Posted in Orenda, Random Things Tours

Thirty Days of Darkness by Jenny Lund Madsen

The first thing I loved about this book was that stunning cover. I hadn’t fully taken it in when I received the book, but once I’d found my reading glasses I couldn’t stop looking at it. That tiny lit up window, a little orange glow of creativity in the darkness really fired up my imagination. I’d love Orenda to create some book posters to accompany their author’s work. The blurb drew me in with it’s conflict between genre authors and their supposedly high brow literary fiction colleagues. Hannah writes literary fiction and is dismayed at a book festival to see the crowds attending a Q and A with Jørn Jenson, the darling of Scandi Noir, who churns out a formulaic book every year. Yet he’s filling a tent with fans and she’s in a lonely booth waiting for someone to drop by. I loved that she launched a book at his head! In the ensuing row, Jensen goads Hannah into saying she could write a crime novel in a month. Her agent uses the incident as a great marketing strategy and pours fuel on the fire, talking to the press about the wager and even putting Hannah on a plane to Iceland as a writing retreat. There she will live with a lady called Ella and hopefully, within thirty days, complete a commercial success. Yet within days of Hannah’s arrival there’s a real life crime, as Ella’s nephew Thor is found drowned in the waters of the harbour. Can Hannah use the case to write her crime masterpiece? As she starts to ask questions about this small town community will she find inspiration, or will she be in more danger than she ever imagined?

Hannah is an interesting heroine in that she isn’t all that likeable at first. She’s prickly, arrogant and a definite book snob.

“Hannah Krause-Bendix has never received a bad review. Not once has anyone had a negative thing to say in any of the reviews of her four novels. A literary superstar, twice nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize. Didn’t win, but that doesn’t matter; anyway, she doesn’t believe the mark of good literature is how many awards it’s won. She’s actually refused the numerous other prizes she’s won over the years. No – Hannah sees herself as a forty-five year old living embodiment of integrity and will always maintain that it is beneath her to seek commercial success.”

I was starting to feel sorry for her editor and publisher. Her disgust for the current literary scene is obvious. She hates festivals and signings, prizes, social media and is dismissive of bloggers (how dare she – *swoon*). As she picks up Jensen’s latest book as if it is ‘a pair of homeless man’s lost pants’ she notes that most of the reviews are from obscure bloggers she’s never heard of. She’s no better as she arrives in Iceland, annoyed that her new landlady is late, that her jeep looks and sounds like it’s five miles off it’s new home at the scrap yard, plus she drives with her steamed up glasses so close to the windscreen that Hannah wonders whether she can drive, or even see. Then she makes the terrible faux pas of calling her friend and publisher Bastian to get her a flight back to Copenhagen, assuming Ella can’t understand her. Of course she can. I was cringing about her behaviour. Yet I didn’t dislike her. Despite these failings, plus the alcoholism, infidelity, snooping and complete conviction she’s in the right, there’s something rather freeing about her impulsiveness. We all have those thoughts, those imps of the perverse, that pop into our mind and encourage us to poke that person who’s bending over to reach a low shelf in the supermarket. We don’t do it of course, but Hannah does. In the course of the novel she randomly feels a homeless man’s head, buys the town teenagers alcohol, starts an affair with someone she’s barely met and as we know, tries to hit a man in the head with a book. She seems disconnected from others in the sense that we don’t know her family, she has few obligations and she thinks nothing of asking very personal questions in entirely inappropriate circumstances. I sort of loved that.

There is definitely a blackly comic element to this story and a satirical eye for both the book world and crime fiction in general. There’s a meta element to the story too, as Hannah makes observations and discoveries about crime fiction that then seem to bleed into the actual case. She observes that her investigations are suggesting the case is actually quite simple to solve, Jørn, who has followed her to Iceland, advises that in crime fiction the killer is never the most obvious suspect. Subsequently, her enquiries move from the her current suspect and start to take a darker turn, towards the last people she’s suspected. Jørn tells her:

“ a good crime novel has three crucial components. One: a spectacular and violent opening, preferably a murder. Two: false leads and false suspects. […] Point three is surprises.’

He also rather amusingly points out that the protagonist shouldn’t be likeable, because no one enjoys a likeable protagonist in crime. In fact during a violent clash with her first, rather boringly obvious suspect, she even doubts her own credentials as a protagonist. As she fights for her life, she berates herself for her stupid plan of luring him to a window, because she’s now in front of an open window with a possible murderer.

Of course, he isn’t the murderer after all. In the end the crime is complex and rather like the book of Icelandic sagas that Ella gives her to read. The roots of this murder lie way in the past with the last people Hannah suspected. In fact in the echo of the saga, someone takes something that is highly prized and didn’t belong to them, setting in motion years of secrets, lies and denial. Yes, there’s a lot of the clever stuff going on that us ‘weirdo’ readers like, as one teenager describes Hannah’s fan base, but there’s also a solid thriller as well. It’s a bleak and claustrophobic atmosphere as soon as Hannah reaches the island where she knows no one and feels alien. The remoteness of the town and it’s isolation when the bad weather comes just add to that sense of being completely alone. This is not a place to be injured or to be a victim of crime; there is only one police officer in town, with back up over an hour away on a good day. Jørn may preen and prance around like the archetypal action hero, but he is surprisingly very useful to have around in a sticky situation and despite his woeful writing, is possibly a good friend to have, especially where he’s the only familiar and friendly face. Alongside Hannah I suspected three or four different people and the author kept me guessing, just leaving tiny clues along the way. At first there was a little bit of scepticism -I remember watching Murder She Wrote with my parents when I was younger and my dad wondering why nobody told Jessica Fletcher to ‘bugger off and mind her own business’. However, once the action started to heat up I forgot that Hannah had no business interrogating suspects and just kept reading. She’s no Jessica and this is definitely not cozy crime. It’s dark, disorientating and scary as hell, but you’ll not be able to put it down. This is an incredible debut and I’d love to see where Hannah ends up next. Now back to that cover – I think it would make a lovely tote bag ……

Meet The Author

Jenny Lund Madsen is one of Denmark’s most acclaimed scriptwriters (including the international hits Rita and Follow the Money) and is known as an advocate for better representation for sexual and ethnic minorities in Danish TV and film. She recently made her debut as a playwright with the critically acclaimed Audition (Aarhus Teater) and her debut literary thriller, Thirty Days of Darkness, first in an addictive new series, won the Harald Mogensen Prize for Best Danish Crime Novel of the year and was shortlisted for the coveted Glass Key Award. She lives in Denmark with her young family.

Posted in Random Things Tours

When We Fall by Aoife Clifford

I’m slowly becoming a fan of ‘Outback Noir’ so I guess I picked up Aoife Clifford’s new novel with certain expectations. I was pleasantly surprised to find a few differences in this crime novel and a labyrinthine story that really pulls the reader into small town Australia with its complicated relationships. As one Merritt resident says:

“People here are a bit like trees, with roots deep in the earth, far more tangled than what’s visible on the surface.”

