The Dazzle of the Light by Georgina Clarke.
This fantastic historical fiction novel is set in the 1920s and follows two women, vastly different in circumstances but similar in terms of ambition. Harriet is following the path laid out for an upper class woman, she lives with her parents and is engaged to a young, up and coming politician. Ruby is from the other side of the tracks, a vibrant and talented member of women’s crime gang The Forty Thieves. Harriet and Ruby meet in the same jewellers, but Ruby is there with a member of The Elephant Boys. Billy is her lover but today they’re doing a joint ‘job’ where Billy’s patter and Ruby’s sleight of hand are the perfect marriage. As they flee, Ruby and Harriet’s eyes meet for a few seconds and that’s all it takes for Harriet to become fascinated with this girl’s life. She writes a piece for the daily newspaper, telling their readership about the Forty and naming Ruby the Jewel of the Borough. She doesn’t realise it, but this article will change both women’s lives.
I loved this author’s ability to ground her story perfectly within it’s historical period. This was a time of huge change in society; men found that bullets and shells don’t care about the class you’re from and all of them died in the mud together. As class barriers fall, women really come to the fore in terms of work, ambition and protesting for equality. It’s clear to Ruby that there’s a big job on the cards, Billy has hinted as much and she spends time close to the club where planning is afoot. The men involved would never normally give the Elephant Boys the time of day, these are men from the highest class, who usually drink at their club or the Savoy, but don’t mind slumming to acquire more money or the company of a beautiful woman like Ruby. I desperately wanted some of them to get their just desserts, but that’s not the way of the world. The real winners prove to be those that can move between worlds, like club owner Peter Lazenby. Despite her misdemeanours I was thoroughly charmed by Ruby and I wanted her to find this middle ground where she could survive comfortably. As for Harriet I wanted her to break out of her parent’s upper class restrictions. I wanted her to have a love affair with someone unsuitable and a friendship with Ruby, if not a full on passionate affair. This was a fantastic book, full of characters, historical detail and that verve and energy that seems synonymous with 1920. It’s hard to believe this great book is a debut.
The Skeleton Key by Erin Kelly.
This book took me knee deep into my favourite territory – arty, bohemian families, with big rambling houses, full of eccentricities and dark secrets. I was so ready for skeletons to start tumbling out of closets and that was almost literally the case here. The Churcher’s and the Lally’s have a history that goes back decades and now they live in each other’s pockets, in two adjoining houses on the edge Hampstead Heath thar smell of oil paint and weed. Back in the the 1970’s, when their friendships and marriages began, artist Frank used some old folk verses to create a story full of clues to hidden treasure and his talented friend illustrated them to create a much loved book. The story is macabre, as a young woman named Elinore is suspected of infidelity and murdered by her husband. He then scatters her bones in sites across the British Isles. The verses in the book, The Golden Bones, contain clues to the whereabouts of hidden treasure – a one off, tiny gold skeleton with a jewel set in it’s pelvis. When the book caught the public imagination, a group calling themselves The Bonehunters emerged and with the birth of the internet hunters and enthusiasts could solve clues together, pass on information and stoke rumours. Unfortunately, for some it became an obsession and twenty years later, Frank’s daughter – also named Eleanor- is attacked outside her school by a knife-wielding woman who is certain the final piece of treasure – the pelvis – resides within her actual body. It’s no surprise that as the book reaches it’s fiftieth anniversary, speculation and concern from some parts of the family, has reached fever pitch. With the help of son Dom, the book has been re-issued in a Golden Anniversary edition, complete with locations for people to check in online. The families come together at the houses on the heath, to film for a television special about the book, including a secret unveiling that Frank’s been planning. As he gives a speech, under a tree on the heath, to everyone assembled and on camera, it’s clear he’s planned a publicity stunt. Could this be the final piece of treasure? However, even Frank is shocked when one of his grandchildren climbs the tree and instead of treasure pulls free a woman’s pelvis. The book follows the aftermath of this gruesome discovery, how it affects both families and starts a police investigation. Everyone is under suspicion. The author takes us back into the past, shows us events from different characters point of view, and turns the reader into a Bonehunter of sorts, trying to work out who this woman was and how her pelvis ended up buried in a tree on the heath. This book was utterly engrossing and very hard to put down.
Black Hearts by Doug Johnstone
This summer I was so pleased to be back with the Skelf women and the lovely Indy of course. The things I most love about these books is Doug Johnstone’s depictions of these women, his obvious love for Edinburgh and the way he weaves incredible ideas, philosophy and physics into his novels. I’ve not been to Edinburgh since I was in my twenties, but the way he describes the city makes me want to go back. He doesn’t sugar coat the it either, there’s good and bad here, but as a whole these books are a poem to a place that’s in his soul. Grandmother Dorothy muses on her home town a lot in this novel and even though she was born in America, this place is her heart’s homeland. She ponders on the people this city produces, including her husband and child, the history, and the architecture almost as if she’s taking stock. She concludes that she’s a person who always looks forward to where life’s going, but grief and loss are like the waves and there’s no telling when it will wash ashore again. Jenny tends to frequent the less salubrious areas of the city. She’s stuck. Her past has, quite literally, washed ashore and the problem with losing someone is that you’re rarely the only one grieving and everyone does it differently. She’s not mourning ex-husband Craig as he truly was. She’s grieving the loss of all the hope they both had for their future, especially on their wedding day and when Hannah was born. Similarly Craig’s mum and sister aren’t missing the Craig who committed all those terrible crimes. Violet misses the little boy she had and the life she wanted for him and his sister just misses her baby brother. Hannah seems to be the person who’s most accepting of her losses. She always seems older than she is and with Indy alongside her she has all the support she needs. There’s so much wisdom in these two young women, honed from a combination of Indy’s spirituality, years of working with grieving families and Hannah’s physics knowledge, especially where it tries to explain the universe. The supermassive black holes at the centre of everyone who grieves are not much different than those thought to be at heart of every galaxy. We know that they have a huge power that acts like a magnet, drawing in items from across the universe into the void. Each of the Skelf women have their own grief to bear, a black hole at the centre of their heart. Each must find their own way to remember a little, to prevent becoming overwhelmed by their memories. To prevent that black hole from drawing in every part of them and swallowing up their lives. Only by reconciling this, can they live in the present moment and make plans for their altered future, a future I can’t wait to read about.
