Review: Sea Wife by Amity Gaige (2020) @fleetreads #ReadFleet #SeaWife #SeaWifeTour

I am delighted to join the blog tour for Sea Wife. Thank you so much to Grace Vincent and Fleet Reads for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Blurb

When Michael informs his wife Juliet that he is leaving his job and buying a sailboat, she is taken aback. And when he proposes they and their two young children take a year-long voyage, she is deeply apprehensive. But Michael is persuasive, and eventually she agrees to his plan. The family set off for Panama, where their sailboat awaits them – a boat that Michael has named the Juliet.

Initially, the experience is transformative: their marriage is given a gust of energy, and each of them is affected by the beauty and wildness of the sea. But slowly, the voyage begins to unravel.

Juliet’s account of the life-changing events at sea is spliced with Michael’s captain’s log, which provides a riveting slow-motion narration of those same inexorable events.

Sea Wife is a gripping novel about marriage, family and love in a time of unprecedented turmoil. It is unforgettable in its power and astonishingly perceptive in its portrayal of optimism, disillusionment and survival.

Review

I am going to try and resist the temptation to fill this review with nautical metaphors, which won’t be easy, as this book carried me along as effortlessly as the tides (sorry). I was absolutely hooked from the start, and stayed up till stupid o’clock two nights in a row gripped by Juliet and Michael’s story. What struck me most about this novel is the way in which Gaige manages to perfectly balance the interior lives of her characters with the epic adventure that they find themselves on. There is a stunning mix of psychological insight and pure, thrilling action – a very difficult trick to pull off, but one which is beautifully and skilfully done here.

Both Juliet and Michael are complicated characters. Initially I was much more sympathetic towards Michael, whose sense of adventure and love of his wife and family are more immediately attractive qualities than Juliet’s introspective, doubtful questioning. However, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Juliet is suffering, and Michael’s gung-ho enthusiasm comes to seem less admirable when the burden his wife is carrying seems to go largely ignored.

I am sure many of us harbour (sorry) secret fantasies of disappearing off the grid, undertaking an adventure such as the sea voyage that Michael persuades Juliet to go on (there was a TV series about families living in the wilderness a few years ago that left me slightly wistful), but the cliche that you can’t run away from your problems is unfortunately true. Though Michael and Juliet do, at times, discover the kind of closeness that had been missing from their relationship, they cannot ignore the cracks, which follow them across the sea.

The structure of the book, with Juliet’s narration punctuated by extracts from Michael’s logbook, worked very well for me. At first, the two parallel narratives seem jarringly disconnected, but gradually the stories interweave and become more like a conversation. As the truth of the events of the voyage unfold, Juliet seems to come closer to a sort of understanding and acceptance, though nothing in this book is simple, and there are no easy answers.

The descriptions of the voyage, from the scenery to the sea itself to life on board the Juliet, are precise and gorgeous, and I was completely immersed in their journey. In all honesty, the storyline involving the police officers who show up at the house after the voyage is over was not necessary for me as a reader: it didn’t detract from the novel at all, but I was quite happy for the mysteries of the story to remain emotional rather than potentially criminal. I actually felt like this about another book I read this year, Where the Crawdads Sing, and I think it is just an indication that the emotional power of both books were enough for me – I didn’t need an added ‘plotline’, as I was already sold! But it certainly didn’t lessen my enjoyment. Similarly, the postscript to the book was a nice addition, but I didn’t need it to feel as if the story was complete. It did, however, show off Gaige’s incredible range as a writer – I am very keen to read more of her work.

Sea Wife is a fascinating book: a combination of a psychological thriller, an adventure story and a literary meditation on the complexities of relationships. It is both entertaining and thought-provoking, and I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes compelling literary fiction with a strong hook and plenty of insight.

Sea Wife by Amity Gaige is published by Fleet and is out NOW.

June 2020 Reading: The Sound Mirror; Sky Light Rain; Conjure Women; The Dressing-Up Box; The Distance From Four Points; Sea Wife; What’s Left of Me is Yours; How to Be an Antiracist

It has been another absolutely brilliant month for reading. When I finally took the plunge and made my blog ‘public’ earlier this year, I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams that I would be lucky enough to be introduced to so many fantastic books. Being sent ARCS by publishers and authors is so special and exciting – it is a privilege I will never take for granted. Of course, I am also buying more books than ever before, but hey, I am loving it!

