Girls They Write Songs About

I will never know if it was sheer chance that led me to pick up Girls They Write Songs About just days before events in America took such a sinister turn: in some ways I like to think the fickle fingers of fate were driving my reading choices.  At a time when being a woman feels increasingly like you are born to fight a battle you can never win, Carlene Bauer’s novel connected to my inner feminist in ways that had been lying dormant for far too long.  This novel is a powerful, poignant and ultimately heart-breaking love song to what it means to be female in a world that tells us we can live our dreams then judges us for believing we can. 

Charlotte and Rose meet in 1990’s New York as ambitious young writers both working for the same music magazine.  Despite being very different people on paper, they soon discover they share a similar outlook on life and long to achieve what generations of women before them have been denied.  Both of them crave being published and for their words to have the value they deserve; both want to milk city-life for every exciting and exhilarating experience they can; both know they can trust the other not to judge their choices by the misogynistic standards of a hypocritical world.  Railing against the patriarchal expectations of marriage, children and being a house wife – believing life can, and will, offer them more – they carry each other through love, loss, success and failure until one day Charlotte realises they are no longer in sync. What happens when the values you built your friendship on are no longer the same? How do you cope when those who swore never to condemn you now stand in judgement of your very existence?

I have no greater compliment to give this book other than to say I felt thoroughly seen.  As a woman I have known intense female friendship born from the desire for a space safe away from the inherent criticism of the male gaze; I too have known those relationships break down and the pain of knowing someone who shared your inner most feelings is no longer your safety net.  Despite their longing to be strong, independent women, both Charlotte and Rose find themselves seeking male approval time and again in a world where even those of their own gender are trained to impose patriarchal expectation.  The journey from absolute, unquestioning confidence in your dreams to the compromise that comes with age is also far too familiar as a woman and one that resonated powerfully, with the book clearly showing that in confining one sex to out-dated roles, men suffer the consequences too.  We are all trapped in this game we call gender.

This is a beautifully written and pertinent book that is being published at a time when women need to know they are not alone and that is just one of the myriad of reasons to grab a copy.  We need to recreate that safe space on a global scale and support the oppressed no matter where they are or what they look like – otherwise who knows when they will come for us? 

We Are What We Read

Not long ago I stumbled across an article about dangerous criminals and the books they liked to read.  Whilst we are all familiar with video games being blamed for reckless and violent behaviour in real life (fortunately obsessive playing of Frogger as a child never led to me being squashed whilst crossing a road) it is rarer in 2022 to hear anyone blame literature for criminal activity.  Yet the evidence is there in abundance: Mark David Chapman allegedly claimed to be Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye and even proposed at one point that he killed John Lennon to promote that very book; Richard Ramirez – responsible for multiple rapes, kidnaps and murders in 1980s America – is believed to have considered In Cold Blood by Truman Capote his favourite novel.  This started me thinking about books that have influenced me and my life in certain ways (don’t panic, I have never resorted to violence) and I thought I would share with you the titles that have impacted me the most and helped create the person I am today.

1) I can still remember now the excitement I would feel as I dove between the cloth-bound, hardback covers of my mother’s Enid Blyton collection and Malory Towers was always my favourite.  It opened my eyes to a world outside of my own narrow childhood experience and I found myself longing for midnight feasts and lacrosse matches (very hypocritically given I always hated PE).  Even now there is a sense of escapism whenever I think of those tales and it reminds me of the first moments I truly understood the magical lure of reading as a way of firing the imagination. Those are precious memories.

2) When I first reached university I found many of the set texts hard going, with reading for pleasure often secondary to the fact I had to get through so many books at pace.  Just occasionally a novel would be so readable that it allowed me to remember why I was studying English and Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe was one example of this.  But as I delved further into the depths of its pages, it became more and more uncomfortable – I couldn’t compute how a novel could be so popular yet so inherently racist in the stereotypes of black people it portrayed.  When I timidly ventured those views in a seminar, I discovered I was far from being the first to feel this way and it was widely seen as a controversial, divisive text.  For the first time I was actively vocalising my disgust at prejudice, something that has grown to be a key part of my value base today.

