Posted in Random Things Tours

Lost Property by Helen Paris

It took me about five pages to be drawn into Dot Watson’s quirky world and her love for the lost property office in which she works for London Transport. If anything is lost, be it on a cab, bus or train this is 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 a person is lost to us, 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 piece 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.

Dot has been working at the lost property office for years, but it isn’t the life she expected to be living. In her early twenties, travel was her main driving force in life and she was living the dream in Paris. Being multi-lingual Dot had exciting plans to travel the world, but all her dreams come to a halt when her father dies suddenly and traumatically, by throwing himself in front of a train. Dot’s relationship with her father was complicated, as he doted on her and they spent a lot of time together. However, as the youngest child by some years and because she hero worshipped her father, she didn’t always see things clearly. There are secrets at the heart of the family, kept for all the right reasons, but causing misunderstanding and resentment. When her father died Dot rushed home, but the trauma of his death affects the whole family deeply and it seems to put Dot’s life on hold. Now her collection of travel guides are her window on the world she once wanted to explore, but she is firmly stuck in her mum’s flat and still working in a job that was once a stop gap. Her only other activity is her regular visit to her mum in the nursing home. While her sister lives further afield, she constantly rings Dot to remind her of things and get updates on their Mum. She is pressuring Dot to get the flat viewed and sold so their lives can start again, but Dot is avoiding her. To add to her family stress, Neil from work is promoted to be their manager and the changes he wants to bring in are also disturbing Dot. He wants to reduce the amount of time they keep items, but what if something goes to auction and they can’t get it back? Dot seems to freeze, staying in the lost property office at night and looking tirelessly for Mr Appleby’s hold-all.

Dot is such a sympathetic character. She’s funny, resourceful and actually quite formidable when at full strength. We go back and see a naïve young girl, for whom Daddy is the centre of the universe. They spend a huge amount of time together which she has always viewed as the result of having a special relationship. As she goes back its interesting to see how others viewed the same events, with totally different conclusions. Their family story is so sad and brings home to us the benefits of living in such a tolerant and open society today. If Dot has been viewing her life through the wrong lens, how will she cope when she finally sees it all? Dot thinks she’s weak, but she’s actually incredibly strong. Some of the things she goes through, not just in the past, but during her time sleeping at the property office are really traumatic. She will take more time to process it all, but I loved the author’s importance in the human power to change, to take stock and move forward with life. I think the writer has been clever in her debut novel to write a light, uplifting story, but with so many darker layers underneath. It’s a real accomplishment to imbue a character that could have become a caricature, with life and authenticity. I love her optimism too, leaving us with the knowledge that no matter what the trauma, we have the power to change ourselves and our lives for the better. I heartily recommend this book to other readers, but they must prepare to fall in love with it as I did.

Meet The Author


Helen Paris worked in the performing arts for two decades, touring internationally with her London-based theatre company Curious. After several years living in San Francisco and working as a theatre professor at Stanford University, she returned to the UK to focus on writing fiction. As part of her research for a performance called ‘Lost & Found’, Paris shadowed employees in the Baker Street Lost Property office for a week, an experience that sparked her imagination and inspired this novel.

Posted in Netgalley

Little Sister by Gytha Lodge.

Two sisters went missing. Only one of them came back . . .
________

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.

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, she wants Jonah’s full attention . . .

Is she killer, witness, or victim?

And will Jonah find out what Keely’s hiding, in time to save Nina?

Last year I was lucky enough to receive a prize from Gytha Lodge and now have three of her hardbacks, all individually signed. I haven’t had chance to read them and as I was granted access to this fourth novel in the series on NetGalley I decided to dive in and hope it would work as a standalone novel. I needn’t have worried at all. This was immediately accessible, yes there were aspects of Jonah’s life that I’m looking forward to finding out more about, but on the whole I could enjoy the mystery without feeling like I didn’t know my protagonist.

The opening scene is absolutely brilliant, vivid and shocking at the same time. Jonah sits in a warm beer garden with his baby in a pram at his side. He’s musing on life and his recent choice to return to a relationship with the mother of his child, leaving behind a burgeoning relationship with Jojo who he misses enormously. It takes a moment for him to notice the young woman who has come into the garden. She has red hair and her hands and chest are covered in blood. While others simply stare in shock, Jonah rings his partner Michelle to pick up the baby, then moves over to the girl and offers to get her a drink. They sit and her story starts to come out, but this is going to be a tricky interview and investigation. Jonah wants to take his time, go gently and not rush this young woman, who could be a victim, but could also be a suspect. Then she makes a revelation. Her name is Keeley and her sister is Nina, this could be Nina’s blood and of course they need to find her, but first Keeley wants to tell them a story.

Nina and Keeley have spent their entire childhood in care. Bouncing from children’s home to foster parent, they seem to have been magnets for predators at an early age. There are two foster homes where their placement failed. One was at the Murray-Watts, who live in a large house in the country with their son Callum and the right type of Range Rover. However, Keeley remembers a regime of cruelty and starvation, where their foster father was always pitting the children against each other and for punishment would lock them in a dark basement for days. His wife Sally might not be so cruel, but she never failed to do his bidding. From there to the Pinders, their home is a huge contrast situated on a council estate. There the girls made a complaint of sexual assault against their foster father who groomed them with trendy clothes, alcohol and watched Gossip Girl with them. This was all fine until he started to want things in return. The problem with these accusations is that nobody believed them, and even though they were removed from the homes in question, no one was prosecuted. 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? Or are they both the same girl? Either way she won’t compromise; Jonah listens to her full story or she won’t tell them where Nina is. Time is ticking and if Nina is severely injured will she last to the end of the story?

