Posted in Monthly Wrap Up

Books Of The Month! April 2022.

It’s been another bumper book month at The Lotus Readers and it looks like 2022 is going to be an amazing reading year, in fact I’m already worrying about how I’m going to choose between these books when it comes to my end of year list. Can I really do 22 books this year? It’s also a year of fantastic debuts with another four debut novels being top of my list this month. There’s been a few tears shed over some of the stories and characters within these pages, but I’ve been uplifted too by these stories of overcoming. Surviving trauma and recovering through the support of others, particularly where women are supporting women, has been a theme here too. Its been the first month where I’ve been able to sit in the garden with a book, so most of these have accompanied me outside and onto my recliner, usually ending with me falling asleep under a dog and a cat! So here are some shortened reviews, to whet your appetite for these wonderful novels,

Reminiscent of those stylish novels of the great Agatha Christie, this was a brilliant mystery with a glamorous location, wealthy passengers and sumptuous clothes and jewellery. The period detail is spot on whether it’s the latest bathing suit or 1930’s politics. It’s not just a whodunnit either, because woven within are themes of identity, belonging, family and class division. It’s gripping without being showy or depending on shocks, or endless twists and turns. It’s elegant and allows it’s secrets to unfurl slowly. Lena is a sympathetic character, who has sacrificed starting her career to care for her father Alfie who has recently died. To pay the bills Lena has been singing in a club band, but she has always wanted to work on the West End or Broadway. Her chance comes in the aftermath of a death at the club. A favour from a an old friend of her father. She’s found by theatre producer’s assistant, Charlie Bacon, whose boss is offering Lena the chance of a lifetime, a part on Broadway in a new musical. As they set off across the Atlantic in their first class accommodation, they make the acquaintance of a very wealthy family with an ailing patriarch. What follows is intrigue, murder, mayhem and the realities of being a black performer. Lena is now caught up in a murder plot, and doesn’t know if she’ll be the next suspect, or victim.

Incredibly strong women, three generations of a Memphis family, are the focus of this amazing debut by Tara Stringfellow that made me angry, made me cry and somehow helped me feel uplifted all at the same time. Grandma Hazel is the first resident of the house in Memphis, a house her sweetheart Myron builds for their family. When he is lynched by his own police squad, Hazel is nine months pregnant and left heartbroken, angry and scared. Her daughters, Miriam and August, then call this place home and it also becomes August’s place of work. When Miriam leaves home, travelling with her husband Jax who is in the military, August turns the back of the house into a hair salon for a community of black women who gather there to laugh, to support each other and to plan activism. When Miriam returns with her own daughters, Joan and Myra, she has mixed feelings. She needs a roof over her head, she loves where she grew up, but something happened here that daughter Joan can’t quite remember. Yet she feels I’ll, deep down. There’s fear and shame in this place, but she doesn’t know why and we follow her quest to process and heal from this hidden trauma. With a backdrop of the biggest events of the 20th Century from the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations to 9/11, this is a story of what it means to be a black woman in 20th Century America. Simply outstanding.

Ethan Joella’s novel was perfect for this moment in life. Set in an idyllic Connecticut town over the course of a year, our story follows the intertwining lives of a dozen neighbours as they confront everyday desires and fears: an illness, a road not taken, a broken heart, a betrayal. Freddie and Greg Tyler seem to have it all: a comfortable home at the edge of the woods, a beautiful young daughter, a bond that feels unbreakable. But when Greg is diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer, the sense of certainty they once knew evaporates overnight. Meanwhile, Darcy Crowley is still coming to terms with the loss of her husband as she worries over her struggling adult son, Luke. Elsewhere, Ginger Lord returns home longing for a lost relationship; Ahmed Ghannam wonders if he’ll ever find true love; and Greg’s boss, Alex Lionel, grapples with a secret of his own. We are all familiar with the hashtag #BeKind and through these stories, what seems like a platitude, is brought home to the reader. Our characters touch on each other’s lives, sometimes without knowing what each other are coping with just under the surface. Despite taking us through every experience from infidelity to loss, the book never feels overwhelming or melancholy. Yes I wanted to shed tears from time to time, but somehow there is always a ray of hope. It reminded me that things like community, friendship, shared experiences and compassion can change everything. The author doesn’t hold back on how difficult and painful life can be, but yet always finds some element of joy that reminds us what a gift it is too. This book is poetic, achingly beautiful and full of empathy for the human condition.

I knew this book would be one I enjoyed, after all it encompasses some of my favourite things: History between the World Wars; the Vienna Secession and Gustav Klimt; Art Nouveau; a feminist narrative. However, I didn’t expect it would grab hold of me in the way it did! I sat down with it in the garden one Sunday afternoon and read two thirds straight away. When duty and blog tours called that week I had to set it aside, but I kept glancing over at it like a lost lover all week. Haydock takes four of Egon Schiele’s portraits and explores the women depicted – society sisters Adele and Edith, artists model Wally and his younger sister Gertie. Schiele’s portraits are not life-like reproductions of his model and while they might shed light on aspects of their characters, they can only ever be the artist’s view of that woman with all the prejudices and biases of his time. Haydock is challenging Schiele’s representation of these women and here we get to hear the women’s stories, how they see themselves and their relationship with Schiele. Some of his life choices felt like betrayals to those women who risked everything by literally laying themselves bare before him and the world, for his sake and for the sake of art. I thought Haydock beautifully captured this sacrifice and it’s consequences, something she picks up beautifully in the short interludes from the 1960’s where an elderly woman searches for a painting she’s glimpsed of someone she loved. Desperate to give an apology she never heard in life. Haydock beautifully captures a rapidly changing Vienna between two World Wars where barriers of class and gender are breaking down. She also captures the complexities of the barriers for women and those who have the pioneering spirit to break them. She gives a voice to their silent gaze. This is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year and I read it greedily in just two sessions. I’m already looking forward to entering Haydock’s world and savouring these wonderful women again.ok”

My interest in 19th Century freak shows, Sarah Baartman (the Hottentot Venus), disability and difference, made Lianne Dillsworth’s debut novel a perfect fit for me. Our setting is a theatre and a performing troupe including singers, magicians and dancers 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. However, when Crillick brings a new exhibit to his London home, dubbed the Leopard Lady, Zillah’s eyes are opened to the politics and misogyny of displaying difference. A meeting with an activist forces her to think about her own performance, but also the danger that Crillick’s new exhibit might be in, especially his ‘private’ audiences complete with medical equipment. Can Zillah help this woman and what does her own future hold, because in good conscience she can no longer perform? This is a brilliant novel, doing for race and disability, what Sarah Water’s novels did for the representation of sexuality in the 19th Century.

