Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

The Dazzle of the Light by Georgina Clarke

Just a couple of weeks ago I was waxing lyrical about Kate Atkinson’s novel Shrines of Gaiety and then another novel passes my way covering the same territory and the same time period. While I loved Atkinson’s novel on it’s own merits, this one feels more urgent and alive. I felt immediately in the story and fascinated by the two main female characters. Ruby is one of a female gang known as the Forty Thieves (the Forties) who commit crimes from pick-pocketing for the young members to shoplifting and even jewellery theft for those more experienced members. Ruby has been one of the Forties for years and due to her looks doesn’t always attract suspicion in the fancier stores. In fact, she’s on a joint job with her lover Billy from the Elephant Boys, when she first runs into Harriet Littlemore. Harriet is the real deal, a young woman from a very good family, engaged to an up and coming member of parliament. Harriet has ambitions beyond being an MP’s wife, she wants to be a journalist and her father permitted her to ask for a job with the evening paper. She’s been hired to write pieces for the woman at home, such as ways to wear the new style of hat, but Harriet has ambitions for so much more, thinking she might write a piece about the young thief she’s seen. However, her fascination with Ruby seems to be much more than journalistic interest.

The story follows these two women as they each pursue their ambitions. Ruby wants to do more work with the Elephant Boys. She wants to take on bigger jobs and wear beautiful clothes and jewellery. When she meets Harriet again, on a shoplifting run in a department store, she cheekily suggests she should update her style. Perhaps she should cut her hair in the new shingled way that’s the height of fashion, Ruby tells her, then she could wear the new style of hat she’s considering. Like a woman in a trance, Harriet goes to a French hairdresser and has her long hair cut short. She’s amazed by how much it suits her and hopes to see Ruby with her new fashionable look, even if it does cause a stir at home, particularly with her traditional mother. She’s furious when the story about the jewellery heist she witnessed is written by one of the male reporters at the paper. So she decides to write a piece on Ruby, the Jewel of the Borough, and gets one of the artists to draw a sketch from her description. In a way, Harriet admires Ruby. She sees Ruby’s freedom, her nerve and confidence, and contrasts it with her own restrictions. She has no idea what her article will truly mean for Ruby. We see what Harriet can’t, because we’ve met the rest of the Forties and Ruby’s other mentor Solly, who runs a jewellery business. The women of the Forties are in a hierarchy, with Annie ? At the top. Many have been thieving since they were children, looked after by the Forties in return for their tiny hands making their way into pockets. The ones that are married are struggling to feed their kids and to avoid their husband’s fists. Most have done time in Holloway and without the Forties, they and their families would be cold and hungry. From Ruby’s perspective, money is freedom and Harriet certainly has plenty of that.

I loved the way the author showed, that despite their differences in class and means, Ruby and Harriet are still second class citizens due to their gender. Although Ruby has earned some equality thanks to her sleight of hand and is chosen by leader Annie, to do jobs with the Elephant Boys, her personal life is very different. Solly is a father figure to her and always keeps a room for above the jewellers, but when it comes to her lover Billy she has no real power. She has confidence in her allure, but when she’s forced to lie low for a while Billy soon moves on to the next warm body. She often has to give up her body to seal a deal, whether it’s a little extra for the man who fences the more risky pieces of jewellery she’s stolen or romancing someone to get information out of them for Peter who runs the nightclub. This work gives her a rather glamorous roof over her head when she really needs it, but she definitely earns her money. Peter has a big job coming up with the Elephants, something that involves men of money and influence. Ruby has no clue how respectable these men are, or their standing in society. It seems to her that all men will use women, no matter how respectable they may seem. Harriet is completely powerless when it comes to the men in her life. She has a life set up for her as Ralph’s wife and her parents can’t understand why she isn’t satisfied with her lot. She has money, beautiful clothes and a handsome fiancé who is going to be a man of great influence. They can’t understand that she wants something for herself, something she has earned on her own merits. I couldn’t put the book down because I wanted both of these women to break out of the prison they are in, choose a different life and perhaps become close. I didn’t want the system to win.

The setting for this fascinating story is beautifully built by the author. We’re post-WW1, a period of huge shifts in the class system and changes for both men and women. The author shows how the class system and expectations of women have changed through Harriet’s relationship with her parents. They still have pre-war attitudes and are expecting Harriet to fall in line. Even the changes she makes to her appearance show that shift from the restrictions of Edwardian dress and the relative freedom of the 1920’s fashions with shorter skirts, no restrictive undergarments and shorter hair. These fashions suit women who are busier and don’t have hours to dress in the morning. Financial changes mean only the very wealthy can afford the help of a ladies maid every morning. Ruby can wear the latest fashions to please herself, when she can afford them. She loves the glamour of the clothes she wears to the club, where she needs to attract the more discerning gentleman.

For the men, those who were in the trenches found them democratising. Bullets and shells don’t care about the class you’re from and although there was still a hierarchy, they died in the mud together. This led to some strange allegiances back in the post-war world. It’s clear to Ruby that there’s a big job on the cards, Billy has hinted as much and her time at the club throws her close to the planning. There are men involved who would never normally give the Elephant Boys the time of day, so they must need them to do the dirty work. These are men from the highest class, who usually drink at their club or the Savoy, but don’t mind slumming it at the club if it makes them money or the company of a woman like Ruby. I desperately wanted some of them to get their come uppance, knowing that’s not always the way of the world. The real winners though are those that can move between worlds, like Peter Lazenby. Though the polish and charm of all these men hides something more brutal. Despite her misdemeanours I was as charmed by Ruby as Harriet was and I wanted her to find a middle ground where she survives comfortably. As for Harriet I wanted her to break out of her parent’s upper class restrictions. I wanted her to have a love affair with someone unsuitable and a friendship with Ruby, if not a full on passionate affair. This was a fantastic book, full of characters, historical detail and that verve and energy that seems synonymous with 1920.

Published by Verve Books 17th November 2023

Meet The Author

Georgina Clarke has always been passionate about stories and history. The Lizzie Hardwicke novels give her the opportunity to bring to life her love of the eighteenth century and her determination that a strong, intelligent and unconventional woman should get to solve the crimes – rather than be cast in the role of the side-kick. Georgina was born in Wolverhampton, has degrees from Oxford, Cambridge and London, but now lives in Worcester with her husband and son and two lively cats.

Her first two novels, Death and the Harlot and The Corpse Played Dead, are published by Canelo. She is currently cooking up plots for the next novels in the series. 

If you would like to visit her website, you can find her at: 

http://www.georginaclarkeauthor.com

She is also to be found tweeting (probably far too often than is good for her) at: 

@clarkegeorgina1

Posted in Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight! Sarah Waters and her Victorian Novels.

