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#TuesdayBookBlog THE CURIOUS HEART OF AILSA RAE by Stephanie Butland (@StMartinsPress) A coming of age story with a big heart

Hi all:

I bring you a book that although deceptively gentle, deals in pretty serious topics. Oh, and I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in the blog tour, so I can also share a sample at the end:

The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae by Stephanie Butland
The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae by Stephanie Butland

The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae by Stephanie Butland

Description:

For fans of Josie Silver’s One Day in December, The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae is a wholly original, charismatic, and uplifting novel that no reader will soon forget.

Ailsa Rae is learning how to live. She’s only a few months past the heart transplant that—just in time—saved her life. Now, finally, she can be a normal twenty-eight-year-old. She can climb a mountain. Dance. Wait in line all day for tickets to Wimbledon.

But first, she has to put one foot in front of the other. So far, things are as bloody complicated as ever. Her relationship with her mother is at a breaking point and she wants to find her father. Then there’s Lennox, whom Ailsa loved and lost. Will she ever find love again?

Her new heart is a bold heart. She just needs to learn to listen to it. From the hospital to her childhood home, on social media and IRL, Ailsa will embark on a journey about what it means to be, and feel, alive. How do we learn to be brave, to accept defeat, to dare to dream?

From Stephanie Butland, author of The Lost for Words BookshopThe Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae will warm you from the inside out.

Author Stephanie Butland
Stephanie Butland
Author
Book launch, reading & signing at Nomad Books in Fulham Road, London, Great Britain
18th April 2018
Stephanie Butland launches her latest book
The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae at a reading and book signing event in London.
Photograph by Elliott Franks

Author Bio:

STEPHANIE BUTLAND lives with her family near the sea in the North East of England. She writes in a studio at the bottom of her garden, and when she’s not writing, she trains people to think more creatively. For fun, she reads, knits, sews, bakes, and spins. She is an occasional performance poet and the author of The Lost for Words Bookshop. 

Book-buy link: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250242174

https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B075VVQ6ZP/

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B075VVQ6ZP/

https://www.amazon.es/gp/product/B075VVQ6ZP/

My review:

Thanks to NetGalley and to St. Martin’s Griffin for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This is the first book I’ve read by the author and can’t compare it to her previous work, although I’ve noticed reviewers show plenty of love for The Lost for Words Bookshop, and I’m keen to check it out.

The plot of this book is easy to summarise, and the description is quite detailed. Ailsa was born with a congenital heart condition (Hypoplastic left heart syndrome) and has been ill (to a greater or lesser degree) all her life.  Now, when there isn’t much time left, she gets a new heart. The novel follows her journey to learn how to live her new life, which in her case is also akin to a coming of age story. Although she is 28, due to her circumstances she has lived a very sheltered life, always protected by her mother, her aunt, and her friends, and now she has to face lots of challenges.

The author chooses an interesting way of telling the story. The bulk of the story is narrated in the third-person, although exclusively from Ailsa’s point of view, and alternates between the “now” of the story, and what was going on in Ailsa’s life a year ago. Some readers complained about the jumps in the timeline. I did not find them too confusing (the timeframe was clearly stated, and it was easy to tell from the content as well), and those chapters did add some perspective on Ailsa’s situation. Because we meet her just before her operation, this device works as a way of letting us know what her life was like before, and also helps us understand some of the difficulties she faces now. I wasn’t sure all of the chapters set in the past added new information or were particularly significant, but they didn’t slow down the pace of the story either.

