Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

The Dazzle of the Light by Georgina Clarke

Just a couple of weeks ago I was waxing lyrical about Kate Atkinson’s novel Shrines of Gaiety and then another novel passes my way covering the same territory and the same time period. While I loved Atkinson’s novel on it’s own merits, this one feels more urgent and alive. I felt immediately in the story and fascinated by the two main female characters. Ruby is one of a female gang known as the Forty Thieves (the Forties) who commit crimes from pick-pocketing for the young members to shoplifting and even jewellery theft for those more experienced members. Ruby has been one of the Forties for years and due to her looks doesn’t always attract suspicion in the fancier stores. In fact, she’s on a joint job with her lover Billy from the Elephant Boys, when she first runs into Harriet Littlemore. Harriet is the real deal, a young woman from a very good family, engaged to an up and coming member of parliament. Harriet has ambitions beyond being an MP’s wife, she wants to be a journalist and her father permitted her to ask for a job with the evening paper. She’s been hired to write pieces for the woman at home, such as ways to wear the new style of hat, but Harriet has ambitions for so much more, thinking she might write a piece about the young thief she’s seen. However, her fascination with Ruby seems to be much more than journalistic interest.

The story follows these two women as they each pursue their ambitions. Ruby wants to do more work with the Elephant Boys. She wants to take on bigger jobs and wear beautiful clothes and jewellery. When she meets Harriet again, on a shoplifting run in a department store, she cheekily suggests she should update her style. Perhaps she should cut her hair in the new shingled way that’s the height of fashion, Ruby tells her, then she could wear the new style of hat she’s considering. Like a woman in a trance, Harriet goes to a French hairdresser and has her long hair cut short. She’s amazed by how much it suits her and hopes to see Ruby with her new fashionable look, even if it does cause a stir at home, particularly with her traditional mother. She’s furious when the story about the jewellery heist she witnessed is written by one of the male reporters at the paper. So she decides to write a piece on Ruby, the Jewel of the Borough, and gets one of the artists to draw a sketch from her description. In a way, Harriet admires Ruby. She sees Ruby’s freedom, her nerve and confidence, and contrasts it with her own restrictions. She has no idea what her article will truly mean for Ruby. We see what Harriet can’t, because we’ve met the rest of the Forties and Ruby’s other mentor Solly, who runs a jewellery business. The women of the Forties are in a hierarchy, with Annie ? At the top. Many have been thieving since they were children, looked after by the Forties in return for their tiny hands making their way into pockets. The ones that are married are struggling to feed their kids and to avoid their husband’s fists. Most have done time in Holloway and without the Forties, they and their families would be cold and hungry. From Ruby’s perspective, money is freedom and Harriet certainly has plenty of that.

I loved the way the author showed, that despite their differences in class and means, Ruby and Harriet are still second class citizens due to their gender. Although Ruby has earned some equality thanks to her sleight of hand and is chosen by leader Annie, to do jobs with the Elephant Boys, her personal life is very different. Solly is a father figure to her and always keeps a room for above the jewellers, but when it comes to her lover Billy she has no real power. She has confidence in her allure, but when she’s forced to lie low for a while Billy soon moves on to the next warm body. She often has to give up her body to seal a deal, whether it’s a little extra for the man who fences the more risky pieces of jewellery she’s stolen or romancing someone to get information out of them for Peter who runs the nightclub. This work gives her a rather glamorous roof over her head when she really needs it, but she definitely earns her money. Peter has a big job coming up with the Elephants, something that involves men of money and influence. Ruby has no clue how respectable these men are, or their standing in society. It seems to her that all men will use women, no matter how respectable they may seem. Harriet is completely powerless when it comes to the men in her life. She has a life set up for her as Ralph’s wife and her parents can’t understand why she isn’t satisfied with her lot. She has money, beautiful clothes and a handsome fiancé who is going to be a man of great influence. They can’t understand that she wants something for herself, something she has earned on her own merits. I couldn’t put the book down because I wanted both of these women to break out of the prison they are in, choose a different life and perhaps become close. I didn’t want the system to win.

The setting for this fascinating story is beautifully built by the author. We’re post-WW1, a period of huge shifts in the class system and changes for both men and women. The author shows how the class system and expectations of women have changed through Harriet’s relationship with her parents. They still have pre-war attitudes and are expecting Harriet to fall in line. Even the changes she makes to her appearance show that shift from the restrictions of Edwardian dress and the relative freedom of the 1920’s fashions with shorter skirts, no restrictive undergarments and shorter hair. These fashions suit women who are busier and don’t have hours to dress in the morning. Financial changes mean only the very wealthy can afford the help of a ladies maid every morning. Ruby can wear the latest fashions to please herself, when she can afford them. She loves the glamour of the clothes she wears to the club, where she needs to attract the more discerning gentleman.

For the men, those who were in the trenches found them democratising. Bullets and shells don’t care about the class you’re from and although there was still a hierarchy, they died in the mud together. This led to some strange allegiances back in the post-war world. It’s clear to Ruby that there’s a big job on the cards, Billy has hinted as much and her time at the club throws her close to the planning. There are men involved who would never normally give the Elephant Boys the time of day, so they must need them to do the dirty work. These are men from the highest class, who usually drink at their club or the Savoy, but don’t mind slumming it at the club if it makes them money or the company of a woman like Ruby. I desperately wanted some of them to get their come uppance, knowing that’s not always the way of the world. The real winners though are those that can move between worlds, like Peter Lazenby. Though the polish and charm of all these men hides something more brutal. Despite her misdemeanours I was as charmed by Ruby as Harriet was and I wanted her to find a middle ground where she survives comfortably. As for Harriet I wanted her to break out of her parent’s upper class restrictions. I wanted her to have a love affair with someone unsuitable and a friendship with Ruby, if not a full on passionate affair. This was a fantastic book, full of characters, historical detail and that verve and energy that seems synonymous with 1920.

Published by Verve Books 17th November 2023

Meet The Author

Georgina Clarke has always been passionate about stories and history. The Lizzie Hardwicke novels give her the opportunity to bring to life her love of the eighteenth century and her determination that a strong, intelligent and unconventional woman should get to solve the crimes – rather than be cast in the role of the side-kick. Georgina was born in Wolverhampton, has degrees from Oxford, Cambridge and London, but now lives in Worcester with her husband and son and two lively cats.

Her first two novels, Death and the Harlot and The Corpse Played Dead, are published by Canelo. She is currently cooking up plots for the next novels in the series. 

If you would like to visit her website, you can find her at: 

http://www.georginaclarkeauthor.com

She is also to be found tweeting (probably far too often than is good for her) at: 

@clarkegeorgina1

Posted in Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight! Sarah Waters and her Victorian Novels.

This week my spotlight is on an author who drew me in with her incredible Victorian historical novels. I was knocked out by the depth of research, the incredible storytelling and how sexy they were compared to the rather buttoned-up novels from the period. I first became aware of her work when the BBC serialised her novel Tipping the Velvet – a beautiful, but obscure pornographic reference to performing oral sex on a woman. Of course much of the hysterical and prurient coverage in the media was about the sexual aspect of the story. Mostly, I think, due to the relationships and sex scenes being between women. This obsession with sexuality totally bypassed the novel’s picaresque structure, it’s likeness to the work of Charles Dickens and our heroine Nan’s journey of self-discovery. It completely missed what Waters was doing; the book is always described as a lesbian romp, but it is much more than that. Waters was writing back to this point in history and the period’s literature which is largely populated and preoccupied with heterosexual couples and the institute of marriage. The art and literature acceptable to the establishment was influenced by the middle class family values presented by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. The literary canon mirrors what society presented as the norm or even the ideal. I’ve heard people say that homosexuality and bisexuality is ‘everywhere’ now and ‘you didn’t hear about lesbians in my day’. Actually, the last phrase is more accurate than we might think. No, we didn’t hear about the LGBTQ+ community, not because LGBTQ+ people didn’t exist, but because they were not open with their sexuality and certainly didn’t write about it. Waters openly admits she isn’t writing about characters that existed, lesbianism was so undercover in Victorian London that there is no record of it at all. Waters is redressing that balance. She’s creating characters to represent these minorities and the hidden subculture where they might have belonged.

