I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of romantic novels on the whole, not as a genre anyway. However, I’m also that annoying person who writes outside the boxes on forms, resists the Census and ticks ‘rather not say’ if there’s an option to do so. My objection is to categories and putting things in boxes. I don’t object to a love story, in fact some of my favourite books are love stories. It’s just I don’t like it when love stories are packaged as romantic fiction or women’s fiction, given candy pink or baby blue covers, and characters who have little depth or motivation beyond the ‘meet cute’. I understand that, since Shakespeare, there’s been a set formula to the love story, but this can be taken to extremes. I actively hate simple love stories with manufactured obstacles and I definitely hated Fifty Shades of Grey (which was in no way a love story, but marketed as one). Perhaps my problem isn’t with love, but with romance; a much more contrived hearts, flowers and happy endings sort of place.
I like real obstacles: the terrible coincidence in Rosie Walsh’s The Man Who Didn’t Call; the limits posed by Will’s attitude to his disability in Me Before You; the mad wife in the attic in Jane Eyre; the girlish mistake of refusing a proposal in Persuasion. My favourite romcom is When Harry Met Sally so I do enjoy a ‘friends to lovers’ scenario, but it’s also witty with snappy dialogue and Billy Crystal making a woman miaow in bed. I love stories that are based within a historical or time-slip setting like the Outlander series of novels by Diana Gabaldon. I also like it when characters are so real it’s painful like Sally Rooney’s awkward teenage fumbling in Ordinary People. The characters must have depth, genuine problems or some meaty psychological issues to get my teeth into. I enjoy love stories set in other cultures or those that could be written as forbidden. I loved the viewpoint of a man coming to terms with his homosexuality in A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale and the transgressive love affair of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I enjoyed how love blossomed from a marriage of convenience during the Windrush era in Andrea Levy’s Small Island. I also loved the bittersweet tale of love gone wrong in David Nicholls’s other novel Us where our protagonist’s marriage breakdown comes into focus on a trip through Europe, interspersed beautifully with scenes from when they fall in love.
Several years ago, like thousands of others, I was blindsided by One Day. There was a time when you couldn’t move on public transport without knocking into someone reading this book. It’s a simple premise. Dexter and Emma were at Edinburgh University and as they graduate they spend the day together and forge a friendship, they climb Arthur’s Seat in their cap and gowns and talk about what they want for their futures. Dex would like to work in television and Emma would like to be a writer. The book then follows their story on the same day each year, sometimes together and sometimes apart, we see how life has changed them and the circumstances they find themselves in. Of course we know that Emma and Dex should be together, but will they ever find the right time or the courage to try?
I’ll be honest, at first I didn’t feel ‘grabbed’ by their story. My interest was mainly in their individual lives, especially considering that the book is set so that they’re both a similar age to me. I recognised the era, the reference points and also the struggles of life as they go through them. I thought Dex was a bit of a dick to be honest. He’s a player, egotistical and at times downright unpleasant. I really bonded with Emma though. A northern girl, she has a brand of kindness and an ability to see through bullshit that I liked. I saw some of me in her and I have always wanted to be a writer, but also went into teacher training (and didn’t finish). She clearly loves Dex, but will he ever see her? Mostly he sees her as a consolation prize, a shoulder to cry on, an advice giver and sometimes the great big kick up the arse he deserves. I can honestly say I hoped they never got together at several points in the book, because I didn’t think he deserved her. There’s a point where Emma has gone through a really tough time. She breaks off her engagement and goes through moving out and separating from her fiancé emotionally and financially. She goes out to Paris for a while and starts to write a children’s book. She has her hair cut short. She makes friends. I loved this Emma and I thought she’s built a new life from the ground up with no help from anyone. I wanted her to stay there.
As I know all too well, our love lives never simple. Often, where the decisions to be together seem very easy to make, it’s the right person. It’s reciprocal and committed. When we’re younger we’re learning about who we are in a relationship. We don’t know how much to compromise and how much to stick firmly to who we are or what we want for ourselves. We can get tangled up in relationships that are no good for us, are abusive, are with people who cheat, or people who put up obstacles and change their minds. We love people who aren’t ready, or who are too busy adding notches to the bed post. We can be so unsure of ourselves in our teenage years (and beyond) that we accept relationships that aren’t good for us and allow behaviour that’s demeaning or grinds down our self-worth. It’s also hard to love someone who doesn’t love you or who claims they can’t be with you. That great line from Sex and the City springs to mind – ‘he’s just not that into you’ – because when they are into you, they move mountains to be there. I felt that Dex was scared of real love and preferred empty encounters with beautiful women. Emma doesn’t value herself enough to set boundaries or ask for the love she deserves.
Everybody who knows the book will know the line I’m talking about. That one line I read and spontaneously burst into tears. That rarely happens with a book, but it did here. That’s when I knew this book had got me. My emotions were so invested in these characters that I had such a spontaneous response. I’m not sure how David Nicholls managed it, but I’ve spoken to other people who were similarly emotional. I think it’s the way he writes these two characters, they’re real and flawed. They struggle with life. We go through so many highs and lows with them, because even though we meet up with them on one day, we’re drawn in to how they got where they are. They’re not perfect either, far from it. Nichols weaves in addiction problems, affairs, career disasters and the difficulties of being a parent. There’s also huge loss to, and how the characters deal with these setbacks. One Day is a love story. Love is the primary theme of the novel. However, it’s also about being honest with ourself and others about our feelings and about recognising what love actually is. Perhaps I love One Day because it does go beyond the ‘falling in love’ stage, that even after years of yearning and kidding themselves about their feelings, Emma and Dex can still wake up one morning unnecessarily grumpy and tense with one another. Life is full of obstacles and love doesn’t stop them coming. Love isn’t always excitement, flinging your clothes off and swinging from chandeliers. Real love is always about being with your best friend.
Meet The Author
David Alan Nicholls (born 30 November 1966) is an English novelist and screenwriter. Nicholls is the middle of three siblings. He attended Barton Peveril sixth-form college at Eastleigh, Hampshire, from 1983 to 1985 (taking A-levels in Drama and Theatre Studies along with English, Physics and Biology), and playing a wide range of roles in college drama productions. Colin Firth was at the same College and they later collaborated in And When Did You Last See Your Father?. He went to Bristol University in the 1980s (graduating with a BA in Drama and English in 1988) before training as an actor at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York. Throughout his 20s, he worked as a professional actor using the stage name David Holdaway. He played small roles at various theatres, including the West Yorkshire Playhouse and, for a three-year period, at the Royal National Theatre. He struggled as an actor and has said “I’d committed myself to a profession for which I lacked not just talent and charisma, but the most basic of skills. Moving, standing still – things like that.”
Since then, David has turned to writing full-time, and is the author of four novels. ‘One Day’ was an international bestseller and the follow-up, ‘Us’, was long listed for the Man Booker Prize. He’s also a screenwriter and TV dramatist; his credits include adaptations of ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’, ‘Great Expectations’, ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ and feature film version of his own novels. ‘One Day’ and ‘Starter for Ten
This is an interesting book, focused on the later years of Henri Matisse and those who cared for him. This was the period where Matisse was creating his famous ‘cut out’ works, works that are linked inextricably to the body that’s failing the artist and the structure of this novel. I visited Tate Modern for the Matisse exhibition a few years ago, and because I’ve studied disability theory and life writing I could see that these cut out pieces were a metaphor for a body that was failing, piece by piece. By taking a whole piece of paper, cutting out these shapes, and rearranging them to make a piece of art, I felt the artist was trying to communicate what it is like to have all the pieces, but no longer in the order that makes up a whole. When we become sick or disabled our body doesn’t work as a cohesive whole any more. The pieces are different, rearranged and not necessarily working together harmoniously anymore. In my writing therapy groups, often for people with disabilities, I encouraged journal work that experimented with structure. I wanted to encourage writing that was the embodiment of the writer’s illness or disability. The writing produced is often fragmentary, moving between long lyrical sentences and short, snappy statements. In my own work there are gaps where I don’t have the language to express how my multiple sclerosis feels or how my emotions process the change from day to day. Often fragmentary paragraphs don’t seem related at all – representing the nerve damage that occurs in this disease, preventing the signals that keep a body coherent and working in harmony with itself. As a group we talk to our illness, we give it a name and a body of its own, then chat to it and record what comes back.
I believe all of this is what Matisse was representing within a cut out piece and I’m sure that Michèle Roberts is doing something equally clever in the structure of this novel, that can seem a bit bewildering at first. Sentences are very free form, there are fragments from different unnamed characters, there is speech without punctuation and time differences that are not obvious straight away. Might this lack of structure alienate some readers? Quite possibly, but I don’t think Roberts is thinking about clarity, she’s making a work of art. The best thing to do is just go with it and let the writing flow over you, until the meaning becomes clearer. Sometimes, when we visit a gallery, we need time to engage with some pieces. We simply have to stop and look for a while with no expectations. In the same way, I did find myself having to go back and reread sections of this book, so it isn’t a quick read, and it won’t be for everyone.
In his final years, Matisse is living at the Hotel Regina in Nice, where he has a studio and is making his famous cut outs with the assistance of Lydia (Delectorskaya ). Eventually he cannot get out of bed and needs nursing care, for day to day living. One is named Monique and one voice of the novel is Clémence, a friend of another of his nurses. There’s also Clémence’s friend Camille, who is pregnant to another artist. In a later time we meet Denis, a man in his sixties who was adopted when he was a baby by friends of Clémence. Denis is attracted to a man called Maurice who he allows to sublet his flat while he’s away in Paris trying to uncover the secrets of his birth. All of these character’s stories come in ‘cut outs’ and the reader has to make sense of it. What we do get is an incredible sense of place, from Roberts’s long, lyrical and descriptive passages. We move from character’s memories, back in time to the actual events. The past explains the present day in parts, but not in others. While I didn’t feel I was fully engaged with the story, I did love the sensual descriptions of art and food, and my senses were fully engaged with these parts, The ending, when it came, was sudden and rather abrupt. It felt jarring after such a slow, meandering narrative. However it was a book that left me thinking and that’s never a bad thing.
Published by Sandstone Press 12th August 2021.
Meet The Author
Michèle Roberts is the author of fourteen critically acclaimed novels, including Daughters of the House, which won the WHSmith Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and, most recently Ignorance, which was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2013 and the Impac Award. Her memoir Paper Houses was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week.