I’d never read a novel by Dolen Perkins-Valdez and she pulled me into her story from the very first page, with Civil seeming real almost immediately. I’ve been interested in eugenics since I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on disability and 20th Century literature. I knew a lot about the movement in the U.K., US and Germany in the lead up to WW2, but this book shocked me because I had no idea that forced sterilisations were still happening in the 1960s and 70s. I knew this had happened in earlier in the century with Native American communities, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was still happening to African American women, especially where the woman had a disability too. The writer shows how our biases and emotions feed into the work we do within the caring professions. Having worked in mental health and disability as a support worker, advocate and counsellor, I did identify strongly with Civil and the way she became involved with the Williams family. The Williams girls are her very first patients and she is sent out on a home visit to give them a Depo Provera injection, a long term method of contraception. When she notices that India is only 11 years old her brain immediately starts questioning, who put this little girl on this injection, has anyone asked if she has a boyfriend or worse, is she being preyed upon? Is this an assumption that young African-American women are promiscuous or that African- American men can’t be trusted, even within their own families? The judgement that bringing a child into this family would be disastrous comes from a lack of knowledge around India Williams’s learning disability, but is also an assumption about race too. The fall out from Civil’s discoveries is huge and life-changing, not just for the Williams family but for Civil too. This book sheds light on an important hidden history and took me through a rollercoaster of emotions.

I fell utterly in love with Dot Watson, a rather abrupt and persnickety member of the staff at London Transport’s lost property office. It took me about five pages to be drawn into Dot Watson’s quirky world and her love for the lost property office where honest people bring their found items. Dot is like the backbone of the office and the other workers would be lost without her. A lover of proper procedure and organisation, Dot is the ‘go to’ employee for anyone starting work with the team, or just to answer a question about an item. Dot thinks lost things are very important, almost like an extension of that person. Their lost item can tell her a lot about the person they are and she fills the lost luggage tags with as much detail as possible so that they have the greatest chance of locating it. Dot believes that when we lose a person, their possessions can take us right back to the moment they were with us. When Mr Appleby arrives at the office to find his lost leather hold-all it is what the case contains that moves Dot. Inside is a tiny lavender coloured purse that belonged to his late wife and he carries it everywhere. Something inside Dot breaks for this lonely man and she is determined she will find his hold-all. Her search becomes both the driving force of Dot’s story and the key to unlocking her own memories. I loved our journey into Dot’s past, her relationship with her father and the trauma that she’s tried to lock away for so long. This book has difficult emotions, but also glimpses of humour and is ultimately an uplifting journey with an unforgettable woman.

A teenage girl wanders out of the woods. She’s striking, with flame-red hair and a pale complexion. She’s also covered in blood. She appears in the pub’s beer garden as Jonah is enjoying a beer after a walk with his baby son. Detective Jonah Sheens quickly discovers that Keely and her sister, Nina, disappeared from a children’s home a week ago. Now, Keely is here – but Nina’s still missing. Keely knows where her sister is – but before she tells, but first she wants Jonah’s full attention. Is she killer, witness, or victim? The opening scene is absolutely brilliant, vivid and shocking at the same time. As the girl’s history starts to unfold, they hear about several failed placements and a long stay in a children’s home. The girls made complaints about two of their homes, but were thought to be troublemakers. Jonah and his excellent team have to tread a very fine line. Keeley comes across as cold and calculating one moment, but then like a broken little girl the next. Which is an act? There are some very dark stories here and they could be distressing for people who’ve gone through a similar experience, but it’s that darkness that keeps the reader wanting the truth and to see those responsible punished. If Keeley has planned how to elicit sympathy from the police, she certainly knows what she’s doing. As readers we are pulled along with Jonah, from distress and empathy to disbelief and a sense that something is very, very wrong either with Keeley or the system. This is a great mystery, with huge twists in store and a police team I enjoyed getting to know. Now I’m looking forward to going back to the first novel in this series and filling in the gaps in my knowledge, while enjoying even more of this talented writer’s incredibly creative plots and dark, brooding atmosphere.

So these were my favourite reads in a very busy reading month. I read seventeen books which surprised even me! Next month I’m looking forward to a slightly quieter month with some great thrillers to read, some historical fiction from another of my favourite historical periods – the beginnings of the Tudor dynasty, and hopefully a few choices from NetGalley too so I can keep on beating that backlog. I hope you enjoy these choices as much as I did and i’ll see you again next month.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Who’s Lying Now? By Susan Lewis

Susan Lewis is so prolific. I first came across her writing when I was looking for something to read between counselling clients at work. At the MS Therapy Centre where I worked there was a charity shop and someone had brought in a huge pile of books for sale. There I found a few books by this author. I’d never read her before but soon found myself hooked and bought all the Susan Lewis books in the bag. I’ve read most novels since and love joining blog tours for her latest books. This is another delve into crime fiction for Lewis and is based around a community on the south coast called Kesterley-On-Sea, where a small group of people have cultivated some very complex relationships. There’s Jeannie, who works as a publisher, and her husband Guy who is a neurosurgeon and they live at Howarth Hall, a Manor House with beautiful gardens leading to the sea. Not far away, lives Estelle a celebrated debut novelist who hasn’t managed to produce a follow up as yet, and her husband Neil who is a landscape gardener. They have a daughter, Chloe and Estelle’s assistant Primrose lives in an annexe next door. Centre of the community is the Seaview Café where the owner Fliss lives in an apartment above with her son Zac. Jeannie used to be Estelle’s publisher. Neil is Jeannie’s gardener and friend. Fliss used to be married to Neil and he is Zac’s father. When Jeannie goes missing one January day all of these relationships will come under scrutiny. Trying to make sense of this is Cara Jakes, a new trainee investigator who is young, intelligent and eager to prove herself. When she teams up with detective Andee Lawrence to look into the disappearance, she is determined to find out what has really happened to Jeannie. Cara begins to question the residents of this close-knit community, sure that someone has a secret to hide. However, how can she separate the truth within these complicated connections, especially when some of them are lying?

