Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Dressmaker’s Gift by Fiona Valpy.

This book was a real hidden gem. I love fashion, so the idea of a dress that can transform the wearer’s through the years – the midnight blue satin, made of many pieces but with such tiny stitches it appears as if one piece of fabric – really appealed to me. Added to this, my in-laws history of escaping the Warsaw ghetto – at 8 years old in one case, and being sent to Siberia in the other – means I am interested in the threads of family history at a time of turmoil. My late husband’s family has its own incredible story with repercussions that echo down the generation , so I understand that lives can be displaced and changed beyond recognition, with the results of that still being felt two generations later,

It is Harriet’s love for fashion and an old photograph that leads her to the door of a Paris fashion PR for a year long internship. She is loaned a room in the apartment above the office alongside another girl. Harriet knows this is the very apartment where her grandmother Clare lived in the 1940s. She has left behind a difficult situation!. Having finished university Harriet has been living with her father and stepmother, where she has never felt welcome. Her father sent Harriet to boarding school when he first lived with her stepmom, following her mums death. Her father seemed to find it difficult to cope with a grieving daughter and a burgeoning relationship. One of Harriet’s most treasured possessions is the photo she has of her grandmother Claire and her two best friends in Paris, Mirreile and Vivi. She also has a charm bracelet given by her grandmother and it’s charms show Harriet a story of who her grandmother was. When we are taken back into the past we learn more about these three women. All work in an atelier for the Paris fashion houses. We find out that Claire and Mirreille lived upstairs first, but are later joined by Vivi. All three are great seamstresses and are quick to become friends.

When the Germans arrive in Paris at first is it easy to carry on as normal. Yes, there are more German voices in the cafes and bars, more German vehicles in the streets, but people still order couture clothes. However, as the war really starts to bite things begin to change. The girls friendship survives Claire’s disastrous dalliance with a German officer, but afterwards she notices a difference in her friends. What mysterious work is Vivi doing in the atelier after hours? Who is the gentleman Mirreille is seen with and why is she often missing after curfew? The girls are about to be involved in the war in ways they didn’t imagined; ways that could mean paying the ultimate price.

Just like the stitches in a beautiful garments the threads of history are so beautifully intertwined with the fictional story of the girls. I read Alice Hoffman’s new novel in the last few weeks and it is also set in 1940s Paris so it was interesting to see the same historic events from a different viewpoint. I could see how much research the author had done and her skill in mentioning actual events without them feeling tacked on to the girls story was brilliant, I slowly came to care about each of the girls and although Vivi seems less accessible than the other two at first, it was interesting to see how central to Harriet’s history she becomes.

The detail is often harrowing to read and the idea that trauma can be passed through generations is one I’m familiar with because I’m a therapist and have read the same research as the author. She uses this beautifully in the novel, illustrating that the German’s horrendous acts of cruelty were on such a scale that it echoes down to the next generation. It is only when someone identifies the trauma in their family and gets professional help to let go of it’s effects, that someone can start to heal. I think I expected this book to be lighter and more focused on fashion from the blurb, but what I got was far superior: an incredible story of friendship and survival. I would definitely recommend it to friends.

Meet The Author

Fiona is an acclaimed number 1 bestselling author, whose books have been translated into more than twenty different languages worldwide.She draws inspiration from the stories of strong women, especially during the years of World War II. Her meticulous historical research enriches her writing with an evocative sense of time and place.

She spent seven years living in France, having moved there from the UK in 2007, before returning to live in Scotland. Her love for both of these countries, their people and their histories, has found its way into the books she’s written. Fiona says, “To be the first to hear about my NEW releases, please visit my website at http://www.fionavalpy.com and subscribe to the mailing list. I promise not to share your e-mail and I’ll only contact you when a new book is out.”

Posted in Publisher Proof, Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight: All About Evie by Matson Taylor

So I’m having a book blogger’s dilemma. The arrival of this book through the door made me do a little Snoopy dance! There are a few books I’ve earmarked as my most anticipated summer reads, but this is right up there as my mostest anticipated novel. I know, we bloggers do love to throw out superlatives here and there, but I’ve honestly been waiting for this book ever since I finished The Misadventures of Evie Epworth two summers ago. Now I’m in an awful quandary. I want to devour it in one go, but once I do, the moment will have passed and Evie is gone again. I don’t know whether Evie’s story ends this time, or whether there’s more to come, so I’m trying to hang on for a little while, at least until my fellow Squadettes are reading so we can talk about it.

