Posted in Publisher Proof

The Judas Tree by Amanda Jennings

Harmony and Will have been together for a long time and live in a garden flat in London. They are the couple that most of their friends and family would say are meant to be together. Harmony’s closest friend, Amanda and her husband, throw a party where Harmony bumps into a man she feels an instant chemistry with. They talk for a while and when he suggests they just get into the car and leave together, she’s shocked to find that part of her responds to his suggestion. Harmony goes to find Will and imagines she will never see this man again. It’s only a few days later, that the couple go to lunch with Amanda who explains that they are also entertaining one of her husband Ian’s clients. Client Luke isn’t new to Harmony, he’s the man from the party, but much to her surprise, Luke isn’t new to Will either.

In fact Will’s reaction goes far beyond his explanation that he knew Luke at School. I knew immediately there was something much worse. Harmony has always wondered why Will is so cagey about his past, especially because he’s very stubborn in his outlook about becoming a parent himself. His childhood was so bad, he can’t imagine being a good parent. He is great with Amanda’s kids, but adamant he and Harmony should remain childless. So when Harmony became pregnant a few months ago he wasn’t going to be overjoyed. In fact when she tragically lost their baby, Harmony was devastated and Will’s first emotion was relief, not that he’s told her this. She has now realised how much she wants a child, but isn’t hopeful of changing his mind. It was while they were slightly at odds with each other, that Luke had bumped into a confused and vulnerable Harmony. Luke continues to be charming, intelligent and very forthright about his attraction to Harmony, including turning up at her work. Her head is turned, but despite that she knows she loves Luke. She wants to be his wife, but what if they don’t want the same things any more? When Ian introduced Luke has such a charismatic way about him. She could see though, that Will was horrified to see Luke again. His explanation that they were at boarding school together seems plausible, but she knows there’s more and so do we.

Amanda Jennings has a clever way of introducing you to characters and they don’t grab you immediately, because you’re taking in the world they’re in and the clues about the story. Then suddenly, by about the fifth page, she’s got you caught in a vice like grip. That was certainly the case here, as the sophisticated city lives these characters live is a world away from a country mouse like me. Yet as soon as Luke met Harmony, I knew there was something off and that he had an agenda. He intervenes between the couple at the perfect time too, not that he could have know that – or could he? Luke has a strange magnetism around him even when he’s at school. Will’s early life is sad and his father is abusive. I could understand why he didn’t want to relive it, but when we don’t talk about things they gain an importance they often don’t warrant. We know that whatever is at the root of the animosity between Luke and Will, it’s something humiliating, shameful and life changing. Jennings beautiful times her chapters so we get a bit of the present day and then a snippet of Will’s story. They way it’s eked out keeps you reading and it’s a story that’s horrifying and devastating for these young boys. I won’t say any more, but when we meet a classmate of theirs later on in the novel I wanted to push him under a bus! The fact that things like this happen at boarding school isn’t surprising, but creating or turning a blind eye to an environment like this should be criminal.

Harmony is an interesting character because she almost acted as if she had no choices. I think she’s still in that numb stage of grief and in this vulnerable state people make bad decisions. She seemed to have low self-esteem and really struggled to create boundaries. When Luke starts to encroach on her workplace and not take no for an answer, I was mentally screaming at her to say no and walk away. I wanted her to make a scene and call the police. Especially at first, because she’s done nothing wrong in chatting to a man at a party. I also wanted her and Will to communicate. The key to everything are those secrets that Will has been keeping, things that have happened that make him sure he’s unloveable and unfit to be a parent. It’s Harmony’s fear of encroaching on those boundaries that leads to her keeping her own secrets in turn. The author slowly turns the screw and the tensions rise, making it impossible to put the book down. I was glued to the story, hoping for the couple to break their silence and come together. This had all the ingredients of a great thriller and has real psychological insight into bullying and trauma. It was also brilliant to read a thriller where psychological healing is such an important part of the equation, as well as the thrilling twists and turns.

Meet The Author

As opposed to this latest novel, Amanda’s previous novels The Storm, In Her Wake and The Cliff House, are all set in Cornwall, in Newlyn, St Ives, and Sennen respectively. Cornwall is where her heart truly lies! Her mother’s side of the family is from Penzance and she holds many blissful memories of long summers spent there. She is never happier than when she’s beside the sea, though she’s also fond of a mountain, especially when it’s got snow on it. When she’s not beside the sea or up a mountain or sitting at my desk, you can usually find her chatting on the radio as a regular guest on BBC Berkshire’s weekly Book Club, or loitering on Twitter (@mandajjennings), Facebook and Instagram (@amandajennings1). She loves meeting and engaging with readers, whether that’s on social media, or at libraries, book clubs and literary festivals. If you see her out and about at an event do say hello! You can find more information on her webpage: http://www.amandajennings.co.uk

Posted in Random Things Tours

Throwback Thursday: A Song of Isolation by Michael Malone.

#RandomThingsTours #OrendaBooks #ASongOfIsolation #blogtour

I’m now at a point with Orenda books where I feel I could pick up any of their titles and be assured of a complex and intelligent read. Michael Malone is a completely new author to me, and this was controversial subject matter, but from the first few pages I felt assured that I was in excellent hands. This latest novel concerns a man called Dave, who seems to have it all. He has a job within his father’s business, a beautiful home and a long-term relationship with the well-known actress Amelie Hart. His whole world falls apart when out of the blue he is arrested, accused of molesting the little girl who lives next door. Damaris lives with both parents and seems like a lonely little girl, often desperate for someone to play with when Dave is working in the garden. They’ve played football and frisbee together several times, but on this occasion, the police allege that Damaris has gone home on her bike claiming Dave has touched her inappropriately. A medical examination reveals bruising consistent with sexual assault. From this point on Dave is living in a nightmare, continually asserting his innocence while every sign seems to point to his guilt. Within days he is charged and remanded into a sexual offender’s unit, because being in the general prison population would be unsafe. Amelie is devastated, although she was having doubts about their relationship she believes Dave is incapable of such a crime and now has to run the press gauntlet. Dave’s parents also believe he’s innocent, but as his mother points out ‘people will say there’s no smoke without fire’. This brings them unwanted press intrusion and has the potential to ruin his fathers business. They all wait on tenterhooks for the trial, needing to hear Damaris’s account and praying that it will clear Dave’s name.

There was such an easy flow to the writing I became drawn into these people’s lives very quickly. I believed in them. It is gritty in parts, but it needs to be. I think the author was very aware of treating the subject matter with patience, care and dignity. Whether Dave is found guilty or not, abuse of some sort has happened to Damaris. If it’s not sexual assault, and if they’ve planted this story knowing it’s a lie, her parents. have psychologically abused their daughter. It’s a violation, not of her body, but of her mind. I read the first few chapters keeping an open mind on the question of whether the events of that day happened according to Dave’s account or the account Damaris gives via video link to the court. The author manages to tread a fine line here, allowing the reader to make up their own mind and conveying both narratives with empathy. He never lets us forget that if even if Damaris gives a false account, it’s an account she believes and both of them are victims here.

I appreciated how the author shows us that in these cases the damage spreads far and wide like circles on a pond. For Amelie, the fame she had already turned her back on after a traumatic experience of her own, comes back to haunt her. She had shunned Hollywood for a quieter life, but now she has paparazzi at the door, speculation on her role in the abuse, and well known panel shows discussing her relationship. People who have known the couple give their accounts of how they could see ‘something off’ about David. I found myself moved by the accounts of verbal abuse from the general public and Amelie coming home with hair covered in spit. David’s parents receive similar treatment and find the trial a huge strain on their health with terrible consequences. Not that everything is well in Damaris’s home. Her parents are arguing and she is bombarded with professionals wanting to hear her account over and over. It’s worth pointing out for readers that we don’t hear a graphic account, but I think it is a more powerful a book because the author uses suggestion. The scenes where her parents are going over (or planting) her testimony are disturbing. Her Uncle Cammy comes round a lot more to see his niece, but finds his sister is often at the bottom of a bottle. He brings gifts, even when it’s not her birthday, setting off arguments about Damaris feeling different to the others at school and becoming spoilt. Damaris already knows she is different. My heart went out to this lonely, manipulated, little girl whose innocence has gone, if not on that day, then in the process required by court and her parents. Her confusion at her mum and dad using grown-up words and talking about body parts with her really stayed with me.

There is a sense of powerlessness running through this novel that is almost claustrophobic. Dave is swept up by a tsunami and dumped into a totally different world. It’s shattering to his sense of self – inside he is still the Dave he knows, but now everyone he meets views him differently, creating a chasm between his inner and outer selves. Even worse, as his time on remand continues, he finds himself acting very differently. Despised in the prison population and treated with suspicion by the prison officers, he feels constantly on his guard. He is forced into threatening behaviour and even acts of violence to keep others at bay. Paranoia sets in as he starts to realise that even inside and supposedly watched at all times, people from the outside could be influencing events. A begrudging friendship is forged with one cell mate, but even he can be turned into an assailant when his loved ones are threatened. Dave has always thought that Damaris’s family were simply broke and making false accusations for money. Now he starts to suspect that justice isn’t enough and someone very sinister wants him dead.

However, there are chinks of light in this nightmare that signal a sense of hope. I loved how Amelie and Dave’s parents form such a strong bond. For someone unsure about their relationship, Amelie is steadfast in her support. There is a lovely moment where Dave’s mum and Amelie hold hands in the courtroom. His mum has always wondered whether Amelie was truly serious about their relationship, but as they connect she can feel that this woman loves her son. Dave’s dad, Peter, treats her like family. He makes sure she is ok emotionally and promises to support her whatever she needs. With Dave refusing to see her, and outright hostility from the press and the public she will need to disappear into hiding again. Luckily, she has a French passport and can disappear into another country. The loneliness these characters feel forges a bond that wasn’t there before. They are being punished and serving time for something they haven’t done, found guilty in the court of the media and public opinion. I think their mutual support is a sign that healing can be found eventually. I found myself longing for the truth and a process of healing for Dave and Damaris equally.

Michael Malone is a very gifted writer. He has taken a difficult subject and created a compelling and powerful novel. For me, it was the profound sense of loss that hangs over this story that was most heartbreaking, emphasising the book’s title. Damaris loses the one person who has noticed her loneliness and vulnerability. When cross examining Damaris’s mum, the defence barrister asks when she last played football or frisbee with her daughter and she can’t remember. Even when talking to the police Damaris calls Dave her friend and this could be the confusion of a groomed child, but it feels genuine. On one hand I was desperate to believe Dave’s innocence. Yet, if they are found to be making false allegations, Damaris’s parents would be charged and she could possibly end up in care. Even if Dave is eventually found to be innocent he has lost so much: his job, his reputation, his relationship with Amelie and even his mother. Whatever the outcome, nobody wins here. Despite that, there is a sense that this is a phase of life that will pass, that maybe there will be healing and the chance to connect again. To take that song of isolation and turn it to one of hope for the future.

