25 FEBRUARY 2021 Demy Hardback, £12.99 HB 9780857304544 | eBook 9780857304551. Author: Michael Farris Smith | Publisher: No Exit Press
Synopsis: This rich and imaginative novel from critically acclaimed author Michael Farris Smith breathes new life into a character that many know only from the periphery. Before Nick Carraway moved to West Egg and into Gatsby’s world, he was at the centre of a very different story – one taking place along the trenches and deep within the tunnels of World War I. Floundering in the wake of the destruction he witnessed first-hand, Nick embarks on a redemptive journey that takes him from a whirlwind Paris romance – doomed from the very beginning – to the dizzying frenzy of New Orleans, rife with its own flavour of debauchery and violence. NICK is an inspired concept realised with delicate, rhythmic prose, profound characterisation and deep emotion. Charged with enough alcohol, heartbreak, and yearning to transfix even the heartiest of golden age scribes, NICK reveals the man behind the narrator who has captivated readers for decades.
I am so excited about this book and happy to be sharing it with you on my blog as one of my anticipated reads for next year. 2021 is the 125th anniversary of The Great Gatsby and what better time to explore its narrator more closely. I have always felt conflicted about Nick Carraway. We simply don’t know enough about him. He is the ultimate voyeur – on the edges of things, looking in but rarely participating. He’s a person in-between: not rich enough to be in the society circles of his cousin Daisy; not overtly masculine like Tom; not in love, just dating. He’s so neutral he’s accepted by all parties and in everyone’s confidence. He accompanies Tom on his adulterous activities, despite the fact he’s married to Nick’s cousin Daisy. He lets Gatsby meet Daisy at his home, even though she’s married. There’s a moral ambiguity to his behaviour and despite taking Jordan on a date, he does seem more comfortable in the company of men. I have so many questions about him so I’m excited to see how the author fits his life to these later events. Will we learn why he’s so easily drawn into this doomed situation?
Alongside the novel there will be a new edition of The Great Gatsby too.
ALSO AVAILABLE a new edition of The Great Gatsby with an introduction from Michael Farris Smith PB 9780857304568 eBook 9780857304612
Sometimes all you can say when you finish a book is ‘Wow’. When that happens I close the book and have a moment of reverence. I need a few moments, in silence, to take in what I’ve read. I often need overnight before I can start a new book. I suppose you could describe it as being haunted – the thought of a scene or a letter in a book that invades your thoughts when you least expect it. It stays there, sometimes forever, to become a part of you. In the same way a particular aria or love song might forever float through your head. Some books lie on the surface, they pass the time, they amuse, and I do enjoy them but they don’t stay. Others get into your brain, like a complex puzzle you have to keep fiddling with, this way and that, until you find a solution. Some books enter your soul, they make you feel real physical emotions, they make you wonder in the same way you did as a child when a book took you away on a marvellous adventure. They touch you soul deep. This is one of those books.
Nydia Hetherington is a sorceress. She has conjured up this box of terrors and delights from the depths of her imagination and it is incredible. We follow Mouse as she crawls, peeps, stumbles and walks around the incredible show that is a circus. Billed as a tale about the Greatest Funambulist Who Ever Lived I was expecting glitz and glamour, the front of house show. However, the author cleverly goes deeper than that, far behind the curtain. Incredible descriptive passages draw us in to Mouse’s world from the smell near the big cats enclosure, the feel of a llama’s fur against your skin, the cramped but colourful quarters of the circus folk and the volatile relationship between her mother Marina and father Manu. So focussed on each other, her parents seem barely aware of her existence as she watches the drab and grubby circus folk become stars of the ring with their make-up, sequins and feathers. Her freedom gives us access to every part of this wondrous world, but freedom has its dark side and for Mouse this is really a tale of parental neglect. She is brought up by the circus, by the mother of the company Big Gen and her husband Fausto and eventually by Serendipity Wilson, the flame haired high wire artists who takes Mouse under her wing. Under her tuition Mouse becomes an incredible tightrope walker, able to take her place under the spotlight like her parents.
Serendipity with her flaming hair that glows like amber is from the Isle of Man and brings with her all the mythology of the islands. She weaves incredible stories for Mouse, who now sleeps in her wigwam, in much the same way as mystical fog weaves around her according to her mood. She thinks that Manu and Marina barely notice she’s gone, but Manu enlists her help to get Marina performing again. They coax her into the tank to perform as a mermaid for the crowd. Even so, there is no discernible warmth between Mouse and her mother, Marina’s focus is always inward to her own problems. It is after her mother’s death that Mouse is handed a letter from her mother, in which she admits to never feeling love for her child and explains why. For me this was the most powerful part of the book, and brought me to tears. The author has cleverly placed this moment of stark reality within the magic and it gives the letter huge emotional impact. It hits home the idea that all freedom has a price. Mouse has never had a mother, except the warmth and care she’s had from Serendipity and never questions whether that will change.
Bookending these stories is an elderly Mouse, recounting her life to a journalist. Living in New York, she recalls her arrival in the city and her expectations of Coney Island. She is older and recounts her past from a distance, but what comes across is terrible regret and sorrow around the disappearance of a child from the circus family. She is haunted by a flame haired Serendipity Wilson who, like all mothers, lives on as a voice in Mouse’s head; her inner critic commenting on all she does, only silent when Mouse truly lives in the moment. It’s in these sections that we see what the book is truly about. I expected a book about the spectacle of the circus, the showmanship and all that glitters. Instead this is a meditation on what it is to be human. The journalist asks the questions that go beneath Mouse’s surface and see the gritty truth; we are all flawed and we all make mistakes. This is a beguiling mix of myth, magic and human frailty. Truly brilliant.
