The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner – Women separated by time but all with life changing motives

The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner

Life can be dangerous for women, whether that is in 1791 or the present day. Both have to struggle to make their mark, leave a legacy behind. Nella is an apothecary who offers cures only to women from her cramped hidden quarters in London, recording their names in her ledger. Caroline is discovering in the present day that an American life of stability is not all that it seems, and that maybe she has to look for the inconsistencies to find a way through her dilemmas. As the vivid narrative swings between two time periods, it seems that women must act together in order to make discoveries that can change lives and leave the mark of their trials. As Nella makes her way round a place which encloses her in secrets of the past as she deals with women who want the ultimate solution to their troubles, she is confronted by a surprising girl who is eager to learn. Caroline has travelled to London to consider a betrayal, and discovers secrets of the past which leap forward into the present day. This is a book of research on several levels, as Eliza must learn how to help with secrets, Caroline wants to reveal the tantalizing story behind an inconspicuous vial, and the author has completed a huge amount of research in order to find the age old secrets of poisons and the uses of natural ingredients. It is a powerful book of what women choose to do, and the possible effects of their actions. I found it an exciting and entrancing novel, and was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.

 The book begins with Nella reading a letter requesting a poison, for a woman to kill her husband. The disturbing request is one thing, the fact that the person who comes to pick up the poisoned egg is a twelve year old girl is surprising. Nella has seen  to be shocked; she has spent her entire life in a cramped room, among the jars of ingredients, learning from her mother the combinations of herbs plants and even creatures that can heal women’s ailments. The difference is in the cures that she now offers, the poisons that can stop a man from living, from damaging further the lives of women and girls desperate enough to consult her. She dispenses help, receives money, records the women’s names in her book. Now it seems as if pain is being manifested in her body and mind, as she remembers why she went beyond her mother’s practice. Caroline is a young woman once deeply in love with the literature of another age, the history of thought in a time when women had fewer options. Not that she has explored many for herself; impressed by James at college, she falls in with his plans to marry and live a safe, predictable life, denying her interest and ability in research. It is only when she arrives in London, overwhelmed by a life changing discovery, that she is urged to look for the different, to be open to the possibility of more than what happens on the surface. As Eliza becomes involved in Nella’s work, Caroline feels compelled to discover more, even when it seems likely to upset everything.

This is a deeply atmospheric story of discovery and fear, of pushing against the bounds of roles and expectations, of determination and solidarity. I found it a brilliantly researched novel that that never slowed down the narrative to deliver no doubt hard won facts. There are even poisons and cures detailed at the back of the book, not to be confused! I found Caroline’s progress fascinating, and became involved in her hunt for the truth. Nella’s story reflects the desperate need to acknowledge women’s situations in the late eighteenth century and for much of history. This is a wonderful debut in historical and contemporary fiction, and I recommend it.

The Women Who Ran Away by Sheila O’Flanagan – the paperback publication of a novel of two women finding clues for life

The Women Who Ran Away by Sheila O’Flanagan 

An idyllic literary tour of France and Spain sounds a most attractive idea for a holiday, staying in beautiful hotels, exploring small towns and cities, eating fabulous food, all sounds wonderful. However, the two women who undertake this journey in this lovely book from Sheila O’Flanagan’s  are both traumatised and searching for a new perspective to be able to cope with their recent respective pasts. Deira has been in a relationship with Gavin for thirteen years, coped with various challenges, and now feels betrayed. Grace is an older woman whose strong willed husband is dead, but she still has many questions and regrets about the man who controlled most of her adult life. Meeting by accident or fate, thrown together on this unusual journey by unique circumstances, this is a book which explores more than beautiful scenery in their search for new lives, or at least a way of coping with their present ones. This dynamic book looks at the cost of love and relationships for women in contemporary Ireland, and the strength of new friendship in coping with the challenges that women face. I found this a remarkable and wholly enjoyable read, full of genuine insight, beautiful descriptive writing and a powerful picture of women who have regrets. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this novel. 

