It’s 1817 and a young woman is witnessed throwing a child into the River Clyde from the Old Bridge in Glasgow, the authorities are told. Based on a real case, this is a powerful piece of historical fiction from Sarah Smith and an interesting look into the 19th Century attitude to disability, and specifically deafness. The authorities are unable to communicate with their prisoner and as nothing is found at the river, Jean is taken to the Edinburgh Tolbooth in the hope of getting the truth. The High Court asks Robert Kinniburgh if he will communicate with their silent prisoner, to work out whether Jean is deaf or even fit for trial. Robert teaches at the Deaf & Dumb Institution and might be able to form a way of interpreting for the authorities. Jean only has two choices if a court finds her guilty, neither of which are desirable; death by hanging or imprisonment in an insane asylum. As Robert and Jean manage to construct a simple way of communicating, he starts to gains her trust, Jean starts to confides in her interpreter, imparting the truth. As Robert treads a fine line between interpreter and investigator, he becomes absolutely determined to clear her name before it is too late.
The novel’s basis in Scottish legal history means that Smith has researched her period deeply, wanting to tell her tale sensitively and with respect for these real-life characters. It is a perfect mix of fact, atmospheric setting, strong characters and an understanding of what life was like for someone with a disability in the early 19th Century. Kinniburgh has the difficult task of unravelling Jean’s story, immersing himself in the legal machinery of the Edinburgh court, and retracing Jean’s life up till that moment on the bridge. He is a teacher, not a lawyer, so he really has his work cut out. He is our eyes and ears in the story, following Jean’s life in the poverty stricken slums of Glasgow, experiencing her difficulties and finding out what happened in the final days before she came to be alone on the Old Bridge with her baby. He is a very humane main character, full of intelligence and compassion for others. Yet it us Jean Campbell who really made her way into my head and heart.
Obviously, the real Jean Campbell isn’t well known, but it felt like Smith really got under the skin of this girl. The details of her existence are brought vividly to life and Smith shows us that she was strong and full of dignity despite being so disenfranchised. Jean has gone through traumatic experiences, badly used by unscrupulous people only too happy to take advantage. Campbell’s deafness is central pillar of this book, it’s the reason for her poverty, the ordeals she has been subjected to and possibly the court case itself. How far were police officers influenced by her inability to speak. Just as there are now, there were prejudices and assumptions made about the Deaf community at the time, and we get some insight into how sign language evolved when it becomes the key by which Kinniburgh begins to earn Jean’s trust and unlock her story. I love that her story is reaching so many people through this novel.
I loved the settings, particularly the incredibly atmospheric opening which really set the scene for the rest of the novel. Smith’s period locations took me on a journey through time across two beautiful Scottish cities. The most vivid being Edinburgh’s dank and grimy Tolbooth prison which evoked claustrophobia for me. Equally vivid are Kinniburgh’s visits to the filthy poverty of Jean’s Glasgow home. I think that lovers of historical fiction will really enjoy this but I’d like to see it read by a wider audience, considering it’s message is sadly still relevant. We cannot judge fellow human beings until we have understood what has brought them to that point. We also need to make more effort to communicate with those who have a disability. It seems that we can revere them as Paralympians or military heroes, but many don’t pass the time of day with real people with disabilities in their daily life. Smith highlights this by taking us to this earlier time where, for those who were silenced, their disability could mean paying a very high price indeed. Jean could see this discrepancy and the way she was underestimated every day of her life:
‘She was aware of much more than people gave her credit for. Always had been…Not once did any hearing person treat her like she was the same as them.’
Manchester, 1960s. Sally, a cynical fifteen-year-old schoolgirl, is much too clever for her own good. When partnered with her best friend, Pamela – a mouthy girl who no-one else much likes – Sally finds herself unable to resist the temptation of rebellion. The pair play truant, explore forbidden areas of the old school and – their favourite – torment posh Sylvia Rose, with her pristine uniform and her beautiful voice that wins every singing prize.
One day, Sally ventures (unauthorised, of course) up to the greenhouse on the roof alone. Or at least she thinks she’s alone, until she sees Sylvia on the roof too. Sally hurries downstairs, afraid of Sylvia snitching, but Sylvia appears to be there as well.
I was drawn to reading this novel by the promise of a ghostly story, but it wasn’t at all what I expected. The novel is split into three parts: penumbra, umbra and anteumbra. All I understood from this and my teenage Latin lessons was that part two would be shadowy and opaque, umbra being the shadow cast during an eclipse. So the opening section would be the lead up to these events and this was the unexpected part. Birch begins her novel with an ordinary everyday tale of Sally’s school days. Set in Manchester in 1960’s, the author spends a lot of time setting up her characters and letting us get to know them. Sally and her best friend Pamela are fifteen years old and somewhat rebellious. Pamela is troubled and disliked by most of the pupils as well as Sally’s family, who are concerned about this girl’s influence over their daughter. There was a lot about this opening that I recognised from my own school days 20 years later; pushing the boundaries, forming friendships, first relationships and a bit of bullying. Together they bend the rules by playing hooky from P.E, climbing on the roof at lunchtime to smoke and eat their pack-ups and eating all the free samples in the food hall at Lewis’s Department Store. Like all girls of this age she is coping with the challenges of growing up, and has doubts about her first serious boyfriend, Rob. However, they really enjoy tormenting Sylvia Rose, an old-fashioned, slightly upper-class girl in their class who has a promising classical voice. Sally could have made a friend of Sylvia, because they do have some of the same interests, but instead she follows Pamela and makes fun of Sylvia. The girls do escalate, so some of their tricks go too far, leaving Sylvia humiliated in front of the entire school.
