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.

Posted in Random Things Tours

This Shining Life by Harriet Klein

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

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

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

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

Meet The Author

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

Posted in Random Things Tours

Everything Happens For a Reason by Katie Allen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet The Author

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

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Missing One by Lucy Atkins

When this book first came out, I raced through it over a couple of days, because I was dying to find out what happened back in the 1970s to Elena and Susannah. A terrifying and traumatic event links these two women until the present day and it can’t stay a secret for ever. In the present is Elena’s daughter Kali, who has just lost her mother to breast cancer – a mother she could never make sense of or bond with as she wanted. In the aftermath of Elena’s death, Kali is trying to make sense of this difficult relationship, when she finds a pile of postcards from a woman called Susannah in her mother’s belongings. Thinking she has found the clue to her mother’s past, Kali pursues this woman to find out about events leading up to her birth and hints of a family history that has resolutely stayed hidden. Driven forward by grief and the worry that her husband is having an affair, Kali takes her son Finn on an odyssey to find the mother she never really knew and herself. She has many theories about what she might find: maybe her father had an affair; maybe Susannah was his lover or her mother’s? Yet, what she finds is something she never suspected.

Set against the backdrop of wild North America and Canada, we learn about a woman’s quest to understand the Orca. Distressed by witnessing the killer whales at Seaworld in California while doing her PhD, a young Elena leaves everything to record killer whale pods in the ocean. The Seaworld orca gave birth to a calf that was so disorientated by his tiny tank he kept banging himself against the glass trying to navigate through echolocation. His desperate mother keeps pushing him away from the sides to protect him from damage, but in her efforts to protect she forgets to nurture and the calf dies because she has forgotten to feed him. Kali was similarly starved of nurturing by her mother. Is it because Elena was so intent instead on protecting her from this awful secret?


The novel is an incredible insight into relations between mothers and daughters. Kali’s sister Alice has a great relationship with her mother that seems easy, whereas Kali and Elena clash over everything. Kali sees that her mother finds her hard to nurture and believes it is her fault. It takes putting herself in danger to find out why and in finding out she also discovers that essential piece of the jigsaw that tells her who she is and grounds her in a history. The novel shows how when you become a mother it becomes more important than ever to know where you are from and how you belong. It also shows how the secrets of one generation have a huge impact on the next, even if the secret is kept with the best of intentions. The book cleverly shows the difference between generations since we have now moved into a world where we put our own lives on show for fun. In a world where counselling and therapy are becoming the norm it is no longer seen as acceptable to keep such huge secrets and we know as post-Freudians what effect those early years of parenting have on the adult we become.


Aside from the complex human relationships are the family ties within the Orca families. We see how there are resident pods and transient pods with different feeding habits and rules to abide by. It is also clear that parallels can be drawn between the whale relationships and the human ones. Elena is so moved by their mothering instincts and the possibilities to map their language and understand their emotions. She gives up everything to spend as much time with them as she possibly can even going to sleep on her floathouse with the sounds of whales drifting up from a microphone in the water. I learned so much about these incredible creatures without losing the majesty of them and the awe a human being feels when a huge tail rises up out of the water next to their boat.

The novel can be read in many different ways: as a dissection of family relationships, a thriller, a study of whales and a study of grief. Grief causes Elena to suffer with depression throughout her life, grief traumatises Susannah to the extent that she is unbalanced by the things she has witnessed and it is grief that compels Kali to jump on a plane to Vancouver with nothing but a few postcards and the internet to go on. I struggled to put the novel down because of the thriller element. Like a good crime novel, you desperately want to know the truth of who- dunnit. Yet it is those final chapters I like best, after everything is resolved and each character is living in the aftermath of exposed secrets and recovery from physical and mental injury. The novel could have ended there and I am glad that it went further, back into Elena’s past so that we can see her happy on her floathouse making coffee and then hearing those whales come to greet her. As a widow of eight years I found those final words of Elena’s deeply moving:


She would go back to that throughout her life, right to the very end. But the last time, when the world had shrunken to the contours of her skin and she leaned over the railings, it wasn’t the whales that she saw in the water. And so she jumped.

It made me very hopeful for whoever might greet me when my time comes.

Meet The Author

Lucy Atkins is an award-winning British author and journalist. Her most recent novel, Magpie Lane, is a literary thriller set in an Oxford college. Her other novels are The Night Visitor (which has been optioned for TV), The Missing One, and The Other Child. 

