Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Illusionists and Daughter of the House by Rosie Thomas.

My experience of finding these two novels by Rosie Thomas shows that the old cliché ‘never judge a book by its’ cover’ does sometimes apply. I was browsing on my kindle (a lethal pastime) and looking through my recommendations when I came across Daughter of the House. The cover had a magical, ‘circus’ feel that I loved so I had to discover more. It had an historical setting pre- WWI onward; a period I’d been drawn to that year. It also promised a brave, enlightened woman at the centre of the story about growing up in an unconventional musical hall family. I bought it based on cover alone, then realised it was the second in a series of books.The first was The Illusionists and I knew from the cover of top hats, decks of cards and magic wands that this was the series for me. It’s rare for me to find a magical novel set in the late Victorian period that I haven’t read. The title seemed familiar though and it was only the next morning that I found (among the many piles of books that litter the corners of my house) I had a hardback copy of the same novel, but had never picked it up to read. The cover was very different, depicting a bridge over an almost impressionistic river scene, that told me nothing about the contents inside. A friend had bought me the book when it first came out, but due to that cover and the lack of a synopsis on the back it kept being recycled to the bottom of the TBR pile. It showed me a difference between buying physical books and kindle copies. I am often alerted to unusual and highly enjoyable novels via kindle store or apps like Goodreads that I wouldn’t necessarily pick up in a book shop due to the cover. Of course the bonus was that I now had two great novels to read back to back and I was not disappointed by either of them.

Set in 1885 the first novel follows the story of Eliza who is a young woman limited by lack of money whose only choices for the future seem to be the domesticity of an advantageous marriage (an idea she finds suffocating) or a degrading downward spiral towards life on the streets. Despite the massive social changes happening in fin de siècle London, women have less chance of making their fortune and living life on their own terms. Then she meets the charismatic and ambitious illusionist Devil Wix. Devil is haunted by traumatic events in his childhood, but is determined to become a household name and successful entrepreneur in the theatre world. We follow Devil’s mission as he puts together a band of quirky misfits to put on the greatest show London has ever seen in the run down Palmyra Theatre. During the 12 years covered by the novel Devil is by turns alluring, brilliant and often comical. However, from his friend’s and Eliza’s point of view he can be elusive, maddening and deceptive when he wants to be. Somehow though, the reader is able to forgive him anything. Perhaps this is because we are charmed by him in the same way Eliza is. Two friends work alongside Devil. His magician friend Carlos and set/props designer Jasper. Carlos is a dwarf in stature, but has mighty magical ambitions of his own and with Devil creates new and memorable illusions to stun audiences. Jasper is more of a scientist who tinkers away in his workshop creating the props for the illusions, but has also designed an automaton he names Lucy. As soon as Eliza comes into their world it is as if the circle of friends is complete and they work together to create a magical show. Although it seems inevitable that they will be together, Devil and Eliza’s courtship is a slow dance. Their budding relationship sees Eliza step outside what is thought to be respectable for a Victorian woman and embark upon an alternative life she never thought possible. For Devil the relationship brings him the stability he has never had and a partner in work and life who can match him for determination, ambition and creativity.

The magical and more supernatural elements of the novel are balanced beautifully with the historical period detail. Eliza chooses to live in a women’s hostel and work for a living even before she becomes involved with the theatre crowd. This is a bold, modern choice that tells us a lot about her character. The author uses Eliza’s sister as the contrasting Victorian ideal of ‘The Angel in the House’. Eliza’s visits to her sister’s home show us that traditional Victorian domestic life, but while Eliza loves her nieces and nephews she doesn’t envy her sister’s position in society and often seems relieved to return to her unconventional life. She treads a very fine line between what is and isn’t respectable by socialising in bars with Devil, Carlos and Jasper, staying alone with Devil in his flat, becoming a life model at the art school and performing on the stage. She is confounded by her need for Devil to be faithful and exclusive to her.

We also see economic change and social mobility throughout the novel. Devil promotes his shows in a way that has never been done before. First he utilises Eliza’s art student friends to create mysterious adverts across the city, that develop a buzz about his show. He then creates street illusions that are easy to transport and perform, then performs these ‘pop-up’ illusions in the street, handing out leaflets to stunned onlookers. By choosing his streets carefully he attracts wealthy audiences who are happy to spend money and this ensures the theatre is packed night after night. Due to this method of promoting his theatre, and the different audience he attracts, Devil changes what is acceptable as entertainment in upper class circles. Whereas music hall was thought to be low culture and only for the working classes, Devil exploits the human need to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ and makes his theatre the place to be seen.. His entrepreneurial skills result in an upward mobility for his family so they can live in a beautiful area of London and have more opportunities that he had. This is where the story develops into the second novel and into a background of even more turbulent times in the early 20th Century.

Daughter of the House centres on Devil and Eliza’s daughter Zenobia (known to the family as Nancy) against the backdrop of WWI, the Suffragette movement and the decline of music hall. The novel opens as the family embark upon a boat trip and tragedy strikes when the captain decides they must return to port because of a storm. The boat crashes into the marina and it is a fight for survival for Devil and Eliza and all of their children. Thomas creates a beautiful metaphor here in Nancy’s fight to stay above the water as her large Victorian skirts and petticoat become water-logged and start dragging her under. This foreshadows Nancy need to live a different life and break free of Victorian expectations of women, perhaps even more radically than her mother did. In the struggle Nancy not only saves herself, but her brother too and it is here we see the beginnings of her resilience and determination. It is also here that we see the first glimpse of what she calls her ‘Uncanny’ – the ability to see beyond the physical world. Nancy fights against this unique gift and doesn’t want anyone to know about her ability. Yet it is because of this accident that family friend Mr Feather does become aware of her abilities. As his beloved sister is lost in the accident, he begs Nancy to foresee where she is and this episode sets off an obsession that never goes away.

