Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Spirited by Julie Cohen

This week I’ve been writing a Sunday Spotlight post about the Victorian novels of Sarah Waters and while I was thinking about some of the themes of Affinity this book popped into my mind. So I decided to make it this week’s Throwback Thursday. At the time I’d never read Julie Cohen’s work, so I didn’t know what to expect from her writing. Only a few weeks before, on Twitter, I was discussing when a new Sarah Waters novel would be appearing. Spirited by Julie Cohen has definitely filled that gap. It’s also made an impact on me that’s all it’s own. Viola Worth has grown up cared for by her clergyman Father, as well as his ward, a little boy called Jonah. Viola and Jonah are the best of friends, spending their childhoods largely inseparable. As we meet them in adulthood, they are getting married, but in mourning. A lot has happened during the period of their engagement. Jonah had been out to India, staying at his family’s haveli and checking on his financial interests. For Viola, it’s been a tough time nursing, then losing, her father. He encouraged her in his own profession as a photographer and she has become accomplished in her own right. Viola’s father wanted her to marry Jonah, and they are still the best of friends, but the time apart has changed them and neither knows the full extent of the other’s transformation. As they try to settle into married life on the Isle of Wight, Jonah spends his time sketching fossil and bone finds with his scientific a friend. Viola feels cut adrift and without purpose, as we find out later she doesn’t even feel she is fulfilling her role as Jonah’s wife. Through new friends the couple meet a visiting spirit medium, although as daughter of a clergyman, Viola would never normally enjoy this type of entertainment. Little do they know, this woman will change their lives.

The author slips back and forth in time to tell us about Henriette, who worked her way in life from being a servant to a respected spirit medium. She is a woman who started with no advantage in life, and as a young servant models herself on the governess in the house, a French woman known as Madame to the family. Henriette diligently listens to the children’s French lesson and nurses a hope of a future where she doesn’t clean up after other people or have to wish for a roommate so she isn’t sexually assaulted in the night. Her attacker labels her a whore and one early morning, after there’s been a house party, she stumbles on a group of men in the stables betting. They are playing cards for money, but once they see Henriette they become intent on a different sport. It is Madame who interrupts the attackers and she gives Henriette advice from one woman surviving alone in the world to another. The author also takes us back to Jonah’s time in India. We discover that in social circles Jonah is a hero, because during a massacre he rescued a young girl who lived in his haveli after all her family are killed. Viola wonders if it is this experience that has changed Jonah. They live as if they are brother and sister, Jonah spends less time with her than before and at bedtime they still go to their separate bedrooms and sleep apart. Viola knows there is more between husband and wife but doesn’t really know what and has no idea who to talk to. Through Henriette, Viola is asked to take a photograph of a child who has died so the parents have an image to keep. No one is more stunned than Viola when she develops the image and sees a blurred figure standing next to the bed, the likeness to their child shocks and comforts the parents; they feel reassured that their child lives on in spirit. This experience, and her experience of her first proper female friendship, is like a floodgate opening for Viola. She starts to question the limits of her faith, whether there is more in life she would like to try and as time goes on, whether the burgeoning feelings she has for Henriette are friendship or something else.

I loved the feminist threads running through this novel. The central women in the novel are each in liminal spaces, different from the conventional Victorian women we see like Mrs Newham. Henriette is a self-made woman, unmarried and travelling from space to space offering her spiritualist services for enough to survive on. She has moved from bar girl, to servant, to nursing and losing her elderly husband, and now into a semi-respected occupation. She gets to visit the homes of those she might have once waited upon, but isn’t tied by their social rules and conventions. In India we meet Pavan, who has made the exceptional choice within her societal rules to become educated and has made huge sacrifices in order to achieve that. Love was not on her agenda, and when it comes she experiences a painful separation between her intellectual choice and her emotions. Viola may seem the most conventional of these women, but her relationship with her father has set her apart from others of her class. He believed in educating Viola the same way as Jonah, then teaches her the art of photography too, usually considered a male pastime. Viola is respectful of many conventions, but finds herself emboldened by Henriette and the new experiences she brings to her life. She tries bathing in the sea and is bold enough to start accepting her ‘gift’ of capturing spirits. Behind them all is the french governess Madame. The role of Victorian governess is the very definition of a liminal space: she works in the home but is not a servant, educated and unmarried, respectable, but not on the same level as the family she works for. She has power in that she works for herself, has and controls her own money and can choose to leave her position and join another family, in a different place. Her acknowledgment of Henriette’s fate, as a pretty face in the power of men, inspires Henriette to be more. It gives her aspiration, although she may never be a gentlewoman, with careful decision making she could be more like Madame.

