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Posted in Netgalley

Housebreaking by Colleen Hubbard

Following a long-standing feud and looking to settle the score, a woman decides to dismantle her home – alone and by hand – and move it across a frozen pond during a harsh New England winter in this mesmerizing debut. Home is certainly not where Del’s heart is. After a local scandal led to her parents’ divorce and the rest of her family turned their backs on her, Del left her small town and cut off contact. Now, with both of her parents gone, a chance has arrived for Del to retaliate.

Her uncle wants the one thing Del inherited: the family home. Instead of handing the place over, and with no other resources at her disposal, Del decides she will tear the place apart herself – piece by piece. But Del will soon discover, the task stirs up more than just old memories as relatives-each in their own state of unravelling – come knocking on her door.

This spare, strange, magical book is a story not only about the powerlessness and hurt that run through a family but also about the moments when brokenness can offer us the rare chance to start again.

I spent much of yesterday afternoon in the attic searching for Christmas decorations and our tree, but inevitably raving through boxes unearthed an awful lot of history. As usual I found myself poring over my old high school yearbook, reminiscing on other lives such as the time I spent in Milton Keynes with my late husband, and having that strange bittersweet feeling. It’s smiling about memories of the past but also a pang of sadness because it’s so long ago and there was the realisation that I’ve now spent more years without him than with him. When I return to Milton Keynes that feeling of nostalgia is even stronger and I even get the feeling I might bump into him, having a coffee and living a life that carried on without me. It’s these feelings we have when we return to a place that has huge significance in our lives and for Del that’s her home town and the family home she’s now inherited. Fate seems to be laughing at her though, because she’s never wanted to return to the small town in Maine where she grew up but she has nowhere else to go. Her friend and room mate Tym would like his boyfriend to move in and since Del has been sacked she can’t pay the rent anyway. Her uncle wants to buy the house and develop the plot, but with no other choice Del finds herself on a bus back to a place she’d left behind long ago and holds some of the worst memories of her life.

After dreading the house for a long time, Del is surprised that although it’s in a terrible state of repair, the house is conjuring up some good memories too. All relate way back, to the time before the scandal that forced her parent’s divorce. She’s surprised to find that she’s loathe to give the house up, even though she’s desperate for the money. Her uncle has inherited a lot of land around the house, but the house itself was the only thing her mother inherited from Del’s grandparents. Then an idea presents itself, what if she sells the site but keeps the house? To me, Del’s idea feels like an act of protest at first. However, as time goes on, I can see that the physical exertion seems to illicit a change in Del. I loved her grit and determination in taking the house apart, especially during the Maine winter. Her family can’t believe that she will succeed, fully expecting her to abandon the project and disappear again. Del surprises them all, but she also surprises herself. The house is almost a metaphor for the wall Del has built up to cope with mental anguish. With clients I always equate our ‘selves’ as wall built up of bricks, each one represents something about our development or experience. Here and there, are bricks that represent a trauma and they are often unstable. If we continue to build on top of that trauma without dealing with it, the foundations of the wall will be unstable. It’s only by dismantling the wall, brick by brick, that we can go back to the trauma and process the pain. Then the wall can continue on a strong base that will last. Del’s dismantling of her family home is the equivalent of therapy. Each brick represents a memory and Del needs to make peace with each one before she can move on.

I really enjoyed Del as a character. She’s beautifully written and is a bit of a ‘hedgehog’ person – covered in prickles, not to hurt others but to protect herself. She’s not great at sharing her feelings, with Tym being her only friend she’s effectively isolated herself. I really enjoyed Tym, who is a wonderful friend to Del despite his own sadness and tragedy. I thought the author depicted the physical and mental struggle that comes with working on ourselves really well. It’s wonderful to watch as Del puts down these huge burdens she’s been carrying and sloughs off those prickles and extra skins she’s used as a defence. I loved how more people started to form relationships with Del as she becomes more approachable and open. Her determination to move the house and move on in her emotional life touches other people. This is a quiet book, but don’t mistake that as a criticism. I love quiet books that follow the pace of life, that takes us into the heart of real life and how we make human connections. What I loved more than anything, after the reality of hard psychological graft, were the little glimmers of hope. It made me think of a couple of my favourite lines of poetry.

‘Hope is a thing with feathers, that perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,

And never stops at all’.

Emily Dickinson.

Posted in Monthly Wrap Up

Books of the Month! November 2022

It’s been an unusual month, because I’ve cut my blog tours right down for the end of the year so I’ve made more personal choices about what to read and when. I’m still working through an endless TBR, but I’m reading them in the order I fancy – this feels like blissful freedom to a book blogger, even through I can see a teetering pile of proofs out of the corner of my eye. Not to mention the virtual teetering pile on Netgalley that I’m slowly working through. It’s a month that seems to disappear for me, as Christmas shopping starts in earnest and I end up so focused on December that November seems to pass me by. I’m also having my living room decorated, so that it’s all dry and we can put the Christmas tree up this weekend. I’ll be rearranging my reading corner too, now that it’s a more restful colour rather than the hectic stripes of the previous owner. So, it’s now a headline rush toward Christmas with lots of advent and Christmassy content to come.

This month’s photo collage is in honour of this new book from Jodi Picoult and her writing partner Jenny Finney Boylan. It’s seen as a controversial novel and I’ve been surprised by the many trigger warnings applied to it in reviews and read alongs. Some of these have misrepresented the novel or even ruined it by disclosing parts of the plot. What you need to know about this book is that it’s a straightforward Picoult novel based around a crime and a legal case. Bearing this in mind, I think most people know by now that one of the characters in the novel is transgender. For some people this makes the book problematic, but I am reassured by the fact that Jennifer Finney Boylan is a celebrated trans writer and activist. So this isn’t a cisgender writer trying to write about transgender experience. This is a writer who is using her own experience to communicate that character’s experience with authenticity. Yes, there are characters in the book who are ignorant or even show prejudice, but that’s necessary to fully represent what it’s like to be transgender. Our storyline follows Olivia and her son Asher and the life they’ve built since fleeing domestic violence when Asher was a toddler. Olivia settled in her father’s home and gradually took over his role as a beekeeper. Asher is now a teenager and has his first girlfriend, Lily. Lily is lovely and has been given the vote of confidence by the bees, helping Olivia remove the honeycomb like a pro. Olivia’s whole existence has been devoted to keeping Asher safe, so when she gets a phone call from the local sheriff to say Lily is dead and Asher has been arrested for her murder. Could Asher have inherited some of his father’s characteristics? This is an interesting novel that is also about domestic violence, trauma, jealousy and the difficulties of being a single parent. It’s a great read and I highly recommend it.

This is an interesting addition because I re- read the book while writing about the work of Sarah Waters. I was interested in the parallels between this and her novel Affinity. I loved this when it I first read it last year and it was great to read it again. I loved the strong female characters here and the author’s clever use of liminal spaces to introduce relationships that would have been frowned upon in the 19th Century. Viola has been brought up by her clergyman father alongside a young boy he took into his care. Jonah and Viola have an incredible friendship and it’s really no surprise when they get married, although it does come immediately after their father’s death. Viola loves photography and is asked by a bereaved family if she would take a picture of their dead child. However, when Viola develops the pictures there is another child in the photographs – a child who wasn’t there. This potential spirit photography brings her to the attention of Henriette, a medium who’s been through a lot before she meets Viola and helps her to become a spirit photographer. The two women become close and Viola starts to worry about the intensity of her feelings for this new friend. Jonah, meanwhile, has secrets of his own left back in India where he was posted with his regiment. All three of these characters are so well observed and have such convincing inner lives so when they’re added to some evocative settings you’re immediately transported back in time. Loved it.

The Marmalade Diaries by Ben Aitken.

