It only took a few sentences for me to be fully involved in Harry McCoy’s world. We hit the ground running, deep in Harry’s thoughts as he makes his way to Woodside Inn and the case of a missing girl. Mentally he’s running through the timeline:
‘Quarter past eight. The call had come in just before six last night, so fifteen hours or so she had been missing. The time for her to have got lost or stayed at a pals was lone gone. A thirteen- year old girl doesn’t go missing for fifteen hours, overnight, without something being very, very wrong’.
It’s immediate and tells us who he is, a detective with years of experience used to slipping into work mode quickly.
He also creates a great sense of place. I love Glasgow and it’s regeneration since it was a city of culture has turned it into a tourist destination. This is old Glasgow, dirty and stuck in the midst of a heatwave.
‘Glasgow wasn’t used to this kind of weather either, didn’t suit it somehow. The harsh sunlight showed up the reality of the city – no cloudy weather or drizzly rain to soften the picture. The sunlight picked out the decay, the rubbish on the streets, the ruined faces on the group of shaky men outside the off-licence waiting for it to open’.
This is a hard city, and a hard-drinking city. The grimness and the dirt don’t just describe the the city, but the men too. These are hard-worn men, from the dodgy and drunk to the outright evil and this applies to the police officers too.
McCoy has been passed over for the high profile missing girl case, he’s not sure why, but knows his boss, Raeburn, likes push him. In fact if he could push McCoy to leave he would. He passes McCoy a junior officer’s errand, calling all officers on leave back into the station. McCoy swallows his pride and anger, realising it’s not worth the effort, but being the only free officer at the station works in his favour. He picks up the case of rock star Bobby March, found dead that morning in a Glasgow hotel. However, the Chief Inspector also trusts McCoy with a more personal mission. Alice Kelly isn’t the only missing girl in the city. Chief Inspector Murray’s niece Laura has also gone missing. Laura is 15 and has been causing the usual worries about teenage girls at home, by dabbling with drink and boys, but now she hasn’t come home. This could have gone ‘through the shop’ as McCoy describes it, but her father is deputy head of Glasgow Council and he doesn’t want Laura’s escapades in the papers, scuppering the chances of him becoming an MP. So Harry sets out into the city on a dual mission, but does find himself being pulled into the Alice Kelly case too.
I loved that Harry walks a fine line as a police officer, but his loyalties can pull him to the edge of the underworld he’s investigating. He visits a shebeen he knows well, an illicit drinking bar where he’s in attendance sometimes as a customer, and not just in an official capacity. He’s questioning the owner Iris about whether Laura has been in this dive, when she taunts him about his friend Cooper. Cooper is a man on the other side of the law, but he and McCoy were kids together and his loyalty to his friends is strong. He goes to Cooper’s place and to his horror finds him unconscious with drugs, that have clearly become a habit. It shows a side of Harry where he’s not in detective mode and I love that he is loyal to friends, no matter what position they’re in. However, his loyalty to the polis means that he knows where the line is and he will not cross it. The plots are all beautifully blended together and each one was interesting enough to keep me reading to the end. Although, Harry isn’t meant to be on the missing girl case, he does keeps stumbling in on clues. It shows his skill as an investigator that he is able to see connections, without getting the cases muddled at all. The pace is fast, the tension is palpable and I was engrossed from beginning to end. I am so looking forward to the next in the series and it’s on my bedside table ready to go.
I’m revisiting this book and expanding on my original NetGalley review for this blog blast, as I recover from moving house and suffering an infection from a nasty cat bite! So, I’ve refreshed my memory and really thought about this interesting book again. First of all, here’s the blurb:
A twisting new thriller from the author of The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair
In the summer of 1994, the quiet seaside town of Orphea reels from the discovery of four murders.
Two young police officers, Jesse Rosenberg and Derek Scott crack the case and identify the killer.
Then, twenty years later and just as he is on the point of taking early retirement, Rosenberg is approached by Stephanie Mailer, a journalist who believes he made a mistake back in 1994 and that the real murderer is still out there, perhaps ready to strike again. But before she can give any more details, Stephanie Mailer mysteriously disappears, and Rosenberg and Scott are forced to confront the possibility that her suspicions might have been proved true.
What happened to Stephanie Mailer?
What did she know?
And what really happened in Orphea all those years ago?
For me, this author manages to do something very clever with his novels. He writes thrillers that keep you hooked, while delivering a strangely relaxing read. It’s like the same feeling you get watching a really good TV series; in the days before multi-channels and Netflix, English dramas tended to be short and low budget, whereas American and Scandinavian channels invested money at their dramas, often delivering 22 episodes per season. These longer dramas allow every character to develop and lets the story breathe. If the series is a thriller there can be so many twists and turns over a longer time, red herrings can develop and be dismissed, and the tension of the last few episodes becomes unbearable. That’s what I felt happened with this book, it’s slow and characters change and surprise you. I think readers may have a bit of a marmite reaction to it – those who like their thrillers short and snappy will be frustrated, but those who love to explore character, setting, and a tale that meanders through many twists and turns before revealing the truth, will love it. It’s every shade of grey, rather like life.
The dual timelines of 1994 and 2014 work very well, with the past informing the future for the reader. Both cases are also intriguing and form an interesting contrast. The 1994 shootings are so dramatic, public and involve many victims, whereas the 2014 disappearance has a less public impact. I found myself constantly asking if Stephanie disappeared because of the 1994 case she’s investigating for an article – opening old wounds in a small town that wants to believe it caught it’s killer – or whether something more personal and unrelated was happening. The fact that she turns up just as Captain Jesse Rosenberg is about to retire seems too much of a coincidence though. Jesse is a likeable character, a good, honest cop whose diligence sets him apart. Despite his impending retirement, Stephanie’s disappearance and the knowledge that his findings on the original case were wrong, leave him determined to solve both cases before he leaves. However, Jesse and colleague Derek Scott became small town celebrities for solving the 1994 shootings, and maybe they liked the status and boost to their careers a little too much? It would be very difficult to accept they were wrong, but Jesse seems to do that and appears determined to find the truth of both cases. I also found myself questioning the circumstances of the original case. We know that the original investigation was wrong, but not why it was wrong. The mayor and his family were shot dead, but across the street a jogger called Megan is also shot, in the back of the head. Was this a case of wrong time, wrong place, for Megan? Did she see something that would have revealed the killer? Or should we be turning the whole case on its head? What if Megan was the intended victim all along?
