Reviews

THREE MINI REVIEWS: Brilliant Non-Fiction Books

It’s getting to that time of year when I look back and realise how many brilliant books I’ve read but not yet got around to reviewing. So for today’s post, I want to play catch-up and tell you about three brilliant non-fiction titles that I’ve read and enjoyed in 2021.

Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes

The Greek myths are one of the most important cultural foundation-stones of the modern world.

Stories of gods and monsters are the mainstay of epic poetry and Greek tragedy, from Homer to Virgil to from Aeschylus to Sophocles and Euripides. And still, today, a wealth of novels, plays and films draw their inspiration from stories first told almost three thousand years ago. But modern tellers of Greek myth have usually been men, and have routinely shown little interest in telling women’s stories.

Now, in Pandora’s Jar, Natalie Haynes – broadcaster, writer and passionate classicist – redresses this imbalance. Taking Greek creation myths as her starting point and then retelling the four great mythic sagas: the Trojan War, the Royal House of Thebes, Jason and the Argonauts, Heracles, she puts the female characters on equal footing with their menfolk. The result is a vivid and powerful account of the deeds – and misdeeds – of Hera, Aphrodite, Athene and Circe. And away from the goddesses of Mount Olympus it is Helen, Clytemnestra, Jocasta, Antigone and Medea who sing from these pages, not Paris, Agamemnon, Orestes or Jason.

I’ve been a fan of Natalie Haynes’ fiction ever since her debut novel, The Amber Fury, and have also greatly enjoyed her amusingly informative podcast, Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics.

Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myth utilises both Natalie’s extensive knowledge of classical myth, legend, and literature with her ready wit to look beneath the surface of what we know – or often assume – about the women of Greek mythology. Was Pandora really to blame for the release of all the evils of the world? And did she even have a box from which to release them? Was Medea really the evil mother of legend? Did Helen of Troy really choose to leave her husband and run away to Troy with Paris?

The answers to these questions, as Haynes ably demonstrates in this lively and knowledgeable book, are far more complicated than popular culture might lead us to believe. Indeed, many of these women whose stories we think we know so well have been, Hayne argues, viciously maligned by – you guessed it – predominantly male writers in the ages since.

Thoroughly researched but told in with humour and insight, Pandora’s Jar is a fascinating foray into Greek mythology, a call to arms for the reconsideration of maligned women in mythology, and a timely reminder of the importance of female voices in classical literature.

Ancestors: The Pre-History of Britain in Seven Burials by Professor Alice Roberts

This book is about belonging: about walking in ancient places, in the footsteps of the ancestors. It’s about reaching back in time, to find ourselves, and our place in the world.

We often think of Britain springing from nowhere with the arrival of the Romans. But in Ancestors, pre-eminent archaeologist, broadcaster and academic Professor Alice Roberts explores what we can learn about the very earliest Britons – from their burial sites. Although we have very little evidence of what life was like in prehistorical times, here their stories are told through the bones and funerary offerings left behind, preserved in the ground for thousands of years.

Told through seven fascinating burial sites, this groundbreaking prehistory of Britain teaches us more about ourselves and our history: how people came and went; how we came to be on this island.

I love history but my own studies have been woefully lacking on anything that can be classed as ‘prehistory’. As a kid, I always preferred knights in shining armour to dinosaurs and ‘cavemen’ and, as I’ve got older, the closest I’ve got to studying early civilisations is watching Ice Age.

Professor Alice Roberts’s fascinating book Ancestors: The Pre-History of Britain in Seven Burials changed all that, however. Combining archaeology, anthropology and, scientific enquiry into early DNA, Roberts tells the story of the earliest ages of humankind through seven remarkable prehistoric burials. What emerges is a picture of surprisingly complex – and deeply human – societies that reacted to changing food sources, social patterns, weather conditions, and climate.

Each chapter focuses on a specific burial – from the famous Amesbury Archer to the Paviland ‘Red Lady’ (who might, it turns out, not be a lady at all) – and examines not only what these burials might tell us about pre-historic Britain and its people, but also how scientific enquiry and excavation techniques have developed to allow us greater insight into these early peoples and their societies. As with Haynes, Roberts busts more than a few myths about pre-history during the course of her book and explains with ease the often complex science behind various theories and reasonings.