The girls are attracted by superstition and obtain a ouija board to secretly use during their breaks. The ouija board predicts a dark season approaching, but the girls do not want to believe it. They are also warned by one of their teachers, but the unthinkable does happens and the consequences could haunt Sally for the rest of her life. The author, slowly and cleverly, charts the course of these fun loving and boisterous girls as they become anxious and fearful young women. Since we’re told the story from Sally’s point of view, we get to know her best and her inner world is built. It is not easy to be a teenager, because we’re always in conflict and easily influenced by others through peer pressure. It’s a time when mistakes are made and we have to hope we don’t regret them forever. I was drawn to the novel because of the blurb that describes it as having “elements of the ghost story” and these all take place in the second part of the book. Rather than a ghost story, I would call suggest that there are uncanny or supernatural events within a story about adolescence and growing up. There is so much emotional energy around teenagers and that definitely plays into this story. The terrible tragedy that ensues will affect Sally badly, but also the whole school and in the final part of the book, set around twelve years later, the past really does start to haunt her. Sally returns to Manchester after working around the country and starts to re-connect with old school friends. the area where she grew up and reconnects with several of her old schoolmates. The pace picks up here and we’re definitely in “ghost story” mode, as the author really does use supernatural elements to terrify, quite effectively in parts. What’s most effective for me is that underlying ambiguity; do we take these events literally or does this narrator have some serious mental health issues?
Carol Birch’s novel is a clever combination of school tale, coming of age drama and ghost story. I think that readers coming to this for a straightforward ghost story, should be warned that the thrill and the fear do come, but not for a while. It’s a slow burn rather than a twisty, turny thriller that keeps readers on the edge of their seat. When the ghostly elements did come, they were effective and left me feeling a bit edgy, not knowing what was real and what was a figment of Sally’s imagination. There is a feeling of foreboding, something is going to turn out badly; but is that a ghostly payback or the just the product of Sally’s diseased imagination? The final part also has important reflections on mental health and the psychological aftershocks of grief. The haunting atmosphere will stay with you long after I turned the final page.
Samira is an up-and-coming TV journalist, working the nightshift at a major news channel and yearning for greater things. So when she’s offered a trip to the Middle East, with Kris, the station’s brilliant but impetuous star photographer, she leaps at the chance In the field together, Sami and Kris feel invincible, shining a light into the darkest of corners … except the newsroom, and the rest of the world, doesn’t seem to care as much as they do. Until Kris takes the photograph. With a single image of young Sudanese mother, injured in a raid on her camp, Sami and the genocide in Darfur are catapulted into the limelight. But everything is not as it seems, and the shots taken by Kris reveal something deeper and much darker … something that puts not only their careers but their lives in mortal danger. Sarah Sultoon brings all her experience as a CNN news executive to bear on this shocking, searingly authentic thriller, which asks immense questions about the world we live in. You’ll never look at a news report in the same way again…
Sarah Sultoon’s debut was a hard hitting belter of a novel so I was really looking forward this one, set in the world of war journalism -something that seems so pertinent right now as I watch Orla Guerrin and Jeremy Bowen on my TV screen, showing us the evidence of what can only be called war crimes in the Ukraine. Having read some of Janine di Giovanna’s writing about covering the genocide in Rwanda, Bosnia and now in Syria, I had a good idea of what the war correspondent’s life looks like. She describes lots of waiting around, mixed with personalities that are driven and easily bored. When you combine that with the things they’ve experienced it can be a potent mix, leading to abuse of drink or drugs in order to cope. It means being shipped off to one of the most dangerous places in the world at a moment’s notice, living on adrenaline and even the risk of being seriously injured, as happened to BBC Security Correspondent Frank Gardener. It’s the type of work that can become addictive, ruin relationships and damage health. I saw that dynamic being played out in Sultoon’s novel following hardened correspondent and star of the show Kris, and his producer Samira who is eager and new to the job.
Kris has something of the hero about him, always looking slightly battered and dishevelled, and ready to jump back into the fray before his injuries have healed from the last mission. He’s loud and full of machismo, but this is a surface layer. He does care about the people he’s reporting on and wants to express to the world everything he is seeing in conflict, but it also takes a toll. We see it as he returns home injured, he’s already desperate to get back out there and his mind is barely on his wife, or her concerns about their son and what he understands about his father’s job. Sami is ambitious, stuck on night shifts but lurking around the news room for that elusive shot at an overseas production role. She finds it when Kris saunters back in looking for trouble and there’s news that the American president is making a flying visit to Afghanistan. Kris is up for a quick trip and Sami is in the right place at the right time. He’s quickly impressed by how organised and well researched she is. Even before they reach Afghanistan, Sami is already thinking about the opportunities to land a big story and with Kris on board, she asks to be taken around an Afghan hospital. In the women’s hospital they find the hidden victims of the Taliban, women who have tried self-immolation as a way out of their restricted lives, but only succeeded in creating a world of agonising pain.
Sami and Kris are praised back at home and become a close team, although Sami does feel that no matter what they report, viewers are not waking up and taking notice. It’s all a journalist wants, ‘the shot’, the one that has impact worldwide and changes the way people think about a place, or a war. The one that has people approaching their MP and protesting for change. They find it covering the conflict in in Darfur, Sudan. A shot of a young mother, the victim of a devastating assault by the armed Arab militia the ‘Janjaweed’, one picture representing a dark, genocide lurking just under the surface of what we know. A way to refocus the eyes of the world on a truly terrible and largely forgotten war, crime. The author has a brilliant way of bringing us right into the moment, without long flowery descriptions, such as the way the sheer beauty of Afghanistan is described with its ring of snowy mountains round Kabul. This gives an eternal feel to the place, it is ancient and will stand here long after the war is over and everyone has returned home. In other scenes it’s something as simple as the clean clothing Kris puts on when he returns home; his cargo trousers and a fleece top, always the same. In barely any words it tells us Kris has a ‘uniform’ and that he’s never off duty and won’t be staying for very long. This isn’t an easy read. War is brutal and should be depicted that way. This really shines the spotlight on those supporting staff, the war correspondents are risking their lives of course, but so are their guides and interpreters. It really brought home to me the fear these men must have felt when America withdrew from Afghanistan suddenly and power was back in the hands of the Taliban. Those who’d worked with the foreign correspondents and without who’s help we wouldn’t have known the raw truth of the conflict, were abandoned and turned away from the airport in those chaotic last days for not having the right papers. I often wonder how many of them are alive now. This is urgent, brutal writing and the pace never lets up, giving us a taste of the adrenalin rush for the correspondents and the terrible fear that their families must live with at home. All of them are the emotional casualties of war.
