When I Come Home Again by Caroline Scott

Published: 29th October 2020

Publisher: Simon and Schuster

ISBN: 978-1471192173

This was an exquisite, slow-paced, historical novel that moved me so much. It was a window on both individual, and collective, grief. It also explores the psychological rehabilitation process which is my day job, as a counsellor. Regular visitors to my blog will know that I am fascinated with this period of history depicted in novels as varied as Emma Donoghue’s recent novel The Pull of The Stars and in the last few years Sarah Water’s The Paying Guests, Adele Park’s Spare Brides and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. All deal with a different aspect of this period of huge social change. The nation is grieving, for lost sons, husbands and brothers but also for a time of innocence now lost to them. Young women struggle to find husbands as the policy of neighbours fighting together meant villages losing whole generations of men. Distinctions between the classes come tumbling down as men from all backgrounds fought together for a common purpose. Many estates were crippled by death duties, often for two generations at once, and men who never expected to shoulder the burden of a family estate were suddenly dukes, but without any means. Institutions like the debs ball seemed trivial and outdated, with many new heirs marrying money from abroad bringing Americans and their new money into the ranks. Others lost their estates altogether and had to consider working for the first time ever. Women who had held the fort, while the men went to Europe to fight, did not want to return to the home and wifely duties. Even men who had jobs held for them, faced a fight to get them back. Women were not the same, they’d been stretched and depended upon in wartime and wanted more equality at home, work and in the political system. The upheaval in our class system, in gender roles and working life is unimaginable. When set against the backdrop of national mourning and a worldwide flu pandemic we can perhaps imagine a little the seismic psychological shifts happening. On the plus side it’s a dynamic time, where the old order is overturned, people born in poverty or the wrong gender could change their lives because of the social mobility created.

We see these issues through the characters in Caroline Scott’s book and understand how some want to recover a lost past however unlikely it is, whereas others want to blank out their experiences and start again without memories or baggage. Scott starts her book with an epigraph from the tomb of the unknown soldier in Westminster Abbey. Also used as a focal point for Anna Hope’s wonderful post WWI novel Wake, the burial of this young man is full of symbolism. One man chosen from the many lost in France, to symbolise both those who died and those who would never be recovered or identified. His burial in the abbey would be broadcasted in cinemas and over 100,000 visited his grave to pay their respects in the next few weeks. In Durham, another anonymous young man is found using chalk to write on the flagstones in the cathedral. He is arrested and taken for treatment with Dr James Haworth who aims to slowly help his patient recall who he is and what has brought him to Durham. Named Adam Galilee by the police who found him, he is subject to many different methods, including covering the walls of his room with mirrors. They spend so much time talking and questioning, gently in case they force him into distressing memories. As Haworth observes ‘something strong within him is resisting recalling the pertinent parts’.

As a counsellor and writer I think a lot about the concept of ‘self’ and how it’s constructed, and I loved how Scott explores this in the chapters marked as belonging to Adam. He talks about how they ask him for a first memory and he knows they’re avoiding more recent times, despite there being a complete void where his time as a soldier is concerned. He knows they’re looking for a beginning to who he is and all he does know is that it doesn’t work like that.

‘It isn’t linear. That’s not the way it works. It doesn’t have momentum, or a narrative arc, and he doesn’t know where it starts. It surprises him, if they are doctors of minds, that they can’t understand that’.

I thought this was so clever, because it questions the very nature of the self. Are we ever one fixed set of characteristics or are we fluid and ever changing? If any of us are asked to describe who we are we tend to come up with a list of things we love to eat, listen to, wear and watch. As if the self can somehow be captured and solidified by these objects. When asked who we are, we refer back. So what happens when we cast our minds back and there is nothing there to hang on to. All Adam can do is ‘be’. To exist, try things and see what sticks. Rebuild from now. Maybe this is preferable to remembering before, the trauma and the hell of the battlefield? It was beautiful to see Adam gain a love of nature, whether rediscovered or a new appreciation it has a healing quality. He also has a talent for sketching and he captures the nature around Fellside, as well as the repeating a young woman’s face, which may be a clue to who he is. Supporting him through this self-discovery is James, himself a lost man due to his war experience and very much a wounded healer in these circumstances. His marriage to Caitlin is struggling under the weight of grief, I wanted him to share his war with his wife, but also understood his need to forget.

Just like the unknown soldier, Adam is a cipher for every young man lost in the war. When James puts his picture in a national newspaper, he hopes that someone will recognise him – what he didn’t expect was that three people claim that Adam is theirs; Mark, Robert or Ellis. Caroline weaves the women’s narratives into this tale so we see what war has done to the women left behind. My heart ached for them all and I wanted Adam to belong to each of them in turn; to be Celia’s son, to smooth away the rough edges of Lucy’s tough existence, to absolve Anna and bring resolution to her life. Of course he can’t be all things to all people. This is an intricate balance of viewpoints and Scott weaves a beautiful tapestry from them. Through these people we see a snapshot of post-WWI Britain that is truthful. Art is able to move beyond the patriotism and glory, to see the real cost of war. This is an incredible piece of work. Haunting and complex, a society laid bare emotionally through the tale of a warrior, unknown by name and rank.

Meet The Author

Caroline completed a PhD in History at the University of Durham. She has a particular interest in the experience of women during the First World War, in the challenges faced by the returning soldier, and in the development of tourism and pilgrimage in the former conflict zones. Caroline is originally from Lancashire, but now lives in south-west France.

Most Anticipated Reads! Home Is Not A Country by Safia Elhillo.

#Books2021 #MostAnticipated #HomeIsNotACountry #MakeMeAWorld #BookLove #BookBloggers

Release Date: 2nd March 2021

Publisher: Make Me A World

ISBN: 0593177053

Oh my goodness I can’t stop looking at this gorgeous cover! It is absolutely stunning and stopped me in my tracks as I was scrolling through Twitter. Then, once I read the premise, I knew this had to go on my TBR list for next year.

