Posted in Random Things Tours

The Lost Girls by Heather Young.

This slow, but sinister tale concerns three generations of the Evans family. The Evans women that is. In 1935, Emily Evans vanishes from her family’s summer cottage, set by a lake in a Minnesota backwater. The woods are searched, the lake is dredged, but there is no sign of Emily – the child their mother dotes on the most. Unable to leave the place their sister vanished, Lucy and Lilith Evans go through their father’s subsequent suicide and nurse their mother till she too dies,

Sixty years later, Lucy the quiet middle sister, starts to write the story of that summer, when everything changed. She writes for her Great-Niece Justine and hopes she will understand what happened and set things right. She knows Justine will find it, because she chooses to leave her the house in her will and it comes at the right time. Justine has two daughters and lives with her boyfriend Patrick, but of late his behaviour has worried her. Does he just care about where she is and what she’s doing, or is he controlling her? The house on the lake becomes their refuge, their only neighbour is a taciturn old man who lives at the lodge.

The author tells her story through Lucy and Justine, across the two timelines, as the old mystery and the new drama play out. It’s a structure that works because the past always illuminates the present. The story starts out slowly, setting the scene and giving the reader a deep understanding of these characters and their motivations. The early chapters are almost hypnotic, then the pace builds. By the time both stories reached a crescendo, I was completely drawn in and my partner had to keep me supplied with of tea. I simply didn’t want to move till I finished it.

There’s an incredible sense of place in the novel. We see the lake at different times. In 1935 it’s summer and the family are there all week, with their father joining them from town at the weekend. We see the place as a child would see it: pools to swim in, trees to climb, forests to explore and under one of the cottages some kittens to play with. The place has a warmth and benign feel to it on the surface, that is at odds with an undercurrent that keeps bubbling up. Lilith wants to be more grown up than she is, dressing up a little and sitting with the slightly older kids. Lucy’s voice is anxious constantly where her sister’s antics are concerned, but it’s not clear where the fear comes from. Is she just afraid of her older sister leaving her behind or is something more sinister at play? There’s also a definite ‘middle child’ feeling to her observation that Lilith is catching her parent’s attention by pushing their religious boundaries, and baby Emily is never away from their mother’s side. Emily is definitely the favoured child, but again there’s something odd about the way their mother clings to her, sleeps with her every night and becomes hysterical if she slips out of sight.

By comparison, when Justine and her girls arrive at the lake house it is winter. Instead of feeling like a place to holiday, the landscape is bleak and the remoteness feels threatening. There’s constant talk in town of storms to come, people preparing to be snowed in and getting their supplies. Instead of being a welcoming family home, the cottage has definitely seen better days and there is a haunted quality to it. It’s not just the portrait of Emily set above the mantle with two candles under it. It’s not just that Justine feels like the child’s dark eyes follow her round the room, there’s a sadness and a sense that something terrible happened here, like an imprint left on the air. Matthew at the lodge house also seems a little scary on the surface, but he does plough the drive for the girls to get to school and Justine finds he’s left her a brand new snow shovel just before a blizzard hits. It felt like the remaining Evans girls has needed a place to heal together, without a man in tow. However, the place itself needed to heal and only this generation of the Evans girls could do it.

There are clues everywhere, and different characters hold separate parts of the puzzle. Justine doesn’t want to be like her mother is, always running to the next place and never feeling settled and at peace. She doesn’t want it for her girls either. When danger does come to the lake for a second time, will Justine be the Evans girl who makes the right choices? This was a slow burning tale, that crept up on me and drew me into this sixty year old mystery. I was compelled to read to the end and find what secrets were buried at the lake, and what sort of closure the remaining Evans girls could find.

Meet The Author

Heather is the author of two novels. Her debut, The Lost Girls, won the Strand Award for Best First Novel and was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel. Her second novel, The Distant Dead, was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Novel and named one of the ten best mystery/suspense books of 2020 by Booklist. A former antitrust and intellectual property litigator, she traded the legal world for the literary one and earned her MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars in 2011. She lives in Mill Valley, California, where she writes, bikes, hikes, and reads books by other people that she wishes she’d written.

