Posted in Random Things Tours

Hostage by Clare Mackintosh

This was an absolutely nail-biting thriller of a novel that never lets up and practically had me biting my own nails. In fact I’d been reading this, then binge watching Ozark with my other half and had to ask for a half hour of comedy before bed, because I couldn’t cope with any more tension! I probably should also be honest and say that planes make me horribly claustrophobic. I’m never scared of crashing. I just hate that I can’t get up and walk out of the door. So my own phobia probably added to the tension of the novel. Mina is a flight attendant and has the honour of working on the first ever direct flight from London to Sydney. Back home, husband Adam is holding the fort while he comes to terms with recent mistakes in his marriage. He is also finding it hard to develop a relationship with his adoptive daughter Sophie. After waiting a long time to adopt a child, they’ve had problems settling Sophie and also connecting with her in the way they expected. However, she does love her most recent babysitter, so Adam is quite relieved when Mina has booked this miracle worker to cover her hours on this historic flight. So, it’s a massive shock when her baby sitter takes them both hostage, citing her membership to a climate change group and explaining that Mina’s plane will now be in the hands of her fellow protestors. Simultaneously, Mina is left with a note and a choice; let one of the protestors onto the flight deck or her daughter’s life is in danger. Mina has already found Sophie’s ‘Epipen’ in the galley, so she knows they mean business. She has also been left in no doubt that one of their associates has been following Sophie and their young babysitter, leading Mina to believe it’s going to be easy for them to get to her. Their plan, if Mina cooperates, could be to fly the plane and all three hundred passengers into the Sydney Opera House. She is left with a terrible dilemma – one life, that of her precious daughter, or the lives of everyone on board.

The book alternates between Mina’s perspective and what’s happening at home for Adam and Sophie. In between are chapters from the perspective of one of the hijackers, each one named after a river. These are an interesting break from the tension, because they explain that person’s reasons for joining a radical climate change group, one that’s willing to consider acts of terrorism to bring their cause to the forefront of the news agenda. I didn’t feel a connection or empathy with these, or any of the main characters really. They’re flawed and therefore very human and believable. Mina’s husband Adam has been deceitful and their marriage is still in a state of repair over his behaviour. This isn’t about character though, this is all about the situation. The pressurised and locked cabin adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere the author has created and the passenger’s isolation from both their loved ones and the safety of their homes. This is all about the rollercoaster thrills of the hostage situation and perhaps the fear many of us have about the heightened terrorism threat and flying in general.

Although I guessed some of what happens, the story definitely entertains and keeps you on edge. In fact I could see a film version doing exactly the same thing. Some aspects were unexpected though, especially the situation Adam and Sophie find themselves in back in London. Due to unforeseen complications, they are in more danger than was planned and certainly more than Mina has expected. I really enjoyed this subplot, because it went somewhere I didn’t expect and I was definitely on tenterhooks wondering whether they would come out alive. It was also clever to have little snippets of information about the passengers and what had made them book this inaugural flight non-stop around the world. Whether they were here by intention or simple chance, none of them expected to become a fireball in the sky. This did induce some emotion in me, because it made the passengers more than a seat number. Sophie became the most interesting character for me as the book progressed. Her behaviour, when seen in detail, could point to her being neuro divergent and I thought this was portrayed well. She is extremely intelligent and I loved how that becomes more obvious as their predicament worsens. Oh and read all the way to the end. The twists don’t stop coming with the tense and very modern take on this common nightmare scenario.

Meet The Author

With over 2 million copies of her books sold worldwide, number one bestseller Clare Mackintosh is the multi-award-winning author of I Let You Go, which was a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller and the fastest-selling title by a new crime writer in 2015. It also won the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year in 2016. Both Clare’s second and third novels, I See You and Let Me Lie, were number one Sunday Times bestsellers. All three of her thrillers were selected for the Richard & Judy Book Club, and together have been translated into forty languages. After the End was published in 2019 and became an instant Sunday Times bestseller, and in 2021 Hostage flew straight into the top ten. Together, her books have spent more than sixty weeks in The Sunday Times bestseller lists. 

Clare is patron of the Silver Star Society, a charity based at the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford, which supports parents experiencing high-risk or difficult pregnancies. She lives in North Wales with her husband and their three children.

For more information visit Clare’s website http://www.claremackintosh.com or find her at http://www.facebook.com/ClareMackWrites or on Twitter @ClareMackint0sh #ILetYouGo #ISeeYou #LetMeLie #AftertheEnd #HostageBook

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Glittering Hour by Iona Grey.

This week’s reading took me back into the world of the Bright Young Things, the young generations of aristocrats in 1920s Britain intent on living it up and shaking off the aftermath of WWI. The Mitford sisters were part of this scene and it was while reading about Nancy Mitford’s exploits in 1920’s London that my mind was drawn back to this beautiful book depicting that new generation. A book I read originally for the blog tour back in 2019. Iona Grey shows young people coping with a legacy of loss and parents that are still stuck in the hierarchical society of the Edwardian period. Our heroine, Selina Lennox, is one of those ‘Bright Young Things’ who were followed by the press from party to party, determined to the live the full life that their parents, and especially older siblings, have missed out on. Her family are part of an ailing aristocracy that still has its property, but is running short on money. Her elder sister is making an advantageous marriage and since the death of their brother in the war they have the pressure of producing a male heir. Selina is being steered towards the heir of a ruby mining business situated in Burma. Rupert is a war veteran, and it is possibly active service that has made him so stiff and taciturn. Selina finds him too serious and prefers the company of her friends and the social whirl of extravagant parties thrown during the season. One night, while careering through London on a treasure hunt, the car she is travelling in hits a cat. Selina can’t leave the poor creature and is horrified to see her friends disappearing into the night, leaving her in a garden square somewhere in Bloomsbury.