The Last Girl to Die by Helen Fields
This book was one of my picks for the autumn and it really is an absolute cracker of a crime novel. It’s chilling, atmospheric and incredibly clever, especially at weaving the setting into the story. I read this straight through and halfway through my binge read I had to look it up and check that it really was a stand-alone novel. Sadie Levesque is a compelling central character: brave, resourceful, determined, intelligent and ever so slightly impulsive. I could easily imagine her as the backbone of a great crime series. Sadie is a private investigator based in Canada where she’s about to be the birth partner for her sister. She has time to fit in one last job, which takes her to Scotland and the atmospheric island of Mull. The Clark family recently moved to Mull from the United States to start a new life, but their plans have been derailed by the disappearance of their seventeen year old daughter Adriana. With her American accent and dark Latino looks, Adriana caused a stir among the teenagers of Mull and was very noticeable in her job at the local pub. Her desperate parents feel the local police force are doing very little to look for their daughter, possibly because they are outsiders. When Sadie finds the girl’s body while searching local teen hang outs, the police become hostile. Adriana has been drowned. The killer has sexually assaulted her, adorned her with a seaweed crown and filled her mouth and throat full of sand. Sadie’s immediate thought is she’s been silenced. Without police cooperation, Sadie must find the killer and is drawn into a mix of local folklore, witches, a misogynistic priest and a community that looks after it’s own. Will Adriana be the last girl to die?
The Blackhouse by Carole Johnstone
I loved this dark thriller from acclaimed author of Mirrorland Carol Johnstone, with its bleak setting, mysterious deaths and Norse folklore. Maggie Mackay is a successful investigative journalist, but has always been held back by a negative inner voice and terrible nightmares. She’s been haunted by the idea that there’s something wrong with her and she can see or sense darkness. She thinks this feeling is linked to her childhood and a small village in the Outer Hebrides called Blairmore. Maggie stayed there with her mother when she was very young and caused a furore when, out of nowhere, she claimed that someone in the village had murdered a man. She left the community in uproar, claiming she was really a man called Andrew MacNeil who had lived in the village before. Her mother believed and encouraged her claims, but when they returned to the mainland this strange interlude wasn’t referred to again. Now 25, Maggie returns to the island, in search of answers. Mainly, she wants to find out if her claims could possibly have been true, but with her history on the island Maggie may struggle to get people to talk to her. This is an island with few inhabitants, but a wealth of secrets and if Maggie gets too close to the truth she may be in serious danger. The central mystery is fascinating and makes the book very difficult to put down. Charlie feels like the designated spokesperson for the islanders, he approaches Maggie with an apology for the way they treated her when she was a child and there’s a fatherly feel to the way he talks to her. On one hand I felt he was on Maggie’s side, but I also wondered whether he was a decoy – someone sent to give her just enough information, perhaps to deflect her from the reaching the truth. Other people greet her with outright hostility and I had a lot of admiration for Maggie’s tenacity considering how vulnerable she must feel, staying on the island as a lone woman. Maggie also has a bipolar diagnosis and I thought this was well portrayed by the author, even though it adds another layer of uncertainty – can we trust what Maggie is experiencing? I found Maggie’s narration more compelling than the male narrator, but overall loved the pace and the different perspectives, each one giving us an insight into events back in the 1970’s. There were twists I didn’t expect and the final revelations about the mystery felt satisfying. I love how this author likes to wrong-foot her reader and although this was more gothic than horror, there were parts that were very unsettling and left me listening out for creaks in the dead of night. I came away from it with an uneasy feeling, not about the supernatural aspects, but more about what humans are capable of doing and how isolated communities like this one have the perfect environment in which to commit crimes and keep secrets, in some cases for decades. This cements Carol Johnstone in my mind as an author to look out for and I have just bought a real copy for my permanent collection.
Meredith Alone by Claire Alexander
This was one of those books where it only took a couple of pages for me to be ‘in’ the author’s world and completely convinced by her main character. Meredith hasn’t left her house for more than a thousand days, but her inner world is so rich and full. She was absolutely real to me and I could easily imagine having a coffee and a catch up with her. We meet her at a crossroads in life where she’s trying to make changes. Her daily life is quite full, she works from home as a writer and between work she bakes, exercises by running up and down the stairs, reads and fills in jigsaws of amazing places from all over the world. The jigsaws are the key to Meredith’s phobia, they show us that she doesn’t stay inside from choice, it’s that just standing outside her front door gives her a wave of rising panic. Meredith feels a terrible fear, her heart starts hammering out of her chest, her throat begins to close and ” going to die. However, as she looks at yet another jigsaw of something she’d love to travel and see in person, she becomes determined to live a fuller life. Meredith has sessions with an online counsellor and a new addition to her weekly calendar is a visit from Tom, who is a volunteer with a befriending society. With this support and that of her long time best friend Sadie, can Meredith overcome her fear and come to terms with the events behind her phobia? The upsurge of positivity in her current life is exhilarating to read, I I knew that I was also getting closer to finding out what had brought Meredith home one day, to close her door and not go out again. Claire Alexander balances this beautifully and where many authors might have gone for the schmaltzy ending, she doesn’t. She keeps it realistic and in doing so made me aware of everything that Meredith has had going for her all along. She’s so self-aware, independent and knows who she is. Above all, even as she starts to overcome her demons she’s determined to do it on her own two feet. She appreciates support, but gives it as well. She doesn’t want to become dependent on an emotional crutch. Meredith is perfectly ok. Alone.
