Why I Love Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Long before the film made this novel universally known, it had become one of my lifelong favourites. There are so many reasons why people love this book and why it was optioned for a film. It’s a transformative tale for a start. These two characters, Louisa and Will, change each other’s lives during the course of the novel. They are strong, likeable characters that stay with you. There is a heartbreaking love story at the centre, but so much humour as well. However, those of you who read my blog regularly, know that I often add a very personal touch to my reviews. This book is so important to me because when I first read it, it felt like Jojo Moyes had a window on my life. We might think love stories like this don’t exist in the real world, but they do. I know this, because I had one.

Louisa has lost her job in a cafe, and is browsing the adverts in the Job Centre when she comes across an interesting opportunity. A personal assistant’s role for Will Traynor, providing care and supporting him to regain some independence. The Traynor family are rich compared to Louisa’s family and their son Will is quadriplegic since having a motorcycle accident. He needs a nurse on staff at all times, so Louisa’s role is more social. Despite her lack of experience, Mrs Traynor hires Louisa because she sees something in her that might just lift her son’s spirits. Will has been low since his accident, but that worsened recently when his ex-girlfriend became engaged to his best friend. Louisa is different from anyone Will has met: she is chatty and exuberant about life; wears bumble bee tights; and isn’t frightened of poking fun at him. Mrs Traynor tells Louisa that he wanted to end his life and when she refused his request to go to Dignitas, he tried to kill himself at home. Will and his mother have an agreement, that for six months she will try to convince him that life is worth living and if he still wants to end his life she won’t stop him. Louisa starts to break down some of Will’s barriers and take him out into the world, but the changes are not one sided. Will is changing Louisa’s life too.

What does all this have to do with me? I met my ‘Will’ in 2001. His name was Jerzy and we’d been corresponding for six months by post and email. I have multiple sclerosis and had been leafing through a magazine in my local therapy centre, when I saw an article I thought could inspire others who used the centre. Here was someone with MS who was still active, doing sailing and scuba diving from his wheelchair. So I wrote a short letter asking if I could reproduce some of his article in our newsletter. I added my brand new email address and hadn’t expected to hear anything back, but I did. We met six months later when I drove down to Milton Keynes for lunch, that turned into dinner and an all night chat. We were from different worlds. Like Louisa I came from a working class family, I worked for a mental health team part time and still lived in the same small town I’d grown up in. I’d never been to a ballet, never been abroad and hadn’t even been to an art exhibit. Whereas Jez was from a middle class family, had played professional rugby, travelled widely and loved opera. Yet, we recognised something in each other straight away. It was an immediate feeling of connection, belonging and life changing love. We were married eight weeks later. I know that sounds insane on paper, but at the time it felt like the most natural decision in the world.

From the outside, if you didn’t know us well, it might have looked like Jez was taking so much from me, but I got so much back in return. I wasn’t his sole carer, but I did look after him physically. We had an adapted car so I could drive him places and visit friends and family. I fought really hard to get him the right help and employed carers to keep him busy and safe when I wasn’t home. Like Louisa does with Will, I stopped him taking himself and life so seriously. I would make him laugh till his face hurt. I taught him that work wasn’t everything, that family and enjoying life were just as important – more so since neither of us knew how long we had to do all the things we wanted. Thank goodness I did teach him those things, because he had much less time than I expected. I don’t think I have room to list the ways he transformed my life. He supported me to finally go to university, full time for three years so I could throw all my energy into it. He took me to my first ballet and my first opera. We would go to The Stables and see jazz concerts as well as theatre. He opened the world up for me, in ways I never expected, something that endures to this day.

When Will takes Louisa to the opera, I understood how she felt completely. It was completely outside her comfort zone. I felt like a fraud, sat amongst ‘posh’ people who didn’t need the supertitles to understand what was going on. I mortified him by falling asleep, We went to a ball at his Post-Grad college and everyone round the table had ‘proper’ jobs as surgeons, bankers, and academics. Jez proudly told everyone I worked with people who struggled with their mental health. Three hours later everyone around the table had told me their problems and I came away so proud of what I did. He saw something in me I didn’t know I had, and motivated me to use it. Jez always wanted to get as much out of life as possible but when his MS deteriorated he became more restricted. We moved closer to family for support and I kept his spirits up with movie nights at home, making new foods he wanted to try, creating a beautiful garden for him to be in and doing impromptu dance performances at his bedside!

In the novel, Louisa starts to have feelings for Will. She organises a whirlwind tour of his favourite places for them both, but she changes it to Mauritius after he has a bout of pneumonia. He tells her, when they attend his ex-girlfriend’s wedding, that she is the only reason he gets up in the morning. Jez had his first bout of near fatal pneumonia just after we got married. His swallowing reflex was failing, causing food particles to be inhaled into his lungs. We knew this was going to continue and I had to learn to suction debris out, something that needed repeating more frequently as time passed. Even as he became confined to bed, I would go in and snuggle up to watch a film or listen to a book, For Louisa and Will the defining moment is on their last night in Mauritius. Louisa tells Will she loves him. Will confides in Louisa, that he wanted to end his life with Dignitas. If anyone should make him want to live it’s Louisa, but he still can’t face the rest of his life in this body and using a wheelchair. He will still be going to Switzerland to carry out his plans. Louisa is hurt and when they return, she resigns as his carer, unable to watch him go.