3) In my 30s I was feeling a little lost.  I knew the world felt unfair as a woman but was struggling to articulate this in a meaningful way.  Then a friend recommended Unspeakable Things by Laurie Penny and I had a proper lightbulb moment – here was someone so coherently saying all that I had been feeling for so long.  It gave me the strength to know I was not alone in the way I viewed injustice, helped me challenge my thinking further and empowered me to vocalise my views. I am now proud to call myself a feminist and unafraid to challenge behaviours that before I would have accepted as the way of the world.  This book made me strong in ways too numerous to count.

4) I always love it when other people recommend me things they have read and think I will respond positively to and Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera was no exception.  We widely recognise that the British education system fails to teach us anything meaningful about colonialism, so I learnt a vast amount about the good, the bad and the ugly of imperialism.  What I found most refreshing was the authenticity of Sanghera’s voice and his unique position as both British and “other”.  This book helped me understand that it is all too easy to dismiss the negative actions of a country to the past and that evidence shows the “empire state of mind” is very much alive and kicking today.  The current government do not – and never will – act in my name.

5) I would never have independently picked up The Overstory by Richard Powers but as it was a Book Club choice, I delved in with some apprehension.  I am so, so glad I did – this novel revolutionised the way I view the natural world.  I learnt a huge amount about how intelligent trees are, their ability to communicate and – most significantly – how reliant human existence is on their presence.  Ever since then I have found myself taking more time to appreciate the greenery around me, pausing to wonder at the magnitude of things we don’t truly understand about nature.  It is an amazing read.

I like to think the person I am today has been influenced by all of these texts in different ways and I certainly wouldn’t be me without the experience of reading them.  This excites me for what is still to come – imagine who I could be in another ten years?  I would love to hear which books have changed you in ways big and small.  Let me know. After all, we are what we read.

Sasha Knight

The more entrenched I become in middle-age, the more I realise just how much my childhood has shaped the adult I am today.  From the obvious connections that anyone could spot (you wouldn’t be surprised to hear that I grew up surrounded by book lovers and that in our house emotional comfort was always accompanied by chocolate) to those buried somewhat deeper beneath the surface (the uncertainty of family illness triggering anxiety from an early age), all of my formative experiences are entwined within my very being.  As a result I find myself drawn more and more frequently to those coming-of-age novels that explore just how pivotal that journey into maturity can be, seeking learning for myself as much as anything else.  I therefore jumped at the chance to review Sasha Knight by Sean Godfrey and I have to say it exceeded all of my expectations.

Ironically, given the novel’s name, this is really the story of Matthew, who we meet as a young boy growing up in Jamaica.  When new lodgers move into the house he shares with his mother and brother, Sasha steamrolls into his pre-adolescent world, larger than life and full of fascination and fun.  Soon they are best friends, inseparable outside of school and embroiled in all the kinds of high jinks you would expect of children so young and naive.  Then one day Sasha disappears and Matthew’s life changes forever.  He may physically grow into an adult as we follow his path through school and then on to America, but emotionally he remains trapped in the moment Sasha left him.  He cannot move on without accepting what really happened to his friend.

One of the things I love best about this book (and there were so many) is the way it defies genre – yes it certainly fits into the bildungsroman category but it also interweaves elements of magic realism and mystery to create an addictive and unpredictable narrative.  Matthew becomes a more unreliable narrator as the story progresses and I found myself searching for clues to try and solve Sasha’s disappearance myself, reading between the lines to find my own meaning.  The author explores some really complex themes such as race, class and gender expectations with great skill, all of which play a pivotal role in driving the story forward. But ultimately this is a book about loss and the trauma it brings those who experience it: with an absent yet idolised father, Matthew was clearly vulnerable to anyone filling the empty space in his heart and once Sasha has done this, he cannot let go. All of us carry emotional scarring and all of us have struggled to move forward following the loss of someone we care about.  This story will undoubtedly resonate with everyone.

