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Books of the Month. February 2021.

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.

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Cover Reveal! Songs in Ursa Major by Emma Brodie.

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.

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Cover Reveal! Roses for the Dead by Chris McDonald.

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:

Buy Links: 

The Red Dog Shop


Meet The Author

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.

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When The World Was Ours by Liz Kessler.

1936, Vienna

Leo, Elsa and Max have been best friends for years. Since the day they met they’ve been a team of three. But then the Nazis come, and their lives, once so tightly woven together, take very different paths.

LEO must rely on the kindness of strangers to escape the rising threat to the Jewish people.

ELSA, like Leo, is hated for simply being who she is. To be safe, she must run.

MAX suddenly finds that he is the danger his friends are trying to desperately escape as his father rise through the Nazi ranks.

Inspired by a true story, When The World Was Ours is as life-affirming as it is heartbreaking, and shows how the bonds of love, family and friendship allow glimmer of hope to flourish, even in the most hopeless of times

This novel is beautifully constructed and forces us to experience the events of WW2 in Europe, but through the eyes of three children – Leo, Max and Elsa. Written in alternate chapters, the voice of each child comes through loud and clear. From the fun, adventure of Leo’s birthday at the fairground in the first chapter, to the whispers and silences at home and the friendship broken apart by propaganda, hate and fear. There’s such an innocence about these three children, sharing their hopes and dreams for the future. It’s so hard to read when we, as readers, know what’s coming. The cracks are showing, for the adults in Vienna. For these friends it’s still tag in the park and through them we see the beauty of Vienna, the cherry blossom of spring and the view over the city from the top of a Ferris wheel.

In Elsa and Leo’s narratives we can see the confusion when their parents start acting differently and uncertainty creeps into their existence. The author paces the rise in tension so well, from those first whispers to open acts of violence. The children are at the age where their parents are solid, safe and stable. Everyone has a moment when they realise their parents aren’t infallible, they’re just human beings who feel fear and make mistakes. In the aftermath of the Anschluss, neighbours have become potential enemies and with Elsa’s family fleeing to Czechoslovakia, Max and Leo bewilderingly find themselves on opposite sides. I felt so deeply for Max, watching an innocent child groomed into hating others was really hard to take. My late husband was Polish and I have listened to their incredible stories of escape, loss, and dislocation from their home land. There’s a lot in Leo and Elsa’s stories that’s shocking and distressing, but familiar.

I remember being confronted with the reality of a child living within the Nazi regime in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, but he was kept largely separate from the truth of his father’s ‘work’. Here, Max has an authoritarian father anyway, constantly telling him to be a man, to be strong and definitely not to cry. Now his Dad tells him not to play with his best friends, tells him Jews are dirty and sly and even worse, forces him to repeat these things he doesn’t believe. It’s totally heartbreaking to read, especially when Max’s father’s rise in the party puts him in direct confrontation with Leo’s father, something he’s wanted for a long time. We can see how this is a manufactured rift has been created. It takes strong individuals to stand against the tide, something Leo realises when Jewish children are separated from the rest of the school. Max instinctively steps away from Leo, then has to apologise. The author depicts the innocence of these friendships, torn apart by hatred and adult choices. They are exactly the same people they were yesterday, how can they see each other as different?

Yet amongst all this hate, there are these little moments of courage and hope. Leo gains confidence by becoming the man of the house and helping to get him and his mother out of danger. Elsa meets a new friend at school in Czechoslovakia, their friendship is different because they’re both girls. There’s more talking than playing, but she’s found a little bit of happiness within the maelstrom surrounding them. Max is finding confidence and structure as a member of the Hitler Youth. He talks about being a cog in the wheel of this huge organisation and finds pride as part of this young army, not party to the bigger picture and truth of their purpose. These young characters are a brilliant way in for younger readers to connect with history and the long term lessons of the Holocaust. I can see it being an important text for schools in the future. That’s not to say it’s only for young readers – adults can also take a lot from this book. Often, young people are the best way to enlighten and teach adults and these three characters will get under your skin and make you think about their reality and part in this history. After all, the most frightening thing is that we don’t learn from books like this. As adults we should think about Elsa’s answer to the question we often ask about the Holocaust – how did this get that far? How did this happen? is that for these children, the bewildering changes they’re experiencing today could become the norm.

