Posted in Personal Purchase

Woman of a Certain Rage by Georgie Hall.

Recently life had a started to get on top of me a little bit. I felt overwhelmed; with my partner being unwell, my MS not coping with the heat, and several things in the house going wrong. The dishwasher flooded the kitchen, then two weeks later the washing machine did the same, but lifted the entire floor too. Finally, I emptied my bath water and came downstairs to find it had christened the kitchen island and we had a lovely new hole in the ceiling. I’m immune-compromised so I’m still avoiding crowds and wearing masks. Finally, there’s the effect of the menopause when dealing with all those things. I’m far more likely to burst into tears these days. Masks mean I sweat more – not just a little glow, I can look like I’ve just got out of the shower in ‘tropical moments’. Then my reading glasses steam up, but I can’t take them off because I can’t read anything. I’ve taken a short break from blog tours and deadlines to deal with some of this and spending some time reading exactly what I want. So, I’m on the couch, a cold flannel on my neck, with two fans pointing at me, as few clothes as I dare to wear, and an ice cold can of coke in my hand. I was browsing my NetGalley shelf when this title jumped out at me. It could not have been more apt.

Eliza feels like she’s going crazy. She’s emotional, keeps forgetting things, feels angry and she’s hot, oh so hot.

This is a smart and funny novel about love, life and a second shot at freedom for rebellious women of a certain age. Late for work and dodging traffic, Eliza is still reeling from the latest row with husband Paddy. Twenty-something years ago, their eyes met over the class divide in oh-so-cool Britpop London, but while Paddy now seems content filling his downtime with canal boats and cricket, Eliza craves the freedom and excitement of her youth. Fifty sounds dangerously close to pensionable: her woke children want to cancel her, a male motorist has just called her a ‘mad old bat’ and to cap it all her hormones are on the run. Who knew menopause was puberty’s evil older sister? But then a moment of heroism draws an unexpected admirer, and Eliza sets out to discover whether the second half of life can be a glass half full after all. She might suffer mental fog and night sweats – and have temporarily mislaid her waist – but this is her renaissance.

I bonded with Eliza immediately and not just because of the menopause. We’re a similar age, so I could identify with growing up in the Britpop era – I fell totally in love with Damon Albarn, a love which has lasted a lifetime. All of our references points were the same, and having inherited two beautiful stepdaughters in their tweens and teens I could really appreciate Eliza’s relationship with her daughter. I also have a strong relationship with an elderly dog. Menopause is causing tension in Eliza’s marriage, particularly annoying for her is the loss of libido. That deep connection she and Paddy once had seems to have gone, lost in the logistics of family life and life stresses around their finances. Eliza’s realisation that she’s becoming invisible has extended into her working life too. She has always wanted to be a stage actress, but her career has never really taken off. Now she’s getting less and less work, and aside from one Japanese tourist who thinks she’s Emma Thompson, she feels very under appreciated. She’s doing voice work, reading audiobooks mainly, plus has a side job showing people around properties for a local estate agent. All of the everyday stresses in her life – marriage, family tensions mixed with financial concerns, having ‘woke’ children, her youngest son who is on the spectrum – leave her feeling exhausted. Into this low point steps a handsome Italian restauranteur, who happens to have taken over her family’s favourite bistro from his uncle. Exuding charm from every pore, he flatters Eliza and makes her feel desirable when of late she’s felt men’s eyes pass over her and to her teenage daughter. It’s like one big ‘hormotional’ perfect storm and I wondered whether anyone would come out of it unscathed.

It’s easy to love Eliza; she’s loving, caring, vivacious and witty. However, her husband Paddy grew on me too and I felt a great deal of empathy for his own middle aged struggles. There is growing evidence of male menopause, despite society being largely dismissive and calling it a ‘midlife crisis’. Jokes about middle-aged men trying to recapture their youth with hair transplants, sports cars and unwise affairs with younger women are still commonplace. Yet the NHS recognises a group of symptoms similar to those experienced by women – irritability, insomnia, weight gain, loss of muscle mass, erectile dysfunction, loss of libido and memory problems. Some doctors have questioned whether these are symptoms of a loss of testosterone, but the NHS classify it as a psychological syndrome characterised by increased levels of depression and raised anxiety amongst men in their late forties and fifties. Paddy is definitely going through something like this, but he has had a lot to contend with. His father’s death and the loss of the narrow boat they worked on together hit him hard. Eliza’s family bought the boat so he could still work on it, but that brings its own guilt and shame because Paddy could not afford to do this himself and run it. His wife earns more than he does and she’s starting acting like a crazy person. He thinks her loss of libido is down to him being a failure as a man. This book hinges on the fact that problems occur when couples stop communicating.

The author really pitched this book perfectly, balanced between the serious issues and the comic moments. Her other characters were well rounded, with interesting quirks to their personalities or hidden depths. I thought her sister was an infuriating superwoman who could juggle everything perfectly, but when she cooked Sunday dinner she was in a complaining, sweaty, heap like I am on Sundays! Her mum had depths of hidden wisdom and despite never seeming to ask, had a pretty accurate idea of what was going on. I found Eliza’s daughter infuriating though. She was very preachy and deeply committed to social justice and women’s rights. Despite agreeing with her in some cases I found her speeches annoying and the long Shakespeare quotes pretentious. I think this is how the author intended her though. She was an exaggeration of my stepdaughter’s generation and I could see a lot of our 15 year old in Summer’s causes and the way she spoke. I think the youngest son’s autism was handled well too. When she found out the real reason he wouldn’t use his allocated transport to get to school I was heartbroken for him. All anyone wants is for someone to understand them and listen to how it feels, rather than dismissing them with a lazy stereotype or the ableism on show here. The final adventure was both funny and poignant, and I left the book feeling like I’d been seen and acknowledged. I also had a huge smile on my face, because it had really lifted my spirits, so much so that I would really love another instalment of Eliza and her family in the future.

Posted in Personal Purchase

The Hollows by Mark Edwards.

