Spirited by Julie Cohen. #RandomThingsTours #blogtours #Spirited

I had never read Julie Cohen’s work before so I didn’t know what to expect from her writing. Only a few weeks ago on Twitter I was discussing when a new Sarah Waters novel would be appearing and Spirited by Julie Cohen has definitely filled that gap. It’s also made an impact on me that’s all it’s own. Viola Worth has grown up cared for by her clergyman Father, as well as his ward, a little boy called Jonah. Viola and Jonah are the best of friends, spending their childhoods largely inseparable. As we meet them in adulthood, they are getting married, but in mourning. A lot has happened during the period of their engagement. Jonah had been out to India, staying at his family’s haveli and checking on his financial interests. For Viola, it’s been a tough time nursing, then losing, her father. He encouraged her in his own profession as a photographer and she has become accomplished in her own right. Viola’s father wanted her to marry Jonah, and they are still the best of friends, but the time apart has changed them and neither knows the full extent of the other’s transformation. As they try to settle into married life on the Isle of Wight, Jonah spends his time sketching fossil and bone finds with his scientific a friend. Viola feels cut adrift and without purpose, as we find out later she doesn’t even feel she is fulfilling her role as Jonah’s wife. Through new friends the couple meet a visiting spirit medium, although as daughter of a clergyman, Viola would never normally enjoy this type of entertainment. Little do they know, this woman will change their lives.

The author slips back and forth in time to tell us about Henriette, who worked her way in life from being a servant to a respected spirit medium. She is a woman who started with no advantage in life, and as a young servant models herself on the governess in the house, a French woman known as Madame to the family. Henriette diligently listens to the children’s French lesson and nurses a hope of a future where she doesn’t clean up after other people or have to wish for a roommate so she isn’t sexually assaulted in the night. Her attacker labels her a whore and one early morning, after there’s been a house party, she stumbles on a group of men in the stables betting. They are playing cards for money, but once they see Henriette they become intent on a different sport. It is Madame who interrupts the attackers and she gives Henriette advice from one woman surviving alone in the world to another. The author also takes us back to Jonah’s time in India. We discover that in social circles Jonah is a hero, because during a massacre he rescued a young girl who lived in his haveli after all her family are killed. Viola wonders if it is this experience that has changed Jonah. They live as if they are brother and sister, Jonah spends less time with her than before and at bedtime they still go to their separate bedrooms and sleep apart. Viola knows there is more between husband and wife but doesn’t really know what and has no idea who to talk to. Through Henriette, Viola is asked to take a photograph of a child who has died so the parents have an image to keep. No one is more stunned than Viola when she develops the image and sees a blurred figure standing next to the bed, the likeness to their child shocks and comforts the parents; they feel reassured that their child lives on in spirit. This experience, and her experience of her first proper female friendship, is like a floodgate opening for Viola. She starts to question the limits of her faith, whether there is more in life she would like to try and as time goes on, whether the burgeoning feelings she has for Henriette are friendship or something else.

I loved the feminist threads running through this novel. The central women in the novel are each in liminal spaces, different from the conventional Victorian women we see like Mrs Newham. Henriette is a self-made woman, unmarried and travelling from space to space offering her spiritualist services for enough to survive on. She has moved from bar girl, to servant, to nursing and losing her elderly husband, and now into a semi-respected occupation. She gets to visit the homes of those she might have once waited upon, but isn’t tied by their social rules and conventions. In India we meet Pavan, who has made the exceptional choice within her societal rules to become educated and has made huge sacrifices in order to achieve that. Love was not on her agenda, and when it comes she experiences a painful separation between her intellectual choice and her emotions. Viola may seem the most conventional of these women, but her relationship with her father has set her apart from others of her class. He believed in educating Viola the same way as Jonah, then teaches her the art of photography too, usually considered a male pastime. Viola is respectful of many conventions, but finds herself emboldened by Henriette and the new experiences she brings to her life. She tries bathing in the sea and is bold enough to start accepting her ‘gift’ of capturing spirits. Behind them all is the french governess Madame. The role of Victorian governess is the very definition of a liminal space: she works in the home but is not a servant, educated and unmarried, respectable, but not on the same level as the family she works for. She has power in that she works for herself, has and controls her own money and can choose to leave her position and join another family, in a different place. Her acknowledgment of Henriette’s fate, as a pretty face in the power of men, inspires Henriette to be more. It gives her aspiration, although she may never be a gentlewoman, with careful decision making she could be more like Madame.

It is within the physical liminal spaces where there are beautiful passages of writing from the author. The scene where Henriette and Viola go bathing is absolutely exquisite because I could feel everything. The strangeness of undressing in a darkened box on wheels, the feel of the swimming dress, the rough and tumble of being pulled into the sea by a horse, then opening the door to see nothing but the ocean in front of you. This is a play on conventional baptism for Viola. She fully immerses herself in the water, supported by Henriette, and feels a rebirth. The heaviness in the uncoiling of her hair and letting it float free signifies a freeing from the constraints of Victorian fashion, as is the unlacing of the corsets. As they trundle back up to the sand after their swim, Viola wishes they could stay in this space in the dark for the intimacy with Henriette, and the knowledge of the freedom she will feel as she opens the door and sees nothing but ocean. When the women share Viola’s room the writing is so tender. Viola worries what the servants might think, but Henriette frees her thinking again. Love between women does not exist, she tells her, there are laws and conventions regarding love between a man and a woman, and even the love between men. What they are to each other is beyond the thoughts of most people, the servants will see two friends staying together and nothing more. Pavan and Jonah, don’t meet in the main haveli but in an ancient old temple in its grounds, a space no longer used for its purpose and outside the family structure inside the house. They meet as two people of different cultures and beliefs, but find a connection so powerful that each would put their lives on the line for the other. Jonah wonders whether he could live a different life to the one laid out for him back in England. He’s seen other English men here who have married Indian women and had children. They’re neither totally respectable, but are not shunned either. This is a novel of people, particularly women, learning to live in the spaces between; the places that promise more freedom.