As I go through other blogger’s fantastic end of year book lists, it strikes me how many brilliant books I haven’t had time to read. That’s not because I’m one of life’s busy people – I don’t work, the girls are only with us part-time, I’m still semi-shielding, and I have a carer/cleaner – I’m hardly plagued with Virginia Woolf’s worries and yes, I do have a room of my own. I could be reading more, but mainly I could be making better choices. The problem is I become distracted. I’m distracted by the same things a lot of other book bloggers are: should I be on Tik-Tok? Should I be chasing this year’s hottest release? Do I have enough Twitter followers? Is a photograph better than a review? How do I stay relevant? Is anyone even reading this? It’s so easy to spend half your day on Twitter or Instagram looking at other people’s beautiful and creative content and thinking ‘should I be doing that too?’
The only answer is to do what you love. I’m never going to be a major book influencer with followers in the millions, merchandise and a whole new income stream. So I have to think, what is it I enjoy about book blogging? Well, I love the Book Twitter community, the bloggers, blog tour organisers, the publishing assistants and other writers. By talking to writers over the last few years I’ve had so much encouragement and advice about my own writing, that I could see myself actually finishing my own book. People have been generous and kind with their time and their tips on how to be a book blogger. I love reading, discovering new authors and broadening my reading choices. I love writing about characters, their stories, their psychology and really championing those books that make my heart sing. I can do all of these things without putting myself under pressure, without chasing every new book, without joining every blog tour or buying every special edition. I can do this without pressuring or challenging myself even more than last year.
That’s not to say I don’t appreciate those who take stunning Insta photos, or know a flat lay from a stack, because I do. Some people are absolute artists! I also admire those who worked hard to remain up to date and relevant, but it’s not always me. It takes me a long time to understand and adopt new apps and methods of getting the book love across. So in short, I’m going to worry less and read more of the books I already have. Stress less and enjoy this more. I’m going to spend more time writing my own work, putting new books into our village book exchange, and reaching to the back of the shelf for those books I didn’t get to this year. I’m going to write about those back of the shelf books and celebrate what I have as much as the new. I can’t believe I haven’t yet read The Appeal by Janice Hallet or Still Life by Sarah Winman, but they are both tucked away on the shelf. I’m going to look forward to those books I’ve highlighted for 2022, but not worry if I don’t get to them all. I’m also including my NetGalley shelf in this, which I’m afraid to say, is cluttered with forgotten gems and new books due to be published as far away as next summer!
It’s easy to forget why we do this. I need to remember those reasons, to simply enjoy being part of this great book community. To relax and celebrate the journey, rather than stress and strain towards an unknown goal. Here’s wishing you all a deliciously bookish 2022 and I look forward to chatting and sharing with you all this coming year. ❤️📚
This is the penultimate list of books I’m looking forward to in 2022. This is by no means an exhaustive list because even as I’m writing publicists are posting new reads on social media and NetGalley shelves are groaning with possibilities. Making life even more difficult I’ve injured my wrist and I’m struggling to spend any time writing, with at least half the day now spent in a wrist splint. So this final post has taken days, but I hope it whets your appetite for more books in the coming year.
The Physician’s Daughter by Martha Conway.
A compelling novel of female perseverance and the role of women in society set in the aftermath of the American Civil War. For readers of Tracey Chevalier and The Second Mrs Thistlewood
In a world made for men, can one pioneering woman break freefrom tradition and walk a new path?
It is 1865, the American Civil War has just ended, and 18-year old Vita Tenney is determined to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a country doctor like her father. But when her father tells her she must get married instead, Vita explores every means of escape – and finds one in the person of war veteran Jacob Culhane. Damaged by what he’s seen in battle and with all his family gone, Jacob is seeking investors for a fledgling business. Then he meets Vita – and together they hatch a plan that should satisfy both their desires. Months later, Vita seemingly has everything she ever wanted. But alone in a big city and haunted by the mistakes of her past, she wonders if the life she always thought she wanted was too good to be true. When love starts to compete with ambition, what will come out on top? I’ve just taken part in the cover reveal for this fascinating book and I have everything crossed for a review copy!
Published by Zaffre 3rd March 2022
Ghost Lover by Lisa Taddeo.
Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women was an incredible success and this is something new from this talented writer. Ghost Lover is an electrifying collection of masterful and fearless short stories.
Behind anonymous screens, an army of cool and beautiful girls manage the dating service Ghost Lover, a forwarding system for text messages that promises to spare you the anguish of trying to stay composed while communicating with your crush. At a star-studded political fundraiser in a Los Angeles mansion, a trio of women compete to win the heart of the slick guest of honor. An inseparable pair of hard-partying friends crash into life’s responsibilities, but the magic of their glory days comes alive again at the moment they least expect it. In these nine riveting stories, two of which have been awarded the Pushcart Prize, Lisa Taddeo brings to life the fever of obsession, the blindness of love, and the mania of grief. Featuring Taddeo’s arresting prose that continues to thrill her legions of fans, Ghost Lover dares you to look away.
Published by Simon and Schuster U.K/ Avid Reader Press 14th June 2022.
Something Wicked by Laura Purcell.
From the Sunday Times bestselling author comes a gripping tale of obsession, superstition and ambition, set against the atmospheric backdrop of Victorian London. Be careful what you wish for… it may just come true.
By the pricking of my thumbs…
At The Mercury Theatre in London’s West End, rumours are circulating of a curse. It is said that the lead actress Lilith has made a pact with Melpomene, the tragic muse of Greek mythology, to become the greatest actress to ever grace the stage. Suspicious of Lilith, the jealous wife of the theatre owner sends dresser Jenny to spy on her, and desperate for the money to help her family, Jenny agrees. What Jenny finds is a woman as astonishing in her performance as she is provocative in nature. On stage, it’s as though Lilith is possessed by the characters she plays, yet off stage she is as tragic as the Muse who inspires her, and Jenny, sorry for her, befriends the troubled actress. But when strange events begin to take place around the theatre, Jenny wonders if the rumours are true, and fears that when the Muse comes calling for payment, the cost will be too high. …Something Wicked this way comes. I love Purcell’s work, it has that perfect mix of historical setting and gothic storyline. This one sounds amazing and I’ll be haunting NetGalley for an ARC next year.
Published Raven Books 22nd Aug 2022.
A Tidy Ending by Joanne Cannon.
A NICE, NORMAL HOUSE
Linda has lived around here ever since she fled the dark events of her childhood in Wales. Now she sits in her kitchen, wondering if this is all there is – pushing the Hoover round and cooking fish fingers for tea is a far cry from the glamorous lifestyle she sees in the glossy catalogues coming through the door for the house’s previous occupant.
A NICE, NORMAL HUSBAND
Terry isn’t perfect – he picks his teeth, tracks dirt through the house and spends most of his time in front of the TV. But that seems fairly standard – until he starts keeping odd hours at work, at around the same time young women start to go missing in the neighbourhood.
A NICE, NORMAL LIFE…
If Linda could just track down Rebecca, who lived in the house before them, maybe some of that perfection would rub off on her. But the grass isn’t always greener: you can’t change who you really are, and there’s something nasty lurking behind the net curtains on Cavendish Avenue… I love Joanna Cannon’s writing so I’m really looking forward to this and I expect to be reading it soon.
Published by The Borough Press 28th April 2022.
Idol by Louise O’Neill.
This novel has great early reviews from Marian Keyes and Sarah Perry and came to my notice because I read her powerful novel After the Silence last year. I love the premise of this, the idea of memory being subjective and whose version of events is the truth in this confessional society. We may take the advice ‘Follow your heart and speak your truth’, but are we prepared to hear other people’s truth about us? For Samantha Miller’s young fans – her ‘girls’ – she’s everything they want to be. She’s an oracle, telling them how to live their lives, how to be happy, how to find and honour their ‘truth’. And her career is booming: she’s just hit three million followers, her new book Chaste has gone straight to the top of the bestseller lists and she’s appearing at sell-out events. Determined to speak her truth and bare all to her adoring fans, she’s written an essay about her sexual awakening as a teenager, with her female best friend, Lisa. She’s never told a soul but now she’s telling the world. The essay goes viral. But then – years since they last spoke – Lisa gets in touch to say that she doesn’t remember it that way at all. Her memory of that night is far darker. It’s Sam’s word against Lisa’s – so who gets to tell the story? Whose ‘truth’ is really a lie?
‘You put yourself on that pedestal, Samantha. You only have yourself to blame.’
Riveting, compulsive and bold, IDOL interrogates our relationship with our heroes and explores the world of online influencers, asking how well we can ever really know those whose carefully curated profiles we follow online. And it asks us to consider how two memories of the same event can differ, and how effortlessly we choose which stories to believe.
Published by Bantam Press 12th May 2022.
The Maid by Nita Prose.
I can’t tell you how much I love this novel! It’s an incredible debut from the author with an absolutely compelling narrator.
I am your maid. I know about your secrets. Your dirty laundry. But what do you know about me?
Molly the maid is all alone in the world. A nobody. She’s used to being invisible in her job at the Regency Grand Hotel, plumping pillows and wiping away the grime, dust and secrets of the guests passing through. She’s just a maid – why should anyone take notice? But Molly is thrown into the spotlight when she discovers an infamous guest, Mr Black, very dead in his bed. This isn’t a mess that can be easily cleaned up. And as Molly becomes embroiled in the hunt for the truth, following the clues whispering in the hallways of the Regency Grand, she discovers a power she never knew was there. She’s just a maid – but what can she see that others overlook?Escapist, charming and introducing a truly original heroine, The Maid is a story about how everyone deserves to be seen. And how the truth isn’t always black and white – it’s found in the dirtier, grey areas in between. This was one of those novels you can’t put down and I stayed up late to finish it. I can see this being one of my favourite books of the year.
Published by Harper Collins 20th Jan 2022.
Theatre of Marvels by Lianne Dillsworth.
I tend to gravitate towards any book that has a sniff of the circus, theatre or magic, so this caught my eye months ago and I love this beautiful cover. Unruly crowds descend on Crillick’s Variety Theatre. Young actress, Zillah, is headlining tonight. An orphan from the slums of St Giles, her rise to stardom is her ticket out – to be gawped and gazed at is a price she’s willing to pay.Rising up the echelons of society is everything Zillah has ever dreamed of. But when a new stage act disappears, Zillah is haunted by a feeling that something is amiss. Is the woman in danger?Her pursuit of the truth takes her into the underbelly of the city – from gas-lit streets to the sumptuous parlours of Mayfair – as she seeks the help of notorious criminals from her past and finds herself torn between two powerful admirers. Caught in a labyrinth of dangerous truths, will Zillah face ruin – or will she be the maker of her fate?