Young, struggling artist Lawrence Weston chances upon Selina and offers his help. They climb into the locked garden square and give the cat a proper burial. Selina is drawn to this dark haired young man but also knows she is taking a huge risk disappearing at night with a stranger who isn’t from within her social circle. Lawrence is transfixed by Selina’s golden beauty and feels an instant connection. He knows she is far above him and her family would be horrified. He lives in a shared house and rents a studio where he paints portraits of the aristocracy’s lost sons of war in all their military splendour. This pays the bills, but he would really love to be a photographer and as yet no one sees this as art. Realistically, he has no chance with Selina but can’t seem to stay away despite receiving warnings from most of his friends.

Interspersed with this is the story of Selina’s daughter Alice in the years before WW2. Alice lives on the family estate and is looked after by Polly who was Selina’s maid. Alice’s grandparents are still in residence, still living the values of a bygone age. Miranda has now given birth to Archie, the all important heir for the estate. Selina is in Burma with her husband and we see their journey in a series of letters she writes to Alice. They clearly have a very loving relationship, so it seems strange that Alice is hidden away in the cold nursery corridor? I kept wondering why, if she loves her daughter as much as she seems to, would Selina leave her with a family who show her no affection? Alice has been sent a treasure hunt from her mother and Polly gives her the clues to follow. Solving the clues takes her to different parts of the estate and her mother explains their significance, they’re part of Alice’s origin story. The clues help Alice come to know and love the gardens, especially the deserted Chinese House with its old gramophone. What exactly is their link to Selina’s past and Alice’s future?

Iona Grey has created a beautiful novel here, filled with moments of joy and sadness. For me, the meaning of the title is so poignant encompassing both the historical period and the love story at the heart of the novel. The 1920’s is a decade that stands alone. A moment of extravagance, partying and glamour, between two world wars – a glittering hour. This glittering generation defied the death that had stalked their fathers and elder brothers in the trenches and were determined to enjoy life while they could. It has a romantic meaning too – for Lawrence, Selina is his glittering hour, they share a moment of pure love and beauty that burns bright but can’t burn forever. Grey shows what happens when we dare to break away from the boundaries and societal rules of our class and how the reverberations from this can last for several generations. The love may not last, but the memories can sustain us for a lifetime.

Thanks to Simon and Schuster UK and Random Things Book Tours for the chance to read this novel and join the blog tour. See below for the next stops.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight by Riku Onda.

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: books@bitterlemonpress.com Distributed by TURNAROUND PUBLISHER SERVICES•T: 020 8829 3000 PR by Alex Hippisley-Cox• T: 07921 127077 E: alex@ahipcoxpr.co.uk

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Mayfair Bookshop by Eliza Knight

1938: She was one of the six sparkling Mitford sisters, known for her stinging quips, stylish dress, and bright green eyes. But Nancy Mitford’s seemingly dazzling life was really one of turmoil: with a perpetually unfaithful and broke husband, two Nazi sympathizer sisters, and her hopes of motherhood dashed forever. With war imminent, Nancy finds respite by taking a job at the Heywood Hill Bookshop in Mayfair, hoping to make ends meet, and discovers a new life.

Present Day: When book curator Lucy St. Clair lands a gig working at Heywood Hill she can’t get on the plane fast enough. Not only can she start the healing process from the loss of her mother, it’s a dream come true to set foot in the legendary store. Doubly exciting: she brings with her a first edition of Nancy’s work, one with a somewhat mysterious inscription from the author. Soon, she discovers her life and Nancy’s are intertwined, and it all comes back to the little London bookshop—a place that changes the lives of two women from different eras in the most surprising ways.

I have always held a fascination for the Mitford sisters, sparked mainly by childhood visits to Chatsworth when Deborah Mitford was the Duchess of Devonshire. Over the years I read more about these fascinating sisters, and I saw Debo (as she was known) as a formidable woman with great ideas for diversifying the estate. I acquired several books about Chatsworth and it’s resident women over the years, then several years ago I purchased a copy of the Mitford sister’s letters and met the then Dowager Duchess at a book signing. She was gracious, but there was a fierce intelligence there and a barely disguised lack of patience for fools. I had never been sure what the phrase ‘gimlet eyed’ actually meant until I observed her that day. More recently, the appearance of the glamorous, but dangerous Diana Mitford in the final series of Peaky Blinders seemed to open a few people’s eyes to the rise of fascism in Britain and turned the spotlight once again on this extraordinary family. While it probably wasn’t a realistic portrayal of her, it was certainly compelling. So I jumped at the chance to delve into the Mitford’s world once more in this book, perfect for a bibliophile as we spend time with both book curators, sellers and writers.

