Posted in Uncategorized

Book of Love

Romance seems to have become a bit of a dirty word in the high brow world of literary fiction. It seems to have become synonymous with terms like ‘chick lit’ or ‘guilty pleasures’ – something we readers should be ashamed of or find beneath us. Yet, love stories are some of the most enjoyable and enduring novels I’ve ever read. Thank God for the incredible Marian Keyes who recently admitted to a period of reading Mills and Boon books, because she found they lifted her spirits. I don’t think we should be embarrassed about anything we enjoy reading. So I wanted to share with you some of my favourite novels about love – new and old – in time for Valentines Day.

’When a thing has always been forbidden, and must live in darkness and silence, it’s hard to know how it might be, if allowed to thrive’. Patrick Gale A Place Called Winter.

When Harry Cane begins a passionate affair with a young man in the early 1900s, he loses his wife and children, his home and his job. Forced to start all over again, Harry starts a pioneer life in the Canadian wilderness. This is a beautifully moving novel about self-acceptance and an enduring love and loyalty that is heartbreaking. My heart soared as Harry finds Paul, and with the help of Paul’s sister the men are able to have a measure of safety. This is not a soft romance, pioneer life is violent and gritty, but if you like love stories that are emotional, intense and deeply personal this is the perfect novel.

You make me happy, even when you’re awful, I would rather be with you, even the you that you seem to think is diminished, than with anyone else in the world’.
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

This book reduces me to tears every time. Probably because Will reminds me of my late husband and when I’m reading Louisa’s inner monologue it’s as if Jojo Moyes has climbed inside my mind! Louisa takes a job caring for Will, a charming and active young man who has become quadriplegic in an accident. At first Will is angry, but slowly his smile, charm and intelligence work their magic on Louisa. He opens the world up for her and makes her see dreams are possible. Her humour, forthrightness and the bumble bee tights have a similar effect on Will. But, can love make someone want to live again? Or has Will simply lost too much of the life he loved? Buy tissues.

’As he looked at me, it was as if my whole heart turned over in my body and was mine no longer’.
The King’s General Daphne Du Maurier

Du Maurier’s better known novels tend to people’s favourite but I’m very fond of this novel and own a very old edition I managed to pick up in the second hand bookstore in Fowey near Du Maurier’s home. It’s the love story that grabs me and it’s a tragic one. Honor is courted by Richard, usually in the apple tree in the orchard. They plan to marry and in the week before their wedding take guests out on a hunt. Spirited and headstrong, Honor gets so carried away following the falcons that she rides her horse directly into a ravine. She is rescued but her legs are broken and her back injured. Richard comes from an important family and Honor knows he needs a wife who can support him and the family name. With her heart breaking, Honor calls off their engagement and retreats privately to mend her body and her heart. She never walks again. When their paths cross again years later will their feelings have changed?

‘It’s come to my heart as soft as dew, and as sweet as a red rose, that you’ll get love as well as give it’.

Precious Bane by Mary Webb

I’d love to write an update of this beautiful book, set in the rural 19th Century. Prue is a dutiful daughter, still living at home on the family farm and resigned that this is where she will always stay. Webb weaves a world of rural poverty and community where men run the home and traditions such as love spinning are still the main celebration. Prue is loved but also thought of with suspicion in the community because she is ‘hare shorten’. When her mother was pregnant she was startled by a hare and as a result Prue is seen as ‘disfigured’ due to her hare lip. I love Prue, she is intelligent and curious, but modest and dutifully does her background role while watching her contemporaries fall in love and marry. She is resigned that love will not come for her. Then Kester Woodseaves walks into their community and she feels a powerful emotion. She loves him. But he couldn’t possibly feel the same way. As Prue’s life grows harder still and crops start to fail, suspicions grow. Is Prue Sarn a witch? And who will save her from the superstitions and violence of the community?

She made you decent, and in return you made her so happy’.