I was fascinated with the research Sarah Waters must have done to create the rich and vivid worlds that she portrays. One page in and you know exactly where you are, because she engages all of your senses immediately. In Tipping the Velvet, Nan’s upbringing was in Whitstable, Kent. Her working class family own an oyster restaurant and Nan helps out, so when she first meets the performer Kitty Butler she is ashamed of how her hot hands smell. Kitty removes her gloves to shake hands and Nan is mortified by “those rank sea-scents, of liquor and oyster-flesh, crab-meat and whelks, which had flavoured my fingers and those of my family for so many years we had ceased, entirely, to notice them”. Nan is mortified that she smells like a herring, but Kitty assuages her fears, kissing her hands and telling her she smells like a mermaid. This type of description reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s prose in The Picture of Dorian Gray, especially the opening where the lush lilacs are in bloom and the scent is heavy, overpowering and intoxicating to the point of nausea. The descriptions have an element of synaesthesia and wrap themselves around the reader like a mist, taking us to that exact moment. I also loved the switching of gender, allowing characters to experience Victorian London as both sexes in one person and what a different place it could be. Men were largely the only sex who could have these picaresque adventures or ‘romps’ as they are sometimes called, but Waters opens up a whole different world to her characters in just a change of clothes. Waters uses clothes erotically with scenes of dressing and undressing and to represent the gender gap. When Nan and Kitty dress as men the clothes are simpler, they allow an ease of movement and a freedom that women don’t have. She then describes the putting on of chemises, stays, stockings and ribbons, both in the erotic sense of being tied up or bound like a gift, but also to represent the restriction of women. In the most dramatic sense the corset restricts even the woman’s ability to breath. Whereas when Kitty is performing as a ‘masher’, a male drag act, her clothing physically gives her the freedom to perform, but also gives her a pass to be comical and bawdy.

Keeley Hawkes and Rachel Stirling on the cover of the TV series tie in of Tipping the Velvet.

While I enjoyed Tipping the Velvet. I loved Affinity. It has that deliciously gothic feel alongside the same themes of feminism and sexuality. It is a much darker novel, especially if we compare it’s conclusion with the arguably happy ending and the self-actualisation she allows Nan in Tipping the Velvet. Affinity looks at power and possession, it’s very sensual rather than a ‘romp’ and could be categorised as a psychological thriller in the same vein as Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. Set in late September 1874, we meet Margaret Prior, who is thirty years old and described as plain. She hasn’t been sought after on the marriage market and has to find a way to make her life meaningful, but respectable. So she becomes a ‘lady visitor’ at Millbank Women’s Prison, hoping to find purpose after suffering a period of mental breakdown and enforced rest at her parent’s home for the last two years. The pentagonal Millbank corridors seem endless and the doors with their inspection slits become symmetrical, until she opens one and hears ‘a perfect sigh, like a sigh in a story.’ This sigh belongs to the medium Selina Dawes. Margaret’s charitable role is to bring comfort to the women behind bars, but this woman is incredibly different to the poor, sad and often downtrodden women she’s seen until now. This plain woman on the verge of thirty has come to comfort those behind bars, several of whom Waters brings to instant, sad life. Margaret is instantly transfixed by the vision she sees in the ‘eye’ of the door. Selina is captured in a private moment (or is she?) with her face turned towards the sunlight stroking her own cheek with a violet. Margaret finds this pose sensual and records in her diary that ‘she put the flower to her lips, and breathed upon it, and the purple of the petals gave a quiver and seemed to glow…” Could Margaret be that violet?

Selina Dawes is not only beautiful, she’s intelligent and exciting to talk with. The conversations between the two women are thrilling and charged with sexual tension. Selina challenges Margaret’s views on spiritualism as fanciful and suggests that since such a place as Millbank exists, couldn’t anything be real? Strangely, Margaret does become confronted with evidence of the supernatural. First a locket disappears from it’s place in her room, then on another occasion, flowers magically appear. Most strange of all is how much Selina knows about her, even the things she keeps hidden, and very soon she tells Margaret she loves her. Waters weaves Margaret’s weekly diary entries with past ones that reveal a previous attachment to the woman who is now her sister-in-law, including a plan to abscond together to Italy. Clearly, this adventure never happened. We are also privy to Selina’s writing, mainly about her life before prison and how she came to be there. As the visits go on, Margaret starts to accept that Selina has some sort of supernatural power and believes that she is a victim of a miscarriage of justice. Selina asserts that she did not assault a woman at a séance, but were those séances real or fraudulent? I felt desperately sorry for Margaret who appears to have a better life, but in reality both women are in prison. Margaret’s prison is built on class and convention, a mother who doesn’t give her any space and the knowledge that her desires will never be acceptable to her family or society. I was so desperate for her escape.

Zoë Tapper and Anna Madely on the cover for the TV tie-in of Affinity

The third of her Victorian novels is Fingersmith and it really is her masterpiece in my opinion. We’re back in the Dickensian-esque back streets of London and the world of the fingersmiths or pickpockets. The first half of the book is about Sue Trinder, brought up in a nest of thieves with a female Fagin called Mrs Sucksby at the helm. Then one of Mrs Sucksby’s associates comes to her with a plan. ‘Gentleman’ has been planning a con and if it pays off they’ll be very rich; even better than that, it’s all legal. It all depends on Sue to play the part of a lady’s maid to a rich and very isolated young woman. The Gentleman has been wooing this wealthy heiress, who goes by the name of Maud. Very sheltered, with only her Uncle for company, Maud was born an orphan in the asylum where her mother gave birth. Sue’s job is to become her maid and gain the lady’s confidence, so that she can influence Maud into accepting Gentleman’s proposal of an elopement. As soon as they’re married he controls her fortune and if between them they can gaslight her into an asylum, he will make it worth Sue’s while. However, Sue likes Maud and they begin sharing confidences and become friends. Now Sue is conflicted about their plan, but it’s here that Waters has created a twist to end all twists. It’s the best twist in literature and I won’t be convinced otherwise! I can’t tell you anymore about the book without ruining it for those who haven’t read it yet and if you haven’t I’m so jealous that you get to experience it for the first time.

Sally Hawkins and Elaine Cassidy on the cover of the TV tie-in for Fingersmith

These three novels are not linked by anything except their historical period, but in each one you are immersed completely into the 19th Century and the most unsavoury locations and aspects of it. We recognise these filthy streets, this poverty and these villains thanks to Dickens and his Nancy, Bill Sykes and Fagin. When I pick up one of these novels for a re-read I feel like I’m indulging myself because they’re so rich, evocative and sumptuous in both world-building and storytelling. I enjoy her later novels too, but these three were the closest I’ve ever come to that feeling of being a child and discovering the incredible storytelling of Little Women or Jane Eyre for the first time. They always take me back to that formative experience of falling into a book and never wanting to come back out into the real world.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Spirited by Julie Cohen

This week I’ve been writing a Sunday Spotlight post about the Victorian novels of Sarah Waters and while I was thinking about some of the themes of Affinity this book popped into my mind. So I decided to make it this week’s Throwback Thursday. At the time I’d never read Julie Cohen’s work, so I didn’t know what to expect from her writing. Only a few weeks before, on Twitter, I was discussing when a new Sarah Waters novel would be appearing. Spirited by Julie Cohen has definitely filled that gap. It’s also made an impact on me that’s all it’s own. Viola Worth has grown up cared for by her clergyman Father, as well as his ward, a little boy called Jonah. Viola and Jonah are the best of friends, spending their childhoods largely inseparable. As we meet them in adulthood, they are getting married, but in mourning. A lot has happened during the period of their engagement. Jonah had been out to India, staying at his family’s haveli and checking on his financial interests. For Viola, it’s been a tough time nursing, then losing, her father. He encouraged her in his own profession as a photographer and she has become accomplished in her own right. Viola’s father wanted her to marry Jonah, and they are still the best of friends, but the time apart has changed them and neither knows the full extent of the other’s transformation. As they try to settle into married life on the Isle of Wight, Jonah spends his time sketching fossil and bone finds with his scientific a friend. Viola feels cut adrift and without purpose, as we find out later she doesn’t even feel she is fulfilling her role as Jonah’s wife. Through new friends the couple meet a visiting spirit medium, although as daughter of a clergyman, Viola would never normally enjoy this type of entertainment. Little do they know, this woman will change their lives.

