Synopsis| 1949: Rudy, A Jewish New Yorker snatches a briefcase of cash from a dead man in Los Angeles and runs away from his old life, into the arms of the Boston mob.
1966: Hinako, a young Japanese girl runs away from what she thought was the suffocating conformity of a life in Japan. Aiming to make a fresh start in America, she falls into the grip of an Hawaiian gang dubbed ‘The Company’.
1967: Rudy and Hinako’s lives collide in the city of Honolulu, where there is nowhere left for either of them to run, and only blood to redeem them.
Published by Red Dog Press.
Author biography: Stephen J. Golds was born in London, U.K, but has lived in Japan for most of his adult life. He enjoys spending time with his daughters, reading books, traveling, boxing and listening to old Soul LPs. His novel Say Goodbye When I’m Gone will be released by Red Dog Press in October 2020 and another novel Always the Dead will be released by Close to The Bone Press January 2021.
What an incredibly emotional read this was for me. I found myself having a good old cry at 4am over Jen and her family’s story. It begins when Jennifer is adopted by a childless couple and four years later gets an unexpected little sister. Kerry is a determined, mischievous and curious little girl and the pair are incredibly close. In adulthood, the two are still inseparable. Jen now has husband Ed and two children while Kerry has a long term partner in Nessa, who she is hoping to propose to. When a terrible accident happens while the sisters are on a shopping trip for an engagement ring, Kerry is killed. Now Jen needs to find a way to carry on living, but the survivor’s guilt and grief are very strong. As Jen starts to lose herself in her memories of her sister, it becomes clear that Jen can’t let Kerry go. Yet, by keeping hold of her sister, will she end up losing her own family?
This is my second book by Emma Cooper and after reading this she has been bumped up to my list of favourites – those authors where I know I’m guaranteed a great story, emotional impact and believable characters. She has the talent to combine a big emotional punch, with a sprinkling of humour which isn’t easy to do. I honestly fell in love with these characters and their relationships with each other. Jen is a very organised and capable woman, who loves spending time with her family and creating a beautiful home. I loved her with Ed and the way the author has created a balance of the romantic and the mundane into their relationship. There’s enough of a love story to draw us in, but we see the normality too as they get the children ready for school, do the grocery shop and get involved with school activities. Underneath the daily grind though is a strong love and passion for each other. Yet it is becoming tested by changes in Jen. Ed has noticed that Jen doesn’t seem as organised as usual and is often staring off into space. Then at other times she is almost over-excited and far be it from him to complain about more sex, but well, he wasn’t complaining exactly… it just isn’t like his wife. He worries, but labels these changes as part of the grieving process. He doesn’t know what we know. Jen can still see Kerry and talk to her. Kerry has been fuelling the recklessness he’s seen such as daring Jen to leap off a cliff into the sea. There’s a point when Ed realises that this isn’t just getting lost in memories. For Jen, Kerry is as real as he is or even the children and what will he do when this starts to affect them?
This was a tough, but loving and humorous portrayal of the journey relationships take when one partner is struggling mentally. I found the alternate chapters between Jen and Ed so effective because we can see the same events through both sets of eyes, sometimes with very conflicting results. I was so torn because I loved both of them, I wanted them to be together but I could understand each viewpoint too. Ed wants his wife back, the person he fell in love with and his best friend. He wants to be a family, but wants to protect their children too. Jen has a heartbreaking dilemma. Does she follow medical advice and take the pills that might make Kerry disappear forever? The psychiatrist who sees Jen and diagnoses complicated grief understands what she’s feeling. This is survivor’s guilt; Jen wonders why she survived and Kerry didn’t. Kerry saved her life by pushing her away from the oncoming vehicle. In Jen’s mind she’s already killed her once. Now she feels like she’s killing her all over again.
This was a tough read because I struggle with complicated grief. In 2007, as regular readers will know, my husband died from pneumonia as a complication of Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis. It had been coming for some time, but for the final year of his life I was his carer for 24 hours almost every day, unless I had a Marie Curie nurse. He was dependent on me for food, drink, medication and all bodily functions, even breathing. Three months before he died I agreed that he needed to be admitted to a nursing home from hospital. One of our carers was injured and I couldn’t have managed alone. I knew when I made that choice it was very likely he would die. For a few weeks after his death, I would see him out of the corner of my eye, sitting in his wheelchair looking out into the garden. I could also hear the mechanism of his wheelchair and a little beep it used to make. I realised that this wasn’t really Jerzy, this was me being unable to let go. In therapy I talked about survivor’s guilt and how I felt I had killed him by sanctioning the nursing home. I knew rationally I couldn’t have done anything else, but emotionally it’s been very hard to accept my own choice. I also have multiple sclerosis but in a milder form and I discuss choices and possibilities at length with my new partner, because I would hate him to go through the same thing. Reading this was emotional, I did cry, but I also felt less alone with my experience.
The author has taken a really tough subject, but made it warm and humorous. I love the way Kerry is often doing things she did as a little girl like standing on her head or blowing bubblegum. She also sits in the oddest places and actively tries to make Jen laugh. The wider family were lovely too, willing to support and help out with the children or Jen. Her mum is always full of good sensible advice and their acceptance of this peculiar phenomenon is brilliant. The final scenes choked me up. They made me sad for what I lost back then as well as for Jen. I was desperate for her and Ed to make it and come back together as a family. The night I finished the book I was an angling widow! My partner and my brother went night fishing, so I was alone for the final chapters. I had a good cry on the dog – he’s very absorbent. I found myself very thankful for the new chance of love that I’ve had with my partner over the last couple of years. All I wanted to do was hold him close and tell him how much I loved him. This is an honest story about how complicated grief can be, but never lets us forget that where there is grief there is always great love.
