Posted in Random Things Tours

One Last Time by Helga Flatland.

Translated by Rosie Hedger.

I was utterly bowled over by this beautiful examination of life, death and how ordinary lives can be the most extraordinary of all. Our narrator, Anne, unexpectedly finds herself contemplating the end of her life, and so much sooner than expected, when she faces a diagnosis of colon cancer. Her husband Gustav has been hovering between two states for a number of years after several strokes slowly incapacitated him. His permanent disabilities started with paralysis of one of his arms and ending with all limbs affected and personality changes that are the hardest to cope with. With a heavy heart Anne has allowed their GP and hospital team to make the decision that Gustav should be placed in a nursing home. There’s a sense in which Anne had felt immune from further tragedy, as if Gustav had paid the price for them all. Meanwhile, we also meet Anne’s two grown-up children, Magnus and Sigrid. Sigrid is our second narrator and through her story we can see Anne in a different light, as a mother. However, we also see Sigrid as a mother and it’s on these relationships the book focuses; those complex emotions and connections between mothers and daughters.

Anne’s life has been a difficult and hard-working one. There’s been the farm she kept with Gustav in an isolated region of Norway, her job as teacher, the role of carer for Gustav, and her role as mother. From the outside looking in she’s an amazingly strong woman for whom fate has dealt a very rough hand. From the inside she sees herself as almost subsumed by the needs of other people, particularly Gustav, but has done the best job she could in very difficult circumstances. However, from Sigrid’s perspective, she allowed herself to be subsumed by Gustav’s needs at the expense of her children. Sigrid feels that her father listened to her, they would play records together from his vinyl collection and he took time to understand her. She feels her mother is distant at best and at worst, neglectful and selfish. We also see Sigrid’s own mothering skills, dealing with her teenage daughter Mia and the sudden return of Mia’s biological father Jens. The author takes us back to Sigrid’s rebellious teenage years, her pregnancy at 19 and Jens’s abandonment of her just before the Mia’s birth.

The author cleverly shows us how mother and daughter can see the same incident very differently. In a conversation about teaching in Norwegian in schools, Sigrid suddenly bursts out with:

I was so cold, freezing all through primary school, do you know what it was like, sitting through a whole day in class with wet socks, ice cold, not daring to take them off for fear someone might see?’

Anne is a bit stunned, but relates back to everything that was on her plate at the time. She was looking after Gustav, constantly making sacrifices:

‘You’re hardly the true victim in all this, I told her in as measured a tone as I could muster. She said nothing, waited a few seconds before getting up and leaving. I woke that night and remembered at least one occasion when Sigrid had been at high school and I had urged her to wear her boots, she had flown into a rage with me, stormed out the door and into the icy rain in her trainers and denim jacket’.

This is how mother and daughter speak to each other, in cross words with even more crossed wires, and bogged down with specifics. The overarching truth neither wishes to acknowledge is that Sigrid’s memories of her father are in a nostalgic past before she was seven years old. He will never grow old. He took up so much of her mother’s time that both Magnus and Sigrid fended for themselves on occasion. I felt so sad for Sigrid that her family forgot her birthday once or twice. However I also felt sad for Anne, who was dealt a rough hand in life and now has another in death. The time she’s had for herself is minimal, and the retirement she expected with her loving husband has been stripped away. There’s a deep sense of loss in Anne, from the family life she expected, her marriage, loss of a lover and of a warm, loving relationship with her daughter. She thinks back to those times she had supported Sigrid which don’t get mentioned. After Jens left, Anne collected a 19 year old Sigrid and took her back home for some much needed TLC and to have help after the birth. Sigrid isn’t angry with her Dad, she can’t be because he’s sick, so her anger is saved for Anne who for several years chose Gustav’s needs above those of her children.

Then, in turn, Sigrid is at crossed purposes with her own daughter. Jens has returned after sixteen years and is now the object of Mia’s affections. Sigrid feels for her partner Aslak, who has been there for both of them, since Mia was a small baby. She thinks she’s been a great Mum to Mia, never shirking responsibility or neglecting them. However, there are times Mia has felt stifled and there’s a way in which Sigrid’s need to control everything feels like anxiety to others. The author manages to convey how these parenting choices feel to the daughter. There are times when intention and result just miss each other by a hair’s breadth and I found this incredibly moving. It made me think about how I view my own mother and where I’ve been harsh in my assessment of her, but others might view things with more empathy. I found it interesting in light of her accusations about Anne’s parenting, that Sigrid feels it is Mia at fault in their misunderstandings. Mia’s reply is a real piece of wisdom and could have come from a therapist:

‘Isn’t it interesting how everyone else is always letting you down Mum?’

Helga Flatland writes so beautifully, that I was in the events of the book immediately and then carried into the very heart of this one ordinary family. She is a master at creating tension between people, finding those spaces between a conversation’s intent and how it’s received by the other person. I was desperately hoping for some sort of understanding between mother and daughter, before it was too late. I felt Sigrid needed that reconciliation even more than Anne. I loved the atmospheric feel of the country with its crispness underfoot, constant dusting of snow and all the hearty foods Anne mentions from elk to mutton, slow cooked and filling the house with delicious meaty casserole smells. I also loved the way she conveyed the closeness of a couple who live together, the way you know how their skin smells or what they’re going to say before they say it. I was so moved by Anne’s predicament of a much loved partner leaving you by slow degrees and how she would simply lie on the mattress next to Gustav hoping to regain some of that comfort she would get from his body. Most of all, her depiction of illness and deterioration is the best I’ve ever read and I’ve read a lot. Small losses, like medication changing the way the way someone smells, are actually huge because it takes them from the familiar to a complete stranger. She explores how illness suddenly demotes you from being in control of the smallest things in your life, like what you will eat for dinner or whether people will stay in your house. Who decides whether you need to be looked after and how? The way your body doesn’t belong to you anymore, or even feel and look like yours. People who once saw us as sexual beings, might cease to see us that way. Our bodies become a no-man’s land that people will fight and negotiate over, but rarely ask what we think, feel or need. This made the book incredibly moving, honest and real. This small family story is exquisite and truly special. You simply must read it.

Meet The Author

Helga Flatland is already one of Norway’s most awarded and widely read authors. Born in Telemark, Norway, in 1984, she made her literary debut in 2010 with the novel Stay If You Can, Leave If You Must, for which she was awarded the Tarjei Vesaas’ First Book Prize. She has written four novels and a children’s book and has won several other literary awards.


Her fifth novel, A Modern Family (her first English translation), was published to wide acclaim in Norway in August 2017, and was a number-one bestseller. The rights have subsequently been sold across Europe and the novel has sold more than 100,000 copies. One Last Time was published in Norway in 2020, where it topped the bestseller lists, and was shortlisted for the Norwegian Booksellers Award.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau.

