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

Nothing Else by Louise Beech.

Louise Beech’s new novel, pulls us into the emotional and traumatic life of Heather, a pianist who lives in Hull. She teaches and plays in local bars, then relaxes in her harbour front flat looking out to the Humber Estuary and the North Sea. Heather has a quiet life and quite a solitary one too. She has no family and relies more on her strong connections with friends. In fact it is one of them that encourages her to try out for a job on a cruise ship, something she would never have imagined doing. She would be scheduled to play in different bars on the ship through the day, but as her friend says, she can enjoy the facilities and gets to travel. This particular cruise is stopping in New York then on to the Caribbean before doing it all again in reverse. There’s something lonely and a bit melancholy about her and we learn that Heather and her sister have grown up in the care system, after their parents were killed. Music was the girl’s escape, once their mother had convinced their father it wouldn’t hurt for them to learn on the piano they were given. They both had an aptitude for music, but it was Heather’s salvation, the only place she could fully express her emotions. With their father unwilling to pay for lessons, their mother secretly sent them to piano teacher Mr Hibbard who lived a few doors away. When their parents died, both girls were taken into a children’s home together, but one morning her sister Harriet was taken to see the staff in the office and Heather never saw her again. She could only hope that a kind family had adopted Harriet, but for some reason hadn’t been able to take her too. When the girls had most needed to express themselves they would play a duet they had composed called Nothing Else. It was this piece of music that stayed with Heather all her life, instantly taking her back to the piano and her little sister.

Heather’s chapters follow her current life and the piano job she applies for on a cruise ship. Here and there the author takes us back in time to her childhood, where their father was a controlling and violent man and Heather felt responsible for keeping her little sister Harriet safe. Like all children who have traumatic home lives, Heather had become attuned to the slightest hint of tension. She knew when her father was going to explode and on those nights where the sounds downstairs were terrifying, Heather would keep Harriet out of earshot and they felt safe when they were tucked up in just one bed. She was also aware that their father preferred cute and cheeky Harriet, so knew to stay quiet and keep her head down. These sections from the past are traumatic and very moving. The author maintains the tension in these flashbacks, until we too are on edge, always waiting for something to happen. The author moves deftly between the experiences of Heather as a child in the middle of this situation, and a grown up Heather commenting on what happened with the clarity and insight of an adult. There were brilliant present day sections onboard the cruise ship where Heather befriends a writer who is also working aboard, teaching sessions in creative writing. Heather joins her morning sessions and finds them much deeper than she expected. I could recognise this from the writing therapy sessions I’ve facilitated – the prompt is always just a starting point and eventually you start writing what you need to write about. This definitely happens to Heather and is one way of processing the care records she applied for before the trip, dipping into them little by little, like a reluctant bather dipping her toe into the cold, deep water. She doesn’t want to be overwhelmed.

Harriet has her own section of the book, again split into her current life and the past she doesn’t fully understand. Now living in America, Harriet has a daughter whose left home and case of empty nest syndrome. Her flashbacks into the past remind us that Heather’s story is only part of this family’s history and Harriet may have a very different tale to tell. We learn most when their narratives overlap and we see a subtly different side of the events Heather describes, like two sides of the same coin. Again, it’s psychologically very clever and gives the perspective of the younger sibling, the one who is cared for and shown love by her big sister. I was longing to know what had happened at the children’s home. Where did Harriet go and how was she persuaded to go without her sister? Thanks to all of these questions and my curiosity over whether the sisters would ever meet again, I was totally gripped by the story and immersed into the worlds of these sisters. I enjoyed their different characters, developed by their separate upbringings, as well as their different experiences with their parents due to their ages. There are secrets that neither child was aware of, so there are some rewarding revelations to be found. I was eager to know if the sisters were somehow able to find each other. Mainly though, I was moved to read their tales of childhood trauma and wanted to understand the adults they became in light of that experience. Which of their characteristics could be explained by the past? There’s a cautiousness in Heather, because her ability to trust others is affected, leading to a quiet and lonely life. It was lovely to watch the cruise atmosphere, and proximity to others, forcing her into being sociable and to make friends. There’s a sense that she’s coming alive in these moments, which felt hopeful and uplifting. This was an addictive read that beautifully captured how childhood trauma and it’s effects can follow us into adulthood. The author showed, so beautifully, that it’s only by sharing and in this case, playing out that experience that we begin to heal.

Published by Orenda Books 23rd June 2022

Meet The Author

All six of Louise Beech’s books have been digital bestsellers. Her novels have been a Guardian Readers’ Choice, shortlisted for Not the Booker Prize, and shortlisted for the RNA Most Popular Romantic Novel Award. Her short fiction has won the Glass Woman Prize, the Eric Hoffer Award for Prose, and the Aesthetica Creative Works competition, as well as shortlisting for the Bridport Prize twice. Louise lives with her husband on the outskirts of Hull. Follow her on Twitter @louisewriter

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 Netgalley

Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow

Joan can’t change her family’s past.
But she can create her future.

