Posted in Publisher Proof

The Midnight House by Amanda Geard

I enjoyed this book much more than I’d expected to. It’s not that there was anything wrong with the blurb or the cover, but I thought it might be just another ‘stately home + mystery’ novel with no huge surprises. However, the depth of characterisation and complexity of the story drew me in and kept me reading for two straight days. Ellie is our present day narrator and she’s having to take leave from work as an investigative journalist after trying to expose an important businessman ended badly. So she returns to her family home in County Kerry, Ireland to spend time with her mother. Trying to keep a low profile and prevent all and sundry from knowing about her return, is a lost cause in a small Irish village. It’s only because she’s desperate for reading material that she braves the charity shop and her mother’s chatty friend Tabby Ryan. Tabby has set aside a box of books that have come from the large stately home nearby, Blackwater Hall. Ellie is grateful to see a few Agatha Christie novels on the top and takes the whole box. Inside is a mysterious letter, addressed only to ‘T’ but clearly belonging to the Rathmore family. It ignites a spark in Ellie, but she tries to do the right thing and return it. At the hall she meets Albert, the lone member of the Rathmore family left behind, but he seems confused about who Ellie is and keeps asking for his mother. Her concern for Albert leads her to his son Milo, but also the mystery surrounding the family. Charlotte Rathmore disappeared during the early part of WWII leaving a broken string of pearls by the lake. The official version is that Charlotte killed herself, but Ellie senses a story and starts to seek out other remaining members of the family. Can she solve the mystery of Charlotte’s disappearance and what changes will the truth bring to Blackwater Hall and the Rathmore family?

The author tells the story across three timelines. We travel back to Blackwater Hall and Nancy’s first visit to meet her boyfriend Teddy Rathmore’s family. This timelines really establishes the characters within the Rathmore family and the beginning of a friendship between Nancy and Teddy’s sister Charlotte. This is before WWII and the aristocratic family are thriving, but there are little hints of a change on the horizon. Charlotte has rebellion and adventure in her soul, while Teddy is ready and somewhat relieved to strike out into a new life with Nancy, since elder brother Hugo carries the pressure of being the heir apparent. The present day timeline with Ellie shows she is an interesting character in her own right. There’s some resistance to becoming comfortable back home, even though she’s finding it suits her in some respects. She may be uprooting other people’s secrets, but theres a sense she has some of her own lurking under the surface; a possible broken relationship and a reluctance to talk about it that intrigued me and made me want to know more. In these split timeline narratives there’s often a lack of character or strong storyline in the present day, leaving the reader more intrigued with the past and creating an imbalance to the story. The reader can find themselves racing through the present bits to get to the ‘real’ story. The author doesn’t fall into that trap here, Ellie is interesting in her own right and her journey feels important too. The third timeline is something of a surprise as we follow a little girl called Hattie at Blackwater House and her emerging friendship with gardener and handyman Tomas. She is interested in how he makes things grow and starts to help him planting the potato crop in the garden. There’s a connection between these two that’s immediate and I was touched by them, possibly remembering days in the garden shed with my Grandad, tying onions up and hanging them from the ceiling and chitting potatoes. Tomas isn’t always the calm and shy man he is with Hattie and if he hears a bang, particularly a gunshot, he is back at war in an instant. His solitary and quiet work is clearly important in managing his PTSD. I was immediately drawn to this character and intrigued by his possible importance to the Rathmore’s story.

There are other flashbacks too, a section from the Blitz in London is particularly tense and heartbreaking. The author describes the air raids from the Lufwaffe so clearly I felt I was there with the characters. I thought the sense of foreboding was incredible and the slow realisation of the danger the characters were in was beautifully written. She captures the terrifying sense that the help needed, the help that’s usually there, is out of reach and something terrible might happen. The damage wrought in these streets and the fortitude of the people caught up there was powerfully portrayed and really gripped my emotions. I felt the author balanced those moments of terrible tension and drama beautifully with the lightness of rural Ireland and the people Ellie meets in her old neighbourhood. This is a place where only those in the big house were able to keep their secrets and everyone knows everyone. The people are strong, community minded and often Ellie’s interactions with them have a light humour about them, while avoiding caricature. I enjoyed her growing friendship with Milo Rathmore – another returnee to the village, now the village GP and carer for his father Albert. He is from Ellie’s world and the pair can look at the place with a critical eye, but also a good humoured and fond heart. I was interested in whether Ellie’s more recent personal issues would come to light. Could she finally confide in her mother and accept someone’s comfort and care, despite that solid streak of independence? I also wondered whether her career would ever be restored and if she could return, would she want to? Mostly though I was interested in what had happened to Charlotte, this beautiful, rebellious girl with so much spirit. I couldn’t believe she would kill herself, but feared that her true end was even more heartbreaking. That extra timeline post WWII also held surprises I really didn’t expect. Despite wanting all the answers I was sorry when this novel ended and there’s no better compliment than that.

Meet the Author

The inspiration for The Midnight House appeared in the rafters of our home, a two-hundred-year-old stone building perched on the edge of the Atlantic. Hidden there was a message, scratched into wood: ‘When this comes down, pray for me. Tim O’Shea 1911’. As I held that piece of timber in my hands, dust clinging to my paint-stained clothes, I was humbled that a person’s fingerprint could, in a thousand ways, transcend time, and I wanted nothing more than to capture that feeling of discovery on the page. I have always loved dual-timeline novels, where stories from the past weave with those of the present day. I want to write books that transport you to another time and place, where secrets lie just beneath the surface if only the characters know where to look.

Before all this, I was a geologist exploring the world’s remote places. Luckily for me, writing novels provides a similar sense of wonder and discovery; but the warm office, fresh food and a shower in the evening make the conditions rather more comfortable! The wild weather of County Kerry, where I live with my husband and two red setters, gives me the perfect excuse to regularly curl up by a fire with a great novel. I treasure my reading time, and I know you do too, so thank you for taking a chance on my books.

Come over to Instagram and Twitter (@amandageard) where I share plenty of photos of the wild settings in The Midnight House. You can also find me on Facebook (@amandageardauthor).

Taken from Amanda’s Amazon Author Page.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Elizabeth of York: The Last White Rose by Alison Weir

I love novels of courtly intrigue, in fact at my previous home I had shelves placed in the alcoves either side of the fireplace and one whole side was devoted to books on the Tudors and the Wars of the Roses. So the story of Elizabeth of York is familiar to me, but I love Alison Weir’s books and I was interested to see her take on this incredibly important Queen. As Alison Weir states in her afterword, Elizabeth is at the juncture of several important events in England’s royal history. There’s the instability caused by the Wars of the Roses or Cousin’s War, with battles, changes of allegiance and her family’s fortunes rising and falling with every intrigue. There are parts of her life shrouded in mystery and with differing viewpoints from historical researchers and novelists. I have always wondered how her relationship with Richard III changed from niece and uncle, to prospective wife. I have read accounts that suggest an affair between the two, one that took place in front of Richard’s sick wife Anne Neville and was branded scandalous in the court. I wanted to read Alison Weir’s take on this strangely incestuous relationship, whether Elizabeth was complicit and desired the match or whether this was a political match – suggested by Richard who wished to legitimise his rule, above the claim to the crown held by Elizabeth’s brothers and sons of Edward IV. Did Elizabeth, and her mother Katherine Woodville, see this as the only way to secure their family’s safety under Richard’s rule? The other mystery is that of the missing princes in the tower, a subject Alison Weir has looked at closely before. Some accounts suggest a conspiracy drawn up by Henry VII’s mother Margaret Stanley, to advance her son’s claim to the throne and label Richard III forever as guilty of regicide and killing his own nephews. Others lay the blame squarely at Richard’s door, for arranging their murder then forever hiding their remains so they couldn’t even have a proper burial. I was interested in how Elizabeth coped with potential marriages to the very two men who had most to gain from her brother’s killing.

