Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Spirited by Julie Cohen

This week I’ve been writing a Sunday Spotlight post about the Victorian novels of Sarah Waters and while I was thinking about some of the themes of Affinity this book popped into my mind. So I decided to make it this week’s Throwback Thursday. At the time I’d never read Julie Cohen’s work, so I didn’t know what to expect from her writing. Only a few weeks before, on Twitter, I was discussing when a new Sarah Waters novel would be appearing. Spirited by Julie Cohen has definitely filled that gap. It’s also made an impact on me that’s all it’s own. Viola Worth has grown up cared for by her clergyman Father, as well as his ward, a little boy called Jonah. Viola and Jonah are the best of friends, spending their childhoods largely inseparable. As we meet them in adulthood, they are getting married, but in mourning. A lot has happened during the period of their engagement. Jonah had been out to India, staying at his family’s haveli and checking on his financial interests. For Viola, it’s been a tough time nursing, then losing, her father. He encouraged her in his own profession as a photographer and she has become accomplished in her own right. Viola’s father wanted her to marry Jonah, and they are still the best of friends, but the time apart has changed them and neither knows the full extent of the other’s transformation. As they try to settle into married life on the Isle of Wight, Jonah spends his time sketching fossil and bone finds with his scientific a friend. Viola feels cut adrift and without purpose, as we find out later she doesn’t even feel she is fulfilling her role as Jonah’s wife. Through new friends the couple meet a visiting spirit medium, although as daughter of a clergyman, Viola would never normally enjoy this type of entertainment. Little do they know, this woman will change their lives.

The author slips back and forth in time to tell us about Henriette, who worked her way in life from being a servant to a respected spirit medium. She is a woman who started with no advantage in life, and as a young servant models herself on the governess in the house, a French woman known as Madame to the family. Henriette diligently listens to the children’s French lesson and nurses a hope of a future where she doesn’t clean up after other people or have to wish for a roommate so she isn’t sexually assaulted in the night. Her attacker labels her a whore and one early morning, after there’s been a house party, she stumbles on a group of men in the stables betting. They are playing cards for money, but once they see Henriette they become intent on a different sport. It is Madame who interrupts the attackers and she gives Henriette advice from one woman surviving alone in the world to another. The author also takes us back to Jonah’s time in India. We discover that in social circles Jonah is a hero, because during a massacre he rescued a young girl who lived in his haveli after all her family are killed. Viola wonders if it is this experience that has changed Jonah. They live as if they are brother and sister, Jonah spends less time with her than before and at bedtime they still go to their separate bedrooms and sleep apart. Viola knows there is more between husband and wife but doesn’t really know what and has no idea who to talk to. Through Henriette, Viola is asked to take a photograph of a child who has died so the parents have an image to keep. No one is more stunned than Viola when she develops the image and sees a blurred figure standing next to the bed, the likeness to their child shocks and comforts the parents; they feel reassured that their child lives on in spirit. This experience, and her experience of her first proper female friendship, is like a floodgate opening for Viola. She starts to question the limits of her faith, whether there is more in life she would like to try and as time goes on, whether the burgeoning feelings she has for Henriette are friendship or something else.

I loved the feminist threads running through this novel. The central women in the novel are each in liminal spaces, different from the conventional Victorian women we see like Mrs Newham. Henriette is a self-made woman, unmarried and travelling from space to space offering her spiritualist services for enough to survive on. She has moved from bar girl, to servant, to nursing and losing her elderly husband, and now into a semi-respected occupation. She gets to visit the homes of those she might have once waited upon, but isn’t tied by their social rules and conventions. In India we meet Pavan, who has made the exceptional choice within her societal rules to become educated and has made huge sacrifices in order to achieve that. Love was not on her agenda, and when it comes she experiences a painful separation between her intellectual choice and her emotions. Viola may seem the most conventional of these women, but her relationship with her father has set her apart from others of her class. He believed in educating Viola the same way as Jonah, then teaches her the art of photography too, usually considered a male pastime. Viola is respectful of many conventions, but finds herself emboldened by Henriette and the new experiences she brings to her life. She tries bathing in the sea and is bold enough to start accepting her ‘gift’ of capturing spirits. Behind them all is the french governess Madame. The role of Victorian governess is the very definition of a liminal space: she works in the home but is not a servant, educated and unmarried, respectable, but not on the same level as the family she works for. She has power in that she works for herself, has and controls her own money and can choose to leave her position and join another family, in a different place. Her acknowledgment of Henriette’s fate, as a pretty face in the power of men, inspires Henriette to be more. It gives her aspiration, although she may never be a gentlewoman, with careful decision making she could be more like Madame.

It is within the physical liminal spaces where there are beautiful passages of writing from the author. The scene where Henriette and Viola go bathing is absolutely exquisite because I could feel everything. The strangeness of undressing in a darkened box on wheels, the feel of the swimming dress, the rough and tumble of being pulled into the sea by a horse, then opening the door to see nothing but the ocean in front of you. This is a play on conventional baptism for Viola. She fully immerses herself in the water, supported by Henriette, and feels a rebirth. The heaviness in the uncoiling of her hair and letting it float free signifies a freeing from the constraints of Victorian fashion, as is the unlacing of the corsets. As they trundle back up to the sand after their swim, Viola wishes they could stay in this space in the dark for the intimacy with Henriette, and the knowledge of the freedom she will feel as she opens the door and sees nothing but ocean. When the women share Viola’s room the writing is so tender. Viola worries what the servants might think, but Henriette frees her thinking again. Love between women does not exist, she tells her, there are laws and conventions regarding love between a man and a woman, and even the love between men. What they are to each other is beyond the thoughts of most people, the servants will see two friends staying together and nothing more. Pavan and Jonah, don’t meet in the main haveli but in an ancient old temple in its grounds, a space no longer used for its purpose and outside the family structure inside the house. They meet as two people of different cultures and beliefs, but find a connection so powerful that each would put their lives on the line for the other. Jonah wonders whether he could live a different life to the one laid out for him back in England. He’s seen other English men here who have married Indian women and had children. They’re neither totally respectable, but are not shunned either. This is a novel of people, particularly women, learning to live in the spaces between; the places that promise more freedom.

This was an original, emotional and beautifully written novel that weaves a powerful story from a combination of painstaking historical research and imagination. Each character is fully fleshed out and has a rich inner life. Where real events such as the 1857 Siege of Delhi are used in the novel, they are deeply powerful and the author treats them with respect. The elements of spiritualism and spirit photography are well researched and based on a real fascination for the paranormal in Victorian society. Cohen acknowledges that this is a novel about faith: religious faith, faith in the paranormal and that the ties to those we love don’t end in death; faith in romantic love and the promises we make to each other; even the faith she has in herself. In the acknowledgements to this novel Julie Cohen says ‘I wrote the first draft of this book when I thought my writing career was over’. Judging by this book, it’s far from over. However, by allowing herself to think of that possibility, she gave herself the space to write something truly extraordinary.

