Recently I’ve begun to realise that one of the literary devices I love most is magic realism. For those who’ve never come across it before, or didn’t know they had, magic realism is a 20th Century style or genre where a novel’s story is mostly realistic but with magical elements that can sometimes feel out of place in the narrative. I think I became interested in this style of writing, from my favourite teenage author Fay Weldon. The Life and Loves of a She-Devil was dramatised at this point and was widely talked about in the media and at school – where any chance to see clips that would titillate were applauded. How innocent we were that, without the internet, we were reduced to TV dramas for our fix of nudity – now we can see six naked people being visually assessed in their pods at any time of day. Back in the 1990s we had to commit to storyline for a whole episode, just for a glimpse of side boob! I read all Fay Weldon’s back catalogue and became fascinated with the skilful way she mixed realistic settings with sudden supernatural, astrological or magical elements. There was an audacity to it that I loved. So, when I came to reading Like Water for Chocolate I was charmed straight away by the love story and the magical powers that Tita has, especially her ability to bake her emotions into her food.
Set in early 20th Century Mexico, we meet Tita, the youngest daughter of the family who is hopelessly in love with Pedro. Sadly, Mexican tradition dictates that older siblings marry to carry on the family name, make connections and ensure their financial future. Younger siblings are destined to be the caregiver in the family, remaining single and close to home to help their parents in their old age. Tita and Pedro are in love and Tita’s mother knows this, so what happens next seems unusually cruel. She leaves older sister Rosauro open to marriage and then schemes behind the scenes, as a result and feeling like he has no realistic chance with Tita, he marries Rosauro because then at least he will be able to stay close to his real love. It is their wedding day where we see the full structure of the novel unfold. Tita’s mother forces her to bake the wedding cake, but as she does Tita begins to cry and somehow her sadness leaches into the cake batter. As they serve the cake at the wedding, much to Tita’s surprise, the guests start to experience their own memories of lost loves. Soon the whole room is reminiscing and weeping. From the extraordinary event onwards the novel is split so that a recipe forms each chapter. We are always waiting to see what emotion will get baked or fried into each incredible Mexican recipe as Pedro and Tita circle each other, forever in unrequited love. Would they ever get a chance to be together?
I first read this novel when I was an impressionable twenty year old, still in love with the idea of romantic love. Now if I was asked to give advice to Tita, I’d probably say that life is way too short to spend it in such a torturous situation. Pack a bag and get a bus out of there. Build your own life. It’s not just the idea of her sister marrying Pedro, it’s watching the milestones of their life together. If Rosauro had children with him, Tita would be hurt all over again. Every day there would be a new reason to mourn what she could have had. Her reward for this sacrifice? Looking after a mother who’s becoming more infirm by the day knowing that she was the one who took away Tita’s chance of happiness and gave it to her sister. I remember reading and hoping that Pedro’s love for Tita would remain. I couldn’t bear the thought that Pedro might grow to love Rosauro over the years. I won’t ruin the ending for those who haven’t read this extraordinary book, but I will say that it’s one of the most unusual endings I have ever read. I have been known to recreate a recipe from a book, especially where recipes are an important part of the story. I’ve often done it for my book club, where we’ve eaten: chocolate cream pie while reading Kathryn Stockett’s The Help and honesty cake while reading Alice Hoffman’s The Story Sisters. Yet, I’ve never attempted one of Tita’s family recipes – perhaps because they seem so uniquely hers and enchanted by her particular brand of magic. This is a beautiful novel for those hopeless romantics or if you love to be immersed in the culture of the characters from old customs, to celebrations and their chosen foods for those occasions. This has been a book that has endured for me and still feels uniquely magical.
Meet The Author.
Laura Esquivel is the award-winning author of Like Water for Chocolate, which has sold over four and a half million copies around the world in 35 languages, The Law of Love, and most recently, Between Two Fires. She lives in Mexico City.
The opening of this book, where Lara enchants her own wedding dress so it’s more to her liking, showed promise for the rest of the novel. Her marriage to Todd is the next morning, but as she’s waiting for her groom some bad news arrives. His best man is local law enforcement officer Ben and he tells her that Todd can’t be found. His car is found abandoned at a bend in the road where thirty years earlier another young man disappeared without a trace. Pete was in a band with Lara’s father, who has always been affected by the loss of his friend. Surely there’s a connection? Lara’s search for answers leads them to a journal written by her great-grandmother and the tale of a secret circus, where they perform using real magic. In Belle Èpoque Paris we follow the story of Cecile Cabot, Lara’s great grandmother, the subject of one in a series of three paintings by artist Émile Giroux. Cecile’s life is bound to the circus as is her sister Esme’s, but why are they cursed in this way and is it a price that the women in the family are still paying to this day?
From Lara’s wedding day onwards, the first section of the book set in idyllic Kerrigan Falls didn’t quite have the spark of that first scene. I worried that the book might be a bit saccharine sweet for my taste. It was typical small town America, but with barely any crime or unpleasantness. Residents seemed to get along easily and everyone cared about the town’s history, it’s beautiful period buildings and stunning setting. Lara bought the local radio station, her love of music coming from her famous musician father. I didn’t quite believe how lovely the place and it’s people were and I suspected there was a darker underbelly. This was hinted at in the the disappearances of these young men, but also the strange happenings in Lara’s life that started when she was a young girl and saw an unusual looking man and woman in their field who disappeared into thin air. Schooled by mum Audrey to keep her powers under wraps, Lara is sad about how her premonitions affect people. When she hears a vaguely familiar song, lurking underneath a track on one of her dad’s albums, she plays it on her guitar. The refrain is like a nagging tooth ache, but when her father hears it he goes white. It was one of Pete’s songs and they never recorded it.
I found it sad that these powerful women were having to hide their real selves to be accepted, especially when it came to love. Audrey’s marriage to Lara’s dad was blighted by Peter’s disappearance and now Todd was gone too. I really enjoyed Lara’s relationship with Ben, who was Todd’s friend and is just as invested in knowing what happened as Lara is. They’ve grown close trying to solve the mystery, but their relationship is full of unspoken feelings and guilt. When Audrey gifts Lara with a painting of her great-grandmother, to put up in her new home, the framer recognises it as a lost painting of Giroux. They then travel to Paris to meet an expert on the painter and have it’s provenance confirmed. It’s here that the story really took off for me, because the sense of place is wonderful and there’s a real momentum in their search for answers. The circus is the perfect antidote to the sweetness of Kerrigan Falls. I won’t ruin your discovery of this world, but it is truly fascinating, macabre, beautiful, magical and horrifying all at the same time. I was hooked by the scene the author was describing and fascinated by Lara’s family history. The small details, such as the circus only appearing to those with a personal invitation which bled if it was torn, were quite disturbing. The magic practiced there had parallels with Lara’s skills – simple tabby cats turned into ferocious big cats. There were surprises I hadn’t expected and Cecile’s final diaries are the vital first hand account of the circus’s history, as well as her own love story. I was immersed in this magical tale and didn’t really want it to end.
Published on 9th November 2021 by Redhook.
Meet The Author.