Lewis has undertaken a very difficult task with this novel, not only does she have complicated relationships to untangle, she moves us back and forth to the months leading up to Jeannie’s disappearance and the weeks following. Then she sets it all within the pandemic, which must have been a nightmare to track considering the complicated rules and lockdown dates. I barely know what I was doing and where I was over the past couple of years, never mind following imaginary people through the same rules and regulations. It did make the story more believable though and I was amused to read how difficult these characters found it to interpret and stick to the rules. I don’t think there’s a single character who doesn’t break them at some point, but it’s café owner Fliss who is finding the pandemic the most difficult. Having started her business just before the outbreak, the lockdowns have damaged her financially and without the help of a group of volunteers taking food out in deliveries the business wouldn’t be making any money at all. Her son Zac is also helping and has moved in with her for lockdown, though he usually lives with his dad Neil and Estelle. I think Fliss was the character I most felt for and I was sure there was a secret to why she was living alone and how her marriage to Neil fell apart, when they are clearly both so fond of each other. Despite these secrets, Fliss and Neil feel the most understandable and empathic characters in the novel for me.

Our missing person, Jeannie, is a dynamic professional woman, who I found interesting but difficult to understand. When Cara and Andee first visit her husband Guy they’re confused about the delay in reporting her missing. He explains how their demanding jobs mean they can often miss each other for a couple of days, but he also says something very strange. He suggests that Jeannie might want him to think she’s missing as some sort of test. She’s also made it clear that she finds their gardener Neil attractive and takes long walks with him. There’s an element of game playing going on in their relationship and I’m not sure I liked either of them very much. There is a strained relationship between her and Estelle too, as Jeannie published her novel but then dropped her when a follow up wasn’t forthcoming. Their relationship never recovered so Jeannie’s long walks with Estelle’s husband seem unkind. Yet there are secrets in Jeannie’s past that might explain her character, and they explosively come to light when her brother arrives from New Zealand. I found Estelle a puzzle too. She seems fragile and easily distressed, but also self-centred and very difficult to bond with. Her only friend seems to be her assistant Primrose, but she’s paid to be there. I could see she was insecure in her relationship with Neil, believing him still in love with Fliss, so when she is offered friendship from an unlikely source she jumps at the chance of some outside support. Her relationship with her daughter seems awkward too, as if she’s almost scared to be her mum. Lewis untangles this particular thread slowly and with great care, and it’s clever how it’s woven into Estelle’s character, but also the case the police are pursuing.

I don’t want to reveal any more about the entanglements between these characters, but there are many revelations along the way, both in the past and the present. I found it hard to like any of them, aside from Fliss, but they are fascinating. The dual timeline is clever because it keeps the tension of the case and all it’s twists and turns, while also exploring characters and events in more detail in the past. The women’s characters and backgrounds are explored enough to answer a lot of the questions that cropped up in my mind as I was reading. I didn’t feel the men’s past or motivations were explored as closely so I came away feeling I didn’t know them as well. However, that did make it more exciting when they were questioned as suspects, because they were more of a mystery. We also saw how the female investigation team of Andee and Cara have to draw a line between their work and their private lives, very difficult in a small town where everybody knows each other and uses the same facilities. I didn’t work out what had happened to Jeannie before the team did, because when everyone is lying and holding secrets it’s hard to know what’s coming next. I felt like someone was hiding in plain sight, never showing their true character. This was an enjoyable thriller, full of psychologically complex characters making dreadful mistakes and one clever and manipulative suspect to unmask.

Meet the Author

Susan Lewis is the internationally bestselling author of over forty books across the genres of family drama, thriller, suspense and crime, including I Have Something To Tell You, One Minute Later, My Lies, Your Lies and Forgive Me. Susan’s novels have sold over three million copies in the UK alone. She is also the author of Just One More Day and One Day at a Time, the moving memoirs of her childhood in Bristol during the 1960s. 

Susan has previously worked as a secretary in news and current affairs before training as a production assistant working on light entertainment and drama. She’s lived in Hollywood and the South of France, but now resides in Gloucestershire with husband James, two stepsons and dog, Mimi. @susanlewisbooks

Posted in Netgalley

Little Sister by Gytha Lodge.

Two sisters went missing. Only one of them came back . . .
________

A teenage girl wanders out of the woods.

She’s striking, with flame-red hair and a pale complexion. She’s also covered in blood.

Detective Jonah Sheens quickly discovers that Keely and her sister, Nina, disappeared from a children’s home a week ago. Now, Keely is here – but Nina’s still missing.

Keely knows where her sister is – but before she tells, she wants Jonah’s full attention . . .

Is she killer, witness, or victim?

And will Jonah find out what Keely’s hiding, in time to save Nina?

Last year I was lucky enough to receive a prize from Gytha Lodge and now have three of her hardbacks, all individually signed. I haven’t had chance to read them and as I was granted access to this fourth novel in the series on NetGalley I decided to dive in and hope it would work as a standalone novel. I needn’t have worried at all. This was immediately accessible, yes there were aspects of Jonah’s life that I’m looking forward to finding out more about, but on the whole I could enjoy the mystery without feeling like I didn’t know my protagonist.

The opening scene is absolutely brilliant, vivid and shocking at the same time. Jonah sits in a warm beer garden with his baby in a pram at his side. He’s musing on life and his recent choice to return to a relationship with the mother of his child, leaving behind a burgeoning relationship with Jojo who he misses enormously. It takes a moment for him to notice the young woman who has come into the garden. She has red hair and her hands and chest are covered in blood. While others simply stare in shock, Jonah rings his partner Michelle to pick up the baby, then moves over to the girl and offers to get her a drink. They sit and her story starts to come out, but this is going to be a tricky interview and investigation. Jonah wants to take his time, go gently and not rush this young woman, who could be a victim, but could also be a suspect. Then she makes a revelation. Her name is Keeley and her sister is Nina, this could be Nina’s blood and of course they need to find her, but first Keeley wants to tell them a story.

Nina and Keeley have spent their entire childhood in care. Bouncing from children’s home to foster parent, they seem to have been magnets for predators at an early age. There are two foster homes where their placement failed. One was at the Murray-Watts, who live in a large house in the country with their son Callum and the right type of Range Rover. However, Keeley remembers a regime of cruelty and starvation, where their foster father was always pitting the children against each other and for punishment would lock them in a dark basement for days. His wife Sally might not be so cruel, but she never failed to do his bidding. From there to the Pinders, their home is a huge contrast situated on a council estate. There the girls made a complaint of sexual assault against their foster father who groomed them with trendy clothes, alcohol and watched Gossip Girl with them. This was all fine until he started to want things in return. The problem with these accusations is that nobody believed them, and even though they were removed from the homes in question, no one was prosecuted. Jonah and his excellent team have to tread a very fine line. Keeley comes across as cold and calculating one moment, but then like a broken little girl the next. Which is an act? Or are they both the same girl? Either way she won’t compromise; Jonah listens to her full story or she won’t tell them where Nina is. Time is ticking and if Nina is severely injured will she last to the end of the story?

