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Posted in Netgalley

A Change of Circumstances by Susan Hill.

I’ve been reading Hill’s Simon Serrailler novels for many years now. I read the very first one, The Various Haunts of Men, when it first came out and every one since. In this 11th outing for the detective he’s investigating a death above a Chinese Medicine shop in the distinctly hippy village of Starly. A strange anomaly in the area, Starly seems to attract shop owners selling incense, tarot cards, and new age paraphernalia. The young man in front of Simon has been dead a few hours and has a needle in the vein of his arm. It seems to be a run of the mill overdose – sadly all too common now that county lines operators had been plying their trade locally for a while. County lines drug dealing bothers Simon and he wants to eradicate it, but catching the person distributing in the village won’t yield any further results. The local man rarely knows the men above him, he just picks up a packet from a given location and gets his on foot distributors to do the next stage. Sadly, those at the bottom of the ladder are often children coerced or groomed into helping out, whether or not they even know what’s in the package they’re carrying. However there’s something about this overdose that doesn’t add up and it is going eat away at Simon until he solves the puzzle.

There are always family issues in Hill’s novels because they are as much about the family as they are the case. I’ve still after all these years, not got to grips with Simon as a character. I know him, but don’t necessarily understand him. I find it easier to understand his sister Cat, and bonded with the character when she lost her husband at a similar time to me. Here Hill concentrates on Cat’s youngest son Sam, who has unexpectedly turned up at home from university. Cat has suspected there have been some issues in his long relationship with girlfriend Rosie, but hasn’t wanted to interfere. Sam was fairly ambivalent about university anyway, so Cat isn’t too surprised when he says he doesn’t want to carry on. He quickly gets his old job back, portering at the hospital, until he decides on something more permanent. Rosie is training to be a doctor and they’re now likely to pass each other every day, but when he first sees her outside the hospital she’s with another man – was this just a hug after a long shift or was there more to it? Other family threads felt a little odd. Kieron is both Cat’s second husband and Simon’s boss, but there’s a strangely detached feeling to his presence. At the farmhouse he disappears into his study to watch TV without interruption, while Simon and Cat share a drink and talk. He doesn’t interact much with the children, particularly Sam. Any interactions he and Simon have at work, are left at work so they don’t chat over old cases or just the difficulties of policing the area. It’s as if he’s absent in his own life and if he walked away he would leave no impression behind.

The chapters that focus on the family or the police station seem to recede into the background, while the intervening chapters are full of life. A young lad called Brookie is the subject of one thread. One of four boys, brought up by Dad, their house is depicted as chaotic and noisy, but seems to be more demonstrative and affectionate than the Serrailler family. Brookie only has a plastic bag for his school books and is the subject of bullying by other kids. One day, as he’s gathering his stuff after it being emptied into a puddle, a stranger appears and starts to help him. They chat and Brookie never expects to see him again, but he drops by the following week with a new rucksack for him. Is this just a Good Samaritan or is something more sinister going on? With Dad working nights as door security on a nightclub the boys have plenty of time on their own and could be easy prey. We also meet a young girl called Olivia, from a more affluent background but her parents have recently divorced. Her father had an affair with a much younger woman and while Olivia’s mum knows that he’s become a dad again in his fifties, she hasn’t told her daughter. So, when Olivia rings her dad for some help, it is a huge shock to be told she has twin half-brothers screaming in the background. Now is not a good time to ask for help. Once a month, a man called Fats gets her to deposit an envelope to a derelict farm while pretending to be out for a run. She hates what she’s doing and it’s only shame and fear of her family finding out that keeps her going. Scared and emotionally manipulated, Olivia is looking for a way out. If her Dad won’t help she’s running out of options.

You always know you are in the hands of a great storyteller here, as it always feels as if the threads come together effortlessly. Of course that takes skill and hard work, but Hill makes it look easy. This is the first time in a while that I’ve felt a restlessness in Serrailler. Usually his large modern flat soothes him, it has the proximity to the cathedral so he also has the incredible views of its architecture. His job can be all encompassing, barely leaving room for other thoughts, never mind people. For some reason he finds himself viewing a large cottage in need of renovating, deep in the countryside. With this case he can feel his patch changing, the tendrils of drugs creeping into smaller towns with criminals who are willing to kill to keep their line of supply running. His behaviour with women has always kept me from truly liking him; he’s a ‘commitmentphobe’ who either never tells the object of his affections what he feels, or who carries on dating someone he has no future with for far too long. It may be something to do with his father’s lack of emotion or the way he has treated women in the past; his second wife had to ask Cat for help when Richard had physically attacked her. However, as a face from the past crosses his path, I did wonder whether this restlessness might mean he’s ready for change? This had that strangely comforting feeling that comes when you know your characters well and can settle into the story. It’s often the same with crime series, that even if your characters are in the midst of a bloody murder investigation, you feel happy to be amongst friends again.

Susan Hill‘s novels and short stories have won the Whitbread Book, Somerset Maugham, and John Llewellyn Rhys awards, received the Yorkshire Post Book of the Year, and have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The play adapted from her famous ghost novel, The Woman in Black, has been running in the West End since 1989. The eleven books in her Simon Serrailer series are all available from Overlook.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Wake by Anna Hope.

She misses him. Fraser. Here in the shrunken hours of the night. She misses him still so much. Who is there to share her thoughts with? They wither inside her. She cannot even write them to him as she used to, can’t take a cup of tea back to bed and sit with a candle in the blackoutand think of him, trying to imagine where he is, what he sees. She cannot imagine where he is, because he is nowhere, he is nothing. All of the many tiny things that he was – the way he turned his head towards her, the slow breaking of his smile, the laughter in him, the roll of his voice; the way that he eased her, eased her – these are all gone. These are all dead.

Last year I couldn’t move on Twitter without seeing that someone was reviewing and reading Anna Hope’s Expectation. I’ve had such a ridiculous TBR that my copy is still languishing on the pile, but I wasn’t surprised to see the book become a runaway hit. I’d already fallen in love with her writing in 2014, when I read her novel covering the aftermath of WW1. Wake is a brilliant piece of historical fiction based around the real historical event, the creation of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. As he is taken from the fields of France, on his journey towards London, three women are linked by a mystery that is starting to unravel. As the Unknown Soldier is meant to provide closure to the war for the British people, these three women can’t look into the future while they are still inextricably linked to the past. Hetty’s wounded brother won’t speak, Evelyn grieves for her lost lover and Ada waits for confirmation of her son’s death, every day that she doesn’t get a telegram is another day he feels alive. We follow these three women over five days, while the selection of the Unknown Soldier is made and his journey towards Westminster Abbey begins. Slowly, a tragic tale of war’s aftermath emerges and links them all.

Hetty lives with her mother still, and her mute, shell-shocked brother. He can no longer work so Hetty has taken a job as a dance instructor at the Palais. It is there she meets an educated, wealthy, man who she quickly falls for. Every indication she has, makes her think he feels the same. However, there’s something she can’t put her finger on, a distance or sense of being unreachable that he has. Where does he go in his mind, when he seems distracted? Evelyn comes from a wealthier background, but feels equally lost. She’s working at the Pensions Exchange, where men returning from the front pass through, claiming benefit for their physical or mental wounds. Evelyn’s own loss is still raw and she feels detached from her parents who can’t understand her experience. She starts to become closer to her brother instead, because he is of her generation, also altered forever by his experience at the front. Ada is haunted by visions of the son she’s lost. She still sees him on the street and for a few moments she’s convinced he is alive. She also feels like she’s struggling alone, because her husband is grieving in his own way, becoming increasingly withdrawn. A door to door salesman attracts her attention and it’s so clear he has suffered from his war experiences and has struggled to find work. He exhibits some worrying symptoms but Ada recognises shell-shock. During one of his disturbed episodes he says the name of Ada’s son. Can she find out what happened to him? The tension really builds as the public spectacle comes closer, the ceremonial internment of this unknown young man can be a catalyst, allowing people to grieve for those whose bodies are lost forever on the fields of France or Belgium.

