Posted in Throwback Thursday

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet The Author

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

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

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Mix Tape by Jane Sanderson.

Jane Sanderson’s new novel, Waiting For Sunshine, is on my most anticipated list for the summer. So it’s a great time to look back on her previous work and MixTape really resonated with me. I loved this book. Is it because I had a Dan? A musician who started as my best friend, but who I fell in love with. I was 18 and he took me to my first prom. His band were playing and it was 1991 so perms were everywhere and we were just adopting grunge. I would turn up for school in jumble sale floral dresses with my ever present oxblood Doc Martens. They played some of my favourite songs on prom night: some that were contemporary like Blur and others were classics like Wild Thing. I most remember Waterloo Sunset. Then, like a scene in a rom-com we walked across town to his house – me in a polka dot Laura Ashley ball gown and him in his dinner suit with the bow tie undone. He had a ruffled shirt underneath that he’d bought from Oxfam. We crept into the house and into the playroom so we didn’t wake any of his family, then watched When Harry Met Sally. I remember a single kiss and then we fell asleep but the love carried over the years.

When I think of Elliot I always think of those best friend couples, like Harry and Sally or later, Emma and Dex in One Day. Now I can add Dan and Ali to the list. Alison and Dan live in Sheffield in the late 1970s when the city is still a thriving steel manufacturer. Dan is from the more family friendly Nether Edge, while Alison is from the rougher Attercliffe area, in the shadow of a steel factory. They meet while still at school and Dan is transfixed with her dark hair, her edge and her love of music. Their relationship is based on music and Dan makes mix tapes for her to listen to when they’re not together such as ‘The Last Best Two’ – the last two tracks from a series of albums. What he doesn’t know is how much Alison needs that music. To be able to put it on as a wall of sound between her and her family. Dan never sees where she lives and doesn’t push her, he only knows she prefers his home whether she’s doing her homework at the kitchen table, getting her nails painted by his sister or sitting with his Dad in the pigeon loft. Catherine, Alison’s mum, is a drinker. Not even a functioning alcoholic, she comes home battered and dirty with no care for who she lets into their home. Alison’s brother, Pete, is her only consolation and protection at home. Both call their mum by her first name and try to avoid her whenever possible. Even worse is her on-off lover Martin Baxter, who has a threatening manner and his own key. Alison could never let Dan know how they have to live.

In alternate chapters we see what Alison and Dan are doing in the present. Now a music writer, Dan splits his time between a canal boat in London and home with his partner Katelin in Edinburgh. Alison has written a new novel ‘Tell the Story Sing the Song’ set in her adopted home Australia and based round an indigenous singer. It’s a worldwide hit and she finds herself in demand, having to negotiate being interviewed and getting to grips with social media. She has an affluent lifestyle with husband Michael and has two grown up daughters. She has a Twitter account that she’s terrible at using and it’s this that alerts Dan, what could be the harm in following her? The secret at the heart of this book is what happened so long ago back in Sheffield to send a girl to the other side of the world? Especially when she has found her soulmate. She and Dan are meant to be together so what could have driven them apart? Dan sends her a link via Twitter, to Elvis Costelloe’s ‘Pump It Up’, the song she was dancing to at a party when he fell in love with her. How will Alison reply and will Dan ever discover why he lost her back in the 1970s?

I believed in these characters immediately, and I know Sheffield well, here described with affectionate detail by the writer. The accent, the warmth of people like Dan’s dad, the landmarks and the troubled manufacturing industry are so familiar and captured perfectly. Even the secondary characters, like the couple’s families and friends are well drawn and endearing. Cass over in Australia, as well as Sheila and Dora, are great characters. Equally, Dan’s Edinburgh friend Duncan with his record shop and the hippy couple on the barge next door in London are real and engaging. Special mention also to his dog McCullough who I was desperate to cuddle. Both characters have great lives and happy relationships. Dan loves Katelin, in fact her only fault is that she isn’t Alison. Alison has been enveloped by Michael’s huge family and their housekeeper Beatriz who is like a surrogate Mum. It’s easy to see why the safety and security of Michael’s family, their money and lifestyle have appealed to a young Alison, still running away from her dysfunctional upbringing. She clearly wants different fir her daughters and wishes them the sort of complacency Dan shows in being sure his parents are always there where he left them. But is the odd dinner party and most nights sat side by side watching TV enough for her? She also has Sheila, an old friend of Catherine’s, who emigrated in the 1970s and flourished in Australia. Now married to Dora who drives a steam train, they are again like surrogate parents to Alison. So much anchors her in Australia, but are these ties stronger than first love and the sense of belonging she had with Dan all those years before?

About three quarters of the way through the book I started to read gingerly, almost as if it was a bomb that might go off. I’ve never got over that unexpected loss in One Day and I was scared. What if these two soulmates didn’t end up together? Or worse what if one of them is killed off by author before a happy ending is reached? I won’t ruin it by telling any more of the story. The tension and trauma of Alison’s family life is terrible and I dreaded finding out what had driven her away so dramatically. I think her shame about her mother is so sad, because the support was there for her and she wouldn’t let anyone help. She’s so fragile and on edge that Dan’s mum has reservations, she worries about her youngest son and whether Alison will break his heart. I love the music that goes back and forth between the pair, the meaning in the lyrics and how they choose them. This book is warm, moving and real. I loved it.

And what of my Daniel? Well he’s in Sheffield strangely enough. Happily partnered with three beautiful kids. I’m also happily partnered with two lovely stepdaughters. We’re very happy where we are and with our other halves. It’s nice though, just now and again, to catch up and remember the seventeen year old I was. Laid on his bedroom door, with my head in his lap listening to his latest find on vinyl. Or wandering the streets in my ballgown, high heels in one hand and him with his guitar case. Happy memories that will always make me smile.

Meet The Author

A former BBC Radio 4 producer, Jane Sanderson’s first novel – Netherwood – was published in 2011. She drew on much of her family’s background for this historical novel, which is set in a fictional mining town in the coalfields of Yorkshire. Ravenscliffe and Eden Falls followed in the two subsequent years, then in the early summer of 2017, This Much Is True was published, marking a change in direction for the author. This book is a contemporary tale of dog walks and dark secrets and the lengths a mother will go to protect her family. 

Jane lives in Herefordshire with her husband, the journalist and author Brian Viner. They have three children.

Posted in Publisher Proof

Shadow Girls by Carol Birch

Manchester, 1960s. Sally, a cynical fifteen-year-old schoolgirl, is much too clever for her own good. When partnered with her best friend, Pamela – a mouthy girl who no-one else much likes – Sally finds herself unable to resist the temptation of rebellion. The pair play truant, explore forbidden areas of the old school and – their favourite – torment posh Sylvia Rose, with her pristine uniform and her beautiful voice that wins every singing prize.

