Posted in Random Things Tours, Publisher Proof

Henry VIII The Heart and the Crown by Alison Weir

I came to this book with quite a store of Henry knowledge – I promise not all of it comes from The Tudors, but this has been a great excuse to dig out the series again and enjoy Henry Cavill in leather trousers. In my previous home I had the alcoves each side of my fireplace turned into bookshelves and one side was all books on the Tudor period. A mix of novels and non-fiction it covered all the usual authors: David Starkey, Phillipa Gregory, Lucy Worsley, Alison Weir and many more. I have read each of Weir’s six wives series and her other novels on Elizabeth I and Lady Jane Grey. Her last novel was based on Elizabeth of York, Henry’s mother and daughter of Edward IV. All of them have been that brilliant mix of sound background research and an ability to get inside the characters and bring them to life. However, you don’t have to read any of her earlier work to enjoy this book, I’m just a Tudor Nerd! I wondered how Henry would fare, given that her previous books have shown great empathy for the position women found themselves in at the Tudor Court, especially where that ill treatment was at Henry’s hands. Interestingly, I read this alongside Prince Harry’s autobiography Spare, something that fascinated me given that Henry VIII’s story is largely influenced by that dynamic of ‘heir and spare.’ Henry is the man who was never intended to be king. Only the death of his brother Arthur, Prince of Wales, opened the way for a king who seemed almost meant to be. How could this well-built, ornately dressed and powerful man of the Holbein portrait not have been the King? It seems strange to think he was probably destined to be Duke of York and of much lesser importance than the huge presence he still is in our royal history. Did I see parallels between the man whose Twitter followers call Good King Harry and this similarly red-haired Tudor spare? Only a few!

I thought what Weir did really well was put Henry’s controversial and bloody reign into context. It’s easy to forget where Henry comes from and how violent and treacherous the route to the Crown was prior to his birth. As Weir explains, Henry’s maternal grandfather was Edward IV, a man who took the crown in the years of fighting between the York and Lancaster royal houses, known as the Wars of the Roses after the county emblems of the white and the red rose. However, it was also known as the Cousin’s Wars and to put that in a modern context it’s as if Princes Harry and William fought for the crown against Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie. It took a concerted effort by Henry’s grandmothers Margaret Beaufort and her rival Elizabeth Woodville to bring both houses together with a royal marriage and the new emblem of the Tudor Rose. Margaret was Henry VII’s mother and fought hard for her son to claim his crown, which he eventually did on the battlefield against Richard III. Elizabeth was Edward IV wife and despite losing both her sons, the rightful heirs to the throne who are believed to have been murdered in the Tower of London, she encouraged her daughter Elizabeth of York to make a political marriage to Henry Tudor, the new King. The emblem of their arranged marriage was a red rose for Lancaster with a white centre for York. These became known as the Tudor Rose and can be seen in many Tudor palaces and churches like York Minster. The country had endured years of in-fighting, from huge battles to hidden murders such as Edward IV and Richard, then Duke of York, allegedly murdering their brother by drowning him in a barrel of malmsey. Henry’s parents brought some stability to the country, despite Henry VII’s constant paranoia about usurpers and the lost Princes from the tower reappearing. If we imagine all of this followed by the death of Henry’s elder brother Arthur who died without heirs, it’s possible to see some of pressure upon the young king’s shoulders. Considering the paranoia he witnessed in his own father and his grandmother Margaret who drilled it into Henry that the only way to keep the crown secure was to have heirs, we can see the seeds of Henry’s own obsessions, paranoia and hatred of betrayal.

Often we only see the later King Henry on television and in fiction, because those latter years of his reign from meeting Anne Boleyn onwards are so dramatic. It’s easy to forget that Henry ruled and lived happily with his first wife and Arthur’s widow Catherine of Aragon from 1509 until he met Anne Boleyn in 1525, although he remained married to Catherine until 1533. There are only fourteen years between his marriage to Anne until his own death in 1547, in which he married, divorced or beheaded four more wives. I loved how Weir captures the earlier and often ignored years of Henry’s reign because we see something of the great prince that all of Europe were talking about. A tall, handsome and robust young man in direct contrast to his brother Arthur, he was also a great horseman and a competitive jouster. He was often reprimanded for missing lessons in order to go hunting or practising in the tilt yard with his companions, usually Charles Brandon. Yet he wasn’t just an imposing physical presence, Henry was very intelligent in that he spoke French and understood Latin and was even taught by the philosopher Erasmus. He could compose music and was an elegant dancer, with a definite eye for the ladies of the court. Even his early happy years with Catherine were littered with affairs, the most famous being Anne’s sister Mary Boleyn and Bessie Blount, both of whom were rumoured to have the King’s illegitimate children. It was interesting to read about Henry’s role in welcoming Catherine as Arthur’s bride and how much he admired her from a very young age. After Arthur’s death he was adamant he wanted to marry Catherine, with a dispensation sought from the Pope for their union. Henry’s father seemed reluctant to solemnise the match, despite a betrothal ceremony taking place. I have read elsewhere that the King had considered Catherine for himself and it was only when the King died that their marriage took place, in fact it was one of the first things Henry did as King. He may not have been faithful physically but there was a constancy in Henry’s feelings for Catherine, he admired her greatly and felt she would be a fitting queen for him.

Weir also shows how different Henry’s court was from his father’s. Henry VII had faults, but he was contemplative, careful when making decisions and had financially secured their reign after finding a depleted treasury due to years of war. Henry wanted to be a generous King, known to keep a a celebratory and ostentatious court. He undertook building new palaces, promoting art and culture, keeping a generous table and was determined to use some of the money saved by his father to take Calais and become King of France once more. He wanted to excel in all things, but this extravagance was also a sign of things to come, developing from generous young King to a petulant and spoiled man with a body ruined by greed, excess and risk taking. The most damaging risk being his jousting accident, where he was knocked out cold for some time and sustained a leg wound that never healed, caused intense pain and smelled terrible due to infection. I have often wondered whether it was possible that he sustained a head injury in this accident, because it does seem to be a turning point in his life, after which he made several questionable decisions. He decreed that his courtiers should acknowledge and accept his relationship with Anne Boleyn as well as his plan to make her Queen. His insistence on this point led to a relationship breakdown with one of his most trusted advisors, Sir Thomas More. The day he executed More was also a point of no return, I believe it haunted him for the rest of his life that he’d killed a good man, a man of God.

Weir made me look at Henry’s early life with more empathy than I have before. She brings to life the childhood loss of his mother (another event in common with our Prince Harry) and the huge impact it had. He remembers her softness and her gentle voice, a memory he needs when his father is preoccupied with duty. Henry has to grow up early, but little reminders of his mum pop up everywhere, especially her smell. I felt he could have been a different man if she had lived. There are some warning signs of the tyrant he becomes, because he’s jealous of Arthur from a young age. Arthur keeps his own court in Wales and Henry would love to have his own court, his own income and a bit of Arthur’s power, not to mention wanting Arthur’s bride from when she first arrived in the country. When all of it becomes his I did wonder whether there was a bit of survivor’s guilt. His father’s paranoia about losing the crown and his over-protectiveness after the death of his first son, mean he keeps Henry from carousing in bars with his friends and preserves some of his reputation for marriage. Weir shows us the weight of that history and expectation on the young prince’s shoulders. It’s something Henry is constantly pushing against, so that when he does unexpectedly become King he is determined to make changes. He has a tendency to promote men who are self-made, above the usual courtiers or advisors of his father’s. He relies on Cardinal Wolsey and after that he promotes Thomas Cromwell, a commoner and son of a blacksmith. The men who advised his father are old now and have known Henry his whole life, they’re aware of a recklessness in the young King that needs reigning in. Newly made men show the deference Henry expects as a King, but being younger and perhaps more aware of the way the world is changing they also allow him to take risks. We also see Henry’s own paranoia emerging when he and Catherine start to lose children, most particularly his two month old son. I felt like I understood Henry better after reading this novel and it was interesting to see some thoughts I’d had about Henry’s personality and behaviour placed in context. I didn’t like him more, but I did feel sorry for him in parts especially in his difficult relationship with his father. Weir provides possible reasons for the cruel and changeable behaviour that made Henry the most famous King in our history. I felt completely immersed in his psyche but also the whole Tudor court because Weir breathes life into a story we all know something about, turning historical caricatures into real people. Their problems also seem less far-fetched given Royal headlines over the last few years, although this spare ended up with the crown.