The author slips back and forth in time to tell us about Henriette, who worked her way in life from being a servant to a respected spirit medium. She is a woman who started with no advantage in life, and as a young servant models herself on the governess in the house, a French woman known as Madame to the family. Henriette diligently listens to the children’s French lesson and nurses a hope of a future where she doesn’t clean up after other people or have to wish for a roommate so she isn’t sexually assaulted in the night. Her attacker labels her a whore and one early morning, after there’s been a house party, she stumbles on a group of men in the stables betting. They are playing cards for money, but once they see Henriette they become intent on a different sport. It is Madame who interrupts the attackers and she gives Henriette advice from one woman surviving alone in the world to another. The author also takes us back to Jonah’s time in India. We discover that in social circles Jonah is a hero, because during a massacre he rescued a young girl who lived in his haveli after all her family are killed. Viola wonders if it is this experience that has changed Jonah. They live as if they are brother and sister, Jonah spends less time with her than before and at bedtime they still go to their separate bedrooms and sleep apart. Viola knows there is more between husband and wife but doesn’t really know what and has no idea who to talk to. Through Henriette, Viola is asked to take a photograph of a child who has died so the parents have an image to keep. No one is more stunned than Viola when she develops the image and sees a blurred figure standing next to the bed, the likeness to their child shocks and comforts the parents; they feel reassured that their child lives on in spirit. This experience, and her experience of her first proper female friendship, is like a floodgate opening for Viola. She starts to question the limits of her faith, whether there is more in life she would like to try and as time goes on, whether the burgeoning feelings she has for Henriette are friendship or something else.

I loved the feminist threads running through this novel. The central women in the novel are each in liminal spaces, different from the conventional Victorian women we see like Mrs Newham. Henriette is a self-made woman, unmarried and travelling from space to space offering her spiritualist services for enough to survive on. She has moved from bar girl, to servant, to nursing and losing her elderly husband, and now into a semi-respected occupation. She gets to visit the homes of those she might have once waited upon, but isn’t tied by their social rules and conventions. In India we meet Pavan, who has made the exceptional choice within her societal rules to become educated and has made huge sacrifices in order to achieve that. Love was not on her agenda, and when it comes she experiences a painful separation between her intellectual choice and her emotions. Viola may seem the most conventional of these women, but her relationship with her father has set her apart from others of her class. He believed in educating Viola the same way as Jonah, then teaches her the art of photography too, usually considered a male pastime. Viola is respectful of many conventions, but finds herself emboldened by Henriette and the new experiences she brings to her life. She tries bathing in the sea and is bold enough to start accepting her ‘gift’ of capturing spirits. Behind them all is the french governess Madame. The role of Victorian governess is the very definition of a liminal space: she works in the home but is not a servant, educated and unmarried, respectable, but not on the same level as the family she works for. She has power in that she works for herself, has and controls her own money and can choose to leave her position and join another family, in a different place. Her acknowledgment of Henriette’s fate, as a pretty face in the power of men, inspires Henriette to be more. It gives her aspiration, although she may never be a gentlewoman, with careful decision making she could be more like Madame.

It is within the physical liminal spaces where there are beautiful passages of writing from the author. The scene where Henriette and Viola go bathing is absolutely exquisite because I could feel everything. The strangeness of undressing in a darkened box on wheels, the feel of the swimming dress, the rough and tumble of being pulled into the sea by a horse, then opening the door to see nothing but the ocean in front of you. This is a play on conventional baptism for Viola. She fully immerses herself in the water, supported by Henriette, and feels a rebirth. The heaviness in the uncoiling of her hair and letting it float free signifies a freeing from the constraints of Victorian fashion, as is the unlacing of the corsets. As they trundle back up to the sand after their swim, Viola wishes they could stay in this space in the dark for the intimacy with Henriette, and the knowledge of the freedom she will feel as she opens the door and sees nothing but ocean. When the women share Viola’s room the writing is so tender. Viola worries what the servants might think, but Henriette frees her thinking again. Love between women does not exist, she tells her, there are laws and conventions regarding love between a man and a woman, and even the love between men. What they are to each other is beyond the thoughts of most people, the servants will see two friends staying together and nothing more. Pavan and Jonah, don’t meet in the main haveli but in an ancient old temple in its grounds, a space no longer used for its purpose and outside the family structure inside the house. They meet as two people of different cultures and beliefs, but find a connection so powerful that each would put their lives on the line for the other. Jonah wonders whether he could live a different life to the one laid out for him back in England. He’s seen other English men here who have married Indian women and had children. They’re neither totally respectable, but are not shunned either. This is a novel of people, particularly women, learning to live in the spaces between; the places that promise more freedom.

This was an original, emotional and beautifully written novel that weaves a powerful story from a combination of painstaking historical research and imagination. Each character is fully fleshed out and has a rich inner life. Where real events such as the 1857 Siege of Delhi are used in the novel, they are deeply powerful and the author treats them with respect. The elements of spiritualism and spirit photography are well researched and based on a real fascination for the paranormal in Victorian society. Cohen acknowledges that this is a novel about faith: religious faith, faith in the paranormal and that the ties to those we love don’t end in death; faith in romantic love and the promises we make to each other; even the faith she has in herself. In the acknowledgements to this novel Julie Cohen says ‘I wrote the first draft of this book when I thought my writing career was over’. Judging by this book, it’s far from over. However, by allowing herself to think of that possibility, she gave herself the space to write something truly extraordinary.

Meet The Author

Julie Cohen grew up in the western mountains of Maine and studied English at Brown University and Cambridge University before pursuing a research degree in nineteenth century fairies. After a career as a secondary school English teacher, she became a novelist. Her award-winning novels have sold over a million copies worldwide. DEAR THING and TOGETHER were both selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club. Julie runs an oversubscribed literary consultancy which has helped many writers go on to be published. She is a Vice President of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, founder of the RNA Rainbow Chapter for LGBTQ+ authors, and a Patron of literacy charity ABC To Read. You can find Julie on Twitter: @julie_cohen or you can visit her website: http://www.julie-cohen.com

Latest Novel from Julie Cohen

‘Marriages end with a whisper, not a bang. Not an argument, which is after all about passion, waves crashing on a shore, but with the small pockets of coldness that an argument creates. It’s like islands. They don’t sink like Atlantis. They wear away, little by little, until all you’ve got left is a single rock and a light. A warning to safer travellers to stay away’.

Sitting on my TBR is this latest novel from Julie Cohen, a very different novel to Spirited in that it’s contemporary, but still about love and relationships. The last time Vee left the shores of Unity Island, she thought she’d left forever. But this summer, she’s returning with her charming husband, Mike. Vee’s unexpected arrival, this time as one of the wealthy ‘summer people’, sets the small island community alight with gossip. What’s more, her childhood best friend, Sterling, is furious that she’s come back – Vee abandoned him when he needed her most.

