Posted in Publisher Proof

London in Black by Jack Lutz

A TENSE, TICKING-BOMB THRILLER SET IN A GRITTY NEAR-FUTURE LONDON

LONDON 2027

Terrorists deploy London Black, a highly sophisticated nerve gas, at Waterloo Station. For ten percent of the population – the ‘Vulnerables’ – exposure means near-certain death. Only a lucky few survive.

LONDON 2029

Copy-cat strikes plague the city, its Vulnerable inhabitants kept safe by regular Boost injections. As the anniversary of the first attacks draws near, DI Lucy Stone, a guilt-ridden Vulnerable herself, is called to investigate a gruesome murder of a scientist. Her investigation soon unearths the possibility that he was working on an antidote – one that Lucy desperately needs, as her Boosts become less and less effective.
But is the antidote real? And can Lucy solve the case before her Boosts stop working?

I felt thrust into a post-apocalyptic London in this mix of dystopian thriller and police procedural. I was immediately on board with our narrator Lucy, a super sweary and ballsy detective. A very young DI who’s well known amongst colleagues for not taking any bullshit, but also bringing with her a huge amount of baggage. She has a tough exterior, even using boxing to cope with her mental health, but is constantly treading a fine line between losing her temper and having a panic attack. She is also a ‘super recogniser’ – able to recognise anyone if she has seen them before, even if it was just passing them in the street. It’s quite something to read how her brain works as she almost shuffled through the faces stored in her brain like a game of Guess Who. Her constant medical issues are enough to induce panic as she faces measuring her Boost levels constantly, then worries when they seem low for that time of day. There’s also the event that happened – a terrible trauma that she hates to recall and doesn’t talk about. All of this creates quite a flawed and frustrated character, but I did see past a lot of the guarded behaviour and found her quite endearing. Maybe because she has this huge vulnerability. Flashbacks take us to her life before the Waterloo Station event and the normal life she’s known is suddenly eroded. Her pharmacist boyfriend realises she’s a ‘Vulnerable’, but thinks she’s safe because of all the Boosts they have at the hospital pharmacy. It’s when he realises that there aren’t enough and doses will have to be rationed that the scale of what has happened hits him. They have gone from a world where anything they need is accessible to them to one where their security, health and welfare is in doubt. It’s such a massive shift in their living standards it’s hard to comprehend. When we come back to Lucy’s present and see her psyching herself up to inject, the reality of how reliant she is on these booster injections is visible in her black and bruised abdomen.

I found it hard to believe that this is a debut novel, it’s incredibly well plotted and so imaginative. It’s hard enough to create a dystopian thriller that’s believable, but I think the plausibility was helped by recent terrorist attacks and the pandemic. We know now that these things can happen so the deployment of London Black seems like a possible future event, as scary as that is. I thought it was clever that even society’s language has been changed by the attack, in much the same way that we have new phrases and words in common use since the start of the pandemic. The idea of being a ‘vulnerable’ scared me, so Lucy’s determination to take part in the world and investigate this murder impressed me. The severity of the symptoms is horrifying so I’d be locked in my flat with a food delivery service on speed dial. I really did have a constant low level anxiety throughout. However, the murder case is so intriguing I couldn’t put the book down. Who would kill a man that might have the antidote the world is looking for? It’s Lucy’s only hope for a normal life so her determination to solve the murder is understandable. I really loved her developing relationship with DI King and would love to see more of them both going forward in future novels. The author has plotted a great crime novel on the back of a dystopian thriller. It’s anxiety inducing, compelling and has a complex heroine that I was rooting for throughout.

Published by Pushkin Vertigo April 2022.

Meet The Author

Jack Lutz lives in London with his wife and daughter. He is fascinated by the city he calls home and loves to read about and explore it. The idea for London in Black came to him as he changed trains on the Tube. London in Black is his first novel.

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 Publisher Proof

The Family Remains by Lisa Jewell

Ever since reading Lisa Jewell’s novel The Family Upstairs I’ve been hoping she’d write a sequel. The book was certainly satisfying as a standalone, but the characters were so complex and their situation so traumatic I was certain it would bubble up to the surface sooner or later. Detective Samuel Owusu thinks the same, when human remains are found washed up on the banks of the Thames by a mud lark. When he sends the bones for forensic examination it’s clear that she was murdered; there’s an injury to the skull that could only have come from blunt force trauma. The other clue from the bag is a mulch of leaves, unusual ones for London, taking him to a mansion house in Chelsea. There, thirty years ago, three people were found dead in a kitchen and upstairs was an unharmed baby girl with a rabbit’s foot tucked into her cot. The clues are pointing to two missing teenagers, Henry and Lucy Lamb, belonging to two of the deceased. Yet, neighbours had said they hadn’t seen the children for years. We follow DCI Owusu’s investigation, but also this missing brother and sister who are doing some investigating of their own. They’re looking for a third teenager, Phinneas Thomsen, son of the third deceased adult and also a resident of the Chelsea mansion, hoping he can make sense of their childhood. Why was the Thames body separate from the other three and what was her link to the adults living there? The house has just sold for over seven million pounds and it’s owner is a young woman called Libby, so she must be their first port of call. This is just the first step in untangling a very dark web of trauma, murder and a family who have tried to bury secrets that just won’t stay dead.

