Posted in Publisher Proof

River Sing Me Home by Eleanor Shearer

This incredible debut novel grabbed hold of my mind and heart, never letting go until the final paragraph. I shed tears at several points in Rachel’s journey and she’s a character I won’t forget. We meet her working on a plantation in Barbados, at that strange point after slavery when plantations were instructed to free slaves, but their sense of freedom was short-lived as masters were able to keep slaves for a further six years as apprentices. So, despite being freed the day afterwards started just the same, at the crack of dawn and walking to the cane fields for a day of back breaking work. Having nothing meant that most had no other choice. Rachel is thinking of her children, several lost before they had a chance to live but others scattered to the four winds. Her boys Micah and Thomas Augustus and her girls Cherry Jane, Mary Grace and Mercy all taken from her in different ways. Only Cherry Jane spends a few years nearby as a house slave, but in her superior position she doesn’t acknowledge Rachel who is merely a field hand. One day she decides that she must find her children, she must know where they are and what happened to them, even if the news is that devastating final loss. Rachel says that as a slave she plants cane but nothing of her own. However her children came about, Rachel feels that they anchor her in this world and she can’t rest until she finds them. So she runs and with our hearts pounding we follow her.

As Rachel took her journey I kept thinking about my own mum. She always feels at her happiest when we’re all under her roof, all four generations. She told me that she feels like we’re all safe and there’s a feeling of completeness. I am not a mother, so until recently I hadn’t experienced anything like this, but now I am a step-mum and I do get a sense of relief when both my stepdaughters are here under my roof. There’s a feeling that I could close the curtains and we’d all be safe. I couldn’t imagine how it must feel to have those children stripped from you as commodities to be sold. As I finished reading the book on Holocaust Memorial Day, my mind was also taken to an account by a survivor on TikTok where she described her family being split apart into separate queues as they reached Auschwitz. She was placed in one queue bound for a factory sewing uniforms, but her mother and sister were deemed unsuitable for work and in the chaos was the final moment she saw them. It’s a similar atrocity, so huge that it’s hard to imagine or compute. A whole race of people are deemed as expendable and discarded with no more regard than swatting a fly. In amongst some powerful and distressing scenes in the book, one thing that hit me really hard was Rachel’s realisation that her emotions didn’t matter. As a younger woman she had held herself proudly and resolutely, determined that the actions of the overseer wouldn’t make her cry. As an older woman she realises that she could have owned her grief, it wouldn’t have satisfied or pleased the overseer to see her distress because she simply didn’t matter to him.

Rachel’s journey is a long one, across Barbados and over to Trinidad, and we experience every moment with her. The author provides vivid descriptions of each place Rachel experiences down to the way the earth feels under her feet. Cities give her a certain anonymity, but it’s in nature that I really felt Rachel’s freedom. The author layers sounds of birds, running water and wind through the trees with the feel of leaves or water against the skin. The water of the rivers are welcoming and help her journey: kayaking up the Demerara to look for runaway communities in the forest and Thomas Augustus; rushing down river holding an uprooted tree to avoid capture; feeling cocooned and supported by the water in a bathing pool. The runaway community are made up of escaped slaves and indigenous tribesmen who have survived the colonisation of their island and the forest both hides them and supports them. There is a sense of abundance in the food, the company and the mix of cultures that comes out in musical form. The ancient songs of Rachel’s African heritage come alive for her when mixed with slave songs and the music of the indigenous tribes represented. It seems fitting that it is in the forest that a marriage takes place and a baby is born – these are the building blocks of the future and that future is truly free.

I found some of the characters Rachel comes across on her travels fascinating and they add something to the tale by bringing their own experience, adjustment and acceptance of their situation. Nobody has adopted the very part of his identity forged by the slave experience, the sense that he is no one and belongs nowhere. Despite the negative connotations of the name, being nobody allows him to take his power back, to be anonymous, to escape unseen and leave a mark nowhere. He has been transitory ever since he started running, living a transitory life on the ships that travel between the islands, perhaps feeling more at home in the water than on the land he was enslaved by. I wondered whether Rachel’s quest would make a mark on him and if he would find a true home, whether that be a place or a person. I was also intrigued by Hope, whose very name embodies looking forward. She has found her place in Bridgetown by entertaining paying gentlemen. She is beautiful, impeccably dressed and seems to have found a independent way of living she’s at peace with. While some people don’t want to be seen with her, Rachel is not so judgmental. After all, Rachel tells us, men have been inside her but there she was the one who paid the price. The threat of sexual violence is alluded to but never explicit. Rachel won’t discuss or ask another woman how her children have come into being, because she knows the pain of a pregnancy where you pray the child you carry has no resemblance to it’s father. Equally she knows what it’s like to dread the birth of a child who might bear a resemblance to a man greatly loved and lost forever. We don’t know about the conception of any of Rachel’s children. Her ‘pickney’, as she calls them, are hers and hers alone and it is this that makes it imperative that she finds them. She needs to find them, in order to feel whole.

The whole journey is littered with joys and terrible grief, but Rachel knows she must keep going. She meets others who have started to build a new life, placing the past firmly behind them and never pining for it. They live firmly in the here and now with questions left unanswered and people left behind. For Rachel that isn’t enough. Her children are like the scattered pieces of a broken vase. She doesn’t expect her family to be perfect and knows that there will be cracks and missing pieces. Rachel is putting her broken vase back together and she will pour a substance into the cracks, bringing the pieces together until her past is whole again. The binding substance used in Japanese Kintsugi pottery is usually gold, each crack making the piece more beautiful. In Rachel’s case the binding substance is love. Love for those here, those found but far away and those gone forever. An all encompassing love symbolised by the birth of a baby in the forest.

There was a ‘feeling of complete, absorbing, unqualified love. The baby was a stranger, without speech, unknowable. It would be years before he could say what was on his mind. And yet, love did not wait. Love was there in the beginning – even before the beginning. Love needed no words, no introduction. Existence was enough.’

Published on 19th Jan by Headline Review

Meet The Author

Eleanor Shearer is a mixed race writer from the UK. She splits her time between London and Ramsgate on the coast of Kent, so that she never has to go too long without seeing the sea.

As the granddaughter of Caribbean immigrants who came to the UK as part of the Windrush Generation, Eleanor has always been drawn to Caribbean history. Her first novel, RIVER SING ME HOME (Headline, UK & Berkley, USA) is inspired by the true stories of the brave woman who went looking for their stolen children after the abolition of slavery in 1834. 

The novel draws on her time spent in the Caribbean, visiting family in St Lucia and Barbados. It was also informed by her Master’s degree in Politics, where she focused on how slavery is remembered on the islands today. She travelled to the Caribbean and interviewed activists, historians and family members, and their reflections on what it really means to be free made her more determined than ever to bring the hidden stories of slavery to light.

Posted in Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight! The Harold Fry Series by Rachel Joyce.

It has been my honour to meet this incredible writer and lovely lady on more than one occasion. The one that really stays with me is her visit to Lindum Books in Lincoln, at a time when caring responsibilities really cut into my ability to have a normal life. Having waited some time for a late carer to arrive I telephoned the book shop to enquire whether Rachel was still there. I was told she would be leaving in a few moments, so I explained what had happened and said I’d rush to get there. When I arrived, she was sat holding her coat and bag, clearly ready to leave, but she had waited for me to arrive because she didn’t want me to miss out. She signed my book and my friend’s book too, chatted about her writing and never showed impatience or a need to rush. I absolutely treasured that thirty minutes, because it showed such kindness and respect for her reader, but also because it was something I managed to do that was just about me. It was about me as a person and something I loved, nothing to do with my caring role. When meeting the NHS or social services about my husband and his care, I often felt overlooked and under appreciated by the powers that be and my personal needs didn’t matter. I often felt that I had lost myself and the things I enjoyed, so this moment mattered and showed an understanding that can be seen in her writing of this trilogy. The latest, Maureen Fry and the Angel of the North, was published late last year and it seems a perfect time to look back on these characters.

