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Posted in Monthly Wrap Up

Books of the Month! October 2022

Jacqueline in Paris by Ann Mah

I truly enjoyed this beautiful piece of historical fiction, focused on one of the most iconic women of the 20th Century. I’ve read biographies on Jackie and watched many documentaries about the Kennedy family with my mum who is fascinated with the theories about the assassination of JFK. I’ve always had a picture in my head of a woman who didn’t fulfil her potential and had so much more to give than being a First Lady, supporting her husband. I’d most recently read a book focused on her life with Aristotle Onassis and his mistress Maria Callas. I always wondered why she married Onassis but felt it could have been a response to the assassination and a desire to be protected and live out of the spotlight. This book focuses on a single year in the life of Jacqueline Bouvier as she travels to Paris for the junior year of her degree course. She has a fascination with France and was interested in researching her family tree. Ann Mah shows us a girl torn between the life she wants and the life her family wants or needs her to have. Her mother has planned for Jacqui to marry someone in the political classes, preferably with family money behind them. This feels like her last year of freedom, in a Paris still recovering from the occupation of WW2 and with politics that are very different from the US. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about a new side to this fascinating woman.

Where I End by Sophie White

This was an extraordinarily powerful book, that I’m still thinking about several weeks later. On a remote island somewhere in the Irish Sea, an arts centre is being built to attract tourists, because the island is barren and without attractions. The first resident artist is Rachel, who arrives with her baby Seamus and while swimming on the beach meets local girl Aoileann. Aoileann is a strange girl, not used to strangers and fascinated with the way Rachel mothers her baby. Aoileen’s odd manner is due to her home life, where in a house with the front door and windows blocked up, she shares a caring role with her grandmother. The ‘bed thing’ needs round the clock care, with a Heath Robinson system of ropes and pulleys they haul her out of bed and into the bathroom. She does not move for herself, except the wearing away of her fingers, now bloody stumps. The line that sent a nasty shiver down my spine and changed the whole book for me, revealed the one finger where the bone protrudes from the skin. It’s this bone that the bed thing uses to scratch out messages on the floor. This is a disturbingly horrific book that shows the drudgery of caring, the effect of remote and superstitious communities, and the terrible power of secrets in a family. The author explores motherhood in such a clever way, contrasting Rachel’s love for Seamus with the neglect Aoileann has thought was the norm. This book isn’t for the faint-hearted, but it is utterly devastating in it’s effect.

The Ink Black Heart by Robert Galbraith.

This instalment of the Cormoran Strike series is an absolute monster of a book. I had to give up reading the physical copy because it was like holding a brick! So I purchased the kindle copy so I could finish without breaking my thumbs. I’m a huge fan of Cormoran Strike, so although this wasn’t my favourite book of the series, it’s still up there as one of my favourites. This time Strike and Robin are drawn into the worlds of community arts and gaming. Two talented young artists from a community art centre create a cartoon called The Ink Black Heart, set in Highgate Cemetery and featuring unusual characters, one a wisp of a ghost and another that’s a human heart. An anonymous group of fans created an online game, where participants meet in Highgate Cemetery and complete challenges. Yet where there is success there are always people ready to tear it down and a person with the code name Anomie seems keen to do that. When the two creators are lured to the cemetery and attacked, things become serious. We’re privy to personal chats within the game and with Robin infiltrating the chat secrets will out. There are more complications in Cormoran’s love life as he dates a friend from ex-girlfriend Charlotte’s circle – can he shake off his feelings for good? Then there are those growing feelings between him and Robin, are they brave enough to follow those emotions or not?

The Pain Tourist by Paul Cleave.

I can’t stay too much about this thriller, because I’ve got a full review coming in a couple of days. This is such a fast paced thriller and it has such a tense opening! A family is woken in the night by masked men who are asking for the whereabouts of the safe. James is desperately trying to find a way to get his sleeping sister to safety. As she runs into the night, James watches the men shoot his mum and dad before he takes a bullet to the head. There is no safe. Nine years later, James wakes from a coma and his sister Hazel is soon by his side. The strange thing is James has been living all these years, in a different reality to this one and he is determined to capture it in writing. So he asks for nine notebooks, one for each year and begins to write his Coma World journal. Detective Rebecca Kent is assigned to his case and she has the help of Tate, the original detective who is now a private investigator. She is already chasing a meticulous serial killer called Copy Joe who likes to reproduce other killer’s crime scenes. What she doesn’t know is that James is recording events that happened in the real world in his journals, such as the books Hazel was reading to him or details of the weather. What else might he know? Rebecca is about to realise there’s more than one serial killer in town.

The Ghost Woods by C.J. Cooke

This is an intensely creepy novel from the beginning as we follow two young girls dealing with the consequences of becoming pregnant out of wedlock in the mid- Twentieth Century. Both choose to have their baby at Lichen Hall where the Whitlock family have been looking after young girls in trouble for several years. Mabel is the first, scared by her situation she doesn’t remember doing anything that might have led to pregnancy and concludes she must be having a ghost baby. The hall is strange, with Mr Whitlock who collects parasitic fungus and is often confused and in a state of undress. Wulfric, the Whitlock’s son, has unusual behaviour and becomes easily overwhelmed and angry. Mrs Whitlock is erratic, one moment she seems kind, but can also be snappish and dismissive. Only a few years later Pearl arrives, but the house is declining with the entire east wing seemingly overtaken by mould and fungus. Pearl has so many questions about this strange place, being a nurse she has more confidence and knowledge about having a baby. It seems strange that the Whitlock’s don’t have outside help for the girls giving birth. She wonders who the babies go to eventually and whether it’s legal. Who is the small boy she’s seen? Within a few chapter I was screaming at them to get out. They’re not restrained so it can only be the shame around their condition that holds them there. Each girl is infested by this destructive emotion and in one girl’s case, shame has made her put a lot of her experiences into a little box in her mind, under lock and key. Shame causes the denial of truths so scary, they could overwhelm us. It’s so sad that these girl’s shame creates an opening for others to exploit and exert power over them, but will they succumb? Or will they find strength from somewhere to resist and discover the truth about this mouldy house and family who live there.

Mad Honey by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan

This is a return to the legal case format of earlier novels by Picoult and the addition of Jennifer Finney Boylan to make a writing team has led to this interesting look at transgender rights in America. Olivia fled her marriage with her young son Asher after her abusive husband directed his violence towards their son instead of her. Now Asher is getting ready to go away to college and has his first girlfriend Lily. Lily is a lovely girl and Olivia took her out to meet her honey bees. Olivia is impressed by the way Lily works with the hives and knows that the bees are a good judge of character. Asher is so in love with Lily, so Olivia is shocked when she takes a call to say Asher has been arrested and Lily is dead. Picoult introduces a familiar character from her earlier novels as Olivia calls her brother Josh to defend her son. It really does keep you on tenterhooks as you try to work out what went wrong at Lily’s house. There are twists and turns, right to the very end. You may have seen trigger warnings about this novel, but I didn’t agree with some of them. Yes, there is a transgender character and Picoult does explore some of the negative aspects of being trans. However, this is only done to highlight how hard it can be to transition and the prejudice faced by people who are transgender. While there were prejudice characters, there were also well-meaning but ignorant characters. I never doubted that these writers were trying to portray a true representation of the experience, especially the sections written by Jennifer Finney Boylan who is one of the most famous transgender writers in the USA. This is a great book club choice, because there’s so much to talk about.

Good Taste by Caroline Scott

Caroline Scott enjoys writing about the period just after WW1 where Britain is in flux and people are going through huge changes within class, gender and the expected ‘family’ unit. England is struggling through a depression and our heroine Stella has had something of a life change. It’s 1932 and she is facing the first Christmas without her mother. With memories of her mother’s frailty last Christmas and the fear of that obvious empty chair, Stella has moved back from London to a small cottage in the West Riding of Yorkshire in order to be near her father. Money is tight, since her first book The Marvellous Mrs Raffald hasn’t done as well as she’d hoped. Celandine Cottage is rather shabby and Stella is surviving on the money she’s paid by a women’s magazine for writing a weekly article with five new recipes. When she’s summoned to London by her publisher, she’s half expecting her novel to be pulped and although she wants to write a biography of 18th Century cookery writer Hannah Glasse, she’s rather gloomy about her prospects. She’s shocked when he tasks her with a new idea – a history of English food. He wants a book that will inspire English housewives and remind English men of a nostalgic past. Although as Stella starts to think about her research, she realises that a lot of food people consider to be quintessentially English, is actually from elsewhere. Caroline has a wonderful way of balancing period detail, charming characters, and a touch of humour, while also showing us the grittier underbelly of life in a depression. There are also moments of grief for her mother, which are so beautifully rendered. Caroline makes this look incredibly easy when in reality it’s such a complex juggling act, one that she pulls off beautifully.

So, that wraps up October and since all my blog tours are read for November, i now have until the end of the year to catch up on NetGalley ARCs and publisher proofs I haven’t got to yet. Most exciting to me is that I get to choose which ones I read, so it feels like free reading all the way to January. I’m really excited for this! I might need that long to do my Books of the Year list.