The book opens with Deira acquiring a convertible and very desirable car from her ex partner’s car parking space. They had booked a trip with it from Dublin by ferry to France. Deira decides that although they have split up, she still wants to fulfil her ambition of driving around Paris in an open top car. She is angry with Gavin for more than just breaking up with her in finding a younger woman; she now feels her chances of becoming a mother slipping from her. She accidentally meets Grace, an older woman of serene beauty who gives the impression of coping brilliantly with life. However, after a small accident and no longer being able to drive the disputed car, Deira discovers that Ken, Grace’s late husband, has left her a series of puzzles on his laptop relating to the hotel rooms he has booked for her to stay across France. It emerges that Ken had been one of Deira’s literature lecturers at University, and she helps Grace to solve the mainly author related clues on a treasure hunt. As they travel together they reveal their individual traumas to each other; Deira’s sense of betrayal, Grace’s realisation of how Ken had dominated her life and always assumed that she would cope. They both have their points of despair, but in each other they begin to discover a mutual support in their journey through beautiful countryside. 

This is a genuinely lovely read in which the setting shimmers with sunshine and comfort, but is shadowed by the emotions that both women struggle to come to terms with as they share some times and also separately consider their lives. It shows how women can give up their independence and their chance to live their own fulfilling lives. It shows how women, people, can go through truly difficult times, as Grace says “And you look back and and say, that was a terrible week, or month or year.But you’ve got to remember that it’s only a tiny amount of your whole life.”. I enjoyed this read of what feels like real life in some respects, when ironic events can bring home what we have, and what we have achieved. I thoroughly recommend this book for its wonderful writing, its insight into the questions many people, certainly women, ask, and its sense of momentum as the two women travel hopefully.     

Trobairitz the Storyteller by Celia Micklefield – a novel that contains a story and shines a light on strong women

Trobairitz the Storyteller by Celia Micklefield

This is a novel with a story inside it. The trobairitz were female troubadours who used songs to comment on love and much more. They were common in the twelfth and thirteen century. This is a novel featuring a twenty first century trobairitz , a female truck driver who does not share personal details, but tells a story of a village, with some memorable characters who live there. I found it an intriguing idea, especially as the story weaves in and out of the truck driver’s ongoing life story. She rejoices in the name of “Weed”, having rejected her mother’s choice of Fleur, and lives a life where she travels across Europe, driving a top of the range truck. This is a sensitively written book which depicts the small issues in a working life, the people she meets, the places she travels to, the ways she attempts to relax. I learnt a lot about truck driving across places like France, the sort of work involved, and the details of the cabs. The long story that she embarks on, apparently to deflect too much interest in her own life, is not greatly historical; this is not a “time – slip” novel but one that tells a story that is virtually contemporary. It is a story that in other circumstances could form the basis of a novel on its own. It features life in a small French village, where the job of mayor is nearly hereditary, and yet women are the life force of many of the events. This is a multi layered story where the themes are not always immediately evident, even though important. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this memorable book. 

The book begins with Weed arriving at a service station and shocking the working girls  who approach the queue of trucks by being a woman jumping out of her truck, as she says “I’ve got the full complement of European expletives”. When she goes into the restaurant of the next services she meets several truck drivers who begin to ask questions of her, seeing that she has a top of the range truck and are intrigued to see that she drives the routes alone. To divert their attention and to avoid a potentially embarrassing attraction to one of the drivers herself, she begins to tell her story. 

The story is of Madame Catherine Joubert, an older woman of apparently independent means who lives in a grand but faded house in a small French village. It seems she has a mysterious past, and isn object of mystery in a small French village where people love to know one another’s secrets. In particular there appears to be tension between her and the town’s mayor Henri-Claude Noilly. The baker, the butcher and the publican all have a view, and it immediately appears that there are many potential developments.

