Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

The Dazzle of the Light by Georgina Clarke

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

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

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

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

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

Published by Verve Books 17th November 2023

Meet The Author

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

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

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

http://www.georginaclarkeauthor.com

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

@clarkegeorgina1

Posted in Netgalley

The Creeper by A.M. Shine

I was terrified by A.M. Shine’s first horror novel The Watchers last year and I have been looking forward to his new novel The Creeper. It has such an interesting premise. Academic Dr. Alec Sparling lives a very regimented existence in a remote Manor House in Ireland. His house is set back, covered and disguised with vegetation. There are shutters for the windows and and bolts for the doors. What is he hiding from? He has advertised for two academics to undertake field research and chooses Ben and Chloe. She is an archaeologist and he is an historical researcher with a wealth of experience in interviewing people. They must hike out to a remote Irish village and interview the residents about their life and their minimal contact with the outside world. This is a forgotten place, wary of strangers and as they stumble through a forest, tripwires attached to church bells ring out their presence, giving the villagers plenty of warning. As Chloe and Ben finally meet the people they are shocked by their physical appearance. Poverty and hardship has marked their faces, but it’s the lack of new residents that explains the deformities they observe, years of in-breeding has clearly had it’s effect. These people are not pleased to see them and like Dr Sparling, they are nervous about dusk creeping up on them. Chloe observes the shutters at their windows, less high tech than the wealthy doctor’s, but for exactly the same purpose. Are they to stop people looking out after dark, or are they to stop someone looking in?

As the pair start to interview villagers, they get the sense they’re being fed stock answers. There is something very wrong here, but no one is willing to talk about it, except for one little girl who repeats a piece of folklore:

Three times you see him. Each night he comes closer…

As darkness starts to fall and the villagers start itching to close themselves away for the night, Ben and Chloe realise they will not be able to get back to the car before nightfall. So they set up camp in the driest grass field they can find. As they organise themselves and darkness falls, Ben gets the sense they are not alone. Towards the back of the field, there’s a shape in the darkness. Could it be a person or something worse? This is The Creeper, kept alive by the villager’s superstitions and stories, he is the nameless fear in the night and tomorrow night, he’ll be even closer.

A.M. Shine is a horror genius. His clash of old Irish folklore and modern life is irresistible. I had only read Ben and Chloe’s first day at the village when I had a nightmare! I’m very suggestible. He’s brilliant at creating a sense of foreboding in the reader and here it’s heightened by never fully describing The Creeper till part way through the book. The author knows that our own imaginations are adequate enough to scare us and there’s nothing worse than not knowing or fully seeing the thing you fear. On the first night it’s so far away, covered in raggedy clothing, that we never see it’s face. The villager’s deformed appearances also feed the imagination, leaving the suggestion that the Creeper may be even more disfigured. The doctor’s preparations are also ominous, suggesting that the Creeper isn’t just restricted to the village, but can appear anywhere. We can explain away a superstition held by an isolated settlement, who still live like it’s the Dark Ages! However, if a respected academic who lives in the ‘normal’ world is scared, then we should be too. The author also drops little clues that are easy to dismiss at first, such as the unearthly cry Ben hears as they approach the village. Is it just a child crying out or something much much worse?

The whole atmosphere of this novel is dark, damp and dreary. The waterlogged fields that surround the village create mist. So it feels like everything is obscured and shrouded in mystery. The weather is constantly damp and miserable, so Ben and Chloe’s quest feels grounded and based in reality. Their discomfort as they set up camp for the night is something I remember well from my camping days, that awful feeling that you’ll never be dry again. The contrast between what is familiar and what is very, very wrong, adds to the horror of the situation. The author leaves us suspicious about everyone; I doubted the doctor’s motives in giving the academics this mission and I doubted the villagers too. I found them furtive and secretive, I wondered what they were withholding and whether they were really as downtrodden as they seemed to be. There was the hint that previous academics had come this way and if they had, where were they and where was their research? By the time something terrifying happened my nerves were as taught as bow strings. The final confrontations and the horrifying conclusion were both expected and at the same time shocking. I kept thinking about the author and asking myself ‘he’s not really going to do this is he?’ He really did. I won’t be divulging any of the final chapters, but it really was heart-stopping. This book cemented the feeling I had after reading his first novel The Watchers, Shine has become one of the best horror writers around.

Published by Head of Zeus 15th September 2022

Meet The Author

A. M. Shine is an author of Literary Horror from the west of Ireland. It was there that at a young age he discovered a passion for classic horror stories, and where he received his Masters in history, before ultimately sharpening his quill to pursue a life devoted to all things literary and macabre. His writing is inspired by the trinity of horror, history, and superstition, and he has tormented, toyed with, and tortured more characters than he will ever confess to.

Owing to a fascination with the works of Edgar Allan Poe and his ilk, A. M. Shine’s earlier writings were Gothic in their style and imagination. When his focus turned to novels he refined his craft as an author of Irish horror – stories influenced by his country’s culture, landscape, and language, but which draw their dark atmosphere and eloquence from the Gothic canon of his past.

Posted in Monthly Wrap Up

Books of the Month! October 2022

Jacqueline in Paris by Ann Mah

I truly enjoyed this beautiful piece of historical fiction, focused on one of the most iconic women of the 20th Century. I’ve read biographies on Jackie and watched many documentaries about the Kennedy family with my mum who is fascinated with the theories about the assassination of JFK. I’ve always had a picture in my head of a woman who didn’t fulfil her potential and had so much more to give than being a First Lady, supporting her husband. I’d most recently read a book focused on her life with Aristotle Onassis and his mistress Maria Callas. I always wondered why she married Onassis but felt it could have been a response to the assassination and a desire to be protected and live out of the spotlight. This book focuses on a single year in the life of Jacqueline Bouvier as she travels to Paris for the junior year of her degree course. She has a fascination with France and was interested in researching her family tree. Ann Mah shows us a girl torn between the life she wants and the life her family wants or needs her to have. Her mother has planned for Jacqui to marry someone in the political classes, preferably with family money behind them. This feels like her last year of freedom, in a Paris still recovering from the occupation of WW2 and with politics that are very different from the US. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about a new side to this fascinating woman.