One day, Sally ventures (unauthorised, of course) up to the greenhouse on the roof alone. Or at least she thinks she’s alone, until she sees Sylvia on the roof too. Sally hurries downstairs, afraid of Sylvia snitching, but Sylvia appears to be there as well.

I was drawn to reading this novel by the promise of a ghostly story, but it wasn’t at all what I expected. The novel is split into three parts: penumbra, umbra and anteumbra. All I understood from this and my teenage Latin lessons was that part two would be shadowy and opaque, umbra being the shadow cast during an eclipse. So the opening section would be the lead up to these events and this was the unexpected part. Birch begins her novel with an ordinary everyday tale of Sally’s school days. Set in Manchester in 1960’s, the author spends a lot of time setting up her characters and letting us get to know them. Sally and her best friend Pamela are fifteen years old and somewhat rebellious. Pamela is troubled and disliked by most of the pupils as well as Sally’s family, who are concerned about this girl’s influence over their daughter. There was a lot about this opening that I recognised from my own school days 20 years later; pushing the boundaries, forming friendships, first relationships and a bit of bullying. Together they bend the rules by playing hooky from P.E, climbing on the roof at lunchtime to smoke and eat their pack-ups and eating all the free samples in the food hall at Lewis’s Department Store. Like all girls of this age she is coping with the challenges of growing up, and has doubts about her first serious boyfriend, Rob. However, they really enjoy tormenting Sylvia Rose, an old-fashioned, slightly upper-class girl in their class who has a promising classical voice. Sally could have made a friend of Sylvia, because they do have some of the same interests, but instead she follows Pamela and makes fun of Sylvia. The girls do escalate, so some of their tricks go too far, leaving Sylvia humiliated in front of the entire school.

The girls are attracted by superstition and obtain a ouija board to secretly use during their breaks. The ouija board predicts a dark season approaching, but the girls do not want to believe it. They are also warned by one of their teachers, but the unthinkable does happens and the consequences could haunt Sally for the rest of her life. The author, slowly and cleverly, charts the course of these fun loving and boisterous girls as they become anxious and fearful young women. Since we’re told the story from Sally’s point of view, we get to know her best and her inner world is built. It is not easy to be a teenager, because we’re always in conflict and easily influenced by others through peer pressure. It’s a time when mistakes are made and we have to hope we don’t regret them forever. I was drawn to the novel because of the blurb that describes it as having “elements of the ghost story” and these all take place in the second part of the book. Rather than a ghost story, I would call suggest that there are uncanny or supernatural events within a story about adolescence and growing up. There is so much emotional energy around teenagers and that definitely plays into this story. The terrible tragedy that ensues will affect Sally badly, but also the whole school and in the final part of the book, set around twelve years later, the past really does start to haunt her. Sally returns to Manchester after working around the country and starts to re-connect with old school friends. the area where she grew up and reconnects with several of her old schoolmates. The pace picks up here and we’re definitely in “ghost story” mode, as the author really does use supernatural elements to terrify, quite effectively in parts. What’s most effective for me is that underlying ambiguity; do we take these events literally or does this narrator have some serious mental health issues?

Carol Birch’s novel is a clever combination of school tale, coming of age drama and ghost story. I think that readers coming to this for a straightforward ghost story, should be warned that the thrill and the fear do come, but not for a while. It’s a slow burn rather than a twisty, turny thriller that keeps readers on the edge of their seat. When the ghostly elements did come, they were effective and left me feeling a bit edgy, not knowing what was real and what was a figment of Sally’s imagination. There is a feeling of foreboding, something is going to turn out badly; but is that a ghostly payback or the just the product of Sally’s diseased imagination? The final part also has important reflections on mental health and the psychological aftershocks of grief. The haunting atmosphere will stay with you long after I turned the final page.

Posted in Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight. The Chocolat Series by Joanne Harris.

One of the most enduring series of books in my collection and one I never tire of re-reading is Joanne Harris’s Chocolat series of novels. So far there are four novels in the series and every one has that perfect combination for me – strong women, good food, a beautiful continental setting, and a little sprinkle of magic. Each one features the enigmatic and charming Vianne Rocher, mother, chocolatier and witch. Vianne takes us from Provence to Paris, then back and everywhere she goes people seem drawn to her warm nature. Since I always find myself rereading Chocolat in the run up to Easter, I thought it was an ideal time to review this extraordinary series for anyone who hasn’t read it yet (although there’s probably not many) and those who haven’t read the sequels, perhaps only visiting the series due to the successful film adaptation starring Juliette Binoche as Vianne and Johnny Depp as Roux. Here’s why I love this magical and strangely comforting world Harris has created.

“There is a kind of alchemy in the transformation of base chocolate into this wise fool’s-gold, a layman’s magic that even my mother might have relished. As I work, I clear my mind, breathing deeply. The windows are open, and the through-draft would be cold if it were not for the heat of the stoves, the copper pans, the rising vapor from the melting couverture. The mingled scents of chocolate, vanilla, heated copper, and cinnamon are intoxicating, powerfully suggestive; the raw and earthy tang of the Americas, the hot and resinous perfume of the rain forest. This is how I travel now, as the Aztecs did in their sacred rituals: Mexico, Venezuela, Columbia. The court of Montezuma. Cortez and Columbus. The Food of the Gods, bubbling and frothing in ceremonial goblets. The bitter elixir of life.” Chocolat

I read this first book in the series long before the film adaptation and I’m glad I did since there were aspects changed, and I think the book is perfect as it is. Vianne Rocher, a single mum with a young daughter, blows into the small village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes on Shrove Tuesday. The villagers are still clearing away the last dregs of the carnival which heralds the beginning of Lent. Vianne and daughter Anouk, move into the disused bakery facing the church. Francis Reynaud, the young and opinionated curé of the parish, watches her arrival with disapproval and suspicion. When the priest realizes that Vianne intends to open a chocolate shop in place of the old bakery, thereby tempting the churchgoers to over-indulgence, Reynaud’s disapproval increases.

As the villagers of Lansquenet start falling under the spell of Vianne’s easy and charming ways, Reynaud feels that she undermines his own authority and he starts to see her as a danger. Yet Vianne’s influence is having a positive effect – an old woman embraces a new way of living, a battered wife finds the courage to leave her husband, children are rebelling against authority. Worse she’s even welcoming outcasts and strays such as the river gypsies. Reynaud feels like his tight and carefully ordered community is in danger of breaking apart. Easter approaches and both parties throw themselves whole-heartedly into the preparations; Vianne is creating delicacies for the chocolate festival she plans to hold on Easter Sunday. I think this is one of my favourite parts of the whole book, when Vianne is creating and you can tell that the author’s really luxuriating in the flavours and textures. There’s always that little touch of magic too. There’s her daughter Anouk with her little ‘shadow’ friend Pantoufle the rabbit who I adore. Vianne is naturally talented, but there’s a little touch of something that makes the fairy lights extra sparkly, or the delectable smell of hot chocolate drift that bit further up the road and into people’s homes.

