Posted in Random Things Tours, Publisher Proof

Henry VIII The Heart and the Crown by Alison Weir

I came to this book with quite a store of Henry knowledge – I promise not all of it comes from The Tudors, but this has been a great excuse to dig out the series again and enjoy Henry Cavill in leather trousers. In my previous home I had the alcoves each side of my fireplace turned into bookshelves and one side was all books on the Tudor period. A mix of novels and non-fiction it covered all the usual authors: David Starkey, Phillipa Gregory, Lucy Worsley, Alison Weir and many more. I have read each of Weir’s six wives series and her other novels on Elizabeth I and Lady Jane Grey. Her last novel was based on Elizabeth of York, Henry’s mother and daughter of Edward IV. All of them have been that brilliant mix of sound background research and an ability to get inside the characters and bring them to life. However, you don’t have to read any of her earlier work to enjoy this book, I’m just a Tudor Nerd! I wondered how Henry would fare, given that her previous books have shown great empathy for the position women found themselves in at the Tudor Court, especially where that ill treatment was at Henry’s hands. Interestingly, I read this alongside Prince Harry’s autobiography Spare, something that fascinated me given that Henry VIII’s story is largely influenced by that dynamic of ‘heir and spare.’ Henry is the man who was never intended to be king. Only the death of his brother Arthur, Prince of Wales, opened the way for a king who seemed almost meant to be. How could this well-built, ornately dressed and powerful man of the Holbein portrait not have been the King? It seems strange to think he was probably destined to be Duke of York and of much lesser importance than the huge presence he still is in our royal history. Did I see parallels between the man whose Twitter followers call Good King Harry and this similarly red-haired Tudor spare? Only a few!

I thought what Weir did really well was put Henry’s controversial and bloody reign into context. It’s easy to forget where Henry comes from and how violent and treacherous the route to the Crown was prior to his birth. As Weir explains, Henry’s maternal grandfather was Edward IV, a man who took the crown in the years of fighting between the York and Lancaster royal houses, known as the Wars of the Roses after the county emblems of the white and the red rose. However, it was also known as the Cousin’s Wars and to put that in a modern context it’s as if Princes Harry and William fought for the crown against Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie. It took a concerted effort by Henry’s grandmothers Margaret Beaufort and her rival Elizabeth Woodville to bring both houses together with a royal marriage and the new emblem of the Tudor Rose. Margaret was Henry VII’s mother and fought hard for her son to claim his crown, which he eventually did on the battlefield against Richard III. Elizabeth was Edward IV wife and despite losing both her sons, the rightful heirs to the throne who are believed to have been murdered in the Tower of London, she encouraged her daughter Elizabeth of York to make a political marriage to Henry Tudor, the new King. The emblem of their arranged marriage was a red rose for Lancaster with a white centre for York. These became known as the Tudor Rose and can be seen in many Tudor palaces and churches like York Minster. The country had endured years of in-fighting, from huge battles to hidden murders such as Edward IV and Richard, then Duke of York, allegedly murdering their brother by drowning him in a barrel of malmsey. Henry’s parents brought some stability to the country, despite Henry VII’s constant paranoia about usurpers and the lost Princes from the tower reappearing. If we imagine all of this followed by the death of Henry’s elder brother Arthur who died without heirs, it’s possible to see some of pressure upon the young king’s shoulders. Considering the paranoia he witnessed in his own father and his grandmother Margaret who drilled it into Henry that the only way to keep the crown secure was to have heirs, we can see the seeds of Henry’s own obsessions, paranoia and hatred of betrayal.

Often we only see the later King Henry on television and in fiction, because those latter years of his reign from meeting Anne Boleyn onwards are so dramatic. It’s easy to forget that Henry ruled and lived happily with his first wife and Arthur’s widow Catherine of Aragon from 1509 until he met Anne Boleyn in 1525, although he remained married to Catherine until 1533. There are only fourteen years between his marriage to Anne until his own death in 1547, in which he married, divorced or beheaded four more wives. I loved how Weir captures the earlier and often ignored years of Henry’s reign because we see something of the great prince that all of Europe were talking about. A tall, handsome and robust young man in direct contrast to his brother Arthur, he was also a great horseman and a competitive jouster. He was often reprimanded for missing lessons in order to go hunting or practising in the tilt yard with his companions, usually Charles Brandon. Yet he wasn’t just an imposing physical presence, Henry was very intelligent in that he spoke French and understood Latin and was even taught by the philosopher Erasmus. He could compose music and was an elegant dancer, with a definite eye for the ladies of the court. Even his early happy years with Catherine were littered with affairs, the most famous being Anne’s sister Mary Boleyn and Bessie Blount, both of whom were rumoured to have the King’s illegitimate children. It was interesting to read about Henry’s role in welcoming Catherine as Arthur’s bride and how much he admired her from a very young age. After Arthur’s death he was adamant he wanted to marry Catherine, with a dispensation sought from the Pope for their union. Henry’s father seemed reluctant to solemnise the match, despite a betrothal ceremony taking place. I have read elsewhere that the King had considered Catherine for himself and it was only when the King died that their marriage took place, in fact it was one of the first things Henry did as King. He may not have been faithful physically but there was a constancy in Henry’s feelings for Catherine, he admired her greatly and felt she would be a fitting queen for him.

Weir also shows how different Henry’s court was from his father’s. Henry VII had faults, but he was contemplative, careful when making decisions and had financially secured their reign after finding a depleted treasury due to years of war. Henry wanted to be a generous King, known to keep a a celebratory and ostentatious court. He undertook building new palaces, promoting art and culture, keeping a generous table and was determined to use some of the money saved by his father to take Calais and become King of France once more. He wanted to excel in all things, but this extravagance was also a sign of things to come, developing from generous young King to a petulant and spoiled man with a body ruined by greed, excess and risk taking. The most damaging risk being his jousting accident, where he was knocked out cold for some time and sustained a leg wound that never healed, caused intense pain and smelled terrible due to infection. I have often wondered whether it was possible that he sustained a head injury in this accident, because it does seem to be a turning point in his life, after which he made several questionable decisions. He decreed that his courtiers should acknowledge and accept his relationship with Anne Boleyn as well as his plan to make her Queen. His insistence on this point led to a relationship breakdown with one of his most trusted advisors, Sir Thomas More. The day he executed More was also a point of no return, I believe it haunted him for the rest of his life that he’d killed a good man, a man of God.