Posted in Netgalley

Mad Honey by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan

I was granted access to this novel on NetGalley and couldn’t wait to read it, bumping it to the top of my TBR when I had a free weekend. This is Jodi Picoult in her element. Her last book was an interesting take on the pandemic and a couple of her recent novels have been more experimental, moving away from the legal case structure of her earlier work. When I met Jodi Picoult several years ago I asked about her writing. Did she start with character, or was it the controversial issues she explores that start the writing process? Having covered racism, school shootings, teen suicide and abortion it seems that these complex issues drive her imagination. She admitted that these issues do spark her creativity and if an issue stays in her mind for a couple of weeks she knows it has potential. Then she starts to research and during that process, characters form and make themselves known to her. I loved the flow of Picoult’s writing and the tension she builds around the featured legal case, but thought she’d maybe moved away from this way of working. When Jennifer Finney Boylan approached her with the idea to write a book together with a trans character at it’s heart, Jodi Picoult had been thinking about setting a novel around trans rights for a number of years. The structure of Mad Honey feels like vintage Picoult and even where Jennifer Finney Boylan takes over the narration I didn’t notice a huge difference in tone or style. I’ve never read Jennifer Finney Boylan, but she is the first openly transgender American to write a bestselling book, a book that is now thought of as an important part of the transgender canon. She is the perfect writer to join Picoult in this venture that’s bound to be controversial considering the trigger warnings I’ve seen used. Picoult and Boylan haven’t shied away from controversy in choosing to write about one of today’s hottest and most complicated topics; the complexities of being transgender. Yet the combination of authors takes away the debate over ‘own voice’ narratives and brings a sensitivity and knowledge to the project it wouldn’t have had if Picoult had written alone.

We meet Olivia and her son Asher, who live near a small town in New Hampshire. When Asher was a toddler she fled her abusive marriage to return to the place she grew up. Her timing was perfect, as her father was starting to struggle physically and needed to teach Olivia all the wisdom he’d accrued in a lifetime of keeping bees. Now Olivia is the bee expert, tending daily to her hives where each queen bee is named after a musical diva: Celina, Gaga, Beyoncé. The toddler who was just steady enough on his feet to intervene when his father attacked his mother, is now a six foot ice hockey player in his final year before leaving for college. Asher is a popular teenager with lots of friends and now he has girlfriend Lilly too. Lilly understands starting over, so Olivia feels they have something in common. She likes Lily when she’s been over to the house and she’s successfully helped them with the bees, who are a good judge of character. Lilly feels happy for the first time in her life and Asher is a huge part of that, although there is still a part of her that wonders if she can truly trust him, be open and be vulnerable. Then out of the blue Olivia takes the call every parent dreads. It’s the police. Lily is dead and Asher has been arrested for her murder. She calls her brother Jordan to come to New Hampshire and be Asher’s lawyer. In her mind there’s no way that the gentle boy she knows could have done this. However, as the case starts to unfold she realises that Asher has hidden more than he’s shared. Could he be exhibiting the same tendencies as his father? As Olivia knows more than anyone, we rarely know the people we love as well as we think we do.

I think it’s incredibly hard to take on writing about someone else’s experience, especially someone from a minority group. When it comes to books about disability, my own minority, I do prefer ‘own voice’ narratives. After all, who better to write a character with a disability than a writer with a disability? Failing that I want to know that an author has done their very best to represent that minority, through research and spending time with people who have a disability. I want to know they’ve asked the hard and sometimes uncomfortable questions that take them to the heart of how living in that body might feel. Armed with that they can hopefully create a character who feels real rather than clichéd and avoids stereotypes. I have to be honest and say I don’t know enough about being transgender to judge whether the authors have everything right, but I can see they’ve tried and truly wanted to write about transgender rights in a mainstream novel that’s very likely to be a bestseller. I guess time will tell how the book is received as it moves out into the world. In her acknowledgments, Jennifer Finney Boylan quotes a terrible statistic; in the year that she and Piicoult wrote the book, ‘more than 350 transgender people were killed around the world, more than a fifth of them inside their own homes’. This awful number stayed with me and I was glad these authors are starting a conversation, with a mainstream audience who might not seek out information about being transgender ordinarily. It helped me have a conversation with my 75 year old dad who becomes confused between gender and sexuality and is totally baffled by labels like transgender, transsexual, non-binary. I think these are conversations everyone should have and maybe the book is an entry point, inspiring people to read more ‘own voice’ narratives.

Picoult speaks for me when she says it never occurred to her to think of a transgender woman as anything other than a woman, but it was good to have my view challenged, because it showed me how vehemently some corners of society disagree with me. We are given a lot of background information that clearly comes from both author’s research, but is presented in the guise of Olivia educating herself. She talks about how common it is for animals to change gender, from clown fish to bearded dragons and female hyena’s who can have retractable penises. She’s pressing home the argument against those who claim transgender people are unnatural and that if you were not born with the sexual organs of a woman then you’re not a woman. There does seem to be a huge emphasis on the ability to procreate, but where does that leave women like me who can’t have children? Or those who’ve had a hysterectomy? Are we not real women too? I was very interested in something called ‘passing’, a concept that applies to race, disability, sexuality: an African-American man may be treated very differently if he has a lighter skin tone; a gay man may ‘pass’ as straight in order to be avoid prejudice at work; someone with an invisible disability like mine can be seen as able-bodied with all the benefits of both ways of being. If a transgender woman has a naturally feminine look she can pass as a woman more easily than someone who is is taller or broader. This ability to pass means no one, not even someone the transgender woman is in a sexual relationship with, need ever know that their assigned sex at birth was different. Of course this then begs the question of whether there is an obligation to disclose this information and when? All of this debate comes into the novel’s courtroom sections, in the guise of expert testimony so it doesn’t feel like endless exposition. There are times when opinions may be offensive to some readers, but I think they reflected the reality of being transgender and the discrimination faced.

The story flows beautifully and really grabbed hold of me quickly. I found myself unable to do anything until I’d finished reading, so I let uni work and household chores pile up, completely engrossed in the terrible situation both Asher and Lily’s mums find themselves in. I did feel this was Olivia and Ava’s story, despite our narrators being Lily and Olivia. For me the transition between the two writers is seamless. I really couldn’t tell whether I was reading Jodi or Jennifer’s writing and I know they worked hard at this, swapping sections for re-writes at times. I did feel for Olivia who has fled a terrible situation to protect her boy from her violent husband. I understood how she and Asher had become a tight unit, now challenged by Asher’s age and this new person coming into their small world. I thought the aftermath of being a victim of violence was tackled really well, as Olivia’s job keeps her hidden from the world. She doesn’t make friends and relationships haven’t been on her radar at all. I felt the weight of this massive change looming over them, Asher going away to college and leaving his mum alone for the first time. Her protection of them both has been necessary, but she must be lonely at times. It was interesting to see her reaction to a possible romance, could she take down those walls and start to build a life for herself? By contrast, Lily’s chapters are lighter than Olivia’s, capturing that moment of being on the cusp of adulthood. Lily is brim full of potential and possibility. She’s like a newly transformed butterfly taking it’s first flight. Then all of a sudden she’s gone and it feels like a light has been snuffed out. How much harder must it be for Ava, who has nurtured and protected her daughter in much the same way as Olivia has protected her son? Ava stayed with me after the book had ended because her loss is unimaginable and her only solace is to retreat into the natural world where she feels at home. I found myself hoping she experienced the healing power of nature and didn’t feel too lonely out there on the Appalachian Trail.

I enjoyed the bee analogy that ran through the book, the reference to Mad Honey referring to bees who’ve collected pollen from rhododendrons and laurels. Unfortunately the honey produced is poisonous, causing dizziness, convulsions and cardiac symptoms. The ancient Greeks used it in germ warfare, it’s success dependent on the eater’s expectations of sweetness not deadly poison. The analogy between this and Olivia’s husband is clear as she describes the love bombing in their early relationship and her utter shock when he first lashes out in anger. Her biggest fear is that Asher could be cut from the same cloth as his father, when she sees nothing but her sweet boy. However, she knows that her own mother-in-law would have struggled to accept that her boy was a monster behind closed doors. The tension is brilliantly handled, rising slowly as we get to the final days of the court when I found myself biting my nails! I wasn’t sure how I felt about Asher and the potential verdict, I wasn’t sure I believed his version of events and if Asher was found innocent, would we ever find out what happened to Lily? The twists and turns here were brilliant, with the killer blow delivered just as everything is starting to calm down.

