The Flatshare – Beth O’Leary

So here’s the scenario: you’ve just broken up with your boyfriend, you’re still hung up on him, but know that for your sanity you need to move out of his flat as soon as you can. But… the problem is you’re completely broke and can’t afford any decent renting options. This is the situation Tiffy finds herself in, when she sees Leon’s advert for a flat share. Leon is a palliative care nurse, working night shifts – so they’d be in the flat at different times and never need to cross paths. Sharing a bed with someone you’ve never met before (albeit at different times)…? Sightly strange set up, but Tiffy is desperate and moves in, bringing her cacophony of colourful clothes, craft books and quirky furniture with her.

Tiffy and Leon begin to leave each other little post-it notes round the flat – it starts with the usual petty housemate gripes about the cleaning and the bins, sharing leftovers etc. Yes, it’s a little predictable where things will go from here – but there are roadblocks on their journey, adding great depth to the story and characters. And it’s just SO satisfying to see Tiffy and Leon’s story unfold.

The greatest strength of this endearing story is, for me, O’Leary’s fantastic cast of characters. Tiffy and Leon narrate the story in alternating chapters, and just as they get to know each other through their note writing, we too come to understand more about their characters through the different tones to their narrating styles. In Tiffy’s sections emotions flow readily and the story meanders – Tiffy’s quirky, immediately likeable character reminded me of Lou Clark in Jo Jo Moyes’ Me Before You and I therefore completely loved her right away. Leon’s chapters are quieter somehow, the writing is more sparce – speech is recounted without speech marks, which comes across as more reflective. While I love Tiffy, I found it really refreshing to see Leon, who is a more introverted, sensitive man, as a central character in this romance.

Surrounding Tiffy and Leon are a cast of interesting characters, who enable some other types of relationships to be explored. We see the lasting psychological effects of Tiffy’s relationship with her controlling, abusive ex Justin. We see how Leon’s childhood, growing up in a single parent family, has shaped his relationship with his Mum and his little brother Richie (who is currently serving time in prison for a crime he didn’t commit). Friendship is also hugely significant. Rachel is recognisable as the supportive friend who always has your back (e.g. sends you ‘girl power’ songs every 15 minutes to get you through a tough day). Mo and Gerty are both more original, wonderful characters – this story wouldn’t be the same without Mo’s gentle counsel and Gerty’s quick tongue and tough exterior – I loved them both!

I wholeheartedly recommend this book! It is the feelgood, quirky romance that I hoped it would be, with characters that promise to stay with me for a long time. Congratulations Beth O’Leary on a fabulous debut.

The Flatshare is out now, with Quercus. Thanks to Hannah Robinson and Quercus for the review copy.

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The Dollmaker – Nina Allan

I can safely say that I have never read a book quite like this one, and don’t think I will again! It was a book that challenged me, unsettled me, intrigued me – and, by the end, had completely enchanted me.

The main narrative thread follows Andrew and Bramber, who meet through a shared love of dolls, and an advert for a pen pal that Bramber places in a doll collecting magazine. After exchanging several letters, they soon realise they also share a similar feeling of not quite belonging, of being misfits, and develop a companionship. Andrew decides to embark on a grand quest to meet Bramber – who lives in a mental institution several days’ journey west. Andrew doesn’t let Bramber know that he’s intending to visit her – so I had a very anxious feeling as he travelled west to meet here. How would she react when he suddenly arrives? Will it end in disappointment?

On his journey, Andrew takes a book of fairytales by Ewa Chaplin – a doll maker and author who Bramber has a keen interest in. Short fairytales from this book weave in and out of Andrew and Bramber’s story (which is told through both Andrew’s quest narrative and letters from Bramber to Andrew). These short, eerie stories seduced me – I found them completely bewitching, while at the same time wholly disconcerting. Similar themes run through them of dwarfs, dolls, the grotesque, duchesses, queens, good and evil, magic, carnival, betrayal, revenge. They are shocking and powerful stories – emotion bubbles close to the surface, with an underlying and lurking threat of a downfall to come.They were by far my favourite part of this book.

The format of the whole novel is disjointed, like the individual doll limbs on the book’s front cover, which need to be stitched and glued together. Through this narrative structure, Allan blurs the boundaries of ‘art’ and ‘life’ – similar characters and situations from the fairytales appear in Andrew and Bramber’s own recollections, and the two begin to meld together. This mirroring had a jarring and eerie effect on the me – it was startling to recognise something you’d already seen elsewhere, in a slightly different form. Different modes of art are interrogated throughout the book – paintings, music, antiques, poems, letters. I found this metafictional, self aware style quite challenging at first. Instead of getting lost in this book, I felt I was always being reminded that I was in reading a work of fiction.

We are told near the beginning of the story that dolls do not age – and even though Andrew’s quest to rescue Bramber is linear, I generally found time to be quite fluid throughout the book. I was not always sure what era all the stories were set in, or what age all the different characters were. This again could be quite disconcerting, for example when a sense of youth is juxtaposed with some very adult themes.