This was another unusual read for this time of year, but I was simply charmed by the relationship between Ben and the formidable old lady he’s tasked with living with. Ben is at a low ebb when a local charity matches him up to help a pensioner. Winnie is 85 years old and needs help from someone who can live with her and Ben needs a roof over his head. Winnie has an attic flat so he imagines only some of his time will be needed – for tasks such as putting the bins out, changing light bulbs and support with hospital treatment. However, once they are alone Winnie’s first words are along on the lines of ‘so what’s for tea’ and he realises he’s going to be at her beck and call a lot more. I found Winnie so funny, but sometimes she shows cunning and an ability to exploit her situation that was as hilarious to read as it must have been infuriating to live with. The stand-off with the coal man over unloading her delivery was epic – leaving Ben to receive the delivery, she feigns surprise that there was an extra charge to bring the coal onto the property and tip it into the bunker. Winnie has only paid to have dropped on the boundary, then claims that she knew nothing about the charge. Ben wonders if this is an oversight, or a sign of forgetfulness but the coal man comments that it’s an oversight that’s happened the last three times they’ve delivered. It’s beautiful to watch a friendship develop between these two unlikely house-mates and I was sorry to leave their company.

Last year A.M.Shine’s The Watchers scared the living daylights out of me and I was introduced to a new horror writer who writes stories I want to read. Yes, there are creatures and theyre terrifying, but there isn’t a lot of violence until the group start to venture about. I love that these are old fashioned stories in a sense, theres a slow creeping dread that builds, until you find yourself shutting your curtains at even the hint of sunset. Dr. Alec Sparling lives a very regimented existence in a remote Manor House in Ireland. His house is set back, covered and disguised with vegetation. There are shutters for the windows and and bolts for the doors. What is he hiding from? He has advertised for two academics to undertake field research and chooses Ben and Chloe. She is an archaeologist and he is an historical researcher with a wealth of experience in interviewing people. They must hike out to a remote Irish village and interview the residents about their life and their minimal contact with the outside world. This is a forgotten place, wary of strangers and as they stumble through a forest, tripwires attached to church style bells ring out their presence, giving the villagers plenty of warning. As Chloe and Ben finally meet the people they are shocked by their physical appearance. Poverty and hardship has marked their faces, but it’s the lack of new residents that explains the deformities they observe, years of in-breeding has clearly had it’s effect. These people are not pleased to see them and like Dr Sparling, they are nervous about dusk creeping up on them and Chloe observes the shutters at their windows, less high tech than the wealthy doctor’s, but for exactly the same purpose. Are they to stop people looking out after dark, or are they to stop someone looking in? The pair are told, if theDeeply unsettling and brilliantly written.

This beautiful book had been sat all year waiting to be read and I read this, then it’s sequel Heart of the Sun Warrior for our November Squad Pod book club. I don’t read a lot of fantasy, but weirdly when I’m doing my yearly round up, quite a lot of my favourites have a fantasy or magic realism element. The first book in the duology introduces us to Xingyin who lives on the moon with her mother Chang’e. Her peaceful life is interrupted and she is forced to live incognito as a servant in the Celestial Palace, hoping all the time to free her mother from exile. In a stroke of luck she is chosen to train as a warrior alongside the Emperor’s son. This is a great story of a girl growing into a woman and also into her destiny as a great warrior. The settings are incredible, the mythology is full of monsters, an incredible atmosphere and so much colour. To top everything there’s also a love triangle between two warriors, one who is a loyal friend and the other brings pure chemistry. In the sequel, we see another disturbance in the peaceful realm in the sky meaning Xingyin must once again draw on her skills as a warrior. She has a to face a betrayal from one of her suitors and decide whether she can ever trust him again. What I loved most about the books were the luscious layers of description the author uses to build her world in the clouds, but also that Xingyin is always the centre of the tale as a strong, warrior woman.

My final book of the month is The Dazzle of the Light, which leapt straight into my top books of the year. It was possibly overshadowed by Kate Atkinson’s new release which covered the same period of history, but although I loved Atkinson’s book, I enjoyed this one more. The author told a story of two ambitious women, both from very different parts of society. Ruby is part of the notorious Forty Thieves gang. Women of all ages commit crimes ranging from pick-pocketing to jewellery heists and Ruby has her sights set on these more glamorous jobs where she can team up with one of the Elephant Boys. It’s on one of these robberies, where Ruby is seen by Harriet Littlemore. Harriet comes from a wealthy, upper class family and is engaged to a young politician. This isn’t enough though, Harriet wants something for herself and is excited to get a small role writing women’s interest features for the local newspaper. Ruby inspires her to research and write a piece about the robbery she’s witnessed and the Forty Thieves in general. When it appears, her words are accompanied by by an artists’s impression of Ruby, whose Harriet has called ‘The Jewel of the Borough’. It’s clear that Harriet hasn’t thought about what this article might mean for Ruby and her place in the Forty Thieves, or even where Ruby has come from before the gang. I loved how the author brought this post WW1 London to life, from the upper echelons of Parliament to the seedy club of Soho. She presents beautifully the issues of this strange period of adjustment after the war and the women’s fascination with each other is electric. A brilliant read and way up the list in my books of the year.

So, these were my favourites from the past month. In December the blog is always a little quieter, but I will check in from time to time. Currently I’m reading Russ Thomas’s DS Adam Tyler series, based in nearby Sheffield. I’ll be sharing my favourite reads of the year and my own bookish Christmas List too. Hoping you all have a lovely December.

Posted in Netgalley

The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels by Janice Hallett

I’m going to start with a bold statement. This is my favourite Janice Hallett novel so far. I’ve been lucky enough to finish my blog tours very early this year, so I now have free reading time until January. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a bulging TBR though. My shelves are groaning with books I’ve purchased and physical proofs that I’m behind on. Similarly, my Netgalley shelves are embarrassing! So I still have things to read, its just I can read them in the order and at the speed I want. I’ve also had my usual autumnal multiple sclerosis relapse ( one at the spring equinox and one in the autumn like clockwork) so I’m rarely able to go out and I’m sat resting for long periods. So thanks to that combination of circumstances I was able to pick this up on Friday and I finished it within twenty-four hours. I was enthralled, addicted and so desperate to find out what actually did happen on the night when the police found a strange cult massacre in a deserted warehouse.

Open the safe deposit box. Inside you will find research material for a true crime book. You must read the documents, then make a decision. Will you destroy them? Or will you take them to the police? Everyone knows the sad story of the Alperton Angels: the cult who brainwashed a teenage girl and convinced her that her newborn baby was the anti-Christ. Believing they had a divine mission to kill the infant, they were only stopped when the girl came to her senses and called the police. The Angels committed suicide rather than stand trial, while mother and baby disappeared into the care system. Nearly two decades later, true-crime author Amanda Bailey is writing a book on the Angels. The Alperton baby has turned eighteen and can finally be interviewed; if Amanda can find them, it will be the true-crime scoop of the year, and will save her flagging career. But rival author Oliver Menzies is just as smart, better connected, and is also on the baby’s trail. As Amanda and Oliver are forced to collaborate, they realise that what everyone thinks they know about the Angels is wrong. The truth is something much darker and stranger than they’d ever imagined. And the story of the Alperton Angels is far from over.. After all, the devil is in the detail…

This author is an absolute master of this genre, adept at throwing all the pieces of a puzzle at you, in an order that will intrigue and tempt you to solve it. Eventually I always feel like I’m holding the equivalent of those giant boards used by TV detectives and CSIs to record all the facts of a case, but mine is in my head. We are then fed these snippets of information by different narrators, who we’re not always sure about and might be there to mislead us. In this case, our main narrator is writer Amanda Bailey and we are privy to all her communications: letter, emails, WhatsApp conversations and recorded conversations or interviews. Her transcripts from interviews are typed up by assistant Elly Carter – who brilliantly puts her own little asides and thoughts into the transcript. Amanda seems okay at first, but there are tiny clues placed here and there that made me doubt her. As she starts research for her book on the so-called Alperton Angels, she finds out that a fellow student from a graduate journalist’s course many years before, is working on a similar book for a different publisher. Maybe she and Oliver should collaborate, suggests the publisher, share information but present it from a different angle. Over time, through their WhatsApp communications, we realise that Oliver is far more susceptible to paranormal activity. In fact he seems to be a ‘sensitive’, often feeling unwell in certain locations or with people who have dabbled in the occult or in deeply religious beliefs.