I’m hoping that this novel can be a gateway novel, an introduction to that inspires readers to really think about the experience of transgender people, hopefully inspiring readers to search out writing by transgender authors going forward. There is one scene where Olivia seeks out the woman who runs the town’s record store, because she’s known to be transgender. Here she gets to ask the questions that are running through her mind and although he’s a reluctant authority on the subject, he doesn’t get offended by her insensitivity or ignorance. What he does reinforce for her is that no one can speak for all trans women, because ‘when you’ve met one trans woman, you’ve met one trans woman’. What it reinforces for me is that gender and sexuality are a spectrum, there are as many ways of being as there are people. Our need to categorise, label and compare creates a pyramid of bigotry and ultimately divides us. All we can hope is that future generations find ways of relating to each other that bridge these man made divides. It’s only then that all people can live ‘with power, and fierceness, and with love’ and, as one of our characters says, without the obligation ‘to explain and defend the things I have known in my heart since the day I was born.’

Mad Honey is published on 15th November by Hodder and Stoughton

Meet the Authors.

Jennifer Finney Boylan is a bestselling author, transgender activist and professor at Barnard College. She is also a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. She has written thirteen books, including novels, collections of short stories, and her memoir. Her 2003 memoir She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders was the first book published by an openly transgender American to become a bestseller and has become as ‘a seminal piece of the trans literary canon”.

Jodi Picoult is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of twenty-eight novels, including Wish You Were Here, The Book of Two Ways, A Spark of Light, Small Great Things, Leaving Time, and My Sister’s Keeper, and, with daughter Samantha van Leer, two young adult novels, Between the Lines and Off the Page. Picoult lives in New Hampshire. Her next novel, Mad Honey, co-written with Jennifer Finney Boylan, is available on November 15th.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Jacqueline in Paris by Ann Mah

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis is one of those iconic women that we can’t help but be curious about. From watching the film JFK and numerous documentaries about the death of President Kennedy with my mother, I started to be curious about the woman in the blood-stained pink suit. I think people are drawn to women who remain silent. As far as I’m aware she has never spoken directly about the horrific, life changing events of that day. She has almost seemed stoic. The perfect widow, in her lace mantilla at the funeral, still seeming numb and shell-shocked. When she surprised everyone by marrying Aristotle Onassis, the millionaire shipping magnate, I think it was driven by a need to hide. She needed a place to be without cameras following her every move and on his yacht she was definitely away from prying eyes. Perhaps his protection allowed her to grieve and come to terms with her trauma. I wanted to read this book, because I was fascinated to meet this version of Jackie – the Jacqueline before she was Jackie in. I always had the impression that she could have been a woman in her own right, more than the political wife she became.

Ann Mah has set her book in one particular year. In 1949 Jacqueline Bouvier travelled abroad for her junior year at college. It was to be her last year of freedom. She was aware that despite being poised and ready for society, her family were on the edge financially and she felt pressure from her mother to make a good match on her return. She met Jack Kennedy in 1952. Jacqueline lives in an apartment with a widowed French countess and her daughters. She finds a world of champagne, avant-garde theatre and jazz clubs and socialises with people she would never have met in her home town or the social circles at Vassar. There’s even romance with a man who loves literature like she does, but who would be totally unsuitable back home. Yet Paris isn’t all fun and glamour, because this is the aftermath of WW2 and its clear that the city’s people have suffered. The countess and her daughters have suffered too, as part of the resistance. The whole city is haunted by events during the Occupation and it will take many years for them to recover from the lies, betrayals and suspicion that lurk round every corner.

I love that Mah has written this novel in the first person, so we have Jacqui’s unguarded thoughts and emotions from the start. Even though it is a fictionalised self we’re getting to know, it still feels like a rare window into the innermost thoughts of a very private woman. It may sound strange to regard her as private when she was later married to the most powerful leader in America and arguably the world. Jacqui is private though. From this part of her life when she has the most freedom she’s ever known she’s testing people out for herself, but there’s still a natural reserve. She gets to decide who to spend time with and who to trust. On her return to the US and her subsequent relationship with John Kennedy, she is private by design. It’s part of the mystique of being a powerful politician’s wife who should show loyalty, discretion and control of her emotions. Once she’s in those circles, who can she trust to be a true friend? Where many might have seen her as the archetypal political spouse, this was the ambition of her mother rather than Jacqui’s own desire. Here we see her when she was naive and idealistic. Her love of art and for the city of Paris is evident. She’s also keen to make friends and experience real French life, but that reserve can make it hard for others to feel they know the real her.

She finds that one of the biggest differences between the US and Europe is a political one. During the war, Parisian people did what they had to in order to survive and there are still grudges against those forced to collaborate. She learns which subjects to avoid. Madame de Renty is a lively and colourfully dressed woman during the day, but she was imprisoned at Ravensbrück concentration camp during the war and Jacqui hears her crying in the night. Some truths can never be spoken. Aside from the post-war adjustments and the effects of trauma that will last for generations, Jacqui is most shocked by the Parisian’s politics. There is a lean towards communism here, something that’s unthinkable in the US where it’s considered in the same breath as Nazism. Her mind is broadened by friends who explain it’s underlying principles – an equal, fair society. This has huge resonance for us, because we understand she will be First Lady during the Cuban missile crisis, and the 1950’s saw a wave of suspicion about communism that fuelled the McCarthy era.

Despite these darker undercurrents there’s also the joy of seeing Paris through her eyes, for the very first time. The beautiful language, the smells of incredible food and early morning croissants. There’s also Jacqui’s love of learning and through this I could see glimmers or the different life she could have had, if her family had valued her as more than a marriage commodity. This is a well-researched account that held some of the answers I’d pondered about her life: that pull between the security of marriage and the more precarious life of her own; the love of Europe that would see her return there after Kennedy’s death; the education from a really great college versus the education of how to be a wife provided by her mother. I thought the author found a great balance between fleshing out a story and what we know of Jacqui’s year abroad through historical research. I understood this Jacqui and felt I’d met her before in my own reading. Now I have to give this straight to my mum so we can talk about it.

Meet the Author

Ann Mah is an American food and travel writer. She is the author of the USA
Today and Wall Street Journal bestseller The Lost Vintage, as well as three other books. She contributes regularly to the New York Times Travel section, and her articles have appeared in the Washington Post, Condé Nast Traveler, The Best American Travel Writing, The New York Times Footsteps, Washingtonian magazine, Vogue.com, BonAppetit.com, Food52.com, TheKitchn. com, and other publications

Posted in Random Things Tours

Suicide Thursday by Will Carver

I’m usually well ahead of time when it comes to my blog tour reviews, sometimes by a month, but this one ……. AAaaarrrghhh! I can’t put into words why I can’t put into words what I thought about this novel. If you’ve read the book you’ll understand. I don’t think there’s a literary convention Will Carver hasn’t wanted to subvert. It’s been difficult to write reviews for Will Carver’s books in the past, but I’ve never been down to the wire like this before. I’ve been trying to scribble down my thoughts only hours before the review is due. So, I’m sorry if this doesn’t always make sense, or if it doesn’t do justice to Carver’s inventiveness and originality, but it’s the best I can do. This writer is simply too clever for me!

Eli Hagin can’t finish anything.

He hates his job, but can’t seem to quit. He doesn’t want to be with his girlfriend, but doesn’t know how end things with her, either. Eli wants to write a novel, but he’s never taken a story beyond the first chapter.

Eli also has trouble separating reality from fiction.

When his best friend kills himself, Eli is motivated, for the first time in his life, to finally end something himself, just as Mike did…

Except sessions with his therapist suggest that Eli’s most recent ‘first chapters’ are not as fictitious as he had intended … and a series of text messages that Mike received before his death point to something much, much darker…

Mike can do something Eli can’t. Eli can’t commit to a narrative, leaving behind him reams of first chapters. He can’t commit to Jackie either, even though they’ve been together for the length of time it would take most people to live together or get engaged. Mike wanted to kill himself and he’s followed it through. Eli finds him sitting there, on his newly polished living room floor, with his hands embedded in the lacerations on his thighs. Even in his numbed and shocked state, there is jealousy that Mike has finished what he started.

Eli, Mike and Jackie are a trio. Eli and Mike are friends. Jackie and Eli are in a relationship that Eli doesn’t want, or does he? There are times when he could end it, but doesn’t. It is their anniversary two days after Mike dies. Two days after Jackie slept with Mike. Eli knows, but seems ambivalent. I found myself laughing at their ludicrous anniversary dinner, where Eli’s scrabbling on the floor for some dropped cutlery and Jackie semi- manipulates this into a proposal. Eli has turned indecision into an art. He has a job, but doesn’t enjoy it. He wants to leave, but just can’t make the first step. Eli feels a lot of the same emotions as his friend Mike. The ennui, the despair and the sense of being lost. Yet Mike had the guts to do something about it.

I was fascinated with the chapters headed ‘Fake Therapist’. In fact Eli has a session on Suicide Thursday and as he points out, just because it’s such an important day for Mike, it doesn’t mean he can miss therapy. Immediately, I wondered how he would know it’s the day that Mike is going to commit suicide. It seems to me that there’s a problem with the fake therapist? The problem being ….. there’s no therapist.

