A TENSE, TICKING-BOMB THRILLER SET IN A GRITTY NEAR-FUTURE LONDON
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.
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.
This book really was fun with a capital F! If you enjoy Jane Austen or Bridgerton then this is a book you’ll love. It has that clever ability to be frothy and witty, while actually bringing up some important issues, especially about the woman’s role in Regency society. It takes a look at class and what is really expected of those in the very highest society, or the ‘ton’ as they are dubbed here – I’ll be honest and say I’ve watched two whole series of Bridgerton and wondered what ‘ton’ meant, now I’ve finally looked it up! This brilliant debut rackets along at a fantastic pace, with glorious balls and luxurious fashions one minute, then adventurous rescues the next. Our heroine is Kitty Talbot, eldest of five girls who live in the Dorset countryside. As the book opens Kitty is responsible for her sisters, since both of their parents have died. Mr and Mrs Talbot were ostracised from high society before the girls were even born and the family have lived a relatively quiet life. Unfortunately, Mr Talbot had kept a taste for the gaming tables and while his debt grew he also turned to drink. On their death Kitty was left in charge of four sisters, a badly trained dog, a leaking roof and a threat from the debt collectors that payment must be made soon. Luckily, four years ago Kitty secured a proposal of marriage from Mr Linfield, a local squire with a reasonable fortune. Horrifyingly though, a few months before their debt is due, Mr Linfield withdraws his offer of marriage, leaving Kitty solely responsible for her sister’s home and their future. There is only one solution; Kitty needs a fortune and she needs it fast. So, she pawns the last of their mother’s jewellery for costs and decides that she and her sister Cecily will visit their Aunt Dorothy in London where they may be able to gain introductions into society. The season has begun and every eligible bachelor with a fortune will be in attendance. Can Kitty find her fortune before her time runs out, or the secrets about their parent’s departure from London are made known?
As with Austen, there are serious issues and themes underneath the glamour and witty repartee. There’s an absolute honesty in what Kitty is trying to do, both with her family and herself, if not with her potential suitor. She soul searches about whether she can live with the decision to marry purely for financial protection, but when she thinks of her sisters she finds she can live with it quite comfortably. She knows each of them so well, that she can imagine their future needs – the one who wants to learn, the one who needs to marry for love and the one who might never marry. She’s happy as long as her sacrifice means they can have what they need and I found that an admirable quality. Yet, polite society and certainly those of the ‘ton’ find this deceitful and vulgar. The author is highlighting the double-standard here, it’s only Kitty’s gender and class that make her actions vulgar. Men in high society can pick the most eligible woman based on her looks, her age, her child-bearing possibilities and even her fortune, should his be lacking. Should a society gentleman, even a Duke, chooses a young woman of a lower class to him then his actions are accepted. There may be gossip, but whether it’s for love, lust, money or breeding ability no one truly cares as long as she is of good character and virtue. Kitty is simply doing the same, there’s a commodity she needs and marriage is her only means of achieving it. In the ballrooms and salons of London, all young women in the act of finding a match are sparing with the truth. They are making the best of their looks, inventing accomplishments and laughing at awful jokes. They make themselves less: less intelligent, less witty, less feisty. They have to flatter, make the man seem superior in all these things. So, why is Kitty’s plan any different? Her class is the deciding factor, breeding being all important for men of the peerage particularly, it is desirable to meet a woman of a similar class and not marry down. It is Kitty’s dishonesty about her class and lack of money that condemn her.
Once settled at her Aunt’s house, they ‘accidentally’ meet the de Lacey family, one of the most respected families here for the London season. It is the younger son Archie that Kitty thinks might be a suitable candidate and since Cecily went to school with his younger sister Amelia they have a connection. However, it’s with Archie’s elder brother that Kitty can be truly open and honest. James is now Lord Radcliffe after the death of his father but has spent most time at their country seat in Devon. He is in hiding, alongside fellow officer Captain Hinsley, with whom he shared the experience of fighting at Waterloo. He’s superior, intelligent and doesn’t suffer fools, but he’s also holding a lot of emotions in check and felt he wasn’t ready to be the head of his family. Once alerted to the possibility of an alliance between Archie and a young woman who appears to have no breeding or family fortune, he rides back to London determined to sever the connection. He and Kitty’s exchanges are probably the most honest and equal in the book, as well as making me laugh. He can see her ability to charm and once they’ve been honest with each other they seem to relax in each other’s company and Kitty grows in confidence. She makes it clear that no matter what he may see her as – a fortune hunter – her only other choice is to let the family home go and for the sisters to look for paid work that will separate them. I admired her honesty and her ability to see the objections to fortune hunters as hypocrisy. The whole London season is about making matches, sometimes for very similar reasons to Kitty’s own.
I thoroughly enjoyed the ups and downs of her mission and her determination to become an integral part of the season. The setting is beautifully described, especially the culture shock of a dirty and sooty London as compared to the country. I loved the image of higgledy-piggledy buildings that are bowed or look ‘haphazardly drawn as if by a child’. The detailed description of the latest fashions and how the girls have to craftily accessorise so they look like they’re wearing something new. Even so, Kitty is outed in the mind of Lady Radcliffe who notices a shoe with a wooden button that marks them out as from Cheapside. There are also other plot lines that feed into the central premise that work very well too: the story of Kitty and Cecily’s parents and why they were unwelcome in polite society; the identity of Aunt Dorothy and her reluctance to follow Kitty’s forays into high society; Kitty’s insistence that Cecy isn’t looking for a husband while her sister has her own plans; Archie’s discovery of gambling clubs and the predatory lords who frequent the clubs looking for young, inexperienced men who are about to come into their fortunes. 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 into the night. The 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 simply have 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.
Published by Harper Collins 12th May 2022
Meet The Author
Sophie has spent years immersed in the study of historical fiction, from a dissertation on why Georgette Heyer helped win World War Two, to time spent in dusty stacks and old tomes doing detailed period research when writing this book. Her love and passion for historical fiction bring a breath of fresh air and a contemporary energy to the genre. Sophie hopes to transport readers to Regency London, where ballrooms are more like battlegrounds.
A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting is Sophie’s debut novel and it has already sold in twenty territories worldwide.
