Posted in Publisher Proof

London in Black by Jack Lutz

A TENSE, TICKING-BOMB THRILLER SET IN A GRITTY NEAR-FUTURE LONDON

LONDON 2027

Terrorists deploy London Black, a highly sophisticated nerve gas, at Waterloo Station. For ten percent of the population – the ‘Vulnerables’ – exposure means near-certain death. Only a lucky few survive.

LONDON 2029

Copy-cat strikes plague the city, its Vulnerable inhabitants kept safe by regular Boost injections. As the anniversary of the first attacks draws near, DI Lucy Stone, a guilt-ridden Vulnerable herself, is called to investigate a gruesome murder of a scientist. Her investigation soon unearths the possibility that he was working on an antidote – one that Lucy desperately needs, as her Boosts become less and less effective.
But is the antidote real? And can Lucy solve the case before her Boosts stop working?

I felt thrust into a post-apocalyptic London in this mix of dystopian thriller and police procedural. I was immediately on board with our narrator Lucy, a super sweary and ballsy detective. A very young DI who’s well known amongst colleagues for not taking any bullshit, but also bringing with her a huge amount of baggage. She has a tough exterior, even using boxing to cope with her mental health, but is constantly treading a fine line between losing her temper and having a panic attack. She is also a ‘super recogniser’ – able to recognise anyone if she has seen them before, even if it was just passing them in the street. It’s quite something to read how her brain works as she almost shuffled through the faces stored in her brain like a game of Guess Who. Her constant medical issues are enough to induce panic as she faces measuring her Boost levels constantly, then worries when they seem low for that time of day. There’s also the event that happened – a terrible trauma that she hates to recall and doesn’t talk about. All of this creates quite a flawed and frustrated character, but I did see past a lot of the guarded behaviour and found her quite endearing. Maybe because she has this huge vulnerability. Flashbacks take us to her life before the Waterloo Station event and the normal life she’s known is suddenly eroded. Her pharmacist boyfriend realises she’s a ‘Vulnerable’, but thinks she’s safe because of all the Boosts they have at the hospital pharmacy. It’s when he realises that there aren’t enough and doses will have to be rationed that the scale of what has happened hits him. They have gone from a world where anything they need is accessible to them to one where their security, health and welfare is in doubt. It’s such a massive shift in their living standards it’s hard to comprehend. When we come back to Lucy’s present and see her psyching herself up to inject, the reality of how reliant she is on these booster injections is visible in her black and bruised abdomen.

I found it hard to believe that this is a debut novel, it’s incredibly well plotted and so imaginative. It’s hard enough to create a dystopian thriller that’s believable, but I think the plausibility was helped by recent terrorist attacks and the pandemic. We know now that these things can happen so the deployment of London Black seems like a possible future event, as scary as that is. I thought it was clever that even society’s language has been changed by the attack, in much the same way that we have new phrases and words in common use since the start of the pandemic. The idea of being a ‘vulnerable’ scared me, so Lucy’s determination to take part in the world and investigate this murder impressed me. The severity of the symptoms is horrifying so I’d be locked in my flat with a food delivery service on speed dial. I really did have a constant low level anxiety throughout. However, the murder case is so intriguing I couldn’t put the book down. Who would kill a man that might have the antidote the world is looking for? It’s Lucy’s only hope for a normal life so her determination to solve the murder is understandable. I really loved her developing relationship with DI King and would love to see more of them both going forward in future novels. The author has plotted a great crime novel on the back of a dystopian thriller. It’s anxiety inducing, compelling and has a complex heroine that I was rooting for throughout.

Published by Pushkin Vertigo April 2022.

Meet The Author

Jack Lutz lives in London with his wife and daughter. He is fascinated by the city he calls home and loves to read about and explore it. The idea for London in Black came to him as he changed trains on the Tube. London in Black is his first novel.

Posted in Publisher Proof

The Family Remains by Lisa Jewell

Ever since reading Lisa Jewell’s novel The Family Upstairs I’ve been hoping she’d write a sequel. The book was certainly satisfying as a standalone, but the characters were so complex and their situation so traumatic I was certain it would bubble up to the surface sooner or later. Detective Samuel Owusu thinks the same, when human remains are found washed up on the banks of the Thames by a mud lark. When he sends the bones for forensic examination it’s clear that she was murdered; there’s an injury to the skull that could only have come from blunt force trauma. The other clue from the bag is a mulch of leaves, unusual ones for London, taking him to a mansion house in Chelsea. There, thirty years ago, three people were found dead in a kitchen and upstairs was an unharmed baby girl with a rabbit’s foot tucked into her cot. The clues are pointing to two missing teenagers, Henry and Lucy Lamb, belonging to two of the deceased. Yet, neighbours had said they hadn’t seen the children for years. We follow DCI Owusu’s investigation, but also this missing brother and sister who are doing some investigating of their own. They’re looking for a third teenager, Phinneas Thomsen, son of the third deceased adult and also a resident of the Chelsea mansion, hoping he can make sense of their childhood. Why was the Thames body separate from the other three and what was her link to the adults living there? The house has just sold for over seven million pounds and it’s owner is a young woman called Libby, so she must be their first port of call. This is just the first step in untangling a very dark web of trauma, murder and a family who have tried to bury secrets that just won’t stay dead.

