Buddy Read: The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton by Anstey Harris #BookReview

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Between the simple melody of running her violin shop and the full-blown orchestra of her romantic interludes in Paris with David, her devoted partner of eight years, Grace Atherton has always set her life to music.

Her world revolves entirely around David, for Grace’s own secrets have kept everyone else at bay. Until, suddenly and shockingly, one act tips Grace’s life upside down, and the music seems to stop.

It takes a vivacious old man and a straight-talking teenager to kickstart a new chapter for Grace. In the process, she learns that she is not as alone in the world as she had once thought, that no mistake is insurmountable, and that the quiet moments in life can be something to shout about …

I’ve had a copy of this book for ages, in fact it appeared on my Tempted By… feature back in January, but it has taken until now, and the lure of a buddy read by my friend, Kate, to finally bump it to the top of the TBR and now I am wondering why I waited so long!

Kate had just finished reading the author’s new book, Where We Belong, and was waxing so lyrical about how much she loved it that I said I was going to dig out that copy of her first novel that was languishing on my TBR, and Kate said we should do a buddy read, which was great fun. Needless to say, we both loved it. In fact, I’ve not seen a negative comment about this book.

It is an absolutely beautiful story about love, betrayal, loss and the redeeming power of music and friendship. I knew from the very beginning that the book was going to be something special. Anstey took the bold step of introducing two characters and immediately making them morally ambiguous, so to begin with you are wondering if they are people you should be rooting for or not. Grace then quickly becomes someone that you fall in love with and your sympathies are entirely with her from then on. Anstey draws her so clearly and believably, that you can feel her every emotion exactly as she does and, even when she makes bad decisions, you understand and forgive them because you know the place of pain they are coming from. There are very few characters that I have become so emotionally invested in over the course of my reading life and it is a real skill to achieve.

The pacing of this book is perfect, and there are several points where the author introduces truly shocking events that took me entirely by surprise. I found myself sending Kate WhatsApp messages riddled with excited/shocked/horrified emojis when I got to a part of the book that I knew was going to blow her away when she reached them. It is the kind of book that makes you sigh, and scream and cheer out loud, even though this makes you look like a lunatic if you are reading in public, because you are so invested in the story and the characters’ emotions.

I am not a connoisseur of classical music and did wonder if the exploration of instrument making and classical music would be beyond me, but it wasn’t at all. I found it fascinating and enthralling, and I was swept away by the passion that the characters obviously feel for it, even though I don’t share it. It made me want to go and listen to the music the book refers to, and then read the book again with a better understanding of how these particular pieces complement the story. There is a part towards the end of the book involving a musical interlude that almost made me cry, and then another part of the book towards the end which actually did make me cry. I felt sympathy for a character I had recently despised, and genuinely did not know how things were going to end until I had read the conclusion. I felt despair and pain and hope and joy throughout the course of the book, and marvelled at the skill it takes to truly arouse all these feelings in a reader.

The writer excels at using language and phrasing to evoke emotions and paint a very clear picture. I made note of some of my favourite parts so that I could study them, as a student of writing, later. I can’t write down my favourite quote, as it gives away a major plot point, but it is in the second paragraph of Chapter Eighteen! The imagery is so clear and deft, I am in awe of her. The beauty of the descriptions of Paris and the love she espouses for the city will take you straight there. The power of the emotional descriptions will break your heart. The beauty of the friendships will put it back together again. It is just marvellous.

In fact, it is the odd friendships that form the backbone of this book and really make it sing. It teaches you that, however alone you feel, there are always people out there who will reach out to comfort you in times of need, and they are not who you might expect. However much you try and shut the world out, it will creep in at the edges and hold you up when you feel all is lost. And the people who you think matter most may not truly be the ones you can rely on, so you need to keep our eyes and your heart open and trust yourself. It is, ultimately, life-affirming.

I absolutely adored this book and highly recommend it to anyone looking for a powerful read.

The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton is out now in all formats and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Anstey Harris is based by the seaside in south-east England where she lives with her violinmaker husband and two dogs. She teaches creative writing in the community, local schools, and as an associate lecturer for Christchurch University in Canterbury.

Anstey writes about the things that make people tick, the things that bind us and the things that can rip us apart. In 2015, she won the H G Wells Short Story Prize for her story, Ruby. In novels, Anstey tries to celebrate uplifting ideas and prove that life is good and that happiness is available to everyone once we work out where to look (usually inside ourselves). Her short stories tend not to end quite so well…

Things that interest Anstey include her children and granddaughter, green issues and conservation, adoption and adoption reunion (she is an adopted child, born in an unmarried mothers’ home in Liverpool in 1965), stepfamilies, dogs, and food. Always food. She would love to be on Masterchef but would never recover from the humiliation if she got sent home in the first round.

Connect with Anstey:

Website: https://www.ansteyharris.com

Twitter: @Anstey_Harris

Instagram: @ansteyharris

Book Review: Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens #BookReview

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For years, rumors of the ‘Marsh Girl’ have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl.

But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved.

When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life – until the unthinkable happens.

Unless you have been living under a literary rock for the past few months, I’m sure you have heard of this book. You’ve probably already read it, as I seem to be a little late to the party but, if not, I suggest you pick up a copy as soon as possible because this is one of the best things I have read for a long while and will definitely be one of my top books of 2020.

This is the story of Kya, a young girl abandoned at a young age in the marshes of North Carolina who learns how to survive on her own by studying the wildlife that surrounds her on all sides. Her life is touched by a few souls from the nearby town, but largely she is an outcast, misunderstood and feared by local residents so, when a local man is murdered in the marsh, she is the prime suspect.

This book is a masterpiece in so many ways. It begins as a mystery story with the body of the man discovered in the marsh, so we are immediately engrossed in trying to discover, along with the local police, who is responsible. In this way we are introduced to Kya, the ‘Marsh Girl,’ an outsider who has lived alone in the marsh since she was a child and who is deeply misunderstood by the local townsfolk. The book then runs along two timelines, the current investigation of the murder, and Kya’s past as she grows up in the marsh. The  mystery is compelling and involves many twists and turns and false paths, so the reader can’t really know who did it until the very end. However, despite the fact the mystery is well-developed, this is probably the aspect of the novel that drew me the least.

