The Big Chill by Doug Johnstone. #OrendaBooks #RandomThingsTours #Blogtour #Bookblogger #TheBigChill

How have I come this far in my reading life without reading Doug Johnstone? The Skelfs are the family I didn’t even know I was missing, but now can’t imagine my reading life without. To prepare for reading the second novel in Johnstone’s Skelf series, I made the decision to read the first novel entitled A Dark Matter. I couldn’t possibly have imagined this incredible group of women, but now I feel like I know them personally. Set within the city of Edinburgh, this is a family of undertakers and private investigators. Just to set up the kind of family they are, the author places their residence and place of work at No 0 – somewhere that doesn’t exist. Grandmother Dorothy is a Californian lured to Edinburgh after falling in love with Jimmy Skelf who has passed away at the beginning of book one. Dorothy works in the funeral business with employee Archie, but also takes on PI duties and in her spare time teaches spunky young girls to play the drums. Mum Jenny is at a loose end so comes into the family business after her father dies. She jumps into the PI business with both feet, which is how she seems to do most things. Granddaughter Hannah is studying physics at Edinburgh University and lives with her girlfriend Indy. She has a good relationship with her parents and her grandmother. The first book concerns the disappearance of Hannah’s uni friend Mel and the shock when her killer is revealed is seismic, hitting all the Skelf family hard.

The beginning of The Big Chill reads like the explosive ending of most books. In a scene as comical as it is tragic, Dorothy and Archie are overseeing a routine funeral at the cemetery when sirens start moving closer and drowning out the service. The guests and undertakers stare aghast as a van driven at high speed forces its way through the cemetery gates followed by the police. As the van careers towards them, mourners start to scatter and Dorothy narrowly misses being ploughed into ground, as the van speeds straight into the grave nose first. Dorothy clambers in to check on the driver and finds he has died instantaneously from a head injury. However, what does survive is a scruffy Collie dog she names Einstein to sit alongside Schroedinger the cat. She immediately offers the Skelfs’ services for the man she names Jimmy X but she would like to find a little more out about him before she conducts his funeral. So, Dorothy sets out, with Einstein in tow, to find out how Jimmy X ended up living in a van that literally ‘ended up’ in an open grave.

Of course, this is only one of the mysteries the women are investigating. Hannah makes friends with an elderly physics professor at university when he asks if she’ll help with a memorial for Mel. Not long after they are performing dual duties for him too, when he dies suddenly and unexpectedly. Hannah can’t accept his death and even if it is just a displacement activity, begins to look into his personal life for answers. Dorothy is overstretched with cases when one of her drumming students doesn’t turn up for practice. This is so unusual because Abi loves to drum and has never missed a lesson. When she visits Abi’s home she is told that she was unwell, but Dorothy senses an undercurrent in the air and eventually finds our that Abi has run away. In order to find her, 70 year old Dorothy will have to start thinking like a 14 year old girl, which isn’t easy when the back ache doesn’t go away as quickly as it used to. The scars of an assault in the previous novel are not just mental.

Hanging over them all is the trial of Mel’s killer, known intimately to the Skelf women and still keeping a hold over them where he can. Not only did he kill the pregnant Mel, but when found out he attacked Jenny, stabbing her in the stomach and beat Dorothy. He has found a psychiatrist to claim he was incapacitated by mental illness at the time of the original killing. Even worse he lures Jenny to visit him, then presses charges when she assaults him. In the aftermath, Hannah is drowning. She’s well supported by Indy, but can’t sleep, feels anxious and when under pressure has panic attacks and passes out. It may take a seismic change to shake her from personalising all these difficult life experiences and thinking she is the only victim. She is having counselling, but there’s so much to unpick and she is in danger of ignoring the one person who helps her most. The women usually gather at the end of the day in the kitchen and catch each other up on the days events, but when even that ritual starts to fall apart Dorothy knows her family are stretched to breaking point. Yet, everyone has to heal in their own time and in their own way. She is wondering whether there is life after Jimmy, and whether her long held friendship and working relationship with a certain Swedish police officer, could become more?

These women are great characters. They’re tough, but still vulnerable. Full of quirky detail and boundless energy. They are also wonderfully good at picking up ‘waifs and strays’. They try not to judge people. I loved Jenny, trekking round homeless shelters and approaching groups in the street, but stopping to pass the time of day or joining a group of homeless men in a beer. As someone who is also very good at collecting people, I know how much it widens horizons, teaches us about our own preconceptions and sometimes brings unexpected, but wonderful friends. Their arms and their home are open. I found myself thinking a lot about the wonderfully patient and wise Indy, who comes into contact with the Skelfs as a teenager organising her parents funeral after a car accident. She is always quietly working in the background: cooking mouthwatering curries when Hannah hasn’t eaten; taking the reins at funerals when private investigating takes over; listening to bereaved family and respecting the person who died with so much attention to detail. There are such hidden depths here and I found myself hoping that Indy is featured and explored more in later novels.

I loved the Edinburgh backdrop. In fact it becomes a character in its own right from the touristy areas, to the student quarter, to the areas that missed regeneration, this is such a varied and richly atmospheric city. I don’t know it well but I feel this has taken me under that tourist facade to find something more interesting. We also see such a variety of people from those on the streets to those who in academia or in private education. Death is a great leveller though and these people are often side by side once they reach Skelf’s undertakers. We also see that these extremes can all be found in one person; there isn’t a ‘type’ that becomes homeless or commits a murder. I also find the way Hannah makes sense of her world through science really interesting. She muses on quantum suicide and whether we, like Schroedinger’s Cat, can be alive and dead at the same time. People often think that science is anathema to concepts like faith, hope and a belief in God. However, there is beauty and wonder in everything Hannah knows about space.