Eli then has to speak first (of course he does, no one else is there). He still regurgitates the same information he always does, almost as if each session is with someone new. There is no accumulation of knowledge or shorthand that comes from working with a therapist for a while. In fact each session is like one of his first chapters – the same stuff just expressed differently. I was interested in his knowledge of therapy, such as the comment on eye contact and his inhibitions. Has he had therapy in the past? Is that where he was confronted by things he didn’t want to talk about? The comment about any corporeal therapist directing the session, wanting to talk about Mum when he isn’t ready, is a bit of a giveaway. It seems therapy is great, as long as he can control it.

‘I pull the chair from beneath my desk in the first-chapter library and move it to a position where it can face the couch – my £2000 black, leather, archetypal therapist’s couch. It’s on a slight angle, a classic psychoanalyst’s trick to avoid eye contact, allowing me to overcome any inhibitions I may have. I place the Dictaphone on the seat, lie back and wait for the first question.’

I can’t tell you anymore of the story, not only would it ruin the reading experience, but I don’t really know where to begin. I can’t place it in a genre. I can’t really explain my reaction to it. The story unfolds in such an unorthodox way I’m scared of revealing something that I’ve dismissed as unimportant, but that opens up the whole story for someone else. I think it’s one of those books, where the meaning is dependent upon the reader. There were revelations that really made me rethink Eli, such as those text messages he sent to Mike before his suicide. It then changes everything you’ve read before. I would call this an ‘active’ reading experience. My brain, my emotions and often my ability to sleep were constantly engaged. As for trigger warnings, I can’t imagine that anyone who’s affected by suicide would pick up a book with this title. I didn’t find the subject matter triggering, despite personal experiences, but I was slightly disturbed that I wasn’t more triggered by Mike’s despair and eventual suicide. It think it’s because I was so engaged thinking ‘WTF?’ I was so busy thinking, I didn’t respond emotionally. If you like your books to be original, creative, mind-bending and tricksy, then this is the one for you. I didn’t respond to it at first. In fact it took a bit of work, but I can promise I’ll still be thinking about it weeks from now.

Published by Orenda Books 24th November 2022

Meet The Author


Will Carver is the international bestselling author of the January David series and the critically acclaimed, mind-blowingly original Detective Pace series that includes Good Samaritans (2018), Nothing Important Happened Today (2019) and Hinton Hollow Death Trip (2020), all of which were ebook bestsellers and selected as books of the year in the mainstream international press. Nothing Important Happened Today was longlisted for the Goldsboro Glass Bell Award 2020 and Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. Hinton Hollow Death Trip was longlisted for Guardian Not the Booker Prize, and was followed by three standalone literary thrillers, The Beresford, Psychopaths Anonymous (both optioned for TV) and The Daves Next Door. He lives in Reading with his family.

Posted in Paranormal Reads

Halloween Reads! Books That Gave Me Nightmares.

When thinking about reads for Halloween I started thinking about books that genuinely scared me. The ones I couldn’t stop thinking about and made me look over my shoulder as I popped to the loo in the middle of the night. I blame the Brontë’s for my love of the gothic, from the terrible creature who visits Jane Eyre’s room in the night and tears her wedding veil, to the icy cold hand of a child that reaches into Mr Lockwood’s bedroom window in Wuthering Heights. I even studied gothic literature at university, that’s how much I love the genre. What scares us doesn’t always mean the traditional ghosts, vampires and witches we’re used to. It can be a really tense thriller, a mystery or even novels that defy genre. Here are a few books that genuinely gave me the creeps!

A.M.Shine was a completely new writer to me when I picked up this novel, so I had no expectations. Since reading this I’ve been so creeped out by his second novel, The Creeper, I had to stop reading it! The Watchers was an incredible read and such an unnatural situation for the characters to be in. Lost in a deep forest in rural Ireland, Mina feels unnerved, when she hears a scream that isn’t human, but isn’t like any animal she’s ever heard either. As the shadows gather she is beginning to panic, when suddenly she sees a woman beckoning her and urging her to hurry. Mina decides it’s better than staying out here to be found by whatever made that terrible noise. As the door slams shut behind them, the screams grow in intensity and volume, almost as if they were right on her heels. They’re in a concrete bunker and as Mina’s eyes adjust to the light, she finds herself in a room with a bright overhead light. One wall is made entirely of glass, but Mina can’t see beyond it and into the forest because it is now pitch dark. Yet she has the creeping sensation of being watched through the glass. A younger man and woman are huddled together, so there are now four people in this room, captive and watched by many eyes. Their keepers are the Watchers, dreadful creatures that live in burrows by day, but come out at night to hunt and to watch these captive humans. If caught out after dark, the door will be locked, and you will be the Watcher’s unlucky prey. Who are these creatures and why do they keep watching? I have to say that just when I thought my nerves were calm, this author found a way to leave me with a creeping sense of dread.

The Beresford is my favourite Will Carver novel, because it really does get under your skin without a single ghost in sight!

Abe Schwartz lives in a one-bed furnished flat. An apartment building called The Beresford. The bell rings and he’s the one opening the front door to a stranger. Before that, he’s dragging a dead body into his room, mopping up blood and asking himself, What the hell just happened?

The Beresford is an apartment building with a difference. It has a certain atmosphere and it’s not long before you dread the door bell ringing. Mrs May is the landlady, an incredibly sweet old lady who has a daily routine from her eggs and cold coffee first thing, to her rose pruning every afternoon. As anyone who has watched The Ladykillers knows, little old ladies should not be underestimated. Does she know more about what’s going on in her building than we think? Even worse, this is only one side of the building, and what’s going on next door is even more unsettling. I’ve been waiting for Carver to elaborate on the other side of the Beresford and I’m told I will only have to wait till next summer. I know one thing for sure – I’m definitely going to be reading it in the daylight.

This is the copy of William Blatty’s book that I would sneak off the bookshelves when my parents went out. I would read as much as possible, then as soon as I heard the gravel crunching on the drive, I’d pop it back and wonder how I was going to sleep that night. When I was about 13, this book had the combination of being both terrifying and taboo – a teenage bibliophile’s holy grail. My parents had joined an evangelical church and became very restrictive in my teens, so the fact this book was even on our shelves felt transgressive. The book works because of atmosphere and tension the author creates. This is a child, so that innocence contrasts sharply with the creature Regan becomes. At first her mother Chris thinks Regan is ill. While Chris has been shooting a movie in Georgetown, there has been poltergeist activity in their rented house, but as time goes on Regan has been refusing to eat, unable to sleep and aggressive in her behaviour. Could it be psychological? The deterioration in Regan is horrific and the sense of horror that starts to come over Chris as she prepares to enter her daughter’s room can be felt. The icy cold, the smell and the violent expletives really hit home and when even a priest is struggling to contain the evil inside the girl, it’s power is still terrifying over fifty years later.

When people ask me if I believe in ghosts I always say no, not in the traditional sense of apparitions, but I do believe in energy and how a building’s past can be felt within it’s walls. Events leave an imprint behind, the emotional equivalent of muscle memory, and perhaps sensitive people can tap into those emotions. That’s the feel of this novel from Diane Setterfield and for me it conjures up dark winter afternoons and the warm fireside but outside of that cozy circle there may be something lurking and waiting to surprise you with it’s presence. Angelfield House stands abandoned and forgotten, but is full of atmosphere. It was once home to the March family: fascinating, manipulative Isabelle; brutal, dangerous Charlie; and the wild, untamed twins, Emmeline and Adeline. But the house hides a chilling secret which strikes at the very heart of each of them, tearing their lives apart…

Now Margaret Lea is investigating Angelfield’s past, and its mysterious connection to the enigmatic writer Vida Winter. Vida’s history is mesmering – a tale of ghosts, governesses, and gothic strangeness. But as Margaret succumbs to the power of her storytelling, two parallel stories begin to unfold…What has Angelfield been hiding? What is the secret that strikes at the heart of Margaret’s own, troubled life? And can both women ever confront the ghosts that haunt them…? Prepare to read this with a sense of unease, but a need to unravel the story.

Laura Purcell’s debut was so good it made her my ‘go to’ author immediately! It taps directly into those Brontë themes of atmospheric houses with creepy nighttime visitations. It builds beautifully, from a young woman who is bereaved and pregnant to the huge ancestral home, this is one of those tales that slowly and imperceptibly creates unease in the reader. When newly married Elsie Bainbridge finds herself a widow. and pregnant she is dependent on the kindness of his family. Once she reaches her husband’s family estate, she is disappointed, because far from being awed by the house, the villagers fear it and believe the Bainbridge family are cursed. Elsie pays no mind to servants talk, but maid Sarah seems intent on scouring the creepy house. in order to learn more of her family history. Then strange sounds disturb their sleep, leading Elsie and Sarah to discover a life size wooden figure. It’s like the prop for a play, but yet it has an uncanny similarity to Elsie. They decide to move it to the Great Hall, rather than leaving it hidden in the attic. They’ve also found two notebooks which turn out to be the diaries of Anne Bainbridge beginning in 1635.