A deliciously immersive tale, Theatre of Marvels whisks you on an unforgettable journey across Victorian London in this bold exploration of gothic spectacle.
Published by Penguin 28th April 2022.
Devotion by Hannah Kent.
Hannah Kent’s novel Burial Rites was incredible and since then she’s been one of those authors whose books I would buy without reading a review or recommendation first. So this is already on pre-order and I snagged it on NetGalley too.
1836, Prussia. Hanne is nearly fifteen and the domestic world of womanhood is quickly closing in on her. A child of nature, she yearns instead for the rush of the river, the wind dancing around her. Hanne finds little comfort in the local girls and friendship doesn’t come easily, until she meets Thea and she finds in her a kindred spirit and finally, acceptance. Hanne’s family are Old Lutherans, and in her small village hushed worship is done secretly – this is a community under threat. But when they are granted safe passage to Australia, the community rejoices: at last a place they can pray without fear, a permanent home. Freedom. It’s a promise of freedom that will have devastating consequences for Hanne and Thea, but, on that long and brutal journey, their bond proves too strong for even nature to break . . .
From the bestselling author of Burial Rites and The Good People, Devotion is a stunning story of girlhood and friendship, faith and suspicion, and the impossible lengths we go to for the ones we love.
Published by Picador 3rd Feb 2022.
The Marsh House by Zoe Somerville.
Zoe Somerville’s last novel The Night of the Flood was extraordinary and very highly regarded by my fellow bloggers and particularly my fellow ‘Squadettes’ whose opinion I value most. I love her mix of historical detail, complex relationships and the tense thriller aspect to the story. Part ghost story, part novel of suspense The Marsh House is the haunting second novel from the author of The Night of the Floodwhere two women, separated by decades, are drawn together by one, mysterious house on the North Norfolk coast.
December, 1962. Desperate to create a happy Christmas for her young daughter, Franny, after a disastrous year, Malorie rents a remote house on the Norfolk coast. But once there, the strained silence between them feels louder than ever. As Malorie digs for decorations in the attic, she comes across the notebooks of the teenaged Rosemary, who lived in the house thirty years before. Trapped inside by a blizzard, and with long days and nights ahead of her, Malorie begins to read. Though she knows she needs to focus on the present, she finds herself inexorably drawn into the past…
July, 1931. Rosemary lives in the Marsh House with her austere father, surrounded by unspoken truths and rumours. So when the glamorous Lafferty family move to the village, she succumbs easily to their charm. Dazzled by the beautiful Hilda and her dashing brother, Franklin, Rosemary fails to see the danger that lurks beneath their bright façades… As Malorie reads Rosemary’s diary, past and present begin to merge in this moving story of mothers and daughters, family obligation and deeply buried secrets.
Published by Apollo 3rd March 2022.
The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett.
This author had a smash hit on her hands in 2021 with The Appeal. It was one of those books that, for some strange reason, I didn’t get time to read. I think I missed the blog tour and then got caught up with so many other books. It’s been there on the pile waiting for a moment and I hope to read it over the Christmas break. Then I can read this new novel, which sounds fascinating.
It’s time to solve the murder of the century…
Forty years ago, Steven Smith found a copy of a famous children’s book by disgraced author Edith Twyford, its margins full of strange markings and annotations. Wanting to know more, he took it to his English teacher Miss Iles, not realising the chain of events that he was setting in motion. Miss Iles became convinced that the book was the key to solving a puzzle, and that a message in secret code ran through all Twyford’s novels. Then Miss Iles disappeared on a class field trip, and Steven has no memory of what happened to her. Now, out of prison after a long stretch, Steven decides to investigate the mystery that has haunted him for decades. Was Miss Iles murdered? Was she deluded? Or was she right about the code? And is it still in use today? Desperate to recover his memories and find out what really happened to Miss Iles, Steven revisits the people and places of his childhood. But it soon becomes clear that Edith Twyford wasn’t just a writer of forgotten children’s stories. The Twyford Code has great power, and he isn’t the only one trying to solve it…
Published by Viper 13th Jan 2022.
That’s it for the third part of my 2022 preview. Amazingly I have another ten books that I’m looking forward to and I’ll be sharing those with you at the end of the week.
There are just so many books coming out next year that I’m really looking forward to reading, with some really gorgeous cover designs too. I. Lucky enough to have early access to all of these bar two, so I’ll be reading and reviewing in the coming weeks. Keep your eyes peeled and get some of these crackers on your TBR list.
House of Fortune by Jessie Burton.
I fell in love with Burton’s debut novel The Miniaturist at first page and I am in awe of her imagination and skill. As other readers of the novel will know, many questions remained unanswered at the end of the story, and while I don’t mind books having loose ends, when I heard a sequel was coming I let out a little squeal. We are still in the golden city of Amsterdam, but now it is 1705. Thea Brandt is turning eighteen, and she is ready to welcome adulthood with open arms. At the city’s theatre, Walter, the love of her life, awaits her, but at home in the house on the Herengracht, all is not well – her father Otto and Aunt Nella argue endlessly, and the Brandt family are selling their furniture in order to eat. On Thea’s birthday, also the day that her mother Marin died, the secrets from the past begin to overwhelm the present.
Nella is desperate to save the family and maintain appearances, to find Thea a husband who will guarantee her future, and when they receive an invitation to Amsterdam’s most exclusive ball, she is overjoyed – perhaps this will set their fortunes straight. And indeed, the ball does set things spinning: new figures enter their life, promising new futures. But their fates are still unclear, and when Nella feels a strange prickling sensation on the back of her neck, she remembers the miniaturist who entered her life and toyed with her fortunes eighteen years ago. Perhaps, now, she has returned for her . . . I can’t tell you how excited I am to find out how Nella is getting on. Maybe the mystery of who the miniaturist is, and what they want, might be solved?
Published by Picador 7th July 2022
Sundial by Catriona Ward
When writers like Alex Michaelides and Emma Stonex are giving rave reviews of a book, it’s always worth a look. Last year’s novel, The Last House on Needless Street, was incredibly unusual and original. That alone would make me want to look at Ward’s second novel.
You can’t escape the desert. You can’t escape Sundial.
Rob fears for her daughters. For Callie, who collects tiny bones and whispers to imaginary friends. For Annie, because she fears what Callie might do to her. Rob sees a darkness in Callie, one that reminds her of the family she left behind. She decides to take Callie back to her childhood home, to Sundial, deep in the Mojave Desert. And there she will have to make a terrible choice.
Callie is afraid of her mother. Rob has begun to look at her strangely. To tell her secrets about her past that both disturb and excite her. And Callie is beginning to wonder if only one of them will leave Sundial alive…
Published by Viper 10th March 2022.
Insomnia by Sarah Pinborough.
In the dead of night, madness lies…
Emma can’t sleep. CHECK THE WINDOWS. It’s been like this since her big 4-0 started getting closer. LOCK THE DOORS. Her mother stopped sleeping just before her 40th birthday too. She went mad and did the unthinkable because of it. LOOK IN ON THE CHILDREN. Is that what’s happening to Emma?
WHY CAN’T SHE SLEEP?
This is an absolutely brilliant domestic noir that keeps you on the edge of your seat to the very end.
Published by Harper Collins March 31st 2022.
Absynthe by Brendan P. BelleCourt.
The Great War has been over for years, and a brave new world forged. Technology has delivered the future promised at the turn of the century: automata provide, monorail trains flash between mega-cities, medicine is nothing short of magical.
Liam grew up poor, but now working for one of the richest families in Chicago, he reaps the benefits of his friendship with the family’s son and heir. That’s why he’s at Club Artemis. It’s a palace of art-deco delights and debauchery, filled to bursting with the rich and beautiful – and tonight they’re all drinking one thing. Absynthe. The green liquor rumoured to cause hallucinations, madness, even death.
While the gilded youth sip the viridescent liquid, their brave new world is crumbling beneath its perfect surface. Their absynthe is no mere folly. Some it kills, others it transforms. But in Liam something different has taken place. A veil has lifted and he can see the world without its illusion – and it isn’t the perfect world the government want the people to believe. As soon as I read the premise of this novel I was hooked and I’ve just been accepted on NetGalley I’m itching to get to it.
Published – Head of Zeus 9th Dec 2021
Outside by Ragnar Jónasson.
Four friends. One night. Not everyone will come out alive . . .
In the swirling snow of a deadly Icelandic storm, four friends seek shelter in a small abandoned hunting lodge. Miles from help, and knowing they will die outside in the cold, they break open the lock and make their way inside, hoping to wait out the storm until morning.
But nothing can prepare them for what they find behind the door . . .
Inside the cabin lurks a dangerous presence that chills them to their core. Outside, certain death from exposure awaits. So with no other option, they find themselves forced to spend a long, terrifying night in the cabin, watching as intently and silently as they are being watched themselves.But as the evening darkens, old secrets are beginning to find their way to the light. And as the tension escalates between the four friends, it soon becomes clear that the danger they discovered lurking in the cabin is far from the only mystery that will be uncovered tonight. Nor the only thing to be afraid of . . .
I love Nordic Noir and this author builds his literary worlds so carefully and his characters are multi-dimensional, complex and real. Once I’m a few chapters in it feels so real to me that I’m utterly immersed. This appeals to my psychologist brain. I’m dying to dissect these characters and their dynamic as they are trapped together.
Published by Michael Joseph 28th April 2022.
Miss Aldridge Regrets by Louise Hare.
I’ve been waiting to see what Louise Hare would write next after loving her novel The Lovely City. This looks like a fantastic second novel and I adore that cover too. Opening in London in 1936, Lena Aldridge is wondering if life has passed her by. The dazzling theatre career she hoped for hasn’t worked out. Instead, she’s stuck singing in a sticky-floored basement club in Soho and her married lover has just left her. She has nothing to look forward to until a stranger offers her the chance of a lifetime: a starring role on Broadway and a first-class ticket on the Queen Mary bound for New York. After a murder at the club, the timing couldn’t be better and Lena jumps at the chance to escape England. Until death follows her onto the ship and she realises that her greatest performance has already begun. Because someone is making manoeuvres behind the scenes, and there’s only one thing on their mind…Murder.