Lucy is a book critic for The Sunday Times and has written features for UK newspapers including The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Times, and many magazines. She was a Costa Novel Award judge in 2017, and teaches creative writing to Masters students at Oxford University. 

She is mother of three and has also written several non-fiction books including the Amazon #1 parenting guide, First Time Parent (Collins). She has lived in Philadelphia, Boston and Seattle and now lives in Oxford, UK. 

For news, events and offers see http://www.lucyatkins.com

Follow Lucy on Twitter @lucyatkins

Posted in Netgalley

The Last Goodbye by Fiona Lucas

This romantic comedy had an unusual premise, but first attracted me because of the cover! I have a tattoo exactly the same on my lower back with a quote from Jane Eyre, so I was interested to know why the image represented the book.

Our female protagonist, Anna, is in the throes of grief after the death of her husband. The plot hinges on an interesting device – Anna calls her dead husband’s phone number and weirdly, someone answers. A tentative friendship develops allowing her to explore the anger, numbness, false starts and maelstrom of emotions as she rebuilds her life after such a huge loss. The first call happens on a New Years Eve just over two years since Anna lost Spencer. She has been coerced by her friend Gaby to go to a party and is suffering just one of several attempts over the last few months to set her up with a nice man. Of course whenever Anna meets someone new, it’s like a klaxon goes off in her head screaming ‘not Spencer’ over and over again. On this night Anna flees the party and heads for the comfort of home and for emotional support she rings Spencer’s mobile number, thinking that hearing his voice on the answerphone will reassure her. However, instead of hearing Spencer’s voice, a strange man comes on the line saying ‘ I beg your pardon’.

As more weeks pass and Anna feels so scared of leaving Spencer behind and living in the moment, she continues to call the number and talk to the man at the end of the phone. A friendship starts to emerge between her and the man who has inherited Spencer’s old number. His name is Brody and Anna starts to realise she is not the only one who wants to live in the past. Brody gives Anna the space to grieve. He doesn’t know Spencer so he has no vested interest or conflicting opinion to intrude on Anna’s grief process. In this way he acts rather like a therapist with empathy, zero judgement and a hope Anna will get through this. Other people in her life either want Anna to move forward when she is not ready, or to wallow in grief. Her friends seem to think two years is enough time to start moving forward and although they are well-meaning their interventions annoy Anna and push her too far too soon. Spencer’s mother Gayle wants to envelop Anna in her grief process. She assumes that because they both loved Spencer, their grieving process is the same. Anna keeps up their tradition of Sunday lunch together, just like when Spencer was alive, but also pores over old photo albums and still wants them to mark anniversaries like his birthday together. In her presence Anna becomes suffocated by grief and guilt when she thinks about moving on with her life. Anyone new in Anna’s life would seem like an insult to Gayle. There is nowhere she can do this grieving thing her way, honestly and openly.

My counselling supervisor used to say that if you find yourself giving the same piece of advice to several clients, it may be something you should look at for your own life. This is definitely the case with Brody, as he gives Anna advice he could do with listening to. Brody is living an isolated existence on Dartmoor with his dog. He allows Anna’s emotions to take the lead in their phone calls, but doesn’t seem keen to divulge his own. I started to wonder why he is living the life of a hermit. What is he hiding away from? Between Brody and her best friend Gabi, Anna starts to feel she can gather all these broken fragments of herself together and start to rebuild. The author found a unique structure for the novel, that allowed Anna’s raw grief to find its voice in these late night phone calls. Brody becomes Anna’s closest friend and with Gabi’s help, she now has hope and a way forward that is so uplifting for the reader. Both the main characters have such moving stories they bring a lump to the throat and their journey through grief is brilliantly rendered by the author. She shows us that each person’s grief is individual, it has its own path with unique highs and lows. She also depicts something I often say to – you can’t get round or climb over grief, the only way out is through it. I could see Anna reaching for the other side of her pain and I found myself wishing for Brody to find his way out too.

What a beautifully written account of grief this is. I was moved and uplifted, and the experience of grief felt very authentic. So what about the cover image and that tattoo? My husband died in 2007 and I rushed my grief journey, only to end up in an abusive relationship that took three years to leave. So, on my fortieth birthday I had my birdcage tattoo and underneath the words from Jane Eyre ‘ I am no bird; and no net ensnares me’. It reminds me I can get through anything so it feels like a fitting image for Anna and Brady’s story.

