This is a thriller that’s bound to put you off letting your kids spend a gap year summer island-hopping in Greece! Dark at heart and so twisty you never know who to trust. Alistair Halston has a broken heart. His university girlfriend Ellie has broken up with him before the summer and has gone to spend her holiday in Greece. Planning to follow her and win her back, Alistair has a very different summer break from the one he expected.
Everything starts to go wrong when he encounters outgoing Aussie, Ricky after losing his wallet. With no money or passport, Alistair decides to work and earn some cash before presenting himself at the British Embassy for help. However, help comes in the form of Ricky who offers him work at a luxury villa owned by Heinrich, a German painter. It soon becomes clear that the work is a little unusual. Heinrich likes to paint beautiful people so Alistair’s job is to recruit both men and women as artist’s models. But he must also make sure their morals are fluid enough to be open to further work – sleeping with Heinrich for money. He’s surprised by how many are open to the offer, but that’s not the end of the enterprise. Ricky carries a video camera everywhere recording parties and sexual exploits, even those of Alistair himself when he gets lucky at a villa party. After several weeks, and having a few thousand stored under his pillow, Alistair thinks about making his move and going off to find Ellie. Ricky and Heinrich are putting together plans for a huge party, so maybe he’ll leave afterwards. What he sees over the next few days terrifies him and makes him realise he is complicit in a series of horrific crimes. Not only that, but the organisers have carefully made sure he’s on film. Can he ever leave now that he knows everything? Will they ever let him? Worst of all, is Ellie safe here on the Greek Islands?
This is a fast moving plot, full of complex twists and turns that I didn’t see coming. One in particular made me literally jump in my deckchair! The backdrop of the islands is beautiful but also bleak and difficult terrain. Alistair is also at the mercy of a small population who all know each other – tourists stand out and it would be unlikely one would be trusted above a local. In order to complete his quest safely, Alistair has to think like a criminal and commit petty crimes, don multiple disguises and pit himself against a local, and potentially corrupt, police force. Arguably, he becomes as criminal as those he’s trying to escape. The pace meant it was hard to find a good place to stop, so there was a tendency to keep reading. Each discovery Alistair makes brings about even more questions, about how long Ricky had been targeting Alistair, who on the police force is working with them and how they’ve evaded capture for so long. I didn’t feel I got to know all the characters very well but it’s not that sort of novel. It’s all about the action, the twists and blistering pace. This is a great summer read but be warned; next time you’re abroad it could put you off making friends at the bar.
Ellen sees the world differently from everyone else, but living in a tiny town in the north-east of England, in a world on the cusp of war, no one has time for an orphaned girl who seems a little strange. When she is taken in to look after an rich, elderly widow all seems to be going better, despite the musty curtains and her aging employer completely out of touch with the world. But pregnancy out of wedlock spoils all this, and Ellen is unable to cope. How will Jack, her son, survive – alone in the world as his mother was? Can they eventually find their way back to each other?
Juliet Bates studied art and art history in Bristol, Birmingham and Strasbourg, and has since lectured at graduate and post graduate levels. She moved to France in 2000 to a post as professeur at the Ecole régionale des beaux-arts Caen la mer. She has published a number of short stories in British and Canadian literary journals.
Today I am lucky enough to have one free copy of this beautiful book to give away. Simply comment on this blog post by Friday 19th June at 12pm. A winner will be picked at random to receive a hardback copy. UK only.
Keep following the blog tour dates below for more information on The Colours and blogger reviews of the book.
Ed and Claire are hosting a Sunday get together for their daughter Abbie and her new boyfriend Ryan. Although they’ve been together a few months, he’s been working away so much they haven’t had chance to spend any time with him. On the face of it Ryan is the perfect candidate to keep Mum and Dad happy. He has a great job, a first-class degree and a past army career with the Anglian Regiment. He’s charming and very good looking. Abbie seems happier than Ed has seen her in a long time. However, there only has to be one catch, and as Ed catches Ryan’s dark eyes they seem endless. However, Ed senses a void behind them and wonders if the man standing in front of him is the real Ryan at all. As Ryan asks for Abbie’s hand in marriage, Ed is horrified. Even worse, they plan to marry in less than six weeks. This leaves Ed very little time to investigate and without much to go on. Like every protective Dad, he’s going to stop at nothing to protect his daughter. Is Ryan simply too good to be true, or is Ed’s obsession with his daughter getting out of hand?
I’m daughter of an overprotective dad, so I bought into the premise immediately. Told largely from Ed’s perspective, this is one of those cliched ‘couldn’t put it down’ books, that I devoured in one day while recovering from a back injury. I trusted Ed as a narrator, but every so often a little clue was popped in there to throw doubt on his character or state of mind. The secret visits to a building near Hooters, his attitude towards Abbie’s previous boyfriend George or the terribly sad family loss that could explain his inability to let go of his daughter. The author keeps the tension going by slowly counting down the days to the wedding. There are also tense set pieces: Ed and Ryan racing through Nottingham traffic at rush hour; Ed letting himself into Ryan’s house only for Ryan to come home unexpectedly; Ryan driving along while Abbie reads through the private investigator’s report.
