This book was an incredibly different reading experience considering it followed an historical fiction novel and a Regency romance. All that lush description and melodrama, followed by this very spare and quiet novel set over one night and mainly in one empty apartment. The contrast was stark and showed that we don’t need very much to convey a story and engage the reader. So short that I read it in one afternoon, this is a story of two people moving out of a flat and agreeing to spend their final night of the tenancy together. Aiko and Hiro are our only characters and their relationship has broken down since taking a trip together, trekking in the mountains of northern Japan. During the trek their mountain guide died inexplicably and both believe the other to be a murderer. This night is their last chance to get a confession out of each other and finally learn the truth. Who is the murderer and what actually happened on the mountain? This is a captured evening where a quiet battle of wills is taking place and the shocking events leading up to this night will finally be revealed.
My first assumption was that Hiro and Aiko are a couple, breaking up after living together, perhaps during their university years. The author conveys an eerie atmosphere, the couple are quite subdued and it’s almost as if they aren’t fully there. Have their minds sprung forward to their next step in life, or backwards to when things were different? There are those annoying marks and shadows on the walls that show where their furniture and pictures once were. The couple feel similar to those marks, like ‘ghostly shadows’ on the rug they’re merely an imprint of what was once present. Even their conversation is sparse, but when we’re taken into their minds we can see that’s where they really live. So much is going on emotionally and intellectually that I could imagine them giving off a sound, like a hum or buzz to signify the intensity of their inner thoughts. We never move out of the room, but we delve into the recent and distant pasts through their inner world. In the room with each other, they start in a quiet and measured way, then with each new piece of information they start to calculate and consider the other. This is where the tension builds, we can feel it inside them and it’s only a matter of time before it spills over into the room. Then comes the first accusation and the pace picks up. It’s not long before the first revelations begin.
I thought that the author used metaphors and memories beautifully and wove them into the psychological game being played. One is the ‘Pearl Earring’ song by Yumi Matsutoya that Hiro remembers an old girlfriend listening to when he was at school. The memory is triggered by Aiko saying she lost an earring while packing. In the song the girl throws her pearl earring under her lover’s bed when she knows it’s the last time she’ll be there. Aiko suggests she doesn’t want this reminder of her lover so throws it away, perhaps after ceremonially throwing the other at a place with special meaning. Hiro gives it more of a metaphorical meaning – one half of a pair is no use without the other. Is this what he thinks about him and Aiko. Aiko hasn’t lost her earring, she has stuffed it in his backpack and claims not to know why. She describes it as a landline, just waiting for him to find it. I think we leave things behind when we want to return or be remembered. The one that resonated most with me was the fish metaphor, where the title of the book comes from:
I see sunlight flickering through the trees. Fragments of the stifled emotions and desire we do not put into words, flit across them, like shadows moving through the wavering light. Deep below the dappled sunlight, fish twist and turn at the bottom of a dark-blue pool […] it is impossible to see them clearly or count them.
Aiko notices their presence, in and out of this room as she thinks of the fish. She sees Hiro has retreated mentally, he’s deep inside his own head just like the fish who disappear into the darker reaches of the pool with a flick of their fins. They are completely present with each other only fleetingly, as dappled sunlight dances across and illuminates them. They come together, then scuttle into the darkened corners, nursing their wounds and planning their next move. The same metaphor occurs at a pivotal point in the novel and gives a sense of the light illuminating different worlds, universes and possibilities.
I’m being so careful not to give away a single revelation or twist, but there are a few and they are unusual and surprising. This is a really unique psychological thriller, it seems sparse, but actually has so much depth and richness. I found myself completely immersed in this couple’s story, both the visible and the invisible. Still playing with memory, the pair delve into their childhoods, trying to work out what makes each other tick and discover how they ended up here. One has more memories of their childhood than the other, but can we trust what we remember? Our impression of something, may be no more than a fleeting glimpse of a much bigger picture. We may have based a lifelong idea of a situation or person on a mere fragment. Even the things we use to jog our memory can be misleading, such as photographs. Hiro muses on how we’re pushed into smiling for photos, to look like we’re enjoying ourselves and love the people we’re with. If we believe our photo albums, the picture we have of the past is distorted. There are so many things going on behind the scenes that are never captured – the moments in the deep blue water.