Meet the Author

Fiona Lucas is an award-winning author of contemporary women’s fiction. The Last Goodbye is her first novel written under this name, but she’s been writing heartwarming love stories and feel-good women’s fiction as Fiona Harper for more than a decade. During her career, she’s won numerous awards, including a Romantic Novel Award in 2018, and chalked up a no.1 Kindle bestseller. Fiona lives in London with her husband and two daughters

Posted in Personal Purchase

Throwback Thursday! A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray.

Meet the Bradleys.

In lots of ways, they’re a normal family:
Zippy is sixteen and in love for the first time; Al is thirteen and dreams of playing for Liverpool. And in some ways, they’re a bit different:
Seven-year-old Jacob believes in miracles. So does his dad. But these days their mum doesn’t believe in anything, not even getting out of bed.

How does life go on, now that Issy is gone?

This book is truly beautiful, moving and insightful novel about a family dealing with grief. The Bradley family have lost four year old Issy, and Carys Bray tells their story through each family member in turn. Bray has personal insight into the Mormon church, although she’s no longer a member. That doesn’t mean that this is a grand criticism of the religion, what she does is use her insight to craft a family of faith coping with the worst thing that could happen to them. She takes us on the weekly Merry-go-round of family night, youth club, Saturdays writing sermons and church on Sunday. I was brought up in a similarly restrictive evangelical Christian background till I rebelled at 16. I have spent my whole life watching adults try to reconcile their faith in an interventional God, with tragic events in their lives. When people believed that God granted them the good weather for their BBQ, it was hard for them to understand why my Multiple Sclerosis hadn’t responded to their healing. This could go one of two ways: God had a reason for giving me MS or I didn’t have enough faith for their healing to work. This family experience similar feelings and treatment, as their comfortable and cosy religious world implodes.

What the author shows us, is that nobody is immune from grief. Dad is a bishop in the church, and since marriage outside the faith is discouraged, Mum is a Mormon convert. His standpoint, although written with great empathy, is the one I found it hardest to relate to. Possibly this is because of my religious bias, but it felt like he was trying to make sense of it too early in the grieving process. It can take years to be able to put such an enormous loss into context and be able to identify its effect on your emotions and choices. This is the immediate aftermath and Ian is trying to make sense of it in terms of God’s purpose. As a bishop he has the pressure of the ‘public’ face he has to maintain. He’s a leader so he can’t appear weak, doubtful or as if he’s questioning God. It’s quite a normal reaction to feel very angry with God. If you have given your life over to his work you could be forgiven for having questions: Why has this happened when I serve you? Why should I believe in you? If followers see that doubt or uncertainty, it could undermine their faith. The only way to rationalise this, in the context of his position, is to assume God is testing him – testing his faith like Job or teaching him something. While this might keep Ian’s public face intact, he could be experiencing a crisis of faith behind the mask. Even worse it could put him on a collision course with the rest of his family.

Wife Claire is simply overwhelmed, unable to maintain a private face never mind a public one. She retires to her bed, completely paralysed by grief. She finds herself asking all the questions Ian is avoiding and as a convert she has a different context through which she can view her grief in many different ways, instead of just one. However, as she stays in bed, the rest of the children are dealing with their grief alone. The faith they’ve been brought up in has failed them, they have been faced with mortality so close to home it raises fears of further trauma. Eldest girl Zippy is trying to hold everything together at a turbulent point in her own development. She tries to be Mum to her youngest brother, the beautifully drawn Jacob. Her brother Alma is disappearing into his football and dreams of playing for Liverpool. All the children find their father’s responses strange and unsympathetic, but feel abandoned by Mum. There’s also an anger developing. Their father is a powerful man in church terms, so how have their parents let this happen? Could it happen to them? Bray has written in these children’s voices with skill and empathy. She has thoroughly imagined what their inner language would sound like. Jacob’s concept of his faith as at least the size of a toffee bonbon. They were so real I wanted to gather them and care for them.