Emma Cooper is a former teaching assistant, who lives in Shropshire, with her partner and four children. Her spare time consists of writing novels, drinking wine and watching box-sets with her partner of twenty-four years, who still makes her smile every day.
Her debut, The Songs of Us was snapped up in multiple pre-empts and auctions and is now being translated into seven different languages. Her last novel The First Time I Saw You was also a bestseller.
Background and Synopsis |John Ruskin was a complicated and controversial man, mostly with regards to his relationships with young women. However, he was also a brilliant artist, important patron and critic of art and architecture. He championed the painter J.M.W Turner and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood whose progressive work had all but barred them from the Royal Academy and polite society. In 1860 he shifted focus from writing about art and architecture, towards social issues including inequality within society. In a series of essays published under the title ‘Unto This Last’ he wrote that the only true wealth is society is the happiness of its people.
‘That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings’.
Rebecca Lipkin’s novel focuses on Ruskin’s personal happiness, in the period after the disastrous annulment of his marriage to Effie Gray, followed swiftly by her marriage to Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. Ruskin was asked by the Marchioness of Waterford if he would give art lessons to her friend’s two daughters. Maria La Touche was a poet and novelist, and her daughters Emily and Rose are interested in art. Rose is only ten years old but shows prodigious talent. Ruskin plans to politely refuse the job, but something about Rose touches him deeply and before he knows it he’s soon visiting their mansion three times a week to give art tuition and spend time with the girls. This novel focuses on that relationship, but within the wider context of their families, his previous marriage and the views of the wider Victorian society.
My Thoughts | Ruskin’s affections for Rose La Touche were a bewildering source of joy, but also anxiety and depression at times. He found that he looked forward to her company and suffered greatly when she was away. Her mother Maria, was astonished by the usually reserved Ruskin allowing Rose to tease him, draw him into childish games and even lure him into a snowball fight in the garden. It was rare to see such a fastidious and serious man, so out of breath and disheveled. However, it is only when Rose takes a three month trip to Europe and falls ill that he truly realises the depth of his feelings. Yet, Rose is still only an adolescent and Ruskin is just over forty years old. The author takes us deep into the mind of this brilliant but troubled man, as he wrestles with himself and feelings he’s deeply unsure about.
Having read Ruskin’s work at university, I was worried that the prose would be long-winded and laborious to read in order to establish it within the Victorian setting. Yet the author made Ruskin’s mind accessible and uncluttered, while still grounding us firmly in the 19th Century. I have always been very interested in the strange relationship between Ruskin and his parents and there was plenty to think about here. Ruskin has an increasingly fractious relationship with his father John James, especially arguing about the placing of the Turner paintings owned by the family. In the 2014 film Effie Gray, written by Emma Thompson, we see a very dysfunctional relationship between Ruskin and his mother; when Effie and Ruskin return from honeymoon he is whisked upstairs by his mother for a bath. This novel shows a more nuanced relationship, but still a stifling only child/over-involved mother dynamic. John has been the apple of their eyes and their entire lives have been devoted to ensuring he excels in his field. They do worry about his feelings for this young girl and whether his life’s work is being side-lined so he can teach a child to draw a still life. They are also sceptical about the teaching he does for working class men, but he is adamant that it helps them lead fuller and happier lives.
There are times when it’s hard to reconcile the man who has this type of empathy for those in a more lowly position, with the man who has developed feelings for such a young child. There is no record made of when Ruskin’s feelings begin to change towards her. I kept wondering why Mrs La Touche allowed the developing friendship, knowing the rumours surrounding the collapse of his first marriage? In fact we know that Effie Gray did contact and warn Rose’s family. He had also known Effie from childhood, befriended the family and eventually married when she came of age. This troubled part of his life is covered in the third part of the book so we can make comparisons. His devotion seems to be known in society because he even reproduced some of Rose’s earliest letters in his writings to preserve them. The scandal resonates through the decades and is even alluded to in Nabokov’s Lolita. He is such an introspective man and seems so earnest in his feelings that I actually worried about his mental health – what would happen if this should go wrong? I was impressed with the author’s ability to take us so deep within the psyche of this complicated man, to the point where I started to feel as if I knew him.
Rose is presented so vividly that it’s easy to see why Ruskin might be innocently charmed by her. Ruskin write of her:
‘Sometimes she had a surprising understanding of adult attitudes: at the next moment she was once more completely a child. She had a pretty way of making herself engaging, even coquettish, but could also be rather solemn […] I don’t know what to make of her […] She wears her round hat in the sauciest way possible—and is a firm—fiery little thing.’
So in his mind she is a precocious young lady with a very definite character. It’s hard to know if this is how all adults viewed her or whether this is Ruskin’s mindset showing; the words ‘coquettish’ and ‘sauciest’ suggesting a sexual connotation. Is this what he perceives because he has a troubling attitude towards girls? Or is it his life’s quest to find a wife who will behave as he wants? If he is looking for the Victorian ideal of an ‘Angel in the House’ maybe he feels he can mould a younger girl into this image of saintly womanhood.The author brings Rose to life so we are not confined to Ruskin’s gaze. I felt for this ‘fiery’ girl because she is so controlled, by Victorian society, but also by her very religious and dominant father. Her mother often seems elusive, which may be why Rose has such an independent air about her. However, Mrs La Touche also controls – through manipulation. I enjoyed the scenes where Rose lets go and plays with Ruskin and her sister, she needs to let loose and she is teaching him to do the same. Because of this sense of release they get from each other I found myself looking forward to those scenes where they can do this, he allows her to tease him and seems to drop his rather pompous guard. Yet, if he does propose marriage, would he continue to let Rose be this free and determined? I found myself alternating between relief that Ruskin was able to get outside his own head and enjoy himself in the moment, and concern that marriage to Ruskin would confine and depress Rose.