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The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman
At the sleepy Cornish hotel Penmarrow, there is a rare celestial event bringing new guests. The staff are tasked with hosting an astronomer’s conference to coincide with the appearance of a rare comet. Romance abounds amongst the staff as timid maid Molly is flustered by the return of charming astronomer George and seems to need a little advice on how to rekindle the spark they shared last autumn. Hotel porters Gomez and Riley are vying for the attentions of a mysterious female guest, and the eccentric ‘Megs’ Buntly pays another visit. For our main character Maisie, romance is blossoming between her and Sidney Daniels. All is well, that is aside from the small matter of some secrecy about his past. That isn’t Maisie’s only uncertainty though. She’s happy to be working at the hotel, but it’s future ownership is still up in the air and even more anticipation surrounds her manuscript which will be soon be in the hands of acquisitions editors in London. There is so much excitement about the future in the air but trepidation too. When a dramatic revelation comes to light about someone on staff, it leaves Maisie and everyone else reeling from the unexpected news. Is this the moment for the revelation Maisie has been waiting for since her Cornish journey began?
This was my first time in the Penmarrow’s universe so I had to go back and read some of the other parts – this is the 7th in the series. The best way I can describe these stories is the reading equivalent of a good Sunday night TV series, with beautiful surroundings, loveable characters and gentle storylines. There’s nothing here to frighten the horses. I felt soothed by the descriptions of the cosy hotel and the surrounding countryside. Everything about this place is restful, apart from Sidney’s mischievous terrier digging up bulbs of course. Maisie is a lovely central character to root for and as an aspiring writer I could understand her anxieties about her potential future career. What will happen if her book isn’t accepted? How much will her life change if it is?
The format was interesting too. I’ve become more aware of these short reads in my past year as a blogger. I have MS and can suffer cognitive symptoms that make reading difficult such as an inability to concentrate – I can find myself reading the same paragraph over and over till it sinks in. Or I can have physical symptoms such as optic neuritis which makes my eyes ache, sting and become blurred. As you can imagine this is very frustrating for an avid reader and in my therapy work I’ve met many other disabled people who also struggle to read. I always recommend audio books, but have found that short books like this one are also a great way for people like me to carry on enjoying stories even while feeling unwell. They can continue to enjoy the escape and when the escape is as feel-good as this it can lift the mood considerably. It really is a little gem of good-natured humour, heart-warming romance and packs a little surprise at the end for good measure. Just enough of a cliffhanger to have readers looking forward to the last instalment of Maisie’s story.
Author Bio – Laura Briggs is the author of several feel-good romance reads, including the Top 100 Amazon UK seller ‘A Wedding in Cornwall’. She has a fondness for vintage style dresses (especially ones with polka dots), and reads everything from Jane Austen to modern day mysteries. When she’s not writing, she enjoys spending time with family and friends, caring for her pets, gardening, and seeing the occasional movie or play.
A few years ago I was lucky enough to meet Jodi Picoult, and ask her some questions. She was promoting her novel Sing You Home and the question I asked was about the ideas she has for her novels; do the characters or the issue come to her first? Most of her novels are based round a controversial issue – from childhood illness, to abortion, racism and the rights to IVF embryos. These are not easy issues to tackle, particularly in the USA. Picoult replied that it was usually the issue that came first. She would mull it over for a while and if it stayed with her for a few weeks, she would know it had the potential for a novel. Then, slowly, the characters would start to come and tell their story. I have now read all of her novels so I was really excited to have an ARC of this via NetGalley.
The background to her latest work is Egyptology, most specifically The Book of Two Ways – an ancient text that tells of the two ways a Pharoah had of successfully reaching the Underworld, one by water and one by land. Picoult uses this as the PHD research subject for our main character Dawn, but it also informs the structure of the novel. Two narratives are told side by side, representing a split in Dawn’s life where she could have turned in a different direction. So we appear to be following parallel lives. Dawn has been married to Brian for several years and they have a teenage daughter, Meret. They are comfortably sliding into middle age and a mature stage of marriage, where Dawn observes love is not just a feeling, it’s a choice. Brian is a scientist, teaching at university and Meret takes after him, also having an interest in scientific experiments. From the outside they must look like a steady, settled marriage, but as always it’s a different story beneath the surface. The catalyst seems to come when a woman at Brian’s workplace strikes up a friendship, asking him to help with DIY around the flat and eventually offering the chance of an affair. Brian doesn’t take it, but for some reason even the possibility shakes Dawn to the core. It sends her spiralling back to her graduate years when she went to Egypt in pursuit of her PhD research and met Wyatt. Wyatt was a fellow researcher, their lines of enquiry complement each other, but he’s everything she hates in a person – arrogant and privileged. However, just as their dislike turns to passion, Dawn is dragged back to the USA for her mother’s death. She leaves Egypt with no idea whether she will be able to return. Now, in light of Brian’s revelations, Dawn wonders whether she made the right choice back then and is it too late to change her mind? Our other narrative follows that route.