Mark Edwards has become one of my favourite authors over the last few years. His books are fascinating, addictive thrillers where an ordinary domestic situation is subverted or even blown wide open. There’s maybe a new person brought into the situation who upsets the dynamic or a massive life change that makes a character question their life. This was a slightly different premise, but still based around a modern family, with more than a nod to another of my favourite authors – Stephen King. The title reminded me of the wooded area where the kids would meet in King’s novel It, there are allusions to burying a live cat that brought to mind Pet Semetary, the backwater town has the feel of Salem’s Lot and the passing drunk who helps Tom at the end has the feel of the janitor at the Overlook Hotel. As soon as Tom arrived at the cabins it reminded me of the secluded cabin in Bag of Bones. This gave me the sense we might be getting a supernatural element to this thriller and there’s definitely a pagan or Wiccan aspect to the tale.

With his marriage over and his career in freefall, journalist Tom decides to reconnect with his fourteen-year-old daughter, Frankie. Desperate to spend precious time together now that they live an ocean apart, he brings her to Hollow Falls, a cabin resort deep in the woods of Maine.

From the outset there’s something a little eerie about the place—strange whispers in the trees, windchimes echoing through the forest—but when Tom meets true-crime podcasters David and Connie, he receives a chilling warning. Hollow Falls has a gruesome history: twenty years ago this week, a double slaying shut down the resort. The crime was never solved, and now the woods are overrun with murder-obsessed tourists looking to mark the grim anniversary.

It’s clear that there’s something deeply disturbing going on at Hollow Falls. And as Tom’s dream trip turns into a nightmare, he and Frankie are faced with a choice: uncover the truth, or get out while they still can. There were times in the book when I was screaming at Tom to just pack the car up and leave without looking back! The killing from twenty years ago is a heavy influence on the story. Two teachers on a field trip with their students, sneak away at night to a clearing in the forest and start an illicit affair. Both are married and it is a double shock to their spouses to find out they’ve been cheating and murdered. The bodies are posed in a symbolic way with Wiccan symbols painted in their blood. The suspect is a local teenager with an interest in death metal and all things pagan. He disappeared at the same time as the murders, and Tom’s daughter Frankie is spooked by tales of him still living wild in the woods to this day. She forms a friendship with Ryan, son of the true crime enthusiasts David and Connie. They take a walk into the local town, Penance, which is a real backwater with locals who are openly hostile to those at the holiday village. The teenagers run into some other kids, but they’re not friendly. The way the author describes brother and sister duo Buddy and Darlene, standing together, arms by their sides and completely motionless – is creepy and reminiscent of the twin girls from The Shining. Ryan takes pictures and lampoons the locals on Instagram using hashtags they’re going to find, putting himself and Frankie in danger.

The author really ramps up the tension to great effect. Little creepy incidents like a dead rabbit at the cabin door, Tom thinking he’s seen a horned goat man, as well as Connie’s hints about a big surprise for her true crime followers on barbecue night, keep camp residents on edge. Then more serious incidents start to occur – Frankie and Ryan are pelted with rocks, an unlucky guest with a heart condition sees what she thinks is Satan. The stakes are getting higher, building towards the Saturday event. Tom makes friends with local bookshop owner Nikki, there’s an instant charge between them, but can he trust her? As he starts to look into the murders and myths surrounding the Hollows, using his investigative skills, he realises that Nikki was about the same age as suspected murderer Everett. Everybody seems to know each other in such a small town so did she know him? Suspicions reach boiling point, and when Frankie and Ryan go missing in the midst of the party preparations Tom has no idea who to trust and how to find his daughter.

Mark Edwards never lets me down. His thrillers are always well thought out, psychologically unsettling and paced beautifully. I didn’t work out the whole mystery, and the eventual reveal developed in an unexpected and rather grisly way. There was something slightly comical, as well as horrifying, about people wandering the woods in animal masks – particularly when the horned goat happens upon a very religious woman with a very weak heart. I must admit to a rather dark sense of humour because that made me laugh. I enjoyed the friction between locals and holiday makers, because it’s true of many beautiful places. The locals need tourists, but it’s an uneasy partnership. The pagan backstory to the forest being sacred ground, that should remain wild, linked in to this and felt very apt in a time when humans have ruined their habitat. I think the prurience of true crime fans was also timely with many of my friends glued to crime documentaries on Netflix. I’m also a Stephen King fan so I enjoyed the nods to his creations and the whole ‘townie versus country locals’ vibe that permeates a lot of his work. I devoured this so quickly that I’m already thinking about thr next book from this ‘must buy’ author.

Meet The Author

Mark Edwards writes psychological thrillers in which scary things happen to ordinary people.

He loves hearing from readers and always responds. Mark can be contacted in the following ways:
Email: mark@markedwardsauthor.com
Twitter @mredwards
Facebook/Instagram: @markedwardsauthor

You can download a free box set of ‘Short Sharp Shockers’ by visiting http://www.markedwardsauthor.com/free

Mark has sold over 3.5 million books since his first solo novel, The Magpies, was published in 2013 and has topped the bestseller lists numerous times. His other novels include Follow You Home, Here To Stay and The House Guest. He has also published six books co-authored with Louise Voss. His latest book is The Hollows, published in July 2021.

Mark lives in the West Midlands, England, with his wife, their three children and two cats.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.

Have you ever wished that you had a chance to do something all over again? To iron out the mistakes or maybe create a different outcome. To maybe get a second chance at life, right from the start; a life with a blank slate again. What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?

Life After Life is one of my favourite novels of all time, alongside its sequel A God in Ruins. I loved her Jackson Brodie novels and Behind the Scenes at the Museum, but this novel is something extra special. I’d never read anything like it outside of sci-fi novels.

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.

Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century again and again. With wit and compassion, Kate Atkinson finds warmth even in life’s bleakest moments, and shows an extraordinary ability to evoke the past. Here she is at her most profound and inventive, in a novel that celebrates the best and worst of ourselves.