It is within the physical liminal spaces where there are beautiful passages of writing from the author. The scene where Henriette and Viola go bathing is absolutely exquisite because I could feel everything. The strangeness of undressing in a darkened box on wheels, the feel of the swimming dress, the rough and tumble of being pulled into the sea by a horse, then opening the door to see nothing but the ocean in front of you. This is a play on conventional baptism for Viola. She fully immerses herself in the water, supported by Henriette, and feels a rebirth. The heaviness in the uncoiling of her hair and letting it float free signifies a freeing from the constraints of Victorian fashion, as is the unlacing of the corsets. As they trundle back up to the sand after their swim, Viola wishes they could stay in this space in the dark for the intimacy with Henriette, and the knowledge of the freedom she will feel as she opens the door and sees nothing but ocean. When the women share Viola’s room the writing is so tender. Viola worries what the servants might think, but Henriette frees her thinking again. Love between women does not exist, she tells her, there are laws and conventions regarding love between a man and a woman, and even the love between men. What they are to each other is beyond the thoughts of most people, the servants will see two friends staying together and nothing more. Pavan and Jonah, don’t meet in the main haveli but in an ancient old temple in its grounds, a space no longer used for its purpose and outside the family structure inside the house. They meet as two people of different cultures and beliefs, but find a connection so powerful that each would put their lives on the line for the other. Jonah wonders whether he could live a different life to the one laid out for him back in England. He’s seen other English men here who have married Indian women and had children. They’re neither totally respectable, but are not shunned either. This is a novel of people, particularly women, learning to live in the spaces between; the places that promise more freedom.

This was an original, emotional and beautifully written novel that weaves a powerful story from a combination of painstaking historical research and imagination. Each character is fully fleshed out and has a rich inner life. Where real events such as the 1857 Siege of Delhi are used in the novel, they are deeply powerful and the author treats them with respect. The elements of spiritualism and spirit photography are well researched and based on a real fascination for the paranormal in Victorian society. Cohen acknowledges that this is a novel about faith: religious faith, faith in the paranormal and that the ties to those we love don’t end in death; faith in romantic love and the promises we make to each other; even the faith she has in herself. In the acknowledgements to this novel Julie Cohen says ‘I wrote the first draft of this book when I thought my writing career was over’. Judging by this book, it’s far from over. However, by allowing herself to think of that possibility, she gave herself the space to write something truly extraordinary.

Meet The Author

Julie Cohen grew up in the western mountains of Maine and studied English at Brown University and Cambridge University before pursuing a research degree in nineteenth century fairies. After a career as a secondary school English teacher, she became a novelist. Her award-winning novels have sold over a million copies worldwide. DEAR THING and TOGETHER were both selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club. Julie runs an oversubscribed literary consultancy which has helped many writers go on to be published. She is a Vice President of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, founder of the RNA Rainbow Chapter for LGBTQ+ authors, and a Patron of literacy charity ABC To Read. You can find Julie on Twitter: @julie_cohen or you can visit her website: http://www.julie-cohen.com

Latest Novel from Julie Cohen

‘Marriages end with a whisper, not a bang. Not an argument, which is after all about passion, waves crashing on a shore, but with the small pockets of coldness that an argument creates. It’s like islands. They don’t sink like Atlantis. They wear away, little by little, until all you’ve got left is a single rock and a light. A warning to safer travellers to stay away’.

Sitting on my TBR is this latest novel from Julie Cohen, a very different novel to Spirited in that it’s contemporary, but still about love and relationships. The last time Vee left the shores of Unity Island, she thought she’d left forever. But this summer, she’s returning with her charming husband, Mike. Vee’s unexpected arrival, this time as one of the wealthy ‘summer people’, sets the small island community alight with gossip. What’s more, her childhood best friend, Sterling, is furious that she’s come back – Vee abandoned him when he needed her most.

And then Vee meets Rachel, Sterling’s wife, and a spark is ignited within her that she can’t extinguish. And as summer turns to autumn, long-buried secrets emerge that will cause a storm greater than any of them could ever have imagined.

But when autumn comes, who will sail away with the tide and who will choose to stay behind on the island…?

Published by Orion 4th August 2022

Posted in Paranormal Reads

Halloween Spotlight! BeWitching Novels.

Who doesn’t love a witchy novel at this time of year? In fact, the only thing better than a witch novel is a whole series of them. Here I’m recommending series and one-offs that really fit the bill on these cold autumn afternoons. They’re exactly what I want on a Sunday afternoon, snuggled on the chaise langue with the log burner lit and preferably a pack of M&S Belgian Chocolate Toffee Popcorn. Bliss. There are golden oldies and a few new books to bring a sprinkle of magic into your Halloween.