I didn’t get a choice. In the last year of his life Jez became dependent on others to keep his airway clear and to be fed through a tube into his stomach. Someone had to stay awake to watch him through the night. I was so tired. Eventually he ended up in hospital and then a care home – the last thing I wanted. He chose to end his life one afternoon, when the consultant cane to discuss his care. He explained that if we kept treating the pneumonia with antibiotics we were prolonging his life, but only till the next infection. However, if we stopped treating it aggressively and chose instead to keep his pain controlled, then ‘nature could take it’s course’. I looked at Jez and asked him what he wanted and he mouthed ‘no more’. This was no time for my own fears and needs. This was his life and his call, so I told them we were agreed on no more treatment. 36 hours later he died. Respecting his choice was the most I had ever loved him, but the hardest thing I’d ever done.

Will’s influence on Louisa’s life didn’t end on that holiday in Mauritius. In fact, it’s only just begun. No wonder Jojo Moyes wrote two more novels about her life after Will’s death. Endings are always beginnings. Will’s legacy to Louisa means she has so many choices. He wants her to have the chances he had in life, to try things, go places and build a new life for herself. Jez did this for me too and at first it felt strange to have such freedom. I didn’t feel I deserved it. However, it did open the world up for me. I could buy the roof over my head, travel, study more and basically go on living the way he would have wanted me to. With Will forever in her mind, cheering her on, Louisa goes on to make many new memories. I’ve had to accept that it means making the odd mistake too. That’s the thing about choices, we sometimes make the wrong ones. Yet, by moving forwards I have stopped myself doing the one thing Jez told me not to. The last thing he said to me was ‘don’t get stuck’. I didn’t. Today marks thirteen years since he died and I’m still taking chances, trying new things and hopefully, making him proud – even if I still make him roll his eyes occasionally.

The sequels After You and Still Me have both come along when I’ve been at similar points in my journey with grief. We see how much Louisa struggles to cope, without Will in her life. Yet, he does still act as an anchor for her, something that grounds her. Jez grounds me too, he also spurs me on, reminds me to indulge myself sometimes, but to go for things when I really want them. I have a totally different life from the one I expected. Although I’m still walking my MS is worse. I still travel when I can. I’m studying for an MA. I have someone who loves me and two amazing stepdaughters. Today we will be lighting a candle next to Jez’s photo in our living room and making him part of our day. Jojo Moyes wrote a beautiful love story and Louisa is such a character. I’m so glad to have moved through the last thirteen years with a fictional friend as incredible as Louisa Clark.

Jerzy tall ship sailing

The Creak on the Stairs by Eva Bjorg Aegisdottir. #RandomThingsTours #OrendaBooks #blogtours #TheCreakOnTheStairs

Investigating Officer Elma has only recently returned to her home town of Arkanes, after working in the city of Reykjavik. She has to hit the ground running when the body of a woman is discovered by two teenagers, hanging out in the old lighthouse. The dead woman is beautiful, with long dark hair and inscrutable dark eyes. Her identity is a mystery, and at first there are no clues as to whether she drowned, jumped from the lighthouse or was murdered. Elma and her new partner Saever must find out the truth about the mystery woman, while getting to know each other. However, investigating in the small town where she grew up isn’t easy. Elma has to work through preconceptions, local politics and allegiances; the potential suspects may have status in the community and be respected within her own family. She soon finds that despite everyone knowing each other, people still have deep, dark secrets to hide.

The story is told largely through Elma’s eyes, but with alternate, shorter chapters, following the writings of a little girl. The girl’s tale is heart rending to read, as she grows up in a grief stricken and chaotic household. Her mother is a drunk and the house is often full of random strangers. The author drops tiny little clues about the girl’s existence, rather than stark descriptions. As if she doesn’t want to shock, but instead draw the reader in slowly. She talks about sores on her fingers that are infected and green in places. Is this from biting them due to anxiety or something even more worrying? She’s lonely and has few friends or family who care about her. Everyone responds to her, because she’s a pretty girl, but no one bothers to look closer. As the book continued I felt like I was watching the development of a potentially borderline personality.

Elma has a mystery of her own that also unveils slowly. She had a significant relationship back in Reykjavik ,that ended before her return. Again, this is hinted at but not exposed. When Elma has dinner with her family, her Mum encourages her to talk about it, but Elma puts her face down on the table and begs her Mum to stop digging, she simply isn’t ready to face it yet. Her relationship with work partner Saever is a delectable slow burn. She’s attracted to him, but holds back – partly because of their work relationship, but there’s something else too, possibly linked to her previous relationship. It’s great to see this slow development and bodes well for this to become a series. We learn that Elma is dogged in her determination to solve a case. Her thorough investigation does clash with the people of this remote small town. It’s a place where people trust each other and individuals are in a position of authority for life. Residents believe they know each other well, but Elma is in a unique position to get underneath these facades. She’s local enough to be trusted, but separate enough to see people and situations objectively. She’s willing to ask the questions a local officer might avoid.