The author really has produced an amazing piece of work here; as rich in historical research as it in imagination I enjoyed the way the book includes letters between them and the atmosphere created as Rose moves through different countries from France to Italy and Switzerland. The vivid descriptions of these places are very painterly and I could really see how it must look to Rose. I didn’t fully know the ending to the story and won’t reveal it here, but as we compare the older man with his younger counterpart in part 3 we can see that Ruskin has mellowed with age. Yes his inner world is full of angst but outwardly he seems less petulant and guarded. I found empathy for him, where previously I thought he was a dreadfully pompous and repressed individual with a strange mix of arrogance and lack of confidence. The depth this author has gone to in order to uncover the hidden aspects of Ruskin is admirable. He now has some sympathy from me, despite my concerns about his need to control and perhaps groom young girls whose personality is not yet fully formed. This book has been an incredible undertaking and is an intelligent, interesting and admirable piece of work.
Meet The Author | Rebecca Lipkin had a passion for Victorian art and literature from a young age. She first discovered John Ruskin through E.M. Forster’s novel, ‘A Room with a View’, and later joined the Ruskin Society at the age of seventeen to learn more about Ruskin’s work. Rebecca pursued a career in journalism, specialising in arts writing and theatre reviews, and has worked for a number of national publications.
Synopsis: From the internationally bestselling author of The Secret Wife comes a tale of love, sacrifice and betrayal, available now.
Published in the US as Jackie and Maria.
JACKIE | When her first marriage ends in tragedy, Jackie Kennedy fears she’ll never love again. But all that changes when she encounters…
ARI | Successful and charming, Ari Onassis is a man who promises her the world. Yet soon after they marry, Jackie learns that his heart also belongs to another…
MARIA | A beautiful, famed singer, Maria Callas is in love with Jackie’s new husband – and she isn’t going to give up.
Little by little, Jackie and Maria’s lives begin to tangle in a dangerous web of secrets, scandal and lies. But with both women determined to make Ari theirs alone, the stakes are high. How far will they go for true love?
My Thoughts | I was drawn to this book because I’ve always had an interest in the Kennedys and have read a lot of fiction and biography around Jackie and JFK. However, I didn’t know a lot about her marriage to Aristotle Onassis or how their relationship started considering he was in a long term relationship with opera star Maria Callas. I was interested to read a story I knew, but from the perspective of the two women involved rather than the men. I was quickly drawn into the narrative told in alternate chapters from both women and starting when they were still in their first marriages. Jackie is trying to cope with marriage into the politically obsessed Kennedy clan as well as grieving over a lost child and Jack’s indiscretions. Maria is married to Battista Menighini who manages her career, but feels unfulfilled without a child and misrepresented as a diva by the press. Both women have met Onassis and been invited to his yacht, since he likes to entertain the most famous people in the world. I wondered if either woman ever imagined in only a few years they would be rivals.
Both women’s characters were well drawn and I felt I really did get to know the real them, although I felt more of an affinity with Maria – possibly because she was led more by her emotions than Jackie. Although not the diva she was often portrayed as in real life, Maria acts on her emotions and seems more in touch with what she needs. As soon as she falls in love with Ari (Onassis) she acts on it, breaks the news to her husband and risks her reputation to be true to her heart. I also felt a kinship in her grief over struggling to be a mother, something she does have in common with Jackie who has had a miscarriage and loses a daughter at the beginning of the novel. In fact the women have more in common in their backgrounds than I realised, mainly in their relationships with their mothers.
Litsa Callas was a cold and distant mother, in fact such was her disappointment that Maria wasn’t a girl she didn’t even look at her baby daughter for four days. Throughout the novel we see her engage in manipulation, abuse and betrayal of her daughter including selling details of her relationship with Onassis to the world’s press and eventually writing a ‘tell-all’ book about her daughter. In a radio interview Callas recalls the lack of confidence she had in her looks, especially her weight, compared to her mother who was very slim. Callas felt ‘ugly and unwanted’ as a girl, added to this her mother pressed her into relationships with occupying Italian and German soldiers in order to gain money and food during the Axis occupation. Some sources claim that Maria came to no harm, but she sees it as a form of prostitution and the author writes about Maria telling Onassis that she was manhandled by soldiers and on one occasion was almost raped. In a moving account Maria claims her mother had no warmth or sympathy for her daughter on her return from this assault, just continued to put them at risk to earn money.
I was saddened by the scene where Jackie’s daughter is stillborn, adding to her pain Jack is on a flight and she only has her mother for support. Janet Auchincloss was authoritarian and austere, believing in money, beautiful homes and status rather than love and insisting on this for her daughters, regardless of the man. Jackie adored her father ‘Blackjack’ Bouvier who showered her with affection and presents. After her parents divorce, her mother was left short of cash until her remarriage and this left a big impression on Jackie. It was impressed upon her that security was more important than love, but there was still a touch of idealism in Jackie who thought she’d found both love and security in Jack. The author does a great job of showing the reader the differences that open up between Jackie and her in-laws. Jackie is a big reader, intelligent and interested in culture whereas the Kennedys live and breathe politics. She’s more of an introvert, who wouldn’t normally court the limelight and often wishes that Jack’s ambition could be curbed. She worries about the type of First Lady she will be, feeling under constant scrutiny from the Kennedys who think Jack’s wife should appeal more to the average American woman. Jackie’s interest in fashion is shown as a way she expresses herself and I felt this was maybe her only means of expression. Her mother stifles any emotion and she’s encouraged to ignore Jack’s indiscretions too. She isn’t allowed to be honest with anyone about how heartbroken she truly feels. I felt for her so much in the scene where she takes a call from Marilyn Monroe who makes it quite clear she is involved with Jack. Jackie recognises that Marilyn is very fragile and could damage his career irreparably, even in her heartbreak she is thinking of him. Even worse is the part where Jackie overhears a conversation that brings his indiscretions closer to home than she ever imagined in a double betrayal.
