It’s Independent Bookshop Week this week, so I’m posting about some favourites in my part of Wales, starting today with Book-ish in Crickhowell, run by the energetic and lovely Emma and Andrew.
It’s not exactly my local but as it’s only about 45 minutes away by car and close to where my in-laws live, I often wangle a bookish stop off on the way to or from there. And in between those visits? Well, Book-ish is always worth a special trip of its own, if you’re even remotely close to the area.
Crickhowell is a pretty town on the banks of the river Usk, just south of the Black Mountains. Apart from the wonderful walking and beautiful surrounding scenery, Crickhowell has managed to keep independent shops on its high street and that one of these is a bookshop makes it especially appealing to me.
Earlier this year, Book-ish moved a couple of doors up from the corner shop it started life in and now has more room for books, stationery, gifts and toys than ever before. It has a well curated book choice and I always find something new when I’m browsing the shelves and either come away with an exciting find or a previously unknown (to me) author. There’s usually a good selection of books signed by the author as well, largely thanks to its programme of events. I lust after their stationery selection, have sent quite a few of their greetings cards to friends, eye up a new Lamy fountain pen every time I visit and crave bookish gifts for myself from among their totes and mugs. Read more
Juliet West’s timely second novel The Faithful has Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts pitch their summer camp near a sidelined and restless teenager’s seaside home, forever changing her life, if not the course of history as is their wider intention.
July 1935. In the village of Aldwick on the Sussex coast, sixteen-year-old Hazel faces a long, dull summer with just her self-centred mother Francine for company. But then Francine decamps to London with her lover Charles, Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts arrive in Aldwick, and Hazel’s summer suddenly becomes more interesting. She finds herself befriended by two very different people: Lucia, an upper-class blackshirt, passionate about the cause; and Tom, a young working-class boy, increasingly scornful of Mosley’s rhetoric. In the end, though, it is Tom who wins Hazel’s heart – and Hazel who breaks his.
Autumn 1936. Now living in London, Hazel has grown up fast over the past year. But an encounter with Tom sends her into freefall. He must never know why she cut off all contact last summer, betraying the promises they’d made. Yet Hazel isn’t the only one with secrets. Nor is she the only one with reason to keep the two of them apart . . .
I think most people will be able to identify with Hazel, her lack of direction and boredom at the prospect of facing a long, hot summer largely left to her own devices, exacerbated by her best friend rushing off to Wales with her family to visit their sick grandmother. It’s only natural that she watches these incomers with interest: the blackshirts march through her town, and later relax on the beach on the other side of her garden wall. I can’t blame her for feeling drawn towards these new people, particularly when she experiences those first sparks of recognition and connection with Lucia and Tom, that friction which can catch you off-guard, signalling the beginning of a friendship or relationship, be it love or lust.
This week turns out to be life-changing for Hazel: her own curiosity is partly at play here, and her choice of summer reading almost makes it inevitable. But Hazel’s coming-of-age is both tender and shocking and it’s her reaction to that which made this book for me. Hazel is a revelation and the character who surprises me in The Faithful: there are hidden depths to her. While I started by sympathising with her summer predicament, I ended up admiring her strength and determination to make the best of the situation. In contrast to others in the book, it has far less to do with ideology for her, and more to do with practicality. Read more
Cesca Major’s debut historical novel The Silent Hours takes as its inspiration a truly shocking event which happened during World War II, the anniversary of which fell on 10th June.
Set in wartime France, The Silent Hours follows three people whose lives are bound together, before war tears them apart:
Adeline, a mute who takes refuge in a convent, haunted by memories of her past;
Sebastian, a young Jewish banker whose love for the beautiful Isabelle will change the course of his life dramatically;
Tristin, a nine-year-old boy, whose family moves from Paris to settle in a village that is seemingly untouched by war.
Before I read The Silent Hours, I didn’t know anything about the real-life event around which the novel’s based and I resisted googling it until afterwards so as not to distract from the author’s version of it. I’m so glad I did this because she crafts a real mystery around a woman called Adeline, who we first meet in 1952. She’s in a nunnery, where she has been living for some years. No one can get through to her and her muteness is putting her remaining there in jeopardy. That, together with some memory loss, initially makes it unclear how much she can remember or is choosing to forget about who she is or where she came from, let alone what happened to her. Although both the nuns and the reader can guess at some trauma in her past. Read more
I know from personal experience how intense a week’s writing retreat can be; they forge lasting friendships and can be as life-changing for the individual as they are for their writing. But I’m incredibly relieved they’ve never proved to be as devastating as the one which sparks off the central female relationship in Sarah Stovell’s Exquisite.