If you haven’t read Matson Taylor’s first novel then where have you been? I think this is one book where reading the previous instalment of Evie’s adventures is really helpful. You have a whole new literary heroine to meet and I think knowing where Evie comes from is vital in understanding her. I’m not going to use spoilers so it’s safe to read on. In book one we met Evie in the 1960’s, the summer after O’Levels and before A Levels. Her only plans for the summer are reading, helping their elderly neighbour with her baking and, most importantly, getting rid of her dad’s girlfriend who would like to see Evie working through her summer at the local salon. Christine has moved in and is slowly trying to erase everything Evie loves about the farmhouse, including her Adam Faith wall clock and that won’t do. Evie and her dad would like things to stay as they were when her Mum was alive. They love their Aga and old country kitchen, but Christine wants Formica and a new cooker that’s easier to clean. Her wardrobes are wall to wall pink, synthetic fabrics and she colonises the kitchen with her Mum and lumpen friend, who’re usually in tow. Her dad can’t seem to see that his girlfriend and daughter don’t get along, there’s quite a lot of avoidance practised here, he’s often got his head in the newspaper or listening to the cricket scores, or just popping out for a pint. Whatever the tactic, it means he hasn’t heard anything. This problem needs another woman to solve it. So, when her neighbour has an accident and her daughter Caroline arrives to look after her, the three women put their heads together to deal with the problem, just in time for the village fete and baking competition.

All About Evie starts ten years on from the previous novel with Evie settled in London and working at the BBC. She has all the things a 70’s girl could wish for – including an Ozzie Clark poncho. Then disaster hits. An incident with Princess Anne and a Hornsea Pottery mug means she must have a rethink about her future. So what can she do next? Will she be too old to do it? Most importantly, will it involve cork soled sandals? I have no qualms in saying this is my most anticipated book of the summer. I think I’ll have to compromise and as soon as I have a two week gap from blog tours I’ll be delving in to find out what happens next….

I’ll keep you informed.

Published by Scribner U.K. 21st July 2022.

Posted in Netgalley, Squad Pod

That Green-Eyed Girl by Julie Owen Moylan

The drinks glass and flashes of almost neon colour on this book’s cover were striking on NetGalley. To me they signified city living, the bar scene and potential for glitz and glamour – I’ve probably watched too much Sex and the City. However, the women depicted here were a long way from flashy, fashionista, New York City Girls. In fact there are only a couple of nights out in the whole book. This is a different NYC, where real people live and work day to day, just trying to get by in a city that’s exciting, but expensive and tough. In a split narrative, set partly in 1955 and partly in 1975, this is a novel that writes back to women’s history. It opened my eyes to a time when women were persecuted for the way they choose to live their lives. In 1955 Dovie Carmichael and her friend Gillian work together as teachers and share an apartment. The friends have a lot in common: they love jazz, a glass of whiskey at night and lazy Sundays at home. The pair guard their private time very carefully, until one day when the wrong person gets a glimpse into their lives, changing everything. Twenty years later teenager Ava Winter lives in the same apartment with her Mum and her Dad, when he’s around and not with his mistress. Ava’s mum is not well mentally and Ava is struggling to live a normal teenage life, preferring to stay home to keep an eye on her. She becomes fascinated with a mysterious box and letter sent to their address from France. Inside are letters, a butterfly necklace and a photograph with LIAR scrawled across a woman’s face. Ava wants to know the story behind the box. Who was this woman, that lived in her home and what do the letters say?

The theme that stood out to me more than anything was loneliness. I felt a contrast between the huge open city and the small private spaces where secrets are kept. The characters I felt most connection with were Ava and Dovie, both struggling to keep secrets about their living situation. The mistake Dovie and Gillian make allows a very manipulative woman to take advantage of them. Judith works at the same school and does come across as a lonely woman, but has allowed her situation to develop bitterness and envy in her character. In the guise of struggling to find an affordable apartment, she inveigles her way into Dovie and Gillian’s home and relationship. It’s clear she wants friends, but seemingly can’t stand to see two people who are happy in each other’s company and if she can’t have it for herself she might just set out to destroy it. Ava is also lonely and I think she senses a similar feeling in the box of keepsakes she discovers, it’s that connection with the sender’s loneliness that makes her so determined to find the person this box was meant for. It’s also a distraction from how miserable her own life is. With her mum and dad estranged she is often solely looking after her mother who seems severely depressed and liable to harm herself. It’s almost a role reversal, with Ava looking after her welfare instead of the other way round. I felt deeply for this young girl going through the usual teenage phases of a crush on a boy in the neighbourhood, a worry about how she looks and fitting in, and both the anticipation and fear of what comes next in life. On top of this her father uses his precious time with Ava to chat up the waitress in their favourite diner. Her mother is deteriorating, screaming and muttering through the night and Ava is so worried about the neighbours hearing her or her friend finding out what home is really like since her dad left. The scenes of her alone in their cold apartment, willing her mum to settle for the night and wishing her dad was there, were vivid and moving.