It’s this something extra that Reynaud can sense, and it sends him looking for a way to win back his straying flock. Both factions have a great deal at stake and the village starts to feel divided, Some blame the river gypsies for the change in the air, but there is a power in the tension between Vianne and Reynaud that turns their emotions into a brisk wind stirring up the leaves in the church yard, or slamming doors as it goes. Vianne knows the danger of being different and she warns Anouk not to let Pantoufle become too visible. As Easter day comes closer their struggle becomes much more than a conflict between church and chocolate – it becomes an exorcism of the past, a declaration of independence, a showdown between pleasure and self-denial with an ending no one expects.

“The real magic – the magic we’d lived with all our lives, my mother’s magic of charms and cantrips, of salt by the door and a red silk sachet to placate the little gods – had turned sour on us that summer, somehow, like a spider that turns from good luck to bad at the stroke of midnight, spinning its web to catch our dreams. And for every little spell of charm, for every card dealt and every rune cast and every sign scratched against a doorway to divert the path of malchance, the wind just blew a little harder, tugging at our clothes, sniffing at us like a hungry dog, moving us here and moving us there.” The Lollipop Shoes

I was so excited to know that Vianne and her daughters were going to be back in another adventure, this time set in Paris. Tucked away in the cobbled streets of Montmartre, Yanne and her two daughters live peacefully, if not happily, above their little chocolate shop. Nothing unusual marks them out; no red sachets hang by the door. The wind has stopped – at least for a while. Then into their lives blows Zozie de l’Alba, the lady with the lollipop shoes – ruthless, devious and seductive. Set a few years after the events of Chocolat, Vianne has left Lansquent-sous-Tannes, and is now living in Paris with Anouk and her second daughter Rosette. Rosette is an unusual red haired child who doesn’t seem able to speak, but has her own special abilities like Anouk. Although we don’t know why at first, Vianne has changed her name to Yanne. Even more unexpectedly, she has suppressed her magic powers and is now contemplating a more conventional lifestyle, including marriage to the older, more traditional, Thierry le Tresset. Thierry is also their landlord and Anouk is concerned. She doesn’t like Thierry and wonders what has happened to her mother.

So much has changed and all the fun they used to have before is gone. Then Zozie de l’Alba turns up at Vianne’s chocolaterie with an air of magic and a trademark, she’s always wearing her bright red shoes. Anouk is ready for a friend and for some excitement so is easily to be seduced by Zozie’s charisma. This young woman becomes a part of the family’s lives and in the shop, but they don’t really know who she is. Against Vianne’s wishes, Anouk wants to practice with the magical power she has always had and Zozie uses this to create a wedge between mother and daughter. She encourages Anouk to use her magic, but what is her motivation in coming between mother and daughter? It feels personal, but Vianne doesn’t seem to know her. Then, Vianne’s previous lover arrives in Paris. One of the river gypsies from the village, and incidentally the father of Rosette, Roux and Vianne haven’t seen each other for four years. What does his arrival have to do with Zozie and why does she seem to creep ever closer into their lives?

This is the instalment of the series that comes closest to magic realism, and it definitely feels more fantastical and less warm than Chocolat. Yet there’s still something very readable about it and its still full of those long descriptions that send beautiful images dancing across my brain. Three characters narrate this sequel, and one of whom is Anouk which shows us how grown up she has become and gives her an independent voice from her mother. I loved how it shows the changes in the mother/ daughter relationship as the daughter grows up and wants to make her own mark on the world. It showed how households like this can come into conflict, often by not really listening. It was interesting to experience the three different perspectives and to see Anouk having her own voice. I did miss those other background characters that made Chocolat so special though, despite that this was a magical read and left me fully immersed in Harris’s world once again.

“I have never belonged to a tribe. It gives me a different perspective. Perhaps if I did, I too would feel ill at ease in Les Marauds. But I have always been different. Perhaps that’s why I find it easier to cross the narrow boundaries between one tribe and the next. To belong so often means to exclude; to think in terms of us and them – to little words that, juxtaposed, so often lead to conflict.” Peaches for Monsieur le Curé

It was a number of years before I read this book, the third in the Chocolat series, after finding a copy in a charity shop. I was happy and strangely soothed to find the village of Lansquenet still as lovely as ever. In fact I blame Joanne Harris for my urge to grow red geraniums for every hanging basket chapter’s narrator – a crescent for Vianne, a cross for M. le Cure. In fact the crescent is symbolic to the plot of the book as a new type of outsider now takes up residence at the other side of the river. The two differing populations in the village are the Catholics from one side of the river, and the Muslims from the other side. In fact there is even a minaret marking the mosque, just as the bells and spire mark out the church. As usual though, even though Vianne has allegiances in the village, she finds herself drawn to the far side of the river, where a plot develops involving the treatment of women that I enjoyed a lot. Vianne’s charm brings her friends within the Muslim community, as well as for Rosette and Anouk too. Rosette has her own spirit friend Bam, just like her sister had Pantoufle, but friendship with Maya really blossoms and Maya would love her own ‘djinn’ just like Bam. Vianne is intrigued by Ines, a woman who wears a black veil and who the locals believe is a dark spirit bringing fear and unrest. As Vianne knows too well, first impressions are seldom correct.

This book is a little darker in tone than the others, as Reynaud and his parishioner’s suspicion of the Muslim community, comes to a head. Vianne seems compelled to befriend her one time enemy. Now that she knows and understands Reynaud, she finds herself caring about him and as readers we do too, almost in spite of ourselves. Roux reminds Vianne that it isn’t her responsibility to fix things, but she can’t seem to help herself. I loved being back in this beautiful village and for me it’s the place where Vianne belongs. Harris brings the place alive with her beautiful descriptive passages and she also recreates some of those memorable characters I loved in the first book, However, the new community has its own interesting characters and I enjoyed getting to know them too. However, her girls are uneasy about making strong connections. They know all too soon the wind will change direction. Do they have to go with it this time?

“The almond blossom from the tree has gone, to be replaced by new green shoots. It smells of spring, and mown grass, and tilled earth from the fields beyond. Now is the month of Germinal in the Republican calendar: the month of hyacinth, and bees, and violet, and primrose. It is also the windy month; the month of new beginnings, and I have never felt it so strongly as I feel it now: that sense of possibility; that irresistible lightness.” The Strawberry Thief

This final instalment in the series is sitting on my TBR pile and it’s about time I went back to these incredible characters. Vianne Rocher has finally settled down! It’s Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, ironically the place that once rejected her, that has finally become her home. With the help of Rosette, her youngest child, she runs the chocolate shop in the square, talks to her friends on the river, and is part of the community. Even Reynaud, the priest, has now become a close friend. Then, old Narcisse, the florist, dies, leaving a parcel of land to Rosette and a written confession to Reynaud, throwing life in this sleepy village into disarray again. Then a mysterious new shop opens in the place of the florist’s across the square – one that strangely mirrors J hpidbdn, and has a strange appeal of its own – seems to herald a change: a confrontation, a turbulence – even, perhaps, a murder . . .