I am on track with my goal of 100 reads this year, just: I have read exactly 50 books so far in 2020! If you’re interested in my Top Ten Reads of the year so far, have a look at my post – it was very hard to choose, as I have loved almost everything I have read this year. If you fancy seeing the full list, here it is in all its glory. I also did a post on short story collections and anthologies, which you can check out here. 2020 may be a very difficult year, but books, as always, are seeing me through, and I am so excited to see what the next half of the year brings in terms of literary delights. Anyway, here is what I read in June:

The Sound Mirror by Heidi James (2020)

I was lucky enough to receive a proof copy of this wonderful novel, which is out in August from the fantastic Bluemoose Books. You can read my full review of The Sound Mirror here. I thought it was simply stunning – James is a writer of enormous talent, and I am very keen to read her previous books. Don’t miss this one!

Sky Light Rain by Judy Darley (2019)

This is a clever, original, startlingly imaginative collection of short stories, published by Valley Press. Darley really flexes her writing chops and shows off what the short form can do. You can read my thoughts about it here. It reminded me how much I love short stories, and I now have a fantastic list of recommendations for further collections to explore.

Conjure Women by Afia Atakora (2020)

This book leapt onto my list of top reads of the year so far. Vivid, engaging, beautifully written, it tells the story of Rue, born into slavery on a plantation but becoming free after the Civil War. This novel had everything for me: a fascinating premise, strong characters and a cracking plot. I loved it! You can read more here.

The Dressing-Up Box by David Constantine (2019)

This collection, published by Comma Press, is extremely powerful. My full review can be found here. I need to go back and read Constantine’s previous collections – he is an outstanding short story writer and I am looking forward to reading more of his work.

The Distance From Four Points by Margo Orlando Littell (2019)

This novel was a grower: I started out not expecting as much as it delivered in the end. From a fairly simple plot about a woman returning to her hometown, Littell crafts a complex story about acceptance and coming to terms with the past while also moving forward. It is clever and thought-provoking and I liked it very much. You can read my full review here.

Sea Wife by Amity Gaige (2020)

Lips firmly sealed on this one until my blog tour review is up on the 3rd July. Oh okay, I loved it. Stay tuned to find out why…I’ll add the link to my review here once it is up!

What’s Left of Me is Yours by Stephanie Scott (2020)

This debut novel absolutely blew me away. Based on a real life case in Japan, it is both a love story and a crime novel, and somehow more than the sum of its parts. It tells the story of Rina and Kaitaro, who meet and fall deeply in love in extraordinary circumstances: Kai is hired by Rina’s husband to seduce her in order to provide him with an easy divorce. Alongside their beautifully depicted relationship, Rina’s daughter, Sumiko, years later, uncovers the truth about her mother’s tragic death.

This book swept me along, and punched me in the gut. I was fascinated by the level of detail about the Japanese legal system, and the incredibly high stakes of divorce and custody battles. All of the characters are flawed and complex, and I was especially drawn to Sumi’s grandfather, Yoshi, who has suffered so much and done so much for his family. The act of violence at the heart of the book left me sobbing: I wanted so much for it not to happen, for the author to throw me a lifeline and not have it occur, which shows just how powerful this novel is. I am staggered that this is a debut novel – Stephanie Scott is an author whose career I will be following closely. I must also thank her again for the beautiful copy I won in her giveaway: I am so glad to have had the chance to read this astounding novel.

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi (2019)

The more I read about antiracism, the more I realise how much I have to learn. This book is excellent: the clear definitions that begin each chapter spell out the difference between racism and antiracism in a way which is confronting and uncompromising. Kendi weaves together a powerful discourse with a more personal memoir, and provides a road map for the sort of relentless self-interrogation that is really the only way for individuals to be able to comprehend how our own internalised biases and prejudices have influenced the way we interact with the world. I have a very long way to go, but I am keen to continue learning and really try to understand just how ignorant I have been in the past, and what I can do to be better. I have plenty more books to read on this topic, but always welcome further suggestions.

Another month, another eight fantastic books. I’d love to know what you have enjoyed reading this month – my TBR is endless, so why not add a few more?! Happy reading, folks – we’ve made it halfway through 2020! Ellie x x x

January to June 2020: The Big 50 List!

