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.

Email via http://www.erinkelly.co.uk 

Book club http://www.erinkelly.co.uk/subscribe 

Blog http://www.erinkelly.co.uk/blog

Twitter @mserinkelly

Facebook @erinkellyauthor

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

Posted in Netgalley

The Good Servant by Fern Britton

I wrote this review a fortnight ago, before the events of the last week. I’m always torn at times when there’s huge royal news, because I’m caught up between my ideals and the sheer spectacle of the event. It’s a trick that Kings and Queens have used throughout history, knowing that they are unpopular with some elements of society, they use the pomp and ceremony to charm and overwhelm them. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard someone interviewed this week and they’ve said ‘I’m not really a Royalist, but the Queen’s done a great job, or has been a constant presence in my life.’ In a time of recession and a cost of living crisis, I have still seen people subjected to a ‘pile on’ on social media if they’ve dared to suggest that the state funeral will be costing a fortune. Heaven forbid they mention the problematic aspects of Queen Elizabeth’s reign from imperialism to her steadfast support of her son Andrew. I think when someone has lived as long as Queen Elizabeth, there will always be societal changes that cast earlier choices in a bad light. However, I do have a complex relationship with the Royal Family, from really loving Princess Diana when I was a little girl, to learning more about the aspects I find worrying, such as the denial of the Queen’s two Bowes-Lyon cousins who had multiple disabilities and were placed in an institution, but declared as dead. I hate the way Diana and now the Duchess of Suffolk were treated and how the love lives of Princess Margaret and even the now King, Charles III, were meddled with by older family members. I was shocked to realise that Prince Phillip’s sisters were married to members of the Nazi Party. The goings on behind the scenes are always fascinating though. The shadowy men in grey suits who actually run the show, schooled in the constitution and making sure that what comes first is the crown above all. It was this behind the scenes fascination that brought this book to my attention. I’ll admit that I’m usually a bit of a snob when it comes to celebrity books. Comedians and journalists are writing all the time, but when someone’s a presenter I never know what I’m going to get from a novel. I gave this a go because of how interested I am in the history of the Royal Family and I should admit to being an avid watcher of The Crown. I thought the story might be diverting at least, but I was actually pleasantly surprised to find myself truly involved with the story of Crawfie.

Fern Britton’s novel takes us back to London between the wars, a rather turbulent time of constant change; socially, economically and culturally. We travel back and forth between 1932 and 1936. In 1932 Marion Crawford is looking forward to a career as a teacher, when an opportunity presents itself. Unexpectedly, she is offered the role of governess to two Princesses. Elizabeth and Margaret are the granddaughters of George V from his second son, the Duke of York and his wife Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (our Queen Mum). Just four years later and a huge change rocks the royal household, George V’s death paves the way for his eldest son David to succeed him as King. Choosing the regnal name Edward VIII, he is a rather controversial figure amongst the establishment, often disregarding court protocol and conventions and sometimes appearing too political. Edward causes concerns in his choice of companion too, the twice divorced American Wallis Simpson. His abdication, to marry the woman he loves changes the course of history and everyday life for the princesses and their governess. This unexpected constitutional crisis means Crawfie’s life will change forever. It has already been an adjustment to become part of a royal household and now she finds herself in this new position with new responsibilities – governess to the future Queen. The author really does portray this change well, always relating back to how this feels for our heroine, an ordinary young girl given extraordinary responsibility. Marion Crawford is our representative in this novel; the ordinary person living in the extraordinary. As a result we see familiar events from history made immediate and brought vividly to life, with the same sense of wonder and bewilderment that Crawfie feels.

I felt I was in the hands of an expert storyteller as this novel unfolded and I did feel Crawfie’s trepidation at the changes this brought to her life. It was so refreshing to see a well documented part of history told from the angle of a worker in the household, but someone who is neither upstairs or downstairs, but in that liminal role of governess. She is respectable, but not royal. She works for the family, but isn’t a servant. It’s a unique position, but sometimes a lonely one too. She is at the very heart and the future of the Royal Family, but will never be one of them. The author really brought this home to me, the individual working with the Royals must be available whenever they’re needed, no matter how lowly the position. It’s her future and position in this household that Crawfie must consider when she falls in love with George. He may be the love of her life, but can she choose him over her life with the princesses? I loved the sense of loyalty she feels, both to the Crown and her young charges. If she chooses them, their lives will become her life and they will be her children. Would this loyalty be repaid?