Miss Aldridge Regrets is the exquisite new novel from Louise Hare, the author of This Lovely City. A brilliant murder mystery, it also explores class, race and pre-WWII politics, and will leave readers reeling from the beauty and power of it.It’s next on my TBR so I’ll be reviewing soon.
Published by HQ 28th April 2022.
The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley.
Welcome to No. 12 Rue des Amants. This book has been popping up all over #BookTwitter and I feel very privileged to have an early copy. I love a good thriller, it tends to be the genre I go to when I’m very busy with my MA or just have a lot on at home. For some reason, that I’m not prepared to look at too closely, I find thrillers relaxing. This one is set in a beautiful old apartment block, far from the glittering lights of the Eiffel Tower and the bustling banks of the Seine. Where nothing goes unseen. And everyone has a story to unlock. Our characters are the watchful concierge, the scorned lover, the prying journalist and the naïve student. But there’s also an unwanted guest. Something terrible happened here last night. A mystery lies behind the door of apartment three.Only you – and the killer – hold the key . . . I’m sure I’m going to be bleary eyed one morning from reading this till 2am.
Published by Harper Collins 3rd March 2022.
Saint Death’s Daughter by C.S.E Cooney
Nothing complicates life like Death. I noticed this book about two months ago and begged the publisher for a proof! Sometimes I have no shame. As soon as I read the short blurb I knew I wanted to read it and I’m excited at the thought that this is only the first in a new series. Lanie Stones, the daughter of the Royal Assassin and Chief Executioner of Liriat, has never led a normal life. Born with a gift for necromancy and a literal allergy to violence, she was raised in isolation in the family’s crumbling mansion by her oldest friend, the ancient revenant Goody Graves. When her parents are murdered, it falls on Lanie and her cheerfully psychotic sister Nita to settle their extensive debts or lose their ancestral home―and Goody with it. Appeals to Liriat’s ruler to protect them fall on indifferent ears… until she, too, is murdered, throwing the nation’s future into doubt. Hunted by Liriat’s enemies, hounded by her family’s creditors and terrorised by the ghost of her great-grandfather, Lanie will need more than luck to get through the next few months―but when the goddess of Death is on your side, anything is possible. I am always surprised by the amount of fantasy I read and while I don’t consider myself an expert on the genre, out of the books I love, a good third are fantasy novels. I’m hoping this one might join them.
Published by Solaris 14th April 2022.
The Unravelling by Polly Crosby.
This one is coming very soon, in early January in fact, since the publication date was pushed back from this year. I fell completely in love with her writing when I finally read The Illustrated Child a few months ago. The only reason it didn’t make my books of the year was because I was so late reading it; it was published in 2020. My anticipation for this one has been building and I hope to get to read it over the Christmas holidays. Also when the author of The Binding gives a book a great review, I know I’m going to love it.
’Like a surreal cabinet of curiosities – haunting, eerie, evocative’ Bridget Collins, Sunday Times bestselling author of The Binding
When Tartelin Brown accepts a job with the reclusive Marianne Stourbridge, she finds herself on a wild island with a mysterious history. 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 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?
Published by HQ 6th Jan 2022.
The Christie Affair by Nina de Gramont.
I’m currently writing a review for this interesting novel and I can honestly say it’s a cracker. I loved the mix of factual events and fictional story, as well as the way the novel veered from historical, to romance and to murder mystery. You won’t want to put it down.
In 1926, Agatha Christie disappeared for 11 days. Only I know the truth of her disappearance. I’m no Hercule Poirot. I’m her husband’s mistress.
Agatha Christie’s world is one of glamorous society parties, country house weekends, and growing literary fame. Nan O’Dea’s world is something very different. Her attempts to escape a tough London upbringing during the Great War led to a life in Ireland marred by a hidden tragedy. After fighting her way back to England, she’s set her sights on Agatha. Because Agatha Christie has something Nan wants. And it’s not just her husband. Despite their differences, the two women will become the most unlikely of allies. And during the mysterious eleven days that Agatha goes missing, they will unravel a dark secret that only Nan holds the key to . . .The Christie Affair is a stunning novel which reimagines the unexplained eleven-day disappearance of Agatha Christie in 1926 that captivated the world.
Published by Mantle, 20th Jan 2022.
Peach Blossom Spring by Melissa Fu.
I have to say that the cover of this beautiful proof sung out to me when it dropped through my letterbox. This is one of those novels where I’ve already pre-ordered the finished copy even though I have this one. It’s quite simply stunning.
With every misfortune there is a blessing and within every blessing, the seeds of misfortune, and so it goes, until the end of time.
It is 1938 in China, and the Japanese are advancing. A young mother, Meilin, is forced to flee her burning city with her four-year-old son, Renshu, and embark on an epic journey across China. For comfort, they turn to their most treasured possession – a beautifully illustrated hand scroll. Its ancient fables offer solace and wisdom as they travel through their ravaged country, seeking refuge. Years later, Renshu has settled in America as Henry Dao. His daughter is desperate to understand her heritage, but he refuses to talk about his childhood. How can he keep his family safe in this new land when the weight of his history threatens to drag them down? Spanning continents and generations, Peach Blossom Spring is a bold and moving look at the history of modern China, told through the story of one family. It’s about the power of our past, the hope for a better future, and the search for a place to call home.
Published by Wildfire 17th March 2022.
The Book of Magic by Alice Hoffman.
This is my current read and it’s not surprising that I’m enjoying it, since Hoffman is one of my favourite authors. The Owens family started their literary lives in Practical Magic as we followed orphaned sisters Sally and Gillian as they are sent to live with their eccentric aunts Jet and Franny. There are rumours about the aunts. They live in a crooked house on the edge of town, with a well-stocked herb garden and a light above the door that alerts local women to when they are available for consultation. This might be for women’s health problems, but more often for reasons of love. This is ironic since the Owens women are born in a genetic line that’s cursed in the pursuit of love. Every woman in the family has tried a way round the curse, but if ever love is found, it can just as easily be lost. In this fourth and final book in the series we move forward, after two prequel novels, to Jet and Franny’s old age. When the deathwatch beetle starts clicking in the family home, one of the Owens women knows that their time is up. As the generations gather, Sally’s daughters have to face the truth of the family curse. So a quest begins to change this generation’s luck in love, but do the girls have the power within them or will they venture into darker magic?
Published by Scribner 6th January 2022.
The Key in the Lock by Beth Underdown.
I was a little bit giddy to open my book mail a couple of days ago and find an unexpected copy of this book. I’ve been talking about it since Halloween so it’s definitely time I read it.
I still dream, every night, of Polneath on fire. Smoke unravelling from an upper window, and the terrace bathed in a hectic orange light . . . Now I see that the decision I made at Polneath was the only decision of my life. Everything marred in that one dark minute.
By day, Ivy Boscawen mourns the loss of her son Tim in the Great War. But by night she mourns another boy – one whose death decades ago haunts her still. For Ivy is sure that there is more to what happened all those years ago: the fire at the Great House, and the terrible events that came after. A truth she must uncover, if she is ever to be free. But once you open a door to the past, can you ever truly close it again?From the award-winning author of The Witchfinder’s Sister comes a captivating story of burning secrets and buried shame, and of the loyalty and love that rises from the ashes.
Published by Viking 13th January 2022.
A Lady’s Guide to Fortune Hunting by Sophie Irwin.
This novel has quite recently appeared on the radar but looks like a really enjoyable read. I’ve just had NetGalley approval and it’s taking all my willpower to read my January blog tours first! The season is about to begin and there’s not a second to lose. Kitty Talbot needs a fortune. Or rather, she needs a husband who has a fortune. This is 1818 after all, and only men have the privilege of seeking their own riches. With only twelve weeks until the bailiffs call, launching herself into London society is the only avenue open to her, and Kitty must use every ounce of cunning and ingenuity she possesses to climb the ranks. The only one to see through her plans is the worldly Lord Radcliffe and he is determined to thwart her at any cost, especially when it comes to his own brother falling for her charms. Can Kitty secure a fortune and save her sisters from poverty? There is not a day to lose and no one – not even a lord – will stand in her way…
Published by Harper Collins 12th May 2022
Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow.
Joan can’t change her family’s past. But she can create her future.
Joan was only a child the last time she visited Memphis. She doesn’t remember the bustle of Beale Street on a summer’s night. She doesn’t know she’s as likely to hear a gunshot ring out as the sound of children playing. How the smell of honeysuckle is almost overwhelming as she climbs the porch steps to the house where her mother grew up. But when the front door opens, she does remember Derek. This house full of history is home to the women of the North family. They are no strangers to adversity; resilience runs in their blood. Fifty years ago, Hazel’s husband was lynched by his all-white police squad, yet she made a life for herself and her daughters in the majestic house he built for them. August lives there still, running a salon where the neighbourhood women gather. And now this house is the only place Joan has left. It is in sketching portraits of the women in her life, her aunt and her mother, the women who come to have their hair done, the women who come to chat and gossip, that Joan begins laughing again, begins living. Memphis is a celebration of the enduring strength of female bonds, of what we pass down, from mother to daughter. Epic in scope yet intimate in detail, it is a vivid portrait of three generations of a Southern black family, as well as an ode to the city they call home.
Here’s the final instalment of my favourite reads of 2021. As I look back it’s been a brilliant reading year and I always think the past year can’t be topped but I have a huge list of anticipated reads for next year already! I’m spending the next fortnight doing the same things as everyone else – stuffing my face, drinking sherry, seeing family and watching far too much television. However, I’m also doing something that’s probably peculiar to book bloggers. I’m reading what I like for a fortnight. This might not sound like much, but it really is wonderful to read purely for pleasure. I enjoy what I do, but between blog tours and my NetGalley list (I’m greedy with both) I’m often reading to a schedule. So it’s nice to be able to go with my mood or my gut for a little while. I have reached a couple of milestones with the blog: I have reached ten thousand views this year and two hundred subscribers. I never imagined that I would have two readers of my writing, never mind two hundred. It’s amazing what a year’s hard work can do. Over the holiday I hope to evaluate how I’ve been working on the blog, maybe leading to some changes and hopefully time to share my personal writing too. I wish you all a very Happy Christmas with your loved ones and I look forward to writing for you all again in 2022.
