Posted in Monthly Wrap Up

Books Of The Month! April 2022.

It’s been another bumper book month at The Lotus Readers and it looks like 2022 is going to be an amazing reading year, in fact I’m already worrying about how I’m going to choose between these books when it comes to my end of year list. Can I really do 22 books this year? It’s also a year of fantastic debuts with another four debut novels being top of my list this month. There’s been a few tears shed over some of the stories and characters within these pages, but I’ve been uplifted too by these stories of overcoming. Surviving trauma and recovering through the support of others, particularly where women are supporting women, has been a theme here too. Its been the first month where I’ve been able to sit in the garden with a book, so most of these have accompanied me outside and onto my recliner, usually ending with me falling asleep under a dog and a cat! So here are some shortened reviews, to whet your appetite for these wonderful novels,

Reminiscent of those stylish novels of the great Agatha Christie, this was a brilliant mystery with a glamorous location, wealthy passengers and sumptuous clothes and jewellery. The period detail is spot on whether it’s the latest bathing suit or 1930’s politics. It’s not just a whodunnit either, because woven within are themes of identity, belonging, family and class division. It’s gripping without being showy or depending on shocks, or endless twists and turns. It’s elegant and allows it’s secrets to unfurl slowly. Lena is a sympathetic character, who has sacrificed starting her career to care for her father Alfie who has recently died. To pay the bills Lena has been singing in a club band, but she has always wanted to work on the West End or Broadway. Her chance comes in the aftermath of a death at the club. A favour from a an old friend of her father. She’s found by theatre producer’s assistant, Charlie Bacon, whose boss is offering Lena the chance of a lifetime, a part on Broadway in a new musical. As they set off across the Atlantic in their first class accommodation, they make the acquaintance of a very wealthy family with an ailing patriarch. What follows is intrigue, murder, mayhem and the realities of being a black performer. Lena is now caught up in a murder plot, and doesn’t know if she’ll be the next suspect, or victim.

Incredibly strong women, three generations of a Memphis family, are the focus of this amazing debut by Tara Stringfellow that made me angry, made me cry and somehow helped me feel uplifted all at the same time. Grandma Hazel is the first resident of the house in Memphis, a house her sweetheart Myron builds for their family. When he is lynched by his own police squad, Hazel is nine months pregnant and left heartbroken, angry and scared. Her daughters, Miriam and August, then call this place home and it also becomes August’s place of work. When Miriam leaves home, travelling with her husband Jax who is in the military, August turns the back of the house into a hair salon for a community of black women who gather there to laugh, to support each other and to plan activism. When Miriam returns with her own daughters, Joan and Myra, she has mixed feelings. She needs a roof over her head, she loves where she grew up, but something happened here that daughter Joan can’t quite remember. Yet she feels I’ll, deep down. There’s fear and shame in this place, but she doesn’t know why and we follow her quest to process and heal from this hidden trauma. With a backdrop of the biggest events of the 20th Century from the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations to 9/11, this is a story of what it means to be a black woman in 20th Century America. Simply outstanding.

Ethan Joella’s novel was perfect for this moment in life. Set in an idyllic Connecticut town over the course of a year, our story follows the intertwining lives of a dozen neighbours as they confront everyday desires and fears: an illness, a road not taken, a broken heart, a betrayal. Freddie and Greg Tyler seem to have it all: a comfortable home at the edge of the woods, a beautiful young daughter, a bond that feels unbreakable. But when Greg is diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer, the sense of certainty they once knew evaporates overnight. Meanwhile, Darcy Crowley is still coming to terms with the loss of her husband as she worries over her struggling adult son, Luke. Elsewhere, Ginger Lord returns home longing for a lost relationship; Ahmed Ghannam wonders if he’ll ever find true love; and Greg’s boss, Alex Lionel, grapples with a secret of his own. We are all familiar with the hashtag #BeKind and through these stories, what seems like a platitude, is brought home to the reader. Our characters touch on each other’s lives, sometimes without knowing what each other are coping with just under the surface. Despite taking us through every experience from infidelity to loss, the book never feels overwhelming or melancholy. Yes I wanted to shed tears from time to time, but somehow there is always a ray of hope. It reminded me that things like community, friendship, shared experiences and compassion can change everything. The author doesn’t hold back on how difficult and painful life can be, but yet always finds some element of joy that reminds us what a gift it is too. This book is poetic, achingly beautiful and full of empathy for the human condition.

I knew this book would be one I enjoyed, after all it encompasses some of my favourite things: History between the World Wars; the Vienna Secession and Gustav Klimt; Art Nouveau; a feminist narrative. However, I didn’t expect it would grab hold of me in the way it did! I sat down with it in the garden one Sunday afternoon and read two thirds straight away. When duty and blog tours called that week I had to set it aside, but I kept glancing over at it like a lost lover all week. Haydock takes four of Egon Schiele’s portraits and explores the women depicted – society sisters Adele and Edith, artists model Wally and his younger sister Gertie. Schiele’s portraits are not life-like reproductions of his model and while they might shed light on aspects of their characters, they can only ever be the artist’s view of that woman with all the prejudices and biases of his time. Haydock is challenging Schiele’s representation of these women and here we get to hear the women’s stories, how they see themselves and their relationship with Schiele. Some of his life choices felt like betrayals to those women who risked everything by literally laying themselves bare before him and the world, for his sake and for the sake of art. I thought Haydock beautifully captured this sacrifice and it’s consequences, something she picks up beautifully in the short interludes from the 1960’s where an elderly woman searches for a painting she’s glimpsed of someone she loved. Desperate to give an apology she never heard in life. Haydock beautifully captures a rapidly changing Vienna between two World Wars where barriers of class and gender are breaking down. She also captures the complexities of the barriers for women and those who have the pioneering spirit to break them. She gives a voice to their silent gaze. This is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year and I read it greedily in just two sessions. I’m already looking forward to entering Haydock’s world and savouring these wonderful women again.ok”

My interest in 19th Century freak shows, Sarah Baartman (the Hottentot Venus), disability and difference, made Lianne Dillsworth’s debut novel a perfect fit for me. Our setting is a theatre and a performing troupe including singers, magicians and dancers who perform a variety show under the watchful eye of Mr Crillick. His current headline act is Amazonia – a true African tribeswoman, dressed in furs and armed with a shield and spear, her native dancing brings down the house in Crillick’s show. The audience watch, transfixed with fear and fascination, never realising that she is a ‘fagged’ act. Zillah has never set foot in Africa and is in fact of mixed race heritage, born in East London. She is making her money by pretending to be what the, largely white, audience wants to see. It doesn’t sit well with Zillah, but she is alone in the world and does need to make money. Besides it’s better than the other options for a young woman who finds herself in poverty. She’s used to slipping between worlds on stage and in her private life, renting a room in the rough St Giles area of the city, but regularly making her way to a more salubrious area and the bed of a Viscount by night. However, when Crillick brings a new exhibit to his London home, dubbed the Leopard Lady, Zillah’s eyes are opened to the politics and misogyny of displaying difference. A meeting with an activist forces her to think about her own performance, but also the danger that Crillick’s new exhibit might be in, especially his ‘private’ audiences complete with medical equipment. Can Zillah help this woman and what does her own future hold, because in good conscience she can no longer perform? This is a brilliant novel, doing for race and disability, what Sarah Water’s novels did for the representation of sexuality in the 19th Century.

I’d never read a novel by Dolen Perkins-Valdez and she pulled me into her story from the very first page, with Civil seeming real almost immediately. I’ve been interested in eugenics since I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on disability and 20th Century literature. I knew a lot about the movement in the U.K., US and Germany in the lead up to WW2, but this book shocked me because I had no idea that forced sterilisations were still happening in the 1960s and 70s. I knew this had happened in earlier in the century with Native American communities, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was still happening to African American women, especially where the woman had a disability too. The writer shows how our biases and emotions feed into the work we do within the caring professions. Having worked in mental health and disability as a support worker, advocate and counsellor, I did identify strongly with Civil and the way she became involved with the Williams family. The Williams girls are her very first patients and she is sent out on a home visit to give them a Depo Provera injection, a long term method of contraception. When she notices that India is only 11 years old her brain immediately starts questioning, who put this little girl on this injection, has anyone asked if she has a boyfriend or worse, is she being preyed upon? Is this an assumption that young African-American women are promiscuous or that African- American men can’t be trusted, even within their own families? The judgement that bringing a child into this family would be disastrous comes from a lack of knowledge around India Williams’s learning disability, but is also an assumption about race too. The fall out from Civil’s discoveries is huge and life-changing, not just for the Williams family but for Civil too. This book sheds light on an important hidden history and took me through a rollercoaster of emotions.