Apart from the third person narrative, we can also “hear” Ailsa’s narrative in the first-person thanks to her blog. She has a blog where she had been writing about her illness and the difficulties of being on a transplant waiting list, and we get access to some of her posts.  The book also includes her e-mails and text exchanges with some of the other characters. These provide us with a different perspective on the events, even with the caveat that blogposts are written to be published and are not spontaneous pouring of one’s heart (well, most of the time), and we get to hear from other characters as well. This is the third book I’ve read recently featuring a blogger as one of the main characters, so there seems to be a trend. The most curious part of it, in this case, is that Ailsa seems to be otherwise pretty disconnected from some aspects of everyday life (she does not know Seb, the young actor she meets, although he is well-known, and seems oblivious to much of what is shown on UK television, for example). One of the particular characteristics of her blog, though, is that she asks her readers to participate in polls that inform her decisions and the way she lives her life. Although in some cases the decisions are pretty neutral (choosing a name for her new heart, for example), others are more fundamental, and there’s much discussion about that throughout the book.

As for the characters… I liked Ailsa, although I agree with some comments that say she seems much younger than she is. I have mentioned above that the book, at least for me, reads like a coming-of-age-story, and although she’s gone to university and had a boyfriend (and there’s a story of loss and grief there as well), there’s much of normal life that she has not experienced and that explains why there is much growing up she still needs to do. She is childlike at time, stubborn, selfish, she lacks self-confidence, and struggles between her wish to grow up (she insists on sticking to the plan of living independently) and her reluctance to take responsibility for her own life (she is so used to living day to day and not making long-term plans that she uses her blog and the polls as a way to avoid ultimate responsibility). I loved her mother, Hailey, who can be overbearing and overprotective, but she is strong and determined, cares deeply for her daughter and has sacrificed much for her (even if she finds it difficult to let go now),  and I felt their relationship was the strongest point of the novel. I was not so convinced by Seb, her love interest, and their on-off relationship, although it adds another dimension to Ailsa’s experience, seemed too unrealistic. Don’t get me wrong, he is handsome, a successful TV actor, and he is interested in her from the beginning, and yes… it reads like a very young and idealised romantic fantasy, so it might work in that sense, but as a character… What I liked about his part of the story was the acting background and the references to the Edinburgh Fringe. We only know Lennox through Ailsa’s memories and some of the chapters set in the past, and he is the other side of the coin, the one for whom luck ran out too soon. This highlights the randomness of events and it makes more poignant the plight of so many people waiting for transplants. The efforts to keep his memory alive and make it count ring true.

The book is set in Edinburgh and I enjoyed the setting (although I’m only a casual visitor) and the references to the weather and the location. There are some local words and expressions used throughout the novel; although I cannot judge how accurate they are (the author is not Scottish although has done her research). I particularly enjoyed the Tango lessons and the setting of those above a pub.

The writing flows well and although in some ways the book is a light and gentle read (the romance is behind closed doors, and despite the talk of illness and hospitals, the descriptions of symptoms and procedures are not explicit or gore), it deals in serious subjects, like chronic illness, transplants (and it debates the matter of how to increase organ donations by changing it to an opt-out policy and removing the right of relatives to overrule the desires of a loved one), parental abandonment, grief, mother-daughter relationships, side effects of medication, popularity and media coverage of famous people, fat-shaming… Although some of these topics are treated in more depth than others, I felt the novel dealt very well with the illness side of things, and it opened up an important debate on organ donations. As I said, I also enjoyed the mother-daughter relationship and the fact that Ailsa becomes her own woman and grows up. I do love the ending as well.

This is a novel with a likeable main character who has had to live with the knowledge that she might not grow to be an adult, waiting for a miracle (unfortunately the miracle requires somebody else’s death), which deals sensitively in some very important topics and is set in wonderful Edinburgh. I loved Ailsa’s mother and although some aspects of the novel work better than others, in my opinion, the quality of the writing and the strength of the story make it well-worth reading. And yes, it is a heart-warming story (forgive the pun)! I’ll definitely be checking out more of the author’s books.

Here comes the book sample:

www.myblueblueheart.blogspot.co.uk 

6 October, 2017

Hard to Bear 

It’s 3 a.m. here in cardio-thoracic.