I thought Keeley was a fascinating character, psychologically flawed and clearly traumatised by their past, however much of it is true. The girl’s social worker seems very sure that all the claims are false, just girls making up stories. However, it’s clear that some aspects of the girls accusations are true. So, if someone makes multiple accusations does it mean they’re all false? The book kept me guessing and there were times when I wondered whether I even trusted Keeley with her own sister. The chapters based around Jonah and the investigation are interspersed with Keeley’s first hand testimony. She shows all the traits of a psychopath; has she always been this way or has she been created by the treatment of those meant to care for her? If Nina has been subjected to the same treatment won’t she be afflicted psychologically too? I was also dying to know where these foster parents were. Pinder is giving the same story as the girl’s social worker, but the Murray-Watts have completely disappeared. Did the girls have help to weave a twisted treasure hunt for the police? I started to wonder if Keeley had known that Jonah was in the beer garden that day. She seems to be fascinated with his team so could one of them have come across the girls before?

There are some very dark stories here and they could be distressing for people who’ve gone through a similar experience, but it’s that darkness that keeps the reader wanting the truth and to see those responsible punished. If Keeley has planned how to elicit sympathy from the police, she certainly knows what she’s doing. As readers we are pulled along with Jonah from distress and empathy to disbelief and a sense that something is very, very wrong either with Keeley or the system. This is a great mystery, with huge twists in store and a police team I enjoyed getting to know. Now I’m looking forward to going back to the first novel in this series and filling in the gaps in my knowledge, while enjoying even more of this talented writer’s incredibly creative plots and dark, brooding atmosphere.

Meet The Author

Gytha Lodge is a multi-award-winning playwright, novelist and writer for video games and screen. She is also a single parent who blogs about the ridiculousness of bringing up a mega-nerd small boy. 

She has a profound addiction to tea, crosswords and awful puns. She studied English at Cambridge, where she became known quite quickly for her brand of twisty, dark yet entertaining drama. She later took the Creative Writing MA at UEA. 

Her debut crime novel, She Lies in Wait, has been published by Penguin Random House in the US and UK, and has also been translated into 12 other languages. It became an international bestseller in 2019, and was a Richard and Judy book club pick, as well as a Sunday Times and New York Times crime pick. 

Watching From the Dark, her second novel, was released in February 2020, with her third book lined up for spring of 2021. This fourth novel is published on 28th April 2022.

Posted in Netgalley

Miss Aldridge Regrets by Louise Hare

London, 1936

Lena Aldridge is wondering if life has passed her by. The dazzling theatre career she hoped for hasn’t worked out. Instead, she’s stuck singing in a sticky-floored basement club in Soho and her married lover has just left her. She has nothing to look forward to until a stranger offers her the chance of a lifetime: a starring role on Broadway and a first-class ticket on the Queen Mary bound for New York.

After a murder at the club, the timing couldn’t be better and Lena jumps at the chance to escape England. Until death follows her onto the ship and she realises that her greatest performance has already begun.

Because someone is making manoeuvres behind the scenes, and there’s only one thing on their mind…

MURDER

Miss Aldridge Regrets is the exquisite new novel from Louise Hare. A brilliant murder mystery, it also explores class, race and pre-WWII politics, and will leave readers reeling from the beauty and power of it.

This is one of my most anticipated books of the year, mainly based on how much I loved her debut This Lovely City, but also because I loved the sound of this mix of historical fiction and murder mystery. It doesn’t disappoint and really has the feel of an Agatha Christie novel, not just the plot either, but the glamorous location, the wealthy passengers and the sumptuous descriptions of their clothes and jewellery. The story has its period detail spot on whether it’s the latest bathing suit or 1930’s politics. Woven within this whodunnit are themes of identity, belonging, family and class division. It’s gripping without being showy or depending on shocks, or endless twists and turns. It’s elegant and allows it’s secrets to unfurl slowly.

Lena is a sympathetic character, who has sacrificed the start of her own career to care for her father Alfie who has recently died after a long illness. In order to pay the bills Lena has worked with the club band, but she has ambition and has always wanted to work in the theatre, preferably the bright lights of the West End or Broadway. We get the sense that she’s good enough too. We meet her first as she embarks on her voyage across the Atlantic with a theatre producers assistant, strangely named Charlie Bacon. Charlie has offered her the chance of a lifetime, a part on Broadway in a new musical. This is a favour from Charlie’s boss who once knew Alfie and felt he owed him for an old transgression. The cabin is first class and Lena has never had such luxury, in fact she has a suitcase of clothes from best friend Maggie because she didn’t own anything grand enough for the first class dining room of the Queen Mary. There’s a sense in which she doesn’t feel like herself, sailing on someone else’s charity, in grand society and in someone else’s clothes. She then finds herself dining with the Abernathy’s. The head of this wealthy family is their father Frank, now disabled due to a stroke (apoplexy) but once an absolute tyrant and still uses the family riches to manipulate his children and grandchildren. Alongside the family are Frank’s assistant Daisy and his own private doctor.

At first Lena is a little intimidated by this entitled and often quite unpleasant bunch. This is a mix of knowing she isn’t of the same class, perhaps opting to gravitate towards Daisy and Dr. Wilding who are the help. However, Lena’s whiff of stardom seems to satisfy the family that she is suitable company and she’s certainly glamorous enough to fit in. However, there’s also the question of race, brought to the fore when Lena encounters one of the ship’s band Will. Will isn’t fooled by glamour or the first class ticket when they meet out on the deck by accident. He doesn’t even ask, simply identifies her as black like him. At first she denies this, not wanting to be found out. Lena has always been able to ‘pass’ because she is so light skinned, but later when she sees Will again she trusts him a little more and owns her identity. It brings home to us the difficulties of being mixed race, perhaps worse for Lena who has never known her mother and didn’t grow up with that side of her identity explored. We can only imagine the taboo nature of a relationship between a black man and a white woman in the early 20th Century, a time when eugenics was gaining a foothold on both sides of the Atlantic. There is discussion at the dinner table of Adolf Hitler and his successes in improving German life after WW1, but this is the run up to WW2 and knowing what comes next in the name of racial purity made this a sobering experience as a reader. Lena isn’t just playing with identity here, in America it may have an impact on her ambitions and her place in society. As Will observes its okay for the black men of the band to entertain the rich and white passengers, but not to fraternise with them and he’s very careful that he and Lena are not seen together. However, when Lena is asked down to steerage for an evening of music in the bar there, it is the most fun she seems to have on the whole voyage. It’s the only time she’s not on tenterhooks and can relax. She feels like she’s with her own kind – people without money and influence, people who scrape by, who play music and really let their hair down.