The central case goes right to the heart of this community and to a generation that tended not to interfere or ask questions. Where everyone might suspect something going wrong in a certain household, but no one would interfere or report in perhaps the same way we would now. I really savoured the slow, detailed storytelling and the atmosphere created by the author. Even the title sets us on edge; that idea of hearing a creak on the stairs in the dead of night is universally scary. When I imagined myself in the place of this little girl, I could feel the dread of knowing that person is on their way to my room. I felt that a harrowing subject, which could have been gratuitous, was handled with care and restraint. Instead we see the aftermath, the devastating effect on victims and also the ripple effect that spreads like a shockwave through the community. I recommend therapy to clients on the basis that trauma left unprocessed is never fully locked away, it still affects us daily and eventually works it’s way back to the surface. This applies to Elma’s investigation and her private life. The author cleverly waits till right at the end to let us into her secret, setting us up perfectly for a sequel. I can’t wait to read it.

The Secrets of Strangers by Charity Norman #TheSecretsofStrangers #blogtour #RandomThingsTours #NetGalley

I discovered Charity Norman’s writing a few years ago and devoured her back catalogue over a couple of weeks that summer. I jumped at the chance to review her latest novel and I read it in a day, because it was impossible to stay away from the characters and the incredible sense of tension created by the author. Set around one day in London, the author takes a handful of strangers and places them together in an intense situation. Abi is a solicitor, who decides to pop to a Balham cafe called Tuckbox because the station cafe is crowded and she only has four minutes till her train. Mutesi has come from a night shift and is meeting her daughter -in -law in Tuckbox to collect her grandson, Emmanuel. Neil is homeless, and has been given some money so he opts to visit Tuckbox and sit by the radiator for a while. Inside is a waitress and cafe owner, Robert. Into this everyday scene walks Sam and each of their lives is about to change beyond recognition.

After a brief argument with Robert, Sam returns to his nearby Land Rover and comes back with a shotgun. It’s not long before Robert is lying, bleeding in Neil’s arms and despite Mutesi’s nursing efforts he dies. What follows is a tense stand off between the police and Sam who is holding a small group of people hostage. His constant demands are to see his daughter, Julia and speak to his ex-girlfriend Nicola. Everything has gone wrong in his life and he wants some answers from her about their relationship and whether she was really having a relationship with Robert, who was his stepfather. The chapters then swap between different viewpoints, from each of the people in the cafe to Eliza, who works as a negotiator for the police.

The first thing that struck me about the book was how this group of people work together. From a psychological perspective, they worked very like one of my therapy groups. They become accustomed to each other, listen to each other’s stories and through the sharing of secrets come to understand themselves and each other a little better. There’s a strange catharsis in being part of this group. As each member tells their story a weight is lifted, because they no longer hold a guilty or painful secret. Furthermore, by hearing other people’s stories some kind of healing takes place. From infertility, addiction, and even genocide the book teaches us that everyone has struggled. It seems that perspective can be gained by hearing what other people have done or experienced.

In another way, it can be a relief to be simply heard and accepted. For Sam this is a huge gift because he is the aggressor in the situation, but the group still hear him. His story is one of loss and coercive control. His father dies suddenly and traumatically, leaving Sam, his mother and the farm at the mercy of Robert. He was a friend of the family and although he has a great public face, in private he’s a monster. The terrible way he reduces Sam’s mother from the curvy, wild-haired, laughing woman she is at the beginning to a thin, nervy, controlled wreck is hard to read. The worst part for me was the loss of Sam’s dogs, probably because mine mean the world to me. Robert seems like a parasite as he leaches all the resources from the family and the farm, until there’s nothing left. Sam can see him for what he really is and as he tells the story the group simply accept his lived experience. No one questions, or disagrees with him and although they’ve seen him commit an act of violence, there is empathy for his experience.

From behind the police cordon we watch Eliza, the negotiator, and the skilled way she works to bring resolution. She is calm, non-judgemental and totally focused on Sam. We see the responsibility of the role and how much it takes out of her. The tension is kept up by the knowledge that this is only going to last a few hours, depending on Sam giving up, Eliza succeeding in resolving the situation or the waiting armed response officers going in. The author creates flash points within the story where something is discovered or concealed. This means the reader is constantly on edge, waiting for each ‘reveal’. Every character has their role. Abi is blunt, but very knowledgeable about the law. Neil is possibly at the rock bottom of his life, probably giving him the humanity he shows for someone else’s pain. Mutesi touched me so deeply. I was amazed by her strength. She wanders in the background making sure there’s tea and cake, tending to Sam’s wounded head and safely holding the space for everyone to talk. Without her the group wouldn’t work, but she says little about herself until it’s necessary. When it comes, her story is quietly devastating.

The book’s ending broke me. I was genuinely in tears for these characters which shows the skill of this particular writer. I believe in each one of them. Novels are at their best when they teach us something about what it is to be human. This one shows that if we all just shut up and listened, we have so much more in common than we think at first sight. We should be kind to each other, because we never know what the other person is going through. I am always amazed by people who have gone through the worst experiences life can throw at them, but can still find the strength to help others. Although Sam takes a life, he is the catalyst for this small group to make changes in how they live. I could see parallels with our current lockdown situation. For those of us not directly affected, by loss or by working on the frontline, this is a time out of time. Time to reflect, take stock, and instead of bouncing straight back into our old routine we could find ways to make our lives better. To help more, to work less, to spend more time with those we miss, and rebalance our lives. These characters take a terrifying situation and choose to grown and connect. It was moving, compassionate and a story for these times.