This was an original, emotional and beautifully written novel that weaves a powerful story from a combination of painstaking historical research and imagination. Each character is fully fleshed out and has a rich inner life. Where real events such as the 1857 Siege of Delhi are used in the novel, they are deeply powerful and the author treats them with respect. The elements of spiritualism and spirit photography are well researched and based on a real fascination for the paranormal in Victorian society. Cohen acknowledges that this is a novel about faith: religious faith, faith in the paranormal and that the ties to those we love don’t end in death; faith in romantic love and the promises we make to each other; even the faith she has in herself. In the acknowledgements to this novel Julie Cohen says ‘I wrote the first draft of this book when I thought my writing career was over’. Judging by this book, it’s far from over. However, by allowing herself to think of that possibility, she gave herself the space to write something truly extraordinary.

The Paper Bracelet by Rachael English. #RandomThingsTours #blogtours #ThePaperBracelet #Headline

Rachael English tells a very powerful story about a shameful part of Ireland’s history; the Catholic Church’s homes for ‘wayward girls’. We meet a young girl who has an affair with a married man from her village and becomes pregnant. Her devout parents send for the parish priest and follow his advice to send her to Carrigbrack, a home run by nuns for unmarried mothers. This was one of the now infamous Magdalene Laundries or Asylums that housed upwards of thirty thousand women from the late 18th to the late 20th centuries. The scandal around these institutions broke in the late 1990s when a mass grave was found at one home containing approximately 155 bodies. Since then a formal apology has been given by the Irish government to the women who survived and a compensation scheme set up to acknowledge the damage done by allowing the practice to continue unchallenged for so long. The stories of some of these women have made it into incredibly powerful films such as Philomena where Judi Dench plays a woman trying to find the son taken from her and given to an American family. However, what Rachael English has done incredibly well is create multiple characters showing varied experiences within this history, but also how these institutions affected the women’s families for generations.

There are two timelines across the novel: a present day setting where a retired nurse has a hidden box of paper bracelets, but also flashbacks to the mid-20th Century where we follow the young girl sent into Carrigbrack. In the present day, Kate is recently widowed and when attempting to tidy her husband’s things from the wardrobe comes across a box of tiny paper bracelets. Her niece Beth is staying with her and for the first time Kate tells another member of her family about the origin of all these bracelets. She explains being a nurse in an institution called Carrigbrack, and how saving the baby’s identity bracelets was her small way of preserving the only proof they existed. With them is a tiny notebook where she has recorded any small detail she can remember of their birth mother, date and given name. Beth becomes our equivalent in the book, the modern reader placing 21st Century values onto the past. She is very shocked that her aunt would have anything to do with a practice that now seems barbaric.

Kate describes a very different Ireland, where obedience to the church was paramount and people were more deferential and trusting of those in authority. Then, in a small community, it would be perfectly normal to ask the parish priest to intervene in family matters. More often than not it would have been unthinkable not to take his advice. Beth can’t imagine a country being so judgemental on it’s young women. For some of the youngest girls sex would have been non-consensual and their pregnancy a product of rape or abuse. Yet they were still treated as ‘fallen women’ and punished with heavy work, often right up to their due date. Many girls were kept for up to six months after giving birth to pay the home back for the care they’d received. Then, even if they’d formed a bond, their baby would be adopted, often illegally, and with no warning. Meanwhile, their rapist could still be a pillar of the community back home, maybe enjoying their legitimate family and still going to church with the very same parish priest who placed his victim in these institutions.

In order to portray a breadth of experience, the author has created many, very memorable, characters. My heart belongs to Winnie. Freckled, funny and incredibly mischievous with beautiful curly black hair, she is Patricia’s first real friend at Carrigbrack. Together, when they’re allowed to, they can share experiences and really laugh like the young girls they are. Even having her hair hacked off for insubordination doesn’t dull her spirit, but it tragically means that her cries that she’s in labour go ignored by the nuns while she’s working in the laundry. The consequences are heartbreaking and genuinely made me cry. I found myself desperately hoping that despite being broken with grief, Winnie would find her spirit again and we’d meet her in the later parts of the book. I did struggle a little bit with people’s names on occasion as we went back and forth. The women’s names were changed by the nuns so might have reverted to their own name. Nuns change their names when they join an order. The babies were named by their mother, often renamed by the nuns and again by their adoptive parents. I did get a sense of the bureaucratic nightmare these women faced to find their children again and why many survivor’s of the institutions might struggle with their identity. I found myself being drawn into solving this mystery of which characters belonged to each other. I was also more than a little intrigued by Katie herself. What had led her to work in such a place? Why did she feel so strongly about keeping the bracelets? Beth’s mother is very reticent to talk about the years Katie spent there. Does she simply still subscribe to the old ways and believe that the scandal was best left, swept under the carpet? I couldn’t stop thinking there was more to this frosty relationship.

