Review: The Same Ledge by Daniel James (2020) #TheSameLedge @DanJamesWriting @damppebbles #damppebblesblogtours

Blurb:

Behind the postcard imagery of London, the darkest parts of the city house some of the saddest stories.

When Michael met Cameron, they were two boys who shared a bond and a ledge, an escape from their turbulent and violent home lives. But when Michael leaves, their lives drift apart into dramatically different directions until the events of the past bring them back together. They are no longer boys, but the ledge remains. Can they save themselves? Can they save one another?

This raw debut from Daniel James is a literary fiction that delves into fragile friendships, social inequality and mental health.

Review:

Readers of a sensitive disposition, look away now. The list of topics covered by this book makes for brutal reading: domestic violence, drug abuse, alcoholism, suicide, misogyny, racism, poverty, depression…I could go on. However, regular readers of my blog (hi both) will know I am not one to shy away from a challenging read, and as long as everyone is happy that I have provided sufficient trigger warnings, I’m going to tell you why I am so glad I did not swerve from this one.

This is much more than a ‘sliding doors’ story of two boys starting from the same point and heading off on different trajectories. While it is true that Michael “gets out,” escaping the cycle of poverty and getting a job in the City, leaving Cameron behind, the scars of their upbringings are impossible for either to escape. This is a thoughtful and thought-provoking exploration of what it means to come from a “broken home,” a cliché that is all too often tossed around without considering the full and tragic implications.

The author sticks closely to the two protagonists’ points of view, so closely that, especially in the case of Cameron, it is often deeply uncomfortable to be inside his head. And yet, this discomfort serves a purpose beyond shock value: his violent tendencies, his misogyny, his growing racist views, stoked by the people he meets and the circumstances he feels trapped in, are not presented as a damning indictment of his nature. Rather, he is a product of everything he has lived and suffered, and, as difficult as it is to read about domestic abuse from the point of view of both the victim and the perpetrator, the message of how the cycle will turn relentlessly until the underlying issues of poverty and privation are addressed is a profound, and profoundly relevant, one.

Even Michael, while he manages to distance himself physically from his past, carries the hurt and the trauma within him. The scene where he sees Cameron, now homeless, is incredibly powerful on its own, and in the light of what follows it is almost unbearably so. The parallels between the boys, set up in the title and echoing throughout the book, are not so much designed to evoke the “there but for the grace of…” cliché, but something even more powerful: Michael is Cameron, both boys are a product of the warped society they live in: the damage it has done them is unforgiveable.

The style of the narrative is striking: James writes with eloquence and an attention to detail which illuminates the corners of the city many of us would rather not examine too closely. The South London accents are mimicked convincingly in the dialogue, and I really enjoyed the contrast between the articulate thoughts of the men and their brief, staccato utterances – so much left unsaid, so many swirling thoughts that cannot find release. It is a very clever depiction of the mental anguish suffered by both men, but it works particularly well for Cameron.

This is far from an easy read, but it is an important one. I was forced into contemplating a lot of uncomfortable truths about the liberal views I hold so dear: my horror and distaste for Cameron’s misogyny and racism gradually giving way to a deep, deep sadness that the experiences of his life have shown him no other way to be or to think. The Same Ledge is a brave experiment in pushing the boundaries of empathy to their limits, taking us inside the truth of what it means to live on the edges. This is a book that interrogates our society in an absolutely uncompromising way, and explores some of the reasons for the deep divisions we see all around us. It is a bold, challenging, distressing look at a reality we ignore at our peril.

About the Author:

Daniel James is a London born writer residing in Toronto at the release of his debut novel. Daniel draws upon his own life experiences as a Londoner to create a descriptive account of life in the city, exploring issues of inequality and the pressures on the human spirit blended naturally into one story.

Daniel uses modern day themes and explores complex issues that revolve around mental health, relationships and societal class, issues that have impacted his life in one way or another. The need to captivate and highlight these themes are the inspiration behind his writing. He hopes you connect and enjoy the story in your own way.

Social Media:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/DanJamesWriting

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Daniel-James-Writing-112573600438719

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/daniel_james_writing/

Purchase Links:

Amazon UK: https://amzn.to/2S2RaDd

Amazon US: https://amzn.to/2EDDknx

Published in digital and paperback formats by Lulu.com on 29th May 2020

Review: The Night of the Flood by Zoe Somerville (2020)

The Night of the Flood by Zoe Somerville

Blurb:

An atmospheric literary thriller set in north Norfolk in the shadow of the Cold War, in which a love triangle turns murderous.

Her heart beat hard. There was a crazed beauty to the storm. It was almost miraculous, the way it took away the mess of life, sweeping all in its path…

No-one could have foreseen the changes the summer of 1952 would bring. Cramming for her final exams on her family’s farm on the Norfolk coast, Verity Frost feels trapped between past and present: the devotion of her childhood friend Arthur, just returned from National Service, and her strange new desire to escape.