What will the wind blow in today?

Meet The Author

Joanne Harris is the internationally renowned and award-winning author of eighteen novels, plus novellas, scripts, short stories, libretti, lyrics, articles, and most recently, a self-help book for writers, TEN THINGS ABOUT WRITING. In 2000, her 1999 novel CHOCOLAT was adapted to the screen, starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. She is an honorary Fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, and is Chair of the Society of Authors.

Her hobbies are listed in Who’s Who as ‘mooching, lounging, strutting, strumming, priest-baiting and quiet subversion’. She is active on Twitter, where she writes stories and gives writing tips as @joannechocolat; she posts weekly writing seminars on YouTube; she performs in a live music and storytelling show with the #Storytime Band; and she works from a shed in her garden at her home in Yorkshire. 

She also has a form of synaesthesia which enables her to smell colours. Red, she says, smells of chocolate. Weirdly, I also have synaesthesia and at this time of year it’s very active, with every bunch of yellow daffodils, smelling or even tasting of lemon sherbet!

Posted in Publisher Proof

The Dinner Club by Helen Aitchison

I love my food and food based books are some of my favourite reads, in fact my book club have been dealing with my book based bakes for some time now. I would either find a recipe in the book and replicate it or, even if all I had was a list of the main ingredients, I would create something very unexpected. That’s how I ended up with my recipe for Honesty Cake, an Alice Hoffman book invention with sour cherry and star anise as the only named ingredients. Here it wasn’t so much the food that would have brought me to the table, but the five characters brought together by a card on the notice board of a local supermarket. Each of these characters has a secret and in a way it’s these secrets that bring them together as much as the food. They need a stranger to hear them, to accept their secret without judgement and give support. It’s Derek who is inspired to start the club after his wife of forty years leaves him suddenly. After constant control and criticism, her absence is almost a relief, buts it’s also a loss and Derek is floundering a little with household tasks like cooking and food shopping. After a lifelong struggle with his weight Derek decides to try some different foods and teach himself how to cook. However, there’s something else Derek has been keeping under wraps and would like to experiment with more, maybe with new friends he can do that?

Alongside Derek are four other people, each carrying their own secret. Grieving widower Eddie, is becoming so focused on what’s missing from his life he’s forgotten to concentrate on what he does have, as his relationship with his young daughter starts to be swallowed up by the black hole inside him. Florence is an octogenarian looking for one last adventure and helped by her carer Jessie. Violet needs somewhere to go that isn’t ruled by her abusive husband, in the hope she can make friends and build her confidence enough to leave one day. Cara is in a very lonely place after ageing out of the care system, so she wants to meet people she can make friends with. A disparate group of people, all longing for the same things, but worried that their secrets might hinder that search for connection.

I fell a little bit in love with Derek, being on the plump side myself I could really identify with how he felt. Having had a partner who would use my weight to knock my confidence, I could feel how confused he was when his wife would cook Friday night ‘feasts’ for them both, then moan about how fat he was getting. She was setting him up to fail and I really couldn’t stand her. I could connect with his sense of food as a celebration so strongly and when he started to plan meals and cook from scratch I felt so proud of him, even though we’d only just met. I could see his life opening up as we followed him joyfully wandering the supermarket and, even though he’s nervous, getting ready to reveal his secret to an old friend.

The point of view changes every few chapters so we are party to the richness of these character’s inner worlds: their dreams and hopes for the future; their fears; then their growing self-love as the group progresses. It’s uplifting to hear and see each one becoming more confident and even moving towards self – acceptance. The issues covered are difficult and as the dinner club becomes a support group we see the character’s facing grief, domestic violence, and loneliness. Yet it never feels too much. It’s moving and poignant, but balanced with the joy and positivity that can only come from living as your authentic self. These people are warm, generous and kind to each other, all wrapped up with some very good food. What more could a reader ask for? This is one that I’ll keep in mind, for the when someone on BookTwitter asks for a fun, uplifting read, because this book is definitely joyous.

The Dinner Club by Helen Aitchison
Release date: 11th March 2022

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Posted in Fiction Preview 2022

New Books 2022! Part Two.

There are just so many books coming out next year that I’m really looking forward to reading, with some really gorgeous cover designs too. I. Lucky enough to have early access to all of these bar two, so I’ll be reading and reviewing in the coming weeks. Keep your eyes peeled and get some of these crackers on your TBR list.

House of Fortune by Jessie Burton.

I fell in love with Burton’s debut novel The Miniaturist at first page and I am in awe of her imagination and skill. As other readers of the novel will know, many questions remained unanswered at the end of the story, and while I don’t mind books having loose ends, when I heard a sequel was coming I let out a little squeal. We are still in the golden city of Amsterdam, but now it is 1705. Thea Brandt is turning eighteen, and she is ready to welcome adulthood with open arms. At the city’s theatre, Walter, the love of her life, awaits her, but at home in the house on the Herengracht, all is not well – her father Otto and Aunt Nella argue endlessly, and the Brandt family are selling their furniture in order to eat. On Thea’s birthday, also the day that her mother Marin died, the secrets from the past begin to overwhelm the present.

Nella is desperate to save the family and maintain appearances, to find Thea a husband who will guarantee her future, and when they receive an invitation to Amsterdam’s most exclusive ball, she is overjoyed – perhaps this will set their fortunes straight. And indeed, the ball does set things spinning: new figures enter their life, promising new futures. But their fates are still unclear, and when Nella feels a strange prickling sensation on the back of her neck, she remembers the miniaturist who entered her life and toyed with her fortunes eighteen years ago. Perhaps, now, she has returned for her . . . I can’t tell you how excited I am to find out how Nella is getting on. Maybe the mystery of who the miniaturist is, and what they want, might be solved?

Published by Picador 7th July 2022

Sundial by Catriona Ward

When writers like Alex Michaelides and Emma Stonex are giving rave reviews of a book, it’s always worth a look. Last year’s novel, The Last House on Needless Street, was incredibly unusual and original. That alone would make me want to look at Ward’s second novel.

You can’t escape the desert. You can’t escape Sundial.

Rob fears for her daughters. For Callie, who collects tiny bones and whispers to imaginary friends. For Annie, because she fears what Callie might do to her. Rob sees a darkness in Callie, one that reminds her of the family she left behind. She decides to take Callie back to her childhood home, to Sundial, deep in the Mojave Desert. And there she will have to make a terrible choice.

