It’s been another excellent reading month at the Lotus Readers blog. My plan of taking one or two less blog tours has given me plenty of room to read some personal choices from the backlog on my shelves. So, these choices are a mix of blog tour books, NetGalley backlog and the latest in one of my favourite crime series. Hope you’ve all had a great reading month and now I must rush headlong into a rather overcommitted March! See you next time.
The Marsh House by Zoë Somerville
This excellent book is part of my NetGalley backlog, but I’ve just been asked to join the blog tour next month so I will whet your appetite for my full review in March. I simply loved this book. In fact, a finished copy arrived through the post and I started browsing the first page then couldn’t stop reading. So I read it straight through, only finishing at 2am. It’s a split timeline story, beginning with Malorie and her daughter deciding to spend Christmas in a cottage on the Norfolk coast after an argument with her boyfriend. Malorie feels like a bad mother and wants to get one thing right – an idyllic holiday cottage Christmas for her daughter. This is no ordinary cottage though, set right on the Marsh and shrouded with sea fog there is a definite atmosphere of foreboding. The house holds so much of the past in it’s art, the attic of belongings and the journals filled with the story of a 1930’s girl. Soon Malorie is feeling haunted by this place and it’s past. I loved the author’s look into the complicated, emotional experience of becoming a mother. There is a special skill in weaving real historical events with fiction and this author is so talented and creative. She brings Norfolk to life and makes the reader want to visit and search it out for themselves. The atmosphere was so evocative I spent two days with a ‘book hangover’ – unable to start another book because my emotions and senses were so embedded in Malorie’s story. I loved this so much I could have happily gone back to the first page and read it over again.
Flamingo by Rachel Elliot
In split time frames and across the characters of Eve and Daniel we hear the story of two families who live next door to each other. Eve and Daniel move in next door to Leslie and Sherry who have two daughters Rae and Pauline, and some ornamental flamingoes on their front lawn. Eve isn’t used to making friends as she and her son Daniel move around a lot, but there’s something about Sherry. So Eve goes to a specialist off-licence to find just the right bottle of Sherry to take to her new neighbour. Sherry is delighted and immediately welcomes the wandering pair into her home. That summer is the happiest summer mother and son have ever had, as they are enveloped by this wild, eccentric and loud family – Eve uses the word rambunctious. Then Eve and Daniel leave. All the colours seem to bleach out of the world. We then meet Daniel as an adult, wandering and broken. Deeply affected by some kind words and affection from a woman in the library, he decides to return to where he was happiest. He turns up at Sherry’s door and it feels like coming home, but where is Eve and what is the story underneath the one Daniel knows. It’s so hard to express how much I loved this book. This is a slow burn novel, told in fragments like half forgotten memories and with such beauty it could be a poem. The writer conveys beautifully how certain people can heal wounds and hold space for each other. In light of recent times it’s important to remember that to live fully we must connect with each other. It shows humans in their best light and at their most powerful, when showing love and accepting others for who they are. Just like the flamingo is pink through his diet, we too are shaped by what is put into us. Through Daniel, and Rae to an extent, there’s an acknowledgment of how painful life can be, but that healing and change is possible. I was enchanted by this story and it will keep a special place in my heart.
The Locked Room by Elly Griffiths
There are several mysteries in this latest book in Elly Griffith’s Ruth Galloway series, both professional and personal. Ruth is called in to excavate human remains discovered by a roadworks crew, in the evocatively named Tombland area of Norwich. This alerts her to Augustine Seward’s House, close to the cathedral and rumoured home of the Grey Lady – a young girl locked into the house during the plague with her sick parents in order to stop them spreading the virus. Another grim discovery is the death of an older woman, found by her cleaner after taking an overdose in her bedroom. A prior case had caught DI Nelson’s eye because he couldn’t understand why someone suicidal, would put their ready meal in the microwave first. This latest death adds to Nelson’s suspicions, because the cleaner is convinced she had to unlock the room, from the outside. There is also a personal mystery for Ruth, who is clearing out her mother’s things. She finds a box of photographs and is shocked to find a picture of her own cottage – a place her mother never really warmed to. Written on the back is Dawn, 1963, a full four years before Ruth was born. Why would her mother have kept this and why did she never share that she’d been there? Griffiths weaves the pandemic into this novel so beautifully, with each character responding in their own unique way. The spiritual and ghostly space of Tombland is truly spooky, thanks to the Grey Lady who wanders the house with a lit candle, but also walks through walls – where there used to be doors. It’s no surprise that Cathbad has also seen her in this area and the legend adds to the confusion of the final moments as the crime is solved. The crime is an interesting one due to the elements of coercive control and our team have to ask questions about how and if they can prosecute. However, my mind was also occupied with those characters catching COVID and their loved ones and I was on tenterhooks with that aspect of the book. I’d set aside two days to read this novel on publication and I only needed one because I had to know all my characters are safe and the cliffhanger ending has me already waiting for the next one.
