Book Review : Beneath the Surface by Fiona Neill

In a land where the sky is king, the weather announces itself hours in advance; the fields, ditches and dykes have a Mondrian‑like geometry, that repeats itself with utter predictability as far as the horizon; and you can see anyone approaching for miles.”

It is rare, in fact so far unheard of, that I start a review with a quote from the book in question. However this quote sums up so perfectly how I remember the Fens of my childhood it was an obvious place for me to begin.

Fiona Neill has hit upon the very openness of the landscape and the huge brooding skies; skies that reached the ground, skirting fields of wheat and barley for mile upon mile. Unlike the rugged Lakeland landscape I now call home The Fens are not beautiful in the traditional sense, but they have a unique quality and one which for me is ever present.

It is this unique quality which Fiona Neill has been so accomplished at embedding into her novel. It is a quiet delight to find a novel with such a strong sense of place, a sense of place which not only grounds the novel but is central to it’s key themes and motivation.

For The Fenland that Neill writes about is seeped in history and that history is cleverly interwoven into the lives of the characters.

Patrick, husband and Art History teacher, is the descended from the Dutch pioneers who drained the land, reclaiming it from the sea.

Mia, younger daughter; eccentric, creative and straight talking, becomes fascinated, some might say obsessed by the Anglo Saxon burials recently uncovered. They offer a glimpse into the past but they also indirectly threaten the future. Tas, Mia’s traveller friend, is likely to lose his site in order to preserve this newly discovered and important site.

The past, seeping through to the present, is a theme running through the very veins of this novel. For when Lilly, fated older daughter and A grade student collapses at school, her parents Grace and Patrick are thrown into a world of turmoil.

Grace has spend years constructing the perfect life for both her girls. The product of a chaotic and abusive childhood, Grace clings to normality and the concrete. Navigating her life with her notebook of Certainties she has suppressed the most traumatic event in order that her girls may thrive. But just like the rising marshland water that is infecting their new home, the more Grace fights her past, the more it threatens her present. Her need for boundaries is ingrained, but what happens when those boundaries stop being healthy and become a cage?

The story is testament to the fact that the past runs through all of us. Deny it and it will find a way to make it’s self known. Neill shows the reader that by suppressing the past we are giving it a momentum of it’s own.

Yet secrets within this novel are not confined to just the past. Here we find a compelling portrait of a family coping with both collective and individual problems . No one person is telling the truth. Each is keeping close watch over their own and indeed other people’s secrets, in a misguided bid to protect the family as a unit.

Lilly, for example, has created a double life; dutiful and driven daughter, competing for a coveted University place, verses young woman experiencing love, sex and deceit for the first time. When the pressure of this charade becomes to much the fallout affects not just Lilly and her family but the wider and surrounding community.

This novel is held together by tight family bonds. The theme of siblings and their unique relationships runs deep. They are a source of tension, humour and unexpected revelations, which once again underline the connections between past and present.

Neill has created a cast of characters that are authentic and believable. Their motivations, however misguided never seem outlandish, such is the skill with which they are drawn. It is a mark of Neill’s accomplishment as an author that the reader finds their sympathies continually shifting throughout the novel.

Should you want to take a trip to the open Fenland landscape the Beneath the Surface is an excellent place to start and one I would recommend.

Huge thanks go to Penguin Random House for sending me a digital copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review : The Murder of Harriet Monckton By Elizabeth Haynes

Historical fiction has always floated my boat. I love immersing myself in the past, particularly when the story in question is based on fact. And particularly where there are unanswered questions and room for interpretation. Give me a slow reveal of fact and supposition cleverly interwoven and I am in clover.

I also love a long book. The joy of finding a book that is skilfully put together and captivating is unbounded. Who doesn’t want a really great story to go on?

So I approached The Murder of Harriet Monckton by Elizabeth Haynes with excited anticipation. Heartfelt thanks go to Emma Dowson at Myriad for my gifted copy.

I wasn’t disappointed; my reading experience was every bit as satisfying and enthralling as I had hoped.