I was fascinated by Dawn’s job as death doula – I’m only just aware of the existence of birth doulas so this was totally new to me. Once I’d read what her job entailed, I realised it would suit my experience and skills. I have had the privilege to be with someone as they’ve died a few times, through my husband’s final weeks but also when I’ve worked in a nursing home both as carer, and years later as an advocate for people with complex disabilities. Occasionally, if there was a resident I was fond of and they had no relatives to sit with them I would go in on my day off to be with them. I was young, and not always sure of what to do but sensed instinctively that someone needed to be there as these people left the world. Dawn fulfils a role many other professionals can’t and liaises between those professionals and the patient. She makes sure that what that person wants – whether it’s ice cream at midnight or to contact a long lost love – they get. Her relationship with client Win was one of best parts of this novel for me. To respond to a dying person with total focus and compassion, whilst making sure their final wishes and their dignity is intact, is a skill that can’t be taught. It is a great example of a therapeutic relationship because the women affect each other, this isn’t a one way street. Win has wisdom and counsel for Dawn.
The women can see echoes of each other’s lives in their early passionate first loves, followed by their stable, loving and respectful marriages. The care that Win gets from her husband is a world away from the affair she had as an art student with Thane Bernard, a famous painter. It reminded me of the UEA Fanthorpe poem ‘Atlas’ which begins ‘ there is a kind of love called maintenance’ and details the many practical ways people show love. Win proposes that we each have experience of these different kinds of relationships and the one we have last is wiser, more nurturing and understanding. The things we need as we’re older are very different from our idealistic and impulsive younger years, but we must never doubt that both are types of love. The Egyptian return narrative is interesting because we’re never fully sure where it fits or even whether it’s real or Dawn’s day dreaming. It’s also fascinating to see what her reception will be. All the time we’ve been listening to Dawn’s version and now we see the effect her sudden departure had on Wyatt. The rascally Indiana Jones I’d been expecting was really Dawn’s view of him. In reality he was shattered by her choice not to return. There’s a sense of time standing still in this ancient place, not just for the Pharaoh’s tombs but for the dig itself. Dawn finds the same house, serviced by the same family, but will her hope, that Wyatt hasn’t moved on either, come to pass? Even if his feelings haven’t changed what hope is there for a relationship that belonged in this temporary home, thousands of miles away. How will Wyatt respond to her marriage and her daughter? He doesn’t seem like the kind of person who will drop his work and become the family man.
This wasn’t my favourite Jodi Picoult novel, but it’s far from her worst. The research for the Egyptian sections alone must have been painstaking and I did have a belief in her characters – particularly in sections between Dawn and Win. I did feel there was a bit too much academic Egyptian detail too early and it prevented me getting into the emotions of the story. It was an interesting background to Dawn’s current work and how death rituals are very important and vary so much in different cultures. There were also a couple of aspects of Dawn’s return to the US that I didn’t understand, such as the timing of her return and meeting Brian. The big revelation towards the end of the book seemed unlikely. I couldn’t imagine that Dawn had never asked herself or even suspected. It was also amazing that her relationship to Brian had endured despite such a hurried start. I wondered if her strong reaction to his student’s crush was more about finding a way out. Brian has been a bit oblivious to this woman’s advances, but there is something endearing about that. He wouldn’t expect anyone to be interested and as soon as it’s apparent how she feels, he leaves and tells Dawn. There is a sense that Dawn wants out of this relationship, but is struggling to be the one who ends it. She doesn’t want to be the bad guy. This worry about hurting others can be seen as she tries to carry out Win’s final wishes too.
Often with Picoult’s books you can see that the ‘issue’ has come first, and I did wonder if the exploration of Ancient Egypt was something she’d wanted to write about for some time. It sat neatly with Dawn’s job and the whole novel’s theme of the end of life. It was interesting to think about the rituals carried out by the Egyptians – I’ve always wondered how they got a whole brain out of someone’s nose – and our squeamish response to death. We don’t talk about it, so we never express our feeling about the sort of death and funeral we want. It’s almost as if our enduring fascination with the burial chambers of the Pharaohs is in direct contrast to our avoidance of the subject in relation to ourselves. Dawn’s job cuts through that and in its way is a lot like counselling, in that she asks the questions and has the conversations that the dying person can’t have with their family. Interestingly, despite her role to be open about death, Dawn isn’t being honest or open about life. She’s settled herself into a default position where she’s felt safe, but a brush with death changes everything. I think I wanted a different ending. I felt for Meret who doesn’t seem to get much quality time with her mother and I can’t remember a point in the novel where they simply have fun together as a family. She’s expected to get her head round massive changes very quickly too. I would have liked Dawn to take some time with her daughter, just the two of them and get settled on their own terms. While it just doesn’t reach the heights of Small Great Things or The Storyteller for me, there was a lot to like here. The depth of research, the themes of life and death, and her characterisation of the central characters are strong and as always with Picoult you can relax knowing you’re with an absolute master at storytelling.
While reading this book I had one of those odd reading experiences that only happens on Kindle or other e-reader. When I’m reading a proper physical copy of a book, I’m constantly aware of how much book is left. I’m literally holding it in my hand. I read this in one sitting, only realising how quickly time had passed when I stopped to mark a page and saw 93% in the bottom corner! Time really flew because I was so absorbed into Ravatn’s world.
Set in Bergen, Oslo, this is a thriller with so many possible outcomes. Our main character Nina follows a labyrinthine trail to find the killer of a musical prodigy. Nina is a professor of literature and gives a speech at a symposium about the futility of studying literature. Lit students are following their own, selfish lines of academic enquiry she argues, but their study doesn’t help anyone or bring anything important to the world. It doesn’t make a difference, except to the student. She proposes that in order to be useful, literature students make them self available as investigators to the police force. They are trained to analyse documents, to read between the lines, to apply psychoanalytic theory to texts and understand character’s motivations. All skills that might be useful when investigating a crime. Little does she know, she will soon be using those very skills in the real world.