Nancy is a witty companion and rather poignant too, which is a very endearing combination. We meet her as one of the Bright Young Things, careering round London drinking cocktails and following treasure hunts, all the while looking absolutely fabulous. She is in love with a young man called Hamish who she fully expects to marry. However, when the story returns to her, she’s been disappointed in love and is married to someone else altogether, who she nicknames Prod. She and her husband have a rather sad marriage and underneath the sparkle I felt we were seeing something of Nancy’s more vulnerable side. The author skilfully weaves fact and fiction, thoroughly researching Nancy’s writings and letters, then creating a full inner world for her character. Of course we can’t know for sure how Nancy was truly feeling and to me she seemed one of those people who didn’t let them show easily. However, it rang true for her to be disappointed in her marriage, to resent Prod’s quite visible affairs and to be sad at her lack of a baby, especially as her younger sisters became mums before her. The journey she took as a woman was moving, especially the acceptance of things she would never be – a happily married woman and a mother. She also struggles with a bad case of imposter syndrome, common in writers, calling herself a bad novelist when all her work needs is experience, maturity and honesty of feeling.

Her WWII friend, the Iris that our modern heroine Lucy is searching for, helps her a great deal. With this friend she doesn’t have to be entertaining, witty Nancy, always ready to solve a problem and keep a brave face on things. She allows herself to be vulnerable in someone else’s presence and it feels like a huge psychological breakthrough. She can just be herself. On a bookish note, Lucy was fascinating because I had no idea there was such a profession as a book curator – where do I train and when I can start? I found her research really interesting, because I’ve always wanted to go into the library in Chatsworth and finding out they have a secret staircase was rather thrilling. Her research is inspired by the book her family acquired, inscribed to a friend called Iris from Nancy. Left for Iris at the Heywood Hill Bookshop, it was clearly never collected. Though there is no other mention of Iris that Lucy can find, it’s clear she had a huge effect on Nancy from the inscription alone. While working from this very bookshop, the same place Nancy worked during WWII, she hopes to find more references to Iris and her role in Nancy’s life. I wanted to Lucy to have an adventure of her own while in London and perhaps be inspired by some of Nancy’s spirit. As the book moves along we can see the women are on a similar journey, in terms of making the life they want to have, instead of waiting for it to happen.

Through their letters, it’s clear that the Mitford sisters had a rather awkward and contrary relationship. Despite often being completely at odds with each other, they continue to write, use terms of endearment and their family’s own language and share their news. Despite the scandalous relationship between Diana and Mosley, for whom she left a husband and two children, and Unity’s transformation into a Hitler fan girl, the other sisters continue to write to them. It has to be said that many in the aristocracy had fascist views, but Nancy didn’t share her sister’s politics. As WWII really took hold, Nancy’s huge social circle and fluent French meant she was useful to the government, but would this stretch to discussing her own family? I was fascinated to see this dynamic play out and wondered whether the women could repair their connections afterwards, remembering they are sisters first and foremost. The period detail was brilliant and the complete change between the London of the partying 1920’s and the more somber run up to WWII was done so well. I loved the nostalgic feel of the novel and those lovely little bits only bibliophiles like me can appreciate, such as a part library part menagerie with bird cages and tree branches. If you love bookish chat and the idea of working in a bookshop or have a similar fascination with the Mitfords you’ll love this one. Even if you’ve not come across the family before, there’s so much to love here and it won’t take many pages for Nancy’s wit and engaging narrative will draw you in. However, underneath the charm of the novel is a gripping story of a woman growing into herself, learning what makes her content and realising that she can, as a woman, make choices to pursue her own happiness.

Meet The Author

Eliza Knight is an award-winning and USA Today bestselling author. Her love of history began as a young girl when she traipsed the halls of Versailles. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society and Novelists, Inc., and the creator of the popular historical blog, History Undressed. Knight lives in Maryland with her husband, three daughters, two dogs and a turtle

Posted in Random Things Tours

Beloved Ghost by Fiona Graph

I thoroughly enjoyed Fiona Graph’s first novel Things That Bounded because of the wonderfully detailed historical context she wove around her story. Here she does the same for her characters Theo and Zac, who meet during WWII and survive Dunkirk together. After this experience they become lovers. Theo works at Bletchley Park with Alan Turing, then goes to work in the Foreign Office after the war, while Zac works for MI6. They have a good life. However, this is a time where the love they’ve found with each other, isn’t accepted in the way it is now. Homosexuality is a crime and it’s not hard to imagine how stressful it must be to hide your true self as soon as you leave your front door. The pressure of being an outcast takes it toll on their mental health, with Zac becoming so severely depressed he has to go away. Can this beautiful relationship survive?

I love how Fiona Graph creates her characters, then uses them to drive the story forward. There’s a quiet bravery in their choice to be together in a society doesn’t accept them. The fact that they’re establishment figures is interesting too, both working as civil servants for a system of government that actively persecuted them. The fear of being outed, particularly at work, must have been incredible. Add to that the very real fear of being assaulted, arrested and ultimately being jailed for nothing more than loving each other. There’s the loneliness too, where straight couples can be open and make connections with their neighbours or work colleagues, these men can’t. They can’t invite anyone into their lives and be honest about their love for each other. This means avoiding friendships and relying solely on each other, placing further strain on the couple; they have to be everything to each other. This intensity is hard to maintain and I was so invested in their love for each other, that I was genuinely upset when the pressure became too much.

