Posted in Netgalley

At The Breakfast Table by Defne Suman

I don’t know a lot about Turkey, so I jumped at the chance to read this book that delves into Turkish history and the heart of it’s people. Set in 2017, at Buyukada in Turkey we watch as a family gathers to celebrate the 100th birthday of the famous artist Shirin Saka. They are expecting reminiscences that are joyful, with everyone looking back on a long and succesful artistic career, and on family memories spanning almost a century. Some members of the family are set on this opportunity to delve into family history. However, for Shirin, the past is a place she has been happy to leave behind. In fact she has concealed some of her experiences even from her closest family. In particular her children and great-grandchildren have no idea what those experiences were, despite being aware of their psychological consequences. Some are thinking of Shirin and hoping she can open up and heal. Others want, perhaps, to find answers for their own struggles. In an attempt to persuade her into telling her full story, one of her grandchildren invites family friend and investigative journalist Burak, to celebrate her achievements but in the hope of helping her too. Burak has his own reasons for being there – he was once the lover of Shirin’s granddaughter. I wondered if the younger members of the family truly understood the well of pain that Shirin has kept from them? They have never gone through the type of experience and turbulence Shirin and those of her generation have. Unable to express her pain any other way, Shirin begins to paint her story. Using the dining room wall she reveals a history that’s been kept from her family, but also from the public’s consciousness, an episode from the last days of the Ottoman Empire.

As a believer in the healing power of many different art forms, including writing, I was very interested in how her family’s plan would work out. We don’t always know how people will react to opening up in this way, it’s why trained therapists like me are taught to create a safe space for people to talk and reveal their secrets. Even the client has no idea how they will react, so I felt Shirin’s family were playing with something they didn’t understand. Why would they think their grandmother would want to delve into her trauma on her birthday, let alone divulge her history to Burak? Surely therapy would have been more appropriate first? To tell her history, the author splits the narrative across four characters, each one is a member of Shirin’s family and friend group. This gives us a wide angle lens on the past. I loved the atmosphere created and the way the author didn’t exoticise Turkey. She still showed us a place of vibrancy and colour, but this wasn’t a tourist’s view. It was the Turkey of the people who work and live there. I felt there could have been more balance between the past and the present, because I was interested in Shirin’s recovery from these memories being dragged up, especially at such an emotional time. As it was, the book felt off balance, more heavily weighted in the past and from four different perspectives rather than just Shirin’s.

However, the four narrators did work in terms of showing the same events from different perspectives. There were times when one character’s view of the facts was so far from the truth it had an emotional effect on me! This is an emotionally intelligent author at work, she wants us to feel that dissonance so we can understand the painful consequences of these misunderstandings. I’m a big believer in generational trauma and how strong it’s effects can be. We see that, despite Shirin thinking she’s shielded her children and grandchildren from these events, they have still been deeply affected by her trauma. They are traumatised because of her pain and how it influenced her personality and her actions, without ever knowing the full story. I could imagine the relief of understanding why a parent has behaved a certain way, especially if it caused you pain. Despite me wishing I could have spent more time with them, we do see enough of the present to know that despite the stress fractures in this family, they still love each other. Their playfulness and sibling banter was realistic and touching. The dynamics of their interactions were so deeply rooted in the past, but we’re the only ones who can see it all with our privileged 360 degree view. This was a fascinating look at a family’s history and how their intertwined lives spiral out from one single event so long ago.

Translated by Betsy Göksel. Published by Apollo 1st September 2022

Meet The Author

Defne Suman was born in Istanbul and grew up on Buyukada Island. She gained a Masters in sociology from the Bosphorus University and then worked as a teacher in Thailand and Laos, where she studied Far Eastern philosophy and mystic disciplines. She later continued her studies in Oregon, USA and now lives in Athens with her husband. Her books include The Silence of Scheherazade and At The Breakfast Table. Her work is translated to many languages all around the world.

Posted in Netgalley

Mad Honey by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan

I was granted access to this novel on NetGalley and couldn’t wait to read it, bumping it to the top of my TBR when I had a free weekend. This is Jodi Picoult in her element. Her last book was an interesting take on the pandemic and a couple of her recent novels have been more experimental, moving away from the legal case structure of her earlier work. When I met Jodi Picoult several years ago I asked about her writing. Did she start with character, or was it the controversial issues she explores that start the writing process? Having covered racism, school shootings, teen suicide and abortion it seems that these complex issues drive her imagination. She admitted that these issues do spark her creativity and if an issue stays in her mind for a couple of weeks she knows it has potential. Then she starts to research and during that process, characters form and make themselves known to her. I loved the flow of Picoult’s writing and the tension she builds around the featured legal case, but thought she’d maybe moved away from this way of working. When Jennifer Finney Boylan approached her with the idea to write a book together with a trans character at it’s heart, Jodi Picoult had been thinking about setting a novel around trans rights for a number of years. The structure of Mad Honey feels like vintage Picoult and even where Jennifer Finney Boylan takes over the narration I didn’t notice a huge difference in tone or style. I’ve never read Jennifer Finney Boylan, but she is the first openly transgender American to write a bestselling book, a book that is now thought of as an important part of the transgender canon. She is the perfect writer to join Picoult in this venture that’s bound to be controversial considering the trigger warnings I’ve seen used. Picoult and Boylan haven’t shied away from controversy in choosing to write about one of today’s hottest and most complicated topics; the complexities of being transgender. Yet the combination of authors takes away the debate over ‘own voice’ narratives and brings a sensitivity and knowledge to the project it wouldn’t have had if Picoult had written alone.

We meet Olivia and her son Asher, who live near a small town in New Hampshire. When Asher was a toddler she fled her abusive marriage to return to the place she grew up. Her timing was perfect, as her father was starting to struggle physically and needed to teach Olivia all the wisdom he’d accrued in a lifetime of keeping bees. Now Olivia is the bee expert, tending daily to her hives where each queen bee is named after a musical diva: Celina, Gaga, Beyoncé. The toddler who was just steady enough on his feet to intervene when his father attacked his mother, is now a six foot ice hockey player in his final year before leaving for college. Asher is a popular teenager with lots of friends and now he has girlfriend Lilly too. Lilly understands starting over, so Olivia feels they have something in common. She likes Lily when she’s been over to the house and she’s successfully helped them with the bees, who are a good judge of character. Lilly feels happy for the first time in her life and Asher is a huge part of that, although there is still a part of her that wonders if she can truly trust him, be open and be vulnerable. Then out of the blue Olivia takes the call every parent dreads. It’s the police. Lily is dead and Asher has been arrested for her murder. She calls her brother Jordan to come to New Hampshire and be Asher’s lawyer. In her mind there’s no way that the gentle boy she knows could have done this. However, as the case starts to unfold she realises that Asher has hidden more than he’s shared. Could he be exhibiting the same tendencies as his father? As Olivia knows more than anyone, we rarely know the people we love as well as we think we do.