Nina and her husband Mads have an absolutely insufferable daughter Ingeborg. When she announces that her home has silverfish, and she is three months pregnant, she asks Nina to intercede with Mads for an advance on her inheritance. Nina idly observes they have a house in town that belonged to an aunt, but she needs to talk to Mads. They are in their own difficult living situation, as their home is being compulsory purchased to make room for a railway. This is affecting Nina much more than Mads because of the emotional attachment; it was her family home, she grew up there. They are negotiating a settlement with the council, but Nina can’t see any property she would want to purchase. She needs to live in something with soul, not a slick waterfront retirement pad. Ingeborg convinces her mum that they should go and look at the house, but Nina warns that there is a tenant that they shouldn’t disturb. Despite the tenant telling her it’s a bad time, Ingeborg goes bustling in, badgering the tenant about the end of her lease and offering her money to leave as quickly as possible. The tenant, a single mother with a little boy, is blindsided by this forceful woman. Nina feels terrible and makes her apologies, sure that the tenant looks familiar to her.
Later, she realises where she has seen the woman. Their tenant is concert violinist Mari Bull, world renowned and now dropped out of sight. Strangely, she then does the same thing again, exiting the property within a couple of days and leaving no forwarding address. Surely this can’t be solely to do with their visit? Not long after, her disappearance is reported by local then national newspapers. She went to her parents place out on one of the islands, where Nina has a holiday cabin, but left her son and went for a walk, never to return. Nina finds herself intrigued by the case and follows clues, from the opera her ex-husband plays as her requiem to a small notebook with musical terms she finds in a box at the house. Fairytales also play a role in the book and like most literature students I am familiar with the work of Bettelheim quoted by Nina. Using this and Freud’s work on transference Nina starts to construct a theory and follows each clue like the breadcrumb trail of Hansel and Gretel. I liked the play on our usual ideas about fairy tales, which tend to be very Disney-fied, and everything comes to a completed happy ending. The original tales Nina starts to tell her granddaughter Milja are far more dark and bloodthirsty. In fact, the darker they are the sooner Milja will quiet down and go to sleep. They include anxious, suicidal hares and a murderous husband who gaslights his wives then kills them when they find out the truth.
From a psychological perspective there are interesting theories around transference and counter-transference, not just in the therapeutic relationship but in any relationship with a power balance that’s heavily in one person’s favour. I was also interested in the theorising around the Oedipus and Electra complexes. Nina is discussing the theory with her students and they don’t see the point of learning about a concept that started in Ancient Greek theatre and seems to bear no relevance to the present day. Yet, there’s a definite unease in Nina’s own relationship with her daughter – Ingeborg has been more likely to confide in or ask favours from her father. For Mari too there is a complicated mother – daughter relationship in that her parents sacrificed their own relationship to make sure their daughter had opportunities with the best teachers and orchestras. Mari and her father were often away together, touring Europe, leaving her mother at home. There is resentment over this and a definite coolness between mother and daughter.
Ravatn’s writing is spare, it gets to the point quickly and without poetry. She can establish a feeling or setting in just a few words, such as how the light changes when it snows or how it must feel to give ourselves up to the water, like Virginia Woolf with the stones in her pockets. Her characters are well defined and psychologically complex, such as Ingeborg’s narcissism and inability to gauge other’s feelings. I have real worries for her daughter Milja, a future psychopath if ever I met one. As I felt the book build in pace and tension towards the end, I knew Nina was getting close to the answers, but is the answer getting closer to her? The end, when it comes, is satisfyingly unexpected and shocking. I love Nordic Noir and this was a great addition to my collection. This was a clever and psychologically literate thriller. I would love to read more of Nina in the future.
Lexi and Jake have been in the same friendship circle for fifteen years, with the Pearsons and the Heathcotes. They’ve been pregnant at the same time and have gone through parenting, moving house, changing jobs and sharing the highs and lows of life together. Every Saturday they try to get together for takeaway and during the evening check their syndicate’s numbers on the lottery. Every week they’ve drowned their sorrows and laughed off disappointment when they didn’t win. Then one Saturday night the unthinkable happens and Lexi feels something has changed in the friendship. Words are exchanged over the lottery tradition, someone calls it ‘common’ and tempers flare. The Pearson’s and Heathcotes pull out leaving Lexi and Jake the sole members. So, what happens when those numbers come up and Lexi and Jake possess a ticket worth 18 million?
Very rarely I come across a character I really can’t stand and that was the case with Jake in this novel. At best he’s like a well meaning, but clumsy, puppy and at worst he’s crass, wasteful, impulsive and deceitful. It was a wonder that he and Lexi had made it so far in their marriage, because they seem so totally opposed to each other. It could be that’s because we see his actions through Lexi’s eyes, but I think these differences have always been there. However, their shared struggle to bring up two children, work full time and pay the bills has forced them to work together – mainly for the good of Logan and Emily. Once the money arrives all of those problems fade away, leaving them free to act based on want rather than need. Their usual power balance, in which Jake is the naughty child and Lexi is the parent, has shifted. Money has made them equally powerful and in Jake’s case all of his usual checks and balances are gone. Lexi is still cautious and sensible, it’s just that now they have money, Jake doesn’t have to be. Even if he blows a million, there are seventeen more in the bank. They make a decision to avoid publicity, in consultation with their lottery advisor, and in theory they can carry on as normal. So Lexi gets up and goes to work in her advisor role at the Citizen’s Advice Bureau.