When We Fall by Carolyn Kirby #WhenWeFall #blogtour #RandomThingsTours #noexit

At the heart of this moving novel is the tragedy of the Katyn Massacre of 1940, in which over 22,000 Polish military officers were murdered under orders of the Soviet Union. April 2020 marked the 80th anniversary of this horrific WWII crime and is also the 10th anniversary of the Smolensk Air Disaster, where Polish dignitaries were killed on their way to commemorate the massacre. The only female victim of the massacre – Polish pilot Janina Lewandowska is the basis of one of the characters in Carolyn Kirby’s novel When We Fall. Stefan is a Polish pilot of German ancestry. Born in Poznan, a Polish city with a history of German settlers, Stefan speaks both languages. At the time of the novel, the city had been incorporated into the Third Reich as the capital of Reichsgau Warteland. Many of the Polish inhabitants were executed, arrested, expelled, or used as forced labour; at the same time many Germans were settled in the city. The German population increased from around 5,000 in 1939, to around 95,000 by 1944. The Jewish population of about 2,000 had been moved into concentration camps. Stefan’s girlfriend Ewa has not heard from him for some time, and is worried he has been killed or taken as a prisoner of war.

Ewa is also from Stefan’s home town of Poznan and when we first meet her she is helping her father run their guesthouse. She is an incredible cook, often going foraging for ingredients and somehow able to conjure feasts out of very little. When Stefan left for war she gave him a distinctive pen in a case, hoping they will stay in touch by letter. Her life changes when a young German officer Heinrich Beck comes to stay at the guesthouse and there seems to be a connection between them. Ewa treads a very dangerous path, appearing quiet and unassuming on the surface, but secretly carrying documents for the Polish resistance. Beck suggests she take on a role preparing homes left abandoned or appropriated for new German settlers in the region. It is likely that many had housed Jewish families and Ewa makes reference to other buildings either daubed with graffiti or completely repurposed. Their municipal swimming pool is inside an old synagogue, and when swimming Ewa does imagine what an incredible place of worship it must have been. Beck offers to take Ewa to the cinema one afternoon and before the main feature they see a black and white film showing a Russian dacha in a wood and the digging up of hundreds of bodies. Ewa feels sick, and doesn’t want to watch, but then her eyes focus on something she recognised. There, in a pile of belongings, is the very pen case she gave to Stefan.

Across Europe, Vee is in the ATA- a woman pilot, ferrying RAF planes to and from different bases. Vee fights a lack of confidence to get her wings, but loves being up there in the sky, never knowing from day to day which plane she’ll be flying or where in England she might be going. The girls collect a chit in the morning and this gives them their mission. The women aren’t allowed to fly over cloud cover, because they’re not trained to use instruments, so instead they fly using maps and landmarks. Vee meets a Polish pilot on the airbase and is immediately attracted to his dark good looks. He introduces himself as Stefan and the next day he sends her roses and an invitation to join him on a night out to a club frequented by the RAF. However, the night doesn’t go well and Vee is left wondering whether she’ll ever see him again. When their paths do cross again Vee’s defences are up, but she has to admit to herself that no other man has fascinated her in the same way. He appears back in her life just as her work with the ATA is coming to an end. Vee can feel time running out for her flying career and can’t imagine that anything in life will replace the thrill of being up in the air. Her passion for flying and for Stefan will lead her into a dangerous mission. Will it bring her closer to Stefan and to the truth of his double life?

I enjoyed the two different narrative viewpoints and the way the story builds like a jigsaw puzzle, one piece at a time. It’s not until close to the end that we see the full picture and I felt that this structure was an important part of the novel. It echoes the fragmentary nature of life lived through a war and the fragments salvaged from Katyn in an attempt to show the world the truth. People became separated and lost to each other in Poland at this time and I felt the novel reflected this well, particularly in Ewa’s story. The author makes us feel the importance of knowing the truth about those we have lost. I found myself thinking about those people dedicated to unearthing these stories and what an incredible job they do. Even if I found it hard to understand Stefan at times, I could see he was driven to expose the truth; it’s only late in the novel that we comprehend why. My late husband told me about his grandfather who was an officer in the Polish army. He was split from his family and killed by Russian forces who interred his wife and two sons in Siberia. The youngest brother died, before they could escape and migrate across to England. My mother-in-law was separated from both her parents, smuggled out of Warsaw and over to England. She never saw her father again. She was reunited with her mother in England and they stayed. Only years later did they find her father had ended up in the USA and thinking his family had died, he remarried and had a new family.