These were just some of my thoughts as I wandered through this slice of small town life gone wrong. I love convoluted plots where I have no clue where I will end up in a few chapters time. All too often in thrillers, the truth is easy to work out early on, but here I had no idea and an array of clues and characters to decipher. This novel was long, but it has to be so the reader isn’t overwhelmed with the amount of information. It didn’t feel daunting though, and the writer’s technique of building tension towards small revelations throughout, certainly piqued my interest and kept me reading. Yes, maybe the novel might have benefitted from cutting a couple of characters or points of view. However, it might have lost that constant feeling of uncertainty needed in a good thriller. This is a slow burner of a novel, packed with possibilities and the odd red herring or two to keep the reader on their toes. In the last few chapters I couldn’t wait to uncover the truth, because the long build-up had intensified the tension. The manner in which the truth is revealed was a surprise, as if by accident rather than spelled out in black and white like a traditional detective novel. I felt this contributed to the ‘realness’ of the story; how many real life killers are arrested for something quite different at first? Life is full of multiple characters, faulty memories, strange cul-de-sacs and a million shades of grey, and that is exactly what the author has represented in this novel.
Minnie Gray is an ordinary young woman. She is also a spy for the British government.
It all began in the summer of 1928…
Minnie is supposed to find a nice man, get married and have children. The problem is it doesn’t appeal to her at all. She is working as a secretary, but longs to make a difference.
Then, one day, she gets her chance. She is recruited by the British government as a spy. Under strict instructions not to tell anyone, not even her family, she moves to London and begins her mission – to infiltrate the Communist movement.
She soon gains the trust of important leaders. But as she grows more and more entangled in the workings of the movement, her job becomes increasingly dangerous. Leading a double life is starting to take its toll on her relationships and, feeling more isolated than ever, she starts to wonder how this is all going to end. The Russians are notorious for ruthlessly disposing of people given the slightest suspicion.
What if they find out?
I became very fond of Minnie Gray as I started to read this interesting new novel by Rachel Hore. Based on the true story of Olga Gray, a young woman recruited by Maxwell Knight in the 1930s, to infiltrate The Friends of the Soviet Union, the author has cleverly blended fact and fiction to create an intriguing and interesting novel. I loved how Minnie felt a little like a square peg in a round hole – even at home in Edgbaston with her mother (where she feels most like she belongs) she’s restless and somehow a little different to the others. At a garden party, she gravitates towards a woman playing croquet; a woman of very individual and modern style. It’s as if she recognises a woman like this wouldn’t be afraid of shaking things up. They talk about the possibility of Minnie making a move to London, that maybe she could be recommended as someone to work for the government. Minnie is so excited, this might just be that direction and purpose in life she’s been looking for. She wants something for herself, not the stereotypical marriage to a nice middle class man to produce 2.4 children, that her mother expects. She’s fed up of being at parties, dangled before an ever dwindling pool of eligible gentlemen. Her excitement, turns to hope as she waits for a phone call and watches the letterbox, but nothing comes. It’s only when she’s lost hope that a call comes for her to interview and she meets her ‘handler’ Max.
I loved the eccentric ‘Britishness’ of the people Minnie meets in her new life. Most interesting is Max, who has a flat like a menagerie, full of various animals including a parrot. She goes to work at the communist organisation as someone interested in helping others, rather than the cause itself. In order to supplement her income, she takes another niche job, typing for a distressed gentlewomen’s charity. Here she makes friends with another typist and starts to have something like a social life. Minnie is thriving out there on her own, but we are privy to her inner thoughts. She’s plagued with self- doubt – ‘is she doing this right?’ It often seems to her that she’s achieving very little, not important enough within the party to make a difference or furnish Max with anything useful. However, espionage is a long game, and the more insignificant and innocuous someone seems the better. Eventually she seems so much a part of the furniture that she is chosen to do something she never imagined. Having never been further than London, Minnie will be undertaking a mission to India as her career in espionage really takes off.
I could see how much work had gone into research, as well as mixing fact and fiction in such a way that it becomes authentic. The author embedded Minnie into the 1930s from her clothes, to societal norms and mentions of world events such as the rise of Nazism. In snippets of chat at the communist organisation I could hear ideas and concerns about the working class and keeping them on board with a left leading political party. This disenfranchised class would be easy pickings for Oswald Moseley’s fascist party in a couple of years time. This is a time of political turmoil across Europe, as the tensions started in the aftermath of WW1 begin to boil over. The author really emphasises the fear and trepidation of choosing a double life, especially as a woman. I loved Minnie’s determination to be different and do something important, despite often feeling lonely and scared. I felt the author balanced this well with her need for adventure, as well as the excitement and thrill that keeps her going as the work gets more and more dangerous. I thoroughly enjoyed this fascinating book. Rachel Hore has created a wonderful heroine who I found inspiring and authentic, with just a hint of vulnerability that made her so sympathetic. I felt completely transported to the 1930s, due to the author’s knowledge of this time period and her deeply layered descriptions of Minnie’s world. I could close my eyes and picture every setting – Minnie’s home, Max’s flat full of animals, an overcrowded train in India and the wall of heat before the monsoon rain. This was an excellent read for anyone who likes their historical fiction and enjoys determined and original heroines whose courage takes them on amazing adventures.
Meet The Author
I came to writing quite late, after a career editing fiction at HarperCollins in London. My husband and I had moved out to Norwich with our three young sons and I’d had to give up my job and writing was something that I’d always wanted to try. I originally studied history, so it was wonderful finally to put my knowledge to good use and to write The Dream House, which is partly set in the 1920s in Suffolk and London.
