Posted in Netgalley

Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth MacNeal.

From the cover..

The spellbinding novel from the author of the Sunday Times bestselling The Doll Factory. 1866. In a coastal village in southern England, Nell picks violets for a living. Set apart by her community because of the birthmarks that speckle her skin, Nell’s world is her beloved brother and devotion to the sea. But when Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in the village, Nell is kidnapped. Her father has sold her, promising Jasper Jupiter his very own leopard girl. It is the greatest betrayal of Nell’s life, but as her fame grows, and she finds friendship with the other performers and Jasper’s gentle brother Toby, she begins to wonder if joining the show is the best thing that has ever happened to her. In London, newspapers describe Nell as the eighth wonder of the world. Figurines are cast in her image, and crowds rush to watch her soar through the air. But who gets to tell Nell’s story? What happens when her fame threatens to eclipse that of the showman who bought her? And as she falls in love with Toby, can he detach himself from his past and the terrible secret that binds him to his brother? Moving from the pleasure gardens of Victorian London to the battle-scarred plains of the Crimea, Circus of Wonders is an astonishing story about power and ownership, fame and the threat of invisibility.

‘Do you like stories?’ Nell asks, and the child nods. She picks up the book of Fairy Tales, weighs it in her hand. She remembers Charlie’s wafting hands, trying to fix her, to make her ordinary. She puts it back, takes a breath. Instead, she tells Pearl about a mermaid with a blue-scaled tail. ‘Her tail was so beautiful,’ she whispers, ‘that if men caught her, they’d dry her out and place her behind a sheet of glass, and thousands of strangers would pay to see her.’ She tells her how the mermaid swam in the deep waters where nobody could find her. ‘A little like you in this wagon,’ she says. Pearl smiles, and Nell carries on, explains how a prince’s ship was blown off course and he fell in love with her. He longed for his own tail so much that he visited a witch who ripped his legs from his body and stitched on fish scales with a sharp needle’.

Those of us who loved Elizabeth MacNeal’s first book The Doll Factory have been waiting impatiently for the next novel to spring from her imagination. The wait was worth it. I am always drawn to books about circuses and freak shows – it follows on from research I did at university in my Gothic, Grotesque and Monstrous module and for my dissertation on disability. However, not all works that feature freak shows, in whatever form, have their research based in disability studies and culture. While The Greatest Showman has Hugh Jackman (swoon) and some incredible songs, it doesn’t really tackle the ethics of such an enterprise as Barnum’s. Yes, the freaks had a great song about being their authentic selves and not being hidden away, but it never tackled that deep inequality in their relationship as showman and exhibit. The act of singing This Is Me, led by the bearded lady, shows their strength and character when Barnum doesn’t allow them to attend the party with dignitaries. However, it doesn’t address the fact that they are getting paid to display themselves as different and whether or not this is a choice. MacNeal uses Barnum as the inspiration to her showman, Jasper Jupiter, but she does see the problems inherent in a concern that displays ‘other’ bodies for entertainment. She then explores the concept of difference using the circus performers, fairy tales and concepts of monstrousness. She manages to do this while writing a story that is thrilling, full of strong characters and told with such vivid description.

Our heroine, and eventual Queen of the Moon and Stars, is Nell. As Jasper Jupiter’s troupe visit the small village where her family farms violets for confectionery, he notices Nell’s wild abandon as she dances with her brother. This is an after show party for the performers, but there are locals too, enjoying the atmosphere and partaking in a lot of alcohol. Nell is usually shy, covered in birth marks head to foot, she tends to stay where she isn’t seen. However, the alcohol she tries removes all the inhibitions she usually hides behind in public. Jasper sees her as a leopard girl, covered in spots, and imagines how she would look in his circus. Eventually though, he settles on Queen of the Moon and Stars; Nellie Moon, with a skin covered in constellations. He approaches Nell’s drunkard of a father and offers him twenty pounds for her. He creates a caravan for her, beautifully decorated and with three well chosen books for her to read. Then with her father’s help, he kidnaps her, locks her in the caravan and trundles off with the rest of the circus into the night. His plan is to make her fly, constructing huge feather wings on a harness and a system of ropes and pulleys to give the impression she is soaring above the crowd. His troupe are ‘performers’ not just exhibits to be wheeled out, poked and prodded. Jasper believes that with Nellie Moon he might start to earn the sort of money that would make a trip to London viable. Maybe in a show tent in one of the pleasure gardens? Most of all he’d like to entice Queen Victoria to see his show, because she is a famous ‘freak fancier’ and what a coup it would be if Jasper’s Circus of Wonders was her first choice of entertainment since Albert died.

I loved the way the author used the books in Nell’s caravan to bring in the idea of fairy tales and how they victimise people who are different. When Nell is reading to Pearl, an albino little girl that Jasper buys, she manages some retelling worthy of Angela Carter – including The Little Mermaid quoted at the beginning of my review. Nell thinks about the book of Hans Christian Andersen tales she would read with her brother Charlie:

‘They read about Hans My Hedgehog, half-boy, half-beast; about the Maiden without Hands; about Beast and his elephant trunk and his body glittering with fish scales. It was the stories’ endings which always silenced her, that made her pull her dress over her fingers. Love altered each character – Hans shucked his hedgehog spines like a suit, the maiden’s hands grew back, Beast became a man – and Nell pored over the woodcuts so carefully, staring at those plain, healed bodies. Would her birthmarks disappear if somebody loved her?’

The thought would make her tearful even then, but she didn’t know why. Stella, the bearded lady, tells Nell that she will find her strength in performing. It’s a way of taking up space in a world that doesn’t see them. She gives voice to the dilemma at the heart of the ‘freak show’; instinctively, it feels wrong to exhibit someone for their difference, but where else would they earn so much money and live so well? Of course in reality there were horror stories and the author does name check some of them in the book. Sara Baartman, a slave from South Africa, known as The Hottentot Venus was exhibited all over the world until her death. She was then bought by naturalist George Cuvier who dissected her, then pickled her genitals and kept them in a jar. Barnum was known to treat animals appallingly, but he also exhibited a freed slave called Joice Heth after removing all her teeth! He did this so he could name her the Oldest Woman in the World. However, for every horror story there were famous ‘freaks’ such as Siamese Twins Chang and Eng who earned so much from being exhibited that they bought a plantation for themselves, and their families. It isn’t just the money though, as Stella explains:

‘There’s power in it,’ Stella says, twisting a curl of her beard around her finger. ‘In what?’ ‘Performing. You control it. How they see you. You choose to be different. Nobody else looks like me, and I’m glad […] I was a hungry gutterling, not worth a gentleman’s spit. And because of this, the source of all my powers—’ she smiles and pulls on her beard – ‘I’ve been to Vienna and Paris and Moscow, and done as I please. I’ve made enough money to make my mother turn in her grave. I could give you a thousand names of wonders whose lives are richer, bigger, brighter, because of shows like this.’