Nima doesn’t feel understood. By her mother, who grew up far away in a different land. By her suburban town, which makes her feel too much like an outsider to fit in and not enough like an outsider to feel like that she belongs somewhere else. At least she has her childhood friend Haitham, with whom she can let her guard down and be herself.Until she doesn’t. 

As the ground is pulled out from under her, Nima must grapple with the phantom of a life not chosen, the name her parents didn’t give her at birth: Yasmeen. But that other name, that other girl, might just be more real than Nima knows. And more hungry. And the life Nima has, the one she keeps wishing were someone else’s. . .she might have to fight for it with a fierceness she never knew she had.

Early reviews suggest that the author has created an incredible world around her main character, using words like ‘lush’ and ‘magical’. I’m so looking forward to a different reading experience – the book is written in verse. It also has some of my favourite themes, such as how we construct an identity for ourselves, finding our place within a family and a culture. Categorised as YA, I think this is a book that will transcend that label and be read by teens and adults alike.

Meet The Author |

Safia Elhillo is the author of the poetry collection The January Children, which received the the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets and a 2018 Arab American Book Award.

Sudanese by way of Washington, DC, she holds an MFA from The New School, a Cave Canem Fellowship, and a 2018 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. Safia is a Pushcart Prize nominee, co-winner of the 2015 Brunel International African Poetry Prize, and listed in Forbes Africa’s 2018 30 Under 30. She is a 2019-2021 Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.

Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton

Publisher: Penguin

Date: 29th October 2020 Paperback

ISBN: 0241374510

Wow! I sat and read this book in two days straight because I had to know what happened to everyone. The book is so relevant to today’s world in terms of politics and is just so gripping. Lupton manages to combine contemporary use of the internet, geographical shifts and the refugee crisis, the phenomenon of High School massacres like Columbine all together in an incredibly humane, but terrifying novel. It poses the question of how we combat terrorism when today’s terrorist looks just like us? In fact, how do we combat terror when we know the terrorist?

In the space of three hours a remote school is thrown into panic and terror. A homemade lunchbox bomb is found in the woods by one of the pupils. It might have been dismissed as a prank by most kids, but Rafi Bukhari escaped Syria with his little brother Basi, and he takes it very seriously. In a matter of half an hour the first police officer on scene is shot at and the site is under siege. In the Old School, Rafi’s girlfriend Hannah is with a group in the library caring for their wounded headmaster. Pottery teacher Camille is stranded in the studio with only a few rows of clay tiles and some glass between a class of seven year olds and an automatic weapon. Further back, a group are rehearsing Macbeth in the woodland theatre and the junior school is being evacuated down to the beach. Rafi settles his brother with the teacher, they both have PTSD and he vowed not to leave him, but at least he knows Basi is safe. Now he needs to get to Hannah. However, Basi has ideas of his own.

I really enjoyed the varied perspectives of this novel from the kids, teachers, police, and even the parents of the shooters. Beth Alton’s train of thought is brilliant, from assurances that her Jamie could not possibly be responsible to the thought that he’s already dead to her, from the minute he picked up the gun. The investigation and drip feed of new information is very well done and it’s obvious the author has researched well. The flashbacks of the Syrian boys are equally well placed and effective. I found the allusions to the kid’s performance of Macbeth great at first – the idea of using Syria as a backdrop and the witches as balaclava clad terrorists is clever. I must admit to being surprised with this aspect of the ending, which I won’t spoil, but suffice to say it had a very fantastical feel. This was an atmospheric, timely and intelligent book, that asked some of the big questions about how the world is now, especially pertinent in a week of terror attacks in France. It is also a great thriller that keeps the reader hooked and doesn’t let go till the final seconds.

Meet The Author

Rosamund Lupton’s debut novel ‘Sister’, was a BBC Radio 4 “Book at Bedtime”, a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller, winner of the Strand Magazine critics award and the Richard and Judy Bookclub Readers’ Choice Award. Her next two books ‘Afterwards’ and ‘The Quality of Silence’ were Sunday Times bestsellers. Her books have been published in over thirty languages.

Halloween Reads: The Gothic Romances of the Brontes and Du Maurier

When we talk about classic Halloween reads we tend to think of M.R. James, Dracula or Frankenstein and they’re all brilliant. Most people don’t automatically reach for the Brontes, but for me they were my first scary reads. I was ten when I first read an abridged version of Jane Eyre, closely followed by watching the BBC series with Timothy Dalton as Mr Rochester. In my ten year old mind this wasn’t a love story, or a feminist manifesto but a really spooky ghost story. My abridged version included the supernatural experience Jane has when her guardian Mrs Reed has her locked in the Red Room. Aware of stories about orbs of light fitting around the graveyard at night, Jane bangs on the door desperate to escape. In her state of fear and passion Jane sees a light and feels the presence of her dead Uncle Reed. She tries to beat down the door before falling into a faint.

Thornfield Hall is remote, dark and brooding rather like its owner. Every hint leans towards something spooky going on. Rochester’s first appearance is preceded by a huge black dog appearing from the fog, and Jane thinks it is a supernatural being. Rochester appears on a black horse and soon on his return things start to go bump in the night. Jane hears strange laughter in the night, banging from the door to the attic and one night, smoke is billowing from Rochester’s room. The blame for this attempt to burn Rochester in his bed is laid at the door of Grace Poole, a strange servant who seems to have no purpose in the house. I remember my ten year old self being scared but thrilled by this mystery of who or what exactly occupies upstairs. The scene of the night before Jane and Rochester’s wedding really spooked me. Jane wakes to see a tall, dark haired, woman wearing her wedding veil. She’s looking at her own reflection which is ghastly white. She then slowly moves round to look at Jane in the bed and my heart is speeding up at this moment. I was scared stiff but couldn’t stop reading. Jane recalls a ghastly visage, darkened circles round the eyes, reddened lips. There is definitely something vampiric about her, rather than ghostly. Rochester tries to gaslight Jane into thinking it’s a dream, but she has proof it was something more human than spectre. Her wedding veil is rent in two. Now Rochester says it must have been Grace, but Jane is unsure. This looked like someone completely different and why would Grace tear her wedding veil?

