Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Violet by SJ Holliday.

There are so many cliches we use in the world of book blogging but it’s hard not to use them when  all of them applied to this original and unusual novel. This was an unputdownable, page turning, keep me up all night, edge of your seat thriller with intriguing characters and exotic settings.

It was refreshing to read a thriller with a female protagonist who steals all of the limelight. Added to that she has a feisty female travel partner. In a genre where women are often prey and merely a catalyst for the real action, these women more than hold their own. Violet has tired of Thailand and her boyfriend wants to stay put. Far from being the island paradise she expected Thailand has become about the same scene, people and drugs. Violet decides to follow their itinerary without him and she does it in style. She makes her way to China but feels strangely alone and dislocated. When trying to organise a ticket for the Trans-Siberian railway Violet overhears a girl talking to the travel agent about her spare ticket. Her friend has had an accident and can’t travel, but the travel agent is no help and the girl has a spare ticket on her hands. Violet follows her to a bar and engineers a meeting that turns into dinner and many drinks. By the next day Violet has scored a ticket and a new travel companion in Carrie. By this time we have a few doubts about our narrator and I worried for Carrie and whether she knew what she was taking on board.

The rest of the novel is told in sections through Violet’s eyes and the emails that Carrie sends back to her injured friend back home. The girls have a stop off in Mongolia where they experience Nomadic life, sheep’s milk tea and a shamanic experience that threatens to put their friendship on a very different footing. Violet reads like someone with borderline personality disorder; despite her narration I don’t feel a coherent sense of self. I don’t think Violet knows who she is. Carrie starts to have her own doubts on the train and tries to create some space by befriending other passengers. Violet starts to panic. What if Carrie decides to go her separate ways? Violet’s friendship has become obsessive and potentially dangerous. However, when we reach Russia we start to see what both girls are really capable of.

The brilliance of Holliday’s writing is that we never really know what the girls are going to do next. This is not helped by the copious amounts of drink and drugs the girls partake in. It’s like being on a rollercoaster ride blindfolded. Just when you think you’ve worked Violet out, something else happens and your opinion changes. I loved the travel detail as well. It isn’t romanticised. It’s scuzzy and grimy. It dispels the backpacker myth of Thailand being a paradise better than The Beach did. Mongolia was at least an authentic experience, but the thought of ewe’s milk tea was grim. I loved the gritty realism and and the psychological manipulation. Living for a while in Violet’s head shows us how dark, obsessional jealousy manifests and left me feeling very uneasy. How much do we really know about what’s going on in someone else’s head? After all this, Holliday still surprised me with a final twist I didn’t see coming that turned everything I thought I knew on its head. It was like seeing The Sixth Sense for the first time, you want to pop back to the beginning and see it all over again with fresh eyes and try to pick up the clues. I read the end of this novel at 2am and was so blown away I had to wake up my other half and tell him all about it. This is definitely one of my books of the year.

Published 14th September 2019 by Orenda Books

Meet the Author

Susi (S.J.I.) Holliday is the bestselling Scottish author of 10 novels, a novella and many short stories. By day she works in pharmaceuticals. She lives in London (except when she’s in Edinburgh) and she loves to travel the world.

Posted in Throwback Thursday, Uncategorized

Throwback Thursday! Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters.

Hardback with Masters’s original drawings.

I enjoy reading memoirs, especially when they’re innovative and try to show life in a different way. This fantastic biography does both. It’s unique in it’s subject – a homeless man the author meets while volunteering at a charity. It’s also unique because it’s told backwards- a device that has a massive emotional impact. Despite it’s subject, this isn’t a misery memoir. I’m not a fan of them myself, although I accept their therapeutic value, both as catharsis for the writer and as a powerful shared experience for the reader who’s survived similar experiences. I always feel prurient reading such personal and traumatic testimony. Although Stuart’s life is undeniably traumatic I never get that uncomfortable feeling when reading.

Stuart Shorter is a homeless, ex- junkie and possible psychopath. Alexander Masters first met Stuart out begging, then continues to spend time with him after securing a role as a fundraiser for Wintercomfort. His job is to make funding applications to different benefactors to keep the charity providing a day centre for homeless people in Cambridge. Set up in 1989 the charity worked with some of the worst cases living rough, giving them somewhere with supportive staff to spend time in. The founder was hoping to help individuals and reduce anti social behaviour in the city. However, when the main staff members, Ruth and John, were arrested for allowing drugs to change hands on the premises, Masters found himself at the centre of a protest movement. He also had to be more ‘hands on’ with the centre’s many users. This was when he met and formed a tentative friendship with Stuart Shorter. They were paired up to give talks around the country about the values of the charity and the campaign to free Ruth and John. They were the only people who had the time and Masters becomes intrigued with Stuart, who more often than not received a standing ovation after speaking – even if he did let out a stray ‘fuck’ from time to time. Stuart is intrigued to spend time with middle class people. ‘I thought middle class people had something wrong with them’, he says ‘but they’re just ordinary.’