Meet The Author

Julie Cohen grew up in the western mountains of Maine and studied English at Brown University and Cambridge University before pursuing a research degree in nineteenth century fairies. After a career as a secondary school English teacher, she became a novelist. Her award-winning novels have sold over a million copies worldwide. DEAR THING and TOGETHER were both selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club. Julie runs an oversubscribed literary consultancy which has helped many writers go on to be published. She is a Vice President of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, founder of the RNA Rainbow Chapter for LGBTQ+ authors, and a Patron of literacy charity ABC To Read. You can find Julie on Twitter: @julie_cohen or you can visit her website: http://www.julie-cohen.com

Latest Novel from Julie Cohen

‘Marriages end with a whisper, not a bang. Not an argument, which is after all about passion, waves crashing on a shore, but with the small pockets of coldness that an argument creates. It’s like islands. They don’t sink like Atlantis. They wear away, little by little, until all you’ve got left is a single rock and a light. A warning to safer travellers to stay away’.

Sitting on my TBR is this latest novel from Julie Cohen, a very different novel to Spirited in that it’s contemporary, but still about love and relationships. The last time Vee left the shores of Unity Island, she thought she’d left forever. But this summer, she’s returning with her charming husband, Mike. Vee’s unexpected arrival, this time as one of the wealthy ‘summer people’, sets the small island community alight with gossip. What’s more, her childhood best friend, Sterling, is furious that she’s come back – Vee abandoned him when he needed her most.

And then Vee meets Rachel, Sterling’s wife, and a spark is ignited within her that she can’t extinguish. And as summer turns to autumn, long-buried secrets emerge that will cause a storm greater than any of them could ever have imagined.

But when autumn comes, who will sail away with the tide and who will choose to stay behind on the island…?

Published by Orion 4th August 2022

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Lost Ones by Anita Frank

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

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


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

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

Meet The Author

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

Posted in Personal Purchase

The Ink Black Heart by Robert Galbraith

I have loved the characters of Cormoran Strike and his business partner Robin Ellacott for a long time, after seeing one of Robert Galbraith’s books in a charity shop and deciding to give it a go. I’ve bought every book in the series since and Strike has become one of my literary crushes – the troubled, wounded, war hero with a rescuer complex and rugged good looks is right up my street. Then there’s Robin, the country girl from Yorkshire who has bags of Northern common sense and is also brave, intelligent and caring. Their friendship works due to respect; he respects her intelligence and investigative abilities, whereas she respects his experience and never pushes beyond his boundaries. Their ‘will they/won’t they’ romance has had me on tenterhooks. I had heard this might be their last outing, so I was expecting their relationship to be resolved in some way. I also expected the main case to grab me immediately, just as their previous investigations did. This combination that has always kept the Strike books instantly readable, no matter if they do weigh the same as a house brick. The leading character’s issues aside, the cases have always been complex and multi-layered, with enough drama to keep me on the edge of my seat as I move towards the conclusion.

This time the agency is delving into two different worlds – the art world and the world of online gaming. Edie Ledwell and Josh Blay are artists who met while training and created a cult cartoon called The Ink Black Heart, set in Highfield Cemetery and peopled by odd little characters such as a talking human heart and a pale wispy ghost. The fans of this cartoon are real super fans, with two of them creating an online game for players to create a character and complete challenges around the graveyard. There was also a facility to meet other fans and talk on private channels during the game. However, fame is never straightforward and when Edie and Josh are found in Highfield Cemetery, attacked with a knife, rumours abound. With Edie dead at the scene and Josh paralysed in hospital, Strike and Robin are tasked to find out who had a grudge against the pair. Edie particularly, was bombarded with online abuse from misogynistic trolls, but it’s a character from the online game that Robin and Strike need to unmask. Anomie is a cloaked, faceless character, j one of the moderators and possibly even the creator of the game. The question is, how do they find someone, whose presence in the real and virtual world is a mystery?

It felt to me as if Robin really stepped up in this novel and took the primary role. Strike struggles physically this time, because years of not looking after himself have started to take their toll. His stump becomes inflamed and unable to take his prosthetic leg or bear his weight. Despite this Strike continues as long as he can, until even he has to accept medical help and enforced rest. So Robin’s detective skills come to the fore, as she infiltrates the art centre and commune, as well as the online game. I really enjoyed her undercover work on this case, firstly becoming Jessica a young woman who works in marketing and finance, but always wanted to explore her artistic side. She signs up to an art class at the centre to improve her skills and meet those who rubbed shoulders with Edie and Josh. She then visits comic-con as a journalist to interview someone they believe is very active in the game – Strike’s disguise amused me greatly here. I’ve always enjoyed Robin’s inner world and here I loved how much confidence her investigative role gives her. Her personal life has given her confidence a battering, especially now that her husband and the woman he was cheating with have a baby together. She has avoided her home town for a while, knowing they’ll be parading their offspring. Robin has worked out that it was the rape she went through at university that led to her settling with ex-husband Matthew. He was there and knew what had happened, it was infinitely easier than having to share this part of her past with someone new.Her feelings for Strike became more obvious when he turned up at her wedding and she left the celebrations to speak to him, much to husband Matthew’s disgust.

Strike is her best friend and she doesn’t want to lose that, but in this story other concerns also come to the fore. She feels inexperienced and unsophisticated in comparison to other woman she has seen with Strike, such as his ex-girlfriend Charlotte and his current girl Madeleine. Robin has no idea how beautiful she is, but Strike is very aware of the effect she has on men when she enters a room. What she doesn’t know is that Strike is currently comparing her with Madeleine, and his girlfriend is not doing well by comparison. Madeleine is well-groomed and always fully made up, plus she’s part of the same sophisticated London set as Charlotte. Strike has noticed the clean smell of Robin’s just washed hair and admires her simplicity. There are no games with Robin, she is always honest and says what she feels. Yet when Strike does weaken and try to kiss her when they go for birthday drinks, she looks so surprised that he interprets it as revulsion, but I think it’s fear. They are both frustrating, but the tension has to continue. The alternative is unthinkable, because people of my vintage remember Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd in Moonlighting and the disaster it became when their characters consummated years of flirting. If Strike and Robin ever did get together, I have no doubt it would have to be the end of the series.

