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Posted in Random Things Tours

One Last Time by Helga Flatland.

Translated by Rosie Hedger.

I was utterly bowled over by this beautiful examination of life, death and how ordinary lives can be the most extraordinary of all. Our narrator, Anne, unexpectedly finds herself contemplating the end of her life, and so much sooner than expected, when she faces a diagnosis of colon cancer. Her husband Gustav has been hovering between two states for a number of years after several strokes slowly incapacitated him. His permanent disabilities started with paralysis of one of his arms and ending with all limbs affected and personality changes that are the hardest to cope with. With a heavy heart Anne has allowed their GP and hospital team to make the decision that Gustav should be placed in a nursing home. There’s a sense in which Anne had felt immune from further tragedy, as if Gustav had paid the price for them all. Meanwhile, we also meet Anne’s two grown-up children, Magnus and Sigrid. Sigrid is our second narrator and through her story we can see Anne in a different light, as a mother. However, we also see Sigrid as a mother and it’s on these relationships the book focuses; those complex emotions and connections between mothers and daughters.

Anne’s life has been a difficult and hard-working one. There’s been the farm she kept with Gustav in an isolated region of Norway, her job as teacher, the role of carer for Gustav, and her role as mother. From the outside looking in she’s an amazingly strong woman for whom fate has dealt a very rough hand. From the inside she sees herself as almost subsumed by the needs of other people, particularly Gustav, but has done the best job she could in very difficult circumstances. However, from Sigrid’s perspective, she allowed herself to be subsumed by Gustav’s needs at the expense of her children. Sigrid feels that her father listened to her, they would play records together from his vinyl collection and he took time to understand her. She feels her mother is distant at best and at worst, neglectful and selfish. We also see Sigrid’s own mothering skills, dealing with her teenage daughter Mia and the sudden return of Mia’s biological father Jens. The author takes us back to Sigrid’s rebellious teenage years, her pregnancy at 19 and Jens’s abandonment of her just before the Mia’s birth.

The author cleverly shows us how mother and daughter can see the same incident very differently. In a conversation about teaching in Norwegian in schools, Sigrid suddenly bursts out with:

I was so cold, freezing all through primary school, do you know what it was like, sitting through a whole day in class with wet socks, ice cold, not daring to take them off for fear someone might see?’

Anne is a bit stunned, but relates back to everything that was on her plate at the time. She was looking after Gustav, constantly making sacrifices:

‘You’re hardly the true victim in all this, I told her in as measured a tone as I could muster. She said nothing, waited a few seconds before getting up and leaving. I woke that night and remembered at least one occasion when Sigrid had been at high school and I had urged her to wear her boots, she had flown into a rage with me, stormed out the door and into the icy rain in her trainers and denim jacket’.

This is how mother and daughter speak to each other, in cross words with even more crossed wires, and bogged down with specifics. The overarching truth neither wishes to acknowledge is that Sigrid’s memories of her father are in a nostalgic past before she was seven years old. He will never grow old. He took up so much of her mother’s time that both Magnus and Sigrid fended for themselves on occasion. I felt so sad for Sigrid that her family forgot her birthday once or twice. However I also felt sad for Anne, who was dealt a rough hand in life and now has another in death. The time she’s had for herself is minimal, and the retirement she expected with her loving husband has been stripped away. There’s a deep sense of loss in Anne, from the family life she expected, her marriage, loss of a lover and of a warm, loving relationship with her daughter. She thinks back to those times she had supported Sigrid which don’t get mentioned. After Jens left, Anne collected a 19 year old Sigrid and took her back home for some much needed TLC and to have help after the birth. Sigrid isn’t angry with her Dad, she can’t be because he’s sick, so her anger is saved for Anne who for several years chose Gustav’s needs above those of her children.

Then, in turn, Sigrid is at crossed purposes with her own daughter. Jens has returned after sixteen years and is now the object of Mia’s affections. Sigrid feels for her partner Aslak, who has been there for both of them, since Mia was a small baby. She thinks she’s been a great Mum to Mia, never shirking responsibility or neglecting them. However, there are times Mia has felt stifled and there’s a way in which Sigrid’s need to control everything feels like anxiety to others. The author manages to convey how these parenting choices feel to the daughter. There are times when intention and result just miss each other by a hair’s breadth and I found this incredibly moving. It made me think about how I view my own mother and where I’ve been harsh in my assessment of her, but others might view things with more empathy. I found it interesting in light of her accusations about Anne’s parenting, that Sigrid feels it is Mia at fault in their misunderstandings. Mia’s reply is a real piece of wisdom and could have come from a therapist:

‘Isn’t it interesting how everyone else is always letting you down Mum?’

Helga Flatland writes so beautifully, that I was in the events of the book immediately and then carried into the very heart of this one ordinary family. She is a master at creating tension between people, finding those spaces between a conversation’s intent and how it’s received by the other person. I was desperately hoping for some sort of understanding between mother and daughter, before it was too late. I felt Sigrid needed that reconciliation even more than Anne. I loved the atmospheric feel of the country with its crispness underfoot, constant dusting of snow and all the hearty foods Anne mentions from elk to mutton, slow cooked and filling the house with delicious meaty casserole smells. I also loved the way she conveyed the closeness of a couple who live together, the way you know how their skin smells or what they’re going to say before they say it. I was so moved by Anne’s predicament of a much loved partner leaving you by slow degrees and how she would simply lie on the mattress next to Gustav hoping to regain some of that comfort she would get from his body. Most of all, her depiction of illness and deterioration is the best I’ve ever read and I’ve read a lot. Small losses, like medication changing the way the way someone smells, are actually huge because it takes them from the familiar to a complete stranger. She explores how illness suddenly demotes you from being in control of the smallest things in your life, like what you will eat for dinner or whether people will stay in your house. Who decides whether you need to be looked after and how? The way your body doesn’t belong to you anymore, or even feel and look like yours. People who once saw us as sexual beings, might cease to see us that way. Our bodies become a no-man’s land that people will fight and negotiate over, but rarely ask what we think, feel or need. This made the book incredibly moving, honest and real. This small family story is exquisite and truly special. You simply must read it.