This I think is the key to Master’s tale. Stuart, and some of the situations he finds himself in are genuinely funny. I also felt as if Stuart was looking at me as much as I was looking at him. The jarring contrast of Stuart’s everyday life to that of Masters, or to the reader really does hit hard. He’s a person whose life would be described as chaotic by social services or a mental health team. One or the other have been a constant in Stuart’s life, an amorphous mass of middle class do-gooders he calls ‘The System’. He’s had one service or another observing or judging his life since he was twelve years old. Like most homeless people he despises the system, because agencies that are supposed to support and help those who are struggling, are actually duplicitous. Using their observations to record and relay information to other agencies in a carrot and stick approach. Most people would assume the system is there to help, but it patronises, damages and blames too. There are welfare benefits and back to work schemes, but if the person doesn’t cooperate in come the police and prison. We learn that Stuart has been bounced round the care system, has been placed in a group home run by paedophiles, then placed into a brutal juvenile detention centre when he strays from their control. It’s easy to see why homeless people even become suspicious of things that are supposed to help, because once one part of the system comes in, everything else follows. He knows he was placed with paedophiles unwittingly, but as he points out, that doesn’t really matter when you’re 14 years old with a ‘grown man’s dick in your throat.’

It’s a brutal read in parts, but it has to be. I didn’t realise how dysfunctional the lives of my clients were, until I tried to describe to someone what my job entailed while at a ball. I was starting my career as a mental health support worker and my everyday was working with people like Stuart. I would help them with day to day tasks like shopping and budgeting, cleaning the house, and even just getting out of bed if they were struggling. People at my table couldn’t believe there was a job that entailed these things. It’s when I realised that there was a class of people more successful than me, who never learned about these incredible people and their difficult lives and I was proud to be someone who did know. The book is honest about what it was like to be a friend and supporter of Stuart. Sometimes it was frustrating, moving, devastating and other times it felt incredible. Yet we really hear Stuart’s voice too. Really the book is written by both of them. Masters never takes over or forgets that this is a collaborative effort. It’s not sugar-coated and at the beginning it’s Stuart who first reads Master’s manuscript and says he could do better. He needs to make it more readable, Stuart says, because people should want to read it, like a Tom Clancy novel.

‘Do it the other way round’ he tells Masters, ‘make it more like a murder mystery. What murdered the boy I was? See? Write it backwards’.

The BBC film starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy
Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes.

I love Jojo Moyes. Like many people I was introduced to her writing with the novel Me Before You. I became immediately attached to Louisa Clark, mainly because I felt that Moyes had created her character by stepping inside my head! My husband was paralysed due to MS and when I fell in love with him he was in a similar wheelchair to Will, with the same interests and charismatic spirit. Sadly, I lost him in 2007 and I have read Moyes’ follow up novels and found her depiction of grief and moving forward intelligent, moving and real.

The Giver of Stars is a different type of novel, more historical fiction than romance. It’s setting is the Depression era and a small town in rural Kentucky where the Van Cleeve family own the mines where most people work. Levels of rural poverty are high, African-Americans are still subject to segregation and while middle class women are expected to stay home and know their place, women in poorer families are working hard while trying their best to feed and look after ever-growing families. Into this setting comes Alice, the English bride of the heir to this mining fortune. Bennet Van Cleeve is handsome and considerate, and their marriage seems to start well but once they reach the family home things change. Bennet lives with his father and the death of his mother still hangs heavy over the house, with everything still being run to her exacting standards. Alice finds she has little to do and the house is full of her late mother-in-law’s ornaments and china dolls. She daren’t change anything because Mr Van Cleeve doesn’t like anything to be out of it’s normal place. More worrying is the change in Bennet now they are home, despite showing some desire at the beginning, the proximity to his father seems to be affecting their sex life. Several months down the line their marriage is still unconsummated and Mr Van Cleeve keeps hinting about grandchildren, adding to the pressure she feels.

When a town meeting is called to discuss President Roosevelt’s initiative to get the rural poor reading, Alice senses an opportunity and an outlet for her unspent energy. Margery O’Hare will head up the initiative. She is an outspoken and self-sufficient women who doesn’t listen to the opinion of anyone else, particularly men. She opens a door for Alice to escape the claustrophobic Van Cleeve household, into the wild forests of Kentucky. Alice learns to ride a mule, and along with Margery and two other local women she sets out as a librarian for the Packhorse Library. At first, rural locals are suspicious of an Englishwoman coming to the door offering them books, but soon Alice finds a way in and starts to be trusted. She also finds she likes the open air, the smells of the forest and singing of the birds. She enjoys the freedom of more casual clothes and the camaraderie she is building up with her fellow librarians. She is close to Margery and when she confides about her marriage, Margery loans her a book she has been sneaking out with the novels and recipes. It is an instruction book on married love and Margery has been loaning it to poor women on her rounds who are inundated with children and need educating about sex. Alice takes the book home and a series of events are set in motion that change not only the Van Cleeve household, but the whole town.

Old Mr Van Cleeve is determined to deal with Margery O’Hare and vows to destroy the Packhorse Library altogether. Margery is shrewd and is sure that a devastating flood had more behind it than high rainfall and suspects the mines. However, she has left herself vulnerable with what Van Cleeve sees as evidence of transgressive behaviour: she is exposed as having a relationship out of wedlock, she has hired an African-American woman who used to run the coloured library and she is encouraging townswomen to take control of their own lives. She seems impervious to other people’s disapproval so what lengths will he have to go to in order to stop her? Meanwhile, Alice starts to fall into a friendship with Frank who helps out at the library by chopping wood, putting up shelves and being a general handyman. They bond over poetry and spend hours talking and working side by side in the library building. The other librarians have seen what’s happening, but Alice doesn’t seem to realise this man is falling in love with her.