Bo Luxton has it all – a loving family, a beautiful home in the Lake District, and a clutch of bestselling books to her name.
Enter Alice Dark, an aspiring writer who is drifting through life, with a series of dead-end jobs and a freeloading boyfriend.
When they meet at a writers’ retreat, the chemistry is instant, and a sinister relationship develops…
Or does it?
Exquisite’s main characters Bo and Alice are writers, albeit at different stages of their careers. And when you have people who make things up for a living telling the story, they might not be the most reliable of narrators. They’re both persuasive storytellers, possibly prone to exaggeration and bending the truth or shaping things to fit their own narrative. To further muddy the waters, there’s an unnamed narrator to try and identify before Sarah Stovell’s ready to reveal them, who could help shine a light on what’s going on here. All of which helps to make this a deliciously dark, fast-paced psychological thriller that not only messes with the minds of its characters, but also that of the reader. It makes you question who you believe, what you’ve read and witnessed, and causes you to doubt your own understanding of events.
Exquisite is a book of contrasts, some of which are real and others illusory. It contains love and beauty, nurture and openness, kindness and generosity alongside calculated behaviour, cruelty and manipulation, lies and deceit. An already damaged person perpetuates more damage on themselves and others to devastating effect, exploiting their vulnerability and openness, and affecting the lives of innocents. Read more
I happened upon Alison Jameson’s novel This family of things towards the end of April on Twitter. It must have been the feathers on its striking cover which caught my eye and once I’d read the blurb, I was left in no doubt. This was a book written for me.
On his way back up from the yard Bird had seen something white and round – a girl who had curled herself into a ball. Lifting her was like retrieving a ball of newspaper from out of the grass or an empty crisp bag that someone had flung over the ditch. She seemed to lack the bones and meat and muscle of real people. She felt as if she was filled with feathers.
On the day Midge Connors comes hurtling into Bird Keegan’s life, she flings open his small, quiet world. He and his two sisters, Olive and Margaret, have lived in the same isolated community all their lives, each one more alone than the others can know.
Taking in damaged, sharp-edged Midge, Bird invites the scorn of his neighbours and siblings. And as they slowly mend each other, family bonds – and the tie of the land – begin to weigh down on their tentative relationship. Can it survive the misunderstandings, contempt and violence of others?
When I say the book was written for me, it’s because this is a book about characters living outside the mainstream, both geographically and by their nature. While Midge Connors may have lived all her life in Tullyvin, Co. Wicklow, she’s never felt wanted by either of her parents, or the wider community. Left behind by her siblings and treated like the runt of the litter, she tries to look out for her mother and deflect some of her father’s punches and anger. She seems more like a battered and bruised angry pixie, always on the verge of vanishing, than a grown woman. Tossed about by life and thrown from a moving car, it’s little wonder she protects herself with a spiky and defensive nature or by curling up into a ball.
Bird and his sisters, Olive and Margaret, on the other hand, live outside Tullyvin near a lake. Bird works the family farm, in tune with the rhythms of the seasons, his livestock and the farmwork but barely existing once indoors, where the only warmth to be found in the damp farmhouse is in the kitchen. After their father’s death, Olive and Margaret moved out and took their sisterly co-dependency act to the nearby Lodge, where they may have made an altogether cosier home of the house. Their relationship is a strange dance around each other, one which falters every time Bird visits. They desperately need something to shock them into opening up and when Midge lands in Bird’s field and their lives, she’s the catalyst for this but also one of the initial beneficiaries alongside the brother and his sisters.
