Posted in Random Things Tours

One Last Time by Helga Flatland.

Translated by Rosie Hedger.

I was utterly bowled over by this beautiful examination of life, death and how ordinary lives can be the most extraordinary of all. Our narrator, Anne, unexpectedly finds herself contemplating the end of her life, and so much sooner than expected, when she faces a diagnosis of colon cancer. Her husband Gustav has been hovering between two states for a number of years after several strokes slowly incapacitated him. His permanent disabilities started with paralysis of one of his arms and ending with all limbs affected and personality changes that are the hardest to cope with. With a heavy heart Anne has allowed their GP and hospital team to make the decision that Gustav should be placed in a nursing home. There’s a sense in which Anne had felt immune from further tragedy, as if Gustav had paid the price for them all. Meanwhile, we also meet Anne’s two grown-up children, Magnus and Sigrid. Sigrid is our second narrator and through her story we can see Anne in a different light, as a mother. However, we also see Sigrid as a mother and it’s on these relationships the book focuses; those complex emotions and connections between mothers and daughters.

Anne’s life has been a difficult and hard-working one. There’s been the farm she kept with Gustav in an isolated region of Norway, her job as teacher, the role of carer for Gustav, and her role as mother. From the outside looking in she’s an amazingly strong woman for whom fate has dealt a very rough hand. From the inside she sees herself as almost subsumed by the needs of other people, particularly Gustav, but has done the best job she could in very difficult circumstances. However, from Sigrid’s perspective, she allowed herself to be subsumed by Gustav’s needs at the expense of her children. Sigrid feels that her father listened to her, they would play records together from his vinyl collection and he took time to understand her. She feels her mother is distant at best and at worst, neglectful and selfish. We also see Sigrid’s own mothering skills, dealing with her teenage daughter Mia and the sudden return of Mia’s biological father Jens. The author takes us back to Sigrid’s rebellious teenage years, her pregnancy at 19 and Jens’s abandonment of her just before the Mia’s birth.

The author cleverly shows us how mother and daughter can see the same incident very differently. In a conversation about teaching in Norwegian in schools, Sigrid suddenly bursts out with:

I was so cold, freezing all through primary school, do you know what it was like, sitting through a whole day in class with wet socks, ice cold, not daring to take them off for fear someone might see?’

Anne is a bit stunned, but relates back to everything that was on her plate at the time. She was looking after Gustav, constantly making sacrifices:

‘You’re hardly the true victim in all this, I told her in as measured a tone as I could muster. She said nothing, waited a few seconds before getting up and leaving. I woke that night and remembered at least one occasion when Sigrid had been at high school and I had urged her to wear her boots, she had flown into a rage with me, stormed out the door and into the icy rain in her trainers and denim jacket’.

This is how mother and daughter speak to each other, in cross words with even more crossed wires, and bogged down with specifics. The overarching truth neither wishes to acknowledge is that Sigrid’s memories of her father are in a nostalgic past before she was seven years old. He will never grow old. He took up so much of her mother’s time that both Magnus and Sigrid fended for themselves on occasion. I felt so sad for Sigrid that her family forgot her birthday once or twice. However I also felt sad for Anne, who was dealt a rough hand in life and now has another in death. The time she’s had for herself is minimal, and the retirement she expected with her loving husband has been stripped away. There’s a deep sense of loss in Anne, from the family life she expected, her marriage, loss of a lover and of a warm, loving relationship with her daughter. She thinks back to those times she had supported Sigrid which don’t get mentioned. After Jens left, Anne collected a 19 year old Sigrid and took her back home for some much needed TLC and to have help after the birth. Sigrid isn’t angry with her Dad, she can’t be because he’s sick, so her anger is saved for Anne who for several years chose Gustav’s needs above those of her children.

Then, in turn, Sigrid is at crossed purposes with her own daughter. Jens has returned after sixteen years and is now the object of Mia’s affections. Sigrid feels for her partner Aslak, who has been there for both of them, since Mia was a small baby. She thinks she’s been a great Mum to Mia, never shirking responsibility or neglecting them. However, there are times Mia has felt stifled and there’s a way in which Sigrid’s need to control everything feels like anxiety to others. The author manages to convey how these parenting choices feel to the daughter. There are times when intention and result just miss each other by a hair’s breadth and I found this incredibly moving. It made me think about how I view my own mother and where I’ve been harsh in my assessment of her, but others might view things with more empathy. I found it interesting in light of her accusations about Anne’s parenting, that Sigrid feels it is Mia at fault in their misunderstandings. Mia’s reply is a real piece of wisdom and could have come from a therapist:

‘Isn’t it interesting how everyone else is always letting you down Mum?’

Helga Flatland writes so beautifully, that I was in the events of the book immediately and then carried into the very heart of this one ordinary family. She is a master at creating tension between people, finding those spaces between a conversation’s intent and how it’s received by the other person. I was desperately hoping for some sort of understanding between mother and daughter, before it was too late. I felt Sigrid needed that reconciliation even more than Anne. I loved the atmospheric feel of the country with its crispness underfoot, constant dusting of snow and all the hearty foods Anne mentions from elk to mutton, slow cooked and filling the house with delicious meaty casserole smells. I also loved the way she conveyed the closeness of a couple who live together, the way you know how their skin smells or what they’re going to say before they say it. I was so moved by Anne’s predicament of a much loved partner leaving you by slow degrees and how she would simply lie on the mattress next to Gustav hoping to regain some of that comfort she would get from his body. Most of all, her depiction of illness and deterioration is the best I’ve ever read and I’ve read a lot. Small losses, like medication changing the way the way someone smells, are actually huge because it takes them from the familiar to a complete stranger. She explores how illness suddenly demotes you from being in control of the smallest things in your life, like what you will eat for dinner or whether people will stay in your house. Who decides whether you need to be looked after and how? The way your body doesn’t belong to you anymore, or even feel and look like yours. People who once saw us as sexual beings, might cease to see us that way. Our bodies become a no-man’s land that people will fight and negotiate over, but rarely ask what we think, feel or need. This made the book incredibly moving, honest and real. This small family story is exquisite and truly special. You simply must read it.

Meet The Author

Helga Flatland is already one of Norway’s most awarded and widely read authors. Born in Telemark, Norway, in 1984, she made her literary debut in 2010 with the novel Stay If You Can, Leave If You Must, for which she was awarded the Tarjei Vesaas’ First Book Prize. She has written four novels and a children’s book and has won several other literary awards.


Her fifth novel, A Modern Family (her first English translation), was published to wide acclaim in Norway in August 2017, and was a number-one bestseller. The rights have subsequently been sold across Europe and the novel has sold more than 100,000 copies. One Last Time was published in Norway in 2020, where it topped the bestseller lists, and was shortlisted for the Norwegian Booksellers Award.