Yet, she is accepted upstairs and is a hit with both Eliza Abernathy and her daughter Carrie. Lena is invited to tea, asked to go bathing and meets up for drinks. She likes Carrie who seems so young and controlled by her family, desperate for some company of her own age. Eliza is Frank’s daughter, rather aloof at first and seemingly unaware that her husband is seducing Frank’s assistant Daisy when no one is looking. None of the family seem particularly happy, with a lot of sniping at dinner and all the vices of drinking, gambling and … It makes Lena nostalgic for her father and the easy way they got along, and also Maggie who despite her difficult marriage and the terrible drama of her husband Tommy’s recent murder, has always been like a sister to Lena. It’s a huge shock when the rich family patriarch starts to choke at dinner. Dr. Wilding springs into action, but it becomes clear nothing is obstructing his airway and he starts to foam at the mouth. Lena is horrified, he’s acting the same way Tommy did and rather horrifically he dies at the table. An investigation is started immediately and everyone is interviewed. We are privy to Lena’s thoughts and she’s terrified that what happened at the club has happened again here. She didn’t poison him, but maybe someone knows something about Tommy’s murder. Are they taunting her? Is this something to do with her? Surely its too much of a coincidence. The proximity of the group and the inability to get off the boat adds to the tension of the novel. Who will be next?

I thought the mystery was well thought out and unexpected too. There were a couple of moments where I wanted to shake Lena or shout at her not to do something. It really brings home to us that here Lena is alone in this new life. She’s without family and friends to protect or support her. As the bodies begin to pile up I was asking questions of everyone in the party, even Lena herself – could she be an unreliable narrator, committing crimes without really knowing? It all seemed such a big coincidence, but then when the revelations started coming it all made sense. I can honestly say I didn’t have a clue what was coming for Lena’s private life, or who was next in the murderer’s firing line. I thought the pace was perfection and the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Queen Mary, however luxurious, really added to the tension. The opulence of the setting, the fashion and Lena’s new wardrobe are dazzling and so perfectly in tune with the time period. I loved the author’s depiction of difficulties in identity and the distinctions of race and class for these passengers. The contradiction that the band are allowed to entertain first class passengers, but not sit with them, is something that will stay with me. As will the idea of ‘passing’, an interesting part of my own identity as someone with an invisible disability who sits uncomfortably between people with disabilities and the able-bodied. I loved This Lovely City and I think with this novel Louise Hare has repeated her success. I’ve already ordered my special signed copy, because this is definitely a keeper.

Published by HQ 28th April 2022

Meet The Author

Louise Hare is a London-based writer and has an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck, University of London. Originally from Warrington, the capital is the inspiration for much of her work, including This Lovely City, which began life after a trip into the deep level shelter below Clapham Common. This Lovely City was featured on the inaugural BBC TWO TV book club show, Between the Covers, and has received multiple accolades, securing Louise’s place as an author to watch. Miss Aldridge Regrets is her second novel.

Posted in Netgalley

The Birdcage by Eve Chase

Eve Chase’s new novel had all the ingredients of a perfect read for me – quirky bohemian family, unconventional artistic father, large Cornish house and family secrets that have haunted his daughters for years. It’s the psychological impact of these family secrets that really make the novel. The story is told in a dual timeline, in the present Lauren, Kat and Flora are returning to Rock Point, her father’s mansion house on the Cornish Coast. He has invited them after many years away from the house, following a terrible incident that occurred on the day of the eclipse in August 1999. The events of this day are told in our second timeline. Lauren is the youngest by a few years, and on that day she was an adolescent , while her half-sisters Flora and Kat are older teenagers. Each girl has a different mother and their overlapping ages show the sexual profligacy of their father Charlie, a well-known artist. As he sits down with his three adult daughters, Charlie has a big announcement for them. The girls are expecting an illness or plans concerning his artwork, but they have a shock in store.

The complexity of this family’s relationships is at the core of this novel and I really enjoyed going back in time to work out why and how each woman’s personality was formed. On the surface Flora is the most conventional sister, with a husband and young son Raff, but is everything at home as happy as it seems on the surface? Kat is the most career minded sister having developed a well-being app. She is constantly checking her phone and looking for a reliable signal so she can work, but is she just busy or is the world of well-being more stressful than it should be? Lauren has had the most recent difficulties in life, nursing her mother Dixie who was terminally ill. After moving into a local hospice Dixie died, and although Flora invited her for Christmas Lauren didn’t come. These women are anxious to be together again. Flora and Kat used to tease Lauren, even bully her a little bit. The reasons for this become clearer, but Lauren has always thought it was about Dixie. Dixie was different to me 6 hCharles’s usual choice in women, she was unadorned apart from piercings, kept her hair shorter and was artistic in her own right. Indeed Charlie is touchingly affected by her death and seems to regard this separation as something he most regrets in life. Each sister’s personality fits perfectly with their back story: Flora’s hesitancy and submissive nature; Kat’s avoidance and distraction, creating workaholic tendencies; Lauren’s phobias, which are usually under control, but thanks to Bertha the parrot and the wealth of seabirds surrounding their home it can be a problem. The parrot has other tricks as well, mimicking the house’s occupants with phrases that only one person knows are true or false.

I thought the pace was clever, becoming more urgent in the past and present day at once propelling the reader towards the eclipse event and the effect of it’s revelations in the present. What was particularly clever was the way some people are only revealed in all their complexity, in the present. Angie, who worked as their au pair, was disliked by Lauren when she was a child. Lauren sensed her duplicitous nature and knew she wasn’t really there for them, describing her as hungry to get to Charlie like an art groupie. However, as an adult Lauren can see that this was more complicated and how she didn’t understand adult relationships. There’s a shift in years and awareness, where Lauren and her sisters can now see that Charlie wasn’t just a man beleaguered by women throwing themselves at him. He is an active participant in these complicated affairs and in bringing these girls into the world. He’s even passive at their visits, always pleased to see them but never negotiating with exes, or organising the logistics. Their gran does all the work, leaving Charlie free to paint in his studio, a place where only his models and Lauren are welcome. He’s never taken responsibility for his actions and as events unfold it’s possible that those actions have created a perfect storm of sibling jealousy and conflict.