Atkinson does something profoundly special with this novel. It could have been a perfectly acceptable novel if it simply explored this baby girl’s lives from a personal and family perspective. However, Atkinson weaves Ursula’s personal story in with the state of flux in the early Twentieth Century. She takes in the demise of such upper middle class family’s like the Todd’s, from changes to social mobility, women’s roles becoming more prominent, and the loss of male members of the family due to WW1 and WW2. She explores the descent into WW2 and women’s roles in places like the war office and the secret services. In the multiple lives Ursula lives she can explore whether or not war could have been avoided, and what role she could have played in that mission. There’s so much going on that I can understand some reviewers finding it complicated to follow. The trick is to simply go with it. Eventually Ursula has longer lives where these issues can be explored in depth.

I fell in love with the Todd family and their genteel English way of life that can be summed up in a single phrase; ‘one does as one must, and then has tea’. All the female characters, including Sylvie and Pamela, are well fleshed out and it’s interesting to see what different paths their own lives took because of Ursula. I also had an incredible soft spot for Teddy – and loved that he got his own story in her follow up novel A God In Ruins. However, it is Ursula who holds our attention most and the endlessly inventive ways she dies in childbirth, from Spanish Flu, from drowning or by murder. She always has very strong perceptions, and experiences strong episodes of déja vu – although she doesn’t know she’s been here before, it seems she has gained some gifts from her other lives. There must be some residual wisdom from times when she’s been a mother or not, a wife or a mistress, someone who leads a quiet life in the country or goes to Germany and changes the course of history.

Atkinson’s sense of place is incredible. There are the lazy summers at the Todd family home, lounging in the garden or the kids exploring freely, climbing trees in the idyllic countryside. Her scenes in London are incredibly evocative, especially her descriptions based in historical fact. In one section their maid goes to a huge gathering in the capital to celebrate the end of WW1 and brings Spanish Flu back to the house. Her description of the London Blitz brings home how devastating and terrifying it must have been. We have a unique perspective as readers, we have an overview of every life Ursula lives, while she only knows the one she’s living in. Of course there are some events that repeat in every life – her birthday in 1910 is replayed twelve times – but these are important moments, where even the most subtle difference can send Ursula hurtling towards a different path in life. The novel evoked several other novels for me. The scenes at home with family in the early Twentieth Century reminded me of the long, languid summer of L.P.Hartley’s The Go-Between. Scenes in London during WW2, and the concept of written lives versus the truth, reminded me of Atonement by Ian McEwan. I never became bored of going back to the beginning, but the other characters in Ursula’s life are so strong and well-written, it seems odd that once she dies, they no longer exist either. The author explores the dynamics of family, class, and how that changes so much at this point in history. There’s also grief – for other people, a way of life, a loss of innocence – and how that affects characters differently. I think this is an astonishing novel, beautifully written and managing to be both playful in structure but profoundly moving at the same time.

Next week for Throwback Thursday I will be looking at Kate Atkinson’s sequel to Life After Life. A God in Ruins overlaps with Ursula’s story in places, but is more focused on her little brother Teddy.

Meet The Author

Kate Atkinson won the Whitbread (now Costa) Book of the Year prize with her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

Her four bestselling novels featuring former detective Jackson Brodie became the BBC television series Case Histories, starring Jason Isaacs.Her 2013 novel Life After Life won the South Bank Sky Arts Literature Prize, was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize, and voted Book of the Year for the independent booksellers associations on both sides of the Atlantic. It also won the Costa Novel Award, as did her subsequent novel A God in Ruins (2015).

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Beloved by Toni Morrison.

Film tie-in paperback.

‘124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old — as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard) […] leaving their grandmother, Baby Suggs; Sethe, their mother; and their little sister, Denver, all by themselves in the gray and white house on Bluestone Road’.

Beloved is one of those books that seeps into your soul and never really leaves. In that powerful opening paragraph we see a house full of supernatural activity. A house that men leave. Where only women have the strength to live alongside the demons of the past. The baby ghost who haunts Sethe is full of rage and throws tantrums like a toddler, yet instead of throwing her bottle on the floor she has the power to fling furniture at the wall, even the dog doesn’t escape unscathed. Sethe escaped Sweet Home, the farm where she was enslaved, over eighteen years ago. She has borne such terrible suffering and yet has survived, whole in body and mind. There is just this one thing, the possession of the house by her first daughter, who died when she was a baby. All it says on her grave stone is one word, Beloved. So when a teenage girl turns up at the house claiming to be her daughter, Sethe wants to believe it’s true. If it’s true, maybe what happened back at the farm was just a terrible dream. When Paul D arrives – a freed slave from the same place – his remembrances and ability to look forward instead of over his shoulder, will clash with Sethe who is stuck.

“To Sethe, the future was a matter of keeping the past at bay. The ‘better life’ she believed she and Denver were living was simply not that other one.” […] Yet the morning she woke up next to Paul D, the word her daughter had used a few years ago did cross her mind and she thought… Would it be all right to go ahead and feel? Go ahead and count on something?”

Until now, being in this liminal space is the only way she can be with her other daughter. Neither fully in the past, nor creating a new future, Sethe can’t move on without acknowledging the cost of slavery. At No 124, the ghost of slavery is literal and inescapable. Sethe may no longer be enslaved as the novel opens, but she can never forget what slavery as an institution did to her as a person. When a young woman claiming to be the now-adult Beloved comes to Sethe’s house, Sethe begins to believe that she might avoid facing the truth. Instead she might at last be able to forget: if Beloved is truly alive, then her terrible fate never happened, and so slavery may also be erased, forgotten, papered over. But it rapidly and inexorably becomes clear that forgetting is impossible. This incredible book has the feel of the supernatural, but it’s haunting is one of traumatic memory. Sometimes things happen to us that have to be pushed to the back of our minds. It’s as if we’ve accidentally forgotten, but really it’s a conscious choice to build a mental wall between our psychological ‘self’ and the trauma.