Joan was only a child the last time she visited Memphis. She doesn’t remember the bustle of Beale Street on a summer’s night. She doesn’t know she’s as likely to hear a gunshot ring out as the sound of children playing. How the smell of honeysuckle is almost overwhelming as she climbs the porch steps to the house where her mother grew up. But when the front door opens, she does remember Derek.

This house full of history is home to the women of the North family. They are no strangers to adversity; resilience runs in their blood. Fifty years ago, Hazel’s husband was lynched by his all-white police squad, yet she made a life for herself and her daughters in the majestic house he built for them. August lives there still, running a salon where the neighbourhood women gather. And now this house is the only place Joan has left. It is in sketching portraits of the women in her life, her aunt and her mother, the women who come to have their hair done, the women who come to chat and gossip, that Joan begins laughing again, begins living.

Memphis is a celebration of the enduring strength of female bonds, of what we pass down, from mother to daughter. Epic in scope yet intimate in detail, it is a vivid portrait of three generations of a Southern black family, as well as an ode to the city they call home.

There’s a point in this book where Miriam remembers her mother Hazel waking her up, leaving her little sister August asleep in bed, then she fixed her a breakfast fit for a king. There were green tomatoes and grits, spicy pork and scrambled eggs, and they were chatting like a normal day. Miriam was distracted by the delicious meal and didn’t notice her mother running the tap. Then suddenly she threw a whole jug of cold water over her daughter. Miriam thought her mother had lost her mind. All she said was ‘you ready’ and that afternoon took her to her first activist’s sit in. Miriam’s experience is similar to the one I had reading this incredible book. I’d just settled into the story when suddenly something was revealed that was so momentous I would have to take a moment, blind-sided by what had just happened. Memphis is the home of three generations of African-American women from grandmother Hazel, her two daughters Miriam and August, and Miriam’s daughters Myra and Joan. Their personal lives are set against a backdrop of American history from the early 1950s through to the 2000s, taking in world-changing events like the Kennedy assassinations and 9/11. Told in sections from each woman’s viewpoint, Stringfellow takes us back and forth across the 20th Century. Each step back in time informs the present, showing us where Joan has come from and each day forward moves Joan into her future.

I loved the earliest years where grandmother Hazel meets Myron and they fall in love. Their courtship is so sweet and has an innocence about it and I think that’s what makes later events such a shock. The fact that Myron has come so far and become part of law enforcement in those times feels like such an incredible achievement. Your fellow officers are supposed to be your brothers, but despite working alongside him, this all white squad don’t count him as one of them. We don’t see the lynching, but we don’t need to. Our place is with the women of this story. Hazel is nine months pregnant, filled with grief, anger and a frustration borne from knowing that whatever you achieve, however loud you scream, your achievement and voice mean nothing. The author managed to deeply touch me with that sense of powerlessness. There’s such a maelstrom of emotions when she gives birth: knowing this little girl will never know her daddy; wishing Myron was there to support her; the fear of knowing she’s alone as a parent and her girls depend on her; the joy of this new life coming into the world. These women feel so real because Stringfellow cleverly evokes the complexity of human emotions, it’s rare that we only feel one at a time. In grief we can still feel moments of joy and even if we are happy, there can be moments of doubt or fear. Such moments of inner conflict follow us into the second generation of women, sisters Miriam and August. When Miriam escapes domestic violence, returning to the house Myron built in Memphis, she’s torn in two directions. She really has nowhere else to go and she longs for home and the consolation and support of her sister, but Joan has a moment of recognition. Have they been here before? The truth is they have.

The women in this family are strong and they need to be. Some of what happens to them over their three generations is terrible and you will probably have a good cry like I did. I was touched by what Hazel, Miriam and Joan go through, but there were also quieter struggles that touched me such as August’s decision to care for her mother, the loneliness she must feel with both her mum and sister gone, the fear she feels for her son Derek, growing up as a black man in a place where shootings and gangs are commonplace. Her mixed feelings of guilt, anger and love that come with being a mother of a son who does things that are unforgivable. I also loved the camaraderie of her salon and the strength she gets from the women who are her customers and her community. I was touched by her ability to take pleasure and solace when it’s offered, despite it not being the love and companionship she craves – from the women in her life. The pain these women go through makes the good times even more enjoyable and I really felt the joy and relief when they came out of a tough time. The author manages to capture that sense of peace I have seen in my counselling room, when the long held fear, anger and shame that comes from trauma is finally let go. That need for revenge finally silenced. The chance for joy and celebration to fill the void left behind and communing with others who know your journey.

“𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘧𝘳𝘢𝘮𝘦𝘥 𝘳𝘦𝘤𝘰𝘳𝘥 𝘤𝘰𝘷𝘦𝘳𝘴 𝘰𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘸𝘢𝘭𝘭𝘴 𝘴𝘩𝘰𝘰𝘬 𝘸𝘪𝘵𝘩 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘭𝘢𝘶𝘨𝘩𝘵𝘦𝘳. 𝘓𝘢𝘶𝘨𝘩𝘵𝘦𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘸𝘢𝘴, 𝘪𝘯 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘰𝘧 𝘪𝘵𝘴𝘦𝘭𝘧, 𝘉𝘭𝘢𝘤𝘬. 𝘓𝘢𝘶𝘨𝘩𝘵𝘦𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘤𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘥 𝘣𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘬 𝘨𝘭𝘢𝘴𝘴. 𝘓𝘢𝘶𝘨𝘩𝘵𝘦𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘤𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘥 𝘶𝘱𝘭𝘪𝘧𝘵 𝘢 𝘧𝘢𝘮𝘪𝘭𝘺. 𝘈 𝘤𝘢𝘤𝘰𝘱𝘩𝘰𝘯𝘺 𝘰𝘧 𝘉𝘭𝘢𝘤𝘬 𝘧𝘦𝘮𝘢𝘭𝘦 𝘫𝘰𝘺 𝘪𝘯 𝘢 𝘭𝘢𝘯𝘨𝘶𝘢𝘨𝘦 𝘱𝘳𝘪𝘷𝘢𝘵𝘦 𝘵𝘰 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘮.”⁣

Meet the Author

Former attorney, Northwestern University MFA graduate, and Pushcart Prize nominee Tara M. Stringfellow’s debut novel Memphis (Dial Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House) is a multi-generational bildungsroman based on the author’s rich Civil Rights history. A recent winner of the Book Pipeline Fiction Contest, Memphis was recognized for its clear path to film or TV series adaptation and is due out in 2022. Third World Press published her first collection of poetry entitled More than Dancing in 2008. A cross-genre artist, the author was Northwestern University’s first MFA graduate in both poetry and prose and has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, as well as Best of the Net. Her poems have appeared in Collective Unrest, Jet Fuel Review, Minerva Rising, Women’s Arts Quarterly, Transitions and Apogee Journal, among others.

If she isn’t writing, she’s gardening. If she’s isn’t in Memphis, she’s in Italy.

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.

Posted in Netgalley

Little Sister by Gytha Lodge.

Two sisters went missing. Only one of them came back . . .
________

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.

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, she wants Jonah’s full attention . . .

Is she killer, witness, or victim?

And will Jonah find out what Keely’s hiding, in time to save Nina?

Last year I was lucky enough to receive a prize from Gytha Lodge and now have three of her hardbacks, all individually signed. I haven’t had chance to read them and as I was granted access to this fourth novel in the series on NetGalley I decided to dive in and hope it would work as a standalone novel. I needn’t have worried at all. This was immediately accessible, yes there were aspects of Jonah’s life that I’m looking forward to finding out more about, but on the whole I could enjoy the mystery without feeling like I didn’t know my protagonist.

The opening scene is absolutely brilliant, vivid and shocking at the same time. Jonah sits in a warm beer garden with his baby in a pram at his side. He’s musing on life and his recent choice to return to a relationship with the mother of his child, leaving behind a burgeoning relationship with Jojo who he misses enormously. It takes a moment for him to notice the young woman who has come into the garden. She has red hair and her hands and chest are covered in blood. While others simply stare in shock, Jonah rings his partner Michelle to pick up the baby, then moves over to the girl and offers to get her a drink. They sit and her story starts to come out, but this is going to be a tricky interview and investigation. Jonah wants to take his time, go gently and not rush this young woman, who could be a victim, but could also be a suspect. Then she makes a revelation. Her name is Keeley and her sister is Nina, this could be Nina’s blood and of course they need to find her, but first Keeley wants to tell them a story.

Nina and Keeley have spent their entire childhood in care. Bouncing from children’s home to foster parent, they seem to have been magnets for predators at an early age. There are two foster homes where their placement failed. One was at the Murray-Watts, who live in a large house in the country with their son Callum and the right type of Range Rover. However, Keeley remembers a regime of cruelty and starvation, where their foster father was always pitting the children against each other and for punishment would lock them in a dark basement for days. His wife Sally might not be so cruel, but she never failed to do his bidding. From there to the Pinders, their home is a huge contrast situated on a council estate. There the girls made a complaint of sexual assault against their foster father who groomed them with trendy clothes, alcohol and watched Gossip Girl with them. This was all fine until he started to want things in return. The problem with these accusations is that nobody believed them, and even though they were removed from the homes in question, no one was prosecuted. 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? Or are they both the same girl? Either way she won’t compromise; Jonah listens to her full story or she won’t tell them where Nina is. Time is ticking and if Nina is severely injured will she last to the end of the story?

