As summer continues and we feel the pull of the honest world and yet rising cases of Covid yet again see me seeking the safety of my home, my reading continues to be a source of comfort. It remains an integral part of me and I am looking forward to some fantastic readsas the summer conitues.
I am continue to try balancing my reading simply for pleasure, with book reviewing and have found some absolute gems that have patiently sat on my bookshelf waiting to be read.
What follows are the books that I read in July 2021.
The Book Of Echoes by Rosanna Amaka is a stunning and inspiring read. It is about how discrimination and hopelessness, have their roots deeply in our past, but that love is humanities greatest gift.
The Secret Keeper of Jaipur by Alka Joshi was a really enjoyable story set in India.
I have to say that although I enjoyed The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman, I’m not sure I enjoyed it enough to buy the sequel.
On The Red Hill by Mike Parker is the stunning memoir of a house called Rhiw Goch and two couples whose lives become intwined with its very fabric. Mike and his partner Peredur and those that came before them, Reg and George.
Next came a superb thriller. Girls Who Lie by Eva Bjorg Aegisdottir is chillingly, superb and one heck of a read.
The Black Dress by Deborah Moggach is the darkly funny tale of a women left on her own later in life and the novel idea she comes up with to meet a new man. It really is a great read, especially if you love your humour dark and slightly mad!
Last but not least One August Night by Victoria Hislop. You always know when you pick this authors novels up that you are going to enjoy a fantastic story and this one is no different.
Well that was my reading month for July 2021! I can’t believe how fast time is passing, but I am looking forward to some more fantastic books in August. I hope it is a great reading month for you all too.
Pru is on her own. But then, so are plenty of other people. And while the loneliness can be overwhelming, surely she’ll find a party somewhere?
Pru’s husband has walked out, leaving her alone to contemplate her future. She’s missing not so much him, but the life they once had – picnicking on the beach with small children, laughing together, nestling up like spoons in the cutlery drawer as they sleep. Now there’s just a dip on one side of the bed and no-one to fill it. In a daze, Pru goes off to a friend’s funeral. Usual old hymns, words of praise and a eulogy but…it doesn’t sound like the friend Pru knew. And it isn’t. She’s gone to the wrong service. Everyone was very welcoming, it was – oddly – a laugh, and more excitement than she’s had for ages. So she buys a little black dress in a charity shop and thinks, now I’m all set, why not go to another? I mean, people don’t want to make a scene at a funeral, do they? No-one will challenge her – and what harm can it do
The Black Dress by Deborah Moggach is bloody marvelous. Why? Prue, that’s why!
At the start of the novel her husband has left her, at the age of sixty-nine she is cut adrift, lonely, terribly, terribly lonely in fact. So much so, after going to the wrong funeral, she buys a little black dress, because she quite liked how welcoming everyone was and comes up with the idea of hitting on a man at his own wife’s funeral!
Now bear with me, because I know that sounds weird, but it works and it is both heartbreakingly sad, yet very funny and haunting as well. Prue is as the novel starts, is lost, desperate, but she is not going to slide into old age quietly, even though her heart is breaking and that is why I love her so much. She has characteristics that slowly reveal themselves as the novel progresses, now some will shock you, some might actually make you wonder if she is sane, but I defy you not to cheer her on, even when you know you shouldn’t. She is a creation of such cleverness that I was sad to leave her behind when the novel ended! She crashes in and out of peoples lives, falls in love, loses, wins and yet when you sit back, you can’t help wondering, if happiness will ever be within her reach and that is why Prue is one of my very favorite characters of all time! She gets depressed just like you and me, but she bounces back and each time, she will shock you a little or a lot, depending how sensitive you are to the odd moment of what could best be described as slightly borderline psychopathic behavior.
Now, novels often rely on one central character to carry the story, sometimes it works, sometimes it all goes horribly wrong, in The Black Dress it is a utter triumph! The novels humor is dark, deliciously so and it centers around Prue, who is like a black hole, because she has a gravitational pull that it is impossible to escape from and frankly I didn’t want to. I could happily have stayed in her company for many, many more chapters. She will make you laugh out loud, she will also make you look at that quiet old lady in the charity shop in a whole new light, with a whole new appreciation of not growing old gracefully or quietly.