Joanne Harris’s Chocolat Series

Whenever I pick up Chocolat I immediately feel enclosed by this sumptuous and magical world that Joanne Harris has created. It is the book equivalent of sitting in a candlelit room, Christmas tree sparkling magically in the corner, a warm fire and some real hot chocolate. It’s as if Vianne Rocher is enchanting me from between the pages. From the moment the changing wind blows her into the village of Lansquenet she begins to work her magic on the villagers, much to the disgust of parish priest Father Reynaud. She establishes a chocolate shop directly opposite the church and so begins a struggle for power. Her magic is subtle, but she is an amazing chocolatier and she has the ability to discern which one of her chocolates will be someone’s favourite. With her chocolate pot always simmering and ready with a listening ear, her shop soon becomes the regular haunt of some of the villagers. However, the priest is preaching against Vianne Rocher. He doubts her morals, dislikes the sense of indulgence she’s creating, and is suspicious that she may be a witch. Maybe he’s seen Pantoufle, the imaginary friend of Vianne’s little girl Anouk. This push and pull between church and chocolate is left behind in her second novel The Lollipop Shoes where we follow Vianne to Paris where they live above her chocolate shop. Then Zozie De L’Alba sweeps into their lives, the woman with the lollipop shoes, but she isn’t all she seems. Seductive and charming on the surface, she can also be ruthless and devious. Again, Vianne finds herself with a powerful enemy. Should she do what she’s always done before and run?

Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé takes us back to Lansquenet and feels like a lighter novel, more suited as a sequel to Chocolat. It’s a letter from an old friend that brings her back to the village, but this is an unusual letter, because Vianne’s friend is dead. She finds the village changed since her last visit, with a new community blown in with the wind. Where once the river gypsies were the village has grown, there’s now a hint of spices, veiled faces and a minaret as North African migrants have settled. So Reynaud could have a new enemy. However, Vianne finds that he’s in trouble, could this possibly be the reason she’s been drawn back to the village? I loved the feel of this novel, with old characters popping up and old adversaries seeking change. It really felt like the story had come full circle so I was surprised when I heard there was another part to the series. The Strawberry Thief is every bit as atmospheric as Chocolat and all seems settled in Lansquenet. Vianne and her youngest daughter Rosette have settled in the chocolate shop. Even her relationship with Reynaud has settled into a friendship. It’s when the florist Narcisse dies that the wind changes. His will is cause for gossip and then someone opens a shop in the square, opposite Vianne, The strange pull it exerts seems familiar, but what could this mean for Vianne. This series is so warm and the settings are absolutely enchanting. The magic is sprinkled throughout, but Vianne is not just an enchantress. She’s a catalyst. A force for change. She inspires people to cast off rules and do what makes them happy. She gives women who are unhappy and even abused, the strength to leave. She frees people and that is an incredibly powerful gift to have.

A Witch in Time and The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers.

I’m relatively new to the work of Constance Sayers, but I’ve certainly made up for the oversight since. A Witch in Time is high on my TBR for the end of this year, but it sounds just up my street. We go to four different time zones, into the lives of four different women, but between them there’s just one star-crossed love. In 1895, sixteen-year-old girl called Juliet begins a passionate, doomed romance with a married artist. Next we’re in 1932, with aspiring actress Nora as she escapes New York for the bright lights of Hollywood and a new chance at love. Then it’s 1970 and we meet Sandra who lives in California, it’s perfect for her music career but she’s threatening to tear her band apart with a secret love affair. Finally, we reach the 21st Century and a confused Helen who has strange memories of lives that she hasn’t lived. These are tragic lives, cursed with doomed love, because Helen was bound to her lover in 1895, and trapped by his side ever since. She’s lived multiple lifetimes, under different names, never escaping her tragic endings. Only this time, she might finally have the power to break the cycle.

I was determined to have an early copy of The Ladies of the Secret Circus as soon as I saw a trailer for it on Twitter.

The surest way to get a ticket to Le Cirque Secret is to wish for it . . .

As a huge fan of The Night Circus I knew this was for me and thankfully I managed to get a copy on NetGalley. This time Sayer’s takes us back to Paris in 1925 where to enter the Secret Circus is to enter a world of wonder. See women weave illusions, let carousels take you back in time, and see trapeze artists float across the sky. Bound to her family’s circus, it’s the only world Cecile Cabot knows until she meets a charismatic young painter and embarks on a passionate affair that could cost her everything. In the 21st Century, Lara Barnes is getting married and feels on top of the world, but when her fiancé disappears on their wedding day every plan she has for the future comes crashing down. Desperate, Lara’s search for answers unexpectedly lead to her great-grandmother’s journals and is swept into a story of a dark circus and ill-fated love. There are secrets about the women in Lara’s family history, which need to come to light. They reveal a curse that has been claiming payment from the women in her family for generations. A curse that might be tied to her fiancé’s mysterious fate. Both of these tales are full of spells, magic and ancient curses, but they’re also colourful, romantic and full of wonder.

