The Memories We Bury by H.A. Leuschel

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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.

Talland House by Maggie Humm.

#TallandHouse #RandomThingsTours

In Virginia Woolf’s famous novel To The Lighthouse we visit the Ramsay family at Talland House in St Ives, Cornwall. I remember a particular dinner scene in the novel, often used as an example of how subjective the sense of self is, as we float between dinner guest’s perspectives of the dinner and each other. Maggie Humm takes one of Talland House’s guests, Lily Briscoe, and weaves a tale of love and friendships across the turbulent decades at the beginning of the 20th Century. We start at the Royal Academy in 1919, when Lily has a painting on display and runs into her one time tutor Louis Grier. This meeting takes Lily back to a time when she attended a painting school in St Ives. Now Lily is a successful artist, and in the time since her student days has been a nurse and a suffragette. She is much more self-assured than back then, when she was lacking confidence and still struggled with the loss of her mother. At a student art show, Mrs Ramsay and her husband buy one of Lily’s paintings and the two women become close. Lily attends dinner at Talland House and asks if she might paint Mrs Ramsay’s portrait. Lily has become fascinated with her hostess who has all the elegance of the model she used to be, but also the soft calming nature integral to her role as hostess, wife and mother. With Mr Ramsay’s violent outbursts, Lily suspects she needs to be patient more often than not. As they meet Louis in 1919, Lily realises two things; she is still in love with Louis, and she must explore what happened to her beloved Mrs Ramsay, who has died suddenly without Lily knowing.

From a historical perspective this novel is fascinating. Not only is this an interesting time in history, but To The Lighthouse was a turning point in the history of the novel – showing a lean towards Modernism in its various perspectives and informal structure. Historically, this is a time when women start to become independent and we see this in Lily’s student years – she studies in Paris before Cornwall and now trudges around the Cornish coastline, sketching with her friend Emily at the weekends. She chooses how she spends her time and with whom, although there are some constraints within her class and gender. With the advent of WW1 women are working in men’s roles as they join up and go to the front, working in retail and in factories to ensure the country keeps running. Lily’s wartime job as a nurse further emphasises her competence and independence. It’s a time of huge change and upheaval for everyone, but on a personal level Lily is shocked to be told about the sudden death of her former friend Mrs Ramsay. Her mind is drawn back to those sudden outbursts of her friend’s husband when she was visiting. It is Lily’s interest in this mystery as well as her potential love story that kept me reading.

The pace is slow, full of beautiful detailed descriptions of surroundings and the art being created. The colours are vivid and I can almost see a particularly colourful part of the Ramsay’s garden where delphiniums flower in a blue haze in contrast to the purple hedge. I loved the descriptions of St Ives, especially the depiction of Pilchard Day with all its activity and noise. Although these descriptions slow the story down, they are very important. Humm is creating a painting with words. The difficulties of women’s roles in society are depicted beautifully in Lily; there is tension between her status as an independent woman and a woman in love. Can both of these roles exist in conjunction with one another? She has the example of Mrs Ramsay before her, a once celebrated model, with her role now confined to mother and wife. Any artistic sensibilities she had now restricted to making Talland House the perfect place to entertain her husband’s contacts. Every skill she has is now used to create the perfect back drop, making her husband more successful in society. Instead of furthering her own independent skills and interests. Does Lily want that same role? There is also the similarity Lily sees between Mrs Ramsay and her mother, whose loss seems to haunt her in some way. Is there a way in which these two women’s fates are linked and what does this mean for Lily?

This novel is a beautiful elegy to the world Virginia Woolf created at Talland House. There is something dreamlike about those early days in St Ives, as if this lifestyle has now been lost in the wake of WW1. This feeling also extends to the love story; can Lily’s infatuation with Louis survive all that has happened since they last met? Would the reality of their relationship be those traditional roles or would Lily be free to pursue her independent career? Everything that has happened gives her room to ask these questions. This is a thoughtful, leisurely novel with bags of historical detail and painterly descriptions. It was a perfect summer story, in the same way as LP Hartley’s The Go-Between. It drifts like a summer breeze, and captures its moment perfectly.

The Other Passenger by Louise Candlish

#TheOtherPassenger #NetGalley #SimonandSchuster

I’ve started to think of Louise Candlish as one of my ‘go to’ authors for classy thrillers with unexpected twists. As always she drew me in with the characters, but at first I wasn’t quite feeling it. I was curious, but I found myself waiting for something to happen. Then there was a moment – if you’ve read it you’ll know where I mean – where everything changed and I realised everything I thought I knew about a character was wrong! After that I had to keep reading, and I kept reading till I finished at 3.20am precisely.