Oh and if that older lady stood next to you in the charity shop is buying a very stylish black dress, smile and give her a copy of Deborah Moggach’s book.
The Black Dress is so far, my book of the year!
You can buy The Black Dress Amazon and Waterstones. But why not order it from one of the many wonderful independent bookshops we are blessed with
About the author
Deborah Moggach, OBE, is a British novelist and an award-winning screenwriter. She has written twenty novels, including Tulip Fever, These Foolish Things (which became the bestselling novel and film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), and The Carer. She lives in London.
When single mother Maríanna disappears from her home, leaving an apologetic note on the kitchen table, everyone assumes that she’s taken her own life … until her body is found on the Grábrók lava fields seven months later, clearly the victim of murder. Her neglected fifteen-year-old daughter Hekla has been placed in foster care, but is her perfect new life hiding something sinister?
Fifteen years earlier, a desperate new mother lies in a maternity ward, unable to look at her own child, the start of an odd and broken relationship that leads to a shocking tragedy.
Police officer Elma and her colleagues take on the case, which becomes increasingly complex, as the number of suspects grows and new light is shed on Maríanna’s past – and the childhood of a girl who never was like the others…
Breathtakingly chilling and tantalisingly twisty, Girls Who Lie is at once a startling, tense psychological thriller and a sophisticated police procedural, marking Eva Björg Ægisdottir as one of the most exciting new names in crime fiction.
I just know within a few pages of a novel that it is going to be a stunner, clever, beautifully written, perfectly plotted and unbearably tense. I knew within a few paragraphs that Girls Who Lie by Eva Bjorg Aegisdottir was going to be one of my stand out books of 2021 and as I read the last few pages, I was proved right!
We all wax lyrical about how a great thriller has twists and turns, how excited we get when an author manages to catch us of our guard and actually surprise us, but it feels increasingly rare, the more thrillers I read! One of the reasons I adored Girls Who Lie was that it did surprise me, it actually made me sit up and go f**k I didn’t see that coming and it made my reading week. So many thrillers rely on a cascade of seemingly never ending curve balls that often leave me feeling nonplussed by the end of the book, like I have been battered by a juggernaut of over the top twists in the tale, so much so I switch off before the reveal actually happens.
Eva Bjorg Aegisdottir is far to clever a writer for this approach and as a result she delivers a cleverly crafted tale, in which the identity of the killer is revealed slowly, making the shock all the sweeter and all the better for the lingering impact it had on me the reader. I sat back in bed, in the dark and played events over and over in my mind, wondering how she had managed to fool me and adoring that she had. The flow of the story felt seamless, the clues to solving the murder of Maríanna swirling around within the narrative like a gentle breeze until the final reveal. Clever is not shouty, it’s not bells toiling, crowds shouting, it is subtle, driven by character and this is why Girls Who Lie is such an utter triumph for me, it treats the reader like the intelligent person they are, plays with their assumptions, but never panders to them.
Girls Who Lie is the second in the Forbidden Iceland series and the very welcome return of Icelandic Detective Elma and her team. Intelligent, perceptive, dedicated and flawed, she is the perfect character for this intelligently written thriller! You are not overly distracted by the drama of her life, but find yourself caring about her, because of all she has been through. You share in her life, because you like her, her intelligence and being able to spend more time with her, is a unmigrated pleasure. She is allowed to develop in this second installment, to begin to heal and move forward, she makes mistakes as we all do, but you get glimpses of how her keen intelligence drives forward the investigation. But Elma is not a single character, like any police investigation, she is part of a team and her sometimes obsessive nature, is balanced out by Saevar, more laid back, so they work in almost perfect harmony. The simmering attraction between them that was evident in book one, becomes more tangible in Girls Who Lie and it adds a layer of connection, that I hope becomes a continuing thread in this series.
I read a quote that sometimes the dead have a lot to hide and that is very true here. Match that with a killer who has as much to bury, with a chillingly disturbed mind and a life shrouded in lies and you have the creation of an almost perfect storm. One moment, one decision made by them, not only damages lives of those around them, but affects the lives of the next generation and it is around this pretext that the story in Girls Who Lie is formed. It’s genius lies in the fact, that no one, certainly not the victim is perfect and sometimes, the killer and the victim are more alike than you would like to think.