Weir made me look at Henry’s early life with more empathy than I have before. She brings to life the childhood loss of his mother (another event in common with our Prince Harry) and the huge impact it had. He remembers her softness and her gentle voice, a memory he needs when his father is preoccupied with duty. Henry has to grow up early, but little reminders of his mum pop up everywhere, especially her smell. I felt he could have been a different man if she had lived. There are some warning signs of the tyrant he becomes, because he’s jealous of Arthur from a young age. Arthur keeps his own court in Wales and Henry would love to have his own court, his own income and a bit of Arthur’s power, not to mention wanting Arthur’s bride from when she first arrived in the country. When all of it becomes his I did wonder whether there was a bit of survivor’s guilt. His father’s paranoia about losing the crown and his over-protectiveness after the death of his first son, mean he keeps Henry from carousing in bars with his friends and preserves some of his reputation for marriage. Weir shows us the weight of that history and expectation on the young prince’s shoulders. It’s something Henry is constantly pushing against, so that when he does unexpectedly become King he is determined to make changes. He has a tendency to promote men who are self-made, above the usual courtiers or advisors of his father’s. He relies on Cardinal Wolsey and after that he promotes Thomas Cromwell, a commoner and son of a blacksmith. The men who advised his father are old now and have known Henry his whole life, they’re aware of a recklessness in the young King that needs reigning in. Newly made men show the deference Henry expects as a King, but being younger and perhaps more aware of the way the world is changing they also allow him to take risks. We also see Henry’s own paranoia emerging when he and Catherine start to lose children, most particularly his two month old son. I felt like I understood Henry better after reading this novel and it was interesting to see some thoughts I’d had about Henry’s personality and behaviour placed in context. I didn’t like him more, but I did feel sorry for him in parts especially in his difficult relationship with his father. Weir provides possible reasons for the cruel and changeable behaviour that made Henry the most famous King in our history. I felt completely immersed in his psyche but also the whole Tudor court because Weir breathes life into a story we all know something about, turning historical caricatures into real people. Their problems also seem less far-fetched given Royal headlines over the last few years, although this spare ended up with the crown.

Many thanks to Headline Review and Caitlin Raynor for my proof copy of this novel and to Anne at Random Things Tours for my place on the blog tour and your support.

Meet the Author

Alison Weird is a bestselling historical novelist of Tudor fiction, and the leading female historian in the UK. She has published more than thirty books, including many leading works of non-fiction and has sold over three million copies worldwide. Her novels include the Tudor Rose trilogy which spans three generations of history’s most iconic family – The Tudors, and the highly acclaimed Six Tudor Queens series about the wives of Henry VIII, all of which were Sunday Times bestsellers. Alison is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and an honorary life patron of Historic Royal Palaces.

Posted in Netgalley

Windmill Hill by Lucy Atkins

One night in a remote hunting lodge with a Hollywood director causes an international scandal that wrecks Astrid’s glittering stage career, and her marriage. Her ex-husband, the charismatic Scottish actor Magnus Fellowes, goes on to find global fame, while Astrid retreats to a disintegrating Sussex windmill.

Now 82, she lives there still, with a troupe of dachshunds and her long-suffering friend, Mrs Baker, who came to clean twenty years ago and never left. But the past is catching up with them. There has been an ‘Awful Incident’ at the windmill; the women are in shock. Then Astrid hears that Magnus, now on his death bed, is writing a tell-all memoir. Outraged, she sets off for Scotland, determined to stop him.

Windmill Hill is the story of two very different women, both with painful pasts, and their eccentric friendship – deep, enduring, and loyal to the last.

I’m a big fan of Lucy Atkins and I love the multi-faceted female characters she creates and Windmill Hill is no exception. Astrid is in her eighties and shares her rather unique home with her friend Mrs Baker and several dachshund’s named after brands of gin. They live in a cottage attached to a windmill which has a quite a history but is now derelict and badly in need of renovation. We find the women in the aftermath of a terrible incident, something that is referred to but not explicit. A young writer is on her way to talk to Astrid about her ex-husband’s memoir. Nina has been hired by Magnus’s son Dessie and it’s Dessie who is shaping his father’s story and perhaps censoring the less palatable aspects of his life. Nina’s visit is about a party that took place in an old Tudor Lodge, where one thing happened between Magnus, the director Rohls and an aspiring young actress called Sally. Astrid was present and was blamed by the tabloids for the whole thing, it ruined her reputation, her career and her marriage. Dessie wants Nina to stick to the ‘official’ story, but Nina knows it’s not the truth and would like to hear it from Astrid. There’s also the fact that Magnus is dying and he would like to see Astrid one final time. Will she travel all the way to Scotland to confront him?

The more recent ‘incident’ that took place only a few months ago is only hinted at and involves Mrs Baker. She has always been mysterious, coming to the cottage as a cleaner, with no family or friends to speak of, then staying. I was immediately intrigued by her past, what was she escaping from? There are hints of a man called Alan, possibly a violent ex and I wondered whether her past had finally caught up with her. We’re seeing this through Astrid’s eyes and having it all replayed through Astrid’s memory. It didn’t take long for me to wonder whether Astrid’s memory was reliable. There’s an opacity to her recollection and the information comes in fits and starts. At one point I wondered if we were delving into magic realism, because she almost seems to slip back into the past like a time traveller. I think it was the intensity of the memories that drew her back. Some of these memories she avoided for a long time, popping them in a lockable box and tucking them to the back of her mind. So, once she did open the box it was like reliving the memory all over again. By dropping these little nuggets of information, the author kept me reading and wanting to know more too. However, Astrid also learns what can happen when these locked memories are addressed and let into the open. Lucy has a brilliant grasp of psychology and complicated relationship dynamics. We often see our ‘self’ as the constant, never changing core of us, but Lucy has been so clever here by showing us how fragmented, fleeting and changeable the self can be. There are maybe some core traits, but our sense as self can be eroded, altered by experience and through these women she shows that life has seasons.

The women’s relationship is the real strength of this novel and I loved that these two women lived together and are each other’s significant person. They’re not in a sexual relationship, but they are each other’s support, strength and companionship. These qualities are seriously underrated and when I look back in my own life it’s women who have kept me standing and helped me survive some of life’s hardest experiences. Some of the happiest times in my life have also been with my women friends. There’s also the fact that both women are survivors and that has created a strong bond between them. What better way to live your later years than with your best friend? Soul mates don’t have to be lovers. Men don’t come across well in this novel, although age and perspective have mellowed some of them and allowed them to be vulnerable and honest. Nina is a lovely character who I really warmed to soon after her arrival. The fact that she’s giving Astrid a right to reply speaks well of her, because she could have taken the money and written the book Dessie wanted. She’s more honest than that and is risking her contract by travelling to the windmill and asking awkward questions. She’s also open to friendship with these eccentric older women and their various dogs in wooly jumpers. A lot of people overlook friendship with people older than them, but they can be the richest relationships and I’ve learned so much from friendships with older men and women. Nina also wants to help the women with the windmill, a character in it’s own right. Through letters that Astrid finds in the windmill she’s let into the world of Lady Constance Battiscombe who owned the windmill in the 1920’s. I loved her antics and how they scandalised the village. It felt like the windmill also had a life of many seasons from the terrible story of the little girl killed by one of the sails, to Lady Constance’s bohemian scandals. Now, with the help of Nina, the windmill will shelter Mrs Baker, Astrid, the dogs and Tony Blair the taxidermy stoat, but will last beyond them too into another season. Full of wit, warmth and fabulous characters this is a great addition to Lucy’s body of work.