The Seawomen by Chloe Timms
Wow! This book was so evocative, from the author’s descriptions of the island’s landscape to the way of life followed by it’s inhabitants. It’s oppressive and bleak, but also strangely mystical. On an isolated island with no access to the ‘Otherlands’ beyond, a religious community observes a strict regime policed by male ‘Keepers’ and female ‘Eldermothers’ under the guidance of their leader Father Jessop. There were shades of The Handmaid’s Tale in this community, that polices it’s borders and it’s women. Women must not go near the water, lest they be pulled into the wicked ways of the Seawomen, seemingly a species of Mermaid. The water can breed rebellion in the women and cause bad luck for the islanders. Any woman could be singled out by the Eldermothers, so they must learn to keep their heads down and stay away from the water. Any bad luck – crop failure, poor fishing quotas, storms, pregnancy loss – all can be blamed on the community’s disobedient or disloyal women, influenced by the water. Each girl will have their husband picked out for them and once married, the Eldermothers will assign her a year to become a mother. If the woman doesn’t conceive she is considered to be cursed and is put through the ordeal of ‘untethering’ – a ceremonial drowning where she is tethered to the bottom of a boat. Esta is a young girl who lives with her super religious grandmother, but often asks questions about the mum she has never known. Her grandmother insists she sees a darkness in Esta and is constantly praying and fasting so that Esta doesn’t go the same way as her mother. The sea does call to Esta and she goes to the beach with her terrified friend Mull, to feel the water. There they see something in the waves, something semi-human, not a seawoman, but a boy. Will Esta submit to what her community has planned for her or will she continue to commune with the water? I had so many suspicions and theories of my own as the story unfolded, not just about Esta’s past, but about the patriarchal society itself. What will happen when the Esta’s story reaches its conclusion, might she face the very ceremony she feared so much at the beginning? Even more important to me, was whether or not Esta reaches the Otherlands and the freedom she longs for, or whether she is fated to be forever one with the sea.
That Green-Eyed Girl by Julie Owen-Moylan
The women depicted in this incredible debut novel are a long way from flashy, fashionista, New York City Girls we’re used to post-SATC. This is a different NYC, where real people live and work day to day, just trying to get by in a city that’s exciting, but expensive and tough. In a split narrative, set partly in 1955 and partly in 1975, this is a novel that writes back to women’s history and opened my eyes to a time when women were persecuted for the way they choose to live their lives. In 1955 Dovie Carmichael and her friend Gillian work together as teachers and share an apartment. The friends have a lot in common: they love jazz, a glass of whiskey at night and lazy Sundays at home. The pair guard their private time very carefully, until one day the wrong person gets a glimpse into their lives, changing everything. Twenty years later teenager Ava Winter lives in the same apartment with her Mum and her Dad, when he’s around and not with his mistress. Ava’s mum is not well mentally and Ava is struggling to live a normal teenage life, preferring to stay home to keep an eye on her. She becomes fascinated with a mysterious box and letter sent to their address from France. Inside are letters, a butterfly necklace and a photograph with LIAR scrawled across a woman’s face. Ava wants to know the story behind the box. Who was this woman, that lived in her home and what do the letters say? I found the history of the LGBTQ+ scene so interesting and the contrast between women who kept their relationships secret and those who were more open whether in NYC or Paris, was beautifully portrayed. Dovie has never ventured into going out to meet other women and the scene where she visits a club stayed with me. There’s an innocence about Dovie that contrasts sharply with the sophisticated women she sees there, some of whom are scathing of Dovie’s lack of knowledge about being openly lesbian in 1955. I don’t think she really understood the danger she faced which could be anything from losing her job to being arrested or put into an asylum. I was just as shocked to realise that women who were open about their sexuality, or discovered, were subject to arrest and even ECT treatment to curb their ‘unnatural’ activities or desires. The nightclub raid where Dovie is helped to escape through a bathroom window is unbelievably tense and so poignant when we realise it’s link to 1975. The way police manhandle and sexually assault the women reminded me of how the suffragettes were treated so many decades earlier. The idea was to break the women’s resolve and remind them what they were really for – the amusement, desires and dominance of men. Reading these women’s experiences made me so angry, but also opened a door into a world I am ashamed to say I knew little about. At heart this is a love story and all the way through I wanted to know what had happened in that apartment in 1955 and I also hoped that Ava would find the intended recipient of the box from Paris. For me this book had a similar impact to the television series It’s A Sin. This was an emotionally captivating story that’s sure to stay with me and has inspired me to read more about the history of sexuality and the fight LGBTQ+ people still have for equal rights across the globe. It left me with a lump in my throat, thinking about how love can last a lifetime, even beyond separations and loss. I really look forward to reading more from this talented author in the future.
The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn
This book feels like an epic. A familial version of The lliad, the very first play that Cristabel Seagrave puts on in the family’s theatre by the beach, entered through the jawbones of a whale. The whale washed up on the beach and was claimed for the Seagraves by Cristabel who is the orphan cousin of the family. Cristabel doesn’t really fit because she loves adventure, activity, and endeavours. She spends her time climbing, running and conquering the Seagrave estate rather than being the lady of it her stepmother expects, when she can be bothered. The Seagrave children are an odd bunch, brought up by staff and each other, while their parents stay in bed late, have endless houseguests and like to drink as early as it is socially acceptable to do so. This is a story of ‘the heir and the spare’, which begins when Jasper Seagrave brings his new wife home to the Chilcombe Estate and Rosalind is thrown into being mistress of the house and stepmother to his daughter Cristabel. There are definite vibes of Rebecca in this beginning, with a much younger wife slightly overawed by her new home and struggling to find her place. The ghostly presence in this case being Cristabel, creeping round corridors and the attic, having ‘boy’s own’ adventures with imaginary friends. Rosalind isn’t in love, but is happy to have bagged an aristocratic husband, considering they’re in very short supply since the war. That is until the ‘spare’ arrives. Willoughby is everything his elder brother isn’t, a dashing war hero fascinated by speed whether it’s a new car or learning to fly. There’s an immediate attraction, deepening when Rosalind is on bed rest in the last stages of pregnancy and Willoughby keeps her company. Is the Chilcombe estate about to lapse into scandal and what will become of Cristabel? We move from there to WW2 and Cristabel’s war years, she’s incredibly courageous and there are scenes where I was scared for her. The languid inter-war years seem decadent by comparison with these more sparse and disjointed episodes showing all three Seagrave children, now scattered across the continent. The pace really hots up as we follow Cristabel on her missions, parachuting into occupied France as a messenger, often with German soldiers a hair’s breadth away from discovering her. One scene with a German officer is so real I felt sick for her! She proves that her ‘adventures’ were not just an affectation and she is willing to put herself on the line, proving her aptitude for work as a operative. I thought this was an incredible depiction of life through the war, whether from Flossie’s more domestic side including service as a land girl to Cristabel and Digby’s seemingly more dashing exploits. Cristabel’s determination to find Digby showed that these children loved and cared for each other so deeply, probably because they had been left to their own devices. For Cristabel, it is servant Maudie who shows her what a mother’s love should look like and she in turn, mothers her little brother and sister. The author shows what a toll both wars took on people and the rapid changes they forced on society. I won’t reveal whether any of our characters survive, but there are those who shine through difficult days and in their own ways I think the Seagrave children all stepped up to the mark. Most importantly the loving bond they had as children, stands firm and survives to the end.