All I can do for now is doze, and think, and doze again. My heart is getting weaker, my body bluer. People I haven’t seen for a while are starting to drop in. (Good to see you, Emily, Jacob, Christa. I’m looking forward to the Martinis.) We all pretend we’re not getting ready to say goodbye. It seems easiest. But my mother cries when she thinks I’m sleeping, so maybe here, now, is time to admit that I might really be on the way out.

I should be grateful. A baby born with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome a few years before I was would have died within days. I’ve had twenty-eight years and I’ve managed to do quite a lot of living in them. (Also, I’ve had WAY more operations than you everyday folk. I totally win on that.) OK, so I still live at home and I’ve never had a job and I’m blue around the edges because there’s never quite enough oxygen in my system. But –

Actually, but nothing. If you’re here tonight for the usual BlueHeart cheerfulness-in-the-teeth-of-disaster, you need to find another blogger.

My heart is failing. I imagine I can feel it floundering in my chest. Sometimes it’s as though I’m holding my breath, waiting to see if another beat will come. I’ve been in hospital for four months, almost non-stop, because it’s no longer tenable for me to be at home. I’m on a drip pumping electrolytes into my blood and I’ve an oxygen tube taped to my face. I’m constantly cared for by people who are trying to keep me well enough to receive a transplanted heart if one shows up. I monitor every flicker and echo of pain or tiredness in my body and try to work out if it means that things are getting worse. And yes, I’m alive, and yes, I could still be saved, but tonight it’s a struggle to  think  that  being  saved  is  possible. Or even likely. And I’m not sure I have the energy to keep waiting.

And I should be angrier, but there’s no room for anger (remember, my heart is a chamber smaller than yours) because, tonight, I’m scared.

It’s only a question of time until I get too weak to survive a transplant, and then it’s a waste of a heart to give it to me. Someone a bit fitter, and who would get more use from it, will bump me from the top of the list and I’m into the Palliative Care Zone. (It’s not actually called that. And it’s a good, kind, caring place, but it’s not where I want to be. Maybe when I’m ninety-eight. To be honest, tonight, I’d take forty-eight. Anything but twenty-eight.)

I hope I feel more optimistic when the sun comes up. If it does. It’s Edinburgh. It’s October. The odds are about the same as me getting a new heart.

My mother doesn’t worry about odds. She says, ‘We only need the one heart. Just the one.’ She says it in a way that makes me think that when she leaves the ward she’s away to carve one out of some poor stranger’s

 

body herself. And anyway, odds feel strange, because even if my survival chances are, say, 20 per cent, whatever happens to me will happen 100 per cent. As in, I could be 100 per cent dead this time next week.

Night night, BlueHeart xxx

 

P.S. I would really, really like for one of you to get yourself a couple of goldfish, or kittens, or puppies, or even horses, and call them Cardio and Thoracic. My preference would be for puppies. Because I love the thought that, if I don’t make it to Christmas, somewhere there will be someone walking in the winter countryside, let- ting their enthusiastic wee spaniels off the lead,  and then howling ‘Cardio! Thoracic!’ as they disappear over the brow of a hill intent on catching some poor terrified sheep. That’s what I call a legacy.

From The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae by Stephanie Butland. Copyright © 2019 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

Thanks to NetGalley, the publisher, and the author, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, and always keep smiling! Oh, and if you haven’t, give some thought to organ donation.

 

 

 

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Book review Book reviews

#Bookreview DAYS OF WONDER by Keith Stuart (@keefstuart) (@LittleBrownUK) #Daysofwonder A love-at-first-read book. A must read if you love theatre, stories, magic, and feel-good novels.

Hi all:

I read the first novel by this author some time ago and I was very pleased when I was invited to read the next one. I’m publishing the review on the day of its publication, so don’t delay and get it now!

Review of Days of Wonder by Keith Stuart
Days of Wonder by Keith Stuart

From the 200,000-copy bestselling author of A Boy Make Of Blocks

Days of Wonder by KEITH STUART

Published in hardback by Sphere on 7th June, £12.99

#DaysOfWonderBook

 A lead fiction title for Sphere (Little, Brown Book Group)

 Keith Stuart’s debut novel, A Boy Made of Blocks was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick, and a major bestseller. A reader favourite, it has over 1,000 5-star Amazon reviews.