When Verity meets Jack, a charismatic American pilot, he seems to offer the glamour and adventure she so craves, and Arthur becomes determined to uncover the dirt beneath his rival’s glossy sheen.

As summer turns to winter, a devastating storm hits the coast, flooding the land and altering everything in its path. In this new, watery landscape, Verity’s tangled web of secrets, lies and passion will bring about a crime that will change all their lives forever.

Review:

The Night of the Flood is another book that caught my eye amid the many novels published last month. I am so grateful to the author for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review.

There is a feeling that comes over me when I start a book and I know from the opening pages that it is going to be brilliant. It is a sort of tingling, gleeful anticipation. I love that feeling of beautiful possibility and rewards to come, and my spidey senses were definitely activated by the start of this novel. The Night of the Flood fully delivered on that promise.

The word “atmospheric” is tossed around with casual abandon to describe books, but here it is singularly appropriate, with all the shades of nuance of weather, pressure, tension, and total immersion that it contains. The double jeopardy of the approaching flood, which is counted down at the start of chapters, and the menace of the Cold War in all its mysterious, suspicious secrecy, creates a fog-like blanket of tension overlying the more personal dramas that play out.

The prose is confident, muscular, and full of texture. It is so evocative of the Norfolk landscape in all its salty, marshy viscosity. My special kind of literary synaesthesia, in which I imagine that prose has a taste, was out in force: this is definitely an umami book, savoury and meaty and without any hint of sugary sweetness. (Sorry if I’ve lost you with “umami prose”!)

The characters are deeply complex, and the level of psychological and emotional richness in this story is astounding. The five young people whose lives are intertwined are each crucial to the intersecting themes of the story, and each one brings yet another layer to the narrative. The crackle of attraction that sparks between different characters at different times is such a realistic depiction of sexual energy at that age (I vaguely seem to remember!) and it is a bold, insightful move away from the simplicity of a mutual attraction between two characters or a clichéd “love triangle.”

Verity, Peter and Arthur are afforded a close third person point of view, sometimes shifting between them within chapters, and this perspective allows for some startling insights into their thoughts. I found my sympathies ebbing and flowing between them, sometimes shocked by their thoughts, sometimes aching for their separate predicaments. Jack, the American pilot, stands outside this close perspective, though he is no less developed as a character. The author’s refusal to let us into his head aligns us cleverly with the three other character, much of whose energy is spent trying to figure Jack out.

The final character of the five is Muriel. I am probably going to wax lyrical here, because for me, Muriel is perhaps the most startlingly brilliant aspect of this novel. The only one among the young people whose (deliberately brief) chapters contain a sense of joy, of contentment, of existing in harmony with her surroundings, Muriel, the fisherman’s daughter, is both an anchor and a catalyst, a kind of nexus around which the others orbit without realising it. Her connection to the landscape, and to the sea in particular, seems elemental and powerful; even the flood is something she can understand and accept, and also subtly profit from. I flippantly referred to her in my head as the Thetis of Norfolk – there really is something goddess-like about her, for all her down-to-earth pragmatism. I actually went back and read her sections again upon finishing the novel, revelling in their lyrical beauty and strange power.

There is so much more I could say about this book. It is constructed of brilliantly complex, subversive layers, culminating in an almost unbearably dramatic climax on the night of the flood itself. Like Muriel, I will be picking over the rich leftovers of this story for a long time to come. The Night of the Flood is a staggering achievement, and I hope many of you are tempted to read it for yourselves. I’m certainly going to be reading it again.

The Night of the Flood by Zoe Somerville is published by Head of Zeus, and is available to purchase here.

Review: Running the Orient by Gavin Boyter (2020)

Running the Orient by Gavin Boyter

Blurb:

Armed with a toilet trowel and a converted Mazda Bongo called Roxy, self-styled ‘ordinary’ ultrarunner, Gavin Boyter, embarks on his latest long-distance challenge: to run the 3400km from Paris to Istanbul along the route of the world’s most illustrious railway journey, the Orient Express.

And, despite work on Roxy having hampered his training programme, Gavin remains undeterred and plans to run through eight countries, to cross 180 rivers and to ascend 16,500 metres, through forests, mountains, plains and major cities – aided all the way by temperamental mapping technology and the ever encouraging support of his girlfriend, Aradhna. En route, Gavin will pass through urban edgelands and breathtaking scenery, battlefields and private estates, industrial plants and abandoned villages, and on through a drawn-back Iron Curtain where the East meets West. He will encounter packs of snarling, feral dogs, wild boar, menacing cows, and a herd of hundreds of deer. But he will also meet many fascinating characters, including a German, leg-slapping masseuse, music-loving Austrian farmers, middle-class Romanians, itinerant Romanies, stoic soldiers, and boisterous Turks. However, confined to the cramped conditions of Roxy, and each other’s company, Gavin and Aradhna’s journey is not only a test of the endurance and stamina required to put in the hard miles, but of their relationship, too. After all, if they can survive this challenge, they can survive anything.