The author presents the mundane everyday things that happen when two people live together, because of course the men live just like any other couple, gay or straight. She does this by showing their routine, the domestic detail of everyday life is touching. This is all Zac and Theo want, the ability to live like anyone else. It makes us realise how brave men of this generation had to be, just to have what a straight couple probably takes for granted. It drives home the sense of injustice they must have felt. It seems galling that they fought side by side like every other man in WWII, but back in the ordinary world they have to live with a terrible fear of betrayal and prosecution. I kept reading as I was longing for their love to triumph over everything. However unrealistic that might be. The author’s setting was beautifully evoked and I felt firmly in the mid – 20th Century. I felt the most important thing Graph succeeds in doing is to show us, through these characters, the experience of so many men who were vilified and criminalised for loving the ‘wrong’ person. Yet we never feel that Theo and Zac are just ciphers created for this purpose. They feel wholly real and I was so involved with their emotional journey that I almost expected to look up from my book and see them there. Also, this could have been relentlessly miserable, but it isn’t. There’s something hopeful and uplifting about their courage and their enduring love for each other. I truly wanted them to triumph over the obstacles that faced them and for their love, despite the challenges it brings, to remain undimmed.

Meet The Author

Fiona Graph lives in London.

Her first novel, ‘Things That Bounded‘, was published in October 2020.

Beloved Ghost’ is her second novel

Twitter @fiona_graph

Posted in Random Things Tours

Elizabeth of York: The Last White Rose by Alison Weir

I love novels of courtly intrigue, in fact at my previous home I had shelves placed in the alcoves either side of the fireplace and one whole side was devoted to books on the Tudors and the Wars of the Roses. So the story of Elizabeth of York is familiar to me, but I love Alison Weir’s books and I was interested to see her take on this incredibly important Queen. As Alison Weir states in her afterword, Elizabeth is at the juncture of several important events in England’s royal history. There’s the instability caused by the Wars of the Roses or Cousin’s War, with battles, changes of allegiance and her family’s fortunes rising and falling with every intrigue. There are parts of her life shrouded in mystery and with differing viewpoints from historical researchers and novelists. I have always wondered how her relationship with Richard III changed from niece and uncle, to prospective wife. I have read accounts that suggest an affair between the two, one that took place in front of Richard’s sick wife Anne Neville and was branded scandalous in the court. I wanted to read Alison Weir’s take on this strangely incestuous relationship, whether Elizabeth was complicit and desired the match or whether this was a political match – suggested by Richard who wished to legitimise his rule, above the claim to the crown held by Elizabeth’s brothers and sons of Edward IV. Did Elizabeth, and her mother Katherine Woodville, see this as the only way to secure their family’s safety under Richard’s rule? The other mystery is that of the missing princes in the tower, a subject Alison Weir has looked at closely before. Some accounts suggest a conspiracy drawn up by Henry VII’s mother Margaret Stanley, to advance her son’s claim to the throne and label Richard III forever as guilty of regicide and killing his own nephews. Others lay the blame squarely at Richard’s door, for arranging their murder then forever hiding their remains so they couldn’t even have a proper burial. I was interested in how Elizabeth coped with potential marriages to the very two men who had most to gain from her brother’s killing.

The novel begins at one of life’s terrible downturns for the family, as Edward IV’s wife Katherine is forced to flee to sanctuary with her children, Elizabeth being the eldest. This time shut off from the world and all the comforts they were used to had a huge impression on Elizabeth and could have been enough of a trauma to be an underlying cause of the choices she made in later life. The fear of having nothing, facing poverty and being barred from courtly life is ever present and the privilege of her royal blood, her claim to the crown and her importance to England is drummed into her from a young age. I often think that it was Mary Boleyn who had the right idea, a generation or so later, of leaving court and all it’s intrigues behind and becoming the wife of a farmer. If you are always told you are destined to be a Queen though, does that sort of thought ever enter your head? Court is really the only life that Elizabeth knows. The author really puts across the drama of courtly life, especially during Henry VII’s reign when any whiff of a usurper seems to have him running to her rooms in a panic. The stress seems constant and I did wonder how many of these people died purely from lifestyle.

The feasting was incredible, with weird mixes of courses confusing the eater’s tastebuds and stomach, taking them from brawn, fish in jelly, custard then to peacock. These snippets of courtly life set the scene so well and almost dazzle the reader with such a sense of spectacle. I would find myself distracted from all the stress, and the grief, by the descriptions of week long revels and Christmas celebrations. Just a description of the costumes for a masque or the clothes of the time gave that sumptuous and luxurious feel to the court. I was rather reminded of another Queen Elizabeth and the lavish celebrations planned for the end of this month. Weir captures that element of disguise and distraction that’s still apparent between the royal family’s private and public arenas today. I am largely disinterested in our current royals, but a wedding will dazzle me and I end up watching the whole thing. If told how much it’s cost I get incensed, but then I get sucked in by the whole spectacle. So, in a time when supporting a royal household could mean getting caught up in a costly and dangerous war I could see how the ceremony would have to be even more lavish to gain the public’s attention. Men in the novel don’t have the luxury of choice, so if you were a tenant of the local landowner you were compelled to fight for their cause, no matter whether you agreed or not. Thank goodness that today, royal rivals only parade their discord round the chat shows and not on the battlefield.