The Palmyra theatre is struggling and Devil has been hiding the true extent of their financial difficulties from his family. Eliza’s growing role as a mother has meant taking time away from managing the theatre and Devil does not have her administrative or financial skills. Eliza loves her children, but is frustrated in the very role she never really wanted. Meanwhile Devil flounders in his management of the Palmyra, making bad financial decisions and failing to provide what modern audiences want to see. As the crisis deepens Nancy becomes aware that her gift, hidden until now, might be the only answer to her family’s problems. The late Victorian appetite for mesmerism, hypnosis and spiritualism has continued into the 20th Century and Nancy’s gift soon begins to fill the theatre. So, as WWI draws to a close, the Palmyra is once again playing to packed houses as grieving families in their thousands want to find their lost sons, fathers and husbands still lying unfound in the battlefields of France. Thomas shows the social and historical change of three difficult decades so cleverly especially the wake of WWI as women become more in control of their lives and a country grieves a generation lost. For those who survived, the need for to forget the horrors of war can be seen at the raucous country house parties of Nancy’s theatre friends. The breakdown of class barriers becomes apparent as Nancy’s brother transcends his family’s social class, becoming an officer in the army and attracting a wife from an aristocratic family. Alternative ways of living are explored as the author shows us more women living alone, and Nancy’s gay best friends who have openly set up home together. Yet, we also see what post-war living could be like for the lower classes who acquired injuries, but can’t afford adequate care or rehabilitation. Nancy’s brother returns home with shell-shock and finds coping with the outside world beyond his capabilities, instead finding solace in his garden.

The book explores Nancy’s struggle with a rare and beautiful gift that can also be terrifying and unexpected. Her rivalry with Mr Feather highlights the darker side of clairvoyance and ultimately ends in unwanted confrontation. We see the need in people who desperately want to hear from their lost loved one only to be disappointed. A disappointment that can develop into an obsession and an inability to move forward in the grieving process. Nancy wrestles to maintain the purity and honesty of her gift; never pretending or creating hope where there is none. Audiences fail to realise that she is unable to control her gift. It isn’t like picking up a telephone, she doesn’t know who or what will come through. However, audiences want the reassurance that they were seeking, or the guarantee their loved one lives on somewhere in the afterlife and is waiting for them. Nancy tries to give no promises and does not want to offer false reassurance, if forced to give the exact promise they seek, she feels she has betrayed herself and her gift. This is the difference between true clairvoyance and show business and for Nancy they are uneasy bedfellows. What she sees is not always spectacular nor the happy ending an audience might be hoping for. This dilemma rang true for me as something all people with these gifts might face and it shows that making money from her ‘Uncanny’ is not as going to be as easy as her father’s magic tricks; if she is going to do it with integrity.

I would recommend reading both of these books, but they do stand-alone too. The Wix family are entertaining and intriguing, the historical backdrop is well researched, and even the smaller characters are well written and memorable. Carlos’s determination to overcome his disability is inspiring and his friendship with Devil, like all showbiz partnerships, is full of ups and downs. Eliza’s sister and brother-in-law are there to provide a contrast to the Wix’s unconventional relationship, but their characters are still well-rounded and the relationship between the sisters feels real. Eliza’s realisation that having children is all consuming and life-changing creates an unexpected affinity with her sister. She recognises that even if you want an alternative way of life, children always create a need for a strong family network and support around you. In the early 20th Century women’s lives are changing, but not that much. Eliza’s daughter, Nancy, realises that even though she is more accepted as a strong independent woman she is still hampered by her class and bohemian background. Despite feeling free to pursue her love for a married man, she finds that this freedom is not all she imagined it would be and yearns for more. If you want page turning story-telling with a supernatural and magical twist then these are the books for you.

Posted in Uncategorized

While Paris Slept by Ruth Druart.

I’ve been lucky to have this incredible debut novel since last year and in that time it hasn’t lost any of its emotional power. A second reading still left me deeply sad for the characters, but also for real people who lost family members due to war. Not just those who died but those who became displaced and scattered across the globe from each other. Regular readers will know my late in-laws war experiences thar I’m currently turning into a novel, because it is so extraordinary. So the human cost of war is a subject close to my heart and I absolutely loved this novel; it is shocking, heart-rending, and deeply moving. Told across two timelines, two countries and in several different character’s perspectives we are shown every angle on this difficult case.

We meet Jean-Luc and Charlotte who live in California, 1953. Santa Cruz is an incredible place to live, and a great place to bring up their young son Sam. The fled France during the war when Sam was only days old. However, despite seeming like the perfect family they have a huge secret. Jean-Luc and Charlotte were both working in public services in France; Charlotte was a nurse and Jean-Luc was a railway worker. So, when the Germans occupied Paris they were forced to work for the German forces. One day Jean-Luc is transferred to a different part of the railway, making repairs and doing maintenance on the track that is carrying French Jews over borders towards Poland, and Auschwitz. There are rumours about what is going on in these so-called work camps. Jean -Luc has heard them, but now he’s seeing mounting evidence that something is badly wrong. Sent to tidy up after a late train, the men find people’s belongings littered across the platform, glasses, crutches and even teddy bears. On one horrific day he sees a doll lying further up the platform, but when a worker picks it up, it isn’t a doll at all. Jean-Luc has to act and decides to sabotage the rails, to do something that perhaps saves one person. All he gets is a blow that opens up his cheek and a shattered leg. There in the hospital, while he recovers, he meets nurse Charlotte and slowly they form a connection. They are open with each other about the mixed feelings they have about their jobs. Are they collaborating or are they just trying to survive the best they can? So, when a chance comes to make a massive difference to one person, will they take it?