This week my spotlight is on an author who drew me in with her incredible Victorian historical novels. I was knocked out by the depth of research, the incredible storytelling and how sexy they were compared to the rather buttoned-up novels from the period. I first became aware of her work when the BBC serialised her novel Tipping the Velvet – a beautiful, but obscure pornographic reference to performing oral sex on a woman. Of course much of the hysterical and prurient coverage in the media was about the sexual aspect of the story. Mostly, I think, due to the relationships and sex scenes being between women. This obsession with sexuality totally bypassed the novel’s picaresque structure, it’s likeness to the work of Charles Dickens and our heroine Nan’s journey of self-discovery. It completely missed what Waters was doing; the book is always described as a lesbian romp, but it is much more than that. Waters was writing back to this point in history and the period’s literature which is largely populated and preoccupied with heterosexual couples and the institute of marriage. The art and literature acceptable to the establishment was influenced by the middle class family values presented by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. The literary canon mirrors what society presented as the norm or even the ideal. I’ve heard people say that homosexuality and bisexuality is ‘everywhere’ now and ‘you didn’t hear about lesbians in my day’. Actually, the last phrase is more accurate than we might think. No, we didn’t hear about the LGBTQ+ community, not because LGBTQ+ people didn’t exist, but because they were not open with their sexuality and certainly didn’t write about it. Waters openly admits she isn’t writing about characters that existed, lesbianism was so undercover in Victorian London that there is no record of it at all. Waters is redressing that balance. She’s creating characters to represent these minorities and the hidden subculture where they might have belonged.

I was fascinated with the research Sarah Waters must have done to create the rich and vivid worlds that she portrays. One page in and you know exactly where you are, because she engages all of your senses immediately. In Tipping the Velvet, Nan’s upbringing was in Whitstable, Kent. Her working class family own an oyster restaurant and Nan helps out, so when she first meets the performer Kitty Butler she is ashamed of how her hot hands smell. Kitty removes her gloves to shake hands and Nan is mortified by “those rank sea-scents, of liquor and oyster-flesh, crab-meat and whelks, which had flavoured my fingers and those of my family for so many years we had ceased, entirely, to notice them”. Nan is mortified that she smells like a herring, but Kitty assuages her fears, kissing her hands and telling her she smells like a mermaid. This type of description reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s prose in The Picture of Dorian Gray, especially the opening where the lush lilacs are in bloom and the scent is heavy, overpowering and intoxicating to the point of nausea. The descriptions have an element of synaesthesia and wrap themselves around the reader like a mist, taking us to that exact moment. I also loved the switching of gender, allowing characters to experience Victorian London as both sexes in one person and what a different place it could be. Men were largely the only sex who could have these picaresque adventures or ‘romps’ as they are sometimes called, but Waters opens up a whole different world to her characters in just a change of clothes. Waters uses clothes erotically with scenes of dressing and undressing and to represent the gender gap. When Nan and Kitty dress as men the clothes are simpler, they allow an ease of movement and a freedom that women don’t have. She then describes the putting on of chemises, stays, stockings and ribbons, both in the erotic sense of being tied up or bound like a gift, but also to represent the restriction of women. In the most dramatic sense the corset restricts even the woman’s ability to breath. Whereas when Kitty is performing as a ‘masher’, a male drag act, her clothing physically gives her the freedom to perform, but also gives her a pass to be comical and bawdy.

Keeley Hawkes and Rachel Stirling on the cover of the TV series tie in of Tipping the Velvet.

While I enjoyed Tipping the Velvet. I loved Affinity. It has that deliciously gothic feel alongside the same themes of feminism and sexuality. It is a much darker novel, especially if we compare it’s conclusion with the arguably happy ending and the self-actualisation she allows Nan in Tipping the Velvet. Affinity looks at power and possession, it’s very sensual rather than a ‘romp’ and could be categorised as a psychological thriller in the same vein as Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. Set in late September 1874, we meet Margaret Prior, who is thirty years old and described as plain. She hasn’t been sought after on the marriage market and has to find a way to make her life meaningful, but respectable. So she becomes a ‘lady visitor’ at Millbank Women’s Prison, hoping to find purpose after suffering a period of mental breakdown and enforced rest at her parent’s home for the last two years. The pentagonal Millbank corridors seem endless and the doors with their inspection slits become symmetrical, until she opens one and hears ‘a perfect sigh, like a sigh in a story.’ This sigh belongs to the medium Selina Dawes. Margaret’s charitable role is to bring comfort to the women behind bars, but this woman is incredibly different to the poor, sad and often downtrodden women she’s seen until now. This plain woman on the verge of thirty has come to comfort those behind bars, several of whom Waters brings to instant, sad life. Margaret is instantly transfixed by the vision she sees in the ‘eye’ of the door. Selina is captured in a private moment (or is she?) with her face turned towards the sunlight stroking her own cheek with a violet. Margaret finds this pose sensual and records in her diary that ‘she put the flower to her lips, and breathed upon it, and the purple of the petals gave a quiver and seemed to glow…” Could Margaret be that violet?

Selina Dawes is not only beautiful, she’s intelligent and exciting to talk with. The conversations between the two women are thrilling and charged with sexual tension. Selina challenges Margaret’s views on spiritualism as fanciful and suggests that since such a place as Millbank exists, couldn’t anything be real? Strangely, Margaret does become confronted with evidence of the supernatural. First a locket disappears from it’s place in her room, then on another occasion, flowers magically appear. Most strange of all is how much Selina knows about her, even the things she keeps hidden, and very soon she tells Margaret she loves her. Waters weaves Margaret’s weekly diary entries with past ones that reveal a previous attachment to the woman who is now her sister-in-law, including a plan to abscond together to Italy. Clearly, this adventure never happened. We are also privy to Selina’s writing, mainly about her life before prison and how she came to be there. As the visits go on, Margaret starts to accept that Selina has some sort of supernatural power and believes that she is a victim of a miscarriage of justice. Selina asserts that she did not assault a woman at a séance, but were those séances real or fraudulent? I felt desperately sorry for Margaret who appears to have a better life, but in reality both women are in prison. Margaret’s prison is built on class and convention, a mother who doesn’t give her any space and the knowledge that her desires will never be acceptable to her family or society. I was so desperate for her escape.