The novel begins at one of life’s terrible downturns for the family, as Edward IV’s wife Katherine is forced to flee to sanctuary with her children, Elizabeth being the eldest. This time shut off from the world and all the comforts they were used to had a huge impression on Elizabeth and could have been enough of a trauma to be an underlying cause of the choices she made in later life. The fear of having nothing, facing poverty and being barred from courtly life is ever present and the privilege of her royal blood, her claim to the crown and her importance to England is drummed into her from a young age. I often think that it was Mary Boleyn who had the right idea, a generation or so later, of leaving court and all it’s intrigues behind and becoming the wife of a farmer. If you are always told you are destined to be a Queen though, does that sort of thought ever enter your head? Court is really the only life that Elizabeth knows. The author really puts across the drama of courtly life, especially during Henry VII’s reign when any whiff of a usurper seems to have him running to her rooms in a panic. The stress seems constant and I did wonder how many of these people died purely from lifestyle.

The feasting was incredible, with weird mixes of courses confusing the eater’s tastebuds and stomach, taking them from brawn, fish in jelly, custard then to peacock. These snippets of courtly life set the scene so well and almost dazzle the reader with such a sense of spectacle. I would find myself distracted from all the stress, and the grief, by the descriptions of week long revels and Christmas celebrations. Just a description of the costumes for a masque or the clothes of the time gave that sumptuous and luxurious feel to the court. I was rather reminded of another Queen Elizabeth and the lavish celebrations planned for the end of this month. Weir captures that element of disguise and distraction that’s still apparent between the royal family’s private and public arenas today. I am largely disinterested in our current royals, but a wedding will dazzle me and I end up watching the whole thing. If told how much it’s cost I get incensed, but then I get sucked in by the whole spectacle. So, in a time when supporting a royal household could mean getting caught up in a costly and dangerous war I could see how the ceremony would have to be even more lavish to gain the public’s attention. Men in the novel don’t have the luxury of choice, so if you were a tenant of the local landowner you were compelled to fight for their cause, no matter whether you agreed or not. Thank goodness that today, royal rivals only parade their discord round the chat shows and not on the battlefield.

Ultimately though, I felt some sympathy for this young woman who was borne of a King who won his crown on the battlefield, then promised in marriage to a man who won his crown in the same way. Like most women of her time, her fate is decided for her, albeit it in a more dramatic way than most. Here she seems to love Henry and the older they get, they mellow and the closer they become. I did wonder whether other novels strayed nearer the truth, that fed up with being constantly touted as the most eligible lady in England, her relationship with Richard was something she was complicit with, a type of rebellion where she was willing to ruin herself just to have some agency in her own life. What I love most about this book was how well written it is, obviously meticulously researched and gave me a slightly different perspective to events I knew well. For example, Margaret Stanley the King’s mother, is described as kind and almost sweet in character for the small ways she tries to look after those around her. I thought that Elizabeth’s relationship with Lord Stanley was interesting and probably gives us the biggest clue to this young woman’s real character and motivations. Stanley is known for changing allegiances when he’s sure which way the battle is turning. At the Battle of Bosworth he rode out with Richard III, only to turn to his stepson’s cause and actually strike down the King, taking his crown and placing it on Henry VII’s head. He and Elizabeth are made of similar stuff, each one watches the way wind blows before committing in order to survive. We can see her as blown about by that prevailing wind or as a politically astute young woman who knows how to secure her children’s future.

Meet The Author

Alison Weir lives and works in Surrey. Her books include Britain’s Royal Families, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Children of England, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry VIII: King and Court, Mary, Queen of Scots and Isabella: She-Wolf of France.

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Attic Child by Lola Jaye

“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
Chinua Achebe (Author)

I have been gathering books over the last few weeks, from all the countries of the Commonwealth. This is for a book stall on the Platinum Jubilee weekend, at our village celebrations. I run the village book exchange in an old red phone box on the green and I keep unwanted proofs until their publication date and then pop them in there for borrowing. I could have just found books relating to Elizabeth II but I wanted to look at the jubilee from a global viewpoint and include the voices of all the Queen’s subjects. For me that includes voices from countries that were once part of our empire, some of whom are now under the Commonwealth banner. I think these other voices are important; those who are literally silenced, but also those not listened to because were simply not the white, middle class, man that society is used to listening to. This book has a beautiful example of one such voice. Celestine Babbington is recorded for history in a silent form, photographed wearing clothes he didn’t choose and posing with a man whose relationship to him is very problematic. The man, Richard Babbington, is a rich explorer who has a love for Africa and a large mansion house in England. Yet by 1907, Celestine is being kept in the attic of the house, only allowed out to work as a domestic slave.

Years later, a young girl called Lowra is suffering the same fate. Locked in the attic as punishment for any transgression, when her fate has been left in the hands of her resentful stepmother. After her mother died, Lowra’s dad remarried and from that day on her life was punctuated by spells of abuse. While locked in the attic she finds an unusual necklace with clawed hands, unlike anything she’s seen before. There’s also an old-fashioned porcelain doll and a sentence on the wall, written in an unfamiliar language. These are her only comfort, because she feels as if the person that owned them is with her in some way. As an adult, her stepmother’s abuse still affects her and she’s conflicted when she inherits Babbington’s house. People seem to think she’s lucky and the town is proud of this intrepid explorer. Looking into the house’s history leads her to an exhibition of Babbington’s life, where she sees photographs of Babbington and a young black boy wearing an African wrap and what looks like her necklace, the one from the attic. However, the thing that keeps Lowra transfixed, is the young boy’s eyes. Lowra sees someone filled with sorrow, a fellow sufferer of the darkness inside that house. His name is Celestine Babbington. Lowra wants to find out more about this boy, how he came to be in England and what happened to him after Babbington’s death. She enlists the help of a history specialist called Monty, who has an interest in stories that have not been told, particularly those of empire. Together they start their search for the attic child.

I think anyone who talks about the glory of our empire should be encouraged to read this book. It’s fitting that the opening quote of the book is from the incredible author Chinua Achebe, because his novel Things Fall Apart is a perfect companion to this tale. This time the story is partially told by the most innocent victim of our Victorian forays into Africa, a child called Dikembe who is largely ignorant of exactly what atrocities are being carried out by the Belgian forces plundering the natural resources of his homeland. At the time of Dikembe’s childhood, his homeland was named the Belgian Congo, a large area of Africa known as Zaire, then the Democratic Republic of Congo. Very few Europeans had reached this area of Africa, known for tropical diseases like sleeping sickness. King Leopold of Belgium had urged the Belgian Government to colonise the country, but when they stalled their efforts he decided to take charge himself. He took ownership of the country and named it the Congo Free State in 1885, using his private army the Force Publique to press gang Congolese men and boys to work for him in the production of rubber. No one knows the exact population of the country at this time, but due to exploitation and the exposure to new diseases it is estimated that up to ten million native people died during Leopold’s rule of the country. Dikembe is young enough to stay at home each day with his mother, but he envies his brothers who go off to work with their father every morning. His parents keep him ignorant of the way native workers were treated so it is an utter shock when his father is killed one day. Richard Babbington, based on Henry Morton Stanley, expresses an interest in Dikembe. He wants to take him back to England and turn him into a gentleman and his companion. Ridden with grief and terrified about what could happen to her youngest son, his mother agrees, knowing this may be the only way to keep him safe. Although his intentions seem pure, isn’t this just another form of colonisation? He then takes away Dikembe’s name, calling him Celestine Babbington.