What I take away most from this book is the way the author writes with bluntness, but also kindness, acceptance and wonder about the human condition and the strange galaxy we call home. Hannah muses on the end of the universe with her counsellor:

‘stars will stop forming, the sun will wink out, the solar system will collapse. Then in the black-hole era galaxies disband, all proton matter decays, supermassive black holes swallow everything, then they’ll evaporate too, all the energy and matter in the cosmos gone […] it’s called the big chill’.

Hannah comments that it’s not such a bad way to go, but her counsellor reminds her that it’s a long way into the future. Dorothy has the same thoughts as her mind is flooded with images of everything they’ve experienced. She has felt the cold, icy creep of death:

‘death so close that she could feel its breath on her neck, could smell it every day when she woke, could feel its icy touch spreading from her mind to her limbs’.

So she sits behind her drums, plays the Black Parade album by My Chemical Romance, and starts to tap out a rhythm until she can feel the music within her, warming her veins and bursting to life. While we’re here, she concludes, we have to find a way to keep living. This is an explosive and enthralling novel, character driven and full of life, and death.

The Phone Box at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina

#ThePhoneboxAtTheEdgeOfTheWorld #NetGalley

I fell in love with this absolutely beautiful book and have immediately gone out to buy a copy for my collection. I’m a widow, so a book that addresses love and loss so eloquently speaks to me emotionally. It is devastating, but also uplifting and life enhancing at the same time.

The Japanese tsunami in 2011 is something that has lived long in my memory, maybe because it was captured so comprehensively through filming on mobile phones and CCTV. I remember staring at the TV screen in a strange mix of awe and horror. It was the first time I had fully comprehended the power of such a huge tidal wave. I had always thought a tsunami was exactly like the painting by Hokusai where a single huge wave sweeps over the coastline then stops. I have lived next to the River Trent for my whole life, and my father who is a land drainage engineer showed me a large Aegir one autumn and explained that a tsunami is like a huge wall of water that doesn’t stop. Seeing the footage from Japan really brought that home to me as whole coastal towns were simply washed away in a series of waves reaching up to 128 feet high and encroaching up to 10 km inland. I think I watched it so many times because I couldn’t comprehend the enormity of the disaster. This author took this event and brought it down to a human level, so we can see the effect of this life changing disaster on the Japanese people, but also show us that heartbreak and loss is universal.

Yui is living the terrible aftermath of the tsunami where she lost both her daughter and her mother, her past memories and hope for the future wiped out in a moment. As she tries to make sense of this loss, she carries out day to day life quietly and on the surface, keeping her deepest feelings within herself. It’s like living under a veil or fog where people can’t reach you. Whilst doing her radio show she hears about a man who keeps a telephone box in his garden, where people can go and say the things they need to say to lost loved ones. She wonders if this could really console people, to speak down a disconnected phone line and let those unspoken words go into the ether? Could it console her? If she had the chance to speak, what could she say to her daughter?

She travels out to the garden at Bell Gardia, but can’t bring herself to go inside. However, she does meet a man who has and spoke to his late wife, who died leaving him with a young daughter, Hana. He explains that he gets to tell her about the plans he has for their daughter as well as normal everyday things he was so used to telling her. This is one of the things many bereaved people miss, that ability to come home and share your day with someone. The silence can be deafening. So, instead of using the telephone, Yui travels to Bell Gardia every month and meets Takeshi for lunch. He becomes the person she chats to as they share their grief and their hopes for the future. Slowly they start to message each other back in Tokyo, just little messages about their day and how they’re feeling. They become each other’s person, the one they touch base with every day. However, this brings its own complexity, because feelings are starting to grow between the two of them. Their fledgling relationship is so tender and fragile. Falling in love during grief is so complicated. Love lifts our heart and makes us hopeful, while grief makes us look back and brings sorrow. The heart is being pulled into two directions at once. There’s a strange survivor’s guilt on both sides; Takeshi is developing tender feelings for a woman who is not his wife, while Yui is starting to feel attached to a young girl who is not her daughter.

Inbetween this beautiful story are interludes that seem unrelated to the main story. However, they are integral to the experience of the tsunami. These are washed up fragments of people’s lives appearing in the narrative, in the same way that debris from the tsunami washed up as far as North America years later. Some of them belong to Yui – parts of a book she once bought Hana, a list of her favourite Brazilian music. There are also receipts, descriptions of clothing, random memories that remind us this is not just two people’s experience. There are millions of other stories out there, just as tender and full of sorrow.

This is a beautiful, moving meditation on love and loss. The story is tentative, even the dialogue is delicate. It’s like a fragile piece of lace, held together by tiny threads, but creating a beautiful whole. If you’re looking for action and plot twists this isn’t your book. At times it’s like reading poetry. However, if you have ever lost someone you will find common experiences and universal feelings about life moving on. Simply a stunning piece of writing that I will treasure.

Attraction by Ruby Porter.

#NetGalley #Attraction #bookblogger

Three women make their way across New Zealand’s North Island in this debut novel. During this time they will explore their relationship with each other, and the island’s colonial history. Our unnamed narrator has a complicated relationship with Llana her on/off girlfriend, Ashi her best friend and even with herself. She’s battling on all fronts and is struggling with the legacy of an abusive ex-boyfriend and on top of everything her period is late.

There are a lot of threads to follow in this debut and it takes a talented writer to keep them all relevant. I think on the whole she succeeds and where problems become a bit entangled or lose focus it is a deliberate case of art imitating life. Lives are messy. I wondered if the author was also trying to give the reader some idea of how it feels to be in the narrator’s head. It’s very telling that our narrator doesn’t have a name. She could name herself, but doesn’t, and that absence is important. Does the narrator feel invisible in her own life? We can tell from her narration that she is low in self-esteem and the ugly way she presents her world suggests self-loathing. If she doesn’t name herself she doesn’t exist and maybe she doesn’t want to. Her disgust is evident in the imagery of dirt and decay from stains to bodily functions.