One Day by David Nichols

There was a period of time when I got on the train and I could see at least three people reading this book. ‘Friends who become more‘ is a favourite romantic theme of mine. I love When Harry Met Sally, Ross and Rachel and this tale of Emma and Dex. They meet on graduation night in Edinburgh and we follow a 20 year friendship by dropping in on the same date each year. Some days they are together, some days far apart, but in these snapshots we see where their lives are heading and the state of their friendship. I spend a whole novel hoping and praying they will come together. On significant dates, like Dex’s wedding day I ended up with a lump in my throat. Are they destined to live happily ever after?

And there, by the fireside, whenever I look up there you shall be and whenever I look up, there you shall be’.

Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

I’m an absolute sucker for baby animals, so when shepherd Gabriel Oak brings Bathsheba Everdene a lamb and offers his hand in marriage, it’s like my fantasy marriage proposal. It’s the sort of engagement ring I can get on board with. However, Bathsheba is headstrong and determined. She’d happily have a wedding, as long as she doesn’t have to be the bride. As she becomes the heir to an estate she aims to astound them all. Instead of her hand, she gives Gabriel a job and they become friends. Through her disastrous romantic decisions, he remains steadfast and loyal, but will she ever see he is the right choice? As a bonus, Matthias Schoenharts is Gabriel Oak in the latest film and he’s an absolute dream with the solidity and integrity of the character on the page.

These are just some of my favourites, but below is a gallery of the most romantic novels I’ve read recently. Happy Valentines Reading!

Posted in Uncategorized

Mix Tape by Jane Sanderson

I love this book. Is it because I had a Dan? A musician who started as my best friend and who I fell in love with. I was 18 and he took me to my first prom. His band were playing and it was 1991 so perms were everywhere and we were just adopting grunge. I would turn up for school in jumble sale floral dresses with my ever present oxblood Doc Martens. They played some of my favourite songs that night: some that were contemporary like Blur and others were classics like Wild Thing. I most remember Waterloo Sunset. Then, like a scene in a rom-com we walked across town to his house – me in a polka dot Laura Ashley ball gown and him in his dinner suit with the bow tie undone. He had a ruffled shirt underneath that he’d bought from Oxfam. We crept into the house and into the playroom so we didn’t wake anyone, then watched When Harry Met Sally. I remember a single kiss and then we fell asleep but the love carried over the years.

When I think of Elliot I always think of those best friend couples, like Harry and Sally or later, Emma and Dex in One Day. Now I can add Dan and Ali to the list. Alison and Dan live in Sheffield in the late 1970s when the city was still a thriving steel manufacturer. Dan is from the more family friendly Nether Edge, while Alison is from the rougher Attercliffe area, in the shadow of a steel factory. They meet while still at school and Dan is transfixed with her dark hair, her edge and her love of music. Their relationship is based on music and Dan makes mix tapes for her to listen to when they’re not together such as ‘The Last Best Two’ – the last two tracks from a series of albums. What he doesn’t know is how much Alison needs that music. To be able to put it on as a wall of sound between her and her family. Dan never sees where she lives and doesn’t push her, he only knows she prefers his home whether she’s doing her homework at the kitchen table, getting her nails painted by his sister or sitting with his Dad in the pigeon loft. Catherine, Alison’s mum, is a drinker. Not even a functioning alcoholic, she comes home battered and dirty with no care for who she lets into their home. Alison’s brother, Pete, is her only consolation and protection at home. Both call their mum by her first name and try to avoid her whenever possible. Even worse is her on-off lover Martin Baxter, who has a threatening manner and his own key. Alison could never let Dan know how they have to live.

In alternate chapters we see what Alison and Dan are doing in the present. Now a music writer, Dan splits his time between a canal boat in London and home with his partner Katelin in Edinburgh. Alison has written a new novel ‘Tell the Story Sing the Song’ set in her adopted home Australia and based round an indigenous singer. It’s a worldwide hit and she finds herself in demand, having to negotiate being interviewed and getting to grips with social media. She has an affluent lifestyle with husband Michael and has two grown up daughters. She has a Twitter account that she’s terrible at using and it’s this that alerts Dan, what could be the harm in following her? The secret at the heart of this book is what happened so long ago back in Sheffield to send a girl to the other side of the world? Especially when she has found her soulmate. She and Dan are meant to be together so what could have driven them apart? Dan sends her a link via Twitter, to Elvis Costelloe’s ‘Pump It Up’, the song she was dancing to at a party when he fell in love with her. How will Alison reply and will Dan ever discover why he lost her back in the 1970s?