I thought Keeley was a fascinating character, psychologically flawed and clearly traumatised by their past, however much of it is true. The girl’s social worker seems very sure that all the claims are false, just girls making up stories. However, it’s clear that some aspects of the girls accusations are true. So, if someone makes multiple accusations does it mean they’re all false? The book kept me guessing and there were times when I wondered whether I even trusted Keeley with her own sister. The chapters based around Jonah and the investigation are interspersed with Keeley’s first hand testimony. She shows all the traits of a psychopath; has she always been this way or has she been created by the treatment of those meant to care for her? If Nina has been subjected to the same treatment won’t she be afflicted psychologically too? I was also dying to know where these foster parents were. Pinder is giving the same story as the girl’s social worker, but the Murray-Watts have completely disappeared. Did the girls have help to weave a twisted treasure hunt for the police? I started to wonder if Keeley had known that Jonah was in the beer garden that day. She seems to be fascinated with his team so could one of them have come across the girls before?

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.

Meet The Author

Gytha Lodge is a multi-award-winning playwright, novelist and writer for video games and screen. She is also a single parent who blogs about the ridiculousness of bringing up a mega-nerd small boy. 

She has a profound addiction to tea, crosswords and awful puns. She studied English at Cambridge, where she became known quite quickly for her brand of twisty, dark yet entertaining drama. She later took the Creative Writing MA at UEA. 

Her debut crime novel, She Lies in Wait, has been published by Penguin Random House in the US and UK, and has also been translated into 12 other languages. It became an international bestseller in 2019, and was a Richard and Judy book club pick, as well as a Sunday Times and New York Times crime pick. 

Watching From the Dark, her second novel, was released in February 2020, with her third book lined up for spring of 2021. This fourth novel is published on 28th April 2022.

Posted in Netgalley

Miss Aldridge Regrets by Louise Hare

London, 1936

Lena Aldridge is wondering if life has passed her by. The dazzling theatre career she hoped for hasn’t worked out. Instead, she’s stuck singing in a sticky-floored basement club in Soho and her married lover has just left her. She has nothing to look forward to until a stranger offers her the chance of a lifetime: a starring role on Broadway and a first-class ticket on the Queen Mary bound for New York.

After a murder at the club, the timing couldn’t be better and Lena jumps at the chance to escape England. Until death follows her onto the ship and she realises that her greatest performance has already begun.

Because someone is making manoeuvres behind the scenes, and there’s only one thing on their mind…

MURDER

Miss Aldridge Regrets is the exquisite new novel from Louise Hare. A brilliant murder mystery, it also explores class, race and pre-WWII politics, and will leave readers reeling from the beauty and power of it.

This is one of my most anticipated books of the year, mainly based on how much I loved her debut This Lovely City, but also because I loved the sound of this mix of historical fiction and murder mystery. It doesn’t disappoint and really has the feel of an Agatha Christie novel, not just the plot either, but the glamorous location, the wealthy passengers and the sumptuous descriptions of their clothes and jewellery. The story has its period detail spot on whether it’s the latest bathing suit or 1930’s politics. Woven within this whodunnit 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 the start of her own career to care for her father Alfie who has recently died after a long illness. In order to pay the bills Lena has worked with the club band, but she has ambition and has always wanted to work in the theatre, preferably the bright lights of the West End or Broadway. We get the sense that she’s good enough too. We meet her first as she embarks on her voyage across the Atlantic with a theatre producers assistant, strangely named Charlie Bacon. Charlie has offered her the chance of a lifetime, a part on Broadway in a new musical. This is a favour from Charlie’s boss who once knew Alfie and felt he owed him for an old transgression. The cabin is first class and Lena has never had such luxury, in fact she has a suitcase of clothes from best friend Maggie because she didn’t own anything grand enough for the first class dining room of the Queen Mary. There’s a sense in which she doesn’t feel like herself, sailing on someone else’s charity, in grand society and in someone else’s clothes. She then finds herself dining with the Abernathy’s. The head of this wealthy family is their father Frank, now disabled due to a stroke (apoplexy) but once an absolute tyrant and still uses the family riches to manipulate his children and grandchildren. Alongside the family are Frank’s assistant Daisy and his own private doctor.

At first Lena is a little intimidated by this entitled and often quite unpleasant bunch. This is a mix of knowing she isn’t of the same class, perhaps opting to gravitate towards Daisy and Dr. Wilding who are the help. However, Lena’s whiff of stardom seems to satisfy the family that she is suitable company and she’s certainly glamorous enough to fit in. However, there’s also the question of race, brought to the fore when Lena encounters one of the ship’s band Will. Will isn’t fooled by glamour or the first class ticket when they meet out on the deck by accident. He doesn’t even ask, simply identifies her as black like him. At first she denies this, not wanting to be found out. Lena has always been able to ‘pass’ because she is so light skinned, but later when she sees Will again she trusts him a little more and owns her identity. It brings home to us the difficulties of being mixed race, perhaps worse for Lena who has never known her mother and didn’t grow up with that side of her identity explored. We can only imagine the taboo nature of a relationship between a black man and a white woman in the early 20th Century, a time when eugenics was gaining a foothold on both sides of the Atlantic. There is discussion at the dinner table of Adolf Hitler and his successes in improving German life after WW1, but this is the run up to WW2 and knowing what comes next in the name of racial purity made this a sobering experience as a reader. Lena isn’t just playing with identity here, in America it may have an impact on her ambitions and her place in society. As Will observes its okay for the black men of the band to entertain the rich and white passengers, but not to fraternise with them and he’s very careful that he and Lena are not seen together. However, when Lena is asked down to steerage for an evening of music in the bar there, it is the most fun she seems to have on the whole voyage. It’s the only time she’s not on tenterhooks and can relax. She feels like she’s with her own kind – people without money and influence, people who scrape by, who play music and really let their hair down.