It’s hard for us to comprehend the enormity of this horrific loss and displacement. The stories have such an impact when you hear them first hand, but somehow they still feel like the dim and distant past. Reading such a well- researched novel with a great sense of place is such a gift because it takes me there. It lets me imagine my in-laws as young children, having to deal with this constant danger and change. It gives me so much respect for them, they lived through terrible atrocities but built such a meaningful and happy life together. When we lost them they’d spent a lifetime together and left behind two new generations. I read this novel in two sittings, because I was so emotionally involved with the story. The author created such detailed characters, I believed in them immediately. I needed to know who lived to be an old lady, or whether any of the characters made it through the war. The ending is bittersweet, because although I was happy for the characters who survived, I was aware they would live with the events of Katyn and Poznan for the rest of their lives. This beautifully written and respectful novel, honours those like my late father-in-law and Janina Lewandowska, who experienced these events and I would like to thank Carolyn Kirby for bringing their experience to life for readers.

Where We Belong by Anstey Harris #NetGalley #WhereWeBelong #SimonandSchuster

Amazingly, this is the first Anstey Harris novel I have read. I am now rushing back to read the others. This novel is magical, emotional and written with such sophistication and class. Cate and her son Leo are in a difficult situation. In the aftermath of her husband’s death, they are having to leave the home they can no longer afford to rent in London. As an emergency measure Cate has been granted permission to live in an apartment that’s part of her late husband’s ancestral home. The house is a museum with living quarters above, but it will be the first time Cate and Leo have ever been there. Due to a family disagreement between grandfather and grandson, Cate has never even visited Crouch-On-Sea or the museum that will be their home. Hugo, Leo’s great-grandfather, was an explorer and collector and in a way that would be totally unethical now, he brought back many species of animal to create incredible displays of the natural world. In a time when people couldn’t travel to far flung places, unless they were rich, he felt he was allowing them to know and understand the world better. In an odd piece of logic he felt he was preserving these varied species for the future.

We learn that Cate fell in love with Richard at first sight, and the instant connection was mutual. Cate was already going out with Richard’s best friend Simon and he had arranged to introduce them at a local pub. The connection was so strong that Cate explained to Simon straight away and he remained a loyal friend. The author very carefully places these reminiscences inbetween the here and now, so we follow Cate and Leo into their new lives, but continue to find out so much about what brought them there. Every now and again, the revelation makes us totally rethink the present. When the pair first arrive at the house and meet the faithful family retainer Araminta, she shows them to their rooms in the top of the house. The next morning she is there to show them the family kitchen downstairs. As the pair try not to break the priceless porcelain they must use, and Leo sneaks a second bowl of his sugary cereal, Cate relates to him in a way that makes me think he’s around ten years old. Then an extra chromosome is mentioned and I realised Leo is actually much older. This made me think about my own bias and how much we assume. As Cate remembers her pregnancy and Leo’s birth, it becomes clear that this was actually nineteen years ago. It also transpires that it is four years since Richard committed suicide after a long period of clinical depression. Before he died, in the Edwardian house that he and Cate renovated together, Simon and Cate fund hundreds of letters from banks and debt collection agencies. Richard owes hundreds of thousands and it is like this, on Christmas Eve, that Cate finds out they have lost the roof over their heads.

The book is a clever mix of these complex relationships and raw human emotions, with the fantastical and magical world of the museum. The author’s detailed and beautiful descriptions of the collections, particularly the animal galleries, are so vivid I can actually see them. By the end I started to imagine this was a real life place I might be able to visit. It reminded me of a visit to New Walk Museum in Leicester when I was six and an entrance hall full of stuffed animals so much bigger than me. The description of these displays had the same effect as I read them with the complete wonder of a child. There is also an incredible dream sequence that I had to read twice it was so beautifully done. The netsuke in the oriental gallery and the statues skating across the pond also have that magical feel. I love the slow unveiling of family secrets and the relationships that are being built, particularly between Araminta and Cate. The writing of Leo’s character is so sensitive and his development into a young man is shown to be as much about Cate starting to treat him this way, as it is about the new lease of life he gets from the museum. I loved reading about the friendships he forms, the art group and his relationship with Sophie, who is a wonderfully feisty creation.

We see Cate come alive again as she battles to relaunch and save the museum from imminent closure. There is even a touch of romance in the air as she meets a local artist, but this is mainly about Cate finding out who she is now. She’s deciding which parts to leave behind as experience and which to carry with her into the future. The most heartbreaking truths don’t come out till the very end, one of which I expected, but the other is a sucker punch moment. It is so profoundly sad and borne out of such a great love, it could never be lost. Cate comes to realise that there will never be another relationship like the one she had with Richard. They were soulmates and that is rare. For now she has family, friends and a new home and Richard is part of everything that surrounds her, exactly where he should be.

Thank to Simon and SchusterUk and NetGalley for the chance to read an I corrected proof of this novel.

I Made a Mistake by Jane Corry

This was a book of two halves for me, until the very end when I became totally engaged in both stories. Poppy is our first narrator and she has an incredibly busy life. Once an aspiring actress, Poppy now runs an agency for extras while managing a busy home. Her husband Stuart has a time consuming career as a dentist, and they have two daughters, Melissa and Daisy. Both acknowledge that they couldn’t manage without the help they get from Stuart’s mum Betty who lives with them all and, between meditation and art classes, spends a lot of time with the girls. Poppy goes to an agency party and runs into old flame Matthew, who was her lover at drama school. Their relationship ended badly when Matthew started seeing another girl in their year, Sandra. Surely, by now though, they can have a civilised conversation at a party and just catch up like two old friends?

