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 Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight! Memoirs and Non-Fiction

I’m continuing my look at the books that have had a huge effect on me personally or helped me to make a difference in my life. If I’m facing a difficulty, challenge or setback in life I usually look for something to read about it. My late husband used to say that knowledge can’t be taken away from you and that the more knowledge you have, the more options you have too. I’m looking at four books today, all of them memoirs in different forms, but each quite different in how they communicate to the reader. Each one did make me think and I can honestly say I came out of each book feeling changed a little: whether it was energised and inspired; feeling less alone in the world; learning how to face life’s obstacles or reaching an emotional catharsis.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.

Joan Didion’s memoir is award winning for a reason. I found it a dense read in parts, but then my intelligence is probably far below Ms Didion’s level. However, there’s no denying the power of her opening chapter as she and her husband are preparing the table for dinner. Joan and her husband John had already been given the terrible news that their daughter had been placed on life support. Quintana had been suffering with flu symptoms, that became pneumonia and eventually septic shock. In the throes of grief, they are preparing for dinner when with no warning John collapses. John died from a heart attack instantly. In the maelstrom of emotions surrounding his death, Joan writes to make sense of what she’s thinking and feeling.

I found her writing raw and painful. I read this in my own grief and I recognised so much of the past year of my life in her descriptions. The way mind and body become disconnected; one carrying out the duties and routines of everyday life while the other is in another place. I felt like the bit that’s me, my ‘self’ had hunkered down deep inside the shell of my body, unable to cope with the shock of what happened. We were now in a world without my husband, where he didn’t exist. I think my ‘self’ was still in the one where he did. With her beautiful choice of words, Didion articulated a grief I didn’t have words for yet.

Illness by Havi Carel.

I came across this lesser known book when I was researching for a PhD. I was interested in the gap between a person’s perspective of their illness and the self presented in disability memoirs. My argument being that people write about their disability using certain tropes and archetypes – such as Christopher Reeve still presenting himself as superman. There is often a narrative of redemption or triumph that doesn’t relate to someone whose illness or disability is lifelong. I didn’t know whether these tropes were so ingrained in our society, there was only one acceptable way of writing about disability experience, or whether the truth simply doesn’t sell so publishers pressure writers to frame their disability this way. My supervisor suggested I needed to read Havi Carel’s book, because not only was she a professor in philosophy, she also had a long term illness that affects her lung function. What I was floundering around trying to describe was the phenomenology of illness – the ‘lived experience’ to you and me.

In some ways this is a text book, as Carel looks into what is illness? Is it a physiological dysfunction, a social label, or a way of experiencing the world? How do the physical, social, and emotional worlds of a person change when they become ill? Can there be well-being within illness?Carel explores these questions by weaving together the personal story of her own illness with insights and reflections drawn from her work as a philosopher. Carel’s fresh approach to illness raises some uncomfortable questions about how we all – whether healthcare professionals or not – view the ill, challenging us to become more thoughtful. A scene where Carel is devastated during a test of her lung function, because the result shows a decline, is so much worse because of the cold, unfeeling, practitioner. I had tears in my eyes reading it. Illness unravels the tension between the universality of illness and its intensely private, often lonely, nature. It offers a new way of looking at a matter that affects every one of us, because every one of us can become ill or disabled in our lifetime.

Before I Say Goodbye by Ruth Picardie.

Back in 1998, way before Dame Deborah James and You,Me and the Big C, there was Ruth Picardie. Her column in The Observer was read by millions and it was the cancer experience laid bare. Searingly honest and raw about her illness one minute and the next the day to day routine of being a Mum to two small babies. I loved how Picardie debunked those myths and archetypes of illness. How people still associate being ill with the old Victorian consumptive idea of wasting away. Those who are ill should at least be thin. However, as a result of steroid treatment for a secondary brain tumour, Picardie gains weight and has the characteristic ‘moon face’ that I remember from my own steroid days. She is angry with herself for being shallow, especially when she has to dress up for a wedding and nothing fits. She expected that being faced with death, she might be able to let go of the small stuff that doesn’t matter. It does matter though and she goes to Ghost to buy one of their flowy maxi dresses to make herself feel beautiful. She documents the progress of her cancer without holding back and when she can no longer do so, around two days before she died, her husband and sister Justine conclude.and put a frame around this collection of diary events from The Observer. This is a tough one, because I know the context is needed, but losing her narrative voice and hearing her sister Justine’s still chokes me up today. Ruth died from complications following the misdiagnosis of breast cancer in September 1997, leaving a young husband and two-year-old twins.

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

I read Gilbert’s book before all the hype and the film version. I’d been on holiday and picked it up as an easy read and I was hooked by page one. Liz Gilbert has a way of writing that makes the reader feel like it’s just you and her, two friends having a catch up after a long time apart. It’s an intimate and honest account of how she found herself again after a marriage breakdown and a long term relationship that wasn’t healthy. She decided to take a long trip and broke it into sections, each one to feed part of her: body, spirit and heart. First she went to Italy for the eating part, then India for spirituality, then Bali which sounds like an absolute paradise and the perfect place to conclude a healing journey. If you read this as a simple travelogue you won’t be disappointed. Her descriptions of the food in Rome and Naples made me want to book a plane and the warmth in the friends she made there were really heartwarming. I found the discipline and struggle of ashram inspiring, it was her time to really go inside and work things out. She needed to confront what had happened in her marriage, forgive her husband and herself, then remember the parts that were good.