I spent a large part of my childhood in a deeply evangelical church, a sudden switch from the Catholic upbringing I’d had so far. Even though I’d been at Catholic School, had instruction with the nuns at the local convent and went on Catholic summer camps, I never felt like an overwhelming or restrictive part of life. It felt almost more of a cultural thing than a religious thing, and no matter what I was being taught to the contrary I would always be a Catholic. Many people would dispute that evangelical Christianity is a cult, but my experience with it did flag up some of the warning signs of these damaging organisations. We were taught to avoid friendships or relationships with people not from the church, even family. Our entire social life had to be within church circles, whether that be the Sunday double services with Sunday School inbetween, or mid-week house groups, weekly prayer meetings, women’s groups and youth club on Friday nights. If you attended everything the church did, there wasn’t a lot of time for anything else. I was told what music I could listen to, the books I could read and suddenly my parents were vetting all my programs for pre-marital sex and banning them. They even burned some of their own music and books because they were deemed unsuitable or were ‘false idols’. I worked out at the age of twelve that something was very wrong with this way of life, but the hold of a group like this is insidious and it has had it’s long-term effects. Talking about angels and demons fighting for our souls and appearing on earth was quite normal to me, although it sounds insane now. So, the premise of Gabriel’s story and his hypnotic hold over his followers is very real to me. I was fascinated to see whether something divine was at work or whether Holly. Jonah and the baby were caught up in something that was less divine and more earthly, set in motion by the greed of men.

It’s hard to review something where I don’t want to let slip any signal or clue, so I won’t comment on the storyline. It’s drip fed to you in the different communications and I loved how we were presented with other people’s opinions and thoughts on the discoveries being made. Who to trust and who to ignore wasn’t always clear and the red herrings, including the involvement of the Royal Family, were incredible. I felt that Amanda had an agenda, that possibly had nothing to do with the story at hand and was more about a personal grudge. Janice Hallet’s research is impeccable and here she has to cover the early 1990’s and 2003, as well as the workings of the police, special forces and the social services – some of which is less than flattering and even corrupt. The e-copy I had from NetGalley was a little bitty in it’s format and I can’t wait to read my real copy when it arrives and see if there’s anything I’ve missed. It wouldn’t be surprising considering the detail and different versions of events the author includes. I found delving into the True Crime genre fascinating considering how popular it is these days, something I’m personally very conflicted about. This has all the aspects of a sensational True Crime investigation with a more nuanced perspective from other characters to balance things out. I was gripped to the end and the end didn’t disappoint.

Published by Viper 12th Jan 2023.

Janice Hallett is a former magazine editor, award-winning journalist and government communications writer. She wrote articles and speeches for, among others, the Cabinet Office, Home Office and Department for International Development. Her enthusiasm for travel has taken her around the world several times, from Madagascar to the Galapagos, Guatemala to Zimbabwe, Japan, Russia and South Korea. A playwright and screenwriter, she penned the feminist Shakespearean stage comedy NetherBard and co-wrote the feature film Retreat, a psychological thriller starring Cillian Murphy, Thandiwe Newton and Jamie Bell. The Appeal is her first novel, and The Twyford Code her second. The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels is out in January 2023.

Posted in Squad Pod Collective

Heart of the Sun Warrior by Sue Lynn Tan

I never stop counting my lucky stars that I’m a member of the Squad Pod Collective – a group of friends formed organically on Twitter who have formed a book blogging community. Not only are they lovely women who support each other daily they are very talented writers and book reviewers. Each month we have a book club pick and I’ve been lucky enough to have time at the end of the year to read this stunning fantasy duology back to back and I’m so glad I did. I loved escaping into the clouds in Sue Lynn Tann’s first instalment, Daughter of the Moon Goddess because it lured me into a richly evocative world of goddesses, monsters, warriors and Chinese mythology. I’m so in awe of this author’s imagination and I was fascinated to see the next part of Xingyin’s journey. The first book has really set the scene for this sequel in terms of the relationships and character developments that are immediately picked up where we left them last time. We meet Xingyin, now reunited with her mother and living contentedly back on the moon. However, this is only a short moment of peace because there is a power shift in the Celestial Kingdom and Xingyin is forced to flee from her home again and defend the realm.

The author’s vivid imagination can be seen on every page, with such lush description that I fully believed in this incredible world she builds, but her attention to detail doesn’t stop at the setting. Once again she takes her heroine through ordeals and personal choices that build real character growth. Her journey is an emotional one and her growing maturity is shown in the tough decisions she makes both in her quest and in her personal life. I felt that the romance angle was more successful this time, with all characters in the love triangle showing more maturity. This could be just my age and experience though and young adult readers may well identify strongly with the set up of this storyline in the first book. Here she has to face betrayal and I was caught up in this powerful dynamic that threatens to tip over into enemies, rather than potential lovers. Her sadness and conflicted feelings over Wenzhi’s betrayal work well and he’s still very much part of the story. In my opinion he brings that spark of chemistry too. He really wants to make things right with Xingyin and shows this by devotedly sticking by her side to be there whenever she needs him. There is less instant chemistry between Xingyin and Liwei, but there is strong friendship and loyalty. He shows he is willing to defy his parents for her which removes the main obstacle to their potential romance. The mental push and pull between these very polarised relationships was definitely more engaging this time and I became more and more interested to see who, if anyone, she would choose.

The pace of the novel did ebb and flow, with a quieter middle section followed by a helter -skelter rush towards the conclusion. The battle sequences are incredibly effective because they feel dynamic and there’s genuine peril – characters do die here. The decision to make this a duology was a clever one. As the novel rushed towards it’s conclusion I worried that it might feel jumbled or sudden, but everything worked and I came away feeling satisfied. In many ways The Heart of the Sun Warrior worked better for me than the first novel, taking the story to new places with higher stakes and life-changing consequences. There was more tension, a faster pace and a few twists and turns to surprise the reader. As mentioned the romance seemed better worked out here too, but everything Sue Lynn Tan did well in the first novel is maintained. We didn’t lose any of the luscious description and lyrical language that she does so well, drawing the reader into her magical world. As with the first novel though, it was the heroine’s self-growth that I enjoyed most and those life lessons extended to the other characters too, who go on their own inner journey. Of course there’s the strength and courage you would expect from warriors, but that conflict also brought lessons in loss and coping with grief. Each character had to practice forgiveness and learn what it means to give unconditional love. These deeper emotional elements really elevated this book for me and along with the strength of Chang’e and Xingyin’s mother/daughter relationship, they give a very magical world it’s human heart. Sue Lynn Tan should be incredibly proud of these debut novels and her beautiful, poetic writing style. What finishes these books off beautifully are those stunning covers, both of which would look perfect as framed book posters on my bedroom wall (if anyone’s listening).

Published 10th November 2022 by Harper Voyager

Meet The Author

Sue Lynn Tan writes stories inspired by the myths and legends she fell in love with as a child. After devouring every fable she could find in the library, she discovered fantasy books, spending much of her childhood lost in magical worlds.

​Daughter of the Moon Goddess is her debut, the first in the Celestial Kingdom duology – a fantasy of immortals, magic and love, inspired by the beloved legend of the Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e. Its sequel, Heart of the Sun Warrior, is also out now.

When not writing or reading, she enjoys exploring the hills, lakes, and temples around her home. She is also grateful to be within reach of bubble tea and spicy food, that she unfortunately cannot cook.

Find her on Instagram and Twitter @SuelynnTan, or on her website http://www.suelynntan.com

Posted in Squad Pod

Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan.

