Posted in Random Things Tours

The Marmalade Diaries by Ben Aitken

I was so charmed by this wonderful book about writer Ben and his unusual experiences during the COVID lockdowns. Something I could truly understand as the lockdowns bonded me with my partner and his two girls at a speed and depth that couldn’t have happened at any other time. Ben is looking for a new place to live, when through a charity scheme he sees an apartment in a great part of town. There’s one catch. He will have a housemate. The charity places younger people in homes belonging to the elderly. The aim is to help the homeowner stay independent and in their own homes far longer than normally possible and in houses with way more room than they need. Winnie is 85 years old and a formidable woman with very set opinions about how things are done. Winnie doesn’t suffer fools and isn’t very gentle with her criticism. There’s a gulf between the pair in so many areas: their politics, their class and their ages. How can two people with so many differences live together harmoniously?

This is a book that can be read so quickly. It’s in a diary form so there’s always that temptation to read just one more entry. Ben’s previous work has been travel writing and he brings all of those skills to this book. Physically he’s in the same place, but he’s taking a voyage into this person, seeing her like no one else has and experiencing her in very different types of weather. Winnie is grieving her husband of 65 years. Henry died suddenly, in their marital bed upstairs, less than a year ago so she’s in a very emotionally vulnerable state. Of course Winnie doesn’t seem terribly vulnerable, unless you count ‘busyness’ as a response to grief. I think Winnie has always been a busy person, possibly through anxiety or perhaps a work ethic instilled by her upbringing, but this has been exacerbated by living alone. Her son Stewart and his family tried to move in for a few months over summer, but that didn’t work out and fairly quickly Ben can see why. Imagining that he would largely live upstairs and help when called upon, he’s surprised that as soon as they’re alone Winnie asks him what he’s cooking for tea? The apartment has a small kitchen, but it seems Winnie expects him to cook and eat with her downstairs. Not that these meals are appreciated, with Winnie dishing out critique that would seem harsh on Masterchef.

As soon as the dishes are cleared she lays the table for breakfast and lays it for two – something she says she still does without thinking. Ben gets into the habit of lighting the fire and then having breakfast, although there are rules to be observed here. Winnie makes her own marmalade, but only once a year when the Seville oranges are available, so she puts only the thinnest scraping of marmalade on the toast to make it last. Heaven forbid they run out and have to buy some. That wouldn’t be on at all. Eggs have a language all their own, with certain specimens warranting their own message written on the shell in pen and left in the fridge. One rather philosophically asks whether it is cooked or not? Another has been giving her nightmares because he’s ‘been harbouring it for yonks.’ It was her wry little comments on the newspaper that made me giggle. When she sees a picture of comedian Matt Lucas in the paper, she observes ‘well he won’t survive the pandemic’. She’s also remarkably cunning, willing to pull out the poor little old lady card when its to her advantage and let people think she didn’t hear or understand them. When she asks Ben to let the coal man through the side gate one day, there’s a misunderstanding about the delivery. Ben indicates they need it tipping into the bunker (an extra £10) but Winnie has only paid for it to be dropped at the edge of the property. Ben wonders if she’s forgotten or misunderstood, but the coal man says no, she does this every time. Once the coal is safely in the bunker and an extra invoice issued Winnie miraculously appears and denies all knowledge of the problem.

There’s some beautiful observation around the family, because Ben is in the perfect position to analyse their relationships as an outsider on the inside. Out of her three children, it is Arthur who seems to have her heart and most of her time. Arthur lives in a group home within walking distance for Winnie and even in a pandemic she’s not going to stop taking him the paper, the fruit from the garden or a daily yoghurt. Once a week she spends a good hour cleaning out his electric shaver, which always looks like he’s pruned the garden with it. Arthur had cerebral palsy and had a traumatic birth where Winnie’s pelvis was cut to get him out before he was deprived of any more oxygen. Maybe it’s his vulnerability due to his disability, or that shared traumatic experience right at the start of his life, but Winnie doesn’t seem complete until Arthur is there to look after. The other two children seem to have accepted this arrangement, but there is some underlying resentment, especially when it comes to Winnie forgetting theirs and their children’s birthdays. For Stewart and his family, their far more relaxed way of being clashed with Winnie’s distrust of anyone in bed past 9am, people who have their marmalade more than wafer thin and people who lounge for more than ten minutes without a schedule for their next task.

I guess Winnie is selfish in a lot of ways, she’s not self-aware and really finds it hard to prioritise other people’s way of doing things. Some of her habits would have driven me to distraction, particularly her ability to pick up new tasks just as it’s time to leave the house. Even after making a plan she could leave her housemate waiting for hours because the roses needed deadheading. My other half has a similar ability to be doing one thing, cooking tea for example, then pick up a second job that didn’t need prioritising, such as reprogramming the TV channels or syncing the car with his new phone, often leaving tea to burn to a cinder. So I felt Ben’s pain, but also understood the deep connection he started to form with this formidable woman. I feared what would happen when the arrangement came to an end and I found the ending so poignant. Ben’s feeling that he knows this person better than anyone, that her idiosyncrasies are just that and not a sign of something more sinister is beautiful considering where they started. A deep friendship and respect has formed, despite their difference in age and outlook. The pandemic and it’s lockdowns have bonded them in a way that couldn’t have happened at any other time. We fall in love with the Winnie he sees, without rose-tinted spectacles or sentimentality, and I think that’s the greatest compliment he could have given her.

Published by Icon Books 10th March 2022

Meet The Author

Ben Aitken was born under Thatcher, grew to 6ft then stopped, and is an Aquarius. He followed Bill Bryson around the UK for Dear Bill Bryson: Footnotes from a Small Island (2015) then moved to Poland to understand why everyone was leaving. A Chip Shop in Poznan: My Unlikely Year in Poland (2019) is the fruit of that unusual migration. For The Gran Tour: Travels with my Elders (2020), the author went on six package coach holidays – Scarborough, Llandudno, Lake Como et al – with people twice or thrice his age in order to see what they had to say for themselves and to narrow the generation gap a notch. The Marmalade Diaries (2022) is the story of an unlikely friendship during an unlikely time, and stems from the author’s decision to move in with an 85 year old widow ten days before a national lockdown.

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Pain Tourist by Paul Cleave

‘In movies the monsters are always zombies, vampires, or some weird kind of mutant, but in this moment his eleven year old brain tells him he was wrong all this time. What he’s looking at now are monsters. Real monsters.’

I loved the central premise of this novel from Paul Cleave, the idea that there are pain tourists – people who gain satisfaction from soaking up the pain and misery of others. I’ve always used the term ‘emotional vampires’ to describe something similar and it has levels, from those who revel in reading lurid tabloid coverage of a celebrity break-up to something much more disturbing. We all know those people who have a tendency to insert themselves into other people’s life dramas and grief or who get a kick out of watching true crime or the accounts of serial killers, such as the page after page of obscene detail that filled the pages of tabloids following the discoveries at Cromwell Street, the home of Fred and Rose West. It seems lately as if everyone is watching serial killer documentaries and actors from Dominic West to David Tennant are queueing up to play them. I think here, by imagining the more disturbing lengths someone might go to in order to feel part of that crime or tragedy, the author really made me think about this trend.

The novel opens as a tense and violent crime is being committed. An eleven year old named James is watching his parents being threatened at gunpoint by three masked men who have broken into the family home in the night. As the intruders try to obtain the whereabouts of a safe from his parents, using whatever means to make them talk, James is trying to set up an escape plan for his sister Hazel. As both James and his mother’s lives were threatened, my heart was racing wondering why his parents don’t tell the gunmen! James’s quick thinking saves his sister, in a heart-stopping escape she gets to a neighbouring house, but it earns him a bullet to the head after watching both his parents killed. The terrible tragedy is compounded by the fact James’s family did not have a safe. However, one had been recently fitted a few doors away where a diamond dealer had just moved in with his family.