That eclipse summer, Charlie has asked his three daughters to sit for a painting with the large ornamental birdcage. It’s the painting that will become his most well known and most valuable, in fact the girls are sorry it’s gone to art collector because as far as they know it’s his most personal. There’s a wealth of imagery in this painting, starting with the three sister’s pose, sitting together but not touching, like three separate islands. There’s the solemnity behind it too, the girls are not talking or cracking a joke and all three are staring out towards the viewer. Or is it towards the painter? In feminist readings of visual arts the bird within a cage represents the imprisonment of women, but also the gilded frame through which we view femininity. We can’t know the painter’s intention, but by painting it next to his daughters is he acknowledging their freedom? Or could he be pointing out a sexual double standard? He has been free to create these overlapping lives without censure, whereas their mothers and the girls have borne the gossip, shaming, poverty and hardship that comes with being a single parent. They’ve had to hear the whispers and insults about their morals, while he has been free to carry on with only the reputation of being bohemian to his name. Or could the birdcage contain his secret? The consequences of this secret we see on eclipse day, although it isn’t fully revealed until the present when it puts Lauren and her nephew Raff in danger. Only then will Charlie have to deal with how his behaviour has affected others, like ripples on a pond. This was an engaging tale of complex family ties and the psychological effect of a parent’s action. It has all the bohemian glamour of a country house occupied by an artist and a gorgeous atmospheric setting in beautiful Cornwall. I was gripped to the final page, having felt an affinity with Lauren and Flora I wanted to know how their stories turned out and the epilogue brings a satisfying ending to this family saga.

Published by Penguin on 28th April 2022

Eve Chase is an author who writes rich suspenseful novels about families – dysfunctional, passionate – and the sort of explosive secrets that can rip them apart. She write stories that she’d love to read. Mysteries. Page-turners. Worlds you can lose yourself in. Reading time is so precious: I try to make my books worthy of that sweet spot – she says on her Amazon.com author page.

Her office is a garden studio/shed with roses outside. She lives in Oxford with her three children, husband, and a ridiculously hairy golden retriever, Harry. She invites readers to say hello. ‘Wave! Tweet me! I love hearing from readers’.

Eve is on Twitter and Instagram @EvePollyChase and on Facebook, eve.chase.author.

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 House at Helygan by Victoria Hawthorne

An atmospheric historical suspense novel rich with familial secrets. The House at Helygen is a twisted tale of dark pasts, murderous presents and uncertain futures.

2019

When Henry Fox is found dead in his ancestral home in Cornwall, the police rule it a suicide, but his pregnant wife, Josie, believes it was murder. Desperate to make sense of Henry’s death she embarks on a quest to learn the truth, all under the watchful eyes of Henry’s overbearing mother. Josie soon finds herself wrestling against the dark history of Helygen House and ghosts from the past that refuse to stay buried.

1881

Eliza is the new bride who arrives at Helygen House with excitement at the new life she’s embarked upon. Yet when she meets her new mother-in-law, an icy and forbidding woman, her dreams of a new life are dashed. And when Eliza starts to hear voices in the walls of the house, she begins to fear for her sanity and her life.

Can Josie piece together the past to make sense of her present, or will the secrets of Helygen House and its inhabitants forever remain a mystery?

1881. Harriet and Edmund Fox were the first owners of Helygen House, a country retreat that, as is the usual in moneyed families, has ever since passed down the to the eldest male heir. From the original owners in 1847, it then passed to Eliza and Cassius Fox in 1881. Eliza has to spend a lot of time alone, because Cassius is away looking after his business interests. Eliza starts to feel lonely and misses her family. Not only that, there’s an eerie feeling in the house and Eliza’s is sure she’s heard voices at night and a baby is crying. Eliza daren’t tell anyone as she thinks she might be going mad.

2019: Henry Fox is found dead at his ancestral home in Cornwall. The police are quick to rule out foul play, because it looks to them like suicide. His wife Josie, who is pregnant, won’t believe Henry has killed himself. Yet his mother Alice is satisfied with the suicide verdict. Josie finds it difficult to deal with this woman, who has always held herself above Josie, as if she wasn’t good enough to be part of the family. She knows how excited Henry was about becoming a father, they had spent so much time getting their apartment renovated and even had plans to start a business together at the house. Something isn’t right and even through her grief Josie is absolutely determined to find the truth. As far as she’s concerned there’s a murderer somewhere at Helygen. Her mother-in-law’s attitude hasn’t helped Josie settle, but she has to admit the atmosphere has always been strange. There’s a strange feeling she can’t place, a haunting perhaps?

I enjoy dual timelines and this is a triple as we alternate between the 1840’s, the 1880’s and the present. It’s important that each timeline is equally interesting so it doesn’t just feel like a narrative device. Here I think they work. It feels as if Eliza and Josie are working together, even though they’re separated by centuries. Both are convinced that Helygen House has a dark past, that still lingers within the walls. The many tragic deaths over the years are starting to look sinister, even if it is just the eerie sensation and the voices driving occupants towards madness. There are enough family secrets to keep the tale moving forward and there is a continuous feeling of suspense to keep the reader wanting one more chapter. I loved the added theme of motherhood and how it might feel to be a new mum in a house like this one, where it really can’t help when sleeplessness and night feeds are brought into the mix. The place feels suitably Gothic whichever timeline you’re in and from the start I believed in this world completely. It does keep the reader guessing and I found myself wanting to know if the storyline resolved itself for both women. It was also interesting to add in the question of women’s rights in past centuries and compare it to the present day. A great, suspenseful and spooky novel with the gorgeous backdrop of Cornwall.

Published 14th April 2022 Quercus

Meet The Author


Victoria Hawthorne is a pseudonym of bestselling psychological suspense author Vikki Patis. She writes atmospheric historical suspense rich with familial secrets and strong female protagonists. THE HOUSE AT HELYGEN will be published in April 2022 by Quercus.

Posted in Back of the Shelf

Back of the Shelf! The Taxidermist’s Lover by Polly Hall.

A modern Gothic tale of a woman obsessed with her lover’s taxidermy creatures and haunted by her past.

One stormy Christmas, Scarlett recalls the ebb and flow of a yearlong love affair with Henry, a renowned taxidermist. Obsessed with his taxidermy creatures, she pushes him to outdo his colleague and world-famous rival in a crescendo of species-blending creativity. Scarlett will not be able to avoid a reckoning with her own past as Henry’s inventions creep into her own thoughts, dreams, and desires.

Drenched in the torrential rains of the Somerset moorland and the sensual pleasures of the characters, The Taxidermist’s Lover lures you ever deeper into Scarlett’s delightfully eerie world.