Sarah and husband David are rounded up and put in a train carriage to a work camp. Sarah has given birth to Samuel only a few hours before. Squashed into little more than a cattle truck, so cramped they can’t sit down at all, and one bucket in the corner for a toilet. An unplanned stop sees them herded onto a platform and Sarah sees her chance. In a second she weighs up the railway worker in front of her and thinks he looks kind, despite the scar down his face. She thrusts her baby at him and begs him to look after Samuel. Jean-Luc vows to keep him safe. He gathers a few essentials and goes to Charlotte’s home and asks if she’ll go with him. His plan is to use contacts in the resistance to walk over the Pyrenees to the border with Spain and hopefully sail for the USA. Our second timeline is 1953 in Santa Cruz, California. Jean-Luc, Charlotte and Sam have really settled into an American way of life. Sam is now nine and although they miss Paris they know this is the best way to live. However, when a black car turns up outside the house one morning, neighbours curtains start twitching. What could this lovely couple have done? Is it something to do with the war?

I believed every single character in this moving story from the heart and often with a lump in my throat. It brings up such an important moral and ethical dilemma. How can reparation and restitution be made when the atrocity is so seismic it affects the whole world? No one in this story is untouched by the Nazi’s march across Europe, even down to the ‘collabo’ men and women, who might have only been doing the job they’d always done, but because they now worked for the Bosch, were hated by their neighbours or even killed in some places. To the Jewish camp mates at Auschwitz who had some useful skill the guards could exploit, such as David’s medical skills taking him within a whisper of the terrible experiments conducted by Dr Mengele. In truth, everyone was just trying to survive, to keep their family safe and for some people that meant paying a higher price than others. I felt deeply that Jean-Luc was a good man who felt a huge responsibility for the baby Sarah passed him that night. He was willing to kill to keep him safe and I believed his motives were entirely altruistic. Charlotte also takes huge risks to keep him safe and I think both feel this is a task given by God and as they flee across the border into Spain, their only thought is keeping the boy alive for parents who are likely to have been killed days before. As Sarah first steps from the train at their destination she takes in the skeletal prisoners, the large pipe belching out smoke and the all pervading smell, and realises they are in hell. Prisoners plead with them – ‘why didn’t you kill yourself?’ The carriages were packed so tight it was standing room only with others shuffling around so everyone got a chance to sit for a few moments. If you couldn’t stay upright you died and that was probably preferable to this. To go through hell then have to spend nine years looking for your son is heart breaking, but in whose best interest is it for the child to return to parents he never knew?

It was Sam I felt for more than anyone, because there is only one outcome that would have been fair for him and he isn’t asked. I was distressed by his experience just as much as that of his parents. He is wrenched away from the parents and life he knows, scared and alone he is drugged to be transported to France and his birth parents. He goes from an outdoorsy experience of life to a flat in Paris, with two strangers who don’t speak his language. He has no friends and no grasp of his Jewish heritage either. His confidence is affected, his mood grows lower, the skin on his legs breaks out and becomes sore, weepy and infected. All he wants is his father, his mother and his home. I won’t reveal how this is resolved but I wept as I read the last few chapters. This is so powerful and a difficult read in places, but such a beautifully written account of how war touches everyone. Loss is the all pervasive emotion I felt throughout and for so many different things. If we think about loss as ripples on a pond they stretch outwards on the surface of the water hitting each group of people more gently the further removed from the event they are. This novel shows us that the after effects of a terrible event like the Holocaust keep rippling forward through time touching each generation that comes after.

Meet The Author

Ruth Druart grew up on the Isle of Wight, moving away at the age of eighteen to study psychology at Leicester University. She has lived in Paris since 1993, where she has followed a career in teaching. She has recently taken a sabbatical, so that she can follow her dream of writing full-time.

Posted in Uncategorized

Throwback Thursday! Any Human Heart by William Boyd.

We keep a journal, to entrap the collection of selves that form us’.

I didn’t want to like this book at first. Logan Mountstuart as a teenager isn’t very likeable. I found him cowardly, and I didn’t like his attitude towards women – despite the fact that it’s very much of it’s time. Yet, the book crept up on me until I found myself empathising deeply with him during the war and towards the end of his life. What Boyd is telling us is that every life is both ordinary and extraordinary, and Logan Mountstuart’s – stretching across the twentieth century – is a rich tapestry of both. As a writer who finds inspiration with Hemingway in Paris and the Bloomsbury set with Virginia Woolf in London, the Spanish Civil War, as a spy recruited by Ian Fleming who was betrayed in the war, and as an art-dealer in ’60s New York, Logan mixes with the men and women who shape his times. But as a son, friend, lover and husband, he makes the same mistakes we all do in our search for happiness. Here, then, is the story of a life lived to the full – and a journey deep into a very human heart.

I loved the structure of the novel, told through a series of journals that begin when Logan is approximately fifteen, until he is 85. So the style of the piece constantly changes, as does the perspective and collected wisdom of the writer. He writes in the ‘now’, experiencing things without the benefit of reflection or hindsight. There is an honesty here that can be blunt, and the structure is further accentuated by footnotes and even corrections, as the older Boyd thinks again or finds out more. Here and there we have gaps where he hasn’t been able to maintain a diary due to physical obstacles, or where he hasn’t been in the right space mentally. These different voices of Boyd’s accentuate the voyage of time and his learning, but also the development into newer selves. For me it’s this change that’s intriguing and kept me reading. He isn’t likeable sometimes, but then he learns and goes in a different direction. Directions that are sometimes more about action for action’s sake, rather than a considered choice made.

It’s a strange experience, when we’ve finished, to reconsider Logan’s angst ridden teenage voice. It’s extra poignant, because we know if he’s been hindered by those aspects he lamented in his character. Similarly, in knowing how his life ends,we can decide whether his triumphs are adequately balanced by loss and failure. The losses he suffers in the war are so deeply moving and the feeling came to me, that what comes after is almost futile. He was always his best self with his son and the woman he loved. I also think the structure made Logan so vividly real that I mourned alongside him and despite disliking his teenage self, I was genuinely emotional at the end.

A bit like the film Forrest Gump, Logan has a talent for bumping into the rich and famous – including a regrettable period with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. He meets authors as mentioned – Hemingway, Woolf, Fleming – and artists – Klee and Picasso, to name a few. This name dropping could get in the way of the narrative but Boyd is clever enough to make it a credible part of the story. We sometimes even detect their influence on his writing.