Posted in Random Things Tours

This Shining Life by Harriet Klein

Wow, this is heartbreakingly sad, but so beautiful too. Rich is dying. Funny, charming, Rich has a love of cheese and throwing parties. He has a son called Ollie who is neuro-diverse and a wife called Ruth who is coping with so much anyway, how will she cope with his death? The book covers Rich’s attempts to live, while dying. There’s also the aftermath of his death where Ruth and Ollie have to learn how to cope without the most important person in their life. Ruth finds it very hard to accept that her time with Rich is now limited and she has no idea when he will die. As time passes, Ollie finds it harder too. He doesn’t understand what it means to die. So, Rich devises a plan and involves his son in choosing gifts for those he loves, as something to remember him by. Ollie loves puzzles and he sees the presents as clues – he thinks each gift has a hidden meaning that his Dad chose to teach him the meaning of life.

The story is told through the important people in Rich’s life and it begins with Ollie. Ollie has realised that the gifts went to the wrong people and he must rectify the mistakes, because otherwise he’ll never understand life or death. He is starting to come apart at the seams but has anyone noticed? Ruth is struggling to cope with his obsessive rituals and her grief is all encompassing. In counselling we refer to ‘complicated grief’ – this can happen when a death is: unexpected with things unresolved or left unsaid, a sudden decline or an accident, the result of a crime, long-term health related with caring roles attached, complicated by circumstances such as being out of touch or at odds with each other, or where a disease is hereditary. Here, Ruth and Ollie haven’t really had time to prepare and their lives have had to adapt very quickly. Ruth can’t fall apart because she has to be there for Ollie, but it is wearing her down and she needs to deal with her own feelings too. I liked the way the author brought in other voices, from Ruth’s family to Rich’s own mother and father, each with their own grief and needs.

The author is a great observer of human behaviour and family dynamics. We can see how grief passes through this family, less like ripples on a pond and more like a shockwave passing through everyone in the vicinity. I talk with clients about the circle of grief – this is a series of concentric circles with the person experiencing the bereavement in the centre, next their spouse or partner, then in layers outwards until we get to the wider community. This is a simple tool that works well in the context of working with an individual because in that space, they are the afflicted person. We show how grief is expressed outward – with people in the outer circles expressing grief outward to family, friends, then they go to workmates or the wider community. Then comfort is expressed inwards, with those in outer circle ‘shoring up’ those further in, giving them the strength to support those in the inner circle. People in the outer circles should not be expecting comfort from those in the centre. Yet, grief is rarely so neatly expressed and the circles are often breached. This could be because of narcissism or lack of boundaries. However, more likely, what happens is shown very clearly in this book. Everyone is at the centre of their own circle. Ruth has to show comfort outward to Ollie and to Rich’s parents who are both struggling with their own grief and the added complication of dementia. Some people simply can’t put another’s needs in front of their own.

When we face a huge upheaval or loss in our lives, we experience it through our own filter. Made up of our own experiences, the emotions we find it easy or difficult to express, our own bias or prejudice. The author has written such an authentic story of loss by exploring each character’s filters, their earlier life experiences and the unique relationship they had with Rich. We each grieve in a unique way because of the unique way we connected with that person. In dying, Rich has given them all the secret, of the meaning of life. It’s in the connections we have with another person and in a way Ollie is right – the gifts do hold the secret. Rich has bought each person something he thinks will remind them of him, in the context of the relationship they had. Knowing each person will miss him in a different way. His life was all about encouraging other’s to enjoy everything life offers and all its variety. I thought the book was emotionally intelligent, full of complex and interesting characters and explored beautifully what happens when such a big personality is taken from a family. A final mention must go to that beautiful cover, with Ollie using his binoculars to focus on the beautiful variety of life in the world. Simply stunning.

Meet The Author

Harriet Kline works part time registering births, deaths and marriages and writes for the rest of the week. Her story Ghost won the Hissac Short Story Competition and Chest of Drawers won The London Magazine Short Story Competition. Other short stories have been published online with Litro, For Books’ Sake, and ShortStorySunday, and on BBC Radio 4. She lives in Bristol with her partner and two teenage sons.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Good Company by Cynthia D’aprix Sweeney

Flora and Julian struggled for years, scraping together just enough acting work to raise their daughter in Manhattan and keep Julian’s small theatre company—Good Company—afloat. A move to Los Angeles brought their first real career successes, a chance to breathe easier, and a reunion with Margot, now a bona fide television star. But has their new life been built on lies? What happened that summer all those years ago? And most importantly, what happens now?

