Posted in Netgalley

The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn

This book feels like an epic. A familial version of The lliad, the very first play that Cristabel puts on in the family’s theatre by the beach, formed from the jawbones of a whale. It washed up on the beach and was claimed for the Seagraves by Cristabel who is the orphan cousin of the family. Cristabel doesn’t really fit anywhere. She loves adventure, activity, and endeavours, climbing, running and conquering the Seagrave estate rather than being the lady her stepmother would expect, if she could be bothered. The Seagrave children are an odd bunch, brought up by staff and each other, while their parents stay in bed late, are never without houseguests and like to drink as early as it is socially acceptable to do so. This is the story of the heir and the spare. Jasper Seagrave brings his new wife home to the Chilcombe Estate and Rosalind is thrown into being mistress of the house and stepmother to his daughter Cristabel. There are definite vibes of Rebecca in this beginning, with a much younger wife slightly overawed by her new home and struggling to find her place. The ghostly presence in this case being Cristabel, creeping round corridors and the attic, having ‘boy’s own’ adventures with imaginary friends. Rosalind is happy to have bagged an aristocratic husband, considering they’re in very short supply since the war. That is until the ‘spare’ arrives. Willoughby is everything his elder brother isn’t, a dashing war hero fascinated by speed whether it’s a new car or learning to fly. There’s an immediate attraction, deepening when Rosalind is on bed rest in the last stages of pregnancy and Willoughby keeps her company. Is the Chilcombe estate about to lapse into scandal and what will become of Cristabel?

Joanne Quinn’s incredible debut begins at the end of WW1 and takes us all the way through WW2. The attention to detail is incredible and I felt completely immersed in this family’s history and the times they’re living in. This period saw huge changes for the aristocracy, often forced by the loss of two generations and bankruptcy due to death duties. Estates were sold off or had their use changed in order for the family to survive. The class boundaries became blurred as servants and masters fought together and unexpected bonds were created. Women had grown used to different roles, possibly nursing or working in factories or shops, and not all wanted to go back to a domestic role. There were also less men, so the marriage market changed and many society women, like Rosalind, had to be open to marrying men they might have previously overlooked. The author reinforces this sense of change by echoing it in the setting. When Rosalind first arrives at Chilcombe she is disappointed in the old fashioned country decor, all wood panelling and animal heads. She gradually brings the house into the 1920s with glamorous furniture and wallpaper, perhaps more suited to a London house than the country estate. The animals are banished to the attic, including a stuffed baby elephant on wheels intended as a gift to Cristabel from her mother. In fact Cristabel herself is treated rather like an unwanted piece of decor, stuffed into the attic with only the maid Maudie for company, her tomboyish ways out of step with her elegant and ethereal stepmother. As war looms again, the estate changes accordingly, with its garden turned over to vegetables and the people left behind pulling together as a team whether they are a Seagrave or the servants. They find themselves communing together in the kitchen, with all the elegant furniture sitting around like a piece of jewellery that’s too dressy for everyday wear.

The Seagrave children are the main focus of the novel, Cristabel, Flossie and Digby, each one a cousin or half-sibling they cleave together tightly due to parental neglect. Flossie is the child of Jasper Seagrave and Rosalind and I did find my heart warming to her. Nicknamed ‘The Veg’ thanks to an unfortunate resemblance to a vegetable when she was a baby, I sensed Flossie’s vulnerability. Her mother is beautiful and willowy, a perfect shape for her time, rather like an Art Deco statuette, but Flossie hasn’t inherited that elegance or poise. She’s rather like her father Jasper, a little bit awkward and not very good at asserting herself. WW2 tests Flossie’s metal and she responds with duty, grit and determination. It’s as if by pulling on her old clothes, mucking in with the servants and creating her garden at the whalebones she finds herself and becomes okay with who she is. Her friendship she cultivates with the German prisoner of war is so touchingly beautiful and fleeting. She’s a good person who can see the best traits in someone and bring them out. With both siblings away on special operations, it’s Flossie who has to find a way of keeping Chilcombe and run the estate. Digby, the son of Rosalind and Willoughby Seagrave, has the advantages of being the son and heir, but also seems like the one Seagrave who was wanted. Cristabel, belonging to Jasper and his first wife, is almost invisible. The chapter where her parents meet is unbelievably touching and I found myself bereft for Cristabel, because she would never know how much she was loved and wanted. Flossie is perhaps a reminder of those months when Rosalind was Jasper’s wife, something she seems to view with distaste. Digby could have been resented by his siblings, but both girls adore him. His love for acting shines through from being a little boy, when the theatre has a profound effect on him. So much so, that he’s still on the stage years later. To some extent, Cristabel is his parent and he looks up to her, happy to follow on in whatever escapade she has planned next.

It is Cristabel who is the hero of this book, from the child who has to crawl in bed with one of the maids for comfort and affection, to a special operative in occupied France, she is a survivor. Full of ideas, her determination to claim the beached whale is almost comical, couched in the very male language of expedition and discovery. Once only the bones are left, it takes someone equally creative and energetic to help establish the Whalebone Theatre. A visiting artist, scandalously living in the cottage with his wife and identical twin lovers, imagines walking through the creatures jawbone to reach the theatre (a space repurposed for Flossie’s vegetable garden during WW2). They create a script from Homer’s work and utilising Rosalind’s skills and interest in design, make a seating area and light the way to a stage that has the sea as a backdrop. Their plays succeed in bringing everyone together in the endeavour, each with a part to play whether it’s on stage, setting up, or making flyers for the village. These happy parts of her childhood take on such a nostalgic element, especially years later when she’s crouched in a ditch in occupied France trying to survive. There’s a sense in which the whole ensemble and even the villagers bring up this little girl and I loved the knowing way people would assume some daring escapade was the work of Miss Cristabel. I felt most sorry for her when we learn that her story could have been so different. Jasper is knocked off his feet by this woman who wants to talk to him at the hunt and appears immune to the charms of his notorious brother. The paragraph where Jasper recalls how in tune they both were and how brilliant and capable she was of running the estate with him. I can see a great deal of her mother in Cristabel and I was moved by the joy they felt in finding out they were going to be parents. The stuffed baby elephant they install with wheels for their baby shows that they imagine her like a little Maharaja, riding her elephant around the house.

Cristabel’s war years are incredibly intrepid and there are scenes where I was scared for her. The languid inter-war years seem decadent by comparison with these more sparse and disjointed episodes showing all three Seagraves in different parts of the world. I thought the pace really picked up as we followed Cristabel on her missions, parachuting into occupied France as a messenger, often with German soldiers a hair’s breadth away from discovering her. One scene with a German officer is so real I felt sick for her! She proves that her ‘adventures’ were not just an affectation. She is willing to put herself on the line, proving her aptitude for work as a operative, but also such incredible bravery. The final days of Nazi rule in Paris are tense, nail-bitingly so, but I didn’t fear for her. I had a sense Cristabel would survive no matter what. I thought this was an incredible depiction of life through the war, whether from Flossie’s more domestic side including service as a land girl to Cristabel and Digby’s seemingly more dashing exploits. His sister’s determination to find Digby showed that these children loved and cared for each other so deeply, probably because they had been left to their own devices. For Cristabel, it is servant Maudie who shows her what a mother’s love should look like and she in turn, mothers her little brother and sister. The author shows what a toll both wars took on people and the rapid changes they forced on society. I won’t reveal whether any of our characters survive, but Cristabel remembers a saying, that war can bring out the best in people. There are those who shine through difficult days and in their own ways I think the Seagrave children all stepped up to the mark. Most importantly the loving bond they had as children, stood firm and could not be broken.

