Blog tours, new releases

Blog Tour: Conjure Women

A bonus post this Wednesday for you as I’m the latest stop on the blog tour for Conjure Women by Afia Atakora. This is a debut novel that’s got a fair bit of of hype – just yesterday morning it made it into an email from Barnes and Noble, who have picked it for their book club this month. Anyway, after a string of romance and crime reviews, it’s been really nice to get my teeth into some thing a bit different – and this is a world away from most of my recent reading that I’ve been telling you about.

Cover of Conjure Women

So what’s it about: Set in the American South and moving around in time before, during and after the Civil War, it is the story of May Belle a wise woman and healer for a plantation; her daughter Rue, who she passes her skills as a midwife on to and Varina, the daughter of the plantation owner, who is a similar age to Rue. Told principally through the eyes of Rue, over the course of the novel a web of secrets, passions and friendships unfolds, starting with the birth of the child Rue accidentally christens Black-Eyed Bean and who the village people think is cursed. Bean is pale-skinned and has black-eyed and people are sure he’s a bad omen. When a sickness starts sweeping through the community, they’re sure of it. Rue finds herself at the centre of their suspicions – not only did she deliver Bean, but she’s been spotted in the woods late at night, she (or her mother) has conjured spells to help many of them before – so is she conjuring to help Bean now? And why is she so wary of the preacher who comes to visit them?

So firstly – the writing in this is beautiful. The characters feel incredibly real and you can really see the plantation in your mind’s eye as you read. Rue is a seductive protagonist – she’s observant and smart, but she doesn’t always see the reality of the world – even though she thinks that she does. It means that you think that you know better than her about what is going on – and then every time, it turns out that you don’t. You know that Rue’s friendship with Varina is going to be a problem, but the narrative moves around in time so cleverly that you pick up scraps of the bigger story but the full picture never really becomes clear to you (even if you think it has) until Atakora wants you to be able to see it. Life on the plantation before the war is filled with violence and arbitary punishment, life after the war is filled with a new peril.

Goodreads has this tagged with fantasy as well as historical fiction, and among the comparison novels is Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, but part of the skill of this is that it keeps you wondering if May Belle and her mother really can do magic. This was definitely a change from what I’ve been reading for the past few weeks, and it gave me a lot to think about. I’m still thinking about it now, still wondering, imagining. If you’re feeling particularly anxious at the moment, maybe wait until you’re feeling more resilient because this is very tense, with unexpected violence at various points that will horrify you. But if you want something to lift you away from the reality of a lockdown and to remind you that life could be – has been – so much worse, then this could be the book for you.

I said at the top that this is a very different pick from most of my recent reviews, but over the history of this blog I’ve written about a fair few literary fiction books, and have had a particular interest in books about the black experience in the American South since I studied The Color Purple at A Level. I’ve already mentioned The Underground Railroad, but as well as Colson Whitehead, if you’ve read Ta-Nehisi Coates (and I have the Water Dancer on my tbr pile), or Toni Morrison or of Yaa Gyasi (also on my tbr) this should be on your reading list. And if you read The Confessions of Frannie Langton after I recommended that last year, then maybe give this a try too.

Conjure Women came out yesterday in ebook on Kindle and Kobo. The hardback is out next week and I don’t know how easy it will be to get from your local independent bookseller straight away, but if you’re going to read this, i’d encourage you to order it from your local bookshop if you can, even if you have to wait a bit for it to turn up because booksellers need all the help they can get at the moment.

Happy Reading!

Blog tour poster for Conjure Women

Book of the Week, new releases

Book of the Week: The Starless Sea

I read some really good stuff last week and I actually started writing this week’s BotW about a different book – because the Starless Sea has already had a lot of hype about it and I had a couple of reservations. And then I went out and bought myself a copy because I just kept thinking about it – and I realised that probably meant I should be writing about it instead. So the good news is you get another post from me tomorrow, but I figure spending full price on a hardback that I’ve already read means that this should be my Book of the Week.