Where I End by Sophie White

This was an extraordinarily powerful book, that I’m still thinking about several weeks later. On a remote island somewhere in the Irish Sea, an arts centre is being built to attract tourists, because the island is barren and without attractions. The first resident artist is Rachel, who arrives with her baby Seamus and while swimming on the beach meets local girl Aoileann. Aoileann is a strange girl, not used to strangers and fascinated with the way Rachel mothers her baby. Aoileen’s odd manner is due to her home life, where in a house with the front door and windows blocked up, she shares a caring role with her grandmother. The ‘bed thing’ needs round the clock care, with a Heath Robinson system of ropes and pulleys they haul her out of bed and into the bathroom. She does not move for herself, except the wearing away of her fingers, now bloody stumps. The line that sent a nasty shiver down my spine and changed the whole book for me, revealed the one finger where the bone protrudes from the skin. It’s this bone that the bed thing uses to scratch out messages on the floor. This is a disturbingly horrific book that shows the drudgery of caring, the effect of remote and superstitious communities, and the terrible power of secrets in a family. The author explores motherhood in such a clever way, contrasting Rachel’s love for Seamus with the neglect Aoileann has thought was the norm. This book isn’t for the faint-hearted, but it is utterly devastating in it’s effect.

The Ink Black Heart by Robert Galbraith.

This instalment of the Cormoran Strike series is an absolute monster of a book. I had to give up reading the physical copy because it was like holding a brick! So I purchased the kindle copy so I could finish without breaking my thumbs. I’m a huge fan of Cormoran Strike, so although this wasn’t my favourite book of the series, it’s still up there as one of my favourites. This time Strike and Robin are drawn into the worlds of community arts and gaming. Two talented young artists from a community art centre create a cartoon called The Ink Black Heart, set in Highgate Cemetery and featuring unusual characters, one a wisp of a ghost and another that’s a human heart. An anonymous group of fans created an online game, where participants meet in Highgate Cemetery and complete challenges. Yet where there is success there are always people ready to tear it down and a person with the code name Anomie seems keen to do that. When the two creators are lured to the cemetery and attacked, things become serious. We’re privy to personal chats within the game and with Robin infiltrating the chat secrets will out. There are more complications in Cormoran’s love life as he dates a friend from ex-girlfriend Charlotte’s circle – can he shake off his feelings for good? Then there are those growing feelings between him and Robin, are they brave enough to follow those emotions or not?

The Pain Tourist by Paul Cleave.

I can’t stay too much about this thriller, because I’ve got a full review coming in a couple of days. This is such a fast paced thriller and it has such a tense opening! A family is woken in the night by masked men who are asking for the whereabouts of the safe. James is desperately trying to find a way to get his sleeping sister to safety. As she runs into the night, James watches the men shoot his mum and dad before he takes a bullet to the head. There is no safe. Nine years later, James wakes from a coma and his sister Hazel is soon by his side. The strange thing is James has been living all these years, in a different reality to this one and he is determined to capture it in writing. So he asks for nine notebooks, one for each year and begins to write his Coma World journal. Detective Rebecca Kent is assigned to his case and she has the help of Tate, the original detective who is now a private investigator. She is already chasing a meticulous serial killer called Copy Joe who likes to reproduce other killer’s crime scenes. What she doesn’t know is that James is recording events that happened in the real world in his journals, such as the books Hazel was reading to him or details of the weather. What else might he know? Rebecca is about to realise there’s more than one serial killer in town.

The Ghost Woods by C.J. Cooke

This is an intensely creepy novel from the beginning as we follow two young girls dealing with the consequences of becoming pregnant out of wedlock in the mid- Twentieth Century. Both choose to have their baby at Lichen Hall where the Whitlock family have been looking after young girls in trouble for several years. Mabel is the first, scared by her situation she doesn’t remember doing anything that might have led to pregnancy and concludes she must be having a ghost baby. The hall is strange, with Mr Whitlock who collects parasitic fungus and is often confused and in a state of undress. Wulfric, the Whitlock’s son, has unusual behaviour and becomes easily overwhelmed and angry. Mrs Whitlock is erratic, one moment she seems kind, but can also be snappish and dismissive. Only a few years later Pearl arrives, but the house is declining with the entire east wing seemingly overtaken by mould and fungus. Pearl has so many questions about this strange place, being a nurse she has more confidence and knowledge about having a baby. It seems strange that the Whitlock’s don’t have outside help for the girls giving birth. She wonders who the babies go to eventually and whether it’s legal. Who is the small boy she’s seen? Within a few chapter I was screaming at them to get out. They’re not restrained so it can only be the shame around their condition that holds them there. Each girl is infested by this destructive emotion and in one girl’s case, shame has made her put a lot of her experiences into a little box in her mind, under lock and key. Shame causes the denial of truths so scary, they could overwhelm us. It’s so sad that these girl’s shame creates an opening for others to exploit and exert power over them, but will they succumb? Or will they find strength from somewhere to resist and discover the truth about this mouldy house and family who live there.

Mad Honey by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan

This is a return to the legal case format of earlier novels by Picoult and the addition of Jennifer Finney Boylan to make a writing team has led to this interesting look at transgender rights in America. Olivia fled her marriage with her young son Asher after her abusive husband directed his violence towards their son instead of her. Now Asher is getting ready to go away to college and has his first girlfriend Lily. Lily is a lovely girl and Olivia took her out to meet her honey bees. Olivia is impressed by the way Lily works with the hives and knows that the bees are a good judge of character. Asher is so in love with Lily, so Olivia is shocked when she takes a call to say Asher has been arrested and Lily is dead. Picoult introduces a familiar character from her earlier novels as Olivia calls her brother Josh to defend her son. It really does keep you on tenterhooks as you try to work out what went wrong at Lily’s house. There are twists and turns, right to the very end. You may have seen trigger warnings about this novel, but I didn’t agree with some of them. Yes, there is a transgender character and Picoult does explore some of the negative aspects of being trans. However, this is only done to highlight how hard it can be to transition and the prejudice faced by people who are transgender. While there were prejudice characters, there were also well-meaning but ignorant characters. I never doubted that these writers were trying to portray a true representation of the experience, especially the sections written by Jennifer Finney Boylan who is one of the most famous transgender writers in the USA. This is a great book club choice, because there’s so much to talk about.

