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.

Posted in Netgalley

Small Angels by Lauren Owen

I love a gothic novel, something I put down to my first reading of Jane Eyre. Being only ten years old I read it as a ghost story, full of horrors like the Red Room and the haunted ghost-like creature stalking the corridors of Thornfield Hall, setting fire to Rochester’s bed and rending Jane’s wedding veil in two. So I picked this from the NetGalley shelves, my brain already turning towards the cooler air of September and the dark nights of the autumn. As it is I read it in the middle of a heatwave, but it still managed to send the odd chill up my spine. Chloe and Sam are getting married at Small Angels, a quaint little church in a wooded area with nearby Tithe Barn for their reception. The venue is situated near to Sam’s childhood village and they are the first couple to be married there. The owner has given them a key and they have a few days up to the wedding day to clean the dusty church and decorate both buildings. They’re staying at the Albatross, the village pub, and on the first night they gather to have a drink with their guests among the locals. One local man, Brian, approaches the couple to tell them a story about Small Angels that might make them rethink their plans. Others are more reticent, they don’t want Brian to tell the tale and ruin the couple’s big day. What Sam doesn’t know is that the person best placed to tell this tale is his own sister Kate.

We’re told this story from several perspectives and to be honest I did get a little confused at first. The current perspectives are split between Chloe and Kate. However, Kate also goes back to when she was a child and started a friendship with one of the Gonne girls. The Gonnes lived on a farm, close to Small Angels and Mockbeggar – the local woodland. For years they have kept up a ritual of lighting beacons every evening and ringing the church bells once a year, followed by a candlelight vigil overnight. The rest of the village have traditionally left the Gonnes to their lonely rituals, but Kate knows that the story Brian will tell the wedding party, might not be so far fetched. The Gonnes believe they are appeasing the ghost of Harry Child, a vicious and vengeful phantom who wants to keep the wood for his own, but is also very lonely. Kate is shocked to hear that one of the sisters she knew from childhood is living at the farm. Will all the generations of secrets surrounding the village come to light on her brother’s wedding day? Kate questions her brother’s sense in agreeing to hold it at Small Angels, no matter how much Chloe fell in love with it.

Chloe takes up the narrative, as the innocent bystander thrown into this strange village with it’s spooky history. Chloe has been the driving force behind the week’s celebrations and has no idea of the story Brian tells on the Hag Night. She is amazed that Sam has never told her and has thought Kate doesn’t like her because she’s seemed disinterested in their plans. She’s surprised that Kate has committed to helping out this week, not realising that she’s coming to keep an eye on things. The tension in this section is brilliant as we see Chloe sucked in by the legend and looking for local history at the library. She’s confused by the villagers avoidance of the subject, even her own in- laws are reluctant to discuss it. Chloe start to find her sleep disturbed and with Sam called away to work she’s alone at the Albatross. She can’t shake the feeling she’s being watched after taking a walk into the woods. While cleaning the church she hears an animal scratching at the door, then again at night. Has something or someone followed her? I was intrigued as to what it might want from Chloe and whether the wedding would ever happen.

The Gonnes seem to be the key to solving this mystery so I was fascinated with Lucia’s sections of the book, especially those that go back to her childhood. She lives at the farm with her father, her grandparents and three sisters: Elphine, Helena and Ruby. One day while playing, Lucia goes into the woods and finds a small boy to play with. He becomes her secret friend and his name is Harry. With all the adults working on the vines at the farm and keeping up the family rituals, it’s easy for her to slip away unnoticed. Besides she’s the black sheep of the family, Nan calls her Lucia the Bad, so I felt sorry for her and could understand why she was looking for friends. Years later she meets another teenage girl in the woods and is happy to have a second friend, but Harry isn’t so happy. He wants Lucia to himself and she’s never seen him angry. All the rituals in the world won’t satisfy his wrath and Lucia is terrified. What will happen to the Gonne family now?