Bram Stoker Award Shortlist for Superior Achievement in a First Novel • IPPY Awards 2021 Gold Medal Winner

Anyone who knows me well is aware that I have a weird penchant for antique taxidermy, so I jumped at the chance to read this. This was an eerie story of obsession from a writer I’ve not come across before, but will look out for in the future. I expected the feel of a historical novel, with something a little spooky about it and I wasn’t disappointed. Dipping in and out of the past, Scarlett addresses her lover Henry, who is hoping to my find a foothold in this niche world of taxidermy. I loved these forays into the past, as it allows us to witness a developing tale of obsession and the macabre, in the tradition of gothic fiction – one of my favourite genres. There’s a strange sensation that you are reading a Victorian novel instead of a contemporary story. Hall’s writing is haunting and sensual, and sets a dark, forbidding tone. Although it’s a second person narration it feels very personal.There’s a sense of foreboding and I kept wondering about the veracity of Scarlett’s story. Would Henry tell us a different tale? Despite it’s potential unreliability, I felt drawn in and I simply couldn’t guess how all this would play out. I think it is so compelling because of that personal feel; writer is echoing that feel of obsession by deliberately keeping her focus narrow.

Scarlett and Henry’s relationship was very fast moving, with them moving in almost immediately and getting married very soon after. She becomes involved in his career and suggests he try something different; chopping and changing animal parts to create totally new creatures, rather like the jackalope. To say Scarlett is obsessed would be an understatement really, not with Henry, but with his taxidermy. It seems very unhealthy, but when we hear about Scarlett’s twin brother Rhett and the death of her parents, this obsession with body parts starts to make sense. However, it’s sense of a very disturbed kind. There’s a Frankenstein element to the tale, both in the jumbled creatures and the sense we get that the process of making them might be more satisfying than the finished product. It’s become more about the ability of the creator than the actual creature. Some readers might feel sorry for Scarlett and I did understand how life events might have overwhelmed and damaged her psyche. I found it satisfying to delve so deeply under a character’s skin, because we don’t often get the chance to really analyse someone this way in fiction.

This is a slow story so if you’re looking for fast thrill rides this isn’t the book for you, but that said it’s strangely satisfying. If you like character, quirkiness and having all your senses engaged, then this is your book. The menace builds inexorably until you’re desperate for the worst to happen, just for it to be over. The twists come thick and fast, until you’re finally faced with the horror ending. This is dark, twisted and very unique, with an atmosphere that will stay with you long after the final page is turned.

Published by Camcat Books 8th December 2020.

Meet The Author

Hall’s writing is lush, filled with startling conclusions about the nature of art and love and death. . . [A] shudder-inducing debut.” ~ The New York Times

Polly Hall is author of The Taxidermist’s Lover, conceived while studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University.

Her flash fiction, poetry and stories have been included in national and international anthologies and collaborative arts projects. 

You can find her @PollyHallWriter on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Praise for The Taxidermist’s Lover:

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Posted in Back of the Shelf

Back of the Shelf! The Dressmaker’s Secret by Lorna Cook.

1941, Nazi-occupied Paris: In the glamorous Ritz hotel there is a woman with a dangerous secret…

As Coco Chanel’s assistant, Adèle lives side by side with German officers in the splendour of The Ritz hotel. But Adèle has a secret. She is working for the resistance, right under the Germans’ noses. As occupied Paris becomes more and more dangerous, Adèle will have to decide if she can risk everything to save innocent lives and protect the man she loves…

Present day: Chloé’s grandmother has never spoken about the war and avoids questions about the legendary designer she once worked for. Now Chloé has come to Paris, to uncover the truth about Adèle’s life. But is she prepared for what she will find? And for the power of her grandmother’s secrets to change her family forever…

Chloé has travelled to Paris after the breakdown of her marriage in order to help a friend with their vintage shop. She knows her grandmother worked for Chanel in the 1940’s so when she hears about an auction taking place at the Ritz she decides to have a look. The Ritz is selling some wartime items which grab her interest and when she meets Etienne, who is an art dealer and war historian, he is a great source of knowledge. He tells her about recently unearthed information that Chanel was sympathetic to Hitler’s cause and had visited Berlin several times. Like many people who survived the war, her grandma has been very reticent about sharing her experiences for that? As Chloé starts to look in the archives, she begins to worry. What will she feel if she finds out her grandmother collaborated.

The historical research undertaken for this novel is undeniable and before reading this I had no idea of Coco Chanel’s stance in WW2 or the stories of her collaboration with the Nazis. I think now that history has shown us the full extent of the Holocaust and Hitler’s belief in a master race, we can’t conceive of anyone who doesn’t see him and his actions as unremittingly evil. However, it’s clear that during the war, for both Germans and occupied citizens the distinction wasn’t so clear. With our own aristocracy hiding many who were enthralled by Hitler’s planned genocide, it shouldn’t be a surprise that in France, Greece and Italy allegiances and the reasons for them were very complicated. If you had a bakery in the occupied Greek islands would you rather see bread go to waste or would you sell to the occupying force? For Chanel, living in the Paris Ritz alongside German soldiers it must have been hard to live next door and keep up a secret campaign of hatred. This is where Adèle’s story shines a light, as Chanel’s PA she can come very close to them, but still want them dead and gone from France. So with great bravery she resists under their very noses.

Adèle’s wartime story is so engrossing, that I think it makes the book a little lopsided. The dual timeline, as in the present Adèle’s granddaughter Chloé researches her family history, is definitely the weaker end of the story. It’s almost there as a device and although it gives present day interest, I think the book would be just as strong without it. It’s possibly just that the tension and drama need to be high for the WW2 setting, so anything would have seemed quiet in comparison. Prior to the war, Adèle grew up in an orphanage, taught by nuns. She had worked for Chanel before war broke out and is lucky to be chosen as her personal secretary when the atelier is closed, because all the other staff are let go. Adéle is in charge of her correspondence, packing her luggage when she travels and organises any meetings she has. However, she does not enjoy living at the Ritz, especially when the German soldiers move in and Chanel starts to socialise with them, dating a much younger man at the same time. It’s the guilt that’s so hard to deal with, especially when Adèle sees other people going hungry. When she first sees a Jewish woman being arrested, she’s stunned and feels sick that this is happening in her country. As she goes for her routine blood donation to the Red Cross she meets Theo, a doctor who is a member of the resistance. Can Adèle continue to watch others suffer or will she have to help?

I think that this writer takes a piece of history and weaves a great story, full of intrigue and drama especially in the WW2 sections. Chloé needs to move forward from her divorce and find her confidence again and there is something about filling in the gaps of her family history that does this. Learning the truth about her grandmother is nerve-wracking considering her employer’s history, but if it shows she was a hero then Chloé will filled buoyed up by it. Knowing you’re from a line of strong women, can help you find your own strength and I think that’s the essence of Chloé’s journey. Adèle is a courageous woman in a very tough situation and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know her and the full history of one of France’s most famous collaborators.