I think it’s incredibly hard to take on writing about someone else’s experience, especially someone from a minority group. When it comes to books about disability, my own minority, I do prefer ‘own voice’ narratives. After all, who better to write a character with a disability than a writer with a disability? Failing that I want to know that an author has done their very best to represent that minority, through research and spending time with people who have a disability. I want to know they’ve asked the hard and sometimes uncomfortable questions that take them to the heart of how living in that body might feel. Armed with that they can hopefully create a character who feels real rather than clichéd and avoids stereotypes. I have to be honest and say I don’t know enough about being transgender to judge whether the authors have everything right, but I can see they’ve tried and truly wanted to write about transgender rights in a mainstream novel that’s very likely to be a bestseller. I guess time will tell how the book is received as it moves out into the world. In her acknowledgments, Jennifer Finney Boylan quotes a terrible statistic; in the year that she and Piicoult wrote the book, ‘more than 350 transgender people were killed around the world, more than a fifth of them inside their own homes’. This awful number stayed with me and I was glad these authors are starting a conversation, with a mainstream audience who might not seek out information about being transgender ordinarily. It helped me have a conversation with my 75 year old dad who becomes confused between gender and sexuality and is totally baffled by labels like transgender, transsexual, non-binary. I think these are conversations everyone should have and maybe the book is an entry point, inspiring people to read more ‘own voice’ narratives.

Picoult speaks for me when she says it never occurred to her to think of a transgender woman as anything other than a woman, but it was good to have my view challenged, because it showed me how vehemently some corners of society disagree with me. We are given a lot of background information that clearly comes from both author’s research, but is presented in the guise of Olivia educating herself. She talks about how common it is for animals to change gender, from clown fish to bearded dragons and female hyena’s who can have retractable penises. She’s pressing home the argument against those who claim transgender people are unnatural and that if you were not born with the sexual organs of a woman then you’re not a woman. There does seem to be a huge emphasis on the ability to procreate, but where does that leave women like me who can’t have children? Or those who’ve had a hysterectomy? Are we not real women too? I was very interested in something called ‘passing’, a concept that applies to race, disability, sexuality: an African-American man may be treated very differently if he has a lighter skin tone; a gay man may ‘pass’ as straight in order to be avoid prejudice at work; someone with an invisible disability like mine can be seen as able-bodied with all the benefits of both ways of being. If a transgender woman has a naturally feminine look she can pass as a woman more easily than someone who is is taller or broader. This ability to pass means no one, not even someone the transgender woman is in a sexual relationship with, need ever know that their assigned sex at birth was different. Of course this then begs the question of whether there is an obligation to disclose this information and when? All of this debate comes into the novel’s courtroom sections, in the guise of expert testimony so it doesn’t feel like endless exposition. There are times when opinions may be offensive to some readers, but I think they reflected the reality of being transgender and the discrimination faced.

The story flows beautifully and really grabbed hold of me quickly. I found myself unable to do anything until I’d finished reading, so I let uni work and household chores pile up, completely engrossed in the terrible situation both Asher and Lily’s mums find themselves in. I did feel this was Olivia and Ava’s story, despite our narrators being Lily and Olivia. For me the transition between the two writers is seamless. I really couldn’t tell whether I was reading Jodi or Jennifer’s writing and I know they worked hard at this, swapping sections for re-writes at times. I did feel for Olivia who has fled a terrible situation to protect her boy from her violent husband. I understood how she and Asher had become a tight unit, now challenged by Asher’s age and this new person coming into their small world. I thought the aftermath of being a victim of violence was tackled really well, as Olivia’s job keeps her hidden from the world. She doesn’t make friends and relationships haven’t been on her radar at all. I felt the weight of this massive change looming over them, Asher going away to college and leaving his mum alone for the first time. Her protection of them both has been necessary, but she must be lonely at times. It was interesting to see her reaction to a possible romance, could she take down those walls and start to build a life for herself? By contrast, Lily’s chapters are lighter than Olivia’s, capturing that moment of being on the cusp of adulthood. Lily is brim full of potential and possibility. She’s like a newly transformed butterfly taking it’s first flight. Then all of a sudden she’s gone and it feels like a light has been snuffed out. How much harder must it be for Ava, who has nurtured and protected her daughter in much the same way as Olivia has protected her son? Ava stayed with me after the book had ended because her loss is unimaginable and her only solace is to retreat into the natural world where she feels at home. I found myself hoping she experienced the healing power of nature and didn’t feel too lonely out there on the Appalachian Trail.

I enjoyed the bee analogy that ran through the book, the reference to Mad Honey referring to bees who’ve collected pollen from rhododendrons and laurels. Unfortunately the honey produced is poisonous, causing dizziness, convulsions and cardiac symptoms. The ancient Greeks used it in germ warfare, it’s success dependent on the eater’s expectations of sweetness not deadly poison. The analogy between this and Olivia’s husband is clear as she describes the love bombing in their early relationship and her utter shock when he first lashes out in anger. Her biggest fear is that Asher could be cut from the same cloth as his father, when she sees nothing but her sweet boy. However, she knows that her own mother-in-law would have struggled to accept that her boy was a monster behind closed doors. The tension is brilliantly handled, rising slowly as we get to the final days of the court when I found myself biting my nails! I wasn’t sure how I felt about Asher and the potential verdict, I wasn’t sure I believed his version of events and if Asher was found innocent, would we ever find out what happened to Lily? The twists and turns here were brilliant, with the killer blow delivered just as everything is starting to calm down.