Posted in Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight! Great Celebrity Memoirs.

I’m not a usual reader of celebrity memoirs. I know there’s a certain snobbery in bookish circles for the celebrity memoir, so I thought I’d get that in there before you click away to another blog. I’m all for whatever gets people reading to be honest, but it’s a rare book that sits above the usual ghost written Christmas fare. These are memoirs that sit above the ordinary, that have touched me emotionally or made me laugh, that have surprised me with the beauty of their writing or their inventiveness, or even revealed incredible stories that kept me gripped to the final page. Some you may have heard of while others are lesser known, but just as compelling.

Patient by Ben Watt.

‘In the summer of 1992, on the eve of a trip to America, I was taken to a London hospital with bad chest pain and stomach pains. They kept me in for two and half months. I fell very ill – about as ill it is possible to be without actually dying – confronting a disease hardly anyone, not even some doctors, had heard of. People ask what was it like, and I say yes, of course it was dramatic and graphic and all that stuff, but at times it was just kind of comic and strange. It was, I suppose, my life-changing story.’

Benn Watt is half of the band Everything But The Girl and his short memoir covers a period when his bandmate Tracey Thorn was also his partner. In 1992, when I was taking my ALevels and listening to his band, Ben contracted a rare life-threatening illness that baffled doctors and required months of hospital treatment and operations. This is the story of his fight for survival and the effect it had on him and those nearest him. I recommend this book because it is beautifully written and captures the feeling of being seriously unwell perfectly. He describes coming institutionalised, so in sync with the day to day running of the ward that he could tell to the second when the newspaper lady was going to enter the ward. I love his play on ‘Patient’ as noun and verb at the same time, the patience it requires to endure the diagnostic process and to cope with what I call ‘hospital time’ – where ‘I’ll be a minute’ means half an hour. Only two years after his book is set, I was going through my own lengthy periods of hospitalisation, enduring unpleasant tests and realising there are limits to medical science. It’s an incredibly scary place to be and Ben conveys that so well, as well as the strange feeling when discharged when the patient goes from totally dependent to alone. I remember after a lengthy hospital stay, sitting in my flat thinking it was getting close to mealtime and that I was hungry, then a second later realising I had to make my own food! What he captures best is the realisation that what he expected to be a short interlude in his life, is actually becoming his life. The narrowing of his horizons from someone who toured the world to a resident of a single ward, or even to an individual bed.

Ben Watt

Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins by Rupert Everett

I became fascinated with Rupert Everett after seeing him on Graham Norton’s chat show and finding him both hilarious and painfully honest, both about himself and others. I loved his wit and comic timing in My Best Friend’s Wedding and especially in the Oscar Wilde films he starred in. I was pleased to find he was a devotee of Wilde, who wanted to make an honest film about his later life. My best friend from university always sends me a book at Christmas and I was lucky enough to receive a signed copy of his second memoir Vanished Years. I made sure I found a copy of his first memoir above so I could read them back to back. They both lived up to my expectations. I seem to remember first noticing him in conjunction with Madonna back in the 80’s and he had come across as a pretty boy in that context, but there is so much more to that rather spoiled exterior. His performance in Another Country was exceptional and his eventual film of Oscar Wilde was extraordinarily moving, but it is the drama of his private life that has attracted more attention than his talent. These memoirs show that he has always been surrounded by interesting and notorious people, becoming friends with Andy Warhol by the time he was 17. He has been friend to some of the most famous women in the world: Donatella Versace, Bianca Jagger, Sharon Stone and Faye Dunaway. This notoriety and films such as Dunstan Checks In overshadow incredible work with the RSC and I finally saw him shine on stage in the West End as Professor Higgins in Pygmalion.

I have always known, from his interview with Graham Norton, that Everett is a raconteur, but these memoirs show he can write a great story too. He has an uncanny ability to be at the centre of dramatic events: he was in Berlin when the wall came down, in Moscow at the end of Communism and in Manhattan on September 11th. The celebrity stories are deliciously gossipy and terribly honest. It seems Everett doesn’t hold anything back, whether he’s lampooning someone else or himself. His second memoir is again mischievous, but also touching with stories from childhood and early life. He takes the reader on an amazing journey around the world and from within the celebrity circus from LA to London. I loved the addition of family stories, such as a pilgrimage to Lourdes with his father that is both hilarious and moving. There’s a misguided step into reality TV that goes horribly wrong. A lot of celebrity authors are easy on themselves, writing solely from their own perspective rather than presenting life objectively. Everett is unfailingly honest, presenting his flaws and tragedies with the same scrutiny and irreverence he gives to others. Both books are incredibly enjoyable, a journey with the best and most disreputable storyteller you will ever meet.

Rupert Everett as Oscar Wilde

The Storyteller by Dave Grohl.

One of my favourite video clips recently was of the Westboro’ Baptist Church protesting outside a Foo Fighter’s gig. Then with perfect timing around the corner came a couple of majorettes, followed by a flat bed truck with a band playing The Beatle’s ‘All You Need Is Love’. On the back stood Dave Grohl with a microphone, shouting out their love for the protestors. I’ve always known that Grohl was a good guy and despite only enjoying some of the Foo Fighter’s music I’ve always thought he was an interesting and enlightened person. I’ve also wondered how he recovered following the suicide of Nirvana front man and personal friend Kurt Cobain, an event that stood out in my mind in the same way the death of John Lennon did for my parents. I loved Grohl’s humour and willingness to make an idiot of himself. My best friend and I rewatched the Tenacious D video for Tribute where Grohl is painted red and given an amazing pair of horns as Lucifer. I was bought this book last Christmas by my stepdaughters. However, it was only recently, after the death of another bandmate and friend Taylor Hawkins, that I picked it up and read a few pages every night in bed.

Grohl addresses my reservations about about celebrity memories straight away, stating that he’s even been offered a few questionable opportunities: ‘It’s a piece of cake! Just do four hours of interviews, find someone else to write it, put your face on the cover, and voila!’. Grohl writes his early experiences with fondness and an obvious nostalgia. He found the writing process much the same as writing songs, with the same eagerness to share the stories with the world. He has clearly linked back to old memories and emotions, feeling as if he was recounting ‘a primitive journal entry from a stained notebook’. He has definitely embraced the opportunity to show us what it was like to be a kid from Springfield, Virginia with all the crazy dreams of a young musician. He takes us from gigging with Scream at 18 years old, through his time in Nirvana to the Foo Fighters. What’s lovely is that same childlike enthusiasm while jamming with Iggy Pop, playing at the Academy Awards, dancing with AC/DC and the Preservation drumming for Tom Petty or meeting Sir Paul McCartney at Royal Albert Hall, hearing bedtime stories with Joan Jett or a chance meeting with Little Richard, to flying halfway around the world for one epic night with his daughters…the list goes on. We may know some of these stories, but what he promises is to help us reimagine these stories, focused through his eyes. I’ve seen reviews that claim he has glossed over or withheld some of the truth of his experiences, particularly around Kurt Cobain with Courtney Love absent from proceedings. I don’t think this is being disingenuous, I think this is what Dave Grohl is like – generous, humble and honest with regard to his own take on events. Perhaps he feels other people’s stories are their own and not his to tell. I was so impressed with how grounded he is and how aware of the most important things in his life: his family; his daughters; his friends; those who remind him of where he’s come from; and lastly, his music.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King.

Stephen King begins this memoir with the accident that he says has made the last twenty years of his life an incredible gift. With some humour he recounts being on his four mile daily walk and taking a break to relive himself in the woods. As he was returning to the road, a van driver was simultaneously trying to prevent one of his dogs rummaging in a beer cooler. This unlucky coincidence meant King was in a position to be struck as the van swerved off the road. A man who witnessed the crash watched as the impact threw King up and over the van, smashing the windscreen with his head and propelling him into a ditch 14 feet away. Local man, Donald Baker, found King ‘in a tangled-up mess, lying crooked, and had a heck of gash in his head. He kept asking what had happened.’ The van driver seemed devoid of emotion or panic, claiming he thought he’d hit a deer until he noticed King’s bloody glasses on his front seat. In a strange parody of his bestselling novel Misery King was left hospitalised with a shattered hip and pelvis, broken ribs, a punctured lung and fractured femur. The driver died only one year after the accident, from unrelated causes. It took King months to recover, with some limitations remaining to this day.

This strange hybrid book comes out of that time, from that trauma which affected him mentally as well as physically, back to his childhood, his early adult life, his marriage and the drinking that nearly cost him his relationship. If people read this hoping to read a masterclass or a shortcut to writing a bestseller, they’ll be disappointed. You don’t need a fancy masterclass to be a writer, you simply need to write. However, he does explore his own process and influences. There’s some practical advice on character building and plotting, showing how a spark of an idea was turned into Carrie. He also talks about pace, plots and presentation of a manuscript. He talks about he origins and development of certain books and uses examples of other writer’s work to illustrate what he’s advising. What he can’t do is identify that magic or spark that made him a No 1 bestseller for almost half a century. I enjoyed his stories about his early adult years when he was struggling financially, but was so persistent. The jobs he had to take to support his family, when the writing simply wasn’t paying. He was teaching by day and writing in the evenings. He also talks about the perceptions of him in the industry, perceptions I have always thought unfair, that despite incredible economic success and prolific output, he will never be considered a good writer. I loved his advice to write in a room with blinds and a closed door, if you’re not distracted by a view it is easy to disappear into a vista of your own making. He also plays loud rock music, but that wouldn’t be for me, I need silence or calm background music, no TV and no talking. It’s true that every writer needs their own best conditions for writing – although a closed door with no interruptions seems universal – you will need to find your own process. However, I do think he hits upon something important about life, like Dave Grohl, and that is the importance of family to ground us and stand by us while we create and especially when economic success does come.


Posted in Random Things Tours

Ahead of the Shadows by A.B. Kyazze

When a photographer witnesses war crimes, will she have to abandon her calling to save herself?

As Lena and Kojo work in conflicts across East and Central Africa, there is immense psychological pressure, and it’s not certain if their relationship will survive.