I fell utterly in love with Dot Watson, a rather abrupt and persnickety member of the staff at London Transport’s lost property office. It took me about five pages to be drawn into Dot Watson’s quirky world and her love for the lost property office where honest people bring their found items. Dot is like the backbone of the office and the other workers would be lost without her. A lover of proper procedure and organisation, Dot is the ‘go to’ employee for anyone starting work with the team, or just to answer a question about an item. Dot thinks lost things are very important, almost like an extension of that person. Their lost item can tell her a lot about the person they are and she fills the lost luggage tags with as much detail as possible so that they have the greatest chance of locating it. Dot believes that when we lose a person, their possessions can take us right back to the moment they were with us. When Mr Appleby arrives at the office to find his lost leather hold-all it is what the case contains that moves Dot. Inside is a tiny lavender coloured purse that belonged to his late wife and he carries it everywhere. Something inside Dot breaks for this lonely man and she is determined she will find his hold-all. Her search becomes both the driving force of Dot’s story and the key to unlocking her own memories. I loved our journey into Dot’s past, her relationship with her father and the trauma that she’s tried to lock away for so long. This book has difficult emotions, but also glimpses of humour and is ultimately an uplifting journey with an unforgettable woman.

A teenage girl wanders out of the woods. She’s striking, with flame-red hair and a pale complexion. She’s also covered in blood. She appears in the pub’s beer garden as Jonah is enjoying a beer after a walk with his baby son. Detective Jonah Sheens quickly discovers that Keely and her sister, Nina, disappeared from a children’s home a week ago. Now, Keely is here – but Nina’s still missing. Keely knows where her sister is – but before she tells, but first she wants Jonah’s full attention. Is she killer, witness, or victim? The opening scene is absolutely brilliant, vivid and shocking at the same time. As the girl’s history starts to unfold, they hear about several failed placements and a long stay in a children’s home. The girls made complaints about two of their homes, but were thought to be troublemakers. Jonah and his excellent team have to tread a very fine line. Keeley comes across as cold and calculating one moment, but then like a broken little girl the next. Which is an act? There are some very dark stories here and they could be distressing for people who’ve gone through a similar experience, but it’s that darkness that keeps the reader wanting the truth and to see those responsible punished. If Keeley has planned how to elicit sympathy from the police, she certainly knows what she’s doing. As readers we are pulled along with Jonah, from distress and empathy to disbelief and a sense that something is very, very wrong either with Keeley or the system. This is a great mystery, with huge twists in store and a police team I enjoyed getting to know. Now I’m looking forward to going back to the first novel in this series and filling in the gaps in my knowledge, while enjoying even more of this talented writer’s incredibly creative plots and dark, brooding atmosphere.

So these were my favourite reads in a very busy reading month. I read seventeen books which surprised even me! Next month I’m looking forward to a slightly quieter month with some great thrillers to read, some historical fiction from another of my favourite historical periods – the beginnings of the Tudor dynasty, and hopefully a few choices from NetGalley too so I can keep on beating that backlog. I hope you enjoy these choices as much as I did and i’ll see you again next month.

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

Theatre of Marvels by Leanne Dillsworth

You may have heard of Sarah Baartman, a Khoekhoe woman from South West Africa who was exhibited as a freak show attraction in 19th-century Europe under the name the Hottentot Venus. She was even exhibited after her death, with one showman dissecting her body and keeping her genitalia and skull. Another museum displayed her skeleton and a body cast, which were still exhibited up till the 1970’s. She was exhibited for her steatopygic body type, where body fat is concentrated on the bottom and thighs. This body type wasn’t seen in Europe and was perceived as a curiosity. She was also a subject of scientific interest, but through the gaze of racial bias and erotic projection. In the 19th Century her body could be viewed for two shillings and for a bit extra you could poke her with a stick. Her genitalia were of specific interest as they were said to show her sexual primitivism, although this was more about the men’s erotic projection than Sarah’s own sexuality or libido. Recently, black women in academia and culture have been using her story and reframing it as a source of empowerment, rejecting the ideals of white mainstream beauty, and embracing more curvaceous figures as a source of female beauty. This is the historical and social background that I had in mind while reading this fascinating debut novel from Lianne Dilsworth. I was swept up into her world straight away and my personal academic interest in disability and the display of ‘other’ bodies added to my enjoyment.

Our setting is a theatre and a group of performers from singers to magicians who perform a variety show under the watchful eye of Mr Crillick. His current headline act is Amazonia – a true African tribeswoman, dressed in furs and armed with a shield and spear, her native dancing brings down the house in Crillick’s show. The audience watch, transfixed with fear and fascination, never realising that she is a ‘fagged’ act. Zillah has never set foot in Africa and is in fact of mixed race heritage, born in East London. She is making her money by pretending to be what the, largely white, audience wants to see. It doesn’t sit well with Zillah, but she is alone in the world and does need to make money. Besides it’s better than the other options for a young woman who finds herself in poverty. She’s used to slipping between worlds on stage and in her private life, renting a room in the rough St Giles area of the city, but regularly making her way to a more salubrious area and the bed of a Viscount by night. She and Vincent have been lovers for some time, but he is estranged from his family and can easily keep her a secret, never even walking with her in public. Their shared bed is situated in the middle class home of her boss Crillick. Now, everything is about to change, as Zillah’s consciousness is raised in several ways.

First, she realises that Vincent will never admit to their relationship in public, as he yet again cancels plans to take her to Richmond for the day. Secondly, she meets a young black man called Lucien, who is campaigning in the street. He addresses her in Swahili, with a suggestion this may be the native language of her ancestors, and he places a question in her mind that she can’t shake off. How does it feel to earn money misrepresenting her ancestors? In fact she is representing her ancestors through the gaze of a white audience. The sense that this is wrong, has always been on the edge of her conscience, but Lucien gives her doubts a voice and opens a door towards embracing both sides of her identity. While she dismisses him at first, the thought of him seeing her as Amazonia seems to fill her with shame. Lucien is working on a campaign to relocate black and mixed race Londoners to Africa and the first site is in Sierra Leonne. Meanwhile, Crillick has returned from a trip abroad with shipping containers that suggest he’s been gathering props and it seems he’s been finding new acts too. He taunts Zillah with the suggestion he has found an act that may even eclipse her and one night at his house she sees a new act unveiled to a small group of people. She is horrified to see him parade a terrified women he’s called the ‘Leopard Lady’, with strange white patches all over her dark skin. The men in the party are fascinated, drawing near and touching her skin, even roughly scratching it to see if it comes off. When Zillah notices medical implements laid out on a tray, the horror of what might happen to this woman overwhelms her. She must rescue the Leopard Lady from Crillick’s clutches. There’s a freedom Zillah has compared to a lot of Victorian heroines we might remember, due to her station in life there are certain rules and etiquette of dress and behaviour that don’t apply. Although that freedom does come at a cost – poverty, not belonging anywhere, and the way she is viewed in more polite society. She knows that if she could be with someone like Lucien then she’d be settled in a place society expects of her, still in poverty but at least belonging to a community. Her feelings for Vincent can never come to anything, because his society would never accept her and they would always be a secret.

Through Zillah’s search for the Leopard Lady, we see the truth of a man wiling to make his money treating human beings as objects for display. Whereas before Zillah’s act has at least had the sheen of the theatre world, the Leopard Lady will not be afforded that excitement and sense of performance. This is because Zillah was acting a part, whereas this poor woman is being shown as she is because due to how she looks and where’s she’s from. Zillah chooses to put on her Amazonia costume and take to a stage, if living hand to mouth is ever a choice. Crillick’s plans revolve around his ‘Odditorium’, but in the meantime he plans to show his new acquisition privately to small groups of men. I could imagine these sordid gatherings taking place, with men enjoying an after dinner viewing where the woman is both viewed, potentially sexually assaulted and experimented on. It made me feel sick. I was willing Zillah on in her efforts to find and free the lady, and I found her quest tense and gripping. I thought Zillah’s awakening was handled really well, but I was in two minds about where I wanted her to story to end. Of course there’s an opportunity of relocation to a new life in Sierra Leone, but here I felt strangely similar feelings to those I had about another 19th Century heroine Jane Eyre. We know that Jane’s flight from Thornfield Hall, and the man she loves, is the right move for her. Yet despite the space and time it’s given her to process Rochester’s attempt at bigamy, I never warm to St John Rivers. Although he rescues her from the moors and gives her life purpose again, when he proposes, I can’t be the only reader who’s screaming ‘No’ in her head. As for Zillah, I though Lucien was a good, honest and intelligent man, but to me he feels like the wrong choice. The contrast between him and the passionate relationship she has with Vincent is rather like the two sides of her identity battling against each other. I was hoping that, for a while at least, she could find a way for herself, separate from them both.