I’m hoping that this novel can be a gateway novel, an introduction to that inspires readers to really think about the experience of transgender people, hopefully inspiring readers to search out writing by transgender authors going forward. There is one scene where Olivia seeks out the woman who runs the town’s record store, because she’s known to be transgender. Here she gets to ask the questions that are running through her mind and although he’s a reluctant authority on the subject, he doesn’t get offended by her insensitivity or ignorance. What he does reinforce for her is that no one can speak for all trans women, because ‘when you’ve met one trans woman, you’ve met one trans woman’. What it reinforces for me is that gender and sexuality are a spectrum, there are as many ways of being as there are people. Our need to categorise, label and compare creates a pyramid of bigotry and ultimately divides us. All we can hope is that future generations find ways of relating to each other that bridge these man made divides. It’s only then that all people can live ‘with power, and fierceness, and with love’ and, as one of our characters says, without the obligation ‘to explain and defend the things I have known in my heart since the day I was born.’

Mad Honey is published on 15th November by Hodder and Stoughton

Meet the Authors.

Jennifer Finney Boylan is a bestselling author, transgender activist and professor at Barnard College. She is also a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. She has written thirteen books, including novels, collections of short stories, and her memoir. Her 2003 memoir She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders was the first book published by an openly transgender American to become a bestseller and has become as ‘a seminal piece of the trans literary canon”.

Jodi Picoult is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of twenty-eight novels, including Wish You Were Here, The Book of Two Ways, A Spark of Light, Small Great Things, Leaving Time, and My Sister’s Keeper, and, with daughter Samantha van Leer, two young adult novels, Between the Lines and Off the Page. Picoult lives in New Hampshire. Her next novel, Mad Honey, co-written with Jennifer Finney Boylan, is available on November 15th.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Red As Blood by Lilja Sigurdardóttir

After a couple of years of book blogging, I’m coming to the conclusion that Orenda Books are infallible when it comes to choosing what to publish; I’ve not come across a bad book yet. Of course there are some I like more than others, but that’s just personal taste. I read the first in this series based around financial investigator Āróra and it set the scene well. Āróra has returned to Iceland in order to look for her sister, who went missing while living in a volatile relationship. It was an enjoyable beginning, but this book was absolutely, unputdownably, brilliant. It had me reading at 3am, chewing my fingernails with tension and unable to get up the next morning until I’d read the final page.

Our heroine is still in Iceland and even has a new home, but hasn’t yet broken it to her mother that she’s staying put. The truth is she can’t leave, not until she’s found her sister Īsafold or at least her body. She’s bought a drone and when she has time, can be found driving the endless tracks formed between lava floes with her drone covering the ground either side of the car. She’s also still working and has picked up an interesting case from businessman Flosi, whose wife Guaron has been abducted from their home while cooking their evening meal. She was halfway through cooking langoustines with lemon and garlic butter and in the kitchen theres an overturned chair and bread burning in the oven. All that’s been left is a printed letter on standard paper warning that Flosi shouldn’t involve the police and they will be in touch with a ransom demand. Āróra isn’t the police, so Flosi is hoping that she can help him find the money for the ransom and manage the situation, but Āróra is thinking of the best way to bring the police into the situation without the kidnappers knowing. Daniel is the best police officer for this kind of complex situation. The team move in slowly, disguising themselves as family members and friends supporting Flosi, but in the meantime looking into all the circumstances surrounding Guaron’s disappearance. What Flosi doesn’t seem to realise is that, by it’s nature, an investigation like this looks closely at everybody, including those closest to home.

I’m interested in Āróra as a character. She’s driven, both at work and in her quest to find her sister. I love her inner world, particularly the pull she has between the UK and Iceland. Her drive and resilience seem largely nurtured by her father who was a professional strongman and believed in training his daughters in the same way he would a son. It is his voice she hears when she’s finding things difficult or when she’s in a really tight spot and fighting off those who might harm her. It’s as if he’s the voice of the logical side of the brain, the side that she tries to kick into at times of stress. She’s also very logical and methodical with her work, able to find subtle clues and complex patterns within financial information that others might miss. She soon realises that Flosi isn’t necessarily the mild mannered local businessman he appears to be. This makes her wonder, if he’s willing to withhold information on his business dealings what else is he omitting from his testimony? However, where personal feelings for others are concerned, Āróra’s calm and methodical nature does become overwhelmed. Many people have gently reminded her that she might never find Īsafold, but she can’t let the search go because she’s consumed by guilt that this last time her sister called her for help, she didn’t come. Daniel also overwhelms her sensible side and we see that more here as the pair are drawn to each other, but will she allow herself to explore those feelings?

We are also allowed into the lives of Daniel and his team, showing the toll that their job takes on their personal lives. Helena is a brilliant investigator, but doesn’t allow herself to get too close to people. She has a system for her personal life, a small number of women whose company she enjoys who are also comfortable with a no-strings arrangement. When she wants company she calls them in order of preference to see who is free for the evening. Yet she never lets herself share a meal, a movie or anything about how she feels with them. Daniel finds his job a huge hindrance to a personal life, especially like this case where he has to drop everything at a moment’s notice and disappear for a few days or weeks with no explanation or contact. He is consumed by his job too, but there are hints of a softer side to him,not just in the way he feels about Āróra, but in the way cares for Lady G a trans woman who lives in his garden office.

The case is fascinating, with hints of dodgy money dealings and possible involvement with the Russian mafia. Flosi has a more complex life than at first appears. He has a daughter called Sarah who works with him, but doesn’t like to live with him due to tensions with Guaron. Guaron is his second wife and it’s as if Flosi hasn’t grown up and realised that long term relationships are not as exciting as those first thrilling months when we fall in love. It is all sharing meals, watching tv at night, and the gentle domestic routine. He already rejected this way of life when he left his first wife, but at the first sign of trouble she is still willing to come over with Sarah and cook for the team and offer Flosi support. There are signs his relationship with Guaron has reached that comfortable stage, but he isn’t forthcoming with the team about his doubts or his solutions to the boredom he’s felt in his marriage. Every little piece of information has to be dragged out of him, but is he being deliberately obstructive? Sometimes he seems genuinely clueless about the importance of being honest in finding his wife. I wasn’t sure he even wanted her found, and with a resentful daughter, over-involved ex-wife and other distractions my suspicions were pulled in one direction then another. The author paced these revelations beautifully, raising the tension and sending me racing through the pages. This really is an intelligent thriller that will not only keep your attention but will keep you guessing all the way to the end.