Whether in New York or Paris the settings are beautifully evoked and I could feel the change in time period from just a few well written sentences. Even the usually romantic Paris has it’s downsides because this is the reality of living there, rather than the dream. I felt the author really got under the surface of these cities and showed me what it was like to be a New Yorker. I found the LGBTQ+ scene so interesting and the contrast between women who kept their relationships secret, with more openly gay women in NYC or Paris, was beautifully portrayed. Dovie has never ventured into meeting other women and the scene where she visits a club stayed with me. There’s an innocence about Dovie that contrasts sharply with the sophisticated women she sees there, some of whom are scathing of Dovie’s lack of knowledge about being openly lesbian in 1955. I don’t think she really understood the danger she faced which could be anything from losing her job to being arrested or put into an asylum. I was just as shocked to realise that women who were open about their sexuality, or discovered, were subject to arrest and even ECT treatment to curb their ‘unnatural’ activities or desires. The nightclub raid where Dovie is helped to escape through a bathroom window is unbelievably tense and so poignant when we realise it’s link to 1975. The way police manhandle and sexually assault the women reminded me of how the suffragettes were treated so many decades earlier. The idea was to break the women’s resolve and remind them what they were really for – the amusement, desires and dominance of men. Reading these women’s experiences made me so angry, but also opened a door into a world I am ashamed to say I knew little about. At heart this is a love story and all the way through I wanted to know what had happened in that apartment in 1955 and I also hoped that Ava would find the intended recipient of the box from Paris. For me this book had a similar impact to the television series It’s A Sin. This was an emotionally captivating story that’s sure to stay with me and has inspired me to read more about the history of sexuality and the fight LGBTQ+ people still have for equal rights across the globe. It left me with a lump in my throat, thinking about how love can last a lifetime, even beyond separations and loss. I really look forward to reading more from this talented author in the future.

Meet The Author

Julie Owen Moylan is a writer whose short stories and articles have appeared in New Welsh ReviewHorizon Literary Review, and The Voice of Women in Wales Anthology

She has also written and directed several short films as part of her MA in Film. Her graduation short film called ‘BabyCakes’ scooped Best Film awards at the Swansea Film Festival, Ffresh, and the Celtic Media Awards. She also has an MA in Creative Writing, and is an alumna of the Faber Academy’s Writing a Novel course. 

Her debut novel THAT GREEN EYED GIRL was published by Penguin Michael Joseph on May 12 2022.

She is currently working on her second novel SPANGLELAND

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 Publisher Proof

The Midnight House by Amanda Geard

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 and prevent all and sundry from knowing about her return, 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 and her mother’s chatty friend Tabby Ryan. Tabby has set aside 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, but she tries to do the right thing and return it. At the hall she meets Albert, the lone member of the Rathmore family left behind, but he seems confused about who Ellie is and keeps asking for his mother. Her concern for Albert leads her to his son Milo, but also 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?

The author tells the story across three timelines. We travel back to Blackwater Hall and Nancy’s first visit to meet her boyfriend Teddy Rathmore’s family. This timelines really establishes the characters within the Rathmore family and the beginning of a friendship between Nancy and Teddy’s sister Charlotte. This is before WWII and the aristocratic family are thriving, but there are little hints of a change on the horizon. Charlotte has rebellion and adventure in her soul, while Teddy is ready and somewhat relieved to strike out into a new life with Nancy, since elder brother Hugo carries the pressure of being the heir apparent. The present day timeline with Ellie shows she is an interesting character in her own right. There’s some resistance to becoming comfortable back home, even though she’s finding it suits her in some respects. She may be uprooting other people’s secrets, but theres a sense she has some of her own lurking under the surface; a possible broken relationship and a reluctance to talk about it that intrigued me and made me want to know more. In these split timeline narratives there’s often a lack of character or strong storyline in the present day, leaving the reader more intrigued with the past and creating an imbalance to the story. The reader can find themselves racing through the present bits to get to the ‘real’ story. The author doesn’t fall into that trap here, Ellie is interesting in her own right and her journey feels important too. The third timeline is something of a surprise as we follow a little girl called Hattie at Blackwater House and her emerging friendship with gardener and handyman Tomas. She is interested in how he makes things grow and starts to help him planting the potato crop in the garden. There’s a connection between these two that’s immediate and I was touched by them, possibly remembering days in the garden shed with my Grandad, tying onions up and hanging them from the ceiling and chitting potatoes. Tomas isn’t always the calm and shy man he is with Hattie and if he hears a bang, particularly a gunshot, he is back at war in an instant. His solitary and quiet work is clearly important in managing his PTSD. I was immediately drawn to this character and intrigued by his possible importance to the Rathmore’s story.

