Posted in Publisher Proof

The Family Remains by Lisa Jewell

Ever since reading Lisa Jewell’s novel The Family Upstairs I’ve been hoping she’d write a sequel. The book was certainly satisfying as a standalone, but the characters were so complex and their situation so traumatic I was certain it would bubble up to the surface sooner or later. Detective Samuel Owusu thinks the same, when human remains are found washed up on the banks of the Thames by a mud lark. When he sends the bones for forensic examination it’s clear that she was murdered; there’s an injury to the skull that could only have come from blunt force trauma. The other clue from the bag is a mulch of leaves, unusual ones for London, taking him to a mansion house in Chelsea. There, thirty years ago, three people were found dead in a kitchen and upstairs was an unharmed baby girl with a rabbit’s foot tucked into her cot. The clues are pointing to two missing teenagers, Henry and Lucy Lamb, belonging to two of the deceased. Yet, neighbours had said they hadn’t seen the children for years. We follow DCI Owusu’s investigation, but also this missing brother and sister who are doing some investigating of their own. They’re looking for a third teenager, Phinneas Thomsen, son of the third deceased adult and also a resident of the Chelsea mansion, hoping he can make sense of their childhood. Why was the Thames body separate from the other three and what was her link to the adults living there? The house has just sold for over seven million pounds and it’s owner is a young woman called Libby, so she must be their first port of call. This is just the first step in untangling a very dark web of trauma, murder and a family who have tried to bury secrets that just won’t stay dead.

Lisa Jewell really is the master of this domestic noir genre. She could have plodded along, unravelling secrets from long ago and it would still have been a very good book. However, she doesn’t take the easy option, she chooses to introduce new characters and storylines that are equally compelling and link into to the Cheyenne Walk mystery. As well as Samuel, Henry and Lucy narrating the story, we have a woman called Rachel narrating a present day storyline too. Rachel is a jeweller, just waiting for a big store to pick up her designs and thrust her work into the limelight. After years of dating and not finding the one, she meets a man called Michael who seems almost perfect for her. He is attractive, attentive, wealthy and seems available emotionally, which makes a change from other men she’s dated. He’s been married before, to a woman he met while she was busking in France and he was staying at his home in Antibes. Rachel doesn’t really pry into his past and all Michael volunteers is that she was musical and ‘a nightmare.’ Her name was Lucy. In a whirlwind, Rachel and Michael get married and she’s of an age where people don’t tend to take you aside and ask if its all moving a bit fast. Perhaps friends are just glad that this has finally happened for her and her father seems happy for her too, believing Michael to be that rare thing – an older, unmarried, great bloke. On honeymoon, amongst the rose petal strewn sheets and days spent reading by the ocean, Rachel thinks she might suggest a bit of fun in the bedroom. She’s happy with vanilla sex, but wonders if some light BDSM games might bring variety. She unpacks some special underwear, some ties and a leather whip and is looking forward to a fun night, but Michael looks embarrassed, then furious. He flies into a rage, accusing her of having no class, sleeping around and ruining their honeymoon. Rachel is bewildered as he storms off to sleep separately and refuses to talk about it. All she can hope is that he calms down, but she is starting to feel like she must apologise, although she doesn’t really know why. How can she return from her honeymoon and tell anyone her husband is disgusted by her?

I loved how these four narratives were interwoven, because they cleverly show us how abuse in all it’s forms leaves it’s legacy. Whether it’s self-hatred and body dysmorphia, a deep seated rage thats ready to boil over, or a desperate need for love and a tendency to repeat the patterns of childhood. I thought Rachel’s story was particularly compelling, because I’ve experienced that pattern of abuse – the love bombing, rejection, gaslighting and fits of rage. I hated Michael and really understood her need to find Lucy and talk to her. It felt like she’d lost the ability to trust her own judgement, so if there was someone else he was abusive to, she could start to accept and own her own truth. Her confidence had sunk so low she was struggling to fight for herself, but as soon as Michael’s behaviour affected someone else she loved she was able to stand up to him. Henry is also struggling with what happened in childhood, his twisted and confused emotions surrounding Phinn were complex. Phinn was held up as an example of what a boy should be, with Henry receiving punishments and neglect for not being more like him. We might expect Henry to feel hatred and even harbour harmful thoughts about Phinn, and to an extent he does feel these things. There’s a part of him that never wants to see Phinn again. However, there is a part of him that is still the little boy who wants to please, so he has changed the way he looks and now looks at Phinn in the mirror every morning. There’s definitely an element of hero worship and sexual desire too. I was actually scared of what Henry might do if he ever found Phinn, who is thought to be working on a game reserve in Africa. Lucy is living with her brother at the start of the book, along with her two children. Henry’s upmarket flat with it’s high thread count sheets and all the right TV packages is the height of luxury to her two children. They have slept in some terrible places while homeless and they don’t want to be on the run again. Lucy is scared and not just about the events in her childhood, because she’s been replicating the pattern of abuse she learned to endure at Cheyne Walk, into her adult relationships. She’s also used to running from people she owes money to. She hopes that now the house is sold, she can find a secure and happy home for her children close enough to keep in touch with her brother. She knows that Henry is more fragile than he seems, but also that there’s a darkness at his centre and she doesn’t know what might happen if he ever lets it come to the surface.