Our narrator is Jamie Buckby, who lives with his partner Clare in a beautiful home near the River Thames. Clare is a partner in an estate agency and Jamie.. well, Jamie is between jobs at the moment. After an incident on the tube made him infamous, he is working as a barista in a small, independent coffee house. Since the tube incident, Jamie has been commuting to work on the riverboat. Open air, a beautiful view of the city and a great way to relax on your way to work. Also, passengers aren’t crammed in like sardines, sweating in the heat, stuck in a tunnel, panicking and pulling the emergency cord. Anyway, the book begins in that weird week begin Christmas and New Year when two detectives meet Jamie off the boat before work. They’re concerned about the whereabouts of one of Jamie’s fellow passengers, Kit. However, Kit isn’t simply a fellow passenger. Clare and Jamie have been together a while and felt in need of some excitement, so invited one of Clare’s new employees and her partner over for drinks. Melia and Kit are young, attractive and have that hint of danger. They drink, but also dabble in a bit of coke. Melia is stunningly beautiful and on one evening in Clare and Jamie’s kitchen, she corners Jamie and says she finds him attractive. Jamie is twice her age at 50 years old and very flattered, but has a lot to loose. Not only his long standing relationship with Clare, but everything that comes with it – her family, her financial support, and the large Georgian house with communal garden that they share, but Clare owns. Will he be tempted to risk everything?

The book’s structure brings us back and forth, to the Christmas week and Kit’s disappearance, then back into the past few months and what’s really been going on in plain sight and in secret. Then, just when I was starting to get a handle on what’s really happened, Candlish pulled the rug right out from under me! Then I had to reevaluate everything I’d read before.

I love books that surprise me. Especially when I’ve become very invested in the story and have started running up my own theories on what’s going on. I became very interested in Jamie’s partner Clare. To some degree she has led a very privileged lifestyle both in London and back in her family’s home in Edinburgh. However, she has been a great partner for James and has supported him through the tube incident, his period not earning and even further into the novel as the questioning about Kit’s disappearance becomes more focused on James. Her strength and dignity shows when she still firmly supports him, despite their relationship being on shaky ground at times. Meanwhile, Melia is a master manipulator and actress – I will never trust anyone who’s performed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. This is not just a book about being deceived though. This book is about self-deception. About thinking you can party like twenty year olds when you’re middle-aged. About ignoring the reality of your situation, your finances, the roof over your head. About ignoring the reality of how attractive and how desirable you are. It was great to read a book where the women have all the power, whether it’s because they’re young, smart and beautiful, or whether they’re classy, wealthy and dignified. Even the seemingly quiet, unassuming, riverboat passenger Gretchen, has some tasty secrets of her own. This is a very taut, well-written thriller, that is difficult to put down and even harder to second guess.

Invisible Girl by Lisa Jewell.

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Lisa Jewell is another favourite thriller writer of mine. I know with her books I’m going to get that addictive, dark and ‘unputdownable’ novel I’ve been craving for solid weekend of reading. In actuality I finished this in five hours straight. I don’t know if it’s because I am a counsellor, but I love it when psychological professionals are depicted in novels – I instantly know I’m getting one of two things; a great counsellor with a messy personal life or a creepy manipulator who isn’t what they seem. In this case I got both, plus plenty of other complex characters to get my teeth into it.

The central relationship of this novel is that between child psychologist Roan Fore and his previous patient Saffyre Maddox. Saffyre has lost both parents and lives in a London tower block with her uncle Aaron. They spend three years as doctor and patient until she’s made so much progress it’s time for Roan to discharge her. Yet Saffyre doesn’t feel fixed. She has simply learned to wear masks. She’s studied the girls at school and now knows how to be an ordinary girl, she has a bunch of friends and at home seems the content family member. Once her grandfather dies, it soon becomes clear that no one knows or sees the true Saffyre. She’s become invisible.

Another narrator is physiotherapist and mother Cate. Cate probably appears to have everything. A long marriage to a fellow professional, two teenage children and an apartment in a huge mansion house until the renovations are completed on the family home in Kilburn. For now she’s getting used to her new flat, and life in Hampstead village. However, it’s not long before the novelty of life in this new neighbourhood wears off, when one of her daughter’s friends is sexually assaulted on her way home. This is not the first incident either. Could it be that the attacker is hiding on the building plot next door, which has seen very little activity apart from one JCB placed on site. The foxes are more active and can be heard screaming at night. Cate wants to keep her children safe, asking her teenage daughter Georgia to be careful coming home, especially at dusk onwards. Her son, Josh, is younger but is becoming increasingly difficult to pin down. She doesn’t always know where he’s been and who with, but can’t bring herself to imagine her kind, tender boy doing any harm. Cate’s husband is running, at all different hours and sometimes for whole afternoons. Should she be worried about where he is? That is aside from the affair she’d convinced herself was happening this time last year.

Our last narrator is Owen, a young, single man lodging with his aunt Tess down the road. Cate hates to generalise but he is the archetypal sexual predator. In his thirties, but with no relationship and seems like a bit of a loner. In fact the truth is even more worrying as we learn that Owen works at the local college and has been suspended for sexual harassment. Having turned down a course on creating a safer workplace, Owen decides to quit but now he has even more time on his hands. He finds himself drawn into the murky world of ‘incel’ websites – a group of men who are termed involuntary celibates because women won’t sleep with them. He makes contact with one charismatic leader within the movement and they meet for a drink, but Owen finds his extreme ideas frightening. He believes in enforced impregnation, to get past this conspiracy barring men like them from having a sex life or their own families. Worryingly, and without being asked, he gives Owen a bottle of rohypnol. Mortified, Owen takes them but hides them in his drawers at home. Put off by the incel extremists, Owen decides instead to join Tinder and ends up on a date with a woman on Valentine’s Day. Little does he know that the events of that evening will become very important and may impact the rest of his life.