It was within the case that I started to have some issues with the book. This is a long novel and the case concerned a wide range of people both real and virtual. Trying to remember where each character fit in the story was one thing, but when I realised they were possibly in the game with a user name too, it became much more complicated. I found it hard to follow the clues that pointed towards who Anomie was. There were also long sections written in private channels within the game. This felt awkward, although it wasn’t so bad when just two people were chatting, it became impenetrable to me when several channels were open at once with the same characters talking to different people at the same time. Although it gave an insight into how these characters communicated and talked behind each other’s backs, it was hard to keep track. The issues of misogyny and trolling felt like they’d come from the writer’s personal life and the type of trolling she’s been experiencing lately. Studies show that women who game online are exposed to misogynistic abuse and often use male avatars to avoid this type of trolling. So it was true to the story, but often felt she was trying to make a point, especially when we started skirting around subjects like trigger warnings and cancel culture. The sections that bothered me most were those around disability, particularly invisible disabilities and chronic illness. Strike is a hero, because of the war injury he sustained. He’s in that section of ‘acceptable’ disability that includes those who’ve acquired a disability in combat or try to ‘overcome’ their disability such as a Paralympian or other disability athlete. However, there are two characters in the book who have chronic illness, most notably ME or come under scrutiny from Strike and Robin as possible suspects in the case. Inigo uses a wheelchair and has an adapted home, character wise he is shown to have little patience, yelling at his children and wanting his environment just so. There’s an inference that his disability shouldn’t rule him out as the killer, as he could be playing on his symptoms. The second ME sufferer is a young girl who Strike goes to interview, but as he arrives at the house, she has fled out of the back door. This sudden movement immediately has him wondering whether she is also putting on her symptoms. However, Strike himself uses a flash of his disability to get into the family home – who would refuse a chair to a man with a prosthetic leg?

In the same breath the author does include articles about the Ink Black cartoon being ‘ableist’, showing an awareness of how problematic representations of disability can be. She also quotes the ‘spoonies’ blog, which refers to limited units of energy as spoons and exploring the difficulty of using more spoons than you have. I have always praised Galbraith’s depictions of Strike’s disability. Yes, he’s portrayed as a hero, but he’s not invincible as this novel’s physical difficulties shows. Where representation does become problematic here is that Strike is portrayed as wounded, but also a ‘hero’. He comes under the disability theory heading of a ‘supercripple’ – always able to perform beyond his abilities particularly when tasked with rescuing Robin. He’s also depicted as a sexual being, desirable to women still and clearly able to perform in the bedroom. Yet the character of Inigo, an ME patient, is not seen as sexual. In fact, again he’s under suspicion – aspersions are cast on his marriage, their sex life, and his character. I think this is possibly an attempt to show the reader how suspicious people are of those with invisible disabilities. It’s something I’ve experienced in my own life. However, there’s just something I’m uneasy about in these depictions. I was reminded of Ricky Gervais’s clever depictions of disability in The Office, where David Brent tries, in his own inimitable way, to educate his workers on how to approach a co-worker in a wheelchair. We’re supposed to be laughing at Brent, who’s so tone deaf he never asks how his colleague feels about being the subject of this impromptu lecture on disability awareness. He insults her as he tries his best not to, and that is the joke. Uneasily though, I wondered how many tone deaf people were laughing at what they complain is political correctness or at the wheelchair user who looks uncomfortable and embarrassed. This knife edge type of writing can go either way and I wondered how many people with ME would be comfortable with Galbraith’s representations of their disability. Since coming under scrutiny in the previous Strike novel for the depiction of a notorious serial killer dressing as a woman to lull the women he approached into a false sense of security. I would have thought it best to avoid controversial representations altogether. I have to take into account my own invisible disability, which may have prejudiced my feelings on the subject.

In all, this is another solid read from Galbraith, in terms of storyline and character development. It’s both entertaining and dramatic, with some complex and eccentric characters along the way. I love that we saw an even more vulnerable side to both characters, especially Strike. It was also great to see his dealings with ex-girlfriend, and trouble-maker, Charlotte taking a more realistic line. Maybe this clears the way for a different approach to matters of the heart for Strike and it’s this hope that will keep me looking out for the next instalment.

Holliday Grainger as Robin Ellacott and Tom Burke as Cormoran Strike in the BBC series.

Meet The Author.

Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series is classic contemporary crime fiction from a master story-teller, rich in plot, characterisation and detail. Galbraith’s debut into crime fiction garnered acclaim amongst critics and crime fans alike. The first three novels The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013), The Silkworm (2014) and Career of Evil (2015) all topped the national and international bestseller lists and have been adapted for television, produced by Brontë Film and Television. The fourth in the series, Lethal White (2018), is out now.

Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym of J.K. Rowling, bestselling author of the Harry Potter series and The Casual Vacancy, a novel for adults. After Harry Potter, the author chose crime fiction for her next books, a genre she has always loved as a reader. She wanted to write a contemporary whodunit, with a credible back story. 

J.K. Rowling’s original intention for writing as Robert Galbraith was for the books to be judged on their own merit, and to establish Galbraith as a well-regarded name in crime in its own right. 

Now Robert Galbraith’s true identity is widely known, J.K. Rowling continues to write the crime series under the Galbraith pseudonym to keep the distinction from her other writing and so people will know what to expect from a Cormoran Strike novel.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Violet by SJ Holliday.

There are so many cliches we use in the world of book blogging but it’s hard not to use them when  all of them applied to this original and unusual novel. This was an unputdownable, page turning, keep me up all night, edge of your seat thriller with intriguing characters and exotic settings.

It was refreshing to read a thriller with a female protagonist who steals all of the limelight. Added to that she has a feisty female travel partner. In a genre where women are often prey and merely a catalyst for the real action, these women more than hold their own. Violet has tired of Thailand and her boyfriend wants to stay put. Far from being the island paradise she expected Thailand has become about the same scene, people and drugs. Violet decides to follow their itinerary without him and she does it in style. She makes her way to China but feels strangely alone and dislocated. When trying to organise a ticket for the Trans-Siberian railway Violet overhears a girl talking to the travel agent about her spare ticket. Her friend has had an accident and can’t travel, but the travel agent is no help and the girl has a spare ticket on her hands. Violet follows her to a bar and engineers a meeting that turns into dinner and many drinks. By the next day Violet has scored a ticket and a new travel companion in Carrie. By this time we have a few doubts about our narrator and I worried for Carrie and whether she knew what she was taking on board.