Criminal barrister Alex has returned to her home town to spend some time with her mother Denny and have one of those difficult conversations. Denny is struggling with dementia, but is stubborn and in denial. She had a distant relationship with her own parents and had Alex as a young Mum. Alex has bad memories of her grandparents so Merritt isn’t her favourite place, but Denny is getting worse, no matter how much she tries to cover it up and Alex must talk to her about sheltered accommodation. It’s on a beach walk trying to broach the subject that they find a dismembered leg with a distinctive black feather tattoo. It turns out that the leg belongs to art gallery owner Maxine MacFarlane and local police chief Kingsley ‘King’ Kelly dismisses it as a boating accident when the rest of her body is found further up the coast. But Alex’s barrister’s instincts tell her there might be more to this than meets the eye and she starts to snoop. King Kelly warns her off very early on and comes across as the archetypal small town cop – lazy, prejudiced and jaded, not to mention a misogynist. He holds court in his local cafe and seems well connected in the town, especially with people who matter. Alex wants to question a possible link between Maxine’s death and the disappearance of artist and activist Bella Gregg two years before. Not only did Bella exhibit at Maxine’s gallery, but as an activist she often protested wearing black feather wings that went missing at the same time she did. There’s also a strange symmetry about their autopsy results – Maxine was washed up on the sea shore but didn’t have saltwater in her lungs whereas Bella did have saltwater in her lungs but was found inland. There was also an upcoming exhibition at Maxine’s gallery, linked to Bella’s death. Could this have laid the blame for Bella’s death at a local’s door?

The plot is intriguing, full of different avenues that are never obvious. Some keep you reading ferociously but turn out to be red herrings, while truths lurk underneath like a riptide. One minute I suspected someone, then someone completely different, although that’s not surprising in a town where male suspects are plentiful. My eye was on King Kelly throughout because he’s a thoroughly unpleasant character, but there are strangers in town; a new doctor who’s just arrived, as well as a visiting investor in a potential eco-friendly extension of the town. Locally there’s the rep for the town extension who seems keen to do anything for a better future than the local fishermen he went to school with. Bella’s own stepfather is known to be dealing drugs and there’s even a link to Alex’s family, with one thread involving a GP who was the partner of her grandfather. The past definitely has a role here, both in the crime and in the questions Alex has about her childhood. I was nervous for her in a town where outspoken women seem to get silenced. Alex is just as stubborn as her mother once she has an idea in her head and she’s been without cases to distract her of late.

Aside from the crime, Alex has a lot to contend with: her husband Tom is pushing for their divorce to move a bit quicker; her career seems to have taken a nosedive since their separation; then there’s her formidable mother to contend with. I loved the snappish and often humorous dialogue between Alex and Denny. There was a lot of truth in their exchanges, but that humorous edge offered a bit of light in the shade of a terrible crime. Alex’s instincts are strong, she’s perceptive and intelligent but seems to have a blind spot when it comes to danger. She places herself in potentially life threatening situations without seeing the danger looming over her. I didn’t always understand why, but felt it might have had something to do with her childhood in Merritt. Clifford surprised me with Alex’s home town, because I didn’t get the dry outback setting I expected. Despite wanting to develop as a holiday destination, it didn’t feel very welcoming and it seems to be raining constantly. Everyone is in raincoats. This is a small seaside town and has a claustrophobic feel without the outback heat. She shows it through the people, like the local cop with a finger in every pie and suspicious residents who are reluctant to talk. She gave me an Australia I hadn’t seen before and it gave this read a unique feel. This was such a well-written book, sinister and complicated with an ending that felt just right. I’m now looking for a gap to read her earlier novels, because I’ve already ordered them.

Meet the Author

Aoife Clifford is the author of All These Perfect Strangers, which was long-listed for both
the Australian Industry General Fiction Book of the Year and the Voss Literary Prize, and Second Sight, a Publishers Weekly (starred review) and PW Pick for Book of the Week. Aoife’s short stories have been published in Australia, United Kingdom and the United States, winning premier prizes such as the Scarlet Stiletto and the S.D. Harvey Ned Kelly Award.

Posted in Netgalley

The Company by J.M. Varese

I once began a masters in Victorian Studies and did a lot of work around literature, art and visual culture. Through it I developed a lifelong love of the Pre-Raphaelites and the design of the Arts and Crafts period, so the scandal of Victorian wallpaper poisonings was something I’d researched and written about before. I was very keen to see how the author had used this moment in history to inspire a Gothic story and I was utterly seduced by that divine green cover. As the 19th century progressed, more intricate and vibrant wallpapers were the fashion, in much the shame way that they’re having a moment now. In the early part of the century a rich, vibrant green named Scheele’s Green had pemerged. The colour was so incredibly popular that by the 1850’s it was being used in the production of household items from wallpapers, paints, and candles, to clothes and children’s toys. A vibrant green called Schiele’s Green emerged in the 1850’s, but was manufactured using large amounts of copper arsenite. Arsenic had a completely unique property that enhanced colour pigments and stopped them from fading, perfect for items like wallpaper that would be affected by sunlight over time. Manufacturers knew that arsenic was toxic, but chose to promote the line that it was only harmful if ingested – a dangerous lie that lasted decades. As wallpaper became ever more popular, reports began of people suffering slow and agonising deaths. Damp homes amplified the problem because of toxic fumes released by moisture on the walls. Rooms with large fires created the same problem meaning that many Victorian homes were veritable death traps. Alison Matthews David, who wrote about the problem in ‘Fashion Victims: The Dangers Of Dress Past And Present’, explains that “arsenic didn’t fade and looked bright under lights. It was stunning and became hugely popular in clothes. A ball gown would contain enough arsenic to kill 200 people and a hair wreath 50. The amounts used were lethal.’ This background knowledge had me champing at the bit for some horrifying deaths and characters terrified by intricate, poisonous wallpaper.

Examples of Victorian wallpaper patterns using Scheile’s Green

Braithwaite and Company are a Victorian wallpaper company caught up in the arsenic scandal and murky work practices at their copper mines in Devon, where the family are from. When our heroine Lucy Braithwaite, along with her brothers Tom and John were young and living at the family’s country home there was an accident in the copper mine. There were small children from the village sent into the most remote and claustrophobic points of the mine, because only they could fit. They were all killed. Mr Braithwaite died soon after and the family chose to move to their London home, nearer to the company’s offices. The company ran under the management of long running manager Mr Luckhurst, who had worked closely with Mr Braithwaite for many years. Mrs Braithwaite concentrated on the home front, filling their home with the latest wallpaper patterns from the company. Apart from Being I love oLucy who chose to have her room painted in the palest blush pink to be a calm and quiet space in contrast to the rest of the house. Yet the family’s luck was still on a downward turn after the death of Tom, who seemingly declined while being tortured by terrible hallucinations. Were these visions from within or without?

Their luck seems set to change completely when Lucy is a young woman and a new, young and dynamic manager takes over after the death of old retainer Mr Luckhurst. Mr Rivers is young, handsome, gallant and personable, immediately charming Lucy’s mother and brother John. John is the obvious successor to the company, but he has become frail since moving to London. Lucy decided to move his bedroom down to their father’s old study so he doesn’t have to contend with stairs. His room is a combination of workplace and bedroom, the desk enabling to go through company papers and keep abreast of matters. He and Mr Rivers hit it off immediately and it’s soon common for them to retire to John’s bedroom after dinner and talk about the company. Lucy finds it strange that despite coming from Devon and apparently working under Mr Luckhurst for years, she has never met Rivers before. However, his knowledge of the company and it’s history is entirely accurate. I found Rivers suspicious straight away and I loved how the author creates this uneasiness in the description of his expressions, his speech and the sense that he’s saying all the right things, but is he just saying what the family want to hear? His name in a Victorian novel seemed significant, because my brain went immediately to Jane Eyre and St.John Rivers. The author’s description of Rivers and his gleaming eyes reminded me of the Jane Eyre character whose own eyes betrayed his fanaticism, of a religious kind in his case. Jane didn’t accept his proposal because there was no love there, but also due to this steeliness and determination, which meant he would pursue his aims to the end. I sensed this same determination in Rivers here but his aim seemed more dangerous and liable to bring harm to the family.