Lisa Jewell really is the master of this domestic noir genre. She could have plodded along, unravelling secrets from long ago and it would still have been a very good book. However, she doesn’t take the easy option, she chooses to introduce new characters and storylines that are equally compelling and link into to the Cheyenne Walk mystery. As well as Samuel, Henry and Lucy narrating the story, we have a woman called Rachel narrating a present day storyline too. Rachel is a jeweller, just waiting for a big store to pick up her designs and thrust her work into the limelight. After years of dating and not finding the one, she meets a man called Michael who seems almost perfect for her. He is attractive, attentive, wealthy and seems available emotionally, which makes a change from other men she’s dated. He’s been married before, to a woman he met while she was busking in France and he was staying at his home in Antibes. Rachel doesn’t really pry into his past and all Michael volunteers is that she was musical and ‘a nightmare.’ Her name was Lucy. In a whirlwind, Rachel and Michael get married and she’s of an age where people don’t tend to take you aside and ask if its all moving a bit fast. Perhaps friends are just glad that this has finally happened for her and her father seems happy for her too, believing Michael to be that rare thing – an older, unmarried, great bloke. On honeymoon, amongst the rose petal strewn sheets and days spent reading by the ocean, Rachel thinks she might suggest a bit of fun in the bedroom. She’s happy with vanilla sex, but wonders if some light BDSM games might bring variety. She unpacks some special underwear, some ties and a leather whip and is looking forward to a fun night, but Michael looks embarrassed, then furious. He flies into a rage, accusing her of having no class, sleeping around and ruining their honeymoon. Rachel is bewildered as he storms off to sleep separately and refuses to talk about it. All she can hope is that he calms down, but she is starting to feel like she must apologise, although she doesn’t really know why. How can she return from her honeymoon and tell anyone her husband is disgusted by her?

I loved how these four narratives were interwoven, because they cleverly show us how abuse in all it’s forms leaves it’s legacy. Whether it’s self-hatred and body dysmorphia, a deep seated rage thats ready to boil over, or a desperate need for love and a tendency to repeat the patterns of childhood. I thought Rachel’s story was particularly compelling, because I’ve experienced that pattern of abuse – the love bombing, rejection, gaslighting and fits of rage. I hated Michael and really understood her need to find Lucy and talk to her. It felt like she’d lost the ability to trust her own judgement, so if there was someone else he was abusive to, she could start to accept and own her own truth. Her confidence had sunk so low she was struggling to fight for herself, but as soon as Michael’s behaviour affected someone else she loved she was able to stand up to him. Henry is also struggling with what happened in childhood, his twisted and confused emotions surrounding Phinn were complex. Phinn was held up as an example of what a boy should be, with Henry receiving punishments and neglect for not being more like him. We might expect Henry to feel hatred and even harbour harmful thoughts about Phinn, and to an extent he does feel these things. There’s a part of him that never wants to see Phinn again. However, there is a part of him that is still the little boy who wants to please, so he has changed the way he looks and now looks at Phinn in the mirror every morning. There’s definitely an element of hero worship and sexual desire too. I was actually scared of what Henry might do if he ever found Phinn, who is thought to be working on a game reserve in Africa. Lucy is living with her brother at the start of the book, along with her two children. Henry’s upmarket flat with it’s high thread count sheets and all the right TV packages is the height of luxury to her two children. They have slept in some terrible places while homeless and they don’t want to be on the run again. Lucy is scared and not just about the events in her childhood, because she’s been replicating the pattern of abuse she learned to endure at Cheyne Walk, into her adult relationships. She’s also used to running from people she owes money to. She hopes that now the house is sold, she can find a secure and happy home for her children close enough to keep in touch with her brother. She knows that Henry is more fragile than he seems, but also that there’s a darkness at his centre and she doesn’t know what might happen if he ever lets it come to the surface.

The pace of the novel is pretty fast and I almost read it in one sitting. Short chapters mean it’s very easy to get caught by that little voice that goes ‘just one more chapter won’t hurt’ when it’s gone midnight and you have to be up in the morning. The tension is builds, then decreases, then builds again by using clever tactics like finding something out at the end of a chapter, then the next chapter going back in time or dismissing what you’ve just found out. Although the storyline seems clear she throws in little curveballs like a spot of blackmail here or an unexpected murder there, to take us off the main track. I found some dark humour in two people turning up to murder the same person. I thought that the author also managed to inject some hope for the future too, in what has been a very dark and painful story. If you’ve been through childhood abuse, domestic violence and sexual violence there are some tough paragraphs here and there. I must admit I found some of the coercive control and verbal abuse difficult, and I found myself holding my breath in parts, but that’s how I knew the author had got it absolutely right. This was a fantastic sequel, that I would say needs to be read after the first novel and not as a stand-alone. It really stands up to the power of the first novel with it’s tension, darkness and psychological game playing but also offers some measure of healing too. A fantastic sequel from an author at the top of her game.

Meet The Author

Lisa Jewell has written and published another sixteen books, since her debut Ralph’s Party, from the ‘curry and flatmates’ novels of the nineties and noughties like Thirtynothing, One Hit Wonder, A Friend of the Family and Vince & Joy, to more family-themed novels like After The Party, The Making of Us and The House We Grew Up In and more recently, psychological thrillers such as I Found You, Then She Was Gone, Watching You and The Family Upstairs, which charted in the summer of 2019 at number one in the hardback charts.

Lisa lives in London with her husband, two daughters, two hairy cats, two nervous guinea pigs and a lovely auburn dog. She writes every day, a minimum of one thousand words, in a cafe, with no access to the internet, in two to three hour sessions

Posted in Publisher Proof, Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight: All About Evie by Matson Taylor

So I’m having a book blogger’s dilemma. The arrival of this book through the door made me do a little Snoopy dance! There are a few books I’ve earmarked as my most anticipated summer reads, but this is right up there as my mostest anticipated novel. I know, we bloggers do love to throw out superlatives here and there, but I’ve honestly been waiting for this book ever since I finished The Misadventures of Evie Epworth two summers ago. Now I’m in an awful quandary. I want to devour it in one go, but once I do, the moment will have passed and Evie is gone again. I don’t know whether Evie’s story ends this time, or whether there’s more to come, so I’m trying to hang on for a little while, at least until my fellow Squadettes are reading so we can talk about it.