But will Gavin’s legs make it all the way to Istanbul, where he has planned a special surprise for Aradhna?

Review:

This book may seem an unlikely choice for someone whose only brushes with running include the odd couple of weeks here and there when I’ve dragged myself out of bed and laboriously thumped along the road for half an hour or so before slowing to a walk and returning home, defeated by my lack of both fitness and a suitable sports bra. Nevertheless, I had followed some of Gavin and Aradhna’s journey on Facebook back in 2018 (when foreign adventures were still possible, happy days) and found myself gripped by their travels, so I jumped at the chance to read this book. Many thanks to the author for providing me with a copy in exchange for an honest review.

I had imagined that this book would be one I would dip in and out of, and was slightly nervous that as a non-runner I might find it difficult to involve myself fully in the day-to-day of such a long trip. This was not the case at all: I was thoroughly absorbed in the adventure, and read it in a few sittings (including on a bench on the South Downs, the closest I get to the wilderness these days). It is quite remarkable how Gavin manages to go into such detail about their daily routine and the ins and outs of the ultra-running experience and make it really compelling reading. Quite apart from the fact that his feat of endurance is utterly incredible (running almost every day for over 100 days), I was blown away by the minute, precise detail with which he tells their story. It is mostly narrated in the present tense, which creates a wonderful sense of experiencing each episode alongside them; it is a truly immersive experience (without the blisters and nipple chafing – win win).

It felt like a privilege to be taken on this slow, mindful journey through Europe, all the more poignant, as both Gavin and Aradhna, in her introduction, observe, in the light (or shade) of the looming spectre of Brexit. Gavin runs through eight countries, and describes each one in elegant, lucid prose. Quite how he managed such recall, I don’t know – I suspect he took meticulous notes, which would be the last thing I would feel like doing after a full day’s run. The nature of the journey, travelling on foot (with Aradhna and trusty Roxy the Mazda Bongo, who becomes a character in her own right in the story, both providing outstanding support), means that the pace is much more meditative than many travelogues, in which planes, trains and automobiles whizz the traveller from one country to another in hours. It takes Gavin days or weeks to cross each country, and he sees so many aspects that the capital-hopping tourist would never encounter: run-down farms, industrial estates, leafy suburbs, hidden mountain tracks…the list goes on. The writing is often really quite beautiful, and the prose is precise and very visual. It was easy to picture the scenes that Gavin describes. His tone is delightfully Bryson-esque, full of self-deprecating understatement, and quite charmingly old-fashioned at times, giving a flavour of the Grand Tour, or perhaps more appropriately, the Victorian travels on the Orient Express itself. I really enjoyed his use of expressions like “Alas” and “pay no heed” – it created an image in my mind of a Laurie Lee figure, loping across the landscape in search of good old-fashioned adventure.

There are moments of tension (involving feral dogs and border guards), and some very honest commentary on the strain such a trip can put on a relationship (it must be stated – as Gavin does frequently in the book – that Aradhna is a saint, and quite certainly the lynchpin of this mad scheme), but above all this book is a testament to the joy of travel, of movement, of observation and adventure. The maps and colour photographs add another layer of interest to the diary-style entries, and for runners, there is a wealth of useful information for planning your own trip, large or small. For everyone else, there is so much to be enjoyed in this inspiring story. Even I have been prompted by it to think about some outdoors adventures in the future – though I suspect they will involve walking rather than running. And I will definitely be getting Gavin’s first book, too.

Running the Orient by Gavin Boyter is published by Great Northern Books and is available to purchase here.

Review: Bringing Up Race by Uju Asika (2020)

Bringing Up Race by Uju Asika

Blurb:

You can’t avoid it, because it’s everywhere. In the looks my kids get in certain spaces, the manner in which some people speak to them, the stuff that goes over their heads. Stuff that makes them cry even when they don’t know why. How do you bring up your kids to be kind and happy when there is so much out there trying to break them down?

Bringing Up Race is an important book, for all families whatever their race or ethnicity. Racism cuts across all sectors of society – even the Queen will have to grapple with these issues, as great grandmother to a child of mixed ethnicity. It’s for everyone who wants to instil a sense of open-minded inclusivity in their kids, and those who want to discuss difference instead of shying away from tough questions. Uju draws on often shocking personal stories of prejudice along with opinions of experts, influencers and fellow parents to give prescriptive advice making this an invaluable guide.

Bringing Up Race explores:
– When children start noticing ethnic differences (hint: much earlier than you think)
– What to do if your child says something racist (try not to freak out)
– How to have open, honest, age-appropriate conversations about race
– How children and parents can handle racial bullying
– How to recognise and challenge everyday racism, aka microaggressions

A call to arms for ALL parents, Bringing Up Race starts the conversation which will mean the next generation have zero tolerance to racial prejudice, and grow up understanding what kindness and happiness truly mean.