She even depicts New Zealand in a very different way to the usual myth of a paradise filled with exceptional landscapes, freedom, relaxation and a slower pace of life. Instead she sees human’s contribution to the country like a cancer. Humans are almost parasitic, eating away at the beauty we know exists. This could be linked to the colonial heritage, an important thread in the novel. I read Post-Colonial Literature in my final year at university so I’ve come across NZ authors and Maori creation myths so it was interesting to see this modern Pakeha perspective. The author is embarrassed that she can’t use Maori place names and is having to use ‘white colonial’ substitutes. She feels guilt about making homes on stolen land. She even takes lessons in ‘the reo’ the Eastern Polynesian language spoken by Maori people. In the course of the novel she learns her own family were more involved in the New Zealand wars than she realised. This prompts an exploration of inheritance and whether we take on ancestral guilt.

The relationships of the present are equally strained and there is a claustrophobia about being stuck on a road trip, with the same people in a confined space. Something we can possibly all relate to at the moment in lockdown. The weather doesn’t help, with frequent rain keeping them all confined. There is also a triangle forming as our narrator is in a very tenuous relationship with Llana, but Llana seems very taken with our narrator’s best friend Ashi. I found it hard to like any of them so couldn’t really invest in their relationships, but I did get a creeping sense that after all the contemplation and simmering tension, someone might explode!

I did enjoy the author’s use of language though and there are flashes of something really special. Her description of the ‘Bach’ is so vivid I can see it. The description of the town of Levin is humorously vicious; ‘everywhere daytime TV can be seen, through pulled lace curtains’. The town’s population is ageing rapidly and the nursing homes are described as dead ends that it’s easier to die in, than live with. She also uses unusual descriptive phrases that are really powerful, such as ‘people clot in the waiting rooms’. This description of the local hospital takes blood imagery and uses it to show how overcrowded the hospital is, how slow the ageing population are and the impression is they’re blocking up the system. It’s like the life-force of the place is slowing down and choking it. This shows skill and a distinctive style that would make me want to read future novels by the author.

My sister-in-law is from Gisborne, one end point of this road trip, and I will be buying her a copy to ask her opinion, as she works solely with the Maori communities, I’m looking forward to chatting with her and reading further work from an interesting debut author.

Final Cut by S.J.Watson

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This novel was definitely a ‘reading experience’ as I felt confused, then blind-sided with a revelation I wasn’t expecting. If the author wanted to express what a dissociative state felt like in the structure of the novel then he definitely succeeded with this reader. As I read, there were times where I felt like I was in a dream state, others where I felt a piece of time had gone missing and when I reached the end I felt disoriented and needed to go back and piece the story together bit by bit. It was such a clever structure, because it enhanced my doubt of the narrator and every person she met. I didn’t know whether the events she related were happening to her, to someone else, or in reality not happening at all. I found myself left feeling unsettled and ‘jangly’ after each spell of reading.

Alex is a successful documentary film maker, in a great position as her last feature made money and won awards. The question now is what the next subject will be. In this early stage we learn that Alex has a traumatic past, culminating in a hospital stay where she was diagnosed as experiencing dissociative or fugue states. She hasn’t put all of her past back together, but knows there was a squat, drugs and exploitative sexual encounters. There is an element of survivor’s guilt since her success as she feels she’s making money from people who are struggling, where she was several years ago. Her manager suggests going to a town called Blackwood Bay on the coast somewhere up North. The concept is for Alex to stay up there and film local life for a while, but also to get locals to film and anonymously upload their take on Blackwood Bay to a website. Alex likes the idea but is unnerved by the location. Her manager mentions in passing an underlying story of girls going missing, but assures her she isn’t there to film that. Alex knows that if she goes to Blackwood Bay she will have no choice but to get involved in that story, because she wasn’t always from London. Blackwood Bay is her hometown; she is Sadie, one of the missing girls, and what happened there was so terrifying she has dissociated from it in order to survive.

Watson creates a dark and disturbing atmosphere in the bay, where we trust no one and look for clues everywhere. The residents are equally unsure of her, uncomfortable about what she’s there to film and why. This is a typical seaside town, that in spring and summer bustles with life, but in the winter months is practically shut down leaving locals bored, time rich but money poor. The pub is still a centre of activity, but here, and other places in the town, unnerve Alex or take her back to traumatic episodes in her past. Her cottage is rented from Monica, who seems like a mother hen figure to the young girls of the bay and Alex knows better than anyone they need protection. I enjoyed the way the story was built, both on the present film making, but on those moments where Alex remembers something. She remembers knowing all the constellations in the sky, but who taught them to her? She recognises a couple of tattoos on young girls that are exactly the same as her own, but why did she get it? A smokey upstairs room at the pub, is a scene for a quick chat, but induces physical symptoms in Alex like she’s been winded. Her search for answers is compulsive and I noticed there are many times where she doesn’t even consider her present safety, wandering the town and surrounding countryside at all hours of the night and trusting people she maybe shouldn’t. I found myself on tenterhooks all the time and I kept questioning her feeling of safety in the holiday cottage, where both landlord and any number of other locals might have a key.

