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.

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Girl in the Photo by Heidi Amsinck

As many of you know, I’m a big fan of Scandi and Nordic Noir whether it’s on television or in book form. I was also drawn in by the beautiful covers of these books, in fact I’d like a pair to frame and put on the wall. Sometimes books don’t live up to their covers, but I throughly enjoyed the first book following the investigative reporter known only as Jensen. My Name is Jensen set up the main characters beautifully so it was good to be back in the company of both Jensen and her ex-lover, DI Henrik Jungerson. In this second novel both our main characters are in a state of transition. Jensen is no longer working for newspaper Dagbladet and is working freelance, in a style that becomes a mix of private investigator and reporter. She has the help of a young man called Gustav, the nephew of her editor at the newspaper. Jensen knows he has been in trouble at his school, but not the extent of his problems. As they try and get used to each other’s style of working, Jensen is also adjusting to a new apartment with a difficult landlord. The first crime seems to be a burglary gone wrong, with an elderly woman brutally murdered and an incredibly expensive diamond necklace missing. Henrik is the officer on the case, but Jensen is hired by the woman’s rather unpleasant daughter to find the necklace. More murders follow, but what Henrik notices at each crime scene is a photo of the same young girl. They’re not obvious, just placed somewhere in the room, but Henrik doesn’t like coincidences and wants to connect the investigations. His superiors are unconvinced, especially as Henrik’s issues at home and with drink are starting to get out of control. Working the same case means he will cross paths with the one woman in Copenhagen he wants to avoid, Jensen.

This was an interesting case, told by Jensen and Henrik in turn, from their own perspective and with their individual ideas on what the victims have in common. They are remarkably alike in the way they think and are drawn together both by the threads of the case and what feels like a gravitational force. Nobody thinks like Jensen, except for Henrik. She knows he is only a step behind her. Nobody on the force thinks like Henrik and he almost craves her presence, not necessarily in an emotional way, more than that he wants someone to keep up with him and to bounce ideas off. Jensen has the freedom of being freelance, to work when she wants and makes choices on how she investigates that a police officer couldn’t. Breaking into a client’s summer cabin is risky, but it gets her further forward in the case. Henrik couldn’t do this, because he’s hemmed in by police rules and regulations. Yet there are perks to being an officer, such as the ability to look at official records, that Jensen wishes she had. He can also command respect and get families to cooperate in a way she can’t and this can really hamper her investigation. Despite these differences, no one else has worked out the significance of the photograph, in fact he’s pretty much been told that this is a simple case and he should stop complicating matters. Yet he can’t leave it alone. He knows it’s the key. Really they’re a perfect team, pushing each other on and keeping up with each other intellectually.

I enjoyed Jensen’s working relationship with Gustav. She soon realises he’s a bit of a maverick and that he’s been expelled from school for something much more significant than Margarethe is letting on. The mystery itself is an interesting one, not as clear cut as it first appears and with some deeply unpleasant characters too. The pacing is excellent too. Each character coming at the mystery from their own starting point and working towards each other. The author adds to the information we have in every chapter, just enough to keep the reader engaged, but tantalised and eager to read the next section. As for their personal relationship I found it hard to empathise with Henrik’s perspective. He seems to see her as a temptation that he’s unable to shake off; once in her orbit, he’s inexorably pulled towards her. If he piles all the guilt onto Jensen and avoids seeing her, he avoids facing the fact that he made a choice to cheat on his wife. Then, when he realises that Jensen’s landlord is interested in her, he becomes the jealous spurned lover. As if he didn’t choose to stay with his wife. The author manages to convey these complicated psychological aspects of her characters, so even though we might not agree with their perspective, we can understand their emotions. I was left feeling that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to these two characters and I’m interested to see where we go next.

Meet The Author

Heidi Amsinck is a writer and journalist who was born in Copenhagen and now lives in London. She was London Correspondent for the
Danish daily Jyllands-Posten. She has written many stories
of BBC Radio 4, all read by Tim McInnerny. She was previously shortlisted for the VS Pritchett Memorial Prize. My Name is Jensen, her first thriller, was published to critical acclaim in 2021 and has also been translated into Danish and German.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Honor by Thrity Umrigar

In this riveting and immersive novel, bestselling author Thrity Umrigar tells the story of two couples and the sometimes dangerous and heartbreaking challenges of love across a cultural divide.

Indian American journalist Smita has returned to India to cover a story, but reluctantly: long ago she and her family left the country with no intention of ever coming back. As she follows the case of Meena – a Hindu woman attacked by members of her own village and her own family for marrying a Muslim man – Smita comes face to face with a society where tradition carries more weight than one’s own heart, and a story that threatens to unearth the painful secrets of Smita’s own past. While Meena’s fate hangs in the balance, Smita tries in every way she can to right the scales. She also finds herself increasingly drawn to Mohan, an Indian man she meets while on assignment. But the dual love stories of Honor are as different as the cultures of Meena and Smita themselves: Smita realizes she has the freedom to enter into a casual affair, knowing she can decide later how much it means to her.

