The Harpy by Megan Hunter

Published by Picador, available now.

Firstly I am not really 100% sure what category I would put the Harpy in. Is it fantasy? Is it Gothic? A domestic novel? Contemporary or thriller? I just don’t know, it may in fact have a touch of all those genres, either that or Megan Hunter has just created a genre all of her own.

I lift the razor and a fairy-tale drop of blood escapes from under the silver. The colours are the brightest I have ever seen: stark and cartoon-like, white skin and sea-blue shirt and dark red, rolling and seeking. He doesn’t make a sound.

The story’s narrator is Lucy, she is married to Jake and they have two young boys, she works from home and takes care of much of the domestic chores whilst Jake is at work at the local university. An enviable life you may think, a woman that on the outside has the perfect life and maybe she does until she finds out Jake has been having a passionate affair with a work colleague called Vanessa. This bombshell shatters the illusion of the life they have been living and Lucy has to try and find a way of coming to terms with her husband’s infidelity. Rather disturbingly, they decide between themselves that Lucy can hurt Jake three times, whenever she wants and in any manner she wishes. It is at this point Lucy embodies the role of The Harpy, the mythical creature that brings down misery and punishment on men in the form of spoiling a feast through poisoning, the stealing of possessions and finally torture, as a lifelong admirer of The Harpy, Lucy’s life seems to become entwined with that of the half woman half bird fantasy legend. Unfortunately it is easy for things to go too far and become out of control, just as Lucy’s life seems to be spiralling beyond her grasp she must do her best to try and regain some kind of control.

The whole concept of The Harpy and the intention of setting out to purposefully hurt someone is deeply disturbing and sinister but Megan writes so beautifully that it is, at times, difficult to feel anything but wonder at what is a most despicable creature. The story is so well crafted, I loved the poetic nature of the words that at times almost lifted from the page and how the story of the Harpy so effortlessly intertwined with the story of Lucy and Jake.

The Harpy is such a unique kind of book, for me, it is a work of enormous skill and genius, I loved the concept of the story and as I have said before it is so beautifully written. It is dark and twisted with a touch of the unsettling about it, but WOW, it is one hell of a read!

The Tree of Heaven by May Sinclair

Published by British Library as part of their Women Writers series in March 2020.

The British Library Women Writers series is a curated collection of novels by female authors who enjoyed broad, popular appeal in their day. In a century which the role of women in society changed radically, their fictional heroines highlight women’s experience of life inside and outside the home through the decades in these rich, insightful and evocative stories.

About the Author – May Sinclair (1863-1946) was a popular British writer and an active suffragist. Her publication record is prolific, including novels, philosophy, criticism, poetry and biography, as we as her 1912 pro-suffrage pamphlet, Feminism. she has been dubbed the ‘the readable modernist’.

The Blurb – Published in 1917 before women achieved the right to vote and victory in the First World War was far from assured, The Tree of Heaven taels the intertwining stories of Dorothea Harrison and her three brothers as their lives are overtaken by the outbreak of the hostilities. as the old certainties of the previous centuries distintegrate, Dorothea takes up the cause of women’s suffrage and joins the Women’s Service Corps as Nicky, Michael and John go off, one by one, to the trenches.

My Thoughts – I was very kindly asked to take part in the British Library Women Writers series and was instantly drawn to this book due to the author’s links to the suffrage movement. Set between the Boer War and World War One the story centres around the Harrison family of Hampstead, the children are young and innocent but those times will tragically change as the 20th century dawns and society moves in to more uncertain times. As the children grow into young adults it becomes apparent they are going to face some difficult decisions regarding their futures. The boys must decide whether or not to enlist in the army and be sent to the front line and Dorothea must consider her role as an active suffragette and the difficulties that could bring, not just to her but her family as well. As the boys leaves one by one for battle you cannot help but feel drawn into the heartache the family must have suffered as they waved them off, not knowing if they would return.

This is a story that has the ability to draw you into the time it is written, it gives us an eye witness account of life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the every changing political and social dynamics of the time, the Great War affected every man woman and child in this country one way or another, it marked the end of the old life and the beginning of a new way of living. The characters live through these changes, they are part of the fabric of life at that time, they are well written and relatable, they almost have a modern feel to them and as classics go this really should be considered along with some of the greats.