Memphis by Tara Stringfellow
There’s a point in this book where Miriam remembers her mother Hazel waking her up and fixing her a breakfast fit for a king. There were green tomatoes and grits, spicy pork and scrambled eggs and Miriam was distracted by the delicious meal and didn’t notice her mother running the tap. Then suddenly she threw a whole jug of cold water over her daughter. Miriam thought her mother had lost her mind. All she said was ‘you ready’ and that afternoon took her to her first activist’s sit in. Miriam’s experience is similar to the one I had reading this incredible book. I’d just settled into the story when suddenly something was revealed that was so momentous I would have to take a moment, blind-sided by what had just happened. Memphis is the home of three generations of African-American women from grandmother Hazel, her two daughters Miriam and August, and Miriam’s daughters Myra and Joan. Their personal lives are set against a backdrop of American history from the early 1950s through to the 2000s, taking in world-changing events like the Kennedy assassinations and 9/11. Told in sections from each woman’s viewpoint, Stringfellow takes us back and forth across the 20th Century. Each step back in time informs the present and confirms that the women in this family are strong. They need to be because some of what happens to them over their three generations is terrible and you will probably have a good cry like I did. I was touched by what Hazel, Miriam and Joan go through, but there were also quieter struggles that touched me too. August’s decision to care for her mother and the loneliness she must feel with both her mum and sister gone really moved me. Also the fear she feels for her son Derek, growing up as a black man in a place where shootings and gangs are commonplace. I could understand the mixed feelings of guilt, anger and love that come with being a mother of a son who does things that are unforgivable. I also loved the camaraderie of August’s hair salon and the strength she gets from the women who are her customers and her community. I was touched by her ability to take pleasure and solace when it’s offered, despite it not being the long term love and companionship she craves. The pain these women go through makes the good times even more enjoyable and I really felt that joy and relief of reaching the light at the end of a dark tunnel. The author manages to capture that sense of peace I have seen in my counselling room, when the long held fear, anger and shame that comes from trauma is finally let go. That need for revenge finally silenced. The chance for joy and celebration to fill the void left behind and the companionship that comes from communing with others who know your journey.
The Flames by Sophie Haydock
I knew this book would be one I enjoyed, after all it encompasses some of my favourite things: History between the World Wars; the Vienna Secession and Gustav Klimt; Art Nouveau; a feminist narrative. However, I didn’t expect it would grab hold of me in the way it did! I sat down with it in the garden one Sunday afternoon and read two thirds straight away. When duty and blog tours called that week I had to set it aside, but I kept glancing over at it like a forbidden lover all week. Despite recognising the featured portraits, I didn’t know much about Egon Schiele, other than he was a protégée of Klimt. I have only seen one of the paintings, Portrait of a Woman modelled for by his sister Gertrude Schiele because it was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. Schiele is described as a figurative painter and as an artist under the banner of the Vienna Secession he was pushing the boundaries, trying to create something completely new or ‘art nouveau’. This was the time of a rebirth in painting, writing and all other art forms towards a new way of describing the world – the birth of Modernism. The unusual shapes and colours in his work is reminiscent of writers like Virginia Woolf who were throwing out the rule book and wrote novels with unusual timelines, streams of consciousness and complex characters whose inner world was often more important than events outside it. Haydock’s book uses some of these devices and a way of ‘writing back’ to art history and challenging Schiele’s representation of these women. Schiele’s portraits are not life-like reproductions of his model and while they might shed light on aspects of their characters, they can only ever be the artist’s view of that woman with all the prejudices and biases of his time. Here we get to hear the women’s stories as they experienced them and particularly their relationship with Schiele. We do get a sense of Schiele through these women, particularly Gertie because she’s there for the formative years. I often found him infuriating, because I felt he wanted to be a modern man, unrestricted by society’s rules and expectations on one hand, but then showed a total disregard for the women who were willing to break rules with him. There was a slight Madonna/Whore complex at work here, where women were compartmentalised into those to have fun with and those acceptable for marriage. Some of his choices felt like betrayals to those women who risked everything by literally laying themselves bare before him and the world, for his sake and for the sake of art. I thought Haydock beautifully captured this sacrifice and it’s consequences, something picked up beautifully in the short interludes from the 1960’s where an elderly woman searches for a painting she’s glimpsed of someone she loved. Desperate to give an apology she never heard in life. Haydock beautifully captures a rapidly changing Vienna between two World Wars where barriers of class and gender are breaking down. She also captures the complexities of the barriers for women and those who have the pioneering spirit to break them. She gives a voice to their silent gaze. This is one of the best books I read this summer and I read it greedily in two sessions, but I’m already looking forward to entering Haydock’s world and savouring these wonderful women again.