The memory of that day is a part of me now, tough like hardened skin. You never forget your first. You hope and pray it will be the last you ever see. You already know. Deep down. It’ll happen again and you will have to watch. The screaming, the waiting, watching her body tied down, the boat rocking and shunting, capsizing. Drowning. The point where you can see with your own eyes what it means to be a woman.
Wow! This book was so evocative, from the author’s descriptions of the island’s landscape to the way of life followed by it’s inhabitants. It felt oppressive and bleak, but also 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 their leader Father Jessop. There were 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, seemingly a species of Mermaid. The water 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 the community’s 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, but often asks questions about the mum she has never known. 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?
The book opens with a description of an untethering ceremony, throwing us directly into the brutality of the Keepers and the terror of the drowning woman. It’s a visceral opening and cleverly leaves the reader very aware of the fate our heroine could face. I felt this really added to the atmosphere of the book, raising the tension and our trepidation for this bold and intelligent young woman. We don’t want to see her life mapped out for her with all the restrictions it implies, but we equally don’t want to see her become the next victim of this barbaric, patriarchal society. I also felt strangely unmoored by the setting. I saw in my mind’s eye, a rugged and weather beaten Scottish isle, miles from it’s neighbours, yet I couldn’t pinpoint it’s place in history. The clothing and the attitudes are strangely old-fashioned. The religion is very puritan in tone: a personal relationship with God is encouraged, along with modesty, industry, male domination and of course obedience. Having been brought up in an evangelical church I can honestly say these attitudes and expectations, especially the pressure on young women, is still alive and well in those types of communities. So we could be in the 19th Century or it could be yesterday. Father Jessop’s preaching is that that Otherlands are toxic, their land contaminated and their ability to produce wholesome food curtailed by their inability to listen to their God. This gave me the sense of a dystopian future, where perhaps global warming has decimated most of the planet and only these remote outposts survive. Adding to this sense of disorientation are the islander’s names, more like surnames than forenames the men have names like Morley or Ingram whereas the women have names like Seren and Mull. I felt genuinely uneasy about the island and felt something evil lurked under the piety and the fatherly control, something far uglier, that a rebel like Esta might awaken.
Esta’s questing mind is what drives the story forward. There are too many secrets in her background. She knows that the burn scarring on one side of her face happened when she was a baby and the house burned down killing her mother and whoever else was inside. Only Esta survived and her grandmother’s negativity surrounding her only daughter is excessive and this doesn’t allow Esta to ask questions or hear about a different side to her mother. She knows that there’s more to her history than she’s been told. Another conundrum is her grandmother’s cousin Barrett, a fisherman who lives by the harbour, as close to the water as he could be. He lives alone after the death of his wife and is possibly the only islander to have come across a Seawoman up close and was injured in the process. However, he doesn’t talk about his wife or where he went in the sea after her death. There are too many questions for a girl who’s already unsure whether she believes in the dark myths of the Seawomen, or the darkness she is potentially harbouring at her centre. Despite her upbringing there is a part of Esta that does question, that challenges and most importantly can accept that those in authority might be wrong. It’s a self belief and confidence that will stand her in good stead for what’s to come.
I had so many suspicions and theories of my own as the story unfolded, not just about Esta’s past, but about the patriarchal society itself. The last third of the book really did pick up the pace and we see the iron will of Father Jessop and the cruelty he is prepared to inflict in order to stay in control. I was so deeply pulled in by Esta’s will and her instinct to get away, that I felt anxious. I wanted her to have something in life that most of us take for granted, another person who truly cares for her and loves her. This feeling intensified as she is promised in marriage and goes to live with her husband’s family; a family who have a very low opinion of her and a husband who loves someone else. The way the author opens up the truth of the island is by using one of the older women who has some of the answers and also shows Esta that there are others who think the way she does, they just fly under the radar so they remain safe. To Esta this is unthinkable, to know the truth but continue to live under the false tyranny imposed on them feels cowardly to her. What will happen when the Esta’s story reaches its conclusion, when she might face the very ceremony she feared so much at the beginning? Will these free thinking individuals stand up for her? Even more important to me, was whether or not Esta reaches the Otherlands and the freedom she longs for, or whether she is fated to be forever one with the sea.
Published 14th June 2022 by Hodder Studio
Meet The Author
Chloe Timms is a writer from the Kent coast. After a career in teaching, Chloe studied for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Kent and won a scholarship for the Faber Academy where she completed their six-month novel writing course. Chloe is passionate about disability rights, having been diagnosed with the condition Spinal Muscular Atrophy at 18 months old, and has campaigned on a number of crucial issues. The Seawomen is her first novel.
The drinks glass and flashes of almost neon colour on this book’s cover were striking on NetGalley. To me they signified city living, the bar scene and potential for glitz and glamour – I’ve probably watched too much Sex and the City. However, the women depicted here were a long way from flashy, fashionista, New York City Girls. In fact there are only a couple of nights out in the whole book. This is a different NYC, where real people live and work day to day, just trying to get by in a city that’s exciting, but expensive and tough. In a split narrative, set partly in 1955 and partly in 1975, this is a novel that writes back to women’s history. It opened my eyes to a time when women were persecuted for the way they choose to live their lives. In 1955 Dovie Carmichael and her friend Gillian work together as teachers and share an apartment. The friends have a lot in common: they love jazz, a glass of whiskey at night and lazy Sundays at home. The pair guard their private time very carefully, until one day when the wrong person gets a glimpse into their lives, changing everything. Twenty years later teenager Ava Winter lives in the same apartment with her Mum and her Dad, when he’s around and not with his mistress. Ava’s mum is not well mentally and Ava is struggling to live a normal teenage life, preferring to stay home to keep an eye on her. She becomes fascinated with a mysterious box and letter sent to their address from France. Inside are letters, a butterfly necklace and a photograph with LIAR scrawled across a woman’s face. Ava wants to know the story behind the box. Who was this woman, that lived in her home and what do the letters say?