There were times when this novel became almost too painful to read, but I’m glad I continued until it’s bittersweet conclusion. At home in America, journalist Smita is every inch the modern career woman, living a single and globetrotting life. She has a series of ready packed cases so she can zoom off to the airport at a moment’s notice to cover a story anywhere in the world. There are similar, psychological cases in her mind, packed and closed until she’s called to certain destinations. In fact one hasn’t been opened in years, until she’s called by a journalist friend in India who has ended up in hospital mid-story. On the basis of a misunderstanding, Smita flies out to Mumbai thinking her friend needs personal help and looking after. Yet it’s professional support she would like, needing Smita to travel into a more rural area of India and cover the story she has been engrossed in. A woman called Meena is the story. Along with her sister Radha she defied her brothers to take a job outside the home, in a sewing factory. The brothers run their home along strict rules and the sisters are supposed to stay at home, care for the house and serve the brothers. Meena’s final downfall was love, when at the factory she met a kind, gentle and intelligent man. Meena’s family followed the Hindu religion and her brothers would never let her choose for herself, especially when her choice is a Muslim man. When she defied them a second time she sealed their fate. They are set on fire by her family and their village. Smita is the only one to survive.

Not only did Smita survive, but she escaped to the home of her mother-in-law. Now with a little girl to look after, Smita is recovering from her burns but her injuries are devastating. With the help of a charity she is taking her brothers to court for their actions and the verdict is due this week. Reluctantly, Smita takes on the story and agrees to meet Meena with the help of Shannon’s friend Mohan as driver and translator where required. There isn’t much that shocks me in life, but the terrible cruelty of what’s been done to Meena made me seethe with anger. I simply cannot comprehend how family members could wreak such revenge on their own sister, although sadly I have watched dramas about such murders in this country. Although we have a long way to go in conquering the patriarchy in the UK, we have to remember other countries have their own battle and are often a long way from the comparative equality we enjoy. A recent drama showed how this violent killing is based in culture not religion. It showed a community using it’s young men to watch their women, standing outside taxi firms and take away shops they policed their area and noticed when a girl was starting to wear Western clothing or too much make-up. These communities worked like Meena’s village, curbing bad behaviour before it gets out of hand. They doled out punishments to those girls who transgressed and the families carry them out, so that community members could see how their women respected them. It’s never about men saving the women’s honour; it’s about saving their own.

The author drew me deeply into this novel and complexities of life in India: the stark differences between the more cosmopolitan cities like Mumbai and the rural areas; the intolerance between religions and cultures; the massive contrast between the freedoms a Western Hindu woman like Smita has, compared with Meena. Smita actually embodies all of these differences. In order to make a transition to the rural area they’ll be visiting she asks Mohan to take her to a shop where she can buy more traditional clothes, because she doesn’t have anything suitable and they must be the everyday kind, not those for tourists going to a wedding. Mohan is a world away from Meena’s brothers, but he still has a tendency towards an old-fashioned chivalry, somehow reminding Smita of her father. His need to ‘look after’ the women around him feels like part of the culture she considers outmoded, but it’s only a small part of who he is. He bothers her, because she knows from experience that men who think they need to rescue women can also think they own them. I found the flashback to Smita’s teenage years in Mumbai particularly evocative and shocking. It’s no wonder Smita never stays in one place very long, she knows that even your closest neighbours can turn and betray you in an instant, better to keep moving. Yet this trip may challenge her to put down roots and be part of something; is she ready to confront what happened and make a change? As for Meena, her story left me feeling so sad and angry that such injustices can and do happen. Her life, being worked and insulted by her mother-in-law while constantly living in fear, seemed intolerable to me. I hoped that the brief, but fierce love she had experienced, was enough of a consolation. She must live for her beautiful little girl. I was troubled and engrossed by this novel and I’m still thinking about it several days later. It’s evocative, intelligent and a fascinating insight into the cultural complexity of India.

Meet The Author

Thrity Umrigar is the bestselling author of The Space Between Us, which was a finalist for the PEN/Beyond Margins Award, as well as six other novels, a memoir, and three picture books. Her books have been translated into several languages and published in over fifteen countries. She is the winner of a Lambda Literary Award and the Seth Rosenberg Prize and is a Distinguished Professor of English at Case Western Reserve University.