‘How rapidly something unthinkable can become commonplace. How easily we let the inconceivable become a new normal. How quickly we learn to stop questioning these things…’

Meet The Author

In a note at the beginning of the novel Liz Kessler writes about her father’s flight from Czechoslovakia when he was eight years old. Their chance of escape came from a British couple they’d happened to meet several years before. Just like the first chapter, when Leo and his friends are taken to the fairground for his birthday, and he literally bumps into a couple in the carriage of the Ferris wheel. Kessler has used her fathers story as the basis for this novel. She explains that it’s not just about honouring her heritage, but about helping young people come to informed decisions about social justice for the future.

She was first published in 2003 and her debut was the first in a series of books for 8-12 year olds about a half- mermaid girl. She has sold over five million copies worldwide and been published in 25 countries. She has written 23 books in total for both young adults and early readers. Liz lives in Cornwall where her hobbies and her inspiration come from the sea.

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Books of the Month January 2021

It’s been a fantastic start to the reading year, with so many great books and a lot of time on my hands to read them. January is one of those months where I tend to hibernate anyway, but this year even more so. I can’t go anywhere, because I don’t want to risk catching COVID on top of my MS. So it’s been a cosy month where, aside from walking the dog, I’m mainly indoors with a blanket, slowly becoming a human cat bed. So I’m passing the time by reading some great books and telling people all about them. For my best reads this month I couldn’t single out one book. I loved these three so much!

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex – was my first read of the year and was an ARC courtesy of NetGalley. Inspired by true events, and set in Cornwall, 1972. This is a story of three lighthouse keepers who go missing while on duty in a lighthouse miles from shore and only accessible by the boat that brings supplies and the next shift. The lighthouse is locked from the inside, all the clocks have stopped and the principle keeper has recorded a huge storm in the log, when the skies have been clear all week. The story is stirred up again years later, by a writer who wants to solve the mystery. He visits the lighthouse keeper’s women – Helen, Jenny and Michelle – stirring up memories, secrets and emotions. The story itself will keep you hooked, but the author also explores ideas about truth and fiction, and who gets to write history. I was also fascinated by the authors take on effects of trauma – how far they radiate out like ripples on a pond, but also how deep they go through several generations. Quite simply, this is a stunning read. This is available for pre-order. Out on 4th March 2021 from Picador.

The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell – I’m a big fan of Laura Purcell and I was lucky enough to be on the Random Things blog tour for her latest book this month. Our heroine is Agnes Darken, a silhouette cutter who lives with her mother and her nephew Cedric. The mystery begins as one of Agnes’s sitters is found beaten to death, she was the last appointment in his diary. When another sitter turns up in the river, Agnes needs answers and turns to a spirit medium called The White Sylph who lodges in Bath with her sister and father. Her hope is that the murder victims will materialise and tell them who their murderer is. Instead they unleash something they never imagined. As usual, Purcell creates a dark and disturbing atmosphere, with just a sprinkling of the supernatural. As the bodies start to rack up, the tension starts building and it kept me guessing all the way to the last page. Out Now. Published by Raven Books.

Finally, I loved this beautiful novel kindly sent from Sandstone Press via NetGalley. Ruth Thomas has created a heroine to fall in love with. Sybil is a museum assistant at RIPS, where prehistoric exhibits and research have their home. Life is good for Sybil until her old university lecturer comes back into her life, thanks to an unfortunate skating accident where Sybil gets a bump on the head. Sybil has a long held resentment of Helene Hanson because she took part of Sybil’s dissertation and used it as her own theory. Now Helene seems determined to muscle in on Sybil’s life, at work and at home. She starts by stealing Sybil’s boyfriend Simon. Then attaches herself to the museum as a trustee, and starts making changes. Sybil starts to feel strange and not really in control of her life anymore, she takes risks, procrastinates and starts collecting lost things to inspire haikus for her poetry class. She also wants revenge. This is a book of quiet beauty, with a mix of haiku and stream of consciousness. You will fall in love with Sybil. I was rooting for her journey, through this tough time in her life and loved the unexpected ending. Published in paperback on 7th January 2021 by Sandstone Press.

So they’re my favourites for January and I hope you find something for your TBR or wish list. Below is everything else I read in January.

My current read is The Last Snow by Stina Jackson: Published by Corvus 4th February 2021

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Why Do We Blog About Books?

Over the last year on Book Twitter and Bookstagram I’ve seen a lot of questions about being a book blogger and also a lot of assumptions. So I thought I’d write about how I ended up book blogging and why.

