Above The Bay Of Angels by Rhys Bowen

Set during the reign of Queen Victoria, this is a novel based on an incredible chance meeting. Isabella Waverley pauses to help a woman on a London Street and it changes her whole life. She offers comfort as it becomes clear this woman is dying, In her last moments the woman passes Isabella a letter. It’s an offer of employment in the kitchens of Buckingham Palace and coincidentally Isabella is a novice chef. This letter is the difference between continuing life as a servant

and living her dreams. Isabella decides to become Helen Barton from Yorkshire and starts work in the Queen’s household, the Queen enjoys her culinary creations so much, Bella is chosen to accompany the Queen on a trip to Nice.

Just as she is enjoying this new life there is a threat of blackmail and even worse, after eating one of Bella’s dishes a member of Queen Victoria’s retinue becomes ill and dies. Now there will be an investigation into the death and Bella is terrified of being accused of poisoning. At worst, if found guilty she would be executed. At best the investigation might uncover who she really is and her new life would come crashing down.

Once I’d suspended disbelief about the coincidental set up at the beginning of the novel I did start to enjoy the story. I loved the geographical and historical detail, and I could see the book appealing to people who enjoy Downton Abbey or the series Victoria. It has the same charm and a great cast of characters within the palace, including a lustful prince and the very contrary Queen herself. I also enjoyed the historical detail around the food – the fashionable dishes, how they were prepared and Bella’s free reign to create with no concern about cost. She is allowed, even expected, to be extravagant, When the court moves to a luxury hotel in Nice, the author gives us a wonderful sense of the French Riviera and Bella’s joy at being able to experience it.

We learn that Bella wasn’t born into a lowly position. Her father was a gentleman, but lost his money and status to drink. The freedoms the palace staff can enjoy in Nice allow Bella to experience things she has never dared imagine, The mystery of the poisoned dinner guest continues throughout with the usual twists and turns but it isn’t really the main point of the novel for me, I didn’t know that Queen Victoria made summer trips to Nice and Bowen has taken this piece of history and brought it to life. Bella is a likeable heroine and I enjoyed her tenacity in overcoming the suspicion of the Male kitchen workers. They are not used to a woman in their ranks but through her knowledge and passion for food she becomes part of their family. This is a well researched piece of historical fiction that is pure escapism.

Thank you to NetGalley for an ARC of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

Haven’t They Grown by Sophie Hannah

I was so excited for this book to come out so when my signed copy dropped through the letterbox last week I started reading immediately. Sophie Hannah is one of my favourite authors, and her deeply awkward but brilliant detective Simon Waterhouse is one of my reading pleasures. She devises twists and turns that I rarely guess or expect and the premise for this latest novel was simply ingenious. I couldn’t imagine how she was going to resolve the central question. Thomas and Emily Braid were the children of Beth’s friend Flora, but they haven’t seen each other for twelve years. They should be 17 and 15 by now. So, when Beth is visiting near their current home and she decides to drive by, only to see an older Flora with her children looking exactly the same age. Why haven’t they grown? 

Understandably, Beth is stunned. She can’t believe what she is seeing. She hears Flora get them out of the car by name, they even seem to have the same clothes. She waits to see if the baby, Georgina, is with them but it’s just the three of them. She watches in disbelief as the electric gate closes and they’re obscured from view. Beth tells her family about what she has seen. She and husband Dom discuss the peculiarities of both Flora, and her husband Lewis Braid. Both remember Flora as the quieter of the two, and Lewis as the louder, more opinionated of the pair. Lewis is a joker too, but often at someone else’s expense. Beth remembers him always being the centre of any party and that awkward feeling when someone you’re with is being loud or offensive. Flora, by comparison was quiet, and her only intervention when her husband said something controversial was ‘Lew-is’. 

Beth and her husband Dom are massage therapists. They have two children Zannah and Ben. Dom is on board at first, just as curious as Beth about what she has seen. They do some googling and digging on Facebook, but find something very weird. The Braid family are living in Florida, with a teenage Thomas and Emily photographed several times. No sign of Flora or Georgia. The mystery starts to affect Beth’s life as she postpones clients and spends a second day searching for the young Braids. She realises that Lewis would have his children in a private school and starts to stake them out. In Huntingdon she almost walks straight into Flora, and her instinctive feeling that something is badly wrong seems justified when Flora runs in the other direction. 

Beth finds the car she saw the children in, finds it unlocked and climbs inside to wait. Flora will have to come back eventually, but things get even more strange when a totally different woman appears claiming that this is her car. She says she is Jeanette Cater, speaks with an accent and yet she wearing the very same clothes that Flora was wearing earlier. I must admit that this is where I started to wonder whether our narrator was as reliable as she seemed. I could see her husband’s point as the clients start to pile up and she can’t leave the mystery alone, even enlisting the help of her daughter who should be revising for GCSEs. It starts to become an obsession, but based on a sound premise – Flora and Beth used to be friends, she knows her voice and she knows, without doubt, that something was wrong from the way she heard Flora speaking on the phone. 