Girls Who lie is superb, chillingly so.
You can buy this novel directly from the publisher at Orenda Books.
You can also order from one of the many fantastic indepedant bookshops.
About the author
Born in Akranes in 1988, Eva moved to Trondheim, Norway to study my MSc in Globalisation when she was 25. After moving back home having completed her MSc, she knew it was time to start working on her novel. Eva has wanted to write books since she was 15 years old, having won a short story contest in Iceland.
Eva worked as a stewardess to make ends meet while she wrote her first novel. The book went on to win the Blackbird Award and became an Icelandic bestseller. Eva now lives with her husband and three children in Reykjavík, staying at home with her youngest until she begins Kindergarten.
You can follow Eva on Twitter @evaaegisdottir.
About the translator
Victoria Cribb studied and worked in Iceland for many years. She has translated more than 25 novels from the Icelandic and, in 2017, she received the Orðstír honourary translation award for services to Icelandic literature.
Brixton 1981. Sixteen-year-old Michael is already on the wrong side of the law. In in his community, where job opportunities are low and drug-running is high, this is nothing new.
But when Michael falls for Ngozi, a vibrant young immigrant from the Nigerian village of Obowi, their startling connection runs far deeper than they realise.
Narrated by the spirit of an African woman who lost her life on a slave ship two centuries earlier, her powerful story reveals how Michael and Ngozi’s struggle for happiness began many lifetimes ago.
Through haunting, lyrical words, one unforgettable message resonates: love, hope and unity will heal us all.
It is unusual to find a book that feels both original, yet familiar and as readers we are forever searching for that novel that feels unique! The Book Of Echoes by Rosanna Amaka is that book, it delivers a story that is thought-provoking, filled with a series of connections from the past to the present and a love of the written word, which brings the beautiful narrative to life effortlessly.
In her tale of the connections that flow from the moment a young women is dragged by slave gangs into the hold of a ship destined for the Jamaican slave plantations, to the lives of Michael in 1981 Brixton and Ngozi a young immigrant from Nigeria, we become a part of their story, of how each journey they take, is connected with that original event two centuries earlier. I found the narrator to be fascinating, a quite wonderful way to show the reader how our pasts, often shape our present and the lives we lead. She gives the story it’s central narrative, how poverty and racism in modern Britain and Africa have their roots firmly in the forced enslavement of the African people and the continued discrimination faced by so many in modern day Britain. Michael has known loss, racism and discrimination all his life and feels shaped by them and as a result he makes decisions that potentially wreck his hopes for a better future. Ngozi, comes from poverty, abuse and discrimination in her own country, yet strides into what I as a reader hoped, was a better future despite all of this. Tying their stories together, is the an ancestor, who endless search for stolen children, means she floats through the story, a restless soul, watching over both characters and reminding us of the repercussions of slavery that still affect modern Britain.
Now this may all seem dark and depressing, but it is not. This is a story about actions and consequences, but it is also a tale about the power of the human spirit to endure and thrive. Both Michael and Ngozi are affected by poverty and discrimination, but they are also watched over by a voice from the past, who heartache, has never dimmed her spirit and determination to find those stolen from her. As a result, it felt intuitive to me, that her bravery, her resilience, would find a home in them to and give them the strength to succeed. Love is the central tenant of The Book of Echoes, as is its power to redeem, meaning that despite all that they go through, we and they never lose hope, even in the face of endless challenges. I am shaped by the actions and decisions made by my ancestors, their decision to leave Ireland and travel to Wales, as are Michael and Ngozi, by the narrators decision in one moment, centuries before they were born. Those decisions sometimes take them down the wrong path, as in the case of Michael, but if we listen to the voices from our past, any path can be altered and this is why The Book of Echoes is a novel of our times. It contains hope, is written with language that conveys both the crushing pain of discrimination, but shines a light on the humanities greatest gift, love.
You can purchase this novel from Amazon and Waterstones, as well as all good independent bookshops.