Bali is a like a warm place to land after all that mental work, where the people are welcoming and Liz finds work with a holy man transcribing his prayers and wisdom to make a book. Here she learns to love again and there was something that really chimed with me, when Liz meets a man at a party and they have a connection, she’s absolutely terrified about what it might lead to. She has worked hard and found her equilibrium and now her emotions are stirred up and unpredictable. She felt safe and grounded before, so she doesn’t want to lose it. I’d spent six years on my own, after the death of my husband I’d ended up in an abusive relationship and it had taken me a long time to recover. Then I met my current partner and I remembered back to this book and the wise friend who advised Liz to think of her life as a whole, it could only be balanced if it has periods of imbalance. Sometimes we have to throw ourselves into life. I used meditation a lot to keep grounded and it has changed my life in terms of improving mood and helping me cope with life’s difficulties. However, we can’t avoid life and stay in neutral all the time. When I read this with my book club there were mixed responses, the most negative being ‘it’s okay for some, able to swan off round the old and get paid for it’. It’s a valid point, but I never felt that. I thought she was in need of something drastic to get her life back on track and I didn’t begrudge her a moment of it. You might also like to try Eat, Pray, Love Made Me Do It. A series of stories about women’s journeys inspired by the book.

Posted in Netgalley

Hello Stranger by Rachel Marks

Rachel Marks writes books that are deceptively simple, they flow well and it’s easy to find yourself six chapters in and fully immersed within the character’s world before you know it. Her novels are probably categorised as Contemporary Romance, but that suggests they follow a formula set down as far back as Shakespeare – from boy meets girl, through obstacles and eventually to the ubiquitous happy ending. I think there’s more to her work than that. Marks specialises in the messiness and complexity of modern relationships, tackling issues like mental health, addiction, divorce, co-parenting and bereavement. She has proved herself to be psychologically astute when it comes to the dynamics of relationships and families, and when I pick up one of her novels I know it’s going to be about relationships, but always with a twist or different perspective. Hello Stranger is no exception as we meet Lucy and Jamie, talking in bed one morning like any other couple. Except Lucy and Jamie are the loves of each other’s life and they are breaking up.

The book splits from this point, into the before of their break-up and the after. We get to see them meet for the first time and take the first tentative steps into their relationship towards the morning we’ve just witnessed. In between are the chapters looking at the aftermath from both points of view. I promise you, you will read this absolutely rooting for this couple just as I did. It’s heartbreaking to find that at the centre of their break-up is the question of whether they want to have children or not; Jamie does, but Lucy doesn’t. Lucy is something of a free spirit, who doesn’t really want the conventional life that she’s seen play out for her sister, who is married with two children. Lucy loves being an aunty more than anything, but has never felt maternal or had a sense of her biological clock ticking. She knows that people think she’ll change her mind one day, but Lucy doesn’t think so. It’s not a flippant choice, it’s something she’s thought a lot about and weighed up the pros and cons endlessly. She knows that her choice makes her unnatural in a lot of people’s eyes and she knows how much it disappoints her mum, who would love more grandchildren. She can’t feel what they want her to feel and it would be wrong to have children just to make others feel comfortable. I really felt for her, especially as she goes into the dating world knowing this about herself. I can’t have children and have an invisible disability so I was always concerned about when to slip this information into conversation. It’s not really a first date type of topic, when you want to be thinking of nothing more than whether there’s a spark between you. Yet, when is the right time to drop a bombshell like this on someone? If you wait till you know it’s a long term relationship haven’t you misled them? The problem is there are some things that society tends to assume about young women; they will be healthy and they will want to have a family.

Jamie is one of life’s good guys, the sort of boyfriend who will pop to the shop to buy some tampons and throw in a bar of chocolate without being asked. He’s thoughtful, open and honest. He does have baggage though. He lost his father at a very young age and still carries some guilt that he was not there when he died suddenly from a heart attack. His family also suffered the loss of a child, when his brother Thomas was stillborn. Children are an emotive subject for Jamie and he’s always known he wants them, to create a family of his own, now that it’s just him and his mum. He finds Lucy a challenge, but in a good way. She pushes him out of his comfort zone by taking him on an activity holiday in Andalusia where they go rafting over rapids. At first he’s nervous, but he finds it exhilarating. In fact Lucy is an exhilarating sort of person, she’s lively, talkative and full of ideas and plans for the future. It’s not long before he’s in love with her and he knows this is different from anything he’s felt before. He wants to be with this girl for life. When they finally discuss children, it’s clear this is something he has assumed she would want in the future. He’s known that travelling the world is important to her and he wants to discover new places and have adventures with her, but knows that realistically parenthood will curb that wanderlust. Despite finding themselves constantly back at this impasse, they don’t break-up. Lucy is as in love with Jamie as he is with her. As their relationship continues to go through milestones the question becomes ever more important, but it is essentially unsolvable. No one can compromise without sacrificing the life they want.

Is Lucy enough for Jamie, or will he come to resent her as the reality of being without children starts to sink in? Lucy can’t imagine having children for Jamie’s sake, wouldn’t she start to resent them for the changes in her life and the loss of the life she wanted. Maybe they just aren’t right for each other, despite the deepening feelings. For Lucy, Jamie is enough and she imagines a great life just the two of them. Lucy is immovable and it is up to Jamie to choose, but he can’t imagine life without Lucy in it. We follow every heart rending discussion that leads us to that morning in bed, but who will make the choice? It will take a catalyst to break the deadlock between them and throughout the book I could feel the tension rising towards that moment. I only know that once the choice was made I was desperately sad and kept hoping they would come back together, because this was a romance after all and don’t they always have happy endings?