The theme that stood out to me more than anything was loneliness. I felt a contrast between the huge open city and the small private spaces where secrets are kept. The characters I felt most connection with were Ava and Dovie, both struggling to keep secrets about their living situation. The mistake Dovie and Gillian make allows a very manipulative woman to take advantage of them. Judith works at the same school and does come across as a lonely woman, but has allowed her situation to develop bitterness and envy in her character. In the guise of struggling to find an affordable apartment, she inveigles her way into Dovie and Gillian’s home and relationship. It’s clear she wants friends, but seemingly can’t stand to see two people who are happy in each other’s company and if she can’t have it for herself she might just set out to destroy it. Ava is also lonely and I think she senses a similar feeling in the box of keepsakes she discovers, it’s that connection with the sender’s loneliness that makes her so determined to find the person this box was meant for. It’s also a distraction from how miserable her own life is. With her mum and dad estranged she is often solely looking after her mother who seems severely depressed and liable to harm herself. It’s almost a role reversal, with Ava looking after her welfare instead of the other way round. I felt deeply for this young girl going through the usual teenage phases of a crush on a boy in the neighbourhood, a worry about how she looks and fitting in, and both the anticipation and fear of what comes next in life. On top of this her father uses his precious time with Ava to chat up the waitress in their favourite diner. Her mother is deteriorating, screaming and muttering through the night and Ava is so worried about the neighbours hearing her or her friend finding out what home is really like since her dad left. The scenes of her alone in their cold apartment, willing her mum to settle for the night and wishing her dad was there, were vivid and moving.
Whether in New York or Paris the settings are beautifully evoked and I could feel the change in time period from just a few well written sentences. Even the usually romantic Paris has it’s downsides because this is the reality of living there, rather than the dream. I felt the author really got under the surface of these cities and showed me what it was like to be a New Yorker. I found the LGBTQ+ scene so interesting and the contrast between women who kept their relationships secret, with more openly gay women in NYC or Paris, was beautifully portrayed. Dovie has never ventured into meeting other women and the scene where she visits a club stayed with me. There’s an innocence about Dovie that contrasts sharply with the sophisticated women she sees there, some of whom are scathing of Dovie’s lack of knowledge about being openly lesbian in 1955. I don’t think she really understood the danger she faced which could be anything from losing her job to being arrested or put into an asylum. I was just as shocked to realise that women who were open about their sexuality, or discovered, were subject to arrest and even ECT treatment to curb their ‘unnatural’ activities or desires. The nightclub raid where Dovie is helped to escape through a bathroom window is unbelievably tense and so poignant when we realise it’s link to 1975. The way police manhandle and sexually assault the women reminded me of how the suffragettes were treated so many decades earlier. The idea was to break the women’s resolve and remind them what they were really for – the amusement, desires and dominance of men. Reading these women’s experiences made me so angry, but also opened a door into a world I am ashamed to say I knew little about. At heart this is a love story and all the way through I wanted to know what had happened in that apartment in 1955 and I also hoped that Ava would find the intended recipient of the box from Paris. For me this book had a similar impact to the television series It’s A Sin. This was an emotionally captivating story that’s sure to stay with me and has inspired me to read more about the history of sexuality and the fight LGBTQ+ people still have for equal rights across the globe. It left me with a lump in my throat, thinking about how love can last a lifetime, even beyond separations and loss. I really look forward to reading more from this talented author in the future.
Meet The Author
Julie Owen Moylan is a writer whose short stories and articles have appeared in New Welsh Review, Horizon Literary Review, and The Voice of Women in Wales Anthology
She has also written and directed several short films as part of her MA in Film. Her graduation short film called ‘BabyCakes’ scooped Best Film awards at the Swansea Film Festival, Ffresh, and the Celtic Media Awards. She also has an MA in Creative Writing, and is an alumna of the Faber Academy’s Writing a Novel course.
Her debut novel THAT GREEN EYED GIRL was published by Penguin Michael Joseph on May 12 2022.
She is currently working on her second novel SPANGLELAND
This book feels like an epic. A familial version of The lliad, the very first play that Cristabel puts on in the family’s theatre by the beach, formed from the jawbones of a whale. It washed up on the beach and was claimed for the Seagraves by Cristabel who is the orphan cousin of the family. Cristabel doesn’t really fit anywhere. She loves adventure, activity, and endeavours, climbing, running and conquering the Seagrave estate rather than being the lady her stepmother would expect, if she could be bothered. The Seagrave children are an odd bunch, brought up by staff and each other, while their parents stay in bed late, are never without houseguests and like to drink as early as it is socially acceptable to do so. This is the story of the heir and the spare. Jasper Seagrave brings his new wife home to the Chilcombe Estate and Rosalind is thrown into being mistress of the house and stepmother to his daughter Cristabel. There are definite vibes of Rebecca in this beginning, with a much younger wife slightly overawed by her new home and struggling to find her place. The ghostly presence in this case being Cristabel, creeping round corridors and the attic, having ‘boy’s own’ adventures with imaginary friends. Rosalind is happy to have bagged an aristocratic husband, considering they’re in very short supply since the war. That is until the ‘spare’ arrives. Willoughby is everything his elder brother isn’t, a dashing war hero fascinated by speed whether it’s a new car or learning to fly. There’s an immediate attraction, deepening when Rosalind is on bed rest in the last stages of pregnancy and Willoughby keeps her company. Is the Chilcombe estate about to lapse into scandal and what will become of Cristabel?
Joanne Quinn’s incredible debut begins at the end of WW1 and takes us all the way through WW2. The attention to detail is incredible and I felt completely immersed in this family’s history and the times they’re living in. This period saw huge changes for the aristocracy, often forced by the loss of two generations and bankruptcy due to death duties. Estates were sold off or had their use changed in order for the family to survive. The class boundaries became blurred as servants and masters fought together and unexpected bonds were created. Women had grown used to different roles, possibly nursing or working in factories or shops, and not all wanted to go back to a domestic role. There were also less men, so the marriage market changed and many society women, like Rosalind, had to be open to marrying men they might have previously overlooked. The author reinforces this sense of change by echoing it in the setting. When Rosalind first arrives at Chilcombe she is disappointed in the old fashioned country decor, all wood panelling and animal heads. She gradually brings the house into the 1920s with glamorous furniture and wallpaper, perhaps more suited to a London house than the country estate. The animals are banished to the attic, including a stuffed baby elephant on wheels intended as a gift to Cristabel from her mother. In fact Cristabel herself is treated rather like an unwanted piece of decor, stuffed into the attic with only the maid Maudie for company, her tomboyish ways out of step with her elegant and ethereal stepmother. As war looms again, the estate changes accordingly, with its garden turned over to vegetables and the people left behind pulling together as a team whether they are a Seagrave or the servants. They find themselves communing together in the kitchen, with all the elegant furniture sitting around like a piece of jewellery that’s too dressy for everyday wear.