This is a very interesting part of history for me, because of the tumultuous social change that took place, especially for women. This period is where we saw huge adjustments and change within the aristocratic class. Some families had lost two generations, father and son or the ‘heir and spare’. This led to an estate crippled by death duties and having to be sold, or the new heir forced into reducing costs and servants, or searching for a more advantageous match – marrying American heiresses was sometimes the answer. These changes often brought less formality to the family. Women had worked throughout the war, in jobs usually done by men. There was tension on their return to the workforce, some women didn’t want to return to the home and men who couldn’t find work were reduced to begging or selling door to door. Crime was on the up and families were coming apart at the seams. There was a sense of the old order being overturned and old values like manners, morality and knowing your place being lost.

Finally I loved the significance of the title ‘Wake’ and it’s several meanings: to rouse from sleep; a ritual for the dead; the consequence or aftermath. All of these meanings are apt to the women in the book and their circumstances. This is the moment that the 20th Century finally dawned on people, and society woke from the Victorian era. Victoria’s reign had been so long that some people had never known another monarch, now there would be change from that Victorian order. The ritual refers to the Unknown Soldier, a representative of every man lost, but also representative of that death of the old order, and it’s sensibilities. The consequences of WWI were seismic, we had just fought the first mechanised war and it was hell on earth. Society did not know how to cope with the wounded who returned, whether the ranks of the physically disabled using wooden legs or metal masks to cover burns, or the shell-shocked, constantly trembling and lashing out when feeling threatened. Many ended up in institutions, because they were constant reminders of something younger people wanted to forget. The following few generations would be changed, with the war hanging over them like a giant monolith casting a long shadow. Why couldn’t people be allowed to forget? As the Unknown Soldier passes by someone comments ‘is this supposed to make it all okay?’ This is such a moving read and captures it’s era so perfectly it felt like being there, which isn’t an easy thing to achieve. I felt for each woman, but Evelyn particularly moved me. This is an exceptional piece of writing and a great introduction to this author’s work.

‘I’ll remember you he thinks, and as the gun carriage with it’s coffin and it’s dented helmet passes him by, he closes his eyes. Nothing will bring them back. Not the words of comfortable men. Not the words of politicians. Or the platitudes of paid poets.’

Meet The Author.

ANNA HOPE studied at Oxford University and RADA. She is the internationally prizewinning and bestselling author of Wake and The Ballroom. Her contemporary fiction debut, Expectation, explores themes of love, lust, motherhood, and feminism, while asking the greater question of what defines a generation. She lives in Sussex with her husband and young daughter.

Posted in Personal Purchase

Troubled Blood (Strike No 5) by Robert Galbraith.

While I’ve been taking time to deal with some family issues, I’ve been reading my own personal choices rather than to a schedule. This has given me the chance to pick up this rather weighty hardback from J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith. In fact this book was so weighty that my chiropractor had to put my thumb back into place this afternoon. I’d resorted to nestling the book into a soft cushion on my lap so I could finish it. My partner has never seen me so quiet, as I shunned TV and conversation because I was totally engrossed in this novel. Troubled Blood is the fifth book in the Cormoran Strike series and I must admit to being a little in love with the tall, dark, private investigator. I love the author’s slightly shabby descriptions of him with his unkempt curly hair, awkward gait from his prosthetic leg and his broken nose. However. I’m also incredibly fond of his business partner Robin and the obvious love that flows between them, despite both of them denying it, even to themselves.

We meet the pair with Strike’s agency in a good place – there’s a waiting list for clients, three new members of staff and Robin is now a full partner in the business. Some things stay the same though -Robin still drives the Land Rover, Strike is still smoking and living in the attic above the office, and there is still that unresolved tension around how Robin and Strike really feel about each other. Strike is in Cornwall, visiting his aunt and uncle, the closest people he has to parents. Strike’s father is Johnny Rokeby, rock musician and tabloid fodder. Strike’s mother was a beautiful, bohemian groupie who never had an idea of how to be a mum and abandoned Strike to his Aunt Joan in his primary school years. Joan is possibly, after Robin, the most important person in his world and she’s had a diagnosis of terminal cancer. While drinking with best mate Davey at the local pub, Strike is approached by two women. Anna tells Strike the story of her mother’s disappearance over forty years ago. She was working as a GP in London and saw a last minute patient, before leaving to meet a friend in a nearby pub. She never arrived. Despite extensive investigations she appears to have vanished into thin air. They make an agreement with Strike that he will look into it for a year. With several investigations ongoing and a long waiting list, this looks like the busiest the agency has ever been, but how will Strike manage his workload and spend time with Joan when he needs to?

Robin is happy to pick up some of Strike’s workload in London, such as the staff rota and catch up meetings. However, she does struggle to get one of the new staff members to take her seriously as an equal partner in the agency. She’s balancing this problem, her increasingly contentious divorce, important news about ex-husband Matthew, and supporting Strike as much as she can. This means pulling long shifts of surveillance after a day in the office. She loves her job as much as she did at the beginning but she is struggling with panic attacks related to an incident at university and a case where she was attacked with a knife. Anyone trying to push their way into her space, whether by sending inappropriate pictures or brushing up against her in the office, will come off worst from the encounter. She is doing a lot of soul searching in this instalment of the series, as her friendship with Strike deepens she asks herself a lot of questions.

The main case was very satisfying, with lots of clues, red herrings and bizarre twists and turns. The investigating officer at the time of Margaret’s disappearance appears to have had an obsession with Aleister Crowley and astrology. His notebook is a very odd mix of drawings, notes on the main people suspected and the record of a gradual descent into madness. He was sectioned after seeing a horned goat demon. Robin finds more meaning in it than Strike, and it does yield some clues, but it’s clear the original investigation was inadequate. By chance, a serial killer was prowling the very same area and the police’s official line is that she was possibly taken by him but it can’t be proved. I found the case mentally challenging and full of fascinating characters too. The psychological aspects of the interviews was really intriguing, showing that even in a small 1960s doctors surgery there can be a lot of secrets buried. It was interesting to see more of Robin working on her own and how far she’s come since the first book. As the case gathered momentum I found myself gripped and I kept wanting to pick the book up again to read more, even though it was looking likely that the author was going to keep the case unresolved.

Make no mistake, this book was huge. I always reserve the right to DNF a book if I’m not feeling it by a certain point in the story. Like Bradley Cooper’s character in Silver Linings Playbook, I’ll happily throw a book out of the window if it’s not grabbing me or is overlong. I never felt that with this novel, besides I wouldn’t have dared throw this out of the window for fear of killing someone! I never felt a lull in the story, so it kept me engaged all the way through. This wasn’t just down to the cases, in fact I’d worked out one of them almost immediately – men visiting a woman’s house for a period of time where there are large deliveries of nappies – for which I blame a misspent youth watching every fetish going on C4’s Eurotrash. It was the themes running through the novel that kept me reading too. Absent parents loomed large: for their client Anna who having lost her Mum, had to watch her Dad marry the nanny; for Strike whose half-siblings are pestering him moook for a catch up with their rock star Dad, much to his disgust; even Robin feels dislocated from her family, who can’t understand her choice of career brought into stark relief as her ex-husband is about to become a father. We can see what a beautiful, but absent mother has done to Strike as he keeps Robin as his very best friend and struggles to keep ex-girlfriend Charlotte at a distance. Charlotte is the beautiful damsel in distress who will always pull him towards her when she’s vulnerable, only to withdraw as soon as she is back on her feet. It will take Strike to cut their line of communication but will he be able to do it. The stress of losing his aunt, Charlotte’s pestering and his father applying pressure, results in Strike choosing to drink too much and pushing those who love him most away.