The rest of the novel is told in sections through Violet’s eyes and the emails that Carrie sends back to her injured friend back home. The girls have a stop off in Mongolia where they experience Nomadic life, sheep’s milk tea and a shamanic experience that threatens to put their friendship on a very different footing. Violet reads like someone with borderline personality disorder; despite her narration I don’t feel a coherent sense of self. I don’t think Violet knows who she is. Carrie starts to have her own doubts on the train and tries to create some space by befriending other passengers. Violet starts to panic. What if Carrie decides to go her separate ways? Violet’s friendship has become obsessive and potentially dangerous. However, when we reach Russia we start to see what both girls are really capable of.

The brilliance of Holliday’s writing is that we never really know what the girls are going to do next. This is not helped by the copious amounts of drink and drugs the girls partake in. It’s like being on a rollercoaster ride blindfolded. Just when you think you’ve worked Violet out, something else happens and your opinion changes. I loved the travel detail as well. It isn’t romanticised. It’s scuzzy and grimy. It dispels the backpacker myth of Thailand being a paradise better than The Beach did. Mongolia was at least an authentic experience, but the thought of ewe’s milk tea was grim. I loved the gritty realism and and the psychological manipulation. Living for a while in Violet’s head shows us how dark, obsessional jealousy manifests and left me feeling very uneasy. How much do we really know about what’s going on in someone else’s head? After all this, Holliday still surprised me with a final twist I didn’t see coming that turned everything I thought I knew on its head. It was like seeing The Sixth Sense for the first time, you want to pop back to the beginning and see it all over again with fresh eyes and try to pick up the clues. I read the end of this novel at 2am and was so blown away I had to wake up my other half and tell him all about it. This is definitely one of my books of the year.

Published 14th September 2019 by Orenda Books

Meet the Author

Susi (S.J.I.) Holliday is the bestselling Scottish author of 10 novels, a novella and many short stories. By day she works in pharmaceuticals. She lives in London (except when she’s in Edinburgh) and she loves to travel the world.

Posted in Personal Purchase

Wolf Pack by Will Dean.

Yay! Tuva is back!! My current favourite literary heroine is back investigating another story in the remote and slightly quirky surroundings of the town of Gavrik, in Northern Sweden. We left Tuva at the end of Bad Apples on a cliffhanger, but Will Dean throws us straight into the action and the frozen forest. As Tuva is driving she finds a hunting dog at the side of the road, armoured but still injured. It’s owner isn’t far away and he blames wolves. As she rushes the dog and his owner to the vet, Tuva wonders if there are such wolf packs roaming the land close to Gavrik? She doesn’t know it yet, but there’s more than one type of wolf close by.

And when there’s a pack on the hunt no one’s safe….

Rose Farm is a closed community, home to a group of survivalists and completely cut off from the outside world. Until now.
When a young woman goes missing within the perimeter of the farm compound Tuva must try to talk her way inside the tight-knit group to find her story.

In a frantic search, Tuva attempts to unmask the culprit and gains unique access to the residents. But soon she finds herself in danger of the pack turning against her – will she make her way back to safety so she can expose the truth?

At first, Tuva seems somewhat settled into everyday life, but sadly we soon find all is not well in her world. Her lover Noora, a Gavrik police officer, was shot in the last novel. She didn’t die, but nor did she recover. Noora now lies in a persistent vegetative state, uncommunicative and requiring round the clock care. Tuva’s emotions are complicated, she’s grieving for someone who is not here, but who hasn’t left either. It is Noora’s mother who has stepped in to care for her daughter. With incredible care and compassion, she has suggested that Tuva return to her work and life in Gavrik, while still accepting her as a vitally important part of Noora’s life.

The story of the missing girl is an intriguing one and perhaps less fast paced than the last novel. Elsa Nyberg was reported missing by her father and was last seen around the Rose Farm complex. Tuva takes a look at the heavily guarded compound, surrounded by high perimeter fencing, ditches, barbed wire and a military trained security man, always seen with a large dog by his side. It’s a bit of a contradiction, as two businesses run from the farm and are open to the public; a shop and café, plus a spa. There are definitely public and private faces in this community. On the quiet this community is nicknamed the ‘Wolf Pack’, a group trained to military standards, armed to the teeth and ready for the apocalypse. Or maybe they’re simply a benign group of ‘preppers’ with an underground bunker and a pantry full of tinned food? The central figure is a slightly reclusive figure called Abraham, a painter and philosopher who is ready for the end times. Tuva senses a story, especially when she finds out that a few decades before the resident farmer went berserk and almost killed his whole family before killing himself. The only survivor was a baby, just a few months old. Tuva wonders if history is repeating itself.

I am always amazed with Tuva’s tenacity, but also her audacity when investigating her stories. She is always brave, often to the point of recklessness. She certainly puts herself at the centre of things, driving onto the public part of the compound and engaging with those community members who work in the cafe and spa. At some points she even finds her way onto the private areas of the estate, even inside the main house where she finds some disturbing evidence of Elsa’s presence. I wasn’t as terrified for her life as I was in Bad Apples, but there was one section where security guard Andreas invites her to try the Wolf Pack’s underground obstacle test – if a potential member doesn’t complete the course they are not tough enough to join. The narrow underground chamber and tunnel fill with water, so that the tunneller must hold their breath and dive through and under small submerged areas. I couldn’t believe it when Tuva took up the challenge and disappeared underground, the tension ratcheting up by the second. This scene really tapped into my claustrophobia and left me a bit breathless! It reminded me how badass Tuva really is.

The murder is gripping and I was interested to know if any of the residents at Rose Farm were involved in it’s past tragedy. I was interested in how Tuva infiltrated online survivalist forums to get the low down on community members and to gauge what their beliefs and aims might be. Although any group has it’s weaker links and I started to wonder whether Abraham was who he seemed or was it an alias for someone else? In a complete contrast to the last book, this time people are not covering who they are with masks. Here we have wolves masquerading as everyday people. When Elsa’s body is found there is an ancient symbol tattooed in white ink on the back of her neck. It’s not anything that Tuva’s seen before, but does suggest an element of the occult or perhaps another part of the group’s initiation ritual. We’re used to quirks in Tuva’s investigations and all of the quirks from previous books are still here, such as the Troll sisters and the comically awful toppings offered at the pizza restaurant. There’s always a question of whether the remoteness breeds eccentricity, or whether eccentric people choose to pursue their way of life in an out of the way place. There are certainly more than the average share of murderers and Tuva is determined to find the truth, even if it places her in danger.