Based on a true story Haynes takes us back to Bromley, 1843 and sets about unmasking the killer of Harriet Monckton. A young aspiring teacher Harriet is found dead in the privy at the back of her local Chapel, 24 hours after leaving a friends house to post a letter.

It is quickly established that Harriet has been poisoned but is this through her own hand or has she been murdered? The revelation that unmarried Harriet is ‘with child’ adds further complexity and intrigue.

As an inquest is called various potential suspects come to light. Haynes has used actual coroner’s reports and witness testimonies from the original case to paint a picture of both a life and community riddled with secrets, all touched by suspicion.

Could gentle Tom Churcher be Harriet’s killer? It was he who found the body and seems strangely affected by her death. Having been seen ‘walking out with’ Harriet, despite being unofficially betrothed to another, could this be a love affair turned sour?

What of his spurned sweetheart Emma? Is this a killing with is motives in jealousy and revenge?

Harriet’s friend and sometimes housemate Frances Williams cannot be discounted either. Why exactly has she become so close to the deceased and what would it cost her if the true nature of their relationship was disclosed?

And what does Richard Field, husband of a dear friend, know of Harriet’s death. As former landlord and clearly former lover he is quickly pulled into the circle of suspicion.

Finally and perhaps most chillingly, we must consider The Reverend George Verrall. Is his relationship one simply of spiritual guidance and confessor as he would have his followers believe, or is there a more sinister side to his relationship with Harriet ?

This, perhaps unsurprisingly is a story of secrets, of hidden facts and relationships build on half truths and lies. The plotting of this novel is skilful, layers of deception are slowly revealed as each character uses their own distinct voice to present their individual relationship with Harriet. For Harriet means different things to different people and this is key to our tale.

It is through these authentic voices we build a snap shot of a group of characters who are misunderstood not only by each other but by themselves. Working hard to justify their actions or, indeed, inactions there is a sense of self deception which permeates their testimonies.

Richard Field, for example, works hard to convince not only the reader but also himself that he is a dedicated family man, taking little or no responsibility for the pivotal role he played in Harriet’s life and undoing.

Rev. Verrall’s account aims for piety but smacks of desperation. His attempts to lead the inquest to a verdict of suicide make him all the more suspicious and frankly distasteful.

And this is a view that is enhanced and repeated through the use of Harriet’s diary. For crucially Harriet’s is not a voiceless victim in this story. The use of her own written testimony adds clarity, gives her character power but also brings into sharp focus one of the key strengths of this novel.

The abuse of power, both spirtual, sexual and financial power is behind Harriet’s sorry tale. For Harriet is not an uneducated women. Rather she is spirited, independent and eloquent. Her relationship with Richard Field was based on genuine feeling, it’s ending a moral sacrifice on her part for the sake of a dear friend.

Moreover her treatment at the hands of George Verrall is the classic abuse of power. Religious power and abuse masquerading as concern and correction, the sacrifice of one young woman for a greater male purpose. The weaving of deceit and concealment is all too common both in Harriet’s life time and our modern day society.

For the real genius of this novel lies in it’s ability to commentate on the treatment of women in the past, but make it relevant to society today. As a reader I couldn’t help but link the kind of abuse of power detailed so starkly with in these pages to the events of recent years; the #MeToo campaign and all its associated stories and movement. The situation Harriet faces is still something faced by women all over the world.

Elizabeth Haynes has employed to maximum effect the ability to look to the past to illuminate the lessons we are still learning today.

And what if the killer of Harriet Monckton? Well, you will find no spoilers here but as with everything else in this gem of a book, nothing is ever quite as it seems.

Book review – Expectation by Anna Hope

Ever get an Advance Reader Copy of a book that makes your heart sing?

That’s what happened to me when I was approved for Expectation by Anna Hope. So thank you Transworld Books for making a middle aged blogger very happy!

Anna’s post World War 1 novel Wake has lived large in my memory for a number of years. I vividly remember reading it on a 5 hour train journey north. Spellbound and moved, I finished it almost in one sitting. Thank goodness my stop was the end of the line, as I would have undoubtedly missed it otherwise.