Many thanks to Headline Review and Caitlin Raynor for my proof copy of this novel and to Anne at Random Things Tours for my place on the blog tour and your support.

Meet the Author

Alison Weird is a bestselling historical novelist of Tudor fiction, and the leading female historian in the UK. She has published more than thirty books, including many leading works of non-fiction and has sold over three million copies worldwide. Her novels include the Tudor Rose trilogy which spans three generations of history’s most iconic family – The Tudors, and the highly acclaimed Six Tudor Queens series about the wives of Henry VIII, all of which were Sunday Times bestsellers. Alison is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and an honorary life patron of Historic Royal Palaces.

Posted in Orenda, Random Things Tours

Thirty Days of Darkness by Jenny Lund Madsen

The first thing I loved about this book was that stunning cover. I hadn’t fully taken it in when I received the book, but once I’d found my reading glasses I couldn’t stop looking at it. That tiny lit up window, a little orange glow of creativity in the darkness really fired up my imagination. I’d love Orenda to create some book posters to accompany their author’s work. The blurb drew me in with it’s conflict between genre authors and their supposedly high brow literary fiction colleagues. Hannah writes literary fiction and is dismayed at a book festival to see the crowds attending a Q and A with Jørn Jenson, the darling of Scandi Noir, who churns out a formulaic book every year. Yet he’s filling a tent with fans and she’s in a lonely booth waiting for someone to drop by. I loved that she launched a book at his head! In the ensuing row, Jensen goads Hannah into saying she could write a crime novel in a month. Her agent uses the incident as a great marketing strategy and pours fuel on the fire, talking to the press about the wager and even putting Hannah on a plane to Iceland as a writing retreat. There she will live with a lady called Ella and hopefully, within thirty days, complete a commercial success. Yet within days of Hannah’s arrival there’s a real life crime, as Ella’s nephew Thor is found drowned in the waters of the harbour. Can Hannah use the case to write her crime masterpiece? As she starts to ask questions about this small town community will she find inspiration, or will she be in more danger than she ever imagined?

Hannah is an interesting heroine in that she isn’t all that likeable at first. She’s prickly, arrogant and a definite book snob.

“Hannah Krause-Bendix has never received a bad review. Not once has anyone had a negative thing to say in any of the reviews of her four novels. A literary superstar, twice nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize. Didn’t win, but that doesn’t matter; anyway, she doesn’t believe the mark of good literature is how many awards it’s won. She’s actually refused the numerous other prizes she’s won over the years. No – Hannah sees herself as a forty-five year old living embodiment of integrity and will always maintain that it is beneath her to seek commercial success.”

I was starting to feel sorry for her editor and publisher. Her disgust for the current literary scene is obvious. She hates festivals and signings, prizes, social media and is dismissive of bloggers (how dare she – *swoon*). As she picks up Jensen’s latest book as if it is ‘a pair of homeless man’s lost pants’ she notes that most of the reviews are from obscure bloggers she’s never heard of. She’s no better as she arrives in Iceland, annoyed that her new landlady is late, that her jeep looks and sounds like it’s five miles off it’s new home at the scrap yard, plus she drives with her steamed up glasses so close to the windscreen that Hannah wonders whether she can drive, or even see. Then she makes the terrible faux pas of calling her friend and publisher Bastian to get her a flight back to Copenhagen, assuming Ella can’t understand her. Of course she can. I was cringing about her behaviour. Yet I didn’t dislike her. Despite these failings, plus the alcoholism, infidelity, snooping and complete conviction she’s in the right, there’s something rather freeing about her impulsiveness. We all have those thoughts, those imps of the perverse, that pop into our mind and encourage us to poke that person who’s bending over to reach a low shelf in the supermarket. We don’t do it of course, but Hannah does. In the course of the novel she randomly feels a homeless man’s head, buys the town teenagers alcohol, starts an affair with someone she’s barely met and as we know, tries to hit a man in the head with a book. She seems disconnected from others in the sense that we don’t know her family, she has few obligations and she thinks nothing of asking very personal questions in entirely inappropriate circumstances. I sort of loved that.

There is definitely a blackly comic element to this story and a satirical eye for both the book world and crime fiction in general. There’s a meta element to the story too, as Hannah makes observations and discoveries about crime fiction that then seem to bleed into the actual case. She observes that her investigations are suggesting the case is actually quite simple to solve, Jørn, who has followed her to Iceland, advises that in crime fiction the killer is never the most obvious suspect. Subsequently, her enquiries move from the her current suspect and start to take a darker turn, towards the last people she’s suspected. Jørn tells her:

“ a good crime novel has three crucial components. One: a spectacular and violent opening, preferably a murder. Two: false leads and false suspects. […] Point three is surprises.’

He also rather amusingly points out that the protagonist shouldn’t be likeable, because no one enjoys a likeable protagonist in crime. In fact during a violent clash with her first, rather boringly obvious suspect, she even doubts her own credentials as a protagonist. As she fights for her life, she berates herself for her stupid plan of luring him to a window, because she’s now in front of an open window with a possible murderer.

Of course, he isn’t the murderer after all. In the end the crime is complex and rather like the book of Icelandic sagas that Ella gives her to read. The roots of this murder lie way in the past with the last people Hannah suspected. In fact in the echo of the saga, someone takes something that is highly prized and didn’t belong to them, setting in motion years of secrets, lies and denial. Yes, there’s a lot of the clever stuff going on that us ‘weirdo’ readers like, as one teenager describes Hannah’s fan base, but there’s also a solid thriller as well. It’s a bleak and claustrophobic atmosphere as soon as Hannah reaches the island where she knows no one and feels alien. The remoteness of the town and it’s isolation when the bad weather comes just add to that sense of being completely alone. This is not a place to be injured or to be a victim of crime; there is only one police officer in town, with back up over an hour away on a good day. Jørn may preen and prance around like the archetypal action hero, but he is surprisingly very useful to have around in a sticky situation and despite his woeful writing, is possibly a good friend to have, especially where he’s the only familiar and friendly face. Alongside Hannah I suspected three or four different people and the author kept me guessing, just leaving tiny clues along the way. At first there was a little bit of scepticism -I remember watching Murder She Wrote with my parents when I was younger and my dad wondering why nobody told Jessica Fletcher to ‘bugger off and mind her own business’. However, once the action started to heat up I forgot that Hannah had no business interrogating suspects and just kept reading. She’s no Jessica and this is definitely not cozy crime. It’s dark, disorientating and scary as hell, but you’ll not be able to put it down. This is an incredible debut and I’d love to see where Hannah ends up next. Now back to that cover – I think it would make a lovely tote bag ……

Meet The Author

Jenny Lund Madsen is one of Denmark’s most acclaimed scriptwriters (including the international hits Rita and Follow the Money) and is known as an advocate for better representation for sexual and ethnic minorities in Danish TV and film. She recently made her debut as a playwright with the critically acclaimed Audition (Aarhus Teater) and her debut literary thriller, Thirty Days of Darkness, first in an addictive new series, won the Harald Mogensen Prize for Best Danish Crime Novel of the year and was shortlisted for the coveted Glass Key Award. She lives in Denmark with her young family.