There are other flashbacks too, a section from the Blitz in London is particularly tense and heartbreaking. The author describes the air raids from the Lufwaffe so clearly I felt I was there with the characters. I thought the sense of foreboding was incredible and the slow realisation of the danger the characters were in was beautifully written. She captures the terrifying sense that the help needed, the help that’s usually there, is out of reach and something terrible might happen. The damage wrought in these streets and the fortitude of the people caught up there was powerfully portrayed and really gripped my emotions. I felt the author balanced those moments of terrible tension and drama beautifully with the lightness of rural Ireland and the people Ellie meets in her old neighbourhood. This is a place where only those in the big house were able to keep their secrets and everyone knows everyone. The people are strong, community minded and often Ellie’s interactions with them have a light humour about them, while avoiding caricature. I enjoyed her growing friendship with Milo Rathmore – another returnee to the village, now the village GP and carer for his father Albert. He is from Ellie’s world and the pair can look at the place with a critical eye, but also a good humoured and fond heart. I was interested in whether Ellie’s more recent personal issues would come to light. Could she finally confide in her mother and accept someone’s comfort and care, despite that solid streak of independence? I also wondered whether her career would ever be restored and if she could return, would she want to? Mostly though I was interested in what had happened to Charlotte, this beautiful, rebellious girl with so much spirit. I couldn’t believe she would kill herself, but feared that her true end was even more heartbreaking. That extra timeline post WWII also held surprises I really didn’t expect. Despite wanting all the answers I was sorry when this novel ended and there’s no better compliment than that.

Meet the Author

The inspiration for The Midnight House appeared in the rafters of our home, a two-hundred-year-old stone building perched on the edge of the Atlantic. Hidden there was a message, scratched into wood: ‘When this comes down, pray for me. Tim O’Shea 1911’. As I held that piece of timber in my hands, dust clinging to my paint-stained clothes, I was humbled that a person’s fingerprint could, in a thousand ways, transcend time, and I wanted nothing more than to capture that feeling of discovery on the page. I have always loved dual-timeline novels, where stories from the past weave with those of the present day. I want to write books that transport you to another time and place, where secrets lie just beneath the surface if only the characters know where to look.

Before all this, I was a geologist exploring the world’s remote places. Luckily for me, writing novels provides a similar sense of wonder and discovery; but the warm office, fresh food and a shower in the evening make the conditions rather more comfortable! The wild weather of County Kerry, where I live with my husband and two red setters, gives me the perfect excuse to regularly curl up by a fire with a great novel. I treasure my reading time, and I know you do too, so thank you for taking a chance on my books.

Come over to Instagram and Twitter (@amandageard) where I share plenty of photos of the wild settings in The Midnight House. You can also find me on Facebook (@amandageardauthor).

Taken from Amanda’s Amazon Author Page.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Elizabeth of York: The Last White Rose by Alison Weir

I love novels of courtly intrigue, in fact at my previous home I had shelves placed in the alcoves either side of the fireplace and one whole side was devoted to books on the Tudors and the Wars of the Roses. So the story of Elizabeth of York is familiar to me, but I love Alison Weir’s books and I was interested to see her take on this incredibly important Queen. As Alison Weir states in her afterword, Elizabeth is at the juncture of several important events in England’s royal history. There’s the instability caused by the Wars of the Roses or Cousin’s War, with battles, changes of allegiance and her family’s fortunes rising and falling with every intrigue. There are parts of her life shrouded in mystery and with differing viewpoints from historical researchers and novelists. I have always wondered how her relationship with Richard III changed from niece and uncle, to prospective wife. I have read accounts that suggest an affair between the two, one that took place in front of Richard’s sick wife Anne Neville and was branded scandalous in the court. I wanted to read Alison Weir’s take on this strangely incestuous relationship, whether Elizabeth was complicit and desired the match or whether this was a political match – suggested by Richard who wished to legitimise his rule, above the claim to the crown held by Elizabeth’s brothers and sons of Edward IV. Did Elizabeth, and her mother Katherine Woodville, see this as the only way to secure their family’s safety under Richard’s rule? The other mystery is that of the missing princes in the tower, a subject Alison Weir has looked at closely before. Some accounts suggest a conspiracy drawn up by Henry VII’s mother Margaret Stanley, to advance her son’s claim to the throne and label Richard III forever as guilty of regicide and killing his own nephews. Others lay the blame squarely at Richard’s door, for arranging their murder then forever hiding their remains so they couldn’t even have a proper burial. I was interested in how Elizabeth coped with potential marriages to the very two men who had most to gain from her brother’s killing.