This is an immersive piece of historical fiction that completely transported me to the 1960s and the rich elite of the period. Using fashion, interiors and an in-depth knowledge of her characters Gill Paul drew me into a world of privilege I could never have imagined. She drew parallels between these two extraordinary women, but also between families who were as cursed as they were wealthy and powerful. I felt that both women’s upbringings drew them to men who were rich and powerful, but also controlling and possessive. There was no question of Maria or Jackie enjoying the sort of affairs that Kennedy and Onassis conducted. The intense control of their mothers almost groomed them for the lives they chose as women. Although it might have appeared more respectable, it’s not hard to draw parallels between Janet pushing the Bouvier sister towards rich husbands and Litsa pushing her daughters towards occupying soldiers. There was also a connection between their dislike of the limelight, and the ability to have their voices heard – ironic in the case of Callas with her incredible sound. I found myself feeling sad for both of them throughout. This is a great read, with interesting supporting characters and a series of beautiful settings such as Venice, the Greek Islands and the Kennedy Bouvier estates. I felt like one of the jet set while reading and the author added to my knowledge of these women with newly discovered evidence, such as the revelation that Onassis and Callas may have had a son, Omero, who died at birth. Using a depth of background research, the author has created an accessible, enjoyable and enlightening novel about two of the most famous women in the 20th Century.
Gill Paul’s historical novels have reached the top of the USA Today, Toronto Globe & Mail and kindle charts, and been translated into twenty languages. They include THE SECOND MARRIAGE (titled JACKIE AND MARIA in the US), two bestselling novels about the Romanovs – THE SECRET WIFE and THE LOST DAUGHTER – as well as WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST, which was shortlisted for the 2013 RNA Epic Novel of the Year award, NO PLACE FOR A LADY, shortlisted for a Love Stories award, and ANOTHER WOMAN’S HUSBAND, about links you might not have suspected between Wallis Simpson and Princess Diana.
Gill is also an author of historical non-fiction, including A HISTORY OF MEDICINE IN 50 OBJECTS. As well as writing, she speaks at libraries and literary festivals on subjects ranging from the Titanic to the Romanovs. Gill lives in London, where she is working on her tenth novel, and she swims daily in an outdoor pond.
25 FEBRUARY 2021 Demy Hardback, £12.99 HB 9780857304544 | eBook 9780857304551. Author: Michael Farris Smith | Publisher: No Exit Press
Synopsis: This rich and imaginative novel from critically acclaimed author Michael Farris Smith breathes new life into a character that many know only from the periphery. Before Nick Carraway moved to West Egg and into Gatsby’s world, he was at the centre of a very different story – one taking place along the trenches and deep within the tunnels of World War I. Floundering in the wake of the destruction he witnessed first-hand, Nick embarks on a redemptive journey that takes him from a whirlwind Paris romance – doomed from the very beginning – to the dizzying frenzy of New Orleans, rife with its own flavour of debauchery and violence. NICK is an inspired concept realised with delicate, rhythmic prose, profound characterisation and deep emotion. Charged with enough alcohol, heartbreak, and yearning to transfix even the heartiest of golden age scribes, NICK reveals the man behind the narrator who has captivated readers for decades.
I am so excited about this book and happy to be sharing it with you on my blog as one of my anticipated reads for next year. 2021 is the 125th anniversary of The Great Gatsby and what better time to explore its narrator more closely. I have always felt conflicted about Nick Carraway. We simply don’t know enough about him. He is the ultimate voyeur – on the edges of things, looking in but rarely participating. He’s a person in-between: not rich enough to be in the society circles of his cousin Daisy; not overtly masculine like Tom; not in love, just dating. He’s so neutral he’s accepted by all parties and in everyone’s confidence. He accompanies Tom on his adulterous activities, despite the fact he’s married to Nick’s cousin Daisy. He lets Gatsby meet Daisy at his home, even though she’s married. There’s a moral ambiguity to his behaviour and despite taking Jordan on a date, he does seem more comfortable in the company of men. I have so many questions about him so I’m excited to see how the author fits his life to these later events. Will we learn why he’s so easily drawn into this doomed situation?
Alongside the novel there will be a new edition of The Great Gatsby too.
ALSO AVAILABLE a new edition of The Great Gatsby with an introduction from Michael Farris Smith PB 9780857304568 eBook 9780857304612
Sometimes all you can say when you finish a book is ‘Wow’. When that happens I close the book and have a moment of reverence. I need a few moments, in silence, to take in what I’ve read. I often need overnight before I can start a new book. I suppose you could describe it as being haunted – the thought of a scene or a letter in a book that invades your thoughts when you least expect it. It stays there, sometimes forever, to become a part of you. In the same way a particular aria or love song might forever float through your head. Some books lie on the surface, they pass the time, they amuse, and I do enjoy them but they don’t stay. Others get into your brain, like a complex puzzle you have to keep fiddling with, this way and that, until you find a solution. Some books enter your soul, they make you feel real physical emotions, they make you wonder in the same way you did as a child when a book took you away on a marvellous adventure. They touch you soul deep. This is one of those books.
Nydia Hetherington is a sorceress. She has conjured up this box of terrors and delights from the depths of her imagination and it is incredible. We follow Mouse as she crawls, peeps, stumbles and walks around the incredible show that is a circus. Billed as a tale about the Greatest Funambulist Who Ever Lived I was expecting glitz and glamour, the front of house show. However, the author cleverly goes deeper than that, far behind the curtain. Incredible descriptive passages draw us in to Mouse’s world from the smell near the big cats enclosure, the feel of a llama’s fur against your skin, the cramped but colourful quarters of the circus folk and the volatile relationship between her mother Marina and father Manu. So focussed on each other, her parents seem barely aware of her existence as she watches the drab and grubby circus folk become stars of the ring with their make-up, sequins and feathers. Her freedom gives us access to every part of this wondrous world, but freedom has its dark side and for Mouse this is really a tale of parental neglect. She is brought up by the circus, by the mother of the company Big Gen and her husband Fausto and eventually by Serendipity Wilson, the flame haired high wire artists who takes Mouse under her wing. Under her tuition Mouse becomes an incredible tightrope walker, able to take her place under the spotlight like her parents.