I loved the tension the author heightened towards the end and as I was reading on NetGalley I didn’t expect it to stop where it did. It felt rather sudden. Rivers assures Lucy and her mother that the recipe for the wallpaper colours is not being altered and isn’t causing any harm. However, his endless industrious meetings with brother John would suggest some sort of changes were being made. Also, John’s health is in serious decline. Lucy is called to his room in the night by screams of terror, apparently he sees phantoms but are they caused by his green wallpaper and it’s writhing botanical pattern? He insists on how much Rivers means to him and I started to wonder if there was more than a working connection. Was the attachment one that was considered unnatural? I felt like Rivers was trying to romance every member of the Braithwaite family, using whatever weakness he could find. I found Lucy intelligent, perceptive and able to think differently from her mother. Mrs Braithwaite really did want someone to sweep in and look after everything for her, whereas Lucy has been actively looking for evidence, befriending the boy Rivers uses as a lookout and appealing to those in their circle that they can still trust. Is there a chink in her armour? It’s perhaps likely that Rivers expects the archetypal Victorian heroine who might swoon at a mention of romance, but I was desperately hoping he was wrong. As the reckoning approaches would she be able to remain clear headed and courageous enough to form a plan? I found the final part of the book perplexing. It was exciting and nail-biting, but still with a shroud of mystery over certain details. I came away wondering and I still find myself thinking about it three or four days later. I know sooner or later I will have to pick it up and read it again. Another novel that left me with this feeling was The Turn of the Screw by Henry James; it’s scary and unsettling but difficult to pinpoint exactly what happens. I think this author wanted to wrap the reader in those toxic fumes till we were unsure which parts are real and where the supernatural creeps in, rather like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. It doesn’t ruin the book, in fact it enhances that sense of the uncanny that always terrifies. Mysterious, gothic and brimming with historical detail I definitely recommend it, but don’t expect a mystery where every loose end is neatly tied.

Published by Baskerville 16th March 2023

Meet the Author

Jon Michael Varese (J.M. Varese) is an American novelist and literary historian whose first novel, The Spirit Photographer (2018), was published to critical acclaim. He has also written widely on Victorian literature and culture, and has served in various capacities, most recently as Director of Outreach, for The Dickens Project at the University of California for over two decades.

Posted in Netgalley

The Institution by Helen Fields.

I was eager to read this having loved her previous novel The Last Girl To Die, so I’ve felt very lucky to be granted early access to it on NetGalley. Our heroine is Dr. Connie Woolwine, a behaviourist and profiler rather than a psychiatrist, she works privately alongside her investigator Brodie. She has access to The Institution to look for a killer within the high security wing. Housed in one of the towers, the wing is known as ‘heaven’ and has six inmates, all of whom are either serial or spree killers. Her cover story is an unusual one. Brodie will go deep undercover as a potential inmate, with Connie as his current therapist. Brodie has been in the millitary and suffers from PTSD amongst other issues, so Connie is there to assess the ward, meet the inmates and decide whether it’s the best place for Brodie to be treated. The truth is a lot more gruesome. A nurse from the ward has been found dead on one of it’s treatment rooms. Tara was restrained and had a rudimentary caesarean performed on her, but was then left to bleed to death. The baby has not been found and the killer could only have been on the unit. With a grieving family waiting for a ransom demand, staff and inmates at the unit have been given a different story about this well-liked member of staff. They are told that Tara will be resting at home for the final stages of her pregnancy. Now Connie is on the clock, desperately trying to find baby Aurora and which one of the killers could have murdered the ward’s most popular nurse in such a brutal way.

Connie seems maverick, with strange methods such as talking to, sniffing and touching Tara’s body. She’s an unusual narrator because I didn’t always feel sure of her. We find out that when she was a young woman she was admitted to a mental health unit after an accident left her mute and doctors couldn’t find a physical cause. She was given ECT and treated by psychiatrists until a new doctor decided to re-scan her brain and found a previously hidden blood clot. Once removed, Connie could speak again. This experience has left it’s mark and it seems very important to her, even when self-disclosing to a patient, that they know she wasn’t really mentally unwell. We’re mainly in Connie’s world with interspersed short chapters on an assessment session, each subject’s name as the title. These sections read like session notes and give us Connie’s views of each inmate. Rubio for example, acts like a baby and wants to be cuddled and nursed. He gave me the creeps, especially when he’s wearing a nappy. The Professor is more on Connie’s level intellectually, but acts very superior. I didn’t feel that the sessions were helping me understand who might have done this. In fact I think I learned more about Connie than the patients. In the meantime, poor Brodie is living with these inmates and has gone through being sedated and restrained by staff. The staff are incredibly suspicious, with orderlies who enjoy their power too much, nurses who seem to resent Connie’s presence and a male doctor who makes a pass at her almost immediately. I kept wondering who would choose to work here, in such a dangerous and bleak place?

I felt it was clever to keep the reader questioning Connie and it wasn’t just her inner world that worried me. There were points in the story where her instincts really concerned me, such as going off alone to very remote places in the building and on the grounds. There was also a major flaw in the plan, in that her investigator is so confined by his role as a patient he can only observe. This really does leave Connie to take on the more dangerous part of physically investigating, but as she’s untrained for this role and potentially more easily overpowered, it left me feeling on edge. Also someone who is thinking ahead of her could use her seemingly erratic behaviour and appearance to make her worst fears comes true. The tension is unrelenting and nowhere is safe, including rooms that have a lock! The claustrophobia is intense and works like a set of Chinese boxes: from the location and the effects of the storm, the compound, the locked building, the high security tower within the whole institution, all the way down to the treatment room and it’s restraints. These layers of confinement did make me uncomfortable and when a character is further confined with drugs or the threat of ECT, it brings it home how powerless patients and the murder victim were. These layers also emphasise the brutality about drugging someone and stealing a baby from the ultimate place of safety, their mother’s womb.

There is a strange fascination in hearing about the inmate’s crimes, mainly because they seem so at odds with the men we encounter through Connie. Her sessions feel slightly strange from a therapy perspective, but of course Connie is not really there to engage in a therapeutic relationship. Unknown to them and the staff, she’s using the session to assess whether they’re behind the crime and I was interested in the ethics of this approach. As disaster strikes and the ward has to be evacuated, the tension jumps up a level with men who are usually in their cells now roaming free. For those left on the ward it becomes a fight for survival, with only a basic knowledge of the inmates to inform them about which ones can be trusted and those who must be avoided. This was an exciting end to the novel and really did keep me gripped to the bitter end, waiting for the perpetrator to admit their role in the murder and kidnap plot. I was biting my nails, worried that Connie wouldn’t find baby Aurora before it was too late. This was an intelligent thriller, full of tension and unexpected twists and turns. It’s cemented my suspicion that Helen Fields really is a must-buy author.