I applaud the author for creating a character who has a point of view that many people still find difficult to understand, but making her sympathetic and loveable. She knows all the arguments and insults that people will throw at her for her choice; unnatural, cold, not a real woman, selfish. I have had the selfish argument mentioned to me in a discussion about the different siblings in a family. The childless couple were branded as really selfish, spending all their time playing golf, going on cruises and suiting themselves. I was dumbfounded by this argument that only by having children can we be truly selfless and found myself asking whether her children had wanted to be born? I kept hearing her say ‘we wanted’ children and surely that’s no less selfish than someone wanting to travel the world. People have children because they ‘want’ them, not because they’re doing the world a favour. If we stop using emotive words and assuming there’s one right way of being a woman, the decision to have children is simply a choice.

I have friends on both sides of this life choice: people who can’t have children; people who’ve sacrificed their desire for a family to stay with a partner who didn’t want them; people who thought they didn’t want children then became pregnant accidentally; people who’ve broken up with a partner who didn’t want children. There are also people like me, who lost several pregnancies, haven’t had children, then became a step-mum at 45. It’s never an easy road and I think we need to be more respectful of other people’s choices on this issue. Not everyone wants to be a parent and that’s okay. I felt sad for Lucy, terribly so, but I also felt strangely proud of her for sticking to her gut instinct and not being swayed, even by the person she loved most. To leave such a beautiful and loving relationship takes such courage and I didn’t envy their eventual decision. Marks has once again written such a bittersweet novel. I love the way it delves into the complexities and assumptions around motherhood. She takes two incredibly likeable characters and places them in such an impossible situation. However, what she also does is show that time mellows all experiences, even the painful ones. There is healing there for Lucy and Jamie, whether they eventually stay together or not.

Published on 18th August 2022 by Penguin.

Meet the Author

Rachel’s first two novels, Saturdays at Noon and Until Next Weekend, dealt with issues like addiction, divorce, parenting and re-marriage. Hello, Stranger is her third novel and came out in August. She lives in Gloucestershire with her husband and three children. When she’s not writing, she loves travelling, snowboarding and photography.

If you would like updates on upcoming books, offers etc you can follow Rachel on Twitter @Rache1Marks and Instagram rachelmarksauthor.

Posted in Squad Pod

The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line by Ruth Thomas

This novel was a wonderful surprise when Sandstone Press kindly granted me a copy. We were only three weeks into January and I’d fallen immediately in love with a new literary heroine. I absolutely adored Sybil and felt so at home in her company I just kept reading all day. I then finished at 11pm was bereft because I wouldn’t be with Sybil any more. Yes, this is what happens to avid readers. We fall head over heels with a character, can’t put the book down, then suffer from book withdrawal. All day I was grumpy and reluctant to start a new book.

Sybil’s life is puttering along nicely. She has a job she enjoys at a London museum – Royal Institute of Prehistoric Studies (RIPS). There she produces learning materials, proof reads and indexes archaeological publications. She also helps people with research enquiries. She has a great boyfriend, Simon, who is a chef and likes to make her bread with obscure grains. Her quiet, settled life is turned upside down when she, quite literally, bumps into an old nemesis from her university days. Sybil and Simon have gone ice skating, where they spot Helene Hanson, Sybil’s old university lecturer. Sybil doesn’t want to say hello, after all Helene did steal some ideas from Sybil’s dissertation to further her own research into the Beaker people. They try to make their way over, very unsteadily, and end up careering into Helene’s group. In Sybil’s case she’s only stopped by the wall of the rink. She has a nasty bang on the head, and from there her life seems to change path completely. Only weeks later, Helene has stolen Sybil’s boyfriend and in her capacity working for a funding body, she has taken a huge interest in RIPS. Now Sybil’s workplace will be selling Helene’s range of Beakerware (TM) in the gift shop and they even welcome her onto their committee as chair of trustees. Sybil’s mum suggests a mature exchange of views, but Sybil can’t do that. Nothing but all out revenge will satisfy how Sybil feels. She’s just got to think of a way to expose that Helene Hanson as a fraud.

First of all I want to talk about the structure of the novel. As Sybil’s life starts to unravel, so does her narration. A suggestion from a friend leads Sybil to a poetry class at her local library, so prose is broken up with poetry and very minimal notes of what Sybil has seen that she hopes to turn into haiku. Haiku is a Japanese form of poetry with a set structure of thirteen syllables over three lines in the order of 5, then 3, and then 5 syllables. Having lived next to a Japanese meditation garden for several years I started to write and teach haiku as a form of meditation. It’s a form linked to nature and is very much about capturing small moments. So if Sybil sees something that might inspire her, it makes its way into her narration. I loved this, because I enjoy poetry, but also because it broke up the prose and showed those quiet still moments where Sybil was just observing. She works with found objects – most notably a little teacup, left on a wall, that has ‘ a cup of cheer’ written on the side. There’s a very important reason for the fragmentary narration, that I won’t reveal, but I loved it and thought it was so clever. Many of my regular readers will know why I connected with this narrative voice. It could be that this is the only visible symptom of the chaos in Sybil’s mind as she goes through a massive shift – physically from one flat to another – but also a mental shift towards living alone, to coping with her nemesis constantly popping up and to the heartbreak she’s gone through. We’ve all had to start new chapters in life so her situation is easy to relate to.