There are times when it seems Ed is so reckless I thought the obsession might be getting out of hand. In pursuit of Ryan’s past he is mugged on a sink estate and almost arrested for soliciting. His manager is asking for work he doesn’t produce and he looms close to disciplinary action. His relationship with his wife Claire is suffering and she warns him that the more he pursues this, the more he will push their daughter away. Yet Ryan does have some questions to answer. He appears to have no family and isn’t visiting his mum’s grave every other Sunday like he tells Abbie. He visits a drug house regularly and doesn’t appear to have any social media presence before 2013. Ed is willing to spend thousands of pounds on a private investigator in the hope that he will unearth something before the wedding day. I won’t ruin everyone’s read, but the truth, when it is revealed is more far reaching than I imagined. It seems that both men have been in a cat and mouse situation far longer than we realised. The author keeps the story compelling till the very last moments and I enjoyed every minute.
I reached the end of this novel and realised I’d been holding my breath. My whole body was tense. This is a dark, thrilling, journey to the centre of that place we all imagine to be the safest: our home.
Twelve years ago, six year old Jenny Kristal left home to play with a friend two doors away. She never arrived. Now, she’s back. Parents Jake and Laurie are pleased to have her back. They’re not asking many questions about what happened to her, just letting her settle. Yet, when her brother Ben comes home there’s a very different reaction. Ben seems to freeze when he sees her. He doesn’t try to communicate at all. As time goes on, he starts to ask questions, awkward questions. He also brings up memories of the two of them, but are they real or is he trying to catch her out? Does he suspect she’s not his sister? Is he paranoid or is he right?
I love novels and films that subvert the missing child genre. This had shades of the BBC series The Missing where a family are unsure if their daughter is genuinely returned. The mother is sure it’s not her daughter, whereas the father can’t see it, causing huge conflict within the family. Also on the BBC, was the series Thirteen with the incomparable Jodie Comer as a girl returned to her family after years of captivity. She faces the inevitable questions and suspicions of why didn’t see escape before; why now? In this situation how do you match up the child you’ve lost with the young woman who returns? There’s bound to be dissonance between the version that returns and the girl you remember. The conflict of emotions would be bewildering; you’re meant to be happy and yet there’s a sense of loss for the daughter you expected her to grow into. How hard would it be to return and face those conflicting emotions?
It’s so hard to write about this novel without ruining it with spoilers, but I’ll do my best not to reveal too much. In between the short, sharp, chapters full of dialogue, the author gives us glimpses of dreadful details of what this girl has endured. Whether she is Jenny or not, she has been through a terrible ordeal at the hands of people she calls Mother and Father. Sometimes it’s just a snippet of information, such as a memory brought about when looking at photographs of herself with Laurie. Into her memory comes an unwanted image of a different kind of photograph, taken by abusive parents. Other memories are longer, such as being in the black laundry cupboard for long periods. To be dragged there was terrible, but even worse was to walk yourself there knowing you were powerless. Surely now she’s safe? Between the suspicion of Ben and the girl two doors down,where Jenny was going the morning she disappeared, she feels anything but secure. Prompted by messages from someone called ‘Lorem’ she’s reminded that a little girl disappeared from this house. As I was reading I kept thinking, if this isn’t Jenny then there’s still an undiscovered little girl somewhere, Is everybody in this family as normal or harmless as they seem? Were here memories of torment at this house, with these seemingly normal people. We follow as ‘Jenny’ starts to dig a little deeper, to find out whether this seemingly perfect, but tragic family have secrets of their own.
I was so busy following Ben’s back story: the nightmares and catatonic state he went into after his sister disappeared. Shut away in a school for traumatised children, run by the Catholic Church, he continues to have a terrifying, recurring nightmare. Is this linked to Jenny’s disappearance? Do we take it literally or is it symbolic? Then, I started to wonder about the parents too. Jake and Laurie don’t seem to ever have the same doubts as their son. They seem happy to accept she’s home, never questioning or even offering to talk to her about her ordeal. They don’t seem curious at all. Are they doing this out of consideration for her feelings or are they too scared to hear what she’s gone through? The final revelations are unexpected and shocking. They come just as the reader thinks an ending has been reached, so they have even more impact. It’s tense, gripping and doesn’t shy away from portraying the darker aspects of family life. For some people, home is anywhere but safe.
I am fascinated by places where artists gain inspiration such as the Lake District, Newlyn and Venice, but particularly where colonies of artists have grown and lived together. Charleston would be a place of pilgrimage for me, the home created by Vanessa Bell on the south coast. This was where the Bloomsbury group of artists would stay and their decoration of the house is preserved beautifully ( with their rather entangled love affairs preserved beautifully in the BBC series Life in Squares). So, when offered the chance to read this novel about the artists and writers drawn to the Greek island of Hydra, I was looking forward to diving in. It was read over three gloriously sunny days in my garden, reclined in my steamer chair with a jug of PImms. It was the perfect way to experience the world Polly Samson conjures; an amphitheatre of houses all focused towards the sea, stray cats waiting for the fishing boats, swimming at midnight within a silvery trail of moonlight and a young girl in love for the first time, searching out memories of her mother.