Callie is afraid of her mother. Rob has begun to look at her strangely. To tell her secrets about her past that both disturb and excite her. And Callie is beginning to wonder if only one of them will leave Sundial alive…

Published by Viper 10th March 2022.

Insomnia by Sarah Pinborough.

In the dead of night, madness lies…

Emma can’t sleep. CHECK THE WINDOWS. It’s been like this since her big 4-0 started getting closer. LOCK THE DOORS. Her mother stopped sleeping just before her 40th birthday too. She went mad and did the unthinkable because of it. LOOK IN ON THE CHILDREN. Is that what’s happening to Emma?

WHY CAN’T SHE SLEEP?

This is an absolutely brilliant domestic noir that keeps you on the edge of your seat to the very end.

Published by Harper Collins March 31st 2022.

Absynthe by Brendan P. BelleCourt.

The Great War has been over for years, and a brave new world forged. Technology has delivered the future promised at the turn of the century: automata provide, monorail trains flash between mega-cities, medicine is nothing short of magical.

Liam grew up poor, but now working for one of the richest families in Chicago, he reaps the benefits of his friendship with the family’s son and heir. That’s why he’s at Club Artemis. It’s a palace of art-deco delights and debauchery, filled to bursting with the rich and beautiful – and tonight they’re all drinking one thing. Absynthe. The green liquor rumoured to cause hallucinations, madness, even death.

While the gilded youth sip the viridescent liquid, their brave new world is crumbling beneath its perfect surface. Their absynthe is no mere folly. Some it kills, others it transforms. But in Liam something different has taken place. A veil has lifted and he can see the world without its illusion – and it isn’t the perfect world the government want the people to believe. As soon as I read the premise of this novel I was hooked and I’ve just been accepted on NetGalley I’m itching to get to it.

Published – Head of Zeus 9th Dec 2021

Outside by Ragnar Jónasson.

Four friends. One night. Not everyone will come out alive . . .

In the swirling snow of a deadly Icelandic storm, four friends seek shelter in a small abandoned hunting lodge. Miles from help, and knowing they will die outside in the cold, they break open the lock and make their way inside, hoping to wait out the storm until morning.

But nothing can prepare them for what they find behind the door . . .

Inside the cabin lurks a dangerous presence that chills them to their core. Outside, certain death from exposure awaits. So with no other option, they find themselves forced to spend a long, terrifying night in the cabin, watching as intently and silently as they are being watched themselves.But as the evening darkens, old secrets are beginning to find their way to the light. And as the tension escalates between the four friends, it soon becomes clear that the danger they discovered lurking in the cabin is far from the only mystery that will be uncovered tonight. Nor the only thing to be afraid of . . .

I love Nordic Noir and this author builds his literary worlds so carefully and his characters are multi-dimensional, complex and real. Once I’m a few chapters in it feels so real to me that I’m utterly immersed. This appeals to my psychologist brain. I’m dying to dissect these characters and their dynamic as they are trapped together.

Published by Michael Joseph 28th April 2022.

Miss Aldridge Regrets by Louise Hare.

I’ve been waiting to see what Louise Hare would write next after loving her novel The Lovely City. This looks like a fantastic second novel and I adore that cover too. Opening in London in 1936, Lena Aldridge is wondering if life has passed her by. The dazzling theatre career she hoped for hasn’t worked out. Instead, she’s stuck singing in a sticky-floored basement club in Soho and her married lover has just left her. She has nothing to look forward to until a stranger offers her the chance of a lifetime: a starring role on Broadway and a first-class ticket on the Queen Mary bound for New York. After a murder at the club, the timing couldn’t be better and Lena jumps at the chance to escape England. Until death follows her onto the ship and she realises that her greatest performance has already begun. Because someone is making manoeuvres behind the scenes, and there’s only one thing on their mind…Murder.

Miss Aldridge Regrets is the exquisite new novel from Louise Hare, the author of This Lovely City. A brilliant murder mystery, it also explores class, race and pre-WWII politics, and will leave readers reeling from the beauty and power of it. It’s next on my TBR so I’ll be reviewing soon.

Published by HQ 28th April 2022.

The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley.

Welcome to No. 12 Rue des Amants. This book has been popping up all over #BookTwitter and I feel very privileged to have an early copy. I love a good thriller, it tends to be the genre I go to when I’m very busy with my MA or just have a lot on at home. For some reason, that I’m not prepared to look at too closely, I find thrillers relaxing. This one is set in a beautiful old apartment block, far from the glittering lights of the Eiffel Tower and the bustling banks of the Seine. Where nothing goes unseen. And everyone has a story to unlock. Our characters are the watchful concierge, the scorned lover, the prying journalist and the naïve student. But there’s also an unwanted guest. Something terrible happened here last night. A mystery lies behind the door of apartment three. Only you – and the killer – hold the key . . . I’m sure I’m going to be bleary eyed one morning from reading this till 2am.

Published by Harper Collins 3rd March 2022.

Saint Death’s Daughter by C.S.E Cooney

Nothing complicates life like Death. I noticed this book about two months ago and begged the publisher for a proof! Sometimes I have no shame. As soon as I read the short blurb I knew I wanted to read it and I’m excited at the thought that this is only the first in a new series. Lanie Stones, the daughter of the Royal Assassin and Chief Executioner of Liriat, has never led a normal life. Born with a gift for necromancy and a literal allergy to violence, she was raised in isolation in the family’s crumbling mansion by her oldest friend, the ancient revenant Goody Graves. When her parents are murdered, it falls on Lanie and her cheerfully psychotic sister Nita to settle their extensive debts or lose their ancestral home―and Goody with it. Appeals to Liriat’s ruler to protect them fall on indifferent ears… until she, too, is murdered, throwing the nation’s future into doubt. Hunted by Liriat’s enemies, hounded by her family’s creditors and terrorised by the ghost of her great-grandfather, Lanie will need more than luck to get through the next few months―but when the goddess of Death is on your side, anything is possible. I am always surprised by the amount of fantasy I read and while I don’t consider myself an expert on the genre, out of the books I love, a good third are fantasy novels. I’m hoping this one might join them.

Published by Solaris 14th April 2022.

The Unravelling by Polly Crosby.

This one is coming very soon, in early January in fact, since the publication date was pushed back from this year. I fell completely in love with her writing when I finally read The Illustrated Child a few months ago. The only reason it didn’t make my books of the year was because I was so late reading it; it was published in 2020. My anticipation for this one has been building and I hope to get to read it over the Christmas holidays. Also when the author of The Binding gives a book a great review, I know I’m going to love it.