Cleverly, Cleave then splits the narrative in two directions, in an almost ‘sliding doors’ type story. James’s life continues into the future with his family intact or James comes out of a nine year coma, convinced he’s been living a life way beyond the four walls of his hospital room. For the cops who worked the case, a lot has happened in the last nine years since they failed to solve the murder of Hazel and James’s parents. Theo Tate left the force and is now a private investigator after a terrible tragedy touched his own family. Rebecca Kent is still a police officer, but is marked by tragedy in a more physical way, every reaction from strangers reminds her she now has a scar running down her face. The pair come together to revisit the case, when Kent is informed that James has woken up. Now, despite her relentless hunt for a serial killer nicknamed Copy Joe, Kent is tasked with reopening the cold case. Feeling hopeful that James may remember some new detail to add to existing evidence she also wonders if he could become a target for the killers, who are still at large? James can’t speak, but can communicate with pen and paper. The investigators are shocked by the detail packed into James’s story as he starts to write more. His ‘ComaWorld’ diary seems to flow out of him with very little thought or res. Nine notebooks, one per year, document a life unlived by anyone but James. Familiar names and events start to become apparent to his sister, such as his accuracy on each day’s weather or the book she was reading to him slipping into the narrative. What nobody expected him to reveal is that Kent has more than one serial killer on her hands.

This was such an original and complex thriller. As you might expect, considering I’m a writing therapist, the ‘Coma World’ stories were fascinating to me. The aspects of real life that Hazel notices are brilliant plot devices, but also play with the idea that the unconscious mind is still very much alive and picking up on what’s going on around it. From a therapy angle, James’s narrative could be seen as the mind’s way of healing itself while his body is asleep. One therapy technique I’ve seen involves the client writing a different narrative ending to something that’s happened. It helps the client discuss how a different ending might feel – would they feel more closure about the event for example? By exploring this, we can then discover and discuss why the real ending caused so many problems. The way James writes, in longhand and over a period of days fascinated me too. Is he scared if he doesn’t write it down it will be lost to the truth? The complex level of detail is incredible, as if he’s still seeing it running like a movie in his mind’s eye. I wondered how he kept it so rigidly to one year per book, suggesting there was a lot of detail he chose not to record. What we choose to edit out of a narrative is sometimes as important as what we leave in. When it becomes clear he’s been aware of other patients in the room, we can see how his mind is weaving their names and other facts into his narrative – he’s heard all their conversations too.

Tate and Kent were great characters to guide us through these complex interwoven cases. Kent is driven, but slightly less idealistic than Tate. She’s made peace with the fact that some cases don’t get solved in a way he hasn’t. It’s clear why she’s stayed inside the police force and he’s preferred to forge his own path. He’s an incredible investigator but perhaps not so good at office politics and coping with an imperfect system. Kent is desperately trying to solve the case of Copy Joe, a serial killer who copies the methods of previous serial killers, like the Christchurch Carver. Whoever he copies, he likes to leave the crime scene exactly the same way, almost like an homage to the murderers, showing his admiration. Are they looking for a fan of the ‘True Crime’ genre? Someone who perhaps started with the odd book, the podcasts, and the documentaries until he’s had to experience the same thrill. It’s an uncomfortable concept and made me question our enjoyment of such narratives, especially when true crime documentaries are constantly in the daily top ten on Netflix or other streaming service. When it comes to curiosity, how far is too far? When does an interest become an urge, an action. Tate’s private life was so devastatingly sad and I was moved by his visit with his wife. He loves her still and they sit and talk like any other married couple, the difference being, that as soon as Tate walks out of the room she will forget everything all over again. He chooses to bear a terrible loss alone. This showed another, devastating, side of brain injury -a patient who is physically capable, but with a brain that erases every interaction leaving a blank slate. She is happy in the moment, but that present moment is all she has.

From the explosive opening, which really gets the adrenaline flowing the tension ebbs and flows depending on the narrative or case we’re following that chapter. Towards the end, as all these cases come together in one terrible night, the heart really started pounding again. I did get a bit confused between locations and who was where towards the end. So I had to keep going back, desperately trying not to miss a moment as the twists and turns came thick and fast. I found it was Tate and Kent I was rooting for, not just that they would solve their cases, but that they would survive! I found the way James was constantly moved around in these final chapters a bit concerning. My experience in occupational health and care needs had me asking all sorts of questions. If James couldn’t walk how was he managing in these different spaces, using various different surfaces to sleep on from beds to couches? I kept wondering how he was getting to the loo – I’m laughing at myself as I write this, because honestly the way my brain works! This says so much about my inner life. I just kept thinking ‘how has he been discharged from hospital without an occupational therapy assessment and a multi-disciplinary meeting?’ Of course these facts are like the days James edits out of his narrative, not very interesting or helpful to the plot. The details of a character’s loo habits tend to dissipate the tension and excitement. This was an incredibly fast read, giving you some idea of the pace and that addictive pull you want in a thriller. Each character is cleverly written to draw you in, but you’re always left on edge and unsure. The multiple endings are brilliant, I just thought it was solved and I could breathe, then the author pulled the rug out from under me. Yet I loved that we get to have multiple endings, as James’s doctor suggests they write a book together, framing the narrative in yet another way.

Meet The Author


Paul is an award-winning author who often divides his time between his home city of Christchurch, New Zealand, where his novels are set, and Europe, where none of his novels are set. His books have been translated into over twenty languages. He’s won the won the Ngaio Marsh Award three times, the Saint-Maur Crime Novel of the Year Award, and Foreword Reviews Thriller of the Year, and has bee shortlisted for the Ned Kelly, Edgar and Barry Awards. He’s thrown his Frisbee in over forty countries, plays tennis badly, golf even worse, and has two cats – which is often two too many. The Pain Tourist is his (lucky) thirteenth novel

Posted in Random Things Tours

Jacqueline in Paris by Ann Mah

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis is one of those iconic women that we can’t help but be curious about. From watching the film JFK and numerous documentaries about the death of President Kennedy with my mother, I started to be curious about the woman in the blood-stained pink suit. I think people are drawn to women who remain silent. As far as I’m aware she has never spoken directly about the horrific, life changing events of that day. She has almost seemed stoic. The perfect widow, in her lace mantilla at the funeral, still seeming numb and shell-shocked. When she surprised everyone by marrying Aristotle Onassis, the millionaire shipping magnate, I think it was driven by a need to hide. She needed a place to be without cameras following her every move and on his yacht she was definitely away from prying eyes. Perhaps his protection allowed her to grieve and come to terms with her trauma. I wanted to read this book, because I was fascinated to meet this version of Jackie – the Jacqueline before she was Jackie in. I always had the impression that she could have been a woman in her own right, more than the political wife she became.

Ann Mah has set her book in one particular year. In 1949 Jacqueline Bouvier travelled abroad for her junior year at college. It was to be her last year of freedom. She was aware that despite being poised and ready for society, her family were on the edge financially and she felt pressure from her mother to make a good match on her return. She met Jack Kennedy in 1952. Jacqueline lives in an apartment with a widowed French countess and her daughters. She finds a world of champagne, avant-garde theatre and jazz clubs and socialises with people she would never have met in her home town or the social circles at Vassar. There’s even romance with a man who loves literature like she does, but who would be totally unsuitable back home. Yet Paris isn’t all fun and glamour, because this is the aftermath of WW2 and its clear that the city’s people have suffered. The countess and her daughters have suffered too, as part of the resistance. The whole city is haunted by events during the Occupation and it will take many years for them to recover from the lies, betrayals and suspicion that lurk round every corner.