Helene’s organisation brings much needed funding to the museum, but with it come obligations. As chair of the trustees, she wants to change the very structure of the building and some of the precious display spaces might be sacrificed. Her commercial enterprise, recreating Beakerware (TM) for the museum gift shop, means the shop expanding into other areas. Exhibits that have been on display for years will be moved into storage to make room and Sybil dreads Helene using Simon as the face of the range, imagining giant posters of her ex greeting her every morning at work. To add insult to injury Helene even inserts herself into Sybil’s everyday job by adding a section into her boss Raglan’s upcoming book meaning that Sybil has to index Helene’s writing. Could there be a chance here, for Sybil to gain some satisfaction? However, as Sybil’s mum hints, revenge can be more damaging to the person seeking it. This book is character driven and they’re brilliantly drawn, funny, eccentric and human. Sybil’s boss Raglan Beveridge – who she observes sounds like a cross between a knitted jumper and a hot drink – is such a lovely man, easily swayed but kind and tries to ensure that Sybil is ok. I enjoyed Bill who she meets several times across the book, in different situations. He’s calm, funny, thoughtful and shows himself to be a good friend to Sybil, even while she’s barely noticing him! Helene seems to hang over everything Sybil does, like an intimidating black cloud promising rain to come. She is a glorious villain in that she has very few redeeming features, and tramples all over Sybil’s world at home and at work. The author cleverly represents this in the very structure of RIPS. Sybil likes her slightly fusty, behind the times little museum. There’s a sense in which it is precious, that the spaces within shelter some eccentric and fragile people. They’re like little orchids, who might not thrive anywhere else. They’re introverts, so need familiarity and quiet. How will they survive Helen’s onslaught?

On the whole this was a quiet book. As I was reading it, I was totally. engrossed and the outside world was muffled for a while. It reminded me of those mornings after snowfall, when the outside world is silenced. I felt a deep connection with Sybil. She’s offbeat, quirky and has a dark sense of humour. We meet her at her lowest point and while we’ve all been heartbroken, this was much more than that. I’ve been broken by life just once, but I was a like a vase, smashed into so many pieces I didn’t know if I could pull them all back together. Even if I did, I knew I would never be the same person. This is the process Sybil is working through and her grief is central to the novel. My loss felt so huge that it affected my actions – I left doors unlocked when I went out, forgot to pay bills, and started to make mistakes at work. I had always prided myself on being very ‘together’ and here I was falling apart. I discovered Japanese art that healed me in some way – it’s called Kintsugi and it’s the art of repairing broken ceramics with liquid gold or other contrasting metal. It shows the cracks, the evidence that this piece has been through something, but it’s still whole and it’s still beautiful. I feel this is Sybil’s journey and what she needed to hear was broken things can still be beautiful. This was a thoughtful novel, with serious themes but a lovely hint of humour running through. I still love it now, a couple of years later and my finished copy has pride of place on my bookshelves.

Q & A with Ruth Thomas.

1. The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line is very character driven – did the idea for the story or Sybil come first?

The setting came first, in fact. I wanted to write about a fusty old institute, and that’s how the Royal Institute for Prehistorical Studies (RIPS) began. I also wanted to write about Greenwich Park. It’s an early memory from childhood. I remember it being a beautiful but rather melancholy place.

2. The RIPS is a wonderful setting! Could you tell us a bit about it, and why you set The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line in a museum?

I love museums, especially small old-fashioned ones. They have so much character and lend themselves to description. I also wanted to tell the story of a museum artefact – how it fitted into someone’s life in the 21st century as much as the time when it was made.

3. Sybil’s voice is brilliantly handled – did you do anything in particular to pin that down when you started working on the novel, or to get in the zone each time you sat down to write?

I don’t think too much about voice before I begin – I just start with my own take on things, and after a while a character and voice shapes itself around those observations. I think the mood your character’s in has a big effect on the way they tell their story.

4. Quite early on in the book, Sybil joins ‘Poetry for the Terrified!’ at North Brixton Library – could you tell us a bit about that?

I love poetry but am a bit rubbish at writing it! I thought I’d harness that inability for Sybil too. At school, we were always supposed to find poetry profound. It can be fantastic and moving, of course, but sometimes you have to discover that in your own time.

5. One of the themes that stood out while reading The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line was grief – we’d love to hear about how you explored different aspects of grief.

I wanted Sybil’s grief to be reflected elsewhere in the book too. She thinks she’s alone with her heartbreak, but that’s one of the qualities of grief – you don’t necessarily know others are going through something similar. I also wanted to explore sorrow without writing a very sad book!

6. Was any of the office politics/social etiquette inspired by real life?

I love office politics! It’s one of the things I really missed during lockdown. Small-scale conversations and seemingly trivial things are what make me tick as a writer. At the momentI’m just having to focus a bit more on remembering the details.

Thank you so much to Sandstone Press and the SquadPod Collective for inviting me to share this lovely book with you again and thank you to Ruth Thomas for her contribution to this post.

Posted in Personal Purchase

The Lighthouse Bookshop by Sharon Gosling

Doesn’t that sound completely enchanting? A lighthouse bookshop. Years ago on holiday near Hexham, I was standing outside in the twilight watching bats when I noticed a steady flashing white light in the distance. Between us friends we discussed what it might be and without really thinking I said ‘ is it the lighthouse?’ A male friend, somewhat scornfully, said ‘not unless it’s an inland lighthouse.’ I vowed from that moment to write a children’s book about a girl who builds an inland lighthouse as a metaphor for all those ideas women have that get shot down by men. I even wrote a quick version in my writing journal. This week I’m still recovering from a series of neurotomy procedures in my back and I wanted something to read that was easy to get into, where I’d be taken into a different place and community and be charmed. I should have known to go for Sharon Gosling, whose books set in a beautiful and remote corner of Scotland are always diverting with characters you can get attached to. Here we meet Rachel, who runs an extraordinary bookshop in Newton Dunbar built on the side of a hill miles away from the sea. Owned by elderly resident Cullen, it was designed as a library back in the 18th Century by one of Cullen’s ancestors James Macdonald. Rachel took on the job of looking after the bookshop several years ago and lives in the charming but tiny accommodation upstairs. Yet, life never stays the same for long and new people start to come into Rachel’s comfortable world; young, homeless girl Gilly and investigative journalist Toby, who’s recovering from a traumatic incident where he was shot. Yet these aren’t the only changes coming Rachael’s way as she loses someone close to her and makes an incredible discovery.