The first in the series, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry came out in paperback in 2013. Harold Fry is a retired gentleman living quietly with his wife Maureen. One morning he pops out to post a letter, with no idea he is about to walk the length of the country. If it had entered his head he might have left with better clothing and something more robust than canvas shoes. We know nothing about Harold when he starts his journey, an idea that pops into his brain during a conversation at a petrol station in the time it takes for the microwave to heat a burger. Rachel trusts her reader and her story, she knows the reader will want to read on, to know more about this man and what has happened in his life to create his need to walk. We begin to understand that what looks to outsiders like a ‘little life’ hides a torrent of emotion and experiences, because as Harold walks and runs he processes his life choices and the feelings that have been building up under the surface. We see his memories of meeting Maureen, set against her current, curtained off, attitude to Harold and to life. His difficult relationship with his son David. The closest friend he has ever had. All of this beautiful, painful and un-examined emotion comes out as Harold walks and his canvas shoes fray. We also get to enjoy his outer world, the people he meets and the kindnesses afforded to him on his journey. We gradually get the context of the letter Harold was replying to, a letter from that closest friend, Queenie Hennessy. Queenie was there for Harold when he most needed someone, but twenty years have passed and she is in a hospice in Berwick-Upon- Tweed in her final weeks. So, Harold’s pilgrimage is towards Queenie. He thinks that as long as he keeps walking and running, Queenie will wait for him.

Rachel is telling us to look beyond the surface for the context of things, starting with the assumption that Maureen and Harold are a settled old married couple with little more going on than their housework routine and fetching the paper every morning. Both are people, with a lifetime’s worth of events, emotions, gains and losses, just like you or me. Elderly people don’t cease to have ups and downs and their marriage, once we know what they have faced, is miraculously intact but still needs tending. I was desperately hoping that Harold’s pilgrimage and some time with Queenie might restore their connection in some way and bring Maureen from behind her barricades. That the further apart they become on the map, the closer they can become emotionally. We are taken through a changing landscape too, noticing nature and seasonal change as well as the sheer beauty of the country we live in without being twee or whimsical. Harold’s journey is a reminder that we can get up and change things, we can renew our relationships with others and ourselves and we can find meaning between the lines. Rachel Joyce reminds us that, if we choose to look, there is always something extraordinary in the every day.

For even more context, Rachel then takes us into the life of Queenie Hennessy – moving her from the sidelines as part of Harold’s story, to the centre of her own intersecting narrative. The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is my favourite in the series, because it shows how someone can seem to have such a small part in your life, while you can be at the absolute centre of theirs. I also love how Queenie’s story unfolds, as she learns that Harold is making his way up the country on foot towards her, she doesn’t know whether she can hang on for him to arrive. When she confides in one of the hospice volunteers, she comes up with a brilliant suggestion and one that makes so much sense from this writing therapist’s perspective. To alleviate her anxiety and be sure that Harold knows the whole story, the volunteer suggests she writes to him. Not like the first letter, these letters should be honest and atone for the past in a way she hasn’t done for twenty years. So, from her hospice bed, Queenie makes a journey into the past with Sister Mary Inconnue at the keyboard. She admits to her love for Harold, a love given freely and without reward for decades. She tells him of her friendship with his son David and how she tried to help him. She tells him about her cottage and the beloved garden she has created by the sea and its meaning to her and those who visit. Again, the author takes us into an experience we could see as depressing and final, but is actually a beginning that’s both vital and life affirming. Harold’s impending visit and her letter rich with memories and context that may help both Harold and Maureen, allow Queenie to live while dying and create even more meaning to her life.

The final part of this trilogy seems like such a slight novel, when it arrived from the publisher I thought I’d been sent an extract rather than the full book. However, it packs a hefty emotional punch and brought a lump to my throat as we explored Maureen Fry’s inner world and her need for healing as a mother. In Maureen Fry and the Angel of the North, it is time for Maureen to take her own pilgrimage, ten years after her husband’s famous 600 mile journey. Again it’s a letter that sparks the change, a postcard from Kate who helped Harold on his journey telling them about Queenie’s garden which has become the Garden of Relics in Embleton Bay, Northumberland. Kate said there was a monument there that Queenie had built for their son David and this niggled away at Maureen as the months passed. Lots of questions and emotions started to buzz around her head: why had Queenie built this monument? Who gave her the right to do that? Why hadn’t Harold known about the friendship between Queenie and David? When she looked up the garden on the internet, Maureen found lots of people who had visited and enjoyed it enough to comment. Why had they seen this monument to David when she hadn’t? She felt angry and displaced somehow. After a terrible nightmare, where she found David lost and alone in the earth, Harold suggests that perhaps Maureen needs to see this garden for herself? She could see Kate and visit with her. Maureen knows that Harold cares about Kate and that she was kind to him on his journey. She’s some sort of activist and Maureen can’t imagine what she would say to someone like that. They wouldn’t get along.

When Maureen resolves to drive up to Northumberland and see the garden, she prepares for her journey in complete contrast to Harold. It shows the differences in their character and as she packs her sandwiches and her thermos flask I realised that Maureen believes everything can be prepared for and organised. This is why those unexpected side swipes that life deals out from time to time have affected her so badly. She tries to work them out, questions what she could have done differently and potentially blames herself. She learns very quickly, as roadworks take her off the A38 and she’s completely lost, that you can’t prepare for everything and sometimes you have to rely on the kindness of strangers. A lesson that’s repeated until Maureen simply has to give in and be wholly dependent on someone else, perhaps the last person she expected. These experiences open her up to the world in a way she hasn’t before. I won’t reveal what Maureen finds in the garden, but I felt it could be taken two different ways. Before her journey there was a void at her centre that she believed could never be filled and she held it close as a symbol of all she had lost. My hope was that after the journey that void would be become an opening, creating room for all the people she could let in. That’s the thing with Rachel Joyce’s writing, it may seem whimsical, charming and light, but it isn’t. While it might not be dramatic, it deals with the biggest themes in life; growing old, love, identity, birth, death, friendship and personal growth. To borrow that phrase again from Shirley Valentine, these are not ordinary ‘little lives’, they are extraordinary.

Meet The Author


Rachel Joyce is the author of the Sunday Times and international bestsellers The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Perfect, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, The Music Shop, and the New York Times bestseller Miss Benson’s Beetle, as well as a collection of interlinked short stories, A Snow Garden & Other Stories. Her books have sold over 5 million copies worldwide, and been translated into thirty-six languages. Two are currently in development for film.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book prize and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Rachel was awarded the Specsavers National Book Awards ‘New Writer of the Year’ in December 2012 and shortlisted for the ‘UK Author of the Year’ 2014.

Rachel has also written over twenty original afternoon plays and adaptations of the classics for BBC Radio 4, including all the Bronte novels. She lives with her family near Stroud.

You can follow Rachel on Instagram at rachelcjoyce, and find out more news at https://www.rachel-joyce.co.uk

Posted in Netgalley

The Amazing Grace Adams by Fran Littlewood

It’s possibly way too early to start picking candidates for favourite books of 2023 – I’m still deliberating over 2022 – but I think this book is certainly going to be in contention. Grace is one of those characters that you fantasise about having cocktails with and you already know you’d have the best time. Grace is stuck in traffic, it’s a boiling hot day and she’s melting. All she wants to do is get to the bakery and pick up the cake for her daughter’s birthday. This is one hell of a birthday cake, not only is it a Love Island cake; it has to say that Grace cares, that she’s sorry, that will show Lotte she loves her and hasn’t given up on their relationship. It’s shaping up to be the day from hell and as Grace sits in a tin can on boiling hot tarmac, something snaps. She decides to get out of the car and walk, leaving her vehicle stranded and pissing off everyone now blocked by a car parked in the middle of a busy road. So, despite the fact her trainers aren’t broken in, she sets off walking towards the bakery and a reunion with Lotte. There are just a few obstacles in the way, but Grace can see the cake and Lotte’s face when she opens the box. As she walks she recounts everything that has happened to bring her to where she is now.