I love that Mah has written this novel in the first person, so we have Jacqui’s unguarded thoughts and emotions from the start. Even though it is a fictionalised self we’re getting to know, it still feels like a rare window into the innermost thoughts of a very private woman. It may sound strange to regard her as private when she was later married to the most powerful leader in America and arguably the world. Jacqui is private though. From this part of her life when she has the most freedom she’s ever known she’s testing people out for herself, but there’s still a natural reserve. She gets to decide who to spend time with and who to trust. On her return to the US and her subsequent relationship with John Kennedy, she is private by design. It’s part of the mystique of being a powerful politician’s wife who should show loyalty, discretion and control of her emotions. Once she’s in those circles, who can she trust to be a true friend? Where many might have seen her as the archetypal political spouse, this was the ambition of her mother rather than Jacqui’s own desire. Here we see her when she was naive and idealistic. Her love of art and for the city of Paris is evident. She’s also keen to make friends and experience real French life, but that reserve can make it hard for others to feel they know the real her.

She finds that one of the biggest differences between the US and Europe is a political one. During the war, Parisian people did what they had to in order to survive and there are still grudges against those forced to collaborate. She learns which subjects to avoid. Madame de Renty is a lively and colourfully dressed woman during the day, but she was imprisoned at Ravensbrück concentration camp during the war and Jacqui hears her crying in the night. Some truths can never be spoken. Aside from the post-war adjustments and the effects of trauma that will last for generations, Jacqui is most shocked by the Parisian’s politics. There is a lean towards communism here, something that’s unthinkable in the US where it’s considered in the same breath as Nazism. Her mind is broadened by friends who explain it’s underlying principles – an equal, fair society. This has huge resonance for us, because we understand she will be First Lady during the Cuban missile crisis, and the 1950’s saw a wave of suspicion about communism that fuelled the McCarthy era.

Despite these darker undercurrents there’s also the joy of seeing Paris through her eyes, for the very first time. The beautiful language, the smells of incredible food and early morning croissants. There’s also Jacqui’s love of learning and through this I could see glimmers or the different life she could have had, if her family had valued her as more than a marriage commodity. This is a well-researched account that held some of the answers I’d pondered about her life: that pull between the security of marriage and the more precarious life of her own; the love of Europe that would see her return there after Kennedy’s death; the education from a really great college versus the education of how to be a wife provided by her mother. I thought the author found a great balance between fleshing out a story and what we know of Jacqui’s year abroad through historical research. I understood this Jacqui and felt I’d met her before in my own reading. Now I have to give this straight to my mum so we can talk about it.

Meet the Author

Ann Mah is an American food and travel writer. She is the author of the USA
Today and Wall Street Journal bestseller The Lost Vintage, as well as three other books. She contributes regularly to the New York Times Travel section, and her articles have appeared in the Washington Post, Condé Nast Traveler, The Best American Travel Writing, The New York Times Footsteps, Washingtonian magazine, Vogue.com, BonAppetit.com, Food52.com, TheKitchn. com, and other publications

Posted in Random Things Tours

Suicide Thursday by Will Carver

I’m usually well ahead of time when it comes to my blog tour reviews, sometimes by a month, but this one ……. AAaaarrrghhh! I can’t put into words why I can’t put into words what I thought about this novel. If you’ve read the book you’ll understand. I don’t think there’s a literary convention Will Carver hasn’t wanted to subvert. It’s been difficult to write reviews for Will Carver’s books in the past, but I’ve never been down to the wire like this before. I’ve been trying to scribble down my thoughts only hours before the review is due. So, I’m sorry if this doesn’t always make sense, or if it doesn’t do justice to Carver’s inventiveness and originality, but it’s the best I can do. This writer is simply too clever for me!

Eli Hagin can’t finish anything.

He hates his job, but can’t seem to quit. He doesn’t want to be with his girlfriend, but doesn’t know how end things with her, either. Eli wants to write a novel, but he’s never taken a story beyond the first chapter.

Eli also has trouble separating reality from fiction.

When his best friend kills himself, Eli is motivated, for the first time in his life, to finally end something himself, just as Mike did…

Except sessions with his therapist suggest that Eli’s most recent ‘first chapters’ are not as fictitious as he had intended … and a series of text messages that Mike received before his death point to something much, much darker…

Mike can do something Eli can’t. Eli can’t commit to a narrative, leaving behind him reams of first chapters. He can’t commit to Jackie either, even though they’ve been together for the length of time it would take most people to live together or get engaged. Mike wanted to kill himself and he’s followed it through. Eli finds him sitting there, on his newly polished living room floor, with his hands embedded in the lacerations on his thighs. Even in his numbed and shocked state, there is jealousy that Mike has finished what he started.

Eli, Mike and Jackie are a trio. Eli and Mike are friends. Jackie and Eli are in a relationship that Eli doesn’t want, or does he? There are times when he could end it, but doesn’t. It is their anniversary two days after Mike dies. Two days after Jackie slept with Mike. Eli knows, but seems ambivalent. I found myself laughing at their ludicrous anniversary dinner, where Eli’s scrabbling on the floor for some dropped cutlery and Jackie semi- manipulates this into a proposal. Eli has turned indecision into an art. He has a job, but doesn’t enjoy it. He wants to leave, but just can’t make the first step. Eli feels a lot of the same emotions as his friend Mike. The ennui, the despair and the sense of being lost. Yet Mike had the guts to do something about it.

I was fascinated with the chapters headed ‘Fake Therapist’. In fact Eli has a session on Suicide Thursday and as he points out, just because it’s such an important day for Mike, it doesn’t mean he can miss therapy. Immediately, I wondered how he would know it’s the day that Mike is going to commit suicide. It seems to me that there’s a problem with the fake therapist? The problem being ….. there’s no therapist.

Eli then has to speak first (of course he does, no one else is there). He still regurgitates the same information he always does, almost as if each session is with someone new. There is no accumulation of knowledge or shorthand that comes from working with a therapist for a while. In fact each session is like one of his first chapters – the same stuff just expressed differently. I was interested in his knowledge of therapy, such as the comment on eye contact and his inhibitions. Has he had therapy in the past? Is that where he was confronted by things he didn’t want to talk about? The comment about any corporeal therapist directing the session, wanting to talk about Mum when he isn’t ready, is a bit of a giveaway. It seems therapy is great, as long as he can control it.

‘I pull the chair from beneath my desk in the first-chapter library and move it to a position where it can face the couch – my £2000 black, leather, archetypal therapist’s couch. It’s on a slight angle, a classic psychoanalyst’s trick to avoid eye contact, allowing me to overcome any inhibitions I may have. I place the Dictaphone on the seat, lie back and wait for the first question.’

I can’t tell you anymore of the story, not only would it ruin the reading experience, but I don’t really know where to begin. I can’t place it in a genre. I can’t really explain my reaction to it. The story unfolds in such an unorthodox way I’m scared of revealing something that I’ve dismissed as unimportant, but that opens up the whole story for someone else. I think it’s one of those books, where the meaning is dependent upon the reader. There were revelations that really made me rethink Eli, such as those text messages he sent to Mike before his suicide. It then changes everything you’ve read before. I would call this an ‘active’ reading experience. My brain, my emotions and often my ability to sleep were constantly engaged. As for trigger warnings, I can’t imagine that anyone who’s affected by suicide would pick up a book with this title. I didn’t find the subject matter triggering, despite personal experiences, but I was slightly disturbed that I wasn’t more triggered by Mike’s despair and eventual suicide. It think it’s because I was so engaged thinking ‘WTF?’ I was so busy thinking, I didn’t respond emotionally. If you like your books to be original, creative, mind-bending and tricksy, then this is the one for you. I didn’t respond to it at first. In fact it took a bit of work, but I can promise I’ll still be thinking about it weeks from now.

Published by Orenda Books 24th November 2022

Meet The Author


Will Carver is the international bestselling author of the January David series and the critically acclaimed, mind-blowingly original Detective Pace series that includes Good Samaritans (2018), Nothing Important Happened Today (2019) and Hinton Hollow Death Trip (2020), all of which were ebook bestsellers and selected as books of the year in the mainstream international press. Nothing Important Happened Today was longlisted for the Goldsboro Glass Bell Award 2020 and Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. Hinton Hollow Death Trip was longlisted for Guardian Not the Booker Prize, and was followed by three standalone literary thrillers, The Beresford, Psychopaths Anonymous (both optioned for TV) and The Daves Next Door. He lives in Reading with his family.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Good Taste by Caroline Scott.