I liked the way Lisa Jewell takes us inside these characters while also letting us know how others see them. Cate sees Owen as an odd character who seems to stare and appears awkward around women. Saffyre sees Cate as the blonde skinny wife, with a life that revolves around her husband and children. Owen notices Saffyre hanging around the building plot and watching Cate’s family. All these disparate threads come together when Saffyre is reported missing. The author makes points about our biases in the case of Owen. When questioned by the police Cate mentions him as someone who’s odd, who watches people and suggests they question him. It made me think of the case of the 2010 case of Joanna Yeates who went missing in her home town of Bristol. The police took her landlord, Christopher Jeffries, in for questioning and his face was plastered all over the nation’s press. Even when released from questioning there were those that still found Jeffries suspicious. His only crime it seemed was to look a bit odd and unkempt and be described as a loner. Jeffries won substantial libel damages. On the other hand, is someone has the air of respectability through their profession or financial position they can get away with murder under our noses.

Saffyre is an interesting character and although I didn’t fully understand the reasons for her choice to live outdoors – I like my comforts – I can see how the flat becomes claustrophobic for her. Eight storeys up and the heat from all the surrounding flats becomes stifling. I wondered if it was a type of grounding she was seeking? I understand that. I have a need to feel the earth with my bare feet, particularly one specific piece of earth have almost always lived next to since I born. I was born on a farm across the road from the River Trent, and although I’m moving further south on that river as the years go by, I still take off my shoes and stand bare foot on the river bank. It’s like a communion with the river and it’s boundaries – a way of letting it and me know I am home. For Saffyre it’s the stars, the being able to wrap up warm while feeling cold nip your face, the quiet communion with a visiting fox, the feeling that perhaps, like the fox, she is wild. Inside there are many things she has to face, like the loss that surrounds her, the self harm, and the terrible thing a boy at school did when she was much younger. Outside she’s free from these things and it is no coincidence that outside is where she first trusts someone enough to share those painful experiences. She’s incredibly perceptive for her age and is the only one to realise that Cate’s life is largely dependent on one man, and Saffyre is perfectly placed to see the potential for future pain in that choice.

Lisa Jewell is great at throwing red herrings into the plot and I didn’t recognise all of them, happy to go where the story took me rather than furiously trying to work it all out. I knew which way I wanted the plot to go and I was largely rewarded, with just one surprise for good measure. I always want to ask authors whether they know how their novels will resolve, which way each character will go and who will take the blame. I’m sure I’d get a variety of different answers. I do give my heart away to characters and I was desperately hoping Joshua wasn’t involved the sex attacks in the area, because I wanted him to be the sweet, kind boy I had built him up to be. What a story like this one tells us is that we are all a couple of decisions away from a completely different life. Georgia could walk out one night and meet the attacker. Owen could take his date rape drugs on his Valentine’s date. Cate could have left Roan years before when he cheated on her and promised to never do the same again. It made me think of the parallel lives we could have, if we just changed our minds. From a therapist’s standpoint it made me think a lot about fitness to practice and how we make the choice to see or not see a client. How we decide when to end therapy. Mainly, I wondered how we can be expected to help other people find their broken pieces if our own life is falling apart, and what impact that knowledge has on a young client like Saffyre. The novel felt timely, thoughtful and a great weekend read.

Tipping Point by Emily Benet.

#blogtour #TippingPoint #RachRandomResources #TheLotusReaders

Tipping Point centres on an apartment block in Mallorca, and it’s various inhabitants. Retired couple George and Ellen have come to Mallorca with two very different expectations of how that retirement will look. George would like a secluded farmhouse inland for some peace and quiet. Ellen is more of an extravert and hopes to meet new friends, especially if they own yachts. They’re no longer busy and their differences have become even more apparent. Salva is a private investigator, here on behalf of his family who have been the victims of a property scam. However, he is distracted by his recent heartbreak; his usual work involves investigating adultery so it came as a surprise and embarrassment when he found out his own girlfriend was cheating on him. Finally, Robyn is a motivational speaker, touring round the country with her new book on avoiding toxic relationships. Ironically, she has a boyfriend who is avoiding her. The sunshine and surroundings may be enviable, but for all of these residents Mallorca is not what it appears to be.

The book is told across chapters from each of the characters perspectives – Robyn’s chapters appear in italics because we are being let into her diary so we read her written thoughts instead of spoken ones. Although each character is experiencing their own problems, the issue of property scamming is central to the plot. Any google search on buying property in Mallorca brings up recent scams where people were sold properties off plan from a building company. They would pay their deposit, see the plans filed and approved, pay the next instalment of cash and then see the company disappear with their money. There are scams where people have booked apartments that were not for rent, and even looked around properties and left deposits only to find they were not on the market. This must be a terrible blow for those who are looking for their final home in the sun and don’t have the money to start again. Ellen and George have been looking forward to their retirement in the sun for so long and they’ve been viewing George’s dream farmhouse. However, its not really Ellen’s dream because she can’t understand why he’s brought them so far inland, when she wants to near to the sea. I found myself hoping they wouldn’t be the victim of scammers taking their life savings.