The island of Hydra became a magnet for writers and artists in the 1950s when writers like Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller took up residence. Samson’s novel is set a generation later in the 1960s when the colony seemed to revolve around Australian writers Charmian Clift and her husband George Johnston. Our heroine Erica is 17, mourning the loss of her mother and looking after an increasingly belligerent father in their London home. A parcel arrives addressed to her late mother, and this is the catalyst for a golden summer she will remember all her life. In the parcel is a letter from Charmian Clift and a copy of her latest novel and Erica starts to read about a different world which inspires her. Erica has always wanted to write, and craving adventure as well as a possible link to her mother, she wants to visit the island where Clift lives. Her boyfriend Jimmy is an artist and both she and her brother have a legacy from their mother they can use, as well as a car they didn’t know their mother owned. Erica is armed with blank notebooks and a lot of questions about her mother, so with Charmian’s promise to secure them a cottage, they all set out to Hydra.
Erica is such an appealing character because everything about her feels new, there is so much to experience and we see it all through her naive eyes. At first there is more freedom than she’s ever known, with no one to answer to or look after. She and Jimmy can make love into the afternoon, they don’t need to work so have ample time to create and can finish the day drinking at one of the tavernas and then skinny dip in the still warm sea after dark. She does find herself drawn to Charmian’s house, a bohemian jumble of rooms overrun with children and visitors, and the sound of a grumpy George bashing away on his typewriter. Charmian is the mother of the group: a cook, organiser, listening ear, social secretary and occasional writer. Erica falls in love with the eccentric group that centre around her, including Axel a Norwegian writer who can’t seem to stay faithful to his beautiful wife Marianne, and new arrival Leonard who is a handsome poet from Canada. Erica puts them all on a pedestal, because she sees them as successful, doing a job she has always aspired to and living in this idyllic place. She is similarly in love with Jimmy. As she wakes and sees him lying next to her naked she imagines capturing him just as he is now, beautiful and preserved only for her.
This is a coming of age novel and I enjoyed how the events of the summer open Erica’s eyes, about relationships, the seemingly idyllic community on Hydra, and the realities of being a writer who is also a woman. In their own cottage, Erica finds that her nurturing personality is easily exploited by others busy pursuing their art. While others merely sleep in, then write or paint, Erica is busy fetching water, clearing dishes and collecting supplies. She has also attached herself to Charmian’s home where the door is always open and there are kids to herd. Charmian points out the difference between men and women who write; men get up and retire to their study to create, unencumbered by housework, children or cooking. Just as Virginia Woolf writes decades before, how different would it be if women had a room of their own? A physical room where the door can be shut, but also a metaphorical room – space away from the mental load of running a household. Instead of working on her own book, Charmian is perched in George’s study offering advice, bolstering confidence and sometimes, even providing the words. Whilst downstairs Marianne and Erica herd feral children and keep an eye on the cooking. Marianne is another example, pregnant by husband Axel who is having an affair with a young girl called Patricia. After his departure, she becomes close to the poet Leonard, but it isn’t long before she’s cooking for him, laying out his desk and popping a fresh gardenia in a vase for him. Charmian warns Erica to never let a man clip her wings, observing that she’s seen her looking after Jimmy at the expense of her own writing time.
The sense of place Samson creates is incredible and laid out in my garden, I could imagine lowering my book and seeing the harbour. The place is idyllic, romantic and seductive:
‘The best time for a night swim at the rocks is when the moon is full. I’ll never forget my first phosphorescence: Jimmy coming up the ladder streaming with stars, one caught on an eyelash still blinking away as he reached and pulled me in, our limbs moon-silvered, our fingers trailing through constellations’.
Who could resist a first love with this backdrop? Samson’s descriptions of the characters clothes, their beautiful homes and the incredible Greek cuisine that Charmian is teaching Erica to cook, create a sensual pleasure in the reader; we’re soaking up this world she has created. However, there are hints that once you stay beyond a couple of weeks, you start to see that the island is not the perfect heaven that Erica has built in her mind. They find a live kitten, flea bitten and crusty eyed, thrown away in a bin bag like rubbish. Once he is treated and nurtured by Erica and Jimmy, Cato becomes a wonderfully sleek black cat. The regular residents acknowledge the problem with strays, in fact a writer called Jean-Claude had drugged a colony of them, then thrown them into the sea in a sack. This type of shock in amongst the beauty of the place, is the reader experiencing Erica’s awakening alongside her; nowhere is perfect for longer than it takes to capture a postcard image.
The same lesson lies in wait about the members of this colony. No relationship is perfect, and Erica is in danger of romanticising George and Charmian almost like surrogate parents. To learn that Charmian may have cheated on her husband is bad enough, but George humiliating his wife by writing it as a sex scene in his latest book, causes a lot of tension. Alex leaves the island with Patricia, despite Marianne giving birth to their son. Erica watches Leonard slowly get closer to Marianne and the baby. Will he truly be able to capture her heart or will she always run back to Axel? When Erica looks back in her later years she imagines them both playing on the beach with the baby between them. Could there’s have been the best example of love, looking back? I’d no idea till later in the book that this Leonard is Leonard Cohen and the reader is left to imagine Marianne inspiring his song of the same name. Erica has to learn that most things are temporary. Life isn’t a fairy story which ends happily when the handsome prince chooses his wife. That is simply one moment in a, hopefully, very long life. She sees that no relationship, even her own, is truly safe or within her control. Cracks appear when one night at a local nightspot the group lounge around on large cushions gossiping. The gossips turns to Marianne and Erica is surprised how bitchy it gets, it disillusions and disappoints her.