Anne has written about her hope to charm King Charles I and his Queen on a forthcoming visit and support her husband, Josiah who wants to make connections. The royal couple’s daughter Henrietta Maria was supposedly conceived using white magic. Anne writes about a shop of curiosities and the Dutch heritage of the ‘silent companions’ she purchased ahead of their visit, subsequently discovered in the attic by Sarah. The figures slowly started to resemble their real life counterparts. Elsie starts to fear she is losing her mind as more figures appear and the mystifying question of what’s going starts to consumer her. This is such an original idea and much like Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, anything that starts to magically resemble it’s owner is downright creepy! I love Purcell’s ability to create an eerie atmosphere and a very uneasy reader.

Melmoth the Witness is a figure from mythology, or is she? Known as one of the woman who witnessed the tomb on the morning that Christ resurrected, she is now an eternal traveller. Wandering the centuries she lures people into following her, whereupon they too become damned to an eternity of itinerant, solitary wandering. Set in the beautifully, atmospheric city of Prague we meet a woman called Helen and her friend Karel on the street. Agitated and enthralled, he tells her he has come into possession of a mysterious old manuscript, filled with personal testimonies taken from 17th-century England to wartime Czechoslovakia, the tropical streets of Manila, and 1920s Turkey. All of them tell of being followed by a tall, silent woman in black, bearing an unforgettable message. Helen reads its contents with intrigue and some scepticism, but everything in her life is about to change. We follow Helen’s story, but within it are all the other stories and lives, creating a Russian doll style tale, but where each incarnation has the same sense of menace and impending doom.

I think what scared me would have scared any ‘listener’. It’s the toll witnessing takes on a person. This book takes in the breadth of the horrors experienced in Prague throughout the 20th Century. It made me imagine being present to witness the trenches of WW1, the Holocaust, and so many other atrocities and personal tragedies. I’ve worked in mental health for twenty years and I’m taking a break at the moment to study. I know the emotional toll that listening to people’s stories can take on the listener or observer. For Melmoth, this would be so much worse because she has to sit back and witness all of humanity’s horrors. Even worse, she has no power to change anything, but is doomed merely to witness. No wonder she wants other souls to witness with her, she must feel the weight of the horrors yet to come. By the end of this novel so did I.

Posted in Netgalley, Paranormal Reads

The Ghost Woods by C.J.Cooke

The Ghost Woods is the third book I’ve read by C.J. Cooke and I’m convinced she’s getting better with each novel. This brilliant mix of historical fiction, women’s history, Scottish folklore and the supernatural had me transfixed. We follow two young girls struggling with the realities of becoming pregnant out of wedlock in mid-Twentieth Century Scotland. In 1965, Pearl Gorham is sent to Lichen Hall, a large 16th Century private house set in the middle of woodland and home to a wealthy couple and their grandson. Pearl is 22 and heavily pregnant, until now she’s been working as a nurse, but she’s being driven to Lichen Hall. The family here look after young women ‘in trouble’ and find adoptive parents for their babies. Five years earlier in Dundee, Mabel Haggith is at the doctors with her mother and has just found out that she’s pregnant. Her mother is furious, but Mabel is confused, how can she be pregnant when she hasn’t done anything wrong? To make sense of her predicament, Mabel assumes it must be the ghosts that live inside her that have made her pregnant, she can feel one in her knee right now. Her mum and stepfather decide Mabel must go to a mother and baby home, but Mabel has heard what can go on in those places. She decides to go to Lichen Hall instead, where she’ll have her baby and hopefully adoptive parents will be found. As long as they don’t mind having a ghost baby of course.

What they find at Lichen Hall is an eccentric and isolated family called the Whitlocks. Mrs Whitlock is most definitely in charge, but is dealing with her husband and son’s issues as well. Mr Whitlock was a professor of biology, focused on the more unusual types of fungi and the symbiotic relationship between them and humans. However, more recently dementia has made his behaviour rather erratic. He has taken to wandering and wearing eccentric combinations of clothing, some of which are more revealing than others. Son, Wolfie, is a complex boy with erratic moods and explosive behaviour when frustrated. Mrs Whitlock herself is a strange mix of pleasant and welcoming, then suddenly cold, distant and even mean. Into this bizarre setting come girls who need help, empathy and care. Of course there are also other residents: Morwen who appears to be the only servant when Mabel arrives, as well as the other girls there to have their babies. Who will tend to these girls when they go into labour in this remote place? With folkloric stories of witches and evil fairies around, plus a deliciously Gothic house, full of atmosphere and and an infestation of fungi, that doesn’t seem to be as straightforward as they might have thought.

I loved this strange gothic mix of the horrors of nature and the supernatural. In the room where he keeps his favourite specimens, Mr Whitlock has a wasp that’s been taken over by a fungus. The life cycle starts when people simply breath in the spores, but then they grow inside the insect until it bursts out of their body. Monstrous births have a rich seam in gothic fiction and it feels like there may be parallels here, especially for Mabel and her ghost baby. By the time Pearl arrives, this mini example of a parasitic fungus is overshadowed by the fungal takeover in the west wing. Despite being closed off, she finds spores growing and multiplying on the stairs. Will it eventually take over the whole of Lichen Hall? There is a sense in which the girl’s pregnancies do seem monstrous. There are descriptions of their babies’ movements such as seeing a tiny foot stretching out the skin on their abdomens, which is amazing but strange all at the same time. Mabel’s boy is beautiful, but its not long before she notices the strange lights appearing from under his skin. What do they signify? Is this the legacy of the ghosts? The atmosphere feels isolated and wild, but weirdly suffocating and claustrophobic at the same time. When walking outside it’s best not to go into the woods where a shadowy figure awaits. It’s terrifying when one of the girls falls trying to escape this creature and it grabs her leg, seemingly able to make clear it’s intention to get ‘inside’ her skin.

The book works really well because the girl’s vulnerable position creates empathy and interest in the reader. We don’t want to see them harmed so there’s tension from the outside as well as that sense of foreboding we get from the atmosphere. I found the parts where the girls are struggling with giving up their babies, terribly moving, especially when some are given no warning or chance to say goodbye. The Whitlocks can only act like this due to the shame attached in society to an unmarried mother. We can see a change in attitudes between Mabel and Pearl’s time at the hall even though its only 6 years. Mabel is very ignorant of sex and motherhood, whereas Pearl is older and a nurse so she has more agency in her decisions. She also slept with a man at a party, after falling out with her true love Sebastian. When he turns up after all this time to the hall, they share a romantic picnic and he declares his love for her. It’s a ray of hope in an otherwise gloomy prospect for the residents of the hall. Pearl chooses to make love with Sebastian, showing a young woman making choices about her sex life, choices that don’t seem as bound up with shame and stigma. For Mabel, her early days at the hall are softened by servant Morwen, who seems to do everything for the family – besides looking after Wulfric. She helps the girls give birth too, a skill that’s severely tested if two girls are in labour at once. The new girls are also expected to help with Wulfric when they can. Mrs Whitlock’s present of some hens and wood to build a coop, felt doomed to failure to me. His erratic behaviour up to this point leaving me constantly in fear for the chicken’s lives. One question kept recurring to me, time and time again. Why are the Whitlocks taking these girls in? Could it be for free labour or is there another, more sinister reason, because the Whitlocks do not seem to be particularly charitable souls.

This is an intensely creepy book from the beginning, but as we start to find new clues it becomes more disturbing still. The strange notes that read ‘Help me’ can only be from one of the hall’s residents but who? Has Mr Whitlock had a more lucid moment? Is it a despairing mother to be who wishes to keep her baby? To be honest, by the time both Mabel and Pearl have been with the Whitlocks a few days, I was screaming at them to get out. It seems strange to me that no one enforces the girl’s stay, so there’s only one reason for their obedience and I think that is shame. Each girl is infested by this destructive emotion: they’ve been made to feel shame because of their behaviour, their condition and their lack of a man to stand by them. In one girl’s case, shame has affected her so strongly that she’s pushed a lot of her experiences into a little box in her mind and keeps them under lock and key. Denial is a very powerful tool that shuns truths that are so scary they would overwhelm us. It’s so terribly sad that the girl’s shame creates an opening for others to exploit and exert power over them, but will they succumb? Or will they find strength from somewhere to resist and discover the truth about this mouldy house and family who live there. This book is a brilliant mix of women’s history, gothic fiction and both psychological and physical deterioration. I’d been a little wary of mushrooms since Silvia Moreno Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, now I’m definitely keeping a lookout for fairy rings when I walk the dogs in the woods.

Published 13th Oct 2022 by Harper Fiction

Meet The Author

C J Cooke (Carolyn Jess-Cooke) lives in Glasgow with her husband and four children. C J Cooke’s works have been published in 23 languages and have won many awards. She holds a PhD in Literature from the Queen’s University of Belfast and is currently Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow, where she researches creative writing interventions for mental health. Two of her books are currently optioned for film. Visit http://www.cjcookeauthor.com.

Posted in Paranormal Reads

Halloween Spotlight! BeWitching Novels.