At ten I only thought about the ghostly aspects of this and when the truth was revealed I saw a monster and not a person. Bertha Mason was simply a madwoman foisted upon Rochester, because my focus was on Jane and her love story. Of course with re-readings and a feminist awakening in my teens I could see that this was an awful tragedy for Bertha too. I also loved The Wide Sargasso Sea and understood that in another reading of the story Bertha was born Antoinette and sent into a marriage with Rochester. Due to being passionate and wild natured she is rejected by Rochester who expected a more measured, obedient bride, sexually shy and generally calm and quiet. For being herself she has her name taken away, is removed from the Jamaica she loves and is imprisoned in an attic with only a servant for company. No wonder she’s angry!

Charlotte’s sister Emily is also adept at creating a gothic atmosphere and there are parts of her novel Wuthering Heights that are downright terrifying. Of course Cathy and Heathcliff’s relationship is dark, dangerous and obsessional. The atmosphere is brilliantly creepy with the bleak moors, driving winds and lowering skies. The house is old and remote, containing many years of unhappiness by the time our first narrator happens upon it in a storm. He desperately needs shelter and although the people of the house seem odd and the master unnecessarily brusque and harsh towards the younger residents, he is grateful of a room for the night. The room he is given contains books with the name Catherine Earnshaw inscribed inside the cover and he wonders idly who she might have been. The wind is wild outside the window and he settles into his bed grateful he has found the place. He is woken by what sounds like tapping at the window and he thinks it must be branches. He opens the sash to grasp the branch and snap it off but the window breaks and he finds himself holding a freezing cold child’s hand. I remember being so scared by the thought of this ghostly child, floating at the window, desperate to be let in. She pleads with Lockwood to let her in. She is so cold. Yet when he tries to let to go, she grasps on tightly. In fear, Lockwood forces the wrist down into the jagged edge of glass left in the window frame. He then pulls it back and forth until blood runs from the white cold wrist. This is pure horror. If we imagine this scene being filmed as it’s written, it really would be scary.

Most adaptations tend to focus on the love story, but this could be a really tense story of ghostly horror. There are ghosts aplenty in this house. Hindley drinks himself to death haunted by the loss of his wife. Heathcliff is so haunted by Cathy he pushes Lockwood aside and tries to call her back from the moors. When she dies he dashes his head violently against a tree till he’s bleeding. He then goes to her grave and tries to dig her up with his bare hands. I watched an enjoyable adaptation, again with Timothy Dalton, where Cathy’s ghost lures him back to Wuthering Heights. Her ghost floats across the moor calling to him and he follows all the way back to the farm where he is shot as an intruder. Then he and Cathy flit out onto the moors together as wandering spirits, reliving their childhood wild days exploring and hiding from the adults. It’s not true to the book, but I loved that it embodies those gothic origins to the tale.

I love that these quiet sisters, living together in a Yorkshire vicarage, came up with these dark obsessional characters and horrific scenes of gothic horror. I believe my early reading choices are what shaped my love of writers like Laura Purcell, Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale and last year’s The Lost Ones by Anita Frank. As soon as I start a book like this I smile to myself and I feel something of that magical excitement I used to get when reading a chapter of Wuthering Heights before bed or settling down at Saturday teatime to watch an adaptation of Jane Eyre. Both these Victorian tales create a similar feeling in the reader. It’s the confusing mix of excitement and terror that every good horror story needs, it’s what keeps us reading – as well as being too scared to turn the light off.

Another writer strongly influenced by Jane Eyre in particular is Daphne Du Maurier. Most readers have come across her short stories thanks to the film versions of The Birds and the brilliantly creepy Don’t Look Now. However, the book in my list of all time favourite reads is a Rebecca. This book is up there with the best psychological thrillers of all time and takes that theme of ‘madwoman in the attic’ and brings it into the 20th Century. It also has one of the scariest gothic creations in housekeeper Mrs Danvers – still hopelessly devoted to her dead mistress, the first Mrs de Winter. In a great first line – ‘ last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’ – we are introduced to the gothic mansion, the ancestral seat of the de Winter family. Large, foreboding, and clinging to the edge of a cliff in Cornwall. When master of the house, Maxim de Winter brings a young bride home from Europe they are both assailed by memories of his beautiful and brilliant late wife Rebecca, who drowned while out sailing. This haunting is a psychological one and the attic is the mind. The unnamed second wife is plain, young, inexperienced and gauche. She has no idea how to run a house like Manderley and everywhere are signs of her predecessor: the west wing, the embroidered R de W everywhere, her correspondence in the morning room. The staff continue to run the house as before and instead of taking charge she tries to fit in. She lives under the impression that she’s second best and will never measure up.