Gosling’s characters, particularly the women, are so well created and intriguing. Most have interesting and complex pasts that unravel as we go along with the main story. Gilly is a resourceful, but scared and closed-off teenager. She’s been sleeping in a tent in nearby woodland, until local developer and villain of the piece Dora McCreedy comes along. She finds the tent on her land and instead of allowing Gilly to move on, she takes a knife to the only thing keeping Gilly from the elements. As both Rachel and local artist Edie start to become closer to the girl, they begin to wonder what has sent this girl running and how can they help without sending her scurrying for the hills. Rachel realises more than most that it’s a tentative friendship growing between them, Gilly can’t be rushed into accepting help and they must take it at her pace. She knows this because it’s only five years since she turned up in a camper van and Cullen took her under his wing. She never talks about her past and while the friends she has made in the village ask no questions, Toby’s instinct is to root out the truth. Will he be able to resist digging, while helping research the library’s history and what might his discoveries mean for Rachel and their friendship? Edie was my favourite character. A rather irascible and formidable lady in her sixties who makes a living from her art, creating prints of the lighthouse and beautiful countryside surrounding the village. Edie has a natural elegance and a rather no nonsense manner, especially when it comes to neighbour Ezra and his marauding goat. I loved the relationship she builds with Gilly and the ‘will they – won’t they’ romance she’s embroiled in.

As you might realise from my opening, the plot based around the lighthouse’s history was really interesting to me and I loved how the mystery unfolded as Rachel found a hatch to the top level of the lighthouse. She finds it never had a light, but it did have a purpose that takes her and Toby back to James McDonald and the tragic love story passed down about his wife. Eveline is known as another madwoman in the attic, a woman who descends into madness and burns down their mansion. Using old documents in a local archive as well as finds from the gatehouse where Cullen lived, they start to piece together the true history of a couple trying to get over the worst loss they could ever experience. All this in the midst of a land grab by Dora McCreedy who would level the tower in order to make an access road for her residential development and the true heir to the McDonald’s fortune deciding whether or not to sell. It’s tense and while Toby desperately looks for a way to preserve the bookshop and Rachel’s home. The conclusion is satisfying, romantic and left me with a smile on my face. Exactly what the doctor ordered.

Published 18th August 2022 by Simon and Schuster U.K.

Meet The Author

Sharon started her writing career as an entertainment journalist, as a reviewer of science fiction and fantasy books. She went on to become a staff writer and then an editor for print magazines. Her beginning in books was as a writer of non-fiction ‘making-of’ books tied in to film and television including The Art and Making of Penny Dreadful and Wonder Woman: The Art and Making of the Film. Sharon now writes both children’s and adult fiction – her first novel was called The Diamond Thief, a Victorian-set steampunk adventure book for the middle grade age group, which won the Redbridge Children’s prize in 2014. She wrote two more books in the series before moving on to other adventure books including The Golden Butterfly, which was nominated for the Carnegie Award in 2017, The House of Hidden Wonders, and a YA horror called FIR, which was shortlisted for the Lancashire Book of the Year Award in 2018.

Her debut adult novel was published by Simon & Schuster in August 2021. It was called The House Beneath the Cliffs, set in a very small coastal village in Scotland. Her adult fiction tends to centre on small communities – feel-good tales about how we find where we belong in life and what it means when we do. You can find my review of this novel in the archive. Sharon lives in a small village in northern Cumbria with her husband, who owns a bookshop in the nearby market town of Penrith.

Posted in Publisher Proof

The Setup by Lizzy Dent.

Lizzy’s last novel was a great modern romantic comedy that, thanks to it’s main character, managed to avoid being too schmaltzy and sentimental. It also contained a healthy dose of self-discovery and self-love for a young woman who was low in confidence and used to drifting in life. In The SetUp she’s done it again. Mara is just the sort of quirky and unsure girl that readers fall in love with and I did. Being in my late forties, Mara reminded me of a time I wasn’t sure of myself and I mostly wanted to give her some hope and a big motherly hug. We meet Mara as she’s leaving for a weekend in Prague with her best friend Charlie. This is going to be real quality time for them, something that’s been difficult to get organise since her friend became a Mum. Everything in her friend’s life has changed and while Mara is pleased for her, she can’t help but feel pushed out. Charlie’s going through a whole raft of life experiences that Mara simply can’t identify with or share. The holiday is an attempt to get their friendship back on track so she’s terribly disappointed when Charlie cancels at the last minute. So Mara is in Prague alone and while wandering one day she sees a sign for palmistry and fortune telling. Mara is astrology mad, often reading her daily horoscope first thing in the morning. So on a whim she decides to have her fortune told. There is a change on the horizon, the fortune teller explains, a tall and dark man will literally walk into her life imminently. This is everything Mara has wanted to hear and she’s still digesting the news when the fortune teller explains she has to run, even leaving the keys for Mara to lock up. Within seconds the door opens and in walks a tall, dark and handsome musician called Josef, all set to play cello in the nearby concert hall. He asks for his fortune and who is Mara to object? She wants to get to know him better, because this might be her ‘one’. So she gives him a very specific fortune – when he comes to play in England later that year he will meet a woman called Mara in the pub on the seafront at Broadgate and she is his destiny.