The pace of the novel is pretty fast and I almost read it in one sitting. Short chapters mean it’s very easy to get caught by that little voice that goes ‘just one more chapter won’t hurt’ when it’s gone midnight and you have to be up in the morning. The tension is builds, then decreases, then builds again by using clever tactics like finding something out at the end of a chapter, then the next chapter going back in time or dismissing what you’ve just found out. Although the storyline seems clear she throws in little curveballs like a spot of blackmail here or an unexpected murder there, to take us off the main track. I found some dark humour in two people turning up to murder the same person. I thought that the author also managed to inject some hope for the future too, in what has been a very dark and painful story. If you’ve been through childhood abuse, domestic violence and sexual violence there are some tough paragraphs here and there. I must admit I found some of the coercive control and verbal abuse difficult, and I found myself holding my breath in parts, but that’s how I knew the author had got it absolutely right. This was a fantastic sequel, that I would say needs to be read after the first novel and not as a stand-alone. It really stands up to the power of the first novel with it’s tension, darkness and psychological game playing but also offers some measure of healing too. A fantastic sequel from an author at the top of her game.

Meet The Author

Lisa Jewell has written and published another sixteen books, since her debut Ralph’s Party, from the ‘curry and flatmates’ novels of the nineties and noughties like Thirtynothing, One Hit Wonder, A Friend of the Family and Vince & Joy, to more family-themed novels like After The Party, The Making of Us and The House We Grew Up In and more recently, psychological thrillers such as I Found You, Then She Was Gone, Watching You and The Family Upstairs, which charted in the summer of 2019 at number one in the hardback charts.

Lisa lives in London with her husband, two daughters, two hairy cats, two nervous guinea pigs and a lovely auburn dog. She writes every day, a minimum of one thousand words, in a cafe, with no access to the internet, in two to three hour sessions

Posted in Netgalley

The Seawomen by Chloe Timms

The memory of that day is a part of me now, tough like hardened skin. You never forget your first. You hope and pray it will be the last you ever see. You already know. Deep down. It’ll happen again and you will have to watch. The screaming, the waiting, watching her body tied down, the boat rocking and shunting, capsizing. Drowning. The point where you can see with your own eyes what it means to be a woman.

Wow! This book was so evocative, from the author’s descriptions of the island’s landscape to the way of life followed by it’s inhabitants. It felt oppressive and bleak, but also strangely mystical. On an isolated island with no access to the ‘Otherlands’ beyond, a religious community observes a strict regime policed by male ‘Keepers’ and female ‘Eldermothers’ under the guidance of their leader Father Jessop. There were shades of The Handmaid’s Tale in this community, that polices it’s borders and it’s women. Women must not go near the water, lest they be pulled into the wicked ways of the Seawomen, seemingly a species of Mermaid. The water can breed rebellion in the women and cause bad luck for the islanders. Any woman could be singled out by the Eldermothers, so they must learn to keep their heads down and stay away from the water. Any bad luck – crop failure, poor fishing quotas, storms, pregnancy loss – all can be blamed on the community’s disobedient or disloyal women, influenced by the water. Each girl will have their husband picked out for them and once married, the Eldermothers will assign her a year to become a mother. If the woman doesn’t conceive she is considered to be cursed and is put through the ordeal of ‘untethering’ – a ceremonial drowning where she is tethered to the bottom of a boat. Esta is a young girl who lives with her super religious grandmother, but often asks questions about the mum she has never known. Her grandmother insists she sees a darkness in Esta and is constantly praying and fasting so that Esta doesn’t go the same way as her mother. The sea does call to Esta and she goes to the beach with her terrified friend Mull, to feel the water. There they see something in the waves, something semi-human, not a seawoman, but a boy. Will Esta submit to what her community has planned for her or will she continue to commune with the water?

The book opens with a description of an untethering ceremony, throwing us directly into the brutality of the Keepers and the terror of the drowning woman. It’s a visceral opening and cleverly leaves the reader very aware of the fate our heroine could face. I felt this really added to the atmosphere of the book, raising the tension and our trepidation for this bold and intelligent young woman. We don’t want to see her life mapped out for her with all the restrictions it implies, but we equally don’t want to see her become the next victim of this barbaric, patriarchal society. I also felt strangely unmoored by the setting. I saw in my mind’s eye, a rugged and weather beaten Scottish isle, miles from it’s neighbours, yet I couldn’t pinpoint it’s place in history. The clothing and the attitudes are strangely old-fashioned. The religion is very puritan in tone: a personal relationship with God is encouraged, along with modesty, industry, male domination and of course obedience. Having been brought up in an evangelical church I can honestly say these attitudes and expectations, especially the pressure on young women, is still alive and well in those types of communities. So we could be in the 19th Century or it could be yesterday. Father Jessop’s preaching is that that Otherlands are toxic, their land contaminated and their ability to produce wholesome food curtailed by their inability to listen to their God. This gave me the sense of a dystopian future, where perhaps global warming has decimated most of the planet and only these remote outposts survive. Adding to this sense of disorientation are the islander’s names, more like surnames than forenames the men have names like Morley or Ingram whereas the women have names like Seren and Mull. I felt genuinely uneasy about the island and felt something evil lurked under the piety and the fatherly control, something far uglier, that a rebel like Esta might awaken.