In-between a couple of intense crime reads I was so ready for the comforting nostalgia of Caroline Scott’s new novel. Don’t let my description fool you though. Caroline has a wonderful way of keeping her writing light and soft, but the merest peek under that surface reveals themes that delve so much deeper into society and the historical period of our heroine Stella. Set in the fascinating time period between the two World Wars, England is struggling through a depression and Stella has had something of a life change. It’s 1932 and Stella is facing the first Christmas without her mother. With memories of her mother’s frailty last Christmas and the fear of that obvious empty chair, Stella has moved back from London to a small cottage in the West Riding of Yorkshire in order to be near her father. Money is tight, since her first book The Marvellous Mrs Raffald hasn’t done as well as she’d hoped. Celandine Cottage is rather shabby and Stella is surviving on the money she’s paid by a women’s magazine for writing a weekly article with five new recipes. When she’s summoned to London by her publisher, she’s half expecting her novel to be pulped and although she wants to write a biography of 18th Century cookery writer Hannah Glasse, she’s rather gloomy about her prospects. She’s shocked when he tasks her with a new project – a history of English food. He wants a book that will inspire English housewives and remind English men of a nostalgic past. Although as Stella starts to think about her research, she realises that a lot of food people consider to be quintessentially English, is actually from elsewhere. So she sends out a letter:

Sir,

Would any housewife in your region be kind enough to share a traditional recipe with which she may be acquainted? Is there a favourite pie made by your grandmother? A cake that you fondly recall from childhood? A dish that’s particular to your village? Perhaps a great-aunt left you a hand-written book of her recipes?

This knowledge and these flavours have been passed down to us through the generations. But an urgent effort is required to collect and catalogue these dishes. If you are able to assist with this task, you would be doing a great service.

Please correspond with the address below. I will gratefully acknowledge all contributions,

Stella Douglas

However, as she sets off on her planned route to meet food makers and the nation’s housewives her car breaks down. A dashing young man called Freddie comes to her rescue and her plans move in a different direction, perhaps toward something more imaginative.

I enjoyed Stella, mainly because she is very much the modern woman, living alone and paying her own way at a time when women’s lives changed enormously. During WW1 women were encouraged to work, because they were needed to fulfil job roles that men had left behind as they went to fight in the trenches. Women became more used to living alone, making their own way and working outside of the home so when the war ended and men returned, there was tension. Some men wanted their wives back in the home so they could be breadwinners of their family. However, so many men were lost and injured, so the changes did stand and the following generations of women were keen to shape their own destiny. Stella was enormously likeable and intelligent, very measured in her approach to the task and able to see immediately that it was much more complicated than expected. As she listed those foods seen as English she could see the influence of foreign imports in them, as well as in her spice rack. Even the humble potato conjured up images of the Crusader, Tudor explorers and Dutch horticulturist’s sailing off to the Far East for specimen plants. She spots the massive gap between the perception of Englishness and the reality. In her imagination, cricket teas and church spires clash with a colourful collection of influences, speaking more than a dozen languages. Which history does she want to write and which is her publisher expecting?

I was rooting for Stella from the start, especially when her plans started to go awry, and I found her reminiscences of her mother so touching. Caroline taps into that nostalgic aspect of food and the way foods from our childhood hold a particular place in our hearts, with just a whiff or taste bringing up strong emotions of where we were or who we were with. One sniff of a newly opened tin of Quality Street sends me rocketing back to the late 1970s and my Aunty Joan who would buy us one each year along with a goodie bag of colouring pens with colouring and puzzle books. Bread toasted under a gas grill with salted butter takes me to my grandma’s kitchen as she brushed my hair and put a bow in it. The beautifully hand-written notebooks that belonged to her mother are like a time machine for Stella, all the more emotive now her mother is gone after a battle with cancer. They cause tears to well up, but also allow Stella to smile at her precious memories of surreptitiously sharing the first slice of a roasted lamb joint. This is the first time she has been able to think of her mother with joy as well as sadness.

‘As Stella read, the shadows in the room lightened, the gramophone played again distantly and order seemed to return to the world

Another aspect of Caroline’s writing I love is the extensive research that lies underneath a relatively gentle tale. I felt immediately immersed in the 1930’s, with even little asides about fashion like Stella’s felt cloche with a frivolous ostrich feather and her Liberty & Co coat, placing her firmly in time. As Stella reminisces about her time in Paris with her friend Michael, we’re there as she wanders through cellar clubs and tastes cocktails in Montparnasse, it sounds like there’s a hint of romance in her memory of dancing barefoot with him on a warm pavement. Something about their relationship is alluring and it’s as if she’s only just started to really see her friend and his incredibly blue eyes. Her surprise when she finds out he’s in a new relationship is obvious and this isn’t just any woman he’s involved with, it’s Cynthia Palmer, a beautiful model and artist. Where will Stella fit in?

The historical detail of English food is fascinating and it was interesting to hear ideas from the early 20th Century that we still talk about today in terms of sustainability and frugality. When it comes to meat there’s ‘nose to tail’ eating, making sure every part of the animal is used – they clearly had a better stomach for offal than we do today. There’s the concept of eating locally and growing your own food. There were also criticisms that are obviously age old, such as feeling young people have forgotten how to cook from scratch and are becoming dependent on gadgets and what we now call time saving hacks. She seems to sense another trend that I thought was current; the concern that we almost fetishise food with our devotion to baking and other cooking shows, while at home we’re cooking from scratch less and less. When it comes to what and how we eat, and even what we call our mealtimes, there are definitely divides between town and country, between the wealthy and the poor, and variations between North and South. I loved the eccentricity of some of the characters she meets and neighbour Dilys was a favourite of mine. Having a mum who flirted with vegetarianism and haunted the health food shop, Dilys’s devotion to pulses and lentils stirred up a childhood food memory of my own – a terrible shepherd’s pie with no shepherds just acres of lentils, called Red Dragon Pie. The only red thing about it were the acres of ketchup we used to give it some flavour. I loved her bohemian air and she seemed startlingly modern compared to Stella who’s a little more ‘proper’. The roguish Freddie was also rather fun and very charming of course. Caroline has a wonderful way of balancing all this. She tantalises us with period detail and charming characters, throws in some humour, while also showing us the grittier underbelly of life in a depression and those moments of grief for her mother that Stella experiences, which are so beautifully rendered. Caroline makes this look incredibly easy when in reality it’s such a complex juggling act, one that she pulls off beautifully.

Meet The Author

Caroline completed a PhD in History at the University of Durham. She developed a particular interest in the impact of the First World War on thelandscape of Belgium and France, and in the experience of women during the conflict – fascinations that she was able to pursue while she spent several years working as a researcher for a Belgian company. Caroline is originally from Lancashire, but now lives in SouthWest France. Her book The Photographer of the Lost was a BBC Book Club pick.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Throwback Thursday: A Song of Isolation by Michael Malone.

#RandomThingsTours #OrendaBooks #ASongOfIsolation #blogtour

I’m now at a point with Orenda books where I feel I could pick up any of their titles and be assured of a complex and intelligent read. Michael Malone is a completely new author to me, and this was controversial subject matter, but from the first few pages I felt assured that I was in excellent hands. This latest novel concerns a man called Dave, who seems to have it all. He has a job within his father’s business, a beautiful home and a long-term relationship with the well-known actress Amelie Hart. His whole world falls apart when out of the blue he is arrested, accused of molesting the little girl who lives next door. Damaris lives with both parents and seems like a lonely little girl, often desperate for someone to play with when Dave is working in the garden. They’ve played football and frisbee together several times, but on this occasion, the police allege that Damaris has gone home on her bike claiming Dave has touched her inappropriately. A medical examination reveals bruising consistent with sexual assault. From this point on Dave is living in a nightmare, continually asserting his innocence while every sign seems to point to his guilt. Within days he is charged and remanded into a sexual offender’s unit, because being in the general prison population would be unsafe. Amelie is devastated, although she was having doubts about their relationship she believes Dave is incapable of such a crime and now has to run the press gauntlet. Dave’s parents also believe he’s innocent, but as his mother points out ‘people will say there’s no smoke without fire’. This brings them unwanted press intrusion and has the potential to ruin his fathers business. They all wait on tenterhooks for the trial, needing to hear Damaris’s account and praying that it will clear Dave’s name.