Many of her qualities echo those of Jane Eyre and there’s a lot to be said about older men wanting more acquiescence and a chance to mould a younger, second wife. While this young woman tortures herself about how much her husband must have loved this brilliant woman, Mrs Danvers starts to turn the screw. Cadaverous in appearance and very severe when communicating, she does everything she can to intimidate her new mistress. She even shows her Rebecca’s lingerie, totally sheer and embroidered with R they conjure up an image of sexual experience, something else this woman doesn’t have. Worst of all, she suggests that copying a portrait of Maxim’s ancestor Lady Caroline de Winter might be a good costume for the ball they’re holding. On the night she appears at the top of the stairs to gasps from the guests and unchecked anger from her husband. Totally bewildered and distraught, her sister in law informs her that Rebecca had done the same thing for the last ball. It was like a ghost appearing at the top of the stairs. Mrs Danvers lures her to the west wing and almost talks her into jumping from the window in a scene of heart-stopping tension. When the truth about Rebecca emerges what will it mean for everyone at Manderley? This book is a romance, but with strong gothic overtones in its setting and although Rebecca does not physically appear as a ghost, she is often more present in this house than anyone else. It is most definitely within the Bronte’s genre of gothic romances and delivers good, old-fashioned, creepiness. Look out for a new adaptation of Rebecca coming soon to Netflix.

Misery by Stephen King.

Each summer, when I was in my teens and early twenties, my friend Cindy and I would pack a case and go up to stay with her Dad in North Yorkshire for a week or two. His wife was a huge horror fan and although I struggle to watch horror films I was quite happy to scare myself silly by reading them. In one of their houses there was a mischievous spirit who would knock on the front door when you least expected it, but every time you answered there was no one there. Sometimes it would even knock when you were stood with the door wide open looking for it! I remember staying up late one night to watch a film and there was a sudden loud knocking sound causing us to levitate off the couch. I often borrowed books to read while on holiday with them, everything from Dean Koontz and James Herbert, but my favourite had to be Stephen King. Misery was a fairly new book and I remember borrowing it from a boy I’d met who worked the bar at the local pub. Sadly for him he never got it back and 27 years later it still sits on my bookshelves, and still has the power to scare the hell out of me.

Writer, Paul Sheldon ventures out in his truck despite a huge snowfall to post the manuscript of his latest book to his publisher. Sadly he doesn’t make it as the icy conditions cause a massive accident. Isolated and severely injured it seems very likely that Paul will die. When he wakes he finds himself in a bed, with his legs splinted. Who has saved him and how? Paul can see he isn’t in a hospital, so who would have the skill to do this? Then the thought drops into his head. Why haven’t they taken him to hospital and what does this person want with him?

He soon gets his answer when Annie Wilkes comes into the room. A strange mix of motherly and medic, she feeds and treats Paul with very strong painkillers, trying to heal his shattered legs. At first Paul is just a bundle of basic needs – sleep, food, pain relief. However, when Paul improves he starts to ask those questions that have been muffled by painkillers and sleep. Annie seeks to reassure Paul, she has set his legs as best she can and she will continue to nurse him. She’s been a nurse, so she knows what she’s doing. Besides which, she’s got to look after him. She’s his number one fan. Annie asks Paul if she can read his manuscript, the latest in his series about Misery Chastain. This series has paid the bills for a long time, but Paul has often wanted to branch out and write something different. This latest manuscript will be his last Misery novel because he has killed off his popular heroine. However, Annie doesn’t know this. What will she do when she reads the manuscript and finds out there will be no more misery.

This novel is truly horrific. There is nothing supernatural to the story, this is about the worst things one human being can do to another. The horror comes from Paul’s powerlessness, the visceral detail of his injuries and Annie’s punishments, but also just how unhinged Annie Wilkes is. We don’t need ghosts and witches when characters as crazy as Annie Wilkes exist. She truly is one of King’s best creations. She always gives off a smell of food or is wearing it down her clothing. She is overweight, almost shuffling in and out. Paul feels real disgust when she’s close to him. She is manipulative, quick to anger and even Paul doesn’t realise the extent of her temper until she retaliates against him with fierce strength and savagery. As Paul starts to recover and become bolder with his plans to escape Annie, the tension escalates. Every time Paul creeps out of the room to gather information on his captor, my heart is in my throat. I swear my heart is beating faster as I realise Annie is coming home and he may not get back into the room in time. When she detects he’s sweating, I’m sure she’s going to guess he’s been moving around. Then there’s the scene – readers will know the one I’m talking about – that will stay with me forever. Even the film version isn’t as bad as reading this scene in the book. The visceral way King writes about the destruction of the human body is sickening and made me physically shiver when I first read it in the 1990s. Now I sort of glance over it. It still sickens me twenty years later. There’s also a lawnmower incident that’s fairly grim and still makes me wince. After multiple reads that’s a powerful reaction!

For me, this is one of King’s best novels. The characterisation is excellent. The constant rollercoaster of tension and relief is deftly handled. There is no supernatural element to the horror, simply the horror of a man trapped by his injuries and an unhinged captor. The claustrophobic feelings this conjures up in the reader are incredible. Weirdly, approximately ten years after the publication of Misery, King was walking by the side of the road in Maine when he was hit by a minivan and flung four metres from the pavement. The van was reportedly driving erratically with one witness worrying the van might hit the pedestrian she’d seen. King suffered cuts to his scalp, a collapsed lung, multiple leg fractures and a broken hip. His right leg was so badly damaged it was feared it would have to be amputated, but doctors managed to save it. It left King in a very similar condition to Paul Sheldon, though he didn’t have to recuperate with Annie Wilkes! He spent his recovery on his non-fiction book On Writing, where we talks about the accident, his writing process and other parts of his life. At first he could only sit and type for forty minutes at a time, something that inspired me with my own writing experiences and disability. The fact that this happened after he visited a similar fate to one of his characters is perhaps the spookiest part.

Halloween Reads : Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books

Published: Paperback Edition 30 Jun. 2020

ISBN: 1529402670

Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, those were Catalina’s sort of books. Moors and spiderwebs. Castles too, and wicked stepmothers who force princesses to eat poisoned apples, dark fairies cursing maidens and wizards who turn handsome lords into beasts.