Published 9th June 2022 by Fig Tree (Penguin)

Meet The Author

Joanna Quinn was born in London and grew up in Dorset, in the South West of England, where her “brilliant, beguiling” debut novel The Whalebone Theatre is set. 

Joanna has worked in journalism and the charity sector. She is also a short story writer, published by The White Review and Comma Press among others. She teaches creative writing and lives in a village near the sea in Dorset.

Posted in Netgalley

Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow

Joan can’t change her family’s past.
But she can create her future.

Joan was only a child the last time she visited Memphis. She doesn’t remember the bustle of Beale Street on a summer’s night. She doesn’t know she’s as likely to hear a gunshot ring out as the sound of children playing. How the smell of honeysuckle is almost overwhelming as she climbs the porch steps to the house where her mother grew up. But when the front door opens, she does remember Derek.

This house full of history is home to the women of the North family. They are no strangers to adversity; resilience runs in their blood. Fifty years ago, Hazel’s husband was lynched by his all-white police squad, yet she made a life for herself and her daughters in the majestic house he built for them. August lives there still, running a salon where the neighbourhood women gather. And now this house is the only place Joan has left. It is in sketching portraits of the women in her life, her aunt and her mother, the women who come to have their hair done, the women who come to chat and gossip, that Joan begins laughing again, begins living.

Memphis is a celebration of the enduring strength of female bonds, of what we pass down, from mother to daughter. Epic in scope yet intimate in detail, it is a vivid portrait of three generations of a Southern black family, as well as an ode to the city they call home.

There’s a point in this book where Miriam remembers her mother Hazel waking her up, leaving her little sister August asleep in bed, then she fixed her a breakfast fit for a king. There were green tomatoes and grits, spicy pork and scrambled eggs, and they were chatting like a normal day. Miriam was distracted by the delicious meal and didn’t notice her mother running the tap. Then suddenly she threw a whole jug of cold water over her daughter. Miriam thought her mother had lost her mind. All she said was ‘you ready’ and that afternoon took her to her first activist’s sit in. Miriam’s experience is similar to the one I had reading this incredible book. I’d just settled into the story when suddenly something was revealed that was so momentous I would have to take a moment, blind-sided by what had just happened. Memphis is the home of three generations of African-American women from grandmother Hazel, her two daughters Miriam and August, and Miriam’s daughters Myra and Joan. Their personal lives are set against a backdrop of American history from the early 1950s through to the 2000s, taking in world-changing events like the Kennedy assassinations and 9/11. Told in sections from each woman’s viewpoint, Stringfellow takes us back and forth across the 20th Century. Each step back in time informs the present, showing us where Joan has come from and each day forward moves Joan into her future.

I loved the earliest years where grandmother Hazel meets Myron and they fall in love. Their courtship is so sweet and has an innocence about it and I think that’s what makes later events such a shock. The fact that Myron has come so far and become part of law enforcement in those times feels like such an incredible achievement. Your fellow officers are supposed to be your brothers, but despite working alongside him, this all white squad don’t count him as one of them. We don’t see the lynching, but we don’t need to. Our place is with the women of this story. Hazel is nine months pregnant, filled with grief, anger and a frustration borne from knowing that whatever you achieve, however loud you scream, your achievement and voice mean nothing. The author managed to deeply touch me with that sense of powerlessness. There’s such a maelstrom of emotions when she gives birth: knowing this little girl will never know her daddy; wishing Myron was there to support her; the fear of knowing she’s alone as a parent and her girls depend on her; the joy of this new life coming into the world. These women feel so real because Stringfellow cleverly evokes the complexity of human emotions, it’s rare that we only feel one at a time. In grief we can still feel moments of joy and even if we are happy, there can be moments of doubt or fear. Such moments of inner conflict follow us into the second generation of women, sisters Miriam and August. When Miriam escapes domestic violence, returning to the house Myron built in Memphis, she’s torn in two directions. She really has nowhere else to go and she longs for home and the consolation and support of her sister, but Joan has a moment of recognition. Have they been here before? The truth is they have.

The women in this family are strong and they need to be. Some of what happens to them over their three generations is terrible and you will probably have a good cry like I did. I was touched by what Hazel, Miriam and Joan go through, but there were also quieter struggles that touched me such as August’s decision to care for her mother, the loneliness she must feel with both her mum and sister gone, the fear she feels for her son Derek, growing up as a black man in a place where shootings and gangs are commonplace. Her mixed feelings of guilt, anger and love that come with being a mother of a son who does things that are unforgivable. I also loved the camaraderie of her salon and the strength she gets from the women who are her customers and her community. I was touched by her ability to take pleasure and solace when it’s offered, despite it not being the love and companionship she craves – from the women in her life. The pain these women go through makes the good times even more enjoyable and I really felt the joy and relief when they came out of a tough time. The author manages to capture that sense of peace I have seen in my counselling room, when the long held fear, anger and shame that comes from trauma is finally let go. That need for revenge finally silenced. The chance for joy and celebration to fill the void left behind and communing with others who know your journey.

“𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘧𝘳𝘢𝘮𝘦𝘥 𝘳𝘦𝘤𝘰𝘳𝘥 𝘤𝘰𝘷𝘦𝘳𝘴 𝘰𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘸𝘢𝘭𝘭𝘴 𝘴𝘩𝘰𝘰𝘬 𝘸𝘪𝘵𝘩 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘭𝘢𝘶𝘨𝘩𝘵𝘦𝘳. 𝘓𝘢𝘶𝘨𝘩𝘵𝘦𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘸𝘢𝘴, 𝘪𝘯 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘰𝘧 𝘪𝘵𝘴𝘦𝘭𝘧, 𝘉𝘭𝘢𝘤𝘬. 𝘓𝘢𝘶𝘨𝘩𝘵𝘦𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘤𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘥 𝘣𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘬 𝘨𝘭𝘢𝘴𝘴. 𝘓𝘢𝘶𝘨𝘩𝘵𝘦𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘤𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘥 𝘶𝘱𝘭𝘪𝘧𝘵 𝘢 𝘧𝘢𝘮𝘪𝘭𝘺. 𝘈 𝘤𝘢𝘤𝘰𝘱𝘩𝘰𝘯𝘺 𝘰𝘧 𝘉𝘭𝘢𝘤𝘬 𝘧𝘦𝘮𝘢𝘭𝘦 𝘫𝘰𝘺 𝘪𝘯 𝘢 𝘭𝘢𝘯𝘨𝘶𝘢𝘨𝘦 𝘱𝘳𝘪𝘷𝘢𝘵𝘦 𝘵𝘰 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘮.”⁣

Meet the Author

Former attorney, Northwestern University MFA graduate, and Pushcart Prize nominee Tara M. Stringfellow’s debut novel Memphis (Dial Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House) is a multi-generational bildungsroman based on the author’s rich Civil Rights history. A recent winner of the Book Pipeline Fiction Contest, Memphis was recognized for its clear path to film or TV series adaptation and is due out in 2022. Third World Press published her first collection of poetry entitled More than Dancing in 2008. A cross-genre artist, the author was Northwestern University’s first MFA graduate in both poetry and prose and has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, as well as Best of the Net. Her poems have appeared in Collective Unrest, Jet Fuel Review, Minerva Rising, Women’s Arts Quarterly, Transitions and Apogee Journal, among others.