Posted in Random Things Tours

When We Fall by Aoife Clifford

I’m slowly becoming a fan of ‘Outback Noir’ so I guess I picked up Aoife Clifford’s new novel with certain expectations. I was pleasantly surprised to find a few differences in this crime novel and a labyrinthine story that really pulls the reader into small town Australia with its complicated relationships. As one Merritt resident says:

“People here are a bit like trees, with roots deep in the earth, far more tangled than what’s visible on the surface.”

Criminal barrister Alex has returned to her home town to spend some time with her mother Denny and have one of those difficult conversations. Denny is struggling with dementia, but is stubborn and in denial. She had a distant relationship with her own parents and had Alex as a young Mum. Alex has bad memories of her grandparents so Merritt isn’t her favourite place, but Denny is getting worse, no matter how much she tries to cover it up and Alex must talk to her about sheltered accommodation. It’s on a beach walk trying to broach the subject that they find a dismembered leg with a distinctive black feather tattoo. It turns out that the leg belongs to art gallery owner Maxine MacFarlane and local police chief Kingsley ‘King’ Kelly dismisses it as a boating accident when the rest of her body is found further up the coast. But Alex’s barrister’s instincts tell her there might be more to this than meets the eye and she starts to snoop. King Kelly warns her off very early on and comes across as the archetypal small town cop – lazy, prejudiced and jaded, not to mention a misogynist. He holds court in his local cafe and seems well connected in the town, especially with people who matter. Alex wants to question a possible link between Maxine’s death and the disappearance of artist and activist Bella Gregg two years before. Not only did Bella exhibit at Maxine’s gallery, but as an activist she often protested wearing black feather wings that went missing at the same time she did. There’s also a strange symmetry about their autopsy results – Maxine was washed up on the sea shore but didn’t have saltwater in her lungs whereas Bella did have saltwater in her lungs but was found inland. There was also an upcoming exhibition at Maxine’s gallery, linked to Bella’s death. Could this have laid the blame for Bella’s death at a local’s door?

The plot is intriguing, full of different avenues that are never obvious. Some keep you reading ferociously but turn out to be red herrings, while truths lurk underneath like a riptide. One minute I suspected someone, then someone completely different, although that’s not surprising in a town where male suspects are plentiful. My eye was on King Kelly throughout because he’s a thoroughly unpleasant character, but there are strangers in town; a new doctor who’s just arrived, as well as a visiting investor in a potential eco-friendly extension of the town. Locally there’s the rep for the town extension who seems keen to do anything for a better future than the local fishermen he went to school with. Bella’s own stepfather is known to be dealing drugs and there’s even a link to Alex’s family, with one thread involving a GP who was the partner of her grandfather. The past definitely has a role here, both in the crime and in the questions Alex has about her childhood. I was nervous for her in a town where outspoken women seem to get silenced. Alex is just as stubborn as her mother once she has an idea in her head and she’s been without cases to distract her of late.

Aside from the crime, Alex has a lot to contend with: her husband Tom is pushing for their divorce to move a bit quicker; her career seems to have taken a nosedive since their separation; then there’s her formidable mother to contend with. I loved the snappish and often humorous dialogue between Alex and Denny. There was a lot of truth in their exchanges, but that humorous edge offered a bit of light in the shade of a terrible crime. Alex’s instincts are strong, she’s perceptive and intelligent but seems to have a blind spot when it comes to danger. She places herself in potentially life threatening situations without seeing the danger looming over her. I didn’t always understand why, but felt it might have had something to do with her childhood in Merritt. Clifford surprised me with Alex’s home town, because I didn’t get the dry outback setting I expected. Despite wanting to develop as a holiday destination, it didn’t feel very welcoming and it seems to be raining constantly. Everyone is in raincoats. This is a small seaside town and has a claustrophobic feel without the outback heat. She shows it through the people, like the local cop with a finger in every pie and suspicious residents who are reluctant to talk. She gave me an Australia I hadn’t seen before and it gave this read a unique feel. This was such a well-written book, sinister and complicated with an ending that felt just right. I’m now looking for a gap to read her earlier novels, because I’ve already ordered them.

Meet the Author

Aoife Clifford is the author of All These Perfect Strangers, which was long-listed for both
the Australian Industry General Fiction Book of the Year and the Voss Literary Prize, and Second Sight, a Publishers Weekly (starred review) and PW Pick for Book of the Week. Aoife’s short stories have been published in Australia, United Kingdom and the United States, winning premier prizes such as the Scarlet Stiletto and the S.D. Harvey Ned Kelly Award.

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Forgotten Garden by Sharon Gosling

Thanks to enjoying the blog tour for Sharon Gosling’s first novel, The House Beneath the Cliffs, she became an author I kept an eye on. I was on the look out for her next and The Lighthouse Bookshop confirmed for me that if I’m looking for an escapist read, she is one of my go-to authors. She seems to effortlessly blend a mix of sadness and heartache, secrets, warmth and potential romance into an engrossing read that’s so enjoyable. Our main character, Luisa McGregor, has allowed herself to become stuck. A life that once felt safe, secure and predictable is now starting to stifle Luisa and she needs more, a new challenge perhaps. Then into her lap falls great opportunity. Her friend Oliver presents a daunting, but tantalising proposition. Instead of carrying on as a gardening assistant to a woman she feels increasingly out of step with, she should check out an opportunity to build a whole new garden at a site near the Cumbrian coast. There’s a pot of money available to build a community garden on wasteland next to a gym and youth club. Luisa agrees to visit the site and is daunted by the amount of work needed, but also inspired by what could be achieved there. As we meet the people of this disadvantaged area of Collaton, we can see what a community garden could mean to these people. There’s teacher Cas, who is pouring all of his energy and spare time into the young people of the area. Harper is a teenager with a lot on her plate, but determined to find a way out of Collaton towards a different future. Can Luisa design a garden that brings both healing, inspiration and a stronger sense of community for the residents?

I did connect with Luisa and the position she has become stuck in. She has had to recover from the terrible trauma of losing her husband in an accident. She has dragged herself up from the darkest and most difficult days following her husband’s death, to a point where she feels she has rebuilt her life. She’s working in garden design, even if she doesn’t like her boss, she has a nice home and great support in her sister. Really though, she’s just treading water and terrified of stretching herself or reaching for something that she could lose. I loved the way the author shows Luisa coming alive again as she works on the new garden. She literally blooms alongside her plants and seems to gain something from working with others and passing on her skills. Without trying too hard, the garden draws in those who need it including a woman who’s been her husband’s carer since an accident paralysed him. He’s initially sceptical and annoyed that his wife’s attention has been captured by Luisa’s plans, but just a few hours a week gaining respite from her caring role has transformed her. It’s not long before he’s creating bespoke benches for the garden, adapting the way he uses his joinery skills to his disability. Harper is a character who really stands out, she’s a young girl brimming with potential, but struggling to escape the difficult circumstances of her life. She is the main caregiver for her younger brother, now that their mum has died and their father has escaped into the bottle. Harper has a skill for mechanics, engineering and invention. She spends her spare time either at the club with Cas or helping at the local garage where she’s doing up a battered old Mini that Cas has gifted to her. Harper’s story shows us how hard it can be for someone to escape where they live and their family circumstances. Her cousin Darren is out of prison and is back dealing drugs in the area again, Harper is devastated when he preys upon her younger brother, Max. Max is easily influenced, especially when it comes to friendships. He struggles to make friends and has been subjected to bullying, so when someone older and seemingly cool pays him attention it’s an easy conquest. Darren wants him as a drug runner or lookout, but Harper puts her foot down and offers herself up instead. I was on tenterhooks, knowing that this decision would have consequences in the future.