Mara has been drifting through life. After knowing what she wanted to do from an early age and doggedly followed her dream of going to film school. She now has an encyclopaedic knowledge of classic cinema and rom-coms too of course. She even has a little card index of all the films she’s seen, because she loves nothing better than showing one of them to someone who’s never seen it before. She completed almost three years of her degree course, when a lack of confidence and blind love and trust for someone proved to be a toxic combination. She thought that he was the one. He thought he knew more about film than Mara, because he had the more serious taste, for art house cinema. As they worked on their final project together, Mara was envisioning them being a great team and she was proud of her script about a taxi driver falling in love with a passenger. All was well until Mara heard what her boyfriend really thought, both of her and her work. Then to add to her broken heart, he stole her film. Unable to stick up for herself and claim the work as her own, instead she packed her bags and left university for good. Now living in sunny Broadgate, on the south coast, Mara is trying to make friends with her work colleagues at the town’s 1930’s lido. Directly on the sea front, the lido is a great example of Art Deco architecture but isn’t used nearly enough by the people of the town. Mara is full of ideas, but it’s whether her boss will agree to them. Every idea she puts forward seems to be blocked or put on the back burner to think about at a later date. Mara senses there is more to this than mere apathy and starts investigating. To improve her finances she advertises for a new roommate and is gratified to find Ash, a local handyman/ builder who is keen to make friends, but also help her revamp the flat. Finally and to add to her new found enthusiasm for work, she decides on a bold new look at the hair salon too. When Josef arrives in the autumn every aspect of her life is going to be perfect.

I’m guessing that Lizzy Dent is placed within ‘women’s fiction’ or categorised as modern romance, two descriptors that critics can be sniffy and superior about. I think this book is the very best of it’s genre and isn’t simply a romance, at least not the conventional sort. What I enjoyed most about this book was the transformation of Mara, from her new look and the confidence it brings, to the inner growth that becomes wisdom and really transforms her outlook on life. As Mara works on the big anniversary project for the lido she starts to appreciate her new home town and the history of the incredible Art Deco building where she works. The excitement about her work brings her closer to her colleagues and they start to really bond as friends, in fact it is Samira from work who recommends a hairdresser to give Mara’s look an overhaul. She starts to appreciate their quirks and their work skills. In turn they are impressed by Mara’s ideas and enthusiasm and their appreciation gives her confidence professionally. The negative voice that was once a constant narrator in her mind, becomes quieter, allowing a stronger, more nurturing voice to develop. I was desperate for this little team to triumph and save such a unique landmark for their community.

Romantically, Mara isn’t remotely self-aware. She believes in fate, destiny and ‘the one’ – a viewpoint that her new roommate Ash finds hilarious. He doesn’t believe there’s a ‘one’ or a specific destiny awaiting him. I loved his common sense approach to life and love. He tries to get Mara to see that Josef is merely a fantasy and the likelihood of him turning up is very slim. He wants Mara to grab hold of life and to make choices for herself: pursue things that make her happy; wear things that make her confident and comfortable; improve her relationship with the family she seems to have cut out of her life. The author keeps us guessing over what will come next for Mara and I wanted to carry on reading straight through in one sitting to find out. I became so invested in her as a character and Ash is so loveable too, the sort of man I just know gives the best hugs. The depiction of female friendships is so positive and true to life. I haven’t had children and only became a stepmum at the age of 46, so I felt that distance when my friends became mums like Charlie. I had to learn how much they needed new friends who were going through the same thing, but they needed their old friends to hang in there just as much. I loved the last minute twist to the tale that forces Mara to make a choice, between the destiny and romantic fantasy of the old Mara and the more confident and certain Mara, able to make her own choices with conviction rather than leaving the universe to decide on her behalf.

Published by Viking 9th June 2022

Meet The Author

Lizzy Dent (mis)spent her early twenties working in a hotel not unlike the one in her first novel, The Summer Job. Soon to be a TV series! She somehow ended up in a glamorous job travelling the world creating content for various TV companies, including MTV, Channel 4, Cartoon Network, the BBC and ITV. She writes about women who don’t always know where they’re going in life, but who always have fun doing it. The Setup is her second novel.

Posted in Netgalley

The Love of My Life by Rosie Walsh

This is only Rosie Walsh’s second novel, but she’s established herself as one of those authors. Authors who draw you in, leave you wondering what the hell is going on, then pull the rug from under you by turning everything on it’s head. She’s also brilliant at building complex characters, the sort that stay with you. I know that Emma will stay with me for a long time. Emma is an academic, married to Leo and mum to three year old Ruby. Her field of study is the creatures that are brought in by the tide and then swept out again, her claim to fame was finding a new mutation of a Japanese crab. This took her through her masters and eventually resulted in a TV series. Leo adores Emma and the feeling is mutual, but things have been tough lately as Emma has had cancer. Leo is an obituary writer at a newspaper and because Emma was a TV personality the department was writing a ‘stock’ – an obituary they keep on file just in case. Leo asks if he can add some notes that he’d been writing and it’s here that Leo notices something wrong. Emma didn’t graduate from the university she said she did. It’s a minor thing, but along with a lot of messages from very odd male fans and her ‘disappearing times’ when she takes herself away to get her head straight, Leo’s mind is running through hundreds of scenarios. He can’t believe Emma would have an affair, but it’s the simplest explanation. He keeps digging and will have to confront her with what he’s found. Emma is becoming anxious, especially when he starts asking questions. How can she convince him that the life they’ve had together and the love she has for him is true? When everything else has been a lie.