For me, this was a stunning first novel and catapulted Carys Bray onto my list of authors whose work I would buy without hesitation. Her understanding of family dynamics and construction of each character’s inner world is exquisite. She just ‘gets’ the psychology of grief and I wasn’t surprised to discover she has experienced personal loss. Her care for each of these people, and even the religion she has left behind, is so evident and I was left feeling an affinity for her as well as the characters. The death of someone in such a young family is like throwing a grenade into the room. I felt like this book was capturing that immediate aftermath where adrenaline is still running, your ears are ringing, you don’t know where anyone else is or even how injured you are. I remember that feeling – of being so lost, you don’t know how lost you are. Bray is a novelist of exceptional depth and skill. I have just bought her third novel and I’m so looking forward to immersing myself into another of her worlds.

Meet The Author


Carys Bray was brought up in a devout Mormon family. In her early thirties she left the church and replaced religion with writing. She was awarded the Scott prize for her début short story collection Sweet Home. A Song for Issy Bradley is her first novel. She lives in Southport with her husband and four children.

Her first novel A SONG FOR ISSY BRADLEY was serialised on BBC Radio Four’s Book at Bedtime and was shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards and the Desmond Elliott Prize. It won the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award. Her second novel, THE MUSEUM OF YOU, was published in June 2016. WHEN THE LIGHTS GO OUT, her third novel, was published in May 2020. Carys has a BA in Literature from The Open University and an MA and PhD in Creative Writing from Edge Hill University.

Posted in Personal Purchase

Eudora Honeysett is, Quite Well, Thank You by Annie Lyons.

#EudoraHoneysett #OneMoreChapter #OMCReadalong

Published: One More Chapter

Date: 17th September 2020

ISBN: 0008405387

Synopsis | Eudora Honeysett is getting tired of life. If She can choose how to live her own life, why can’t she choose how to die her own death?

Eudora Honeysett is done – with all of it. Having seen first-hand what a prolonged illness can create, the eighty-five-year-old has no intention of leaving things to chance. With one call to a clinic in Switzerland she takes her life into her own hands.

But then ten-year-old Rose arrives in a riot of colour on her doorstep. Now, as precocious Rose takes Eudora on adventures she’d never imagined she reflects on the trying times of her past and soon finds herself wondering – is she ready for death when she’s only just experienced what it’s like to truly live?

Being offered this book was a real gift, because now I’ve discovered a new author I love. I can go back and read her other work and wonder why I’ve never come across Annie Lyons before. Thanks to Harper Collins and One More Chapter for bringing this writer and a beautiful character like Eudora to my attention. Eudora is 85 and lives alone in Cornwall with her cat Montgomery. She has sent what a lengthy illness and old age can do and doesn’t want a prolonged end to her life. Very decisively, she makes a call to Switzerland so she can organise an end to life on her terms, quickly, painlessly and without fuss. She’s quite sure no one will miss her. Her family are gone and the only people she knows are passing acquaintances, not friends.

Then a new family move in next door, with a little girl called Rosa. When the family introduce themselves to Eudora, she is mesmerised by this bright, bubbly little girl. She is like a whirlwind of love and fairy dust. Eudora has never had children so this is her first experience of spending time with one. Every experience they have together is brand new and Rosa has all the wonder and enthusiasm that has been .”missing from Eudora’s life. When she looks at life through Rosa’s eyes it becomes new, shiny and filled with hope. As they embark on adventures together, Rosa’s attitude to life starts to rub off on Eudora. She is enjoying life for the first time, trying new things and meeting new people. One of these new friends is Stanley and Eudora experiences making a new friend, with all the excitement and joy that brings. When the call comes from Switzerland will she be ready?

I think this book is an important lesson – to keep trying new experiences in life, no matter what your age and ability. Never assume you’ve done all the learning you’re going to do. When we throw ourselves into life, we get so much back. Eudora had backed away from life, possibly due to her past experiences, and as a consequence every day was the same isolated and limited existence. Together Rosa and Eudora throw the doors wide open and welcome life in. As a reader we bring our own experiences to books and I seem to be reading a lot of books lately that touch on my own life. I have a life limiting condition called multiple sclerosis, and when well enough, I work as a counsellor with people who have this condition and other disabilities. The ‘Switzerland option’ comes up a lot and many years ago someone I knew in my personal life did this. He threw a huge party for his final birthday, then flew to Dignitas and ended his life; MND was limiting him more each day and he was at the point where he was unable to swallow. When your life is limited, small pleasures can be so important. For him, the ability to enjoy and experience food was too much to lose. My own husband sometimes wished he’d taken this option towards the end of his life, but when we talked about those moments we had experienced together right up to the end, he agreed that he was glad not to have missed them.