Zoë Tapper and Anna Madely on the cover for the TV tie-in of Affinity

The third of her Victorian novels is Fingersmith and it really is her masterpiece in my opinion. We’re back in the Dickensian-esque back streets of London and the world of the fingersmiths or pickpockets. The first half of the book is about Sue Trinder, brought up in a nest of thieves with a female Fagin called Mrs Sucksby at the helm. Then one of Mrs Sucksby’s associates comes to her with a plan. ‘Gentleman’ has been planning a con and if it pays off they’ll be very rich; even better than that, it’s all legal. It all depends on Sue to play the part of a lady’s maid to a rich and very isolated young woman. The Gentleman has been wooing this wealthy heiress, who goes by the name of Maud. Very sheltered, with only her Uncle for company, Maud was born an orphan in the asylum where her mother gave birth. Sue’s job is to become her maid and gain the lady’s confidence, so that she can influence Maud into accepting Gentleman’s proposal of an elopement. As soon as they’re married he controls her fortune and if between them they can gaslight her into an asylum, he will make it worth Sue’s while. However, Sue likes Maud and they begin sharing confidences and become friends. Now Sue is conflicted about their plan, but it’s here that Waters has created a twist to end all twists. It’s the best twist in literature and I won’t be convinced otherwise! I can’t tell you anymore about the book without ruining it for those who haven’t read it yet and if you haven’t I’m so jealous that you get to experience it for the first time.

Sally Hawkins and Elaine Cassidy on the cover of the TV tie-in for Fingersmith

These three novels are not linked by anything except their historical period, but in each one you are immersed completely into the 19th Century and the most unsavoury locations and aspects of it. We recognise these filthy streets, this poverty and these villains thanks to Dickens and his Nancy, Bill Sykes and Fagin. When I pick up one of these novels for a re-read I feel like I’m indulging myself because they’re so rich, evocative and sumptuous in both world-building and storytelling. I enjoy her later novels too, but these three were the closest I’ve ever come to that feeling of being a child and discovering the incredible storytelling of Little Women or Jane Eyre for the first time. They always take me back to that formative experience of falling into a book and never wanting to come back out into the real world.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Spirited by Julie Cohen

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

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

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

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

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

Meet The Author

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

Latest Novel from Julie Cohen

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

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

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

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

Published by Orion 4th August 2022

Posted in Random Things Tours

Jacqueline in Paris by Ann Mah

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis is one of those iconic women that we can’t help but be curious about. From watching the film JFK and numerous documentaries about the death of President Kennedy with my mother, I started to be curious about the woman in the blood-stained pink suit. I think people are drawn to women who remain silent. As far as I’m aware she has never spoken directly about the horrific, life changing events of that day. She has almost seemed stoic. The perfect widow, in her lace mantilla at the funeral, still seeming numb and shell-shocked. When she surprised everyone by marrying Aristotle Onassis, the millionaire shipping magnate, I think it was driven by a need to hide. She needed a place to be without cameras following her every move and on his yacht she was definitely away from prying eyes. Perhaps his protection allowed her to grieve and come to terms with her trauma. I wanted to read this book, because I was fascinated to meet this version of Jackie – the Jacqueline before she was Jackie in. I always had the impression that she could have been a woman in her own right, more than the political wife she became.

Ann Mah has set her book in one particular year. In 1949 Jacqueline Bouvier travelled abroad for her junior year at college. It was to be her last year of freedom. She was aware that despite being poised and ready for society, her family were on the edge financially and she felt pressure from her mother to make a good match on her return. She met Jack Kennedy in 1952. Jacqueline lives in an apartment with a widowed French countess and her daughters. She finds a world of champagne, avant-garde theatre and jazz clubs and socialises with people she would never have met in her home town or the social circles at Vassar. There’s even romance with a man who loves literature like she does, but who would be totally unsuitable back home. Yet Paris isn’t all fun and glamour, because this is the aftermath of WW2 and its clear that the city’s people have suffered. The countess and her daughters have suffered too, as part of the resistance. The whole city is haunted by events during the Occupation and it will take many years for them to recover from the lies, betrayals and suspicion that lurk round every corner.

I love that Mah has written this novel in the first person, so we have Jacqui’s unguarded thoughts and emotions from the start. Even though it is a fictionalised self we’re getting to know, it still feels like a rare window into the innermost thoughts of a very private woman. It may sound strange to regard her as private when she was later married to the most powerful leader in America and arguably the world. Jacqui is private though. From this part of her life when she has the most freedom she’s ever known she’s testing people out for herself, but there’s still a natural reserve. She gets to decide who to spend time with and who to trust. On her return to the US and her subsequent relationship with John Kennedy, she is private by design. It’s part of the mystique of being a powerful politician’s wife who should show loyalty, discretion and control of her emotions. Once she’s in those circles, who can she trust to be a true friend? Where many might have seen her as the archetypal political spouse, this was the ambition of her mother rather than Jacqui’s own desire. Here we see her when she was naive and idealistic. Her love of art and for the city of Paris is evident. She’s also keen to make friends and experience real French life, but that reserve can make it hard for others to feel they know the real her.

She finds that one of the biggest differences between the US and Europe is a political one. During the war, Parisian people did what they had to in order to survive and there are still grudges against those forced to collaborate. She learns which subjects to avoid. Madame de Renty is a lively and colourfully dressed woman during the day, but she was imprisoned at Ravensbrück concentration camp during the war and Jacqui hears her crying in the night. Some truths can never be spoken. Aside from the post-war adjustments and the effects of trauma that will last for generations, Jacqui is most shocked by the Parisian’s politics. There is a lean towards communism here, something that’s unthinkable in the US where it’s considered in the same breath as Nazism. Her mind is broadened by friends who explain it’s underlying principles – an equal, fair society. This has huge resonance for us, because we understand she will be First Lady during the Cuban missile crisis, and the 1950’s saw a wave of suspicion about communism that fuelled the McCarthy era.

Despite these darker undercurrents there’s also the joy of seeing Paris through her eyes, for the very first time. The beautiful language, the smells of incredible food and early morning croissants. There’s also Jacqui’s love of learning and through this I could see glimmers or the different life she could have had, if her family had valued her as more than a marriage commodity. This is a well-researched account that held some of the answers I’d pondered about her life: that pull between the security of marriage and the more precarious life of her own; the love of Europe that would see her return there after Kennedy’s death; the education from a really great college versus the education of how to be a wife provided by her mother. I thought the author found a great balance between fleshing out a story and what we know of Jacqui’s year abroad through historical research. I understood this Jacqui and felt I’d met her before in my own reading. Now I have to give this straight to my mum so we can talk about it.