The truth, when it finally emerges is very dark and disturbing. Growing up in Blackwood Bay is a dangerous game for girls and reading these pages is might be tough for people who’ve had personal experience of exploitation or abuse. There were things I had worked out, but others that came as a shock. I suspected some people very strongly, who turned out to be innocent, and trusted others that were very twisted, disturbing characters. The knowledge that the girls in Blackwood Bay have been unsafe for generations is shocking, but unfortunately all too real. This is a tainted community where people have closed their eyes to the truth for far too long. Alex tries to keep her identity as Sadie secret for as long as possible. She becomes focused on finding out the fate of a friend called Daisy. The story is that she jumped from the cliff into the bay, witnessed by a distressed Monica and filmed by a lonely man who lives in Bluff Cottage. This interplay between what is seen and what is seen on camera is interesting and builds more layers to conceal or reveal. When the final shock twist happened I was genuinely surprised. This version of the truth hadn’t entered my head. This is a book I will be thinking about long after I put it down. The central theme, that the camera can lie, is very effective. More devastating and seen through several characters stories, is that we can even lie to those we profess to love. In fact we can even lie to ourselves.

The Lost Love Song by Minnie Darke

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Lost Love Song

I’m writing this review just moments after finishing this beautifully romantic book, so I still have a lump in my throat and I’m torn between the desire to capture how I feel in words or go to Spotify and create the musical playlist the author has created for her characters, to stay in the emotions of the book. I feel such a bittersweet sense of love lost and love found, of reinventing oneself, and building a completely new life. This feeling is so bound up with my own life story, that the ending was particularly poignant. I have been where Arie is, but I’ve also been where Evie is. I have felt that confusing sense of falling in love, when I haven’t fully healed from loss. I have also been that open hearted girl, willing to leap in with both feet in that dangerous all or nothing way, only other ‘leapers’ would understand. I have felt that pain of not being wanted enough, of being the wrong person or even the right person at the wrong time.

Minnie Darke’s book centres on music, mainly in the form of a book that once belonged to the beautiful concert pianist Diana Clare. Diana was greatly in demand and flew all over the world to play and record with different orchestras. Known for her flaming red hair, her signature red dresses and the Converse trainers she preferred to play in wherever she was. The book of music belonged to Diana and in it she’d been writing a love song for her long term boyfriend Arie. Arie was a self-confessed computer geek (in my head he looked like Richard Ayoade) who met Diana at the music academy where she studied, when asked to fix a problem with her computer. They seemed opposites, Diana was mercurial and hard to pin down, whereas Arie was solid and even tempered, but what Diana was trying to show him was that when put together, they were like a pair of musical notes that when played together created perfect cadence. Arie only heard her song once, she played it one night when he brought up the question of why, after seven years together, they weren’t married yet. Diana didn’t feel the same urgency, but played the song to show him how much she felt, when words failed her. Sadly, Arie never hears the song again because the next morning, Diana leaves their home in Australia for a concert in Europe. Her plane, flown by Air Pleiades, disappears into the sea after the cabin fails to pressurise the cabin correctly and all the passengers and crew succumb to hypoxia.

Arie feels like their time together is like the part written song, never finished just left hanging in the air without a conclusion. He retreats into his world, living in their house where Diana’s Steinway still sits in the bay window. He still observes festivals with Diana’s distraught mother Belinda such as their apricot jam making day, bonfire night and of course Diana’s anniversary and birthday. There is a beautiful tenderness to the way Arie treats this broken hearted older woman, whilst knowing a time will come when he disappoints her, by making changes or maybe one day moving on. For now he’s okay where he is, treading water. Until one day a few years later he notices that the Air BnB next door is occupied again. He notices the young woman with her Cleopatra dark bob and an easy air of style. This is Evie and one evening, he notices her in the garden. Then he hears a familiar piece of music he’d thought was lost. She’s playing Diana’s song so quietly and tentatively, picking out the chords as if she’s piecing it together by memory.

In fact that’s exactly what Evie is doing because she doesn’t have the music. She heard it being played by a young flautist and cellist as she was leaving Waverley Station in Edinburgh, travelling towards Melbourne. The players were so absorbed in their music and each other, clearly in love. It piques her interest, because she’s walking away from a relationship where she wasn’t loved enough. She has resolved to not be involved with someone ever again unless they truly want her. He must find her and want her as much as these musicians clearly want each other. Darke tells her story through these main chapters that alternate between her and Arie, but there are musical interludes where we follow Diana’s notebook. It slowly wends its way through different people, from different musical backgrounds like classical orchestra to bluegrass. This is such a clever way of following the musical theme, but never forgetting our main pair as they move through the world.

Evie and Arie are possibly perfect together, but does such love come twice in a lifetime? Their tentative friendship is so fragile and I was desperately wiling it to work for both of them. I thought the author handled the emotions of being widowed with such knowledge and care. I’ve been there and have felt every one of Arie’s emotions, but that huge question of moving on is the most pertinent here. When we build a relationship with our in-laws they become our family. For me, and for Arie, that relationship continues after the loss of our partner. I felt that no one understood the enormity of my loss more than my brother and father-in-law, I wanted to continue that relationship with them and keep them as my family, to reminisce and celebrate my husband’s life. Then as time passed and I continued to live, I was very conscious of not upsetting them, respecting my husband’s memory and keeping them part of the new life I was creating. I made mistakes and it added to my pain, the feeling that I’d let them down. Now there is just me and my sister-in-law left and we talk a lot, and try to support each other even from her home on the other side of the world in New Zealand. We keep each other up to date on our children/step-children and reminisce about our husbands (and what a pair of rascals those brothers could be when they got together).

In this book, Arie doesn’t know how to reconcile these two parts of his life; the left behind and the moving on. Perhaps made more complicated, because just like the music Diana leaves behind, there was no real conclusion to her death. One minute she was there and the next, far away, she was gone and there was no funeral. Just the terrible knowledge she was lost somewhere under the sea. It takes Evie’s poetry to express this inbetween place, her talent for just the right words to capture a maelstrom of emotions is similar to Diana’s ability to convert emotion into musical notes. What stands out above everything in this novel is how artistic expression can explain, contain and elevate human experience. Most importantly, in Arie’s case, what comes across so strongly is art’s eventual power to heal.