Most of my novels are dual narrative, often called ‘time slip’, with a story in the present alternating with one set in the past. I love the freedom that they give me to escape into the past, but also the dramatic ways in which the stories interact. My characters are often trying to solve some mystery about the past and by doing so to resolve some difficulty or puzzle in their own lives.
The books often involve a lot of research and this takes me down all sorts of interesting paths. For The Glass Painter’s Daughter I took an evening class in working with coloured glass. My creations were not very amazing, but making them gave me insight into the processes so that my characters’ activities would feel authentic. For A Week in Paris I had to research Paris in World War II and the early 1960s through films and books and by visiting the city – that was a great deal of work for one novel. Last Letter Home involved me touring a lot of country houses with old walled kitchen gardens in search of atmosphere and to explore the different kinds of plants grown there.
Places often inspire my stories. The Memory Garden, my second novel, is set in one of my favourite places in the world – Lamorna Cove in Cornwall – which is accessed through a lovely hidden valley. A Place of Secrets is set in a remote part of North Norfolk near Holt, where past and present seem to meet. Southwold in Suffolk, a characterful old-fashioned seaside resort with a harbour and a lighthouse, has been a much loved destination for our family holidays and has made an appearance in fictional guise in several of my novels, including The Silent Tide and The Love Child. Until very recently I taught Publishing and Creative Writing part-time at the University of East Anglia, but I’ve just become a full-time writer.
I hope that you are able to find my books easily and enjoy them – I am always happy to hear from readers!
After becoming the suspect in the death of a young woman, Deputy Sam Hardy is reassigned to the town of Angels and Hope, which, within its borders, holds the once magnificent amusement park, Captain Clive’s Dreamworld. When he arrives, however, Hardy notices some strange happenings. The park is essentially empty of customers. None of the townsfolk ever seem to sleep. And girls seem to be going missing with no plausible explanation. As Hardy begins investigating, his own past is drawn into question by the town, and he finds himself becoming more and more isolated. The truth—about the town and himself—will lead him to understand that there’s no such thing as a clean escape.
This is such an incredible mix of genres and influences! I’ve seen so many suggestions but for me at different times I felt: The Truman Show, Hot Fuzz, Black Mirror and 1984. Every so often a little lightning strike of recognition would occur – such as everyone denying someone’s presence or dropping strange sayings like ‘the greater good’ – and my brain would fire off into a film or TV series. I also think it’s no coincidence that a lot of these references are visual. This book grabbed hold of my visual memory and didn’t let go. It also felt like a cautionary tale, bringing up some of the same points as Russell T. Davies’s Years and Years. It read as a warning against rampant consumerism and the sort of faux nostalgia people cling to that made Brexit happen in the U.K. I find it strange that a book with so many points of recognition still managed to feel entirely unique.
At first, Sam thinks Angels and Hope seems like a lovely place to live. Almost idyllic. At the centre of this community is the amusement park Captain Clive’s Dreamworld; the town was built to house staff of the park. It’s motto is ‘Where dreams really do come true’ and you could be forgiven for thinking they have. Sam isn’t the average man though, and he starts to notice anomalies. No one ever seems to visit the amusement park for a start, so why are the staff necessary? There’s also the problem of Bridget Bishop, a girl that no one else in the town seems to remember now she’s gone missing. Or maybe they can remember her but are denying her existence? This is the last straw for Sam and he starts to investigate what’s really going on in the village. This is where the book becomes very disturbing, in a couple of scenes that are unexpected and disturbing. However they do seem to fit what I know about Bassoff’s writing, he likes to mash-up genres and expectations. The scenes are also in-keeping with the idea that seems to be the undercurrent of this novel; life is unexpected, our place in it is total chance.
Bassoff seems to be posing the idea that we like to create myths and religions in order to give life pattern and purpose, but they are an illusion. Real life doesn’t seem to have any sense to it and we’re so scared by that, we have to create philosophies that make sense of it. When something terrible happens there is an emotional seismic shock in society, in my lifetime that’s probably 9/11 or the death of Princess Diana. Then, conspiracy theories spring up around the event. People would rather believe a shadowy conspiracy of men in grey, headed up by the Duke of Edinburgh arranged Diana’s death. This is more palatable then a Princess was driven at high speed, by a man who’d been drinking, only to die in a tragic car accident while being pursued by paparazzi. Having watched a bit of David Lynch over the years I was reminded of some of his work. In Twin Peaks we had the beautiful Laura Palmer who is found dead in the river wrapped in plastic and a beautiful town goes into mourning for its Homecoming Queen. However, as people slowly begin to tell their stories it’s clear that this town didn’t know the reality of being Laura Palmer. She was addicted to cocaine, suffering from sexual abuse and sleeping with most of men or women she came into contact with. I remember being quite disturbed by the scenes from the night Laura is killed and her cousin Maddie. This book does the same as Lynch’s work on Twin Peaks and in films like Blue Velvet. Places have a surface, but underneath there’s a dark underbelly that most people never see. So, the revealing scenes are disturbing, but they are also needed for the story being told. The surface story of this book is disgraced cop is moved to a small town with an amusement park promising dreams that come true. Dig a little deeper and we find something terrible.This is far from a world where dreams come true, unless your dreams are nightmares.
I finished this novel in a sort of shell-shocked silence. I felt like I needed to go straight back to the beginning and start again. It is extraordinary and unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It’s also very difficult to review without spoiling other reader’s experience of it, but I have to give it a go.