Underneath the twists and turns, this is a story about friendship. As Beth thinks about the Braid family and the time 12 years ago when they moved, she remembers tension between the married couple. In fact she recalls once that Lewis shouted at Flora for breastfeeding the new baby in company. She starts to realise that the birth of Georgina, or even when Flora becomes pregnant, their friendship started to change. Beth had lost a child before Flora’s pregnancy and remembers a terrible thing she did with a photograph of the family. Was it Beth’s loss and jealousy that ruined the friendship or was something separate going on between the couple? I was absolutely gripped by this point and had to keep reading. I was squinting at 3am using a book light with a dodgy battery. I think it gave me a migraine! ‘This book is so good it gave me a migraine’ is probably not the best selling point, but I mean it in the best way. Genius.

The Dressmaker’s Gift by Fiona Valpy

This book is a real hidden gem. I love fashion, so the idea of a dress that calls down through the years – the midnight blue satin, made of many pieces but with such tiny stitches it appears as if one piece of fabric – really appealed to me. Added to this, my in-laws history of escaping the Warsaw ghetto – at 8 years old in one case, and being sent to Siberia in the other – means I am interested in the threads of family history at a time of turmoil. My late husband’s family has its own incredible story with repercussions that echo down the generation , so I understand that lives can be displaced and changed beyond recognition, with the results of that still being felt two generations later,

It is Harriet’s love for fashion and an old photograph that leads her to the door of a Paris fashion PR for a year long internship. She is loaned a room in the apartment above the office alongside another girl. Harriet knows this is the very apartment where her grandmother Clare lived in the 1940s. She has left behind a difficult situation!. Having finished university Harriet has been living with her father and stepmother, where she has never felt welcome. Her father sent Harriet to boarding school when he first lived with her stepmom, following her mums death. Her father seemed to find it difficult to cope with a grieving daughter and a burgeoning relationship. One of Harriet’s most treasured possessions is the photo she has of her grandmother Claire and her two best friends in Paris, Mirreile and Vivi. She also has a charm bracelet given by her grandmother and it’s charms show Harriet a story of who her grandmother was. When we are taken back into the past we learn more about these three women. All work in an atelier for the Paris fashion houses. We find out that Claire and Mirreille lived upstairs first, but are later joined by Vivi. All three are great seamstresses and are quick to become friends.

When the Germans arrive in Paris at first is it easy to carry on as normal. Yes, there are more German voices in the cafes and bars, more German vehicles in the streets, but people still order couture clothes. However, as the war really starts to bite things begin to change. The girls friendship survives Claire’s disastrous dalliance with a German officer, but afterwards she notices a difference in her friends. What mysterious work is Vivi doing in the atelier after hours? Who is the gentleman Mirreille is seen with and why is she often missing after curfew? The girls are about to be involved in the war in ways they didn’t imagined; ways that could mean paying the ultimate price.

Just like the stitches in a beautiful garments the threads of history are so beautifully intertwined with the fictional story of the girls. I read Alice Hoffman’s new novel in the last few weeks and it is also set in 1940s Paris so it was interesting to see the same historic events from a different viewpoint. I could see how much research the author had done and her skill in mentioning actual events without them feeling tacked on to the girls story was brilliant, I slowly came to care about each of the girls and although Vivi seems less accessible than the other two at first, it was interesting to see how central to Harriet’s history she becomes.

The detail is often harrowing to read and the idea that trauma can be passed through generations is one I’m familiar with because I’m a therapist and have read the same research as the author. She uses this beautifully in the novel, illustrating that the German’s horrendous acts of cruelty were on such a scale that it echoes down to the next generation. It is only when someone identifies the trauma in their family and gets professional help to let go of it’s effects, that someone can start to heal. I think I expected this book to be lighter and more focused on fashion from the blurb, but what I got was far superior: an incredible story of friendship and survival. I would definitely recommend it to friends.

Tony’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani

Once a week, throughout this year, I’ve decided to review a book that people may have missed. I can’t be the only one who has a list of books they want, just in case they come across a charity shop or second hand bookshop. So I thought, instead of always reviewing brand new books I would write about a charity shop find of my own here and there. Not everyone can afford brand new hardbacks and while I’m very lucky to get a certain number of review copies, it must be nice to see a book in paperback that’s not going to break the bank.