Posted in Orenda, Random Things Tours

Night Shadows by Eva Björg, Aegisdóttir

The small community of Akranes is devastated when a young man dies in a mysterious house fire, and when Detective Elma and her colleagues from West Iceland CID discover the fire was arson, they become embroiled in an increasingly perplexing case involving multiple suspects. What’s more, the dead man’s final online search raises fears that they could be investigating not one murder, but two. A few months before the fire, a young Dutch woman takes a job as an au pair in Iceland, desperate to make a new life for herself after the death of her father. But the seemingly perfect family who employs her turns out to have problems of its own and she soon discovers she is running out of people to turn to. As the police begin to home in on the truth, Elma, already struggling to come to terms with a life-changing event, finds herself in mortal danger as it becomes clear that someone has secrets they’ll do anything to hide…

I devoured this crime novel in a day while ill in bed. I could barely look up from the book to talk to anyone, because I was so deeply embedded in the cold, bleak Icelandic landscape and the twists and turns of this fascinating story. Having read the previous novels in the Forbidden Iceland series, I was immediately at home with detective Elma and her partner Saever. The investigation starts with a fire in a neighbourhood of Akranes, a small town near Reykjavik. The neighbours hear the smoke alarm and come running to the house to check no one is home. The family are said to be away, but as the fire is put out a body is found in one of the bedrooms and turns out to be the teenage son, Marinó. Elma can’t understand why he is still on the bed, as if asleep. If the neighbours were woken by the fire why wasn’t this boy and why is his the room where the fire started? Soon they get their answers – he is full of sleeping tablets. It seems a party was held at the house that weekend, with a few of the neighbourhood’s teenagers attended. Elma needs to know what went on that night, who was there and where was Marinó when they left. The case becomes complicated when it becomes clear a young woman is missing. Lise was working as an au pair for one of the families living near the fire and was seen at the party. Lise was looking after the daughters of couple Laufey and Unnar, but had decided to leave and had packed everything before the party. She was ready to return to Holland the following morning. Laufey remembers seeing her bags packed that evening and when they were gone the next morning she assumed she’d left for an early flight. But Lise never reached Holland.

I enjoyed reading Elma’s voice in the first novel of this series so it was nice to pick up where we left off. Motherhood is a thread throughout the novel and it was almost as if Elma was learning exactly what being a mum entailed. She is close with her own family, despite sister Dagny getting on her nerves she realises the importance of having them around her and being there for her nieces. Within the teenagers who were present at the weekend party there is a young mother, who is trying everything to keep her relationship with the father going and overlooking a lot too. Laufney is the mum we follow most and she is almost coping as a single mum, with husband Unnar usually out and doing one thing that really infuriates me – referring to ‘babysitting’ his own children. Their own first child is a teenager, living in his own pad in the garage but still enjoying the comforts of home. Laufney is so proud of her son Andri who is soon moving to Sweden to play football at a professional level. Their two daughters are much younger. Klara is ten years old, quiet and slightly reserved, but very talented at drawing. In fact Elma finds her drawing so striking that she notices it pinned on the fridge. With the family in the main house, a girl is drawn up against the window, looking inside. Saever ccomments its like something from a horror film and he’s eerily prescient. It’s Anna the youngest daughter of the family who is sitting on the loo in the middle of the night and notices movement outside. A girl with long hair and a bulky coat is staring into the house. Anna knows it is Lise and shes not scared of Lise who was kind to her, but Lise is dead and dead people don’t come back. She goes to Klara for comfort and she reassures her, she knows she’s seen Lise because a few weeks ago she’d been been in the garden. In one of the scariest scenes Ive read in a while, the girl notices Klara and strides directly over to the window, peering in with both hands resting on the glass. I was sorry that I just happened to be reading that scene at three a.m.

The crime itself and Elma’s personal life is about loyalty and how far we’d go to keep those we love safe and for mothers that’s such a strong instinct. Elma finds these deep instincts at the forefront of her mind throughout, both personally and professionally. One of the biggest question marks I had is over Laufey and Unnar’s marriage. He is very easy to dislike thanks to his habits of sleeping with other women, even those that should be totally off limits. Yet I found myself more horrified by some of the things he did and said around his wife and children. Klara seemed to be on a diet and I was sure this was a result of Unnar’s comments to Anna about Laufey’s weight and how she didn’t want to become fat like Mum. He also makes it clear that he finds her too serious and no fun anymore. These little chips at someone’s confidence are abusive and I didn’t like that the same attitudes were being taught to the girls. I was becoming more and more uncomfortable about him and felt he could be the murderer, then kept looking at the younger generation and kids like Isak who is disrespectful to his girlfriend. It showed how these attitudes are still cross-generational. Could the murderer be one of these youngsters? CCTV showing a slight figure in a down coat near Marinó’s home led me down that path.

I loved how the book addressed Elma’s relationships and how she investigates. Even knowing she has a partner who will back her to the hilt, doesn’t stop her running away with a lead every now and then. As soon as she’s had a hunch, she has to act on it, and that doesn’t usually involve telling someone where she’s going or waiting for back up. This can lead her into danger, something that’s terrifying for those who love her and needs to change. Especially now that life is going to be significantly different. I’m already looking forward to the next chapter for this intelligent and perceptive detective.