The house in question is the home of our first narrator Ted. As we read Ted’s view of the world we start to realise there is something unique and odd about the way he experiences the world. He made me feel uneasy. We get a sense that something is very wrong when the birds he loves to watch, are trapped and killed. Ted spends a lot of time thinking about an incident several years before when a little girl disappeared from the lake nearby and was never found. Others might have forgotten, but not Ted and not the girl’s sister who has a huge sense of guilt about her sister’s loss. Ted was a suspect at the time and it’s not hard to see why; he’s a slightly strange loner, living nearby in a ramshackle home with boarded up windows. The girl’s sister hasn’t forgotten that Ted was a suspect and decides to rent the house next door and watch him, in the hope of finally discovering where her sister is. CCTV proved Ted’s alibi at the time, but the sister’s convinced she has found the culprit.
Things take a very strange turn when we meet another narrator, Ted’s cat Olivia. In other hands this might have seemed twee or whimsical, but here it isn’t. It did give me a shock in the first instance, when a narrator I’d assumed to be human, stopped to lick the back of their legs! I loved the way the author played with language in these sections. Olivia doesn’t realised Ted is a name, she thinks it’s a word for his species, so all people are ‘teds’ and dogs are ‘brouhahas’. She describes her love for another of her species, a beautiful cat with emerald eyes that she sometimes spies preening herself, through the cat flap. She also has a belief system, including her very own god who she refers to as LORD. Yet there are aspects of this cat, that are distinctly not cat-like and I started to wonder if all wasn’t as it seemed. Could this cat be someone or something else entirely?
Other narrators are introduced and I was sometimes thoroughly confused, but never contemplated putting the book down. The beauty of the language and cleverness of the structure kept me going, determined to work out what exactly was going on. I was starting to be unsure which sections were real and what was illusion. The author is clearly hugely skilled at creating that sense of the uncanny – when everything seems normal and recognisable, but there is just that sense that something is off-kilter and sinister. This was so psychologically clever and I enjoyed Ted’s visits to the ‘bug man’ who appears to be some sort of psychotherapist, until he appears where we don’t expect him. I was so involved in this world of Ted’s that I was starting to forget the original crime, the loss of a little girl on the beachfront of the lake. The writing is so involving that I was inside Ted at times and the uneasy feeling is that you will never be able to get out. I guessed some of what is going on, but not the whole and I love the ambition and audacity. This is a unique, original and deeply creative piece of work that enthralled and stunned in equal measure. Ward is a writer of immense imagination and talent and I feel privileged to have been given the chance to read this before it hits the shelves and becomes a phenomenon.
Meet The Author
CATRIONA WARD was born in Washington, DC and grew up in the United States, Kenya, Madagascar, Yemen, and Morocco. She read English at St Edmund Hall, Oxford and is a graduate of the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia. Her next gothic thriller, The Last House on Needless Street, will be published March 2021 by Viper (Serpents Tail).
Ward’s second novel, Little Eve (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2018) won the 2019 Shirley Jackson Award and the August Derleth Prize for Best Horror Novel at the 2019 British Fantasy Awards, making her the only woman to have won the prize twice, and was a Guardian best book of 2018. Her debut Rawblood (W&N, 2015) won Best Horror Novel at the 2016 British Fantasy Awards, was shortlisted for the Author’s Club Best First Novel Award and a WHSmith Fresh Talent title. Her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies. She lives in London and Devon.
Sometimes the past won’t stay hidden, it demands to be uncovered…
Arthur Pettinger’s memory isn’t what it used to be. He can’t always remember the names of his grandchildren, where he lives or which way round his slippers go. He does remember Maryse though, a woman he hasn’t seen for decades, but whose face he will never forget.
When Arthur’s granddaughter, Maddy moves in along with her daughter Esther, it’s her first step towards pulling her life back together. But when Esther makes a video with Arthur, the hunt for the mysterious Maryse goes viral.
There’s only one person who can help Maddy track down this woman – the one that got away, Joe. Their quest takes them to France, and into the heart of the French Resistance.
When the only way to move forwards is to look back, will this family finally be able to?
I loved this book from the beginning. I immediately felt such empathy for Arthur, struggling with dementia and living with his granddaughter, Hazel, who seems to have reached the end of her patience in her caring role. Arthur is the very picture of a benign old gentleman, a bit confused and totally dependent on the help of others. When I worked in a residential home for the elderly, I easily grew attached to elderly residents like this. However, even in that act of enjoying caring for these men, we’re dismissing so many things about them. We’re almost seeing them like a cute, but battered old teddy bear. I would forget that they were once young like me (I was 20) and that they’d had aspirations for their lives: careers to embark on, love affairs to pursue, and the world to see. That is until war came along and those plans were ripped up to be replaced with roles in the forces, defending Europe against the steady rise of Hitler and his Nazi party. The sacrifices made by men and women at this time shouldn’t be underestimated. They gave up that time where I had the luxury of starting to know myself, to forge an adult identity. I soon realised that the people I was caring for had once been young like I was with all of the same experiences and feelings I did. They’d felt passion, excitement, love, and all the things that bring enjoyment to life. Their old, often broken body, was merely a shell and once I understood this proper connections started to form with residents. I would encourage memory boxes, and displays up around the home showing the resident’s lives so that all carer’s could see and start relating as one human to another instead of carer and patient.
I felt the author captured the confusion and distress of dementia incredibly well. Once his other granddaughter Maddy moves in to look after him along with her daughter, Esther, life does settle into a better pattern for Arthur and he is more relaxed. In the chapters told from Arthur’s point of view, the way he relates to the world is so moving. The author describes the sensation of knowing something, such as his great-granddaughter’s name, but being unable to reach it. Arthur knows the knowledge is there, he just can’t remember where he put it. The frustration of this must be enormous, but with the love and understanding he receives from Maddy and Esther, these absences of knowledge don’t bother him so much. He can let them go in the knowledge the information will return, possibly because he’s being treated with patience and respect. The description of ‘sundowning’ was brilliant, referring to the distressing symptom of increased confusion towards nightfall with insomnia and often pacing up and down as the differences between night and day seem to disappear. The symptom Arthur is finding most distressing is the loss of distinction between different times:
‘He knew his name was Arthur Pettinger and he was ninety-six years old. He also knew he was in his bedroom because on the door was a picture of himself with his name written underneath. Tomorrow, he might not know any of this. Yesterday, he was twenty years old and loading bales of hay onto the back of his father’s tractor.’
