Posted in Random Things Tours

Beloved Ghost by Fiona Graph

I thoroughly enjoyed Fiona Graph’s first novel Things That Bounded because of the wonderfully detailed historical context she wove around her story. Here she does the same for her characters Theo and Zac, who meet during WWII and survive Dunkirk together. After this experience they become lovers. Theo works at Bletchley Park with Alan Turing, then goes to work in the Foreign Office after the war, while Zac works for MI6. They have a good life. However, this is a time where the love they’ve found with each other, isn’t accepted in the way it is now. Homosexuality is a crime and it’s not hard to imagine how stressful it must be to hide your true self as soon as you leave your front door. The pressure of being an outcast takes it toll on their mental health, with Zac becoming so severely depressed he has to go away. Can this beautiful relationship survive?

I love how Fiona Graph creates her characters, then uses them to drive the story forward. There’s a quiet bravery in their choice to be together in a society doesn’t accept them. The fact that they’re establishment figures is interesting too, both working as civil servants for a system of government that actively persecuted them. The fear of being outed, particularly at work, must have been incredible. Add to that the very real fear of being assaulted, arrested and ultimately being jailed for nothing more than loving each other. There’s the loneliness too, where straight couples can be open and make connections with their neighbours or work colleagues, these men can’t. They can’t invite anyone into their lives and be honest about their love for each other. This means avoiding friendships and relying solely on each other, placing further strain on the couple; they have to be everything to each other. This intensity is hard to maintain and I was so invested in their love for each other, that I was genuinely upset when the pressure became too much.

The author presents the mundane everyday things that happen when two people live together, because of course the men live just like any other couple, gay or straight. She does this by showing their routine, the domestic detail of everyday life is touching. This is all Zac and Theo want, the ability to live like anyone else. It makes us realise how brave men of this generation had to be, just to have what a straight couple probably takes for granted. It drives home the sense of injustice they must have felt. It seems galling that they fought side by side like every other man in WWII, but back in the ordinary world they have to live with a terrible fear of betrayal and prosecution. I kept reading as I was longing for their love to triumph over everything. However unrealistic that might be. The author’s setting was beautifully evoked and I felt firmly in the mid – 20th Century. I felt the most important thing Graph succeeds in doing is to show us, through these characters, the experience of so many men who were vilified and criminalised for loving the ‘wrong’ person. Yet we never feel that Theo and Zac are just ciphers created for this purpose. They feel wholly real and I was so involved with their emotional journey that I almost expected to look up from my book and see them there. Also, this could have been relentlessly miserable, but it isn’t. There’s something hopeful and uplifting about their courage and their enduring love for each other. I truly wanted them to triumph over the obstacles that faced them and for their love, despite the challenges it brings, to remain undimmed.

Meet The Author

Fiona Graph lives in London.

Her first novel, ‘Things That Bounded‘, was published in October 2020.

Beloved Ghost’ is her second novel

Twitter @fiona_graph

Posted in Netgalley, Squad Pod

That Green-Eyed Girl by Julie Owen Moylan

The drinks glass and flashes of almost neon colour on this book’s cover were striking on NetGalley. To me they signified city living, the bar scene and potential for glitz and glamour – I’ve probably watched too much Sex and the City. However, the women depicted here were a long way from flashy, fashionista, New York City Girls. In fact there are only a couple of nights out in the whole book. This is a different NYC, where real people live and work day to day, just trying to get by in a city that’s exciting, but expensive and tough. In a split narrative, set partly in 1955 and partly in 1975, this is a novel that writes back to women’s history. It opened my eyes to a time when women were persecuted for the way they choose to live their lives. In 1955 Dovie Carmichael and her friend Gillian work together as teachers and share an apartment. The friends have a lot in common: they love jazz, a glass of whiskey at night and lazy Sundays at home. The pair guard their private time very carefully, until one day when the wrong person gets a glimpse into their lives, changing everything. Twenty years later teenager Ava Winter lives in the same apartment with her Mum and her Dad, when he’s around and not with his mistress. Ava’s mum is not well mentally and Ava is struggling to live a normal teenage life, preferring to stay home to keep an eye on her. She becomes fascinated with a mysterious box and letter sent to their address from France. Inside are letters, a butterfly necklace and a photograph with LIAR scrawled across a woman’s face. Ava wants to know the story behind the box. Who was this woman, that lived in her home and what do the letters say?