Yet, she is accepted upstairs and is a hit with both Eliza Abernathy and her daughter Carrie. Lena is invited to tea, asked to go bathing and meets up for drinks. She likes Carrie who seems so young and controlled by her family, desperate for some company of her own age. Eliza is Frank’s daughter, rather aloof at first and seemingly unaware that her husband is seducing Frank’s assistant Daisy when no one is looking. None of the family seem particularly happy, with a lot of sniping at dinner and all the vices of drinking, gambling and … It makes Lena nostalgic for her father and the easy way they got along, and also Maggie who despite her difficult marriage and the terrible drama of her husband Tommy’s recent murder, has always been like a sister to Lena. It’s a huge shock when the rich family patriarch starts to choke at dinner. Dr. Wilding springs into action, but it becomes clear nothing is obstructing his airway and he starts to foam at the mouth. Lena is horrified, he’s acting the same way Tommy did and rather horrifically he dies at the table. An investigation is started immediately and everyone is interviewed. We are privy to Lena’s thoughts and she’s terrified that what happened at the club has happened again here. She didn’t poison him, but maybe someone knows something about Tommy’s murder. Are they taunting her? Is this something to do with her? Surely its too much of a coincidence. The proximity of the group and the inability to get off the boat adds to the tension of the novel. Who will be next?

I thought the mystery was well thought out and unexpected too. There were a couple of moments where I wanted to shake Lena or shout at her not to do something. It really brings home to us that here Lena is alone in this new life. She’s without family and friends to protect or support her. As the bodies begin to pile up I was asking questions of everyone in the party, even Lena herself – could she be an unreliable narrator, committing crimes without really knowing? It all seemed such a big coincidence, but then when the revelations started coming it all made sense. I can honestly say I didn’t have a clue what was coming for Lena’s private life, or who was next in the murderer’s firing line. I thought the pace was perfection and the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Queen Mary, however luxurious, really added to the tension. The opulence of the setting, the fashion and Lena’s new wardrobe are dazzling and so perfectly in tune with the time period. I loved the author’s depiction of difficulties in identity and the distinctions of race and class for these passengers. The contradiction that the band are allowed to entertain first class passengers, but not sit with them, is something that will stay with me. As will the idea of ‘passing’, an interesting part of my own identity as someone with an invisible disability who sits uncomfortably between people with disabilities and the able-bodied. I loved This Lovely City and I think with this novel Louise Hare has repeated her success. I’ve already ordered my special signed copy, because this is definitely a keeper.

Published by HQ 28th April 2022

Meet The Author

Louise Hare is a London-based writer and has an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck, University of London. Originally from Warrington, the capital is the inspiration for much of her work, including This Lovely City, which began life after a trip into the deep level shelter below Clapham Common. This Lovely City was featured on the inaugural BBC TWO TV book club show, Between the Covers, and has received multiple accolades, securing Louise’s place as an author to watch. Miss Aldridge Regrets is her second novel.

Posted in Netgalley

The Birdcage by Eve Chase

Eve Chase’s new novel had all the ingredients of a perfect read for me – quirky bohemian family, unconventional artistic father, large Cornish house and family secrets that have haunted his daughters for years. It’s the psychological impact of these family secrets that really make the novel. The story is told in a dual timeline, in the present Lauren, Kat and Flora are returning to Rock Point, her father’s mansion house on the Cornish Coast. He has invited them after many years away from the house, following a terrible incident that occurred on the day of the eclipse in August 1999. The events of this day are told in our second timeline. Lauren is the youngest by a few years, and on that day she was an adolescent , while her half-sisters Flora and Kat are older teenagers. Each girl has a different mother and their overlapping ages show the sexual profligacy of their father Charlie, a well-known artist. As he sits down with his three adult daughters, Charlie has a big announcement for them. The girls are expecting an illness or plans concerning his artwork, but they have a shock in store.

The complexity of this family’s relationships is at the core of this novel and I really enjoyed going back in time to work out why and how each woman’s personality was formed. On the surface Flora is the most conventional sister, with a husband and young son Raff, but is everything at home as happy as it seems on the surface? Kat is the most career minded sister having developed a well-being app. She is constantly checking her phone and looking for a reliable signal so she can work, but is she just busy or is the world of well-being more stressful than it should be? Lauren has had the most recent difficulties in life, nursing her mother Dixie who was terminally ill. After moving into a local hospice Dixie died, and although Flora invited her for Christmas Lauren didn’t come. These women are anxious to be together again. Flora and Kat used to tease Lauren, even bully her a little bit. The reasons for this become clearer, but Lauren has always thought it was about Dixie. Dixie was different to me 6 hCharles’s usual choice in women, she was unadorned apart from piercings, kept her hair shorter and was artistic in her own right. Indeed Charlie is touchingly affected by her death and seems to regard this separation as something he most regrets in life. Each sister’s personality fits perfectly with their back story: Flora’s hesitancy and submissive nature; Kat’s avoidance and distraction, creating workaholic tendencies; Lauren’s phobias, which are usually under control, but thanks to Bertha the parrot and the wealth of seabirds surrounding their home it can be a problem. The parrot has other tricks as well, mimicking the house’s occupants with phrases that only one person knows are true or false.

I thought the pace was clever, becoming more urgent in the past and present day at once propelling the reader towards the eclipse event and the effect of it’s revelations in the present. What was particularly clever was the way some people are only revealed in all their complexity, in the present. Angie, who worked as their au pair, was disliked by Lauren when she was a child. Lauren sensed her duplicitous nature and knew she wasn’t really there for them, describing her as hungry to get to Charlie like an art groupie. However, as an adult Lauren can see that this was more complicated and how she didn’t understand adult relationships. There’s a shift in years and awareness, where Lauren and her sisters can now see that Charlie wasn’t just a man beleaguered by women throwing themselves at him. He is an active participant in these complicated affairs and in bringing these girls into the world. He’s even passive at their visits, always pleased to see them but never negotiating with exes, or organising the logistics. Their gran does all the work, leaving Charlie free to paint in his studio, a place where only his models and Lauren are welcome. He’s never taken responsibility for his actions and as events unfold it’s possible that those actions have created a perfect storm of sibling jealousy and conflict.