Well, here it is: the 50 books I have read so far this year! I am really pleased to be on track with my target of 100 reads in 2020 (just!) & am looking forward to the next 50! I’ve linked to my full reviews where applicable – the others are reviewed in my monthly wrap-ups.

  1. Old Filth by Jane Gardam (2004)
  2. The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro (1972)
  3. The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany, translated by Humphrey T. Davies (2009)
  4. Lullaby by Leila Slimani, translated by Sam Taylor (2018)
  5. Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft (2017)
  6. The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (2018)
  7. Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires (2018)
  8. Upturned Earth by Karen Jennings (2019)
  9. The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon (2018)
  10. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (2018)
  11. Motherhood by Sheila Heti (2018)
  12. Tin Man by Sarah Winman (2017)
  13. Melmoth by Sarah Perry (2018)
  14. The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling (2018)
  15. Crudo by Olivia Laing (2018)
  16. Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras (2018)
  17. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (2018)
  18. Milkman by Anna Burns (2018)
  19. Spark by Naoki Matayoshi, translated by Alison Watts (2019)
  20. The Animals At Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey (2020)
  21. Middle England by Jonathan Coe (2018)
  22. Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (2018)
  23. Kilo by Toby Muse (2020)
  24. Finding Clara by Anika Scott (2020)
  25. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo (2019)
  26. The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually by Helen Cullen (2020)
  27. We Are Animals by Tim Ewins (2020)
  28. Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession (2019)
  29. You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South (2020)
  30. The Book of Shanghai edited by Dai Congrong and Dr Jin Li (2020)
  31. A Bookshop in Algiers by Kaouther Adimi, translated by Chris Andrews (2020)
  32. Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones (2011)
  33. The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees, translated by Max Weiss (2013)
  34. The Codes of Love by Hannah Persaud (2020)
  35. Ordinary People by Diana Evans (2018)
  36. Watermarks by Lenka Janiurek (2020)
  37. You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr (2019)
  38. Love Me To Death by Susan Gee (2020)
  39. This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin by Emma Darwin (2019)
  40. Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught (2020)
  41. What Doesn’t Kill You by Elitsa Dermendzhiyska and Others (2020)
  42. I Wanted You to Know by Laura Pearson (2019)
  43. The Sound Mirror by Heidi James (2020)
  44. Sky Light Rain by Judy Darley (2019)
  45. Conjure Women by Afia Atakora (2020)
  46. The Dressing-Up Box by David Constantine (2019)
  47. The Distance From Four Points by Margo Orlando Littell (2019)
  48. Sea Wife by Amity Gaige (2020)
  49. What’s Left of Me Is Yours by Stephanie Scott (2020)
  50. How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

Just looking at that collage of cover collages (a meta-collage?!) makes me happy! So many beautiful books! I’d love to hear what you’ve enjoyed reading so far this year, and if you’ve read any of my list!

Short Stories: The Beggar Maid; Heads of the Colored People; You Will Never Be Forgotten; The Book Of Shanghai; Sky Light Rain; The Dressing-Up Box

I love the power of the short story form. I was quite shocked to realise I have only read six short story collections/anthologies so far this year – I am sure I read far more last year. So I thought it would be fun to do a quick summary post on the ones I have read, if only to remind myself how much I love short stories!

The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro (1972)

There’s always another Munro collection to read, and it is always a pleasure. This one, subtitled ‘Stories of Flo and Rose’, is more novel-like than previous collections I have read. Spanning nearly forty years, it explores the complex relationship between Flo and her stepdaughter Rose, though the focus is more on the latter. These linked stories are, as I have come to expect from Munro, insightful and true, and helped me to define what it is that I find so extraordinary about her work. Nothing is simple or universal in Munro’s world: every interaction is unique, a product of the whole of the characters’ histories, everything they are and that has shaped them.

I find myself wondering how on earth she writes with so much truth – is it by keeping her subject matter close to her own experience, following the infamous advice to ‘write what you know’? Whatever the secret, reading a Munro story is like reading a document of reality rather than anything that could be termed mere fiction – a very special experience indeed.

Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires (2018)

This short story collection is full of self-awareness and a cool irony, delving into the needling questions of what it means to be an upper-middle-class Black person in modern America. Set apart as much by privilege as by race, the characters in these stories find themselves the only Black students at a private school, in a yoga class, and so on. The humour here is biting – in the letters between two highly educated mothers of private school girls, Thompson-Spires flirts with total parody, and in a later story, she manages to make a story about a woman with a fetish for amputees very funny indeed. Social media references abound, with one story in particular, ‘Suicide, Watch’, exploring the Instagram lifestyle in full comi-tragic glory, posing the question of what it means to be ‘Black’ when there are so many other identities to worry about these days. The collection as a whole is strengthened by recurring characters, and I found it full of a refreshing sharpness, zesty and full of life. I hope to read more by this author.

You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South (2020)

This is a fantastic collection of stories, full of a Black Mirror-style slantwise examination of our possible near future. You can read my full review of You Will Never Be Forgotten here.

The Book of Shanghai edited by Dr Jin Li and Dai Congrong (2020)

Part of the Reading the City series by the always brilliant Comma Press, this anthology is the perfect introduction to Shanghai. I am a big fan of literature in translation, and always looking for more recommendations. I’ve got The Book of Cairo on my TBR, and will be adding more from the series for sure. My full review of The Book of Shanghai is here.

Sky Light Rain by Judy Darley (2019)

I was thrilled to be approached by the author to review her book of short fiction, published by Valley Press. You can read my thoughts here: this collection is a glorious mixture of nature and myth, and a testament to the boundless imaginative possibilities of the short form.

The Dressing-Up Box by David Constantine (2019)

Another gem from Comma Press, you can read my full review of this book, which has just been released in paperback, here. I am amazed that this was the first time I had come across Constantine, who is a master of the short story, and I will definitely be checking out his past collections.

Compared to the number of novels I have read this year, six short story collections/anthologies is pretty poor. I have a few more lined up; most excitingly, Anna Vaught’s Famished, which is out in September from Influx Press, and promises to be just as staggeringly brilliant as her novel, Saving Lucia, which I read earlier this year. But PLEASE hit me up with your suggestions for story collections both old and new – I need to make sure I am not neglecting this wonderful form of fiction!

Review: The Distance From Four Points by Margo Orlando Littell (2020)

Blurb

Soon after her husband’s tragic death, Robin Besher makes a startling discovery: He had recklessly blown through their entire savings on decrepit rentals in Four Points, the Appalachian town Robin grew up in. Forced to return after decades, Robin and her daughter, Haley, set out to renovate the properties as quickly as possible—before anyone exposes Robin’s secret past as a teenage prostitute. Disaster strikes when Haley befriends a troubled teen mother, hurling Robin back into a past she’d worked so hard to escape. Robin must reshape her idea of home or risk repeating her greatest mistakes. Margo Orlando Littell, author of Each Vagabond by Name, tells an enthralling and nuanced story about family, womanhood, and coming to terms with a left-behind past.

Review

One of the best things about getting involved with Book Twitter and sharing my blog with more than two people is that I have been introduced to some fantastic books that I might not otherwise have come across. I want to thank Lori @TNBBC for getting in touch with me, and for offering me a copy of The Distance From Four Points in exchange for an honest review. Do follow her on Twitter and check out the eclectic mix of books that she promotes – I have my eye on several more!

Margo Orlando Littell’s novel was a real experience for me – it was one of those books that crept up on me slowly, and revealed layers of meaning that I was not expecting when I started reading. It begins with a simple premise: Robin and her teenage daughter are forced by circumstance to move from their comfortable lives in suburbia into one of the decrepit rental properties her husband bought before his death in Robin’s home town of Four Points. At first I was slightly taken aback that the ‘secrets’ of Robin’s past were almost casually revealed in the opening chapters – we learn very early on that she had been a sex worker as a teenager – but it gradually became clearer and clearer that I had underestimated the author and the book itself. This is not a sensationalist account of the past coming back to haunt a reformed character: it is a different kind of reckoning, a lesson in acceptance and finding peace. As with the very best fiction, I learned a lot from reading this book.