Meet the Author

Born in Akranes in 1988, Eva moved to Trondheim, Norway to study her MSc in Globalisation when she was 25. After moving back home having completed her MSc, she knew it was time to start working on her novel. Eva has wanted to write books since she was 15 years old, having won a short story contest in Iceland. Eva worked as a stewardess to make ends meet while she wrote her first novel, The Creak on the Stairs. The book went on to win the CWA Debut Dagger, the Blackbird Award, was shortlisted (twice) for the Capital Crime Readers’ Awards, and became a number one bestseller in Iceland. The critically acclaimed Girls Who Lie (book two in the Forbidden Iceland series) soon followed, with Night Shadows (book three) following suit in July 2022. Eva lives with her husband and three children in Reykjavík.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Hostage by Clare Mackintosh

This was an absolutely nail-biting thriller of a novel that never lets up and practically had me biting my own nails. In fact I’d been reading this, then binge watching Ozark with my other half and had to ask for a half hour of comedy before bed, because I couldn’t cope with any more tension! I probably should also be honest and say that planes make me horribly claustrophobic. I’m never scared of crashing. I just hate that I can’t get up and walk out of the door. So my own phobia probably added to the tension of the novel. Mina is a flight attendant and has the honour of working on the first ever direct flight from London to Sydney. Back home, husband Adam is holding the fort while he comes to terms with recent mistakes in his marriage. He is also finding it hard to develop a relationship with his adoptive daughter Sophie. After waiting a long time to adopt a child, they’ve had problems settling Sophie and also connecting with her in the way they expected. However, she does love her most recent babysitter, so Adam is quite relieved when Mina has booked this miracle worker to cover her hours on this historic flight. So, it’s a massive shock when her baby sitter takes them both hostage, citing her membership to a climate change group and explaining that Mina’s plane will now be in the hands of her fellow protestors. Simultaneously, Mina is left with a note and a choice; let one of the protestors onto the flight deck or her daughter’s life is in danger. Mina has already found Sophie’s ‘Epipen’ in the galley, so she knows they mean business. She has also been left in no doubt that one of their associates has been following Sophie and their young babysitter, leading Mina to believe it’s going to be easy for them to get to her. Their plan, if Mina cooperates, could be to fly the plane and all three hundred passengers into the Sydney Opera House. She is left with a terrible dilemma – one life, that of her precious daughter, or the lives of everyone on board.

The book alternates between Mina’s perspective and what’s happening at home for Adam and Sophie. In between are chapters from the perspective of one of the hijackers, each one named after a river. These are an interesting break from the tension, because they explain that person’s reasons for joining a radical climate change group, one that’s willing to consider acts of terrorism to bring their cause to the forefront of the news agenda. I didn’t feel a connection or empathy with these, or any of the main characters really. They’re flawed and therefore very human and believable. Mina’s husband Adam has been deceitful and their marriage is still in a state of repair over his behaviour. This isn’t about character though, this is all about the situation. The pressurised and locked cabin adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere the author has created and the passenger’s isolation from both their loved ones and the safety of their homes. This is all about the rollercoaster thrills of the hostage situation and perhaps the fear many of us have about the heightened terrorism threat and flying in general.

Although I guessed some of what happens, the story definitely entertains and keeps you on edge. In fact I could see a film version doing exactly the same thing. Some aspects were unexpected though, especially the situation Adam and Sophie find themselves in back in London. Due to unforeseen complications, they are in more danger than was planned and certainly more than Mina has expected. I really enjoyed this subplot, because it went somewhere I didn’t expect and I was definitely on tenterhooks wondering whether they would come out alive. It was also clever to have little snippets of information about the passengers and what had made them book this inaugural flight non-stop around the world. Whether they were here by intention or simple chance, none of them expected to become a fireball in the sky. This did induce some emotion in me, because it made the passengers more than a seat number. Sophie became the most interesting character for me as the book progressed. Her behaviour, when seen in detail, could point to her being neuro divergent and I thought this was portrayed well. She is extremely intelligent and I loved how that becomes more obvious as their predicament worsens. Oh and read all the way to the end. The twists don’t stop coming with the tense and very modern take on this common nightmare scenario.

Meet The Author

With over 2 million copies of her books sold worldwide, number one bestseller Clare Mackintosh is the multi-award-winning author of I Let You Go, which was a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller and the fastest-selling title by a new crime writer in 2015. It also won the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year in 2016. Both Clare’s second and third novels, I See You and Let Me Lie, were number one Sunday Times bestsellers. All three of her thrillers were selected for the Richard & Judy Book Club, and together have been translated into forty languages. After the End was published in 2019 and became an instant Sunday Times bestseller, and in 2021 Hostage flew straight into the top ten. Together, her books have spent more than sixty weeks in The Sunday Times bestseller lists. 