Eighteen years later, Bene walks the gritty back streets of Paris for one night in a music festival. He is on his way to meet his father in Kenya, a man he’s never met.

Ahead of the Shadows is about the intense relationships that come from work in war zones, the transmission of trauma from one generation to the next, and how one unconventional boy might be able to break the cycle.

It’s such a pleasure to close the blog tour for this small but powerful book about the dangers and struggles of working in conflict zones. I had a period in my teens where I wanted to be a journalist and was in awe of Kate Adie and Feargal Keane. My life didn’t go that way, but I remember reading Feargal Keane’s memoir and a long piece by Italian correspondent Janine di Giovanni that really impressed upon me the life long effects of being and working surrounded by danger. There are the effects of what they’ve seen such as PTSD and a terrible restlessness left over from living such an adrenaline fuelled existence. Many can’t overcome that restlessness and choose to live a peripatetic existence, endlessly wandering from one crisis to the next, using drink to avoid the worst of their memories. It destroys people and their relationships. So, when I saw the blurb for this novel I was interested to read it.

I think the author really captured how adrenalin fuelled these jobs can be as we follow Lena into the Democratic Republic of Congo. With her group she settles into their temporary accommodation for the night, only to be woken by the sound of a dozen phone alarms going off raised voices and activity. With very quick thinking she pushes a piece of furniture across her door and sits against it, eventually falling asleep on the floor. It shows the reader how alert Lena is to the possibility of violence at a moment’s notice. With no clear sides in the country’s conflict, as well as soldiers for hire, child soldiers and rape regularly used as a weapon, Lena doesn’t know from which side danger might come. There’s no clear wrong or right and danger could come from local bandits, not just men engaged in conflict. The next day, with most of her party having left in the night, Lena rings her lover Kojo for advice on what to do. He advises her to walk to the border and cross to Kigali in Rwanda where he can send someone to meet her. As she walks alone towards to border my heart was in my throat. The author creates so much tension and our own knowledge of corruption and violence in these regions adds to our fears for Lena. It seems to take forever for her to cross the no man’s land between the two countries and she seems so defenceless. Hours later in Kojo arms, she is awake as he sleeps, aware that she feels so much safer with him present, but she still has adrenaline coursing through her body.

When writing about such dramatic events and heightened emotions in one timeline of the book can leave the present day sections feeling flat by comparison. However, as we go to Paris with Bene who is on his way to meet his father for the first time in Kenya, the author doesn’t try to compete. She lets Bene’s world seem almost dreamlike in comparison, at least on the surface. As he wanders in Paris he meets a beautiful young woman called Fatima who takes him on a tour of her city. These sections are like a dream sequence within the harsh realities of Africa from almost two decades before. There’s a sense of going with the flow as Bene goes out with Fatima into the evening. This stop has been a hiatus in his journey out to Kenya to meet his father for the first time. He should be carefree, but here and there we get traces of anxiety. When she takes him to a party at her ex-boyfriend’s place he doesn’t look forward to being with strangers, especially if they’re fakes. Most are out on the apartment balcony, watching a singer in the square below. It’s not his type of party. He goes to find Fatima as he wants to leave and steps onto the heaving balcony and wonders at how easy it would be to throw oneself over the railings and what it would take to turn that urge into a reality? I wondered where these dark thoughts and anxieties came from in such a young man. As if he’s only just running one step ahead of the shadows.

Lena’s time in Sudan is a tough read, but an important one. There was a period of time when family and friends were fed up of hearing me ask why news programs and governments had forgotten what was happening in Sudan. I remember George Clooney funding a satellite to view areas where rumours abounded about the mysterious ‘Janjaweed’. The UN seemed reluctant to use the word genocide but it was happening. The author captures the fear these masked murderers on horseback generated in the villages. They were thought to be mercenaries, appearing with no warning, except for the sound of pounding hooves. They left no time for people to flee and showed no mercy. Men were killed, young boys rounded up and recruited or killed, young girls and women gang raped. Then the survivors rounded up and placed in camps. Lena travels there as an NGO worker, trusted to bring back her clear observations for Kojo’s project.

Kojo has trusted Lena to see exactly what’s happening, she has experience of travelling through conflict regions and knows how to find the truth. Even he is taken aback by her phone call, when she tells him that no other place they’ve travelled to holds the amount of fear expressed by survivors. She tells him there’s something more going on here, that even the workers are scared and the people to scared to speak. They’re petrified. Kojo has never known Lena use hyperbole, so when she suggests people are being rounded up, Kojo suggests they talk in person. The longer Lena spends in Darfur the more she thinks about her friend Stefan, another photographer, the one who killed himself. Kojo notices when they’re reunited, a mental distance, and a physical one too – as if she’s constantly on alert and ready to flee. It takes a catalyst to set, what has only been a feeling up till now, into reality. Something to force her into taking flight. The author brings all these strands together beautifully, a full eighteen years since Lena and Kojo were in Sudan. Will Kojo come to understand her urge to flee and find safety all those years ago? Will he forgive her for keeping secrets? This is a beautiful book about the horrors humanity is capable of and what it means to bear witness to these atrocities. It is about being broken down with no joy in life and a sense of despair that can kill and how those responses to trauma can pass to the next generation. However, it’s also about those things that happen to bring us back to ourselves. The things that help us to see the future again with a sense of joy and hope.

Meet The Author

A.B. Kyazze is a British-American writer and photographer. She spent two decades writing and taking photographs around the world in conflicts and natural disasters – in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Darfur, Sudan, where Ahead of the Shadows takes place, and other parts of Africa, Asia and the Balkans. Her photographs and non-fiction work have been published in travel magazines, The Huffington Post, The Washington Times, The International Review of the Red Cross, and by Oxfam, Save the Children, and the British Red Cross.Into the Mouth of the Lion, A.B. Kyazze’s debut novel, was published in May 2021. She has also published the Humanity in the Landscape photography book series, and a number of short stories, articles and book reviews. Today, she lives in southeast London with her young family. There she writes, mentors other writers, runs a freelance editing business, and facilitates creative writing workshops in schools and libraries. She serves as a Trustee for the Oxford Centre for Fantasy, a creative writing charity. For more information go to http://www.abkyazze.com

Posted in Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight! Books To Look Out For This Autumn

There are so many great books this autumn, but I’ve narrowed it down to those I have and I’m looking forward to reading the most. It’s all here, from spooky Halloween reads to feel-good fiction, thrillers to historical fiction and a splash of horror. Here’s a little preview of these great books.

In the midst of the woods stands a house called Lichen Hall. This place is shrouded in folklore – old stories of ghosts, of witches, of a child who is not quite a child. Now the woods are creeping closer, and something has been unleashed.

Pearl Gorham arrives in 1965, one of a string of young women sent to Lichen Hall to give birth. And she soon suspects the proprietors are hiding something. Then she meets the mysterious mother and young boy who live in the grounds – and together they begin to unpick the secrets of this place. As the truth comes to the surface and the darkness moves in, Pearl must rethink everything she knew – and risk what she holds most dear. I loved this author’s previous book The Lighthouse Witches and I can’t wait to get stuck into this one.

Published on 13th October 2022 by HarperCollins

I loved Caroline’s first two novels, both set in the aftermath of WW1 and full of historical detail, characters to empathise with and that chaos that seems to thrive in war’s aftermath. Between the two World Wars the country was in a state of flux, with huge changes in class structure, gender and the finances, both public and personal. This book is set in England, 1932, when the country was in the grip of the Great Depression. To lift the spirits of the nation, Stella Douglas is tasked with writing a history of food in England. It’s to be quintessentially English and will remind English housewives of the old ways, and English men of the glory of their country. The only problem is –much of English food is really from, well, elsewhere and can one cookbook really manoeuvre people back into those pre-war roles?

Stella sets about unearthing recipes from all corners of the country, in the hope of finding a hidden culinary gem. But what she discovers is rissoles, gravy, stewed prunes and lots of oatcakes. Longing for something more thrilling, she heads off to speak to the nation’s housewives. But when her car breaks down and the dashing and charismatic Freddie springs to her rescue, she is led in a very different direction . . . Full of wit and vim, Good Taste is a story of discovery, of English nostalgia, change and challenge, and one woman’s desire to make her own way as a modern woman.

Published on 13th October 2022 by Simon and Schuster U.K.

Rachel Joyce is one of those authors I’ve had lick to meet twice, at book signings, where I’ve been one of the last people to queue with my old books under my arm and her latest in my hand. Her last book Miss Benson’s Beetle was an incredible read about extraordinary women. Now she reverts to a series of books that have celebrated very ordinary people doing extraordinary things and Mrs Fry is no exception. Ten years ago, Harold Fry set off on his epic journey on foot to save a friend. But the story doesn’t end there.
Now his wife, Maureen, has her own pilgrimage to make.

Maureen Fry has settled into the quiet life she now shares with her husband Harold after his iconic walk across England. Now, ten years later, an unexpected message from the North disturbs her equilibrium again, and this time it is Maureen’s turn to make her own journey. But Maureen is not like Harold. She struggles to bond with strangers, and the landscape she crosses has changed radically. She has little sense of what she’ll find at the end of the road. All she knows is that she must get there. Maureen Fry and the Angel of the North is a deeply felt, lyrical and powerful novel, full of warmth and kindness, about love, loss, and how we come to terms with the past in order to understand ourselves and our lives a little better. Short, exquisite, while it stands in its own right, it is also the moving finale to a trilogy that began with the phenomenal bestseller The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and continued with The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy.

This is a slender book but it has all the power and weight of a classic.

Published by Doubleday 20th Oct 2022. Kindle Edition available from 5th October.

I have already started this book and had a nightmare of epic proportions the very first night. I’m suggestible and have a wild imagination, but I think the opening to this book is strangely unsettling. I felt uneasy, even though the chapters I read didn’t have any particularly terrifying events. It’s the strangeness that creeps up on you.

Superstitions only survive if people believe in them… Renowned academic Dr Sparling seeks help with his project on a remote Irish village. Historical researchers Ben and Chloe are thrilled to be chosen – until they arrive. The village is isolated and forgotten. There is no record of its history, its stories. There is no friendliness from the locals, only wary looks and whispers. The villagers lock down their homes at sundown. It seems a nameless fear stalks the streets, but nobody will talk – nobody except one little girl. Her words strike dread into the hearts of the newcomers. Three times you see him. Each night he comes closer… That night, Ben and Chloe see a sinister figure watching them. He is the Creeper. He is the nameless fear in the night. Stories keep him alive. And nothing will keep him away..

Published by Head of Zeus/ Aries 15th September 2022.