The Constant Rabbit by Jasper Fforde #NetGalley #Hodder&Stoughton #TheConstant Rabbit

I love reading Jasper Fforde because you find yourself catapulted into a parallel universe that’s often completely absurd. When that universe involves the neighbours being 6ft talking rabbits and the reader has a five foot white rabbit greeting guests at the front door it’s a match made in heaven. I have been fascinated with these beautiful creatures since I was six years old. We lived in the country and Dad worked on a farm. One evening I was just getting out of the bath, being dried by Mum, when Dad walked in with a tiny leveret he’d found on the edge of a field. It was the softest thing I had ever felt, and Dad let me hold him and keep him warm, while he found a suitable pen to pop him into until he’d recovered. From then on I have loved all long eared creatures and my favourite book of early childhood, The Velveteen Rabbit, still holds a special place in my heart. So, this book was on one level a charming, satirical story, but one with a darker undercurrent pertinent to the current times we live in and a past we must never forget.

Peter Knox is a single dad who works with the Rabbit Compliance Taskforce, an organisation policing the law as it pertains to our bunny friends. The world has undergone a Spontaneous Anthropomorphic Event. Now rabbits live alongside humans, but they are treated differently and have a different set of laws to their human counterparts. Most live in colonies together, known as living ‘within the fence’. These are countryside based zones with restricted movement, and although they’re free to come and go, this did made me think of my local gypsy community who live in a settled campsite on the edge of town. However, some live side by side with humans in town. In fact Peter’s own neighbour is a rabbit. Some live a more wild lifestyle, continuing the rabbit code of settling disagreements with duels and abusing the lethal cocktail dandelion brandy. Peter is one of few people who can tell the difference between settled rabbits, and their more problematic counterparts. In fact, his first love at university was a rabbit called Connie. When he bumps into her, the old feelings rekindle and as the attitude towards rabbits starts to turn he may find himself having to choose which side of the fence to be on.

The darker undercurrent comes from a Prime Minister, who isn’t as keen on the bunny population. He’d like to round them up and take them to a huge facility in Wales, known as the Mega Warren. It’s being sold as a great place to live, where all rabbits can feel safe and protected. His political party is named UKARP which stands for UK Anti Rabbit Party, so rabbits are suspicious of his motives. He simply wants segregation and this is the first step. In a great parallel to some of our current world leaders he is hopelessly inept and reliant on advisors and scary PR people as his henchmen. Fforde is making a thinly veiled criticism of the current political climate, with fake news and disinformation spread amongst the population. There is a worrying need to control and watch the rabbits abs a determination to see them as other. It can be a very dark satire in places and if we think back to other attempts to control and corral those seen as different the results are mass extermination,

Fforde is very clever not to let the book dip into something dystopian and dismal. There’s witty dialogue that made me smile to myself, and there are even some laugh out loud moments too. He pokes fun at our Britishness and our terribly polite use of understatement, as well as some political acronyms worthy of The Thick of It. This is a truly inventive read from an original writer with a great sense of humour,

All Adults Here by Emma Straub

This was an incredibly thoughtful and sensitive book, focused on family and emotional connections. So, it was a perfect read for a therapist to delve into. In Clapham, based in the Hudson Valley, we meet the family matriarch Astrid. Her story starts with a dramatic fatal accident as Astrid witnesses someone hit by a car, while on her way to the hair and beauty salon. Astrid knows the victim and experiences a weird mix of emotions, because it is someone she thinks about a lot, but really doesn’t like very much. She goes on to the salon where her friend Birdie is ready to comfort her, revealing that they are much more than friends. Slowly we are then introduced to the rest of Astrid’s family and the various dynamics within their relationships.

We meet Astrid’s granddaughter Cecelia, who is facing a big change as she moves towards her grandmother. Cecelia is almost expelled from school and Astrid’s son Nicky is sure that New York is not the best environment for his daughter. His wife Juliette is a dancer and they need to be based in the city, so they decide to send Cecelia to live with Astrid up state. Elliot, the older sibling, is married to Wendy and they’re coping with the birth of twin sons. The middle sibling, Porter, would love to have a baby but doesn’t have a man – well not one she should have. She’s occupied mainly with her goat farm but lives in the valley closer to Astrid.

Each individual family unit has its own issues, but I was most invested with Astrid herself and Cecelia. I loved that Astrid had a loving relationship with Birdie and the focus of embracing your sexuality and your true self, without judgements is very close to my heart. Cecelia has a lot of her grandmother in her. She doesn’t always do the right thing with regard to school and rules, but she has an innate sense of justice and is usually doing the wrong thing on someone else’s behalf. She makes a true friend in August and would always stand up for her, which becomes very important when August reveals she’s transgender. Often Cecelia is more mature than others in the family. For Astrid, the accident she witnesses is a catalyst for her to re-evaluate life and some of her decisions, especially towards her children. She decides to open up about her choice of life partner in Birdie. She also thinks about decisions she’s made or behaviour she’s had towards her children, and starts making apologies. She wonders whether she was too hard on them, and whether they’ve become good people as adults.

Having grown up in a small village I understand the dilemma each sibling has felt on whether to stay in the valley or whether they’re only seen as successful if they get out to the big city like Nicky. All of the siblings were real and well rounded characters who could have easily populated their own novel. The author is clearly a keen observer of human nature. She’s very perceptive too as it’s almost as if she can read people’s thoughts. These characters have a rich inner life! She really throws issues and problems at them too, only some of which their mother is aware of. Yet the tone of the novel remains bright and lively, which is an incredible skill. My only criticism is that I think a more focused book on just Astrid and Cecilia’s storylines might have worked better, especially considering the contrasting societal pressures when Astrid was younger. This was an intelligent and absorbing read, full of psychological insight and wisdom.

Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce.

#MissBensonsBeetle #RandomThingsTours #blogtour

Rachel Joyce’s books are always full of charm, emotion and character growth. Often, while undertaking life altering feats of stamina and strength, her characters reveal themselves to the reader slowly like the peeling layers of an onion. This novel is no exception when it comes to a central character who has a pilgrimage to make, but for some reason this one hit me right in the heart. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman of a certain age. It could be because I’m not thin or conventionally pretty. It may be because I also have unfulfilled ambitions. Whatever the reason, Miss Benson brought a huge lump to my throat. So many things moved me: her unspoken love for a man who never even considers a relationship with her; her difficulty conforming to the post-war standards of beauty and fashion; her introvert nature and feeling of being out of step with other women. I loved the growth that comes from realising she is the only one who can follow her dream. I loved the relationship she builds with Edith, an assistant she didn’t want or expect. I’m always moved when people realise that they don’t fit in because they aren’t being themselves. Miss Benson doesn’t fit with ordinary people, not because she’s inferior, but because she is extraordinary.

We join Margery Benson as she is teaching in a girl’s school, bored and under appreciated. On this particular day, the girls draw an image of Margery that shocks and upsets her. There is a sudden realisation that this is how people see her. Something snaps and Margery simply packs up and walks out, for some inexplicable reason with a pair of hockey/ lacrosse boots under her arm. Joyce takes us back to the past when Margery was a little girl, sitting at her father’s desk being taught about beetles. He tells her about a place called New Caledonia, right at the bottom of the world where a Golden Flower Beetle lives, on a particular type of orchid. One afternoon, while reading about the beetle her father goes to answer the door. All Margery hears is her father say ‘All? What? ALL?’ He then returns to the study, takes something from his drawer and walks past her as if she isn’t there, into the garden. There he blows his brains out with his pistol, without saying another word. These two events are linked. If Margery was different, she might have gone home after seeing the cruel photo drawn by her pupils and done the same, but for some reason this mid-life realisation seems to galvanise her. For so long her most precious belongings were her beetle necklace, a pocket guide of New Caledonia and a map of its terrain. She remembered the moment she decided, in her childhood determination, that when she grew up she would go to the island and search for the Golden Beetle. Then something happened and she settled for being a middle aged teacher. She knew she’d let herself go and she also knew she didn’t have a single friend to help her. Similarly though, she doesn’t have a single friend to stop her.

Rachel Joyce has written a love song to all women who have unlived potential inside them. Margery does what many of us want to do. She throws the old life away and starts again. I loved the friendship that grows between Margery and her assistant Enid Pretty. Enid was, quite literally, her last choice for the job, but she turns out to be the perfect candidate. As Margery suffers horrendous seasickness on the boat, Enid simply rolls up her sleeves and gets on with helping. She supplies and scrubs buckets, keeps her hydrated and never once shies away from the difficult jobs. Margery thought she needed a scientist to accompany her, but no one could possibly be as resourceful as Enid, even if her methods are slightly questionable. When her equipment is lost Margery thinks the trip is over, but Enid magics up replacements for all their equipment and even a jeep to take them into the mountains. Enid has an eye for a good looking man, but usually the wrong sort. Her lifetime’s ambition is to be a mother and she approaches this with the same dogged determination Margery has shown to finding the beetle. If you think the two ambitions are incompatible you are underestimating these women and their bond with each other.

The most incredible thing is the effect Enid has on Margery’s view of herself. From trying to be a ‘proper’ woman and failing. Enid makes her see that she doesn’t have to try. Once they are in the thick of climbing the mountain, searching in sunshine and one of the worst storms the island has seen, Margery realises she feels comfortable with her body. She looks down and instead of her giant dress, she’s wearing the stolen boots, shorts and a man’s shirt. Yet she has never felt more herself. Joyce cleverly gives us examples of how women are expected to be, such as the English wives in the local village. When Enid and Margery go and talk to their group about their mission they come up against some suspicion. The wives are worried about Enid and see her as a threat because of her bleached hair and tight clothing. Margery is a ‘big’ woman and dwarfs the tiny and delicate women at the gathering. She feels awkward. As soon as one of the wives hears about a burglary at the school and a jeep going missing the gossip begins. Then when the English newspapers arrive with the story of a femme fatale who killed her husband and fled the country. They wonder, could this woman and the flirty Enid Pretty be one and the same person?

I felt completely immersed in New Caledonia and the women’s expedition. Joyce brought to life the heat, the lush greenery, the sheer volume of different species and the changeable weather. I was desperate for them to be successful and find this magical beetle. I won’t reveal the ending, but it was a perfect moment that brought a tear to my eye. Tension builds towards the end as we wonder whether the strange man, stalking them throughout the novel, will actually catch up, or if the village women will take their suspicions to the authorities. I was desperate that their mission wouldn’t come to a premature end and that they would plot their escape together, even if it had to be a Thelma and Louise style ending. The book teaches us that it’s okay to be different and that once you live authentically, you will find your people. If we choose to live within societies constraints we might always feel like a misfit; not fitting in can feel painful, but it always feels like freedom. Women can play it safe, but then think of the friendship and adventures you could miss out on. Margery also learns that the joy comes not in realising your dreams, but in continuing to pursue them. This is a strongly feminist piece of work that spoke to me deeply about fulfilling my purpose and the importance of my female friendships. However, the most important relationship is always with ourselves and freedom comes in realising we only have one life and we don’t get another chance to pursue our dreams.

The Cry of the Lake by Charlie Tyler.