My first second hand review is a paperback copy of Adriana Trigiani’s Tony’s Wife. I find Trigiani’s books like having a duvet day. They’re always warm, comforting and full of vivid descriptions of Italian food, fashion and period detail. They never fail to make me smile. Her female characters are always resilient and passionate. Often they’re fighting to make their own way in the world and move away from traditional roles for Italian women. Chi Chi Donatelli is no different. We meet her in the 1930s, living on the Jersey Shore with her parents and two sisters. By day the girls work at the Jersey Miss factory, stitching blouses and dresses by piece work and forming those friendships within the factory’s women. Trigiani observes that traditionally, these are the women who give you a sash and have a whip round when you’re a bride to be, who help out with your child’s First Communion dress and support you in widowhood. However, Chi Chi wants more than this. She has an ambition. She wants to be paid to sing and write songs. Already blessed with talent, Chi Chi and her sisters are the Donatelli Sisters, but small town fame and singing at mass are not enough for her. Her father sees her talent and shares her dream. He builds a recording studio behind the house and ferries Chi Chi to gigs and slips DJs a few dollars to play her records.

Saverio Amondonada meets Chi Chi when she’s surrounded by family and he’s become Tony Arma, the singer touring the US with a big band. All the time he was working the line at the Ford factory in Detroit alongside his father, Saverio dreamed of becoming a singer. He wanted to use his voice for more than the Church choir. When he’s approached by an agent all his dreams start to come true. His mum is supportive, but his father is deeply insulted by his son’s need for more. The Ford line was enough for Leone. His family were so poor that his dreams had been different; the ability to work hard and support his wife and family was enough. In Leone’s eyes, Saverio’s need for fame belittles the hard work and sacrifices that brought him up. One Christmas Eve matters come to a head. Saverio’s hopes are dashed when Cheryl Dombroski announces her engagement to the choir before Midnight Mass. She was Saverio’s friend, but for a long time he has hoped for more, waiting for the right time to tell her. Clutching the gold chain he has bought her, Saverio opens his heart, but has his hopes dashed when Cheryl flashes her engagement ring. His heartbroken performance that night draws an agents attention and it comes at the right moment. Later, back at home, an argument with his father escalates and Leone tells him to leave if the family home is no longer enough for him. The worst insult comes when Saverio changes to his stage name and, according to Leone, turns his back on his family history.

Tony Arma and Chi Chi Donatelli spark off each other. Chi Chi’s fatber convinces them to record one of her songs, entitled ‘Mama’s Rolling Pin’. They then spend time trying to get the record played on the radio. Then tragedy strikes. Chi Chi’s father has a heart attack and dies. His sudden death is devastating for the whole family, but particularly for Chi Chi who has lost the person who believes in her, and her dreams of a singing career the most. She comes back down to earth in a bump when the sisters find how much money he owed. His belief that Chi Chi had the talent to hit the big time led him to remortgage the family home in order to build the studio and kit it out with the best recording equipment. The debt must be renegotiated by the sisters and the bank’s deal would leave them destitute. In order to keep the roof over her mother’s head Chi Chi gives all of her savings, renegotiates with the bank and auditions to be the girl singer with Tony’s band. However, his agent offers her a better role, composing songs and playing piano. Slowly, their record has been gaining momentum too and they are asked to perform the single wherever they go. Chi Chi sees that Tony’s lifestyle involves lots of women, who fall in love with him only to be heartbroken when he moves to the next one. The band gets through girl singers at an alarming rate. ChiChi resolves to be Tony’s friend, and nothing more. He trusts her and she soon becomes his confidante and provider of a good home cooked meal on the road. War is looming though and lives are going to change forever. What will war do to their careers and their friendship?

I found this book very charming and easy to read in big chunks. I loved Trigiani’s descriptions: the handmade Christmas decorations of the Saverio family, Chi Chi’s gowns and all the period fashion, the Italian recipes and wedding traditions. This is a novel about a lifelong friendship that somehow endures, despite disappointment, distance and broken promises. It is about family, both the ones we’re born into and those we create ourselves. How do we honour years of sacrifice and tradition without losing our own hopes and dreams? It’s about generation gaps and how we bridge them. It is about regrets and whether, over a lifetime, we regret more the things we have done or those opportunities we didn’t take. It’s about fidelity, both in a romantic sense but also to our faith, our culture and our family. As always, Trigiani’s lightness of touch means that these big themes never become laboured. There is so much fun to be had here, despite the pain. Chi Chi is an incredibly strong character, who isn’t just a creative artist but a great businesswoman. She grabs opportunities to purchase real estate in Manhattan, and makes her money work for her. She works hard and provides for her family. In this sense she is a very modern woman who doesn’t rely on a man to look after her. She’s an easy character to love and spend time with. I found Saverio more difficult to understand and veered between concern and anger at some of his behaviour. They approach life differently but together their banter, their talent and their friendship creates an engaging story that I savoured as long as I could while being simultaneously desperate to find out what happens next,