GOOD COMPANY follows two couples entering the midpoint of their lives, against the backdrop of the New York theatre scene and Hollywood. It tells a story of what it means to, as the author says, “truly love but never truly know another person”.

By chance this week I’ve read two books that focus on that mid-point in life, either that or the universe is trying to tell me something. It seems to be a time of shake-ups and regrets. The time when we look at life and either wonder where our younger selves and their vitality disappeared to, or take stock and realise if we don’t make our dreams a reality soon, we never will. It’s the archetypal mid-life crisis on one hand and we shake things up – buy a motorbike, a sports car or trade in our partner for a different type of ‘racy little number’. Other people throw out the ordinary life and go travelling, create a micro-brewery or start a bucket list. For me it means getting some writing experience and gaining confidence with an MA, while finally sitting down and starting to write my book (wish me luck).

Flora meanwhile, is feeling the need to catalogue the years of mementos and evidence of what she and husband Justin have achieved in life. Whether it’s through the theatre group Good Company that they work on together, or through the family they’ve created. The author sets the scene with something familiar that we’ve all done, clearing out old cupboards and storage spaces we’ve been neglecting for years. Flora is looking for a photograph, but is also enjoying reminiscing over the years they’ve spent together professionally and personally. The photo she’s looking for is from when their daughter Ruby is about five years old and they’re staying in Julian’s family mansion in upstate New York for the summer. At the bottom of the filing cabinet she finds it, an envelope of photographs marked ‘KEEP’ from that very summer. Under it is another envelope with an object in, so Flora opens it to find Julian’s wedding ring. This is nothing new. He’s had at least three since they’ve been together. However, on closer inspection this is their first ring, she had engraved especially for him. We all know that feeling. When you discover something that makes the bottom fall out of your world. Julian claimed to have lost this ring on their summer vacation, somewhere outdoors. So how did it get here, carefully sealed and buried under years of family detritus?

We also get to take a look at Flora’s friend Margot, who alongside Ben and Julian used to tread the boards with Good Company. She was one of those friends so interwoven in their lives she’s like family. In fact a five year old Ruby was so taken with Margot that she was always on her knee and being cuddled. Another photo from that summer shows them all, each intertwined in some way with the other. When people are that close, boundaries can be forgotten and it’s hard to see where your ‘self’ ends and the other begins. When one boundary is crossed, others can be breached too. We see that Margot could be overbearing, even interfering, especially back when Flora is planning to marry Julian. Now a famous actress, with a lead role in a hospital soap, we start to see her personality emerging during an interview with a very well informed journalist. It’s clear that she’s well versed in avoiding the difficult question and very willing to manipulate to get what she wants.

I found the setting fascinating, whether it was a beautifully realised New York or sunny LA I felt like I’d escaped into a different world world while reading. I love the idea of Broadway, it was the only thing I wanted to do when I turned 40 – go to Manhattan and see a Broadway show. To be able to read behind the scenes made me feel like I was reading an episode of Smash, a series that I used to watch with a stupid grin on my face. I love to see people perform so it was an absolute joy to have that feeling after being barred from live theatre for so long now. As we sit back and observe the ins and outs of these characters, we can really observe and analyse their behaviour. We see the individual behaviour but also how it feeds into the group dynamic. I could see the established roles, the shorthand they have developed when communicating, and some undercurrents that even the group aren’t aware of. Margot’s controlling ways have followed her through life, Julian is more passive and even powerless in some situations, and Flora is awakening to the fact that sometimes the individual is more important than the group. Many people in middle age are ‘stuck’ in friendship dynamics that are unhealthy and need to change. It can be impossible to change within the group and only by walking away can the individual put themselves first or initiate change in their own life. Our friends can be used to us being one way and may even actively try to manipulate or force us to stay in our little box. I could see all of this here and for a therapist it’s a delicious psychological puzzle to unravel.

I can see why the author’s debut novel was such a success. This was a great character driven read, with a great sense of place to get lost in. I became fully immersed in Flora’s life and all the complexities of these interwoven friendships and marriages. A wonderful ‘holiday read’ to get lost in from a novelist well-versed in the dynamics of people and their friendship circles. It might even make you think about your own friendships. I must just mention that stunning cover art too.

Thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours and Ecco Harper Collins for having me on the tour.