Meet the Author

Lucy Atkins is an award-winning British author and journalist. Her latest novel, MAGPIE LANE, was picked as a ‘best book of 2020’ by BBC Radio 4’s Open Book, the GUARDIAN, the TELEGRAPH and GOOD HOUSEKEEPING MAGAZINE. Her other novels are: THE NIGHT VISITOR (which has been optioned for TV), THE MISSING ONE and THE OTHER CHILD. Lucy is book critic for The Sunday Times and has written for publications including the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Times, and many magazines. She teaches on the creative writing Masters degree at the University of Oxford. 

She has written several non-fiction books including the Amazon #1 parenting guide, FIRST TIME PARENT (Collins). 

For news, events and offers see

Follow Lucy on Twitter @lucyatkins Instagram @lucyatkinswriter

Posted in Cover Reveal, Squad Pod

Orenda Books and Awais Khan Cover Reveal!!!

Author of the bestselling #NoHonour @AwaisKhanAuthor returns with an exquisite, heart-wrenching, eye-opening new novel #SomeoneLikeHer

And LOOK at this jacket!

The blurb:

A young Pakistani woman is the victim of an unthinkable act of vengeance, when she defies tradition … facing seemingly insurmountable challenges and danger when she attempts to rebuild her life.

Multan, Pakistan. A conservative city where an unmarried woman over the age of twenty-five is considered a curse by her family.

Ayesha is twenty-seven. Independent and happily single, she has evaded

an arranged marriage because of her family’s reduced circumstances. When she catches the eye of powerful, wealthy Raza, it seems like the answer to her parents’ prayers. But Ayesha is in love with someone else, and when she refuses to give up on him, Raza resorts to unthinkable revenge…

Ayesha travels to London to rebuild her life and there she meets Kamil,

an emotionally damaged man who has demons of his own. They embark on a friendship that could mean salvation for both of them, but danger stalks Ayesha in London, too. With her life thrown into turmoil, she is forced to make a decision that could change her and everyone she loves forever.

Exquisitely written, populated by unforgettable characters and rich with

poignant, powerful themes, Someone Like Her is a story of love and family, of corruption and calamity, of courage and hope … and one woman’s determination to thwart convention and find peace, at whatever cost…

Out in August! Pre-order your copies today!

Print – –

Meet The Author

Awais Khan is a graduate of the University of Western Ontario and Durham University. He has studied creative writing with Faber Academy. His debut novel, In the Company of Strangers, was published to much critical acclaim and he regularly appears on TV and Radio. The critically acclaimed No Honour was published in 2021. Awais also teaches a popular online creative writing course to aspiring writers around the world. He is currently working on his third book. When not working, he has his nose buried in a book. He lives in Lahore.

Posted in Orenda, Random Things Tours

Thirty Days of Darkness by Jenny Lund Madsen

The first thing I loved about this book was that stunning cover. I hadn’t fully taken it in when I received the book, but once I’d found my reading glasses I couldn’t stop looking at it. That tiny lit up window, a little orange glow of creativity in the darkness really fired up my imagination. I’d love Orenda to create some book posters to accompany their author’s work. The blurb drew me in with it’s conflict between genre authors and their supposedly high brow literary fiction colleagues. Hannah writes literary fiction and is dismayed at a book festival to see the crowds attending a Q and A with Jørn Jenson, the darling of Scandi Noir, who churns out a formulaic book every year. Yet he’s filling a tent with fans and she’s in a lonely booth waiting for someone to drop by. I loved that she launched a book at his head! In the ensuing row, Jensen goads Hannah into saying she could write a crime novel in a month. Her agent uses the incident as a great marketing strategy and pours fuel on the fire, talking to the press about the wager and even putting Hannah on a plane to Iceland as a writing retreat. There she will live with a lady called Ella and hopefully, within thirty days, complete a commercial success. Yet within days of Hannah’s arrival there’s a real life crime, as Ella’s nephew Thor is found drowned in the waters of the harbour. Can Hannah use the case to write her crime masterpiece? As she starts to ask questions about this small town community will she find inspiration, or will she be in more danger than she ever imagined?

Hannah is an interesting heroine in that she isn’t all that likeable at first. She’s prickly, arrogant and a definite book snob.

“Hannah Krause-Bendix has never received a bad review. Not once has anyone had a negative thing to say in any of the reviews of her four novels. A literary superstar, twice nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize. Didn’t win, but that doesn’t matter; anyway, she doesn’t believe the mark of good literature is how many awards it’s won. She’s actually refused the numerous other prizes she’s won over the years. No – Hannah sees herself as a forty-five year old living embodiment of integrity and will always maintain that it is beneath her to seek commercial success.”

I was starting to feel sorry for her editor and publisher. Her disgust for the current literary scene is obvious. She hates festivals and signings, prizes, social media and is dismissive of bloggers (how dare she – *swoon*). As she picks up Jensen’s latest book as if it is ‘a pair of homeless man’s lost pants’ she notes that most of the reviews are from obscure bloggers she’s never heard of. She’s no better as she arrives in Iceland, annoyed that her new landlady is late, that her jeep looks and sounds like it’s five miles off it’s new home at the scrap yard, plus she drives with her steamed up glasses so close to the windscreen that Hannah wonders whether she can drive, or even see. Then she makes the terrible faux pas of calling her friend and publisher Bastian to get her a flight back to Copenhagen, assuming Ella can’t understand her. Of course she can. I was cringing about her behaviour. Yet I didn’t dislike her. Despite these failings, plus the alcoholism, infidelity, snooping and complete conviction she’s in the right, there’s something rather freeing about her impulsiveness. We all have those thoughts, those imps of the perverse, that pop into our mind and encourage us to poke that person who’s bending over to reach a low shelf in the supermarket. We don’t do it of course, but Hannah does. In the course of the novel she randomly feels a homeless man’s head, buys the town teenagers alcohol, starts an affair with someone she’s barely met and as we know, tries to hit a man in the head with a book. She seems disconnected from others in the sense that we don’t know her family, she has few obligations and she thinks nothing of asking very personal questions in entirely inappropriate circumstances. I sort of loved that.

There is definitely a blackly comic element to this story and a satirical eye for both the book world and crime fiction in general. There’s a meta element to the story too, as Hannah makes observations and discoveries about crime fiction that then seem to bleed into the actual case. She observes that her investigations are suggesting the case is actually quite simple to solve, Jørn, who has followed her to Iceland, advises that in crime fiction the killer is never the most obvious suspect. Subsequently, her enquiries move from the her current suspect and start to take a darker turn, towards the last people she’s suspected. Jørn tells her:

“ a good crime novel has three crucial components. One: a spectacular and violent opening, preferably a murder. Two: false leads and false suspects. […] Point three is surprises.’

He also rather amusingly points out that the protagonist shouldn’t be likeable, because no one enjoys a likeable protagonist in crime. In fact during a violent clash with her first, rather boringly obvious suspect, she even doubts her own credentials as a protagonist. As she fights for her life, she berates herself for her stupid plan of luring him to a window, because she’s now in front of an open window with a possible murderer.