Serendipity with her flaming hair that glows like amber is from the Isle of Man and brings with her all the mythology of the islands. She weaves incredible stories for Mouse, who now sleeps in her wigwam, in much the same way as mystical fog weaves around her according to her mood. She thinks that Manu and Marina barely notice she’s gone, but Manu enlists her help to get Marina performing again. They coax her into the tank to perform as a mermaid for the crowd. Even so, there is no discernible warmth between Mouse and her mother, Marina’s focus is always inward to her own problems. It is after her mother’s death that Mouse is handed a letter from her mother, in which she admits to never feeling love for her child and explains why. For me this was the most powerful part of the book, and brought me to tears. The author has cleverly placed this moment of stark reality within the magic and it gives the letter huge emotional impact. It hits home the idea that all freedom has a price. Mouse has never had a mother, except the warmth and care she’s had from Serendipity and never questions whether that will change.
Bookending these stories is an elderly Mouse, recounting her life to a journalist. Living in New York, she recalls her arrival in the city and her expectations of Coney Island. She is older and recounts her past from a distance, but what comes across is terrible regret and sorrow around the disappearance of a child from the circus family. She is haunted by a flame haired Serendipity Wilson who, like all mothers, lives on as a voice in Mouse’s head; her inner critic commenting on all she does, only silent when Mouse truly lives in the moment. It’s in these sections that we see what the book is truly about. I expected a book about the spectacle of the circus, the showmanship and all that glitters. Instead this is a meditation on what it is to be human. The journalist asks the questions that go beneath Mouse’s surface and see the gritty truth; we are all flawed and we all make mistakes. This is a beguiling mix of myth, magic and human frailty. Truly brilliant.
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The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman
At the sleepy Cornish hotel Penmarrow, there is a rare celestial event bringing new guests. The staff are tasked with hosting an astronomer’s conference to coincide with the appearance of a rare comet. Romance abounds amongst the staff as timid maid Molly is flustered by the return of charming astronomer George and seems to need a little advice on how to rekindle the spark they shared last autumn. Hotel porters Gomez and Riley are vying for the attentions of a mysterious female guest, and the eccentric ‘Megs’ Buntly pays another visit. For our main character Maisie, romance is blossoming between her and Sidney Daniels. All is well, that is aside from the small matter of some secrecy about his past. That isn’t Maisie’s only uncertainty though. She’s happy to be working at the hotel, but it’s future ownership is still up in the air and even more anticipation surrounds her manuscript which will be soon be in the hands of acquisitions editors in London. There is so much excitement about the future in the air but trepidation too. When a dramatic revelation comes to light about someone on staff, it leaves Maisie and everyone else reeling from the unexpected news. Is this the moment for the revelation Maisie has been waiting for since her Cornish journey began?
This was my first time in the Penmarrow’s universe so I had to go back and read some of the other parts – this is the 7th in the series. The best way I can describe these stories is the reading equivalent of a good Sunday night TV series, with beautiful surroundings, loveable characters and gentle storylines. There’s nothing here to frighten the horses. I felt soothed by the descriptions of the cosy hotel and the surrounding countryside. Everything about this place is restful, apart from Sidney’s mischievous terrier digging up bulbs of course. Maisie is a lovely central character to root for and as an aspiring writer I could understand her anxieties about her potential future career. What will happen if her book isn’t accepted? How much will her life change if it is?
The format was interesting too. I’ve become more aware of these short reads in my past year as a blogger. I have MS and can suffer cognitive symptoms that make reading difficult such as an inability to concentrate – I can find myself reading the same paragraph over and over till it sinks in. Or I can have physical symptoms such as optic neuritis which makes my eyes ache, sting and become blurred. As you can imagine this is very frustrating for an avid reader and in my therapy work I’ve met many other disabled people who also struggle to read. I always recommend audio books, but have found that short books like this one are also a great way for people like me to carry on enjoying stories even while feeling unwell. They can continue to enjoy the escape and when the escape is as feel-good as this it can lift the mood considerably. It really is a little gem of good-natured humour, heart-warming romance and packs a little surprise at the end for good measure. Just enough of a cliffhanger to have readers looking forward to the last instalment of Maisie’s story.
Author Bio – Laura Briggs is the author of several feel-good romance reads, including the Top 100 Amazon UK seller ‘A Wedding in Cornwall’. She has a fondness for vintage style dresses (especially ones with polka dots), and reads everything from Jane Austen to modern day mysteries. When she’s not writing, she enjoys spending time with family and friends, caring for her pets, gardening, and seeing the occasional movie or play.
A few years ago I was lucky enough to meet Jodi Picoult, and ask her some questions. She was promoting her novel Sing You Home and the question I asked was about the ideas she has for her novels; do the characters or the issue come to her first? Most of her novels are based round a controversial issue – from childhood illness, to abortion, racism and the rights to IVF embryos. These are not easy issues to tackle, particularly in the USA. Picoult replied that it was usually the issue that came first. She would mull it over for a while and if it stayed with her for a few weeks, she would know it had the potential for a novel. Then, slowly, the characters would start to come and tell their story. I have now read all of her novels so I was really excited to have an ARC of this via NetGalley.