This is one of those brilliantly written books that you can’t help feeling would hit the bestseller’s list if only the author was already really famous and I hope it gains the traction needed for greater media attention.  I highly recommend buying a copy – Matthew and Sasha will certainly be staying with me for some time whilst I reflect on my own emotional parallels.  Godfrey is clearly one to watch – you heard it here first!

Sasha Knight will be published on 23rd of June 2022 and can be pre-ordered here:

https://ownit.london/shop/sasha-knight-by-sean-godfrey/

How do you read yours?

Although I am not a huge fan of the term (and have tried hard to think of a cute alternative to no avail) I am definitely a mood reader – I always choose my next book based on how I am feeling at that very moment in time.  I remain bewildered by those who plan their “to read” list months in advance then work through it methodically one by one, as in my mind this limits the potential for that incredible, life-affirming buzz when you pick exactly the right book at exactly the right time for you.  I also credit the fact I devour so many brilliant novels to this approach, as my heart and mind unite to choose something my subconscious knows will hit the spot at that very moment.  I have read some incredible books recently and below is a quick round up of the ones I’ve loved best.

Imagine if every New Year’s Eve at midnight you time-travelled to a different year of your life: from 19 to 90, you never know where you will end up next or at what point in your existence you will be.  This is the concept behind The Rearranged Life of Oona Lockhart, a brilliantly delivered novel that sees our heroine learning to cope with living each year out of order.  It sounds like it should be a car crash in terms of structuring a novel, but Montimore delivers an incredibly addictive, moving and heart-warming story with great finesse. From relationships that finish before they start, to friends who turn out to be family, this book reminds us that no matter how we live our lives, we grow from every experience and are stronger when we learn to take nothing for granted.  Definitely one of my favourite reads of the last few months, I would wholeheartedly recommend it. 

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Sharak is what can only be called a masterpiece and has promptly lodged itself in my top 5 books of all time. This is the story of 2 Cypriot teenagers who fall in love in the 1970s despite their differing backgrounds – Kostas is Greek and Christian and Defne is Turkish and Muslim.  Decades later in London, their 16 year old daughter Ada is struggling to come to terms with losing her mother, battling her own grief and that of her father.  She knows nothing of her Cypriot roots or of the trauma in her parent’s past, until her estranged aunt arrives, changing her life for good.  I have no words to describe how beautifully written this story is, in language that is so lyrical and evocative it lifted my literary soul to a higher plane.  Most poignant of all is the way Sharak intertwines the natural world into the lives of the humans she portrays.  I was left speechless (which is incredibly rare) and wish I had the money to buy everyone I know their own copy.

In contrast, Lady in Waiting by Anne Glenconner is the autobiography of a woman who has lived all of her life on the periphery of the royal family. I am not much of a royalist, if truth be told, but given the current jubilee celebrations it felt like an appropriate time to explore the world of stately superiority and all this entails.  Glenconner writes such engaging prose – something I already knew from reading one of her novels earlier this year – and the anecdotes come thick and fast.  From a childhood disrupted by the second world war to an adult life shaped by her marriage to a highly eccentric and unpredictably violent husband (and not to mention her role as lady in waiting to Princess Margaret), she has certainly been through many fascinating experiences and I was highly entertained by them all. As autobiographies go this is both compelling and eminently readable. 

So which one will you be buying, Bookaholics – maybe all 3?  Just don’t let them languish at the bottom of your TBR for too long and let me know what you think!