However, I do think this was a more subdued, thoughtful Tuva than in previous books. She’s valuing the people around her more, such as Lena and Tammy. She makes time to eat with Tammy out at the food truck and at home and even pursues the bond she’s made with the boy next door. I found it very touching that after a tough day she went to her neighbour and ask if she could read him a bedtime story, gaining comfort from the ritual. It’s a habit she’s started with Noora too, reading to her over FaceTime in the evening. She muses on her apartment, more as a home rather than just a place to crash when she’s exhausted. She wonders whether her memories of Noora in the apartment are too traumatic, but decides that she gains comfort from knowing they spent time together there. I was incredibly moved by the time she spends with Noora and the powerful feeling of belonging she gets simply by lying next to her. They don’t have to speak or hear in order to communicate. In fact, Tuva doesn’t have to struggle to communicate, which she often does, especially if her hearing aids are damaged or lost. With Noora she can take her hearing aids out and just ‘be’ and there is peace in that.

Published by Point Blank 8th September 2022

Meet The Author

Will Dean grew up in the East Midlands, living in nine different villages before the age of eighteen. After studying law at the LSE, and working many varied jobs in London, he settled in rural Sweden with his wife. He built a wooden house in a boggy forest clearing and it’s from this base that he compulsively reads and writes.

Posted in Personal Purchase

The Lighthouse Bookshop by Sharon Gosling

Doesn’t that sound completely enchanting? A lighthouse bookshop. Years ago on holiday near Hexham, I was standing outside in the twilight watching bats when I noticed a steady flashing white light in the distance. Between us friends we discussed what it might be and without really thinking I said ‘ is it the lighthouse?’ A male friend, somewhat scornfully, said ‘not unless it’s an inland lighthouse.’ I vowed from that moment to write a children’s book about a girl who builds an inland lighthouse as a metaphor for all those ideas women have that get shot down by men. I even wrote a quick version in my writing journal. This week I’m still recovering from a series of neurotomy procedures in my back and I wanted something to read that was easy to get into, where I’d be taken into a different place and community and be charmed. I should have known to go for Sharon Gosling, whose books set in a beautiful and remote corner of Scotland are always diverting with characters you can get attached to. Here we meet Rachel, who runs an extraordinary bookshop in Newton Dunbar built on the side of a hill miles away from the sea. Owned by elderly resident Cullen, it was designed as a library back in the 18th Century by one of Cullen’s ancestors James Macdonald. Rachel took on the job of looking after the bookshop several years ago and lives in the charming but tiny accommodation upstairs. Yet, life never stays the same for long and new people start to come into Rachel’s comfortable world; young, homeless girl Gilly and investigative journalist Toby, who’s recovering from a traumatic incident where he was shot. Yet these aren’t the only changes coming Rachael’s way as she loses someone close to her and makes an incredible discovery.

Gosling’s characters, particularly the women, are so well created and intriguing. Most have interesting and complex pasts that unravel as we go along with the main story. Gilly is a resourceful, but scared and closed-off teenager. She’s been sleeping in a tent in nearby woodland, until local developer and villain of the piece Dora McCreedy comes along. She finds the tent on her land and instead of allowing Gilly to move on, she takes a knife to the only thing keeping Gilly from the elements. As both Rachel and local artist Edie start to become closer to the girl, they begin to wonder what has sent this girl running and how can they help without sending her scurrying for the hills. Rachel realises more than most that it’s a tentative friendship growing between them, Gilly can’t be rushed into accepting help and they must take it at her pace. She knows this because it’s only five years since she turned up in a camper van and Cullen took her under his wing. She never talks about her past and while the friends she has made in the village ask no questions, Toby’s instinct is to root out the truth. Will he be able to resist digging, while helping research the library’s history and what might his discoveries mean for Rachel and their friendship? Edie was my favourite character. A rather irascible and formidable lady in her sixties who makes a living from her art, creating prints of the lighthouse and beautiful countryside surrounding the village. Edie has a natural elegance and a rather no nonsense manner, especially when it comes to neighbour Ezra and his marauding goat. I loved the relationship she builds with Gilly and the ‘will they – won’t they’ romance she’s embroiled in.

As you might realise from my opening, the plot based around the lighthouse’s history was really interesting to me and I loved how the mystery unfolded as Rachel found a hatch to the top level of the lighthouse. She finds it never had a light, but it did have a purpose that takes her and Toby back to James McDonald and the tragic love story passed down about his wife. Eveline is known as another madwoman in the attic, a woman who descends into madness and burns down their mansion. Using old documents in a local archive as well as finds from the gatehouse where Cullen lived, they start to piece together the true history of a couple trying to get over the worst loss they could ever experience. All this in the midst of a land grab by Dora McCreedy who would level the tower in order to make an access road for her residential development and the true heir to the McDonald’s fortune deciding whether or not to sell. It’s tense and while Toby desperately looks for a way to preserve the bookshop and Rachel’s home. The conclusion is satisfying, romantic and left me with a smile on my face. Exactly what the doctor ordered.

Published 18th August 2022 by Simon and Schuster U.K.

Meet The Author

Sharon started her writing career as an entertainment journalist, as a reviewer of science fiction and fantasy books. She went on to become a staff writer and then an editor for print magazines. Her beginning in books was as a writer of non-fiction ‘making-of’ books tied in to film and television including The Art and Making of Penny Dreadful and Wonder Woman: The Art and Making of the Film. Sharon now writes both children’s and adult fiction – her first novel was called The Diamond Thief, a Victorian-set steampunk adventure book for the middle grade age group, which won the Redbridge Children’s prize in 2014. She wrote two more books in the series before moving on to other adventure books including The Golden Butterfly, which was nominated for the Carnegie Award in 2017, The House of Hidden Wonders, and a YA horror called FIR, which was shortlisted for the Lancashire Book of the Year Award in 2018.

Her debut adult novel was published by Simon & Schuster in August 2021. It was called The House Beneath the Cliffs, set in a very small coastal village in Scotland. Her adult fiction tends to centre on small communities – feel-good tales about how we find where we belong in life and what it means when we do. You can find my review of this novel in the archive. Sharon lives in a small village in northern Cumbria with her husband, who owns a bookshop in the nearby market town of Penrith.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday: Transcription by Kate Atkinson.

In 1940, eighteen-year old Juliet Armstrong is reluctantly recruited into the world of espionage. Sent to an obscure department of MI5 tasked with monitoring the comings and goings of British Fascist sympathizers, she discovers the work to be by turns both tedious and terrifying. But after the war has ended, she presumes the events of those years have been relegated to the past for ever.

Ten years later, now a producer at the BBC, Juliet is unexpectedly confronted by figures from her past. A different war is being fought now, on a different battleground, but Juliet finds herself once more under threat. A bill of reckoning is due, and she finally begins to realize that there is no action without consequence.

Transcription is a work of rare depth and texture, a bravura modern novel of extraordinary power, wit and empathy. It is a triumphant work of fiction from one of this country’s most exceptional writers.