Meet the Author

Icelandic crime-writer Lilja Sigurdardóttir was born in the town of Akranes in 1972 and raised in Mexico, Sweden, Spain and Iceland. An award- winning playwright, Lilja has written four crime novels, with Snare, the first in a new series and Lilja’s English debut shortlisting for the CWA International Dagger and hitting bestseller lists worldwide. Trap soon followed suit, with the third in the trilogy Cage winning the Best Icelandic Crime Novel of the Year, and was a Guardian Book of the Year. Lilja’s standalone Betrayal, was shortlisted for the Glass Key Award for Best Nordic Crime Novel. In 2021, Cold as Hell, the first in the An Áróra Investigation series was published, with Red as Blood to follow in 2022. The film rights have been bought by Palomar Pictures in California. Lilja is also an award-winning screenwriter in her native Iceland. She lives in Reykjavík with her partner.

Posted in Netgalley

The Skeleton Key by Erin Kelly

I’ve been reading Erin Kelly since her debut The Burning Air and she’s pretty much unbeatable in her ability to grip the reader and immerse them in her world of domestic noir. This was read in a very enjoyable weekend with Alice Feeney’s Daisy Darker so I was knee deep in my favourite territory – arty, bohemian families, with big rambling houses, full of eccentricities and dark secrets. I was ready for skeletons to start tumbling out of closets and that was almost literally the case here. The Churcher’s and the Lally’s have a history that goes back decades and now they live in each other’s pockets, in two adjoining houses on Hampstead Heath, smelling of oil paint and weed. Back in the the 1970’s, when their friendships and marriages began, artist Frank used some old folk verses to create a picture book full of clues to hidden treasure. The story is macabre, as a young woman named Elinore is suspected of infidelity and murdered by her husband. He then scatters her bones in sites across the British Isles. The verses in the book, The Golden Bones, contain clues to the whereabouts of hidden treasure – a one off, tiny gold skeleton with a jewel set in it’s pelvis. When the book caught the public imagination, a group calling themselves The Bonehunters emerged and with the birth of the internet hunters and enthusiasts could solve clues together, pass on information and stoke rumours. Unfortunately, for some it became an obsession and twenty years later, Frank’s daughter – also named Eleanor- is attacked outside her school by a knife-wielding woman who is certain the final piece of treasure – the pelvis – resides within her actual body.

It’s no surprise that as the book reaches it’s fiftieth anniversary, speculation and concern from some parts of the family, has reached fever pitch. With the help of son Dom, the book has been re-issued in a Golden Anniversary edition, complete with locations for people to check in online. The families come together at the houses on the heath, to film for a television special about the book, including a secret unveiling that Frank’s been planning. As he gives a speech, under a tree on the heath, to everyone assembled and on camera, it’s clear he’s planned a publicity stunt. Could this be the final piece of treasure? However, even Frank is shocked when one of his grandchildren climbs the tree and instead of treasure pulls free a woman’s pelvis. The book follows the aftermath of this gruesome discovery, how it affects both families and starts a police investigation. Everyone is under suspicion. The author takes us back into the past, shows us events from different characters point of view, and turns the reader into a Bonehunter of sorts, trying to work out who this woman was and how her pelvis ended up buried in a tree on the heath.

We meet Eleanor again, but this time as a woman and she prefers it when people call her Nell. She weirdly had my dress sense, although I might draw the line at dungarees from now on having read the criticisms about them on middle-aged women! Anything to do with the book raises Nell’s blood pressure and it’s hardly surprising. It has influenced how she lives, as anonymously as possible on a narrow boat that she moves every so often on the London waterways. She claims this is to avoid mooring rates, but it also feels part of her PTSD, the need to keep moving and be hyper-vigilant. She has more than one reason to stay safe these days, because her step-daughter from a previous relationship is living with her. Unbeknown to social services her father left a long time ago. Nell hasn’t had much luck with friends or relationships and she blames the book for this too. She feels she can’t trust anyone since she fell in love with Richard when she was a teenager and he turned out to be an investigator, hunting the final bone on behalf of a rich Bonehunter. His protestations that he loved her anyway fell on deaf ears and she was left heartbroken. Now she’s more paranoid than ever and terrified that the police investigation will bring social services back into their lives.

I was fascinated with the dynamics of these two families living on top of each other in a way that was almost like a commune. The children would flit between houses, gravitating towards the parent who seemed most able to give that parental attention that they needed. Their friendship starts in the 1970’s as they shared ideas, drugs and a desire to create art. The families are so close that when Frank’s son Dom and Lal’s daughter Rose are found kissing it almost feels incestuous. Now there are shared grandchildren, linking them through blood. Where once there was equality, even if they were so poor there was nothing to share, now it seems like everyone functions for Frank. He is the successful artist and his whims should be accommodated. He felt like a law unto himself to me: working when he wants; neglecting his family; indulging his sexual appetites wherever he can. His mercurial temperament is excused because of his talent, but some family members already find him unbearable. Lal’s drinking seems to distract everyone from Frank’s bad behaviour and his decline has been very useful. It eliminates him as artistic competition too. We travel back to one particular night several times from different viewpoints. Wanting to break away from The Golden Bones Frank has created a collection of beautiful nude paintings. However, unable to let them show on their own merits, Frank has let it be known that every model in the show is one of his conquests. The tongues start to wag and by opening night it’s at fever pitch. I can’t work out whether he underestimates the family, or whether it’s a deliberate attempt to humiliate and dominate, but one of the models seems familiar. If Frank’s suggestion is true, he has betrayed everyone close to him. To make things worse he’s openly flirting with a waitress, in front of his wife and children. Luckily, Lal gets predictably drunk, drawing the attention and concern elsewhere.