As we countdown to the wedding the stakes become greater and the author creates a real sense of fear and horror. Whatever force is in the woods, it’s growing stronger by the day. The real cost of the wedding starts to become clear and I loved how the author brought experiences from the past into the present to terrify the wedding party. I had a real sense of my old Jane Eyre fears when Chloe wakes from a nightmare to find a tear in her wedding dress and her veil fashioned into a noose. I really felt the burden of the Gonne family, ostracised by the village and left with the responsibilities of Mockbeggar. Once I’d reached a third of the way in, I was hooked on the mystery in the same way Chloe was, wanting to find out more about the malicious spirit and why he is determined to terrify her. I was also fascinated by the Gonne sisters and why Lucia is the only one left at the farm. I was also interested in how long the locals had kept their heads in the sand, merely speeding up on the road out of the village to evade the woods. You’ll be asking all the same questions and more. This is a really atmospheric, modern, Gothic tale with enough scares that I kept the bedside light on once or twice.

Published by Tinder Press 2nd August 2022

Meet The Author

Lauren Owen is the author of THE QUICK and SMALL ANGELS. She studied at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, holds an MA in Victorian Literature from Leeds University, and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, where she was awarded the Curtis Brown Prize. In 2017 she completed a PhD in English Literature with a thesis on vampires and the gothic in fiction.

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

Beyond a Broken Sky by Suzanne Fortin

Beyond A Broken Sky by Suzanne Fortin

I’m a big fan of historical fiction and Suzanne Fortin cemented her place as an author to look out for when I read her debut novel The Forgotten Life of Arthur Pettinger. Her combination of time-slip narrative, history and romance is irresistible. I’m interested in the stories people don’t tell us about themselves and the years spent at war often feel like a parallel dimension where people and stories were lost. People died, became displaced, or were simply too traumatised to relive the events of those years. For many, their ordinary every day lives stopped in 1939 and they lived a completely different life away from friends and family, with a new occupation and a changing sense of self. They could act completely out of character in the high pressure of combat or became worn down by the difficulties of being a civilian in a bombed city, living on rations and making new friendships with the unlikeliest people.To then return and pack everything that’s happened neatly away to restart where you left off seems impossible, but many people did. How often do we hear people say that their father or grandfather never talked about the war? My own father-in-law had been sent to a Russian work camp in Siberia, because his father was in the military. His brother didn’t survive, but he and his Mum escaped and lived in a forest camp with the Polish resistance, gradually walking their way down through the Middle East, across Northern Africa and into Europe and eventually England. I would never have known this incredible story if I hadn’t seen a photo of him as a boy, standing in front of the pyramids. My mother-in-law was a child in the Warsaw Ghetto who escaped through the sewer system. Yet neither dwelled on that life, preferring to look forward where life was less painful. Suzanne’s novels fill that gap, that silence where someone’s experience is perhaps too painful to share. She writes these stories that are often complex and present something new about the war, and about people, that I hand’s thought of before.

It just happened that I’d read Ruth Druart’s The Last Hours in Paris and Joanna Quinn’s The Whalebone Theatre very recently, both of which included characters who were enemy prisoners of war, brought to English camps, but often released into the community to help out farmers or do other work that helped the Allied war effort. Some of these men waited up to three years after the war ended to be returned to their homeland and working within communities led to friendships and relationships with some British people. In Fortin’s latest novel we are taken to Somerset in 2022. Telton Hall is the home of Jack Hartwell, a farmer in his eighties, trying to come to terms with the compulsory purchase of his land and home. Rhoda Campbell is a stained glass expert and restorer, visiting to look at a stained glass window designed by POW Paulo Sartori. She works for a museum that conserves old historic buildings and they hope to move the whole chapel and window to their site. However she finds Jack blocking the driveway in his tractor, in the hope of delaying a little bit longer. It takes Rhoda’s charm and the arrival of his son Nate to get things moving again. As the three of them look at the chapel, Jack’s terrier disappears down a gap between flagstones. Rhoda lays on her front to see where he’s gone and makes a terrible discovery, human bones buried underneath the flagstones. This puts in place a chain of events that reaches all the way back to WW2 and has an effect on Rhoda whose own brother is a missing person.

