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.