The characterisation and way Logan develops into his many selves, makes this book an absolute masterpiece. By the end of the book he was someone completely different and yet the same. There’s somehow a constant thread that joins the selves like beads on a string. The book reads like a real diary with no explanation for the changes in character we see, yet somehow we know why. The only part that did jar for me was the art dealer in NYC section, as it didn’t seem to fit anywhere but then maybe that’s the point. Could Logan survive the huge losses he experienced without a massive break from what and who he was before? The man who had loved so much couldn’t continue with the same openness. There’s a break here or knot in the thread.

I loved the sweep and scale of his story, but life isn’t always about that. It’s about the small, daily actions and our reflections on that. The way Boyd relates those mundane daily bits and bobs is genius. In an age before Instagram there are descriptions of meals eaten, conversations had, the weather, what he wore. There’s even a tendency toward new year reflections and hopes for the future. He gives himself a talking to, where needed. Sometimes he repeats himself or misremembers something. Then, when he’s alone in his flat, he cuts such a tragic figure that I forgot what I didn’t like and saw a nothing more or nothing less than a human heart.

And suddenly I wonder: is it more of my bad luck to have been born when I was at the beginning of this century and not be able to be young at its end. […] and then, almost immediately I think what a futile regret that is. You must live the life you have been given.’

Meet The Author

William Boyd was born in 1952 in Accra, Ghana, and grew up there and in Nigeria. He is the author of fifteen highly acclaimed, bestselling novels and five collections of stories. He is married and divides his time between London and south-west France.

Posted in Uncategorized

Bobby March Will Live Forever by Alan Parks.

It only took a few sentences for me to be fully involved in Harry McCoy’s world. We hit the ground running, deep in Harry’s thoughts as he makes his way to Woodside Inn and the case of a missing girl. Mentally he’s running through the timeline:

‘Quarter past eight. The call had come in just before six last night, so fifteen hours or so she had been missing. The time for her to have got lost or stayed at a pals was lone gone. A thirteen- year old girl doesn’t go missing for fifteen hours, overnight, without something being very, very wrong’.

It’s immediate and tells us who he is, a detective with years of experience used to slipping into work mode quickly.

He also creates a great sense of place. I love Glasgow and it’s regeneration since it was a city of culture has turned it into a tourist destination. This is old Glasgow, dirty and stuck in the midst of a heatwave.

‘Glasgow wasn’t used to this kind of weather either, didn’t suit it somehow. The harsh sunlight showed up the reality of the city – no cloudy weather or drizzly rain to soften the picture. The sunlight picked out the decay, the rubbish on the streets, the ruined faces on the group of shaky men outside the off-licence waiting for it to open’.

This is a hard city, and a hard-drinking city. The grimness and the dirt don’t just describe the the city, but the men too. These are hard-worn men, from the dodgy and drunk to the outright evil and this applies to the police officers too.

McCoy has been passed over for the high profile missing girl case, he’s not sure why, but knows his boss, Raeburn, likes push him. In fact if he could push McCoy to leave he would. He passes McCoy a junior officer’s errand, calling all officers on leave back into the station. McCoy swallows his pride and anger, realising it’s not worth the effort, but being the only free officer at the station works in his favour. He picks up the case of rock star Bobby March, found dead that morning in a Glasgow hotel. However, the Chief Inspector also trusts McCoy with a more personal mission. Alice Kelly isn’t the only missing girl in the city. Chief Inspector Murray’s niece Laura has also gone missing. Laura is 15 and has been causing the usual worries about teenage girls at home, by dabbling with drink and boys, but now she hasn’t come home. This could have gone ‘through the shop’ as McCoy describes it, but her father is deputy head of Glasgow Council and he doesn’t want Laura’s escapades in the papers, scuppering the chances of him becoming an MP. So Harry sets out into the city on a dual mission, but does find himself being pulled into the Alice Kelly case too.

I loved that Harry walks a fine line as a police officer, but his loyalties can pull him to the edge of the underworld he’s investigating. He visits a shebeen he knows well, an illicit drinking bar where he’s in attendance sometimes as a customer, and not just in an official capacity. He’s questioning the owner Iris about whether Laura has been in this dive, when she taunts him about his friend Cooper. Cooper is a man on the other side of the law, but he and McCoy were kids together and his loyalty to his friends is strong. He goes to Cooper’s place and to his horror finds him unconscious with drugs, that have clearly become a habit. It shows a side of Harry where he’s not in detective mode and I love that he is loyal to friends, no matter what position they’re in. However, his loyalty to the polis means that he knows where the line is and he will not cross it. The plots are all beautifully blended together and each one was interesting enough to keep me reading to the end. Although, Harry isn’t meant to be on the missing girl case, he does keeps stumbling in on clues. It shows his skill as an investigator that he is able to see connections, without getting the cases muddled at all. The pace is fast, the tension is palpable and I was engrossed from beginning to end. I am so looking forward to the next in the series and it’s on my bedside table ready to go.

Posted in Netgalley

The Disappearance of Stephanie Mailer by Joel Dicker. Translation by Howard Curtis.

I’m revisiting this book and expanding on my original NetGalley review for this blog blast, as I recover from moving house and suffering an infection from a nasty cat bite! So, I’ve refreshed my memory and really thought about this interesting book again. First of all, here’s the blurb:

A twisting new thriller from the author of The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair

In the summer of 1994, the quiet seaside town of Orphea reels from the discovery of four murders.

Two young police officers, Jesse Rosenberg and Derek Scott crack the case and identify the killer.

Then, twenty years later and just as he is on the point of taking early retirement, Rosenberg is approached by Stephanie Mailer, a journalist who believes he made a mistake back in 1994 and that the real murderer is still out there, perhaps ready to strike again. But before she can give any more details, Stephanie Mailer mysteriously disappears, and Rosenberg and Scott are forced to confront the possibility that her suspicions might have been proved true.