The story alternates between 2022 with Rhoda’s urge to investigate the mystery she’s uncovered and back to the end of WWII when a young woman called Alice Renshaw finds herself pregnant to an American airman, Brett. As she prepares to marry Brett at the village church, Alice is so happy even though it’s an uncertain future she faces, possibly over in America. However, Brett doesn’t turn up at the church and thanks to his father’s connections he is transferred out of the country immediately. Alice is heartbroken. A few weeks later she’s at Telton Hall, where Louise Hartwell takes on young girls ‘in trouble’ and finds homes for their babies with couples who can’t have children. Louise is also still running the farm, with the help of Jack who is ten, his step-brother Billy, who needs to walk with a stick after being wounded. There are also two Italian POW’s helping with the produce gardens, one of whom is Paolo Sartori. Every time the book delves into the past we hear a little more about the story of Telton Hall, the diverse characters staying there and the connections they form with each other. Each time we go back to WW2, we’re getting closer to the answers and the tension builds, while in the present those that would like Rhoda silenced, come ever closer.

I was gripped by the drama of Telton Hall in the 1930’s and desperate for the hateful Billy to get his just desserts before he can permanently hurt anyone. In the present I was convinced I wouldn’t like the answers to the mystery. I was worried that it would have an impact on characters I’d become attached to, who might have only acted badly due to the extreme circumstances. The ending was a surprise and gave me the answers, as well as putting a smile on my face knowing that there was a happy ending for some. I loved Alice’s ability to trust and love after her experience with Brett. I felt the author really captured that sense of displacement and dislocation that many felt during the war, their separation from ‘normal’ life and the way their actions within that time had repercussions for years to come. Ultimately, the story shows us the amazing ability we humans have to heal, our incredible resilience and capacity to love. This could manifest in holding on to a love that won’t die or in finding we have an endless capacity of love, even when our experiences have shown us a depth of loss that seems insurmountable. For Rhoda it means the possibility of letting love in, despite having no blue print of family life from her own childhood. This book is heartfelt and moving, showing us that like Rhoda’s stained glass we are made up of many parts, each experience and influence adding together to make something uniquely beautiful.

Published on 22nd July by Aria

Meet the Author

Suzanne writes historical fiction, predominantly dual timeline and set in France. Her books feature courageous women in extraordinary circumstances with love and family at the heart of all the stories. 

Suzanne also writes mystery and suspense as Sue Fortin where she is a USA Today bestseller and Amazon UK #1 and Amazon US #3 bestseller. She has sold over a million copies of her books and been translated into multiple languages.

Posted in Netgalley

The Blackhouse by Carole Johnstone

I loved this dark thriller from acclaimed author of Mirrorland Carol Johnstone, with its bleak setting, mysterious deaths and Norse folklore. Maggie Mackay is a successful investigative journalist, but has always been held back by a negative inner voice and terrible nightmares. She’s been haunted by the idea that there’s something wrong with her and she can see or sense darkness. She thinks this feeling is linked to her childhood and a small village in the Outer Hebrides called Blairmore. Maggie stayed there with her mother when she was very young and caused a furore when, out of nowhere, she claimed that someone in the village had murdered a man. She left the community in uproar, saying she was really a man called Andrew MacNeil who had lived in the village on the island of Kilmery. Her mother believed and encouraged her claims, but when they returned to the mainland this strange interlude wasn’t referred to again. Now 25, Maggie returns to the island, in search of answers. Mainly, she wants to find out if her claims could possibly have been true, but with her history on the island, Maggie may struggle to get people to talk to her. However, this is an island with few inhabitants, but a wealth of secrets and if Maggie gets too close to the truth she may be in serious danger.

Kilmery is sat across a causeway from Lewis and Harris, and the author makes this incredible place a real character of it’s own. It’s isolated position reinforces the feeling of loneliness that surrounds Maggie. She roams around the island, often alone and there were times she felt like an easy target, especially to someone who knows the terrain better than she does. Shipwrecks litter the coast and the author’s description of a ship coming to harm one stormy night enhances that feeling of danger.