Constance Sayers is the author of A Witch in Time. A finalist for Alternating Current‘s 2016 Luminaire Award for Best Prose, her short stories have appeared in Souvenir and Amazing Graces: Yet Another Collection of Fiction by Washington Area Women as well as The Sky is a Free Country. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. She received an MA in English from George Mason University. She lives outside of Washington D.C. Like her character in The Ladies of the Secret Circus, for many years, she was the host of a radio show from midnight to six.
‘If I could go back to being sixteen again, I’d do things differently.’
‘Everyone over the age of forty feels like that, you total gom,’ says my best friend Lizzie Magee.
Oh my goodness, my heart did break for the intelligent, spirited and strangely beautiful Mary Rattigan. She is a character who will stay with me, especially the childhood Mary and her battles with Mammy – a woman who I hated so strongly it was as if she was a real person! The Rattigan’s life on her parent’s farm in Ireland is at odds with her romantic and wild nature. She wants to fly. She will not be satisfied until she flies out of her dirty and dangerous surroundings, leaving ‘The Troubles’ behind her. She doesn’t care where she goes, as long as she’s free and lives happily ever after. However, life has a way of grounding us and Mary is no exception. In a life punctuated by marriage, five children, bombings, a long peace process and endless cups of tea Mary learns that a ten minute decision can change a whole life. These lessons are hard won and she’s missed a hundred chances to make a change. Can she ever find the courage to ask for the love she deserves, but has never had?
This book really did play with my emotions and there were times I felt completely wrung out by Mary’s life. It was emotionally and physically exhausting. Her Mammy is physically and psychologically abusive. Not above a slap, when hateful words aren’t having the effect she wants, Mammy is a ‘bitch’. Often turning up at the tea table with a bruised face or black eye, Mary longs for her father to intervene. However, he never opens his mouth, unless it’s to smoke his pipe. She loves him but at the same time, hates him for his silence and his cowardice. Mammy is a hypocrite, playing the perfect Catholic matriarch on the surface – always loving or feeding her sons, cooking perfect chicken roasts for her family and getting out the best china when the priest comes for tea. It broke my heart when she left Mary without tea, then next morning as the boys all line up for their lunch boxes Mary is given an empty one. I felt so emotional for this girl, who doesn’t expect any better. There are two women she can rely on for a little bit of maternal support and love, her Aunt Eileen who ruined herself and now lives with her illegitimate daughter Bernie and Bridget Johns who lives at the next farm across and is always ready with a cuppa and a shoulder to cry on. Both know what’s going on at Mary’s home and have taken her under their wing. Eileen goes as far as bringing the priest down to the farm when she feels Kathleen has gone way too far in disciplining Mary.
I was desperate for Mary’s eventual flight from the farm, following in the footsteps of her brothers. Sadly, she doesn’t get to fly as far as she expects; it seems she swaps one imprisonment for another. The emotionally gutting thing about Mary is that she always has a tiny kernel of hope. She underestimates her mother’s capacity for evil – but as long as everything looks ok to others and the parish priest, then her daughter’s happiness is Mammy’s top priority. There’s a point where Mary knows she’s done wrong, she expects to be punished and is willing to take it, but she hadn’t banked on giving up everything – her dreams, her education, her future. She doesn’t dream that her Dad would let that happen even if she does expect it from her Mammy. As a result she’s more angry with him than anyone. I don’t want you to think that this book is a drag to read. It really isn’t. There are some passages that are hilariously funny. Mary is irreverent, mischievous and has a few sayings that made me laugh out loud. I loved her description of her Mum backing out of the room so she didn’t ‘show her backside to the priest’. I went to a Roman Catholic primary school, but when we moved to a different area for my Dad’s work there wasn’t a school close enough and I went to the local school, followed by a grammar school when I passed my eleven plus. My mum was worried that I wouldn’t have the same teaching I did at primary, so I did lessons at the convent after school. Then I got to go on a Catholic kid’s retreat, in Derbyshire. We did loads of outdoor activities and had mass every evening at 6pm, with a young monk called Declan who everyone fancied and a rather bohemian priest who played guitar and had us singing every night. I remember being very proud that when the bishop came for tea, I was chosen to sit next to him. Our idea of fun was pretending to baptise each other in bed! So, Delaney’s description of Mary’s school holiday felt very familiar and made me laugh.
‘The groups would be mixed so we could hear what boys our own age, from the same religion, and the same class background for the most part, had to say about the Troubles and how they affected life in Carncloon, and what we had to say back. Fascinating stuff. Then after dinner, when we’d settled the cons and cons of people blowing ten bags of shite out of each other on a daily basis for twenty years, we were going to have a sing-song. Hymns and popular folk songs as Father Kevin, apparently, was a dab hand on the guitar’.
There’s a blasé tone to Delaney’s writing about ‘The Troubles’, but it’s clear from Mary’s narration that they have a huge impact on those that live alongside the unpredictability, hate, protests and rising violence. It comes very close to home on a couple of occasions and Delaney describes historical events that I remember vividly, particularly the murder of two undercover police officers who drove into an IRA funeral. I remember the headlines, the pictures and the descriptions of violence that no one could condone and how they caused friction in our family, between the Irish Catholic background of my Mum and the loyalty to the British Army instilled in my father. There were subjects we didn’t venture into or talk about. The hunger strikes were something I was very aware of and the conditions of the Maze Prison. I had a huge amount of admiration for Mo Mowlam who negotiated a peace process despite her cancer diagnosis. I am probably a similar age to Delaney so I felt an affinity with her and understood her. Mary’s need to be loved is so raw she can’t even articulate it. How can she understand or recognise love when she’s never felt it? She has been told she’s nothing, so nothing is what she deserves. Delaney writes about love and the realities of marriage with such wisdom and tenderness that I was rooting for Mary Rattigan till the very last page.
Meet The Author.
Tish Delaney was born and brought up in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles. Like a lot of people of her generation, she left the sectarian violence behind by moving to England. After graduating from Manchester University, she moved to London and worked on various magazines and broadsheets as a reporter, reviewer and sub-editor. She left the Financial Times in 2014 to live in the Channel Islands to pursue her career as a writer. Before My Actual Heart Breaks, her debut novel, will be published by Hutchinson in 2021.
If you are someone who receives a present from me at Christmas, don’t read on! I don’t want anyone to ruin their surprise. I love giving and receiving books at Christmas. We have a rule in our house, that apart from the authors I LOVE and pre-order, I’m not allowed to buy books after October so that my wish list is up to date and can be used. My family know how much I appreciate their bookish gifts but they also know that we’re rapidly running out of book shelves and might have to adopt a ‘one in – one out’ policy for a while. Of course my ARC shelf gets fuller by the week, but I do like to have final copies and support the author, especially those published by small indie publishers. I always say to my stepdaughters, when they ask me what I want for Christmas ‘a book and some chocolate’ and they’re now used to Sundays where I’m in pyjamas, snuggled up on the chaise langue with Baggins the cat on my knee, chocolate at my side and a book on the go. If you give me a book at Christmas, it means so much because you’re giving me a doorway into another world. I stay home a lot, especially in recent times, due to being susceptible to viruses and my MS and back injury getting progressively worse. I feel less alone when I have a great book I can get into and I love to share my finds at Christmas. I also love to find that one book that suits someone perfectly and when we catch up and they tell me all about reading it, I am always so happy. Here are some of the books I’m gifting this year.