Hence my excitement about the release of Expectation.

And I wasn’t disappointed.

Expectation is a novel about three women, all ploughing their own furrow. All following their own and others expectations, none of them completely fulfilled.

Cate, Hannah and Lissa have been friends for years. Connected by past events and shared memories, all three are at a crossroads in their lives.

Lissa is an actress, not quite fulfilled, still seeking success, constantly in awe and frustration with her artist mother.

Hannah is successful, married but desperate for a child, and facing down the process of IVF and all that it brings.

Cate is a new wife and mother but feels life has over taken her and that somehow she has missed out; that she has taken a wrong turn and is not fulfilling her potential.

Throughout the novel we see each woman peering in at the lives of their friends, and building their own expectations and desires. Each woman is questioning what they have achieved and quietly coveting what the other has.

Hope has created a believable portrait of friendship that houses underlining tensions and unspoken truths. Events and emotions in both the past and future seek to undermine the foundations of their friendship and those of people surrounding them.

The power of this novel lies, undoubtedly, in the authenticity of the characters. Their dilemmas and stumbling blocks aren’t outlandish or unusual. In fact that they are common, some might say mundane but they are all the more powerful and heartbreaking for that.

There is a real sense of empathy with these characters. We care what happens to them.

More than that we feel what happens to them. We have been Cate, or Hannah or Lissa. Surely is a rare individual who hasn’t questioned where their life is heading or where they have ended up.

And it is this quiet simmering undertone of dissatisfaction and re evaluation, which drives the story along. Can these characters make the changes they need, even if means changing the course of their lives and not fulfilling their own and others exacting expectations? Or are they destined to live up to Expectation but live unfulfilled?

Hope is showing us that fulfilling ‘Expectation’, is not necessarily the key to happy and successful life. In doing so she has created a novel that refines the terms and phases of our everyday lives.

Is fulfilling Expectation a mark of success? Or do we judge our lives through different eyes?

Blog Tour! Book Review – The Chain.

I am delighted to be taking my turn today on the blog tour for The Chain by Adrian McKinty Thank you to Tracy Fenton of Compulsive Readers for inviting me to take part. Are you ready to take on The Chain.

About the book…

Now I am not one to just copy and paste blurbs, but in this case I don’t see the need to mess with perfection. I can’t sum up the premise any better so I ain’t even going to try!

YOUR PHONE RINGS.

A STRANGER HAS KIDNAPPED YOUR CHILD.

TO FREE THEM YOU MUST ABDUCT SOMEONE ELSE’S CHILD.

YOUR CHILD WILL BE RELEASED WHEN YOUR VICTIM’S PARENTS KIDNAP ANOTHER CHILD.

IF ANY OF THESE THINGS DON’T HAPPEN:
YOUR CHILD WILL BE KILLED.

YOU ARE NOW PART OF THE CHAIN

Hooked yet?!???

The power of The Chain lie in the fact that it makes you examine what would you do? It is not coincidence that Rachel is a philosophy graduate and teacher, for this is the ultimate philosophical, moral and ethical question, “What would you do to save your child?”

What would you do to save your own child? Kidnap another child kill another child ?

The fact that Rachel is an unlikely action hero makes this story more compelling. A cancer patient, single mother, just turning her life around, she shows us the ultimate in what you will do when your child is threatened.

Throughout the novel her layers are peels back to reveal a strong independent woman, it is her smart and tactial thinking that pushes the story forward.

When Pete, her ex Marine brother in law steps into the story I admit to a little eye rolling. My thoughts immediately were among the lines of ‘ Here we go, big man to save the day’ but I was wrong . This is a partnership, Pete’s tech knowledge and past experiences are a support to Rachel but his drug addiction continually threatens to undermine their success. All the key mistakes they make are his mistakes, Rachel is the constant, Rachel is the key .

Crucially Rachel embraces life, the catalyst for the books finale is that she doesn’t just want her daughter alive, she wants her to live .