‘It wasn’t the screams he remembered the most, although they crashed to shore inside the howling, furious wind and ricocheted around the high cliffs above the beach for hours. It wasn’t the storm or the roaring, foaming waves that carved great snaking wounds through the wet sand and stole its shape from under his feet.’

For Maggie, the island is changeable and I felt the way it was viewed echoed the journey she’s on through this dark, dangerous investigation to the hint of a possible brighter future. The wind, fog, and storms lashing against the rocks are unnerving, but there are places that Maggie finds peace. At the Oir na Tir standing stones, even with the wind and rain driving against them, Maggie senses their permanence. This is something that won’t be moved and stands like a sentinel, weathering every storm that’s passed over them. This is the kind of permanence Maggie wants in her own mind, a sense of peace that stays despite what life throws at her. Then there’s the meadow, shown to her by Will, one of the locals she befriends.

‘At the bottom of the hill is a vast green meadow stretching as far as the eye can see. It’s gorgeous, dotted with silver-still lochans, gold winter heather, and boulders covered in moss and orange lichen. It opens something inside my chest, precarious and fragile; a sense of longing that I suppose is awe or wonder. At this uncannily beautiful place full of a light and colour so at odds with the bronze desolation of those inland bens and glens […] I can feel the sting of ludicrous tears, and blink them away.’

This is machair, a type of dune grassland formed by sand and broken shells blown over from the beach. In opens up a sense of wonder in Maggie, like the childhood awe we have for Christmas and it’s magic. It’s almost as if this piece of the landscape connects her to the child she was before all of this happened. Can she trust it though?

I loved the link to the supernatural and Norse folklore, particularly the idea of ‘thin places’, something I’ve had a feeling about before. As an avid reader of the Outlander series, this ability to move into a different time or experience a haunting feels synonymous with Scotland. Old fisherman Charlie, who decides to talk to Maggie about the past, describes a thin place as where the space between this and other worlds is the shortest. The chance of seeing, knowing or feeling something from another world is high. There’s superstition within the fishermen, who never say a prayer aboard a boat, but douse it in whiskey and salt or even use burning rags to cleanse every corner of the boat, rather like smudging using sage twigs. It’s the ‘Vándr-varði’ that feel really disturbing, left anonymously outside The Blackhouse, where Maggie is staying. They’re mummified crows, old Norse talismans to guard against evil, but Maggie doesn’t know whether they’ve been left to protect her or whether she’s the evil that needs to be kept at bay. All of this superstition adds to the mystery Maggie is trying to solve, but she wonders whether it’s meant to spook her and warn her off the truth. The tension keeps building and by the time Maggie has a midnight visitor, my heart was racing.

The central mystery is fascinating and makes the book very difficult to put down. Charlie feels like the designated spokesperson for the islanders, he approaches Maggie with an apology for the way they treated her when she was a child and there’s a fatherly feel to the way he talks to her. On one hand I felt he was on Maggie’s side, but I also wondered whether he was a decoy – someone sent to give her just enough information, perhaps to deflect her from the reaching the truth. Other people greet her with outright hostility and I had a lot of admiration for Maggie’s tenacity considering how vulnerable she must feel, staying on the island as a lone woman. Maggie also has a bipolar diagnosis and I thought this was well portrayed by the author, even though it adds another layer of uncertainty – can we trust what Maggie is experiencing? I found Maggie’s narration more compelling than the male narrator, but overall loved the pace and the different perspectives that give us an insight into events back in the 1970’s. There were twists I didn’t expect and the final revelations about the mystery felt satisfying. I love how this author likes to wrong-foot her reader and although this was more gothic than horror, there were parts that were very unsettling and left me listening out for creaks in the dead of night. I came away from it with an uneasy feeling, not about the supernatural aspects, but more about what humans are capable of doing and how isolated communities like this one have the perfect environment in which to plot and keep secrets, in some cases for decades. This cements Carol Johnstone in my mind as an author to look out for and I will be buying a finished copy of this book for my collection.