As the story develops, so the language becomes more nuanced and descriptive, and from my initial impressions of this being quite a straightforward book, I moved towards being both emotionally and intellectually challenged by the characters and the themes of this novel. I have to admit, I did not warm to Robin at first: I found her behaviour quite hard to fathom, and her rejection of her former friend, Cindy, when they first meet again after twenty years or so, actually made me feel quite antagonistic towards her. However, as their relationship develops and their lives become more entangled, I found myself beginning to understand both women, in a way that reflects the depth that Littell manages to create in her characters. Robin and Cindy became real to me, and Cindy in particular provides the novel with both humour and heart, without any cloying sentimentality. Other characters, too, are much more than they first appear: the landlords, the ex-lover, the teen mum – each is three-dimensional, complex, intriguing. These are characters who are only familiar on the surface – Littell reveals their uniqueness and, I think, in doing so, questions the reader’s own assumptions alongside Robin’s.

The descriptions of the crumbling, decaying properties and the physical labour needed to repair them to even a semi-acceptable level were another highlight of the book for me, as well. I was very interested to find out that in her research, Littell unwittingly became a landlord herself (you can read about her experience here) – and her prose certainly has an authentic ring to it. The tension between the gentrification process and the landlords’ need to make a living was also something I had never considered. The author’s determination to show every side of the argument is more than just commendable – it is REAL, it reflects the messiness of life in all its complications, rejecting false dichotomies and revelling in the prismatic, multi-faceted nature of human experience.

I haven’t read many novels that have sent me on a similar trajectory of starting out complacent and then catching myself and realising I had grossly underestimated the book, and it was a really interesting experience. This book is so much more than it seems, and it surprised me at every turn. I would be very interested to read her first novel, Each Vagabond by Name, and will certainly be keeping an eye out for more works by this quietly subversive author.

The Distance From Four Points is out now, published by the University of New Orleans Press.

Review: The Dressing-Up Box by David Constantine (2019)

Blurb

Against the backdrop of war, a group of children barricade themselves in an abandoned townhouse, cherishing what’s left of their innocence with the help of a dressing-up box…

An ageing widower moves into the shed at the end of his garden to plan out his ‘endgame’ surrounded by a lifetime’s worth of hoarded curiosities…

The characters in David Constantine’s fifth collection are all in pursuit of sanctuary; the violence and mendacity of the outside world presses in from all sides – be it the ritualised brutality suffered by children at a Catholic orphanage, or the harrowing videos shared among refugees of an atrocity ‘back home’. In each case, the characters withdraw into themselves, sometimes abandoning language altogether, until something breaks and they can retreat no further.

Review

I don’t quite know how I have never managed to come across David Constantine’s work before, but, it has to be said, my failing quite pleases me, because I now have his entire ‘back catalogue’ to look forward to. I love a good short story collection, and I love being introduced to writers I haven’t read before, so I was delighted to receive an ARC of this book ahead of its paperback publication date. Many thanks to Zoe at Comma Press for my copy. The review below is my honest, unbiased opinion.

The sixteen stories in this collection are powerful, both individually and when taken as a whole. Constantine is a remarkable writer, able to blend personal, intimate moments with wider political implications, zooming in and out of the human experience in a seamless manner. There were two or three stories which didn’t grab me as strongly, but I suspect this is at least partly because Constantine’s work requires quite intense concentration; it seems to me to be the kind of book that would reward careful reading and rereading. Having said that, when I tried to pick out a couple of favourite stories, I ended up choosing half of them!

The opening story, ‘The Dressing-Up Box’, is stunning. The premise of a group of children forming their own mini society has, of course, been done before, but what struck me here was the trust placed in the children by the author – there is no Lord of the Flies anarchy here; instead, acceptance and empathy govern the children’s actions. When the newcomer, Monkey, discovers the treasure trove of dressing-up clothes beneath the floorboards, the delight and excitement is palpable. The way in which the children are able, even in these extreme circumstances, to let their imaginations run riot, and not to lose that sense of wonder, is beautifully depicted. As a first introduction to Constantine’s writing, it blew me away, and reminded me of the power of the short story form.

As I mentioned, there were several other stories that really stood out for me. ‘Siding with the Weeds,’ in which Joe visits his old friend Bert, who is now more or less living in a shed at the end of his garden, is such a subtly surprising story, full of gorgeous nuggets of prose – when Bert reveals the full version of the ‘beautiful clean thought’ he had started to write down, I honestly felt something break in my chest. Constantine’s writing contains many of these moments, heartbreaking in their truth and beauty. In ‘The Diver’, Lucy accompanies her father on one of his expeditions, and the events that unfold perfectly encapsulate those moments of near-trauma that can mark us almost as much as the real thing.