In the present day both Lal and Frank are arrested, leaving the family scrabbling for the truth. Will it pull them all together or apart? The psychological interplay between family members is brilliantly done. Nell and Dom mean everything to each other, working as each other’s stability since both parents are absent when consumed by their work or drink and drugs. Dom and Rose’s relationship is borne out of the same impulse, desperately seeking stability and being steadfast in providing it for their own children. Nell has to decide whether this family is healthy for her and her daughter. The dynamic between Frank and his family becomes clearer as the novel goes on, with a wife seemingly dependent on medication to cope and Dom desperately trying to protect her. Frank is like a puppet master, in a strange echo of his role in the book, he’s choreographing events and controlling how they act, using distraction to hide what he doesn’t want them to see. He uses friend Lal as a whipping boy, in a terribly destructive dynamic. Frank can do what he wants as long as Lal is drinking and flying into rages, alienating his family. I felt there was a rivalry there and even a contempt for Lal, whose use is to be the comparison point – as long as Lal’s life and work is worse, then Frank is okay. Lal is, quite simply, a scapegoat. Even so, it is Nell’s character arc that I loved because she has to confront a lot of her past and start to build a better future as a family of two. Her strength is shown in the real quest of the book, not for golden bones, but for the truth. However messy, unexpected and inconvenient that might be.

Published 1st September 2022 by Hodder and Stoughton.

Meet The Author

Erin Kelly is perhaps best know for her novel He Said/She Said, about a young couple who witness a rape and, after the trial, begin to wonder if they believed the right person. Her first novel, The Poison Tree, was a Richard and Judy bestseller and a major ITV drama starring Myanna Buring, Ophelia Lovibond and Matthew Goode. She’s written four more original psychological thrillers – The Sick Rose, The Burning Air, The Ties That Bind.

She read scores of psychological thrillers before she heard the term: the books that inspired me to write my own included Endless Night by Agatha Christie, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine. Her books are atmospheric thrillers, always about people trying to atone for, escape, or uncover a past crime. She says she’s more interested in what happens before the police arrive – if arrive they ever do – than how murder is solved.

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Posted in Random Things Tours

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet The Author

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

Posted in Netgalley

Daisy Darker by Alice Feeney

This was a deliciously clever and fiendish tale from an author I’m starting to trust when looking for a thrilling read. This was so difficult to put down and was eerily reminiscent of one of Agatha Christie’s novels that I made a note of it, then I saw it mentioned in the finale, so I won’t ruin it by saying which one. As the tide comes in, the Darker family are congregating at the family seat for the matriarch’s birthday. Seaglass is a large house on an island with only a causeway linking it to Cornwall, so at high tide it is completely cut off from the rest of the world. The book’s action all takes place in the space of one high tide and the final Darkers are rushing across the causeway to get there on time. Gathered at Seaglass are a motley crew of Darkers across four generations from Gran down to her great-granddaughter Beatrice known as Trixie. In between are the son ?? a famous, but not wealthy conductor, his ex-wife Nancy and their three daughters Rose, Lily and Daisy. Not forgetting Popper the family dog. One latecomer is a young man called Connor, an unofficial family member who turned up on Seaglass’s beach one morning when the Darker sisters were small. Gran noticed that Connor was bruised and neglected, so from that moment she took him and his alcoholic father under her wing. One second is all it took for every Darker woman to fall in love with this lonely boy who has lost his mother.

Now Connor has arrived the games can begin and it’s soon clear that if any of the Darker family survive till low tide in the morning, they’ll be very lucky indeed. I loved how the author built the atmosphere. Seaglass is a labyrinthine house, but each downstairs room is arranged around a central hall and are linked by doors, so that when the girls were little they could open the space up and Lily would roller skate in circuits around the house. I really wanted their grandmother’s study: filled with books and art supplies that produced her beloved children’s books. Her first book was Daisy Darker and was inspired by her youngest granddaughter, who was found to have a heart defect when she was a child. I loved the family’s eccentricities and traditions, such as the clocking in machine at the front door where every family member has a card to punch in and out. There’s a blackboard wall in the kitchen, for impromptu poetry, and at the kitchen table there are individual chairs, painted for each family member – of course one is covered in daisies, just like Daisy’s converse trainers. We get a sense of the family’s longevity in their collections and special treasures, such as the bone and seaglass Scrabble set, bought by Gran’s agent and set to play a special part in the night’s proceedings.

Published by Macmillan 18th August 2022

Meet the Author


Alice Feeney is a New York Times million-copy bestselling author. Her books have been translated into over twenty-five languages, and have been optioned for major screen adaptations. Including Rock Paper Scissors, which is being made into a TV series by the producer of The Crown. Alice was a BBC journalist for fifteen years, and now lives in Devon with her family. Daisy Darker is her fifth novel. 

You can follow Alice on Instagram/Twitter: @alicewriterland

To find out more visit: http://www.alicefeeney.com

Posted in Netgalley

The Good Servant by Fern Britton

I wrote this review a fortnight ago, before the events of the last week. I’m always torn at times when there’s huge royal news, because I’m caught up between my ideals and the sheer spectacle of the event. It’s a trick that Kings and Queens have used throughout history, knowing that they are unpopular with some elements of society, they use the pomp and ceremony to charm and overwhelm them. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard someone interviewed this week and they’ve said ‘I’m not really a Royalist, but the Queen’s done a great job, or has been a constant presence in my life.’ In a time of recession and a cost of living crisis, I have still seen people subjected to a ‘pile on’ on social media if they’ve dared to suggest that the state funeral will be costing a fortune. Heaven forbid they mention the problematic aspects of Queen Elizabeth’s reign from imperialism to her steadfast support of her son Andrew. I think when someone has lived as long as Queen Elizabeth, there will always be societal changes that cast earlier choices in a bad light. However, I do have a complex relationship with the Royal Family, from really loving Princess Diana when I was a little girl, to learning more about the aspects I find worrying, such as the denial of the Queen’s two Bowes-Lyon cousins who had multiple disabilities and were placed in an institution, but declared as dead. I hate the way Diana and now the Duchess of Suffolk were treated and how the love lives of Princess Margaret and even the now King, Charles III, were meddled with by older family members. I was shocked to realise that Prince Phillip’s sisters were married to members of the Nazi Party. The goings on behind the scenes are always fascinating though. The shadowy men in grey suits who actually run the show, schooled in the constitution and making sure that what comes first is the crown above all. It was this behind the scenes fascination that brought this book to my attention. I’ll admit that I’m usually a bit of a snob when it comes to celebrity books. Comedians and journalists are writing all the time, but when someone’s a presenter I never know what I’m going to get from a novel. I gave this a go because of how interested I am in the history of the Royal Family and I should admit to being an avid watcher of The Crown. I thought the story might be diverting at least, but I was actually pleasantly surprised to find myself truly involved with the story of Crawfie.