Meet the Author

Ann Mah is an American food and travel writer. She is the author of the USA
Today and Wall Street Journal bestseller The Lost Vintage, as well as three other books. She contributes regularly to the New York Times Travel section, and her articles have appeared in the Washington Post, Condé Nast Traveler, The Best American Travel Writing, The New York Times Footsteps, Washingtonian magazine, Vogue.com, BonAppetit.com, Food52.com, TheKitchn. com, and other publications

Posted in Netgalley, Paranormal Reads

The Ghost Woods by C.J.Cooke

The Ghost Woods is the third book I’ve read by C.J. Cooke and I’m convinced she’s getting better with each novel. This brilliant mix of historical fiction, women’s history, Scottish folklore and the supernatural had me transfixed. We follow two young girls struggling with the realities of becoming pregnant out of wedlock in mid-Twentieth Century Scotland. In 1965, Pearl Gorham is sent to Lichen Hall, a large 16th Century private house set in the middle of woodland and home to a wealthy couple and their grandson. Pearl is 22 and heavily pregnant, until now she’s been working as a nurse, but she’s being driven to Lichen Hall. The family here look after young women ‘in trouble’ and find adoptive parents for their babies. Five years earlier in Dundee, Mabel Haggith is at the doctors with her mother and has just found out that she’s pregnant. Her mother is furious, but Mabel is confused, how can she be pregnant when she hasn’t done anything wrong? To make sense of her predicament, Mabel assumes it must be the ghosts that live inside her that have made her pregnant, she can feel one in her knee right now. Her mum and stepfather decide Mabel must go to a mother and baby home, but Mabel has heard what can go on in those places. She decides to go to Lichen Hall instead, where she’ll have her baby and hopefully adoptive parents will be found. As long as they don’t mind having a ghost baby of course.

What they find at Lichen Hall is an eccentric and isolated family called the Whitlocks. Mrs Whitlock is most definitely in charge, but is dealing with her husband and son’s issues as well. Mr Whitlock was a professor of biology, focused on the more unusual types of fungi and the symbiotic relationship between them and humans. However, more recently dementia has made his behaviour rather erratic. He has taken to wandering and wearing eccentric combinations of clothing, some of which are more revealing than others. Son, Wolfie, is a complex boy with erratic moods and explosive behaviour when frustrated. Mrs Whitlock herself is a strange mix of pleasant and welcoming, then suddenly cold, distant and even mean. Into this bizarre setting come girls who need help, empathy and care. Of course there are also other residents: Morwen who appears to be the only servant when Mabel arrives, as well as the other girls there to have their babies. Who will tend to these girls when they go into labour in this remote place? With folkloric stories of witches and evil fairies around, plus a deliciously Gothic house, full of atmosphere and and an infestation of fungi, that doesn’t seem to be as straightforward as they might have thought.

I loved this strange gothic mix of the horrors of nature and the supernatural. In the room where he keeps his favourite specimens, Mr Whitlock has a wasp that’s been taken over by a fungus. The life cycle starts when people simply breath in the spores, but then they grow inside the insect until it bursts out of their body. Monstrous births have a rich seam in gothic fiction and it feels like there may be parallels here, especially for Mabel and her ghost baby. By the time Pearl arrives, this mini example of a parasitic fungus is overshadowed by the fungal takeover in the west wing. Despite being closed off, she finds spores growing and multiplying on the stairs. Will it eventually take over the whole of Lichen Hall? There is a sense in which the girl’s pregnancies do seem monstrous. There are descriptions of their babies’ movements such as seeing a tiny foot stretching out the skin on their abdomens, which is amazing but strange all at the same time. Mabel’s boy is beautiful, but its not long before she notices the strange lights appearing from under his skin. What do they signify? Is this the legacy of the ghosts? The atmosphere feels isolated and wild, but weirdly suffocating and claustrophobic at the same time. When walking outside it’s best not to go into the woods where a shadowy figure awaits. It’s terrifying when one of the girls falls trying to escape this creature and it grabs her leg, seemingly able to make clear it’s intention to get ‘inside’ her skin.

The book works really well because the girl’s vulnerable position creates empathy and interest in the reader. We don’t want to see them harmed so there’s tension from the outside as well as that sense of foreboding we get from the atmosphere. I found the parts where the girls are struggling with giving up their babies, terribly moving, especially when some are given no warning or chance to say goodbye. The Whitlocks can only act like this due to the shame attached in society to an unmarried mother. We can see a change in attitudes between Mabel and Pearl’s time at the hall even though its only 6 years. Mabel is very ignorant of sex and motherhood, whereas Pearl is older and a nurse so she has more agency in her decisions. She also slept with a man at a party, after falling out with her true love Sebastian. When he turns up after all this time to the hall, they share a romantic picnic and he declares his love for her. It’s a ray of hope in an otherwise gloomy prospect for the residents of the hall. Pearl chooses to make love with Sebastian, showing a young woman making choices about her sex life, choices that don’t seem as bound up with shame and stigma. For Mabel, her early days at the hall are softened by servant Morwen, who seems to do everything for the family – besides looking after Wulfric. She helps the girls give birth too, a skill that’s severely tested if two girls are in labour at once. The new girls are also expected to help with Wulfric when they can. Mrs Whitlock’s present of some hens and wood to build a coop, felt doomed to failure to me. His erratic behaviour up to this point leaving me constantly in fear for the chicken’s lives. One question kept recurring to me, time and time again. Why are the Whitlocks taking these girls in? Could it be for free labour or is there another, more sinister reason, because the Whitlocks do not seem to be particularly charitable souls.

This is an intensely creepy book from the beginning, but as we start to find new clues it becomes more disturbing still. The strange notes that read ‘Help me’ can only be from one of the hall’s residents but who? Has Mr Whitlock had a more lucid moment? Is it a despairing mother to be who wishes to keep her baby? To be honest, by the time both Mabel and Pearl have been with the Whitlocks a few days, I was screaming at them to get out. It seems strange to me that no one enforces the girl’s stay, so there’s only one reason for their obedience and I think that is shame. Each girl is infested by this destructive emotion: they’ve been made to feel shame because of their behaviour, their condition and their lack of a man to stand by them. In one girl’s case, shame has affected her so strongly that she’s pushed a lot of her experiences into a little box in her mind and keeps them under lock and key. Denial is a very powerful tool that shuns truths that are so scary they would overwhelm us. It’s so terribly sad that the girl’s shame creates an opening for others to exploit and exert power over them, but will they succumb? Or will they find strength from somewhere to resist and discover the truth about this mouldy house and family who live there. This book is a brilliant mix of women’s history, gothic fiction and both psychological and physical deterioration. I’d been a little wary of mushrooms since Silvia Moreno Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, now I’m definitely keeping a lookout for fairy rings when I walk the dogs in the woods.

Published 13th Oct 2022 by Harper Fiction

Meet The Author

C J Cooke (Carolyn Jess-Cooke) lives in Glasgow with her husband and four children. C J Cooke’s works have been published in 23 languages and have won many awards. She holds a PhD in Literature from the Queen’s University of Belfast and is currently Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow, where she researches creative writing interventions for mental health. Two of her books are currently optioned for film. Visit http://www.cjcookeauthor.com.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Lost Ones by Anita Frank

I’m always a real sucker for historical, gothic novels with strong female characters and this is up there with the best. The Lost Ones centres on Miss Stella Marcham and her new lady’s maid Annie Burrows. Stella is still in mourning for her fiancé Gerald who she lost in World War One. She keeps the locket he gave her close to her chest still. When she is invited to stay with her pregnant sister Madeline at her in-laws family home, Greyswick, she looks forward to a change of scenery. She sets out with Annie, who is a new addition to the household staff. Stella is unsure of Annie, but her family’s loyalty to the Burrows is long held and she resolves to get to know the unusual young woman.