 Magical, heartbreaking, beautiful – Days of Wonder is a tale about growing up, the beauty of a father and daughter bond, and finding magic in everyday life. Reminding us that stories have the power to save lives, Days of Wonder is the most moving novel of the year.

 Ruth Hogan and Joanna Cannon have provided beautiful endorsements for the book

In the beautiful, funny and moving second novel by the author of A Boy Made of Blocks, a father and his daughter discover that stories can save lives.

Tom, single father to Hannah, is the manager of a tiny local theatre. On the same day each year, he and its colourful cast of part-time actors have staged a fantastical production just for his little girl, a moment of magic to make her childhood unforgettable.

But there is another reason behind these annual shows: the very first production followed Hannah’s diagnosis with a heart condition that both of them know will end her life early. And now, with Hannah a funny, tough girl of fifteen on the brink of adulthood, that time is coming.

With the theatre under threat of closure, Hannah and Tom have more than one fight on their hands to stop the stories ending. But maybe, just maybe, one final day of magic might just save them both.

‘Utterly enchanting . . . a truly beautiful story’

Ruth Hogan, author of The Keeper of Lost Things

‘So powerful, yet incredibly gentle and poignant. Utterly and completely beautiful’

Joanna Cannon, author of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

Keith Stuart is an author and journalist. His heartwarming debut novel, A Boy Made of Blocks, was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick and a major bestseller, and was inspired by Keith’s real-life relationship with his autistic son. Keith has written for publications including Empire and Edge, and is the former games editor of the Guardian. He lives with his wife and two sons in Frome, Somerset.

Keith Stuart on Days of Wonder

Days of Wonder is a story about love, life and magic, but I hope it deals with all three of these things in unusual ways. After finishing A Boy Made of Blocks, I knew I wanted to write another novel about families in crisis, but this time with a very different set of characters – and a very different crisis. As a Manchester City supporter, I was greatly affected by the death of midfield player Marc-Vivien Foé from a rare form of cardiomyopathy. He was 28. Later, I noticed other news reports about the same heart condition, which often struck young people seemingly out of nowhere. I wondered how you would live your life as a teenager with such a serious condition. What would it take to get you through?

The obvious answer is a lot of love and support and belief and passion. As an ex-drama student who loved my time directing and acting in plays, I thought that a small local theatre would be an interesting, supportive place for my protagonist Hannah to grow up in. I loaded her life with quirky, eccentric characters and I brought in fairy tales and comic books to accentuate the value of stories and myths in our lives. I just wanted to write this big, warm, funny book about something potentially tragic. I think in a lot of ways this comes from my own experience of grief. When my dad died of cancer in 2003, my mum, my sisters and me sat around and told each other stories about his life; we swapped memories and it was almost like we created a narrative of his life – that’s how we coped. Memories are the stories we tell about our lives, and I think we all – in a lot of ways – live through stories. It’s love, laughter and imagination that gets you through. This is what Days of Wonder is about.

Praise for A Boy Made of Blocks

‘The publishing sensation of the year: a compelling, uplifting and heart-rending debut novel’ Mail on Sunday

‘A great plot, [with] a rare sense of honesty and insight’ Guardian

‘Stuart writes from heartfelt personal experience – and you cannot fail to be won over by this unsentimental but, warm, humorous and touching story about fatherhood and family’ Sunday Mirror

‘A wonderful, warm, insightful novel about family, friendship and love that tugs at your heart’ Daily Mail

‘One of those wonderful books that make you laugh and cry at the same time’ Good Housekeeping

‘Even the hardest of hearts will be warmed by this poignant tale’ Event magazine

‘A wonderful, funny and touching story of a modern family’ Woman & Home

‘This is a heart-warming and wise story about love, parenting and the long-ranging effects of trauma. I shed a few tears but was left with a warm glow’ Cathy Rentzenbrink, author of The Last Act of Love