I won’t spoil the book by talking about the reality of Marion Crawford’s decision at this time and how her life played out, but she was torn between George and the royals her entire life. The author has told a story that’s an incredible glimpse into the Royal Family at this turbulent time. I felt like I was there as a fly on the wall! I ended up whipping through the story so quickly, possibly because it flows beautifully. There is no doubt about the extensive research that’s gone into the novel, but it wears this research lightly and never lapses into telling us what happened rather than showing us. This is both charming and thought provoking, giving us a glimpse of what it means to have a sense of duty, whether as a Queen or her governess. This was made all the more poignant this week, when most people who were asked what they admired about our Queen said it was her incredible sense of duty. Of course that duty can be eased by the riches and privilege of being a head of state. It must be so much harder to have such a strong sense of duty and loyalty without those benefits or the companionship of a family. Fern Britton has really brought a minor player in the history of our Royal Family to life with this novel and it would draw me to her writing in the future.

Published by Harper Collins 9th June 2022.

Meet The Author

Fern Britton is an English television presenter and journalist who has worked in current affairs and Newsrooms since 1980. In the 1990’s she hosted Ready Steady Cook for the BBC and through the 2000’s presented ITV’s flagship daytime magazine This Morning. Since then she has discovered the joy of writing novels and The Good Servant is her tenth. It is a breakaway from her usual theme of Cornish village life by the sea. The Good Servant focuses on a real woman who spent her twenties and thirties devoted to Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret as children. Fern lives in Cornwall with her four children and three cats.

Posted in Monthly Wrap Up

Books of the Month! August 2022

It’s been a quieter month in August, at least it is where books are concerned. Personally it’s been the busiest month of the year so far. It’s full on as far as home is concerned because it’s the month where we do trips away my stepdaughters. With their Mum working and me at home, we can easily help each other. We’ve also had their cousins here demo Scotland so theres been a lot of squealing and absolutely no room in the bathroom. They’ve been to Alton Towers, Nottingham’s Kitty Cafe, Yorkshire Wildlife Park and Chatsworth House. Between this I’ve had a back operation that I’ve been waiting for three years now. I’ve had a neurotomy at four sites so have had to spend some time in bed recovering. So I’ve had chance to get ahead with some September reading, because this month I’ve got my MA to restart! We don’t do things by halves in this house. Wishing you all a great September and I hope you enjoy these favourite reads.

Halfway through my binge read of this fantastic new thriller from Helen Fields, I had to look it up and check that it really was a stand-alone novel. Sadie Levesque is a compelling central character: brave, resourceful, determined, intelligent and ever so slightly impulsive. I could easily imagine her as the backbone of a great crime series. Sadie is a private investigator based in Canada where she’s about to be the birth partner for her sister. She has time to fit in one last job, which takes her to Scotland and the atmospheric island of Mull. The Clark family recently moved to Mull from the United States to start a new life, but their new life has been derailed by the disappearance of their seventeen year old daughter Adriana. With her American accent and dark Latino looks, Adriana caused a stir among the teenagers of Mull. Her desperate parents feel the local police force are doing very little to look for their daughter, possibly because they are outsiders. When Sadie finds the girl’s body while searching local teen hang outs, the police become hostile. Adriana has been drowned. The killer has sexually assaulted her, adorned her with a seaweed crown and filled her mouth and throat full of sand. Sadie’s immediate thought is she’s been silenced. Without police cooperation, Sadie must find the killer and is drawn into local folklore, witches, a misogynistic priest and a community that looks after it’s own. Will Adriana be the last girl to die? Fields turns the island into a powerful character in it’s own right, weaving the landscape, history and folklore of Mull into her story. There are some twists to the final stages that came as a huge shock. I love to be surprised and I really was here, with my heart sat in my throat at times. Could the truth be more prosaic than the legends? That men kill and could use the excuse of ancient folklore and witchcraft to cover their tracks. I was torn between this more logical explanation and the sense of an ancient evil at play on this remote and wild island. If anyone knows, the island does.

I’ve been struggling with menopausal symptoms for the last six years so I was really up for reading a book about women who are moving towards middle age. Women become more interesting as they get older, more confident and full of wisdom and experience. I certainly found that in the characters of this book who I fell immediately in love with. They are definitely meant to be a trio.

