‘My name is Mike Engleby and I’m in my second year at an ancient university’.
In this book Faulks creates one of the best unreliable narrators in fiction. His voice is mesmerising, intelligent and strangely compelling. I found myself strangely drawn in by him. In fact he’s very funny, in a darkly humorous way. We’re restricted to his first person narrative and his tale of a working class upbringing, affected by poverty and physically abusive treatment from his stepfather. Despite his disadvantages, he wins a place at a Cambridge college. Although he’s intellectually capable of fitting in, socially he’s a misfit, struggling on the edges of college society. Then he sees a girl in the tearoom of the University Library and an obsession starts. He observes Jennifer to a degree that’s detailed and creepy.
‘She was smoking a cigarette and trying not to laugh, but her eyes looked concerned and vulnerable as Robin’s low voice went urgently on. She is alive, Godammit she is alive. She looks so poised, with that womanly concern, beginning to override the girlish humour. I will always remember that balanced woman/girl expression on her face.’
This is the detail of someone who is watching constantly. He seems to have very little empathy for others, apart from Jennifer. So when she disappears, we are left in conflict. Where should our sympathies lie? Has Engleby lost someone he truly cared for or is something more sinister going on? Now I can’t claim that Faulks created the unreliable narrator, but this is the first time I truly had the rug swept from under me by a book. It’s not so much a twist, as a seismic shift that makes me question absolutely everything I’d read up to this point. The next books that surprised me this much was Atonement and We Need To Talk About Kevin so the book is in great company.
The build up is very slow, but the tension soon becomes unbearable. We’re waiting for something to snap! I felt myself weirdly torn between compassion and contempt for this boy who has been subjected to cruelty and possibly developed this faux intellectual and pretentious personality to survive. Or, has simply been lying to us all along? Faulks is questioning the way writers construct identity on the page and the reader’s tendency to believe the person presented to them, often without question. Is identity as fluid as he presents, or are some of our characteristics set in a permanent ‘self’ as most of us would like to believe. It’s an uncomfortable read, not just because we might feel confused with our own fixed and fluid selves, but because we feel complicit with a narrator we’ve enjoyed. Even more uncomfortable, could it be because there might be a little bit of Engleby in all of us.
Meet the Author
Sebastian Faulks was born in April 1953. Before becoming a full-time writer in 1991, he worked as a journalist. Sebastian Faulks’s books include A Possible Life, Human Traces, On Green Dolphin Street, Engleby, Birdsong, A Week in December and Where My Heart Used to Beat.
These are people you know, but not as you know them. Peel back the mask and see.
CAN YOU FIND THE FAMOUS PERSON HIDDEN IN EVERY STORY?
Today I’m bringing you something a little bit different – a preview of a book of short stories, not my usual genre. However, these stories are a little bit different because each one attempts to get behind the image of a famous face, someone we think we know, or do we?
Dreamers, singers, heroes and killers, they can dazzle with their beauty or their talent or their unmitigated evil, yet inside themselves, they are as frail and desperate as the rest of us. But can you see them? Can you unravel the truth?
‘Oh, how I enjoyed these stories. A highly original and beautifully crafted collection that explodes into the reader’s consciousness like fireworks’ – Kate Horsley, award-winning author of The American Girl.
‘Tightly written, technically accomplished, light-footed, wryly ironic and genuinely affecting. Excellent stuff’ – Professor Graham Mort, Director of The Centre for Transcultural Writing and Research and winner of both the Bridport Prize and The Edge Hill Prize.
This book is dedicated to the victims of violent crime, the struggle against discrimination in all its forms and making the world a better place for our children. That is why 30% of all profits will be shared between Stop Hate UK, The North East Autism Society and Friends of the Earth.
Backstories is published by Smoke & Mirrors Press.
MY BACKSTORIES QUEST
“Whatever happened to, all of the heroes?” The Stranglers 1977
I was twelve years old when I first heard this song and although there was something in the feral tone that grabbed me, I didn’t really understand it. I do now. I get the angst and the loss and the emptiness, which is why, in Backstories, I aim to answer the question.
I’m not interested in simplistic tabloid truths. They clung on too long, drank too much, lost their looks and their charm and generally reminded us that we’re all getting older. That’s not what I want from my heroes.
What I want is to find the spark, to dig down into their pain, their passions and their imperfections, and show you our heroes as they truly are.
So join me on my quest. Let’s bypass the obvious, the tedious,and the dull. Brave the deeper, darker paths where the treasures can be found, and together we’ll uncover the fears and doubts that made our heroes what they were and perhaps catch a glimpse of ourselves along the way.
Whatever happened to all of the heroes?
They turned out to be human beings, in all their diverse glory
Well March has been a very busy reading month, but with so many publication and blog tour dates moving I started to get a bit confused! My favourites split quite easily into two categories: psychological thrillers and historical fiction.
The Last House On Needless Street by Catriona Ward
Published by Viper, 18th March 2021.