The Seagrave children are the main focus of the novel, Cristabel, Flossie and Digby, each one a cousin or half-sibling they cleave together tightly due to parental neglect. Flossie is the child of Jasper Seagrave and Rosalind and I did find my heart warming to her. Nicknamed ‘The Veg’ thanks to an unfortunate resemblance to a vegetable when she was a baby, I sensed Flossie’s vulnerability. Her mother is beautiful and willowy, a perfect shape for her time, rather like an Art Deco statuette, but Flossie hasn’t inherited that elegance or poise. She’s rather like her father Jasper, a little bit awkward and not very good at asserting herself. WW2 tests Flossie’s metal and she responds with duty, grit and determination. It’s as if by pulling on her old clothes, mucking in with the servants and creating her garden at the whalebones she finds herself and becomes okay with who she is. Her friendship she cultivates with the German prisoner of war is so touchingly beautiful and fleeting. She’s a good person who can see the best traits in someone and bring them out. With both siblings away on special operations, it’s Flossie who has to find a way of keeping Chilcombe and run the estate. Digby, the son of Rosalind and Willoughby Seagrave, has the advantages of being the son and heir, but also seems like the one Seagrave who was wanted. Cristabel, belonging to Jasper and his first wife, is almost invisible. The chapter where her parents meet is unbelievably touching and I found myself bereft for Cristabel, because she would never know how much she was loved and wanted. Flossie is perhaps a reminder of those months when Rosalind was Jasper’s wife, something she seems to view with distaste. Digby could have been resented by his siblings, but both girls adore him. His love for acting shines through from being a little boy, when the theatre has a profound effect on him. So much so, that he’s still on the stage years later. To some extent, Cristabel is his parent and he looks up to her, happy to follow on in whatever escapade she has planned next.
It is Cristabel who is the hero of this book, from the child who has to crawl in bed with one of the maids for comfort and affection, to a special operative in occupied France, she is a survivor. Full of ideas, her determination to claim the beached whale is almost comical, couched in the very male language of expedition and discovery. Once only the bones are left, it takes someone equally creative and energetic to help establish the Whalebone Theatre. A visiting artist, scandalously living in the cottage with his wife and identical twin lovers, imagines walking through the creatures jawbone to reach the theatre (a space repurposed for Flossie’s vegetable garden during WW2). They create a script from Homer’s work and utilising Rosalind’s skills and interest in design, make a seating area and light the way to a stage that has the sea as a backdrop. Their plays succeed in bringing everyone together in the endeavour, each with a part to play whether it’s on stage, setting up, or making flyers for the village. These happy parts of her childhood take on such a nostalgic element, especially years later when she’s crouched in a ditch in occupied France trying to survive. There’s a sense in which the whole ensemble and even the villagers bring up this little girl and I loved the knowing way people would assume some daring escapade was the work of Miss Cristabel. I felt most sorry for her when we learn that her story could have been so different. Jasper is knocked off his feet by this woman who wants to talk to him at the hunt and appears immune to the charms of his notorious brother. The paragraph where Jasper recalls how in tune they both were and how brilliant and capable she was of running the estate with him. I can see a great deal of her mother in Cristabel and I was moved by the joy they felt in finding out they were going to be parents. The stuffed baby elephant they install with wheels for their baby shows that they imagine her like a little Maharaja, riding her elephant around the house.
Cristabel’s war years are incredibly intrepid and there are scenes where I was scared for her. The languid inter-war years seem decadent by comparison with these more sparse and disjointed episodes showing all three Seagraves in different parts of the world. I thought the pace really picked up as we followed Cristabel on her missions, parachuting into occupied France as a messenger, often with German soldiers a hair’s breadth away from discovering her. One scene with a German officer is so real I felt sick for her! She proves that her ‘adventures’ were not just an affectation. She is willing to put herself on the line, proving her aptitude for work as a operative, but also such incredible bravery. The final days of Nazi rule in Paris are tense, nail-bitingly so, but I didn’t fear for her. I had a sense Cristabel would survive no matter what. I thought this was an incredible depiction of life through the war, whether from Flossie’s more domestic side including service as a land girl to Cristabel and Digby’s seemingly more dashing exploits. His sister’s determination to find Digby showed that these children loved and cared for each other so deeply, probably because they had been left to their own devices. For Cristabel, it is servant Maudie who shows her what a mother’s love should look like and she in turn, mothers her little brother and sister. The author shows what a toll both wars took on people and the rapid changes they forced on society. I won’t reveal whether any of our characters survive, but Cristabel remembers a saying, that war can bring out the best in people. There are those who shine through difficult days and in their own ways I think the Seagrave children all stepped up to the mark. Most importantly the loving bond they had as children, stood firm and could not be broken.
Published 9th June 2022 by Fig Tree (Penguin)
Meet The Author
Joanna Quinn was born in London and grew up in Dorset, in the South West of England, where her “brilliant, beguiling” debut novel The Whalebone Theatre is set.
Joanna has worked in journalism and the charity sector. She is also a short story writer, published by The White Review and Comma Press among others. She teaches creative writing and lives in a village near the sea in Dorset.
The Secret of Karabakh had a very intriguing blurb and a powerful opening prologue that drew me in. The horrifying image of a child killed by soldiers while trying to flee a war had a deep resonance, due to reports of such atrocities coming out of Ukraine every day. The way the author describes the child’s ‘pink woolen scarf decorated with chocolate-brown rabbits and butter-yellow ducklings’ contrasts the innocence and softness of the child with the rocky terrain, the gunshots and the lack of mercy shown. It’s a vivid and terrible scene that stays with you throughout.