I believed in these characters immediately, and I know Sheffield, described with affectionate detail by the writer. The accent, the warmth of people like Dan’s dad, the landmarks and the troubled manufacturing industry are so familiar and captured perfectly. Even the secondary characters, like the couple’s families and friends are well drawn and endearing. Cass over in Australia, as well as Sheila and Dora, are great characters. Equally, Dan’s Edinburgh friend Duncan with

his record shop and the hippy couple on the barge next door in London are real and engaging. Special mention also to his god McCullough who I was desperate to cuddle. Both characters have great lives and happy relationships. Dan loves Katelin, in fact her only fault is that she isn’t Alison. Alison has been enveloped by Michael’s huge family and their housekeeper Beatriz who is like a surrogate Mum. It’s easy to see why the safety and security of Michael’s family, their money and lifestyle have appealed to a young Alison, still running away from her dysfunctional upbringing. She clearly wants different fir her daughters and wishes them the sort of complacency Dan shows in being sure his parents are always there where he left them. But is the odd dinner party and most nights sat side by side watching TV enough for her? She also has Sheila, an old friend of Catherine’s, who emigrated in the 1970s and flourished in Australia. Now married to Dora who drives a steam train, they are again like surrogate parents to Alison. So much anchors her in Australia, but are these ties stronger than first love and the sense of belonging she had with Dan all those years before?

About three quarters of the way through the book I started to read gingerly, almost as if it was a bomb that might go off. I’ve never got over the loss of Emma in One Day and I was scared. What if these two soulmates didn’t end up together? Or worse what if one of them is killed off by author before a happy ending is reached? I won’t ruin it by telling any more of the story. The tension and trauma of Alison’s family life is terrible and I dreaded finding out what had driven her away so dramatically. I think her shame about her mother is so sad, because the support was there for her and she wouldn’t let anyone help. She’s so fragile and on edge that Dan’s mum has reservations, she worries about her youngest son and whether Alison will break his heart. I love the music that goes back and forth between the pair, the meaning in the lyrics and how they choose them. This book is warm, moving and real. I loved it.

And what of my Daniel? Well he’s in Sheffield strangely enough. Happily partnered with three beautiful kids. I’m also happily partnered with two lovely stepdaughters. We’re very happy where we are and with our other halves. It’s nice though, just now and again, to catch up and remember the seventeen year old I was. Laid on his bedroom door, with my head in his lap listening to his latest find on vinyl. Or wandering the streets in my ballgown, high heels in one hand and him with his guitar case. Happy memories that will always make me smile.

Posted in Uncategorized

Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins

I have enjoyed Lucy Atkins other novels and it seems they get better and better. I love the character of Dee and became drawn in by her straight away. There is a sense that she doesn’t really belong anywhere but she is curiously at ease with who she is. Some thing of an outsider in Oxford, she doesn’t belong to any of the colleges but is one of those invisible people who provides services to those who do belong. Dee is a nanny and makes a very disturbing observation about the academics who use her services – when desperate, people will let a near stranger look after their child. The new master and his wife, Nick and Mariah, hire her after a chance meeting on a bridge early one morning and one hasty conversation. They do not ask fir references or do a police check. If they had, they would have found that Dee has a criminal record. It is no coincidence that Mariah restores old wallpaper. She is adept at papering over cracks. She tells Dee that Felicity is selectively mute, that she met Nick after his wife died from a longstanding illness and that they both did everything to get Felicity talking again. There us a stifling atmosphere in the lodgings and the author carefully links the house with the people in it – with both there is a long history being erased and retold through renovation or retelling. Is the start of this couple’s relationship as simple as they portray? Mariah’s chirpy and wholesome exterior might, just like the new decor, might hint at a darker, more murky interior world. The house’s history is slowly being unearthed by Linklater, a social historian hired by Nick. It shows how out of step these two characters might really be. Nick wants to disturb and discover the chequered past of their new home, while Mariah is whitewashing it. Linklater discovers family dramas, haunted occupants and a possible answer for the ‘priest’s hole’ in Felicity bedroom that may be even more malign than the poisonous Victorian wallpaper. 