Fern Britton’s novel takes us back to London between the wars, a rather turbulent time of constant change; socially, economically and culturally. We travel back and forth between 1932 and 1936. In 1932 Marion Crawford is looking forward to a career as a teacher, when an opportunity presents itself. Unexpectedly, she is offered the role of governess to two Princesses. Elizabeth and Margaret are the granddaughters of George V from his second son, the Duke of York and his wife Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (our Queen Mum). Just four years later and a huge change rocks the royal household, George V’s death paves the way for his eldest son David to succeed him as King. Choosing the regnal name Edward VIII, he is a rather controversial figure amongst the establishment, often disregarding court protocol and conventions and sometimes appearing too political. Edward causes concerns in his choice of companion too, the twice divorced American Wallis Simpson. His abdication, to marry the woman he loves changes the course of history and everyday life for the princesses and their governess. This unexpected constitutional crisis means Crawfie’s life will change forever. It has already been an adjustment to become part of a royal household and now she finds herself in this new position with new responsibilities – governess to the future Queen. The author really does portray this change well, always relating back to how this feels for our heroine, an ordinary young girl given extraordinary responsibility. Marion Crawford is our representative in this novel; the ordinary person living in the extraordinary. As a result we see familiar events from history made immediate and brought vividly to life, with the same sense of wonder and bewilderment that Crawfie feels.

I felt I was in the hands of an expert storyteller as this novel unfolded and I did feel Crawfie’s trepidation at the changes this brought to her life. It was so refreshing to see a well documented part of history told from the angle of a worker in the household, but someone who is neither upstairs or downstairs, but in that liminal role of governess. She is respectable, but not royal. She works for the family, but isn’t a servant. It’s a unique position, but sometimes a lonely one too. She is at the very heart and the future of the Royal Family, but will never be one of them. The author really brought this home to me, the individual working with the Royals must be available whenever they’re needed, no matter how lowly the position. It’s her future and position in this household that Crawfie must consider when she falls in love with George. He may be the love of her life, but can she choose him over her life with the princesses? I loved the sense of loyalty she feels, both to the Crown and her young charges. If she chooses them, their lives will become her life and they will be her children. Would this loyalty be repaid?

I won’t spoil the book by talking about the reality of Marion Crawford’s decision at this time and how her life played out, but she was torn between George and the royals her entire life. The author has told a story that’s an incredible glimpse into the Royal Family at this turbulent time. I felt like I was there as a fly on the wall! I ended up whipping through the story so quickly, possibly because it flows beautifully. There is no doubt about the extensive research that’s gone into the novel, but it wears this research lightly and never lapses into telling us what happened rather than showing us. This is both charming and thought provoking, giving us a glimpse of what it means to have a sense of duty, whether as a Queen or her governess. This was made all the more poignant this week, when most people who were asked what they admired about our Queen said it was her incredible sense of duty. Of course that duty can be eased by the riches and privilege of being a head of state. It must be so much harder to have such a strong sense of duty and loyalty without those benefits or the companionship of a family. Fern Britton has really brought a minor player in the history of our Royal Family to life with this novel and it would draw me to her writing in the future.

Published by Harper Collins 9th June 2022.

Meet The Author

Fern Britton is an English television presenter and journalist who has worked in current affairs and Newsrooms since 1980. In the 1990’s she hosted Ready Steady Cook for the BBC and through the 2000’s presented ITV’s flagship daytime magazine This Morning. Since then she has discovered the joy of writing novels and The Good Servant is her tenth. It is a breakaway from her usual theme of Cornish village life by the sea. The Good Servant focuses on a real woman who spent her twenties and thirties devoted to Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret as children. Fern lives in Cornwall with her four children and three cats.

Posted in Orenda, Random Things Tours

Black Hearts by Doug Johnstone

As all subscribers and Twitter followers must know by now, I am a huge fan of The Skelf series. I’m a Skelfaholic and I’m in a strange cycle of waiting for the next book to be published, devouring it overnight, then longing for the next one again. It’s even worse this time because I have it on good authority that this could be the penultimate book in the series. So one more book and no more Skelfing! I’m going to be like a weasel with a sore head when I have to go cold turkey. It has been wonderful to be back in Edinburgh with this family of three: part private investigators, part undertakers and all round incredible women. For those who haven’t met them yet, the Skelfs are three generations of women. Grandmother Dorothy is in her seventies, but is still active in both the investigative and the funeral parts of the business. In her spare time she still drums like a badass and has a lover almost twenty years her junior. Daughter Jenny is back home, living above the business and struggling with memories of psychopath ex- husband Craig. She’s drowning her pain with alcohol and sex.

Jenny’s daughter Hannah is now a PhD student, working in the astrophysics department, but still finding time to help out in the family business. She’s now married to girlfriend Indy, is feeling settled and might be slowly moving past what happened to her father. Each novel begins with a memorable opening scene and here we kick off with a fist fight at a funeral. The women are also brought diverse and unusual cases, both for funerals and their PI work. A gentleman approaches Dorothy after his wife’s funeral, to ask if they can help him deal with a nighttime visitor. He believes his wife’s spirit is punishing him and he has the bruises to prove it. Hannah is approached by Laura at university, the young woman claims to know her, but Hannah has absolutely no recollection of her. When Laura starts to turn up wherever Hannah goes, she starts to suspect mental health problems, but nothing dangerous. She stops being harmless the closer she gets to the family, especially when Hannah drops into the funeral parlour and finds Laura talking to Indy. Laura wants them to do her mother’s funeral, but Hannah thinks it’s unwise. How can she let this fragile girl down gently?

Aside from their cases Johnstone also picks up those storylines that weave throughout the novels. In the main we are drawn back to Craig, Jenny’s ex-husband and Hannah’s father, who is still haunting the family. Jenny is the most visibly affected by her interactions with Craig’s family, most notably his sister, who seems to have inherited his ability to manipulate and turn to violence to get what she wants. Will Craig ever leave them alone and will Jenny be able to tread the line between her own pain as his ex and Hannah’s pain as his daughter. Both tend to overlook the grief that Dorothy still feels at the loss of her own husband Jim, complicated now by her relationship with police detective Thomas. Indy’s grief is also overlooked a lot, especially since she’s just gone through disinterring her parents in order to give them the cremation in line with their faith. Hannah and Jenny bring the drama and it’s Jenny I was particularly worried about. She’s getting messy, day drinking and embarking on a highly controversial sexual relationship with the wrong person. She never wakes up feeling better, but in the moment she has to drown out the constant pictures in her head. It’s clearly PTSD and she’s in danger of drawing others into her drama, especially Archie who works for the funeral business. Can she rein her behaviour, when professional help seems doomed to failure at this point?