‘Searingly honest and poignant without being in any way cheesy, this gentle exploration into the tricky relationship between a father and son is tremendously moving’ ‘A truly beautiful story’ Heat magazine

‘Funny, expertly plotted and written with enormous heart. Readers who enjoyed The Rosie Project will love A Boy Made of BlocksGraeme Simsion, author of The Rosie Project

Days of Wonder: The most magical and moving book of the year by Keith Stuart If you believe in the power of stories and love magic, theatre, families, and heart-warming novels, you must read this feel-good book.

 

The incredible new novel from the author of 200,000-copy bestseller A Boy Made of Blocks, ‘the publishing sensation of the year’ (Mail on Sunday)

‘So powerful, yet incredibly gentle and poignant. Utterly and completely beautiful’
Joanna Cannon, author of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep and Three Things About Elsie

Magical, heartbreaking, beautiful – Days of Wonder reminds us that stories have the power to save lives.

 

A tale about growing up, the beauty of a special bond between father and daughter, and finding magic in everyday life, Days of Wonder is the most moving novel you’ll read all year.

Utterly enchanting . . . a truly beautiful story’
Ruth Hogan, author of The Keeper of Lost Things

‘A story of life, love and hope – the perfect antidote to today’s world. Phenomenal.’
Clare Mackintosh, author of I Let You Go and Let Me Lie

Links:

https://www.amazon.com/Days-Wonder-most-magical-moving-ebook/dp/B06VVH559Z/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Days-Wonder-most-magical-moving-ebook/dp/B06VVH559Z/

Author Keith Stuart

About the author:

KEITH STUART is games editor at the Guardian. He started out as writer and features editor on the highly influential magazine Edge before going freelance in 2000 to cover games culture for publications such as The Official PlayStation Magazine, PC Gamer and T3, as well as investigating digital and interactive art for Frieze. He also writes about music, film and media for the Guardian and is a regular on the Tech Weekly podcast. He is married with two sons.

He lives in Somerset.

My review:

Thanks to NetGalley and to Little, Brown and Company UK (Clara Díaz in particular) for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I read and reviewed Keith Stuart’s first novel A Boy Made of Blocks ( you can check my review here), a truly extraordinary book, a couple of years ago, and loved it. I could not resist when I was offered the opportunity to read the author’s second novel. And, again, it was love at first read.

Days of Wonder has some similarities to A Boy. It does center on the relationship between a father and his child (in this case, Hannah), and how their relationship is shaped by a specific condition affecting the child (Asperger’s in the first novel, a chronic cardiac illness that cannot be cured and will only get worse in this novel). All the characters are beautifully portrayed, not only the protagonists but, in this case, also an array of secondary characters that become an ersatz family unit.

Tom, the father, runs a small theatre and has close links to the amateur theatrical group. His wife, Elizabeth, left the family when their daughter was three and leads the life of a high-flier, with no real contact with her family. Hannah has grown-up in the theatre, surrounded by the players and by stories, both on stage and out.

The book, narrated in the first person by both Tom and Hanna (mostly in alternating chapters, although towards the end there are some that follow the same character’s point of view, due to the logic of the story). Hannah’s narration in the present is interspersed with what appear to be diary entries addressed to Willow, (the theatre is called The Willow Tree). She is a strong girl, who loves her father, the theatre and the players, her friends, and who has a can-do attitude, despite her serious illness, or perhaps because of it. She knows how valuable each moment is, and lives it to the fullest (within her limitations). She is worried about her father and how much he has focused his life on her and decides that he must find a woman and live a fuller life. She loves comics, fairy-tales, is funny (having a sense of humour does help in such a situation, without a doubt), witty, and wise beyond her years, whilst being a credible teenager who worries about boys and can sometimes have questionable judgement. I challenge anybody not to fall in love with Hannah, her enthusiasm, and her zest for life.