Peach Blossom Spring by Melissa
As they are torn from the only home he has ever known, Renshu’s mother Meilin, tells him stories from a scroll she has carried with them as their most precious possession. One story she tells is that of Peach Blossom Spring, a fisherman passes through a cave that becomes so narrow he can only just squeeze to the other side. There he finds a kind of Eden, with flowering peach trees and the all the wonders of nature. It’s a peaceful place, but eventually there is a dilemma to solve. Once he leaves this place, he cannot return. If he stays, he can never return to his old life. Meilin tells him the fisherman stays and builds a life in this new place, leaving everything that came before. The book is divided into sections from WW2 to the latter part of the 20th Century, as we follow events from China when Renshu is a little boy, to his middle age and the life of his daughter Lily in the USA. This structure shows how his early experiences shape the man he becomes, but also the parent he becomes and the daughter he shapes along with his wife Rachel. The author weaves together themes of identity, women’s history, politics and conflict, as well as inter- generational trauma so beautifully, yet all the while framing Renshu’s life through this ancient Chinese story that’s still relevant today. Renshu is traumatised by war. His existence started with minute to minute thinking, the mind fully occupied with the basic needs of food, shelter and safety. Never in one place for long, Meilin and Renshu are powerless and can never really stop to enjoy any period of good fortune, because they know it can be taken away from them again in a click of the fingers. Meilin understands this. She sees that her boy has struggled to move fully away from that short term thinking – he has been able to have some aspirations though and the relative luxury of safety, a constant income and roof over his head, a long and happy marriage. Yet she sees that he still struggles to trust it all. This is why Meilin tells him to plant an orchard, because a man who plants an orchard knows there will be a tomorrow and that he will still be in the same place, watching them grow.
Yinka, Where Is Your Huzband by Lizzie Damilola Blackburn.
I absolutely loved reading this charming and uplifting debut novel from Lizzie Damilola Blackburn and I already know it’s one I will keep on the bookshelves and read again in the future. It has such charm and a huge heart at it’s centre. Yinka is a 31 year old British Nigerian woman with a degree from Oxford and a brilliant job at an investment bank, but despite all that she has going for her, she hears only one thing from her mother and aunties. Why is she still single? What exactly is she doing wrong? A perfect storm of circumstances affects Yinka’s confidence: her baby sister Kemi is about to have a baby; her friend Rachel becomes engaged and starts planning her wedding; then she expects a promotion at work and is instead made redundant. When her Mum and Aunty Debbie both pray out loud for her to find a man at Kemi’s baby shower, Yinka feels humiliated. Using her project planning skills she decides on a course of action. She will find a man in time to take a date to Rachel’s wedding. I found the themes of identity woven into the storyline fascinating and complex. At the start of the novel Yinka is wearing her hair short and natural, is more likely to be in jeans than traditional Nigerian fabrics and prefers to eat fried chicken than learn to cook African food. Yet there are so many opinions and judgements, both in her everyday life and on social media, on what it means to be a British Nigerian and an attractive, desirable black woman. The men she meets aren’t short of opinions either. Donovan, who she knows from her gap year working for charity, despairs of her lack of knowledge about hip-hop and music of black origin in general. She accepts an introduction to Alex, a single man at her Mum’s church and they start to chat on social media. He voices surprise, and judgement, that she can’t cook Nigerian food and she doesn’t know many words of the Yoruba language. A Tinder meet up goes horribly wrong when her date makes the assumption she will sleep with him on their second date. When Yinka explains that part of her faith is prizing her virginity and that sex is sacred, something she would only do with her husband. He seems okay about it, but then ghosts her, finally accusing Yinka of misleading him, because this is something she should have made clear up front. Her experience with Emmanuel was the one I found most painful and my heart broke a little for her. He goes to her Mum’s church and she has to swallow her pride just to agree on a number exchange. On FaceTime though he seems disappointed and admits that he agreed to pass on his number, because he thought she was someone else. It’s not his fault, he says, but he does prefer girls with lighter skin. It’s not hard to see how these experiences and opinions chip away at Yinka until she feels like she’s lost herself, however it’s in watching Yinka’s self-growth and self-acceptance that this novel truly shines.
The Unravelling by Polly Crosby.
When Tartelin Brown accepts a job with the reclusive Marianne Stourbridge, she finds herself on a wild island with a mysterious history. Dogger Island used to exist in the North Sea, somewhere between East Anglia and Holland. Tartelin is tasked with hunting butterflies for Marianne’s research. But she quickly uncovers something far more intriguing than the curious creatures that inhabit the landscape. Because the island and Marianne share a remarkable history, and what happened all those years ago has left its scars, and also some terrible secrets. As Tartelin pieces together Marianne’s connection to the island, she must confront her own reasons for being there. Can the two women finally face up to the painful memories that bind them so tightly to the past? Each section of the past sheds light on something in the present day, but I wanted the whole story of why Marianne was so alone in her old age, when did her family leave the island but most of all why was the island requisitioned? I loved the sense of the uncanny that the author created; a feeling that life on the island was like real life, but not quite. There are strange, unfinished or half destroyed buildings, eroded cliffs and houses that have been literally swallowed up by the sea. Tartelin’s island has a feel of dilapidated grandeur in it’s buildings. They must have once been extravagant and beautiful, like the pavilion where Tartelin meets the peacock that’s slowly being broken down and reclaimed by the sea. This is a strong theme throughout the novel, the idea that nature will always find a way, like a flower growing from a tiny crack in the pavement. I found Marianne a fascinating character with the manner of someone very intelligent and far too busy to be bothered with trifles. Her exterior as this grumpy old woman probably brushes most people off, but Tartelin is more persistent than most. Watching these two women slowly learning to trust and understand one another was a joy. Marianne’s story, as it is revealed, moved me beyond words. Even though there’s a fantastical, dream-like quality to her recollections the emotions ring true and are devastating to witness. However, I also felt an incredible sense of joy over the ending too. This novel is evocative and bittersweet, full of rich detail and interesting women. I have no hesitation in recommending all of Polly Crosby’s writing, but this is extraordinary and will stay with me forever.