There was such an easy flow to the writing I became drawn into these people’s lives very quickly. I believed in them. It is gritty in parts, but it needs to be. I think the author was very aware of treating the subject matter with patience, care and dignity. Whether Dave is found guilty or not, abuse of some sort has happened to Damaris. If it’s not sexual assault, and if they’ve planted this story knowing it’s a lie, her parents. have psychologically abused their daughter. It’s a violation, not of her body, but of her mind. I read the first few chapters keeping an open mind on the question of whether the events of that day happened according to Dave’s account or the account Damaris gives via video link to the court. The author manages to tread a fine line here, allowing the reader to make up their own mind and conveying both narratives with empathy. He never lets us forget that if even if Damaris gives a false account, it’s an account she believes and both of them are victims here.

I appreciated how the author shows us that in these cases the damage spreads far and wide like circles on a pond. For Amelie, the fame she had already turned her back on after a traumatic experience of her own, comes back to haunt her. She had shunned Hollywood for a quieter life, but now she has paparazzi at the door, speculation on her role in the abuse, and well known panel shows discussing her relationship. People who have known the couple give their accounts of how they could see ‘something off’ about David. I found myself moved by the accounts of verbal abuse from the general public and Amelie coming home with hair covered in spit. David’s parents receive similar treatment and find the trial a huge strain on their health with terrible consequences. Not that everything is well in Damaris’s home. Her parents are arguing and she is bombarded with professionals wanting to hear her account over and over. It’s worth pointing out for readers that we don’t hear a graphic account, but I think it is a more powerful a book because the author uses suggestion. The scenes where her parents are going over (or planting) her testimony are disturbing. Her Uncle Cammy comes round a lot more to see his niece, but finds his sister is often at the bottom of a bottle. He brings gifts, even when it’s not her birthday, setting off arguments about Damaris feeling different to the others at school and becoming spoilt. Damaris already knows she is different. My heart went out to this lonely, manipulated, little girl whose innocence has gone, if not on that day, then in the process required by court and her parents. Her confusion at her mum and dad using grown-up words and talking about body parts with her really stayed with me.

There is a sense of powerlessness running through this novel that is almost claustrophobic. Dave is swept up by a tsunami and dumped into a totally different world. It’s shattering to his sense of self – inside he is still the Dave he knows, but now everyone he meets views him differently, creating a chasm between his inner and outer selves. Even worse, as his time on remand continues, he finds himself acting very differently. Despised in the prison population and treated with suspicion by the prison officers, he feels constantly on his guard. He is forced into threatening behaviour and even acts of violence to keep others at bay. Paranoia sets in as he starts to realise that even inside and supposedly watched at all times, people from the outside could be influencing events. A begrudging friendship is forged with one cell mate, but even he can be turned into an assailant when his loved ones are threatened. Dave has always thought that Damaris’s family were simply broke and making false accusations for money. Now he starts to suspect that justice isn’t enough and someone very sinister wants him dead.

However, there are chinks of light in this nightmare that signal a sense of hope. I loved how Amelie and Dave’s parents form such a strong bond. For someone unsure about their relationship, Amelie is steadfast in her support. There is a lovely moment where Dave’s mum and Amelie hold hands in the courtroom. His mum has always wondered whether Amelie was truly serious about their relationship, but as they connect she can feel that this woman loves her son. Dave’s dad, Peter, treats her like family. He makes sure she is ok emotionally and promises to support her whatever she needs. With Dave refusing to see her, and outright hostility from the press and the public she will need to disappear into hiding again. Luckily, she has a French passport and can disappear into another country. The loneliness these characters feel forges a bond that wasn’t there before. They are being punished and serving time for something they haven’t done, found guilty in the court of the media and public opinion. I think their mutual support is a sign that healing can be found eventually. I found myself longing for the truth and a process of healing for Dave and Damaris equally.

Michael Malone is a very gifted writer. He has taken a difficult subject and created a compelling and powerful novel. For me, it was the profound sense of loss that hangs over this story that was most heartbreaking, emphasising the book’s title. Damaris loses the one person who has noticed her loneliness and vulnerability. When cross examining Damaris’s mum, the defence barrister asks when she last played football or frisbee with her daughter and she can’t remember. Even when talking to the police Damaris calls Dave her friend and this could be the confusion of a groomed child, but it feels genuine. On one hand I was desperate to believe Dave’s innocence. Yet, if they are found to be making false allegations, Damaris’s parents would be charged and she could possibly end up in care. Even if Dave is eventually found to be innocent he has lost so much: his job, his reputation, his relationship with Amelie and even his mother. Whatever the outcome, nobody wins here. Despite that, there is a sense that this is a phase of life that will pass, that maybe there will be healing and the chance to connect again. To take that song of isolation and turn it to one of hope for the future.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Red As Blood by Lilja Sigurdardóttir

After a couple of years of book blogging, I’m coming to the conclusion that Orenda Books are infallible when it comes to choosing what to publish; I’ve not come across a bad book yet. Of course there are some I like more than others, but that’s just personal taste. I read the first in this series based around financial investigator Āróra and it set the scene well. Āróra has returned to Iceland in order to look for her sister, who went missing while living in a volatile relationship. It was an enjoyable beginning, but this book was absolutely, unputdownably, brilliant. It had me reading at 3am, chewing my fingernails with tension and unable to get up the next morning until I’d read the final page.

Our heroine is still in Iceland and even has a new home, but hasn’t yet broken it to her mother that she’s staying put. The truth is she can’t leave, not until she’s found her sister Īsafold or at least her body. She’s bought a drone and when she has time, can be found driving the endless tracks formed between lava floes with her drone covering the ground either side of the car. She’s also still working and has picked up an interesting case from businessman Flosi, whose wife Guaron has been abducted from their home while cooking their evening meal. She was halfway through cooking langoustines with lemon and garlic butter and in the kitchen theres an overturned chair and bread burning in the oven. All that’s been left is a printed letter on standard paper warning that Flosi shouldn’t involve the police and they will be in touch with a ransom demand. Āróra isn’t the police, so Flosi is hoping that she can help him find the money for the ransom and manage the situation, but Āróra is thinking of the best way to bring the police into the situation without the kidnappers knowing. Daniel is the best police officer for this kind of complex situation. The team move in slowly, disguising themselves as family members and friends supporting Flosi, but in the meantime looking into all the circumstances surrounding Guaron’s disappearance. What Flosi doesn’t seem to realise is that, by it’s nature, an investigation like this looks closely at everybody, including those closest to home.

I’m interested in Āróra as a character. She’s driven, both at work and in her quest to find her sister. I love her inner world, particularly the pull she has between the UK and Iceland. Her drive and resilience seem largely nurtured by her father who was a professional strongman and believed in training his daughters in the same way he would a son. It is his voice she hears when she’s finding things difficult or when she’s in a really tight spot and fighting off those who might harm her. It’s as if he’s the voice of the logical side of the brain, the side that she tries to kick into at times of stress. She’s also very logical and methodical with her work, able to find subtle clues and complex patterns within financial information that others might miss. She soon realises that Flosi isn’t necessarily the mild mannered local businessman he appears to be. This makes her wonder, if he’s willing to withhold information on his business dealings what else is he omitting from his testimony? However, where personal feelings for others are concerned, Āróra’s calm and methodical nature does become overwhelmed. Many people have gently reminded her that she might never find Īsafold, but she can’t let the search go because she’s consumed by guilt that this last time her sister called her for help, she didn’t come. Daniel also overwhelms her sensible side and we see that more here as the pair are drawn to each other, but will she allow herself to explore those feelings?