The things that make this book so special are the exploration of Kya as a character and how she survives alone in the marsh from childhood and how this life affects her emotionally, and the vivid and immersive descriptions of the landscape and nature of the marsh where the book is set. The author writes so captivatingly and movingly about both that the reader cannot help but be swept away in the story.

The development of Kya’s story from her abandonment by her entire family as a young child and how she has to learn to survive alone in a hostile environment with very little contact with or help from her nearest neighbours is tender, believable and completely heart-breaking. It is a damning commentary on the way society frowns upon anyone who chooses to live a lifestyle outside the mainstream and how such choices invite disdain and a cold-shoulder. How people are largely concerned only with themselves and quick to ignore problems they don’t want to address. The only people who have the good heart to help Kya are others who are similarly shunned for their differences, or who want to use her for their own ends.

Kya is a fascinating and wholly endearing character. Her stalwart determination to survive alone, learning from the creatures that surround her, adapting their habits and survival skills to help her and, in doing so, falling in love with the life and creatures of the marsh and studying them in a way few people ever do. The way the author draws parallels between humans and the wildlife of the marsh and uses those parallels to inform the reader about both is deft and clever. We fall in love with both Kya and her delicate and unique environment and come to care deeply about the survival and protection of both by the end of the book.

The marsh, then, is an integral part of the book, as essential to the story as any of the characters. In fact, it becomes a character in its own right, as intricately described and developed as any of the human participants, a living, breathing organism that is vital to Kya’s happiness and well-being in a way no human has ever been. It is the one thing she loves, trusts and knows will never let her down. Their lives are so intertwined that, when she is forcibly separated from it, it feels like a form of death to her. Like removing a fish from the ocean, she feels like she cannot breathe. If you ever wanted to read a book that really transports you to an environment you have probably never experienced but into which you will completely disappear, this is the novel for you.

The writer’s prose is lyrical and flowing. I know some people have found the book a little slow, and it is true that is is very descriptive and languid, but this is a huge part of the beauty of the novel and, if you stick with it, I am sure you will find the whole story as beautiful, heart-rending but, ultimately, uplifting as I did. The languorous nature of the prose is entirely fitting to the plot and the setting, mirroring the slow, warm, unchanging days in the Carolinas and will envelope you in the mindset if you let it. Just kick back and go with the flow and let this exceptional novel float you on a magical journey that will leave you fundamentally affected by it.

Where The Crawdads Sing is out now in all formats here.

About the Author

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Delia Owens is the co-author of three internationally bestselling nonfiction books about her life as a wildlife scientist in Africa including Cry of the Kalahari.

She has won the John Burroughs Award for Nature Writing and has been published in Nature, The African Journal of Ecology, and many others.

She currently lives in Idaho. Where the Crawdads Sing is her first novel.

Connect with Delia:

Website: https://www.deliaowens.com

Facebook: Author Delia Owens

Instagram: @authordeliaowens

Book Review: The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins #BookReview

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‘They say I must be put to death for what happened to Madame, and they want me to confess. But how can I confess what I don’t believe I’ve done?’

1826, and all of London is in a frenzy. Crowds gather at the gates of the Old Bailey to watch as Frannie Langton, maid to Mr and Mrs Benham, goes on trial for their murder. The testimonies against her are damning – slave, whore, seductress. And they may be the truth. But they are not the whole truth.

For the first time Frannie must tell her story. It begins with a girl learning to read on a plantation in Jamaica, and it ends in a grand house in London, where a beautiful woman waits to be freed.

But through her fevered confessions, one burning question haunts Frannie Langton: could she have murdered the only person she ever loved?

The problem that has been plaguing me the last few days is how to encapsulate the many, complex facets that form this novel, and my equally complicated reactions to it, in the form of a few inadequate words. I’m not sure I’ve solved the conundrum completely, but the day has come to plough ahead with my review regardless.

Part of the problem is, this book is too multi-layered and multi-themed to unravel in a single reading, and, reviewing it against the back drop of current events has further muddied my thinking on some of the issues it addresses. I am all too aware that I don’t know enough, I haven’t studied the history in sufficient depth, I don’t feel entitled to discuss some of these topics. All I can give you is my honest reaction to the book on my first reading of it, tempered as it is with all of this knowledge of inadequacy in the background.

This book, is at its heart for me, a gothic horror story, with a mystery and a love story woven in. Horror story, because that is my overwhelming reaction to the events that unfold between the pages. The novel follows the tale of Frannie, born a mulatto, on a sugar plantation in Jamaica, who, through a series of extraordinary events, arrives at a wealthy household in London where she becomes intimately embroiled with the mistress of the house. The book is dark and complicated and rich and thought-provoking.   It has echoes of some of my best beloved classic novels of all time; Jane Eyre, Moll Flanders, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to name but a few. The writing is exquisite in detail, placing the reader firmly at the heart of Georgian society, but mining its seedy underbelly, whilst showing us the glossy front that hides these aspects.

The book is ostensibly anchored by the mystery of who murdered Frannie’s English ’employers’, and we meet her while she is on trial for those murders, telling her story for her lawyer. However, the mystery was probably the least diverting part of the book for me and, by the time the true facts of the crime were revealed, I wasn’t really that invested in the outcome. The most stimulating part of the book is the story of Frannie’s journey from slave to her position in the Benham’s household in London, the reactions people have to her transformation and the feelings she has herself about the things she has done to get there. It is not as straight forward as many stories about people ‘escaping’ from slavery are, and Frannie herself resists attempts by abolitionists to co-opt her tragic story to their cause, as she finds these tales of pity and misery boring. Frannie has, to every degree she is all permitted, refused to be fortune’s plaything and attempted to become author of her own future. How far this is actually possible, even in England where slavery is ‘illegal’ is one of the over-arching themes of the novel. In addition, Frannie has to consider at length the things she has been required to do in order to attain even the limited level self-determination she has and whether it could ever truly be freedom at that price.

