Posted in Romance Rocks, Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Mix-Tape by Jane Sanderson for Romance Rocks!

I love this book. Perhaps it’s because I had a Dan. A musician who started as my best friend and who I fell in love with. I was 18 and he took me to my first prom. His band were playing and it was 1991 so perms were everywhere and we were just adopting grunge. I would turn up for school in jumble sale floral dresses with my ever present oxblood Doc Martens. They played some of my favourite songs that night: some that were contemporary like Blur and others were classics like Wild Thing. I most remember Waterloo Sunset. Then, like a scene in a rom-com we walked across town to his house – me in a polka dot Laura Ashley ball gown and him in his dinner suit with the bow tie undone. He had a ruffled shirt underneath that he’d bought from Oxfam. We crept into the house and into the playroom so we didn’t wake anyone, then watched When Harry Met Sally. I remember a single kiss and then we fell asleep, but the love carried on over the years.

When I think of Elliot I always think of those famous best friend couples, like Harry and Sally or later, Emma and Dex in One Day. Now I can add Dan and Ali to the list. Alison and Dan live in Sheffield in the late 1970s when the city was still a thriving steel manufacturer. Dan is from the more family friendly Nether Edge, while Alison is from the rougher Attercliffe area, in the shadow of a steel factory. They meet while still at school and Dan is transfixed with her dark hair, her edge and her love of music. Their relationship is based on music and Dan makes mix tapes for her to listen to when they’re not together such as ‘The Last Best Two’ – the last two tracks from a series of albums. What he doesn’t know is how much Alison needs that music. To be able to put it on as a wall of sound between her and her family. Dan never sees where she lives and doesn’t push her, he only knows she prefers his home whether she’s doing her homework at the kitchen table, getting her nails painted by his sister or sitting with his Dad in the pigeon loft. Catherine, Alison’s mum, is a drinker. Not even a functioning alcoholic, she comes home battered and dirty with no care for who she lets into their home. Alison’s brother, Pete, is her only consolation and protection at home. Both call their mum by her first name and try to avoid her whenever possible. Even worse is her on-off lover Martin Baxter, who has a threatening manner and his own key. Alison could never let Dan know how they have to live.

In alternate chapters we see what Alison and Dan are doing in the present. Now a music writer, Dan splits his time between a canal boat in London and home with his partner Katelin in Edinburgh. Alison has written a new novel ‘Tell the Story Sing the Song’ set in her adopted home Australia and based round an indigenous singer. It’s a worldwide hit and she finds herself in demand, having to negotiate being interviewed and getting to grips with social media. She has an affluent lifestyle with husband Michael and has two grown up daughters. She has a Twitter account that she’s terrible at using and it’s this that alerts Dan, what could be the harm in following her? The secret at the heart of this book is what happened so long ago back in Sheffield to send a girl to the other side of the world? Especially when she has found her soulmate. She and Dan are meant to be together so what could have driven them apart? Dan sends her a link via Twitter, to Elvis Costelloe’s ‘Pump It Up’, the song she was dancing to at a party when he fell in love with her. How will Alison reply and will Dan ever discover why he lost her back in the 1970s?

I believed in these characters immediately, and I know Sheffield, and loved how it was described with affectionate detail by the writer. The accent, the warmth of people like Dan’s dad, the landmarks and the troubled manufacturing industry are so familiar and captured perfectly. Even the secondary characters, like the couple’s families and friends are well drawn and endearing. Cass over in Australia, as well as Sheila and Dora, are great characters. Equally, Dan’s Edinburgh friend Duncan with his record shop and the hippy couple on the barge next door in London are real and engaging. Special mention also to his dog McCullough who I was desperate to cuddle. Both characters have great lives and happy relationships. Dan loves Katelin, in fact her only fault is that she isn’t Alison. In Australia, Alison has been enveloped by Michael’s huge family and their housekeeper Beatriz who is like a surrogate Mum. It’s easy to see why the safety and security of Michael’s family, their money and lifestyle have appealed to a young Alison, still running away from her dysfunctional upbringing. She clearly wants different for her daughters and wishes them the sort of complacency Dan had, sure his parents are always there where he left them. But is the odd dinner party and most nights sat side by side watching TV enough for her? She also has Sheila, an old friend of Catherine’s, who emigrated in the 1970s and flourished in Australia. Now married to Dora who drives a steam train, they are again like surrogate parents to Alison. So much anchors her in Australia, but are these ties stronger than first love and the sense of belonging she had with Dan all those years before?