Dear Life by Rachel Clarke

It seems very brave to even write a book about death, because the majority of people seem to be actively trying to avoid any mention of it. Death is the last taboo subject. Rachel tackles this in her writing with grace, compassion and dignity. The book is in three parts, with the first covering her personal life and the reasons that she moved her career from journalism to medicine. The move seemed inevitable, as she was following in the footsteps of her father. As she started specialising in an area of medicine, she surprised herself by becoming drawn to palliative care. The second section covers her thoughts on this branch of medicine – an area that, in my opinion, provides the best medical care, because it focuses on the lived experience of the patient. Clarke describes the usual outlook of the NHS as ‘life at all costs’. I think there is a sort of arrogance in this type of medicine, where some doctors seem to think they have the skills to outrun death. Clarke talks eloquently and empathetically about the fears patients have and how her job is to address and allay those fears as much as possible, to alleviate the pain and suffering. She also includes a very honest portrayal of some of those patients and the range of emotion they go through as they near the end – from denial and anger, through to a certain acceptance for some, All of her training and experience becomes even more important when her father is diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer and the book moves back to the personal.

Clarke understands the luminal space that the long term sick and terminally ill both occupy. That space of the in between. If we are always sick we have to find a way of living regardless, because all of our time can’t be taken up with illness and dying. We still have friends and family, obligations and bills to pay. We need to pass the time. To remember who we are, because we are not this illness; more than this death. As Clarke so succinctly puts it: ‘For the dying are living, like everyone else’. It’s true that I probably appreciate this book so much because I nursed my husband for two years before his death from pneumonia caused by Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis. I also have MS so understand how it feels to have a condition that limits my life, rather than being terminal. No matter how much experience Clarke has, she does find that the picture changes when it is someone you love who is losing their life. It’s impossible to retain that clinical distance and any sense of control is taken away. It turns out that nothing can mitigate the pain of personal loss. Beautifully written, moving and breathtakingly honest.

Book of Love

Romance seems to have become a bit of a dirty word in the high brow world of literary fiction. It seems to have become synonymous with terms like ‘chick lit’ or ‘guilty pleasures’ – something we readers should be ashamed of or find beneath us. Yet, love stories are some of the most enjoyable and enduring novels I’ve ever read. Thank God for the incredible Marian Keyes who recently admitted to a period of reading Mills and Boon books, because she found they lifted her spirits. I don’t think we should be embarrassed about anything we enjoy reading. So I wanted to share with you some of my favourite novels about love – new and old – in time for Valentines Day.

’When a thing has always been forbidden, and must live in darkness and silence, it’s hard to know how it might be, if allowed to thrive’. Patrick Gale A Place Called Winter.

When Harry Cane begins a passionate affair with a young man in the early 1900s, he loses his wife and children, his home and his job. Forced to start all over again, Harry starts a pioneer life in the Canadian wilderness. This is a beautifully moving novel about self-acceptance and an enduring love and loyalty that is heartbreaking. My heart soared as Harry finds Paul, and with the help of Paul’s sister the men are able to have a measure of safety. This is not a soft romance, pioneer life is violent and gritty, but if you like love stories that are emotional, intense and deeply personal this is the perfect novel.

You make me happy, even when you’re awful, I would rather be with you, even the you that you seem to think is diminished, than with anyone else in the world’.
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

This book reduces me to tears every time. Probably because Will reminds me of my late husband and when I’m reading Louisa’s inner monologue it’s as if Jojo Moyes has climbed inside my mind! Louisa takes a job caring for Will, a charming and active young man who has become quadriplegic in an accident. At first Will is angry, but slowly his smile, charm and intelligence work their magic on Louisa. He opens the world up for her and makes her see dreams are possible. Her humour, forthrightness and the bumble bee tights have a similar effect on Will. But, can love make someone want to live again? Or has Will simply lost too much of the life he loved? Buy tissues.

’As he looked at me, it was as if my whole heart turned over in my body and was mine no longer’.
The King’s General Daphne Du Maurier

Du Maurier’s better known novels tend to people’s favourite but I’m very fond of this novel and own a very old edition I managed to pick up in the second hand bookstore in Fowey near Du Maurier’s home. It’s the love story that grabs me and it’s a tragic one. Honor is courted by Richard, usually in the apple tree in the orchard. They plan to marry and in the week before their wedding take guests out on a hunt. Spirited and headstrong, Honor gets so carried away following the falcons that she rides her horse directly into a ravine. She is rescued but her legs are broken and her back injured. Richard comes from an important family and Honor knows he needs a wife who can support him and the family name. With her heart breaking, Honor calls off their engagement and retreats privately to mend her body and her heart. She never walks again. When their paths cross again years later will their feelings have changed?

‘It’s come to my heart as soft as dew, and as sweet as a red rose, that you’ll get love as well as give it’.