Cover of the Starless Sea

The Starless Sea is the much anticipated second novel from Erin Morganstern.  At first when Zachary Rawlings finds a mysterious book in the university, he’s just a mildly intrigued. But then he reads it and finds part of his own childhood among the stories and he needs to know where it came from. The trail leads him to a masquerade ball in New York and then through a doorway to a mysterious ancient library, way underground that is the gateway to a hidden world. Time moves differently there and there are some who have sacrificed a lot to protect it – but there are also forces trying to destroy it. Along with one of the people who seems belong there – Mirabel – and Dorian, the man who brought him there, Zachary soon finds himself in the middle of a battle for the future of the Starless Sea.

Zachary’s story is interspersed with stories from the people who have lived in the Starless Sea. I actually found this a little discombobulating at first because it was hard to work out what was real and how it fitted in with Zachary’s story. But I think that that’s the point.  It did mean that it took me a little while to get into the book – because it was really easy to read a little bit and then stop. But once I did get into it, I ended up reading the last 300 pages (if you can have a final 300 pages of a nearly 500 page novel, but you know what I mean) in less that 24 hours because I was so totally caught up in Zachary’s adventure.  But then when I finished it, I wasn’t sure about the ending because I wanted it to be more definitive.  So off I went for the rest of the week’s reading and read something else that I really liked and was going to pick instead because of that slow start and my feelings about the ending. But then I found myself thinking about the book – the world, the adventure and what might have happened next. And I realised that I wanted to read it again. Now when I read it, I had borrowed it from the library – and as it was a skip the line loan it was a short borrowing period that had already run out. So really I had no choice other than to buy myself a copy. And what a lovely copy it is – it’s even signed.  And the endpapers are really pretty too. So now I get to read it again. And I suspect if/when my mum reads this post (*waves* hi mum) she’s going to want to borrow it too. And it’ll look lovely on my bookshelf.

Hardback edition of the Starless Sea

It’s eight years since Morganstern’s first book The Night Circus came out, and it was a mega hit.  I didn’t read it until 2016, but when I did it was a BotW. And it is one of those books that people love but is nearly impossible to find anything like.  It’s magical realism but there’s nothing really quite like it, which is why people have been so desperate to read another book from Morganstern. I honestly thought it would be hard for this to live up to the expectation, but it actually pretty much did.  It’s a completely different world, but it’s as beguiling and unique as the circus was. I think this is going to be *the* book club pick of 2020 – but there’s so much to talk about and to explore.  I hope it doesn’t take another eight years for Morganstern’s next book (even if I only had to wait three this time) because it really is in a little corner of the bookish world by itself.

Endpapers showing a library

As previously mentioned, I read this as an ebook from the Library, but have now bought my own. My copy came from Foyles yesterday (Monday), it’s signed and I got a nice bee pin page with it, but I can’t find the link that I did the click and collect from  – just the normal one, which is a couple of quid cheaper, but doesn’t have the badge or the signature so they may have sold out. Waterstones also have a special edition (they seem to be out of their signed ones though). And of course it’s also available on Kindle and Kobo and as an audiobook from Audible and Kobo.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, new releases

Book of the Week: Brazen and the Beast

Back to fiction and back to an old favourite for this week’s BotW.  If you’ve been around here any length of time you’ll know that I’m a big fan of Sarah MacLean – who writes fun, feminist and sexy historical romances.  And – full disclosure – I’m in her internet book club and members of the UK branch met up last week (in Covent Garden) for lunch and chatter with the lady herself.  I got so many book recommendations and it’s going to be so expensive.  But this was my favourite book I finished last week, so it’s only fair it gets a write up here really, even if it isn’t that long since I reviewed Day of the Duchess.  Sorry, not sorry.

Uk edition of Brazen and the Beast

Brazen and the Beast is the second in the Bareknuckle Bastards series.  Your heroine is Hattie, the daughter of a shippng magnate who has decided that this is going to be her year – in which she takes control of the family business, earns her own fortune and basically live life the way that she wants to.  This means she needs to render herself unmarriagable first.  But her plans for the Year of Hattie are nearly derailed before they’ve even got started when she finds an unconscious man tied up in her carriage. The man in question is Whit – Beast – who along with his brother is one of the ruling powers in Covent Garden.  He wants revenge on the people who attacked him and soon they’re rivals.  Is there any way of reconciling their plans to give them a satisfactory solution?