Constantine’s work is also timely. In ‘Rivers of Blood’, two elderly people reflect on their experiences of the demonstrations resulting from Powell’s infamous speech, and in ‘Seeking Refuge,’ Fahrid struggles to move on from what is happening back in the country he fled. In ‘bREcCiA’, the strange book made up of collages of images and texts, which so captivates the protagonist, seems to encompass the entire modern world in its pages, showing the true scope of Constantine’s concerns.

‘When I Was a Child’ is perhaps the most emotionally powerful piece in the collection, describing the covert horrors of life in the House of the Brothers and Sisters of Mercy, an orphanage. What happens with White Star is chilling – I shall say no more here, but Father Dominic is a dark, dark villain. Even in this bleak story, though, there is a hint of hope at the end. This is brought to the fore in the final story in the collection, ‘Ashton and Elaine,’ a deeply moving piece which brings the book in a full circle back to the optimism we can have in the goodness of children. It is a cliche to label them our hope for the future, but Lord knows in these times, our hope has to come from somewhere.

I was captivated by this collection, which takes the reader on a journey between emotion and intellect, politics and the personal, and I would recommend it to anyone who reads in order to think more deeply about ourselves as human beings. It is powerful stuff.

The Dressing-Up Box is published by Comma Press. The paperback edition is out on 25th June and is available to pre-order here.

Top Ten Reads of 2020 (So Far!)

I thought I would take a pause and reflect on some of the incredible books I have read so far this year. If I agonise too long about this list, I am sure to feel bad for the many brilliant books I haven’t included, so before I can change my mind, here is my list of Top Ten Reads of 2020, so far:

  1. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (2018). I read this as part of an absolutely stellar reading month in February, which you can catch up with here.
  2. The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey (2020). Read my full review of this beautiful book here.
  3. Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (2018). I read this in March, along with several other great books which you can check out here.
  4. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo (2019). So much has been written about this book, I only briefly rave about it in my April round-up here.
  5. The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually by Helen Cullen (2020). Out in August, you can read my full review here. One to pre-order for sure.
  6. Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones (2011). Another stunning April read.
  7. You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr (2019). Read my full review here.
  8. Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught (2020). Read my full review here.
  9. The Sound Mirror by Heidi James (2020). Another one to pre-order for August! You can check out my review here.
  10. Conjure Women by Afia Atakora (2020). I only finished this a couple of days ago, but it will stay with me for a very long time. You can read my review here.

I feel so lucky to have discovered so many amazing books this year, and I am sure there are many more to come! I’d love to know your favourite reads of 2020 so far, and your thoughts on any of the books on my list!

Review: Conjure Women by Afia Atakora (2020)

Blurb

‘After Miss May Belle died, they said the river swelled up fit to weep for her. Living water, it swallowed up the old, proud stalks of cotton. And Miss Rue, the only one left to sustain her mama’s curse, found herself afeared of what the river water might dredge up, secret things better left hidden.’

The pale-skinned, black-eyed baby is a bad omen. That’s one thing the people on the old plantation are sure of. The other is that Miss Rue – midwife, healer, crafter of curses – will know what to do.

But for once Rue doesn’t know. Times have changed since her mother Miss May Belle held the power to influence the life and death of her fellow slaves. Freedom has come. The master’s Big House lies in ruins. But this new world brings new dangers, and Rue’s old magic may be no match for them.

When sickness sweeps across her tight-knit community, Rue finds herself the focus of suspicion. What secrets does she keep amidst the charred remains of the Big House? Which spells has she conjured to threaten their children? And why is she so wary of the charismatic preacher man who promises to save them all?

Rue understands fear. It has shaped her life and her mother’s before her. And now she knows she must face her fears – and her ghosts – to find a new way forward for herself and her people.

Review

First things first: I bought the hardback copy of this book last month with my birthday money from my lovely bookish auntie, and the physical book itself is a thing of beauty. The gorgeous cover attracted me as much as the promise of the story within, and after reading the book and appreciating the meaning behind the plants, flowers and the double-sided doll, I am so glad that I own a copy of this beautiful book. I can say straightaway that I will be rereading this one.

Conjure Women tells the story of Rue, born into slavery on a southern plantation, the daughter of the healer and midwife of the slave community, brought up to take her mother’s place. As the war approaches and Slaverytime is replaced by Freedomtime, the Black inhabitants of the former plantation create their new life in almost total isolation from the outside world. Rue finds her position challenged by a sickness that descends upon the children of the community, and by the arrival of Bruh Abel, the preacher man who draws hope and trust away from Rue.