Good Taste by Caroline Scott

Caroline Scott enjoys writing about the period just after WW1 where Britain is in flux and people are going through huge changes within class, gender and the expected ‘family’ unit. England is struggling through a depression and our heroine Stella has had something of a life change. It’s 1932 and she is facing the first Christmas without her mother. With memories of her mother’s frailty last Christmas and the fear of that obvious empty chair, Stella has moved back from London to a small cottage in the West Riding of Yorkshire in order to be near her father. Money is tight, since her first book The Marvellous Mrs Raffald hasn’t done as well as she’d hoped. Celandine Cottage is rather shabby and Stella is surviving on the money she’s paid by a women’s magazine for writing a weekly article with five new recipes. When she’s summoned to London by her publisher, she’s half expecting her novel to be pulped and although she wants to write a biography of 18th Century cookery writer Hannah Glasse, she’s rather gloomy about her prospects. She’s shocked when he tasks her with a new idea – a history of English food. He wants a book that will inspire English housewives and remind English men of a nostalgic past. Although as Stella starts to think about her research, she realises that a lot of food people consider to be quintessentially English, is actually from elsewhere. Caroline has a wonderful way of balancing period detail, charming characters, and a touch of humour, while also showing us the grittier underbelly of life in a depression. There are also moments of grief for her mother, which are so beautifully rendered. Caroline makes this look incredibly easy when in reality it’s such a complex juggling act, one that she pulls off beautifully.

So, that wraps up October and since all my blog tours are read for November, i now have until the end of the year to catch up on NetGalley ARCs and publisher proofs I haven’t got to yet. Most exciting to me is that I get to choose which ones I read, so it feels like free reading all the way to January. I’m really excited for this! I might need that long to do my Books of the Year list.

Posted in Netgalley

Mad Honey by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan

I was granted access to this novel on NetGalley and couldn’t wait to read it, bumping it to the top of my TBR when I had a free weekend. This is Jodi Picoult in her element. Her last book was an interesting take on the pandemic and a couple of her recent novels have been more experimental, moving away from the legal case structure of her earlier work. When I met Jodi Picoult several years ago I asked about her writing. Did she start with character, or was it the controversial issues she explores that start the writing process? Having covered racism, school shootings, teen suicide and abortion it seems that these complex issues drive her imagination. She admitted that these issues do spark her creativity and if an issue stays in her mind for a couple of weeks she knows it has potential. Then she starts to research and during that process, characters form and make themselves known to her. I loved the flow of Picoult’s writing and the tension she builds around the featured legal case, but thought she’d maybe moved away from this way of working. When Jennifer Finney Boylan approached her with the idea to write a book together with a trans character at it’s heart, Jodi Picoult had been thinking about setting a novel around trans rights for a number of years. The structure of Mad Honey feels like vintage Picoult and even where Jennifer Finney Boylan takes over the narration I didn’t notice a huge difference in tone or style. I’ve never read Jennifer Finney Boylan, but she is the first openly transgender American to write a bestselling book, a book that is now thought of as an important part of the transgender canon. She is the perfect writer to join Picoult in this venture that’s bound to be controversial considering the trigger warnings I’ve seen used. Picoult and Boylan haven’t shied away from controversy in choosing to write about one of today’s hottest and most complicated topics; the complexities of being transgender. Yet the combination of authors takes away the debate over ‘own voice’ narratives and brings a sensitivity and knowledge to the project it wouldn’t have had if Picoult had written alone.

We meet Olivia and her son Asher, who live near a small town in New Hampshire. When Asher was a toddler she fled her abusive marriage to return to the place she grew up. Her timing was perfect, as her father was starting to struggle physically and needed to teach Olivia all the wisdom he’d accrued in a lifetime of keeping bees. Now Olivia is the bee expert, tending daily to her hives where each queen bee is named after a musical diva: Celina, Gaga, Beyoncé. The toddler who was just steady enough on his feet to intervene when his father attacked his mother, is now a six foot ice hockey player in his final year before leaving for college. Asher is a popular teenager with lots of friends and now he has girlfriend Lilly too. Lilly understands starting over, so Olivia feels they have something in common. She likes Lily when she’s been over to the house and she’s successfully helped them with the bees, who are a good judge of character. Lilly feels happy for the first time in her life and Asher is a huge part of that, although there is still a part of her that wonders if she can truly trust him, be open and be vulnerable. Then out of the blue Olivia takes the call every parent dreads. It’s the police. Lily is dead and Asher has been arrested for her murder. She calls her brother Jordan to come to New Hampshire and be Asher’s lawyer. In her mind there’s no way that the gentle boy she knows could have done this. However, as the case starts to unfold she realises that Asher has hidden more than he’s shared. Could he be exhibiting the same tendencies as his father? As Olivia knows more than anyone, we rarely know the people we love as well as we think we do.

I think it’s incredibly hard to take on writing about someone else’s experience, especially someone from a minority group. When it comes to books about disability, my own minority, I do prefer ‘own voice’ narratives. After all, who better to write a character with a disability than a writer with a disability? Failing that I want to know that an author has done their very best to represent that minority, through research and spending time with people who have a disability. I want to know they’ve asked the hard and sometimes uncomfortable questions that take them to the heart of how living in that body might feel. Armed with that they can hopefully create a character who feels real rather than clichéd and avoids stereotypes. I have to be honest and say I don’t know enough about being transgender to judge whether the authors have everything right, but I can see they’ve tried and truly wanted to write about transgender rights in a mainstream novel that’s very likely to be a bestseller. I guess time will tell how the book is received as it moves out into the world. In her acknowledgments, Jennifer Finney Boylan quotes a terrible statistic; in the year that she and Piicoult wrote the book, ‘more than 350 transgender people were killed around the world, more than a fifth of them inside their own homes’. This awful number stayed with me and I was glad these authors are starting a conversation, with a mainstream audience who might not seek out information about being transgender ordinarily. It helped me have a conversation with my 75 year old dad who becomes confused between gender and sexuality and is totally baffled by labels like transgender, transsexual, non-binary. I think these are conversations everyone should have and maybe the book is an entry point, inspiring people to read more ‘own voice’ narratives.