Esta’s questing mind is what drives the story forward. There are too many secrets in her background. She knows that the burn scarring on one side of her face happened when she was a baby and the house burned down killing her mother and whoever else was inside. Only Esta survived and her grandmother’s negativity surrounding her only daughter is excessive and this doesn’t allow Esta to ask questions or hear about a different side to her mother. She knows that there’s more to her history than she’s been told. Another conundrum is her grandmother’s cousin Barrett, a fisherman who lives by the harbour, as close to the water as he could be. He lives alone after the death of his wife and is possibly the only islander to have come across a Seawoman up close and was injured in the process. However, he doesn’t talk about his wife or where he went in the sea after her death. There are too many questions for a girl who’s already unsure whether she believes in the dark myths of the Seawomen, or the darkness she is potentially harbouring at her centre. Despite her upbringing there is a part of Esta that does question, that challenges and most importantly can accept that those in authority might be wrong. It’s a self belief and confidence that will stand her in good stead for what’s to come.

I had so many suspicions and theories of my own as the story unfolded, not just about Esta’s past, but about the patriarchal society itself. The last third of the book really did pick up the pace and we see the iron will of Father Jessop and the cruelty he is prepared to inflict in order to stay in control. I was so deeply pulled in by Esta’s will and her instinct to get away, that I felt anxious. I wanted her to have something in life that most of us take for granted, another person who truly cares for her and loves her. This feeling intensified as she is promised in marriage and goes to live with her husband’s family; a family who have a very low opinion of her and a husband who loves someone else. The way the author opens up the truth of the island is by using one of the older women who has some of the answers and also shows Esta that there are others who think the way she does, they just fly under the radar so they remain safe. To Esta this is unthinkable, to know the truth but continue to live under the false tyranny imposed on them feels cowardly to her. What will happen when the Esta’s story reaches its conclusion, when she might face the very ceremony she feared so much at the beginning? Will these free thinking individuals stand up for her? Even more important to me, was whether or not Esta reaches the Otherlands and the freedom she longs for, or whether she is fated to be forever one with the sea.

Published 14th June 2022 by Hodder Studio

Meet The Author

Chloe Timms is a writer from the Kent coast. After a career in teaching, Chloe studied for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Kent and won a scholarship for the Faber Academy where she completed their six-month novel writing course. Chloe is passionate about disability rights, having been diagnosed with the condition Spinal Muscular Atrophy at 18 months old, and has campaigned on a number of crucial issues. The Seawomen is her first novel.

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

The Daughter by Liz Webb

One of the first things my therapy supervisor said to me was ‘no two kids have the same childhood, even those who grow up together’. This kept going through my mind as I started to read Liz Webb’s book and grew ever more apt as the story unfolded. As regular readers know I do like to indulge in a good thriller and despite knowing nothing about the book or the author, something drew me in when I read the blurb. I’m so glad I took the chance to read it because it is a dark, psychological, and unsettling domestic noir based around the violent death of the charismatic mum in the Davidson family. Hannah doesn’t always have her life on track and she lives away from her physicist father Phillip, but is called when he ends up in hospital. Now suffering with Alzheimer’s and at the end of his life, Hannah has to make a tough choice; does she leave him in the hands of strangers or should she be the one to nurse him in his final months? It’s not long before Hannah finds herself back home and falling into a time warp. Not only has her father left the decorating and furnishings back in the 1990’s, there are piles of magazines and other detritus still littering the same place. It’s as if he stopped when his wife Jennifer was found in the woods at the back of the house, with a kitchen knife plunged into her chest. Hannah finds her surroundings bringing memories and inevitable questions to the forefront of her mind; no one was ever charged for her mum’s murder. This house is haunted. Her mum’s most successful photographs are still hung on the walls and her dark room is untouched, the wardrobe is full of her colourful clothes with the ghost of Chanel No 5. Just the faintest trace touches the air when Hannah runs a hand over her mother’s clothes. Hannah’s very presence completes the picture, she’s a waif compared to the overweight woman she’s been for most of her life. Now she’s the image of her mum, so much so that an unexpected glimpse in a mirror makes her jump. Her brother Ryan, now a famous actor, has commented on her ‘stuckness’, her inability to move beyond that day in the 1990’s. Hannah doesn’t think she’ll ever be able to move forward and pursue a life for herself, until she can resolve what truly happened that day and who killed her mother.