The novel begins at one of life’s terrible downturns for the family, as Edward IV’s wife Katherine is forced to flee to sanctuary with her children, Elizabeth being the eldest. This time shut off from the world and all the comforts they were used to had a huge impression on Elizabeth and could have been enough of a trauma to be an underlying cause of the choices she made in later life. The fear of having nothing, facing poverty and being barred from courtly life is ever present and the privilege of her royal blood, her claim to the crown and her importance to England is drummed into her from a young age. I often think that it was Mary Boleyn who had the right idea, a generation or so later, of leaving court and all it’s intrigues behind and becoming the wife of a farmer. If you are always told you are destined to be a Queen though, does that sort of thought ever enter your head? Court is really the only life that Elizabeth knows. The author really puts across the drama of courtly life, especially during Henry VII’s reign when any whiff of a usurper seems to have him running to her rooms in a panic. The stress seems constant and I did wonder how many of these people died purely from lifestyle.

The feasting was incredible, with weird mixes of courses confusing the eater’s tastebuds and stomach, taking them from brawn, fish in jelly, custard then to peacock. These snippets of courtly life set the scene so well and almost dazzle the reader with such a sense of spectacle. I would find myself distracted from all the stress, and the grief, by the descriptions of week long revels and Christmas celebrations. Just a description of the costumes for a masque or the clothes of the time gave that sumptuous and luxurious feel to the court. I was rather reminded of another Queen Elizabeth and the lavish celebrations planned for the end of this month. Weir captures that element of disguise and distraction that’s still apparent between the royal family’s private and public arenas today. I am largely disinterested in our current royals, but a wedding will dazzle me and I end up watching the whole thing. If told how much it’s cost I get incensed, but then I get sucked in by the whole spectacle. So, in a time when supporting a royal household could mean getting caught up in a costly and dangerous war I could see how the ceremony would have to be even more lavish to gain the public’s attention. Men in the novel don’t have the luxury of choice, so if you were a tenant of the local landowner you were compelled to fight for their cause, no matter whether you agreed or not. Thank goodness that today, royal rivals only parade their discord round the chat shows and not on the battlefield.

Ultimately though, I felt some sympathy for this young woman who was borne of a King who won his crown on the battlefield, then promised in marriage to a man who won his crown in the same way. Like most women of her time, her fate is decided for her, albeit it in a more dramatic way than most. Here she seems to love Henry and the older they get, they mellow and the closer they become. I did wonder whether other novels strayed nearer the truth, that fed up with being constantly touted as the most eligible lady in England, her relationship with Richard was something she was complicit with, a type of rebellion where she was willing to ruin herself just to have some agency in her own life. What I love most about this book was how well written it is, obviously meticulously researched and gave me a slightly different perspective to events I knew well. For example, Margaret Stanley the King’s mother, is described as kind and almost sweet in character for the small ways she tries to look after those around her. I thought that Elizabeth’s relationship with Lord Stanley was interesting and probably gives us the biggest clue to this young woman’s real character and motivations. Stanley is known for changing allegiances when he’s sure which way the battle is turning. At the Battle of Bosworth he rode out with Richard III, only to turn to his stepson’s cause and actually strike down the King, taking his crown and placing it on Henry VII’s head. He and Elizabeth are made of similar stuff, each one watches the way wind blows before committing in order to survive. We can see her as blown about by that prevailing wind or as a politically astute young woman who knows how to secure her children’s future.

Meet The Author

Alison Weir lives and works in Surrey. Her books include Britain’s Royal Families, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Children of England, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry VIII: King and Court, Mary, Queen of Scots and Isabella: She-Wolf of France.