Meet The Author

Helga Flatland is already one of Norway’s most awarded and widely read authors. Born in Telemark, Norway, in 1984, she made her literary debut in 2010 with the novel Stay If You Can, Leave If You Must, for which she was awarded the Tarjei Vesaas’ First Book Prize. She has written four novels and a children’s book and has won several other literary awards.


Her fifth novel, A Modern Family (her first English translation), was published to wide acclaim in Norway in August 2017, and was a number-one bestseller. The rights have subsequently been sold across Europe and the novel has sold more than 100,000 copies. One Last Time was published in Norway in 2020, where it topped the bestseller lists, and was shortlisted for the Norwegian Booksellers Award.

Posted in Netgalley

For The Wolf by Hannah Whitten.

The first daughter is for the throne. The second is for the Wolf.

Every so often I venture into reading fantasy and have been enchanted by some of the books I’ve stumbled upon, often because of their stunning covers in the first instance. When I think of my favourite books – The Night Circus, Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic series and Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell – all come up very high on the list. Yet I certainly don’t think of myself as solely a fantasy blogger, I don’t have enough knowledge of the genre. I love that sense of total escape and I often read with a smile on my face because I’m so charmed by the audacity of these writers and how they bend the rules of our world with some magic realism or create a beautiful wild new world for the reader to explore. I was drawn to this book by a very beautiful cover and the thought that someone would be playing with the boundaries of a well known fairy tale.

Redarys has always known her fate. As the kingdom’s second daughter, she is doomed to become a sacrifice to the wolf who keeps Wilderwood’s gods captive in the forest. Red seems to have acquiesced to this fate and her mother’s cool and distant attitude tells Red that she too has prepared herself for this moment, by never becoming close with her daughter. Red’s sister Neve wants to rage against the kingdom and tempts Red to run away that night, as far as she can. She has even spoken to the man who loves Red and sets up a secret moment where he can declare his plans to help her run away. He is promised to Neve, but vows to help Red escape her fate. But does she want to? Red has a hidden power deep within that scares her, and she never wants to hurt someone she loves again. She feels the woods luring her and her power is exactly what they need. The stories she’s been told from childhood are not the full truth. The spirits have weakened. The wolf is just a man, as pushed into his fate as she is. Can Red use her power for good and set them all free?

From the very first pages I was drawn into this other world by the author’s use of detailed imagery. She builds an incredible new world, from words: the sumptuous clothing and the meaning behind their colours, the rooms of the castle and even the dark woods beyond are all rendered beautifully. As guests gather for a celebration on the eve of the sacrifice, Red has chosen a blood red dress contrasting strongly with her mother and sister’s choices and making it very clear who she is. There’s a certain pride in her, of who she is and the role she’s decided to accept. I enjoyed the sisterly love between Red and Neve. We do have sections narrated by Neve to give some contrast from Red’s point of view. Although they’re quite different Neve and Red are incredibly close, they have each other’s backs and in a difficult situation I have no doubt each would fight for the other. I liked both characters, but Red is definitely the more dominant sister despite their opposing fates. Her bravery in accepting her fate and her sense of duty to the kingdom were very admirable. She has some attitude too and I loved that feistiness in her. She’s also a voracious reader and the magnificent library was like something out of my dreams.

There is romance too, a slow burning attraction between Red and her unusual beau. I liked that it wasn’t overdone or flowery, and that Red didn’t lose any of her feistiness in the relationship. She wants to be loved for the person she is, not to change. I won’t reveal her love interest, but it’s their feeling of being trapped into a life they didn’t choose that brings them together. They are bound by blood and sacrifice. He’s a proper Gothic hero too, just as strong and fierce as Red but with an edge. He’s definitely the boyfriend you wouldn’t take home to Mum. It’s a complete awakening once Red enters the wood and she learns that the myths she’s been told about the world are far from the truth. I really enjoyed my foray into the world of fantasy. We all need a brooding love interest, with dark woods and crumbling castles. This isn’t all romance though, it’s more reminiscent of the original blood thirsty fairy tales where women are willing to saw off their own toes to fit a glass slipper or where an enchantment forces them to dance every night till their feet are bleeding. There is blood, so if you’re thinking of sweet, fluffy, fairy tales it might be better to imagine Disney meets Game of Thrones. This is a well written Gothic fairy tale, with a heroine who can not only save herself, but the world as well.

Meet The Author

Hannah Whitten has been writing to amuse herself since she could hold a pen, and sometime in high school, she figured out that what amused her might also amuse others. When she’s not writing, she’s reading, making music, or attempting to bake. She lives in Tennessee with her husband and children in a house ruled by a temperamental cat.

Posted in Netgalley

The Madwomen’s Ball by Victoria Mas.

The Salpêtrière asylum, 1885. All of Paris is in thrall to Doctor Charcot and his displays of hypnotism on women who have been deemed mad or hysterical, outcasts from society. But the truth is much more complicated – for these women are often simply inconvenient, unwanted wives or strong-willed daughters. Once a year a grand ball is held at the hospital. For the Parisian elite, the Mad Women’s Ball is the highlight of the social season; for the women themselves, it is a rare moment of hope.

There are definitely some interesting women living in the asylum at Saltpiétre, under the care of Dr Charcot. We are introduced to Eugénie first, who lives with her parents, brother and grandmother in Paris. While she seems like an archetypal society young lady, there’s something more to Eugénie. Since she was an adolescent she has been seeing and communicating with dead people. This isn’t something she wanted and she’s been keeping it a secret for many years. Not even her brother Théophile or her grandmother know what’s been happening. She finds herself having strange physical symptoms like her limbs feeling heavy, then someone might come to her. One evening while attending to her grandmother before bed, her grandfather appears and starts to tell her that something precious, thought lost forever, is caught under the drawers of her dressing table. Sure enough, as Eugénie takes the drawers out she finds a sentimental piece of jewellery that her grandmother never imagined she’d see again. She trusts her grandmother, so out pours the story that she can communicate with dead people. Eugénie trusts that her secret is safe and never suspects that she could be betrayed by those she loves the most.