About three quarters of the way through the book I started to read gingerly, almost as if it was a bomb that might go off. I’ve never got over the loss of Emma in One Day and I was scared. What if these two soulmates didn’t end up together? Or worse what if one of them is killed off by the author before a happy ending is reached? I won’t ruin it by telling any more of the story. The tension and trauma of Alison’s family life is terrible and I dreaded finding out what had driven her away so dramatically. I think her shame about her mother is so sad, because the support was there for her and she wouldn’t let anyone help. She’s so fragile as a teenager and on edge. Dan’s mum had reservations, she was worried about her youngest son and whether Alison would break his heart. I love the music that goes back and forth between the pair, the meaning in the lyrics and how they choose them. This book is warm, moving and real. I loved it.

And what of my Daniel? Well he’s in Sheffield strangely enough. Happily partnered with three beautiful kids. I’m also happily partnered with two lovely stepdaughters. We’re very happy where we are and with our other halves. It’s nice though, just now and again, to catch up and remember the seventeen year old I was. Laid on his bedroom door, with my head in his lap listening to his latest find on vinyl. Or wandering the streets in my ballgown, high heels in one hand and him with his guitar case. Happy memories that will always make me smile.

Meet the Author

A former BBC Radio 4 producer, Jane Sanderson’s first novel – Netherwood – was published in 2011. She drew on much of her family’s background for this historical novel, which is set in a fictional mining town in the coalfields of Yorkshire. Ravenscliffe and Eden Falls followed in the two subsequent years, then in the early summer of 2017, This Much Is True was published, marking a change in direction for the author. This book is a contemporary tale of dog walks and dark secrets and the lengths a mother will go to protect her family. 

Jane lives in Herefordshire with her husband, the journalist and author Brian Viner. They have three children.

Her book Waiting for Sunshine is published in paperback on 23rd March 2023, with my review coming soon.


‘Who would name a child Sunshine, then give her away?’

Chrissie has always wanted to be a mother. After months of trying to adopt, she and her husband Stuart finally get the news that a little girl named Sunshine is waiting for them.

Abandoned at a young age, the child comes to them without a family history, and it feels like a fresh start for all of them. But when fragments from Sunshine’s previous life start to intrude on her new one, the little girl’s mysterious past quickly becomes Chrissie’s greatest fear …

Posted in Romance Rocks

It Was Always You by Emma Cooper

On the last night in October 1999 the clocks went back, and Ella and Will’s love began. A teenage Ella sat around a bonfire drinking with her future husband and her oldest friend Cole. As Ella wandered away from the group, she found herself leaning against a derelict
archway before passing out. The next day, Ella remembered fractured images of a conversation with a woman in a green coat and red scarf but dismissed it as a drunken dream.

Twenty-three years later, with her marriage to Will in trouble, and Cole spiralling out of control, Ella opens a gift which turns her life upside down: a green coat and red scarf. When she looks in the mirror, the woman from the archway is reflected back at her. As the last Sunday in October arrives, Ella is faced with a choice.
Would she choose a different life, if she could do it again?