Precious Bane by Mary Webb

I’d love to write an update of this beautiful book, set in the rural 19th Century. Prue is a dutiful daughter, still living at home on the family farm and resigned that this is where she will always stay. Webb weaves a world of rural poverty and community where men run the home and traditions such as love spinning are still the main celebration. Prue is loved but also thought of with suspicion in the community because she is ‘hare shorten’. When her mother was pregnant she was startled by a hare and as a result Prue is seen as ‘disfigured’ due to her hare lip. I love Prue, she is intelligent and curious, but modest and dutifully does her background role while watching her contemporaries fall in love and marry. She is resigned that love will not come for her. Then Kester Woodseaves walks into their community and she feels a powerful emotion. She loves him. But he couldn’t possibly feel the same way. As Prue’s life grows harder still and crops start to fail, suspicions grow. Is Prue Sarn a witch? And who will save her from the superstitions and violence of the community?

She made you decent, and in return you made her so happy’.

One Day by David Nichols

There was a period of time when I got on the train and I could see at least three people reading this book. ‘Friends who become more‘ is a favourite romantic theme of mine. I love When Harry Met Sally, Ross and Rachel and this tale of Emma and Dex. They meet on graduation night in Edinburgh and we follow a 20 year friendship by dropping in on the same date each year. Some days they are together, some days far apart, but in these snapshots we see where their lives are heading and the state of their friendship. I spend a whole novel hoping and praying they will come together. On significant dates, like Dex’s wedding day I ended up with a lump in my throat. Are they destined to live happily ever after?

And there, by the fireside, whenever I look up there you shall be and whenever I look up, there you shall be’.

Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

I’m an absolute sucker for baby animals, so when shepherd Gabriel Oak brings Bathsheba Everdene a lamb and offers his hand in marriage, it’s like my fantasy marriage proposal. It’s the sort of engagement ring I can get on board with. However, Bathsheba is headstrong and determined. She’d happily have a wedding, as long as she doesn’t have to be the bride. As she becomes the heir to an estate she aims to astound them all. Instead of her hand, she gives Gabriel a job and they become friends. Through her disastrous romantic decisions, he remains steadfast and loyal, but will she ever see he is the right choice? As a bonus, Matthias Schoenharts is Gabriel Oak in the latest film and he’s an absolute dream with the solidity and integrity of the character on the page.

These are just some of my favourites, but below is a gallery of the most romantic novels I’ve read recently. Happy Valentines Reading!

Mix Tape by Jane Sanderson

I love this book. Is it because I had a Dan? A musician who started as my best friend and who I fell in love with. I was 18 and he took me to my first prom. His band were playing and it was 1991 so perms were everywhere and we were just adopting grunge. I would turn up for school in jumble sale floral dresses with my ever present oxblood Doc Martens. They played some of my favourite songs that night: some that were contemporary like Blur and others were classics like Wild Thing. I most remember Waterloo Sunset. Then, like a scene in a rom-com we walked across town to his house – me in a polka dot Laura Ashley ball gown and him in his dinner suit with the bow tie undone. He had a ruffled shirt underneath that he’d bought from Oxfam. We crept into the house and into the playroom so we didn’t wake anyone, then watched When Harry Met Sally. I remember a single kiss and then we fell asleep but the love carried over the years.

When I think of Elliot I always think of those best friend couples, like Harry and Sally or later, Emma and Dex in One Day. Now I can add Dan and Ali to the list. Alison and Dan live in Sheffield in the late 1970s when the city was still a thriving steel manufacturer. Dan is from the more family friendly Nether Edge, while Alison is from the rougher Attercliffe area, in the shadow of a steel factory. They meet while still at school and Dan is transfixed with her dark hair, her edge and her love of music. Their relationship is based on music and Dan makes mix tapes for her to listen to when they’re not together such as ‘The Last Best Two’ – the last two tracks from a series of albums. What he doesn’t know is how much Alison needs that music. To be able to put it on as a wall of sound between her and her family. Dan never sees where she lives and doesn’t push her, he only knows she prefers his home whether she’s doing her homework at the kitchen table, getting her nails painted by his sister or sitting with his Dad in the pigeon loft. Catherine, Alison’s mum, is a drinker. Not even a functioning alcoholic, she comes home battered and dirty with no care for who she lets into their home. Alison’s brother, Pete, is her only consolation and protection at home. Both call their mum by her first name and try to avoid her whenever possible. Even worse is her on-off lover Martin Baxter, who has a threatening manner and his own key. Alison could never let Dan know how they have to live.