I loved this book and writing about it again has made me want to reread it. I was on holiday the first time and I stayed in my holiday cottage for two days to read it cover to cover. As always with Moyes, it is beautifully written and researched, with characters I fell in love with. She writes about relationships with so much insight and emotional intelligence. She captures the tensions of the Depression perfectly, depicting the rural poverty where work is scarcer and poor women really take the brunt of the economic conditions. Stuck at home with ever growing families they must have felt desperate for a break. They had land to grow vegetables and keep livestock, but there was still worry over where the next meal was coming from and hoping and praying that there are no more mouths to feed. Just as in the recent pandemic, money worries and pressure meant more domestic abuse. Margery is determined to educate these women to keep themselves safe and prevent their families growing. The town hasn’t kept up with the national shift in women’s attitudes and opportunities. Moyes shows that feminine power is on the rise and the new attitudes towards feminism, as well as marriage and sex, could end up battling against old money and old values. For the women, the poorer families and those residents who are African-American losing the power struggle could be disastrous, and some characters might pay a high price. I was braced for tragedy, but found myself desperate for the progressive characters and attitudes to prevail. It was this struggle that built the tension and kept me reading till 2am! Moyes achieved something real, romantic and historically significant with this novel, but most of all it is simply great storytelling. This book is an absolute must read and I still think it is probably her best novel to date.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Glittering Hour by Iona Grey.

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Netgalley, Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Cliff House by Amanda Jennings.

With the summer holidays upon us already I thought I’d flag up some great holiday reads on Throwback Thursday. I often pick up books about Cornwall as it is a favourite haunt of mine, somewhere I love to go in the summer. It’s a romantic, beautiful setting, but it’s history of struggle between the haves and have nots goes back through the centuries. This tension between Cornwall’s local population and it’s wealthy visitor is just as highly charged today and still resonates through the pages of this book set largely in the 1980s.

Tamsyn is as local as it gets. Her grandfather worked the tin mines, her father was a lifeboat volunteer alongside his work, but her brother is struggling to find work that’s not seasonal. Tamsyn’s attachment to The Cliff House to a beautiful coastal property just outside her village comes to a head in the summer of 1986. To her, the house represents an escape, a lifestyle that’s completely out of range for her and represents the perfect life. It’s also her last link to her father, who brought her here to swim in the pool when he knew the owners were away. Her father felt rules were made to be broken and they both considered it madness to own such a slice of perfection overlooking the sea yet rarely visit except for a few weeks in the summer. Now he’s gone, Tamsyn watches the Cliff House alone and views it’s owners, the Davenports, as the height of sophistication. Their life is a world away from her cramped cottage, her Granfer’s coughing into red spattered handkerchiefs and their constant struggle for money.

Tamsyn’s family are firmly have nots. Her hero father died rescuing a drowning child and now she has to watch her mother’s burgeoning friendship with the man who owns the chip shop. Her brother is unable to find steady work, but finds odd jobs and shifts where he can, to put his contribution under the kettle in the kitchen. Mum works at the chip shop, but is also the Davenport’s cleaner. She keeps their key in the kitchen drawer, but every so often Tamsyn steals it and let’s herself in to admire Eleanor Davenport’s clothing and face creams and Max’s study with a view of the sea. Yet, the family’s real lives are only a figment of her imagination until she meets Edie.

Edie Davenport is a disaffected teenager with heavy eye make-up, black clothing and a love of The Cure. The two girls hit it off after bumping into each other on the cliff and Tamsyn learns that Edie has been expelled from her exclusive girl’s school. She has a spiky relationship with her Mum and as readers we can see why, but Tamsyn seems oblivious to the problems of the family; a family that the reader can see is already disintegrating. Max hides away writing and is accused of having multiple affairs by his wife. Eleanor is an alcoholic, on medication for depression and seemingly paranoid about her husband’s behaviour. As the summer goes on, their relationships worsen and we get a sense that the Davenports are the worst kind of rich people; to quote from The Great Gatsby, they are people who are careless of the lives of others. The summer party shows the couple at their decadent worst and it is fitting that the final acts of the novel occur surrounded by the detritus of that night.

Tamsyn wishes her mum were more like Eleanor at times. She thinks Eleanor is so kind by helping with her make-up, painting her nails and even letting her borrow her clothes, but these are easy gestures when money isn’t an issue. We can we that Eleanor never sees Tamsyn as an equal to her own daughter. The scene where Tamsyn realises that she hasn’t been invited to the Davenport’s party, but is instead expected to work in the kitchen, is particularly painful. I found myself very drawn in with Tamsyn’s narrative – possibly because I was an awkward teenager from a poor background at a school full of middle class kids. I longed to have the things they did, the fashionable school shoes and bags instead of the clunky, unattractive ones that were built to last. However, was this familiarity and empathy for her emotional state, blinding me to the faults in her character. It’s clear she’s becoming obsessed with the house and family, but could I be underestimating just how attached she is to a home she could never own. As Edie meets Tamsyn’s brother Jago and another family member falls under the Davenport’s spell, Tamsyn’s jealousy becomes obvious. Is she jealous that he’s taking Edie from her, or is Edie taking up the time she might have spent with her brother? There is a creeping sense that from here, these entangled lives and simmering tensions will reach a crescendo – rather like Jago points out, the seventh wave is always the largest and comes crashing towards the cliff, drowning the rocks down below.