I also enjoyed the ongoing development of Robin and the themes around female power and agency. Being Strike’s partner and his absences in Cornwall, mean she’s the boss. Trying to get all of their staff to accept that is difficult for one of their contractors who tries flirting and sexting, goes around her to get Strike’s approval and doesn’t take her seriously at all. She has to really assert her authority, it isn’t comfortable for her but she’s scared of enough in life without having to be wary at work. When she fights back and Strike finds out the true extent of the matter, his instinct is to physically defend her, but Robin doesn’t want to be rescued. She knows logically that her size and strength leave her slightly vulnerable while working in the same environment as the men. However, in terms of management and investigation skills she really does want to be Strike’s equal. I loved the way these themes were echoed in the case, with the missing woman being assertive, well-informed and educated around women’s rights and health. Some of the possible suspects are in the frame, because she was seen to interfere, to get mixed up in domestic violence cases or unwanted pregnancies and find solutions for those women.

I’m aware of there being controversy around the representation of a possible transgender character. I think this aspect of the book could have been handled better. An emergency patient turned up at the surgery just as Margaret was going to leave, and she agreed to see her. In all the accounts of witnesses they describe a woman with some very masculine characteristics and jump to the conclusion that it’s a man dressed as a woman. This then becomes confused with the passing serial killer who is thought to dress as a woman when approaching victims so they are less wary. One character even makes a comment about other serial killers who liked to dress in women’s clothing. I felt this was quite sloppily done and seems to be saying there’s a link between criminality, violence and men who wear women’s clothes or who are transgender. There should have been more emphasis placed on the fact that these men are not transgender, but are dressing as women for the purpose of disarming victims and luring them into a van or an alleyway. It’s purely a disguise for the purposes of murder, rather than a sign that transgender people are all deviant. This is something editors should be more aware of in the 21st Century and it was a shame to see it in a book I otherwise loved.

This latest instalment in the Strike series is a cracking read and keeps you gripped, despite the fact it’s huge! Every case is interesting, but the main story is such a puzzle and each time there’s a revelation it’s like peeling another layer off an onion. I never suspected the person responsible and that says a lot about my prejudices and bias, as well as societal expectations. There’s a real streak of social justice running through this novel with certain characters and from my work within the mental health system I did recognise the worry that people are falling through the net and being let down as government funding is withdrawn due to austerity. I recognised the practice of ‘cuckooing’ where a vulnerable person’s home is taken over for criminal purposes such as storing stolen goods, dealing drugs, or hiding body parts. I find it amazing that the author can bring so many strands together, while fully occupying her characters and showing us their inner worlds. I loved my time with Strike and Robin, and I thought the ending was lovely. This was a gripping, multi-layered and intelligent thriller with a simmering attraction between our two main characters that will have you rooting for them.

Posted in Netgalley

This Dying Day by Vaseem Khan

After winning a Twitter competition for a proof copy, I read some of the Inspector Chopra series of books by this author last year and really enjoyed them. This is the second book in a different series by Khan, featuring female police officer, Persis Wadia. Set in post-partition Bombay we get a real sense of the time period and political atmosphere in the background of the novel. I really enjoyed Persis as a character straight away. Her relationship with her family was well written and they were warm and inviting. They felt real, as if I could just walk into a house tomorrow and find them there, eating a meal. I found her relationships with colleagues just as interesting as her family, especially since Persis isn’t always polite or good at small talk. I loved her straight to the point attitude though and think it created a gently humorous exchange here and there.

It must have been very difficult to pitch her character properly, because she’s a police officer at a time and place that’s not the norm. She could have felt too modern for the time period, or too submissive as a woman to feel like a real police officer. I think the author gets this just right, and without her character overshadowing the plot of the mystery she’s investigating. There’s also the attention she receives from the media. As Bombay’s first female police officer she’s something of a trailblazer anyway, but on top of that there’s her notoriety from the last case she investigated (in the novel Midnight at Malabar House). This case dragged her into the spotlight a little, but she’s very unimpressed with fame and media types, plus her personality doesn’t always come across well at first meeting. I found her awkwardness very touching, especially when it extends to her personal life. She seems to have feelings for one colleague, an English forensic scientist called Archie. Of course, if her feelings were reciprocated, there would be the problem of being a mixed race couple. It’s very early in the 1950’s and the country has just gone through the horrors of partition after the British rule ended. Her family think she should steer clear of the controversy that would accompany a relationship with an English colleague, especially since she’s such a high profile police officer.

Her investigation is at the Royal British Asiatic Society where both a manuscript and an employee have gone missing. John Healy is a man traumatised by his experiences as a prisoner of war during WW2. He appears to have left some sort of trail, created in the form of clues and riddles leading to location of his manuscript, but are they genuine and is John even in his right mind? There are also political implications to the case, piling the pressure on Persis to solve the treasure hunt quickly. In the background there’s another case, investigating the murder of a white woman. George Fernandes has been given lead detective on the second case, but Persis is finding it hard to work with him, due to unresolved feelings of betrayal in their last case.

Thanks to Khan’s detailed description of the city I felt fully immersed in the sounds, sights and smells of India in the mid-20th Century. This is an India that’s just learning to stand on its own two feet after years of British rule followed by WW2. Khan evokes a colourful and vibrant, India where the mix of religions and cultural rituals bring the city to life. Persis is an anomaly, the only woman in a man’s world but she is intelligent, focused and up to the job. She does have flaws though, she’s feisty and prickly with others at times and not very good at being a team player. She is a loner, at work and at home. We find out towards the end of the novel that this isolation is something she, and her colleague George, have in common. Of course Persis is in a constant battle with male members of the team, belittling or appropriating her achievements but she handles this well and her results speak for themselves. Just in case any TV executives or producers are reading, this has ‘Sunday night TV drama’ written all over it. I would definitely be tuning in.

Meet The Author.

Vaseem Khan is the author of two crime series set in India, the Baby Ganesh Agency series set in modern Mumbai, and the Malabar House historical crime novels set in 1950s Bombay. His first book, The UNEXPECTED INHERITANCE OF INSPECTOR CHOPRA, was a Times bestseller and an Amazon Best Debut, now translated into 15 languages. The second in the series THE PERPLEXING THEFT OF THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN won the 2017 Shamus Award for Best Original Private Investigator Paperback. The first novel in his new historical crime series, MIDNIGHT AT MALABAR HOUSE, features India’s first female police detective, and is currently longlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Historical Dagger. The second, THE DYING DAY, is out in July 2021 and follows the theft of a 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy from Bombay’s Asiatic Society. 

Vaseem’s aim with his books is to take readers on a journey to the heart of India, showcasing both the colour and darker aspects of this incredible country. Vaseem was born in England, but spent a decade working in India as a management consultant. When he’s not writing, he works at the Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science at University College London. In 2018, he was awarded the Eastern Eye Arts, Culture and Theatre Award for Literature. 

For more information about the world of his books please visit vaseemkhan.com where you can also keep abreast of Vaseem’s latest goings-on, competitions, events, and extracts from upcoming books via his newsletter.

Website: http://vaseemkhan.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/VaseemKhanUK
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/VaseemKhanOfficial/

Posted in Publisher Proof, Random Things Tours

Freckles by Cecilia Ahern

It seems a strange admission to start a review with, but I’ve never liked Cecilia Ahern’s books. In fact P.S. I Love You brings me out in a rash. There has always been something too saccharin and sweet about them. So, when I was browsing NetGalley and saw her new novel I had pretty low expectations, but the blurb piqued my interest and here I am swallowing my words. So, when I had a chance to come on the blog tour, I had to take it. I wanted to let other readers, maybe those who hadn’t liked her other novels, know that Freckles is a fantastic read and I absolutely LOVED it.

Five people.

Five chances.

One woman’s search for happiness.