The Practical Magic Series by Alice Hoffman.

I write about these four books every Halloween and I should perhaps look for some new material, but I can’t stop because I love this author and these four books are a brilliant witch series. Although Practical Magic was the first book in the series, followed a very successful film with Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock, it’s actually the third instalment of this story following the Owens family try to juggle life with their witchy heritage. Hoffman went on to write two prequels and a sequel to Practical Magic where we meet a different generation of the Owens family, both as teenagers and then as elderly ladies, hoping to change change the curse that’s been controlling their lives ever since the witch trials. We start in Magic Lessons when baby Maria is left abandoned in a snowy field near the home of Hannah Owens. Hannah is a healer who lives in isolation, but the women of the town manage to make their way to her door for the remedies they sorely need usually due to the pains and consequences of love. When men feel threatened they do terrible things and when Hannah is set upon by the men of the village, Maria escapes and makes her way down to the Caribbean as a servant. However, when the man she loves betrays her, Maria follows him back to Massachusetts and begins a war against the Puritan settlers. Will her quest for revenge blind her to real love and curse her family for a generation? Then we jump to the 20th Century and the Owens sisters Franny and Jet, with their brother Vincent. Their mother knew they were special because they each have their own talent: Franny with the blood red hair can talk to birds, Jet is so beautiful and incredibly shy but in the quiet she can read what people are thinking. As the teenagers start to interact more with the outside world, it seems that Vincent’s charisma may get him into trouble. Yet it’s Jet’s world that may be turned upside down by the curse of the Owen family.

Practical Magic is actually the third in the series and we’re one generation on, in the same house in Massachusetts. Gillian and Sally live with their aunts Franny and Jet, they keep themselves to themselves mostly, but the girls know that if the porch light is left on at night, women who wouldn’t give them a glance by day seem to find their way at night. Gillian is the wilder one of the sisters, roaming from state to state and attracting all the wrong men. When she returns to Massachusetts, homebody Sally knows that she’s brought trouble home with her. Even their magic might not cover her tracks as a handsome investigator arrives in town asking questions. Since her husband died Sally has lived quietly, avoiding her magical skills and men. Now her sister’s return might jeopardise the stability she’s created for her girls. They may need help from the aunties for this. Hoffman’s fourth in the series, published last year, is The Book of Magic. The three generations of Owens women who all live in the same small town in Massachusetts, have found a way to accommodate their family curse and their magic skills. Until Sally’s youngest daughter Kylie falls in love with her best friend. As the curse does it’s worst the family must find a book of magic, the only one with the knowledge that might break the family curse and allow the younger generation to love without limits or fear of tragedy, Sally will have to embrace the skills she’s avoided for so long and as the family fight to save their youngest member, one of the oldest gets wind of a change coming. A fitting end to a brilliant series,

The Waverley Sisters Series by Sarah Addison Allen.

This is a lovely and light two part series set in Bascom, North Carolina. They’re warm books that focus on family first and spells second, plus it’s full of food and charm so it wins me over straight away. It seems everyone in Bascom has a story to tell about the Waverley women. They live in a house that’s been in the family for generations, have a walled garden that mysteriously blooms year round, and then those rumours of dangerous love and tragic passion that surround them. Every Waverley woman is somehow touched by magic, but Claire has always clung to the Waverleys’ roots. She stays grounded by tending the enchanted soil in the family garden and makes her sought-after delicacies – famed and feared in town for their curious effects. She has everything she thinks she needs – until one day she wakes to find a stranger has moved in next door and a vine of ivy has crept into her garden . . . Is Claire’s carefully tended life is about to run gloriously out of control.

In the second book we see more of Claire’s sister Sydney and her daughter Bay. It’s October in Bascom, North Carolina, and autumn will not go quietly. As temperatures drop and leaves begin to turn, the Waverley women are also made restless by the whims of their mischievous apple tree…and the magic that swirls around it. But this year, first frost has much more in store. Claire Waverley has started a successful new venture, Waverley’s Candies. She makes handcrafted confections with specific intentions, like rose to recall lost love, lavender to promote happiness and lemon verbena to soothe throats and minds. Her remedies are effective, but the business of selling them is costing her the everyday joys of her family, and maybe even her belief in her own precious gifts.