Tom is a father who tries his hardest in a very difficult situation, and who sometimes finds himself in above his head, unable to function or to decide, frozen by the enormity of the situation. He is one of the good guys, he’d do anything to help anybody, and some of his philosophical reflections are fairly accurate, although, like most of us, he’s better at reading others than at understanding himself. His date disasters provide some comic relief but he is somebody we’d all love to count as a friend. Or, indeed, a father.

One of my favourite characters is Margaret, an older woman who has become a substitute grandmother for Hannah, and who is absolutely fabulous, with her anecdotes, her straight speaking, her X-ray vision (she knows everything that goes on even before the people involved realise what is going on sometimes), and she is a bit like the fairy-godmother of the fairy tales Hannah loves so much. As for the rest, Callum, Hannah’s boyfriend, is a very touching character, with many problems (the depiction of his depression is accurate and another one of the strong points of a book full of them), and the rest of the theatre crew, although they appear to be recognisable types at first sight (the very busy mother who wants some space for herself, the very capable woman whose husband is abusive, a retired man whose relationship with his wife seems to be falling apart, a gay man who can’t confess his attraction for another member of the group…), later come across as genuine people, truly invested in the project, and happy to put everything on the line for the theatre.

The novel is set in the UK and it has many references that will delight the anglophiles and lovers of all-things-British, from language quirks to references to plays, movies, TV series and festivals. (Oh, and to local politics as well), but I’m sure that the lack of familiarity with them will not hinder the readers’ enjoyment. Although there are also quite a number of references to theatre plays and comics (and I don’t know much about comics, I confess), they never overwhelm the narration and are well integrated into the story, adding to its depth.

The book deals in serious subjects (family break-ups, abuse, chronic physical and mental illnesses [affecting young people, in particular], aging and death, growing-up, single-parent families) and whilst it makes important points about them, which many readers will relate to, they are seamlessly incorporated into the fabric of the novel, and it never feels preachy or as if it was beating you over the head with a particular opinion or take on the topic.

Reading the author’s comment above, I can vouch for his success. This is indeed a book about love, life, and magic. It is a declaration of love to the world of theatre and to the power of stories. The novel is beautifully written, flows well, and the readers end up becoming members of their troupe, living their adventures, laughing sometimes and crying (oh, yes, get the tissues ready) at other times. Overall, despite its sad moments, this is a hopeful feel-good book, heart-warming and one that will make readers feel at peace with themselves and the world. It has a great ending and although I wondered at first if the epilogue was necessary, on reflection, it is the cherry on top of the trifle. Perfect.

The book is endlessly quotable and I’ve highlighted a tonne of stuff, but I couldn’t leave you without sharing something.

Here is Hanna, talking about magic:

I don’t mean pulling rabbits out of hats or sawing people in half (and then putting them back together: otherwise it’s not magic, it’s technically murder). I just mean the idea that incredible things are possible, and that they can be conjured into existence through will, effort and love.

As I’m writing this review on Star Wars Day, I could not resist this quote, again from Hannah:

I feel as though it’s closing in around me, like the trash-compactor scene in Star Wars, except I have no robots to rescue me although I do have an annoying beeping box next to the bed doing a twenty-four-hours-a-day impression of R2-D2.

Oh, and another Star Wars reference:

It’s as though the spirit of Margaret is working through me, like a cross between Maggie Smith and Yoda.

And a particularly inspiring one:

Margaret told me that you must measure life in moments —because unlike hours or days or weeks or years, moments last forever. I want more of them. I am determined. I will steal as many as I can.

A beautiful book, a roller-coaster of emotions, and an ode to the power of stories, to their magic, and to family love, whichever way we choose to define family. I urge you to read it. You’ll feel better for it. And I look forward to reading more books by its author, who has become one of my favourites.

Thanks to NetGalley, the publishers, and the author, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, REVIEW and to keep smiling! 

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