What a great coming of age novel this is as we follow Mary Jane Dillard’s summer of 1978, caught between her straight-laced and devout home, that’s all rigorous routine and tidiness, and the home where she ‘nannies’, which is untidy, chaotic, has no rules and is harbouring a famous rock star and his girlfriend as he dries out from drink and drugs! Fourteen year old Mary Jane has a complete culture shock when she takes a summer job working for the Cone family down the road. Her role is to look after the daughter, Izzy, but as she finds out roles and rules are not very clearly defined in the Cone household. Mary Jane has grown up with rules, and her favourite things up till this point are cooking with her mother and singing in the church choir. Her mother is the great organiser of their household: tea is always on the table at the same time; they go to the same weekly church activities; she shops for groceries every Friday and always knows where her daughter is. Dr Cone’s professional status is enough for Mary Jane’s mother, who imagines a serious, professional man with a wife who keeps the household running like clockwork. Nothing could be further from the truth and even Mary Jane’s dad points out they might be different – they’re Jewish he tells his family, their name would have been Cohen but they’ve changed it. Besides which, Dr Cone is a doctor of psychiatry and has his own unusual treatment methods.

If the state of your house is truly reflective of who you are (overstuffed, slightly shabby, but full of charm in my case) then the Cones are chaotic, anarchic, full of ideas and very well read. Just like all children, Mary Jane has imagined all homes are like hers and looks at this one with horror and wonder too. There are things everywhere and in Izzy’s room she can’t even see the floor. The family are not just incontinent with their belongings, but their affections too. Mary Jane’s parents don’t show their emotions and seldom show physical affection, but here Izzy’s parents are full of kisses and hugs – something that takes quite a bit of getting used to on Mary Jane’s part. I grew up in a similarly religious and strict family during my adolescence and although my parents were always very loving, I was very shocked when friend’s mums talked to them openly about sex and relationships, or allowed them to read or watch anything, go out till late and wear what they liked. I really felt Mary Jane’s bewilderment at this complete lack of rules or schedules. As it neared late afternoon she would be surprised that no one had thought about what to have for dinner, or that no one had ironed Mr Cone’s shirts. Mr Cone’s office was in the garden, but his methods are rather unorthodox and within the week the house has two new guests; the rock star called Jimmy and his movie star wife Sheba. Jimmy is drying out, which seems to involve eating a lot of very sugary sweets! Mary Jane has been asked to tell no one the couple are there and this is the first thing she has ever kept from her parents. The second thing is her cut off shorts that Sheba has cut so high they only just cover her bum cheeks – I loved the bit where Mary Jane’s mum bumps into her and Izzy in the supermarket, and she hastily throws on an apron to cover her modesty. She knows that if her mother knew even the half of what is happening over at the Cone’s residence, her summer job would be over, and now she’s grown to love both Izzy and their happy go lucky lifestyle.

Of course these two families are not simply good and bad, they’re just different and that difference is appealing when we realise that Mary Jane is getting from the Cone family, exactly what she is missing at home. Her own mother, although rigid and a little remote, is not a bad woman. Yes she has elitist, and often, judgemental views – the first thing she asks about the Cones is which country club they belong to? She also lives a very ‘Stepford Wife’ existence, with a rota of family chores to follow and the ingrained view that a woman looks after the house, children and her husband. In teaching Mary Jane how to cook and clean, she is preparing her for a similar role in life because that is her norm. They belong to a church that reinforces those same views. However, Mary Jane is well cared for and has a very stable home life, with a mother who wants to keep her safe. By contrast, Bonnie Cone is openly affectionate, praises her cooking and cleaning skills as if they’re a magic art, and encourages her to express herself both emotionally and creatively, but she does have shortcomings. She doesn’t work outside the home, but Izzy is often unfed, unwashed and without Mary Jane’s input could be neglected. As a couple, the Cones choose to bring a known addict into their home who is a total stranger, leave food to rot in the fridge and are effectively allowing a fourteen year old to run their home, cook all their meals and be a full-time nanny to their daughter.

Whilst there is so much charm in their lifestyle and love in their hearts, it doesn’t always translate to action and could be seen as dysfunctional. I can imagine many people finding their nudity troublesome – Mrs Cone is often without a bra and Mr Cone wanders naked from bedroom to bathroom, knowing Mary Jane is in the house. As I was reading I found myself drawn to the Cone’s way of life, but also a little troubled by it. While I dislike rigid, religious upbringings I had to feel a drop of sympathy for Mrs Dillard who thinks she is doing the best thing for her family and often is, in a practical sense. While Izzy seems a happy and well- adjusted little girl now, would that continue into her teenage years or might she crave some structure and safety? There’s a scene, early after Sheba and Jimmy’s arrival where the whole household sit and watch Russian and American astronauts meet in space for the first time. Mary Jane observes that as they all sit together, on or in front of the sofa, everyone has an arm round or hand on someone else. It’s a big affectionate sprawl she describes as being like a litter of puppies. This description stayed with me, and I think it is because they all seemed to be on a equal footing. There are no adults and children here – they are all children. This can also be seen in later descriptions of evenings where everyone sings together, dances to the Jimmy’s records and the adults smoke joints. She is even included in group therapy sessions where everyone is encouraged to be honest and has equal status. I couldn’t tell whether it was the whiff of 1970s nostalgia that made this communal living sound idyllic. There were times when I wondered if any five year old brought up in a similar atmosphere now, might even be flagged up at school or to social services.

However, the author’s skill is in creating that nostalgia for the past, the music, the peace, the love and the permissive family. The atmosphere is warm and welcoming and the reader is charmed into wanting to be a member of this loving and accepting household. I felt seduced by it, but then I was Izzy’s age in 1978 and it does feel like a golden time. These are the rose coloured spectacles of a child. Yet, if I asked my parents what was really going on in our lives then, I might get a completely different story. This is how I felt about Mary Jane, that naïvety she has lead to her being charmed by the Cones. She hasn’t stopped to think what would be happening to Izzy if she wasn’t hired for the summer? On one of the last weeks of summer, they all decamp to the coast, sharing a beach house for the week. I was simply waiting for these couples to clash, or something else to go wrong. One thing is definitely true, seeing an extremely different lifestyle opens Mary Jane’s eyes and gives her a more definite picture of who she wants to be and what to do with her life. This is an interesting, nostalgic and funny coming of age novel with a sympathetic heroine who I really enjoyed.

Meet The Author

Jessica Anya Blau is the author of US bestselling novel The Summer of Naked Swim Parties and three other critically acclaimed novels, most recently The Trouble With Lexie. Her novels have been recommended and featured on CNN, NPR, The Today Show and in Vanity Fair, Cosmo, O Magazine, and many other US magazines and newspapers.

Posted in Netgalley

Waiting for the Miracle by Anna McPartlin

I loved The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes and it’s sequel, both written by this talented author, so I looked forward to starting her new one as soon as NetGalley granted it. As usual for this author it was full of big emotive issues, mixed with the funniest dialogue, strong female characters and an interesting set up. In the narrative from 2010, our four characters meet at an infertility support group. There is a second narrative from 1976 where we meet Catherine, a young girl from Ireland who becomes pregnant as a teenager and is sent to one of the now infamous homes for young mothers, run by the Roman Catholic Church. Coming from a Catholic family myself and finding out I would find it hard to conceive at the age of 25, I was concerned the storyline might be too close to home. I remember being given a list of telephone numbers at the hospital, of women who volunteered for a charity supporting those who had miscarried. I only called one number. Next to the names on the list was a little warning that some of these women had gone on to have healthy pregnancies and there might be children in the house when I called. I knew my outcome would be different by this point. I didn’t have the mental or physical strength to keep getting pregnant, then lose the baby multiple times. I had decided after losing my fourth child that I couldn’t keep going. It was a very hard choice, but the right one for me. I can remember ringing that number for support, only to hear a baby crying in the background. I put the phone down and locked myself in the bathroom so I could grieve in peace. As I read though, I found a kinship with these characters and wished I’d had a group like this to belong to, at a time when my family and friends were supportive, but really didn’t know what it felt like.