Then we meet Alana Fulton a committed and gifted student of archaeology completing her PhD at Cambridge University. Her background is surprisingly privileged and we see her meeting her mother at the Dorchester Hotel in London. Her parents find it difficult to understand her fervour for her studies when she could have had all the opportunities their wealth offered her. There’s even a film star boyfriend who she’s keeping at bay with her devotion to study, much to her mother’s confusion. Yet this tea with her mother marks the day her life turns upside down. First she notices a strange man staring intently at her on the street and to avoid him she jumps into a cab for Kings Cross station. Her relief as the doors of her train close and they set off for Cambridge, is wiped out when she sees the same man running down the platform after the train. Her fear is compounded when she reaches her university rooms. Usually her college is the place where she finds calm and feels most like the real her, but when she finds her room wrecked she is shaken. Nothing seems missing at first, and it’s only after the police have gone and Alana starts to tidy that she realises her hair brush and toothbrush are missing. The police start investigating, but there are two questions at the forefront of her mind: who was the man asking for her at the porter’s gate? Who sent the anonymous note, telling her she’s not who she thinks she is and warning her she’s in danger?
Alana isn’t sure who she can trust and she’s shocked to find out the identity of the man asking for her at university. Someone she knows well is now the focus of the police. These early sections didn’t gel with me at first, because I didn’t connect with Alana. Despite that I thought the author had paced the action and revelations very well. As Alana and her boyfriend go on the run, there was a very spy film feel to the action, at they take a private jet to Switzerland. The pace doesn’t let up as they are followed by foreign attackers and if this were a movie, Alana would definitely be the star. She doesn’t come across as a damsel in distress type and seems completely capable of rescuing herself. This makes it even more ironic when we find out her boyfriend has accepted payment in diamonds for keeping her safe. But who has made the payment and which side of this unknown conflict are they on? I was most interested in the psychological journey of Alana, arising from her confusion about the message questioning her identity. Like many people she has memories of childhood, but if she tries to think back to her pre-school years it’s not just hazy, there’s a great big blank. Underneath that blackness is an emotion, a combination of ‘bewilderment and simmering fear’ that she can trace throughout her early school years, but gradually fritters away until she hits adolescence, when it’s gone. This is a raw emotion, the result of a base or primal fear, and this kept me invested in the story, because I really wanted to know where that feeling was from.
In-between the action are personal stories from a war I knew nothing about, the Nagorno-Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. This is a real life border conflict, but when we look deeper it’s not just about territory, but natural resources and cultural histories too. The conflict has been ongoing since the 1980s, with various flares into full scale war over the years and has only recently been more settled, but with only some of the issues resolved. It was the dissolution of the Soviet Union that sparked rising ethnic tensions between Armenian and Azerbaijani people especially in the Nagorno-Karabakh region – an enclave of South-West Azerbaijan with majority ethnic Armenian people. It seemed clear that this area was linked to Alana, but how?
From Switzerland onwards these questions are answered in a story filled with action and discovery for Alana, and I found this part of the book much more gripping and memorable. I was interested in how Alana copes with these revelations mentally, as her past and present collide. Those vague emotional memories from childhood come to the fore again as she learns the truth of who she is. More terrifying and muddled childhood experiences start to emerge and Alana will have to find reserves of determination and courage to piece everything together. I thought it was great that those qualities Alana’s parents really didn’t understand, came from this history she knew nothing about. It was also interesting how the author showed our emotional memories as stronger and longer lasting – it’s why sometimes a piece of music makes us feel a certain way, but we don’t know why. Alana’s memory still carried emotional trauma, despite her not remembering the details or the place. I thought the author’s use of research really added to the story and helped my understanding of the complex history of the region. I finished the book satisfied with the story, but wanting to know more about Nagorno-Karabakh and other areas left in difficulties as the Soviet Union disbanded. This was a clever mix of historical fiction and action thriller, with an incredibly strong sense of place.
Meet The Author
Fidan Bagirova is a writer, sculptor and multimedia artist. She was born in Geneva, to parents from Azerbaijan. They, like hundreds of thousands of others, lost everything during the Armenian invasion described in The Secret of Karabakh, and for Fidan, writing this novel has been a way of expressing her longing for the Azerbaijani people’s identity and stolen heritage.
In the wake of this talented writer’s new novel Devotion, for this week’s Throwback Thursday I decided to look at her debut novel Burial Rites. Set in Iceland in 1829 and based on a true story, we follow the final days of Agnes; a young woman accused of the murder of her former master. Housed at an isolated farm until her execution, Agnes is accompanied by Tóti, a priest she has mysteriously chosen as her spiritual guardian. The family are horrified to be housing a murderer, but as time goes on and her death looms closer, they start to listen to Agnes and hear a different side to the sensationalised story they’ve accepted as truth. How can Agnes cope with her impending death and the realisation that history will define her: as a murderess, a monster, a woman without mercy?
The first thing that comes to mind when I think about this book is the stark scenery and the way it’s linked to Agnes’s emotions. She reminded me of my favourite literary heroine Jane Eyre, in that she’s so passionate, with every emotion unfiltered, raw and open for the reader to see. Jane is condemned as too passionate when she’s a child, but even though she learns to rein her emotions in as an adult, there are glimpses of her true nature in her eerie paintings and her feelings for Rochester. Jane’s warning of what happens when a women’s passions are unbound, comes in the shape of Bertha Mason, Rochester’s wife and the madwoman in the attic. Bertha acts on her feelings immediately; her anger leads to the burning of Rochester’s bed and the wounding of her brother Richard. However, in his explanation after their abandoned wedding, Rochester tells Jane of mood swings and childlike behaviour, but also hints at an unladylike lust that’s unbecoming in a wife. This is certainly implied strongly in Jean Rhys’s impressive post-colonial prequel Wide Sargasso Sea, where his wife’s enthusiasm in the bedroom feels unchaste and his claims of being duped by her family might relate more to her virginal state than her potential for insanity. Agnes is similarly passionate about her lover:
“I cannot think of what it was not to love him. To look at him and realise I had found what I had not known I was hungering for. A hunger so deep, so capable of driving me into the night, that it terrified me.”
Just as Jane’s heartbreak and spiritual battle after her flight from Thornfield is characterised by the biting wind and lack of shelter of the bleak moorland, Agnes seems so deeply in tune with her Icelandic surroundings. The claustrophobic atmosphere of her final days is heightened by being sequestered in someone else’s space and marooned in the middle of an Icelandic winter. There is nothing soft here. The relentless freezing air and sparse vegetation echo the frozen glares of the women in the family, the barren and friendless days that count down slowly without joy or pleasure to make them bearable. Both the landscape, and Agnes herself, are haunting and have stayed with me way beyond the final pages.