The author cleverly weaves into the story, these little hints that show life on Hydra, and within this artistic community, is not what it seems on the surface. There are artistic jealousies, even between man and wife, but especially between the men. There’s a degree of suspicion underneath the cheerful socialising. Erica’s relationship with Charmian has ups and downs. Erica sees her as queen of their community., almost like a mother to them all. Perhaps she pushes in and questions her too much at first and Charmian will not divulge any secrets about her mother’s life. Towards the end of the novel the pair meet again in London by chance and Charmian is more forthcoming about Erica’s mother and accompanies her to a protest. When Erica eventually revisits Hydra years later, not many of the old gang are left. Will those that remain full in the blanks for her, or will so much remain obscured by time and her naivety at the time of the events? How will going back bring closure for her? Although I was more interested to see whether Erica had taken the lessons she learned there and applied them to her life. Hydra remains alluringly beautiful and I felt it would have a strange, magnetic power over Erica for the rest of her life. This final visit is about settling memories back into place, with tears and laughter that is so bittersweet,
Now so long, Marianne It’s time that we began to laugh And cry and cry and laugh about it all again
Do I really see what’s in her mind, Each time i think I’m close to knowing She keeps on growing, Slipping through my fingers all the time. ABBA
Years ago, when Mamma Mia first came out at the cinema, I went to see it with my Mum. When it came to the wedding day and Meryl Streep helping her daughter get ready for the ceremony, I saw so much emotion flow through my Mum’s face. I didn’t want to make a fuss, because I knew that if I touched her or asked if she was ok it would make things worse. It threw me a little bit because I couldn’t remember my mum ever being sentimental about me. I’d always been someone, she thought, could took care of herself. On our drive home I asked her what about the scene made her emotional, and she said it wasn’t the scene it was the song ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’. It talks about a mother who never seems able to fully capture a moment with her daughter, because she moves just out of reach all the time. Away to school, on to grammar school, to new friends, boyfriends, university and into a fully grown woman. I’m not sure I fully understood what she felt, I don’t have children, but more recently I became a stepmum to two teenage girls. I can see now, with my eldest, how girls grow so quick and out of your influence. How friends become the people who understand them, how they’re constantly making plans to get away, to visit other places, to move on, to study in another city. It’s as if the woman they’re becoming wipes away the trace of that little girl you once did everything for. This book is about that point between mother and daughter; Rachel sees her daughter Mia slipping through her fingers.
The backdrop to this mother -daughter story is a heatwave and a scandal. The nightmare begins when Mia’s school friend Lily disappears one night when she’s supposed to be at a sleep over with her friends. Mia socialises in a group of five girls, and in parallel Rachel keeps a What’s App group of their mothers aimed at keeping in touch with their daughter’s plans and keeping them safe. Lily disappears in the midst of the heatwave and the author very cleverly uses it to ratchet up the tension. At home and at Mia’s school, where Rachel works as a teacher, the heat is relentless. Rachel notices the girls in class lifting their long curtains of hair, and twisting it into a top knot just to feel some air on the back of their neck. Everyone is somehow more aware of each other’s bodies: the smells, the damp as you stand up from a sitting position, or on your back as you stop driving and get out of the car. Rachel’s also aware of so much young flesh on show. The girls and their golden legs, without a trace of hair. They’re perfection and by comparison Rachel is aware of her own flesh as less taut, just a millimetre too saggy at the jawline.
At night it’s impossible to sleep. In between the oppressive heat and worry about Lilly, there are short chapters detailing an illicit relationship. It feels obsessive and dangerous. There are no names used. Could it be Lily or is someone else keeping a secret? Then police find that Lily took something with her. A camisole belonging to her mother. That means she chose to go and for a moment everyone breathes, until they realise that means she didn’t go alone and that person is possibly older and might still mean her harm. Rachel asks Lily’s parents if she can look over her bedroom, just in case there is something the police have overlooked. Something that might only have meaning to those who know the girls well. She finds, on Lily’s notice board, some song lyrics and straight away she knows, she knows who Lily is with. The shock reverberates through her. She should tell the police straight away, but she can’t, she needs to process it first. To think it through before the police do find out, because that could bring even worse trouble. Yet, if it’s ever found out that she knew and kept it to herself, she could be in trouble with the police or even lose her job.
Instead of speaking out, Rachel becomes scared and takes to following her daughter Mia, over to the playground where her friends hang out. Even though they’ve been interviewed by police, all four of Mia’s gang swear they don’t know where Lily is. At the playground they perfect dance moves, new ones that are provocative and possibly learned from watching music video. Then the boys join them and the girls change subtly with Mia kissing her boyfriend Aaron. Again referencing the body, Rachel notices Aaron’s physicality, his sheer size compared to Mia. His large hands on her. In light of Lily’s disappearance, Rachel wants to know him better and invites him for tea. He looms large at their table, almost a man. He starts to ask uncomfortable questions.; why shouldn’t Lily be left alone? He argues that she’s almost 16, what could possibly happen within a matter of weeks that would make her more ready for an adult relationship? Rachel is saved slightly by her husband Tim turning up at the door, he’s home early from working abroad. In bed later he warns Rachel that she needs to back off where Mia is concerned. Tim is concerned that Rachel’s scrutiny will destroy their relationship.