Clare is patron of the Silver Star Society, a charity based at the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford, which supports parents experiencing high-risk or difficult pregnancies. She lives in North Wales with her husband and their three children.

For more information visit Clare’s website http://www.claremackintosh.com or find her at http://www.facebook.com/ClareMackWrites or on Twitter @ClareMackint0sh #ILetYouGo #ISeeYou #LetMeLie #AftertheEnd #HostageBook

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Nothing Else by Louise Beech.

Louise Beech’s new novel, pulls us into the emotional and traumatic life of Heather, a pianist who lives in Hull. She teaches and plays in local bars, then relaxes in her harbour front flat looking out to the Humber Estuary and the North Sea. Heather has a quiet life and quite a solitary one too. She has no family and relies more on her strong connections with friends. In fact it is one of them that encourages her to try out for a job on a cruise ship, something she would never have imagined doing. She would be scheduled to play in different bars on the ship through the day, but as her friend says, she can enjoy the facilities and gets to travel. This particular cruise is stopping in New York then on to the Caribbean before doing it all again in reverse. There’s something lonely and a bit melancholy about her and we learn that Heather and her sister have grown up in the care system, after their parents were killed. Music was the girl’s escape, once their mother had convinced their father it wouldn’t hurt for them to learn on the piano they were given. They both had an aptitude for music, but it was Heather’s salvation, the only place she could fully express her emotions. With their father unwilling to pay for lessons, their mother secretly sent them to piano teacher Mr Hibbard who lived a few doors away. When their parents died, both girls were taken into a children’s home together, but one morning her sister Harriet was taken to see the staff in the office and Heather never saw her again. She could only hope that a kind family had adopted Harriet, but for some reason hadn’t been able to take her too. When the girls had most needed to express themselves they would play a duet they had composed called Nothing Else. It was this piece of music that stayed with Heather all her life, instantly taking her back to the piano and her little sister.

Heather’s chapters follow her current life and the piano job she applies for on a cruise ship. Here and there the author takes us back in time to her childhood, where their father was a controlling and violent man and Heather felt responsible for keeping her little sister Harriet safe. Like all children who have traumatic home lives, Heather had become attuned to the slightest hint of tension. She knew when her father was going to explode and on those nights where the sounds downstairs were terrifying, Heather would keep Harriet out of earshot and they felt safe when they were tucked up in just one bed. She was also aware that their father preferred cute and cheeky Harriet, so knew to stay quiet and keep her head down. These sections from the past are traumatic and very moving. The author maintains the tension in these flashbacks, until we too are on edge, always waiting for something to happen. The author moves deftly between the experiences of Heather as a child in the middle of this situation, and a grown up Heather commenting on what happened with the clarity and insight of an adult. There were brilliant present day sections onboard the cruise ship where Heather befriends a writer who is also working aboard, teaching sessions in creative writing. Heather joins her morning sessions and finds them much deeper than she expected. I could recognise this from the writing therapy sessions I’ve facilitated – the prompt is always just a starting point and eventually you start writing what you need to write about. This definitely happens to Heather and is one way of processing the care records she applied for before the trip, dipping into them little by little, like a reluctant bather dipping her toe into the cold, deep water. She doesn’t want to be overwhelmed.

Harriet has her own section of the book, again split into her current life and the past she doesn’t fully understand. Now living in America, Harriet has a daughter whose left home and case of empty nest syndrome. Her flashbacks into the past remind us that Heather’s story is only part of this family’s history and Harriet may have a very different tale to tell. We learn most when their narratives overlap and we see a subtly different side of the events Heather describes, like two sides of the same coin. Again, it’s psychologically very clever and gives the perspective of the younger sibling, the one who is cared for and shown love by her big sister. I was longing to know what had happened at the children’s home. Where did Harriet go and how was she persuaded to go without her sister? Thanks to all of these questions and my curiosity over whether the sisters would ever meet again, I was totally gripped by the story and immersed into the worlds of these sisters. I enjoyed their different characters, developed by their separate upbringings, as well as their different experiences with their parents due to their ages. There are secrets that neither child was aware of, so there are some rewarding revelations to be found. I was eager to know if the sisters were somehow able to find each other. Mainly though, I was moved to read their tales of childhood trauma and wanted to understand the adults they became in light of that experience. Which of their characteristics could be explained by the past? There’s a cautiousness in Heather, because her ability to trust others is affected, leading to a quiet and lonely life. It was lovely to watch the cruise atmosphere, and proximity to others, forcing her into being sociable and to make friends. There’s a sense that she’s coming alive in these moments, which felt hopeful and uplifting. This was an addictive read that beautifully captured how childhood trauma and it’s effects can follow us into adulthood. The author showed, so beautifully, that it’s only by sharing and in this case, playing out that experience that we begin to heal.