The Christmas Poems by Carol Ann Duffy.
I loved Carol Ann Duffy’s Rapture and gifted it a few times to different friends. I often avoid ‘themed’ books at this time of year but this is a beauty. For her last ten years as Poet Laureate, Duffy has produced an annual Christmas poem taking us to places as diverse as the famous 1914 Christmas Day truce where German and British soldiers played a game of football together, to a lesser known 17th Century festival held on the frozen River Thames. There are ten poems in all, each one beautifully illustrated by artists like Lara Hawthorne and my personal favourite Rob Ryan. I’ll be buying this for people who like poetry and art, but also in bundles of homemade goodies like iced gingerbread and chocolate pudding truffles that we make a couple of days before Christmas. This is a lovely family book to keep and look at whenever you need a hit of Christmas.
Carol Ann Duffy Christmas Poems Published on 25th November by Picador.
Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce.
This is a total change of pace. A fantastically adventurous story about one woman’s quest for a golden beetle, but also about female friendship, finding the confidence to place importance on your own dreams and ultimately carving out your own space to be a woman who’s truly herself. I love Rachel Joyce’s work so I had high hopes for this novel and it didn’t disappoint. We follow Margery Bensonwho has a devastating moment of clarity in 1950, leaves her dead-end job and advertises for an assistant to accompany her on an expedition. She is going to travel to the other side of the world to search for a beetle that may or may not exist. Enid Pretty, in her unlikely pink travel suit, is not the companion Margery had in mind. And yet together they will be drawn into an adventure that will exceed every expectation. They will risk everything, break all the rules, and at the top of a red mountain, discover their best selves. I’m going to buy this for my feminist friends who will fall in love with Margery and her courage. I’m also going to buy it for my friends stuck in rut after lockdown and needing some inspiration. I know it worked for me!
Published in paperback on 21st April 2021 by Black Swan.
The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers.
Those two words on the front cover of this novel were enough to whet my appetite and I know exactly which friends will be as drawn to it as I was. ‘Decadent and macabre’ is a good summary of this novel which I wasn’t sure of at first, but came to appreciate as we travelled back in time to Belle Epoch Paris and a secret circus who perform by invitation only. Just to give you a taste of what to expect, the special invite is alive so if you tear it, it will bleed. Lara’s boyfriend Todd disappears on the eve of their wedding, never to be seen again. His disappearance echoes that of another young man thirty years before. Lara has spent the past year trying to find out what happened, alongside Todd’s best friend Ben who is the sheriff of Kerrigan Falls. However, Lara isn’t an ordinary girl, something we see as she enchants her own wedding dress. There are powers that seem to be hereditary, as Lara discovers when her investigating uncovers one of her great-grandmother’s journals. As she reads, she learns of a secret circus, one that appears to the person with a ticket. What will she find there and will it bring her fiancé back? Just as she starts to develop feelings for another. This is a perfect book for those who love fantasy and magical. Give to fans of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth MacNeal and A Girl Made of Air by Nydia Hetherington.
Midnight in Everwood by M.A. Kuzniar.
This is the perfect Christmas book because there are some beautiful special editions lurking at high street and indie book stores. This is one of those novels that splurging on a signed and special edition is absolutely worth it, especially for someone important to you. This is historical fiction, set in turn of the 20th Century Nottingham. It’s also a retelling of a Christmas story that most of us will know through Tchaikovsky’s beautiful music and grunge to the ballet. The author takes The Nutcracker and tells us a story of a young woman being confined by her class – Marietta Stelle wants to pursue her love of dancing and become a ballerina. However, Christmas is approaching and she must finish her Christmas Eve performance and take up her expected place in society. When a neighbouring townhouse is taken by Dr Drosselmeier, a mysterious toy maker, he becomes involved in the sets for the production. However, his work contains magic, very dark magic that transports Marietta to a sugar palace in an enchanted woodland. Will she ever get home again or is she trapped in Everwood for ever?
Published by HQ 28th October 2021
The Apollo Murders by Chris Hadfield.
I watched an interview with Chris Hadfield and knew this would be a great read for some of the men on my Christmas List. Chris was a test pilot in the Air Force when he was selected for astronaut training. He’s been up to the space station twice and in the interview he talked about doing a space walk to make repairs outside the station. In this thriller he takes us back to the Cold War and one final mission to the moon. Cleverly, this is history, but an alternate history. Three astronauts are trapped together in the lunar module, a quarter of a million miles from home. They’re also a quarter of a million miles from help. The political stakes are high for this mission and NASA are under pressure. There’s a rival Russian crew making for the moon at the same time, both hoping to retrieve an important bounty from the moon’s surface. Controller Kaz Zemekis must keep his crew on track, while feeling the pressure of the Russians hot on their heels. The Houston control room is close to breaking point. What they don’t know is not everyone on Apollo 18 is who they appear to be. I was lucky enough to have an ARC of this tense and fascinating novel, so I can vouch for it’s quality. Of course the technical know-how and experience the author has, bring this novel to life. It feels like you’re there and it really helps orientate you round this alien scene. I find it strangely freeing to imagine floating round in space, but here it’s incredibly claustrophobic too. This has a great write up from director James Cameron and Andy Weir, the author of The Martian. I agree with them that this is fascinating, heart-stopping and relentless.
Published by Quercus 12th October 2021.
Tenderness by Alison MacLeod.
I’m lucky enough to have a Mum who absolutely loved literature and without that I don’t think I’d be blogging and writing my own novel. Her favourite author was D.H. Lawrence and I remember being taken to see his house when I was little, and how happy that made her. We watched all the film adaptations together too. So this huge doorstep of a book is the obvious choice. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was always on our bookshelves, but it took me all the way to my late twenties before I read it for myself. What I was most stunned by was that this wasn’t a dirty book, it was so many things: an exploration of the aftermath of WW1; the disintegration of class boundaries, particularly the reduction of the aristocracy; disability and it’s effect on a person’s identity and their marriage; mechanisation and it’s effect on warfare, as well as positioning it opposite nature. Most of all it’s a story of love. I re-read it regularly and think it’s so complex, fascinating and tender. That’s where Alison McLeod’s book is pitched – is this a book that should be banned as obscene or is it a picture of tenderness? We jump the decades from Lawrence’s death bed where he takes account of his life, a betrayal committed in the war years and an image of red-headed woman in an Italian courtyard. Then we meet Jacqueline, travelling with her husband when she slips into a NYC court where a book is on trial. In a library, a young man and woman meet and make love. These stories are bound together by that one question; is it obscenity or is it tenderness? This is a moving book, beautifully written and a treatise on the power of fiction. This is wrapped ready for my Mum on Christmas Day.
Published on Bloomsbury Publishing 12th September 2021.
The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith.