I love how the author plays with the idea of self and it’s construction in fiction. She takes a real person, with a real criminal case against them and starts to give them thoughts and feelings. The Agnes Magnússdóttir she could read about in records and news reports is a distant, lifeless, individual. In fact any contemporary writing about her that gives more than the bare facts, is only one person’s idea of who she was and what her motivations might have been. It’s a false self and what Kent tries to do is breathe life into Agnes, to create a real person with thoughts and feelings, someone we can perhaps start to understand and empathise with. I love though how Agnes has an awareness of this and how even in Kent’s story, she isn’t real. She explains that people will think they have a sense of who she is through her perceived actions, but that isn’t her. She knows she will be labelled and for some people that will forever define her, but only she knows her true character and her true motivations. How can a woman hope to survive when her very life is dependent on the stories told about her by others, rather than her own word?
“They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. They will say “Agnes” and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.”
Paperback Published by Picador 27th Feb 2014
Meet The Author
Hannah Kent’s first novel, the international bestseller, BURIAL RITES, was translated into over 30 languages and won the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year, the Indie Awards Debut Fiction Book of the Year, the Prix Critiqueslibres Découvrir Étranger, the Booktopia People’s Choice Award, the ABA Nielsen Bookdata Booksellers’ Choice Award and the Victorian Premier’s People’s Choice Award. It was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Guardian First Book Award, the Stella Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, amongst others. It is currently being adapted for film by Sony TriStar.
Hannah’s second novel, THE GOOD PEOPLE, was translated into 10 languages and shortlisted for the Walter Scott Award for Historical Fiction, the Indie Books Award for Literary Fiction, the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year and the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. It is currently being adapted for film by Aquarius Productions.
DEVOTION, Hannah’s third novel, will be published in November 2021 (Australia) and February 2022 (UK & Ireland) by Picador.
Hannah’s original feature film, Run Rabbit Run, will be directed by Daina Reid (The Handmaid’s Tale) and produced by Carver and XYZ Films. It was launched at the Cannes 2020 virtual market where STX Entertainment took world rights.
Hannah co-founded the Australian literary publication Kill Your Darlings. She has written for The New York Times, The Saturday Paper, The Guardian, the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, Meanjin, Qantas Magazine and LitHub.
Hannah lives and works on Peramangk country near Adelaide, Australia.
At the age of twelve, Sophie Caco is sent from her impoverished Haitian village to New York to be reunited with a mother she barely remembers. There she discovers secrets that no child shouldever know, and a legacy of shame that can be healed only when she returns to Haiti – to the women who first reared her. What ensues is a passionate journey through a landscape charged with the supernatural and scarred by political violence.
In her stunning literary debut, Danticat evokes the wonder, terror, and heartache of her native Haiti – and the enduring strength of Haiti’s women – with vibrant imagery and narrative grace that bear witness to her people’s suffering and courage.
Reading this incredible debut novel at university sparked a lifelong interest in the history of Haiti and its people. The republic shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic and despite only occupying three eighths of the island, it has a staggering population of 11.4 million making it the most populated island in the Caribbean Sea. However, there is a huge Haitian diaspora with many residents relocating to the USA, probably due to the fact that Haiti has the lowest Human Development Index in the world. The indigenous Taino people seem to have been the original residents of the island, but the first European settlers landed in the 1400’s claiming the island for Spain and it remained part of the Spanish Empire until the 17th Century. The French then laid claim to the most westerly point of the island and they brought the first slaves to Haiti for labour on their new sugar plantations. It has the incredible honour of being the first island in the Americas to abolish slavery after a successful slave revolt led by Toussaint Louverture and eventually declared sovereignty on Jan 1st 1894 under his successor Dessalines. As the country slowly united there were attempts to declare the whole island as Haiti, but eventually they recognised the Dominican Republic as a separate state. Haiti has been notoriously unstable due to crippling debt owed to France, the dearth of resources left by the French and Spanish, as well as political volatility. The USA took control of the island in the early twentieth century, until Haitian leader Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier took power in 1956 and it is this period that is explored in the novel. Papa Doc’s reign and the following rule of his son known as ‘Baby Doc’, was characterized by state-sanctioned violence, against any political opposition and it’s own civilians, corruption, and economic stagnation. It was only after 1986 that Haiti began attempting to establish a more democratic political system.
Danticat’s story is about the women of Haiti, particularly the three generations of Sophie’s family, and how this period of history impacted upon the women of Haiti. Sophie has been brought up by her Tante Atie and this is a beautifully warm relationship that really grounds Sophie in her Haitian identity. They are also incredibly close to her Grandma Ifé who tells Sophie stories passed down orally about people who could carry the sky on their heads. Atie is beautifully conveyed as a loving but slightly abrupt woman, conflicted between the needs created by her own motherlessness and her love for this child who has been left behind. Both Sophie and Atie have a void that each other can fill, but Atie is honour bound not to replace Sophie’s mother and to be sure that her mother’s wishes are carried out. This comes to a head one Mother’s Day when Sophie takes a Mother’s Day card home from school clearly wanting to give it to her aunt, not the woman living thousands of miles away who she’s never met. Danticat is very adept at evoking her homeland with recipes and descriptions of mouth watering food. It’s not been a wealthy upbringing, but it is rich in stories, colour, warmth and nourishment. So when Sophie is sent to live with her mother in New York City the contrast is stark and confusing. Whereas Tante Atie seems comfortable in her skin, Sophie’s mother is shown to diet and use skin lightening creams, showing an obvious discomfort about her body and possibly even her identity as a black Haitian woman.