If you haven’t read Matson Taylor’s first novel then where have you been? I think this is one book where reading the previous instalment of Evie’s adventures is really helpful. You have a whole new literary heroine to meet and I think knowing where Evie comes from is vital in understanding her. I’m not going to use spoilers so it’s safe to read on. In book one we met Evie in the 1960’s, the summer after O’Levels and before A Levels. Her only plans for the summer are reading, helping their elderly neighbour with her baking and, most importantly, getting rid of her dad’s girlfriend who would like to see Evie working through her summer at the local salon. Christine has moved in and is slowly trying to erase everything Evie loves about the farmhouse, including her Adam Faith wall clock and that won’t do. Evie and her dad would like things to stay as they were when her Mum was alive. They love their Aga and old country kitchen, but Christine wants Formica and a new cooker that’s easier to clean. Her wardrobes are wall to wall pink, synthetic fabrics and she colonises the kitchen with her Mum and lumpen friend, who’re usually in tow. Her dad can’t seem to see that his girlfriend and daughter don’t get along, there’s quite a lot of avoidance practised here, he’s often got his head in the newspaper or listening to the cricket scores, or just popping out for a pint. Whatever the tactic, it means he hasn’t heard anything. This problem needs another woman to solve it. So, when her neighbour has an accident and her daughter Caroline arrives to look after her, the three women put their heads together to deal with the problem, just in time for the village fete and baking competition.

All About Evie starts ten years on from the previous novel with Evie settled in London and working at the BBC. She has all the things a 70’s girl could wish for – including an Ozzie Clark poncho. Then disaster hits. An incident with Princess Anne and a Hornsea Pottery mug means she must have a rethink about her future. So what can she do next? Will she be too old to do it? Most importantly, will it involve cork soled sandals? I have no qualms in saying this is my most anticipated book of the summer. I think I’ll have to compromise and as soon as I have a two week gap from blog tours I’ll be delving in to find out what happens next….

I’ll keep you informed.

Published by Scribner U.K. 21st July 2022.

Posted in Netgalley, Squad Pod

That Green-Eyed Girl by Julie Owen Moylan

The drinks glass and flashes of almost neon colour on this book’s cover were striking on NetGalley. To me they signified city living, the bar scene and potential for glitz and glamour – I’ve probably watched too much Sex and the City. However, the women depicted here were a long way from flashy, fashionista, New York City Girls. In fact there are only a couple of nights out in the whole book. This is a different NYC, where real people live and work day to day, just trying to get by in a city that’s exciting, but expensive and tough. In a split narrative, set partly in 1955 and partly in 1975, this is a novel that writes back to women’s history. It opened my eyes to a time when women were persecuted for the way they choose to live their lives. In 1955 Dovie Carmichael and her friend Gillian work together as teachers and share an apartment. The friends have a lot in common: they love jazz, a glass of whiskey at night and lazy Sundays at home. The pair guard their private time very carefully, until one day when the wrong person gets a glimpse into their lives, changing everything. Twenty years later teenager Ava Winter lives in the same apartment with her Mum and her Dad, when he’s around and not with his mistress. Ava’s mum is not well mentally and Ava is struggling to live a normal teenage life, preferring to stay home to keep an eye on her. She becomes fascinated with a mysterious box and letter sent to their address from France. Inside are letters, a butterfly necklace and a photograph with LIAR scrawled across a woman’s face. Ava wants to know the story behind the box. Who was this woman, that lived in her home and what do the letters say?

The theme that stood out to me more than anything was loneliness. I felt a contrast between the huge open city and the small private spaces where secrets are kept. The characters I felt most connection with were Ava and Dovie, both struggling to keep secrets about their living situation. The mistake Dovie and Gillian make allows a very manipulative woman to take advantage of them. Judith works at the same school and does come across as a lonely woman, but has allowed her situation to develop bitterness and envy in her character. In the guise of struggling to find an affordable apartment, she inveigles her way into Dovie and Gillian’s home and relationship. It’s clear she wants friends, but seemingly can’t stand to see two people who are happy in each other’s company and if she can’t have it for herself she might just set out to destroy it. Ava is also lonely and I think she senses a similar feeling in the box of keepsakes she discovers, it’s that connection with the sender’s loneliness that makes her so determined to find the person this box was meant for. It’s also a distraction from how miserable her own life is. With her mum and dad estranged she is often solely looking after her mother who seems severely depressed and liable to harm herself. It’s almost a role reversal, with Ava looking after her welfare instead of the other way round. I felt deeply for this young girl going through the usual teenage phases of a crush on a boy in the neighbourhood, a worry about how she looks and fitting in, and both the anticipation and fear of what comes next in life. On top of this her father uses his precious time with Ava to chat up the waitress in their favourite diner. Her mother is deteriorating, screaming and muttering through the night and Ava is so worried about the neighbours hearing her or her friend finding out what home is really like since her dad left. The scenes of her alone in their cold apartment, willing her mum to settle for the night and wishing her dad was there, were vivid and moving.

Whether in New York or Paris the settings are beautifully evoked and I could feel the change in time period from just a few well written sentences. Even the usually romantic Paris has it’s downsides because this is the reality of living there, rather than the dream. I felt the author really got under the surface of these cities and showed me what it was like to be a New Yorker. I found the LGBTQ+ scene so interesting and the contrast between women who kept their relationships secret, with more openly gay women in NYC or Paris, was beautifully portrayed. Dovie has never ventured into meeting other women and the scene where she visits a club stayed with me. There’s an innocence about Dovie that contrasts sharply with the sophisticated women she sees there, some of whom are scathing of Dovie’s lack of knowledge about being openly lesbian in 1955. I don’t think she really understood the danger she faced which could be anything from losing her job to being arrested or put into an asylum. I was just as shocked to realise that women who were open about their sexuality, or discovered, were subject to arrest and even ECT treatment to curb their ‘unnatural’ activities or desires. The nightclub raid where Dovie is helped to escape through a bathroom window is unbelievably tense and so poignant when we realise it’s link to 1975. The way police manhandle and sexually assault the women reminded me of how the suffragettes were treated so many decades earlier. The idea was to break the women’s resolve and remind them what they were really for – the amusement, desires and dominance of men. Reading these women’s experiences made me so angry, but also opened a door into a world I am ashamed to say I knew little about. At heart this is a love story and all the way through I wanted to know what had happened in that apartment in 1955 and I also hoped that Ava would find the intended recipient of the box from Paris. For me this book had a similar impact to the television series It’s A Sin. This was an emotionally captivating story that’s sure to stay with me and has inspired me to read more about the history of sexuality and the fight LGBTQ+ people still have for equal rights across the globe. It left me with a lump in my throat, thinking about how love can last a lifetime, even beyond separations and loss. I really look forward to reading more from this talented author in the future.