Picoult speaks for me when she says it never occurred to her to think of a transgender woman as anything other than a woman, but it was good to have my view challenged, because it showed me how vehemently some corners of society disagree with me. We are given a lot of background information that clearly comes from both author’s research, but is presented in the guise of Olivia educating herself. She talks about how common it is for animals to change gender, from clown fish to bearded dragons and female hyena’s who can have retractable penises. She’s pressing home the argument against those who claim transgender people are unnatural and that if you were not born with the sexual organs of a woman then you’re not a woman. There does seem to be a huge emphasis on the ability to procreate, but where does that leave women like me who can’t have children? Or those who’ve had a hysterectomy? Are we not real women too? I was very interested in something called ‘passing’, a concept that applies to race, disability, sexuality: an African-American man may be treated very differently if he has a lighter skin tone; a gay man may ‘pass’ as straight in order to be avoid prejudice at work; someone with an invisible disability like mine can be seen as able-bodied with all the benefits of both ways of being. If a transgender woman has a naturally feminine look she can pass as a woman more easily than someone who is is taller or broader. This ability to pass means no one, not even someone the transgender woman is in a sexual relationship with, need ever know that their assigned sex at birth was different. Of course this then begs the question of whether there is an obligation to disclose this information and when? All of this debate comes into the novel’s courtroom sections, in the guise of expert testimony so it doesn’t feel like endless exposition. There are times when opinions may be offensive to some readers, but I think they reflected the reality of being transgender and the discrimination faced.

The story flows beautifully and really grabbed hold of me quickly. I found myself unable to do anything until I’d finished reading, so I let uni work and household chores pile up, completely engrossed in the terrible situation both Asher and Lily’s mums find themselves in. I did feel this was Olivia and Ava’s story, despite our narrators being Lily and Olivia. For me the transition between the two writers is seamless. I really couldn’t tell whether I was reading Jodi or Jennifer’s writing and I know they worked hard at this, swapping sections for re-writes at times. I did feel for Olivia who has fled a terrible situation to protect her boy from her violent husband. I understood how she and Asher had become a tight unit, now challenged by Asher’s age and this new person coming into their small world. I thought the aftermath of being a victim of violence was tackled really well, as Olivia’s job keeps her hidden from the world. She doesn’t make friends and relationships haven’t been on her radar at all. I felt the weight of this massive change looming over them, Asher going away to college and leaving his mum alone for the first time. Her protection of them both has been necessary, but she must be lonely at times. It was interesting to see her reaction to a possible romance, could she take down those walls and start to build a life for herself? By contrast, Lily’s chapters are lighter than Olivia’s, capturing that moment of being on the cusp of adulthood. Lily is brim full of potential and possibility. She’s like a newly transformed butterfly taking it’s first flight. Then all of a sudden she’s gone and it feels like a light has been snuffed out. How much harder must it be for Ava, who has nurtured and protected her daughter in much the same way as Olivia has protected her son? Ava stayed with me after the book had ended because her loss is unimaginable and her only solace is to retreat into the natural world where she feels at home. I found myself hoping she experienced the healing power of nature and didn’t feel too lonely out there on the Appalachian Trail.

I enjoyed the bee analogy that ran through the book, the reference to Mad Honey referring to bees who’ve collected pollen from rhododendrons and laurels. Unfortunately the honey produced is poisonous, causing dizziness, convulsions and cardiac symptoms. The ancient Greeks used it in germ warfare, it’s success dependent on the eater’s expectations of sweetness not deadly poison. The analogy between this and Olivia’s husband is clear as she describes the love bombing in their early relationship and her utter shock when he first lashes out in anger. Her biggest fear is that Asher could be cut from the same cloth as his father, when she sees nothing but her sweet boy. However, she knows that her own mother-in-law would have struggled to accept that her boy was a monster behind closed doors. The tension is brilliantly handled, rising slowly as we get to the final days of the court when I found myself biting my nails! I wasn’t sure how I felt about Asher and the potential verdict, I wasn’t sure I believed his version of events and if Asher was found innocent, would we ever find out what happened to Lily? The twists and turns here were brilliant, with the killer blow delivered just as everything is starting to calm down.

I’m hoping that this novel can be a gateway novel, an introduction to that inspires readers to really think about the experience of transgender people, hopefully inspiring readers to search out writing by transgender authors going forward. There is one scene where Olivia seeks out the woman who runs the town’s record store, because she’s known to be transgender. Here she gets to ask the questions that are running through her mind and although he’s a reluctant authority on the subject, he doesn’t get offended by her insensitivity or ignorance. What he does reinforce for her is that no one can speak for all trans women, because ‘when you’ve met one trans woman, you’ve met one trans woman’. What it reinforces for me is that gender and sexuality are a spectrum, there are as many ways of being as there are people. Our need to categorise, label and compare creates a pyramid of bigotry and ultimately divides us. All we can hope is that future generations find ways of relating to each other that bridge these man made divides. It’s only then that all people can live ‘with power, and fierceness, and with love’ and, as one of our characters says, without the obligation ‘to explain and defend the things I have known in my heart since the day I was born.’

Mad Honey is published on 15th November by Hodder and Stoughton

Meet the Authors.

Jennifer Finney Boylan is a bestselling author, transgender activist and professor at Barnard College. She is also a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. She has written thirteen books, including novels, collections of short stories, and her memoir. Her 2003 memoir She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders was the first book published by an openly transgender American to become a bestseller and has become as ‘a seminal piece of the trans literary canon”.

Jodi Picoult is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of twenty-eight novels, including Wish You Were Here, The Book of Two Ways, A Spark of Light, Small Great Things, Leaving Time, and My Sister’s Keeper, and, with daughter Samantha van Leer, two young adult novels, Between the Lines and Off the Page. Picoult lives in New Hampshire. Her next novel, Mad Honey, co-written with Jennifer Finney Boylan, is available on November 15th.