Men are largely absent in this novel, but their impact is enormous. Maxine lives in an apartment with her boyfriend and Sophie hears her mother’s nightmares through the wall. Left alone for long periods, Sophie forms a friendship with a male neighbour in the apartment block. This seems to trigger Maxine and the truth of Sophie’s family starts to come to light, as her mother becomes obsessed with protecting her. She begins the horrific practice of ‘testing’ her daughters virginity – something apparently passed down from her own mother – causing shame, confusion and trauma. Sophie learns she is a child of rape and we travel back to the Haiti of Maxine’s teenage years where she is spotted by one of the ‘Tonton Macoutes’ – Papa Doc’s foot soldiers and the bogeymen of every Haitian child’s nightmares. He drags Maxine into the sugar cane field and assaults her. It will take a return to Haiti, for both Sophie and her Mother, to bring about healing. Danticat beautifully portrays inter generational trauma and the oppression of women that’s caused by the patriarchal system, but enacted by mothers on their daughters. Daughters who were virgins kept their value in the marriage market, just as in other cultures the men want wives who have undergone FGM. It takes rebellion and refusal from the women to create change. Sophie must also face the the ghosts of slavery, represented by the sugar cane her ancestors were brought from Africa to cut. Danticat paints a vivid, colourful but painful picture of a country created by trauma that is still felt many centuries later. She explores how each new generation must find some way to live with that past, whether by leaving the country of their birth for something different or by staying to face the past and break the chain of hurt each generation has passed on to the next. This is an emotional, evocative and difficult read in parts, but is a beautiful debut from an author whose love of her homeland shines through.
This edition published by Abacus 7th March 1996
Meet the Author
Edwidge Danticat was born in Haiti in 1969 and came to the United States when she was twelve years old. She graduated from Barnard College and received an M.F.A. from Brown University. She made an auspicious debut with her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, and followed it with the story collection Krik? Krak!, whose National Book Award nomination made Danticat the youngest nominee ever. She lives in New York.
It’s been a busy month in book world and I’ve found my resolution to read more of my own choices and say no to blog tours severely tested. The emails land in my inbox like a siren song and I have to force myself to swipe them into the bin! I’m always scared that I’ll miss a fantastic read, perhaps a book from an small Indie publisher that I haven’t heard about before. I want to be careful I’m not just reading those books that have a huge publicity campaign behind them. It’s lovely to be able to read books that people haven’t heard about and really sing their praises. From everything I’ve read this month these were my favourite reads, some of which I’ve reviewed and some I’ll be reviewing next month, but want to start shouting about now.
The Maid by Nita Prose
Published by Harper Collins 20th Jan 2022.
I loved The Maid and I think it’s an incredible debut for Nita Prose. It’s a thriller novel, but with a huge heart. Molly is such a loveable character and as the novel begins she is truly alone in the world, after the death of her grandmother. Molly is a maid in the Regency Grand Hotel, someone completely invisible as far as the guests are concerned, but vital to the smooth running of the hotel. When she finds regular guest Mr Black dead in his suite, she becomes embroiled in a murder case. Yet, maybe she has a super power when it comes to investigating crime. When no one notices you and you clear away everyone’s mess, what might you notice that no one else does? I loved Molly as a narrator and her unique way of seeing the world. It’s rare for a thriller to leave you with a warm, fuzzy feeling, but The Maid is definitely the most uplifting thriller I’ve come across.
Demon by Matt Wesolowski.
Published by Orenda Books 20th January 2022
Demon is my favourite so far of Matt Wesolowski’s Six Stories series, where Scott King creates a podcast covering an historical crime. This may be an unsolved cold case, a crime where there are unanswered questions or a case so controversial it can still stir up public opinion. This case is the latter, the murder of a young boy called Sidney Parsons by two boys his own age in the village of Usslethwaite in the 1990’s. As with all his podcasts, King gathers six people either related to the crime or who have a new and distinct perspective on the case. The story has parallels with the James Bulger case, something that had huge resonance for me because of my family connections to Liverpool, but also because I was an older teenager in the 1990’s so I remember it vividly. Wesolowski covers some of the same controversies: the brutality of the crime; the age of the perpetrators; balancing justice and rehabilitation. Added to this is the haunting atmosphere of the village, the caves that loom in the landscape and over the crime scene; the first hand accounts of supernatural events around the time of the crime. I found the different perspectives fascinating and the horror elements unnerving, especially when reading late at night. This was a brilliant horror/crime combination.
The Unravelling by Polly Crosby
Published by HQ 6th Jan 2022
On the island of Dohallund, Miss Marianne Stourbridge is from a long line of island guardians and lives alone in the family home ardently studying her collections. When she advertises for help in her endeavours she encounters Tartelin Brown and offers her a job hunting butterflies for her research. However, as she travels around the island she discovers something more interesting. There’s the island’s history as a place annexed by the military and uninhabited until recently. There’s the mystery of what happened to the Stourbridge family and how Marianne came to be a wheelchair user. There’s the strange run down or unfinished follies dotted around. Most importantly, there are the strange encounters with the islands fauna, which are not always what they seem. In a dual timeline we explore the island of Marianne’s teenage years, as well as the strange present day, to answer the many questions the reader starts to have about the Stourbridge family and past events. I found this story magical, mysterious and ultimately very moving. Polly Crosby is fast becoming one of my favourite writers.
Insomnia by Sarah Pinborough
Published by Harper Collins 30th March 2022
This is an early heads up about a novel being published at the end of March. As Emma approaches her fortieth birthday she can’t sleep. She finds herself lured into obsessive behaviours, a steady nightly routine of checking the children, checking the doors and windows, standing in darkness observing the garden outside for movement. She opens the under stairs cupboard, looking for goodness knows what. Her uneasy behaviour is being noticed by her husband and her children. What keeps going round and round in her mind is that her own mother descended into mental illness just before she was forty. Is the same thing happening to her? I read this over the Christmas and New Year break and it was impossible to put down. It really is a master class in thriller writing. Look out for my review just before publication next month.
The Book of Magic by Alice Hoffman
Published by Scribner U.K. 6th Jan 2022
I’m sure regular readers will feel like I’ve been banging on about this book for months, mainly because I love Alice Hoffman but also because I had such early access to the novel. Originally pencilled in for publication last autumn, I’d read the book and reviewed it for October only for publication to be moved to early 2022. No matter, because this is a book worth talking about, especially if you love the Practical Magic novels. I have always maintained that Jet is the most interesting of the Owens women and she features prominently in this final novel of the series. Set after the events of Practical Magic we meet three generations of Owens from Jet and Franny, the elderly aunts, to Gillian and Sally, and down to Sally’s daughters. The focus is on the Owens curse, brought to bear on the family by Maria Owens who had been deceived and heart broken. It states that no member of the family can be in love without grave consequences befalling them. Each woman has tried to circumvent the curse in their own way. Sally embraced love but lost her husband only a few years later and is scarred by the experience. Gillian is married, but doesn’t live with her husband. Jet meets her lover in a hotel for interludes and never looks for more. Kylie’s best friend is the most important person in her life, but they have never used the word love. Until now. The curse strikes and as Kylie lies in a hospital bed, deep in a coma, the women and Uncle Vincent must find a way to end the curse for future generations. As Jet hears the death watch beetle ticking away in the timbers of the house, she also knows that time is running out. A fitting and magical end to this much loved series.