Meet The Author

Julie Owen Moylan is a writer whose short stories and articles have appeared in New Welsh ReviewHorizon Literary Review, and The Voice of Women in Wales Anthology

She has also written and directed several short films as part of her MA in Film. Her graduation short film called ‘BabyCakes’ scooped Best Film awards at the Swansea Film Festival, Ffresh, and the Celtic Media Awards. She also has an MA in Creative Writing, and is an alumna of the Faber Academy’s Writing a Novel course. 

Her debut novel THAT GREEN EYED GIRL was published by Penguin Michael Joseph on May 12 2022.

She is currently working on her second novel SPANGLELAND

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

The Daughter by Liz Webb

One of the first things my therapy supervisor said to me was ‘no two kids have the same childhood, even those who grow up together’. This kept going through my mind as I started to read Liz Webb’s book and grew ever more apt as the story unfolded. As regular readers know I do like to indulge in a good thriller and despite knowing nothing about the book or the author, something drew me in when I read the blurb. I’m so glad I took the chance to read it because it is a dark, psychological, and unsettling domestic noir based around the violent death of the charismatic mum in the Davidson family. Hannah doesn’t always have her life on track and she lives away from her physicist father Phillip, but is called when he ends up in hospital. Now suffering with Alzheimer’s and at the end of his life, Hannah has to make a tough choice; does she leave him in the hands of strangers or should she be the one to nurse him in his final months? It’s not long before Hannah finds herself back home and falling into a time warp. Not only has her father left the decorating and furnishings back in the 1990’s, there are piles of magazines and other detritus still littering the same place. It’s as if he stopped when his wife Jennifer was found in the woods at the back of the house, with a kitchen knife plunged into her chest. Hannah finds her surroundings bringing memories and inevitable questions to the forefront of her mind; no one was ever charged for her mum’s murder. This house is haunted. Her mum’s most successful photographs are still hung on the walls and her dark room is untouched, the wardrobe is full of her colourful clothes with the ghost of Chanel No 5. Just the faintest trace touches the air when Hannah runs a hand over her mother’s clothes. Hannah’s very presence completes the picture, she’s a waif compared to the overweight woman she’s been for most of her life. Now she’s the image of her mum, so much so that an unexpected glimpse in a mirror makes her jump. Her brother Ryan, now a famous actor, has commented on her ‘stuckness’, her inability to move beyond that day in the 1990’s. Hannah doesn’t think she’ll ever be able to move forward and pursue a life for herself, until she can resolve what truly happened that day and who killed her mother.

I did find myself rooting for Hannah, despite her flaws and her past behaviour – with more revelations popping up when I didn’t expect them. She feels more vulnerable and is honest about how broken she is by the past. The author carefully keeps her on that edge so I was mostly on board with her version of events, but every now and again I would question whether she was truly a reliable narrator. There was her drinking and the impression she has of her family life and her mother. She sees her mother as a beautiful free spirit, with her gorgeous rainbow clothes, her glamorous and creative career as a photographer with it’s world of gallery openings and meeting other artists. She sees her parents as very different, her father being much older and in a more steady career as a physics professor. When her parents couldn’t be there, Mrs Roberts and her husband from next door would step in with her more old-fashioned parenting style and her good looking son Marcus. This return home and her father’s deterioration seem to trigger something in Hannah and her brother is convinced she’s in a downward spiral where her mental health is concerned. He now stars in a BBC murder mystery series based in Spain, where his wise-cracking detective solves murders within the ex-Pat community and has famous co-stars happy to swap a guest starring role for a week in the sun. He’s also written a book titled Solving Me which Hannah thinks is pompous at best, but probably arrogant and a potential challenge. His childhood is peppered with incidents of their parents arguing, usually about their mother’s behaviour and he’s completely convinced that their father murdered her after years of being pushed too far.

I loved how the author balanced the story with the darkness and tension, broken by the realties of being a carer and the humorous little allusions to her father’s research subject. Their pets are named after Feynmann (the dog) and Schrödinger (the cat of course) á la Sheldon’s cats in The Big Bang Theory. The Schrödinger reference is very apt with Hannah alluding to their mother as potentially living and dead at the same time. For years her head has been full of simultaneous movie reels, each one with a different ending to the story, she would love to be able to shut down all those other screens and see what really happened. The caring details, everything she’ll need to bring Dad home from the hospital, are spot on. One detail I loved because it showed experience, or at least talking to those with it, and it was the ‘shit-stained’ sole of her father’s foot visible to to a person standing at the bottom of the bed but often missed by the busy healthcare assistant doing this morning’s strip wash. The investigation she conducts gives her a lot more questions about her mother, as she remembers her. She’s warned by the original detective on the case that she might not like what she finds. Even her mum’s art seems to hold clues: the close-ups of tiny domestic objects till it’s hard to know what they are; the fascination with motorcycle stuntman Evil Knieval and the moment of being in free fall; an entire series called Falling showing objects in that moment before they land. What she seemed to forget is that Evil Knieval’s stunts finally went too far with disastrous consequences. As the revelations about Jennifer Davidson begin the story becomes even more fascinating, because Hannah gets to see the person her mum was before becoming a parent and whether motherhood changed her at all. I enjoyed the interplay between the siblings and was engrossed in finding out whose version of events was closer to the truth. This was incredibly well-written, tense and psychologically very clever. It left me thinking about how others see our parents and who they truly are when they’re not being mum and dad.

Meet the Author

Liz Webb originally trained as a classical dancer, then worked as a secretary, stationery shop manager, art class model, cocktail waitress, stand-up comic, voice-over artist, script editor and radio drama producer, before becoming a novelist. She lives in North London with her husband, son and serial killer cat Freddie.