I found both children’s circumstances heartbreaking and could see that they might have an affinity, because Lowra sees something in the photographs that is probably echoed in her own eyes. I thought the two character narrative worked really well here, but all of the characters are so well crafted that they pulled me into their stories and didn’t let go till the end. We’re with Lowra and Monty on their quest, finding out more about Dikembe’s story and we experience the effect these revelations have on all the characters. It’s moving to see Monty identifying with Dikembe and feeling emotional pain from the injustices he has gone through. Monty still experiences racism and oppression, just in different ways and Lowra can’t be part of that even though she has empathy for how Monty feels. Lowra can feel an instant kinship with Dikembe over the abuse they’ve suffered and those lonely hours in the dark of the attic. I also liked how Monty and Lowre worked together and slowly come to know each other by being honest about their pasts and what effect their life experiences have had on them mentally. Lola Jaye has managed to engage the emotions, but also educate me at the same time, because I didn’t know much about the Belgian empire or King Leopold’s exploitation and murder of the Congolese population. However, it was those complex issues of identity and privilege that really came across to me, especially in the character of Richard Babbington. His arrogant assumption that he could give Dikembe a better life is privilege in action, as Dikembe soon finds out that he’s a womanising drunk and the companionship he spoke of only works one way. All he does bestow is money, for clothes and school, but what Dikembe craves is the warmth and love of his mother calling him a ‘good child’. The way this need for love and comfort was also exploited made me cry. I was desperately hoping that by the end, these terrible injustices didn’t stop him living his life to the full, including embracing happiness when the chance came his way. We see this play out for Lowra during the novel, can she ever accept that she is worthy of love? I wasn’t surprised to learn that Lola Jaye is a therapist, because she understands trauma and how it can manifest through several generations. The story doesn’t pull it’s punches so I felt angry and I felt sad, but somehow the author has managed to make the overall message one of hope. Hope in the resilience of the human spirit.

Meet The Author

Lola Jaye is an author and registered psychotherapist. She was born and raised in London and has lived in Nigeria and the United States. She has a degree in Psychology and a Masters in Psychotherapy and Counselling. She has contributed to the sequel to the bestseller Lean In, penned by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and has also written for the Huffington Post, CNN, Essence, HuffPost and the BBC.

She is a member of the Black Writers’ Guild and the author of five previous novels. The Attic Child is her first epic historical novel.

Posted in Netgalley

The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn

This book feels like an epic. A familial version of The lliad, the very first play that Cristabel puts on in the family’s theatre by the beach, formed from the jawbones of a whale. It washed up on the beach and was claimed for the Seagraves by Cristabel who is the orphan cousin of the family. Cristabel doesn’t really fit anywhere. She loves adventure, activity, and endeavours, climbing, running and conquering the Seagrave estate rather than being the lady her stepmother would expect, if she could be bothered. The Seagrave children are an odd bunch, brought up by staff and each other, while their parents stay in bed late, are never without houseguests and like to drink as early as it is socially acceptable to do so. This is the story of the heir and the spare. Jasper Seagrave brings his new wife home to the Chilcombe Estate and Rosalind is thrown into being mistress of the house and stepmother to his daughter Cristabel. There are definite vibes of Rebecca in this beginning, with a much younger wife slightly overawed by her new home and struggling to find her place. The ghostly presence in this case being Cristabel, creeping round corridors and the attic, having ‘boy’s own’ adventures with imaginary friends. Rosalind is happy to have bagged an aristocratic husband, considering they’re in very short supply since the war. That is until the ‘spare’ arrives. Willoughby is everything his elder brother isn’t, a dashing war hero fascinated by speed whether it’s a new car or learning to fly. There’s an immediate attraction, deepening when Rosalind is on bed rest in the last stages of pregnancy and Willoughby keeps her company. Is the Chilcombe estate about to lapse into scandal and what will become of Cristabel?

Joanne Quinn’s incredible debut begins at the end of WW1 and takes us all the way through WW2. The attention to detail is incredible and I felt completely immersed in this family’s history and the times they’re living in. This period saw huge changes for the aristocracy, often forced by the loss of two generations and bankruptcy due to death duties. Estates were sold off or had their use changed in order for the family to survive. The class boundaries became blurred as servants and masters fought together and unexpected bonds were created. Women had grown used to different roles, possibly nursing or working in factories or shops, and not all wanted to go back to a domestic role. There were also less men, so the marriage market changed and many society women, like Rosalind, had to be open to marrying men they might have previously overlooked. The author reinforces this sense of change by echoing it in the setting. When Rosalind first arrives at Chilcombe she is disappointed in the old fashioned country decor, all wood panelling and animal heads. She gradually brings the house into the 1920s with glamorous furniture and wallpaper, perhaps more suited to a London house than the country estate. The animals are banished to the attic, including a stuffed baby elephant on wheels intended as a gift to Cristabel from her mother. In fact Cristabel herself is treated rather like an unwanted piece of decor, stuffed into the attic with only the maid Maudie for company, her tomboyish ways out of step with her elegant and ethereal stepmother. As war looms again, the estate changes accordingly, with its garden turned over to vegetables and the people left behind pulling together as a team whether they are a Seagrave or the servants. They find themselves communing together in the kitchen, with all the elegant furniture sitting around like a piece of jewellery that’s too dressy for everyday wear.

The Seagrave children are the main focus of the novel, Cristabel, Flossie and Digby, each one a cousin or half-sibling they cleave together tightly due to parental neglect. Flossie is the child of Jasper Seagrave and Rosalind and I did find my heart warming to her. Nicknamed ‘The Veg’ thanks to an unfortunate resemblance to a vegetable when she was a baby, I sensed Flossie’s vulnerability. Her mother is beautiful and willowy, a perfect shape for her time, rather like an Art Deco statuette, but Flossie hasn’t inherited that elegance or poise. She’s rather like her father Jasper, a little bit awkward and not very good at asserting herself. WW2 tests Flossie’s metal and she responds with duty, grit and determination. It’s as if by pulling on her old clothes, mucking in with the servants and creating her garden at the whalebones she finds herself and becomes okay with who she is. Her friendship she cultivates with the German prisoner of war is so touchingly beautiful and fleeting. She’s a good person who can see the best traits in someone and bring them out. With both siblings away on special operations, it’s Flossie who has to find a way of keeping Chilcombe and run the estate. Digby, the son of Rosalind and Willoughby Seagrave, has the advantages of being the son and heir, but also seems like the one Seagrave who was wanted. Cristabel, belonging to Jasper and his first wife, is almost invisible. The chapter where her parents meet is unbelievably touching and I found myself bereft for Cristabel, because she would never know how much she was loved and wanted. Flossie is perhaps a reminder of those months when Rosalind was Jasper’s wife, something she seems to view with distaste. Digby could have been resented by his siblings, but both girls adore him. His love for acting shines through from being a little boy, when the theatre has a profound effect on him. So much so, that he’s still on the stage years later. To some extent, Cristabel is his parent and he looks up to her, happy to follow on in whatever escapade she has planned next.

It is Cristabel who is the hero of this book, from the child who has to crawl in bed with one of the maids for comfort and affection, to a special operative in occupied France, she is a survivor. Full of ideas, her determination to claim the beached whale is almost comical, couched in the very male language of expedition and discovery. Once only the bones are left, it takes someone equally creative and energetic to help establish the Whalebone Theatre. A visiting artist, scandalously living in the cottage with his wife and identical twin lovers, imagines walking through the creatures jawbone to reach the theatre (a space repurposed for Flossie’s vegetable garden during WW2). They create a script from Homer’s work and utilising Rosalind’s skills and interest in design, make a seating area and light the way to a stage that has the sea as a backdrop. Their plays succeed in bringing everyone together in the endeavour, each with a part to play whether it’s on stage, setting up, or making flyers for the village. These happy parts of her childhood take on such a nostalgic element, especially years later when she’s crouched in a ditch in occupied France trying to survive. There’s a sense in which the whole ensemble and even the villagers bring up this little girl and I loved the knowing way people would assume some daring escapade was the work of Miss Cristabel. I felt most sorry for her when we learn that her story could have been so different. Jasper is knocked off his feet by this woman who wants to talk to him at the hunt and appears immune to the charms of his notorious brother. The paragraph where Jasper recalls how in tune they both were and how brilliant and capable she was of running the estate with him. I can see a great deal of her mother in Cristabel and I was moved by the joy they felt in finding out they were going to be parents. The stuffed baby elephant they install with wheels for their baby shows that they imagine her like a little Maharaja, riding her elephant around the house.