Of course, he isn’t the murderer after all. In the end the crime is complex and rather like the book of Icelandic sagas that Ella gives her to read. The roots of this murder lie way in the past with the last people Hannah suspected. In fact in the echo of the saga, someone takes something that is highly prized and didn’t belong to them, setting in motion years of secrets, lies and denial. Yes, there’s a lot of the clever stuff going on that us ‘weirdo’ readers like, as one teenager describes Hannah’s fan base, but there’s also a solid thriller as well. It’s a bleak and claustrophobic atmosphere as soon as Hannah reaches the island where she knows no one and feels alien. The remoteness of the town and it’s isolation when the bad weather comes just add to that sense of being completely alone. This is not a place to be injured or to be a victim of crime; there is only one police officer in town, with back up over an hour away on a good day. Jørn may preen and prance around like the archetypal action hero, but he is surprisingly very useful to have around in a sticky situation and despite his woeful writing, is possibly a good friend to have, especially where he’s the only familiar and friendly face. Alongside Hannah I suspected three or four different people and the author kept me guessing, just leaving tiny clues along the way. At first there was a little bit of scepticism -I remember watching Murder She Wrote with my parents when I was younger and my dad wondering why nobody told Jessica Fletcher to ‘bugger off and mind her own business’. However, once the action started to heat up I forgot that Hannah had no business interrogating suspects and just kept reading. She’s no Jessica and this is definitely not cozy crime. It’s dark, disorientating and scary as hell, but you’ll not be able to put it down. This is an incredible debut and I’d love to see where Hannah ends up next. Now back to that cover – I think it would make a lovely tote bag ……

Meet The Author

Jenny Lund Madsen is one of Denmark’s most acclaimed scriptwriters (including the international hits Rita and Follow the Money) and is known as an advocate for better representation for sexual and ethnic minorities in Danish TV and film. She recently made her debut as a playwright with the critically acclaimed Audition (Aarhus Teater) and her debut literary thriller, Thirty Days of Darkness, first in an addictive new series, won the Harald Mogensen Prize for Best Danish Crime Novel of the year and was shortlisted for the coveted Glass Key Award. She lives in Denmark with her young family.

Posted in Netgalley

The Seawomen by Chloe Timms

The memory of that day is a part of me now, tough like hardened skin. You never forget your first. You hope and pray it will be the last you ever see. You already know. Deep down. It’ll happen again and you will have to watch. The screaming, the waiting, watching her body tied down, the boat rocking and shunting, capsizing. Drowning. The point where you can see with your own eyes what it means to be a woman.

Wow! This book was so evocative, from the author’s descriptions of the island’s landscape to the way of life followed by it’s inhabitants. It felt oppressive and bleak, but also strangely mystical. On an isolated island with no access to the ‘Otherlands’ beyond, a religious community observes a strict regime policed by male ‘Keepers’ and female ‘Eldermothers’ under the guidance of their leader Father Jessop. There were shades of The Handmaid’s Tale in this community, that polices it’s borders and it’s women. Women must not go near the water, lest they be pulled into the wicked ways of the Seawomen, seemingly a species of Mermaid. The water can breed rebellion in the women and cause bad luck for the islanders. Any woman could be singled out by the Eldermothers, so they must learn to keep their heads down and stay away from the water. Any bad luck – crop failure, poor fishing quotas, storms, pregnancy loss – all can be blamed on the community’s disobedient or disloyal women, influenced by the water. Each girl will have their husband picked out for them and once married, the Eldermothers will assign her a year to become a mother. If the woman doesn’t conceive she is considered to be cursed and is put through the ordeal of ‘untethering’ – a ceremonial drowning where she is tethered to the bottom of a boat. Esta is a young girl who lives with her super religious grandmother, but often asks questions about the mum she has never known. Her grandmother insists she sees a darkness in Esta and is constantly praying and fasting so that Esta doesn’t go the same way as her mother. The sea does call to Esta and she goes to the beach with her terrified friend Mull, to feel the water. There they see something in the waves, something semi-human, not a seawoman, but a boy. Will Esta submit to what her community has planned for her or will she continue to commune with the water?

The book opens with a description of an untethering ceremony, throwing us directly into the brutality of the Keepers and the terror of the drowning woman. It’s a visceral opening and cleverly leaves the reader very aware of the fate our heroine could face. I felt this really added to the atmosphere of the book, raising the tension and our trepidation for this bold and intelligent young woman. We don’t want to see her life mapped out for her with all the restrictions it implies, but we equally don’t want to see her become the next victim of this barbaric, patriarchal society. I also felt strangely unmoored by the setting. I saw in my mind’s eye, a rugged and weather beaten Scottish isle, miles from it’s neighbours, yet I couldn’t pinpoint it’s place in history. The clothing and the attitudes are strangely old-fashioned. The religion is very puritan in tone: a personal relationship with God is encouraged, along with modesty, industry, male domination and of course obedience. Having been brought up in an evangelical church I can honestly say these attitudes and expectations, especially the pressure on young women, is still alive and well in those types of communities. So we could be in the 19th Century or it could be yesterday. Father Jessop’s preaching is that that Otherlands are toxic, their land contaminated and their ability to produce wholesome food curtailed by their inability to listen to their God. This gave me the sense of a dystopian future, where perhaps global warming has decimated most of the planet and only these remote outposts survive. Adding to this sense of disorientation are the islander’s names, more like surnames than forenames the men have names like Morley or Ingram whereas the women have names like Seren and Mull. I felt genuinely uneasy about the island and felt something evil lurked under the piety and the fatherly control, something far uglier, that a rebel like Esta might awaken.

Esta’s questing mind is what drives the story forward. There are too many secrets in her background. She knows that the burn scarring on one side of her face happened when she was a baby and the house burned down killing her mother and whoever else was inside. Only Esta survived and her grandmother’s negativity surrounding her only daughter is excessive and this doesn’t allow Esta to ask questions or hear about a different side to her mother. She knows that there’s more to her history than she’s been told. Another conundrum is her grandmother’s cousin Barrett, a fisherman who lives by the harbour, as close to the water as he could be. He lives alone after the death of his wife and is possibly the only islander to have come across a Seawoman up close and was injured in the process. However, he doesn’t talk about his wife or where he went in the sea after her death. There are too many questions for a girl who’s already unsure whether she believes in the dark myths of the Seawomen, or the darkness she is potentially harbouring at her centre. Despite her upbringing there is a part of Esta that does question, that challenges and most importantly can accept that those in authority might be wrong. It’s a self belief and confidence that will stand her in good stead for what’s to come.

I had so many suspicions and theories of my own as the story unfolded, not just about Esta’s past, but about the patriarchal society itself. The last third of the book really did pick up the pace and we see the iron will of Father Jessop and the cruelty he is prepared to inflict in order to stay in control. I was so deeply pulled in by Esta’s will and her instinct to get away, that I felt anxious. I wanted her to have something in life that most of us take for granted, another person who truly cares for her and loves her. This feeling intensified as she is promised in marriage and goes to live with her husband’s family; a family who have a very low opinion of her and a husband who loves someone else. The way the author opens up the truth of the island is by using one of the older women who has some of the answers and also shows Esta that there are others who think the way she does, they just fly under the radar so they remain safe. To Esta this is unthinkable, to know the truth but continue to live under the false tyranny imposed on them feels cowardly to her. What will happen when the Esta’s story reaches its conclusion, when she might face the very ceremony she feared so much at the beginning? Will these free thinking individuals stand up for her? Even more important to me, was whether or not Esta reaches the Otherlands and the freedom she longs for, or whether she is fated to be forever one with the sea.