And then Vee meets Rachel, Sterling’s wife, and a spark is ignited within her that she can’t extinguish. And as summer turns to autumn, long-buried secrets emerge that will cause a storm greater than any of them could ever have imagined.

But when autumn comes, who will sail away with the tide and who will choose to stay behind on the island…?

Published by Orion 4th August 2022

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 Random Things Tours

Jacqueline in Paris by Ann Mah

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis is one of those iconic women that we can’t help but be curious about. From watching the film JFK and numerous documentaries about the death of President Kennedy with my mother, I started to be curious about the woman in the blood-stained pink suit. I think people are drawn to women who remain silent. As far as I’m aware she has never spoken directly about the horrific, life changing events of that day. She has almost seemed stoic. The perfect widow, in her lace mantilla at the funeral, still seeming numb and shell-shocked. When she surprised everyone by marrying Aristotle Onassis, the millionaire shipping magnate, I think it was driven by a need to hide. She needed a place to be without cameras following her every move and on his yacht she was definitely away from prying eyes. Perhaps his protection allowed her to grieve and come to terms with her trauma. I wanted to read this book, because I was fascinated to meet this version of Jackie – the Jacqueline before she was Jackie in. I always had the impression that she could have been a woman in her own right, more than the political wife she became.

Ann Mah has set her book in one particular year. In 1949 Jacqueline Bouvier travelled abroad for her junior year at college. It was to be her last year of freedom. She was aware that despite being poised and ready for society, her family were on the edge financially and she felt pressure from her mother to make a good match on her return. She met Jack Kennedy in 1952. Jacqueline lives in an apartment with a widowed French countess and her daughters. She finds a world of champagne, avant-garde theatre and jazz clubs and socialises with people she would never have met in her home town or the social circles at Vassar. There’s even romance with a man who loves literature like she does, but who would be totally unsuitable back home. Yet Paris isn’t all fun and glamour, because this is the aftermath of WW2 and its clear that the city’s people have suffered. The countess and her daughters have suffered too, as part of the resistance. The whole city is haunted by events during the Occupation and it will take many years for them to recover from the lies, betrayals and suspicion that lurk round every corner.

I love that Mah has written this novel in the first person, so we have Jacqui’s unguarded thoughts and emotions from the start. Even though it is a fictionalised self we’re getting to know, it still feels like a rare window into the innermost thoughts of a very private woman. It may sound strange to regard her as private when she was later married to the most powerful leader in America and arguably the world. Jacqui is private though. From this part of her life when she has the most freedom she’s ever known she’s testing people out for herself, but there’s still a natural reserve. She gets to decide who to spend time with and who to trust. On her return to the US and her subsequent relationship with John Kennedy, she is private by design. It’s part of the mystique of being a powerful politician’s wife who should show loyalty, discretion and control of her emotions. Once she’s in those circles, who can she trust to be a true friend? Where many might have seen her as the archetypal political spouse, this was the ambition of her mother rather than Jacqui’s own desire. Here we see her when she was naive and idealistic. Her love of art and for the city of Paris is evident. She’s also keen to make friends and experience real French life, but that reserve can make it hard for others to feel they know the real her.

She finds that one of the biggest differences between the US and Europe is a political one. During the war, Parisian people did what they had to in order to survive and there are still grudges against those forced to collaborate. She learns which subjects to avoid. Madame de Renty is a lively and colourfully dressed woman during the day, but she was imprisoned at Ravensbrück concentration camp during the war and Jacqui hears her crying in the night. Some truths can never be spoken. Aside from the post-war adjustments and the effects of trauma that will last for generations, Jacqui is most shocked by the Parisian’s politics. There is a lean towards communism here, something that’s unthinkable in the US where it’s considered in the same breath as Nazism. Her mind is broadened by friends who explain it’s underlying principles – an equal, fair society. This has huge resonance for us, because we understand she will be First Lady during the Cuban missile crisis, and the 1950’s saw a wave of suspicion about communism that fuelled the McCarthy era.

Despite these darker undercurrents there’s also the joy of seeing Paris through her eyes, for the very first time. The beautiful language, the smells of incredible food and early morning croissants. There’s also Jacqui’s love of learning and through this I could see glimmers or the different life she could have had, if her family had valued her as more than a marriage commodity. This is a well-researched account that held some of the answers I’d pondered about her life: that pull between the security of marriage and the more precarious life of her own; the love of Europe that would see her return there after Kennedy’s death; the education from a really great college versus the education of how to be a wife provided by her mother. I thought the author found a great balance between fleshing out a story and what we know of Jacqui’s year abroad through historical research. I understood this Jacqui and felt I’d met her before in my own reading. Now I have to give this straight to my mum so we can talk about it.

Meet the Author

Ann Mah is an American food and travel writer. She is the author of the USA
Today and Wall Street Journal bestseller The Lost Vintage, as well as three other books. She contributes regularly to the New York Times Travel section, and her articles have appeared in the Washington Post, Condé Nast Traveler, The Best American Travel Writing, The New York Times Footsteps, Washingtonian magazine, Vogue.com, BonAppetit.com, Food52.com, TheKitchn. com, and other publications

Posted in Netgalley, Paranormal Reads

The Ghost Woods by C.J.Cooke

The Ghost Woods is the third book I’ve read by C.J. Cooke and I’m convinced she’s getting better with each novel. This brilliant mix of historical fiction, women’s history, Scottish folklore and the supernatural had me transfixed. We follow two young girls struggling with the realities of becoming pregnant out of wedlock in mid-Twentieth Century Scotland. In 1965, Pearl Gorham is sent to Lichen Hall, a large 16th Century private house set in the middle of woodland and home to a wealthy couple and their grandson. Pearl is 22 and heavily pregnant, until now she’s been working as a nurse, but she’s being driven to Lichen Hall. The family here look after young women ‘in trouble’ and find adoptive parents for their babies. Five years earlier in Dundee, Mabel Haggith is at the doctors with her mother and has just found out that she’s pregnant. Her mother is furious, but Mabel is confused, how can she be pregnant when she hasn’t done anything wrong? To make sense of her predicament, Mabel assumes it must be the ghosts that live inside her that have made her pregnant, she can feel one in her knee right now. Her mum and stepfather decide Mabel must go to a mother and baby home, but Mabel has heard what can go on in those places. She decides to go to Lichen Hall instead, where she’ll have her baby and hopefully adoptive parents will be found. As long as they don’t mind having a ghost baby of course.

What they find at Lichen Hall is an eccentric and isolated family called the Whitlocks. Mrs Whitlock is most definitely in charge, but is dealing with her husband and son’s issues as well. Mr Whitlock was a professor of biology, focused on the more unusual types of fungi and the symbiotic relationship between them and humans. However, more recently dementia has made his behaviour rather erratic. He has taken to wandering and wearing eccentric combinations of clothing, some of which are more revealing than others. Son, Wolfie, is a complex boy with erratic moods and explosive behaviour when frustrated. Mrs Whitlock herself is a strange mix of pleasant and welcoming, then suddenly cold, distant and even mean. Into this bizarre setting come girls who need help, empathy and care. Of course there are also other residents: Morwen who appears to be the only servant when Mabel arrives, as well as the other girls there to have their babies. Who will tend to these girls when they go into labour in this remote place? With folkloric stories of witches and evil fairies around, plus a deliciously Gothic house, full of atmosphere and and an infestation of fungi, that doesn’t seem to be as straightforward as they might have thought.