Nell can’t imagine feeling like this. She has always kept her body covered and stayed in the background. She’s used to being called ‘leopard girl’ or being asked if her mother was startled by a leopard during her confinement. She is used to being whispered about and pitied. How will she feel about her body being displayed, flying high above the audience? Being pointed at and talked about, her body on posters, matchboxes and as figurines. Yet, when she gets there, she does feel what Stella is talking about.

‘Someone throws flowers into the sky. A bouquet dips and falls. She watches these people, grown fat on wonder. They have seen a giant juggle, a bearded woman chirrup like a blackbird, a dwarf ride a miniature pony, tumblers and contortionists, fire-eaters and dancing poodles, and she is the finale. They admire her, want to be her. All her life, she has held herself like a bud, so small and tight and voiceless. She has not realised the potential that lies within her, the possibility that she might unfurl, arms thrown wide, and take up space in the world.’

I loved the stance the author takes and I loved this awakening in Nell too, but there’s so much more to the book. The luscious descriptions of costumes and performers made me feel I was there. The heat of the lights, the smell of the animals and gaudy caravans.The sounds and smells of the pleasure gardens were also really vivid, especially the morning after. The flashbacks of Jasper and his brother Toby’s time in the Crimean War were horrific and I loved the interplay of the brother’s roles as watcher and doer. The author plays with the idea that appearances never lie, through Toby’s photography, how he chooses his images and for which audience. Toby was an interesting character who never truly fits anywhere, not even in his natural place as Jasper’s brother. His difference doesn’t show, so when he tries to make his otherness visual will the other performers accept him? Jasper himself is mercurial, full of ideas and with a lot of success, but always reaching for more, to his detriment. I found his relationships to women interesting, he has no lovers and his ties with his friend Dash were the strongest he’s had with another person. He seems to see women as things to display, to possess and assert power over, but not as allies or equals. Yet, in his troupe, he has some of the strongest women you could imagine. There are some parts of the ending that were inevitable and others that were unexpected and left undone, which was perfect. I loved this book so much, I’m going to buy a very special copy of it and keep it forever.

Meet The Author

Elizabeth Macneal was born in Scotland and now lives in East London. She is a writer and potter and works from a small studio at the bottom of her garden. The Doll Factory, Elizabeth’s debut novel, was a Sunday Times bestseller, has been translated into twenty-nine languages and has been optioned for a major television series. It won the Caledonia Novel Award 2018. Circus of Wonders is her second novel.

Posted in Publisher Proof

The Distant Dead by Lesley Thomson.

A woman lies dead in a bombed-out house. A tragic casualty of the Blitz? Or something more sinister? Sixty years later, the detective’s daughter unearths the truth… From the number 1 bestselling author of The Detective’s Daughter.

LONDON, 1940

Several neighbours heard the scream of the woman in the bombed-out house. One told the detective she thought the lady had seen a mouse. Another said it wasn’t his business what went on behind closed doors. None of them imagined that a trusting young woman was being strangled by her lover.


Beneath the vast stone arches of Tewkesbury Abbey, a man lies bleeding, close to death. He is the creator of a true-crime podcast which now will never air. He was investigating the murder of a 1940s police pathologist – had he come closer to the truth than he realised?

This is the first time I’ve read Lesley Thomson and her Detective’s Daughter series, of which this is the eighth novel. At first it felt a little like coming into the room in the middle of a conversation, but once the second timeline began I’d been drawn into the atmosphere of an interesting story, full of character and historical detail. In the now section of the novel, Stella is settling in Tewkesbury and trying to finally come to terms with the death of her father in a place where she isn’t reminded of him at every turn. It was a tough choice to completely uproot herself, leaving behind her business Clean Slate and a long term relationship with Jack. She has moved with journalist Lucie, who also loved her father, and the women are dealing with their grief in their own ways. Stella has started visiting The Death Cafe, run by pathologist Felicity Branscombe. It’s a space to meet others struggling with grief and they discuss their experiences of death. While on one of her cleaning jobs – at Tewkesbury Abbey – she meets a man called Roddy Marsh and they pass the time of day as he asks her questions about how she keeps a place like this clean. However, she then meets him again at her second visit to the Death Cafe group. Is this a coincidence, or did Roddy want to meet Stella? Straight after the group meeting, Stella returns to the Abbey only to find poor Roddy, dying from a stab wound in his back. He has something important to say to her, but sadly Stella can’t catch his words.

In our past storyline we are taken to the London Blitz and the murder of young mother Maple Greenham. For some reason, my connection to Maple was instant and I really enjoyed her part in the story. We meet her as she is getting ready for a night out and we sense her parent’s trepidation that she’s stepping out with a man who doesn’t pick her up or even walk her home. They’ve never met him at all. After an evening of dancing, her beau produces a key for a friend’s house and they have a tryst. I loved the small details Thomson evokes in these glimpses of the past. Here, Maple has a moment of irritation as she notices a snag in the toe of her silk stocking and mentally tots up how much time she’s had to spend working to afford them. This told me that the man she’s with wouldn’t understand that sort of concern, because he’s from a different class to her. Maple’s scream is dismissed by those who do hear it. No one imagined it was the sound of this young woman being strangled by her lover. DI George Cotton is the investigating officer and finds incontrovertible evidence of her killer’s identity, but finds his case and his career shelved. This is a man too important to the war effort to be hauled up on a murder charge. Put simply, it’s decided his life and the potential lives his work will save, are more important than Maple. The link between cases is a podcast, titled The Distant Dead, featuring murder cases where the real culprits were never caught. The presenter of this true crime series was Roddy Marsh and he was featuring the death of a 1940s police pathologist. Is there someone in the present day who wants these truths to stay buried?

Now, the Clean Slate staff alongside Stella, Lucie and Jack decide to investigate past and present murder cases. This is not without it’s dangers and leads us to an interesting cast of characters, none of which are exactly what we expect. Stella realises again, that it seems impossible for her to leave her father’s world behind. There’s even a connection to the SIO on Roddy’s murder, a WPC who worked with Stella’s dad. I enjoyed tracing the links between past and present cases and watching how Stella works – no matter that she doesn’t want to fall into her father’s work and habits, she does seem to have a talent for it. I loved the historical detail from the 1940 case too. This was an atmospheric tale, full of the twists and turns a modern reader expects. However, there’s also a feel of a much earlier mystery novel, possibly a 1930s/40s cozy murder mystery. It has elements like the eccentric characters, gatherings in tea rooms and unusual methods of murder. Some aspects are spooky, such as the cathedral or the dark and narrow country lanes. Others, such as the dialogue, are almost comical. There’s also Stanley the dog’s antics too of course. It is an enjoyable read, slightly slow in some parts, but with a great sense of place and characterisation.