Within the group there are women at different stages of this difficult journey. There are so many different reasons for infertility and the author covers most situations within the group: those pursuing IVF; some going through the adoption process; some using donor sperm to have a baby with their same sex partner; women with medical conditions like endometriosis. One has anti-phospho lipid syndrome (often named Hughes Syndrome after the doctor who discovered it) which is my diagnosis and means that it’s possible for patients to get pregnant, but difficult to sustain a pregnancy. Patients with Hughes have sticky blood, making it very difficult to for blood flow to go through the placenta and to the baby. Pregnancies usually fail within the first trimester, my latest miscarriage was at just 12 weeks with twins. As the character in the book relates to the others, often it isn’t detected until the first scan and then an operation must be performed to ‘to remove the products of conception’. As she points out, the medical language may create a distance for the doctor, but for the patient it feels very wrong to see the words ‘termination’ on the consent forms and even harder to sign away the baby you have wanted for so long. The interactions with the NHS were so true to life it felt like the author had popped inside my head and rifled around in my memories. However, there was comfort in knowing this was a shared experience and that other women had been through this feeling exactly the same as I did.

Four women with very different reasons for their fertility problems are drawn together in the group and slowly develop a very strong friendship. A new face in the group sessions seems to bring them together. Ronnie is challenging at first. She seems super confident, asks uncomfortable questions, and invites the others to the pub. She has a strange ability to pull uncomfortable truths and intimate details from those around her, but never seems to disclose much of herself. I found myself starting to question why she was there in the group. Yet as time went on I warmed to her, she seemed feisty and frequently made me smile. Caroline is just about to hit rock bottom in her fertility journey. They have spent a lot of money on medical bills and rounds of IVF, but have never conceived. After discussion with her husband some time ago, they are meant to be never going through it again. Yet Caroline can’t stop yearning for a baby of her own and in her desperation she’s driving her husband away. To make things worse her beloved dog has just died. In a very fragile state she starts to consider just one more round of fertility treatment but her husband isn’t on board. She has to face a very hard decision; is her desire to be a mother, stronger than her love for him? Natalie and her girlfriend have decided to have children using a donor who is very close to home – her girlfriend’s brother. Her girlfriend thinks that if the baby is a blood relative to her, she might be more invested in the idea of becoming parents. Janet’s husband may be having an affair with one of the receptionists from his work place. How can she find out what’s going on? The women are very much a team and support each other, even if one of them is doing something crazy.

Between the present day sections there is the story of a girl called Catherine, back in 1976. Catherine finds herself pregnant after her very first sexual experience with a boy from school. He claims to love her, but she is about to be let down very badly. Catherine’s family are poor, whereas her boyfriend’s family are wealthy and well known in the area. His father is a local magistrate. So when Catherine tells her religious parents what has happened they immediately summon the parish priest and before she knows it Catherine is sitting at the back of his back being shipped off to the nuns at a mother and baby home. We already know the terrible way young girls were treated in these places from films like The Magdalene Laundries and Philomena, but I must admit there were parts of Catherine’s story that genuinely made me cry. I couldn’t believe the casual brutality of these nuns, who are supposed to be women of God. They really made my blood boil. I found it was Catherine’s story that drove the book for me, her plight kept me reading and there were a couple of moments in her story where I was so involved I forgot everything going on around me! The heartbreak, betrayal and psychological abuse this girl goes through is horrendous and her ability to keep going and survive is incredible.

I think that this author enjoys writing about women’s issues and their friendships. She has an awareness, that although we love our partners in life, it is often our female friends that hold us up and keep us going through the worst times. I refer to my best friends as my non-sexual life partners! I had an inkling about the mystery at the centre of the story. What did happen to the baby Catherine had stolen from her at the mother and baby home? I read this in a day, because I was so drawn in by the story and these women who felt completely real to me. Anna McPartlin has such a storytelling skill. She has a way of mining your emotions until you’re sobbing over someone who isn’t even real. For those who’ve been through any of the experiences featured, it might be a difficult read in parts, but I promise you won’t feel let down or misrepresented by the way she depicts your experience. This was sad, funny, warm and poignant. A little bit like life.

Meet The Author.

From Anna’s Amazon Author Page.

Hello reader, 

I’m an Irish novelist and a TV scriptwriter. Currently with 7 fiction titles available to buy online and one children’s title under the name Bannie McPartlin. As of August 2019 I’ve just finished writing ‘Under The Big Blue Sky,’ the follow up to international best selling title ‘The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes.’ This title will be published by Bonnier Zaffer and will be available UK &I IRE and amazon Summer 2020. 

My previous short incarnation as a stand-up comedian left an indelible mark. I’m described by all who know me as a slave to the joke and my work focuses on humour and humanity in even the darkness situations.

So if you’d like to take a trip to the dark side and if you are a fan of big, bold characters check out my titles and I hope you enjoy.

PS

If you are not a fan of moderate to severe cursing, best to move on. Either way good luck to you. 

PPS

I dabble in twitter but often forget it’s there (@annamcpartlin). I’m better on Facebook but not brilliant Anna McPartlin and I really giving it a good old go on instagram #Trying (mcpartlin.anna) and my website is annamcpartlin.com.

Anna McP XXX

Posted in Random Things Tours

Heatstroke by Hazel Barkworth.

Do I really see what’s in her mind, Each time i think I’m close to knowing She keeps on growing, Slipping through my fingers all the time. ABBA

Years ago, when Mamma Mia first came out at the cinema, I went to see it with my Mum. When it came to the wedding day and Meryl Streep helping her daughter get ready for the ceremony, I saw so much emotion flow through my Mum’s face. I didn’t want to make a fuss, because I knew that if I touched her or asked if she was ok it would make things worse. It threw me a little bit because I couldn’t remember my mum ever being sentimental about me. I’d always been someone, she thought, could took care of herself. On our drive home I asked her what about the scene made her emotional, and she said it wasn’t the scene it was the song ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’. It talks about a mother who never seems able to fully capture a moment with her daughter, because she moves just out of reach all the time. Away to school, on to grammar school, to new friends, boyfriends, university and into a fully grown woman. I’m not sure I fully understood what she felt, I don’t have children, but more recently I became a stepmum to two teenage girls. I can see now, with my eldest, how girls grow so quick and out of your influence. How friends become the people who understand them, how they’re constantly making plans to get away, to visit other places, to move on, to study in another city. It’s as if the woman they’re becoming wipes away the trace of that little girl you once did everything for. This book is about that point between mother and daughter; Rachel sees her daughter Mia slipping through her fingers.