’Like a surreal cabinet of curiosities – haunting, eerie, evocative’ Bridget Collins, Sunday Times bestselling author of The Binding

When Tartelin Brown accepts a job with the reclusive Marianne Stourbridge, she finds herself on a wild island with a mysterious history. Tartelin is tasked with hunting butterflies for Marianne’s research. But she quickly uncovers something far more intriguing than the curious creatures that inhabit the landscape. Because the island and Marianne share a remarkable history, and what happened all those years ago has left its scars, and some terrible secrets.As Tartelin pieces together Marianne’s connection to the island, she must confront her own reasons for being there. Can the two women finally face up to the painful memories that bind them so tightly to the past?

Published by HQ 6th Jan 2022.

The Christie Affair by Nina de Gramont.

I’m currently writing a review for this interesting novel and I can honestly say it’s a cracker. I loved the mix of factual events and fictional story, as well as the way the novel veered from historical, to romance and to murder mystery. You won’t want to put it down.

In 1926, Agatha Christie disappeared for 11 days. Only I know the truth of her disappearance.
I’m no Hercule Poirot.
I’m her husband’s mistress.

Agatha Christie’s world is one of glamorous society parties, country house weekends, and growing literary fame. Nan O’Dea’s world is something very different. Her attempts to escape a tough London upbringing during the Great War led to a life in Ireland marred by a hidden tragedy. After fighting her way back to England, she’s set her sights on Agatha. Because Agatha Christie has something Nan wants. And it’s not just her husband. Despite their differences, the two women will become the most unlikely of allies. And during the mysterious eleven days that Agatha goes missing, they will unravel a dark secret that only Nan holds the key to . . .The Christie Affair is a stunning novel which reimagines the unexplained eleven-day disappearance of Agatha Christie in 1926 that captivated the world.

Published by Mantle, 20th Jan 2022.

Peach Blossom Spring by Melissa Fu.

I have to say that the cover of this beautiful proof sung out to me when it dropped through my letterbox. This is one of those novels where I’ve already pre-ordered the finished copy even though I have this one. It’s quite simply stunning.

With every misfortune there is a blessing and within every blessing, the seeds of misfortune, and so it goes, until the end of time.

It is 1938 in China, and the Japanese are advancing. A young mother, Meilin, is forced to flee her burning city with her four-year-old son, Renshu, and embark on an epic journey across China. For comfort, they turn to their most treasured possession – a beautifully illustrated hand scroll. Its ancient fables offer solace and wisdom as they travel through their ravaged country, seeking refuge. Years later, Renshu has settled in America as Henry Dao. His daughter is desperate to understand her heritage, but he refuses to talk about his childhood. How can he keep his family safe in this new land when the weight of his history threatens to drag them down? Spanning continents and generations, Peach Blossom Spring is a bold and moving look at the history of modern China, told through the story of one family. It’s about the power of our past, the hope for a better future, and the search for a place to call home.

Published by Wildfire 17th March 2022.

The Book of Magic by Alice Hoffman.

This is my current read and it’s not surprising that I’m enjoying it, since Hoffman is one of my favourite authors. The Owens family started their literary lives in Practical Magic as we followed orphaned sisters Sally and Gillian as they are sent to live with their eccentric aunts Jet and Franny. There are rumours about the aunts. They live in a crooked house on the edge of town, with a well-stocked herb garden and a light above the door that alerts local women to when they are available for consultation. This might be for women’s health problems, but more often for reasons of love. This is ironic since the Owens women are born in a genetic line that’s cursed in the pursuit of love. Every woman in the family has tried a way round the curse, but if ever love is found, it can just as easily be lost. In this fourth and final book in the series we move forward, after two prequel novels, to Jet and Franny’s old age. When the deathwatch beetle starts clicking in the family home, one of the Owens women knows that their time is up. As the generations gather, Sally’s daughters have to face the truth of the family curse. So a quest begins to change this generation’s luck in love, but do the girls have the power within them or will they venture into darker magic?

Published by Scribner 6th January 2022.

The Key in the Lock by Beth Underdown.

I was a little bit giddy to open my book mail a couple of days ago and find an unexpected copy of this book. I’ve been talking about it since Halloween so it’s definitely time I read it.

I still dream, every night, of Polneath on fire. Smoke unravelling from an upper window, and the terrace bathed in a hectic orange light . . . Now I see that the decision I made at Polneath was the only decision of my life. Everything marred in that one dark minute.

By day, Ivy Boscawen mourns the loss of her son Tim in the Great War. But by night she mourns another boy – one whose death decades ago haunts her still. For Ivy is sure that there is more to what happened all those years ago: the fire at the Great House, and the terrible events that came after. A truth she must uncover, if she is ever to be free. But once you open a door to the past, can you ever truly close it again? From the award-winning author of The Witchfinder’s Sister comes a captivating story of burning secrets and buried shame, and of the loyalty and love that rises from the ashes.

Published by Viking 13th January 2022.

A Lady’s Guide to Fortune Hunting by Sophie Irwin.

This novel has quite recently appeared on the radar but looks like a really enjoyable read. I’ve just had NetGalley approval and it’s taking all my willpower to read my January blog tours first! The season is about to begin and there’s not a second to lose. Kitty Talbot needs a fortune. Or rather, she needs a husband who has a fortune. This is 1818 after all, and only men have the privilege of seeking their own riches. With only twelve weeks until the bailiffs call, launching herself into London society is the only avenue open to her, and Kitty must use every ounce of cunning and ingenuity she possesses to climb the ranks. The only one to see through her plans is the worldly Lord Radcliffe and he is determined to thwart her at any cost, especially when it comes to his own brother falling for her charms. Can Kitty secure a fortune and save her sisters from poverty? There is not a day to lose and no one – not even a lord – will stand in her way…

Published by Harper Collins 12th May 2022

Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow.

Joan can’t change her family’s past.
But she can create her future.

Joan was only a child the last time she visited Memphis. She doesn’t remember the bustle of Beale Street on a summer’s night. She doesn’t know she’s as likely to hear a gunshot ring out as the sound of children playing. How the smell of honeysuckle is almost overwhelming as she climbs the porch steps to the house where her mother grew up. But when the front door opens, she does remember Derek. This house full of history is home to the women of the North family. They are no strangers to adversity; resilience runs in their blood. Fifty years ago, Hazel’s husband was lynched by his all-white police squad, yet she made a life for herself and her daughters in the majestic house he built for them. August lives there still, running a salon where the neighbourhood women gather. And now this house is the only place Joan has left. It is in sketching portraits of the women in her life, her aunt and her mother, the women who come to have their hair done, the women who come to chat and gossip, that Joan begins laughing again, begins living. Memphis is a celebration of the enduring strength of female bonds, of what we pass down, from mother to daughter. Epic in scope yet intimate in detail, it is a vivid portrait of three generations of a Southern black family, as well as an ode to the city they call home.

Published by John Murray 7th April 2022.

Look out for Part Three of my previ

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

We Are All Liars by Carys Jones.