What happened to Stephanie Mailer?

What did she know?

And what really happened in Orphea all those years ago?

For me, this author manages to do something very clever with his novels. He writes thrillers that keep you hooked, while delivering a strangely relaxing read. It’s like the same feeling you get watching a really good TV series; in the days before multi-channels and Netflix, English dramas tended to be short and low budget, whereas American and Scandinavian channels invested money at their dramas, often delivering 22 episodes per season. These longer dramas allow every character to develop and lets the story breathe. If the series is a thriller there can be so many twists and turns over a longer time, red herrings can develop and be dismissed, and the tension of the last few episodes becomes unbearable. That’s what I felt happened with this book, it’s slow and characters change and surprise you. I think readers may have a bit of a marmite reaction to it – those who like their thrillers short and snappy will be frustrated, but those who love to explore character, setting, and a tale that meanders through many twists and turns before revealing the truth, will love it. It’s every shade of grey, rather like life.

The dual timelines of 1994 and 2014 work very well, with the past informing the future for the reader. Both cases are also intriguing and form an interesting contrast. The 1994 shootings are so dramatic, public and involve many victims, whereas the 2014 disappearance has a less public impact. I found myself constantly asking if Stephanie disappeared because of the 1994 case she’s investigating for an article – opening old wounds in a small town that wants to believe it caught it’s killer – or whether something more personal and unrelated was happening. The fact that she turns up just as Captain Jesse Rosenberg is about to retire seems too much of a coincidence though. Jesse is a likeable character, a good, honest cop whose diligence sets him apart. Despite his impending retirement, Stephanie’s disappearance and the knowledge that his findings on the original case were wrong, leave him determined to solve both cases before he leaves. However, Jesse and colleague Derek Scott became small town celebrities for solving the 1994 shootings, and maybe they liked the status and boost to their careers a little too much? It would be very difficult to accept they were wrong, but Jesse seems to do that and appears determined to find the truth of both cases. I also found myself questioning the circumstances of the original case. We know that the original investigation was wrong, but not why it was wrong. The mayor and his family were shot dead, but across the street a jogger called Megan is also shot, in the back of the head. Was this a case of wrong time, wrong place, for Megan? Did she see something that would have revealed the killer? Or should we be turning the whole case on its head? What if Megan was the intended victim all along?

These were just some of my thoughts as I wandered through this slice of small town life gone wrong. I love convoluted plots where I have no clue where I will end up in a few chapters time. All too often in thrillers, the truth is easy to work out early on, but here I had no idea and an array of clues and characters to decipher. This novel was long, but it has to be so the reader isn’t overwhelmed with the amount of information. It didn’t feel daunting though, and the writer’s technique of building tension towards small revelations throughout, certainly piqued my interest and kept me reading. Yes, maybe the novel might have benefitted from cutting a couple of characters or points of view. However, it might have lost that constant feeling of uncertainty needed in a good thriller. This is a slow burner of a novel, packed with possibilities and the odd red herring or two to keep the reader on their toes. In the last few chapters I couldn’t wait to uncover the truth, because the long build-up had intensified the tension. The manner in which the truth is revealed was a surprise, as if by accident rather than spelled out in black and white like a traditional detective novel. I felt this contributed to the ‘realness’ of the story; how many real life killers are arrested for something quite different at first? Life is full of multiple characters, faulty memories, strange cul-de-sacs and a million shades of grey, and that is exactly what the author has represented in this novel.

Posted in Random Things Tours

A Beautiful Spy by Rachel Hore

Minnie Gray is an ordinary young woman.
She is also a spy for the British government.

It all began in the summer of 1928…

Minnie is supposed to find a nice man, get married and have children. The problem is it doesn’t appeal to her at all. She is working as a secretary, but longs to make a difference.

Then, one day, she gets her chance. She is recruited by the British government as a spy. Under strict instructions not to tell anyone, not even her family, she moves to London and begins her mission – to infiltrate the Communist movement.

She soon gains the trust of important leaders. But as she grows more and more entangled in the workings of the movement, her job becomes increasingly dangerous. Leading a double life is starting to take its toll on her relationships and, feeling more isolated than ever, she starts to wonder how this is all going to end. The Russians are notorious for ruthlessly disposing of people given the slightest suspicion.

What if they find out?

I became very fond of Minnie Gray as I started to read this interesting new novel by Rachel Hore. Based on the true story of Olga Gray, a young woman recruited by Maxwell Knight in the 1930s, to infiltrate The Friends of the Soviet Union, the author has cleverly blended fact and fiction to create an intriguing and interesting novel. I loved how Minnie felt a little like a square peg in a round hole – even at home in Edgbaston with her mother (where she feels most like she belongs) she’s restless and somehow a little different to the others. At a garden party, she gravitates towards a woman playing croquet; a woman of very individual and modern style. It’s as if she recognises a woman like this wouldn’t be afraid of shaking things up. They talk about the possibility of Minnie making a move to London, that maybe she could be recommended as someone to work for the government. Minnie is so excited, this might just be that direction and purpose in life she’s been looking for. She wants something for herself, not the stereotypical marriage to a nice middle class man to produce 2.4 children, that her mother expects. She’s fed up of being at parties, dangled before an ever dwindling pool of eligible gentlemen. Her excitement, turns to hope as she waits for a phone call and watches the letterbox, but nothing comes. It’s only when she’s lost hope that a call comes for her to interview and she meets her ‘handler’ Max.