Nessa: The Seeker
Jo: The Protector
Harriett: The Punisher

Each woman finds herself bestowed with incredible powers. When Nessa is widowed and her daughters leave for college, she’s left alone in her house near the ocean and has time and quiet hours to hear the voices belonging to the dead – who will only speak to her. They’ve always been there, but she’s been too busy with her family’s needs to hear them. Harriett is almost fifty, her marriage and career have imploded, and she hasn’t left her house in months. Her house was the envy of the neighbourhood and graced the cover of magazines, but now it’s overgrown with incredible plants. However, Harriett realises that her life is far from over – in fact, she’s undergone a stunning metamorphosis. Jo has spent thirty years at war with her body. The rage that arrived with menopause felt like the last straw – until she discovers she’s able to channel it, but needs to control it too. The trio are guided by the voices only Nessa can hear and discover the abandoned body of a teenage girl. The police have already written off the victim. But these women have not. Their own investigations lead them to more bodies and a world of wealth where the rules don’t apply and the laws are designed to protect villains, not the vulnerable. So it’s up to these three women to avenge the innocent, and punish the guilty. I really loved the clever way the author took apart the concept of serial killer stories while writing one. She talked about the popularity of crime thrillers and true crime podcasts and how they appeal to men. They’re written as if the victims are expendable and the killers get special nicknames as if they are comic book villains. The author really got this message across, but without losing any of the power in her story, or the tension that rises as we hope to see the killer caught. Finally, I have to say something about magic realism and being a huge fan of Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Alice Hoffman, I’ve been reading some of the best writers in the genre. Miller’s story is so strong and the characters so well constructed, that I never felt a sense of disbelief. I have quite a collection of magic realism starting with a teenage love for Fay Weldon and Angela Carter. This book can easily sit next to my favourites. It is that good.

I had never come across Tim Weaver’s novels before so I was very lucky to be offered this by the publisher, especially in such a special edition too. When I learned it was the tenth in his David Raker series, I approached it with some trepidation. Would I be able to keep up or would it even make sense? Now that I’ve finished the novel I can honestly say that within the first few pages, I forgot this was one in a series and just got stuck in! Such was the strength of the story and his characters that I was drawn in and captivated to the end.

David Raker is a Missing Person’s Investigator and a widower with one daughter. The missing people in this story are Cate and Aidan Gascoigne, a devoted couple who have been married for five years and together for nine. The newspapers dubbed their case ‘The Mystery of Gatton Hill’ as they disappeared on their way to have dinner from their home in Twickenham. Catherine ‘Cate’ and Aiden Gascoigne were both 37 years old and worked in creative roles; Aiden was a Creative Director for a Soho web design company and Cate was a full time photographer. As they drove to dinner in Reigate, the couple could be seen on CCTV recording laughing together, just before their car plunged down a 90 foot ravine. Their car burst into flames and even though a fire crew arrived soon after the accident the fire was impossible to stop. They then discover an impossible scenario, when trying to recover Cate and Aiden’s bodies, they find they’re no longer in the car. This turns out to be merely the the tip of the iceberg in a chilling and menacing narrative that goes on to reveal a staggering number of murders over the years, and a extraordinarily intelligent serial killer who has no intention of getting caught. Raker is a remarkably tenacious and determined investigator, even when the pressures and dangers threaten to derail the case. This is a wonderfully complex, riveting and engaging read that kept me glued to the pages from beginning to end with its sky high levels of suspense and tension. This will appeal to crime and mystery readers who love truly twisty. thrilling and superior crime fiction, and I think that this can reasonably be read as a standalone if you have not read any of the series before. Highly recommended

I loved this dark thriller from Carol Johnstone, with its bleak setting, mysterious deaths and Norse folklore. Maggie Mackay is a successful investigative journalist, but has always been held back by a negative inner voice and terrible nightmares. She’s been haunted by the idea that there’s something wrong with her and she can see or sense darkness. She thinks this feeling is linked to her childhood and a small village in the Outer Hebrides called Blairmore. Maggie stayed there with her mother when she was very young and caused a furore when, out of nowhere, she claimed that someone in the village had murdered a man. She left the community in uproar, saying she was really a man called Andrew MacNeil who had lived on the island of Kilmery. Her mother believed and encouraged her claims, but when they returned to the mainland this strange interlude wasn’t referred to again. Now 25, Maggie returns to the island, in search of answers. Mainly, she wants to find out if her claims could possibly have been true, but with her history on the island, Maggie may struggle to get people to talk to her. However, this is an island with few inhabitants, but a wealth of secrets and if Maggie gets too close to the truth she may be in serious danger.