There are a few powerful scenes that really stand out. Max has a secret that he’s been working on in Harper’s absence, inspired by the garden and when it was unveiled I almost held my breath. I loved the idea for his garden and the description was so lush and vivid I could almost smell the vegetation and feel the warmth. I could imagine sitting there, early on a sunny morning and enjoying a coffee. I also kept thinking what an incredible wedding venue it would be. It’s clear as soon as Cas and Luisa meet that there is potential for romance, but I wondered if both of them were too hurt by their pasts to take the chance. I was sure it needed a catalyst and the author certainly gives us one. The scene where Darren’s thugs get into the garden was heartbreaking and heart-stopping. I could actually feel the fear of the volunteers and residents as Darren shows his true colours and the bad boy reputation he’s trying to create for himself in the community. However, the gang don’t expect to be challenged, with devastating results. I was rooting for Cas and Luisa, with their endeavours in the community and their potential romance too. I read to the end quickly, determined to see the garden succeed and whether Luisa would overcome her fear of love and inevitable loss. I took the book on holiday with me and it was an enjoyable and emotional read, with an ending that was truly satisfying. This is an author who understands that life has seasons and that women have an amazing capacity to accept life’s changes, as well as the resilience to reinvent themselves and start over again.

Published by Simon and Schuster UK 27th April 2023

Meet the Author

I’ve been writing since I was a teenager, which is now a distressingly long time ago! I started out as an entertainment journalist – actually, my earliest published work was as a reviewer of science fiction and fantasy books. I went on to become a staff writer and then an editor for print magazines, before beginning to write non-fiction making-of books tied in to film and television, such as The Art and Making of Penny Dreadful and Wonder Woman: The Art and Making of the Film. 

I now write both children’s and adult fiction – my first novel was called The Diamond Thief, a Victorian-set steampunk adventure book for the middle grade age group. That won the Redbridge Children’s prize in 2014, and I went on to write two more books in the series before moving on to other adventure books including The Golden Butterfly, which was nominated for the Carnegie Award in 2017, The House of Hidden Wonders, and a YA horror called FIR, which was shortlisted for the Lancashire Book of the Year Award in 2018. 

My debut adult novel was published by Simon & Schuster in August 2021. It was called The House Beneath the Cliffs and it was set in a very small coastal village in Scotland. The idea for it had lodged in my head years before. I have a love for unusual dwelling places and I came across a tiny house that completely captured my imagination. My adult fiction tends to centre on small communities – feel-good tales about how we find where we belong in life and what it means when we do. Although I have also published full-on adult horror stories, which are less about community and more about terror and mayhem…

I was born in Kent but now live in a very small house in an equally small village in northern Cumbria with my husband, who owns a bookshop in the nearby market town of Penrith.

Posted in Publisher Proof

Crossing Over by Ann Morgan


Edie is finding the world around her increasingly difficult to comprehend. Words are no longer at her beck and call, old friends won’t mind their own business and workmen have appeared in the neighbouring fields, preparing to obliterate the landscape she has known all her life. Rattling around in an old farmhouse on the cliffs, she’s beginning to run out of excuses to stop do-gooders from interfering when one day she finds an uninvited guest in the barn and is thrown back into the past.

Jonah has finally made it to England where everything, he’s been told, will be better. But the journey was fraught with danger and many of his fellow travellers didn’t make it. Sights set firmly on London, but unsure which way to turn, he is unprepared for what happens when he breaks into Edie’s barn.

Haunted by the prospect of being locked away and unable to trust anyone else, the elderly woman stubbornly battling dementia and the traumatised illegal immigrant find solace in an unlikely companionship that helps them make sense of their worlds even as they struggle to understand each other. Crossing Over is a delicately spun tale that celebrates compassion and considers the transcendent language of humanity.

My Review

My Review

As I started to read Crossing Over I was knocked backwards by how incredibly innovative the narration was, but also how incredibly brave. Edie’s inner world is fractured and of course we don’t know why or what’s going on at first. The author trusts her reader to carry on, to make sense of what’s happening and never underestimates us. We’re plunged headlong into Edie’s world and her desperate attempts to communicate her place in it. The timeless farmhouse she seems to have known all her life, the villagers and her routine of church or WI events all seem to be constants. What’s changing is Edie, as she drops backwards through time, forgets commitments and even visitors or why they are there. As we get to know her, the narrative works on two levels. We are with Edie in whatever time and circumstance her mind places her, but also with Edie as she becomes painfully aware that there’s a way she should be behaving, but even when she’s sure of the proper behaviour it’s often in the wrong context. She’s just on the edge of awareness most of the time, just about recognising from people’s response or facial expressions that she’s not quite hit the mark. Her brusqueness and artificial bonhomie only faintly cover the confusion and fear underneath. The chaos is brilliantly written, in jagged prose that contrasts the inner truth of how much Edie is struggling and the world’s response as it becomes more and more obvious that all is not okay. As Jonah comes into the narrative, also operating at fight or flight level, things become even more confused and complicated. Edie thinks he’s there to spy on her and he’s baffled by the way she communicates, her poor memory and her lapses into the past. Can they come to an understanding of each other and somehow help each other move forward?

This could have been one of those really sentimental novels, designed to be uplifting, but the author avoids that with these complex characters. Not everything about them is sympathetic, they are real and flawed. Edie isn’t a cosy little granny and through her time lapses we start to realise she has experienced traumatic events in her younger years. She has also made bad choices in life. There’s a deeply ingrained sense that there’s one correct way to be and her standards are slipping. Some of the muddled events are a strange mix of humorous and heartbreaking. The cake sale springs to mind, where she has lapsed back to being younger and wears an outfit that’s far too colourful and revealing for an elderly lady with varicose veins to cover. She then offers to keep track of the money and ends up making mistakes, as well as eating a whole batch of highly prized cakes. These types of escapades made me giggle and I loved the way she keeps her head high and won’t bow to their concerns or questions. Yet the fear and anxiety running underneath this forceful front made me feel for her, perhaps because I have a life limiting and degenerative illness I could understand her desperation to stay independent and deny what’s happening to her. Fear makes her angry and lash out, imagining the embarrassment of the vicar and other do-gooders if she let slip some of the secrets she holds about them. I could sense that the past held the clues to Edie’s character and I was waiting for something quite dark to be revealed.

Jonah also holds some dark secrets and memories deep inside, things he has experienced on the journey and from his life before. I read that the author had been very careful writing his character, with a great awareness of the sensitivities involved in writing a black character without that lived experience. She has used sensitivity readers and has revised the novel several times. Yet Jonah isn’t a stereotype or a cardboard cut-out, he has real depth. No one can go through what Jonah has and remain untouched and all credit to the author for not following an easier, and potentially more lucrative, redemption narrative. As a result this might not be to everyone’s taste, but I thoroughly enjoyed delving into two such complex and damaged characters and the disjointed way their stories are told. Have patience with it, get used to the complicated and unreliable narration and you will be rewarded with a rich and thoughtful read about people society increasingly sees as problems to solve, rather than human beings.