Published 4th August by Harper Collins UK

Meet the Author

Scottish writer Carole Johnstone’s debut novel, Mirrorland, will be published in spring 2021 by Borough Press/HarperCollins in the UK and Commonwealth and by Scribner/Simon & Schuster in North America. 

Her award-winning short fiction has been reprinted in many annual ‘Best Of’ anthologies in the UK and the US. She has been published by Titan Books, Tor Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and PS Publishing, and has written Sherlock Holmes stories for Constable & Robinson and Running Press.

Posted in Monthly Wrap Up

Books of the Month! June 2022

This month I’ve spent a lot of time out in the garden reading some really great books. I have a new bright pink parasol to relax under so I can stay out of the sun. One of the drugs I take for my MS causes photosensitivity so I have to be a little careful. I love sitting in the garden though, with the insects buzzing about and no interruptions or distractions. However, I’m still struggling with nystagmus in my eyes – where the pupil keeps moving left to right constantly – so I’ve missed or posted late on blog tours which I really hate. I did have a couple of wobbly days where I thought of giving up blogging for a while, but I get so much joy from it and sharing my thoughts with other bookish people, particularly my Squad Pod ladies, that I couldn’t do it. So I’ll keep plodding on and hopefully plenty of rest and recuperation in my garden will help. From Regency romance to a dystopian future London, I’m time travelling this month as well as cruising across the Atlantic and sitting in an empty Tokyo apartment for one night only. These are the books I’ve enjoyed most in June and I hope you will too. 📚❤️

This bright and breezy Regency romance followed the fortunes of Kitty Talbot, the eldest in a family of daughters who have lost their parents. Kitty’s engagement is called off and she realises that it is up to her to save the fortunes of the family by making a prudent marriage. To place herself in the way of suitable men she undertakes a mission in London, to make her way into high society with the help of her Aunt Dorothy. I felt the author had the balance just right between humour and frivolity and the darker sides of the story. It gallops along at a jolly pace and it’s very easy to keep on reading well into the night. The novel’s excitement peaks one evening as two very different rescue missions are undertaken; one to save a reputation and the other to save a fortune. These missions are taken at a breakneck pace and it’s impossible to put the book down once you’ve reached this point – you will be compelled to keep reading to the end. The author has written a wonderfully satirical and deceptively light novel, with plenty of intrigue and some darker undertones. I enjoyed the Talbot sisters and wondered whether we’d be seeing more of them in the future, if so they’ll definitely be on my wishlist.

This was an unusual, very spare and quiet novel set over one night and mainly in one empty apartment. It showed me that we don’t always need very much to convey a story and engage the reader. So short that I read it in one afternoon, this is a story of two people moving out of a flat and agreeing to spend their final night of the tenancy together. Aiko and Hiro are our only characters and their relationship has broken down since taking a trip together, trekking in the mountains of northern Japan. During the trek their mountain guide died inexplicably and both believe the other to be a murderer. This night is their last chance to get a confession and finally learn the truth. Who is the murderer and what actually happened on the mountain? A quiet battle of wills is taking place and the shocking events leading up to this night will finally be revealed. This is a really unique psychological thriller, it seems sparse, but actually has so much depth and richness. I found myself completely immersed in this couple’s story, both the visible and the invisible. They play with memory, delving into their childhoods, trying to work out what makes each other tick and discover how they ended up here. One has more memories of their childhood than the other, but can we trust what we remember? Even the things we use to jog our memory can be misleading, such as photographs. Hiro muses on how we’re pushed into smiling for photos, to look like we’re enjoying ourselves and love the people we’re with. If we believe our photo albums, the picture we have of the past is distorted. There are so many things going on behind the scenes that are never captured – we may only see the truth momentarily, such as catching a glimpse of fish swimming in dappled sunlight.