All in all, I didn’t find this a very ‘easy read’ (if that’s what you’re looking for…). But in the end, I found that I had enjoyed the challenge, and ultimately have been left quite astounded by this original and quirky book.

Finding Dorothy – Elizabeth Letts

Finding Dorothy

This richly imagined novel tells the story behind The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the book that inspired the iconic film, through the eyes of author L. Frank Baum’s intrepid wife, Maud.

Hollywood, 1938: As soon as she learns that M-G-M is adapting her late husband’s masterpiece, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, for the screen, Maud Gage Baum sets about trying to visit the set. Nineteen years after Frank’s passing, Maud is the only person who can help the producers stay true to the spirit of the book – because she’s the only one left who knows its secrets. […]

Finding Dorothy is the result of Letts’s journey into the amazing lives of Frank and Maud Baum. Written as fiction but based closely on the truth, Elizabeth Letts’s new book tells a story of love, loss, inspiration, and perseverance, set in America’s heartland.


This book was everything I wanted it to be, and more. As promised, we are taken behind the curtain to discover the lives that inspired L. Frank Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and also the creation of the iconic film. From the very first pages, we are whisked away to the magical world of Hollywood – the bustling sets, the glamour, the veneer, the fragile heights of stardom. The book is structured in two alternating time-frames: this filming of the movie in 1938 Hollywood, and chapters set in the past, which fill in the rich history of Maud and Frank’s life.

Amongst the tales of Maud and Frank’s life, we begin to spot recognisable moments and characters from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It’s satisfying to spot them – we discover the origin of the scarecrow, the tin man, the white city and much, much more. We come to love Frank for his vivid imagination (a lens that transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary), Maud for her determination and for grounding Frank, and for the immense love that they share.

All this I expected, and was delighted by. But I was also surprised and very pleased to find a really gutsy undercurrent, exploring womanhood, gender equality and the women’s suffrage movement. I came to realise that, more than anything: this is Maud’s story. It is Maud we follow from childhood, as a strong-willed young girl holding her own in games of marbles with the boys in the neighbourhood. She shares this headstrong trait with her mother, who is the fascinating and extraordinary Matilda Joslyn Gage, a suffragist and activist public figure from the 19th-century. Maud is among the first women to be accepted to study at Cornell University, but quickly realises that she has no interest in acting like a “potted plant” or a “bird with clipped wings”. Women are also shown as being subject to their bodies and the functions of their bodies – early methods of contraception, the dangers of childbirth and sickness are all present in the novel.

All this, for me, balanced out what could otherwise have been a nice but perhaps slightly-too-twee story. Yes, there are some very sentimental scenes and speeches  in this book, but there are plenty of raw and gritty moments that counter them – representing the tapestry of experiences that make up life.

In fact, much of Finding Dorothy illuminates gentle tensions, which overlap and coexist in beautiful harmony. As with Kansas and Oz, alternate worlds exist together: history meets fiction; ordinary existence intertwines with the transformative power of imagination; moments of great tenderness exist alongside raw pain. Most significantly for me, the novel also addresses these tensions that exist within ourselves, and in particular, the pull in different directions that is often so acutely felt by women.

Letts’s writing has such lyricism and attention to detail, and it is just beautiful. She adeptly handles these variations in tone, and skilfully brings everything together to create this wonderful book.

Finding Dorothy, by Elizabeth Letts is published by Quercus and is available now. Many thanks to Quercus for the aARC via Netgalley.

The Woman Who Wanted More – Vicky Zimmerman

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First thing’s first, I simply adored this book. One piece of advice though: make sure you’re not hungry when you read it – it’s full of delicious descriptions of food!

Kate Parker is approaching her 40th birthday, when a big surprise turns her stable, planned-out life upside down. To keep herself busy, Kate starts volunteering at retirement home Lauderdale House for Exceptional Ladies. Here she meets 97-year old Cecily Finn, whose boredom and loneliness has led to her characteristic grouchy and impatient attitude (which as readers we develop a huge soft spot for). Kate and Cecily form an unlikely friendship, which starts to blossom through their shared love of food and, most significantly, a special recipe book that Cecily loans Kate.

Any book that begins with characters discussing their dinner plans and how to perfect their burger recipe (aka ‘Project Burger’) was always going to be one for me. The pages are laden with the most wonderful descriptions of food – custard doughnuts, breakfast burritos, hangover-curing-bacon brunches. Food is a source of humour – there’s a hilarious scene which I’ll just call ‘Kate-versus-Prawn’… I laughed out loud at a hangover being described as a “shriveled pickle”, and also when Kate was served a “deconstructed negroni” in an all too-trendy bar. Food is at the heart of this book, representing a great deal about what it means to live, and to live a filling, satisfying life – after the disruption of her life Kate completely loses her appetite, but food (through Cecily) begins to slowly nourish her again.