This was pure escapism, but escape into a very dark place where the ultimate moral and ethical question is being asked if you. The plot moves quickly, there is action and tension and more than a sprinkling of those moment which make you want to scream Nooooo! A real plus for me was the use of a strong female lead character.

Can Rachel be the one to break the chain?

This was a quick read, but an absorbing one. If you are looking for an unforgettable summer read then this might well be it!

and there is more…

For more fantastic reviews of this book check out other talented bloggers on the Blog Tour.

Blog tour review : Know No Evil By Graeme Hampton

I am delighted to be taking my turn today on the blog tour for Know No Evil by Graeme Hampton. Thank you to Tracy Fenton of Compulsive Readers for inviting me to take part. Won’t you join me on a trip to East London, in the middle of a heatwave, where we might just have a serial killer on the loose?

On to the book…

The streets of East London are the scene for this gripping crime novel. D.I. Matthew Denning is new to the job, recently promoted and new to this team, he is an outsider with everything to prove. When the body of a young mother is discovered in a local park Denning finds himself thrown in at the deep end. At first the murder seems likely to be domestic and relatively straight forward but when other bodies are found all bearing similar hallmarks the case takes a sinister turn.

But Denning has problems of his own. Recently divorced, with an young autistic son, is Denning able to focus on the job in hand? Will simmering resentment from members of his team who feel overlooked and slighted by his appointment throw the investigation off course?

Enter young and upcoming Constable Molly Fisher. Fisher has a particular interest in this case. She approaches Denning after making links between the new cases and those of the Bermondsey Ripper. The trouble is Anthony Ferguson was tried and convicted of those crimes a decade ago and is currently serving a life sentence. Have the Police made a fatal error of judgement or is this a very convincing spate of copy cat crimes?

And why is Molly so invested in these murders? What is the story behind her obsession with The Ripper? Can she separate her personal and professional involvements or will she too be a threat to justice ?

If you are looking for a fast paced crime thriller to get you through the summer then look no further, Know No Evil could very well be the book for you. This story starts with a bang and holds your attention throughout. The plotting is clever, building tension with it’s focus firmly on two police officers both under personal pressure, but both determined to rise through the ranks and prove their worth. Our protagonists are dedicated, vivid and well drawn. The skilful weaving of the personal and professional gives a real sense of three dimensional characters. It is a novel full of characters that are relatable, fallible and believable making the action and thrilling climax all the more powerful.

In the tradition of all excellent crime novels Know No Evil is fast paced and multi layer, each twist and turn drawing us further in. There is a feeling of authenticity and impeccable research. The dialogue is plentiful, snappy and realistic, drawing vivid characters portraits within our minds. There is no stereotyping and no broad sweeping assumptions are made. It is far to say that this is a carefully crafted crime novel where the unexpected is likely and nothing should be taken for granted.

Here’s hoping that this is only the beginning of Denning and Fisher’s crime fighting days. I have a feeling there is a whole lot more to come.

And there is more…

The Blog tour for Know No Evil runs until 14th July 2019. Why not check out more reviews from some other fantastic and hardworking bloggers ?

Know No Evil is published on 10th July 2019 by Hera books.

Graeme Hampton – author of Know No Evil

Book review : The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan

On this occasion I see very little point in playing my cards close to my chest, because I am about to gush repeatedly and quite possible extensively about how much I found to admire and love in the pages of The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan

This book quite simply took my breath away.

And not because only because as a chronic claustrophobe, I had to read with a curious sense of detachment. It took by breath away as this novel has so much to offer and so much to say.

Throughout my reading I made copious notes, as this beautifully plotted and many layered novel slowly revealed itself. I made so many notes that in truth I am not quite sure where to start.

Part of me wants to mull things over a bit more; this is a book that leaves you pondering and reflecting after each sitting. I guarantee these characters will dance through your dreams and whisper to you while you go about your day.

But another part of me is desperate to review this while it’s all still fresh in my brain. And I feel strongly that this novel deserves a publication day review.

So am starting in the obvious place, at the beginning.

Not just the beginning of the novel but right at the novel’s conception, the point where Alix Nathan found inspiration for this incredible story.