Published by Bitter Lemon Press 16th June 2022.
Meet The Author
Author: Riku Onda, born in 1964, has been writing fiction since 1991 and has published prolifically since. She has won the Yoshikawa Eiji Prize for New Writers, the Japan Booksellers’ Award, the Yamamoto Shūgorō Prize and the Naoki Prize. Her work has been adapted for film and television.
Translator: Alison Watts is an Australian-born Japanese to English translator and long time resident of Japan. She has wrote the translation of The Aosawa Murders, Aya Goda’s TAO: On the Road and On the Run In Outlaw China and of Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa. Published by BITTER LEMON PRESS•E: email@example.com Distributed by TURNAROUND PUBLISHER SERVICES•T: 020 8829 3000 PR by Alex Hippisley-Cox• T: 07921 127077 E: firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s been another bumper book month at The Lotus Readers and it looks like 2022 is going to be an amazing reading year, in fact I’m already worrying about how I’m going to choose between these books when it comes to my end of year list. Can I really do 22 books this year? It’s also a year of fantastic debuts with another four debut novels being top of my list this month. There’s been a few tears shed over some of the stories and characters within these pages, but I’ve been uplifted too by these stories of overcoming. Surviving trauma and recovering through the support of others, particularly where women are supporting women, has been a theme here too. Its been the first month where I’ve been able to sit in the garden with a book, so most of these have accompanied me outside and onto my recliner, usually ending with me falling asleep under a dog and a cat! So here are some shortened reviews, to whet your appetite for these wonderful novels,
Reminiscent of those stylish novels of the great Agatha Christie, this was a brilliant mystery with a glamorous location, wealthy passengers and sumptuous clothes and jewellery. The period detail is spot on whether it’s the latest bathing suit or 1930’s politics. It’s not just a whodunnit either, because woven within are themes of identity, belonging, family and class division. It’s gripping without being showy or depending on shocks, or endless twists and turns. It’s elegant and allows it’s secrets to unfurl slowly. Lena is a sympathetic character, who has sacrificed starting her career to care for her father Alfie who has recently died. To pay the bills Lena has been singing in a club band, but she has always wanted to work on the West End or Broadway. Her chance comes in the aftermath of a death at the club. A favour from a an old friend of her father. She’s found by theatre producer’s assistant, Charlie Bacon, whose boss is offering Lena the chance of a lifetime, a part on Broadway in a new musical. As they set off across the Atlantic in their first class accommodation, they make the acquaintance of a very wealthy family with an ailing patriarch. What follows is intrigue, murder, mayhem and the realities of being a black performer. Lena is now caught up in a murder plot, and doesn’t know if she’ll be the next suspect, or victim.
Incredibly strong women, three generations of a Memphis family, are the focus of this amazing debut by Tara Stringfellow that made me angry, made me cry and somehow helped me feel uplifted all at the same time. Grandma Hazel is the first resident of the house in Memphis, a house her sweetheart Myron builds for their family. When he is lynched by his own police squad, Hazel is nine months pregnant and left heartbroken, angry and scared. Her daughters, Miriam and August, then call this place home and it also becomes August’s place of work. When Miriam leaves home, travelling with her husband Jax who is in the military, August turns the back of the house into a hair salon for a community of black women who gather there to laugh, to support each other and to plan activism. When Miriam returns with her own daughters, Joan and Myra, she has mixed feelings. She needs a roof over her head, she loves where she grew up, but something happened here that daughter Joan can’t quite remember. Yet she feels I’ll, deep down. There’s fear and shame in this place, but she doesn’t know why and we follow her quest to process and heal from this hidden trauma. With a backdrop of the biggest events of the 20th Century from the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations to 9/11, this is a story of what it means to be a black woman in 20th Century America. Simply outstanding.