I enjoyed the author’s depiction of how Rachel copes with growing older, made especially difficult by her past and Mia’s growing beauty, Rachel has placed a photo outside the downstairs loo. It shows her at her peak of youth and beauty as the singer in a band. In skimpy clothes and torn tights I imagined her look like Courtney Love, the lead singer in Hole back in the 1990s. Rachel seems to be embarrassed when people recognise her, but it seems likely that people will see it, because of where it’s placed. It’s as if she wants to show she was once cool and beautiful. It’s an ego boost for her. There’s a disturbing scene later, when she takes Mia’s prom dress and tries it on. She’s pleased to be able to fit into it, but what seemed harmless turns into something else when Mia comes home. In another scene she has thoughts about Lily, and her first time sharing a living space with a man. Rachel imagines her worrying about how to do all the things that make her beautiful: the shaving, plucking and preening are no longer private and mysterious I wondered if these concerns were really for Lily or whether they were about her own beauty rituals. Would she ever be able to accept her ageing process and know she can be attractive at any age?
The mysterious man at the centre of Lily’s disappearance exerts a strange hold over the women involved with him. The author doesn’t ever give us his thoughts or feelings. We just get snippets of musical taste, but it’s clear he is either beguiling or emotionally/psychologically abusive. One disturbing scene shows him and his unnamed lover enter a freezing cold river in their underwear. He goes in first as if to give her the motivation and even though he says very little, it’s clear the female feels compelled to move in deeper and deeper until she feels the current trying to carry her away. I sensed that he wants her to feel powerless without him. I wasn’t surprised to learn who the anonymous lovers are in these sections, but the ending did surprise me. As everything comes to a head towards the Prom, Rachel gets a chance to see her daughter anew; Mia arrives as a woman, not the girl who ordered the lilac ballgown, which she sees sullied by her mother. Rachel learns so much about herself and how wrong she has been about any things. As she rushes to support her daughter it’s as if that stifling heat has been affecting her ability to think straight. As the rain starts to come down outside, leaving it’s own unique smell rising from the boiling pavements, Rachel’s eyes clear to see that within the beautiful woman in front of her, there is still a glimmer of the little girl inside again.
In the aftermath of a destroyed reputation, and the death of her mother, Tessa takes refuge at an isolated estate, which is cared for by two elderly sisters. Fallbrook has been left to Tessa in her mother’s will and she hopes to get away from the publicity surrounding a huge lapse of judgement. As a filmmaker she helped free a man she believed was wrongly imprisoned for murder. After he’s freed, he kills again. Without her normal support network, she feels getting away is her only option. Since their mother’s death, she’s had to face tensions from the past particularly her ruined relationship with her sister Margot. So Fallbrook seems like all she has, but all lonely old estates have secrets. The caretaking elderly sisters are looking after Tessa’s family past as well as the crumbling mansion. Will this turn out to be the haven Tessa needs or will her need to find answers create even more problems?
I found this a very atmospheric and absorbing read. From time to time I would be interrupted and find out I wasn’t in a crumbling mansion house full of secrets. Essentially we have two sets of sisters. Tessa and Margot used to be the best of friends, as close as twins can be. They last spoke twenty years ago. Margot’s husband Ben, used to be Tessa’s boyfriend and the one person she could talk to. As Tessa became assailed by anxiety, hospitalised and medicated, she tried to appeal to Ben to intercede with her sister. At Fallbrook there is Deirdre who is practical and forthright. Deirdre looks after Kitty who is now struggling with dementia. They are living in the building, and holding its history and secrets. However, far from trying to keep the place alive they are tasked with watching it, and all its secrets, crumble to the ground and be forgotten.
The family history is a gruesome one. There’s kidnapping, abuse within the family, not to mention Kitty’s dementia. I liked the idea of making her the custodian of the stories, knowing that dementia patients are more often connected with their past than their present made this even more poignant for me. There’s a question in the reader at first over whether she can remember these events or are they part of her delusions? Despite such distressing subjects, Maxwell has a very poetic way of writing about them:
‘ the screams have long since died away. The bloodstains, like the memories, have faded with time’.
As a reader I found myself more engaged with these older stories, than the ongoing conflict in the present. I wanted to unearth more and that kept me reading. This seems to sit in that realm of gothic fiction that contains: narrators recent distress, old gothic mansion, family secrets and younger generation coming along to unearth them. I’ve read a few of these, but I enjoyed this one immensely. It has just the right pace of revelations and the spooky atmosphere was perfection.
Since the weekend I have seen many posts following the protests across the world after the murder of George Floyd by US police officers. This is where someone like me can feel powerless – I’m disabled, largely at home and without any real power. Like many others I’m sure, I’ve wondered what I can actually do. Yes, I can retweet and comment on posts, I could use the right hashtags and I could write to my MP. Also being white, I wonder if I truly understand and have friends who worry about getting any response totally wrong. The answer is to simply show solidarity in whatever way you can and if you do get it wrong, thank the person for pointing out your mistake and promise to research and get it better next time. It still all felt too little though, and nothing to do with the world of books which is the primary reason I’m here with a blog and Twitter account. What could I do, within the literary world that might make an ongoing difference? I’d seen people photographing book stacks of BAME authors or asking for recommendations of what to read. That’s when I realised I could help by using my blog to point others to great authors they might not have tried, and encouraging them to read wider than their own comfort zone which can be very white and privileged for some people. So here’s my list, some different authors than those you might know well such as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. I hope this generates a few sales going forward and encourages people in my small sphere of influence to read more BAME literature moving forward. There are also some links at the end that you might want to explore too. Thanks for reading.