Meet The Author

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s debut novel, The Nest, was a smash success, receiving widespread critical acclaim and named a Best Book of 2016 by many, including The Washington Post. Much of what made The Nestbeloved is back in play with GOOD COMPANY, including Sweeney’s distinctive wit and her incisive examination of the way people, and their relationships—with others and themselves—evolve over decades.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Everything Happens For a Reason by Katie Allen.

Mum-to-be Rachel did everything right, but it all went wrong. Her son, Luke, was stillborn and she finds herself on maternity leave without a baby, trying to make sense of her loss.

When a misguided well-wisher tells her that “everything happens for a reason”, she becomes obsessed with finding that reason, driven by grief and convinced that she is somehow to blame. She remembers that on the day she discovered her pregnancy, she’d stopped a man from jumping in front of a train, and she’s now certain that saving his life cost her the life of her son.

Desperate to find him, she enlists an unlikely ally in Lola, an Underground worker, and Lola’s seven-year-old daughter, Josephine, and eventually tracks him down, with completely unexpected results…

Both a heart-wrenchingly poignant portrait of grief and a gloriously uplifting and disarmingly funny story of a young woman’s determination, Everything Happens for a Reason is a bittersweet, life- affirming read and, quite simply, unforgettable.

When I first talked to Karen Sullivan at Orenda about this incredible book – part of the Jubilant June publishing event – she told me I would cry but I would love it. She was right. I did cry. I cried buckets. I did love it too. This novel reminded me so much about my own loss. I cried for Rachel, I cried for the author, and I cried for anyone who has suffered this terrible loss. Mostly, and selfishly, I cried for myself. I do know the profound sense of loss Rachel goes through, because I lost three pregnancies, one with twins, when I was in my twenties. Of course these were miscarriages, not full term pregnancies, and as someone once tactfully told me ‘better to lose them earlier, than to actually have to give birth, or to have your baby die after a few days’ as if we were playing some sort of ‘Grief Top Trumps’. I was told many things in the months after each miscarriage: there was probably something wrong with the baby; we don’t always understand God’s plans; maybe it wasn’t meant to be. People don’t say these things because they’re malicious. They say these things because they don’t know what to say and silence seems unacceptable. The most useful thing anyone said was from the nurse who discharged me the first time. I was so traumatised by the past 24 hours I was staring ahead, not really seeing and not really listening. She touched my hand and said ‘it isn’t your fault, remember that’.

However, as it happened again and again, I did feel guilty and wracked my brain looking for things I might have done wrong. Rationally I knew it was not my fault, but I wasn’t always rational. Was this to do with my MS? Did I take a tablet I shouldn’t? Should I have helped in the charity shop sorting and labelling clothes, moving boxes? I wasn’t trying for a baby so was it the lack of vitamins? No folic acid? My body felt like such an inhospitable place. It was already attacking itself, now it was attacking my babies. Is it because I shouldn’t be a mum? Did I have a right to bring a baby into my already imperfect world, with my imperfect body? My brain switched off. My heart broke. I was told I had incomplete miscarriages, the baby dies but doesn’t ‘come away’. I then had to read and sign a clinical form that referred to my baby as the ‘products of conception’ and was headed ‘Consent for Termination’. My guilt clicked in again. What if they were wrong and I was killing my baby? To really complete the trauma I contracted an infection after my third miscarriage, and the doctor who had to examine and admit me to hospital actually slapped me on my bare leg because I wasn’t moving fast enough. I felt like my body wasn’t mine anymore. It broke my relationship. It took me on a long, painful journey of finding out that becoming a Mum was going to be more difficult for me because I had Hughes Syndrome, a clotting abnormality. It would be so difficult that I had to choose my own mental health over becoming a mother. I couldn’t make sense of what I’d done wrong to deserve this, on top of my other disabilities.

This is all our central character, Rachel, is trying to do. She wants to make sense of why her baby, Luke, died. She latches onto a platitude and weaves a story around it. If everything does happen for a reason, what could that reason be? Then she thinks of that fateful day when she stopped a stranger from jumping in front of a train, the same day she found out she was pregnant. What if he’d been meant to die? Then, because he was saved, someone else had to die in his place. It’s not clear if she truly believes this, or whether she has to think a greater purpose is at play, because if Luke’s death is without a reason she will fall into the abyss. So, we follow her search for the man she saved. Maybe if she sees him making the most of his second chance at life, she can accept her loss. There is, of course, sadness and grief on the journey, but there’s also humour and the hope that Rachel will work through the worst of her loss and find some peace and acceptance in this awful situation.