An informative yet accessible guide to a fascinating period of history through the examination of bones, pots, early weapons, and fragmentary remains, Ancestors made for a riveting read.

Ask a Historian: 50 Surprising Answers to Things You Always Wanted to Know by Greg Jenner

Why is Italy called Italy? How old is curry? Which people from history would best pull off a casino heist? Who was the richest person of all time? When was the first Monday? What were history’s weirdest medical procedures that actually worked? How much horse manure was splattered on the streets of Tudor London? How fast was the medieval Chinese postal system? What did the Flintstones get right about the Stone Age? Who gets to name historical eras, and what will ours be called in 100 years’ time? How do we know how people sounded in the past? How old is sign language?

In Ask a Historian the author, BBC podcaster, and public historian Greg Jenner provides answers to things you always wondered about, but didn’t know who to ask. Responding to 50 genuine questions from the public, Greg whisks you off on an entertaining tour through the ages, revealing the best and most surprising stories, facts, and historical characters from the past. Bouncing through a wide range of subjects – from ancient jokebooks, African empires, and bizarre tales of medicinal cannibalism, to the invention of meringues, mirrors, and menstrual pads – Ask A Historian spans the Stone Age to the Swinging Sixties, and offers up a deliciously amusing and informative smorgasbord of historical curiosities, devoured one morsel at a time.

As with Haynes’s work, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Greg Jenner’s previous books, as well as his fantastic podcast You’re Dead to Me. Ask a Historian is another triumphant mix of interesting yet esoteric history, cheerfully irreverent storytelling, and bum jokes.

I listened to the audiobook of this one – read by Jenner himself and featuring some additional content – and it was an absolute hoot. Not only did I learn a lot but I also laughed out loud on more than one occasion. It’s also an audiobook I can see me re-listening to – always a bonus in my book!

Given the nature of the book – 50 questions that bounce across ages and continents – Ask a Historian made the perfect read to listen to whilst out for a walk or commuting to work. The book would also be a perfect read for dipping into and out of alongside other reading – and would make a great gift for a history-loving friend or relative this festive season.

So those are three brilliant non-fiction titles I’ve read in 2021 and wanted to share with you. Do let me know if you’ve read any of these – or intend to pick any of them up!

If you do decide to pick up any of today’s titles, please consider supporting a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books.

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Reviews

REVIEW!!! The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman

Image Description: The cover of Richard Osman’s The Man Who Died Twice features a fox with a ‘burglar’-style mask over its eyes

It’s the following Thursday.

Elizabeth has received a letter from an old colleague, a man with whom she has a long history. He’s made a big mistake, and he needs her help. His story involves stolen diamonds, a violent mobster, and a very real threat to his life.

As bodies start piling up, Elizabeth enlists Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron in the hunt for a ruthless murderer. And if they find the diamonds too? Well, wouldn’t that be a bonus?

But this time they are up against an enemy who wouldn’t bat an eyelid at knocking off four septuagenarians. Can The Thursday Murder Club find the killer (and the diamonds) before the killer finds them?

Having had a ton of fun reading Richard Osman’s quintessentially-British crime caper The Thursday Murder Club last year, I pre-ordered The Man Who Died Twice, eager to see what Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron, and Ibrahim got up to next.

Picking up on the following Thursday, The Man Who Died Twice sees the Thursday Murder Club gang rapidly embroiled in yet another mystery when former spy Elizabeth receives a letter from her charming but feckless ex-husband Douglas. MI5 operative, womaniser, and possible diamond thief, Douglas’s life is now under threat from the New York mafia, deadly international money launderer, Martin Lomax, and shadowy operatives from within the security services themselves.

Add in a vicious mugging that leaves one of the TMC gang in hospital, a local drug dealer keen to get into the international market, and the unwarranted attention of Douglas’s MI5 handlers, and the four friends are soon embroiled in yet another offbeat adventure of epic proportions – one that has plenty of gentle nods to the spy-thriller genre.