Review:

Uju Asika’s book caught my eye amid the flurry of September releases, and I immediately pre-ordered it. Like so many of us, I am trying to educate myself as much as I can about antiracism, and while I still have a very long way to go, I feel like I am ready to think hard about how I can engage my kids in these vital conversations. My two are very young, only 3 and 5, but as Uju explains in her book, it is never too early to start the dialogue.

The structure of the book makes it extremely easy to read. Chapters are divided into short, snappily-titled subsections contain an engaging mixture of facts, personal anecdotes and testimonials from other parents/those who have been affected by racism. At the end of each chapter there are Talking Points, in which the author answers questions that may arise from the previous pages. I especially liked these sections, as it illustrates the uncertainty that many of us might have about approaching this topic, and shows that there are no stupid questions: the most important thing is that we do not let our fear of saying the wrong thing lead to us saying nothing at all. The complicity of silence is referred to several times, and is a danger I am becoming more aware of thanks to my reading on this subject. We’re not going to get it right every time, but this isn’t a test: it is a vitally important learning experience for both us and our children. The talking points and the handy reference section at the end of the book further emphasise that this is a process, and give the book a very practical feel.

What struck me most of all was the tone of this book: it is informal but informative, warm and wise, driven by a desire to help others implement change, not to berate them. This is also a very kind book: Uju’s mantra of “Be cool, be kind, be you” runs through her prose – her personality and sense of humour lift the mood of the book, while her empathy and generosity shine out of every page. Yes, the anger at injustice is there, how could it not be, but what the author shows us is how to channel that anger into something positive.

Bringing Up Race is useful, informative, thought-provoking and, above all, hopeful. Like Uju, I have faith in the next generation, and am heartened by the changes I see in the way they view the world. But we, as parents, have a very important role to play in this: we need to have the difficult conversations, challenge our own assumptions and inbuilt biases, learn and explore alongside our children. This book has already prompted me to have some really interesting discussions with my five year old, and I’ve noted down several of the reading suggestions from the back of the book for Xmas pressie ideas! I would recommend this book to every parent, without a moment’s hestitation.

Bringing Up Race by Uju Asika is published by Yellow Kite Books and is available to purchase here.

Info Post on Margate Bookie: The Friendly Litfest, and a Short Digression on Silver Linings

I’ve got a slightly different type of post for you today, chock full of bookish goodness! I’m delighted to be collaborating with Margate Bookie, the friendly Litfest by the sea (online for 2020, of course – that’s how we roll this year). They have an absolutely fab programme of events coming up, and I’m very pleased to have the chance to tell you all about them!

First up in October is a series of talks with some amazing writers, kicking off THIS AFTERNOON with a talk from Mary O’Hara.

Here is the full programme of Bookie Talks:

Next up in November is a series of Fireside Chats – have a look and see if any of these grab you (I am definitely feeling the Bibliotherapy one!):

As an aside, one of the unexpected perks of 2020 for me has been attending virtual events and chatting with people over various forms of technology. As a full time mum who, lets face it, “doesn’t get out much,” even pre-Lockdown, it has actually been really fun to Zoom around, chat to people, and listen to the wise words of interesting bookish folk.

All of which got me thinking about the silver linings of this frankly pretty dismal year. For me personally, properly joining Twitter, sharing my blog, and “meeting” so many wonderful people has been a real saviour of 2020 for me, along with the fantastic books I have read, of course. I feel like the bookish community has provided a safe haven in a difficult time, and it really has meant an awful lot to me.

Before I get too sentimental, I’d love to ask you if you can think of some positives for this year. Have you attended any interesting online events? Virtually met any new friends? Or maybe there’s a particular book you’ve read that has helped you get through/escape for a while? Do drop me a comment and let me know, I’d love it if we could start a bit of a chat about the (gasp) nicer side of 2020.

I’ll be doing some more posts about upcoming Margate Bookie events, so keep an eye on my blog. And if you follow me on Twitter, watch out for a chance to WIN event tickets…coming soon!

You can find out more about Margate Bookie and book your event tickets here.

Let me know if you do go to any of these, I’d love to hear your feedback. Or just shout if you’ve read and enjoyed any of the authors mentioned – lets spread the bookish love!

Links:

Margate Bookie website

@MargateBookie on Twitter

https://www.instagram.com/margatebookie/

https://www.facebook.com/MargateBookie/

Review: Love Orange by Natasha Randall (2020)

Love Orange by Natasha Randall

Blurb:


An extraordinary debut novel by Natasha Randall, exposing the seam of secrets within an American family, from beneath the plastic surfaces of their new ‘smart’ home. Love Orange charts the gentle absurdities of their lives, and the devastating consequences of casual choices.

While Hank struggles with his lack of professional success, his wife Jenny, feeling stuck and beset by an urge to do good, becomes ensnared in a dangerous correspondence with a prison inmate called John. Letter by letter, John pinches Jenny awake from the “marshmallow numbness” of her life. The children, meanwhile, unwittingly disturb the foundations of their home life with forays into the dark net and strange geological experiments. 