I did find myself rooting for Hannah, despite her flaws and her past behaviour – with more revelations popping up when I didn’t expect them. She feels more vulnerable and is honest about how broken she is by the past. The author carefully keeps her on that edge so I was mostly on board with her version of events, but every now and again I would question whether she was truly a reliable narrator. There was her drinking and the impression she has of her family life and her mother. She sees her mother as a beautiful free spirit, with her gorgeous rainbow clothes, her glamorous and creative career as a photographer with it’s world of gallery openings and meeting other artists. She sees her parents as very different, her father being much older and in a more steady career as a physics professor. When her parents couldn’t be there, Mrs Roberts and her husband from next door would step in with her more old-fashioned parenting style and her good looking son Marcus. This return home and her father’s deterioration seem to trigger something in Hannah and her brother is convinced she’s in a downward spiral where her mental health is concerned. He now stars in a BBC murder mystery series based in Spain, where his wise-cracking detective solves murders within the ex-Pat community and has famous co-stars happy to swap a guest starring role for a week in the sun. He’s also written a book titled Solving Me which Hannah thinks is pompous at best, but probably arrogant and a potential challenge. His childhood is peppered with incidents of their parents arguing, usually about their mother’s behaviour and he’s completely convinced that their father murdered her after years of being pushed too far.

I loved how the author balanced the story with the darkness and tension, broken by the realties of being a carer and the humorous little allusions to her father’s research subject. Their pets are named after Feynmann (the dog) and Schrödinger (the cat of course) á la Sheldon’s cats in The Big Bang Theory. The Schrödinger reference is very apt with Hannah alluding to their mother as potentially living and dead at the same time. For years her head has been full of simultaneous movie reels, each one with a different ending to the story, she would love to be able to shut down all those other screens and see what really happened. The caring details, everything she’ll need to bring Dad home from the hospital, are spot on. One detail I loved because it showed experience, or at least talking to those with it, and it was the ‘shit-stained’ sole of her father’s foot visible to to a person standing at the bottom of the bed but often missed by the busy healthcare assistant doing this morning’s strip wash. The investigation she conducts gives her a lot more questions about her mother, as she remembers her. She’s warned by the original detective on the case that she might not like what she finds. Even her mum’s art seems to hold clues: the close-ups of tiny domestic objects till it’s hard to know what they are; the fascination with motorcycle stuntman Evil Knieval and the moment of being in free fall; an entire series called Falling showing objects in that moment before they land. What she seemed to forget is that Evil Knieval’s stunts finally went too far with disastrous consequences. As the revelations about Jennifer Davidson begin the story becomes even more fascinating, because Hannah gets to see the person her mum was before becoming a parent and whether motherhood changed her at all. I enjoyed the interplay between the siblings and was engrossed in finding out whose version of events was closer to the truth. This was incredibly well-written, tense and psychologically very clever. It left me thinking about how others see our parents and who they truly are when they’re not being mum and dad.

Meet the Author

Liz Webb originally trained as a classical dancer, then worked as a secretary, stationery shop manager, art class model, cocktail waitress, stand-up comic, voice-over artist, script editor and radio drama producer, before becoming a novelist. She lives in North London with her husband, son and serial killer cat Freddie.

Posted in Monthly Wrap Up

Books of the Month! May 2022

It’s been an odd month here, because I went into the month full of energy and looking forward to a busy blog month. Then I felt very unwell and sadly had to let blog tour organisers and publishers which I hate. Thankfully I’d written this ahead of time as I read each novel, so all I had to do was write this little intro. My favourite books this month were mainly dual narrative novels, a structure I really enjoy especially when it’s done as well as these authors. I hope you all have a lovely Jubilee weekend, whether you are a royalist or are just looking forward to a long weekend off work. My carer and other half are helping me with a stall at our village jubilee celebrations. I’m at our book exchange with a box full of old proofs to swap, book suggestions and a tombola with books from the Jubilee Big Read as prizes. All the books are from Commonwealth writers so I’m looking forward to introducing people to a different perspective on our Queen’s long reign. Photos to follow!

I enjoyed this book much more than I’d expected to. It’s not that there was anything wrong with the blurb or the cover, but I thought it might be just another ‘stately home + mystery’ novel with no huge surprises. However, the depth of characterisation and complexity of the story drew me in and kept me reading for two straight days. Ellie is our present day narrator and she’s having to take leave from work as an investigative journalist after trying to expose an important businessman ended badly. So she returns to her family home in County Kerry, Ireland to spend time with her mother. Trying to keep a low profile is a lost cause in a small Irish village. It’s only because she’s desperate for reading material that she braves the charity shop to collect a box of books that have come from the large stately home nearby, Blackwater Hall. Ellie is grateful to see a few Agatha Christie novels on the top and takes the whole box. Inside is a mysterious letter, addressed only to ‘T’ but clearly belonging to the Rathmore family. It ignites a spark in Ellie and she tries to do the right thing and return it, but is bitten by the mystery surrounding the family. Charlotte Rathmore disappeared during the early part of WWII leaving a broken string of pearls by the lake. The official version is that Charlotte killed herself, but Ellie senses a story and starts to seek out other remaining members of the family. Can she solve the mystery of Charlotte’s disappearance and what changes will the truth bring to Blackwater Hall and the Rathmore family? Despite wanting all the answers, I didn’t want this book to end and there’s no better compliment than that.