Felicity isn’t just mute. She is a very distressed child, seemingly obedient but full of simmering anger and confusion. She roams the house while still asleep, makes patterns on the floor with her collection of bones and artefacts, and seems to be drawn by the ‘priest’s hole’ in the middle of the night. She slowly starts to speak to Dee, but also makes a surprising connection to Linklater when the three of them start to take tea together after school. They are a group of misfits, finding each other and developing trust. There seems to be a distinction made between those who appear genuinely themselves, however odd they may seem, and those who are putting on an act; a natural family forming where there is a forced family unit at home. It has to be significant that the one person Felicity never speaks to at all is Mariah. Dee becomes more than a passing childcare worker, she is deeply involved with this little girl. I like the way the author foreshadows this relationship as Dee sees Felicity for the first time and notices her curls, just like those of another child she once knew. Is this another nanny’s role or is she giving hints of a past we don’t know about? If Dee once had a family what happened to them? This is where we come to discussing Dee’s role as narrator and whether she is not as candid with us as she seems. I kept waiting for a terrible secret to emerge and for Dee’s reaction to being exposed. The tension is ratcheted up when we learn that Felicity has gone missing and the narrative passes back and forth between the present day and what has happened in these character’s pasts. I enjoyed the ending, although I raced there a little too quickly. I was desperately hoping for a happy ending for both Felicity and Dee. Watching Mariah and Nick’s ‘perfect’ life completely implode was oddly satisfying. With her perfectly calm exterior ravaged by the birth of her first child Mariah struggles to function normally and seems haunted by Felicity’s mother Ana. She starts to spend days in pyjamas, coping with a colicky baby and this break in her usually ordered world threatens to break her. I was left feeling that Nick and Mariah didn’t deserve Felicity, but was that what the narrator wanted me to feel. I was left wondering whether I’d been manipulated all along. As the police wondered and questioned, the reader does the same. Is Felicity as disturbed as Dee would have us believe? Or was Nick right in his assessment that it was Dee’s presence, her inability to sleep, her encouragement in discovering something supernatural and the constant buckets left in the kitchen to bleach animal skulls that are to blame? Finally, I liked the way maths was used as a theme in their interactions; Dee’s proof is an example of how something seemingly factual and definite can still be manipulated. A maths problem can have two correct answers. It simply has to be worked out differently. Which version do we trust? This is an intelligent, psychological, thriller that keeps you guessing long after reading, Lucy Atkins has done it again! A great read.

If you enjoyed this why not try the following:

Posted in Uncategorized

Dreamland by Nancy Bilyeau

This book was an absolute joy to read and exactly my sort of novel. In 1922, Peggy Battenburg is a member of one of the wealthiest families in America. However, alongside money and status comes scrutiny and Peggy doesn’t always behave the way a young lady, of her social standing, should. She bucks against the traditional respectability expected of her and the idea that she should be told how to behave by the male members of the family. This rebellious streak means she doesn’t really fit, whether it be in high or low society. People of her family’s class are scandalised by her and the ordinary people of Coney Island mistrust her because of this rich background. She really can’t win.

Peggy’s family bring her back home for the summer. She’s been working in a bookshop, but now she needs to be back in high society. They hope to secure a prestigious marriage proposal for Peggy’s sister, to a groom who will ensure the financial security of their family going forward. They have someone in mind, but Peggy hates the potential husband and desperately wants to escape the claustrophobic atmosphere. This is where she decides to set out for Dreamland and meets Stefan, an artist working at the amusement park just a short distance from where the family are staying at the Oriental Hotel. Dreamland is a pleasure palace and a real juxtaposition to the hotels where the wealthy elite are staying. Hotel residents might stroll to the amusements for an afternoon’s diversion, but police are stationed along the route so that identification can be checked when walking back towards the hotels. The haves and have-nots are quite separate.