Ethan Joella’s novel was perfect for this moment in life. Set in an idyllic Connecticut town over the course of a year, our story follows the intertwining lives of a dozen neighbours as they confront everyday desires and fears: an illness, a road not taken, a broken heart, a betrayal. Freddie and Greg Tyler seem to have it all: a comfortable home at the edge of the woods, a beautiful young daughter, a bond that feels unbreakable. But when Greg is diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer, the sense of certainty they once knew evaporates overnight. Meanwhile, Darcy Crowley is still coming to terms with the loss of her husband as she worries over her struggling adult son, Luke. Elsewhere, Ginger Lord returns home longing for a lost relationship; Ahmed Ghannam wonders if he’ll ever find true love; and Greg’s boss, Alex Lionel, grapples with a secret of his own. We are all familiar with the hashtag #BeKind and through these stories, what seems like a platitude, is brought home to the reader. Our characters touch on each other’s lives, sometimes without knowing what each other are coping with just under the surface. Despite taking us through every experience from infidelity to loss, the book never feels overwhelming or melancholy. Yes I wanted to shed tears from time to time, but somehow there is always a ray of hope. It reminded me that things like community, friendship, shared experiences and compassion can change everything. The author doesn’t hold back on how difficult and painful life can be, but yet always finds some element of joy that reminds us what a gift it is too. This book is poetic, achingly beautiful and full of empathy for the human condition.
I knew this book would be one I enjoyed, after all it encompasses some of my favourite things: History between the World Wars; the Vienna Secession and Gustav Klimt; Art Nouveau; a feminist narrative. However, I didn’t expect it would grab hold of me in the way it did! I sat down with it in the garden one Sunday afternoon and read two thirds straight away. When duty and blog tours called that week I had to set it aside, but I kept glancing over at it like a lost lover all week. Haydock takes four of Egon Schiele’s portraits and explores the women depicted – society sisters Adele and Edith, artists model Wally and his younger sister Gertie. Schiele’s portraits are not life-like reproductions of his model and while they might shed light on aspects of their characters, they can only ever be the artist’s view of that woman with all the prejudices and biases of his time. Haydock is challenging Schiele’s representation of these women and here we get to hear the women’s stories, how they see themselves and their relationship with Schiele. Some of his life choices felt like betrayals to those women who risked everything by literally laying themselves bare before him and the world, for his sake and for the sake of art. I thought Haydock beautifully captured this sacrifice and it’s consequences, something she picks up beautifully in the short interludes from the 1960’s where an elderly woman searches for a painting she’s glimpsed of someone she loved. Desperate to give an apology she never heard in life. Haydock beautifully captures a rapidly changing Vienna between two World Wars where barriers of class and gender are breaking down. She also captures the complexities of the barriers for women and those who have the pioneering spirit to break them. She gives a voice to their silent gaze. This is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year and I read it greedily in just two sessions. I’m already looking forward to entering Haydock’s world and savouring these wonderful women again.ok”
My interest in 19th Century freak shows, Sarah Baartman (the Hottentot Venus), disability and difference, made Lianne Dillsworth’s debut novel a perfect fit for me. Our setting is a theatre and a performing troupe including singers, magicians and dancers who perform a variety show under the watchful eye of Mr Crillick. His current headline act is Amazonia – a true African tribeswoman, dressed in furs and armed with a shield and spear, her native dancing brings down the house in Crillick’s show. The audience watch, transfixed with fear and fascination, never realising that she is a ‘fagged’ act. Zillah has never set foot in Africa and is in fact of mixed race heritage, born in East London. She is making her money by pretending to be what the, largely white, audience wants to see. It doesn’t sit well with Zillah, but she is alone in the world and does need to make money. Besides it’s better than the other options for a young woman who finds herself in poverty. She’s used to slipping between worlds on stage and in her private life, renting a room in the rough St Giles area of the city, but regularly making her way to a more salubrious area and the bed of a Viscount by night. However, when Crillick brings a new exhibit to his London home, dubbed the Leopard Lady, Zillah’s eyes are opened to the politics and misogyny of displaying difference. A meeting with an activist forces her to think about her own performance, but also the danger that Crillick’s new exhibit might be in, especially his ‘private’ audiences complete with medical equipment. Can Zillah help this woman and what does her own future hold, because in good conscience she can no longer perform? This is a brilliant novel, doing for race and disability, what Sarah Water’s novels did for the representation of sexuality in the 19th Century.