It surely must be an author’s dream to stumble across something as tantalising as a genuine late 1700’s advert searching for a person willingly to spend seven years underground and entirely alone all in the name of science.It is a gift of a starting point, and from it Alix Nathan has created a gift of a novel.

And so we come to our story. Enter Powyss. An amateur botanist, wealthy and living with limited social contact. Considering himself a man of science, tired of simple experiments surrounding his plants, he conceives a scheme to raise his standing in scientific circles.

He advertises for a man to lived beneath his house in specially designed apartments. Filled with books and furnished in style the only thing the chosen subject will want for is human contact. For seven long years.

One man comes forward. Warlow, a local labourer, a married man with minimal education and a growing family. His labours will earn him £50 a year for life and his wife and children will be well cared for during his time away.

The novel begins as Warlow enters the apartments. At this point it is not necessarily the confinement that is the cause of his immediate discomfort but rather the palatial surroundings he finds himself in. Everything that Powyss has seen as essential to Human enjoyment and sustenance, books, fine china and linen, even an organ is entirely alien to Warlow.

From the beginning obvious tensions and paradoxes are apparent. Powyss sees himself as educated, even worldly and yet his actions and reactions particularly to Warlow underline his naivety and social arrogance.

Powyss does not understand the working man, he does not understand how his estate runs, how the people he employs think and feel.

Choosing to dismiss his acquaintance Fox’s lyrical letters highlighting social unrest, beginning with the French Revolution and spilling across the Channel in the form of workers uprisings, Powyss see the wider world as irrelevant to him. Powyss pointedly ignores his gift of Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’, leaving it’s pages uncut, whilst key members of his staff are lapping up it’s teachings.

In fact, far from isolating himself from what is happening in the wider world, Powyss is replicating a societal microcosm in his own home. What could be more pertinent to the ‘Rights of Man’ than choice, education and freedoms? At so many points the novel is an astute exploration of the nature and notion of universal suffrage.

For quite unwittingly Powyss has created a world where perceived order and hierarchies are being subverted. Power shifts as Powyss comes to understand the implications of what he has done. How easy will it be to release this man after such a period? After years of repression, confinement and potential suffering, what kind of retribution will Powyss face. Once again we staring down a metaphor for a wider socio-economic situation.

Or course it is of no surprise that the experiment fosters danger. But does this danger come from the expected quarters ?

The experiment brings change, upsets balance and careful order. It doesn’t just change Warlow but everyone who comes into contact with it.

And of those affected who, poses the greater risk to wider stability.

Is it Warlow? Living isolated and becoming more disassociated from the world and his own self, beginning to understand, even fleetingly, just how important even small freedoms can be.

Or does risk lie in Powyss’ own shifting priorities? For a man who seems to revel in his self perceived solitude, the experiment is bringing dramatic changes to his social circle. Warlow’s wife Hannah is strangely beguiling. What effect will her presence bring to the situation?

And we shouldn’t underestimated Abraham Price and his sweetheart Catherine, master gardener and housemaid, two of Powyss’ overlooked staff. Both are dissatisfied, both drawn to political developments, but who will take their frustrations to the next level?

The experiment is ill conceived of that it there is no doubt, both subject and creator end up trapped and changed by their experience.

Alix Nathan has created a masterpiece. And I don’t say this lightly. There are so many layers within this novel. So many recurring themes, strands that weave beautifully together.

Clearly this is a meditation on what if costs to live both within the world and the effects of being removed from it. But it’s also offers valuable comment on such themes a religion, personal and political power, rights of women and suppression of humanity. It is a novel with a social conscience, a love story and on many levels a tale of horror.

My review is, I hope, heartfelt but is actually a mere skim across the surface of this incredible tale. One blog review will not unlock the wonder of this novel, but I hope it persuades you to turn the first page.

From there you are lost…

Book review : Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

I am certainly a little late to the party with this one but ‘wow’, what an absolute gem. This was chosen as a read for one of my book clubs, and I am so grateful it was. The novel had been languishing, undiscovered on my Kindle for weeks and I had clearly been missing something very special.