Meet The Author
Sarah Sultoon is a journalist and writer, whose work as an international news executive at CNN has taken her all over the world, from the seats of power in both Westminster and Washington to the frontlines of Iraq and Afghanistan. She has extensive experience in conflict zones, winning three Peabody awards for her work on the war in Syria, an Emmy for her contribution to the coverage of Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015, and a number of Royal Television Society gongs. As passionate about fiction as nonfiction, she recently completed a Masters of Studies in Creative Writing at the University of Cambridge, adding to an undergraduate language degree in French and Spanish, and Masters of Philosophy in History, Film and Television. When not reading or writing she can usually be found somewhere outside, either running, swimming or throwing a ball for her three children and dog while she imagines what might happen if… Her debut thriller The Source is currently in production with Lime Pictures, and was a Capital Crime Book Club pick and a number one bestseller on Kindle.
After the untimely deaths of her aunt and mother, young Riley Mays moved from Chicago to her cousin’s Wisconsin farm. Here she found solace in caring for her extraordinary adoptive brother, exploring the surrounding wild nature, and gazing at the mystical moon—a private refuge in which she hides from her most painful memories. But ten years later, now twenty-one, Riley feels too confined by the protective walls she’s erected around herself. When a stranger enters her family’s remote world, Riley senses something he’s hiding, a desire to escape that she understands well.
Suffering from writer’s block, bestselling novelist Vaughn Orr has taken to the country roads when he happens upon the accommodating, if somewhat unusual, Mays family. He’s soon captivated by their eccentricities—and especially by Riley and her quiet tenacity. In her, he recognizes a shared need to keep heartbreaking secrets buried. As the worst moments of their lives threaten to surface, Riley and Vaughn must find the courage to confront them if they’re to have any hope of a happy future. With the help of Riley’s supportive family, a dash of everyday magic, and the healing power of nature, can the pair let go of the troubled pasts they’ve clung to so tightly for so long?
This is a book about people who have tragic secrets and a real need to process their experiences and heal. Both farm dwelling Riley and writer Vaughan have a similar need to disappear and escape from their physical four walls and the boundaries of their minds. Both are affected by trauma and really need to face it rather than avoid it, if they want to recover. Perhaps these two people with secrets in their past could attempt a slow recovery together. As is the norm for this writer, healing comes from nature, nurture, friendship, family and understanding.
The book is so beautifully written it’s easy to become mesmerised by the language and it’s this that first pulled me into the novel. I love atmosphere and description so this lyrical start was perfect for me. The story is definitely a slow burn, but the sense of place and emotion is hypnotic. The author plays with ideas of darkness within people and how we see ourselves – do we ever see ourselves as we truly are? People who’ve experienced trauma might find it hard to be their authentic selves, because how they feel can be dark, sad and fearful. Riley and Vaughan seemed to have embraced that darkness as part of their identity, when actually there’s so much about them that is lightness and joy. Sometimes, it’s easier to say you love the darkness than it is to do all the work it takes to cast it off. The novel is mainly that personal journey, moving towards the light with the help of family, nature and a little touch of spirituality too.
The moon imagery is interesting, because there is something magical about it: it’s pull on the earth, the seemingly magical way it controls tides and perhaps even moods. There is an otherworldly feel to the author’s imagery that takes us to an earth that is ours, but with some interesting quirks and a touch of surrealism. Here the love of the family is connected firmly to nature, space, and the galaxy. I didn’t need to believe this, I just went with it and enjoyed the journey. I was also touched by a couple of minor characters, Sachi and Kiran. Sachi has such a passion for Indian food and surrealist art and I love people who are passionate and excited about things. She is open hearted and happy to take in anyone, which she does with Riley and Vaughan. There’s an earth mother element to her nature which I loved. Kiran is only eight years old, but is an outstanding little fellow with so much character packed into his meagre years. He feels more comfortable dressed in girl’s clothing, collects fossils and takes apart clocks in order to make magic!
Around her own love of nature and spirituality, Vanderah weaves the story of two strangers who somehow understand each other deeply. The author takes the reader on a lyrical journey from the very depths of their tragic childhoods towards a place of healing; a healing that comes from the consolation of nature, the love of family, the nurturing of self-worth and the understanding that they deserve full and happy lives. I love description, atmosphere and characters who are unique and full of depth, so this story of emotions, regrets, and haunting memories, not to mention the glimpse of hope, was bound to capture my heart.
Published 22nd March 2022 from Lake Union Publishing.