Sydney Waverley, too, seems to be losing her balance. With each passing day she longs more for a baby — a namesake for her wonderful Henry. Yet the longer she tries, the more her desire becomes an unquenchable thirst, stealing the pleasure out of the life she already has. Sydney’s daughter, Bay, has lost her heart to the boy she knows it belongs to…if only he could see it, too. But how can he, when he is so far outside her grasp that he appears to her as little more than a puff of smoke?

When a mysterious stranger shows up and challenges the very heart of their family, each of them must make choices they have never confronted before. And through it all, the Waverley sisters must search for a way to hold their family together through their troublesome season of change, waiting for that extraordinary event that is First Frost. This is a real happy ever after story, filled with magic and warmth.

Next Up!

I must admit there are witchy books that are still on my TBR. I’m so surprised, but I’ve never read A Discovery of Witches and would love to read them after seeing a couple of episodes of the TV series. I love the mix of historical fiction and the gothic, and the addition of other magical beings such as demons and vampires. It also has incredible settings from Cambridge UK, to Venice and Elizabethan England. I must make time for them. Also on my pile is Witches Steeped in Gold by Ciannon Smart, a YA fantasy that’s based in a Jamaican tradition. I love reading about witches and magic from such different parts of the world and this is nearly at the top of my stack. I love that this is marketed as a more thrilling, fiery and powerful tale. Iraya Adair and Jazmyne Cariot are sworn enemies, but come together to carry out their revenge on a woman who threatens them both. This is an uneasy alliance and nothing is certain, except the lengths these women will go to for vengeance.

The Ex-Hex is a brand new rom-com that has apparently been a huge hit on TikTok. Vivienne was broken-hearted when she and Rhys broke up nine years ago. She tried bubble baths, then vodka and in the end she cursed him. Now Rhys is back to adjust the town’s ley lines, but everything he touches goes wrong and the village of Graves Glen seems out of balance. What if Vivienne’s hex wasn’t as harmless as she’d thought? Finally there’s The Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Mangu Sandanna, a book recommended to me buy one of my fellow bloggers in the Squad Pod. As one of the few witches in Britain, Mika Moon has lived her life by three rules: hide your magic, keep your head down, and stay away from other witches. An orphan raised by strangers from a young age, Mika is good at being alone, and she doesn’t mind it . . . mostly. But then an unexpected message arrives, begging her to travel to the remote and mysterious Nowhere House to teach three young witches, and Mika jumps at the chance for a different life. However, as this new life might be threatened, Mika must decide whether to risk everything to protect her found family. You’ll be the first to hear how I get on.

Posted in Publisher Proof

Shadow Girls by Carol Birch

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.

Posted in Publisher Proof

The Marsh House by Zoë Somerville

I simply loved this book. In fact, a finished copy arrived through the post and I started browsing the first page then couldn’t stop reading. So I read it straight through, finishing at 2am. It’s a split timeline story, beginning with Malorie and her daughter deciding to spend Christmas in a cottage on the Norfolk coast after an argument with her boyfriend. Malorie feels like a bad mother and wants to get one thing right – an idyllic holiday cottage Christmas for her daughter. Maybe if she achieves this one thing, she can convince herself she’s not as useless as she imagines. The sense of foreboding hits the reader immediately as the weather promises snow and Malorie becomes disoriented in the fog. She skids and ends up wedged into a hedge. The Marsh House itself is damp, dark and neglected. They cannot even see the sea through the mist. Malorie begins to wonder if this is a bad idea, but finds a pair of journals in the attic while searching for Christmas decorations, and she begins to read. Written by a young woman called Rosemary, who lived in the house, the journals tell a tale of a young woman’s crush on the boy from the big house. This young woman’s story paints a picture of 1930’s rural Norfolk, becoming a young mum and her husband’s link to fascism and Oswald Moseley in particular. Malorie can’t put the journals down, but alongside the house’s strange atmosphere, they are having an effect on her sleep and her state of mind.

I felt for Malorie straight away and her sprite of a daughter. Malorie is very hard on herself and has a negative inner voice, not helped by an over critical partner at home. Here she is capable, ordering logs and a turkey, rigging up a Christmas tree with vintage ornaments from the loft, and even managing real candles in their holders. However, even when she’s barely started the journals, the locals are giving her the house’s sordid history. That whiff of fascism becomes stronger when Malorie finds leaflets in the attic and the girl in the village shop asks if she knows what happened at The Marsh House? Tales of lost cocklers cut off by the tide that can still be heard screaming in the fog don’t help her state of mind. The house itself holds some scary relics too including a weird picture of women who perhaps lived here, one with bright green eyes that bore into you. I loved how the author drip fed these little bits of information, adding to the house’s history but also to the creepy tension that keeps building. It’s Malorie’s kinship with Rosemary, the writer of the journals, that drives the story forwards. The more she understands about the writer’s life, the more confused she becomes between fantasy and reality leading to some truly terrifying visions in the night. Why does she feel so connected with someone she’s never met who lived here thirty years before? Who is the strange woman with the large dog she sees from time to time, and why does she seem to be looking after the family by leaving logs to keep them warm?