Cristabel’s war years are incredibly intrepid and there are scenes where I was scared for her. The languid inter-war years seem decadent by comparison with these more sparse and disjointed episodes showing all three Seagraves in different parts of the world. I thought the pace really picked up as we followed Cristabel on her missions, parachuting into occupied France as a messenger, often with German soldiers a hair’s breadth away from discovering her. One scene with a German officer is so real I felt sick for her! She proves that her ‘adventures’ were not just an affectation. She is willing to put herself on the line, proving her aptitude for work as a operative, but also such incredible bravery. The final days of Nazi rule in Paris are tense, nail-bitingly so, but I didn’t fear for her. I had a sense Cristabel would survive no matter what. I thought this was an incredible depiction of life through the war, whether from Flossie’s more domestic side including service as a land girl to Cristabel and Digby’s seemingly more dashing exploits. His sister’s determination to find Digby showed that these children loved and cared for each other so deeply, probably because they had been left to their own devices. For Cristabel, it is servant Maudie who shows her what a mother’s love should look like and she in turn, mothers her little brother and sister. The author shows what a toll both wars took on people and the rapid changes they forced on society. I won’t reveal whether any of our characters survive, but Cristabel remembers a saying, that war can bring out the best in people. There are those who shine through difficult days and in their own ways I think the Seagrave children all stepped up to the mark. Most importantly the loving bond they had as children, stood firm and could not be broken.

Published 9th June 2022 by Fig Tree (Penguin)

Meet The Author

Joanna Quinn was born in London and grew up in Dorset, in the South West of England, where her “brilliant, beguiling” debut novel The Whalebone Theatre is set. 

Joanna has worked in journalism and the charity sector. She is also a short story writer, published by The White Review and Comma Press among others. She teaches creative writing and lives in a village near the sea in Dorset.

Posted in Squad Pod

Nobody But Us by Laure Van Rensburg

I heard such great things about this dark thriller that I’ve been chomping at the bit to read it asap! It was our Squad Pod read for last month and as usual I’m late. The blurb grabbed me right away and my mind went immediately to Gone Girl so I expected some twisted people and storylines. That tagline is designed to draw us in, but also has a hint of humour as if she’s mocking the genre – meet 2022’s most f*cked up couple. I was waiting for a gap in blog tours and managed to get a sunny weekend, my day bed set up in the garden and a willing slave to keep me supplied with drinks and adjusting my parasol. It didn’t take long to hook me.

Ellie and Steven have finally managed to find a gap in their busy schedules to get away for a few days and celebrate their six month anniversary. They’re heading to an isolated cabin in the woods, many miles away from the hustle and bustle of New York. It will be the perfect opportunity to spend some quality time together and really get to know each other. A perfect weekend for a perfect couple. Except, that’s not quite the truth. Ellie and Steven are far from perfect. They both have secrets. They’re both liar. Steven isn’t who he says he is. But then neither is she …

The setting was clever too, usually I’d expect a log cabin in the woods or a period house as a background, but this is a contemporary, architect’s house. I didn’t think a modern house could be scary, but I found it’s glass and steel exterior very unwelcoming – there’s nothing cosy about this weekend. In fact the perfection, the materials used and the sheer amount of space seem strangely oppressive. The contrast with the forest outside is jarring, the natural surroundings make it feel like the owner is pitting his house against the elements, imposing man made order on the natural chaos outside. Yet, when the storm sets in, nature seems to be getting it’s own back, with the large glass panels showing the storm’s fury. Trees are lashing against each other and the snow is coming thick and fast. In fact the weather adds to the sense of isolation, no one is coming to save them, no matter how much they scream.

The story is told by the two characters in turn, relating the details of their weekend away, but also drifting into their pasts so we get some idea of how Steven and Ellie came to this point. Still, the biggest revelations are kept back from us so we don’t have the full picture. This drip feed of information kept me hooked. I needed to know what happened next and who the characters really were under their facades. Mostly though I wanted to know what had set these dramatic events in motion. I couldn’t love these characters, so I wasn’t invested in one side or the other at first, but as the flashbacks came I was surprised to find I did have flashes of sympathy for Ellie or Steven, depending on what had happened to them.

I enjoyed the way the author played with that edge, between what was once acceptable and now isn’t. In light of the #MeToo movement many women in my 40+ age group who can look back at events from the 1990’s and think they wouldn’t be acceptable now: a stolen kiss at a party; a hand on the backside while waiting on a table; pressure to go further sexually than we might have been comfortable with. Now, relationships where there is any form of power imbalance are viewed as wrong. The married man and the teenage babysitter, the older boss and young employee, or student and tutor relationships were happening around me at that time and I don’t remember thinking they were intrinsically wrong, just a bit dodgy. Now, thirty years later, the mood is very different. But of course that’s only one aspect of this complicated story. This is a gripping, atmospheric and explosive novel. If you love thrillers this should definitely be on your summer reading list.

Laure Van Rensburg
Posted in Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight! Freya Sampson Cover Reveal.

I don’t often do cover reveals or previews, but there are just so many books to look forward to I might start. I think it’s the only way I can tell show you the novels I’m excited about. Otherwise I have to wait till I’ve read and review them all and that can take a while! Sometimes just the blurb and the cover is enough to whet my appetite. Other times it’s the first page that I’ve been reading while stood up in the queue at the bookshop. Sometimes I’ve been granted the book on NetGalley and couldn’t resist peeking at the first chapter. Or it could be I’ve read the author’s first book and I’ve been waiting impatiently for that difficult second book, just knowing it will be great.

Today I’m talking about Freya Sampson’s new book The Girl on the 88 Bus. I loved reading her debut novel The Last Library last year because it was like a warm hug in a book. By the looks of early reviews this book has that same magical feel. Here’s the blurb:

When Libby Nicholls arrives in London, broken-hearted and with her life in tatters, the first person she meets on the bus is elderly pensioner Frank. He tells her about the time in 1962 he met a girl on the number 88 bus with beautiful red hair just like her own. They made plans for a date, but Frank lost the ticket with her number written on it. For the past sixty years, he’s ridden the same bus trying to find her.

More than anything, Libby wants Frank to see his lost love one more time. But their quest also shows Libby just how important it is to embrace her own chance for happiness – before it’s too late.

A beautifully uplifting novel about how one chance meeting can change the course of your life forever

Published in June 2022 by Zaffre Publishing. I can’t wait. Can you?

Meet The Author


Freya Sampson works in TV and was the executive producer of Channel 4’s Four in a Bed and Gogglesprogs. She studied History at Cambridge University and in 2018 was shortlisted for the Exeter Novel Prize. She lives in London with her husband, two young children and an antisocial cat

Posted in Publisher Proof

Souls Wax Fair by Kelly Creighton

Powerful men can get away with murder…for only so long.

After a life of hardship, Mary Jane McCord’s life in Rapid City, South Dakota, finally hits a sweet spot. She finds happiness and her singing career takes off. Everything is looking up until she uncovers the dark and secret obsessions of two high-profile men.

Twenty years pass but the people closest to Mary Jane have not forgotten.

Will they bring the truth out into the light?

