Posted in Uncategorized

While Paris Slept by Ruth Druart.

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.

Posted in Uncategorized

Throwback Thursday! Any Human Heart by William Boyd.

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.

Posted in Uncategorized

Bobby March Will Live Forever by Alan Parks.

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.

Posted in Uncategorized

The Forgotten Life of Arthur Pettinger by Suzanne Fortin.

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.

Posted in Uncategorized

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.

Posted in Uncategorized

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.

Posted in Uncategorized

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.

Posted in Uncategorized

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.

Posted in Uncategorized

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

Posted in Uncategorized

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.