Wow! This book was really evocative both through the island’s landscape and the way of life followed by it’s inhabitants. It felt oppressive, bleak and strangely mystical. On an isolated island with no access to the ‘Otherlands’ beyond, a religious community observes a strict regime policed by male Keepers and female Eldermothers under the guidance of Father Jessop. There were real shades of The Handmaid’s Tale in this community, that polices it’s borders and it’s women. Women must not go near the water, lest they be pulled into the wicked ways of the Seawomen, a species of Mermaids that can breed rebellion in the women and cause bad luck for the islanders. Any woman could be singled out by the Eldermothers, so they must learn to keep their heads down and stay away from the water. Any bad luck – crop failure, poor fishing quotas, storms, pregnancy loss – all can be blamed on disobedient or disloyal women, influenced by the water. Each girl will have their husband picked out for them and once married, the Eldermothers will assign her a year to become a mother. If the woman doesn’t conceive she is considered to be cursed and is put through the ordeal of ‘untethering’ – a ceremonial drowning where she is tethered to the bottom of a boat. Esta is a young girl who lives with her super religious grandmother and has never known her own mother. Her grandmother insists she sees a darkness in Esta and is constantly praying and fasting so that Esta doesn’t go the same way as her mother. The sea does call to Esta and she goes to the beach with her terrified friend Mull, to feel the water. There they see something in the waves, something semi-human, not a seawoman, but a boy. Will Esta submit to what her community has planned for her or will she continue to commune with the water? If I had to pick one book to recommend from this month’s reading, it would be this one.

This lovely novel was a dual timeline story about one of society’s ‘Bright Young Things’. In 1938 Nancy Mitford was one of the six sparkling Mitford sisters, known for her stinging quips, stylish dress, and bright green eyes. But Nancy Mitford’s seemingly dazzling life was really one of turmoil: with a perpetually unfaithful and broke husband, two Nazi sympathizer sisters, and her hopes of motherhood dashed forever. With war imminent, Nancy finds respite by taking a job at the Heywood Hill Bookshop in Mayfair, hoping just to make ends meet, but discovering a new life. In the present day, Mitford fan Lucy St. Clair uses Heywood Hill Bookshop as a base after landing a book curator’s role. She’s hoping that coming to England will start the healing process from the loss of her mother, but it’s a dream come true to set foot in the legendary store. Doubly exciting: she brings with her a first edition of Nancy’s work, one with a somewhat mysterious inscription from the author. Soon, she discovers her life and Nancy’s are intertwined, and it all comes back to the little London bookshop—a place that changes the lives of two women from different eras in the most surprising ways. I loved this insight into the Mitford’s lives as I’ve also had a fascination for both the era and this extraordinary family. This covered some serious topics, but was framed by this almost idyllic job that Lucy has purchasing books for wealthy people’s libraries. I loved her foray into the library of Chatsworth House – a long held fantasy of mine. Mainly though it was the relationships between Nancy and her family that held my attention, plus her exploits during the London Blitz. This was a great story for fans of historical fiction but also for bookworms who love books about books.

Lastly this month, was a new novel from one of my favourite local writers, Louise Beech. In it we follow Heather, a pianist who teaches and plays in local bars, then relaxes in her harbour front flat looking out to the Humber Estuary and the North Sea. Heather has a quiet life and quite a solitary one too with no family, but strong connections with friends. In fact it is one of them that encourages her to try out for a job on a cruise ship, something she would never have imagined doing. She would be scheduled to play in different bars on the ship through the day, but as her friend says, she can enjoy the facilities and gets to travel. This particular cruise is stopping in New York then on to the Caribbean before doing it all again in reverse. Heather has grown up in the care system, after her parents were killed in a car crash. Prior to that music was the girl’s escape, from the terrible domestic violence in their family home. Heather and her sister Harriet had an aptitude for music, but for Heather its been her salvation, the only place she could fully express her emotions. After their removal to the Children’s Home, Harriet was taken to see the staff in the office one morning and Heather never saw her again. She could only hope that a kind family had adopted Harriet, but for some reason hadn’t been able to take her too. When the girls had needed to express themselves they would play a duet they had composed called Nothing Else and it was this piece that stayed with Heather all her life, instantly taking her back to the piano and her little sister. We read from Heather’s perspective about how her time working on the cruise ship will change her life. This was a moving novel, with a sensitive portrayal of a difficult subjects moving depiction of trauma’s long lasting effects.

