The Foundling by Stacey Halls

Published by Manilla Press on 6th February 2020

Firstly, I was so pleased to receive a copy of this book as one of the #FWordsHavePower winners, so thank you to the publisher for that.

I just know that come 31st December 2020 this book will be included in my ‘Top 5 books of the year’ it may even sit at number 1, it is that good!

I have certainly made no secret of the fact that The Familiars was my favourite book of 2019 and Stacey Halls has managed to produce another masterpiece. Set in London 1754, Bess Bright returns to The Foundling Hospital to reclaim the daughter she had left there six years before only to find that someone has already claimed her as their own, they knew her number and her token. Naturally, Bess is left reeling at this news but she is determined to find her young daughter and the person responsible for taking her regardless of what this may mean.

I really don’t want to give too much away as you need to experience this book as it happens as the story telling is exquisite. Some how Stacey has the ability to put the reader in amongst the action and I honestly felt I was stood in the Foundling Hospital with Bess and the other unfortunate women having to hand over their babies. I could feel the desperation and I could feel them clinging to their babies until the very last second as they unwillingly handed them over. The characters are so different from one another, each written perfectly with their own distinct traits so that you identify with them immediately as the story shifts. There are times when the story carries you with it, when Bess is attempting to flee I found I was running beside her through the streets of London holding my breath and willing her on. I felt so involved with the story.

As a fellow Lancastrian I was immediately drawn to Stacey’s work primarily because The Familiars is based not far from where I live and when I discovered her second book was to be set in London I thought to myself that I wouldn’t enjoy it as much. But, to put it simply, The Foundling is bloody brilliant and I can’t find a single fault with it. It is a superbly written story of family, love, society and betrayal.

I don’t give many books five stars but this one most definitely gets the full set!!!

Miss Austen by Gill Hornby

Published by Century on 23rd January 2020

Firstly, it seems an age since I received this from the publisher and I have been desperate to share my thoughts on it for a good while now! Also, what a stunning cover, I think we need to take a moment to just appreciate this beauty.

Ok, now I have fan-girled over the cover I can begin. This is such a delightful and wonderful story that reimagines the life of Jane Austen and the relationship with her sister Cassandra and their relationship with their loved ones. Cassandra is now an elderly lady and is on a mission to intercept some of Jane’s letters that were written to their dear find Eliza, she fears there may be material amongst them that could tarnish the impeccable reputation of her sister. The book is split across different time periods of Jane’s life, it is mainly set in Kintbury in 1840 with Cassandra looking back over Jane’s life starting in 1795 in Steventon up to her early death in Winchester in 1817. All the places are in there, Steventon, Chawton, Bath, and Winchester and the lovely moments when Jane is reading to her family in the evenings from her latest novel. It is then that it hit me of the enormity of Jane’s talent and yet here she is living a normal life worrying about how they will cope when her father passes away.

There are funny parts, sad parts and parts that bring home just how much single women in Georgian/early victorian times were reliant on the males of the family to support them and the true fear this brought to them. A special mention must go to the impeccable writing of Jane’s death scene, I can quite honestly say I had a tear in my eye and I had to take a moment to reflect on what I had read.

I have to admit to not knowing the finer details of Jane’s life and I know many of you are avid devotees to Jane so I can’t sit here and say this is a faithful representation of Jane’s character, but, what I will say is that it is an excellent book that astutley looks at Jane’s life through the eyes of her sister. The writing is clever and the story throughly enjoyable and I feel the life and legacy of Jane Austen is safe in the very accomplished hands of Gill Hornby.

Many thanks to Laura Brooke for very kindly sending me a copy for review.

Salt Slow by Julia Armfield

Published by Picador in May 2019

Julia Armfield is a writer with an exceptional talent for creating stories that are capable of making you feel uncomfortable and on edge whilst at the same time leaving you in awe at the very beauty of her words. This collection of haunting short stories explores many themes including love, loss, family and friendship and it has the ability to make you sit up and take really notice of what you’re actually reading. It is one of those books that stays with you days after you have finished reading it.