As was the case with its predecessor, The Man Who Died Twice manages a perfect balance between charming comedic adventures, head-scratching mysteries, and gently poignant reflections on aging, loneliness, friendship, death, and regret. The violent attack on one of the TMC’s own is particularly well executed, managing to convey the devastating mental and physical impact of the incident upon the victim whilst also showing the deep love and friendship that has developed between the key characters – and the extremes they will go to in order to ensure that the perpetrator doesn’t get away with his crime!

So much of the appeal of this series is in Osman’s tone, which perfectly captures the warmth and wit of the characters whilst being unafraid to confront the realities of aging. From Elizabeth’s fears for her husband Stephen, now suffering with the early stages of Alzheimer’s, to DCI Chris Hudson’s struggles with weight and fitness and his colleague PC Donna De Freitas’s loneliness, The Man Who Died Twice deals with all of them head on without ever losing the lightness of touch and warmth that categorises the book as a whole.

The other major appeal of this series is the characters. Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron, and Ibrahim are an absolute delight but Osman has also created an appealing supporting cast, many of whom make return appearances from The Thursday Murder Club. The ever-reliable jack-of-all-trades Bogdan remains one of my favourite characters (and gets some scene-stealing lines and moments in this book), whilst Donna’s mum Patrice – who is now dating Donna’s boss, Chris – and Ron’s precocious grandson Kendrick make welcome additions to the growing cast of characters at Coopers Chase Retirement Community.

It was also nice to get a little more background into the members of the TMC themselves. Ron and Ibrahim are both given a little more to do in this second outing, whilst some of Elizabeth’s sharp edges are smoothed out as the shadows of her past come into the light. And Joyce? Well, Joyce continues to be Joyce – which is definitely no bad thing given how much fun she is!

Whilst I’d strongly recommend starting with The Thursday Murder Club if you’re new to the series (mainly because it is great but also because it’s a perfect introduction to the characters), The Man Who Died Twice is a standalone mystery that is sure to delight both new and returning fans, and definitely proves that The Thursday Murder Club was more than just a flash-in-the-pan hit. Osman has confidently built upon the solid foundations of the first book to develop his returning characters whilst offering readers another head-scratching mystery with the same page-turning propulsion of the original. I’m already eagerly awaiting the next outing for his septuagenarian sleuths!

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman is published by Penguin Viking and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Bookshop.org, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Extracts · Guest Post

GUEST POST!! How I Write Fiction by poet & novelist Laura Stamps

I have something a little different to share with you on The Shelf today – a guest post from poet, short story writer, and novelist Laura Stamps in which she shares her process for writing fiction, as well as sharing an extract from her latest novella!

Laura is the author of novels, novellas, flash fiction collections, and poetry books. Nothing makes her happier than playing with words and creating new forms of fiction.

Her latest novella It’s All about the Ride: Cat Mania (Alien Buddha Press) just came out (September 2021). Laura is the winner of the Muses Prize, as well as the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize nomination and 7 Pushcart Prize nominations. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in over a thousand literary magazines worldwide. She is the mom of five cats and has been in feral cat rescue for over forty years. You can find Laura every day on Twitter at @LauraStamps16, and via her website: www.laurastampspoetry.blogspot.com 

How I Write Fiction

Believe it or not, my writing day begins the minute I wake up in the morning. I’m a runner, and running is fantastic for writing. I think Joyce Carol Oates, who is also a runner, would agree. Running gives you the time and space to flesh out new stories, create outlines, and fix troublesome endings. And that’s exactly what I do first thing every morning while I run. In fact, I’ve never finished a run without coming up with the solution I needed that day for a story or novel chapter.

Image Description: Laura’s zippered canvas writing notebook – complete with pockets for pens, memo pad, and current manuscript!

I keep everything I’m currently working on in my writing notebook, which is a zippered, black canvas, 5.5 x 8.5 Rite in Rain Weatherproof Cordura Fabric Notebook Cover that I bought years ago on Amazon. With plenty of pockets for pens, notes, a memo pad, and my current manuscript, it’s my “portable office” and provides whatever I need to edit and compose first drafts.

Most novelists and fiction writers schedule certain times of the day for writing. Some write early in the morning before the sun rises. Others write late at night while everyone is asleep. Because my fulltime job is hectic, I work on my novels, novellas, and stories while I eat breakfast, lunch, and a snack before bed.