Another dual timeline novel here, with another mysterious set of letters. This was our Squad Pod read for May and as usual my review is late, but it’s no secret that I LOVED this book. I even made Chocolate Mojito cupcakes to celebrate the fact. I was unsure where this book was going to go, considering the rather modern looking cocktail cover. However, it’s story was deeper and more moving than I expected. In the 1970’s Ava Winters lives in a New York apartment with her mother and a father who seems to wander in and out. Her mother shows signs of mental illness and seems haunted by something in her past. With both parents AWOL Ava is lonely and becomes fascinated by a box sent to her apartment addressed to a woman called Gillian. It’s from Paris and holds letters as well as a butterfly necklace and a photo with LIAR scrawled across it. In the same apartment, but twenty years earlier, teachers Dovie and Gillian are roommates. However, they’re very private and guard their home lives fiercely until one unguarded moment exposes the wrong person to the truth. This novel showed me a side of life I knew nothing about. A time where ‘unnatural activities’ and desires could lead to a loss of everything from your job to your liberty. I will save the rest for my review, but don’t miss this one. It’s an incredible debut from a very talented writer.

This beautiful novel covers the early Twentieth Century in the lives of one family, from WWI to WWII. This book feels like an epic. A whale washes up on the beach of the Chilcombe Estate and is claimed for the Seagrave family by Cristabel who is the orphan cousin and doesn’t really fit anywhere. She loves adventure, activity, and endeavours, conquering the Seagrave estate rather than being the lady her stepmother would expect. The Seagrave children are an odd bunch, brought up by staff and each other, while their parents stay in bed late, are never without houseguests and like to drink as early as it is socially acceptable to do so. This is the story of the heir and the spare. Jasper Seagrave brings his new wife home to the Chilcombe Estate and Rosalind is thrown into being mistress of the house and stepmother to his daughter Cristabel. Rosalind is happy to have bagged an aristocratic husband, considering they’re in very short supply since the war. That is until the ‘spare’ arrives. Willoughby is everything his elder brother isn’t; a dashing war hero fascinated by speed whether it’s a new car or learning to fly. There’s an immediate attraction, deepening when Rosalind is on bed rest in the last stages of pregnancy and Willoughby keeps her company. Is the Chilcombe estate about to lapse into scandal and what will become of Cristabel? As the family grows to include a half-sister and brother for Cristabel we follow them towards WWII. The author shows what a toll both wars took on people and the rapid changes they forced on society. I won’t reveal whether any of our characters survive, but Cristabel remembers a saying, that war can bring out the best in people. There are those who shine through difficult days and in their own ways I think the Seagrave children all stepped up to the mark. This is a beautiful piece of historical fiction and I would happily read it all over again.

This book is my only thriller this month and it’s a cracker. This is perfect summer holiday reading whether you’re somewhere exotic or lounging in your own back garden. Hot in every sense of the world and set in picturesque Italy with a sense of growing menace all the way through. I read this one in the garden, with a Pimms in hand and with every chapter became more convinced of the old saying; the grass is never greener on the other side. Laura and Nick have been through a lot. Back in London they were struggling with infertility and Laura hadn’t felt like herself for a long time, the fertility drugs pumping her full of hormones and the grief of miscarriage left her feeling broken. When she discovers a betrayal, after Nick accidentally leaves his phone at home, she’s angry and resentful too. In his eagerness to make it up to her, Nick suggests they do what Laura has always wanted, move to Italy and create a holiday hideaway for couples. They discovered Luna Rossa on a visit to Italy several months ago, after which Laura suffered a third miscarriage. It is in the Marche region, a largely unknown area of Italy next to Tuscany but less expensive. Luna Rossa is isolated, includes a pool, a small cottage and beautiful grounds that fall away steeply gifting the house with incredible views across the countryside. Only a few months later they are preparing to welcome their first couple for a three week stay. It seems idyllic, but they’re taking a risk in welcoming complete strangers into their home. Laura has stalked her guest Madison on social media and she seems very outgoing and glamorous. Laura and Nick could be underestimating how disruptive it can be to have strangers living in your home, especially these strangers…. This is a real sizzler of a novel! My full review is coming next week.