This was an exciting and fascinating tale, with elements of the thriller and a central character who is resilient and brave in her quest. I found the settings of the theatre, and Crillick’s home, beautifully rich. Whereas the St Giles area is brought to life with descriptions of sights, smells, many bodies sharing rented rooms and even beds in an attempt to keep costs down. The author has backed up her tale with solid research into freak shows, the many layers of Victorian society and details of food, fashion and leisure time. Through her main character we get an insight into women’s lives, the realities of being bi-racial and the struggles of identity and belonging. I also enjoyed the themes of ‘otherness’ and how outsiders survive in society; the complexities of display and exploitation when weighed against poverty and deprivation. Can freak shows be acceptable if individuals make a choice to exhibit themselves? Or should any exhibition of ‘different’ bodies be unacceptable? This is a question that still needs debate in light of television shows that exhibit overweight and disabled bodies in a prurient way. I really liked Zillah‘s quest to rescue another woman in danger and her own personal journey too. I read this so quickly and will definitely be putting a finished copy on my bookshelves, because I know it’s one I’ll want to read again and again. I just know I’ll find more and more detail in this brilliantly atmospheric exploration of the dark corners of Victorian London.

Published Penguin 28th April 2022.

Meet The Author

Lianne Dillsworth

Lianne Dillsworth has MAs in Creative Writing and Victorian Studies and won a place on the London Library Emerging Writers Programme. She was first runner up in the 2020 SI Leeds Literary Prize for Black and Asian Women Writers in the UK. Lianne lives in London where she works on growing inclusion within the Civil Service. Theatre of Marvels is her debut novel.

Posted in Publisher Proof

Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

“A year never passes without me thinking of them. India. Erica. Their names are stitched inside every white coat I have ever worn. I tell this story to stitch their names inside your clothes, too.”

Wow! This novel absolutely blew me away. In fact I loved it so much that my other half kept asking whether I was ok and I couldn’t understand why, until I looked at the clock and three hours had gone past without me speaking. I was three quarters of the way through the book and even went to bed early so I could finish the story. This writer pulled me in from the very first page and Civil was as real to me as my poor other half. I’ve been interested in eugenics since I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on disability and 20th Century literature. I knew a lot about the movement in the U.K., US and Germany in the lead up to WW2, but this book shocked me because I had no idea that forced sterilisations were still happening in the 1960s and 70s. I knew this had happened in earlier in the century with Native American communities, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was still happening to African American women, especially where the woman has a disability too. I think this jumped out at me, because people with disabilities are having a very hard time currently, something that able-bodied people aren’t always aware about. For example, the University of York published research in the BMJ Open that concluded the joint impact of cuts to healthcare, public health and social care since 2010 caused at least 57,550 more deaths of disabled people than would normally have been expected between 2010 and 2014. Disability groups place the figure at 120,000 deaths over a seven year period and some activists even think that the government’s COVID policies were based on herd immunity and eugenics. It seems like eugenics never really goes away.

This novel shows how our biases and emotions feed into the work we do within the caring professions. Having worked in mental health and disability as a support worker, advocate and counsellor, I did identify strongly with Civil and the way she became involved with the Williams family. As a nurse, Civil is professional and is aware of things like codes of practice and ethics, but we are never the finished article and Civil’s naïvety plays a huge part in how she works. Civil has been brought up to care for and look after others as part of her Christian faith. However, there are other personal circumstances that she isn’t aware of taking into work with her. Civil’s mother struggles with depression and events that took place in her personal life have also left her vulnerable, particularly where it comes to her nurturing instincts. Her very name brings to mind civil rights, equality and fairness, so it’s not a surprise that where she sees injustice she’s willing to fight. The Williams girls are her very first patients and she is sent out on a home visit to give them a Depo Provera injection, a long term method of contraception. When she notices that India is only 11 years old her brain immediately starts questioning, who put this little girl on this injection, has anyone asked if she has a boyfriend or worse, is she being preyed upon? We are privy to her thoughts and her shock at the way the family are living is evident. Her first thought is that she must do something for them, get them away from the dirty shack where their clothes seem to be stored on the floor. What she does notice is that the girls smell and when she finds out they don’t have sanitary towels, she decides to buy some for them from her own money. This is the first line crossed and although Civil’s actions are generous and could change the family’s lives for the better, it’s a boundary crossed. This makes it so much easier to cross even further as time goes on.

I thought the author grasped the complexity of Civil’s feelings and her role in the girl’s lives beautifully. Civil knows that she should be following instructions, asking her supervisor the questions that have come to mind, and advocating for the girls. Yet she knows that just by talking to the right people and calling in a few favours she could get the girls some clothes, find a job for their father, perhaps get them a new flat in town. What she doesn’t realise is that she’s acting from a bias, not racism but a classism of sorts. Civil’s parents are a doctor and an artist, they live in a nice home and have a certain status. She has walked in to the Williams’s home and assumed they want to move, go to school, and have better things. She’s looking at them through her own world view, instead of moving into theirs and then takes their agency away by filling in forms on their behalf. Her heart is in the right place, but she’s mothering the girls; the girls have lost their mother and Civil has maternal feelings to spare. It’s a co-dependent dynamic that could get complicated and painful on both sides. Her nursing instinct is to gain the girl’s trust and find out who put them on contraceptive injections, especially when India hasn’t even started her period. There are no boys around where they live and neither girl goes to school. As she confides in fellow nurse Alicia and friend Ty, they start doing some research. There are many conclusions they could draw: the federal government could be experimenting on poor black communities; there could be a programme of stopping certain groups in society from reproducing; the government are leaving local employees to make decisions based on their own biases about poor communities; their supervisor believes the Williams girls aren’t safe and could be open to abuse from within the family. All are based on so many assumptions, but what was angering me was that no one had sat down with the family and asked the questions about the girl’s development, access to the opposite sex, or India’s ability to make decisions. Life changing decisions are being made, based on judgments made with no real evidence.

Judgement is at the heart of this terrible case, I won’t reveal more about the decisions made, but it does lead to a court case and repercussions for everyone involved. The colour of the family’s skin, their poverty and the death of the girl’s mother has led to assumptions about the girl’s morals and safety but also the possibility that a black man is not safe, even around his own children. India is non-verbal, but whether that’s through trauma or a learning disability is not clear. Civil’s superiors have decided that it would be disastrous to bring a child into this family, but it’s amazing to see how much the Williams do change over the course of the novel. Civil has taken the decision to act on behalf of the girls, rather than making suggestions and motivating them to advocate for themselves. The changes we see in them, just from having different surroundings, is incredible. Civil believes that we adjust our standards according to where are in life, so once their home becomes a clean, dry space they start to look after it. Civil’s happiness when she sees the girl’s grandmother has bought guest towels for the bathroom is so funny, because these are her standards, what she sees as the correct way to do things, without question. I could see her attachment to the girls growing, the way she brings her support network into their lives also leaves their lives further enmeshed with hers. How will they separate themselves? If Civil takes their part in their court case, she may lose everything, so what happens when the Williams start to have confidence to make their own decisions? What if Mace meets a woman – a potential stepmom for the girls? I wondered if Civil would cope were these girls taken away from her, whether by her work or by changes in the Williams’s circumstances.

The author weaves fact into fiction so seamlessly here, with contemporary medical research questioned and the family’s meeting with real life senator Teddy Kennedy. This grounds the book beautifully and it feels even more true to life; the girls aren’t real, but I’m guessing that this story could be the reality for many poor, young, African American women. I thought Civil’s home life was really interesting, especially when her Aunty arrived and talked plainly about her Mum’s depression. Even in a household where there are always guest towels, there are struggles and issues that are overlooked, either due lack of understanding or through avoidance of something too painful to acknowledge. In fact there’s a way this whole episode is fuelled by avoidance, because if Civil buried herself in this family’s trouble she could avoid her own loss. The present day sections are evidence of that avoidance, because we see Civil finally having to confront and process feelings long buried. She’s close to retirement, yet is still haunted by what happened back then. There are positives in her visit back home, in that her relationships have adjusted so there’s more equality with some people than there was back then. I was left with a sense of how incredible women are, the strength we have to survive life altering circumstances and what can be achieved when we support each other.

Meet The Author

Dolen Perkins-Valdez is the New York Times bestselling author of WENCH, BALM, and the forthcoming TAKE MY HAND. *USA Today* called WENCH “deeply moving” and “beautifully written.” *People* called it “a devastatingly beautiful account of a cruel past.” *O, The Oprah Magazine* chose it as a Top Ten Pick of the Month, and NPR named it a top 5 book club pick of 2010. Dolen’s fiction has appeared in The Kenyon Review, StoryQuarterly, StorySouth, and elsewhere. In 2011, she was a finalist for two NAACP Image Awards and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for fiction. She was also awarded the First Novelist Award by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Dolen received a DC Commission on the Arts Grant for her second novel BALM. Publishers Weekly writes “Her spare, lyrical voice is unsentimental yet compassionate.” Library Journal writes “No sophomore slump is in evidence here. Readers who were captivated by Perkins-Valdez’s first novel, Wench, will be intrigued by the post–Civil War lives of three Southern transplants to Chicago.” Dolen is an Associate Professor of Literature at American University. A graduate of Harvard and a former University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UCLA, Dolen lives in Washington, DC with her family.