Meet The Author.

Lesley Thomson is the author of the Detective’s Daughter series of West London-set mysteries featuring private investigators Stella, a cleaner, and Jack, a tube driver. The first novel, The Detective’s Daughter, became an ebook phenomenon in 2013, staying at number 1 in the digital charts for 3 months. Since then, the series has gone on to sell 800,000 copies worldwide. Lesley is an active member of the UK crimewriting community, and appeared at several crime festivals in 2019, including CrimeFest, Harrogate, Morecambe & Vice and Capital Crime. She lives in Lewes with her partner and her dog

Follow Lesley:

Facebook: @LesleyThomsonNovelist

Twitter: @LesleyjmThomson


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Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

The Perfect Lie by Jo Spain

This thriller kept me guessing and a couple of times, even had me going back to previous chapters so I could be sure of what I’d read! Our heroine is Erin Kennedy, an Irish girl working in publishing in NYC and living with her husband of three years out on Long Island. She narrates her story across two timelines: one is the present and Erin is on trial for murdering her husband, and the other is a year earlier around the third anniversary of her marriage to Danny, a detective from Long Island. Our second narrator is a younger woman called Ally, a PhD student and proctor at Harvard University. My confusion arose from how these characters related to each other and the author is clearly a master of telling her readers just enough to keep us reading, but not enough to ruin the later revelations, twists and turns – and there are plenty of them!

The Erin from a year before is a very different person and early on in a shock scene, Erin and Danny are starting their day at their sea front apartment when his partner turns up at the door. Ben has two uniformed cops with him and when Erin answers the door he is not his usual self. He apologises but tells her they are there to arrest Danny. Erin thinks this is some elaborate joke, but her confusion gives way to horror as she realises Ben is serious. However, instead of being confused, Danny looks guilty and scared as hell. Before Erin’s eyes Danny runs to their fourth floor balcony, apologises to her, and throws himself from the edge. Ben doesn’t let her see, and she stands a little distance away, watching with disbelief as a small crowd gathers and paramedics work on her husband. Although Ben spares her the final image of Danny, broken on the sidewalk, she already knows he’s head. Through shock, and that awful first numb state of grief, she forgets to ask why Ben turned up that morning to arrest his own partner, why they take away papers and his laptop, and exactly what Danny is supposed to have done.

Those questions do come later though, especially when Erin has that realisation, that she isn’t being afforded the same support she’s seen other police widows receive from the precinct and the other wives. It’s almost as if she’s been cut off and they’re embarrassed by her, most notably not turning up for the funeral. It doesn’t take long for her to realise she’s going to need a lawyer. The police’s attitude tells her that Danny must have been suspected of corruption, and she needs someone who knows the system. Firstly they need to find out whether she’s still entitled to a widow’s pension, but next she wants them to do some digging into exactly what Danny was being investigated for. Her journey has her asking so many questions and she starts to wonder whether she knew her husband at all. With a small trusted group of friends and her sister Tanya, she starts to piece together the truth.

By now you’ve probably noticed the glaring big question mark in this story; if Danny committed suicide, how is Erin on trial for murdering her husband? I’m not going to ruin the story for you all so I’m not going to reveal any more. This question, and many others do get answered eventually. The author’s timing, in choosing what to conceal, what to reveal and when, is absolute perfection.

It takes a while for Ally and Erin’s stories to intersect, so after every one of Ally’s chapters I was racking my brains to work out where they fit. Ally is writing her PhD on crime novels and as proctor she is charged with taking care of one student hall of residence on the campus. It’s an unusual role that seems to cover mentoring, mothering, but also showing students how to have a good time. In fact, Ally’s hall parties have become so renowned that girls from other blocks want to get in on the guest list – so many that they’ve had to place a restriction on the amount of invites they can have per girl. We meet her as she tries to support a girl called Lauren, an undergraduate, who has been the victim of a crime. Luckily, Ally knows someone who may be able to help, and she offers to bring her boyfriend in to help with results neither of them expect.

I did struggle to understand Erin at times and her decision making. Of course she’s in shock and shouldn’t be making decisions anyway, but there were times when I was screaming at her not to do something. There was an element of her drifting along, rather than making well thought out decisions. Her grief is complicated by the manner of Danny’s death, but also because she’s angry he made this choice to lie to her, leave her behind and leave her haunted by that final image of him disappearing over their balcony. I think her confusion over where to be and who to spend time with was well done. To be with his family is difficult because their grief is different and not complicated by betrayal. She is shunned by the other detective’s wives so seeing them makes her angry. She feels abandoned in a country that isn’t her own, and she gathers a disparate group of new friends who offer support. There’s Bud, the owner of their local bar, her new firecracker of a lawyer, Karla, Danny’s psychotherapist and a man called Cal who knew Danny. These people seem to keep her afloat, but I didn’t trust anyone and treated all of them with suspicion. In feeling angry and betrayed with the one man she thought she knew, and his police colleagues, is she in danger of trusting all the wrong people? I found her story entertaining, compelling and the author paced it well. This would be a great read by the pool this summer and you’ll probably find yourself reading it in a couple of sittings, because like me, you’ll want to know exactly what’s going on. This book is a rollicking good thriller, that I’m sure you’re going to enjoy this summer.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Ariadne by Jennifer Saint.

“What I did not know was that I had hit upon a truth of womanhood: however blameless a life we led, the passions and the greed of men could bring us to ruin, and there was nothing we could do.”

I know we shouldn’t choose books based on their cover, but I wanted to mention straight away how stunning the finished hardback of this book really is. A gorgeous design of vines in midnight blue and gold, this would jump out at you in any book store. We all know the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Everything is black and white when we’re small children, so we take in myths like this, accepting everything we’re told. It’s just a story isn’t it? King Minos has a monster called The Minotaur that’s half man and half bull. Every year the city of Athens must send seven of its best sons and daughters to be sacrificed to the Minotaur. Then one year, Theseus arrives in place of one of the chosen boys, with a plan to kill the Minotaur and stop this blood shed. Minos’s eldest daughter, Ariadne, falls in love at first sight and vows to help Theseus, expecting that she will travel back to Athens with him.