Posted in Netgalley

The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn

This book feels like an epic. A familial version of The lliad, the very first play that Cristabel puts on in the family’s theatre by the beach, formed from the jawbones of a whale. It washed up on the beach and was claimed for the Seagraves by Cristabel who is the orphan cousin of the family. Cristabel doesn’t really fit anywhere. She loves adventure, activity, and endeavours, climbing, running and conquering the Seagrave estate rather than being the lady her stepmother would expect, if she could be bothered. 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. There are definite vibes of Rebecca in this beginning, with a much younger wife slightly overawed by her new home and struggling to find her place. The ghostly presence in this case being Cristabel, creeping round corridors and the attic, having ‘boy’s own’ adventures with imaginary friends. 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?

Joanne Quinn’s incredible debut begins at the end of WW1 and takes us all the way through WW2. The attention to detail is incredible and I felt completely immersed in this family’s history and the times they’re living in. This period saw huge changes for the aristocracy, often forced by the loss of two generations and bankruptcy due to death duties. Estates were sold off or had their use changed in order for the family to survive. The class boundaries became blurred as servants and masters fought together and unexpected bonds were created. Women had grown used to different roles, possibly nursing or working in factories or shops, and not all wanted to go back to a domestic role. There were also less men, so the marriage market changed and many society women, like Rosalind, had to be open to marrying men they might have previously overlooked. The author reinforces this sense of change by echoing it in the setting. When Rosalind first arrives at Chilcombe she is disappointed in the old fashioned country decor, all wood panelling and animal heads. She gradually brings the house into the 1920s with glamorous furniture and wallpaper, perhaps more suited to a London house than the country estate. The animals are banished to the attic, including a stuffed baby elephant on wheels intended as a gift to Cristabel from her mother. In fact Cristabel herself is treated rather like an unwanted piece of decor, stuffed into the attic with only the maid Maudie for company, her tomboyish ways out of step with her elegant and ethereal stepmother. As war looms again, the estate changes accordingly, with its garden turned over to vegetables and the people left behind pulling together as a team whether they are a Seagrave or the servants. They find themselves communing together in the kitchen, with all the elegant furniture sitting around like a piece of jewellery that’s too dressy for everyday wear.

The Seagrave children are the main focus of the novel, Cristabel, Flossie and Digby, each one a cousin or half-sibling they cleave together tightly due to parental neglect. Flossie is the child of Jasper Seagrave and Rosalind and I did find my heart warming to her. Nicknamed ‘The Veg’ thanks to an unfortunate resemblance to a vegetable when she was a baby, I sensed Flossie’s vulnerability. Her mother is beautiful and willowy, a perfect shape for her time, rather like an Art Deco statuette, but Flossie hasn’t inherited that elegance or poise. She’s rather like her father Jasper, a little bit awkward and not very good at asserting herself. WW2 tests Flossie’s metal and she responds with duty, grit and determination. It’s as if by pulling on her old clothes, mucking in with the servants and creating her garden at the whalebones she finds herself and becomes okay with who she is. Her friendship she cultivates with the German prisoner of war is so touchingly beautiful and fleeting. She’s a good person who can see the best traits in someone and bring them out. With both siblings away on special operations, it’s Flossie who has to find a way of keeping Chilcombe and run the estate. Digby, the son of Rosalind and Willoughby Seagrave, has the advantages of being the son and heir, but also seems like the one Seagrave who was wanted. Cristabel, belonging to Jasper and his first wife, is almost invisible. The chapter where her parents meet is unbelievably touching and I found myself bereft for Cristabel, because she would never know how much she was loved and wanted. Flossie is perhaps a reminder of those months when Rosalind was Jasper’s wife, something she seems to view with distaste. Digby could have been resented by his siblings, but both girls adore him. His love for acting shines through from being a little boy, when the theatre has a profound effect on him. So much so, that he’s still on the stage years later. To some extent, Cristabel is his parent and he looks up to her, happy to follow on in whatever escapade she has planned next.