What can I say about this unique and compelling piece of fiction? It’s very hard to do it justice and also hard not to reveal anything. Ted lives alone at the end of Needless Street and spends a lot of time thinking about an incident several years before when a little girl disappeared from the lake nearby and was never found. Others might have forgotten, but not Ted and not the girl’s sister who has a huge sense of guilt about her sister’s loss. Ted was a suspect at the time and it’s not hard to see why; he’s a slightly strange loner, living nearby in a ramshackle home with boarded up windows. The girl’s sister hasn’t forgotten that Ted was a suspect and decides to rent the house next door and watch him, in the hope of finally discovering where her sister is. CCTV proved Ted’s alibi at the time, but the sister’s convinced she has found the culprit. Then another narrator tells us her story, she lives with Ted but isn’t what you expect. I guessed some of what is going on, but not the whole and I loved the ambition and audacity. This is a unique, original and deeply creative piece of work that enthralled and stunned in equal measure. Ward is a writer of immense imagination and talent and I feel privileged to have been given the chance to read this through NetGalley before publication.
While Paris Slept by Ruth Druart
Published by Headline Review 4th March 2021
In Paris, Jean-Luc is working on the railways during the German occupation, when he is given a chance to make a difference. As a train passes through on its way to Auschwitz, he is entrusted with something so precious it changes his life. I believed every single character in this moving story from the heart and often with a lump in my throat. It brings up such an important moral and ethical dilemma. How can reparation and restitution be made when an atrocity is so seismic it affects the whole world? No one in this story is untouched by the Nazi’s march across Europe, even down to the ‘collabo’ men and women, who might have only been doing the job they’d always done, but because they now worked for the Bosch, were hated by their neighbours or even killed in some places. To the Jewish camp mates at Auschwitz who had some useful skill the guards could exploit. In truth, everyone was just trying to survive, to keep their family safe and for some people that meant paying a higher price than others.This is so powerful and a difficult read in places, but such a beautifully written account of how war touches everyone. Loss is the all pervasive emotion I felt throughout and for so many different things. If we think about loss as ripples on a pond they stretch outwards on the surface of the water hitting each group of people more gently the further removed from the event they are. This novel shows us that the after effects of a terrible event like the Holocaust keep rippling forward through time touching each generation that comes after.
The Forgotten Life of Arthur Pettingerby Suzanne Fortin
Published by Aria, 4th March 2021
Arthur Pettinger’s memory isn’t what it used to be. He can’t always remember the names of his grandchildren, where he lives or which way round his slippers go. He does remember Maryse though, a woman he hasn’t seen for decades, but whose face he will never forget. When Arthur’s granddaughter, Maddy moves in along with her daughter Esther, it’s her first step towards pulling her life back together. But when Esther makes a video with Arthur, the hunt for the mysterious Maryse goes viral. The sections where we travel back and see the full account of Arthur’s mission into France during WW2 are powerful and moving. It’s not hard to see how feelings were amplified, by the danger they were facing on a daily basis. If you don’t know whether you’ll be alive tomorrow, you want to be sure those you love know you love them. The growing feelings between Maryse and Arthur are plain to see and I was devastated by the scenes where they ended up separated. How dementia felt to the sufferer was depicted in various creative ways, one of which was the collapse of time where Arthur is in the past and then the present seconds later. I hoped that when the end of Arthur’s life came he could be with Maryse in the woods in France forever.
People Like Us by Louise Fein
Published by Head of Zeus 6th August 2021.
I was late to the party with this stunning novel by Louise Fein, published last year. It’s set in the German city of Leipzig as the rise of the Nazi party leads to WW2. A young German girl called Herta is slowly drowned by the tidal wave of nationalism, and fascism that overwhelms her country and changes her life altogether. Fein was inspired to write the novel after researching her family’s Jewish roots and eventual flight to London. During her research, she started to wonder how a country and it’s people could go from being a reasonable and tolerant to committing such atrocities against their fellow human beings. So, to explore that idea, she decided to write her novel from the perspective of an ordinary German child, slowly becoming brainwashed by the evil ideology. It’s the childhood innocence of Herta that makes this book work so well and allows us to have empathy, despite her allegiances. The book focuses on the city’s treatment of its Jewish population, and for Herta this is personalised as her childhood friend Walter is Jewish. What will it mean for both of them, when that friendship turns to love and then comes up against the hate of Hitler’s regime? This is a stunning and moving novel that I would encourage everyone to read, especially those who think this couldn’t happen to people like us.
The Apothecary by Sarah Penner
Published Legend Press, 2nd March 2021
Hidden in the depths of eighteenth-century London, a secret apothecary shop caters to an unusual kind of clientele. Women across the city whisper of a mysterious figure named Nella who sells well-disguised poisons to use against the oppressive men in their lives. But the apothecary’s fate is jeopardized when her newest patron, a precocious twelve-year-old, makes a fatal mistake, sparking a string of consequences that echo through the centuries to a tourist called Caroline. I thought the author conveyed both 18th and 21st Century London really well. I could imagine myself there with all the sights and smells she conjured up. I loved the description of the apothecary shop, back in its heyday and as it was when Caroline rediscovered it. The ending of Nella and Eliza’s story was unexpected, but showed the strength of female friendship and solidarity. I found myself hoping that Caroline would do the same – to choose an unexpected and unknown future of her own making. This was a brilliant read, historical fiction at its best and an incredible debut from an author I’ll be watching in the future.
The Favour by Laura Vaughan.