Posted in Publisher Proof

The Midnight House by Amanda Geard

I enjoyed this book much more than I’d expected to. It’s not that there was anything wrong with the blurb or the cover, but I thought it might be just another ‘stately home + mystery’ novel with no huge surprises. However, the depth of characterisation and complexity of the story drew me in and kept me reading for two straight days. Ellie is our present day narrator and she’s having to take leave from work as an investigative journalist after trying to expose an important businessman ended badly. So she returns to her family home in County Kerry, Ireland to spend time with her mother. Trying to keep a low profile and prevent all and sundry from knowing about her return, is a lost cause in a small Irish village. It’s only because she’s desperate for reading material that she braves the charity shop and her mother’s chatty friend Tabby Ryan. Tabby has set aside a box of books that have come from the large stately home nearby, Blackwater Hall. Ellie is grateful to see a few Agatha Christie novels on the top and takes the whole box. Inside is a mysterious letter, addressed only to ‘T’ but clearly belonging to the Rathmore family. It ignites a spark in Ellie, but she tries to do the right thing and return it. At the hall she meets Albert, the lone member of the Rathmore family left behind, but he seems confused about who Ellie is and keeps asking for his mother. Her concern for Albert leads her to his son Milo, but also the mystery surrounding the family. Charlotte Rathmore disappeared during the early part of WWII leaving a broken string of pearls by the lake. The official version is that Charlotte killed herself, but Ellie senses a story and starts to seek out other remaining members of the family. Can she solve the mystery of Charlotte’s disappearance and what changes will the truth bring to Blackwater Hall and the Rathmore family?

The author tells the story across three timelines. We travel back to Blackwater Hall and Nancy’s first visit to meet her boyfriend Teddy Rathmore’s family. This timelines really establishes the characters within the Rathmore family and the beginning of a friendship between Nancy and Teddy’s sister Charlotte. This is before WWII and the aristocratic family are thriving, but there are little hints of a change on the horizon. Charlotte has rebellion and adventure in her soul, while Teddy is ready and somewhat relieved to strike out into a new life with Nancy, since elder brother Hugo carries the pressure of being the heir apparent. The present day timeline with Ellie shows she is an interesting character in her own right. There’s some resistance to becoming comfortable back home, even though she’s finding it suits her in some respects. She may be uprooting other people’s secrets, but theres a sense she has some of her own lurking under the surface; a possible broken relationship and a reluctance to talk about it that intrigued me and made me want to know more. In these split timeline narratives there’s often a lack of character or strong storyline in the present day, leaving the reader more intrigued with the past and creating an imbalance to the story. The reader can find themselves racing through the present bits to get to the ‘real’ story. The author doesn’t fall into that trap here, Ellie is interesting in her own right and her journey feels important too. The third timeline is something of a surprise as we follow a little girl called Hattie at Blackwater House and her emerging friendship with gardener and handyman Tomas. She is interested in how he makes things grow and starts to help him planting the potato crop in the garden. There’s a connection between these two that’s immediate and I was touched by them, possibly remembering days in the garden shed with my Grandad, tying onions up and hanging them from the ceiling and chitting potatoes. Tomas isn’t always the calm and shy man he is with Hattie and if he hears a bang, particularly a gunshot, he is back at war in an instant. His solitary and quiet work is clearly important in managing his PTSD. I was immediately drawn to this character and intrigued by his possible importance to the Rathmore’s story.

There are other flashbacks too, a section from the Blitz in London is particularly tense and heartbreaking. The author describes the air raids from the Lufwaffe so clearly I felt I was there with the characters. I thought the sense of foreboding was incredible and the slow realisation of the danger the characters were in was beautifully written. She captures the terrifying sense that the help needed, the help that’s usually there, is out of reach and something terrible might happen. The damage wrought in these streets and the fortitude of the people caught up there was powerfully portrayed and really gripped my emotions. I felt the author balanced those moments of terrible tension and drama beautifully with the lightness of rural Ireland and the people Ellie meets in her old neighbourhood. This is a place where only those in the big house were able to keep their secrets and everyone knows everyone. The people are strong, community minded and often Ellie’s interactions with them have a light humour about them, while avoiding caricature. I enjoyed her growing friendship with Milo Rathmore – another returnee to the village, now the village GP and carer for his father Albert. He is from Ellie’s world and the pair can look at the place with a critical eye, but also a good humoured and fond heart. I was interested in whether Ellie’s more recent personal issues would come to light. Could she finally confide in her mother and accept someone’s comfort and care, despite that solid streak of independence? I also wondered whether her career would ever be restored and if she could return, would she want to? Mostly though I was interested in what had happened to Charlotte, this beautiful, rebellious girl with so much spirit. I couldn’t believe she would kill herself, but feared that her true end was even more heartbreaking. That extra timeline post WWII also held surprises I really didn’t expect. Despite wanting all the answers I was sorry when this novel ended and there’s no better compliment than that.

Meet the Author

The inspiration for The Midnight House appeared in the rafters of our home, a two-hundred-year-old stone building perched on the edge of the Atlantic. Hidden there was a message, scratched into wood: ‘When this comes down, pray for me. Tim O’Shea 1911’. As I held that piece of timber in my hands, dust clinging to my paint-stained clothes, I was humbled that a person’s fingerprint could, in a thousand ways, transcend time, and I wanted nothing more than to capture that feeling of discovery on the page. I have always loved dual-timeline novels, where stories from the past weave with those of the present day. I want to write books that transport you to another time and place, where secrets lie just beneath the surface if only the characters know where to look.

Before all this, I was a geologist exploring the world’s remote places. Luckily for me, writing novels provides a similar sense of wonder and discovery; but the warm office, fresh food and a shower in the evening make the conditions rather more comfortable! The wild weather of County Kerry, where I live with my husband and two red setters, gives me the perfect excuse to regularly curl up by a fire with a great novel. I treasure my reading time, and I know you do too, so thank you for taking a chance on my books.