I am a huge fan of Damon Albarn – I haven’t gone crazy, this is relevant – from the first 12 inch Blur single I bought in 1989, to Gorillaz and all the solo projects in-between I’ve been there. For me, the most amazing piece of work he’s composed is Monkey: The Opera which I went to see at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and then again at Lincoln Centre in NYC. I’d seen the ‘Monkey Magic’ series when I was a child, me and my brother loved the hilarious and badly dubbed chronicles of Monkey and his quest. However, in the opera house, when the music started and the curtains opened this Monkey was simply magical, like a window to another world. The music was exquisite and the set was just incredible, with floating clouds and giant bamboo, underwater realms and ancient gods and spirits lurking above while Monkey learns what his journey is about. I’d honestly never seen anything like it. So, when I picked up this beautiful book I put the music on so I had a soundtrack to my reading experience and it fitted together beautifully. Used to Greek, Roman and Celtic mythology, Albarn’s soundtrack felt like fitting music for the entirely alien, but rich and evocative mythology I was becoming immersed in.

This incredible debut novel from Sue Lynn Tan is a mix of mythology, spirituality, magic and Bildüngsroman- that wonderful and almost untranslatable word that relates to books focused on a young person growing up. Our heroine is Xingyin a young woman who has grown up on the moon, hidden from a powerful Celestial Emperor who placed her mother Chang’e in exile for the theft of his elixir of mortality. Xingyin’s life has been a lonely one and as she grows she longs for new experiences and places. Now Xinying is coming into her power and as her magic increases, she is discovered. Now she must flee the moon and leave her mother behind, knowing that she’s pitted against the most powerful immortal leaving both their lives at risk. Alone, powerless, and afraid, she makes her way to the Celestial Kingdom, a land of wonder and secrets. Disguising her identity she works as a servant, but then seizes a lucky opportunity to train in the Crown Prince’s service. Xingyin starts learning to master archery, magic, and the strange attraction between her and the emperor’s son. I loved being back in a world within the clouds. The author’s beautifully lyrical language is so vibrant and she really does bring this stunning world to life. This celestial realm is woven from layers of description about the clothing, the food, the buildings and the unique magical elements, creating a setting and atmosphere that’s suitably awe inspiring.

I found Xingyin’s inner journey interesting too, because she develops so much from the naïve young girl at the beginning. I loved that she is following a path to be a warrior, something that seems rare for women in Western mythologies. I learned so much about Chinese culture through her obligations to family, particularly the mother/daughter relationship and the concept of honour and how it informs her ambitions. Her focus is to free her mother from exile and this brings out an incredible determination in Xingyin. She starts out unable to fend for herself and she shows both patience and grit, achieving each goal on the way to her destiny. She has to learn the history of these Immortal Realms in order to negotiate her way forward. She also has to practice her magic and the find the best way to utilise it in her quest. I loved how the author kept a steady pace in these early sections, the slower pace echoing that Xingyin is only at the beginning of her journey and she feels those same emotions we do when our goals are still so far away. The pace really speeds up when Xingyin has undergone her initial training and the army leaves to test it’s recruits in battle. I really enjoyed the extraordinary monsters from Chinese legend that the army must defeat for Xingyin to really fulfil her potential as a battle-hardened warrior. The author beautifully describes that uncertainty and fear soldiers must feel before a battle – the self-doubt that can creep in and takes hold. Yet Xingyin manages to feel this and still maintain her warrior-like demeanour. She isn’t just a killing machine. Throughout her endeavours she has kept her own deep seated sense of morality and a self-awareness that allows her to set boundaries.

Aside from Xingyin’s quest there is also an element of romance in the novel; a love triangle that does dominate in parts and takes up an enormous amount of her head space. I wasn’t sure I needed the romance for the book to work, but I guess it’s part of a young girl’s journey into womanhood. She is torn between two men and seems on a rollercoaster of trying to understand her feelings for both. One minute she’s berating her own fickleness in wanting one and then the other, then is angry that whatever they do she can’t let either one of them go. I think the author is trying to capture the immaturity of relationships at this age and I felt the romance might have been pitched at a YA audience who would understand the angst better than this middle-aged reader. I didn’t want the romance to take over the storyline and distract Xingyin from her own journey and potential. I don’t read a enormous amount of fantasy, but this was a complete escape from normal everyday life and I found myself lost in it’s imagery and those wonderful mythical creatures. The author has a boundless imagination, shown in the sheer scale of this work and how she paints her world with words so that it’s beautifully rich, evocative and ultimately, enchanting. I’m looking forward to diving into her world again for the sequel to this incredible debut novel.

Published 20th Jan 2022 by Harper Voyager

Meet the Author

Sue Lynn Tan writes stories inspired by the myths and legends she fell in love with as a child. After devouring every fable she could find in the library, she discovered fantasy books, spending much of her childhood lost in magical worlds. Daughter of the Moon Goddess is her debut, the first in the Celestial Kingdom duology – a fantasy of immortals, magic and love, inspired by the beloved legend of the Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e.

When not writing or reading, she enjoys exploring the hills, lakes, and temples around her home. She is also grateful to be within reach of bubble tea and spicy food, that she unfortunately cannot cook.

Find her on Instagram and Twitter @SuelynnTan, or on her website http://www.suelynntan.com

Posted in Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight! Books I’m Gifting This Christmas.

It’s a tough year for all of this year and Christmas is no exception, most of us are still more worried about how to keep warm than feeling festive. As I get older, I seem to think about Christmas earlier each year, then get to this point and realise I’ve done nothing, again. Last year the Christmas cards didn’t even get posted, so I’ve got to sift through the pile just to weed out anyone who’s had another baby, got married or even worse, divorced. There’s nothing worse than sending a card with the ex-husband’s name in it! This year I’m buying less and with my side of the family we’ve decided on a meal at the local pub together, rather than struggling to buy each other more stuff. With my lot the best side of Christmas is us all together having a laugh. For those people we’re still buying for I’m always keen on buying a book and in our Squad Pod Collective we do a Secret Santa where everyone gets a book and chocolate. So I thought I’d share with you the books I’ll be buying friends and family this year. There’s nothing I love more than seeing someone reading the book I’ve bought for them and really enjoying it. Happy Christmas Reading folks. 🎄🎄

Colditz: Prisoners of the Castle by Ben Macintyre

My other half really enjoys reading when he gets a chance and he loves military stories like this one I saw him pick up in Waterstones a few weeks ago. He read the book behind the SAS Rogue Heroes series a few years ago, followed by the author’s other novels. I think he feels at home in that world, after spending 22 years in the RAF in avionics he misses the camaraderie. In fact he picked this book up because he knew that SAS founder David Stirling spent some time in Colditz, as did pilot Douglas Bader. This book is an incredible story that challenges the usual tale of daring and brave British officers plotting their daring escapes from captivity. Colditz was a forbidding Gothic castle on top of a hill in Nazi Germany. Bestselling historian Ben Macintyre, does tell a tale of the indomitable human spirit, but also one of class conflict, homosexuality, espionage, insanity and farce.

Macintyre has gone through an incredible amount of historical material to reveal a remarkable cast of characters, wider than previously seen and hitherto hidden from history, taking in prisoners and captors who were living cheek-by-jowl in a thrilling game of cat and mouse. From the elitist members of the Colditz Bullingdon Club to America’s oldest paratrooper and least successful secret agent, the soldier-prisoners of Colditz were courageous and resilient as well as vulnerable and fearful—and astonishingly imaginative in their desperate escape attempts. Deeply researched and full of incredible human stories, this is said to be the definitive book on Colditz and I can’t wait to hear about it.

Rachel’s Holiday and Again,Rachel by Marian Keyes

My eldest stepdaughter is 18 next February and she’s finishing her A’Levels. She’s been trying to improve how much she reads, in competition with her boyfriend. I thought it would be nice for her to have something that’s an easy read, but with great character and storytelling, plus lots of heart. Who better than Marian Keyes? Again, Rachel is her latest novel and a sequel to Rachel’s Holiday, first published 25 years ago. Rachel Walsh has been living in New York City, spending night’s partying in glamorous venues and spending the early hours with hot boyfriend Luke.