It is Cristabel who is the hero of this book, from the child who has to crawl in bed with one of the maids for comfort and affection, to a special operative in occupied France, she is a survivor. Full of ideas, her determination to claim the beached whale is almost comical, couched in the very male language of expedition and discovery. Once only the bones are left, it takes someone equally creative and energetic to help establish the Whalebone Theatre. A visiting artist, scandalously living in the cottage with his wife and identical twin lovers, imagines walking through the creatures jawbone to reach the theatre (a space repurposed for Flossie’s vegetable garden during WW2). They create a script from Homer’s work and utilising Rosalind’s skills and interest in design, make a seating area and light the way to a stage that has the sea as a backdrop. Their plays succeed in bringing everyone together in the endeavour, each with a part to play whether it’s on stage, setting up, or making flyers for the village. These happy parts of her childhood take on such a nostalgic element, especially years later when she’s crouched in a ditch in occupied France trying to survive. There’s a sense in which the whole ensemble and even the villagers bring up this little girl and I loved the knowing way people would assume some daring escapade was the work of Miss Cristabel. I felt most sorry for her when we learn that her story could have been so different. Jasper is knocked off his feet by this woman who wants to talk to him at the hunt and appears immune to the charms of his notorious brother. The paragraph where Jasper recalls how in tune they both were and how brilliant and capable she was of running the estate with him. I can see a great deal of her mother in Cristabel and I was moved by the joy they felt in finding out they were going to be parents. The stuffed baby elephant they install with wheels for their baby shows that they imagine her like a little Maharaja, riding her elephant around the house.

Cristabel’s war years are incredibly intrepid and there are scenes where I was scared for her. The languid inter-war years seem decadent by comparison with these more sparse and disjointed episodes showing all three Seagraves in different parts of the world. I thought the pace really picked up as we followed Cristabel on her missions, parachuting into occupied France as a messenger, often with German soldiers a hair’s breadth away from discovering her. One scene with a German officer is so real I felt sick for her! She proves that her ‘adventures’ were not just an affectation. She is willing to put herself on the line, proving her aptitude for work as a operative, but also such incredible bravery. The final days of Nazi rule in Paris are tense, nail-bitingly so, but I didn’t fear for her. I had a sense Cristabel would survive no matter what. I thought this was an incredible depiction of life through the war, whether from Flossie’s more domestic side including service as a land girl to Cristabel and Digby’s seemingly more dashing exploits. His sister’s determination to find Digby showed that these children loved and cared for each other so deeply, probably because they had been left to their own devices. For Cristabel, it is servant Maudie who shows her what a mother’s love should look like and she in turn, mothers her little brother and sister. 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. Most importantly the loving bond they had as children, stood firm and could not be broken.

Published 9th June 2022 by Fig Tree (Penguin)

Meet The Author

Joanna Quinn was born in London and grew up in Dorset, in the South West of England, where her “brilliant, beguiling” debut novel The Whalebone Theatre is set. 

Joanna has worked in journalism and the charity sector. She is also a short story writer, published by The White Review and Comma Press among others. She teaches creative writing and lives in a village near the sea in Dorset.

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 Personal Purchase

The Flames by Sophie Haydock

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. Despite recognising the featured portraits, I didn’t know much about Egon Schiele, other than he was a protégée of Klimt. I have only seen one of the paintings, Portrait of a Woman modelled for by his sister Gertrude Schiele because it was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. Schiele is described as a figurative painter and as an artist under the banner of the Vienna Secession he was pushing the boundaries, trying to create something completely new or ‘art nouveau’. This was the time of a rebirth in painting, writing and all other art forms towards a new way of describing the world – the birth of Modernism. The unusual shapes and colours in his work is reminiscent of writers like Virginia Woolf who were throwing out the rule book and wrote novels with unusual timelines, streams of consciousness and complex characters whose inner world was often more important than events outside it. Haydock’s book uses some of these devices and a way of ‘writing back’ to art history and challenging Schiele’s representation of these women. 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. Here we get to hear the women’s stories as they see themselves and their relationship with Schiele.

We start with Adèle, one of a pair of sisters living opposite Schiele in an upmarket district of Vienna. Adele is transfixed on Schiele as soon as he arrives on moving day and is glued to the window seat every day in the hope of catching his eye. However, both Adèle and her sister Edith are from a very well respected family and there isn’t a chance that their father would accept Schiele as a choice for his daughter. Adèle is persistent though and soon the sisters meet Schiele on the street outside, alongside the woman they see coming and going from the flat, Wally. Although there is a part of her who knows the relationship between Wally and Schiele must be a complex one, she tucks it to the back of her mind, and begins to feel she might be making headway with him. Surely Wally is a maid, someone who cleans and models for him? Using Edith as her foil they do have a cinema outing, a very awkward foursome, and Adèle is so glad to have a sister that’s quiet, in the background, and goes unnoticed. She’s the perfect chaperone for this relationship she’s building in her head. She’s in love with Schiele and he must be in love with her, in fact she never has a moment’s doubt. Haydock writes a brilliant opening section here, with a perspective that we’re never fully sure of and a course of action that could be leading to disaster. It’s almost painful to be inside the mind of this highly strung young woman, whose class and status keeps her in a constant waiting position. There’s so much she’s dreamed of doing, but can only do them when she is a married woman. Women of Edith and Adèle’s class can’t make decisions for themselves, don’t get up and go travelling, or go to university or even go to the theatre alone. There are times, imprisoned behind her window when she envies Wally’s freedom to come and go as she pleases. Adèle is bored and I feared some of her reality was little more than the daydreams of an under stimulated mind. There’s a sense that an emotional storm is brewing.