In alternate chapters we see what Alison and Dan are doing in the present. Now a music writer, Dan splits his time between a canal boat in London and home with his partner Katelin in Edinburgh. Alison has written a new novel ‘Tell the Story Sing the Song’ set in her adopted home Australia and based round an indigenous singer. It’s a worldwide hit and she finds herself in demand, having to negotiate being interviewed and getting to grips with social media. She has an affluent lifestyle with husband Michael and has two grown up daughters. She has a Twitter account that she’s terrible at using and it’s this that alerts Dan, what could be the harm in following her? The secret at the heart of this book is what happened so long ago back in Sheffield to send a girl to the other side of the world? Especially when she has found her soulmate. She and Dan are meant to be together so what could have driven them apart? Dan sends her a link via Twitter, to Elvis Costelloe’s ‘Pump It Up’, the song she was dancing to at a party when he fell in love with her. How will Alison reply and will Dan ever discover why he lost her back in the 1970s?

I believed in these characters immediately, and I know Sheffield, described with affectionate detail by the writer. The accent, the warmth of people like Dan’s dad, the landmarks and the troubled manufacturing industry are so familiar and captured perfectly. Even the secondary characters, like the couple’s families and friends are well drawn and endearing. Cass over in Australia, as well as Sheila and Dora, are great characters. Equally, Dan’s Edinburgh friend Duncan with

his record shop and the hippy couple on the barge next door in London are real and engaging. Special mention also to his god McCullough who I was desperate to cuddle. Both characters have great lives and happy relationships. Dan loves Katelin, in fact her only fault is that she isn’t Alison. Alison has been enveloped by Michael’s huge family and their housekeeper Beatriz who is like a surrogate Mum. It’s easy to see why the safety and security of Michael’s family, their money and lifestyle have appealed to a young Alison, still running away from her dysfunctional upbringing. She clearly wants different fir her daughters and wishes them the sort of complacency Dan shows in being sure his parents are always there where he left them. But is the odd dinner party and most nights sat side by side watching TV enough for her? She also has Sheila, an old friend of Catherine’s, who emigrated in the 1970s and flourished in Australia. Now married to Dora who drives a steam train, they are again like surrogate parents to Alison. So much anchors her in Australia, but are these ties stronger than first love and the sense of belonging she had with Dan all those years before?

About three quarters of the way through the book I started to read gingerly, almost as if it was a bomb that might go off. I’ve never got over the loss of Emma in One Day and I was scared. What if these two soulmates didn’t end up together? Or worse what if one of them is killed off by author before a happy ending is reached? I won’t ruin it by telling any more of the story. The tension and trauma of Alison’s family life is terrible and I dreaded finding out what had driven her away so dramatically. I think her shame about her mother is so sad, because the support was there for her and she wouldn’t let anyone help. She’s so fragile and on edge that Dan’s mum has reservations, she worries about her youngest son and whether Alison will break his heart. I love the music that goes back and forth between the pair, the meaning in the lyrics and how they choose them. This book is warm, moving and real. I loved it.

And what of my Daniel? Well he’s in Sheffield strangely enough. Happily partnered with three beautiful kids. I’m also happily partnered with two lovely stepdaughters. We’re very happy where we are and with our other halves. It’s nice though, just now and again, to catch up and remember the seventeen year old I was. Laid on his bedroom door, with my head in his lap listening to his latest find on vinyl. Or wandering the streets in my ballgown, high heels in one hand and him with his guitar case. Happy memories that will always make me smile.

Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins

I have enjoyed Lucy Atkins other novels and it seems they get better and better. I love the character of Dee and became drawn in by her straight away. There is a sense that she doesn’t really belong anywhere but she is curiously at ease with who she is. Some thing of an outsider in Oxford, she doesn’t belong to any of the colleges but is one of those invisible people who provides services to those who do belong. Dee is a nanny and makes a very disturbing observation about the academics who use her services – when desperate, people will let a near stranger look after their child. The new master and his wife, Nick and Mariah, hire her after a chance meeting on a bridge early one morning and one hasty conversation. They do not ask fir references or do a police check. If they had, they would have found that Dee has a criminal record. It is no coincidence that Mariah restores old wallpaper. She is adept at papering over cracks. She tells Dee that Felicity is selectively mute, that she met Nick after his wife died from a longstanding illness and that they both did everything to get Felicity talking again. There us a stifling atmosphere in the lodgings and the author carefully links the house with the people in it – with both there is a long history being erased and retold through renovation or retelling. Is the start of this couple’s relationship as simple as they portray? Mariah’s chirpy and wholesome exterior might, just like the new decor, might hint at a darker, more murky interior world. The house’s history is slowly being unearthed by Linklater, a social historian hired by Nick. It shows how out of step these two characters might really be. Nick wants to disturb and discover the chequered past of their new home, while Mariah is whitewashing it. Linklater discovers family dramas, haunted occupants and a possible answer for the ‘priest’s hole’ in Felicity bedroom that may be even more malign than the poisonous Victorian wallpaper. 