That brings me to Kate, who I just loved. For me, she is refreshingly relatable, with her love of good food and good books. The excuses she makes for others, who are simply helping themselves to her generosity and continually leaving her glass half-empty are painfully familiar to many of us. I was really rooting for her – she became like a friend to me, who I wanted to share a meal and a drink with, and give a good old pep talk to! Cecily, too, is an exceptional woman, with a cheeky sparkle in her eye and a rich and fascinating past. Both women have a stubborn streak, immense courage and huge hearts, which means they can challenge each other, in that wonderful way that true friends can.

Zimmerman writes this story with such tenderness and care for her characters. Do make sure that you read the author’s note at the end of the book, which added another layer of depth and really brought the whole thing together for me.

Please do yourself a favour – read this book and nourish your soul!

The Woman Who Wanted More, by Vicky Zimmerman will be published by Bonnier Zaffre on 30th May 2019. Many thanks to Bonnier Zaffre for the eARC via Netgalley.

The Carer – Deborah Moggach

James, a once-eminent professor, is getting on a bit and needs full-time help. So Phoebe and Robert, his distracted middle-aged offspring, employ silver-legging-wearer Mandy, a veritable treasure, who seems happy to relieve them of their responsibilities. But as James regales his family with tales of Mandy’s virtues, their shopping trips, and the shared pleasure of their journeys to garden centres, Phoebe and Robert sense something is amiss. Is this really their father, the distant figure who never once turned up for a sports day, now happily chortling over cuckoo clocks and television soaps?

Then something happens that throws everything into new relief, and Phoebe and Robert discover that life most definitely does not stop for the elderly. It just moves onto a very different plane – changing all the stories they thought they knew so well.

I sat down to this book with a cup of tea and an instinctive good feeling about it – there was something so welcoming about the intriguing plot and charming cover. Within a couple of pages I found myself laughing out loud – Mandy, with her orange teapot and Marigold gloves burst off the pages just as suddenly as she’d entered the lives of James and his children Phoebe and Robert. There really are some hilarious moments in this novel – from James shocking his somewhat uptight son by mixing up some martinis in the middle of the day, to Mandy’s no-nonsense ‘speak it as I find’ attitude.

As the mystery surrounding of Mandy’s arrival and the sudden change in James grows, we are drawn into what becomes a highly readable and intriguing narrative. One by one, small, strange things begin to happen, and keep you guessing as you turn the pages. I kept thinking that this humorous and almost detective-like plot would make for an excellent film or TV series!

Moggach’s characters are so believable and created with such ability and care. We are shown all sides of them – their fears, flaws, desires – to a point where we almost come to know the characters better than they know themselves. We follow them through various situations and locations as they try to find their way: from small towns in the Cotswolds and Wales to stylish parties in London; from caravans to fancy, expensive houses.

For me this is very much a novel about acceptance. We can spend so much time aspiring to different versions of our lives – but sometimes you just need to give yourself a break, take a look at what you’ve got and put your feet up with a biscuit and a cup of tea (and a good book).

The Carer will be published on 11th July 2019, by Tinder Press.

Thanks to Publicity Books and Tinder Press for the review copy.

The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes – Ruth Hogan

Having devoured The Keeper of Lost Things last year, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Ruth Hogan’s next book The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes!

In this quietly powerful novel we follow Masha, a woman whose life was drastically altered by a tragic event twelve years ago. She is surrounded by a cast of larger than life characters, who I knew right away were going to hold a special place in my heart! We meet the fabulous Kitty Muriel (who lives life to its fullest), Masha’s beloved dog Haizum (who sniffs out any food a mile off) and of course the free-spirited and unconventional Sally Red Shoes (who sings opera to the gravestones in the local cemetery). As Masha’s story unfolds, we see her slowly begin to slot the pieces of her life back together.

Another story runs alongside Masha’s – that of teenager Mattie and his mum Alice (who embarrasses him at times, but clearly loves him immensely). This for me was one of the most interesting parts of the plot, as I tried to guess how these two stories were going to come together.

What I love most about Ruth Hogan’s novels are the windows which lure us into story after story. In The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes, Masha creates imagined pasts for the souls she visits in the local cemetery, just as the treasure trove of misplaced items in Keeper of Lost Things conjured up stories of their owners. I am always left with the feeling that while this is the particular story being told today, everyone has their own story worth telling.

I also love how much Hogan’s writing makes you feel. Her novel addresses some really important and tough issues, such as grief, loss, mental health – and the sections dealing with these are extremely raw and emotive. But at the heart of the novel is such celebration for life – the everyday, hugely varied lives we all live. And most importantly, the relationships and connections that we make throughout our lives. Sometimes, like Masha, we perhaps don’t see them until we look a little closer. But they are there and they are what makes our lives worth living.