Glendy Vanderah worked as an endangered bird specialist in Illinois before she became a writer. Originally from Chicago, she now lives in rural Florida with as many birds, butterflies, and wildflowers as she can lure to her land. Where the Forest Meets the Stars is her debut novel. Visit Glendy online at http://glendyvanderah.com/
1941, Nazi-occupied Paris: In the glamorous Ritz hotel there is a woman with a dangerous secret…
As Coco Chanel’s assistant, Adèle lives side by side with German officers in the splendour of The Ritz hotel. But Adèle has a secret. She is working for the resistance, right under the Germans’ noses. As occupied Paris becomes more and more dangerous, Adèle will have to decide if she can risk everything to save innocent lives and protect the man she loves…
Present day: Chloé’s grandmother has never spoken about the war and avoids questions about the legendary designer she once worked for. Now Chloé has come to Paris, to uncover the truth about Adèle’s life. But is she prepared for what she will find? And for the power of her grandmother’s secrets to change her family forever…
Chloé has travelled to Paris after the breakdown of her marriage in order to help a friend with their vintage shop. She knows her grandmother worked for Chanel in the 1940’s so when she hears about an auction taking place at the Ritz she decides to have a look. The Ritz is selling some wartime items which grab her interest and when she meets Etienne, who is an art dealer and war historian, he is a great source of knowledge. He tells her about recently unearthed information that Chanel was sympathetic to Hitler’s cause and had visited Berlin several times. Like many people who survived the war, her grandma has been very reticent about sharing her experiences for that? As Chloé starts to look in the archives, she begins to worry. What will she feel if she finds out her grandmother collaborated.
The historical research undertaken for this novel is undeniable and before reading this I had no idea of Coco Chanel’s stance in WW2 or the stories of her collaboration with the Nazis. I think now that history has shown us the full extent of the Holocaust and Hitler’s belief in a master race, we can’t conceive of anyone who doesn’t see him and his actions as unremittingly evil. However, it’s clear that during the war, for both Germans and occupied citizens the distinction wasn’t so clear. With our own aristocracy hiding many who were enthralled by Hitler’s planned genocide, it shouldn’t be a surprise that in France, Greece and Italy allegiances and the reasons for them were very complicated. If you had a bakery in the occupied Greek islands would you rather see bread go to waste or would you sell to the occupying force? For Chanel, living in the Paris Ritz alongside German soldiers it must have been hard to live next door and keep up a secret campaign of hatred. This is where Adèle’s story shines a light, as Chanel’s PA she can come very close to them, but still want them dead and gone from France. So with great bravery she resists under their very noses.
Adèle’s wartime story is so engrossing, that I think it makes the book a little lopsided. The dual timeline, as in the present Adèle’s granddaughter Chloé researches her family history, is definitely the weaker end of the story. It’s almost there as a device and although it gives present day interest, I think the book would be just as strong without it. It’s possibly just that the tension and drama need to be high for the WW2 setting, so anything would have seemed quiet in comparison. Prior to the war, Adèle grew up in an orphanage, taught by nuns. She had worked for Chanel before war broke out and is lucky to be chosen as her personal secretary when the atelier is closed, because all the other staff are let go. Adéle is in charge of her correspondence, packing her luggage when she travels and organises any meetings she has. However, she does not enjoy living at the Ritz, especially when the German soldiers move in and Chanel starts to socialise with them, dating a much younger man at the same time. It’s the guilt that’s so hard to deal with, especially when Adèle sees other people going hungry. When she first sees a Jewish woman being arrested, she’s stunned and feels sick that this is happening in her country. As she goes for her routine blood donation to the Red Cross she meets Theo, a doctor who is a member of the resistance. Can Adèle continue to watch others suffer or will she have to help?
I think that this writer takes a piece of history and weaves a great story, full of intrigue and drama especially in the WW2 sections. Chloé needs to move forward from her divorce and find her confidence again and there is something about filling in the gaps of her family history that does this. Learning the truth about her grandmother is nerve-wracking considering her employer’s history, but if it shows she was a hero then Chloé will filled buoyed up by it. Knowing you’re from a line of strong women, can help you find your own strength and I think that’s the essence of Chloé’s journey. Adèle is a courageous woman in a very tough situation and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know her and the full history of one of France’s most famous collaborators.
Published on 22nd January 2022 by Avon Books.
Meet The Author
Lorna Cook is the author of the The Girl From the Island, The Forbidden Promise and the Kindle Number 1 Bestseller ‘The Forgotten Village’, which was her debut novel, staying in the Kindle Top 100 for four months. It has sold over 150,000 copies, has eleven overseas/foreign language editions, won the Romantic Novelists’ Association Katie Fforde Debut Romantic Novel of the Year Award and the RNA Joan Hessayon Award for New Writers. Keep up with all her news and bookish chat at:www.lornacookauthor.com www.facebook.com/LornaCookWriterwww.instagram.com/lornacookauthorwww.twitter.com/LornaCookAuthor
She’s the war’s most lethal sniper. And the one they least expect…
In the snowbound city of Kiev, aspiring historian Mila Pavlichenko’s life revolves around her young son – until Hitler’s invasion of Russia changes everything. Suddenly, she and her friends must take up arms to save their country from the Fuhrer’s destruction.
Handed a rifle, Mila discovers a gift – and months of blood, sweat and tears turn the young woman into a deadly sniper: the most lethal hunter of Nazis.
Yet success is bittersweet. Mila is torn from the battlefields of the eastern front and sent to America while the war still rages. There, she finds an unexpected ally in First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and an unexpected promise of a different future.
But when an old enemy from Mila’s past joins forces with a terrifying new foe, she finds herself in the deadliest duel of her life.
The Diamond Eye is a haunting novel of heroism born of desperation, of a mother who became a soldier, of a woman who found her place in the world and changed the course of history forever.