Off Target by Eve Smith
I loved Eve Smith’s last dystopian novel The Waiting Rooms, read during the first days of lockdown number one which exacerbated it’s strange feeling of being our world, but not quite. The author manages this feat again in Off Target, a dystopian thriller set in the not too distant future. Everything about this world is perfectly recognisable as ours, except for that one area that the author focuses on. Ever since Frankenstein there has been a tradition of horror writing around pregnancy and motherhood, showing just how far these fears are embedded in the human psyche. Monstrous births are part of the gothic and grotesque tradition and I think the author plays into that here, with her tale of meddling with babies in utero. Susan fears she will never become pregnant and this is killing her relationship with her husband. A drunken one night stand with a colleague is a world away from the sex she’s been having, which sometimes feels like a means to an end rather than something to enjoy and express love. Once she finds out she’s pregnant, there’s no question of her not keeping the baby. She can’t imagine terminating the pregnancy she’s waited so long for, but her husband looks very different to her colleague. He has very tanned skin and dark eyes, so what if her baby looks the same? She won’t be able to hide her indiscretion then. Susan confides in her best friend who suggests genetic engineering. Already approved in the UK for ruling out possible illnesses and disabilities, but what her friend is suggesting means swapping out the biological father’s DNA for the preferred father’s. Offered in clinics in Eastern Europe, these more extreme modifications are not approved in the UK but just one weekend in Kiev could see Susan’s infidelity covered up for good. Susan’s only concerns are the reported ‘off target’ effects of this extensive genetic engineering. There are underground reports of children suffering depression, becoming aggressive, or even committing suicide, but the urge to keep her infidelity quiet, might overcome her concerns about what could go wrong. The fall out is spectacular. A brilliant look at motherhood, genetics and a future we might already be engineering.
Theatre of Marvels by Lianne Dillsworth.
Our setting for this novel is a Victorian variety show produced under the watchful eye of Mr Crillick. His current headline act is Amazonia – a true African tribeswoman, dressed in furs and armed with a shield and spear, her native dancing brings down the house in show’s finale. The audience watch, transfixed with fear and fascination, never realising that she is a ‘fagged’ act. Zillah has never set foot in Africa and is in fact of mixed race heritage, born in East London. She’s used to slipping between worlds on stage and in her private life, renting a room in the rough St Giles area of the city, but regularly making her way to a more salubrious area and the bed of a Viscount by night. Everything changes as Zillah’s consciousness is raised in several ways. First, she realises that Vincent will never admit to their relationship in public. Secondly, she meets a young black man called Lucien, who places a question in her mind that she can’t shake off. How does it feel to earn money misrepresenting her ancestors? Finally, she sees Crillick parade a terrified women he’s called the ‘Leopard Lady’ at a party. With strange white patches all over her dark skin, the men are fascinated, drawing near and touching her and even roughly scratching to see if it comes off. Zillah notices medical implements laid out on a tray, the horror of what might happen to this woman overwhelms her. She must rescue the Leopard Lady from Crillick’s clutches. Exciting and fascinating, with elements of the thriller and a central character who is resilient and brave in her quest, this is a must read. I found the settings brought vividly to life and the author has clearly used solid research into freak shows, Victorian society and women’s live. She beautifully presents the realities of being bi-racial with the struggles of identity and belonging. I also enjoyed the theme of ‘otherness’ and how outsiders survive in society; the complexities of display and exploitation are weighed against poverty and deprivation. Can freak shows be acceptable if individuals can make a choice to exhibit themselves? Or is any exhibition of ‘different’ bodies unacceptable; a question that still needs debate today. I really enjoyed Zillah‘s quest and her own personal journey too. I read this so quickly and will be putting a copy on my bookshelves, because I know it’s one I’ll want to read again.
What a fantastic month of books! Next month is a crazy one, but here are just some of the novels I hope to read next month. thankfully I’ve read some early. See you soon.