The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line by Ruth Thomas.
This is what I would call a quiet book; gentle, subtle even, but so charming and witty. I remember posting that only three weeks into January I was already in love with a new literary heroine. I absolutely adored Sybil and felt so at home in her company, that I just kept reading all day. I finished at 11pm and was bereft, because I wouldn’t be with Sybil any more. Yes, this is what happens to avid readers. We fall head over heels with a character, can’t put the book down, then suffer from withdrawal. All day I was grumpy and reluctant to start a new book. Sybil’s life is puttering along nicely. She has a job she enjoys at a London museum – Royal Institute of Prehistoric Studies (RIPS). She has Simon, her boyfriend and ardent baker of bread from obscure grains. Her quiet life is turned upside down when she, quite literally, bumps into an old nemesis from university, Helene Hanson. Sybil and Simon are ice skating, when they first spot Sybil’s old university lecturer. Sybil doesn’t want to say hello, after all Helene stole some ideas from her dissertation, then put them into her own research on the Beaker people. They’re very unsteady on ice and end up careering into Helene’s group, in Sybil’s case ending up in hospital from a head injury. Only weeks later, Helene has stolen Sybil’s boyfriend and taken a huge interest in Sybil’s workplace. Now RIPS will be selling her Beakerware (TM) in the gift shop and welcome her onto their committee. Sybil’s mum suggests a mature exchange of views, but Sybil hates confrontation. She’s not felt herself since her injury and we see how she thinks in the fragmentary structure the author uses. Sybil has to find a way to expose Helene Hanson as a fraud. I felt a deep connection with Sybil. She’s offbeat, quirky and has a dark sense of humour the comes through beautifully into the narration. A simply lovely read that I’ll happily pick up again and again.
Before My Actual Heart Breaks by Tish Delaney
This was one of those novels that didn’t connect with me at first. In fact if it hadn’t been for a blog tour I might have stopped reading. Yet part way in I was suddenly won over by the intelligent, spirited and strangely beautiful Mary Rattigan. She is a character who will stay with me, especially the childhood Mary and her battles with Mammy – a woman who I hated so strongly it was as if she was a real person! Mammy is a hypocrite, playing the perfect Catholic matriarch on the surface – always loving or feeding her sons, cooking perfect chicken roasts and getting out the best china when the priest comes for tea. It broke my heart when she left Mary without tea, then next morning as the boys all lined up for their lunch boxes Mary was given an empty one. I felt so emotional for this girl, who doesn’t expect any better. The Rattigan’s life on her parent’s farm in Ireland is at odds with Mary’s romantic and wild nature. She wants to fly out of her dirty and dangerous surroundings, leaving ‘The Troubles’ behind her. However, life has a way of grounding us and Mary is no exception. In a life punctuated by marriage, five children, bombings, a long peace process and endless cups of tea Mary learns that a ten minute decision can change a whole life. These lessons are hard won and she’s missed a hundred chances to make a change. Can she ever find the courage to ask for the love she deserves, but has never had? Mary’s need to be loved is so raw she can’t even articulate it. How can she understand or recognise love when she’s never felt it? She has been told she’s nothing, so nothing is what she deserves. Delaney writes about love and the realities of marriage with such wisdom and tenderness that I was rooting for Mary Rattigan till the very last page.
Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult.
Jodi Picoult has been one of my favourite writers since PlainTruth and I was so happy to see that this was a real return to form and is the first novel addressing the COVID pandemic I’ve read. Diana and her boyfriend Finn live in New York City, he is a doctor and she works at an auction house for fine art, on the verge of promotion to become an Art Specialist at Sotheby’s. She’s trying to acquire a Toulouse Lautrec painting that hangs in the bedroom of a Japanese artist -loosely based on Yoko Ono – when everything changes. Finn and Diana have a very set life plan and part of that was an upcoming visit to the Galápagos Islands. However there are rumours in the medical community of a strange new virus in Wuhan, China. It seems like SARS in that it’s a respiratory virus and requires huge amounts of resources to keep patients alive. Diana’s boyfriend feels torn, as a doctor he’s worried and thinks they should be preparing, but the president is on TV telling everyone it’s no worse than flu. What’s the truth? Finn tells Diana to go on holiday and she gets to the islands just as their borders are closed. She has to throw herself upon the kindness of strangers – a hotel cleaner called Abuela, her granddaughter Beatrice, and Gabriel her tour guide father. He is the perfect person to be stranded with because he knows every corner of the island and has no work, so he can show Diana some of the sights she would never have seen. The seals lazily basking on the jetty, the sea turtles and their nests buried in sand, lush vegetation and lizards lying around intertwined. I could see and taste the salt air. Everything is vivid and almost hyper-real. Then came the twist!! Oh my goodness I did not expect that at all. This was brilliantly done and shocked me. The world Diana has at the beginning, becomes subsumed by the pandemic. It’s a structure that echoes how our own lives have been interrupted and changed forever. There are people who went into the pandemic with a job that no longer exists. People have lost friends, family members and partners. The pandemic has changed people, they are looking at how they live and making changes. I could understand Diana’s decision at the end of the novel. When you’ve been through something momentous you change, and part of that is re-evaluating life and choosing what makes you happy. It’s trying to recapture hope. Why should things ‘go back to normal’; I want this pandemic to mean something and I want things to get better. Diana takes that decision for herself and I found that both brave and uplifting.
The Watchers by A.M. Shine.
I don’t often read horror novels, mainly sticking to Stephen King and gothic historical fiction, so this is a departure from my usual reading and it was exhilarating. Mina, is a young woman living alone in urban Ireland, and has lost her mother. Now without family – except one sister who appears to phone once a month or so, just to feel disappointed – she is largely a loner. Her loves are sketching, red wine and her friend Peter who is a buyer and seller of various things and often pays Mina cash to deliver his client’s purchases. On this occasion she’s to take a golden parrot to a remote part of Galway. Having broken down on the edge of a forest, Mina realises the likelihood of anyone passing by and helping are probably minimal. So, with the parrot in tow, she sets off walking in the hope of finding a remote farmhouse with a phone that works. Once in the forest Mina realises her mistake, it seems bigger than from outside and the light is fading fast. She feels unnerved, although she can’t say why, then she hears a scream that isn’t human, but isn’t like any animal she’s ever heard either. As the shadows gather she is beginning to panic, when suddenly she sees a woman beckoning her and urging her to hurry. She’s standing by a building and although it seems odd, Mina decides it’s better than staying out here to be found by whatever made that terrible noise. As they hurry inside and the door slams behind them, the screams grow in intensity and volume, almost as if they were right on her heels. As her eyes adjust to the light she finds herself in a room with a bright overhead light. One wall is made entirely of glass, but Mina can’t see beyond it and into the forest because it is now pitch dark. Yet she has the creeping sensation of being watched through the glass, almost like she is the parrot in a glass cage. A younger man and woman are huddled together in one space, so there are now four people in this room, captive and watched by many eyes. Their keepers are the Watchers, dreadful creatures that live in burrows by day, but come out at night to hunt and to watch these captive humans. If caught out after dark, the door will be locked, and you will be the Watcher’s unlucky prey. Who are these creatures and why do they keep watching? This was unsettling, because of the creatures and the dynamics of the small group trying to survive. The author has an uncanny ability to instil dread in his readers, all the way to an incredible and terrifying end.
The Beresford by Will Carver.
This was a brilliantly funny and clever book that had me smiling from the first page at theaudacityof this clever and creative author. This was my very first Will Carver novel and I came away wondering where he’d been my whole life. This novel had such a darkly, delicious opening set at The Beresford, an old forbidding looking building in the city. In my imagination this conjured up the Gothic looking Dakota Building, where John Lennon lived and was killed back in 1981. Inside The Beresford are a number of apartments, bigger and better appointed than you would expect for the money. They even have large roll top baths that are the perfect size to dismember and dissolve a body. Resident Abe finds that as soon as one tenant ‘leaves’ another will ring the doorbell in sixty seconds. The building is presided over by a lovely old lady called Mrs May, who starts every day the same way. By brewing a coffee while the taps run, then enjoying a bath with bubbles, followed by eggs with her cold coffee. She has a routine, and is found at the same time every day pruning the roses in the front garden. As any fan of the film The Ladykiller’s knows, you should never underestimate sweet looking, little old ladies. She knows everything that happens at the Beresford because the same thing happens over again – some people leave and some people just disappear. Occasionally they stay. For a price. I loved the dark humour, the unexpected murders and the characters who pass through – sometimes in seconds! Maybe one day the author will venture further into the other side of The Beresford? The side Abe calls ‘the bad side’. If so, I’ll be waiting – but I’ll probably stick to reading in the daylight hours.
The Spirit Engineer by A.J. West
I’d anticipated this book for a couple of months having been told by my Squad Pod ladies that it was going to be a fantastic read. It certainly was, and even more than that, it was surprising too. Our setting is the city of Belfast, the Titanic sinking is still fresh in everyone’s minds. It’s especially fresh at Professor William Crawford’s house since his brother-in-law Arthur was on the ship. Crawford is our narrator and he introduces us to his happy, but chaotic household as the novel opens. He is a man of science, working at an institute both furthering scientific enquiry and teaching the next generation of engineers. He’s a sceptic, so when he finds out that his wife is visiting a medium and has been trying to contact her brother Arthur, he’s shocked and angry. There’s no question that this girl is a fraud, stringing his wife along with a show put on with the help of her shady family. Yet, the couple have lost their son Robert too and Crawford’s grief is overwhelming. So when he hears Robert’s voice calling to him alongside an angry, vengeful Arthur who blames Crawford for his death, a small crack grows in his scepticism. What if he were to apply his scientific rigour to to this girl medium’s powers? If he could prove a link exists between this world and the next he could make a name for himself, not just in Ireland but all over the world. What I loved more than anything was the author’s ability to surprise, because as we neared the end I had no idea how the book and Crawford’s investigations would conclude. The theme of dishonesty is there right from the start, in Arthur’s reasons for being on Titanic, to the hidden note from their old maid who left in a hurry, and Elizabeth’s absence at weekly church meetings. By the end I felt triple bluffed, but couldn’t help smiling at how clever the author had been. As many of our characters find out, when it comes to being dishonest, the person we deceive most often is ourselves.