If she isn’t writing, she’s gardening. If she’s isn’t in Memphis, she’s in Italy.

Posted in Netgalley

Little Sister by Gytha Lodge.

Two sisters went missing. Only one of them came back . . .
________

A teenage girl wanders out of the woods.

She’s striking, with flame-red hair and a pale complexion. She’s also covered in blood.

Detective Jonah Sheens quickly discovers that Keely and her sister, Nina, disappeared from a children’s home a week ago. Now, Keely is here – but Nina’s still missing.

Keely knows where her sister is – but before she tells, she wants Jonah’s full attention . . .

Is she killer, witness, or victim?

And will Jonah find out what Keely’s hiding, in time to save Nina?

Last year I was lucky enough to receive a prize from Gytha Lodge and now have three of her hardbacks, all individually signed. I haven’t had chance to read them and as I was granted access to this fourth novel in the series on NetGalley I decided to dive in and hope it would work as a standalone novel. I needn’t have worried at all. This was immediately accessible, yes there were aspects of Jonah’s life that I’m looking forward to finding out more about, but on the whole I could enjoy the mystery without feeling like I didn’t know my protagonist.

The opening scene is absolutely brilliant, vivid and shocking at the same time. Jonah sits in a warm beer garden with his baby in a pram at his side. He’s musing on life and his recent choice to return to a relationship with the mother of his child, leaving behind a burgeoning relationship with Jojo who he misses enormously. It takes a moment for him to notice the young woman who has come into the garden. She has red hair and her hands and chest are covered in blood. While others simply stare in shock, Jonah rings his partner Michelle to pick up the baby, then moves over to the girl and offers to get her a drink. They sit and her story starts to come out, but this is going to be a tricky interview and investigation. Jonah wants to take his time, go gently and not rush this young woman, who could be a victim, but could also be a suspect. Then she makes a revelation. Her name is Keeley and her sister is Nina, this could be Nina’s blood and of course they need to find her, but first Keeley wants to tell them a story.

Nina and Keeley have spent their entire childhood in care. Bouncing from children’s home to foster parent, they seem to have been magnets for predators at an early age. There are two foster homes where their placement failed. One was at the Murray-Watts, who live in a large house in the country with their son Callum and the right type of Range Rover. However, Keeley remembers a regime of cruelty and starvation, where their foster father was always pitting the children against each other and for punishment would lock them in a dark basement for days. His wife Sally might not be so cruel, but she never failed to do his bidding. From there to the Pinders, their home is a huge contrast situated on a council estate. There the girls made a complaint of sexual assault against their foster father who groomed them with trendy clothes, alcohol and watched Gossip Girl with them. This was all fine until he started to want things in return. The problem with these accusations is that nobody believed them, and even though they were removed from the homes in question, no one was prosecuted. Jonah and his excellent team have to tread a very fine line. Keeley comes across as cold and calculating one moment, but then like a broken little girl the next. Which is an act? Or are they both the same girl? Either way she won’t compromise; Jonah listens to her full story or she won’t tell them where Nina is. Time is ticking and if Nina is severely injured will she last to the end of the story?

I thought Keeley was a fascinating character, psychologically flawed and clearly traumatised by their past, however much of it is true. The girl’s social worker seems very sure that all the claims are false, just girls making up stories. However, it’s clear that some aspects of the girls accusations are true. So, if someone makes multiple accusations does it mean they’re all false? The book kept me guessing and there were times when I wondered whether I even trusted Keeley with her own sister. The chapters based around Jonah and the investigation are interspersed with Keeley’s first hand testimony. She shows all the traits of a psychopath; has she always been this way or has she been created by the treatment of those meant to care for her? If Nina has been subjected to the same treatment won’t she be afflicted psychologically too? I was also dying to know where these foster parents were. Pinder is giving the same story as the girl’s social worker, but the Murray-Watts have completely disappeared. Did the girls have help to weave a twisted treasure hunt for the police? I started to wonder if Keeley had known that Jonah was in the beer garden that day. She seems to be fascinated with his team so could one of them have come across the girls before?

There are some very dark stories here and they could be distressing for people who’ve gone through a similar experience, but it’s that darkness that keeps the reader wanting the truth and to see those responsible punished. If Keeley has planned how to elicit sympathy from the police, she certainly knows what she’s doing. As readers we are pulled along with Jonah from distress and empathy to disbelief and a sense that something is very, very wrong either with Keeley or the system. This is a great mystery, with huge twists in store and a police team I enjoyed getting to know. Now I’m looking forward to going back to the first novel in this series and filling in the gaps in my knowledge, while enjoying even more of this talented writer’s incredibly creative plots and dark, brooding atmosphere.

Meet The Author

Gytha Lodge is a multi-award-winning playwright, novelist and writer for video games and screen. She is also a single parent who blogs about the ridiculousness of bringing up a mega-nerd small boy. 

She has a profound addiction to tea, crosswords and awful puns. She studied English at Cambridge, where she became known quite quickly for her brand of twisty, dark yet entertaining drama. She later took the Creative Writing MA at UEA. 

Her debut crime novel, She Lies in Wait, has been published by Penguin Random House in the US and UK, and has also been translated into 12 other languages. It became an international bestseller in 2019, and was a Richard and Judy book club pick, as well as a Sunday Times and New York Times crime pick. 

Watching From the Dark, her second novel, was released in February 2020, with her third book lined up for spring of 2021. This fourth novel is published on 28th April 2022.

Posted in Netgalley

Miss Aldridge Regrets by Louise Hare

London, 1936

Lena Aldridge is wondering if life has passed her by. The dazzling theatre career she hoped for hasn’t worked out. Instead, she’s stuck singing in a sticky-floored basement club in Soho and her married lover has just left her. She has nothing to look forward to until a stranger offers her the chance of a lifetime: a starring role on Broadway and a first-class ticket on the Queen Mary bound for New York.

After a murder at the club, the timing couldn’t be better and Lena jumps at the chance to escape England. Until death follows her onto the ship and she realises that her greatest performance has already begun.

Because someone is making manoeuvres behind the scenes, and there’s only one thing on their mind…

MURDER

Miss Aldridge Regrets is the exquisite new novel from Louise Hare. A brilliant murder mystery, it also explores class, race and pre-WWII politics, and will leave readers reeling from the beauty and power of it.