When we first meet Grace she’s living alone, estranged from husband Ben and even from her teenage daughter Lotte. She’s peri-menopausal, wearing trainers her daughter thinks she shouldn’t be wearing at her age and she’s had enough. There’s that sense of the Michael Douglas film Falling Down except when the meltdown comes all she has is a water pistol filled with river water, an embarrassingly tiny Love Island cake and a blister on her heel. Then in flashbacks we can follow Grace all the way back to the start, to when she and Ben met at a competition for polyglots. We also get Ben’s point of view here too, so we see her through his eyes and fall in love with her too. He describes her as looking like Julianne Moore, her hair in a messy up do with the odd pencils tucked in. She suggests that, should she win the prize of a luxury hotel break in Cornwall, they should go together. It’s a crazy suggestion, but deep down, he really wants to go with this incredible woman. Once there, the first thing she does is dive into the sea to save a drowning woman. Ben has never met anyone so free and fearless. Yet on their return four months pass before Grace tracks him down and they meet at the Russian Tea Room. There Grace tells him that he’s going to be a father, he doesn’t have to be in, but can they come to an agreement? Of course Ben is in, he was never out. There love story is touching and yet honest at the same time, it’s not all schmaltzy romance – for example after coming together in Cornwall, Grace’s bed is full of sand. It’s so sad to contrast these early months with the distance between them now, what could possibly have brought them to this place.

I eagerly read about Grace and Lotte’s relationship because I’m a stepmum to a 13 and 17 year old girl. I thought this was beautifully observed, with all the ups and downs of two women at either end of a battle with their hormones. There’s that underlying sadness, a sort of grief for the child who called out for her Mum, who let Mum play Sutherland her hair and would lie in an entwined heap on the sofa watching films. Grace aches to touch her daughter in the same way she did when she was a toddler, but now Lotte watches TV in her bedroom and shrugs off cuddles and intimacy of the physical or emotional life. Pulling away is the normal process of growing up and reminds me of the ABBA song ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’. In the film Mamma Mia, Meryl Streep plays Donna as she helps her daughter get ready for her wedding. In the cinema with my Mum I could see she was emotional and now with my own stepdaughters I can understand it. I just get used to them being a certain age and they’ve grown, with one going to university next year I’m going to be so proud of her, but I’m going to miss her terribly. There’s also a terrible fear, as Grace sees her daughter’s behaviour at school deteriorate and her truant days start to add up, she’s desperate to find out what’s wrong, but Lotte won’t talk. She’s torn between Lotte’s privacy and the need to find the problem and help her daughter, but some mistakes have to be made in order to learn. Grace might have to sit by and watch this mistake unfold and simply be there when it goes wrong. No doubt, she thinks, Grace is involved with a boy and it will pass, but the reality is so much worse.

The truth when it comes is devastating, but feels weirdly like something you’ve known all along. Those interspersed chapters from happier times are a countdown to this moment, a before and after that runs like a fault line through everything that’s happened since. As Grace closes in on Lotte’s party, sweaty, dirty and brandishing her tiny squashed cake, it doesn’t seem enough to overturn everything that’s happened, but of course it isn’t about the cake. This is about everything Grace has done to be here, including the illegal bits. In a day that’s highlighted to Grace how much she has changed, physically and emotionally, her determination to get to Lotte has shown those who love her best that she is still the same kick-ass woman who threw caution to the wind and waded into the sea to save a man she didn’t know from drowning. That tiny glimpse of how amazing Grace Adams is, might just save everything.

Published by Michael Joseph 19th Jan 2023.

Posted in Netgalley

We All Want Impossible Things by Catherine Newman

This book was a joy. That’s going to seem odd when I explain what it’s about, but it is joyful and full of life. Even though at it’s centre there’s a death. Ash and Edi have been friends forever, since childhood in fact. They’ve gone through adolescence together: survived school; other girls; discovering boys and even that awkward phase of starting adult life, when one went to college and the other stayed behind. They’ve both married and been each other’s maids of honour and become mothers. Instead of any of these things pulling them apart they’ve remained platonic partners in life. However, now Edi is unwell and decisions need to be made. After years of struggle with being, treatment, remission and recurrence, Edi now has to decide how she’ll be dying. With all the hospices locally being full, Ash makes an offer – if Edi comes to a hospice near Ash, she can devote time to being with her and Edi’s husband can get on with every day life for her son Dash. There’s a hospice near Ash that’s like a home from home, with everything that’s needed medically, but the informality and personal touch of a family. Now Ash and Edi have to negotiate that strange contradiction; learning how to live, while dying.

This is just the sort of book I enjoy, full of deep emotion but also humour, eccentric characters and situations. It takes us through a process of how someone’s life and death changes those around them, with unexpected behaviours and consequences all round. Firstly the environment the author creates is so wonderfully rich and full of warmth, whether we’re at the hospice or in Ash’s welcoming home. She does this with layers of detail, from the decor to the people and some seriously mouthwatering food. The hospice is an absolute wonderland – this may sound like a very weird description, but having had a loved one become terminally ill from multiple sclerosis and not cancer, it was a horrible wake up call to realise there was nowhere for him to die. I would have loved to be in this incredibly nurturing environment that’s more of a family home, where they’re putting comfort and individuality first, with first class medical care always available in the background to play it’s part. I loved the busy kitchen with a cornucopia of treats in the fridge, because here no one is on a diet. Each room is very individual, but there’s are little links between such as the hospice dogs wandering in and out, the smell of someone else’s favourite food, the wandering guitar player or the ever present soundtrack to Fiddler on the Roof from another room. All of these elements come together and create a warm embrace for Edi, but also for her loved ones who spend a lot of time there.

Ash’s home and family life is so enviable I wanted to be part of it. Her estranged husband Honey is an incredible chef and her daughter seems to have picked up the talent. The author’s descriptions of their meals really did make the mouth water and are their way of contributing and supporting Ash. All of these people are so nurturing, in Honey’s case this is despite he and Ash being separated. Before you think this sounds schmaltzy and sentimental I can assure you that these characters are not perfect. Each has their flaws and their ways of coping, some of which are destructive and possibly difficult for others to understand. Ash particularly has a novel approach to grief, but I understood it. If we look beneath the surface, it’s a way of forging connection with others on the same journey and expressing their love for Edi. It’s also a distraction, a way of leaving all the paraphernalia of death behind and affirming life. That doesn’t mean her behaviour isn’t confusing, especially to her teenage daughter who supplies whip smart commentary, eye rolls and remarkable wisdom. The men in this friendship group seem to understand that their grief is secondary, because Edi is the love of Ash’s life. I enjoyed the little addition of Edi’s other friend – the college friend – who Ash has concerns about. Does Edi like her more than Ash? Do they have a special bond? The author provides us with this loving picture but then undermines it slightly, so it isn’t perfect. We are imperfect beings and no one knows how they will react in a time like this, until we’re there. Catherine Newman shows this with realism, charm, humour and buckets of compassion.

Published by Doubleday 12th Jan 2023

Meet The Author

Catherine Newman is the author of the kids’ how-to books How to Be a Person and What Can I Say?, the memoirs Catastrophic Happiness and Waiting for Birdy, the middle-grade novel One Mixed-Up Night, and the food and parenting blog Ben and Birdy, and she edits the non-profit kids’ cooking magazine ChopChop. She is also the etiquette columnist for Real Simple magazine and a regular contributor to the New York Times, O, The Oprah Magazine, The Boston Globe, and many other publications. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her family. Visit her website at http://www.catherinenewmanwriter.com

Posted in Netgalley

Mad Honey by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan

I was granted access to this novel on NetGalley and couldn’t wait to read it, bumping it to the top of my TBR when I had a free weekend. This is Jodi Picoult in her element. Her last book was an interesting take on the pandemic and a couple of her recent novels have been more experimental, moving away from the legal case structure of her earlier work. When I met Jodi Picoult several years ago I asked about her writing. Did she start with character, or was it the controversial issues she explores that start the writing process? Having covered racism, school shootings, teen suicide and abortion it seems that these complex issues drive her imagination. She admitted that these issues do spark her creativity and if an issue stays in her mind for a couple of weeks she knows it has potential. Then she starts to research and during that process, characters form and make themselves known to her. I loved the flow of Picoult’s writing and the tension she builds around the featured legal case, but thought she’d maybe moved away from this way of working. When Jennifer Finney Boylan approached her with the idea to write a book together with a trans character at it’s heart, Jodi Picoult had been thinking about setting a novel around trans rights for a number of years. The structure of Mad Honey feels like vintage Picoult and even where Jennifer Finney Boylan takes over the narration I didn’t notice a huge difference in tone or style. I’ve never read Jennifer Finney Boylan, but she is the first openly transgender American to write a bestselling book, a book that is now thought of as an important part of the transgender canon. She is the perfect writer to join Picoult in this venture that’s bound to be controversial considering the trigger warnings I’ve seen used. Picoult and Boylan haven’t shied away from controversy in choosing to write about one of today’s hottest and most complicated topics; the complexities of being transgender. Yet the combination of authors takes away the debate over ‘own voice’ narratives and brings a sensitivity and knowledge to the project it wouldn’t have had if Picoult had written alone.