Posted in Publisher Proof

London in Black by Jack Lutz

A TENSE, TICKING-BOMB THRILLER SET IN A GRITTY NEAR-FUTURE LONDON

LONDON 2027

Terrorists deploy London Black, a highly sophisticated nerve gas, at Waterloo Station. For ten percent of the population – the ‘Vulnerables’ – exposure means near-certain death. Only a lucky few survive.

LONDON 2029

Copy-cat strikes plague the city, its Vulnerable inhabitants kept safe by regular Boost injections. As the anniversary of the first attacks draws near, DI Lucy Stone, a guilt-ridden Vulnerable herself, is called to investigate a gruesome murder of a scientist. Her investigation soon unearths the possibility that he was working on an antidote – one that Lucy desperately needs, as her Boosts become less and less effective.
But is the antidote real? And can Lucy solve the case before her Boosts stop working?

I felt thrust into a post-apocalyptic London in this mix of dystopian thriller and police procedural. I was immediately on board with our narrator Lucy, a super sweary and ballsy detective. A very young DI who’s well known amongst colleagues for not taking any bullshit, but also bringing with her a huge amount of baggage. She has a tough exterior, even using boxing to cope with her mental health, but is constantly treading a fine line between losing her temper and having a panic attack. She is also a ‘super recogniser’ – able to recognise anyone if she has seen them before, even if it was just passing them in the street. It’s quite something to read how her brain works as she almost shuffled through the faces stored in her brain like a game of Guess Who. Her constant medical issues are enough to induce panic as she faces measuring her Boost levels constantly, then worries when they seem low for that time of day. There’s also the event that happened – a terrible trauma that she hates to recall and doesn’t talk about. All of this creates quite a flawed and frustrated character, but I did see past a lot of the guarded behaviour and found her quite endearing. Maybe because she has this huge vulnerability. Flashbacks take us to her life before the Waterloo Station event and the normal life she’s known is suddenly eroded. Her pharmacist boyfriend realises she’s a ‘Vulnerable’, but thinks she’s safe because of all the Boosts they have at the hospital pharmacy. It’s when he realises that there aren’t enough and doses will have to be rationed that the scale of what has happened hits him. They have gone from a world where anything they need is accessible to them to one where their security, health and welfare is in doubt. It’s such a massive shift in their living standards it’s hard to comprehend. When we come back to Lucy’s present and see her psyching herself up to inject, the reality of how reliant she is on these booster injections is visible in her black and bruised abdomen.

I found it hard to believe that this is a debut novel, it’s incredibly well plotted and so imaginative. It’s hard enough to create a dystopian thriller that’s believable, but I think the plausibility was helped by recent terrorist attacks and the pandemic. We know now that these things can happen so the deployment of London Black seems like a possible future event, as scary as that is. I thought it was clever that even society’s language has been changed by the attack, in much the same way that we have new phrases and words in common use since the start of the pandemic. The idea of being a ‘vulnerable’ scared me, so Lucy’s determination to take part in the world and investigate this murder impressed me. The severity of the symptoms is horrifying so I’d be locked in my flat with a food delivery service on speed dial. I really did have a constant low level anxiety throughout. However, the murder case is so intriguing I couldn’t put the book down. Who would kill a man that might have the antidote the world is looking for? It’s Lucy’s only hope for a normal life so her determination to solve the murder is understandable. I really loved her developing relationship with DI King and would love to see more of them both going forward in future novels. The author has plotted a great crime novel on the back of a dystopian thriller. It’s anxiety inducing, compelling and has a complex heroine that I was rooting for throughout.