I read this earlier in the year for a blog tour, so it is probably the most recent horror that has given me goosebumps and kept me up at night. The only saving grace is that our bedroom doesn’t have wallpaper or I’d have been up all night expecting it to move. When I first started this novel I was a little bit unsure, but I read the above paragraph and trusted it was the book for me. I have a smidgen of Catalina’s gothic, romantic sensibility about me and this book had all the elements I usually enjoy: a plucky heroine, a suitably wealthy but eccentric family, the possibly hysteric friend/family member who needs rescuing, a crumbling gothic mansion. So far, so usual. Then the first dream sequence happened and I sat straight up in bed, wondering what sort of dark, twisted fairytale I’d let myself in for. From that point on I found it curiously addictive – the sort of ‘still reading at 2am addictive’. By the end, I was awake because I was too scared to sleep!

Noemi Tabouda is dispatched by her uncle to High Place, the estate of the wealthy Doyle family. Virgil Doyle is the new husband of Noemi’s cousin and it is Catalina who has written an alarming letter begging to be rescued from a strange supernatural fate. The letter mentions fantastical happenings, such as people in the walls and a spectral voice speaking to her. Noemi wonders if her cousin needs to see a psychiatrist, because even though Catalina has a flair for the dramatic, she has never sounded so scared. The family know very little about the Doyle’s because Catalina and Virgil’s romance was a bit of a whirlwind. In Noemi’s limited time with him, he seemed very charming and had the dark brooding looks of a Byronic hero. This is a good chance to help Catalina get well, but also get to know the Doyle family a little better.

The author has created a brilliant setting in the Doyle family mansion High Place. It has a strange dual effect on Noemi of being luxurious and comfortable, but almost suffocating and overpowering. The past wealth of the family can be seen in every piece of silver, swish of velvet curtain and the eyes of past Doyle’s following her around the room. Noemi’s room is luxurious but shabby, as if the wealth has started to run out. The wallpaper has a curious pattern, but is also decorated with patches of damp. The bath is deep enough for a good soak but the fixtures and fittings are a little rusty. There are servants, but they are strangely silent and don’t even catch Noemi’s eye. The whole regime of the house seems very regimented to Noemi who is an informal, modern woman. Virgil’s father is definitely head of the house, but his sister Florence is the gatekeeper who makes sure his wishes are carried out. Noemi expected to breeze in and immediately pop in on her cousin, but finds she is barred. Apparently, the family doctor has decided she needs rest and a very quiet atmosphere. Noemi is told her cousin has TB, which has never been mentioned before, and doesn’t really account for the strange things Catalina mentioned in her letter.

Noemi is a great central character to follow through the story. She is sassy, intelligent and very determined to bring a little 20th Century thinking into High Place. I love that she isn’t afraid to ask questions, especially of the men who aren’t used to being held to account by women. This is how the author starts to subvert the gothic /fairytale genre – Catalina is the more ‘traditional’ heroine. Noemi brings in the local doctor to give her a second opinion, befriends the younger cousin Francis and enlists his help in understanding the family. She recognises that’s a lot of women have struggled to live with the Doyle’s regime. Howard had two wives, who were sisters and both died at High Place. A cousin, Ruth, took a shotgun to the family leaving Uncle Howard alive but horribly disfigured. From the village Noemi unearths stories of hundreds of silver miners going missing in the Doyle mines. It seems the family consume people, encapsulated by their horrible emblem of a snake eating its own tail.

The incredible nightmare sequences are vivid and visceral. At first I wasn’t sure which was real: was the regimented, almost Puritan, daily order of High Place the reality, or was it a thin veil of decency obscuring something more deadly and decadent. Just as mould was starting to be visible on the wallpaper, Noemi’s nightmares signal something breaking through, threatening to take over. This underlying force seems to understand the very soul of the person it tries to corrupt. In Noemi’s case her modern attitude to dating and female sexuality is used to draw her in against her will. She is a serial dater, choosing short dalliances where no one can get too close. So her nightmares have a strong sexual element, where Virgil Doyle lulls and seduces her, in her bath or in the middle of the night. She questions herself. Virgil repulses her, but does she desire him? Are these dreams conjured from her own subconscious or is something able to infiltrate her sleep and lure her down the corridors in her nightdress?

The truth of High Place and what happens there, when it is revealed, is truly horrific. There was a scene that literally made me gag! This may be one of those occasions when I truly hope they don’t make the book into a film – I wouldn’t be able to watch it! I felt that the author was playing with the reader and our own push and pull between fascination and revulsion. I found this very reminiscent of Dracula. There was an equally interesting tension around social change. The local miners exploited by the Doyle’s are part of the past, along with the family’s rules and position in society and their adherence to the ‘family doctor’. The new is represented by characters like Noemi and the mentions of her wardrobe full of the new styles and the young local doctor who tries to help Catalina. In the town the Doyle family are seen as weird eccentrics, possibly sinister, but no longer able to command respect as they would have a generation before. Their time is waning and these horrific acts are a fight, both for the family and the entity that lives alongside them. The author subverts the fairy tales Catalina loved in her youth and the original Gothic trope of a damsel in distress, rescued by a man. I truly enjoyed this novel, despite the fact it kept me awake at night worried that mushrooms were coming out of the wallpaper. Now, finally, I’d like to go and get some dreamless sleep.

Meet The Author

Silvia Moreno-Garcia (born 25 April 1981) is a Mexican – Canadian author, short story writer, editor, and publisher.