This is one of my most anticipated books of the year, mainly based on how much I loved her debut This Lovely City, but also because I loved the sound of this mix of historical fiction and murder mystery. It doesn’t disappoint and really has the feel of an Agatha Christie novel, not just the plot either, but the glamorous location, the wealthy passengers and the sumptuous descriptions of their clothes and jewellery. The story has its period detail spot on whether it’s the latest bathing suit or 1930’s politics. Woven within this whodunnit are themes of identity, belonging, family and class division. It’s gripping without being showy or depending on shocks, or endless twists and turns. It’s elegant and allows it’s secrets to unfurl slowly.

Lena is a sympathetic character, who has sacrificed the start of her own career to care for her father Alfie who has recently died after a long illness. In order to pay the bills Lena has worked with the club band, but she has ambition and has always wanted to work in the theatre, preferably the bright lights of the West End or Broadway. We get the sense that she’s good enough too. We meet her first as she embarks on her voyage across the Atlantic with a theatre producers assistant, strangely named Charlie Bacon. Charlie has offered her the chance of a lifetime, a part on Broadway in a new musical. This is a favour from Charlie’s boss who once knew Alfie and felt he owed him for an old transgression. The cabin is first class and Lena has never had such luxury, in fact she has a suitcase of clothes from best friend Maggie because she didn’t own anything grand enough for the first class dining room of the Queen Mary. There’s a sense in which she doesn’t feel like herself, sailing on someone else’s charity, in grand society and in someone else’s clothes. She then finds herself dining with the Abernathy’s. The head of this wealthy family is their father Frank, now disabled due to a stroke (apoplexy) but once an absolute tyrant and still uses the family riches to manipulate his children and grandchildren. Alongside the family are Frank’s assistant Daisy and his own private doctor.

At first Lena is a little intimidated by this entitled and often quite unpleasant bunch. This is a mix of knowing she isn’t of the same class, perhaps opting to gravitate towards Daisy and Dr. Wilding who are the help. However, Lena’s whiff of stardom seems to satisfy the family that she is suitable company and she’s certainly glamorous enough to fit in. However, there’s also the question of race, brought to the fore when Lena encounters one of the ship’s band Will. Will isn’t fooled by glamour or the first class ticket when they meet out on the deck by accident. He doesn’t even ask, simply identifies her as black like him. At first she denies this, not wanting to be found out. Lena has always been able to ‘pass’ because she is so light skinned, but later when she sees Will again she trusts him a little more and owns her identity. It brings home to us the difficulties of being mixed race, perhaps worse for Lena who has never known her mother and didn’t grow up with that side of her identity explored. We can only imagine the taboo nature of a relationship between a black man and a white woman in the early 20th Century, a time when eugenics was gaining a foothold on both sides of the Atlantic. There is discussion at the dinner table of Adolf Hitler and his successes in improving German life after WW1, but this is the run up to WW2 and knowing what comes next in the name of racial purity made this a sobering experience as a reader. Lena isn’t just playing with identity here, in America it may have an impact on her ambitions and her place in society. As Will observes its okay for the black men of the band to entertain the rich and white passengers, but not to fraternise with them and he’s very careful that he and Lena are not seen together. However, when Lena is asked down to steerage for an evening of music in the bar there, it is the most fun she seems to have on the whole voyage. It’s the only time she’s not on tenterhooks and can relax. She feels like she’s with her own kind – people without money and influence, people who scrape by, who play music and really let their hair down.

Yet, she is accepted upstairs and is a hit with both Eliza Abernathy and her daughter Carrie. Lena is invited to tea, asked to go bathing and meets up for drinks. She likes Carrie who seems so young and controlled by her family, desperate for some company of her own age. Eliza is Frank’s daughter, rather aloof at first and seemingly unaware that her husband is seducing Frank’s assistant Daisy when no one is looking. None of the family seem particularly happy, with a lot of sniping at dinner and all the vices of drinking, gambling and … It makes Lena nostalgic for her father and the easy way they got along, and also Maggie who despite her difficult marriage and the terrible drama of her husband Tommy’s recent murder, has always been like a sister to Lena. It’s a huge shock when the rich family patriarch starts to choke at dinner. Dr. Wilding springs into action, but it becomes clear nothing is obstructing his airway and he starts to foam at the mouth. Lena is horrified, he’s acting the same way Tommy did and rather horrifically he dies at the table. An investigation is started immediately and everyone is interviewed. We are privy to Lena’s thoughts and she’s terrified that what happened at the club has happened again here. She didn’t poison him, but maybe someone knows something about Tommy’s murder. Are they taunting her? Is this something to do with her? Surely its too much of a coincidence. The proximity of the group and the inability to get off the boat adds to the tension of the novel. Who will be next?

I thought the mystery was well thought out and unexpected too. There were a couple of moments where I wanted to shake Lena or shout at her not to do something. It really brings home to us that here Lena is alone in this new life. She’s without family and friends to protect or support her. As the bodies begin to pile up I was asking questions of everyone in the party, even Lena herself – could she be an unreliable narrator, committing crimes without really knowing? It all seemed such a big coincidence, but then when the revelations started coming it all made sense. I can honestly say I didn’t have a clue what was coming for Lena’s private life, or who was next in the murderer’s firing line. I thought the pace was perfection and the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Queen Mary, however luxurious, really added to the tension. The opulence of the setting, the fashion and Lena’s new wardrobe are dazzling and so perfectly in tune with the time period. I loved the author’s depiction of difficulties in identity and the distinctions of race and class for these passengers. The contradiction that the band are allowed to entertain first class passengers, but not sit with them, is something that will stay with me. As will the idea of ‘passing’, an interesting part of my own identity as someone with an invisible disability who sits uncomfortably between people with disabilities and the able-bodied. I loved This Lovely City and I think with this novel Louise Hare has repeated her success. I’ve already ordered my special signed copy, because this is definitely a keeper.

Published by HQ 28th April 2022

Meet The Author

Louise Hare is a London-based writer and has an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck, University of London. Originally from Warrington, the capital is the inspiration for much of her work, including This Lovely City, which began life after a trip into the deep level shelter below Clapham Common. This Lovely City was featured on the inaugural BBC TWO TV book club show, Between the Covers, and has received multiple accolades, securing Louise’s place as an author to watch. Miss Aldridge Regrets is her second novel.

Posted in Netgalley

The Birdcage by Eve Chase

Eve Chase’s new novel had all the ingredients of a perfect read for me – quirky bohemian family, unconventional artistic father, large Cornish house and family secrets that have haunted his daughters for years. It’s the psychological impact of these family secrets that really make the novel. The story is told in a dual timeline, in the present Lauren, Kat and Flora are returning to Rock Point, her father’s mansion house on the Cornish Coast. He has invited them after many years away from the house, following a terrible incident that occurred on the day of the eclipse in August 1999. The events of this day are told in our second timeline. Lauren is the youngest by a few years, and on that day she was an adolescent , while her half-sisters Flora and Kat are older teenagers. Each girl has a different mother and their overlapping ages show the sexual profligacy of their father Charlie, a well-known artist. As he sits down with his three adult daughters, Charlie has a big announcement for them. The girls are expecting an illness or plans concerning his artwork, but they have a shock in store.