I loved this strange gothic mix of the horrors of nature and the supernatural. In the room where he keeps his favourite specimens, Mr Whitlock has a wasp that’s been taken over by a fungus. The life cycle starts when people simply breath in the spores, but then they grow inside the insect until it bursts out of their body. Monstrous births have a rich seam in gothic fiction and it feels like there may be parallels here, especially for Mabel and her ghost baby. By the time Pearl arrives, this mini example of a parasitic fungus is overshadowed by the fungal takeover in the west wing. Despite being closed off, she finds spores growing and multiplying on the stairs. Will it eventually take over the whole of Lichen Hall? There is a sense in which the girl’s pregnancies do seem monstrous. There are descriptions of their babies’ movements such as seeing a tiny foot stretching out the skin on their abdomens, which is amazing but strange all at the same time. Mabel’s boy is beautiful, but its not long before she notices the strange lights appearing from under his skin. What do they signify? Is this the legacy of the ghosts? The atmosphere feels isolated and wild, but weirdly suffocating and claustrophobic at the same time. When walking outside it’s best not to go into the woods where a shadowy figure awaits. It’s terrifying when one of the girls falls trying to escape this creature and it grabs her leg, seemingly able to make clear it’s intention to get ‘inside’ her skin.

The book works really well because the girl’s vulnerable position creates empathy and interest in the reader. We don’t want to see them harmed so there’s tension from the outside as well as that sense of foreboding we get from the atmosphere. I found the parts where the girls are struggling with giving up their babies, terribly moving, especially when some are given no warning or chance to say goodbye. The Whitlocks can only act like this due to the shame attached in society to an unmarried mother. We can see a change in attitudes between Mabel and Pearl’s time at the hall even though its only 6 years. Mabel is very ignorant of sex and motherhood, whereas Pearl is older and a nurse so she has more agency in her decisions. She also slept with a man at a party, after falling out with her true love Sebastian. When he turns up after all this time to the hall, they share a romantic picnic and he declares his love for her. It’s a ray of hope in an otherwise gloomy prospect for the residents of the hall. Pearl chooses to make love with Sebastian, showing a young woman making choices about her sex life, choices that don’t seem as bound up with shame and stigma. For Mabel, her early days at the hall are softened by servant Morwen, who seems to do everything for the family – besides looking after Wulfric. She helps the girls give birth too, a skill that’s severely tested if two girls are in labour at once. The new girls are also expected to help with Wulfric when they can. Mrs Whitlock’s present of some hens and wood to build a coop, felt doomed to failure to me. His erratic behaviour up to this point leaving me constantly in fear for the chicken’s lives. One question kept recurring to me, time and time again. Why are the Whitlocks taking these girls in? Could it be for free labour or is there another, more sinister reason, because the Whitlocks do not seem to be particularly charitable souls.

This is an intensely creepy book from the beginning, but as we start to find new clues it becomes more disturbing still. The strange notes that read ‘Help me’ can only be from one of the hall’s residents but who? Has Mr Whitlock had a more lucid moment? Is it a despairing mother to be who wishes to keep her baby? To be honest, by the time both Mabel and Pearl have been with the Whitlocks a few days, I was screaming at them to get out. It seems strange to me that no one enforces the girl’s stay, so there’s only one reason for their obedience and I think that is shame. Each girl is infested by this destructive emotion: they’ve been made to feel shame because of their behaviour, their condition and their lack of a man to stand by them. In one girl’s case, shame has affected her so strongly that she’s pushed a lot of her experiences into a little box in her mind and keeps them under lock and key. Denial is a very powerful tool that shuns truths that are so scary they would overwhelm us. It’s so terribly sad that the girl’s shame creates an opening for others to exploit and exert power over them, but will they succumb? Or will they find strength from somewhere to resist and discover the truth about this mouldy house and family who live there. This book is a brilliant mix of women’s history, gothic fiction and both psychological and physical deterioration. I’d been a little wary of mushrooms since Silvia Moreno Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, now I’m definitely keeping a lookout for fairy rings when I walk the dogs in the woods.

Published 13th Oct 2022 by Harper Fiction

Meet The Author

C J Cooke (Carolyn Jess-Cooke) lives in Glasgow with her husband and four children. C J Cooke’s works have been published in 23 languages and have won many awards. She holds a PhD in Literature from the Queen’s University of Belfast and is currently Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow, where she researches creative writing interventions for mental health. Two of her books are currently optioned for film. Visit http://www.cjcookeauthor.com.

Posted in Paranormal Reads

Halloween Spotlight! BeWitching Novels.

Who doesn’t love a witchy novel at this time of year? In fact, the only thing better than a witch novel is a whole series of them. Here I’m recommending series and one-offs that really fit the bill on these cold autumn afternoons. They’re exactly what I want on a Sunday afternoon, snuggled on the chaise langue with the log burner lit and preferably a pack of M&S Belgian Chocolate Toffee Popcorn. Bliss. There are golden oldies and a few new books to bring a sprinkle of magic into your Halloween.

Joanne Harris’s Chocolat Series

Whenever I pick up Chocolat I immediately feel enclosed by this sumptuous and magical world that Joanne Harris has created. It is the book equivalent of sitting in a candlelit room, Christmas tree sparkling magically in the corner, a warm fire and some real hot chocolate. It’s as if Vianne Rocher is enchanting me from between the pages. From the moment the changing wind blows her into the village of Lansquenet she begins to work her magic on the villagers, much to the disgust of parish priest Father Reynaud. She establishes a chocolate shop directly opposite the church and so begins a struggle for power. Her magic is subtle, but she is an amazing chocolatier and she has the ability to discern which one of her chocolates will be someone’s favourite. With her chocolate pot always simmering and ready with a listening ear, her shop soon becomes the regular haunt of some of the villagers. However, the priest is preaching against Vianne Rocher. He doubts her morals, dislikes the sense of indulgence she’s creating, and is suspicious that she may be a witch. Maybe he’s seen Pantoufle, the imaginary friend of Vianne’s little girl Anouk. This push and pull between church and chocolate is left behind in her second novel The Lollipop Shoes where we follow Vianne to Paris where they live above her chocolate shop. Then Zozie De L’Alba sweeps into their lives, the woman with the lollipop shoes, but she isn’t all she seems. Seductive and charming on the surface, she can also be ruthless and devious. Again, Vianne finds herself with a powerful enemy. Should she do what she’s always done before and run?

Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé takes us back to Lansquenet and feels like a lighter novel, more suited as a sequel to Chocolat. It’s a letter from an old friend that brings her back to the village, but this is an unusual letter, because Vianne’s friend is dead. She finds the village changed since her last visit, with a new community blown in with the wind. Where once the river gypsies were the village has grown, there’s now a hint of spices, veiled faces and a minaret as North African migrants have settled. So Reynaud could have a new enemy. However, Vianne finds that he’s in trouble, could this possibly be the reason she’s been drawn back to the village? I loved the feel of this novel, with old characters popping up and old adversaries seeking change. It really felt like the story had come full circle so I was surprised when I heard there was another part to the series. The Strawberry Thief is every bit as atmospheric as Chocolat and all seems settled in Lansquenet. Vianne and her youngest daughter Rosette have settled in the chocolate shop. Even her relationship with Reynaud has settled into a friendship. It’s when the florist Narcisse dies that the wind changes. His will is cause for gossip and then someone opens a shop in the square, opposite Vianne, The strange pull it exerts seems familiar, but what could this mean for Vianne. This series is so warm and the settings are absolutely enchanting. The magic is sprinkled throughout, but Vianne is not just an enchantress. She’s a catalyst. A force for change. She inspires people to cast off rules and do what makes them happy. She gives women who are unhappy and even abused, the strength to leave. She frees people and that is an incredibly powerful gift to have.

A Witch in Time and The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers.