However, Sethe’s trauma is now embodied twice. The scar that covers her back looks like a tree. The lash has broken up and knotted the skin leaving a texture like bark. When Paul D sees her back for the first time, he does not flinch. Instead he traces the lines and kisses the branches, framing the mark of what she’s gone through as a positive thing. The tree could symbolise Sethe’s growth. She stands, a mighty oak of a woman, who doesn’t have to be cowed by her experience. Then Beloved arrives – an angry, spiteful young woman who seems to be very sweet at first, and only wants to be near the mother she’s never had. Denver and Paul D can also see Beloved so she’s not an apparition or figment of Sethe’s imagination. She’s a real woman. In the film, Beloved is played beautifully by Thandie Newton – full of languid grace and always fixing huge pleading eyes on Sethe whether she wants more sugar, more attention, more love. In fact her needs are like those of a baby and must be satisfied. There’s a baby’s narcissism in Beloved and she wants her newly found mother all to herself, trying every means possible to drive a wedge between Sethe and Paul D or her baby sister Denver. She’s not above lying, pleading or even seduction to get her mother to herself.

As Denver and Paul D leave, Beloved is satisfied. However, Sethe is slowly being drained by the girl. She loses energy and isn’t seen in her garden so much. She stops visiting the market for food. The women in the neighbourhood notice and share the strange stories they’ve heard: about a young woman suddenly living at number 124; that Sethe has lost her man; that her daughter Denver left for work in the city; and that Sethe grows thin waiting on her house guest hand and foot, while Beloved grows fatter. The women gather outside 124 in a prayer circle and began to ask God to take back this demon inhabiting Sethe and her home. They don’t believe Beloved exists, not as an actual flesh and blood girl. Can they give Sethe the strength needed to recognise this? Can she own and confront a crucial part of her past?

She will need all of her will for this embodiment of Beloved to leave. She has to recognise that she no longer needs a physical reminder, because instead she needs to integrate a terrible, horrifying act she committed into her psyche. She starts to accept that Beloved’s death was caused by slavery. The descriptions of what happened to Sethe at Sweet Home are truly harrowing and they need to be, so that we as readers understand her actions. Sethe remembers: the lashing that tore her back open; the awful scene in the barn where her husband, hiding in the rafters, is forced to see Sethe pinned down as their master’s sons suckle her baby’s milk away; the horrifying sight of Paul D wearing the ‘bit’ – a terrible metalwork mask that prevents him from speaking. The remarkable thing is that these experiences are not recounted with buckets of emotion. They are merely factual and all the more devastating in their quiet retelling.

In the aftermath of Beloved’s disappearance, Sethe starts to grieve. She acknowledges the beautiful little girl she held in her arms that day. The day that her love for her children was so great, she could not bear to see them taken back to the horror she’d fled. As Paul D tries to comfort her she keeps repeating ‘she was my best thing’.

“He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. ‘You your best thing, Sethe. You are.’ His holding fingers are holding hers.”

Now Sethe must learn to put herself first. Not to forget Beloved, her first born who liked to eat the burned edges of bread, but to forgive herself. To place the blame at slavery’s door, rather than her own. Paul D has returned to something for the first time in a life where he’s done nothing but run. He can’t articulate his feelings for Sethe, but when he’s with her he can let the horrors that slavery inflicted on him melt into the background. She has shared his experience and this removes any shame he feels for being collared and yoked like an animal. His memories no longer remove his manhood from him. He encourages Sethe to move forward with him, to start experiencing less yesterdays and more tomorrows. Beloved, in hindsight, becomes an embodiment of their past. Resurrecting the past is always painful, and Beloved is painful, difficult and confusing to encounter. In Beloved, a traumatic history is restored and rescued from years of buried memories and enforced silence.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Mr Wroe’s Virgins by Jane Rogers.

‘The Lord has instructed me to take of your number, seven virgins for comfort and succour.

In 1830, as he thought the end of the world approached, the charismatic, hunchbacked prophet of a religious sect settled in Lancashire heeds the biblical injunction and chooses seven virgins ‘for comfort and succour’. Basing her novel on the life of the real John Wroe, a leader of a group called the Christian Israelite Church, Rogers crafts an impeccable narrative, interweaving the diverse mindsets of some of the chosen women and the prophet during the nine months of complex interaction. Part morality tale, part history, packed with accurate details of early 19th century life, the stories of Leah, Joanna, Hannah and Martha unfold as they cope with the hypocrisy, blind beliefs and idealism of the sexually threatening prophet.
Told with humour, irony and a generosity that embraces even the sinister Wroe, this is a compelling story of astonishing depth, elucidating religious idealism, the beginnings of socialism and the ubiquitous position of women as unpaid labourers.

I came across this novel, even before the BBC TV series of the same name. Having seen/read both, I can recommend them equally, although I think the novel is slightly more successful in a few different ways. The way the book is structured into four different narratives allows the women’s characters to develop fully, as over nine months, the story of their lives unfold. Through them we come to experience all seven women: a pious believer; two sisters, still too young to understand their place in the world; a disabled woman; a beautiful, but egotistical woman; a mute and badly beaten woman; a girl donated by her aunt and uncle, who doesn’t believe in the prophet or his religion. It is only through the women that we experience the prophet, a clever reversal of power. In fact these narratives are the only power the women have at first, these are their only words free from restriction or religious dogma. This power shift is especially interesting when it comes to Martha, who is mute. When I first encountered her narrative I thought I’d bought a book with pages missing. However, it’s just Martha trying to express herself the only way she knows – depicted in staccato monosyllabic language, Martha writes about what she knows, eating and sleeping in the first instance. Yet instead of cutting off her narrative, Rogers leaves a blank page. This is the space into which Martha can develop and come to know herself. One of the most powerful parts of the book is watching this transformation.