Who doesn’t love a witchy novel at this time of year? In fact, the only thing better than a witch novel is a whole series of them. Here I’m recommending series and one-offs that really fit the bill on these cold autumn afternoons. They’re exactly what I want on a Sunday afternoon, snuggled on the chaise langue with the log burner lit and preferably a pack of M&S Belgian Chocolate Toffee Popcorn. Bliss. There are golden oldies and a few new books to bring a sprinkle of magic into your Halloween.

Joanne Harris’s Chocolat Series

Whenever I pick up Chocolat I immediately feel enclosed by this sumptuous and magical world that Joanne Harris has created. It is the book equivalent of sitting in a candlelit room, Christmas tree sparkling magically in the corner, a warm fire and some real hot chocolate. It’s as if Vianne Rocher is enchanting me from between the pages. From the moment the changing wind blows her into the village of Lansquenet she begins to work her magic on the villagers, much to the disgust of parish priest Father Reynaud. She establishes a chocolate shop directly opposite the church and so begins a struggle for power. Her magic is subtle, but she is an amazing chocolatier and she has the ability to discern which one of her chocolates will be someone’s favourite. With her chocolate pot always simmering and ready with a listening ear, her shop soon becomes the regular haunt of some of the villagers. However, the priest is preaching against Vianne Rocher. He doubts her morals, dislikes the sense of indulgence she’s creating, and is suspicious that she may be a witch. Maybe he’s seen Pantoufle, the imaginary friend of Vianne’s little girl Anouk. This push and pull between church and chocolate is left behind in her second novel The Lollipop Shoes where we follow Vianne to Paris where they live above her chocolate shop. Then Zozie De L’Alba sweeps into their lives, the woman with the lollipop shoes, but she isn’t all she seems. Seductive and charming on the surface, she can also be ruthless and devious. Again, Vianne finds herself with a powerful enemy. Should she do what she’s always done before and run?

Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé takes us back to Lansquenet and feels like a lighter novel, more suited as a sequel to Chocolat. It’s a letter from an old friend that brings her back to the village, but this is an unusual letter, because Vianne’s friend is dead. She finds the village changed since her last visit, with a new community blown in with the wind. Where once the river gypsies were the village has grown, there’s now a hint of spices, veiled faces and a minaret as North African migrants have settled. So Reynaud could have a new enemy. However, Vianne finds that he’s in trouble, could this possibly be the reason she’s been drawn back to the village? I loved the feel of this novel, with old characters popping up and old adversaries seeking change. It really felt like the story had come full circle so I was surprised when I heard there was another part to the series. The Strawberry Thief is every bit as atmospheric as Chocolat and all seems settled in Lansquenet. Vianne and her youngest daughter Rosette have settled in the chocolate shop. Even her relationship with Reynaud has settled into a friendship. It’s when the florist Narcisse dies that the wind changes. His will is cause for gossip and then someone opens a shop in the square, opposite Vianne, The strange pull it exerts seems familiar, but what could this mean for Vianne. This series is so warm and the settings are absolutely enchanting. The magic is sprinkled throughout, but Vianne is not just an enchantress. She’s a catalyst. A force for change. She inspires people to cast off rules and do what makes them happy. She gives women who are unhappy and even abused, the strength to leave. She frees people and that is an incredibly powerful gift to have.

A Witch in Time and The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers.

I’m relatively new to the work of Constance Sayers, but I’ve certainly made up for the oversight since. A Witch in Time is high on my TBR for the end of this year, but it sounds just up my street. We go to four different time zones, into the lives of four different women, but between them there’s just one star-crossed love. In 1895, sixteen-year-old girl called Juliet begins a passionate, doomed romance with a married artist. Next we’re in 1932, with aspiring actress Nora as she escapes New York for the bright lights of Hollywood and a new chance at love. Then it’s 1970 and we meet Sandra who lives in California, it’s perfect for her music career but she’s threatening to tear her band apart with a secret love affair. Finally, we reach the 21st Century and a confused Helen who has strange memories of lives that she hasn’t lived. These are tragic lives, cursed with doomed love, because Helen was bound to her lover in 1895, and trapped by his side ever since. She’s lived multiple lifetimes, under different names, never escaping her tragic endings. Only this time, she might finally have the power to break the cycle.

I was determined to have an early copy of The Ladies of the Secret Circus as soon as I saw a trailer for it on Twitter.

The surest way to get a ticket to Le Cirque Secret is to wish for it . . .

As a huge fan of The Night Circus I knew this was for me and thankfully I managed to get a copy on NetGalley. This time Sayer’s takes us back to Paris in 1925 where to enter the Secret Circus is to enter a world of wonder. See women weave illusions, let carousels take you back in time, and see trapeze artists float across the sky. Bound to her family’s circus, it’s the only world Cecile Cabot knows until she meets a charismatic young painter and embarks on a passionate affair that could cost her everything. In the 21st Century, Lara Barnes is getting married and feels on top of the world, but when her fiancé disappears on their wedding day every plan she has for the future comes crashing down. Desperate, Lara’s search for answers unexpectedly lead to her great-grandmother’s journals and is swept into a story of a dark circus and ill-fated love. There are secrets about the women in Lara’s family history, which need to come to light. They reveal a curse that has been claiming payment from the women in her family for generations. A curse that might be tied to her fiancé’s mysterious fate. Both of these tales are full of spells, magic and ancient curses, but they’re also colourful, romantic and full of wonder.

The Practical Magic Series by Alice Hoffman.

I write about these four books every Halloween and I should perhaps look for some new material, but I can’t stop because I love this author and these four books are a brilliant witch series. Although Practical Magic was the first book in the series, followed a very successful film with Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock, it’s actually the third instalment of this story following the Owens family try to juggle life with their witchy heritage. Hoffman went on to write two prequels and a sequel to Practical Magic where we meet a different generation of the Owens family, both as teenagers and then as elderly ladies, hoping to change change the curse that’s been controlling their lives ever since the witch trials. We start in Magic Lessons when baby Maria is left abandoned in a snowy field near the home of Hannah Owens. Hannah is a healer who lives in isolation, but the women of the town manage to make their way to her door for the remedies they sorely need usually due to the pains and consequences of love. When men feel threatened they do terrible things and when Hannah is set upon by the men of the village, Maria escapes and makes her way down to the Caribbean as a servant. However, when the man she loves betrays her, Maria follows him back to Massachusetts and begins a war against the Puritan settlers. Will her quest for revenge blind her to real love and curse her family for a generation? Then we jump to the 20th Century and the Owens sisters Franny and Jet, with their brother Vincent. Their mother knew they were special because they each have their own talent: Franny with the blood red hair can talk to birds, Jet is so beautiful and incredibly shy but in the quiet she can read what people are thinking. As the teenagers start to interact more with the outside world, it seems that Vincent’s charisma may get him into trouble. Yet it’s Jet’s world that may be turned upside down by the curse of the Owen family.

Practical Magic is actually the third in the series and we’re one generation on, in the same house in Massachusetts. Gillian and Sally live with their aunts Franny and Jet, they keep themselves to themselves mostly, but the girls know that if the porch light is left on at night, women who wouldn’t give them a glance by day seem to find their way at night. Gillian is the wilder one of the sisters, roaming from state to state and attracting all the wrong men. When she returns to Massachusetts, homebody Sally knows that she’s brought trouble home with her. Even their magic might not cover her tracks as a handsome investigator arrives in town asking questions. Since her husband died Sally has lived quietly, avoiding her magical skills and men. Now her sister’s return might jeopardise the stability she’s created for her girls. They may need help from the aunties for this. Hoffman’s fourth in the series, published last year, is The Book of Magic. The three generations of Owens women who all live in the same small town in Massachusetts, have found a way to accommodate their family curse and their magic skills. Until Sally’s youngest daughter Kylie falls in love with her best friend. As the curse does it’s worst the family must find a book of magic, the only one with the knowledge that might break the family curse and allow the younger generation to love without limits or fear of tragedy, Sally will have to embrace the skills she’s avoided for so long and as the family fight to save their youngest member, one of the oldest gets wind of a change coming. A fitting end to a brilliant series,

The Waverley Sisters Series by Sarah Addison Allen.

This is a lovely and light two part series set in Bascom, North Carolina. They’re warm books that focus on family first and spells second, plus it’s full of food and charm so it wins me over straight away. It seems everyone in Bascom has a story to tell about the Waverley women. They live in a house that’s been in the family for generations, have a walled garden that mysteriously blooms year round, and then those rumours of dangerous love and tragic passion that surround them. Every Waverley woman is somehow touched by magic, but Claire has always clung to the Waverleys’ roots. She stays grounded by tending the enchanted soil in the family garden and makes her sought-after delicacies – famed and feared in town for their curious effects. She has everything she thinks she needs – until one day she wakes to find a stranger has moved in next door and a vine of ivy has crept into her garden . . . Is Claire’s carefully tended life is about to run gloriously out of control.