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Then A Wind Blew by Kay Powell

I was interested in reading this book, because I have a real gap in my knowledge when it comes to the final days of Rhodesia. I’ve read missionary’s accounts of leaving the country, but as these were largely from church sources, told through solely white, Christian, missionaries I feel my knowledge is very limited. We talk about literature as a way of understanding human experience and it’s important to me that my reading covers diverse human experiences, not just my own reflected back at me. In this novel set in the final days of Rhodesia, before it became Zimbabwe, there is a nun in a church mission called Beth, who has adopted this country as her home and is now watching it tear itself in two. Susan Haig is a white settler, who has lost one son to war with her second declared unfit for duty. Nyanye Maseka is in a guerilla camp in Mozambique, with her sister in tow, after their village was destroyed. Heartbreakingly, her mother is missing and they have had to take flight without her. This gives the reader three different perspectives on what is happening. The women’s fates become entwined as the lives they were used to, become a casualty of war.

In a similar way to Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun, this author concentrates on the female experience of civil war. Adichie wrote about the Biafran conflict in Nigeria through two sisters. Here the three women’s story of everyday lives in war, tell us wider stories about society and politics in Rhodesia. It’s not an easy book to read, but it shouldn’t be. It should make us uncomfortable. It should be harrowing. This is what it takes to put across the horrors of war. War is harrowing, and knowing these experiences come from factual accounts and from an author who has lived there, gives the story authenticity and makes it hit home even more strongly.

Kay Powell

Susan. Well it’s hard to write about Susan’s views because they made me so angry. Sadly though, they did echo a lot of the views I’ve heard from white settlers who left Rhodesia during the Wars of Liberation. They were views I had shared with me very recently on Facebook, from a friend who was born out there in the late 1960’s. The killing of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests seemed to bring these views out into the open. As if they were ok. My friend’s list is a little bit lighter these days. Views like ‘there hadn’t been any African history until the European arrived’ are staggering in their arrogance and ignorance. As if it’s unthinkable there is any other way of doing things than the British way. I’ve heard ‘they need someone to organise them’ or ‘if we weren’t there they’d just kill each other’. The use of ‘they’ tends to push all Black South Africans and Zimbabweans into an homogenised mass, with no individuality or humanity. I couldn’t believe I was still hearing the Victorian attitude that natives were little more than savages. Yet she was needed in the narrative. The reader needed her to show the entitled attitude that comes from empire and from one nation thinking it’s a show of greatness to own another. Without Susan there would be nothing to fight against, however difficult she is to read. I imagine there was an element of catharsis in writing her character, the ability to put all the hateful words and attitudes you’ve encountered in one place, and leave them there. A way of doing something good with such evil.

Through all of these characters we see the strength and the fight women must have to survive a war. War often leaves women with the greatest burdens to carry and that was an important thread woven throughout, with all the women. I loved Nyanye’s fight and her need to let others know she wasn’t beaten or conquered. The love the author has for the country shines out of the pages, with vivid descriptions of nature and the weather she really set the scene for me. In one scene, at night, she describes the sound of wind in the grass, calls of distant animals and crickets calling all under a sky filled with stars. It felt poetic, and created such an atmosphere for the reader, adding to the sadness that such a beautiful country is being torn apart. The way her writing is so lyrical one moment, then so raw and brutal, really brings home the horrors of conflict. Yet, there is such beauty and hope. These women show such strength and faith. It could be faith in their role as a mother, as part of a sisterhood serving God. There’s also a sense that these women are learning they’re part of a greater sisterhood of women, no matter their race, religion or colour. They have also learned to have faith in themselves, to realise their strength and will to survive. The book ends with this hope – for justice and equality. It acknowledges a need for peace and for people, like these women, to work together to achieve it. I was left with an aching sadness for the people who lived through this war and the turbulent years since. This is a book that has made me think and will stay with me.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau.

What a great coming of age novel this is as we follow Mary Jane Dillard’s summer of 1978, caught between her straight-laced and devout home, that’s all rigorous routine and tidiness, and the home where she ‘nannies’, which is untidy, chaotic, has no rules and is harbouring a famous rock star and his girlfriend as he dries out from drink and drugs! Fourteen year old Mary Jane has a complete culture shock when she takes a summer job working for the Cone family down the road. Her role is to look after the daughter, Izzy, but as she finds out roles and rules are not very clearly defined in the Cone household. Mary Jane has grown up with rules, and her favourite things up till this point are cooking with her mother and singing in the church choir. Her mother is the great organiser of their household: tea is always on the table at the same time; they go to the same weekly church activities; she shops for groceries every Friday and always knows where her daughter is. Dr Cone’s professional status is enough for Mary Jane’s mother, who imagines a serious, professional man with a wife who keeps the household running like clockwork. Nothing could be further from the truth and even Mary Jane’s dad points out they might be different – they’re Jewish he tells his family, their name would have been Cohen but they’ve changed it. Besides which, Dr Cone is a doctor of psychiatry and has his own unusual treatment methods.

If the state of your house is truly reflective of who you are (overstuffed, slightly shabby, but full of charm in my case) then the Cones are chaotic, anarchic, full of ideas and very well read. Just like all children, Mary Jane has imagined all homes are like hers and looks at this one with horror and wonder too. There are things everywhere and in Izzy’s room she can’t even see the floor. The family are not just incontinent with their belongings, but their affections too. Mary Jane’s parents don’t show their emotions and seldom show physical affection, but here Izzy’s parents are full of kisses and hugs – something that takes quite a bit of getting used to on Mary Jane’s part. I grew up in a similarly religious and strict family during my adolescence and although my parents were always very loving, I was very shocked when friend’s mums talked to them openly about sex and relationships, or allowed them to read or watch anything, go out till late and wear what they liked. I really felt Mary Jane’s bewilderment at this complete lack of rules or schedules. As it neared late afternoon she would be surprised that no one had thought about what to have for dinner, or that no one had ironed Mr Cone’s shirts. Mr Cone’s office was in the garden, but his methods are rather unorthodox and within the week the house has two new guests; the rock star called Jimmy and his movie star wife Sheba. Jimmy is drying out, which seems to involve eating a lot of very sugary sweets! Mary Jane has been asked to tell no one the couple are there and this is the first thing she has ever kept from her parents. The second thing is her cut off shorts that Sheba has cut so high they only just cover her bum cheeks – I loved the bit where Mary Jane’s mum bumps into her and Izzy in the supermarket, and she hastily throws on an apron to cover her modesty. She knows that if her mother knew even the half of what is happening over at the Cone’s residence, her summer job would be over, and now she’s grown to love both Izzy and their happy go lucky lifestyle.