We hear that Mr Wroe is a powerful speaker, and we can hear his preaching and religious teaching. However, we don’t fully come to know and understand the man. He doesn’t get to construct himself through language. So, we know something of his belief system and his interpretation of the Bible, but nothing personal. This could be because he is a conduit of God, simply meant to deliver God’s teaching. It also leaves him as something of an enigma. Why and when did he become the person he is today? The belief system he has is very selective, patriarchal and seems to benefit him more than his congregation. He sees no problem in allowing Leah to bring her illegitimate child to live with them. He accepts Hannah into the fold despite her lack of faith, and her doubts allow him to admit his own. He uses all the women as unpaid domestic servants and the exploitation doesn’t end there. He seduces the pious Joanna by convincing her that they will beget the new Messiah. For each woman his approach is different, but it works. I found his exploitation of Martha particularly difficult to read and his ability to take Joanna’s faith and use it against her in such a manipulative way is despicable. I don’t want to ruin the ending, so I’ll reserve any more detail, but such an arrangement can’t last and I kept reading hoping for the women’s emancipation.

I have always enjoyed this book and further reading shows it has stood the test of time. The historical detail is so accurate and the scene she sets is vivid – Martha’s time in the pig sty with the animals really sticks in my memory. It may seem hard to believe that any parent would willingly give up their daughters to this man. However, I understand how religious fervour can sweep through a community. Having family on my Dad’s side from the Isle of Axeholme, I know my ancestors would have experienced the Methodist revival started by John Wesley who hailed from Epworth. The real life Mr Wroe’s congregation firmly believed he was a holy man. Maybe they felt that God would look favourably upon them if they supported his vision. There were of course monetary reasons too; offloading a disabled or mute woman who would never earn money or marry could have helped a family who were stretched financially. Also, the stigma of having a disabled daughter, an old maid still living at home or a a girl who has a child out of wedlock could be wiped out by their inclusion in the prophet’s household, This can be a challenging read in parts, but worth the work as you become pulled in by the voices of these women. Little is known about the real ‘virgins’, but here Rogers gives them a voice and a power they clearly didn’t have in life.

Meet The Author

Jane Rogers has written 10 novels ranging from historical to contemporary to sci fi. Books include Mr Wroe’s Virgins (which she dramatised as an award-winning BBC drama serial), Island, and The Testament of Jessie Lamb (ManBooker longlisted, winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award 2012). Her short story collection Hitting Trees with Sticks was shortlisted for the Edgehill Award.
She also writes radio drama and Classic serial adaptations (most recently of John Wyndham and R.L. Stevenson).
Jane has taught writing to a wide variety of students, and is Professor Emerita at Sheffield Hallam University. She’s a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Her latest novel, Body Tourists, is a dystopia set in 2040.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark.

I’m wary of books written by people in the public eye. There are those who have clearly used a ghost writer. Others have no writing skill, just a big enough name to sell the book anyway. I worry for myself and all those other aspiring writers who won’t be able to get a book deal because the lists are full with celebrity memoirs and books set in Cornwall! However, there are some celebrity authors who get it right, often those who started out as reporters before becoming famous. Jeremy Vine’s debut novel was a pleasant surprise, and my stepdaughters loved David Walliams stories. I knew Dawn French could write well only a few pages into her memoir. I can now add Kirsty Wark to this list, since stumbling on her book second hand in Barter Books, Alnwick. I started to read it while still on holiday and loved it.

The author lets her characters tell the story. Firstly we are told Elizabeth’s story from her journal and we meet her at the beginning of the First World War, a time of big changes for her family. She is moving with her mum from the isolated family farm to the small fishing village of Lamlash on the Isle of Arran. The house they will live in is Holmlea, which has a beautiful sea view out to Holy Isle and the monastery. We are then immersed in Elizabeth’s life: their family friendship with the Duchess of Montrose; an incredible passion for gardening; all the relationships in her life. These relationships ebb and flow, but into her old age she has two men in her life. There is Niall the rather passionate gardener who works as an architect and Saul, a Buddhist monk from Holy Isle. When working in her front garden she notices a young woman, walking past with her baby in a pram. The young woman is Anna, and she is very taken with Holmlea and asks Elizabeth to contact her if she ever decides to sell it.

Our other narrator is Martha, the daughter of Anna Morrison, who is surprised to find her mother has been offered the legacy of a house on the Isle of Arran by a woman she’s never heard of before. Anna is now struggling with dementia, so much so that Martha is now her full time carer and deals with her finances. It is Martha who organises help for her mother and takes a trip up to Arran to see the house. So it is also up to Hannah to uncover Elizabeth’s reasons for leaving the house, but also discover more about her life and secrets. There was once a fiancé in Elizabeth’s life who moved out to Australia to start a sheep farm. Elizabeth was reluctant to go, feeling she needed to be there for her mother. She passes her time walking in the hills and during the war, helped in looking for lost and crashed airmen. Eventually, it is too late to follow her fiancé and at the end, Elizabeth has lived on Arran for 90 years. More recently she’s had friendships with a young man whose sister runs the local hotel and he has worked with her to create her beautiful garden. It is her friend Saul who encourages her to write her story down. He is a struggling Buddhist monk who is staying at Holy Island and meets Elizabeth when she volunteers in the gardens.

The books major strength is in description, creating a strong sense of place. This is a bleak but beautiful place, and she situates Arran and Holy Island as sustaining to the people who live there or come for solace. These islands feel like a cornerstone or anchor for the people who are born there and almost like medicine to those lonely or desperate people who seek them out. Gardens are featured heavily as a source of sustenance for the body and the soul and I truly understand that need to be in nature and feel your senses drink it in. I thought it was a wonderfully calm and quiet novel, but quiet doesn’t mean it’s without impact. I really loved Elizabeth’s story, it shows how quiet and seemingly unassuming people can have hidden depths. We often overlook the elderly, thinking they have lived their lives. I’ve worked in nursing homes and advocacy, and it’s surprising how many elderly people are cared for by people who don’t really know them and never try to. They talk to other carers as if the person they’re helping is deaf or not really there. I created a memory project where I found old photographs of residents and wrote down stories they told me about their lives. I then put up a display outside each bedroom, so that carers could see their residents as individuals with experience and stories to share. This book reminded me of that project and what a difference it made to the resident’s everyday lives.

Meet The Author

Kirsty Wark is a journalist, broadcaster and writer who has presented a wide range of BBC programmes for more than twenty five years, from the ground-breaking LATE SHOW to the weekly arts and cultural review show THE REVIEW SHOW and the nightly current affairs show NEWSNIGHT.