Thank you to Renard Press for my proof copy in exchange for an honest review.

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Walled Garden by Sarah Hardy

I found this historical fiction debut absolutely captivating from the beginning. It begins with Lord and Lady Rayne who live in the big house, Oakburne Hall, with just enough room to avoid each other as much as possible. In fact since he returned from the war, Stephen has slept in a small room in the servant’s quarters while Alice lays alone in their marital bed. She finds refuge in their garden, hoping that even in these dark post-war years some seeds of hope will grow.

‘Some secrets are too terrible to tell. And in 1946 Britain is a country where most keep silent. What you witnessed during the war, what you sanctioned, what you are still afraid of, is left unsaid. For those bitter years of conflict and separation you buoyed yourselves up on sentiment, crooning ‘We’ll Meet Again’. And we did meet again, thinks Alice Rayne, only to discover we have nothing to say to one another.‘

No one survives war unscathed and though bodies are healing, their psychological wounds run deep. Those who were left behind are just as scarred as those who left to fight. Stephen Rayne was once sweet and gentle and his wife Alice truly loved him. Yet he has returned a man that she doesn’t recognised. He is bitter and angry, destroyed emotionally by what he has seen and done, holding on to secrets Alice can only guess at. She is lonely and although she hates to admit it, she is increasingly afraid of the man her husband has become, Alice is struggling to put together the pieces of her marriage and save Oakbourne Hall from total collapse. After two lots of death duties, money is incredibly tight so she begins with the walled garden and, as it starts to bear fruit, she finds the seeds of a new and forbidden love being sown.

I had so much empathy for Alice and all women who longed for the man they loved to return, only to find their relief and joy cut short when a stranger came home in their place. I’ve read a lot of novels set post-WW1, but not many set after WW2, but the same social changes come up in 1946. People are struggling financially, at the big house two world wars have taken two heirs in quick succession and the family can’t afford to repair or develop the hall. The villagers are coping with grief, poverty and rationing, and still waiting for men who’ve not yet returned. Women have once again stepped into the breech and taken on men’s jobs, giving them even more freedom and an unwillingness to be pushed back into their traditional roles. In this village, it’s not only Stephen and Alice who are suffering and as they come up against other people’s trauma the results are profoundly moving. The social change is well explored through the character of the village GP, another changed man whose longing for social justice leads to arguments with his wife and children, not to mention Stephen. Clergyman George holds so much guilt, because his ill health meant he didn’t go to fight. How can he minister to these men who’ve been through so much, things he can’t even imagine? As Stephen isolates himself more from his wife, Alice finds solace restoring the walled garden and in talking to George with whom she strikes up a friendship. He is learning about gardens and she is learning about his love of classical music.

As the friendship between George and Alice deepens, she has to think about what she wants. She has loved Stephen for so long, but his angry and violent outbursts are scaring her. Can she love this new person? George listens and appreciates her opinions, in a way she hasn’t had for a long time. When she takes a break from Oakbourne and visits her sister in London, she meets with George in a pub where his beautiful singing voice is in demand at the piano. This interlude is like a time outside of reality, where all worries and cares are set aside. With the late hour and room for George to stay at her sister’s flat will emotion boil over? In all this time, George is struggling with his ministry and his feelings for Alice. When Stephen also confides in him he has a terrible choice to make, does he guide Stephen towards speaking to his wife and saving his marriage? On the other hand, he could advise him in a way that would benefit his feelings for Alice. It’s a terrible choice to have to make, even worse he knows that his lungs are deteriorating and if he doesn’t take up the GP’s offer of treatment abroad he has only months to live. Will he follow his heart or will he sacrifice his own feelings to minister to this couple as their spiritual guide?

This is such an emotional crescendo, especially since we’re also sent back into the war and Stephen’s time infiltrating the french resistance and helping them to fight against the Germans. There, he has to make a horrible choice in order to save someone from a worse fate. His choice haunts him, although in reality he is forced to act by his knowledge of the barbarity of the German soldiers. The Maquis hail him a hero and now want to give him an honour, setting off terrible flashbacks, insomnia and guilt. Even if he tells Alice everything, can their marriage recover? I was so involved with these characters, they were so incredibly real and full of complex emotions. I loved the walled garden as a symbol of hope for the future and Alice’s work there is an act of faith, planting her hope in a symbolic gesture to her marriage and the country as a whole. I think the most moving thing about the whole novel is that this is a war that my grandparents lived through. We are so used to seeing this generation as an example, even recently our actions through Covid and the current cost of living crisis are meant to resemble their grit and determination. I believe the famous David Cameron quote is ‘we’re all in it together’ evoking the stiff upper lip of this very generation. I think because of this nostalgic view on WW2 we forget that this generation had the same emotions and complicated relationships that we do now. This book stopped me from thinking of that generation as a whole and instead to think about individuals and what they went through, how it affected them and their families and the emotional turmoil wrought by couples being apart for years. It was the wartime sections of Andrea Levy’s Small Island that first made me think about these issues and this novel woke those thoughts up again, just in a more rural setting. No generation is better than any other when it comes to trauma, we are all human. This is a stunning debut from Sarah Hardy and I’d love to read her work again.

Meet the Author

Sarah Hardy has lived for the last 10 years on the Suffolk coast which is where her novel is set. Before that she lived in London, Dublin and the Hebrides. She has worked on national magazines and newspapers.

Posted in Paperback Publication, Publisher Proof

Yinka, Where Is Your Huzband? By Lizzie Damilola Blackburn

I have 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 seems to think she should be more aware of her Nigerian culture. 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.

Yinka is constantly receiving messages about the woman she should be, through her experiences, the constant badgering from her Mum, and from social media. The black women society deems beautiful have lighter skin in caramel tones, long and flowing Western hair, and are curvaceous. Yinka feels her skinny body, her J shape bottom and dark skin are not good enough. Even the messages she is receiving from her own family don’t help. Her Mum openly criticises her short Afro hair, it used to be so long and beautiful, how will she get a huzband if she doesn’t make an effort? Yinka has internalised these messages all her life – the lighter her skin, the rounder her bottom, the longer and more Western her hair, the more attractive she will be. She tries a wig for a date then is constantly terrified of the parting being off centre and when her date touches it she knows he has never dated a black woman before – black men know not to touch women’s hair. When she gets a weave and wears one of her friend Nana’s dresses, made from African fabric, her Mum radiates approval – see how pretty she is? My heart went out to her when she remembers her Dad saying to her that the moon is just as beautiful as the sunshine, that midnight has a beauty all of its own. Another problem is the comparisons her Aunties and her Mum make, between Yinka and her sister or her friends, creating division and resentment. Her mum’s constant praise of the beautiful light skinned Kemi, the little sister who has pipped Yinka to the post by getting married and now adding to the family with her new son Chinedu, makes Yinka resent her sister. They become more distant from each other and never talk about the way their mum behaves. Her cousin Ola even laughs when the older women badger Yinka and embarrass her, Ola is married with three children, but is she as happy as her aunties assume she is?