The theme that stood out to me more than anything was loneliness. I felt a contrast between the huge open city and the small private spaces where secrets are kept. The characters I felt most connection with were Ava and Dovie, both struggling to keep secrets about their living situation. The mistake Dovie and Gillian make allows a very manipulative woman to take advantage of them. Judith works at the same school and does come across as a lonely woman, but has allowed her situation to develop bitterness and envy in her character. In the guise of struggling to find an affordable apartment, she inveigles her way into Dovie and Gillian’s home and relationship. It’s clear she wants friends, but seemingly can’t stand to see two people who are happy in each other’s company and if she can’t have it for herself she might just set out to destroy it. Ava is also lonely and I think she senses a similar feeling in the box of keepsakes she discovers, it’s that connection with the sender’s loneliness that makes her so determined to find the person this box was meant for. It’s also a distraction from how miserable her own life is. With her mum and dad estranged she is often solely looking after her mother who seems severely depressed and liable to harm herself. It’s almost a role reversal, with Ava looking after her welfare instead of the other way round. I felt deeply for this young girl going through the usual teenage phases of a crush on a boy in the neighbourhood, a worry about how she looks and fitting in, and both the anticipation and fear of what comes next in life. On top of this her father uses his precious time with Ava to chat up the waitress in their favourite diner. Her mother is deteriorating, screaming and muttering through the night and Ava is so worried about the neighbours hearing her or her friend finding out what home is really like since her dad left. The scenes of her alone in their cold apartment, willing her mum to settle for the night and wishing her dad was there, were vivid and moving.

Whether in New York or Paris the settings are beautifully evoked and I could feel the change in time period from just a few well written sentences. Even the usually romantic Paris has it’s downsides because this is the reality of living there, rather than the dream. I felt the author really got under the surface of these cities and showed me what it was like to be a New Yorker. I found the LGBTQ+ scene so interesting and the contrast between women who kept their relationships secret, with more openly gay women in NYC or Paris, was beautifully portrayed. Dovie has never ventured into meeting other women and the scene where she visits a club stayed with me. There’s an innocence about Dovie that contrasts sharply with the sophisticated women she sees there, some of whom are scathing of Dovie’s lack of knowledge about being openly lesbian in 1955. I don’t think she really understood the danger she faced which could be anything from losing her job to being arrested or put into an asylum. I was just as shocked to realise that women who were open about their sexuality, or discovered, were subject to arrest and even ECT treatment to curb their ‘unnatural’ activities or desires. The nightclub raid where Dovie is helped to escape through a bathroom window is unbelievably tense and so poignant when we realise it’s link to 1975. The way police manhandle and sexually assault the women reminded me of how the suffragettes were treated so many decades earlier. The idea was to break the women’s resolve and remind them what they were really for – the amusement, desires and dominance of men. Reading these women’s experiences made me so angry, but also opened a door into a world I am ashamed to say I knew little about. At heart this is a love story and all the way through I wanted to know what had happened in that apartment in 1955 and I also hoped that Ava would find the intended recipient of the box from Paris. For me this book had a similar impact to the television series It’s A Sin. This was an emotionally captivating story that’s sure to stay with me and has inspired me to read more about the history of sexuality and the fight LGBTQ+ people still have for equal rights across the globe. It left me with a lump in my throat, thinking about how love can last a lifetime, even beyond separations and loss. I really look forward to reading more from this talented author in the future.

