply packs her things one afternoon and goes.

What follows is a complicated back and forth shift of power between Enid and her sister Joan. Enid is convinced that Joan has never liked her due to the fact that their father always showed Enid far more affection. Enid’s children are used almost as pawns in a family game, a struggle for the upper hand.

I won’t go into detail about the actual crux of the story surrounding the sale of Ian. It is far more complex and drawn out than I initially anticipated and is absolutely enthralling.

This is a story of family ties and allegiances, deeply buried secrets, status and wealth. It also looks unflinchingly at the struggles of motherhood and mental health.

Told in chapters from the perspective of young Enid in the 1920’s, Enid in the nursing home in the 1960’s and a few chapters from the perspectives of Joan and Finetta, the writing style is very engaging and atmospheric, the language used very evocative of the two time periods.

Characterisation is also superb, but this feels wrong to say considering they are real people and not imagined characters for the purposes of the book. I find it extremely interesting to read a fictionalised account of either a real event or real people. I think an author must have lots of courage to imagine how real people felt about a situation without ever truly knowing for sure. In fact I plan to do a separate blog post soon regarding this subject.

The author Eleanor Anstruther explains in her epilogue that her father is the child, Ian, who was sold and gave his permission to her to write the story and grant her access to his personal papers. This in itself was a lovely way to end the book.

If you’re a fan of family drama’s spanning over a number of years then I would recommend this book, the fact that it’s based on real life events gives it that extra fascinating gravitas.

Thank you to the publisher for the advanced proof copy.

See you soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat. Xxx

Book Break(down)

This is a completely unscheduled, off the cuff, impromptu blog post in which I just want to off-load some thoughts and musings from my poor addled brain. So forgive me if I waffle and please feel free to sit this one out, I won’t track you down and punish you……probably.

Over the past couple of weeks, maybe longer if i’m honest, I have been looking at my ever burgeoning book trolley, not with the usual big heart eyes and contented sigh, but with a niggling sense of unease……

You see, that trolley is fit to bursting with delicious proofs on two of the shelves and has a bottom shelf which is ram a lam a ding donged with books I’ve bought or procured for myself recently that are all winking seductively at me.

Now don’t get me wrong, I know I am in a very privileged position of being offered books and sent books unsolicited from publishers but sometimes when I’ve said ‘Yes please!’ and the book then arrives, I have a tiny little nugget of unease sitting in my belly like a stone.  I am the kind of person who once I have said I will do something, I bladdy well do it! However, I am also the kind of person who puts waayyyyy too much pressure on themselves.  You see, I agree to read a book by a certain date or aim to have it read and reviewed at least a week before publication and it gets to around a month, 6 weeks before this date or self imposed deadline and I think ‘oh my god! I’m so behind!’….

I know this reaction is overblown, hell some of you out there have recently told me you sometimes don’t get around to reading a book for a blog tour until a few days before…….even sometimes the night before…

HOW. IN. THE. NAME. OF. ALL. THAT. IS. HOLY. DO. YOU. COPE?????

You lot are hardcore! I salute you……but surely you all have anxiety induced stomach ulcers???

This feeling of anxiety has crept up on me recently like an insidious little snake.  Probably because I’m having quite majorly disruptive house renovations done, (which are only going to get hellishly worse over the next month! pass me the valium!) I also work full time and have 2 children, add to this a dash of medical stuff and a soupcon of natural low level anxiety and you are left with a woman in a tizz.

I recently had the idea of stepping away from the proofs and picking up some books I ACTUALLY BOUGHT MYSELF, imagine! Yes it was lovely, but I was distracted by those gosh darn beautiful proofs cooing my name and dates in my calendar of when I ‘had’ to read them by. I don’t ‘have’ to read anything guys. I KNOW THIS! But my brain worries at it. I’m a dick what can I say?!

I tell you what, it’s a good job I have you lot to keep me sane and give my head a wobble. Or just say ‘yes! Me too!’ I have my lovely pal Clare over at Years Of Reading Selfishly to talk me down off a ledge whenever I need it because she’s an absolute doll face and no mistake. Calm and pragmatic and an absolute gem.

I don’t really know what the purpose of this blog post is, other than to get my thoughts down, maybe talk myself down from the ceiling because it’s all ok isn’t it? The world won’t combust if I don’t get round to reading and reviewing a book ‘in time’.

I’ll be reet, don’t you worry!

For now I’m going to breathe and re-boot and as I said to Clare yesterday ‘I just need to chill the fuck out!’

Ain’t it the truth.

See you all soon you belters.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xx

Show Them A Good Time By Nicole Flattery – A Review

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Publication Date: 21st March 2019

When the guys over at Bloomsbury contacted me asking whether I would like a copy of Nicole Flattery’s short story collection, Show Them A Good Time, it came at quite a fortuitous moment in my reading life.  As you already know if you’re a regular here, I have recently developed quite a liking for short story collections, having previously been averse.

I’m now firmly a short story convert and can often be found whiling away my time in a lovely bubble bath with a short story or two for company.  They are the perfect bitesize bath companion.

This collection was sold to me as a collection of stories exploring types, men and women, their assigned roles and meanings in today’s society.

These stories are fresh and contemporary, they can be quite dark at times but there’s a hint of caustic humour running through them.  A woman narrates her string of unssuccesful, dissatisfying dates when the end of the world is imminent, two female college students, both of them not fitting into college life come together to perform a stage play to their fellow students based on their past hurts and disappointments.

A patricular favourite of mine is The Track, the story of an Irish woman living in US in the shadow of her famous comedian boyfriend, a man who has to listen to a track of canned laughter every night to feel validated.  His girlfriend on the other hand gains secret satisfaction by anonymously trolling him in online forums.

Whilst most of the protagonists are young twenty-something’s and the focus is heavily on relationships, I still found I could connect with them which is always a concern of mine being a 40 year old mother who has been with her partner since she was 15.

These are just the kind of fresh, incisive, sharp stories I enjoy reading and wish I could write myself! (Who doesn’t wish they could write eh?).

I didn’t quite connect with all of the stories but that’s a rarity for me and I always say that I don’t have to understand a short story to take enjoyment from it.

On the other hand the characters are all so well developed and I did feel a connection of sorts with each of them, which is often not easy to do in a short story collection, characters can tend to feel a little transient.

This is a very quirky, fresh, intelligent collection that I would highly recommend you add to your short story TBR.

Thank you very much as always to the publisher for the review copy.

See you soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xx