Ever since I was small I’ve loved reading and by the age of eight had finished the whole reading scheme at school and had started borrowing books out of the school library – Jane Eyre, Little Women, What Katy Did and Pippi Longstocking. I loved getting my work finished early so I could curl up in the beanbag, with the smell of books all around me, reading my latest find. I was also a pretty active little thing – I loved walking the family dog, playing netball and going on walking holidays with my family. Then, when I was ten, I broke bones in my back during a P.E class when I somersaulted and landed awkwardly. I took a long while to rehabilitate and it was mismanaged, leaving a long term disability that I still struggle with today. I had to adjust to a less active life so reading became even more important to me. When I was diagnosed with MS I had another period of rehabilitation in order to get back some of the function I’d lost in my first relapse – my dexterity and grip, the function of my left leg – and trying to improve my energy levels. I read an enormous amount and started to revive a dream I’d had since I was a little girl. I’d always wanted to write a book of my own.

In 2019 I made a decision to get some professional help with my writing. I’d seen an MA in Creative Writing and Well-being and thought it would force me to work on my own writing whilst also gaining a qualification I could use with my counselling clients. I trained as a counsellor to help others with MS and other long term disabilities and I started running journaling and creative writing courses to help people come to terms with the change in their lives in 2007. But I was scared and very under confident about my writing, so I thought I’d start a blog to build up my confidence and the thing I felt most comfortable writing about was books. I started on blogspot but then moved to WordPress just under a year ago ( blogiversary coming soon) with my blog The Lotus Readers. The name is a play on the Tennyson poem The Lotus Eaters – a group of mariners, who feed on the lotus leaves. The leaves put them into an altered state where nothing matters but the now, consequently they just lounge around and eat all day. It seemed perfect because I do nothing but lounge around and read all day!

One of the most common misunderstandings I come across is people assuming book bloggers get paid. I can’t speak for everyone but me, and the bloggers I know, don’t get paid for reviews or blog tours. I might get sent the book as either a digital ARC ( advanced reader’s copy) or a real proof posted out by the publisher. Quite often, if I’ve really enjoyed a book and would like a copy on my shelves I will buy the final edition when it’s published anyway. I have time to blog a lot because of my disabilities. I only work part-time if at all and I can spend a day here or there working on my blog. I started by reviewing books I’d read and enjoyed, then learned about NetGalley where publishers offer digital copies of upcoming books to generate early reviews. So I chose a couple of books on there and started reviewing those too. I was then introduced to the blog tour. This is where the publishers or a blog tour organiser asks bloggers to read a book then write a review on a specific date and publicise it on social media. This keeps the book visible on social media for anything from a few days (blog blitz) to a month. I was lucky enough to happen upon Anne Cater from Random Things Tours and she took me under her wing. I did a couple of book tours and a bit of networking with publicity editors and blog tour organisers and over the year things really have grown.

Another misunderstanding is about book post – you’ll have seen these photographs of people’s book mail and wondered how a blogger ends up with so many books for free. In truth most of the people you’ll see with piles of book mail have been blogging for ten years plus. It’s rare for a new blogger to be sent that many. I now have a good TBR pile, but it’s the result of a year of networking, doing blog tours, getting to know publishers, publicity assistants and other bloggers. I’m now signed up with a handful of blog tour organisers and I’m on the blogger lists with a few favourite publishers. I check Twitter for publishers offering proofs and competitions. This means I do get book mail most weeks but it can be counted on one hand. I’ve now reviewed over 200 titles on NetGalley too so I’ve got a better chance of being accepted for proofs digitally. Putting all of that together I have more than enough to be getting on with. What I’m trying to say is that, yes sometimes there are free books, but there’s a lot of work being done behind the scenes to be known by publishing houses and blog organisers, in order to be sent proofs and then I have to read them and write about them. I always try to keep in mind that there’s no point taking more books than I can physically read. Plus, it’s important to remind myself that these book do get published and then they’re available to everyone. A great way to keep your blog growing and developing, is to make links with other bloggers. In my experience, they are friendly and very knowledgeable so you can make great friends who love books as much as you do and share tips and ideas with each other. I have a little ‘book squad‘ who are great at sharing when proofs are being offered and are a great personal support too. It’s a win win.