This book addresses a lot of uncomfortable issues, particularly the matter of the science of race, which is being researched by Frannie’s original owner, using his own slaves as lab rats, including Frannie herself. In fact, the question of her whole life being a continual experiment is at the forefront of the book, and the whole concept if truly horrifying, particularly as we know it is based on true events. The author very cleverly uses hints at things that are going on in the novel, without specifically spelling it all out in graphic detail, which is actually an extremely clever way of making the reader really think, and using their imagination to fill in the gaps which, as we all know, means we end up conjuring the very worst images we can possibly conceive. This is human nature. However, in this case, the fear is always there that the worst images we can conceive don’t actually come close to the horrors that were enacted, our minds will shy away from accepting the true depths people can plummet in their inhumanity to one another, and this is the truth that is really the heart of the horror story here. I apologise if my thoughts on this come across as a little confused, I am still chasing all of my conclusions about this book around my head, still trying to process all of the emotions it has drawn from me.

The book also centres around a love story between Frannie and her mistress, but this also raises again the question of whether Frannie is a slave to the whims of a capricious woman who may be using the girl for her own ends, rather than seeing her as an equal in the relationship who deserves the same emotional treatment as anyone else. At least, this is what I drew from the book. I have seen some reviews that have characterised the love story as unconvincing but, on my interpretation of it, it worked perfectly, and Madame’s relationship with and feelings for, Laddie, particularly after his emancipation, just supported this reading of the relationship for me. Maybe I’ve got it all wrong, I’d love to discuss the book with the author to find out what she had in mind when she was writing it, but I guess the beauty of a novel is that every reader comes at it from a different angle and will take a completely individual experience away from it at the end.

Despite this being a very long and rambling review, I’m really not sure that I have adequately explained what is so marvellous about this book, or why you should be tempted to read it, so let me try and give you a succinct summary. This book is rich, detailed, beautifully written, historically illuminating and absolutely horrifying in the true, gothic sense of the word. If you don’t come away from it feeling deeply disturbed, you haven’t been concentrating, but you absolutely should read it, I have not come across anything quite like it in recent times.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton is out now and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Sara Collins is of Jamaican descent and grew up in Grand Cayman. She studied law at the London School of Economics and worked as a lawyer for seventeen years, before admitting that what she really wanted to do was write novels. She obtained a Master’s degree in Creative Writing with distinction from Cambridge University, where she was the 2015 recipient of the Michael Holroyd Prize. In 2016, she was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish prize for The Confessions of Frannie Langton, her first novel, a gothic romance about the twisted love affair between a Jamaican maid and her French mistress in 19th century London. The novel won the Costa First Novel Award 2019.

Connect with Sara:

Website: https://saracollinsauthor.com

Twitter: @mrsjaneymac

Instagram: @saracollinsauthor

Book Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

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‘Lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning,’ says Thomas More, ‘and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.’

England, the 1520s. Henry VIII is on the throne, but has no heir. Cardinal Wolsey is his chief advisor, charged with securing the divorce the pope refuses to grant. Into this atmosphere of distrust and need comes Thomas Cromwell, first as Wolsey’s clerk, and later his successor.

Cromwell is a wholly original man: the son of a brutal blacksmith, a political genius, a briber, a charmer, a bully, a man with a delicate and deadly expertise in manipulating people and events. Ruthless in pursuit of his own interests, he is as ambitious in his wider politics as he is for himself. His reforming agenda is carried out in the grip of a self-interested parliament and a king who fluctuates between romantic passions and murderous rages.

This book won the Man Booker Prize in 2009 but yet it lurked on my TBR unread for many a long, shameful year. Then I discovered I was not alone! Another much-admired book reviewer on Twitter came out as a fellow shirker, then slowly, more and more of us came out of the shadows and owned our ignominy publicly. We then decided to do a buddy read of the book to put our chagrin firmly behind us.

The read started at the beginning of April, and slowly people began to drop out. I totally understand why this happened. This book is not an easy read. Mantel uses a narrative construct that is not easy to navigate and is a little confusing until you get used to it, which makes the book a read that requires concentration and application, it is not something you can just skim. Unfortunately, this read started just as we were entering lockdown in the UK in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, we were all trying to adjust to this completely alienating new reality and, for many, this was not the time to be tussling with this tome.

I actually felt the opposite. Reading has always been my respite in times of trouble and, during lockdown, I escaped even deeper into fictional worlds, consuming novels at a record rate (I have now read 90 books this year.) Being able to lose myself in a book that demanded my full attention was a welcome distraction from the terrible news that was hitting us day by day, and it returned the novel rewarded me tenfold.

I have always been fascinated by the Plantagenet and Tudor periods of history, and have read a lot of historical fiction set in this period, but Mantel’s book goes way beyond anything I have read before. She dives so deeply into the psyche of Cromwell, revealing to us the whole panoply of life in Tudor England through his eyes, that it feels like a lived experience. The book is written in the present tense, as if you are actually in that time, and it is very effective. Her writing gives the man a humanity that is missing from his portrayals in a lot of history books, and it has given me a totally different perspective on his role in this period.

Her research is obviously extensive and meticulous, and she feeds the book with exquisite detail and texture that is just delightful to absorb. This is a book that you can actually FEEL through all of your senses. Although it is slow moving, it is curiously addictive. Every time I picked it up I felt transported and was loathe to put it down and return to the real world. I was so absorbed that this monster of a novel felt too short, and I am so glad that there are two other novels coming for me to enjoy. I haven’t started them yet, as I am still revelling in the afterglow of the first book and am going to delay the gratification of starting book two until I can bear it no longer.

I know this book is not going to be for everyone. Some will find it too ponderous, and the slow richness of the writing that I adored will be the very thing that discourages others. Mantel’s prose and use of ‘he’ to refer to Cromwell throughout, rather than calling him by his name, can be confusing at times (particularly as there are so many Thomases in the book) and requires a level of concentration that can prove tiring, especially when you are going through a time of stress. It is a book that needs a particular moment, a particular frame of mind to appreciate. I think she is a writer that may seem to lack some warmth for some people, focused as she is on the historical detail, her writing can come off as dispassionate, which may be this books downfall for some. I can understand why people might fail to engage with Cromwell as protagonist to a degree that they cannot care about his story. But, if you can get past this, there is no doubt at all that this book is a masterpiece of historical fiction that will give the persistent reader a whole new insight into this period of history.