Published 14th June 2022 by Hodder Studio

Meet The Author

Chloe Timms is a writer from the Kent coast. After a career in teaching, Chloe studied for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Kent and won a scholarship for the Faber Academy where she completed their six-month novel writing course. Chloe is passionate about disability rights, having been diagnosed with the condition Spinal Muscular Atrophy at 18 months old, and has campaigned on a number of crucial issues. The Seawomen is her first novel.

Posted in Squad Pod

Three Nights in Italy by Olivia Beirne

As this novel opens Zoe has just lost her grandmother, a larger than life, charismatic artist who lived in Italy. Zoe and her mum Ange are left grieving in Cornwall, but they grieve differently and Zoe is worried about her mum, who appears to be in a trance but answers ‘fine’ when anyone asks how she is. Fine is a word banned in my counselling room, so I could understand Zoe’s concern. It’s a form of masking how we truly feel. Uncle Reg is dealing with all the legal and financial stuff, holding an auction of his mother’s belongings only a week after her funeral in Italy. Zoe and Ange plan to stay in Cornwall, but Zoe is uneasy about Uncle Reg and so was I. Her grandma promised her the beautiful emerald engagement ring that she claimed had magical properties. So, when Aunt Fanny turns up after being missing for fourteen years, she encourages them to travel out to Italy. She should know if it’s necessary, after all she was once married to Uncle Reg. With a reluctant agreement from Ange, they agree to travel to Italy for three nights only. They must go to grandma’s house and search for the ring before Uncle Reg even knows they’ve left the country.

Our young heroine Zoe shares the narrative in short, snappy sections with her friend Harriet, Mum Ange, and of course, Aunt Fanny. There are times when her voice gets a little lost amongst these other sparky and formidable women, especially Fanny who has chosen this diminutive of her true name Fenella just to see the blushes it causes. Zoe has stayed in her home town since school and works as a high end wedding coordinator. It’s as if she hasn’t really started in life, adept at creating and delivering the dreams of others she has forgotten her own. I loved her sparky little assistant Kitty who was giving off perky Reece Witherspoon vibes. Zoe hasn’t travelled, had a long term relationship or been to university. Her most important relationship is with close friend Harriet who also seems stuck, but we’re given more access to her inner world and she knows she’s treading water. It’s always been just Harriet and her mum, so it was a shock when Mum met someone and now has a newborn baby. They feel like a family and Harriet has felt like she doesn’t belong. Zoe has also had an all female upbringing made up of Mum and Aunt Fanny, along with holidays in Italy with her grandmother. Mum Ange remembers meeting Fanny just after she married her brother Reg and despite being so different they clicked instantly. Fanny is distinctly upmarket and while Reg always seemed embarrassed that his sister and niece were dressed by Next, Fanny never made her feel like that. With Reg working away the two women became Zoe’s parents and Zoe remembers the shock they felt when Fanny left suddenly and never contacted them till now. Zoe doesn’t have the pizzazz or individuality of her aunt or grandmother and it seems she has really suffered from the absence of these women in her life.

I enjoyed the women’s camaraderie and the way they supported each other. Despite seeming a bit disconnected from Mum at the moment, Zoe is devoted to her and wouldn’t think of leaving while she’s in this trancelike state. Aunt Fanny is the backbone of this group and such a formidable woman in her stilettos and her trademark ice-blonde bob that’s never out of place. She is loud, flirtatious and determined to live life to the full. She seems unbreakable and undaunted, buying everyone’s ticket to Italy, convincing Ange to come, overcoming obstacles and hiking in four inch heels! She grabs every opportunity to have fun and takes adversity in her stride, she even encourages the others to let their emotions out. Yet there are so many questions: where has she been for fourteen years? How does she keep her bob so immaculate? Does she really have a fortune from inventing a nail file? Why does she have other people’s credit cards? And why did she leave in the first place?

There is some romance too, with a love interest for Zoe in red-headed Sam who she meets by knocking a drink over him at the airport and pops up in the most unexpected places. They have a first date in Grandma’s town and I loved the women helping her get ready, just like they would when she was younger and going out. Even our older ladies (my age actually) have their flirtations, but this book is mainly about personal transformation though and finding your authentic self – something that’s not always easy for women who are bombarded with messages about who and how they should be. This is personified by Zoe’s grandmother whose presence is huge, despite her absence. I felt the book would have really benefited from more flashback moments between her, Ange and Zoe. She’s present in the laidback town where she lives, in her hillside home, and most of all in her paintings. The painting that’s a self-portrait of grandma in dungarees with her paint brushes in her pocket, seems to leap off the page with her life force. The depth and number of vivid colours show how vivacious she is and captures her love of life. It’s just so perfectly her, living her best life. I couldn’t bear to think of this stunning painting being sold at the auction. Even more than the engagement ring, it would have been the thing I had to keep. All I kept hoping was that Zoe could take some of grandma’s magic and apply it to her own life, to find out who she truly was and live her own fabulous, authentic life.

Thank you so much to Headline Review, Olivia Beirne and the Squad Pod Collective for the chance to read this book.

Meet the Author

Olivia Beirne is the bestselling author of The List That Changed My Life, The Accidental Love Letter and House Swap. She has worked as a waitress, a (terrible) pottery painter and a casting assistant, but being a writer is definitely her favourite job yet. Three Nights in Italy is her fourth novel.

Posted in Netgalley

Death of a Bookseller by Alice Slater

From listening to blogger’s conversations over the last couple of weeks I’ve learned a lot about reactions to this book and it seems to have completely divided readers. Maybe all bookworms can be divided into Lauras and Roaches – I certainly found a few clues about which on I was, so that made me smile at my own ridiculousness!

“I knew she was a bookseller as soon as I saw her. She wore a green beret, the colour of fresh pine needles, and a camel raincoat like a private detective in a film noir. Over one shoulder, the grubby straps of a shabby tote bag. It was decorated with a quote in a typewriter font, and although I couldn’t quite read it, I knew what it would say: Though she be but little, she is fierce, or Curiouser and curiouser, or Beware for I am fearless and therefore powerful.”

Brogan Roach works at a small London branch of Spines – the ubiquitous high street bookshop. She pretty much runs her own workday, keeping a close eye on her precious true crime section and sneakily reserving books, but secreting them in the staff room to read later. Things are about to change though, when a new team move in to pick up sales and improve the store. They’re like bookshop troubleshooters. Sharona is the manager and her team Laura and Eli are very experienced booksellers, eager to help the public and make sure the pyramid displays are perfect. Laura Bunting is just one of those people born to work with the public. She has an easy manner, quick to smile and engage customers in conversation, magically able to sell the book of the month. People warm to her immediately, but she hasn’t warmed to Roach.

“Laura Bunting. Her name was garden parties, and Wimbledon, and royal weddings. It was chintzy tea rooms, Blitz spirit, and bric-a-brac for sale in bright church halls. It was coconut shies and bake sales and guess-the-weight-of-the-fucking-cake.”