The crescendo is certainly explosive and in the quiet aftermath, true characters and motivations are revealed. Some characters surprised me completely, and I found myself wanting to read their sections again. Would they read differently now I knew the truth and the eventual outcome? I think the author was very cleverly keeping some characters deliberately understated, leaving the more volatile and explosive characters driving the surface narrative. I was left with questions around how we feel and act once we get what we’ve always wanted? Do we bask in the glory and celebration of the win, or are we left haunted by what we chose to do in order to succeed? Is our victory the fulfilment we’ve been chasing or is it largely empty? Ultimately, as a reader, it made me think about the trust we place in the narrators of a story and how effective it can be when we find out our trust in some characters was completely misplaced.

Published by HQ 7th May 2018

Meet the Author

On her Amazon author page, Amanda Jennings says she loves anything with a dark vein and secrets which affect families. Her books tend to fall into the psychological suspense category. Her books, The Storm, In Her Wake and The Cliff House are all set in Cornwall: Newlyn, St Ives, and Sennen respectively. Her mother’s side of the family is from Penzance and she has strong memories of long summers spent there as a child. She is happiest when beside the sea, but is also fond of a mountain, especially when it’s got snow on it. When she’s not beside the sea or up a mountain, she’s sitting at her desk, you can usually hear her chatting on the radio as a regular guest on BBC Berkshire’s weekly Book Club, or loitering on Twitter (@mandajjennings), Facebook and Instagram (@amandajennings1). She loves meeting with and engaging with readers, whether that’s on social media, or at libraries, book clubs and literary festivals. You can find more information on her webpage: http://www.amandajennings.co.uk

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Breath, Eyes, Memory from Edwidge Danticat


At the age of twelve, Sophie Caco is sent from her impoverished Haitian village to New York to be reunited with a mother she barely remembers. There she discovers secrets that no child shouldever know, and a legacy of shame that can be healed only when she returns to Haiti – to the women who first reared her. What ensues is a passionate journey through a landscape charged with the supernatural and scarred by political violence.

In her stunning literary debut, Danticat evokes the wonder, terror, and heartache of her native Haiti – and the enduring strength of Haiti’s women – with vibrant imagery and narrative grace that bear witness to her people’s suffering and courage.

Reading this incredible debut novel at university sparked a lifelong interest in the history of Haiti and its people. The republic shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic and despite only occupying three eighths of the island, it has a staggering population of 11.4 million making it the most populated island in the Caribbean Sea. However, there is a huge Haitian diaspora with many residents relocating to the USA, probably due to the fact that Haiti has the lowest Human Development Index in the world. The indigenous Taino people seem to have been the original residents of the island, but the first European settlers landed in the 1400’s claiming the island for Spain and it remained part of the Spanish Empire until the 17th Century. The French then laid claim to the most westerly point of the island and they brought the first slaves to Haiti for labour on their new sugar plantations. It has the incredible honour of being the first island in the Americas to abolish slavery after a successful slave revolt led by Toussaint Louverture and eventually declared sovereignty on Jan 1st 1894 under his successor Dessalines. As the country slowly united there were attempts to declare the whole island as Haiti, but eventually they recognised the Dominican Republic as a separate state. Haiti has been notoriously unstable due to crippling debt owed to France, the dearth of resources left by the French and Spanish, as well as political volatility. The USA took control of the island in the early twentieth century, until Haitian leader Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier took power in 1956 and it is this period that is explored in the novel. Papa Doc’s reign and the following rule of his son known as ‘Baby Doc’, was characterized by state-sanctioned violence, against any political opposition and it’s own civilians, corruption, and economic stagnation. It was only after 1986 that Haiti began attempting to establish a more democratic political system.

Danticat’s story is about the women of Haiti, particularly the three generations of Sophie’s family, and how this period of history impacted upon the women of Haiti. Sophie has been brought up by her Tante Atie and this is a beautifully warm relationship that really grounds Sophie in her Haitian identity. They are also incredibly close to her Grandma Ifé who tells Sophie stories passed down orally about people who could carry the sky on their heads. Atie is beautifully conveyed as a loving but slightly abrupt woman, conflicted between the needs created by her own motherlessness and her love for this child who has been left behind. Both Sophie and Atie have a void that each other can fill, but Atie is honour bound not to replace Sophie’s mother and to be sure that her mother’s wishes are carried out. This comes to a head one Mother’s Day when Sophie takes a Mother’s Day card home from school clearly wanting to give it to her aunt, not the woman living thousands of miles away who she’s never met. Danticat is very adept at evoking her homeland with recipes and descriptions of mouth watering food. It’s not been a wealthy upbringing, but it is rich in stories, colour, warmth and nourishment. So when Sophie is sent to live with her mother in New York City the contrast is stark and confusing. Whereas Tante Atie seems comfortable in her skin, Sophie’s mother is shown to diet and use skin lightening creams, showing an obvious discomfort about her body and possibly even her identity as a black Haitian woman.