Danticat is an Haitian-American author, living in the USA. Although still living in the US, Danticat still considers Haïti her home. The themes of her writing are mother/daughter relationships, National Identity, and diasporas politics. Her first novel Breath, Eyes, Memory focuses on problematic mother and daughter relationships in Haiti. Sophie Caco lives with her grandmother in Haiti, but her mother lives in the USA. What Sophie doesn’t know is that she is the product of a violent race by the terrifying Tonton Macoute – henchmen of prime minister Papa Doc Duvalier. So when Sophie’s grandmother falls ill, and her Mum comes to Haiti, can they repair their estranged relationship and will they face the violence of the past together?
Her second novel The Farming of Bones is set in the Dominican Republic in 1937 and focuses on house maid Annabelle Desir and her lover Sebastien Onus. Haitian Girl,Annabelle, was orphaned at the age of eight and works mainly for the daughter of a wealthy and influential Spanish settler in their mansion near the border. She and Sebastien are caught up in the Parsley Massacre. Dominican dictator, Rafael Trujillo, wanted Haitians out of the Dominican Republic and ordered Dominicans to kill their servants and neighbours. This novel follows the Haitian couple as they try to escape back over the border and become separated. Who can Annabelle truly trust and will she reach her home?
2. Zora Neale Hurston
The author was an African American writer working in the 1930s. Her most famous novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is considered a classic of Harlem Renaissance literature. It is set in Florida in the early 20th Century and follows teenage girl Janie Crawford. When her mother dies, leaving Janie as a powerless and voiceless teenage girl, her grandmother Nanny, arranges for her to marry older man Logan Killicks. He is really looking for a domestic servant, but young Janie is like any teenage girl and longs for love. Her Nanny and her husband think she is ungrateful, and she runs away with a lover. Will Janie find love, or something much more important such as power and a voice?
3. Chimimanda Ngozie Adiche
A young Nigerian writer with several novels to her name, she is probably best known for Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah, but I also found her first novel Purple Hibiscus a great read. Set in post-colonial Nigeria, our central character is Kambili a young girl living in a wealthy home, dominated by her devoutly religious father Eugene. Eugene rules his household with a Bible and with his fists. Trying to live in this violent household, while outwardly appearing like the perfect family, is hard for Kambili and her brother Jaja. They are regularly disciplined and beaten, with their mother Beatrice suffering two miscarriages due to Eugene’s violence. The children’s escape is to their Father’s sister Aunty Ifeoma who works and lives on the university campus at the capital Nsukka. This is a happy, liberal house and is so full of life. Here, Kambili learns to have a voice and form her own opinions. She also experiences a sexual awakening as she develops a crush on a young priest Father Amadi. As life in their own home comes to boiling point, how will Kambili break free from her father’s tyranny and live her own life.
4. Louise Hare
Louise is a London based author whose debuted novel was only just published in March this year. This Lovely City is one of my favourite novels of this year so far and is based in post WW2 London. The Empire Windrush has brought commonwealth citizens from the West Indies to work and settle in the UK. Lawrie is just off the boat, working as a postman by day and a Jazz musician by night. He has settled in lodgings in South London and has fallen in love with the girl next door. One day he makes a terrible discovery by the pond on Hampstead Heath and despite reporting to the police, the lead detective is convinced Lawrie is the guilty party. Girl next door, Evie, still lives with her Mum who is fiercely protective of her daughter, She has been the victim of prejudice due to Evie being mixed race. Will the truth come out or will Lawrie be imprisoned for something he hasn’t done? So evocative, you’ll feel yourself in the jazz bars of London.
5. Andrea Levy
Born in London, Andrea Levy is of Afro-Jewish descent and is probably well known as an author. Her novel Small Island was adapted for television starring Noemi Harris and David Oloweyi a few years ago, and her more recent novel The Long Song appeared on television at Christmas. Small Island covered our commonwealth citizens who signed up to fight for the British Forces in WW2, then those who came over post-war on the Empire Windrush. Gilbert Joseph fought in the war and now has lodgings with White-British woman Queenie Bligh. Unknown to him, Queenie is pregnant, the father is someone Gilbert knows from the same island, Michael Roberts. Michael is charming and charismatic but isn’t good at facing up to responsibilities. Hortense has grown up alongside Michael in Jamaica and had a huge crush in him, however she ends up marrying Gilbert in order to get to the UK. Hortense is proud of her education and is very sure that her mother country will want her skills as a teacher. However much Gilbert tells her that it’s different to the England they were promised back home, Hortense won’t believe him and it comes as a huge shock. When they find out Queenie’s secret, how will they help?
The Long Song is written as a memoir by an elderly Jamaican woman who lived through the final years of slavery in the 19th Century. It’s the story of July, a young black girl living on a plantation. When she’s a small child the the young plantation mistress takes her away from her mother, who works in the fields, and brings her into the house. She changes her name and sets about training her as her own lady’s maid. They then become rivals for the love of the new plantation overseer. However, soon comes the Baptist War and the last days of slavery. Despite the dramatic history she tells, July often strikes a strong comedy tone in the novel. Yet she also documents incredible power shifts between master and servant and the reader is drawn in to see who prevails.
This is only a very small selection of authors to try out but it is a start and I think we can all learn from them and author’s other work. Let me know how you get on and we can maybe chat about the book, but also other authors you could follow. This is a very bookish way of supporting the BAME community; not just by buying the author’s books but by reading and listening.