The complexity of this family’s relationships is at the core of this novel and I really enjoyed going back in time to work out why and how each woman’s personality was formed. On the surface Flora is the most conventional sister, with a husband and young son Raff, but is everything at home as happy as it seems on the surface? Kat is the most career minded sister having developed a well-being app. She is constantly checking her phone and looking for a reliable signal so she can work, but is she just busy or is the world of well-being more stressful than it should be? Lauren has had the most recent difficulties in life, nursing her mother Dixie who was terminally ill. After moving into a local hospice Dixie died, and although Flora invited her for Christmas Lauren didn’t come. These women are anxious to be together again. Flora and Kat used to tease Lauren, even bully her a little bit. The reasons for this become clearer, but Lauren has always thought it was about Dixie. Dixie was different to me 6 hCharles’s usual choice in women, she was unadorned apart from piercings, kept her hair shorter and was artistic in her own right. Indeed Charlie is touchingly affected by her death and seems to regard this separation as something he most regrets in life. Each sister’s personality fits perfectly with their back story: Flora’s hesitancy and submissive nature; Kat’s avoidance and distraction, creating workaholic tendencies; Lauren’s phobias, which are usually under control, but thanks to Bertha the parrot and the wealth of seabirds surrounding their home it can be a problem. The parrot has other tricks as well, mimicking the house’s occupants with phrases that only one person knows are true or false.

I thought the pace was clever, becoming more urgent in the past and present day at once propelling the reader towards the eclipse event and the effect of it’s revelations in the present. What was particularly clever was the way some people are only revealed in all their complexity, in the present. Angie, who worked as their au pair, was disliked by Lauren when she was a child. Lauren sensed her duplicitous nature and knew she wasn’t really there for them, describing her as hungry to get to Charlie like an art groupie. However, as an adult Lauren can see that this was more complicated and how she didn’t understand adult relationships. There’s a shift in years and awareness, where Lauren and her sisters can now see that Charlie wasn’t just a man beleaguered by women throwing themselves at him. He is an active participant in these complicated affairs and in bringing these girls into the world. He’s even passive at their visits, always pleased to see them but never negotiating with exes, or organising the logistics. Their gran does all the work, leaving Charlie free to paint in his studio, a place where only his models and Lauren are welcome. He’s never taken responsibility for his actions and as events unfold it’s possible that those actions have created a perfect storm of sibling jealousy and conflict.

That eclipse summer, Charlie has asked his three daughters to sit for a painting with the large ornamental birdcage. It’s the painting that will become his most well known and most valuable, in fact the girls are sorry it’s gone to art collector because as far as they know it’s his most personal. There’s a wealth of imagery in this painting, starting with the three sister’s pose, sitting together but not touching, like three separate islands. There’s the solemnity behind it too, the girls are not talking or cracking a joke and all three are staring out towards the viewer. Or is it towards the painter? In feminist readings of visual arts the bird within a cage represents the imprisonment of women, but also the gilded frame through which we view femininity. We can’t know the painter’s intention, but by painting it next to his daughters is he acknowledging their freedom? Or could he be pointing out a sexual double standard? He has been free to create these overlapping lives without censure, whereas their mothers and the girls have borne the gossip, shaming, poverty and hardship that comes with being a single parent. They’ve had to hear the whispers and insults about their morals, while he has been free to carry on with only the reputation of being bohemian to his name. Or could the birdcage contain his secret? The consequences of this secret we see on eclipse day, although it isn’t fully revealed until the present when it puts Lauren and her nephew Raff in danger. Only then will Charlie have to deal with how his behaviour has affected others, like ripples on a pond. This was an engaging tale of complex family ties and the psychological effect of a parent’s action. It has all the bohemian glamour of a country house occupied by an artist and a gorgeous atmospheric setting in beautiful Cornwall. I was gripped to the final page, having felt an affinity with Lauren and Flora I wanted to know how their stories turned out and the epilogue brings a satisfying ending to this family saga.

Published by Penguin on 28th April 2022

Eve Chase is an author who writes rich suspenseful novels about families – dysfunctional, passionate – and the sort of explosive secrets that can rip them apart. She write stories that she’d love to read. Mysteries. Page-turners. Worlds you can lose yourself in. Reading time is so precious: I try to make my books worthy of that sweet spot – she says on her Amazon.com author page.

Her office is a garden studio/shed with roses outside. She lives in Oxford with her three children, husband, and a ridiculously hairy golden retriever, Harry. She invites readers to say hello. ‘Wave! Tweet me! I love hearing from readers’.

Eve is on Twitter and Instagram @EvePollyChase and on Facebook, eve.chase.author.

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

Theatre of Marvels by Leanne Dillsworth

You may have heard of Sarah Baartman, a Khoekhoe woman from South West Africa who was exhibited as a freak show attraction in 19th-century Europe under the name the Hottentot Venus. She was even exhibited after her death, with one showman dissecting her body and keeping her genitalia and skull. Another museum displayed her skeleton and a body cast, which were still exhibited up till the 1970’s. She was exhibited for her steatopygic body type, where body fat is concentrated on the bottom and thighs. This body type wasn’t seen in Europe and was perceived as a curiosity. She was also a subject of scientific interest, but through the gaze of racial bias and erotic projection. In the 19th Century her body could be viewed for two shillings and for a bit extra you could poke her with a stick. Her genitalia were of specific interest as they were said to show her sexual primitivism, although this was more about the men’s erotic projection than Sarah’s own sexuality or libido. Recently, black women in academia and culture have been using her story and reframing it as a source of empowerment, rejecting the ideals of white mainstream beauty, and embracing more curvaceous figures as a source of female beauty. This is the historical and social background that I had in mind while reading this fascinating debut novel from Lianne Dilsworth. I was swept up into her world straight away and my personal academic interest in disability and the display of ‘other’ bodies added to my enjoyment.

Our setting is a theatre and a group of performers from singers to magicians who perform a variety show under the watchful eye of Mr Crillick. His current headline act is Amazonia – a true African tribeswoman, dressed in furs and armed with a shield and spear, her native dancing brings down the house in Crillick’s show. The audience watch, transfixed with fear and fascination, never realising that she is a ‘fagged’ act. Zillah has never set foot in Africa and is in fact of mixed race heritage, born in East London. She is making her money by pretending to be what the, largely white, audience wants to see. It doesn’t sit well with Zillah, but she is alone in the world and does need to make money. Besides it’s better than the other options for a young woman who finds herself in poverty. She’s used to slipping between worlds on stage and in her private life, renting a room in the rough St Giles area of the city, but regularly making her way to a more salubrious area and the bed of a Viscount by night. She and Vincent have been lovers for some time, but he is estranged from his family and can easily keep her a secret, never even walking with her in public. Their shared bed is situated in the middle class home of her boss Crillick. Now, everything is about to change, as Zillah’s consciousness is raised in several ways.