This novel’s strength lies in the portrayal of it’s women and the shocking truth of how easy it is for a man to have a woman placed in an asylum. Even more horrifying for me was how the women became objects: a father’s cold decision to choose his reputation and offload her like a defective belonging; a doctor using the women in his performance as an expert in his field; the grotesque spectacle of dressing up the women in costumes to be paraded around in front of Paris society at the ball. The interesting relationship between Geneviève and Eugénie kept me reading, but there was also a fascinating role for the older woman Therése. She seems to be quietly knitting in the corner, but there’s a lot more going on with this woman and she is vital to the smooth running of the ward. This is a fascinating piece of historical fiction, with a feminist perspective and the added bonus of a supernatural element. It questions what makes us ‘mad’ – is someone who believes in spiritualism any more mentally ill than someone who believes in God and the events of the Bible? I definitely recommend this and have to mention the absolutely stunning cover too.

Posted in Personal Purchase

Both of You by Adele Parks.

Adele Parks is one of those authors whose books I tend to buy without reading any blurb or hype. I always enjoy her books and this was no exception, being addictive and unsettling from the start. Two women go missing in the same week. Leigh, married to Mark Fletcher and step-mum to his two boys, goes missing on Monday. Only days later Kai Janssen is reported missing by her distraught husband Daan, a wealthy Dutch businessman. Leigh Fletcher usually works away for part of the week and then returns to family life. It is as if she dropped the boys at school and vanished into thin air. This is so out of character for Leigh that her friend Fiona is also devastated. She saw how Mark and Leigh met, when she was picnicking in the park with her friend. When Mark’s youngest boy had a fall, a strange instinct seemed to take over Leigh and she made a dash to comfort him and give first aid. The four went to hospital together as if they were a family, and have been one ever since. Mark’s first wife Frances died a year earlier, and Leigh who couldn’t have children had stepped firmly into the step-mum role, fulfilling a part of her that had been crying out to care for someone. She and Fiona were like family, since Leigh didn’t have contact with her own, and she can’t think of any reason she would willingly leave Mark and the boys.

When the police visit Daan, in his large penthouse apartment, he is devastated by his wife’s disappearance. For part of the week, Kai would go back to her hometown and look after her mother who had dementia. Daan had more than enough money to ensure her mother had adequate care, but Kai wouldn’t hear of it and part of him admired her for wanting to look after her mother personally. Their separation each week hadn’t seemed to harm their relationship. They missed each other, but were very independent and their time apart seemed to put fire into their relationship. DC Clements is tasked with investigating both missing person’s cases and she’s concerned for both women. Leigh seemed devoted to her family, but she knows more than anyone, that if anything bad has happened to these women, it is likely to be solved close to home. The chance of two women being abducted by a stranger in the same week seems unlikely. She keeps a close eye on the two husbands. Daan seems a passionate and emotional man, it’s possible he has a quick temper. Mark, on the other hand, has already lost one wife. It seems careless that he should lose another.

The tension between these two investigations is heightened by the chapters in-between, from Leigh’s point of view. She is shackled by the ankle in a room with only a bucket to relieve herself and a small supply of snacks and water. She has no recollection of arriving there and is terrified about what might come next. Who could possibly hate her so much that they would do this to her. The author really captures the fear of the unknown in these passages and the indignity of her situation. Not knowing who has brought her there keeps playing on her mind. Could this be the work of her husband? Surely not. If it is a stranger though, she has no idea what might come next. Her fears are heightened when the snacks change to ones she would like – a very specific tea and her favourite nibbles. This has to be someone who knows her, but who?

I was a little disappointed that I worked out what was going on very early in proceedings, although it was still fascinating to watch it all play out. Themes of jealousy, deceit and greed run throughout. However, from a psychological point of view my interest was caught by the idea of not knowing who we really are and how dangerous that can be. It was also heartbreaking to see how the disappearance of their step-mum affects two boys who have already had the worst happen to them – the loss of their mother. What sort of damage might this cause for them down the line? The husbands are both interesting men with secrets of their own, that come to light through the investigation. Do we ever really know the person we’re sharing a life with? This wasn’t my favourite book from this author, but it was a great thriller all the same and is definitely a diverting holiday read to summer.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Then A Wind Blew by Kay Powell

I was interested in reading this book, because I have a real gap in my knowledge when it comes to the final days of Rhodesia. I’ve read missionary’s accounts of leaving the country, but as these were largely from church sources, told through solely white, Christian, missionaries I feel my knowledge is very limited. We talk about literature as a way of understanding human experience and it’s important to me that my reading covers diverse human experiences, not just my own reflected back at me. In this novel set in the final days of Rhodesia, before it became Zimbabwe, there is a nun in a church mission called Beth, who has adopted this country as her home and is now watching it tear itself in two. Susan Haig is a white settler, who has lost one son to war with her second declared unfit for duty. Nyanye Maseka is in a guerilla camp in Mozambique, with her sister in tow, after their village was destroyed. Heartbreakingly, her mother is missing and they have had to take flight without her. This gives the reader three different perspectives on what is happening. The women’s fates become entwined as the lives they were used to, become a casualty of war.

In a similar way to Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun, this author concentrates on the female experience of civil war. Adichie wrote about the Biafran conflict in Nigeria through two sisters. Here the three women’s story of everyday lives in war, tell us wider stories about society and politics in Rhodesia. It’s not an easy book to read, but it shouldn’t be. It should make us uncomfortable. It should be harrowing. This is what it takes to put across the horrors of war. War is harrowing, and knowing these experiences come from factual accounts and from an author who has lived there, gives the story authenticity and makes it hit home even more strongly.