Often he’s unsure about who is looking after him, but he knows they do it with such love. Just as he experiences stages of his own life simultaneously, he can experience people in the same way:
‘Maddy Pettinger. Of course, dear, sweet Maddy – his granddaughter. He could see her when she was a small child, maybe about five or six. She was wearing a blue pinafore dress and her hair was in bunches with blue ribbon. A warmth filled his heart’.
The distress seems to come as he remembers a particular woman called Maryse who he met in France when in a mission with Special Operations. There is something about this mission that will not leave his memory and since it must have been very traumatic and emotional that’s not surprising, what is surprising to Maddy is that a woman she has never heard of holds such a huge part of her grandfather’s heart and memory. However, for Arthur, Maryse might have been with him just yesterday and all the feelings still remain, as strong as they were fifty or sixty years before. He can simultaneously be deep in conversation with Maryse only to find her disappeared, and this is the cause of his distress. He is losing her and experiencing deep grief. Over and over again. His way of describing his illness is one of the most apt I’ve ever read. Here he describes how memories and ideas become difficult to extract from the mess in his head. It’s all:
‘muddled up in his mind like a heap of spaghetti and he didn’t know where the strands of thought started. They were a jumbled mess of words and images, fragments of memory and snatches of thought – all knotted up together’.
The sections where we travel back and see the full account of Arthur’s mission into France during WW2 are powerful and moving. It’s not hard to see how feelings were amplified, by the danger they were facing on a daily basis. If you don’t know whether you’ll be alive tomorrow, you want to be sure those you love know you love them. The growing feelings between Maryse and Arthur are plain to see and I was devastated by the scenes where they ended up separated. It’s hard to know whether Arthur’s dementia is stirring up emotions for a love affair unfinished, whether Maryse was left in danger, or if things were finished and he doesn’t remember. This is the worry that granddaughter Maddy has. Her daughter Esther’s normal cooking channel goes viral when she asks for help finding Maryse, but Maddy is struggling over how to handle it. She’s even more cross when Esther approaches her ex-boyfriend Joe to do the investigation. Joe works as an historical investigator so in Esther’s mind he’s the right man to call, but she doesn’t understand the emotions involved. Maddy was broken hearted when their relationship ended, will she be able to lean on him now to help her grandfather? Even if she does, will she be making things worse for Arthur – what if they are too late and Maryse has already passed away?
The resolution, when it came, was not what I expected and actually made me cry. Not just for these two lovers, but for the many individual losses that happen during wartime as people become scattered from those they love. Often making huge sacrifices to keep them safe, such as those made by parents in the novel. It showed me how hard it can be to fully understand what a person with dementia is going through and the significance of what they are saying. Are they distressed because they’ve left something unresolved, or because it’s unresolved in that moment and later they’ll remember again. There is a comfort for family members in realising deep down there’s recognition; they may not be experiencing you in the now, but they might be with your four year old self instead. My grandma, who had dementia for the last two years of her life, once said to me: ‘I can’t go to bed there’s a little girl hanging on my legs’. In the next second she looked at me quite sharply and added: ‘is it you?’ I think it probably was, but a toddler me, back in the early 1970s. She’d made the connection in that moment and in a way knew exactly who I was. For Arthur there are moments when he’s still there, at the farmhouse with Maryse, sitting and talking in the woods, slowly falling in love. I hoped that when he did pass away, that he could live in those moments forever.
I’m going to let you into a secret about book bloggers. When it comes to blog tour invites we’re like kids in a sweet shop. I knew I’d be moving around this time this year, but when the emails roll in it’s so tempting to say yes and think about the consequences later. So, in the month I attempt to move two adults, two teenagers, a dog, two cats and over 1500 books (yes I counted) I took on seven blog tours. Four of them in the week of moving, and having to use my other half’s phone as a hot spot because he had the broadband turned off three days too early. We are existing with only four of everything in the kitchen, and walking around sideways through corridors of boxes marked ‘Books Hallway’, ‘Books Office’ and ‘HAYLEY’S MARCH TBR DO NOT TOUCH’. This is only the first phase too. The next weekend is when my furniture comes that’s been in storage. When I met my other half he was living in a three storey town house and I was in a tiny barn. When it came to moving in together it had to be the townhouse because we couldn’t all fit in my tiny barn. Of course we were so in love that waiting and buying something later simply wasn’t an option. Three years ago it was’i love you, I can’t live without you’; last night as I was going to sleep I apparently said ‘I’ll never leave you; I couldn’t face the packing’. My vertigo is playing up, I have one swollen eyelid and I’m having nightmares about catching two semi-feral cats on Friday morning. Despite this it’s been a great month for books,
Sarah Pearse’s The Sanatorium was an unsettling read for someone who gets claustrophobic and the author used cleverly layered ideas and images to push that sense of being trapped. The Sanatorium was a rehabilitation hospital for people with TB in Switzerland; being trapped in your body and struggling for breath is in the very DNA of this building. Redesigned by a famous architect, it is now a luxury hotel where Elin and her boyfriend Will have been invited to celebrate her brother’s engagement. Our heroine, Elin, has panic attacks and is haunted by the thought of drowning. The remote location, prone to becoming cut off by avalanche, feels like it’s weighed down by its own past. Added to this was the sinister sound of breathing through a mask, as a killer stalks the grounds and the halls in a black, rubber gas mask. With so many secrets to unearth, Elin tries to rely on her police training to investigate, but until her own family secrets are uncovered can she unmask the killer and their motives? This was a great thriller, full of atmosphere and built on a sinister history.