Moreno-Garcia was born April 25, 1981, and raised in Mexico. She moved to Canada in 2004, where she presently lives with her family in Vancouver. She began her career publishing in various fiction magazines and books, and was a finalist for the 2011 Manchester Fiction Prize. Her first short story collection This Strange Way of Dying was published in September 2013 by Exile Editions. Her second collection, Love and Other Potions came out in 2014 from Innsmouth Free Press.Her debut novel Signal To Noise was published in 2015. She serves as publisher of Innsmouth Free Press, an imprint devoted to weird fiction. In 2016, she won a World Fantasy Award for the anthology She Walks in Shadows and a Copper Cylinder Award for her novel Signal to Noise. In February 2020 she was announced as a finalist for the Nebula Award 2019 in the Best Novel category for her book Gods of Jade and Shadow.

Halloween Reads: The Man In The Picture by Susan Hill.

Published:11 Oct. 2007

Publisher:Profile; Main Edition

ISBN: 1846680751

There are two reasons I was drawn to Susan Hill’s book The Man in the Picture. Firstly it was set in Venice, a place I love with all my heart and a great setting for spooky stories such as Daphne Du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now. I’m cheekily sharing some of those spooky corners I captured in photographs when I was last there. Secondly, when I started reading and our hero is in the rooms of his professor it reminded me so much of my friend Nigel, whose home was festooned with art, Venetian chandeliers and antique clocks. I feel that with all of Susan Hill’s books she raises the tension so slowly that you barely notice rather like the proverbial frog placed in a pan of cold water – the temperature changes so subtly the frog doesn’t jump out and is boiled to death. I often find myself reading one of her novellas thinking it isn’t really scary until I hear an unexpected noise and jump out of my skin! That’s a real skill.

Behind La Fenice is a very creepy spot indeed!

Our hero visits his professor on a cold winter’s night and notices a beautiful painting of the Venice carnival. For the first time he is told a macabre story about the painting. It doesn’t just imitate a Venetian scene, it can entrap someone within it. Whoever stares into the painting finds it exerts a power over their life and as Theo talks to others who’ve crossed paths with it, he unearths a profound sense of foreboding and unease. Within the painting is a young man, watching the festivities but instead of happiness there’s a look of horror on his face. Everyone else is masked, covering their identity. The professor is so attached to the painting that he has turned down lucrative offers for it. The narrator becomes interested in tracing the man in the picture, but finds much more than he bargains for as his professor dies and the painting passes into his hands. This obsession is compounded when his he gets married and his new wife Anne wants a honeymoon in Venice. Will they go and if they do what will happen to the picture?

A derelict corner in Santa Croce

This is a great novella that’s easy to read in an evening or afternoon. Best read in front of a roaring fire on a wintry night. Having been to Venice, I can vouch for how creepy it can be at night. There’s a creeping fog over the canals and many areas that become deserted at night leaving only the sound of water and boats creaking at their moorings. If you get lost at night, it can feel like an endless maze where you wouldn’t be surprised to see a masked and cloaked figure on a balcony. Hill brings that menace and mystery to the book, as well as a sense of evil. It made me think twice about buying any paintings when I was in Venice.

My favourite spot in San Polo

Meet The Author

Susan Hill has been a professional writer for over fifty years. Her books have won awards and prizes including the Whitbread, the John Llewellyn Rhys and the Somerset Maugham; and have been shortlisted for the Booker. She was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Honours. Her novels include Strange Meeting, I’m the King of the Castle, In the Springtime of the Year and A Kind Man. She has also published autobiographical works and collections of short stories as well as the Simon Serrailler series of crime novels. The play of her ghost story The Woman in Black has been running in London’s West End since 1988. She has two adult daughters and lives in North Norfolk.

Halloween Reads: Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon.

Publisher: (New Kindle Edition) Open Road Media

Published: 24th September 2013


Harvest Home was one of the first books I sneaked off my mum’s bookshelf when I was a teenager. It was a TV series back in the 1970s when I was at primary school, but I remembered it as one of the scariest books I’d ever read. For some reason it has always stayed with me, possibly because of the set-up which is now so common in TV and film, there are shades of The Wicker Man, Midsommar and even the parody horror film Hot Fuzz. Theodore and his wife Beth have been watching their daughter struggle with severe asthma, not helped by New York’s air. This and the rising crime rates in Manhattan inspire the couple to the relocate upstate.

When searching New England the couple stumble across an idyllic village setting. Cornwall Coombe has the perfect nineteenth century farmhouse with attentive and friendly neighbours. Theo is sure that here they will lead a simpler life, closer to nature and closer to each other. However, what they find will be ultimately more terrifying than any alley in Manhattan! I remember loving the creeping sense of doom in the book and that wonderful contrast between the purity of nature around them and the cancer at the heart of the village. Our protagonist is the only one who sees the worrying signs at first, and I liked that friction between him and Beth. The women in the family seem to settle in quickly and never see anything out of the ordinary. There’s also the frisson of sex, as Tamar the village postmistress is openly flirty with Theo. She gives off definite sexy witch vibes as she smoulders at her male customers. However, Theo’s horrifying encounter with her young daughter could potentially scare him away. Will Tamar get to have what she wants?

The tension builds as the village’s harvest celebrations are planned. Theo suspects this is more than the average harvest festival and there is some dark secret to the ceremonies. Even worse his wife and daughter are now becoming involved. There is one other man in the village who Theo thinks might have unearthed the secret, but he is now blind and doesn’t get out very much. Is this the result of an illness, or has he been punished for what he has seen? The women definitely rule this village, running the festival and potentially some sort of coven, with the postmistress presiding over all. Theo has to ask himself whether he really wants to know the secrets of harvest home. The final reveal is deliciously dark, twisted and holds its biggest shock to the end. On rereading this still stands up well. Since the 1970s this genre is quite a well trodden path, it has the tension and menace of Straw Dogs and the surface charm of a wholesome village that does things for ‘the greater good’. This is a little known horror that has definitely stood the test of time.