Posted in Netgalley, Paranormal Reads

The Ghost Woods by C.J.Cooke

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

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

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

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

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

Published 13th Oct 2022 by Harper Fiction

Meet The Author

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

Posted in Monthly Wrap Up

Books of the Month! September 2022.

What an excellent reading month it’s been and a good mix of independent publishers as well as the majors. As part of the Squad Pod Collective, this month we’ve been reading Sandstone Press novels as part of our Sandtember feature. Next month will be Orentober – a celebration of Orenda Books, two of which feature here. I’ve been a lot busier and had so much more clarity this month, possibly something to do with us moving into the cooler months of autumn which are my favourite of the year, possibly due to it being Halloween, my birthday, Bonfire Night and the run up to Christmas. Plus Strictly is back on the telly. Here we have mainly thrillers and crime fiction, but very different from each other. I think some of this month’s books may easily reach my Books of the Year list in December. Hope you all have a great October!

This is an October review, but I read it as soon as it was delivered to my Kindle. I loved her first in the series so I was eager to see what Āróra was up to now. I won’t tell you too much, just a quick outline of what to expect from this excellent thriller. When entrepreneur Flosi arrives home for dinner one night, he discovers that his house has been ransacked, and his wife Gudrun missing. A letter on the kitchen table confirms that she has been kidnapped. If Flosi doesn’t agree to pay an enormous ransom, Gudrun will be killed. Forbidden from contacting the police, he gets in touch with Áróra, who specialises in finding hidden assets, and she, alongside her detective friend Daniel, try to get to the bottom of the case without anyone catching on.

Meanwhile, Áróra and Daniel continue the puzzling, devastating search for Áróra’s sister Ísafold, who disappeared without trace. As fog descends, in a cold and rainy Icelandic autumn, the investigation becomes increasingly dangerous, and confusing. Chilling, twisty and unbearably tense, Red as Blood is the second instalment in the riveting, addictive An Áróra Investigation series, and everything is at stake…

Out 13th October from Orenda Books

I thoroughly enjoyed this twisty thriller from an author I read automatically these days, knowing I’m going to get a quality thriller. Here we’re brought into the arty, bohemian world of the Churcher and Lally families and their adjoining houses on the edge of the heath. Frank Churcher and his friend Lal have been friends since the 1970s when they shared drugs, alcohol, women and ideas. Frank has called everyone together to celebrate the 50th Anniversary edition of his book The Golden Bones. This could be one reunion that tears the family apart…

Nell has come home at her family’s insistence to celebrate an anniversary. Fifty years ago, her father wrote The Golden Bones. Part picture book, part treasure hunt, Sir Frank Churcher created a fairy story about Elinore, a murdered woman whose skeleton was scattered all over England. Clues and puzzles in the pages of The Golden Bones led readers to seven sites where jewels were buried – gold and precious stones, each a different part of a skeleton. One by one, the tiny golden bones were dug up until only Elinore’s pelvis remained hidden.
The book was a sensation. A community of treasure hunters called the Bonehunters formed, in frenzied competition, obsessed to a dangerous degree. People sold their homes to travel to England and search for Elinore. Marriages broke down as the quest consumed people. A man died. The book made Frank a rich man. Stalked by fans who could not tell fantasy from reality, his daughter, Nell, became a recluse. But now the Churchers must be reunited. The book is being reissued along with a new treasure hunt and a documentary crew are charting everything that follows. Nell is appalled, and terrified. During the filming, Frank is set to reveal the whereabouts of the missing golden bone, but as one of his grandchildren climbs the tree for the treasure all hell is going to break loose. This was an addictive thriller, with complicated family dynamics and a brilliant final chapter.

Orenda Books must get so fed up with me banging on about the genius of Doug Johnstone and his wonderful creations; the Skelf women. Set in Edinburgh, Grandmother Dorothy, daughter Jenny and granddaughter Hannah live in the shadow of death every day. Jenny and Dorothy live literally above a morgue, as the family’s funeral business is run from the ground floor. They also run a private investigation business from their kitchen table. But now their own grief interwines with that of their clients, as they are left reeling by shocking past events. As usual there’s a shocking opening, with a fist-fight by an open grave. This leads Dorothy to investigate the possibility of a faked death, while a young woman’s obsession with Hannah threatens her relationship with Indy and puts them both in mortal danger. An elderly man claims he’s being abused by the ghost of his late wife, while ghosts of another kind come back to haunt Jenny from the grave … pushing her to breaking point.

As the Skelfs struggle with increasingly unnerving cases and chilling danger lurks close to home, it becomes clear that grief, in all its forms, can be deadly… you can look for my full review of this in my Sept 2022 archive, but it really is a cracker.

This was one of those blog tours I was asked to do and I went in blind. I knew nothing about the author or the book, but straight away I was intrigued. You are invited to cast your eye over the comfortable north London home of a family of high ideals, radical politics and compassionate feelings. Julia, Paul and their two daughters, Olivia and Sophie, look to a better society, one they can effect through ORGAN:EYES, the campaigning group they fundraise for and march with, supporting various good causes. But is it all too good to be true? When the surface has been scratched and Paul’s identity comes under the scrutiny of the press, a journey into the heart of the family begins. Who are these characters really? Are any of them the ‘real’ them at all? Every Trick in the Book is a genre-deconstructing novel that explodes the police procedural and undercover-cop story with nouveau romanish glee. Hood overturns the stone of our surveillance society to show what really lies beneath. Be prepared to never take anything at face value again.

Now I’d been waiting all year for this one. It’s been up there with Jessie Burtons House of Fortune as the ones I’ve most been looking forward to this year. I wasn’t disappointed. Kate Atkinson has written a crime novel that lays bare a decade in flux, a London that’s drowning in decadence and a generation determined to leave loss and grief behind them.