Also set in Switzerland and full of family secrets is Caroline Bishop’s debut novel The Other Daughter. Part historical fiction and part dissection of mother/daughter relationships this is a dual timeline structure that works well. In the present day, Jess is learns a shocking secret about her birth that affects her so strongly she is struggling to function. Her godmother suggests she take a sabbatical from work and look for answers surrounding her mother and time she spent in Switzerland researching the women’s rights movement. Switzerland didn’t give women the vote until the 1970s, a fact that has always shocked me. Our other timeline follows journalist Sylvie as she pitches the idea for a story to her boss, and takes a research trip out to Switzerland. The truth comes to light slowly as Jess tries to uncover what happened, then Sylvie’s chapter show us what it was like to be there at that time. I found myself drawn in by these interesting women, such well rounded and believable characters. The sense of place was very strong in Switzerland and London and it’s clear that an awful lot of research went into bringing this chapter of history to life. The book made me think again about who gets to write history, and how much we need journalists like Sylvie to bring another part of the jigsaw to light. A brilliant debut about women’s rights, but also relationships between mothers and daughters.
Another book about mothers and daughters is Helen Fisher’s brilliant time-hop novel Spacehopper. I was a child of the 1970s/early 1980s so much of the background of this novel felt strangely familiar. Faye lost her mother when she was very young, so knows how important it is to create moments and family traditions for her daughters Esther and Evie. When looking for Christmas decorations in the attic, Faye finds an old box that has moved with her from house to house. It’s the box for the space hopper her Mum Jeanie bought for her one Christmas. It brings back so many memories of wonderful times she had with her Mum, but also stirs up the emotions of finding herself alone in the world. Faye has a photograph of the day she unwrapped this box and it is her only tangible link with her mother. Although Jeanie isn’t in the picture, it’s just Faye stood in the box, everything about it is suffused with love and it makes her realise how much she lost when her mum died. As she stands in the box once more, Faye finds herself back in the 1970s under their old Christmas tree. She’s now an intruder in her childhood home, which means her six year old self and her mum are both asleep upstairs. I loved the audacity of the concept, it made me smile and I trusted the author to take me somewhere special. This is a curious mix of time travel, loss and the relationships between mothers and daughters. It asks the question of whether we can ever truly know our mothers and would we sacrifice our ‘now’ to spend just one more day with the person we’ve lived and lost. Humorous, heartfelt and so incredibly charming, I really loved this incredible debut.
A much darker tale of mothers and daughters emerges in this atmospheric slice of Nordic Noir written by two of the genres best writers and the second in their Blixx and Ramm series. Smokescreen starts with a bang, as on New Years Eve a bomb goes off at the harbour where revellers are gathering for the countdown to midnight. Journalist, Emma Ramm, has escaped her flat, and visiting boyfriend Casper, for some air and alone time when a bomb explodes in a dustbin, killing those closest and injuring dozens of others. Emma is shocked to find Casper, fatally injured at the centre of the explosion – he must have set out to meet her. Detective Alexander Blixx is soon on the scene and his attention is drawn to a body found in the water, someone he remembers from a previous case. Could one of them find who left the bomb? Is there a link with the cold case of a missing child that haunts Blixx? This book starts at a steady pace, slowly adding tension – one scene of a lone hotel worker followed as she’s walking home really stood out for me. As revelations come thick and fast you will not want to put this down.
One Night, New York is another novel that becomes addictive the further you read. Frances flees the Great Depression in Kansas for New York City life with her brother Stan. On the train she meets a bohemian pair, a journalist and photographer, who are fascinated by her untouched beauty and give her their card. So starts a tale of corruption, crime and exploitation that begins and ends with a tense stand off at the top of the Empire State Building. As Frances is introduced to art, fashion, champagne and the decadent 1930s, her brother Stan is embroiled in the dark underworld beneath the glamour. Girls are going missing; young naive girls lured into the sex trade or as escorts to wealthy and powerful men. Frances befriends Agnes, the photographers assistant and for the first time has a true soulmate. Agnes holds a terrible secret, her sister is one of the disappeared and she knows who’s responsible. Frances has a secret too, the terrible reasons she left Kansas. Highlighting the differences between rural poverty and city exes, Frances finds that newcomers are expendable in Manhattan and no one is who they seem. I loved Frances at once and although she left Kansas with no innocence to lose, there was still an awakening of sorts: a sensual awareness of art, fabrics, photography and her own sexual desire. She’d seen very little kindness in her life and I found myself hoping for happiness.
Finally, comes Liz Kessler’s novel about three childhood friends in Vienna before the start of WW2. As the Nazis begin to make their presence felt in Europe these three friends will find their paths going in different directions. This novel really does show evil, as it’s experienced by innocent children. Leo, Elsa and Max spend all their time together in and outside of school, but things are about to change. Told in three narratives, from each child’s point of view, we experience first hand their confusion, sadness and fear as life changes. From Jewish families, Elsa and Leo have different options: one family chooses to leave Vienna and the other stays for the Nazi occupation. It was heart rending to see Leo and Max separated at school, especially to hear their inner thoughts wondering why, when nothing has changed since yesterday? I was moved by Max, whose father is determined to further his position in the party, by openly violent means if necessary. When he forces his son to shout anti-Jewish slogans out of the window, despite him not believing them, I was so sad for him. Even worse is seeing their rise as a family within the SS and Max’s slow brainwashing into the youth movement. This is a great book for adults and young adults alike and packs quite an emotional punch.
So that’s my February. In March I’m looking forward to some great blog tours including Mirrorland by Carole Johnstone, The Favour by Laura Vaughan and A Beautiful Spy by Rachel Hore. I’m also reviewing Until Next Weekend by Rachel Marks, Bound by Vanda Symon and the wonderful We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan.
I’m not sure I was fully prepared for the reading experience offered by Matt Wesolowski in his ‘Six Stories’ novel Deity. I was blown away by how creative and unique it is – roving between crime, mystery, the supernatural, and commentary on celebrity culture.
A shamed pop star
A devastating fire
Which one is true?
When pop megastar Zach Crystal dies in a fire at his remote mansion, his mysterious demise rips open the bitter divide between those who adored his music and his endless charity work, and those who viewed him as a despicable predator, who manipulated and abused young and vulnerable girls.