I thought Keeley was a fascinating character, psychologically flawed and clearly traumatised by their past, however much of it is true. The girl’s social worker seems very sure that all the claims are false, just girls making up stories. However, it’s clear that some aspects of the girls accusations are true. So, if someone makes multiple accusations does it mean they’re all false? The book kept me guessing and there were times when I wondered whether I even trusted Keeley with her own sister. The chapters based around Jonah and the investigation are interspersed with Keeley’s first hand testimony. She shows all the traits of a psychopath; has she always been this way or has she been created by the treatment of those meant to care for her? If Nina has been subjected to the same treatment won’t she be afflicted psychologically too? I was also dying to know where these foster parents were. Pinder is giving the same story as the girl’s social worker, but the Murray-Watts have completely disappeared. Did the girls have help to weave a twisted treasure hunt for the police? I started to wonder if Keeley had known that Jonah was in the beer garden that day. She seems to be fascinated with his team so could one of them have come across the girls before?

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.

Meet The Author

Gytha Lodge is a multi-award-winning playwright, novelist and writer for video games and screen. She is also a single parent who blogs about the ridiculousness of bringing up a mega-nerd small boy. 

She has a profound addiction to tea, crosswords and awful puns. She studied English at Cambridge, where she became known quite quickly for her brand of twisty, dark yet entertaining drama. She later took the Creative Writing MA at UEA. 

Her debut crime novel, She Lies in Wait, has been published by Penguin Random House in the US and UK, and has also been translated into 12 other languages. It became an international bestseller in 2019, and was a Richard and Judy book club pick, as well as a Sunday Times and New York Times crime pick. 

Watching From the Dark, her second novel, was released in February 2020, with her third book lined up for spring of 2021. This fourth novel is published on 28th April 2022.

Posted in Netgalley

The Oceanography of the Moon by Glendy Vanderah.

After the untimely deaths of her aunt and mother, young Riley Mays moved from Chicago to her cousin’s Wisconsin farm. Here she found solace in caring for her extraordinary adoptive brother, exploring the surrounding wild nature, and gazing at the mystical moon—a private refuge in which she hides from her most painful memories. But ten years later, now twenty-one, Riley feels too confined by the protective walls she’s erected around herself. When a stranger enters her family’s remote world, Riley senses something he’s hiding, a desire to escape that she understands well.

Suffering from writer’s block, bestselling novelist Vaughn Orr has taken to the country roads when he happens upon the accommodating, if somewhat unusual, Mays family. He’s soon captivated by their eccentricities—and especially by Riley and her quiet tenacity. In her, he recognizes a shared need to keep heartbreaking secrets buried. As the worst moments of their lives threaten to surface, Riley and Vaughn must find the courage to confront them if they’re to have any hope of a happy future. With the help of Riley’s supportive family, a dash of everyday magic, and the healing power of nature, can the pair let go of the troubled pasts they’ve clung to so tightly for so long?

This is a book about people who have tragic secrets and a real need to process their experiences and heal. Both farm dwelling Riley and writer Vaughan have a similar need to disappear and escape from their physical four walls and the boundaries of their minds. Both are affected by trauma and really need to face it rather than avoid it, if they want to recover. Perhaps these two people with secrets in their past could attempt a slow recovery together. As is the norm for this writer, healing comes from nature, nurture, friendship, family and understanding.

The book is so beautifully written it’s easy to become mesmerised by the language and it’s this that first pulled me into the novel. I love atmosphere and description so this lyrical start was perfect for me. The story is definitely a slow burn, but the sense of place and emotion is hypnotic. The author plays with ideas of darkness within people and how we see ourselves – do we ever see ourselves as we truly are? People who’ve experienced trauma might find it hard to be their authentic selves, because how they feel can be dark, sad and fearful. Riley and Vaughan seemed to have embraced that darkness as part of their identity, when actually there’s so much about them that is lightness and joy. Sometimes, it’s easier to say you love the darkness than it is to do all the work it takes to cast it off. The novel is mainly that personal journey, moving towards the light with the help of family, nature and a little touch of spirituality too.

The moon imagery is interesting, because there is something magical about it: it’s pull on the earth, the seemingly magical way it controls tides and perhaps even moods. There is an otherworldly feel to the author’s imagery that takes us to an earth that is ours, but with some interesting quirks and a touch of surrealism. Here the love of the family is connected firmly to nature, space, and the galaxy. I didn’t need to believe this, I just went with it and enjoyed the journey. I was also touched by a couple of minor characters, Sachi and Kiran. Sachi has such a passion for Indian food and surrealist art and I love people who are passionate and excited about things. She is open hearted and happy to take in anyone, which she does with Riley and Vaughan. There’s an earth mother element to her nature which I loved. Kiran is only eight years old, but is an outstanding little fellow with so much character packed into his meagre years. He feels more comfortable dressed in girl’s clothing, collects fossils and takes apart clocks in order to make magic!