This book is a beautiful example of writing back in history to give a voice to someone who was silenced. Celestine Babbington is recorded for history in a silent form, photographed wearing clothes he didn’t choose and posing with a man whose relationship to him is very problematic. The man, Richard Babbington, is a rich explorer who has a love for Africa and a large mansion house in England. Yet by 1907, Celestine is being kept in the attic of the house, only allowed out to work as a domestic slave. Years later, a young girl called Lowra is suffering the same fate. Locked in the attic as punishment for any transgression, when her fate has been left in the hands of her resentful stepmother. While locked in the attic she finds an unusual necklace with clawed hands, unlike anything she’s seen before. There’s also an old-fashioned porcelain doll and a sentence on the wall, written in an unfamiliar language. These are her only comfort, because she feels as if the person that owned them is with her in some way. As an adult, her stepmother’s abuse still affects her and she’s conflicted when she inherits Babbington’s house. People seem to think she’s lucky and the town is proud of this intrepid explorer. Looking into the house’s history leads her to an exhibition of Babbington’s life, where she sees photographs of Babbington and a young black boy wearing an African wrap and what looks like her necklace, the one from the attic. However, the thing that keeps Lowra transfixed, is the young boy’s eyes. Lowra sees someone filled with sorrow, a fellow sufferer of the darkness inside that house. His name is Celestine Babbington. Lowra wants to find out more about this boy, how he came to be in England and what happened to him after Babbington’s death. This book was moving and had me in it’s grip straight away. It takes me back full circle to the beginning of my post and hearing voices from the Commonwealth countries and from Black British writers. I’ll be taking a copy of this book to my stall at the weekend and I’m looking forward to sharing it with new readers.

Posted in Netgalley

Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow

Joan can’t change her family’s past.
But she can create her future.

Joan was only a child the last time she visited Memphis. She doesn’t remember the bustle of Beale Street on a summer’s night. She doesn’t know she’s as likely to hear a gunshot ring out as the sound of children playing. How the smell of honeysuckle is almost overwhelming as she climbs the porch steps to the house where her mother grew up. But when the front door opens, she does remember Derek.

This house full of history is home to the women of the North family. They are no strangers to adversity; resilience runs in their blood. Fifty years ago, Hazel’s husband was lynched by his all-white police squad, yet she made a life for herself and her daughters in the majestic house he built for them. August lives there still, running a salon where the neighbourhood women gather. And now this house is the only place Joan has left. It is in sketching portraits of the women in her life, her aunt and her mother, the women who come to have their hair done, the women who come to chat and gossip, that Joan begins laughing again, begins living.

Memphis is a celebration of the enduring strength of female bonds, of what we pass down, from mother to daughter. Epic in scope yet intimate in detail, it is a vivid portrait of three generations of a Southern black family, as well as an ode to the city they call home.

There’s a point in this book where Miriam remembers her mother Hazel waking her up, leaving her little sister August asleep in bed, then she fixed her a breakfast fit for a king. There were green tomatoes and grits, spicy pork and scrambled eggs, and they were chatting like a normal day. Miriam was distracted by the delicious meal and didn’t notice her mother running the tap. Then suddenly she threw a whole jug of cold water over her daughter. Miriam thought her mother had lost her mind. All she said was ‘you ready’ and that afternoon took her to her first activist’s sit in. Miriam’s experience is similar to the one I had reading this incredible book. I’d just settled into the story when suddenly something was revealed that was so momentous I would have to take a moment, blind-sided by what had just happened. Memphis is the home of three generations of African-American women from grandmother Hazel, her two daughters Miriam and August, and Miriam’s daughters Myra and Joan. Their personal lives are set against a backdrop of American history from the early 1950s through to the 2000s, taking in world-changing events like the Kennedy assassinations and 9/11. Told in sections from each woman’s viewpoint, Stringfellow takes us back and forth across the 20th Century. Each step back in time informs the present, showing us where Joan has come from and each day forward moves Joan into her future.

I loved the earliest years where grandmother Hazel meets Myron and they fall in love. Their courtship is so sweet and has an innocence about it and I think that’s what makes later events such a shock. The fact that Myron has come so far and become part of law enforcement in those times feels like such an incredible achievement. Your fellow officers are supposed to be your brothers, but despite working alongside him, this all white squad don’t count him as one of them. We don’t see the lynching, but we don’t need to. Our place is with the women of this story. Hazel is nine months pregnant, filled with grief, anger and a frustration borne from knowing that whatever you achieve, however loud you scream, your achievement and voice mean nothing. The author managed to deeply touch me with that sense of powerlessness. There’s such a maelstrom of emotions when she gives birth: knowing this little girl will never know her daddy; wishing Myron was there to support her; the fear of knowing she’s alone as a parent and her girls depend on her; the joy of this new life coming into the world. These women feel so real because Stringfellow cleverly evokes the complexity of human emotions, it’s rare that we only feel one at a time. In grief we can still feel moments of joy and even if we are happy, there can be moments of doubt or fear. Such moments of inner conflict follow us into the second generation of women, sisters Miriam and August. When Miriam escapes domestic violence, returning to the house Myron built in Memphis, she’s torn in two directions. She really has nowhere else to go and she longs for home and the consolation and support of her sister, but Joan has a moment of recognition. Have they been here before? The truth is they have.