This book is what I would describe as a slow burner, the pace doesn’t really change from the first page t the last, which at times I found frustrating, but for the most part I can appreciate the skill of the author to build a story that can engage its reader for the duration of the story. The story is at time heart wrenching, sad, insightful but on the whole is a very good read.

Many thanks to British Library and Maria Vassilopoulos for my gifted copy on exchange for this honest review.

Awakening Musings on Planetary Survival by Sam Love

Published By Fly on the Wall Press.

Many thanks to Isabelle Kenyon for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.

The Blurb – Far from the doom and gloom autopsy of the contemporary environmental crisis, ‘Awakening’ indulges in fun. From the craziness of shipping bottled water 6,000 miles, to how bcteria evolves for a counterattack, this collection laughs at humanity’s war on nature. after reading Love’s poetry, you will never look at nature in the same way.

Could there be a better time for this poetry collection than now, whilst the world is battling COVID-19 we mustn’t forget that climate change poses a huge threat to us and our planet.

The collection is divided in to four sections, Awakening, Origins, Impact and Recovering Hope each one dealing with aspect of climate change and the devastating effect it is having. In Elegant Travelers, Love talks to us about the Tundra Swans that dot the surface of Pungo Lake and how soon enough they will have to move further north as the south will be too hot for them in winter.

What I like about this collection is that Love looks at the impact on all areas life, not just the human aspect but the effect on animals, the land and the sea. There is anger and fury in his words but that is justified as each poem is only reinforcing what we already know, but seem loathe to do anything about. But at the same time, it is a lighthearted look at the environmental challenges we face, it is written in a way in which you can understand, not to say it is dumbed down, it isn’t, but it all just makes sense.

I connected with each poem in this collection, I found myself agreeing with his words, despite never thinking about some aspects before, for example in Jacuzzi Guilt when he comments that he is luxuriating in the same amount of water an African villager would use in ten days. I could happily spend hours discussing each poem as each one is excellently written and carries such an important message.

This may only be a small collection of poems but it is a very powerful one, the poems are easy to connect with and the messages are clear. I would definitely read more of Sam Love’s work and I would urge you to as well.

About The Author

Sam Love’s interest in the environment started with reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring as a teenager in rural Alabama. He vividly remembers watching entertainment the airplane crop dusters spraying pesticides on the fields near his house. Currently, he lives New Bern, NC where he is president of Nexus Poets that organises a monthly poetry reading. He considers it as good a place as any to observe the drama that currently passes for Western Civilisation

About The Publisher

Fly on the Wall Press is a publisher with a conscience. Publishing high quality anthologies on pressing issues, chapbooks and poetry products, from exceptional poets around the globe. Founded in 2018 by founding editor, Isabelle Kenyon.

All Adults Here by Emma Straub

Published By Michael Joseph – Out Now

Many thanks to Gaby Young for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.

The Blurb – Astrid Strick has always tried to do her best for her three children. Now, they’re finally grown up – but you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Elliot doesn’t have any idea who he really is, or how to communicate with his own sons. Porter is, at last, pregnant – but feels incapable of rising to the challenge. Nicky has fled to distant New Mexico, where he’s living the bohemian dream. And Astrid herself is up to things that would make her children’s hair curl. until now, the family have managed to hid their true selves from each other. but when Nicky’s incorrigibly curious daughter Cecelia comes to stay, her arrival threatens to upturn everything…

My Thoughts – Isn’t it every parents wish that they can raise their children without causing them any major damage?

All Adults Here is like holding a looking glass up to every family you know. It is about how we all interact with our family, how siblings get on and how our relationships with our parents can shape us in to the adults we become. It also demonstrates how those relationships change over time as we grow and become parents ourselves. The family dynamics explored within this book are true of any family.