Published by Corvus 4th March 2021
This is an interesting thriller combined with a Grand Tour through Italy, with a psychologically complex heroine. When she was thirteen years old, Ada Howell lost not just her father, but the life she felt she was destined to lead. Now, at eighteen, Ada is given a second chance when her wealthy godmother gifts her with an extravagant art history trip to Italy. In the palazzos of Venice, the cathedrals of Florence and the villas of Rome, she finally finds herself among the kind of people she aspires to be: sophisticated, cultured, privileged. Ada does everything in her power to prove she is one of them. And when a member of the group dies in suspicious circumstances, she seizes the opportunity to permanently bind herself to this gilded set. But everything hidden must eventually surface, and when it does, Ada discovers she’s been keeping a far darker secret than she could ever have imagined. In the beautiful backdrops of Venice, Florence and Rome there are constant hints of fakery and disguise: the trompe l’oeil frescos of the country houses; the maze of laurel hedges; the association of Venice with carnival and disguise. All of this imagery and reference to facade, disguise and things not quite being as they seem adds to the atmosphere and intrigue. It’s like seeing a beautiful bowl of fruit, that at its centre, is rotten to the core. This book will make a great book club read, not only to discuss these awful characters, but to ponder on what we might have done in the same circumstances. As the years roll by, what price will Ada pay and how long can she maintain the facade she has built?
I’ve been lucky to have this incredible debut novel since last year and in that time it hasn’t lost any of its emotional power. A second reading still left me deeply sad for the characters, but also for real people who lost family members due to war. Not just those who died but those who became displaced and scattered across the globe from each other. Regular readers will know my late in-laws war experiences thar I’m currently turning into a novel, because it is so extraordinary. So the human cost of war is a subject close to my heart and I absolutely loved this novel; it is shocking, heart-rending, and deeply moving. Told across two timelines, two countries and in several different character’s perspectives we are shown every angle on this difficult case.
We meet Jean-Luc and Charlotte who live in California, 1953. Santa Cruz is an incredible place to live, and a great place to bring up their young son Sam. The fled France during the war when Sam was only days old. However, despite seeming like the perfect family they have a huge secret. Jean-Luc and Charlotte were both working in public services in France; Charlotte was a nurse and Jean-Luc was a railway worker. So, when the Germans occupied Paris they were forced to work for the German forces. One day Jean-Luc is transferred to a different part of the railway, making repairs and doing maintenance on the track that is carrying French Jews over borders towards Poland, and Auschwitz. There are rumours about what is going on in these so-called work camps. Jean -Luc has heard them, but now he’s seeing mounting evidence that something is badly wrong. Sent to tidy up after a late train, the men find people’s belongings littered across the platform, glasses, crutches and even teddy bears. On one horrific day he sees a doll lying further up the platform, but when a worker picks it up, it isn’t a doll at all. Jean-Luc has to act and decides to sabotage the rails, to do something that perhaps saves one person. All he gets is a blow that opens up his cheek and a shattered leg. There in the hospital, while he recovers, he meets nurse Charlotte and slowly they form a connection. They are open with each other about the mixed feelings they have about their jobs. Are they collaborating or are they just trying to survive the best they can? So, when a chance comes to make a massive difference to one person, will they take it?
Sarah and husband David are rounded up and put in a train carriage to a work camp. Sarah has given birth to Samuel only a few hours before. Squashed into little more than a cattle truck, so cramped they can’t sit down at all, and one bucket in the corner for a toilet. An unplanned stop sees them herded onto a platform and Sarah sees her chance. In a second she weighs up the railway worker in front of her and thinks he looks kind, despite the scar down his face. She thrusts her baby at him and begs him to look after Samuel. Jean-Luc vows to keep him safe. He gathers a few essentials and goes to Charlotte’s home and asks if she’ll go with him. His plan is to use contacts in the resistance to walk over the Pyrenees to the border with Spain and hopefully sail for the USA. Our second timeline is 1953 in Santa Cruz, California. Jean-Luc, Charlotte and Sam have really settled into an American way of life. Sam is now nine and although they miss Paris they know this is the best way to live. However, when a black car turns up outside the house one morning, neighbours curtains start twitching. What could this lovely couple have done? Is it something to do with the war?
I believed every single character in this moving story from the heart and often with a lump in my throat. It brings up such an important moral and ethical dilemma. How can reparation and restitution be made when the atrocity is so seismic it affects the whole world? No one in this story is untouched by the Nazi’s march across Europe, even down to the ‘collabo’ men and women, who might have only been doing the job they’d always done, but because they now worked for the Bosch, were hated by their neighbours or even killed in some places. To the Jewish camp mates at Auschwitz who had some useful skill the guards could exploit, such as David’s medical skills taking him within a whisper of the terrible experiments conducted by Dr Mengele. In truth, everyone was just trying to survive, to keep their family safe and for some people that meant paying a higher price than others. I felt deeply that Jean-Luc was a good man who felt a huge responsibility for the baby Sarah passed him that night. He was willing to kill to keep him safe and I believed his motives were entirely altruistic. Charlotte also takes huge risks to keep him safe and I think both feel this is a task given by God and as they flee across the border into Spain, their only thought is keeping the boy alive for parents who are likely to have been killed days before. As Sarah first steps from the train at their destination she takes in the skeletal prisoners, the large pipe belching out smoke and the all pervading smell, and realises they are in hell. Prisoners plead with them – ‘why didn’t you kill yourself?’ The carriages were packed so tight it was standing room only with others shuffling around so everyone got a chance to sit for a few moments. If you couldn’t stay upright you died and that was probably preferable to this. To go through hell then have to spend nine years looking for your son is heart breaking, but in whose best interest is it for the child to return to parents he never knew?