The story is told in alternate chapters starting with Poppy, then going back to the late 1960s/early 1970s with Betty, her mother-in-law. At first I felt more drawn in by Betty’s narrative. We travel back to her teenage years when she met Stuart’s father Jock. Poppy has always thought that Betty and Jock were a lovely welcoming couple. Stuart took her back home when they first starting dating at University. We learn that Betty was in love with Jock, and was so happy when he asked her to marry him. Her dad insists on a two year engagement and Jock agrees to wait. However, once the marriage comes closer, he starts to make demands that change Betty’s life. She loves her work in the department store and often models hats for them, as well as enjoying a social life with the other girls. Jock decides that he doesn’t want her to carry on working after they’re married. He insists she doesn’t need to, she’ll have enough to do keeping the flat clean and besides, he doesn’t want people to think he can’t afford to keep his wife. Betty loves her work, but knows how much Jock wants to get on at work and impress the bosses, so she gives up work. This is just the beginning.

I struggle with Poppy’s narrative at first because she seems to act without really thinking through her actions. It’s clear that both she and Stuart work very long hours, even into the evening. It means they are more like flat mates than lovers, but she hasn’t dared to discuss this with him. Without Betty’s help, they would not be able to work the way they do, and their daughters are losing out on quality time with both of them. Melissa, their eldest daughter, is more likely to talk to Betty than her Mum. Back home, her Dad lives alone and is experiencing dementia symptoms. He has a friend a few houses away who checks on him, but there have been times lately when she’s had to drop everything and rush over there. She has enough problems already, but then as soon as she meets Matthew she makes life even more complicated. In order to get over the embarrassment of seeing him, she has slightly too much to drink. The drink and a sudden snowfall, mean she ends up having to book a room at the hotel for the night. This means she can stay up late and drink even more. Matthew tells her that he married Sandra, but she was diagnosed with MS several years ago and he is now her carer. He makes it clear he finds Poppy attractive, but she resists his advances. She is flattered though, and with her own relationship under strain, will she succumb to his persuasion?

Slowly, we start to see parallels between Betty and Poppy’s stories. As Jock became more controlling and abusive, Betty started a friendship that lead to her own temptation. We realise that she knows more about her son and Poppy than either of them realise. She is watching them grow apart and desperately wants them to fix it. She spent a long time in a loveless relationship, and wants better for them. We learn that Betty longed for a daughter, but that was impossible. When Stuart brought Poppy home she saw a chance to have that mother-daughter relationship she’d always wanted. She recognised that Stuart loved this girl, but also that he probably wasn’t her first choice. Betty suspected that Poppy had been in love and hurt very badly, so felt a kinship with her. She makes a really wise observation that it takes a long time to fully understand relationships, but when we do, we’re so old that the next generation isn’t listening to us. We become irrelevant. So we’re doomed to see the next generation repeat our mistakes. Betty isn’t going to let that happen.

I liked the way the author ramps up the tension as the novel continues, and it was the need to know what happened next that kept me reading. I knew something terrible was going to happen, and as soon as I saw the new chapter based in a courtroom I was hooked. I wanted to know who ends up in court and what they’d done. I thought all along it was one character, but it was someone else. There are a series of further reveals, around each character. Matthew is lying and manipulating all the way along and I didn’t see full extent of his deception coming. Stuart seems very secretive and it takes till the very end for Poppy to understand why her marriage has been struggling for so long. Betty’s story was heartbreaking though, and I really identified with her terrible situation. My mum and I often have conversations about how different life was for women of her generation, and how much more difficult it was to escape abusive relationships. Women didn’t have the financial independence, plus there were societal pressures. Psychological abuse wasn’t recognised and coercive control has only been recognised in law for about eight years. Pressure to stay in a marriage often came from the woman’s own family, just as Betty’s mother advises. It’s only when Jock goes too far that Betty’s mum actually intervenes and gives advice and support.

My heart went out to Betty, especially knowing how haunted she was by her own mistakes. It’s these mistakes that help her understand Poppy and want to help her, but does that help go too far? I liked that in Poppy’s narrative, Betty seems like a helpful and caring grandma who loves crafts and spending time with her granddaughters. It shows how we often see those older than us in one dimension, when there is so much more beneath the surface. I think the depiction of modern family life is quite accurate, in that it can sometimes take drastic events before we realise we’ve been taking our partners for granted. Poppy also realises that she’s missed out on so much of her daughter’s childhood and she only knows about Melissa’s crush on a boy at school through Betty. The author highlights the terrible modern dilemma of those of us in the middle – people who have children still living at home and also caring responsibilities for ailing parents. Poppy, and her husband, are proof that it’s impossible to have it all and perhaps a literary lesson on needing some balance in our lives.

Conjure Women by Afia Atakora #Fourth Estate #ConjureWomen #NetGalley

This wonderful debut novel was an unexpected, but very welcome, surprise. Set in a tumultuous period of history, before and after the American Civil War, this book is different because it focuses on the female perspective of these events. Miss May Belle and her daughter Rue live at Manse Charles’s plantation in the Deep South. In the slave quarter’s the women share a hut to themselves which is seen as a great privilege. Miss May is valuable because she is a midwife and healer, as well as a conjuror of curses. If asked whether her daughter shares her abilities, Miss May tells them that her knowledge:

Keeps my child in his ownership and makes her worth the owning’.