Published by Orenda Books 23rd June 2022

Meet The Author

All six of Louise Beech’s books have been digital bestsellers. Her novels have been a Guardian Readers’ Choice, shortlisted for Not the Booker Prize, and shortlisted for the RNA Most Popular Romantic Novel Award. Her short fiction has won the Glass Woman Prize, the Eric Hoffer Award for Prose, and the Aesthetica Creative Works competition, as well as shortlisting for the Bridport Prize twice. Louise lives with her husband on the outskirts of Hull. Follow her on Twitter @louisewriter

Posted in Random Things Tours

Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight by Riku Onda.

This book was an incredibly different reading experience considering it followed an historical fiction novel and a Regency romance. All that lush description and melodrama, followed by this very spare and quiet novel set over one night and mainly in one empty apartment. The contrast was stark and showed that we don’t need very much to convey a story and engage the reader. So short that I read it in one afternoon, this is a story of two people moving out of a flat and agreeing to spend their final night of the tenancy together. Aiko and Hiro are our only characters and their relationship has broken down since taking a trip together, trekking in the mountains of northern Japan. During the trek their mountain guide died inexplicably and both believe the other to be a murderer. This night is their last chance to get a confession out of each other and finally learn the truth. Who is the murderer and what actually happened on the mountain? This is a captured evening where a quiet battle of wills is taking place and the shocking events leading up to this night will finally be revealed.

My first assumption was that Hiro and Aiko are a couple, breaking up after living together, perhaps during their university years. The author conveys an eerie atmosphere, the couple are quite subdued and it’s almost as if they aren’t fully there. Have their minds sprung forward to their next step in life, or backwards to when things were different? There are those annoying marks and shadows on the walls that show where their furniture and pictures once were. The couple feel similar to those marks, like ‘ghostly shadows’ on the rug they’re merely an imprint of what was once present. Even their conversation is sparse, but when we’re taken into their minds we can see that’s where they really live. So much is going on emotionally and intellectually that I could imagine them giving off a sound, like a hum or buzz to signify the intensity of their inner thoughts. We never move out of the room, but we delve into the recent and distant pasts through their inner world. In the room with each other, they start in a quiet and measured way, then with each new piece of information they start to calculate and consider the other. This is where the tension builds, we can feel it inside them and it’s only a matter of time before it spills over into the room. Then comes the first accusation and the pace picks up. It’s not long before the first revelations begin.

I thought that the author used metaphors and memories beautifully and wove them into the psychological game being played. One is the ‘Pearl Earring’ song by Yumi Matsutoya that Hiro remembers an old girlfriend listening to when he was at school. The memory is triggered by Aiko saying she lost an earring while packing. In the song the girl throws her pearl earring under her lover’s bed when she knows it’s the last time she’ll be there. Aiko suggests she doesn’t want this reminder of her lover so throws it away, perhaps after ceremonially throwing the other at a place with special meaning. Hiro gives it more of a metaphorical meaning – one half of a pair is no use without the other. Is this what he thinks about him and Aiko. Aiko hasn’t lost her earring, she has stuffed it in his backpack and claims not to know why. She describes it as a landline, just waiting for him to find it. I think we leave things behind when we want to return or be remembered. The one that resonated most with me was the fish metaphor, where the title of the book comes from:

I see sunlight flickering through the trees. Fragments of the stifled emotions and desire we do not put into words, flit across them, like shadows moving through the wavering light. Deep below the dappled sunlight, fish twist and turn at the bottom of a dark-blue pool […] it is impossible to see them clearly or count them.

Aiko notices their presence, in and out of this room as she thinks of the fish. She sees Hiro has retreated mentally, he’s deep inside his own head just like the fish who disappear into the darker reaches of the pool with a flick of their fins. They are completely present with each other only fleetingly, as dappled sunlight dances across and illuminates them. They come together, then scuttle into the darkened corners, nursing their wounds and planning their next move. The same metaphor occurs at a pivotal point in the novel and gives a sense of the light illuminating different worlds, universes and possibilities.

I’m being so careful not to give away a single revelation or twist, but there are a few and they are unusual and surprising. This is a really unique psychological thriller, it seems sparse, but actually has so much depth and richness. I found myself completely immersed in this couple’s story, both the visible and the invisible. Still playing with memory, the pair delve into their childhoods, trying to work out what makes each other tick and discover how they ended up here. One has more memories of their childhood than the other, but can we trust what we remember? Our impression of something, may be no more than a fleeting glimpse of a much bigger picture. We may have based a lifelong idea of a situation or person on a mere fragment. Even the things we use to jog our memory can be misleading, such as photographs. Hiro muses on how we’re pushed into smiling for photos, to look like we’re enjoying ourselves and love the people we’re with. If we believe our photo albums, the picture we have of the past is distorted. There are so many things going on behind the scenes that are never captured – the moments in the deep blue water.