Of course these two families are not simply good and bad, they’re just different and that difference is appealing when we realise that Mary Jane is getting from the Cone family, exactly what she is missing at home. Her own mother, although rigid and a little remote, is not a bad woman. Yes she has elitist, and often, judgemental views – the first thing she asks about the Cones is which country club they belong to? She also lives a very ‘Stepford Wife’ existence, with a rota of family chores to follow and the ingrained view that a woman looks after the house, children and her husband. In teaching Mary Jane how to cook and clean, she is preparing her for a similar role in life because that is her norm. They belong to a church that reinforces those same views. However, Mary Jane is well cared for and has a very stable home life, with a mother who wants to keep her safe. By contrast, Bonnie Cone is openly affectionate, praises her cooking and cleaning skills as if they’re a magic art, and encourages her to express herself both emotionally and creatively, but she does have shortcomings. She doesn’t work outside the home, but Izzy is often unfed, unwashed and without Mary Jane’s input could be neglected. As a couple, the Cones choose to bring a known addict into their home who is a total stranger, leave food to rot in the fridge and are effectively allowing a fourteen year old to run their home, cook all their meals and be a full-time nanny to their daughter.

Whilst there is so much charm in their lifestyle and love in their hearts, it doesn’t always translate to action and could be seen as dysfunctional. I can imagine many people finding their nudity troublesome – Mrs Cone is often without a bra and Mr Cone wanders naked from bedroom to bathroom, knowing Mary Jane is in the house. As I was reading I found myself drawn to the Cone’s way of life, but also a little troubled by it. While I dislike rigid, religious upbringings I had to feel a drop of sympathy for Mrs Dillard who thinks she is doing the best thing for her family and often is, in a practical sense. While Izzy seems a happy and well- adjusted little girl now, would that continue into her teenage years or might she crave some structure and safety? There’s a scene, early after Sheba and Jimmy’s arrival where the whole household sit and watch Russian and American astronauts meet in space for the first time. Mary Jane observes that as they all sit together, on or in front of the sofa, everyone has an arm round or hand on someone else. It’s a big affectionate sprawl she describes as being like a litter of puppies. This description stayed with me, and I think it is because they all seemed to be on a equal footing. There are no adults and children here – they are all children. This can also be seen in later descriptions of evenings where everyone sings together, dances to the Jimmy’s records and the adults smoke joints. She is even included in group therapy sessions where everyone is encouraged to be honest and has equal status. I couldn’t tell whether it was the whiff of 1970s nostalgia that made this communal living sound idyllic. There were times when I wondered if any five year old brought up in a similar atmosphere now, might even be flagged up at school or to social services.

However, the author’s skill is in creating that nostalgia for the past, the music, the peace, the love and the permissive family. The atmosphere is warm and welcoming and the reader is charmed into wanting to be a member of this loving and accepting household. I felt seduced by it, but then I was Izzy’s age in 1978 and it does feel like a golden time. These are the rose coloured spectacles of a child. Yet, if I asked my parents what was really going on in our lives then, I might get a completely different story. This is how I felt about Mary Jane, that naïvety she has lead to her being charmed by the Cones. She hasn’t stopped to think what would be happening to Izzy if she wasn’t hired for the summer? On one of the last weeks of summer, they all decamp to the coast, sharing a beach house for the week. I was simply waiting for these couples to clash, or something else to go wrong. One thing is definitely true, seeing an extremely different lifestyle opens Mary Jane’s eyes and gives her a more definite picture of who she wants to be and what to do with her life. This is an interesting, nostalgic and funny coming of age novel with a sympathetic heroine who I really enjoyed.

Meet The Author

Jessica Anya Blau is the author of US bestselling novel The Summer of Naked Swim Parties and three other critically acclaimed novels, most recently The Trouble With Lexie. Her novels have been recommended and featured on CNN, NPR, The Today Show and in Vanity Fair, Cosmo, O Magazine, and many other US magazines and newspapers.

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This Is How We Are Human by Louise Beech.

I absolutely loved this incredible book about love, disability, sex and the secrets we keep from each other. Veronica and her son Sebastian live together in Hull. Veronica wants the best for her son and just like all parents, she wants him to grow up and have a full life. However, Veronica isn’t like other parents, because despite Sebastian being twenty years, six months and two days old, he’s struggling with the love and relationships part of his life. Seb is autistic and he is lonely. Seb loves swimming, his fish, fried eggs and Billy Ocean, he’d also love to have sex but no one will have sex with him. He’s already been in trouble after the girl next door convinced him to write an explicit letter to her underage sister. When their lives collide with Violetta, Veronica thinks she can see a way forward. She’s thought of paying someone before, but has stopped herself. Here though, is someone they’ve met before and who was natural with Seb. Veronica couldn’t have known she was leading a double life as a high class escort, in order to earn enough money to keep her seriously ill father at home. These three lives come together and change each other in unexpected ways.

There were scenes in this that made me laugh and some that made me cry. His need for sexual release is having a huge impact on his carefully ordered life. His swimming sessions have continued at the same time and day of the week, all the way from childhood, but his inability to see why his nakedness is different to the children’s has meant they must stop. When Veronica takes Seb to the sexual health clinic, because she’s desperate for advice, their lack of help and understanding infuriated me. The nurse seemed more concerned about whether Seb might hurt someone, or how Veronica’s thoughts about paying for it would be harming him. She even threatens to report her to social services. There’s no compassion or admission that they really don’t know what to do. It’s an issue I’ve thought about for a long time, having supported people with learning difficulties or autistic spectrum disorders in an advocacy role. Sadly, the figures for sexual violence against women with learning disabilities are terrifyingly high. While young people are often infantilised by parents who don’t want to accept their child is an adult. I read many years ago about an initiative in Holland very like our Direct Payments/Personal Budget system for care if you have a disability. However, social workers could add a component that would pay for the disabled person (physical disabilities) to hire a sex worker if they needed that for an sexual outlet. As Seb himself says:

‘People seem to get dead upset about it. But it’s just like paying for swimming lessons. You want to learn to do it and someone who knows how to will show you for an agreed fee’.

He sees it as a simple business transaction. Offsetting the worry, sadness and anger I felt in their behalf it’s Seb’s frankness that brings the humour. His mother greets him in the morning with a cheery ‘what do you want to do today?’ and his reply is ‘I want to have sex’. He goes on to explain that he might pay for sex:

‘If I was rich. But I’m not. I’ll just have to find someone who appreciates me before I die. I hope it’s this week. I’m feeling very sexual today.’

Seb is such a loveable and interesting character. He’s also handsome, so does draw attention from women when out and about, but Veronica knows that as soon as he speaks they will start to lose interest. She meets with Violetta and proposes her plan. However, there are real ethical concerns here and everyone is keeping secrets. Veronica isn’t planning on telling Seb the truth about his ‘sessions’ with Violetta, but she isn’t planning on telling Seb she’s been hired or why she needs the money. Seb has his own secrets and there is an ending to this that neither woman envisaged, showing a prejudice they didn’t know they had. They’ve discussed concerns that Seb may become attached to his tutor, but they didn’t imagine that she might become compromised in some way or that Seb might transfer his affections to someone new.

