Posted in Netgalley

The Image of Her by Sonia Velton

From the author of Blackberry & Wild Rose comes an extraordinary story of two women who never meet and yet share the closest possible bond.

STELLA and CONNIE are strangers, brought together by two traumatic events – cruel twists of fate that happen thousands of miles apart.

Stella lives with her mother, a smothering narcissist. When she succumbs to dementia, the pressures on Stella’s world intensify, culminating in tragedy. As Stella recovers from a near fatal accident, she feels compelled to share her trauma but she finds talking difficult. In her head she confides in Connie because there’s no human being in the world that she feels closer to.

Connie is an expat living in Dubai with her partner, Mark, and their two children. On the face of it she wants for nothing and yet … something about life in this glittering city does not sit well with her. Used to working full time in a career she loves back in England, she struggles to find meaning in the expat life of play-dates and pedicures.

Two women set on a collision course. When they finally link up, it will not be in a way that you, or I, or anyone would ever have expected.

This was an unusual follow up to Sonia Velton’s historical fiction debut Blackberry and Wild Rose, but had the same stunning characterisation and detail that set her writing apart. This was a classy domestic thriller with two characters on such a fascinating journey. Connie and Stella are such complex characters, written with incredible psychological insight, that I felt immediately drawn into their disparate worlds.

Stella’s life has been dominated by her mother, who died after a long struggle with dementia. Stella has been her full-time carer and this would be enough to explain her sense of dislocation from the rest of the world, but their relationship was always difficult anyway. She’s now 39 and as well as feeling burnout from her caring role, she thinks her inability to connect with others has a root in their mother-daughter relationship. Utterly ground down by life, Stella realises that her mother has been psychologically abusive and manipulative her whole life. It felt to me that Stella’s mental health issues were directly related to having a narcissistic parent. It’s clear that Stella’s mother belittled her, knowing exactly which buttons to push to inflict the most pain. There was also an element of gaslighting, where her mother would deny things she’d said or convince Stella she’d misconstrued them. She never validates Stella’s feelings, so instead of acknowledging her words and apologising, she says she’s sorry that Stella felt upset.

Her mother’s love came with conditions, turning Stella into a perfectionist, constantly feeling she has to change or placate the other person to deserve their love. The perfectionism has bled into all areas of Stella’s life. Her mother wanted her to be successful, because it reflected on her own skills as a mother. Stella is very aware of how others might see her, because it was all her mother cared about – the emphasis on how things appear rather than caring how they actually are. If Stella was well-behaved, well turned out and looked pretty it didn’t matter to her mother how she felt. As she wrestles with these issues in later life, Stella doesn’t really have anyone in whom to confide. However, when she’s recovering from a serious accident, she starts a dialogue with a woman called Connie on social media. It may be the safety of not being seen, being able to hide behind the anonymity of the keyboard, but Stella feels this is someone she can trust with even her most private thoughts.

Connie is a stay at home Mum, on a compound of British families in Dubai. Her husband was offered a great job opportunity, but it left her in an unfamiliar place with all her usual support network thousands of miles away. Connie doesn’t find Dubai inspiring and, perhaps because of where they’re living, she doesn’t feel as immersed in local culture as she expected. Dubai is a man made and designed space. Although it existed as a small fishing village as far back as the 18th Century, the current expanded city is very much focused on tourism with sculptured and themed island complexes such as the Palm Jumeirah. This means it is a place that people pass through, rather than stay. Feeling increasingly lonely and isolated, Connie needs something to do outside the home, and her husband Mark has suggested they have a live-in housekeeper. This would free Connie to do other things, but her keen sense of social justice means she finds this a difficult prospect. She finds she can’t ignore the exploitation of local people by the foreign settlers. She simply can’t ignore the inequality in front of her and her marriage starts to feel the strain, not helped by in-laws she doesn’t see eye to eye with. Although this two women are geographically miles away from each other, their overwhelming sense of isolation and loneliness is very similar.