Posted in Netgalley

Hear No Evil by Sarah Smith.

It’s 1817 and a young woman is witnessed throwing a child into the River Clyde from the Old Bridge in Glasgow, the authorities are told. Based on a real case, this is a powerful piece of historical fiction from Sarah Smith and an interesting look into the 19th Century attitude to disability, and specifically deafness. The authorities are unable to communicate with their prisoner and as nothing is found at the river, Jean is taken to the Edinburgh Tolbooth in the hope of getting the truth. The High Court asks Robert Kinniburgh if he will communicate with their silent prisoner, to work out whether Jean is deaf or even fit for trial. Robert teaches at the Deaf & Dumb Institution and might be able to form a way of interpreting for the authorities. Jean only has two choices if a court finds her guilty, neither of which are desirable; death by hanging or imprisonment in an insane asylum. As Robert and Jean manage to construct a simple way of communicating, he starts to gains her trust, Jean starts to confides in her interpreter, imparting the truth. As Robert treads a fine line between interpreter and investigator, he becomes absolutely determined to clear her name before it is too late.

The novel’s basis in Scottish legal history means that Smith has researched her period deeply, wanting to tell her tale sensitively and with respect for these real-life characters. It is a perfect mix of fact, atmospheric setting, strong characters and an understanding of what life was like for someone with a disability in the early 19th Century. Kinniburgh has the difficult task of unravelling Jean’s story, immersing himself in the legal machinery of the Edinburgh court, and retracing Jean’s life up till that moment on the bridge. He is a teacher, not a lawyer, so he really has his work cut out. He is our eyes and ears in the story, following Jean’s life in the poverty stricken slums of Glasgow, experiencing her difficulties and finding out what happened in the final days before she came to be alone on the Old Bridge with her baby. He is a very humane main character, full of intelligence and compassion for others. Yet it us Jean Campbell who really made her way into my head and heart.

Obviously, the real Jean Campbell isn’t well known, but it felt like Smith really got under the skin of this girl. The details of her existence are brought vividly to life and Smith shows us that she was strong and full of dignity despite being so disenfranchised. Jean has gone through traumatic experiences, badly used by unscrupulous people only too happy to take advantage. Campbell’s deafness is central pillar of this book, it’s the reason for her poverty, the ordeals she has been subjected to and possibly the court case itself. How far were police officers influenced by her inability to speak. Just as there are now, there were prejudices and assumptions made about the Deaf community at the time, and we get some insight into how sign language evolved when it becomes the key by which Kinniburgh begins to earn Jean’s trust and unlock her story. I love that her story is reaching so many people through this novel.

I loved the settings, particularly the incredibly atmospheric opening which really set the scene for the rest of the novel. Smith’s period locations took me on a journey through time across two beautiful Scottish cities. The most vivid being Edinburgh’s dank and grimy Tolbooth prison which evoked claustrophobia for me. Equally vivid are Kinniburgh’s visits to the filthy poverty of Jean’s Glasgow home. I think that lovers of historical fiction will really enjoy this but I’d like to see it read by a wider audience, considering it’s message is sadly still relevant. We cannot judge fellow human beings until we have understood what has brought them to that point. We also need to make more effort to communicate with those who have a disability. It seems that we can revere them as Paralympians or military heroes, but many don’t pass the time of day with real people with disabilities in their daily life. Smith highlights this by taking us to this earlier time where, for those who were silenced, their disability could mean paying a very high price indeed. Jean could see this discrepancy and the way she was underestimated every day of her life:

‘She was aware of much more than people gave her credit for. Always had been…Not once did any hearing person treat her like she was the same as them.’

Published by Two Roads 3rd Feb 2022.

Posted in Fiction Preview 2022

New Books 2022! Part One.

Just look at the colour and variety of my first anticipated reads collection. Aren’t they beautiful? I’ll be posting a few of these over the next couple of weeks because there are just so many great novels coming in the New Year. These are the books on my wish list and my NetGalley planner for next year. I still can’t believe how lucky I am to get early access to books and every year I say I’m not going to read, or buy, as much. Yet I always do. Enjoy the recommendations and I apologise in advance if your TBR list gets longer. ❤️📚

Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter by Lily Pook.

I was lucky enough to be sent a beautiful proof copy of this book so I’m looking forward to reading this before it’s debut in March. Set in 1886, at Bannin Bay, we meet the Brightwell family who have sailed from England to make their new home in Western Australia. Ten-year-old Eliza knows little of what awaits them on these shores beyond shining pearls and shells like soup plates – the things her father has promised will make their fortune. Ten years later and Charles Brightwell, now the bay’s most prolific pearler, goes missing from his ship while out at sea. Whispers from the townsfolk suggest mutiny and murder, but headstrong Eliza, convinced there is more to the story, refuses to believe her father is dead, and it falls to her to ask the questions no one else dares consider. But in a town teeming with corruption, prejudice and blackmail, Eliza soon learns that the truth can cost more than pearls, and she must decide just how much she is willing to pay – and how far she is willing to go – to find it. I love reading about women who step beyond the expectations of their society so Eliza sounds like my sort of character. The early reviews promise adventure and ambition, but also grief and loss. Sometimes, personal tragedy is a huge motivator and Eliza sounds both determined and willing to put herself in danger to discover the truth. There’s also that fascinating backdrop of empire and whether British settlers are pioneers or invaders.

Coming in March 2022 from Mantle.

Notes on an Execution by Dayna Kukafka.

Ansel Packer is scheduled to die in twelve hours. He knows what he’s done, and now awaits the same fate he forced on those girls, years ago. Ansel doesn’t want to die; he wants to be celebrated, understood.

But this is not his story.

As the clock ticks down, three women uncover the history of a tragedy and the long shadow it casts. Lavender, Ansel’s mother, is a seventeen-year-old girl pushed to desperation. Hazel, twin sister to his wife, is forced to watch helplessly as the relationship threatens to devour them all. And Saffy, the detective hot on his trail, is devoted to bringing bad men to justice but struggling to see her own life clearly. This is the story of the women left behind. Blending breathtaking suspense with astonishing empathy, Notes On An Execution presents a chilling portrait of womanhood as it unravels the familiar narrative of the American serial killer, interrogating our cultural obsession with crime stories, and asking readers to consider the false promise of looking for meaning in the minds of violent men. I am interested in this concept, because it is the driving force behind why we are fascinated with true crime stories and dramas about serial killers. The question in all of our minds is ‘why’ and often crime fiction helps us with those questions – maybe it’s soothing to have that narrative played out in a world where the killer is always stopped, whether by capture or being killed himself. It helps us make sense of murder, when in real life we often never find out why and the crime seems so pointless.

Published in March by Phoenix Publishing.

The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson.

The longer the marriage, the harder truth becomes . . .

When a book has glowing reviews from novelists like Marian Keyes and Sarah Waters you have to take notice and this looks like a cracker. Meet the Hanrahan family, gathering for a momentous weekend as famous artist and notorious egoist Ray Hanrahan prepares for a new exhibition of his art – the first in many decades – and one he is sure will burnish his reputation for good. His three children will be there: beautiful Leah, always her father’s biggest champion; sensitive Patrick, who has finally decided to strike out on his own; and insecure Jess, the youngest, who has her own momentous decision to make. And what of Lucia, Ray’s steadfast and selfless wife? She is an artist, too, but has always had to put her roles as wife and mother first. What will happen if she decides to change? For Lucia is hiding secrets of her own, and as the weekend unfolds and the exhibition approaches, she must finally make a choice. The Exhibitionist is the extraordinary fifth novel from Charlotte Mendelson, a dazzling exploration of art, sacrifice, toxic family politics, queer desire, and personal freedom. This sounds like a must read to me, since the relationship dynamics in families are fascinating from a counsellor’s perspective. I’ve just been granted early access to this title from NetGalley so keep an eye out for my review coming soon.

Published 17th March by Mantle.

Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson.

‘We can’t go to the island, Bryon. We don’t really know what we’re getting into . . .’

Eleanor Bennett won’t let her own death get in the way of the truth. So when her estranged children – Byron and Benny – reunite for her funeral in California, they discover a puzzling inheritance. This debut novel already has the backing of Oprah Winfrey who is turning it into a series right now. First, comes a voice recording in which everything Byron and Benny ever knew about their family is upended. Their mother narrates a tumultuous story about a headstrong young woman who escapes her island home under suspicion of murder, a story which cuts right to the heart of the rift that’s separated Byron and Benny. Second, a traditional Caribbean black cake made from a family recipe with a long history that Eleanor hopes will heal the wounds of the past. Can Byron and Benny fulfil their mother’s final request to ‘share the black cake when the time is right’? Will Eleanor’s revelations bring them back together or leave them feeling more lost than ever? I’m looking forward to introducing this book to my own book group and making a black cake to try when we meet again.