Meet The Author

Julie Owen Moylan is a writer whose short stories and articles have appeared in New Welsh ReviewHorizon Literary Review, and The Voice of Women in Wales Anthology

She has also written and directed several short films as part of her MA in Film. Her graduation short film called ‘BabyCakes’ scooped Best Film awards at the Swansea Film Festival, Ffresh, and the Celtic Media Awards. She also has an MA in Creative Writing, and is an alumna of the Faber Academy’s Writing a Novel course. 

Her debut novel THAT GREEN EYED GIRL was published by Penguin Michael Joseph on May 12 2022.

She is currently working on her second novel SPANGLELAND

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The New Woman by Charity Norman.

I’ve been reading Charity Norman for several years and I never tire of the way she builds her characters, full of depth and complexity. She excels at revealing characters slowly, one layer at a time, and putting them in complicated emotional situations. This is one such example and despite being published in 2017 it seems very timely as debate rages about transgender rights on social media and in the news. This is a family drama, where we are brought into the seemingly idyllic life of Luke Livingstone. As we meet Luke, he’s seen as the perfect family man with a beautiful home in rural Oxfordshire and a solid career as a solicitor. He is respected as a pillar of the local community with a long standing marriage, as well as being a good father and grandfather. However, Luke has spent his whole life hiding a secret about who he is and he’s not sure he can keep it under wraps much longer. He has been hiding a truth about his identity and it’s such a fundamental truth that he knows disclosure will rock his business, his standing in the local community and will shock his family. He might become an outcast. Yet, he might have to destroy his image and the way others see him, if he’s to stop the slow destruction of his inner self. He has to become the person, the woman, he knows he truly is, whatever the cost. Luke is focusing on his eventual rise from the ashes and the rebuilding of his life, but first he must face the flames.

As the novel opens, Luke is so desperately unhappy he is considering suicide. Luckily, someone intervenes and sends him on a different path – the possibility of becoming the woman he is inside. He has always kept this feeling under wraps because of his parents and has now followed a very conventional path with his marriage to Eilish, fatherhood and now a grandparent to Nico. Now his parents are gone, he feels more free to pursue his own happiness, but that’s made harder when you know your own happiness will impact on your family. My heart went out to him, but also to Eilish who has loved and lived with this man for most of her life. Luke is a wonderfully sympathetic character and I can’t agree with some reviewers who have referred to him as ‘selfish’ for pursuing his own happiness. Luke was born in a different time, with more pressure to conform to society’s norms and values, as well as parents who were more traditional. As a young teenager, his feelings about his gender were only just growing and without transgender role models, either locally or on television, there’s no template for where to go and who to confide in. It would seem that he genuinely fell in love with his wife, rather than chose her specifically to conceal his true identity, and he still loves her, despite wanting to change gender.

The central dilemma is that in order to successfully birth his female identity, his male identity – the husband and father his family know and love – has to die. This is a slow bereavement process as they hear the news, then see their family member begin to dress as a woman, to take that identity into the world to be seen by work colleagues, family friends and his children’s friends. Just as this process is hard for Luke, it’s equally hard for the family – I loved the inclusion of a politically aware daughter, full of support for causes like equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community, but finding it a very different prospect when the person involved is her own father. She acknowledges her father’s rights in principle, but that doesn’t stop the feelings of hurt and loss she’s suffering. Similarly, I felt deeply for Eilish who is losing the man she loves, but has to ask herself the question of whether she has to lose the person she loves too. I’m not sure about the conclusion to their relationship, and I’d be interested in knowing how common it is in real life.

I thought this book was a fascinating read and really started me thinking about how it must feel to be in the wrong body, in a society that still expects us to conform to the established norm. It really did show what transgender people go through, just to be who they are. For me, Norman’s book avoided all the controversy and cancel culture we see going on in society today, by focusing in on Luke and his family. This is one character’s experience and doesn’t make assumptions or create a stereotypical experience. It isn’t negative about Luke’s experience either, the viewpoints belong to him or his family members and while they may be upset or shocked by his news as individuals, the overall narrative remains positive and non-judgemental which I loved. I know some will ask whether a fictionalised account is appropriate, because such controversial and complex stories are often best told by ‘own voice’ writers. However, I felt that the author had insight, whether that’s through personal experience or research. It is a book that started many conversations at home about the distinction between gender and sexuality, how it would feel to be Luke and the overwhelming fear that has kept him in his male identity in so long, and how it would feel if it was our Mum or Dad. Luke deserves to be who he truly is and in order to keep his family, he must continue to be a parent and grandparent as Lucia. It’s a book that challenges the reader’s own preconceptions and I love it when a book makes me think like this, plus it makes it a great book club choice. This was informative, absorbing, deeply moving and is a story that has stayed with me over the last four years.