About the author
ROSANNA AMAKA began writing The Book of Echoes twenty years ago to give voice to the Brixton community in which she grew up. Her community was fast disappearing – as a result of gentrification, emigration back to the Caribbean and Africa, or simply with the passing away of the older generation. Its depiction of unimaginable pain redeemed by love and hope was also inspired by a wish to understand the impact of history on present-day lives. Rosanna Amaka lives in South London. This is her first novel. Meet her at @RosannaAmaka.
I had a series of posts awhile ago about the book covers I love so much, I consider them works of art, as worthy to be hung on my walls as any traditional painting. Recently, I have read a number of books and purchased others, I feel fall into this category and so I have decided to bring this series back for a while!
The first, has to be the stunning sequel to Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path. The cover of The Wild Silence evokes the beauty of or coast and the haunting quality of the writing and story within. When I look at it, I can almost feel the wind caressing my face, hear the waves as they hit the beach and gulls as they call to each other. Raynor Winn’s writing is lyrical and she gives us a story that brings to life, the painful and yet often redemptive path they have been on since they lost the home they loved and the news her husband had developed a debilitating and incurable disease.
I had been left after reading the Salt Path desperate to know about the rest of their journey and this stunning book, answered all my questions and proved to be a moving and beautifully written sequel to The Salt Path.
The illustrator Angela Harding is incredibly talented and managed to capture the essence of the story perfectly. I am a firm believer that a book cover is a window into the soul of the story being told and this one, captures it to perfection. I would be happy and proud to have it gracing the walls of my home.
‘It was the land, the earth, the deep humming background to my very being’
In 2016, days before they were unjustly evicted from their home, Raynor Winn was told her husband Moth was dying.
Instead of giving up they embarked on a life-changing journey: walking the 630-mile South West Coast Path, living by their wits, determination and love of nature.
But all journeys must end and when the couple return to civilisation they find that four walls feel like a prison, cutting them off from the sea and sky that sustained them – that had saved Moth’s life.
So when the chance to rewild an old Cornish farm comes their way, they grasp it, hoping they’ll not only reconnect with the natural world but also find themselves once again on its healing path
You can purchase this book from Amazon and Waterstones and all our wonderful independent books shops.
About the author
Since travelling the South West Coastal Path, Raynor Winn has become a regular long-distance walker and writes about nature, homelessness and wild camping. She lives in Cornwall. The Salt Path was her first book and became a Sunday Times bestseller in hardback and paperback. It was shortlisted for numerous prizes including the Costa, the Wainwright and the Stanfords Travel Writing awards.
Henna artist Lakshmi arranges for her protégé, Malik, to intern at the Jaipur Palace in this tale rich in character, atmosphere, and lavish storytelling.
It’s the spring of 1969, and Lakshmi, now married to Dr Jay Kumar, directs the Healing Garden in Shimla. Malik has finished his private school education. At twenty, he has just met a young woman named Nimmi when he leaves to apprentice at the Facilities Office of the Jaipur Royal Palace. Their latest project: a state-of-the-art cinema.
Malik soon finds that not much has changed as he navigates the Pink City of his childhood. Power and money still move seamlessly among the wealthy class, and favours flow from Jaipur’s Royal Palace, but only if certain secrets remain buried. When the cinema’s balcony tragically collapses on opening night, blame is placed where it is convenient. But Malik suspects something far darker and sets out to uncover the truth. As a former street child, he always knew to keep his own counsel; it’s a lesson that will serve him as he untangles a web of lies.
When I started The Secret Keeper of Jaipur by Alka Joshi I hadn’t realized it was the sequel to her first book The Henna Artist and I became worried I would lose something important in the story having not read the first book. I was partly right, but I am glad to say, I both enjoyed the story and the characters.
The Secret Keeper Of Jaipur is a novel that brings to life a world and culture very few of us have any experience of, India, in all of its glorious complexity. I felt that if I closed my eyes just for a moment, I could imagine stepping out of its pages into 1950s India. Streets full of colour, where power and poverty, honesty and corruption, secrets and lies, mix together in a sumptuous tale about love and family.