The Lighthouse Witches by C.J. Cooke
Just look at that stunning cover! Lighthouses have been a recurring motif in this year’s reading and this cover was particularly beautiful. This is a fascinating tale from the writer of last year’s The Nesting. Set on a remote Scottish Island, and with a hint of The Wicker Man about it, Liv and her three daughters arrive at a lighthouse named The Longing. We’re not sure what they’re driving away from, but Liv jumped at an opportunity to paint a mural in the lighthouse. An eccentric millionaire wants to use the lonely spot as a writing retreat. Liv and her three girls set up home in the bothy next door, but then some unusual happenings leave them wondering exactly what’s going on in this isolated place. There are some really unsettling scares for the family: a baby floating in flood water that turns out to be a doll; a child’s skinny arm creeping out from behind Liv’s paint supplies; a near naked and very dirty little boy appearing at the bothy, with no one on the island interested when he disappears again. Liv wonders why the lighthouse is named The Longing and finds a whole history involving the island’s women and the 16th – 17th Century witch hunts sanctioned by King James IV. Throw in some time travel and this is a brilliant combination of the supernatural and the historical. I enjoyed it immensely and would happily read it again.
So that’s my 21 favourite books and even now I’m wishing I could add a further three of four to the mix! Keep an eye on the blog over Christmas and New Year for some great recommendations for 2022 which is already looking like a bumper reading year. Happy Christmas and a peaceful, safe New Year. ❤️📚
If I had to choose just one book that blew me away this year then it would be The Stranding. I was bewitched by it. It’s just so good it’s hard to believe it’s a debut novel. I know that a book is extraordinary when I finish it and feel changed in some way. I’m never sure what has happened, but there’s a tiny, imperceptible change, to the air around me, how I feel and even the way I perceive the world. The Stranding left me feeling calm, thoughtful and as if a lot of the small things worrying me didn’t really matter in the big scheme of things. I cared deeply for the characters and their grief, and strangely proud of them for what they managed to achieve. The author created an incredible sense of New Zealand and the whale that becomes Ruth’s saviour, and mother – birthing her and Nik into their new world and sustaining them. Her detailed descriptions left me fully immersed in this world, so much so that when I finished reading, it took a while to adjust back to being in Ruth’s ‘before’ and my 21st Century world. It has a unique narrative structure of two timelines: one represents ‘before’ and finishes where Ruth finds the whale; the second is ‘after’ and starts at the whale moving forwards. We don’t know what the apocalyptic event is, but it divides Ruth’s world into before and after. Nik is literally the last man on earth and their teamwork is vital if they are to survive. The Stranding might sound depressing, but it isn’t. It’s a post-apocalyptic landscape but the book celebrates the human spirit, our capacity for change, resilience and even love. It’s an incredible achievement.
The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell.
I was so excited to receive a proof of this latest novel from one of my favourite authors. I love the mix of gothic horror and historical fiction that she excels in. So I came to it full of anticipation. I was hooked by the end of the first chapter and didn’t put it down. Our narrator is Miss Agnes Darken, living in Bath with her invalid mother and nephew Cedric. Agnes earns her money cutting silhouettes or ‘shades’ for people, but her art is put under threat not just by newer inventions, but by a mysterious killer stalking the people who have sat for her. Desperate for answers, Agnes visits a spirit medium – an albino child named Pearl who lives with her sister Miss Myrtle West, and an invalid father. Agnes and Pearl try to conjure the spirit of one of her murdered sitters, so they can find the killer. Unfortunately, they have underestimated the power of what they have unleashed. This is an excellent gothic mystery, that grabbed me from the start and didn’t let go. I thought the characters were well developed and fascinating – even the ones who are no longer there! I liked that were transgressive females who had their own agency and independence. I enjoyed the author’s sense of place, the evil portents like the magpies and the build up of tension. I also liked the contrast between those living in poverty and those with a more middle class lifestyle. The supernatural elements are always spooky with Purcell, so the seances and visitations are unsettling, but so are the real life people. As the mystery deepens you won’t be able to stop reading, because you’ll have to know what’s going on. There’s a saying we use about timid people – afraid of your own shadow – and that’s what this book does, it makes us afraid of what others might see in us, and who we can become in the dark. An utterly brilliant addition to Laura Purcell’s work.
The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner.
Nearing her ten-year anniversary, Caroline stumbles on a secret that takes her to London on holiday and to explore. She stumbles across a man who takes tourists out mud larking and joins them, finding wandering the shoreline looking for objects in the mud, strangely relaxing. She follows their guide’s advice that she shouldn’t look for an object, but look at patterns in the mud for an absence of something. Not long after she finds a bottle, an apothecary bottle, with a crude etching of a bear. Our second narrative takes us to the depths of eighteenth-century London, where a secret apothecary shop caters to an unusual kind of clientele. Women across the city whisper of a mysterious figure named Nella who sells well-disguised poisons to use against the oppressive men in their lives. But the apothecary’s fate is jeopardized when her newest patron, a precocious twelve-year-old, makes a fatal mistake, sparking a string of consequences that echo forward through the centuries to Caroline. I thought the author conveyed both 18th and 21st Century London really well. I could imagine myself there with all the sights and smells she conjured up. I loved the description of the apothecary shop, back in its heyday and as it was when Caroline rediscovered it. The ending of Nella and Eliza’s story was unexpected, but showed the strength of female friendship and solidarity. I found myself hoping that Caroline would do the same – choose an unexpected and unknown future of her own making. This was a brilliant read, historical fiction at its best and an incredible debut from an author I’ll be watching in the future.
Cold as Hell by Lilja Sigurdardóttir.
I’ve had the pleasure of reading Lilja Sigurdardóttir before and this novel grabbed my attention very early on with it’s reluctant protagonist, quirky characters, and an almost lunar landscape lit up by twenty four hour daylight. Āróra is being pestered by her mother. She hasn’t heard from Āróra’s sister Īsafold for over two weeks now and she’s very worried. She wants Āróra to fly out to Iceland and find out what’s going on from Īsafold’s partner Björn and their family who are still based there. Āróra lives in the north east of England and rarely goes back to Iceland, despite being born there. She mainly travels there when Īsafold needs rescuing from Björn. The whole family have known for some time that she is suffering domestic violence, but despite several attempts to help and convince her to leave, Īsafold always returns to Björn. Āróra has given up trying to help her sister; you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. I loved the depiction of the relationship between these two sisters: the sibling rivalries; the roles of eldest and youngest; that push and pull between loving and resenting each other. Īsafold is continuously putting herself in the role of victim and even though it’s positive encouragement and support from Āróra, she will still say she’s being pushed and persecuted into leaving. I actually wondered whether this behaviour had lead to her death? Had someone become so tired of helping, only to hear her being beaten again the following week, that they’d snapped? Āróra remembers the last time Īsafold called her and she chose not to come. What if she’d said the right thing this time and her sister chose to return to England, safe and sound? In fearing her loss, Āróra stops seeing a problem and starts seeing her sister. The barrier between them melts away as she lists her regrets and acknowledges she hasn’t been the perfect sister either. But is it too late? This was a fascinating tale, from a clever author whose words can manipulate us into racing through the thrilling twists and turns, then stop us in our tracks with a moving tribute from one sister to another.
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa
This novel is exceptional. It’s beautiful, moving and speaks about women’s experience in such a unique, but brutally honest way. It’s an incredible piece of auto-fiction, which is half memoir and half novel but all poetry. Our narrator is a mother of three small children and she has a fascination with the Irish poem ‘Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire’ where an Irish noblewoman laments the death of the her murdered husband. Such is her passionate grief, that on finding his body, she drinks handfuls of his blood and then composes the extraordinary poem. For our narrator, the poem has echoed down the centuries and is her constant companion. As she reads it aloud the poet’s voice comes to life. The author writes her own life to its rhythms and wants to discover the truth of the poem’s story. I loved how her recording of 21st Century motherhood is treated as an epic. I loved consciousness running through the book. As if her words join hundreds and thousands of others in a never ending stream of female consciousness. This isn’t just about putting your experience into the world, it’s about having a source of female wisdom to draw from whenever you need it. This is a female text and in it’s search for the meaning of women’s lives it is reassuring, it lets us know we’re not alone, but it also inspires us all to create meaning. To add our voice to the women’s wisdom, expanding that collective consciousness and making our mark.
Bad Apples by Will Dean.
Wow! Will Dean does like to put his heroine in some terrifying situations. There is so much about this series that I love, then a good 20% that makes me feel a bit sick or unsettled. In the last book it was snakes that had me a bit on edge. This time? Well it’s saying something when a severed head is the most comfortable thing about one of Tuva’s investigations.We’re back in Gavrik, deep in the northern most part of Sweden and Tuva is back at the local newspaper, but has a more senior role and a new colleague to oversee in the shape of eager young newbie Sebastian. In fact, things are pretty good in Tuva’s world. This book picks you up and takes you on a fascinating and thrilling ride that builds in tension to a terrifying ending that I didn’t see coming at all. I had to stop reading at one point, because I realised I was so tense I was gritting my teeth! I’m sure the author has a hotline to my fears and this ending tapped into them perfectly. Needless to say, if I was Tuva, I’d be packing up the Hilux and leaving the hill folk to murder each other! I think the way the author depicts Tuva’s deafness is interesting. Usually Tuva uses it to her own advantage – taking her hearing aids out when she’s writing a piece means she can focus and taking them out at home means she can’t hear next door. However, it can also leave her vulnerable and the author uses it to intensify the horror element of the book, particularly towards the finale. There’s something about another person touching her hearing aids that feels so personal and also like a violation, depending on who it is. Every time I know a Tuva Moodyson book is coming, the excitement starts to build. By the time it’s in my hands I’m ready to drop all my other reading to dive in. Of course when something is so anticipated there’s also a fear about whether the book will live up to expectations. Bad Apples did not disappoint and is a fabulous addition to this excellent series.
The Return by Anita Frank.