Allegra Bird’s arms are scattered with freckles, a gift from her beloved father. But despite her nickname, Freckles has never been able to join all the dots. So when a stranger tells her that everyone is the average of the five people they spend the most time with, it opens up something deep inside.

The trouble is, Freckles doesn’t know if she has five people. And if not, what does that say about her? She’s left her unconventional father and her friends behind for a bold new life in Dublin, but she’s still an outsider.

Now, in a quest to understand, she must find not one but five people who shape her – and who will determine her future.

Told in Allegra’s vivid, original voice, moving from modern Dublin to the fierce Atlantic coast, this is an unforgettable story of human connection, of friendship, and of growing into your own skin.

Our heroine, Allegra Bird, is quirky, surprising, incredibly loveable, and finds other human beings quite difficult to understand. She’s a parking warden in her little corner of Dublin and every day has a strict routine. She walks down to the bakery where owner, Spanner, greets her with a coffee and a Belgian waffle. She then follows her route, making sure that the same car is parked outside a certain hairdressers, then makes her way to where a yellow Ferrari is constantly illegally parked. She has a small flat in a large family home, with babysitting duties as part of the deal. On Fridays she goes to a small art gallery in town where there’s a life drawing class. It turns out she’s the regular model – I said she was surprising – and she is fascinated with how the artists approach her freckles. There are some freckles that she used to scratch into star constellations, and she’s fascinated to see if they ignore them or over dramatise them as if they’re huge, angry slashes. This is her daily routine, but when she gives the man with the yellow Ferrari his umpteenth ticket, something changes. He tells her she’s the sum of the five people she’s closest too and he doesn’t mean it as a compliment. As a reader we can see that from his perspective Allegra is a pernickety, humourless, jobsworth. However, we also know that Allegra is sensitive and this really hits home with her. She doesn’t have five people – but what if she could curate her five from people who inspire her or who are really successful? If the theory is correct, then by curating her five she could curate her life, becoming more successful in the process.

The joy I felt in this novel was from seeing how Allegra related to other people. For her, other people behave in totally illogical ways (and I have to say I was in agreement with her about some of them – particularly her dreadful landlady). I loved the relationship with Tristan, built from his inability to park his Ferrari legally. She thinks she’s simply being helpful by taking him forms for permits, so is baffled when he illogically persists in paying from hour to hour, relying on his rather lazy staff to keep an eye on the time. These two hate each other at first, but watching as they try to understand each other is wonderful. When Allegra goes back home to visit her Dad she thinks she might slot back into island life easily. She imagines, like people do when they move away, that nothing will have changed when they return. Will old friends be there for Allegra and make up her five? When she’s with her Dad, we see where some of her quirks come from, because he isn’t the best at picking up other people’s signals either. She finds out he’s been stopped from attending his choir because he’s made a pass at one of the administrators, who has felt uncomfortable and made a complaint. He’s a man stuck in the behaviour of an earlier decade, he seems baffled that just touching a woman on the knee is enough to be labelled a pervert. He has brought Allegra up by himself, but she had come to an age where she wanted to know more about her mother and life beyond this place stranded in the Atlantic. When the results of her search are revealed, I was genuinely surprised. I felt so protective of Allegra by this point, I was desperate for everything to work out the way she wanted. It was this hope that created so much tension towards the end, and I couldn’t stop reading.

I loved Allegra’s unique voice as she lets us into her mind and her world. This wouldn’t be a Cecilia Ahern book without being heartwarming and full of humour, but this story is more complex than that. There are darker characters, parts that are more painful or remain unresolved, that show a real maturity and development. It’s about being proud of where you’re from, but also finding your authentic self – a journey that sometimes needs some distance from where we grew up. The author contrasts genuine, warm and accepting people with the false, Instagram brigade who are more interested in how life looks than how it is. Her characters are brilliant here, more complex and nuanced than I’ve seen before. There are even some that turn out to be deeply narcissistic and I wanted to protect Allegra from them. I loved the contrast between the city streets of Dublin and the wild Atlantic island Allegra calls home. In a way this is the decision she has to make. Where is home? Which place truly suits the person she is instead of the woman she thought she had to be in order to be accepted. Does she know that when we are our authentic selves, we attract people to us anyway. Our true five perhaps? All through the novel I found myself responding emotionally to the story, but Allegra’s character simply made me smile and perspective on her world made me smile inside. Not that she needs it, because I know millions love her writing, but if Ahern keeps writing characters like Freckles, she has found herself a brand new fan.

Meet The Author


After completing a degree in Journalism and Media Communications, Cecelia wrote her first novel at 21 years old. Her debut novel, PS I Love You was published in January 2004, and was followed by Where Rainbows End (aka Love, Rosie) in November 2004. Both novels were adapted to films; PS I Love You starred Hilary Swank and Gerard Butler, and Love, Rosie starred Lily Collins and Sam Claflin. 

Cecelia has published a novel every year since then and to date has published 15 novels; If You Could See Me Now, A Place Called Here, Thanks for the Memories, The Gift, The Book of Tomorrow, The Time of My Life, One Hundred Names, How To Fall in Love, The Year I Met You, The Marble Collector, Flawed, Perfect and Lyrebird. 

To date, Cecelia’s books have sold 25 million copies internationally, are published in over 40 countries, in 30 languages. 

Along with writing novels, Cecelia has co-created the US ABC Comedy Samantha Who? and has created many other original TV projects.

Posted in Monthly Wrap Up

Books of the Month! August 2021.

This month’s reading has been less frenetic than the last two months. There are a couple of reasons for this: I consciously wanted to take on less blog tours; I was expecting to have a procedure on my spine this week. Then crashing into this came my father’s illness flaring up and I’m still supporting my husband who has been struggling with PTSD. There’s always a lot going on in life, but this was just too much. I couldn’t think clearly, so reading anything that I hadn’t chosen was a chore. So aside from books I’d already read and had scheduled, I decided to spend the rest of the month reading exactly what I wanted. I’ve enjoyed just browsing the (overstuffed) shelves and picking something out purely because it suited mood. After a literature degree and half way through an MA, I’ve learned to read things I’m not enjoying or find challenging, but this month life was challenging enough. I didn’t have my procedure in the end, but I know it will happen soon. Things have settled but I am continuing to choose blog tours carefully and instead get through my proofs and the NetGalley checklist for the next couple of months. These were my favourite reads for August.

Cecily was a fascinating read about a woman I didn’t know well, but who turned out to be an ancestor of mine. Her grandmother was Katherine Swynford who was the mistress then the wife of John of Gaunt, Earl of Lancaster. She lived in Lincolnshire at Kettlethorpe Hall which is about seven miles from me. She’s now buried at Lincoln Cathedral with her eldest daughter Joan, who happens to be Cecily’s mother and my great-great-great (x infinity) grandmother too. It was fascinating to meet this strong, principled woman who has much more political sway than I imagined. Beginning with her front row seat at the execution of Joan of Arc, we see Cecily’s resolve in her determination to witness the event, to not look away. We then delve into the court of Henry VI and see the beginnings of the cousin’s war, with Cecily firmly on the white rose side of Yorkshire. She gives birth to two kings of England, lived to see her granddaughter marry Henry VII combining the houses of York and Lancaster, and was great-grandmother to Henry VIII. There is so much more to her story, this is just background, so if you love strong heroines and the intrigues of the Royal court this is the one for you.