The book reveals Weed’s story, her origins, her life away from driving. Driving a truck is not as straightforward as I thought, especially in emergency circumstances. Weed’s voice echoes through the book, confident and able, but with one or two weaknesses. I found this a very compelling and engaging read, and just as the other truck drivers, I was keen to find out more about the village and its inhabitants. Weed is a very interesting character, determined to get the job done. The narration, through Weed, is a strong one, and this is altogether a fascinating novel. It speaks well of the possibilities of travelling across Europe, and the power of story telling. I recommend it as a book that works on many levels, with many interesting and engaging themes.     

How to Belong by Sarah Franklin – the story of two women and a small community on the edge of a forest

How to Belong by Sarah Franklin

This is a book full of insight into unusual situations firmly anchored to the realities of everyday life. Based on two lives that are brought together by chance rather than choice, Jo and Tessa are opposites that somehow link. It is the stories of their two lives in their contexts, how the actions and attitudes of others have shaped them, how they have seized opportunities which are now perhaps not what they want. I found their occupations fascinating; Jo begins the novel as a barrister, finding it frustrating and not having the real effects on lives that she had hoped. Tessa is a farrier, shoeing horses in the Forest of Dean, worrying about her health. Jo wants to make a change to her own life, to return to the family butchers business that her parents want to sell. As past loves and lives crowd into the minds of the two women, they look about them and see their world in a new way and from a new perspective. 

This is a book written with care and appreciation of life in a forest, as well as life in a small town which is made special by a particular shop. Franklin has made a superb job of capturing some of the challenges that confront women in contemporary society and how they may react. It looks at the strain of illness, of growing up aware of difference, and long term guilt. It also shows awareness of the pressures of small town life, but also the isolation of living in London. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this very special novel. 

The book begins with the scene in Butler’s butchers’ shop a few days before Christmas, as Jo has returned home from London. The large number of people who crowd in are not only interested in buying meat; they are there for the special atmosphere, the tots of sherry, the friendship expressed by Jo’s parents. Jo finds it especially significant as this is the last Christmas that they intend to be in the shop, as they have decided to move near to her brother. Having felt dissatisfied with her life in London, dealing with many cases that she feels had made little difference, she suddenly feels tempted to move back, take over the shop, return to her old life. Tessa meanwhile is working with her portable anvil at a riding stable, when a sudden shock has a dangerous effect on her. She recovers, but realises that it means another attack in a series which is getting worse. Arranging her life to reduce risk brings problems, and it means that she must find a lodger. When Jo moves into the small cottage with her, it will be difficult to keep her fears secret. Can the two women survive and thrive in a small place?

As other people have their say on the women’s situation, like Liam, the women begin to deal with the challenges. This is a detailed and realistic book which acknowledges that people have unspoken struggles, and I found it a deeply personal book which offers real insight into contemporary lives. I found Tessa’s situation particularly moving, with her doubts, unknown illness and much else. The descriptions of the work of a farrier are detailed and fascinating. I enjoyed this book of life in a small community, of love of various kinds, of the difficulty of explaining genuine feelings. I recommend it as a book which feels truthful and offers a real insight into women’s lives.

Helen and the Grandbees by Alex Morrall – a woman tries to cope with her family in a mature contemporary novel

Helen and the Grandbees eBook: Morrall, Alex: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store

Helen and the Grandbees by Alex Morrall

Honesty, help and hope are three themes of this spirited contemporary novel of the experience of parenthood. Helen’s story can be seen as one of desperation, lack of control and struggle, but also the conviction that something can be done for the woman she calls her bee, and her two grandbees. Indeed, names are important in this vivid novel of domestic interiors and memories. Helen is not called “mother” or “mum” by her daughter, and she struggles to refer to the person she called Lily is now determined to be Ingrid. Helen begins with the claustrophobia of family life as she reflects on her relationship with her parents, which moves onto the feeling of control over her environment as she lives in a completely clean flat. What has happened to her in the past, what is happening to her in the present and what she imagines will happen in the future is always seen in relation to others, their moods and abilities. This is a novel which seeks to convey the intensity of feeling in one woman’s life, even if she seeks to be self effacing. Plaintive, yearning and questioning, this writer is able to convey so much in small descriptions of setting and behaviour, it is a successful book of a woman’s life. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this effective novel. 