Kirsty has won several major awards for her work, including BAFTA Awards for Outstanding Contribution to Broadcasting, Journalist of the Year and Best Television Presenter. Her debut novel, THE LEGACY OF ELIZABETH PRINGLE, was published in March 2014 by Two Roads and was shortlisted for the Saltire First Book of the Year Award, as well as nominated for the International DUBLIN Literary Award. Her second novel, THE HOUSE BY THE LOCH, was inspired by her childhood memories and family, particularly her father. She is currently working on her third novel, set in Glasgow.

Born in Dumfries and educated in Ayr, Scotland, Kirsty now lives in Glasgow.

Posted in Personal Purchase

Both of You by Adele Parks.

Adele Parks is one of those authors whose books I tend to buy without reading any blurb or hype. I always enjoy her books and this was no exception, being addictive and unsettling from the start. Two women go missing in the same week. Leigh, married to Mark Fletcher and step-mum to his two boys, goes missing on Monday. Only days later Kai Janssen is reported missing by her distraught husband Daan, a wealthy Dutch businessman. Leigh Fletcher usually works away for part of the week and then returns to family life. It is as if she dropped the boys at school and vanished into thin air. This is so out of character for Leigh that her friend Fiona is also devastated. She saw how Mark and Leigh met, when she was picnicking in the park with her friend. When Mark’s youngest boy had a fall, a strange instinct seemed to take over Leigh and she made a dash to comfort him and give first aid. The four went to hospital together as if they were a family, and have been one ever since. Mark’s first wife Frances died a year earlier, and Leigh who couldn’t have children had stepped firmly into the step-mum role, fulfilling a part of her that had been crying out to care for someone. She and Fiona were like family, since Leigh didn’t have contact with her own, and she can’t think of any reason she would willingly leave Mark and the boys.

When the police visit Daan, in his large penthouse apartment, he is devastated by his wife’s disappearance. For part of the week, Kai would go back to her hometown and look after her mother who had dementia. Daan had more than enough money to ensure her mother had adequate care, but Kai wouldn’t hear of it and part of him admired her for wanting to look after her mother personally. Their separation each week hadn’t seemed to harm their relationship. They missed each other, but were very independent and their time apart seemed to put fire into their relationship. DC Clements is tasked with investigating both missing person’s cases and she’s concerned for both women. Leigh seemed devoted to her family, but she knows more than anyone, that if anything bad has happened to these women, it is likely to be solved close to home. The chance of two women being abducted by a stranger in the same week seems unlikely. She keeps a close eye on the two husbands. Daan seems a passionate and emotional man, it’s possible he has a quick temper. Mark, on the other hand, has already lost one wife. It seems careless that he should lose another.

The tension between these two investigations is heightened by the chapters in-between, from Leigh’s point of view. She is shackled by the ankle in a room with only a bucket to relieve herself and a small supply of snacks and water. She has no recollection of arriving there and is terrified about what might come next. Who could possibly hate her so much that they would do this to her. The author really captures the fear of the unknown in these passages and the indignity of her situation. Not knowing who has brought her there keeps playing on her mind. Could this be the work of her husband? Surely not. If it is a stranger though, she has no idea what might come next. Her fears are heightened when the snacks change to ones she would like – a very specific tea and her favourite nibbles. This has to be someone who knows her, but who?

I was a little disappointed that I worked out what was going on very early in proceedings, although it was still fascinating to watch it all play out. Themes of jealousy, deceit and greed run throughout. However, from a psychological point of view my interest was caught by the idea of not knowing who we really are and how dangerous that can be. It was also heartbreaking to see how the disappearance of their step-mum affects two boys who have already had the worst happen to them – the loss of their mother. What sort of damage might this cause for them down the line? The husbands are both interesting men with secrets of their own, that come to light through the investigation. Do we ever really know the person we’re sharing a life with? This wasn’t my favourite book from this author, but it was a great thriller all the same and is definitely a diverting holiday read to summer.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Hours by Michael Cunningham.

I came across The Hours in my university bookshop, as a companion piece to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. We were studying it for our Twentieth Century Literature module. I had read Woolf’s book very quickly, surprised by how modern it was in the way it was told. I did a disappointing essay based around the whether there were recognisable differences between Modernism and Postmodernism or whether it was simply a continuation of the same ideas. In hindsight I was arguing the wrong side, but the books stayed with me and I did enjoy the film adaptation of The Hours where Nicole Kidman won her Oscar playing Woolf. Arguably, it was Julianne Moore who really deserved an award, playing the second of Cunningham’s women who was sinking under the weight of motherhood and expectations in 1940’s Los Angeles. In the book I felt the same narrative was very strong, but I also enjoyed the Woolf sections – perhaps because she seemed to exist more strongly in the written word than in the flesh. The third narrative was a modern day meditation on Mrs Dalloway, as our character does the same things in one day that Woolf’s character does, but brought to a post- millennium New York City.

Our three women are Virginia Woolf, Laura Brown and Clarissa Vaughan – who is affectionately nicknamed Mrs Dalloway, by her terminally ill friend. The three timelines give us a glimpse into societal changes for women across the Twentieth Century. Yet it also shows us that there are experiences and struggles that are universal and echo down the centuries. For such a slim volume, the depth the author writes into his characters is extraordinary. I feel like I know these women, deep down to their soul. They’re going through some tough things here, with themes of illness, suicide and depression somehow explored sensitively despite the books brevity. Those who’ve read Mrs Dalloway know that it explores similar themes, despite feeling light and almost insubstantial. This is similar, as Clarissa goes out to buy flowers and Virginia takes tea with her sister Vita. These things are slight, but behind them is a turmoil of finding identity, moving beyond the tiny restricted role society expects, finding a way through tragedy and deep troughs of sadness. All three are searching for those elusive things we all want – love, happiness and a sense of who we truly are. Can we ever find these things or keep them? Are we doomed to live out our lives and others expect, rather than being our authentic selves. Most of us have to make do with one of these, or maybe all three for brief, elusive moments. How do we get through life without them? Or are we doomed to lurch desperately from one moment of happiness to another? When we are in those depths of depression or grief, how do we keep going and what would force us to take that final drastic action?