However, the plan doesn’t unfold as she expected and we follow her story as she wakes up on a neighbouring Greek Island alone. Having done a small amount of Latin and Greek at school, I’ve read many of the Greek myths and my abiding impression was how cruel the gods were. In modern Christian faith believers tend to trust in God being a comfort and help in troubled times, but these classical gods are usually causing the troubled times. They are either disguising themselves as animals, committing rapes against human women, having relationships with humans, but then retreating to be unfathomable, mysterious, beings when it suits them. I would have found the Greek’s concept of gods to be frightening – they are capricious, childlike and move humans round like chess pieces. So, knowing that the gods interfered in the lives of King Minos and his Queen did not surprise me.

In this feminist retelling, Jennifer Saint deliberately places the women in the centre of this myth, where they should be. It subtly changes it’s meaning and makes us think again about the version we have always known. King Minos’s daughters, Ariadne and Phaedre, have a living example of how women’s lives are played with by male gods in their own mother Pasiphae, who was tricked into falling in love with a bull. Minos tried to steal Poseidon’s incredible creation of the Cretan bull. In his anger Poseidon filled Pasiphae with lust for the bull and from their rather undignified union came the girl’s brother Asterion, half boy half calf. Possibly thinking of her own troubles, their mother tells them the full story of Medusa, including the part prior to her entanglement with Perseus. In a late version of her story, written by Ovid, Medusa was a beautiful girl with lustrous long hair, and was a priestess of Athena. Poseidon was beaten by Athena into becoming patron of the capital city of Greece, Athens. To punish Athena he ‘seduced’ or raped Medusa in Athena’s temple. However, instead of punishing Poseidon, Athena punished Medusa by turning her hair into snakes. The only version I was ever told, when studying classics at school, was Medusa’s part in the story of Perseus – women are of course, only bit players in the story of these incredible male heroes. These part stories, accepted and understood by me as a young teenager, now make me angry. I was only ever given the male version of these tales and I can understand what pushed the author to write this.

‘I only knew Medusa as a monster. I had not thought she had ever been anything else. The stories of Perseus did not allow for a Medusa with a story of her own.’

As usual though, because I have a disability, the book make me think about how disability and difference is portrayed in the myths. There were some similarities between Asterion and Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. As I was reading about the Minotaur’s origins I started to have feelings for this creature who never asked to exist. The narrator tells us about her mother after his birth, when she’s blank and exhausted but:

‘she cradled a mass of blankets to her breast and she pressed her nose softly to her baby’s head. He snuffled, hiccuped and opened a dark eye to stare into mine as I moved slowly forward. I noticed that it was fringed with long, dark eyelashes. A chubby hand fluttered against my mother’s breast; one tiny, perfect pink nail at the end of each finger. I could not yet see beneath the blanket where the soft pink infant legs gave way at the ankles to dark fur and hard, stony hooves. The infant was a monster and the mother a hollowed-out shell, but I was a child and drawn to the frail spark of tenderness in the room.’

She describes this special time, before he was monstrous and how she felt, even about the more unusual aspects of him.

‘I reached that final inch and bridged the gulf between us. My fingers stroked the slick fur of his brow, beneath the bulging edifice of rocky horns that emerged at his temples. I let my hand sweep gently across the soft spot just between his eyes. With a barely perceptible movement, his jaw loosened and a little huff of breath blew warm against my face.’

She realises he is not a monster, he is her brother. Inexplicably he moves from milk to craving raw meat and eating passing rats. However, Ariadne does not fear him and instead of thinking ahead, she focuses on the here and now and describes trying to teach him table manners and how to be gentle. Even she has realised that Asterion is a victim, and feels a ‘raw pity’ for him that brings tears to her eyes. In the same way that it isn’t Medusa’s fault she is raped in Athena’s temple, it’s not Asterion’s fault that he is created the way he is. Ariadne describes him as Poseidon’s cruel joke and humiliation for a man who has never even deigned to lay his eyes on him. That is until Minos sees he can use Asterion for his own ends. Minos was only proud of his potential monstrousness and the fear he might instil in his enemies. It is Minos who instructs Daedalus to construct the labyrinth that secures Asterion as a slave and even though there is pride in his new weapon, he doesn’t even allow him to keep his own name.

‘And so Asterion became the Minotaur. My mother’s private constellation of shame intermingled with love and despair no longer; instead, he became my father’s display of dominance to the world. I saw why he proclaimed him the Minotaur, stamping this divine monstrosity with his own name and aligning its legendary status with his own from its very birth.’

I was fascinated with the author’s storytelling, it is spellbinding. She shows us that for powerful men and gods like Minos and Poseidon, whether you are a woman or different like Asterion your only worth in this life, is wrapped up in your value to men. If Asterion had remained gentle and docile, Minos would still have banished him in some way. Pasiphae’s psychological break after his birth shows what happens to women who give birth to daughters and monsters. This is a book that truly makes you think, not just about the historical myths we’re told, but who tells them and why? It also made me think about the stories we are told today, by our world leaders (still largely men). How do they shape the way we view the world? Which heroes do they hold up as examples? Which monsters do they wield to control us? Like Ariadne we must learn to question. She learns to her cost, that even the man who appears to be her saviour, is more interested in his own glory. There is so much to enjoy here and on so many different levels. This is a stunning debut and shouldn’t be missed.

‘No longer was my world one of brave heroes; I was learning all too swiftly the women’s pain that throbbed unspoken through the tales of their feats.’

Meet The Author

Jennifer Saint grew up reading Greek mythology and was always drawn to the untold stories hidden within the myths. After thirteen years as a high school English teacher, she wrote ARIADNE which tells the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur from the perspective of Ariadne – the woman who made it happen. Jennifer Saint is now a full-time author, living in Yorkshire, England, with her husband and two children.

Posted in Publisher Proof

Ladies Midnight Swimming Club by Faith Hogan.

It might be a surprise to her many fans, but I’ve never read a Faith Hogan novel before. I can’t think why, because I absolutely loved this literary mix of the deeply emotional, yet uplifting and funny book set in a small seaside village in Ireland. It focuses on a lifelong friendship between two older women – Jo and Elizabeth. Jo lives in a small cottage overlooking the bay and has one daughter, Lucy. Lucy is a doctor whose having a long break over the summer from working long hours in a busy hospital. She’s still struggling with the aftermath of a divorce and a husband who has a new wife and relocated to the much sunnier and glamorous sounding Australia. Elizabeth is still grieving her husband, the village GP, but is still keeping his secrets. All three women meet in the bay at midnight for a dip in the freezing cold Atlantic. Finally, there’s Dan, a young writer taking a break from script-writing and hoping inspiration hits in the quaint Irish village of Ballycove.