I thought the author was brilliant at letting her characters tell the story. Stella narrates in the first person and I felt completely absorbed in her narrative. Maybe that was because she talks like a client would speak to me in the counselling room. I was soon drawn in to her world and the difficulties she’s having. Connie’s narrative is in the third person, so it didn’t feel quite as immersive as Stella’s, although it did allow for the points of view of other characters like her husband or in-laws. I thought the authors insight into an ex-pat life in the Middle East was brilliant, because it felt raw and honest, and a million miles away from how people often describe Dubai. I really became incensed with the social injustice and know I couldn’t have lived there and let it wash over me, without trying to change things. I also liked her honesty about motherhood – there are no rose- tinted spectacles here.

I thought that this complete change of genre and time period really showed this author’s range as a writer and her incredible skill at creating complex and believable characters. I loved the focus on themes of self- worth and what we draw on to create our identity; is it our inner life or our outer appearance that informs us of who we are? It brought me back to an idea that fascinates me as a therapist that we call congruence. Are we presenting to the world the authentic person we are inside or a constructed identity based on outer appearances? Do our inside and outside selves match up and how does it feel when they don’t? This was a thoroughly enjoyable novel that will be fascinating to anyone interested in character driven narratives, identity and social justice. It will be interesting to see what this talented writer creates next.

Meet The Author

Sonia Velton has been a solicitor in Hong Kong, a Robert Schuman Scholar in Luxembourg and spent eight years being an expat Mum of three in Dubai. She now lives in Kent. Her first novel, BLACKBERRY AND WILD ROSE was short-listed for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize, long-listed for the HWA Debut Crown and has been optioned for film. Her second book, THE IMAGE OF HER, is a literary thriller about two women whose lives come together in a way that is both chilling and awe-inspiring.

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

The Therapist by Helene Flood.

Helene Flood has written a fascinating thriller about a therapist, set in Oslo. It’s complexity of character and their motivations probably comes from the fact that the author is a psychologist. Straightaway, I was invested and really excited me to get inside the character’s minds. Sara. and her husband Sigurd live in his family home, a large three storey house they’re currently renovating. Next door is a small addition to the property, housing Sarah’s office and therapy room. On this Friday, Sara is seeing three clients and then settling in for a quiet weekend while Sigurd is on a boy’s weekend away with his best friendS. At lunchtime he leaves Sara a message to say they’ve arrived safely at his family’s cabin and his friend is gathering firewood. She expects to speak to him that evening, so is shocked when one of his friends calls to ask where Sigurd is, as he hasn’t arrived yet. In the days following Sigurd’s disappearance Sara must cope with a very thorough detective searching her house and dissecting her relationship, an intruder breaking into the house, breaking the news to her distracted and narcissistic father, and constantly wondering where Sigurd has gone. On top of everything, she has clients to see.

The story is told in two narratives from Sara’s point of view. In one, we’re in the present day, experiencing the investigation and Sara’s interactions with family and friends in the wake of Sigurd’s disappearance. In the second we meet a very different Sara, as she first meets Sigurd, spends time with friends and makes the decision to move to Oslo. This Sara seems lighter mentally, she’s obviously younger but not by much, so what has changed? The past Sara seems to be enjoying life, despite a stressful clinical post with drug users. Sigurd is also completing his training in architecture and is incredibly busy. The distance between them is something she hadn’t anticipated, she knew they would both be busy, but thought the strength of their feelings would keep them on track. A brief interlude away at a festival with friends sees Sara’s mood lift completely. She starts to relax and enjoy herself. However, there will be secrets kept about this weekend that have huge implications for her future.

Present day Sara seems very controlled and reserved. The author creates this interesting gap between Sara’s interior world and the way she presents herself to the world outside. She is always thinking, analysing and wondering, but her conversation is minimal and gives very little away about how she feels. There’s something called cognitive dissonance going on here, a huge gap between the Sara she presents to others and how she truly feels. There are three core values a therapist should have when seeing clients: authenticity, non-judgement and prizing the client. Sara seems strangely detached from her emotions – still seeing clients even after Sigurd’s disappearance as if nothing’s happened. While this is great for continuity, it isn’t very authentic and I felt that instead of practicing authentically she is wearing her therapist’s role like a mask. Even before she knows about her husband, Sara’s thinking is very ordered. She has the day split into therapy hours, admin time, lunch until she can throw on some pyjamas and chill out. It feels like she’s listing tasks just to get through the day, mentally ticking it off seems like a habit borne out of anxiety or trying to keep motivated when depressed. I wouldn’t say she’s enjoying life much. Their home seems the same, with plans for a beautifully finished house, that are currently a list of tasks they can’t afford. In trying to achieve something ambitious and beautiful, they’ve made their current lives very uncomfortable and messy. The state of the house seems to get Sara down and Sigurd wants her to take on more clients so they have more money to get on with the plans. However, I don’t think Sara is in the mental state to cope with more therapy hours.