Jenny’s bid for freedom takes a sour turn when she becomes the go-between for John and his wife, and develops an unnatural obsession for the orange glue that seals his letters…

Love Orange throws open the blinds of American life, showing a family facing up to the modern age, from the ascendancy of technology, the predicaments of masculinity, the pathologising of children, the epidemic of opioid addiction and the tyranny of the WhatsApp Gods. The first novel by the acclaimed translator is a comic cocktail, an exuberant skewering of contemporary anxieties and prejudices.

Review:

I have been having so much fun taking part in the buddy read for this book on Twitter, organised by the publisher @riverrunbooks. I pre-ordered it as it caught my eye amid the 3rd September release rush, and I am so glad I did. It has been really interesting to chat with fellow bookish folk about this novel – do make sure to catch their reviews as well, as we’re all putting them up today. This is certainly the perfect book to discuss, the only problem being that there is possibly TOO much to say!

Love Orange is startlingly different. A dark, mischievous sense of humour pervades the novel: as I read it, I had the thrilling sense that the author was revelling in wrong-footing us, hitting us with the unexpected, refusing to conform to what we might expect to happen in a conventional family-set novel. Natasha Randall’s prose is sharp-edged, witty, and at times delightfully uncomfortable. I really felt the sense of something new and exciting while reading this brilliant debut. It is also a very visual novel: the set pieces or episodes which make it so ripe for book club discussion are almost cinematic in their self-contained detail. I could see the boys in the cave on the camping trip (oh, the camping trip – that was much discussed on the buddy read!); the younger son, Luke’s, carefully organised and catalogued collection in the basement; Jenny in the kitchen of the ‘smart’ home, surrounded by appliances that seem to control her more than help her. I really felt as if I watched a lot of this book rather than read it, which is testament to the author’s skill in transferring her imagination to the page.

As for the characters, they are the core of this book. The quirks and surprises of the plot are wonderfully intriguing, but it is the Tinkleys themselves that fascinate. Hank provoked such strong reactions among our chat group – he is exasperating, infuriating, conflicted, complicated, and above all, absolutely real. We all felt so strongly, it was as if we were discussing an actual person, and not one we were very fond of! Jenny evoked more sympathy; her story is just so unexpected and borderline bizarre – I would love to know how the author came up with it! Their sons, Jesse and Luke, are the most sympathetic characters, particularly Luke – my heart ached for him watching his parents’ fumbled attempts to label him rather than just accept him for the marvellous, original boy he is. I was #TeamLuke all the way!

The themes of Love Orange are myriad: technology and its effects on our lives, religion, relationships, parenting, freedom, the prison system, masculinity, addiction… there is barely an aspect of modern life that the novel does not probe. It is an outstanding achievement for a novel to cover so much ground and yet remain cohesive and focused. There is something about Randall’s writing which feels like an evolution, a step forward, something truly modern. It is exciting and slightly dangerous, always pushing the reader out of their comfort zone, right until the very end. I absolutely cannot wait to see what she writes next. And I am very much going to miss chatting about this book, so do let me know your thoughts when you have read it (which you definitely should!)

Love Orange by Natasha Randall is out now published by riverrun, and is available to purchase here.

Review: PMSL by Luce Brett (2020)

Blurb:

When Luce Brett became incontinent at the age of 30, after the birth of her first son, she felt her life had ended. She also felt scared, upset, embarrassed, dirty and shocked. How the hell had she ended up there, the youngest woman in the waiting room at the incontinence clinic?

PMSL is her story. A heartfelt, moving and deeply personal account of the decade that followed, told with incredible honesty and wit. Luce has been at the sharp end of a medical issue that affects 1 in 3 women but that remains shrouded in taboo and social stigma. It’s sincere, raw and funny – but crucially it is the first memoir to look at incontinence, smashing the stigma and looking at what anyone affected can do to navigate their way through the wet-knickered wilderness.

Review:

1 in 3 women. Think about that for a moment. That is a massive number of women affected, and yet this is the FIRST book I have come across about this issue. The stigma of incontinence is so pervasive that it is just not talked about. I’m far from immune from the taboo: I was worried posting this review that people might see it and think “Oh God, is Ellie incontinent?! Why’s she reading that book?” I fall into the trap of making jokes, of the wry comments about being nearly forty and having had two babies so of course, as I got Luce to write in my dedication when I won this book on Twitter from the lovely Scott Pack, my pelvic floor is not what it was. Ha ha, we all get it. But those in-jokes, which women smile knowingly at, possibly delighting in making the menfolk uncomfortable, are about as far as the discussion goes. Until this brilliant book.

Luce’s story is by turns heart-breaking, horrifying, funny, fierce, and above all, really, really well-told. She has been through so much, and she does not shy away from any of it here: the feelings, the pain, the procedures and operations, everything is laid out for us. Her voice is so strong; her personality leaps off every page: burning intelligence, searing honesty, absolutely filthy humour and plenty of swearing. The sense of connection with the reader is so powerful and intimate: the trust she places in us by sharing her story creates a bond. It feels far more like chatting with a mate than reading a medical memoir.