I found this novel a compulsive and totally immersive read. So much so that if I was interrupted I would often look up in surprise to find that I wasn’t in a freezing cold trench, aching and covered with mud. Kate Quinn really gives us a vivid picture of WW2 in Russia, a front of the war I knew little about. In Lyudmila Pavlichenko, Quinn has a complex heroine, but she creates a nuanced, three dimensional woman, who is so much more than her nickname of Lady Death. I’d imagined a rather joyless, dour individual who was strong and almost masculine. However, instead I was shown a rather diminutive figure, with dark eyes and her long hair hacked off for practicality. This is the soldier. A woman with so much self-discipline she put me to shame, not only working on her university dissertation and looking after her son, while taking a year long marksmanship course so she could be the one to teach her son to shoot. However, when war breaks out Milla feels she must leave her beloved Ukraine and sign up for frontline duty. I loved the way the novel brought up the issues of womanhood in Russia, both Mila and her friend Lena are shocked by how few women were signed up. It never occurred to Mila to let men fight for her, she had the ability and as she mentions on her visit to Washington – Russian women are equal as human beings. I loved how Quinn focused on her vulnerability as much as her strength and the fact she’s only fighting out of necessity; she doesn’t revel in her 309 kills. She is a cultured woman, often enjoying the ballet and opera in Odessa before the war and very proud of her student status – her half written dissertation being the only personal thing she takes with her to the front.
I felt that the book wore it’s extensive research lightly. The story was grounded within the history, but doesn’t lecture or give huge amounts of exposition. This is a personal story about one woman’s war, within that larger history. Battles are mentioned and ground is won or lost, but it’s the character we focus one and those around her. I loved her relationship with Kostia, her shadow and fellow sniper, who keeps her warm on night long stake-outs by letting her lie along his back for body heat. He is of Siberian/Irish heritage, taciturn and serious, but when he finds his childhood friend Lyonya they are soon laughing and wrestling like a pair of ten year olds. Mila relationship with Lyonya was beautiful and probably the only mutual and equal romantic relationship she’d had to that point. Their story broke my heart, but it also broke for Kostia too. The detail is brutal, shrapnel injuries are described in raw, bloody ways because it’s necessary to show the dangers our characters are in. These terrible injuries also provide a contrast to the swift, clinical and clean kills carried out by Mila and Kostia. There are times where I thought their victims were the lucky ones. Mila’s ex-husband is written so well, because he infuriated me. Always with an eye on the main chance, Alexei is a brilliant surgeon and a shitty husband. Having seduced Mila at 15 years old, he then womanised his way to the divorce courts and has no intention of building a proper relationship with his son. His teasing and little digs at Mila felt like the tip of the iceberg to me and I wondered how manipulative and emotionally abusive he had been within the marriage.
The book is structured with Mila’s time fighting in Russia, sandwiched with chapters that show the delegation of students, including Mila, visiting Washington to elicit US support to open a second front in the war. Inbetween are excerpts from Mila’s diary (official and personal), Eleanor Roosevelt’s diary and notes written for her husband Franklin. There’s a humour in these scenes I enjoyed immensely, especially when Americans underestimate Mila, in her ability to understand them and her talent for sarcasm. These parts made me smile and I also loved the section where Eleanor Roosevelt drives Mila to an event personally, and navigates the streets of Washington like a racing driver! These later chapters are also tense as Mila has to learn to cope with the media, weird marriage proposals and threatening notes posted under her bedroom door by someone travelling with the delegation. The question of who they are and what they’re up to kept me alert and wary of everyone. What Quinn does so breathtakingly well is to breathe life into this woman, who I’d never heard of two weeks ago. She made me care about her and want to investigate her story more. She takes Russia’s poster girl and makes her human, a complex woman with courage, hopes and desires. She shows us that all Mila really wanted from life was to be a history professor, but war got in the way.
Meet The Author
Kate Quinn is a native of southern California. She attended Boston University, where she earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Classical Voice. A lifelong history buff, she has written four novels in the Empress of Rome Saga, and two books in the Italian Renaissance detailing the early years of the infamous Borgia clan. All have been translated into multiple languages. She and her husband now live in Maryland with two black dogs named Caesar and Calpurnia.
Wow! What a reading month I’ve had. It’s been a tough month, but I’ve been kept going by my bookish friends and being able to escape into the very different worlds of these books. I’ve been to China, America, Italy, Scotland, New Zealand, Russia, Australia and London! It’s been a great distraction. I lost my familiar and reading buddy this month, very suddenly. I’d had my cat Baggins since he was one and rescued as feral from a scrapyard. Slowly we became inseparable and now I feel genuinely lost without him. I’ve included some of his pictures at the end of the post, where he’s using me as a cat bed while I read.
Remember Me by Charity Norman
I love Charity Norman’s books. She takes big sensitive and divisive issues and brings them to an everyday human level. She’s written the story of two grandparents, who are the guardians of their grandchildren and fighting the request for visitation from their father, the man who killed their daughter. She wrote about Luke, a middle aged father and husband who has the bravery to come out as transgender. Last time she wrote about a shooting in a local coffee shop and the interesting people held hostage together. This time we follow Emily, a children’s illustrator from London, who grew up in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. She’s telephoned by her father’s neighbour Raewynn, because he’s had an accident and it’s clear his dementia is deteriorating. As Emily tries to look after her father she realises he’s still very distressed by the disappearance of Raewynn’s daughter, which happened twenty years before. Her father had been the local doctor and spent a lot of time supporting Raewynn who’s husband had Huntington’s Disease. Emily was the last person to see the missing young woman alive, and her father was the first person to take a group up to the mountains to search for her. Is there more to his distress than meets the eye? The more he deteriorates, the more secrets he unwittingly lets slip. This story was heart breaking and incredibly moving. Norman writes about long term health conditions with such honesty and reminds patients are always a human being first.
I fell in love with this story on the first page as the author describes a nightmare baby shower where Yinka’s Nigerian mum and aunties all pray out loud,for her to soon find a ‘huzband’. Look at her baby sister Kemi! She already has a husband and a baby on the way. This is about the pressure that a young woman gets from her British Nigerian family. Despite having a degree from Oxford and a great job with an investment bank, they worry that Yinka is in her thirties and might get left on the shelf. I loved the comic potential in these scenes with her family and all the ‘aunties’ in her community. They are always trying to match her with some young man at church and I recognised this type of pressure because it seems common in evangelical churches. I’ve been through it myself. The book poses some great questions about identity and self-worth. Should Yinka’s worth be measured by having a man, having a career or how she looks? Yinka has cut her hair, keeping it short and natural, but is pressured to use wigs or have a weave in order to look more feminine. One potential suitor is very judgemental, surprised she doesn’t speak Yoruba and doesn’t cook proper Nigerian food. What sort of wife will she be? This is a funny and moving book about authenticity, self-worth, finding someone to be with (if you want that) and learning it’s okay to be a single woman.