1926, and in a country still recovering from the Great War, London has become the focus for a delirious new nightlife. In the clubs of Soho, peers of the realm rub shoulders with starlets, foreign dignitaries with gangsters, and girls sell dances for a shilling a time. At the heart of this glittering world is notorious Nellie Coker, ruthless but also ambitious to advance her six children, including the enigmatic eldest, Niven whose character has been forged in the crucible of the Somme. But success breeds enemies, and Nellie’s empire faces threats from without and within. For beneath the dazzle of Soho’s gaiety, there is a dark underbelly, a world in which it is all too easy to become lost.With her unique Dickensian flair, Kate Atkinson brings together a glittering cast of characters in a truly mesmeric novel that captures the uncertainty and mutability of life; of a world in which nothing is quite as it seems. I loved the historical background to this fascinating story and my only complaint was that I wanted to spend more time with some of her characters. See my September archive for the full review, but I was dazzled and drawn deeply into Atkinson’s world.

Tuva Moodyson is another character I’m always banging on about on Twitter. I think she’s an incredible woman and I love the representation of her disability too. Here Tuva is back at work after the shooting of her girlfriend, police officer Noora. Noora survived but now exists in a persistent vegetative state, in bed and cared for round the clock by her mother. In the circumstances, Noora’s parents understood that Tuva needed to go back to work. Dean takes us straight into the action, as Tuva finds an armoured hunting dog wounded by the side of the road. In the course of taking the dog to the vet, Tuva leans of a farm further down the road where a group of survivalists live. It’s not long before she hears that a girl’s gone missing from Rose Farm, and while the police will be investigating, Tuva wants to find her story. There are two businesses on the farm, a café and spa, so Tuva visits to get to know a couple of the residents up there. Andreas, who patrols the compound with his dogs, shows Tuva the security system and training they have in place for their members, including underground bunkers if necessary. Are these people simply ‘preppers’, getting ready for the end of the world, or is something more sinister going on? Who is the mysterious Abraham? What was missing girl Elsa Nyberg to do with the preppers and is she still alive? As usual, Tuva throws herself in and soon her own life is in danger.

This was an interesting and addictive book from Lucy Banks and I loved it. The public think Ava is a monster. Ava doesn’t think she’s to blame. She’s spent twenty five years in prison and now it’s time to start a new life. With a changed identity, her name is now Robin, she has a roof over her head and she hopes for the quiet life she’s always wanted. However, her idea of quiet is an uninhabited island off the coast of Scotland, just her and the seabirds. This reminds her of the places they lived when she was small, when her father was working for a bird protection charity. He would teach her to catch and tag the puffins. There’s no hope for a quiet life, as probation officer Margot pops in unexpectedly pushing her to apply for jobs because ‘the state can’t keep you forever’. There’s Bill next door, who likes a chat and flirt over the garden hedge, not to mention his daughter Amber who really isn’t sure of their new neighbour. Finally there’s her unwanted visitor; the strange person in black who lurks and watches; the person who sent the poison pen letter; the person who throws a brick through the window. We see everything through Robin’s mind and a slow unease starts to creep in here and there. Is she the murderer she’s been painted as or is she misunderstood? I went from feeling sorry for Robin, to being terrified of her. Absolutely brilliant!

So that’s this month. I’m having a week’s break from blog tours to read Robert Galbraith’s The Ink Black Heart, which has been staring at me from the TBR shelf for past fortnight. Here are some of next month’s reads.

Posted in Netgalley

Caged Little Birds by Lucy Banks.

Oh my goodness this book packs a punch! The author has created an incredibly complex character and took me from slight unease to wide-eyed horror at what was happening. Robin is trying to live a quiet life these days. She wishes she could live where there’s nobody else, just miles of wilderness, a rugged coastline and hundreds of sea birds. Yet she’s grateful for the roof over her head and the benefits she has to start her new life with. She’s grateful to be able to eat what she wants, when she wants and to have a hot shower without a queue and no fighting for the shampoo and conditioner. She doesn’t feel like ‘Robin’ though, such an insignificant and ordinary bird. In prison she was called ‘Butcher Bird’ and the public hate her, so even now twenty-five years later she can’t be Ava any more. As Robin settles into her new home and new identity, she becomes aware that someone knows who she is. Can she stay under the radar and stick to all the conditions of her release? Or will she be flushed out and shown to be the monster people think she is?

I loved the way Banks writes Ava, we see everything from her perspective and her mind is such a complicated place to be. I found myself in the strange position of being in her head, but feeling strangely detached and unsure of her. It becomes clear early on that Ava was convicted of murder and has served her full twenty-five year tariff, so there are things about the modern world she doesn’t fully understand. Social media seems ridiculous (in fact, when I try to explain Facebook it sounds ridiculous) and she’s baffled by the little rectangular boxes people carry everywhere, even paying attention to that more than the people they’re with. It’s unusual to see our society this way, with the things we take for granted shown as alien. She’s trying to fit in with her parole conditions, but they break into her peaceful world when she doesn’t want it. There are weekly appointments with the psychiatrist and home visits from Margot her probation officer. Everyone is telling her how lucky she is to be looked after by the state like this, but given the choice Ava would prefer to fend for herself. She goes to pointless interviews, where her crime means she will never be hired, but they fulfil a condition of receiving benefits. There are obligations and places to be at certain times, something she has never been used to.

I had the impression that Ava has always lived inside her own head, rather than being present in the world. We learn that her childhood was spent on a remote Scottish island where there was a huge seabird colony. With no mother, Ava is kept out of school and taken to work with the birds, helping her father, identify, check and ring them for identification. He removed any meaningless junk from the house, including Ava’s toys and her late mother’s armchair, assuring her she wouldn’t need them because she’d be outside. There are other figures that loom in Ava’s past too; Henry who she’s had a relationship of sorts with; Ditz, a fragile young woman from prison who hanged herself; then someone she addresses as ‘you’. The importance of these people and their place in Ava’s life is slowly unveiled as Ava either reminisces or becomes paranoid about them. Another catalyst is Bill next door, or more importantly, his daughter Amber. Bill has been friendly and welcoming, chatting over the fence and eventually asking whether she’d like to go for a walk. However, his daughter is more suspicious, or is it just Ava’s paranoia? Their relationship is very uneasy and Ava is sure that Amber wants to expose her, she’s just waiting for an opportunity. A poison pen letter and a brick through the window add even more pressure to the mix.