I’m a sucker for historical fiction with a gothic edge, so this really captured my imagination as soon as I read the blurb. Obviously my counsellor brain is always ready for tales of supposed madness and hysteria too.

I must pull myself together. I had to find Dr Rastrick and demand my immediate release. My stomach knotted at the prospect, but I knew I was perfectly sane and that he must see reason.

In 1886, a respectable young woman must acquire a husband. But Violet Pring does not want to marry. She longs to be a professional artist and live on her own terms. When her scheming mother secures a desirable marriage proposal from an eligible Brighton gentleman for her, Violet protests. Her family believes she is deranged and deluded, so she is locked away in Hillwood Grange Lunatic Asylum against her will.In her new cage, Violet faces an even greater challenge: she must escape the clutches of a sinister and formidable doctor and set herself free. This tantalizing Gothic novel from Noel O’Reilly tells a thrilling story of duty and desire, madness and sanity, truth and delusion from within a Victorian asylum.

Published by HQ 8th December 2022

Spring 1937: Teresa is evacuated to London in the wake of the Guernica bombing. She thinks she’s found safety in the soothing arms of Mary Davidson and the lofty halls of Rochester Place, but trouble pursues her wherever she goes.

Autumn 2020: Corrine, an emergency dispatcher, receives a call from a distressed woman named Mary. But when the ambulance arrives at the address, Mary is nowhere to be found. Intrigued, Corinne investigates and, in doing so, disturbs secrets that have long-dwelt in Rochester Place’s crumbling walls. Secrets that, once revealed, will change her life for ever . . .

Who is Mary Davidson? And what happened at Rochester Place all those years ago? Set between the dusty halls of Rochester Place and the bustling streets of modern-day Tooting, this emotive, intricately layered mystery tells the spellbinding story of two people, separated by time, yet mysteriously connected through an enchanting Georgian house and the secrets within its walls.

Published by Penguin 8th Dec 2022

I always look forward to an Orenda book, because I know I’m going to great a fantastic and often thought provoking read. I’m on the blog tour for this in November and I’m looking forward to this one. James Garrett was critically injured when he was shot following his parents’ execution, and no one expected him to waken from a deep, traumatic coma. When he does, nine years later, Detective Inspector Rebecca Kent is tasked with closing the case that her now retired colleague, Theodore Tate, failed to solve all those years ago.

But between that, and hunting for Copy Joe – a murderer on a spree, who’s imitating Christchurch’s most notorious serial killer – she’s going to need Tate’s help … especially when they learn that James has lived out another life in his nine-year coma, and there are things he couldn’t possibly know, including the fact that Copy Joe isn’t the only serial killer in town…

Published by Orenda Books Nov 10th 2022

In between the serial killers, ghostly apparitions and terrifying ‘creepers’ I need some light relief. I was looking for something warm and uplifting and this could be it. Newly installed at All Souls Lutheran, Mallory “Pastor Pete” Peterson soon realizes that her church isn’t merely going through turbulent waters, but is a sinking ship. With the help of five loyal members of the Naomi Circle, the young, bold minister brainstorms fundraising ideas. They all agree that the usual recipe book won’t add much to the parish coffers, but maybe one with all the ingredients on how to heat up relationships rather than casseroles will…

Pastor Pete has her doubts about the project, but it turns out the group of postmenopausal women has a lot to say on the subject of romance. While Charlene, the youngest member at fifty-two, struggles with the assignment, baker-extraordinaire Marlys, elegantly bohemian Bunny, I’m-always-right Velda, and ebullient Edie take up their contributions enthusiastically. After all, their book is really about cooking up love in all its forms. But not everyone in the congregation is on board with this “scandalous” project. As the voices of opposition grow louder, Pastor Pete and these intrepid women will have to decide how hard they’re willing to fight for this book and the powerful stories within—stories of discovery, softened hearts, and changed lives.

Published by Lake Union 6th December 2022

Although this book is already out I’m saving it for the autumn, because it’s one of my Squad Pod’s Book Club reads. I loved Quinn’s debut novel The Smallest Man so I’ve had my eye on this for a while. I also love unusually named heroines, ever since Mary Webb’s Precious Bane, and Endurance Proudfoot is a brilliant invention. It’s usual, they say, for a young person coming to London for the first time to arrive with a head full of dreams. Well, Endurance Proudfoot did not. When she stepped off the coach from Sussex, on a warm and sticky afternoon in the summer of 1757, it never occurred to her that the city would be the place where she’d make her fortune; she was just very annoyed to be arriving there at all.

Meet Endurance Proudfoot, the bonesetter’s daughter: clumsy as a carthorse, with a tactless tongue and a face she’s sure only a mother could love. Durie only wants one thing in life – to follow her father and grandfather into the family business of bonesetting. It’s a physically demanding job, requiring strength, nerves of steel and discretion – and not the job for a woman. But Durie isn’t like other women. She’s strong and stubborn and determined to get her own way. And she finds that she has a talent at bonesetting – her big hands and lack of grace have finally found their natural calling. So, when she is banished to London with her sister, who is pretty, delicate and exactly the opposite to Durie in every way, Durie will not let it stop her realising her dreams. And while her sister will become one of the first ever Georgian celebrities, Durie will become England’s first and most celebrated female bonesetter. But what goes up must come down, and Durie’s elevated status may well become her undoing…

Published by Simon and Schuster 21st July 2022.

There are a few formidable women in my autumn reading and this is another brilliant historical fiction novel for the list. This is billed as a ‘rich and atmospheric’ new novel from prize-winning author Sally Gardner, set in the 18th century between the two great Frost Fairs. Neva Friezland is born into a world of trickery and illusion, where fortunes can be won and lost on the turn of a card. She is also born with an extraordinary gift. She can predict the weather. In Regency England, where the proper goal for a gentlewoman is marriage and only God knows the weather, this is dangerous. It is also potentially very lucrative.

In order to debate with the men of science and move about freely, Neva adopts a sophisticated male disguise. She foretells the weather from inside an automaton created by her brilliant clockmaker father. But what will happen when the disguised Neva falls in love with a charismatic young man?

It can be very dangerous to be ahead of your time. Especially as a woman.

Published by Apollo 10th November 2022.

Will Carver is an incredible writer and his imagination knows no bounds. His books are always so completely original.

Eli Hagin can’t finish anything. He hates his job, but can’t seem to quit. He doesn’t want to be with his girlfriend, but doesn’t know how end things with her, either. Eli wants to write a novel, but he’s never taken a story beyond the first chapter. Eli also has trouble separating reality from fiction.

When his best friend kills himself, Eli is motivated, for the first time in his life, to finally end something himself, just as Mike did… Except sessions with his therapist suggest that Eli’s most recent ‘first chapters’ are not as fictitious as he had intended … and a series of text messages that Mike received before his death point to something much, much darker…

Published by Orenda Books 24th November 2022.

This book sounds like a very dark fairy tale and aren’t they the best ones? An ancient, mercurial spirit is trapped inside Elspeth Spindle’s head – she calls him the Nightmare. He protects her. He keeps her secrets. But nothing comes for free, especially magic.

When Elspeth meets a mysterious highwayman on the forest road, she is thrust into a world of shadow and deception. Together, they embark on a dangerous quest to cure the town of Blunder from the dark magic infecting it. As the stakes heighten and their undeniable attraction intensifies, Elspeth is forced to face her darkest secret yet: the Nightmare is slowly, darkly, taking over her mind. And she might not be able to fight it. This is a gothic fantasy romance about a maiden who must unleash the monster within to save her kingdom.

Published by Orbit 29th September

Twelve-year-old Bird Gardner lives a quiet existence with his loving but broken father, a former linguist who now shelves books in a university library. Bird knows to not ask too many questions, stand out too much, or stray too far. For a decade, their lives have been governed by laws written to preserve “American culture” in the wake of years of economic instability and violence. To keep the peace and restore prosperity, the authorities are now allowed to relocate children of dissidents, especially those of Asian origin, and libraries have been forced to remove books seen as unpatriotic—including the work of Bird’s mother, Margaret, a Chinese American poet who left the family when he was nine years old.

Bird has grown up disavowing his mother and her poems; he doesn’t know her work or what happened to her, and he knows he shouldn’t wonder. But when he receives a mysterious letter containing only a cryptic drawing, he is pulled into a quest to find her. His journey will take him back to the many folktales she poured into his head as a child, through the ranks of an underground network of librarians, into the lives of the children who have been taken, and finally to New York City, where a new act of defiance may be the beginning of much-needed change.

Our Missing Hearts is an old story made new, of the ways supposedly civilized communities can ignore the most searing injustice. It’s a story about the power—and limitations—of art to create change, the lessons and legacies we pass on to our children, and how any of us can survive a broken world with our hearts intact. This sounds absolutely epic and I’m so excited to have been granted a copy on NetGalley, so I’ll keep you all informed.

Published 4th October 2022 by Penguin Press

1643: A small group of Parliamentarian soldiers are ambushed in an isolated part of Northern England. Their only hope for survival is to flee into the nearby Moresby Wood… unwise though that may seem. For Moresby Wood is known to be an unnatural place, the realm of witchcraft and shadows, where the devil is said to go walking by moonlight. Seventeen men enter the wood. Only two are ever seen again, and the stories they tell of what happened make no sense. Stories of shifting landscapes, of trees that appear and disappear at will… and of something else. Something dark. Something hungry.

Today, five women are headed into Moresby Wood to discover, once and for all, what happened to that unfortunate group of soldiers. Led by Dr Alice Christopher, an historian who has devoted her entire academic career to uncovering the secrets of Moresby Wood. Armed with metal detectors, GPS units, mobile phones and the most recent map of the area (which is nearly 50 years old), Dr Christopher’s group enters the wood ready for anything. Or so they think. I love the mix of historical fiction and a touch of the supernatural so this one is a definite title for the TBR.

Published on 13th October by S

If someone says gothic, paranormal, romance to me, I’m there with bells on! As a lifelong fan of Wuthering Heights it’s very much my sort of thing. 1813. Lizzie’s beloved older sister Esme is sold in marriage to the aging Lord Blountford to settle their father’s debts. One year later, Esme is dead, and Lizzie is sent to take her place as Lord Blountford’s next wife.

Arriving at Ambletye Manor, Lizzie uncovers a twisted web of secrets, not least that she is to be the fifth mistress of this house. Marisa. Anne. Pansy. Esme. What happened to the four wives who came before her? In possession of a unique gift, only Lizzie can hear their stories, and try to find a way to save herself from sharing the same fate. This sounds to me like a Bluebeard type tale and perfect for a cozy autumn afternoon in front of the log burner.