I had never read this author before and found this latest novel an unusual reading experience. Told in fragments, this is the story of a South Dakota town full of tensions and secrets. There isn’t even one main thread, but what links each fragment and each character is the death of MJ McCord. Mary Jane was as beautiful as Marilyn Monroe, more beautiful even some would say. After a difficult and unsettled childhood with mum Marjorie, MJ’s life looks like it’s finally coming good. She’s married to a lovely man who’s older, but gives her kindness, stability and wisdom. He thinks that MJ is beautiful on the inside as well as the outside, and its that inner beauty that captivates him, because it’s a rare thing in his experience. His money helps her with a dream of becoming a singer and she’s just on the cusp of being known. He knows she’s looked elsewhere of late, but it’s her age and he can overlook it. Then he gets some devastating news, MJ goes to a party at the home of one of the town’s superstar football players, Jordan Pinault, but never comes home. It seems that MJ has been playing away with Jordan, they had a row and MJ picked up a gun. She shot herself in the head.

The fragments of the story meander around this event, moving back and forth in time, to people close to MJ and those with only a tangential connection to that tragic night. I’ll be honest and say that first of all I was confused. The structure and order of the chapters doesn’t always make sense and it’s only when you start to get closer to the events of that night, that things become clearer. In fact the sections in the second half of the novel, seem to fit together easier and make more sense. Each fragment is told by a different person, but not everyone uses their given name, instead using a nickname, or they have a Native American name as well as a more Americanised/Anglicised name for work. This confused me even further. However, when it does become clear it’s like a fog lifting. I’m guessing this structure was deliberate and echoes the confusion and layers of half truths around Jordan Pinault and Ricky Nwafo. They have hidden their secrets behind layers of money, respectability, knowing the right people and the hero worship many in the town still have for them.

This town only has a surface sheen. The author shows us how there are people who matter in Rapid City and people who don’t. Despite America claiming not to have a class system, it certainly does have a hierarchy and here it seems the Lakota people are at the bottom of the pile. The Lakota people are also known as Teton Sioux and live the furthest West of any of the Sioux tribes. The author depicts the Lakota as an integral part of the town, but a struggling one. One character remembers being told in school of the ‘Lazy Lakota’ and one of the Lakota characters hates seeing this characteristic in his nephews who sit around in a trailer, drinking most of the day. There is also petty criminality, such as small time drug dealing and theft. We get the impression that discrimination does still exist, in the job market particularly, which leaves Lakota families in poverty compared with the rest of the population.

There’s also a streak of misogyny throughout, with physical and sexual violence still the norm. I felt so deeply for Celena, a Lakota girl who is friends with MJ and crops up at different points in the book. We see her sleeping at parties when she’s younger, in rooms where her unconscious state leaves her very vulnerable. In later years we see her sleeping in the trailer she shares with family, despite the noise of the TV and the kids around her. My first impression, from her teenage years, was that she must be really drunk or perhaps experimenting with drugs? Of course this is other people’s assumption too. Back in her teens, men joke about what they could do to her in this state, and as a woman her family despair of her. In a section narrated by her Uncle, he finds her asleep in their trailer alongside her grandmother, with the TV on and her cousins drinking and shouting in another room. He marvels at how she can sleep in so much noise and calls her lazy. It’s only when we finally hear Celena’s voice that we find out she has narcolepsy, a neurological condition where the brain can no longer regulate the patient’s sleep cycle. She is so used to people not understanding or believing she has a medical condition, that she doesn’t even bother correcting them anymore. Having had secondary narcolepsy, due to having MS and a viral infection, I know how scared and vulnerable it feels to be unable to stop yourself falling asleep. I did it on busy trains, in cafes and even at the opera. Sometimes I could hear everything around me, but couldn’t speak or open my eyes. So my heart went out to her, because once when she feel asleep at a party, her best friend MJ killed herself with a gun. What happens when those half remembered moments start coming back to her?

The author weaves a complex story here and the best thing to do is not worry too much about whether you have the story straight. Just go along with it, from person to person and slowly the truth starts to emerge. There is an incredible sense of place, almost dreamlike in places, but a town immersed in the surrounding nature, especially for the Lakota. There’s a real sense of shabbiness, poverty and sleaze just below the surface. While Jordan and Ricky are just as culpable, the character of town counsellor Beverley Burgess made me feel sick and there were sections that are a hard read. The author showed how certain people become revered in small isolated towns. We know from contemporary cases of rape and abuse that in many cases, ball players are shielded from scrutiny and have the money to afford the best lawyers. In fact it’s this culture of hero worship that allows these crimes to flourish in the first place. There are always people who know the full truth of what’s going on at the time, but no one wants to point the finger at the star. Young ball players have those ideals of being athletic and good looking, popular with girls and can get to good schools with their skills. They are like the alpha males in a town, and ball teams become part of the fabric of society with local sponsorship and charity work. The ball players gain a sense of entitlement that can allow them to mistreat and manipulate others, especially girls who are blinded by their looks and popularity. There is an element of nostalgia and escapism for the spectators, reliving their own past glories or just wishing they’d fulfilled their potential when they were young. I would hope, in the wake of the #MeToo movement that some change has taken place with people looking long and hard as to why they hero worship athletes.

This novel takes a hard look at small town America through this one incident. What is it that’s positive in these small communities, but also what’s missing? If we liken them to areas in the UK, they seem like our old mining communities where the work that’s been guaranteed for generations dries up and people are left in poverty, unable to afford or aspire to university. Young people have to settle for the work that’s available or move away and in these areas there are many young men who yearn to be footballers, boxers, MMA fighters and young women who want to be models, singers or reality TV stars, because it seems more attainable than expensive years of university education. I thought the book was atmospheric, mysterious and complex. It wasn’t like anything else I’ve read this year and left me thinking long after the book ended.

Published 6th May 2022 by Friday Press

Meet the Author


Kelly Creighton facilitates creative writing classes and teaches English as a foreign language. She is the author of the DI Harriet Sloane series, two standalone crime novels (Souls Wax Fair and The Bones of It), two short fiction collections (Bank Holiday Hurricane and Everybody’s Happy), and one book of poetry. Kelly lives with her family in County Down, Northern Ireland.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Small Island by Andrea Levy.

I have been looking for second hand copies of this book, because I’m creating a book stall at our village book exchange for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. My plan is to include books based in the Commonwealth countries or that represent a definitive moment in the Queen’s reign. This book sits a little early, starting in WW2, but sets a scene for those early years of her reign and shows how the people of the Commonwealth felt about their ‘mother country’. I first read Small Island after university, where I’d become the student obsessed with diversity, disability and all of those words that mark out difference. In my final year I looked closely at Caliban in The Tempest because my heart went out to him. I did a module in the Gothic, Grotesque and Monstrous, and another in Post-Colonial literature. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was ploughing a very specific furrow and my dissertation in disability earned me a solid first. These studies really did hone my taste in reading and while I read across the breadth of fiction genres and subjects, the books that really get me in the heart have a thread of social justice and characters coping with prejudice. This book appealed to me because I hadn’t read much about the Windrush generation. Andrea Levy won the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Orange Prize ‘Best of the Best’ as well as the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Whitbread for this novel. It was also described as ‘possibly the definitive fictional account of the experiences of the Empire Windrush generation’, when it was selected by the BBC as one of its ‘100 Novels That Shaped Our World’.


It is 1948, and England is recovering from a war. But at 21 Nevern Street, London, the conflict has only just begun. Queenie Bligh’s neighbours don’t approve when she agrees to take in Jamaican lodgers, but with her husband, Bernard, not back from the war, she has little choice in the matter. Gilbert Joseph was one of the many Jamaican men who joined the RAF to fight Hitler. But when he returns to England as a civilian he doesn’t receive the welcome he was expecting, and it’s desperation that drives him to knock at Queenie’s door. Gilbert’s wife Hortense, who for years has longer for a better life in England, soon joins him. But London is far from the golden city of her dreams, and even Gilbert is not the man she thought he was.

Small Island explores a point in England’s past when the country began to change. In this delicately wrought and profoundly moving novel, Andrea Levy handles the weighty themes of empire, prejudice, war and love, with a superb lightness of touch and generosity of spirit.