Published Penguin 3rd Feb 2022

Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez


I had to share a huge photo of this stunning cover art for Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s novel Take My Hand. I had my request in for a review copy very early on this one, before the cover was available. A nurse at the Family Planning Clinic in Montgomery Alabama, Civil Townsend is passionate about putting choice into women’s hands. She brings the option of birth control to their doorsteps, and with it the right to determine their own destinies. Or so she believes. When she is assigned to administer birth control to two school-age Black girls, the Williams sisters, who live off an old unpaved road in a shack without running water, Civil can’t help but feel uneasy. She grows close to the family and becomes fiercely invested in their well-being. And then she makes a shocking discovery: the girls have been involuntarily sterilized. Civil is horrified that such a terrible mistake could have taken place, and vows to get to the bottom of it. She soon learns that this is no isolated event but a pattern, far more serious than she could ever have imagined, targeting poor Black women. Could her clinic be responsible? Had she and her fellow Black nurses been complicit? No matter how ugly, Civil is determined for the truth to be brought to light. Based on true events, Take My Hand brims with hope, compassion, and the burning pursuit of justice. I picked this so early because, for those who don’t know, I have a disability and have researched the eugenics movement for both my undergraduate and now my masters degree. This movement, with its origins in the late Victorian period, gathered pace in the early twentieth century both in Europe and the USA. It developed fully into the horrors of the Holocaust, but very few people know of it’s extent in this country and the USA, as a reason to institutionalise and sterilise people with disabilities and those from minority ethnic backgrounds. Literature that explores this dark moment in history is very important to me and I’ll be begging people to read this over the next few months.

Published by Phoenix May 2022.

Again Rachel by Marian Keyes.

Every blogger I know loves Marian Keyes and the Walsh family are clearly characters who thousands of readers have taken to their hearts.

Back in the long ago nineties, Rachel Walsh was a mess. But a spell in rehab transformed everything. Life became very good, very quickly. These days, Rachel has love, family, a great job as an addiction counsellor, she even gardens. Her only bad habit is a fondness for expensive trainers.But with the sudden reappearance of a man she’d once loved, her life wobbles.She’d thought she was settled. Fixed forever. Is she about to discover that no matter what our age, everything can change? Is it time to think again, Rachel? What I love about Marian Keyes is her ability to write what seems like a light, humorous book, that’s actually full of meaning and true life experience. Yes, the Walsh family are witty and fun to be around, but their relationships with each other are deep, complex and full of love. It takes an incredible writer to have this lightness of touch coupled with an incredible understanding of human nature. Keyes writes with such emotional intelligence that I pre-order all her books these days. This one is close to my heart, because after leaving an abusive relationship I spent six years as a single woman. I did counselling, meditation and felt settled and sorted in life when someone came along and convinced me to make big changes for love. We’ve now been together for three years and I’m stepmom to two girls I love with all my heart. Life doesn’t stand still for long and it sounds like I might really resonate with Rachel’s place in life. Can’t wait!

Published Michael Joseph Feb 2022.

Reputation by Sarah Vaughan.

Reputation: it takes a lifetime to build and just one moment to destroy.

I devour thrillers, especially if I’m struggling with my multiple sclerosis and end up laid in bed or on the chaise langue in the living room. I find them easy to read and incredible addictive and I’ve been known to read two and start a third in one weekend. I’ve read Vaughan before so had an eye on this coming out months ago. Emma Webster is a respectable MP. Emma Webster is a devoted mother. Emma Webster is innocent of the murder of a tabloid journalist. Emma Webster is a liar. The early buzz on this one is great, as you can see below, and it’s already been optioned for a Netflix series so I’m going to make sure I read it before that airs.

#Reputation: The story you tell about yourself. And the lies others choose to believe…

‘A terrifically entertaining legal drama and an unsettling cautionary tale for any woman considering entering politics’ Louise Candlish

‘Tense. Gripping. And bang up to date. This is a rollercoaster of a book’ Imran Mahmood

The Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang.

‘A gorgeous and gripping literary mystery. . . reflecting themes of family, betrayal, passion, race, culture and the American Dream. . . A masterpiece’ JEAN KWOK

I have to say again that I love the cover of this book. It looks like something from the 1930’s and has all the cute appeal of a Mabel Lucy Atwell print which often featured dogs. For years, the residents of Lake Haven, Wisconsin ignored the whispered troubles about the Chao family, if only to keep eating at the best restaurant in town. But when tyrannical patriarch Big Chao is found frozen to death in the family’s meat freezer, scandalous events force the community to turn its attention to the three Chao sons. Dagou is the presupposed heir to the business, did he want to inherit sooner rather than later? Ming is an accomplished city lawyer, determined to sever ties with Haven’s Asian community once and for all. For years, the residents of Lake Haven, Wisconsin ignored the whispered troubles about the Chao family, if only to keep eating at the best restaurant in town. But when tyrannical patriarch Big Chao is found frozen to death in the family’s meat freezer, scandalous events force the community to turn its attention to the three Chao sons. Dagou is the presupposed heir to the business, did he want to inherit sooner rather than later? Ming is an accomplished city lawyer, was he determined to sever ties with Haven’s Asian community once and for all? James is the young, naive college student, who is only just learning of his family’s past, surely he can’t be to blame? When the family’s dog mysteriously disappears, and Dagou ‘Dog Eater’ Chao is held on trial for his father’s murder, the Chaos’ turbulent history spills into the public eye, while a small town looks on in disbelief. This is an inventive comic mystery about the undercurrents of an unfortunate death and a timeless tale of distrust, judgement and condemnation. I have a wickedly dark sense of humour and love reading about dysfunctional families so this novel caught my eye for more reasons than the cover, but I will admit that I love it so much I’d frame it and put it on the wall.

Published by One, Feb 2022.

A Terrible Kindness by Joe Browning Wroe.

When we go through something impossible, someone, or something, will help us, if we let them . . .

When Joanna Cannon, Sophie Hannah and Marian Keyes are telling you to read a book, it’s at least worth a look. I’m lucky and have a proof of this to read over the next few weeks so look out for my review. I didn’t know a lot about the Aberfan disaster, because it happened before I was born. It was one of the first huge news stories that my mum remembers taking notice of when she was 13. My understanding of what happened came from The Crown where we saw the children heading off to school like any other morning, only to end up buried beneath a massive landslide from the coal mine that employed most of them heir fathers. It was utilised to show the Queen’s inability to feel empathy. Her reaction was contrasted with that of Princess Margaret’s husband Lord Snowden, who was moved to go straight to Aberfan and help, much like our main character in the novel. It is October 1966 and William Lavery is having the night of his life at his first black-tie do. But, as the evening unfolds, news hits of a landslide at a coal mine. It has buried a school: Aberfan. William decides he must act, so he stands and volunteers to attend. It will be his first job as an embalmer, and it will be one he never forgets. His work that night will force him to think about the little boy he was, and the losses he has worked so hard to forget. But compassion can have surprising consequences, because – as William discovers – giving so much to others can sometimes help us heal ourselves. I absolutely love the sound of this book and personal journey this character must go on as he attends to those who have died, mostly children. It won’t be an easy read, but is apparently very hopeful and uplifting too.

Published by Faber and Faber Jan 2022.

Look out for Part 2 of my preview list on Thursday.

Posted in Random Things Tours

This Is How We Are Human by Louise Beech.

I absolutely loved this incredible book about love, disability, sex and the secrets we keep from each other. Veronica and her son Sebastian live together in Hull. Veronica wants the best for her son and just like all parents, she wants him to grow up and have a full life. However, Veronica isn’t like other parents, because despite Sebastian being twenty years, six months and two days old, he’s struggling with the love and relationships part of his life. Seb is autistic and he is lonely. Seb loves swimming, his fish, fried eggs and Billy Ocean, he’d also love to have sex but no one will have sex with him. He’s already been in trouble after the girl next door convinced him to write an explicit letter to her underage sister. When their lives collide with Violetta, Veronica thinks she can see a way forward. She’s thought of paying someone before, but has stopped herself. Here though, is someone they’ve met before and who was natural with Seb. Veronica couldn’t have known she was leading a double life as a high class escort, in order to earn enough money to keep her seriously ill father at home. These three lives come together and change each other in unexpected ways.