You can also help by donating to or visiting organisations such as:
I’m going to admit to a certain amount of snobbery when it comes to the genre of novels called ‘ChickLit’. I think three years of English Literature at university and lots of talk about ‘the literary canon’ meant that reading this genre became a guilty pleasure for many people. I would now like to announce myself as a proud reader of ‘ChickLit’. I think some of the writers who seem to be placed in this group are incredibly skilled: Marian Keyes, Jojo Moyes, Adriana Trigiani, Ruth Hogan, Liane Moriarty, Helen Fielding, Dorothy Koomson and Lisa Jewell. I’ve seen all of the above placed in this category both online and in bookshops, but what does it mean? An online definition I read recently was ‘heroine orientated narratives that focus on the trials and tribulations of the protagonist’. Apparently it differs from women’s fiction in that it’s lighthearted and appeals to a younger audience. Yet, I wouldn’t agree that all of the above authors fit that definition. It seems to be a title that’s diminutive, even derogatory and probably serves the marketing of books rather than their content. I think there is a great skill in writing an uplifting book, and we’ve never in our lifetimes been in more need of some literary sunshine in our lives. What does that have to do with Freya Kennedy? Well, just as I really needed it, I was able to sit in the garden with this lovely book, mix myself a PImms and let all my cares drift away.
Our heroine is Libby Quinn, resident of Derry, avid reader and dealing with grief following the death of her beloved grandfather. Her love of reading is entirely based in her relationship with her grandad and the many children’s books they enjoyed together. At huge risk, Libby has decided to pool her money and open a bookshop in Ivy Lane. The shop itself is up for auction, and in a state of disrepair. It’s a huge project and Libby has some trepidation, but it’s also lifelong dream that her grandfather was never able to fulfil and she would love to fulfil that dream in his memory. This is something I’ve daydreamed about for many years and I fell in love with Libby’s vision of vintage shop fittings, writer’s nooks, cake and coffee, and shelves full of books. Once she secures the Ivy Lane shop it will take weeks of hard work, help and support from family and friends to get the shop and her flat above up and running. She’s made the sacrifice of selling her house and moving back in with her parents temporarily and with a Dad in the building trade she will have lots of expertise at hand. Libby knows she will have to focus and that means even less time with best friend Jess and fewer cosy weekends with boyfriend Ant in his big house by the sea. How will she fit in with the Ivy Lane community and how will those closest to her cope with her dedication to her dream?
I liked Libby immediately and could understand where she was coming from. I have a similar supportive family, who are always eager to help me with new ventures. It was clear that Libby knows where she’s from and is grounded. Apart from normal concerns such as stinking after a damp day shifting rubbish in the shop, she isn’t focused on how she looks and this was refreshing to see. She is described as a ‘ray of sunshine’ coming to the street and I genuinely think she is. She’s kind, friendly, thoughtful and generous. Plus she loves reading, so I could easily imagine us grabbing a coffee and chatting about favourites. She soon makes friends on the street. Locking herself out of the shop means she has to make her way across to the Ivy Inn and ask to use their phone so Jess can bring the spare key. Here she meets Jo and Noah who run the pub and live together above the pub. Then there’s Harry, the elderly gentleman from the corner shop. I loved how these residents looked out for each other with a pack of biscuits here, a free lunch there and I could imagine Libby reciprocating with a book or a coffee. It was just the sort of neighbourhood it would be lovely to live in right now.
I liked that Libby knew what she wanted and stuck to it. She wasn’t wavered by distractions or feeling a bit rough. It had to be a full blown tonsillitis to stop her in her tracks. Even though there was a bit of wavering and soul searching, I liked that she had the confidence to know when a relationship wasn’t working. Even on the first week that she needs to work a weekend, Ant wasn’t on board. On the first day he didn’t help with clearing out then on the Saturday he wanted to spend the normal weekend together at this place. I wondered when he imagined the bookshop would be open? It wasn’t going to close on Saturday just for him. He then has the temerity to call Libby selfish. Even when she offers a night in a hotel, when she needs to visit the vintage fair and buy furniture, he decides it’s not his thing. I got quite angry with him at this point and even more so when he’s been discussing it behind her back with Jess. The pair practically gaslight Libby into thinking she’s the problem. Luckily a good chat with her mum straightens things out, she tells Libby that she’s allowed to be absorbed in this. Isn’t it her lifelong dream? That usually partners support their other half, but Ant hasn’t lifted a finger. Maybe they just aren’t compatible? This fits with thoughts Libby has been having, and she handles the situation really well. Even when, it seems, Ant might have had his eye on someone else. Noah is a great romantic lead with his craggy good looks, kind nature and sad past. His rapport with Libby is obvious to everyone but her. She has decided to focus all her energies on the shop with no exceptions. She has no time or headspace to spare for romance.
The author keeps the tone light throughout, but still kept my interest all day. Yes, I read this in a day. It lifted my spirits and made me smile, a rare thing at the moment. Towards the end I was desperately hoping for a certain outcome so I had to keep reading. I loved the vivid descriptions of the shop and the way it took shape. It was almost like watching my own dream come to life, which was very inspiring. It made me want to book a reading nook and fulfil my dream of writing a novel. This novel was emotionally intelligent, full of warm, quirky characters, and like opening a box of sunshine. Chick Lit or not I will definitely be checking out this author’s other novels.