That eclipse summer, Charlie has asked his three daughters to sit for a painting with the large ornamental birdcage. It’s the painting that will become his most well known and most valuable, in fact the girls are sorry it’s gone to art collector because as far as they know it’s his most personal. There’s a wealth of imagery in this painting, starting with the three sister’s pose, sitting together but not touching, like three separate islands. There’s the solemnity behind it too, the girls are not talking or cracking a joke and all three are staring out towards the viewer. Or is it towards the painter? In feminist readings of visual arts the bird within a cage represents the imprisonment of women, but also the gilded frame through which we view femininity. We can’t know the painter’s intention, but by painting it next to his daughters is he acknowledging their freedom? Or could he be pointing out a sexual double standard? He has been free to create these overlapping lives without censure, whereas their mothers and the girls have borne the gossip, shaming, poverty and hardship that comes with being a single parent. They’ve had to hear the whispers and insults about their morals, while he has been free to carry on with only the reputation of being bohemian to his name. Or could the birdcage contain his secret? The consequences of this secret we see on eclipse day, although it isn’t fully revealed until the present when it puts Lauren and her nephew Raff in danger. Only then will Charlie have to deal with how his behaviour has affected others, like ripples on a pond. This was an engaging tale of complex family ties and the psychological effect of a parent’s action. It has all the bohemian glamour of a country house occupied by an artist and a gorgeous atmospheric setting in beautiful Cornwall. I was gripped to the final page, having felt an affinity with Lauren and Flora I wanted to know how their stories turned out and the epilogue brings a satisfying ending to this family saga.

Published by Penguin on 28th April 2022

Eve Chase is an author who writes rich suspenseful novels about families – dysfunctional, passionate – and the sort of explosive secrets that can rip them apart. She write stories that she’d love to read. Mysteries. Page-turners. Worlds you can lose yourself in. Reading time is so precious: I try to make my books worthy of that sweet spot – she says on her Amazon.com author page.

Her office is a garden studio/shed with roses outside. She lives in Oxford with her three children, husband, and a ridiculously hairy golden retriever, Harry. She invites readers to say hello. ‘Wave! Tweet me! I love hearing from readers’.

Eve is on Twitter and Instagram @EvePollyChase and on Facebook, eve.chase.author.

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

Theatre of Marvels by Leanne Dillsworth

You may have heard of Sarah Baartman, a Khoekhoe woman from South West Africa who was exhibited as a freak show attraction in 19th-century Europe under the name the Hottentot Venus. She was even exhibited after her death, with one showman dissecting her body and keeping her genitalia and skull. Another museum displayed her skeleton and a body cast, which were still exhibited up till the 1970’s. She was exhibited for her steatopygic body type, where body fat is concentrated on the bottom and thighs. This body type wasn’t seen in Europe and was perceived as a curiosity. She was also a subject of scientific interest, but through the gaze of racial bias and erotic projection. In the 19th Century her body could be viewed for two shillings and for a bit extra you could poke her with a stick. Her genitalia were of specific interest as they were said to show her sexual primitivism, although this was more about the men’s erotic projection than Sarah’s own sexuality or libido. Recently, black women in academia and culture have been using her story and reframing it as a source of empowerment, rejecting the ideals of white mainstream beauty, and embracing more curvaceous figures as a source of female beauty. This is the historical and social background that I had in mind while reading this fascinating debut novel from Lianne Dilsworth. I was swept up into her world straight away and my personal academic interest in disability and the display of ‘other’ bodies added to my enjoyment.

Our setting is a theatre and a group of performers from singers to magicians 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. She and Vincent have been lovers for some time, but he is estranged from his family and can easily keep her a secret, never even walking with her in public. Their shared bed is situated in the middle class home of her boss Crillick. Now, everything is about to change, as Zillah’s consciousness is raised in several ways.

First, she realises that Vincent will never admit to their relationship in public, as he yet again cancels plans to take her to Richmond for the day. Secondly, she meets a young black man called Lucien, who is campaigning in the street. He addresses her in Swahili, with a suggestion this may be the native language of her ancestors, and he places a question in her mind that she can’t shake off. How does it feel to earn money misrepresenting her ancestors? In fact she is representing her ancestors through the gaze of a white audience. The sense that this is wrong, has always been on the edge of her conscience, but Lucien gives her doubts a voice and opens a door towards embracing both sides of her identity. While she dismisses him at first, the thought of him seeing her as Amazonia seems to fill her with shame. Lucien is working on a campaign to relocate black and mixed race Londoners to Africa and the first site is in Sierra Leonne. Meanwhile, Crillick has returned from a trip abroad with shipping containers that suggest he’s been gathering props and it seems he’s been finding new acts too. He taunts Zillah with the suggestion he has found an act that may even eclipse her and one night at his house she sees a new act unveiled to a small group of people. She is horrified to see him parade a terrified women he’s called the ‘Leopard Lady’, with strange white patches all over her dark skin. The men in the party are fascinated, drawing near and touching her skin, even roughly scratching it to see if it comes off. When Zillah notices medical implements laid out on a tray, the horror of what might happen to this woman overwhelms her. She must rescue the Leopard Lady from Crillick’s clutches. There’s a freedom Zillah has compared to a lot of Victorian heroines we might remember, due to her station in life there are certain rules and etiquette of dress and behaviour that don’t apply. Although that freedom does come at a cost – poverty, not belonging anywhere, and the way she is viewed in more polite society. She knows that if she could be with someone like Lucien then she’d be settled in a place society expects of her, still in poverty but at least belonging to a community. Her feelings for Vincent can never come to anything, because his society would never accept her and they would always be a secret.

Through Zillah’s search for the Leopard Lady, we see the truth of a man wiling to make his money treating human beings as objects for display. Whereas before Zillah’s act has at least had the sheen of the theatre world, the Leopard Lady will not be afforded that excitement and sense of performance. This is because Zillah was acting a part, whereas this poor woman is being shown as she is because due to how she looks and where’s she’s from. Zillah chooses to put on her Amazonia costume and take to a stage, if living hand to mouth is ever a choice. Crillick’s plans revolve around his ‘Odditorium’, but in the meantime he plans to show his new acquisition privately to small groups of men. I could imagine these sordid gatherings taking place, with men enjoying an after dinner viewing where the woman is both viewed, potentially sexually assaulted and experimented on. It made me feel sick. I was willing Zillah on in her efforts to find and free the lady, and I found her quest tense and gripping. I thought Zillah’s awakening was handled really well, but I was in two minds about where I wanted her to story to end. Of course there’s an opportunity of relocation to a new life in Sierra Leone, but here I felt strangely similar feelings to those I had about another 19th Century heroine Jane Eyre. We know that Jane’s flight from Thornfield Hall, and the man she loves, is the right move for her. Yet despite the space and time it’s given her to process Rochester’s attempt at bigamy, I never warm to St John Rivers. Although he rescues her from the moors and gives her life purpose again, when he proposes, I can’t be the only reader who’s screaming ‘No’ in her head. As for Zillah, I though Lucien was a good, honest and intelligent man, but to me he feels like the wrong choice. The contrast between him and the passionate relationship she has with Vincent is rather like the two sides of her identity battling against each other. I was hoping that, for a while at least, she could find a way for herself, separate from them both.