Ultimately though, I felt some sympathy for this young woman who was borne of a King who won his crown on the battlefield, then promised in marriage to a man who won his crown in the same way. Like most women of her time, her fate is decided for her, albeit it in a more dramatic way than most. Here she seems to love Henry and the older they get, they mellow and the closer they become. I did wonder whether other novels strayed nearer the truth, that fed up with being constantly touted as the most eligible lady in England, her relationship with Richard was something she was complicit with, a type of rebellion where she was willing to ruin herself just to have some agency in her own life. What I love most about this book was how well written it is, obviously meticulously researched and gave me a slightly different perspective to events I knew well. For example, Margaret Stanley the King’s mother, is described as kind and almost sweet in character for the small ways she tries to look after those around her. I thought that Elizabeth’s relationship with Lord Stanley was interesting and probably gives us the biggest clue to this young woman’s real character and motivations. Stanley is known for changing allegiances when he’s sure which way the battle is turning. At the Battle of Bosworth he rode out with Richard III, only to turn to his stepson’s cause and actually strike down the King, taking his crown and placing it on Henry VII’s head. He and Elizabeth are made of similar stuff, each one watches the way wind blows before committing in order to survive. We can see her as blown about by that prevailing wind or as a politically astute young woman who knows how to secure her children’s future.

Meet The Author

Alison Weir lives and works in Surrey. Her books include Britain’s Royal Families, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Children of England, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry VIII: King and Court, Mary, Queen of Scots and Isabella: She-Wolf of France.

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Attic Child by Lola Jaye

“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
Chinua Achebe (Author)

I have been gathering books over the last few weeks, from all the countries of the Commonwealth. This is for a book stall on the Platinum Jubilee weekend, at our village celebrations. I run the village book exchange in an old red phone box on the green and I keep unwanted proofs until their publication date and then pop them in there for borrowing. I could have just found books relating to Elizabeth II but I wanted to look at the jubilee from a global viewpoint and include the voices of all the Queen’s subjects. For me that includes voices from countries that were once part of our empire, some of whom are now under the Commonwealth banner. I think these other voices are important; those who are literally silenced, but also those not listened to because were simply not the white, middle class, man that society is used to listening to. This book has a beautiful example of one such voice. Celestine Babbington is recorded for history in a silent form, photographed wearing clothes he didn’t choose and posing with a man whose relationship to him is very problematic. The man, Richard Babbington, is a rich explorer who has a love for Africa and a large mansion house in England. Yet by 1907, Celestine is being kept in the attic of the house, only allowed out to work as a domestic slave.

Years later, a young girl called Lowra is suffering the same fate. Locked in the attic as punishment for any transgression, when her fate has been left in the hands of her resentful stepmother. After her mother died, Lowra’s dad remarried and from that day on her life was punctuated by spells of abuse. While locked in the attic she finds an unusual necklace with clawed hands, unlike anything she’s seen before. There’s also an old-fashioned porcelain doll and a sentence on the wall, written in an unfamiliar language. These are her only comfort, because she feels as if the person that owned them is with her in some way. As an adult, her stepmother’s abuse still affects her and she’s conflicted when she inherits Babbington’s house. People seem to think she’s lucky and the town is proud of this intrepid explorer. Looking into the house’s history leads her to an exhibition of Babbington’s life, where she sees photographs of Babbington and a young black boy wearing an African wrap and what looks like her necklace, the one from the attic. However, the thing that keeps Lowra transfixed, is the young boy’s eyes. Lowra sees someone filled with sorrow, a fellow sufferer of the darkness inside that house. His name is Celestine Babbington. Lowra wants to find out more about this boy, how he came to be in England and what happened to him after Babbington’s death. She enlists the help of a history specialist called Monty, who has an interest in stories that have not been told, particularly those of empire. Together they start their search for the attic child.

I think anyone who talks about the glory of our empire should be encouraged to read this book. It’s fitting that the opening quote of the book is from the incredible author Chinua Achebe, because his novel Things Fall Apart is a perfect companion to this tale. This time the story is partially told by the most innocent victim of our Victorian forays into Africa, a child called Dikembe who is largely ignorant of exactly what atrocities are being carried out by the Belgian forces plundering the natural resources of his homeland. At the time of Dikembe’s childhood, his homeland was named the Belgian Congo, a large area of Africa known as Zaire, then the Democratic Republic of Congo. Very few Europeans had reached this area of Africa, known for tropical diseases like sleeping sickness. King Leopold of Belgium had urged the Belgian Government to colonise the country, but when they stalled their efforts he decided to take charge himself. He took ownership of the country and named it the Congo Free State in 1885, using his private army the Force Publique to press gang Congolese men and boys to work for him in the production of rubber. No one knows the exact population of the country at this time, but due to exploitation and the exposure to new diseases it is estimated that up to ten million native people died during Leopold’s rule of the country. Dikembe is young enough to stay at home each day with his mother, but he envies his brothers who go off to work with their father every morning. His parents keep him ignorant of the way native workers were treated so it is an utter shock when his father is killed one day. Richard Babbington, based on Henry Morton Stanley, expresses an interest in Dikembe. He wants to take him back to England and turn him into a gentleman and his companion. Ridden with grief and terrified about what could happen to her youngest son, his mother agrees, knowing this may be the only way to keep him safe. Although his intentions seem pure, isn’t this just another form of colonisation? He then takes away Dikembe’s name, calling him Celestine Babbington.