Aside from these incredible women, and the lovely Indy of course, the things I most love about these books is Doug Johnstone’s love for Edinburgh and the way he weaves incredible ideas, philosophy and physics into his novels. I’ve not been to Edinburgh since I was in my twenties, but the way he describes the city makes me want to go back. He doesn’t sugar coat the city either, there’s good and bad here, but as a whole these books are a poem to a place that’s in his soul. Dorothy muses on her home town a lot in this novel and considering she was born in America, this place is her heart’s homeland. She ponders on the people this city produces, including her husband and child, the history, and the architecture almost as if she’s taking stock. She concludes that she’s a person who always looks forward to where life’s going, but grief and loss are like the waves and there’s no telling when it will wash ashore again. Jenny tends to frequent the less salubrious areas of the city. She’s stuck. Her past has quite literally washed ashore and the problem with losing someone is you’re not the only one grieving and everyone grieves differently. She’s not mourning Craig as he truly was. She’s grieving the loss of all that hope; the hope they both had for the future on their wedding day and when Hannah was born. Similarly Craig’s mum and sister aren’t missing the Craig who committed all those terrible crimes. Violet misses the little boy she had and the life she wanted for him and his sister just misses her baby brother.

I loved the elements of Japanese spirituality and having read Messina’s novel The Phonebox at the Edge of the World, I loved the concept of the wind phone. I’ve always thought that a good way of letting go of the past, especially when you’re struggling emotionally, is to make a physical gesture or step in the direction you want to go. That might mean taking off a wedding ring when you’re getting divorced, or moving house to somewhere that isn’t filled with old memories. I found talking to my late husband in my head a bit strange and it only made me miss him more. So I wrote to him in my journal instead. To have a phonebox dedicated to speaking with those who have died seems a very effective way of keeping them in the present with you, but in a controlled and deliberate way. I was reminded of the Samuel Beckett quote:

“Memories are killing. So you must not think of certain things, of those that are dear to you, or rather you must think of them, for if you don’t there is the danger of finding them, in your mind, little by little.”

Hannah seems to be the person who’s most accepting of her losses. She always seems older than she is and with Indy alongside her she has all the support she needs. There’s so much wisdom in these two young women, honed from a combination of Indy’s spirituality, years of working with grieving families and Hannah’s physics knowledge, especially where it tries to explain the universe. The supermassive black holes that are thought to be at heart of every galaxy are mysterious. We know that they have a huge power that acts like a magnet, drawing in items from across the universe into the void. Each of the Skelf women have their own grief to bear, a black hole at the centre of their heart. Each must find their own way to remember a little, to prevent becoming overwhelmed by their memories. To prevent that black hole from drawing in every part of them. Only by reconciling this, can they live in the present moment and make plans for their altered future, a future I can’t wait to read about.

Meet the Author

Doug Johnstone is the author of twelve novels, most recently The Great Silence, described as ‘A novel [that] underlines just how accomplished Johnstone has become’ by the Daily Mail. He has been shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Book of the Year three times, and the Capital Crime Best Independent Voice one; The Big Chill was longlisted for Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. He’s taught creative writing and been writer in residence at various institutions, and has been an arts journalist for twenty years. Doug is a songwriter and musician with five albums and three EPs released, and he plays drums for the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, a band of crime writers. He’s also player-manager of the Scotland Writers Football Club. He lives in Edinburgh.

Posted in Netgalley

An Italian Girl in Brooklyn by Santa Montefiore

We all remember that incredible feeling of first love, more than likely with rose tinted glasses, full of nostalgia and novelty. It was on my mind while reading this book, mainly that joyful moment when you realise that they actually love you too. It’s intoxicating. The first time I fell in love, I leapt in feet first and had my heart broken, but I held a candle for him for many years and had it set in my mind as a perfect love. With a lot of years and a bit more wisdom, I can see it differently. However, I was always be grateful for the experience, because it showed me how great my capacity for love was. How much better would this experience be when I was ready for it, if it came my way again? Our novel follows Evelina, a young woman living in a remote part of northern Italy. She lives with her parents, her sister Benedetta and two formidable old ladies, her grandmother and great aunt. Life is peaceful for most of the time, but as WW2 looms closer there are changes both personal and for the whole of Italy. The influence of Hitler and his agreements with Italy’s leader Mussolini, will change all of their lives forever.

The central relationship in the novel illustrates these changes most dramatically. People of the Jewish faith have lived in Evelina’s village for so long they are simply part of the fabric of the place. Evelina has never realised that their village tailors, the Zanotti family, are Jewish, so when she meets their son Ezra she can’t imagine any obstacles to the way she feels, apart from some parental misgivings about his ability to support her. Yet, the outside world is about to come crashing in on the tentative feelings growing between these two young people. Within Evelina’s family circle, it is Benedetta’s new husband who brings the new politics into their midst. A staunch supporter of Mussolini, he is behind Hitler’s initiative to rid Europe of Jewish people. When he brings his views to the breakfast table, Evelina’s father says his views are not welcome in his home. Sadly, Benedetta then leaves dutifully with her husband bringing a rift between them. They’ve heard terrible stories, of Jewish people being taken to a prison camp in the far North of Italy before being placed on a train bound for Auschwitz- Birkenau. Friends start to plead with Ezra’s father to leave and knowing what’s coming. When it does, Ezra evades capture and joins the Resistance. Evelina creates a safe space in their chapel for Resistance fighters to rest and replenish themselves. After a brief and family sanctioned relationship, with a Jewish girl from the village who worked for Evelina’s family, the closeness of war and the threat to his family combine to influence Ezra. He breaks his promise to her and comes to Evelina, assuring her of his long held love for her, despite their religious difference. He wants to be true to his emotions rather than please his parents. Thus far he had seen Evelina as out of reach, now a blissful courtship develops. As summer blooms alongside their love, they create memories neither will ever forget. So, when he is captured, Evelina’s grief is devastating. Yet, she waits until the news confirms the worst; Ezra and his entire family are dead. With the Italy she knows gone forever Evelina makes a huge decision, she will cross the Atlantic and make the voyage to New York to live with her aunty, in Brooklyn.