Published on 22nd January 2022 by Avon Books.

Meet The Author

Lorna Cook is the author of the The Girl From the Island, The Forbidden Promise and the Kindle Number 1 Bestseller ‘The Forgotten Village’, which was her debut novel, staying in the Kindle Top 100 for four months. It has sold over 150,000 copies, has eleven overseas/foreign language editions, won the Romantic Novelists’ Association Katie Fforde Debut Romantic Novel of the Year Award and the RNA Joan Hessayon Award for New Writers. Keep up with all her news and bookish chat at:www.lornacookauthor.com www.facebook.com/LornaCookWriterwww.instagram.com/lornacookauthorwww.twitter.com/LornaCookAuthor

Posted in Random Things Tours

Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter by Lizzie Pook.

Fortune favours the brave . . .

It is 1886 and the Brightwell family has sailed from England to make their new home in Western Australia. Ten-year-old Eliza knows little of what awaits them in Bannin Bay beyond stories of shimmering pearls and shells the size of soup plates – the very things her father has promised will make their fortune. Ten years later, as the pearling ships return after months at sea, Eliza waits impatiently for her father to return with them. When his lugger finally arrives however, Charles Brightwell, master pearler, is declared missing. Whispers from the townsfolk point to mutiny or murder, but Eliza knows her father and, convinced there is more to the story, sets out to uncover the truth. She soon learns that in a town teeming with corruption, prejudice and blackmail, answers can cost more than pearls, and must decide just how much she is willing to pay, and how far she is willing to go, to find them.

This incredible debut is richly atmospheric from the get go, throwing us straight into the strangeness of 19th Century Western Australia as if it is an alien landscape. In fact that’s exactly what it is for the Brightwell family, particularly Eliza whose childhood eyes we see it through for the the first time as, in a particularly disgusting parody of baptism, a bucket of fish guts is thrown into her face. Of course the fisherman apologises for the accident, but we’re left wondering if it’s anything but as he says the words ‘welcome to Bannin Bay’. It foreshadows that immediate imbalance between those who do the work and those who aim to make the money. Eliza’s father has been full of dreams, not just of pearls, but the pearl shells to be turned into buttons, hat pins and pistol handles. Yet their unsuitability for this rough and ready environment can be seen as soon as they arrive in the fine clothing they must keep lifted away from the red earth, especially when compared to the stevedores dirty vests and cut off trousers. Eliza describes her mother as ‘a dragonfly, once resplendent, marooned in a bucket of old slop water.’ Delicate Victorian ladies are not built for this environment that stinks of sweat, fish guts and the mineral tang of sea kelp. With this alien landscape the author creates a vivid backdrop for the incredible historical detail of her story, whilst also creating a mythic, almost fairy tale quality to the story.

Only ten years after the prologue we meet an older Eliza, who’s wiser to the ways of the Bay and has developed into a interesting character. Women are either categorised as polite society -‘white glove wearers’ – or harlots and it’s a source of irritation to most women in the community that Eliza refuses to be either. She is ploughing her own furrow and whereas her friend Min’s childhood dreams develop, from escapades on the high seas to the type of sailor she might marry, Eliza still craves the adventure. She can see no use for a husband, although she doesn’t deny an interest in men, which is quite a scandalous notion even if her main interest is the contents of his library. Eliza’s knowledge of sailing and pearl diving is forensic in its detail and through exploring with her father she has developed a keen interest in the areas flora and fauna too. She is quite unlike the respectable women who still look like wedding cakes in the impossible heat. Her father has been on a voyage for the past three months and a lonely Eliza has been looking forward to his return, but as she sits and waits doubt starts to set in about whether the ship is returning. The light is fading as his lugger appears on the horizon, but her stomach fills with dread when she realises something is wrong. The ship’s flag is at half-mast. When her brother Thomas emerges she learns that her father is gone. While Thomas rushes to secure the business Eliza is left to find out the truth and while she’s told he went overboard, there are also tales of mutiny and murder. Eliza has to visit the sergeant to convince him that she suspects their father’s death was not an accident. Sergeant Archibald Parker is an unpleasant racist and his immediate action is to arrest aboriginal man Billy Balaari, but Eliza is told that Billy wasn’t even on the boat. When Billy escapes, the sergeant is completely focused on finding him, leaving Eliza to do the detective work herself. She finds her father’s diary and eventually sets sail on Father McVeigh’s lugger Moonlight with Axel Kramer and an aboriginal boy called Knife, determined to find the truth of what happened.

I wasn’t surprised to find a very seedy underbelly to the trade where Eliza’s father had hoped the build the family fortune. Where incomers make large amounts of money, there is always exploitation and in this case the workers have a very tough working life. Of course it’s the native Australians who are exploited the most and the author doesn’t pull her punches when it comes to portraying the terrible treatment they receive. Aboriginal families are torn apart as the strong are enslaved for labour on the Pearler’s boats, usually as pearl divers, the most dangerous job on board. The sheer weight of their gear is terrifying as they don lead boots and copper chest plates. It felt so claustrophobic to imagine them sinking slowly to the bottom of the sea, with only a line connecting them to the ship above. The relief of being winched back to the surface must have been tempered by the danger of the bends, caused by the pressure of resurfacing too quickly, forcing organs upward in the body leaving the diver dead or ‘agonisingly crippled’. It made me feel a little bit anxious as I was reading their potential fates. If this wasn’t enough, aboriginals were treated as worthless, beaten and even killed without consequence. Eliza has to negotiate her way through the community’s corruption, violence, blackmail and the criminal elements of the pearling business. All the while reading her father’s diary for clues and guiding us to a cast of fascinating characters, some of which are based on historical figures. I loved Eliza’s early feminist stance and her sense of adventure, not to mention the gripping twists and turns that pull you even deeper into the story. This is a fantastic debut full of life and death, just like it’s setting. The richness and depth of her storytelling marks Lizzie Pook out as a talented writer I’ll keep watching out for in the future.

Published by Mantle Books 3rd March 2022

Meet The Author

Lizzie Pook is an award-winning journalist and travel writer contributing to The Sunday
Times, Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, Condé Nast Traveller and more. Her assignments have taken her to some of the most remote parts of the planet, from the uninhabited east coast of Greenland in search of roaming polar bears, to the foothills of the Himalayas to track endangered snow leopards.
She was inspired to write Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter, her debut novel, after spending time in north-western Australia researching the dangerous and fascinating pearl-diving industry. She lives in London.
You can find Lizzie on Twitter and Instagram: @LizziePook.