Around her own love of nature and spirituality, Vanderah weaves the story of two strangers who somehow understand each other deeply. The author takes the reader on a lyrical journey from the very depths of their tragic childhoods towards a place of healing; a healing that comes from the consolation of nature, the love of family, the nurturing of self-worth and the understanding that they deserve full and happy lives. I love description, atmosphere and characters who are unique and full of depth, so this story of emotions, regrets, and haunting memories, not to mention the glimpse of hope, was bound to capture my heart.

Published 22nd March 2022 from Lake Union Publishing.

Glendy Vanderah worked as an endangered bird specialist in Illinois before she became a writer. Originally from Chicago, she now lives in rural Florida with as many birds, butterflies, and wildflowers as she can lure to her land. Where the Forest Meets the Stars is her debut novel. Visit Glendy online at http://glendyvanderah.com/

Posted in Random Things Tours

Peach Blossom Spring by Melissa Fu

With every misfortune there is a blessing and within every blessing, the seeds of misfortune, and so it goes, until the end of time.

It is 1938 in China, and the Japanese are advancing. A young mother, Meilin, is forced to flee her burning city with her four-year-old son, Renshu, and embark on an epic journey across China. For comfort, they turn to their most treasured possession – a beautifully illustrated hand scroll. Its ancient fables offer solace and wisdom as they travel through their ravaged country, seeking refuge.

Years later, Renshu has settled in America as Henry Dao. His daughter is desperate to understand her heritage, but he refuses to talk about his childhood. How can he keep his family safe in this new land when the weight of his history threatens to drag them down?

Spanning continents and generations, Peach Blossom Spring is a bold and moving look at the history of modern China, told through the story of one family. It’s about the power of our past, the hope for a better future, and the search for a place to call home.

As they are torn from the only home he has ever known, Renshu’s mother Meilin, tells him stories from a scroll she has carried with them as their most precious possession. One story she tells is that of Peach Blossom Spring, a fisherman passes through a cave that becomes so narrow he can only just squeeze to the other side. There he finds a kind of Eden, with flowering peach trees and the all the wonders of nature. It’s a peaceful place, but eventually there is a dilemma to solve. Once he leaves this place, he cannot return. If he stays, he can never return to his old life. Meilin tells him the fisherman stays and builds a life in this new place, leaving everything that came before. The book is divided into sections from WW2 to the latter part of the 20th Century, as we follow events from China when Renshu is a little boy, to his middle age and the life of his daughter Lily in the USA. This structure shows how his early experiences shape the man he becomes, but also the parent he becomes and the daughter he shapes along with his wife Rachel. The author weaves together themes of identity, women’s history, politics and conflict, as well as inter- generational trauma so beautifully, yet all the while framing Renshu’s life through this ancient Chinese story that’s still relevant today.

I think that reading this while watching the horrific images of war in Ukraine, really brought the plight of Meilin and her son more vividly to life for me. That fear, the desperation of grasping what you can, then running with only the things you carry. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. The trauma and displacement these characters, and the real people who inspired them, went through fleeing from city to city as the war crept closer and the only option was escape to Taiwan. The author’s descriptions of fire bombed cities, cramped underground shelters, and the terrifying trip down the white waters of a narrow river in a deep ravine conveyed the panic and desperation of Meilin and her family. I found the descriptions of sheltering underground so claustrophobic, with that many people crammed into the space the air becomes limited and the bombs above so loud you can’t even think. I could imagine being a child in that situation, totally powerless and trying to make sense of what you’re being told – that the dark, cramped space that scares you more than anything is the only thing that might keep you alive. Renshu’s panic is described so well I felt it, so it was no surprise when these panics resurfaced in middle age. Renshu (or Henry as he becomes known) is a curious, intelligent boy who loses his father before really knowing him and is reliant on his Mum for his very survival. We read these early turbulent experiences through Meilin’s eyes and what stayed with me so strongly was her quiet strength. There are situations where it is impossible to have a voice, where all she can do is endure. Through her section of the books what stayed with me is that the price of war is very different for women than it is for men.