I bloody loved it and I owe huge thanks to Jules Swain for finally getting me to pick it up.

If you would like to give it a go yourself, you can buy a copy of Wolf Hall herealong with books two and three of the trilogy, which are all out now.

About the Author

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Hilary Mantel is the two-time winner of the Man Booker Prize for her best-selling novels, Wolf Hall, and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. Wolf Hall has been translated into 36 languages, Bring Up the Bodies into 31 languages, and sales for both books have reached over 5 million copies worldwide. She is the author of fourteen books, including A Place of Greater Safety, Beyond Black, and the memoir Giving Up the Ghost. In 2014 she was appointed DBE.

Connect with Hilary:

Website: https://hilary-mantel.com

Facebook: Hilary Mantel Author

Blog Tour: You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr #BookReview

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A beautiful and heart-breaking story set in South Africa where two mothers – a century apart – must fight for their sons, unaware their fates are inextricably linked.

Orange Free State, 1901. At the height of the Boer War, Sarah van der Watt and her six-year-old son Fred can only watch as the British burn their farm. The polite invaders cart them off to Bloemfontein Concentration Camp promising you will be safe here.

Johannesburg, 2010. Sixteen-year-old Willem is an outsider who just wants to be left alone with his Harry Potter books and Britney, his beloved pug. Worried he’s turning out soft, his Ma and her new boyfriend send him to New Dawn Safari Camp, where they ‘make men out of boys.’ Guaranteed.

The red earth of the veldt keeps countless secrets whether beaten by the blistering sun or stretching out beneath starlit stillness. But no secret can stay buried forever.

This is a book I have had on my TBR for a long time so I am delighted to finally have read it and be reviewing it for the blog tour today. My thanks to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part and to the publisher for my copy of the book which I have reviewed honestly and impartially.

This book is incredibly intense, moving, powerful, eye-opening and heartbreaking. It is a book set across multiple timelines and told by multiple voices, and at first it seems like the threads are unconnected, but at the end, all becomes clear and it is a fascinating, if difficult exploration of the history of a troubled country.

The book opens with the arrival of a teenage boy at a ‘safari camp’ in the veldt near Blomfontein, then immediately circles back to the experiences of a Boer farmer’s wife at the height of the second Boer War in 1901, as told through her diary entries. This historical part of the book is eye-opening and disturbing. This is a part of history that I did not know much about and, having read this, I am not remotely surprised that this is a part of British history that is not taught in our schools. It is a shameful thing to have to read about, and the writing here describes the suffering of the Boer women and children so vividly that it is extremely upsetting, but important and necessary, and you will come away from the experience with your perception altered.

The rest of the book follows the lives of one family from the 70s through to modern day as their history is told to the birth of Willem, the main protagonist of the modern part of the book, and the reasons he ends up in the ‘safari camp,’ where the writer draws disturbing parallels between the concentration camps used by the British in the Boer War and the way these misfit boys are treated in the modern day. You would believe this is an exaggerated story save for the fact that the book was inspired by the death of a real boy. The fact that these camps exist in modern South Africa is troubling.

Reading this book is extremely poignant in the modern era. The book explores the ongoing racial tensions in South Africa and the attitude of a section of the white population that believe a reckoning is coming for the historical wrongs done to them. This harking back to the past and a time that was perceived to be better than the modern day, is a scourge on our society and a flimsy camouflage for ingrained racism, intolerance and bigotry that fuels so much that is wrong in the modern world. This book is so powerful in the way it makes the reader think about these issues and will shake and complacencies you may have about how pure our history is as a country.

This is not an easy or comfortable read, but it is an important and thought-provoking book that I would highly recommend to anyone interested in history and social politics.

You Will Be Safe Here is out now and you can buy a copy here.

Please make sure you check out the rest of the fabulous blogs taking part in the tour:

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About the Author

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 Damian Barr is an award-winning writer and columnist. Maggie & Me, his memoir about coming of age and coming out in Thatcher’s Britain, was a BBC Radio 4 ‘Book of the Week’, Sunday Times ‘Memoir of the Year’ and won the Paddy Power Political Books ‘Satire’ Award and Stonewall Writer of the Year Award.

Damian writes columns for the Big Issue and High Life and often appears on BBC Radio 4. He is creator and host of his own Literary Salon that premieres work from established and emerging writers. You Will Be Safe Here is his debut novel.

Damian Barr lives in Brighton.

Connect with Damian:

Website: https://www.damianbarr.com

Facebook: Mr Damian Barr

Twitter: @Damian_Barr

Instagram: @damianbarrliterarysalon

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Blog Tour: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell #BookReview

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TWO EXTRAORDINARY PEOPLE. A LOVE THAT DRAWS THEM TOGETHER. A LOSS THAT THREATENS TO TEAR THEM APART.

On a summer’s day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home?

Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London. Neither parent knows that one of the children will not survive the week.

Hamnet is a novel inspired by the son of a famous playwright. It is a story of the bond between twins, and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief. It is also the story of a kestrel and its mistress; flea that boards a ship in Alexandria; and a glovemaker’s son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves. Above all, it is a tender and unforgettable reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written.

I am privileged today to be taking part in the blog tour for Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. The book has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and is one of the most eagerly anticipated books of the year. Huge thanks to Anne Cater for my place on the tour and to the publisher for my copy of the book, which I have reviewed honestly and impartially.

I’m always a little wary about reviewing books as hyped as this one has been, and by authors as revered as Maggie O’Farrell. One wonders if the books, and indeed the authors, can ever live up to the advance accolades they receive, and whether, when the literary establishment is so in love with a novel or novelist, any positive review will be accepted at face value or perceived as just another acolyte toeing the party line. On the converse, would anyone dare post a negative review whilst anticipating the backlash that might ensue? After all, this book has been long listed for the Women’s Prize, a lot of people have rated it very highly. It might make one seriously consider whether just to keep one’s opinion to oneself.