I’m relatively new to the work of Constance Sayers, but I’ve certainly made up for the oversight since. A Witch in Time is high on my TBR for the end of this year, but it sounds just up my street. We go to four different time zones, into the lives of four different women, but between them there’s just one star-crossed love. In 1895, sixteen-year-old girl called Juliet begins a passionate, doomed romance with a married artist. Next we’re in 1932, with aspiring actress Nora as she escapes New York for the bright lights of Hollywood and a new chance at love. Then it’s 1970 and we meet Sandra who lives in California, it’s perfect for her music career but she’s threatening to tear her band apart with a secret love affair. Finally, we reach the 21st Century and a confused Helen who has strange memories of lives that she hasn’t lived. These are tragic lives, cursed with doomed love, because Helen was bound to her lover in 1895, and trapped by his side ever since. She’s lived multiple lifetimes, under different names, never escaping her tragic endings. Only this time, she might finally have the power to break the cycle.

I was determined to have an early copy of The Ladies of the Secret Circus as soon as I saw a trailer for it on Twitter.

The surest way to get a ticket to Le Cirque Secret is to wish for it . . .

As a huge fan of The Night Circus I knew this was for me and thankfully I managed to get a copy on NetGalley. This time Sayer’s takes us back to Paris in 1925 where to enter the Secret Circus is to enter a world of wonder. See women weave illusions, let carousels take you back in time, and see trapeze artists float across the sky. Bound to her family’s circus, it’s the only world Cecile Cabot knows until she meets a charismatic young painter and embarks on a passionate affair that could cost her everything. In the 21st Century, Lara Barnes is getting married and feels on top of the world, but when her fiancé disappears on their wedding day every plan she has for the future comes crashing down. Desperate, Lara’s search for answers unexpectedly lead to her great-grandmother’s journals and is swept into a story of a dark circus and ill-fated love. There are secrets about the women in Lara’s family history, which need to come to light. They reveal a curse that has been claiming payment from the women in her family for generations. A curse that might be tied to her fiancé’s mysterious fate. Both of these tales are full of spells, magic and ancient curses, but they’re also colourful, romantic and full of wonder.

The Practical Magic Series by Alice Hoffman.

I write about these four books every Halloween and I should perhaps look for some new material, but I can’t stop because I love this author and these four books are a brilliant witch series. Although Practical Magic was the first book in the series, followed a very successful film with Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock, it’s actually the third instalment of this story following the Owens family try to juggle life with their witchy heritage. Hoffman went on to write two prequels and a sequel to Practical Magic where we meet a different generation of the Owens family, both as teenagers and then as elderly ladies, hoping to change change the curse that’s been controlling their lives ever since the witch trials. We start in Magic Lessons when baby Maria is left abandoned in a snowy field near the home of Hannah Owens. Hannah is a healer who lives in isolation, but the women of the town manage to make their way to her door for the remedies they sorely need usually due to the pains and consequences of love. When men feel threatened they do terrible things and when Hannah is set upon by the men of the village, Maria escapes and makes her way down to the Caribbean as a servant. However, when the man she loves betrays her, Maria follows him back to Massachusetts and begins a war against the Puritan settlers. Will her quest for revenge blind her to real love and curse her family for a generation? Then we jump to the 20th Century and the Owens sisters Franny and Jet, with their brother Vincent. Their mother knew they were special because they each have their own talent: Franny with the blood red hair can talk to birds, Jet is so beautiful and incredibly shy but in the quiet she can read what people are thinking. As the teenagers start to interact more with the outside world, it seems that Vincent’s charisma may get him into trouble. Yet it’s Jet’s world that may be turned upside down by the curse of the Owen family.

Practical Magic is actually the third in the series and we’re one generation on, in the same house in Massachusetts. Gillian and Sally live with their aunts Franny and Jet, they keep themselves to themselves mostly, but the girls know that if the porch light is left on at night, women who wouldn’t give them a glance by day seem to find their way at night. Gillian is the wilder one of the sisters, roaming from state to state and attracting all the wrong men. When she returns to Massachusetts, homebody Sally knows that she’s brought trouble home with her. Even their magic might not cover her tracks as a handsome investigator arrives in town asking questions. Since her husband died Sally has lived quietly, avoiding her magical skills and men. Now her sister’s return might jeopardise the stability she’s created for her girls. They may need help from the aunties for this. Hoffman’s fourth in the series, published last year, is The Book of Magic. The three generations of Owens women who all live in the same small town in Massachusetts, have found a way to accommodate their family curse and their magic skills. Until Sally’s youngest daughter Kylie falls in love with her best friend. As the curse does it’s worst the family must find a book of magic, the only one with the knowledge that might break the family curse and allow the younger generation to love without limits or fear of tragedy, Sally will have to embrace the skills she’s avoided for so long and as the family fight to save their youngest member, one of the oldest gets wind of a change coming. A fitting end to a brilliant series,

The Waverley Sisters Series by Sarah Addison Allen.

This is a lovely and light two part series set in Bascom, North Carolina. They’re warm books that focus on family first and spells second, plus it’s full of food and charm so it wins me over straight away. It seems everyone in Bascom has a story to tell about the Waverley women. They live in a house that’s been in the family for generations, have a walled garden that mysteriously blooms year round, and then those rumours of dangerous love and tragic passion that surround them. Every Waverley woman is somehow touched by magic, but Claire has always clung to the Waverleys’ roots. She stays grounded by tending the enchanted soil in the family garden and makes her sought-after delicacies – famed and feared in town for their curious effects. She has everything she thinks she needs – until one day she wakes to find a stranger has moved in next door and a vine of ivy has crept into her garden . . . Is Claire’s carefully tended life is about to run gloriously out of control.

In the second book we see more of Claire’s sister Sydney and her daughter Bay. It’s October in Bascom, North Carolina, and autumn will not go quietly. As temperatures drop and leaves begin to turn, the Waverley women are also made restless by the whims of their mischievous apple tree…and the magic that swirls around it. But this year, first frost has much more in store. Claire Waverley has started a successful new venture, Waverley’s Candies. She makes handcrafted confections with specific intentions, like rose to recall lost love, lavender to promote happiness and lemon verbena to soothe throats and minds. Her remedies are effective, but the business of selling them is costing her the everyday joys of her family, and maybe even her belief in her own precious gifts.

Sydney Waverley, too, seems to be losing her balance. With each passing day she longs more for a baby — a namesake for her wonderful Henry. Yet the longer she tries, the more her desire becomes an unquenchable thirst, stealing the pleasure out of the life she already has. Sydney’s daughter, Bay, has lost her heart to the boy she knows it belongs to…if only he could see it, too. But how can he, when he is so far outside her grasp that he appears to her as little more than a puff of smoke?

When a mysterious stranger shows up and challenges the very heart of their family, each of them must make choices they have never confronted before. And through it all, the Waverley sisters must search for a way to hold their family together through their troublesome season of change, waiting for that extraordinary event that is First Frost. This is a real happy ever after story, filled with magic and warmth.

Next Up!

I must admit there are witchy books that are still on my TBR. I’m so surprised, but I’ve never read A Discovery of Witches and would love to read them after seeing a couple of episodes of the TV series. I love the mix of historical fiction and the gothic, and the addition of other magical beings such as demons and vampires. It also has incredible settings from Cambridge UK, to Venice and Elizabethan England. I must make time for them. Also on my pile is Witches Steeped in Gold by Ciannon Smart, a YA fantasy that’s based in a Jamaican tradition. I love reading about witches and magic from such different parts of the world and this is nearly at the top of my stack. I love that this is marketed as a more thrilling, fiery and powerful tale. Iraya Adair and Jazmyne Cariot are sworn enemies, but come together to carry out their revenge on a woman who threatens them both. This is an uneasy alliance and nothing is certain, except the lengths these women will go to for vengeance.