The story centres on the Strick family, Astrid is the matriarch, she is a widower and is in a love affair with her hairdresser Birdie. She is a recent witness to a RTA and soon to be guardian of her granddaughter Cecelia.  Astrid’s eldest son is Elliott; he is married with young twins who are a handful to say the least. He seems slightly lost in life and feels like he has never quite achieved the great things his parents had hoped for him. The middle child is a daughter called Porter, she runs a goat farm and is currently pregnant by a sperm donor as she can’t seem to settle with one partner or another she is also concerned over how she will cope as a single parent.  Finally there is the baby of the family Nicky, he is married to Juliette and they have one daughter called Cecelia. As the baby of the family you get a sense that Nicky has never really been held accountable for his actions, and still isn’t, which is why he has sent Cecelia, who has been expelled from school, to live with her grandmother.

For me it is Cecelia that holds everything together, often acting more like an adult than the adults do. She grows into a mature and well-rounded teenager, she is honest and makes a good friend for August, a lad who before meeting Cecelia had never really felt comfortable with his school surroundings.

All Adults Here is a witty and charming book that takes a heart-warming look at family life, the characters are relatable and whilst I didn’t connect with all of them you can appreciate the life struggles they are coping with and I think we will all see a little of ourselves somewhere amongst the Strick family.

I enjoyed this book for its attempts to deal with lots of different and often challenging aspects of life and in doing that you find yourself connecting with it on various levels.

The Sight of You by Holly Miller

Published by Hodder & Stoughton 11th June 2020

This is the story of two people kept apart by circumstance – but not like you’ve ever read before.

The story centres around Joel, he is a thirty something ex vet whose life is ruled by his haunting dreams about the people he loves, he has visions that always come true. Callie, is stuck in a life rut, still tormented by the death of her best friend and trapped in a job she feels obliged to keep. Neither are looking for one another but when they tentatively start dating Joel must fight his urge to fall for Callie as he knows if he does he could destroy it all.

You get a sense that this relationship has the potential to change both of their lives and when Joel finally admits his true feelings for Callie it appears they have it all. Their happiness radiates from the page and you feel the same happiness you would if they were your true friends. That is until Joel has a night vision and sees how it is all going to end.

The build up of the relationship is lovely, it is heartwarming that these two people have found each other and finally both seem to be able to move on with their lives and be happy. And you are happy for them and want the best for them but then Joel has his dream and it shatters everything to pieces.

The story raises so many personal questions about relationships, mortality and the biggest of all, would you want to know how and when you were going to die? And how would you react if you knew? It is an exquisitely written story and puts you right there in the relationship with them. It gives you hope that love can be found when you are not even looking for it, but is also a stark reminder that love and life are fragile.

I personally think Holly has created a masterpiece with this book, I loved the plot, the characters, who I actually felt like I knew by the end of the story, and even though it broke my heart I loved the journey Joel and Callie take, both together and apart.

This is a book that will take you on a rollercoaster of emotions and one that will leave you with questions. It is also one that will definitely stay with you for a long time and I can’t gush about it enough!!

Many thanks to Rebecca Mundy at Hodder and Stoughton for my proof copy.

The Phonebook at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina (Translated by Lucy Rand)

Published by Manilla Press on 25th June 2020 (Kindle).

This is such a pleasant and enjoyable read about how different people cope with grief and how friendships and relationships can blossom from the most difficult times. The book has the ability to be serene and offer a calming and comforting environment at the most trying of times.

Based on a true story the plot follows Yui, a radio presenter who has lost her mother and young daughter in the devastating tsunami that hit Japan in 2011. When a man calls her radio show she learns about an old disused telephone box in his garden that allows grieving families and friends an opportunity to talk to those they have lost.

Yui sets out on a pilgrimage to find the phonebox and enrolee she crosses paths with Takeshi, a widower with a young daughter who has recently lost his beloved wife. His daughter is struggling to come to terms with the premature loss of her mother and has remained mute since the day she died. But the new friendships that form help all those who are struggling to find their place in the world without their loved ones.

There are other stories woven through the narrative which are both heartwarming and gentle but sad at the same time. The story is heartwarming and gentle it is like a big hug that is reassuring and comforting. It beautifully written and given the sensitive topic being discussed it is tender and respectful and gives hope to readers currently experiencing grief and a sense of loss.