The answer is in those hours of the title. These are those happy, golden hours that we remember always. The memories we wish we could bottle and keep forever. These precious hours are the beauty of life and they illuminate all those dark moments. They are what keep us going, they hold within them the hope that things can change. That we will feel that way again and that they will warm our heart enough to get us through.

‘There’s just this consolation; an hour here or there where our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything for more.’

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman.

From the bestselling author of The Dovekeepers comes a spectacularly imaginative and moving new novel in the vein of The Night Circus that has been acclaimed by Jodi Picoult as ‘truly stunning: part love story, part mystery, part history, and all beauy’.

New York City, 1911. Meet Coralie Sardie, circus girl, web-fingered mermaid, shy only daughter of Professor Sardie and raised in the bizarre surroundings of his Museum of Extraordinary Things. 

And meet Eddie Cohen, a handsome young immigrant who has run away from his painful past and his Orthodox family to become a photographer, documenting life on the teeming city streets. One night by the freezing waters of the Hudson River, Coralie stumbles across Eddie, who has become enmeshed in the case of a missing girl, and the fates of these two hopeful outcasts collide as they search for truth, beauty, love and freedom in tumultuous times.

I was inspired to revisit this novel after reading and reviewing Elizabeth MacNeal’s Circus of Wonders at the weekend. Regular readers will know how much I love Alice Hoffman and that The Night Circus is one of my favourite books of all time. What you might not know is that I love the age of La Belle Époque, Art Nouveau, New York City, and anything to do with the circus and freak shows. So, it stands to reason that I would fall madly in love with this incredible novel. Tucked within this wealth of aesthetic and historical details is the story of what it really means to be ‘other’ and how that difference affects us politically, culturally and psychologically. However, it also shows that, when people labelled as different come together, a powerful subculture can emerge. A subculture that rejects everyday societal norms, turning them upside down and creating different rules and markers of status? There’s also the interesting and complex issues around freak shows. Now, they horrify us. They are associated with thoughts of the Elephant Man and years of disability awareness training has left people viewing them as exploitative and cruel. However it could be that the issue is more complex and there are other ways to look at them?

The novel takes us to turn of the century NYC and we really meet the city in its formative years. While there are residential buildings, factories and the beginnings of what will be Manhattan, there are areas where it is still wilderness and it is here that Hoffman takes us to meet Eddie. He is a photographer, living in a friend’s shack in what will eventually become Queens. While out with his camera, early one morning, he sees what he thinks is a mermaid slipping through the grey and choppy dawn waters of the Hudson. She’s a strong swimmer too. Cutting through the swell with ease. However, when he sees her properly, he can see she’s a girl. What he doesn’t know is that Coralie Sardie does have a physical impairment – she has webs between her fingers and toes. This slight difference inspires her father to exploit her, keeping her separate from other children so she never questions him. She grows up uncomfortable with others, shy and ashamed of her physical difference. Her father, self-proclaimed man of science and keeper of curiosities, has an idea for Coralie. He aims to be the only showman with a real live mermaid.

Eddie is a Jewish immigrant, also brought to NYC by his father. The trauma of this journey and of losing his mother, leaves Eddie struggling to adjust. His father however, completely falls apart, making Eddie feel responsible for his parent rather than being a child. They are estranged from each other and as a result Eddie has become dislocated from his religion and culture too. The novel follows these two characters, Eddie and Coralie, as they make their way towards each other and pursue the feelings that seemed to hit them both at first sight. He’s also pursuing his own path as a photographer, rather than studying towards a profession like medicine as his father would have wanted. The work he does, particularly his photos of a fire in a sweat shop and the attractions of Coney Island, is fascinating and compelling.

Eddie’s work contributes to the historical setting and the sense of place Hoffman creates here. New York City in its infancy, already has the pull that still sends countless tourists there every year. It becomes a character in its own right, achieved by Hoffman’s historical research and the richly layered descriptions she constructs. The sights and smells of Coney Island and its fairgrounds are intoxicating and the account of a fire in a clothing sweat shop is particularly memorable. This was based on the real Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, where girls living above the workshops were trapped and jumped from the windows to their death rather than burn. This sets Eddie down the road of investigative journalism and photography, rather than art photography. What will he make of Coney Island? More importantly, what will he make of Sardie’s museum and it’s main attraction?

Coralie knows she has been groomed for her father’s museum her whole life. The webbing she has on her hands is usually hidden by gloves, but at the age of 10 she is given a birthday gift that seals her future.

It stood in place of honour; a large tank of water. On the bottom of the tank were shells from all over the world. From the Indian Oceans to the China Sea. Beneath that title was carved one word alone, my name, Coralie. I did not need further instructions. I understood that all of my life was mere practice for this very moment. Without being asked, I slipped off my shoes, I knew how to swim.’

Her cruel father, only seemed to see Coralie in terms of ownership and monetary value. He has been making her take freezing cold baths, and practice staying under he water as long as she could. He gives her a breathing tube for the tank, but she barely needs it since her swims in the Hudson in winter. She will now be exhibited as a mermaid, alongside other ‘freaks‘ such as a woman without arms who has been given silk butterfly wings by Sardie. There’s a ‘beast’, completely covered in hair and a woman so pale she seems translucent. After looking at freak shows as part of my undergraduate degree, my feelings about them became more complicated. Yes, of course there is an element of exploitation in a figure like Sardie and his real life counterpart, Barnum. Yet, for a lot of the exhibits, this is the first sense of freedom they’ve had and their only chance to live independently. Often locked away in their towns and villages, by parents who either didn’t want others to see them, or felt like they were protecting their child. Parents might sell their child to a man like Sardie, feeling like they would be looked after or just to make money for the rest of the family. This might be the first time they encountered a community of people with differences like them. While we might think it barbaric to ‘show’ people with disabilities, it might be the only job open to them and give them a more comfortable living than they ever imagined. Real life ‘exhibit’ Prince Randian was brought to the USA by Barnum, and was known as The Human Torso amongst other names. He was born without arms and legs, and was usually dressed in a one piece, tight fitting garment. He appeared in the controversial Tod Browning film Freaks and had a party piece of rolling and smoking a cigar. His take was that he was being paid handsomely for simply doing normal everyday activities. We have to ask the question – who is exploiting who? There is also kudos in being the most transgressive as the disability subculture turns expectations upside down.