The focus for me became trying to work out who the scammer was. Salva’s family, victims of the scam, are crammed into his tiny apartment while he tries to find the identity of the criminals behind the scheme. Robyn, in the meantime, doesn’t seem to fit and I felt like she was hiding many secrets.

I didn’t get a full sense of place throughout the novel, beyond how sunny it is, the book could have been set anywhere. I wanted the characters to be more grounded in an identifiable setting. When the place is hard to picture, the reader can lose their way in the story. I wanted to know what was so wonderful about this place and why these people were willing to spend large amounts of their life savings to live there. However, I did find it a very addictive experience because I was determined to work out who was scamming who. This was a good beach or holiday read that was diverting without needing lots of concentration, perfect for the summer.

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue.

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Before the novelist Emma Donoghue gained worldwide renown for her incredible novel Room, I was already a fan of her historical fiction such as Slammerkin and The Sealed Letter. Her brand new novel, The Pull of the Stars, is another well researched and immersive historical novel that concentrates on 3 days in 1918 Dublin. One cover of this novel is a beautiful depiction of an open silver pocket watch with tiny scratched drawings of the moon and stars. This watch belongs to our heroine Nurse Julia Power and those scratches have huge significance to her. Julia works as a midwife and every scratch represents a life lost on her watch; the lost mothers appear as full moons and the crescent moons are lost babies, either still births or those born too soon. The year is significant, because as wounded men return from the battlefield in France, they bring with them a new type of influenza. Named ‘Spanish Flu’, by 1918 it is a global pandemic and by its end it will have killed 6% of the world’s population. It is highly unpredictable, passing through some people with relatively few symptoms and killing others within hours. Due to a shortage of staff, Julia is left in charge of a small ward of pregnant women with flu. Some are full term and will deliver their babies, while others are mid- pregnancy, but affected by severe flu symptoms. Julia can run her ward with great efficiency, but not single handed, and into her world come two outsiders. Volunteer helper Bridie Sweeney is all mischief with bright red hair and a glint in her eye. Dr Kathleen Lynn is an intelligent and competent doctor, but is unfortunately on the run after taking part in an uprising against the King. Together, these three women must shepherd lives in and out of the world under extreme pressure and through their shared experiences lives will change in unexpected ways.

I found the novel so well grounded in time and place, with even the smallest details thought about from public information posters about the flu, to the drugs and methods used during childbirth, to the histories of each character and how their actions are so firmly based within their experiences of that period. Donoghue writes in the acknowledgements that her book is stitched together from facts and imagination. Dr Lynn was a real doctor in this time period, but also an activist and Sinn Fein politician who set up health facilities with her female lover. Barbaric practices such as the symphisiotomy and pubiotomy (unhinging or sawing through the pubic joint) were common in Ireland, even up into the 1980s. These were sometimes conducted without consent, and left women in agony with unstable pelvic joints, but capable of continuing to bear children – the usual recommended medical treatment at the time for women who had more than three Caesareans due to obstructed deliveries was a hysterectomy. This is still a cause for controversy in Ireland, where it is felt that hospitals run by the Catholic Church allowed their own ethos to come before women’s physical health and contemporary medical recommendations. The equipment on the wards, food shortages, porters with disfigurements from the battlefield, men with shellshock and political upheaval create such a rich background that the reader is pulled into era and firmly believes in this situation and these characters.

The Catholic Church looms large in the novel, especially regarding its attitude towards women. We see it in small ways through characters like night nurse Sister Luke and her harsh attitude towards some of the women, for their morals if they’re unwed and for any questioning of the church. She treats Bridie, who was brought up and still lives in a ‘home’ run by the nuns, as a slave who should feel beholden to the church for her upkeep. Decisions within the hospital are made by doctors but with adherence to church teaching and under the watchful eye of the parish priest. The controversy of the Magdalen Laundries is touched upon as one patient is back there for a second time and seen as beyond redemption by the nuns. Bridie fills Julia in on what it was like growing up in one of these institutions: being loaned out to work; physically abused; sexually assaulted by the nuns or worse ‘loaned out’ to a man for a period of time; the open pits where the dead babies were laid with no names and no markers. The belief that the mother’s sins are paid for by the child can be seen in the birth of Barnabas White. His mother was unmarried and he is born with a hare lip. When one of her patients dies and Julia readies her for burial she notices terrible marks where she has been burned and scarred all over her body in the care of the church.