I loved the eccentric ‘Britishness’ of the people Minnie meets in her new life. Most interesting is Max, who has a flat like a menagerie, full of various animals including a parrot. She goes to work at the communist organisation as someone interested in helping others, rather than the cause itself. In order to supplement her income, she takes another niche job, typing for a distressed gentlewomen’s charity. Here she makes friends with another typist and starts to have something like a social life. Minnie is thriving out there on her own, but we are privy to her inner thoughts. She’s plagued with self- doubt – ‘is she doing this right?’ It often seems to her that she’s achieving very little, not important enough within the party to make a difference or furnish Max with anything useful. However, espionage is a long game, and the more insignificant and innocuous someone seems the better. Eventually she seems so much a part of the furniture that she is chosen to do something she never imagined. Having never been further than London, Minnie will be undertaking a mission to India as her career in espionage really takes off.

I could see how much work had gone into research, as well as mixing fact and fiction in such a way that it becomes authentic. The author embedded Minnie into the 1930s from her clothes, to societal norms and mentions of world events such as the rise of Nazism. In snippets of chat at the communist organisation I could hear ideas and concerns about the working class and keeping them on board with a left leading political party. This disenfranchised class would be easy pickings for Oswald Moseley’s fascist party in a couple of years time. This is a time of political turmoil across Europe, as the tensions started in the aftermath of WW1 begin to boil over. The author really emphasises the fear and trepidation of choosing a double life, especially as a woman. I loved Minnie’s determination to be different and do something important, despite often feeling lonely and scared. I felt the author balanced this well with her need for adventure, as well as the excitement and thrill that keeps her going as the work gets more and more dangerous. I thoroughly enjoyed this fascinating book. Rachel Hore has created a wonderful heroine who I found inspiring and authentic, with just a hint of vulnerability that made her so sympathetic. I felt completely transported to the 1930s, due to the author’s knowledge of this time period and her deeply layered descriptions of Minnie’s world. I could close my eyes and picture every setting – Minnie’s home, Max’s flat full of animals, an overcrowded train in India and the wall of heat before the monsoon rain. This was an excellent read for anyone who likes their historical fiction and enjoys determined and original heroines whose courage takes them on amazing adventures.

Meet The Author

I came to writing quite late, after a career editing fiction at HarperCollins in London. My husband and I had moved out to Norwich with our three young sons and I’d had to give up my job and writing was something that I’d always wanted to try. I originally studied history, so it was wonderful finally to put my knowledge to good use and to write The Dream House, which is partly set in the 1920s in Suffolk and London.

Most of my novels are dual narrative, often called ‘time slip’, with a story in the present alternating with one set in the past. I love the freedom that they give me to escape into the past, but also the dramatic ways in which the stories interact. My characters are often trying to solve some mystery about the past and by doing so to resolve some difficulty or puzzle in their own lives.

The books often involve a lot of research and this takes me down all sorts of interesting paths. For The Glass Painter’s Daughter I took an evening class in working with coloured glass. My creations were not very amazing, but making them gave me insight into the processes so that my characters’ activities would feel authentic. For A Week in Paris I had to research Paris in World War II and the early 1960s through films and books and by visiting the city – that was a great deal of work for one novel. Last Letter Home involved me touring a lot of country houses with old walled kitchen gardens in search of atmosphere and to explore the different kinds of plants grown there.

Places often inspire my stories. The Memory Garden, my second novel, is set in one of my favourite places in the world – Lamorna Cove in Cornwall – which is accessed through a lovely hidden valley. A Place of Secrets is set in a remote part of North Norfolk near Holt, where past and present seem to meet. Southwold in Suffolk, a characterful old-fashioned seaside resort with a harbour and a lighthouse, has been a much loved destination for our family holidays and has made an appearance in fictional guise in several of my novels, including The Silent Tide and The Love Child. Until very recently I taught Publishing and Creative Writing part-time at the University of East Anglia, but I’ve just become a full-time writer.

I hope that you are able to find my books easily and enjoy them – I am always happy to hear from readers!

Happy reading!  

Visit Rachel at, or follow her on Twitter @rachelhore or Facebook

Posted in Damp Pebbles Tour

Captain Clive’s Dreamworld by John Bassoff.

After becoming the suspect in the death of a young woman, Deputy Sam Hardy is reassigned to the town of Angels and Hope, which, within its borders, holds the once magnificent amusement park, Captain Clive’s Dreamworld. When he arrives, however, Hardy notices some strange happenings. The park is essentially empty of customers. None of the townsfolk ever seem to sleep. And girls seem to be going missing with no plausible explanation. As Hardy begins investigating, his own past is drawn into question by the town, and he finds himself becoming more and more isolated. The truth—about the town and himself—will lead him to understand that there’s no such thing as a clean escape.

This is such an incredible mix of genres and influences! I’ve seen so many suggestions but for me at different times I felt: The Truman Show, Hot Fuzz, Black Mirror and 1984. Every so often a little lightning strike of recognition would occur – such as everyone denying someone’s presence or dropping strange sayings like ‘the greater good’ – and my brain would fire off into a film or TV series. I also think it’s no coincidence that a lot of these references are visual. This book grabbed hold of my visual memory and didn’t let go. It also felt like a cautionary tale, bringing up some of the same points as Russell T. Davies’s Years and Years. It read as a warning against rampant consumerism and the sort of faux nostalgia people cling to that made Brexit happen in the U.K. I find it strange that a book with so many points of recognition still managed to feel entirely unique.

At first, Sam thinks Angels and Hope seems like a lovely place to live. Almost idyllic. At the centre of this community is the amusement park Captain Clive’s Dreamworld; the town was built to house staff of the park. It’s motto is ‘Where dreams really do come true’ and you could be forgiven for thinking they have. Sam isn’t the average man though, and he starts to notice anomalies. No one ever seems to visit the amusement park for a start, so why are the staff necessary? There’s also the problem of Bridget Bishop, a girl that no one else in the town seems to remember now she’s gone missing. Or maybe they can remember her but are denying her existence? This is the last straw for Sam and he starts to investigate what’s really going on in the village. This is where the book becomes very disturbing, in a couple of scenes that are unexpected and disturbing. However they do seem to fit what I know about Bassoff’s writing, he likes to mash-up genres and expectations. The scenes are also in-keeping with the idea that seems to be the undercurrent of this novel; life is unexpected, our place in it is total chance.