Greyswick is a country estate, with formal gardens and ostentatious decor. Madeline is married to the heir of Greyswick, Hector Brightwood, who is away on business in London. At home are his mother Lady Brightwood and her companion Miss Scott, plus their staff, housekeeper Mrs Henge and ‘Cook’ whose name no one uses. However, Stella soon learns that they are not the only residents of her sister’s new home. Madeline confides that she can hear crying in the night and soon Stella finds a toy soldier in her bed. It’s not long before Stella is woken by the crying and follows the sound up the nursery stairs. On the stairs is a vivid portrait of a little boy with a hoop and in the background Stella sees a pile of toy soldiers. The portrait is of Lucien Brightwell, the original heir from Lord Brightwood’s first marriage, who died in a fall down the nursery stairs. This is only one of many secrets being kept by the Brightwood family and Stella senses a mystery to be solved. The creaks, bumps and cries in the night are her only clues.


This book sits in a long tradition and I had thought of Marian from Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White even before Anita Frank mentions the book, as a reading recommendation from one character to another. When Hector returns home, bringing with him Mr Shears, I could sense tension between that old Victorian ideal of men who are ruled by reason and the women who use emotion, instinct and intuition even more. Frank’s book is set post-WW1 and the tensions of this changeable time are apparent. Women’s roles have evolved and Stella represents this change. She expected to be a married woman by now, but has instead chalked up experience nursing wounded soldiers and like most of the country is mourning a terrible loss. She is intelligent and restless after moving back into her ‘normal’ middle class role. She has also undergone psychiatric treatment following her bereavement, complicated by the fact that her severely wounded fiancé was brought to her hospital and care. She fears being thought of as mad or hysterical, so feels a constant pressure to be measured and rational.
Other women in the novel are equally complex and class is another tension. Stella’s family are indebted to the Burrows family after Annie’s father died trying to save the younger sister, Lydia, from a house fire. Annie is acting as lady’s maid, a job beyond her experience, but is also trying to remain under the radar due to her own incredible gift that could mark her out as mad. Since the family lost their main bread winner Annie needs the job and doesn’t want to draw attention to herself, but Stella has her concerns. She has seen Annie talking to empty rooms and knows she saw something on the nursery stairs. Lady Brightwood’s companion Miss Scott lives in a very precarious position too, living with the family but being from a lower class than them. She was once a servant in the house, so how did she become so close to her mistress and does her devotion go beyond that of a companion? Also, what is her relationship with Mrs Henge and why is their contact so secretive?

Finally, the paranormal elements of the book are genuinely scary. The tension ratchets up from small events like the nighttime crying or the marble rolling across the room, both things that could possibly be explained away. Mr Shears tries to find a rational explanation for all of it and I did find myself thinking Annie’s presence was a potential cause. Then slowly, as people start to identify the poltergeist, the ante is upped and more characters experience events that seem impossible. The atmosphere is creepy and unsettling, reminiscent of Susan Hill or Laura Purcell. It also works as a female led detective story and builds to a denouement that doesn’t disappoint. Anyone who loves historical or gothic fiction will enjoy this novel. It’s a great Halloween read that sits beautifully in a genre the Victorians called sensation fiction. Perfectly pitched, beautifully written and full of interesting and complex female characters.

Meet The Author

Born in Shropshire, Anita studied English and American History at the University of East Anglia. She now lives in Berkshire with her husband and three children. Since The Lost Ones Anita has written a second novel, based during and after WW2. Her third novel The Good Liars is another work of historical fiction due out 8th June 2023.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Good Taste by Caroline Scott.

In-between a couple of intense crime reads I was so ready for the comforting nostalgia of Caroline Scott’s new novel. Don’t let my description fool you though. Caroline has a wonderful way of keeping her writing light and soft, but the merest peek under that surface reveals themes that delve so much deeper into society and the historical period of our heroine Stella. Set in the fascinating time period between the two World Wars, England is struggling through a depression and Stella has had something of a life change. It’s 1932 and Stella is facing the first Christmas without her mother. With memories of her mother’s frailty last Christmas and the fear of that obvious empty chair, Stella has moved back from London to a small cottage in the West Riding of Yorkshire in order to be near her father. Money is tight, since her first book The Marvellous Mrs Raffald hasn’t done as well as she’d hoped. Celandine Cottage is rather shabby and Stella is surviving on the money she’s paid by a women’s magazine for writing a weekly article with five new recipes. When she’s summoned to London by her publisher, she’s half expecting her novel to be pulped and although she wants to write a biography of 18th Century cookery writer Hannah Glasse, she’s rather gloomy about her prospects. She’s shocked when he tasks her with a new project – a history of English food. He wants a book that will inspire English housewives and remind English men of a nostalgic past. Although as Stella starts to think about her research, she realises that a lot of food people consider to be quintessentially English, is actually from elsewhere. So she sends out a letter:

Sir,

Would any housewife in your region be kind enough to share a traditional recipe with which she may be acquainted? Is there a favourite pie made by your grandmother? A cake that you fondly recall from childhood? A dish that’s particular to your village? Perhaps a great-aunt left you a hand-written book of her recipes?

This knowledge and these flavours have been passed down to us through the generations. But an urgent effort is required to collect and catalogue these dishes. If you are able to assist with this task, you would be doing a great service.

Please correspond with the address below. I will gratefully acknowledge all contributions,

Stella Douglas

However, as she sets off on her planned route to meet food makers and the nation’s housewives her car breaks down. A dashing young man called Freddie comes to her rescue and her plans move in a different direction, perhaps toward something more imaginative.

I enjoyed Stella, mainly because she is very much the modern woman, living alone and paying her own way at a time when women’s lives changed enormously. During WW1 women were encouraged to work, because they were needed to fulfil job roles that men had left behind as they went to fight in the trenches. Women became more used to living alone, making their own way and working outside of the home so when the war ended and men returned, there was tension. Some men wanted their wives back in the home so they could be breadwinners of their family. However, so many men were lost and injured, so the changes did stand and the following generations of women were keen to shape their own destiny. Stella was enormously likeable and intelligent, very measured in her approach to the task and able to see immediately that it was much more complicated than expected. As she listed those foods seen as English she could see the influence of foreign imports in them, as well as in her spice rack. Even the humble potato conjured up images of the Crusader, Tudor explorers and Dutch horticulturist’s sailing off to the Far East for specimen plants. She spots the massive gap between the perception of Englishness and the reality. In her imagination, cricket teas and church spires clash with a colourful collection of influences, speaking more than a dozen languages. Which history does she want to write and which is her publisher expecting?