I have to admit that I am not a devotee on this author’s work, simply because I have never previously got around to reading it. I have two of her titles on my TBR, but in the past three years madding rush of blog tours, they have remained there, untouched. So maybe I am ideally positioned to come at this with an open mind and no preconceptions, which is exactly what I did. I also had no expectations with regard to how this would compare to her previous work, I could judge this book purely on its own merits.

The author could not have foreseen when writing this book, which is a book she has said she has wanted to write for over thirty years, that it would arrive on the shelves at a time the world was being touched by a deadly pandemic, arousing in us the kind of fear and panic that is the mirrored in the family at the centre of the book, as they are touched in the same way by the plague in the sixteenth century. In fact, the vividness with which the author recreates this in the novel may strike too close to home for some to bear at this terrifying moment in this history. For others of us, what it manages to do is draw us close across the centuries to those who went before us and show us that, although much in the world has altered beyond recognition in those long, intervening years, human emotions of love, loss, grief, kinship, fear and fortitude are constant and unchanging. It allows us to relate to these long-dead people in a way we might otherwise be unable to do.

Of course, this is largely down to the skill of the author in the writing. The everyday world of Stratford at this time is brought to life in such detail, and with such incisive and graphic description that complete immersion in the story in unavoidable. I was totally transported, living and breathing this experience along with the characters, completely caught up in the emotions and events to the point where I resented being pulled back out to face the everyday. I wanted to stay there, living and breathing and feeling this story until I finished it, harrowing and difficult as that was in parts, because it became so important to me to know how it ended.

This is a very detailed book, full of languorous language, indulgent pacing and descriptions of the minutiae of life at this time. This is going to frustrate some readers, I know. We are used to life at a frenetic pace, we have no patience in the modern day. People’s attention span has been accustomed to sixty second sound bites, memes, instant fixes, instant gratification. We always want to move on, move on to the next thing, never satisfied. But life as we know it has stopped for a while. We have been forced to slow down, take a break, sit back and pause. Use this time to take in a book like this, when enjoying the language and indulgence of expression in this book to take you back to a time when life was slower, more considered and possibly more appreciative of the smaller, lesser pleasures, will pay off in spades with a deeper understanding of how people lived and worked and loved at that time. Allow yourself the space and time to feel the emotion that flows from the pages of this book and seeps in to your bones if you let it.

Anyone coming to this book expecting the story of Shakespeare is going to be disappointed. In fact, the author never mentions his name once throughout. He is referred to as tutor, son, brother, father, husband, playwright, and this is very deliberate, because this is not his story. He is not centre stage, he is not the main protagonist, he is off in the wings, a bit player, the occasional character who wanders in and out of the scene, even to the end where is is the supporting role in his own play, not the titular character. This is the story of his wife.

Anne Hathaway, known in this book as Agnes, as her father referred to her in his will, is the driving force in this novel. It is through her eyes that we see life in Stratford at this time, that we learn about the roles of the womenfolk who held the homes and families together as the men were away working and making the decisions. The heart of the story is in Stratford, where all the action takes place while Shakespeare is in London, and it is she who drives the plot, from the very first time they meet. She is portrayed as a remarkable woman with many skills that were underestimated by her peers, even treated with suspicion in some cases, skills of healing and understanding and uncanny intuition. She is also shown as possessing unbelievable strength of character, allowing her husband to leave her with two small children to go to London because she understands he needs to get away from the constraints of his family, the same family she is left to live within his absence, even though they are not her own. Maggie’s admiration for this unusual woman as she envisages her is apparent on every page. She uses her to show us intimate aspects of small town life in the sixteenth century and, more particularly, what life was like for women at that time. As a historical exploration, it is absolutely fascinating.

The main thing that makes this book so special though, is the portrayal of parental grief on the loss of a child. This is something of which I have personal experience and the depth of understanding the author displays for the thoughts and emotions a parent experiences in these circumstances was profound. Her descriptions aroused in me memories that remain painfully vivid but oddly treasured, it is very difficult to explain how reading something this accurate both hurts and is deeply comforting at the same time. To be so understood, to have such pain acknowledged and explored, explained and transmitted to that fortunate part of society that has never felt it, is oddly consoling. There were scenes in this book that rang so completely true with me that it both broke my heart and gave me succour at the same time. The passage detailing the procession to the churchyard in particular was like reliving a scene from my own life, it made me cry but also provided solace in the form of understanding by another person of this pain. This is what great writing can do, it can make us feel understood, it can make us feel less alone in a confusing and frightening world. Many of us are going to need much more of this in days to come.

I have waxed on at length in this review, I know, but I hope you have come to understand at the end why it is that I am telling you I have immeasurable love and appreciation for this book. Regardless of the hype, it has given me so much on so many different levels that I cannot praise it highly enough. As a historical text, as a celebration of the strength and fortitude of women, as an exploration and acknowledgement of grief and pain, of relationships between man and woman and parent and child, I adored every single thing about it. Every word, every feeling rewarded me beyond measure. It has moved me more profoundly than anything I have read in recent memory and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Read it, not because of who the author is, or because it is being feted high and low, or because it has been listed for prizes, but because it is a work of wonder and you deserve to give yourself the opportunity to experience it for yourself.

Hamnet is out now in hardback, ebook and audio formats and you can get a copy here.

The books is taking a huge tour, and there are loads of amazing blogs taking part so do make sure you check out some of the other reviews:

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About the Author

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Maggie O’Farrell is the author of seven novels, AFTER YOU’D GONE, MY LOVER’S LOVER, THE DISTANCE BETWEEN US, which won a Somerset Maugham Award, THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX, THE HAND THAT FIRST HELD MINE, which won the 2010 Costa Novel Award, INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Costa Novel Award, and THIS MUST BE THE PLACE, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Costa Novel Award. Maggie has also written a memoir, I AM, I AM, I AM. She lives in Edinburgh.