By contrast Peggy becomes immersed in the life of artists, dancers, food vendors and acrobats. She finds that despite their lack of money and status they have a lot of freedom whereas, for all her money, Peggy is kept in a cage, albeit a gilded one. I love the setting of Coney Island and enjoyed Alice Hoffman’s Museum of Extraordinary Things set within a freak show. This book was equally well researched and Bilyeau’s description of period clothing and the sounds and smells of the park really set the scene and helped me disappear from 2020 into this exciting other world. We learn about the manners and behaviour of the time and how it differs between classes. Peggy learns more about her family too, and many secrets are revealed. Added to the excellent characterisation and immersive world created by the author, is the fact that bodies of young girls start turning up on the beach. While this plot line is not the strongest part of the novel it does pose certain questions for Peggy, not least about her own family. How much are the Battenburg’s willing to lie and cover up?

I liked Peggy. She is a thoroughly modern young woman who, despite family riches, has her own job in a bookshop. She is intelligent and inquisitive. I can see why she would want to experience more than the stifling role of ‘rich daughter’ allows. Added to this rebellious nature are simmering tensions within the family and a menacing air of control from the fiancé and his brother. Reading this felt like being thrust into a technicolour world of sun, sea, and scandal. I absolutely loved it.

Luna Park Coney Island 1920

If you loved this try:

Alice Hoffman’s TheMuseum of Extraordinary Things

Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls

Posted in Uncategorized

Little White Lies by Philippa East

This is an addictive and intelligent debut novel from author and therapist Phillipa East. It’s a tale of a family coping with the aftermath of an abduction. Abigail White has been missing for seven years, after becoming separated from her mum, Anne, on a trip to London. Now aged 15, Abigail walks into a police station along with a younger girl. The novel flits between Anne’s viewpoint and that of Abigail’s cousin Jess. Jess and Abigail were born only four months apart and were more like twins than cousins. They had a special connection, and even after seven years apart Jess still feels she knows Abigail better than anyone. Her friend Lena warns Jess that Abigail has gone through a significant trauma and will have changed in ways they can’t see. Soon after her arrival at the police station, detectives discover that Abigail was taken from outside the tube station by a stranger. It seems that he was in the right place at the right time, just as Abigail became separated from her Mum and twin brothers. Anne had been trying to manage Abigail, the twins, a buggy and the train doors. Detective McCarthy has experience with abduction cases and uses his expertise to ask some probing questions: how did Abigail manage to wander off the platform and up to the street above, is this just a crime of opportunity or is there any chance at all that the family know this man?

Anne and her sister Lillian are close, but they are different. Lillian is the older sister and the ‘fixer’ who is organised, sensible and it seems to Anne as if she never makes mistakes. Anne’s life has been more complicated. Abigail’s birth father became an addict, causing difficulties with finances and the safety of their new family. With Lillian’s help, Anne left and despite trying to maintain contact with Abigail he has largely been absent. Anne then met Robert who has always considered Abigail his own daughter, creating a stable family unit for the first time. It is hard to imagine that Abigail could simply slot back into her family as if she never left. Anne is beset by doubts and concerns. Will Abigail expect her bedroom to be as if she never left? Can they let Jess back into her life at once or will she need time to adjust? Have the years of captivity and sexual abuse left her daughter so damaged she won’t recover? There is also the hint of a secret surrounding the moments before Abigail’s disappearance that day. Anne wonders what Abigail remembers and whether they should talk about that day. Lillian advises her to leave it alone. The tension between them and Anne’s concerns kept me hooked. To me, Abigail feels like a ticking time bomb and I found myself waiting for her to explode.

I felt that the author understood the psychology of trauma and she depicted beautifully the way a crime like this affects everyone around the victim. The trauma ripples outwards into the family like a drop of water on the surface of a pond. I really liked the insidious way that secrets are shown to damage trust and erode relationships. The depiction of Abigail is very cleverly written because it delves into the complexity of the relationship between the captor and the child. For example, Anne is startled by the findings of an educational psychologist who concludes that Abigail must have been home schooled. It seems strange that a man who has emotionally and sexually abused a child for seven years, would be concerned about their education. It made me think about the relationship between the child and the abductor. We can accept the negative aspects, but it is harder to accept that Abigail might have positive feelings toward her captor. It is as if, in order to survive mentally, she has had accepted captivity as her reality; when Cassingham abducts a younger girl it prompts her to act, but it still takes her a long time to find her voice again and be angry about her experience. The concern I had was whether Abigail would ever accept her new reality at home with her family.