Kay Powell

Susan. Well it’s hard to write about Susan’s views because they made me so angry. Sadly though, they did echo a lot of the views I’ve heard from white settlers who left Rhodesia during the Wars of Liberation. They were views I had shared with me very recently on Facebook, from a friend who was born out there in the late 1960’s. The killing of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests seemed to bring these views out into the open. As if they were ok. My friend’s list is a little bit lighter these days. Views like ‘there hadn’t been any African history until the European arrived’ are staggering in their arrogance and ignorance. As if it’s unthinkable there is any other way of doing things than the British way. I’ve heard ‘they need someone to organise them’ or ‘if we weren’t there they’d just kill each other’. The use of ‘they’ tends to push all Black South Africans and Zimbabweans into an homogenised mass, with no individuality or humanity. I couldn’t believe I was still hearing the Victorian attitude that natives were little more than savages. Yet she was needed in the narrative. The reader needed her to show the entitled attitude that comes from empire and from one nation thinking it’s a show of greatness to own another. Without Susan there would be nothing to fight against, however difficult she is to read. I imagine there was an element of catharsis in writing her character, the ability to put all the hateful words and attitudes you’ve encountered in one place, and leave them there. A way of doing something good with such evil.

Through all of these characters we see the strength and the fight women must have to survive a war. War often leaves women with the greatest burdens to carry and that was an important thread woven throughout, with all the women. I loved Nyanye’s fight and her need to let others know she wasn’t beaten or conquered. The love the author has for the country shines out of the pages, with vivid descriptions of nature and the weather she really set the scene for me. In one scene, at night, she describes the sound of wind in the grass, calls of distant animals and crickets calling all under a sky filled with stars. It felt poetic, and created such an atmosphere for the reader, adding to the sadness that such a beautiful country is being torn apart. The way her writing is so lyrical one moment, then so raw and brutal, really brings home the horrors of conflict. Yet, there is such beauty and hope. These women show such strength and faith. It could be faith in their role as a mother, as part of a sisterhood serving God. There’s also a sense that these women are learning they’re part of a greater sisterhood of women, no matter their race, religion or colour. They have also learned to have faith in themselves, to realise their strength and will to survive. The book ends with this hope – for justice and equality. It acknowledges a need for peace and for people, like these women, to work together to achieve it. I was left with an aching sadness for the people who lived through this war and the turbulent years since. This is a book that has made me think and will stay with me.

Posted in Publisher Proof

The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell

Lisa Jewell has slowly become one of those writers whose books I buy without even reading the synopsis or any reviews. They are always intriguing, well paced and full of interesting characters who may not be who they seem. This book was no exception and I read it over a weekend – TBR be damned – just for sheer enjoyment. I felt so lucky to get a proof that I read it immediately! Crime writer Sophie is moving into a tiny cottage in the country, into the grounds of exclusive private school Maypole House. It has been a hasty decision to move with Shaun to his new place of work, because they haven’t been together very long. They knew they had something special, but since Shaun had already accepted the job and Sophie could write anywhere, they jumped in with both feet. Their cottage is situated on the edge of the woods. Exactly one year ago teenage couple Tallulah and Zach went missing from a mansion situated in the woods. They had gone to the pub for dinner, but were invited to a party at the house, by a girl called Scarlett Jacques who had been a student at Maypole, but now studied art at Tallulah’s college. They left at 3am to get a taxi, but never arrived home. Zach’s mum, Meg, thinks they’ve run away together to escape life. However, Tallulah’s Mum knows that’s not the truth, she knows something bad has happened, because they left their baby son Noah behind and she knows they would never do that.

Just a week or so before Sophie arrived, Kim had organised a vigil for Tallulah and Zach, to keep them in the public consciousness and to remember her daughter. Sophie had seen a picture in the paper, when she was browsing. She can’t seem to find her rhythm to write yet and this year old mystery seems to keep drifting into her mind. She didn’t expect to become so involved, but when a sign saying ‘Dig Here’ turns up on her garden fence with an arrow pointing downwards she finds a trowel and starts digging, bracing herself for what she might find. She is relieved to find a small jewellery box, and inside is a modest diamond ring. She notes down the jeweller and pays the shop a visit on the high street. Luckily, it’s a small local jeweller and he keeps track of every purchase in old fashioned ledgers. The buyer was Zach. So was Tallulah the intended recipient? Did she say no? Sophie knows she must take the information to someone and realises that Kim works in the pub. Within days the case is re-opened and once again the the spotlight is on Scarlett Jacques family home – Dark Place.

The character I connected with most was Tallulah. The structure of the novel is split into before the disappearance and then a year later when Sophie starts to look into the case. In the before sections, I could sense Tallulah feeling overwhelmed. She’s adjusted to becoming a mum so young and her love for Noah can be felt through the pages. There are times when she just wants to be her and Noah, getting home from college and picking him up for a cuddle she feels complete and calm. It’s everything else that unsettles her and there are times when her entire life feels mapped out for her. A life she doesn’t want. She’s in a perfect frame of mind to be enticed by an unusual new friendship with Scarlett from the bus. Scarlett is fascinating, older, rich and with a bohemian lifestyle. She has a charm or allure about her that’s hard to quantify and she clearly enjoys having an adoring entourage. So, what does she want with Tallulah? I’ve been where Tallulah is, feeling trapped by circumstances you can’t change, or even by your own mistakes. It leaves you open to taking drastic action and I wondered if that had happened.