The children who are found also have very varied experiences and are in different places in life, yet all have felt this yearning to find their roots. Some have been blessed in their adoptive families and are well supported in their search. Others have always felt rudderless and a little bit lost in life; without that sense of being grounded. I was interested in the story of Brandon whose wife Robyn has been urging him to follow up on Katie’s post. What he finally finds explains his lifelong sense of someone or something being missing from his life. He is very conflicted about his birth family, because it comes with what he sees as complications. Ailish is also memorable as she illustrates one possible result of a lifelong lack of self-confidence, borne from the knowledge she was an ‘unwanted’ baby. There is room to heal when these characters find out the truth: they were very much wanted, but stolen; their origins were complicated; or their mothers were forced into accepting they couldn’t care for a child. The reunion is only a beginning. I loved that these characters didn’t just find their birth family. These survivors start to form a network, another type of family, that can only be borne out of shared experience. Now a set of roots intertwined and grown strong from those terrible events that happened to them as young women or babies.

The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith #OrendaBooks #TheWaitingRooms

Wow! This was a tough read in lockdown. There was one point where I was really sweating because it was making me so anxious. Last week I went out for the first time in eight weeks. It was a beautiful sunny day. With the windows down and the music on, it felt like any other summers day. Then we reached the medical centre. The queue outside the pharmacy was ten people deep, all of them were wearing masks. It was so disorientating. Eve Smith creates a world like this. It’s ours, but not quite. There’s a sense of the uncanny. It’s familiar, yet changed completely. This is a world ‘post-Crisis’ and three different women tell the story.

Lily is an older woman, living in a nursing home facility. She is nearing her 70th birthday and this is a huge milestone. After the ‘Crisis’ an act was passed to reduce access to antibiotics for the over 70s. The world became overrun with a resistant form of TB, seemingly spread at a series of large concerts where thousands were exposed to the virus. Life has now changed completely. People no longer keep cats, just in case they are scratched or bitten. Pets were declawed or simply put down. If they have money, elderly people can be cared for well and in comfort. If not or if they get infection they can be bundled off to dormitories of the dying. The author’s description of these wards and how they treat those who die there had me in tears it was so powerful. This is what happens when certain groups in society are devalued. Our treatment of them becomes less humane. They become objects, not people capable of being loved.

Kate is a nurse, working within this changed healthcare system. She works with people who are terminally ill and palliative care is very different to what we’re used to. If someone is over 70 and has a terminal diagnosis they have a choice; they can take their chances in an imperfect system with no interventions possible or they can come to a room with their family and end their life. Again, the author describes such a powerful scene when a man comes with his daughter and son-in-law to die. Kate is so professional, talking his choice through with his devastated daughter and explaining why treatment isn’t available for his cancer. Once he’s ready Kate hands him a glass of whiskey flavoured drug and waits until he’s ready to drink it. Only minutes pass before his pulse slows down and he peacefully passes away. Kate carries this out efficiently and with empathy. In fact it’s preferable to the alternative. No matter how humane it seems, it’s still chilling and sterile. We find out that Kate was adopted, and since the death of her adoptive Mum she’s been looking for her birth mother in her spare time. She’s looking for a woman over 70, who knows if she’s still alive.

Mary takes us back to pre-crisis times and her post-graduate days in South Africa. Mary is a botanist with an interest in finding new species of plant that may have medical applications. She meets Piet in a close call with a rhinoceros and he introduces her to the growing TB crisis in South Africa. He explains that AIDS has suppressed people’s immune systems to the point that they’re vulnerable to other infection. This form of TB is resistant and American drug companies aren’t queueing up to help. Could her research help him find a plant suitable for TB drugs? Piet has talked about radical ways of making the world look at what is going on. They spend more time together and have a trip out to his lookout where you can hear and see incredible wildlife. This is where their affair begins.

Every single thread of this story is compelling. I knew they were connected, but kept reading to find out how and why they were all separated. There was the added mystery of who was targeting Lily with newspaper cuttings, and cards. The eventual reveal was a surprise, but it was the revenge that was particularly devastating. The research that must have gone into the medical and scientific aspects of this novel is staggering. The short, factual sections that are either news reports, or scientific articles feel almost real. Every so often I needed to take my head out of the book and see the world as it is, not that it was much better once I turned on the news. I had to take a few deep breaths in the garden from time to time. This author created a credible dystopia, one that’s closer to the truth than a lot of people would like to think. Within that world we follow three interesting and intelligent women, trying their best in an imperfect system. The cold, sterile present contrasts sharply with the lush descriptions of South Africa. It scared me, made me think about my old age and the way we treat those older and sicker than us. I think it is a staggering work of genius, delicate and detailed, but inside a huge vision. I found it incredible.