This is brave new ground in fiction. I have a physical disability, and I can count on one hand books that have a disabled character who openly discusses or explores their sexuality. This is almost society’s last taboo – the sexual disabled body is not to be looked at or mentioned. This is partly about the infantilisation of people with disabilities, they need care and are therefore vulnerable and untouchable. It’s partly to do with an innate reflex to reject what is different – often the fear of urine bags, colostomy bags, and other paraphernalia is so great, that the person becomes neutral to other people and they close their minds to the fact that this person is a sexual being. We saw this prejudice in action with the controversy around Marc Quinn’s statue of Alison Lapper. Not only was this a disabled woman who was naked, she was also pregnant. People rejected her body strongly, calling it ugly and disgusting. However, I think a large part of the furore was down to people being uncomfortable that Lapper’s pregnancy was a visual clue of a healthy sex life. Most of the same people would probably be uncomfortable with this book, but I was so excited to see the issue out in the open. We need to talk about it more. People with disabilities are having sex, often more adventurous and inventive sex, because they have to communicate more and find a way round their disability. It’s only by talking about it that we start to break down these prejudices and accept that a healthy sex life is a normal part of life for all adults able to consent. This was a difficult subject, handled with frankness, but also the greatest care and sensitivity. I’m so grateful that this talented writer turned her hand to this subject, writing characters that felt utterly real and incredibly relatable. It was funny, moving, and full of love, of every kind.

Meet The Author

Louise Beech is an exceptional literary talent, whose debut novel How To Be Brave was a Guardian Readers’ Choice for 2015. The follow-up, The Mountain in My Shoe was shortlisted for Not the Booker Prize. Both of her previous books Maria in the Moon and The Lion Tamer Who Lost were widely reviewed, critically acclaimed and number-one bestsellers on Kindle. The Lion Tamer Who Lost was shortlisted for the RNA Most Popular Romantic Novel Award in 2019. Her 2019 novel Call Me Star Girl won Best magazine Book of the Year, and was followed by I Am Dust.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Heatstroke by Hazel Barkworth.

Do I really see what’s in her mind, Each time i think I’m close to knowing She keeps on growing, Slipping through my fingers all the time. ABBA

Years ago, when Mamma Mia first came out at the cinema, I went to see it with my Mum. When it came to the wedding day and Meryl Streep helping her daughter get ready for the ceremony, I saw so much emotion flow through my Mum’s face. I didn’t want to make a fuss, because I knew that if I touched her or asked if she was ok it would make things worse. It threw me a little bit because I couldn’t remember my mum ever being sentimental about me. I’d always been someone, she thought, could took care of herself. On our drive home I asked her what about the scene made her emotional, and she said it wasn’t the scene it was the song ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’. It talks about a mother who never seems able to fully capture a moment with her daughter, because she moves just out of reach all the time. Away to school, on to grammar school, to new friends, boyfriends, university and into a fully grown woman. I’m not sure I fully understood what she felt, I don’t have children, but more recently I became a stepmum to two teenage girls. I can see now, with my eldest, how girls grow so quick and out of your influence. How friends become the people who understand them, how they’re constantly making plans to get away, to visit other places, to move on, to study in another city. It’s as if the woman they’re becoming wipes away the trace of that little girl you once did everything for. This book is about that point between mother and daughter; Rachel sees her daughter Mia slipping through her fingers.

The backdrop to this mother -daughter story is a heatwave and a scandal. The nightmare begins when Mia’s school friend Lily disappears one night when she’s supposed to be at a sleep over with her friends. Mia socialises in a group of five girls, and in parallel Rachel keeps a What’s App group of their mothers aimed at keeping in touch with their daughter’s plans and keeping them safe. Lily disappears in the midst of the heatwave and the author very cleverly uses it to ratchet up the tension. At home and at Mia’s school, where Rachel works as a teacher, the heat is relentless. Rachel notices the girls in class lifting their long curtains of hair, and twisting it into a top knot just to feel some air on the back of their neck. Everyone is somehow more aware of each other’s bodies: the smells, the damp as you stand up from a sitting position, or on your back as you stop driving and get out of the car. Rachel’s also aware of so much young flesh on show. The girls and their golden legs, without a trace of hair. They’re perfection and by comparison Rachel is aware of her own flesh as less taut, just a millimetre too saggy at the jawline.

At night it’s impossible to sleep. In between the oppressive heat and worry about Lilly, there are short chapters detailing an illicit relationship. It feels obsessive and dangerous. There are no names used. Could it be Lily or is someone else keeping a secret? Then police find that Lily took something with her. A piece of lingerie belonging to her mother. That means she chose to go and for a moment everyone breathes, until they realise that means she didn’t go alone, but with a person is possibly older and might still mean her harm. Rachel asks Lily’s parents if she can look over her bedroom, just in case there is something the police have overlooked. Something that might only have meaning to those who know the girls well. She finds, on Lily’s notice board, some song lyrics and straight away she knows, she knows who Lily is with. The shock reverberates through her. She should tell the police straight away, but she can’t, she needs to process it first. To think it through before the police do find out, because that could bring even worse trouble. Yet, if it’s ever found out that she knew and kept it to herself, she could be in trouble with the police or even lose her job.

I enjoyed the author’s depiction of how Rachel copes with growing older, made especially difficult by her past and Mia’s growing beauty, Rachel has placed a photo outside the downstairs loo. It shows her at her peak of youth and beauty as the singer in a band. In skimpy clothes and torn tights I imagined her look like Courtney Love, the lead singer in Hole back in the 1990s. Rachel seems to be embarrassed when people recognise her, but it seems likely that people will see it, because of where it’s placed. It’s as if she wants to show she was once cool and beautiful. It’s an ego boost for her. There’s a disturbing scene later, when she takes Mia’s prom dress and tries it on. She’s pleased to be able to fit into it, but what seemed harmless turns into something else when Mia comes home. In another scene she has thoughts about Lily, and her first time sharing a living space with a man. Rachel imagines her worrying about how to do all the things that make her beautiful: the shaving, plucking and preening are no longer private and mysterious I l if these concerns were really for Lily or whether they were about her own beauty rituals. Would she ever be able to accept her ageing process and know she can be attractive at any age?

The mysterious man at the centre of Lily’s disappearance exerts a strange hold over the women involved with him. The author doesn’t ever give us his thoughts or feelings. We just get snippets of musical taste, but it’s clear he is either beguiling or emotionally/psychologically abusive. One disturbing scene shows him and his unnamed lover enter a freezing cold river in their underwear. He goes in first as if to give her the motivation and even though he says very little, it’s clear the female feels compelled to move in deeper and deeper until she feels the current trying to carry her away. I sensed that he wants her to feel powerless without him. I wasn’t surprised to learn who the anonymous lovers are in these sections, but the ending did surprise me. As everything comes to a head towards the Prom, Rachel gets a chance to see her daughter anew. Rachel learns so much about herself and how wrong she has been about any things. As she rushes to support her daughter it’s as if that stifling heat has been affecting her ability to think straight. As the rain starts to come down outside, leaving it’s own unique smell rising from the boiling pavements, Rachel’s eyes clear to see that within the beautiful woman in front of her, there is still a glimmer of the little girl inside again.