We are also allowed into the lives of Daniel and his team, showing the toll that their job takes on their personal lives. Helena is a brilliant investigator, but doesn’t allow herself to get too close to people. She has a system for her personal life, a small number of women whose company she enjoys who are also comfortable with a no-strings arrangement. When she wants company she calls them in order of preference to see who is free for the evening. Yet she never lets herself share a meal, a movie or anything about how she feels with them. Daniel finds his job a huge hindrance to a personal life, especially like this case where he has to drop everything at a moment’s notice and disappear for a few days or weeks with no explanation or contact. He is consumed by his job too, but there are hints of a softer side to him,not just in the way he feels about Āróra, but in the way cares for Lady G a trans woman who lives in his garden office.

The case is fascinating, with hints of dodgy money dealings and possible involvement with the Russian mafia. Flosi has a more complex life than at first appears. He has a daughter called Sarah who works with him, but doesn’t like to live with him due to tensions with Guaron. Guaron is his second wife and it’s as if Flosi hasn’t grown up and realised that long term relationships are not as exciting as those first thrilling months when we fall in love. It is all sharing meals, watching tv at night, and the gentle domestic routine. He already rejected this way of life when he left his first wife, but at the first sign of trouble she is still willing to come over with Sarah and cook for the team and offer Flosi support. There are signs his relationship with Guaron has reached that comfortable stage, but he isn’t forthcoming with the team about his doubts or his solutions to the boredom he’s felt in his marriage. Every little piece of information has to be dragged out of him, but is he being deliberately obstructive? Sometimes he seems genuinely clueless about the importance of being honest in finding his wife. I wasn’t sure he even wanted her found, and with a resentful daughter, over-involved ex-wife and other distractions my suspicions were pulled in one direction then another. The author paced these revelations beautifully, raising the tension and sending me racing through the pages. This really is an intelligent thriller that will not only keep your attention but will keep you guessing all the way to the end.

Meet the Author

Icelandic crime-writer Lilja Sigurdardóttir was born in the town of Akranes in 1972 and raised in Mexico, Sweden, Spain and Iceland. An award- winning playwright, Lilja has written four crime novels, with Snare, the first in a new series and Lilja’s English debut shortlisting for the CWA International Dagger and hitting bestseller lists worldwide. Trap soon followed suit, with the third in the trilogy Cage winning the Best Icelandic Crime Novel of the Year, and was a Guardian Book of the Year. Lilja’s standalone Betrayal, was shortlisted for the Glass Key Award for Best Nordic Crime Novel. In 2021, Cold as Hell, the first in the An Áróra Investigation series was published, with Red as Blood to follow in 2022. The film rights have been bought by Palomar Pictures in California. Lilja is also an award-winning screenwriter in her native Iceland. She lives in Reykjavík with her partner.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Ahead of the Shadows by A.B. Kyazze

When a photographer witnesses war crimes, will she have to abandon her calling to save herself?

As Lena and Kojo work in conflicts across East and Central Africa, there is immense psychological pressure, and it’s not certain if their relationship will survive.

Eighteen years later, Bene walks the gritty back streets of Paris for one night in a music festival. He is on his way to meet his father in Kenya, a man he’s never met.

Ahead of the Shadows is about the intense relationships that come from work in war zones, the transmission of trauma from one generation to the next, and how one unconventional boy might be able to break the cycle.

It’s such a pleasure to close the blog tour for this small but powerful book about the dangers and struggles of working in conflict zones. I had a period in my teens where I wanted to be a journalist and was in awe of Kate Adie and Feargal Keane. My life didn’t go that way, but I remember reading Feargal Keane’s memoir and a long piece by Italian correspondent Janine di Giovanni that really impressed upon me the life long effects of being and working surrounded by danger. There are the effects of what they’ve seen such as PTSD and a terrible restlessness left over from living such an adrenaline fuelled existence. Many can’t overcome that restlessness and choose to live a peripatetic existence, endlessly wandering from one crisis to the next, using drink to avoid the worst of their memories. It destroys people and their relationships. So, when I saw the blurb for this novel I was interested to read it.

I think the author really captured how adrenalin fuelled these jobs can be as we follow Lena into the Democratic Republic of Congo. With her group she settles into their temporary accommodation for the night, only to be woken by the sound of a dozen phone alarms going off raised voices and activity. With very quick thinking she pushes a piece of furniture across her door and sits against it, eventually falling asleep on the floor. It shows the reader how alert Lena is to the possibility of violence at a moment’s notice. With no clear sides in the country’s conflict, as well as soldiers for hire, child soldiers and rape regularly used as a weapon, Lena doesn’t know from which side danger might come. There’s no clear wrong or right and danger could come from local bandits, not just men engaged in conflict. The next day, with most of her party having left in the night, Lena rings her lover Kojo for advice on what to do. He advises her to walk to the border and cross to Kigali in Rwanda where he can send someone to meet her. As she walks alone towards to border my heart was in my throat. The author creates so much tension and our own knowledge of corruption and violence in these regions adds to our fears for Lena. It seems to take forever for her to cross the no man’s land between the two countries and she seems so defenceless. Hours later in Kojo arms, she is awake as he sleeps, aware that she feels so much safer with him present, but she still has adrenaline coursing through her body.

When writing about such dramatic events and heightened emotions in one timeline of the book can leave the present day sections feeling flat by comparison. However, as we go to Paris with Bene who is on his way to meet his father for the first time in Kenya, the author doesn’t try to compete. She lets Bene’s world seem almost dreamlike in comparison, at least on the surface. As he wanders in Paris he meets a beautiful young woman called Fatima who takes him on a tour of her city. These sections are like a dream sequence within the harsh realities of Africa from almost two decades before. There’s a sense of going with the flow as Bene goes out with Fatima into the evening. This stop has been a hiatus in his journey out to Kenya to meet his father for the first time. He should be carefree, but here and there we get traces of anxiety. When she takes him to a party at her ex-boyfriend’s place he doesn’t look forward to being with strangers, especially if they’re fakes. Most are out on the apartment balcony, watching a singer in the square below. It’s not his type of party. He goes to find Fatima as he wants to leave and steps onto the heaving balcony and wonders at how easy it would be to throw oneself over the railings and what it would take to turn that urge into a reality? I wondered where these dark thoughts and anxieties came from in such a young man. As if he’s only just running one step ahead of the shadows.

Lena’s time in Sudan is a tough read, but an important one. There was a period of time when family and friends were fed up of hearing me ask why news programs and governments had forgotten what was happening in Sudan. I remember George Clooney funding a satellite to view areas where rumours abounded about the mysterious ‘Janjaweed’. The UN seemed reluctant to use the word genocide but it was happening. The author captures the fear these masked murderers on horseback generated in the villages. They were thought to be mercenaries, appearing with no warning, except for the sound of pounding hooves. They left no time for people to flee and showed no mercy. Men were killed, young boys rounded up and recruited or killed, young girls and women gang raped. Then the survivors rounded up and placed in camps. Lena travels there as an NGO worker, trusted to bring back her clear observations for Kojo’s project.