There’s a whiff of Scientology in the latest thriller from one of my go to writers, Mark Edwards. Ruth and Adam are a couple on the cusp of becoming the next big thing. Over the summer Ruth will be rehearsing for a new play opening on Broadway, since finding success in a low budget horror film. Adam has written a play and a producer is very interested in looking at it. By happy coincidence they have landed a great house in Brooklyn for the summer. Their friends Jack and Mona, who they met on a cruise when Ruth was performing in The Tempest, offered them the house while they were off on their travels again. One night, in a storm, a young girl knocks on the door asking for Jack and Mona. Adam explains they are away, but Ruth feels bad sending her out into the storm and invites her in for a warm drink and to dry off. The girl is called Eden and she explains that Jack and Mona told her she could always stay with them, if she found herself in NYC. Adam is unsure what to do, because she could be anyone. However, she does seem to know the older couple and it is the sort of thing they would do considering they’ve let Ruth and Adam stay after only just meeting them. They decide to let Eden have the spare room, after all Jack and Mona are back in a few days anyway.
Over the next two days, Eden settles in and they all get along, However, tiny cracks are starting to show in Ruth and Adam’s future. Adam’s meeting with the producer turns out to be more of a fact finding mission on Ruth’s availability. Furiously, he symbolically dumps his script in a bin in Central Park even though he knows it’s a file on his laptop. He is then mugged for his mobile phone. The next day he and Eden go for a drink, and he has a small moan to her about how he will cope when Ruth’s star eclipses him. He’s scared that he may be jealous or it will drive a wedge between them. Jack and Mona are due back Sunday morning, so on Friday night they have a final hurrah. Eden treats them to Japanese food and a bottle of tequila. Before long they are all drunk and there’s dancing in the rain in the yard. Adam passes out soon after. When he wakes the next morning he feels dreadful, worse than any hangover he’s had before. He finds he can’t even get up. He notices Ruth isn’t with him, and assumes she is asleep downstairs. When he is finally able to get up, he is shocked to find that not only is Ruth not downstairs, she and Eden are nowhere to be found. So many questions ran through my mind at this point. Had Eden ever known Jack and Mona? Was that even her real name? Had the women run away together or had something taken place that scared them both? I suspected everyone, even Adam our narrator.
Mark Edwards has written an audacious thriller here. It seems to be a typical domestic thriller, but is actually much broader in scope. Adam and Ruth’s story is just one couple’s experience within a global conspiracy. I love the way Edwards leaves us tiny little clues and red flags. Ruth’s choice of reading material, and Adam’s description of her as a someone seeking spiritual truth seemed important. The bearded man that appeared to be staring at the house the very first night Eden arrived seemed sinister. Although I was suspicious from the beginning, I would have been seriously worried after the incident at the swimming pool. Adam and Eden go for a swim while Ruth is rehearsing and when Adam comes from the changing rooms he finds two young men hitting on Eden. They don’t seem to take no for an answer, but when Adam intervenes, Eden’s demeanour suddenly changes from the helpless victim and she threatens them. She calls them ‘dead men walking’ and I started to wonder if she had lured them in somehow; she seems to enjoy swapping power roles and scaring them. There is a scary certainty in her voice. However, even though I was suspicious about Eden there were more twists and turns in store that I really didn’t see coming.
Ruth seems like a nebulous character. Maybe it’s simply her profession – the actress’s ability to put on many different personas, but I don’t get a full idea of who she is. This could also be what Eden sees; Ruth as the ultimate seeker, willing to shed her identity or at least write over it. She’s on the very cusp of great success all on her own, but it seems like Eden banks on her having that strain of self-doubt underneath. The bit that wonders if she really is enough or whether everything she’s ever wanted just slip through her fingers. What Eden offers is certainty, a guarantee; we can make you a huge success. It reminded me of an anecdote told by the actor Christopher Reeve in one of his memoirs. When he was on Broadway, right on the edge of breaking through into film, he was approached by Scientologists who offered him a personality test. Whatever they found in his personality seemed to almost put them off. His determination ensured his success and that winning aspect to his personality perhaps meant there was nothing to exploit, no angle to use that would lure him in. I think successful cults are very good at noticing that chink in the armour, then using it to draw you in, whether it be self-doubt, imposter syndrome or lack of family. They will bend to become whatever you need at first, until you’re so far in it’s almost impossible to leave. There’s a reason that Scientologists don’t get to hear about the aliens until Operating Thetan III – by this point you’re likely to have spent almost $100,000 in courses to get there and you’re less likely to walk away.
The big finale is followed by a quiet moment where I expected things to be returned to normal. The ending was unexpected and did feel very creepy. The complex aspect of cults is that there will inevitably be some part of its belief system that has good intentions. However, after a while that goodness always becomes corrupted or distorted in some way. Having grown up in an extreme form of Christianity I can see that in essence the belief system was pure. The problems come when that group is threatened in some way by society or when those in positions of power start to enjoy them too much. There’s a point at which, those who love that person have to accept they’ve changed beyond recognition. It’s impossible to belong to an organisation and only take out the good bits, just being there is to accept and condone it all. Adam has tremendous love for Ruth, and was worried that her success might come between them. Instead she is lured away by her need to belong, to believe in something, This is a great weekend read, full of unexpected twists and with a finale worthy of a Hollywood movie.