Lisa Jewell really is the master of this domestic noir genre. She could have plodded along, unravelling secrets from long ago and it would still have been a very good book. However, she doesn’t take the easy option, she chooses to introduce new characters and storylines that are equally compelling and link into to the Cheyenne Walk mystery. As well as Samuel, Henry and Lucy narrating the story, we have a woman called Rachel narrating a present day storyline too. Rachel is a jeweller, just waiting for a big store to pick up her designs and thrust her work into the limelight. After years of dating and not finding the one, she meets a man called Michael who seems almost perfect for her. He is attractive, attentive, wealthy and seems available emotionally, which makes a change from other men she’s dated. He’s been married before, to a woman he met while she was busking in France and he was staying at his home in Antibes. Rachel doesn’t really pry into his past and all Michael volunteers is that she was musical and ‘a nightmare.’ Her name was Lucy. In a whirlwind, Rachel and Michael get married and she’s of an age where people don’t tend to take you aside and ask if its all moving a bit fast. Perhaps friends are just glad that this has finally happened for her and her father seems happy for her too, believing Michael to be that rare thing – an older, unmarried, great bloke. On honeymoon, amongst the rose petal strewn sheets and days spent reading by the ocean, Rachel thinks she might suggest a bit of fun in the bedroom. She’s happy with vanilla sex, but wonders if some light BDSM games might bring variety. She unpacks some special underwear, some ties and a leather whip and is looking forward to a fun night, but Michael looks embarrassed, then furious. He flies into a rage, accusing her of having no class, sleeping around and ruining their honeymoon. Rachel is bewildered as he storms off to sleep separately and refuses to talk about it. All she can hope is that he calms down, but she is starting to feel like she must apologise, although she doesn’t really know why. How can she return from her honeymoon and tell anyone her husband is disgusted by her?

I loved how these four narratives were interwoven, because they cleverly show us how abuse in all it’s forms leaves it’s legacy. Whether it’s self-hatred and body dysmorphia, a deep seated rage thats ready to boil over, or a desperate need for love and a tendency to repeat the patterns of childhood. I thought Rachel’s story was particularly compelling, because I’ve experienced that pattern of abuse – the love bombing, rejection, gaslighting and fits of rage. I hated Michael and really understood her need to find Lucy and talk to her. It felt like she’d lost the ability to trust her own judgement, so if there was someone else he was abusive to, she could start to accept and own her own truth. Her confidence had sunk so low she was struggling to fight for herself, but as soon as Michael’s behaviour affected someone else she loved she was able to stand up to him. Henry is also struggling with what happened in childhood, his twisted and confused emotions surrounding Phinn were complex. Phinn was held up as an example of what a boy should be, with Henry receiving punishments and neglect for not being more like him. We might expect Henry to feel hatred and even harbour harmful thoughts about Phinn, and to an extent he does feel these things. There’s a part of him that never wants to see Phinn again. However, there is a part of him that is still the little boy who wants to please, so he has changed the way he looks and now looks at Phinn in the mirror every morning. There’s definitely an element of hero worship and sexual desire too. I was actually scared of what Henry might do if he ever found Phinn, who is thought to be working on a game reserve in Africa. Lucy is living with her brother at the start of the book, along with her two children. Henry’s upmarket flat with it’s high thread count sheets and all the right TV packages is the height of luxury to her two children. They have slept in some terrible places while homeless and they don’t want to be on the run again. Lucy is scared and not just about the events in her childhood, because she’s been replicating the pattern of abuse she learned to endure at Cheyne Walk, into her adult relationships. She’s also used to running from people she owes money to. She hopes that now the house is sold, she can find a secure and happy home for her children close enough to keep in touch with her brother. She knows that Henry is more fragile than he seems, but also that there’s a darkness at his centre and she doesn’t know what might happen if he ever lets it come to the surface.

The pace of the novel is pretty fast and I almost read it in one sitting. Short chapters mean it’s very easy to get caught by that little voice that goes ‘just one more chapter won’t hurt’ when it’s gone midnight and you have to be up in the morning. The tension is builds, then decreases, then builds again by using clever tactics like finding something out at the end of a chapter, then the next chapter going back in time or dismissing what you’ve just found out. Although the storyline seems clear she throws in little curveballs like a spot of blackmail here or an unexpected murder there, to take us off the main track. I found some dark humour in two people turning up to murder the same person. I thought that the author also managed to inject some hope for the future too, in what has been a very dark and painful story. If you’ve been through childhood abuse, domestic violence and sexual violence there are some tough paragraphs here and there. I must admit I found some of the coercive control and verbal abuse difficult, and I found myself holding my breath in parts, but that’s how I knew the author had got it absolutely right. This was a fantastic sequel, that I would say needs to be read after the first novel and not as a stand-alone. It really stands up to the power of the first novel with it’s tension, darkness and psychological game playing but also offers some measure of healing too. A fantastic sequel from an author at the top of her game.

Meet The Author

Lisa Jewell has written and published another sixteen books, since her debut Ralph’s Party, from the ‘curry and flatmates’ novels of the nineties and noughties like Thirtynothing, One Hit Wonder, A Friend of the Family and Vince & Joy, to more family-themed novels like After The Party, The Making of Us and The House We Grew Up In and more recently, psychological thrillers such as I Found You, Then She Was Gone, Watching You and The Family Upstairs, which charted in the summer of 2019 at number one in the hardback charts.

Lisa lives in London with her husband, two daughters, two hairy cats, two nervous guinea pigs and a lovely auburn dog. She writes every day, a minimum of one thousand words, in a cafe, with no access to the internet, in two to three hour sessions

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 Netgalley

Summer Fever by Kate Riordan

This is a real sizzler of a novel! Hot in every sense of the world, set in picturesque Italy with a sense of growing menace all the way through. I read this one in the garden, with a Pimms in hand and with every chapter became more convinced of the old saying; the grass is never greener on the other side. Laura and Nick have been through a lot. Back in London they were struggling with infertility and Laura hadn’t felt like herself for a long time, the fertility drugs pumping her full of hormones and the grief of miscarriage left her feeling broken. When she discovers a betrayal, after Nick accidentally leaves his phone at home, she’s angry and resentful too. In his eagerness to make it up to her, Nick suggests they do what Laura has always wanted, move to Italy and create a holiday hideaway for couples. They discovered Luna Rossa on a visit to Italy several months ago, after which Laura suffered a third miscarriage. It is in the Marche region, a largely unknown area of Italy next to Tuscany, but less expensive. Luna Rossa is wonderfully isolated and just dilapidated enough to still be charming. It includes a pool, a small derelict cottage and beautiful grounds that fall away steeply gifting the house with incredible views across the countryside. Only a few months later they are preparing to welcome their first couple for a three week stay. It seems idyllic, but they’re taking a risk in welcoming complete strangers into their home. Laura has stalked her guest Madison on social media and she seems very outgoing and glamorous. Laura and Nick could be underestimating how disruptive it can be to have strangers living in your home, especially these strangers…