This book hinges on the strength of its characters and I was destined to love Elizabeth. Up until now she seemed to hold herself apart from the village, apart from the abiding friendship she shares with Jo, who knew her before she became the doctor’s wife. Remote from other villagers in her large house with adjoining doctor’s surgery she is in the strange position of knowing some of the most personal aspects of her neighbour’s lives, yet not a single one knows her story. Many might have thought she was destined for the big house and the status it brings, but nothing could be further from the truth. Elizabeth finds her house cold and never truly feels at home there, preferring instead the cosiness of Jo’s small cottage. As the novel progresses she creates a corner for herself with the comfiest chair and the evidence of her hobbies laying round about her. It’s the most comfortable she’s ever been in her beautiful house, that’s never really been a home. She has just lost her husband and is going through all the upheaval that brings, but there were secrets about her marriage that nobody knows. The young doctor’s proposal for Elizabeth’s hand had conditions attached, more than she could ever have realised at the time. It was the only way out of a terrible situation she found herself in – pregnant and afraid she made the bargain, then paid a terrible price for the rest of her life. What we experience with her is an awakening and so many new experiences start to open up, signified powerfully by the midnight skinny dipping she’s enticed into by her friend Jo. She emerges ready to take on the problems she finds herself in, not least the gambling debts racked up by her late husband and the ailing practice he left behind. Firstly hiring Jo’s daughter Lucy as an interim GP for the summer, making plans to sell the house and helping visiting author Dan in his quest to find out more about the local home for unwed mothers. There is more heartache to come, but will Elizabeth have the strength to face it?

Lucy is another character dealing with the aftermath of huge life changes, after the collapse of her marriage. She’s taking a break from work and hoping to reconnect with her son Niall. He finds it hard to accept the quieter pace of life in Ballcraig and hates that he’s left friends behind. He has a heartbreaking conversation with his mum where he discloses that he’d rather go live with his Dad in Australia. He’s imagining his father’s cool apartment overlooking the Sydney harbour and the excitement that living back in a city might bring. Lucy knows her ex- husband will say yes, not because he has a burning need to spend time with his son, but because it will score points. It takes a strong woman to put aside her misgivings and make that phone call, but she does. However, as Niall forms a relationship with Dan after visiting his cottage out on the cliff, then meets the piano seller’s daughter will the magic of this little village rub off on him? Lucy also starts to find friendship, firstly with Elizabeth and also with her mother who encourages her to join the midnight swimming club. She also starts to confide in Dan who is a great listener, but since both of them are only visiting the coast, is this a friendship that can flourish.

Lastly Jo, who is one of those characters who seem to sustain everyone else. She’s the friend with the cosy home that people want to visit, the starter of social gatherings, and the great listener with a cup of tea never far away. As always with good listeners and people used to caring for others, she isn’t always good at sharing her own worries and problems. She’s fiercely loyal to her friends, the evening long ago, where she started an altercation with Elizabeth’s husband over how he was treating her friend is long remembered and talked about. Without seeming to do much she is the lynchpin of this group and is thought well of by her fellow villagers. When it’s clear she does need help, the support comes from all around her. I really enjoyed her acceptance of life with all its heartbreak and absurdities, as well as the way she values her female friends.

These characters are so well drawn I feel that they might exist somewhere. The setting is beautifully romantic, even if the sea is absolutely freezing! Dan’s quest is well handled too, with an honesty about the awful cruelty that did happen within mother and baby homes in Ireland, the true extent of which still hits the headlines today. The author uses her older characters to describe what it is like when a country is so ruled by any religion, and how in small villages the word of the parish priest or Mother Superior was law. I enjoyed the humour though too, often just in the way the characters talk to each other but also in little ‘in-jokes’ with the reader such as Dan imagining the swimming club as one of those films like Calendar Girls. I can imagine this as a film, but until then I have quite a back catalogue to dive into. Thanks to this novel, Faith Hogan has a new fan.

Meet The Author

Faith Hogan is an Irish award-winning and bestselling author of five contemporary fiction novels. Her books have featured as Book Club Favorites, Net Galley Hot Reads and Summer Must Reads. She writes grown up women’s fiction which is unashamedly uplifting, feel good and inspiring. She lives in the west of Ireland with her husband, four children and a very busy Labrador named Penny. She’s a writer, reader, enthusiastic dog walker and reluctant jogger – except of course when it is raining!

Posted in Random Things Tours

The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird.

“Glasgow, 2025.  Dr Amanda Maclean is called to treat a young man with a mild fever. Within three hours he dies. The mysterious illness sweeps through the hospital with deadly speed. This is how it begins.

The victims are all men.

Last year at this time I was reading Eve Smith’s The Waiting Rooms and observing how strange it felt to be reading about a pandemic in a pandemic. I imagined that all would be normal by Christmas. Here I am a whole year later writing about another story of a dystopian pandemic, when apart from moving house I’ve barely moved beyond my own front gate. Last year it felt strangely unreal, while this year it’s all too familiar and the weekend’s footage of people at the first music festival since COVID seemed like an anomaly. Due to my multiple risk factors I’m inside till my second jab, but I think getting out and about again won’t come naturally. This experience definitely affected my response to The End of Men because now it doesn’t feel like reading science fiction, it feels like a possibility, a potential future.

The End of Men features a virus that exclusively affects men. It’s 2025 and Dr Amanda McLean raises the alarm. Ironically she’s dismissed as hysterical. When she is finally taken seriously it’s too late. The, largely male, global leadership are slow to accept the reality and slow to act, as the death toll climbs further every day they do nothing. Women can be carriers, but don’t catch the disease. The spread is so diverse that eventually 90% of men are affected. The author tells the story using several different first – person narratives, each one a woman, left behind to deal with what is now a woman’s world. As well as Dr McLean there’s a social historian named Catherine who is trying to document human stories of the plague. As the government tries to organise a new society, they employ the services of Dawn who is an intelligence analyst. Then there’s Elizabeth, desperately trying to develop a vaccine. Through these and other viewpoints we start to see how society will change. The many voices could have been confusing, and there were occasions when I was unsure who I was reading. I soon overcame that and realised that the diversity of characters helped the reader realise the scope of this disaster and how it might affect people differently across gender, race, and class lines. This had me thinking about those voices missed – there are no LGBTQ characters in the book, which seemed odd when the virus is so gender specific. It would have brought a unique perspective to the book.