So many books lack a sense of place and having watched the BBCs adaption of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, I wanted the same connection with India within The Secret Keeper of Jaipur and I am happy to say, I was granted my wish. She brings to life not just the culture in which Malik and Lakshmi live and work, but creates a tapestry, that weaves together a story that is complex, exciting and also uplifting. She pitches corrupt officials against her two main characters, but does so in such a way, that it manages to feel both light in touch, but complex in the story we are reading.
Both Malik the former street child and Lakshmi are wonderful characters, who are easy to love. They are written in such a way that you can imagine them walking the streets of Jaipur with little effort. Malik’s past has created a young man who knows that keeping your own counsel is both a safety net and a survival mechanism and it makes him the perfect character to solve the mystery behind the collapse of the stunning new cinema and the subsequent search for those responsible, because he understands corruption and greed, but is willing to stand up against it. His guide and mentor Lakshmi, having been part of this world and having experienced how it rejects and judges those that they deem to have stepped out of their ‘place’, is willing to fight to protect those she loves and she is quietly magnificent. Both can work across cultural divides, having lived briefly within both and they work within this story, because of that. Even those characters we deem dishonest, are multi layered and capable of redemption and as a result the story feels vibrant, with a touch of realism that runs throughout the story. The broad cast of characters creating a story that you find yourself lost within and enjoying, because they are so rich and diverse.
Weaving in sections of their past, it almost doesn’t matter that I had not read The Henna Artist, because she fills in the gaps for me, without disrupting the storyline. I still think I should have read the first book, but you don’t have to and you will still love this one. Yet part of me feels that The Secret Keeper of Jaipur would have been an even more enjoyable read, if I had read the Henna Artist first. So my recommendation is you by both, because I can’t help feeling, you are going to love them.
Alka Joshi is a graduate of Stanford University and received her MFA from the California College of the Arts. She has worked as an advertising copywriter, a marketing consultant and an illustrator. Alka was born in India, in the state of Rajasthan. Her family moved to the USA when she was nine, and she now lives on California’s Monterey Peninsula with her husband and two misbehaving pups. The Secret Keeper of Jaipur is her second novel. Visit her website and blog athttp://www.thehennartist.com
As summer arrives, the number of books I read my slow as our world begins to open up a little moreand I slowly leave the safety of my home. But it will remain an integral part of me and I am looking forward to some fantastic reads.
I am continuing to try to balance reading simply for pleasure, with book reviewing and have found some absolute gems that have patiently sat on my bookshelf waiting to be read.
What follows are the books that I read in June 2021.
The month started on a high with Everything Happens For A Reason, the stunning debut by Katie Allen. This is the moving story of Rachel after her son is stillborn and it is quite frankly wonderful.
Then came the bloody marvelous coming age story, Mary Jane A Novel by Jessica Anya Blau.
After this journey to 1970s Baltimore, I read Louise Beech’s moving and compelling This Is How We Are Human.
Note To Boy by Sue Clarke, a comedy about a boy looking for a home and a old lady, looking for a friend.
My next finished read was Uncoupling by Lorraine Brown. A gentle and uplifting read, which a very much enjoyed.
Next came a book I had been looking forward to read for some time after loving her first book The Salt Path! Raynor Winn’s The Wild Silence is a moving sequel and answered all the questions I was left with after finishing The Salt Path. Her writing is stunning and deeply moving.
Peter Ross’s A Tomb With A View is a stunning read. I loved both his writing and his fascination with our graveyards. During the first lockdown, I found a local church with a stunning view across to England and I took comfort from the silence and peace. It became my happy place, an odd thing to say I know, but it’s true and Peter Ross understands this and delivers a book about the stories and history of many of our glorious graveyards.
My final fiction read is by a writer I have always loved and I am glad to say I thought her latest offering a triumph. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is a beautifully written tale of loss and grief.
Well that was my reading for June 2021 and yet again, I was lucky to read some amazing books. We are only a few days into July and that trend is already set to continue.
Sebastian James Murphy is twenty years, six months and two days old. He loves swimming, fried eggs and Billy Ocean. Sebastian is autistic. And lonely.
Veronica wants her son Sebastian to be happy … she wants the world to accept him for who he is. She is also thinking about paying a professional to give him what he desperately wants.