Men are largely absent in this novel, but their impact is enormous. Maxine lives in an apartment with her boyfriend and Sophie hears her mother’s nightmares through the wall. Left alone for long periods, Sophie forms a friendship with a male neighbour in the apartment block. This seems to trigger Maxine and the truth of Sophie’s family starts to come to light, as her mother becomes obsessed with protecting her. She begins the horrific practice of ‘testing’ her daughters virginity – something apparently passed down from her own mother – causing shame, confusion and trauma. Sophie learns she is a child of rape and we travel back to the Haiti of Maxine’s teenage years where she is spotted by one of the ‘Tonton Macoutes’ – Papa Doc’s foot soldiers and the bogeymen of every Haitian child’s nightmares. He drags Maxine into the sugar cane field and assaults her. It will take a return to Haiti, for both Sophie and her Mother, to bring about healing. Danticat beautifully portrays inter generational trauma and the oppression of women that’s caused by the patriarchal system, but enacted by mothers on their daughters. Daughters who were virgins kept their value in the marriage market, just as in other cultures the men want wives who have undergone FGM. It takes rebellion and refusal from the women to create change. Sophie must also face the the ghosts of slavery, represented by the sugar cane her ancestors were brought from Africa to cut. Danticat paints a vivid, colourful but painful picture of a country created by trauma that is still felt many centuries later. She explores how each new generation must find some way to live with that past, whether by leaving the country of their birth for something different or by staying to face the past and break the chain of hurt each generation has passed on to the next. This is an emotional, evocative and difficult read in parts, but is a beautiful debut from an author whose love of her homeland shines through.

This edition published by Abacus 7th March 1996

Meet the Author

Edwidge Danticat picture from Fresh Air Archive

Edwidge Danticat was born in Haiti in 1969 and came to the United States when she was twelve years old. She graduated from Barnard College and received an M.F.A. from Brown University. She made an auspicious debut with her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, and followed it with the story collection Krik? Krak!, whose National Book Award nomination made Danticat the youngest nominee ever. She lives in New York.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

I’ll own up to the fact that this beautiful book remained on my shelves for about five years before I read it. I’d bought it while doing my degree in literature, so I was already reading five books a week and although I loved the blurb I just couldn’t get into such a weighty book. I remember picking it up and reading the opening paragraph, then slotting it back on the shelf a few times too. When I finally did read it I was absolutely enchanted and amazed by the incredibly detailed world the author had created.

The year is 1806. centuries have passed since practical magicians faded into the nation’s past. But scholars of this glorious history discover that one remains: the reclusive Mr Norrell hoards books of magic for his library and can perform incredible and unexpected feats of magic. He is approached by Sir Walter Pole whose wife has died and he begs Norrell to revive her. Despite his scruples about old magic he knows this might be the only way to bring this beautiful young woman back to life. So, he is tempted by a richly dressed gentleman fairy, who agrees to help Norrell on two conditions. First he would like a keepsake of the lady and takes a finger which he keeps in a jewellery box. Secondly, if he is to give life back to her, it seems only fair that he should have half of it. Norrell does a quick calculation and decides it will not matter to have a few years shaved off her life. However, as Mr Norrell himself knows, fairies can be tricky, deceptive little creatures and this one may have ulterior motives. After this amazing feat of magic MrNorrell becomes the talk of London and finds himself working for the government, conjuring illusions to aid England in their war with the French. However, Norrell would still like to keep magic controlled, only performed by serious and studious men. Constantly, at the back of his mind, is the bargain he’s made with the fairy creature. Can he be trusted and will the magic that brought Lady Pole back to life work as planned?

Marc Warren and Eddie Marsan in the BBC adaptation.

Norrell becomes challenged by the emergence of another magician: the brilliant novice Jonathan Strange. Young, handsome and daring, Strange is the very antithesis of Norrell. He only begins to study magic because he is in love and she loves him back, but there is a very stern father in the way, who does not like Jonathon. He thinks he’s an idle layabout with a rich father, but no real prospects. Unless he commits himself to a profession, he will not give permission for Jonathon to marry his daughter. Jonathon Strange finds he is surprisingly good at magic and he’s certainly a showman, enjoying the performance element of magic. As word spreads of this new magician on the block, Mr Norrell becomes concerned. In a bid to contain the situation he asks to meet Jonathon Strange and offers him an apprenticeship. This will control Jonathon’s wild exhibitions of magical power. He sets him to studying, but Jonathon is increasingly frustrated by Norrell’s unwillingness to perform magic. A row erupts and so begins a dangerous battle between these two great men which overwhelms the war between England and France. Each man’s obsessions and secret dabblings with the dark arts are going to cause more trouble than they can imagine, while all the time Norrell’s dabble with the fairy gentleman and old magic is coming back to haunt him.