Meilin does not even have time to process the loss of her husband, and has to live under the charity and protection of her brother- in -law. Even though he constantly tells her that they are family and it is his pleasure to look after them, she knows his wife does not feel the same way. She’s uncomfortable and thinks of returning to her own family, but in the chaos of conflict how does she know they’re even alive? The risks she takes to be independent from her husband’s family are huge and they don’t always pay off. I was particularly affected by the ordeal she endures while trying to sell their family scroll – the only thing of value they have left. Yet she’s resourceful, always looking for work and a roof over their heads, working hard to keep Renshu safe and financially provided for. All the sacrifices she is making for him, to go to a good school and university, are clouded by the painful realisation that every step of her effort will take him further away from her. She must be lonely, especially when the companionship and support she receives from other women is broken when their men slowly return. She learns to rely on herself instead of others, especially men who always want something in return and curtail her freedom. She only relies on her brother-in- law where she knows his government connections will help Renshu get to school in America. Yet she doesn’t take any of his offers for herself, of marriage and she never asks for anything from Renshu either. In the 1970s when President Carter wins the US election, then officially recognises the communist government of China, it’s Renshu who worries about bringing her to the US. In fact when they realise there’s a mix up in his own official paperwork, Meilin is quietly resigned to living out her days in Taiwan. She doesn’t seem angry at the ‘mistake’ made by her brother-in-law, even though I felt it was a deliberate ploy to keep her close by. All she asks is for Renshu to plant an orchard, but it will take several years for him to fully understand her meaning.

The settings are so incredibly full of life and it was fascinating to compare Renshu’s surroundings in China and Taiwan with his new home in America. I experience synaesthesia and I found the settings of Shanghai and Taiwan an overload on the senses. In fact when Renshu reached his lodgings in America it felt like a sudden silence as if I’d gone deaf. Renshu himself has to go outside and marvel at the quiet of his empty street with everyone inside their homes. Compared to Meilin’s visit to market, filled with people, vendors shouting, the colour and variety of produce, it seems to lack colour and life. I saw one place in colour and one in black and white. I wondered if the noise and bustle had simply followed on from the noises of war for Renshu, but in his first months in the US it is simply the sound of home. He might have experienced less culture shock in a bustling city like New York or Chicago, but in the mid-west it must have felt like the colour and music had been drained from the world. However, quiet doesn’t necessarily mean safe and there are insidious dangers in an anti-communist America of the 1950’s with McCarthyism in the air. Renshu’s Uncle has given him a contact in America who warns him of the dangers of seeming too sympathetic to his home country and it’s politics. He suggests he stick to Henry, the Western name that Renshu chose on a friend’s advice, but also to avoid gatherings with other Chinese students. Anything anti-Communist could see him in trouble with the government at home, whereas anything pro-Communist might mark him out as trouble to the American authorities. So, even as Henry, he is walking a tightrope, constantly on alert and perhaps missing out on friendships that might have made him less alone. His regular listening to Chopin in the university library is an expression of his emotions, he feels an affinity with the music as if it articulates something he can’t as yet.

In this epic story the author has beautifully portrayed inter-generational trauma, something that can’t be escaped no matter how many oceans you put between you and your past. There is a psychological theory that society’s seemingly expanding mental health issues are caused by trauma from as far back as the early Twentieth Century and is a legacy of two world wars. Men who went to war became distant and emotionally closed off fathers, a problem that then passes to another generation who don’t know how to be affectionate, emotional and available. The effect of that stiff upper lip mentality of the 1940s can be seen in a generation’s rebellion of the 1960’s. Just as the author describes the giant destructive force of the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, trauma creates a shockwave that rapidly spreads outward affecting everyone in its path. It takes a strong person to stand up and say I will not pass this trauma on to my children. Renshu is traumatised by war. His existence started with minute to minute thinking, the mind fully occupied with the basic needs of food, shelter and safety. Never in one place for long, Meilin and Renshu are powerless and can never really stop to enjoy any period of good fortune, because they know it can be taken away from them again in a click of the fingers. Meilin understands this. She sees that her boy has struggled to move fully away from that short term thinking – he has been able to have some aspirations though and the relative luxury of safety, a constant income and roof over his head, a long and happy marriage. Yet she sees that he still struggles to trust it all. This is why Meilin tells him to plant an orchard, because a man who plants an orchard knows there will be a tomorrow and that he will still be in the same place, watching them grow.

Meet The Author

Melissa Fu grew up in Northern New Mexico and now lives near Cambridge, UK, with her husband and children.With academic backgrounds in physics and English, she has worked in education as a teacher, curriculum developer, and consultant.
Melissa was the regional winner of the Words and Women 2016 Prose Competition and was a 2017 Apprentice with the London-based Word Factory. Her work appears in several publications including The Lonely Crowd, International Literature Showcase, Bare Fiction, Wasafiri Online, and The Willowherb Review. In 2019, her debut poetry pamphlet, Falling Outside Eden, was published by the Hedgehog Poetry Press. In 2018/2019, Melissa received an Arts Council England, Developing Your Creative Practice grant and was the David TK Wong Fellow at the University of East Anglia.

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Visitors by Caroline Scott.