I found both children’s circumstances heartbreaking and could see that they might have an affinity, because Lowra sees something in the photographs that is probably echoed in her own eyes. I thought the two character narrative worked really well here, but all of the characters are so well crafted that they pulled me into their stories and didn’t let go till the end. We’re with Lowra and Monty on their quest, finding out more about Dikembe’s story and we experience the effect these revelations have on all the characters. It’s moving to see Monty identifying with Dikembe and feeling emotional pain from the injustices he has gone through. Monty still experiences racism and oppression, just in different ways and Lowra can’t be part of that even though she has empathy for how Monty feels. Lowra can feel an instant kinship with Dikembe over the abuse they’ve suffered and those lonely hours in the dark of the attic. I also liked how Monty and Lowre worked together and slowly come to know each other by being honest about their pasts and what effect their life experiences have had on them mentally. Lola Jaye has managed to engage the emotions, but also educate me at the same time, because I didn’t know much about the Belgian empire or King Leopold’s exploitation and murder of the Congolese population. However, it was those complex issues of identity and privilege that really came across to me, especially in the character of Richard Babbington. His arrogant assumption that he could give Dikembe a better life is privilege in action, as Dikembe soon finds out that he’s a womanising drunk and the companionship he spoke of only works one way. All he does bestow is money, for clothes and school, but what Dikembe craves is the warmth and love of his mother calling him a ‘good child’. The way this need for love and comfort was also exploited made me cry. I was desperately hoping that by the end, these terrible injustices didn’t stop him living his life to the full, including embracing happiness when the chance came his way. We see this play out for Lowra during the novel, can she ever accept that she is worthy of love? I wasn’t surprised to learn that Lola Jaye is a therapist, because she understands trauma and how it can manifest through several generations. The story doesn’t pull it’s punches so I felt angry and I felt sad, but somehow the author has managed to make the overall message one of hope. Hope in the resilience of the human spirit.

Meet The Author

Lola Jaye is an author and registered psychotherapist. She was born and raised in London and has lived in Nigeria and the United States. She has a degree in Psychology and a Masters in Psychotherapy and Counselling. She has contributed to the sequel to the bestseller Lean In, penned by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and has also written for the Huffington Post, CNN, Essence, HuffPost and the BBC.

She is a member of the Black Writers’ Guild and the author of five previous novels. The Attic Child is her first epic historical novel.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Who’s Lying Now? By Susan Lewis

Susan Lewis is so prolific. I first came across her writing when I was looking for something to read between counselling clients at work. At the MS Therapy Centre where I worked there was a charity shop and someone had brought in a huge pile of books for sale. There I found a few books by this author. I’d never read her before but soon found myself hooked and bought all the Susan Lewis books in the bag. I’ve read most novels since and love joining blog tours for her latest books. This is another delve into crime fiction for Lewis and is based around a community on the south coast called Kesterley-On-Sea, where a small group of people have cultivated some very complex relationships. There’s Jeannie, who works as a publisher, and her husband Guy who is a neurosurgeon and they live at Howarth Hall, a Manor House with beautiful gardens leading to the sea. Not far away, lives Estelle a celebrated debut novelist who hasn’t managed to produce a follow up as yet, and her husband Neil who is a landscape gardener. They have a daughter, Chloe and Estelle’s assistant Primrose lives in an annexe next door. Centre of the community is the Seaview Café where the owner Fliss lives in an apartment above with her son Zac. Jeannie used to be Estelle’s publisher. Neil is Jeannie’s gardener and friend. Fliss used to be married to Neil and he is Zac’s father. When Jeannie goes missing one January day all of these relationships will come under scrutiny. Trying to make sense of this is Cara Jakes, a new trainee investigator who is young, intelligent and eager to prove herself. When she teams up with detective Andee Lawrence to look into the disappearance, she is determined to find out what has really happened to Jeannie. Cara begins to question the residents of this close-knit community, sure that someone has a secret to hide. However, how can she separate the truth within these complicated connections, especially when some of them are lying?

Lewis has undertaken a very difficult task with this novel, not only does she have complicated relationships to untangle, she moves us back and forth to the months leading up to Jeannie’s disappearance and the weeks following. Then she sets it all within the pandemic, which must have been a nightmare to track considering the complicated rules and lockdown dates. I barely know what I was doing and where I was over the past couple of years, never mind following imaginary people through the same rules and regulations. It did make the story more believable though and I was amused to read how difficult these characters found it to interpret and stick to the rules. I don’t think there’s a single character who doesn’t break them at some point, but it’s café owner Fliss who is finding the pandemic the most difficult. Having started her business just before the outbreak, the lockdowns have damaged her financially and without the help of a group of volunteers taking food out in deliveries the business wouldn’t be making any money at all. Her son Zac is also helping and has moved in with her for lockdown, though he usually lives with his dad Neil and Estelle. I think Fliss was the character I most felt for and I was sure there was a secret to why she was living alone and how her marriage to Neil fell apart, when they are clearly both so fond of each other. Despite these secrets, Fliss and Neil feel the most understandable and empathic characters in the novel for me.