Published 24th November 2022 by Penguin.

Three women
Three eras
One extraordinary mystery…

1899, Belle Époque Paris. Lucienne’s two daughters are believed dead when her mansion burns to the ground, but she is certain that her girls are still alive and embarks on a journey into the depths of the spiritualist community to find them.

1949, Post-War Québec. Teenager Lina’s father has died in the French Resistance, and as she struggles to fit in at school, her mother introduces her to an elderly woman at the asylum where she works, changing Lina’s life in the darkest way imaginable.

2002, Quebec. A former schoolteacher is accused of brutally stabbing her husband – a famous university professor – to death. Detective Maxine Grant, who has recently lost her own husband and is parenting a teenager and a new baby single-handedly, takes on the investigation.

Under enormous personal pressure, Maxine makes a series of macabre discoveries that link directly to historical cases involving black magic and murder, secret societies and spiritism … and women at breaking point, who will stop at nothing to protect the ones they love. I’m so excited about this one I’ve ordered a special copy from Goldsboro Books it’s simply stunning and I’m dying to read it.

Published by Orenda Book on 15th September 2022

Bleeding Heart Yard by Elly Griffiths

Another stunning cover here. From the author of the Ruth Galloway crime series this is a propulsive new thriller set in London featuring Detective Harbinder Kaur. A murderer hides in plain sight – in the police. DS Cassie Fitzherbert has a secret – but it’s one she’s deleted from her memory. In the 1990s when she was at school, she and her friends killed a fellow pupil. Thirty years later, Cassie is happily married and loves her job as a police officer.

One day her husband persuades her to go to a school reunion and another ex-pupil, Garfield Rice, is found dead, supposedly from a drug overdose. As Garfield was an eminent MP and the investigation is high profile, it’s headed by Cassie’s new boss, DI Harbinder Kaur. The trouble is, Cassie can’t shake the feeling that one of her old friends has killed again. Is Cassie right, or was Garfield murdered by one of his political cronies? It’s in Cassie’s interest to skew the investigation so that it looks like the latter and she seems to be succeeding.

Until someone else is killed…

Published on 29th September 2022 by Quercus

And I can’t believe I forgot…..

I possibly forgot this one because I’ve already read and reviewed it for NetGalley and it really is a cracker. After going in a slightly different direction with her last two novels, Jodi Picoult is back in her usual territory here. After teaming up with author Jennifer Finney Boylan, from a Twitter conversation, Picoult is back to tackling a controversial issue with a tense legal case at the centre of the drama.

Olivia fled her abusive marriage to return to her hometown and take over the family beekeeping business when her son Asher was six. Now, impossibly, her baby is six feet tall and in his last year of high school, a kind, good-looking, popular ice hockey star with a tiny sprite of a new girlfriend. Lily also knows what it feels like to start over – when she and her mother relocated to New Hampshire it was all about a fresh start. She and Asher couldn’t help falling for each other, and Lily feels happy for the first time. But can she trust him completely? Then Olivia gets a phone call – Lily is dead, and Asher is arrested on a charge of murder. As the case against him unfolds, she realises he has hidden more than he’s shared with her. And Olivia knows firsthand that the secrets we keep reflect the past we want to leave behind ­­- and that we rarely know the people we love well as we think we do. Each author has written the story from a different character’s perspective, sometimes taking us back in time to understand their experiences. I don’t want to ruin your enjoyment so I won’t give you any more of the plot, but I will say it’s a belter of a novel that will make you question your own prejudices.

Published on 15th November 2022 by Hodder & Stoughton

Posted in Random Things Tours

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson transported me right into the centre of that fascinating time between two World Wars: the glittering hour, the roaring twenties, the age of the flappers and the Bright Young Things. It feels like a period of madness, where a generation turns to decadence in their determination to move beyond mourning and death. Gwendolen Kelling travels to London for the first time since the funeral of the Unknown Warrior and she’s shocked by the change of mood. From the ‘enshrouded city’ that was ‘sternly armoured in the breastplate of grief’ to a place invigorated and ‘dressed for spring’. After a war spent nursing those horrifically injured in combat, Gwendolen is ready for anything. She’s down from York on a mission for a friend to find two teenage girls who’ve run away to London to be dancers. Freda and Florence are young and naive with, perhaps, an inflated sense of their own talent. Gwendolen’s search brings her into the orbit of Nellie Coker, matriarch of a family running a series of clubs that are as jewelled as their names – the Amethyst being their first. From time to time she hires dancing girls, hostesses available to dance with the patrons. Nellie is fresh out of prison and needs to stamp her authority on her family and those in the criminal fraternity who have been circling her businesses ever since she went inside. Gwendolen comes into the sphere of DI Frobisher too, someone else keen on observing the Cokers. So far he’s been relying on his officer Maddox to infiltrate the family, but he’s unsure on which side Maddox’s loyalties truly lie. Could the unlikely Miss Kelling be able to walk the tightrope between the police and the Queen of Clubs (and amateur psychic) Nellie Coker? Kate Atkinson explores this period of history through the dark underbelly of London and a gruesome series of murders, whilst also commenting on the act of writing itself.

Atkinson tells her tale through a series of interrelated characters who have no idea of the small world they’re inhabiting. Two of Nellie’s sons show very different ways of operating within this world and their family. Niven is the strong, silent and possibly sinister, elder son. Quietly loyal, he pops up here and there with his equally loyal dog. He has the enigmatic quality of Peaky Blinder’s Tommy Shelby – someone playing so many sides, it’s impossible to know the outcome he’s working for. There is a gentleman underneath, capable of the big romantic gesture, but makes no promises and likes to stay in control. Younger brother, Ramsay, is entirely opposite, out of control in every way he can be – drugs, alcohol and gambling. Unfortunately in the Coker’s world such vices leave you open to manipulation and there are vulture’s circling. Barman Quinn is one such character – obligingly close by when Ramsay is in need of a little pick-me-up or a means of floating away from Nellie and Niven’s disappointment or his own feelings of inadequacy. Ramsay has a dream of writing the great modernist novel, one that chronicles the age and captures the decadence of London’s nightlife. A gritty crime novel is his aim where his detective shines a light on the dope, the gangs, the parties, the fancy-dress, the gambling and even the Bright Young Things. He aims to weave a tapestry of all those threads and even has a title – The Age of Glitter. This clever device, where Ramsay is writing the very book in which he’s a character, is typical Atkinson brilliance.

I loved the character of Freda, the fearless teenager who has run away with her lumpen friend Florence. Blithely sure of her abilities to dance and to survive in the capital. She’s possibly underestimated her talent and the dangers they both face. She’s plucky and I was really willing her to succeed. We know something Freda doesn’t though, raising the tension for the reader. DI Frobisher knows that girls are going missing and many end up being fished out of the Thames in a terrible state. Will Freda be one of them? Gwendolen Kelling is intriguing and the epitome of a modern woman. After being at the tough end of military nursing her eyes have been opened. She has money from her mother’s will, more than she expected since both her brothers were killed in the war. As a woman of means she can now make independent choices and has no one (no man) to stop her travelling to London. She finds a suitable boarding house with a respectable landlady, but once she starts to make enquiries she finds herself treading a very fine line between the Cokers and the Police. She’s on a night undercover with Constable Cobb when a fight breaks out that leaves a gang member on the dance floor with copious amounts of blood pouring from a chest wound. Gwendolen is in her element and takes charge, stemming the blood flow and requesting everything she needs to treat the wound. It brings her to the attention of Nellie and her son, Niven. With Constable Cobb disappearing into the night, Niven treats Gwendolen to a suite at The Savoy and sends her a brand new dress from Liberty to replace the one covered in blood. Gwendolen is almost torn between these two opposing men she’s met – the dashing and mysterious Niven who gives off ‘wounded hero’ vibes or the principled and distinguished Frobisher? However, it’s Nellie who makes a proposal. Could Gwendolen manage the Crystal Club for her? With a beautifully appointed and very pink flat on offer above the club, this could be the best opportunity to spy for Frobisher and to find Freda?

My only gripe with the novel is that sometimes I wanted to spend more time with a character than I could. I wanted to follow where Florence went and I would have loved to spend more time with Niven. The structure isn’t always the easiest to follow, but it does work as a series of threads interwoven to create a tapestry. Each named chapter flits between points of view. Sometimes we go backwards in time such as Frobisher’s war and the meeting of his wife Lottie, who is deranged by grief and mute. We also look into Gwedolen’s painful history with her manipulative mother. We might flit between two different characters whose worlds overlap, but have no real knowledge of each other, then we get two consecutive accounts of the same event. We are slowly building up to knowing the whole picture, but everyone has their own colour to paint. I wondered whether the fractured structure was also a comment on the historical period and massive social change that has occurred since before WWI. It’s a period I’m particularly interested in and Atkinson has really nailed the aftermath of war, especially how it affected each gender differently. Women were pushing forward, pursuing their own dreams and their own means. War has necessitated their move beyond the domestic sphere and into the world of work. Once men returned from war they expected their jobs back and some companies had reserved jobs for returning soldiers, but obviously the great loss of life meant the jobs market still needed women. As it was a lot of men were without work and their expectations of having a wife at home were dashed. Attacks on women were more common, especially where there was unrest around a particular workplace.

I found the blatant misogyny that Freda encounters hard to read at times, especially when it’s clear how young she is. She’s preyed upon by a West End theatre manager, men in clubs and even an on duty police officer when she visits the station to report Florence as missing. The assumption that she’s young and unaccompanied, therefore must be a prostitute, really shocks her. The women in this book are often in danger, not just from the killer, but from any man they encounter. However, Niven and Frobisher could not be further apart in terms of occupation and background, but both treat Gwedolen like a gentleman, even if there’s a assumption underneath that she can’t look after herself. We see social mobility in the Coker’s rise to become wealthy, through the growth of their businesses and Nellie’s understanding that the younger generation want to party and forget. Their wealth lets them rub shoulders with a huge range of people from Maltese gangsters, to wealthy socialites the Bright Young Things. Ramsay attends ‘spielers’ with everyone from the aristocracy to hardened criminals. There’s even mention of a member of the Royal Family brushing shoulders with the Cokers. I found myself making comparisons with the television series Peaky Blinders, both families are caught up in the period’s state of flux, moving them beyond the confines of their class, but do the upper echelons of society truly accept them?