It’s vital to continue to live, try new things and meet new people because all of those things enrich our lives. For me, I’m living something similar to Eudora’s experience. I found out many years ago that I would find it difficult to have children. After a third miscarriage, I made the decision that I couldn’t keep putting myself through this for the sake of my mental health. I have always felt that children are a gift, not a right, so I accepted that my life would follow a different path. When I met my partner after six years of living alone, I was aware he had two girls but got to know them very slowly. I didn’t want them to feel their relationship to their Dad had changed, or that I was trying to be their Mum, because they have a perfectly good one already. I was around but made sure they had plenty of alone time with Dad too. I was so worried about my effect on them that I underestimated the change they’d bring to my life. One afternoon when we’d all been living together a while, our fourteen year old came rushing in from a day out shouting for me and panicking; she’d spilled chocolate ice-cream down her white crop top and would I be able to get the stain out. I realised I was the ‘fixer’ of things, that she trusted me to be able to fix this for her. My partner found me in the downstairs bathroom crying into the Vanish stain remover! It was the moment I knew I was accepted and I was part of this family. They both bring such joy and fun into my life, and the experience of parenting I never expected to have and I love it, even though it’s not always easy.

I guess what I’m trying to say, is the book’s message really resonated with me. That we never really know when our life is over or when something new is going to come along and change everything. To make us see the mundane everyday in a totally different way. That’s what this novel does, and what makes it so uplifting. In a year that’s increasingly beginning to feel like Groundhog Day, this novel manages to lift the spirits and bring hope – quite an amazing feat when the central subject is death! This is the right time for a novel like this, if ever we needed an uplifting, joyous tale like this, it is now. This shows what an incredible writer Annie Lyons is, because she has taken a deep, difficult subject and yet left the reader feeling hopeful for the future. Eudora is such a great character, developing from a curmudgeonly old lady to someone full of life and love. I enjoyed the flashbacks to her past where we see how she came to be a lonely, isolated woman who doesn’t want to live. She goes on a huge journey emotionally, and the dual timeline shows us this – one journey leading to hopelessness and the current journey towards joy and re-engaging with all that life has to offer.

The portrayal of Rosa was brilliant, because of her innocence, especially where it is highlighted against Eudora’s character. Rosa doesn’t see age or grumpiness. Eudora, and Stanley from down the road, are simply two friends she can play with and create and create adventures for. She doesn’t see their potential limitations and I think that says something about the way we treat older people – is it society’s tendency to avoid ageing? Do we see their lives as over and assume they have nothing to contribute? Is it when society stops seeing them as worthwhile, that they become isolated and dissatisfied with life? We need to stop seeing ages, and other potential differences, and instead see people with so much to offer us. This is one of those books that has arrived without hype or fanfare, but has bloggers shouting from the rooftops. This book is emotionally intelligent, has multi-layered and well written characters, with a storyline that will draw you in and enrich your life. If you need a lockdown lift or the impetus to start living again then this wonderful book is for you.

Meet The Author | After a career in bookselling and publishing, Annie Lyons published five books including the best-selling, Not Quite Perfect. When not working on her novels, she teaches creative writing. She lives in south-east London with her husband and two children.

Posted in Netgalley

If I Could Say Goodbye by Emma Cooper.

#NetGalley #HeadlineReview #IfICouldSayGoodbye

Published: 17th September 2020

Publisher: Headline Review

ISBN: 1472265041

What an incredibly emotional read this was for me. I found myself having a good old cry at 4am over Jen and her family’s story. It begins when Jennifer is adopted by a childless couple and four years later gets an unexpected little sister. Kerry is a determined, mischievous and curious little girl and the pair are incredibly close. In adulthood, the two are still inseparable. Jen now has husband Ed and two children while Kerry has a long term partner in Nessa, who she is hoping to propose to. When a terrible accident happens while the sisters are on a shopping trip for an engagement ring, Kerry is killed. Now Jen needs to find a way to carry on living, but the survivor’s guilt and grief are very strong. As Jen starts to lose herself in her memories of her sister, it becomes clear that Jen can’t let Kerry go. Yet, by keeping hold of her sister, will she end up losing her own family?