I felt the author set out Nick and Laura’s back story and state of mind very well. Nick is contrite and desperate to make it up to Laura for his indiscretion, but he’s sacrificed a lot to follow her dream and might have been desperate to make it happen at all costs. Laura is still resentful of Nick’s mistake and the trauma of infertility has left her a little lost, unsure of who she is anymore. With hormones still not back to normal and the sadness of losing a child she’s very fragile and could easily be manipulated. I got a sense that she wanted to recapture herself, the person she was before their fertility journey began. It’s as if she wants to take off her experiences like taking off a costume and simple be who she was before. It takes time to process trauma and assimilate the experience into your sense of self, something she’s barely started. There’s a reckless feel to her actions, almost a need to self destruct. I thought the author’s description of the miscarriage experience was brilliant, I’ve been there and recognised Laura’s confusion at some of the euphemism’s used by medical staff to avoid emotive language; using ‘products of conception’ rather than baby and ‘come away’ rather than loss. It rang so true and I had empathy for her. As we start seeing flashbacks of her life at university and her relationship with the man she loved, I found her curiously passive. This annoyed me, although I did realise later on that it might be a coping mechanism. She seems to slip away in her mind and so any trauma or difficult experience only happens to her bodily rather than emotionally, hopefully leaving her able to cope. Sadly it just leaves her divorced from her emotional self, like an observer rather than someone truly living that moment and feeling it. Shutting emotions out never works and her destructive behaviour is the bodily experience of those repressed emotions.

Once their guests arrive, Madison and husband Bastian, the tone is set for their stay. Gregarious and sociable Madison seems to suck Laura and Nick into her orbit and they’re soon acting like friends visiting rather than paying guests. This is inexperience on the couple’s part and ordinarily they might learn from it, but there’s an air of menace in the way Madison ‘plays’ with Laura. She dresses Laura up, is overtly sexual and likes to play mind games with her husband. Is it for herself, or Bastian’s pleasure that she does this? At a neighbour’s pool one afternoon Madison comes on to Laura with Bastian watching. He’s clearly enjoying himself, but is it just the titillation or is he enjoying Laura’s discomfort and confusion too? In these moments of challenge Laura is again curiously passive, going along with the moment rather than causing a fuss. There’s also a feeling of unease around the builders who turn up to see Nick, their disdain of Laura very evident in the way they dismiss her objections as if she knows nothing about her own house. Is this simply a chauvinistic attitude or is something more sinister going on? The tension is often at fever pitch, accentuated by the physical temperature and constant need to cool off. The author then adds sections of unbearable tension, such as the slightly ‘Don’t Look Now’ masquerade feel of the town’s medieval festival. The heat is unbearable and Laura is never sure who is behind the costume and has the uneasy feeling that they could have stepped back in time; the permanence of the ancient buildings seeming to mock her for feeling untethered and temporary. The author also drip feeds a little bit of stress into everyday life, such as Madison’s wardrobe making Laura feel she has to make an effort too. Nick notices she’s now wearing make- up every day and styling her hair whereas she wouldn’t normally bother. These changes show that Laura isn’t comfortable in her own skin, this pair have some sort of hold or influence but what is it? We are taken back in time to her university days for the answers and then the shock revelations surrounding the guests start to unfold. With secrets being kept about Luna Rossa too, the conclusion is explosive to say the least. This will make you wish you were in Italy, but not with these people.

Meet The Author

Kate Riordan is a writer and journalist. She is an avid reader of Daphne du Maurier and Agatha Christie, both of whom have influenced her writing. She lives in the Cotswolds, where she writes full-time. The Heatwave is her fourth novel

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

The Daughter by Liz Webb

One of the first things my therapy supervisor said to me was ‘no two kids have the same childhood, even those who grow up together’. This kept going through my mind as I started to read Liz Webb’s book and grew ever more apt as the story unfolded. As regular readers know I do like to indulge in a good thriller and despite knowing nothing about the book or the author, something drew me in when I read the blurb. I’m so glad I took the chance to read it because it is a dark, psychological, and unsettling domestic noir based around the violent death of the charismatic mum in the Davidson family. Hannah doesn’t always have her life on track and she lives away from her physicist father Phillip, but is called when he ends up in hospital. Now suffering with Alzheimer’s and at the end of his life, Hannah has to make a tough choice; does she leave him in the hands of strangers or should she be the one to nurse him in his final months? It’s not long before Hannah finds herself back home and falling into a time warp. Not only has her father left the decorating and furnishings back in the 1990’s, there are piles of magazines and other detritus still littering the same place. It’s as if he stopped when his wife Jennifer was found in the woods at the back of the house, with a kitchen knife plunged into her chest. Hannah finds her surroundings bringing memories and inevitable questions to the forefront of her mind; no one was ever charged for her mum’s murder. This house is haunted. Her mum’s most successful photographs are still hung on the walls and her dark room is untouched, the wardrobe is full of her colourful clothes with the ghost of Chanel No 5. Just the faintest trace touches the air when Hannah runs a hand over her mother’s clothes. Hannah’s very presence completes the picture, she’s a waif compared to the overweight woman she’s been for most of her life. Now she’s the image of her mum, so much so that an unexpected glimpse in a mirror makes her jump. Her brother Ryan, now a famous actor, has commented on her ‘stuckness’, her inability to move beyond that day in the 1990’s. Hannah doesn’t think she’ll ever be able to move forward and pursue a life for herself, until she can resolve what truly happened that day and who killed her mother.

I did find myself rooting for Hannah, despite her flaws and her past behaviour – with more revelations popping up when I didn’t expect them. She feels more vulnerable and is honest about how broken she is by the past. The author carefully keeps her on that edge so I was mostly on board with her version of events, but every now and again I would question whether she was truly a reliable narrator. There was her drinking and the impression she has of her family life and her mother. She sees her mother as a beautiful free spirit, with her gorgeous rainbow clothes, her glamorous and creative career as a photographer with it’s world of gallery openings and meeting other artists. She sees her parents as very different, her father being much older and in a more steady career as a physics professor. When her parents couldn’t be there, Mrs Roberts and her husband from next door would step in with her more old-fashioned parenting style and her good looking son Marcus. This return home and her father’s deterioration seem to trigger something in Hannah and her brother is convinced she’s in a downward spiral where her mental health is concerned. He now stars in a BBC murder mystery series based in Spain, where his wise-cracking detective solves murders within the ex-Pat community and has famous co-stars happy to swap a guest starring role for a week in the sun. He’s also written a book titled Solving Me which Hannah thinks is pompous at best, but probably arrogant and a potential challenge. His childhood is peppered with incidents of their parents arguing, usually about their mother’s behaviour and he’s completely convinced that their father murdered her after years of being pushed too far.