I loved that Atkinson used Ramsay’s writing journey in the beginning and ending of her novel. I found myself smiling at his ambition to write a crime novel that was also ‘a razor sharp dissection of the various strata of society in the wake of the destruction of war’. Shirley, his sister, complains he is trying to shoe-horn too much into the novel and asks why doesn’t he just stick with the crime? Ramsay works as Atkinson’s own doubts and the mental journey she takes while writing, but also echoes those outside criticisms we often hear about crime novels not being literary. I read criticism after Atkinson’s last Jackson Brodie novel that she puts way too much – poetry, philosophy – into a crime novel. As if these things are too high brow for crime readers. Putting aside a book’s need to be marketable, writing can surely be whatever the author wants it to be and shouldn’t have to conform rigidly to a set of genre rules? In the end Atkinson succeeds where Ramsay struggles and has produced a novel as eclectic as the age it represents and just as dazzling, glittering and fascinatingly dark.

Meet The Author

Kate Atkinson is an international bestselling novelist, as well as playwright and short story writer. She is the author of Life After Life; Transcription; Behind the Scenes at the Museum, a Whitbread Book of the Year winner; the story collection Not the End of the World; and five novels in the Jackson Brodie crime series, which was adapted into the BBC TV show Case Histories. The BBC adaptation of Life After Life is on the iPlayer now.

Posted in Squad Pod

The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line by Ruth Thomas

This novel was a wonderful surprise when Sandstone Press kindly granted me a copy. We were only three weeks into January and I’d fallen immediately in love with a new literary heroine. I absolutely adored Sybil and felt so at home in her company I just kept reading all day. I then finished at 11pm 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 book 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). There she produces learning materials, proof reads and indexes archaeological publications. She also helps people with research enquiries. She has a great boyfriend, Simon, who is a chef and likes to make her bread with obscure grains. Her quiet, settled life is turned upside down when she, quite literally, bumps into an old nemesis from her university days. Sybil and Simon have gone ice skating, where they spot Helene Hanson, Sybil’s old university lecturer. Sybil doesn’t want to say hello, after all Helene did steal some ideas from Sybil’s dissertation to further her own research into the Beaker people. They try to make their way over, very unsteadily, and end up careering into Helene’s group. In Sybil’s case she’s only stopped by the wall of the rink. She has a nasty bang on the head, and from there her life seems to change path completely. Only weeks later, Helene has stolen Sybil’s boyfriend and in her capacity working for a funding body, she has taken a huge interest in RIPS. Now Sybil’s workplace will be selling Helene’s range of Beakerware (TM) in the gift shop and they even welcome her onto their committee as chair of trustees. Sybil’s mum suggests a mature exchange of views, but Sybil can’t do that. Nothing but all out revenge will satisfy how Sybil feels. She’s just got to think of a way to expose that Helene Hanson as a fraud.

First of all I want to talk about the structure of the novel. As Sybil’s life starts to unravel, so does her narration. A suggestion from a friend leads Sybil to a poetry class at her local library, so prose is broken up with poetry and very minimal notes of what Sybil has seen that she hopes to turn into haiku. Haiku is a Japanese form of poetry with a set structure of thirteen syllables over three lines in the order of 5, then 3, and then 5 syllables. Having lived next to a Japanese meditation garden for several years I started to write and teach haiku as a form of meditation. It’s a form linked to nature and is very much about capturing small moments. So if Sybil sees something that might inspire her, it makes its way into her narration. I loved this, because I enjoy poetry, but also because it broke up the prose and showed those quiet still moments where Sybil was just observing. She works with found objects – most notably a little teacup, left on a wall, that has ‘ a cup of cheer’ written on the side. There’s a very important reason for the fragmentary narration, that I won’t reveal, but I loved it and thought it was so clever. Many of my regular readers will know why I connected with this narrative voice. It could be that this is the only visible symptom of the chaos in Sybil’s mind as she goes through a massive shift – physically from one flat to another – but also a mental shift towards living alone, to coping with her nemesis constantly popping up and to the heartbreak she’s gone through. We’ve all had to start new chapters in life so her situation is easy to relate to.

Helene’s organisation brings much needed funding to the museum, but with it come obligations. As chair of the trustees, she wants to change the very structure of the building and some of the precious display spaces might be sacrificed. Her commercial enterprise, recreating Beakerware (TM) for the museum gift shop, means the shop expanding into other areas. Exhibits that have been on display for years will be moved into storage to make room and Sybil dreads Helene using Simon as the face of the range, imagining giant posters of her ex greeting her every morning at work. To add insult to injury Helene even inserts herself into Sybil’s everyday job by adding a section into her boss Raglan’s upcoming book meaning that Sybil has to index Helene’s writing. Could there be a chance here, for Sybil to gain some satisfaction? However, as Sybil’s mum hints, revenge can be more damaging to the person seeking it. This book is character driven and they’re brilliantly drawn, funny, eccentric and human. Sybil’s boss Raglan Beveridge – who she observes sounds like a cross between a knitted jumper and a hot drink – is such a lovely man, easily swayed but kind and tries to ensure that Sybil is ok. I enjoyed Bill who she meets several times across the book, in different situations. He’s calm, funny, thoughtful and shows himself to be a good friend to Sybil, even while she’s barely noticing him! Helene seems to hang over everything Sybil does, like an intimidating black cloud promising rain to come. She is a glorious villain in that she has very few redeeming features, and tramples all over Sybil’s world at home and at work. The author cleverly represents this in the very structure of RIPS. Sybil likes her slightly fusty, behind the times little museum. There’s a sense in which it is precious, that the spaces within shelter some eccentric and fragile people. They’re like little orchids, who might not thrive anywhere else. They’re introverts, so need familiarity and quiet. How will they survive Helen’s onslaught?

On the whole this was a quiet book. As I was reading it, I was totally. engrossed and the outside world was muffled for a while. It reminded me of those mornings after snowfall, when the outside world is silenced. I felt a deep connection with Sybil. She’s offbeat, quirky and has a dark sense of humour. We meet her at her lowest point and while we’ve all been heartbroken, this was much more than that. I’ve been broken by life just once, but I was a like a vase, smashed into so many pieces I didn’t know if I could pull them all back together. Even if I did, I knew I would never be the same person. This is the process Sybil is working through and her grief is central to the novel. My loss felt so huge that it affected my actions – I left doors unlocked when I went out, forgot to pay bills, and started to make mistakes at work. I had always prided myself on being very ‘together’ and here I was falling apart. I discovered Japanese art that healed me in some way – it’s called Kintsugi and it’s the art of repairing broken ceramics with liquid gold or other contrasting metal. It shows the cracks, the evidence that this piece has been through something, but it’s still whole and it’s still beautiful. I feel this is Sybil’s journey and what she needed to hear was broken things can still be beautiful. This was a thoughtful novel, with serious themes but a lovely hint of humour running through. I still love it now, a couple of years later and my finished copy has pride of place on my bookshelves.

Q & A with Ruth Thomas.

1. The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line is very character driven – did the idea for the story or Sybil come first?

The setting came first, in fact. I wanted to write about a fusty old institute, and that’s how the Royal Institute for Prehistorical Studies (RIPS) began. I also wanted to write about Greenwich Park. It’s an early memory from childhood. I remember it being a beautiful but rather melancholy place.

2. The RIPS is a wonderful setting! Could you tell us a bit about it, and why you set The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line in a museum?

I love museums, especially small old-fashioned ones. They have so much character and lend themselves to description. I also wanted to tell the story of a museum artefact – how it fitted into someone’s life in the 21st century as much as the time when it was made.

3. Sybil’s voice is brilliantly handled – did you do anything in particular to pin that down when you started working on the novel, or to get in the zone each time you sat down to write?

I don’t think too much about voice before I begin – I just start with my own take on things, and after a while a character and voice shapes itself around those observations. I think the mood your character’s in has a big effect on the way they tell their story.

4. Quite early on in the book, Sybil joins ‘Poetry for the Terrified!’ at North Brixton Library – could you tell us a bit about that?

I love poetry but am a bit rubbish at writing it! I thought I’d harness that inability for Sybil too. At school, we were always supposed to find poetry profound. It can be fantastic and moving, of course, but sometimes you have to discover that in your own time.

5. One of the themes that stood out while reading The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line was grief – we’d love to hear about how you explored different aspects of grief.

I wanted Sybil’s grief to be reflected elsewhere in the book too. She thinks she’s alone with her heartbreak, but that’s one of the qualities of grief – you don’t necessarily know others are going through something similar. I also wanted to explore sorrow without writing a very sad book!

6. Was any of the office politics/social etiquette inspired by real life?

I love office politics! It’s one of the things I really missed during lockdown. Small-scale conversations and seemingly trivial things are what make me tick as a writer. At the momentI’m just having to focus a bit more on remembering the details.

Thank you so much to Sandstone Press and the SquadPod Collective for inviting me to share this lovely book with you again and thank you to Ruth Thomas for her contribution to this post.

Posted in Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight! Self-Improvement Month.

I drive my family and friends crazy every January, complaining about New Year’s Resolutions and explaining why they rarely work. It’s a combination of: the proximity to Christmas – just the week before we’re being told to stuff our faces and fill our shopping trolleys to overflowing; the post-Christmas blues when everyone returns to life as normal; the cold weather and dark nights; the financial squeeze post- Christmas. We’re already dealing with so much this time of year, why would we decide this was the optimum time to start that boot camp or stringent diet? To start denying ourselves? I always say to clients that if they must make resolutions at all, make them positive resolutions. The only one I’ve ever kept was to go to the cinema once a week and that lasted several years, because it was adding something to my life rather than taking it away. I don’t know whether it’s years and years of conditioning as a child, but I always have more get up and go in the autumn. I had a childhood love of new stationery that has never left me, so it’s almost in my DNA that I organise myself at this time of year. The summer is so tough for people with MS, especially when the temperatures are creeping ever higher, so I feel a physical as well as a mental lift in September. It just so happens that September is ‘self-improvement month’ so I thought I’d share with you some of the books that have helped with my self-growth over the years and ones I recommend again and again to clients and friends.