The writer is incredibly courageous to take her experiences and lend them to Rachel for the purposes of the novel. As we follow her ‘non-maternity leave’ she tells her story with such a frank, raw, and brutal honesty. This could be a difficult read for someone only just going through the same experience, but for me, I felt like someone had finally seen the pain I was carrying. I would no longer have to stand in the Post Office queue, watching people going about their business, with a terrible inner urge to scream ‘my baby died’. Rachel’s story is told through a series of emails addressed to the son she’s lost. In this private correspondence she can express her worst fears and nothing is left unsaid. There is also a sense for her, that she can send them somewhere; that somehow, Luke can see them. The authenticity of this stream of consciousness can only be achieved by letting us delve deeply into Rachel’s feelings and state of mind. It seems so authentic, because it is. Katie has delved into her very soul for this novel and welcomed us in. I can’t thank her enough. I admire her enormously. It inspires me to keep going, to keep writing my own story.

The fact that this is Rachel’s world means that everyone we meet, we can only see through her eyes. I really enjoyed some of these characters and they do bring balance to a tough story by creating some of the lighter, more humorous moments. Josephine, the daughter of a woman who helps Rachel in her search, has an offbeat humour that I really enjoyed. She really doesn’t have the ability to filter her thoughts before they come out of her mouth, and while that’s always funny, it can also be very insightful in a quirky way. The author has a unique ability to affect the reader’s emotions in one way and then switch them round again very quickly. Rachel’s family mean well when they help and hope she can ‘move on’ from her grief. Some don’t fully understand her quest and want the very best for her. I found myself understanding their confusion and agreeing with their wish that she heals emotionally. The next second I’d be furious, because something has been said that’s so glaringly insensitive. I’d want to turn the air blue with a few ‘F’ words.

I know I have rambled about my own experiences here and maybe I haven’t said enough about why you should read the book. However, I can honestly say this is the book about the loss of a baby, and the chance to be a mother, that is the most authentic I have ever read. I felt represented by this story and by this talented debut author. It’s unique structure, it’s rawness and ability to plumb the depths of despair, while still making you laugh and dare to hope, is simply extraordinary. It is beautifully written and captures our human need to make sense of something that is senseless. No one should be told how to grieve. Each person, and each individual loss is different. We humans find it difficult to accept that some life-experiences have no explanations or answers. When we can’t find meaning, we create it. So, we tell each other stories.

I’d like to say a big thank you to Karen at Orenda for putting this book in front of me months ago, then waiting patiently for my response. I’d also like to thank Anne Cater for letting me ramble like this on the blog tour.

Meet The Author

Everything Happens for a Reason is Katie’s first novel. She used to be a journalist and columnist at the Guardian and Observer, and started her career as a Reuters correspondent in Berlin and London. The events in Everything Happens for a Reason are fiction, but the premise is loosely autobiographical. Katie’s son, Finn, was stillborn in 2010, and her character’s experience of grief and being on maternity leave without a baby is based on her own. And yes, someone did say to her ‘Everything happens for a reason’.
Katie grew up in Warwickshire and now lives in South London with her husband, children, dog, cat and stick insects. When she’s not writing or walking children and dogs, Katie loves baking, playing the piano, reading news and wishing she had written other people’s brilliant novels.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Fragile by Sarah Hilary.

There’s a lot packed into this complex thriller about human relationships, traumatic childhoods, damaged adults, social justice, and the differences between those who are deemed to be respectable and those society deems outcasts. It’s an addicting and sometimes uncomfortable read, but it’s themes pour scorn on those who dismiss genre fiction as having nothing important to say. Across two timelines, one current and one a year in the past, we follow our main character Nell. Currently she’s homeless and her lover, Joe, has disappeared into the night with a well- groomed older woman. Nell tracks them to a tiny house, almost impossibly narrow, and invisible from certain points in the street. It’s a three storey, possibly Victorian town house and must be worth a fortune. Waiting impatiently for Joe to emerge she spends her last handful of change on a cup of tea in order to sit in the warmth of a cafe. The only person who comes out is a young girl with a blonde plait hanging over her shoulder. As she comes in for a drink Nell makes a choice to go over and talk to her and finds out she’s been interviewed for a position as assistant to the house owner – a man. In her desperation to find Joe, Nell decides she needs to get inside that house and comes up with a plan.

