The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton by Anstey Harris

Miss W lent me this book quite a while ago and I am ashamed to say it has been sat on the shelf for a while.

If I am totally honest, if I had judged this book by its cover, I would probably not have picked it up. It looks a little like cheesy chick lit, which is not my usual bag. However, I would have missed out on a gem of a book if I had done that – so, as they say, ‘never judge a book by its cover – use Miss W’s recommendations.’

This is a beautiful story of self-discovery about three fabulous characters. Although they may not be your usual trio, together they form a strong bond, mainly revolving around their love of music. As Grace thinks her world is falling aprat (not for the first time) and it has all been fiction, Nadia (a rather headstrong teenager) and Mr Williamson (he is eighty you know) help her realise that maybe she hasn’t really started living. In fact, maybe they can each help other start living.

By the end of the novel, you will be desperate to visit Paris and Italy (mulitple parts). You will wish you could play an instrument (if you do not already), and you will definitely realise you have to appreciate all the friendships you have in your life.

It has been wonderful to discover a new author and I look forward to more from the pen of Anstey Harris.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

One of the wonderful things about the bookstagram work is that it can encourage you to read books you may not usually read or that have been on that to-be-read pile for quite some time. So, when one of my bookstagram buddies, Mrs D, suggested a buddy read for ‘Vanity Fair’ I jumped at the chance (especially as we can’t do our usual fun of sharing photos of our lovely manicured nails and pretty books).

Now, ‘Vanity Fair’ looks pretty daunting at nearly 900 pages, and I was really hoping that I would enjoy it. I had basic knowledge of the story from TV and film adaptations and had enjoyed those, so I was hopeful, but you can never be sure with these classics.

However, I had nothing to fear once I started. Although it takes a while to get used to the writing style (it is very much of its time), once you have embraced it, there is no stopping you. It is simply beautifully crafted with excellent chracterisation to represent the best and, at times, the worst of society. Becky Sharp must be one of the greatest characters ever created for readers to love to hate (or thoroughly dislike).

The book has all the best themes interwoven into the narrative: romance, scandal, humour, and at moments, sadness. However, this thing it does best is present a satire of society, and really comments on the weaknesses that are created by vanity, especially the vanity of men. And how easily those that suffer from such a ‘curse’ can be manipulated, especially by the fairer sex.

However, Thackeray does allow true goodness to eventually triumph in this wonderful piece of classic literature.

So, if there is that book on the shelf that you have been a bit unsure about tackling, take a chance and pick it up. You may be missing a great adventure!

Normal People by Sally Rooney

This novel has been around the bookblogging and bookstagram community for quite some time – and it has probably been on my shelf for as long. I picked it up as I has been reminded I owned it, and thought maybe it is time to give it a go.

Now, I am not sure I share the same love of this book that so many of you do. I understand why so many readers would love it. I am just not one of those readers.

It took me a while to warm to the story. I found it picked up pace about half way through. I was more invested in the loves of Marianne and Conell once they were at university.

I can see the significance of this tale – I can understand the importance of the title ‘Normal People’ to the narrative – and some of the issues it tackles are challenging. However, for me, it was just not a favourite.

I am not even sure what was missing, as I started this book expecting to love it. There was just a little bit of magic missing for me.

The novel is beautifully written and Sally Rooney is a talented author. I would like to read ‘Conversations with Friends’ to see how I find that book. Maybe as reader and book we would be more compatible.

Have you read Sally Rooney’s novels?

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

Why did I not pick this book off the shelf sooner? This could be one of my favourite reads of 2020. What a book!

Hallie Rubenhold has told the story of five fascinating women who, over time, may have lost some of their identity. These are the women who became victims of the infamous Jack the Ripper. I hesitate to refer to ‘The Five’ as this, though, because they were, of course, so much more and it suggests that ‘Jack the Ripper’ is almost the one who deserves the attention. (Don’t get me wrong I have had and still have an interest in one of the most famous unsolved crimes of all time, but now I have a different perspective).

This book, introduces the context, tells the full tale of Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate and Mary-Jane, and reaches a fascinating conclusion. I felt like I learned so much about these people, misconceptions were broken down and clear historical context added. This is not a story linked only to Whitechapel, but a story about England and beyond. These women were victims of their circumstances, tragedy was almost written in the stars, and we should remember the five women as they lived and not just for how they died, providing fuel for the Victorian media circus.

Rubenhold’s book gives them back their identity and, by the end , they are most certainly not just ‘The Five’.

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

I have enjoyed all of Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s books that I have read. So, as you can imagine, I was excited to give ‘The Mercies’ a go. You may have noticed that I don’t often read the blurb that goes with books by authors I admire, and that was exactly the case with this book – and, on this occasion, that paid off as I am not usually a fan of historical fiction, so I may have been a little put off. However, with this novel, the history is not the star (don’t get me wrong, I want to learn more) but is simply one part interwoven into an excellent narrative. This book is about so much more; it is about relationships, beliefs, ideals and the misconceptions that can come from misinformation and some unfounded beliefs.

‘The Mercies’ is inspired by the real events of 1621 in Vardo. The focal point bein the witch trials and the attempt to spread Christianity in the belief that it could civilise the people (a story that has been repeated throughout history). But this novel also, reflects so much more. It also investigates gender roles and the impact that these have on people’s lives, and how any attempt to break away from a predefined ‘norm’ could lead to suspicion an misconceptions.