The background to her latest work is Egyptology, most specifically The Book of Two Ways – an ancient text that tells of the two ways a Pharoah had of successfully reaching the Underworld, one by water and one by land. Picoult uses this as the PHD research subject for our main character Dawn, but it also informs the structure of the novel. Two narratives are told side by side, representing a split in Dawn’s life where she could have turned in a different direction. So we appear to be following parallel lives. Dawn has been married to Brian for several years and they have a teenage daughter, Meret. They are comfortably sliding into middle age and a mature stage of marriage, where Dawn observes love is not just a feeling, it’s a choice. Brian is a scientist, teaching at university and Meret takes after him, also having an interest in scientific experiments. From the outside they must look like a steady, settled marriage, but as always it’s a different story beneath the surface. The catalyst seems to come when a woman at Brian’s workplace strikes up a friendship, asking him to help with DIY around the flat and eventually offering the chance of an affair. Brian doesn’t take it, but for some reason even the possibility shakes Dawn to the core. It sends her spiralling back to her graduate years when she went to Egypt in pursuit of her PhD research and met Wyatt. Wyatt was a fellow researcher, their lines of enquiry complement each other, but he’s everything she hates in a person – arrogant and privileged. However, just as their dislike turns to passion, Dawn is dragged back to the USA for her mother’s death. She leaves Egypt with no idea whether she will be able to return. Now, in light of Brian’s revelations, Dawn wonders whether she made the right choice back then and is it too late to change her mind? Our other narrative follows that route.
I was fascinated by Dawn’s job as death doula – I’m only just aware of the existence of birth doulas so this was totally new to me. Once I’d read what her job entailed, I realised it would suit my experience and skills. I have had the privilege to be with someone as they’ve died a few times, through my husband’s final weeks but also when I’ve worked in a nursing home both as carer, and years later as an advocate for people with complex disabilities. Occasionally, if there was a resident I was fond of and they had no relatives to sit with them I would go in on my day off to be with them. I was young, and not always sure of what to do but sensed instinctively that someone needed to be there as these people left the world. Dawn fulfils a role many other professionals can’t and liaises between those professionals and the patient. She makes sure that what that person wants – whether it’s ice cream at midnight or to contact a long lost love – they get. Her relationship with client Win was one of best parts of this novel for me. To respond to a dying person with total focus and compassion, whilst making sure their final wishes and their dignity is intact, is a skill that can’t be taught. It is a great example of a therapeutic relationship because the women affect each other, this isn’t a one way street. Win has wisdom and counsel for Dawn.
The women can see echoes of each other’s lives in their early passionate first loves, followed by their stable, loving and respectful marriages. The care that Win gets from her husband is a world away from the affair she had as an art student with Thane Bernard, a famous painter. It reminded me of the UEA Fanthorpe poem ‘Atlas’ which begins ‘ there is a kind of love called maintenance’ and details the many practical ways people show love. Win proposes that we each have experience of these different kinds of relationships and the one we have last is wiser, more nurturing and understanding. The things we need as we’re older are very different from our idealistic and impulsive younger years, but we must never doubt that both are types of love. The Egyptian return narrative is interesting because we’re never fully sure where it fits or even whether it’s real or Dawn’s day dreaming. It’s also fascinating to see what her reception will be. All the time we’ve been listening to Dawn’s version and now we see the effect her sudden departure had on Wyatt. The rascally Indiana Jones I’d been expecting was really Dawn’s view of him. In reality he was shattered by her choice not to return. There’s a sense of time standing still in this ancient place, not just for the Pharaoh’s tombs but for the dig itself. Dawn finds the same house, serviced by the same family, but will her hope, that Wyatt hasn’t moved on either, come to pass? Even if his feelings haven’t changed what hope is there for a relationship that belonged in this temporary home, thousands of miles away. How will Wyatt respond to her marriage and her daughter? He doesn’t seem like the kind of person who will drop his work and become the family man.
This wasn’t my favourite Jodi Picoult novel, but it’s far from her worst. The research for the Egyptian sections alone must have been painstaking and I did have a belief in her characters – particularly in sections between Dawn and Win. I did feel there was a bit too much academic Egyptian detail too early and it prevented me getting into the emotions of the story. It was an interesting background to Dawn’s current work and how death rituals are very important and vary so much in different cultures. There were also a couple of aspects of Dawn’s return to the US that I didn’t understand, such as the timing of her return and meeting Brian. The big revelation towards the end of the book seemed unlikely. I couldn’t imagine that Dawn had never asked herself or even suspected. It was also amazing that her relationship to Brian had endured despite such a hurried start. I wondered if her strong reaction to his student’s crush was more about finding a way out. Brian has been a bit oblivious to this woman’s advances, but there is something endearing about that. He wouldn’t expect anyone to be interested and as soon as it’s apparent how she feels, he leaves and tells Dawn. There is a sense that Dawn wants out of this relationship, but is struggling to be the one who ends it. She doesn’t want to be the bad guy. This worry about hurting others can be seen as she tries to carry out Win’s final wishes too.
Often with Picoult’s books you can see that the ‘issue’ has come first, and I did wonder if the exploration of Ancient Egypt was something she’d wanted to write about for some time. It sat neatly with Dawn’s job and the whole novel’s theme of the end of life. It was interesting to think about the rituals carried out by the Egyptians – I’ve always wondered how they got a whole brain out of someone’s nose – and our squeamish response to death. We don’t talk about it, so we never express our feeling about the sort of death and funeral we want. It’s almost as if our enduring fascination with the burial chambers of the Pharaohs is in direct contrast to our avoidance of the subject in relation to ourselves. Dawn’s job cuts through that and in its way is a lot like counselling, in that she asks the questions and has the conversations that the dying person can’t have with their family. Interestingly, despite her role to be open about death, Dawn isn’t being honest or open about life. She’s settled herself into a default position where she’s felt safe, but a brush with death changes everything. I think I wanted a different ending. I felt for Meret who doesn’t seem to get much quality time with her mother and I can’t remember a point in the novel where they simply have fun together as a family. She’s expected to get her head round massive changes very quickly too. I would have liked Dawn to take some time with her daughter, just the two of them and get settled on their own terms. While it just doesn’t reach the heights of Small Great Things or The Storyteller for me, there was a lot to like here. The depth of research, the themes of life and death, and her characterisation of the central characters are strong and as always with Picoult you can relax knowing you’re with an absolute master at storytelling.