Halloween Reads – The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

I loved Alix E. Harrow’s Ten Thousand Doors of January so much that it was in my top ten books of last year, so I approached her new novel with excitement, but some trepidation too. Could it possibly live up to her last work? Yet with promises of suffragettes, spells, anarchy and sister witches how could it possibly fail? I soon realised that this was going to be a very different book, embedded in American history but from a magical and feminist angle. Our main protagonists are the Eastwood sisters – Agnes Amaranth (the mill girl), Beatrice Belladonna (the librarian and researcher) and finally James Jupiter, the youngest sister with a wild streak and fierce loyalty to her sisters. This is New Salem, 1893, and since the burnings there haven’t been witches in this part of the world. However, snippets of the words and ways of witchcraft remain, hiding in plain sight. In the lullaby a mother uses to soothe her child, in the rhyme from a children’s game and even in recipe books. These are women’s spaces, and this old wisdom, that sits within the fairytale women tell their children at bedtime is accessible to anyone, once you realise it is there. The power lies dormant at a time when women are fighting more than ever to have a share in power at the ballot box. When the three sisters join the suffragettes of New Salem, they start to realise some of the power that Bella has been researching at the library. They each possess a different type of power and with the right ways and words they could wield it against those shadowy figures who would rather not see a witch live, let alone vote.

Although I struggled a little at first with the girls names, especially where there were other characters to remember, it was Bella who seemed to stick with me most at this point in the story. I think it’s because she was a gatherer of stories, so I felt an affinity with her. She comes to understand witchcraft from re intellectual perspective, she is studying and making sense of it from books, but gradually through first hand research. I loved that her research takes her to every corner of the community: from the local mill women and children’s rhymes; to the more marginalised black and Native American communities. She finds that women have been hiding their wisdom in a wealth of ways. On her travels she also finds the alluring Miss Cleopatra Quinn, who trusts Bella enough to disclose a society of black women, possibly the most marginalised group in society, who have a lot of shared knowledge including a set of secret tunnels under New Salem that prove very useful as the story progresses. The relationship between these women is one of the high points of the book for me and shows that the usually bookish and almost spinsterish Bella has unexpected reserves of passion.

This is a very character driven novel and comes alive when the sisters are together on the page. Agnes is the mill working girl, fired up by the rights of the women she works side by side with. Her need for witching comes from that lack of power, from knowing what it’s like to be hungry and not wanting that for her own children. I love that these girls don’t come from the big house on the hill with pots of money behind them; they come from a family blighted by poverty, the loss of their mother and a violent father. Jupiter particularly seems haunted by that past and there are secrets to be uncovered here. She is the more natural witch, the wild barefoot girl who has magic in her bones. She is furious when the other sisters get a familiar before she does. I also love that she walks with a cane and this cane is her strength throughout, not just something to lean on. Very cleverly the author weaves these marginalised people into the narrative and it’s refreshing to see these characters where their colour, sexuality or disability isn’t the story.

Harrow weaves together so much history here with folklore, myth and fairy tales. Our villain of the piece is an aspiring politician – which probably says more about our times than the story – but underneath he is something altogether different. He hates witches and possibly women too. He wants to use the ballot box for legitimacy, but his actions are those of a dictator. He amasses a group of enforcers for weeding out sedition, suffragettes and witchcraft. It is Jupiter who first sees what he truly is in a horrifying scene in the ‘Deeps’ – a basement prison that fills with water. Like the sisters he appears to have a ‘glamour’, a way of appearing to other people that masks the true face. It takes time for the sisters to realise they are in an age old battle, replayed across the centuries but they are determined that this time the witch will win. There are heart stopping scenes such as Agnes going into labour, or final confrontation that are visceral and heart rending. Harrow doesn’t hold back on the horror of how witches have been treated historically and their nemesis here is particularly cruel. The final confrontation isn’t just heart rending, it’s heart stopping. I couldn’t put the book down at that point because I was so emotionally invested in the sisters and their cause. Harrow does this to me. I always think that the fantasy elements will distance me from my heroes suffering, but then something will happen that floors me emotionally. I think there’s an incredible skill in creating this whole world of magic, but then connecting the reader to your characters so strongly that they feel their pain and their triumphs. I have loved spending time in this particular world and I’m so happy that for this reader, Harrow has done it again.

Halloween Reads: Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman

This month I took some time off from blog tours and other commitments to spend a couple of weeks reading my own choices. Not only did this give me a lot of freedom, it allowed me to read one of my all time favourite authors followed by one of my most recent loves; Alice Hoffman and Alix E. Harrow. Even more of a coincidence is that both have written books based within the folklore of witches, healers, and wise women. In Hoffman’s case this is her third novel in the Practical Magic series, which delves back further than ever before to the origins of the Owens family and the formation of communities whose religion will not suffer a witch to live. Harrow also creates a world of sisters, three separated sisters who come together at the very beginning of the 20th Century and the suffragette movement.

In Magic Lessons, Maria is found as a baby by wise woman Hannah Owens, who brings her up with the old ways. Maria learns how to grow a healing garden, to use herbs for ailments of body and mind, and help women with problems caused by love. However, Maria’s power isn’t just learned. She has the mark of a blood witch from her birth mother, and has been chosen by her familiar Cadin who is a crow. Maria feels she must be the result of a woman being fooled by love and vows not to be taken in by a man. Tragically, Hannah is burned as a witch and Maria knows she must run to save her life. She meets her mother and birth father, and realising there is no room in their love for a third person she takes a gift of red boots and sails to the island of Curacao where she has been sold into servitude for a period of five years. Here, her vow against love will be tested. Taking us through the dangerous years of the 17th Century, where Puritanical communities like Salem in Massachusetts were whipped to hysteria, and would not suffer a witch to live. Hoffman’s prequel to Practical Magic takes us back to the beginnings of the Owens family and the complicated relationship between their power and the very human need to be loved.