This was an interesting read from Emma Cooper, looking at how the course of our whole life can change from very small decisions and the effects of these changes on our long term relationships. Ella is married to Will with two children and a big birthday approaching when she has a strange sense of life coming full circle. She opens her birthday presents to find a coat, scarf and brooch combination she recognises. Twenty-three years earlier at a party, she strolled away from the fireside to avoid watching her crush Will kissing another girl and saw a woman wearing exactly these clothes. It was almost as if the woman was on the other side of a mirror, visible but unable to be heard. Even though Ella can’t hear her, she knows that whatever she’s trying to tell her is a warning. Now she knows that woman was definitely her future self and she can’t help but wonder exactly what she was trying to warn her about. Life has definitely changed suddenly, because as their youngest left the family home for university, Will suddenly dropped the bombshell that he was leaving. Ella knows they’ve been drifting, in fact it runs deeper than that, Ella knows that Will would not have chosen the life they’ve had. She can pinpoint every surprise and life event thrown their way that derailed the life Will would have chosen, travelling the world playing guitar in a rock band. Ella has always known that she loved Will more than he loved her, so perhaps he need to spend some time discovering what he wants the rest of his life to look like.

Emma Cooper’s last novel was an absolute tearjerker and I really loved it. She gets that everyday drudgery that is part of being a family and here she portrayed beautifully how romance is hard to maintain when there is illness, two children to look after, family crises and those little curveballs that life likes to throw into the mix every so often. Cooper structures her book around these moments in Will and Ella’s lives together, such as her sudden pregnancy in Paris that she feels derailed Will’s music career. What she forgets is that Will did have a choice too and it was a joint decision to get married and have their baby. The fact that Will was fired from the band as a result was a terrible thing to happen, but wasn’t Ella’s fault. The flashbacks worked well in explaining the present day, from Ella’s perspective but Ella isn’t the only one in the relationship and I wondered if these two had ever properly communicated with each other. The problem with not communicating is that Will is also labouring under a misapprehension; he knows that he’s always loved Ella more than she loved him and now, with both children gone, it’s time for her to think about her choices and perhaps right a wrong. Will has felt in competition with Ella’s best friend Cole for many years, even the first day he met Ella’s family Cole was already there and part of the furniture. When Ella was struggling with depression, Will was just starting his career as a music teacher and simply couldn’t be there as much as he would have liked. Cole was there, burping and changing both babies, bringing chocolate and endless energy and literally propping Ella up. He has loved Ella since they were kids and he’s the first person Ella calls when something’s wrong – like when Will walks out the door 23 years later. Cole knows that Ella loves Will, even in his worst moments dealing with family trauma and his own alcoholism he knows Will and Ella should be together. He knows the power of Will’s charisma, because he’s felt it himself. In fact he and Will have a difficult history; Will’s brother drowned when he was left alone by a river, Will was saving Cole who had jumped in. This past leaves an uneasy feeling between them and has Ella desperately trying to please them both.

I enjoyed the carefree period Will and Ella have in France with the band. Will is offered the chance of playing guitar with a band and the couple rent a small apartment where they can have privacy and live outside of that hotel environment. It takes several mornings of Ella throwing up for a neighbour to point out she might perhaps be pregnant. The thought has never entered her head, but the neighbour is right. They expect their idyllic interlude to carry on, but once they announce their news and intention to get married, Will is summoned by the band manager and sacked. Young girls like to fantasise about their rock stars and married with a baby isn’t the look he wants for the band. So the couple return to Britain and to a life that looks a little more conventional. The author really doesn’t sugar coat the experience of parenthood. I was there in that living room with Ella, dealing with a two year old and a baby. It felt dark, oppressive and a total contrast to the freedom she had in France. With Will having to put in the long hours to support his new family, Ella feels like she’s doing this alone. So when friend Cole steps in to help it feels like a lifeline. He notices that Ella is desperately unwell and it’s his insight into his friend and his willingness to help that did make me waver on whether Will really was the right person for her. I don’t think I ever fully bonded with Will as a character. I didn’t know him in the same way as Cole or Ella and I think this was to some extent about the author’s description of him. He was so good looking and even Cole admits he’s the archetypal romantic leading man – he’s the man the girl should get. I didn’t know whether the author was trying to subvert the genre and have Ella realise that the less than perfect Cole, with all his issues, is the right man for her. In fact I was unsure of what would happen right up to the very end. This is a romantic read with an edge of reality, but maybe that makes it a more contemporary fairytale.