Tallulah’s mother, Kim, is a strong woman who desperately wants to keep her daughter’s disappearance in the public eye. She has weathered the storm of her daughter’s pregnancy and her up and down relationship. The two are incredibly close and I enjoyed those moments when mother and daughter are sharing a moment. Kim knows her daughter so well that she has guessed parts of what happened in the lead up to the disappearance, which is more than I managed. I was hopelessly wrong, looking in the wrong place completely for answers. The author throws in red herrings, suspicious clues and people. I found teaching assistant Liam particularly creepy. The mystery is unravelled slowly as the before storyline hinges on one dreadful night and it’s aftermath. The after sequences are based on how quickly Kim and Sophie can find those involved using social media and follow the clues. The tension was really ramped up here and I was sucked into reading it so quickly, watching the pages reduce and wondering when the answers would come. Then, just when I thought I’d worked it out, the author went in another direction entirely. When I finished and put it down, my other half said ‘oh hello, you’re back in the room’ because I was utterly absorbed and when I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it. It was a dark tale of what can happen when people have no moral compass or conscience, and was riveting to the last page.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau.

What a great coming of age novel this is as we follow Mary Jane Dillard’s summer of 1978, caught between her straight-laced and devout home, that’s all rigorous routine and tidiness, and the home where she ‘nannies’, which is untidy, chaotic, has no rules and is harbouring a famous rock star and his girlfriend as he dries out from drink and drugs! Fourteen year old Mary Jane has a complete culture shock when she takes a summer job working for the Cone family down the road. Her role is to look after the daughter, Izzy, but as she finds out roles and rules are not very clearly defined in the Cone household. Mary Jane has grown up with rules, and her favourite things up till this point are cooking with her mother and singing in the church choir. Her mother is the great organiser of their household: tea is always on the table at the same time; they go to the same weekly church activities; she shops for groceries every Friday and always knows where her daughter is. Dr Cone’s professional status is enough for Mary Jane’s mother, who imagines a serious, professional man with a wife who keeps the household running like clockwork. Nothing could be further from the truth and even Mary Jane’s dad points out they might be different – they’re Jewish he tells his family, their name would have been Cohen but they’ve changed it. Besides which, Dr Cone is a doctor of psychiatry and has his own unusual treatment methods.

If the state of your house is truly reflective of who you are (overstuffed, slightly shabby, but full of charm in my case) then the Cones are chaotic, anarchic, full of ideas and very well read. Just like all children, Mary Jane has imagined all homes are like hers and looks at this one with horror and wonder too. There are things everywhere and in Izzy’s room she can’t even see the floor. The family are not just incontinent with their belongings, but their affections too. Mary Jane’s parents don’t show their emotions and seldom show physical affection, but here Izzy’s parents are full of kisses and hugs – something that takes quite a bit of getting used to on Mary Jane’s part. I grew up in a similarly religious and strict family during my adolescence and although my parents were always very loving, I was very shocked when friend’s mums talked to them openly about sex and relationships, or allowed them to read or watch anything, go out till late and wear what they liked. I really felt Mary Jane’s bewilderment at this complete lack of rules or schedules. As it neared late afternoon she would be surprised that no one had thought about what to have for dinner, or that no one had ironed Mr Cone’s shirts. Mr Cone’s office was in the garden, but his methods are rather unorthodox and within the week the house has two new guests; the rock star called Jimmy and his movie star wife Sheba. Jimmy is drying out, which seems to involve eating a lot of very sugary sweets! Mary Jane has been asked to tell no one the couple are there and this is the first thing she has ever kept from her parents. The second thing is her cut off shorts that Sheba has cut so high they only just cover her bum cheeks – I loved the bit where Mary Jane’s mum bumps into her and Izzy in the supermarket, and she hastily throws on an apron to cover her modesty. She knows that if her mother knew even the half of what is happening over at the Cone’s residence, her summer job would be over, and now she’s grown to love both Izzy and their happy go lucky lifestyle.

Of course these two families are not simply good and bad, they’re just different and that difference is appealing when we realise that Mary Jane is getting from the Cone family, exactly what she is missing at home. Her own mother, although rigid and a little remote, is not a bad woman. Yes she has elitist, and often, judgemental views – the first thing she asks about the Cones is which country club they belong to? She also lives a very ‘Stepford Wife’ existence, with a rota of family chores to follow and the ingrained view that a woman looks after the house, children and her husband. In teaching Mary Jane how to cook and clean, she is preparing her for a similar role in life because that is her norm. They belong to a church that reinforces those same views. However, Mary Jane is well cared for and has a very stable home life, with a mother who wants to keep her safe. By contrast, Bonnie Cone is openly affectionate, praises her cooking and cleaning skills as if they’re a magic art, and encourages her to express herself both emotionally and creatively, but she does have shortcomings. She doesn’t work outside the home, but Izzy is often unfed, unwashed and without Mary Jane’s input could be neglected. As a couple, the Cones choose to bring a known addict into their home who is a total stranger, leave food to rot in the fridge and are effectively allowing a fourteen year old to run their home, cook all their meals and be a full-time nanny to their daughter.

Whilst there is so much charm in their lifestyle and love in their hearts, it doesn’t always translate to action and could be seen as dysfunctional. I can imagine many people finding their nudity troublesome – Mrs Cone is often without a bra and Mr Cone wanders naked from bedroom to bathroom, knowing Mary Jane is in the house. As I was reading I found myself drawn to the Cone’s way of life, but also a little troubled by it. While I dislike rigid, religious upbringings I had to feel a drop of sympathy for Mrs Dillard who thinks she is doing the best thing for her family and often is, in a practical sense. While Izzy seems a happy and well- adjusted little girl now, would that continue into her teenage years or might she crave some structure and safety? There’s a scene, early after Sheba and Jimmy’s arrival where the whole household sit and watch Russian and American astronauts meet in space for the first time. Mary Jane observes that as they all sit together, on or in front of the sofa, everyone has an arm round or hand on someone else. It’s a big affectionate sprawl she describes as being like a litter of puppies. This description stayed with me, and I think it is because they all seemed to be on a equal footing. There are no adults and children here – they are all children. This can also be seen in later descriptions of evenings where everyone sings together, dances to the Jimmy’s records and the adults smoke joints. She is even included in group therapy sessions where everyone is encouraged to be honest and has equal status. I couldn’t tell whether it was the whiff of 1970s nostalgia that made this communal living sound idyllic. There were times when I wondered if any five year old brought up in a similar atmosphere now, might even be flagged up at school or to social services.