This novel records something of a girl’s desperation to leave her family home, which is transfigured by emotion. As she runs away, she is surprised by a baby, which leads to her understandable confusion and resolve to keep the flat clean without her bee, who she has called Lily. An empty time of dreams and memories ends when Lily/ Ingrid turns up out of the blue, full of facts about her adoptive parents, somewhat heedless of the effects of her words on Helen, as she takes in the shabby, lonely conditions in which she lives. As the novel proceeds it becomes obvious that Lily is demanding, perhaps unaware of what she already has in her life. Helen’s aware of her fragility and her unwillingness to reveal much of her past, which she comes to realise means that Lily will be angry with her. She is surprised at the strength of the protectiveness that she feels for Lily, her helplessness in the face of this woman who she only meets as an adult, seemingly making decisions that she cannot understand. That are times when Helen recognises that she is happy, content to what she is allowed to do, but always there is the nagging fear that her bee, and her grandbees, will go away from her. 

The author has made a wonderful job of creating the character of Helen with all her insecurities but also her bravery in confronting what she thinks she must do to protect others. I also thought that her depiction of the teenage Aisha is well handled in the context of challenging relationships, especially in echoing some of the fears that Helen has experienced. This book handles realistically the problems of relationships defined by passing comments, facial expressions and unsaid questions. It is a book full of insight, and compassion, and I recommend this deeply personal novel. 

Jigsaw Island by Lynne McVernon – Can Annie find solutions for herself and so many others?

 

Annie seems to live in a beautiful part of Scotland, but there is trouble in paradise, a fact which is even more evident when she takes her son Jude to visit her brother on a Greek island. This is a novel about the difficulties of life that a woman can meet in a contemporary world, when determination to find a different way of life can lead to trouble. It is also a very powerful look at the way the arrival of refugees on Greek islands means that those who seek to help are always meeting enormous challenges. There is so much in this novel that it is quite breathtaking, as the author also manages to put in a mystery that reverberates across several years. Identity, family loyalty and the imperfections that affect realistic characters, this is a novel which is memorable for all the right reasons. It creates a strong impression of how the islands cope with an influx of people who have risked everything to travel on the sea, and gives glimpses into their fates. I found this an engaging book with high ambitions, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it. 

 

The book opens with Annie, a young woman, struggling with her thirteen year old son Jude. He is a mixed – race boy in a small Scottish coastal town as the author describes him, with quite a temper. Her desperation to cope with him leads her to bring forward a trip to see her brother Fraser on Symi, one of the Dodecanese Islands of Greece. He has connections there; to Clair who runs painting groups and spends the rest of her time helping some of the refugees who crowd onto the islands for much of the year, her daughter Jess who manages to get her own way most of the time, and owners of bars, hotels and others who make his life possible as he gets by as a bookkeeper. He also goes out as a volunteer on a boat which tries to help those who turn up in the local waters in makeshift craft. Annie and Fraser come from an unusual family, and the early part of the book goes back to the story of how Annie ran away to London as a teenager. The novel then goes on to the present day, as the desperate Annie turns up on the island with the truculent  Jude, hoping that the effects of the community will settle and give him a new focus. It soon seems as if they will both meet significant people, and will find new challenges, especially when the past seems to be catching up with everyone. 

 

The book cleverly combines some shocking tales within the main narrative, and reveals the vulnerability of people in many settings. There is attention to detail, especially in terms of clothing and setting, which really lefts the rest of the story off the page. The author also has a good ear for dialogue, as the various age groups and people are brought to life by their speech and small actions. This is particularly important as a mystery must be solved as a real threat emerges. I found it a good read, with a lot of depth and meaning. I recommend it to those interested in contemporary fiction which reveals real life in this country, as well as some of the reality of the reception of refugees on the islands of a country on the edge.  