This was an exciting and fascinating tale, with elements of the thriller and a central character who is resilient and brave in her quest. I found the settings of the theatre, and Crillick’s home, beautifully rich. Whereas the St Giles area is brought to life with descriptions of sights, smells, many bodies sharing rented rooms and even beds in an attempt to keep costs down. The author has backed up her tale with solid research into freak shows, the many layers of Victorian society and details of food, fashion and leisure time. Through her main character we get an insight into women’s lives, the realities of being bi-racial and the struggles of identity and belonging. I also enjoyed the themes of ‘otherness’ and how outsiders survive in society; the complexities of display and exploitation when weighed against poverty and deprivation. Can freak shows be acceptable if individuals make a choice to exhibit themselves? Or should any exhibition of ‘different’ bodies be unacceptable? This is a question that still needs debate in light of television shows that exhibit overweight and disabled bodies in a prurient way. I really liked Zillah‘s quest to rescue another woman in danger and her own personal journey too. I read this so quickly and will definitely be putting a finished copy on my bookshelves, because I know it’s one I’ll want to read again and again. I just know I’ll find more and more detail in this brilliantly atmospheric exploration of the dark corners of Victorian London.

Published Penguin 28th April 2022.

Meet The Author

Lianne Dillsworth

Lianne Dillsworth has MAs in Creative Writing and Victorian Studies and won a place on the London Library Emerging Writers Programme. She was first runner up in the 2020 SI Leeds Literary Prize for Black and Asian Women Writers in the UK. Lianne lives in London where she works on growing inclusion within the Civil Service. Theatre of Marvels is her debut novel.

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Secret of Karabakh by Fidan Bagirova

The Secret of Karabakh had a very intriguing blurb and a powerful opening prologue that drew me in. The horrifying image of a child killed by soldiers while trying to flee a war had a deep resonance, due to reports of such atrocities coming out of Ukraine every day. The way the author describes the child’s ‘pink woolen scarf decorated with chocolate-brown rabbits and butter-yellow ducklings’ contrasts the innocence and softness of the child with the rocky terrain, the gunshots and the lack of mercy shown. It’s a vivid and terrible scene that stays with you throughout.

Then we meet Alana Fulton a committed and gifted student of archaeology completing her PhD at Cambridge University. Her background is surprisingly privileged and we see her meeting her mother at the Dorchester Hotel in London. Her parents find it difficult to understand her fervour for her studies when she could have had all the opportunities their wealth offered her. There’s even a film star boyfriend who she’s keeping at bay with her devotion to study, much to her mother’s confusion. Yet this tea with her mother marks the day her life turns upside down. First she notices a strange man staring intently at her on the street and to avoid him she jumps into a cab for Kings Cross station. Her relief as the doors of her train close and they set off for Cambridge, is wiped out when she sees the same man running down the platform after the train. Her fear is compounded when she reaches her university rooms. Usually her college is the place where she finds calm and feels most like the real her, but when she finds her room wrecked she is shaken. Nothing seems missing at first, and it’s only after the police have gone and Alana starts to tidy that she realises her hair brush and toothbrush are missing. The police start investigating, but there are two questions at the forefront of her mind: who was the man asking for her at the porter’s gate? Who sent the anonymous note, telling her she’s not who she thinks she is and warning her she’s in danger?


Alana isn’t sure who she can trust and she’s shocked to find out the identity of the man asking for her at university. Someone she knows well is now the focus of the police. These early sections didn’t gel with me at first, because I didn’t connect with Alana. Despite that I thought the author had paced the action and revelations very well. As Alana and her boyfriend go on the run, there was a very spy film feel to the action, at they take a private jet to Switzerland. The pace doesn’t let up as they are followed by foreign attackers and if this were a movie, Alana would definitely be the star. She doesn’t come across as a damsel in distress type and seems completely capable of rescuing herself. This makes it even more ironic when we find out her boyfriend has accepted payment in diamonds for keeping her safe. But who has made the payment and which side of this unknown conflict are they on? I was most interested in the psychological journey of Alana, arising from her confusion about the message questioning her identity. Like many people she has memories of childhood, but if she tries to think back to her pre-school years it’s not just hazy, there’s a great big blank. Underneath that blackness is an emotion, a combination of ‘bewilderment and simmering fear’ that she can trace throughout her early school years, but gradually fritters away until she hits adolescence, when it’s gone. This is a raw emotion, the result of a base or primal fear, and this kept me invested in the story, because I really wanted to know where that feeling was from.

In-between the action are personal stories from a war I knew nothing about, the Nagorno-Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. This is a real life border conflict, but when we look deeper it’s not just about territory, but natural resources and cultural histories too. The conflict has been ongoing since the 1980s, with various flares into full scale war over the years and has only recently been more settled, but with only some of the issues resolved. It was the dissolution of the Soviet Union that sparked rising ethnic tensions between Armenian and Azerbaijani people especially in the Nagorno-Karabakh region – an enclave of South-West Azerbaijan with majority ethnic Armenian people. It seemed clear that this area was linked to Alana, but how?