The Maid by Nita Prose.
I’m an absolute sucker for books where the narrator addresses the reader directly. I loved Molly the Maid from the first page and the book was an absolute delight from start to finish. Molly works as a maid at the Regency Grand Hotel and she is very proud of her skills as a cleaner, skills she learned from her grandmother who died a few months ago. Many of her colleagues find Molly a little bit odd – in fact they call her Roomba after a robot hoover – but she thinks they call her Rumba after the dance on Strictly although she doesn’t know why. Molly likes things to follow a routine, things must be in their place and there are ways to clean everything. In fact her Gran said that cleanliness was next to Godliness. Even at home they had a cleaning schedule, something different each night before dinner, and Molly has carried that into her work. She does have some friends, Mr Preston who works on the door, Juan who washes dishes in the kitchens and Rodney who works behind the bar. Her friends are very important to her and if it does good, it’s occasionally okay to bend the rules. So, when Rodney takes her out for a meal and asks for a favour she’s only too happy to help. This was a clever way of merging a thriller, with a genuinely uplifting story about someone who has gone through an enormous change in her life. I truly felt gripped by the thriller aspects of the story, but also touched by the personal journey that Molly is facing. She has lost someone close to her and is learning to negotiate life as a fully fledged adult. She doesn’t have that ability to read people’s moods and motivations so she’s perhaps an easy mark for people who want to exploit her. I thought the author had a very difficult line to tread with the tone of the novel. We know that Molly thinks in an individual way and there are times when we do understand more than she does about what’s going on at the hotel. Molly refers to this with a jigsaw analogy – she knows she has all the pieces, but hasn’t put them in the right order yet. This could have been disastrous if the reader was superior to Molly, but we never are. The author keeps us firmly with our heroine, even while other characters treat her badly and underestimate her intelligence. The story was gripping and I wanted to know what was really going on at the hotel, and which of Molly’s friends were truly fighting her corner. Molly is a heroine who will stay with me a long time. Even though the goings on at the hotel are sleazy and dangerous, her personal story is touching, charming and ultimately joyful.
The Marsh House by Zoë Somerville.
I simply loved this book. In fact, a finished copy arrived through the post and I started browsing the first page then couldn’t stop reading. So I read it straight through, finishing at 2am. It’s a split timeline story, beginning with Malorie and her daughter deciding to spend Christmas in a cottage on the Norfolk coast after an argument with her boyfriend. Malorie feels like a bad mother and wants to get one thing right – an idyllic holiday cottage Christmas for her daughter. Maybe if she achieves this one thing, she can convince herself she’s not as useless as she imagines. The sense of foreboding hits the reader immediately as the weather promises snow and Malorie becomes disoriented in the fog. She skids and ends up wedged into a hedge. The Marsh House itself is damp, dark and neglected. They cannot even see the sea through the mist. Malorie begins to wonder if this is a bad idea, but finds a pair of journals in the attic while searching for Christmas decorations, and she begins to read. Written by a young woman called Rosemary, who lived in the house, the journals tell a tale of a young woman’s crush on the boy from the big house. This young woman’s story paints a picture of 1930’s rural Norfolk, becoming a young mum and her husband’s link to fascism and Oswald Moseley in particular. Malorie can’t put the journals down, but alongside the house’s strange atmosphere, they are having an effect on her sleep and her state of mind. I did enjoy Rosemary’s story too, her innocent crush on the boy from the family at the big house. She fantasises about what it would be like to have him like her too, to kiss her on the cheek and choose her above the more well to do girls in society. There does seem to be a part of him that is attracted to Rose, but she might also suit his purposes – a compliant country wife at home to keep the line going while he gallivants in London with Moseley’s social circle. As time goes on and Rosemary is treated very badly by her husband it was clear that something terrible was going to happen, but the final revelations are truly shocking. I loved the way the author delved into the complicated, emotional experience of becoming a mother. She opens up the inner world of these women, with their constant questioning of whether they’re good enough, or are they failing at this job we’re led to believe should come naturally? There is a special skill in weaving real historical events with fiction and this author is so talented and creative. She brings this area of England to life and makes the reader want to visit and search it out for themselves. The atmosphere was so evocative I spent two days with a ‘book hangover’ – unable to start another book because my emotions and senses were so embedded in Malorie’s story. I loved this so much I could have happily gone back to the first page and read it over again.
Caged Little Birds by Lucy Banks
Oh my goodness this book packs a punch! The author has created an incredibly complex character and took me from slight unease to wide-eyed horror at what was happening. Robin is trying to live a quiet life these days. She wishes she could live where there’s nobody else, just miles of wilderness, a rugged coastline and hundreds of sea birds. Yet she’s grateful for the roof over her head and the benefits she has to start her new life with. She’s grateful to be able to eat what she wants, when she wants and to have a hot shower without a queue and no fighting for the shampoo and conditioner. She doesn’t feel like ‘Robin’ though, such an insignificant and ordinary bird. In prison she was called ‘Butcher Bird’ and the public hate her, so even now twenty-five years later she can’t use Ava, her real name. As Robin settles into her new home and new identity, she becomes aware that someone knows who she is. Can she stay under the radar and stick to all the conditions of her release? Or will she be flushed out and shown to be the monster people think she is? The real Ava strikes this reader as someone with a personality disorder. The isolated childhood and lack of schooling have left her lonely, naive and unable to form boundaries with others, as she’s never had anyone to form a relationship with. She’s grown up as easy prey for those who seem able to sense someone vulnerable and manipulate or use them. Unable to deal with rejection in the usual way someone her age might, by reflecting on the experience, feeling sad and angry, maybe seeing a counsellor. She doesn’t even go get drunk, eat ice cream, and malign him to her friends, because she doesn’t have any. Her response is immature, because she is immature emotionally, but no one could have predicted the events that followed. Lucy Banks brings the past into the narrative as Ava ruminates on what happened. She’s triggered by what she sees as another rejection, so her rage and anger are disproportionate to the situation. She becomes that young girl again. At this point I started to be scared for anyone who came into her orbit. I think the way the writer slowly allows this unease to develop between reader and narrator is brilliant. I noticed that Robin’s sleep pattern changed, her paranoia starts to build, she starts to link past and present events in a way that isn’t logical, and acting on emotions rather than fact. I wasn’t sure whether I was in the mind of a murderer or the mind of someone who is just struggling with their mental health, distorting the facts and hallucinating the more violent aspects of her story. I won’t tell you which it is, because slowly finding out is so satisfying and such an enjoyable read. The writer has created a highly original narrative voice and a reveal that I hadn’t worked out. It really stands out as one of the best books I’ve read this year and I recommend you read it.