I’ve been a huge fan of Caroline Scott’s last two novels and share an interest with her in the historical period following WW1. This novel touches upon some of the most important issues of the period, while telling a story that touches the heart strings and holds some surprises for the reader. It shows just how chaotic relationships can become during and post wartime, as well as how much people change when faced with terrible and traumatic experiences. We follow one young war widow called Esme whose whole life changed after she received news that her husband Alec had been killed. No longer able to afford to live in their marital home and needing to find work, Esme finds herself in the employment of Mrs Pickering as companion and helper, while also writing nature columns for her local newspaper. As the summer of 1923 approaches Esme is packing her employer’s clothes for a trip down to Cornwall. Mrs Pickering’s brother Gilbert, has established an artist’s residence in his large country house, and the artists have all served together in the war. As Esme meets Gilbert, Rory and the others she hopes to get an insight into what Alec might have experienced and maybe feel closer to him. What she finds there is certainly transformative, but in a very different way.

Esme is a very likeable character. She’s intelligent, resourceful and has really struggled to pick herself up again from nothing. She’s had no support system to help in her grief or her financial difficulties, in fact this is something she and Alec had in common, they were each other’s family. The author tells us this story in three separate narratives and each gives us a new perspective on the characters. Alongside the main narrative in which we follow Esme to Cornwall, we read the nature column she writes and it’s sublime in its descriptions of this place she’s visiting for the first time. We can see what a talented writer Esme is and how much nature means to her. I kept thinking how lovely these passages will sound on audiobook, almost like poetry. The observations she makes made me feel Cornwall again and in quite an emotional way considering I first visited there almost fifteen years ago when I was newly widowed. I felt like Esme’s Cornwall and mine were the same. I remember consciously walking round thinking that this was the first new memory I was making without my husband and Cornwall’s beauty seemed to make that even more poignant. The third narrative is a book written by Rory, one of Gilbert’s residents and close friend, in which he describes his experience of fighting in France. I was interested in the way he also describes nature as a blighted landscape, ruined by the ravages of warfare. There are vivid descriptions that will stay with me, such as the corruption of the very soil from constantly being churned up, contaminated by mustard gas and almost viscous in it’s consistency. Rory ponders whether this land would recover and how long it would take nature to return. It shows us the utter destruction caused and creates a link between the land the war was fought on and the men who fought it; how long might it take them to recover from the terrible things they have seen and done?

The author depicts PTSD in all of the men who live together in Cornwall, they are each affected by their experiences, but show that in different ways. There’s a vulnerability to them and a need to be with others who have shared their experiences. How else can they be understood and allowed to heal without the pressures of having to find work and cope with the demands of returning to a family? They are each very lucky to have Gilbert and this idyllic setting to slowly recover in. Although each must have another life, one that they belonged to pre-war, potentially leaving behind people who needed or might have asked something of them. It places them in a slightly privileged position over those who had returned straight into full-time work or job seeking by necessity, either because they belong to a different class or have a family to support. The excerpts of Rory’s book are also beautifully written, but don’t hold back from the horrors these men have seen. His descriptions are both vivid and visceral, and through reading his book Esme gains more understanding of these men than perhaps a lot of women would have at the time. How many times do we hear of war veterans who have kept all of this bottled-up inside with family member’s noting they didn’t like to talk about it much? At least here the men have a therapeutic outlet, whether by painting or writing, through which to understand or process these memories, but also communicate them to others without having to say them outright.

All of this would have been enough for a great novel, but the author also places a huge surprise part way through that I hadn’t expected. Through this we see the strength and restraint of Esme, the way she thinks things through before acting and never puts her own needs first. She needs a therapeutic outlet too, showing how the initial effect of war on the person who served ripples outwards to effect their loved ones and even future generations. Just as the land needs time to recover from the physical effects of warfare, there is a shockwave created that blasts through society as a whole. We are shown: how rigid Edwardian class structures are broken down; how marriage as an institution and way of constructing society is outdated and broken; how gender roles become more fluid allowing women more freedom and choice. I really did enjoy seeing how Esme negotiates this new world and makes bold choices for her life moving forwards. This book is another triumph for the author, because it’s a beautiful piece of historical fiction that tries to capture a moment in time where everything’s in flux. These constantly shifting sands of time show us the formation of our 20th Century and the resilience of the human spirit. It gave this reader hope that, just as nature found a way and those battlefields are now meadows and farmland, humans do have the capacity to heal and be reborn.

Meet The Author.

Caroline completed a PhD in History at the University of Durham. She developed a particular interest in the impact of the First World War on thelandscape of Belgium and France, and in the experience of women during the conflict – fascinations that she was able to pursue while she spent several years working as a researcher for a Belgian company. Caroline is originally from Lancashire, but now lives in southwest France. The Photographer of the Lost was a BBC Radio 2 Book Club pick.

Posted in Throwback Thursday, Uncategorized

The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell.

As some of you may know, reviews can get very personal for me. Probably because I’m a therapist and used to lots of self-reflection. When a book hits me emotionally I really think about why and this book had me scurrying to my journal. Lisa Jewell is a master of these domestic thrillers and the psychological suspense created when groups of people are in conflict. Here the conflict is controlled within one house 16 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, overlooking the river. That is until it’s secrets explode and the truth of the mystery is scattered across the world.