The backdrop to this mother -daughter story is a heatwave and a scandal. The nightmare begins when Mia’s school friend Lily disappears one night when she’s supposed to be at a sleep over with her friends. Mia socialises in a group of five girls, and in parallel Rachel keeps a What’s App group of their mothers aimed at keeping in touch with their daughter’s plans and keeping them safe. Lily disappears in the midst of the heatwave and the author very cleverly uses it to ratchet up the tension. At home and at Mia’s school, where Rachel works as a teacher, the heat is relentless. Rachel notices the girls in class lifting their long curtains of hair, and twisting it into a top knot just to feel some air on the back of their neck. Everyone is somehow more aware of each other’s bodies: the smells, the damp as you stand up from a sitting position, or on your back as you stop driving and get out of the car. Rachel’s also aware of so much young flesh on show. The girls and their golden legs, without a trace of hair. They’re perfection and by comparison Rachel is aware of her own flesh as less taut, just a millimetre too saggy at the jawline.

At night it’s impossible to sleep. In between the oppressive heat and worry about Lilly, there are short chapters detailing an illicit relationship. It feels obsessive and dangerous. There are no names used. Could it be Lily or is someone else keeping a secret? Then police find that Lily took something with her. A piece of lingerie belonging to her mother. That means she chose to go and for a moment everyone breathes, until they realise that means she didn’t go alone, but with a person is possibly older and might still mean her harm. Rachel asks Lily’s parents if she can look over her bedroom, just in case there is something the police have overlooked. Something that might only have meaning to those who know the girls well. She finds, on Lily’s notice board, some song lyrics and straight away she knows, she knows who Lily is with. The shock reverberates through her. She should tell the police straight away, but she can’t, she needs to process it first. To think it through before the police do find out, because that could bring even worse trouble. Yet, if it’s ever found out that she knew and kept it to herself, she could be in trouble with the police or even lose her job.

I enjoyed the author’s depiction of how Rachel copes with growing older, made especially difficult by her past and Mia’s growing beauty, Rachel has placed a photo outside the downstairs loo. It shows her at her peak of youth and beauty as the singer in a band. In skimpy clothes and torn tights I imagined her look like Courtney Love, the lead singer in Hole back in the 1990s. Rachel seems to be embarrassed when people recognise her, but it seems likely that people will see it, because of where it’s placed. It’s as if she wants to show she was once cool and beautiful. It’s an ego boost for her. There’s a disturbing scene later, when she takes Mia’s prom dress and tries it on. She’s pleased to be able to fit into it, but what seemed harmless turns into something else when Mia comes home. In another scene she has thoughts about Lily, and her first time sharing a living space with a man. Rachel imagines her worrying about how to do all the things that make her beautiful: the shaving, plucking and preening are no longer private and mysterious I l if these concerns were really for Lily or whether they were about her own beauty rituals. Would she ever be able to accept her ageing process and know she can be attractive at any age?

The mysterious man at the centre of Lily’s disappearance exerts a strange hold over the women involved with him. The author doesn’t ever give us his thoughts or feelings. We just get snippets of musical taste, but it’s clear he is either beguiling or emotionally/psychologically abusive. One disturbing scene shows him and his unnamed lover enter a freezing cold river in their underwear. He goes in first as if to give her the motivation and even though he says very little, it’s clear the female feels compelled to move in deeper and deeper until she feels the current trying to carry her away. I sensed that he wants her to feel powerless without him. I wasn’t surprised to learn who the anonymous lovers are in these sections, but the ending did surprise me. As everything comes to a head towards the Prom, Rachel gets a chance to see her daughter anew. Rachel learns so much about herself and how wrong she has been about any things. As she rushes to support her daughter it’s as if that stifling heat has been affecting her ability to think straight. As the rain starts to come down outside, leaving it’s own unique smell rising from the boiling pavements, Rachel’s eyes clear to see that within the beautiful woman in front of her, there is still a glimmer of the little girl inside again.

Meet The Author

HAZEL BARKWORTH grew up in Stirlingshire and North Yorkshire before studying English at Oxford. She then moved to London where she spent her days working as a cultural consultant, and her nights dancing in a pop band at glam rock clubs. Hazel is a graduate of both the Oxford University MSt in Creative Writing and the Curtis Brown Creative Novel-Writing course. She now works in Oxford, where she lives with her partner. HEATSTROKE is her first novel.

Why not check out these other book bloggers on the tour?

Posted in Monthly Wrap Up

Books Of The Month! May 2021

May has been a very busy blog month and had me almost at the edge of my reading limit. I found myself having to take breaks from reading because my eyes were so sore. However, I’ve still managed to read some fantastic novels. All the novelists above are new to me, except for one.

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.

This novel was a great surprise. I read this for a blog tour and I really couldn’t stop reading, so had to cope with a couple of regrettable late nights! For the first chapter I expected a bit of an ‘aga saga’. Cass lives a very comfortable life in the country with her husband and daughter. She is a gardener and is very involved in her local community, including a friendship group of very close women friends. Ellie turns up at a Sunday barbecue and makes quite an entrance. Where the other women are in shirts and jeans, Ellie is fully made up, wearing a stunning 1950’s style dress and a pair of towering red high heels. She’s an author and has moved close to Cass, hoping for some quiet to write her novel. Cass wonders whether she’s met a new friend, and Ellie does seem to slot into the group very easily. However, over the coming weeks Cass finds little things going wrong, she’s confused and feels alienated from her friends, but has no idea why. This is a great thriller that will keep you guessing.

This was an incredible debut from this author and a feminist rewrite of the Greek myth Theseus and the Minotaur. Ariadne is the eldest daughter of King Minos of Crete and his wife Pasiphae. She has a sister called Phaedra, but has very mixed feelings about her younger brother Asterion. Asterion was the result of a prank played by Poseidon on King Minos. To embarrass the King, Poseidon placed an enchantment on Pasiphae so she fell in love with a bull. Asterion was the result of their union and at first Ariadne has very positive memories of her baby brother and his little horn buds above huge eyelashes. Yet before long Minos has renamed him the Minotaur, and instructs Daedalus to build a labyrinth to keep him in. Once a year, Minos demands the sacrifice of young men and women from Athens, who are placed in the labyrinth and chased down by the Minotaur. Then, one year, Theseus arrives with the sacrificial group. Ariadne is dazzled by this young man and agrees to help him by placing his weapons inside the labyrinth, enabling him to kill her brother. He promises to take Ariadne with him, when he returns to Athens. So how come she wakes up a day later, on a different island, alone. The author retells this well known story from the point of view of the women and I really enjoyed reviewing it from a disability perspective too.

This was my first Faith Hogan novel and I’ll definitely be buying more. Again, women are front and centre in this story based in a small village in Ireland. Elizabeth is the doctor’s wife and lives in the big house, but her marriage has been far from happy and after the death of her husband she finds they were drowning in debt. Luckily she has a good friend to turn to. Jo lives in a little cottage at the bottom of the village and she has a brainwave to help her friend. Jo’s daughter Lucy is a doctor, taking a break from working in a hospital after her marriage broke down. She brings her teenage and stays at her mother’s, agreeing to keep the GP surgery ticking over until Elizabeth knows what she wants to do. Then Jo receives shocking news that will change life for them all. The women dispel their worries by meeting at night and going wild swimming in the Irish Sea. When they’re laid back in the waves looking up at the stars, life looks different and their worries seem smaller. It also gives them the idea for a fundraiser for their local hospice. I loved this story of female friendship and the support we can give each other.