Luce is an incredibly talented writer. The journey she goes on as she negotiates her way through the traumatic, distressing world of incontinence is described through vivid flashbacks, and her personal efforts to reconstruct her story function as a kind of anchor through the mayhem and chaos of such difficult times. The complexity of her story is handled with skill and nuance – she interrogates herself with sharp intelligence and deep self-knowledge as the narrative progresses. She writes so well about the realities of depression and PTSD – even if you have been fortunate enough never to have experienced any of the medical problems that this book describes, you should read it to understand better what it is to suffer from mental health issues. So much in this book hit a nerve with me, from her fury at the acceptance of post-partum injuries as just part of a woman’s lot, to her frustration at the deafening wall of silence surrounding so many ‘women’s issues’. This book definitely ignited my ‘fem rage,’ to borrow a phrase from Luce: to the point where as I ranted to my lovely husband about the sheer anger I felt for Luce and for all of us, he cowered (sensibly) under the duvet.

This book is so powerful. It has reminded me of so many times in my life when I felt utterly bewildered and alone: when I was a young woman desperately trying to find a form of birth control that didn’t send me totally loopy; when I was finally diagnosed with depression aged 30 and looked back over the wasted years of thinking I was just broken beyond repair; when, about 2 weeks after giving birth to my daughter, I lay next to her on my bed, both of us on toddler pee pads having ‘nappy free time,’ my stitches possibly infected but too scared to call the midwife; miscarrying in the bath tub at 11 weeks; three months after my second baby being convinced that I’d have to wear pads forever as I leaked every time I coughed. All of these experiences made me feel helpless, useless, on the outside of some great secret about ‘how to be a woman’ that no one was letting me in on.

And what helped, and still helps, is TALKING ABOUT IT. This is what Luce knows, this is what she is doing here, she is busting open the conversation. Progress is being made in so many areas because women are speaking up and refusing to let us all suffer in silence, and this is an absolutely vital book, because it starts a conversation about a subject that seems beyond words, and lets the all-important dialogue begin. In the book, Luce talks about not wanting to be one of ‘those women’ – ‘that woman’ who can’t control her bladder, who we pity and perhaps even fear because we see a future we don’t want to contemplate. For me, Luce Brett is one of ‘those women’ in an entirely different sense: she is one of those incredible women who are changing the landscape and pushing boundaries for future generations. I am not exaggerating when I say this book could be transformative for anyone who has been affected by the issue of incontinence, or birth trauma, or PND or PTSD, or even who has a completely different issue they feel they can’t talk about. Luce makes the point in the book that she does not consider herself brave, so instead, I will praise her generosity, and above all her kindness – it is clear from everything she writes that she is absolutely desperate to spare others the same experience of not being able to talk or get help: that is her mission, and as well as her story, the resources at the back of the book are invaluable for this.

I don’t usually finish a book and develop an action plan, but this is not a typical book. So, to conclude, this is what I am going to do after reading PMSL:

  1. Bloody well do my kegels
  2. See GP if I don’t notice an improvement
  3. TALK about the issues that have affected me and those I care about
  4. LISTEN to anyone who wants/needs to talk about their issues

As to who I would recommend this book to, the short answer is: everyone. This conversation mustn’t be tucked into a corner, filed under ‘women’s issues’ or reserved only for those suffering from incontinence right now. This deserves to be a huge conversation, and Luce’s book is a fiercely brilliant introduction.

PMSL is published by Bloomsbury and is available to purchase here.

September 2020 Reading: The Girl From the Hermitage; A Girl Made of Air; Girl; Exercises in Control; The Secret of Creek Cottage; Should We Fall Behind; Love Orange; A Place Remote

Regular readers of my blog (hi, both of you) will know that I have pretty wide-ranging tastes in terms of books. However, even for me, this month was a very eclectic selection! From mind-melting prose to cosy fireside reading, from dazzling historical fiction to achingly modern short stories, this month was a deliciously varied diet of literary delights. I’d love to know if you’ve read any of these, or if I have managed to pique your interest with any of them!

The Girl From The Hermitage by Molly Gartland (2020)

The Girl From The Hermitage by Molly Gartland

This debut novel, which begins during the siege of Leningrad, was an immersive and surprising read. I reviewed it for the blog tour here. Galina is a truly wonderful character, one who will stay with me for a long time. It’s hard to believe this is Molly Gartland’s first novel – it is an assured and perfectly crafted book.

A Girl Made of Air by Nydia Hetherington (2020)

A Girl Made of Air by Nydia Hetherington

I was sufficiently confident that this was an ‘Ellie-ish’ sort of book to pre-order this beauty, and I wasn’t disappointed. You can read my full review of this gorgeous book here. A glorious peek behind the curtain, revealing the realities behind the glitz and glamour of circus life, this is a wonderful debut novel.