The ‘Fierce Five’ have always been the best of friends. Gail, Allie, Emily, Stacie and Diana are all different in character, but have complimented each other. Gail is the organised one who tends to get them altogether. Allie is quiet and tends to be more introspective than the others. Emily is the traditional one, with her twins and husband Adam at the centre of everything she does. Stacie has been married twice, someone who is proud of being straight talking, but is still holding a lot inside. Finally there’s Diana who came from a more deprived background than the others and has a more cynical or realist’s perspective on life. They are all invited by Gail to celebrate her 35th birthday at her cabin, an isolated and atmospheric spot in the Scottish Highlands. The girls plan on catching up, having a drink and enjoying the remote location where they’re removed from their everyday lives. However, when a snow storm threatens to cut them off completely, events are set in motion that no one expected.

This was my first book from Carys Jones and she certainly knows how to ratchet up the tension. This wasn’t my first remote chalet thriller this year because there have been a few books with a similar premise such as Catherine Cooper’s The Chalet and Ruth Ware’s One by One. I found this story compulsively readable, with well-drawn characters and a real sense of surprise and menace. The story is told in two timelines, the current stay in the cabin and then back into the girl’s pasts where we could explore their past interactions and the events that shaped who they are. These sections were not necessarily chronological, but each section informed the situation in the present. A third section is written as the transcript of a police interview with an unnamed person of interest. Since one of these transcripts starts the book off, we know how important they are to the story and that something very very wrong has happened on the girl’s weekend.

The storm is menacing and I felt like the author depicted it like a sixth character in the novel. Even though it’s outside, it seems to influence what happens inside, so as the storm builds so do the friend’s emotions. When the storm is at it’s height the secrets, and lies of the book’s title, come to the surface and events take a drastic turn. I loved the way the author depicted this complicated friendship, because it was realistic. Often large friendship groups like this do have factions – two of the group who are closer than the others, another pair keeping a secret from the group or one member feeling isolated from the others. It’s impossible for groups like this to weather the years without changes happening. Individual experiences shape and change us over time and that might mean friendships wax and wane, but in groups like this those changes can cause resentment and jealousy. This happens especially if two people bond over an experience they’ve both had, switching allegiances such as friends who’ve both have children tending to gravitate towards one another. As the secrets come tumbling out and the girls battle to cope with the revelations and the effects of the storm things reach boiling point. Which of the friends will snap? This is an entertaining novel about old friendships that might just put you off your next school reunion. Tense, claustrophobic, and an unexpected ending. I’ve been reading this in a remote cabin in North Wales and it definitely added to the experience!

Author Carys Jones

Posted in Publisher Proof

My Best Friend’s Secret by Emily Freud.

Kate Sullivan has a beautiful home, a job she loves and a handsome fiancé: all she’d ever dreamed of since getting sober and painstakingly piecing her life back together.

But a chance encounter with her old best friend Becky threatens Kate’s newfound and fragile happiness. Kate remembers nothing of their last drunken night out, the night Becky broke off their friendship without warning or explanation.

With Becky back in her life, Kate is desperate to make amends for the past. For the closure she craves, Kate needs to know what she did that ruined everything.

But what if the truth is worse than Kate could have imagined?

This novel gripped me from the beginning and I could relate this back to being a young woman, unsure of my place in the world and being uncomfortable in my own skin. It’s depiction of how our fears and demons can shape us if we let them, and the dangers of self-medicating our anxiety and lack of confidence. It was such a thoughtful and honest exploration of female friendship and what can happen when those bonds are broken. As is usually the case in this type of domestic noir when the novel opens Kate appears to have everything. She’s just about to marry her American fiancé Ben, they have a beautiful home and she’s settled into a job she loves as a teacher. However, all of this hasn’t come easily for Kate, because she spent a few of her young adult years totally out of control. Thanks to the 12-step programme she has found a way out of alcoholism, and is on an even keel.

Yet, her past does threaten her perfect future when she meets an old friend by chance. Back in her wilder, drinking, days Becky was a partner in crime. In fact the pair were best friends, until one drunken night out, after which Becky never spoke to Kate again. Kate has no memory of that night. On meeting Becky, she feels the need to make amends for whatever happened that night, even though she doesn’t remember what she’s done wrong.

What distinguished this book from the average thriller was Freud’s compassionate and thorough understanding of alcoholism and the psychological journey individuals take when they embark on their recovery with AA. It was beautifully written, slightly slow in parts, but infused with a creeping unease throughout. I loved the psychological ins and outs of Kate’s journey, because we are inside her mind as she battles her past and tries to hang on to the life she loves. Freud really does nail the complexity of our inner voices and how they can trip us up and knock us off balance. That endless negative chatter that tells us we can’t do this, we’re not worthy and don’t deserve the good things we have in our life. I felt so much empathy for Kate and wanted her to be resilient enough to resist the chatter, and stay on course. I thought the author showed incredible knowledge and compassion for how childhood trauma affects our lives, particularly the struggles to form good, solid relationships. This was a powerfully written thriller, and I will be looking out for whatever the author writes next.

Meet The Author

In her other life, Emily Freud makes TV. She has over ten years experience in development and production and has worked on some of the most loved, talked about and award-winning series in recent years. Credits include: Educating Yorkshire, First Dates, and SAS: Who Dares Wins. This lifelong fixation with story and character is the thread that runs through her work, and ultimately led to the pursuit of a writing career.

‘My Best Friend’s Secret’ is her debut novel, published by Quercus.

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura.

This was an unexpectedly quirky and refreshing take on the obsessional friendship trope, a theme I’ve loved ever since watching Single White Female back in the 1990’s. This is the first of the author’s novels to be translated into English from the original Japanese. I was surprised by that, because there was something about the writing style and the main character that I thought would appeal to the British reader. I thought earlier novels might have also appealed to British readers. The daily eccentricities of the the Woman in the Purple Skirt the man m were charming and intriguing, so it was that and my curiosity about the motives of the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan that drew me in to the story. There is also an interesting, melancholic sense of humour that struck me as something British reader would enjoy.

There are some characteristics that the two women share, such as living standards and finances. It’s possible that both are lonely and are living from hand to mouth, but what drives the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan to get up and watch her every move? What does she want? Eventually, she lures the Woman in the Purple Skirt to a job with the cleaning agency where she works as a hotel housekeeper. This brings the women into proximity, but instead of a friendship emerging, the Woman in a Purple Skirt falls into an affair with the boss. This is the main difference between the women; the Woman in a Yellow Cardigan only watches, while the Woman in a Purple Skirt actually lives. I felt this distinction very strongly and wondered whether there would be resentment or even anger towards the Woman in a Purple Skirt. This is where the book really ventures into thriller territory as the women meet and we see the dynamics of female relationships, the obsessiveness and that human need to be seen, recognised and even desired. This woman simply wants to be noticed and considered by someone else. Why do people recognise the Woman in the Purple Skirt? What does she have that makes people sit up and take notice?