Alison Jameson captures the sense of place and steady rhythm of nature so well in this book, and it’s one which you can feel the characters moving to especially for the Irish sections of the book set in Co. Wicklow. I liked that no matter how erratic or tentative the characters’ behaviour at times, there is that constant going on around them, and demanding their attention. It links them to the land and that community in a way that they can’t seem to do on their own until Midge and the Keegans’ worlds collide. Read more
Having roamed across its summer meadows with peach juice dribbling down chins, while exploring grief in her evocative debut novel The Night Rainbow, Claire King returns to Southern France for her second, Everything Love Is. The novel shifts between a floating community on the slow-moving waterways just outside Toulouse and into the city itself where the political situation seems altogether more fluid and fast-moving. And, as you can probably deduce, this time Claire King turns her attention towards love.
What I want is something that makes me feel alive. Joy, passion, despair, something to remember or something to regret. I want to have my breath taken away.
Moored on his beloved houseboat at the edge of Toulouse, Baptiste Molino helps his clients navigate the waters of contentment, yet remains careful never to make waves of his own.
But between Sophie, the young waitress in his local bar who believes it is time for Baptiste to rediscover passion, and his elegant, enigmatic new client Amandine Rousseau, this fragile status quo is now at risk. When the rising tensions on the city streets cause his mysterious past to catch up with him, Baptiste finds himself torn between finally pursuing his own happiness and safeguarding that of the one he loves.
Born on a train to a mother he never knew and raised by adoptive parents in their countryside cottage, Baptiste lives a simple, pared-down existence on the houseboat, Candide. Although his work involves helping others to find out what brings them contentment, he pays little heed to his own happiness, convinced instead he has all he can hope for and considering that to be enough. He’s careful not to get too attached to people although inevitably he forms some connections among the community on the canal. There is a sense that he needs to feel as if he could cast off at a moment’s notice.
Two characters share the storytelling in Everything Love Is, Baptiste’s one and another, unnamed. Baptiste’s chapters are headed up with a kingfisher to which he’s likened in the book, the others by an owl. It’s a beautifully unobtrusive way to make it clear who’s narrating, especially when other things are less so. There were moments reading Everything Love Is when I felt uncertain, as if things were shifting around me: that moment where you’re about to step aboard a boat and it shifts slightly away from you and there’s nothing below you but air and water. Yet you don’t fall, and you won’t here. Claire King’s a skilled writer and ensures that you’re soon back on firmer ground. It’s worth steering your way through these brief disturbances; those light ripples may be disconcerting but shouldn’t be enough to capsize. Read more
It’s the summer of 1976 and there’s a heatwave in England. Strange things happen in heatwaves and inside Liverpool’s oldest and largest railway station, Lime Street, Martha’s life starts to spin out of control. Will her cake-wielding best friend, a Roman centurion and a phantom fisher in a bowler hat be able to help her before everything’s as lost as Martha?
Liverpool, 1976: Martha is lost.
She’s been lost since she was a baby, abandoned in a suitcase on the train from Paris. Ever since, she’s waited in lost property for someone to claim her. It’s been sixteen years, but she’s still hopeful.
Meanwhile, there are lost property mysteries to solve: a suitcase that may have belonged to the Beatles, a stuffed monkey that keeps appearing. But there is one mystery Martha has never been able to solve – and now time is running out. If Martha can’t discover who she really is, she will lose everything…
When I discovered that The Finding of Martha Lost was set in Liverpool’s main rail terminus, I was excited to read it. Probably because I’ve never had to use them for my daily commute, I’ve always found train stations to be pretty exciting places. A large station always feels like a whole world unto itself, ripe for people-watching and full of stories; people meet up or part ways at the beginning or end of a journey, or while passing through on the way elsewhere. Think about all the (possible) human connections, those made accidentally or on purpose, some fleeting, others destined to be more lasting, and those which are completely missed out on. Caroline Wallace gives us a wonderful glimpse into these lives, of some of the people using Lime Street Station, through the things they forget or discard and which eventually make their way into Martha’s hands in the lost property office. For Martha has a special talent when it comes to lost things and it’s one which can be quite revealing.