While reading this book I had one of those odd reading experiences that only happens on Kindle or other e-reader. When I’m reading a proper physical copy of a book, I’m constantly aware of how much book is left. I’m literally holding it in my hand. I read this in one sitting, only realising how quickly time had passed when I stopped to mark a page and saw 93% in the bottom corner! Time really flew because I was so absorbed into Ravatn’s world.
Set in Bergen, Oslo, this is a thriller with so many possible outcomes. Our main character Nina follows a labyrinthine trail to find the killer of a musical prodigy. Nina is a professor of literature and gives a speech at a symposium about the futility of studying literature. Lit students are following their own, selfish lines of academic enquiry she argues, but their study doesn’t help anyone or bring anything important to the world. It doesn’t make a difference, except to the student. She proposes that in order to be useful, literature students make them self available as investigators to the police force. They are trained to analyse documents, to read between the lines, to apply psychoanalytic theory to texts and understand character’s motivations. All skills that might be useful when investigating a crime. Little does she know, she will soon be using those very skills in the real world.
Nina and her husband Mads have an absolutely insufferable daughter Ingeborg. When she announces that her home has silverfish, and she is three months pregnant, she asks Nina to intercede with Mads for an advance on her inheritance. Nina idly observes they have a house in town that belonged to an aunt, but she needs to talk to Mads. They are in their own difficult living situation, as their home is being compulsory purchased to make room for a railway. This is affecting Nina much more than Mads because of the emotional attachment; it was her family home, she grew up there. They are negotiating a settlement with the council, but Nina can’t see any property she would want to purchase. She needs to live in something with soul, not a slick waterfront retirement pad. Ingeborg convinces her mum that they should go and look at the house, but Nina warns that there is a tenant that they shouldn’t disturb. Despite the tenant telling her it’s a bad time, Ingeborg goes bustling in, badgering the tenant about the end of her lease and offering her money to leave as quickly as possible. The tenant, a single mother with a little boy, is blindsided by this forceful woman. Nina feels terrible and makes her apologies, sure that the tenant looks familiar to her.
Later, she realises where she has seen the woman. Their tenant is concert violinist Mari Bull, world renowned and now dropped out of sight. Strangely, she then does the same thing again, exiting the property within a couple of days and leaving no forwarding address. Surely this can’t be solely to do with their visit? Not long after, her disappearance is reported by local then national newspapers. She went to her parents place out on one of the islands, where Nina has a holiday cabin, but left her son and went for a walk, never to return. Nina finds herself intrigued by the case and follows clues, from the opera her ex-husband plays as her requiem to a small notebook with musical terms she finds in a box at the house. Fairytales also play a role in the book and like most literature students I am familiar with the work of Bettelheim quoted by Nina. Using this and Freud’s work on transference Nina starts to construct a theory and follows each clue like the breadcrumb trail of Hansel and Gretel. I liked the play on our usual ideas about fairy tales, which tend to be very Disney-fied, and everything comes to a completed happy ending. The original tales Nina starts to tell her granddaughter Milja are far more dark and bloodthirsty. In fact, the darker they are the sooner Milja will quiet down and go to sleep. They include anxious, suicidal hares and a murderous husband who gaslights his wives then kills them when they find out the truth.
From a psychological perspective there are interesting theories around transference and counter-transference, not just in the therapeutic relationship but in any relationship with a power balance that’s heavily in one person’s favour. I was also interested in the theorising around the Oedipus and Electra complexes. Nina is discussing the theory with her students and they don’t see the point of learning about a concept that started in Ancient Greek theatre and seems to bear no relevance to the present day. Yet, there’s a definite unease in Nina’s own relationship with her daughter – Ingeborg has been more likely to confide in or ask favours from her father. For Mari too there is a complicated mother – daughter relationship in that her parents sacrificed their own relationship to make sure their daughter had opportunities with the best teachers and orchestras. Mari and her father were often away together, touring Europe, leaving her mother at home. There is resentment over this and a definite coolness between mother and daughter.
Ravatn’s writing is spare, it gets to the point quickly and without poetry. She can establish a feeling or setting in just a few words, such as how the light changes when it snows or how it must feel to give ourselves up to the water, like Virginia Woolf with the stones in her pockets. Her characters are well defined and psychologically complex, such as Ingeborg’s narcissism and inability to gauge other’s feelings. I have real worries for her daughter Milja, a future psychopath if ever I met one. As I felt the book build in pace and tension towards the end, I knew Nina was getting close to the answers, but is the answer getting closer to her? The end, when it comes, is satisfyingly unexpected and shocking. I love Nordic Noir and this was a great addition to my collection. This was a clever and psychologically literate thriller. I would love to read more of Nina in the future.
Lexi and Jake have been in the same friendship circle for fifteen years, with the Pearsons and the Heathcotes. They’ve been pregnant at the same time and have gone through parenting, moving house, changing jobs and sharing the highs and lows of life together. Every Saturday they try to get together for takeaway and during the evening check their syndicate’s numbers on the lottery. Every week they’ve drowned their sorrows and laughed off disappointment when they didn’t win. Then one Saturday night the unthinkable happens and Lexi feels something has changed in the friendship. Words are exchanged over the lottery tradition, someone calls it ‘common’ and tempers flare. The Pearson’s and Heathcotes pull out leaving Lexi and Jake the sole members. So, what happens when those numbers come up and Lexi and Jake possess a ticket worth 18 million?