It was Sam I felt for more than anyone, because there is only one outcome that would have been fair for him and he isn’t asked. I was distressed by his experience just as much as that of his parents. He is wrenched away from the parents and life he knows, scared and alone he is drugged to be transported to France and his birth parents. He goes from an outdoorsy experience of life to a flat in Paris, with two strangers who don’t speak his language. He has no friends and no grasp of his Jewish heritage either. His confidence is affected, his mood grows lower, the skin on his legs breaks out and becomes sore, weepy and infected. All he wants is his father, his mother and his home. I won’t reveal how this is resolved but I wept as I read the last few chapters. This is so powerful and a difficult read in places, but such a beautifully written account of how war touches everyone. Loss is the all pervasive emotion I felt throughout and for so many different things. If we think about loss as ripples on a pond they stretch outwards on the surface of the water hitting each group of people more gently the further removed from the event they are. This novel shows us that the after effects of a terrible event like the Holocaust keep rippling forward through time touching each generation that comes after.
Meet The Author
Ruth Druart grew up on the Isle of Wight, moving away at the age of eighteen to study psychology at Leicester University. She has lived in Paris since 1993, where she has followed a career in teaching. She has recently taken a sabbatical, so that she can follow her dream of writing full-time.
‘We keep a journal, to entrap the collection of selves that form us’.
I didn’t want to like this book at first. Logan Mountstuart as a teenager isn’t very likeable. I found him cowardly, and I didn’t like his attitude towards women – despite the fact that it’s very much of it’s time. Yet, the book crept up on me until I found myself empathising deeply with him during the war and towards the end of his life. What Boyd is telling us is that every life is both ordinary and extraordinary, and Logan Mountstuart’s – stretching across the twentieth century – is a rich tapestry of both. As a writer who finds inspiration with Hemingway in Paris and the Bloomsbury set with Virginia Woolf in London, the Spanish Civil War, as a spy recruited by Ian Fleming who was betrayed in the war, and as an art-dealer in ’60s New York, Logan mixes with the men and women who shape his times. But as a son, friend, lover and husband, he makes the same mistakes we all do in our search for happiness. Here, then, is the story of a life lived to the full – and a journey deep into a very human heart.
I loved the structure of the novel, told through a series of journals that begin when Logan is approximately fifteen, until he is 85. So the style of the piece constantly changes, as does the perspective and collected wisdom of the writer. He writes in the ‘now’, experiencing things without the benefit of reflection or hindsight. There is an honesty here that can be blunt, and the structure is further accentuated by footnotes and even corrections, as the older Boyd thinks again or finds out more. Here and there we have gaps where he hasn’t been able to maintain a diary due to physical obstacles, or where he hasn’t been in the right space mentally. These different voices of Boyd’s accentuate the voyage of time and his learning, but also the development into newer selves. For me it’s this change that’s intriguing and kept me reading. He isn’t likeable sometimes, but then he learns and goes in a different direction. Directions that are sometimes more about action for action’s sake, rather than a considered choice made.
It’s a strange experience, when we’ve finished, to reconsider Logan’s angst ridden teenage voice. It’s extra poignant, because we know if he’s been hindered by those aspects he lamented in his character. Similarly, in knowing how his life ends,we can decide whether his triumphs are adequately balanced by loss and failure. The losses he suffers in the war are so deeply moving and the feeling came to me, that what comes after is almost futile. He was always his best self with his son and the woman he loved. I also think the structure made Logan so vividly real that I mourned alongside him and despite disliking his teenage self, I was genuinely emotional at the end.
A bit like the film Forrest Gump, Logan has a talent for bumping into the rich and famous – including a regrettable period with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. He meets authors as mentioned – Hemingway, Woolf, Fleming – and artists – Klee and Picasso, to name a few. This name dropping could get in the way of the narrative but Boyd is clever enough to make it a credible part of the story. We sometimes even detect their influence on his writing.
The characterisation and way Logan develops into his many selves, makes this book an absolute masterpiece. By the end of the book he was someone completely different and yet the same. There’s somehow a constant thread that joins the selves like beads on a string. The book reads like a real diary with no explanation for the changes in character we see, yet somehow we know why. The only part that did jar for me was the art dealer in NYC section, as it didn’t seem to fit anywhere but then maybe that’s the point. Could Logan survive the huge losses he experienced without a massive break from what and who he was before? The man who had loved so much couldn’t continue with the same openness. There’s a break here or knot in the thread.
I loved the sweep and scale of his story, but life isn’t always about that. It’s about the small, daily actions and our reflections on that. The way Boyd relates those mundane daily bits and bobs is genius. In an age before Instagram there are descriptions of meals eaten, conversations had, the weather, what he wore. There’s even a tendency toward new year reflections and hopes for the future. He gives himself a talking to, where needed. Sometimes he repeats himself or misremembers something. Then, when he’s alone in his flat, he cuts such a tragic figure that I forgot what I didn’t like and saw a nothing more or nothing less than a human heart.