The Bookaholic Bex Guide to Book Blogging

Something exciting happened last week, Bookaholics: someone I had never heard of before contacted me out of the blue.  They told me that they had been following me for a while (in the online sense, they aren’t physically stalking me) and that they wanted to thank me for all the brilliant books I had recommended and that they had loved.  Not only was this the nicest thing to happen to me for some time (unless you count the day someone gave me free cake) but it also completely blew me away.  Sometimes as a book blogger it can feel like you are screaming into the void, with little or no interaction on reviews you spend ages crafting.  But truth is, just because people don’t respond, it doesn’t mean they aren’t reading, and knowing this has made all the difference.  As a direct result of this life-affirming and frankly quite moving moment, I have put together the following Guide to Book Blogging, in the hope that my learning helps anyone else out there in the same position as me.

1) Blog from the heart.  Don’t worry about what other people think about a particular book, your response is just as valid – even if the entire world seems to love something you couldn’t get into.  (Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks – still think I may be the only person on the planet who found it clichéd and frankly quite terrible). Maintaining that integrity and being true to what you enjoy is a key part of building your own individual character as a blogger. Also, it’s exhausting trying to be one of the cool kids.  Individuality is way cooler.

2) Be kind.  Ok, you didn’t like a particular book, but you don’t need to tag the writer to tell them how awful you think their work is.  (Whilst I love everything else Sebastian Faulks has written, please don’t tag him in this). There are tactful ways of sharing your views without destroying the author’s self-worth: their work may not be for you but someone else will no doubt love it.  Ultimately if all else fails, apply what my mum always said to me when I was a child – if you can’t find something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

3) Be tactful.  If an author has sent you a free copy of their book, repaying their kindness with insults is definitely not the answer. Let them know it wasn’t for you and then don’t tell the rest of the world.

4) Interact with other bloggers.  Remember that feeling when you post something that’s taken you ages to write and then no-one responds?  You are not the only one feeling that way.  Take the time to find the reviewing styles you like and promote those you engage with.  We all have our own unique approach and I have yet to read a blog I haven’t learnt something from. Carve out the time to give others what you want to receive.

5) Be realistic about the time you have to blog. Most of us have jobs / families / demanding lives that take us away from reading (which is frankly unacceptable).  Try not to over-commit – one thing I have definitely learnt is that it’s better to do a few reviews well rather than too many that are rushed and do neither the novel or me any justice.

6) As Jon Bon Jovi once said, keep the faith. Somebody somewhere thinks your reviews are awesome.  One day they may even tell you.  Hold on to the fact that you are making a difference – the world can never have enough book bloggers.

I was going to add a number 7 – don’t let success go to your head – but based on the feedback of that one individual, I have already branded myself as an influencer, appointed a publicist and decided to be more obnoxious than a Kardashian.  I am nothing if not grounded.

Happy blogging folks 😊

Rose Hawthorne: The Irish Wanders

I have been feeling particularly old this week, Bookaholics.  Whether it’s the incessant back ache, the constant tiredness or the realisation that one of my colleagues was born 2 years after I started working for my current employer (shoot me now), the world has been conspiring to make me feel geriatric.  When I feel like this, it is far too easy to assume the best years are behind me (pipe and slippers, anyone?) and it is for this reason that I enthusiastically embrace any novel where the protagonist is more mature in years yet actively demonstrates that human value does not diminish with decrepitude, no matter what the media may tell us.   My copy of Rose Hawthorne: The Irish Wanders, therefore, could not have arrived at a better time, with a feisty 70 year old heroine who embodies the ideal that life’s adventures do not stop simply because you are a grandmother.  This is a delightfully charming tale that provided me with some much needed escapism.

From the very opening scene it is clear that Rose is a force to be reckoned with.  A celebrated author of world-wide renown, she is a lady with strong opinions and unafraid to express them to friends, family and even the man who ransacks her house in a botched burglary.  When a letter arrives from a secretive source asking for her help solving an ancient Irish mystery, our heroine doesn’t hesitate to travel from Toronto with her grand-daughter Samantha on a mission to find out more.  Blending magic and mystery with romantic reminiscence, and set against the incredibly evocative backdrop of the beautiful Irish countryside, this novel’s mix of ancient druid myth and fairy-tale fiction certainly captured my imagination.