I loved the author’s creation of Sara’s narcissistic father, a professor and philosopher with controversial right wing views about crime, family and vigilantism. Sara describes talking to her father, almost like an audience with royalty. It’s so rare to have all his attention on you, it’s difficult just to be his daughter. He seems to give off the sense they should be grateful for his unwavering attention and if either daughter struggles to make use of the time, conversation soon turns to him, his work or one of the many students who seem to loiter round the house like acolytes. In fact Sara is so bewildered by his attention on this occasion she doesn’t tell him her devastating news, but instead debates something totally unrelated with him then goes home again. It’s no surprise that she keeps her vulnerabilities and worries to herself – there’s never been anyone interested in hearing them. Even her sister Annika, although she looks after Sara, drops into her role as lawyer as well as sister. This is partly to remind Sara how she’s being viewed by the police, to remind the police not to take liberties, but also to give herself a professional role to hide behind. It is only when one of Sara’s friends arrives and acts naturally by hugging her, that she even feels like crying.

As Sara starts to undertake her own investigation, secrets start to emerge about the couple’s life together. There has been some distance between them for a while. Her relationship with his family is not a warm one, with Sigurd’s mother resentful that they live in her childhood home – left to Sigurd by his grandfather. They don’t even attempt to look after h er and she foresees a long wrangle over Sigurd’s will. There were arguments at Sigurd’s work with differences in architectural perspectives, and who is the mystery blonde that sometimes wait for Sigurd after work? If his work on the Atkins house was finished long ago, why is it still in his diary and where is he really spending his time. The author keeps us brilliantly on edge with red herrings and reveals galore. We see the police through Sara’s eyes, which might explain why they seem curiously non-committal about everything. We never truly know how they feel about Sara or where the investigation is going. Obviously she is a possible suspect. However, there are points in the investigation, when Sara is sure there is an intruder at the house, where they seem indifferent to her worries and her safety. I was never quite sure whether Sara was the ultimate unreliable narrator and would turn out to be implicated in her husband’s disappearance. She seemed detached from the reality of it, even within the context that their relationship has deteriorated over time. The ending was a surprise and the double reveal was beautifully done, and very satisfying. I stayed up late to finish the last few chapters, because I was so hooked on the story. This was a psychological thriller I would definitely recommend.

Meet The Author

Helene Flood is a psychologist who obtained her doctoral degree on violence, revictimization and trauma-related shame and guilt in 2016. She now works as a psychologist and researcher at the National Centre for Violence and Traumatic Stress. She lives in Oslo with her husband and two children. The Therapist is her first adult novel. It has been sold in 27 counties and film rights have been bought by Anonymous Content. Her second novel, The Lover, will be published in English in 2022.

Posted in Publisher Proof

Backstories by Simon Van der Velde

What I want is to find the spark, to dig down into their pain, their passions and their imperfections, and show you our heroes as they truly are.

Backstories is a unique collection of stories each told from the point of view of a famous, (or notorious) person at a pivotal moment in their lives. The writing is literary but accessible and the voices vividly real. The settings are mostly 60’s and 70’s UK and USA, and the driving themes are inclusion, social justice and of course, nostalgia – but the real key to these stories is that the protagonists’ identities are withheld. This means that your job is to find them, leading to that Eureka moment when you realise who’s mind you’ve been inhabiting for the last twenty minutes.

Dreamers, singers, talkers and killers; they can dazzle with their beauty or their talent or their unmitigated evil, but inside themselves they are as frail and desperate as the rest of us. But can you see them? Can you unravel the truth?

These are people you know, but not as you know them.

Peel back the mask and see.