I loved the slow pace of this novel, allowing each character’s story to unfold fully, and meander across each other. I felt deeply for Queenie, with a father-in-law shell-shocked from the First World War and her husband Bernard still away, even though WW2 has ended. I could understand how her friendship with lodger Michael started, she must have been so lonely. However the consequences of the relationship only serve to isolate her further. Gilbert follows friend Michael to the U.K. for active service, only to return in 1948 when the British Government put a call out to the colonies for workers. Many English men were lost during the war leaving a labour shortage and Gilbert knows he has the skills to help. Hortense has always had a dream of going to England, where she would want to be a teacher like she is in Jamaica. As married couples are more likely to be accepted, Gilbert and Hortense make a pact, to have a marriage that fools the authorities and forge futures for themselves in England. He knows exactly where they’re going to live, 21 Nevern Street, because Queenie’s were the only lodgings that didn’t have a card in the window saying ‘No Blacks.’

I fell in love with Gilbert, who proves himself to be a loyal and trustworthy friend to both Queenie and Hortense, although there are times when the latter would test the patience of a saint. Hortense is so haughty! She made me smile with her airs and graces. I love the way she dresses, with her gloves and handbags strangely reminiscent of Queen Elizabeth’s style. In her mind she has done everything her mother country asked of her. She’s been to a good school and become educated, she has her teaching certificate and is a dedicated Anglophile. When the call comes to the colonies, that England is in need of workers, she thinks she can be useful. Gilbert tries to explain to her that England won’t be what she is expecting, her education will be looked down upon and instead of welcoming, people may be hostile. She tells him he’s wrong. England is a massive shock to Hortense, not just the cold, but the shame of everything she’s worked for being worth nothing. She’s also misjudged their friend Michael, who had passed through during the war. Back in Jamaica, Michael is practically a saint and Hortense is taken in by his good looks and nice manners. Another hard lesson to learn. At least Gilbert is there, faithfully keeping her going, trying to soften the blows and always sleeping on the chair while she takes the bed. I had so much sympathy for Queenie, who is overwhelmed and exhausted. Her father-in-law can be hard work, he doesn’t speak and is prone to wandering. I can feel that she is very fond of him. Her pregnancy is conceived in the spirit of war; a mix of attraction, plus loneliness and a sense that death might not be so far away. Women who conceived while their husbands were away, often hid the pregnancy under the respectability of their marriages. If their husband returned on time they could announce a baby which was then born prematurely. If not, the woman was very reliant on her husband to accept and choose to bring up the child. Sadly for Queenie this choice isn’t open to her and we see what society’s reaction might be to a mixed race child. Would her father-in-law or her husband even accept her baby?

I thought the structure was brilliant, moving back and forth from before and during the war, to post war. It also moves geographically, from England to Jamaica. These changes in structure were helpful to the storyline, because of the perspective it gives us on events. Going to Jamaica shows us the attitude of our characters to England and how that changes once they’ve helped us through a war. Gilbert expected to be treated better. He answered the call to go to war and then goes to England’s aid a second time. It’s a shock to find there isn’t a welcome. In fact a lot of people are downright hostile and it feels so unfair. Hortense thinks her skills and presence will be welcomed too, but they’re not. Why ask them to come if they aren’t welcome? By visiting each character in turn we get to know them intimately, their whole inner world is open to us. We might see reasons for behaviour that had seemed strange before and we might change our mind about a character. The slow pace helps the reader really get to know them and how they change through their experiences. Through these people the author brings to life issues of identity and our cultural heritage, bringing to mind interesting contrasts with today’s attitudes, especially in light of the more recently discovered Windrush Scandal. Levy created characters that years later still feel as real to me as my friends and by the end I cared about them so much that there were tears. I’ve re-read this novel so many times and it’s power doesn’t fade, nor does the impact of the characters, and it’s this that makes Levy’s book a masterpiece.

Meet The Author

After she passed away on the 14th of February 2019, the Bookseller wrote: ‘Andrea Levy will be remembered as a novelist who broke out of the confines assigned to her by prejudice to become a both a forerunner of Black British excellence and a great novelist by any standards.’


Born in England to Jamaican parents who came to Britain in 1948, Andrea Levy wrote the novels that she had always wanted to read as a young woman, engaging books that reflect the experiences of black Britons and at the intimacies that bind British history with that of the Caribbean. She was described by BBC News as ‘a writer who tackled important social issues . . . her writing . . . witty, humane and often moving, and full of richly drawn characters’.


She was the author of six books, including SMALL ISLAND, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction, and the Whitbread book of the Year, and was adapted for TV and for the stage, by the National Theatre. It was selected by the BBC as one of its ‘100 Novels That Shaped Our World’. Her most recent novel, THE LONG SONG, won the Walter Scott Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and was adapted for TV by the BBC.

Posted in Netgalley

Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow

Joan can’t change her family’s past.
But she can create her future.

Joan was only a child the last time she visited Memphis. She doesn’t remember the bustle of Beale Street on a summer’s night. She doesn’t know she’s as likely to hear a gunshot ring out as the sound of children playing. How the smell of honeysuckle is almost overwhelming as she climbs the porch steps to the house where her mother grew up. But when the front door opens, she does remember Derek.

This house full of history is home to the women of the North family. They are no strangers to adversity; resilience runs in their blood. Fifty years ago, Hazel’s husband was lynched by his all-white police squad, yet she made a life for herself and her daughters in the majestic house he built for them. August lives there still, running a salon where the neighbourhood women gather. And now this house is the only place Joan has left. It is in sketching portraits of the women in her life, her aunt and her mother, the women who come to have their hair done, the women who come to chat and gossip, that Joan begins laughing again, begins living.

Memphis is a celebration of the enduring strength of female bonds, of what we pass down, from mother to daughter. Epic in scope yet intimate in detail, it is a vivid portrait of three generations of a Southern black family, as well as an ode to the city they call home.

There’s a point in this book where Miriam remembers her mother Hazel waking her up, leaving her little sister August asleep in bed, then she fixed her a breakfast fit for a king. There were green tomatoes and grits, spicy pork and scrambled eggs, and they were chatting like a normal day. Miriam was distracted by the delicious meal and didn’t notice her mother running the tap. Then suddenly she threw a whole jug of cold water over her daughter. Miriam thought her mother had lost her mind. All she said was ‘you ready’ and that afternoon took her to her first activist’s sit in. Miriam’s experience is similar to the one I had reading this incredible book. I’d just settled into the story when suddenly something was revealed that was so momentous I would have to take a moment, blind-sided by what had just happened. Memphis is the home of three generations of African-American women from grandmother Hazel, her two daughters Miriam and August, and Miriam’s daughters Myra and Joan. Their personal lives are set against a backdrop of American history from the early 1950s through to the 2000s, taking in world-changing events like the Kennedy assassinations and 9/11. Told in sections from each woman’s viewpoint, Stringfellow takes us back and forth across the 20th Century. Each step back in time informs the present, showing us where Joan has come from and each day forward moves Joan into her future.

I loved the earliest years where grandmother Hazel meets Myron and they fall in love. Their courtship is so sweet and has an innocence about it and I think that’s what makes later events such a shock. The fact that Myron has come so far and become part of law enforcement in those times feels like such an incredible achievement. Your fellow officers are supposed to be your brothers, but despite working alongside him, this all white squad don’t count him as one of them. We don’t see the lynching, but we don’t need to. Our place is with the women of this story. Hazel is nine months pregnant, filled with grief, anger and a frustration borne from knowing that whatever you achieve, however loud you scream, your achievement and voice mean nothing. The author managed to deeply touch me with that sense of powerlessness. There’s such a maelstrom of emotions when she gives birth: knowing this little girl will never know her daddy; wishing Myron was there to support her; the fear of knowing she’s alone as a parent and her girls depend on her; the joy of this new life coming into the world. These women feel so real because Stringfellow cleverly evokes the complexity of human emotions, it’s rare that we only feel one at a time. In grief we can still feel moments of joy and even if we are happy, there can be moments of doubt or fear. Such moments of inner conflict follow us into the second generation of women, sisters Miriam and August. When Miriam escapes domestic violence, returning to the house Myron built in Memphis, she’s torn in two directions. She really has nowhere else to go and she longs for home and the consolation and support of her sister, but Joan has a moment of recognition. Have they been here before? The truth is they have.