This is Julia’s first collection and I have to honestly say there was not one story that lets the collection down, they are all strong in their own way, yes, there were some I preferred over others but that does not mean to say any of them were not worthy to be included in the book. The stories are an exploration of raw human nature in both a physical and emotional sense and are an excellent showcase for strong and powerful female lead characters, each at a different stage of life.

Each story has its merits to recommend it as the best in the book and that is something everyone will differ on, for me it was Formerly Feral, the story of a young teenage girl whose parents have recently divorced, her sister has left the family home with their mother whilst she stays with her father. Between them they come to an awkward agreement on their living situation and they rub along together as best they can. But, he remarries the woman across the road, the woman with a pet wolf, and they both move in. As they all adjust to life together the bonds of love grow between the young girl and her new family.

Another cracker is The Great Awake which I will not go into much here but it is an amazing concept that really got me thinking on a whole new level. It also explores love and friendship and what we are willing to do for our loved ones.

This book is totally unique and unlike anything I have ever read before and I cannot wait to read more from Julia in the future.

The Lady of the Ravens by Joanna Hickson

Published by HarperCollins on 9th January 2020

I must confess that historical fiction, particularly Tudor historical fiction, was my first reading love. But after what felt like a lifetime of reading about Henry VIII and his family I drifted away from them. When I noticed this book was due to be published I felt the time was right to delve back in to some Tudor reading. The Lady of the Ravens is set right at the beginning of the Tudor reign, Henry VII has just ascended the throne and in order to strengthen his claim to the throne of England he has married Elizabeth of York, daughter to King Edward IV.

The story centres around Joan Vaux, she is a friend and member of the new Queen’s household as well as being a favourite of Margaret Beaufort, The King’s Mother. On a visit to the Tower of London, Joan encounters the dark mysterious ravens and from then on she takes a personal interest in their welfare, particularly when she learns the archers use them as target practice. Despite being adamant she would never marry Joan accepts the proposal of Sir Richard Guildford who just so happens to live at the Tower as part of the King’s armouries. We follow Joan as she is promoted to the rank of lady of the bedchamber and through married life and motherhood and as she continues to protect the ravens, knowing that should they leave the Tower of London, the monarchy will fall.

This is a well researched story and a really enjoyable read. It was nice to be back in the familiar world of the Tudor’s and as always Hickson does not let you down when you are looking for a bit of historical fiction.

The Women at Hitler’s Table by Rosella Postorino translated by Leah Janeczko

Published by Harper Collins on 14th November 2019

This is not a book that I would have picked up off the shelves in a bookshop but Rebecca Bryant from Harper Collins kindly asked me to take a look at it and I am so glad I did as it was a true eye opener.

It is inspired by the story of Margot Wölk, she was one of the women chosen to become one of Hitler’s food tasters and the only one to survive the war. Set in East Prussia in 1943, twenty-six year old Rosa Sauer has lost both parents and is living with her in laws in the country whilst her husband is away fighting on the front line.

As the tide begins to turn in the war, Hitler becomes increasingly paranoid that his enemies are beginning to close in on him and Rosa soon finds herself conscripted alongside nine other local women to act as his food tasters at his secret headquarters in the Wolfsshanze. Tensions between the women begin to grow as hunger and fear take a hold of them, some relish the task of being useful to Hitler, others are terrified that each meal could lead to an agonising death.

This is a story that tells of some of the horrors of war, these women were ordinary citizens who were plucked to perform a thankless task. It is a story of courage, friendship and survival that will break your heart as you inevitably put yourself in Rosa’s shoes. As she faces the SS alone, Rosa’s courage knows no bounds as she is faced with the possibility that every morsel of food could kill her. It gives an excellent view point of another aspect of the war that up until I read this book did not know existed and the ordinary people that found themselves facing uncertainty on a daily basis. The stories of these women needs to be read and appreciated, Rosa does survive the war but her story and the stories of the remaining nine women is compelling.

I am so glad I was given the opportunity to read this novel as it opened my eyes to the sacrifices that were made on a daily basis by the ordinary people.