Of course there are downsides to blogging, as with any hobby that takes place online. You meet the odd strange person and there’s an element of book envy and friction about blogging versus Booktube or Bookstagram. In some ways detailed reviews are seen as the old age pensioner of the online book world. Personally, I think there’s room for all of us. People will gravitate to whatever suits them best. I hope people will always want detailed and enthusiastic reviews from someone who knows their literature. These downsides are by far outweighed by the positives. These positives are the reason I blog. I know a lot of people wonder why I would bother to spend a couple of hours everyday writing and then a few more hours reading the books I’m sent and the networking on social media. To some people it might seem like a lot of work for the odd free book. Firstly, I do it because I love reading and I love writing. I’m writing memoir in my MA and I do put a lot of myself into my reviews, especially when I’ve felt that special connection with a book or character. So it gives me practice in writing my story, seeing what parts of the story people respond to and gaining confidence in the art of life writing. When an author loves your review it’s the best feeling, and great friendships can come from these connections. Being approached by the publisher to quote your review on publicity material is pretty exciting too. I’ve even had offers of mentoring my creative work from authors which is so kind and shows a faith in me that I wasn’t even sure I had! Book Twitter is a lovely place to be most of the time. Mainly it’s the satisfaction of letting people know how special a certain book is. There’s no better feeling than recommending a book and people loving it. I can’t talk for other bloggers, but that’s why I do this. The joy of reading, the joy of writing and bringing that joy to others.

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Before I Saw You by Emily Houghton.


Alice and Alfie are strangers. But they sleep next to each other every night.

Alfie Mack has been in hospital for months recovering from an accident. A new face on the ward is about as exciting as life gets for him right now, so when someone moves into the bed next to him he’s eager to make friends. But it quickly becomes clear that seeing his neighbour’s face won’t happen any time soon.

Alice Gunnersley has been badly burned and can’t even look at herself yet, let alone allow anyone else to see her. She keeps the curtain around her bed firmly closed, but it doesn’t stop Alfie trying to get to know her. And gradually, as he slowly brings Alice out of her shell, might there even be potential for more?

This book has some wonderful characters that it’s very easy to fall in love with. Alfie, who is recovering from an amputation is delighted to be getting a new neighbour in his hospital bay. The bay has a happy, friendly, atmosphere with a close knit group of patients convalescing over a long stay in the unit. On Sundays Alfie’s mum and dad come in with a Sunday dinner for everyone! However, a happy and chatty bay is exactly what Alice dreads. She doesn’t want to socialise or have a natter with other people. They’d have to see her and she doesn’t want that. In fact the ward sister, Nurse Angles, has to make a promise in order to get her moved into the ward. When she has to go down to physiotherapy, everyone else in the ward will have their curtains closed. Not everyone is happy about it, but they all promise Nurse Angles because she’s so hard to refuse. Alfie is undeterred though, he has always been a cheerful little soul and makes it his mission to get Alice talking.

The thing I enjoyed most about this was that the author didn’t just concentrate on the physical damage done by their accidents. She makes it clear that the emotional scars are potentially even more damaging and more difficult to manage because they can’t be seen. Alfie wakes up screaming some nights and sweating, hoping he hasn’t woken the whole ward. For him there’s the addition of survivor’s guilt, because he wasn’t the only one in the accident where he lost his leg. She describes his journey thus far to make it clear that it isn’t as easy as strapping on a prosthetic and becoming a Paralympian! That meant a lot to me as someone with a disability who works as a counsellor with people who have a chronic illness or disability. Many people don’t realise the healing that has to happen, that getting used to a prosthetic means chafing to the skin, possible skin breakdown, and pain in the leg, but also the rest of the body as it gets used to moving in a different way. Mentally, he will have to get used to a change in how others see him, how he sees himself and his masculinity. We all have an image of what we look like in our head. When you acquire a disability, as opposed to being born with one, that self-image remains the same until you catch sight of yourself in a mirror or window. That’s a pivotal moment, because the new reality of how you look can be a shock. Alfie has had to let go of that image, and is building up a new sense of self that includes his disability.

Alice has to take the same psychological journey, arguably more difficult because she’s a woman. Once Alfie gets used to his prosthetic, and improves his mobility, people may not realise he has a disability. Alice’s burns are on her face and hands. There’s nothing she can do to cover them up completely and this affects everything – not just dealing with the change herself but dealing with how others now see her. It will change how she feels as a woman, and she will worry about whether men will see her as desirable. We hear a lot of Alice’s inner monologue so we really do get the enormity if what has happened to her. I felt choked up for Alice. It’s a really big deal if Alfie can get her talking. There’s a point when he needs comfort and Alice gives him her hand under the curtain. This us Alice trusting him, her hands are damaged and she’s openly giving them to him, which shows an enormous amount of trust. She seems all alone in the world. She hasn’t even let her best friend know because she’s living so far away. Her mother eventually arrives though, and shows within seconds why Alice wouldn’t want her to visit. When Sarah does find out she arrives like a whirlwind of love and care for her best friend.