If counsellor Avery Chambers can’t fix you in ten sessions, she won’t take you on as a client. She helps people overcome everything, from domineering parents to assault. Her successes almost help her absorb the emptiness she feels since her husband’s death. Marissa and Mathew Bishop seem like the golden couple, until Marissa cheats. She wants to repair things, both because she loves her husband and for the sake of their 8-year-old son. After a friend forwards an article about Avery, Marissa takes a chance on this maverick therapist, who lost her license due to controversial methods. When the Bishops glide through Avery’s door and Marissa reveals her infidelity, all three are set on a collision course. Because the biggest secrets in the room are still hidden, and it’s no longer simply a marriage that’s in danger. This is an absolutely cracking read, compulsive and clever. All counsellors feel restrained by their governing body at times, so it was interesting to see the idea of a therapist working openly and unapologetically outside that. Avery has interesting methods that seem to position her between counsellor and private investigator! It’s very confrontational and it’s impossible for the client to hide or or tell half truths. Meanwhile, in the background, there’s another case lurking, the result of Avery’s lack of boundaries with a client who was struggling over whether to be a whistleblower. There’s plenty of action and intrigue here, the pace never lets up and you will want to keep reading just a bit more before bed so get ready for some late nights.
This book is an absolute ray of sunshine, which might seem strange considering it’s a book about grief. Katy has just lost her Mum and is devastated. The loss has her questioning everything in her life, including her marriage to Eric. At the wake, Katy tells him she isn’t sure if they should be married anymore. Her Mum Carol was her absolute world, there for everything from a recipe, to a night out, for shopping and for what to do when something went wrong. She was just so sure of everything and Katy isn’t. How could she have left her so ill equipped to deal with life? Katy had booked a trip for both of them to the Italian town where Carol spent time before she was married. Carol spent a summer in Positano, a picturesque town on the Amalfi coast. Maybe if Katy still takes the trip she will be able to recapture something of her mother and get some space from the burning questions about her marriage? The author’s descriptions of Italy are so vivid you will feel the sun and sea spray on your face. The food sounds utterly mouthwatering and the hotel’s balcony view is to die for. For Katy it feels as if her mother’s spirit has been caught up in this place. Yet it’s still a surprise when she sees a familiar young woman bringing her post to the hotel to be sent out. Katy is overcome and collapses, but when she comes round the woman is leaning over her, ready to help. There’s no mistaking her, it’s Carol, but from her Italian summer. She has no idea how her mother has stepped into the present, but Katy isn’t going to pass up the chance to spend time with her and be shown round the Positano her mother loved. This is a magical story, full of wisdom and with a bit of romance thrown in too. You will want to book a holiday to Italy immediately.
This is another book set in a far flung place, this time it’s Tasmania, 1886. The Brightwell family has sailed from England to make their new home in Western Australia. Ten-year-old Eliza knows little of what awaits them in Bannin Bay beyond stories of shimmering pearls and shells the size of soup plates – the very things her father has promised will make their fortune. Ten years later, as the pearling ships return after months at sea, Eliza waits impatiently for her father to return with them. When his lugger finally arrives however, Charles Brightwell, master pearler, is declared missing. Whispers from the townsfolk point to mutiny or murder, but Eliza knows her father and, convinced there is more to the story, sets out to uncover the truth. She soon learns that in a town teeming with corruption, prejudice and blackmail, answers can cost more than pearls, and must decide just how much she is willing to pay, and how far she is willing to go, to find them. Lizzie Pook creates this place, making it so vivid it’s a complete assault on the sense. It’s like an alien landscape, so different from Victorian England, and it changes Eliza. Her sense of adventure takes over as she tries to negotiate the town’s seedy underbelly of corruption, the terrible way the English treat the aboriginal people and finally jumps on a boat with an unlikely crew and sets about finding her father herself. If you like feminist heroines then you’ll love this brilliant debut novel.
Vanda Symon is a brilliant storyteller and this latest novel is typical of her minimalist style. She lets her three main characters tell the story for her, a young street girl called Billy and a hardened homeless veteran called Max. Ever since Billy stumbled into the same doorway one cold night, she and Max have had a connection. He showed her how to use cardboard boxes to keep warm and where to find the best thrown out food. They have a pact to take care of each other and wherever they go in the day, they always make their way back to the same adjoining doorways at night. So, when Billy doesn’t appear one night, Max knows something is wrong. He needs to find her, but where to start in a city of this size and will anyone take him seriously? The problem is that Billy has stumbled into someone having a very bad day indeed. Bradley is exhausted. Over-mortgaged, overworked and under appreciated, he is reaching the end of his tether. Having neglected his family all weekend to work, Bradley has been in the doghouse with his wife Angie. Yet it’s not enough for his boss who doesn’t seem to appreciate that five people used to do the same job Bradley is now doing alone. Bradley sees the prostitutes on their usual patch as he drives home and knows he wouldn’t have the nerve to approach them. Then he sees a young, tomboyish girl standing a little way from the others. She’s not a regular and he is less intimidated by her. When their interaction goes wrong and he hits her, Bradley is surprised by how much it calms his stress. So, he ties her up with cable ties and takes her to an empty building he owns. He might come back tomorrow. Max needs someone to take him seriously, but will he have the nerve to approach the police and what’s stopping him? This is another thriller to devour with characters you will develop real empathy for. Absolutely brilliant.