This beautiful historical love story just made it under the wire as I was compiling my Top 21 Books for 2021 and it truly deserves it’s place next to the others on the list. I was gripped by the story of Jack, who makes a very different promise to his new bride Gwen on the eve of WW2. Most soldiers are promising to see them again, to return, but Jack is quite clear. If he should survive the war, he won’t be back this way again. Gwen prays he keeps to his promise, but as they celebrate VE Day she does keep looking over her shoulder. What if he reneges on his promise? War has changed Jack and he is no longer the man who made that bargain. He wants to return and claim Gwen as his bride again, but little does he know that this could set in motion a chain of events that will leave he and Gwen fighting for what they love most. We go back and forth in time throughout the book, but begin with Jack fleeing his Newcastle on the night train, shielded by a friend who works on this south bound train. Jack is a riveter in the shipyards and lives in a terrace house with his Mum and sister Jenny, when a terrible twist of fate leads to a violent act of revenge. Stowing away on the night train, Jack plans to hop off somewhere where he can find work. So, as he walks down a country lane next morning, he finds a young woman who has fallen from her horse, but has her foot trapped in the stirrup. He hurries to help Gwen and takes her home to her family farm where she lives with her father. Jack is in luck, because it’s a busy time on the farm, and when he’s invited to stay for a home cooked meal he meets Gwen’s dad Jim. Jim asks if he would like to stay and work and Jack accepts. As Gwen talks about their daily routine and shows him his bed in the tack room, Jack thinks he may have fallen on his feet for the summer. What he doesn’t know is that Gwen is about to put him in a very difficult position and he won’t want to miss another opportunity to rescue a woman in distress. This book captures early 20th Century farming beautifully and you will be rooting for Jack all the way.
My final seven books of the year are coming on Sunday 19th December.
It’s been a fantastic reading year, my second full year as a blogger and lots of milestones met. This year I’ve cracked my goals of 3000 followers, 200 subscribers to The Lotus Readers blog and I’ve smashed my Goodreads reading goal of 120 books. Aside from these rather trivial goals, I’ve read some fabulous books this year. Although being a blogger means I’m all too aware of the ones I’ve missed or not had time for yet. Even more important than this are the wonderful friends I continue to make on BookTwitter and Bookstagram. Becoming part of the #SquadPod, a collective of book bloggers, has been a wonderful experience. Since I’m an ‘at risk’ person thanks to my multiple sclerosis and breathing issues, I’m home a lot but even when I don’t see anyone that day, I still have some wonderful, kind and supportive friends to listen to. I love them all. So this is the start of my favourite reads list for 2021. I had to go with 21 because I would have struggled to reduce them any further. If I did star ratings, all of them would be five stars so it’s not a countdown. It’s just a chance to reminisce and a recommend ahead of the January sales.
Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth MacNeal.
I had read Elizabeth’s MacNeal’s first novel The Doll Factory, so I knew I would love this one. The story of a young girl with birthmarks on her face and body, catches the eye of a passing showman. Jasper Jupiter has seen her dancing round the camp fire with her brother. She has the sort of wild abandon that’s rare in one so shy and reserved. He can see her now, in his circus, perhaps even performing before the Queen if she could be tempted away from mourning Prince Albert. The book flits between the circus and back to Jasper and his brother Toby’s time in the Crimea. We follow Nell as she leaves her village behind to become Queen of the Moon and Stars. However, could Jasper’s eagerness to expand and show in London be their undoing? There are some very interesting disability issues here, including a look at the ethical concerns around freak shows. The beautifully vivid descriptions of the acts and their costumes are wonderful too.
The Great Silence by Doug Johnstone.
It’s no secret how much I love Doug Johnstone’s Skelf series, since I outed myself as a #Skelfaholic on Twitter. I was lucky enough to be sent an early copy of this book, the third and potentially last one in the series. I had to dive on it immediately and find out what came next. As usual the book began with a strange event. Dorothy takes her dog Einstein for a walk in the park and he fetches a human foot, even more strange is that it appears to be embalmed. This embroils Dorothy in a very unusual case that could be deadly. Jenny is dealing with the aftermath of her ex-husband’s actions in the last book, she’s still healing emotionally and potentially regretting the end of her relationship with painter, Liam. She misses him, and wonders if perhaps they could rekindle something. Then the other daughter of her ex-husband disappears. Jenny wonders if her life will ever be free of this man, as she joins forces with the other woman in Craig’s life to find her daughter. Finally, Hannah is facing massive changes in her academic and personal life. In a sense she’s being pulled between past and future. Her graduation becomes a double celebration when Indy proposes, but then she’s pulled into the past when their flat is broken into and someone makes it clear they still want to be part of her life. Her academic supervisor José asks her if she’ll look into one of the central questions of astrophysics, if there is extraterrestrial life, why haven’t they replied to our messages? He has had a reply, but doesn’t know where it’s come from. Is it really from another life form or is someone playing game with him? Doug Johnstone is a poet, philosopher and incredible observer of human nature and I can only hope for another instalment of this much loved series.
The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward.
This was one of the first books I read in 2021 and for a while I didn’t know what on earth was going on for a while, I was drawn into this very strange mystery. I finished it in a sort of shell-shocked silence. I felt like I needed to go straight back to the beginning and start again. It is extraordinary and unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It’s also very difficult to review without spoiling other reader’s experience of it, but I had to give it a go. Multiple narrators were introduced, including a cat, and I was sometimes thoroughly confused, but never contemplated putting the book down. The beauty of the language and cleverness of the structure kept me going, determined to work out what exactly was going on. I was starting to be unsure which sections were real and what was illusion. The author is clearly hugely skilled at creating that sense of the uncanny – when everything seems normal and recognisable, but there is just that sense that something is off-kilter and sinister. The writing is so involving that I was inside a character’s head and at times I had an uneasy feeling I would never be able to get out. I guessed some of what was going on, but not the whole and I love the ambition and audacity. This is a unique, original and deeply creative piece of work that enthralled and stunned in equal measure. Ward is a writer of immense imagination and talent and I felt so privileged to have been given the chance to read this before it hit the shelves and became a phenomenon.
This Is How We Are Human by Louise Beech.
I absolutely loved this incredible book about love, disability, sex and the secrets we keep from each other. Veronica and her son Sebastian live together in Hull. Veronica wants the best for her son and just like all parents, she wants him to grow up and have a full life. However, Veronica isn’t like other parents, because despite Sebastian being twenty years, six months and two days old, he’s struggling with the love and relationships part of his life. Seb is autistic and he is lonely. Seb loves swimming, his fish, fried eggs and Billy Ocean, he’d also love to have sex but no one will have sex with him. He’s already been in trouble after the girl next door convinced him to write an explicit letter to her underage sister. When their lives collide with Violetta, Veronica thinks she can see a way forward. She’s thought of paying someone before, but has stopped herself. Here though, is someone they’ve met before and who was natural with Seb. Veronica couldn’t have known she was leading a double life as a high class escort, in order to earn enough money to keep her seriously ill father at home. These three lives come together and change each other in unexpected ways. This was an incredibly funny book as Seb’s straightforward way of interacting with the world butts up against nuanced and sometimes dishonest way humans deal with each other. This felt so real. So moving. It’s also wonderfully unexpected and such a fresh perspective. I loved it.
The Unheard by Nicci French.
I read this novel on the four hour drive to North Wales and spent most of the first day of my holiday absolutely enthralled with the story. I was hooked immediately, intrigued by the mystery of what exactly Tess’s daughter Poppy had seen or heard. Tess is starting a new life in a garden flat with her daughter, after a divorce from husband Jason. Having a background as a child of divorce, Tess was determined that Poppy should be their number one priority. No matter how much animosity and hurt they feel, their interaction with each other must be civil and they prioritise time with both parents. Jason is already remarried to Emily, a much younger woman who seems very sweet and tries hard to have a relationship with Poppy. One Saturday, Poppy returns from an overnight at her father’s and displays signs of distress. These were classic symptoms, that any counsellor like me, would be concerned by. She’s clingy, she wets the bed and seems to be having nightmares. Over a week these symptoms worsen: she bites a girl at school, uses foul language to her teacher, and her mother is terrified for her. She has her attention drawn to a picture Poppy has drawn, all in black crayon which is a huge contrast from her normal rainbow creations. The picture shows a tower and a woman falling from the top to the ground below. ‘He killed her’ she tells her Mum ‘and killed and killed and killed’. I read a lot of thrillers, but this one had me gripped. Had Poppy seen something? Who should we suspect? Or is Tess manipulating her daughter into such psychological distress? I was greedily hoovering up the chapters till the early hours!
The Metal Heart by Caroline Lea.
This was a simply stunning piece of historical fiction set on Orkney 1940. Five hundred Italian prisoners-of-war arrive to fortify these remote and windswept islands. Resentful islanders are fearful of the enemy in their midst, but not orphaned twin sisters Dorothy and Constance. Already outcasts, they volunteer to nurse all prisoners who are injured or fall sick. Soon Dorothy befriends Cesare, an artist swept up by the machine of war and almost broken by the horrors he has witnessed. She is entranced by his plan to build an Italian chapel from war scrap and sea debris, and something beautiful begins to blossom. But Con, scarred from a betrayal in her past, is afraid for her sister; she knows that people are not always what they seem. This book is stunningly beautiful, so much so that I had to sit and think in the quiet when I’d finished it. It’s so rich in folklore, historical detail, the trauma of war and bereavement that I know I could pick it up to read again and still find something new. I immediately ordered a signed copy for my forever shelf, because it is so special. What did I love about it? The Scottish folklore, the incredible landscape, the community, the dignity of people facing the hardest times of their lives. Then amidst the chaos, violence and confinement, beauty emerges in the shape of a deep, immediate, connection and growing love between two people who can’t even speak the same language. The counterpart to this human story is the Italian Chapel, built out of the scraps of metal huts and concrete the prisoners are allowed. Yet from these humble materials a building of true beauty emerges, that still stands today. It made me emotional to think about the lovers, but also the patience and faith of these incredible men who needed a place to worship, a piece of home.
The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex.