The women in this family are strong and they need to be. Some of what happens to them over their three generations is terrible and you will probably have a good cry like I did. I was touched by what Hazel, Miriam and Joan go through, but there were also quieter struggles that touched me such as August’s decision to care for her mother, the loneliness she must feel with both her mum and sister gone, the fear she feels for her son Derek, growing up as a black man in a place where shootings and gangs are commonplace. Her mixed feelings of guilt, anger and love that come with being a mother of a son who does things that are unforgivable. I also loved the camaraderie of her salon and the strength she gets from the women who are her customers and her community. I was touched by her ability to take pleasure and solace when it’s offered, despite it not being the love and companionship she craves – from the women in her life. The pain these women go through makes the good times even more enjoyable and I really felt the joy and relief when they came out of a tough time. The author manages to capture that sense of peace I have seen in my counselling room, when the long held fear, anger and shame that comes from trauma is finally let go. That need for revenge finally silenced. The chance for joy and celebration to fill the void left behind and communing with others who know your journey.

“𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘧𝘳𝘢𝘮𝘦𝘥 𝘳𝘦𝘤𝘰𝘳𝘥 𝘤𝘰𝘷𝘦𝘳𝘴 𝘰𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘸𝘢𝘭𝘭𝘴 𝘴𝘩𝘰𝘰𝘬 𝘸𝘪𝘵𝘩 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘭𝘢𝘶𝘨𝘩𝘵𝘦𝘳. 𝘓𝘢𝘶𝘨𝘩𝘵𝘦𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘸𝘢𝘴, 𝘪𝘯 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘰𝘧 𝘪𝘵𝘴𝘦𝘭𝘧, 𝘉𝘭𝘢𝘤𝘬. 𝘓𝘢𝘶𝘨𝘩𝘵𝘦𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘤𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘥 𝘣𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘬 𝘨𝘭𝘢𝘴𝘴. 𝘓𝘢𝘶𝘨𝘩𝘵𝘦𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘤𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘥 𝘶𝘱𝘭𝘪𝘧𝘵 𝘢 𝘧𝘢𝘮𝘪𝘭𝘺. 𝘈 𝘤𝘢𝘤𝘰𝘱𝘩𝘰𝘯𝘺 𝘰𝘧 𝘉𝘭𝘢𝘤𝘬 𝘧𝘦𝘮𝘢𝘭𝘦 𝘫𝘰𝘺 𝘪𝘯 𝘢 𝘭𝘢𝘯𝘨𝘶𝘢𝘨𝘦 𝘱𝘳𝘪𝘷𝘢𝘵𝘦 𝘵𝘰 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘮.”⁣

Meet the Author

Former attorney, Northwestern University MFA graduate, and Pushcart Prize nominee Tara M. Stringfellow’s debut novel Memphis (Dial Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House) is a multi-generational bildungsroman based on the author’s rich Civil Rights history. A recent winner of the Book Pipeline Fiction Contest, Memphis was recognized for its clear path to film or TV series adaptation and is due out in 2022. Third World Press published her first collection of poetry entitled More than Dancing in 2008. A cross-genre artist, the author was Northwestern University’s first MFA graduate in both poetry and prose and has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, as well as Best of the Net. Her poems have appeared in Collective Unrest, Jet Fuel Review, Minerva Rising, Women’s Arts Quarterly, Transitions and Apogee Journal, among others.

If she isn’t writing, she’s gardening. If she’s isn’t in Memphis, she’s in Italy.

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 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, 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 Publisher Proof

Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

“A year never passes without me thinking of them. India. Erica. Their names are stitched inside every white coat I have ever worn. I tell this story to stitch their names inside your clothes, too.”

Wow! This novel absolutely blew me away. In fact I loved it so much that my other half kept asking whether I was ok and I couldn’t understand why, until I looked at the clock and three hours had gone past without me speaking. I was three quarters of the way through the book and even went to bed early so I could finish the story. This writer pulled me in from the very first page and Civil was as real to me as my poor other half. 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 has a disability too. I think this jumped out at me, because people with disabilities are having a very hard time currently, something that able-bodied people aren’t always aware about. For example, the University of York published research in the BMJ Open that concluded the joint impact of cuts to healthcare, public health and social care since 2010 caused at least 57,550 more deaths of disabled people than would normally have been expected between 2010 and 2014. Disability groups place the figure at 120,000 deaths over a seven year period and some activists even think that the government’s COVID policies were based on herd immunity and eugenics. It seems like eugenics never really goes away.

This novel 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. As a nurse, Civil is professional and is aware of things like codes of practice and ethics, but we are never the finished article and Civil’s naïvety plays a huge part in how she works. Civil has been brought up to care for and look after others as part of her Christian faith. However, there are other personal circumstances that she isn’t aware of taking into work with her. Civil’s mother struggles with depression and events that took place in her personal life have also left her vulnerable, particularly where it comes to her nurturing instincts. Her very name brings to mind civil rights, equality and fairness, so it’s not a surprise that where she sees injustice she’s willing to fight. 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? We are privy to her thoughts and her shock at the way the family are living is evident. Her first thought is that she must do something for them, get them away from the dirty shack where their clothes seem to be stored on the floor. What she does notice is that the girls smell and when she finds out they don’t have sanitary towels, she decides to buy some for them from her own money. This is the first line crossed and although Civil’s actions are generous and could change the family’s lives for the better, it’s a boundary crossed. This makes it so much easier to cross even further as time goes on.