The Girl from Widow Hills by Megan Miranda. #blogtour #CorvusBooks #RandomThingsTours #TheGirlFromWidowHills

Taking the missing child narrative and turning it into something different and new is quite a challenge, but I think this author is successful in exploring what happens beyond the initial drama, where most novels end. Arden Maynor disappeared when she was six years old. Thought to have left the house while sleepwalking, she is washed away by a flash flood and isn’t found till three days later, hanging onto the grate of a storm drain. In those moments, absolutely everyone in Widow Hills is focused on her and everyone is affected. From her and her mother, to the man who finds her, the journalists and photographers, rescue teams, police officers and those who treat her terrible shoulder injury at the hospital. There’s a flurry of publicity for all those concerned. Arden’s mother gets a book deal and a fund is set up to support Arden into the future. Then the next crisis happens and the Maynors are forgotten.

Twenty years on and Arden is renamed Olivia Meyer. She has used the remains of her fund to buy a house on the edge of a new town near the woods. She also has a job in administration at the local hospital and lives a fairly quiet life. She has a routine of work, dinner, a small glass of wine while watching TV and then bed. On Fridays she goes for a drink in a local bar with her friend from work, Bennett, and a new nurse called Elyse. She also has a friend in Rick, an older guy who lives next door, and they keep an eye on each other. This routine is unsettled when she receives a phone call telling her that her mother died seven months before and they need an address to send her belongings to. When the box arrives and she opens it, a cascade of memories come out with the objects. There isn’t much, but Olivia is most touched by the small bracelet with a silver ballet slipper charm attached. It’s something good she remembers from her childhood. She doesn’t remember much of the three days she was missing, apart from the dark, cold and wet. Afterwards, she feels her mother frittered money away, mainly into drug abuse and they drifted apart. That very night Olivia starts to sleepwalk again.

I enjoyed the author’s depiction of someone who is post-trauma. I understood Olivia’s need for quiet, security and routine. I did start to have questions as I read further. It seemed that Olivia’s narrative of her childhood and the trauma was very rote and something she’s defensive about. When she visits the sleep clinic about her sleepwalking, she can’t elaborate on it more than repeating her mother’s description. It’s almost as if she can’t recall the trauma from her own point of view. Even her memories of being missing seem strangely one note. She was missing for three days, but can only remember a small proportion of it. She couldn’t have been in the same place for three days, because the team searched there, so why can’t she remember where she was? As the stress builds, the big wall Olivia has around her memories and feelings starts to crumble and it’s interesting to see her start to question herself. Especially as the bodies start to appear.

I loved that the author showed us the flip side of Olivia’s experience; what it’s like to witness a trauma. Olivia meets the son of the man who found her and while she’s not sure if she can trust him she does listen. Nathan saw his Dad do something heroic, be plunged into a whirlwind of publicity, then left with nothing. There was no fund for the rescuer, no fund for his children, and there is a bitterness that Olivia might have had it easier with her funded education. Similarly, she meets one of the journalists who was there and helped with her mother’s book. She has adopted a lifestyle very like Olivia’s – quiet, and tucked away where she can’t be found. Olivia starts to see how a trauma she thought was hers, exclusively, has affected others like ripples on a pond. All the people she meets ask questions, till she can see there’s something about her experience that’s missing, and even goes as far as revisiting Widow Hills to remember. I had my suspicions, but the final revelation did surprise me. The author taught me that when reading thrillers I can’t trust anything I’m told, from the opening chapter, right up to the final page.

The Miseducation of Evie Epworth by Matson Taylor. #RandomThingsTours #blogtour #TheMiseducationofEvieEpworth #ScribnerBooks

I was only three pages in to this book and I knew that Evie was going to be one of my favourite literary characters. Favourite as in – on my list next to Jo March, Cassandra Mortmain and Adrian Mole, characters I’ve also experienced growing up and setting out into the world. The book was off to a good start anyway, then as we followed Evie jumping into her father’s MG to do the milk round there was a scene so funny I laughed out loud at 2am waking both the dog and my other half. I devoured this book in 24 hours, knowing part of me would be sorry when it ended, but not able to slow down either.

We meet Evie when she’s at a crossroads in life. She’s in that limbo summer between GCSE and deciding what to do next. Evie’s plan, if she gets the right results, is to do her A Levels. Till then she plans to spend the summer delivering milk from the family farm, baking with Mrs Scott-Pym next door, and reading all the books she can get her hands on. There is only one thing in her way; her Dad Arthur’s girlfriend, Christine. Chrissie has moved into the farmhouse and is setting about making changes. This is 1962 and she’s all for embracing the new. She wants to get rid of the old unhygienic wood in the kitchen, because what they need is some nice modern Formica. She’s already replaced the Range with an electric cooker, because she couldn’t work it. As Evie says, it takes quite an intellect to be outwitted by a kitchen appliance. Worst of all she’s replaced Evie’s Adam Faith clock with a chicken! It has always just been Evie and her Dad, Arthur, as far back as she can remember. Her mum died when Evie was little and she has no memories of her. Chrissie needs to be dealt with, but how? Arthur is a disappointment. Mrs Scott-Pym says he’s like all men, weak and easily confused by a pair of boobs.