I read a lot of books and hear the words ‘unique reading experience’ all too often, but this really is just that. A great premise that makes a series of short stories about celebrities, an intriguing psychological puzzle. The author withholds their identities, taking us back to a time before they were famous, potentially giving us insights into who they were and even what made them become the stars we know and love. A lot of fun can be had sharing them with friends and working out who can identify which star first, or discussing which story you enjoyed most.

However, this collection of short stories is much more than a gimmick or party game. Simon Van der Velde is a great writer with an uncanny ability to get inside the mind of each of his subjects. He constructs their ‘selves’ beautifully, giving us fully rounded people behind the star status. He has a keen understanding of what it means to be human and how events may affect someone psychologically. In one story he shows how childhood bullying leads our character to a particular friendship, perhaps also the insight into human emotions that eventually make his song lyrics so poetic and beloved.

What the author does is almost filmic, in the same vein as the film Rocket Man, where the Elton John we know in the extravagant costumes strolls into a group therapy session. Then as he reminisces to the group we see a series of flashbacks, to the drink and drug fuelled 1970s. He takes us even further back to a lonely childhood with a mother preoccupied with how things look, and a severe father who can’t show love. Each time we return to the therapy group a little bit of his costume has fallen away, until at the end the costume is gone and he’s able to reconnect with that hurt little boy and give him comfort. It’s a beautiful way of framing an biopic and it’s exactly what the author does here. He creates those flashback moments or snapshots for each of his characters, so that we can piece together their ‘true’ personality, possible motivations and know them in a way we haven’t before. It’s almost like inhabiting another person and that’s how versatile the author is here. He’s a literary shapeshifter, jumping into each new incarnation with skill and insight. There’s something voyeuristic about looking this far into someone’s psyche, but it’s compelling and illuminating too.

I know these stories will send many readers to the internet to check how close to the truth some of the stories are and that’s definitely the fun part. However, it’s great to sit back and read the stories again to fully appreciate the brilliant sense of place and time across the collection. These people are fully grounded in a real world that I believed in. Despite these worlds being on different continents, time periods and encompassing varied family backgrounds, they all felt like real spaces. With each story being self-contained, this is a great collection to carry with you and read on the go. Each story might only take twenty minutes to read, but that’s perfect for spending your lunch hour or commute home totally immersed in someone else’s life experience. Its a chance to examine what made each person, become the household name they are. This collection is fun and intriguing, but also psychologically astute and a masterclass in how to construct a ‘self’ within fiction.

Published by Smoke and Mirrors Press, 25th March 2021

The Author’s Vision.

MY BACKSTORIES QUEST 

“Whatever happened to, all of the heroes?”  The Stranglers 1977  

I was twelve years old when I first heard this song and although there was something in the feral tone that grabbed me, I didn’t really understand it. I do now. I get the angst and the loss and the emptiness, which is why, in Backstories, I aim to answer the question.

I’m not interested in simplistic tabloid truths. They clung on too long, drank too much, lost their looks and their charm and generally reminded us that we’re all getting older. That’s not what I want from my heroes.  

What I want is to find the spark, to dig down into their pain, their passions and their imperfections, and show you our heroes as they truly are.  

So join me on my quest. Let’s bypass the obvious, the tedious,and the dull. Brave the deeper, darker paths where the treasures can be found, and together we’ll uncover the fears and doubts that made our heroes what they were and perhaps catch a glimpse of ourselves along the way.

Whatever happened to all of the heroes?

They turned out to be human beings, in all their diverse glory.

Simon Van der Velde January, 2021

Meet The Author.

Simon Van der Velde has worked variously as a barman, laborer, teacher, caterer and lawyer, as well as traveling throughout Europe and South America collecting characters for his award-winning stories. Since completing a creative writing M.A. (with distinction) in 2010, Simon’s work has won and been shortlisted for numerous awards including; The Yeovil Literary Prize, (twice), The Wasafiri New Writing Prize, The Luke Bitmead Bursary, The Frome Prize, and The Harry Bowling Prize – establishing him as one of the UK’s foremost short-story writers.

Simon now lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, with his wife, labradoodle and two tyrannical children.

www.simonvandervelde.com