I’d never read a novel by Dolen Perkins-Valdez and she pulled me into her story from the very first page, with Civil seeming real almost immediately. I’ve been interested in eugenics since I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on disability and 20th Century literature. I knew a lot about the movement in the U.K., US and Germany in the lead up to WW2, but this book shocked me because I had no idea that forced sterilisations were still happening in the 1960s and 70s. I knew this had happened in earlier in the century with Native American communities, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was still happening to African American women, especially where the woman had a disability too. The writer shows how our biases and emotions feed into the work we do within the caring professions. Having worked in mental health and disability as a support worker, advocate and counsellor, I did identify strongly with Civil and the way she became involved with the Williams family. The Williams girls are her very first patients and she is sent out on a home visit to give them a Depo Provera injection, a long term method of contraception. When she notices that India is only 11 years old her brain immediately starts questioning, who put this little girl on this injection, has anyone asked if she has a boyfriend or worse, is she being preyed upon? Is this an assumption that young African-American women are promiscuous or that African- American men can’t be trusted, even within their own families? The judgement that bringing a child into this family would be disastrous comes from a lack of knowledge around India Williams’s learning disability, but is also an assumption about race too. The fall out from Civil’s discoveries is huge and life-changing, not just for the Williams family but for Civil too. This book sheds light on an important hidden history and took me through a rollercoaster of emotions.
I fell utterly in love with Dot Watson, a rather abrupt and persnickety member of the staff at London Transport’s lost property office. It took me about five pages to be drawn into Dot Watson’s quirky world and her love for the lost property office where honest people bring their found items. Dot is like the backbone of the office and the other workers would be lost without her. A lover of proper procedure and organisation, Dot is the ‘go to’ employee for anyone starting work with the team, or just to answer a question about an item. Dot thinks lost things are very important, almost like an extension of that person. Their lost item can tell her a lot about the person they are and she fills the lost luggage tags with as much detail as possible so that they have the greatest chance of locating it. Dot believes that when we lose a person, their possessions can take us right back to the moment they were with us. When Mr Appleby arrives at the office to find his lost leather hold-all it is what the case contains that moves Dot. Inside is a tiny lavender coloured purse that belonged to his late wife and he carries it everywhere. Something inside Dot breaks for this lonely man and she is determined she will find his hold-all. Her search becomes both the driving force of Dot’s story and the key to unlocking her own memories. I loved our journey into Dot’s past, her relationship with her father and the trauma that she’s tried to lock away for so long. This book has difficult emotions, but also glimpses of humour and is ultimately an uplifting journey with an unforgettable woman.
A teenage girl wanders out of the woods. She’s striking, with flame-red hair and a pale complexion. She’s also covered in blood. She appears in the pub’s beer garden as Jonah is enjoying a beer after a walk with his baby son. Detective Jonah Sheens quickly discovers that Keely and her sister, Nina, disappeared from a children’s home a week ago. Now, Keely is here – but Nina’s still missing. Keely knows where her sister is – but before she tells, but first she wants Jonah’s full attention. Is she killer, witness, or victim? The opening scene is absolutely brilliant, vivid and shocking at the same time. As the girl’s history starts to unfold, they hear about several failed placements and a long stay in a children’s home. The girls made complaints about two of their homes, but were thought to be troublemakers. Jonah and his excellent team have to tread a very fine line. Keeley comes across as cold and calculating one moment, but then like a broken little girl the next. Which is an act? There are some very dark stories here and they could be distressing for people who’ve gone through a similar experience, but it’s that darkness that keeps the reader wanting the truth and to see those responsible punished. If Keeley has planned how to elicit sympathy from the police, she certainly knows what she’s doing. As readers we are pulled along with Jonah, from distress and empathy to disbelief and a sense that something is very, very wrong either with Keeley or the system. This is a great mystery, with huge twists in store and a police team I enjoyed getting to know. Now I’m looking forward to going back to the first novel in this series and filling in the gaps in my knowledge, while enjoying even more of this talented writer’s incredibly creative plots and dark, brooding atmosphere.