Kojo has trusted Lena to see exactly what’s happening, she has experience of travelling through conflict regions and knows how to find the truth. Even he is taken aback by her phone call, when she tells him that no other place they’ve travelled to holds the amount of fear expressed by survivors. She tells him there’s something more going on here, that even the workers are scared and the people to scared to speak. They’re petrified. Kojo has never known Lena use hyperbole, so when she suggests people are being rounded up, Kojo suggests they talk in person. The longer Lena spends in Darfur the more she thinks about her friend Stefan, another photographer, the one who killed himself. Kojo notices when they’re reunited, a mental distance, and a physical one too – as if she’s constantly on alert and ready to flee. It takes a catalyst to set, what has only been a feeling up till now, into reality. Something to force her into taking flight. The author brings all these strands together beautifully, a full eighteen years since Lena and Kojo were in Sudan. Will Kojo come to understand her urge to flee and find safety all those years ago? Will he forgive her for keeping secrets? This is a beautiful book about the horrors humanity is capable of and what it means to bear witness to these atrocities. It is about being broken down with no joy in life and a sense of despair that can kill and how those responses to trauma can pass to the next generation. However, it’s also about those things that happen to bring us back to ourselves. The things that help us to see the future again with a sense of joy and hope.

Meet The Author

A.B. Kyazze is a British-American writer and photographer. She spent two decades writing and taking photographs around the world in conflicts and natural disasters – in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Darfur, Sudan, where Ahead of the Shadows takes place, and other parts of Africa, Asia and the Balkans. Her photographs and non-fiction work have been published in travel magazines, The Huffington Post, The Washington Times, The International Review of the Red Cross, and by Oxfam, Save the Children, and the British Red Cross.Into the Mouth of the Lion, A.B. Kyazze’s debut novel, was published in May 2021. She has also published the Humanity in the Landscape photography book series, and a number of short stories, articles and book reviews. Today, she lives in southeast London with her young family. There she writes, mentors other writers, runs a freelance editing business, and facilitates creative writing workshops in schools and libraries. She serves as a Trustee for the Oxford Centre for Fantasy, a creative writing charity. For more information go to http://www.abkyazze.com

Posted in Random Things Tours

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson transported me right into the centre of that fascinating time between two World Wars: the glittering hour, the roaring twenties, the age of the flappers and the Bright Young Things. It feels like a period of madness, where a generation turns to decadence in their determination to move beyond mourning and death. Gwendolen Kelling travels to London for the first time since the funeral of the Unknown Warrior and she’s shocked by the change of mood. From the ‘enshrouded city’ that was ‘sternly armoured in the breastplate of grief’ to a place invigorated and ‘dressed for spring’. After a war spent nursing those horrifically injured in combat, Gwendolen is ready for anything. She’s down from York on a mission for a friend to find two teenage girls who’ve run away to London to be dancers. Freda and Florence are young and naive with, perhaps, an inflated sense of their own talent. Gwendolen’s search brings her into the orbit of Nellie Coker, matriarch of a family running a series of clubs that are as jewelled as their names – the Amethyst being their first. From time to time she hires dancing girls, hostesses available to dance with the patrons. Nellie is fresh out of prison and needs to stamp her authority on her family and those in the criminal fraternity who have been circling her businesses ever since she went inside. Gwendolen comes into the sphere of DI Frobisher too, someone else keen on observing the Cokers. So far he’s been relying on his officer Maddox to infiltrate the family, but he’s unsure on which side Maddox’s loyalties truly lie. Could the unlikely Miss Kelling be able to walk the tightrope between the police and the Queen of Clubs (and amateur psychic) Nellie Coker? Kate Atkinson explores this period of history through the dark underbelly of London and a gruesome series of murders, whilst also commenting on the act of writing itself.

Atkinson tells her tale through a series of interrelated characters who have no idea of the small world they’re inhabiting. Two of Nellie’s sons show very different ways of operating within this world and their family. Niven is the strong, silent and possibly sinister, elder son. Quietly loyal, he pops up here and there with his equally loyal dog. He has the enigmatic quality of Peaky Blinder’s Tommy Shelby – someone playing so many sides, it’s impossible to know the outcome he’s working for. There is a gentleman underneath, capable of the big romantic gesture, but makes no promises and likes to stay in control. Younger brother, Ramsay, is entirely opposite, out of control in every way he can be – drugs, alcohol and gambling. Unfortunately in the Coker’s world such vices leave you open to manipulation and there are vulture’s circling. Barman Quinn is one such character – obligingly close by when Ramsay is in need of a little pick-me-up or a means of floating away from Nellie and Niven’s disappointment or his own feelings of inadequacy. Ramsay has a dream of writing the great modernist novel, one that chronicles the age and captures the decadence of London’s nightlife. A gritty crime novel is his aim where his detective shines a light on the dope, the gangs, the parties, the fancy-dress, the gambling and even the Bright Young Things. He aims to weave a tapestry of all those threads and even has a title – The Age of Glitter. This clever device, where Ramsay is writing the very book in which he’s a character, is typical Atkinson brilliance.

I loved the character of Freda, the fearless teenager who has run away with her lumpen friend Florence. Blithely sure of her abilities to dance and to survive in the capital. She’s possibly underestimated her talent and the dangers they both face. She’s plucky and I was really willing her to succeed. We know something Freda doesn’t though, raising the tension for the reader. DI Frobisher knows that girls are going missing and many end up being fished out of the Thames in a terrible state. Will Freda be one of them? Gwendolen Kelling is intriguing and the epitome of a modern woman. After being at the tough end of military nursing her eyes have been opened. She has money from her mother’s will, more than she expected since both her brothers were killed in the war. As a woman of means she can now make independent choices and has no one (no man) to stop her travelling to London. She finds a suitable boarding house with a respectable landlady, but once she starts to make enquiries she finds herself treading a very fine line between the Cokers and the Police. She’s on a night undercover with Constable Cobb when a fight breaks out that leaves a gang member on the dance floor with copious amounts of blood pouring from a chest wound. Gwendolen is in her element and takes charge, stemming the blood flow and requesting everything she needs to treat the wound. It brings her to the attention of Nellie and her son, Niven. With Constable Cobb disappearing into the night, Niven treats Gwendolen to a suite at The Savoy and sends her a brand new dress from Liberty to replace the one covered in blood. Gwendolen is almost torn between these two opposing men she’s met – the dashing and mysterious Niven who gives off ‘wounded hero’ vibes or the principled and distinguished Frobisher? However, it’s Nellie who makes a proposal. Could Gwendolen manage the Crystal Club for her? With a beautifully appointed and very pink flat on offer above the club, this could be the best opportunity to spy for Frobisher and to find Freda?

My only gripe with the novel is that sometimes I wanted to spend more time with a character than I could. I wanted to follow where Florence went and I would have loved to spend more time with Niven. The structure isn’t always the easiest to follow, but it does work as a series of threads interwoven to create a tapestry. Each named chapter flits between points of view. Sometimes we go backwards in time such as Frobisher’s war and the meeting of his wife Lottie, who is deranged by grief and mute. We also look into Gwedolen’s painful history with her manipulative mother. We might flit between two different characters whose worlds overlap, but have no real knowledge of each other, then we get two consecutive accounts of the same event. We are slowly building up to knowing the whole picture, but everyone has their own colour to paint. I wondered whether the fractured structure was also a comment on the historical period and massive social change that has occurred since before WWI. It’s a period I’m particularly interested in and Atkinson has really nailed the aftermath of war, especially how it affected each gender differently. Women were pushing forward, pursuing their own dreams and their own means. War has necessitated their move beyond the domestic sphere and into the world of work. Once men returned from war they expected their jobs back and some companies had reserved jobs for returning soldiers, but obviously the great loss of life meant the jobs market still needed women. As it was a lot of men were without work and their expectations of having a wife at home were dashed. Attacks on women were more common, especially where there was unrest around a particular workplace.