One morning she meets Toma Albu outside the bureau, a homeless man from Eastern Europe who is barely coping since the death of his wife and child. Lexi sends him to a day centre for a shower, clean clothes and something to eat while she looks into his story. The family were renting a property from a private landlord who has neglected to do proper boiler checks. Over the course of a day, before Christmas, his wife and son succumb to the effects of carbon monoxide and are dead when he returns home. Despite being taken to court the landlord evades the charge because he has used a letting agent to maintain the property. The agent is sentenced, leaving the landlord free to rent many other properties in his portfolio. Toma needs to find lodgings and a job, and Lexi manages to organise both, but it’s not his only request. He asks if Lexi will help him look through the agents, shell companies and offshore accounts to find out the name of the landlord. Lexi is scared, if she looks for this man what will she find and what will Toma do if she tells him?
Meanwhile, in the space of a day Jake has quit his latest job, allowed the kids to stay home and bought a bright yellow Ferrari that he’s parked on the drive. If they were trying to avoid publicity, this is the worst thing to do. He might as well have put a billboard on the lawn. Over the next few days the town is buzzing with gossip about the local lottery winner. Even worse a huge crowd turns up at the CAB to beg for money and Lexi has to take a leave of absence from work. There are paparazzi outside their home and more people demanding money from them. Lexi feels overwhelmed, she’s feeling all of the consequences but none of the excitement her family are feeling as they have an internet shopping splurge. Jake doesn’t even seem to be checking price tags, unless he’s deliberately buying the most expensive things he can find. Lexi has her own shopping list but it comprises of people whose lives she could change with their win, by relieving debt, or paying for them to receive legal help. Imagine the difference just a small proportion of this money could make to each life. I’ve worked in mental health and welfare advice posts for years and I was sometimes forced to break rules to get something done. Just as Lexi describes giving away baby clothes to people I have helped with donations, or even paid for something to be done out of my own pocket if it was the barrier in a person’s life. I think I have a similar ‘rescue’ tendency to Lexi so I understood her character and motivation, more than Jake’s reckless consumerism.
When Lexi and Jake agree to accept publicity, just to help control the story, their advisor organises a press conference. This was one of the most tense scenes in the book as the Heathcotes and Pearsons arrive to stake their claim on the winnings. As an investigation ensues everyone has a different story, with very confusing motivations. This is where the novel really gripped me and I started to become suspicious of everyone’s story – why does Jennifer suddenly claim she went to the toilet at the crucial moment so the others might have left the syndicate without her knowing? Cleverly, over the rest of the novel, Adele Parks has us always referring back to these accounts as new revelations leave the reader questioning what they believed so far. However, due to my own bias there were people whose account I never questioned. Parks though keeps us twisting and turning, even when you think everything is settled the last pages hold their own surprises. This is the dark side of winning such a life changing amount of money. It makes people behave very differently towards you and leaves you vulnerable to blackmail, begging, and desperate people who don’t mind who they hurt to get what they want. I felt so bad for Emily whose first love goes completely wrong in the aftermath; I think she loses just as much as the adults, if not more. The old adage that when something goes wrong you know who your friends are is very apt here. In fact it goes to show that it’s not just when life goes wrong. Any change, even a seemingly positive one, can cause stress and even depression; a wedding sits as high on the stress index, as being fired or suffering significant illness or injury.
As soon as Lexi starts to help Toma early in the book, I could see they had an affinity and I hoped they might become closer with time. I thought he made Lexi feel safe and able to be vulnerable; there is no need to parent him like she does with Jake. Toma has been through the worst experience Lexi can imagine, yet with a small amount of help he has started rebuilding his life. They agree on the amount of good her lottery win could do and it’s great for her to have someone thinking on her wavelength. Her need for his reassurance is so strong that she makes choices to be with him one important evening, rather than with her family. She finds she feels more at home with his friends who talk about books or films they’ve seen, and are from many different parts of the world. It surprises Lexi how much she’s changed, but I wondered how long she’d been out of touch with her own feelings.
Parks is very adept at using multiple narrative voices, in short chapters, that rush you towards a conclusion. There are twists and turns in the final chapters that I had no idea were coming. It sheds light, and even doubt, on other character’s motivations. Due to our own experience and biases there are always characters we take to or strongly dislike in a book, when an author makes me question those assumptions I really enjoy the challenge. It makes the book stay with you. It’s sparked discussion in our house over what we would do, who would be in charge of the funds and who’s life we could change. This is an excellent read, with believable characters in a position we’ve probably all imagined ourselves in at some point. However, it makes us think twice about the reality of it and whether we really would want to be a lottery millionaires.