As my Dad gets older and his health has been getting worse, he’s had to do a lot of rest and recuperation and he has started reading more. I’ve learned a lot about what he enjoys reading and it turns out we both enjoy dystopian fiction. I bought him The Girl With All The Gifts one year and we got to have our first book conversation. This year I’m buying him another of my favourites, The Waiting Rooms. This is a tough read in a pandemic, but interesting, chilling and strangely prescient. In a not too distant future, a government ruling states that those over seventy-five years of age can’t have access to new antibiotics. Years of overuse have led to drug resistance so something as simple as a cat scratch can kill. Drastic action was needed to ensure that younger people have access to a small supply of newly created antibiotics. If an elderly person gets a scratch or infection it’s a death sentence. They have two choices, either wait to die a painful death in a state run hospital known as The Waiting Rooms. Alternatively you can visit a clinic where a doctor administers a lethal dose of medication, in a glass of whiskey should you choose. Kate works at such a clinic by day, but by night has been searching for her birth mother. However, her birth mother may hold many secrets about the crisis and Kate might not be the only one looking for her. I felt completely immersed in this world whether it was a version of our future or a pre-crisis South Africa which appears beautifully vivid against the bleak future. Haunting, tense and eerily recognisable, this book was one of my top 20 of 2020.
Published by Orenda Books April 2020
SAS Sea King Down by Mark ‘Splash’ Aston and Stuart Tootal.
This is another choice for my Dad, who served in the Royal Engineers and may have been selected for SAS training (he won’t confirm it, but certain things he says suggest this). He loves reading these series, even if he does grumble a bit about people revealing their experiences. Mark ‘Splash’ Aston joined the SAS in 1979 as part of D Squadron, SAS. This left him in prime position for deployment to the Falklands in 1982. They were at the frontline of taking back the islands, facing twin enemies of extreme weather and determined Argentinian troops. It was during one skirmish that the Sea King helicopter they were travelling in crashed into the freezing South Atlantic. Only nine survived and Splash was one of them, rescued and sent to a hospital ship nearby. Suspected of having a broken bones in his neck, he defied orders and hospital advice to return to his Squadron and finish what he’d started. Written with an experienced author, Stuart Tootal, the book gives us an insider view of an SAS unit and a war that was fought in my lifetime, in fact my cousin served out there in the RAF. I felt the tension and the hardship of serving in the SAS and I felt I was reading a truly authentic experience.
Published 13th May 2021 by Michael Joseph
The Snow Song by Sally Gardner.
This is a stunningly beautiful book that has always been appreciated wherever I’ve gifted it. It’s a feminist fable, and a love story with a touch of magic realism. We’re taken to a land perched on a mountain, covered by forests, and to one tribal village. The village elders are all men and tradition is all, including marital tradition. Our heroine Edith has fallen in love with a shepherd who took a trip away, promising he would return to her. The elders want her to marry the local butcher, and start to apply pressure, but Edith turns mute just as the snow starts to fall. The elders agree that if the shepherd returns when the snow melts she can have her wish, but if not she must marry the butcher. She will not speak until her love returns and this enchantment has far-reaching consequences for the villagers as well as her. Her stand starts to inspire other women in the village. This is a fable about the power of speech, and of silence. When everyone around you is shouting, silence can be the best way to be heard.
Published 12th Nov 2020 by HQ.
Medusa: Girl Behind The Myth by Jessie Burton.
Finally, we have this little gem from one of my favourite writers. Jessie Burton has taken one of Greek myth’s most well-known monsters and given her a feminist retelling, one I’m dying to share with my oldest stepdaughter. The gods have exiled Medusa to a far-flung island and turned her beautiful hair into living snakes. They are the only company she has until one day a boat comes to shore with the most beautiful boy on board. Perseus arrives full of charm and has the luck of the gods with him. He disrupts Medusa’s lonely existence and brings with him a future full of desire and betrayal. I have purchased signed editions of this beautiful book for friends and family who I know will love it. The illustrations by Olivia Lomenech Gill are gorgeous and the foil front of the special edition is stunning.
This was an incredibly charming book, so hopeful and uplifting. I’d read The Last of the Moon Girls so had some idea what to expect, but I actually preferred this tale of two women crossing paths in Paris. Soline works in the family’s bridal salon where a little bit of magic is sewn into the fabric. This magic gives each bride the promise of a long and happy relationship. However, there have been so many losses in WW2 that Soline’s hope has dampened and she has lost her faith in magic. She packs away her work in boxes, determined to forget the life she once enjoyed. We then join another woman, decades on from WW2. Rory has always wanted to open a gallery and she leases the same building that houses those pre-war wedding memories. Rory is also grieving, and knows the importance of remembrance, so when she finds a box with a vintage wedding dress and a pile of letters inside, she wants to return them to their rightful owner. The wedding dress looks unworn, but so much care and attention has gone into making it, Rory feels that the owner would want it returned. When she finds Soline, an unexpected friendship develops and the two women find a lot of parallels in their life stories. Is it possible that magic is still at work and these two women were destined to meet? Could Rory be the one to clarify and put right something that happened forty years ago?
I never seem to tire of these time slip novels and I really did enjoy this tale, with its little bit of magic thrown in. I am a believer that we shouldn’t fully lose that sense of magic we had as children, especially at this time of year. I think it’s only by keeping that childlike wonder and hope that we get to fully experience life. Here Soline has been closed off to magic, it’s been too painful to hope. However, when she and Rory cross paths and that faith is reignited, she starts to fully participate in life again and enjoy it. It was an easy read from the start so I looked forward to getting a mug of tea and my favourite chocolate slipping into their cozy world, even though there was some sadness in store for the our main characters. Soline and Rory do dominate and they are the most three-dimensional characters- none of the secondary characters have much depth. However, these were very personal stories and I don’t think the book would have felt as intimate if we’d had too many other viewpoints. Soline’s story follows her work in the bridal salon and her love for Anson, who has a difficult relationship with his father. As the Nazi’s start to infiltrate France, Soline escapes to America and it is her belief that Anson has died at their hands which knocks all the hope and joy out of Soline. She can’t continue with her work and watch others in love, fulfilling their destinies with each other.
Rory (short for Aurora) has a boyfriend called Hux. He’s a doctor and goes out to South Sudan to work with Doctors Without Borders, but is unfortunately captured. Rory doesn’t know where he is or even if he’s still alive. This is the experience that Rory and Soline have in common, they’re separated from their loves and have had to face up to the fact they may be dead – that might be preferable to thinking about what they could be going through instead. Both are very strong women, however, Rory is still entwined with her mother in a very unhealthy dynamic. She hasn’t realised she can simply walk away from her. The abuse is psychological and it is devastating to a young woman still growing up and finding out who she is. You might find that, like me, you’ll be mentally yelling at Rory to stand up to her mother. I just knew that if she finally did, it would be epic. It would be the catalyst to change her entire life. Rory might have the key to Soline’s wartime memories, but she has a lot to learn from Soline who has grown wise through loss and age. The book has a dusting of magic, but it’s subtle and more akin to perception than anything else. I often let people know how easy it can be to be manipulated into thinking someone’s a psychic by showing them how much I can intuit from them walking into a room and sitting down. As counsellors we do this all the time, reading people’s subtle cues in their body language and the words they choose to express themselves. It can be quite easy to work out why a client has come for counselling before they even open their mouths. So, the magic here isn’t overdone and is more about the sense of destiny and heightened perception we can get: in a house, when we walk into a party, or seeing a couple arguing in the DIY store. It’s also about that magical coincidence of these two women crossing paths, when they are perhaps the only person who could help and understand the other. I like this message that it’s not just romantic destiny that happens in lives. Soul mates are not always our romantic counterpart and I loved the friendship between these two. I think Soline helps Rory stand up and claim who she is.