The Ex-Hex is a brand new rom-com that has apparently been a huge hit on TikTok. Vivienne was broken-hearted when she and Rhys broke up nine years ago. She tried bubble baths, then vodka and in the end she cursed him. Now Rhys is back to adjust the town’s ley lines, but everything he touches goes wrong and the village of Graves Glen seems out of balance. What if Vivienne’s hex wasn’t as harmless as she’d thought? Finally there’s The Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Mangu Sandanna, a book recommended to me buy one of my fellow bloggers in the Squad Pod. As one of the few witches in Britain, Mika Moon has lived her life by three rules: hide your magic, keep your head down, and stay away from other witches. An orphan raised by strangers from a young age, Mika is good at being alone, and she doesn’t mind it . . . mostly. But then an unexpected message arrives, begging her to travel to the remote and mysterious Nowhere House to teach three young witches, and Mika jumps at the chance for a different life. However, as this new life might be threatened, Mika must decide whether to risk everything to protect her found family. You’ll be the first to hear how I get on.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Lost Ones by Anita Frank

I’m always a real sucker for historical, gothic novels with strong female characters and this is up there with the best. The Lost Ones centres on Miss Stella Marcham and her new lady’s maid Annie Burrows. Stella is still in mourning for her fiancé Gerald who she lost in World War One. She keeps the locket he gave her close to her chest still. When she is invited to stay with her pregnant sister Madeline at her in-laws family home, Greyswick, she looks forward to a change of scenery. She sets out with Annie, who is a new addition to the household staff. Stella is unsure of Annie, but her family’s loyalty to the Burrows is long held and she resolves to get to know the unusual young woman.

Greyswick is a country estate, with formal gardens and ostentatious decor. Madeline is married to the heir of Greyswick, Hector Brightwood, who is away on business in London. At home are his mother Lady Brightwood and her companion Miss Scott, plus their staff, housekeeper Mrs Henge and ‘Cook’ whose name no one uses. However, Stella soon learns that they are not the only residents of her sister’s new home. Madeline confides that she can hear crying in the night and soon Stella finds a toy soldier in her bed. It’s not long before Stella is woken by the crying and follows the sound up the nursery stairs. On the stairs is a vivid portrait of a little boy with a hoop and in the background Stella sees a pile of toy soldiers. The portrait is of Lucien Brightwell, the original heir from Lord Brightwood’s first marriage, who died in a fall down the nursery stairs. This is only one of many secrets being kept by the Brightwood family and Stella senses a mystery to be solved. The creaks, bumps and cries in the night are her only clues.


This book sits in a long tradition and I had thought of Marian from Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White even before Anita Frank mentions the book, as a reading recommendation from one character to another. When Hector returns home, bringing with him Mr Shears, I could sense tension between that old Victorian ideal of men who are ruled by reason and the women who use emotion, instinct and intuition even more. Frank’s book is set post-WW1 and the tensions of this changeable time are apparent. Women’s roles have evolved and Stella represents this change. She expected to be a married woman by now, but has instead chalked up experience nursing wounded soldiers and like most of the country is mourning a terrible loss. She is intelligent and restless after moving back into her ‘normal’ middle class role. She has also undergone psychiatric treatment following her bereavement, complicated by the fact that her severely wounded fiancé was brought to her hospital and care. She fears being thought of as mad or hysterical, so feels a constant pressure to be measured and rational.
Other women in the novel are equally complex and class is another tension. Stella’s family are indebted to the Burrows family after Annie’s father died trying to save the younger sister, Lydia, from a house fire. Annie is acting as lady’s maid, a job beyond her experience, but is also trying to remain under the radar due to her own incredible gift that could mark her out as mad. Since the family lost their main bread winner Annie needs the job and doesn’t want to draw attention to herself, but Stella has her concerns. She has seen Annie talking to empty rooms and knows she saw something on the nursery stairs. Lady Brightwood’s companion Miss Scott lives in a very precarious position too, living with the family but being from a lower class than them. She was once a servant in the house, so how did she become so close to her mistress and does her devotion go beyond that of a companion? Also, what is her relationship with Mrs Henge and why is their contact so secretive?

Finally, the paranormal elements of the book are genuinely scary. The tension ratchets up from small events like the nighttime crying or the marble rolling across the room, both things that could possibly be explained away. Mr Shears tries to find a rational explanation for all of it and I did find myself thinking Annie’s presence was a potential cause. Then slowly, as people start to identify the poltergeist, the ante is upped and more characters experience events that seem impossible. The atmosphere is creepy and unsettling, reminiscent of Susan Hill or Laura Purcell. It also works as a female led detective story and builds to a denouement that doesn’t disappoint. Anyone who loves historical or gothic fiction will enjoy this novel. It’s a great Halloween read that sits beautifully in a genre the Victorians called sensation fiction. Perfectly pitched, beautifully written and full of interesting and complex female characters.

Meet The Author

Born in Shropshire, Anita studied English and American History at the University of East Anglia. She now lives in Berkshire with her husband and three children. Since The Lost Ones Anita has written a second novel, based during and after WW2. Her third novel The Good Liars is another work of historical fiction due out 8th June 2023.

Posted in Publisher Proof

Blue Water by Leonora Nattrass

Death came aboard with the cormorant. It arrived on the seventh day of our voyage…

This is the secret report of disgraced former Foreign Office clerk Laurence Jago, written on the mail ship Tankerville en route to Philadelphia. His mission is to aid the civil servant charged with carrying a vital treaty to Congress that will prevent the Americans from joining with the French in their war against Britain.

When the civil servant meets an unfortunate ‘accidental’ end, Laurence becomes the one person standing between Britain and disaster. It is his great chance to redeem himself at Whitehall – except that his predecessor has taken the secret of the treaty’s hiding place to his watery grave.

As the ship is searched, Laurence quickly discovers that his fellow passengers – among them fugitive French aristocrats, an American plantation owner, an Irish actress and her performing bear – all have their own motives to find the treaty for themselves. And as a second death follows the first, Laurence must turn sleuth in order to find the killer before he has an ‘accident’ of his own.

I loved that atmospheric opening. The cormorant sitting there on the bow of the ship, nonchalantly drying it’s wings in the wind and oblivious to the superstitions it’s arousing in the crew. If you ever wanted to know what it was like to take a voyage from Falmouth to Philadelphia in the 18th Century then look no further than this novel from Leonora Nattrass. It is so detailed and grabs the reader immediately, within a couple of pages the ship was as real to me as the cat sitting on my lap. Everything from the period appropriate language to the workings of the ship come together to entice you back into the 1790s. I felt like all my senses were engaged from the feel of cold sea spray to the sound of a passenger throwing up over the stern rail. The discomfort and claustrophobia of being stuck on the ship, at one point for three days near the French coast thanks to the prevailing winds, is very apparent. I loved the little details like the full ‘piss-pot’ sliding up and down the deck, the cacophony of the dog barking incessantly at the turkeys they are transporting, and the bear cub that turned out to have ‘tolerable table manners’. The author also emphasises how cramped the cabins are, with Jago almost able to reach out and touch both walls. At least its his own space though and somewhere he can relax, which he does with a drop or two of laudanum to combat the stress he’s feeling from all the subterfuge.

I hadn’t read Black Drop, the first outing with Laurence Jago, but I think this stands well alone. It’s a clever idea to take your characters and put them into a totally different situation. Laurence is a likeable fellow, a disgraced foreign office clerk, with a few downfalls in his character. Not only does he like a drop of laudanum, he’s a little bit gullible when it comes to a pretty face. He is tasked with helping a civil servant who’s carrying an important treaty to the Americans, to prevent them joining the French in their war against the British. When they come up against a French warship in the channel the treaty needs to be hidden, so when a death occurs on board not only is the treaty lost, but there might be a murderer on board. There’s such a cast of characters on board: two French aristocrats escaping the changes in the run up to the revolution; an Irish actress; a man who is possibly a freed slave; a plantation owner; and a dancing bear! Most of them have a vested interest in the treaty and all of which could be a murderer. Of course Jago can’t rule out one of the crew being involved, perhaps hiding the treaty for financial gain. As for the murder, they are investigating a locked room mystery, it’s just that this room is a cabin.