Published by Bitter Lemon Press 16th June 2022.

Meet The Author

Author: Riku Onda, born in 1964, has been writing fiction since 1991 and has published prolifically since. She has won the Yoshikawa Eiji Prize for New Writers, the Japan Booksellers’ Award, the Yamamoto Shūgorō Prize and the Naoki Prize. Her work has been adapted for film and television.

Translator: Alison Watts is an Australian-born Japanese to English translator and long time resident of Japan. She has wrote the translation of The Aosawa Murders, Aya Goda’s TAO: On the Road and On the Run In Outlaw China and of Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa.
Published by BITTER LEMON PRESS•E: books@bitterlemonpress.com Distributed by TURNAROUND PUBLISHER SERVICES•T: 020 8829 3000 PR by Alex Hippisley-Cox• T: 07921 127077 E: alex@ahipcoxpr.co.uk

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Mayfair Bookshop by Eliza Knight

1938: She was one of the six sparkling Mitford sisters, known for her stinging quips, stylish dress, and bright green eyes. But Nancy Mitford’s seemingly dazzling life was really one of turmoil: with a perpetually unfaithful and broke husband, two Nazi sympathizer sisters, and her hopes of motherhood dashed forever. With war imminent, Nancy finds respite by taking a job at the Heywood Hill Bookshop in Mayfair, hoping to make ends meet, and discovers a new life.

Present Day: When book curator Lucy St. Clair lands a gig working at Heywood Hill she can’t get on the plane fast enough. Not only can she start the healing process from the loss of her mother, it’s a dream come true to set foot in the legendary store. Doubly exciting: she brings with her a first edition of Nancy’s work, one with a somewhat mysterious inscription from the author. Soon, she discovers her life and Nancy’s are intertwined, and it all comes back to the little London bookshop—a place that changes the lives of two women from different eras in the most surprising ways.

I have always held a fascination for the Mitford sisters, sparked mainly by childhood visits to Chatsworth when Deborah Mitford was the Duchess of Devonshire. Over the years I read more about these fascinating sisters, and I saw Debo (as she was known) as a formidable woman with great ideas for diversifying the estate. I acquired several books about Chatsworth and it’s resident women over the years, then several years ago I purchased a copy of the Mitford sister’s letters and met the then Dowager Duchess at a book signing. She was gracious, but there was a fierce intelligence there and a barely disguised lack of patience for fools. I had never been sure what the phrase ‘gimlet eyed’ actually meant until I observed her that day. More recently, the appearance of the glamorous, but dangerous Diana Mitford in the final series of Peaky Blinders seemed to open a few people’s eyes to the rise of fascism in Britain and turned the spotlight once again on this extraordinary family. While it probably wasn’t a realistic portrayal of her, it was certainly compelling. So I jumped at the chance to delve into the Mitford’s world once more in this book, perfect for a bibliophile as we spend time with both book curators, sellers and writers.

Nancy is a witty companion and rather poignant too, which is a very endearing combination. We meet her as one of the Bright Young Things, careering round London drinking cocktails and following treasure hunts, all the while looking absolutely fabulous. She is in love with a young man called Hamish who she fully expects to marry. However, when the story returns to her, she’s been disappointed in love and is married to someone else altogether, who she nicknames Prod. She and her husband have a rather sad marriage and underneath the sparkle I felt we were seeing something of Nancy’s more vulnerable side. The author skilfully weaves fact and fiction, thoroughly researching Nancy’s writings and letters, then creating a full inner world for her character. Of course we can’t know for sure how Nancy was truly feeling and to me she seemed one of those people who didn’t let them show easily. However, it rang true for her to be disappointed in her marriage, to resent Prod’s quite visible affairs and to be sad at her lack of a baby, especially as her younger sisters became mums before her. The journey she took as a woman was moving, especially the acceptance of things she would never be – a happily married woman and a mother. She also struggles with a bad case of imposter syndrome, common in writers, calling herself a bad novelist when all her work needs is experience, maturity and honesty of feeling.

Her WWII friend, the Iris that our modern heroine Lucy is searching for, helps her a great deal. With this friend she doesn’t have to be entertaining, witty Nancy, always ready to solve a problem and keep a brave face on things. She allows herself to be vulnerable in someone else’s presence and it feels like a huge psychological breakthrough. She can just be herself. On a bookish note, Lucy was fascinating because I had no idea there was such a profession as a book curator – where do I train and when I can start? I found her research really interesting, because I’ve always wanted to go into the library in Chatsworth and finding out they have a secret staircase was rather thrilling. Her research is inspired by the book her family acquired, inscribed to a friend called Iris from Nancy. Left for Iris at the Heywood Hill Bookshop, it was clearly never collected. Though there is no other mention of Iris that Lucy can find, it’s clear she had a huge effect on Nancy from the inscription alone. While working from this very bookshop, the same place Nancy worked during WWII, she hopes to find more references to Iris and her role in Nancy’s life. I wanted to Lucy to have an adventure of her own while in London and perhaps be inspired by some of Nancy’s spirit. As the book moves along we can see the women are on a similar journey, in terms of making the life they want to have, instead of waiting for it to happen.