Finally, there’s this disturbing read, which was an uncomfortable experience since we’re still living in a pandemic. This is another clever debut, set in 2025, where a Glasgow doctor reports a worrying pattern of illness she’s detected. Dr Andrea McLean is horrified when a young man presents with a fever and dies within three hours. It spreads through the hospital with frightening speed, but the powers that be don’t want to acknowledge the problem at first. By the time they do, it will be too late. A pandemic is underway, and strangely this virus seems to only affect men. This book made me think really deeply about what such a pandemic would mean to society. There are all the roles that men usually fill, but also some terrible choices for individual women to make. If your partner was ill, would you leave to protect your male children? Could you leave your elderly father to die, to keep your husband safe? Although this was an uncomfortable read, it was thought-provoking and incredibly clever too.

Looking Forward To in June

Posted in Publisher Proof

The Distant Dead by Lesley Thomson.

A woman lies dead in a bombed-out house. A tragic casualty of the Blitz? Or something more sinister? Sixty years later, the detective’s daughter unearths the truth… From the number 1 bestselling author of The Detective’s Daughter.

LONDON, 1940

Several neighbours heard the scream of the woman in the bombed-out house. One told the detective she thought the lady had seen a mouse. Another said it wasn’t his business what went on behind closed doors. None of them imagined that a trusting young woman was being strangled by her lover.

TEWKESBURY, 2020

Beneath the vast stone arches of Tewkesbury Abbey, a man lies bleeding, close to death. He is the creator of a true-crime podcast which now will never air. He was investigating the murder of a 1940s police pathologist – had he come closer to the truth than he realised?

This is the first time I’ve read Lesley Thomson and her Detective’s Daughter series, of which this is the eighth novel. At first it felt a little like coming into the room in the middle of a conversation, but once the second timeline began I’d been drawn into the atmosphere of an interesting story, full of character and historical detail. In the now section of the novel, Stella is settling in Tewkesbury and trying to finally come to terms with the death of her father in a place where she isn’t reminded of him at every turn. It was a tough choice to completely uproot herself, leaving behind her business Clean Slate and a long term relationship with Jack. She has moved with journalist Lucie, who also loved her father, and the women are dealing with their grief in their own ways. Stella has started visiting The Death Cafe, run by pathologist Felicity Branscombe. It’s a space to meet others struggling with grief and they discuss their experiences of death. While on one of her cleaning jobs – at Tewkesbury Abbey – she meets a man called Roddy Marsh and they pass the time of day as he asks her questions about how she keeps a place like this clean. However, she then meets him again at her second visit to the Death Cafe group. Is this a coincidence, or did Roddy want to meet Stella? Straight after the group meeting, Stella returns to the Abbey only to find poor Roddy, dying from a stab wound in his back. He has something important to say to her, but sadly Stella can’t catch his words.

In our past storyline we are taken to the London Blitz and the murder of young mother Maple Greenham. For some reason, my connection to Maple was instant and I really enjoyed her part in the story. We meet her as she is getting ready for a night out and we sense her parent’s trepidation that she’s stepping out with a man who doesn’t pick her up or even walk her home. They’ve never met him at all. After an evening of dancing, her beau produces a key for a friend’s house and they have a tryst. I loved the small details Thomson evokes in these glimpses of the past. Here, Maple has a moment of irritation as she notices a snag in the toe of her silk stocking and mentally tots up how much time she’s had to spend working to afford them. This told me that the man she’s with wouldn’t understand that sort of concern, because he’s from a different class to her. Maple’s scream is dismissed by those who do hear it. No one imagined it was the sound of this young woman being strangled by her lover. DI George Cotton is the investigating officer and finds incontrovertible evidence of her killer’s identity, but finds his case and his career shelved. This is a man too important to the war effort to be hauled up on a murder charge. Put simply, it’s decided his life and the potential lives his work will save, are more important than Maple. The link between cases is a podcast, titled The Distant Dead, featuring murder cases where the real culprits were never caught. The presenter of this true crime series was Roddy Marsh and he was featuring the death of a 1940s police pathologist. Is there someone in the present day who wants these truths to stay buried?

Now, the Clean Slate staff alongside Stella, Lucie and Jack decide to investigate past and present murder cases. This is not without it’s dangers and leads us to an interesting cast of characters, none of which are exactly what we expect. Stella realises again, that it seems impossible for her to leave her father’s world behind. There’s even a connection to the SIO on Roddy’s murder, a WPC who worked with Stella’s dad. I enjoyed tracing the links between past and present cases and watching how Stella works – no matter that she doesn’t want to fall into her father’s work and habits, she does seem to have a talent for it. I loved the historical detail from the 1940 case too. This was an atmospheric tale, full of the twists and turns a modern reader expects. However, there’s also a feel of a much earlier mystery novel, possibly a 1930s/40s cozy murder mystery. It has elements like the eccentric characters, gatherings in tea rooms and unusual methods of murder. Some aspects are spooky, such as the cathedral or the dark and narrow country lanes. Others, such as the dialogue, are almost comical. There’s also Stanley the dog’s antics too of course. It is an enjoyable read, slightly slow in some parts, but with a great sense of place and characterisation.

Meet The Author.

Lesley Thomson is the author of the Detective’s Daughter series of West London-set mysteries featuring private investigators Stella, a cleaner, and Jack, a tube driver. The first novel, The Detective’s Daughter, became an ebook phenomenon in 2013, staying at number 1 in the digital charts for 3 months. Since then, the series has gone on to sell 800,000 copies worldwide. Lesley is an active member of the UK crimewriting community, and appeared at several crime festivals in 2019, including CrimeFest, Harrogate, Morecambe & Vice and Capital Crime. She lives in Lewes with her partner and her dog

Follow Lesley:

Facebook: @LesleyThomsonNovelist

Twitter: @LesleyjmThomson

Website: lesleythomson.co.uk

Buy links:

Amazon: https://amzn.to/3eCVO6O

iBooks: https://apple.co/3y3A8Zf

Kobo: https://bit.ly/3hmq47F

Google Play: https://bit.ly/3uMuAjS

Waterstones: https://bit.ly/3y7IRtC

Bookshop.org: https://bit.ly/3y3O6dN

Follow Head of Zeus

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Twitter: @HoZ_Fiction

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Posted in Publisher Proof

Ladies Midnight Swimming Club by Faith Hogan.

It might be a surprise to her many fans, but I’ve never read a Faith Hogan novel before. I can’t think why, because I absolutely loved this literary mix of the deeply emotional, yet uplifting and funny book set in a small seaside village in Ireland. It focuses on a lifelong friendship between two older women – Jo and Elizabeth. Jo lives in a small cottage overlooking the bay and has one daughter, Lucy. Lucy is a doctor whose having a long break over the summer from working long hours in a busy hospital. She’s still struggling with the aftermath of a divorce and a husband who has a new wife and relocated to the much sunnier and glamorous sounding Australia. Elizabeth is still grieving her husband, the village GP, but is still keeping his secrets. All three women meet in the bay at midnight for a dip in the freezing cold Atlantic. Finally, there’s Dan, a young writer taking a break from script-writing and hoping inspiration hits in the quaint Irish village of Ballycove.