What I love most about book blogging is that I often come across books that I wouldn’t have found any other way. This novel is one of these. I’ve never read Anne Pettigrew before, but when the synopsis found its way to me for this tour I thought I would enjoy it. This is her second novel, categorised as ‘medical noir’ and although I haven’t read the previous one, it didn’t stop me enjoying this. Dr Beth Semple is a GP in a small practice in Edinburgh, as well as a wife and mother to two teenage girls. Her husband Ralph is a Professor of General Practice and they have one of the busiest households I have ever encountered in a novel! One afternoon Beth is telephoned by an associated practice and asked to visit the surgery to carry out the second section of a cremation form. Unusually, there has been a sudden death in the surgery that morning, recorded as an MI (myocardial infarction or heart attack). However, when she arrives at the other practice, she is uneasy about signing the form. She notices that the secretary and Dr Goodman’s accounts differ slightly, but also it doesn’t sound like a heart attack. On visiting the funeral director’s to view the body Beth notices what looks like injection sites and when Monty the funeral director tells her it isn’t Dr Goodman’s first sudden death during a routine appointment her mind is made up. She won’t sign the form and sets in motion the process for a post-mortem. The repercussions at work are huge because Dr Goodman pulls out of their pooled weekend rota and Beth’s senior partner is furious. Even more disturbing, over the coming weeks, are the series of dropped phone calls, poison pen letters and an attempt to poison their dog. Soon, Beth and her family, are caught up in a possible case of medical malpractice and even murder, and the consequences could be deadly.
The author created a great sense of place and time with her backdrop of 1990s Edinburgh. The little snippets of Scottish dialect brought a sense of warmth and grounded these characters within their world. Thanks to her 31 years of experience as a doctor, the author has first hand knowledge of the type of medical jargon used in Beth’s workplace, at home with husband Ralph, and with their large group of friends. There’s a great sense of camaraderie between this group and this comes from being at university together – covered in the first book. They’re likeable people, intelligent, friendly and all struggling to juggle their lives which was very relatable. Although, I would be exhausted if I adopted their work and social calendars. I kept wondering why the characters were so full of energy – every weekend was a weekend away, or with friends and family staying. They even take in a dog and cat! Their daughters are also busy, with exams, music practice and Katy’s boyfriend Neil. The surgery felt familiar with its regular patients, from the worried well, to those acutely ill. Although, Beth does observe that they’ve never had a death in the surgery so Dr Goodman’s record does seem strange. When two elderly ladies are found dead, one a friend of Beth’s, she begins her book of unusual events detailing the evidence she has so far. When her car tyres are slashed she does report her concerns to the police, only to find her own professional standards being brought into question.
Interspersed with Beth’s chapters are those written by the killer. It soon becomes clear he is a very disturbed man. In his younger years this man finds that the colour of his skin is a barrier. His father is mixed race and it’s evident that for the doctor this makes him feel impure in some way. He has read up on the latest theories in eugenics and has some abhorrent views on mixed race relationships, as well as an odd relationship with religion. He’s determined to ‘pass’ as white to the extent of bleaching his skin and straightening his hair. Slowly seeing this man’s mind deteriorate is quite chilling, more so as time goes on and we start to see him in his day job, full of charm and old-fashioned bedside manner. The contrast is startling, but there are times when I also found him comical. His crimes become more open and risky. The tension the author creates grows as Beth gets closer to his identity and the reader wonders what lengths he will go to in order to silence her. Where will he go once he has committed his final crimes? Even more concerning to me was how he was going to extricate himself from his family and if they’d ever recover from his psychological abuse and murderous intentions. The help Beth receives in the shape of a warning comes from the last place she expects.
This novel was well written and an interesting read, combining the interesting medical world with malpractice, negligence, and even murder. It’s possibly one of people’s worst fears, that the people who are meant to help and care for us are actually trying to harm instead. I liked that it didn’t talk down to the reader, but expected us to understand complex psychology and subjects like the history of eugenics. It made for an interesting mix when set alongside Beth’s family and busy social life. In fact the light relief of Beth’s normal family routine and their time with friends makes the killer’s narrative even more stark and abnormal. I felt so bad for his family, who are not allowed the freedoms enjoyed by other characters; his teenage son particularly had my sympathy. This is an intelligent thriller, full of interesting characters and with a truly unsettling villain. I enjoyed it immensely and I will be going back to read the first novel in the series.
I’m now at a point with Orenda books where I feel I could pick up any of their titles and be assured of a complex and intelligent read. Michael Malone is a completely new author to me, and this was controversial subject matter, but from the first few pages I felt assured that I was in excellent hands. This latest novel concerns a man called Dave, who seems to have it all. He has a job within his father’s business, a beautiful home and a long-term relationship with the well-known actress Amelie Hart. His whole world falls apart when out of the blue he is arrested, accused of molesting the little girl who lives next door. Damaris lives with both parents and seems like a lonely little girl, often desperate for someone to play with when Dave is working in the garden. They’ve played football and frisbee together several times, but on this occasion, the police allege that Damaris has gone home on her bike claiming Dave has touched her inappropriately. A medical examination reveals bruising consistent with sexual assault. From this point on Dave is living in a nightmare, continually asserting his innocence while every sign seems to point to his guilt. Within days he is charged and remanded into a sexual offender’s unit, because being in the general prison population would be unsafe. Amelie is devastated, although she was having doubts about their relationship she believes Dave is incapable of such a crime and now has to run the press gauntlet. Dave’s parents also believe he’s innocent, but as his mother points out ‘people will say there’s no smoke without fire’. This brings them unwanted press intrusion and has the potential to ruin his fathers business. They all wait on tenterhooks for the trial, needing to hear Damaris’s account and praying that it will clear Dave’s name.