I’ve had long stays on hospital rehabilitation wards and I’ve never experienced one like this. There are some aspects of hospital life that would never happen on any of the rehab wards I’ve stayed on recently, such as the Sunday dinner. Although, one I stayed on in the late 1990s let my parents bring my dog to the day room for cuddles once a week. I did recognise Nurse Angles though – she seems formidable but really she cares deeply for her patients. I’ve come across the odd matron or ward sister who is like this – one particularly fierce German night nurse, during a long stay in 1995, used to bark at everyone and seem very strict, but would let my hospital friend Tony and me, stay up late to watch the rugby World Cup. She even brought us illicit toast and tea when it was quiet! I think the strength of this novel is in its characters. I enjoyed Alfie’s mum, who is a force of nature albeit a kind one. Alfie is like a big puppy, playful and clumsy but ultimately good and kind. Alice is more complicated and it’s interesting peeling away each layer like an onion. Her accident and subsequent injuries are transformative and I kept thinking how lucky she was to have ended up in a bed next to Alfie, who seems to spread happiness, despite the difficulties he faces physically and mentally. These characters kept me reading. They felt real to me. I also really appreciated the author’s obvious understanding of the psychology of acquired disability. Despite heavy subject matter the author managed to keep a light, easy feel to the novel and that’s a difficult thing to achieve. I found myself rooting for both of them and sorry when their story ended.

Meet The Author

Emily Houghton was a digital specialist, but is now a full-time creative writer. She originally comes from Essex but now lives in London. Emily is a trained yoga and spin teacher, completely obsessed with dogs and has dreamt of being an author ever since she could hold a pen.

Posted in Uncategorized

Life in Pieces by Dawn O’Porter

Over New Year I gave myself a short break from fiction because my concentration was poor and I couldn’t take in long, involved storytelling. This was due to a combination of events: I was affected by a mistake with my prescription medication; I was getting ready for Christmas with plans constantly changing; I had two chatty and excited stepdaughters in the house; we’d cancelled our wedding; and we’re mid – moving house. There were days that felt like nothing went right and I simply had no room in my brain or energy in my body. It felt like the ‘perfect storm’ of circumstances. This is the position that writer and broadcaster Dawn O’Porter found herself in last spring – only on a much more devastating scale. Just before the country went into lockdown Dawn received the news that her best friend, the super-talented and funny Caroline Flack, had taken her own life. She received this news out in LA where she now lives with her husband Chris O’Dowd and their two small boys. Shortly afterwards LA went into lockdown, followed by riots protesting the killing of George Floyd. Through all of this she was finding it difficult to write and like many of us decided to write a small blog each week – in Dawn’s case for Patreon subscribers. This book is the result of those blogs.

I love books like this, because they give me short sections to read that don’t require a lot of brain power. Reading like a diary, Dawn goes through the mundane, funny and terribly painful aspects of each day. Determined to keep her grief from her children, and unable to travel until the funeral date was definite, meant having to find ways of coping. Of crying in private, but being able to be mummy at a moment’s notice. She withdrew from social media and, once the funeral had taken place, the home became her whole world. It wasn’t that she could put the loss to one side, she felt Caroline in her head every moment every day. Having been very critical of celebrities who shared Caroline’s last messages after her death, the author manages to tread a fine line by joyfully reminiscing about her friend while not talking about her death and the circumstances surrounding it. This is not a book about Caroline, it is very firmly a book about Dawn and her own experience of the past year. It isn’t just about grief either, it’s about suddenly being a full-time Mum while trying to find space to create, how it feels to be British living in LA, and the huge social upheaval on their doorstep during the riots. Each section is the equivalent of a Polaroid snapshot of this extraordinary time.