I was rooting for Stella from the start, especially when her plans started to go awry, and I found her reminiscences of her mother so touching. Caroline taps into that nostalgic aspect of food and the way foods from our childhood hold a particular place in our hearts, with just a whiff or taste bringing up strong emotions of where we were or who we were with. One sniff of a newly opened tin of Quality Street sends me rocketing back to the late 1970s and my Aunty Joan who would buy us one each year along with a goodie bag of colouring pens with colouring and puzzle books. Bread toasted under a gas grill with salted butter takes me to my grandma’s kitchen as she brushed my hair and put a bow in it. The beautifully hand-written notebooks that belonged to her mother are like a time machine for Stella, all the more emotive now her mother is gone after a battle with cancer. They cause tears to well up, but also allow Stella to smile at her precious memories of surreptitiously sharing the first slice of a roasted lamb joint. This is the first time she has been able to think of her mother with joy as well as sadness.

‘As Stella read, the shadows in the room lightened, the gramophone played again distantly and order seemed to return to the world

Another aspect of Caroline’s writing I love is the extensive research that lies underneath a relatively gentle tale. I felt immediately immersed in the 1930’s, with even little asides about fashion like Stella’s felt cloche with a frivolous ostrich feather and her Liberty & Co coat, placing her firmly in time. As Stella reminisces about her time in Paris with her friend Michael, we’re there as she wanders through cellar clubs and tastes cocktails in Montparnasse, it sounds like there’s a hint of romance in her memory of dancing barefoot with him on a warm pavement. Something about their relationship is alluring and it’s as if she’s only just started to really see her friend and his incredibly blue eyes. Her surprise when she finds out he’s in a new relationship is obvious and this isn’t just any woman he’s involved with, it’s Cynthia Palmer, a beautiful model and artist. Where will Stella fit in?

The historical detail of English food is fascinating and it was interesting to hear ideas from the early 20th Century that we still talk about today in terms of sustainability and frugality. When it comes to meat there’s ‘nose to tail’ eating, making sure every part of the animal is used – they clearly had a better stomach for offal than we do today. There’s the concept of eating locally and growing your own food. There were also criticisms that are obviously age old, such as feeling young people have forgotten how to cook from scratch and are becoming dependent on gadgets and what we now call time saving hacks. She seems to sense another trend that I thought was current; the concern that we almost fetishise food with our devotion to baking and other cooking shows, while at home we’re cooking from scratch less and less. When it comes to what and how we eat, and even what we call our mealtimes, there are definitely divides between town and country, between the wealthy and the poor, and variations between North and South. I loved the eccentricity of some of the characters she meets and neighbour Dilys was a favourite of mine. Having a mum who flirted with vegetarianism and haunted the health food shop, Dilys’s devotion to pulses and lentils stirred up a childhood food memory of my own – a terrible shepherd’s pie with no shepherds just acres of lentils, called Red Dragon Pie. The only red thing about it were the acres of ketchup we used to give it some flavour. I loved her bohemian air and she seemed startlingly modern compared to Stella who’s a little more ‘proper’. The roguish Freddie was also rather fun and very charming of course. Caroline has a wonderful way of balancing all this. She tantalises us with period detail and charming characters, throws in some humour, while also showing us the grittier underbelly of life in a depression and those moments of grief for her mother that Stella experiences, which are so beautifully rendered. Caroline makes this look incredibly easy when in reality it’s such a complex juggling act, one that she pulls off beautifully.

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. Her book The Photographer of the Lost was a BBC Book Club pick.

Posted in Netgalley

The Good Servant by Fern Britton

I wrote this review a fortnight ago, before the events of the last week. I’m always torn at times when there’s huge royal news, because I’m caught up between my ideals and the sheer spectacle of the event. It’s a trick that Kings and Queens have used throughout history, knowing that they are unpopular with some elements of society, they use the pomp and ceremony to charm and overwhelm them. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard someone interviewed this week and they’ve said ‘I’m not really a Royalist, but the Queen’s done a great job, or has been a constant presence in my life.’ In a time of recession and a cost of living crisis, I have still seen people subjected to a ‘pile on’ on social media if they’ve dared to suggest that the state funeral will be costing a fortune. Heaven forbid they mention the problematic aspects of Queen Elizabeth’s reign from imperialism to her steadfast support of her son Andrew. I think when someone has lived as long as Queen Elizabeth, there will always be societal changes that cast earlier choices in a bad light. However, I do have a complex relationship with the Royal Family, from really loving Princess Diana when I was a little girl, to learning more about the aspects I find worrying, such as the denial of the Queen’s two Bowes-Lyon cousins who had multiple disabilities and were placed in an institution, but declared as dead. I hate the way Diana and now the Duchess of Suffolk were treated and how the love lives of Princess Margaret and even the now King, Charles III, were meddled with by older family members. I was shocked to realise that Prince Phillip’s sisters were married to members of the Nazi Party. The goings on behind the scenes are always fascinating though. The shadowy men in grey suits who actually run the show, schooled in the constitution and making sure that what comes first is the crown above all. It was this behind the scenes fascination that brought this book to my attention. I’ll admit that I’m usually a bit of a snob when it comes to celebrity books. Comedians and journalists are writing all the time, but when someone’s a presenter I never know what I’m going to get from a novel. I gave this a go because of how interested I am in the history of the Royal Family and I should admit to being an avid watcher of The Crown. I thought the story might be diverting at least, but I was actually pleasantly surprised to find myself truly involved with the story of Crawfie.

Fern Britton’s novel takes us back to London between the wars, a rather turbulent time of constant change; socially, economically and culturally. We travel back and forth between 1932 and 1936. In 1932 Marion Crawford is looking forward to a career as a teacher, when an opportunity presents itself. Unexpectedly, she is offered the role of governess to two Princesses. Elizabeth and Margaret are the granddaughters of George V from his second son, the Duke of York and his wife Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (our Queen Mum). Just four years later and a huge change rocks the royal household, George V’s death paves the way for his eldest son David to succeed him as King. Choosing the regnal name Edward VIII, he is a rather controversial figure amongst the establishment, often disregarding court protocol and conventions and sometimes appearing too political. Edward causes concerns in his choice of companion too, the twice divorced American Wallis Simpson. His abdication, to marry the woman he loves changes the course of history and everyday life for the princesses and their governess. This unexpected constitutional crisis means Crawfie’s life will change forever. It has already been an adjustment to become part of a royal household and now she finds herself in this new position with new responsibilities – governess to the future Queen. The author really does portray this change well, always relating back to how this feels for our heroine, an ordinary young girl given extraordinary responsibility. Marion Crawford is our representative in this novel; the ordinary person living in the extraordinary. As a result we see familiar events from history made immediate and brought vividly to life, with the same sense of wonder and bewilderment that Crawfie feels.