Meet the Author

An international and Amazon #1 best-selling author, Helen is a former criminal and family law barrister. Every book in the Callanach series has claimed an Amazon #1 bestseller flag. ‘Perfect Kill’ was longlisted for the Crime Writers Association Ian Fleming Steel Dagger in 2020, and others have been longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize, Scottish crime novel of the year. Helen also writes as HS Chandler, and has released legal thriller ‘Degrees of Guilt’. In 2020 Perfect Remains was shortlisted for the Bronze Bat, Dutch debut crime novel of the year. In 2022, Helen was nominated for Best Crime Novel and Best Author in the Netherlands. Now translated into more than 20 languages, and also selling in the USA, Canada & Australasia, Helen’s books have won global recognition. She has written standalone novels, The Last Girl To Die, These Lost & Broken Things and The Shadow Man. Her first UK hardback, The Institution, comes out in March 2022. She regularly commutes between West Sussex, USA and Scotland. She lives with her husband and three children. Helen can be found on Twitter @Helen_Fields for up to date news and information or at

Posted in Squad Pod

The Secret of Hartwood Hall by Katie Lumsden.

There couldn’t have been a better choice for a squad of female bookworms than this gothic mystery, full of spooky incidents, forbidden love, an orphan governess and within a house that holds many secrets. There was such a Jane Eyre feel about the book and also an hint of the Daphne Du Maurier opening as our narrator looks back to the hall’s approach.

‘when i think of Hartwood Hall, there are moments that come back to me again and again, moments that stain me, that cling like ink to my skin. My first view of the house: a glimpse of stone, of turrets and gables, tall windows and long grass’.

Our heroine is Margaret Lennox, recently widowed and forced to find paid work when her husband leaves his estate to his mother. She is offered a post by the mysterious Mrs Eversham, to educate her son Louis. This should be a moment of freedom for Margaret, but she notes the strange mood of the coach driver as soon as they enter the boundaries of the hall. Local people do not come near here. There is also a very clear rule: do not enter the East Wing of the house, because it is no longer used. As Margaret starts to find her way in Hartwood Hall and enjoys her time with Louis, she does notice a few strange things. She seems under suspicion from one of the existing staff, Susan. She has noticed Margaret’s response to a letter she receives at the breakfast table and is keen to find out more. Stranger than that, she has seen a distance figure in white out in the gardens and followed a figure with a candle down the stairs and towards the East Wing. Maybe the house is haunted, but there are other mysteries too such as what happened to Mr Eversham and why do people in the village treat this woman and her boy with such suspicion and fear?

I was hooked by this story straight away. Just like the author, Jane Eyre was the first grown up book I ever read and I was enthralled with it as a gothic story, years before I started to deconstruct it’s complexity at university. I was also hooked by the Sunday teatime BBC series starring Timothy Dalton as Mr Rochester. It’s the perfect mix of ghostly mystery, intrigue and romance. This book was inspired by the classic but breaks new ground of it’s own in terms of forbidden relationships, marital abuse, and freedom. The freedom of women making their own choices, having freedom of sexual expression and to earn their own living. The governess has always been a liminal figure in literature because they are educated more than other servants and even the woman of the house. They are usually single so have more freedom in their lifestyle and finances. Here Margaret is a widow, she chooses her own destiny and can shape her life as far as choosing where she works and for whom. She also has the choice of what to do with her spare time, no household chores or husband and family to consider. We learn that Margaret’s marriage was not a happy one and she has never felt the love that’s spoken of in literature and poetry. In fact she is surprised to learn it exists and it is joyous to watch her explore that chemistry, even if I did fear for her recklessness. She also becomes the face of Hartwood Hall in the village, choosing to take Louis to church and sit in the hall’s pew, whereas the hall’s gardener sits with his family. She even makes friends with the minister’s wife, although the rest of the village seem to avoid and ostracise them.

As always in these mysteries Margaret is drawn towards the very part of the house she is told not to enter, in fact it is a perfect way into the house after the main doors are locked at night. She is sure she’s seen a candle moving around the East Wing’s rooms when walking in the gardens one evening. There are also noises in the dead of night that can’t be accounted for, but for me the tension really arises at the less mysterious points in the novel. The sly, unpleasant Susan really made my pulse race at points and her blackmail of Margaret feels grubby. She really enjoys the power of knowing something that gives her power over the other person and she seems to enjoy taking something valuable or precious from her victim. The way she commits little acts of dissent when only Margaret is looking, such as stuffing bacon in her mouth in the breakfast room shows resentment about her position. As I could see Margaret settling and enjoying her new pupil I desperately didn’t want Susan to ruin it. The period where both Louis and Susan are ill was truly tense as the whole house waits for the fever of the measles virus to pass. The isolation of Mrs Eversham and her boy is brought into stark relief when they can’t secure a nurse from the village to care for the patients. Mrs Eversham is in despair:

‘So these people will let a child and a young woman die because they suspect me, because they distrust this house? […] Because they believe in ghosts and spirits and curses? Or because they think I am a woman of low character, that I have never had a husband?’

This speech reveals another possibility about their isolation, that Mrs Eversham’s widowhood is not what it seems. It also shows me that Mrs Eversham has a different set of morals to the Victorian norm, she is wiling to set aside ideas about decency and propriety when it comes to saving a life. Margaret is so relieved when Miss Davis appears from nowhere claiming she’s come from the further village of Medley because she heard there was a child who needed a nurse. Yet the other servants seem uncomfortable and even Mrs Eversham seems on edge. Margaret wonders whether Mrs Pulley knows something troubling about this young woman. This brings another yet another layer of mystery to the house: why isn’t Miss Davis as prejudiced against the hall as the locals? Where did she spring from so quickly? By this time I was fascinated and couldn’t stop myself from picking the book up at every opportunity to resolve all my suspicions. Needless to say that when the truth comes out, it was nothing I expected and I loved it! I loved that these strong, determined female characters were living according to their authentic selves. There’s a lot of discussion around the ending of Jane Eyre, I’ve even had an argument about it at a literature talk. A woman said that she felt let down by the ending and Jane’s choice to return to Rochester, because it betrayed her feminism. I argued that she goes back a different woman, with her own money and able to make her own choices. Rochester is her choice and their relationship is on her terms. The ending of Hartwood Hall definitely goes further. It was really heart-stopping, but also satisfying. Both Mrs Eversham and Margaret make their independent choices and decide to live life on their own terms. I throughly enjoyed this atmospheric gothic mystery and it’s strong, forward-thinking, female characters.

Meet the Author.

Katie Lumsden read Jane Eyre at the age of thirteen and never looked back. She spent her teenage years devouring Victorian literature. She has a degree in English Literature and History from the University of Durham and an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University. Her short stories have been shortlisted for the London Short Story Prize and the Bridport Prize, and have been published in various literary magazines. Kate’s YouTube channel Book and Things has more than 20,000 subscribers and was long listed for the Book Vlogger of the Year Award at the London Book Fair Awards 2020. She lives in London and works in publishing.