Connect with Maggie:

Website: https://www.maggieofarrell.com

Facebook: Maggie O’Farrell Books

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Blog Tour: Tapestry by Beth Duke #BookReview

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Twenty-one-year-old Skye Willis lives in Eufaula, Alabama, a tourist mecca of stately homes and world-class bass fishing. Her childhood friends are either stuck at dead ends or have moved on to accomplish Big Things.

Skye’s grandmother, Verna, insists on being called “Sparrow” because she suspects her ancestors were Muscogee Creek. She dresses in faux deerskin and experiments with ancient Native American recipes, offering a myth or legend to anyone who will listen.

Skye has no idea what to do with her life. She’s smart as hell, but she has no faith or knowledge there’s something out there she was “born to do.” Nor does she know much of anything about her father, who died in Afghanistan when she was a toddler. He and his family are a mystery her mother won’t discuss. But when Sparrow sets out to confirm her Creek ancestry through genetic testing, Skye joins in. The results hit like a DNA bomb, launching them both on a path filled with surprises and life-changing events. Skye learns a harder truth than she ever expected.

Alternating chapters between Skye’s Alabama life and an intertwining tale of greed, deceit, and control in Texas, this story offers proof that all life is a woven tapestry of past, present, and future.

I am thrilled to be taking part today in the blog tour for Tapestry by Beth Duke. My thanks to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for offering me a place on the tour and to the author for my copy of the book, which I have reviewed honestly and impartially.

This is a story about family, and what that means. Skye lives with her mother and grandmother in a small town in Alabama. Her mother has always been reluctant to talk about Skye’s father and this has left Skye feeling lost and unsure of her place in the world. At least, that is what she tells herself as an excuse for drifting through her life without making any decisions about her future. But does knowing where you come from really tell you who you are, and is blood what makes a family anyway?

Skye’s grandmother believes she has the blood of Native Americans flowing in her veins and that her ancestors are talking to her and guiding her  down the generations. Is she right, and does that sense of history, heritage and place make you more confident and secure in the world?

Skye’s mother, Lisa, has never been able to tell her daughter the truth about her father because she is ashamed, and the loss of the love of her life has left her unable to move on and accept the happiness that is being offered to her elsewhere. If she can forgive herself and allow herself to be happy, can she then open up and give her daughter the support and truth she thinks she needs?

This books explores themes of blood, heritage, family, understanding your place in the world and whether it is DNA or love that creates bonds between people. Through the trials and tribulations of three remarkable women, we explore what family really means and what we really need to know about ourselves to find peace and happiness. Some of the topics covered in this book are deeply personal to me, and I found the whole thing fascinating and profoundly moving. The author displays a deep understanding of the insecurities that can plague individuals and stop us from being the best versions of ourselves, until we are forced to confront them head on and deal with our deepest fears. I related on a fundamental level with a lot of what was discussed here.

There are some wonderful character studies in the book, particularly Sparrow, who was just a beautiful protagonist and one of those people who you remember long after the pages are closed. I wanted Skye throughout to realise that all she needed to do was look at her grandmother and mother for reassurance as to who she was and that there was no gap in her life that she needed a father figure to fill. Her progress towards this realisation, and the pain she feels along the way was genuine and frustrating, but a process a lot of people need to go through before they can accept that who they are is not defined by missing people, but by your own character and by the people who are there to love and nurture you in life, whether they are your blood family or not.

There is one character in the book who seemed to me a bit of a caricature, and I found the sub-plot of greed and power struggles less compelling than Skye’s personal journey, but I realise that aspect of the story was necessary to provide the contrast to Skye’s story arc, as another character comes to the same conclusions from the opposite direction. That being defined by looks, wealth and status are hollow markers because, once they are gone, there is nothing left to fall back on, so make your life choices wisely and be careful where you place your value.

This is all set against a rich and vividly-drawn backdrop of life in the South. As a lover of Southern-set novels, I basked in the warmth of the descriptions, tasted the flavours of the setting and enjoyed every second of it. The historical aspects that the author draws on to further enrich the story were fascinating, and made me want to go away and explore those details further.

This book has so much to offer that any reader endowed with curiosity and empathy will draw a huge amount of pleasure and satisfaction from it.

Tapestry is out now and you can buy a copy here.

Please do visit the rest of the marvellous blogs taking part in the tour for alternative opinions:

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About the Author

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Beth Dial Duke is an Amazon #1 Best Selling author and the recipient of short story awards on two continents.
She is eyeing the other five.
Beth lives in the mountains of her native Alabama with her husband, one real dog, one ornamental dog, and a flock of fluffy pet chickens.
She loves reading, writing, and not arithmetic.
Baking is a hobby, with semi-pro cupcakes and amateur macarons a specialty.
And puns—the worse, the better.
Travel is her other favorite thing, along with joining book clubs for discussion. Please invite her to London…England or Kentucky, either is fine. Anywhere!

Connect with Beth:

Website: https://www.bethduke.com

Facebook: Beth Duke

Twitter: @bethidee

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Blog Tour: Surviving Me by Jo Johnson #GuestPost

Surviving Me

I’m happy to be taking my turn today on the blog tour today for Surviving Me by Jo Johnson. My thanks to Rachel Gilbey for inviting me to take part in the tour and to the author for her guest post. Make sure you scroll down to the bottom of the post for a great giveaway.

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Deceit has a certain allure when your life doesn’t match up to the ideal of what it means to be a modern man.

Tom’s lost his job and now he’s been labelled ‘spermless’. He doesn’t exactly feel like a modern man, although his double life helps. Yet when his secret identity threatens to unravel, he starts to lose the plot and comes perilously close to the edge.

All the while Adam has his own duplicity, albeit for very different reasons, reasons which will blow the family’s future out of the water.

If they can’t be honest with themselves, and everyone else, then things are going to get a whole lot more complicated.

This book tackles hard issues such as male depression, dysfunctional families and degenerative diseases in an honest, life-affirming and often humorous way. It focuses particularly on the challenges of being male in today’s world and explores how our silence on these big issues can help push men to the brink.