You’d be surprised how much you can accomplish in three 30-minute writing sessions every day. Seriously! I’ve worked this way for decades. In the process, I’ve published 64 books with numerous publishers in the last 33 years, and over a thousand of my short stories and poems have appeared in literary magazines worldwide.  

Anything can inspire a new novel, novella, or short story collection. Sometimes it’s just an image, or someone I’ve seen during my day. Sometimes it’s a theme I’d like to explore. Other times all I have is the first sentence or the last sentence. But it’s always something that intrigues me. Something that won’t let me go until I write about it to satisfy my curiosity.

First drafts are written by hand in a little 3×5 spiral-bound memo pad, typed on computer, printed out, and tucked in my writing notebook until I can edit it at my next meal. And so it goes. Several days are spent editing by hand at meals and typing up those edits until the chapter or story is finished. Then I start on the next chapter or story, using the same process, until the entire novel or short story collection is complete.

Image Description: Laura’s writing space

Fiction is a messy business. Nothing arrives in an orderly fashion. Bits and pieces of a story or chapter can come to me at anytime and anywhere: the post office, the shower, the car, at the sink while washing dishes, you name it. That’s why one pocket in my writing notebook is reserved for notes scribbled on scraps of paper (or whatever is handy at the moment). Some of these notes are plot or character details. Some are ideas for new stories or novel chapters.

When it’s time to write the first draft of a story or chapter, I spread these scraps of paper on the table around my meal. Then I arrange them in the order I wish them to appear in the story. This stack of notes on scrap pieces of paper is my “outline.” Then it’s just a matter of going through these notes and writing the first draft, which I can usually complete in one sitting.

Each story or novel chapter goes through at least 15-20 edits before it’s finished. Then, when the entire book is complete, I edit it another two or three times for continuity and flow. After that, the book is ready to be entered in a competition or sent to a publisher.

I never take a break after I finish a book. I just keep writing and start on my next novel or short story collection. By then I’ve accumulated enough notes on scraps of paper in my notebook to compose the first draft of the first chapter or the first story in the new book.

There’s no need to take a break anyway. It’s too much fun to create new stories and characters. Plus, I love pushing the traditional boundaries of fiction to find new formats better suited to my novels and novellas.

My latest novella, It’s All About the Ride: Cat Mania, is the perfect example. This novella is about a neurotic cat rescue lady. Because she considers herself a magnet for bad-news men, she decides to heal her chronic PTSD with self-help books and YouTube videos. Her thoughts become a roller coaster ride, traveling at top speed, as the story races from one hilarious therapy and cat adventure to another.

Since her thoughts move so fast, I had to create a special format for this novella. She’s the kind of person who says what most of us think, things we would never say out loud. But she has no filter, so she says them. As you can imagine, this novella is a fast read. Because of that, it needed a different kind of structure to free the pace of the plot and allow it to flow smoothly.

Eventually, I created an unusual structure of 132 short chapters. This format gave her the freedom to tell her story in her own fast, humorous, wacky way. See for yourself in the excerpt below!

Image Description: The cover of It’s All about the Ride: Cat Mania has a psychedelic cat on it in shades of blue, green, and hot pink!

An Excerpt from It’s All about the Ride: Cat Mania

(2021, Alien Buddha Press)

1.

Here I am at PetSmart. Me and my empty cart, looking at all the things you’ll need if you adopt a dog, because my best friend adopted a dog. She loves that dog. She said I need a dog. She said if I come to PetSmart, see all the cute dog products, I’ll fall in love with the idea of adopting a dog, too. Except, I’m a cat person. I’ve always been a cat person, and that will never change, so why am I here?

2.

I’m still at PetSmart, wandering down one aisle after another, looking at dog products to make my best friend happy. The friend who wants me to adopt a dog, who forgot I grew up with cats. I’ve always had cats. I have cats now. I love my cats. I need to tell my dog-loving best friend this isn’t going to work. It isn’t. Just. Not. Working. 

3.

Although tiny Chihuahuas are cute. You have to admit. In their little dog outfits. But I don’t need to adopt a dog. I just need to leave. I am leaving. I’m leaving this empty cart behind. And walking out. I’m walking out of PetSmart without any dog supplies. I’m walking out without adopting a dog. I’m a cat person. Cats make me happy. Happy is good. I don’t need a dog. I just need to leave. I’m a cat person. And I always will be.   