However, the author’s skill is in creating that nostalgia for the past, the music, the peace, the love and the permissive family. The atmosphere is warm and welcoming and the reader is charmed into wanting to be a member of this loving and accepting household. I felt seduced by it, but then I was Izzy’s age in 1978 and it does feel like a golden time. These are the rose coloured spectacles of a child. Yet, if I asked my parents what was really going on in our lives then, I might get a completely different story. This is how I felt about Mary Jane, that naïvety she has lead to her being charmed by the Cones. She hasn’t stopped to think what would be happening to Izzy if she wasn’t hired for the summer? On one of the last weeks of summer, they all decamp to the coast, sharing a beach house for the week. I was simply waiting for these couples to clash, or something else to go wrong. One thing is definitely true, seeing an extremely different lifestyle opens Mary Jane’s eyes and gives her a more definite picture of who she wants to be and what to do with her life. This is an interesting, nostalgic and funny coming of age novel with a sympathetic heroine who I really enjoyed.

Meet The Author

Jessica Anya Blau is the author of US bestselling novel The Summer of Naked Swim Parties and three other critically acclaimed novels, most recently The Trouble With Lexie. Her novels have been recommended and featured on CNN, NPR, The Today Show and in Vanity Fair, Cosmo, O Magazine, and many other US magazines and newspapers.

Posted in Publisher Proof

Diamonds at the Lost and Found by Sarah Aspinall.

This memoir sounded so intriguing and had such a great write up from other authors who I love, so I was very keen to read it. This is the story of a woman who didn’t live life by society’s rules. Even with a child in tow, she lived life on a knife edge in the hope of fulfilling the childhood belief she was destined for greater things than the poverty she was born into in 1930s Liverpool. My mum’s side of our family are from Liverpool and this was my grandmother’s era so I had a real sense of the sort of poverty the author’s mother might have experienced. As one of five in an Irish Catholic family with a father who was a miner, it can’t have been an easy life. I had thought my Great-Aunt Connie must have lived an interesting life having become pregnant as a teenager, yet managing to keep her daughter and bring her up as single mum. It would have been brave of my great-grandfather and ‘Mother’ (as she was known) to accept the stigma from neighbours and their church community. Connie had earrings that looked like mint imperials and was incredibly glamorous, always ready with a laugh or a joke and always had an admiring gentleman in tow, right up into her seventies. I thought she was fabulous. However, this author’s mother was in another league altogether and I loved hearing these incredible and mysterious escapades.

The best word I can think of to describe Sarah Aspinall’s mother Audrey is incorrigible. Our opening chapter takes us to a Hong Kong hotel bar in 1965 when Sally (now Sarah) is eight years old. The opening conversation between mother and daughter really sets the tone for the type of woman Audrey is. A piano player is softly running through his repertoire of Frank Sinatra tunes. Sally knows them all, she’s heard them in every piano bar she’s been to, but something about this song makes her ask her mother:

‘Why is she a tramp? I ask.

‘ She wants to be free to do her own thing’ she says, ‘you know’, then she croons about having the wind in our hair and being without a care’.

This small conversation opens a window onto a life that is far from conventional and often, shocking, like what transpires next. Audrey calmly identifies a lone man at the bar to her little apprentice who lets her Mum know she’s going to the bar for a Coke. Sally then wedges herself onto a bar stool next to the man and calmly asks him if he will ‘look after’ her Mummy when she goes to bed. When she’s pointed out, Audrey pretends to be bemused, but in a heartbeat turns herself into a fascinating femme fatale. She apologises for her bothersome daughter and says she must get her settled in bed. The man is hooked – could they possibly have a nightcap? Back in their room, Sally watches her mother refresh her smokey eye make-up and step into a mist of perfume, then she departs. Sally knows she won’t be back till morning, so settles to read herself a book, wondering what scent she will wear when she is older. Books are Sally’s only education and she is fascinated with love, currently studying the love story in Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage.

I didn’t want to ask my mother, as she didn’t like to talk about things in books, but […] why didn’t one of those men who my mother met ever love her, when she was so beautiful and could sing and dance and tell funny stories and make the room light up? It must have been a run of terrible luck.

The author is brilliant at occupying the mind of a child, who is by turns naïve and innocent, but also knowing and wise beyond her years. Often she can see when an ‘opportunity’ is going sour before her mother. She is definitely a willing accomplice, but is that down to her mother’s training or simply a family trait? The pair flee from one country (and prospect) to another, via luxury travel and the best hotels if lucky, or on a wing and a prayer if not. It is glamorous, exciting and full of adventure, as Sally mostly presents it. However, it must have been destabilising and possibly even scary at times, especially in her youngest years. For me there was something touching about this little girl, taking herself to bed in a strange hotel while her mother works on their chosen ‘mark’ down in the bar. Sally treads a very careful line; this is no misery memoir, as she makes clear in the afterword. She writes truthfully, but stops short of outright criticism of her mother. Nevertheless, I sensed loneliness in a little girl who only has adults to converse with and is reading books she manages to find left in hotels, some of which are way beyond her years and understanding. This is how she gets an education of sorts. Although the book really does celebrate the glamorous and irrepressible Audrey, there is a hint of anger and resentment too.