When I first read the premise of the book I hadn’t fully realised what an effect it would have to lose men. I thought of society turning upside down, no patriarchy, a world ruled by women. Through this book I realised what it would mean day to day – for a start all the professions that men usually dominate like tradesmen – electricians, builders, joiners, and plumbers. Then there’s the armed forces and how lack of defences would weaken countries. A lack of police officers, dustbin men, road sweepers, and funeral directors. There’s the fact that the other half of society will be trying to keep their respective countries together when they’re grieving huge losses of potentially every man in their family. They’re faced with terrible choices and I found myself awake at night wondering what I would do: if I had sons and the government wanted to corral them in a medical facility to keep them safe; or if my husband was sick, would I leave to keep my sons safe; if there were three generations of men in my household who would I ask to leave? Which classes and races would be most affected by the virus due to different living conditions and the financial implications of splitting a household. I thought into the future and wondered whether, once a vaccine was found, would governments start controlling fertility to repopulate the earth with men? Would I want more men and might we end up with gender wars? I kept thinking about parallels with post WWI where villages lost a whole generation of men, and where returning men found women doing their jobs and not wanting to give them up. Some men became violent and committed crimes in their frustration at having no employment to come home to. These would be massive societal shifts and it was hard to comprehend them, especially at a time when we are readjusting to coming out of lockdown. Our heads are already full of which behaviours we might keep – mask wearing, reduced social mingling, working from home – and those we’ll be happy to discard.

It does seem, the more you read, that this book is chillingly prescient. It’s no surprise that people around the author might joke about her Sybil- like tendencies in predicting the end of a world as we understand it. I don’t want to give anything more away because you need to read this and have your own reactions to it, but you should read it. This is beautifully written and compelling to read. Somehow it managed to be both hard to put down and difficult to pick up! I felt like I’d been through the emotional wringer afterwards and couldn’t stop thinking about it. However, it wasn’t just the tough decisions I remembered. It was the incredible resilience of these women and how the human capacity for hope is remarkable. This is an unbelievable debut novel. It will be an excellent book club choice over the coming months and people will want to put themselves in these character’s shoes and wonder – what would they do? Your answers might surprise you.

Meet The Author.

Christina Sweeney-Baird wrote The End of Men in 2018 and 2019 before Corona virus and could never have expected the parallels between the real world and my fiction that would ensue. She was told by some early readers though, that The End of Men has made them feel better about the world we live in today. The book has a lot of hope and is, ultimately, about human resilience and our ability to cope with the extraordinary.

My debut novel, will be released on 29 April 2021 and is to be published in 15 languages. The End of Men explores the question: what would the world look like without men? It follows characters as they try and keep their families safe, recover and rebuild the world after a deadly virus to which women are immune kills 90% of the male population. You follow characters like Dr Amanda Maclean, a Glaswegian A and E consultant, who treats Patient Zero and is desperate to keep her two sons safe; Elizabeth Cooper, a young American scientist who helps to create a vaccine in London; and Catherine Lawrence, an anthropologist who wants to record and commemorate what’s happening in the world.

She lives in London where she works full-time as a corporate litigation lawyer. She writes 1,000 words a day in the evenings and on weekends, fuelled by 7up Free, green tea and snacks.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The King’s General by Daphne du Maurier.

The King’s General is not usually people’s first choice when they start to read Du Maurier’s novels. Most read her more famous novels: Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel or Jamaica Inn. Yet this piece of historical fiction was my first Du Maurier novel and I first read it when I was a girl. To understand why you probably need to know something about my childhood. For the most part I’d been an active and lively tomboy, out climbing trees, riding ponies and gallivanting round the countryside with my younger brother. Then, when I was 11 years old I had an accident while somersaulting at school and ended up with two fractured vertebrae and a crushed disc in my spine. I was very lucky. The fractures were mid-thoracic and because they broke down and away from the spine my spinal cord was undamaged. I was centimetres away from becoming paraplegic. I missed the last few months of primary school, instead going up to the local grammar school in the autumn. The accident did cause long term problems though. A lack of proper rehabilitation meant the muscles around the break seized up affecting my ability to use my shoulder and arm. Even now, repetitive movements like typing or painting can seize up my whole right side. I have a chiropractor for regular acupuncture and manipulation to free up that side.

The Kings General was the first time I encountered an adult character with a disability. Of course before my accident I’d read Pollyanna, a rather saintly little girl who can’t walk after a fall and is still looking for things to be glad about. I’d also read the What Katy Did series where the spirited and tomboyish Katy has a fall from the yard swing and can’t walk. She spends a year as an ‘invalid’ and the experience quietens her and she learns to run a household from her bed, becoming a more tamed and acceptable version of femininity. The King’s General tells the story of Honor, a lively young woman who in 1653 decides to write her life story, based around the love she had for the charismatic soldier Richard Grenville. She then takes us back 30 years to when she was 10 years old and her brother Kit brings his bride Gartred back to the family home of Lanrest. Gartred is from the very important Grenville family and doesn’t make a great impression on the slightly more humble Harris family. She has a sharp tongue and Kit thought she flirted with other men, especially his brother Robin. For Honor their marriage is an eye opener and she learns a lesson about marriage:

“For the first time I realized, with something of a shock, that marriage was not the romantic fairy legend I had imagined it to be, but a great institution, a bargain between important families, with the tying-up of property.”

The marriage is short-lived as Kit dies from smallpox, and when Gartred leaves, Honor hopes to never see another Grenville again. Fate has something different in store as she encounters a dashing young soldier on her 18th birthday. She visits Plymouth Sound with her brother and sister to watch His Majesty’s Fleet sail into Plymouth Sound, followed by a banquet held by the Duke of Buckingham. Richard Grenville is quite sarcastic, even rude, and Honor has some barbed and witty exchanges with him. They immediately have a rapport and he actually shows his kinder side when Honor has to leave early. They meet in secret after this, often meeting in an apple tree at the bottom of the orchard where Honor likes to climb up and read. They’re clearly very compatible and start to fall in love with each other. Honor might just get the fairy tale after all as Richard decides to speak to her family and proposes marriage. However, their happiness comes to an abrupt end the day before their wedding when Honor has a terrible accident when they’re out hunting with falcons. Honor’s horse is spooked, becomes disoriented and falls into a ravine. Sadly, Honor’s injuries are serious as her legs and spine are shattered and she can no longer walk. Realising she will probably never walk or have children, she calls off the engagement and tells Richard to be happy with another woman. They don’t see each other until civil war breaks out and Honor must leave Lanrest where she was living alone to go to her sister’s house Menabilly. It is here where Honor will encounter Richard again. Will things have changed between them?

From this point in the story we start to get Du Maurier’s trademark mystery elements and as usual she is very adept at creating tension and suspicion. I really enjoyed the way that her two main characters are so linked to the land around them. Their emotions are often mirrored by the weather and landscape in a rather Brontë way. Her strength here though is in these characters, who love each other despite being able to see their flaws. Honor finds the older Richard bitter, proud and arrogant, but just as attractive as ever. However, he’s quite gentle and tender with Honor and there’s a scene where she even shows him her damaged legs. There’s a feel of Heathcliff about him in these war years, as he’s quite cruel. Honor observes that war seems to make beasts of men. I enjoyed this book because it showed me that an accident doesn’t have to stop you being you. Yes, experience changes us in some ways but her accident doesn’t stop Honor being adventurous or taking on a challenge. It also doesn’t mean she has to become quiet and ladylike. Most of all, Honor is still loved. Despite what happened Richard still loves her, and this was the first book that showed me life doesn’t stop because you have a disability.