“No other contemporary novelist has such supreme mastery of that sweet spot between high and low, literary and compulsively readable as Kate Atkinson. I look forward to a new Atkinson book like I look forward to Christmas…what lends the novel enchantment is that patented Atkinson double whammy: gravity and levity. Tragedy and comedy as so skilfully entwined that you find yourself snorting with mirth…brimming with dark wit that reminds you how deeply satisfying good fiction can be.” (Alison Pearson, Sunday Telegraph).

I couldn’t have expressed my thoughts on a new Kate Atkinson novel more clearly than Alison Pearson does above. I’ve been very aware of her new novel Shrines of Gaiety approaching and as a huge fan of her work there is always that push and pull between wanting to read it immediately and being scared of opening it in case I don’t like it. It actually took me well over a year to read Transcription. I think it was because of how much I loved and felt emotionally connected to brother and sister Teddy and Ursula, from Life After Life and A God In Ruins. The latter genuinely made me weep for a character who wasn’t real. When I finally resolved to give it a go it didn’t grab my attention immediately and I worried, but it did impress me with its historical detail and the extreme setting of wartime London. The feel of Juliet’s various workplaces were so well described I could almost smell them – that dusty, old paper smell of offices. There is a strange feeling of truth and fiction overlapping all the time. In interview, Atkinson says that places and characters are complete inventions, but her inventions are informed by the real things. This is the crux of this novel, nothing is what it seems, not even the words on the page.

This is one of those books where I really had to concentrate to follow the story, but I’m not claiming to have picked up all the clues that were there. Other reviewers have claimed to have seen clues quite early on that suggested how Juliet Armstrong’s personal viewpoints were formed and where this placed her allegiances. Concentration is also vital towards the end of the novel where there’s a lot of flitting back and forth and I struggled at times to keep track of who was who. I was reduced to reading sections a couple of times to establish a character in my mind, although their allegiances were another story. Most work for MI5 so none of them are ever what they seem, and just because of where may work, whether for a person or organisation, it doesn’t mean their sympathies are truly with that cause? Everyone is hiding something, whether in their personal or working life. Peregrine Gibbons isn’t just deceiving others, when it comes to his sexuality he’s deceiving himself too. Oliver Alleyne could be working for any organisation and Juliet doesn’t trust him from the off, but isn’t she hiding her true self too? The dog shows the most loyalty, depending on who owns it at the time of course. Again truth and fiction collide as Kate Atkinson references real operatives from within the service, some of which are well known. Those incredibly well-educated Oxbridge men, hiding both their homosexuality and their allegiances towards Russia, possibly based on Philby and McLean.

I feel that Atkinson presents Juliet as a sympathetic character. I think we were supposed to like her, but who is the real Juliet? I found myself admiring her ability to become other characters and her lying is almost a compulsion. She also steals very well. We shouldn’t trust her and if I met her in real life I’d probably dislike her so it’s a strange psychological trick the author is pulling off. Juliet Armstrong is, of course, an orphan recruited by MI5 during WW2. It was her headmistress who recommended Juliet to a man she knew in the service. We are never told whether she was also an agent, but she assured Juliet that “they need girls like you” whether that refers to her orphan status, her education, or her natural deceptive tendencies we are never told. I loved the way her mind worked. Her brain has two specific tics: she automatically finds rhymes for the words she hears; if she hears an expression her mind conjures up the literal meaning, so ‘cat got your tongue?’ becomes a disgusting picture in her brain. When the service moved her away from transcription to infiltration of a right-wing group, I thought they were perhaps based on an Oswald Mosley type figure and his supporters, a subject I’ve lays been interested in. A lot of women were recruited at this time, but from other books I have read recently such as The Whalebone Theatre they usually had excellent bilingual language skills or mathematical abilities. We’re not sure exactly what Juliet brings to the table, but maybe that’s her gift.

The novel moves around in time, from the war to the 1950s and as late as the 1980s. I was constantly wondering if she’d really ever stopped working for MI5. She works for the BBC in schools broadcasting, a section that contained an element of humour, but even so old loyalties and memories of her wartime adventures start to intrude. Could she still be working behind the scenes? Atkinson has used incredible sleight of hand with her ending, showing that nothing is as it seems in the intelligence community. We can never be sure of anyone’s true loyalties and just as Juliet’s typewritten words are merely a representation of what’s happening next door, any book about the Secret Service is merely a representation, no matter how well researched. I felt very aware that I was only reading one version of story, where all the different strands are as complicated as a tapestry. This book is best read in long sessions so as not to lose the threads. It rewards the reader with a heroine as intriguing, complex and intelligent as the story.

Meet The Author


Kate Atkinson is an international bestselling novelist, as well as playwright and short story writer. She is the author of Life After Life; Transcription; Behind the Scenes at the Museum, a Whitbread Book of the Year winner; the story collection Not the End of the World; and five novels in the Jackson Brodie crime series, which was adapted into the BBC TV show Case Histories.

Posted in Throwback Thursday, Uncategorized

Throwback Thursday! Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters.

Hardback with Masters’s original drawings.

I enjoy reading memoirs, especially when they’re innovative and try to show life in a different way. This fantastic biography does both. It’s unique in it’s subject – a homeless man the author meets while volunteering at a charity. It’s also unique because it’s told backwards- a device that has a massive emotional impact. Despite it’s subject, this isn’t a misery memoir. I’m not a fan of them myself, although I accept their therapeutic value, both as catharsis for the writer and as a powerful shared experience for the reader who’s survived similar experiences. I always feel prurient reading such personal and traumatic testimony. Although Stuart’s life is undeniably traumatic I never get that uncomfortable feeling when reading.

Stuart Shorter is a homeless, ex- junkie and possible psychopath. Alexander Masters first met Stuart out begging, then continues to spend time with him after securing a role as a fundraiser for Wintercomfort. His job is to make funding applications to different benefactors to keep the charity providing a day centre for homeless people in Cambridge. Set up in 1989 the charity worked with some of the worst cases living rough, giving them somewhere with supportive staff to spend time in. The founder was hoping to help individuals and reduce anti social behaviour in the city. However, when the main staff members, Ruth and John, were arrested for allowing drugs to change hands on the premises, Masters found himself at the centre of a protest movement. He also had to be more ‘hands on’ with the centre’s many users. This was when he met and formed a tentative friendship with Stuart Shorter. They were paired up to give talks around the country about the values of the charity and the campaign to free Ruth and John. They were the only people who had the time and Masters becomes intrigued with Stuart, who more often than not received a standing ovation after speaking – even if he did let out a stray ‘fuck’ from time to time. Stuart is intrigued to spend time with middle class people. ‘I thought middle class people had something wrong with them’, he says ‘but they’re just ordinary.’