I loved this book so much that I went to bed early two nights running so I could finish it uninterrupted. I was so drawn in by the isolation of this lighthouse, that it was just standing directly in the sea and no one could come on or off until the relief boat came. Inspired by true events, the story is set in two time frames. In one we learn that a writer is researching a book on a famous disappearance of three lighthouse keepers. While in 1972, miles off the coast of Cornwall a relief boat arrives at the Maiden, to find the door locked from the inside, the clocks stopped and no sign of the Principle Keeper or his two assistants. The writer contacts the women left behind by these men: Helen, wife of the Principle Keeper, Arthur; Jenny, wife of Bill his deputy; Michelle, girlfriend of the new recruit Vince. They have all received money from Trident, the company who employ the keepers, but with that came a directive, not to talk about the events surrounding the mystery. At the time, Vince came under the most suspicion. New to the area and with a criminal past, he seems the likely candidate to have harmed the others. Yet, why would Arthur write of a huge storm in the log, when seas had been calm all week? What became of the small boat rumoured to have sailed near the Maiden? There were also whispers about a mechanic sent to carry out repairs at the Principle Keeper’s request. It’s hard, years later, to distinguish between rumour and truth. Will any of the women speak to the writer and will they finally solve the mystery of what happened to the men? This was a fascinating mix of mystery, love story and the hint of the supernatural. The atmosphere created by the writer was incredible and I knew straight away this would be a book of 2021.
That’s my first seven books of the year, so watch out for parts 2 and 3 coming up in the next ten days.
I’ve been a huge fan of Caroline Scott’s last two novels and share an interest with her in the historical period following WW1. This novel touches upon some of the most important issues of the period, while telling a story that touches the heart strings and holds some surprises for the reader. It shows just how chaotic relationships can become during and post wartime, as well as how much people change when faced with terrible and traumatic experiences. We follow one young war widow called Esme whose whole life changed after she received news that her husband Alec had been killed. No longer able to afford to live in their marital home and needing to find work, Esme finds herself in the employment of Mrs Pickering as companion and helper, while also writing nature columns for her local newspaper. As the summer of 1923 approaches Esme is packing her employer’s clothes for a trip down to Cornwall. Mrs Pickering’s brother Gilbert, has established an artist’s residence in his large country house, and the artists have all served together in the war. As Esme meets Gilbert, Rory and the others she hopes to get an insight into what Alec might have experienced and maybe feel closer to him. What she finds there is certainly transformative, but in a very different way.
Esme is a very likeable character. She’s intelligent, resourceful and has really struggled to pick herself up again from nothing. She’s had no support system to help in her grief or her financial difficulties, in fact this is something she and Alec had in common, they were each other’s family. The author tells us this story in three separate narratives and each gives us a new perspective on the characters. Alongside the main narrative in which we follow Esme to Cornwall, we read the nature column she writes and it’s sublime in its descriptions of this place she’s visiting for the first time. We can see what a talented writer Esme is and how much nature means to her. I kept thinking how lovely these passages will sound on audiobook, almost like poetry. The observations she makes made me feel Cornwall again and in quite an emotional way considering I first visited there almost fifteen years ago when I was newly widowed. I felt like Esme’s Cornwall and mine were the same. I remember consciously walking round thinking that this was the first new memory I was making without my husband and Cornwall’s beauty seemed to make that even more poignant. The third narrative is a book written by Rory, one of Gilbert’s residents and close friend, in which he describes his experience of fighting in France. I was interested in the way he also describes nature as a blighted landscape, ruined by the ravages of warfare. There are vivid descriptions that will stay with me, such as the corruption of the very soil from constantly being churned up, contaminated by mustard gas and almost viscous in it’s consistency. Rory ponders whether this land would recover and how long it would take nature to return. It shows us the utter destruction caused and creates a link between the land the war was fought on and the men who fought it; how long might it take them to recover from the terrible things they have seen and done?
The author depicts PTSD in all of the men who live together in Cornwall, they are each affected by their experiences, but show that in different ways. There’s a vulnerability to them and a need to be with others who have shared their experiences. How else can they be understood and allowed to heal without the pressures of having to find work and cope with the demands of returning to a family? They are each very lucky to have Gilbert and this idyllic setting to slowly recover in. Although each must have another life, one that they belonged to pre-war, potentially leaving behind people who needed or might have asked something of them. It places them in a slightly privileged position over those who had returned straight into full-time work or job seeking by necessity, either because they belong to a different class or have a family to support. The excerpts of Rory’s book are also beautifully written, but don’t hold back from the horrors these men have seen. His descriptions are both vivid and visceral, and through reading his book Esme gains more understanding of these men than perhaps a lot of women would have at the time. How many times do we hear of war veterans who have kept all of this bottled-up inside with family member’s noting they didn’t like to talk about it much? At least here the men have a therapeutic outlet, whether by painting or writing, through which to understand or process these memories, but also communicate them to others without having to say them outright.
All of this would have been enough for a great novel, but the author also places a huge surprise part way through that I hadn’t expected. Through this we see the strength and restraint of Esme, the way she thinks things through before acting and never puts her own needs first. She needs a therapeutic outlet too, showing how the initial effect of war on the person who served ripples outwards to effect their loved ones and even future generations. Just as the land needs time to recover from the physical effects of warfare, there is a shockwave created that blasts through society as a whole. We are shown: how rigid Edwardian class structures are broken down; how marriage as an institution and way of constructing society is outdated and broken; how gender roles become more fluid allowing women more freedom and choice. I really did enjoy seeing how Esme negotiates this new world and makes bold choices for her life moving forwards. This book is another triumph for the author, because it’s a beautiful piece of historical fiction that tries to capture a moment in time where everything’s in flux. These constantly shifting sands of time show us the formation of our 20th Century and the resilience of the human spirit. It gave this reader hope that, just as nature found a way and those battlefields are now meadows and farmland, humans do have the capacity to heal and be reborn.
Meet The Author.
Caroline completed a PhD in History at the University of Durham. She developed a particular interest in the impact of the First World War on thelandscape of Belgium and France, and in the experience of women during the conflict – fascinations that she was able to pursue while she spent several years working as a researcher for a Belgian company. Caroline is originally from Lancashire, but now lives in southwest France. The Photographer of the Lost was a BBC Radio 2 Book Club pick.
This beautiful story has just made it under the wire as I was compiling my Top 21 Books for 2021 and it truly deserves it’s place next to the others on the list. I was gripped by the story of Jack, who makes a very different promise to his new bride Gwen on the eve of WW2. Most soldiers are promising to see them again, to return, but Jack is quite clear. If he should survive the war, he won’t be back this way again. Gwen prays he keeps to his promise, but as they celebrate VE Day she does keep looking over her shoulder. What if he reneges on his promise? War has changed Jack and he is no longer the man who made that bargain. He wants to return and claim Gwen as his bride again, but little does he know that this could set in motion a chain of events that will leave he and Gwen fighting for what they love most.
We go back and forth in time throughout the book, but begins with Jack fleeing his home city on the night train, shielded by a friend who’s working on this nightly service down south from Newcastle. Jack is like many other young men in Newcastle, he’s a riveter in the shipyards and lives in a terrace house with his Mum and sister Jenny. One moment life is trundling along as normal, then the next a terrible twist of fate leads to a violent act of revenge. Stowing away on the night train, Jack plans to hop off somewhere far away where he can find work. So, as if from nowhere, he appears round the bend of a country lane to find a young woman who has fallen from her horse, but has her foot trapped in the stirrup. He hurries to help Gwen as her skittish horse takes off in the direction of the village. He takes her home to her family farm, where she helps her Dad with the dairy cattle and any other jobs that need doing. Lucky for Jack he’s arrived at a busy time on the farm, so while he stays for a home cooked meal to thank him for his service, Gwen’s dad Jim asked if he would like to stay and work. Jack accepts and as Gwen shows him his bed in the tack room, he thinks he may have fallen on his feet for the summer. What he doesn’t know is that Gwen is about to put him in a very difficult position. As he investigates a noise in the stack yard at night, he finds Gwen trying (and failing miserably) to quietly retrieve a ladder. She can’t pass her father’s door because the floor boards squeak. Reluctantly, he helps her climb up into her room, knowing that she must be meeting someone secretly and is surprised by how that bothers him.
I grew to like Jack, who is a young man of principles, only resorting to violence when someone he loves is hurt. He has an inbuilt moral compass, especially in his dealings with women and is very critical of anyone who doesn’t meet those standards of behaviour. He knows that in circumstances where young men lead women on and make false promises, it is the woman’s life and reputation that is ruined while the man just carries onto the next victim. He is a gentleman in his behaviour, even if he isn’t in position. I loved how he doesn’t have that family structure at home, but finds it with Jim and Gwen, and even housekeeper eventually. I didn’t always understand Gwen, although she is very young at the start of the novel and thanks to Jim’s overprotective nature, she’s quite naive. Something I did understand was her loyalty to the land and farm, it’s a way of life that’s in her blood and she isn’t afraid of hard work. She takes a very active part in the farm, from early morning milking, to driving tractors and locking the livestock up late at night. I thought the differences between gender and class were very pronounced in the novel. The women were far from passive in this rural community, with Gwen and Norah as great examples. It was interesting to see how the women from the hall were very separate from this industriousness – something that works against Gwen when it comes to being a mother.
The author creates a beautiful link between Gwen’s wholesomeness and the countryside – she’s miles away from the girls Jack has encountered in the city. She’s a young girl between places in society, she’s not in the lower classes but she’s not good enough for the landed gentry to consort with. At least not in public anyway. In the wartime sections of the book she’s well contrasted with land girl Norah, who has a cynical and knowing way about her. If they go the pub or an event, she soon disappears into a crowd of enthusiastic young men and seems completely at home flirting and telling stories that make them roar with laughter. Gwen is quieter, worried about how the farm will keep going with just her and Norah, wanting desperately to hold on to her father’s legacy. Besides, she knows the lies young men tell and the damage they can do. In those wartime sections, I felt the land and the countryside around it contrasted with the imagined battlefield far from here and the changes that farming had to come. Land was commandeered by the Ministry of Agriculture and fallow fields ploughed up for crops to feed the country. It was the beginning of the end for that quiet time when two ponies pulled the plough and two workers would weed the crop using a hoe. These passages of man working quietly within the countryside soon gives way to more modern farming methods which feel at odds with nature, rather than being harmonious. The author’s descriptions of animal and bird life are like a hymn to the old ways. I understood Jack’s need to return to this life, to feel at peace within it and allow the noise of battle, lodged in his head, to die down. However, I couldn’t see how he could stay either. I wondered constantly when the past would catch up with him and whether Gwen’s secrets could possibly remain hidden. This was a different slant on WW2, full of beautiful pastoral scenes and a relationship I was wishing would turn to love. A simply gorgeous read.
Meet the Author
Born in Shropshire, Anita studied English and American History at the University of East Anglia. She now lives in Berkshire with her husband and three children.