We meet Olivia and her son Asher, who live near a small town in New Hampshire. When Asher was a toddler she fled her abusive marriage to return to the place she grew up. Her timing was perfect, as her father was starting to struggle physically and needed to teach Olivia all the wisdom he’d accrued in a lifetime of keeping bees. Now Olivia is the bee expert, tending daily to her hives where each queen bee is named after a musical diva: Celina, Gaga, Beyoncé. The toddler who was just steady enough on his feet to intervene when his father attacked his mother, is now a six foot ice hockey player in his final year before leaving for college. Asher is a popular teenager with lots of friends and now he has girlfriend Lilly too. Lilly understands starting over, so Olivia feels they have something in common. She likes Lily when she’s been over to the house and she’s successfully helped them with the bees, who are a good judge of character. Lilly feels happy for the first time in her life and Asher is a huge part of that, although there is still a part of her that wonders if she can truly trust him, be open and be vulnerable. Then out of the blue Olivia takes the call every parent dreads. It’s the police. Lily is dead and Asher has been arrested for her murder. She calls her brother Jordan to come to New Hampshire and be Asher’s lawyer. In her mind there’s no way that the gentle boy she knows could have done this. However, as the case starts to unfold she realises that Asher has hidden more than he’s shared. Could he be exhibiting the same tendencies as his father? As Olivia knows more than anyone, we rarely know the people we love as well as we think we do.

I think it’s incredibly hard to take on writing about someone else’s experience, especially someone from a minority group. When it comes to books about disability, my own minority, I do prefer ‘own voice’ narratives. After all, who better to write a character with a disability than a writer with a disability? Failing that I want to know that an author has done their very best to represent that minority, through research and spending time with people who have a disability. I want to know they’ve asked the hard and sometimes uncomfortable questions that take them to the heart of how living in that body might feel. Armed with that they can hopefully create a character who feels real rather than clichéd and avoids stereotypes. I have to be honest and say I don’t know enough about being transgender to judge whether the authors have everything right, but I can see they’ve tried and truly wanted to write about transgender rights in a mainstream novel that’s very likely to be a bestseller. I guess time will tell how the book is received as it moves out into the world. In her acknowledgments, Jennifer Finney Boylan quotes a terrible statistic; in the year that she and Piicoult wrote the book, ‘more than 350 transgender people were killed around the world, more than a fifth of them inside their own homes’. This awful number stayed with me and I was glad these authors are starting a conversation, with a mainstream audience who might not seek out information about being transgender ordinarily. It helped me have a conversation with my 75 year old dad who becomes confused between gender and sexuality and is totally baffled by labels like transgender, transsexual, non-binary. I think these are conversations everyone should have and maybe the book is an entry point, inspiring people to read more ‘own voice’ narratives.

Picoult speaks for me when she says it never occurred to her to think of a transgender woman as anything other than a woman, but it was good to have my view challenged, because it showed me how vehemently some corners of society disagree with me. We are given a lot of background information that clearly comes from both author’s research, but is presented in the guise of Olivia educating herself. She talks about how common it is for animals to change gender, from clown fish to bearded dragons and female hyena’s who can have retractable penises. She’s pressing home the argument against those who claim transgender people are unnatural and that if you were not born with the sexual organs of a woman then you’re not a woman. There does seem to be a huge emphasis on the ability to procreate, but where does that leave women like me who can’t have children? Or those who’ve had a hysterectomy? Are we not real women too? I was very interested in something called ‘passing’, a concept that applies to race, disability, sexuality: an African-American man may be treated very differently if he has a lighter skin tone; a gay man may ‘pass’ as straight in order to be avoid prejudice at work; someone with an invisible disability like mine can be seen as able-bodied with all the benefits of both ways of being. If a transgender woman has a naturally feminine look she can pass as a woman more easily than someone who is is taller or broader. This ability to pass means no one, not even someone the transgender woman is in a sexual relationship with, need ever know that their assigned sex at birth was different. Of course this then begs the question of whether there is an obligation to disclose this information and when? All of this debate comes into the novel’s courtroom sections, in the guise of expert testimony so it doesn’t feel like endless exposition. There are times when opinions may be offensive to some readers, but I think they reflected the reality of being transgender and the discrimination faced.

The story flows beautifully and really grabbed hold of me quickly. I found myself unable to do anything until I’d finished reading, so I let uni work and household chores pile up, completely engrossed in the terrible situation both Asher and Lily’s mums find themselves in. I did feel this was Olivia and Ava’s story, despite our narrators being Lily and Olivia. For me the transition between the two writers is seamless. I really couldn’t tell whether I was reading Jodi or Jennifer’s writing and I know they worked hard at this, swapping sections for re-writes at times. I did feel for Olivia who has fled a terrible situation to protect her boy from her violent husband. I understood how she and Asher had become a tight unit, now challenged by Asher’s age and this new person coming into their small world. I thought the aftermath of being a victim of violence was tackled really well, as Olivia’s job keeps her hidden from the world. She doesn’t make friends and relationships haven’t been on her radar at all. I felt the weight of this massive change looming over them, Asher going away to college and leaving his mum alone for the first time. Her protection of them both has been necessary, but she must be lonely at times. It was interesting to see her reaction to a possible romance, could she take down those walls and start to build a life for herself? By contrast, Lily’s chapters are lighter than Olivia’s, capturing that moment of being on the cusp of adulthood. Lily is brim full of potential and possibility. She’s like a newly transformed butterfly taking it’s first flight. Then all of a sudden she’s gone and it feels like a light has been snuffed out. How much harder must it be for Ava, who has nurtured and protected her daughter in much the same way as Olivia has protected her son? Ava stayed with me after the book had ended because her loss is unimaginable and her only solace is to retreat into the natural world where she feels at home. I found myself hoping she experienced the healing power of nature and didn’t feel too lonely out there on the Appalachian Trail.

I enjoyed the bee analogy that ran through the book, the reference to Mad Honey referring to bees who’ve collected pollen from rhododendrons and laurels. Unfortunately the honey produced is poisonous, causing dizziness, convulsions and cardiac symptoms. The ancient Greeks used it in germ warfare, it’s success dependent on the eater’s expectations of sweetness not deadly poison. The analogy between this and Olivia’s husband is clear as she describes the love bombing in their early relationship and her utter shock when he first lashes out in anger. Her biggest fear is that Asher could be cut from the same cloth as his father, when she sees nothing but her sweet boy. However, she knows that her own mother-in-law would have struggled to accept that her boy was a monster behind closed doors. The tension is brilliantly handled, rising slowly as we get to the final days of the court when I found myself biting my nails! I wasn’t sure how I felt about Asher and the potential verdict, I wasn’t sure I believed his version of events and if Asher was found innocent, would we ever find out what happened to Lily? The twists and turns here were brilliant, with the killer blow delivered just as everything is starting to calm down.