The two aspects of the book I related to so strongly were the culture around Pentecostal Christianity and the role of counselling. Yinka normally attends the Church of England, but her Mum and Aunties frequent the All Welcome Pentecostal church and this felt so familiar to me as I grew up in a New Life Pentecostal Church. I found the scenes with the church so humorous and true to life, especially the constant praying out loud, even at parties. It was a very hard church to grow up in and those teenage years onward when I was single I felt hounded by youth leaders telling me what I could and couldn’t do in a dating situation, that I should only date other Christians and then pushing me towards people I didn’t find remotely attractive. I had a ‘boyfriend’ at church when I was 12 and we only saw each other at youth group and church. It really was more of a friendship, but youth leaders treated it like a serious relationship and when I wanted to break up I was forced to pray about it in a group. The youth leader prayed that God would bring us back together in the future. I felt that single girls were treated with suspicion and that adults were just waiting to matchmake. I rebelled at 16 and walked away, because I felt judged and stifled. It was wonderful though, to read about these experiences and hear certain phrases like being ‘in the spirit’, the endless praying out loud, the sense of having elders to answer to, because it’s rare for someone to understand my experience. It’s even more rare to see it in fiction in a way that acknowledges its drawbacks, but also its benefits and the deep well of humour it provides.

Counselling is something that my church would have been very resistant to, but I am now a counsellor myself and I loved seeing how positively it was portrayed in the book. The use of writing as therapy is something I do with clients and I was moved by Yinka’s letter to her younger self, going back and undoing some of the negative judgements and ideals she had internalised. It was brilliant to see how it took Yinka deeper, into how imbalanced those parental injunctions had become once she lost her father. I wanted Yinka to realise she had two incredible role models to aspire to; her Aunty Blessing who is happy and fulfilled despite having no husband or children and her friend Nana who is simply not bothered with dating and is pouring her energies into building her fashion brand. I loved both of these women and how they really pull Yinka back from the brink, help her untangle the lies she’s told and work out what and where she really wants to be in life. It reminded me of the power of female friendship and how it is most often the women who will hold you up in life. I loved how Yinka’s changes through counselling rippled out to others around her too. Once she has started to talk there are relationships she can mend and maybe others that need some redefining and new boundaries set. Her realisations, about her Mum particularly, are interesting and Yinka’s bravery in trying to address how she has felt made me feel so proud of her. It showed how counselling doesnt just create change in one person, it can change the people around them too. I don’t know if Yinka will ever return, but she was a great character to spend time with and I’d definitely be first in the queue for more. This was a pleasure to read from beginning to end, full of strong female characters, emotionally aware and addressing some really tough issues in a humorous and ultimately uplifting way.

Meet The Author

Lizzie Damilola Blackburn is a British-Nigerian writer, born in Peckham, who wants to tell the stories that she and her friends have longed for but never seen – romcoms ‘where Cinderella is Black and no-one bats an eyelid’. In 2019 she won the Literary Consultancy Pen Factor Writing Competition with the early draft of Yinka, Where is your Huzband?, which she had been writing alongside juggling her job at Carers UK. She has been at the receiving end of the question in the title of her novel many times, and now lives with her husband in Milton Keynes.

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Space Between Us by Doug Johnstone.

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Alice Through the Looking Glass.

Normally, I’d say this is the most unusual book I’ve read in quite a while, but in fact it’s been a brilliant month for Orenda Books as both their March releases have been quirky, original and quietly brilliant. It’s no secret that I love Doug Johnstone’s Skelf series and it’s mix of philosophy, astronomy, family and crime. This stand alone novel has some of the same attributes and a whole lot more besides. One night a strange occurrence in the Scottish night sky brings together strangers Ava, Lennox and Heather. Several people see the strange light and sparks in the air and all have severe cerebral haemorrhagic strokes. These are the most rare type of strokes and usually they’re fatal. Ava, Lennox and Heather are the only people to wake up the next day completely unscathed. Each one has their problems: Heather had been wading into the water with stones in her pockets after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis but is saved by something in the water. Lennox is a lonely teenager, bouncing round children’s homes and is being set upon by bullies when he sees the lights in the sky and the stroke hits. Ava is pregnant and desperate to get away from husband Mike, a vile abuser obsessed with power and control. Meanwhile, on the beach lies a strange octopus or giant squid, sprawled on the sand and guarded by police. This cephalopod appeared as these unusual strokes happened and no one knows what to do with it. It’s not the usual octopus as it only has five tentacles and it has strange rippling colours under it’s surface. Police officer Nina is on the case and reporter Ewan is determined to find out the link between the creature and the three disparate people who band together to rescue the creature and have now gone on the run.

None of the three fugitives can understand why the extraterrestrial life form has chosen them. At first their link with Lennox seems most powerful. Despite his background of being let down by others, Lennox is very open to the creature and is the one to name them Sandy. He has even allowed them to form a telepathic connection by leaving a sort of organic hearing aid in his ear, turning them into ‘Lennox-Sandy-Partial’. It’s hard for Lennox to explain Sandy, he immediately uses ‘they’ as Sandy’s pronoun, not because of a dual gender but because they’re a dual person. Lennox thinks Sandy may be part of a larger whole or has a hive mind, one that can link with humans should they wish. For Lennox, being part of a larger whole must sound wonderful and grounding in a way he’s never experienced before.

‘It was weird, having spent his life in the care system, he didn’t have a fucking clue who he really was. The policy preventing you finding out about your birth parents out about your birth parents until you were eighteen was strict, and even then, the chaotic system of records meant you might never find out. Shit just got lost. So he’d drifted rudderless through his early life, with no sense of community or belonging anywhere.’

Ava is the next to connect with Sandy, mainly because she trusts him to tell her whether her unborn baby is okay. Ava is also alone in the sense that she alone knows the truth about her life with husband Michael. Ava was already running when she encountered Sandy, running from Michael and his attempts to destroy her. Michael is the archetypal abuser, who started out by separating her from friends and family then used techniques like gaslighting so she would question herself, even her own sanity. Then the physical and the sexual violence began. Even Ava’s mother has abandoned her, thinking Michael is a lovely man who simply has his wife’s best interests at heart. Ava wants to leave before her baby is born and her decision to flee with Sandy up to the north of Scotland is partly because she hopes Michael won’t find her there. These are the first people to meet Ava and accept her for who she is and they immediately believe her account about her marriage.

The last to connect with Sandy is Heather and that’s because she’s deliberately closed herself off to others. Heather has a terminal brain tumour, something she’s been keeping from everyone including her new friends. She has immediately taken on the role of Mum, looking after all of them and even preparing to deliver Ava’s baby. When they approach Heather’s ex-husband for help, the others are surprised, but Heather assures them he is one of life’s good guys. She is clearly genuinely pleased to see him. However, seeing him with a new wife and starting a family is particularly painful. A terrible tragedy forced this couple apart and seeing him brings it flooding back. Can Sandy approach her now, when she’s at her most vulnerable and what help can he offer? All three are fascinating characters and as a group they seem unbeatable. It’s their very connection that gives them strength. However, they are being pursued; by the police, the journalist called Ewan and a shadowy group of men in black who seem capable of anything if it gets them closer to Sandy.

As always Doug Johnstone is capable of taking several unusual, even improbable scenarios but writing about them in such a clever way you don’t question it. I never once stopped to think it seemed incredible. Similarly, our three main characters never pause or worry they’re doing the wrong thing. There’s one incidence where Lennox stops to question what’s happening:

‘There weren’t many Google hits for ‘telepathic octopus’. Shocker. Lennox looked up from his phone and stared at Sandy. He felt like a different person to the one who walked through the park two days ago. Now he was wanted for murder and kidnapping, sitting in a cheesy brown van with an old woman and a pregnant teacher, and getting psychic messages from a telepathic octopus.’