I’m sure regular readers are totally fed up of me banging on about how wonderful the Skelfs are, but I’m never going to stop. There are more feisty women here, in fact a whole family of them. Dorothy is the grandmother and she runs the family funeral business from her home in Edinburgh. Daughter Jenny also lives above the business, but she concentrates on the private investigation business. Granddaughter Hannah lives with her girlfriend Indy, and is just starting her PhD in the astrophysics department. The book starts with a curious find, when the Skelf’s dog fetches a human foot in the park! This sets Dorothy on a mission to find out where it came from and what had been chewing it. Hannah is investigating for her supervisor, because he’s had a reply to one of his messages sent into outer space. Aliens have never contacted us before – the Great Silence of the title – so why now and who could it be really? Finally, Jenny is investigating an elderly lady who appears to have an a Italian gigolo. Yet, her ex- husband Craig still looms large. Could he have escaped prison and gone into hiding somewhere close to home? Doug Johnstone is a magician who holds the threads of these stories and combines them in perfect harmony. His women are real and quirky – pensioner Dorothy teaches drumming, goes to clubs, has a younger lover and thinks nothing of stepping into danger when necessary. I love the calm, quiet Indy too. Gritty, feminist, philosophical and a great crime novel.

Tammy Cohen was a new author for me, so I was pleased to have the time to try her novel The Wedding Party. Lucy and Jade are getting married in Kefalonia, and thanks to her eye for detail everything is going to be perfect. It’s close family and friends only, so the only wild card should be her sister Jess who has never really played by anyone else’s rules. There are a couple of last minute hitches – Jess pulls a double whammy by wearing a psychedelic dress instead of the dusky pink they agreed for the matron of honour and brings a random stranger she met the day before. Jase’s mum could have caused another row by turning up in a white dress – ‘it’s called bone darling’. Lucy manages to overlook these setbacks, she’s more worried about the costs that have really added up alarmingly. Wedding planner Nina is asking for the next instalment, but she’s got her own problems involving money lenders. In-between the wedding weekend chapters, there are transcripts of police interviews so we know there’s an incident to come. The writer sets each character up so we can see their secrets, but which ones will be exposed? We also get to know a character through their therapy journal, with a terrible upbringing and so much trauma to process, what chaos will she bring to the wedding? More to the point, who is she? Also, who is the old lady they see washing her breasts in the airport toilets and why is she hanging around them in worryingly immodest swimwear? This is a great thriller, and is appallingly addictive. I read it in four hours straight one Sunday. It also left a lasting impression with regards to not judging others and being kind. This was like opening a big bar of chocolate in my house; dangerous, delicious and you know everyone will love it.

This is an incredible story of one girl’s fight to be who she is and make her own decisions about her life. Awais Khan has written a compelling story around the issue of honour killings in Pakistan. There are thought to be around 1000 of these killings every year in the country, and these are just the ones that the authorities get to know about. In an interview with EasternEye.com Khan said he’d chosen fiction to tell this story instead of non-fiction or journalism, because it has room for imagination, but also creativity and it’s his creation of this wonderful character Abida, that brings to life the real horror of how women can be treated in Pakistan. Through falling in love with her spirit and determination, we feel connected and emotional about what she goes through. Some scenes are tough to read, but they need to be. I will hold up my hand and say I didn’t fully understand the moral code that allows a man to feel honour at killing one of their own. However, in such a deeply patriarchal society a woman loses her honour through immodesty – dressing in a Western way, staying out late, meeting with a man, sexual activity before marriage, refusing an arranged marriage. A man’s honour is based on his masculinity and that means being the head of his house, but by ignoring an immodest woman in the family their honour is lost. What’s most moving though, is Abida’s father Jamil and his quest to find his daughter. That one man is willing to stand up for his daughter, rather than obey an outdated code of masculinity, means so much. Their relationship is like an oasis within what she goes through. Hard hitting, but ultimately very uplifting.

I’ve waited a little while to read this one, through lack of time and too many blog tours. It was a wonderful surprise with its depth of characterisation and psychological insight. Connie and Stella are strangers. They live thousands of miles apart, but two traumatic events bring the two of them together and they begin to talk. When they come together, it’s in a way nobody would expect. Connie lives in Dubai with her husband and children, struggling to get used to being an ex-pat, not working, and the social injustice she sees. Stella is sole carer for her mother, a smothering narcissist who is now struggling with dementia. As Stella recovers from her trauma she finds it hard to talk about it, but feels like she’s talking to Connie in her head, so it’s easier. I really enjoyed this exploration of identity and how we construct our ‘self’. The characters tell the story and I felt completely drawn into their world. I thought the author really explained what happens when there’s a gap between who we are and who we present to the world. Very different to her debut novel, but showed the author’s range and skill. Will linger long after you’ve read the final page.

This was another novel I’d been wanting to read for a long time and in one of my favourite genres – Scandi Noir. This is the first in the author’s Island Murders trilogy, which is already a hit in the author’s native Sweden. We follow detective Hannah Duncker as she returns to her home town, a place where she’s renowned for being the murderer Lars Duncker’s daughter. Needless to say not everyone is happy to have her back in town. Her first case brings another blast from the past when she realises that the victim is the son of her best school friend Rebecka. It’s well known that Rebecka’s ex-husband Axel was violent towards her, so they need to talk to him, but he seems antagonised by the police and Hannah in particular. Could he have killed his own son? Told in dual timelines, we follow Hannah and the investigation as well as the 24 hours before Joel’s death, told entirely from his perspective. The reason I originally started to read and watch Scandi Noir, was because it depicted how violent crime affected the families and friends involved. Instead of an action-packed macho thriller, this book used a more feminine gaze, choosing to show the devastation caused emotionally instead. From Joel’s nuclear family and slowly tracking outwards to friends, teachers, neighbours we see all the victims of a murder. As each narrative came closer to revealing the answers, the tension started to build. I thought the story dealt with a very timely issue and all aspects of the case felt well resolved. However, when it came to Hanna’s own story, there were enough loose ends left to explore in more detail over the next couple of books. I would recommend this to all crime lovers, but particularly those who enjoy an intelligent, complex and emotional crime novel that focuses on the victims rather than fetishising the killer.

A Look Ahead to September

So, with less to read for blog tours I will be concentrating on proofs and NetGalley this coming month. Here are some of the books I’m hoping to read next month, some of which have a slightly autumnal feel and look forward to Halloween.

Happy Reading ❤️📚

Posted in Random Things Tours

No Honour by Awais Khan.

Last year I was profoundly affected by the ITV series Honour. It was a dramatisation of the murder of a young Kurdish woman, carried out by the male members of her family and ordered by her father. Bahnaz Mahmod reported her fears to the police on five separate occasions, pleading with them to help her as she believed her family would kill her. Instead of fully investigating, she was dismissed as hysterical and over over-reacting. So instead of having their protection, she was raped and murdered by distant cousins who fled back to Iraq straight afterwards. Their reasoning was that she had besmirched the honour of her family, after divorcing her arranged husband and falling in love with another man. Real life police officer DI Caroline Goode was assigned the case and this was the story of her dogged determination to hunt down those responsible. I found myself moved, but also disturbed by the case. Days later I was still thinking about it, desperately trying to understand why her actions were so offensive to her family, but the men’s actions of raping and killing their own family member were not. I simply couldn’t get into the mindset of these men, and while on one hand I could see the point of view that it is simply murder, I wanted to understand more about what made Bahnaz Mahmod’s actions condemn her to death, and how such a dishonourable act on the men’s part could be seen to restore the family honour.

So, when I had the chance to read Khan’s book I started to read more about honour killing and it’s place in the culture of Pakistan. Pakistan is a collective, patriarchal society and family groups are policed by the male members of a family, a village or area. A woman’s honour is dependent on their modesty and a man’s honour is dependent on his masculinity. So, if a young woman refuses an arranged marriage or commits adultery she has behaved immodestly and has lost her honour. Her male family members are responsible for her and if they do nothing, their masculinity is in question and their honour is lost. So, by killing the immodest woman in their midst, they are seen to assert their masculinity and regain their honour. I was very shocked to read that at least a fifth of the world’s honour killings are carried out in Pakistan, bringing their figure to just over 1000 per year. However, this is often a rural practice and has widespread support in Pakistan, so killings are not always reported and the figures may well underrepresent the problem. Awais Khan takes these figures and ideas, and weaves the tale of a bright and ambitious sixteen year old village girl, with incredible insight and compassion.