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

This book brings back fabulous memories for me because I bought it in the gift shop of New York Public Library on my 40th birthday trip. That week was the start of new patterns in my life anyway, because I was recovering from widowhood swiftly followed by a disastrous abusive relationship. I’d bought my own home for the first time and I was looking for ways to work on my self. I had some counselling, started a weekly meditation class and was looking for a calmer, happier life. Gretchen Rubin’s original career was in law, but when she became an author she started the happiness project, inspired by a moment on a city bus when she looked out at the rainy day and thought ‘the days are long but the years are short’. She started by casting around for the latest research, theories, activities and programs that claimed to boost happiness. Taking us all the way back to ancient wisdom through to lessons in popular culture, she tries everything and reports back candidly on what worked for her and what didn’t. Some of the advice is practical – she looks into the catharsis of getting rid of belongings, the latest wisdom on organising life to reduce stress, and whether money really is the root of evil. In fact Rubin is very honest about this and admits that yes, having enough money to be comfortable does help in lifting mood. However, happiness doesn’t continue to rise the richer we get. The secret is to have just enough. Ultimately we would all gain from carrying out our own project, but the most universal advice for happiness Rubin found was novelty and challenge. We should never settle for routine or stop challenging ourselves, two things that also stop us from growing old mentally. The latest edition of this book has an interview with the author, an insight into other people’s happiness journeys, plus and a guide and free resources to plan your own happiness journey.

Harper Paperbacks, Anniversary Edition. 30th October 2018

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown.

What is it that stops us from taking risks and being vulnerable in life? Usually it is the fear of failure. The fear of falling flat on our faces in from of the world. We strive to appear perfect. I love all of Brené Brown’s work, but as someone who is trying to find the confidence to write, it’s this book that’s closest to my heart at the moment. Brown’s work is rooted in social science and while she’s an academic and rigorous researcher, she has a way of expressing her ideas that feels as if you’re talking to a friend over a coffee. It seems that all we do in this age of social media, is list our imperfections. Usually that means those on the outside, as we try to accept our bodies while looking at photographs that are edited and filtered until they bear no resemblance to the person to a human being. When it comes to our intelligence, fear of failure can actually impede our learning. Studies have shown that girls in their first couple of years at secondary school, a very vulnerable time of their development, are so self-conscious in front of their male classmates that they stop participating in school discussions. Even as adults we avoid trying new things because we don’t want to fail. Starting my blog was partly to get used to writing daily. I’d always wanted to write a book, but was so scared of finding out I wasn’t good enough. I had to build up confidence slowly, but it constantly plagues me that I might fail miserably, even though I tell my stepdaughters that they haven’t failed if they keep trying. Brené Brown’s book was a huge influence on my thinking, because she talks about those times where there’s risk and we are vulnerable. We tend to avoid vulnerability, because we see it as a weakness, almost as a negative feeling. She argues that vulnerability is actually a strength, because we’re vulnerable when doing something new or making a change. We can’t grow and learn, unless we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. When we hide ourselves, we’re actually shutting ourselves off from finding those true connections and the things that bring true meaning to our lives.

Published by Penguin 17th January 2013. Now on Netflix as The Call to Courage.

The Unexpected Joy of the Ordinary by Catherine Gray.

Something in society shifted during lockdown. It was probably the first time that adults of my age (mid-late 40’s) faced an international crisis. For weeks we were thrown back on our own resources, unable to socialise or go outside for entertainment. I felt I had a head start here because having had a disability for most of my life I already have to rely on myself for reassurance, comfort and entertainment. I’ve spent long periods in hospital or convalescing at home since I was about 11 years old so I can honestly say that through lockdown I was never bored or disenchanted with day to day life. I think I learned a long time ago to find happiness in the small stuff. So I was interested in this book that aims to teach people why they feel dissatisfied with everyday life and how to find happiness in ordinary existence.

The author claims it’s not us being brats. There are two deeply inconvenient psychological phenomenons that conspire against our satisfaction. We have ‘negatively-biased’ brains, which zoom in on what’s wrong with our day, rather than what’s right. Of course back in the mists of time, this negative bias kept us alert and stopped us being ambushed by the wildlife that used to eat us, but now it just makes us anxious. She also cites something called the ‘hedonic treadmill’ a drive we all have that keeps us questing for better, faster, more, like someone stuck on a dystopian, never-ending treadmill. Thankfully, there are scientifically-proven ways to train our brains to be more positive and to take a rest from this tireless pursuit. Catherine Gray knits together illuminating science and hilarious storytelling, unveiling captivating research that shows big bucks don’t mean big happiness, extraordinary experiences have a ‘comedown’ and budget weddings predict a lower chance of divorce. She reminds us what an average body actually is, reveals that exercising for weight loss means we do less exercise, and explores the modern tendency to not just try to keep up with the neighbours, but also the social media elite. I found this gave me the background to something I already knew in my heart, but for others this could be a life changing read.

Published by Aster 26th December 2019.

Living Well With Pain and Illness by Vidyamala Burch.

I’ve had chronic pain since I was eleven years old and I broke bones in my spine doing a somersault in school. Since then I’ve been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. At the age of 40 I’d pretty much been round the block when it came to treatments and I was very wary of anything that promised to help or cure my condition. I was especially suspicious of anything that claimed to work on my physical condition through the mind. Any sort of faith healing or therapy that claimed to help me ‘think myself better’ was guaranteed to raise my blood pressure a few notches. So when I came across this woman I probably wasn’t the most receptive reader. However, Vidyamala Burch has suffered with chronic pain for over 30 years due to congenital weakness, a car accident and unsuccessful surgery. That made me sit up and listen. Knowing she is now a wheelchair user reassured me that she wasn’t trying to claim a cure or even that mindfulness would reduce my physical pain, only that mindfulness could reduce my instinct to fight with the pain. Burch identifies that it is our resistance to pain which causes it to be so distressing and miserable. We don’t want it to be happening to us, and we wish we weren’t experiencing it. Instead she suggests we accept it.

LIVING WELL WITH PAIN AND ILLNESS is her practical guide to living with and managing chronic pain through the principles of mindfulness. We must develop a calm awareness of our bodies and the pain we’re in. If we let go of the frustration and suffering that we associate with the pain, our perception of that pain will reduce.Vidyamala Burch uses easy-to follow breathing techniques and powerful mindfulness meditations to teach us how to live in the present moment. LIVING WELL WITH PAIN AND ILLNESS includes helpful illustrations, offers effective ways of managing chronic pain and is a must-read for all sufferers. I found it life changing, not because my pain went away, but because I stopped fighting and resenting it. I learned to meditate on my pain, to learn how it varies over a period of time and how much I can cope with.

Published by Piatkus 3rd March 2011. Vidyamala Burch is the founder of the Breathworks centre.

How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran.

I came across Caitlin Moran’s book at exactly the right time. I was hitting 40, coming out of an abusive relationship and buying a house to live by myself for the first time. I knew I needed to heal and along with the more practical and spiritual reads this one was much needed. It was honest, feisty and funny. Caitlin Moran is a breath of fresh air. I understood her background and that wildly romantic teenage fantasy life she had from her reading. I used to trudge the countryside in my wellies hoping to meet my very own Heathcliff. We had no money, untruly animals and a Labrador I could whisper all my secrets too. This book taught me that it was ok to do what I wanted and I could bypass all the rubbish that comes with the modern ideal of womanhood. I could spend time on looking nice, but not to take on the botoxed, contoured, epilated, pouting and filtered norm. I started to prefer photos that showed who I am inside. I took away from this book that it was okay to wear Dr Martens all the time, that maybe I needed to curb my spending and to accept my body as it is – it might never be better than this. In places, her honesty taught me to be brave about making decisions for my life and not to romanticise my love life. Instead, when I was ready, I would hope to meet a best friend; someone kind, caring and could make me laugh so much I nearly wet myself. This book takes us back to a feminism I could get on board with after twenty years of Spice Girls ‘girl power’ bullshit. She takes on the adolescent horror that comes with periods, a perfectly normal biological function, but overlaid with secrecy and shame. She also discusses body hair, the porn industry, childbirth and abortion. You might not agree with everything she says and does, but every woman can take something away from this book. I buy it for every young woman in my life too, when they reach an appropriate age to relate to those adolescent experiences.

Published by Ebury, 1st March 2012.

I think it’s best to take Self-Improvement Month as an opportunity for self-care. Self-care can be many things, but it’s not all afternoons at a spa – especially now that we’re in this cost of living crisis. It’s not necessarily about treating ourselves, but is more about creating time to take stock of life so far. Which areas of your life need work and how can you add time for self-reflection and recharging into daily life? I try to find time for a short journal entry every day. I still try to see a new film once a week. Since I recently had a back procedure I’m setting aside time to walk with the dog once a day, however far I can manage it. Again these all add to my life, instead of taking something away. Maybe the best thing we can do is accept ourselves as we are and learn to enjoy the small things in life. Be kind to yourself ❤️

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday: Transcription by Kate Atkinson.

In 1940, eighteen-year old Juliet Armstrong is reluctantly recruited into the world of espionage. Sent to an obscure department of MI5 tasked with monitoring the comings and goings of British Fascist sympathizers, she discovers the work to be by turns both tedious and terrifying. But after the war has ended, she presumes the events of those years have been relegated to the past for ever.

Ten years later, now a producer at the BBC, Juliet is unexpectedly confronted by figures from her past. A different war is being fought now, on a different battleground, but Juliet finds herself once more under threat. A bill of reckoning is due, and she finally begins to realize that there is no action without consequence.

Transcription is a work of rare depth and texture, a bravura modern novel of extraordinary power, wit and empathy. It is a triumphant work of fiction from one of this country’s most exceptional writers.

“No other contemporary novelist has such supreme mastery of that sweet spot between high and low, literary and compulsively readable as Kate Atkinson. I look forward to a new Atkinson book like I look forward to Christmas…what lends the novel enchantment is that patented Atkinson double whammy: gravity and levity. Tragedy and comedy as so skilfully entwined that you find yourself snorting with mirth…brimming with dark wit that reminds you how deeply satisfying good fiction can be.” (Alison Pearson, Sunday Telegraph).

I couldn’t have expressed my thoughts on a new Kate Atkinson novel more clearly than Alison Pearson does above. I’ve been very aware of her new novel Shrines of Gaiety approaching and as a huge fan of her work there is always that push and pull between wanting to read it immediately and being scared of opening it in case I don’t like it. It actually took me well over a year to read Transcription. I think it was because of how much I loved and felt emotionally connected to brother and sister Teddy and Ursula, from Life After Life and A God In Ruins. The latter genuinely made me weep for a character who wasn’t real. When I finally resolved to give it a go it didn’t grab my attention immediately and I worried, but it did impress me with its historical detail and the extreme setting of wartime London. The feel of Juliet’s various workplaces were so well described I could almost smell them – that dusty, old paper smell of offices. There is a strange feeling of truth and fiction overlapping all the time. In interview, Atkinson says that places and characters are complete inventions, but her inventions are informed by the real things. This is the crux of this novel, nothing is what it seems, not even the words on the page.