My favourite thing about this book was the growing relationship between Rose and Samantha as the story progressed, with the complex clash between old and young gradually dissipating as the excitement of their adventure grows.  Alongside Bill, our heroine’s love interest from some 50 years earlier, they make an unlikely yet touching investigative team as they search for the mysterious medallions that form the object of their quest.  Yes there are occasional moments when things seem to happen a little too conveniently – and yes the ending is bordering on cliché – but I can forgive this for the plot had me hooked.  As Rose develops from classic domineering matriarch to someone far more in touch with her feelings, the reader’s empathy for her also grows, and it is difficult not to root for all 3 of the protagonists as the story canters towards its conclusion.

This isn’t a challenging read and was exactly what the doctor ordered in a week when the world has felt overwhelming.  If you are looking for something to take you away from the world and distract you from life for a few hours, this is the book for you.  I will, however, provide one warning – it will leave you with an irresistible urge to visit Ireland immediately.  Now, where did I put my passport?

Recent Reads

I used to be adamant that I would never use a Kindle.  I love the feel, touch and smell of physical books so much, I couldn’t imagine a world where I would forsake them for the cold emptiness of electronic pages.  Then a combination of travelling more frequently, a back problem and the fact so many books can be purchased for just 99p (99p!) led me to a stunningly hypocritical U-turn, justifying the use of an e-reader because it was a gift and not something I had actually spent my own money on. (*Cough*). Unfortunately this means that I can now download novels with one simple click any time I feel the impulse, without even the walk to the cash desk to make me reconsider if I have enough books to read already.  (Spoiler alert: I do).  My last 2 reads have been purchased spontaneously and both were special in their own way, so I thought I would share with you a quick round up of my thoughts.

Imagine meeting a stranger on a train and in a drunken moment of solidarity agreeing to kill their husband.  Not only that, but they agree to kills yours too.  You are separated from said spouse, struggling financially with a small child and feeling exceptionally disheartened by the way your ex-husband is treating you, physically and emotionally.  This is the situation Hannah finds herself in at the opening of The Golden Rule by Amanda Craig, whilst travelling to Cornwall to say goodbye to her dying mother.  Killing in cold blood seems somewhat irrational in the stone-cold sober light of the next day, but the woman she met told tales of such abuse, right and wrong seem no longer such a dichotomy.  Set against the stunningly evocative backdrop of Cornwall in mid-summer, this novel tackles some really challenging topics, from murder to motherhood, from abuse to Brexit.  Hannah is a likeable and realistic heroine who finds herself drawn ever emotionally closer to the man she intended to kill – will she be able to see through what she promised?  I found myself able to overlook the minor continuity issues in the book, swept away as I was by Hannah’s ethical dilemma.  A great summer read.

In contrast, Temporary by Hilary Leichter both enthralled and confused me in equal measure.  Described best as a work of absurdist fiction, this novel tells the story of an unnamed temp, ricocheting from job to job in search of stability and her “forever” career.  From standing in as an assassin (her predecessor is in prison), to a brief stint as a human barnacle (due to mistaken identity) and working on a pirate ship, her experiences are both ridiculous and yet highly relatable for anyone who has ever worked within the gig economy.  This is ultimately the beauty of such surreal story-telling: as a scathingly satirical depiction of what it means to be temporary, it works as both simplistic fairy tale and a metaphorical warning of how ethereal life can become without the anchors of work or relationships to pin us down.  I remain torn between thinking this is absolute genius and feeling slightly overwhelmed by the whole thing and would love to hear what others think if you get the chance to read it.