The women in this family are strong and they need to be. Some of what happens to them over their three generations is terrible and you will probably have a good cry like I did. I was touched by what Hazel, Miriam and Joan go through, but there were also quieter struggles that touched me such as August’s decision to care for her mother, the loneliness she must feel with both her mum and sister gone, the fear she feels for her son Derek, growing up as a black man in a place where shootings and gangs are commonplace. Her mixed feelings of guilt, anger and love that come with being a mother of a son who does things that are unforgivable. I also loved the camaraderie of her salon and the strength she gets from the women who are her customers and her community. I was touched by her ability to take pleasure and solace when it’s offered, despite it not being the love and companionship she craves – from the women in her life. The pain these women go through makes the good times even more enjoyable and I really felt the joy and relief when they came out of a tough time. The author manages to capture that sense of peace I have seen in my counselling room, when the long held fear, anger and shame that comes from trauma is finally let go. That need for revenge finally silenced. The chance for joy and celebration to fill the void left behind and communing with others who know your journey.

“𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘧𝘳𝘢𝘮𝘦𝘥 𝘳𝘦𝘤𝘰𝘳𝘥 𝘤𝘰𝘷𝘦𝘳𝘴 𝘰𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘸𝘢𝘭𝘭𝘴 𝘴𝘩𝘰𝘰𝘬 𝘸𝘪𝘵𝘩 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘭𝘢𝘶𝘨𝘩𝘵𝘦𝘳. 𝘓𝘢𝘶𝘨𝘩𝘵𝘦𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘸𝘢𝘴, 𝘪𝘯 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘰𝘧 𝘪𝘵𝘴𝘦𝘭𝘧, 𝘉𝘭𝘢𝘤𝘬. 𝘓𝘢𝘶𝘨𝘩𝘵𝘦𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘤𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘥 𝘣𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘬 𝘨𝘭𝘢𝘴𝘴. 𝘓𝘢𝘶𝘨𝘩𝘵𝘦𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘤𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘥 𝘶𝘱𝘭𝘪𝘧𝘵 𝘢 𝘧𝘢𝘮𝘪𝘭𝘺. 𝘈 𝘤𝘢𝘤𝘰𝘱𝘩𝘰𝘯𝘺 𝘰𝘧 𝘉𝘭𝘢𝘤𝘬 𝘧𝘦𝘮𝘢𝘭𝘦 𝘫𝘰𝘺 𝘪𝘯 𝘢 𝘭𝘢𝘯𝘨𝘶𝘢𝘨𝘦 𝘱𝘳𝘪𝘷𝘢𝘵𝘦 𝘵𝘰 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘮.”⁣

Meet the Author

Former attorney, Northwestern University MFA graduate, and Pushcart Prize nominee Tara M. Stringfellow’s debut novel Memphis (Dial Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House) is a multi-generational bildungsroman based on the author’s rich Civil Rights history. A recent winner of the Book Pipeline Fiction Contest, Memphis was recognized for its clear path to film or TV series adaptation and is due out in 2022. Third World Press published her first collection of poetry entitled More than Dancing in 2008. A cross-genre artist, the author was Northwestern University’s first MFA graduate in both poetry and prose and has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, as well as Best of the Net. Her poems have appeared in Collective Unrest, Jet Fuel Review, Minerva Rising, Women’s Arts Quarterly, Transitions and Apogee Journal, among others.

If she isn’t writing, she’s gardening. If she’s isn’t in Memphis, she’s in Italy.

Posted in Monthly Wrap Up

Books Of The Month! April 2022.

It’s been another bumper book month at The Lotus Readers and it looks like 2022 is going to be an amazing reading year, in fact I’m already worrying about how I’m going to choose between these books when it comes to my end of year list. Can I really do 22 books this year? It’s also a year of fantastic debuts with another four debut novels being top of my list this month. There’s been a few tears shed over some of the stories and characters within these pages, but I’ve been uplifted too by these stories of overcoming. Surviving trauma and recovering through the support of others, particularly where women are supporting women, has been a theme here too. Its been the first month where I’ve been able to sit in the garden with a book, so most of these have accompanied me outside and onto my recliner, usually ending with me falling asleep under a dog and a cat! So here are some shortened reviews, to whet your appetite for these wonderful novels,

Reminiscent of those stylish novels of the great Agatha Christie, this was a brilliant mystery with a glamorous location, wealthy passengers and sumptuous clothes and jewellery. The period detail is spot on whether it’s the latest bathing suit or 1930’s politics. It’s not just a whodunnit either, because woven within are themes of identity, belonging, family and class division. It’s gripping without being showy or depending on shocks, or endless twists and turns. It’s elegant and allows it’s secrets to unfurl slowly. Lena is a sympathetic character, who has sacrificed starting her career to care for her father Alfie who has recently died. To pay the bills Lena has been singing in a club band, but she has always wanted to work on the West End or Broadway. Her chance comes in the aftermath of a death at the club. A favour from a an old friend of her father. She’s found by theatre producer’s assistant, Charlie Bacon, whose boss is offering Lena the chance of a lifetime, a part on Broadway in a new musical. As they set off across the Atlantic in their first class accommodation, they make the acquaintance of a very wealthy family with an ailing patriarch. What follows is intrigue, murder, mayhem and the realities of being a black performer. Lena is now caught up in a murder plot, and doesn’t know if she’ll be the next suspect, or victim.

Incredibly strong women, three generations of a Memphis family, are the focus of this amazing debut by Tara Stringfellow that made me angry, made me cry and somehow helped me feel uplifted all at the same time. Grandma Hazel is the first resident of the house in Memphis, a house her sweetheart Myron builds for their family. When he is lynched by his own police squad, Hazel is nine months pregnant and left heartbroken, angry and scared. Her daughters, Miriam and August, then call this place home and it also becomes August’s place of work. When Miriam leaves home, travelling with her husband Jax who is in the military, August turns the back of the house into a hair salon for a community of black women who gather there to laugh, to support each other and to plan activism. When Miriam returns with her own daughters, Joan and Myra, she has mixed feelings. She needs a roof over her head, she loves where she grew up, but something happened here that daughter Joan can’t quite remember. Yet she feels I’ll, deep down. There’s fear and shame in this place, but she doesn’t know why and we follow her quest to process and heal from this hidden trauma. With a backdrop of the biggest events of the 20th Century from the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations to 9/11, this is a story of what it means to be a black woman in 20th Century America. Simply outstanding.

Ethan Joella’s novel was perfect for this moment in life. Set in an idyllic Connecticut town over the course of a year, our story follows the intertwining lives of a dozen neighbours as they confront everyday desires and fears: an illness, a road not taken, a broken heart, a betrayal. Freddie and Greg Tyler seem to have it all: a comfortable home at the edge of the woods, a beautiful young daughter, a bond that feels unbreakable. But when Greg is diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer, the sense of certainty they once knew evaporates overnight. Meanwhile, Darcy Crowley is still coming to terms with the loss of her husband as she worries over her struggling adult son, Luke. Elsewhere, Ginger Lord returns home longing for a lost relationship; Ahmed Ghannam wonders if he’ll ever find true love; and Greg’s boss, Alex Lionel, grapples with a secret of his own. We are all familiar with the hashtag #BeKind and through these stories, what seems like a platitude, is brought home to the reader. Our characters touch on each other’s lives, sometimes without knowing what each other are coping with just under the surface. Despite taking us through every experience from infidelity to loss, the book never feels overwhelming or melancholy. Yes I wanted to shed tears from time to time, but somehow there is always a ray of hope. It reminded me that things like community, friendship, shared experiences and compassion can change everything. The author doesn’t hold back on how difficult and painful life can be, but yet always finds some element of joy that reminds us what a gift it is too. This book is poetic, achingly beautiful and full of empathy for the human condition.