There were scenes in this that made me laugh and some that made me cry. His need for sexual release is having a huge impact on his carefully ordered life. His swimming sessions have continued at the same time and day of the week, all the way from childhood, but his inability to see why his nakedness is different to the children’s has meant they must stop. When Veronica takes Seb to the sexual health clinic, because she’s desperate for advice, their lack of help and understanding infuriated me. The nurse seemed more concerned about whether Seb might hurt someone, or how Veronica’s thoughts about paying for it would be harming him. She even threatens to report her to social services. There’s no compassion or admission that they really don’t know what to do. It’s an issue I’ve thought about for a long time, having supported people with learning difficulties or autistic spectrum disorders in an advocacy role. Sadly, the figures for sexual violence against women with learning disabilities are terrifyingly high. While young people are often infantilised by parents who don’t want to accept their child is an adult. I read many years ago about an initiative in Holland very like our Direct Payments/Personal Budget system for care if you have a disability. However, social workers could add a component that would pay for the disabled person (physical disabilities) to hire a sex worker if they needed that for an sexual outlet. As Seb himself says:

‘People seem to get dead upset about it. But it’s just like paying for swimming lessons. You want to learn to do it and someone who knows how to will show you for an agreed fee’.

He sees it as a simple business transaction. Offsetting the worry, sadness and anger I felt in their behalf it’s Seb’s frankness that brings the humour. His mother greets him in the morning with a cheery ‘what do you want to do today?’ and his reply is ‘I want to have sex’. He goes on to explain that he might pay for sex:

‘If I was rich. But I’m not. I’ll just have to find someone who appreciates me before I die. I hope it’s this week. I’m feeling very sexual today.’

Seb is such a loveable and interesting character. He’s also handsome, so does draw attention from women when out and about, but Veronica knows that as soon as he speaks they will start to lose interest. She meets with Violetta and proposes her plan. However, there are real ethical concerns here and everyone is keeping secrets. Veronica isn’t planning on telling Seb the truth about his ‘sessions’ with Violetta, but she isn’t planning on telling Seb she’s been hired or why she needs the money. Seb has his own secrets and there is an ending to this that neither woman envisaged, showing a prejudice they didn’t know they had. They’ve discussed concerns that Seb may become attached to his tutor, but they didn’t imagine that she might become compromised in some way or that Seb might transfer his affections to someone new.

This is brave new ground in fiction. I have a physical disability, and I can count on one hand books that have a disabled character who openly discusses or explores their sexuality. This is almost society’s last taboo – the sexual disabled body is not to be looked at or mentioned. This is partly about the infantilisation of people with disabilities, they need care and are therefore vulnerable and untouchable. It’s partly to do with an innate reflex to reject what is different – often the fear of urine bags, colostomy bags, and other paraphernalia is so great, that the person becomes neutral to other people and they close their minds to the fact that this person is a sexual being. We saw this prejudice in action with the controversy around Marc Quinn’s statue of Alison Lapper. Not only was this a disabled woman who was naked, she was also pregnant. People rejected her body strongly, calling it ugly and disgusting. However, I think a large part of the furore was down to people being uncomfortable that Lapper’s pregnancy was a visual clue of a healthy sex life. Most of the same people would probably be uncomfortable with this book, but I was so excited to see the issue out in the open. We need to talk about it more. People with disabilities are having sex, often more adventurous and inventive sex, because they have to communicate more and find a way round their disability. It’s only by talking about it that we start to break down these prejudices and accept that a healthy sex life is a normal part of life for all adults able to consent. This was a difficult subject, handled with frankness, but also the greatest care and sensitivity. I’m so grateful that this talented writer turned her hand to this subject, writing characters that felt utterly real and incredibly relatable. It was funny, moving, and full of love, of every kind.

Meet The Author

Louise Beech is an exceptional literary talent, whose debut novel How To Be Brave was a Guardian Readers’ Choice for 2015. The follow-up, The Mountain in My Shoe was shortlisted for Not the Booker Prize. Both of her previous books Maria in the Moon and The Lion Tamer Who Lost were widely reviewed, critically acclaimed and number-one bestsellers on Kindle. The Lion Tamer Who Lost was shortlisted for the RNA Most Popular Romantic Novel Award in 2019. Her 2019 novel Call Me Star Girl won Best magazine Book of the Year, and was followed by I Am Dust.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman.

From the bestselling author of The Dovekeepers comes a spectacularly imaginative and moving new novel in the vein of The Night Circus that has been acclaimed by Jodi Picoult as ‘truly stunning: part love story, part mystery, part history, and all beauy’.

New York City, 1911. Meet Coralie Sardie, circus girl, web-fingered mermaid, shy only daughter of Professor Sardie and raised in the bizarre surroundings of his Museum of Extraordinary Things. 

And meet Eddie Cohen, a handsome young immigrant who has run away from his painful past and his Orthodox family to become a photographer, documenting life on the teeming city streets. One night by the freezing waters of the Hudson River, Coralie stumbles across Eddie, who has become enmeshed in the case of a missing girl, and the fates of these two hopeful outcasts collide as they search for truth, beauty, love and freedom in tumultuous times.

I was inspired to revisit this novel after reading and reviewing Elizabeth MacNeal’s Circus of Wonders at the weekend. Regular readers will know how much I love Alice Hoffman and that The Night Circus is one of my favourite books of all time. What you might not know is that I love the age of La Belle Époque, Art Nouveau, New York City, and anything to do with the circus and freak shows. So, it stands to reason that I would fall madly in love with this incredible novel. Tucked within this wealth of aesthetic and historical details is the story of what it really means to be ‘other’ and how that difference affects us politically, culturally and psychologically. However, it also shows that, when people labelled as different come together, a powerful subculture can emerge. A subculture that rejects everyday societal norms, turning them upside down and creating different rules and markers of status? There’s also the interesting and complex issues around freak shows. Now, they horrify us. They are associated with thoughts of the Elephant Man and years of disability awareness training has left people viewing them as exploitative and cruel. However it could be that the issue is more complex and there are other ways to look at them?

The novel takes us to turn of the century NYC and we really meet the city in its formative years. While there are residential buildings, factories and the beginnings of what will be Manhattan, there are areas where it is still wilderness and it is here that Hoffman takes us to meet Eddie. He is a photographer, living in a friend’s shack in what will eventually become Queens. While out with his camera, early one morning, he sees what he thinks is a mermaid slipping through the grey and choppy dawn waters of the Hudson. She’s a strong swimmer too. Cutting through the swell with ease. However, when he sees her properly, he can see she’s a girl. What he doesn’t know is that Coralie Sardie does have a physical impairment – she has webs between her fingers and toes. This slight difference inspires her father to exploit her, keeping her separate from other children so she never questions him. She grows up uncomfortable with others, shy and ashamed of her physical difference. Her father, self-proclaimed man of science and keeper of curiosities, has an idea for Coralie. He aims to be the only showman with a real live mermaid.

Eddie is a Jewish immigrant, also brought to NYC by his father. The trauma of this journey and of losing his mother, leaves Eddie struggling to adjust. His father however, completely falls apart, making Eddie feel responsible for his parent rather than being a child. They are estranged from each other and as a result Eddie has become dislocated from his religion and culture too. The novel follows these two characters, Eddie and Coralie, as they make their way towards each other and pursue the feelings that seemed to hit them both at first sight. He’s also pursuing his own path as a photographer, rather than studying towards a profession like medicine as his father would have wanted. The work he does, particularly his photos of a fire in a sweat shop and the attractions of Coney Island, is fascinating and compelling.

Eddie’s work contributes to the historical setting and the sense of place Hoffman creates here. New York City in its infancy, already has the pull that still sends countless tourists there every year. It becomes a character in its own right, achieved by Hoffman’s historical research and the richly layered descriptions she constructs. The sights and smells of Coney Island and its fairgrounds are intoxicating and the account of a fire in a clothing sweat shop is particularly memorable. This was based on the real Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, where girls living above the workshops were trapped and jumped from the windows to their death rather than burn. This sets Eddie down the road of investigative journalism and photography, rather than art photography. What will he make of Coney Island? More importantly, what will he make of Sardie’s museum and it’s main attraction?

Coralie knows she has been groomed for her father’s museum her whole life. The webbing she has on her hands is usually hidden by gloves, but at the age of 10 she is given a birthday gift that seals her future.

It stood in place of honour; a large tank of water. On the bottom of the tank were shells from all over the world. From the Indian Oceans to the China Sea. Beneath that title was carved one word alone, my name, Coralie. I did not need further instructions. I understood that all of my life was mere practice for this very moment. Without being asked, I slipped off my shoes, I knew how to swim.’