The opening scene is a brutal look at the reality of rural village ‘justice’. A young woman is dragged to the river after giving birth to an illegitimate child. The pir, who is a village elder, lists the girl’s crimes against her family and demands that the villagers carry out her punishment. I was shocked at the punishment, especially that it extends to her baby who is drowned in a bucket of milk. Make no mistake, this is hard hitting and it needs to be, for readers to understand the reality of what is still happening in Pakistan and around the world. In the wake of this horror, is a feisty young woman called Abida and despite the horrific example in front of her, she’s headstrong and believes it would never happen to her. She can already see the unfairness of the society she’s been born into – a patriarchal system where her entire life is mapped out before her and she doesn’t have any agency. She will have a husband chosen for her, he will then decide where they live, how they live and the children they’ll have. The problem is Abida has already fallen in love. Her father Jamil has already worked this out and is desperately worried for his daughter. He’s noticed she sneaks out after everyone has retired for the night, he hasn’t followed her, but does listen for her return. He knows it’s likely she’s meeting a boy and he hopes that he’s wrong, but he has a terrible feeling the worst has already happened. What will he do if the pir comes for his daughter?

I don’t want to ruin the plot, so will keep details to a minimum, but although Abida escapes her home village she doesn’t have the happy ending she expects. In an interview with Eastern Eye, Khan explains that he chose fiction to shed light on the subject of honour killing, because it ‘allows for more creative freedom, and for more heightened emotions.’ This was true for me as I fell in love with Abida’s spirit and the hope she has for her life. Amazingly, that hope follows her to Lahore and through her whole experience. She keeps thinking that beyond the situation she’s in, she will survive. The relationship between Abida and her father was so familiar to me from my own Dad. Whatever I’ve gone through in life he’s been there and I have no doubt that he’d search for me in the way Jamil does. It’s the only pure love in the whole novel, unchanged by circumstance and completely unconditional. I found it very moving and for me he’s the most honourable man in the story. He’s decided that his own moral code is dependent on how he treats his children, rather than being dependent on the opinion of the men in his village. Although this doesn’t mean Abida will be safe. In his publicity for the book, Khan has mentioned the social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch. After appearing on Pakistan Idol, she created many video clips addressing controversial topics and women’s rights. In 2016, she was drugged and strangled by her brother Wazeem Aseem who felt she was disrespecting her family. If someone as high profile as Qandeel could be killed this way, what chance does a girl have if she’s from a conservative village, mired in poverty with income and status dependent on maintaining the honour system?

I found the book shocking and I think it will probably stay with me for a while. I’m considering looking for charities to support that help women in these dreadful situations. Khan’s writing pulls no punches, but it’s also incredibly compassionate. I loved some of the more complex female characters such as the servant Salma who has kept Abida locked up, but then helps Jamil. Rana Hameed’s first wife Nigaar is fascinating, she’s broken down physically and mentally, but desperate for a new wife with the will to destroy him, even if she has to die in the process. The complicity of women is needed to keep the status quo, whether they turn a blind eye through fear or because they’ve been beaten into thinking this is the norm and it won’t ever change. I’m glad I read this, to raise my awareness and help me grasp the cultural and historical background in Pakistan. It might also inspire people to be aware of this crime globally, because it isn’t restricted to Pakistan. I hope many more people read Abida’s story and that Khan achieves his aim of showing people ‘love is never a crime’. If he achieves that the whole world will be a better place.

You can read Awais Khan’s interview with Eastern Eye at:

https://www.easterneye.biz/hope-in-the-face-of-honour-killings/

Meet The Author

Awais Khan was born in Lahore, Pakistan. ‘In the Company of Strangers’ is his first novel published by Simon & Schuster and Isis Audio. His second novel ‘No Honour’ is published by Orenda Books and Isis Audio. He is a graduate of The University of Western Ontario and Durham University. He studied Creative Writing at Faber Academy. His work has appeared in The Aleph Review, The Missing Slate, MODE, Daily Times and The News International. He has appeared for Interviews on BBC World Service, Dubai Eye, Voice of America, Cambridge Radio, Samaa TV, City42, Maverix Media and PTV Home. He is represented by Annette Crossland (A for Authors Agency Ltd, London).

In his free time, he likes to read all types of fiction, especially historical fiction and psychological thrillers. He is hard at work on his forthcoming novels.

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Wedding Party by Tammy Cohen.

This was a real turn up for the books as they say. I’ve been ill for a few days with a virus – not that one – so I’ve been bundled up in bed, not really able to bear much noise or fuss. Yesterday morning I picked up this book, I’ve never read the author but had decided to give her a try for this tour. I’m so glad I did because once I’d started, that was me engrossed for the whole day. I read it in four hours straight and enjoyed it immensely. The action all takes place at a wedding venue hotel on the island of Kefalonia. Lucy has been planning her wedding to Jase for a very long time and she’ll be okay as long as everything she’s planned is perfect, down to the last napkin. However, she’s about to find out that once you bring other people into the equation, plans can veer off course. There’s her alternative sister Jess who has promised to behave but turns up with a stranger in tow and a psychedelic dress instead of the tasteful dusky pink they’d agreed on — not to mention her dyed pink hair will turn a straggly peach colour once she hits the sea. There’s a strange old lady who they met washing her breasts in the airport toilets, but who now seems to be everywhere. Best man Gil, who used to be Jess’s boyfriend, is here with his wife Zoe, with all the tension that could cause. Surely Lucy can rely on the older generation to behave? Her mum Hazel and Dad Dom are solid, and although they’re irritatingly close, Jase’s mum Cora is lovely. Thank God though for her best friend Shelley, who is an absolute rock and would have been a better maid of honour than her sister. There’s also wedding planner Nina, who has everything in hand, except perhaps the small matter of money. What could go wrong?

The setting was wonderful, with beautiful descriptions of stunning sunsets over the beach – Lucy has chosen this hotel specifically because although it might be a bit shabbier than some of its counterparts on the other side of the island, they can’t create a wedding at sunset. A perfect photograph for Instagram of course (I loved how even on her wedding day Lucy is itching to update her status). The author’s descriptions of olive trees, swaying grasses full of poppies, the scent of honeysuckle on the breeze, all made me want to fly out there tomorrow. I was fascinated with the idea of illusion, what’s real and what isn’t and which we present to the world. This applied to the people present as well as the online content Lucy keeps imagining in her head. When Jase said he would have married her in a registry office with none of the fuss, it really makes her think. Who was all this expense and stress for? Even wedding planner Nina has been seduced by an illusion, that of the island as an idyllic place to set down roots, but also in destination weddings themselves. She’s placed her entire financial future into a house she doesn’t fully own (thanks to local land laws) and the certainty that people will always want to buy into the dream of a destination wedding. It seems like she must have a wonderful lifestyle, but actually the island is deserted and bleak out of season and she’s literally one pay cheque from going bust. Especially when the people who buy into this illusion can’t always afford it. Almost everyone in the wedding party is hiding something. Jess, although irritating to her sister, is actually the most open and authentic person there. She just needs some self-awareness and discretion. Gil is possibly the only other member of the group with no secrets and is seemingly devoted to wife Zoé and seems to understand her, despite her brittle exterior. I enjoyed some of the evening dinner, when a lot of the smaller secrets are out in the open and people can really get to know each other, on a deeper level.