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

Theatre of Marvels by Leanne Dillsworth

You may have heard of Sarah Baartman, a Khoekhoe woman from South West Africa who was exhibited as a freak show attraction in 19th-century Europe under the name the Hottentot Venus. She was even exhibited after her death, with one showman dissecting her body and keeping her genitalia and skull. Another museum displayed her skeleton and a body cast, which were still exhibited up till the 1970’s. She was exhibited for her steatopygic body type, where body fat is concentrated on the bottom and thighs. This body type wasn’t seen in Europe and was perceived as a curiosity. She was also a subject of scientific interest, but through the gaze of racial bias and erotic projection. In the 19th Century her body could be viewed for two shillings and for a bit extra you could poke her with a stick. Her genitalia were of specific interest as they were said to show her sexual primitivism, although this was more about the men’s erotic projection than Sarah’s own sexuality or libido. Recently, black women in academia and culture have been using her story and reframing it as a source of empowerment, rejecting the ideals of white mainstream beauty, and embracing more curvaceous figures as a source of female beauty. This is the historical and social background that I had in mind while reading this fascinating debut novel from Lianne Dilsworth. I was swept up into her world straight away and my personal academic interest in disability and the display of ‘other’ bodies added to my enjoyment.

Our setting is a theatre and a group of performers from singers to magicians who perform a variety show under the watchful eye of Mr Crillick. His current headline act is Amazonia – a true African tribeswoman, dressed in furs and armed with a shield and spear, her native dancing brings down the house in Crillick’s show. The audience watch, transfixed with fear and fascination, never realising that she is a ‘fagged’ act. Zillah has never set foot in Africa and is in fact of mixed race heritage, born in East London. She is making her money by pretending to be what the, largely white, audience wants to see. It doesn’t sit well with Zillah, but she is alone in the world and does need to make money. Besides it’s better than the other options for a young woman who finds herself in poverty. She’s used to slipping between worlds on stage and in her private life, renting a room in the rough St Giles area of the city, but regularly making her way to a more salubrious area and the bed of a Viscount by night. She and Vincent have been lovers for some time, but he is estranged from his family and can easily keep her a secret, never even walking with her in public. Their shared bed is situated in the middle class home of her boss Crillick. Now, everything is about to change, as Zillah’s consciousness is raised in several ways.

First, she realises that Vincent will never admit to their relationship in public, as he yet again cancels plans to take her to Richmond for the day. Secondly, she meets a young black man called Lucien, who is campaigning in the street. He addresses her in Swahili, with a suggestion this may be the native language of her ancestors, and he places a question in her mind that she can’t shake off. How does it feel to earn money misrepresenting her ancestors? In fact she is representing her ancestors through the gaze of a white audience. The sense that this is wrong, has always been on the edge of her conscience, but Lucien gives her doubts a voice and opens a door towards embracing both sides of her identity. While she dismisses him at first, the thought of him seeing her as Amazonia seems to fill her with shame. Lucien is working on a campaign to relocate black and mixed race Londoners to Africa and the first site is in Sierra Leonne. Meanwhile, Crillick has returned from a trip abroad with shipping containers that suggest he’s been gathering props and it seems he’s been finding new acts too. He taunts Zillah with the suggestion he has found an act that may even eclipse her and one night at his house she sees a new act unveiled to a small group of people. She is horrified to see him parade a terrified women he’s called the ‘Leopard Lady’, with strange white patches all over her dark skin. The men in the party are fascinated, drawing near and touching her skin, even roughly scratching it to see if it comes off. When Zillah notices medical implements laid out on a tray, the horror of what might happen to this woman overwhelms her. She must rescue the Leopard Lady from Crillick’s clutches. There’s a freedom Zillah has compared to a lot of Victorian heroines we might remember, due to her station in life there are certain rules and etiquette of dress and behaviour that don’t apply. Although that freedom does come at a cost – poverty, not belonging anywhere, and the way she is viewed in more polite society. She knows that if she could be with someone like Lucien then she’d be settled in a place society expects of her, still in poverty but at least belonging to a community. Her feelings for Vincent can never come to anything, because his society would never accept her and they would always be a secret.

Through Zillah’s search for the Leopard Lady, we see the truth of a man wiling to make his money treating human beings as objects for display. Whereas before Zillah’s act has at least had the sheen of the theatre world, the Leopard Lady will not be afforded that excitement and sense of performance. This is because Zillah was acting a part, whereas this poor woman is being shown as she is because due to how she looks and where’s she’s from. Zillah chooses to put on her Amazonia costume and take to a stage, if living hand to mouth is ever a choice. Crillick’s plans revolve around his ‘Odditorium’, but in the meantime he plans to show his new acquisition privately to small groups of men. I could imagine these sordid gatherings taking place, with men enjoying an after dinner viewing where the woman is both viewed, potentially sexually assaulted and experimented on. It made me feel sick. I was willing Zillah on in her efforts to find and free the lady, and I found her quest tense and gripping. I thought Zillah’s awakening was handled really well, but I was in two minds about where I wanted her to story to end. Of course there’s an opportunity of relocation to a new life in Sierra Leone, but here I felt strangely similar feelings to those I had about another 19th Century heroine Jane Eyre. We know that Jane’s flight from Thornfield Hall, and the man she loves, is the right move for her. Yet despite the space and time it’s given her to process Rochester’s attempt at bigamy, I never warm to St John Rivers. Although he rescues her from the moors and gives her life purpose again, when he proposes, I can’t be the only reader who’s screaming ‘No’ in her head. As for Zillah, I though Lucien was a good, honest and intelligent man, but to me he feels like the wrong choice. The contrast between him and the passionate relationship she has with Vincent is rather like the two sides of her identity battling against each other. I was hoping that, for a while at least, she could find a way for herself, separate from them both.

This was an exciting and fascinating tale, with elements of the thriller and a central character who is resilient and brave in her quest. I found the settings of the theatre, and Crillick’s home, beautifully rich. Whereas the St Giles area is brought to life with descriptions of sights, smells, many bodies sharing rented rooms and even beds in an attempt to keep costs down. The author has backed up her tale with solid research into freak shows, the many layers of Victorian society and details of food, fashion and leisure time. Through her main character we get an insight into women’s lives, the realities of being bi-racial and the struggles of identity and belonging. I also enjoyed the themes of ‘otherness’ and how outsiders survive in society; the complexities of display and exploitation when weighed against poverty and deprivation. Can freak shows be acceptable if individuals make a choice to exhibit themselves? Or should any exhibition of ‘different’ bodies be unacceptable? This is a question that still needs debate in light of television shows that exhibit overweight and disabled bodies in a prurient way. I really liked Zillah‘s quest to rescue another woman in danger and her own personal journey too. I read this so quickly and will definitely be putting a finished copy on my bookshelves, because I know it’s one I’ll want to read again and again. I just know I’ll find more and more detail in this brilliantly atmospheric exploration of the dark corners of Victorian London.

Published Penguin 28th April 2022.

Meet The Author

Lianne Dillsworth

Lianne Dillsworth has MAs in Creative Writing and Victorian Studies and won a place on the London Library Emerging Writers Programme. She was first runner up in the 2020 SI Leeds Literary Prize for Black and Asian Women Writers in the UK. Lianne lives in London where she works on growing inclusion within the Civil Service. Theatre of Marvels is her debut novel.

Posted in Netgalley

The Close by Jane Casey. A Maeve Kerrigan Mystery.