The Christie Affair by Nina de Gramont
Published by Mantle 20th Jan 2022
I absolutely loved this novel based around the disappearance of the crime novelist Agatha Christie in 1926. She disappeared for eleven days and nobody knew her whereabouts. Here the author weaves a tale narrated by Nan, the mistress of Agatha’s husband. There is a showdown between husband and wife as he explains he is leaving her for Nan. Then Christie’s car is found abandoned by the side of the road, but there is no sign of Agatha. The author takes us back from Nan’s growing up in Ireland, to her meeting the Christies. Her life has been one of hardships and heartbreak until now and we begin to realise that Nan wants more from Agatha than just her husband. Meanwhile, Agatha is resting at a spa hotel in Harrogate under an assumed name, when a murder occurs. She doesn’t know it, but detectives have been sent out to look for her and one of them may be closer than she thinks. This was a stylish and genre defying novel, being part love story, part crime novel, and historical fiction all at once. It definitely felt like a story of incredible, resilient and resourceful women.
The Impulse Purchase by Veronica Henry
Published by Orion 3rd Feb 2022.
This book was an absolute ray of sunshine and pure escapism at the end of the month after some heavy reads. My full review will appear as part of the blog tour in February but I can tell you a little bit about the story. The author gives us four generations of interesting and intelligent women. Just before her great-grandmother dies, Rose brings a fourth generation into the world. Gertie is the centre of her family’s world and mother Rose is trying to move into work by volunteering at a local charity helping people who are homeless. Maggie is Rose’s mother, she is feisty and intelligent and loves running her food PR business. Grandmother Cherry is a warm and nurturing woman, trying to process the death of her mother and the selling of the large family home that holds so many memories. The village she grew up in is dear to her heart, so when she hears that local pub The Swan is going to be closed down she makes a huge impulse purchase. Another catalyst in this decision was seeing husband Mike’s indiscretion with a beautiful young painter, at the retirement party Cherry meticulously planned for him. Now she’s going to grab something for herself and The Swan is the ultimate project. So three generations of women tackle the pub and settle into village life in a boathouse at the back of the pub. Has this purchase been an expensive folly, or can these women pull off the ideal country pub? This is an uplifting family drama, packed full of wonderful descriptions of decor and food.
I enjoyed this fascinating novel that fictionalises the famous disappearance of Agatha Christie. On December 3rd 1926, after an argument with her husband Archie, Agatha Christie disappeared. Although there is still some mystery around her movements, it seems she crashed her car while driving down to London. Thousands of police officers and volunteers scoured the countryside near the crash site for Christie, but she was nowhere to be found. It was a huge news story with Arthur Conan Doyle becoming involved and famously hiring a spirit medium to find her whereabouts. She stayed missing for eleven days until she was found in a spa hotel in Harrogate, signed in under the surname of Archie’s lover. Contemporary theories were that this was a publicity stunt, even though Christie appeared to have been in a fugue state. She may have suffered a nervous breakdown after hearing the news that Archie was leaving her. Nina de Gramont weaves a complex tale around this incident, told through the eyes of Nan – Archie Christie’s mistress – an Irish woman whose pursuit of Archie had been so successful he decided to leave Agatha and divorce her, in order to marry Nan. This is only one part of the jigsaw that makes up the full story the author is telling, ranging back and forth and touching on various viewpoints, with the central figure never quite clear and the importance of peripheral figures more vital than I first realised.
We travel back to WW1 and it’s terrible effects on the years that follow. A time when the nation didn’t yet know that the peace they’d achieved was a mere interval of respite where recovery was barely possible. Nan is born of an Irish family, living in London, but is sent back to visit relatives in County Cork in summer since childhood. There she forms a friendship with Finnbarr, a dark Irish boy who has an affinity with animals, particularly his sheepdog Alby. Over the years their friendship grows into love and she is sure they will marry. A chance meeting on Armistice Day is a passionate interlude which leads to Nan being pregnant. Believing their marriage to be only a formality, Nan steals some money, laid aside by her Mum in case one of her daughters gets herself into trouble, and travels to Ireland and the farm. There she finds that Finn is delirious with fever from the Spanish Influenza brought back by returning soldiers. Denied by his family and with Finn thought to be at death’s door, she ends up in a Catholic Home for unmarried mothers. This place is really the genus of the story, because this isn’t Agatha’s tale, despite her being famous and the one who disappeared.
Meanwhile years later, as the Christie’s marriage implodes and Agatha disappears, we’re taken to a hotel in Yorkshire where Nan goes to stay and take a break before the transition of living with Archie. It’s a spa hotel with healing springs, two sets of newly wed couples and an Inspector Chiltern who has been sent to search for Mrs Christie. From these two time frames, the author cleverly weaves her story with the past gradually catching up with the present. I loved the historical detail of the story as the author uses everything from the decor to the women’s clothes to evoke the 1920s setting. There’s a sumptuousness to these descriptions that contrasts strongly with the earlier poverty, with the Magdalene Laundry section being particularly harrowing. I loved how playful the structure was, not quite revealing it’s genre. Is it a love story, an autobiography, or a detective novel? I also loved going back and forth in time, slowly picking up new threads of the story. I had no idea how they would all come together, but loved the way they did.
Meet The Author
Nina de Gramont’s latest novel, The Christie Affair, will be available In February, 2022. She is the author of a collection of short stories, Of Cats and Men, as well as the novels Gossip of the Starlings and The Last September. She has written several YA novels (Every Little Thing in the World, Meet Me at the River, The Boy I Love, and — under the pen name Marina Gessner — The Distance From Me to You). Nina teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She lives in coastal North Carolina with her daughter and her husband, the writer David Gessner.