This book hinges on the strength of its characters and I was destined to love Elizabeth. Up until now she seemed to hold herself apart from the village, apart from the abiding friendship she shares with Jo, who knew her before she became the doctor’s wife. Remote from other villagers in her large house with adjoining doctor’s surgery she is in the strange position of knowing some of the most personal aspects of her neighbour’s lives, yet not a single one knows her story. Many might have thought she was destined for the big house and the status it brings, but nothing could be further from the truth. Elizabeth finds her house cold and never truly feels at home there, preferring instead the cosiness of Jo’s small cottage. As the novel progresses she creates a corner for herself with the comfiest chair and the evidence of her hobbies laying round about her. It’s the most comfortable she’s ever been in her beautiful house, that’s never really been a home. She has just lost her husband and is going through all the upheaval that brings, but there were secrets about her marriage that nobody knows. The young doctor’s proposal for Elizabeth’s hand had conditions attached, more than she could ever have realised at the time. It was the only way out of a terrible situation she found herself in – pregnant and afraid she made the bargain, then paid a terrible price for the rest of her life. What we experience with her is an awakening and so many new experiences start to open up, signified powerfully by the midnight skinny dipping she’s enticed into by her friend Jo. She emerges ready to take on the problems she finds herself in, not least the gambling debts racked up by her late husband and the ailing practice he left behind. Firstly hiring Jo’s daughter Lucy as an interim GP for the summer, making plans to sell the house and helping visiting author Dan in his quest to find out more about the local home for unwed mothers. There is more heartache to come, but will Elizabeth have the strength to face it?

Lucy is another character dealing with the aftermath of huge life changes, after the collapse of her marriage. She’s taking a break from work and hoping to reconnect with her son Niall. He finds it hard to accept the quieter pace of life in Ballcraig and hates that he’s left friends behind. He has a heartbreaking conversation with his mum where he discloses that he’d rather go live with his Dad in Australia. He’s imagining his father’s cool apartment overlooking the Sydney harbour and the excitement that living back in a city might bring. Lucy knows her ex- husband will say yes, not because he has a burning need to spend time with his son, but because it will score points. It takes a strong woman to put aside her misgivings and make that phone call, but she does. However, as Niall forms a relationship with Dan after visiting his cottage out on the cliff, then meets the piano seller’s daughter will the magic of this little village rub off on him? Lucy also starts to find friendship, firstly with Elizabeth and also with her mother who encourages her to join the midnight swimming club. She also starts to confide in Dan who is a great listener, but since both of them are only visiting the coast, is this a friendship that can flourish.

Lastly Jo, who is one of those characters who seem to sustain everyone else. She’s the friend with the cosy home that people want to visit, the starter of social gatherings, and the great listener with a cup of tea never far away. As always with good listeners and people used to caring for others, she isn’t always good at sharing her own worries and problems. She’s fiercely loyal to her friends, the evening long ago, where she started an altercation with Elizabeth’s husband over how he was treating her friend is long remembered and talked about. Without seeming to do much she is the lynchpin of this group and is thought well of by her fellow villagers. When it’s clear she does need help, the support comes from all around her. I really enjoyed her acceptance of life with all its heartbreak and absurdities, as well as the way she values her female friends.

These characters are so well drawn I feel that they might exist somewhere. The setting is beautifully romantic, even if the sea is absolutely freezing! Dan’s quest is well handled too, with an honesty about the awful cruelty that did happen within mother and baby homes in Ireland, the true extent of which still hits the headlines today. The author uses her older characters to describe what it is like when a country is so ruled by any religion, and how in small villages the word of the parish priest or Mother Superior was law. I enjoyed the humour though too, often just in the way the characters talk to each other but also in little ‘in-jokes’ with the reader such as Dan imagining the swimming club as one of those films like Calendar Girls. I can imagine this as a film, but until then I have quite a back catalogue to dive into. Thanks to this novel, Faith Hogan has a new fan.

Meet The Author

Faith Hogan is an Irish award-winning and bestselling author of five contemporary fiction novels. Her books have featured as Book Club Favorites, Net Galley Hot Reads and Summer Must Reads. She writes grown up women’s fiction which is unashamedly uplifting, feel good and inspiring. She lives in the west of Ireland with her husband, four children and a very busy Labrador named Penny. She’s a writer, reader, enthusiastic dog walker and reluctant jogger – except of course when it is raining!

Posted in Monthly Wrap Up

Books Of The Month: April 2021!

What an incredible mix of reading I’ve had in April. First of all I reached a milestone of over 20 books read in a month. Something I haven’t managed since my university days. I’m thinking it needs to calm down a little in the weeks ahead. I’ve travelled from Ireland, to Orkney via Kenya, and from the 1940s to the present day and from a feminist manifesto to charming, uplifting reads. There’s is a thread through all of them though – strong female characters and an understanding of how life’s events, including trauma, affect women mentally.

The Imposter by Anna Wharton

Publisher: Mantle 1st April 2021

Chloe lives a quiet life. Working as a newspaper archivist in the day and taking care of her nan in the evening, she’s happy simply to read about the lives of others as she files the news clippings from the safety of her desk. But there’s one story that she can’t stop thinking about. The case of Angie Kyle a girl, Chloe’s age, who went missing as a child. A girl whose parents never gave up hope. When Chloe’s nan is moved into care, leaving Chloe on the brink of homelessness, she takes a desperate step: answering an ad to be a lodger in the missing girl’s family home. It could be the perfect opportunity to get closer to the story she’s read so much about. But it’s not long until she realizes this couple isn’t all they seem. In a house where everyone has something to hide, is it possible to get too close?

The Source by Sarah Sultoon

Publisher Orenda Books 15th April 2021

One last chance to reveal the truth…

1996. Essex. Thirteen-year-old schoolgirl Carly lives in a disenfranchised town dominated by a military base, struggling to care for her baby sister while her mum sleeps off another binge. When her squaddie brother brings food and treats, and offers an exclusive invitation to army parties, things start to look a little less bleak…

2006. London. Junior TV newsroom journalist Marie has spent six months exposing a gang of sex traffickers, but everything is derailed when New Scotland Yard announces the re-opening of Operation Andromeda, the notorious investigation into allegations of sex abuse at an army base a decade earlier…

As the lives of these two characters intertwine around a single, defining event, a series of utterly chilling experiences is revealed, sparking a nail-biting race to find the truth … and justice.

Madame Burova by Ruth Hogan.

Publisher Two Roads, 1st April 2021

Imelda Burova has spent a lifetime keeping other people’s secrets and her silence has come at a price. She has seen the lovers and the liars, the angels and the devils, the dreamers and the fools. Her cards had unmasked them all and her cards never lied. But Madame Burova is weary of other people’s lives, their ghosts from the past and other people’s secrets, she needs rest and a little piece of life for herself. Before that, however, she has to fulfill a promise made a long time ago. She holds two brown envelopes in her hand, and she has to deliver them.