Girl by Maria Straw Cinar (2020)

Girl by Maria Straw Cinar

Reading this book was a real experience; one that left me quite unsettled, to say the least! This book is not for the faint-hearted, but if you are after something more than a little bit different, have a look at my review here. It is the kind of exciting, totally different read that I would never have come across before getting involved with Book Twitter, and I am grateful to have had the chance to try out something so extraordinary.

Exercises in Control by Annabel Banks (2020)

Exercises in Control by Annabel Banks

I keep meaning to read more short story collections, and I keep getting distracted by novels! I am so glad I managed to fit in this slim but powerful book this month. You can read my full review here. These stories are sharp and modern, reminiscent of the brilliant collection by Mary South which I read earlier this year, but with a special flavour all Banks’ own.

The Secret of Creek Cottage by Tina M Edwards (2020)

The Secret of Creek Cottage by Tina M Edwards

This was a real comfort read, just what I needed after some pretty abrasive, mind-bending reading. You can read my full thoughts on this lovely book here. If you are after a cosy autumnal read with a hint of something spooky, this is the book for you.

Should We Fall Behind by Sharon Duggal (2020)

Should We Fall Behind by Sharon Duggal

This is the third book published by Bluemoose Books in their year of only publishing women writers. I had previously read, loved and raved about Saving Lucia and The Sound Mirror, and was dubious as to whether I would feel as strongly about this one, but thankfully it was another absolute gem. You can read my full review of this beautifully written and deeply important book here.

Love Orange by Natasha Randall (2020)

Love Orange by Natasha Randall

I think this may be the most fun reading experience I have had so far this year. Not only is the book itself perfectly matched to by rather quirky, dark sense of humour, but I read it along with a whole load of other bookish Twitter folk for a buddy read organised by the publisher, riverrun books. The whole thing has been tons of fun, a very different way of reading books for me, as I normally gobble them up in one go, but it is the perfect book to discuss with fellow book lovers. My full review will be up on the 5th October. Spoiler alert: I loved it.

A Place Remote by Gwen Goodkin (2020)

A Place Remote by Gwen Goodkin

This debut collection of short stories is a revelation – I feel as if Gwen Goodkin is definitely a writer to watch. You can read my full review of this brilliant book here. I loved the back and forth from the rural Ohio town, characters stretching their wings and travelling far, but always feeling the pull of home. A very special book.

Review: A Place Remote by Gwen Goodkin (2020)

A Place Remote by Gwen Goodkin

Blurb:

From farm to factory, alcoholism to war wounds, friendship to betrayal, the stories in A Place Remote take us intimately into the hearts of people from all walks of life in a rural Ohio town. Whether they stay in their town or leave for distant places, these characters come to realize no one is immune to the fictions people tell others—and themselves—to survive.

In each of these ten stories, Gwen Goodkin forces her characters to face the dramatic events of life head-on—some events happen in a moment, while others are the fallout of years or decades of turning away. A boy is confronted by the cost of the family farm, an optometrist careens toward an explosive mental disaster, a mourning teen protects his sister, lifelong friends have an emotional confrontation over an heirloom, and a high school student travels to Germany to find his voice and, finally, a moment of long-awaited redemption.

Review:

I am so grateful to Lori @TNBBC for providing me with a copy of A Place Remote in exchange for an honest review. Book bloggers, if you aren’t following TNBBC already on Twitter, you really should: the selection of books she promotes is so tantalising that I wish I had time to read and review them all! I chose this ARC because I am fascinated by Amercian small town stories – last year I read a whole spate of them, and I loved the feeling of being totally immersed in a specific location. A Place Remote centres on an Ohio town, but it spirals out and back again in an incredibly clever way. It reminded me of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (for obvious reasons) and of ‘small town’ books by Kent Haruf and David Joy. The writing style put me in mind of Lauren Groff, whose works I also discovered and devoured last year. In short, Gwen Goodkin is exactly my type of writer, and this book has me on tenterhooks for what she is going to produce next.

The stories in this collection vary in length and tone, but they sit harmoniously with each other, adding up to a cohesive whole which is extremely satisfying for the reader. The opening story, ‘Winnie,’ is a powerful example of the novel-like scope that the short story form can have, encompassing years of the characters’ lives with elegant economy. Similarly, in ‘How To Hold It All In,’ Marv’s experiences of war, love, marriage and friendship are (excuse the pun) all held within the short form with delicacy and skill. The trio of stories about Dawn, Jimmy and their mother are a heart-wrenching suite of tales, revealing Goodkin’s interest in perspectives, in gently turning over the dynamics of groups of characters.

This interest is much more explicitly dealt with in perhaps my favourite story of the collection, ‘Just Les Is Fine,’ in which a disillusioned optometrist becomes engaged in a hostile confrontation with the writer herself. I love the playful nature of this story, and how cleverly Goodkin steers the emotional drive of the narrative so that it teeters on the edge of farce but maintains enough dramatic thrust that it never descends into it. I don’t think there are many writers who could have pulled it off: I am in awe of Goodkin’s talent.