Yes the ending is a bit schmaltzy, but I expected that and it didn’t ruin the book as some sugary endings can tip the book into being too saccharin and off-putting, I think this story has enough complication to keep the reader’s interest and something for everyone with the mix of historical period (although the 1980s doesn’t feel like history to me), dual narration, family strife and the mystery to solve. The tone of the novel is so relaxing and gentle, even when dealing with complex emotions. All in all, an intelligent story of love, loss, and friendship that I really enjoyed.
Published by Lake Union Publishing 1st October 2021
Meet the Author.
After twelve years in the jewelry business, Barbara Davis left the corporate world to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a writer. She was born in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, but grew up and attended school in Florida. When she’s not writing she’s an avid reader, foodie, and lover of music, a rabid football fan, and a devoted Florida Gator. She also likes to travel with her husband/sweetheart, who over the years has learned much more about publishing and the craft of writing than he ever wanted to know.
Her most recent novel, THE KEEPER OF HAPPY ENDINGS, released October 1, 2021. She is currently working on her eighth novel, and professes to be just as delighted with her job as she was when she set her first word on the page!
Last month I started a new feature on the blog where I shine a spotlight on one of my favourite authors. I feature the books I most enjoy from their back catalogue and in October I’d hoped to feature four authors who write books that are spooky, sinister, or magical in some way, hoping to give you some interesting Halloween reads. These featured everything from the evils that men do, to families of witches, cunning fairies, strange powers and other ghostly goings on. However, last weekend it didn’t happen because my other October evil crept up on me. I have MS and I always have an autumn relapse. I was just starting to pick up, but had a very dodgy weekend. So I’m bringing you last Sundays author today instead that’s Alice Hoffman. I’ve featured her book Blue Diary on Throwback Thursday before, but that’s a rare magic free novel. Magic realism flows through most of Hoffman’s works. Some of the strangest include a woman falling in love with a magical talking heron, angels descending to earth, a family of women who can see the future, a golem made from river mud protecting a girl fleeing the Nazis, a man struck by lightning leaving a pattern on his skin and a mermaid girl living in a freak show at Coney Island. However, for most people it’s the Practical Magic book, or the film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman as two sisters coming to terms with their heritage as witches, that first comes to mind. This October sees the publication of the fourth and final book in the series, The Rules of Magic. So, I thought it was perfect timing to feature the whole Owens family series in chronological order.
Despite being the most recent novel in the series, Magic Lessons is actually the first in the series chronologically. I was lucky enough to have a preview copy of this novel and reviewed it only last October. Maria is found as a baby by wise woman Hannah Owens, who brings her up in the old ways. Maria learns how to grow a healing garden, to use herbs for ailments of body and mind, and help women with problems caused by love. However, Maria’s power isn’t just learned. She has the mark of a blood witch from her birth mother, and has been chosen by her familiar Cadin who is a crow. Maria feels she must be the result of a woman being fooled by love and vows that she will never be taken in by a man. Tragically, Maria’s adopted mother Hannah is burned as a witch and Maria knows she must run to save her life. She then meets her mother and birth father, and realising there is no room in their love for a third person she takes a gift of red boots from them and sails to the island of Curacao where she has been sold into servitude for a period of five years. Here, her vow against love will be tested. Taking us through the dangerous years of the 17th Century, where Puritanical communities like Salem in Massachusetts were whipped to hysteria, and would not suffer a witch to live. Hoffman’s prequel to Practical Magic takes us back to the beginnings of the Owens family and the complicated relationship between their power and their very human need to be loved.
This was a thoughtful and atmospheric origins story for a family many fans have come to love. I think the strength of this series is in that combination of the mystical and the flawed human aspects of these women. Despite their powers Maria, her mother Rebecca and her daughter Faith experience the highs and lows of every woman’s life – the changes of adolescence, falling in love with the wrong man and the right one, motherhood, illness and ageing. I felt emotional when Maria saw her ‘mother figure’ Hannah murdered by men who feared her, when she realised the man she loved didn’t really exist, and when she lost Cadin her loyal companion. These women’s fight to be accepted and even acknowledged for their skills is a fight that continues today as we fight for women’s rights to equal pay, to save reproductive rights and to be seen as more than sexual objects. Their fight to stay alive is still echoed in our fight to stop child brides, exploitation of young girls and domestic abuse. This was a series coming full circle, as we see the formation of that mistrust of love that shapes Jet Owens’s journey or that sees Gillian Owens constantly pick the wrong man. I really enjoyed being back with these strong, powerful women once more.
This is the second in the series and my personal favourite of the four books. We meet the family on the cusp of the 1960’s in New York, where Susanna Owens has three very unique children, two sisters and a brother. Franny has deep red hair and the palest skin, which make her distinctive, but she’s also very difficult. Jet is so beautiful but terribly shy, and has the magical ability to read people’s thoughts. Vincent is trouble, from the moment he was born. Susanna knows that the Owens girls are unlucky in love and lays down the law to save them from heartbreak. She also wants to save them from the magical heritage: no walking in moonlight; no red shoes; have nothing black whether it’s crows, cats or clothes; no candles; no books about magic and most definitely no falling in love. Yet family secrets are still uncovered, back in the Massachusetts town where the Owens women have been scapegoats for anything that goes wrong. Aunt Isabelle doesn’t care what people think and the children open up for the first time to the truth of who they are. The two girls will become the fabulous aunts in Practical Magic and Vincent leaves an unexpected legacy. I loved the mix of ordinary teenage growing pains with the twist of something supernatural, and the magic even us mortals feel when we fall in love.
The Owens girls, who live in the strange house on the edge of the town, were always treated as different by the children and adults living alongside them. Gillian and Sally lived with their elderly aunts who did nothing to dissuade the townsfolk of their suspicions that witches lived among them. One look at the turrets on their house, the herd of black cats, and the aunt’s love potions would tell you there’s a possibility of magic. Unfortunately for the girls, the aunt’s freedom of expression has been their prison; schoolyard pointing, taunts and whispers have followed them through their childhood. The girls responded to this in different ways. Gillian ran away and became the beautiful, mysterious stranger always passing through and always falling in love with the wrong man. In losing the magic that was her birthright, she’s fallen for the charms of men and the magic of attraction. Sally disappeared too, but into a marriage with a respectable man in the hope of being ordinary and accepted. Now she has two girls and is determined they won’t have the same childhood she did. Then Gillian turns up, still running, but this time back to the family she left behind. She’s fallen in love with a very bad man and needs the help and comfort of her sister. Will Gillian’s troubles bring the sister’s closer? It might even bring their very elderly aunts back into their orbit. However, it also brings a detective into their midst. He could change their lives, in a very negative way if they let him. Yet the magic of love hasn’t finished with the Owens girls and maybe magic is the answer to all of their problems.