Miss May’s story takes place pre-war, then we follow Rue into the post-war period where she carries on her mother’s work. Before this she was often found playing alongside Miss Varnia, Manse Charles’s daughter. Rue takes over from Miss May after her man is hanged and she can no longer partake in the joy of the mothers and their babies. Even though the plantation slaves were freed after the war, Rue is at the mercy of her incredible gift.

She was born to healing and stuck to it for life …a secret curse of her own making’. It really is a curse when Rue helps in the birth of a baby born with startling black eyes seen as a sign of evil.

The author delves into an unexpected result of the Civil War, some people brought up in slavery struggled with their freedom. Rue is one of these people, finding that freedom has a weight and responsibility she didn’t expect. May’s chapters are titled ‘Slaverytime’ and Rue’s are ‘Freedomtime’ to make the distinction and show the huge shift. The change was often not as positive as we imagine. It brought to mind The Long Song by Andrea Levy where the slave rebellion happens and they move into employment. However, the pay was so low and masters created rents so high that most families were worse off than before when they had free lodgings and food. It’s clear this book is drawn from a huge amount of primary source material of the period, such as diaries or autobiographies written from oral accounts. The author really captures the oral tradition, with a narration that’s quite hazy and long winded. At first I thought the haziness was meant to echo the heat filled haze in the air, but on reading the background it was meant to give me the sense of old fashioned storytelling. The author managed to take me straight to a sense of time and place. The inclusion of minister Bruh Abel also shows how a mix of people’s Christian beliefs, animistic traditions and folk practices came together to create a complex culture. The split time frame creates tension as discoveries unfold and time period informs the other. This is a masterful piece of storytelling, with complex characterisation and a time brought vividly to life.

Ash Mountain by Helen Fitzgerald

Fran grew up in the small town of Ash Mountain and vowed never to go back, when she left for the big city. But, when her relationship ends and her father becomes terminally ill, she decides to leave her job and return to nurse him. In the intense heat of an Australian summer Fran will nurse her father, connect with her children, and fall in love. Yet all the time, there is the mounting tension of past secrets bubbling up to the surface and as the temperature soars ever higher, the threat of a catastrophic weather event that will change lives forever.

I hadn’t read any of Helen Fitzgerald’s work before, although I was familiar with the BBC adaptation of her novel The Cry which I found both disturbing and compelling at the same time. Ash Mountain is an unusual mix; part small town comedy, part family drama, part disaster movie. Yet it all works together perfectly. Fran is an immediately accessible character, in fact I’d have been happy to have her over for a bottle of wine. She’s a no bullshit, practical and funny woman. I imagine in the city she was formidable, but her home town is forcing her to be more open and vulnerable. In a small town everyone knows you and remembers every heartache and mistake of growing up. Fran’s growing up was harder than most since she had her first child, Dante, at fifteen after a brief first sexual encounter with one of the boarders at the Catholic school. The insult ‘Mountain Slut’ still rings in her ears. To make things worse,The Boarder is holding his wedding in town this weekend. The same parish priest, is still in residence and will remember Fran’s mortifying confession from all those years ago. Plus, there’s Brian Ryan (The Captain) who she likes in spite of herself, but their future rests on the small matter of whether his daughter Rosie and Fran’s daughter Vonny are starting a relationship of their own. That’s if they don’t fall out over who gets to wear a pair of red Dr Marten boots first.

As the days creep towards the wedding, the mercury rises and the locals are mindful of the weather getting out of hand. The story is told in short chapters that move back and forth in time. We’re aware of what is coming, but somehow instead of relieving the tension it seems to make it worse. We’re constantly aware that these characters have a finite amount of time, before disaster hits. That just as we’re getting to know them, their lives could be in real danger. It gives an immediacy to the novel. However, the thread of a mystery emerges from within the school, when Fran’s daughter Vonny is searching in a store room when she finds a series of boxes. Each box is covered in a collage and she finds one with Fran’s name on. Compelled to look inside, she sees photographs of a teenage Fran in her underwear. She takes one home and when Fran sees them it awakens something. A long lost memory of Sister, the sick room, and something about the blinds? Fran asks Vonny, how many other boxes she saw. She’s horrified to learn that there were dozens.

These characters felt so real, that it was almost like dropping in to someone’s life half way through. It felt that abrupt. I had the sense that they were living this life long before I happened upon them. The complexities of small town life were very well observed – having grown up in a village I know only too well how awkward it is to be around people that remember all your teenage escapades, however embarrassing. For Fran, being that pregnant teenager, with all its shame and humiliation, is something she has to remember every time she pops out for milk. Her tentative feelings for Brian are captured beautifully, but as their girls meet and hit it off straight away they’re unsure about being able to move forward. If Dante is well known as her teenage indiscretion, Fran is very proud of the way she parents Vonny with her friend Vincent. The author shows us how mixed race Aussies are still perceived by some people. When Vonny and Rosie ignore the sexual advances of a few male boarders by the pool, it gets ugly very quickly, The boys become even more interested when the girls begin kissing each other, thinking its a show put on for them. When they realise the girls are genuinely interested in each other they become abusive. They throw a few insults about the girl’s looks but when one of them calls Vonny an ‘abo’, Rosie’s fists start to fly. In the boarder’s eyes it seems the girls are the lowest of the low – local, small town, poor, not interested in them sexually and to top it all one is mixed race. It shows the complex hierarchical structures in Australian society of class, gender and race.