Of course there is.  But it’s one hell of a ride.  Sarah MacLean has always written strong female characters, but Hattie is the strongest yet – she knows exactly what she wants from her life, she’s got a plan for how she’s going to get it – and she doesn’t want it it if she’s only getting it as a gift from someone else.  Basically it’s all about female agency and empowerment, but set in Covent Garden in  – and may have you wanting to punch the air at times.  The hero is the biggest, toughest and fiercest man – except when it comes to the people that he cares about.  And it’s very, very satisfying to see them sparring together. The dialogue is zippy and witty and snarky where it needs to be.

I’ve been disappointed by some old favourite authors recently, but this didn’t let me down, even though it had the weight of expectation behind it.  The only downside is that I had to buy the UK edition – so that I had it in time for Sarah to sign it – and now it doesn’t match the rest of my set.  And the UK cover just isn’t quite as fun as the American one – even if it does have the same colour accent.

My copy came from Amazon, but you should be able to order it fairly easily where ever you get your new books from.  And it’s on Kindle and Kobo too.  I’m off to figure out if I can justify getting the American edition as well.  You can find previous reviews of MacLean books here, here, and here.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, historical, new releases, reviews, women's fiction

Book of the Week: Old Baggage

This week’s Book of the Week is Lissa Evans’s new novel – which is appropriate because it comes out on Thursday! You may remember that one of her previous books, Crooked Heart, was a Book of the Week just under 18 months ago so I was thrilled to spot this one on NetGalley and be able to pick it up.  You don’t need to have read Crooked Heart to read this – but if you have I think it will add an extra layer to your enjoyment.

The cover of Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

Old Baggage is the story of Matilda.  Before the war, she was a suffragette and her life revolved around the quest to get women the vote.  Now it’s 1928 and women are about to get parity – the vote on the same terms as men.  Mattie is pleased but she doesn’t think the battle is over.  Unfortunately no-one else seems to agree with her and she’s rather at sea trying to figure out what she should do next.  The book follows Mattie as she searches for a new mission – with her loyal friend Florrie Lee (known as The Flea) supporting her and trying to be a calming influence.  Along the way she encounters old friends who’ve faced a similar dilemma and is stung by a criticism from one of them, who is trying to recruit Mattie to help with her facist youth group, that she is just a dabbler.  And so she sets up a rival group – to try and educate young women about why they take an interest and get involved in causes that they believe in – or that Mattie thinks that they should believe in.

I really liked Mattie as a character – she’d be a nightmare to be friends with because you’d never get a word in edgeways and she would always tell you if she disagreed with you and go into details about why – but she’s fascinating to read about.  For all her talk of being sensible and levelheaded, she has some very real blindspots.  She’s definitely on the right side of history but she’s not always going about it in the right way.  And when she picks the wrong person to try and take under her wing, it puts everything that she’s worked for at risk.  On top of this, Mattie’s history with the suffragettes – her confrontations with police, her time in prison etc – often means that there are people who aren’t prepared to listen to her or take her seriously.  It almost goes without saying, but the title of this book is so clever and well chosen – Mattie has a lot of baggage from her suffragette days but a lot of people see her as an old baggage – a nuisance of an old woman, out of touch and past her prime.

I also really liked the Flea – for all Mattie’s talk and noble aims, it’s Florrie who is out there in the real world trying to do something to make a difference on a day to day basis.  She’s the sensible counterpoint to Mattie’s idealist and shows that you need the quiet organisers behind the scenes to get things done as well as the people on the frontline.  And Ida, one of the young women who is drawn into Mattie and Florrie’s orbit, is an interesting character in her own right and not just a plot device for showing the strengths and weaknesses of Mattie and Florrie.