I found the blatant misogyny that Freda encounters hard to read at times, especially when it’s clear how young she is. She’s preyed upon by a West End theatre manager, men in clubs and even an on duty police officer when she visits the station to report Florence as missing. The assumption that she’s young and unaccompanied, therefore must be a prostitute, really shocks her. The women in this book are often in danger, not just from the killer, but from any man they encounter. However, Niven and Frobisher could not be further apart in terms of occupation and background, but both treat Gwedolen like a gentleman, even if there’s a assumption underneath that she can’t look after herself. We see social mobility in the Coker’s rise to become wealthy, through the growth of their businesses and Nellie’s understanding that the younger generation want to party and forget. Their wealth lets them rub shoulders with a huge range of people from Maltese gangsters, to wealthy socialites the Bright Young Things. Ramsay attends ‘spielers’ with everyone from the aristocracy to hardened criminals. There’s even mention of a member of the Royal Family brushing shoulders with the Cokers. I found myself making comparisons with the television series Peaky Blinders, both families are caught up in the period’s state of flux, moving them beyond the confines of their class, but do the upper echelons of society truly accept them?

I loved that Atkinson used Ramsay’s writing journey in the beginning and ending of her novel. I found myself smiling at his ambition to write a crime novel that was also ‘a razor sharp dissection of the various strata of society in the wake of the destruction of war’. Shirley, his sister, complains he is trying to shoe-horn too much into the novel and asks why doesn’t he just stick with the crime? Ramsay works as Atkinson’s own doubts and the mental journey she takes while writing, but also echoes those outside criticisms we often hear about crime novels not being literary. I read criticism after Atkinson’s last Jackson Brodie novel that she puts way too much – poetry, philosophy – into a crime novel. As if these things are too high brow for crime readers. Putting aside a book’s need to be marketable, writing can surely be whatever the author wants it to be and shouldn’t have to conform rigidly to a set of genre rules? In the end Atkinson succeeds where Ramsay struggles and has produced a novel as eclectic as the age it represents and just as dazzling, glittering and fascinatingly dark.

Meet The Author

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

Posted in Orenda, Random Things Tours

Black Hearts by Doug Johnstone

As all subscribers and Twitter followers must know by now, I am a huge fan of The Skelf series. I’m a Skelfaholic and I’m in a strange cycle of waiting for the next book to be published, devouring it overnight, then longing for the next one again. It’s even worse this time because I have it on good authority that this could be the penultimate book in the series. So one more book and no more Skelfing! I’m going to be like a weasel with a sore head when I have to go cold turkey. It has been wonderful to be back in Edinburgh with this family of three: part private investigators, part undertakers and all round incredible women. For those who haven’t met them yet, the Skelfs are three generations of women. Grandmother Dorothy is in her seventies, but is still active in both the investigative and the funeral parts of the business. In her spare time she still drums like a badass and has a lover almost twenty years her junior. Daughter Jenny is back home, living above the business and struggling with memories of psychopath ex- husband Craig. She’s drowning her pain with alcohol and sex.

Jenny’s daughter Hannah is now a PhD student, working in the astrophysics department, but still finding time to help out in the family business. She’s now married to girlfriend Indy, is feeling settled and might be slowly moving past what happened to her father. Each novel begins with a memorable opening scene and here we kick off with a fist fight at a funeral. The women are also brought diverse and unusual cases, both for funerals and their PI work. A gentleman approaches Dorothy after his wife’s funeral, to ask if they can help him deal with a nighttime visitor. He believes his wife’s spirit is punishing him and he has the bruises to prove it. Hannah is approached by Laura at university, the young woman claims to know her, but Hannah has absolutely no recollection of her. When Laura starts to turn up wherever Hannah goes, she starts to suspect mental health problems, but nothing dangerous. She stops being harmless the closer she gets to the family, especially when Hannah drops into the funeral parlour and finds Laura talking to Indy. Laura wants them to do her mother’s funeral, but Hannah thinks it’s unwise. How can she let this fragile girl down gently?

Aside from their cases Johnstone also picks up those storylines that weave throughout the novels. In the main we are drawn back to Craig, Jenny’s ex-husband and Hannah’s father, who is still haunting the family. Jenny is the most visibly affected by her interactions with Craig’s family, most notably his sister, who seems to have inherited his ability to manipulate and turn to violence to get what she wants. Will Craig ever leave them alone and will Jenny be able to tread the line between her own pain as his ex and Hannah’s pain as his daughter. Both tend to overlook the grief that Dorothy still feels at the loss of her own husband Jim, complicated now by her relationship with police detective Thomas. Indy’s grief is also overlooked a lot, especially since she’s just gone through disinterring her parents in order to give them the cremation in line with their faith. Hannah and Jenny bring the drama and it’s Jenny I was particularly worried about. She’s getting messy, day drinking and embarking on a highly controversial sexual relationship with the wrong person. She never wakes up feeling better, but in the moment she has to drown out the constant pictures in her head. It’s clearly PTSD and she’s in danger of drawing others into her drama, especially Archie who works for the funeral business. Can she rein her behaviour, when professional help seems doomed to failure at this point?

Aside from these incredible women, and the lovely Indy of course, the things I most love about these books is Doug Johnstone’s love for Edinburgh and the way he weaves incredible ideas, philosophy and physics into his novels. I’ve not been to Edinburgh since I was in my twenties, but the way he describes the city makes me want to go back. He doesn’t sugar coat the city either, there’s good and bad here, but as a whole these books are a poem to a place that’s in his soul. Dorothy muses on her home town a lot in this novel and considering she was born in America, this place is her heart’s homeland. She ponders on the people this city produces, including her husband and child, the history, and the architecture almost as if she’s taking stock. She concludes that she’s a person who always looks forward to where life’s going, but grief and loss are like the waves and there’s no telling when it will wash ashore again. Jenny tends to frequent the less salubrious areas of the city. She’s stuck. Her past has quite literally washed ashore and the problem with losing someone is you’re not the only one grieving and everyone grieves differently. She’s not mourning Craig as he truly was. She’s grieving the loss of all that hope; the hope they both had for the future on their wedding day and when Hannah was born. Similarly Craig’s mum and sister aren’t missing the Craig who committed all those terrible crimes. Violet misses the little boy she had and the life she wanted for him and his sister just misses her baby brother.

I loved the elements of Japanese spirituality and having read Messina’s novel The Phonebox at the Edge of the World, I loved the concept of the wind phone. I’ve always thought that a good way of letting go of the past, especially when you’re struggling emotionally, is to make a physical gesture or step in the direction you want to go. That might mean taking off a wedding ring when you’re getting divorced, or moving house to somewhere that isn’t filled with old memories. I found talking to my late husband in my head a bit strange and it only made me miss him more. So I wrote to him in my journal instead. To have a phonebox dedicated to speaking with those who have died seems a very effective way of keeping them in the present with you, but in a controlled and deliberate way. I was reminded of the Samuel Beckett quote:

“Memories are killing. So you must not think of certain things, of those that are dear to you, or rather you must think of them, for if you don’t there is the danger of finding them, in your mind, little by little.”

Hannah seems to be the person who’s most accepting of her losses. She always seems older than she is and with Indy alongside her she has all the support she needs. There’s so much wisdom in these two young women, honed from a combination of Indy’s spirituality, years of working with grieving families and Hannah’s physics knowledge, especially where it tries to explain the universe. The supermassive black holes that are thought to be at heart of every galaxy are mysterious. We know that they have a huge power that acts like a magnet, drawing in items from across the universe into the void. Each of the Skelf women have their own grief to bear, a black hole at the centre of their heart. Each must find their own way to remember a little, to prevent becoming overwhelmed by their memories. To prevent that black hole from drawing in every part of them. Only by reconciling this, can they live in the present moment and make plans for their altered future, a future I can’t wait to read about.

Meet the Author

Doug Johnstone is the author of twelve novels, most recently The Great Silence, described as ‘A novel [that] underlines just how accomplished Johnstone has become’ by the Daily Mail. He has been shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Book of the Year three times, and the Capital Crime Best Independent Voice one; The Big Chill was longlisted for Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. He’s taught creative writing and been writer in residence at various institutions, and has been an arts journalist for twenty years. Doug is a songwriter and musician with five albums and three EPs released, and he plays drums for the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, a band of crime writers. He’s also player-manager of the Scotland Writers Football Club. He lives in Edinburgh.