This novel is so beautiful, inside and out. This is a story of inter-generational trauma, set in three sections, each one from the point of view of a family’s next generation. We start in China around the time of WW2 when Meilin and her son Renshu are having to flee their home due to the advancing Japanese army. The descriptions of this terrible journey are so vivid and have extra resonance after watching streams of Ukrainian people fleeing their homes at a moment’s notice. Renshu is distressed by the noise of incoming bombers, but also hates going into the underground shelters. There are too many people and not enough air, with the endless bombing above drowning out his thoughts. To keep her son calm on these journeys they have to make from city to city, and eventually to Taiwan, she tells him folktales. One being of Peach Blossom Spring, where a fisherman climbs through an opening in a cave and finds a beautiful valley with an orchard of blossoming peach trees. There is only once catch to this beautiful Eden he has found, if he chooses to stay he can never go home, but if he chooses to go home he will never be able to find this place again. I love how this story becomes a metaphor for life, as Meilin’s sacrifices for her son get him all the way to university in Taiwan, then for post-graduate study in America. For Renshu, or Henry as he now wants to be known, America holds so much promise. It is where he meets his wife Rachel and the birthplace of his daughter Lily, but he worries about his mother and thinks a lot about where he has come from. The scars of a childhood spent at war are all too evident and he misses his mother. Meilin, in her patient and wise way, tells him to grow an orchard. A thoroughly beautiful book from this talented debut author.
Emily is a children’s illustrator, who spent her childhood in Hawke’s Bay but now lives in London. One evening she receives a call from her father’s neighbour, Raewynn, letting her know that his Alzheimer’s has progressed and he needs a little help. Despite both her brother and sister still living in New Zealand, Raewynn thinks Emily is the one best disposed to make the right decision. Emily’s father is well known in the area and is still known as Dr. Fitzgerald despite his retirement. He still lives on the family’s homestead with his two dogs and next door Raewynn and her son Ira who rents and farms the Arapito land. Until now they’ve managed to look after Dr. Fitzgerald, but trusting Raewynn’s opinion Emily decides to travel to New Zealand and check on her father.
When she arrives she knows all is not well. She realises her father has become very adept at seeming okay. He’s worked out which stock questions to ask when someone’s on the phone, using listening skills to let the caller think they’ve had a deep conversation. She thinks he’s rather like a magician, creating a Dr Fitzgerald who everyone knows and recognises, while underneath feeling confused, bewildered and frightened. As Emily spends time in her childhood home, memories rise to the surface: the unhappiness of her mother; her father’s distraction and avoidance of his family; the terrible state of Manu, Raewynn’s husband, who deteriorated and died from Huntington’s; the disappearance of Raewynn’s daughter Leah, who was lost on their range of mountains and has never been found. Emily was the last one to see Leah alive and the loss of this vibrant and beautiful girl still haunts the whole valley, including Emily’s father.
Norman writes about Alzheimer’s with knowledge and compassion. I spent some time working in nursing homes and Dr Fitzgerald is in the cruellest stage of his disease; he knows it is happening and he’s embarrassed, scared and exhausted from trying to appear like his old self. As Raewynn observes, it will be a blessing when he’s gone past this stage and reaches the place where he doesn’t remember his old self any more. It’s like watching the tide recede and as Emily settles in she can see this happening, layers and layers of what she recognises as her dad slowly drifting away towards the evening and then rolling back in the next morning when he’s at his most lucid. She can see the symptom of ‘sun downing’ as her dad becomes more anxious and confused in the evening. Then there are terrifying nights where he wakes screaming, doesn’t recognise her and can become violent. Then there are the family conflicts over care, as her brother and sister feel he would be better off in the ominous sounding St. Patrick’s where he’d be safe. Of course the other benefit to St.Patrick’s is that the house and land could be sold, meaning they would receive their inheritance. Emily doesn’t want to think her siblings are mercenary, but they have always stuck together and don’t have any interest in the land or the family’s long relationship with Raewynn and Ira who farm their land.
I had a huge soft spot for Raewynn, she feels like a real ‘earth mother’ type of woman and is a pillar of quiet strength. It takes a strong woman to come through the slow deterioration of her husband’s health, until he wasn’t the man she loved any more. She doesn’t complain and they all loved him fiercely, but those who know the family closely, know how much Manu’s illness took out of them all. For them to go through the loss of Leah only two years later seems unspeakably cruel. For Emily there is survivor’s guilt and her sadness for Ira, who was her best friend. Now there may be change coming, on the twenty year anniversary of her disappearance. Raewynn and Emily are interviewed, in the hope of jogging someone’s memory, that a change of allegiance might urge someone to talk, or that someone’s conscience finally forces someone to speak. In the meantime Emily is battling her siblings over her father’s wishes. Firstly, he gives her a living Will drawn up by his solicitor and much to her surprise, the person he wants to speak for him at the end, is Emily. It’s a revelation that her rather remote and unavailable father trusts her to do the right thing. It’s also a revelation that he’s been keeping a file of her memories in the box next to his bed, all the way back to her hospital baby bracelet. However, this isn’t the only revelation in the box and what Emily finds here will blow so many lives wide open.
This is what Charity Norman does best. She shows how relationship dynamics change and even break when something unexpected happens. Her characters are real, because they are so well constructed psychologically. Her sense of place is also incredible from the forbidding mountain range that backdrops the farm, to the bitter cold and the incredible micro-climate of a lush gully and waterfall hidden away. Oh how unbelievably emotional I felt at the end of this book, not just a lump in my throat, but actual tears. Yet I also felt such a feeling of ‘rightness’ that it ended the way it should. I was also deeply touched by the unique combination of Haka and bagpipes at Leah’s memorial. The New Zealanders I know seem to celebrate people for their unique traits and this memorial took me back to my brother in law’s funeral in Gisborne where a chainsaw and work boots adorned the coffin and the guttural roar of a stag heralded his departure. This writer is one of my favourites, because she understands the uniqueness of human beings, their incredible strengths and their hidden weaknesses. There is such emotional intelligence in this latest novel and it was my absolute pleasure to read it.