Meet The Author

EMMA COOPER is the author of highly acclaimed book club fiction novels and is known for mixing humour with darker emotional themes. Her debut, The Songs of Us, was snapped up in multiple pre-empts and auctions and was short-listed for the RNA contemporary novel of the year award. Her work has since been translated into seven different languages.

Emma has always wanted to be a writer – ever since childhood, she’s been inventing characters (her favourite being her imaginary friend ‘Boot’) and is thrilled that she now gets to use this imagination to bring to life all of her creations. She is now also an editor for Jericho Writers, where she has worked with traditionally published authors, as well as new aspiring writers. Emma spends her spare time writing novels, drinking wine and watching box-sets with her partner of twenty-eight years, who still makes her smile every day.

Posted in Squad Pod

I’ll Never Tell by Philippa East

Keep your family close and your secrets closer….

To the outside world, the Goodlights are perfect.

Julia is a lawyer, Paul a stay-at-home dad who has dedicated his life to helping their daughter Chrissie achieve her dreams as a talented violinist. But on the night of a prestigious music competition, which has the power to change everything for Chrissie and her family, Chrissie goes missing. She puts on the performance of a lifetime, then completely disappears. Suddenly every single crack, every single secret that the family is hiding risks being exposed.

Because the Goodlights aren’t perfect. Not even close.

Wow this book is tense! Tense enough to give you a migraine. East has a way of writing that flows so well, but is paced to give a really slow drip drip of information. It’s clear from just the day to day activities of the Goodlights that something is ‘off’ and my brain was skittering all over the place to work it out, rather like Bambi on the ice. The author pulls off a clever trick, by letting the Goodlights speak for themselves. She’s not explicit, but their inner talk and actions allow the evidence to pile up; something is badly wrong here, but the author withholds just enough that we don’t know what is that is. As I read on, my brain was coming up with more and more questions. What’s with Julia’s parents and their strange attitude towards women’s behaviour? Why is Paul so obsessed with his stepdaughter’s career and so rigid with her regime? Is it the result of a thwarted desire in his own life and will Chrissie snap under the pressure? What’s with the strange background conversations between Julia’s mother and Paul? I’m not surprised at all when Chrissie goes missing, the only surprise is that she didn’t go sooner.

I found Paul’s attitude with Chrissie really disturbing. I understand wanting the best for your child, but this is creepy. Not only does he control her potential career and keep her practicing, he looks after her diet, her free time and leaves her with no privacy – even policing her phone, from quickly checking the screen when a notification comes in, to demanding to look through all her messages and emails. Does he have her on such a short lease to prevent something happening, or is he reacting to something that’s happened before? There’s a strange dynamic between Chrissie’s grandmother and Paul. I was disturbed by her attitude towards her daughter and granddaughter with her suggestion that certain behaviours are in the blood and there’s something tainted in their DNA. It’s almost as if they appreciate Paul more than their own flesh and blood. At times Celina speaks to him as if he’s a member of staff. There are pictures hidden in Julia’s childhood bedroom of a time at university when she appears free and perhaps part of a hippy group, implying experimentation with drugs and promiscuity. Celina is concerned that her ‘tainted blood’ has passed to Chrissie and tells Paul ‘I can smell it on her’ giving an unpleasant image of an animal in heat. Was she the instigator of the rigid regime Paul imposed on his stepdaughter or was she merely the gatekeeper? Patriarchies often depend on women to uphold their rules. I felt uncomfortable all the way through this novel, but in retrospect I think this was down to my own experience in an abusive relationship. There’s now something in me that is repulsed by males like Paul exerting power over the women in their family, exerting coercive control and gaslighting those they are supposed to love most. This tells me that the author’s depiction is successful, or it wouldn’t have made me feel this way.