Before I go any further I must say a big ‘Thank you ‘ to Claire for kindly providing our group with some great ‘book club’ questions. It focused our discussions and gave us a great insight to this multilayered tale.

So what’s it all about? Well a brief synopsis is called for here because one of the joys of this novel is in it’s unravelling. An air of mystery is present from the beginning and pervades throughout, and there is no way I am spoiling anyone’s reading pleasure!!

We begin at the death bed of Frances Jellico. Triggered by repeated visits from the ‘vicar’ Frances is swapped by memories.

It her mind she is back in 1969. A long summer when Frances, recently released from a life of caring and drudgery after the death of her mother finds herself working in a crumbling country house. Tasked with cataloguing and researching the house’s horticultural architecture by it’s new American owner, she finds herself living alongside an intriguing couple Cara and Peter.

Cara is fiery, unstable and longing for Italy. Peter, there to catalogue the inside of the house, seems both drawn to and unsettled by his partner’s unpredictability.

Frances is certainly drawn to both Peter and Cara. Attraction to Peter pulls her close and Cara’s compelling stories seem easy to believe, however unlikely they maybe.

Parallels can quickly be drawn between the two women. Both have difficult relationships with domineering and seemly cruel mothers, both seem to worship fathers long since absent. The lack of parental guidance has all too clearly left it’s mark. Peter seems to take on the mantle of both lover and father figure for both women at various points. Parental chaos is a key underlying theme of the novel.

All three characters fall into a Bohemian and careless routine. Drinking and eating late into the night, pulling each other into strange confidences and conversations, making unlikely and misguided decisions. Decisions that will have terrifying consequences for all concerned.

The state of the house; that of faded grandeur and with an air of broken down convention, has a dramatic and far reaching effect on all three characters, but perhaps most markedly on Frances. Here we see a casting off of restraint. This rather uptight and cowed Woman steps into the light, casting off her Mother’s hand me down girdle and donning floating vintage gowns. Along with her clothing she sheds morality and normality, swept away by this heady new atmosphere and strange, remote setting.

Moreover the house seems to act as metaphor for the character’s lives. It reflects the jaded nature of their past but it too has a history is full of complexity and sorrow. The turmoil of the buildings mirrors the turmoil all the central characters seem to find themselves mired in.

For all of our characters are searching for a truth, a reason for a being, a deeper meaning to their existence. All protagonists have secrets, some more shocking than others. And all are trying to find a way to make peace with those secrets and reconcile themselves with decisions they have made.

At times it feels as those there may be supernatural forces at work within the house. Frances particularly experiences unexplained and unexpected events within her rather shabby sleeping quarters. Confusion and chaos increase throughout the novel, but is it real or imagined? Supernatural or a reflection of the state of someone’s happiness or guilt? Is it just easier make a glib reference to ghosts or even miracles, rather than confront an uncomfortable truth?

For be in no doubt, the narrators in this novel are nothing if not unreliable. Cara is feted as the obvious problem but slowly we come to question everyone’s reliability and integrity. Who, if anyone can we believe? What is Frances hiding? What of Peter’s past? For even the house has secrets that it won’t easily relinquish.

There is a pervading theme of seeking the truth, of spying on others, of listening at closed doors and only hearing part of a story. Characters in this novel are not in possession of the full facts, they can’t see the full picture and the consequences are dire. I promised no spoilers but Frances first discovery is a clear signpost for truth seeking and secrets in the most clandestine of ways!

Because from the start the reader is working through a fog of confusion. Where is Frances now? Who is this ‘Vicar’, and why is he bringing her back at the end of her life to a summer long ago?

As the story concludes ask yourself; are you sure of the truths you have acquired? Or do you need to spend a bit more time with Frances, Cara and Peter? Is there more to unravel in this rather complex web of ‘truth’?

Claire Fuller has created one of those delightful books that is so easy to read and utterly compelling, yet is multi layered and complex. One of those books that is just meant for discussion, that becomes even more vibrant and in this case, sinister with continued thought and probing.

It is a book ripe for rereading, with the promise of finding yet more hidden treasure.