Laura and Roach are incredibly different characters anyway, but the rot sets in on a poetry evening. All the staff go, but Laura is performing. Her poetry takes the killer out of the murder narrative. She performs found poetry created from serial killer narratives, but telling the story of the women instead. Roach seems to miss the point though and as Laura comes off stage she greets her with excitement as if she’s a fellow true crime enthusiast. She wants to engage Laura in a debate over whether adding the violence she’s omitted might make the poems more exciting, or appeal to a larger audience. This would be fine if they were both enthusiasts, but they’re really not. For Laura, this is personal. Years before, Laura’s mother was the victim of Leo Steele, a prolific strangler. Laura hates true crime because it always tells the killer’s story. The whole point of her poetry is to right that wrong so she becomes furious when Roach misses the point. Other than that the pair just don’t click, not everyone does. Laura is the type of bookworm I know and love – she has the tote bag with the literary quote and all the book paraphernalia that signals to others she’s a bookworm. Roach sneers at this, she loves her genre but she seems to be reading exactly the same book throughout. It’s unforgivable when Roach re-inserts the violence and torture into Laura’s poetry, especially when it ends up published online. She has no concept of how much pain this will cause Laura, both personally and professionally. Laura’s full of memories of her mum that have nothing to do with her death or her killer and she thinks of her every time she walks to work.

“I think about the rhythm of my feet on the cracked path and about Patti Smith in New York, and of Joan Didion in Sacramento, and how each footstep is another connection between me and my neighbourhood, the streets on which I learned to ride a bike, where I walked hand in hand with my mother, and that despite all the pain, and the loss, and the grief, I’m tethered to Walthamstow because she still exists in the fabric of it, a ghost imprinted on every familiar sight. She knew these streets, these trees, these bricks, these bollards. These paving stones remember the bounce of her running shoes. I still can’t quite bring myself to walk past her old shop, even though it’s changed.”

Laura takes opportunities to dig at Roach and the genre she holds dear, but on Roach’s end there are sinister acts of sabotage. I found them disturbing, targeting Laura’s very sense of self. Both women are vulnerable in their own way with binge drinking and destructive sexual encounters shown as symptoms of low self-esteem. Laura’s encounters with Eli are particularly painful and indicative of relationships we settle for when we’re young and unsure of ourselves. Roach seems to have the confidence to embrace who she is, but is constructing her entire identity around her true crime fandom. There’s clearly either a jealousy or deep obsession where Laura is concerned. Is it Laura’s charm, her easy way with customers, her talent? Or is this much darker, an obsession with Laura’s proximity to a real life true crime story? Instead of seeing Laura’s work as an inspiration and a starting point for her own creative path, she decides to steal it. She even reasons that it isn’t theft, because many writers use other works in their own process. I was gripped, waiting to see if this would go further. I was unsure whether Roach even had her own identity, an idea of her authentic self, or whether this was another aspect of Laura she was willing to steal.

The book is fast paced and so addictive I read it in two short bursts over a Friday night and into Saturday morning. I was bleary eyed, but had to know. The title alludes to a death and I needed to know who would die and whether it was murder. Ironically, I found myself intrigued by the potential killers, just like any true crime fan. I loved the author’s sarcastic jibes about the book world and couldn’t help but laugh, even when I recognised myself. I thought she captured the loneliness of living and working in London as a young woman, especially in a relatively low paid job and the poor housing they find affordable. Locked in a solitary, damp flat with only books for company is a breeding ground for mental health issues, with heavy drinking used to self-medicate. It was tense towards an ending that could only be devastating for someone, but who? This was a brilliant debut thriller, that kept me rapt throughout.

Posted in Random Things Tours

When We Fall by Aoife Clifford

I’m slowly becoming a fan of ‘Outback Noir’ so I guess I picked up Aoife Clifford’s new novel with certain expectations. I was pleasantly surprised to find a few differences in this crime novel and a labyrinthine story that really pulls the reader into small town Australia with its complicated relationships. As one Merritt resident says:

“People here are a bit like trees, with roots deep in the earth, far more tangled than what’s visible on the surface.”

Criminal barrister Alex has returned to her home town to spend some time with her mother Denny and have one of those difficult conversations. Denny is struggling with dementia, but is stubborn and in denial. She had a distant relationship with her own parents and had Alex as a young Mum. Alex has bad memories of her grandparents so Merritt isn’t her favourite place, but Denny is getting worse, no matter how much she tries to cover it up and Alex must talk to her about sheltered accommodation. It’s on a beach walk trying to broach the subject that they find a dismembered leg with a distinctive black feather tattoo. It turns out that the leg belongs to art gallery owner Maxine MacFarlane and local police chief Kingsley ‘King’ Kelly dismisses it as a boating accident when the rest of her body is found further up the coast. But Alex’s barrister’s instincts tell her there might be more to this than meets the eye and she starts to snoop. King Kelly warns her off very early on and comes across as the archetypal small town cop – lazy, prejudiced and jaded, not to mention a misogynist. He holds court in his local cafe and seems well connected in the town, especially with people who matter. Alex wants to question a possible link between Maxine’s death and the disappearance of artist and activist Bella Gregg two years before. Not only did Bella exhibit at Maxine’s gallery, but as an activist she often protested wearing black feather wings that went missing at the same time she did. There’s also a strange symmetry about their autopsy results – Maxine was washed up on the sea shore but didn’t have saltwater in her lungs whereas Bella did have saltwater in her lungs but was found inland. There was also an upcoming exhibition at Maxine’s gallery, linked to Bella’s death. Could this have laid the blame for Bella’s death at a local’s door?

The plot is intriguing, full of different avenues that are never obvious. Some keep you reading ferociously but turn out to be red herrings, while truths lurk underneath like a riptide. One minute I suspected someone, then someone completely different, although that’s not surprising in a town where male suspects are plentiful. My eye was on King Kelly throughout because he’s a thoroughly unpleasant character, but there are strangers in town; a new doctor who’s just arrived, as well as a visiting investor in a potential eco-friendly extension of the town. Locally there’s the rep for the town extension who seems keen to do anything for a better future than the local fishermen he went to school with. Bella’s own stepfather is known to be dealing drugs and there’s even a link to Alex’s family, with one thread involving a GP who was the partner of her grandfather. The past definitely has a role here, both in the crime and in the questions Alex has about her childhood. I was nervous for her in a town where outspoken women seem to get silenced. Alex is just as stubborn as her mother once she has an idea in her head and she’s been without cases to distract her of late.