The central mystery is fascinating and makes the book very difficult to put down. Charlie feels like the designated spokesperson for the islanders, he approaches Maggie with an apology for the way they treated her when she was a child and there’s a fatherly feel to the way he talks to her. On one hand I felt he was on Maggie’s side, but I also wondered whether he was a decoy – someone sent to give her just enough information, perhaps to deflect her from the reaching the truth. Other people greet her with outright hostility and I had a lot of admiration for Maggie’s tenacity considering how vulnerable she must feel, staying on the island as a lone woman. Maggie also has a bipolar diagnosis and I thought this was well portrayed by the author, even though it adds another layer of uncertainty – can we trust what Maggie is experiencing? I found Maggie’s narration more compelling than the male narrator, but overall loved the pace and the different perspectives that give us an insight into events back in the 1970’s. There were twists I didn’t expect and the final revelations about the mystery felt satisfying. I love how this author likes to wrong-foot her reader and although this was more gothic than horror, there were parts that were very unsettling and left me listening out for creaks in the dead of night. I came away from it with an uneasy feeling, not about the supernatural aspects, but more about what humans are capable of doing and how isolated communities like this one have the perfect environment in which to plot and keep secrets, in some cases for decades. This cements Carol Johnstone in my mind as an author to look out for and i’ll be buying a finished copy for my collection.

Posted in Netgalley

In a Place of Fear by Catriona McPherson.

‘Helen leaned close enough to fog the mirror with her breath and whispered, ‘You, my girl, are a qualified medical almoner and at eight o’clock tomorrow morning you will be on the front line of the National Health Service of Scotland.’ Her eyes looked huge and scared. ‘So take a shake to yourself!”

In Edinburgh, 1948. Helen Crowther leaves her crowded tenement for her own office in a doctor’s surgery. She is aware of other people’s opinions and disapproval- ‘Upstart, ungrateful, out of your depth’ – but she’s determined to take part in this incredible new service that will help so many people. She’s not even settled in when she blunders into a murder. Even though Edinburgh is the most respectable of cities, no one wants to stand up for justice, but Helen is determined to find the killer. She’s taken into a world she didn’t know existed, it’s darker than her own as hard as her own can be. Disapproval is now the least of her worries. Helen, known as Nelly, takes on a newly created position within the NHS, as a Medical Welfare Almoner. This was a position based within the free hospitals that is the forerunner to a hospital social worker. The very first almoner in the U.K. was Mary Stewart, appointed at the Royal Free Hospital of central London in 1895. The Royal Free was a charitable hospital and gave free medical treatment to those patients considered morally deserving, but unable to afford medical care. An Almoner would means test patient to ensure that only those deemed “appropriate” received free medical treatment. However, Stewart slowly reshaped her role of and fashioned the position into a medical social worker, referring patients to other means of medical and charitable assistance, visiting patients’ homes, and training almoners for positions at other voluntary hospitals.

Nelly is there in the role’s infancy and while she’s still finding her bearings in her new job she begins to notices that all is not as it should be. Nelly isn’t the type of person to brush things under the carpet, so she starts to investigate. There is so much more there than she expects, especially when a body is found in the garden of the house she’s been living in as part of her employment. Even then her curiosity about cause of death and any motive pushes her to carry on investigating, even if it puts her in danger. I felt like I really understood Nelly. I loved her no-nonsense attitude and her dogged refusal to let things go. She wants to make a difference to the patients she sees at the hospital and it was fascinating to be taken back to the birth of the NHS and see how it was implemented. New patients had no idea what help they were entitled to and no-one, even those working in it, fully knew how it worked. I thought that the title was a clever nod to Aneurin Bevan’s own book of the same name.

The mystery was clever and well paced, it kept me reading and surprised me at times, but it wasn’t my favourite part of the novel. I’m used to Edinburgh based stories taking me to the university and male dominated academia, which also suggests people of a certain class. The author focuses on the blue collar, working people of the city. We see a generation and class still struggling in the aftermath of war. This is the beginning of universal health care; health for everyone, not just those who can afford it. The writer gripped me from page one by bringing to life the sights, sounds, and smells of this point and place in time. As someone who has needed the NHS more than most, I found it so interesting to see how it began from a character working on the frontline and making tough decisions.

Meet The Author

Catriona McPherson was born in the village of Queensferry in south-east Scotland and left Edinburgh University with a PhD in Linguistics. Her historical fiction has been short-listed for the CWA Ellis Peters award and long-listed for Theakston’s Crime Novel of the Year, as well as winning two Agathas, two Macavitys, and four Leftys in the USA. Catriona lives most of the year in northern California, spends summers in Scotland, and writes full time in both.