Violetta is a high-class escort, who steps out into the night thinking only of money. Of her nursing degree. Paying for her dad’s care. Getting through the dark.
When these three lives collide – intertwine in unexpected ways – everything changes. For everyone.
A topical and moving drama about a mother’s love for her son, about getting it wrong when we think we know what’s best, about the lengths we go to care for family … to survive … This Is How We Are Human is a searching, rich and thought-provoking novel with an emotional core that will warm and break your heart.
A new Louise Beech novel is always a reason to be excited about buying a book, because every story she tells comes straight from the heart.
Full of warmth and understanding, This Is How We are Human, shows once again why she is loved by so many readers. It’s a tender, honest and powerfully wrought tale of a mother’s love for her son, a daughter’s love of her father and a son’s search for a place in a world that has rejected him. In bringing their lives together, Louise Beech has crafted a story that will forever haunt my heart and mind.
Until a few years ago, to my knowledge I had never met a autistic child or adult, in the years since, I have more knowledge and understanding because many close to me have been diagnosed. It has been a difficult and often painful journey for them and few understand the way society rejects those that are ‘different’, but Louise Beech does and she gives them and their families a voice in this outstanding novel. The stories of Sebastian, his mother Veronica and Violetta are woven together into tale, of how love brings not just happiness and joy, it can bring also pain. That the decisions we make because we love, can have consequences that ripple across lives in never ending circles.
Sebastian is autistic, yet that is not who he is, not how he defines himself, yet others do. They don’t see the young man who loves music, eggs and books, his mother knows this and want’s to protect him from the cruelty of others and so she approaches Violetta, a high class escort, to show Sebastian that not only is he loved, but that he deserves to love. This has unexpected consequences for them all and we as readers are caught up in their lives in such a way, that it is utterly impossible not to love them and Louise Beech’s beautifully told story. They feel real, tangible and their yearning for the things many of us take for granted, acceptance, love, a place in the world, is why This Is How We Are Human is so special. The desperate need it awoke in me to see them accepted, not judged, for difference not be an excuse to hate, is why this is a story so compelling, you read on and on, your heart yearning for happiness, but knowing that the world is not as simple as that, and so you prepare yourself to have your heart broken.
There is no judgment here of their actions, just understanding! This Is How We Are Human is brutally honest in places, it shines a light on our treatment not just of autistic adults and children, but on people like Violetta is a high-class escort, on mothers like Veronica, whose love of their child, it not always perfect, but it comes from deep and never ending well of love. All three are doing their best to live and survive and dare to want more. The people around them, Veronica’s neighbor’s are cruel, judgmental and yet even they are layered and we are forced to step back and wonder why they judge others, why they tease, taunt and want to exclude those that don’t fit into the box society defines as acceptable. We are all Veronica in some ways, because I found myself wanting to wade into the battle she was fighting against society and the authorities that have abandoned her, Sebastian and Violetta. I know and care about someone who has faced Veronica’s pain and who is only now is seeing the light at the end of a dark tunnel. I promise you with my hand on my heart, that Louise Beech understands and delivers a story of such sweet longing for acceptance, that you will never forget it.
You can purchase this novel directly from the publisher Orenda Books.
Louise Beech is an exceptional literary talent, whose debut novel How To Be Brave was a Guardian Readers’ Choice for 2015. The follow-up, The Mountain in My Shoe was shortlisted for Not the Booker Prize. Both of her previous books Maria in the Moon and The Lion Tamer Who Lost were widely reviewed, critically acclaimed and number-one bestsellers on Kindle. The Lion Tamer Who Lost was shortlisted for the RNA Most Popular Romantic Novel Award in 2019. Her short fiction has won the Glass Woman Prize, the Eric Hoffer Award for Prose, and the Aesthetica Creative Works competition, as well as shortlisting for the Bridport Prize twice. Louise lives with her husband on the outskirts of Hull, and loves her job as a Front of House Usher at Hull Truck Theatre, where her first play was performed in 2012.
In 1970s Baltimore, 14-year-old Mary Jane loves cooking with her mother, singing in her church choir, and enjoying her family’s subscription to the Broadway Showtunes of the Month record club. Shy, quiet, and bookish, she’s glad when she lands a summer job as a nanny for the daughter of a local doctor. A respectable job, Mary Jane’s mother says. In a respectable house.