Usually a story like this would be set in a fantasy or dystopian future, but we’re definitely in the here and now. The settings are so ordinary. I could imagine pulling into a viewing point near Loch Ness and meeting Ava, Lennox and Heather when they’ve broken down and are waiting for a lift. Yet, within moments Lennox has been absorbed by Sandy and is diving through the water like a seal, breathing easily and feeling completely at home. These sequences are fantastical, stunningly beautiful and transcendent. He makes us want to be there experiencing it all. I think the key is that despite the strangeness of a tentacled cephalopod shivering with excitement at the thought of swimming in a loch we’re learning from Sandy. He’s showing us how to love life more, to find the wonder of things, to connect more, grow together and to experience everything:

“Suddenly his host shot upward towards one of the bigger cracks in the ice. A jet stream flowed from a volcano on the seabed, like a fountain through the sea to the opening in the ice. They joined it and shot through the ice shelf into space, surrounded by millions of particles of water and ice. He turned and looked at Saturn, huge and orange in the sky. He realised they were in one of the rings, they were the ring […] floating in space, swaying and drifting.”

As always with Doug’s writing there are literary and philosophical references throughout and I was delighted to find one of my favourite thoughts from Susan Sontag who wrote about illness and disability and their surrounding metaphors. Within the medical model of illness, particularly with cancer and other auto-immune illnesses, the metaphors of battle are commonly used as Heather points out:

“She hated the military terminology that people used around cancer: ‘She lost her brave battle with cancer.’ The cancer was part of you, you created it from nothing, so that language meant you were fighting yourself. Turning everything into a battlefield was a masculine, wrong-headed way of looking at things.”

She hates the assumption that if the cancer has spread or become terminal it’s because she is weak and hasn’t battled hard enough. Sometimes the words we choose are very important.

There are allusions to Alice Through the Looking Glass, to Virginia Woolf in Heather’s method of suicide – wading into water with stones in her pockets. There’s also a hint of Howard’s End in Sandy’s ability to connect with his fellow cephalopods and other species. It should make us rethink how we connect with one another. Howard’s End presents people of different classes who normally wouldn’t associate with each other, but people are really all the same. We should connect with all sorts of people in different age groups, abilities, religions and races. Here Lennox truly understands this:

‘It didn’t make sense to think of himself as Lennox anymore, he was a compound of a million things – bacteria in his gut, microscopic bugs in his hair, Xander’s body passing through his own, Sandy inside his neurons. It finally made physical sense, the idea that Sandy was plural. We all are. And the human idea of being singular, apart, alone, was a ridiculous and lonely way of looking at life.”

In fact what our different characters show us is how strong we can be, if we work together, especially characters with very different skills and personalities. Being part of a whole makes us stronger. Despite the danger and tension of their quest to reach Ullapool where everyone converges on the harbour, I found the ending so positive. Sandy asks us to rethink our lives, let others in and perhaps look at the world in a different way. Why do we think of our planet as ‘Earth’ when the largest proportion of our globe is ocean? We look at everything through the filter of our own class, education, experience and privilege. So, we should take time to view things through someone else’s filter. This was a fascinating, funny and uplifting literary journey that challenges us to move closer and reduce the space between us. In other words ‘only connect’.

Published 2nd March 2023 by Orenda Books

Doug Johnstone is the author of twelve novels, most recently The Great Silence, the third in the Skelfs series, which has been optioned for TV. In 2021,The Big Chill, the second in the series, was longlisted for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. In 2020, A Dark Matter, the first in the series, was shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year and the Capital Crime Amazon Publishing Independent Voice Book of the Year award. Black Hearts (Book four), will be published in 2022. Several of his books have been best sellers and award winners, and his work has been praised by the likes of Val McDermid, Irvine Welsh and Ian Rankin. He’s taught creative writing and been writer in residence at various institutions, and has been an arts journalist for twenty years. Doug is a songwriter and musician with five albums and three EPs released, and he plays drums for the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, a band of crime writers. He’s also player-manager of the Scotland Writers Football Club. He lives in Edinburgh.

Posted in Orenda, Publisher Proof

Beautiful Shining People by Michael Grothaus

I don’t tend to read a lot of science fiction and dystopian novels, often because I find them depressing and life is tough enough at the moment. I often I feel as if the author has become so carried away with world building that they forget the human element of their story. Almost like watching one of those films where the special effects are amazing, but the characters and their dialogue is an afterthought leaving me with an empty feeling. This book sounded intriguing though and once I started reading it I was completely blown away. This is science fiction with a heart and a lot to say about the human experience. Our narrator John is an awkward 17 year old, from a dysfunctional family and with deeply personal body issues. He also happens to be a coding genius, talented in quantum code and greatly in demand by tech companies. He is spending some time in Tokyo while signing a deal with Sony and comes across a small cafe that offers ear cleaning. Inside he finds a huge Japanese man working behind the counter, a quirky dog with a spherical head and his owner, a pretty and rather enigmatic young girl called Neotnia. This chance meeting develops into an incredible journey that will take them from the neon city of Tokyo, to the tragic past of Hiroshima and finally the beautiful mountains of Nagano.

Michael Grothaus also takes us on a journey of genre, starting the novel with a chilled travelogue style, interwoven with a tender story of first love, via body shame and finally becoming a dystopian thriller. The author knows how to build a world that feels dislocated and distant from us with just one simple sentence, such as the description of the night sky with three objects visible from earth. The moon’s light picks out the twin space stations being built by the world’s two superpowers; China and the USA. The author’s journalism background and research into the world of fake video production has helped in creating a believable and brilliant backdrop of warring superpowers in a daily information war. ‘Deep Fake’ videos are used to produce fake news, meaning people must question, not just everything they read, but everything they see. Warfare has become a barrage of misinformation and cyber attacks, at their worst disrupting every aspect of daily life. He also weaves in social issues that are already evident worldwide for us, such as the rapidly ageing population in Japan. People are now routinely living into their nineties, but need care for longer and there simply aren’t enough young people to pay for or provide the care needed. This is a world that’s ours, but not as we know it. I loved how I would be relaxing in a park, looking at a familiar landscape of trees and pagodas and then I’d be blindsided by a tourist information bot. When the group all go on a car journey I couldn’t work out who was driving; the answer was no one. Often I didn’t know where we were going next but I was so bewitched by his writing that I’d have followed him anywhere.

I loved the relationship that builds slowly between Neotnia and John. She has a quiet, calming manner that seems to soothe him and a caring nature that John has never really experienced before. They seem to connect on a deep level very quickly, but there are people around her who are very protective. Goeido is a disgraced sumo wrestler and owns the cafe where Neotnia both lives and works. He doesn’t speak much, but John is aware of his concern because of the barely concealed scowling and head shaking. Neotnia takes John to a nursing home where she volunteers, to meet an elderly American man she has a friendship with. John enjoys meeting him, but also gets a feeling this meeting was some sort of test. Why are these men so protective of her? His relationship with Goeido only improves when they drink sake together and next morning John wakes up still in the booth where they had dinner. They seem to have connected, but John is very confused by a disturbing dream involving a bath and a toaster! Despite this John and Neotnia’s relationship does deepen and I was so drawn into their tender love story. There is something they’re both hiding and strangely it’s the biggest thing they have in common. Then comes the massive twist that I really didn’t see coming. The clues are there but the idea is so fantastical it’s quickly dismissed.