I have lived in villages and on farms for my whole life so I can honestly say that the author’s depiction of the characters and events of country life are not exaggerated – no, not even that cow scene. There are still characters like this in rural villages. The comedy comes from the brilliantly blunt Yorkshire dialogue, the gap between what we as adults understand and Evie doesn’t yet, but mainly the amazing characters created by the author. Mrs Swithenbank is a comedy gem, always at the mercy of her explosive bowels. The long suffering Vera, Chrissie’s mother, who is never far behind her daughter like a human ‘buy one-get one free’ offer. Then, Mrs Scott-Pym’s daughter Caroline, comes into the village like a whirlwind and along with Evie shows that constant dilemma young people in villages face – do they stay put or go out into the wider world, perhaps needing to try the anonymity of the city? It can be hard to develop into your true self in a village where everyone knows who you are and any attempt to change is the object of ridicule. I remember a perm I had at 15, thinking I looked like Baby from Dirty Dancing, only to hear ‘ugh what have you done to your hair’ at every house on the pools round. I loved the depiction of the petty rivalries around the village show and what a surprise it is that Chrissie, who struggles with making toast, wins the best fruit cake. On top of everything else she does, the fact that she possibly cheated at the village show is viewed as the worst crime and given the last reveal.

Chrissie though is the best comic creation of the lot, but isn’t left to be one dimensional either. Though she is truly awful in a lot of ways, it’s clear that she’s from a poorer family in the village and her upbringing hasn’t been easy. There’s class war over the Range cooker for sure. She lets slip in an exchange with Evie that she’d done every job going, from waitressing to wiping arses. While that might excuse her yearning for an easier life, it doesn’t excuse her way of getting it. There are times when it’s all out war at the tea table and Arthur stays behind his paper hoping it will blow over. I loved her ever present ‘pinkness’ and a crimplene wardrobe that Evie observes doesn’t end in Narnia, but at a bingo hall in Scunthorpe (I love seeing my birthplace in print). Poor Vera is always struggling a few paces behind, usually sweating and doing all the fetching and carrying. Chrissie is always exhausted – I need to put my feet up, Mum put the kettle on – and always rushing towards getting another grasping finger on Arthur, preferably a finger with a ring on it. This should have been a mild flirtation or dalliance at most, everyone can see they are not suited.

There are interludes between Evie’s chapters where we see the meeting of her parents, Arthur and Diana. They are serene, even romantic chapters where we see them meet at a dance, get married in a rush during the war and settle at the farm. We see Diana form a friendship with Mrs Scott-Pym and rush round to tell her friend when Evie is on the way. There’s so much of this interesting woman left, hidden in plain sight such as a particular teaspoon in the drawer and the recipe book Mrs Scott-Pym has kept for Evie. It’s so sad that Evie and her Dad don’t talk about her more openly and honestly. If wishes and spells aren’t going to change this, there needs to be a catalyst. When Mrs Scott-Pyle falls down the stairs and her daughter Caroline arrives we see a force of nature equal to Chrissie. She wears elegant clothes, big black sunglasses and scarves tied round her neck like the French do. Evie is very impressed with her sophistication, but also her nerve. She cooks up a great scheme to get Evie out of working in the village salon, takes her to Leeds to shop in an Italian deli and has the means by which Chrissie’s true nature can be revealed. She is also the only lesbian Evie has ever met, leading to her asking visiting friends of Caroline’s whether they are a lesbian too as a conversation starter! Evie is trying on different futures, and may be adding Caroline as an extra role model alongside The Queen, Charlotte Bronte and Shirley MacLaine.

This novel is an absolute joy. A great read to cheer you up and honestly, make you laugh out loud. Every character is beautifully drawn and the comic timing is perfect. I couldn’t believe it was a debut, because it has all the confidence and timing of Sue Townsend and also made me think back further to the blunt Yorkshire characters of James Herriot. On a personal level I needed a lift, after being very strict with lockdown rules due to my MS, and this was just the lift I needed. Thank you Matson, for such a great set of characters and for providing exactly the book I needed at exactly the right time.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. #QuercusBooks #MexicanGothic #blogtour #NetGalley.

Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, those were Catalina’s sort of books. Moors and spiderwebs. Castles too, and wicked stepmothers who force princesses to eat poisoned apples, dark fairies cursing maidens and wizards who turn handsome lords into beasts.

When I first started this novel I was a little bit unsure, but I read the above paragraph and trusted it was the book for me. I have a smidgen of Catalina’s gothic, romantic sensibility about me and this book had all the elements I usually enjoy: a plucky heroine, a suitably wealthy but eccentric family, the possibly hysteric friend/family member who needs rescuing, a crumbling gothic mansion. So far, so usual. Then the first dream sequence happened and I sat straight up in bed, wondering what sort of dark, twisted fairytale I’d let myself in for. From that point on I found it curiously addictive – the sort of ‘still reading at 2am addictive’. By the end, I was awake because I was too scared to sleep!

Noemi Tabouda is dispatched by her uncle to High Place, the estate of the wealthy Doyle family. Virgil Doyle is the new husband of Noemi’s cousin and it is Catalina who has written an alarming letter begging to be rescued from a strange supernatural fate. The letter mentions fantastical happenings, such as people in the walls and a spectral voice speaking to her. Noemi wonders if her cousin needs to see a psychiatrist, because even though Catalina has a flair for the dramatic, she has never sounded so scared. The family know very little about the Doyle’s because Catalina and Virgil’s romance was a bit of a whirlwind. In Noemi’s limited time with him, he seemed very charming and had the dark brooding looks of a Byronic hero. This is a good chance to help Catalina get well, but also get to know the Doyle family a little better.