Meet The Author.

Charity is the author of six novels. She was born in Uganda, brought up in draughty vicarages in the North of England and met her husband under a truck in the Sahara desert. She worked for some years as a family and criminal barrister in York Chambers, until, realising that her three children barely knew her, she moved with her family to New Zealand where she began to write.

After the Fall was a Richard & Judy and World Book Night title, The New Woman a BBC Radio 2 Book Club choice. See You in September (2017) was shortlisted for best crime novel in the Ngaio Marsh Awards. Her sixth, The Secrets of Strangers, was released on 7th May 2020 and is also a Radio 2 Book Club choice. 

Charity loves hearing from readers. Please visit her on facebook.com/charitynormanauthor or Twitter: @charitynorman1

Posted in Publisher Proof

The Secret Life of Albert Entwhistle by Matt Cain.

I don’t know how many of you are Strictly Come Dancing fans, but I hope there are a few of you out there. Last weekend we watched the third episode of this series and the professional dancers did one of their group numbers at the top of the show. Johannes was a handsome Prince and a ball was being held in his honour. As he entered the ballroom he saw the couples dancing on the floor, but seemed isolated and alone. Until a male dancer, Kai, stepped forward and asked him to dance. As they started to move round the floor his face lit up and so did mine. The other couples on the floor reformed until the ballroom was full of same sex couples. It was a joyous dance about acceptance for who we are and the ability to be open about our sexuality. It really brought tears to my eyes to see how happy Johannes was to do this dance. So, for me this was exactly the right week to read a book I’ve seen doing the rounds of BookTwitter for since January. I know I’m seriously behind most people in reading this little gem from Matt Cain, but I couldn’t miss a chance to talk about it- just in case there are other people living under a rock like me who haven’t encountered Albert Entwhistle yet.

The books sits perfectly next to the Strictly dance I mentioned, not just because of the subject matter, but because both are simply little parcels of joy! I felt uplifted every time I sat to read a few pages of this wonderful story. There’s a further little link to Strictly too, as Albert reminisces about a trip to Blackpool with his friend George. They were both young men at the time and they visit the iconic tower ballroom, where George is taken with the dancers whirling round the floor. He asks Albert to think of a world where they could take a turn round the floor like every other couple there. George exclaims how romantic it is and Albert agrees. It would be romantic, but it’s inconceivable for two men to partner up and take to the floor. In fact it seems so taboo that Arthur imagines there’s a written rule against it. Years later, when he’s 64, he revisits the ballroom to show his friend Nicole and sees a couple of men his own age, waltzing round the floor with no one batting an eyelid. A realisation follows; how can anything change while gay men remain hidden? It takes trailblazers, people willing to be uncomfortable and face public displeasure, to make things change. This gives him the courage he needs to face his fears and perhaps even alter the lonely future he imagines. Maybe he could find his friend George and talk again? He doesn’t dare to hope that the feelings could still be there, but there is a small nugget of longing for that dream. Why not? After all, he still feels the same way about George.