It’s 100 years this year since some women in Britain got the vote and a lot has been written about the Suffrage and Suffragette movements.  There’s a stack of new books out this year – and I’ve got many of them on my to-buy list – many of them non-fiction.  But sometimes the situation calls for some fiction too and Old Baggage reminds us – in a very readable and compelling way – that the fight didn’t end in 1918 and takes a very plausible (in my view) look at what might have happened next to some of the women whose lives had revolved around trying to get the vote before the start of World War One.  Evans has used a very light hand when it comes to the flashbacks of the realities of Mattie’s life as a suffragette – I could have read pages more about it. 

I may not have read much last week in the grand scheme of things, but I think this would probably have been my BotW pick even if I’d read a dozen books.  It’s not onle massively readable – I raced through it and wished that I could have been disciplined enough to make it last longer – but it makes you think and gives you things to chew over long after you’ve finished reading it.  As I mentioned at the top, my copy was an e-galley – so it’s also going on my to-buy list because I know that my mum and my sister will really enjoy this.

Old Baggage is out in hardback on the 14th – you’ve still got time to preorder it and have it get to you on the day of release if you’re quick.  I hope it gets a good push at the bookshops – I’d expect it to be in all the good bookshops, but I’m not sure about the supermarkets.  I’m sure Big Green Bookshop will be happy to get it in for you, but it’s also available in Kindle and Kobo if you want an ebook.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, holiday reading, reviews, women's fiction

Book of the Week: The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club

Hello and welcome to another BotW post – this week we’re in saga territory with Sophie Green’s The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club, which came out at the start of last month, but which I only got time to sit down properly to 10 days ago.  It was nearly BotW last week, but I didn’t finish it until Monday morning after my weekend at work and so I got to save it!  And after last week’s pick celebrated female friendship for middle grade readers, this does the same for grown ups.

The cover of The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club

The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club (such a long title, but I forgive it) is set in Australia’s Northern Territory in the late 1970s and early 1980s and follows Sybil, Kate, Sallyanne, Della and Rita.  Sybil came to Fairvale station 25 years ago, but she remembers how strange it felt compared to her life as a nurse in Sydney, so when her son brings his new wife Kate from Britain she comes up with the book club as an idea to adjust and make friends.  Sallyanne is stuck with a difficult husband who’s turned to drink while she brings up their three small children.  Della is a transplant from Texas at the next station over – she left her father’s ranch to find some freedom and her own place in the world.  Rita has been friends with Sybil since they were young nurses together and is now working for the Flying Doctors service in Alice Springs.  Across the course of the book all four women face trials and difficulties and find support and friendship from the rest of the group as well as finding someone to talk about books with.

I absolutely loved this book, which seemed to me like almost a what-happened-next to the outback life that I had read about in Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice.  I read that back in my teenage years  – it’s one of my mum’s favourite books and although it’s all good, my favourite part of it is the third part, that deals with Jean’s life in Willstown.  And Fairvale Ladies Book Club shows you another wild and inhospitable part of Australia that is almost inconceivable to me in its remoteness and challenges.  I  loved reading about Fairvale and the town of Katherine and wanted to be friends with all the women.  I’ve read quite a few of the books that the women read for the club – but this has reminded me that I still have Thorn Birds sitting on my kindle waiting to be read and has also given me some ideas for more reading about the Australian outback and a way of life that seems almost impossible to believe in.

I really enjoyed reading this and it brought a tear to my eye more than once. I think it would make an excellent beach read if you’re getting to the time of year where you’re thinking of holiday books – and as it’s over 400 pages long it would last a while as long as you don’t read as fast as I do!  It would also make a great book club pick – there are plenty of things to talk about here.

My copy came from NetGalley, but you should be able to get a copy from all good bookshops – like Foyles, Book Depository and Big Green Bookshop.  The Kindle and Kobo editions are already a bargain at £1.99 (at time of writing) but it cropped up as a Kindle Daily Deal about two weeks ago, so that may come around again if you’re not in a hurry and have a system for keeping track of these things.

And if you’ve got any recommendations for books set in the remote bits of Australia – or other remote parts of the world – let me know in the comments.

Happy Reading!