It is amazing to think this phone box actually exists in Japan and is called the “phone of the wind” you can find out more here https://allthatsinteresting.com/phone-of-the-wind

Many thanks to Manilla Press for my gifted copy.

Little Friends by Jane Shemilt

Published by Penguin UK on 20th February 2020

This is an excellent psychological thriller focusing on three families who all come together through their children taking private tuition classes together. Eve is the tutor, she appears to live the perfect life, she has children, a husband and a beautiful big family home. But what this book does well is show you that what appears on the outside is not what is necessarily happening on the inside. Eve actually has a husband who seems to ignore her and a teenage daughter who looks like she might be about to go off the rails. However, A bond soon builds between the children in the tutor group and before long they are happily playing together. The parents also start to connect, in more ways than one, there is Melissa and Paul with their brattish young daughter Izzy and Grace and Martin with their two boys Blake and Charley. Whilst the parents spend time getting to know each other the children seem to have been given a free rein to go wild. But that can only end badly.

All seems to be going well when suddenly tragedy strikes, it is every parents nightmare and panic soon sets in to turn their idyllic worlds upside down. What happens is shocking and tears their worlds apart, it gives you the reader a sudden jolt and whilst there were aspects of the story that I figured out, I was way off on other parts. What I liked about the narrative was that the story is told through the point of view of the three mothers, Eve, Grace and Melissa. Each one is a strong woman who knows her own mind but at the same time each has her own issues to deal with and through their narratives we soon learn how their perfect lives actually really aren’t that perfect at all.

The book deals with violence, trauma and tragedy and the tension that all this builds is immense, and at time unsettling, but I liked that, I liked the edginess of the story. This is a book that picks you up and forces you to hold your breath until it lets you go again. The story telling is superb, so, if you like a good psychological thriller this will not let you down.

The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson

Published by Two Roads on 19th March 2020

Set in the Scottish Highlands in 1856, city lady Isabel Aired is devastated when her doctor husband takes up a post at the new Loch Katrine Waterworks, a pioneering new experiment to take fresh water to Glasgow in an attempt to cut down on the deaths caused by cholera. For Isabel the prospect of leaving city life and society and moving to the desolate Highlands fills her with trepidation. With many tragic miscarriages behind her, Isabel, who has for so long been denied a role in motherhood, finds herself pregnant again and soon feels herself being absorbed by her new surroundings which leads her to question her former life and the role she had. As she starts to feel the babe move inside her she becomes more and more connected to the land and she soon crosses path with a mysterious figure dressed in black. His name is Robert Kirke, he is a minister and they are soon having conversations about the child, but who this man is she as no idea, but he certainly has a sinister to feel to him especially as he died in in 1692. What is he doing wandering the Scottish Highlands and has he purposely picked out Isabel?

Set against the backdrop of constant gun powder explosions and the tunnelling that goes on day and night, there are many strands to this story. It very cleverly weaves historical events and the supernatural together resulting in a very enjoyable and moving narrative. The research that has gone into this book is phenomenal and the way the story ties together at the end is superb. It is slow to start but it is definitely worth sticking with as the story that unfolds is superb. The connection between you the reader and Isabel definitely becomes stronger as the story moves on. Also, it is a visually beautiful book, that cover is beautiful!!

All The Water In The World by Karen Raney

Published by Two Roads

Thank you to Jahan Hussain for kindly sending me a copy of this book.

For a first novel this is pretty darn good. Maddy is 16 and just like any other girl her age, she has crushes, great friends, fun times and is close to her mum. She also has cancer. Maddy has no relationship with her father, he wanted a career, not children but following some encouragement from her grandfather she makes contact with him and the pair develop a secretive email relationship.

What I liked about this book is the alternate points of view. The story is told from the perspective of Maddy and her mother, Eve. Whilst Maddy wants to experience everything life has to offer, at the heart of each decision she makes is her illness. Maddy is a strong and quite profound character and has been written so well that you connect with her on every level. She is kind and emits a lovely warmth and tenderness that the bond between reader and character becomes quite strong. On the other hand, Eve feels guilty and is vulnerable to Maddy’s illness, she is trying her best to come to terms with everything and is coping the best she can but she can be quite a prickly person. The bond between mother and daughter is very close knit and between them they get by. For Maddy, she wants to experience life in that moment, life is to short to hold grudges and not have fun.