In London, it is time for another woman to make a fresh start. Billie has lost her university job, her marriage, and her place in the world when she discovers something that leaves her very identity in question. Determined to find answers, she must follow a trail which might just lead right to Madame Burova’s door.

In a story spanning over fifty years, Ruth Hogan conjures a magical world of 1970s holiday camps and seaside entertainers, eccentrics, heroes and villains, the lost and the found. Young people, with their lives before them, make choices which echo down the years. And a wall of death rider is part of a love story which will last through time.

The Metal Heart by Caroline Lea.

Publisher Michael Joseph, 29th April 2021

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. Soon, trust frays between the islanders and outsiders, and between the sisters – their hearts torn by rival claims of duty and desire. A storm is coming . . .

Charity by Madeleine Dewhurst.

Publisher Lightning Books, 26th April 2021

Edith, an elderly widow with a large house in an Islington garden square, needs a carer. Lauren, a nail technician born in the East End, needs somewhere to live. A rent-free room in lieu of pay seems the obvious solution, even though the pair have nothing in common.

Or do they? Why is Lauren so fascinated by Edith’s childhood in colonial Kenya? Is Paul, the handsome lodger in the basement, the honest broker he appears? And how does Charity, a Kenyan girl brutally tortured during the Mau Mau rebellion, fit into the equation?

Capturing the spirited interplay between two women divided by class, generation and a deeper gulf from the past, and offering vivid flashbacks to 1950s East Africa, Madeline Dewhurst’s captivating debut spins a web of secrets and deceit where it’s not always obvious who is the spider and who is the fly.

The Seven Necessary Sins of Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy

Publisher Tramp Press 26th April 2021

The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls identifies seven sins women and girls are socialised to avoid anger, attention, profanity, ambition, power, violence and lust. With essays on each, Mona Eltahawy creates a stunning manifesto encouraging women worldwide to defy, disobey and disrupt the patriarchy. Drawing on her own life and the work of intersectional activists from around the world, #MeToo and the Arab Spring, Eltahawy’s work defines what it is to be a feminist now.

Special Mention – The Miseducation of Evie Epworth by Matson Taylor.

I have to mention this absolute joy of a book, now out in paperback from Simon and Schuster. Evie takes us all the way back to the 1960s and a Yorkshire village where her Dad runs a dairy farm. This summer Evie is waiting for her exam results, but Chrissie – her dad’s new girlfriend – doesn’t want her just laying round the house and reading. Chrissie is busy upgrading the farmhouse from all that wood and bringing in some modern Formica. Evie wants her Dad to see what Chrissie is truly like, but isn’t sure how. This teenage diary is hilarious, poignant and uplifting. It’s an absolute joy of a read.

Yellow Limited Edition Paperbacks available at Independent bookshops.

So that’s my monthly picks. Here are some other good picks from this month.

Posted in Squad Pod Collective

The Miseducation of Evie Epworth by Matson Taylor.

Happy Paperback Publication Day to Matson Taylor for his joyous novel The Miseducation of Evie Epworth. I’ve wanted to read it again this year I’ve loved it so much. As a reminder here’s my review from last year and don’t forget to join the #SquadPodCollective @squadpod3 on Twitter for the celebratory #cakeblast on Saturday 1st May where we are all sharing our Evie themed bakes across social media.

I was only three pages in to this book and I knew that Evie was going to be one of my favourite literary characters. Favourite as in – on my list next to Jo March, Cassandra Mortmain and Adrian Mole, characters I’ve also experienced growing up and setting out into the world. The book was off to a good start anyway, then as we followed Evie jumping into her father’s MG to do the milk round there was a scene so funny I laughed out loud at 2am waking both the dog and my other half. I devoured this book in 24 hours, knowing part of me would be sorry when it ended, but not able to slow down either. 

We meet Evie when she’s at a crossroads in life. She’s in that limbo summer between GCSE and deciding what to do next. Evie’s plan, if she gets the right results, is to do her A Levels. Till then she plans to spend the summer delivering milk from the family farm, baking with Mrs Scott-Pym next door, and reading all the books she can get her hands on. There is only one thing in her way; her Dad Arthur’s girlfriend, Christine. Chrissie has moved into the farmhouse and is setting about making changes. This is 1962 and she’s all for embracing the new. She wants to get rid of the old unhygienic wood in the kitchen, because what they need is some nice modern Formica. She’s already replaced the Range with an electric cooker, because she couldn’t work it. As Evie says, it takes quite an intellect to be outwitted by a kitchen appliance. Worst of all she’s replaced Evie’s Adam Faith clock with a chicken! It has always just been Evie and her Dad, Arthur, as far back as she can remember. Her mum died when Evie was little and she has no memories of her. Chrissie needs to be dealt with, but how? Arthur is a disappointment. Mrs Scott-Pym says he’s like all men, weak and easily confused by a pair of boobs. 

I have lived in villages and on farms for my whole life so I can honestly say that the author’s depiction of the characters and events of country life are not exaggerated – no, not even that cow scene. There are still characters like this in rural villages. The comedy comes from the brilliantly blunt Yorkshire dialogue, the gap between what we as adults understand and Evie doesn’t yet, but mainly the amazing characters created by the author. Mrs Swithenbank is a comedy gem, always at the mercy of her explosive bowels. The long suffering Vera, Chrissie’s mother, who is never far behind her daughter like a human ‘buy one-get one free’ offer. Then, Mrs Scott-Pym’s daughter Caroline, comes into the village like a whirlwind and along with Evie shows that constant dilemma young people in villages face – do they stay put or go out into the wider world, perhaps needing to try the anonymity of the city? It can be hard to develop into your true self in a village where everyone knows who you are and any attempt to change is the object of ridicule. I remember a perm I had at 15, thinking I looked like Baby from Dirty Dancing, only to hear ‘ugh what have you done to your hair’ at every house on the pools round. I loved the depiction of the petty rivalries around the village show and what a surprise it is that Chrissie, who struggles with making toast, wins the best fruit cake. On top of everything else she does, the fact that she possibly cheated at the village show is viewed as the worst crime and given the last reveal. 

Chrissie though is the best comic creation of the lot, but isn’t left to be one dimensional either. Though she is truly awful in a lot of ways, it’s clear that she’s from a poorer family in the village and her upbringing hasn’t been easy. There’s class war over the Range cooker for sure. She lets slip in an exchange with Evie that she’d done every job going, from waitressing to wiping arses. While that might excuse her yearning for an easier life, it doesn’t excuse her way of getting it. There are times when it’s all out war at the tea table and Arthur stays behind his paper hoping it will blow over. I loved her ever present ‘pinkness’ and a crimplene wardrobe that Evie observes doesn’t end in Narnia, but at a bingo hall in Scunthorpe (I love seeing my birthplace in print). Poor Vera is always struggling a few paces behind, usually sweating and doing all the fetching and carrying. Chrissie is always exhausted – I need to put my feet up, Mum put the kettle on – and always rushing towards getting another grasping finger on Arthur, preferably a finger with a ring on it. This should have been a mild flirtation or dalliance at most, everyone can see they are not suited. 