Prince Randian

I love this book. I enjoyed the character of Maureen – the Sardie’s housekeeper – and her love story with the wolf man. She has so much loyalty, and love for Coralie, that she stays despite Sardie’s insults and unreasonable behaviour. Being at the centre of these unusual people, we realise they have the same hopes and dreams as anyone else. Being in a group seems to give confidence to the individual characters and I loved seeing them grow into their authentic selves. There’s an acceptance of their differences, which maybe wasn’t present in their small villages and towns, where they stood out or even became a target. The performers have a complex relationship with what they do. It elevates them, thousands of people flock to see them, they are well paid and the thing that’s always been a negative part of their life, has become their meal ticket. Coralie and Eddie have had the same yearning in their childhoodthey want to be free, not held to account by their fathers, their religion or their obligations. Most of all though, this is a love story and they want to be together just like any other couple.

Further Reading:

Fiction:

Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth MacNeal.

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.

Non-Fiction:

The Body and Physical Difference by David T. Mitchell and Darren L. Snyder.

Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body by Rosemary Garland Thomson.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The King’s General by Daphne du Maurier.

The King’s General is not usually people’s first choice when they start to read Du Maurier’s novels. Most read her more famous novels: Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel or Jamaica Inn. Yet this piece of historical fiction was my first Du Maurier novel and I first read it when I was a girl. To understand why you probably need to know something about my childhood. For the most part I’d been an active and lively tomboy, out climbing trees, riding ponies and gallivanting round the countryside with my younger brother. Then, when I was 11 years old I had an accident while somersaulting at school and ended up with two fractured vertebrae and a crushed disc in my spine. I was very lucky. The fractures were mid-thoracic and because they broke down and away from the spine my spinal cord was undamaged. I was centimetres away from becoming paraplegic. I missed the last few months of primary school, instead going up to the local grammar school in the autumn. The accident did cause long term problems though. A lack of proper rehabilitation meant the muscles around the break seized up affecting my ability to use my shoulder and arm. Even now, repetitive movements like typing or painting can seize up my whole right side. I have a chiropractor for regular acupuncture and manipulation to free up that side.

The Kings General was the first time I encountered an adult character with a disability. Of course before my accident I’d read Pollyanna, a rather saintly little girl who can’t walk after a fall and is still looking for things to be glad about. I’d also read the What Katy Did series where the spirited and tomboyish Katy has a fall from the yard swing and can’t walk. She spends a year as an ‘invalid’ and the experience quietens her and she learns to run a household from her bed, becoming a more tamed and acceptable version of femininity. The King’s General tells the story of Honor, a lively young woman who in 1653 decides to write her life story, based around the love she had for the charismatic soldier Richard Grenville. She then takes us back 30 years to when she was 10 years old and her brother Kit brings his bride Gartred back to the family home of Lanrest. Gartred is from the very important Grenville family and doesn’t make a great impression on the slightly more humble Harris family. She has a sharp tongue and Kit thought she flirted with other men, especially his brother Robin. For Honor their marriage is an eye opener and she learns a lesson about marriage:

“For the first time I realized, with something of a shock, that marriage was not the romantic fairy legend I had imagined it to be, but a great institution, a bargain between important families, with the tying-up of property.”

The marriage is short-lived as Kit dies from smallpox, and when Gartred leaves, Honor hopes to never see another Grenville again. Fate has something different in store as she encounters a dashing young soldier on her 18th birthday. She visits Plymouth Sound with her brother and sister to watch His Majesty’s Fleet sail into Plymouth Sound, followed by a banquet held by the Duke of Buckingham. Richard Grenville is quite sarcastic, even rude, and Honor has some barbed and witty exchanges with him. They immediately have a rapport and he actually shows his kinder side when Honor has to leave early. They meet in secret after this, often meeting in an apple tree at the bottom of the orchard where Honor likes to climb up and read. They’re clearly very compatible and start to fall in love with each other. Honor might just get the fairy tale after all as Richard decides to speak to her family and proposes marriage. However, their happiness comes to an abrupt end the day before their wedding when Honor has a terrible accident when they’re out hunting with falcons. Honor’s horse is spooked, becomes disoriented and falls into a ravine. Sadly, Honor’s injuries are serious as her legs and spine are shattered and she can no longer walk. Realising she will probably never walk or have children, she calls off the engagement and tells Richard to be happy with another woman. They don’t see each other until civil war breaks out and Honor must leave Lanrest where she was living alone to go to her sister’s house Menabilly. It is here where Honor will encounter Richard again. Will things have changed between them?

From this point in the story we start to get Du Maurier’s trademark mystery elements and as usual she is very adept at creating tension and suspicion. I really enjoyed the way that her two main characters are so linked to the land around them. Their emotions are often mirrored by the weather and landscape in a rather Brontë way. Her strength here though is in these characters, who love each other despite being able to see their flaws. Honor finds the older Richard bitter, proud and arrogant, but just as attractive as ever. However, he’s quite gentle and tender with Honor and there’s a scene where she even shows him her damaged legs. There’s a feel of Heathcliff about him in these war years, as he’s quite cruel. Honor observes that war seems to make beasts of men. I enjoyed this book because it showed me that an accident doesn’t have to stop you being you. Yes, experience changes us in some ways but her accident doesn’t stop Honor being adventurous or taking on a challenge. It also doesn’t mean she has to become quiet and ladylike. Most of all, Honor is still loved. Despite what happened Richard still loves her, and this was the first book that showed me life doesn’t stop because you have a disability.