Her cruel father, only seemed to see Coralie in terms of ownership and monetary value. He has been making her take freezing cold baths, and practice staying under he water as long as she could. He gives her a breathing tube for the tank, but she barely needs it since her swims in the Hudson in winter. She will now be exhibited as a mermaid, alongside other ‘freaks‘ such as a woman without arms who has been given silk butterfly wings by Sardie. There’s a ‘beast’, completely covered in hair and a woman so pale she seems translucent. After looking at freak shows as part of my undergraduate degree, my feelings about them became more complicated. Yes, of course there is an element of exploitation in a figure like Sardie and his real life counterpart, Barnum. Yet, for a lot of the exhibits, this is the first sense of freedom they’ve had and their only chance to live independently. Often locked away in their towns and villages, by parents who either didn’t want others to see them, or felt like they were protecting their child. Parents might sell their child to a man like Sardie, feeling like they would be looked after or just to make money for the rest of the family. This might be the first time they encountered a community of people with differences like them. While we might think it barbaric to ‘show’ people with disabilities, it might be the only job open to them and give them a more comfortable living than they ever imagined. Real life ‘exhibit’ Prince Randian was brought to the USA by Barnum, and was known as The Human Torso amongst other names. He was born without arms and legs, and was usually dressed in a one piece, tight fitting garment. He appeared in the controversial Tod Browning film Freaks and had a party piece of rolling and smoking a cigar. His take was that he was being paid handsomely for simply doing normal everyday activities. We have to ask the question – who is exploiting who? There is also kudos in being the most transgressive as the disability subculture turns expectations upside down.

Prince Randian

I love this book. I enjoyed the character of Maureen – the Sardie’s housekeeper – and her love story with the wolf man. She has so much loyalty, and love for Coralie, that she stays despite Sardie’s insults and unreasonable behaviour. Being at the centre of these unusual people, we realise they have the same hopes and dreams as anyone else. Being in a group seems to give confidence to the individual characters and I loved seeing them grow into their authentic selves. There’s an acceptance of their differences, which maybe wasn’t present in their small villages and towns, where they stood out or even became a target. The performers have a complex relationship with what they do. It elevates them, thousands of people flock to see them, they are well paid and the thing that’s always been a negative part of their life, has become their meal ticket. Coralie and Eddie have had the same yearning in their childhoodthey want to be free, not held to account by their fathers, their religion or their obligations. Most of all though, this is a love story and they want to be together just like any other couple.

Further Reading:

Fiction:

Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth MacNeal.

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.

Non-Fiction:

The Body and Physical Difference by David T. Mitchell and Darren L. Snyder.

Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body by Rosemary Garland Thomson.

Posted in Netgalley

Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth MacNeal.

From the cover..

The spellbinding novel from the author of the Sunday Times bestselling The Doll Factory. 1866. In a coastal village in southern England, Nell picks violets for a living. Set apart by her community because of the birthmarks that speckle her skin, Nell’s world is her beloved brother and devotion to the sea. But when Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in the village, Nell is kidnapped. Her father has sold her, promising Jasper Jupiter his very own leopard girl. It is the greatest betrayal of Nell’s life, but as her fame grows, and she finds friendship with the other performers and Jasper’s gentle brother Toby, she begins to wonder if joining the show is the best thing that has ever happened to her. In London, newspapers describe Nell as the eighth wonder of the world. Figurines are cast in her image, and crowds rush to watch her soar through the air. But who gets to tell Nell’s story? What happens when her fame threatens to eclipse that of the showman who bought her? And as she falls in love with Toby, can he detach himself from his past and the terrible secret that binds him to his brother? Moving from the pleasure gardens of Victorian London to the battle-scarred plains of the Crimea, Circus of Wonders is an astonishing story about power and ownership, fame and the threat of invisibility.

‘Do you like stories?’ Nell asks, and the child nods. She picks up the book of Fairy Tales, weighs it in her hand. She remembers Charlie’s wafting hands, trying to fix her, to make her ordinary. She puts it back, takes a breath. Instead, she tells Pearl about a mermaid with a blue-scaled tail. ‘Her tail was so beautiful,’ she whispers, ‘that if men caught her, they’d dry her out and place her behind a sheet of glass, and thousands of strangers would pay to see her.’ She tells her how the mermaid swam in the deep waters where nobody could find her. ‘A little like you in this wagon,’ she says. Pearl smiles, and Nell carries on, explains how a prince’s ship was blown off course and he fell in love with her. He longed for his own tail so much that he visited a witch who ripped his legs from his body and stitched on fish scales with a sharp needle’.

Those of us who loved Elizabeth MacNeal’s first book The Doll Factory have been waiting impatiently for the next novel to spring from her imagination. The wait was worth it. I am always drawn to books about circuses and freak shows – it follows on from research I did at university in my Gothic, Grotesque and Monstrous module and for my dissertation on disability. However, not all works that feature freak shows, in whatever form, have their research based in disability studies and culture. While The Greatest Showman has Hugh Jackman (swoon) and some incredible songs, it doesn’t really tackle the ethics of such an enterprise as Barnum’s. Yes, the freaks had a great song about being their authentic selves and not being hidden away, but it never tackled that deep inequality in their relationship as showman and exhibit. The act of singing This Is Me, led by the bearded lady, shows their strength and character when Barnum doesn’t allow them to attend the party with dignitaries. However, it doesn’t address the fact that they are getting paid to display themselves as different and whether or not this is a choice. MacNeal uses Barnum as the inspiration to her showman, Jasper Jupiter, but she does see the problems inherent in a concern that displays ‘other’ bodies for entertainment. She then explores the concept of difference using the circus performers, fairy tales and concepts of monstrousness. She manages to do this while writing a story that is thrilling, full of strong characters and told with such vivid description.

Our heroine, and eventual Queen of the Moon and Stars, is Nell. As Jasper Jupiter’s troupe visit the small village where her family farms violets for confectionery, he notices Nell’s wild abandon as she dances with her brother. This is an after show party for the performers, but there are locals too, enjoying the atmosphere and partaking in a lot of alcohol. Nell is usually shy, covered in birth marks head to foot, she tends to stay where she isn’t seen. However, the alcohol she tries removes all the inhibitions she usually hides behind in public. Jasper sees her as a leopard girl, covered in spots, and imagines how she would look in his circus. Eventually though, he settles on Queen of the Moon and Stars; Nellie Moon, with a skin covered in constellations. He approaches Nell’s drunkard of a father and offers him twenty pounds for her. He creates a caravan for her, beautifully decorated and with three well chosen books for her to read. Then with her father’s help, he kidnaps her, locks her in the caravan and trundles off with the rest of the circus into the night. His plan is to make her fly, constructing huge feather wings on a harness and a system of ropes and pulleys to give the impression she is soaring above the crowd. His troupe are ‘performers’ not just exhibits to be wheeled out, poked and prodded. Jasper believes that with Nellie Moon he might start to earn the sort of money that would make a trip to London viable. Maybe in a show tent in one of the pleasure gardens? Most of all he’d like to entice Queen Victoria to see his show, because she is a famous ‘freak fancier’ and what a coup it would be if Jasper’s Circus of Wonders was her first choice of entertainment since Albert died.

I loved the way the author used the books in Nell’s caravan to bring in the idea of fairy tales and how they victimise people who are different. When Nell is reading to Pearl, an albino little girl that Jasper buys, she manages some retelling worthy of Angela Carter – including The Little Mermaid quoted at the beginning of my review. Nell thinks about the book of Hans Christian Andersen tales she would read with her brother Charlie:

‘They read about Hans My Hedgehog, half-boy, half-beast; about the Maiden without Hands; about Beast and his elephant trunk and his body glittering with fish scales. It was the stories’ endings which always silenced her, that made her pull her dress over her fingers. Love altered each character – Hans shucked his hedgehog spines like a suit, the maiden’s hands grew back, Beast became a man – and Nell pored over the woodcuts so carefully, staring at those plain, healed bodies. Would her birthmarks disappear if somebody loved her?’

The thought would make her tearful even then, but she didn’t know why. Stella, the bearded lady, tells Nell that she will find her strength in performing. It’s a way of taking up space in a world that doesn’t see them. She gives voice to the dilemma at the heart of the ‘freak show’; instinctively, it feels wrong to exhibit someone for their difference, but where else would they earn so much money and live so well? Of course in reality there were horror stories and the author does name check some of them in the book. Sara Baartman, a slave from South Africa, known as The Hottentot Venus was exhibited all over the world until her death. She was then bought by naturalist George Cuvier who dissected her, then pickled her genitals and kept them in a jar. Barnum was known to treat animals appallingly, but he also exhibited a freed slave called Joice Heth after removing all her teeth! He did this so he could name her the Oldest Woman in the World. However, for every horror story there were famous ‘freaks’ such as Siamese Twins Chang and Eng who earned so much from being exhibited that they bought a plantation for themselves, and their families. It isn’t just the money though, as Stella explains:

‘There’s power in it,’ Stella says, twisting a curl of her beard around her finger. ‘In what?’ ‘Performing. You control it. How they see you. You choose to be different. Nobody else looks like me, and I’m glad […] I was a hungry gutterling, not worth a gentleman’s spit. And because of this, the source of all my powers—’ she smiles and pulls on her beard – ‘I’ve been to Vienna and Paris and Moscow, and done as I please. I’ve made enough money to make my mother turn in her grave. I could give you a thousand names of wonders whose lives are richer, bigger, brighter, because of shows like this.’