From Switzerland onwards these questions are answered in a story filled with action and discovery for Alana, and I found this part of the book much more gripping and memorable. I was interested in how Alana copes with these revelations mentally, as her past and present collide. Those vague emotional memories from childhood come to the fore again as she learns the truth of who she is. More terrifying and muddled childhood experiences start to emerge and Alana will have to find reserves of determination and courage to piece everything together. I thought it was great that those qualities Alana’s parents really didn’t understand, came from this history she knew nothing about. It was also interesting how the author showed our emotional memories as stronger and longer lasting – it’s why sometimes a piece of music makes us feel a certain way, but we don’t know why. Alana’s memory still carried emotional trauma, despite her not remembering the details or the place. I thought the author’s use of research really added to the story and helped my understanding of the complex history of the region. I finished the book satisfied with the story, but wanting to know more about Nagorno-Karabakh and other areas left in difficulties as the Soviet Union disbanded. This was a clever mix of historical fiction and action thriller, with an incredibly strong sense of place.

Meet The Author

Fidan Bagirova is a writer, sculptor and multimedia artist. She was born in Geneva, to parents from Azerbaijan. They, like hundreds of thousands of others, lost everything during the Armenian invasion described in The Secret of Karabakh, and for Fidan, writing this novel has been a way of expressing her longing for the Azerbaijani people’s identity and stolen heritage.

Posted in Publisher Proof

Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

“A year never passes without me thinking of them. India. Erica. Their names are stitched inside every white coat I have ever worn. I tell this story to stitch their names inside your clothes, too.”

Wow! This novel absolutely blew me away. In fact I loved it so much that my other half kept asking whether I was ok and I couldn’t understand why, until I looked at the clock and three hours had gone past without me speaking. I was three quarters of the way through the book and even went to bed early so I could finish the story. This writer pulled me in from the very first page and Civil was as real to me as my poor other half. 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 has a disability too. I think this jumped out at me, because people with disabilities are having a very hard time currently, something that able-bodied people aren’t always aware about. For example, the University of York published research in the BMJ Open that concluded the joint impact of cuts to healthcare, public health and social care since 2010 caused at least 57,550 more deaths of disabled people than would normally have been expected between 2010 and 2014. Disability groups place the figure at 120,000 deaths over a seven year period and some activists even think that the government’s COVID policies were based on herd immunity and eugenics. It seems like eugenics never really goes away.

This novel 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. As a nurse, Civil is professional and is aware of things like codes of practice and ethics, but we are never the finished article and Civil’s naïvety plays a huge part in how she works. Civil has been brought up to care for and look after others as part of her Christian faith. However, there are other personal circumstances that she isn’t aware of taking into work with her. Civil’s mother struggles with depression and events that took place in her personal life have also left her vulnerable, particularly where it comes to her nurturing instincts. Her very name brings to mind civil rights, equality and fairness, so it’s not a surprise that where she sees injustice she’s willing to fight. 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? We are privy to her thoughts and her shock at the way the family are living is evident. Her first thought is that she must do something for them, get them away from the dirty shack where their clothes seem to be stored on the floor. What she does notice is that the girls smell and when she finds out they don’t have sanitary towels, she decides to buy some for them from her own money. This is the first line crossed and although Civil’s actions are generous and could change the family’s lives for the better, it’s a boundary crossed. This makes it so much easier to cross even further as time goes on.

I thought the author grasped the complexity of Civil’s feelings and her role in the girl’s lives beautifully. Civil knows that she should be following instructions, asking her supervisor the questions that have come to mind, and advocating for the girls. Yet she knows that just by talking to the right people and calling in a few favours she could get the girls some clothes, find a job for their father, perhaps get them a new flat in town. What she doesn’t realise is that she’s acting from a bias, not racism but a classism of sorts. Civil’s parents are a doctor and an artist, they live in a nice home and have a certain status. She has walked in to the Williams’s home and assumed they want to move, go to school, and have better things. She’s looking at them through her own world view, instead of moving into theirs and then takes their agency away by filling in forms on their behalf. Her heart is in the right place, but she’s mothering the girls; the girls have lost their mother and Civil has maternal feelings to spare. It’s a co-dependent dynamic that could get complicated and painful on both sides. Her nursing instinct is to gain the girl’s trust and find out who put them on contraceptive injections, especially when India hasn’t even started her period. There are no boys around where they live and neither girl goes to school. As she confides in fellow nurse Alicia and friend Ty, they start doing some research. There are many conclusions they could draw: the federal government could be experimenting on poor black communities; there could be a programme of stopping certain groups in society from reproducing; the government are leaving local employees to make decisions based on their own biases about poor communities; their supervisor believes the Williams girls aren’t safe and could be open to abuse from within the family. All are based on so many assumptions, but what was angering me was that no one had sat down with the family and asked the questions about the girl’s development, access to the opposite sex, or India’s ability to make decisions. Life changing decisions are being made, based on judgments made with no real evidence.

Judgement is at the heart of this terrible case, I won’t reveal more about the decisions made, but it does lead to a court case and repercussions for everyone involved. The colour of the family’s skin, their poverty and the death of the girl’s mother has led to assumptions about the girl’s morals and safety but also the possibility that a black man is not safe, even around his own children. India is non-verbal, but whether that’s through trauma or a learning disability is not clear. Civil’s superiors have decided that it would be disastrous to bring a child into this family, but it’s amazing to see how much the Williams do change over the course of the novel. Civil has taken the decision to act on behalf of the girls, rather than making suggestions and motivating them to advocate for themselves. The changes we see in them, just from having different surroundings, is incredible. Civil believes that we adjust our standards according to where are in life, so once their home becomes a clean, dry space they start to look after it. Civil’s happiness when she sees the girl’s grandmother has bought guest towels for the bathroom is so funny, because these are her standards, what she sees as the correct way to do things, without question. I could see her attachment to the girls growing, the way she brings her support network into their lives also leaves their lives further enmeshed with hers. How will they separate themselves? If Civil takes their part in their court case, she may lose everything, so what happens when the Williams start to have confidence to make their own decisions? What if Mace meets a woman – a potential stepmom for the girls? I wondered if Civil would cope were these girls taken away from her, whether by her work or by changes in the Williams’s circumstances.