Bassoff seems to be posing the idea that we like to create myths and religions in order to give life pattern and purpose, but they are an illusion. Real life doesn’t seem to have any sense to it and we’re so scared by that, we have to create philosophies that make sense of it. When something terrible happens there is an emotional seismic shock in society, in my lifetime that’s probably 9/11 or the death of Princess Diana. Then, conspiracy theories spring up around the event. People would rather believe a shadowy conspiracy of men in grey, headed up by the Duke of Edinburgh arranged Diana’s death. This is more palatable then a Princess was driven at high speed, by a man who’d been drinking, only to die in a tragic car accident while being pursued by paparazzi. Having watched a bit of David Lynch over the years I was reminded of some of his work. In Twin Peaks we had the beautiful Laura Palmer who is found dead in the river wrapped in plastic and a beautiful town goes into mourning for its Homecoming Queen. However, as people slowly begin to tell their stories it’s clear that this town didn’t know the reality of being Laura Palmer. She was addicted to cocaine, suffering from sexual abuse and sleeping with most of men or women she came into contact with. I remember being quite disturbed by the scenes from the night Laura is killed and her cousin Maddie. This book does the same as Lynch’s work on Twin Peaks and in films like Blue Velvet. Places have a surface, but underneath there’s a dark underbelly that most people never see. So, the revealing scenes are disturbing, but they are also needed for the story being told. The surface story of this book is disgraced cop is moved to a small town with an amusement park promising dreams that come true. Dig a little deeper and we find something terrible.This is far from a world where dreams come true, unless your dreams are nightmares.

Posted in Netgalley

The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward

Publisher: Viper (Serpents Tail) 18th March 2020

I finished this novel in a sort of shell-shocked silence. I felt like I needed to go straight back to the beginning and start again. It is extraordinary and unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It’s also very difficult to review without spoiling other reader’s experience of it, but I have to give it a go.

The house in question is the home of our first narrator Ted. As we read Ted’s view of the world we start to realise there is something unique and odd about the way he experiences the world. He made me feel uneasy. We get a sense that something is very wrong when the birds he loves to watch, are trapped and killed. Ted spends a lot of time thinking about an incident several years before when a little girl disappeared from the lake nearby and was never found. Others might have forgotten, but not Ted and not the girl’s sister who has a huge sense of guilt about her sister’s loss. Ted was a suspect at the time and it’s not hard to see why; he’s a slightly strange loner, living nearby in a ramshackle home with boarded up windows. The girl’s sister hasn’t forgotten that Ted was a suspect and decides to rent the house next door and watch him, in the hope of finally discovering where her sister is. CCTV proved Ted’s alibi at the time, but the sister’s convinced she has found the culprit.

Things take a very strange turn when we meet another narrator, Ted’s cat Olivia. In other hands this might have seemed twee or whimsical, but here it isn’t. It did give me a shock in the first instance, when a narrator I’d assumed to be human, stopped to lick the back of their legs! I loved the way the author played with language in these sections. Olivia doesn’t realised Ted is a name, she thinks it’s a word for his species, so all people are ‘teds’ and dogs are ‘brouhahas’. She describes her love for another of her species, a beautiful cat with emerald eyes that she sometimes spies preening herself, through the cat flap. She also has a belief system, including her very own god who she refers to as LORD. Yet there are aspects of this cat, that are distinctly not cat-like and I started to wonder if all wasn’t as it seemed. Could this cat be someone or something else entirely?

Other narrators are introduced and I was sometimes thoroughly confused, but never contemplated putting the book down. The beauty of the language and cleverness of the structure kept me going, determined to work out what exactly was going on. I was starting to be unsure which sections were real and what was illusion. The author is clearly hugely skilled at creating that sense of the uncanny – when everything seems normal and recognisable, but there is just that sense that something is off-kilter and sinister. This was so psychologically clever and I enjoyed Ted’s visits to the ‘bug man’ who appears to be some sort of psychotherapist, until he appears where we don’t expect him. I was so involved in this world of Ted’s that I was starting to forget the original crime, the loss of a little girl on the beachfront of the lake. The writing is so involving that I was inside Ted at times and the uneasy feeling is that you will never be able to get out. I guessed some of what is going on, but not the whole and I love the ambition and audacity. This is a unique, original and deeply creative piece of work that enthralled and stunned in equal measure. Ward is a writer of immense imagination and talent and I feel privileged to have been given the chance to read this before it hits the shelves and becomes a phenomenon.

Meet The Author

CATRIONA WARD was born in Washington, DC and grew up in the United States, Kenya, Madagascar, Yemen, and Morocco. She read English at St Edmund Hall, Oxford and is a graduate of the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia. Her next gothic thriller, The Last House on Needless Street, will be published March 2021 by Viper (Serpents Tail). 

Ward’s second novel, Little Eve (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2018) won the 2019 Shirley Jackson Award and the August Derleth Prize for Best Horror Novel at the 2019 British Fantasy Awards, making her the only woman to have won the prize twice, and was a Guardian best book of 2018. Her debut Rawblood (W&N, 2015) won Best Horror Novel at the 2016 British Fantasy Awards, was shortlisted for the Author’s Club Best First Novel Award and a WHSmith Fresh Talent title. Her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies. She lives in London and Devon.

Posted in Uncategorized

The Forgotten Life of Arthur Pettinger by Suzanne Fortin.

Sometimes the past won’t stay hidden, it demands to be uncovered…

Arthur Pettinger’s memory isn’t what it used to be. He can’t always remember the names of his grandchildren, where he lives or which way round his slippers go. He does remember Maryse though, a woman he hasn’t seen for decades, but whose face he will never forget.

When Arthur’s granddaughter, Maddy moves in along with her daughter Esther, it’s her first step towards pulling her life back together. But when Esther makes a video with Arthur, the hunt for the mysterious Maryse goes viral.