This is a very tender, thought provoking read that has the ability to break your heart. It deals adeptly with love, friendship, pain and grief. Karen Raney has written such a wonderful book that will stay with you long after you have finished it.

I was very lucky to take part in a Q&A session with Karen Raney and you can read her thoughts below.

  1. Where did the inspiration come from for the book?

The storyline of this book was built from scene to scene rather than being planned in advance.  It began with a woman’s thoughts while looking at a lake.  That woman became Eve.  As I felt my way toward who she was and what had happened to her, her daughter Maddy emerged as a distinct character. I became so engrossed in Maddy’s story that I abandoned Eve, for long enough that I considered dropping the mother’s voice and confining the point of view to the daughter.  But when I did return to Eve, I knew the two-voiced structure was important to what I wanted to do. 

Maddy and Eve were characters I quickly found that I could speak through. I was once a teenage girl. I am now the mother of a teenage girl.  And a close friend of mine had gone through the experience of having a seriously ill child.  These were the wellsprings of the novel. I am fascinated by the way young people both accommodate and resist their parents’ world.  Maddy has to take control and pull away from her mother at a time when she is increasingly dependent on her.  She does this by finding love and keeping secrets. For Eve, the crisis re-shapes every relationship in her life.

2. How difficult was it to write about a 16-year-old with cancer?

During the writing itself, the effort to get the scenes to work shielded me from the emotional impact of the subject to some extent.  It was when I re-read it later that it could upset me, almost as though it had been written by someone else. 

I think the key is to be close but not too close, both inside and outside of the emotion.  Actors and musicians do this all the time.  They are able to access extreme emotional states while remaining detached enough to practice their craft and render the emotions for others.  

To write this novel, I drew on my experience and fears as a mother, but I never equated Maddy with my own daughter who was roughly Maddy’s age at the time. I saw them as entirely separate people.  I could never have written the book otherwise.  In the same way, my friend’s tragedy gave me the courage to write about something I had not experienced, as well as the drive to understand it, but the story is not my friend’s story and I never perceived it as such.  

3. How would you describe Maddy?

Maddy is someone whose world is opening up just as it is in danger of closing down. Her illness intensifies all the usual concerns and challenges faced by someone her age.  She is a deep-thinking teenager with artistic drive who is forced to grow up fast.  For me, Maddy’s voice is a mix of wisdom and naivete, seriousness and wit, frailty and determination.

  1. The book is very moving, how do you switch off when you’re not writing?

I play the piano, which is a wonderful way of getting out of my head and into a medium other than words.  Apart from that, job and family keep me absorbed when I’m not writing. 

  1. What challenges did you face when writing the book?

Partway through the novel, I remember feeling I had to be careful with the character of Eve. Because she is in the mother role like myself, I worried about making her voice too close to my own.  But at the same time, because I’ve never been through what Eve goes through, and elements of her prickly character and her life as a single mother are alien to me, I wasn’t sure if she was plausible.  Plausibility is important to me on many levels.  With Maddy, it was a question of making her inner voice sophisticated enough to articulate complex thoughts, while still being the voice of a sixteen-year old.

One of the challenges was writing about something so extreme and emotive that I myself had not been through.  Not only did I worry about getting it wrong, but I worried that I had no right to write the book in the first place.  Although the story is not my friend’s story and the characters are not her family, I was concerned that she would feel I was exploiting her tragedy for my own ends.  Happily, when she read it she felt that that I had given her something rather than taking something away. 

  1. What message would you like your readers to take away from reading the book?

I tend not to think in terms of messages, as a novel is so complex.  I would be happy if readers of All the Water in the World ended up feeling things that perhaps they hadn’t felt before, or understanding something new about parenthood, childhood, families, loss, music or the consolations of art.