The house may look respectable on the outside, but inside it’s a literal and figurative mess: clutter on every surface, Impeachment: Now More Than Ever bumper stickers on the doors, cereal and takeout for dinner. And even more troublesome (were Mary Jane’s mother to know, which she does not): the doctor is a psychiatrist who has cleared his summer for one important job – helping a famous rock star dry out. A week after Mary Jane starts, the rock star and his movie star wife move in.
Over the course of the summer, Mary Jane introduces her new household to crisply ironed clothes and a family dinner schedule, and has a front-row seat to a liberal world of sex, drugs, and rock and roll (not to mention group therapy). Caught between the lifestyle she’s always known and the future she’s only just realized is possible, Mary Jane will arrive at September with a new idea about what she wants out of life, and what kind of person she’s going to be.
When you read a fiction book set in the past, whether that is hundreds of years ago, or much more recent, you want it to transport you to that world, in this case to the sights and sounds of 1970s Baltimore.
Mary Jane A Novel by Jessica Anya Blau, does that. It captures a tumultuous period in America history, when women and other marginalized groups, carried on the fight for equality that had started in the 1960s. It was a period marked by the restless spirit of so many and a questioning of authority and traditional family values. Through fashion and music, men and women sought a means to express their continued rejection of the values of their parents, for they were in search of freedom and equality.
All this can be found within the pages of this novel, in a tale of a young girl Mary Jane and how over one long summer, her world, her quiet life is turned on it’s head and she becomes the embodiment of a generation seeking self-expression through music and fashion. She is the very epitome of a generation that sought to break down barriers, to live, sing and dance, to work as equals of men, be more than a housewife, more than a mother! As a character, she walks a perilous path, one foot in the world of her conservative parents and the other in the liberal world of Dr Cone, his family, as well as the rock star he is treating. As she finds her self immersed in their world, she begins to see that life holds many more possibilities than the one her mother envisions for her and it’s up to Mary Jane, which will she will come to belong in.
Taking this journey with her, was fabulous, I found myself wanting her to reject the cold complicity of suburban America, yet not to loose the best of herself. She is intelligent, talented and I wanted her with every once of my being, to be the Mary Jane this new world offers. Not the obedient, quiet, sub servant child her parents have shaped, yet also not a mixed up, drug taking confused young women. Just Mary Jane, glorious, kind and in search of world where she will be loved, free from the norms that have crushed her parents, a world full of the music and literature she loves. She is not a construct of either world, but neither is she able to sit on the fence between them and her yearning for freedom is moving and often very funny. She is the very amazing Mary Jane and Jessica Anya Blau makes her feel real, alive and vibrant. I found myself celebrating her quiet rebellion, the beauty of her nurturing soul and her bravery.
It is a story that has a backdrop of a world in flux, protests against war and inequality and a generation that was questioning everything their parents and politicians had told them was irrefutable. We see it all through the eyes of a young girl, who questions, as her generation were all across America, the world their parents had shaped.
Mary Jane A Novel is the very best of it’s genre, a coming of age tale, that celebrates a restless soul searching for a world where she can flourish. There is sex, there is rock and role, a pleura of wonderful characters, but this book is Mary Jane’s story, and bloody hell, it is one the best celebrations of this era I have ever read. Not once did the writer lose sight of what this novel was about, she guided us and her character on a journey that will gladden your very soul.
I was left wishing that this is not the end of her story, but if it is, it was bloody marvelous!
Alternately you can buy it from your local independent bookshop.
About the author
Jessica Anya Blau is the author of US bestselling novel The Summer of Naked Swim Parties and three other critically acclaimed novels, most recently The Trouble With Lexie. Her novels have been recommended and featured on CNN, NPR, The Today Show and in Vanity Fair, Cosmo, O Magazine, and many other US magazines and newspapers.
Mum-to-be Rachel did everything right, but it all went wrong. Her son, Luke, was stillborn and she finds herself on maternity leave without a baby, trying to make sense of her loss.