I absolutely loved being back in the world of Maeve Kerrigan. So much so I read this straight through in one day. The set up was brilliant – a modern slavery racket is suspected and Maeve must get close to one of the conspirators, an unlikely criminal. The mayor of London’s assistant has brought a sad case to their attention. A young man called Davey who died after suffering neglect, starvation and physical abuse. He was the perfect target for slavery, an easily influenced man with learning disabilities but physically strong and capable. Strangely, there have been other young men go missing from the system after using the same address, that of an elderly lady in a normal suburban close. There needs to be close surveillance so Una Burt puts her best officers on it, Maeve must move into the close with Josh Derwent as her boyfriend, pretending to dog sit for the usual occupant. Josh thinks Maeve needs a break from her normal routine, because after the court case convicting her partner of domestic abuse Maeve has been drifting and not herself at all. Similarly, Maeve thinks Josh could do with a break away from his live in girlfriend Melissa. How will they fare as a couple on the close and will they be able to flush out the conspirators in the slavery case?

I loved the tension between Derwent and Maeve in this story, close together in the house and away from all their usual distractions it brings their chemistry into focus. Every time they behaved like a couple it felt completely natural, until it was imagining them going back to colleagues was unthinkable. They have had so many obstacles in their time as friends, always something preventing them from becoming more, so could this be the perfect timing? At times the tension in their house was more unbearable than the tension in the case! There are parts of Derwent that I don’t like, but I can see ways in which he’d be good for Maeve and vice versa. They ingratiate themselves with the neighbours easily because they sense this chemistry, they seem like a real couple. The elderly lady in question is tricky, seemingly an innocent and kindly woman but if she is involved with mistreating these men, her kindness is all a front. She reveals that she does provide a bed for young men with disabilities from time to time, but doesn’t elaborate on whether it’s an official arrangement. When Maeve discovers there’s a oreviously unknown son, whose wife runs a care home, the chain starts to come together. However this isn’t the only crime lurking under the respectability of suburbia. The author uses short chapters narrated by a man who is very unpleasant and possibly dangerous. He lurks after dark watching through the windows of those who don’t close their curtains, even Josh and Maeve. He has a very incel vibe, so could he be a lone male with little female attention and experience, or is he hiding his feelings about women under the veneer of a happy family man?

I enjoyed watching these people through Maeve’s eyes as her instincts are usually spot on and her insight seems to be coming back to her as the novel continues. This break is exactly what she needed. Her interactions with a lady with dementia in the close are brilliant because Maeve doesn’t dismiss what she claims to have seen just because of her illness. Maeve knows there are moments of lucidity and keeps thinking about what she’s said and trying to interpret it. When she goes missing in the dark Maeve is desperate to find her, but so is our unknown man and it’s a real heart pounding part of the book, hoping against hope that Maeve gets to her first. It’s clear that this seemingly happy and respectable close is anything but, with the men hiding all sorts from irritating foibles to murder. Towards the end I was powering through the pages to find out who was hurting girls in the close, whether Maeve’s fire and copper’s instinct was returning, but also whether Josh and aMaeve were going to confront their feelings for each other. This was an addictive thriller, focusing on one of my favourite fictional police duos and I loved seeing them in a different environment, but still flushing out crime.

Published by Harper Collins 2nd March

Meet The Author

Jane Casey is a bestselling crime writer who was born and brought up in Dublin. A former editor, she has written twelve crime novels for adults (including ten in the Maeve Kerrigan series) and three for teenagers (the Jess Tennant series). Her books have been international bestsellers, critically acclaimed for their realism and accuracy. The Maeve Kerrigan series has been nominated for many awards: in 2015 Jane won the Mary Higgins Clark Award for The Stranger You Know and Irish Crime Novel of the Year for After the Fire. In 2019, Cruel Acts was chosen as Irish Crime Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. It was a Sunday Times bestseller. Stand-alone novel The Killing Kind was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick in 2021, and is currently being filmed for television. Jane lives in southwest London with her husband, who is a criminal barrister, and their two children.

Posted in Personal Purchase

Other Women by Emma Flint

It is 1923 and a country is in mourning. Thousands of husbands, fathers, sons and sweethearts were lost in the war, millions more returned home wounded and forever changed.

Beatrice Cade is an orphan, unmarried and childless. London is full of invisible women who struggle to find somewhere to work through their grief. But Bea is determined to make a new life for herself. She takes a room in a Bloomsbury ladies’ club and a job in the City. Just when her new world is taking shape, a fleeting encounter threatens to ruin everything.

Kate Ryan is an ordinary wife and mother. Following the end of the war, she has managed to build an enviable life with her husband and young daughter. To anyone looking in from the outside, they seem like a normal, happy family. But when two policemen knock on her door one morning and threaten to destroy the facade Kate has created, she knows what she has to do to protect the people she loves. And suddenly, two women who never should have met are connected for ever . . .

I can’t say enough great things about this incredible novel, but I’m going to try and do it justice. It’s a historical mystery, extraordinarily clever psychologically and made me think about feminism, sisterhood and the difference between what society expects women’s lives to look like and the life decisions we make for ourselves. Flint has told her story through the eyes of the Kate and Bea, two women who are strangers, but connected by one man. Bea was an orphan and is now an unmarried woman in her late thirties. She’s the book-keeper for a firm in London who has pretty much resigned herself to being a career girl and living in a woman’s hostel. All this changes when she meets the handsome and charming Tom Ryan, a salesman at her firm. Bea struggles to believe that this man, with his movie star looks, would be interested in a woman like her. She expects him to chat up the young women, who have noticed him and are giggling, but he makes a point of stopping at her desk. He comments on her name, telling her that Beatrice was the great love of a poet. Bea is smitten and agrees to meet him, despite the fact that he is married. She is mentally aware of his wife’s presence, the third person always standing between them. Despite this, will Bea allow herself to succumb to Tom’s advances and can it end any other way but heartbreak or disaster?

Flint’s setting is vitally important to this story. We can draw parallels between contemporary women and these two characters, but they are also very much products of their time. This is a post-war Britain and everything has been changed by a war so terrible it is known as the Great War. Men have come home destroyed by what they’ve experienced physically and mentally.

‘There were empty sleeves and eye patches that one must not stare at or draw attention to; there were crutches and bandages and dreadful ridges of thick pink skin; and sometimes there was simply an absence in a face where a man had left a part of himself – the brightest and most vital part – in a muddy foreign field.’

Whereas women could be said to have flourished. Yes, there’s the ever present weight of grief and loss, but some of the changes in women’s lives had been positive. Both Kate and Bea are working women, and represent the many women who became wage earners during the Great War, plugging the gap in the employment market as more men joined up to fight. This was liberating for many women, who were then reluctant to move back to the domestic sphere after the war. There were also a shortage of men in the marriage market, some women had lost their fiancé or husband but there were others who came of age just after WW1 for whom eligible men were scarce. Having the option of throwing themselves into an absorbing career instead proved very fulfilling for some, like Morley’s office manager who clearly expected Bea to be left on the shelf and had marked her out as a potential replacement. Women being outside the domestic sphere meant that the pre-war rigid barriers of social class started to be breached. Different classes of people mingled in work places and matches that would have been impossible a few years before became more common. Bea still longs for love, but as her personal life becomes complicated and painful she does muse on what she has lost. As a single working woman she had women friends and lived in a vibrant city where she could take herself to the theatre, to a museum or for tea with friends. Now that she can see the reality of a relationship, she wonders was she better off before?

Bea knows there is a difference between herself and the girls who have young men to wait for. These are carefree girls, full of life, ‘neat and slender – sleek hair, dainty ankles, flickering glances and quicksilver laughter.’ She’s of a different sort, in looks and class. Where her married sister Jane looks on career girls as modern, smart and fashionable Bea looks a little closer and sees

frizzed modern hairstyles that they’d seen in advertisements and that didn’t suit them; women with lines around their eyes that no amount of cream or powder would cover. And women who, despite the well-cut clothes, had red rough hands and nails cut to the quick.’