I thought the author grasped the complexity of Civil’s feelings and her role in the girl’s lives beautifully. Civil knows that she should be following instructions, asking her supervisor the questions that have come to mind, and advocating for the girls. Yet she knows that just by talking to the right people and calling in a few favours she could get the girls some clothes, find a job for their father, perhaps get them a new flat in town. What she doesn’t realise is that she’s acting from a bias, not racism but a classism of sorts. Civil’s parents are a doctor and an artist, they live in a nice home and have a certain status. She has walked in to the Williams’s home and assumed they want to move, go to school, and have better things. She’s looking at them through her own world view, instead of moving into theirs and then takes their agency away by filling in forms on their behalf. Her heart is in the right place, but she’s mothering the girls; the girls have lost their mother and Civil has maternal feelings to spare. It’s a co-dependent dynamic that could get complicated and painful on both sides. Her nursing instinct is to gain the girl’s trust and find out who put them on contraceptive injections, especially when India hasn’t even started her period. There are no boys around where they live and neither girl goes to school. As she confides in fellow nurse Alicia and friend Ty, they start doing some research. There are many conclusions they could draw: the federal government could be experimenting on poor black communities; there could be a programme of stopping certain groups in society from reproducing; the government are leaving local employees to make decisions based on their own biases about poor communities; their supervisor believes the Williams girls aren’t safe and could be open to abuse from within the family. All are based on so many assumptions, but what was angering me was that no one had sat down with the family and asked the questions about the girl’s development, access to the opposite sex, or India’s ability to make decisions. Life changing decisions are being made, based on judgments made with no real evidence.

Judgement is at the heart of this terrible case, I won’t reveal more about the decisions made, but it does lead to a court case and repercussions for everyone involved. The colour of the family’s skin, their poverty and the death of the girl’s mother has led to assumptions about the girl’s morals and safety but also the possibility that a black man is not safe, even around his own children. India is non-verbal, but whether that’s through trauma or a learning disability is not clear. Civil’s superiors have decided that it would be disastrous to bring a child into this family, but it’s amazing to see how much the Williams do change over the course of the novel. Civil has taken the decision to act on behalf of the girls, rather than making suggestions and motivating them to advocate for themselves. The changes we see in them, just from having different surroundings, is incredible. Civil believes that we adjust our standards according to where are in life, so once their home becomes a clean, dry space they start to look after it. Civil’s happiness when she sees the girl’s grandmother has bought guest towels for the bathroom is so funny, because these are her standards, what she sees as the correct way to do things, without question. I could see her attachment to the girls growing, the way she brings her support network into their lives also leaves their lives further enmeshed with hers. How will they separate themselves? If Civil takes their part in their court case, she may lose everything, so what happens when the Williams start to have confidence to make their own decisions? What if Mace meets a woman – a potential stepmom for the girls? I wondered if Civil would cope were these girls taken away from her, whether by her work or by changes in the Williams’s circumstances.

The author weaves fact into fiction so seamlessly here, with contemporary medical research questioned and the family’s meeting with real life senator Teddy Kennedy. This grounds the book beautifully and it feels even more true to life; the girls aren’t real, but I’m guessing that this story could be the reality for many poor, young, African American women. I thought Civil’s home life was really interesting, especially when her Aunty arrived and talked plainly about her Mum’s depression. Even in a household where there are always guest towels, there are struggles and issues that are overlooked, either due lack of understanding or through avoidance of something too painful to acknowledge. In fact there’s a way this whole episode is fuelled by avoidance, because if Civil buried herself in this family’s trouble she could avoid her own loss. The present day sections are evidence of that avoidance, because we see Civil finally having to confront and process feelings long buried. She’s close to retirement, yet is still haunted by what happened back then. There are positives in her visit back home, in that her relationships have adjusted so there’s more equality with some people than there was back then. I was left with a sense of how incredible women are, the strength we have to survive life altering circumstances and what can be achieved when we support each other.

Meet The Author

Dolen Perkins-Valdez is the New York Times bestselling author of WENCH, BALM, and the forthcoming TAKE MY HAND. *USA Today* called WENCH “deeply moving” and “beautifully written.” *People* called it “a devastatingly beautiful account of a cruel past.” *O, The Oprah Magazine* chose it as a Top Ten Pick of the Month, and NPR named it a top 5 book club pick of 2010. Dolen’s fiction has appeared in The Kenyon Review, StoryQuarterly, StorySouth, and elsewhere. In 2011, she was a finalist for two NAACP Image Awards and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for fiction. She was also awarded the First Novelist Award by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Dolen received a DC Commission on the Arts Grant for her second novel BALM. Publishers Weekly writes “Her spare, lyrical voice is unsentimental yet compassionate.” Library Journal writes “No sophomore slump is in evidence here. Readers who were captivated by Perkins-Valdez’s first novel, Wench, will be intrigued by the post–Civil War lives of three Southern transplants to Chicago.” Dolen is an Associate Professor of Literature at American University. A graduate of Harvard and a former University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UCLA, Dolen lives in Washington, DC with her family.

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.