I’m hoping that this novel can be a gateway novel, an introduction to that inspires readers to really think about the experience of transgender people, hopefully inspiring readers to search out writing by transgender authors going forward. There is one scene where Olivia seeks out the woman who runs the town’s record store, because she’s known to be transgender. Here she gets to ask the questions that are running through her mind and although he’s a reluctant authority on the subject, he doesn’t get offended by her insensitivity or ignorance. What he does reinforce for her is that no one can speak for all trans women, because ‘when you’ve met one trans woman, you’ve met one trans woman’. What it reinforces for me is that gender and sexuality are a spectrum, there are as many ways of being as there are people. Our need to categorise, label and compare creates a pyramid of bigotry and ultimately divides us. All we can hope is that future generations find ways of relating to each other that bridge these man made divides. It’s only then that all people can live ‘with power, and fierceness, and with love’ and, as one of our characters says, without the obligation ‘to explain and defend the things I have known in my heart since the day I was born.’

Mad Honey is published on 15th November by Hodder and Stoughton

Meet the Authors.

Jennifer Finney Boylan is a bestselling author, transgender activist and professor at Barnard College. She is also a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. She has written thirteen books, including novels, collections of short stories, and her memoir. Her 2003 memoir She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders was the first book published by an openly transgender American to become a bestseller and has become as ‘a seminal piece of the trans literary canon”.

Jodi Picoult is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of twenty-eight novels, including Wish You Were Here, The Book of Two Ways, A Spark of Light, Small Great Things, Leaving Time, and My Sister’s Keeper, and, with daughter Samantha van Leer, two young adult novels, Between the Lines and Off the Page. Picoult lives in New Hampshire. Her next novel, Mad Honey, co-written with Jennifer Finney Boylan, is available on November 15th.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Good Taste by Caroline Scott.

In-between a couple of intense crime reads I was so ready for the comforting nostalgia of Caroline Scott’s new novel. Don’t let my description fool you though. Caroline has a wonderful way of keeping her writing light and soft, but the merest peek under that surface reveals themes that delve so much deeper into society and the historical period of our heroine Stella. Set in the fascinating time period between the two World Wars, England is struggling through a depression and Stella has had something of a life change. It’s 1932 and Stella is facing the first Christmas without her mother. With memories of her mother’s frailty last Christmas and the fear of that obvious empty chair, Stella has moved back from London to a small cottage in the West Riding of Yorkshire in order to be near her father. Money is tight, since her first book The Marvellous Mrs Raffald hasn’t done as well as she’d hoped. Celandine Cottage is rather shabby and Stella is surviving on the money she’s paid by a women’s magazine for writing a weekly article with five new recipes. When she’s summoned to London by her publisher, she’s half expecting her novel to be pulped and although she wants to write a biography of 18th Century cookery writer Hannah Glasse, she’s rather gloomy about her prospects. She’s shocked when he tasks her with a new project – a history of English food. He wants a book that will inspire English housewives and remind English men of a nostalgic past. Although as Stella starts to think about her research, she realises that a lot of food people consider to be quintessentially English, is actually from elsewhere. So she sends out a letter:

Sir,

Would any housewife in your region be kind enough to share a traditional recipe with which she may be acquainted? Is there a favourite pie made by your grandmother? A cake that you fondly recall from childhood? A dish that’s particular to your village? Perhaps a great-aunt left you a hand-written book of her recipes?

This knowledge and these flavours have been passed down to us through the generations. But an urgent effort is required to collect and catalogue these dishes. If you are able to assist with this task, you would be doing a great service.

Please correspond with the address below. I will gratefully acknowledge all contributions,

Stella Douglas

However, as she sets off on her planned route to meet food makers and the nation’s housewives her car breaks down. A dashing young man called Freddie comes to her rescue and her plans move in a different direction, perhaps toward something more imaginative.

I enjoyed Stella, mainly because she is very much the modern woman, living alone and paying her own way at a time when women’s lives changed enormously. During WW1 women were encouraged to work, because they were needed to fulfil job roles that men had left behind as they went to fight in the trenches. Women became more used to living alone, making their own way and working outside of the home so when the war ended and men returned, there was tension. Some men wanted their wives back in the home so they could be breadwinners of their family. However, so many men were lost and injured, so the changes did stand and the following generations of women were keen to shape their own destiny. Stella was enormously likeable and intelligent, very measured in her approach to the task and able to see immediately that it was much more complicated than expected. As she listed those foods seen as English she could see the influence of foreign imports in them, as well as in her spice rack. Even the humble potato conjured up images of the Crusader, Tudor explorers and Dutch horticulturist’s sailing off to the Far East for specimen plants. She spots the massive gap between the perception of Englishness and the reality. In her imagination, cricket teas and church spires clash with a colourful collection of influences, speaking more than a dozen languages. Which history does she want to write and which is her publisher expecting?

I was rooting for Stella from the start, especially when her plans started to go awry, and I found her reminiscences of her mother so touching. Caroline taps into that nostalgic aspect of food and the way foods from our childhood hold a particular place in our hearts, with just a whiff or taste bringing up strong emotions of where we were or who we were with. One sniff of a newly opened tin of Quality Street sends me rocketing back to the late 1970s and my Aunty Joan who would buy us one each year along with a goodie bag of colouring pens with colouring and puzzle books. Bread toasted under a gas grill with salted butter takes me to my grandma’s kitchen as she brushed my hair and put a bow in it. The beautifully hand-written notebooks that belonged to her mother are like a time machine for Stella, all the more emotive now her mother is gone after a battle with cancer. They cause tears to well up, but also allow Stella to smile at her precious memories of surreptitiously sharing the first slice of a roasted lamb joint. This is the first time she has been able to think of her mother with joy as well as sadness.

‘As Stella read, the shadows in the room lightened, the gramophone played again distantly and order seemed to return to the world

Another aspect of Caroline’s writing I love is the extensive research that lies underneath a relatively gentle tale. I felt immediately immersed in the 1930’s, with even little asides about fashion like Stella’s felt cloche with a frivolous ostrich feather and her Liberty & Co coat, placing her firmly in time. As Stella reminisces about her time in Paris with her friend Michael, we’re there as she wanders through cellar clubs and tastes cocktails in Montparnasse, it sounds like there’s a hint of romance in her memory of dancing barefoot with him on a warm pavement. Something about their relationship is alluring and it’s as if she’s only just started to really see her friend and his incredibly blue eyes. Her surprise when she finds out he’s in a new relationship is obvious and this isn’t just any woman he’s involved with, it’s Cynthia Palmer, a beautiful model and artist. Where will Stella fit in?

The historical detail of English food is fascinating and it was interesting to hear ideas from the early 20th Century that we still talk about today in terms of sustainability and frugality. When it comes to meat there’s ‘nose to tail’ eating, making sure every part of the animal is used – they clearly had a better stomach for offal than we do today. There’s the concept of eating locally and growing your own food. There were also criticisms that are obviously age old, such as feeling young people have forgotten how to cook from scratch and are becoming dependent on gadgets and what we now call time saving hacks. She seems to sense another trend that I thought was current; the concern that we almost fetishise food with our devotion to baking and other cooking shows, while at home we’re cooking from scratch less and less. When it comes to what and how we eat, and even what we call our mealtimes, there are definitely divides between town and country, between the wealthy and the poor, and variations between North and South. I loved the eccentricity of some of the characters she meets and neighbour Dilys was a favourite of mine. Having a mum who flirted with vegetarianism and haunted the health food shop, Dilys’s devotion to pulses and lentils stirred up a childhood food memory of my own – a terrible shepherd’s pie with no shepherds just acres of lentils, called Red Dragon Pie. The only red thing about it were the acres of ketchup we used to give it some flavour. I loved her bohemian air and she seemed startlingly modern compared to Stella who’s a little more ‘proper’. The roguish Freddie was also rather fun and very charming of course. Caroline has a wonderful way of balancing all this. She tantalises us with period detail and charming characters, throws in some humour, while also showing us the grittier underbelly of life in a depression and those moments of grief for her mother that Stella experiences, which are so beautifully rendered. Caroline makes this look incredibly easy when in reality it’s such a complex juggling act, one that she pulls off beautifully.