So these were my favourite reads in a very busy reading month. I read seventeen books which surprised even me! Next month I’m looking forward to a slightly quieter month with some great thrillers to read, some historical fiction from another of my favourite historical periods – the beginnings of the Tudor dynasty, and hopefully a few choices from NetGalley too so I can keep on beating that backlog. I hope you enjoy these choices as much as I did and i’ll see you again next month.
Manchester, 1960s. Sally, a cynical fifteen-year-old schoolgirl, is much too clever for her own good. When partnered with her best friend, Pamela – a mouthy girl who no-one else much likes – Sally finds herself unable to resist the temptation of rebellion. The pair play truant, explore forbidden areas of the old school and – their favourite – torment posh Sylvia Rose, with her pristine uniform and her beautiful voice that wins every singing prize.
One day, Sally ventures (unauthorised, of course) up to the greenhouse on the roof alone. Or at least she thinks she’s alone, until she sees Sylvia on the roof too. Sally hurries downstairs, afraid of Sylvia snitching, but Sylvia appears to be there as well.
I was drawn to reading this novel by the promise of a ghostly story, but it wasn’t at all what I expected. The novel is split into three parts: penumbra, umbra and anteumbra. All I understood from this and my teenage Latin lessons was that part two would be shadowy and opaque, umbra being the shadow cast during an eclipse. So the opening section would be the lead up to these events and this was the unexpected part. Birch begins her novel with an ordinary everyday tale of Sally’s school days. Set in Manchester in 1960’s, the author spends a lot of time setting up her characters and letting us get to know them. Sally and her best friend Pamela are fifteen years old and somewhat rebellious. Pamela is troubled and disliked by most of the pupils as well as Sally’s family, who are concerned about this girl’s influence over their daughter. There was a lot about this opening that I recognised from my own school days 20 years later; pushing the boundaries, forming friendships, first relationships and a bit of bullying. Together they bend the rules by playing hooky from P.E, climbing on the roof at lunchtime to smoke and eat their pack-ups and eating all the free samples in the food hall at Lewis’s Department Store. Like all girls of this age she is coping with the challenges of growing up, and has doubts about her first serious boyfriend, Rob. However, they really enjoy tormenting Sylvia Rose, an old-fashioned, slightly upper-class girl in their class who has a promising classical voice. Sally could have made a friend of Sylvia, because they do have some of the same interests, but instead she follows Pamela and makes fun of Sylvia. The girls do escalate, so some of their tricks go too far, leaving Sylvia humiliated in front of the entire school.
The girls are attracted by superstition and obtain a ouija board to secretly use during their breaks. The ouija board predicts a dark season approaching, but the girls do not want to believe it. They are also warned by one of their teachers, but the unthinkable does happens and the consequences could haunt Sally for the rest of her life. The author, slowly and cleverly, charts the course of these fun loving and boisterous girls as they become anxious and fearful young women. Since we’re told the story from Sally’s point of view, we get to know her best and her inner world is built. It is not easy to be a teenager, because we’re always in conflict and easily influenced by others through peer pressure. It’s a time when mistakes are made and we have to hope we don’t regret them forever. I was drawn to the novel because of the blurb that describes it as having “elements of the ghost story” and these all take place in the second part of the book. Rather than a ghost story, I would call suggest that there are uncanny or supernatural events within a story about adolescence and growing up. There is so much emotional energy around teenagers and that definitely plays into this story. The terrible tragedy that ensues will affect Sally badly, but also the whole school and in the final part of the book, set around twelve years later, the past really does start to haunt her. Sally returns to Manchester after working around the country and starts to re-connect with old school friends. the area where she grew up and reconnects with several of her old schoolmates. The pace picks up here and we’re definitely in “ghost story” mode, as the author really does use supernatural elements to terrify, quite effectively in parts. What’s most effective for me is that underlying ambiguity; do we take these events literally or does this narrator have some serious mental health issues?