‘How did it end up like this? Twenty-seven, unemployed, mistaken for a drug addict, in a treatment centre in the back arse of nowhere with an empty Valium bottle in my knickers….’ Rachel’s older sister turns up and talks her into going to rehab, something Rachel only agrees to because she’s heard that rehab is wall-to-wall Jacuzzis, gymnasiums and rock stars going cold turkey – plus it’s about time she had a holiday. Saying goodbye to fun will be hard. But not as hard as losing the man who she realises, all too late, might just be the love of her life.

Back in the long ago ’90s, Rachel Walsh was a mess. But her spell in rehab transformed everything. Life became very good, very quickly. These days, Rachel has love, family, a great job as an addiction counsellor; she even gardens. Her only bad habit is a fondness for expensive trainers. But with the sudden reappearance of a man she’d once loved, her life wobbles. She’d thought she was settled. Fixed forever. Is she about to discover that no matter what our age everything can change? Is it time to think again, Rachel? I hope these are the perfect introduction to a great author.

For Agatha Christie Lovers.

I know a lot of Agatha Christie lovers and this is the perfect package for someone who’s perhaps read all of Agatha’s stories and novels. Firstly, Marple is a collection of twelve original short stories, all featuring Jane Marple and introducing the character to a whole new generation. Each author reimagines Agatha Christie’s Marple through their own unique perspective while staying true to the hallmarks of a traditional mystery. There are some great crime and mystery writers here such as Lucy Foley, Elly Griffiths and Val McDermid giving us a reminder why Marple is the most famous fictional female detective of all time. Agatha Christie is a new biography of the writer from acclaimed historian Lucy Worsley, to run alongside the BBC series. I was surprised at how modern Agatha was in her thinking – she liked fast cars, went surfing and was fascinated by the new science of psychology. I hadn’t known she suffered from mental ill health herself. Yet despite this, she seemed to project an image of being an ordinary Edwardian housewife. She was born in 1890, which really was another world compared to the modern period post WW1. Lucy Worsley shows a woman who lived through a period of huge social change and became an incredibly successful woman writer, a pioneer of crime fiction. To round everything off is a novel about a very specific period of Agatha Christie’s life; the eleven days in 1926 when she went missing and created a mystery worthy of one of her own novels. The Christie Affair is narrated by the other woman, the woman Agatha’s husband says he’s leaving her for. Nan has an unusual link to the Christie’s and her tale unfolds from a childhood in Ireland and through the Great War. Agatha has something that Nan wants, but it isn’t just her husband. This was a fascinating novel, that again shows the huge differences in life before and after the war, particularly for women. I think any of these books would be a great addition to to a Christie lover’s library.

Novels With an Italian Flavour.

I read both of these novels over the summer and absolutely craved the Italian coast, the food and the incredible people. Both these authors are brilliant storytellers and conjure up a real atmosphere of Italy, as well as the history. Santa Montefiore takes us to Brooklyn first, to the heart of the Italian neighbourhood in the late 1970’s. Evelina has her close family and friends around her for Thanksgiving and while she’s full of gratitude for what she has, she can’t help but reminisce about what she left behind thirty years ago. She thinks back to a turbulent part of Italian history, when she lived a sheltered life in the countryside in Northern Italy in 1934. Her older sister Benedetta follows her father’s choice and marries a banker, against her own wishes, but Evelina is determined to never marry out of duty. Of course she’s never been in love, that is until she meets the dressmaker’s son Ezra and her heart recognises him. They have a beautiful summer getting to know one another, but as the shadows of war gather and Italy seems certain to follow in Hitler’s wake, Ezra and his Jewish family could be in danger. This is a beautiful love story and a different look at WW2, showing how it affected ordinary Italians and tore families apart.

Adriana Trigiani tells the story of proud grandmother Matelda Cabrelli who always has something to say, but as she faces the end of her life, she worries she’s failed to tell the stories that matter. Most of all, she finds herself needing to tell the tale of her mother Domenica’s two great loves. First, she tells us about Domenica’s childhood sweetheart: a boy from her own small coastal town of Viareggio. Second, a mysterious captain: an infatuation forged in the midst of WW2, and the father Matelda never knew. Now, before her time runs out, it falls to Matelda to tell her granddaughter Domenica’s story. Together, the Cabrelli women unpick the mysteries, passions and tragedies that sent Domenica away from Italy—then brought her home again. This book introduced me to a gorgeous sounding part of Italy – the Tyrrhenian coast, but also beautifully conjured up the atmosphere of Scotland and a favourite haunt of mine, the West End of Glasgow. Both of these novels fully immerse the reader into Italy and it’s history, as well as telling a beautifully romantic love story.

An Introduction to Will Carver

I’d been wondering what to buy our 17 year old’s boyfriend when she came home and told us they were both trying to read more. I take any opportunity to recommend Orenda books and I thought what better than Will Carver, the most inventive and original novelist I’ve read in a long time. He’s impossible to review, but I’ve cherry picked these three. Good Samaritans is dark, sexy, dangerous crime fiction with the tagline – ‘One crossed wire, three dead bodies and six bottles of bleach’. Seth Beauman can’t sleep, so he stays up late, calling strangers from his phone book, hoping to make a connection, while his wife, Maeve, sleeps upstairs. A crossed wire finds a suicidal Hadley Serf on the phone to Seth, thinking she is talking to The Samaritans. This seemingly harmless late-night hobby turns into something more for Seth and for Hadley, and soon their late-night talks are turning into daytime meet-ups. And then this dysfunctional love story turns into something altogether darker when Seth brings Hadley home, and someone is watching. Nothing Important Happens Today opens as nine people arrive one night on Chelsea Bridge. They’ve never met, but all at the same time, they run and leap to their deaths. Each of them received a letter in the post that morning, a pre-written suicide note, and a page containing only four words: Nothing important happened today. That is how they knew they had been chosen to become a part of the People of Choice: a mysterious suicide cult whose members have no knowledge of one another. People of Choice are appearing around the globe: a decapitation in Germany, a public shooting at a university in Bordeaux; in Illinois, a sports team stands around the centre circle of the football pitch and pulls the trigger of the gun pressed to the temple of the person on their right. It becomes a movement. But how do you stop a cult when people do not know they are members?

Finally there’s Psychopaths Anonymous, where Maeve welcomes you to the club. Maeve has everything: a high-powered job, a beautiful home, a string of uncomplicated one-night encounters. She’s also an addict: A functioning alcoholic with a dependence on sex and an insatiable appetite for killing men. What she can’t find is a support group to share her obsession, so she creates her own and Psychopaths Anonymous is born. Now in a serious relationship, Maeve wants to keep the group a secret. But not everyone in the group adheres to the rules, and when a reckless member raises suspicions with the police, Maeve’s drinking spirals out of control. She needs to stop killing and she needs to close the group. But Maeve can’t seem to quit the things that are bad for her, including her new man. This is a scathing, violent and darkly funny book about love, connection, obsessions and sex – and the aspects of human nature we’d prefer to hide – Psychopaths Anonymous is also an electrifyingly original, unpredictable thriller that challenges virtually everything. These seem the perfect unexpected gift for an 18 year old keen to extend his reading range. I’m sure he’ll be surprised.

A Little Bit Ghostly..