First, she realises that Vincent will never admit to their relationship in public, as he yet again cancels plans to take her to Richmond for the day. Secondly, she meets a young black man called Lucien, who is campaigning in the street. He addresses her in Swahili, with a suggestion this may be the native language of her ancestors, and he places a question in her mind that she can’t shake off. How does it feel to earn money misrepresenting her ancestors? In fact she is representing her ancestors through the gaze of a white audience. The sense that this is wrong, has always been on the edge of her conscience, but Lucien gives her doubts a voice and opens a door towards embracing both sides of her identity. While she dismisses him at first, the thought of him seeing her as Amazonia seems to fill her with shame. Lucien is working on a campaign to relocate black and mixed race Londoners to Africa and the first site is in Sierra Leonne. Meanwhile, Crillick has returned from a trip abroad with shipping containers that suggest he’s been gathering props and it seems he’s been finding new acts too. He taunts Zillah with the suggestion he has found an act that may even eclipse her and one night at his house she sees a new act unveiled to a small group of people. She is horrified to see him parade a terrified women he’s called the ‘Leopard Lady’, with strange white patches all over her dark skin. The men in the party are fascinated, drawing near and touching her skin, even roughly scratching it to see if it comes off. When Zillah notices medical implements laid out on a tray, the horror of what might happen to this woman overwhelms her. She must rescue the Leopard Lady from Crillick’s clutches. There’s a freedom Zillah has compared to a lot of Victorian heroines we might remember, due to her station in life there are certain rules and etiquette of dress and behaviour that don’t apply. Although that freedom does come at a cost – poverty, not belonging anywhere, and the way she is viewed in more polite society. She knows that if she could be with someone like Lucien then she’d be settled in a place society expects of her, still in poverty but at least belonging to a community. Her feelings for Vincent can never come to anything, because his society would never accept her and they would always be a secret.

Through Zillah’s search for the Leopard Lady, we see the truth of a man wiling to make his money treating human beings as objects for display. Whereas before Zillah’s act has at least had the sheen of the theatre world, the Leopard Lady will not be afforded that excitement and sense of performance. This is because Zillah was acting a part, whereas this poor woman is being shown as she is because due to how she looks and where’s she’s from. Zillah chooses to put on her Amazonia costume and take to a stage, if living hand to mouth is ever a choice. Crillick’s plans revolve around his ‘Odditorium’, but in the meantime he plans to show his new acquisition privately to small groups of men. I could imagine these sordid gatherings taking place, with men enjoying an after dinner viewing where the woman is both viewed, potentially sexually assaulted and experimented on. It made me feel sick. I was willing Zillah on in her efforts to find and free the lady, and I found her quest tense and gripping. I thought Zillah’s awakening was handled really well, but I was in two minds about where I wanted her to story to end. Of course there’s an opportunity of relocation to a new life in Sierra Leone, but here I felt strangely similar feelings to those I had about another 19th Century heroine Jane Eyre. We know that Jane’s flight from Thornfield Hall, and the man she loves, is the right move for her. Yet despite the space and time it’s given her to process Rochester’s attempt at bigamy, I never warm to St John Rivers. Although he rescues her from the moors and gives her life purpose again, when he proposes, I can’t be the only reader who’s screaming ‘No’ in her head. As for Zillah, I though Lucien was a good, honest and intelligent man, but to me he feels like the wrong choice. The contrast between him and the passionate relationship she has with Vincent is rather like the two sides of her identity battling against each other. I was hoping that, for a while at least, she could find a way for herself, separate from them both.

This was an exciting and fascinating tale, with elements of the thriller and a central character who is resilient and brave in her quest. I found the settings of the theatre, and Crillick’s home, beautifully rich. Whereas the St Giles area is brought to life with descriptions of sights, smells, many bodies sharing rented rooms and even beds in an attempt to keep costs down. The author has backed up her tale with solid research into freak shows, the many layers of Victorian society and details of food, fashion and leisure time. Through her main character we get an insight into women’s lives, the realities of being bi-racial and the struggles of identity and belonging. I also enjoyed the themes of ‘otherness’ and how outsiders survive in society; the complexities of display and exploitation when weighed against poverty and deprivation. Can freak shows be acceptable if individuals make a choice to exhibit themselves? Or should any exhibition of ‘different’ bodies be unacceptable? This is a question that still needs debate in light of television shows that exhibit overweight and disabled bodies in a prurient way. I really liked Zillah‘s quest to rescue another woman in danger and her own personal journey too. I read this so quickly and will definitely be putting a finished copy on my bookshelves, because I know it’s one I’ll want to read again and again. I just know I’ll find more and more detail in this brilliantly atmospheric exploration of the dark corners of Victorian London.

Published Penguin 28th April 2022.

Meet The Author

Lianne Dillsworth

Lianne Dillsworth has MAs in Creative Writing and Victorian Studies and won a place on the London Library Emerging Writers Programme. She was first runner up in the 2020 SI Leeds Literary Prize for Black and Asian Women Writers in the UK. Lianne lives in London where she works on growing inclusion within the Civil Service. Theatre of Marvels is her debut novel.

Posted in Netgalley

The House at Helygan by Victoria Hawthorne

An atmospheric historical suspense novel rich with familial secrets. The House at Helygen is a twisted tale of dark pasts, murderous presents and uncertain futures.

2019

When Henry Fox is found dead in his ancestral home in Cornwall, the police rule it a suicide, but his pregnant wife, Josie, believes it was murder. Desperate to make sense of Henry’s death she embarks on a quest to learn the truth, all under the watchful eyes of Henry’s overbearing mother. Josie soon finds herself wrestling against the dark history of Helygen House and ghosts from the past that refuse to stay buried.

1881

Eliza is the new bride who arrives at Helygen House with excitement at the new life she’s embarked upon. Yet when she meets her new mother-in-law, an icy and forbidding woman, her dreams of a new life are dashed. And when Eliza starts to hear voices in the walls of the house, she begins to fear for her sanity and her life.

Can Josie piece together the past to make sense of her present, or will the secrets of Helygen House and its inhabitants forever remain a mystery?

1881. Harriet and Edmund Fox were the first owners of Helygen House, a country retreat that, as is the usual in moneyed families, has ever since passed down the to the eldest male heir. From the original owners in 1847, it then passed to Eliza and Cassius Fox in 1881. Eliza has to spend a lot of time alone, because Cassius is away looking after his business interests. Eliza starts to feel lonely and misses her family. Not only that, there’s an eerie feeling in the house and Eliza’s is sure she’s heard voices at night and a baby is crying. Eliza daren’t tell anyone as she thinks she might be going mad.

2019: Henry Fox is found dead at his ancestral home in Cornwall. The police are quick to rule out foul play, because it looks to them like suicide. His wife Josie, who is pregnant, won’t believe Henry has killed himself. Yet his mother Alice is satisfied with the suicide verdict. Josie finds it difficult to deal with this woman, who has always held herself above Josie, as if she wasn’t good enough to be part of the family. She knows how excited Henry was about becoming a father, they had spent so much time getting their apartment renovated and even had plans to start a business together at the house. Something isn’t right and even through her grief Josie is absolutely determined to find the truth. As far as she’s concerned there’s a murderer somewhere at Helygen. Her mother-in-law’s attitude hasn’t helped Josie settle, but she has to admit the atmosphere has always been strange. There’s a strange feeling she can’t place, a haunting perhaps?