Online journalist, Scott King, whose Six Stories podcasts have become an internet sensation, investigates the accusations of sexual abuse and murder that were levelled at Crystal before he died. But as Scott begins to ask questions and rake over old graves, some startling inconsistencies emerge: Was the fire at Crystal’s remote home really an accident? Are reports of a haunting really true? Why was he never officially charged?
Dark, chillingly topical and deeply thought-provoking, Deity is both an explosive thriller and a startling look at how heroes can fall from grace and why we turn a blind eye to even the most heinous of crimes…
This is book five in a series started back in 2017, based around the structural idea of six podcasts, presented by character Scott King, that attempt to investigate and solve a cold case. The subject here is Zach Crystal, pop megastar and controversial figure, who died in a fire at his home in the Scottish Highlands. So much of his tale is familiar. A humble background, with music first made at home in the garage with his sister. Followed by paying his dues in the back rooms and clubs of the Midlands until fame came calling. At the height of his career, Zach Crystal disappeared into the wilds of Scotland into a property he crowned ‘Crystal Forest’. Then, just as he reappeared and announced a new album, there was a fire at his home and Zach’s body was found in the ruins. On each podcast, Scott invites a witness to talk about the case, and shares media evidence to shed more light on events. He never leads the witness or voices an opinion; the podcast is given over to to the witness, what they experienced and their theory on what happened to Zach Crystal. King’s a skilled interviewer, asking subtly probing questions that open up the interview, but never summarising or concluding. He merely lets the story tell itself, and it’s up to the listener/ reader to make up their own minds. This leaves us with a dilemma; who or what do we believe?
What grabbed me immediately about the book was how timely it is, especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement. There are many stars who’ve had a downfall in the past twenty years, but this story reminded me most strongly of Michael Jackson, because he was a music superstar who still divides opinion, years after his death. There are all the stories about his upbringing, the plastic surgery, Bubbles the chimp, and the fairground. Then there’s the ‘sleepovers’ with young boys, that he claimed were totally innocent, despite the payments made to their parents. The world seemed to be divided with many reading the rumours, watching the documentaries and concluding something dark and disturbing was happening at Neverland. Is there ever a situation where it’s ok for a grown man to sleep in the same bed as a little boy he barely knows? However, there are just as many people still fiercely defensive of Jackson, supporting him at court, calling him an innocent and labelling his detractors as cynics, then creating shrines when he died. Zach Crystal has a similar cultish following defending him while dark rumours circulated about parties hosted at his Scottish hideaway for possibly exploited, and at worst murdered, girl fans.
Often with thrillers, pace and tension are given priority, but here the story is thought provoking and the reader is given space to make those connections, such as the kind between fiction and our reality. In just the last two weeks we’ve seen women go public to expose their alleged abusers with both Shia LaBeouf and Marilyn Manson at the centre of accusations. It made me think about the difference between image and reality when it comes to celebrities. At what point do we think we know a celebrity? If we have a hero on a pedestal do we become blind to their behaviour? If the celebrity is paying the wages of a whole entourage, who would stand up and tell the truth? It’s only in the last week that I fully took on board the extent to which Justin Timberlake was complicit in the difficulties experienced by his ex-girlfriend Brittany Spears. Sometimes, the fact we enjoy someone’s music or find a celebrity attractive, influences us to overlook their behaviour. If someone is treated as a god, does it always cause them to exploit that, in terrible ways? All of these parallels were going through my mind as I read each witnesses response to Zach’s disappearance. King sits back and allows each account to speak for itself, leaving it up to the reader to accept or dismiss their version of events.
I loved the way the author cleverly combined a contemporary setting and such up to the minute issues, but also wove in elements of myth and folklore. I also loved the way that each episode, and it’s different perspectives, revealed more about the man behind a carefully constructed image. One episode brings in the possibility that a supernatural creature is stalking the Crystal Forest and that it was responsible for the deaths of two young fans. Then another perspective came and seemed plausible, then another, until I found myself immediately doubting the last. Instead of actually writing each twist and turn on the page, the author relies on it happening in the reader’s own mind. Of course, each reader brings their own concerns and biases to the book, so potentially the twists and turns could be different for every single reader. The author has incredible restraint in telling us just enough, never forcing a point of view. This was an incredible reading experience, from an accomplished and intelligent writer keen to explore the more dangerous and dark aspects of human nature. Meanwhile, allowing the reader to take their mind for a walk through these podcasts, sifting through evidence and forming their own conclusion. I noticed Matt Wesolowski named the ‘Dark Lord of Northumbrian Noir’ and that seems a very apt title. His vision in creating these novels is astounding, so much so that I was tempted to go back immediately and read the previous Six Stories novels one after another.
About The Author
Matt Wesolowski is an author from Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the UK. He is an English tutor for young people in care. Matt started his writing career in horror, and his short horror fiction has been published in numerous UK- and US-based anthologies, such as Midnight Movie Creature, Selfies from the End of the World, Cold Iron and many more. His novella, The Black Land, a horror set on the Northumberland coast, was published in 2013. Matt was a winner of the Pitch Perfect competition at the Bloody Scotland Crime Writing Festival in 2015. His debut thriller, Six Stories, was an Amazon bestseller in the USA, Canada, the UK and Australia, and a WHSmith Fresh Talent pick, and film rights were sold to a major Hollywood studio. A prequel, Hydra, was published in 2018 and became an international bestseller. Changeling, the third book in the series, was published in 2019 and was longlisted for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. His fourth book, Beast, won the Amazon Publishing Readers’ Independent Voice Book of the Year award in 2020.