This is one of those books where I really had to concentrate to follow the story, but I’m not claiming to have picked up all the clues that were there. Other reviewers have claimed to have seen clues quite early on that suggested how Juliet Armstrong’s personal viewpoints were formed and where this placed her allegiances. Concentration is also vital towards the end of the novel where there’s a lot of flitting back and forth and I struggled at times to keep track of who was who. I was reduced to reading sections a couple of times to establish a character in my mind, although their allegiances were another story. Most work for MI5 so none of them are ever what they seem, and just because of where may work, whether for a person or organisation, it doesn’t mean their sympathies are truly with that cause? Everyone is hiding something, whether in their personal or working life. Peregrine Gibbons isn’t just deceiving others, when it comes to his sexuality he’s deceiving himself too. Oliver Alleyne could be working for any organisation and Juliet doesn’t trust him from the off, but isn’t she hiding her true self too? The dog shows the most loyalty, depending on who owns it at the time of course. Again truth and fiction collide as Kate Atkinson references real operatives from within the service, some of which are well known. Those incredibly well-educated Oxbridge men, hiding both their homosexuality and their allegiances towards Russia, possibly based on Philby and McLean.

I feel that Atkinson presents Juliet as a sympathetic character. I think we were supposed to like her, but who is the real Juliet? I found myself admiring her ability to become other characters and her lying is almost a compulsion. She also steals very well. We shouldn’t trust her and if I met her in real life I’d probably dislike her so it’s a strange psychological trick the author is pulling off. Juliet Armstrong is, of course, an orphan recruited by MI5 during WW2. It was her headmistress who recommended Juliet to a man she knew in the service. We are never told whether she was also an agent, but she assured Juliet that “they need girls like you” whether that refers to her orphan status, her education, or her natural deceptive tendencies we are never told. I loved the way her mind worked. Her brain has two specific tics: she automatically finds rhymes for the words she hears; if she hears an expression her mind conjures up the literal meaning, so ‘cat got your tongue?’ becomes a disgusting picture in her brain. When the service moved her away from transcription to infiltration of a right-wing group, I thought they were perhaps based on an Oswald Mosley type figure and his supporters, a subject I’ve lays been interested in. A lot of women were recruited at this time, but from other books I have read recently such as The Whalebone Theatre they usually had excellent bilingual language skills or mathematical abilities. We’re not sure exactly what Juliet brings to the table, but maybe that’s her gift.

The novel moves around in time, from the war to the 1950s and as late as the 1980s. I was constantly wondering if she’d really ever stopped working for MI5. She works for the BBC in schools broadcasting, a section that contained an element of humour, but even so old loyalties and memories of her wartime adventures start to intrude. Could she still be working behind the scenes? Atkinson has used incredible sleight of hand with her ending, showing that nothing is as it seems in the intelligence community. We can never be sure of anyone’s true loyalties and just as Juliet’s typewritten words are merely a representation of what’s happening next door, any book about the Secret Service is merely a representation, no matter how well researched. I felt very aware that I was only reading one version of story, where all the different strands are as complicated as a tapestry. This book is best read in long sessions so as not to lose the threads. It rewards the reader with a heroine as intriguing, complex and intelligent as the story.

Meet The Author


Kate Atkinson is an international bestselling novelist, as well as playwright and short story writer. She is the author of Life After Life; Transcription; Behind the Scenes at the Museum, a Whitbread Book of the Year winner; the story collection Not the End of the World; and five novels in the Jackson Brodie crime series, which was adapted into the BBC TV show Case Histories.

Posted in Netgalley

Sunday Spotlight! Autumn Fiction: Crime, Thrillers and Mystery.

Who doesn’t love a great crime novel or mystery? It seems to be something that’s ingrained in us, perhaps since some of the first literary detectives like Sherlock Holmes. Our enduring love for Agatha Christie and our consumption of Sunday night cozy crime dramas tells me it’s in the blood somehow. I have a strange relationship with crime thrillers that is more to do with the snobbery of my secondary school than the books themselves. Thrillers are something I devour quickly and almost furtively, as if I should be ashamed of enjoying them. Yet some of my favourite contemporary writers are writers of thrillers and crime novels. As we know from last week’s Spotlight I love the Cormoran Strike novels, the Roy Grace series and Doug Johnstone’s Skelf series too. I also enjoy Sophie Hannah, Anne Cleeves, Elly Griffiths, Will Dean, Louise Candlish, Harriet Tyce, and Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series. I have started reading Agatha Christie too, after my father in law left me an anthology of her stories when he emigrated to New Zealand. So it was no surprise to me that eight of my most anticipated books for autumn were from this genre. See last week’s post too, for three more excellent crime novels on our way this autumn.

I remember being so impressed with Erin Kelly’s first book The Burning Air, but this book sounds like an incredible feat of imagination and ingenuity. It is ambitious and is one of those books that can only be written when a writer has some experience under their belt. It’s
Summer, 2021 and this is a reunion the family will never forget. Nell has come home at her family’s insistence to celebrate an anniversary. Her father is a writer and fifty years ago he wrote The Golden Bones, part picture book and part treasure hunt. It’s a fairy story about Elinore, a murdered woman whose skeleton was scattered all over England. The Golden Bones led readers via clues and puzzles to seven sites where jewels were buried – gold and precious stones, each a different part of a skeleton. One by one, the tiny golden bones were dug up until only Elinore’s pelvis remained hidden.

The book was a worldwide sensation and a whole community of treasure hunters was formed. The Bonehunters were in frenzied competition with each other, obsessed to a dangerous degree. People sold their homes to travel to England and search for Elinore. Marriages broke down as the quest consumed people. A man died. The book made Frank a rich man. Stalked by fans who could not tell fantasy from reality, his daughter, Nell, became a recluse. But now the Churchers must be reunited. The book is being reissued along with a new treasure hunt and a documentary crew are charting everything that follows. Nell is appalled, and terrified. During the filming, Frank finally reveals the whereabouts of the missing golden bone. And then all hell breaks loose. From the bestselling author of He Said/She Said and Watch Her Fall, this is a taut, mesmerising novel about a daughter haunted by her father’s legacy.

Published by Hodder and Stoughton 1st September 2022.

This standalone thriller from Helen Fields, known for the Luc Callanach series of novels, is an absolute belter of a novel. In search of a new life, seventeen-year-old Adriana Clark’s family moves to the ancient, ocean-battered Isle of Mull, far off the coast of Scotland. Then she goes missing. Faced with hostile locals and indifferent police, her desperate parents turn to private investigator Sadie Levesque. Sadie is the best at what she does. But when she finds Adriana’s body in a cliffside cave, a seaweed crown carefully arranged on her head, she knows she’s dealing with something she’s never encountered before. The deeper she digs into the island’s secrets, the closer danger creeps – and the more urgent her quest to find the killer grows. Because what if Adriana is not the last girl to die? This was a genuinely chilling story, combining the epic landscape, myths and legends, as well as some serious scares. The author embeds this modern murder into the island’s past, with even 16th Century shipwrecks, ancient standing stones and the community’s instinct to look after their own all playing a part in the mystery. Look out for my review on Tuesday this week.

Published by Avon 1st September

As everyone knows, I’m a huge fan of Elly Griffiths’s Ruth Galloway series, so I’m intrigued by this new thriller set in London featuring Detective Harbinder Kaur. A murderer hides in plain sight – in the police. DS Cassie Fitzgerald has a secret – but it’s one she’s deleted from her memory. In the 1990s when she was at school, she and her friends killed a fellow pupil. Thirty years later, Cassie is happily married and loves her job as a police officer. One day her husband persuades her to go to a school reunion and another ex-pupil, Garfield Rice, is found dead, supposedly from a drug overdose. As Garfield was an eminent MP and the investigation is high profile, it’s headed by Cassie’s new boss, DI Harbinder Kaur. The trouble is, Cassie can’t shake the feeling that one of her old friends has killed again. Is Cassie right, or was Garfield murdered by one of his political cronies? It’s in Cassie’s interest to skew the investigation so that it looks like the latter and she seems to be succeeding. Until someone else is killed.

This has some great early reviews and I’m really looking forward to it.

Described as disquieting and sensationally sinister in early reviews from fellow authors, there is a bit of buzz in the blogger community about this thriller from Lucy Banks. It’s set in that tension between someone who protests their innocence and has paid for their crime, versus the general public who often feel differently, seeing a criminal is their midst. The public think Ava’s a monster. Ava thinks she’s blameless. In prison, they called her Butcher Bird – but Ava’s not in prison any more. Released after 25 years to a new identity and a new home, Ava finally has the quiet life she’s always wanted. As she forges a friendship with her neighbour, however when the neighbour’s daughter comes to stay things change. Ava is convinced that she’s worked out who she is and when a brick comes through the window she knows that someone has discovered her secret. The lies she’s told are about to unravel. This is a real psychological suspense novel that really draws you deeply into the character’s experience. It poses the question of whether someone has ever paid for their crimes?

Published by Sandstone Press on the15th September 2022

When is the right time to be who you always were?

Jodi Picoult has always been a must read for me, ever since Her Sister’s Keeper, many years ago now. Here she collaborates with Jennifer Finley Boylan, an author I haven’t come across before. Billed as compelling and moving, this reminds me of earlier Jodi Picoult – a story built around a contentious, contemporary issue such as racism, abuse, school shootings or fertility and reproductive rights. Things that are a real flash point in modern America. Just as Picoult did with her novel Wish You Were Here, the authors have picked an up to the minute contemporary issue and I can already imagine challenging conversations around authenticity, identity and gender at every book club up and down the country.

We follow Olivia who fled her abusive marriage and returned to her hometown to take over the family beekeeping business when her son Asher was six. Now, impossibly, her baby is six feet tall and in his last year of high school, a kind, good-looking, popular ice hockey star with a tiny sprite of a new girlfriend. Lily also knows what it feels like to start over – when she and her mother relocated to New Hampshire it was all about a fresh start. She and Asher couldn’t help falling for each other, and Lily is truly happy for the first time. But can she trust him completely? Then out of the blue Olivia gets a phone call – Lily is dead, and Asher is arrested on a charge of murder. As the case against him unfolds, she realises he has hidden more than he’s shared with her. And Olivia knows firsthand that the secrets we keep reflect the past we want to leave behind ­­- and that we rarely know the people we love well as we think we do. This is my weekend read and I can’t wait to get started.

Published on 15th November 2022 by Hodder and Stoughton

That’s it for this week, but next week I’ll be looking at Fantasy, Magic and all things spooky.