This I think is the key to Master’s tale. Stuart, and some of the situations he finds himself in are genuinely funny. I also felt as if Stuart was looking at me as much as I was looking at him. The jarring contrast of Stuart’s everyday life to that of Masters, or to the reader really does hit hard. He’s a person whose life would be described as chaotic by social services or a mental health team. One or the other have been a constant in Stuart’s life, an amorphous mass of middle class do-gooders he calls ‘The System’. He’s had one service or another observing or judging his life since he was twelve years old. Like most homeless people he despises the system, because agencies that are supposed to support and help those who are struggling, are actually duplicitous. Using their observations to record and relay information to other agencies in a carrot and stick approach. Most people would assume the system is there to help, but it patronises, damages and blames too. There are welfare benefits and back to work schemes, but if the person doesn’t cooperate in come the police and prison. We learn that Stuart has been bounced round the care system, has been placed in a group home run by paedophiles, then placed into a brutal juvenile detention centre when he strays from their control. It’s easy to see why homeless people even become suspicious of things that are supposed to help, because once one part of the system comes in, everything else follows. He knows he was placed with paedophiles unwittingly, but as he points out, that doesn’t really matter when you’re 14 years old with a ‘grown man’s dick in your throat.’

It’s a brutal read in parts, but it has to be. I didn’t realise how dysfunctional the lives of my clients were, until I tried to describe to someone what my job entailed while at a ball. I was starting my career as a mental health support worker and my everyday was working with people like Stuart. I would help them with day to day tasks like shopping and budgeting, cleaning the house, and even just getting out of bed if they were struggling. People at my table couldn’t believe there was a job that entailed these things. It’s when I realised that there was a class of people more successful than me, who never learned about these incredible people and their difficult lives and I was proud to be someone who did know. The book is honest about what it was like to be a friend and supporter of Stuart. Sometimes it was frustrating, moving, devastating and other times it felt incredible. Yet we really hear Stuart’s voice too. Really the book is written by both of them. Masters never takes over or forgets that this is a collaborative effort. It’s not sugar-coated and at the beginning it’s Stuart who first reads Master’s manuscript and says he could do better. He needs to make it more readable, Stuart says, because people should want to read it, like a Tom Clancy novel.

‘Do it the other way round’ he tells Masters, ‘make it more like a murder mystery. What murdered the boy I was? See? Write it backwards’.

The BBC film starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy
Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes.

I love Jojo Moyes. Like many people I was introduced to her writing with the novel Me Before You. I became immediately attached to Louisa Clark, mainly because I felt that Moyes had created her character by stepping inside my head! My husband was paralysed due to MS and when I fell in love with him he was in a similar wheelchair to Will, with the same interests and charismatic spirit. Sadly, I lost him in 2007 and I have read Moyes’ follow up novels and found her depiction of grief and moving forward intelligent, moving and real.

The Giver of Stars is a different type of novel, more historical fiction than romance. It’s setting is the Depression era and a small town in rural Kentucky where the Van Cleeve family own the mines where most people work. Levels of rural poverty are high, African-Americans are still subject to segregation and while middle class women are expected to stay home and know their place, women in poorer families are working hard while trying their best to feed and look after ever-growing families. Into this setting comes Alice, the English bride of the heir to this mining fortune. Bennet Van Cleeve is handsome and considerate, and their marriage seems to start well but once they reach the family home things change. Bennet lives with his father and the death of his mother still hangs heavy over the house, with everything still being run to her exacting standards. Alice finds she has little to do and the house is full of her late mother-in-law’s ornaments and china dolls. She daren’t change anything because Mr Van Cleeve doesn’t like anything to be out of it’s normal place. More worrying is the change in Bennet now they are home, despite showing some desire at the beginning, the proximity to his father seems to be affecting their sex life. Several months down the line their marriage is still unconsummated and Mr Van Cleeve keeps hinting about grandchildren, adding to the pressure she feels.

When a town meeting is called to discuss President Roosevelt’s initiative to get the rural poor reading, Alice senses an opportunity and an outlet for her unspent energy. Margery O’Hare will head up the initiative. She is an outspoken and self-sufficient women who doesn’t listen to the opinion of anyone else, particularly men. She opens a door for Alice to escape the claustrophobic Van Cleeve household, into the wild forests of Kentucky. Alice learns to ride a mule, and along with Margery and two other local women she sets out as a librarian for the Packhorse Library. At first, rural locals are suspicious of an Englishwoman coming to the door offering them books, but soon Alice finds a way in and starts to be trusted. She also finds she likes the open air, the smells of the forest and singing of the birds. She enjoys the freedom of more casual clothes and the camaraderie she is building up with her fellow librarians. She is close to Margery and when she confides about her marriage, Margery loans her a book she has been sneaking out with the novels and recipes. It is an instruction book on married love and Margery has been loaning it to poor women on her rounds who are inundated with children and need educating about sex. Alice takes the book home and a series of events are set in motion that change not only the Van Cleeve household, but the whole town.

Old Mr Van Cleeve is determined to deal with Margery O’Hare and vows to destroy the Packhorse Library altogether. Margery is shrewd and is sure that a devastating flood had more behind it than high rainfall and suspects the mines. However, she has left herself vulnerable with what Van Cleeve sees as evidence of transgressive behaviour: she is exposed as having a relationship out of wedlock, she has hired an African-American woman who used to run the coloured library and she is encouraging townswomen to take control of their own lives. She seems impervious to other people’s disapproval so what lengths will he have to go to in order to stop her? Meanwhile, Alice starts to fall into a friendship with Frank who helps out at the library by chopping wood, putting up shelves and being a general handyman. They bond over poetry and spend hours talking and working side by side in the library building. The other librarians have seen what’s happening, but Alice doesn’t seem to realise this man is falling in love with her.

I loved this book and writing about it again has made me want to reread it. I was on holiday the first time and I stayed in my holiday cottage for two days to read it cover to cover. As always with Moyes, it is beautifully written and researched, with characters I fell in love with. She writes about relationships with so much insight and emotional intelligence. She captures the tensions of the Depression perfectly, depicting the rural poverty where work is scarcer and poor women really take the brunt of the economic conditions. Stuck at home with ever growing families they must have felt desperate for a break. They had land to grow vegetables and keep livestock, but there was still worry over where the next meal was coming from and hoping and praying that there are no more mouths to feed. Just as in the recent pandemic, money worries and pressure meant more domestic abuse. Margery is determined to educate these women to keep themselves safe and prevent their families growing. The town hasn’t kept up with the national shift in women’s attitudes and opportunities. Moyes shows that feminine power is on the rise and the new attitudes towards feminism, as well as marriage and sex, could end up battling against old money and old values. For the women, the poorer families and those residents who are African-American losing the power struggle could be disastrous, and some characters might pay a high price. I was braced for tragedy, but found myself desperate for the progressive characters and attitudes to prevail. It was this struggle that built the tension and kept me reading till 2am! Moyes achieved something real, romantic and historically significant with this novel, but most of all it is simply great storytelling. This book is an absolute must read and I still think it is probably her best novel to date.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Platform Seven by Louise Doughty.