I really enjoyed both of these reads and I would recommend both of them if you like historical fiction, women’s history and a very spooky edge. The Marsh House is definitely in my books of the year, it’s so atmospheric and also unearths a fascinating tale of the influence of eugenics in early 20th Century Norfolk. Zoe Somerville takes us back to 1962 and a young mum eager to create a magical Christmas for her daughter Franny. Malorie rents a remote house on the Norfolk coast, but once there, the strained silence between them feels louder than ever. As Malorie digs for decorations in the attic, she comes across the notebooks of the teenaged Rosemary, who lived in the house 30 years before. Trapped inside by a blizzard, and with long days and nights ahead of her, Malorie begins to read. Though she knows she needs to focus on the present, she finds herself inexorably drawn into the past. In the summer of 1932, Rosemary lives in the Marsh House with her austere father, surrounded by unspoken truths and rumours. So when the glamorous Lafferty family move to the village, she succumbs easily to their charm. Dazzled by the beautiful Hilda and her dashing brother, Franklin, Rosemary fails to see the danger that lurks beneath their bright façades and the same political outlook that spawns Naziism. The more Malorie reads Rosemary’s diary, the past and present begin to merge in this moving story of mothers and daughters, family obligation and deeply buried secrets. It’s stunningly atmospheric and Malorie’s evening visitations and dreams are incredibly haunting.

C.J. Cooke’s novel The Ghost Woods also has a focus on mothers and daughter, a spooky house and women’s history of the mid- 20th Century. In the midst of the woods stands a house called Lichen Hall, a place shrouded in folklore—old stories of ghosts, of witches, of a child who is not quite a child. In 1965, Pearl arrives at the hall about to give birth, something she’s chosen because the hall’s owners help young girls find adoptive families for their child. However, the supposedly philanthropic family who live in Lichen Hall, are eccentric to say the least, with the family patriarch obsessed with parasitic lichens. Mabel, who lives in a caravan in the grounds with her mysterious son, had her baby here several years ago but he wasn’t adopted, because he has a talent the family can use. There’s an incredible sense of creeping evil at Lichen Hall and a system that only works due to women’s shame and society’s judgement. The author mixes her women’s history with a supernatural story that’s genuinely scary.

Other Books I’d Love To Gift

The Maid by Nita Prose – one of my first reads of 2022 this is a great crime novel with a unique narrator that you’ll fall in love with. When a murder takes place in a smart hotel, who knows most about what goes on in the behind the locked doors?

Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez – an incredible novel based in 1970’s America, where a young nurse starts work in a rural part of the southern states of the USA. Her attachment to two young sisters, from a poverty stricken family, leads to her uncovering a terrible injustice inflicted on African-American women.

The Flames by Sophie Haydock – if you have a family member or friend who loves art, this is the novel for them. We’re taken to early 20th century Vienna and two upper class sisters who meet artist Egon Schiele. Haydock takes four of Schiele’s paintings of women and gives each model a voice to tell their own story.

The Blackhouse by Carole Johnstone – this is a brilliant crime story, based in the Outer Hebrides, with mysterious elements of folklore. Maggie is an investigative journalist who returns to the village of Blairmore to uncover a secret. As a child Maggie claimed that someone on the island had killed a man, but do the locals want her to solve that mystery? Atmospheric, dark and very compelling.

Posted in Publisher Proof

The Judas Tree by Amanda Jennings

Harmony and Will have been together for a long time and live in a garden flat in London. They are the couple that most of their friends and family would say are meant to be together. Harmony’s closest friend, Amanda and her husband, throw a party where Harmony bumps into a man she feels an instant chemistry with. They talk for a while and when he suggests they just get into the car and leave together, she’s shocked to find that part of her responds to his suggestion. Harmony goes to find Will and imagines she will never see this man again. It’s only a few days later, that the couple go to lunch with Amanda who explains that they are also entertaining one of her husband Ian’s clients. Client Luke isn’t new to Harmony, he’s the man from the party, but much to her surprise, Luke isn’t new to Will either.

In fact Will’s reaction goes far beyond his explanation that he knew Luke at School. I knew immediately there was something much worse. Harmony has always wondered why Will is so cagey about his past, especially because he’s very stubborn in his outlook about becoming a parent himself. His childhood was so bad, he can’t imagine being a good parent. He is great with Amanda’s kids, but adamant he and Harmony should remain childless. So when Harmony became pregnant a few months ago he wasn’t going to be overjoyed. In fact when she tragically lost their baby, Harmony was devastated and Will’s first emotion was relief, not that he’s told her this. She has now realised how much she wants a child, but isn’t hopeful of changing his mind. It was while they were slightly at odds with each other, that Luke had bumped into a confused and vulnerable Harmony. Luke continues to be charming, intelligent and very forthright about his attraction to Harmony, including turning up at her work. Her head is turned, but despite that she knows she loves Luke. She wants to be his wife, but what if they don’t want the same things any more? When Ian introduced Luke has such a charismatic way about him. She could see though, that Will was horrified to see Luke again. His explanation that they were at boarding school together seems plausible, but she knows there’s more and so do we.

Amanda Jennings has a clever way of introducing you to characters and they don’t grab you immediately, because you’re taking in the world they’re in and the clues about the story. Then suddenly, by about the fifth page, she’s got you caught in a vice like grip. That was certainly the case here, as the sophisticated city lives these characters live is a world away from a country mouse like me. Yet as soon as Luke met Harmony, I knew there was something off and that he had an agenda. He intervenes between the couple at the perfect time too, not that he could have know that – or could he? Luke has a strange magnetism around him even when he’s at school. Will’s early life is sad and his father is abusive. I could understand why he didn’t want to relive it, but when we don’t talk about things they gain an importance they often don’t warrant. We know that whatever is at the root of the animosity between Luke and Will, it’s something humiliating, shameful and life changing. Jennings beautiful times her chapters so we get a bit of the present day and then a snippet of Will’s story. They way it’s eked out keeps you reading and it’s a story that’s horrifying and devastating for these young boys. I won’t say any more, but when we meet a classmate of theirs later on in the novel I wanted to push him under a bus! The fact that things like this happen at boarding school isn’t surprising, but creating or turning a blind eye to an environment like this should be criminal.

Harmony is an interesting character because she almost acted as if she had no choices. I think she’s still in that numb stage of grief and in this vulnerable state people make bad decisions. She seemed to have low self-esteem and really struggled to create boundaries. When Luke starts to encroach on her workplace and not take no for an answer, I was mentally screaming at her to say no and walk away. I wanted her to make a scene and call the police. Especially at first, because she’s done nothing wrong in chatting to a man at a party. I also wanted her and Will to communicate. The key to everything are those secrets that Will has been keeping, things that have happened that make him sure he’s unloveable and unfit to be a parent. It’s Harmony’s fear of encroaching on those boundaries that leads to her keeping her own secrets in turn. The author slowly turns the screw and the tensions rise, making it impossible to put the book down. I was glued to the story, hoping for the couple to break their silence and come together. This had all the ingredients of a great thriller and has real psychological insight into bullying and trauma. It was also brilliant to read a thriller where psychological healing is such an important part of the equation, as well as the thrilling twists and turns.

Meet The Author

As opposed to this latest novel, Amanda’s previous novels The Storm, In Her Wake and The Cliff House, are all set in Cornwall, in Newlyn, St Ives, and Sennen respectively. Cornwall is where her heart truly lies! Her mother’s side of the family is from Penzance and she holds many blissful memories of long summers spent there. She is never happier than when she’s beside the sea, though she’s also fond of a mountain, especially when it’s got snow on it. When she’s not beside the sea or up a mountain or sitting at my desk, you can usually find her chatting on the radio as a regular guest on BBC Berkshire’s weekly Book Club, or loitering on Twitter (@mandajjennings), Facebook and Instagram (@amandajennings1). She loves meeting and engaging with readers, whether that’s on social media, or at libraries, book clubs and literary festivals. If you see her out and about at an event do say hello! You can find more information on her webpage: http://www.amandajennings.co.uk

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

The Dazzle of the Light by Georgina Clarke

Just a couple of weeks ago I was waxing lyrical about Kate Atkinson’s novel Shrines of Gaiety and then another novel passes my way covering the same territory and the same time period. While I loved Atkinson’s novel on it’s own merits, this one feels more urgent and alive. I felt immediately in the story and fascinated by the two main female characters. Ruby is one of a female gang known as the Forty Thieves (the Forties) who commit crimes from pick-pocketing for the young members to shoplifting and even jewellery theft for those more experienced members. Ruby has been one of the Forties for years and due to her looks doesn’t always attract suspicion in the fancier stores. In fact, she’s on a joint job with her lover Billy from the Elephant Boys, when she first runs into Harriet Littlemore. Harriet is the real deal, a young woman from a very good family, engaged to an up and coming member of parliament. Harriet has ambitions beyond being an MP’s wife, she wants to be a journalist and her father permitted her to ask for a job with the evening paper. She’s been hired to write pieces for the woman at home, such as ways to wear the new style of hat, but Harriet has ambitions for so much more, thinking she might write a piece about the young thief she’s seen. However, her fascination with Ruby seems to be much more than journalistic interest.