The author has created a brilliant setting in the Doyle family mansion High Place. It has a strange dual effect on Noemi of being luxurious and comfortable, but almost suffocating and overpowering. The past wealth of the family can be seen in every piece of silver, swish of velvet curtain and the eyes of past Doyle’s following her around the room. Noemi’s room is luxurious but shabby, as if the wealth has started to run out. The wallpaper has a curious pattern, but is also decorated with patches of damp. The bath is deep enough for a good soak but the fixtures and fittings are a little rusty. There are servants, but they are strangely silent and don’t even catch Noemi’s eye. The whole regime of the house seems very regimented to Noemi who is an informal, modern woman. Virgil’s father is definitely head of the house, but his sister Florence is the gatekeeper who makes sure his wishes are carried out. Noemi expected to breeze in and immediately pop in on her cousin, but finds she is barred. Apparently, the family doctor has decided she needs rest and a very quiet atmosphere. Noemi is told her cousin has TB, which has never been mentioned before, and doesn’t really account for the strange things Catalina mentioned in her letter.

Noemi is a great central character to follow through the story. She is sassy, intelligent and very determined to bring a little 20th Century thinking into High Place. I love that she isn’t afraid to ask questions, especially of the men who aren’t used to being held to account by women. This is how the author starts to subvert the gothic /fairytale genre – Catalina is the more ‘traditional’ heroine. Noemi brings in the local doctor to give her a second opinion, befriends the younger cousin Francis and enlists his help in understanding the family. She recognises that’s a lot of women have struggled to live with the Doyle’s regime. Howard had two wives, who were sisters and both died at High Place. A cousin, Ruth, took a shotgun to the family leaving Uncle Howard alive but horribly disfigured. From the village Noemi unearths stories of hundreds of silver miners going missing in the Doyle mines. It seems the family consume people, encapsulated by their horrible emblem of a snake eating its own tail.

The incredible nightmare sequences are vivid and visceral. At first I wasn’t sure which was real: was the regimented, almost Puritan, daily order of High Place the reality, or was it a thin veil of decency obscuring something more deadly and decadent. Just as mould was starting to be visible on the wallpaper, Noemi’s nightmares signal something breaking through, threatening to take over. This underlying force seems to understand the very soul of the person it tries to corrupt. In Noemi’s case her modern attitude to dating and female sexuality is used to draw her in against her will. She is a serial dater, choosing short dalliances where no one can get too close. So her nightmares have a strong sexual element, where Virgil Doyle lulls and seduces her, in her bath or in the middle of the night. She questions herself. Virgil repulses her, but does she desire him? Are these dreams conjured from her own subconscious or is something able to infiltrate her sleep and lure her down the corridors in her nightdress?

The truth of High Place and what happens there, when it is revealed, is truly horrific. There was a scene that literally made me gag! This may be one of those occasions when I truly hope they don’t make the book into a film – I wouldn’t be able to watch it! I felt that the author was playing with the reader and our own push and pull between fascination and revulsion. I found this very reminiscent of Dracula. There was an equally interesting tension around social change. The local miners exploited by the Doyle’s are part of the past, along with the family’s rules and position in society and their adherence to the ‘family doctor’. The new is represented by characters like Noemi and the mentions of her wardrobe full of the new styles and the young local doctor who tries to help Catalina. In the town the Doyle family are seen as weird eccentrics, possibly sinister, but no longer able to command respect as they would have a generation before. Their time is waning and these horrific acts are a fight, both for the family and the entity that lives alongside them. The author subverts the fairy tales Catalina loved in her youth and the original Gothic trope of a damsel in distress, rescued by a man. I truly enjoyed this novel, despite the fact it kept me awake at night worried that mushrooms were coming out of the wallpaper. Now, finally, I’d like to go and get some dreamless sleep.

Not The Deaths Imagined by Anne Pettigrew #damppebbles #NotTheDeathsImagined #CoverReveal #pettigrew_anne

Fancy some tartan noir? Today I have the cover reveal and pre-order link for Anne Pettigrew’s new novel Not The Deaths Imagined.

In 1990s Glasgow, Dr Beth Semple is juggling motherhood and a busy NHS practice. She informs the authorities when she notices an odd pattern of deaths in her area, but they remain unconvinced. Beth believes she’s got it right and her professional reputation is on the line. A stream of targeted harassment follows and Beth finds herself and her family at risk. Could a well-liked local GP be a killer? Beth is rushing to put all the pattern pieces together before any more deaths occur. Will the authorities realise their mistake in time?

You can pre-order today at:

https://eur04.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=https%3A%2F%2Famzn.to%2F31eOqIC&data=02%7C01%7C%7C2a80852dc3c944870c0208d818685231%7C84df9e7fe9f640afb435aaaaaaaaaaaa%7C1%7C0%7C637286183611214034&sdata=ude7ZXXavVnEQz2edYaJfQHWFp1YrL8jgPsmt8Kc8o0%3D&reserved=0

Out on 1st August. Look out for the blog tour soon.