I loved how the tension built as Jago tries to find the treaty and solve the murder, especially as the stakes grow ever higher and Jago himself could become a target for the murderer. I became more attached to him as the story progressed because I felt he was a bit of an innocent, totally out of his depth and with poor judgement, such as with Lizzie. He’s perpetually confused, which isn’t surprising considering his shipmates and their antics. One of the aristocrats holds a seance, the crew mates are full of maritime stories and superstitions, including the usual giant sea creatures, plus they’re eating slop and feel exhausted. I wasn’t surprised Jago’s brain was muddled!. Aside from the subterfuge and untrustworthy passengers, there’s the constant underlying tension of being unable to get off the boat and knowing that whoever committed the murder is still there too. Once they’ve left the sight of land, these misfits are stuck together for weeks. Oh, and I forgot about the pirates. This is a fabulous adventure, a murder mystery some full on comedy here and there. I’m now looking forward to going back and reading Jago’s first adventure.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Good Taste by Caroline Scott.

In-between a couple of intense crime reads I was so ready for the comforting nostalgia of Caroline Scott’s new novel. Don’t let my description fool you though. Caroline has a wonderful way of keeping her writing light and soft, but the merest peek under that surface reveals themes that delve so much deeper into society and the historical period of our heroine Stella. Set in the fascinating time period between the two World Wars, England is struggling through a depression and Stella has had something of a life change. It’s 1932 and Stella is facing the first Christmas without her mother. With memories of her mother’s frailty last Christmas and the fear of that obvious empty chair, Stella has moved back from London to a small cottage in the West Riding of Yorkshire in order to be near her father. Money is tight, since her first book The Marvellous Mrs Raffald hasn’t done as well as she’d hoped. Celandine Cottage is rather shabby and Stella is surviving on the money she’s paid by a women’s magazine for writing a weekly article with five new recipes. When she’s summoned to London by her publisher, she’s half expecting her novel to be pulped and although she wants to write a biography of 18th Century cookery writer Hannah Glasse, she’s rather gloomy about her prospects. She’s shocked when he tasks her with a new project – a history of English food. He wants a book that will inspire English housewives and remind English men of a nostalgic past. Although as Stella starts to think about her research, she realises that a lot of food people consider to be quintessentially English, is actually from elsewhere. So she sends out a letter:

Sir,

Would any housewife in your region be kind enough to share a traditional recipe with which she may be acquainted? Is there a favourite pie made by your grandmother? A cake that you fondly recall from childhood? A dish that’s particular to your village? Perhaps a great-aunt left you a hand-written book of her recipes?

This knowledge and these flavours have been passed down to us through the generations. But an urgent effort is required to collect and catalogue these dishes. If you are able to assist with this task, you would be doing a great service.

Please correspond with the address below. I will gratefully acknowledge all contributions,

Stella Douglas

However, as she sets off on her planned route to meet food makers and the nation’s housewives her car breaks down. A dashing young man called Freddie comes to her rescue and her plans move in a different direction, perhaps toward something more imaginative.

I enjoyed Stella, mainly because she is very much the modern woman, living alone and paying her own way at a time when women’s lives changed enormously. During WW1 women were encouraged to work, because they were needed to fulfil job roles that men had left behind as they went to fight in the trenches. Women became more used to living alone, making their own way and working outside of the home so when the war ended and men returned, there was tension. Some men wanted their wives back in the home so they could be breadwinners of their family. However, so many men were lost and injured, so the changes did stand and the following generations of women were keen to shape their own destiny. Stella was enormously likeable and intelligent, very measured in her approach to the task and able to see immediately that it was much more complicated than expected. As she listed those foods seen as English she could see the influence of foreign imports in them, as well as in her spice rack. Even the humble potato conjured up images of the Crusader, Tudor explorers and Dutch horticulturist’s sailing off to the Far East for specimen plants. She spots the massive gap between the perception of Englishness and the reality. In her imagination, cricket teas and church spires clash with a colourful collection of influences, speaking more than a dozen languages. Which history does she want to write and which is her publisher expecting?

I was rooting for Stella from the start, especially when her plans started to go awry, and I found her reminiscences of her mother so touching. Caroline taps into that nostalgic aspect of food and the way foods from our childhood hold a particular place in our hearts, with just a whiff or taste bringing up strong emotions of where we were or who we were with. One sniff of a newly opened tin of Quality Street sends me rocketing back to the late 1970s and my Aunty Joan who would buy us one each year along with a goodie bag of colouring pens with colouring and puzzle books. Bread toasted under a gas grill with salted butter takes me to my grandma’s kitchen as she brushed my hair and put a bow in it. The beautifully hand-written notebooks that belonged to her mother are like a time machine for Stella, all the more emotive now her mother is gone after a battle with cancer. They cause tears to well up, but also allow Stella to smile at her precious memories of surreptitiously sharing the first slice of a roasted lamb joint. This is the first time she has been able to think of her mother with joy as well as sadness.

‘As Stella read, the shadows in the room lightened, the gramophone played again distantly and order seemed to return to the world

Another aspect of Caroline’s writing I love is the extensive research that lies underneath a relatively gentle tale. I felt immediately immersed in the 1930’s, with even little asides about fashion like Stella’s felt cloche with a frivolous ostrich feather and her Liberty & Co coat, placing her firmly in time. As Stella reminisces about her time in Paris with her friend Michael, we’re there as she wanders through cellar clubs and tastes cocktails in Montparnasse, it sounds like there’s a hint of romance in her memory of dancing barefoot with him on a warm pavement. Something about their relationship is alluring and it’s as if she’s only just started to really see her friend and his incredibly blue eyes. Her surprise when she finds out he’s in a new relationship is obvious and this isn’t just any woman he’s involved with, it’s Cynthia Palmer, a beautiful model and artist. Where will Stella fit in?

The historical detail of English food is fascinating and it was interesting to hear ideas from the early 20th Century that we still talk about today in terms of sustainability and frugality. When it comes to meat there’s ‘nose to tail’ eating, making sure every part of the animal is used – they clearly had a better stomach for offal than we do today. There’s the concept of eating locally and growing your own food. There were also criticisms that are obviously age old, such as feeling young people have forgotten how to cook from scratch and are becoming dependent on gadgets and what we now call time saving hacks. She seems to sense another trend that I thought was current; the concern that we almost fetishise food with our devotion to baking and other cooking shows, while at home we’re cooking from scratch less and less. When it comes to what and how we eat, and even what we call our mealtimes, there are definitely divides between town and country, between the wealthy and the poor, and variations between North and South. I loved the eccentricity of some of the characters she meets and neighbour Dilys was a favourite of mine. Having a mum who flirted with vegetarianism and haunted the health food shop, Dilys’s devotion to pulses and lentils stirred up a childhood food memory of my own – a terrible shepherd’s pie with no shepherds just acres of lentils, called Red Dragon Pie. The only red thing about it were the acres of ketchup we used to give it some flavour. I loved her bohemian air and she seemed startlingly modern compared to Stella who’s a little more ‘proper’. The roguish Freddie was also rather fun and very charming of course. Caroline has a wonderful way of balancing all this. She tantalises us with period detail and charming characters, throws in some humour, while also showing us the grittier underbelly of life in a depression and those moments of grief for her mother that Stella experiences, which are so beautifully rendered. Caroline makes this look incredibly easy when in reality it’s such a complex juggling act, one that she pulls off beautifully.

Meet The Author

Caroline completed a PhD in History at the University of Durham. She developed a particular interest in the impact of the First World War on thelandscape of Belgium and France, and in the experience of women during the conflict – fascinations that she was able to pursue while she spent several years working as a researcher for a Belgian company. Caroline is originally from Lancashire, but now lives in SouthWest France. Her book The Photographer of the Lost was a BBC Book Club pick.