Until now Albert has lived very closed off from the rest of society. He’s a postman, and has a routine of arriving at the sorting office at the same time each morning, organising and sorting his load for that day. He doesn’t really interact much with his colleagues, beyond normal pleasantries. We see his lonely life at home, with rare moments of joy when he puts on a show tune and dances with his cat Gracie. So, I loved how Albert’s search for George opened him up to other experiences, particularly his friendship with single mother Nicole. He’s never been to a soft play centre before or even been this close to children. Yet she doesn’t let him hesitate or worry, and just places her daughter on Albert’s knee before he can argue. He’s never been to a pub quiz before either, but once he takes the plunge, he’s surprised how much he enjoys these new experiences. It also makes him more aware of other people’s loneliness and he starts to make little changes to try and make their lives better. His dread about revealing his sexuality to people seems disproportionate, because we live in more tolerant times. Yet, when we think back to Albert’s teenage years, homosexuality was still a crime. It’s amazing to think it was as recent as Sam Gyhima’s stint as justice minister in 2017 for a government pardon to be made to everyone jailed for their sexuality. This followed a royal posthumous pardon in 2013, for the mathematician Alan Turing. The writer’s trips back into Albert’s past, remind the reader that there are years of prejudice behind these uplifting stories. Strictly’s same sex dance routine elicited tears of emotion, because what’s now accepted enough to be on family television at prime time on Saturday night, used to elicit abuse, rejection and even criminal charges. So I found this book moving and I really did fall utterly in love with Albert. The story was heartfelt and uplifting. I would really recommend it to anyone looking for beautiful characters to engage with and story full of human emotion.

Published 27th May 2021 by Headline Review

Meet The Author


Matt Cain is an author, a leading commentator on LGBT+ issues, and a former journalist. He was Channel 4’s first Culture Editor, Editor-In-Chief of Attitude magazine, and has judged the Costa Prize, the Polari Prize and the South Bank Sky Arts Awards. He won Diversity in Media’s Journalist Of the Year award in 2017 and is an ambassador for Manchester Pride and the Albert Kennedy Trust, plus a patron of LGBT+ History Month. Born in Bury and brought up in Bolton, he now lives in London.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.

Sarah Waters is one of my favourite writers. Anything she writes is a pre-order in my house, so there may be some bias in my next statement. For me, she is one of the best writers of the 20th Century with, hopefully, more to come. More recently, she has dabbled into the early 20th Century and even WW2 for her novels The Night Watch and The Little Stranger, but she started back in the 19th Century and this is my favourite from that series. Amazon calls her genre Lesbian Victoriana, which made me giggle a little, but I think Waters is doing more than that; she is chronicling women’s experience. She includes lesbian encounters and women falling in love with women, but in this book that’s an aside rather than the main focus of the plot. I think to term these novels as lesbian novels is reductive and has a sense of prurience. I remember the fuss and excitement when Tipping the Velvet was serialised at the BBC, and male journalists practically salivating over Rachel Stirling and Keeley Hawes. I think they’re intended to be read as women’s experiences of living in Victorian England, with the women’s sexual relationships as part of an unspoken subculture only just emerging into the open. She is using the device of ‘writing back’ to the historical period and bringing a group into the limelight who were hidden at the time and never portrayed in fiction. It’s about seeing the Victorian era and women’s lives in totally new eyes, and accepting that the literary canon only shows us a small part of a vibrant and varied world. As with history being written by the victor, literature of the early to mid 19th Century tends to be written by white, straight, middle-class males. Waters is trying to redress the balance and give us a minority viewpoint which I love.

Orphan, Sue Trinder, lives in a family of petty thieves and is trained to become a ‘Fingersmith’. Based in London, the den is run by a motherly woman who has a hard and ruthless side. All the thieves congregate and bring their wares to ready them for sale, while a baby farm is run on the side. It is here that a man called ‘Gentleman’ recruits Sue for a scam to defraud a wealthy heiress. We also meet a young woman called Maud Lily, she’s an orphan too, but with a home in a gloomy mansion as the ward of an odd Uncle. She has a very comfortable life, helping him with his work as some sort of secretary, but his subject matter might raise an eyebrow or two. He is an avid collector of Victorian pornography. This makes Maud very uncomfortable, but it seems an unspoken agreement that her help is in return for his protection. This strange upbringing makes Maud very sheltered and naïve in one respect, but also strangely knowing in others. Gentleman has devised a long con that starts when Sue is placed within the mansion as Maud’s lady’s maid. She will then encounter the Gentleman who will try to court Maud. They hope, that with Sue’s encouragement, Lily will fall for his charms. His long term aim is to marry her, because according to 19th Century marriage law, all of her fortune will then become his property. Then it’s a simple case of claiming she’s mad, and as long as a doctor agrees, a man could sign his wife into an asylum leaving him free to use her money. If she helps, Sue will be entitled to some of the ‘shine’.