Throughout the novel my brain was drifting back to Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’s response Wide Sargasso Sea and the anti-heroine Bertha Mason. Bertha (whose name is actually Antoinette) is Mr Rochester’s first wife, doomed to a life locked in an attic, because of her unnatural passions and hereditary madness. She works as a contrast to the still and quiet Jane, who was constantly told to rein in her passionate nature when she was a child. Bertha’s fate could have been Jane’s. However, in her book Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys gives Bertha a back story where Rochester marries then rejects the wife who was too passionate in the bedroom and enjoyed his advances – the inference being that a wife should meekly accept sexual advances, but not relish them. I felt throughout East’s novel, that a similar misogynistic double standard is at play. When we delve into Julia’s inner world we can see how insidious emotional abuse is, because these ideas are running through her head constantly. She doubts her own instincts and worries that Chrissie’s disappearance is a consequence of her failure to ‘behave’ in the way she’s been taught. Paul and Julia don’t fully communicate either, operating in completely different spheres with him at home and her at work. Law is such a demanding career and Julia works constantly, almost like it’s a penance, rarely interacting with Paul or Chrissie and never involved in her daughter’s strict regime. It’s almost as if she’s abdicated all responsibility for her to Paul, but is that choice or a mistaken belief that he’ll do a better job than her? There’s also the shadowy figure of Francis, someone she doesn’t want near her family and seems to fear. This really is a toxic mix, a family who seem shielded from scrutiny by their money and once you delve beyond appearances, are a million miles away from the ordinary. Will Chrissie be found and is her disappearance down to a malign outside influence as they all suspect? Whatever has happened to Chrissie, you’ll not stop reading till you work out what is so deeply wrong at the heart of this family?

Published on 12th January by HQ

Thanks to HQ and the Squad Pod Collective for my proof copy.

Posted in Squad Pod

Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan.

I am a huge fan of Damon Albarn – I haven’t gone crazy, this is relevant – from the first 12 inch Blur single I bought in 1989, to Gorillaz and all the solo projects in-between I’ve been there. For me, the most amazing piece of work he’s composed is Monkey: The Opera which I went to see at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and then again at Lincoln Centre in NYC. I’d seen the ‘Monkey Magic’ series when I was a child, me and my brother loved the hilarious and badly dubbed chronicles of Monkey and his quest. However, in the opera house, when the music started and the curtains opened this Monkey was simply magical, like a window to another world. The music was exquisite and the set was just incredible, with floating clouds and giant bamboo, underwater realms and ancient gods and spirits lurking above while Monkey learns what his journey is about. I’d honestly never seen anything like it. So, when I picked up this beautiful book I put the music on so I had a soundtrack to my reading experience and it fitted together beautifully. Used to Greek, Roman and Celtic mythology, Albarn’s soundtrack felt like fitting music for the entirely alien, but rich and evocative mythology I was becoming immersed in.

This incredible debut novel from Sue Lynn Tan is a mix of mythology, spirituality, magic and Bildüngsroman- that wonderful and almost untranslatable word that relates to books focused on a young person growing up. Our heroine is Xingyin a young woman who has grown up on the moon, hidden from a powerful Celestial Emperor who placed her mother Chang’e in exile for the theft of his elixir of mortality. Xingyin’s life has been a lonely one and as she grows she longs for new experiences and places. Now Xinying is coming into her power and as her magic increases, she is discovered. Now she must flee the moon and leave her mother behind, knowing that she’s pitted against the most powerful immortal leaving both their lives at risk. Alone, powerless, and afraid, she makes her way to the Celestial Kingdom, a land of wonder and secrets. Disguising her identity she works as a servant, but then seizes a lucky opportunity to train in the Crown Prince’s service. Xingyin starts learning to master archery, magic, and the strange attraction between her and the emperor’s son. I loved being back in a world within the clouds. The author’s beautifully lyrical language is so vibrant and she really does bring this stunning world to life. This celestial realm is woven from layers of description about the clothing, the food, the buildings and the unique magical elements, creating a setting and atmosphere that’s suitably awe inspiring.