Come over to Instagram and Twitter (@amandageard) where I share plenty of photos of the wild settings in The Midnight House. You can also find me on Facebook (@amandageardauthor).

Taken from Amanda’s Amazon Author Page.

Posted in Squad Pod

Nobody But Us by Laure Van Rensburg

I heard such great things about this dark thriller that I’ve been chomping at the bit to read it asap! It was our Squad Pod read for last month and as usual I’m late. The blurb grabbed me right away and my mind went immediately to Gone Girl so I expected some twisted people and storylines. That tagline is designed to draw us in, but also has a hint of humour as if she’s mocking the genre – meet 2022’s most f*cked up couple. I was waiting for a gap in blog tours and managed to get a sunny weekend, my day bed set up in the garden and a willing slave to keep me supplied with drinks and adjusting my parasol. It didn’t take long to hook me.

Ellie and Steven have finally managed to find a gap in their busy schedules to get away for a few days and celebrate their six month anniversary. They’re heading to an isolated cabin in the woods, many miles away from the hustle and bustle of New York. It will be the perfect opportunity to spend some quality time together and really get to know each other. A perfect weekend for a perfect couple. Except, that’s not quite the truth. Ellie and Steven are far from perfect. They both have secrets. They’re both liar. Steven isn’t who he says he is. But then neither is she …

The setting was clever too, usually I’d expect a log cabin in the woods or a period house as a background, but this is a contemporary, architect’s house. I didn’t think a modern house could be scary, but I found it’s glass and steel exterior very unwelcoming – there’s nothing cosy about this weekend. In fact the perfection, the materials used and the sheer amount of space seem strangely oppressive. The contrast with the forest outside is jarring, the natural surroundings make it feel like the owner is pitting his house against the elements, imposing man made order on the natural chaos outside. Yet, when the storm sets in, nature seems to be getting it’s own back, with the large glass panels showing the storm’s fury. Trees are lashing against each other and the snow is coming thick and fast. In fact the weather adds to the sense of isolation, no one is coming to save them, no matter how much they scream.

The story is told by the two characters in turn, relating the details of their weekend away, but also drifting into their pasts so we get some idea of how Steven and Ellie came to this point. Still, the biggest revelations are kept back from us so we don’t have the full picture. This drip feed of information kept me hooked. I needed to know what happened next and who the characters really were under their facades. Mostly though I wanted to know what had set these dramatic events in motion. I couldn’t love these characters, so I wasn’t invested in one side or the other at first, but as the flashbacks came I was surprised to find I did have flashes of sympathy for Ellie or Steven, depending on what had happened to them.

I enjoyed the way the author played with that edge, between what was once acceptable and now isn’t. In light of the #MeToo movement many women in my 40+ age group who can look back at events from the 1990’s and think they wouldn’t be acceptable now: a stolen kiss at a party; a hand on the backside while waiting on a table; pressure to go further sexually than we might have been comfortable with. Now, relationships where there is any form of power imbalance are viewed as wrong. The married man and the teenage babysitter, the older boss and young employee, or student and tutor relationships were happening around me at that time and I don’t remember thinking they were intrinsically wrong, just a bit dodgy. Now, thirty years later, the mood is very different. But of course that’s only one aspect of this complicated story. This is a gripping, atmospheric and explosive novel. If you love thrillers this should definitely be on your summer reading list.

Laure Van Rensburg
Posted in Publisher Proof

Souls Wax Fair by Kelly Creighton

Powerful men can get away with murder…for only so long.

After a life of hardship, Mary Jane McCord’s life in Rapid City, South Dakota, finally hits a sweet spot. She finds happiness and her singing career takes off. Everything is looking up until she uncovers the dark and secret obsessions of two high-profile men.

Twenty years pass but the people closest to Mary Jane have not forgotten.

Will they bring the truth out into the light?

I had never read this author before and found this latest novel an unusual reading experience. Told in fragments, this is the story of a South Dakota town full of tensions and secrets. There isn’t even one main thread, but what links each fragment and each character is the death of MJ McCord. Mary Jane was as beautiful as Marilyn Monroe, more beautiful even some would say. After a difficult and unsettled childhood with mum Marjorie, MJ’s life looks like it’s finally coming good. She’s married to a lovely man who’s older, but gives her kindness, stability and wisdom. He thinks that MJ is beautiful on the inside as well as the outside, and its that inner beauty that captivates him, because it’s a rare thing in his experience. His money helps her with a dream of becoming a singer and she’s just on the cusp of being known. He knows she’s looked elsewhere of late, but it’s her age and he can overlook it. Then he gets some devastating news, MJ goes to a party at the home of one of the town’s superstar football players, Jordan Pinault, but never comes home. It seems that MJ has been playing away with Jordan, they had a row and MJ picked up a gun. She shot herself in the head.

The fragments of the story meander around this event, moving back and forth in time, to people close to MJ and those with only a tangential connection to that tragic night. I’ll be honest and say that first of all I was confused. The structure and order of the chapters doesn’t always make sense and it’s only when you start to get closer to the events of that night, that things become clearer. In fact the sections in the second half of the novel, seem to fit together easier and make more sense. Each fragment is told by a different person, but not everyone uses their given name, instead using a nickname, or they have a Native American name as well as a more Americanised/Anglicised name for work. This confused me even further. However, when it does become clear it’s like a fog lifting. I’m guessing this structure was deliberate and echoes the confusion and layers of half truths around Jordan Pinault and Ricky Nwafo. They have hidden their secrets behind layers of money, respectability, knowing the right people and the hero worship many in the town still have for them.

This town only has a surface sheen. The author shows us how there are people who matter in Rapid City and people who don’t. Despite America claiming not to have a class system, it certainly does have a hierarchy and here it seems the Lakota people are at the bottom of the pile. The Lakota people are also known as Teton Sioux and live the furthest West of any of the Sioux tribes. The author depicts the Lakota as an integral part of the town, but a struggling one. One character remembers being told in school of the ‘Lazy Lakota’ and one of the Lakota characters hates seeing this characteristic in his nephews who sit around in a trailer, drinking most of the day. There is also petty criminality, such as small time drug dealing and theft. We get the impression that discrimination does still exist, in the job market particularly, which leaves Lakota families in poverty compared with the rest of the population.