Meet The Author
Charity Norman was born in Uganda and brought up in successive draughty vicarages in Yorkshire and Birmingham. After several years’ travel she became a barrister, specialising in crime and family law. In 2002, realising that her three children had barely met her, she took a break from the law and moved with her family to New Zealand. REMEMBER ME is her seventh novel.
Jenna is trying to rebuild her life after a series of disastrous relationships. Luke is struggling to provide a safe, loving home for his deceased partner’s young son, following a devastating tragedy. When Jenna and Luke meet and fall in love, they are certain they can achieve the stability and happiness they both desperately need.
And yet, someone is watching. Someone who has been scarred by past events. Someone who will stop at nothing to get revenge…
I was looking forward to this latest novel from Michael Malone, because he writes intelligent thrillers that unfold at their own pace. Some thrillers move so quickly I have to re-read the ending to work out what happened, but he never prioritises action or quick shocks over the story or development of character. This grounded and realistic way of letting the story unfold is what really works about his writing and I was eager to get started. Loss and the ways it affects generations of families is the central theme of this latest novel, where we meet Luke who has just lost his partner and become sole parent to his young stepson. Luke is trying to cope with his own grief while supporting his stepson and trying to establish his own counselling practice. However, there are other losses in Luke’s past, some of which he’d rather not revisit. He had terrible car accident as a young man which left his best friend dead. While we’re wondering about Luke’s version of the accident and exactly what was going on between him and his friend, he starts working with a new client. When she was a teenager, Jenna had a boyfriend who was killed. She still feels bad over where their relationship was when she lost him, because she had doubts about being with him and there were huge secrets she hadn’t shared with him. Jenna isn’t sure whether Luke is the counsellor for her and doesn’t book another appointment with him. Does Luke pursue his client and is his interest purely in helping her?
Grief has kept him away from the therapy room, but now Luke needs to prioritise creating a reasonable income for him and stepson to live on. He takes a client by the name of Jamie, but is Jamie who Luke thinks he is? From a counsellor’s perspective Luke doesn’t have great boundaries and the counsellor in me could see he was setting himself up for costly law suits or a hearing about his professional standards and fitness to practice. He sees Jenna after she was a patient and thinks they have a spark, but can he pursue feelings for her without repercussions? He also spends time with Jamie outside of sessions and even trusts him with his stepson incredibly quickly. Luke doesn’t allow time for a person’s character to reveal itself and instead depends on his own gut when making judgements about others, but that judgement seems impaired. He isn’t consulting with a supervisor and we don’t see him consulting his ethical framework. The three basic principles of counselling are empathy, unconditional positive regard and authenticity and while Luke certainly has skills in the first two areas, his authenticity is non-existent.
Luke has secrets. In fact he has a link to his clients that’s hidden and not just from the reader either. Luke isn’t being honest with himself about who he is and while counsellors shouldn’t tell clients their life story, his background should have been disclosed to his professional body. How can Luke expect a client to trust him, when he isn’t even honest with himself? He’s not being authentic in his own life and relationships. Jenna is looking forward to working on herself when she arrives at Luke’s garden counselling room, but something stops her from returning. It’s when they later form a friendship that Luke might have discussed his past, but he doesn’t. Luke does have some great counselling qualities and is an incredible stepfather, but its almost as if he feels these life changes have cancelled out everything that went before. His past unveils itself like a set of Russian dolls, each one looking finished, but with yet more revelations to come. What he ultimately learns is that by compartmentalising certain experiences and keeping secrets, he has even been kept from the full truth about his own actions and could have been saved from years of self-criticism and guilt.
Malone is brilliant at creating characters, with unexpected pasts and incredibly human flaws. I love that conflict his characters create within me about who I’m rooting for and why. Jamie’s sister Amanda feels incredibly vengeful, but there’s some empathy in me for the way she was changed forever by a series of losses when she was a child. Having lost her family she is buffeted about by the care system and further separated from her brother Jamie. Her entire energy is focused on revenge and she manages to pull Jamie into her machinations by triggering his guilt for getting an easier ride as a child. Jamie is torn between loyalty to his sister and anger at the people he’s been told are responsible and on the opposite side, his own more measured judgement on events and the people he meets on her quest for revenge. It’s clever how Malone links everyone in the book and carefully drip feeds information on them, allowing our opinion to twist and turn. There are sequences that are meandering, letting us find out piece by piece what happened in the past, or slowly revealing a character. Then there are gripping events that have your heart racing and the pages turning quicker so you can find out what happens next. Every single character is bogged down in the quicksand of the title, trying to shake free from those historic events that trigger disturbing memories. Only when they resolve these memories can they start to live in the present and they are all at a different point in their journeys. Counsellors believe that every client is capable of change and I like the way that this hope of resolution is woven into the book, even for those characters who think themselves irredeemable. This is another complex, gripping and emotionally intelligent work from Malone who is fast becoming one of my ‘go to’ writers.
Published 9th December 2021 Orenda Books
Michael Malone is a prize-winning poet and author who was born and brought up in the heart of Burns’ country. He has published over 200 poems in literary magazines throughout the UK, including New Writing Scotland, Poetry Scotland and Markings. Blood Tears, his bestselling debut novel won the Pitlochry Prize from the Scottish Association of Writers. His psychological thriller, A Suitable Lie, was a number-one bestseller, and the critically acclaimed House of Spines, After He Died, In the Absence of Miracles and A Song of Isolation soon followed suit. A former Regional Sales Manager (Faber & Faber) he has also worked as an IFA and a bookseller. Michael lives in Ayr.