Authors I love, Book of the Week, new releases, women's fiction

Book of the Week: The House of Hopes and Dreams

In a change from recent form, it’s not a crime pick this week – but perhaps the pick won’t be a surprise to regular readers with an eye on the new release lists. I’m a long-time Trisha Ashley fan, and she has a new novel out this week and I was lucky enough to have an advance copy sent to me by the publishers. If you follow me on Litsy (I’m @Verity there) you’ll have seen me get excited about this when it arrived and it’s taken a lot of willpower to save it until close to release to read it.

Proof copy of The House of Hopes and Dreams

The House of Hope and Dreams follows Carey and Angel, who’ve been friends since art college, although life has taken them in slightly different directions. At the start of the novel TV interior designer Carey is in hospital recovering after nearly losing his leg after being knocked off his bike. He’s been dumped from his show, but when a lawyer arrives to tell him that he’s inherited a minor historic house in Lancashire it looks like he may have a new project. Angel’s life had been turned upside down after the death of her partner – who she’d been working with at his stained glass company for more than a decade. She’s lost her job and her home, but luckily her skills are exactly what her old friend is looking for and there’s space for her at Mossby. Soon Angel is setting up a workshop so she can repair Mossby’s unique windows and Carey is working on a new TV series about the renovation of the house and the secrets that it’s hiding. But how long will it take the two of them to work out that there’s more to their relationship than just friendship?

If you were to ask me about my book catnip, high on the list are old houses, competency porn (aka heroines who are really good at what they do) and friends to lovers stories, so straight away this ticks a lot of boxes for me. And this is back in a corner of Lancashire that has a lot of old friends from previous visits to TrishaWorld – Carey’s house is just up the road from Middlemoss so you get a few glimpses at old friends from novels gone by. This is a little sadder in the backstory and less funny than some of her other books, but I relaxed happily back into it and although I always had a very fair idea where everything was going, it was an enjoyable ride to get there.

If you’re very familiar with Ashley’s books (and I speak as someone who has read everything she’s published except her historical novel) then this may feel a bit like a Greatest Hits album – which I found a bit of a mixed blessing. But I think there’s a lot here for newer fans to love, especially people who’ve only started reading her in her last couple of novels and haven’t come across this part of her imaginary corner of England before. And they’ll be able to go away and discover more of it with the side characters in this, which in turn may lead them to my absolute favour of Ashley’s novels, A Winter’s Tale (another story about an old house with secrets) .

The House of Hopes and Dreams is out on Thursday – you should be able to find it in supermarkets (that’s where I picked up my first Trisha) and bookshops, or if you can’t wait here are the preorder links for Amazon and Kindle. I’ll be buying one too – because my preview copy doesn’t have the recipes in the back!

if you want to go and read some of my previous ramblings about Trisha’s world, try here, here and here.

Happy reading!

Book of the Week, Series I love

Book of the Week: The Days of Anna Madrigal

Quite a short BotW post this week, for a multitude a real life reasons, so sorry about that.  Any way, this week’s pick is the final (for now at least) Tales of the City books.

Library copy of Days of Anna Madrigal
In case they’ve somehow passed you by, the nine Tales of the City Books tell the interconnected stories of the residents of a house in San Francisco, starting in the 1970s and going up until pretty much the present day. Written by Armistead Maupin, the books started off as a newspaper column in the San Francisco Chronicle. Most of the books are episodic and jump between the different characters’ points of view. 

True to my no-spoilers policy, there’s not a lot about the plot of this that I can tell you, except that we rejoin the redoubtable Anna Madrigal, now in her 90s and some of her former tenants as she prepares for a road trip that will see her revisit her past and try to resolve some unfinished business. If you haven’t read the other books in the series, please don’t start here, go back to the start and read Tales of the City and follow them through. It’s taken me three years to do the whole series, and it’s been so worth it.

This isn’t my favourite of the nine, perhaps because I knew it was the last one and I didn’t want to say goodbye to the characters, but it’s still a wonderful trip with old friends, who you feel like you know inside out because you know them so well. A bittersweet end to the journey.

My copy of The Days of Anna Madrigal came from the library, but you should be able to find it in all good bookshops. 

Happy Reading!