It is hard to believe that this is a debut novel. Afia Atakora plunges the reader into the era immediately before and after the American civil war with such assurance that I felt an instant confidence and trust in her storytelling abilities, and that confidence didn’t waver over the nearly-400 pages of this amazing book. From the start, I was utterly captivated by Rue as a character. She is a fascinating, complex character, her motivations and loyalties both nuanced and mutable, and I found her completely convincing. Although most of the novel is written in the third person, the voice that Atakora creates is strong and compelling, and, as with the very best of historical fiction, there is a real feeling of immediacy, of the past being reanimated before our eyes. Rue’s mother, May Belle, is also a deeply intriguing character, and the relationship between mother and daughter that plays out across the non-linear timeline of the book is deliciously complicated. Varina, Marse Charles’ daughter, is another well-drawn character; it would be easy to cast the white daughter of the plantation owner as a purely negative figure, but I found my sympathies towards her ebbing and flowing as the story progressed.

The plot is just as strong as the character development. I don’t want to give away too much in this review, but I found that the story hit precisely the right balance of surprising me with the unexpected and rewarding me with those precious ‘scenes I would like to see’ that a book which truly engrosses me as a reader has me predicting and longing for. The narrative is beautifully paced, twisting and turning enough to keep the reader absolutely hooked, but never sacrificing nuance or character development for the sake of a juicy plot point. I also adored the way in which, towards the end of the book, when the clever back and forth of the timeline has become comfortable, Atakora finds new and exciting ways of mixing up the narrative and raising it to ever more dazzling heights. And the prose is just stunning: the kind of writing that seems effortlessly gorgeous but is in fact carefully crafted and perfectly pitched.

Conjure Women is the sort of book which makes me jealous of those of you who haven’t read it yet, as you have all of its joys ahead of you. The blend of incredible prose, meticulous but lightly-worn research, a gripping plot and unforgettable characters make this book pretty damn close to my idea of the perfect read, and I honestly can’t recommend it enough.

Conjure Women is out now, published by 4th Estate in the UK and Random House in the US.

Review: Sky Light Rain by Judy Darley (2019)

Blurb

“In this collection of eerie, beautifully-crafted stories, lives are lived slightly out of sync with the ordinary world. From a man who makes sock puppets to elderly Italian craftswomen and hens at a taxidermy party, family stories are seamlessly woven with folklore, journeys and natural phenomena to examine the quirks, pain and resilience of human existence.

Framing her tales in the nebulous, shimmering concepts of sky, light and rain, Judy Darley deftly explores our relationship with the natural world and one another, reminding us that however far we travel, some connections remain unbreakable.”

Review

There are few things that excite me more than a brilliant collection of short stories. I love getting lost in a novel, of course, and spending time getting to know characters over pages and pages, but there is a different kind of thrill involved in reading a book of short stories, a kind of lucky dip element, a little bit of lots of different things, a fictional tapas spread which tantalises different parts of the mind with each new tale. Sky Light Rain is a fantastic example of this: the stories are varied both in length and tone, some flash pieces, some almost like mini chapters of a novel. Exploring Darley’s many worlds is a delicious treat.

The titles of the stories, which are divided into three sections, read almost like poetry in themselves. The opening story of ‘Sky’, ‘Untrue Blue’, lifts the reader up into the world of the imagination from the very first sentence: “As children we would go flying at night“, and your feet do not touch the ground until the final sentence of the last story of ‘Rain’. Darley’s imaginative flights of fancy are poetic and beautiful, crammed full of stunning natural imagery and surprising word combinations, but alongside the ethereal beauty, the fairytale language and imagery, there is a darker note, thrilling and at times horrifying. In the ‘Light’ section, ‘Invertebrates’ is the clearest example of this, but there are more subtle threads of gothic-tinged darkness in many of the stories.