I felt I was in the hands of an expert storyteller as this novel unfolded and I did feel Crawfie’s trepidation at the changes this brought to her life. It was so refreshing to see a well documented part of history told from the angle of a worker in the household, but someone who is neither upstairs or downstairs, but in that liminal role of governess. She is respectable, but not royal. She works for the family, but isn’t a servant. It’s a unique position, but sometimes a lonely one too. She is at the very heart and the future of the Royal Family, but will never be one of them. The author really brought this home to me, the individual working with the Royals must be available whenever they’re needed, no matter how lowly the position. It’s her future and position in this household that Crawfie must consider when she falls in love with George. He may be the love of her life, but can she choose him over her life with the princesses? I loved the sense of loyalty she feels, both to the Crown and her young charges. If she chooses them, their lives will become her life and they will be her children. Would this loyalty be repaid?

I won’t spoil the book by talking about the reality of Marion Crawford’s decision at this time and how her life played out, but she was torn between George and the royals her entire life. The author has told a story that’s an incredible glimpse into the Royal Family at this turbulent time. I felt like I was there as a fly on the wall! I ended up whipping through the story so quickly, possibly because it flows beautifully. There is no doubt about the extensive research that’s gone into the novel, but it wears this research lightly and never lapses into telling us what happened rather than showing us. This is both charming and thought provoking, giving us a glimpse of what it means to have a sense of duty, whether as a Queen or her governess. This was made all the more poignant this week, when most people who were asked what they admired about our Queen said it was her incredible sense of duty. Of course that duty can be eased by the riches and privilege of being a head of state. It must be so much harder to have such a strong sense of duty and loyalty without those benefits or the companionship of a family. Fern Britton has really brought a minor player in the history of our Royal Family to life with this novel and it would draw me to her writing in the future.

Published by Harper Collins 9th June 2022.

Meet The Author

Fern Britton is an English television presenter and journalist who has worked in current affairs and Newsrooms since 1980. In the 1990’s she hosted Ready Steady Cook for the BBC and through the 2000’s presented ITV’s flagship daytime magazine This Morning. Since then she has discovered the joy of writing novels and The Good Servant is her tenth. It is a breakaway from her usual theme of Cornish village life by the sea. The Good Servant focuses on a real woman who spent her twenties and thirties devoted to Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret as children. Fern lives in Cornwall with her four children and three cats.

Posted in Fiction Preview 2022

Sunday Spotlight! Autumn Fiction: Historical Fiction and Romance.

I simply love Historical Fiction and have a large section of my library dedicated to it. My favourite periods of history include the Wars of the Roses, The Tudors, Victorian England, and post-WW1. I’m interested in the Early Twentieth Century too: that shift from the 19th Century brings with it as huge change in women’s fashion, the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau, WW1 and social change. I love it all. These choices range from the 18th Century onwards all the way up to the present day.

Here it was that the ships sailed to San Francisco and further north.
Here the Yoeme prisoners would have disembarked.
Here the singer may have stood.
Here she stands.

She should never have come.

Anna Hope’s latest novel is wildly ambitious with characters from across the centuries but in the same geographical space. The White Rock stands, ancient and sacred, off the Pacific coast of Mexico. Four people, across four centuries, each navigating ruptures to the world they know, are irresistibly drawn to it.

2020: A British writer travels with her husband to give thanks for the birth of their child.
1969: An American rock star runs from the law in the final act of his self-destruction.
1907: A Yoeme girl is torn from her homeland and taken by force to the coast. 
1775: A Spanish naval officer prepares to set sail to continue the conquest of the Pacific coast. 

As the White Rock bears witness to the truth that they are not the first to face days of reckoning, is there still a chance they might not be the last?

Published by Penguin Fig Tree on 20th August 2022

Another author whose last book I loved is Francis Quinn and this looks to be brilliant too. So much so that I have pre-ordered a very special copy. She creates such living and breathing characters that I feel they exist outside the novel! This one has such a great name too. It’s usual, they say, for a young person coming to London for the first time to arrive with a head full of dreams. Well, Endurance Proudfoot did not. When she stepped off the coach from Sussex, on a warm and sticky afternoon in the summer of 1757, it never occurred to her that the city would be the place where she’d make her fortune; she was just very annoyed to be arriving there at all.

Meet Endurance Proudfoot, the bonesetter’s daughter: clumsy as a carthorse, with a tactless tongue and a face she’s sure only a mother could love. Durie only wants one thing in life – to follow her father and grandfather into the family business of bonesetting. It’s a physically demanding job, requiring strength, nerves of steel and discretion – and not the job for a woman. But Durie isn’t like other women. She’s strong and stubborn and determined to get her own way. And she finds that she has a talent at bonesetting – her big hands and lack of grace have finally found their natural calling.

So, when she is banished to London with her sister, who is pretty, delicate and exactly the opposite to Durie in every way, Durie will not let it stop her realising her dreams. And while her sister will become one of the first ever Georgian celebrities, Durie will become England’s first and most celebrated female bonesetter. But what goes up must come down, and Durie’s elevated status may well become her undoing. I love that the author’s main characters represent difference. Her hero in The Smallest Man, Nat Davey the Queen’s dwarf. Endurance isn’t the delicate, feminine woman we expect in the 18th Century. She’s big in body and personality. More heroines like this please!

Published by Simon and Schuster U.K. 5th October 2022

William Boyd’s incredible novel Any Human Heart is one of my favourite books of all time. So I’m always looking out for a new novel. I haven’t yet read The Romantic but I’m looking forward to it as there’s a comparison to be made with one of my other favourite novels, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.

Soldier. Farmer. Felon. Writer. Father. Lover.
One man, many lives.

From one of Britain’s best-loved and bestselling writers comes an intimate yet panoramic novel set across the nineteenth century. Born in 1799, Cashel Greville Ross experiences myriad lives: joyous and devastating, years of luck and unexpected loss. Moving from County Cork to London, from Waterloo to Zanzibar, Cashel seeks his fortune across continents in war and in peace. He faces a terrible moral choice in a village in Sri Lanka as part of the East Indian Army. He enters the world of the Romantic Poets in Pisa. In Ravenna he meets a woman who will live in his heart for the rest of his days. As he travels the world as a soldier, a farmer, a felon, a writer, a father, a lover, he experiences all the vicissitudes of life and, through the accelerating turbulence of the nineteenth century, he discovers who he truly is. This is the romance of life itself, and the beating heart of The Romantic.

Published by Penguin- Fig Tree 6th October 2022.

For as long as Signa Farrow has been alive, the people in her life have fallen like stars . . .