The second section of the book is focused on Gertrude Schiele, Egon’s younger sister who started posing for his sketches when they still lived at home. Through Gertrude we experience Schiele’s early years, with her perspective as the filter. Born to a man who worked on the government railways, the family were respected, although the shadow of mental health does fall here too. We see the germination of an unusual relationship between brother and sister, with hints of impropriety on both sides where her modelling for him is concerned. It’s clear to see Schiele’s incredible artistic drive, thriving in limited circumstances and with a father who wishes his son wanted to follow him into a respectable job on the railways. Art is no way to make money, but there is a sense it’s more than that driving his father, possibly the praise that would come his way for having such a loyal son who wants to follow in his father’s footsteps. However, when his father’s behaviour becomes erratic what will happen to them all? As for Gertrude we see a strange dynamic when Schiele uses other models or is in a relationship? There is jealousy there which is interesting to watch as we move through the next few years. In the third section we meet Wally, artist’s model for some of Schiele’s best work and a partner to him in every way. I loved this section, because I found Wally inspiring in her choice to live in the way she wants despite the consequences. Wally is probably his most professional model, with an energy and intensity that leaps off the canvas. She openly lives with Schiele, travelling with him to a couple of country houses before settling in Vienna near her family. Wally knows where the line is and in the years she is with Schiele his behaviour gets them noticed in all the wrong ways, including with the authorities who label him a pornographer. She does not leave his side. There’s a core of steel in this woman, who will not hear him talk of love – possibly because she knows what verbal declarations are worth – and will never ask him to stay. However, I wanted him to stay with this woman, who I felt understood what he needed better than anyone, but didn’t ask for the usual protections her gender would be afforded, like marriage. I wondered whether, as she watched Wally from the window of her gilded cage, Adèle truly understood the responsibilities and the cost of being as ‘free’ as Wally seems?

Finally we come full circle, back to Schiele’s arrival in Venice and moving in opposite Adèle and her sister, but this time from Edith’s perspective. It was fascinating to see the same events play out through a different pair of eyes and we soon realise that despite her quiet demeanour and acquiescence to the rules her parents lay down, Edith is not as passive as she has appeared up to now. In fact she has the determination and deceptive skills her sister does, but the difference is that it’s not expected of Edith. As a result she has more freedoms than her sister and doesn’t get caught. She too is mesmerised by Schiele, but by the man rather than what he represents. Adèle wants freedom, to challenge boundaries, to scandalise society. Whereas Edith just wants the man, but does she truly know him and will she risk losing her sister to get him? We do get a sense of Schiele through these women, particularly Gertie because she’s there for the formative years. I often found him infuriating, because I felt he wanted to be a modern man, unrestricted by society’s rules and expectations on one hand, but then showed a total disregard for the women who were willing to break rules with him. There was a slight Madonna/Whore complex at work here, where women were compartmentalised into those to have fun with and those acceptable for marriage. Some of his 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 picked 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 two sessions, but I’m already looking forward to entering Haydock’s world and savouring these wonderful women again.

Meet The Author

Sophie Haydock is an award-winning author living in east London. Her debut novel, The Flames, is about the four muses who posed for the artist Egon Schiele in Vienna more than 100 years ago. She is the winner of the Impress Prize for New Writers.Sophie trained as a journalist at City University, London, and has worked at the Sunday Times Magazine, Tatler and BBC Three, as well as freelancing for publications including the Financial Times, Guardian Weekend magazine, Arts Council, Royal Academy and Sotheby’s. She has interviewed leading authors, including Hilary Mantel, Maggie O’Farrell, Bernardine Evaristo, Sally Rooney and Amy Tan. Passionate about short stories, Sophie also works as a digital editor for the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award and is associate director of the Word Factory literary organisation. She judges writing competitions and hosts her own short story club.Her Instagram account @egonschieleswomen – dedicated to the women who posed for Egon Schiele – has a community of over 100,000 followers. For more information, visit: sophie-haydock.com

Published 17th March 2022 by Doubleday