Meet The Author

HAZEL BARKWORTH grew up in Stirlingshire and North Yorkshire before studying English at Oxford. She then moved to London where she spent her days working as a cultural consultant, and her nights dancing in a pop band at glam rock clubs. Hazel is a graduate of both the Oxford University MSt in Creative Writing and the Curtis Brown Creative Novel-Writing course. She now works in Oxford, where she lives with her partner. HEATSTROKE is her first novel.

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The Other Times of Caroline Tangent by Ivan D. Wainewright.

This book had a premise that was so attractive for someone like me who loves going to gigs and has missed it so much over the last eighteen months. My gig-going best friend and me often talk about which were our favourites, those breakthrough gigs that made your favourite band or those gigs that just captured the zeitgeist. The gig I went to that was a real cultural moment was at Alexandra Palace in 1994; Blur with Pulp as supporting artists. It was a real Britpop landmark and during Song 2, being pummelled and pushed about in the pit at the front I fainted and had to be carried out of the crowd. I’ve been lucky enough to see most of my favourites – Muse, Manic Street Preachers, The Killers, Depeche Mode, U2, Florence and the Machine- but if I did invent a time machine and could go back in time to any gig, it would be The Stone Roses 1989/90. They’re my band that got away. Everyone has one and sometimes we only see their importance in hindsight and simply wish we could have been there.

This is what happens to Caroline Tangent. Her music loving husband Jon, builds a time machine in his basement workshop. One surprising day he whisks her away to a controversial music performance – Kanye West at Glastonbury, 2015. She has on her gardening clothes, so luckily she’s pretty much dressed for a muddy field in Somerset. He didn’t choose the gig because they were huge fans of Kanye, but because it’s an important moment in music history, when there was an outcry over the direction Glastonbury was taking, considering it had always been dominated by more rock or indie groups than anything else. Their second trip is more complicated. Greenwich Village NYC, 1966. The preparation almost heightens their anticipation for the gig. Jon keeps the artist a secret, but they have to scour eBay for vintage clothing and work out how to get round the need for 1960s currency. Although, as Jon jokes, the exchange rate is pretty good. As they settle in a café, Caroline doesn’t recognise the musician playing, but they soon finish their set and on walks a young man with a guitar. It takes a moment because his name is different, but as soon as she realises who it is her excitement bubbles over. That’s Jimi Hendrix!

I found the way the writer created Jon and Caroline’s world really different for such a sci-fi concept. He didn’t treat it like sci-fi, but more like an exploration of long term relationships, friendship and all human life. We get to know their long term friends who they meet for dinner once a month. These people are relatable, and not perfect by any means. He creates tension between Jon and Andrew, who were producing copies of old concert tickets and posters to sell online as the real thing. They’re three dimensional and we see all their good and bad points. Caroline and Jon have managed to keep their time travel a secret so far. She wanted to tell their friends and share his incredible invention, but Jon is adamant it has to be just the two of them. He explains that the secret is just too big, look at how much trouble Caroline is having keeping it to herself? He knows their friends and one of them would be bound to tell someone outside their circle. However adamant he is, there are moments when they’re all together that he sails close to the wind.

I felt unsure about Jon early on, the fact that he’s in this seemingly fractious relationship with Andrew and has produced false memorabilia before made me question his character. I thought their reasons for continuing to visit the past might be different and I didn’t always like the way he treated Caroline. At first I just thought he was very controlled – I know my other half and if he’d developed the capability to build a time machine in his workshop he wouldn’t have been able to keep it to himself. Jon seemed to like having the secret, being superior and even where there were clashes he’d caused, holding himself above the argument. As time went on I noted he was gaslighting Caroline too, letting things go wrong and insinuating she was to blame, or that something she knew had happened, hadn’t happened at all. I was so glad she had such a strong friendship with Bree for support. I felt sad for her, because although she is an emotionally intelligent woman, her love for her husband has made her blind to who he really is.

Of course we all know that the cardinal rule of time travel is not to change anything. Jon goes into great detail about the about chaos theory – the idea that events are interlinked so intricately that it might only take a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world to cause a tsunami somewhere else. No matter how small the change in the past, it could have a seismic effect on their future. As much as they want it to be fun and all about the music, past traumas do start to haunt them. Their world could be about to turn upside down because one of them makes a terrible decision. I don’t want to reveal any more, just that this is a time travel novel that is more about the emotional journey of the people involved, than it is about the destinations. I did love the destinations though, and how the author made me feel I was there in 1960s NYC, or 1930s Paris. I think it would be great to create a Spotify playlist alongside the book so readers can fully immerse themselves in the music. The best way I can describe the novel is to say it’s sci-fi with a very big heart. Sometimes the most important and life changing places we travel are within ourselves.

Meet The Author

Ivan D Wainewright lives in Kent (England) with his partner, Sarah and their slightly neurotic rescue Staffie, Remi. Before moving to Kent, he lived in North London, Leeds and Singapore. When not writing, he can be found watching (and occasionally) playing football, running, listening to music from Chumbawamba to Led Zeppelin, arguing over politics and trying to cook. He has been an independent IT consultant for many years, working solely with charities and not-for-profit organisations.

For more on this novel check out these other bloggers on the tour.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Ariadne by Jennifer Saint.

“What I did not know was that I had hit upon a truth of womanhood: however blameless a life we led, the passions and the greed of men could bring us to ruin, and there was nothing we could do.”

I know we shouldn’t choose books based on their cover, but I wanted to mention straight away how stunning the finished hardback of this book really is. A gorgeous design of vines in midnight blue and gold, this would jump out at you in any book store. We all know the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Everything is black and white when we’re small children, so we take in myths like this, accepting everything we’re told. It’s just a story isn’t it? King Minos has a monster called The Minotaur that’s half man and half bull. Every year the city of Athens must send seven of its best sons and daughters to be sacrificed to the Minotaur. Then one year, Theseus arrives in place of one of the chosen boys, with a plan to kill the Minotaur and stop this blood shed. Minos’s eldest daughter, Ariadne, falls in love at first sight and vows to help Theseus, expecting that she will travel back to Athens with him.

However, the plan doesn’t unfold as she expected and we follow her story as she wakes up on a neighbouring Greek Island alone. Having done a small amount of Latin and Greek at school, I’ve read many of the Greek myths and my abiding impression was how cruel the gods were. In modern Christian faith believers tend to trust in God being a comfort and help in troubled times, but these classical gods are usually causing the troubled times. They are either disguising themselves as animals, committing rapes against human women, having relationships with humans, but then retreating to be unfathomable, mysterious, beings when it suits them. I would have found the Greek’s concept of gods to be frightening – they are capricious, childlike and move humans round like chess pieces. So, knowing that the gods interfered in the lives of King Minos and his Queen did not surprise me.