There are interludes between Evie’s chapters where we see the meeting of her parents, Arthur and Diana. They are serene, even romantic chapters where we see them meet at a dance, get married in a rush during the war and settle at the farm. We see Diana form a friendship with Mrs Scott-Pym and rush round to tell her friend when Evie is on the way. There’s so much of this interesting woman left, hidden in plain sight such as a particular teaspoon in the drawer and the recipe book Mrs Scott-Pym has kept for Evie. It’s so sad that Evie and her Dad don’t talk about her more openly and honestly. If wishes and spells aren’t going to change this, there needs to be a catalyst. When Mrs Scott-Pyle falls down the stairs and her daughter Caroline arrives we see a force of nature equal to Chrissie. She wears elegant clothes, big black sunglasses and scarves tied round her neck like the French do. Evie is very impressed with her sophistication, but also her nerve. She cooks up a great scheme to get Evie out of working in the village salon, takes her to Leeds to shop in an Italian deli and has the means by which Chrissie’s true nature can be revealed. She is also the only lesbian Evie has ever met, leading to her asking visiting friends of Caroline’s whether they are a lesbian too as a conversation starter! Evie is trying on different futures, and may be adding Caroline as an extra role model alongside The Queen, Charlotte Bronte and Shirley MacLaine. 

This novel is an absolute joy. A great read to cheer you up and honestly, make you laugh out loud. Every character is beautifully drawn and the comic timing is perfect. I couldn’t believe it was a debut, because it has all the confidence and timing of Sue Townsend and also made me think back further to the blunt Yorkshire characters of James Herriot. On a personal level I needed a lift, after being very strict with lockdown rules due to my MS, and this was just the lift I needed. Thank you Matson, for such a great set of characters and for providing exactly the book I needed at exactly the right time.

Posted in Inclusion and Diversity

Blog Tour: Books On The Hill Open Dyslexia Kickstarter Project.

Today I’m hosting something a little different on my blog. A project that aims to help adults with dyslexia access fiction. This was important to me, not because I am diagnosed with dyslexia, but my MS means I experience cognitive and physical symptoms that make it difficult for me to read. To have the hobby you love more than anything affected like this is so frustrating and makes me anxious that one day I will lose the ability to enjoy a book altogether. I combat this with: assistive technology; reading real print books instead of e-books; larger print and reading on a bigger screen help too. I think because of my own difficulties, I really appreciate any project that opens up great books to all. So, when Anne at Random Things Tours asked, I jumped at the chance to publicise Books on the Hill’s new diversity project: ‘Open Dyslexic.’

The Project.

It’s aim is to publish good quality fiction, for a minority group not provided for by the U.K’s traditional mass book market. It also provides booksellers with a new tool in their drive to increase diversity and inclusion. We have created a new publisher BOTH Press to do this.

Books on the Hill is passionate about helping people who have dyslexia, or have any difficulty with reading, to access the joy of good fiction. There are great books out now for children with dyslexia, with specialist publishers like Barrington Stokes and mainstream publishers such as Bloomsbury doing their part. However, there are sadly very few books for adults with Dyslexia in traditional mass market publishing. Dyslexia is a learning difference that primarily affects reading and writing skills. The NHS estimates that up to 1 in every 10 people in the UK have some form of dyslexia, while other dyslexic organisations believe 1 in 5 and more than 2 million people in the UK are severely affected.


Dyslexia does not stop someone from achieving. There are many individuals who are successful and are dyslexic. Famous actors, such as Orlando Bloom; Entrepreneurs like Theo Paphitis, and many, many more, including myself. All of who believe dyslexia has helped them to be where they are now. Dyslexia, though, as I can attest to, does not go away. You don’t grow out of it, and so we are acknowledging that and trying to without being patronising, create a selection of books that will be friendly to people who deal with dyslexia every day.


Since we started the project in 2019, Books on the Hill have had many adults customers with dyslexia come in shop the asking for something accessible to read. For example, one customer asked if we stocked well known novels in a dyslexic friendly format. Unfortunately we had to say no, as they just don’t exist. We explained what we are trying to achieve by printing our own and she replied:


“I have been reading [children dyslexic] books but they are a bit childish so am really happy I have found your company!! Thanks so much again and thank you for making such a helpful and inclusive brand – it means a lot.”

This response is not isolated. We have had many adults come in to the shop with dyslexia, who do not read or struggle to read and they they believe dyslexic friendly books would have real impact on their reading for pleasure.

The Team

Books on the Hill is Alistair Sims. He is the manager and commander-in-chief of the bookshop (though his partner, Chloe and his mother, Joanne, who set up the bookshop with him, may disagree with this description ). Alistair is dyslexic and has a PhD in history and archaeology. Alistair could not read until he was 13 and is passionate about helping anyone who has difficulty reading. He is the driving force behind BOTH Press and has been involved in every step in this project, from finding award winning authors to contribute, the cover design, and the road to publication, including setting up for distribution.


Books on the Hill are collaborating with Chrissey Harrison, who is also an local author and member of North Bristol Writers Group. Chressey and Alistair have designed the book-covers together, with Chrissey creating the finished product we now look on at awe with. Nearly all the design work has been done by Chrissey, and she is also in charge of the printing process, typesetting. We are so proud and appreciative to be working with her. Special mention must go to Harrison Gates, who runs Nine Worthy, and who has dedicated his time and expertise to produce our print catalogue for us free of cost. Joanne Hall is an author, editor and formerly the Chair of BristolCon, Bristol’s premier (and only) science fiction and fantasy convention. We must give a huge thank you to Jo for proof reading the stories free of cost. Vicky Brewster has edited all the new stories by the authors. She specialises in editing and beta reading long-form fiction. Vicky is a great professional editor.

The Books.

We have been so fortunate that many great authors have agreed to contribute to this project. All are brilliant authors and are names I am sure you will recognise.


Stan Nicholls, who has been a great support to Alistair Sim, particularly with my PhD. He is the author of many novels and short stories but is best known for the internationally acclaimed Orcs: First Blood series.


Steven Savile, the fantasy, horror and thriller writer, now lives in Stockholm whose father is a customer of the BOTH bookshop.


The horror duo that is Thana Niveau and John Llewellyn Probert, both well established and engaging authors and also residents of Clevedon.
Adrian Tchaikovsky is an Arthur Clark Award winner and best known for his series Shadows of the Apt, and for his novel Children of Time.
Steven Poore is the highly acclaimed fantasy writer who Alistair met at his first fantasy convention in Scarborough.


We finish the Magnificent Seven with Joel Cornah, who also has dyslexia, and with whom Alistair participated in a podcast on dyslexia for the Clevedon Literature 2020 ‘Festival in the Clouds’.

How Can You Help?

We are launching a Kickstarter beginning in April 2nd 2021 for 30 days, with the focus on paying for the printing of our books and giving us starting capital to continue to print more titles. There will be many ways you can be involved in this. You can contribute on the Kickstarter website itself. There will be a number of different options of donating money, in which you will receive rewards, such as ebooks of a title or a paperback of one or more of the titles to be published. In addition a unique reward from authors who are contributing to the project.
You can still contribute outside the kickstarter. We are happy to receive your help in the shop, where we will have a donation box available.

For more information and to contribute to the Kickstarter please follow this link:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/both-opendyslexia/open-dyslexia

Or visit the BOTH website: https://www.booksonthehill.co.uk/