4.

Happy is good. I’m trying. Trying. Trying to be happy. I am.

5.

Coming back from the grocery store on a Sunday morning, my husband driving, me in the passenger seat, talking about something, I can’t remember what, we reach the top of Harbison bridge when I see a feral kitten, just six or seven weeks old, dart like a flash of tabby out of the bushes into heavy traffic, into the wheel of an SUV, bounce off, terrified, and begin to drag its injured body toward the other side of the bridge, while I scream for my husband to “STOP THE CAR!” while I leap out, while I dodge traffic, while cars screech to a halt until I reach the kitten (finally!), scoop it up in my arms, dash back to the car, jump in, cuddling the frightened kitten to my chest, while my husband yells, “What should we do!” and I shout, “Take me to the Emergency Vet!” since it’s Sunday, and my vet is closed, but even though I spread a fabric grocery bag on my lap to make a soft bed for it, and even though I shower it with love and assurances of a long life, the little tabby passes away before we reach the end of the street, so we turn around and drive home, where I hold a beautiful funeral for this sweet babycat to let it know without a doubt in those last moments and in death it was loved, it was loved, it was loved by me, and always will be.

6.

It’s not easy being in feral cat rescue. But I’m a cat person. I want them all. I love them all. I can’t have them all. Well, I could if I lived in the country. On a farm. But I’m not a farm person. Horses? Cows? Pigs? Chickens? HORRORS! Not happening. I’m not a farm person. I’m a forest person. Give me green. Give me trees. Lots of trees. Green and trees. That’s me.

7.

Fact: My husband would divorce me if I lived on a farm with a hundred cats. He tells me that whenever I show him a photo of a cat. Like I’ve forgotten. Like I could. With him reminding me every day. Right.

8.

Fact: Can’t irritate the husband. He’s a good one. Took too long to find him. Had to throw a few bad-news boyfriends back in the pond first. Okay, they threw me back in the pond. First. Just tossed me away. All of them. Back then. Back in the dark days. But who’s counting? Besides, it happens to everyone, every woman, doesn’t it? Of course, it does.

9.

But. But. We cope. And keep moving forward. Move. Forward. I’m trying. Keep. Trying. 

My thanks go to Laura for taking the time to write a guest post and for sharing an extract of the book. It’s All about the Ride: Cat Mania by Laura Stamps is published by Alien Buddha Press and is available to purchase now from Amazon.

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Blog Tours · Festive · Reviews · Seasonal Reads

BLOG TOUR!!! How Love Actually Ruined Christmas (or Colourful Narcotics) by Gary Raymond

RARELY HAS THE POWER OF CINEMA BEEN FELT BY SO MANY, IN SUCH OPPOSING WAYS…

“Love Actually dulls the critical senses, making those susceptible to its hallucinogenic powers think they’ve seen a funny, warm-hearted, romantic film about the many complex manifestations of love. Colourful Narcotics. A perfect description of a bafflingly popular film.”

By any reasonable measurement, Love Actually is a bad movie. There are plenty of bad movies out there, but what gets under Gary Raymond’s skin here is that it seems to have tricked so many people into thinking it’s a good movie.

In this hilarious, scene-by-scene analysis of the Christmas monolith that is Love Actually, Gary Raymond takes us through a suffocating quagmire of badly drawn characters, nonsensical plotlines, and open bigotry, to a climax of ill-conceived schmaltz. How Love Actually Ruined Christmas (or Colourful Narcotics) is the definitive case against a terrible movie.

Okay, confession time.

I KNOW that Richard Curtis’ Love Actually is a terrible movie.

I knew it was a terrible movie the first time I watched it – long before Lindy West’s infamous (and hilarious) take down of it for Jezebel, and long before I was old enough to truly appreciate the sheer depth of the misogyny, fat-shaming, and sheer smugness of it. And that’s before we even get onto the dodgy timeline, the numerous plot holes, and the fact that some of the actors were mostly definitely phoning it in for this one. I know all of this.