An unusual path to publishing a novel by Jo Johnson

Were you educated in this country?’ This was one of the first questions a tutor asked me at university. My punctuation and grammar were terrible. I hated English at school. 

Later, in my work as a clinical psychologist, I was good at relating to people but my reports continued to be a source of amusement. My written work was my weakness. 

As I progressed in my career, I discovered a gift for public speaking. I found telling stories was a great way to entice people to listen. In 2009 I was invited to speak at a national event for people living with multiple sclerosis (MS) and designed a unique workshop called ‘Shrinking the Smirch’. It encouraged my listeners to see their MS as something outside themselves, an external creature. It went down so well that the organisers asked me to turn the session into a workbook.

‘But I can’t write,’ I insisted.

‘If you can speak to people, you can write for them,’ the conference organiser batted back. To my utter amazement, ‘Shrinking the Smirch: the workbook’ won a Plain English Award. This spurred me on to write further workbooks about managing emotional distress and neurology-themed books for young people.

I didn’t plan to write a novel. I left the NHS in 2008 which gave me more time but being self-employed was lonely. So, each day, I interspersed client appointments with visits to the café across the road from my office.

One day, I noticed an unremarkable middle- aged man staring out of the window. I wondered what his story might be. 

On my iPad I wrote:

‘At this point in time, I can accurately be described as unemployed, impotent, and a liar.’

This became the first sentence of my debut novel, “Surviving Me”.

Over the next seven years I added to my story, at times it was an addiction that distracted me from work and family commitments. Tom, my main character was my secret friend for many years. Eventually, I allowed a friend to read it. She loved it and bullied me into finishing it. 

Since then, I have fielded my manuscript to countless friends and colleagues, out of paranoia and lack of confidence. I was always genuinely surprised – and encouraged – by people’s feedback. 

When unbound publishers accepted my manuscript I was delighted. The first editor asked me where I’d done my creative writing course as I didn’t have a clue what he meant by backstory, pace or point of view within the context of fiction writing. 

Fortunately, that amazing structural editor reassured me I had a lot of raw talent and helped me learn the rest. It was a steep learning curve especially as I was working full time as a clinical psychologist whilst preparing my book for publish. My poor teenagers completed their most important exams with very little parental support.

Writing helps me clear my mind of other people’s troubles. And humour is a great way to defuse some of the day’s tensions. My line of work can make you laugh and cry almost simultaneously – and I hope my characters do the same for my readers.

I still can’t believe I’m the author of a novel that is being described in reviews as refreshingly different and beautifully written.

Thank you for sharing your fascinating journey with us, Jo.

If you would like to get your hands on a copy of Surviving Me, you can buy a copy here.

Giveaway

Jo is running a giveaway with two first prizes of a signed copy of Surviving Me and a Surviving Me fridge magnet and five runner-up prizes of a Surviving Me fridge magnet. To enter, please click on the Rafflecopter link below:

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*Terms and Conditions –Worldwide entries welcome.  Please enter using the Rafflecopter box above.  The winner will be selected at random via Rafflecopter from all valid entries and will be notified by Twitter and/or email. If no response is received within 7 days then Rachel’s Random Resources reserves the right to select an alternative winner. Open to all entrants aged 18 or over.  Any personal data given as part of the competition entry is used for this purpose only and will not be shared with third parties, with the exception of the winners’ information. This will passed to the giveaway organiser and used only for fulfilment of the prize, after which time Rachel’s Random Resources will delete the data.  I am not responsible for despatch or delivery of the prize.

To find out more about the book and read some reviews, please check out the rest of the stops on the tour:

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About the Author

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I’m very excited that my debut novel ‘Surviving Me’ is due to be published on the 14 November. The novel is about male minds and what pushes a regular man to the edge. The novel combines all the themes I can write about with authenticity.

I qualified as a clinical psychologist in 1992 and initially worked with people with learning disabilities before moving into the field of neurology in 1996. I worked in the NHS until 2008 when i left to write and explore new projects.

I now work as an independent clinical psychologist in West Sussex.

Jo speaks and writes for several national neurology charities including Headway and the MS Trust. Client and family related publications include, “Talking to your kids about MS”, “My mum makes the best cakes” and “Shrinking the Smirch”.

In the last few years Jo has been offering psychological intervention using the acceptance and commitment therapeutic model (ACT) which is the most up to date version of CBT. She is now using THE ACT model in a range of organisations such as the police to help employees protect their minds in order to avoid symptoms of stress and work related burnout. 

Social media links:

Facebook: Shrinking the Smirsch

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World by C. A. Fletcher #BookReview (@CharlieFletch_r) @orbitbooks @TheFictionCafe @dstackedshelves #FictionCafeBookClub #FictionCafeReadingChallenge2020 #challenges #readingrecommendations #TemptedBy #YoungAdult #ABoyAndHisDogAtTheEndOfTheWorld

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My name’s Griz. I’ve never been to school, I’ve never had friends, in my whole life I’ve not met enough people to play a game of football. My parents told me how crowded the world used to be, before all the people went away, but we were never lonely on our remote island. We had each other, and our dogs.  

Then the thief came.  

He told stories of the deserted towns and cities beyond our horizons. I liked him – until I woke to find he had stolen my dog. So I chased him out into the ruins of the world. 

I just want to get my dog back, but I found more than I ever imagined was possible. More about how the world ended. More about what my family’s real story is. More about what really matters.  

Book four for the 2020 Reading Challenge for my online book club, The Fiction Cafe Book Club is in the category ‘A book with an animal on the cover’ Well, I see a dog so I think this counts!

This post also represents a special edition of my Tempted by … feature, as I bought this book after reading this fabulous review by my friend Jill over at Double Stacked Shelves. Make sure you pop over and check out her blog.

This book lived up to all Jill promised. Although it is a young adult book, readers of all ages will take away something from it, and you’d need to be some kind of curmudgeon not to enjoy it just because the writing style is pitched at a young adult reader. This is a dystopian story, a tale of adventure, an exploration of human nature and frailty, a morality tale, and a treatise on the love than humans have for their pets, all rolled in to one great book.