Our missing person, Jeannie, is a dynamic professional woman, who I found interesting but difficult to understand. When Cara and Andee first visit her husband Guy they’re confused about the delay in reporting her missing. He explains how their demanding jobs mean they can often miss each other for a couple of days, but he also says something very strange. He suggests that Jeannie might want him to think she’s missing as some sort of test. She’s also made it clear that she finds their gardener Neil attractive and takes long walks with him. There’s an element of game playing going on in their relationship and I’m not sure I liked either of them very much. There is a strained relationship between her and Estelle too, as Jeannie published her novel but then dropped her when a follow up wasn’t forthcoming. Their relationship never recovered so Jeannie’s long walks with Estelle’s husband seem unkind. Yet there are secrets in Jeannie’s past that might explain her character, and they explosively come to light when her brother arrives from New Zealand. I found Estelle a puzzle too. She seems fragile and easily distressed, but also self-centred and very difficult to bond with. Her only friend seems to be her assistant Primrose, but she’s paid to be there. I could see she was insecure in her relationship with Neil, believing him still in love with Fliss, so when she is offered friendship from an unlikely source she jumps at the chance of some outside support. Her relationship with her daughter seems awkward too, as if she’s almost scared to be her mum. Lewis untangles this particular thread slowly and with great care, and it’s clever how it’s woven into Estelle’s character, but also the case the police are pursuing.

I don’t want to reveal any more about the entanglements between these characters, but there are many revelations along the way, both in the past and the present. I found it hard to like any of them, aside from Fliss, but they are fascinating. The dual timeline is clever because it keeps the tension of the case and all it’s twists and turns, while also exploring characters and events in more detail in the past. The women’s characters and backgrounds are explored enough to answer a lot of the questions that cropped up in my mind as I was reading. I didn’t feel the men’s past or motivations were explored as closely so I came away feeling I didn’t know them as well. However, that did make it more exciting when they were questioned as suspects, because they were more of a mystery. We also saw how the female investigation team of Andee and Cara have to draw a line between their work and their private lives, very difficult in a small town where everybody knows each other and uses the same facilities. I didn’t work out what had happened to Jeannie before the team did, because when everyone is lying and holding secrets it’s hard to know what’s coming next. I felt like someone was hiding in plain sight, never showing their true character. This was an enjoyable thriller, full of psychologically complex characters making dreadful mistakes and one clever and manipulative suspect to unmask.

Meet the Author

Susan Lewis is the internationally bestselling author of over forty books across the genres of family drama, thriller, suspense and crime, including I Have Something To Tell You, One Minute Later, My Lies, Your Lies and Forgive Me. Susan’s novels have sold over three million copies in the UK alone. She is also the author of Just One More Day and One Day at a Time, the moving memoirs of her childhood in Bristol during the 1960s. 

Susan has previously worked as a secretary in news and current affairs before training as a production assistant working on light entertainment and drama. She’s lived in Hollywood and the South of France, but now resides in Gloucestershire with husband James, two stepsons and dog, Mimi. @susanlewisbooks

Posted in Random Things Tours

Lost Property by Helen Paris

It took me about five pages to be drawn into Dot Watson’s quirky world and her love for the lost property office in which she works for London Transport. If anything is lost, be it on a cab, bus or train this is 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 a person is lost to us, 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 piece 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.

Dot has been working at the lost property office for years, but it isn’t the life she expected to be living. In her early twenties, travel was her main driving force in life and she was living the dream in Paris. Being multi-lingual Dot had exciting plans to travel the world, but all her dreams come to a halt when her father dies suddenly and traumatically, by throwing himself in front of a train. Dot’s relationship with her father was complicated, as he doted on her and they spent a lot of time together. However, as the youngest child by some years and because she hero worshipped her father, she didn’t always see things clearly. There are secrets at the heart of the family, kept for all the right reasons, but causing misunderstanding and resentment. When her father died Dot rushed home, but the trauma of his death affects the whole family deeply and it seems to put Dot’s life on hold. Now her collection of travel guides are her window on the world she once wanted to explore, but she is firmly stuck in her mum’s flat and still working in a job that was once a stop gap. Her only other activity is her regular visit to her mum in the nursing home. While her sister lives further afield, she constantly rings Dot to remind her of things and get updates on their Mum. She is pressuring Dot to get the flat viewed and sold so their lives can start again, but Dot is avoiding her. To add to her family stress, Neil from work is promoted to be their manager and the changes he wants to bring in are also disturbing Dot. He wants to reduce the amount of time they keep items, but what if something goes to auction and they can’t get it back? Dot seems to freeze, staying in the lost property office at night and looking tirelessly for Mr Appleby’s hold-all.

Dot is such a sympathetic character. She’s funny, resourceful and actually quite formidable when at full strength. We go back and see a naïve young girl, for whom Daddy is the centre of the universe. They spend a huge amount of time together which she has always viewed as the result of having a special relationship. As she goes back its interesting to see how others viewed the same events, with totally different conclusions. Their family story is so sad and brings home to us the benefits of living in such a tolerant and open society today. If Dot has been viewing her life through the wrong lens, how will she cope when she finally sees it all? Dot thinks she’s weak, but she’s actually incredibly strong. Some of the things she goes through, not just in the past, but during her time sleeping at the property office are really traumatic. She will take more time to process it all, but I loved the author’s importance in the human power to change, to take stock and move forward with life. I think the writer has been clever in her debut novel to write a light, uplifting story, but with so many darker layers underneath. It’s a real accomplishment to imbue a character that could have become a caricature, with life and authenticity. I love her optimism too, leaving us with the knowledge that no matter what the trauma, we have the power to change ourselves and our lives for the better. I heartily recommend this book to other readers, but they must prepare to fall in love with it as I did.