Feminism is a strong theme in the novel, whether Donoghue is showing us what poverty and church are doing to women, or signalling hope for the future in certain characters. There is a feeling that this is both a national and personal turning point for women trying to shape their own future and making choices for themselves. Dr Lynn is a key figure because she is educated, political, professional and also a lesbian. Julia admires the doctor despite her status as a wanted criminal. She can see that female doctors could change obstetrics and women’s lives enormously by making the best and most compassionate medical choices, rather than moral judgements. Julia refers to the male doctor as a ‘butcher’ and the book doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the visceral reality of childbirth in the early 20th Century. These women are ravaged by poverty and sometimes on their twelfth birth, leaving them worn out shadows who can barely stand let alone make autonomous choices. Dr Lynn also represents a different type of sexuality, something that Julia has never thought of before, until Bridie tells her about the doctor’s private life. It opens a door for Julia, where lifelong companionship doesn’t have to come with regular beatings and endless child rearing. Julia is 30, still unmarried and has never been in love, until someone walks into her world and changes how she looks at things.

Bridie is also important because she never lets the darkness of her living situation and past cloud the here and now. She is spontaneous and gives Julia permission to live in the moment. The night they spend talking on the roof, under the stars, is a brief oasis of calm and friendship in a nightmare situation. They learn so much about each other, but also for Julia, who has been quite regimented in her life. Bridie brings out a playfulness and a sense that she can change and make her own choices. Julia marvels that, despite everything that has happened to her and from people she trusted, Bridie is still open and willing to give hope to others. She even has time for the porter, who Julia finds irritatingly cheerful and often inappropriate, and learns he has lost his whole family. Her generosity of spirit prompts Julia to make a bold and life changing choice of her own. Those final tense moments when we don’t know if Julia will be granted that new future she wants, are so hard to read, My heart was in my mouth as I was willing her on.

Donoghue is a master storyteller. Her characterisations, even those of minor characters like Julia’s brother, are so detailed even down to their rich inner lives, Here in 1918, she has laid bare the horrors of a different battlefield, one that women have been fighting in since time began. I was startled by the depiction of a pandemic, whilst in a pandemic. There were so many things about the handling of the pandemic that echoed through the ages. The flimsy suggestions for home cures, jaunty government posters that in one breath downplay the severity of the flu, then in another place blame on the patient for not being strong minded or fit enough to escape infection all resonated with me today. Mainly the book left me astounded by the strength and determination of my fellow women. These women faced a backdrop of poverty, persecution, a world war and a pandemic yet were still bringing new life into the world. Reading these accounts of childbirth, it astounded me that when at their lowest ebb, they pick up their babies and immediately give more: sustenance, nurturing and love. It is also a miracle that in these circumstances, amidst so much death and loss, a moment of love can grow,

The Big Chill by Doug Johnstone. #OrendaBooks #RandomThingsTours #Blogtour #Bookblogger #TheBigChill

How have I come this far in my reading life without reading Doug Johnstone? The Skelfs are the family I didn’t even know I was missing, but now can’t imagine my reading life without. To prepare for reading the second novel in Johnstone’s Skelf series, I made the decision to read the first novel entitled A Dark Matter. I couldn’t possibly have imagined this incredible group of women, but now I feel like I know them personally. Set within the city of Edinburgh, this is a family of undertakers and private investigators. Just to set up the kind of family they are, the author places their residence and place of work at No 0 – somewhere that doesn’t exist. Grandmother Dorothy is a Californian lured to Edinburgh after falling in love with Jimmy Skelf who has passed away at the beginning of book one. Dorothy works in the funeral business with employee Archie, but also takes on PI duties and in her spare time teaches spunky young girls to play the drums. Mum Jenny is at a loose end so comes into the family business after her father dies. She jumps into the PI business with both feet, which is how she seems to do most things. Granddaughter Hannah is studying physics at Edinburgh University and lives with her girlfriend Indy. She has a good relationship with her parents and her grandmother. The first book concerns the disappearance of Hannah’s uni friend Mel and the shock when her killer is revealed is seismic, hitting all the Skelf family hard.

The beginning of The Big Chill reads like the explosive ending of most books. In a scene as comical as it is tragic, Dorothy and Archie are overseeing a routine funeral at the cemetery when sirens start moving closer and drowning out the service. The guests and undertakers stare aghast as a van driven at high speed forces its way through the cemetery gates followed by the police. As the van careers towards them, mourners start to scatter and Dorothy narrowly misses being ploughed into ground, as the van speeds straight into the grave nose first. Dorothy clambers in to check on the driver and finds he has died instantaneously from a head injury. However, what does survive is a scruffy Collie dog she names Einstein to sit alongside Schroedinger the cat. She immediately offers the Skelfs’ services for the man she names Jimmy X but she would like to find a little more out about him before she conducts his funeral. So, Dorothy sets out, with Einstein in tow, to find out how Jimmy X ended up living in a van that literally ‘ended up’ in an open grave.

Of course, this is only one of the mysteries the women are investigating. Hannah makes friends with an elderly physics professor at university when he asks if she’ll help with a memorial for Mel. Not long after they are performing dual duties for him too, when he dies suddenly and unexpectedly. Hannah can’t accept his death and even if it is just a displacement activity, begins to look into his personal life for answers. Dorothy is overstretched with cases when one of her drumming students doesn’t turn up for practice. This is so unusual because Abi loves to drum and has never missed a lesson. When she visits Abi’s home she is told that she was unwell, but Dorothy senses an undercurrent in the air and eventually finds our that Abi has run away. In order to find her, 70 year old Dorothy will have to start thinking like a 14 year old girl, which isn’t easy when the back ache doesn’t go away as quickly as it used to. The scars of an assault in the previous novel are not just mental.