This is my second book by Emma Cooper and after reading this she has been bumped up to my list of favourites – those authors where I know I’m guaranteed a great story, emotional impact and believable characters. She has the talent to combine a big emotional punch, with a sprinkling of humour which isn’t easy to do. I honestly fell in love with these characters and their relationships with each other. Jen is a very organised and capable woman, who loves spending time with her family and creating a beautiful home. I loved her with Ed and the way the author has created a balance of the romantic and the mundane into their relationship. There’s enough of a love story to draw us in, but we see the normality too as they get the children ready for school, do the grocery shop and get involved with school activities. Underneath the daily grind though is a strong love and passion for each other. Yet it is becoming tested by changes in Jen. Ed has noticed that Jen doesn’t seem as organised as usual and is often staring off into space. Then at other times she is almost over-excited and far be it from him to complain about more sex, but well, he wasn’t complaining exactly… it just isn’t like his wife. He worries, but labels these changes as part of the grieving process. He doesn’t know what we know. Jen can still see Kerry and talk to her. Kerry has been fuelling the recklessness he’s seen such as daring Jen to leap off a cliff into the sea. There’s a point when Ed realises that this isn’t just getting lost in memories. For Jen, Kerry is as real as he is or even the children and what will he do when this starts to affect them?

This was a tough, but loving and humorous portrayal of the journey relationships take when one partner is struggling mentally. I found the alternate chapters between Jen and Ed so effective because we can see the same events through both sets of eyes, sometimes with very conflicting results. I was so torn because I loved both of them, I wanted them to be together but I could understand each viewpoint too. Ed wants his wife back, the person he fell in love with and his best friend. He wants to be a family, but wants to protect their children too. Jen has a heartbreaking dilemma. Does she follow medical advice and take the pills that might make Kerry disappear forever? The psychiatrist who sees Jen and diagnoses complicated grief understands what she’s feeling. This is survivor’s guilt; Jen wonders why she survived and Kerry didn’t. Kerry saved her life by pushing her away from the oncoming vehicle. In Jen’s mind she’s already killed her once. Now she feels like she’s killing her all over again.

This was a tough read because I struggle with complicated grief. In 2007, as regular readers will know, my husband died from pneumonia as a complication of Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis. It had been coming for some time, but for the final year of his life I was his carer for 24 hours almost every day, unless I had a Marie Curie nurse. He was dependent on me for food, drink, medication and all bodily functions, even breathing. Three months before he died I agreed that he needed to be admitted to a nursing home from hospital. One of our carers was injured and I couldn’t have managed alone. I knew when I made that choice it was very likely he would die. For a few weeks after his death, I would see him out of the corner of my eye, sitting in his wheelchair looking out into the garden. I could also hear the mechanism of his wheelchair and a little beep it used to make. I realised that this wasn’t really Jerzy, this was me being unable to let go. In therapy I talked about survivor’s guilt and how I felt I had killed him by sanctioning the nursing home. I knew rationally I couldn’t have done anything else, but emotionally it’s been very hard to accept my own choice. I also have multiple sclerosis but in a milder form and I discuss choices and possibilities at length with my new partner, because I would hate him to go through the same thing. Reading this was emotional, I did cry, but I also felt less alone with my experience.

The author has taken a really tough subject, but made it warm and humorous. I love the way Kerry is often doing things she did as a little girl like standing on her head or blowing bubblegum. She also sits in the oddest places and actively tries to make Jen laugh. The wider family were lovely too, willing to support and help out with the children or Jen. Her mum is always full of good sensible advice and their acceptance of this peculiar phenomenon is brilliant. The final scenes choked me up. They made me sad for what I lost back then as well as for Jen. I was desperate for her and Ed to make it and come back together as a family. The night I finished the book I was an angling widow! My partner and my brother went night fishing, so I was alone for the final chapters. I had a good cry on the dog – he’s very absorbent. I found myself very thankful for the new chance of love that I’ve had with my partner over the last couple of years. All I wanted to do was hold him close and tell him how much I loved him. This is an honest story about how complicated grief can be, but never lets us forget that where there is grief there is always great love.

Biography

Emma Cooper is a former teaching assistant, who lives in Shropshire, with her partner and four children. Her spare time consists of writing novels, drinking wine and watching box-sets with her partner of twenty-four years, who still makes her smile every day.

Her debut, The Songs of Us was snapped up in multiple pre-empts and auctions and is now being translated into seven different languages. Her last novel The First Time I Saw You was also a bestseller.