Aside from the crime, Alex has a lot to contend with: her husband Tom is pushing for their divorce to move a bit quicker; her career seems to have taken a nosedive since their separation; then there’s her formidable mother to contend with. I loved the snappish and often humorous dialogue between Alex and Denny. There was a lot of truth in their exchanges, but that humorous edge offered a bit of light in the shade of a terrible crime. Alex’s instincts are strong, she’s perceptive and intelligent but seems to have a blind spot when it comes to danger. She places herself in potentially life threatening situations without seeing the danger looming over her. I didn’t always understand why, but felt it might have had something to do with her childhood in Merritt. Clifford surprised me with Alex’s home town, because I didn’t get the dry outback setting I expected. Despite wanting to develop as a holiday destination, it didn’t feel very welcoming and it seems to be raining constantly. Everyone is in raincoats. This is a small seaside town and has a claustrophobic feel without the outback heat. She shows it through the people, like the local cop with a finger in every pie and suspicious residents who are reluctant to talk. She gave me an Australia I hadn’t seen before and it gave this read a unique feel. This was such a well-written book, sinister and complicated with an ending that felt just right. I’m now looking for a gap to read her earlier novels, because I’ve already ordered them.

Meet the Author

Aoife Clifford is the author of All These Perfect Strangers, which was long-listed for both
the Australian Industry General Fiction Book of the Year and the Voss Literary Prize, and Second Sight, a Publishers Weekly (starred review) and PW Pick for Book of the Week. Aoife’s short stories have been published in Australia, United Kingdom and the United States, winning premier prizes such as the Scarlet Stiletto and the S.D. Harvey Ned Kelly Award.

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

In A Thousand Different Ways by Cecilia Ahern

Cecilia Ahern gets better and better. I loved Freckles, which I’d tried despite hating her early books (especially P.S. I Love You, a book I hated with such a passion I wanted to throw it on the fire). This was such a profound book and touched me deeply. It was no stretch to believe in our heroine Alice and her ability to see people’s emotions as colours. I could also empathise with how difficult it is for her to cope with. I identified with our heroine so strongly, both physically and mentally. To explain, ever since I was diagnosed with MS I get strange crossed wires with my senses, especially around sight and taste. If I see a beautiful display of daffodils, I suddenly taste delightfully sour sherbet lemons and my mouth waters to the point of pain. Every so often, if I’m anxious, the smell and taste of Mum’s cottage pie drifts in and I can actually experience it as a physical sense. It’s obviously something that’s comforting to me. These experiences are as vivid and real as if what I smell and taste is directly in front of me. I think this ability to make strange connections and perceive senses in different ways also stretches to other people’s emotions. There are times when someone walks into a room when I can feel their emotion as strongly as my own. It goes beyond a knowledge of body language, I can actually feel their anger, confusion, grief or joy in my own body. As you can imagine this has been incredibly useful in my counselling work, but it’s also completely exhausting, especially when a lot of people are around.

Alice is from a dysfunctional family and we’re thrown directly into their daily life, where elder brother Hugh and Alice are desperately trying to keep their family together. Alice has to get her younger brother up and ready for school, trying so hard not to wake their mother Lily and incur her wrath. Sometimes when they return Lily still hasn’t surfaced, but if she has it’s still best to remain under the radar because she’s usually irritable, lethargic and unable to connect with her children. Other days they may come home and find Lily up, dressed and full of energy. She may be frantically cooking pancakes, multiples of them, while working out the overheads of running a mobile pancake van. This tendency to flit between extremes is spoken of in whispers between the children, quick warnings to brace themselves or expect the worst. One day after school Alice comes home and finds Lily still in bed, even worse there’s an eerie blue mist emanating from the bed and filling the room. Alice fears the worst and rings an ambulance, then runs into her room and hides. It’s only when she hears her mother screaming and swearing at the paramedics that she realises Lily is alive. What’s baffling to Alice is that no one else seems to see the blue colour emanating from her mum.

I absolutely loved the way the author described Alice’s adjustment to having this vivid colour display wherever there are people. In the school environment it’s a nightmare for her, everyone gives off a different mix of colours, moving and flashing at her eyes until she starts to suffer migraines. Her insistence on wearing sunglasses to school brings her to the teacher’s attention and they think she’s playing up and being insolent. Hugh knows though and seems to realise instinctively that it’s part of Alice’s hyper-sensitivity; the colours are simply a physical manifestation of her ability to feel other’s emotions. Alice is what might be called an empath, she has a highly tuned radar for the moods and sensitivities of people in close proximity to her. As a child she sees the negatives in her situation, mainly because she doesn’t have autonomy. If Lily is blue, red, or at worst black, there’s nothing Alice can do to avoid it. She can get out of the house if Lily hasn’t seen her, but that’s not always possible, leaving her at the mercy of her mother’s mood. The author brilliantly conveys Alice’s feeling of powerlessness and the fear she feels as she comes home, unsure of what will happen when she goes inside. Scenes where Lily is at her most angry, in one scene towards Hugh and his plans to go to university, the furious and messy black colour Alice can see is really menacing. Yet they go on hiding Lily’s condition, because the alternative is social services and possibly having to split the family up.

I found myself really worried for Alice, because in the swirl of colours and emotions that assail her every hour of the day how can she ever find peace? Between that and the terrible situation at home there’s never a moment for her to develop herself. We only know who Alice is in relation to everyone around her. She becomes subsumed by their emotions, needs and wants to such an extent that her own don’t get a look in. I was devastated by her choice to stay at home after leaving school with Lily and her little brother, who’s rapidly becoming a violent criminal. His antagonism towards Alice comes from being the baby of the family and not yet being able to view his mum objectively. Lily has the ability to threaten and manipulate quietly, deliberately under the radar of her youngest son. So he only sees Alice’s attempts to stick up for herself, which cause such a furore that in his eyes Alice is the problem. I was worried that she would never be able to leave home, follow a career or get married and have her own children. She has become so emotionally literate though and still worries about her family members, even the ones who treat her badly. I was worried she wouldn’t be able to discover her authentic self and develop the life she wants without leaving. One catalyst for change is the man she happens to see on his way to work. He stands out instantly because he isn’t giving off any colours and Alice is so fascinated that she follows him. Andy is a strange mix of both restful and mysterious. Alice has never had to work so hard on getting to know someone, it’s both scary and intoxicating to peel back the layers. However, when they’re just ‘being’ – taking a walk or watching a movie – Alice can relax fully, because she can’t sense all the colours lurking underneath the surface. I was intrigued to know whether this could mean he is Alice’s ‘one’, but also whether there were other colourless people in the world.

From the perspective of this reader with a disability it was so interesting to watch someone negotiate the world with a difference like this. I’d probably call it an ability rather than a disability. I loved discovering whether Alice grows to cope with her colours or moves beyond the difficulties of her childhood. As we moved through her life I forgot she wasn’t a real person, that’s how well-rounded a character she is. I felt like I was having a conversation with one of my counselling clients because of the depth the author goes to and the richness of her inner world. It was a surprise to see how her age and experience changes her relationships with other characters. I found the final sections of the novel, deeply moving and strangely comforting. I felt privileged to have moved through life with this extraordinary woman.

Meet the Author

After completing a degree in Journalism and Media Communications, Cecelia wrote her first novel at 21 years old. Her debut novel, PS I Love You was published in January 2004, and was followed by Where Rainbows End (aka Love, Rosie) in November 2004. Both novels were adapted to films; PS I Love You starred Hilary Swank and Gerard Butler, and Love, Rosie starred Lily Collins and Sam Claflin.