I did enjoy Rosemary’s story too, her innocent crush on the boy from the family at the big house. She fantasises about what it would be like to have him like her too, to kiss her on the cheek and choose her above the more well to do girls in society. There does seem to be a part of him that is attracted to Rose, but she might also suit his purposes – a compliant country wife at home to keep the line going while he gallivants in London with Moseley’s social circle. Having read a bit about the Mitford sisters and Unity in particular, I had already known how popular fascism was in the ranks of the aristocracy and how some of our great country houses were used as meeting places for talks on appeasing Hitler. I hadn’t known of it’s hold in Norfolk and found this aspect of the book interesting. As time goes on and Rosemary is treated very badly by her husband it was clear that something terrible was going to happen, but the final revelations are truly shocking. I loved the way she delved into the complicated, emotional experience of becoming a mother. She opens up the inner world of these women, with their constant questioning of whether they’re good enough, or are they failing at this job we’re led to believe should come naturally? There is a special skill in weaving real historical events with fiction and this author is so talented and creative. She brings this area of England to life and makes the reader want to visit and search it out for themselves. The atmosphere was so evocative I spent two days with a ‘book hangover’ – unable to start another book because my emotions and senses were so embedded in Malorie’s story. I loved this so much I could have happily gone back to the first page and read it over again.

Published by Apollo 3rd March 2022

Meet The Author

Zoë Somerville is originally from Norfolk, but has settled with her husband and children in the West Country. She works as an English teacher. Zoë began her debut novel, The Night of the Flood on the Bath Spa Creative Writing MA in 2016. It was published in September 2020. Her second novel, The Marsh House, a ghost story and mystery is published in March 2022. She is currently writing her third novel.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Beloved by Toni Morrison.

Film tie-in paperback.

‘124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old — as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard) […] leaving their grandmother, Baby Suggs; Sethe, their mother; and their little sister, Denver, all by themselves in the gray and white house on Bluestone Road’.

Beloved is one of those books that seeps into your soul and never really leaves. In that powerful opening paragraph we see a house full of supernatural activity. A house that men leave. Where only women have the strength to live alongside the demons of the past. The baby ghost who haunts Sethe is full of rage and throws tantrums like a toddler, yet instead of throwing her bottle on the floor she has the power to fling furniture at the wall, even the dog doesn’t escape unscathed. Sethe escaped Sweet Home, the farm where she was enslaved, over eighteen years ago. She has borne such terrible suffering and yet has survived, whole in body and mind. There is just this one thing, the possession of the house by her first daughter, who died when she was a baby. All it says on her grave stone is one word, Beloved. So when a teenage girl turns up at the house claiming to be her daughter, Sethe wants to believe it’s true. If it’s true, maybe what happened back at the farm was just a terrible dream. When Paul D arrives – a freed slave from the same place – his remembrances and ability to look forward instead of over his shoulder, will clash with Sethe who is stuck.

“To Sethe, the future was a matter of keeping the past at bay. The ‘better life’ she believed she and Denver were living was simply not that other one.” […] Yet the morning she woke up next to Paul D, the word her daughter had used a few years ago did cross her mind and she thought… Would it be all right to go ahead and feel? Go ahead and count on something?”

Until now, being in this liminal space is the only way she can be with her other daughter. Neither fully in the past, nor creating a new future, Sethe can’t move on without acknowledging the cost of slavery. At No 124, the ghost of slavery is literal and inescapable. Sethe may no longer be enslaved as the novel opens, but she can never forget what slavery as an institution did to her as a person. When a young woman claiming to be the now-adult Beloved comes to Sethe’s house, Sethe begins to believe that she might avoid facing the truth. Instead she might at last be able to forget: if Beloved is truly alive, then her terrible fate never happened, and so slavery may also be erased, forgotten, papered over. But it rapidly and inexorably becomes clear that forgetting is impossible. This incredible book has the feel of the supernatural, but it’s haunting is one of traumatic memory. Sometimes things happen to us that have to be pushed to the back of our minds. It’s as if we’ve accidentally forgotten, but really it’s a conscious choice to build a mental wall between our psychological ‘self’ and the trauma.