If you simply want a good thriller read, this book really delivers. We know something goes drastically wrong because in-between the story are transcripts of police interviews with members of the wedding party. The author is very skilled in giving away snippets of information, enough to get your brain whirring, but not enough to work it out. This keeps you reading just one more chapter. There are also therapy journal entries – which I loved because it’s something I ask my clients to do – but we don’t know which member of the wedding party they belong too. Every so often there’s a delicious red herring thrown in, like the groom disappearing during a dare on the fishing trip. There’s also the rising tension and suspicions of each other, even the married couple are keeping some secrets close to their chests. Watching them try to avoid being exposed, made me cringe. There are also some comedic moments, in the descriptions and behaviour of old lady Vivienne particularly, but also I the eccentricities and foibles of those in the wedding party. The author is adept at showing us aspects of human behaviour that feel totally authentic – such as the shopping day the women have, where almost everyone rejects their purchases as something they’ll never wear as soon as they return to the hotel. She also nails that feeling of loneliness, and how having no family leaves you rootless and free-floating. There’s nothing to ground you. It’s this understanding of human behaviour that made me feel there’s something subtly different going on. Underneath the thriller there’s an underlying message that I felt really elevated this above the ordinary and said something about the times we’re currently living in. It’s the old cliché of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, because some suspicions that arise in the novel, say more about that character’s prejudices than the person under suspicion. Once the secrets are in the open and disagreements are resolved, there are a lot of deep conversations and apologies to be made. We can never know what another person has gone through and while our brain may well go into overdrive when we’re unsure about someone, I felt the author was telling us to hang back a bit, find out more and be kind.

Published by Black Swan, 19th August 2021.

Meet The Author

Tammy Cohen is the author of six psychological thrillers, the latest of which is Stop At Nothing. She is fascinated by the darker side of human psychology. Her books explore how ‘ordinary’ people react when pushed into a corner, the parts of ourselves we hide from the world – and from ourselves. Previously she also wrote three commercial women’s fiction novels as Tamar Cohen debuting with The Mistress’s Revenge which was translated all round the world. In addition, she has written three historical novels under the pseudonym of Rachel Rhys. The first, Dangerous Crossing, was a Richard & Judy book club pick in Autumn 2017. She is a member of the Killer Women crime writing collective and lives in North London with her partner and three (allegedly) grown up children and her highly neurotic rescue dog. 

Visit http://www.tammycohen.co.uk to find out more, or find her on facebook or twitter as @MsTamarCohen or on Instagram as @tammycohenwriter

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

Cecily by Annie Garthwaite

I hadn’t heard of Cecily Neville and wasn’t exactly sure where she was within the characters I already knew in the period just before the cousin’s wars better known as The Wars of the Roses. I was familiar with women like Jacquetta Rivers, Elizabeth Woodville and Warwick, The Kingmaker, from my reading of Philippa Gregory. I was also aware of Anne Neville and Isobel Neville, Warwick’s daughters, who married the Duke of Clarence and Duke of York, later to become Richard III. I hadn’t realised that Cecily Neville was the mother to both those boys and King Edward IV. I was only a few chapters in before I realised that Cecily and I share a grandmother (well to me a great-grandmother goodness knows how many generations ago) Katherine Swynford. In fact Katherine lived around five miles from me, at both Torksey Castle and Kettlethorpe Hall in Lincolnshire. She was mistress, then wife of John of Gaunt and for a short period was Queen of England. One of her daughters, Joan, is the mother of Cecily Neville. The pair, Katherine and Joan, are buried not ten minutes from where I write this, in Lincoln Cathedral. There is something very exciting in reading about your ancestor, so it did change the experience of the book for me.

The opening scene, at the burning of Joan of Arc, is one of the most powerful I have ever read. Cecily narrates in the first person:

‘It’s no easy thing, to watch a woman burn. A young woman, who has seen only three more summers than yourself and claims the voice of God compels her actions. But there it is; the day’s work. And she must harden herself to it.’

It sets the scene for the rest of the novel perfectly, it gives us a jolt and prepares us for how brutal this period of history was. It gives us a sense of how women are treated, especially those who explicitly disdain the rules of society. Joan of Arc didn’t play by the rules. Cecily is determined to shape her own future, but though words and ideas instead of action. Court is a deadly game of chess and Cecily is always on her guard. Make no mistake this is a woman’s side of court life. Where her ideas and beliefs are put across, whether at the King’s council or on the battlefield, only men are present. We hear about battles through messengers, and the men left standing afterwards. We hear about the King meeting his council through Cecily’s husband Richard. Yet the idea starts when both of them talk last thing at night or out hunting, just the two of them so no one else can hear. Cecily campaigns through letters, befriending influential women and petitioning the Queen – although in this case she believes the Queen is truly the one in charge anyway.

Without her husband Richard though, Cecily would have no avenue to pursue her plans. This is an arranged marriage, as we see in the book the family are already marrying off their eldest daughter at the age of 10. After the ceremony, the young bride and groom go back and live with their families until the age of fourteen or fifteen when the bride and groom go to live in their marital home together. So, Cecily would have had the same rules apply to her match. Luckily it appears to have been a good match, in business and pleasure. Most importantly for Cecily, Richard regards her as an equal and listens to her in courtly and political matters. His respect for her, which seems unusual for the time, means that the men of her household and her sons listen to her as well. They value her judgement and her ability read a situation and the people involved. However, being a courtier isn’t an easy life. I won’t reveal the plot, but I will say that when you’re at the beck and call of a King, you have to hope that King is of good judgement and sound mind.

One aspect that really stood out to me, was that all the women are deeply affected by their fertility, or lack of it. Cecily and Richard have been married for eight years at the start of the book, but still haven’t had a living child. In fact by the end of the book, I couldn’t keep up with how many times she had been pregnant. There is a period in the middle of the book where she realises she’s been pregnant for the majority of the last few years. I was also surprised by the breadth of the families, with mothers still being pregnant at the same time as their elder daughters. When any woman in the book delivers a son I could feel their relief. Everything must be inherited by a son, who continues that aristocratic line. These years of wrangling over who has the strongest claim to the throne, as well as the death of his own elder brother, make sense of Henry VIII’s obsession to produce an heir. I think the author captures beautifully the pressure these women feel. Their sense of loss, even though infant mortality rates must have been quite high, runs deep. Giving birth is very much women’s work, and the blame for what they do or don’t produce sits squarely with them. It’s hard to imagine not being able to control your fertility; to decide when to start or when to stop having children.

The story flowed well, and for me could have benefitted from being slightly longer. There were large time jumps in a couple of places and I did have to keep looking people up, checking family trees and names as opposed to titles. That was me trying to make complete sense of it, to fit this piece in to the larger jigsaw I was more familiar with. This was a fascinating piece of history, bringing to life another incredible woman from this time period. She sits with Joan of Arc, and her contemporaries Jacquetta Woodville and Margaret Beaufort, as women who know how to fight a war of words. Like present day spin doctors they weave the tale they want the court and the country to see – Cecily suspects the Queen of weaving the most audacious tale of all. I was left with the sense that courtly life is a living game of chess, with human pieces. Those close to the throne could be lucky enough to remain in favour, but more likely are only two moves away from ruin. As for the ending, those with historical knowledge will be aware that Cecily’s schemes are only successful to a point and there is even more turmoil beyond the book’s final pages.

She is remembered as the mother of two Kings of England and grandmother to a Queen, but the painful truth is she outlived all of her sons. Even worse, she had to witness their treachery and betrayals of each other, including the disappearance of her eldest grandsons (and heirs to the throne) from the Tower of London, never to be found. Six years before Cecily’s death, her granddaughter Elizabeth married Henry VII finally uniting the houses of York and Lancaster. She even lived to see the birth of her great-grandson Henry VIII. Annie Garthwaite has fictionalised the life of a very powerful and intelligent woman, who has a much bigger hand in history and my own ancestry than I’d realised. Her work is well-researched, creating a book that is horrifying in places, but ultimately a compelling piece of historical fiction.

Published by Penguin, 29th July 2021

As part of the blogger group The Squad Pod, Cecily has been our book club choice for August. You can see our read-along chat at @Squadpod3 on Twitter.