This is the last instalment of the series and involves the family, after the events of Practical Magic. Sally’s girls are now teenagers and the aunts are very elderly. However, it’s difficult knowing your time on earth is coming to an end. Aunt Jet has heard the Deathwatch Beetle ticking – a sure sign she only has a week left. However, the Owens family curse is at work and Jet isn’t the only one to hear it. The family must come together, for Jet’s sake but also to save another life. Much to the aunts surprise, a long lost brother returns to help. The family roam from Paris to London and deep into the English countryside where Maria Owens took her first tentative steps into magic. The youngest girls start to learn how much their Sally has kept from them, in terms of their heritage but also each tragic, family secret too. Kylie in particular relishes learning who she is and starts to dabble in some dark arts. Franny embarks on a journey of realisation, she will do anything for this family and Sally Owens will do anything for those she loves too. Magic comes in many forms and this is a very human type of magic – the magic of love within a family. This novel’s strength is in those well-known characters coming full circle and a new generation to explore. A magical tale of love and family lore passing from mothers to daughters.
Alice Hoffman was born in New York City on March 16, 1952, and grew up on Long Island. After graduating from high school in 1969, she attended Adelphi University, from which she received a BA, and then received a Mirrellees Fellowship to the Stanford University Creative Writing Center, which she attended in 1973 and 74, receiving an MA in creative writing. She currently lives in Boston. Hoffman’s first novel, Property Of, was written at the age of twenty-one, while she was studying at Stanford, and published shortly thereafter by Farrar Straus and Giroux. She credits her mentor, professor and writer Albert J. Guerard, and his wife, the writer Maclin Bocock Guerard, for helping her to publish her first short story in the magazine Fiction. Editor Ted Solotaroff then contacted her to ask if she had a novel, at which point she quickly began to write what was to become Property Of, a section of which was published in Mr. Solotaroff’s magazine, American Review.
Since that remarkable beginning, Alice Hoffman has become one of the most distinguished novelists. She has published over thirty novels, three books of short fiction, and eight books for children and young adults. Her novel, Here on Earth, an Oprah’s Book Club choice, was a modern reworking of some of the themes of Emily Bronte’s masterpiece Wuthering Heights. Practical Magic was made into a Warner Brothers film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. Her novel, At Risk, which concerns a family dealing with AIDS, can be found on the reading lists of many universities, colleges and secondary schools. Hoffman’s advance from Local Girls, a collection of inter-related fictions about love and loss on Long Island, was donated to help create the Hoffman Breast Center at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, MA. Hoffman has written a number of novels for young adults, including Aquamarine, Green Angel, and Green Witch. In 2007 Little Brown published the teen novel Incantation, a story about hidden Jews during the Spanish Inquisition, which Publishers Weekly chose as one of the best books of the year.
Aside from the Practical Magic series, the novels I would recommend highly are:
Blue Diary – a picture perfect family in a small town is torn apart when Jory’s husband is accused of rape and murder.
The Marriage of Opposites – this stunning novel explores the difficult relationship between the painter Camille Pissarro and his mother. Set on the island of Sao Tomae this novel is an incredibly visual book, with stunning descriptions of Pissarro’s island home akin to impressionistic paintings.
The Museum of Extraordinary Things – set in a Coney Island freak show at the beginning of the 20th Century, this is the story of a girl who is shown as a mermaid by her father. As her confidence and self-belief grow and she falls in love, we also see the birth of Manhattan as we see it today.
This was my first full on pandemic book. Others have mentioned or touched upon the changes of the last eighteen months, but this was full immersion!
I’ve been disappointed with the last two of Jodi Picoult’s books. They were still well written, but for some reason I felt detached from everyone in A Spark of Light – maybe because in the U.K. abortion isn’t such a contentious issue? The Book of Two Ways felt almost so full of detail that I was reading a textbook and losing interest in the story itself. This was a glorious return of form that I truly loved. Diana and her boyfriend Finn live in New York City, he is a doctor and she works at an auction house for fine art, on the verge of promotion to become an Art Specialist at Sotheby’s. She’s trying to acquire a Toulouse Lautrec painting that hangs in the bedroom of a Japanese artist -loosely based on Yoko Ono. Then, everything changes. Finn and Diana have a very set life plan and part of that was an upcoming visit to the Galápagos Islands. However there are rumours flying around in the medical community of a strange new virus in Wuhan, China. It seems like SARS in that it affects breathing, because it causes pneumonia and requires huge amounts of resources to keep patients alive. Diana’s boyfriend feels torn, as a doctor he’s worried and thinks they should be preparing but the president is on TV telling everyone it’s no worse than flu. What’s the truth?
. She meets Abuela’s granddaughter Beatrice who appears to have secrets and an inner pain that brings out a maternal instinct Diana didn’t know she had. Tour guide and Beatrice’s father, Gabriel, is the perfect person to be stranded with. He knows every corner of the island and has no work, so he can show Diana some of the sights she would never have seen ordinarily. The islands sound miraculous and here Picoult really does create an incredible sense of place. The seals lazily basking on the jetty, the sea turtles and their nests buried in sand, lush vegetation and lizards lying around intertwined. I could see and taste the salt air. I loved the islanders too – their openness to Diana, the bartering market set up when the island quarantined itself from the world. Everything is vivid and almost hyper-real. Then came the twist!! Oh my goodness I did not expect that at all. This was brilliantly done and shocked me. Yet it was all too plausible.
Diana has one link to the world beyond the Galapagos and that’s the occasional email from Finn. In it we see the reality of the COVID-19 epidemic in New York City. They have so many people being admitted and not enough people recovering and moving through rehabilitation. What do you do when the resources simply run out? Finn is exhausted, has permanent bruises on his cheeks, because they have to keep their masks so tight and is struggling mentally. He describes to her the patients lost, ones he can’t forget, because there are too many to remember them all. This was tough reading and I’ll be honest, I learned things about the virus I’d never heard before such as vascular compromise, bowel necrosis and neurological deficit. There were points where I felt a bit breathless and panicky. As someone who had to shelter from the virus, it made me think twice about going out in a couple of places. Anyone who thinks it’s just a ‘bit of flu’ should be locked in a room with the audio book playing on repeat! Please don’t let this put you off though. It’s beautifully written and the insight it gives into how hard things have been for those in the medical profession is priceless. We owe it to them to read such well-researched and thoughtful accounts of the pandemic. The Galapagos sections are like paradise in comparison and this was the space where I could take a long deep breath.
This book is Picoult at her best, in that it has an interesting storyline, and characters as well as an issue she could really get her teeth into. As the book started I was prepared for it to be set within the art world and I was already curious to see her relationship with Kito – the Japanese art collector – because they seemed to be on a similar wavelength. I thought we might end up embroiled in a legal battle over ownership or whether the painting was a forgery. Then everything she’d built at the beginning became subsumed by the pandemic and it became a totally different story. The structure effectively echoes how our lives have been interrupted and changed forever. There are people who went into the pandemic with a job that no longer exists. People have lost friends, family members and partners. The pandemic has changed people, they are looking at how they live and making changes. We moved into the country, and I’m sure others have done similar, focusing on enjoying life and working to live instead of living to work. There are people like me, who were disabled, but felt like part of society still. Gradually, over the last 18 months, I have become a recluse and I’ve felt more and more separated from people. Especially those people who say the vulnerable should be kept inside, so that ‘normal people’ can have their lives back. I’ve felt like an inconvenience, and like we’re holding the rest of the country to ransom. I’m hoping these feelings change with time, but who knows? I could understand Diana’s decision at the end of the novel, it might have seemed illogical but I got it. When you’ve been through something momentous you change, and part of that is re-evaluating life and choosing what makes you happy. It’s trying to recapture hope. I don’t want things to ‘go back to the normal’; I want this pandemic to mean something and I want things to get better. Diana takes that decision for herself and I found that both brave and uplifting.