Three narratives weave in and out of each other to tell the story. We meet twenty five year old Libby with her little garden flat and her job at the kitchen design company where she’s worked for five years. Everything about Libby says organised, professional and quiet. That is until a bombshell is dropped on her life. Woven with this is the story of Lucy – if that is her real name. She is living in France but at the moment we meet her is homeless along with her two children and the dog. The family are reduced to sneaking in to the beach club to get showered but that doesn’t happen everyday. Lucy is at rock bottom. She can’t husk for money but needs money to collect her violin. They have nothing left to sell. Does she go and ask her violent but rich ex-husband for help? Or does she let the children stay with their grandparents? Either way she needs her violin and once she sees the date, she develops an urgent need to make her way back to London and a certain house in Chelsea.

Our third narrator is Henry, relating what happened at the house back in the early 1990s. Henry just about remembers family life when things were normal and it was just the four of them: mum, dad, Henry and his sister. He has vivid memories of going to private school in his brown knickerbockers and sitting drinking lemonade while his Dad read the newspaper at his club. The house was filled with curiosities such as animal heads, ceremonial swords and red thrones. It’s so distinctive in style that when the money starts to run out the house is scouted as a location for a music video. The fiddle player in the band is Birdie and she loves the house. So much so that when she needs a roof over their head, she and her partner, Justin, come to stay in the upstairs room. Henry’s father has had a stroke and doesn’t have the same strength and power he used to have. He seems to sit by and watch as Birdie and Justin take up residence.
Later another couple join the group. David Thomsen is a man Henry dislikes almost instantly because he seems to sense what his Dad and Justin fail to see. David has charisma and seems to have an effect on every woman in the house. His wife Sally and two children, Phin and Clemency, also join them. It starts to feel like they’re living in a commune but the only consolation is Phin. To Henry, Phin is beautiful with floppy hair, cheekbones and a distinctive style. When Phin takes him shopping, Henry develops a crush and trails after him, wanting to be like him. When it is suddenly announced at the dinner table that David and Birdie are now a couple Henry senses this is the start of something evil. They bring out the worst elements of each other and start to assume a power in the house that goes unchallenged by his parents or the other adults. They are told what they will eat, do and even wear. Henry knows this is out of control and this is only the beginning of the damage this man will inflict in the house.
Libby has been set a letter by a group of solicitors telling her she has been left a house. When the solicitor walks her round to the house she realises she is rich. The house is abandoned, but huge and in prime position. It could be worth millions. The solicitor also gives her a newspaper cutting describing the strange events that took place there exactly twenty five years before. Libby has always known she was adopted, but this tells her she was the lone survivor in the house, tucked in her cot with a lucky rabbits foot under the mattress. Downstairs were three people, dressed all in black and dead from poisoning themselves with belladonna. One was David Thomsen. The news story talks of a cult forming within the house and aside from Libby, whose real name is Serenity, all the children living at the house were missing. Libby feels there is more to this story and wants to meet the journalist who wrote the article. What is the answer to how this happened? And who is sneaking in and out of the attic space at the house?


There are so many questions that I won’t answer for fear of ruining the book, but I will tell you about the effect it had on me. When I was 12, the same age as Henry, my parents joined an evangelical church that became all-consuming and took over our lives for a few years. Up until then we’d been part-time Catholic’s and I’d gone to Catholic school for a while through my first confession and communion. These new people felt weird. They were so fervent and all that speaking in tongues was odd. But it got worse. My parents started to have no other social life from church. We were forced into church activities for kids. My dad lit a bonfire and they burned their secular music and all of my mum’s ‘inappropriate ‘ books like the Judith Krantz and Jackie Collins novels. I was scared by this. I started to wonder who my parents were as I was more restricted on what I wore, listened to and read. I couldn’t go to anything where there was a sniff of boys and from what I could see there was a lot of coercive control over women and girls particularly. I felt Henry’s fear when reading this book. I know what it feels to be a kid, looking at your parents and thinking they’ve been taken in by something dangerous. That beliefs are being forced on you and you can’t live like other kids. To feel like all of your security is being taken away.


Of course my solution wasn’t as dramatic as Henry’s but I did have to create coping mechanisms. There are times now when we can laugh about it, because as my brother and I have grown older we have become one of those families that openly discuss everything. However, I still occasionally have dreams where my parents can’t see or hear me and I think it has also bred a lifelong mistrust of authority. So I can understand the seismic effect the arrival of Dave Thomsen had on these children, with repercussions way into adult life. Whether it’s changing who you are to escape, or bouncing from one failed relationship to another or being unable to move on, even geographically, they are all responses to trauma. With a brief nod to the future at the end of the book the author does leave a tiny seed of hope that in future generations a type of healing can be reached. This is a dark, disturbing, look at how sometimes home is the most dangerous place to be.