I enjoyed the character of Jess and her struggle to understand the cousin who was once as close as her shadow. Can she trust that the same Abigail even exists any more? Can they jump back into easy familiarity or will Jess have to get to know this new Abigail who is the sum of her experiences? I truly empathised with her internal struggle between supporting her cousin and keeping the friends she has made since Abigail disappeared. Abigail might find it hard to fit when she has missed out on seven years of music and other popular culture. She is awkward, not knowing what to wear, how to do her hair or even how to speak. There is a gulf between her and other 15 year olds that might be too wide to bridge. It might be embarrassing for Jess, but for Abigail the frustration could be too much to cope with. She can’t find anyone who shares or truly understands her experience.

This was a great read, with believable characters facing a parent’s worst fear; their child has gone missing. I enjoyed the different perspective, focussing not on the abduction and police operation but on the issues faced when the child returns. It explores the family’s happiness and relief, only to find a relative stranger in their midst. Alongside this central narrative, East also explores the complexity of modern family relationships, and poses the question of whether we truly know the people we love and live alongside. Within the relationship of Jess and Abigail, we see the pains of growing up and fitting in, particularly the realisations that our elders are fallible and the World might not be as safe as we imagine.

I would like to thank NetGalley for this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Posted in Uncategorized

The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams

This debut novel’s synopsis grabbed me from the start, with its promise of 19th Century gothic contrasted with ‘a modern scream of female outrage’. There is a lot about illness, medicine and it’s treatment of women that still provokes rage in me, so I had something to connect with from the start. I wasn’t disappointed by Beam’s novel and feel the need to buy a beautiful hardback copy for my collection, as this is a book I’ll want to read again.

Living in New England, Caroline Hood is a woman in between. Thanks to her education she seems overqualified for marriage and won’t fit into the very specific roles women are allowed in Victorian society. As such she is isolated from her peers and can’t relate to their experiences. With some concerns, given her own place in society, she starts a school for young women with her father, Samuel. Soon after, an unusual flock of red birds descends on the town. Caroline finds them unsettling, but the townsfolk largely continue as normal. Then the students start to display strange symptoms, headaches, rashes and sleep walking. Caroline wants to consult the girl’s parents but her father instead sends for a well known physician whose treatments seem horrific. The men continue to diagnose and dictate the girls experience, and Caroline tries to find a way to save her pupils just as her own body starts to fail her.

I have recently been researching gender bias in healthcare where patients have chronic pain and the results are startling for the end of the 20th Century. There are still the stereotypes of ‘stoic’ men and ‘sensitive’ women. When both genders arrived at A and E with exactly the same pain symptoms, men were treated far more seriously, were more likely to have their pain investigated and more likely to be referred on to a consultant. The idea of the ‘hysteric’ is alive and well in the NHS, especially where invisible illnesses like autoimmune disorders are concerned. So for me the treatment of the young women in the novel is part of a history of prejudice that we haven’t fully left behind. Thankfully I think we have become more humane in terms of treatment. The psychological damage wrought by 19th Century treatments for hysteria is horrifying and touched upon in other novels such as The Crimson Petal and the White. The fact that others stood by and did nothing is a horrible betrayal , especially where they are supposed to love and care for the patient. This book is an important portrayal of the tendency of men to proscribe and contain women’s bodies and identities – an oppression continuing with current abortion legislation changes in the USA.

There are parts of the book that are emotionally unsettling and difficult to read, but important to understand. I was determined to know whether the girls and Caroline in particular, had the strength to defy the oppression they were under. I was also interested in the contradictory aims of providing progressive education to these girls, only to oppress them in a different way. However, because I enjoyed it and devoured it so quickly there were aspects of the ending I need to go back and fully understand. This was an intelligent, beautifully written novel that addresses important issues about women, the aims of education, and the role of illness in society.

Thank you to NetGalley for my copy of the novel in exchange for an honest review.