The author weaves fact into fiction so seamlessly here, with contemporary medical research questioned and the family’s meeting with real life senator Teddy Kennedy. This grounds the book beautifully and it feels even more true to life; the girls aren’t real, but I’m guessing that this story could be the reality for many poor, young, African American women. I thought Civil’s home life was really interesting, especially when her Aunty arrived and talked plainly about her Mum’s depression. Even in a household where there are always guest towels, there are struggles and issues that are overlooked, either due lack of understanding or through avoidance of something too painful to acknowledge. In fact there’s a way this whole episode is fuelled by avoidance, because if Civil buried herself in this family’s trouble she could avoid her own loss. The present day sections are evidence of that avoidance, because we see Civil finally having to confront and process feelings long buried. She’s close to retirement, yet is still haunted by what happened back then. There are positives in her visit back home, in that her relationships have adjusted so there’s more equality with some people than there was back then. I was left with a sense of how incredible women are, the strength we have to survive life altering circumstances and what can be achieved when we support each other.

Meet The Author

Dolen Perkins-Valdez is the New York Times bestselling author of WENCH, BALM, and the forthcoming TAKE MY HAND. *USA Today* called WENCH “deeply moving” and “beautifully written.” *People* called it “a devastatingly beautiful account of a cruel past.” *O, The Oprah Magazine* chose it as a Top Ten Pick of the Month, and NPR named it a top 5 book club pick of 2010. Dolen’s fiction has appeared in The Kenyon Review, StoryQuarterly, StorySouth, and elsewhere. In 2011, she was a finalist for two NAACP Image Awards and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for fiction. She was also awarded the First Novelist Award by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Dolen received a DC Commission on the Arts Grant for her second novel BALM. Publishers Weekly writes “Her spare, lyrical voice is unsentimental yet compassionate.” Library Journal writes “No sophomore slump is in evidence here. Readers who were captivated by Perkins-Valdez’s first novel, Wench, will be intrigued by the post–Civil War lives of three Southern transplants to Chicago.” Dolen is an Associate Professor of Literature at American University. A graduate of Harvard and a former University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UCLA, Dolen lives in Washington, DC with her family.

Posted in Publisher Proof

A Little Hope by Ethan Joelle

Set in an idyllic Connecticut town over the course of a year, A LITTLE HOPE 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.

Ethan Joella’s novel feels perfect for this moment in life. Since 2020 our world has changed irreparably, for some this means that every day life has changed so they no longer work in an office full of other people, or they’ve missed going out over the past two years, or had their exams cancelled. For others it means learning to live with loss, coping mentally with the work they did on the NHS frontline or dealing with the challenges of long COVID. For me it has meant still being super careful when I go out, avoiding large and crowded gatherings and my mobility being reduced because of treatment that’s been postponed indefinitely. Thanks to long periods of isolation, we are all used to living in our own world and can even be overwhelmed by what we’re facing inside our own front doors. To some degree, the plight of the Ukrainian people has brought us out of our own concerns and back into a collective again. We want to help and take action. It has given us perspective. This novel works in the same way. It feels inspired by the realisation we are only a small part of the jigsaw that makes up life. It’s the literary equivalent of that feeling I always get on the train in the dark, when I can see the human theatre of everyday life through the glowing windows of people who don’t shut their curtains. Every passing window is a snapshot of life. Ethan Joelle gives us a different life per chapter, as we meet the residents of the small US town of Wharton, Connecticut. Each chapter is separate, but related, and through the author’s lens we are granted access to the extraordinary lives captured within each unremarkable window.

We start with Freddie, who is coping with the fact that husband Greg has just been diagnosed with a cancer of the white blood cells called multiple myeloma. Not only that, they haven’t yet told their young daughter Addie. Freddie is just trying to process the news, but is worrying about what Greg’s diagnosis will do to their daughter at the same time. The author then takes us into Greg’s world, into his working life, where he has concerns that haven’t even crossed Freddie’s mind yet. His worries are caught up with what kind of man he is if he can’t work and provide for his family. His boss is trying to support him, but there’s a wall of denial and false optimism to get through, and what if that wall is the only structure holding him up? We weave through the lives of other Wharton residents, such as Iris, Darcy, Ginger, Luke and Ahmed. Each life is so preciously unique, their take on their world so different and beautifully human.

We are all familiar with the hashtag #BeKind and memes that remind us we never know what others are going through. Through these stories this really is brought home to the reader, as our characters touch on each other’s lives, sometimes without knowing what they’re coping with just under the surface. Yet, while 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.

Meet The Author

Ethan Joella teaches English and Psychology at the University of Delaware and specialises in community writing workshops. His work has appeared in River Teeth, The International Fiction review, The MacGuffin, Delaware Beach Life and Third Wednesday. He lives in Delaware with his wife and two daughters and is of Irish heritage.

Posted in Netgalley

The House at Helygan by Victoria Hawthorne

An atmospheric historical suspense novel rich with familial secrets. The House at Helygen is a twisted tale of dark pasts, murderous presents and uncertain futures.

2019

When Henry Fox is found dead in his ancestral home in Cornwall, the police rule it a suicide, but his pregnant wife, Josie, believes it was murder. Desperate to make sense of Henry’s death she embarks on a quest to learn the truth, all under the watchful eyes of Henry’s overbearing mother. Josie soon finds herself wrestling against the dark history of Helygen House and ghosts from the past that refuse to stay buried.

1881

Eliza is the new bride who arrives at Helygen House with excitement at the new life she’s embarked upon. Yet when she meets her new mother-in-law, an icy and forbidding woman, her dreams of a new life are dashed. And when Eliza starts to hear voices in the walls of the house, she begins to fear for her sanity and her life.

Can Josie piece together the past to make sense of her present, or will the secrets of Helygen House and its inhabitants forever remain a mystery?

1881. Harriet and Edmund Fox were the first owners of Helygen House, a country retreat that, as is the usual in moneyed families, has ever since passed down the to the eldest male heir. From the original owners in 1847, it then passed to Eliza and Cassius Fox in 1881. Eliza has to spend a lot of time alone, because Cassius is away looking after his business interests. Eliza starts to feel lonely and misses her family. Not only that, there’s an eerie feeling in the house and Eliza’s is sure she’s heard voices at night and a baby is crying. Eliza daren’t tell anyone as she thinks she might be going mad.