I didn’t know what a ‘fire storm’ was before I read the book, so it was a totally new and horrifying possibility. The term refers to a fire so strong that it generates its own weather system. This can occur as a result of a fierce bombing campaign, such as the one carried out on Hamburg in WW2. More commonly though it’s the result of a bush fire and combines intense heat and flames with storm force winds. The book was completed prior to the recent summer wild fires so wasn’t directly inspired by those events, but the thought of what people and animals went through is devastating. The incredible cover photo was taken at the time of bush fires and really brings home how terrifying it must be to see a sky full of fire. It had an immediate resonance for me with a famous scene from the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Where a fascinated little boy crawls out of the dog door to see the lights in the sky. In some ways that’s what reading this felt like. While, the Catholic Irish background was familiar to me, Australia felt a bit like an alien landscape. Reading this novel was an insight into that landscape, but also the unique culture. Every so often the odd touch of the familiar appeared – like an ostrich called Ronnie Corbett. Yes, the fire is expected, but despite all the measures taken to avoid it, its speed and power is relentless. The fear as it passes through town, taking some characters and leaving others, had my heart racing. However, it also delivers an incredible moment of retribution for one resident which is particularly satisfying. This is a rollercoaster ride of a novel, that rushes you towards an ending, then leaves you breathless.

The Carer by Deborah Moggach #TheCarer #BlogTour #TinderPress #RandomThingsTours

In this novel, Deborah Moggach brings a unique perspective to the experience of being in the ‘middle’ of life. Robert and Phoebe are juggling work, relationships, children and an ailing father who needs full time care since the death of their mother, Anna. Thankfully, Mandy the carer, comes into their lives and seems like the answer to their prayers. They hire her on the spot and she moves into the sibling’s childhood home, leaving Phoebe and Robert to get on with their own lives. Robert lives in London, with his wife Farida who is a famous breakfast newsreader. He spends his time in their garden shed writing a novel about rural Wales where they spent some of the happiest times of their childhood. Phoebe still lives in Wales and paints hares and badgers to sell in the local tourist shops. She’s unmarried, but is having secret trysts with an ageing hippy who looks like Iggy Pop. Their parents, James and Anna had a long, happy marriage signified by the love seat in the back garden. Their two children feel their own relationships suffer by comparison. James was a science professor, a very intelligent man who is given to reciting poetry. Robert feels inferior by comparison and Phoebe wonders whether there is any point to her art, or whether she’s just painting what sells. Meanwhile, James and Mandy seem to be getting on famously, often popping for days out together, usually to the garden centre which they both love.

Phoebe and Robert go back to their daily lives and visit James and Mandy at weekends. They’re both surprised at how well the pair are getting on. Mandy wears very odd clothing combinations, and expresses views about immigrants that James would usually find objectionable. Phoebe notices the pet names and in-jokes, whereas Robert notices that Mandy has been upstairs in their Dad’s room. When he investigates further, he finds that James’s papers and photos are spread out on the floor. Robert has always felt a distance between him and his father, remembering times when he wasn’t present for sports days. Phoebe remembers that he always seemed to be away at conferences. They’ve never been particularly close with each other, but their father’s relationship with Mandy brings them together. They’re suspicious, but wonder if it’s simply jealousy over Mandy’s seemingly easy relationship with him. At lunch one Sunday, when all four are together, Mandy mentions a visit to the solicitor and their suspicions deepen. Why didn’t they check her references properly? They know the answer. They were desperate and she seemed like a godsend. Now they are terrified that they’ve invited a cuckoo into the nest. What if Mandy coerces elderly people into giving her their money?

I expected the novel to follow the mystery set up in the first half, but then the author took the story in a completely different direction. I love being wrong footed like this by a book, and the story really takes off from here. The story becomes one of two marriages, with all their complications, peaks and troughs. Every single character is so believable and has a rich inner life that draws you in. Through these flawed and complicated characters the author gives real insight into the state of marriage and how the behaviour of parents impacts on their children. Mandy is particularly memorable with her odd dress sense, politically incorrect opinions and love of biscuits. The book is written with such a lightness of touch and is incredibly easy to read.. I loved how the book ended with yet another twist to the tale I didn’t expect. However, there is finally some resolution for the characters who find a state of peace and acceptance. As a therapist, the place we leave Robert and Phoebe feels like the aftermath of therapy, where the hard work is done and the client has reached a new understanding of themselves. The author brings them through a life-changing ordeal, but somehow we leave them in a happier place than they were before. This is a meaningful, insightful, and often comical novel, but with all the addictive twists and turns of a thriller

Dreamland by Nancy Bilyeau. #Dreamland

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.