Published by Pushkin Vertigo April 2022.

Meet The Author

Jack Lutz lives in London with his wife and daughter. He is fascinated by the city he calls home and loves to read about and explore it. The idea for London in Black came to him as he changed trains on the Tube. London in Black is his first novel.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Dressmaker’s Gift by Fiona Valpy.

This book was a real hidden gem. I love fashion, so the idea of a dress that can transform the wearer’s through the years – the midnight blue satin, made of many pieces but with such tiny stitches it appears as if one piece of fabric – really appealed to me. Added to this, my in-laws history of escaping the Warsaw ghetto – at 8 years old in one case, and being sent to Siberia in the other – means I am interested in the threads of family history at a time of turmoil. My late husband’s family has its own incredible story with repercussions that echo down the generation , so I understand that lives can be displaced and changed beyond recognition, with the results of that still being felt two generations later,

It is Harriet’s love for fashion and an old photograph that leads her to the door of a Paris fashion PR for a year long internship. She is loaned a room in the apartment above the office alongside another girl. Harriet knows this is the very apartment where her grandmother Clare lived in the 1940s. She has left behind a difficult situation!. Having finished university Harriet has been living with her father and stepmother, where she has never felt welcome. Her father sent Harriet to boarding school when he first lived with her stepmom, following her mums death. Her father seemed to find it difficult to cope with a grieving daughter and a burgeoning relationship. One of Harriet’s most treasured possessions is the photo she has of her grandmother Claire and her two best friends in Paris, Mirreile and Vivi. She also has a charm bracelet given by her grandmother and it’s charms show Harriet a story of who her grandmother was. When we are taken back into the past we learn more about these three women. All work in an atelier for the Paris fashion houses. We find out that Claire and Mirreille lived upstairs first, but are later joined by Vivi. All three are great seamstresses and are quick to become friends.

When the Germans arrive in Paris at first is it easy to carry on as normal. Yes, there are more German voices in the cafes and bars, more German vehicles in the streets, but people still order couture clothes. However, as the war really starts to bite things begin to change. The girls friendship survives Claire’s disastrous dalliance with a German officer, but afterwards she notices a difference in her friends. What mysterious work is Vivi doing in the atelier after hours? Who is the gentleman Mirreille is seen with and why is she often missing after curfew? The girls are about to be involved in the war in ways they didn’t imagined; ways that could mean paying the ultimate price.

Just like the stitches in a beautiful garments the threads of history are so beautifully intertwined with the fictional story of the girls. I read Alice Hoffman’s new novel in the last few weeks and it is also set in 1940s Paris so it was interesting to see the same historic events from a different viewpoint. I could see how much research the author had done and her skill in mentioning actual events without them feeling tacked on to the girls story was brilliant, I slowly came to care about each of the girls and although Vivi seems less accessible than the other two at first, it was interesting to see how central to Harriet’s history she becomes.

The detail is often harrowing to read and the idea that trauma can be passed through generations is one I’m familiar with because I’m a therapist and have read the same research as the author. She uses this beautifully in the novel, illustrating that the German’s horrendous acts of cruelty were on such a scale that it echoes down to the next generation. It is only when someone identifies the trauma in their family and gets professional help to let go of it’s effects, that someone can start to heal. I think I expected this book to be lighter and more focused on fashion from the blurb, but what I got was far superior: an incredible story of friendship and survival. I would definitely recommend it to friends.

Meet The Author

Fiona is an acclaimed number 1 bestselling author, whose books have been translated into more than twenty different languages worldwide.She draws inspiration from the stories of strong women, especially during the years of World War II. Her meticulous historical research enriches her writing with an evocative sense of time and place.

She spent seven years living in France, having moved there from the UK in 2007, before returning to live in Scotland. Her love for both of these countries, their people and their histories, has found its way into the books she’s written. Fiona says, “To be the first to hear about my NEW releases, please visit my website at http://www.fionavalpy.com and subscribe to the mailing list. I promise not to share your e-mail and I’ll only contact you when a new book is out.”