Ava strikes this reader as someone with a personality disorder. The isolated childhood and lack of schooling have left her lonely, naive and unable to form boundaries with others, as she’s never had anyone to form a relationship with. She’s grown up as easy prey for those who seem able to sense someone vulnerable and manipulate or use them. Unable to deal with rejection in the usual way someone her age might by reflecting on the experience, feeling sad and angry, maybe seeing a counsellor. She doesn’t even go get drunk, eat ice cream, and malign him to her friends, because she doesn’t have any. Her response is immature, because she is immature emotionally, but perhaps no one could have predicted the events that followed. Lucy Banks brings the past into the narrative as Ava ruminates on what happened. She’s triggered by what she sees as another rejection, so her rage and anger are disproportionate to the situation. She becomes that young girl again. At this point I started to be scared for anyone who came into her orbit. I think the way the writer slowly allows this unease to develop between reader and narrator is brilliant. I noticed that her sleep pattern changed, her paranoia starts to build, she starts to link past and present events in a way that isn’t logical, and acting on emotions rather than fact. Another clue is her inability to take responsibility for anything that has happened, she veers around it or presents it as something that just happened. I wasn’t sure whether I was in the mind of a murderer or the mind of someone who is simply struggling with their mental health, distorting the facts and hallucinating the more violent aspects of her story. I won’t tell you which it is, because slowly finding out is so satisfying and such an enjoyable read. The writer has created a highly original narrative voice and a reveal that I hadn’t worked out. I veered between being scared for Ava and scared of her. This really stands out as one of the best books I’ve read this year and I recommend you read it too.

Published by Sandstone Press 15th September 2022

Meet The Author

Lucy Banks is the author of The Case of the Green-Dressed Ghost, described by Publisher’s Weekly as ‘Ghostbusters with a British accent’. It’s the first in the series, exploring the strange, sinister (and often slightly silly) world of Dr Ribero’s Agency of the Supernatural. 

In 2016, Lucy also won Amazon’s A New Night Before Christmas writing competition with her entry about a slug living under a family’s floorboards, who assumes Christmas is not for him, until he comes face to face with Father Christmas. 

As you might guess (being all too familiar with slugs and ghosts), Lucy hails from South-West England – an area rife with spectral tales and plenty of bugs. She lives in Devon with her husband and two children, and in addition to writing, is an avid reader – less of a bookworm, and more of a book-python!

Posted in Netgalley

The Skeleton Key by Erin Kelly

I’ve been reading Erin Kelly since her debut The Burning Air and she’s pretty much unbeatable in her ability to grip the reader and immerse them in her world of domestic noir. This was read in a very enjoyable weekend with Alice Feeney’s Daisy Darker so I was knee deep in my favourite territory – arty, bohemian families, with big rambling houses, full of eccentricities and dark secrets. I was ready for skeletons to start tumbling out of closets and that was almost literally the case here. The Churcher’s and the Lally’s have a history that goes back decades and now they live in each other’s pockets, in two adjoining houses on Hampstead Heath, smelling of oil paint and weed. Back in the the 1970’s, when their friendships and marriages began, artist Frank used some old folk verses to create a picture book full of clues to hidden treasure. The story is macabre, as a young woman named Elinore is suspected of infidelity and murdered by her husband. He then scatters her bones in sites across the British Isles. The verses in the book, The Golden Bones, contain clues to the whereabouts of hidden treasure – a one off, tiny gold skeleton with a jewel set in it’s pelvis. When the book caught the public imagination, a group calling themselves The Bonehunters emerged and with the birth of the internet hunters and enthusiasts could solve clues together, pass on information and stoke rumours. Unfortunately, for some it became an obsession and twenty years later, Frank’s daughter – also named Eleanor- is attacked outside her school by a knife-wielding woman who is certain the final piece of treasure – the pelvis – resides within her actual body.

It’s no surprise that as the book reaches it’s fiftieth anniversary, speculation and concern from some parts of the family, has reached fever pitch. With the help of son Dom, the book has been re-issued in a Golden Anniversary edition, complete with locations for people to check in online. The families come together at the houses on the heath, to film for a television special about the book, including a secret unveiling that Frank’s been planning. As he gives a speech, under a tree on the heath, to everyone assembled and on camera, it’s clear he’s planned a publicity stunt. Could this be the final piece of treasure? However, even Frank is shocked when one of his grandchildren climbs the tree and instead of treasure pulls free a woman’s pelvis. The book follows the aftermath of this gruesome discovery, how it affects both families and starts a police investigation. Everyone is under suspicion. The author takes us back into the past, shows us events from different characters point of view, and turns the reader into a Bonehunter of sorts, trying to work out who this woman was and how her pelvis ended up buried in a tree on the heath.

We meet Eleanor again, but this time as a woman and she prefers it when people call her Nell. She weirdly had my dress sense, although I might draw the line at dungarees from now on having read the criticisms about them on middle-aged women! Anything to do with the book raises Nell’s blood pressure and it’s hardly surprising. It has influenced how she lives, as anonymously as possible on a narrow boat that she moves every so often on the London waterways. She claims this is to avoid mooring rates, but it also feels part of her PTSD, the need to keep moving and be hyper-vigilant. She has more than one reason to stay safe these days, because her step-daughter from a previous relationship is living with her. Unbeknown to social services her father left a long time ago. Nell hasn’t had much luck with friends or relationships and she blames the book for this too. She feels she can’t trust anyone since she fell in love with Richard when she was a teenager and he turned out to be an investigator, hunting the final bone on behalf of a rich Bonehunter. His protestations that he loved her anyway fell on deaf ears and she was left heartbroken. Now she’s more paranoid than ever and terrified that the police investigation will bring social services back into their lives.