Described as ‘a deliciously deadly Gothic romance’ by Stephanie Garber, this book feels like a guilty pleasure. Nineteen-year-old Signa, orphaned as a baby, has been raised by a string of guardians, each more interested in her wealth than her wellbeing – and each has met an untimely end. Her remaining relatives are the elusive Hawthornes, an eccentric family living at Thorn Grove, an estate both glittering and gloomy. It’s patriarch mourns his late wife through wild parties, while his son grapples for control of the family’s waning reputation and his daughter suffers from a mysterious illness. But when their mother’s restless spirit appears claiming she was poisoned, Signa realizes that the family she depends on could be in grave danger, and enlists the help of a surly stable boy to hunt down the killer. Signa’s best chance of uncovering the murderer, though, is an alliance with Death himself, a fascinating, dangerous shadow who has never been far from her side. Though he’s made her life a living hell, Death shows Signa that their growing connection may be more powerful – and more irresistible – than she ever dared imagine. This sounds delicious, with all the themes I love – gothic fiction, love, romance, desire and betrayal.

Published by Hodder & Stoughton 30th August 2022.

Back to the 21st Century for this new novel from Rachel Marks. I love her novels because they are so well observed and feel real. I feel like I could go to the local supermarket and bump into one of her characters. Her books are a great combination of romance and characters with real human flaws. Our couple this time are Jamie and Lucy, and from their very first date, they know they’ve met THE ONE. They’re as different as night and day. Jamie’s a home bird, while Lucy’s happiest on holiday. He has a place for everything – she can never find her keys. Yet, somehow, they make each other happier than they ever thought possible. So why does their story start with them saying ‘goodbye’? And does this really have to be the end . . . ? Described as relatable, romantic and heartbreakingly real, HELLO, STRANGER proves that the best love stories often have the most unexpected endings. What I love most about her books is the work her characters do on themselves, whether that’s having therapy, visiting AA or just asking someone else for help. She leaves the reader with a sense of hope, that we can change for the better. This is so uplifting and inspiring.

Published by Penguin- Michael Joseph on August 18th 2022.

Posted in Personal Purchase

The Lighthouse Bookshop by Sharon Gosling

Doesn’t that sound completely enchanting? A lighthouse bookshop. Years ago on holiday near Hexham, I was standing outside in the twilight watching bats when I noticed a steady flashing white light in the distance. Between us friends we discussed what it might be and without really thinking I said ‘ is it the lighthouse?’ A male friend, somewhat scornfully, said ‘not unless it’s an inland lighthouse.’ I vowed from that moment to write a children’s book about a girl who builds an inland lighthouse as a metaphor for all those ideas women have that get shot down by men. I even wrote a quick version in my writing journal. This week I’m still recovering from a series of neurotomy procedures in my back and I wanted something to read that was easy to get into, where I’d be taken into a different place and community and be charmed. I should have known to go for Sharon Gosling, whose books set in a beautiful and remote corner of Scotland are always diverting with characters you can get attached to. Here we meet Rachel, who runs an extraordinary bookshop in Newton Dunbar built on the side of a hill miles away from the sea. Owned by elderly resident Cullen, it was designed as a library back in the 18th Century by one of Cullen’s ancestors James Macdonald. Rachel took on the job of looking after the bookshop several years ago and lives in the charming but tiny accommodation upstairs. Yet, life never stays the same for long and new people start to come into Rachel’s comfortable world; young, homeless girl Gilly and investigative journalist Toby, who’s recovering from a traumatic incident where he was shot. Yet these aren’t the only changes coming Rachael’s way as she loses someone close to her and makes an incredible discovery.

Gosling’s characters, particularly the women, are so well created and intriguing. Most have interesting and complex pasts that unravel as we go along with the main story. Gilly is a resourceful, but scared and closed-off teenager. She’s been sleeping in a tent in nearby woodland, until local developer and villain of the piece Dora McCreedy comes along. She finds the tent on her land and instead of allowing Gilly to move on, she takes a knife to the only thing keeping Gilly from the elements. As both Rachel and local artist Edie start to become closer to the girl, they begin to wonder what has sent this girl running and how can they help without sending her scurrying for the hills. Rachel realises more than most that it’s a tentative friendship growing between them, Gilly can’t be rushed into accepting help and they must take it at her pace. She knows this because it’s only five years since she turned up in a camper van and Cullen took her under his wing. She never talks about her past and while the friends she has made in the village ask no questions, Toby’s instinct is to root out the truth. Will he be able to resist digging, while helping research the library’s history and what might his discoveries mean for Rachel and their friendship? Edie was my favourite character. A rather irascible and formidable lady in her sixties who makes a living from her art, creating prints of the lighthouse and beautiful countryside surrounding the village. Edie has a natural elegance and a rather no nonsense manner, especially when it comes to neighbour Ezra and his marauding goat. I loved the relationship she builds with Gilly and the ‘will they – won’t they’ romance she’s embroiled in.

As you might realise from my opening, the plot based around the lighthouse’s history was really interesting to me and I loved how the mystery unfolded as Rachel found a hatch to the top level of the lighthouse. She finds it never had a light, but it did have a purpose that takes her and Toby back to James McDonald and the tragic love story passed down about his wife. Eveline is known as another madwoman in the attic, a woman who descends into madness and burns down their mansion. Using old documents in a local archive as well as finds from the gatehouse where Cullen lived, they start to piece together the true history of a couple trying to get over the worst loss they could ever experience. All this in the midst of a land grab by Dora McCreedy who would level the tower in order to make an access road for her residential development and the true heir to the McDonald’s fortune deciding whether or not to sell. It’s tense and while Toby desperately looks for a way to preserve the bookshop and Rachel’s home. The conclusion is satisfying, romantic and left me with a smile on my face. Exactly what the doctor ordered.

Published 18th August 2022 by Simon and Schuster U.K.

Meet The Author

Sharon started her writing career as an entertainment journalist, as a reviewer of science fiction and fantasy books. She went on to become a staff writer and then an editor for print magazines. Her beginning in books was as a writer of non-fiction ‘making-of’ books tied in to film and television including The Art and Making of Penny Dreadful and Wonder Woman: The Art and Making of the Film. Sharon now writes both children’s and adult fiction – her first novel was called The Diamond Thief, a Victorian-set steampunk adventure book for the middle grade age group, which won the Redbridge Children’s prize in 2014. She wrote two more books in the series before moving on to other adventure books including The Golden Butterfly, which was nominated for the Carnegie Award in 2017, The House of Hidden Wonders, and a YA horror called FIR, which was shortlisted for the Lancashire Book of the Year Award in 2018.

Her debut adult novel was published by Simon & Schuster in August 2021. It was called The House Beneath the Cliffs, set in a very small coastal village in Scotland. Her adult fiction tends to centre on small communities – feel-good tales about how we find where we belong in life and what it means when we do. You can find my review of this novel in the archive. Sharon lives in a small village in northern Cumbria with her husband, who owns a bookshop in the nearby market town of Penrith.