Posted in Publisher Proof

The Starlings of Bucharest by Sarah Armstrong.

This is the second in the Moscow Wolves series of novels, following on from The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt. I’ve been told by other readers that here we meet some of it’s characters, but from a different perspective. Our hero is Edward Walker, known as Ted. He’s trying to make his way as a journalist in London, after leaving the working class fishing area he grew up in for something different. His career hasn’t taken off as he would have liked and he’s drifting into debt. So when he gets the chance to work for a film magazine, with an assignment to travel to Romania and interview a famous film director he jumps at the opportunity. However, this is the 1970s and Romania is in the grip of Communism. A visiting Westerner is very likely to be treated with suspicion and his plans to travel on to the Moscow film festival could be equally eventful. This sets the scene for an intelligent and different thriller.

For the first few chapters of the book I felt thoroughly confused by what was going on, but I started to realise that Ted is equally confused. He has a driver/ guide and each day he expects to meet with his interviewee, but it doesn’t seem to happen. There was a random comical moment where his guide asked if he could have Ted’s trousers when he left. The author creates an atmospheric picture of this complex destination and all it’s contradictions. Ted notes that people are picking lime blossom in the park and observes that they’re so hungry they’re eating from the trees. His guide corrects him, they’re picking lime blossom to make tea. The author conveys the lovely, well maintained public spaces. Yet, there is also a drabness to everything. The food is bad, the clothes are dull and shops seem empty. Ted observes: ‘It was just a place of waiting and brown paint’. Then there are the restrictions and the guide who’s really a minder, ready to challenge every wrong or damaging assumption made.There were moments where I was just an unsure as Ted about what was really going on. The first time was very early on in Bucharest, when his guide diverts him to a lakeside where a group of men are fishing. All at the same time, Ted observes how beautiful it is but also how isolated, just the sort of place you might take someone to kill them. I really felt like I was in Cold War Europe. Equally, the sections in London felt like the 1970s, slightly worn and decaying, with seedy bedsits, a sense of desperation and simmering violence.

I was interested in the incredible detail the security services go into when looking for recruits. It’s a master class in psychological manipulation. They consider everything about the subject – his clothing, his food and drink choices, his likes and dislikes. They watch behaviour. Who do they trust? Who is important to them? They look in their waste bins and listen to their phone calls. What they’re looking for is a weakness. A way in. Whatever it takes to turn them. Then they bring in the bait – if he has a weakness for women, then a beautiful woman to tempt him from the straight and narrow. I’m a trained therapist and I could learn a thing or two from the listening skills employed here. They’re looking for chinks in the armour. Something they can exploit. For Ted that could be a case of never feeling heard or valued. His concern about wanting to get on. It could even be his naivety, decency and willingness to help. So, Ted is noticed by security services and when he returns to Moscow for the film festival he is watched carefully.

What was most interesting to me, was how Soviet agents used class difference as leverage. We’re used to public schoolboy spies, recruited at Oxbridge and I think this difference was used really well. Ted notices that there are opportunities for people from working class backgrounds in Moscow, perhaps more than in England. This is the chink in Ted’s armour and leaves him open to exploitation in a regime where security services have an ideology to push. There were sections that plodded a bit, but that’s maybe because Ted is a very steady, plodding sort of character. He wants to break into Fleet Street as a journalist but I doubt that he has the sheer brass neck and ambition it takes to get there. He seems like a man who will always end up where he is by accident rather than design. As one character observes ‘any idiot can be a useful one’. The author kept me guessing all the way through. We are learning as Ted is learning, and he does a lot of growing up too. Aside from the George Smiley series, the historical era of the 1970s Cold War hasn’t often been depicted in spy fiction, so I felt I was reading something new in the genre. All in all the stage is set for an interesting book three in this intelligent and unusual series.

Meet The Author

Sarah Armstrong is the author of four novels, most recently The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt and The Starlings of Bucharest. She is also the author of A Summer of Spying, a short non fiction work about her experience of jury service during the Covid-19 pandemic, authority, truth, and the surveillance we are all exposed to. Sarah teaches undergraduate and postgraduate creative writing with the Open University. She lives in Essex with her husband and four children.

Posted in Damp Pebbles Tour

Your Friend Forever by Zena Barrie.

I was thrown back into a time warp with this book from Zena Barrie, because I was almost the same age as Maud at the same time. In the early eighties I was given my first cassette player and I loved Adam and the Ants – it think it was the same year I was given a stage make up kit so I could paint the white stripe across my face, although it didn’t have the same effect on an adolescent girl. I understood completely the place that Maud found herself in, a turbulent time at home and no one to talk to, plus being fascinated by a musician for the first time. I used to get Smash Hits and cut out lyrics and photos to collage on my note books. Maud picks up a pen and paper and writes to the lead singer of her favourite band Horsefly. While the family carries on with their own drama, Maud is asking Tom what to make of it, but also some of the bigger questions in life. Will her Mum and Dad get back together? Are teachers naturally clever people? Is her teacher Mr Hanson really having a wank in the stationery cupboard?

The author has that brilliant skill of making us laugh on one hand, while also being incredibly poignant at the same time. It reminded me of Sue Townsend and her wonderful teenage diarist Adrian Mole who manages to be hilariously funny while also worrying about life’s dramas that keep going on all around him. It’s not all fun for Maud as her Dad leaves, they can’t afford much so she’s often hungry, and the house is damp. Her clothes aren’t always washed and sometimes they don’t fit. Her mum is really struggling with depression, which comes across from her appearance and lack of care. The school don’t notice, which is so upsetting, although safeguarding in 1980 was different to the stringent regulations schools abide by now. Neglect is a very hard thing to call or prove, but terrible for the child involved. Yet through it all Maud is her charming, funny and endlessly questioning self. Not that she wants to make these enquiries of her friend Sarah, because she’s bound to get an answer that revolves around sex. In between there are snippets of interviews and exchanges of Tom’s that show us Maud really has very little idea about how a young music star would behave or spend his time.