In this feminist retelling, Jennifer Saint deliberately places the women in the centre of this myth, where they should be. It subtly changes it’s meaning and makes us think again about the version we have always known. King Minos’s daughters, Ariadne and Phaedre, have a living example of how women’s lives are played with by male gods in their own mother Pasiphae, who was tricked into falling in love with a bull. Minos tried to steal Poseidon’s incredible creation of the Cretan bull. In his anger Poseidon filled Pasiphae with lust for the bull and from their rather undignified union came the girl’s brother Asterion, half boy half calf. Possibly thinking of her own troubles, their mother tells them the full story of Medusa, including the part prior to her entanglement with Perseus. In a late version of her story, written by Ovid, Medusa was a beautiful girl with lustrous long hair, and was a priestess of Athena. Poseidon was beaten by Athena into becoming patron of the capital city of Greece, Athens. To punish Athena he ‘seduced’ or raped Medusa in Athena’s temple. However, instead of punishing Poseidon, Athena punished Medusa by turning her hair into snakes. The only version I was ever told, when studying classics at school, was Medusa’s part in the story of Perseus – women are of course, only bit players in the story of these incredible male heroes. These part stories, accepted and understood by me as a young teenager, now make me angry. I was only ever given the male version of these tales and I can understand what pushed the author to write this.

‘I only knew Medusa as a monster. I had not thought she had ever been anything else. The stories of Perseus did not allow for a Medusa with a story of her own.’

As usual though, because I have a disability, the book make me think about how disability and difference is portrayed in the myths. There were some similarities between Asterion and Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. As I was reading about the Minotaur’s origins I started to have feelings for this creature who never asked to exist. The narrator tells us about her mother after his birth, when she’s blank and exhausted but:

‘she cradled a mass of blankets to her breast and she pressed her nose softly to her baby’s head. He snuffled, hiccuped and opened a dark eye to stare into mine as I moved slowly forward. I noticed that it was fringed with long, dark eyelashes. A chubby hand fluttered against my mother’s breast; one tiny, perfect pink nail at the end of each finger. I could not yet see beneath the blanket where the soft pink infant legs gave way at the ankles to dark fur and hard, stony hooves. The infant was a monster and the mother a hollowed-out shell, but I was a child and drawn to the frail spark of tenderness in the room.’

She describes this special time, before he was monstrous and how she felt, even about the more unusual aspects of him.

‘I reached that final inch and bridged the gulf between us. My fingers stroked the slick fur of his brow, beneath the bulging edifice of rocky horns that emerged at his temples. I let my hand sweep gently across the soft spot just between his eyes. With a barely perceptible movement, his jaw loosened and a little huff of breath blew warm against my face.’

She realises he is not a monster, he is her brother. Inexplicably he moves from milk to craving raw meat and eating passing rats. However, Ariadne does not fear him and instead of thinking ahead, she focuses on the here and now and describes trying to teach him table manners and how to be gentle. Even she has realised that Asterion is a victim, and feels a ‘raw pity’ for him that brings tears to her eyes. In the same way that it isn’t Medusa’s fault she is raped in Athena’s temple, it’s not Asterion’s fault that he is created the way he is. Ariadne describes him as Poseidon’s cruel joke and humiliation for a man who has never even deigned to lay his eyes on him. That is until Minos sees he can use Asterion for his own ends. Minos was only proud of his potential monstrousness and the fear he might instil in his enemies. It is Minos who instructs Daedalus to construct the labyrinth that secures Asterion as a slave and even though there is pride in his new weapon, he doesn’t even allow him to keep his own name.

‘And so Asterion became the Minotaur. My mother’s private constellation of shame intermingled with love and despair no longer; instead, he became my father’s display of dominance to the world. I saw why he proclaimed him the Minotaur, stamping this divine monstrosity with his own name and aligning its legendary status with his own from its very birth.’

I was fascinated with the author’s storytelling, it is spellbinding. She shows us that for powerful men and gods like Minos and Poseidon, whether you are a woman or different like Asterion your only worth in this life, is wrapped up in your value to men. If Asterion had remained gentle and docile, Minos would still have banished him in some way. Pasiphae’s psychological break after his birth shows what happens to women who give birth to daughters and monsters. This is a book that truly makes you think, not just about the historical myths we’re told, but who tells them and why? It also made me think about the stories we are told today, by our world leaders (still largely men). How do they shape the way we view the world? Which heroes do they hold up as examples? Which monsters do they wield to control us? Like Ariadne we must learn to question. She learns to her cost, that even the man who appears to be her saviour, is more interested in his own glory. There is so much to enjoy here and on so many different levels. This is a stunning debut and shouldn’t be missed.

‘No longer was my world one of brave heroes; I was learning all too swiftly the women’s pain that throbbed unspoken through the tales of their feats.’

Meet The Author


Jennifer Saint grew up reading Greek mythology and was always drawn to the untold stories hidden within the myths. After thirteen years as a high school English teacher, she wrote ARIADNE which tells the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur from the perspective of Ariadne – the woman who made it happen. Jennifer Saint is now a full-time author, living in Yorkshire, England, with her husband and two children.

Posted in Random Things Tours

The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird.

“Glasgow, 2025.  Dr Amanda Maclean is called to treat a young man with a mild fever. Within three hours he dies. The mysterious illness sweeps through the hospital with deadly speed. This is how it begins.

The victims are all men.

Last year at this time I was reading Eve Smith’s The Waiting Rooms and observing how strange it felt to be reading about a pandemic in a pandemic. I imagined that all would be normal by Christmas. Here I am a whole year later writing about another story of a dystopian pandemic, when apart from moving house I’ve barely moved beyond my own front gate. Last year it felt strangely unreal, while this year it’s all too familiar and the weekend’s footage of people at the first music festival since COVID seemed like an anomaly. Due to my multiple risk factors I’m inside till my second jab, but I think getting out and about again won’t come naturally. This experience definitely affected my response to The End of Men because now it doesn’t feel like reading science fiction, it feels like a possibility, a potential future.

The End of Men features a virus that exclusively affects men. It’s 2025 and Dr Amanda McLean raises the alarm. Ironically she’s dismissed as hysterical. When she is finally taken seriously it’s too late. The, largely male, global leadership are slow to accept the reality and slow to act, as the death toll climbs further every day they do nothing. Women can be carriers, but don’t catch the disease. The spread is so diverse that eventually 90% of men are affected. The author tells the story using several different first – person narratives, each one a woman, left behind to deal with what is now a woman’s world. As well as Dr McLean there’s a social historian named Catherine who is trying to document human stories of the plague. As the government tries to organise a new society, they employ the services of Dawn who is an intelligence analyst. Then there’s Elizabeth, desperately trying to develop a vaccine. Through these and other viewpoints we start to see how society will change. The many voices could have been confusing, and there were occasions when I was unsure who I was reading. I soon overcame that and realised that the diversity of characters helped the reader realise the scope of this disaster and how it might affect people differently across gender, race, and class lines. This had me thinking about those voices missed – there are no LGBTQ characters in the book, which seemed odd when the virus is so gender specific. It would have brought a unique perspective to the book.