Felicity isn’t just mute. She is a very distressed child, seemingly obedient but full of simmering anger and confusion. She roams the house while still asleep, makes patterns on the floor with her collection of bones and artefacts, and seems to be drawn by the ‘priest’s hole’ in the middle of the night. She slowly starts to speak to Dee, but also makes a surprising connection to Linklater when the three of them start to take tea together after school. They are a group of misfits, finding each other and developing trust. There seems to be a distinction made between those who appear genuinely themselves, however odd they may seem, and those who are putting on an act; a natural family forming where there is a forced family unit at home. It has to be significant that the one person Felicity never speaks to at all is Mariah. Dee becomes more than a passing childcare worker, she is deeply involved with this little girl. I like the way the author foreshadows this relationship as Dee sees Felicity for the first time and notices her curls, just like those of another child she once knew. Is this another nanny’s role or is she giving hints of a past we don’t know about? If Dee once had a family what happened to them? This is where we come to discussing Dee’s role as narrator and whether she is not as candid with us as she seems. I kept waiting for a terrible secret to emerge and for Dee’s reaction to being exposed. The tension is ratcheted up when we learn that Felicity has gone missing and the narrative passes back and forth between the present day and what has happened in these character’s pasts. I enjoyed the ending, although I raced there a little too quickly. I was desperately hoping for a happy ending for both Felicity and Dee. Watching Mariah and Nick’s ‘perfect’ life completely implode was oddly satisfying. With her perfectly calm exterior ravaged by the birth of her first child Mariah struggles to function normally and seems haunted by Felicity’s mother Ana. She starts to spend days in pyjamas, coping with a colicky baby and this break in her usually ordered world threatens to break her. I was left feeling that Nick and Mariah didn’t deserve Felicity, but was that what the narrator wanted me to feel. I was left wondering whether I’d been manipulated all along. As the police wondered and questioned, the reader does the same. Is Felicity as disturbed as Dee would have us believe? Or was Nick right in his assessment that it was Dee’s presence, her inability to sleep, her encouragement in discovering something supernatural and the constant buckets left in the kitchen to bleach animal skulls that are to blame? Finally, I liked the way maths was used as a theme in their interactions; Dee’s proof is an example of how something seemingly factual and definite can still be manipulated. A maths problem can have two correct answers. It simply has to be worked out differently. Which version do we trust? This is an intelligent, psychological, thriller that keeps you guessing long after reading, Lucy Atkins has done it again! A great read.

If you enjoyed this why not try the following:

Dreamland by Nancy Bilyeau

This book was an absolute joy to read and exactly my sort of novel. In 1922, Peggy Battenburg is a member of one of the wealthiest families in America. However, alongside money and status comes scrutiny and Peggy doesn’t always behave the way a young lady, of her social standing, should. She bucks against the traditional respectability expected of her and the idea that she should be told how to behave by the male members of the family. This rebellious streak means she doesn’t really fit, whether it be in high or low society. People of her family’s class are scandalised by her and the ordinary people of Coney Island mistrust her because of this rich background. She really can’t win.

Peggy’s family bring her back home for the summer. She’s been working in a bookshop, but now she needs to be back in high society. They hope to secure a prestigious marriage proposal for Peggy’s sister, to a groom who will ensure the financial security of their family going forward. They have someone in mind, but Peggy hates the potential husband and desperately wants to escape the claustrophobic atmosphere. This is where she decides to set out for Dreamland and meets Stefan, an artist working at the amusement park just a short distance from where the family are staying at the Oriental Hotel. Dreamland is a pleasure palace and a real juxtaposition to the hotels where the wealthy elite are staying. Hotel residents might stroll to the amusements for an afternoon’s diversion, but police are stationed along the route so that identification can be checked when walking back towards the hotels. The haves and have-nots are quite separate.

By contrast Peggy becomes immersed in the life of artists, dancers, food vendors and acrobats. She finds that despite their lack of money and status they have a lot of freedom whereas, for all her money, Peggy is kept in a cage, albeit a gilded one. I love the setting of Coney Island and enjoyed Alice Hoffman’s Museum of Extraordinary Things set within a freak show. This book was equally well researched and Bilyeau’s description of period clothing and the sounds and smells of the park really set the scene and helped me disappear from 2020 into this exciting other world. We learn about the manners and behaviour of the time and how it differs between classes. Peggy learns more about her family too, and many secrets are revealed. Added to the excellent characterisation and immersive world created by the author, is the fact that bodies of young girls start turning up on the beach. While this plot line is not the strongest part of the novel it does pose certain questions for Peggy, not least about her own family. How much are the Battenburg’s willing to lie and cover up?