I probably wouldn’t have read either of these texts had they not been on offer for Kindle, so I accept (begrudgingly) that having an e-reader is broadening my literary horizons.  That being said I still have 40-odd unread books on said device and really must rein myself in.  Now, I must leave you, I think I have another email from Amazon…

After Dark

It’s been several years since the scariest night of my life, but the memory still haunts me.  I had been in London with a friend and arrived back around midnight, jumping in my car at the station to complete the last 2 miles of my journey.  Approaching a 4 way junction my light was green, but a car zoomed out of nowhere and missed me by mere inches.  That alone was disconcerting, but what followed was much worse.  The car screeched around behind me in a high speed handbrake turn and raced up to my rear beeping and flashing wildly.  I could see it was full of young men gesticulating angrily and I was terrified.  As I accelerated away from them as fast as I could, various options flashed through my brain: I could drive to the police station, but that was on the other side of town and who knew what they would do before I got there; I could pull into the local supermarket car park for support but that would be empty in the early hours and could leave me in more danger.  In a split second decision I chose to drive home, thinking I could at least hit my horn and draw attention to my plight from those who I knew.  Fortunately in a matter of minutes the group of lads got bored and peeled away, but it left me deeply shaken.  If someone had suggested to me at that moment that men should be subjected to a nightly curfew, I would have wholeheartedly agreed. I can therefore honestly see why the concept behind After Dark by Jayne Cowie is so engagingly controversial.

Imagine a world where women are in power and all men are electronically tagged, making it illegal to be outside their homes after 7pm at night.  On the one hand females finally have the freedom to walk home without fear, to cross a car park at night without cat calls or wolf whistles; on the other, all males are being punished for the violence and aggression of those who came before them regardless of their own individual characters.  A man and woman cannot even move in together without counselling that approves their co-habitation, a law introduced as a deterrent to domestic violence. Then consider the unthinkable – a woman is murdered late at night and all evidence indicates a man was the perpetrator. No-one has ever managed to remove their tag before so how is this even possible? And why do the police want to cover it up and ensure it is blamed on a woman?

This story was compulsive reading from the very first chapter, with the author presenting a range of disparate stories which cleverly collide as the tale progresses. Sarah’s husband is in prison for breaching the curfew and her daughter Cass hates her for letting him be taken away.  Helen is besotted with her boyfriend Tom and desperately wants to have a baby with him despite warning signs that he may not be all he seems.  Pamela is the old-school Police Officer, close to retirement, determined to discover the truth.  Without doubt the best thing about this novel is the structure of the plot, with Cowie keeping the reader guessing not only the identity of the killer but also that of the victim – I found myself cycle through 3 or 4 different hypotheses before both were finally revealed (and I was wrong with them all).  But this story also raises some really important ethical questions about freedom, violence, gender expectations and the way people respond to being imprisoned.  As such I think this would make a brilliant Book Club pick – just be prepared for some very heated debate.

I am not usually a fan of thrillers but I loved this book, primarily because it brings together an intellectually-challenging concept with a fast-paced writing style that is both easy to read and compelling.  If you are looking for something unique, well-written and that you will want all of your friends to read so you can discuss it in detail, this is absolutely the novel for you.  This author is definitely one to watch.

After Dark will be published on 12th of May 2022.

The Green Indian Problem

When I moved house last year, I stumbled across one of my most treasured possessions. Resplendent in all its blue and yellow glory, my Blue Peter diary from when I was 10 was a truly exciting find and I couldn’t help but read every word between  that garishly gorgeous hardback cover. It was a touching reminder of both the innocence of youth and just how wise and observant young eyes can be. I share this with you not to brag, but because it helped me realise just how brilliantly authentic the 7 year old narrative voice of The Green Indian Problem by Jade Leaf Willetts truly is. This is a superbly crafted novel and one that is going to stay with me for a very long time.

Jade – nicknamed Green – is a young boy growing up in Wales and trying to figure out all of the mysteries that life throws at him. Why do adults like eating fish when it feels like devouring baby dinosaurs? Does Father Christmas really exist and, if so, why does he keep bringing the wrong presents? And, most important of all, why does everyone else seem to think he is a girl? Written as a series of diary-like entries charting the life of our hero, the story gives us access into the heart and mind of one very special individual.