When I first read the premise of the book I hadn’t fully realised what an effect it would have to lose men. I thought of society turning upside down, no patriarchy, a world ruled by women. Through this book I realised what it would mean day to day – for a start all the professions that men usually dominate like tradesmen – electricians, builders, joiners, and plumbers. Then there’s the armed forces and how lack of defences would weaken countries. A lack of police officers, dustbin men, road sweepers, and funeral directors. There’s the fact that the other half of society will be trying to keep their respective countries together when they’re grieving huge losses of potentially every man in their family. They’re faced with terrible choices and I found myself awake at night wondering what I would do: if I had sons and the government wanted to corral them in a medical facility to keep them safe; or if my husband was sick, would I leave to keep my sons safe; if there were three generations of men in my household who would I ask to leave? Which classes and races would be most affected by the virus due to different living conditions and the financial implications of splitting a household. I thought into the future and wondered whether, once a vaccine was found, would governments start controlling fertility to repopulate the earth with men? Would I want more men and might we end up with gender wars? I kept thinking about parallels with post WWI where villages lost a whole generation of men, and where returning men found women doing their jobs and not wanting to give them up. Some men became violent and committed crimes in their frustration at having no employment to come home to. These would be massive societal shifts and it was hard to comprehend them, especially at a time when we are readjusting to coming out of lockdown. Our heads are already full of which behaviours we might keep – mask wearing, reduced social mingling, working from home – and those we’ll be happy to discard.

It does seem, the more you read, that this book is chillingly prescient. It’s no surprise that people around the author might joke about her Sybil- like tendencies in predicting the end of a world as we understand it. I don’t want to give anything more away because you need to read this and have your own reactions to it, but you should read it. This is beautifully written and compelling to read. Somehow it managed to be both hard to put down and difficult to pick up! I felt like I’d been through the emotional wringer afterwards and couldn’t stop thinking about it. However, it wasn’t just the tough decisions I remembered. It was the incredible resilience of these women and how the human capacity for hope is remarkable. This is an unbelievable debut novel. It will be an excellent book club choice over the coming months and people will want to put themselves in these character’s shoes and wonder – what would they do? Your answers might surprise you.

Meet The Author.

Christina Sweeney-Baird wrote The End of Men in 2018 and 2019 before Corona virus and could never have expected the parallels between the real world and my fiction that would ensue. She was told by some early readers though, that The End of Men has made them feel better about the world we live in today. The book has a lot of hope and is, ultimately, about human resilience and our ability to cope with the extraordinary.

My debut novel, will be released on 29 April 2021 and is to be published in 15 languages. The End of Men explores the question: what would the world look like without men? It follows characters as they try and keep their families safe, recover and rebuild the world after a deadly virus to which women are immune kills 90% of the male population. You follow characters like Dr Amanda Maclean, a Glaswegian A and E consultant, who treats Patient Zero and is desperate to keep her two sons safe; Elizabeth Cooper, a young American scientist who helps to create a vaccine in London; and Catherine Lawrence, an anthropologist who wants to record and commemorate what’s happening in the world.

She lives in London where she works full-time as a corporate litigation lawyer. She writes 1,000 words a day in the evenings and on weekends, fuelled by 7up Free, green tea and snacks.

Posted in Netgalley, Random Things Tours

Mirrorland by Carole Johnstone

This is an extraordinary debut by Carole Johnstone full of psychological suspense, supernatural and imaginary worlds, and sibling rivalries. Cat and El are identical twins to most people who see them, but actually they’re mirror twins. This means that not only are they the same sex and blood type, they have identical, but asymmetric physical features. For example, if one is left handed the other is right handed. Yet they’ve spent twelve years definitively apart. On separate continents. Cat has been living and working in L.A. In the meantime El has been married to their childhood friend Ross and is even living in the girl’s childhood home. No 36 Westeryk Road is a large Gothic house that becomes a central character in the story. When Cat gets the news that El has gone missing while out sailing, she travels back to Edinburgh; towards her past.

The facts are that El has gone missing and there have been no sightings of her or her boat. Ross, who is now a psychologist, meets Cat and takes her back to the house. She’s shocked to find that a lot of the original furniture is still at Westeryk Road, and she’s been put in a guest room instead of their childhood room. It takes a while for her to get her bearings because in their childhood world all the rooms had names: Clown Cafe, The Kakadu Jungle, The Donkshop. The clown cafe was a candy stripe American diner. The Kakadu Jungle was richly wallpapered with a rainforest. The only room without a name was Bedroom 3. There is an old-fashioned servants bell pull with a bell for each room, but Cat doesn’t want to investigate when the bell rings from No 3. The world of imagination doesn’t end there, because tucked away under the pantry was another world called Mirrorland populated by clowns, witches and pirates. My therapist’s mind was whirling round at this point – why would someone want to live exactly as they had when they were children? Are these real or imaginary spaces? Is the imagery of mirrors significant? Which sister is a reflection of the other?

Back in the real world we meet DI Kate Rafik and DS Logan who are heading up the search for El, and seem confused by Cat’s reaction to her disappearance. Cat doesn’t trust her sister, she thinks she’s alive and possibly playing a game with them. It seems that the sisters have a symbiotic but unhealthy relationship, where El could be spiteful and play tricks on her sister. There’s also the relationship with Ross – Cat loved him first, but El couldn’t stand to be left out, taking drastic measures to be noticed. Underneath this tale I had to keep reminding myself that this was Cat’s version of events. Was she an unreliable narrator? There’s also the issue of notes being left for El just before her disappearance, but the sender hasn’t been uncovered. It doesn’t take long before Cat starts to receive similar emails, but are they from El? If so are they real warnings or a game? Or could someone else know what’s really going on at Westeryk Road?

I did find the combination of real life and flights of fancy a little difficult at times, it was as if my head was being bombarded with different information: visual, aural, imaginary, factual. I was in sensory overload a lot of time and struggled to take in the detail that might unravel this strange mystery. I also didn’t like or connect with any of the characters, so couldn’t get behind any of them. I instantly felt suspicious of Ross, because I’m used to psychologists being untrustworthy characters in fiction. This being said, the skill it has taken to create these worlds – imaginary and real – is incredible. The way Johnstone creates such a strong sense of place is by layering so much detail and I became drawn in by real life details like their grandfather having the football results on so loud everyone in the house knew who’d won. Probably because I used to check off Grandad’s pools result with him every Saturday. These pieces of the twins early life ground them in reality, just when you think everything at No 36 is imaginary. Cat describes the house as a mausoleum, a preservation of something long buried. Yet the house is alive. The description of the kitchen where there are still wonky units, but a sapphire blue Smeg fridge tells us things have changed. Time has passed here, but is that just superficial?