In her past, Nell has been in the care system, ending up in a group home in Wales with a foster carer called Megan Flack. She is a career rather than a vocational carer, collecting the money but rarely doing the job. She is neglectful at best, but there’s much more going on under the surface. Nell has learned to look after a home because she was always picking up the slack with housework, cooking and mothering the younger children, particularly the cute 6year old Rosie who clings to Nell. When Joe first arrives at the home Nell is knocked sideways by how beautiful he is. Two teenagers under one roof, with plenty of time to themselves creates the perfect opportunity and they are soon joined at the hip. In the heat of the summer they go bathing at a nearby pool, but Joe doesn’t always want the younger kids there and Nell is having to make hard choices. What has happened to cause the pair to flee their foster home? They end up in London, sleeping on the streets, until one night Joe disappears into Starling Villas.

The book’s structure is clever and works really well to pace the action and build tension. We learn a little bit more about the present, then go back into the past; a past that constantly updates and informs the present again. There was a growing sense of unease, as I got further into the book. I was never sure who was truly playing who. Caroline was unnerving and hard to like, because she never seemed to show any vulnerability. Megan was worse though; cold,manipulative and completely without empathy. The thought that there are people like this looking after children who are already traumatised and suffering from attachment issues. There was a social conscience here. The fact that a magistrate, a man who decides the fate of children like this, can be licentious and exploitative behind closed doors shouldn’t be a surprise, but somehow it was. There was something about Robin that I trusted, despite all the evidence to the contrary. We all know that status is conveyed according to how people appear and what they own. We might automatically assume that the well-read man living at Starling Villas is a fine, upstanding citizen. We also might assume that those brought up in the care system, the homeless and the hopeless, are capable of just about anything. What did drive Nell and Joe to pack and leave Wales, so suddenly? Why is Megan still seeking them out?

Nell is a wonderful character, all tough exterior but marshmallow inside. Her vulnerability is evident in her interactions with Robin, her new employer. She’s a hard worker, trained by a foster mother who seems to have hated some of her charges as much as doing anything that made her break a sweat. Nell’s been a mother figure at an age when she still needed one herself. She’s used to making a home too, making the best of the meagre things she can find to enhance her surroundings and lift her spirits. She’s tough enough to survive most things, even a winter on the streets in the capital, but the things that have happened to her still haunt her mentally. She’s been let down so many times it shouldn’t hurt anymore, but it does, especially when she’s let her guard down and softened slightly. Even though some of her behaviour is morally questionable, she’s so young and has had so few chances in life, I found myself rooting for her. The author’s knowledge about a childhood spent in care and what it can do to the rest of your life shows research, listening to personal accounts and experience. Not everybody survives, some will be institutionalised for the rest of their lives, while those who do survive the system don’t always leave unscathed. I think this was represented so well through the characters in this novel. Thankfully, not all foster parents are like Megan Flack.

This was a great read, compelling and difficult to put down once you’re hooked by the story. Every character has nuance and flaws, meaning in both the past and current narrative, you’re never quite sure who to trust or what to believe. I was haunted by little Rosie, just like Nell is. The author has created an addictive thriller, but given it heart and poignancy too. I was completely drawn in until the very last page and the ending was beautifully written.

Meet The Author

Sarah Hilary’s debut novel, Someone Else’s Skin, won the 2015 Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year and was a World Book Night selection. The Observer’s Book of the Month (‘superbly disturbing’) and a Richard and Judy Book Club bestseller, it has been published worldwide. No Other Darkness, the second in the series, was shortlisted for a Barry Award in the U.S. Her D.I. Marnie Rome series continues with Tastes Like Fear, Quieter Than Killing, Come and Find Me, and Never Be Broken. Fragile is her first standalone novel. –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Posted in Random Things Tours

One Last Time by Helga Flatland.

Translated by Rosie Hedger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet The Author

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


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

Posted in Random Things Tours

Then A Wind Blew by Kay Powell

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

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

Kay Powell

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

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

Posted in Random Things Tours

Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau.

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

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

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

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

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

Meet The Author

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

Posted in Random Things Tours

This Is How We Are Human by Louise Beech.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet The Author

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

Posted in Random Things Tours

Heatstroke by Hazel Barkworth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet The Author

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

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