Below The Big Blue Sky by Anna McPartlin #RememberRabbitHayes


I read Anna McPartlin’s last novel The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes just last year and remember being profoundly moved by the story of Mia ‘Rabbit’ Hayes and her love for Johnny Faye. Johnny was the singer in her older brother’s band and Rabbit went from lurking around to catch sight of Johnny to becoming the band’s sound engineer. Sadly they didn’t have much time together as Johnny was diagnosed with MS in it’s most aggressive form and he died. They had a short but glorious time in love, but then Rabbit was diagnosed with cancer and also died young leaving behind her daughter Juliet. This sounds like a really heavy, issue led, novel but somehow the author managed to keep it light by bringing in the exploits of the band and the Hayes family. The Hayes family are a boisterous Irish clan who are as funny and fierce as they are loving and supportive. I really enjoyed the novel, so when I had the chance to read this sequel I couldn’t wait to get started.

This novel follows the aftermath of Rabbit’s death, from organising her funeral it covers a time period of two years. The entire Hayes family is in shock and everyone reacts in different ways. Her father Jack retreats to his attic and tries his best to get his daughter’s diaries published. Her mother, the formidable Molly Hayes, struggles with some of Rabbits final decisions. There’s the question of who Juliet will now live with, whether any of her other children have the ‘gene’ and firstly what on earth they will Rabbit wear for her funeral? All of which is told in well researched detail and with a hefty dose of black humour.

The author explores how people grieve differently. Some people shut themselves away and wallow in nostalgia. Others might put in a brave face to support others but feel like they are dying inside. Some get lost in distractions to avoid the pain. The author is very skilled at presenting family dynamics and how each person, although seemingly very different, fits into their place.. As a family the Hayes often argue, storm out and have to take time away to see things more clearly. It shows how grief is as individual as the relationship every character has had with Rabbit. Each character is trying to find a way to keep Rabbit close, relevant and present in their day to day lives. This could be through their faith, by talking to her still or by publishing a book so that every one of them can spend time with Rabbit between those pages. 

Finally, the author shows that life truly does go on despite most of the characters not being ready for it yet. Grief can make us feel like our life is on pause, but around us things are changing and we can’t stay still forever. So we see Rabbit’s best friend Marjorie struggling to build a relationship with her mother, who hasn’t always been there for her. Now she needs help and Marjorie needs to decide whether she can do it and whether she will always be in love with Rabbit’s brother Davey. Juliet has to start a whole new life with her guardian and starts to feel the stirrings of first love. Grace, the eldest sister, has a huge secret she knows will further devastate the Hayes family and can’t bring herself to tell. Molly’s exploits, including protesting the introduction of water charging in Ireland, are loud, comical and unexpected. She is an absolute powerhouse, supporting and feeding everyone, taking on waifs and strays and constantly pulling the family together. Yet she seems dogged by guilt and struggles with her faith, wondering whether Rabbit was right and there really is nothing after death. These are big subjects but I found myself laughing more than feeling sad. I loved the black humour that’s common where people are facing dark times and the warmth of the Hayes family. I could imagine each family member vividly thanks to the author’s skill in creating these characters. Once the novel was finished I knew I would miss them all.

Publication 23rd July 2020. #BonnierBooks

Thanks to #NetGalley for the ARC of this novel in exchange for my review.

The Secrets of Sunshine by Phaedra Patrick. #NetGalley #The SecretsOfSunshine #HQStories

This is a moving and ultimately uplifting story based around the padlocks left on bridges as love tokens. I remember visiting Venice and seeing locks like this on the Rialto Bridge and thinking they were romantic. It had never occurred to me before what might happen if the bridge railings were filled with them. It hadn’t occurred to me that there might prove too many or they might cause structural damage to the bridge, due to their weight. In Upchester there are several bridges, immortalised in a famous boyband’s music video which showed them leaving padlocks on the bridge. Now their fans like to take pictures on the bridge and leave locks of their own in tribute to their favourites.

Mitchell is the man employed to deal with the padlocks if there are too many. He has his trusty bolt cutters to hand and clears the bridge of its love tokens. However, this hasn’t always been his job and there’s a reason the bridges are close to his heart. Mitchell is trained as an architect and had input in designing Upchester’s latest bridge. When he lost his wife Anita, he decided to leave for a job that would fit round his daughter Poppy’s school times. Poppy is 9 years and was used to living in the family’s country cottage with her Mum. Now she’s without Mum and living in her Dad’s city flat, the one he used to use when stuck in town for work. Poppy likes to be able to stand on her bed and peer at the stars through her skylight.

One particular day as Mitchell is nearing the bridge, he sees a young woman in a yellow dress. She stands out because she is so still when everyone else is bustling to and fro. In the next second she is gone and it takes a moment for Mitchell to realise she is in the water. He immediately dives in to rescue her, and when they reach the bank he’s exhausted. In the moments that follow he doesn’t get to speak to her or understand whether she jumped or fell. His main concern is Poppy who he’s now late for, so he makes his excuses and rushes to collect her from her music lesson. When he arrives at the music teacher’s house Poppy is calmly having some tea and while she finishes he makes uncomfortable small talk with Lisa, her teacher. Then he spots a photograph of three women and seems to recognise one of them. It’s a picture of Lisa with her two sisters. When Mitchell says that one of them was the girl in the yellow dress, Lisa is shocked. Her sister Yvette has been missing for a long time, yet Mitchell has seen her that afternoon. From that moment Mitchell is drawn into searching for Yvette alongside Lisa and against his better judgement. He soon learns that this is a family with a lot of secrets.