Even back in Southport, Audrey isn’t the settling down, cosy type of woman at first. She’s something of a local celebrity. What she doesn’t seem to recognise is the void opening up in her daughter – that need to know who you are and where you’re from – coming from the lack of knowledge around her father and his death. She doesn’t remember him, but has enough skill at reading people to know that just under the surface of her mother’s party personality, is a deep sadness and even perhaps, depression that surfaces from time to time. This keen sense of perception is what drives Sally forward, into completing the jigsaw puzzle that is her mother’s life, for herself and for the reader. I was deeply engaged at this point, eager to understand both of these incredible women. When, finally, Audrey does find some contentment in life and Sarah has the settled family she has always craved, the anger and resentment does start to surface. Audrey appears none the worse for her escapades, but Sarah has paid a heavy price including her lack of education and structure. Now she rebels against rules that are being imposed for the first time. Yet, this is such a generous book. Although she tells the story honestly, Aspinall never judges and shows incredible compassion towards her mother. Yes, this is a very unorthodox mother and daughter relationship, but she didn’t want her memoir to be a grenade lobbed backwards, detonating the past. She allows Audrey to shine out of the pages as the beautiful, dazzling and vivacious woman she was. Meanwhile she shows herself at peace with the past and her mother, by becoming a smart, capable woman with a beguiling set of storytelling skills.

Meet The Author

Sarah Aspinall is a producer and documentary maker. She has four children and lives with her partner in London and on the South coast.

Posted in Netgalley

Waiting for the Miracle by Anna McPartlin

I loved The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes and it’s sequel, both written by this talented author, so I looked forward to starting her new one as soon as NetGalley granted it. As usual for this author it was full of big emotive issues, mixed with the funniest dialogue, strong female characters and an interesting set up. In the narrative from 2010, our four characters meet at an infertility support group. There is a second narrative from 1976 where we meet Catherine, a young girl from Ireland who becomes pregnant as a teenager and is sent to one of the now infamous homes for young mothers, run by the Roman Catholic Church. Coming from a Catholic family myself and finding out I would find it hard to conceive at the age of 25, I was concerned the storyline might be too close to home. I remember being given a list of telephone numbers at the hospital, of women who volunteered for a charity supporting those who had miscarried. I only called one number. Next to the names on the list was a little warning that some of these women had gone on to have healthy pregnancies and there might be children in the house when I called. I knew my outcome would be different by this point. I didn’t have the mental or physical strength to keep getting pregnant, then lose the baby multiple times. I had decided after losing my fourth child that I couldn’t keep going. It was a very hard choice, but the right one for me. I can remember ringing that number for support, only to hear a baby crying in the background. I put the phone down and locked myself in the bathroom so I could grieve in peace. As I read though, I found a kinship with these characters and wished I’d had a group like this to belong to, at a time when my family and friends were supportive, but really didn’t know what it felt like.

Within the group there are women at different stages of this difficult journey. There are so many different reasons for infertility and the author covers most situations within the group: those pursuing IVF; some going through the adoption process; some using donor sperm to have a baby with their same sex partner; women with medical conditions like endometriosis. One has anti-phospho lipid syndrome (often named Hughes Syndrome after the doctor who discovered it) which is my diagnosis and means that it’s possible for patients to get pregnant, but difficult to sustain a pregnancy. Patients with Hughes have sticky blood, making it very difficult to for blood flow to go through the placenta and to the baby. Pregnancies usually fail within the first trimester, my latest miscarriage was at just 12 weeks with twins. As the character in the book relates to the others, often it isn’t detected until the first scan and then an operation must be performed to ‘to remove the products of conception’. As she points out, the medical language may create a distance for the doctor, but for the patient it feels very wrong to see the words ‘termination’ on the consent forms and even harder to sign away the baby you have wanted for so long. The interactions with the NHS were so true to life it felt like the author had popped inside my head and rifled around in my memories. However, there was comfort in knowing this was a shared experience and that other women had been through this feeling exactly the same as I did.

Four women with very different reasons for their fertility problems are drawn together in the group and slowly develop a very strong friendship. A new face in the group sessions seems to bring them together. Ronnie is challenging at first. She seems super confident, asks uncomfortable questions, and invites the others to the pub. She has a strange ability to pull uncomfortable truths and intimate details from those around her, but never seems to disclose much of herself. I found myself starting to question why she was there in the group. Yet as time went on I warmed to her, she seemed feisty and frequently made me smile. Caroline is just about to hit rock bottom in her fertility journey. They have spent a lot of money on medical bills and rounds of IVF, but have never conceived. After discussion with her husband some time ago, they are meant to be never going through it again. Yet Caroline can’t stop yearning for a baby of her own and in her desperation she’s driving her husband away. To make things worse her beloved dog has just died. In a very fragile state she starts to consider just one more round of fertility treatment but her husband isn’t on board. She has to face a very hard decision; is her desire to be a mother, stronger than her love for him? Natalie and her girlfriend have decided to have children using a donor who is very close to home – her girlfriend’s brother. Her girlfriend thinks that if the baby is a blood relative to her, she might be more invested in the idea of becoming parents. Janet’s husband may be having an affair with one of the receptionists from his work place. How can she find out what’s going on? The women are very much a team and support each other, even if one of them is doing something crazy.

Between the present day sections there is the story of a girl called Catherine, back in 1976. Catherine finds herself pregnant after her very first sexual experience with a boy from school. He claims to love her, but she is about to be let down very badly. Catherine’s family are poor, whereas her boyfriend’s family are wealthy and well known in the area. His father is a local magistrate. So when Catherine tells her religious parents what has happened they immediately summon the parish priest and before she knows it Catherine is sitting at the back of his back being shipped off to the nuns at a mother and baby home. We already know the terrible way young girls were treated in these places from films like The Magdalene Laundries and Philomena, but I must admit there were parts of Catherine’s story that genuinely made me cry. I couldn’t believe the casual brutality of these nuns, who are supposed to be women of God. They really made my blood boil. I found it was Catherine’s story that drove the book for me, her plight kept me reading and there were a couple of moments in her story where I was so involved I forgot everything going on around me! The heartbreak, betrayal and psychological abuse this girl goes through is horrendous and her ability to keep going and survive is incredible.