Meet The Author

Caroline completed a PhD in History at the University of Durham. She developed a particular interest in the impact of the First World War on thelandscape of Belgium and France, and in the experience of women during the conflict – fascinations that she was able to pursue while she spent several years working as a researcher for a Belgian company. Caroline is originally from Lancashire, but now lives in SouthWest France. Her book The Photographer of the Lost was a BBC Book Club pick.

Posted in Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight! Memoirs and Non-Fiction

I’m continuing my look at the books that have had a huge effect on me personally or helped me to make a difference in my life. If I’m facing a difficulty, challenge or setback in life I usually look for something to read about it. My late husband used to say that knowledge can’t be taken away from you and that the more knowledge you have, the more options you have too. I’m looking at four books today, all of them memoirs in different forms, but each quite different in how they communicate to the reader. Each one did make me think and I can honestly say I came out of each book feeling changed a little: whether it was energised and inspired; feeling less alone in the world; learning how to face life’s obstacles or reaching an emotional catharsis.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.

Joan Didion’s memoir is award winning for a reason. I found it a dense read in parts, but then my intelligence is probably far below Ms Didion’s level. However, there’s no denying the power of her opening chapter as she and her husband are preparing the table for dinner. Joan and her husband John had already been given the terrible news that their daughter had been placed on life support. Quintana had been suffering with flu symptoms, that became pneumonia and eventually septic shock. In the throes of grief, they are preparing for dinner when with no warning John collapses. John died from a heart attack instantly. In the maelstrom of emotions surrounding his death, Joan writes to make sense of what she’s thinking and feeling.

I found her writing raw and painful. I read this in my own grief and I recognised so much of the past year of my life in her descriptions. The way mind and body become disconnected; one carrying out the duties and routines of everyday life while the other is in another place. I felt like the bit that’s me, my ‘self’ had hunkered down deep inside the shell of my body, unable to cope with the shock of what happened. We were now in a world without my husband, where he didn’t exist. I think my ‘self’ was still in the one where he did. With her beautiful choice of words, Didion articulated a grief I didn’t have words for yet.

Illness by Havi Carel.

I came across this lesser known book when I was researching for a PhD. I was interested in the gap between a person’s perspective of their illness and the self presented in disability memoirs. My argument being that people write about their disability using certain tropes and archetypes – such as Christopher Reeve still presenting himself as superman. There is often a narrative of redemption or triumph that doesn’t relate to someone whose illness or disability is lifelong. I didn’t know whether these tropes were so ingrained in our society, there was only one acceptable way of writing about disability experience, or whether the truth simply doesn’t sell so publishers pressure writers to frame their disability this way. My supervisor suggested I needed to read Havi Carel’s book, because not only was she a professor in philosophy, she also had a long term illness that affects her lung function. What I was floundering around trying to describe was the phenomenology of illness – the ‘lived experience’ to you and me.

In some ways this is a text book, as Carel looks into what is illness? Is it a physiological dysfunction, a social label, or a way of experiencing the world? How do the physical, social, and emotional worlds of a person change when they become ill? Can there be well-being within illness?Carel explores these questions by weaving together the personal story of her own illness with insights and reflections drawn from her work as a philosopher. Carel’s fresh approach to illness raises some uncomfortable questions about how we all – whether healthcare professionals or not – view the ill, challenging us to become more thoughtful. A scene where Carel is devastated during a test of her lung function, because the result shows a decline, is so much worse because of the cold, unfeeling, practitioner. I had tears in my eyes reading it. Illness unravels the tension between the universality of illness and its intensely private, often lonely, nature. It offers a new way of looking at a matter that affects every one of us, because every one of us can become ill or disabled in our lifetime.

Before I Say Goodbye by Ruth Picardie.

Back in 1998, way before Dame Deborah James and You,Me and the Big C, there was Ruth Picardie. Her column in The Observer was read by millions and it was the cancer experience laid bare. Searingly honest and raw about her illness one minute and the next the day to day routine of being a Mum to two small babies. I loved how Picardie debunked those myths and archetypes of illness. How people still associate being ill with the old Victorian consumptive idea of wasting away. Those who are ill should at least be thin. However, as a result of steroid treatment for a secondary brain tumour, Picardie gains weight and has the characteristic ‘moon face’ that I remember from my own steroid days. She is angry with herself for being shallow, especially when she has to dress up for a wedding and nothing fits. She expected that being faced with death, she might be able to let go of the small stuff that doesn’t matter. It does matter though and she goes to Ghost to buy one of their flowy maxi dresses to make herself feel beautiful. She documents the progress of her cancer without holding back and when she can no longer do so, around two days before she died, her husband and sister Justine conclude.and put a frame around this collection of diary events from The Observer. This is a tough one, because I know the context is needed, but losing her narrative voice and hearing her sister Justine’s still chokes me up today. Ruth died from complications following the misdiagnosis of breast cancer in September 1997, leaving a young husband and two-year-old twins.

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

I read Gilbert’s book before all the hype and the film version. I’d been on holiday and picked it up as an easy read and I was hooked by page one. Liz Gilbert has a way of writing that makes the reader feel like it’s just you and her, two friends having a catch up after a long time apart. It’s an intimate and honest account of how she found herself again after a marriage breakdown and a long term relationship that wasn’t healthy. She decided to take a long trip and broke it into sections, each one to feed part of her: body, spirit and heart. First she went to Italy for the eating part, then India for spirituality, then Bali which sounds like an absolute paradise and the perfect place to conclude a healing journey. If you read this as a simple travelogue you won’t be disappointed. Her descriptions of the food in Rome and Naples made me want to book a plane and the warmth in the friends she made there were really heartwarming. I found the discipline and struggle of ashram inspiring, it was her time to really go inside and work things out. She needed to confront what had happened in her marriage, forgive her husband and herself, then remember the parts that were good.

Bali is a like a warm place to land after all that mental work, where the people are welcoming and Liz finds work with a holy man transcribing his prayers and wisdom to make a book. Here she learns to love again and there was something that really chimed with me, when Liz meets a man at a party and they have a connection, she’s absolutely terrified about what it might lead to. She has worked hard and found her equilibrium and now her emotions are stirred up and unpredictable. She felt safe and grounded before, so she doesn’t want to lose it. I’d spent six years on my own, after the death of my husband I’d ended up in an abusive relationship and it had taken me a long time to recover. Then I met my current partner and I remembered back to this book and the wise friend who advised Liz to think of her life as a whole, it could only be balanced if it has periods of imbalance. Sometimes we have to throw ourselves into life. I used meditation a lot to keep grounded and it has changed my life in terms of improving mood and helping me cope with life’s difficulties. However, we can’t avoid life and stay in neutral all the time. When I read this with my book club there were mixed responses, the most negative being ‘it’s okay for some, able to swan off round the old and get paid for it’. It’s a valid point, but I never felt that. I thought she was in need of something drastic to get her life back on track and I didn’t begrudge her a moment of it. You might also like to try Eat, Pray, Love Made Me Do It. A series of stories about women’s journeys inspired by the book.

Posted in Squad Pod

The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line by Ruth Thomas

This novel was a wonderful surprise when Sandstone Press kindly granted me a copy. We were only three weeks into January and I’d fallen immediately in love with a new literary heroine. I absolutely adored Sybil and felt so at home in her company I just kept reading all day. I then finished at 11pm was bereft because I wouldn’t be with Sybil any more. Yes, this is what happens to avid readers. We fall head over heels with a character, can’t put the book down, then suffer from book withdrawal. All day I was grumpy and reluctant to start a new book.