We then jump to 2011 where Maud is 43 and married with two children. Tom meanwhile, is still trying to revive his career. Is Maud his only fan though? She begins corresponding with him again and I loved the brilliant way the author has written the narrative of a middle- aged woman, but with the same character that we’ve got to know from her teens. She’s still so open and confessional, but with some wisdom and experience. Tom is her sounding board, her journal, the person who has been there all the time. He hasn’t ‘known’ her, but she feels that connection, because he’s heard all her teenage secrets she’s held nothing back. In the same way she did as a girl, Maud uses her letters to Tom to understand herself and to stay sane in difficult times. The most poignant thing about her letters are that she hasn’t yet lost hope that things will get better. I think people will enjoy this, especially those who remember their teenage years with fondness.

Meet The Author.

Zena Barrie lives in Manchester and runs the Greater Manchester Fringe and the Camden Fringe. She ran the Kings Arms pub and Theatre in Salford for a while and also the Etcetera Theatre in Camden, as well as working in a wide variety of roles at the Edinburgh Fringe (from street performer to venue manager). In the 90s she did a degree in Drama and Theatre Arts specialising in playwriting. Up until recently she has been co-hosting the award winning spoken word night Verbose. She is also one half of performance art duo The Sweet Clowns. Your Friend Forever is her first novel. @ZenaBarrie

Posted in Damp Pebbles Tour

Charity by Madeline Dewhurst.

I’m aware that blog tours have been a subject for discussion this month: giving them up; wondering whether they are a true reflection of a book; or might they be disappearing altogether? I enjoy them because I get to read outside my comfort zone, and then bring a great book like this, that might not have been noticed otherwise, to my follower’s attention. This was definitely the case with Charity, because I might not have encountered it in my normal reading life, but now I can tell you just how good it is and hope that some of you love it as much as I did.

Our narrator is Lauren, a teenage girl who is being interviewed as a potential lodger and carer for an elderly lady named Edith. The two get along, bonding over their experiences of Kenya where Lauren’s grandmother was born and where Edith’s husband Forbes was stationed in the 1950s, during what became known as the Mau Mau uprising. This was a war between the colonisers and the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (the KLFA also known as the Mau Mau). This was a bitter fight for independence from the British by the KLFA, made up of Kikuyu, Meru and Embu people, as well as a small proportion of Masai and Kamba tribesmen. There were war crimes on both sides, but at the end of the war there were over 11,000 dead on the Mau Mau side, including over 1000 executions – the largest use of wartime capital punishment in the British Empire’s history. That’s not to mention the atrocities carried out on women, in a conflict where rape was deliberately used as a means to diminish tribal bloodlines with British blood.

Lauren works on a high street make-up counter and had been running out of places to live, since her Mum is getting remarried to someone she doesn’t get on with. She and Edith seems to rub along together nicely. So, Lauren moves into the spare room and starts caring for her. I love how the relationship between these two women works, as they have such diverse views. Edith is a staunch right winger whose views would really raise eyebrows these days. So, in the present day passages, there are a few clashes. There are statements from Edith that many would find offensive.

‘I’m sure I’m the last of their priorities. If you want to get to the top of the queue you have to be a Muslim who doesn’t speak any English, or a gay lesbian woman, then you’ll get seen straightaway.’

‘Oh, Edith, you crack me up, the things you come out with.’ Lauren shook her head and laughed. ‘I don’t think people’s religion or sexuality show up in X-rays.’

When they do talk about Kenya, and eventually Forbes, Lauren listens intently. At turns interested and horrified by the perspective he clearly brought home with him. Edith’s perspective affects Lauren so personally because of her grandmother. When Lauren suggests that Edith’s family were economic migrants, only in Kenya to make a better life for themselves, Edith strongly dismisses it, declaring Kenya had ‘nothing’ before white farmers arrived. Lauren is incensed.

‘There wasn’t ‘nothing’ there. There was people, living differently to how English people lived, but it was still their land – land the English colonists stole off them. I mean, imagine if I suddenly told you this was my house now, that you’re just a squatter and if you want to stay you’ve got to work for me, obey my orders.’ I thought I’d gone too far, but instead of making her angry, what I’d said seemed to excite Edith. She was looking at me weirdly, kind of like she was in awe of me. ‘Have you been talking to Mary?’

It seems that both women have secrets. Mary was Edith’s friend, but she now visits her at night, creeping into the bedroom and up the bed. Edith is sometimes so scared of her she can’t sleep. What could have happened between them? We do travel back in time to find out, following Edith’s childhood in Kenya as well as Forbes’s service in the army, and a young Kenyan woman named Charity. Charity is just a young girl, caught, accidentally out after curfew, and put into a prison camp where she meets a brutal British officer. There is bloodshed and sexual violence in these flashbacks. It’s harrowing at times, but necessary for us to see why this period of Kenyan history and the brutality of the colonisers, still resonates so strongly generations later.

Two other characters are brought into the present day section of the novel: Paul, who is Edith’s lodger in the basement flat and Jo her daughter. Jo is back from running a new age retreat in Europe and is probably the best example of white privilege I’ve seen in a long time. She has no concept of how her life is easier, because she is from financially stable parents, but also because she is white. She assumes that her mother will have her living there, that the house will be hers as soon as Edith has gone, and that she’s automatically prised by her mother above Lauren and Paul, even though she’s never been there for her mother. However, when Edith’s lawyer visits she’s soon disabused, of her assumptions. Paul seems to have watched over Edith for some time, supporting her with financial decisions and stepping in when she needs help. Once all the characters are in play, some very big secrets start to emerge and we begin to see how all of them are linked by one incident sixty years ago.

It’s very hard to believe that this is Madeline Dewhurst’s first novel. It’s a brilliant read and once you’re hooked, it will be so hard to put it down. I couldn’t wait and finished it in the wee small hours of the morning, following every twist and turn. The author has a great understanding of post-colonial cultures and how the atrocities inflicted by the British empire still resonate in those countries we colonised, but also here at home. I studied post-colonial literature over twenty years ago at university. It is stories like these that remind me why I feel sick when crowds at the Albert Hall sing Land of Hope and Glory at the Last Night of the Proms. This isn’t just a harmless song – it extols the virtues of empire, invokes God as being on the coloniser’s side and suggests that the boundaries of empire should spread further still. It calls Great Britain ‘the mother of the free’ but that freedom is only open to the coloniser not the colonised. This novel shows the impact of the British Empire on one family, with it’s malign influence still felt three generations later. I truly enjoyed this as a thriller, where you’re never quite sure who is the spider and who is the fly. I also loved the honest and brutal way the British Army’s rule in Kenya is depicted, tainting the lives of everyone involved across time. Finally, there is a glimmer of hope as to how this trauma can be addressed and resolved for the future.

Meet The Author.

Madeline Dewhurst is an academic in English and Creative Writing at the Open University. Her previous writing includes fiction, journalism and drama. Charity, which was longlisted for the Bath Novel Award, is her first novel.