There was such an easy flow to the writing I became drawn into these people’s lives very quickly. I believed in them. It is gritty in parts, but it needs to be. I think the author was very aware of treating the subject matter with patience, care and dignity. Whether Dave is found guilty or not, abuse of some sort has happened to Damaris. If it’s not sexual assault, and if they’ve planted this story knowing it’s a lie, her parents. have psychologically abused their daughter. It’s a violation, not of her body, but of her mind. I read the first few chapters keeping an open mind on the question of whether the events of that day happened according to Dave’s account or the account Damaris gives via video link to the court. The author manages to tread a fine line here, allowing the reader to make up their own mind and conveying both narratives with empathy. He never lets us forget that if even if Damaris gives a false account, it’s an account she believes and both of them are victims here.
I appreciated how the author shows us that in these cases the damage spreads far and wide like circles on a pond. For Amelie, the fame she had already turned her back on after a traumatic experience of her own, comes back to haunt her. She had shunned Hollywood for a quieter life, but now she has paparazzi at the door, speculation on her role in the abuse, and well known panel shows discussing her relationship. People who have known the couple give their accounts of how they could see ‘something off’ about David. I found myself moved by the accounts of verbal abuse from the general public and Amelie coming home with hair covered in spit. David’s parents receive similar treatment and find the trial a huge strain on their health with terrible consequences. Not that everything is well in Damaris’s home. Her parents are arguing and she is bombarded with professionals wanting to hear her account over and over. It’s worth pointing out for readers that we don’t hear a graphic account, but I think it is a more powerful a book because the author uses suggestion. The scenes where her parents are going over (or planting) her testimony are disturbing. Her Uncle Cammy comes round a lot more to see his niece, but finds his sister is often at the bottom of a bottle. He brings gifts, even when it’s not her birthday, setting off arguments about Damaris feeling different to the others at school and becoming spoilt. Damaris already knows she is different. My heart went out to this lonely, manipulated, little girl whose innocence has gone, if not on that day, then in the process required by court and her parents. Her confusion at her mum and dad using grown-up words and talking about body parts with her really stayed with me.
There is a sense of powerlessness running through this novel that is almost claustrophobic. Dave is swept up by a tsunami and dumped into a totally different world. It’s shattering to his sense of self – inside he is still the Dave he knows, but now everyone he meets views him differently, creating a chasm between his inner and outer selves. Even worse, as his time on remand continues, he finds himself acting very differently. Despised in the prison population and treated with suspicion by the prison officers, he feels constantly on his guard. He is forced into threatening behaviour and even acts of violence to keep others at bay. Paranoia sets in as he starts to realise that even inside and supposedly watched at all times, people from the outside could be influencing events. A begrudging friendship is forged with one cell mate, but even he can be turned into an assailant when his loved ones are threatened. Dave has always thought that Damaris’s family were simply broke and making false accusations for money. Now he starts to suspect that justice isn’t enough and someone very sinister wants him dead.
However, there are chinks of light in this nightmare that signal a sense of hope. I loved how Amelie and Dave’s parents form such a strong bond. For someone unsure about their relationship, Amelie is steadfast in her support. There is a lovely moment where Dave’s mum and Amelie hold hands in the courtroom. His mum has always wondered whether Amelie was truly serious about their relationship, but as they connect she can feel that this woman loves her son. Dave’s dad, Peter, treats her like family. He makes sure she is ok emotionally and promises to support her whatever she needs. With Dave refusing to see her, and outright hostility from the press and the public she will need to disappear into hiding again. Luckily, she has a French passport and can disappear into another country. The loneliness these characters feel forges a bond that wasn’t there before. They are being punished and serving time for something they haven’t done, found guilty in the court of the media and public opinion. I think their mutual support is a sign that healing can be found eventually. I found myself longing for the truth and a process of healing for Dave and Damaris equally.
Michael Malone is a very gifted writer. He has taken a difficult subject and created a compelling and powerful novel. For me, it was the profound sense of loss that hangs over this story that was most heartbreaking, emphasising the book’s title. Damaris loses the one person who has noticed her loneliness and vulnerability. When cross examining Damaris’s mum, the defence barrister asks when she last played football or frisbee with her daughter and she can’t remember. Even when talking to the police Damaris calls Dave her friend and this could be the confusion of a groomed child, but it feels genuine. On one hand I was desperate to believe Dave’s innocence. Yet, if they are found to be making false allegations, Damaris’s parents would be charged and she could possibly end up in care. Even if Dave is eventually found to be innocent he has lost so much: his job, his reputation, his relationship with Amelie and even his mother. Whatever the outcome, nobody wins here. Despite that, there is a sense that this is a phase of life that will pass, that maybe there will be healing and the chance to connect again. To take that song of isolation and turn it to one of hope for the future.
Us bibliophiles always have favourite book haunts and I have them in all my favourite places. In fact, it’s rare for me to go on holiday in the U.K. without searching out a bookshop to visit. For me it’s part of the joy of going on holiday. Last weekend, me and my other half had a short stay in the beautiful village of Warkworth, Northumberland. We only had a three night stay so I had to edit what we would do; of course book shopping had to make the cut. As my fellow book lovers know, the best place to go for second hand books in this area is Barter Books in Alnwick.
In Country Living magazine, March 2020, a feature on Barter Books claimed that just as books transport us to another time and place, so can the best bookshops. Housed in the grand Victorian building of Alnwick’s train station, this is a bookshop the size of a warehouse! When I enter a bookshop I want the sense that time has stood still. Nothing going on outside matters in the time I spend browsing for books and whoever goes with me has to accept that we’re going to lose hours. Barter Books makes that easy because it’s such a spectacle inside. From the foyer full of paperback fiction, complete with a reading area by the fire, to the till area decorated with an incredible mural and working train set that whizzes around above your head, there’s so much to look at. The large room at the back houses huge shelves packed with books on every subject from cookery to psychology, and my particular favourite A-Z hardback fiction.