I loved how the author balanced the story with the darkness and tension, broken by the realties of being a carer and the humorous little allusions to her father’s research subject. Their pets are named after Feynmann (the dog) and Schrödinger (the cat of course) á la Sheldon’s cats in The Big Bang Theory. The Schrödinger reference is very apt with Hannah alluding to their mother as potentially living and dead at the same time. For years her head has been full of simultaneous movie reels, each one with a different ending to the story, she would love to be able to shut down all those other screens and see what really happened. The caring details, everything she’ll need to bring Dad home from the hospital, are spot on. One detail I loved because it showed experience, or at least talking to those with it, and it was the ‘shit-stained’ sole of her father’s foot visible to to a person standing at the bottom of the bed but often missed by the busy healthcare assistant doing this morning’s strip wash. The investigation she conducts gives her a lot more questions about her mother, as she remembers her. She’s warned by the original detective on the case that she might not like what she finds. Even her mum’s art seems to hold clues: the close-ups of tiny domestic objects till it’s hard to know what they are; the fascination with motorcycle stuntman Evil Knieval and the moment of being in free fall; an entire series called Falling showing objects in that moment before they land. What she seemed to forget is that Evil Knieval’s stunts finally went too far with disastrous consequences. As the revelations about Jennifer Davidson begin the story becomes even more fascinating, because Hannah gets to see the person her mum was before becoming a parent and whether motherhood changed her at all. I enjoyed the interplay between the siblings and was engrossed in finding out whose version of events was closer to the truth. This was incredibly well-written, tense and psychologically very clever. It left me thinking about how others see our parents and who they truly are when they’re not being mum and dad.

Meet the Author

Liz Webb originally trained as a classical dancer, then worked as a secretary, stationery shop manager, art class model, cocktail waitress, stand-up comic, voice-over artist, script editor and radio drama producer, before becoming a novelist. She lives in North London with her husband, son and serial killer cat Freddie.

Posted in Monthly Wrap Up

Books of the Month! May 2022

It’s been an odd month here, because I went into the month full of energy and looking forward to a busy blog month. Then I felt very unwell and sadly had to let blog tour organisers and publishers which I hate. Thankfully I’d written this ahead of time as I read each novel, so all I had to do was write this little intro. My favourite books this month were mainly dual narrative novels, a structure I really enjoy especially when it’s done as well as these authors. I hope you all have a lovely Jubilee weekend, whether you are a royalist or are just looking forward to a long weekend off work. My carer and other half are helping me with a stall at our village jubilee celebrations. I’m at our book exchange with a box full of old proofs to swap, book suggestions and a tombola with books from the Jubilee Big Read as prizes. All the books are from Commonwealth writers so I’m looking forward to introducing people to a different perspective on our Queen’s long reign. Photos to follow!

I enjoyed this book much more than I’d expected to. It’s not that there was anything wrong with the blurb or the cover, but I thought it might be just another ‘stately home + mystery’ novel with no huge surprises. However, the depth of characterisation and complexity of the story drew me in and kept me reading for two straight days. Ellie is our present day narrator and she’s having to take leave from work as an investigative journalist after trying to expose an important businessman ended badly. So she returns to her family home in County Kerry, Ireland to spend time with her mother. Trying to keep a low profile is a lost cause in a small Irish village. It’s only because she’s desperate for reading material that she braves the charity shop to collect a box of books that have come from the large stately home nearby, Blackwater Hall. Ellie is grateful to see a few Agatha Christie novels on the top and takes the whole box. Inside is a mysterious letter, addressed only to ‘T’ but clearly belonging to the Rathmore family. It ignites a spark in Ellie and she tries to do the right thing and return it, but is bitten by the mystery surrounding the family. Charlotte Rathmore disappeared during the early part of WWII leaving a broken string of pearls by the lake. The official version is that Charlotte killed herself, but Ellie senses a story and starts to seek out other remaining members of the family. Can she solve the mystery of Charlotte’s disappearance and what changes will the truth bring to Blackwater Hall and the Rathmore family? Despite wanting all the answers, I didn’t want this book to end and there’s no better compliment than that.

Another dual timeline novel here, with another mysterious set of letters. This was our Squad Pod read for May and as usual my review is late, but it’s no secret that I LOVED this book. I even made Chocolate Mojito cupcakes to celebrate the fact. I was unsure where this book was going to go, considering the rather modern looking cocktail cover. However, it’s story was deeper and more moving than I expected. In the 1970’s Ava Winters lives in a New York apartment with her mother and a father who seems to wander in and out. Her mother shows signs of mental illness and seems haunted by something in her past. With both parents AWOL Ava is lonely and becomes fascinated by a box sent to her apartment addressed to a woman called Gillian. It’s from Paris and holds letters as well as a butterfly necklace and a photo with LIAR scrawled across it. In the same apartment, but twenty years earlier, teachers Dovie and Gillian are roommates. However, they’re very private and guard their home lives fiercely until one unguarded moment exposes the wrong person to the truth. This novel showed me a side of life I knew nothing about. A time where ‘unnatural activities’ and desires could lead to a loss of everything from your job to your liberty. I will save the rest for my review, but don’t miss this one. It’s an incredible debut from a very talented writer.