Other stories that will stay with me include ‘The Widow Complex’ (not one for arachnophobes!) and the final story, ‘A Month of Summer,’ which I think is the longest piece in the collection, and which thoroughly justifies its length by the level of nuance and emotional resonance that it contains in its story of ‘Yulli’s’ experiences in Germany as an exchange student, and his complicated relationship with home.

Home is, of course, a recurring theme in these stories: the desire to escape coupled with the seeming inevitability of return creates a tugging feeling that is echoed in the struggle between familial expectation and personal desire, as well as the power tussles between men and women, which are beautifully articulated in ‘As I Lay Living.’

I am really excited to have had the chance to discover a writer as skilled and subtle as Gwen Goodkin, and I firmly believe there will be extremely exciting things to come from her in the future. This is a startlingly good debut collection, and one that I whole-heartedly recommend.

A Place Remote by Gwen Goodkin is published by WVU Press and is out now.

Review: Should We Fall Behind by Sharon Duggal (2020)

Blurb:

Jimmy Noone escapes his difficult life in a small town and finds himself living on the streets of a big city where he meets Betwa, who brings with her a chance of real friendship and a glimpse of new hope. Betwa disappears and Jimmy walks across the sprawling metropolis searching for her.

He arrives on Shifnal Road on the other side of the river where people from all over the world live side by side yet some inhabitants are so isolated they seem to have disappeared altogether. Jimmy becomes the catalyst for their lives colliding.

Journeys to the street and to the city are retraced, so too are stories abundant with lost dreams, unrivalled friendship, profound love and stifling grief, each underpinned with the subtle threads of commonality which intersect them all.

Should We Fall Behind is about the passing of time, and the intricate weaves of joy and suffering, love and loss which shape human life along the way. It is about the people who have somehow become invisible, and how their stories make them visible once more.

Review:

I don’t think it is any great secret that I am a massive fan of the books that Bluemoose have published so far this year. Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught and The Sound Mirror by Heidi James are two of my top reads of 2020, and as such I was both excited and slightly nervous about diving into the third novel in Bluemoose’s year of only publishing books by women. I need not have worried – this book is stunning. I am extremely grateful to the author and publisher for my proof copy, in exchange for an honest review.

I need to begin by talking about Duggal’s prose. From the first page, I was mesmerised by the beauty of the writing, the crystalline precision of the carefully wrought sentences, as if each word had been painstakingly carved out of ice or glass. It is a wonderful, freeing feeling as a reader to sense that you are in exceptional hands from the moment you start reading. I was happy to give myself over to the story immediately. There is nothing pretentious about the prose, nothing purpled or excessive – it is clean, delicate, exact, showing the same kind of respect for words as the writer shows for her characters.

The use of multiple points of view works incredibly well in this novel. We open with Jimmy’s story, and he is, in many ways, at the heart of the novel. As we switch to different characters’ perspectives, we see him through their eyes. To Ebele, he is a threat, lurking too close to their home as he shelters in the wreck of a car. To Nikos, he is a nuisance. To Rayya, he is an object of compassion, and the recipient of her surplus of unused maternal energy. And to Tuli, Ebele’s young daughter, and one of my favourite characters in the book, he is Storyman, a visitor from the world of imagination.

Perspective and subjectivity is handled so brilliantly in this book; characters are more than they seem on the surface, their complexities revealing themselves to the reader and to some, though not all, of the other personages in the story, so that sympathy ebbs and flows between the characters and the reader in a delicate balance. Nikos and Ebele, and even at times Jimmy himself, present themselves to the world as harsh, abrasive, hard to like, but a gradual thread of understanding is woven through their backstories and their interactions. As with everything in Should We Fall Behind, this is cleverly and subtly done; there are no simplistic redemption arcs or pat happy endings here. Similarly, two of the most sympathetic characters, Betwa and Daban, are not given named point of view chapters, and the absence of their perspective is just as revealing as the presence of other points of view. Daban’s goodness and kindness is echoed in Rayya’s generosity and in Tuli’s innocence – he is there in their actions, almost, for me, taking on a more symbolic role. Betwa, too, is less of a physical presence, and the contrast between the news stories that circulate and the memories of her that Jimmy holds onto feels significant.

For me, this book is about radical empathy. It is about understanding without sentimentality, affording dignity and respect to people whose voices are too often silenced. I strongly feel that this novel is a powerful antidote to sensationalist news stories: the often tragic events of these characters’ lives are handled with sensitivity and a lack of drama that strikes me as not only compassionate but respectful. This book is not a twee morality tale about embracing our shared humanity in a big group hug; it is a quiet call to lay down arms and consider why we put up such barriers between ourselves and those we view as ‘other’. It feels deeply important, relevant and hugely intelligently rendered. I can’t recommend this book highly enough; it is one that will stay with me for a very long time.

Should We Fall Behind by Sharon Duggal is published by Bluemoose Books in October, and is available to order here.