  1. What other authors do you admire/take inspiration from?

I often find myself gravitating to American writers, though I have made my home in England.  I also love short fiction. This may be related to the fact that I am a visual artist.  In a painting, as in a short story, shape and structure are paramount, and all the parts are more or less visible at once.  I am a fan of the short stories of George Saunders, Edith Pearlman, Katherine Anne Porter, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Mansfield, Jean Stafford, Tobias Wolff, Frank O’Connor, V.S. Prichett, Colm Toibin, David Malouf and Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie.

  1. I note that you were a nurse and art student prior to writing, so, what made you become a writer? 

I have always written, from when I was a child, with greater or lesser intensity at different times in my life.  As I went down various career paths, working as a nurse, a painter, an editor, a teacher and academic, fiction writing was always a constant in the background.  I guess now is the right time to bring it to the foreground.

  1. How long did it take to write the book?

Four years and four months, with a full time job and a family.

  1. What tips would you give to someone wanting to take up writing?

My five top tips are as follows: 

1) Write to find something out. If you follow your genuine curiosity about the world and other people, your writing will surprise you and carry the freshness and authenticity of a search.

3) Keep a notebook.  Carry it with you.  Put whatever interests you in it – thoughts, overheard conversations, descriptions of people and places, ideas for stories, reactions to books you read. Once you start writing a story, you will find that magically everything you see and hear seems relevant to what you’re writing.  Use the notebook to collect any offerings from the world that might be of use to the story.  As you get deeper into the writing, this notebook will also catch the edits and corrections your unconscious mind comes up with while you are doing other things. 

3. Show your work to other trusted people. Your perception of your own writing is distorted by everything you know about the characters and places you’re writing about.  What you think you have written is not necessarily what is on the page. When the time is right, you need to check and make sure that what’s needed to bring the story alive for readers is there in the words themselves.

4. Choose who you show it to and when.  There are times when you need to be immersed in what you’re writing and let it spill out without judging.  If you share it too early, this can de-rail you before you’ve had a chance to explore the depths of your story in private. Then there are times when you need to step back and look at what you’ve written with a cool, external eye, as though it had been written by someone else, and the best way to do this at first is to use the eyes of other trusted people. Knowing when to work in private and when to reveal your writing to others is something you learn through experience.

5) Write by re-writing. It is through re-writing that you find out what you want to say. American author George Saunders talks about the discontent with a story that ‘urges it on to higher ground.’  I believe it is in the writer’s effort to resolve a sentence or a story structurally, that deeper meanings take shape.

Many thanks to Karen Raney for taking the time to answer my questions so thoroughly.

The Other People by C.J. Tudor

Published by Penguin Michael Joseph

When I read the synopsis for The Other People and knowing the writing talents of C.J. Tudor I just knew this was going to be something really special.

Gabe is on his way home one evening when he spots the face of a little girl appear at the rear window of the rusty old car in front, his little girl. But why would his five year old daughter Izzy be in that car? Was he certain it was her? Or, was it just someone who looked similar? He follows his instinct and attempts to chase the car down but it is long gone, it is only when he rings home to check she is safe does the full horror start to unfold. Gabe spends the next three years driving up and down the same stretch of motorway hoping to see the car, and his little girl, again. Everyone believes that Izzy is dead, the police accused him of her murder and are still convinced she is dead. But, he is certain he saw her that evening and is unwilling to give up on her until he knows for certain, one way or another. Also driving up and down the motorway is Fran and her daughter Alice. Fran knows what happened to Izzy and her mum that fateful night and she knows that if they stop running the repercussions for them both will be catastrophic. But who is she running from and will they catch up with her?

As the story unravels the tension builds, there are plenty of twists and turns and the author certainly knows how to end a chapter on a cliffhanger, I actually had to cover the last few lines of each chapter up so I didn’t skip ahead and ruin it for myself!!

The story is well paced and well thought out it takes on a new direction pretty much every chapter. Some of the characters are fascinating, especially The Samaritan whose identity remains a closely guarded secret until the end. In fact, even at the very end you are still discovering the answers to long held secrets. There is also a supernatural element to the story, which for me, added another level of mystery, it didn’t detract to much from the main plot and I enjoyed that different slant that it offered.

I would most definitely recommend this book. If you like a thrilling page turner then you won’t find one better than this, I loved it for the very fact that it kept me gripped from the first page until the very last.