This beautiful novel covers the early Twentieth Century in the lives of one family, from WWI to WWII. This book feels like an epic. A whale washes up on the beach of the Chilcombe Estate and is claimed for the Seagrave family by Cristabel who is the orphan cousin and doesn’t really fit anywhere. She loves adventure, activity, and endeavours, conquering the Seagrave estate rather than being the lady her stepmother would expect. The Seagrave children are an odd bunch, brought up by staff and each other, while their parents stay in bed late, are never without houseguests and like to drink as early as it is socially acceptable to do so. This is the story of the heir and the spare. Jasper Seagrave brings his new wife home to the Chilcombe Estate and Rosalind is thrown into being mistress of the house and stepmother to his daughter Cristabel. Rosalind is happy to have bagged an aristocratic husband, considering they’re in very short supply since the war. That is until the ‘spare’ arrives. Willoughby is everything his elder brother isn’t; a dashing war hero fascinated by speed whether it’s a new car or learning to fly. There’s an immediate attraction, deepening when Rosalind is on bed rest in the last stages of pregnancy and Willoughby keeps her company. Is the Chilcombe estate about to lapse into scandal and what will become of Cristabel? As the family grows to include a half-sister and brother for Cristabel we follow them towards WWII. The author shows what a toll both wars took on people and the rapid changes they forced on society. I won’t reveal whether any of our characters survive, but Cristabel remembers a saying, that war can bring out the best in people. There are those who shine through difficult days and in their own ways I think the Seagrave children all stepped up to the mark. This is a beautiful piece of historical fiction and I would happily read it all over again.

This book is my only thriller this month and it’s a cracker. This is perfect summer holiday reading whether you’re somewhere exotic or lounging in your own back garden. Hot in every sense of the world and set in picturesque Italy with a sense of growing menace all the way through. I read this one in the garden, with a Pimms in hand and with every chapter became more convinced of the old saying; the grass is never greener on the other side. Laura and Nick have been through a lot. Back in London they were struggling with infertility and Laura hadn’t felt like herself for a long time, the fertility drugs pumping her full of hormones and the grief of miscarriage left her feeling broken. When she discovers a betrayal, after Nick accidentally leaves his phone at home, she’s angry and resentful too. In his eagerness to make it up to her, Nick suggests they do what Laura has always wanted, move to Italy and create a holiday hideaway for couples. They discovered Luna Rossa on a visit to Italy several months ago, after which Laura suffered a third miscarriage. It is in the Marche region, a largely unknown area of Italy next to Tuscany but less expensive. Luna Rossa is isolated, includes a pool, a small cottage and beautiful grounds that fall away steeply gifting the house with incredible views across the countryside. Only a few months later they are preparing to welcome their first couple for a three week stay. It seems idyllic, but they’re taking a risk in welcoming complete strangers into their home. Laura has stalked her guest Madison on social media and she seems very outgoing and glamorous. Laura and Nick could be underestimating how disruptive it can be to have strangers living in your home, especially these strangers…. This is a real sizzler of a novel! My full review is coming next week.

This book is a beautiful example of writing back in history to give a voice to someone who was silenced. 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. 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. This book was moving and had me in it’s grip straight away. It takes me back full circle to the beginning of my post and hearing voices from the Commonwealth countries and from Black British writers. I’ll be taking a copy of this book to my stall at the weekend and I’m looking forward to sharing it with new readers.

Posted in Squad Pod

Nobody But Us by Laure Van Rensburg

I heard such great things about this dark thriller that I’ve been chomping at the bit to read it asap! It was our Squad Pod read for last month and as usual I’m late. The blurb grabbed me right away and my mind went immediately to Gone Girl so I expected some twisted people and storylines. That tagline is designed to draw us in, but also has a hint of humour as if she’s mocking the genre – meet 2022’s most f*cked up couple. I was waiting for a gap in blog tours and managed to get a sunny weekend, my day bed set up in the garden and a willing slave to keep me supplied with drinks and adjusting my parasol. It didn’t take long to hook me.

Ellie and Steven have finally managed to find a gap in their busy schedules to get away for a few days and celebrate their six month anniversary. They’re heading to an isolated cabin in the woods, many miles away from the hustle and bustle of New York. It will be the perfect opportunity to spend some quality time together and really get to know each other. A perfect weekend for a perfect couple. Except, that’s not quite the truth. Ellie and Steven are far from perfect. They both have secrets. They’re both liar. Steven isn’t who he says he is. But then neither is she …

The setting was clever too, usually I’d expect a log cabin in the woods or a period house as a background, but this is a contemporary, architect’s house. I didn’t think a modern house could be scary, but I found it’s glass and steel exterior very unwelcoming – there’s nothing cosy about this weekend. In fact the perfection, the materials used and the sheer amount of space seem strangely oppressive. The contrast with the forest outside is jarring, the natural surroundings make it feel like the owner is pitting his house against the elements, imposing man made order on the natural chaos outside. Yet, when the storm sets in, nature seems to be getting it’s own back, with the large glass panels showing the storm’s fury. Trees are lashing against each other and the snow is coming thick and fast. In fact the weather adds to the sense of isolation, no one is coming to save them, no matter how much they scream.

The story is told by the two characters in turn, relating the details of their weekend away, but also drifting into their pasts so we get some idea of how Steven and Ellie came to this point. Still, the biggest revelations are kept back from us so we don’t have the full picture. This drip feed of information kept me hooked. I needed to know what happened next and who the characters really were under their facades. Mostly though I wanted to know what had set these dramatic events in motion. I couldn’t love these characters, so I wasn’t invested in one side or the other at first, but as the flashbacks came I was surprised to find I did have flashes of sympathy for Ellie or Steven, depending on what had happened to them.

I enjoyed the way the author played with that edge, between what was once acceptable and now isn’t. In light of the #MeToo movement many women in my 40+ age group who can look back at events from the 1990’s and think they wouldn’t be acceptable now: a stolen kiss at a party; a hand on the backside while waiting on a table; pressure to go further sexually than we might have been comfortable with. Now, relationships where there is any form of power imbalance are viewed as wrong. The married man and the teenage babysitter, the older boss and young employee, or student and tutor relationships were happening around me at that time and I don’t remember thinking they were intrinsically wrong, just a bit dodgy. Now, thirty years later, the mood is very different. But of course that’s only one aspect of this complicated story. This is a gripping, atmospheric and explosive novel. If you love thrillers this should definitely be on your summer reading list.