There’s also a streak of misogyny throughout, with physical and sexual violence still the norm. I felt so deeply for Celena, a Lakota girl who is friends with MJ and crops up at different points in the book. We see her sleeping at parties when she’s younger, in rooms where her unconscious state leaves her very vulnerable. In later years we see her sleeping in the trailer she shares with family, despite the noise of the TV and the kids around her. My first impression, from her teenage years, was that she must be really drunk or perhaps experimenting with drugs? Of course this is other people’s assumption too. Back in her teens, men joke about what they could do to her in this state, and as a woman her family despair of her. In a section narrated by her Uncle, he finds her asleep in their trailer alongside her grandmother, with the TV on and her cousins drinking and shouting in another room. He marvels at how she can sleep in so much noise and calls her lazy. It’s only when we finally hear Celena’s voice that we find out she has narcolepsy, a neurological condition where the brain can no longer regulate the patient’s sleep cycle. She is so used to people not understanding or believing she has a medical condition, that she doesn’t even bother correcting them anymore. Having had secondary narcolepsy, due to having MS and a viral infection, I know how scared and vulnerable it feels to be unable to stop yourself falling asleep. I did it on busy trains, in cafes and even at the opera. Sometimes I could hear everything around me, but couldn’t speak or open my eyes. So my heart went out to her, because once when she feel asleep at a party, her best friend MJ killed herself with a gun. What happens when those half remembered moments start coming back to her?

The author weaves a complex story here and the best thing to do is not worry too much about whether you have the story straight. Just go along with it, from person to person and slowly the truth starts to emerge. There is an incredible sense of place, almost dreamlike in places, but a town immersed in the surrounding nature, especially for the Lakota. There’s a real sense of shabbiness, poverty and sleaze just below the surface. While Jordan and Ricky are just as culpable, the character of town counsellor Beverley Burgess made me feel sick and there were sections that are a hard read. The author showed how certain people become revered in small isolated towns. We know from contemporary cases of rape and abuse that in many cases, ball players are shielded from scrutiny and have the money to afford the best lawyers. In fact it’s this culture of hero worship that allows these crimes to flourish in the first place. There are always people who know the full truth of what’s going on at the time, but no one wants to point the finger at the star. Young ball players have those ideals of being athletic and good looking, popular with girls and can get to good schools with their skills. They are like the alpha males in a town, and ball teams become part of the fabric of society with local sponsorship and charity work. The ball players gain a sense of entitlement that can allow them to mistreat and manipulate others, especially girls who are blinded by their looks and popularity. There is an element of nostalgia and escapism for the spectators, reliving their own past glories or just wishing they’d fulfilled their potential when they were young. I would hope, in the wake of the #MeToo movement that some change has taken place with people looking long and hard as to why they hero worship athletes.

This novel takes a hard look at small town America through this one incident. What is it that’s positive in these small communities, but also what’s missing? If we liken them to areas in the UK, they seem like our old mining communities where the work that’s been guaranteed for generations dries up and people are left in poverty, unable to afford or aspire to university. Young people have to settle for the work that’s available or move away and in these areas there are many young men who yearn to be footballers, boxers, MMA fighters and young women who want to be models, singers or reality TV stars, because it seems more attainable than expensive years of university education. I thought the book was atmospheric, mysterious and complex. It wasn’t like anything else I’ve read this year and left me thinking long after the book ended.

Published 6th May 2022 by Friday Press

Meet the Author


Kelly Creighton facilitates creative writing classes and teaches English as a foreign language. She is the author of the DI Harriet Sloane series, two standalone crime novels (Souls Wax Fair and The Bones of It), two short fiction collections (Bank Holiday Hurricane and Everybody’s Happy), and one book of poetry. Kelly lives with her family in County Down, Northern Ireland.

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

Theatre of Marvels by Leanne Dillsworth

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

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

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

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

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

Published Penguin 28th April 2022.

Meet The Author

Lianne Dillsworth

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

Posted in Publisher Proof

Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

“A year never passes without me thinking of them. India. Erica. Their names are stitched inside every white coat I have ever worn. I tell this story to stitch their names inside your clothes, too.”

Wow! This novel absolutely blew me away. In fact I loved it so much that my other half kept asking whether I was ok and I couldn’t understand why, until I looked at the clock and three hours had gone past without me speaking. I was three quarters of the way through the book and even went to bed early so I could finish the story. This writer pulled me in from the very first page and Civil was as real to me as my poor other half. I’ve been interested in eugenics since I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on disability and 20th Century literature. I knew a lot about the movement in the U.K., US and Germany in the lead up to WW2, but this book shocked me because I had no idea that forced sterilisations were still happening in the 1960s and 70s. I knew this had happened in earlier in the century with Native American communities, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was still happening to African American women, especially where the woman has a disability too. I think this jumped out at me, because people with disabilities are having a very hard time currently, something that able-bodied people aren’t always aware about. For example, the University of York published research in the BMJ Open that concluded the joint impact of cuts to healthcare, public health and social care since 2010 caused at least 57,550 more deaths of disabled people than would normally have been expected between 2010 and 2014. Disability groups place the figure at 120,000 deaths over a seven year period and some activists even think that the government’s COVID policies were based on herd immunity and eugenics. It seems like eugenics never really goes away.