Glass cabinets running the length of the building house collector’s, first editions, and signed books. Here and there, large antique tables with comfy chairs allow you to take a break from browsing and look through your books before purchase. Next door, the station cafe serves brilliant breakfasts, snacks and cakes when you need an energy boost. I have lost whole days in this brilliant bookshop. This time I picked up a mix of paper and hard books that are new to me, a couple of books from the back catalogue of newly discovered authors and hardback copies of books I’ve had as a digital ARC or mobi file, but I’ve enjoyed them so much I need a proper copy. I have to set aside money for when I’m going up to Northumberland, everything else I do in my visit tends to be as simple as walking the dog on the beach and photographing beautiful places. So I can be sure of a little cash for books, even though I have no shelf room left.
This was one of my first trips out of the house since lockdown. We realised I hadn’t been in a shop since February. I have multiple sclerosis and a few breathing problems so I’ve had to be extra careful. This trip was incredibly daunting, I was surprised how anxious it made me feel to be near so many people when we stopped at motorway services. However, this trip to Barter Books was brilliant because customers were very well looked after without it being intrusive or alarming. For now, the coffee machine has gone from the reading area. But there was a hand cleaning station, a limited number of people in the store, everyone wearing masks and keeping their distance. In such a difficult and scary time, what I found most hopeful and reassuring was the queue of people wrapped round the station building waiting to go in. The book seller observed that it was amazing to see people willing to queue to get into a bookshop and I couldn’t agree more. We do use reading to escape, but we also use stories to make sense of our world and what’s happening within it. What a treat it is to have beautiful bookshops like this to enable that vital access to stories. If you’re in Northumberland do try to pay them a visit.
I wasn’t sure about this book at first, mainly because of the unusual cover. I’m not sure it sells the novel to potential readers, because inside is an engaging and psychologically complex story. Lizzie, a music teacher and pianist, meets the charming and gregarious businessman Markus when he’s in the hotel bar where she plays piano in the evenings. Lizzie is not a natural performer and enjoys being tucked away in the background in this way, as opposed to being a concert pianist. Yet, Markus notices her and soon sweeps her off her feet. She is attracted to him for all those qualities she doesn’t have. However, soon after their whirlwind wedding, Lizzie is pregnant. They move out to a new home in the suburbs and the life they expected to have is gone. Lizzie feels isolated, Markus has changed towards her and her friends are far away. So, when older neighbour Morag attempts to make friends with her, Lizzie reciprocates and soon they are becoming close friends.
I loved the way the author leaves the story open for a little while; as things begin to change between the couple I thought Markus might become psychologically abusive. He seems to want the life of a single man, still visiting bars and restaurants, schmoozing clients. I found myself furious when he missed the birth of his son, then was so nonchalant about it. Luckily, Morag was available, driving to the hospital then holding Lizzie’s hand through the birth. This is the culmination of weeks of planning on Morag’s part. She has wanted to be there for Lizzie and the new baby, laying the groundwork by suggesting shopping trips for baby clothes and checking in on her while Markus is working away. She seems like the ideal surrogate grandparent and that’s definitely what she wants. But why does she want it so bad? We get small hints from Morag’s friend who brings us little warnings about Morag getting too close and hints of trouble within her family.
The author is very adept at creating tension and from this point on I couldn’t put the book down. I started to really dislike Morag. When she goes to Dobbie’s Garden Centre for a meal with her friend, it is after Jamie’s birth and Morag is relating the role she has played. She plays the martyr, claiming that she had to help Lizzie and making out that Markus is totally useless. She represents the situation as if Lizzie has asked for help, rather than the truth which is that Morag has been manipulative and overbearing. She seems to think she can simply decide she will be mother and grandmother to Lizzie and Jamie, and the people concerned will just fall into place. She achieves this through clever manipulation and deception.
The only real thing we can be sure of when it comes to Morag’s previous home life is that it’s shrouded in mystery. We know that she lost Peter, her husband, but their children seem to be spread far and wide. Their son is in Australia, and her daughter Aileen seems to be close by, but estranged from Morag. All of these things arouse suspicion in the reader. However, the skill of the author means the reader has several possibilities to explore. Markus has changed so completely its hard to believe he pursued Lizzie and wanted a married life with her. It’s almost as if he was in pursuit of a prize, and once it’s been attained he becomes bored and moves on to the next challenge. Lizzie begins to wonder what she saw in this man and whether his absences really are due to work. I started to build up a picture of a conman for whom appearances are everything. At the very least he is immature and not ready to be a husband and father.
Morag seems likeable, but when that mask slips there is someone with a serious psychological problem; she is unable to relate to others normally, has no boundaries and seems to be paranoid about someone being in her house. Then there is Lizzie. It is hard to get a real sense of Lizzie because she is constantly silenced. Markus talks over her and makes choices for her. Morag does the same and plants worries and anxieties onto her when she’s at her most vulnerable. There are times when I wonder if she is suffering post-natal depression because she seems to be in a daze, paralysed and unable to take any action for herself. Is there a villain here or is it just an unfortunate set of circumstances? The tension is kept right up to the end and I did find it hard to put the book down at times. This was a pleasant surprise, because the author is totally new to me and I didn’t expect to be so gripped by it. If you enjoy twisty thrillers that really delve into the psychology of relationships then this is the book for you.