There’s only one person who can help Maddy track down this woman – the one that got away, Joe. Their quest takes them to France, and into the heart of the French Resistance.

When the only way to move forwards is to look back, will this family finally be able to?

I loved this book from the beginning. I immediately felt such empathy for Arthur, struggling with dementia and living with his granddaughter, Hazel, who seems to have reached the end of her patience in her caring role. Arthur is the very picture of a benign old gentleman, a bit confused and totally dependent on the help of others. When I worked in a residential home for the elderly, I easily grew attached to elderly residents like this. However, even in that act of enjoying caring for these men, we’re dismissing so many things about them. We’re almost seeing them like a cute, but battered old teddy bear. I would forget that they were once young like me (I was 20) and that they’d had aspirations for their lives: careers to embark on, love affairs to pursue, and the world to see. That is until war came along and those plans were ripped up to be replaced with roles in the forces, defending Europe against the steady rise of Hitler and his Nazi party. The sacrifices made by men and women at this time shouldn’t be underestimated. They gave up that time where I had the luxury of starting to know myself, to forge an adult identity. I soon realised that the people I was caring for had once been young like I was with all of the same experiences and feelings I did. They’d felt passion, excitement, love, and all the things that bring enjoyment to life. Their old, often broken body, was merely a shell and once I understood this proper connections started to form with residents. I would encourage memory boxes, and displays up around the home showing the resident’s lives so that all carer’s could see and start relating as one human to another instead of carer and patient.

I felt the author captured the confusion and distress of dementia incredibly well. Once his other granddaughter Maddy moves in to look after him along with her daughter, Esther, life does settle into a better pattern for Arthur and he is more relaxed. In the chapters told from Arthur’s point of view, the way he relates to the world is so moving. The author describes the sensation of knowing something, such as his great-granddaughter’s name, but being unable to reach it. Arthur knows the knowledge is there, he just can’t remember where he put it. The frustration of this must be enormous, but with the love and understanding he receives from Maddy and Esther, these absences of knowledge don’t bother him so much. He can let them go in the knowledge the information will return, possibly because he’s being treated with patience and respect. The description of ‘sundowning’ was brilliant, referring to the distressing symptom of increased confusion towards nightfall with insomnia and often pacing up and down as the differences between night and day seem to disappear. The symptom Arthur is finding most distressing is the loss of distinction between different times:

‘He knew his name was Arthur Pettinger and he was ninety-six years old. He also knew he was in his bedroom because on the door was a picture of himself with his name written underneath. Tomorrow, he might not know any of this. Yesterday, he was twenty years old and loading bales of hay onto the back of his father’s tractor.’

Often he’s unsure about who is looking after him, but he knows they do it with such love. Just as he experiences stages of his own life simultaneously, he can experience people in the same way:

‘Maddy Pettinger. Of course, dear, sweet Maddy – his granddaughter. He could see her when she was a small child, maybe about five or six. She was wearing a blue pinafore dress and her hair was in bunches with blue ribbon. A warmth filled his heart’.

The distress seems to come as he remembers a particular woman called Maryse who he met in France when in a mission with Special Operations. There is something about this mission that will not leave his memory and since it must have been very traumatic and emotional that’s not surprising, what is surprising to Maddy is that a woman she has never heard of holds such a huge part of her grandfather’s heart and memory. However, for Arthur, Maryse might have been with him just yesterday and all the feelings still remain, as strong as they were fifty or sixty years before. He can simultaneously be deep in conversation with Maryse only to find her disappeared, and this is the cause of his distress. He is losing her and experiencing deep grief. Over and over again. His way of describing his illness is one of the most apt I’ve ever read. Here he describes how memories and ideas become difficult to extract from the mess in his head. It’s all:

muddled up in his mind like a heap of spaghetti and he didn’t know where the strands of thought started. They were a jumbled mess of words and images, fragments of memory and snatches of thought – all knotted up together’.

The sections where we travel back and see the full account of Arthur’s mission into France during WW2 are powerful and moving. It’s not hard to see how feelings were amplified, by the danger they were facing on a daily basis. If you don’t know whether you’ll be alive tomorrow, you want to be sure those you love know you love them. The growing feelings between Maryse and Arthur are plain to see and I was devastated by the scenes where they ended up separated. It’s hard to know whether Arthur’s dementia is stirring up emotions for a love affair unfinished, whether Maryse was left in danger, or if things were finished and he doesn’t remember. This is the worry that granddaughter Maddy has. Her daughter Esther’s normal cooking channel goes viral when she asks for help finding Maryse, but Maddy is struggling over how to handle it. She’s even more cross when Esther approaches her ex-boyfriend Joe to do the investigation. Joe works as an historical investigator so in Esther’s mind he’s the right man to call, but she doesn’t understand the emotions involved. Maddy was broken hearted when their relationship ended, will she be able to lean on him now to help her grandfather? Even if she does, will she be making things worse for Arthur – what if they are too late and Maryse has already passed away?

The resolution, when it came, was not what I expected and actually made me cry. Not just for these two lovers, but for the many individual losses that happen during wartime as people become scattered from those they love. Often making huge sacrifices to keep them safe, such as those made by parents in the novel. It showed me how hard it can be to fully understand what a person with dementia is going through and the significance of what they are saying. Are they distressed because they’ve left something unresolved, or because it’s unresolved in that moment and later they’ll remember again. There is a comfort for family members in realising deep down there’s recognition; they may not be experiencing you in the now, but they might be with your four year old self instead. My grandma, who had dementia for the last two years of her life, once said to me: ‘I can’t go to bed there’s a little girl hanging on my legs’. In the next second she looked at me quite sharply and added: ‘is it you?’ I think it probably was, but a toddler me, back in the early 1970s. She’d made the connection in that moment and in a way knew exactly who I was. For Arthur there are moments when he’s still there, at the farmhouse with Maryse, sitting and talking in the woods, slowly falling in love. I hoped that when he did pass away, that he could live in those moments forever.