I was fascinated with the dynamics of these two families living on top of each other in a way that was almost like a commune. The children would flit between houses, gravitating towards the parent who seemed most able to give that parental attention that they needed. Their friendship starts in the 1970’s as they shared ideas, drugs and a desire to create art. The families are so close that when Frank’s son Dom and Lal’s daughter Rose are found kissing it almost feels incestuous. Now there are shared grandchildren, linking them through blood. Where once there was equality, even if they were so poor there was nothing to share, now it seems like everyone functions for Frank. He is the successful artist and his whims should be accommodated. He felt like a law unto himself to me: working when he wants; neglecting his family; indulging his sexual appetites wherever he can. His mercurial temperament is excused because of his talent, but some family members already find him unbearable. Lal’s drinking seems to distract everyone from Frank’s bad behaviour and his decline has been very useful. It eliminates him as artistic competition too. We travel back to one particular night several times from different viewpoints. Wanting to break away from The Golden Bones Frank has created a collection of beautiful nude paintings. However, unable to let them show on their own merits, Frank has let it be known that every model in the show is one of his conquests. The tongues start to wag and by opening night it’s at fever pitch. I can’t work out whether he underestimates the family, or whether it’s a deliberate attempt to humiliate and dominate, but one of the models seems familiar. If Frank’s suggestion is true, he has betrayed everyone close to him. To make things worse he’s openly flirting with a waitress, in front of his wife and children. Luckily, Lal gets predictably drunk, drawing the attention and concern elsewhere.

In the present day both Lal and Frank are arrested, leaving the family scrabbling for the truth. Will it pull them all together or apart? The psychological interplay between family members is brilliantly done. Nell and Dom mean everything to each other, working as each other’s stability since both parents are absent when consumed by their work or drink and drugs. Dom and Rose’s relationship is borne out of the same impulse, desperately seeking stability and being steadfast in providing it for their own children. Nell has to decide whether this family is healthy for her and her daughter. The dynamic between Frank and his family becomes clearer as the novel goes on, with a wife seemingly dependent on medication to cope and Dom desperately trying to protect her. Frank is like a puppet master, in a strange echo of his role in the book, he’s choreographing events and controlling how they act, using distraction to hide what he doesn’t want them to see. He uses friend Lal as a whipping boy, in a terribly destructive dynamic. Frank can do what he wants as long as Lal is drinking and flying into rages, alienating his family. I felt there was a rivalry there and even a contempt for Lal, whose use is to be the comparison point – as long as Lal’s life and work is worse, then Frank is okay. Lal is, quite simply, a scapegoat. Even so, it is Nell’s character arc that I loved because she has to confront a lot of her past and start to build a better future as a family of two. Her strength is shown in the real quest of the book, not for golden bones, but for the truth. However messy, unexpected and inconvenient that might be.

Published 1st September 2022 by Hodder and Stoughton.

Meet The Author

Erin Kelly is perhaps best know for her novel He Said/She Said, about a young couple who witness a rape and, after the trial, begin to wonder if they believed the right person. Her first novel, The Poison Tree, was a Richard and Judy bestseller and a major ITV drama starring Myanna Buring, Ophelia Lovibond and Matthew Goode. She’s written four more original psychological thrillers – The Sick Rose, The Burning Air, The Ties That Bind.

She read scores of psychological thrillers before she heard the term: the books that inspired me to write my own included Endless Night by Agatha Christie, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine. Her books are atmospheric thrillers, always about people trying to atone for, escape, or uncover a past crime. She says she’s more interested in what happens before the police arrive – if arrive they ever do – than how murder is solved.

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Posted in Netgalley

Hello Stranger by Rachel Marks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published on 18th August 2022 by Penguin.

Meet the Author

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

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

Posted in Netgalley

Daisy Darker by Alice Feeney

This was a deliciously clever and fiendish tale from an author I’m starting to trust when looking for a thrilling read. This was so difficult to put down and was eerily reminiscent of one of Agatha Christie’s novels that I made a note of it, then I saw it mentioned in the finale, so I won’t ruin it by saying which one. As the tide comes in, the Darker family are congregating at the family seat for the matriarch’s birthday. Seaglass is a large house on an island with only a causeway linking it to Cornwall, so at high tide it is completely cut off from the rest of the world. The book’s action all takes place in the space of one high tide and the final Darkers are rushing across the causeway to get there on time. Gathered at Seaglass are a motley crew of Darkers across four generations from Gran down to her great-granddaughter Beatrice known as Trixie. In between are the son ?? a famous, but not wealthy conductor, his ex-wife Nancy and their three daughters Rose, Lily and Daisy. Not forgetting Popper the family dog. One latecomer is a young man called Connor, an unofficial family member who turned up on Seaglass’s beach one morning when the Darker sisters were small. Gran noticed that Connor was bruised and neglected, so from that moment she took him and his alcoholic father under her wing. One second is all it took for every Darker woman to fall in love with this lonely boy who has lost his mother.

Now Connor has arrived the games can begin and it’s soon clear that if any of the Darker family survive till low tide in the morning, they’ll be very lucky indeed. I loved how the author built the atmosphere. Seaglass is a labyrinthine house, but each downstairs room is arranged around a central hall and are linked by doors, so that when the girls were little they could open the space up and Lily would roller skate in circuits around the house. I really wanted their grandmother’s study: filled with books and art supplies that produced her beloved children’s books. Her first book was Daisy Darker and was inspired by her youngest granddaughter, who was found to have a heart defect when she was a child. I loved the family’s eccentricities and traditions, such as the clocking in machine at the front door where every family member has a card to punch in and out. There’s a blackboard wall in the kitchen, for impromptu poetry, and at the kitchen table there are individual chairs, painted for each family member – of course one is covered in daisies, just like Daisy’s converse trainers. We get a sense of the family’s longevity in their collections and special treasures, such as the bone and seaglass Scrabble set, bought by Gran’s agent and set to play a special part in the night’s proceedings.

Published by Macmillan 18th August 2022

Meet the Author


Alice Feeney is a New York Times million-copy bestselling author. Her books have been translated into over twenty-five languages, and have been optioned for major screen adaptations. Including Rock Paper Scissors, which is being made into a TV series by the producer of The Crown. Alice was a BBC journalist for fifteen years, and now lives in Devon with her family. Daisy Darker is her fifth novel. 

You can follow Alice on Instagram/Twitter: @alicewriterland

To find out more visit: http://www.alicefeeney.com