I think that this author enjoys writing about women’s issues and their friendships. She has an awareness, that although we love our partners in life, it is often our female friends that hold us up and keep us going through the worst times. I refer to my best friends as my non-sexual life partners! I had an inkling about the mystery at the centre of the story. What did happen to the baby Catherine had stolen from her at the mother and baby home? I read this in a day, because I was so drawn in by the story and these women who felt completely real to me. Anna McPartlin has such a storytelling skill. She has a way of mining your emotions until you’re sobbing over someone who isn’t even real. For those who’ve been through any of the experiences featured, it might be a difficult read in parts, but I promise you won’t feel let down or misrepresented by the way she depicts your experience. This was sad, funny, warm and poignant. A little bit like life.

Meet The Author.

From Anna’s Amazon Author Page.

Hello reader, 

I’m an Irish novelist and a TV scriptwriter. Currently with 7 fiction titles available to buy online and one children’s title under the name Bannie McPartlin. As of August 2019 I’ve just finished writing ‘Under The Big Blue Sky,’ the follow up to international best selling title ‘The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes.’ This title will be published by Bonnier Zaffer and will be available UK &I IRE and amazon Summer 2020. 

My previous short incarnation as a stand-up comedian left an indelible mark. I’m described by all who know me as a slave to the joke and my work focuses on humour and humanity in even the darkness situations.

So if you’d like to take a trip to the dark side and if you are a fan of big, bold characters check out my titles and I hope you enjoy.

PS

If you are not a fan of moderate to severe cursing, best to move on. Either way good luck to you. 

PPS

I dabble in twitter but often forget it’s there (@annamcpartlin). I’m better on Facebook but not brilliant Anna McPartlin and I really giving it a good old go on instagram #Trying (mcpartlin.anna) and my website is annamcpartlin.com.

Anna McP XXX

Posted in Netgalley

Two Women in Rome by Elizabeth Buchan.

Regular readers may remember how much I loved Elizabeth Buchan’s last novel The Museum of Broken Promises, in fact it was one of my top twenty of the year. So, I was very excited to be approved to read this via NetGalley. The story is split into two timelines and follows the lives of two British women who spend some time living in Rome. Lottie Archer arrives at the Eternal City as a new wife and with a new job as an archivist at the Archivo Espatriati. Her very first task is to archive the papers and journal of a woman called Nina Lawrence who worked as a gardener in Rome in the late 1970s. This was a difficult time for the country socially and politically, known as the ‘Years of Lead’ – a period which stretched from the 1960s to the 1980s and resulted in many incidents of far right and far left terrorism. Nina’s task was to redesign gardens that still lay devastated by WW2, something she was passionate about and very talented. Within her papers, is a large leather journal, rather worse for wear and full of drawings and pressed plants. However, Lottie also finds a painting of the Annunciation – the moment where the Virgin Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel to tell her she will be the mother of Jesus, the son of God. Lottie thinks it may be medieval, due to the colours used and the iconography. This piques her interest and she is disturbed to learn that Nina was murdered in Rome, and that very few people attended her funeral in the Protestant cemetery. Interestingly though, one mourner was a Catholic priest, which strokes Lottie as very unusual. She wants to find out more about the painting, but she also finds herself sucked into the mystery of what happened to Nina, who murdered her and why did she seem so friendless in this beautiful city?

I found the novel a little slow at first. I didn’t click with Lottie straight away, the detail and discussion of medieval art was quite dense (or I was) and the complexity of the political situation wasn’t always easy to follow. I also thought the intricacies and machinations of the Catholic Church might be a little difficult to penetrate for those who don’t know much about Catholicism – luckily I am one, with convent teaching under my belt, so this was not so difficult for me. However, I did like that the author didn’t simplify these areas of the book because in a way they added to the mystery of a city that has an incredibly complicated history. I was drawn in most by the story of Nina, just like Lottie is. I could understand why her story would get under your skin as someone interested in the past and trying to make sense of it. There is a kinship between the two women, even though they can never meet. Lottie is unsure of her position in Rome for several reasons. Firstly, when she arrives to work at the archive, her new role hasn’t quite been vacated. She moves into the apartment that her husband Tom shared with his previous partner Clare, and all around her are memories that don’t belong to her (including an ugly lamp, that should be kept because it works perfectly well, according to their formidable housekeeper). All of this is compounded by an underlying sense of abandonment, formed because she was left by her birth mother. There’s something lost about Nina that she latches onto and the more she finds out, the more she wonders whether Nina was more than a gardener?

Nina is a rather fascinating woman, who shares Lottie’s sense of rootlessness and lack of ties. There is definitely a deeply woven reason for Nina’s death, involving politics, security services, the church and a rather unwise, but beautiful love affair that unfolds in her journal. It is this aspect of her character that really humanises her for me, she becomes a real, living and breathing person and it is then even more tragic when the end comes. One thing both narratives capture beautifully is the city itself. Just like the narrative structure of the book, we get a sense of Rome as place where the past is very closely layered under the present. I thought about the tunnels and cave structures that run under the city’s streets, some still populated with WW2 vehicles, as an embodiment of this feeling. The present is full of tourists, rushing around on their itineraries getting a sense of the past and present city, but not necessarily the world underneath their feet. The author evokes the sights and smells beautifully: describing the less followed paths, the street fountains carved with dolphins and maidens, the detail of the plants so precious to Nina, the smells and sight of the deli counters full of salami, olives and beautifully ripe tomatoes. I found myself craving a trip to Italy all the time while reading!

However, she also shows its impenetrability to outsiders who know nothing of Catholicism, Roman etiquette or it’s slightly corrupt ways of getting business done. This is captured most beautifully in Lottie’s burgeoning relationship with their housekeeper. I also enjoyed her friendship with the book binder, who she asks to authenticate the painting she finds without understanding his significance. The background on medieval painting is vital here, not just to understand the symbolism within the traditional aspects, but to identify those that are far more transgressive and intensely personal. This is a complicated mystery/thriller, mixed with a travelogue of Rome and an intense love story. It asks questions about where we belong and whether our final destinations have been reached by choice, accident or a deep sense of duty to our family, our religion and our country. By the end I realised I’d become so enthralled, I was very sad to leave Rome behind.

Thank you to Atlantic Books for my digital copy via NetGalley.