Having spent a bit of time hanging round Peterborough train station over the years, I thought it seemed an unpromising place to set a novel, but Louise Doughty has proved me wrong. In Platform Seven, she weaves an unmissable whodunnit where Lisa tries to understand why she died.The book opens following security guard Dalmar, a refugee from Somalia, as he carries out his night shift. After midnight the station goes quiet and most people might assume it is closed, but it runs with a skeleton staff and between the hours of 3am and 6am only freight trains rumble through at platform seven. This is the last platform, towards the back of the station and only partially viewable by CCTV. It is the perfect place for homeless people to hide out and try to sneak into the warmth of the waiting room for a few hours. Dalmar has been desperate, so sometimes he doesn’t have the heart to move them on, feigning ignorance so they can grab a few moments of warmth. At first, he mistakes the man walking through the station, for a homeless person and pays no attention. The man, wearing a cap and donkey jacket makes for platform seven and waits. To Dalmar he seemed hunched in the cold and seems to almost be in a trance.


There is only one other witness to his arrival and that is Lisa. Lisa is trapped in the station, she knows all the staff by name but can’t get them to see and hear her. On this occasion she is sure she understands the desperation in this mans eyes and she worries he isn’t just here for the warmth. As a freight train trundles towards the station he steps towards the platform edge and Lisa desperately tries to stop him but he can’t hear her. Dalmar finally sees the man, but is too far away to make a difference. He shouts. But the man keeps going. He steps through Lisa and straight under the train. Doughty explores the effect this man’s suicide has, firstly on the railway staff. PC Ashcroft from the British Transport Police, and his boss face the task together. Ashcroft has never experienced a railway death before and the horrifying detail of gathering body parts, sorting through clothing to look for ID and organising a cleaning team affects him and us at the same time. He doesn’t want to break down but struggles and wants to understand what could make a man die like this? Dalmar, who witnesses the incident with Lisa, is triggered into a flashback of his own. We are transported back to a dinghy on a river and a woman who’s head is the only part up above the water. In reality it’s detached, merely floating on the surface, but screaming at the same time. Lisa wanted to stop the man and is horrified by what she’s seen. She comes to a horrifying realisation.

In the days that follow Lisa becomes fascinated with a distraught young man she sees in the cafe, while PC Ashcroft discovers that a young woman died recently on the same platform. Something about her death piques his interest and makes him wonder whether the events leading up to her apparent suicide were properly investigated. He asks if he can do some digging and gets the go ahead. Lisa also has a breakthrough, she finds that she can follow this young man out of the station and accompanies him on his walk home. This begins her wanderings and the unlocking of her story. Doughty’s description of the romance between Lisa and her doctor boyfriend, Matty, is brilliantly written and shows a real understanding of domestic abuse. Psychological or emotional abuse has only been made a criminal offence more recently, but it is subtle and difficult to pinpoint even for the victim. I was in an emotionally abusive relationship for five years and despite having therapy there are still times when I am confused about how and why I let this happen. Of course I’m not responsible for the abuse, but I was responsible for allowing it to continue. We see how slow and subtle the behaviour begins; a throwaway comment that could be a criticism, a moment of jealousy, an insistence that a hurtful comment was simply a joke and you’re too sensitive. I highlighted a whole passage to use with writing therapy clients: The sad, sobering and undramatic truth is that I made the same mistake that women and girls throughout the ages and across continents have so often made. The one that is so easy, seductive, and most flattering to ourselves. I mistook possessiveness for love. By the time I realised the magnitude of that mistake, I had too much invested in the relationship to simply undo it. I had to keep on making the mistake in order to justify the fact that I had made it in the first place. It was too large and complex an error to admit and how could I explain I had made a mistake to family and friends when I didn’t even understand how I had made it myself? This section of the book is such a beautiful piece of writing and answers perfectly the question everyone asks; ‘why didn’t you leave?’ When asked by my family why I’d never told them, the answer was the same. My husband had died, I had been broken and this person professed to love me. I was ready for something positive to happen in my life. I glossed over a couple of red flags, because he was stressed at work, or moving house and as well as an excuse he made promises to change. If I admitted that my relationship was a sham I would have to admit there was no happy ending and I would be back where I started: bereaved, broken and alone.

It took me five years to admit to others and myself that I had to leave. I’d had to gather my strength over time and eventually he behaved so badly I couldn’t gloss over it any more. I was aware reading Lisa’s story that things could have been so much worse. Matty breaks her confidence and by using the technique of gaslighting leaves her in a place where she doesn’t even trust her own judgement anymore. The outcome is devastating. I really enjoyed the way Doughty slowly frees Lisa. Firstly, she is liberated from the station, then finds a way to whisper a suggestion to someone, then m finally she travels all over Peterborough and even beyond the city towards the end. She finds others like her: the old man from the station suicide pops up soon after his death; a woman in an orange suit striding towards the station; the weird grey blob at the top of the multi-storey car park who she knows to stay away from. However, there are places she wants to be. Most importantly, an urgent visit to a woman she once saw through a window who seemed to need her help. This is domestic noir at it’s absolute best and has stayed with me ever since.

Meet The Author

Louise Doughty is the author of nine novels, including the soon-to-be-published Platform Seven. She has also written one work of non-fiction and five plays for radio.Her most recent book, Black Water, is out now from Faber & Faber UK and Farrar Straus & Giroux in the US, where it was nominated as one of the New York Times Book Review Top 100 Notable Books of 2016.

Her previous book was the number one bestseller Apple Tree Yard. First published in 2013, it has sold over half a million copies in the UK alone and has been translated in thirty territories worldwide. A four-part TV adaptation with Emily Watson in the lead role was broadcast on Sunday nights on BBC1 in January 2017. 

Doughty’s sixth novel, Whatever You Love, was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. She has also won awards for radio drama and short stories, along with publishing one work of non-fiction, A Novel in a Year, based on her popular newspaper column. She is a critic and cultural commentator for UK and international newspapers and broadcasts regularly for the BBC and has been the judge for many prizes and awards including the Man Booker Prize and the Costa Novel Award. She lives in London.