Bea is well aware she is plain and there are references to Jane Eyre in the way she sees herself. After talking to Tom, she sees herself in the bathroom mirror and is shocked at the difference between her tumultuous, rich inner life and this pale, plain outside. She feels such overwhelming emotions that she disassociates from her rather normal body; ‘how can all these feelings come out of this plain face and body?’ It immediately took me to the conversation between Jane and Rochester when she challenges him for underestimating her:

‘Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! I have as much soul as you, and full as much heart!…’

In fact Tom uses the comparison to flatter her, praising her strength and courage in living such a lonely life. Patronised by her sister too, she is full of anger inside and expresses the creeping fear that not only is she without a husband, she’s noticed younger, smarter girls starting to come into the workplace. Bright, young things who might be better at her job and quicker. She admits to being afraid of the day when the axe falls, her clothes become shabbier and she gets more desperate. Yet is it any better to be at the mercy of a man? As Kate’s story unfolds we can see that the state of being a wife, is just as unstable and scary, because where Bea has all the responsibility and makes decisions for herself Kate is powerless, entirely dependent on the whims of her husband. A husband who is capable of terrible things. The more Kate starts to learn about her husband, tiny jigsaw pieces start to slot together in her head. She has to admit to herself that she has always known there was something hidden underneath:

‘Hadn’t I known – hadn’t I always known – that he had something terrible inside him, something that lay rotting under the smooth surface of our normal life? I saw glimpses of it sometimes. I thought of his face as he persuaded me, sweet-talked me, into doing things I did not want to do. I thought of how dirty, how shamed, I felt afterwards.’

Set in the 1920’s, this story is based on the true case of Emily Kaye and her married lover Herbert Mahon. The novel’s aim was to give voice to Mahon’s wife and so Kate’s voice came to life, creating a brilliant interplay between her narration and Bea’s. I loved how well the pace was controlled, from relatively slow at the beginning to a breakneck pace towards the end as Kate makes sense of what has happened and holds the key to solve the mystery. I loved how the author showed us the truth of contemporary attitudes to women, that a man can do something terrible, but it will always be the woman’s fault. How Bea is simply disregarded as shameless, getting old and desperate, brazen and responsible for enticing Tom, despite him being married. It’s quite shocking, but then when I thought about our tabloid’s attitudes to women, I realised that women are judged every day for their appearance, their sexuality, their life choices and if ever there is a marital affair in the papers the ‘other woman’ is always blamed. It’s scary to think how little some people’s attitudes have changed, but thank goodness we can earn for ourselves, own property and have bank accounts. I loved the sense of sisterhood the author brings into the story and it made me think about how it’s the women in my life who have held me up when I couldn’t manage alone. I was on tenterhooks wondering whether Kate would realise that to choose the sisterhood is to change things for her own daughter. To make a decision towards a better world for women. This book was a brilliant piece of historical fiction, an addictive mystery that stirred up the emotions and had me completely hooked. As soon as I’d finished, I wanted to read it again.

Published by Picador 23rd February 2023

Meet The Author

Emma Flint was born and grew up in Newcastle upon Tyne. She graduated from the University of St Andrews with an MA in English Language and Literature, and later completed a novel-writing course at the Faber Academy. She lives and works in London.

Since childhood, she has been drawn to true-crime stories, developing an encyclopaedic knowledge of real-life murder cases from the early 20th century. Her first novel, Little Deaths, was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, for the Desmond Elliott Prize, for the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award, and for The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize.

Other Women is her second novel.

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Venice Secret by Anita Chapman.

I’m sure amongst those who travel a lot, saying that Venice is your favourite travel destination is a bit of a cliché. I’d first wanted to go aged around ten years old, when I first read the children’s book What Katy Did Next. This third book in the Katy series followed the eponymous heroine as she travelled Europe as companion to a woman and her little girl and is lucky enough to be in Venice for Carnival. I first travelled there with my mum as a fortieth birthday celebration and we both fell completely in love. A couple of years later I visited again, this time with my best friend and enjoyed exploring more of the city, beyond the usual tourist sites. Mainly I enjoyed wandering the labyrinthine streets, taking photographs and soaking up the atmosphere. It has a magic that’s part romance and part mystical, with an edgy gothic darkness that can easily unnerve you – especially when the fog comes down, you’ve lost your way and keep finding lonely dead ends. There’s a little maze behind Teatro La Fenice where you can spend untold hours, wondering if you’re stuck in a time loop. It is one of those places where I wouldn’t have been surprised to turn a corner and find myself back in the 18th Century. So it seemed fitting to me that Venice is a backdrop to Anita Chapman’s debut, a dual timeline story with two narrators; firstly in 2019 with Rachel, then back to the late 18th Century with Phillipa. Both women are going through a period of upheaval and change, another uncanny similarity to fit a city that seems to be a ‘thin place’: a city without the normal barriers of space and time.

In the present we meet Rachel who is helping to sort through her grandmother’s belongings while temporarily living in her cottage. She will soon have to make a decision, to share a home with her mother and her horrible new partner, or become homeless. Rachel is feeling a bit lost and displaced, so needs a project to get her teeth into. She certainly gets more than she bargained for! She discovers what appears to be a Canaletto painting in her grandmother’s loft along with a note addressed to Philippa in 1782. With help from Jake at the local art gallery, Rachel endeavours to find out if the painting is an original and uncovers a secret from the past. The painting depicts a view of St Mark’s Square towards the Basilica from one of the south corners of the piazza. It seems to have some provenance and Rachel sets out to discover who painted it and whether it’s really as old as it’s style suggests. It purports to be a Canaletto, but can it really be genuine and if so, what is it doing in her grandmother’s attic? If it is the real deal, it could be the link between Rachel and our 18th Century narrator, Philippa. Phillipa has gone through a huge change in circumstances, following the death of her father who was a preacher. He has left behind a family struggling to make ends meet and Phillipa feels weighed down by responsibility for them. So she takes the decision to become a governess, leaving her family behind in order to earn enough money to keep them. She manages to get a position at the prestigious Chipford Hall, the family seat of the Duke of Oxon, who has two little girls. Yet, it isn’t long before Phillipa is forced on the move again but this time she’s asked to accompany a family friend, Lady Cordelia, on a trip to Venice, researching her latest novel. It was Phillipa’s part of the story that really engaged me as I felt a real kinship with her. She is quite a level-headed and sensible young woman, prepared to take on her father’s responsibilities. There was common sense, but also a deep kindness in her – she’s willing to give up any dreams of her own to keep the family going.