I found Xingyin’s inner journey interesting too, because she develops so much from the naïve young girl at the beginning. I loved that she is following a path to be a warrior, something that seems rare for women in Western mythologies. I learned so much about Chinese culture through her obligations to family, particularly the mother/daughter relationship and the concept of honour and how it informs her ambitions. Her focus is to free her mother from exile and this brings out an incredible determination in Xingyin. She starts out unable to fend for herself and she shows both patience and grit, achieving each goal on the way to her destiny. She has to learn the history of these Immortal Realms in order to negotiate her way forward. She also has to practice her magic and the find the best way to utilise it in her quest. I loved how the author kept a steady pace in these early sections, the slower pace echoing that Xingyin is only at the beginning of her journey and she feels those same emotions we do when our goals are still so far away. The pace really speeds up when Xingyin has undergone her initial training and the army leaves to test it’s recruits in battle. I really enjoyed the extraordinary monsters from Chinese legend that the army must defeat for Xingyin to really fulfil her potential as a battle-hardened warrior. The author beautifully describes that uncertainty and fear soldiers must feel before a battle – the self-doubt that can creep in and takes hold. Yet Xingyin manages to feel this and still maintain her warrior-like demeanour. She isn’t just a killing machine. Throughout her endeavours she has kept her own deep seated sense of morality and a self-awareness that allows her to set boundaries.

Aside from Xingyin’s quest there is also an element of romance in the novel; a love triangle that does dominate in parts and takes up an enormous amount of her head space. I wasn’t sure I needed the romance for the book to work, but I guess it’s part of a young girl’s journey into womanhood. She is torn between two men and seems on a rollercoaster of trying to understand her feelings for both. One minute she’s berating her own fickleness in wanting one and then the other, then is angry that whatever they do she can’t let either one of them go. I think the author is trying to capture the immaturity of relationships at this age and I felt the romance might have been pitched at a YA audience who would understand the angst better than this middle-aged reader. I didn’t want the romance to take over the storyline and distract Xingyin from her own journey and potential. I don’t read a enormous amount of fantasy, but this was a complete escape from normal everyday life and I found myself lost in it’s imagery and those wonderful mythical creatures. The author has a boundless imagination, shown in the sheer scale of this work and how she paints her world with words so that it’s beautifully rich, evocative and ultimately, enchanting. I’m looking forward to diving into her world again for the sequel to this incredible debut novel.

Published 20th Jan 2022 by Harper Voyager

Meet the Author

Sue Lynn Tan writes stories inspired by the myths and legends she fell in love with as a child. After devouring every fable she could find in the library, she discovered fantasy books, spending much of her childhood lost in magical worlds. Daughter of the Moon Goddess is her debut, the first in the Celestial Kingdom duology – a fantasy of immortals, magic and love, inspired by the beloved legend of the Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e.

When not writing or reading, she enjoys exploring the hills, lakes, and temples around her home. She is also grateful to be within reach of bubble tea and spicy food, that she unfortunately cannot cook.

Find her on Instagram and Twitter @SuelynnTan, or on her website http://www.suelynntan.com

Posted in Squad Pod

The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line by Ruth Thomas

This novel was a wonderful surprise when Sandstone Press kindly granted me a copy. We were only three weeks into January and I’d fallen immediately in love with a new literary heroine. I absolutely adored Sybil and felt so at home in her company I just kept reading all day. I then finished at 11pm was bereft because I wouldn’t be with Sybil any more. Yes, this is what happens to avid readers. We fall head over heels with a character, can’t put the book down, then suffer from book withdrawal. All day I was grumpy and reluctant to start a new book.