I had been waiting for this prequel for a long time and I wasn’t disappointed. It only took me moments to be in Hoffman’s magical world thanks to the layers of description she uses to create an unusual atmosphere. In some senses she creates an instantly recognisable sense of place. Her descriptions of Massachusetts, and later, Brooklyn are full of local floral and fauna, the sense of wilderness and pioneering spirit within these early settlers of the Americas. It is dark, foggy, wet and often icily cold with dangerous animals and even more dangerous people. By contrast the time spent travelling to the West Indies and the beautiful island of Curacao are vivid. In the daytime full of colour, exotic flowers and birds and I could feel the sun on my face, the warm sand beneath my feet and the incredible animals such as the turtles and tiny hummingbirds. By night, when Maria and her friend explore the island, it is still warm, with a vast sky full of stars. On the other hand there are times when these places seem otherworldly as we see them through the eyes of a witch: the magical properties of plants, the incredible loyalty of an wild animal like Keeper the wolf, and the witches’ power to control these elements to their advantage. It’s our world but not quite. The difference is viewing it through the lens of history, but most unimportantly, by magic.

There were times I didn’t fully understand Maria, although she’s the more sympathetic character of the three generations. She protects herself against love after seeing what it did to her mother, but then later says she couldn’t protect herself against love. I think this is almost a push and pull between the human and more magical signs of her character. She tries to use her power to prevent love, but perhaps her heart truly longs for it. The tragedy is in protecting herself against the right man, while letting the wrong one in. I find her choice to go to Massachusetts with her daughter Faith inexplicable given that she has friends and support in Curacao. John Hathorne is a very dangerous man, to women in general and not just the witches he persecutes. He drags young girls into a battle he is constantly fighting between his appetites and his conscience. There is part of him that emerged in Curacao that wants to shed his responsibilities, to throw off inhibition and dive into the sea as well as give in to his passions for a woman he desires. In Massachusetts he is a pillar of the Puritan community, yet he marries his wife Ruth when she is just 14 and his ward. She describes crying as he takes her to the marital bed, but her fear and young age does not stop him. It’s worth mentioning that in a historical context this isn’t unusual, but to me it shows a lack of compassion and respect for women. He turns his back on his daughter, both when she’s a baby and when she returns as a young woman. Maria, his wife Ruth and his daughter Faith are all his victims. Samuel, or Gogo as Faith calls him, is a good man and I was desperate for him to win Maria over. He is not scared of Maria or her power. He loves her intelligence, her fortitude and her power. I could have cried for how much time is wasted as Maria fights him.

I enjoyed the way Hoffman weaves in the historical context for America in this period. These are early settlements, some first colonised by the Dutch then by the English. She doesn’t forget the indigenous tribes either, often completely massacred by these ‘Christian communities’ who hold themselves in such high regard. They hold women with healing knowledge in the same regard as these natives of USA, as if they are cleansing their area of magical and primitive beliefs. Hoffman doesn’t forget her Jewish heritage either, situating them as a persecuted race often moved on from areas they’ve settled and treated with suspicion. We see this in the characters of Samuel and his father, who have chosen a life on the sea instead, but still hold their heritage close to their hearts. There’s a sense in which Christianity is anti-magic whereas Judaism is closer to ancient magic and respectful of its power, especially in its capacity to do good. The only time Samuel stops Maria from practicing her magic is when it’s in a darker form, as she tries everything to keep his father alive. The Christian beliefs practised by the Dutch and English settlers has become corrupted and Hoffman presents their acts as the very evil they fear. When Maria is taken for the trial by drowning in Massachusetts, there is a frenzy and mob like mentality that is seen later in real life witch trials of Salem and the fictional arrest and trial endured by Faith. When Faith is taken by a Christian woman, confined and forced to live as her daughter we again see obsession and evil. Her captor never seems to doubt she is doing God’s work removing Faith from her mother, taking her far away and putting her in irons to remove her power. Yet this evil, begets more evil as Faith escapes and uses her freedom to practice blood magic steeped in anger and revenge. Yet she still has a conscience. Faith is haunted by the death of her captor, despite helping women to wreak revenge and enchantment by night.

I would have liked to see a more time between John Hathorne’s wife Ruth and Maria, because they were both exploited by the same man. I also think that there was perhaps too much complex detail in the women’s appearances such as Faith’s changing hair colour or the different colours of thread used for different purposes. I found myself becoming confused at times, but it’s a small issue in a magical story. I think this was a thoughtful and atmospheric origins story of a family many fans have come to love. I think the strength of this series is in that combination of the mystical and the very human elements of the story. Despite their powers Maria, her mother Rebecca and her daughter Faith experience the highs and lows of every woman’s life – the changes of adolescence, falling in love with the wrong man and the right one, motherhood, illness and ageing. I felt emotional as Maria saw her ‘mother figure’ Hannah murdered by men who feared her, as she realised the man she loved didn’t really exist, and as she lost Cadin her loyal companion. These women’s fight to be accepted and even acknowledged for their skills is a fight that continues today as we fight for women’s rights to equal pay, to save reproductive rights and to be seen as more than sexual objects. Their fight to stay alive is still echoed in our fight to stop child brides, exploitation of young girls and domestic abuse. It was a series coming full circle, as we see the formation of that mistrust of love that shapes Jet’s journey or that sees Gillian constantly pick the wrong man. I truly loved my time back with the Owens women again.

Meet The Author

Alice Hoffman is the author of thirty works of fiction, including Practical Magic, The Red Garden, The Dovekeepers and, most recently,The Museum of Extraordinary Things. She lives in Boston. This book is the prequel to Practical Magic and The Rules of Magic.

Visit her website: http://www.alicehoffman.com