When a misguided well-wisher tells her that “everything happens for a reason”, she becomes obsessed with finding that reason, driven by grief and convinced that she is somehow to blame. She remembers that on the day she discovered her pregnancy, she’d stopped a man from jumping in front of a train, and she’s now certain that saving his life cost her the life of her son.
Desperate to find him, she enlists an unlikely ally in Lola, an Underground worker, and Lola’s seven-year-old daughter, Josephine, and eventually tracks him down, with completely unexpected results…
Both a heart-wrenchingly poignant portrait of grief and a gloriously uplifting and disarmingly funny story of a young woman’s determination, Everything Happens for a Reason is a bittersweet, life- affirming read and, quite simply, unforgettable.
I’m writing this review fresh from reading this stunning debut from Katie Allen. I usually leave a few days, even a week, allowing the story and my emotions about it to settle, but with Everything Happens For A Reason, the intense, quite visceral reaction, is the most important part of the review and needs to be captured while it is at its most raw.
Rachel’s son Luke was stillborn, the intensity of her grief, the pain of her loss, drives her to seek answers, as to why her beautiful baby died. Told in a series of emails sent to an account set up for her son, she tells of her journey in the days, weeks and months after his death, in which she is driven to seek answers that can in some way explain her terrible loss.
It may seem odd to some to frame the story in this way, but it works on an emotional level, far better I feel than a traditional linear narrative. I’m reminded of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, in which she tells of the story of Celie, who in the opening chapters writes letters to God, because she has no one else to express her pain to and those letters become a release, from the day to day abuse and exploitation she faces.
Here to, in Everything Happens For A Reason, Katie Allen uses a similar narrative tool to express both Rachel’s pain and how it isolates her from those that care for her. Locked away inside herself, these emails become her way of surviving the crushing grief that threatens to overwhelm her, an outlet for thoughts she can’t share with others. It makes the reader the only other witness to her deeply moving search for closure, the moments of both raw emotion and humour. I felt an intense connection to both her story and her loss, because I had this intimate access to her inner most thoughts! It made an emotional read also both beautiful and compelling. What affected me most, was the potential of these emails to be, not just an emotional outlet for Rachel, but as the novel progresses, a possible way for her to reclaim her sanity and her life.
Let me make it clear, I have never had children, never lost a child, so I can’t begin to understand how utterly the loss and the pain would affect me. But Katie Allen’s perfect story, the clarity of the voice she gives Rachel, the way she expresses her desperate need for answers, gave me an insight into the crushing grief that sends her off on a journey, so few of us can contemplate. In Rachel she has created a character that perfectly encapsulates how grief, individual and all consuming, still leaves us with the hope that she can find a way, not to come to terms with what happened, I’ve never been sure that is possible, but to learn how to move on and live, even as that bereavement shapes and changes her forever. I felt I was part of her journey and to provoke this connection between character, story and reader, is surely what reading is all about.
It is a book that is full of pain, but also one that is, as the blurb says, gloriously uplifting. I have never lost a child, but I have experienced grief. The frantic days and months after, that caught up in a form of madness, turned me on a path to find a new life, to grab hope from sudden and crippling loss, changed, but also hopeful. This is for me what Everything Happens For A Reason encapsulates! Within it’s pages the writer tells Rachels story and how grief is not just shaped by the pain of her loss, but each individuals search for the answers that can heal them and the connections with those we love, that can ultimately sustain us.
You can order Everything Happens For A Reason directly from the publisher.
You can of course order from your favorite independent bookshop.
About the author
Everything Happens for a Reason is Katie’s first novel. She used to be a journalist and columnist at the Guardian and Observer, and started her career as a Reuters correspondent in Berlin and London. The events in Everything Happens for a Reason are fiction, but the premise is loosely autobiographical. Katie’s son, Finn, was stillborn in 2010, and her character’s experience of grief and being on maternity leave without a baby is based on her own. And yes, someone did say to her ‘Everything happens for a reason’.
Katie grew up in Warwickshire and now lives in South London with her husband, children, dog, cat and stick insects. When she’s not writing or walking children and dogs, Katie loves baking, playing the piano, reading news and wishing she had written other people’s brilliant novels.