For me the real power of this book comes from the contrast between style and content: the simplicity of the child’s language contrasting compellingly with some of the truly adult subject matters portrayed. Green’s mum has a boyfriend who is violent and abusive; his dad sometimes forgets to come and get him when it’s his turn to play parent; grief comes to call more than once as the story unfolds. But above all else I was touched beyond measure by the protagonist’s knowledge that he is in the wrong body and his hope that some adult will help him sort out the mystery of his gender. I subscribe wholeheartedly to the fact that children often know more than we do as adults – when our minds are muddied by social convention and expectation – and the author conveys this startling clarity in such a powerful way.

I really hope that this isn’t a stand alone novel and that we have another chance to meet Green on his journey into adulthood. This is a refreshingly honest, beautifully written and deceptively simple tale that utterly stole my heart. I cannot recommend it enough.

Belle Nash and the Bath Souffle

Bath is without doubt my favourite city in the whole wide world.  I accept that this grandiose statement does little to acknowledge the thousands of cities I have yet to visit (I remain committed to travel, despite bringing covid back as a souvenir from my latest adventure) but I have a feeling the metropolitan magnificence of Somerset’s crowning jewel will prove hard to beat wherever on this planet I may go.  I am not totally sure what makes it so special: maybe it’s the stunning architecture around every single corner;  the incredible bookshops I can lose myself in for hours at a time; or maybe it’s the ghost of Jane Austen calling me across the centuries to be her bosom buddy for all eternity. (I am dying to introduce her to Colin Firth and see what she thinks). So as you can imagine I jumped at the chance to review a novel set in this most beloved of all locations.  Belle Nash and the Bath Souffle did not disappoint.

Set in the early 1830s, this is the story of a group of friends determined to seek justice when a failed souffle ruins their social soiree: a birthday party held for “confirmed bachelor” and councilman Mr Belle Nash by his best friend, Mrs Gaia Champion.  Each attendee commits to investigating just how such a travesty could have happened and the finger of blame soon points towards a morally questionable grocer based in the heart of the city.  As their criminal enquiries advance, the depth of corruption becomes clear and each of them becomes entangled with consequences they could not have predicted.  With more twists and turns than the back alleys of Bath, this is a surprisingly fast-paced and entertaining rollercoaster ride as the reader finds themselves rooting for the justice these people deserve.

There were so many things I loved about this novel that I don’t know where to start.  Firstly, Keeling’s use of humour is outstanding.  There are echoes of Dickens in both the hilarious naming and characterisation of certain individuals (Mrs Crust, the pie maker, literally embodies the baked goods she creates; Nash’s “second cousin” Gerhardt insists on wearing a wig that fundamentally takes on a life of its own and is worthy of a separate spin-off) and gentle fun is persistently poked at even the most likeable of personalities.  I also really enjoyed the vibrant historical backdrop that brings context to the main storyline, with 12 year old Princess Victoria visiting the city to open the very park that I love spending time in today. By weaving in the future Queen, Keeling powerfully enhances the feminist thrust that drives this narrative throughout, with women repeatedly proving themselves worthy of far greater recognition that the patriarchy allow.  In fact my only true disappointment is that this book wasn’t adorned “Gaia Champion and the Bath Souffle” – after all, to my mind she is the true heroine of this tale.

This I can forgive, however, as above all I adored the way that 19th century Bath was portrayed in so animated and lively a way by Keeling’s descriptions, fundamentally bringing the city to life as a character in its own right.  Having written my university dissertation on Topography and Location in the Work of Jane Austen, this has made me want to dust off the textbooks and analyse once more just how powerful the setting of a tale can be in driving the subtleties of subtext.  But instead of boring you with my amateur analysis (I do tend to go on a bit), I shall simply report my excitement that this is the first in a series entitled The Gay Street Chronicles and I will be awaiting part 2 with much anticipation.  I highly recommend immersing yourself in the world of Belle Nash and his associates forthwith. You won’t regret it.

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