Hanging over them all is the trial of Mel’s killer, known intimately to the Skelf women and still keeping a hold over them where he can. Not only did he kill the pregnant Mel, but when found out he attacked Jenny, stabbing her in the stomach and beat Dorothy. He has found a psychiatrist to claim he was incapacitated by mental illness at the time of the original killing. Even worse he lures Jenny to visit him, then presses charges when she assaults him. In the aftermath, Hannah is drowning. She’s well supported by Indy, but can’t sleep, feels anxious and when under pressure has panic attacks and passes out. It may take a seismic change to shake her from personalising all these difficult life experiences and thinking she is the only victim. She is having counselling, but there’s so much to unpick and she is in danger of ignoring the one person who helps her most. The women usually gather at the end of the day in the kitchen and catch each other up on the days events, but when even that ritual starts to fall apart Dorothy knows her family are stretched to breaking point. Yet, everyone has to heal in their own time and in their own way. She is wondering whether there is life after Jimmy, and whether her long held friendship and working relationship with a certain Swedish police officer, could become more?

These women are great characters. They’re tough, but still vulnerable. Full of quirky detail and boundless energy. They are also wonderfully good at picking up ‘waifs and strays’. They try not to judge people. I loved Jenny, trekking round homeless shelters and approaching groups in the street, but stopping to pass the time of day or joining a group of homeless men in a beer. As someone who is also very good at collecting people, I know how much it widens horizons, teaches us about our own preconceptions and sometimes brings unexpected, but wonderful friends. Their arms and their home are open. I found myself thinking a lot about the wonderfully patient and wise Indy, who comes into contact with the Skelfs as a teenager organising her parents funeral after a car accident. She is always quietly working in the background: cooking mouthwatering curries when Hannah hasn’t eaten; taking the reins at funerals when private investigating takes over; listening to bereaved family and respecting the person who died with so much attention to detail. There are such hidden depths here and I found myself hoping that Indy is featured and explored more in later novels.

I loved the Edinburgh backdrop. In fact it becomes a character in its own right from the touristy areas, to the student quarter, to the areas that missed regeneration, this is such a varied and richly atmospheric city. I don’t know it well but I feel this has taken me under that tourist facade to find something more interesting. We also see such a variety of people from those on the streets to those who in academia or in private education. Death is a great leveller though and these people are often side by side once they reach Skelf’s undertakers. We also see that these extremes can all be found in one person; there isn’t a ‘type’ that becomes homeless or commits a murder. I also find the way Hannah makes sense of her world through science really interesting. She muses on quantum suicide and whether we, like Schroedinger’s Cat, can be alive and dead at the same time. People often think that science is anathema to concepts like faith, hope and a belief in God. However, there is beauty and wonder in everything Hannah knows about space.

What I take away most from this book is the way the author writes with bluntness, but also kindness, acceptance and wonder about the human condition and the strange galaxy we call home. Hannah muses on the end of the universe with her counsellor:

‘stars will stop forming, the sun will wink out, the solar system will collapse. Then in the black-hole era galaxies disband, all proton matter decays, supermassive black holes swallow everything, then they’ll evaporate too, all the energy and matter in the cosmos gone […] it’s called the big chill’.

Hannah comments that it’s not such a bad way to go, but her counsellor reminds her that it’s a long way into the future. Dorothy has the same thoughts as her mind is flooded with images of everything they’ve experienced. She has felt the cold, icy creep of death:

‘death so close that she could feel its breath on her neck, could smell it every day when she woke, could feel its icy touch spreading from her mind to her limbs’.

So she sits behind her drums, plays the Black Parade album by My Chemical Romance, and starts to tap out a rhythm until she can feel the music within her, warming her veins and bursting to life. While we’re here, she concludes, we have to find a way to keep living. This is an explosive and enthralling novel, character driven and full of life, and death.

The Phone Box at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina

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I fell in love with this absolutely beautiful book and have immediately gone out to buy a copy for my collection. I’m a widow, so a book that addresses love and loss so eloquently speaks to me emotionally. It is devastating, but also uplifting and life enhancing at the same time.

The Japanese tsunami in 2011 is something that has lived long in my memory, maybe because it was captured so comprehensively through filming on mobile phones and CCTV. I remember staring at the TV screen in a strange mix of awe and horror. It was the first time I had fully comprehended the power of such a huge tidal wave. I had always thought a tsunami was exactly like the painting by Hokusai where a single huge wave sweeps over the coastline then stops. I have lived next to the River Trent for my whole life, and my father who is a land drainage engineer showed me a large Aegir one autumn and explained that a tsunami is like a huge wall of water that doesn’t stop. Seeing the footage from Japan really brought that home to me as whole coastal towns were simply washed away in a series of waves reaching up to 128 feet high and encroaching up to 10 km inland. I think I watched it so many times because I couldn’t comprehend the enormity of the disaster. This author took this event and brought it down to a human level, so we can see the effect of this life changing disaster on the Japanese people, but also show us that heartbreak and loss is universal.