I don’t know any other author who so beautifully combines a tender love story with aspects of a domestic thriller. Usually doubt is cast on the central relationship to such a degree that the reader stops rooting for them. Here I was really confused, because I believed in Leo and Emma. Each character felt so real and they were easy and comfortable together. When we flashed back to their marriage proposal it was probably the wrong moment, rushed and definitely not Insta-ready, but it was touching and honest. I really felt Emma’s eagerness to be with Leo. I couldn’t believe she would then have an affair, but the evidence did point that way. As the truth started to come out I felt so emotional for this young woman, who really had no one left to help her make good choices once she’d lost both parents. No one is harder on Emma than she is on herself and it was sometimes sad and painful to be in her head. I thought the author used the landscape beautifully and knowing Alnmouth well, I could see how it’s cottages and incredible view of the sea would soothe the mind. Although I’ve also been therein the midst of a storm and as the waves lashed against the rocks and driving rain set in, it was very inhospitable. I think this shows the extremes of Emma’s mood as she’s gone through her life, dealing with very deep lows and then sunny, enthusiastic highs.

Her house in Hampstead Heath, which was her grandmother’s, gives us some indication of how her mind feels. She’s never sorted through her grandmother’s things, so is living a new life cluttered with reminders of the past. She feels safe there, it’s possibly the only place she ever has. Leo is coming from a solid background. I loved his relationship with his brother and it’s likely he’s never felt truly lost and alone. Rosie Walsh has created a very rare novel and engrossing novel. So much so that every time I was away from Leo and Emma’s story I longed to back home with my book. She’s packed her book full of twists and turns, but with so much tenderness and love it never fully veered into domestic noir. Despite her secrets and lies, I never stopped wanting Emma to be with Leo and her little girl. I came away feeling that we never truly know another person’s journey, but we can empathise and try to understand. Emma’s mistake was thinking Leo wouldn’t love her if he knew the truth, but maybe she has underestimated the depth of that love.

Published on 23rd June 2022 by Mantle

Meet The Author

Rosie Walsh is the internationally bestselling author of two novels, the global smash hit THE MAN WHO DIDN’T CALL, and – new for 2022 – THE LOVE OF MY LIFE, a heart-wrenching, keep-you-up-all-night emotional thriller, which was an instant New York Times bestseller and stayed in the German top ten for several weeks. 

Rosie Walsh lives on a medieval farm in Devon, UK, with her partner and two young children, after years living and travelling all over the world as a documentary producer and writer. 

The Man Who Didn’t Call (UK) / Ghosted (US) was her first book under her own name, and was published around the world in 2018, going on to be a multimillion bestseller. 

Prior to writing under her own name she wrote four romantic comedies under the pseudonym Lucy Robinson. When she isn’t parenting or writing, Rosie can be found walking on Dartmoor, growing vegetables and throwing raves for adults and children in leaking barns.

Posted in Publisher Proof

Sunday Spotlight! Whatever Happened to Evie Del Rio by Sarah Watts

Evie Del Rio was the one, as far as Ed Nash was concerned.

Their teenage love was the inspiration for his song ‘Used to Be’ and helped Ed’s indie band, The Mountaineers, to international fame.But when Evie and her family suddenly up sticks and leave their London home without a forwarding address, she leaves a heartbroken Ed behind too.

Over thirty years later, washed up rocker Ed is suddenly back in the limelight when Evie’s love song is used as the theme tune for a new TV drama. Once the song is later featured on TV documentary ‘Musical Muses: The Girl in the Song’ it’s suddenly not just Ed who’s asking…

What happened to Evie Del Rio?

As a child of the 90’s I loved how this book opened with teenager Cassie finding out her mum is the inspiration behind one of the songs of the decade. Thanks to the 90’s becoming all the rage and an inspiration for TV, ‘Mum’s Song’ as Cassie and her brother now call it, is having a resurgence. Written back when her mum and musician Ed Nash were dating in the 1980’s, it wasn’t released until his band The Mountaineers produced their debut album ten years later. Now it’s one of the most downloaded songs of 2018. Cassie thinks the song isn’t bad, but the lyrics that have graced many a wedding become a bit cringe when you realise they’re about your Mum. As a teen I dreamed of meeting Damon Albany, who of course would fall madly in love with me and I would become his muse. So there was an element of nostalgia and wish fulfilment drawing me in from the first page.

Then we see the same situation from Genie’s point of view. Genie is Cassie’s mum and was once Evie Del Rio. Now she’s Genie, mum of two and with ‘a lovely big hunk of a husband’ called Gray. I was intrigued by what had made Evie’s family leave London all those years ago. Along with the change of name, there seemed to be something more going on than avoiding embarrassment over a song and a long ago romance with a rock star. Son Will is really taking the brunt of his mum’s newfound notoriety. Even adults think Genie was some sort of sex kitten and teenage boys don’t hold back. They chant about how many pop stars his mum has shagged on the football field, well they did until he broke someone’s nose. Yet Ed keeps blithely on, talking about his relationship with Evie and the origin of the song. Genie says he’s embellishing, but something about that time clearly gets under her skin. As we travel back and forth to Genie’s teens, when she’s still Evie, we slowly see more of their story revealed and secrets emerge that have been kept for a long time.

I thought this was an interesting idea for a book and as a middle aged stepmum to teenage girls I loved the idea of them getting an insight into the past. Imagine suddenly finding out that the person they see every day was once as exciting and full of promise as they are now. The multiple perspectives kept my interest, because it showed how the situation affects different members of the family. I loved Genie’s husband Gray, a lovely, solid and reliable anchor in a difficult time for his family. There are sensitive issues, but they are handled with care and empathy. I would recommend this nostalgic read, full of endearing characters and with a central mystery that unfolds slowly and with sensitivity.