It’s really hard to explain the richness of the detail in this beautifully written novel. There’s the amazing historical background with 18th Century society vividly brought to life and the rural home of Jonathon Strange contrasting sharply with London society. There’s the city of York, where an incredible scene in the Minster involves Mr Norrell bringing all the statues to life in front of a terrified magician’s society. Of course the illusions are spectacular, but so is the fashion and just wait until you enter the dreams of our poor resurrected Lady Pole! The characterisation is playful and humorous, with both magicians thought of as great men but each ridiculously comical in their own way. Mr Strange is like an overexcited puppy who has just found a tennis ball and might trample the whole garden in his exuberance. Mr Norrell on the other hand, is like a squirrel gathering nuts for winter, collecting all the magic and storing it in a safe place where no one else will find it. He is fussy and persnickety in his manner, but can also be rude and abrupt with people. This is where Mr Strange excels, he is handsome and charming, making his magic appear to be an innate talent rather than the result of studying dusty books. We go from rural England, to London, to France and Venice with every setting evocative and rich. I loved incidental characters like the street magician who plies his trade in a rather tongue in cheek way, using props that Mr Norrell finds deplorable. Mr Norrell’s servant is also a fascinating puzzle. I was truly sucked in by the story of Stephen, a servant in the household where Mr Norrell dabbles in fairy magic. The way he is slowly sucked into something he doesn’t understand is incredibly well done, from the bell ringing that only he can hear and the mysterious guest upstairs who he didn’t see arrive. Stephen serves with pride and is proud of the place he has reached in life as a black man in 18th Century society, but promises of greatness from the new guest appeal to his need to be respected. Why is he offering these opportunities and why is Stephen so incredibly tired all the time? It’s as if he hasn’t slept at all.

TV Tie-In Edition showing Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan as Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell

The novel explores the 18th Century preoccupations with reason and madness, but also with classification and includes long academic style footnotes referencing an entire fictional body of literature on magic. Last year Collins released her second novel Piranesi, a full seventeen years after Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell. It had taken her almost ten years in her spare time to write this debut novel, which isn’t surprising given the level of detail. It was revealed recently that she struggles with chronic fatigue syndrome and having experienced this level of fatigue for many years as part of my MS, I can only marvel that she managed to write such a substantial debut. However, if Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell had been the only novel she wrote in her lifetime, I would still think of her as a genius, because this novel is an absolute masterpiece.

Showing the original editions of the novel

Meet The Author

Susanna Clarke

Susanna Mary Clarke was born 1 November 1959 in Nottingham and is an English author known for her debut novel Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell (2004), a Hugo award winning historical novel. Clarke began Jonathan Strange in 1993 and worked on it during her spare time. For the next decade, she published short stories from the Strange universe, but it was not until 2003 that Bloomsbury bought her manuscript and began work on its publication. The novel became a best-seller.

Two years later, she published a collection of her short stories The Ladies of Grace Adieu (2006). Both Clarke’s debut novel and her short stories are set in a magical England and are written in a pastiche of the styles of 19th-century writers such as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. While Strange focuses on the relationship of two men, Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell, the stories in Ladies focus on the power women gain through magic.

Clarke’s second novel, Piranesi was published in September 2020, winning the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat.

I come from a place where breath, eyes and memory are one, a place from which you carry your past like the hair on your head.

I was first introduced to Danticat’s writing by the tutor of my American Literature module at university. This was her debut novel and it sparked a fascination with Haiti, somewhere that always seemed tragic, but also strangely magical. This book took those childhood impressions and put flesh on their bones. It showed the human cost of such a chequered history, particularly for women and it’s characters have stayed with me for a long time. I think it’s also a wonderful depiction of generational trauma, emotional healing and counselling’s place in that difficult process.

We follow a young woman called Sophie Caco, who lives in Haiti as a child with her Tante Attie. Then at the age of twelve is relocated to New York to live with her mother, with whom she needs to forge a relationship. Sophie doesn’t want to go, but has no choice. Up till this point Tante Attie has been the only mother she knows. Her mother left Haiti long ago with the ghosts of the past at her heels. Sophie doesn’t know what life will be like when she gets there, but she is anxious about the journey, immigration and what it will be like going to school with children who speak a different language. Sophie will need to think on her feet and adapt to the new way of life quickly. What she finds though, is that it’s hard to escape Haiti. It does not let go of its daughters and her mother suffers mood swings and nightmares linked to her past there. Generational pain and trauma are played out in this relationship until Sophie realises they must face Haiti together -aunts, mothers and daughters – if they are ever to break the cycle .

I loved Danticat’s way of comparing these two very different places and their contrast with what’s going on deep inside these characters. Haiti is a place of deep sadness, particularly for Sophie’s mum. For those who don’t know it’s political and social history, Haiti covers half of the island it shares with the Dominican Republic. For many years both countries were colonised by the Spanish, but in 1697 after disputing territory the Western side of the island was ceded to the French. However, unlike the Dominican, Haiti was stripped of all it’s natural resources, even down to the island’s trees which were cut down for logging and to make way for planting sugar cane, leaving the island prone to landslides and unprotected against tropical storms. All this left a rather bare country, peopled by slaves, harvesting the cane that would ship to Britain as the final part of the ‘slave triangle’. During the French Revolution, the slaves revolted under the leadership of Toussaint Louverture, and freed themselves. They were the first of the colonies to successfully liberate themselves and become a state on 1st January 1804. Whilst it was always politically turbulent, Haiti entered a reign of terror in 1956 under the autocratic government of Papa ‘Doc’ Duvalier and then his son until 1986; the period was characterized by state-sanctioned violence against the opposition and civilians, corruption, and economic stagnation. After 1986, Haiti began attempting to establish a more democratic political system. Yet the violence of the past thirty years left a legacy of pain in the people of Haiti, especially it’s women, for whom a history of sexual violence carried out by Papa Doc’s henchmen the ‘tonton macoutes’ had left them controlled and terrified.