2019: Henry Fox is found dead at his ancestral home in Cornwall. The police are quick to rule out foul play, because it looks to them like suicide. His wife Josie, who is pregnant, won’t believe Henry has killed himself. Yet his mother Alice is satisfied with the suicide verdict. Josie finds it difficult to deal with this woman, who has always held herself above Josie, as if she wasn’t good enough to be part of the family. She knows how excited Henry was about becoming a father, they had spent so much time getting their apartment renovated and even had plans to start a business together at the house. Something isn’t right and even through her grief Josie is absolutely determined to find the truth. As far as she’s concerned there’s a murderer somewhere at Helygen. Her mother-in-law’s attitude hasn’t helped Josie settle, but she has to admit the atmosphere has always been strange. There’s a strange feeling she can’t place, a haunting perhaps?

I enjoy dual timelines and this is a triple as we alternate between the 1840’s, the 1880’s and the present. It’s important that each timeline is equally interesting so it doesn’t just feel like a narrative device. Here I think they work. It feels as if Eliza and Josie are working together, even though they’re separated by centuries. Both are convinced that Helygen House has a dark past, that still lingers within the walls. The many tragic deaths over the years are starting to look sinister, even if it is just the eerie sensation and the voices driving occupants towards madness. There are enough family secrets to keep the tale moving forward and there is a continuous feeling of suspense to keep the reader wanting one more chapter. I loved the added theme of motherhood and how it might feel to be a new mum in a house like this one, where it really can’t help when sleeplessness and night feeds are brought into the mix. The place feels suitably Gothic whichever timeline you’re in and from the start I believed in this world completely. It does keep the reader guessing and I found myself wanting to know if the storyline resolved itself for both women. It was also interesting to add in the question of women’s rights in past centuries and compare it to the present day. A great, suspenseful and spooky novel with the gorgeous backdrop of Cornwall.

Published 14th April 2022 Quercus

Meet The Author


Victoria Hawthorne is a pseudonym of bestselling psychological suspense author Vikki Patis. She writes atmospheric historical suspense rich with familial secrets and strong female protagonists. THE HOUSE AT HELYGEN will be published in April 2022 by Quercus.

Posted in Back of the Shelf

Back of the Shelf! The Taxidermist’s Lover by Polly Hall.

A modern Gothic tale of a woman obsessed with her lover’s taxidermy creatures and haunted by her past.

One stormy Christmas, Scarlett recalls the ebb and flow of a yearlong love affair with Henry, a renowned taxidermist. Obsessed with his taxidermy creatures, she pushes him to outdo his colleague and world-famous rival in a crescendo of species-blending creativity. Scarlett will not be able to avoid a reckoning with her own past as Henry’s inventions creep into her own thoughts, dreams, and desires.

Drenched in the torrential rains of the Somerset moorland and the sensual pleasures of the characters, The Taxidermist’s Lover lures you ever deeper into Scarlett’s delightfully eerie world.

Bram Stoker Award Shortlist for Superior Achievement in a First Novel • IPPY Awards 2021 Gold Medal Winner

Anyone who knows me well is aware that I have a weird penchant for antique taxidermy, so I jumped at the chance to read this. This was an eerie story of obsession from a writer I’ve not come across before, but will look out for in the future. I expected the feel of a historical novel, with something a little spooky about it and I wasn’t disappointed. Dipping in and out of the past, Scarlett addresses her lover Henry, who is hoping to my find a foothold in this niche world of taxidermy. I loved these forays into the past, as it allows us to witness a developing tale of obsession and the macabre, in the tradition of gothic fiction – one of my favourite genres. There’s a strange sensation that you are reading a Victorian novel instead of a contemporary story. Hall’s writing is haunting and sensual, and sets a dark, forbidding tone. Although it’s a second person narration it feels very personal.There’s a sense of foreboding and I kept wondering about the veracity of Scarlett’s story. Would Henry tell us a different tale? Despite it’s potential unreliability, I felt drawn in and I simply couldn’t guess how all this would play out. I think it is so compelling because of that personal feel; writer is echoing that feel of obsession by deliberately keeping her focus narrow.

Scarlett and Henry’s relationship was very fast moving, with them moving in almost immediately and getting married very soon after. She becomes involved in his career and suggests he try something different; chopping and changing animal parts to create totally new creatures, rather like the jackalope. To say Scarlett is obsessed would be an understatement really, not with Henry, but with his taxidermy. It seems very unhealthy, but when we hear about Scarlett’s twin brother Rhett and the death of her parents, this obsession with body parts starts to make sense. However, it’s sense of a very disturbed kind. There’s a Frankenstein element to the tale, both in the jumbled creatures and the sense we get that the process of making them might be more satisfying than the finished product. It’s become more about the ability of the creator than the actual creature. Some readers might feel sorry for Scarlett and I did understand how life events might have overwhelmed and damaged her psyche. I found it satisfying to delve so deeply under a character’s skin, because we don’t often get the chance to really analyse someone this way in fiction.

This is a slow story so if you’re looking for fast thrill rides this isn’t the book for you, but that said it’s strangely satisfying. If you like character, quirkiness and having all your senses engaged, then this is your book. The menace builds inexorably until you’re desperate for the worst to happen, just for it to be over. The twists come thick and fast, until you’re finally faced with the horror ending. This is dark, twisted and very unique, with an atmosphere that will stay with you long after the final page is turned.

Published by Camcat Books 8th December 2020.

Meet The Author

Hall’s writing is lush, filled with startling conclusions about the nature of art and love and death. . . [A] shudder-inducing debut.” ~ The New York Times

Polly Hall is author of The Taxidermist’s Lover, conceived while studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University.

Her flash fiction, poetry and stories have been included in national and international anthologies and collaborative arts projects. 

You can find her @PollyHallWriter on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Praise for The Taxidermist’s Lover:

.