#RandomThingsTours #blogtour #TheCryOfTheLake

Firstly I was drawn in by the beautiful cover art on this novel. The red title contrasting sharply with the shades of grey background, and a human skull eerily visible against the flock wallpaper pattern. Even the blurb is fascinating and magical, as a young girl tries to capture a mermaid in the pond at the bottom of the garden. She’s been told stories of Myrtle the mermaid with a crown of flowers singing ‘as I went down to the river to pray’. However, instead of Myrtle she finds a dead body. Confused and terrified she learns to take the memory and lock it away deep inside her mind. Yet, still she sees the mermaid in dreams, luring her down to the water with her beautiful singing voice. She sleepwalks and finds herself out in the garden at night, barefoot and cold from the dew on the grass. In order to stop these ‘night terrors’ she is medicated. Although she is a maelstrom of emotions and experiences Lily will not talk. Ten years down the line Lily’s mother Grace is marrying Tony, who has his own teenage daughter Flo. Flo and Lily strike up a friendship despite Lily’s silence and find ways of communicating through text and scribbles on notepads. When Flo’s father is accused of killing a schoolgirl, the girls join forces to find out what’s really happened, but this opens up Lily’s past. Now she must force herself back to that boathouse in order to unearth what really happened and who is responsible.

The author has written a great debut here where she skilfully wrong foots the reader and subverts expectation. That very first line – ‘Death smells of macaroons’ – it drew me into the story. I knew it was going to be sugary sweet on the surface with a nasty aftertaste – a description that suits our narrator Grace perfectly. From the cover I was expecting an older setting, but this is as modern as it gets. Small details, such as Grace dressing from the Joules catalogue, or the teenagers coming into the cafe for Frappuccino’s set this firmly within the 21st Century. The author also places terrible and disturbing events in beautiful, lush countryside full of wild garlic and bluebells. The setting is idyllic, but the events are far from it. I had the sense of the opening of Dorian Gray where something lush and overblown like lilies or lilacs, give out a scent is so strong it’s cloying.

The jump from one narrator to another kept me on my toes too. I did get confused from time to time about who was who, especially when we moved back and forth in time. The characters are fascinating. We meet Lily and her mum Grace as they are coming to an exciting time in their lives. Grace is about to be engaged to Tom and she is the perfect girlfriend, with a plan for a traditional wedding. She and Lily live in a cottage and work in Tom’s cafe. Grace doesn’t want them to live together until they’re married. She thinks pre-marital sex would be a bad example for their daughters. Of course Lily also has health problems. She has selective mutism, and a sleep disorder causing sleepwalking and night terrors that need heavy medication. Tom’s daughter Flo gets along really well with Lily, and has encouraged her to communicate using texts. They also get along well in the village, the only fly in the ointment, as far as Grace is concerned, is Tom’s ex Annie the local police woman. It slowly becomes clear that she has deliberately lured Tom away from Annie and feels threatened by their easy intimacy and connection, as well as Annie’s continued friendship with Flo.

Grace is simply trying too hard though. Lily thinks she dresses like she’s colour blind or she copies the model in the catalogue exactly. At the village picnic Lily is a amused by how overdressed Grace is – in the catalogue the outfit would have been set off with a fascinator, but Grace has had to contain herself with a ribbon round her straw hat. Whilst Annie rolls up in denim with a carrier bag of corned beef sandwiches and pickled onion Monster Munch, Grace has smoked salmon on vintage china. Everything is just so. Except Flo doesn’t like fish. The reader starts to glimpse beneath this drive for perfection – it is simply a thin veneer covering a much darker heart. Her sugary sweet exterior is as real as her flowing red hair. When schoolgirl Amelie goes missing, Lily knows exactly where she is, because she had to help Grace package her body on the kitchen floor. Grace is as meticulous at cleaning up after the crime as she was at packing a picnic. After disposing of the body, Lily is forced to strip and get in the shower. Then Grace is waiting with hot milk and her pills. Lily’s often so spaced out that she doesn’t know what’s real and what isn’t.

The author reveals that Grace’s adoration of Tom is an act too. In a passage as they snuggle on the sofa, Grace’s real feelings belie her actions:

‘I sat, legs curled up on the sofa, with Tom’s arm draped around my shoulders. The heaviness of his body; the musky scent of his cologne and the graze of his cheek against mine made me feel nauseous. I suppose, if I were forced to be objective, I could see why Annie had been attracted to him and sometimes, when we kissed, the pit of my stomach whirred with a brief flutter of desire. Desire which was quickly followed by a flood of disgust. Tom Marchant was a pathetic liar of a man and every ounce of his being repulsed me.’

This is not just a passing dislike, this is a hatred that runs deep. There is a past here that is complicated and disturbing. Is the key Myrtle the Mermaid? The intriguing event that Lily dreams about and has been in therapy for, way back in the past. This started with a fairytale told to her by Grace and Uncle Frank, accompanied by the folk song Down to the River to Pray. Lily hears snatches of it in her dreams. Again, while this sounds like a beautiful story, it comes about around the time that Lily stopped speaking and Grace’s hair turned white overnight. How lucky the girls were to be looked after by Uncle Frank who ran an institute for mental well-being and was involved with pioneering mental health drugs. Lily was seen by a young junior doctor who used a visualisation method to help her with the feelings that disturbed her. He tells her to imagine somewhere she enjoys, and Lily chooses the aquarium with a treasure chest on the sea floor where she can lock away those memories that disturb her. She chooses a key decorated with a spiders web and mimes locking the chest. Then, when she feels safer, they can slowly unlock the chest and taking out one image at a time to work on. Yet this part of the therapy never happened and Lily was left with all these images locked up inside.