The beautiful backdrop of Japan really brought the place alive for me and made me think deeply about some aspects of it’s history. The city of Tokyo is wonderfully varied with it’s neon signs, bubblegum fashions, restful gardens and kamii shrines dotted everywhere. I learned more about Japanese belief systems, the differences between Buddhism and those who believe in kamii. The history around Hiroshima was so devastating, as was the knowledge that any advance in science seems to be harnessed for the purposes of war. The full impact of the bomb on the population of Hiroshima was devastating as the author tells us about those damaged by the blast, but left with terrible injuries. That complete change of abilities, identity and living standards could be seen as a more terrible end than those at the bomb’s epicentre who were simply vaporised. I loved how philosophies of life were discussed too. In conversation with Neotnia, John explains that her age group’s concerns and anxieties about the space stations and cyber attacks haven’t affected younger generations because they’ve never known anything different. This is probably something we’ve all experienced and it’s interesting to think that a small child now will grow up with the cost of living, climate change and hybrid vehicles as their norm. Whereas someone like me who has lived half their life really feels the changes and is more likely to find them unsettling. I found the end so emotional and I was moved by John’s thought that the common thread of humanity is suffering. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot, both in my personal life and in my therapy work. My brother says that I think everyone needs counselling, because I’m a therapist. I always reply that everybody needs counselling at some point in their life. Yet, John’s experience makes him rethink his original statement and this took me from heartbreak to a glimpse of hope. This is a beautifully written story that’s definitely science fiction, but is also a deeply felt love story about difference and human connection. If this isn’t your usual genre, please give it a go. I’m so glad that I did.

Published by Orenda 16th March 2023.

Meet The Author

Michael Grothaus is a novelist, journalist and author of non-fiction. His writing has appeared in Fast Company, VICE, Guardian, Litro Magazine, Irish Times, Screen, Quartz and others. His debut novel, Epiphany Jones, a story about sex trafficking among the Hollywood elite, was longlisted for the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger and named one of the 25 ‘Most Irresistible Hollywood Novels’ by Entertainment Weekly. His first non-fiction book, Trust No One: Inside the World of Deepfakes was published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2021. The book examines the human impact that artificially generated video will have on individuals and society in the years to come. Michael is American..

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Venice Secret by Anita Chapman.

I’m sure amongst those who travel a lot, saying that Venice is your favourite travel destination is a bit of a cliché. I’d first wanted to go aged around ten years old, when I first read the children’s book What Katy Did Next. This third book in the Katy series followed the eponymous heroine as she travelled Europe as companion to a woman and her little girl and is lucky enough to be in Venice for Carnival. I first travelled there with my mum as a fortieth birthday celebration and we both fell completely in love. A couple of years later I visited again, this time with my best friend and enjoyed exploring more of the city, beyond the usual tourist sites. Mainly I enjoyed wandering the labyrinthine streets, taking photographs and soaking up the atmosphere. It has a magic that’s part romance and part mystical, with an edgy gothic darkness that can easily unnerve you – especially when the fog comes down, you’ve lost your way and keep finding lonely dead ends. There’s a little maze behind Teatro La Fenice where you can spend untold hours, wondering if you’re stuck in a time loop. It is one of those places where I wouldn’t have been surprised to turn a corner and find myself back in the 18th Century. So it seemed fitting to me that Venice is a backdrop to Anita Chapman’s debut, a dual timeline story with two narrators; firstly in 2019 with Rachel, then back to the late 18th Century with Phillipa. Both women are going through a period of upheaval and change, another uncanny similarity to fit a city that seems to be a ‘thin place’: a city without the normal barriers of space and time.

In the present we meet Rachel who is helping to sort through her grandmother’s belongings while temporarily living in her cottage. She will soon have to make a decision, to share a home with her mother and her horrible new partner, or become homeless. Rachel is feeling a bit lost and displaced, so needs a project to get her teeth into. She certainly gets more than she bargained for! She discovers what appears to be a Canaletto painting in her grandmother’s loft along with a note addressed to Philippa in 1782. With help from Jake at the local art gallery, Rachel endeavours to find out if the painting is an original and uncovers a secret from the past. The painting depicts a view of St Mark’s Square towards the Basilica from one of the south corners of the piazza. It seems to have some provenance and Rachel sets out to discover who painted it and whether it’s really as old as it’s style suggests. It purports to be a Canaletto, but can it really be genuine and if so, what is it doing in her grandmother’s attic? If it is the real deal, it could be the link between Rachel and our 18th Century narrator, Philippa. Phillipa has gone through a huge change in circumstances, following the death of her father who was a preacher. He has left behind a family struggling to make ends meet and Phillipa feels weighed down by responsibility for them. So she takes the decision to become a governess, leaving her family behind in order to earn enough money to keep them. She manages to get a position at the prestigious Chipford Hall, the family seat of the Duke of Oxon, who has two little girls. Yet, it isn’t long before Phillipa is forced on the move again but this time she’s asked to accompany a family friend, Lady Cordelia, on a trip to Venice, researching her latest novel. It was Phillipa’s part of the story that really engaged me as I felt a real kinship with her. She is quite a level-headed and sensible young woman, prepared to take on her father’s responsibilities. There was common sense, but also a deep kindness in her – she’s willing to give up any dreams of her own to keep the family going.

While I enjoyed aspects of Rachel’s story, I didn’t feel she was as strong and her character didn’t quite grab me in the same way Phillipa did. Rachel’s difficulties often seemed to come from her own choices, but I did feel sorry for her. Nevertheless, her sections do hold the story together well and the history of the painting she finds is fascinating and very well researched too. The author has the skill of bringing the historical aspects of the story to life, full of vivid details and characters. For someone who loves Venice, those sections of the story were particularly enjoyable, taking me back to those tiny streets and romantic canals, triggering some incredible memories along the way. I was also interested in the way the author used the figure of the governess, which ever since Jane Eyre has provided rich material for the writer of historical fiction. Governesses are in a position within the house as neither servant nor master, she is rather unique and potentially dangerous. She has access to the centre of the home, working upstairs with the children and often living with the family, rather than in the servant’s quarters. This position allowed the author to really open up the 18th Century for us, particularly in terms of society and it’s hierarchies. The pace is slower at first, but soon speeds up as the clues start to be revealed and we each time we get a bit closer to the truth and the link with Phillipa. We also come closer to the resolution of each woman’s inner journey. Would Phillipa’s be able to construct better boundaries and gain some wisdom in discerning someone’s character before trusting them? Would Rachel learn to stand on her own feet more, despite the difficulties in her background? I loved how we could see the changes in women’s lives since the 18th Century and how we were less at the mercy of the men in our lives, some of whom seemed perfectly happy to sacrifice a woman if it brought them closer to the power they sought. Each part of the story was woven together beautifully towards a satisfying conclusion, ensuring that I’ll be be looking forward to whatever Anita Chapman writes next.

Meet The Author

Anita Chapman enjoyed writing stories from a young age, and won a local writing competition when she was nine years old. Encouraged by this, she typed up a series of stories about a mouse on her mum’s typewriter and sent them to Ladybird. She received a polite rejection letter, her first.

Many of Anita’s summers growing up were spent with her family driving to Italy, and she went on to study French and Italian at university. As part of her degree, Anita lived in Siena for several months where she studied and au paired, and she spent a lot of time travelling around Italy in her twenties.

Anita likes to read journals and diaries from the past, and one of her favourite pastimes is visiting art galleries and country houses. Her first published novel, The Venice Secret is inspired by her mother taking her to see the Canalettos at The National Gallery in London as a child.

Since 2015, Anita has worked as a social media manager, training authors on social media, and helping to promote their books. She’s run several courses in London and York, and has worked as a tutor at Richmond and Hillcroft Adult Community College.