And yet, come Christmas, will I watch Love Actually? Will I crack a smile at Hugh Grant dancing around Downing Street to the sound of Girls Aloud?

Almost certainly.

I mean, look at that CAST! The fabulous soundtrack! All of the FEELS!!

This inexplainable appeal is at the heart of Gary Raymond’s How Love Actually Ruined Christmas (or Colourful Narcotics). Raymond, a presenter on the BBC Radio Wales’s The Review Show and editor for Wales Arts Review, likens Love Actually to being under the effect of some kind of narcotic substance. We know it’s bad for us, but we’re addicted to it anyway because of the feels.

His scene-by-scene account of the film is both thought-provoking and hilarious, mixing the astute eye of a film critic (Raymond really does make you realise how incredibly skewed the timeline is – Liam Neeson’s character goes from his wife’s funeral to dating Claudia Schiffer in the space of about 10 weeks), with a laugh-inducing blend of wry observation, cynical commentary, and downright frustration. His skewering of Curtis’ terrible characterisation and schmaltzy dialogue stays on the right side of witty, whilst his frustration with the film’s tone-deaf messaging is something that I share.

For me, Raymond’s dissection of Love Actually really comes into its own when he’s examining the motivations of the characters. Because you really do start to realise that none of the tropes that the movie wants you to invest in – that Andrew Lincoln’s Mark is a nice guy, that Alan Rickman’s Harry is a heartless husband and Emma Thompson’s Karen a long-suffering wife, and that Kris Marshall’s Colin is hilarious – really work the moment that you think about them for more than two seconds.

He also blows apart the notion that Love Actually is a Christmas movie by pointing out, quite correctly, that the central idea that you ‘have to tell the truth at Christmas’ is, at best, a misnomer and, at worse, an excuse to be particularly selfish at a time that really should be about others. Which, I have to admit, did come as a bitter pill to swallow for me. The one thing I thought I could say about Love Actually was that it fulfilled the requirements of being a Christmas film – the entire thing is, after all, overflowing with tinsel – but, alas, Raymond shows that not even a nativity play full of octopuses can give this film Christmas spirit.

So, having read Raymond’s brutal (and brutally funny) takedown of Love Actually, will I be watching it this Christmas? Well, never say never. Rowan Atkinson’s cameo as the over-attentive salesperson will always make me smile. And Emma Thompson remains a delight despite how little she gets to work with. But it’ll probably be further down the list than it has on previous years – well below A Muppet Christmas Carol and Arthur Christmas. And if I do watch it, it’ll be with the knowledge in the back of my mind that it really IS a terrible movie.

How Love Actually Ruined Christmas (or Colourful Narcotics) by Gary Raymond is published by Parthian and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Bookshop.org, Hive, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Emma from DampPebbles Blog Tours for organising and inviting me onto this tour. The tour continues until 5th December so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Reviews

Two Mini-Reviews!! Rachel to the Rescue AND The Woman of the Wolf & Other Stories

It’s been an absolutely bumper month for books, with oodles of fantastic new releases hitting the shelves as we begin the run up to Christmas. It’s also been a bumper month for my reading life, with @laurenthebooks’s Cosy Reading Weekend, a fantastic @The_WriteReads gang buddy read of The Doll Factory, AND some fantastic Blog Tours for Blind Pool, Shades of Deception, and The Peacock Room.

In fact there’s been so much going on that today I’m bring you not one but TWO mini-reviews of some books I’ve recently finished. I don’t usually do multiple review posts but with a packed November calendar, I honestly don’t know when I’ll fit these onto the blog otherwise and I wanted to shout about them and share the book love!

Rachel to the Rescue by Elinor Lipman

Rachel Klein is sacked from her job at the White House after she sends an email criticising Donald Trump. As she is escorted off the premises she is hit by a speeding car, driven by what the press will discreetly call ‘a personal friend of the President’.

Does that explain the flowers, the get-well wishes at a press briefing, the hush money offered by a lawyer at her hospital bedside?

Rachel’s recovery is soothed by comically doting parents, matchmaking room-mates, a new job as aide to a journalist whose books aim to defame the President, and unexpected love at the local wine store.