Yui is living the terrible aftermath of the tsunami where she lost both her daughter and her mother, her past memories and hope for the future wiped out in a moment. As she tries to make sense of this loss, she carries out day to day life quietly and on the surface, keeping her deepest feelings within herself. It’s like living under a veil or fog where people can’t reach you. Whilst doing her radio show she hears about a man who keeps a telephone box in his garden, where people can go and say the things they need to say to lost loved ones. She wonders if this could really console people, to speak down a disconnected phone line and let those unspoken words go into the ether? Could it console her? If she had the chance to speak, what could she say to her daughter?

She travels out to the garden at Bell Gardia, but can’t bring herself to go inside. However, she does meet a man who has and spoke to his late wife, who died leaving him with a young daughter, Hana. He explains that he gets to tell her about the plans he has for their daughter as well as normal everyday things he was so used to telling her. This is one of the things many bereaved people miss, that ability to come home and share your day with someone. The silence can be deafening. So, instead of using the telephone, Yui travels to Bell Gardia every month and meets Takeshi for lunch. He becomes the person she chats to as they share their grief and their hopes for the future. Slowly they start to message each other back in Tokyo, just little messages about their day and how they’re feeling. They become each other’s person, the one they touch base with every day. However, this brings its own complexity, because feelings are starting to grow between the two of them. Their fledgling relationship is so tender and fragile. Falling in love during grief is so complicated. Love lifts our heart and makes us hopeful, while grief makes us look back and brings sorrow. The heart is being pulled into two directions at once. There’s a strange survivor’s guilt on both sides; Takeshi is developing tender feelings for a woman who is not his wife, while Yui is starting to feel attached to a young girl who is not her daughter.

Inbetween this beautiful story are interludes that seem unrelated to the main story. However, they are integral to the experience of the tsunami. These are washed up fragments of people’s lives appearing in the narrative, in the same way that debris from the tsunami washed up as far as North America years later. Some of them belong to Yui – parts of a book she once bought Hana, a list of her favourite Brazilian music. There are also receipts, descriptions of clothing, random memories that remind us this is not just two people’s experience. There are millions of other stories out there, just as tender and full of sorrow.

This is a beautiful, moving meditation on love and loss. The story is tentative, even the dialogue is delicate. It’s like a fragile piece of lace, held together by tiny threads, but creating a beautiful whole. If you’re looking for action and plot twists this isn’t your book. At times it’s like reading poetry. However, if you have ever lost someone you will find common experiences and universal feelings about life moving on. Simply a stunning piece of writing that I will treasure.

Attraction by Ruby Porter.

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Three women make their way across New Zealand’s North Island in this debut novel. During this time they will explore their relationship with each other, and the island’s colonial history. Our unnamed narrator has a complicated relationship with Llana her on/off girlfriend, Ashi her best friend and even with herself. She’s battling on all fronts and is struggling with the legacy of an abusive ex-boyfriend and on top of everything her period is late.

There are a lot of threads to follow in this debut and it takes a talented writer to keep them all relevant. I think on the whole she succeeds and where problems become a bit entangled or lose focus it is a deliberate case of art imitating life. Lives are messy. I wondered if the author was also trying to give the reader some idea of how it feels to be in the narrator’s head. It’s very telling that our narrator doesn’t have a name. She could name herself, but doesn’t, and that absence is important. Does the narrator feel invisible in her own life? We can tell from her narration that she is low in self-esteem and the ugly way she presents her world suggests self-loathing. If she doesn’t name herself she doesn’t exist and maybe she doesn’t want to. Her disgust is evident in the imagery of dirt and decay from stains to bodily functions.

She even depicts New Zealand in a very different way to the usual myth of a paradise filled with exceptional landscapes, freedom, relaxation and a slower pace of life. Instead she sees human’s contribution to the country like a cancer. Humans are almost parasitic, eating away at the beauty we know exists. This could be linked to the colonial heritage, an important thread in the novel. I read Post-Colonial Literature in my final year at university so I’ve come across NZ authors and Maori creation myths so it was interesting to see this modern Pakeha perspective. The author is embarrassed that she can’t use Maori place names and is having to use ‘white colonial’ substitutes. She feels guilt about making homes on stolen land. She even takes lessons in ‘the reo’ the Eastern Polynesian language spoken by Maori people. In the course of the novel she learns her own family were more involved in the New Zealand wars than she realised. This prompts an exploration of inheritance and whether we take on ancestral guilt.

The relationships of the present are equally strained and there is a claustrophobia about being stuck on a road trip, with the same people in a confined space. Something we can possibly all relate to at the moment in lockdown. The weather doesn’t help, with frequent rain keeping them all confined. There is also a triangle forming as our narrator is in a very tenuous relationship with Llana, but Llana seems very taken with our narrator’s best friend Ashi. I found it hard to like any of them so couldn’t really invest in their relationships, but I did get a creeping sense that after all the contemplation and simmering tension, someone might explode!