I enjoy dual timelines and this is a triple as we alternate between the 1840’s, the 1880’s and the present. It’s important that each timeline is equally interesting so it doesn’t just feel like a narrative device. Here I think they work. It feels as if Eliza and Josie are working together, even though they’re separated by centuries. Both are convinced that Helygen House has a dark past, that still lingers within the walls. The many tragic deaths over the years are starting to look sinister, even if it is just the eerie sensation and the voices driving occupants towards madness. There are enough family secrets to keep the tale moving forward and there is a continuous feeling of suspense to keep the reader wanting one more chapter. I loved the added theme of motherhood and how it might feel to be a new mum in a house like this one, where it really can’t help when sleeplessness and night feeds are brought into the mix. The place feels suitably Gothic whichever timeline you’re in and from the start I believed in this world completely. It does keep the reader guessing and I found myself wanting to know if the storyline resolved itself for both women. It was also interesting to add in the question of women’s rights in past centuries and compare it to the present day. A great, suspenseful and spooky novel with the gorgeous backdrop of Cornwall.

Published 14th April 2022 Quercus

Meet The Author


Victoria Hawthorne is a pseudonym of bestselling psychological suspense author Vikki Patis. She writes atmospheric historical suspense rich with familial secrets and strong female protagonists. THE HOUSE AT HELYGEN will be published in April 2022 by Quercus.

Posted in Netgalley

Hear No Evil by Sarah Smith.

It’s 1817 and a young woman is witnessed throwing a child into the River Clyde from the Old Bridge in Glasgow, the authorities are told. Based on a real case, this is a powerful piece of historical fiction from Sarah Smith and an interesting look into the 19th Century attitude to disability, and specifically deafness. The authorities are unable to communicate with their prisoner and as nothing is found at the river, Jean is taken to the Edinburgh Tolbooth in the hope of getting the truth. The High Court asks Robert Kinniburgh if he will communicate with their silent prisoner, to work out whether Jean is deaf or even fit for trial. Robert teaches at the Deaf & Dumb Institution and might be able to form a way of interpreting for the authorities. Jean only has two choices if a court finds her guilty, neither of which are desirable; death by hanging or imprisonment in an insane asylum. As Robert and Jean manage to construct a simple way of communicating, he starts to gains her trust, Jean starts to confides in her interpreter, imparting the truth. As Robert treads a fine line between interpreter and investigator, he becomes absolutely determined to clear her name before it is too late.

The novel’s basis in Scottish legal history means that Smith has researched her period deeply, wanting to tell her tale sensitively and with respect for these real-life characters. It is a perfect mix of fact, atmospheric setting, strong characters and an understanding of what life was like for someone with a disability in the early 19th Century. Kinniburgh has the difficult task of unravelling Jean’s story, immersing himself in the legal machinery of the Edinburgh court, and retracing Jean’s life up till that moment on the bridge. He is a teacher, not a lawyer, so he really has his work cut out. He is our eyes and ears in the story, following Jean’s life in the poverty stricken slums of Glasgow, experiencing her difficulties and finding out what happened in the final days before she came to be alone on the Old Bridge with her baby. He is a very humane main character, full of intelligence and compassion for others. Yet it us Jean Campbell who really made her way into my head and heart.

Obviously, the real Jean Campbell isn’t well known, but it felt like Smith really got under the skin of this girl. The details of her existence are brought vividly to life and Smith shows us that she was strong and full of dignity despite being so disenfranchised. Jean has gone through traumatic experiences, badly used by unscrupulous people only too happy to take advantage. Campbell’s deafness is central pillar of this book, it’s the reason for her poverty, the ordeals she has been subjected to and possibly the court case itself. How far were police officers influenced by her inability to speak. Just as there are now, there were prejudices and assumptions made about the Deaf community at the time, and we get some insight into how sign language evolved when it becomes the key by which Kinniburgh begins to earn Jean’s trust and unlock her story. I love that her story is reaching so many people through this novel.

I loved the settings, particularly the incredibly atmospheric opening which really set the scene for the rest of the novel. Smith’s period locations took me on a journey through time across two beautiful Scottish cities. The most vivid being Edinburgh’s dank and grimy Tolbooth prison which evoked claustrophobia for me. Equally vivid are Kinniburgh’s visits to the filthy poverty of Jean’s Glasgow home. I think that lovers of historical fiction will really enjoy this but I’d like to see it read by a wider audience, considering it’s message is sadly still relevant. We cannot judge fellow human beings until we have understood what has brought them to that point. We also need to make more effort to communicate with those who have a disability. It seems that we can revere them as Paralympians or military heroes, but many don’t pass the time of day with real people with disabilities in their daily life. Smith highlights this by taking us to this earlier time where, for those who were silenced, their disability could mean paying a very high price indeed. Jean could see this discrepancy and the way she was underestimated every day of her life:

‘She was aware of much more than people gave her credit for. Always had been…Not once did any hearing person treat her like she was the same as them.’

Published by Two Roads 3rd Feb 2022.

Posted in Netgalley

The Oceanography of the Moon by Glendy Vanderah.

After the untimely deaths of her aunt and mother, young Riley Mays moved from Chicago to her cousin’s Wisconsin farm. Here she found solace in caring for her extraordinary adoptive brother, exploring the surrounding wild nature, and gazing at the mystical moon—a private refuge in which she hides from her most painful memories. But ten years later, now twenty-one, Riley feels too confined by the protective walls she’s erected around herself. When a stranger enters her family’s remote world, Riley senses something he’s hiding, a desire to escape that she understands well.

Suffering from writer’s block, bestselling novelist Vaughn Orr has taken to the country roads when he happens upon the accommodating, if somewhat unusual, Mays family. He’s soon captivated by their eccentricities—and especially by Riley and her quiet tenacity. In her, he recognizes a shared need to keep heartbreaking secrets buried. As the worst moments of their lives threaten to surface, Riley and Vaughn must find the courage to confront them if they’re to have any hope of a happy future. With the help of Riley’s supportive family, a dash of everyday magic, and the healing power of nature, can the pair let go of the troubled pasts they’ve clung to so tightly for so long?

This is a book about people who have tragic secrets and a real need to process their experiences and heal. Both farm dwelling Riley and writer Vaughan have a similar need to disappear and escape from their physical four walls and the boundaries of their minds. Both are affected by trauma and really need to face it rather than avoid it, if they want to recover. Perhaps these two people with secrets in their past could attempt a slow recovery together. As is the norm for this writer, healing comes from nature, nurture, friendship, family and understanding.

The book is so beautifully written it’s easy to become mesmerised by the language and it’s this that first pulled me into the novel. I love atmosphere and description so this lyrical start was perfect for me. The story is definitely a slow burn, but the sense of place and emotion is hypnotic. The author plays with ideas of darkness within people and how we see ourselves – do we ever see ourselves as we truly are? People who’ve experienced trauma might find it hard to be their authentic selves, because how they feel can be dark, sad and fearful. Riley and Vaughan seemed to have embraced that darkness as part of their identity, when actually there’s so much about them that is lightness and joy. Sometimes, it’s easier to say you love the darkness than it is to do all the work it takes to cast it off. The novel is mainly that personal journey, moving towards the light with the help of family, nature and a little touch of spirituality too.