Laure Van Rensburg
Posted in Publisher Proof

Souls Wax Fair by Kelly Creighton

Powerful men can get away with murder…for only so long.

After a life of hardship, Mary Jane McCord’s life in Rapid City, South Dakota, finally hits a sweet spot. She finds happiness and her singing career takes off. Everything is looking up until she uncovers the dark and secret obsessions of two high-profile men.

Twenty years pass but the people closest to Mary Jane have not forgotten.

Will they bring the truth out into the light?

I had never read this author before and found this latest novel an unusual reading experience. Told in fragments, this is the story of a South Dakota town full of tensions and secrets. There isn’t even one main thread, but what links each fragment and each character is the death of MJ McCord. Mary Jane was as beautiful as Marilyn Monroe, more beautiful even some would say. After a difficult and unsettled childhood with mum Marjorie, MJ’s life looks like it’s finally coming good. She’s married to a lovely man who’s older, but gives her kindness, stability and wisdom. He thinks that MJ is beautiful on the inside as well as the outside, and its that inner beauty that captivates him, because it’s a rare thing in his experience. His money helps her with a dream of becoming a singer and she’s just on the cusp of being known. He knows she’s looked elsewhere of late, but it’s her age and he can overlook it. Then he gets some devastating news, MJ goes to a party at the home of one of the town’s superstar football players, Jordan Pinault, but never comes home. It seems that MJ has been playing away with Jordan, they had a row and MJ picked up a gun. She shot herself in the head.

The fragments of the story meander around this event, moving back and forth in time, to people close to MJ and those with only a tangential connection to that tragic night. I’ll be honest and say that first of all I was confused. The structure and order of the chapters doesn’t always make sense and it’s only when you start to get closer to the events of that night, that things become clearer. In fact the sections in the second half of the novel, seem to fit together easier and make more sense. Each fragment is told by a different person, but not everyone uses their given name, instead using a nickname, or they have a Native American name as well as a more Americanised/Anglicised name for work. This confused me even further. However, when it does become clear it’s like a fog lifting. I’m guessing this structure was deliberate and echoes the confusion and layers of half truths around Jordan Pinault and Ricky Nwafo. They have hidden their secrets behind layers of money, respectability, knowing the right people and the hero worship many in the town still have for them.

This town only has a surface sheen. The author shows us how there are people who matter in Rapid City and people who don’t. Despite America claiming not to have a class system, it certainly does have a hierarchy and here it seems the Lakota people are at the bottom of the pile. The Lakota people are also known as Teton Sioux and live the furthest West of any of the Sioux tribes. The author depicts the Lakota as an integral part of the town, but a struggling one. One character remembers being told in school of the ‘Lazy Lakota’ and one of the Lakota characters hates seeing this characteristic in his nephews who sit around in a trailer, drinking most of the day. There is also petty criminality, such as small time drug dealing and theft. We get the impression that discrimination does still exist, in the job market particularly, which leaves Lakota families in poverty compared with the rest of the population.

There’s also a streak of misogyny throughout, with physical and sexual violence still the norm. I felt so deeply for Celena, a Lakota girl who is friends with MJ and crops up at different points in the book. We see her sleeping at parties when she’s younger, in rooms where her unconscious state leaves her very vulnerable. In later years we see her sleeping in the trailer she shares with family, despite the noise of the TV and the kids around her. My first impression, from her teenage years, was that she must be really drunk or perhaps experimenting with drugs? Of course this is other people’s assumption too. Back in her teens, men joke about what they could do to her in this state, and as a woman her family despair of her. In a section narrated by her Uncle, he finds her asleep in their trailer alongside her grandmother, with the TV on and her cousins drinking and shouting in another room. He marvels at how she can sleep in so much noise and calls her lazy. It’s only when we finally hear Celena’s voice that we find out she has narcolepsy, a neurological condition where the brain can no longer regulate the patient’s sleep cycle. She is so used to people not understanding or believing she has a medical condition, that she doesn’t even bother correcting them anymore. Having had secondary narcolepsy, due to having MS and a viral infection, I know how scared and vulnerable it feels to be unable to stop yourself falling asleep. I did it on busy trains, in cafes and even at the opera. Sometimes I could hear everything around me, but couldn’t speak or open my eyes. So my heart went out to her, because once when she feel asleep at a party, her best friend MJ killed herself with a gun. What happens when those half remembered moments start coming back to her?

The author weaves a complex story here and the best thing to do is not worry too much about whether you have the story straight. Just go along with it, from person to person and slowly the truth starts to emerge. There is an incredible sense of place, almost dreamlike in places, but a town immersed in the surrounding nature, especially for the Lakota. There’s a real sense of shabbiness, poverty and sleaze just below the surface. While Jordan and Ricky are just as culpable, the character of town counsellor Beverley Burgess made me feel sick and there were sections that are a hard read. The author showed how certain people become revered in small isolated towns. We know from contemporary cases of rape and abuse that in many cases, ball players are shielded from scrutiny and have the money to afford the best lawyers. In fact it’s this culture of hero worship that allows these crimes to flourish in the first place. There are always people who know the full truth of what’s going on at the time, but no one wants to point the finger at the star. Young ball players have those ideals of being athletic and good looking, popular with girls and can get to good schools with their skills. They are like the alpha males in a town, and ball teams become part of the fabric of society with local sponsorship and charity work. The ball players gain a sense of entitlement that can allow them to mistreat and manipulate others, especially girls who are blinded by their looks and popularity. There is an element of nostalgia and escapism for the spectators, reliving their own past glories or just wishing they’d fulfilled their potential when they were young. I would hope, in the wake of the #MeToo movement that some change has taken place with people looking long and hard as to why they hero worship athletes.

This novel takes a hard look at small town America through this one incident. What is it that’s positive in these small communities, but also what’s missing? If we liken them to areas in the UK, they seem like our old mining communities where the work that’s been guaranteed for generations dries up and people are left in poverty, unable to afford or aspire to university. Young people have to settle for the work that’s available or move away and in these areas there are many young men who yearn to be footballers, boxers, MMA fighters and young women who want to be models, singers or reality TV stars, because it seems more attainable than expensive years of university education. I thought the book was atmospheric, mysterious and complex. It wasn’t like anything else I’ve read this year and left me thinking long after the book ended.