Carol Birch’s novel is a clever combination of school tale, coming of age drama and ghost story. I think that readers coming to this for a straightforward ghost story, should be warned that the thrill and the fear do come, but not for a while. It’s a slow burn rather than a twisty, turny thriller that keeps readers on the edge of their seat. When the ghostly elements did come, they were effective and left me feeling a bit edgy, not knowing what was real and what was a figment of Sally’s imagination. There is a feeling of foreboding, something is going to turn out badly; but is that a ghostly payback or the just the product of Sally’s diseased imagination? The final part also has important reflections on mental health and the psychological aftershocks of grief. The haunting atmosphere will stay with you long after I turned the final page.
Children’s books aren’t my usual fare, but I decided to make an exception for this book based around childhood fears just in time for Mother’s Day. This is the third book in Fransie Frandsen’s Alexander’s Questions series, written with the purpose of helping parents and children explore emotions. Frandsen’s work as an art psychotherapist has given her so much insight into the need for tools like this for opening up communication. From my experience as a counsellor for adults, I know that it isn’t always an event that affects a child into their adult years, but being unable to talk about it. Frandsen knew that to foster healthy bonding or attachment good communication is vital so made these books in the form of questions and answers the cornerstone of her book series.
There are many reasons why healthy communication isn’t established. It could be through lack of opportunity to talk or a parent who doesn’t know how to initiate that conversation. Children may also lack the emotional language to express how they’re feeling. This is where a picture book like this is an incredible tool for establishing healthy communication between parent and child. It allows parent and child to look at the book and make meaning out of the pictures alongside the words together. Small children don’t always have a word for how they feel emotionally, but might recognise physical symptoms of that emotion such as crying and sadness. Reading together helps to explore feelings and start to put names to them. Frandsen believes this is an investment into their future, teaching them to have open conversations about emotions both with you and within their own adult relationships.
The book has lovely illustrations that introduce us to Alexander and his observations about monsters. He starts to make a list of all things monstrous – the monster under his bed, Daddy’s monstrous problems at work. Baby T is scared of his rumbling tummy and cries for his dinner. The neighbour is scared of finding poo in his garden. What he really wants to know though, is about Mummy, is she afraid of monsters? He finds out there are famous monsters and she’s not scared of those. He realises some monsters can be hidden, others can be seen and some live only in our heads. I think probably the most important thing he learns is that everyone’s monsters are different. They are in unusual shapes and different sizes, but what some people are scared of others don’t find frightening at all. We are all individuals with different monsters and that’s okay.
Frandsen’s experience as an artist makes this a thoroughly engaging book full of colour, different fonts, photographs and illustrations to engage young children. The story is funny – Alexander’s quest is started so he can avoid eating his broccoli. It showcases all of Frandsen’s skills in her field, working as a story while also helping parents foster better communication with their child. She has used the form of reading a book together, common in most households, so it doesn’t put pressure on the child to speak directly about their fears. It just opens the door to exploring what can be seen as a negative emotion, something that as adults we might dismiss (there are no monsters under the bed) or take away (mummy will keep the monster away). It is better to be there and help the child to conquer their own fear. Perhaps by inviting them to talk about what scares Alexander and whether it scares them. It could go onto interesting work in drawing or making their monster – something I’ve done just as successfully with adults who have disabilities. This lets the child know we all have things we’re scared of and ways of coping with that, the first one being to talk.
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.
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.
“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.