The story follows these two women as they each pursue their ambitions. Ruby wants to do more work with the Elephant Boys. She wants to take on bigger jobs and wear beautiful clothes and jewellery. When she meets Harriet again, on a shoplifting run in a department store, she cheekily suggests she should update her style. Perhaps she should cut her hair in the new shingled way that’s the height of fashion, Ruby tells her, then she could wear the new style of hat she’s considering. Like a woman in a trance, Harriet goes to a French hairdresser and has her long hair cut short. She’s amazed by how much it suits her and hopes to see Ruby with her new fashionable look, even if it does cause a stir at home, particularly with her traditional mother. She’s furious when the story about the jewellery heist she witnessed is written by one of the male reporters at the paper. So she decides to write a piece on Ruby, the Jewel of the Borough, and gets one of the artists to draw a sketch from her description. In a way, Harriet admires Ruby. She sees Ruby’s freedom, her nerve and confidence, and contrasts it with her own restrictions. She has no idea what her article will truly mean for Ruby. We see what Harriet can’t, because we’ve met the rest of the Forties and Ruby’s other mentor Solly, who runs a jewellery business. The women of the Forties are in a hierarchy, with Annie ? At the top. Many have been thieving since they were children, looked after by the Forties in return for their tiny hands making their way into pockets. The ones that are married are struggling to feed their kids and to avoid their husband’s fists. Most have done time in Holloway and without the Forties, they and their families would be cold and hungry. From Ruby’s perspective, money is freedom and Harriet certainly has plenty of that.

I loved the way the author showed, that despite their differences in class and means, Ruby and Harriet are still second class citizens due to their gender. Although Ruby has earned some equality thanks to her sleight of hand and is chosen by leader Annie, to do jobs with the Elephant Boys, her personal life is very different. Solly is a father figure to her and always keeps a room for above the jewellers, but when it comes to her lover Billy she has no real power. She has confidence in her allure, but when she’s forced to lie low for a while Billy soon moves on to the next warm body. She often has to give up her body to seal a deal, whether it’s a little extra for the man who fences the more risky pieces of jewellery she’s stolen or romancing someone to get information out of them for Peter who runs the nightclub. This work gives her a rather glamorous roof over her head when she really needs it, but she definitely earns her money. Peter has a big job coming up with the Elephants, something that involves men of money and influence. Ruby has no clue how respectable these men are, or their standing in society. It seems to her that all men will use women, no matter how respectable they may seem. Harriet is completely powerless when it comes to the men in her life. She has a life set up for her as Ralph’s wife and her parents can’t understand why she isn’t satisfied with her lot. She has money, beautiful clothes and a handsome fiancé who is going to be a man of great influence. They can’t understand that she wants something for herself, something she has earned on her own merits. I couldn’t put the book down because I wanted both of these women to break out of the prison they are in, choose a different life and perhaps become close. I didn’t want the system to win.

The setting for this fascinating story is beautifully built by the author. We’re post-WW1, a period of huge shifts in the class system and changes for both men and women. The author shows how the class system and expectations of women have changed through Harriet’s relationship with her parents. They still have pre-war attitudes and are expecting Harriet to fall in line. Even the changes she makes to her appearance show that shift from the restrictions of Edwardian dress and the relative freedom of the 1920’s fashions with shorter skirts, no restrictive undergarments and shorter hair. These fashions suit women who are busier and don’t have hours to dress in the morning. Financial changes mean only the very wealthy can afford the help of a ladies maid every morning. Ruby can wear the latest fashions to please herself, when she can afford them. She loves the glamour of the clothes she wears to the club, where she needs to attract the more discerning gentleman.

For the men, those who were in the trenches found them democratising. Bullets and shells don’t care about the class you’re from and although there was still a hierarchy, they died in the mud together. This led to some strange allegiances back in the post-war world. It’s clear to Ruby that there’s a big job on the cards, Billy has hinted as much and her time at the club throws her close to the planning. There are men involved who would never normally give the Elephant Boys the time of day, so they must need them to do the dirty work. These are men from the highest class, who usually drink at their club or the Savoy, but don’t mind slumming it at the club if it makes them money or the company of a woman like Ruby. I desperately wanted some of them to get their come uppance, knowing that’s not always the way of the world. The real winners though are those that can move between worlds, like Peter Lazenby. Though the polish and charm of all these men hides something more brutal. Despite her misdemeanours I was as charmed by Ruby as Harriet was and I wanted her to find a middle ground where she survives comfortably. As for Harriet I wanted her to break out of her parent’s upper class restrictions. I wanted her to have a love affair with someone unsuitable and a friendship with Ruby, if not a full on passionate affair. This was a fantastic book, full of characters, historical detail and that verve and energy that seems synonymous with 1920.

Published by Verve Books 17th November 2023

Meet The Author

Georgina Clarke has always been passionate about stories and history. The Lizzie Hardwicke novels give her the opportunity to bring to life her love of the eighteenth century and her determination that a strong, intelligent and unconventional woman should get to solve the crimes – rather than be cast in the role of the side-kick. Georgina was born in Wolverhampton, has degrees from Oxford, Cambridge and London, but now lives in Worcester with her husband and son and two lively cats.

Her first two novels, Death and the Harlot and The Corpse Played Dead, are published by Canelo. She is currently cooking up plots for the next novels in the series. 

If you would like to visit her website, you can find her at: 

http://www.georginaclarkeauthor.com

She is also to be found tweeting (probably far too often than is good for her) at: 

@clarkegeorgina1

Posted in Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight! Sarah Waters and her Victorian Novels.

This week my spotlight is on an author who drew me in with her incredible Victorian historical novels. I was knocked out by the depth of research, the incredible storytelling and how sexy they were compared to the rather buttoned-up novels from the period. I first became aware of her work when the BBC serialised her novel Tipping the Velvet – a beautiful, but obscure pornographic reference to performing oral sex on a woman. Of course much of the hysterical and prurient coverage in the media was about the sexual aspect of the story. Mostly, I think, due to the relationships and sex scenes being between women. This obsession with sexuality totally bypassed the novel’s picaresque structure, it’s likeness to the work of Charles Dickens and our heroine Nan’s journey of self-discovery. It completely missed what Waters was doing; the book is always described as a lesbian romp, but it is much more than that. Waters was writing back to this point in history and the period’s literature which is largely populated and preoccupied with heterosexual couples and the institute of marriage. The art and literature acceptable to the establishment was influenced by the middle class family values presented by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. The literary canon mirrors what society presented as the norm or even the ideal. I’ve heard people say that homosexuality and bisexuality is ‘everywhere’ now and ‘you didn’t hear about lesbians in my day’. Actually, the last phrase is more accurate than we might think. No, we didn’t hear about the LGBTQ+ community, not because LGBTQ+ people didn’t exist, but because they were not open with their sexuality and certainly didn’t write about it. Waters openly admits she isn’t writing about characters that existed, lesbianism was so undercover in Victorian London that there is no record of it at all. Waters is redressing that balance. She’s creating characters to represent these minorities and the hidden subculture where they might have belonged.