Published 6th May 2022 by Friday Press

Meet the Author


Kelly Creighton facilitates creative writing classes and teaches English as a foreign language. She is the author of the DI Harriet Sloane series, two standalone crime novels (Souls Wax Fair and The Bones of It), two short fiction collections (Bank Holiday Hurricane and Everybody’s Happy), and one book of poetry. Kelly lives with her family in County Down, Northern Ireland.

Posted in Monthly Wrap Up

Books Of The Month! April 2022.

It’s been another bumper book month at The Lotus Readers and it looks like 2022 is going to be an amazing reading year, in fact I’m already worrying about how I’m going to choose between these books when it comes to my end of year list. Can I really do 22 books this year? It’s also a year of fantastic debuts with another four debut novels being top of my list this month. There’s been a few tears shed over some of the stories and characters within these pages, but I’ve been uplifted too by these stories of overcoming. Surviving trauma and recovering through the support of others, particularly where women are supporting women, has been a theme here too. Its been the first month where I’ve been able to sit in the garden with a book, so most of these have accompanied me outside and onto my recliner, usually ending with me falling asleep under a dog and a cat! So here are some shortened reviews, to whet your appetite for these wonderful novels,

Reminiscent of those stylish novels of the great Agatha Christie, this was a brilliant mystery with a glamorous location, wealthy passengers and sumptuous clothes and jewellery. The period detail is spot on whether it’s the latest bathing suit or 1930’s politics. It’s not just a whodunnit either, because woven within are themes of identity, belonging, family and class division. It’s gripping without being showy or depending on shocks, or endless twists and turns. It’s elegant and allows it’s secrets to unfurl slowly. Lena is a sympathetic character, who has sacrificed starting her career to care for her father Alfie who has recently died. To pay the bills Lena has been singing in a club band, but she has always wanted to work on the West End or Broadway. Her chance comes in the aftermath of a death at the club. A favour from a an old friend of her father. She’s found by theatre producer’s assistant, Charlie Bacon, whose boss is offering Lena the chance of a lifetime, a part on Broadway in a new musical. As they set off across the Atlantic in their first class accommodation, they make the acquaintance of a very wealthy family with an ailing patriarch. What follows is intrigue, murder, mayhem and the realities of being a black performer. Lena is now caught up in a murder plot, and doesn’t know if she’ll be the next suspect, or victim.

Incredibly strong women, three generations of a Memphis family, are the focus of this amazing debut by Tara Stringfellow that made me angry, made me cry and somehow helped me feel uplifted all at the same time. Grandma Hazel is the first resident of the house in Memphis, a house her sweetheart Myron builds for their family. When he is lynched by his own police squad, Hazel is nine months pregnant and left heartbroken, angry and scared. Her daughters, Miriam and August, then call this place home and it also becomes August’s place of work. When Miriam leaves home, travelling with her husband Jax who is in the military, August turns the back of the house into a hair salon for a community of black women who gather there to laugh, to support each other and to plan activism. When Miriam returns with her own daughters, Joan and Myra, she has mixed feelings. She needs a roof over her head, she loves where she grew up, but something happened here that daughter Joan can’t quite remember. Yet she feels I’ll, deep down. There’s fear and shame in this place, but she doesn’t know why and we follow her quest to process and heal from this hidden trauma. With a backdrop of the biggest events of the 20th Century from the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations to 9/11, this is a story of what it means to be a black woman in 20th Century America. Simply outstanding.

Ethan Joella’s novel was perfect for this moment in life. Set in an idyllic Connecticut town over the course of a year, our story follows the intertwining lives of a dozen neighbours as they confront everyday desires and fears: an illness, a road not taken, a broken heart, a betrayal. Freddie and Greg Tyler seem to have it all: a comfortable home at the edge of the woods, a beautiful young daughter, a bond that feels unbreakable. But when Greg is diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer, the sense of certainty they once knew evaporates overnight. Meanwhile, Darcy Crowley is still coming to terms with the loss of her husband as she worries over her struggling adult son, Luke. Elsewhere, Ginger Lord returns home longing for a lost relationship; Ahmed Ghannam wonders if he’ll ever find true love; and Greg’s boss, Alex Lionel, grapples with a secret of his own. We are all familiar with the hashtag #BeKind and through these stories, what seems like a platitude, is brought home to the reader. Our characters touch on each other’s lives, sometimes without knowing what each other are coping with just under the surface. Despite taking us through every experience from infidelity to loss, the book never feels overwhelming or melancholy. Yes I wanted to shed tears from time to time, but somehow there is always a ray of hope. It reminded me that things like community, friendship, shared experiences and compassion can change everything. The author doesn’t hold back on how difficult and painful life can be, but yet always finds some element of joy that reminds us what a gift it is too. This book is poetic, achingly beautiful and full of empathy for the human condition.

I knew this book would be one I enjoyed, after all it encompasses some of my favourite things: History between the World Wars; the Vienna Secession and Gustav Klimt; Art Nouveau; a feminist narrative. However, I didn’t expect it would grab hold of me in the way it did! I sat down with it in the garden one Sunday afternoon and read two thirds straight away. When duty and blog tours called that week I had to set it aside, but I kept glancing over at it like a lost lover all week. Haydock takes four of Egon Schiele’s portraits and explores the women depicted – society sisters Adele and Edith, artists model Wally and his younger sister Gertie. Schiele’s portraits are not life-like reproductions of his model and while they might shed light on aspects of their characters, they can only ever be the artist’s view of that woman with all the prejudices and biases of his time. Haydock is challenging Schiele’s representation of these women and here we get to hear the women’s stories, how they see themselves and their relationship with Schiele. Some of his life choices felt like betrayals to those women who risked everything by literally laying themselves bare before him and the world, for his sake and for the sake of art. I thought Haydock beautifully captured this sacrifice and it’s consequences, something she picks up beautifully in the short interludes from the 1960’s where an elderly woman searches for a painting she’s glimpsed of someone she loved. Desperate to give an apology she never heard in life. Haydock beautifully captures a rapidly changing Vienna between two World Wars where barriers of class and gender are breaking down. She also captures the complexities of the barriers for women and those who have the pioneering spirit to break them. She gives a voice to their silent gaze. This is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year and I read it greedily in just two sessions. I’m already looking forward to entering Haydock’s world and savouring these wonderful women again.ok”