We meet Griz & his family at the end of days, when the human population has all but died out and the few people who are left are scattered far and wide across a barren landscape. Everyone is living a hand to mouth existence, which makes them suspicious of strangers and protective of the things they have. So when a visitor to their remote home steals Griz’s dog, he sets off in pursuit. The rest of the book then follows Griz’s journey as he travels across an unknown land to find his lost companion.

The story is gripping from the first page as we try to understand what has happened to the world and what kind of devastation humans have wreaked on themselves and the planet. It is fascinating to look through the author’s imagination to see what someone who has never experienced life as we currently live it makes of our world through the decaying remnants left behind. What kind of things are still of value to humans on the edge of existence, and what has become worthless.

The book is full of emotion, as the bonds of family are tested, and the importance of relationships, trust, understanding, empathy and kindness are explored through Griz’s journey and the challenges he meets along the way. The book explores how we can change and grow in the face of adversity, confirming the old adage, ‘That which does not kill us makes us stronger.’

I have been a huge fan of dystopian fiction since my old school librarian introduced me to the books of John Wyndham as a teenager, but I don’t remember there being any books like this specifically aimed at my age group. This book brought back echoes of those books to me, along with a sniff of Treasure Island for some reason. I was thoroughly invested in the story, and found it moving, melancholy and uplifting, all at the same time. I am also happy that I have found a book I can share with my teenage daughters and discuss and enjoy with them. A book to be passed along between generations, which makes it a great find.

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World is out now in all formats and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Charlie’s a screenwriter and a novelist and he lives on the edge of Edinburgh. He’s been lots of other things too – temperamentally unsuitable bar staff (grumpy, not talkative), temporary laundry manager in a big London hotel, detail-shop car-wash jockey in Reno, Nevada, despatch runner for a film company in Soho,  food critic (not a very good one, basically never met a meal he didn’t like. Or at least eat too much of), national newspaper columnist (Scotland’s a nation, right?) and a film editor at the BBC. He studied Literature at St Andrews University, and later took a grad degree in Screenwriting at USC.

He swims a lot, keeps thinking of taking up cycling, likes forgotten books, summers on the Outer Hebrides, terriers, his wife and his children – not necessarily in that order.

Connect with Charlie:

Website: http://www.charliefletcher.com

Twitter: @CharlieFletch_r

Roses of Marrakech by Rachel Clare #BookReview #BlogTour @BookGuild @RaRaResources #RachelsRandomResources #RosesOfMarrakech

Roses of Marrakech

I am delighted to be taking part in the blog tour for Roses of Marrakech by Rachel Clare. My thanks to Rachel Gilbey of Rachel’s Random Resources for inviting me on to the tour and to the publisher for my copy of the book, which I have reviewed honestly and impartially.

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Roses of Marrakech is a breath-taking romantic fiction, set between 1944 and 2016. The story follows 36-year-old primary school teacher, Ivy Fielding, who suffers from a lack of self-esteem due to a facial birthmark. Her great-aunt Rose, who has always been her main source of emotional support, has just died, leaving her a bequest as well as her Lavenham cottage to Ivy and her mother. Ivy discovers tragedies in her family’s past while reading her late great-aunt’s diary, and this inspires her to fulfil a childhood dream and she jets off to Marrakech for the summer holidays.

Set against the backdrop of wartime Suffolk and the present-day spice-scented souks of Morocco, Ivy follows a trail of discovery that will change her life and those around her, forever.

But when uncomfortable secrets of the past begin to surface, can she find the courage to confront them, or is it easier to walk away?

I was really keen to review this book as Marrakech is a place I have always wanted to visit and I loved the idea of being immersed in the place via a book whilst I wait to visit in real life. I also love a dual timeline story, so I thought this might tick all my boxes.

The dual timeline worked really well, and the story of Rose and Ivy was immersive and moving. Rose’s wartime experiences were harrowing and heart-rending and made me immensely sad. It is terrible to think what women had to endure in the past, the heartbreak they suffered and the cover ups that caused rifts in families for generations. Equally, in the modern day, Ivy’s struggles and insecurities were emotive, I really connected with both of them and the love between the two women flowed off the page, making the revelations in the book even more poignant.

The parts set in Morocco did not disappoint, the author managed to bring the streets and souks of Marrakech to life and transport me right there. I could feel the sun on my skin, smell the rich spices and hear the clamour of the crowds. Through the novel, we explore all the major sights and attractions of the area, and you feel like you are taking the trip with Ivy and living her dream with her.

I have to say, there was a section in the middle of the book that was a little repetitive which slowed the pace. There was too much detail about what Rose was wearing and what she was having for every meal and it did make the middle section of the book drag somewhat and make me wish we could get back to the action, some judicious editing in this part would have helped a little. I did find the author had an odd turn of phrase in parts too, which made me stop and took me out of the story for a few moments, which was a little distracting at times.

However, overall this was a fascinating read and I found the themes explored through the story thought-provoking. The perils of wartime relationships and the travails of women in that era, Ivy’s struggles with her insecurities due to her facial birthmark, grief and, most interestingly, an exploration of how we project our own fears and insecurities onto other people and assume that this is what they think. It is really sympathetically done.

A worthwhile read.

Roses of Marrakech is out now and you can buy a copy here.

Make sure you follow the rest of the tour as detailed below:

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About the Author

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Rachel gained a BA (Hons) in French/English at Liverpool Hope University and an MA in Modern Languages Research at Lancaster University before training to be a journalist. She now lives in Lancaster and teaches French in a primary school. She has enjoyed writing stories since she was a child and coming runner up in a Sunday Express story competition gave her the confidence to write her first novel, Roses of Marrakech. 

Whenever I go on holiday, I always take my notebook with me. Visiting Morocco and Lavenham a few years ago, I made notes of my impressions of the places I visited and began writing the book when I returned”, comments Rachel. “In the book, Ivy’s struggles with coming to terms with her birthmark are based on my own experiences with cerebral palsy, whilst the characters, Violet and Eleanor are based on my great-aunts who both died of TB in the late 1920s.”