I found myself thinking about the word ‘sonder’ – one I’m using for my own writing at the moment. It’s a German word to describe the realisation that every random passer by has a life as rich and varied as our own. This seems to be what the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan wants to know, the rich complexity of the Woman in the Purple Skirt’s life. The woman always wears a purple skirt, it is possibly this and her set daily routine that makes people notice her. As she leaves her apartment every day she is followed and insulted by neighbourhood children, in fact she’s great entertainment for the neighbours who seem equally fascinated by her set routine. Every day she walks to the bakery and buys a single cream cake, takes it to the same park bench and eats it. No one knows who her family are or where she’s from. Her jobs are temporary, she lives alone and doesn’t even attempt to relate to others. She is an enigma, and the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan watches her every move, until she knows her daily routine uby heart. Even her appearance is intriguing. From a distance she could pass for a schoolgirl, but up close she has liver spots that belie her age. Her hair is dry, she lives in a small, shabby apartment and is short on money. She looks like one thing, but could very well be another. She’s different, but seems to have carved a life out in the world, something that the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan seems to find so difficult.

I thought it was wonderful to have two such complex and multi-dimensional female characters, especially where the relationship between them is the focus. There was a peculiar creeping unease built into the narrative. Japan seems to exude ‘otherness’ like nowhere else, a theme explored in the film Lost in Translation. I lived next to a Japanese Garden for seven years, where English plants and trees were pruned into the shapes of Japanese topiary. Stepping into it from my cottage garden made felt like entering a surreal and alien landscape. That’s a little bit what this book felt like. It was original and refreshing, perfect for if you’re in a reading slump, and a fascinating take on the thriller genre.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Good Company by Cynthia D’aprix Sweeney

Flora and Julian struggled for years, scraping together just enough acting work to raise their daughter in Manhattan and keep Julian’s small theatre company—Good Company—afloat. A move to Los Angeles brought their first real career successes, a chance to breathe easier, and a reunion with Margot, now a bona fide television star. But has their new life been built on lies? What happened that summer all those years ago? And most importantly, what happens now?

GOOD COMPANY follows two couples entering the midpoint of their lives, against the backdrop of the New York theatre scene and Hollywood. It tells a story of what it means to, as the author says, “truly love but never truly know another person”.

By chance this week I’ve read two books that focus on that mid-point in life, either that or the universe is trying to tell me something. It seems to be a time of shake-ups and regrets. The time when we look at life and either wonder where our younger selves and their vitality disappeared to, or take stock and realise if we don’t make our dreams a reality soon, we never will. It’s the archetypal mid-life crisis on one hand and we shake things up – buy a motorbike, a sports car or trade in our partner for a different type of ‘racy little number’. Other people throw out the ordinary life and go travelling, create a micro-brewery or start a bucket list. For me it means getting some writing experience and gaining confidence with an MA, while finally sitting down and starting to write my book (wish me luck).

Flora meanwhile, is feeling the need to catalogue the years of mementos and evidence of what she and husband Justin have achieved in life. Whether it’s through the theatre group Good Company that they work on together, or through the family they’ve created. The author sets the scene with something familiar that we’ve all done, clearing out old cupboards and storage spaces we’ve been neglecting for years. Flora is looking for a photograph, but is also enjoying reminiscing over the years they’ve spent together professionally and personally. The photo she’s looking for is from when their daughter Ruby is about five years old and they’re staying in Julian’s family mansion in upstate New York for the summer. At the bottom of the filing cabinet she finds it, an envelope of photographs marked ‘KEEP’ from that very summer. Under it is another envelope with an object in, so Flora opens it to find Julian’s wedding ring. This is nothing new. He’s had at least three since they’ve been together. However, on closer inspection this is their first ring, she had engraved especially for him. We all know that feeling. When you discover something that makes the bottom fall out of your world. Julian claimed to have lost this ring on their summer vacation, somewhere outdoors. So how did it get here, carefully sealed and buried under years of family detritus?

We also get to take a look at Flora’s friend Margot, who alongside Ben and Julian used to tread the boards with Good Company. She was one of those friends so interwoven in their lives she’s like family. In fact a five year old Ruby was so taken with Margot that she was always on her knee and being cuddled. Another photo from that summer shows them all, each intertwined in some way with the other. When people are that close, boundaries can be forgotten and it’s hard to see where your ‘self’ ends and the other begins. When one boundary is crossed, others can be breached too. We see that Margot could be overbearing, even interfering, especially back when Flora is planning to marry Julian. Now a famous actress, with a lead role in a hospital soap, we start to see her personality emerging during an interview with a very well informed journalist. It’s clear that she’s well versed in avoiding the difficult question and very willing to manipulate to get what she wants.

I found the setting fascinating, whether it was a beautifully realised New York or sunny LA I felt like I’d escaped into a different world world while reading. I love the idea of Broadway, it was the only thing I wanted to do when I turned 40 – go to Manhattan and see a Broadway show. To be able to read behind the scenes made me feel like I was reading an episode of Smash, a series that I used to watch with a stupid grin on my face. I love to see people perform so it was an absolute joy to have that feeling after being barred from live theatre for so long now. As we sit back and observe the ins and outs of these characters, we can really observe and analyse their behaviour. We see the individual behaviour but also how it feeds into the group dynamic. I could see the established roles, the shorthand they have developed when communicating, and some undercurrents that even the group aren’t aware of. Margot’s controlling ways have followed her through life, Julian is more passive and even powerless in some situations, and Flora is awakening to the fact that sometimes the individual is more important than the group. Many people in middle age are ‘stuck’ in friendship dynamics that are unhealthy and need to change. It can be impossible to change within the group and only by walking away can the individual put themselves first or initiate change in their own life. Our friends can be used to us being one way and may even actively try to manipulate or force us to stay in our little box. I could see all of this here and for a therapist it’s a delicious psychological puzzle to unravel.

I can see why the author’s debut novel was such a success. This was a great character driven read, with a great sense of place to get lost in. I became fully immersed in Flora’s life and all the complexities of these interwoven friendships and marriages. A wonderful ‘holiday read’ to get lost in from a novelist well-versed in the dynamics of people and their friendship circles. It might even make you think about your own friendships. I must just mention that stunning cover art too.

Thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours and Ecco Harper Collins for having me on the tour.

Meet The Author

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s debut novel, The Nest, was a smash success, receiving widespread critical acclaim and named a Best Book of 2016 by many, including The Washington Post. Much of what made The Nestbeloved is back in play with GOOD COMPANY, including Sweeney’s distinctive wit and her incisive examination of the way people, and their relationships—with others and themselves—evolve over decades.