Very rarely I come across a character I really can’t stand and that was the case with Jake in this novel. At best he’s like a well meaning, but clumsy, puppy and at worst he’s crass, wasteful, impulsive and deceitful. It was a wonder that he and Lexi had made it so far in their marriage, because they seem so totally opposed to each other. It could be that’s because we see his actions through Lexi’s eyes, but I think these differences have always been there. However, their shared struggle to bring up two children, work full time and pay the bills has forced them to work together – mainly for the good of Logan and Emily. Once the money arrives all of those problems fade away, leaving them free to act based on want rather than need. Their usual power balance, in which Jake is the naughty child and Lexi is the parent, has shifted. Money has made them equally powerful and in Jake’s case all of his usual checks and balances are gone. Lexi is still cautious and sensible, it’s just that now they have money, Jake doesn’t have to be. Even if he blows a million, there are seventeen more in the bank. They make a decision to avoid publicity, in consultation with their lottery advisor, and in theory they can carry on as normal. So Lexi gets up and goes to work in her advisor role at the Citizen’s Advice Bureau.
One morning she meets Toma Albu outside the bureau, a homeless man from Eastern Europe who is barely coping since the death of his wife and child. Lexi sends him to a day centre for a shower, clean clothes and something to eat while she looks into his story. The family were renting a property from a private landlord who has neglected to do proper boiler checks. Over the course of a day, before Christmas, his wife and son succumb to the effects of carbon monoxide and are dead when he returns home. Despite being taken to court the landlord evades the charge because he has used a letting agent to maintain the property. The agent is sentenced, leaving the landlord free to rent many other properties in his portfolio. Toma needs to find lodgings and a job, and Lexi manages to organise both, but it’s not his only request. He asks if Lexi will help him look through the agents, shell companies and offshore accounts to find out the name of the landlord. Lexi is scared, if she looks for this man what will she find and what will Toma do if she tells him?
Meanwhile, in the space of a day Jake has quit his latest job, allowed the kids to stay home and bought a bright yellow Ferrari that he’s parked on the drive. If they were trying to avoid publicity, this is the worst thing to do. He might as well have put a billboard on the lawn. Over the next few days the town is buzzing with gossip about the local lottery winner. Even worse a huge crowd turns up at the CAB to beg for money and Lexi has to take a leave of absence from work. There are paparazzi outside their home and more people demanding money from them. Lexi feels overwhelmed, she’s feeling all of the consequences but none of the excitement her family are feeling as they have an internet shopping splurge. Jake doesn’t even seem to be checking price tags, unless he’s deliberately buying the most expensive things he can find. Lexi has her own shopping list but it comprises of people whose lives she could change with their win, by relieving debt, or paying for them to receive legal help. Imagine the difference just a small proportion of this money could make to each life. I’ve worked in mental health and welfare advice posts for years and I was sometimes forced to break rules to get something done. Just as Lexi describes giving away baby clothes to people I have helped with donations, or even paid for something to be done out of my own pocket if it was the barrier in a person’s life. I think I have a similar ‘rescue’ tendency to Lexi so I understood her character and motivation, more than Jake’s reckless consumerism.
When Lexi and Jake agree to accept publicity, just to help control the story, their advisor organises a press conference. This was one of the most tense scenes in the book as the Heathcotes and Pearsons arrive to stake their claim on the winnings. As an investigation ensues everyone has a different story, with very confusing motivations. This is where the novel really gripped me and I started to become suspicious of everyone’s story – why does Jennifer suddenly claim she went to the toilet at the crucial moment so the others might have left the syndicate without her knowing? Cleverly, over the rest of the novel, Adele Parks has us always referring back to these accounts as new revelations leave the reader questioning what they believed so far. However, due to my own bias there were people whose account I never questioned. Parks though keeps us twisting and turning, even when you think everything is settled the last pages hold their own surprises. This is the dark side of winning such a life changing amount of money. It makes people behave very differently towards you and leaves you vulnerable to blackmail, begging, and desperate people who don’t mind who they hurt to get what they want. I felt so bad for Emily whose first love goes completely wrong in the aftermath; I think she loses just as much as the adults, if not more. The old adage that when something goes wrong you know who your friends are is very apt here. In fact it goes to show that it’s not just when life goes wrong. Any change, even a seemingly positive one, can cause stress and even depression; a wedding sits as high on the stress index, as being fired or suffering significant illness or injury.
As soon as Lexi starts to help Toma early in the book, I could see they had an affinity and I hoped they might become closer with time. I thought he made Lexi feel safe and able to be vulnerable; there is no need to parent him like she does with Jake. Toma has been through the worst experience Lexi can imagine, yet with a small amount of help he has started rebuilding his life. They agree on the amount of good her lottery win could do and it’s great for her to have someone thinking on her wavelength. Her need for his reassurance is so strong that she makes choices to be with him one important evening, rather than with her family. She finds she feels more at home with his friends who talk about books or films they’ve seen, and are from many different parts of the world. It surprises Lexi how much she’s changed, but I wondered how long she’d been out of touch with her own feelings.
Parks is very adept at using multiple narrative voices, in short chapters, that rush you towards a conclusion. There are twists and turns in the final chapters that I had no idea were coming. It sheds light, and even doubt, on other character’s motivations. Due to our own experience and biases there are always characters we take to or strongly dislike in a book, when an author makes me question those assumptions I really enjoy the challenge. It makes the book stay with you. It’s sparked discussion in our house over what we would do, who would be in charge of the funds and who’s life we could change. This is an excellent read, with believable characters in a position we’ve probably all imagined ourselves in at some point. However, it makes us think twice about the reality of it and whether we really would want to be a lottery millionaires.