Such a history leaves a legacy of rage and deep, deep sadness in the people. Yet Danticat depicts a vibrant culture filled colour, music, and incredible food. Tante Attie is an absolute rock of a woman. She’s a storyteller, passing down women’s stories and history to other woman. When we are without power, education and means we have to find other ways of recording our history – in the clothes we wear, the food we cook and the songs we sing. Attie is the keeper of her family’s history, but there are secrets she has kept, only because it is not her story to tell. It takes a departure from all that she knows for Sophie to truly know her family history and a practice past down through the generations which is horrifying to read. When women are mere commodities, to be owned by men, there are certain things that affect their value. Controlling the ways women behave is always set out by men, but often policed by other women.

True healing can only begin when we stop running from our past, instead we must confront it and begin to process any trauma we have experienced. Sophie’s mum must return to Haiti to do this. Meanwhile Sophie’s demons come calling when she gives birth to her daughter and actively chooses change. She must confide in her husband and seeks therapy to come to terms with her trauma. Only then can mother and daughter truly get to know one another. Despite it’s difficult subject matter I always feel that it’s a hopeful book. It seems to explore a psychological outlook I have held for a long time; anyone can create change in their life. Think how powerful and freeing that statement is. It’s up to us. This is a powerful look at a country that’s often seen as unlucky. Here we can see why and how that history has been constructed, largely by men and colonisers. Through this family of women we see a different Haiti. The violence and pain are real, but so is the beauty, the healing and the love.

There is always a place where, if you listen closely in the night, you will hear a mother telling a story and at the end of the tale she will ask you this question: “Ou libéré? Are you free my daughter?” My grandmother quickly pressed her fingers over my lips, “Now” she said “you will know how to answer.”

Meet The Author.

Edwidge Danticat is the author of several books, including Breath, Eyes, Memory, an Oprah Book Club selection, Krik? Krak!, a National Book Award finalist, The Farming of Bones, The Dew Breaker, Create Dangerously, Claire of the Sea Light, and Everything Inside. She is also the editor of The Butterfly’s Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States, Best American Essays 2011, Haiti Noir and Haiti Noir 2. She has written seven books for children and young adults, Anacaona, Behind the Mountains, Eight Days, The Last Mapou, Mama’s Nightingale, Untwine, My Mommy Medicine, as well as a travel narrative, After the Dance. Her memoir, Brother, I’m Dying, was a 2007 finalist for the National Book Award and a 2008 winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography. She is a 2009 MacArthur fellow, a 2018 Ford Foundation “The Art of Change” fellow, and the winner of the 2018 Neustadt International Prize and the 2019 St. Louis Literary Award.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Melmoth by Sarah Perry.

‘Oh my friend, won’t you take my hand – I’ve been so lonely!’

This week for Throwback Thursday – which has rolled onto Friday since I’m in a remote part of Wales with poor internet access – I’m going to take a spooky turn and tell you about one of the most terrifying and gloriously gothic novels I have ever read. Melmoth the Witness is a figure from mythology, or is she? Known as one of the woman who witnessed the tomb on the morning that Christ resurrected, she is now an eternal traveller. Wandering the centuries she lures people into following her, whereupon they too become damned to an eternity of itinerant, solitary wandering.

Set in the beautifully, atmospheric city of Prague we meet a woman called Helen who finds a manuscript. It tells of a winter in Prague, with all the darkly gothic details of cobbled streets, shadowy corners, and jackdaws patrolling the city walls. One winter night in Prague, Helen Franklin meets her friend Karel on the street. Agitated and enthralled, he tells her he has come into possession of a mysterious old manuscript, filled with personal testimonies that take them from 17th-century England to wartime Czechoslovakia, the tropical streets of Manila, and 1920s Turkey. All of them tell of being followed by a tall, silent woman in black, bearing an unforgettable message. Helen reads its contents with intrigue and some scepticism, but everything in her life is about to change. We follow Helen’s story, but within it are all the other stories and lives, creating a Russian doll style tale, but where each incarnation has the same sense of menace and impending doom.

This is based on an 1820 novel by Charles Robert Maturin called Melmoth the Wanderer, that very few people will have read. I studied a wonderful module at university entitled The Gothic, Grotesque and the Monstrous and I know from experience that early gothic novels can be long winded and difficult to read. What was found terrifying in 1820 does not necessarily translate today. In the original novel, Melmoth is a man who makes an almost Faustian pact, in this version she is one of the women who visits Christ’s tomb. She could have borne witness to the resurrection, but lied and is now damned to wander the world forever. She’s like a Sybil, heralding evil and disastrous events, but never listened to and doomed to witness the worst humans can do to each other over and over. I love the ambiguity of her pleas to ‘take her hand and follow her’ because she’s lonely, is she friend or foe? Her pleas are all the more tempting because she’s a woman and we associate that with gentleness, nurturing and perhaps even needing protection. There’s also the element of seduction and persuasion that might make a gentleman take her lonely hand. I think Sarah Perry made this choice because of those qualities. How much more effective could a woman be in gathering souls?