Sybil’s life is puttering along nicely. She has a job she enjoys at a London museum – Royal Institute of Prehistoric Studies (RIPS). There she produces learning materials, proof reads and indexes archaeological publications. She also helps people with research enquiries. She has a great boyfriend, Simon, who is a chef and likes to make her bread with obscure grains. Her quiet, settled life is turned upside down when she, quite literally, bumps into an old nemesis from her university days. Sybil and Simon have gone ice skating, where they spot Helene Hanson, Sybil’s old university lecturer. Sybil doesn’t want to say hello, after all Helene did steal some ideas from Sybil’s dissertation to further her own research into the Beaker people. They try to make their way over, very unsteadily, and end up careering into Helene’s group. In Sybil’s case she’s only stopped by the wall of the rink. She has a nasty bang on the head, and from there her life seems to change path completely. Only weeks later, Helene has stolen Sybil’s boyfriend and in her capacity working for a funding body, she has taken a huge interest in RIPS. Now Sybil’s workplace will be selling Helene’s range of Beakerware (TM) in the gift shop and they even welcome her onto their committee as chair of trustees. Sybil’s mum suggests a mature exchange of views, but Sybil can’t do that. Nothing but all out revenge will satisfy how Sybil feels. She’s just got to think of a way to expose that Helene Hanson as a fraud.

First of all I want to talk about the structure of the novel. As Sybil’s life starts to unravel, so does her narration. A suggestion from a friend leads Sybil to a poetry class at her local library, so prose is broken up with poetry and very minimal notes of what Sybil has seen that she hopes to turn into haiku. Haiku is a Japanese form of poetry with a set structure of thirteen syllables over three lines in the order of 5, then 3, and then 5 syllables. Having lived next to a Japanese meditation garden for several years I started to write and teach haiku as a form of meditation. It’s a form linked to nature and is very much about capturing small moments. So if Sybil sees something that might inspire her, it makes its way into her narration. I loved this, because I enjoy poetry, but also because it broke up the prose and showed those quiet still moments where Sybil was just observing. She works with found objects – most notably a little teacup, left on a wall, that has ‘ a cup of cheer’ written on the side. There’s a very important reason for the fragmentary narration, that I won’t reveal, but I loved it and thought it was so clever. Many of my regular readers will know why I connected with this narrative voice. It could be that this is the only visible symptom of the chaos in Sybil’s mind as she goes through a massive shift – physically from one flat to another – but also a mental shift towards living alone, to coping with her nemesis constantly popping up and to the heartbreak she’s gone through. We’ve all had to start new chapters in life so her situation is easy to relate to.

Helene’s organisation brings much needed funding to the museum, but with it come obligations. As chair of the trustees, she wants to change the very structure of the building and some of the precious display spaces might be sacrificed. Her commercial enterprise, recreating Beakerware (TM) for the museum gift shop, means the shop expanding into other areas. Exhibits that have been on display for years will be moved into storage to make room and Sybil dreads Helene using Simon as the face of the range, imagining giant posters of her ex greeting her every morning at work. To add insult to injury Helene even inserts herself into Sybil’s everyday job by adding a section into her boss Raglan’s upcoming book meaning that Sybil has to index Helene’s writing. Could there be a chance here, for Sybil to gain some satisfaction? However, as Sybil’s mum hints, revenge can be more damaging to the person seeking it. This book is character driven and they’re brilliantly drawn, funny, eccentric and human. Sybil’s boss Raglan Beveridge – who she observes sounds like a cross between a knitted jumper and a hot drink – is such a lovely man, easily swayed but kind and tries to ensure that Sybil is ok. I enjoyed Bill who she meets several times across the book, in different situations. He’s calm, funny, thoughtful and shows himself to be a good friend to Sybil, even while she’s barely noticing him! Helene seems to hang over everything Sybil does, like an intimidating black cloud promising rain to come. She is a glorious villain in that she has very few redeeming features, and tramples all over Sybil’s world at home and at work. The author cleverly represents this in the very structure of RIPS. Sybil likes her slightly fusty, behind the times little museum. There’s a sense in which it is precious, that the spaces within shelter some eccentric and fragile people. They’re like little orchids, who might not thrive anywhere else. They’re introverts, so need familiarity and quiet. How will they survive Helen’s onslaught?