 

I found this a fascinating book, partly because I have met some refugees locally, and attempted to teach them English. This book tells some of the stories of people who have risked so much to flee from certain countries, and includes an actual story of one man who had a complex and challenging route to Devon. Please do not be put off by some of the  themes of this book; there is some real humour and insight shown in the writing throughout the novel.

The Women Who Ran Away by Sheila O’Flanagan – two women search for clues for life

 

An idyllic literary tour of France and Spain sounds a most attractive idea for a holiday, staying in beautiful hotels, exploring small towns and cities, eating fabulous food, all sounds wonderful. However, the two women who undertake this journey in this lovely book from Sheila O’Flanagan’s  are both traumatised and searching for a new perspective to be able to cope with their recent respective pasts. Deira has been in a relationship with Gavin for thirteen years, coped with various challenges, and now feels betrayed. Grace is an older woman whose strong willed husband is dead, but she still has many questions and regrets about the man who controlled most of her adult life. Meeting by accident or fate, thrown together on this unusual journey by unique circumstances, this is a book which explores more than beautiful scenery in their search for new lives, or at least a way of coping with their present ones. This dynamic book looks at the cost of love and relationships for women in contemporary Ireland, and the strength of new friendship in coping with the challenges that women face. I found this a remarkable and wholly enjoyable read, full of genuine insight, beautiful descriptive writing and a powerful picture of women who have regrets. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this novel. 

 

The book opens with Deira acquiring a convertible and very desirable car from her ex partner’s car parking space. They had booked a trip with it from Dublin by ferry to France. Deira decides that although they have split up, she still wants to fulfil her ambition of driving around Paris in an open top car. She is angry with Gavin for more than just breaking up with her in finding a younger woman; she now feels her chances of becoming a mother slipping from her. She accidentally meets Grace, an older woman of serene beauty who gives the impression of coping brilliantly with life. However, after a small accident and no longer being able to drive the disputed car, Deira discovers that Ken, Grace’s late husband, has left her a series of puzzles on his laptop relating to the hotel rooms he has booked for her to stay across France. It emerges that Ken had been one of Deira’s literature lecturers at University, and she helps Grace to solve the mainly author related clues on a treasure hunt. As they travel together they reveal their individual traumas to each other; Deira’s sense of betrayal, Grace’s realisation of how Ken had dominated her life and always assumed that she would cope. They both have their points of despair, but in each other they begin to discover a mutual support in their journey through beautiful countryside. 

 

This is a genuinely lovely read in which the setting shimmers with sunshine and comfort, but is shadowed by the emotions that both women struggle to come to terms with as they share some times and also separately consider their lives. It shows how women can give up their independence and their chance to live their own fulfilling lives. It shows how women, people, can go through truly difficult times, as Grace says “And you look back and and say, that was a terrible week, or month or year.But you’ve got to remember that it’s only a tiny amount of your whole life.”. I enjoyed this read of what feels like real life in some respects, when ironic events can bring home what we have, and what we have achieved. I thoroughly recommend this book for its wonderful writing, its insight into the questions many people, certainly women, ask, and its sense of momentum as the two women travel hopefully.   

 

This novel is a contemporary story which contrasts in some ways with the historical novels or classic books that I often review, but I think that some of the issues it discusses transcends the time in which it is set. The themes of limitations on women’s lives and much more really dominate this book as it does in many historical books, even if the twenty first century is supposed to be a time of equality. Not an obviously “feminist” book, this novel does look at some of the dilemmas which women face today, and how they can begin to cope.  

Every Woman for Herself by Trisha Ashley – a genuinely funny book with some Bronte allusions!

Every Woman For Herself: Amazon.co.uk: Trisha Ashley ...