As always with Sarah Waters books, the depth of research is obvious and this feels so real. The sense of place is so strong, in the filthy detail of the London terrace streets and the silent unease in the mansion. These two places feel entirely opposite. Where Sue grew up there’s constant noise, people running in and out, babies wailing upstairs and other people’s belongings being appraised and sold on. There’s squalor and poverty, so for her, the change to being a lady’s maid is a massive leap. By contrast the mansion is quiet with the sound of ticking clocks, days without seeing another soul. There’s a feeling of being imprisoned somehow, it’s stifling and the scene where she works in the library with her Uncle feel so uncomfortable. The tension as the con slowly starts to work is terrible. Then, in what is probably my favourite twist in fiction, the pace picks up and the reader is left reeling as everything changes.

In the second section of the book we go back in time a little to Maud’s story, some of this overlaps with the first part and some of it is her history and how she ended up closed away with only a perverted Uncle for company. We follow Sue’s journey as Maud’s lady’s maid and see how a friendship develops between the two young women. Maud is living like a prisoner and has experienced years of coercive control leaving her timid and unsure. The con would only work if Sue stays focused and doesn’t get involved with her new mistress, but their friendship is deepening and Sue is starting to have doubts about the plan. There is an attraction between the two women that was unexpected, but is there anyway to back out of the plan or is it too late? There is something hypnotic about this book. It is a long read, but unlike the Victorian novels it emulates, it didn’t feel long-winded or become boring. I was engaged at every point of the story, absolutely fascinated with the twists and turns of the plot and never quite sure who is telling the truth. I was desperate to find out who has really been conned in the end. This is one book where BBC adaptation is very good too, with great casting and a definite feel of the book.

However, the novel is perfection. It’s a historical thriller, told through unexpected heroines and delving into the more deviant side of Victorian life: pornography, pick-pocketing, theft, fraud, confidence tricksters, and baby selling. Not to mention the lesbian aspects of the storyline that would have been unthinkable in fiction of the time. In fact I clearly remember a tutor at university telling me that all the focus on deviant sexual behaviour was focused on gay men and prostitution – intimating that the thought of two women having a relationship was so taboo that it didn’t even exist in most Victorian minds. I loved that we were seeing a totally different section of Victorian society and it had a voice. There is a feel of Dickens in the poverty and living conditions, and of course he had his own wife detained in an asylum. However, there’s none of that Victorian moralising that comes with fiction of the period. This is the underclass speaking for itself and the character of Maud’s Uncle hits home the idea that even the middle classes were not necessarily as respectable and God-fearing as they seemed. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys Victorian fiction whether in the form of historical novels or of the period. It’s also a great thriller with enough double-crossing and revelations to keep any reader satisfied. This really is Sarah Waters at the height of her writing powers and should be on your TBR list immediately.

Meet The Author.

Sarah Waters OBE, was born in Wales. She is the author of six novels, Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, Fingersmith, The Night Watch and The Little Stranger, which have been adapted for stage, television and feature film in the UK and US. Her novels have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction and she has won the Betty Trask Award; the Somerset Maugham Award; The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award; the South Bank Show Award for Literature and the CWA Historical Dagger. Sarah has been named Author of the Year four times: by the British Book Awards, the Booksellers’ Association, Waterstones Booksellers; Stonewall’s Writer of the Decade in 2015; Diva Magazine Author of the Year Award and The Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence in 2017, which is given in recognition of a writer’s entire body of work. Sarah was awarded an OBE in 2019 for services to literature in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. Sarah Waters lives in London.