‘And suddenly I wonder: is it more of my bad luck to have been born when I was at the beginning of this century and not be able to be young at its end. […] and then, almost immediately I think what a futile regret that is. You must live the life you have been given.’
Meet The Author
William Boyd was born in 1952 in Accra, Ghana, and grew up there and in Nigeria. He is the author of fifteen highly acclaimed, bestselling novels and five collections of stories. He is married and divides his time between London and south-west France.
It only took a few sentences for me to be fully involved in Harry McCoy’s world. We hit the ground running, deep in Harry’s thoughts as he makes his way to Woodside Inn and the case of a missing girl. Mentally he’s running through the timeline:
‘Quarter past eight. The call had come in just before six last night, so fifteen hours or so she had been missing. The time for her to have got lost or stayed at a pals was lone gone. A thirteen- year old girl doesn’t go missing for fifteen hours, overnight, without something being very, very wrong’.
It’s immediate and tells us who he is, a detective with years of experience used to slipping into work mode quickly.
He also creates a great sense of place. I love Glasgow and it’s regeneration since it was a city of culture has turned it into a tourist destination. This is old Glasgow, dirty and stuck in the midst of a heatwave.
‘Glasgow wasn’t used to this kind of weather either, didn’t suit it somehow. The harsh sunlight showed up the reality of the city – no cloudy weather or drizzly rain to soften the picture. The sunlight picked out the decay, the rubbish on the streets, the ruined faces on the group of shaky men outside the off-licence waiting for it to open’.
This is a hard city, and a hard-drinking city. The grimness and the dirt don’t just describe the the city, but the men too. These are hard-worn men, from the dodgy and drunk to the outright evil and this applies to the police officers too.
McCoy has been passed over for the high profile missing girl case, he’s not sure why, but knows his boss, Raeburn, likes push him. In fact if he could push McCoy to leave he would. He passes McCoy a junior officer’s errand, calling all officers on leave back into the station. McCoy swallows his pride and anger, realising it’s not worth the effort, but being the only free officer at the station works in his favour. He picks up the case of rock star Bobby March, found dead that morning in a Glasgow hotel. However, the Chief Inspector also trusts McCoy with a more personal mission. Alice Kelly isn’t the only missing girl in the city. Chief Inspector Murray’s niece Laura has also gone missing. Laura is 15 and has been causing the usual worries about teenage girls at home, by dabbling with drink and boys, but now she hasn’t come home. This could have gone ‘through the shop’ as McCoy describes it, but her father is deputy head of Glasgow Council and he doesn’t want Laura’s escapades in the papers, scuppering the chances of him becoming an MP. So Harry sets out into the city on a dual mission, but does find himself being pulled into the Alice Kelly case too.
I loved that Harry walks a fine line as a police officer, but his loyalties can pull him to the edge of the underworld he’s investigating. He visits a shebeen he knows well, an illicit drinking bar where he’s in attendance sometimes as a customer, and not just in an official capacity. He’s questioning the owner Iris about whether Laura has been in this dive, when she taunts him about his friend Cooper. Cooper is a man on the other side of the law, but he and McCoy were kids together and his loyalty to his friends is strong. He goes to Cooper’s place and to his horror finds him unconscious with drugs, that have clearly become a habit. It shows a side of Harry where he’s not in detective mode and I love that he is loyal to friends, no matter what position they’re in. However, his loyalty to the polis means that he knows where the line is and he will not cross it. The plots are all beautifully blended together and each one was interesting enough to keep me reading to the end. Although, Harry isn’t meant to be on the missing girl case, he does keeps stumbling in on clues. It shows his skill as an investigator that he is able to see connections, without getting the cases muddled at all. The pace is fast, the tension is palpable and I was engrossed from beginning to end. I am so looking forward to the next in the series and it’s on my bedside table ready to go.
Sometimes the past won’t stay hidden, it demands to be uncovered…
Arthur Pettinger’s memory isn’t what it used to be. He can’t always remember the names of his grandchildren, where he lives or which way round his slippers go. He does remember Maryse though, a woman he hasn’t seen for decades, but whose face he will never forget.
When Arthur’s granddaughter, Maddy moves in along with her daughter Esther, it’s her first step towards pulling her life back together. But when Esther makes a video with Arthur, the hunt for the mysterious Maryse goes viral.
There’s only one person who can help Maddy track down this woman – the one that got away, Joe. Their quest takes them to France, and into the heart of the French Resistance.
When the only way to move forwards is to look back, will this family finally be able to?