However, Sethe’s trauma is now embodied twice. The scar that covers her back looks like a tree. The lash has broken up and knotted the skin leaving a texture like bark. When Paul D sees her back for the first time, he does not flinch. Instead he traces the lines and kisses the branches, framing the mark of what she’s gone through as a positive thing. The tree could symbolise Sethe’s growth. She stands, a mighty oak of a woman, who doesn’t have to be cowed by her experience. Then Beloved arrives – an angry, spiteful young woman who seems to be very sweet at first, and only wants to be near the mother she’s never had. Denver and Paul D can also see Beloved so she’s not an apparition or figment of Sethe’s imagination. She’s a real woman. In the film, Beloved is played beautifully by Thandie Newton – full of languid grace and always fixing huge pleading eyes on Sethe whether she wants more sugar, more attention, more love. In fact her needs are like those of a baby and must be satisfied. There’s a baby’s narcissism in Beloved and she wants her newly found mother all to herself, trying every means possible to drive a wedge between Sethe and Paul D or her baby sister Denver. She’s not above lying, pleading or even seduction to get her mother to herself.

As Denver and Paul D leave, Beloved is satisfied. However, Sethe is slowly being drained by the girl. She loses energy and isn’t seen in her garden so much. She stops visiting the market for food. The women in the neighbourhood notice and share the strange stories they’ve heard: about a young woman suddenly living at number 124; that Sethe has lost her man; that her daughter Denver left for work in the city; and that Sethe grows thin waiting on her house guest hand and foot, while Beloved grows fatter. The women gather outside 124 in a prayer circle and began to ask God to take back this demon inhabiting Sethe and her home. They don’t believe Beloved exists, not as an actual flesh and blood girl. Can they give Sethe the strength needed to recognise this? Can she own and confront a crucial part of her past?

She will need all of her will for this embodiment of Beloved to leave. She has to recognise that she no longer needs a physical reminder, because instead she needs to integrate a terrible, horrifying act she committed into her psyche. She starts to accept that Beloved’s death was caused by slavery. The descriptions of what happened to Sethe at Sweet Home are truly harrowing and they need to be, so that we as readers understand her actions. Sethe remembers: the lashing that tore her back open; the awful scene in the barn where her husband, hiding in the rafters, is forced to see Sethe pinned down as their master’s sons suckle her baby’s milk away; the horrifying sight of Paul D wearing the ‘bit’ – a terrible metalwork mask that prevents him from speaking. The remarkable thing is that these experiences are not recounted with buckets of emotion. They are merely factual and all the more devastating in their quiet retelling.

In the aftermath of Beloved’s disappearance, Sethe starts to grieve. She acknowledges the beautiful little girl she held in her arms that day. The day that her love for her children was so great, she could not bear to see them taken back to the horror she’d fled. As Paul D tries to comfort her she keeps repeating ‘she was my best thing’.

“He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. ‘You your best thing, Sethe. You are.’ His holding fingers are holding hers.”

Now Sethe must learn to put herself first. Not to forget Beloved, her first born who liked to eat the burned edges of bread, but to forgive herself. To place the blame at slavery’s door, rather than her own. Paul D has returned to something for the first time in a life where he’s done nothing but run. He can’t articulate his feelings for Sethe, but when he’s with her he can let the horrors that slavery inflicted on him melt into the background. She has shared his experience and this removes any shame he feels for being collared and yoked like an animal. His memories no longer remove his manhood from him. He encourages Sethe to move forward with him, to start experiencing less yesterdays and more tomorrows. Beloved, in hindsight, becomes an embodiment of their past. Resurrecting the past is always painful, and Beloved is painful, difficult and confusing to encounter. In Beloved, a traumatic history is restored and rescued from years of buried memories and enforced silence.

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Accidental Medium Series by Tracey Whitwell.

#The Accidental Medium #TheGinPalace #RandomThingsTours #BlogTour

Synopsis | Tanz is living in London and still grieving her friend Frank, who died in a car crash three years ago. As acting jobs dry up, she has to find a normal job to fund her cocktail habit. When she starts work in a new age shop, Tanz discovers that the voices she’s hearing in her head are possibly real psychic messages, not the first signs of schizophrenia. Alarmed, she confronts her little mam and discovers she is from a long line of psychic mediums. Despite a whole exciting new avenue of life opening up to Tanz, darkness isn’t far away and all too soon there’s murder in the air. In book two, after her fast paced introduction to the world of clairvoyance, Tanz is hiding in bed, having nightmares about a suicidal psychopath, drinking red wine, irritating her cat and waiting to be evicted. Life as she knew it seven months ago has turned on its head and only the prospect of a new TV job in Newcastle and a month with her best friend Milo can help pick her up off the floor. But when she gets home, the Newcastle of more than a century before decides to haunt her bringing all kinds of spooks and horrors with it

Review | Tanz is a cocktail drinking, straight talking, Geordie actress, with a talent for swearing. She is an absolute breath of fresh air. Within pages she felt like my long lost friend and I was mentally inviting her to my fantasy dinner party (alongside Mr. Tumnus, Ruth Galloway, Sugar from The Crimson Petal and the White, Jo March, and Vianne Rocher).