The moon imagery is interesting, because there is something magical about it: it’s pull on the earth, the seemingly magical way it controls tides and perhaps even moods. There is an otherworldly feel to the author’s imagery that takes us to an earth that is ours, but with some interesting quirks and a touch of surrealism. Here the love of the family is connected firmly to nature, space, and the galaxy. I didn’t need to believe this, I just went with it and enjoyed the journey. I was also touched by a couple of minor characters, Sachi and Kiran. Sachi has such a passion for Indian food and surrealist art and I love people who are passionate and excited about things. She is open hearted and happy to take in anyone, which she does with Riley and Vaughan. There’s an earth mother element to her nature which I loved. Kiran is only eight years old, but is an outstanding little fellow with so much character packed into his meagre years. He feels more comfortable dressed in girl’s clothing, collects fossils and takes apart clocks in order to make magic!

Around her own love of nature and spirituality, Vanderah weaves the story of two strangers who somehow understand each other deeply. The author takes the reader on a lyrical journey from the very depths of their tragic childhoods towards a place of healing; a healing that comes from the consolation of nature, the love of family, the nurturing of self-worth and the understanding that they deserve full and happy lives. I love description, atmosphere and characters who are unique and full of depth, so this story of emotions, regrets, and haunting memories, not to mention the glimpse of hope, was bound to capture my heart.

Published 22nd March 2022 from Lake Union Publishing.

Glendy Vanderah worked as an endangered bird specialist in Illinois before she became a writer. Originally from Chicago, she now lives in rural Florida with as many birds, butterflies, and wildflowers as she can lure to her land. Where the Forest Meets the Stars is her debut novel. Visit Glendy online at http://glendyvanderah.com/

Posted in Netgalley

One Italian Summer by Rebecca Searle

When Katy’s mother dies, she is left reeling. Carol wasn’t just Katy’s mum, but her best friend and first phone call. She had all the answers and now, when Katy needs her the most, she is gone. To make matters worse, the mother-daughter trip of a lifetime looms: two weeks in Positano, the magical town where Carol spent the summer before she met Katy’s father. Katy has been waiting years for Carol to take her, and now she is faced with embarking on the adventure alone.

But as soon as she steps foot on the Amalfi Coast, Katy begins to feel her mother’s spirit. Buoyed by the stunning waters, beautiful cliffsides, delightful residents, and – of course – delectable food, Katy feels herself coming back to life.

And then Carol appears, healthy and sun-tanned… and thirty years old. Katy doesn’t understand what is happening, or how – all she can focus on is that somehow, impossibly, she has her mother back. Over the course of one Italian summer, Katy gets to know Carol, not as her mother, but as the young woman who came before.

But can we ever truly know our parents? Soon Katy must reconcile the mother who knew everything with the young woman who does not yet have a clue.

I enjoyed Rebecca Serle’s last novel rather unexpectedly, as it became so much more than the simple romance I was expecting. Her new novel One Italian Summer also had some unexpected elements and was an interesting look at the relationships between mothers and daughters, the endurance of long term relationships and coping with grief. As the book opens Katy is married to Eric and has just lost her Mum to cancer. Katy is broken as her Mum has been her best friend, her shopping buddy, her sounding board, her arbiter of taste and so many other things and now she doesn’t know what to do without her. In a strange way she sees her mother as her partner in life, rather than her husband. Eric is also grieving, having been a part of Katy’s family since they were at college. However, when her mother started receiving end of life care, Katy went to live at her parent’s home sleeping on a sofa to keep her mother company while her father slept in a chair next to his wife. As the couple meet again at her mother’s funeral, Katy still feels unsure about their marriage. She wonders if her mother was right and they married far too soon. Katy needs some space, to grieve her mum and think about her marriage and an obvious opportunity presents itself. When her mother was younger she spent a summer living on the Amalfi coast at the picturesque town of Positano renovating a hotel. To surprise her mother Katy had bought them tickets to spend a week in there and the thought comes into her head. What if she went ahead and travelled to Italy by herself?

Katy finds herself in a beautiful hotel where she feels immediately embraced by the family who run it. She meets a man at breakfast called Adam who works for the large luxury hotel chain. He would love to acquire the hotel and his bosses would like a piece of this beautiful coastline for their portfolio. He charms Katy and offers to show her around a little, he has been coming to Positano for many years in his time off and can suggest some great places to eat and explore. Katy has felt totally cut off from her mother, but here she feels closer to her as if part of her mother’s spirit has always been here waiting for her. One morning as she wanders through reception she sees a woman who has brought a parcel to put into the hotel’s outgoing post. She looks strangely familiar and as she turns around Katy can’t believe her eyes. This is her mother Carol, full of life and only thirty years old. I loved the way the author creates this strange time loop in such a magical setting. I never once questioned it, because I was so involved with Katy’s feelings that she might just turn the corner and see her mum as if she’d never left. It was such an interesting chance for her to meet her mother as a young woman and understand more about her. This Carol is young, carefree and full of passion for her goal of becoming an interior designer. There’s so much that Katy wants to know, but is this going to change her view of her mother and their relationship?

I loved the Italian setting of this novel, having just read Adriana Trigiani’s new novel also set on the Tyherrenian Sea I am now dying to visit this beautiful coastline. The way the town is nestled into the cliff side and every balcony makes you feel you’re hanging over the sea. I could literally feel the sunshine and the warm sea on my skin. The descriptions of food had my mouth watering and I found myself longing for Italy. Meeting her Mum at this age was always going to throw up things Katy didn’t know. Carol doesn’t recognise her, so her actions are completely unguarded, whereas Katy has the knowledge of who Carol is. I wondered how long she would be able to keep it to herself. It was interesting to see Katy starting to question whether all aspects of their relationship were positive. Carol has always been so opinionated and matter of fact about how things should be done. As a couple, Katy and Eric have always gone to her for advice when making decisions and she is the family’s anchor, keeping them grounded and safe. However, was this safety always a positive thing? Katy starts to see that she’s never been left to make her own decisions, that she and Eric have rarely made their own choices as a couple. Carol has always weighed in on everything from what clothes to buy and whether they should have children yet. She always seemed so sure of what to do and Katy has felt inadequate to an extent, unable to weigh up the options and make her own mistakes. There is a bit of anger and resentment here; if she’s never been allowed to stand on her own two feet, no wonder Katy feels lost. As her mother’s story unfolds, will Katy get the answers she’s looking for? Why does this Carol seem so ‘go with the flow’ when her mum always planned everything, even a family picnic, with military precision?

This was another beautiful book from Rebecca Searle, concentrating on the relationships between women and perhaps the most complex female relationship we have. This shows beautifully the effect our parents have on our development as people and how one mistake can change the way someone approaches life forever. All set in the beautiful Italian sun, with a lot of personal reflection and even a little bit of romance thrown in. I loved how the space and the experience gives Katy a chance to re-evaluate her life and the way she’s been living it. This is the perfect summer getaway book and if you’re not going anywhere this year I definitely recommend it for vicariously enjoying Italy.

Rebecca Serle is an author and television writer who lives in New York and Los Angeles. Serle developed the hit TV adaptation of her YA series Famous in Love, and is also the author of The Dinner List, and YA novels The Edge of Falling and When You Were Mine. She received her MFA from the New School in NYC. Find out more at RebeccaSerle.com.