I loved this book from the beginning. I immediately felt such empathy for Arthur, struggling with dementia and living with his granddaughter, Hazel, who seems to have reached the end of her patience in her caring role. Arthur is the very picture of a benign old gentleman, a bit confused and totally dependent on the help of others. When I worked in a residential home for the elderly, I easily grew attached to elderly residents like this. However, even in that act of enjoying caring for these men, we’re dismissing so many things about them. We’re almost seeing them like a cute, but battered old teddy bear. I would forget that they were once young like me (I was 20) and that they’d had aspirations for their lives: careers to embark on, love affairs to pursue, and the world to see. That is until war came along and those plans were ripped up to be replaced with roles in the forces, defending Europe against the steady rise of Hitler and his Nazi party. The sacrifices made by men and women at this time shouldn’t be underestimated. They gave up that time where I had the luxury of starting to know myself, to forge an adult identity. I soon realised that the people I was caring for had once been young like I was with all of the same experiences and feelings I did. They’d felt passion, excitement, love, and all the things that bring enjoyment to life. Their old, often broken body, was merely a shell and once I understood this proper connections started to form with residents. I would encourage memory boxes, and displays up around the home showing the resident’s lives so that all carer’s could see and start relating as one human to another instead of carer and patient.
I felt the author captured the confusion and distress of dementia incredibly well. Once his other granddaughter Maddy moves in to look after him along with her daughter, Esther, life does settle into a better pattern for Arthur and he is more relaxed. In the chapters told from Arthur’s point of view, the way he relates to the world is so moving. The author describes the sensation of knowing something, such as his great-granddaughter’s name, but being unable to reach it. Arthur knows the knowledge is there, he just can’t remember where he put it. The frustration of this must be enormous, but with the love and understanding he receives from Maddy and Esther, these absences of knowledge don’t bother him so much. He can let them go in the knowledge the information will return, possibly because he’s being treated with patience and respect. The description of ‘sundowning’ was brilliant, referring to the distressing symptom of increased confusion towards nightfall with insomnia and often pacing up and down as the differences between night and day seem to disappear. The symptom Arthur is finding most distressing is the loss of distinction between different times:
‘He knew his name was Arthur Pettinger and he was ninety-six years old. He also knew he was in his bedroom because on the door was a picture of himself with his name written underneath. Tomorrow, he might not know any of this. Yesterday, he was twenty years old and loading bales of hay onto the back of his father’s tractor.’
Often he’s unsure about who is looking after him, but he knows they do it with such love. Just as he experiences stages of his own life simultaneously, he can experience people in the same way:
‘Maddy Pettinger. Of course, dear, sweet Maddy – his granddaughter. He could see her when she was a small child, maybe about five or six. She was wearing a blue pinafore dress and her hair was in bunches with blue ribbon. A warmth filled his heart’.
The distress seems to come as he remembers a particular woman called Maryse who he met in France when in a mission with Special Operations. There is something about this mission that will not leave his memory and since it must have been very traumatic and emotional that’s not surprising, what is surprising to Maddy is that a woman she has never heard of holds such a huge part of her grandfather’s heart and memory. However, for Arthur, Maryse might have been with him just yesterday and all the feelings still remain, as strong as they were fifty or sixty years before. He can simultaneously be deep in conversation with Maryse only to find her disappeared, and this is the cause of his distress. He is losing her and experiencing deep grief. Over and over again. His way of describing his illness is one of the most apt I’ve ever read. Here he describes how memories and ideas become difficult to extract from the mess in his head. It’s all:
‘muddled up in his mind like a heap of spaghetti and he didn’t know where the strands of thought started. They were a jumbled mess of words and images, fragments of memory and snatches of thought – all knotted up together’.
The sections where we travel back and see the full account of Arthur’s mission into France during WW2 are powerful and moving. It’s not hard to see how feelings were amplified, by the danger they were facing on a daily basis. If you don’t know whether you’ll be alive tomorrow, you want to be sure those you love know you love them. The growing feelings between Maryse and Arthur are plain to see and I was devastated by the scenes where they ended up separated. It’s hard to know whether Arthur’s dementia is stirring up emotions for a love affair unfinished, whether Maryse was left in danger, or if things were finished and he doesn’t remember. This is the worry that granddaughter Maddy has. Her daughter Esther’s normal cooking channel goes viral when she asks for help finding Maryse, but Maddy is struggling over how to handle it. She’s even more cross when Esther approaches her ex-boyfriend Joe to do the investigation. Joe works as an historical investigator so in Esther’s mind he’s the right man to call, but she doesn’t understand the emotions involved. Maddy was broken hearted when their relationship ended, will she be able to lean on him now to help her grandfather? Even if she does, will she be making things worse for Arthur – what if they are too late and Maryse has already passed away?
The resolution, when it came, was not what I expected and actually made me cry. Not just for these two lovers, but for the many individual losses that happen during wartime as people become scattered from those they love. Often making huge sacrifices to keep them safe, such as those made by parents in the novel. It showed me how hard it can be to fully understand what a person with dementia is going through and the significance of what they are saying. Are they distressed because they’ve left something unresolved, or because it’s unresolved in that moment and later they’ll remember again. There is a comfort for family members in realising deep down there’s recognition; they may not be experiencing you in the now, but they might be with your four year old self instead. My grandma, who had dementia for the last two years of her life, once said to me: ‘I can’t go to bed there’s a little girl hanging on my legs’. In the next second she looked at me quite sharply and added: ‘is it you?’ I think it probably was, but a toddler me, back in the early 1970s. She’d made the connection in that moment and in a way knew exactly who I was. For Arthur there are moments when he’s still there, at the farmhouse with Maryse, sitting and talking in the woods, slowly falling in love. I hoped that when he did pass away, that he could live in those moments forever.