On the whole this was a quiet book. As I was reading it, I was totally. engrossed and the outside world was muffled for a while. It reminded me of those mornings after snowfall, when the outside world is silenced. I felt a deep connection with Sybil. She’s offbeat, quirky and has a dark sense of humour. We meet her at her lowest point and while we’ve all been heartbroken, this was much more than that. I’ve been broken by life just once, but I was a like a vase, smashed into so many pieces I didn’t know if I could pull them all back together. Even if I did, I knew I would never be the same person. This is the process Sybil is working through and her grief is central to the novel. My loss felt so huge that it affected my actions – I left doors unlocked when I went out, forgot to pay bills, and started to make mistakes at work. I had always prided myself on being very ‘together’ and here I was falling apart. I discovered Japanese art that healed me in some way – it’s called Kintsugi and it’s the art of repairing broken ceramics with liquid gold or other contrasting metal. It shows the cracks, the evidence that this piece has been through something, but it’s still whole and it’s still beautiful. I feel this is Sybil’s journey and what she needed to hear was broken things can still be beautiful. This was a thoughtful novel, with serious themes but a lovely hint of humour running through. I still love it now, a couple of years later and my finished copy has pride of place on my bookshelves.

Q & A with Ruth Thomas.

1. The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line is very character driven – did the idea for the story or Sybil come first?

The setting came first, in fact. I wanted to write about a fusty old institute, and that’s how the Royal Institute for Prehistorical Studies (RIPS) began. I also wanted to write about Greenwich Park. It’s an early memory from childhood. I remember it being a beautiful but rather melancholy place.

2. The RIPS is a wonderful setting! Could you tell us a bit about it, and why you set The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line in a museum?

I love museums, especially small old-fashioned ones. They have so much character and lend themselves to description. I also wanted to tell the story of a museum artefact – how it fitted into someone’s life in the 21st century as much as the time when it was made.

3. Sybil’s voice is brilliantly handled – did you do anything in particular to pin that down when you started working on the novel, or to get in the zone each time you sat down to write?

I don’t think too much about voice before I begin – I just start with my own take on things, and after a while a character and voice shapes itself around those observations. I think the mood your character’s in has a big effect on the way they tell their story.

4. Quite early on in the book, Sybil joins ‘Poetry for the Terrified!’ at North Brixton Library – could you tell us a bit about that?

I love poetry but am a bit rubbish at writing it! I thought I’d harness that inability for Sybil too. At school, we were always supposed to find poetry profound. It can be fantastic and moving, of course, but sometimes you have to discover that in your own time.

5. One of the themes that stood out while reading The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line was grief – we’d love to hear about how you explored different aspects of grief.

I wanted Sybil’s grief to be reflected elsewhere in the book too. She thinks she’s alone with her heartbreak, but that’s one of the qualities of grief – you don’t necessarily know others are going through something similar. I also wanted to explore sorrow without writing a very sad book!

6. Was any of the office politics/social etiquette inspired by real life?

I love office politics! It’s one of the things I really missed during lockdown. Small-scale conversations and seemingly trivial things are what make me tick as a writer. At the momentI’m just having to focus a bit more on remembering the details.

Thank you so much to Sandstone Press and the SquadPod Collective for inviting me to share this lovely book with you again and thank you to Ruth Thomas for her contribution to this post.

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 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