Through their letters, it’s clear that the Mitford sisters had a rather awkward and contrary relationship. Despite often being completely at odds with each other, they continue to write, use terms of endearment and their family’s own language and share their news. Despite the scandalous relationship between Diana and Mosley, for whom she left a husband and two children, and Unity’s transformation into a Hitler fan girl, the other sisters continue to write to them. It has to be said that many in the aristocracy had fascist views, but Nancy didn’t share her sister’s politics. As WWII really took hold, Nancy’s huge social circle and fluent French meant she was useful to the government, but would this stretch to discussing her own family? I was fascinated to see this dynamic play out and wondered whether the women could repair their connections afterwards, remembering they are sisters first and foremost. The period detail was brilliant and the complete change between the London of the partying 1920’s and the more somber run up to WWII was done so well. I loved the nostalgic feel of the novel and those lovely little bits only bibliophiles like me can appreciate, such as a part library part menagerie with bird cages and tree branches. If you love bookish chat and the idea of working in a bookshop or have a similar fascination with the Mitfords you’ll love this one. Even if you’ve not come across the family before, there’s so much to love here and it won’t take many pages for Nancy’s wit and engaging narrative will draw you in. However, underneath the charm of the novel is a gripping story of a woman growing into herself, learning what makes her content and realising that she can, as a woman, make choices to pursue her own happiness.

Meet The Author

Eliza Knight is an award-winning and USA Today bestselling author. Her love of history began as a young girl when she traipsed the halls of Versailles. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society and Novelists, Inc., and the creator of the popular historical blog, History Undressed. Knight lives in Maryland with her husband, three daughters, two dogs and a turtle

Posted in Random Things Tours

Beloved Ghost by Fiona Graph

I thoroughly enjoyed Fiona Graph’s first novel Things That Bounded because of the wonderfully detailed historical context she wove around her story. Here she does the same for her characters Theo and Zac, who meet during WWII and survive Dunkirk together. After this experience they become lovers. Theo works at Bletchley Park with Alan Turing, then goes to work in the Foreign Office after the war, while Zac works for MI6. They have a good life. However, this is a time where the love they’ve found with each other, isn’t accepted in the way it is now. Homosexuality is a crime and it’s not hard to imagine how stressful it must be to hide your true self as soon as you leave your front door. The pressure of being an outcast takes it toll on their mental health, with Zac becoming so severely depressed he has to go away. Can this beautiful relationship survive?

I love how Fiona Graph creates her characters, then uses them to drive the story forward. There’s a quiet bravery in their choice to be together in a society doesn’t accept them. The fact that they’re establishment figures is interesting too, both working as civil servants for a system of government that actively persecuted them. The fear of being outed, particularly at work, must have been incredible. Add to that the very real fear of being assaulted, arrested and ultimately being jailed for nothing more than loving each other. There’s the loneliness too, where straight couples can be open and make connections with their neighbours or work colleagues, these men can’t. They can’t invite anyone into their lives and be honest about their love for each other. This means avoiding friendships and relying solely on each other, placing further strain on the couple; they have to be everything to each other. This intensity is hard to maintain and I was so invested in their love for each other, that I was genuinely upset when the pressure became too much.

The author presents the mundane everyday things that happen when two people live together, because of course the men live just like any other couple, gay or straight. She does this by showing their routine, the domestic detail of everyday life is touching. This is all Zac and Theo want, the ability to live like anyone else. It makes us realise how brave men of this generation had to be, just to have what a straight couple probably takes for granted. It drives home the sense of injustice they must have felt. It seems galling that they fought side by side like every other man in WWII, but back in the ordinary world they have to live with a terrible fear of betrayal and prosecution. I kept reading as I was longing for their love to triumph over everything. However unrealistic that might be. The author’s setting was beautifully evoked and I felt firmly in the mid – 20th Century. I felt the most important thing Graph succeeds in doing is to show us, through these characters, the experience of so many men who were vilified and criminalised for loving the ‘wrong’ person. Yet we never feel that Theo and Zac are just ciphers created for this purpose. They feel wholly real and I was so involved with their emotional journey that I almost expected to look up from my book and see them there. Also, this could have been relentlessly miserable, but it isn’t. There’s something hopeful and uplifting about their courage and their enduring love for each other. I truly wanted them to triumph over the obstacles that faced them and for their love, despite the challenges it brings, to remain undimmed.

Meet The Author

Fiona Graph lives in London.

Her first novel, ‘Things That Bounded‘, was published in October 2020.

Beloved Ghost’ is her second novel

Twitter @fiona_graph