Meet The Author
Jodi Picoult is the author of twenty five internationally bestselling novels, including MY SISTER’S KEEPER, HOUSE RULES and SMALL GREAT THINGS, and has also co-written two YA books with her daughter Samantha van Leer, BETWEEN THE LINES and OFF THE PAGE. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and three children.
Her most recent adult novel, A SPARK OF LIGHT first published in the UK on 30th October 2018, and was a #1 Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller.
I’ve been reading Charity Norman for several years and I never tire of the way she builds her characters, full of depth and complexity. She excels at revealing characters slowly, one layer at a time, and putting them in complicated emotional situations. This is one such example and despite being published in 2017 it seems very timely as debate rages about transgender rights on social media and in the news. This is a family drama, where we are brought into the seemingly idyllic life of Luke Livingstone. As we meet Luke, he’s seen as the perfect family man with a beautiful home in rural Oxfordshire and a solid career as a solicitor. He is respected as a pillar of the local community with a long standing marriage, as well as being a good father and grandfather. However, Luke has spent his whole life hiding a secret about who he is and he’s not sure he can keep it under wraps much longer. He has been hiding a truth about his identity and it’s such a fundamental truth that he knows disclosure will rock his business, his standing in the local community and will shock his family. He might become an outcast. Yet, he might have to destroy his image and the way others see him, if he’s to stop the slow destruction of his inner self. He has to become the person, the woman, he knows he truly is, whatever the cost. Luke is focusing on his eventual rise from the ashes and the rebuilding of his life, but first he must face the flames.
As the novel opens, Luke is so desperately unhappy he is considering suicide. Luckily, someone intervenes and sends him on a different path – the possibility of becoming the woman he is inside. He has always kept this feeling under wraps because of his parents and has now followed a very conventional path with his marriage to Eilish, fatherhood and now a grandparent to Nico. Now his parents are gone, he feels more free to pursue his own happiness, but that’s made harder when you know your own happiness will impact on your family. My heart went out to him, but also to Eilish who has loved and lived with this man for most of her life. Luke is a wonderfully sympathetic character and I can’t agree with some reviewers who have referred to him as ‘selfish’ for pursuing his own happiness. Luke was born in a different time, with more pressure to conform to society’s norms and values, as well as parents who were more traditional. As a young teenager, his feelings about his gender were only just growing and without transgender role models, either locally or on television, there’s no template for where to go and who to confide in. It would seem that he genuinely fell in love with his wife, rather than chose her specifically to conceal his true identity, and he still loves her, despite wanting to change gender.
The central dilemma is that in order to successfully birth his female identity, his male identity – the husband and father his family know and love – has to die. This is a slow bereavement process as they hear the news, then see their family member begin to dress as a woman, to take that identity into the world to be seen by work colleagues, family friends and his children’s friends. Just as this process is hard for Luke, it’s equally hard for the family – I loved the inclusion of a politically aware daughter, full of support for causes like equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community, but finding it a very different prospect when the person involved is her own father. She acknowledges her father’s rights in principle, but that doesn’t stop the feelings of hurt and loss she’s suffering. Similarly, I felt deeply for Eilish who is losing the man she loves, but has to ask herself the question of whether she has to lose the person she loves too. I’m not sure about the conclusion to their relationship, and I’d be interested in knowing how common it is in real life.
I thought this book was a fascinating read and really started me thinking about how it must feel to be in the wrong body, in a society that still expects us to conform to the established norm. It really did show what transgender people go through, just to be who they are. For me, Norman’s book avoided all the controversy and cancel culture we see going on in society today, by focusing in on Luke and his family. This is one character’s experience and doesn’t make assumptions or create a stereotypical experience. It isn’t negative about Luke’s experience either, the viewpoints belong to him or his family members and while they may be upset or shocked by his news as individuals, the overall narrative remains positive and non-judgemental which I loved. I know some will ask whether a fictionalised account is appropriate, because such controversial and complex stories are often best told by ‘own voice’ writers. However, I felt that the author had insight, whether that’s through personal experience or research. It is a book that started many conversations at home about the distinction between gender and sexuality, how it would feel to be Luke and the overwhelming fear that has kept him in his male identity in so long, and how it would feel if it was our Mum or Dad. Luke deserves to be who he truly is and in order to keep his family, he must continue to be a parent and grandparent as Lucia. It’s a book that challenges the reader’s own preconceptions and I love it when a book makes me think like this, plus it makes it a great book club choice. This was informative, absorbing, deeply moving and is a story that has stayed with me over the last four years.
Meet The Author.
Charity is the author of six novels. She was born in Uganda, brought up in draughty vicarages in the North of England and met her husband under a truck in the Sahara desert. She worked for some years as a family and criminal barrister in York Chambers, until, realising that her three children barely knew her, she moved with her family to New Zealand where she began to write.
After the Fall was a Richard & Judy and World Book Night title, The New Woman a BBC Radio 2 Book Club choice. See You in September (2017) was shortlisted for best crime novel in the Ngaio Marsh Awards. Her sixth, The Secrets of Strangers, was released on 7th May 2020 and is also a Radio 2 Book Club choice.
Charity loves hearing from readers. Please visit her on facebook.com/charitynormanauthor or Twitter: @charitynorman1
When Briony Campbell confesses to killing her boyfriend, a straightforward crime of passion soon turns into a baffling mystery. Haunted by demons from his past, lawyer S.J. Robin is assigned to the case. But as confusion – and the body count – rises, he’s forced to question who is guilty and who is innocent. Can he see justice served and hold on to the woman he loves?
I’ve been slightly daunted by writing the review for this thriller, because I’m desperate not to give anything away. Volta really is a fast paced read, with a plot full of twists and turns and an engaging central character. Even more unusual, is the distinct thread of romance throughout. From the moment Briony wakes up covered in blood, I was drawn into the story. There’s an almost cinematic quality to the writing, because we’re totally in the moment as Briony wakes up and as her senses take in the terrifying situation she’s in so do ours. It’s a moment of of stillness that’s rare in the book. Then we pan out and see our other character’s reaction to the crime. Briony makes an statement to lawyer S. J. Robin that seems clear cut, but he soon realises the case is not that simple and as it becomes ever more entangled, it even brings his own demons to the surface.