This novel shows how our biases and emotions feed into the work we do within the caring professions. Having worked in mental health and disability as a support worker, advocate and counsellor, I did identify strongly with Civil and the way she became involved with the Williams family. As a nurse, Civil is professional and is aware of things like codes of practice and ethics, but we are never the finished article and Civil’s naïvety plays a huge part in how she works. Civil has been brought up to care for and look after others as part of her Christian faith. However, there are other personal circumstances that she isn’t aware of taking into work with her. Civil’s mother struggles with depression and events that took place in her personal life have also left her vulnerable, particularly where it comes to her nurturing instincts. Her very name brings to mind civil rights, equality and fairness, so it’s not a surprise that where she sees injustice she’s willing to fight. The Williams girls are her very first patients and she is sent out on a home visit to give them a Depo Provera injection, a long term method of contraception. When she notices that India is only 11 years old her brain immediately starts questioning, who put this little girl on this injection, has anyone asked if she has a boyfriend or worse, is she being preyed upon? We are privy to her thoughts and her shock at the way the family are living is evident. Her first thought is that she must do something for them, get them away from the dirty shack where their clothes seem to be stored on the floor. What she does notice is that the girls smell and when she finds out they don’t have sanitary towels, she decides to buy some for them from her own money. This is the first line crossed and although Civil’s actions are generous and could change the family’s lives for the better, it’s a boundary crossed. This makes it so much easier to cross even further as time goes on.

I thought the author grasped the complexity of Civil’s feelings and her role in the girl’s lives beautifully. Civil knows that she should be following instructions, asking her supervisor the questions that have come to mind, and advocating for the girls. Yet she knows that just by talking to the right people and calling in a few favours she could get the girls some clothes, find a job for their father, perhaps get them a new flat in town. What she doesn’t realise is that she’s acting from a bias, not racism but a classism of sorts. Civil’s parents are a doctor and an artist, they live in a nice home and have a certain status. She has walked in to the Williams’s home and assumed they want to move, go to school, and have better things. She’s looking at them through her own world view, instead of moving into theirs and then takes their agency away by filling in forms on their behalf. Her heart is in the right place, but she’s mothering the girls; the girls have lost their mother and Civil has maternal feelings to spare. It’s a co-dependent dynamic that could get complicated and painful on both sides. Her nursing instinct is to gain the girl’s trust and find out who put them on contraceptive injections, especially when India hasn’t even started her period. There are no boys around where they live and neither girl goes to school. As she confides in fellow nurse Alicia and friend Ty, they start doing some research. There are many conclusions they could draw: the federal government could be experimenting on poor black communities; there could be a programme of stopping certain groups in society from reproducing; the government are leaving local employees to make decisions based on their own biases about poor communities; their supervisor believes the Williams girls aren’t safe and could be open to abuse from within the family. All are based on so many assumptions, but what was angering me was that no one had sat down with the family and asked the questions about the girl’s development, access to the opposite sex, or India’s ability to make decisions. Life changing decisions are being made, based on judgments made with no real evidence.

Judgement is at the heart of this terrible case, I won’t reveal more about the decisions made, but it does lead to a court case and repercussions for everyone involved. The colour of the family’s skin, their poverty and the death of the girl’s mother has led to assumptions about the girl’s morals and safety but also the possibility that a black man is not safe, even around his own children. India is non-verbal, but whether that’s through trauma or a learning disability is not clear. Civil’s superiors have decided that it would be disastrous to bring a child into this family, but it’s amazing to see how much the Williams do change over the course of the novel. Civil has taken the decision to act on behalf of the girls, rather than making suggestions and motivating them to advocate for themselves. The changes we see in them, just from having different surroundings, is incredible. Civil believes that we adjust our standards according to where are in life, so once their home becomes a clean, dry space they start to look after it. Civil’s happiness when she sees the girl’s grandmother has bought guest towels for the bathroom is so funny, because these are her standards, what she sees as the correct way to do things, without question. I could see her attachment to the girls growing, the way she brings her support network into their lives also leaves their lives further enmeshed with hers. How will they separate themselves? If Civil takes their part in their court case, she may lose everything, so what happens when the Williams start to have confidence to make their own decisions? What if Mace meets a woman – a potential stepmom for the girls? I wondered if Civil would cope were these girls taken away from her, whether by her work or by changes in the Williams’s circumstances.

The author weaves fact into fiction so seamlessly here, with contemporary medical research questioned and the family’s meeting with real life senator Teddy Kennedy. This grounds the book beautifully and it feels even more true to life; the girls aren’t real, but I’m guessing that this story could be the reality for many poor, young, African American women. I thought Civil’s home life was really interesting, especially when her Aunty arrived and talked plainly about her Mum’s depression. Even in a household where there are always guest towels, there are struggles and issues that are overlooked, either due lack of understanding or through avoidance of something too painful to acknowledge. In fact there’s a way this whole episode is fuelled by avoidance, because if Civil buried herself in this family’s trouble she could avoid her own loss. The present day sections are evidence of that avoidance, because we see Civil finally having to confront and process feelings long buried. She’s close to retirement, yet is still haunted by what happened back then. There are positives in her visit back home, in that her relationships have adjusted so there’s more equality with some people than there was back then. I was left with a sense of how incredible women are, the strength we have to survive life altering circumstances and what can be achieved when we support each other.

Meet The Author

Dolen Perkins-Valdez is the New York Times bestselling author of WENCH, BALM, and the forthcoming TAKE MY HAND. *USA Today* called WENCH “deeply moving” and “beautifully written.” *People* called it “a devastatingly beautiful account of a cruel past.” *O, The Oprah Magazine* chose it as a Top Ten Pick of the Month, and NPR named it a top 5 book club pick of 2010. Dolen’s fiction has appeared in The Kenyon Review, StoryQuarterly, StorySouth, and elsewhere. In 2011, she was a finalist for two NAACP Image Awards and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for fiction. She was also awarded the First Novelist Award by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Dolen received a DC Commission on the Arts Grant for her second novel BALM. Publishers Weekly writes “Her spare, lyrical voice is unsentimental yet compassionate.” Library Journal writes “No sophomore slump is in evidence here. Readers who were captivated by Perkins-Valdez’s first novel, Wench, will be intrigued by the post–Civil War lives of three Southern transplants to Chicago.” Dolen is an Associate Professor of Literature at American University. A graduate of Harvard and a former University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UCLA, Dolen lives in Washington, DC with her family.