I love how Prague is turned into a haunted city and it’s history certainly might have drawn the wanderer to it’s cobbles. The city is the book’s second biggest character, dark and mysterious with magical landmarks like the astronomical clock. Perry’s descriptions of night in the city are haunting, and if I ever visit the capital I might well look over my shoulder when out in the evening in the same way I do in Venice. It is the perfect backdrop for the modern section of the novel, with every inch of the city steeped in history and the endless pull between light and darkness. Perry brings to life fears we have all had, as Helen draws the curtains at night, because she fears looking up at the window and seeing that lonely, beseeching face. The most terrifying thought is that Melmoth bears witness to anything we have ever done, including those awful things we hope no one witnessed or found out about.

I think an important aspect of the novel for me is something any sort of ‘listener’ has to think about. It’s the toll witnessing takes on a person. This book is brief compared to the original novel, but still takes in the breadth of the horrors experienced in Prague throughout the 20th Century. It made me imagine being present to witness the trenches of WW1, the Holocaust, and so many other atrocities and personal tragedies. I’ve worked in mental health for twenty years and I’m taking a break at the moment to study. I know the emotional toll that listening to people’s stories can take on the listener or observer. For Melmoth, this would be so much worse because she has to sit back and witness all of humanity’s horrors. Even worse, she has no power to change anything, but is doomed merely to witness. No wonder she wants other souls to witness with her, she must feel the weight of the horrors yet to come.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.

Have you ever wished that you had a chance to do something all over again? To iron out the mistakes or maybe create a different outcome. To maybe get a second chance at life, right from the start; a life with a blank slate again. What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?

Life After Life is one of my favourite novels of all time, alongside its sequel A God in Ruins. I loved her Jackson Brodie novels and Behind the Scenes at the Museum, but this novel is something extra special. I’d never read anything like it outside of sci-fi novels.

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.

Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century again and again. With wit and compassion, Kate Atkinson finds warmth even in life’s bleakest moments, and shows an extraordinary ability to evoke the past. Here she is at her most profound and inventive, in a novel that celebrates the best and worst of ourselves.

Atkinson does something profoundly special with this novel. It could have been a perfectly acceptable novel if it simply explored this baby girl’s lives from a personal and family perspective. However, Atkinson weaves Ursula’s personal story in with the state of flux in the early Twentieth Century. She takes in the demise of such upper middle class family’s like the Todd’s, from changes to social mobility, women’s roles becoming more prominent, and the loss of male members of the family due to WW1 and WW2. She explores the descent into WW2 and women’s roles in places like the war office and the secret services. In the multiple lives Ursula lives she can explore whether or not war could have been avoided, and what role she could have played in that mission. There’s so much going on that I can understand some reviewers finding it complicated to follow. The trick is to simply go with it. Eventually Ursula has longer lives where these issues can be explored in depth.

I fell in love with the Todd family and their genteel English way of life that can be summed up in a single phrase; ‘one does as one must, and then has tea’. All the female characters, including Sylvie and Pamela, are well fleshed out and it’s interesting to see what different paths their own lives took because of Ursula. I also had an incredible soft spot for Teddy – and loved that he got his own story in her follow up novel A God In Ruins. However, it is Ursula who holds our attention most and the endlessly inventive ways she dies in childbirth, from Spanish Flu, from drowning or by murder. She always has very strong perceptions, and experiences strong episodes of déja vu – although she doesn’t know she’s been here before, it seems she has gained some gifts from her other lives. There must be some residual wisdom from times when she’s been a mother or not, a wife or a mistress, someone who leads a quiet life in the country or goes to Germany and changes the course of history.

Atkinson’s sense of place is incredible. There are the lazy summers at the Todd family home, lounging in the garden or the kids exploring freely, climbing trees in the idyllic countryside. Her scenes in London are incredibly evocative, especially her descriptions based in historical fact. In one section their maid goes to a huge gathering in the capital to celebrate the end of WW1 and brings Spanish Flu back to the house. Her description of the London Blitz brings home how devastating and terrifying it must have been. We have a unique perspective as readers, we have an overview of every life Ursula lives, while she only knows the one she’s living in. Of course there are some events that repeat in every life – her birthday in 1910 is replayed twelve times – but these are important moments, where even the most subtle difference can send Ursula hurtling towards a different path in life. The novel evoked several other novels for me. The scenes at home with family in the early Twentieth Century reminded me of the long, languid summer of L.P.Hartley’s The Go-Between. Scenes in London during WW2, and the concept of written lives versus the truth, reminded me of Atonement by Ian McEwan. I never became bored of going back to the beginning, but the other characters in Ursula’s life are so strong and well-written, it seems odd that once she dies, they no longer exist either. The author explores the dynamics of family, class, and how that changes so much at this point in history. There’s also grief – for other people, a way of life, a loss of innocence – and how that affects characters differently. I think this is an astonishing novel, beautifully written and managing to be both playful in structure but profoundly moving at the same time.

Next week for Throwback Thursday I will be looking at Kate Atkinson’s sequel to Life After Life. A God in Ruins overlaps with Ursula’s story in places, but is more focused on her little brother Teddy.

Meet The Author

Kate Atkinson won the Whitbread (now Costa) Book of the Year prize with her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

Her four bestselling novels featuring former detective Jackson Brodie became the BBC television series Case Histories, starring Jason Isaacs.Her 2013 novel Life After Life won the South Bank Sky Arts Literature Prize, was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize, and voted Book of the Year for the independent booksellers associations on both sides of the Atlantic. It also won the Costa Novel Award, as did her subsequent novel A God in Ruins (2015).