I’m going to let you into a secret about book bloggers. When it comes to blog tour invites we’re like kids in a sweet shop. I knew I’d be moving around this time this year, but when the emails roll in it’s so tempting to say yes and think about the consequences later. So, in the month I attempt to move two adults, two teenagers, a dog, two cats and over 1500 books (yes I counted) I took on seven blog tours. Four of them in the week of moving, and having to use my other half’s phone as a hot spot because he had the broadband turned off three days too early. We are existing with only four of everything in the kitchen, and walking around sideways through corridors of boxes marked ‘Books Hallway’, ‘Books Office’ and ‘HAYLEY’S MARCH TBR DO NOT TOUCH’. This is only the first phase too. The next weekend is when my furniture comes that’s been in storage. When I met my other half he was living in a three storey town house and I was in a tiny barn. When it came to moving in together it had to be the townhouse because we couldn’t all fit in my tiny barn. Of course we were so in love that waiting and buying something later simply wasn’t an option. Three years ago it was’i love you, I can’t live without you’; last night as I was going to sleep I apparently said ‘I’ll never leave you; I couldn’t face the packing’. My vertigo is playing up, I have one swollen eyelid and I’m having nightmares about catching two semi-feral cats on Friday morning. Despite this it’s been a great month for books,
Sarah Pearse’s The Sanatorium was an unsettling read for someone who gets claustrophobic and the author used cleverly layered ideas and images to push that sense of being trapped. The Sanatorium was a rehabilitation hospital for people with TB in Switzerland; being trapped in your body and struggling for breath is in the very DNA of this building. Redesigned by a famous architect, it is now a luxury hotel where Elin and her boyfriend Will have been invited to celebrate her brother’s engagement. Our heroine, Elin, has panic attacks and is haunted by the thought of drowning. The remote location, prone to becoming cut off by avalanche, feels like it’s weighed down by its own past. Added to this was the sinister sound of breathing through a mask, as a killer stalks the grounds and the halls in a black, rubber gas mask. With so many secrets to unearth, Elin tries to rely on her police training to investigate, but until her own family secrets are uncovered can she unmask the killer and their motives? This was a great thriller, full of atmosphere and built on a sinister history.
Also set in Switzerland and full of family secrets is Caroline Bishop’s debut novel The Other Daughter. Part historical fiction and part dissection of mother/daughter relationships this is a dual timeline structure that works well. In the present day, Jess is learns a shocking secret about her birth that affects her so strongly she is struggling to function. Her godmother suggests she take a sabbatical from work and look for answers surrounding her mother and time she spent in Switzerland researching the women’s rights movement. Switzerland didn’t give women the vote until the 1970s, a fact that has always shocked me. Our other timeline follows journalist Sylvie as she pitches the idea for a story to her boss, and takes a research trip out to Switzerland. The truth comes to light slowly as Jess tries to uncover what happened, then Sylvie’s chapter show us what it was like to be there at that time. I found myself drawn in by these interesting women, such well rounded and believable characters. The sense of place was very strong in Switzerland and London and it’s clear that an awful lot of research went into bringing this chapter of history to life. The book made me think again about who gets to write history, and how much we need journalists like Sylvie to bring another part of the jigsaw to light. A brilliant debut about women’s rights, but also relationships between mothers and daughters.
Another book about mothers and daughters is Helen Fisher’s brilliant time-hop novel Spacehopper. I was a child of the 1970s/early 1980s so much of the background of this novel felt strangely familiar. Faye lost her mother when she was very young, so knows how important it is to create moments and family traditions for her daughters Esther and Evie. When looking for Christmas decorations in the attic, Faye finds an old box that has moved with her from house to house. It’s the box for the space hopper her Mum Jeanie bought for her one Christmas. It brings back so many memories of wonderful times she had with her Mum, but also stirs up the emotions of finding herself alone in the world. Faye has a photograph of the day she unwrapped this box and it is her only tangible link with her mother. Although Jeanie isn’t in the picture, it’s just Faye stood in the box, everything about it is suffused with love and it makes her realise how much she lost when her mum died. As she stands in the box once more, Faye finds herself back in the 1970s under their old Christmas tree. She’s now an intruder in her childhood home, which means her six year old self and her mum are both asleep upstairs. I loved the audacity of the concept, it made me smile and I trusted the author to take me somewhere special. This is a curious mix of time travel, loss and the relationships between mothers and daughters. It asks the question of whether we can ever truly know our mothers and would we sacrifice our ‘now’ to spend just one more day with the person we’ve lived and lost. Humorous, heartfelt and so incredibly charming, I really loved this incredible debut.
A much darker tale of mothers and daughters emerges in this atmospheric slice of Nordic Noir written by two of the genres best writers and the second in their Blixx and Ramm series. Smokescreen starts with a bang, as on New Years Eve a bomb goes off at the harbour where revellers are gathering for the countdown to midnight. Journalist, Emma Ramm, has escaped her flat, and visiting boyfriend Casper, for some air and alone time when a bomb explodes in a dustbin, killing those closest and injuring dozens of others. Emma is shocked to find Casper, fatally injured at the centre of the explosion – he must have set out to meet her. Detective Alexander Blixx is soon on the scene and his attention is drawn to a body found in the water, someone he remembers from a previous case. Could one of them find who left the bomb? Is there a link with the cold case of a missing child that haunts Blixx? This book starts at a steady pace, slowly adding tension – one scene of a lone hotel worker followed as she’s walking home really stood out for me. As revelations come thick and fast you will not want to put this down.