Martha is a magical character; she’s charming and winsome, kind and friendly, wise beyond her years in some ways but naive about others. She’s eccentric with her daily spinning around the station concourse, and resolutely cheerful despite a soul-crushing life with Mother. Martha shares with her creator, the author, a gift for seeing the beauty in the everyday, the quirkiness and fun, and the wonder of books: how the stories behind certain ones are every bit as important as those within their pages. Understandably, she has a library befitting such a literary heroine. Martha separates her life out into the parts of a fairytale and, as with every fairytale, there’s a dark side and a curse. Only ever having known Lime Street Station as her home, Mother’s convinced her that if she ever leaves, the station and everything in it will crumble. Read more
Isabel Ashdown returns to the Isle of Wight* for the setting of her latest novel, Little Sister, and rather appropriately for this dark tale of sibling rivalry and lost children she’s gone over to slightly wilder West Wight. (I lived on this side of the island for nine years before leaving to go to university, so I was excited to read something set there, and see how she’d use some of its locations.)
After sixteen years apart sisters Jessica and Emily are reunited. With the past now behind them, the warmth they once shared quickly returns and before long Jess has moved into Emily’s comfortable island home. Life couldn’t be better. But when baby Daisy disappears while in Jess’s care, the perfect life Emily has so carefully built starts to fall apart.
Was Emily right to trust her sister after everything that happened before?
Little Sister starts as it means to go on with an intriguing but incredibly disconcerting prologue which sets the tone for the entire book. Told from the viewpoint of three of the characters, Little Sister is a tense, almost claustrophobic novel thanks to its relatively small cast of characters and with the majority of the action taking place inside Emily’s home. It’s almost a relief when Jess goes for a walk or Emily does a flit, even when the police come round with an update. You get a real sense of what it is like to be in that home with all the anxiety of not knowing where baby Daisy is or if she’ll be found safe and well, as the strained family dynamic starts to rupture and outside the press pack lines the drive in wait for a clickbait headline or a compromising photo opportunity. A nightmare situation Isabel Ashdown makes vivid.
Little Sister is aptly named for while one little sister is missing on and off-the-page, another takes a central role in the story: alongside the search for absent Daisy, Isabel Ashdown takes us back into the history between the two grown-up sisters, Jess and Emily. Theirs is a fascinating dynamic, almost suffocating in its intensity. One is painted as shy, good and the peacemaker, the other as more extrovert, if calculating and manipulative with it. Isabel Ashdown helps you to get to know one of the sisters better by having her tell her story in first person while the other seems more distant and harder to read by having her side told in third person. Nothing is ever quite what it seems though and neither sister appears to be a reliable narrator; one because she’s only recently come back into the other’s life, and the other because she’s distraught, emotional, suspicious and heavily medicated. Read more
Harriet Cummings’ debut novel We All Begin As Strangers is inspired by real events that took place in her home town the year she was born. In providing her own take on the mysterious intruder ‘The Fox’, she weaves a contemporary tale of the loneliness, suspicion, gossip and misunderstandings rife even in the smallest community.
It’s 1984, and summer is scorching the ordinary English village of Heathcote. What’s more, a mysterious figure is slipping into homes through back doors and open windows. Dubbed ‘The Fox’, he knows everything about everyone – leaving curious objects in their homes, or taking things from them.
When beloved Anna goes missing, the whole community believes The Fox is responsible. But as the residents scramble to solve the mystery of Anna’s disappearance, little do they know it’s their darkest secrets The Fox is really after…
We All Begin As Strangers is split into four parts, each one told by a different Heathcote resident, starting with Deloris, the only female narrator, followed by Jim and Brian, and ending with Stan. This works well as long as you don’t get too attached to one narrator and their story, and is a boon if you don’t find another so easy. The change in narrator helps to give a real sense of movement around the streets and houses affected while also switching up the perspective. You get that character’s internalised thoughts together with how they behave towards the other residents, and how they’re viewed by the other resident-narrators. This helps shift your own view of Heathcote and its inhabitants as you get to know them better.
We’re not seeing these people at their best: they’re in crisis, responding to the unsettling threat of a home intrusion and the shocking disappearance of Anna which suggests the Fox is altogether a more sinister and dangerous creature. But often when people are under stress is precisely when it’s most revealing. Some people will find themselves or discover strengths they didn’t know they had while others will succumb to fear and allow their inner sheep mentality to take over. In We All Begin As Strangers, there are those helpers we should either always be or look for when something bad happens. Butthere are also suspicions no longer whispered but openly voiced and once chattering gossip takes the more threatening form of a braying mob looking for a scapegoat when the Fox proves elusive. It’s a fascinating look at how we behave towards others when under pressure or we feel threatened and seems a timely novel in that respect. Read more