Sybil’s life is puttering along nicely. She has a job she enjoys at a London museum – Royal Institute of Prehistoric Studies (RIPS). There she produces learning materials, proof reads and indexes archaeological publications. She also helps people with research enquiries. She has a great boyfriend, Simon, who is a chef and likes to make her bread with obscure grains. Her quiet, settled life is turned upside down when she, quite literally, bumps into an old nemesis from her university days. Sybil and Simon have gone ice skating, where they spot Helene Hanson, Sybil’s old university lecturer. Sybil doesn’t want to say hello, after all Helene did steal some ideas from Sybil’s dissertation to further her own research into the Beaker people. They try to make their way over, very unsteadily, and end up careering into Helene’s group. In Sybil’s case she’s only stopped by the wall of the rink. She has a nasty bang on the head, and from there her life seems to change path completely. Only weeks later, Helene has stolen Sybil’s boyfriend and in her capacity working for a funding body, she has taken a huge interest in RIPS. Now Sybil’s workplace will be selling Helene’s range of Beakerware (TM) in the gift shop and they even welcome her onto their committee as chair of trustees. Sybil’s mum suggests a mature exchange of views, but Sybil can’t do that. Nothing but all out revenge will satisfy how Sybil feels. She’s just got to think of a way to expose that Helene Hanson as a fraud.

First of all I want to talk about the structure of the novel. As Sybil’s life starts to unravel, so does her narration. A suggestion from a friend leads Sybil to a poetry class at her local library, so prose is broken up with poetry and very minimal notes of what Sybil has seen that she hopes to turn into haiku. Haiku is a Japanese form of poetry with a set structure of thirteen syllables over three lines in the order of 5, then 3, and then 5 syllables. Having lived next to a Japanese meditation garden for several years I started to write and teach haiku as a form of meditation. It’s a form linked to nature and is very much about capturing small moments. So if Sybil sees something that might inspire her, it makes its way into her narration. I loved this, because I enjoy poetry, but also because it broke up the prose and showed those quiet still moments where Sybil was just observing. She works with found objects – most notably a little teacup, left on a wall, that has ‘ a cup of cheer’ written on the side. There’s a very important reason for the fragmentary narration, that I won’t reveal, but I loved it and thought it was so clever. Many of my regular readers will know why I connected with this narrative voice. It could be that this is the only visible symptom of the chaos in Sybil’s mind as she goes through a massive shift – physically from one flat to another – but also a mental shift towards living alone, to coping with her nemesis constantly popping up and to the heartbreak she’s gone through. We’ve all had to start new chapters in life so her situation is easy to relate to.

Helene’s organisation brings much needed funding to the museum, but with it come obligations. As chair of the trustees, she wants to change the very structure of the building and some of the precious display spaces might be sacrificed. Her commercial enterprise, recreating Beakerware (TM) for the museum gift shop, means the shop expanding into other areas. Exhibits that have been on display for years will be moved into storage to make room and Sybil dreads Helene using Simon as the face of the range, imagining giant posters of her ex greeting her every morning at work. To add insult to injury Helene even inserts herself into Sybil’s everyday job by adding a section into her boss Raglan’s upcoming book meaning that Sybil has to index Helene’s writing. Could there be a chance here, for Sybil to gain some satisfaction? However, as Sybil’s mum hints, revenge can be more damaging to the person seeking it. This book is character driven and they’re brilliantly drawn, funny, eccentric and human. Sybil’s boss Raglan Beveridge – who she observes sounds like a cross between a knitted jumper and a hot drink – is such a lovely man, easily swayed but kind and tries to ensure that Sybil is ok. I enjoyed Bill who she meets several times across the book, in different situations. He’s calm, funny, thoughtful and shows himself to be a good friend to Sybil, even while she’s barely noticing him! Helene seems to hang over everything Sybil does, like an intimidating black cloud promising rain to come. She is a glorious villain in that she has very few redeeming features, and tramples all over Sybil’s world at home and at work. The author cleverly represents this in the very structure of RIPS. Sybil likes her slightly fusty, behind the times little museum. There’s a sense in which it is precious, that the spaces within shelter some eccentric and fragile people. They’re like little orchids, who might not thrive anywhere else. They’re introverts, so need familiarity and quiet. How will they survive Helen’s onslaught?

On the whole this was a quiet book. As I was reading it, I was totally. engrossed and the outside world was muffled for a while. It reminded me of those mornings after snowfall, when the outside world is silenced. I felt a deep connection with Sybil. She’s offbeat, quirky and has a dark sense of humour. We meet her at her lowest point and while we’ve all been heartbroken, this was much more than that. I’ve been broken by life just once, but I was a like a vase, smashed into so many pieces I didn’t know if I could pull them all back together. Even if I did, I knew I would never be the same person. This is the process Sybil is working through and her grief is central to the novel. My loss felt so huge that it affected my actions – I left doors unlocked when I went out, forgot to pay bills, and started to make mistakes at work. I had always prided myself on being very ‘together’ and here I was falling apart. I discovered Japanese art that healed me in some way – it’s called Kintsugi and it’s the art of repairing broken ceramics with liquid gold or other contrasting metal. It shows the cracks, the evidence that this piece has been through something, but it’s still whole and it’s still beautiful. I feel this is Sybil’s journey and what she needed to hear was broken things can still be beautiful. This was a thoughtful novel, with serious themes but a lovely hint of humour running through. I still love it now, a couple of years later and my finished copy has pride of place on my bookshelves.

Q & A with Ruth Thomas.

1. The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line is very character driven – did the idea for the story or Sybil come first?

The setting came first, in fact. I wanted to write about a fusty old institute, and that’s how the Royal Institute for Prehistorical Studies (RIPS) began. I also wanted to write about Greenwich Park. It’s an early memory from childhood. I remember it being a beautiful but rather melancholy place.

2. The RIPS is a wonderful setting! Could you tell us a bit about it, and why you set The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line in a museum?

I love museums, especially small old-fashioned ones. They have so much character and lend themselves to description. I also wanted to tell the story of a museum artefact – how it fitted into someone’s life in the 21st century as much as the time when it was made.

3. Sybil’s voice is brilliantly handled – did you do anything in particular to pin that down when you started working on the novel, or to get in the zone each time you sat down to write?

I don’t think too much about voice before I begin – I just start with my own take on things, and after a while a character and voice shapes itself around those observations. I think the mood your character’s in has a big effect on the way they tell their story.

4. Quite early on in the book, Sybil joins ‘Poetry for the Terrified!’ at North Brixton Library – could you tell us a bit about that?

I love poetry but am a bit rubbish at writing it! I thought I’d harness that inability for Sybil too. At school, we were always supposed to find poetry profound. It can be fantastic and moving, of course, but sometimes you have to discover that in your own time.

5. One of the themes that stood out while reading The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line was grief – we’d love to hear about how you explored different aspects of grief.

I wanted Sybil’s grief to be reflected elsewhere in the book too. She thinks she’s alone with her heartbreak, but that’s one of the qualities of grief – you don’t necessarily know others are going through something similar. I also wanted to explore sorrow without writing a very sad book!

6. Was any of the office politics/social etiquette inspired by real life?

I love office politics! It’s one of the things I really missed during lockdown. Small-scale conversations and seemingly trivial things are what make me tick as a writer. At the momentI’m just having to focus a bit more on remembering the details.

Thank you so much to Sandstone Press and the SquadPod Collective for inviting me to share this lovely book with you again and thank you to Ruth Thomas for her contribution to this post.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Man Who Didn’t Call by Rosie Walsh.

I’ve been putting together a list of all the summer releases I’m looking forward to and one of my most anticipated books is Rosie Walsh’s The Love of My Life. So I thought it was a great time to look back on her last novel which I absolutely loved.

I read this in two long bursts – one of which started at 3am. It’s a book I couldn’t put it down because all I wanted was these two people back together. The harsh realities of grief and lifelong family rifts are well drawn and believable. All of these people are trying to move forward despite their lives missing a beat one day on a country road, where a split second decision has lifelong consequences. This book explores grief, loss, loyalty, loneliness and the incredible ability the human heart has to heal.