Dawn has a such a definite and accessible narrative voice – she is brutally honest about her experiences whether they be physical or whether she’s relaying her complex interior monologue. I had the feeling nothing was censored and I could identify with those chaotic ‘family in lockdown’ moments even if the children in my house are more teenage than toddler. Those dilemmas of whether we bother to dress and groom or not, do we keep a set routine or do as we please, keeping up with exercise and eating well or just eating like it’s Christmas. Sadly, I think I largely failed in these challenges! I understood Dawn’s sense of only dealing with what’s in front of us – even if what’s in front of us is a shitstorm of tearful children, shitting animals, followed by puking animals and the inability to find a food delivery slot anywhere! These are common to everyone’s experience of the year. We’ve spent time with the same people every day, potentially doing the same things over and over. This heightens everything – tensions, emotions, worries. If we’re struggling with difficult emotions it forces us to face them, there’s no escape.

Between stories of disasters with the boys, food adventures and concerns about lockdown drinking, come global concerns. Dawn talks about her wardrobe and since we share a love of vintage this is something I really enjoyed, but it was interesting to think about in terms of the environmental impact of fashion – something I’ve been concerned about for a few years now. Her exploration of the riots in her neighbourhood stood out particularly to me. Again, her worries are at family level. Rioters are directly outside their home, the bins are set alight and she talks of keeping an emergency bag in case they have to leave in a hurry. Yet she is hugely sympathetic to the cause, profoundly moved by the terrible footage of a man begging for his life, and both she and Chris join the protests where they can. She writes eloquently about our white privilege, and how her black friends keep her on track when she’s not understanding something – if more of us admitted not knowing, a better dialogue would emerge. I went from laughing about a household mishap to grab a pen and note down some reading she recommended about white fragility. I think this is what I enjoy most about being in Dawn’s company – there’s room for silliness, raw honesty and emotion, then profound reflections on the bigger problems our society faces. It’s like a long evening with your best friends. My favourite anecdote involved a very famous red haired actress and our British humour about ‘gingers’ really not translating! This was a great read and I was sorry when it ended.

Meet The Author

DAWN O’PORTER lives in Los Angeles with her husband Chris, her two boys Art and Valentine, and her cat Lilu and dog Potato.

Dawn started out in TV production but quickly landed in front of the camera, making numerous documentaries that included immersive investigations of Polygamy, Size Zero, Childbirth, Free Love, Breast Cancer and the movie Dirty Dancing. Further TV work included This Old Thing, a prime-time Channel 4 show celebrating the wonders of vintage clothing. 

Dawn’s journalism has appeared in multiple publications and she was the monthly columnist for Glamour magazine. She is now a full-time writer of six books – although she would probably have written sixteen if it weren’t for her addiction to Instagram Stories. 

Most recently, Dawn has written the script for Especially for You, a jukebox musical using the infamous Stock Aitken and Waterman back catalogue. The show will open with a national tour in early 2020.

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Most Anticipated 2021! Unwell Women by Elinor Cleghorn.

Publisher : Weidenfeld & Nicolson (10 Jun. 2021)

ASIN: B08HMN732X ( Kindle Edition)

My interest in this book is twofold: first the cover made me stop and look because it reminded me of the art of Frida Kahlo, and secondly, I am an unwell woman. I have been diagnosed with relapsing remitting Multiple Sclerosis for the past 25 years – ooh my silver anniversary, what do I get for that? Since then my health has deteriorated, mainly due to a back injury I sustained when I was 11. I did a somersault and landed awkwardly, causing two fractures to my spine. I was very lucky to be upright and walking, but scar tissue, muscle damage and deteriorating discs have caused so much stiffness and instability. This is managed with injections in my spine for pain and a regular procedure my compressed nerves are severed to stop nerve pain radiating into my pelvis and legs. It’s a lot to deal with, and I truly don’t know how I’m going to wake up every morning. I just wake up, take the medication and see what I can manage that day. I’ve just had a week where even looking at this screen would be impossible because of optic neuritis.

In my many years in the ‘kingdom of the sick’ and working as a counsellor for people with chronic ill health, I’ve noticed a major difference in how men and women, with exactly the same ailments, are treated. This book traces a history of women’s ill health and the treatment of it, for many years solely by a male medical profession. To quote the blurb:

‘In Unwell Women Elinor Cleghorn unpacks the roots of the perpetual misunderstanding, mystification and misdiagnosis of women’s bodies, and traces the journey from the ‘wandering womb’ of ancient Greece, the rise of witch trials in Medieval Europe, through the dawn of Hysteria, to modern day understandings of autoimmune diseases, the menopause and conditions like endometriosis. Packed with character studies of women who have suffered, challenged and rewritten medical orthodoxy – and drawing on her own experience of un-diagnosed Lupus disease – this is a ground-breaking and timely exposé of the medical world and woman’s place within it.’