The novel has three narrators: S.J, Briony and Mari. Mari is both Briony’s therapist and possible love interest to S.J, in a complicated coincidence. From the first time we see them together, it’s clear that S.J and Mari have history. Even more complexity comes in, when we realise that the investigator, Aris, is Mari’s brother – and they are a really convincing pair of siblings. It’s a small interrelated group of characters, and it creates a slightly claustrophobic feel. S.J relates his tale in the first person, and for some reason that makes me think he’s giving a true version of events. It’s an unconscious bias that I think comes from being a counsellor and ‘prizing’ the client’s account, never showing judgement or disbelief. However, I do love it when a novel’s narrator proves to be untrustworthy and as the story unfolded I started to feel a little unsettled by some aspects of the story – specifically S.J and Briony’s narratives. They each had an experience of trauma in their respective childhoods; from this it is easy to draw parallels between them. However, when a narrative’s in the third person we can see others interacting with our character, having inner thoughts about them and possibly being aware of their back story. A first-person narrative has no corroboration and though the difference in narrative perspective seems subtle it does have a large impact. S.J is intriguing. We learn very early in the novel, that he’s dealing with past trauma and his positioning as a victim also elicits sympathy from the reader – that is until doubts start to creep in. We learn that his psychological trauma could be permanent or at least difficult to heal, and this could create a further bond between him and Briony that is possibly unhelpful, both personally and in the investigation. I was left questioning what exactly had happened in Briony and S.J’s pasts? Did what happened with Briony relate to those circumstances? Can the victim have justice if S.J wins justice for Briony – are they the same thing? In between is the push and pull of S.J and Mari, whose attraction gave the book more of a light-hearted feel
Although the novel moves along at an incredible pace, I could identify certain threads or themes running throughout, always at the back of my mind like a constant nagging voice. I seemed to be thinking constantly, even when I wasn’t reading the book! Make no mistake these are complicated characters, with psychological damage that’s affecting their everyday lives and their work. Their relationships are difficult, or even broken. The author’s grasp of the consequences of trauma are nicely nuanced and I felt safe in the hands of a writer who understood psychological trauma well. In fact the reader works as a fourth character, bringing their own bias and assumptions to their assessment of Briony. The word ‘Volta’ is defined as a literary device, used in poetry. It’s a rhetorical shift, or a dramatic change in mood, emotion and tone. That’s how this book feels as a reading experience, I found myself shifting constantly in my assessment of Briony based on how one of the other characters viewed her or when a twist in the narrative turned everything on it’s head. This would be a great book club choice, because I imagine every reader has a different perspective. This is a strong, intense and clever thriller with characters to match.
Meet The Author
Nikki is a novelist and poet who grew up in London. She attended state school in Camden and spent her time hiding in the library. She is managing editor of streetcake magazine, which publishes innovative writing. She also runs the streetcake writing prize and MumWrite, a development programme for mums. Her novel, ‘Ellipsis’ was published by Sparkling Books in 2010. Additionally, she has been published in magazines and online. Her chapbook ‘exits/origins’ and collection ‘Hope Alt Delete’ are published by The Knives, Forks and Spoons Press. She won the Virginia Prize for fiction 2020 and her novel, Volta, was published by Aurora Metro Books in 2021. Her pamphlet, ‘I’d Better Let You Go’ was published by Beir Bua Press in 2021.
Nikki loves mysteries, thrillers and things that make her think. Some of her favourite books are Catch-22, the Raymond Chandler books, How to Life Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and anything by Yoko Ogawa.
Her other interests include watching many genres of films and attending events such as poetry readings, sport, and gigs. You can start conversations with her by discussing your favourite type of cake, your favourite Avenger or telling her a fun fact. She loves travelling and trying local cuisines.
This was a great opener in a new Scandi noir series, that left me looking forward to getting to know these characters a lot better. Jensen is a journalist living in Copenhagen after spending several years in London as the British correspondent for a Danish newspaper. She still hasn’t quite found her feet in the city, and knows that she’s very lucky to still have a job considering the cuts at work. Her editor Margrethe has faith in her ability to sniff out a story and one morning, while cycling to work.Jensen stumbles across the body of a young man with a large placard saying guilty on his chest. His eyes are covered with new fallen snow and it’s clear that he has several stab wounds to the abdomen. He’s also homeless, Jensen calls her ex-lover Detective Henrik Jungerson to report the murder, even though she’s been trying to avoid him since her return. Jensen doesn’t want to exploit such a sad death for newspaper headlines. Nor will she sensationalise it, However as more bodies are found it’s clear a serial killer is on the loose. Why would someone choose the homeless as their victims? Jensen has to investigate further.
I really enjoyed Jensen’s character. She’s rather mysterious and I think the author was clever to drop clues and hints about her in this first book of the series. It left me wanting to discover more and delve into her past, not least her relationship with Henrik. It certainly isn’t over. She’s determined and dogged once the story has piqued her journalistic interest and it’s probably true to use the word ‘obsessed’ when describing how she investigates. She feels very real because of the way she’s written – it’s like slowly getting to know a new acquaintance rather than having a fully formed person. She’s also a bit prickly and is very used to navigating a rather male dominated workplace. Her tension with Henrik leaps off the page and I’m very interested to see where their relationship goes next, as well as unearthing a bit more about their past.
“clues and hints about her in this first book of the series. It left me wanting to discover more and delve into her past, not least her relationship with Henrik. It certainly isn’t over. She’s determined and dogged once the story has piqued her journalistic interest and it’s probably true to use the word ‘obsessed’ when describing how she investigates. She feels very real because of the way she’s written – it’s like slowly getting to know a new acquaintance rather than having a fully formed person. She’s also a bit prickly and is very used to navigating a rather male dominated workplace. Her tension with Henrik leaps off the page and I’m very interested to see where their relationship goes next, as well as unearthing a bit more about their past.
The fact that Jensen focuses on finding out about the killer’s victim rather than the killer suggests a lot of empathy and a keen sense of social justice underneath the spikiness. She leaves Henrik to look for the killer and he’s soon connecting it to a previous suspicious death. They are a good team in this way, each with their own methods, but sharing information along the way. I think the book touches on a lot of current problems in our society, particularly how the world’s economic structure is creating horrendous poverty. Issues such as mental health, drug abuse and of course, homelessness are featured in the book and I thought the author wrote about this with understanding borne out of real life experience and conviction. The story was fast paced and very compulsive reading. There are twists and turns along the way in the investigation and moments where Jensen feels inundated with information, but none of it is making any sense. The tension builds towards the conclusion and these are the really addictive parts that I found myself reading in the car, the hospital waiting room and till 2am while on holiday! This was a fantastic opener to, what is now, a much anticipated series and I have to mention that gorgeous cover. It’s so beautiful I want to put in a frame and hang it on the wall.
Published by Muswell Press 31st August 2021.
Heidi Amsinck, a writer and journalist born in Copenhagen, spent many years covering Britain for the Danish press, including a spell as London Correspondent for the broadsheet daily Jyllands-Posten. She has written numerous short stories for radio, including the three-story sets Danish Noir, Copenhagen Confidential and Copenhagen Curios, all produced by Sweet Talk for BBC Radio 4. A graduate of the MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London, Heidi lives in London. She was previously shortlisted for the VS Pritchett Memorial Prize. Last Train to Helsingør is her first published collection of stories. Her crime novel My Name is Jensen, set in Copenhagen, will be published in August 2021