I really enjoy Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s writing style, which means, for me, that become really beautiful books to read and page-turners.

So, if you’re looking for a lovely lockdown read, support a bookshope and order ‘The Mercies’.

Goodbye, Perfect by Sara Barnard

Sara Barnard writes books that tackle some excellent key issues. I didn’t read the blurb before I read the book – I just dived straight in. I was struck immediately by the subject of this novel. Barnard tackles the subject of ‘grooming’ in this YA book. However, this is not the only significant issue – relationships of all kinds are tackled, adoptive parents and their children, that ‘perfect’ family and what does it really mean to be ‘best’ friends?

In the eyes of Eden (who feels she is not quite as good as she should be), Bonnie is perfect and the friendship is perfect. Or is it? Is there, in fact, any such thing as perfect?

I really enjoyed this book, it really is a thought-provoking tale. And really brings to the attention of readers some key issues that may not be discussed quite as much as they should be.

I have enjoyed every book I have read by Sara Barnard but I feel that this was the best. Engaging, thought-provoking and wonderfully written, it is a book I hope a lot of young people will pick up and take important lessons from. Especially about relationships.

The Flat Share by Beth O’Leary

Oh wow – I am LATE to the party with this novel. Every single bookstagrammer and bookblogger in the world seemed to have read this book – so, I finally gave in. Well, I am glad that I did decide to give it a go.

This is not just a tale of romance with two charming central characters, but it dares to tackle some harder topics. The control of Tiff’s ex comes under real scrutiny. It is interesting that the book tackles something that really should be discussed more; great that it brings it to a wider audience.

However, the real charm of this book is, of course, the developing relationship between Leon and Tiff. How two complete strangers , yet also two flatmates, manage to help each other discover the life they really should be living. Of course, there is the odd bump in the road (a risk of social media), and, a few false starts, but love always seems to find a way. Even for the lovely Mr Prior, which was one of my favourite plots in the book.

I can understand why this books has such a loyal band of followers. It is a charming story with a lovely collection of characters. The perfect comfort read for these strange times – a clear reason why reading is a perfect piece of escapism.

The Last by Hanna Jameson

Well, when I saw that this novel was written after the last American Presidential election – I was not surprised and mildly amused. Some may think that a dystopian novel is a little bit of a strange choice in these times, but I really enjoyed it. Dystopian fiction is not my usual choice, but it has snuck in a little more over the last few years.

20 guests are stuck in a hotel after he start of a nuclear war. They are in a ‘bubble’ as they strive to survive and have no contact with the outside world. However, the longer this goes on, the more that relationships become strained and the experience becomes more and more difficult, and boundaries seem to become more unclear.

All of this with the mystery of what happened to the girl in the water tank and why did these people in particular end up together? Is everything as it seems?

I did also find fascinating the view of the outside world rebuilding itself – the need for everyone to have a use (as you start again) and the real significance of rules.

I feel that this is a novel that can be interpreted in a number of different ways. There are elements of crime fiction, elements of the supernatural and, of course, the dystopian element – which all together make for a thrilling read.

So, if you fancy some fiction that will keep you thinking, this is the book for you.

Toffee by Sarah Crossan

Miss W loves Sarah Crossan’s novels and, not that long ago (although maybe it was quite a while ago), she lent me ‘One’. That was an incredible book but then somehow, I paused on reading any more. However, that changed when I saw the amount of love for ‘Toffee’ everywhere.

Sarah Crossan writes in a wonderful prose style, short chapters that even laid out in the book to represent the narrative. It is always difficult to put Sarah Crossan’s work (that I have read) into words. What impresses me the most is that she tackles some really interesting topics. In ‘Toffee’ there was so much discussion about relationships (good and bad), dementia and youth. They come together in this beautifully emotive novel.

I think it is so important to bring some of these issues to the attention of the YA audience because life can be strange (as we are all currently discovering) and young people do not always have the chance to discover the stories of others. This book can start conversations and even, possibly, encourage people to find help and support.

Toffee is a book that I would suggest everyone should read, because it is simply beautiful and will make so many reflect on their lives and experience.

The Whip

As the world appears to be a strange place at the moment, we took the chance to indulge in some escapism at the RSC. We went to see ‘The Whip’, a period piece set in 1833. It tackles the abolition of slavery, and the politics around it, but also the issue of the conditions in the Northern cotton mills.

I do not think I can do this play justice. It was a brilliant piece of theatre. Thought-provoking, emotional, humorous and entertaining. It really demonstrates how complex some of these issues were and how money was the fuel to so much of what took place. Attempting to achieve any kind of reform was difficult; even those who were really motivated to had struggles to overcome or prevent them from achieving their real aim.

The acting from the company was outstanding. The music framed and supported the narrative perfectly. The play itself was beautifully written with engaging dialogue. As well as the clever title, ‘The Whip’ – a reference to so much throughout the play.

As a History teacher, I have walked away with so much to think about and so much more I want to follow up. Unfortunately, there is only one week of this play left (this was written before the recent announcements) to go, but I hope it tours or gets another season, because I would encourage people to go and see it – and I would love to see it again.