Demon by Matt Wesolowski
I was fascinated and blown away by this sixth novel in the author’s Six Stories series. As always the novel’s structure is based on a podcast format, where Scott King presents his investigation into a true crime case. Each podcast consists of six stories told by six people associated with the case, with additional emails, news reports and documents on the crime. This time King has chosen a highly emotive crime that reminded me of the James Bulger case. The novel takes us to the old mining village of Usslethwaite in Yorkshire, where a terrible crime was committed, one that shocked the world. In 1995 the murder of twelve year old Sidney Parsons, by two boys his own age, was front page news. The murderers were dubbed the ‘Demonic Duo’ by the press and as well as the usual speculation about both the boy’s upbringing and mental state, there was a whisper of something more sinister. The hills above Usslethwaite were reknowned as a place where witches congregated, all the way back to the 17th Century when witch-hunting was rife. Rumours of something dark and disturbing lurking in the caves near the crime scene had plagued the village for centuries, as well as more contemporary plagues of flies, animal deaths and a strange black shape seen nearby. Is there something supernatural and demonic about this crime? Or are they just hysterical excuses for a crime so savage no one can understand it? Now that the murderers have reached adulthood, they’re quite possibly rehabilitated and living somewhere in the U.K. Maybe now it’s time to hear the truth about what happened when Robbie and Danny formed a friendship and proceeded to commit this unspeakable crime. While never losing sight of the victim and his family’s loss, we get to explore the ideas of rehabilitation and how a perpetrator lives with their crime, especially ones so young. Can they ever make a life for themselves and get over the guilt? Or are they forever doomed to keep moving, constantly looking over their shoulder for fear of being exposed? I was fascinated with the question of whether a demon influenced these boys or whether we could call the boys demons. They are labelled monsters, but are they? Perhaps we just label them this way, because we can’t accept one human being could do this to another, let alone a child. This is another incredible read from this inventive and original author.
Take My Hand by
Our narrator Civil, is a new district nurse, working in the southern states of America. Her very name brings to mind civil rights, equality and fairness, so it’s not a surprise that where she sees injustice she’s willing to fight. The Williams girls are her very first patients and she is sent out on a home visit to give them a Depo Provera injection, a long term method of contraception. When she notices that India is only 11 years old her brain immediately starts questioning, who put this little girl on this injection, has anyone asked if she has a boyfriend or worse, is she being preyed upon? We are privy to her thoughts and her shock at the way the family are living is evident. Her first thought is that she must do something for them, get them away from the dirty shack where their clothes seem to be stored on the floor. What she does notice is that the girls smell and when she finds out they don’t have sanitary towels, she decides to buy some for them from her own money. This is the first line crossed and although Civil’s actions are generous and could change the family’s lives for the better, it’s a boundary crossed which makes it so much easier to cross others as time goes on.
The author weaves fact into fiction so seamlessly, using contemporary medical research and having the family meeting with real life senator Teddy Kennedy. This grounds the book beautifully and it feels even more true to life; the girls aren’t real, but I’m guessing that this story could be the reality for many poor, young, African American women. I thought Civil’s home life was really interesting, especially when her Aunty arrived and talked plainly about her Mum’s depression. Even in a household where there are always guest towels, there are struggles and issues that are overlooked, either due lack of understanding or through avoidance of something too painful to acknowledge. In fact there’s a way this whole episode is fuelled by avoidance, because if Civil buried herself in this family’s trouble she could avoid her own loss. The present day sections are evidence of that avoidance, because we see Civil finally having to confront and process feelings long buried. She’s close to retirement, yet is still haunted by what happened back then. There are positives in her visit back home, in that her relationships have adjusted so there’s more equality with some people than there was back then. I was left with a sense of how incredible women are, the strength we have to survive life altering circumstances and what can be achieved when we support each other.
Theatre of Marvels by Lianne Dillsworth.
I was thinking of Sara Baartman when I came to read this book. Otherwise known as the Hottentot Venus, Sara’s body was displayed as ‘other’ to the 19th Century world and was even dissected after her death with her private parts being the most prized spectacle. It was this historical and social background that I had in mind while reading this fascinating debut novel from Lianne Dilsworth. I was swept up into her world straight away and my personal academic interest in disability and the display of ‘other’ bodies added to my enjoyment. Our setting is a theatre and a group of performers from singers to magicians who perform a variety show under the watchful eye of Mr Crillick. His current headline act is Amazonia – a true African tribeswoman, dressed in furs and armed with a shield and spear, her native dancing brings down the house in Crillick’s show. The audience watch, transfixed with fear and fascination, never realising that she is a ‘fagged’ act. Zillah has never set foot in Africa and is in fact of mixed race heritage, born in East London. She is making her money by pretending to be what the, largely white, audience wants to see. It doesn’t sit well with Zillah, but she is alone in the world and does need to make money. Besides it’s better than the other options for a young woman who finds herself in poverty. She’s used to slipping between worlds on stage and in her private life, renting a room in the rough St Giles area of the city, but regularly making her way to a more salubrious area and the bed of a Viscount by night. She and Vincent have been lovers for some time, but he is estranged from his family and can easily keep her a secret, never even walking with her in public. Their shared bed is situated in the middle class home of her boss Crillick. Now, everything is about to change, as Zillah’s consciousness is raised in several ways. She is told about a country in Africa called Liberia where there will be a resettlement of freed slaves. At the same time Crillick is in receipt of a new exhibit named the Leopard Woman due to the white patches on her black skin. Zillah’s fears for this woman, being used for private views where she is prodded and poked, are raised when she witnesses medical instruments being offered to paying guests, all of them men. Can Zillah rescue the Leopard Woman and what will it do to her life if she succeeds?