I knew this book would be one I enjoyed, after all it encompasses some of my favourite things: History between the World Wars; the Vienna Secession and Gustav Klimt; Art Nouveau; a feminist narrative. However, I didn’t expect it would grab hold of me in the way it did! I sat down with it in the garden one Sunday afternoon and read two thirds straight away. When duty and blog tours called that week I had to set it aside, but I kept glancing over at it like a lost lover all week. Haydock takes four of Egon Schiele’s portraits and explores the women depicted – society sisters Adele and Edith, artists model Wally and his younger sister Gertie. Schiele’s portraits are not life-like reproductions of his model and while they might shed light on aspects of their characters, they can only ever be the artist’s view of that woman with all the prejudices and biases of his time. Haydock is challenging Schiele’s representation of these women and here we get to hear the women’s stories, how they see themselves and their relationship with Schiele. Some of his life choices felt like betrayals to those women who risked everything by literally laying themselves bare before him and the world, for his sake and for the sake of art. I thought Haydock beautifully captured this sacrifice and it’s consequences, something she picks up beautifully in the short interludes from the 1960’s where an elderly woman searches for a painting she’s glimpsed of someone she loved. Desperate to give an apology she never heard in life. Haydock beautifully captures a rapidly changing Vienna between two World Wars where barriers of class and gender are breaking down. She also captures the complexities of the barriers for women and those who have the pioneering spirit to break them. She gives a voice to their silent gaze. This is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year and I read it greedily in just two sessions. I’m already looking forward to entering Haydock’s world and savouring these wonderful women again.ok”

My interest in 19th Century freak shows, Sarah Baartman (the Hottentot Venus), disability and difference, made Lianne Dillsworth’s debut novel a perfect fit for me. Our setting is a theatre and a performing troupe including singers, magicians and dancers who perform a variety show under the watchful eye of Mr Crillick. His current headline act is Amazonia – a true African tribeswoman, dressed in furs and armed with a shield and spear, her native dancing brings down the house in Crillick’s show. The audience watch, transfixed with fear and fascination, never realising that she is a ‘fagged’ act. Zillah has never set foot in Africa and is in fact of mixed race heritage, born in East London. She is making her money by pretending to be what the, largely white, audience wants to see. It doesn’t sit well with Zillah, but she is alone in the world and does need to make money. Besides it’s better than the other options for a young woman who finds herself in poverty. She’s used to slipping between worlds on stage and in her private life, renting a room in the rough St Giles area of the city, but regularly making her way to a more salubrious area and the bed of a Viscount by night. However, when Crillick brings a new exhibit to his London home, dubbed the Leopard Lady, Zillah’s eyes are opened to the politics and misogyny of displaying difference. A meeting with an activist forces her to think about her own performance, but also the danger that Crillick’s new exhibit might be in, especially his ‘private’ audiences complete with medical equipment. Can Zillah help this woman and what does her own future hold, because in good conscience she can no longer perform? This is a brilliant novel, doing for race and disability, what Sarah Water’s novels did for the representation of sexuality in the 19th Century.

I’d never read a novel by Dolen Perkins-Valdez and she pulled me into her story from the very first page, with Civil seeming real almost immediately. I’ve been interested in eugenics since I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on disability and 20th Century literature. I knew a lot about the movement in the U.K., US and Germany in the lead up to WW2, but this book shocked me because I had no idea that forced sterilisations were still happening in the 1960s and 70s. I knew this had happened in earlier in the century with Native American communities, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was still happening to African American women, especially where the woman had a disability too. The writer shows how our biases and emotions feed into the work we do within the caring professions. Having worked in mental health and disability as a support worker, advocate and counsellor, I did identify strongly with Civil and the way she became involved with the Williams family. The Williams girls are her very first patients and she is sent out on a home visit to give them a Depo Provera injection, a long term method of contraception. When she notices that India is only 11 years old her brain immediately starts questioning, who put this little girl on this injection, has anyone asked if she has a boyfriend or worse, is she being preyed upon? Is this an assumption that young African-American women are promiscuous or that African- American men can’t be trusted, even within their own families? The judgement that bringing a child into this family would be disastrous comes from a lack of knowledge around India Williams’s learning disability, but is also an assumption about race too. The fall out from Civil’s discoveries is huge and life-changing, not just for the Williams family but for Civil too. This book sheds light on an important hidden history and took me through a rollercoaster of emotions.

I fell utterly in love with Dot Watson, a rather abrupt and persnickety member of the staff at London Transport’s lost property office. It took me about five pages to be drawn into Dot Watson’s quirky world and her love for the lost property office where honest people bring their found items. Dot is like the backbone of the office and the other workers would be lost without her. A lover of proper procedure and organisation, Dot is the ‘go to’ employee for anyone starting work with the team, or just to answer a question about an item. Dot thinks lost things are very important, almost like an extension of that person. Their lost item can tell her a lot about the person they are and she fills the lost luggage tags with as much detail as possible so that they have the greatest chance of locating it. Dot believes that when we lose a person, their possessions can take us right back to the moment they were with us. When Mr Appleby arrives at the office to find his lost leather hold-all it is what the case contains that moves Dot. Inside is a tiny lavender coloured purse that belonged to his late wife and he carries it everywhere. Something inside Dot breaks for this lonely man and she is determined she will find his hold-all. Her search becomes both the driving force of Dot’s story and the key to unlocking her own memories. I loved our journey into Dot’s past, her relationship with her father and the trauma that she’s tried to lock away for so long. This book has difficult emotions, but also glimpses of humour and is ultimately an uplifting journey with an unforgettable woman.

A teenage girl wanders out of the woods. She’s striking, with flame-red hair and a pale complexion. She’s also covered in blood. She appears in the pub’s beer garden as Jonah is enjoying a beer after a walk with his baby son. Detective Jonah Sheens quickly discovers that Keely and her sister, Nina, disappeared from a children’s home a week ago. Now, Keely is here – but Nina’s still missing. Keely knows where her sister is – but before she tells, but first she wants Jonah’s full attention. Is she killer, witness, or victim? The opening scene is absolutely brilliant, vivid and shocking at the same time. As the girl’s history starts to unfold, they hear about several failed placements and a long stay in a children’s home. The girls made complaints about two of their homes, but were thought to be troublemakers. Jonah and his excellent team have to tread a very fine line. Keeley comes across as cold and calculating one moment, but then like a broken little girl the next. Which is an act? There are some very dark stories here and they could be distressing for people who’ve gone through a similar experience, but it’s that darkness that keeps the reader wanting the truth and to see those responsible punished. If Keeley has planned how to elicit sympathy from the police, she certainly knows what she’s doing. As readers we are pulled along with Jonah, from distress and empathy to disbelief and a sense that something is very, very wrong either with Keeley or the system. This is a great mystery, with huge twists in store and a police team I enjoyed getting to know. Now I’m looking forward to going back to the first novel in this series and filling in the gaps in my knowledge, while enjoying even more of this talented writer’s incredibly creative plots and dark, brooding atmosphere.

So these were my favourite reads in a very busy reading month. I read seventeen books which surprised even me! Next month I’m looking forward to a slightly quieter month with some great thrillers to read, some historical fiction from another of my favourite historical periods – the beginnings of the Tudor dynasty, and hopefully a few choices from NetGalley too so I can keep on beating that backlog. I hope you enjoy these choices as much as I did and i’ll see you again next month.