I liked Peggy. She is a thoroughly modern young woman who, despite family riches, has her own job in a bookshop. She is intelligent and inquisitive. I can see why she would want to experience more than the stifling role of ‘rich daughter’ allows. Added to this rebellious nature are simmering tensions within the family and a menacing air of control from the fiancé and his brother. Reading this felt like being thrust into a technicolour world of sun, sea, and scandal. I absolutely loved it.

Luna Park Coney Island 1920

If you loved this try:

Alice Hoffman’s TheMuseum of Extraordinary Things

Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls

Little White Lies by Philippa East

This is an addictive and intelligent debut novel from author and therapist Phillipa East. It’s a tale of a family coping with the aftermath of an abduction. Abigail White has been missing for seven years, after becoming separated from her mum, Anne, on a trip to London. Now aged 15, Abigail walks into a police station along with a younger girl. The novel flits between Anne’s viewpoint and that of Abigail’s cousin Jess. Jess and Abigail were born only four months apart and were more like twins than cousins. They had a special connection, and even after seven years apart Jess still feels she knows Abigail better than anyone. Her friend Lena warns Jess that Abigail has gone through a significant trauma and will have changed in ways they can’t see. Soon after her arrival at the police station, detectives discover that Abigail was taken from outside the tube station by a stranger. It seems that he was in the right place at the right time, just as Abigail became separated from her Mum and twin brothers. Anne had been trying to manage Abigail, the twins, a buggy and the train doors. Detective McCarthy has experience with abduction cases and uses his expertise to ask some probing questions: how did Abigail manage to wander off the platform and up to the street above, is this just a crime of opportunity or is there any chance at all that the family know this man?

Anne and her sister Lillian are close, but they are different. Lillian is the older sister and the ‘fixer’ who is organised, sensible and it seems to Anne as if she never makes mistakes. Anne’s life has been more complicated. Abigail’s birth father became an addict, causing difficulties with finances and the safety of their new family. With Lillian’s help, Anne left and despite trying to maintain contact with Abigail he has largely been absent. Anne then met Robert who has always considered Abigail his own daughter, creating a stable family unit for the first time. It is hard to imagine that Abigail could simply slot back into her family as if she never left. Anne is beset by doubts and concerns. Will Abigail expect her bedroom to be as if she never left? Can they let Jess back into her life at once or will she need time to adjust? Have the years of captivity and sexual abuse left her daughter so damaged she won’t recover? There is also the hint of a secret surrounding the moments before Abigail’s disappearance that day. Anne wonders what Abigail remembers and whether they should talk about that day. Lillian advises her to leave it alone. The tension between them and Anne’s concerns kept me hooked. To me, Abigail feels like a ticking time bomb and I found myself waiting for her to explode.

I felt that the author understood the psychology of trauma and she depicted beautifully the way a crime like this affects everyone around the victim. The trauma ripples outwards into the family like a drop of water on the surface of a pond. I really liked the insidious way that secrets are shown to damage trust and erode relationships. The depiction of Abigail is very cleverly written because it delves into the complexity of the relationship between the captor and the child. For example, Anne is startled by the findings of an educational psychologist who concludes that Abigail must have been home schooled. It seems strange that a man who has emotionally and sexually abused a child for seven years, would be concerned about their education. It made me think about the relationship between the child and the abductor. We can accept the negative aspects, but it is harder to accept that Abigail might have positive feelings toward her captor. It is as if, in order to survive mentally, she has had accepted captivity as her reality; when Cassingham abducts a younger girl it prompts her to act, but it still takes her a long time to find her voice again and be angry about her experience. The concern I had was whether Abigail would ever accept her new reality at home with her family.

I enjoyed the character of Jess and her struggle to understand the cousin who was once as close as her shadow. Can she trust that the same Abigail even exists any more? Can they jump back into easy familiarity or will Jess have to get to know this new Abigail who is the sum of her experiences? I truly empathised with her internal struggle between supporting her cousin and keeping the friends she has made since Abigail disappeared. Abigail might find it hard to fit when she has missed out on seven years of music and other popular culture. She is awkward, not knowing what to wear, how to do her hair or even how to speak. There is a gulf between her and other 15 year olds that might be too wide to bridge. It might be embarrassing for Jess, but for Abigail the frustration could be too much to cope with. She can’t find anyone who shares or truly understands her experience.

This was a great read, with believable characters facing a parent’s worst fear; their child has gone missing. I enjoyed the different perspective, focussing not on the abduction and police operation but on the issues faced when the child returns. It explores the family’s happiness and relief, only to find a relative stranger in their midst. Alongside this central narrative, East also explores the complexity of modern family relationships, and poses the question of whether we truly know the people we love and live alongside. Within the relationship of Jess and Abigail, we see the pains of growing up and fitting in, particularly the realisations that our elders are fallible and the World might not be as safe as we imagine.

I would like to thank NetGalley for this ARC in exchange for an honest review.