Sarah has a 7 day whirlwind romance with Eddie. They meet by chance on a country road while Sarah is visiting her parents. She thinks Eddie just might be the one. But, Eddie goes away on holiday and she never hears from him again. Is Eddie a heartless playboy who never intended to call? Did Sarah do something wrong? Or has something terrible happened to him? Instead of listening to friends and writing this off as a one night stand, Sarah begins to obsess and is determined to find the answer. Every clue she has comes to a dead end and she is in danger of completely losing her dignity. As her time back home in the UK starts to run out, Sarah looks for clues to track Eddie down. What she hears is confusing her further. His friend doesn’t give the simple answer, that Eddie has moved on, but gives her a warning; if she knows what’s best for her, she needs to stop looking for Eddie

I quickly became invested in Sarah and Eddie’s story. I think we’ve all been subjected to the watched phone that never rings and how crazy it can make us. It could have made me dislike Eddie early on, but for some reason I never did. I’m definitely a hopeless romantic so I seemed to accept Sarah’s hope that this could still work out. The other characters in the novel are also well-written and compelling. I’m a therapist so I was particularly interested in Eddie’s mother and her mental ill health. I think her symptoms and the way she manipulated Eddie showed a streak of narcissism. She finds it impossible to see this situation from his point of view, only how it affects her. Anything that threatens their dynamic as carer and patient is a huge threat to her and she responds with emotional blackmail and hostility. Eddie is as much a prisoner of her mental ill health as she is. I also had empathy for Sarah’s friend Jenny who is struggling to conceive and undergoes IVF treatment to the point of financial ruin. Her character probably leapt out at me because I’m also not able to have children, and know how difficult it can be to come to terms with. Her stoicism and determination to support her friend in the face of her own loss is very moving.

I stayed up late to finish the book, because I had everything crossed that the mystery would be explained and these two people could move forward together. To different degrees, all the novels characters are imprisoned by the past and losses they can’t accept. My husband died when he was 42 and I was 35. It’s like a chasm opened up and I had to choose between staying on one side forever, with the past and my feelings of loss and fear. Or I could choose to jump over that chasm into a new future. I never forget what happened or the love I have for Jerzy, but twelve years later I have a wonderful partner and two beautiful stepdaughters. Thankfully, I had the bravery to move forward knowing I can’t lose my memories of the past but I still have a future full of possibilities I never imagined. That’s what the characters in the novel are trying to do. Grief is different for everyone and there are always tensions between those who are trying to heal and those who can’t imagine healing because it feels like a betrayal. Rosie Walsh draws these different threads together beautifully, creating a bittersweet novel that captures that moment of choice – to draw on our reserves of resilience, jump over the chasm and live again.

Meet the Author

Rosie Walsh is the internationally bestselling author of two novels, the global smash hit THE MAN WHO DIDN’T CALL, and – new for 2022 – THE LOVE OF MY LIFE, a heart-wrenching, keep-you-up-all-night emotional thriller, which was an instant New York Times bestseller and stayed in the German top ten for several weeks. 

Rosie Walsh lives on a medieval farm in Devon, UK, with her partner and two young children, after years living and travelling all over the world as a documentary producer and writer. 

The Man Who Didn’t Call (UK) / Ghosted (US) was her first book under her own name, and was published around the world in 2018, going on to be a multimillion bestseller. 

Prior to writing under her own name she wrote four romantic comedies under the pseudonym Lucy Robinson. When she isn’t parenting or writing, Rosie can be found walking on Dartmoor, growing vegetables and throwing raves for adults and children in leaking barns.

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Visitors by Caroline Scott.

I’ve been a huge fan of Caroline Scott’s last two novels and share an interest with her in the historical period following WW1. This novel touches upon some of the most important issues of the period, while telling a story that touches the heart strings and holds some surprises for the reader. It shows just how chaotic relationships can become during and post wartime, as well as how much people change when faced with terrible and traumatic experiences. We follow one young war widow called Esme whose whole life changed after she received news that her husband Alec had been killed. No longer able to afford to live in their marital home and needing to find work, Esme finds herself in the employment of Mrs Pickering as companion and helper, while also writing nature columns for her local newspaper. As the summer of 1923 approaches Esme is packing her employer’s clothes for a trip down to Cornwall. Mrs Pickering’s brother Gilbert, has established an artist’s residence in his large country house, and the artists have all served together in the war. As Esme meets Gilbert, Rory and the others she hopes to get an insight into what Alec might have experienced and maybe feel closer to him. What she finds there is certainly transformative, but in a very different way.

Esme is a very likeable character. She’s intelligent, resourceful and has really struggled to pick herself up again from nothing. She’s had no support system to help in her grief or her financial difficulties, in fact this is something she and Alec had in common, they were each other’s family. The author tells us this story in three separate narratives and each gives us a new perspective on the characters. Alongside the main narrative in which we follow Esme to Cornwall, we read the nature column she writes and it’s sublime in its descriptions of this place she’s visiting for the first time. We can see what a talented writer Esme is and how much nature means to her. I kept thinking how lovely these passages will sound on audiobook, almost like poetry. The observations she makes made me feel Cornwall again and in quite an emotional way considering I first visited there almost fifteen years ago when I was newly widowed. I felt like Esme’s Cornwall and mine were the same. I remember consciously walking round thinking that this was the first new memory I was making without my husband and Cornwall’s beauty seemed to make that even more poignant. The third narrative is a book written by Rory, one of Gilbert’s residents and close friend, in which he describes his experience of fighting in France. I was interested in the way he also describes nature as a blighted landscape, ruined by the ravages of warfare. There are vivid descriptions that will stay with me, such as the corruption of the very soil from constantly being churned up, contaminated by mustard gas and almost viscous in it’s consistency. Rory ponders whether this land would recover and how long it would take nature to return. It shows us the utter destruction caused and creates a link between the land the war was fought on and the men who fought it; how long might it take them to recover from the terrible things they have seen and done?

The author depicts PTSD in all of the men who live together in Cornwall, they are each affected by their experiences, but show that in different ways. There’s a vulnerability to them and a need to be with others who have shared their experiences. How else can they be understood and allowed to heal without the pressures of having to find work and cope with the demands of returning to a family? They are each very lucky to have Gilbert and this idyllic setting to slowly recover in. Although each must have another life, one that they belonged to pre-war, potentially leaving behind people who needed or might have asked something of them. It places them in a slightly privileged position over those who had returned straight into full-time work or job seeking by necessity, either because they belong to a different class or have a family to support. The excerpts of Rory’s book are also beautifully written, but don’t hold back from the horrors these men have seen. His descriptions are both vivid and visceral, and through reading his book Esme gains more understanding of these men than perhaps a lot of women would have at the time. How many times do we hear of war veterans who have kept all of this bottled-up inside with family member’s noting they didn’t like to talk about it much? At least here the men have a therapeutic outlet, whether by painting or writing, through which to understand or process these memories, but also communicate them to others without having to say them outright.

All of this would have been enough for a great novel, but the author also places a huge surprise part way through that I hadn’t expected. Through this we see the strength and restraint of Esme, the way she thinks things through before acting and never puts her own needs first. She needs a therapeutic outlet too, showing how the initial effect of war on the person who served ripples outwards to effect their loved ones and even future generations. Just as the land needs time to recover from the physical effects of warfare, there is a shockwave created that blasts through society as a whole. We are shown: how rigid Edwardian class structures are broken down; how marriage as an institution and way of constructing society is outdated and broken; how gender roles become more fluid allowing women more freedom and choice. I really did enjoy seeing how Esme negotiates this new world and makes bold choices for her life moving forwards. This book is another triumph for the author, because it’s a beautiful piece of historical fiction that tries to capture a moment in time where everything’s in flux. These constantly shifting sands of time show us the formation of our 20th Century and the resilience of the human spirit. It gave this reader hope that, just as nature found a way and those battlefields are now meadows and farmland, humans do have the capacity to heal and be reborn.

Meet The Author.

Caroline completed a PhD in History at the University of Durham. She developed a particular interest in the impact of the First World War on thelandscape of Belgium and France, and in the experience of women during the conflict – fascinations that she was able to pursue while she spent several years working as a researcher for a Belgian company. Caroline is originally from Lancashire, but now lives in southwest France. The Photographer of the Lost was a BBC Radio 2 Book Club pick.