All About Evie by Matson Taylor.
All About Evie is the warm and funny sequel to The Miseducation of Evie Epworth.set around ten years after Evie’s big move down to London from Yorkshire. Evie now has a flat, a steady job at the BBC and the support of close friend Caroline and her partner. However, she is at another crossroads, still hoping to write for a living and to meet the right man. The catalyst is an unfortunate incident with a pregnancy testingkit and a member of the royal family, leading to a series of trials and tribulations testing out what she really wants to do. It’s totally by chance that she stumbles upon Right On magazine, run by the two Nicks – NickStickUpBum and NickWithCollars. Luckily both decide to give her a trial with the listings pages – a list of arty events and exhibits all over London. Of course Evie is unable to stick to the brief and brings some of her particular flair to the pages, a move that isn’t universally popular in the office. I felt like this was a really fresh take on the character with just enough time in her new environment and nostalgic trips back to the farm in Yorkshire. I really enjoyed her relationship with Caroline Scott-Pimm who is a mentor to Evie and whose flat in London is like an outpost of home. Another great character is Lolo, a very cultured man who works at Radio Three and is great at educating Evie about opera and classical music. This novel had all the charm and humour of the first novel and our leading lady is as optimistic and irrepressible as ever.
House of Fortune by Jessie Burton.
I’ve waited a long time to read the sequel to one of my favourite ever novels – Jesse Burton’s The Miniaturist. Inspired by an intricate cabinet house that lives in the Rejksmuseum in Amsterdam, Burton wove a magical tale around its owner. We followed 18 year old Petronella Oortman as she is married to wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt and leaves behind her family and the countryside for a life in one of the most spacious townhouses in the city. Nella had certain expectations of nmarriage, so is surprised to be furnished with her own room and the growing realisation that she isn’t expected to perform all of her wifely duties. This is a house full of secrets and Nella feels a little lost until she starts to receives packages from the miniaturist. Do they have a magical purpose, do they intend to support and direct Nella or is the miniaturist a witch, determined to meddle in the Brandt’s lives? Burton left her novel without answers to these questions and ripe for a sequel. House of Fortune is set eighteen years after Nella arrived in Amsterdam and the household’s fortunes have changed considerably. Since Johannes’s execution at the hands of the state, this unusual family have struggled. Nella and Otto have brought up Thea, Otto and Marin Brandt’s daughter, with the help,of Cordelia their faithful servant. Struggling by on Otto’s salary has been difficult and they have supplemented their income selling the house’s treasures, but now they’re down to their last painting. Nella can see only one way out, to start accepting some of their social invitations and place Thea on the marriage market. A good marriage could save all of them, but Thea’s father Otto doesn’t agree. Instead, with the help of botanist Caspar Witsen, he has drawn up plans to utilise Nella’s land in the countryside and turn it into a pineapple farm. Assendelft was Nella’s family home, but the house is now derelict and the land is no better than a bog. Is Nella remembering accurately, or are her painful childhood memories clouding her judgement? Meanwhile, Thea is living her own life, visiting the theatre as much as she can and making friends with the actress Rebecca Bosemann. She has also forged a friendship with Walter, the scenery painter and talented artist. When she receives a miniature of Walter she takes it as a sign and the strength of first love means she will not be dissuaded from a love affair, one she must keep secret from Aunt Nella and her father. Burton takes us straight back to 1705 Amsterdam with her incredible sense of detail and into a society that guards it’s borders closely. There are some interesting issues around identity and both Otto and Thea’s ‘otherness’, particularly how it affects Thea in the marriage market. I was engrossed, wondering whether this time we would get to meet the miniaturist and finally understand what her purpose is and why she is targeting the Brandt family.
There are two novels that almost made the 22 that really deserve to be mentioned, because I know I’ll love them but just haven’t got to them yet. One of these is Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait is my next book on the TBR and I really regret not being able to read it in time. This is simply due to over-committing to blog tours and new book releases over the year. I’ve never met a Maggie O’Farrell I haven’t loved so I’d have been surprised if this didn’t make the list. The second is Notes on an Execution from ….. which has been recommended to me so many times and keeps teetering on the edge of my NetGalley list and has never reached my kindle.
Those that just missed out on the list were the fantastic new novel from Jodie Picoult, written with Jennifer Boylan Finney, covering a court case where a young man is accused of murdering his girlfriend. As usual with Picoult there’s a controversial issue at the centre of the story and in Mad Honey it’s trans rights with Jennifer Boylan Finney bringing her expertise and authenticity to the issues. Next there’s the summer rom-com from Lizzy Dent entitled The Set-Up where we meet Mara, a slightly insecure woman who is desperately looking for love – going as far as a Hungarian fortune teller to find her fate. I loved Mara’s journey of self-growth and self-acceptance in this story just as much as her search for love. Then there are the Orenda books, because it seems impossible to find a bad read from their amazing roster of authors. I’ve chosen two in the list, but Lilja Sigurdardóttir’s novel Red as Blood is easily a five star read as is Eva Bjorg Aegisdottir’s Night Shadows. I read both series and I’m always looking forward to the next instalment. There’s the really unusual The Change from Kirsten Miller, an incredible combination of menopause, murder, mystery and magic realism. Finally there’s Kate Atkinson’s Shrines of Gaiety, a book I really enjoyed. However, when comparing it to The Dazzle of the Light, which covered similar issues in the same time period, the debut author just pipped Atkinson at the post for me. It’s been a truly exciting and its already shaping up to be a great reading year in 2023.