It might seem like Mitchell gives a lot to Lisa in helping her, but actually the help runs both ways. We realise that Mitchell is quite structured, even regimented, with Poppy. He schedules their days on paper stuck to the wall and Lisa softly makes fun of this part of his personality. Mitchell says it’s better for Poppy to have structure, but these plans are more for him than her. If you’re constantly busy there’s never time to think. Slowly, we realise that Mitchell has PTSD, but also feels enormous guilt about the last months of his relationship with his late wife. Lisa challenges this structure by not following a plan and going with the flow. When they visit her aunt there’s an impromptu sleep out next to a campfire. Mitchell is trying desperately not to freak out and once he has relaxed he starts to enjoy the experience. He needs easing out of his comfort zone, for Poppy’s sake as well as his own.

Letters are also a big theme in the novel. Mitchell spends a few moments in bed at night writing to his late wife. He tells her about his day, about Poppy but also about how sorry he feels for the way he was when they were together. When Mitchell was an architect he had an integral role designing a new bridge for the city. He’s a traditionalist and his favourite existing bridge is a simple red brick archway. There’s a new girl on the team though and she is a modernist, with a rival design for the bridge. Mitchell becomes threatened by her and starts to work longer hours, staying more at his city flat and missing out on family moments, such as Poppy taking part in a performance. He makes promises and doesn’t keep them. He takes his wife for granted and when she’s gone the guilt he feels is overwhelming. Lisa is trying to get Mitchell back into loving life and forgiving himself for the past.

Mitchell also starts to receive letters, thanks to his heroics on the bridge. A local journalist features the story in the paper and people start to write to this hero who has captured their imagination. Some simply congratulate him. Others are more personal, from people who are struggling with life and now have a outlet for their painful secrets. They tell him their secrets and he replies where he can. He finds the letters intrusive and asks the reporter to stop bringing them, but the change is actually positive. Slowly the letters make Mitchell open up more, he starts to move away from the list filled with hope and possibilities for the future.

This is a lovely, feel-good novel where the characters have such a beneficial effect on each other. I loved the themes of locks and letters. They give that sense of unlocking parts of ourself we’ve kept hidden, and possibly allowing others in. Grief can bring with it a fierce need to keep everything safe, so we lock emotions away, and regulate activities, removing any element of chance from our lives. This is what Mitchell has done, but not just for himself, but for Poppy too. He wants to keep her safe, but he’s actually stopping her from enjoying life to the full. Encountering Yvette was something Mitchell couldn’t control and like a key, she opens his life back up. This is such a hopeful book and such a cheerful lockdown read.

The Lizard by Dugald Bruce-Lockhart #NetGalley #MuswellPress #TheLizard

This is a thriller that’s bound to put you off letting your kids spend a gap year summer island-hopping in Greece! Dark at heart and so twisty you never know who to trust. Alistair Halston has a broken heart. His university girlfriend Ellie has broken up with him before the summer and has gone to spend her holiday in Greece. Planning to follow her and win her back, Alistair has a very different summer break from the one he expected.

Everything starts to go wrong when he encounters outgoing Aussie, Ricky after losing his wallet. With no money or passport, Alistair decides to work and earn some cash before presenting himself at the British Embassy for help. However, help comes in the form of Ricky who offers him work at a luxury villa owned by Heinrich, a German painter. It soon becomes clear that the work is a little unusual. Heinrich likes to paint beautiful people so Alistair’s job is to recruit both men and women as artist’s models. But he must also make sure their morals are fluid enough to be open to further work – sleeping with Heinrich for money. He’s surprised by how many are open to the offer, but that’s not the end of the enterprise. Ricky carries a video camera everywhere recording parties and sexual exploits, even those of Alistair himself when he gets lucky at a villa party. After several weeks, and having a few thousand stored under his pillow, Alistair thinks about making his move and going off to find Ellie. Ricky and Heinrich are putting together plans for a huge party, so maybe he’ll leave afterwards. What he sees over the next few days terrifies him and makes him realise he is complicit in a series of horrific crimes. Not only that, but the organisers have carefully made sure he’s on film. Can he ever leave now that he knows everything? Will they ever let him? Worst of all, is Ellie safe here on the Greek Islands?

This is a fast moving plot, full of complex twists and turns that I didn’t see coming. One in particular made me literally jump in my deckchair! The backdrop of the islands is beautiful but also bleak and difficult terrain. Alistair is also at the mercy of a small population who all know each other – tourists stand out and it would be unlikely one would be trusted above a local. In order to complete his quest safely, Alistair has to think like a criminal and commit petty crimes, don multiple disguises and pit himself against a local, and potentially corrupt, police force. Arguably, he becomes as criminal as those he’s trying to escape. The pace meant it was hard to find a good place to stop, so there was a tendency to keep reading. Each discovery Alistair makes brings about even more questions, about how long Ricky had been targeting Alistair, who on the police force is working with them and how they’ve evaded capture for so long. I didn’t feel I got to know all the characters very well but it’s not that sort of novel. It’s all about the action, the twists and blistering pace. This is a great summer read but be warned; next time you’re abroad it could put you off making friends at the bar.