I was drawn to this novel because of my mum’s interest in Mary Webb’s novel Gone to Earth and the film adaptation starring Jennifer Jones. At the time I was writing my dissertation for my undergraduate degree in English Literature. I was writing about disability in 20th Century literature, but also developed an interest in disfigurement of female characters in literature such as Rosa Dartle in Dickens’s David Copperfield. I was interested in the way authors use it as an indicator of evil and/or sexual immorality. My mum suggested a more positive representation of disfigurement might be found in Precious Bane. Prudence is one of those characters it’s so easy to fall in love with. She’s so inextricably linked to the book’s setting, the wild country of Shropshire at the time of Waterloo. Prudence Sarn is a wild, passionate girl, cursed with a hare lip — her ‘precious bane’. Cursed for it, too, by the superstitious people amongst whom she lives. Prue loves two things: the remote countryside of her birth and, hopelessly, Kester Woodseaves, the weaver. The tale of how Woodseaves gradually discerns Prue’s true beauty is set against the tragic drama of Prue’s brother, Gideon, a driven man who is out of harmony with the natural world.
Prudence helps her mother and father on their farm, but is also deeply in tune with the wild countryside in which they live and grow crops. When her father dies suddenly, Prudence and her mother are under the protection of her brother Gideon who inherits the farm. Gideon was mistreated by their father, so now he sees the freedom to make changes at the farm and run it his way. This worries Prudence who knows her brother isn’t in tune with nature – at the funeral we see local superstition as the clergyman calls for the sin eater. Sin eaters were at funerals to take in the guilt and shame left over from sins that were not confessed before death. As Pru’s father died suddenly, they need someone to take on his sins so that he can enter heaven. The whole funeral party gasps as Gideon steps forward to take on his father’s sins. This will change his characters and peace of mind, as well as ruin his fledgling relationship with the beautiful Janice.
We see everything through Pru’s eyes and learn her innermost feelings about her life, family or about her looks. She refers to her lip as ‘hare-shotten’ – meaning that her pregnant mother was startled by a hare affecting her baby. Pru’s disability is what we know as a cleft palate; an opening in the lip that could extend to the nose or upper palate. This disability causes problems with eating, speaking and even hearing. These days it’s often corrected. Pru is philosophical about her lot and sees it as something that could have been much worse. It only starts to affect her when she falls in unrequited love. Each small holding would spin their own wool and employ a travelling weaver to create the fabric that they could use or trade. Pru is helping at Janice’s parents when the weaver arrives. Janice is the daughter of local wizard Beguildy, who has begrudgingly promised her to to Pru’s brother Gideon. All the women come together for a ‘love spinning’ to celebrate the wedding, but for Pru everything changes when Kester Woodseaves arrives. She explains it as a feeling that ‘the master has come’, but immediately knows there’s no future in it. Kester would not want a hare-shotten wife so she keeps her love close to her heart.
In the meantime, Gideon’s character has changed considerably since eating his father’s sins. He wants to run the farm his way after years of cruel treatment by his father. This means Pru and her mother working their fingers to the bone, for long hours and little thanks. He becomes obsessed with wanting a grand house in town and starts to neglect his relationship. He sees Janice less and when he does see her he is pressurising her to give up her virginity before their wedding. Janice will do anything for Gideon and when the consequences of his actions start to show, he has a choice. Will he forego material aspirations, marry Janice and claim their child? Or will he reject Janice’s plea for help and keep working towards the grand house? Even worse, if Janice is rejected by Gideon where will she go? Meanwhile Pru is strong as a workhorse, but life has had the joy sucked out of it and she worries about the long hours their elderly mother is working. She’s also concerned that Gideon has lost his soul.
Meanwhile, in a strange and comical turn of fate involving the mischievous Beguildy, Kester has seen Pru as a desireable woman. Aside from her face, Pru is aware that she’s not curvy and golden like Janice, but tall and willowy. Kester is transfixed by her figure when she poses as Venus, but he doesn’t see her face. However, he carries that vision in his mind as he moves to his next job far away and can’t forget her. For Pru, life takes a turn into tragedy that leaves her vulnerable. As the consequences of Gideon’s choices start to reverberate through the village, those who were friends and neighbours start to think differently. Crops fail and they’re looking for someone to blame. Superstition runs rampant as they suggest that witches can affect crops and livestock. Does a witch live in their midst? Does anyone have the mark of a witch? Pru is without protection and if the villagers turn who will save her?
I love this book because it depicts a woman with a disability in love, and being seen as desirable. Of course Mary Webb is writing back to the 18th century, from 1924. It has parallels with Daphne Du Maurier’s 1946 novel The King’s General, where the heroine, Honor, is a wheelchair user. It’s as though awareness at that time had changed towards disability – potentially due to two world wars creating veterans with impairments. I am emotionally invested as a disabled woman, because I want to see characters with impairments and illnesses being seen as sexual beings and potential life partners. Pru’s humbleness is so endearing. She doesn’t imagine for a second that Kester might see her or pick her out in a room full of women. That he might see her calmness, her intelligence, her modesty and think she’s the sort of woman he might want. I love the rural setting, the local superstition, and rituals like the love spinning or picking each other’s crops. Every time I read this, I fall in love with it over again. I can smell the warmth on the hay bales, the fresh picked apples and hear the buzz of dragonflies on the pond. This is one of my favourite love stories and it breaks my heart as Pru resigns herself to never being loved like Gideon loves Janice. Yet it warms my heart every time too. Pru calls her cleft palate her ‘precious bane’ and in truth it is a blessing. In a way it forces someone to look past her looks to her character and it brings her someone who is genuine, who loves her as she truly is and who gets her. That’s all we ever want.
It’s my pleasure on today’s blog to reveal the gorgeous cover for Emma Brodie’s new novel Songs in Ursa Major, coming from Harper Collins on 24th June 2021. Partly inspired by the relationship between Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, we’re publishing to coincide with the 50th anniversary for Joni Mitchell’s classic album, Blue – the soundtrack to my 1970s childhood! That’s two copies sold right there to me and my mum.
Full of atmosphere, sun-soaked hedonism, rock ‘n’ roll and an electric love story, Ursa Major is the perfect escapist read for summer 2021. Fans of The Girls by Emma Cline & Daisy Jones and the Six will be captivated.