Meet The Author

Annie Garthwaite turned to fiction after a 30-year international business career, fulfilling her lifelong ambition to write an account of Cecily Neville, matriarch of the House of York during the Wars of the Roses and mother of Edward IV and Richard III. Her obsession with Cecily and her family began in school and never left her. Setting off in the world of work, she promised herself that, at age 55, she would give up the day job and write. She did just that, completing her novel while studying for a creative writing MA at the University of Warwick. CECILY is her debut novel and, even before it’s publication, was named a ‘top pick’ by The Times and Sunday Times.

http://www.anniegarthwaite.com

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Great Silence by Doug Johnstone.

Why is it always so difficult to write blog posts for books that I absolutely love?? I have already created two new hashtags for this third novel in the Skelf family series. The first was #bookbereavement, because when I finished it I wanted to turn straight back to the first page and start again. The second was #Skelfaholic and I am a fully paid up member. It is agreed that if this series ends (please no!) then we Skelfaholics will be holding a wake by drinking whiskey in a funeral home, followed by star-gazing at the observatory. It’s hard to put across how much I love the Skelf women, their cases, and the way they manage to conduct their funeral business with such dignity, and their investigation business with more balls than most men. I read this book almost as soon as I received it, and I’ve been sitting on it excitedly ever since, desperately trying not to say anything until the blog tour. Now I can happily say Doug Johnstone has done it again. This is a fantastic read.

For those who are new to the series, the Skelf women are three generations living under the same roof: Dorothy the grandmother, Jenny the mother, and Hannah the granddaughter. They ‘live above the shop’; their businesses being a strange mix of funeral directors and private investigators. Oh and Dorothy is a music teacher too, so there are often teenagers wandering in and out and playing the drums. In fact there are often waifs and strays under the Skelf’s roof. Hannah’s girlfriend Indy was one of their waifs, brought into the fold when her parents died and the Skelfs organised their funeral. She now looks after the funeral business with the same calm and dignity she brings to Hannah’s life. Einstein the dog arrived when a police chase ended with a van crashing nose first into one of their graves, during the funeral. The dog was in the van and with his owner now dead, he became part of the Skelf household and a companion of Schroedinger, the cat. Jenny mainly works on the private investigation side, but has a lot of her time taken up by her ex and Hannah’s father, Craig. He escaped prison and is possibly closer than they think. Finally, there’s Hannah, starting her PhD with the astrophysics department and pondering the question of why other life in the universe has never tried to contact us – the ‘Great Silence’ of the title.

As usual the book begins with a strange event. Dorothy takes Einstein for a walk in the park and he fetches a human foot, even more strange is that it appears to be embalmed. This embroils Dorothy in a very unusual case that could be deadly. Jenny is dealing with the aftermath of her ex-husband’s actions in the last book, she’s still healing emotionally and potentially regretting the end of her relationship with painter, Liam. She misses him, and wonders if perhaps they could rekindle something. Then the other daughter of her ex-husband disappears. Jenny wonders if her life will ever be free of this man, as she joins forces with the other woman in Craig’s life to find her daughter. Finally, Hannah is facing massive changes in her academic and personal life. In a sense she’s being pulled between past and future. Her graduation becomes a double celebration when Indy proposes, but then she’s pulled into the past when their flat is broken into and someone makes it clear they still want to be part of her life. Her academic supervisor José asks her if she’ll look into one of the central questions of astrophysics, if there is extraterrestrial life, why haven’t they replied to our messages? He has had a reply, but doesn’t know where it’s come from. Is it really from another life form or is someone playing game with him?

There’s so much packed into this novel, but Doug Johnstone never loses a thread. Each storyline is given equal time and care. As I was reading the novel and writing this review, my partner saw my search history on my iPad and looked confused. I had tabs open for SETI (an institute set up to search for possible extraterrestrial life), the embalming process, numbers of big cats kept in domestic homes in the U.K, and Hindu funeral rites. Yes, the author does go to all these different places in the novel, not to mention the Italian gigolo and elderly lady, and they all interweave harmoniously. I love the unexpected situations they find themselves in, such as Indy and Hannah taking a walk in the park and encountering a black panther. I also love how these women throw off expectations and be themselves. Dorothy is an elderly lady, but she goes to clubs when one of her students is playing a gig, and has a healthy sex life with her long time friend and police contact, Thomas. She’s investigating the ‘foot’ incident, which becomes more urgent once another foot turns up, this timbelonging to someone different. She’s also investigating the panther incident and visits experts keeping wildcats at their homes. In between she’s supporting Abi, now living with the Skelfs, who gets a huge shock when a man claiming to be her birth father shows up.

Jenny has to face her ex- husband and there is a sense that this might be their final showdown. They had originally thought he’d be far away in another country, but with huge estates covering thousands of acres in Scotland, it’s not inconceivable that he’s been hiding close by all along. The strength of both Hannah and Jenny in facing him again, is amazing. They’re scared – so much so that Hannah and Indy move back in to the family home – but know that the only way to stop this man ruling their lives is to find him and have him locked away again. I felt for Jenny, who had just turned a corner emotionally and was considering her life moving forward, and whether she wanted to remain alone. She’s also investigating on behalf of a brother and sister who are concerned their elderly mother is being misled by an Italian playboy. As usual Jenny is professional with her investigation, but uneasy about her clients and their motives. Meanwhile, behind all these fireworks, the kind and loyal Indy is having a crisis about her grandparents. They are traditional, but to Hannah’s surprise they want to fly over from India for their wedding. They don’t mind their granddaughter marrying a woman it seems, but they do have a huge request relating to the death of Indy’s parents. Leading to some very hard choices for Indy, who I’m especially fond of.

Doug Johnstone is so many things at once: a gritty crime writer; a poet; a philosopher; a lover of the city where he bases this series; and an incredible writer of women. Johnstone writes real women, women who are intelligent, ballsy and true to themselves which is why I love them so much. One philosophical idea that stood out to me was ‘sonder’. It’s a word I’ve become aware of because it’s the title of my work in progress – where there are people in a difficult situation desperately trying to understand each other. Sonder is the sense I often get in a very busy train station when I look around at all the people and realise that every one of them has a complex and unique life just like mine. It’s the name of a cafe that Hannah visits near the university campus and as she sits there after her graduation, with Indy, Jenny and Dorothy she realises something. These three women come into people’s lives at a terrible moment, but have the ability to treat each person’s grief as if it was the most important thing to them. It reminded me of bringing a client into my counselling room, creating a safe space where, for an hour, the most important thing in the room is this person and whatever they bring to talk about. I think this is possibly why I feel such a strong kinship with these women. Jenny will take a drink with a homeless person and pass the time of day and Dorothy will connect with a young person fifty years her junior and make them feel welcome. I hope a little of the Skelfs rubs off on all of us. If you’ve never read the series, then do yourself a favour and buy all three. You won’t regret it. There was something about this book that felt like a finale, but I’m hoping against hope there’s more to come from these characters who I love. I’ll miss them, till next time.

Published by Orenda Books, 19th June 2021

Meet The Author.

Doug Johnstone is the author of eleven novels, most recently The Big Chill, the second in the Skelfs series, which has just been optioned for TV. In 2020, A Dark Matter, the first in the series, was shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year and the Capital Crime Amazon Publishing Independent Voice Book of the Year award. In 2019, his thriller Breakers was also shortlisted for the prize. Several of his books have been bestsellers and award winners, and his work has been praised by the likes of Val McDermid, Irvine Welsh and Ian Rankin. He’s taught creative writing and been writer in residence at various institutions, and has been an arts journalist for twenty years. Doug is a songwriter and musician with five albums and three EPs released, and he plays drums for the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, a band of crime writers. He’s also player-manager of the Scotland Writers Football Club. He lives in Edinburgh. –This text refers to the paperback edition.