Some of the shortest pieces are the most impactful. Flash fiction is so difficult to write well (I have tried!) but Darley excels at it. ‘Weaving Wings’ and ‘The Moth Room’ were among my favourite stories in this collection; both are under a page. Of the longer stories, ‘Woman and Birds’, about a peculiar treasure hunt in Barcelona, ‘The Blue Suitcase’, about a woman who follows through on an airport impulse I’m sure most of us have thought about but would never act upon, and ‘Merrow Cave,’ a story that beautifully combines personal and mythical elements, are three that will stay with me for a long time. I don’t want to go into too much detail in this review as for me one of the greatest joys of this collection was the thrill of the unexpected, the way some of the stories mutated into fairy tales while others remained more rooted in the ‘real world’.

There is a strong sense of experimentation and limitless imagination in this collection, and it is a pleasure to experience. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the boundless possibilities of short fiction, and the blurred intersection of myth and reality.

Note: I received a gifted copy from the publisher in return for an honest review. Many thanks to Valley Press and to the author for my copy of Sky Light Rain.

Sky Light Rain is published by Valley Press and is available to purchase here.

For further information about Judy Darley, have a look at her beautiful website http://www.skylightrain.com/ or find her on Twitter @JudyDarley.

Review: The Sound Mirror by Heidi James (2020)

This is the second book published by Bluemoose as part of their year of publishing women only. I reviewed Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught last month and absolutely adored it, and I jumped at the chance to receive a proof copy of Heidi James’ The Sound Mirror in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to the author and publisher for my copy.

I didn’t know much about the book before I started reading, which actually used to be my default mode for approaching books in my pre-Twitter days. I’d load up my Kindle with titles from lists I made months ago and ‘go in blind’ to whatever came up first. I am getting much more methodical, (and I am reading more physical books these days, with blurbs and cover quotes and so on), but it was quite nice to dive into this blurb-less proof with absolutely no preconceptions. It made the delicious surprise of what was to come all the sweeter.

The first thing I have to state is that James’ prose is beyond stunning. I sometimes like to copy out sentences that I find particularly beautiful or meaningful, and I honestly had to give up as I was just copying out the whole text. From the opening lines, the novel grabbed me and didn’t let go:

“She is going to kill her mother today. But she’s no monster. She’s not the villain. It’s a beautiful day for it, winter sharp, the sky an unfussy blue.”

What a way to start a novel. And it got better and better from there.

The chapters alternate between three third person viewpoints: Tamara, Claire and Ada. The story is narrated in the present tense, which creates a wonderful sense of moving between time and space, entering into the lives of these women at different points. Their chapters each have a unique voice – even though ‘I’ is not used, we are immersed in their worlds by the shifting grammar and syntax which clearly marks out the three stories. Honestly, James does this better than many writers who use the first person for their multiple viewpoints. Claire’s chapters in particular are so full of her personality that I warmed to her immediately.

The three main characters are complex and nuanced. Each has an intriguing starting point: Tamara bears the emotional and physical scars of a traumatic childhood; Claire longs to avoid repeating history and becoming her mother; and Ada is taken away from her home in India to cold, grey England to start a new life. The different time periods are evoked rather than stated, and it took me a little while to orientate myself, but this only adds to the sense of lives overlapping and history repeating itself. What impressed me the most was the ways in which the characters develop and change as the novel progresses, most notably Ada and Claire as their stories are more linear; I was so invested in them as characters that I took their actions very personally, and the frustration I felt when they disappointed me at times was not through them acting out of character but merely proving their human frailty. When fictional characters hurt you, you know the author is doing something right.

Tamara seems to me to have a different role to play in the novel – her narrative dips in and out of her childhood, adolescence and beyond, and her chapters provide some of the novel’s most profound insights into the way in which genes, ancestory and history do not so much guide as lead us:

“You imagine history trails you like clanging tin cans on a wedding car, but you’re wrong. History is a halter that leads, we’re beasts of burden with a ring through our nose.”

The “we” voice that trails her, a sort of chorus, reminded me a little of Akwaeke Emezi’s beautiful novel Freshwater, whose protagonist has gods living inside her. This plurality, the echoes of other lives that reside within us, comes together beautifully at the end of The Sound Mirror, in a way I did not see coming.

The Sound Mirror is a dazzling achievement: a razor-sharp, insightful novel with fully realised characters and a perfectly-judged balance of ideas and story. I will be getting my hands on everything else this author has written as soon as possible – James is a fiercely talented writer, and I am so pleased to have been introduced to her work through this beautiful book.

The Sound Mirror is out in August, published by Bluemoose Books. You can preorder a limited edition hardback directly from the publishers here.