Back at the picnic, the villagers were horrified to find human remains in the lake. Could they belong to Amelie? In the aftermath, Grace agrees that they should all be together, so she and Lily stay over with Tom and Flo. Next morning Flo is horrified to find her beloved fish all dead in the garden pond, the telltale blue of slug pellets lingering on the bottom. Flo calls Annie and she comes out to question everyone. Grace and Tom seem oddly tense, but Flo remembers seeing pond scum on the floor and didn’t Grace put Lily in a shower in the night? As the study the pond Annie sees something else submerged in the rushes. It’s a bundle of shoes, tied together with a pair of knickers and it looks incriminating. There’s no option but to question Tom, remove phones and laptops and start to ask if anyone has noticed Tom getting a little too close to one of his students. Annie isn’t so sure. She confides in Flo that she can’t investigate the case, but she’s suspicious that it all looks a bit too cut and dried. Also, if you were really trying to keep evidence hidden, why would you draw attention to it by committing another crime?

There’s never a moment to to stop and contemplate though. The different perspectives and timelines keep revealing new clues and new horrors. There were times where I had to go back and reread a section to be sure I’d got the right sequence of events, especially where people’s names have changed. That’s mainly because the story is addictive and the pace is relentless. Over 24 hours I was rarely without my head in this book because I was so involved in all the little twists and turns. I wanted to understand how Lily and Grace had become so psychologically disturbed. I had a hunch that Lily would start to make more sense once Grace stopped giving her such strong medication. I also sensed she was a lot stronger than she thought, but the gaslighting kept her in doubt. I was fascinated in finding out what had formed Grace’s personality and sometimes drove her to be so cruel and cunning. I couldn’t stop reading until the tangled web was unravelled. Until Lily’s treasure chest of memories was unlocked and she was able to speak freely again. You will want to keep reading until she does. This is a tale about the heart of darkness, in the beautiful country village that’s an urban dweller’s dream; original, addictive and deliciously, darkly funny.

One Step Behind by Lauren North. #RandomThingsTours #OneStepBehind

I found myself sucked in very quickly by this narrator and her mysterious story. Jenna is an A and E doctor and appears to have a picture perfect life. She’s well regarded in her work, has a good marriage to builder Stuart, two lovely children and a beautiful Victorian house. They’ve recently adapted downstairs to create a huge living area that opens onto the garden. From the outside she’s living the 21st Century dream, but when we look a little closer it’s not that simple. There’s the mother’s guilt of course, she worries about Beth and Archie and the difficulties of spending enough time with then while working 12 hour shifts. Stuart picks up the slack as he can set his own hours, and they have a great childminder in Christie, but she still worries that she’s selfish in pursuing her career the way she does. They’re proving to be a great parenting team, but sometimes Jenna and Stuart are like ships that pass in the night. Finally, the main cause of stress in her life is an unknown stalker, who has been making her life hell. She is followed, the garden is broken into, dolls and flowers are left for her and the emails, both at work and home are endless. The stress has been so bad she hasn’t been sleeping, she’s becoming paranoid and wants to put the house up for sale and start again elsewhere.

Her narrative is alternated with that of Sophie, a personal trainer who lives with her boyfriend Nick and seems very concerned about the welfare of her younger brother, Matthew. Matt is a bit of an oddball. He seems to wander aimlessly around town taking photos of people, he also seems secretive and uncooperative with his sister. I wondered whether Sophie was a bit of a mother hen character, but they seem to have no other family either. It seemed inevitable that the two narratives would come together in some way, or that one of them might be Jenna’s stalker. However, I couldn’t think of any link between them because Jenna is too young to be their mother and she never mentions brothers and sisters. As the stalker escalates into leaving dressed dolls, and even getting into their home, I started to feel panicky too. I also suspected every person around Jenna, from Thomas who works with her at the hospital and is a little too friendly, all they way to her husband Stuart. Every single male she was in contact with came under my suspicion at different points in the novel. So, when Matthew is brought into A and E after being hit by a bus and she recognises him, I breathed a sigh of relief that maybe her ordeal was over. Could it be that simple?

The author really puts her heroine through the mill in terms of the relationships around her and a series of betrayals. These come to a head on a night out in town for her best friend Diya’s birthday. She had just been told to take a leave of absence from work and she finds out that the complaint made to management about her fitness to practice came from Diya. She is shocked and feels betrayed. She also sees her childminder Christie, with Matt’s sister Sophie and Rachel – a mum from school that she’s sure doesn’t like her. Immediately she wonders if either Christie or Rachel has been helping to keep her stalker informed. However the next morning, an even worse betrayal comes to light. Christie comes round to explain why she was with Rachel, but also to confess to knowing something that will break our Jenna’s heart. This is where she really starts to come apart. Her worse fears are being realised, while her attention has been focused on her job and the stalker, her life has been falling apart around her.

This was a successful story in that it made me feel paranoid and on edge a lot of the way through. I also felt very tense, because I was desperate for Jenna to give herself a break. It was like she was juggling so many plates at once and couldn’t stop. I just wanted her to find a way to get a break, spend more time with those she loved and create some balance in her life. No one could sustain the level of stress she puts herself under. Much as I want to say women can be successful working mums, it’s clear that Jenna’s working hours are unsustainable if she wants a better relationship with her children. I also kept wondering where this couple’s genuine family and friends are? It takes a strong network to sustain a lifestyle this crazy – even without the stalker. It was very clever to keep shifting the possible identity of the stalker. There was a final stand off that made me look at my own biases when it comes to this type of crime and I think that was deliberate on the part of the author. I also realised at the end that I couldn’t remember the name of our protagonist at first, even though she narrated the majority of the book. That tells me a little about how much the character was consumed by her job and the crime being perpetrated against her. It was almost as if, by being constantly watched, she had become invisible to those around her. This was an unsettling, tense and addictive read that explores how childhood trauma affects people in different ways.