Published by Cahill Davies 8th July 2022

Meet the Author

I’ve always enjoyed the written word and I have a great passion for music so I decided to put the two together and the result is my debut novel ‘What Happened to Evie Del Rio?’

I like to think I’m enjoying my ‘middle youth’ rather than my ‘middle age’. I’m married and Mum to two sons and a black rescue cat called Hector.

I enjoy going to gigs and discovering new music. I also love reading women’s fiction but I do have a bit of a penchant for crime and psychological thrillers! If I’m not on social media, reading or listening to music then you will probably find me on a football pitch cheering on my youngest son and his team.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Mix Tape by Jane Sanderson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet The Author

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

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

Posted in Random Things Tours

Nothing Else by Louise Beech.

Louise Beech’s new novel, pulls us into the emotional and traumatic life of Heather, a pianist who lives in Hull. She teaches and plays in local bars, then relaxes in her harbour front flat looking out to the Humber Estuary and the North Sea. Heather has a quiet life and quite a solitary one too. She has no family and relies more on her strong connections with friends. In fact it is one of them that encourages her to try out for a job on a cruise ship, something she would never have imagined doing. She would be scheduled to play in different bars on the ship through the day, but as her friend says, she can enjoy the facilities and gets to travel. This particular cruise is stopping in New York then on to the Caribbean before doing it all again in reverse. There’s something lonely and a bit melancholy about her and we learn that Heather and her sister have grown up in the care system, after their parents were killed. Music was the girl’s escape, once their mother had convinced their father it wouldn’t hurt for them to learn on the piano they were given. They both had an aptitude for music, but it was Heather’s salvation, the only place she could fully express her emotions. With their father unwilling to pay for lessons, their mother secretly sent them to piano teacher Mr Hibbard who lived a few doors away. When their parents died, both girls were taken into a children’s home together, but one morning her sister Harriet was taken to see the staff in the office and Heather never saw her again. She could only hope that a kind family had adopted Harriet, but for some reason hadn’t been able to take her too. When the girls had most needed to express themselves they would play a duet they had composed called Nothing Else. It was this piece of music that stayed with Heather all her life, instantly taking her back to the piano and her little sister.

Heather’s chapters follow her current life and the piano job she applies for on a cruise ship. Here and there the author takes us back in time to her childhood, where their father was a controlling and violent man and Heather felt responsible for keeping her little sister Harriet safe. Like all children who have traumatic home lives, Heather had become attuned to the slightest hint of tension. She knew when her father was going to explode and on those nights where the sounds downstairs were terrifying, Heather would keep Harriet out of earshot and they felt safe when they were tucked up in just one bed. She was also aware that their father preferred cute and cheeky Harriet, so knew to stay quiet and keep her head down. These sections from the past are traumatic and very moving. The author maintains the tension in these flashbacks, until we too are on edge, always waiting for something to happen. The author moves deftly between the experiences of Heather as a child in the middle of this situation, and a grown up Heather commenting on what happened with the clarity and insight of an adult. There were brilliant present day sections onboard the cruise ship where Heather befriends a writer who is also working aboard, teaching sessions in creative writing. Heather joins her morning sessions and finds them much deeper than she expected. I could recognise this from the writing therapy sessions I’ve facilitated – the prompt is always just a starting point and eventually you start writing what you need to write about. This definitely happens to Heather and is one way of processing the care records she applied for before the trip, dipping into them little by little, like a reluctant bather dipping her toe into the cold, deep water. She doesn’t want to be overwhelmed.

Harriet has her own section of the book, again split into her current life and the past she doesn’t fully understand. Now living in America, Harriet has a daughter whose left home and case of empty nest syndrome. Her flashbacks into the past remind us that Heather’s story is only part of this family’s history and Harriet may have a very different tale to tell. We learn most when their narratives overlap and we see a subtly different side of the events Heather describes, like two sides of the same coin. Again, it’s psychologically very clever and gives the perspective of the younger sibling, the one who is cared for and shown love by her big sister. I was longing to know what had happened at the children’s home. Where did Harriet go and how was she persuaded to go without her sister? Thanks to all of these questions and my curiosity over whether the sisters would ever meet again, I was totally gripped by the story and immersed into the worlds of these sisters. I enjoyed their different characters, developed by their separate upbringings, as well as their different experiences with their parents due to their ages. There are secrets that neither child was aware of, so there are some rewarding revelations to be found. I was eager to know if the sisters were somehow able to find each other. Mainly though, I was moved to read their tales of childhood trauma and wanted to understand the adults they became in light of that experience. Which of their characteristics could be explained by the past? There’s a cautiousness in Heather, because her ability to trust others is affected, leading to a quiet and lonely life. It was lovely to watch the cruise atmosphere, and proximity to others, forcing her into being sociable and to make friends. There’s a sense that she’s coming alive in these moments, which felt hopeful and uplifting. This was an addictive read that beautifully captured how childhood trauma and it’s effects can follow us into adulthood. The author showed, so beautifully, that it’s only by sharing and in this case, playing out that experience that we begin to heal.

Published by Orenda Books 23rd June 2022

Meet The Author

All six of Louise Beech’s books have been digital bestsellers. Her novels have been a Guardian Readers’ Choice, shortlisted for Not the Booker Prize, and shortlisted for the RNA Most Popular Romantic Novel Award. Her short fiction has won the Glass Woman Prize, the Eric Hoffer Award for Prose, and the Aesthetica Creative Works competition, as well as shortlisting for the Bridport Prize twice. Louise lives with her husband on the outskirts of Hull. Follow her on Twitter @louisewriter