One Night, New York is another novel that becomes addictive the further you read. Frances flees the Great Depression in Kansas for New York City life with her brother Stan. On the train she meets a bohemian pair, a journalist and photographer, who are fascinated by her untouched beauty and give her their card. So starts a tale of corruption, crime and exploitation that begins and ends with a tense stand off at the top of the Empire State Building. As Frances is introduced to art, fashion, champagne and the decadent 1930s, her brother Stan is embroiled in the dark underworld beneath the glamour. Girls are going missing; young naive girls lured into the sex trade or as escorts to wealthy and powerful men. Frances befriends Agnes, the photographers assistant and for the first time has a true soulmate. Agnes holds a terrible secret, her sister is one of the disappeared and she knows who’s responsible. Frances has a secret too, the terrible reasons she left Kansas. Highlighting the differences between rural poverty and city exes, Frances finds that newcomers are expendable in Manhattan and no one is who they seem. I loved Frances at once and although she left Kansas with no innocence to lose, there was still an awakening of sorts: a sensual awareness of art, fabrics, photography and her own sexual desire. She’d seen very little kindness in her life and I found myself hoping for happiness.
Finally, comes Liz Kessler’s novel about three childhood friends in Vienna before the start of WW2. As the Nazis begin to make their presence felt in Europe these three friends will find their paths going in different directions. This novel really does show evil, as it’s experienced by innocent children. Leo, Elsa and Max spend all their time together in and outside of school, but things are about to change. Told in three narratives, from each child’s point of view, we experience first hand their confusion, sadness and fear as life changes. From Jewish families, Elsa and Leo have different options: one family chooses to leave Vienna and the other stays for the Nazi occupation. It was heart rending to see Leo and Max separated at school, especially to hear their inner thoughts wondering why, when nothing has changed since yesterday? I was moved by Max, whose father is determined to further his position in the party, by openly violent means if necessary. When he forces his son to shout anti-Jewish slogans out of the window, despite him not believing them, I was so sad for him. Even worse is seeing their rise as a family within the SS and Max’s slow brainwashing into the youth movement. This is a great book for adults and young adults alike and packs quite an emotional punch.
So that’s my February. In March I’m looking forward to some great blog tours including Mirrorland by Carole Johnstone, The Favour by Laura Vaughan and A Beautiful Spy by Rachel Hore. I’m also reviewing Until Next Weekend by Rachel Marks, Bound by Vanda Symon and the wonderful We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan.
It’s my pleasure on today’s blog to reveal the gorgeous cover for Emma Brodie’s new novel Songs in Ursa Major, coming from Harper Collins on 24th June 2021. Partly inspired by the relationship between Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, we’re publishing to coincide with the 50th anniversary for Joni Mitchell’s classic album, Blue – the soundtrack to my 1970s childhood! That’s two copies sold right there to me and my mum.
Full of atmosphere, sun-soaked hedonism, rock ‘n’ roll and an electric love story, Ursa Major is the perfect escapist read for summer 2021. Fans of The Girls by Emma Cline & Daisy Jones and the Six will be captivated.
I’m so excited to reveal the cover for Chris McDonald’s new novel in the DI Erika Piper series published by Red Dog Press. I’m a big fan of this addictive series and I’m looking forward to seeing what Erika does next.
2013 – Rockstar Johnny Mayhem sits on his bed, holding a bloody baseball bat. On the floor, clutching a lavender rose in her fist, is his wife, Amanda, who he has just beaten to death. Erika Piper knows this because she is one of the first on the scene. Mayhem is arrested and led away, screaming that they’ve got the wrong man. But the evidence is irrefutable and when Mayhem is sentenced to life in prison, no one is surprised.
Now – Thanks to new evidence, Johnny Mayhem is a now free man. During a television interview, he issues a thinly veiled threat to those involved in the original case before seemingly disappearing off the face of the Earth. When the body of Mayhem’s dealer is found, Erika Piper is pulled from the safety of her desk job and thrown into the hunt for the Rockstar. Can she find Mayhem before he can enact his revenge on everyone involved, including Erika? Or, has he been telling the truth all along? Did the police really get the wrong man?
It sounds brilliant! It’s out on the 13th April 2021. You can pre-order the book using the links below:
Originally hailing from the north coast of Northern Ireland and now residing in South Manchester, Chris McDonald has always been a reader. At primary school, The Hardy Boys inspired his love of adventure before his reading world was opened up by Chuck Palahniuk and the gritty world of crime. A Wash of Black is his first attempt at writing a book. He came up with the initial idea whilst feeding his baby in the middle of the night, which may not be the best thing to admit, considering the content. He is a fan of 5-a-side football, heavy metal and dogs. Whispers in the Dark was the second installment in the DI Erika Piper series, and Chris is currently working on his latest series, The Stonebridge Mysteries, to be published by Red Dog Press in 2021.