But secrets leak, and Rachel’s new-found happiness has to make room for more than a little chaos. Will she bring down the President? Or will he manage to do that all by himself?

Billed by Stacy Schiff as ‘the Trump book that could only be published abroad’, Rachel to the Rescue is a bitingly funny satire on US politics in the Age of Trump. Reading it whilst waiting on the outcome of the US election (still undecided at the time I write this review) was both very on-the-nose and somewhat cathartic as an experience, as Lipman uses her extensive comic experience to mine serious subjects (corruption, bribery, the abuse of Presidential power) for their comedic potential.

Protagonist Rachel is sharp, smart, and full of just the right amount of cynicism and snark, whilst her delightfully doting parents fit the bill of comic sidekicks perfectly. Add in some match-making roommates, a new job working for a journalist seeking to defame the President, and an unexpected love interest, and the stage is set for a contemporary comedy that has all the hallmarks of the modern Rom-Com tradition, with a healthy dose of satire thrown in.

Given the contemporary setting, this is definitely a book of the moment and I’d urge readers not to be put off by to the political setting or connection. Whilst Rachel to the Rescue definitely takes some well-aimed swipes at the recent dramas of US politics – and the Trump administration in particular – this is a witty and mischievous comic novel that, at its heart, deals with one ordinary woman’s attempts to negotiate an extraordinary situation and that contains numerous laugh out loud moments to help ease the tensions of the current election cycle.

Rachel to the Rescue by Elinor Lipman is published by Lightning Books and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Bookshop.org, Hive, Waterstones, and Wordery. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

The Woman of the Wolf and Other Stories by Renée Vivien, translated by Karla Jay & Yvonne M. Klein

A woman rides crocodiles like horses. A queen gives up her throne for her dignity. And Prince Charming is not who you might think . . .

The Woman of the Wolf and Other Stories, written in 1904, is perhaps the finest work by sapphic poet Renée Vivien. Blending myth, fairy story and biblical tale, Vivien creates powerful portraits of strong women who stand up for what they believe in – and of the aggrieved men who trail behind them.

Speaking of smart women, the second book I want to tell you about today is The Woman of the Wolf and Other Stories by Renée Vivien. Born Pauline Mary Tarn, Renée was a British poet who wrote in French and spent most of her life in Paris where her circle included the likes of Colette and Natalie Clifford Barney. This collection, written in 1904, has been newly reprinted by Gallic Books as part of their Revolutionary Women series and, for all that these stories were written over a hundred years ago, they feel as fresh and relevant today as they di when they were first published.

As Angela Carter does in The Bloody Chamber, Renée Vivien deftly re-works familiar materials to reflect her concerns and ideals. The collection contains stories based on biblical tales, adventure stories, classical myth, and the poems of Sappho – one of Renée’s favourite writers. In her tales, Renée Vivien recasts the roles of men and women and plays with expectations and familiar tropes.

As with all short story collections, I preferred some of the tales in this collection more than others. Renée writes a number of stories from the perspective of male narrators and, whilst these make for some of the most disturbing tales in the collection (Vivien’s men are invariably patronising and, often, murderous in their intentions towards women), they were also, for me, some of the most intricate and rewarding to read.

Fans of Angela Carter are sure to find similarities between her work and that of Renée Vivien and will enjoy to fantastical symbolism of these stories, whilst readers seeking to rediscover an important female voice will be richly rewarded with this collection.

The Woman of the Wolf and Other Stories by Renée Vivien is published by Gallic Books and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Bookshop.org, Hive, Waterstones, and Wordery. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

Before I sign off for this post, I just wanted to drop in and say that, whilst I’ve put in links to some brilliant independent online retailers above, if you are able to please support a local indie bookshop and/or publisher by ordering from them either in person or online!

Lockdown 2.0 has come at just the wrong time for booksellers so it’s more important than ever to show our indies some love. Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books. If you’re unable to order direct, consider using Bookshop.org or Hive, both of whom give a proportion of sales made on their websites to independent booksellers.

This is also a great time to be supporting small and independent publishers. The two books featured today come from independent presses, both of whom have direct ordering on their websites at Eye & Lightning Books and Gallic Books. Some of my other favourite independent and small press publishers include Honno, Salt, and Louise Walters Books.

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!