‘We are taught that medicine is the art of solving our body’s mysteries. And as a science, we expect medicine to uphold the principles of evidence and impartiality. We want our doctors to listen to us and care for us as people, but we also need their assessments of our pain and fevers, aches and exhaustion to be free of any prejudice about who we are, our gender, or the colour of our skin. But medicine carries the burden of its own troubling history. The history of medicine, of illness, is a history of people, of their bodies and their lives, not just physicians, surgeons, clinicians and researchers. And medical progress has always reflected the realities of a changing world, and the meanings of being human.

In my own experience, I have found the world of neurology, clinical, abrupt and sexist. My diagnosis is old now and I have had new neurologists interrogate me on who diagnosed me, why and where – almost as if I’ve made it up out of thin air. I’ve been patronisingly asked whether I might ‘weep’ a lot, or have fatigue and pain due to being depressed. I asked if they’d send me to psychiatry if they felt it was all in my head – I didn’t care whether it was a mental illness, I just wanted to be treated and helped to get better. Once I asked for a referral the consultant backed down and said it’s definitely physical, because we have clinical evidence. I remember thinking that this was a complete ‘mindfuck.’ I started to question my own sanity, if I had a symptom I would wonder if it was real or in my head. Was I making myself ill and for what reason? A change of neurologist and several years of therapy helped me to see that the previous team had been quite abusive and manipulative. My rehabilitation consultant admitted that there was an old trend in neurology of not telling people with early MS about their diagnosis – the thought being that if you didn’t know you had an illness, you wouldn’t act as if you have an illness. Apparently, according to my old team ‘some women give up if they’re told they have a disability’.

I trained over many years in mental health work, and have worked as an advice worker, advocate and now a counsellor for people with disabilities. I have heard the same story told by so many women: being told they need to get a hobby or go out more; that they need anti-depressants when they don’t feel depressed; that maybe they need to have children (?); or that maybe, like the Victorian hysterics, this is all in their heads. My own favourite is being told to get rid of my cats so I could have children, when I have a diagnosis of Hughes Syndrome which causes recurrent miscarriage. My main area of work is reprogramming women who have all eventually been diagnosed with serious health conditions like Lupus, MS, Lyme Disease, Degenerative Disc Disease. All of them once told they were hypochondriacs and hysterical about their normal everyday aches and pains.

One of the ladies from my ‘Authentic Self’ workshop, was so scared of making a fuss about her pain that when she injured her leg on holiday she carried on. She walked on a fracture for four weeks because she’d been made to feel she made too much fuss about the pain she suffered from fibromyalgia and degenerative discs. Women should not be made to feel this way by the medical profession. Not once has a male come to me with the same story. Not one. In a BBC article ( link below) the same stories come up in relation to heart and gynaecological conditions. Women who reported to emergency rooms in acute pain were less likely to be prescribed pain relief, and where it was prescribed it took much longer to reach the patient.

‘This can have lethal consequences. In May 2018 in France, a 22-year old woman called emergency services saying her abdominal pain was so acute she felt she was “going to die.” “You’ll definitely die one day, like everyone else,” the operator replied. When the woman was taken to hospital after a five-hour wait, she had a stroke and died of multiple organ failure.’

I’m looking forward to reading about where these ideas about women’s health come from. I’d hoped once to write this book, but sadly my health meant PhD work on disability being put to one side. I feel this will demystify why women are treated this way and I hope to buy several copies to give to my friends and clients in the future. This book is not just anticipated, it is needed.

Links and Further Reading

Havi Carel. Illness. Routledge; 1st edition (20 Aug. 2008) – this a brilliant look at the ‘lived experience’ of chronic illness, the philosophical background to how we view illness, and the author’s own experiences as a woman and a patient. Utterly brilliant.

Posted in Netgalley, Uncategorized

Madam by Phoebe Wynne

Publisher: Quercus (18 Feb. 2021) ISBN: 978-1529408720

Why is it always so hard to write a review when the book is so good? It’s as if I have to wrestle with it for ages, in the hope of doing it justice! All I can do is try and put across all of the reasons I liked it. In fact, I loved everything about this feminist gothic novel from start to finish. First the setting – the eerie, almost otherworldly atmosphere around Caldonbrae School, the strange weather conditions suggesting it’s own micro-climate, and the school’s position as an English outpost (or invader) in Scotland. It’s appearance is like a hulking beast on the coastline, something that shouldn’t be disturbed lest it swallow you up. Secondly, there’s our main character Rose, addressed at all times as ‘Madam’ and finally the dark secret her predecessor tried to uncover at the heart of Caldonbrae, before it was Rose’s turn to fight it’s terrible tradition.