Meet The Author


Helen Paris worked in the performing arts for two decades, touring internationally with her London-based theatre company Curious. After several years living in San Francisco and working as a theatre professor at Stanford University, she returned to the UK to focus on writing fiction. As part of her research for a performance called ‘Lost & Found’, Paris shadowed employees in the Baker Street Lost Property office for a week, an experience that sparked her imagination and inspired this novel.

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn

She’s the war’s most lethal sniper. And the one they least expect…

In the snowbound city of Kiev, aspiring historian Mila Pavlichenko’s life revolves around her young son – until Hitler’s invasion of Russia changes everything. Suddenly, she and her friends must take up arms to save their country from the Fuhrer’s destruction.

Handed a rifle, Mila discovers a gift – and months of blood, sweat and tears turn the young woman into a deadly sniper: the most lethal hunter of Nazis.

Yet success is bittersweet. Mila is torn from the battlefields of the eastern front and sent to America while the war still rages. There, she finds an unexpected ally in First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and an unexpected promise of a different future.

But when an old enemy from Mila’s past joins forces with a terrifying new foe, she finds herself in the deadliest duel of her life.

The Diamond Eye is a haunting novel of heroism born of desperation, of a mother who became a soldier, of a woman who found her place in the world and changed the course of history forever.

I found this novel a compulsive and totally immersive read. So much so that if I was interrupted I would often look up in surprise to find that I wasn’t in a freezing cold trench, aching and covered with mud. Kate Quinn really gives us a vivid picture of WW2 in Russia, a front of the war I knew little about. In Lyudmila Pavlichenko, Quinn has a complex heroine, but she creates a nuanced, three dimensional woman, who is so much more than her nickname of Lady Death. I’d imagined a rather joyless, dour individual who was strong and almost masculine. However, instead I was shown a rather diminutive figure, with dark eyes and her long hair hacked off for practicality. This is the soldier. A woman with so much self-discipline she put me to shame, not only working on her university dissertation and looking after her son, while taking a year long marksmanship course so she could be the one to teach her son to shoot. However, when war breaks out Milla feels she must leave her beloved Ukraine and sign up for frontline duty. I loved the way the novel brought up the issues of womanhood in Russia, both Mila and her friend Lena are shocked by how few women were signed up. It never occurred to Mila to let men fight for her, she had the ability and as she mentions on her visit to Washington – Russian women are equal as human beings. I loved how Quinn focused on her vulnerability as much as her strength and the fact she’s only fighting out of necessity; she doesn’t revel in her 309 kills. She is a cultured woman, often enjoying the ballet and opera in Odessa before the war and very proud of her student status – her half written dissertation being the only personal thing she takes with her to the front.

I felt that the book wore it’s extensive research lightly. The story was grounded within the history, but doesn’t lecture or give huge amounts of exposition. This is a personal story about one woman’s war, within that larger history. Battles are mentioned and ground is won or lost, but it’s the character we focus one and those around her. I loved her relationship with Kostia, her shadow and fellow sniper, who keeps her warm on night long stake-outs by letting her lie along his back for body heat. He is of Siberian/Irish heritage, taciturn and serious, but when he finds his childhood friend Lyonya they are soon laughing and wrestling like a pair of ten year olds. Mila relationship with Lyonya was beautiful and probably the only mutual and equal romantic relationship she’d had to that point. Their story broke my heart, but it also broke for Kostia too. The detail is brutal, shrapnel injuries are described in raw, bloody ways because it’s necessary to show the dangers our characters are in. These terrible injuries also provide a contrast to the swift, clinical and clean kills carried out by Mila and Kostia. There are times where I thought their victims were the lucky ones. Mila’s ex-husband is written so well, because he infuriated me. Always with an eye on the main chance, Alexei is a brilliant surgeon and a shitty husband. Having seduced Mila at 15 years old, he then womanised his way to the divorce courts and has no intention of building a proper relationship with his son. His teasing and little digs at Mila felt like the tip of the iceberg to me and I wondered how manipulative and emotionally abusive he had been within the marriage.

The book is structured with Mila’s time fighting in Russia, sandwiched with chapters that show the delegation of students, including Mila, visiting Washington to elicit US support to open a second front in the war. Inbetween are excerpts from Mila’s diary (official and personal), Eleanor Roosevelt’s diary and notes written for her husband Franklin. There’s a humour in these scenes I enjoyed immensely, especially when Americans underestimate Mila, in her ability to understand them and her talent for sarcasm. These parts made me smile and I also loved the section where Eleanor Roosevelt drives Mila to an event personally, and navigates the streets of Washington like a racing driver! These later chapters are also tense as Mila has to learn to cope with the media, weird marriage proposals and threatening notes posted under her bedroom door by someone travelling with the delegation. The question of who they are and what they’re up to kept me alert and wary of everyone. What Quinn does so breathtakingly well is to breathe life into this woman, who I’d never heard of two weeks ago. She made me care about her and want to investigate her story more. She takes Russia’s poster girl and makes her human, a complex woman with courage, hopes and desires. She shows us that all Mila really wanted from life was to be a history professor, but war got in the way.

Meet The Author

Kate Quinn is a native of southern California. She attended Boston University, where she earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Classical Voice. A lifelong history buff, she has written four novels in the Empress of Rome Saga, and two books in the Italian Renaissance detailing the early years of the infamous Borgia clan. All have been translated into multiple languages. She and her husband now live in Maryland with two black dogs named Caesar and Calpurnia.