Cecelia has published a novel every year since then and to date has published 15 novels; If You Could See Me Now, A Place Called Here, Thanks for the Memories, The Gift, The Book of Tomorrow, The Time of My Life, One Hundred Names, How To Fall in Love, The Year I Met You, The Marble Collector, Flawed, Perfect and Lyrebird. To date, Cecelia’s books have sold 25 million copies internationally, are published in over 40 countries, in 30 languages.

Cecilia Ahern writes on her Amazon author page that the thread linking her work is in capturing that transitional period in people’s lives. She is drawn to writing about loss, to characters that have fallen and who feel powerless in their lives. She is “fascinated and inspired by the human spirit, by the fact that no matter how hopeless we feel and how dark life can be, we do have the courage, strength and bravery to push through our challenging moments. We are the greatest warriors in our own stories. I like to catch my characters as they fall, and bring them from low to high. My characters push through and as a result evolve, become stronger and better equipped for the next challenge that life brings. I like to mix dark with light, sadness with humour, always keeping a balance, and always bringing the story to a place of hope.”

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

One For My Enemy by Olivie Blake

After being slowly enticed by the glowing reviews of Olivie Blake’s Atlas Six series, I finally decided to take the plunge with this one. I’m a huge fan of Alice Hoffman so magic, romance and witchery are right up my street. However, this was the same themes but with some added NYC grit and sass.

In New York City, two rival witch families fight for the upper hand.

The Antonova sisters are beautiful, cunning and ruthless, and their mother – known only as Baba Yaga – is the elusive supplier of premium intoxicants. Their adversaries, the influential Fedorov brothers, serve their crime boss father. Named Koschei the Deathless, his enterprise dominates the shadows of magical Manhattan.

For twelve years, the families have maintained a fraught stalemate. Then everything is thrown into disarray. Bad blood carries them to the brink of disaster, even as fate draws together a brother and sister from either side. Yet the siblings still struggle for power, and internal conflicts could destroy each family from within. That is, if the enmity between empires doesn’t destroy both sides first.

I found myself hurled straight into this vivid world. It is earth but harbours a secret; witch families are vying to supply humans with magical pharmaceuticals. I loved the idea that there might be another realm within our own, hiding in plain sight. Baba Yaga has a shop – like Lush but with extra ingredients – whereas the Federovs sell on the streets and in the bars and clubs of the city. The rivalry and language of their industry was very ‘gangster’, with specific territories and penalties for stepping out of line. The patriarchal Federovs and the the matriarchal Antonova sisters. The sisters, although doing the bidding of Baba Yaga, are kept in line by eldest daughter Marya, also known as Masha. The scene that grabbed me was Masha simply walking into the Federovs lair and demanding to see second brother Dima. There has been an issue with territory and Masha believes it is Dima’s fault, so she carries out a terrifying enchantment that leaves Dima totally incapacitated. I was fascinated that youngest brother Lev tries to stop her, but is held back by his brother. Is there an honour code between the families? Even more intriguing is the obvious and immediate chemistry between Dima and Masha. The atmosphere was electric, the air charged with feelings and I was drying to know what had happened before and if these two had historic feelings for each other. If so, Masha is ruthless when it comes to business, but must have been full of hidden emotion. Would she be just as ruthless when protecting her family?

This scene showed me that Masha was confident in her power and very likely the successor to her mother. Masha is overseeing the expansion of their business. I found the idea of pharmaceutical drugs touched by magic fascinating too, I wanted to know more about their effects and whether they were largely benign. Did the customers truly know the power of what they were buying? I wondered about the family’s ethics with regards to black or white magic and was intrigued by how both families used their magic differently. Lev is sent to check out the clubs and see if he can work out the Antonov family’s next move, but he is distracted from his job by a young beautiful woman being hassled by a college student. As soon as he sees her he wants to help her, but already his attraction to her is obvious. She is very assertive and assures him she can look after herself and as Lev follows them out of the club she breaks the student’s nose. Intrigued by her confidence and the way she handled the situation, Lev offers to walk her home. Every block she tells him she can manage, but Lev has fallen in too deep already and the attraction is mutual. They have a passionate encounter down a side street. What Lev doesn’t know is that this young woman is Sasha, youngest of the Antonova sisters. As the pair fall in love, Lev confides the task he’s been given by his brothers. I wondered how she would react and whether she’s think his feelings were genuine or entrapment. Lev’s feelings are genuine and I was already wondering whether this was a repeat of Masha and Dima’s story. More importantly, if it comes to a showdown between the two families, which side would Lev choose?

Considering the amount of characters, they do have depth and feel very real. I think their back stories helped and the Russian folklore woven into their backgrounds seemed to ground them. Koshchei the Deathless is a male protagonist in Russian folklore, usually cast as an evil father figure who imprisons the male hero’s lover. He is called the immortal because he keeps his soul hidden within inanimate objects. Often he would hide his soul inside a tiny object then place it inside another object, perhaps an animal, like a rather grotesque set of Russian dolls. Baba Yaga was originally a supernatural being who hides within the disguise of a grotesque old woman. In a bizarre version of her story, which I love, she lived in a kettle with chicken’s legs – rather like the archetypal witch we all know from fairy tales. She would often take a maternal role and use that to hinder a character from the story. How these archetypes work within this story I’ll leave for you to find out. Then there’s the Romeo and Juliet parallel which certainly gives us the basic plot line of two rival families, where the youngest members of each family are falling in love with each other. That’s really where the comparisons end, because this is a loose retelling so don’t expect specific characters or even the same plot lines. This is a tragedy and it’s genuinely heartbreaking, but with gritty, real violence and it’s bloody consequences, just don’t expect the same victims. I loved that the rivalries are decades old and I think there’s definitely scope for more novels in this setting.

Although I loved Blake’s descriptive prose and enjoyed her characters, I did feel that the central love story lacked a bit of depth. I could tell these characters were in lust because their scenes were hot, but I didn’t feel the love at first. Perhaps that’s because I’m an older reader though and why I was interested in the oldest sister’s story. Also there were so many twists towards the end I had to go back and re-read sections to keep up with what was going on. However, for such a big book, it really fly by and the heady mix of love, power, magic, revenge and tragedy is a winner for sure. The art both inside and on the cover is absolutely beautiful. I feel that I could easily come back to these rival families in the future and it has certainly made me want to check out the author’s previous novels. If you like your love stories dark and laced with magic, violent tragedy and witches this is the book for you. It was definitely the book for me.

Published on 20th April by Tor (Pan Macmillan)

Meet The Author

Olivie Blake is the pseudonym of Alexene Farol Follmuth, a lover and writer of stories, many of which involve the fantastic, the paranormal, or the supernatural, but not always. More often, her works revolve around what it means to be human (or not), and the endlessly interesting complexities of life and love.

​Olivie has penned several indie SFF projects, including the webtoon Clara and the Devil with illustrator Little Chmura and the viral Atlas series. As Follmuth, her young adult rom-com My Mechanical Romance releases May 2022.

Olivie lives in Los Angeles with her husband and baby, where she is generally tolerated by her rescue pit bull. More on Olivie can be found at