While I enjoyed aspects of Rachel’s story, I didn’t feel she was as strong and her character didn’t quite grab me in the same way Phillipa did. Rachel’s difficulties often seemed to come from her own choices, but I did feel sorry for her. Nevertheless, her sections do hold the story together well and the history of the painting she finds is fascinating and very well researched too. The author has the skill of bringing the historical aspects of the story to life, full of vivid details and characters. For someone who loves Venice, those sections of the story were particularly enjoyable, taking me back to those tiny streets and romantic canals, triggering some incredible memories along the way. I was also interested in the way the author used the figure of the governess, which ever since Jane Eyre has provided rich material for the writer of historical fiction. Governesses are in a position within the house as neither servant nor master, she is rather unique and potentially dangerous. She has access to the centre of the home, working upstairs with the children and often living with the family, rather than in the servant’s quarters. This position allowed the author to really open up the 18th Century for us, particularly in terms of society and it’s hierarchies. The pace is slower at first, but soon speeds up as the clues start to be revealed and we each time we get a bit closer to the truth and the link with Phillipa. We also come closer to the resolution of each woman’s inner journey. Would Phillipa’s be able to construct better boundaries and gain some wisdom in discerning someone’s character before trusting them? Would Rachel learn to stand on her own feet more, despite the difficulties in her background? I loved how we could see the changes in women’s lives since the 18th Century and how we were less at the mercy of the men in our lives, some of whom seemed perfectly happy to sacrifice a woman if it brought them closer to the power they sought. Each part of the story was woven together beautifully towards a satisfying conclusion, ensuring that I’ll be be looking forward to whatever Anita Chapman writes next.

Meet The Author

Anita Chapman enjoyed writing stories from a young age, and won a local writing competition when she was nine years old. Encouraged by this, she typed up a series of stories about a mouse on her mum’s typewriter and sent them to Ladybird. She received a polite rejection letter, her first.

Many of Anita’s summers growing up were spent with her family driving to Italy, and she went on to study French and Italian at university. As part of her degree, Anita lived in Siena for several months where she studied and au paired, and she spent a lot of time travelling around Italy in her twenties.

Anita likes to read journals and diaries from the past, and one of her favourite pastimes is visiting art galleries and country houses. Her first published novel, The Venice Secret is inspired by her mother taking her to see the Canalettos at The National Gallery in London as a child.

Since 2015, Anita has worked as a social media manager, training authors on social media, and helping to promote their books. She’s run several courses in London and York, and has worked as a tutor at Richmond and Hillcroft Adult Community College.

Posted in Netgalley

The Lodger by Helen Scarlett

I’d throughly enjoyed Helen’s last book The Deception of Harriet Fleet, so I was looking forward to this release. The Lodger is an interesting historical fiction novel set in the period post WW1 and the Spanish Flu epidemic.. It’s a period I’m particularly interested in and I was drawn to the premise and how it brought the changes of that time into the plot of the story. This was a time of personal and national mourning, with the war appearing like a scar cut right across the public’s consciousness that hasn’t yet had time to heal. Our heroine, Grace, has a family torn apart by grief. She lost her brother Edward at the front and her parents grieved very differently, with her father keeping quite stoic and her mother struggling to cope. Eventually it was decided that for her own good, Grace’s mother would go and rest in an institution where she could be cared for properly. Grace also lost her fiancé Robert at the Somme, a loss she’s struggling to come to terms with as she keeps seeing him on the street, in crowds and on buses. Yet she can never find him. In order to make ends meet and to further an ambition Grace has taken a job at a nursing newspaper and wants to become a journalist, something that would have been unthinkable a few years before. Similarly, to make ends meet in their London home, they have taken in a lodger. Many well-to-do families were forced to do this at the time and Grace has struck up quite a friendship with Elizabeth, a church going woman who was proving to be a great friend. So when Elizabeth is found dead in the river and the police quickly rule it a suicide, Grace is shocked but determined to leave no stone unturned in finding out about the death of her friend.

The historical background was woven into the story so well: a general sense of everyone mourning someone, the fact that women’s positions in society were changing and the difficulties for those returning from the horrors they’ve seen. It was great that this was sometimes incidental background, such as someone Grace goes to speak to having a bad morning, because it’s the anniversary of his son’s death. It gave a real sense that this was an all pervasive grief and hung over the whole country. We would see it in more depth in certain characters. Her friend Edward still has an air of the last century in the way he deals with what he’s seen. He’s very protective of Grace and doesn’t want to tell her things that might distress her, and you get the sense he will take his experiences to the grave. Whereas his friend Tom is willing to be more vulnerable and has clearly suffered mentally since he returned with PTSD. He’s more willing to share with Grace and be honest about what the war has cost him. A character that really shows a change in women’s behaviour is Lady Bunty Jaggers, a friend of Grace’s mother. Grace asks for help in reaching a society lady whose husband knew Elizabeth, so goes to meet Bunty in her London home. She is a very colourful character and has an interesting way of looking at her marriage and what it gives her. She could leave her husband, but at the moment she has the best of both worlds. She’s cushioned by his money and title, but he remains resolutely in the country and she stays in their London townhouse living entirely separate lives. She’s also very forthright about Grace’s mother, suggesting that all the care home does is medicate her to the point of being unconscious. She thinks Grace should take her away from there and simply let her cope with the grief unmedicated, after all grief is normal.

Grace uncovers a terrible story of Elizabeth’s past life, including sexual impropriety, blackmail and possibly murder. None of which seems to fit with the Elizabeth she knew. She will need to interview many people, some of the them wealthy and very dangerous, to get to the truth. Was Elizabeth a changed woman because of all the wrongs she’d committed before or is there more to this story than meets the eye. Grace will need all of her investigative skills to uncover what really happened and she needs to keep an eye out for whoever is watching her and potentially wants to stop her. There were parts of the book that were a little slow and it could have benefited from a chapter or two from Elizabeth’s point of view in a separate timeline. However, I did enjoy that this news about female friendship and going the extra mile for someone who has been good to you, no matter what others say. Grace’s loyalty and determination are evident here. She also shows loyalty to her mother and a willingness to defy her father when she thinks he’s wrong. I really enjoyed how their mother daughter relationship developed.over the book. Finally there’s a little bit of romance too and a choice to be made between a man who is loyal, kind and would keep her safe or a different man who is more progressive, open and would see her as a partner, not a dependent. I liked that this choice was left till late in the book, because it would signify how Grace saw her future and whether or not she was in charge of it.

Out now from Quercus.

Meet the Author

The Deception of Harriet Fleet’ is my first novel and is set in the north east of England. I’ve always loved the big, classic novels from the nineteenth century, with lots of governesses and intrigue, and I sometimes wonder whether I was born in the wrong era! Although the Victorian period was a time of huge changes, the inhabitants of Teesbank Hall are trapped in the past by the destructive secrets they hold. Teesbank Hall itself is fictional but most of the other settings in the novel are real and close to where I live with my husband and two daughters. I teach A Level English and write whenever I can grab a spare moment. (Taken from Helen’s Amazon Author Page).

You might also enjoy Helen’s first novel. A dark tale that’s brimming with suspense, an atmospheric Victorian chiller set in brooding County Durham for fans of Stacey Halls and Laura Purcell

1871. An age of discovery and progress. But for the Wainwright family, residents of the gloomy Teesbank Hall in County Durham the secrets of the past continue to overshadow their lives.

Harriet would not have taken the job of governess in such a remote place unless she wanted to hide from something or someone. Her charge is Eleanor, the daughter of the house, a fiercely bright eighteen-year-old, tortured by demons and feared by relations and staff alike. But it soon becomes apparent that Harriet is not there to teach Eleanor, but rather to monitor her erratic and dangerous behaviour – to spy on her.

Worn down by Eleanor’s unpredictable hostility, Harriet soon finds herself embroiled in Eleanor’s obsession – the Wainwright’s dark, tragic history. As family secrets are unearthed, Harriet’s own begin to haunt her and she becomes convinced that ghosts from the past are determined to reveal her shameful story.

For Harriet, like Eleanor, is plagued by deception and untruths.