My interest in 19th Century freak shows, Sarah Baartman (the Hottentot Venus), disability and difference, made Lianne Dillsworth’s debut novel a perfect fit for me. Our setting is a theatre and a performing troupe including singers, magicians and dancers who perform a variety show under the watchful eye of Mr Crillick. His current headline act is Amazonia – a true African tribeswoman, dressed in furs and armed with a shield and spear, her native dancing brings down the house in Crillick’s show. The audience watch, transfixed with fear and fascination, never realising that she is a ‘fagged’ act. Zillah has never set foot in Africa and is in fact of mixed race heritage, born in East London. She is making her money by pretending to be what the, largely white, audience wants to see. It doesn’t sit well with Zillah, but she is alone in the world and does need to make money. Besides it’s better than the other options for a young woman who finds herself in poverty. She’s used to slipping between worlds on stage and in her private life, renting a room in the rough St Giles area of the city, but regularly making her way to a more salubrious area and the bed of a Viscount by night. However, when Crillick brings a new exhibit to his London home, dubbed the Leopard Lady, Zillah’s eyes are opened to the politics and misogyny of displaying difference. A meeting with an activist forces her to think about her own performance, but also the danger that Crillick’s new exhibit might be in, especially his ‘private’ audiences complete with medical equipment. Can Zillah help this woman and what does her own future hold, because in good conscience she can no longer perform? This is a brilliant novel, doing for race and disability, what Sarah Water’s novels did for the representation of sexuality in the 19th Century.

I’d never read a novel by Dolen Perkins-Valdez and she pulled me into her story from the very first page, with Civil seeming real almost immediately. I’ve been interested in eugenics since I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on disability and 20th Century literature. I knew a lot about the movement in the U.K., US and Germany in the lead up to WW2, but this book shocked me because I had no idea that forced sterilisations were still happening in the 1960s and 70s. I knew this had happened in earlier in the century with Native American communities, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was still happening to African American women, especially where the woman had a disability too. The writer shows how our biases and emotions feed into the work we do within the caring professions. Having worked in mental health and disability as a support worker, advocate and counsellor, I did identify strongly with Civil and the way she became involved with the Williams family. The Williams girls are her very first patients and she is sent out on a home visit to give them a Depo Provera injection, a long term method of contraception. When she notices that India is only 11 years old her brain immediately starts questioning, who put this little girl on this injection, has anyone asked if she has a boyfriend or worse, is she being preyed upon? Is this an assumption that young African-American women are promiscuous or that African- American men can’t be trusted, even within their own families? The judgement that bringing a child into this family would be disastrous comes from a lack of knowledge around India Williams’s learning disability, but is also an assumption about race too. The fall out from Civil’s discoveries is huge and life-changing, not just for the Williams family but for Civil too. This book sheds light on an important hidden history and took me through a rollercoaster of emotions.

I fell utterly in love with Dot Watson, a rather abrupt and persnickety member of the staff at London Transport’s lost property office. It took me about five pages to be drawn into Dot Watson’s quirky world and her love for the lost property office where honest people bring their found items. Dot is like the backbone of the office and the other workers would be lost without her. A lover of proper procedure and organisation, Dot is the ‘go to’ employee for anyone starting work with the team, or just to answer a question about an item. Dot thinks lost things are very important, almost like an extension of that person. Their lost item can tell her a lot about the person they are and she fills the lost luggage tags with as much detail as possible so that they have the greatest chance of locating it. Dot believes that when we lose a person, their possessions can take us right back to the moment they were with us. When Mr Appleby arrives at the office to find his lost leather hold-all it is what the case contains that moves Dot. Inside is a tiny lavender coloured purse that belonged to his late wife and he carries it everywhere. Something inside Dot breaks for this lonely man and she is determined she will find his hold-all. Her search becomes both the driving force of Dot’s story and the key to unlocking her own memories. I loved our journey into Dot’s past, her relationship with her father and the trauma that she’s tried to lock away for so long. This book has difficult emotions, but also glimpses of humour and is ultimately an uplifting journey with an unforgettable woman.

A teenage girl wanders out of the woods. She’s striking, with flame-red hair and a pale complexion. She’s also covered in blood. She appears in the pub’s beer garden as Jonah is enjoying a beer after a walk with his baby son. Detective Jonah Sheens quickly discovers that Keely and her sister, Nina, disappeared from a children’s home a week ago. Now, Keely is here – but Nina’s still missing. Keely knows where her sister is – but before she tells, but first she wants Jonah’s full attention. Is she killer, witness, or victim? The opening scene is absolutely brilliant, vivid and shocking at the same time. As the girl’s history starts to unfold, they hear about several failed placements and a long stay in a children’s home. The girls made complaints about two of their homes, but were thought to be troublemakers. Jonah and his excellent team have to tread a very fine line. Keeley comes across as cold and calculating one moment, but then like a broken little girl the next. Which is an act? There are some very dark stories here and they could be distressing for people who’ve gone through a similar experience, but it’s that darkness that keeps the reader wanting the truth and to see those responsible punished. If Keeley has planned how to elicit sympathy from the police, she certainly knows what she’s doing. As readers we are pulled along with Jonah, from distress and empathy to disbelief and a sense that something is very, very wrong either with Keeley or the system. This is a great mystery, with huge twists in store and a police team I enjoyed getting to know. Now I’m looking forward to going back to the first novel in this series and filling in the gaps in my knowledge, while enjoying even more of this talented writer’s incredibly creative plots and dark, brooding atmosphere.

So these were my favourite reads in a very busy reading month. I read seventeen books which surprised even me! Next month I’m looking forward to a slightly quieter month with some great thrillers to read, some historical fiction from another of my favourite historical periods – the beginnings of the Tudor dynasty, and hopefully a few choices from NetGalley too so I can keep on beating that backlog. I hope you enjoy these choices as much as I did and i’ll see you again next month.