For 150 years, Caldonbrae Hall has sat as a beacon of excellence in the ancestral castle of Lord William Hope. A boarding school for girls, it promises a future where its pupils will emerge ‘resilient and ready to serve society’. Rose Christie, a 26-year-old Classics teacher, is the first new hire for the school in over a decade. At first, Rose feels overwhelmed in the face of this elite establishment, but soon after her arrival she begins to understand that she may have more to fear than her own imposter syndrome. When Rose stumbles across the secret circumstances surrounding the abrupt departure of her predecessor – a woman whose ghost lingers over everything and who no one will discuss – she realises that there is much more to this institution than she has been led to believe. As she uncovers the darkness that beats at the heart of Caldonbrae, Rose becomes embroiled in a battle that will threaten her sanity as well as her safety.

This novel was incredible from start to finish. I loved it. Straight away I noticed echoes of two of my favourite books; Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. The younger girls school uniforms reminded me of the aprons of Lowood School. The constant references to the previous classics teacher, and the mystery surrounding what happened to her had definite echoes of Rochester’s wife – hidden from view in the attic for being other than the perfect, meek and gentle wife he wanted. What exactly does this school expect of the teachers and how did Madam fall from grace so spectacularly? The training at the school starts to feel more sinister as time goes on. It begins to feel as if they’re trying to shape young women in a very old fashioned image; teaching them how to stay it in their place and be the 19th Century ideal of the ‘Angel in the House’. Although there’s something a lot more knowing about these girls, they put on this ideal as if its a disguise, designed to please but very aware it’s a conceit sure to reap the rewards of wealth and privilege. The previous ‘Madam’, whose name is Jane, is like the ghostly presence of Rebecca, still holding sway over the girls – especially Bethany who seems to have developed an obsession with her teacher. Jane seems to be everywhere Rose turns, but tantalisingly just out of reach. The author creates an edgy and eerie atmosphere where you feel she might be just ahead of Rose, her gown swishing round the corner.

Rose tries to understand the place she’s come to teach. There is a sense in which this school is a complete culture shock – like a child affected by poverty or a tough inner city environment being expected to thrive at Oxford or Cambridge where there’s an etiquette and language that’s alien to most outsiders. She has to muddle through this aspect of life at Caldonbrae and it makes sense to her if the purpose is to educate and prepare the girls for further education and professions like the law and politics. Yet, alongside this traditional, classical education there are hints of the old ‘finishing school’ where attributes like poise, social etiquette and deportment are deemed equally important. What exactly is she preparing these girls for?

As the secret starts to come to the surface so the tension of the novel rises. Is Rose being trained too? An outsider brought in to see if new teachers can be moulded to the school’s purpose. As Bethany’s attachment to Madam becomes clearer she seems to stalk Rose. and the reader isn’t sure whether she resents Rose being in the place of her former favourite or whether she has simply transferred her affections. When she makes allegations about Rose she threatens her whole future at the school, but is Bethany trying to harm her or warn her? A strange hierarchy operates amongst the girls who know themselves to be the elite performers and those who don’t make the grade are offered inducements to improve, but these inducements can be threats as well as rewards. The horror of a young woman having her head shaved for performing badly is enshrined in patriarchal systems and is designed both to shame the woman and act as a warning to others. Rose guesses what might be happening, before the secret is fully revealed but it’s such an alien and deviant concept in modern society that she can’t believe it could be true. Could she ever be complicit in such a scheme? I found myself wondering how far the girls are ‘groomed’ into accepting this future or how many are knowingly acquiescing to it for the rewards of wealth, status and family honour. Rose is backed into a corner, by fear of what may have happened to her predecessor certainly, but also the knowledge that the school can reward her far beyond what she’s imagined. Her mother, severely disabled by multiple sclerosis, is placed within a state of the art care facility. Can Rose be bought, or will she try and walk away? However, does anyone walk away from Caldonbrae unscathed? Could Rose, as quiet as she seems, finds a way to walk away, but also bring down the whole system in her wake. This was an incredible, unputdownable, novel full of gothic atmosphere, and dark, patriarchal, purpose. However, there is also a feminist heroine ready to shine a light on long held secrets, even at the risk of that light becoming a burning flame.