I did enjoy the author’s use of language though and there are flashes of something really special. Her description of the ‘Bach’ is so vivid I can see it. The description of the town of Levin is humorously vicious; ‘everywhere daytime TV can be seen, through pulled lace curtains’. The town’s population is ageing rapidly and the nursing homes are described as dead ends that it’s easier to die in, than live with. She also uses unusual descriptive phrases that are really powerful, such as ‘people clot in the waiting rooms’. This description of the local hospital takes blood imagery and uses it to show how overcrowded the hospital is, how slow the ageing population are and the impression is they’re blocking up the system. It’s like the life-force of the place is slowing down and choking it. This shows skill and a distinctive style that would make me want to read future novels by the author.

My sister-in-law is from Gisborne, one end point of this road trip, and I will be buying her a copy to ask her opinion, as she works solely with the Maori communities, I’m looking forward to chatting with her and reading further work from an interesting debut author.

Final Cut by S.J.Watson

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This novel was definitely a ‘reading experience’ as I felt confused, then blind-sided with a revelation I wasn’t expecting. If the author wanted to express what a dissociative state felt like in the structure of the novel then he definitely succeeded with this reader. As I read, there were times where I felt like I was in a dream state, others where I felt a piece of time had gone missing and when I reached the end I felt disoriented and needed to go back and piece the story together bit by bit. It was such a clever structure, because it enhanced my doubt of the narrator and every person she met. I didn’t know whether the events she related were happening to her, to someone else, or in reality not happening at all. I found myself left feeling unsettled and ‘jangly’ after each spell of reading.

Alex is a successful documentary film maker, in a great position as her last feature made money and won awards. The question now is what the next subject will be. In this early stage we learn that Alex has a traumatic past, culminating in a hospital stay where she was diagnosed as experiencing dissociative or fugue states. She hasn’t put all of her past back together, but knows there was a squat, drugs and exploitative sexual encounters. There is an element of survivor’s guilt since her success as she feels she’s making money from people who are struggling, where she was several years ago. Her manager suggests going to a town called Blackwood Bay on the coast somewhere up North. The concept is for Alex to stay up there and film local life for a while, but also to get locals to film and anonymously upload their take on Blackwood Bay to a website. Alex likes the idea but is unnerved by the location. Her manager mentions in passing an underlying story of girls going missing, but assures her she isn’t there to film that. Alex knows that if she goes to Blackwood Bay she will have no choice but to get involved in that story, because she wasn’t always from London. Blackwood Bay is her hometown; she is Sadie, one of the missing girls, and what happened there was so terrifying she has dissociated from it in order to survive.

Watson creates a dark and disturbing atmosphere in the bay, where we trust no one and look for clues everywhere. The residents are equally unsure of her, uncomfortable about what she’s there to film and why. This is a typical seaside town, that in spring and summer bustles with life, but in the winter months is practically shut down leaving locals bored, time rich but money poor. The pub is still a centre of activity, but here, and other places in the town, unnerve Alex or take her back to traumatic episodes in her past. Her cottage is rented from Monica, who seems like a mother hen figure to the young girls of the bay and Alex knows better than anyone they need protection. I enjoyed the way the story was built, both on the present film making, but on those moments where Alex remembers something. She remembers knowing all the constellations in the sky, but who taught them to her? She recognises a couple of tattoos on young girls that are exactly the same as her own, but why did she get it? A smokey upstairs room at the pub, is a scene for a quick chat, but induces physical symptoms in Alex like she’s been winded. Her search for answers is compulsive and I noticed there are many times where she doesn’t even consider her present safety, wandering the town and surrounding countryside at all hours of the night and trusting people she maybe shouldn’t. I found myself on tenterhooks all the time and I kept questioning her feeling of safety in the holiday cottage, where both landlord and any number of other locals might have a key.

The truth, when it finally emerges is very dark and disturbing. Growing up in Blackwood Bay is a dangerous game for girls and reading these pages is might be tough for people who’ve had personal experience of exploitation or abuse. There were things I had worked out, but others that came as a shock. I suspected some people very strongly, who turned out to be innocent, and trusted others that were very twisted, disturbing characters. The knowledge that the girls in Blackwood Bay have been unsafe for generations is shocking, but unfortunately all too real. This is a tainted community where people have closed their eyes to the truth for far too long. Alex tries to keep her identity as Sadie secret for as long as possible. She becomes focused on finding out the fate of a friend called Daisy. The story is that she jumped from the cliff into the bay, witnessed by a distressed Monica and filmed by a lonely man who lives in Bluff Cottage. This interplay between what is seen and what is seen on camera is interesting and builds more layers to conceal or reveal. When the final shock twist happened I was genuinely surprised. This version of the truth hadn’t entered my head. This is a book I will be thinking about long after I put it down. The central theme, that the camera can lie, is very effective. More devastating and seen through several characters stories, is that we can even lie to those we profess to love. In fact we can even lie to ourselves.