Every Woman for Herself by Trisha Ashley

 

If there is comedy to be found in what looks like a tragic situation, this book by the witty and clever Trisha Ashley demonstrates how Charlie (or Charlotte) rises from two huge problems with the help of her memorable family. As part of a “Bronte experiment” by their father Ran, she has two sisters Anne and Emily, and a brother called Branwell, and they live in a large house called the Parsonage in Upvale, Yorkshire. When Matt, Charlie’s husband, is apparently suddenly seized by an urge 

to demand a divorce before returning to work abroad, Charlie soon realises that she must return home to her father’s house. 

 

As with several of Ashley’s other books, a change of location soon means a change of perspective and life, and with Charlie’s family and friends, she soon discovers a lot about herself. The characters in this book are superbly rendered; the redoubtable Em, the sister that runs the household and dabbles in other interests, Anne of the war – like disposition, and Bran the brilliant academic who is bewildered by everyday life. There is a new age nursery with an appalling child, and a striking actor with a bright little daughter. The house and extension which Charlie is forced into is described so well that it becomes another character, along with Gloria and Walter, and it does seem to be a very real, if slightly uncomfortable, place. 

 

Charlie narrates her story, and can only rationalise Matt’s decision to get a quick divorce by assuming he has been taken over by aliens. After twenty three years of married life in which she has not had children or developed an independent career outside the house, Matt presents his plans as “a fait accompli”. When Angie, the wife of “Groping Greg”, best friend to Matt,  turns up as a predecessor to a disastrous later meeting, Charlie is beginning to realise that the divorce demand is real. She has to travel to the Parsonage under a cloud, but gets what amounts to a welcome from her family. Another one of her father’s procession of mistresses is in possession of her old bedroom, so she moves into the Summer House with her precious collection of plants. As several members of the extended household begin to foresee what is ahead, Charlie begins to realise that many things are happening that are difficult for her to cope with, let alone foresee.

 

This is a very funny book in terms of both the characters and the amusing details which make for a really enjoyable read. I so appreciated the house that I wished that I could visit. Throughout the book there are little snatches for a magazine which Charlie idly considers starting, called “Skint Old Northern Woman” which is of itself a very funny idea. Including such stereotypes as never wearing warm clothes whatever the weather, it earnestly explains the difference between  mushy peas and pease pudding and other alternative ideas to the standard magazine.  This book is a little dated, as it originally appeared in 2002 so is pre internet and ubiquitous mobile phones, but is probably more interesting for that reason. I would recommend it to anyone who wants a very funny book which incidentally deals with some serious themes, and it is so easy to read.      

 

This is a lovely book to read at any point, but is especially helpful if life is proving difficult. There are some more serious issues raised here, but all are dealt with in a thoughtful way. I am enjoying working my way through Trisha Ashley’s books, and hope to be reviewing a few more soon when I can get hold of them, including the new “The Garden of Forgotten Wishes” (I had better start saving my pennies!)

Out of Love by Hazel Hayes – the story of a relationship from an unusual perspective

Out of Love by Hazel Hayes

 

This is a remarkable book telling the story of a relationship, from beginning to end, from first date until the final break up. What makes it remarkable is that the book begins with the break up, in all its mess, misunderstanding and mistakes, and ends with the first meeting. The conceit is clever, as it at first presents all the factors that cause the ending of the relationship and goes on to show exactly where they came from. It features the relationship from the point of view of a young woman who has a particular set of experiences, as she falls in love with Theo who seems to be so special, eager to plan for the future they will have together. 

 

The narrator whose voice we hear throughout has past experiences that will affect the relationship, including extreme anxiety. Theo has issues with his mother, who proves to be a dominating and difficult woman. Both have come from families who have coped with difficulties,  and the narrator perhaps comes to realise just how significant these issues on both sides. This honest and painful account of love gone wrong actually becomes lighter as the book goes on, as the dialogue of the couple is full of the possibilities of new love. This is a very contemporary tale, full of the honesty of relationships and attractions of all kinds. The rooms, the houses, the apartments in which the story takes place have a bearing on the way it develops, especially when they are hot, run down, or even beset by mice. This is a very interesting book, and I was glad to have the opportunity to read and review this unusual book.