I read both of these short novels in a weekend and have been left longing for more. The story begins as Tanz is working at a new age shop, between acting jobs. She has made friends with one of the ‘readers’ in the shop, but is starting to have an inkling that her own family might have their own gift. Her Mam seems to have prophetic dreams, but doesn’t make a big thing of it even though her grandmother was a Romany. Tanz had started hearing voices, but wondered if it was a symptom of grief following the sudden death of her friend Frank three years before. She even starts to worry if she could he schizophrenic. Luckily she has a great mentor at hand – Sheila is another reader at the shop, an older woman with years of experience in this strange world of mediumship. She describes Tanz as a ‘natural’ and her strong reaction to an odd couple who visit the shop seems to set them on an investigative path. Sheila is vital to Tanz and their friendship grows as the mystery becomes disturbing and dangerous. What are this strange couple hiding and why is Tanz hearing a woman wailing every time they’re near? Despite being terrified Tanz and Sheila let their spirit guides lead them towards the answers and into danger.

The Gin Palace situates Tanz back in her hometown of Gateshead, where she has a role in a TV series after months without work. She would have loved the main role, but is playing the tart with greasy hair, dark circles under the eyes and the shortest skirt. She’s the only one with a genuine Geordie accent. After her introduction to clairvoyance, she was hoping for a quieter time, but it seems the spirits aren’t ready to leave her alone. Tanz finds herself haunted by visions of an 18th Century Gateshead and the tenements down by the docks. On a ghost walk she finds out about the brutal murder of a prostitute, the terrible warehouse fire that razed the tenements to the ground, and the role gin played in the lives of these unfortunate residents. This gives her some background but doesn’t explain the violent man who keeps beating her to death in terrifying dreams. Nor does it explain her visions of a little boy who looks like the Artful Dodger, with the face of a pitiful waif one moment, and eyes that burn like the coals of hell the next. Is she being warned off? Or is there another mystery the spirit world like her to unearth?

I loved both of these books for their characters and the company of Tanz. I loved her Mam and Dad, who are traditional Northerners through and through. They were very like my parents – always half way down a cup of tea, have tea at 5pm and seemingly happy to potter at home together. Tanz’s dad has his shed to tinker in, but her ‘little Mam is always there with some very down to earth and wise advice. I love how Whitwell presents mediumship and it’s effects on the practitioner. Sheila teaches Tanz how to protect herself against certain types of spirits, but there are still times when she is terrified by what transpires in her own mind and in front of her. Her nightmares affect her sleep, she feels unnerved and often wonders if her gift is worth it. It’s great if it helps someone, but otherwise it’s very inconvenient and not making her any money. It made me think of taking a counselling session, it can be exhausting and the counsellor needs a self-care regime in place to replenish their reserves. I enjoyed Tanz’s loyalty, not just to her close friends, but to those people she picks up along the way and even those from the spirit world who need release. Her bravery in confronting the scarier paranormal events, while being absolutely terrified, is endearing. By the second book she is starting to trust her powers a little, to understand the strength of her gift and her guides. These books are fresh, modern and comfortingly Northern. The mix of gothic and supernatural subjects, with this down to earth, 21st Century heroine is different and such great fun. Tanz is a woman you’d like to go for a few cocktails with and the mingling of her familiar worldly worries and her other worldly gift is irresistible.

Biography|Tracy Whitwell was born, brought up and educated in Gateshead in the north east of England. She wrote plays and short stories from an early age, then had her head turned and ran off to London to be an actress. By 1993 she was wearing a wig and an old fashioned dress and pretending to be impoverished on telly in a Catherine Cookson mini-series, whilst going to see every indie/rock band she could afford.

After an interesting number of years messing about in front of the camera and traveling the world though, Tracy discovered she still loved writing and completed her first full length play. A son, many stage-plays, screenplays and two music videos followed until one day she realised she was finally ready to do the thing she’d longed to do since she was six. She wrote her first novel. A crime/horror/comedy tale about an alcohol-soaked, gobby, thrill-seeking actress who talks to ghosts. (Who knows where the inspiration came from, it’s almost like she based it on her own ridiculous life.) Then she wrote a follow up and realised she couldn’t stop writing books.

Now Tracy lives in north London with her son, still travels whenever possible and has written novel number four. Now being edited.

You can read what other bloggers think to Tanz and her world by checking out the other stops on the blog tour.