I was fascinated with the research Sarah Waters must have done to create the rich and vivid worlds that she portrays. One page in and you know exactly where you are, because she engages all of your senses immediately. In Tipping the Velvet, Nan’s upbringing was in Whitstable, Kent. Her working class family own an oyster restaurant and Nan helps out, so when she first meets the performer Kitty Butler she is ashamed of how her hot hands smell. Kitty removes her gloves to shake hands and Nan is mortified by “those rank sea-scents, of liquor and oyster-flesh, crab-meat and whelks, which had flavoured my fingers and those of my family for so many years we had ceased, entirely, to notice them”. Nan is mortified that she smells like a herring, but Kitty assuages her fears, kissing her hands and telling her she smells like a mermaid. This type of description reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s prose in The Picture of Dorian Gray, especially the opening where the lush lilacs are in bloom and the scent is heavy, overpowering and intoxicating to the point of nausea. The descriptions have an element of synaesthesia and wrap themselves around the reader like a mist, taking us to that exact moment. I also loved the switching of gender, allowing characters to experience Victorian London as both sexes in one person and what a different place it could be. Men were largely the only sex who could have these picaresque adventures or ‘romps’ as they are sometimes called, but Waters opens up a whole different world to her characters in just a change of clothes. Waters uses clothes erotically with scenes of dressing and undressing and to represent the gender gap. When Nan and Kitty dress as men the clothes are simpler, they allow an ease of movement and a freedom that women don’t have. She then describes the putting on of chemises, stays, stockings and ribbons, both in the erotic sense of being tied up or bound like a gift, but also to represent the restriction of women. In the most dramatic sense the corset restricts even the woman’s ability to breath. Whereas when Kitty is performing as a ‘masher’, a male drag act, her clothing physically gives her the freedom to perform, but also gives her a pass to be comical and bawdy.

Keeley Hawkes and Rachel Stirling on the cover of the TV series tie in of Tipping the Velvet.

While I enjoyed Tipping the Velvet. I loved Affinity. It has that deliciously gothic feel alongside the same themes of feminism and sexuality. It is a much darker novel, especially if we compare it’s conclusion with the arguably happy ending and the self-actualisation she allows Nan in Tipping the Velvet. Affinity looks at power and possession, it’s very sensual rather than a ‘romp’ and could be categorised as a psychological thriller in the same vein as Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. Set in late September 1874, we meet Margaret Prior, who is thirty years old and described as plain. She hasn’t been sought after on the marriage market and has to find a way to make her life meaningful, but respectable. So she becomes a ‘lady visitor’ at Millbank Women’s Prison, hoping to find purpose after suffering a period of mental breakdown and enforced rest at her parent’s home for the last two years. The pentagonal Millbank corridors seem endless and the doors with their inspection slits become symmetrical, until she opens one and hears ‘a perfect sigh, like a sigh in a story.’ This sigh belongs to the medium Selina Dawes. Margaret’s charitable role is to bring comfort to the women behind bars, but this woman is incredibly different to the poor, sad and often downtrodden women she’s seen until now. This plain woman on the verge of thirty has come to comfort those behind bars, several of whom Waters brings to instant, sad life. Margaret is instantly transfixed by the vision she sees in the ‘eye’ of the door. Selina is captured in a private moment (or is she?) with her face turned towards the sunlight stroking her own cheek with a violet. Margaret finds this pose sensual and records in her diary that ‘she put the flower to her lips, and breathed upon it, and the purple of the petals gave a quiver and seemed to glow…” Could Margaret be that violet?

Selina Dawes is not only beautiful, she’s intelligent and exciting to talk with. The conversations between the two women are thrilling and charged with sexual tension. Selina challenges Margaret’s views on spiritualism as fanciful and suggests that since such a place as Millbank exists, couldn’t anything be real? Strangely, Margaret does become confronted with evidence of the supernatural. First a locket disappears from it’s place in her room, then on another occasion, flowers magically appear. Most strange of all is how much Selina knows about her, even the things she keeps hidden, and very soon she tells Margaret she loves her. Waters weaves Margaret’s weekly diary entries with past ones that reveal a previous attachment to the woman who is now her sister-in-law, including a plan to abscond together to Italy. Clearly, this adventure never happened. We are also privy to Selina’s writing, mainly about her life before prison and how she came to be there. As the visits go on, Margaret starts to accept that Selina has some sort of supernatural power and believes that she is a victim of a miscarriage of justice. Selina asserts that she did not assault a woman at a séance, but were those séances real or fraudulent? I felt desperately sorry for Margaret who appears to have a better life, but in reality both women are in prison. Margaret’s prison is built on class and convention, a mother who doesn’t give her any space and the knowledge that her desires will never be acceptable to her family or society. I was so desperate for her escape.

Zoë Tapper and Anna Madely on the cover for the TV tie-in of Affinity

The third of her Victorian novels is Fingersmith and it really is her masterpiece in my opinion. We’re back in the Dickensian-esque back streets of London and the world of the fingersmiths or pickpockets. The first half of the book is about Sue Trinder, brought up in a nest of thieves with a female Fagin called Mrs Sucksby at the helm. Then one of Mrs Sucksby’s associates comes to her with a plan. ‘Gentleman’ has been planning a con and if it pays off they’ll be very rich; even better than that, it’s all legal. It all depends on Sue to play the part of a lady’s maid to a rich and very isolated young woman. The Gentleman has been wooing this wealthy heiress, who goes by the name of Maud. Very sheltered, with only her Uncle for company, Maud was born an orphan in the asylum where her mother gave birth. Sue’s job is to become her maid and gain the lady’s confidence, so that she can influence Maud into accepting Gentleman’s proposal of an elopement. As soon as they’re married he controls her fortune and if between them they can gaslight her into an asylum, he will make it worth Sue’s while. However, Sue likes Maud and they begin sharing confidences and become friends. Now Sue is conflicted about their plan, but it’s here that Waters has created a twist to end all twists. It’s the best twist in literature and I won’t be convinced otherwise! I can’t tell you anymore about the book without ruining it for those who haven’t read it yet and if you haven’t I’m so jealous that you get to experience it for the first time.

Sally Hawkins and Elaine Cassidy on the cover of the TV tie-in for Fingersmith

These three novels are not linked by anything except their historical period, but in each one you are immersed completely into the 19th Century and the most unsavoury locations and aspects of it. We recognise these filthy streets, this poverty and these villains thanks to Dickens and his Nancy, Bill Sykes and Fagin. When I pick up one of these novels for a re-read I feel like I’m indulging myself because they’re so rich, evocative and sumptuous in both world-building and storytelling. I enjoy her later novels too, but these three were the closest I’ve ever come to that feeling of being a child and discovering the incredible storytelling of Little Women or Jane Eyre for the first time. They always take me back to that formative experience of falling into a book and never wanting to come back out into the real world.

Posted in First Lines Friday

First Lines Friday! Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt.

Day 1299 of My Captivity

DARKNESS SUITS ME.

Each evening, I await the click of the overhead lights, leaving only the glow of the main tank. Not perfect, but close enough.

Almost-darkness, like the middle-bottom of the sea. I lived there before I was captured and imprisoned. I cannot remember, yet I can still taste the untamed currents of the cold open water. Darkness runs through my blood.

Who am I, you ask? My name is Marcellus, but most humans do not call me that. Typically, they call me that guy. For example: Look at that guy – there he is – you can just see his tentacles behind the rock.

I am a giant Pacific octopus. I know this from the plaque on the wall beside my enclosure.

I know what you are thinking. Yes, I can read. I can do many things you would not expect.

Published by Bloomsbury 26th May 2022.

I know others do First Lines Friday, such as my lovely bookish friend Emma’s Biblio Treasures. I never have, but when I read the first few lines of this book I had to share them. I’ve never been addressed by an octopus before, but I love unusual narrators and this opening had sucked me in so much I had to read immediately. In fact my other half was in the queue for coffee at Waterstones and I’d read three chapters before he returned with my chai tea.