 

The book opens with a simple question “Cup of tea?” but in this book every question of this sort is weighted down with significance. Another realisation “He asked if we could have a break but what he meant was a break up”. As this first section proceeds we discover how complicated this break up really is, as the practicalities of moving  on are worked out, as the boxes are packed and removed in a van. It is the small actions of muddling up vital papers with trinkets  which were once of importance, the deciding what important talismans of a full relationship may be. It is the sort of break up that has no one end date, with Theo possibly trying to let her down, while reluctant to concede that the relationship is beyond rescue. As references to significant dates and people emerge, the reader is intrigued to know what their relevance are to the relationship. 

 

This book has a momentum which keeps the reader’s interest, even when they have a good idea what the ending will be. There are some characters, relatives, friends, chance acquaintances, who have an effect on the narrative in an intriguing way. The dialogue can be light and funny, as well as full of significance. This is a romance and a very personal story, an important realisation of how people arrive at certain points in their lives and relationships. Working with an unusual concept, this is a well written story which is a very successful read.    

A Good Heart is Hard to Find by Trisha Ashley – a horror writer seeks inspiration and more

A Good Heart is Hard to Find: The wonderfully funny rom-com from ...

A Good Heart is Hard to Find  (Or Singled Out) by Trisha Ashley

 

A writer’s life is not always easy, and when that writer is responsible for vivid and scary horror novels. Cassandra or Cass Leigh is a unique character, as she lives in a small village with an atmospheric graveyard and an understanding vicar, Charles. Cass has a couple of good friends, including Orla who organises singing telegrams in full costume, and Jason who has a difficult son and a wife who has disappeared. Cass is forty four years old, and has been in a relationship with a married man for many years when she decides that she wants to have a baby, even though she knows it is against the odds. Max, her older lover, is in America with his wife for an academic job, but has managed to string her along for years with vague promises of marriage. As Cass seeks inspiration for her latest novel, she goes to the large manor house in the village.

 

This is a novel that has a lot of humour, often around the outrageous costumes that Cass and Orla wear. The humour extends to some of the characters who appear on the sidelines, with Trisha Ashley’s usual flair. It has a lot to say about the choices that women have faced for years, especially whether to hang onto a relationship even if it is far from ideal, even at the risk to their fertility and consequent hopes of having children. There is also the theme of guilt, especially when others encourage the feeling. Cass is fascinated with the occult partly as a result of a father who has always told her that she is evil. Apart from that, she has a most unusual family of one sister, Jane, who always appears to be innocent, and four brothers who have very different ways of life. The names and family did remind me of another author, a certain Miss Austen, who probably never wrote in this particular genre…

 

In a truly classic twist, Cass encounters the new owner of the local manor house, which is advertised as “the most haunted house in Britain”. Dante, apart from appearing in costume himself, has a past which has also left him with feelings of guilt, and he seems suddenly determined to discover more about horror stories and writing a book. When the vicar organises the annual auction of people’s talents in the village for charity, Cass realises that she must potentially do more than seek inspiration, and that there may well be decisions that she makes.

 

This is a book which defies easy description, but is very entertaining and very funny. Cass’s writing is “reviewed” in short phrases at the start of each chapter which suggest that it is disturbing and yet addictive. Also as ideas for the stories come to Cass, she thinks through suitable lines to write during the night. The dialogue is also very funny, especially as it becomes known that Cass is hoping to find a father for a child. The set pieces of the confrontations between Max and Cass, and Dante with people from his past, are very enjoyable, especially in the context of vampire and other horror stories. This book introduces some fascinating characters, even the minor ones, as well as slipping in some big questions of family and friends. I recommend this book as a very enjoyable read.  

 

This novel is a good and entertaining read, with some very cheeky references. Although there are some tough questions here it is well written and very effective. Sometimes it is just this sort of entertaining book we need when life is tricky, and it makes a change from more “heavy” novels.  As always, great variety helps!