Nell can’t imagine feeling like this. She has always kept her body covered and stayed in the background. She’s used to being called ‘leopard girl’ or being asked if her mother was startled by a leopard during her confinement. She is used to being whispered about and pitied. How will she feel about her body being displayed, flying high above the audience? Being pointed at and talked about, her body on posters, matchboxes and as figurines. Yet, when she gets there, she does feel what Stella is talking about.

‘Someone throws flowers into the sky. A bouquet dips and falls. She watches these people, grown fat on wonder. They have seen a giant juggle, a bearded woman chirrup like a blackbird, a dwarf ride a miniature pony, tumblers and contortionists, fire-eaters and dancing poodles, and she is the finale. They admire her, want to be her. All her life, she has held herself like a bud, so small and tight and voiceless. She has not realised the potential that lies within her, the possibility that she might unfurl, arms thrown wide, and take up space in the world.’

I loved the stance the author takes and I loved this awakening in Nell too, but there’s so much more to the book. The luscious descriptions of costumes and performers made me feel I was there. The heat of the lights, the smell of the animals and gaudy caravans.The sounds and smells of the pleasure gardens were also really vivid, especially the morning after. The flashbacks of Jasper and his brother Toby’s time in the Crimean War were horrific and I loved the interplay of the brother’s roles as watcher and doer. The author plays with the idea that appearances never lie, through Toby’s photography, how he chooses his images and for which audience. Toby was an interesting character who never truly fits anywhere, not even in his natural place as Jasper’s brother. His difference doesn’t show, so when he tries to make his otherness visual will the other performers accept him? Jasper himself is mercurial, full of ideas and with a lot of success, but always reaching for more, to his detriment. I found his relationships to women interesting, he has no lovers and his ties with his friend Dash were the strongest he’s had with another person. He seems to see women as things to display, to possess and assert power over, but not as allies or equals. Yet, in his troupe, he has some of the strongest women you could imagine. There are some parts of the ending that were inevitable and others that were unexpected and left undone, which was perfect. I loved this book so much, I’m going to buy a very special copy of it and keep it forever.

Meet The Author


Elizabeth Macneal was born in Scotland and now lives in East London. She is a writer and potter and works from a small studio at the bottom of her garden. The Doll Factory, Elizabeth’s debut novel, was a Sunday Times bestseller, has been translated into twenty-nine languages and has been optioned for a major television series. It won the Caledonia Novel Award 2018. Circus of Wonders is her second novel.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The King’s General by Daphne du Maurier.

The King’s General is not usually people’s first choice when they start to read Du Maurier’s novels. Most read her more famous novels: Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel or Jamaica Inn. Yet this piece of historical fiction was my first Du Maurier novel and I first read it when I was a girl. To understand why you probably need to know something about my childhood. For the most part I’d been an active and lively tomboy, out climbing trees, riding ponies and gallivanting round the countryside with my younger brother. Then, when I was 11 years old I had an accident while somersaulting at school and ended up with two fractured vertebrae and a crushed disc in my spine. I was very lucky. The fractures were mid-thoracic and because they broke down and away from the spine my spinal cord was undamaged. I was centimetres away from becoming paraplegic. I missed the last few months of primary school, instead going up to the local grammar school in the autumn. The accident did cause long term problems though. A lack of proper rehabilitation meant the muscles around the break seized up affecting my ability to use my shoulder and arm. Even now, repetitive movements like typing or painting can seize up my whole right side. I have a chiropractor for regular acupuncture and manipulation to free up that side.

The Kings General was the first time I encountered an adult character with a disability. Of course before my accident I’d read Pollyanna, a rather saintly little girl who can’t walk after a fall and is still looking for things to be glad about. I’d also read the What Katy Did series where the spirited and tomboyish Katy has a fall from the yard swing and can’t walk. She spends a year as an ‘invalid’ and the experience quietens her and she learns to run a household from her bed, becoming a more tamed and acceptable version of femininity. The King’s General tells the story of Honor, a lively young woman who in 1653 decides to write her life story, based around the love she had for the charismatic soldier Richard Grenville. She then takes us back 30 years to when she was 10 years old and her brother Kit brings his bride Gartred back to the family home of Lanrest. Gartred is from the very important Grenville family and doesn’t make a great impression on the slightly more humble Harris family. She has a sharp tongue and Kit thought she flirted with other men, especially his brother Robin. For Honor their marriage is an eye opener and she learns a lesson about marriage:

“For the first time I realized, with something of a shock, that marriage was not the romantic fairy legend I had imagined it to be, but a great institution, a bargain between important families, with the tying-up of property.”

The marriage is short-lived as Kit dies from smallpox, and when Gartred leaves, Honor hopes to never see another Grenville again. Fate has something different in store as she encounters a dashing young soldier on her 18th birthday. She visits Plymouth Sound with her brother and sister to watch His Majesty’s Fleet sail into Plymouth Sound, followed by a banquet held by the Duke of Buckingham. Richard Grenville is quite sarcastic, even rude, and Honor has some barbed and witty exchanges with him. They immediately have a rapport and he actually shows his kinder side when Honor has to leave early. They meet in secret after this, often meeting in an apple tree at the bottom of the orchard where Honor likes to climb up and read. They’re clearly very compatible and start to fall in love with each other. Honor might just get the fairy tale after all as Richard decides to speak to her family and proposes marriage. However, their happiness comes to an abrupt end the day before their wedding when Honor has a terrible accident when they’re out hunting with falcons. Honor’s horse is spooked, becomes disoriented and falls into a ravine. Sadly, Honor’s injuries are serious as her legs and spine are shattered and she can no longer walk. Realising she will probably never walk or have children, she calls off the engagement and tells Richard to be happy with another woman. They don’t see each other until civil war breaks out and Honor must leave Lanrest where she was living alone to go to her sister’s house Menabilly. It is here where Honor will encounter Richard again. Will things have changed between them?

From this point in the story we start to get Du Maurier’s trademark mystery elements and as usual she is very adept at creating tension and suspicion. I really enjoyed the way that her two main characters are so linked to the land around them. Their emotions are often mirrored by the weather and landscape in a rather Brontë way. Her strength here though is in these characters, who love each other despite being able to see their flaws. Honor finds the older Richard bitter, proud and arrogant, but just as attractive as ever. However, he’s quite gentle and tender with Honor and there’s a scene where she even shows him her damaged legs. There’s a feel of Heathcliff about him in these war years, as he’s quite cruel. Honor observes that war seems to make beasts of men. I enjoyed this book because it showed me that an accident doesn’t have to stop you being you. Yes, experience changes us in some ways but her accident doesn’t stop Honor being adventurous or taking on a challenge. It also doesn’t mean she has to become quiet and ladylike. Most of all, Honor is still loved. Despite what happened Richard still loves her, and this was the first book that showed me life doesn’t stop because you have a disability.

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A Fight in Silence by Melanie Metzenthin

The subject matter of this book is very close to my heart, so despite the WW2 novel market feeling a bit saturated at the moment, I decided to give it a try. I have a disability and have studied disability and literature to post-grad level so Hitler’s treatment of disabled people and eugenics in general are subjects I’ve read about widely. I’ve encountered novels exploring the issue of eugenics in 20th Century North America. However, I have never seen it in a novel based in WW2.

The novel starts in Hamburg in 1926 when our two main characters, Richard and Paula, meet and fall in love. Soon after they marry, Paula becomes pregnant with twins. She gives birth to a boy and girl and this is the happiest time in their lives, with only one problem; their son Georg has been born deaf. They vow to protect him and have optimism that with his family’s help, all will be well. However, as I was reading, I was aware of the time period tucked in the back of my mind. I knew that the rise of Nazism was just around the corner and everything will change. This was uppermost in my mind as it had recently been depicted in the BBC series World On Fire. As the Nazis seize power, they begin to round up adults and children with disabilities for euthanising. Richard is a doctor and finds himself falsifying documents to help his patients. On a personal level he is hiding the disability of his own son. Will they be able to remain hidden, or even stay together?

What makes this book unusual is that we are reading about WW2 from the perspective of German citizens. Ordinary Germans suffered hardship through bombings and loss of both loved ones and their homes and livelihoods. In 2014 a memorial was unveiled in Berlin to commemorate the 300,000 German people killed by the Nazis. That’s without counting those in Poland, Austria and other occupied countries. The book ends Post-war and describes how the Germans were treated in the years following. I think the fact that this a German author accounts for the incredible detail and historical fact woven into the story. Where it lacked occasionally was in the emotions. This could be a realistic depiction of a culture shell shocked by war or it could just as easily be an issue with finding the right words in translation. I felt the book was well researched and characterised. It shows the other side of a war that we’re used to hearing about from the victor’s standpoint, I really enjoyed this different.

Translation Deborah Rachel Langton #NetGalley