Evelina’s story is told across two time periods, forty years after the war in Brooklyn, then back in time to WW2 Italy as she has flashbacks. She’a now 63 and married to an older professor called Franklin, with whom she has a family. She has built a lovely, welcoming home for her family and their close friends, usually other immigrants from Italy and the much beloved Uncle Topino and her Aunt Madelina. It’s a loving environment and her relationship with Franklin is a very loving one, even though part of her heart will always belong to Ezra.

And their love for each other had deepened. She loved Ezra still, she would never stop loving him, but she loved Franklin too. It was, indeed, possible to love two men in very different ways. She realized now, in her wisdom, that there were many faces to love.’

This really is a sweeping epic with a central love story that stayed with me, although I had so much respect for Evelina’s husband Franklin too. I didn’t know a lot about Italy’s role during WW2 and the background research did open my eyes to how they ended up drawn into Hitler’s plans for the future. It shows how the Nazi’s ideology broke up previously peaceful communities and even families like Evelina’s. She and her sister are very close, but she has to circumvent Benedetta’s husband to communicate with her. When he’s eventually called up to fight, the sisters are reunited and the family live together through the rest of the war. I loved the connections and help both sisters give to the Resistance, both of them with relationships torn apart by war in very different ways. This was a beautiful story where familial love is concerned, but the central love story is heart rending and has a twist that will truly surprise you. I often find love stories lacking in substance, but this wasn’t one of them. It was my first Santa Montefiore novel, but I’m very sure it won’t be my last.

Published by Simon and Schuster 7th July 2022

Born in England in 1970, Santa Montefiore grew up in Hampshire. She is married to writer Simon Sebag Montefiore. They live with their two children, Lily and Sasha, in London. Visit her at http://www.santamontefiore.co.uk.

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

Meredith Alone by Claire Alexander.

This was one of those books where it only took a couple of pages for me to be ‘in’ the author’s world and completely convinced by her main character. Meredith hasn’t left her house for more than a thousand days, but her inner world is so rich and full. She was absolutely real to me and I could easily imagine having a coffee and a catch up with her. We meet her at a crossroads in life. She’s trying to make changes. Her daily life is quite full, she works from home as a writer and between work she bakes, exercises by running up and down the stairs, reads and fills in jigsaws of amazing places from all over the world. The jigsaws are the key. Meredith doesn’t stay inside from choice, just standing outside her front door gives her a wave of rising panic. Meredith feels a terrible fear, her heart starts hammering out of her chest, her throat begins to close and she feels like she’s going to die. However, as she looks at yet another jigsaw of something she’d love to travel and see in person, she becomes determined to live a fuller life. Meredith has sessions with an online counsellor and a new addition to her weekly calendar is a visit from Tom, who is a volunteer with a befriending society. With this support and that of her long time best friend Sadie, can Meredith overcome her fear and come to terms with the events behind her phobia?

The author tells Meredith’s story on a day by day basis, with the amount of days she’s spent indoors at the beginning of each chapter. There are also flashbacks that take us to Meredith’s childhood, living at home with her mum and sharing a room with big sister Fi. Underpinning her childhood is such a well-constructed tale of psychological dysfunction. Of course all families are dysfunctional in their own way, but Meredith’s broke my heart. Her mother is inconsistent in the way she treats her daughter, as Fi later says, their mother was horrible to both of them, but saved her fiercest venom for Meredith. She would insult her youngest daughter’s dark hair and withheld medical attention when Meredith developed eczema. She tells her itchy, uncomfortable child that she has faulty genes and it takes Fi to engineer a visit to the GP without their mother knowing. Meredith can remember happy times or at least times where she felt safe, such as a memory of being freshly bathed and drying off in front of the fire with hot chocolate. Fi and Meredith lie in bed at night conjuring up a future where they leave home and get a flat together, finally leaving their Mum to her bitterness and the alcohol. If it’s true that our self image is made up of those rules our parents tell us about ourselves and life, then Meredith is left with low self-esteem, no sense of security and the sense that she is strange or tainted in some way. It’s a recipe for mental ill health and it’s amazing that Meredith grows into such an intelligent and kind-hearted woman. It’s even more amazing that it’s Meredith who has the strength to leave.

I truly enjoyed the friends Meredith manages to make along the way and the resourceful way she tries to make herself part of the outside world from her living room. She chats in a forum of people struggling with their mental health and Celeste becomes a particular friend, even going as far as visiting Meredith and cementing their friendship in person. I loved how her befriending visits with Tom develop, because at first Meredith is slightly suspicious of his motives and keeps the extremities of her condition to herself. They have a drink together and stay in the kitchen doing one of her jigsaws, but soon they’re baking together and the relationship is becoming more of a two way street. Less befriending and more of an actual friendship. They share and Meredith realises that other people around her struggle too in their own ways. She even strikes up a friendship with a little boy who comes to ask if she wants her car washed. The upsurge of positivity in her current life is exhilarating to read, but it’s also necessary because I knew that I was also getting closer to finding out what had brought Meredith home one day, close her door and not go out again. Claire Alexander balances this beautifully and where many authors might have gone for the schmaltzy ending, she doesn’t. She keeps it realistic and in doing so made me aware of everything that Meredith has had going for her all along. She’s so self-aware, independent and knows who she is. Above all, even as she starts to overcome her demons she’s determined to do it on her own two feet. She appreciates support, but gives it as well. She doesn’t want to become dependent on an emotional crutch. Meredith is perfectly ok. Alone.

Published by Penguin 9th June 2022

Meet the Author

Claire Alexander lives on the west coast of Scotland with her husband and children. She has written for The Washington Post, The Independent, The Huffington Post and Glamour. In 2019, one of her essays was published in the award-winning literary anthology We Got This: Solo Mom Stories of Grit, Heart, and Humor. When she’s not writing or parenting, she’s on her paddle board, thinking about her next book.