In the second book we see more of Claire’s sister Sydney and her daughter Bay. It’s October in Bascom, North Carolina, and autumn will not go quietly. As temperatures drop and leaves begin to turn, the Waverley women are also made restless by the whims of their mischievous apple tree…and the magic that swirls around it. But this year, first frost has much more in store. Claire Waverley has started a successful new venture, Waverley’s Candies. She makes handcrafted confections with specific intentions, like rose to recall lost love, lavender to promote happiness and lemon verbena to soothe throats and minds. Her remedies are effective, but the business of selling them is costing her the everyday joys of her family, and maybe even her belief in her own precious gifts.

Sydney Waverley, too, seems to be losing her balance. With each passing day she longs more for a baby — a namesake for her wonderful Henry. Yet the longer she tries, the more her desire becomes an unquenchable thirst, stealing the pleasure out of the life she already has. Sydney’s daughter, Bay, has lost her heart to the boy she knows it belongs to…if only he could see it, too. But how can he, when he is so far outside her grasp that he appears to her as little more than a puff of smoke?

When a mysterious stranger shows up and challenges the very heart of their family, each of them must make choices they have never confronted before. And through it all, the Waverley sisters must search for a way to hold their family together through their troublesome season of change, waiting for that extraordinary event that is First Frost. This is a real happy ever after story, filled with magic and warmth.

Next Up!

I must admit there are witchy books that are still on my TBR. I’m so surprised, but I’ve never read A Discovery of Witches and would love to read them after seeing a couple of episodes of the TV series. I love the mix of historical fiction and the gothic, and the addition of other magical beings such as demons and vampires. It also has incredible settings from Cambridge UK, to Venice and Elizabethan England. I must make time for them. Also on my pile is Witches Steeped in Gold by Ciannon Smart, a YA fantasy that’s based in a Jamaican tradition. I love reading about witches and magic from such different parts of the world and this is nearly at the top of my stack. I love that this is marketed as a more thrilling, fiery and powerful tale. Iraya Adair and Jazmyne Cariot are sworn enemies, but come together to carry out their revenge on a woman who threatens them both. This is an uneasy alliance and nothing is certain, except the lengths these women will go to for vengeance.

The Ex-Hex is a brand new rom-com that has apparently been a huge hit on TikTok. Vivienne was broken-hearted when she and Rhys broke up nine years ago. She tried bubble baths, then vodka and in the end she cursed him. Now Rhys is back to adjust the town’s ley lines, but everything he touches goes wrong and the village of Graves Glen seems out of balance. What if Vivienne’s hex wasn’t as harmless as she’d thought? Finally there’s The Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Mangu Sandanna, a book recommended to me buy one of my fellow bloggers in the Squad Pod. As one of the few witches in Britain, Mika Moon has lived her life by three rules: hide your magic, keep your head down, and stay away from other witches. An orphan raised by strangers from a young age, Mika is good at being alone, and she doesn’t mind it . . . mostly. But then an unexpected message arrives, begging her to travel to the remote and mysterious Nowhere House to teach three young witches, and Mika jumps at the chance for a different life. However, as this new life might be threatened, Mika must decide whether to risk everything to protect her found family. You’ll be the first to hear how I get on.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Lost Ones by Anita Frank

I’m always a real sucker for historical, gothic novels with strong female characters and this is up there with the best. The Lost Ones centres on Miss Stella Marcham and her new lady’s maid Annie Burrows. Stella is still in mourning for her fiancé Gerald who she lost in World War One. She keeps the locket he gave her close to her chest still. When she is invited to stay with her pregnant sister Madeline at her in-laws family home, Greyswick, she looks forward to a change of scenery. She sets out with Annie, who is a new addition to the household staff. Stella is unsure of Annie, but her family’s loyalty to the Burrows is long held and she resolves to get to know the unusual young woman.

Greyswick is a country estate, with formal gardens and ostentatious decor. Madeline is married to the heir of Greyswick, Hector Brightwood, who is away on business in London. At home are his mother Lady Brightwood and her companion Miss Scott, plus their staff, housekeeper Mrs Henge and ‘Cook’ whose name no one uses. However, Stella soon learns that they are not the only residents of her sister’s new home. Madeline confides that she can hear crying in the night and soon Stella finds a toy soldier in her bed. It’s not long before Stella is woken by the crying and follows the sound up the nursery stairs. On the stairs is a vivid portrait of a little boy with a hoop and in the background Stella sees a pile of toy soldiers. The portrait is of Lucien Brightwell, the original heir from Lord Brightwood’s first marriage, who died in a fall down the nursery stairs. This is only one of many secrets being kept by the Brightwood family and Stella senses a mystery to be solved. The creaks, bumps and cries in the night are her only clues.


This book sits in a long tradition and I had thought of Marian from Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White even before Anita Frank mentions the book, as a reading recommendation from one character to another. When Hector returns home, bringing with him Mr Shears, I could sense tension between that old Victorian ideal of men who are ruled by reason and the women who use emotion, instinct and intuition even more. Frank’s book is set post-WW1 and the tensions of this changeable time are apparent. Women’s roles have evolved and Stella represents this change. She expected to be a married woman by now, but has instead chalked up experience nursing wounded soldiers and like most of the country is mourning a terrible loss. She is intelligent and restless after moving back into her ‘normal’ middle class role. She has also undergone psychiatric treatment following her bereavement, complicated by the fact that her severely wounded fiancé was brought to her hospital and care. She fears being thought of as mad or hysterical, so feels a constant pressure to be measured and rational.
Other women in the novel are equally complex and class is another tension. Stella’s family are indebted to the Burrows family after Annie’s father died trying to save the younger sister, Lydia, from a house fire. Annie is acting as lady’s maid, a job beyond her experience, but is also trying to remain under the radar due to her own incredible gift that could mark her out as mad. Since the family lost their main bread winner Annie needs the job and doesn’t want to draw attention to herself, but Stella has her concerns. She has seen Annie talking to empty rooms and knows she saw something on the nursery stairs. Lady Brightwood’s companion Miss Scott lives in a very precarious position too, living with the family but being from a lower class than them. She was once a servant in the house, so how did she become so close to her mistress and does her devotion go beyond that of a companion? Also, what is her relationship with Mrs Henge and why is their contact so secretive?

Finally, the paranormal elements of the book are genuinely scary. The tension ratchets up from small events like the nighttime crying or the marble rolling across the room, both things that could possibly be explained away. Mr Shears tries to find a rational explanation for all of it and I did find myself thinking Annie’s presence was a potential cause. Then slowly, as people start to identify the poltergeist, the ante is upped and more characters experience events that seem impossible. The atmosphere is creepy and unsettling, reminiscent of Susan Hill or Laura Purcell. It also works as a female led detective story and builds to a denouement that doesn’t disappoint. Anyone who loves historical or gothic fiction will enjoy this novel. It’s a great Halloween read that sits beautifully in a genre the Victorians called sensation fiction. Perfectly pitched, beautifully written and full of interesting and complex female characters.

Meet The Author

Born in Shropshire, Anita studied English and American History at the University of East Anglia. She now lives in Berkshire with her husband and three children. Since The Lost Ones Anita has written a second novel, based during and after WW2. Her third novel The Good Liars is another work of historical fiction due out 8th June 2023.

Posted in Publisher Proof

Blue Water by Leonora Nattrass

Death came aboard with the cormorant. It arrived on the seventh day of our voyage…

This is the secret report of disgraced former Foreign Office clerk Laurence Jago, written on the mail ship Tankerville en route to Philadelphia. His mission is to aid the civil servant charged with carrying a vital treaty to Congress that will prevent the Americans from joining with the French in their war against Britain.

When the civil servant meets an unfortunate ‘accidental’ end, Laurence becomes the one person standing between Britain and disaster. It is his great chance to redeem himself at Whitehall – except that his predecessor has taken the secret of the treaty’s hiding place to his watery grave.

As the ship is searched, Laurence quickly discovers that his fellow passengers – among them fugitive French aristocrats, an American plantation owner, an Irish actress and her performing bear – all have their own motives to find the treaty for themselves. And as a second death follows the first, Laurence must turn sleuth in order to find the killer before he has an ‘accident’ of his own.

I loved that atmospheric opening. The cormorant sitting there on the bow of the ship, nonchalantly drying it’s wings in the wind and oblivious to the superstitions it’s arousing in the crew. If you ever wanted to know what it was like to take a voyage from Falmouth to Philadelphia in the 18th Century then look no further than this novel from Leonora Nattrass. It is so detailed and grabs the reader immediately, within a couple of pages the ship was as real to me as the cat sitting on my lap. Everything from the period appropriate language to the workings of the ship come together to entice you back into the 1790s. I felt like all my senses were engaged from the feel of cold sea spray to the sound of a passenger throwing up over the stern rail. The discomfort and claustrophobia of being stuck on the ship, at one point for three days near the French coast thanks to the prevailing winds, is very apparent. I loved the little details like the full ‘piss-pot’ sliding up and down the deck, the cacophony of the dog barking incessantly at the turkeys they are transporting, and the bear cub that turned out to have ‘tolerable table manners’. The author also emphasises how cramped the cabins are, with Jago almost able to reach out and touch both walls. At least its his own space though and somewhere he can relax, which he does with a drop or two of laudanum to combat the stress he’s feeling from all the subterfuge.