This book is an epic reading experience from a masterful writer, and I defy anyone to have guessed what’s really going on. I had to stop myself reading it at night because it kept my brain whirring so much I’d struggle to sleep. It wasn’t that I was scared, I was just intrigued as to what would happen next. Well, that and I don’t trust clowns much either! This was a fascinating mix of mystery, magic realism and psychological theory. You have to read it to the very end for it all to make sense, and once you do you’ll want to go back and find the clues you missed. I’ll need something restful to read next because this one well and truly worked my grey cells and my imagination to the limit.

Meet The Author

Scottish writer Carole Johnstone’s debut novel, Mirrorland, will be published in spring 2021 by Borough Press/HarperCollins in the UK and Commonwealth and by Scribner/Simon & Schuster in North America. Her award-winning short fiction has been reprinted in many annual ‘Best Of’ anthologies in the UK and the US. She has been published by Titan Books, Tor Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and PS Publishing, and has written Sherlock Holmes stories for Constable & Robinson and Running Press. Carole is represented by Hellie Ogden at Janklow & Nesbit UK and Allison Hunter at Janklow & Nesbit (US).

More information on the author can be found at carolejohnstone.com

Posted in Netgalley, Random Things Tours

The Lost Hours by Susan Lewis.

The latest Susan Lewis is a little different, in that it has all the usual family drama, but with the added element of a police procedural. The Crayce family live down in the south west of the country, on the moors in Devon and come across as a very privileged family. The land they own encompasses three houses, two lots of stables, a farm, a ménage and a shooting school. The family businesses allow eldest brother David and his wife Annabelle to send their children to private school, holiday abroad every year and be the envy of the locals. David and his brother Henry grew up in the main house, and were the basis of a local social group ‘The Moorauders’. Good looking and well off, this pair were the catch of the county. It raised eyebrows, and tempers, when David married an outsider, Annabelle- known as Annie. However, she is now part of the furniture and an irreplaceable part of the family’s business empire looking after the admin for the shooting school, farm and Julia’s horse and donkey sanctuary. Julia is Henry’s second wife and is probably Annie’s best friend, often popping across for coffee or to ‘cocktail me up’ at the end of a hard day. From a distance this family has it all, but is everything as perfect as it seems? When David and Annie’s daughter Sienna is picked up by the police for shoplifting a teddy bear, an ugly truth at the centre of the Crayce family comes to the fore.

Twenty years before, when David was engaged to Annie, the two brothers and their father went on an alcohol fuelled bender that ended in a party at the farmhouse. A few weeks later, local teenager Karen Lomax is found dead in an old railway carriage. A precocious teenager, who displayed a wild streak, died of a blow to the head and her murderer has never been found. Now that police have Sienna’s DNA sample, they are shocked to find a link to this old, unsolved case. One of the Crayce men left a trace of themselves behind, a sample of semen from Karen’s clothing shows a familial match to the Crayce’s. This puts David, Henry, and their father Dickie in the spotlight as suspects. Until their DNA is compared to the sample, the family will have to wait and in those two weeks, secrets and lies are revealed.

I found the novel a little slow at first, and having little patience with the champagne and pearls set, I found it hard to warm to the characters or their situation. So it really is down to the skill of this writer that I started to warm to Annie. I felt like she had gone through an awful lot with David, especially in the early years before the children. There were hints of psychological issues linked to David’s military service, which would have been around the time of the Balkan War. Annie describes sudden mood changes, a tendency to drink too much, nightmares and rages. While he had never physically hit her, she did worry about being in the wrong place when he had a nightmare. These episodes were the lost hours of the novel’s title. She had also struggled with his behaviour when drunk and there were even hints of his infidelity on these occasions. At the time of the farmhouse party they were very close to getting married, and there was a consensus in both families that if he messed up again she would call off the wedding. I felt like Annie was very used to listening to others, and making sure their needs were met, from the children and family to friends. Even her relationship with sister-in-law Julia is based very much on her arriving to have a drink and have her problems with Henry listened to. I kept waiting for her to have an epiphany and recognise her own needs in this nightmare, especially when the police’s focus starts to narrow.

My main concern was the voice that felt absent from the tale and I felt that was a deliberate choice on the part of the author. Murder victims don’t get to have a voice anymore and that’s what Lewis was trying to portray. The one person who had all the answers, couldn’t give them and had to rely on doctors and forensic experts to let us know what happened and at whose hands. However, we would never have her account or thought process and I really felt that absence, especially when old wine bar customers are saying she dressed provocatively or had fantasies that weren’t appropriate. Yet, there isn’t the same disapproval of the much older men who recognised and took advantage of her open nature and strong sex drive. There’s a deeply sad moment when her father says that they still loved her anyway, despite her wild side. I wanted to take him aside and say ‘of course you did and you shouldn’t have to apologise for that’. There was an obvious comparison between Annie and David’s daughter who was a similar age to Karen when she made her shoplifting mistake. The local police allowed Sienna to apologise to the shopkeeper and make financial recompense. Her family connections seemed to let her off lightly. Would Karen have been offered the same way out, if she had made a similar mistake? Karen paid for her teenage mistakes with her life. I think Lewis was pointing out the gender differences and the class differences in these areas. David and Henry, and to some extent their father, were living a teenage life full of parties, alcohol and risky sex, but they weren’t censured by those around them. Their women tended to forgive them and they didn’t lose their social or financial standing locally. It isn’t just a question of gender, but highlights the difference between land and property owners, and those who live in the suburbs or the council estates.

Our other ‘outsider’ is DS Natalie Rundle, new to the area and having to hit the ground running with this unexpected cold case, suddenly becoming red hot. She isn’t local so she doesn’t have the same preconceptions or the same loyalties. Without her, this case might never be solved, because she asks the difficult questions and never rules anyone out. In fact I didn’t expect the outcome, so the author was able to surprise me. Though when I thought about the themes I’d pulled out of the narrative, such as class, difference and wanting to belong, it did seem to fit. I found this novel successful because it was the usual ‘Aga saga’ we expect from Lewis, but with some edge. It questions whether these perfect lifestyles can ever be that perfect behind the scenes. It shows that where there is an ‘in’ crowd, there are those longing to join or feeling they just don’t make the cut. She also identifies an exploitation of young women from outside the posh clique. I think this is why the chapters beyond the murderer being unmasked are so important. They’re about different elements in this community coming together, creating equality and for a teenager like Sienna to remember and honour a young girl who went before her. Yes, these conversations are uncomfortable, but there’s an element of owning past behaviour and trying to make amends. Forcing themselves to be uncomfortable is the only way change will happen. This element of justice having to be served in the community as well as court, was an interesting one and really gave this novel the edge for me.

Meet The Author

Susan Lewis is the internationally bestselling author of over forty books across the genres of family drama, thriller, suspense and crime. She is also the author of Just One More Day and One Day at a Time, the moving memoirs of her childhood in Bristol during the 1960s. Following periods of living in Los Angeles and the South of France, she currently lives in Gloucestershire with her husband, James and mischievous dogs, Coco and Lulu.
To find out more about Susan Lewis:
http://www.susanlewis.com
http://www.facebook.com/SusanLewisBooks
@susanlewisbooks