I hadn’t read Black Drop, the first outing with Laurence Jago, but I think this stands well alone. It’s a clever idea to take your characters and put them into a totally different situation. Laurence is a likeable fellow, a disgraced foreign office clerk, with a few downfalls in his character. Not only does he like a drop of laudanum, he’s a little bit gullible when it comes to a pretty face. He is tasked with helping a civil servant who’s carrying an important treaty to the Americans, to prevent them joining the French in their war against the British. When they come up against a French warship in the channel the treaty needs to be hidden, so when a death occurs on board not only is the treaty lost, but there might be a murderer on board. There’s such a cast of characters on board: two French aristocrats escaping the changes in the run up to the revolution; an Irish actress; a man who is possibly a freed slave; a plantation owner; and a dancing bear! Most of them have a vested interest in the treaty and all of which could be a murderer. Of course Jago can’t rule out one of the crew being involved, perhaps hiding the treaty for financial gain. As for the murder, they are investigating a locked room mystery, it’s just that this room is a cabin.

I loved how the tension built as Jago tries to find the treaty and solve the murder, especially as the stakes grow ever higher and Jago himself could become a target for the murderer. I became more attached to him as the story progressed because I felt he was a bit of an innocent, totally out of his depth and with poor judgement, such as with Lizzie. He’s perpetually confused, which isn’t surprising considering his shipmates and their antics. One of the aristocrats holds a seance, the crew mates are full of maritime stories and superstitions, including the usual giant sea creatures, plus they’re eating slop and feel exhausted. I wasn’t surprised Jago’s brain was muddled!. Aside from the subterfuge and untrustworthy passengers, there’s the constant underlying tension of being unable to get off the boat and knowing that whoever committed the murder is still there too. Once they’ve left the sight of land, these misfits are stuck together for weeks. Oh, and I forgot about the pirates. This is a fabulous adventure, a murder mystery some full on comedy here and there. I’m now looking forward to going back and reading Jago’s first adventure.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Good Taste by Caroline Scott.

In-between a couple of intense crime reads I was so ready for the comforting nostalgia of Caroline Scott’s new novel. Don’t let my description fool you though. Caroline has a wonderful way of keeping her writing light and soft, but the merest peek under that surface reveals themes that delve so much deeper into society and the historical period of our heroine Stella. Set in the fascinating time period between the two World Wars, England is struggling through a depression and Stella has had something of a life change. It’s 1932 and Stella is facing the first Christmas without her mother. With memories of her mother’s frailty last Christmas and the fear of that obvious empty chair, Stella has moved back from London to a small cottage in the West Riding of Yorkshire in order to be near her father. Money is tight, since her first book The Marvellous Mrs Raffald hasn’t done as well as she’d hoped. Celandine Cottage is rather shabby and Stella is surviving on the money she’s paid by a women’s magazine for writing a weekly article with five new recipes. When she’s summoned to London by her publisher, she’s half expecting her novel to be pulped and although she wants to write a biography of 18th Century cookery writer Hannah Glasse, she’s rather gloomy about her prospects. She’s shocked when he tasks her with a new project – a history of English food. He wants a book that will inspire English housewives and remind English men of a nostalgic past. Although as Stella starts to think about her research, she realises that a lot of food people consider to be quintessentially English, is actually from elsewhere. So she sends out a letter:

Sir,

Would any housewife in your region be kind enough to share a traditional recipe with which she may be acquainted? Is there a favourite pie made by your grandmother? A cake that you fondly recall from childhood? A dish that’s particular to your village? Perhaps a great-aunt left you a hand-written book of her recipes?

This knowledge and these flavours have been passed down to us through the generations. But an urgent effort is required to collect and catalogue these dishes. If you are able to assist with this task, you would be doing a great service.

Please correspond with the address below. I will gratefully acknowledge all contributions,

Stella Douglas

However, as she sets off on her planned route to meet food makers and the nation’s housewives her car breaks down. A dashing young man called Freddie comes to her rescue and her plans move in a different direction, perhaps toward something more imaginative.

I enjoyed Stella, mainly because she is very much the modern woman, living alone and paying her own way at a time when women’s lives changed enormously. During WW1 women were encouraged to work, because they were needed to fulfil job roles that men had left behind as they went to fight in the trenches. Women became more used to living alone, making their own way and working outside of the home so when the war ended and men returned, there was tension. Some men wanted their wives back in the home so they could be breadwinners of their family. However, so many men were lost and injured, so the changes did stand and the following generations of women were keen to shape their own destiny. Stella was enormously likeable and intelligent, very measured in her approach to the task and able to see immediately that it was much more complicated than expected. As she listed those foods seen as English she could see the influence of foreign imports in them, as well as in her spice rack. Even the humble potato conjured up images of the Crusader, Tudor explorers and Dutch horticulturist’s sailing off to the Far East for specimen plants. She spots the massive gap between the perception of Englishness and the reality. In her imagination, cricket teas and church spires clash with a colourful collection of influences, speaking more than a dozen languages. Which history does she want to write and which is her publisher expecting?

I was rooting for Stella from the start, especially when her plans started to go awry, and I found her reminiscences of her mother so touching. Caroline taps into that nostalgic aspect of food and the way foods from our childhood hold a particular place in our hearts, with just a whiff or taste bringing up strong emotions of where we were or who we were with. One sniff of a newly opened tin of Quality Street sends me rocketing back to the late 1970s and my Aunty Joan who would buy us one each year along with a goodie bag of colouring pens with colouring and puzzle books. Bread toasted under a gas grill with salted butter takes me to my grandma’s kitchen as she brushed my hair and put a bow in it. The beautifully hand-written notebooks that belonged to her mother are like a time machine for Stella, all the more emotive now her mother is gone after a battle with cancer. They cause tears to well up, but also allow Stella to smile at her precious memories of surreptitiously sharing the first slice of a roasted lamb joint. This is the first time she has been able to think of her mother with joy as well as sadness.

‘As Stella read, the shadows in the room lightened, the gramophone played again distantly and order seemed to return to the world

Another aspect of Caroline’s writing I love is the extensive research that lies underneath a relatively gentle tale. I felt immediately immersed in the 1930’s, with even little asides about fashion like Stella’s felt cloche with a frivolous ostrich feather and her Liberty & Co coat, placing her firmly in time. As Stella reminisces about her time in Paris with her friend Michael, we’re there as she wanders through cellar clubs and tastes cocktails in Montparnasse, it sounds like there’s a hint of romance in her memory of dancing barefoot with him on a warm pavement. Something about their relationship is alluring and it’s as if she’s only just started to really see her friend and his incredibly blue eyes. Her surprise when she finds out he’s in a new relationship is obvious and this isn’t just any woman he’s involved with, it’s Cynthia Palmer, a beautiful model and artist. Where will Stella fit in?

The historical detail of English food is fascinating and it was interesting to hear ideas from the early 20th Century that we still talk about today in terms of sustainability and frugality. When it comes to meat there’s ‘nose to tail’ eating, making sure every part of the animal is used – they clearly had a better stomach for offal than we do today. There’s the concept of eating locally and growing your own food. There were also criticisms that are obviously age old, such as feeling young people have forgotten how to cook from scratch and are becoming dependent on gadgets and what we now call time saving hacks. She seems to sense another trend that I thought was current; the concern that we almost fetishise food with our devotion to baking and other cooking shows, while at home we’re cooking from scratch less and less. When it comes to what and how we eat, and even what we call our mealtimes, there are definitely divides between town and country, between the wealthy and the poor, and variations between North and South. I loved the eccentricity of some of the characters she meets and neighbour Dilys was a favourite of mine. Having a mum who flirted with vegetarianism and haunted the health food shop, Dilys’s devotion to pulses and lentils stirred up a childhood food memory of my own – a terrible shepherd’s pie with no shepherds just acres of lentils, called Red Dragon Pie. The only red thing about it were the acres of ketchup we used to give it some flavour. I loved her bohemian air and she seemed startlingly modern compared to Stella who’s a little more ‘proper’. The roguish Freddie was also rather fun and very charming of course. Caroline has a wonderful way of balancing all this. She tantalises us with period detail and charming characters, throws in some humour, while also showing us the grittier underbelly of life in a depression and those moments of grief for her mother that Stella experiences, which are so beautifully rendered. Caroline makes this look incredibly easy when in reality it’s such a complex juggling act, one that she pulls off beautifully.

Meet The Author

Caroline completed a PhD in History at the University of Durham. She developed a particular interest in the impact of the First World War on thelandscape of Belgium and France, and in the experience of women during the conflict – fascinations that she was able to pursue while she spent several years working as a researcher for a Belgian company. Caroline is originally from Lancashire, but now lives in SouthWest France. Her book The Photographer of the Lost was a BBC Book Club pick.