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Lucy Barker – The Other Side Of Mrs Wood

Book Cover of Lucy Barker's The Other Side Of Mrs Wood

Into studying the Victorian period, Lucy Barker set her book in a time she knew a lot about. It’s paid off in spades.

Mrs Wood is a successful medium. Originally from a poor background, she has risen (no pun intended) to be solidly middle class and able to furnish her home and person to a degree acceptable to the wealthy patrons she has collected. Having patrons is critical to financial independence – being a medium gives her means that many women do not have – and critical to her career is staying above any rumours of trickery; while many mediums has been found to be frauds, Mrs Wood is still okay. One day she sees a young woman outside her house, clearing watching the goings on of her Circle; Mrs Wood follows her, catches her, and the event ends with Miss Finch becoming a pupil, because, despite maid Eliza’s disgust at a member of her own class being placed above her, Mrs Wood needs something new and sparkly to keep her patrons eyes on her as she ages, and a trainee is just the thing. But might Eliza’s disgust have a real point?

The Other Side Of Mrs Wood is a very witty and incredibly immersive story of a period of history that a lot of people will be aware of but not to the extent that Barker goes into it. Educational as well as it is excellent, this is a tale that’s been well plotted and characterised and is very easy to become lost in and thus very quick to finish.

This immersion is down to Barker’s focus on world-building in all its guises. The author sticks to a few specific areas of London – in particular Notting Hill – and goes to town on fleshing out the details so that you get a vivid picture of what the places are like; yet there is no info-dumping or too-long detailing in this book – everything comes from very brief descriptions, and from the characterisation and dialogue. You get so much information from Barker without realising it for quite a while and it’s a glorious thing.

Then once you get inside the séance rooms and into the events themselves, more immersion happens. There’s no second person narrative or anything like that – Barker doesn’t literally welcome you to the circular table – but it very often feels like she has. You’re fully amongst all the goings on and it’s rather awesome as you get to experience both the spooky, haunting, effect, as well as the reality of the mechanics that Mrs Wood and her companion Miss Newman use to make the guests think there are really spirits amongst them. (Some may have figured it out – this is never said, but that in itself reflects the ambiance of the time.)

I mentioned Miss Newman there, which I hadn’t done before: let’s get into the characters. No surprise here – Barker’s attention to characterisation is brilliant. There is ample ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’, the characters come fully alive (except the spirits, but they aren’t real), and while there might be a plethora of secondary characters it’s also quite difficult to say they are secondary characters because they are drawn so fully. Yes, there are stereotypes, adding to the humour, but everyone is involved often. Mrs Wood and Miss Finch get most of the billing – Miss Finch is generally considered through Mrs Wood’s point of view (Barker uses the third person but places it strongly on Mrs Wood) but we see other possibilities through the looks and gestures of Eliza and a few times the words of Miss Newman. Barker does well with Miss Newman – the character is always going out to her suffrage society (this is the very early stages of the movement) but she never feels too far away as Mrs Wood considers her often and you, the reader, inevitably end up wondering what Miss Newman would say to what Mrs Wood is thinking of doing.

Mrs Wood is brilliant – funny without often being actively funny in herself (Barker very obviously loves her characters), and a good person to read about, to centre the story around. She may miss a lot but you never feel a different character would have made a better focus. And Miss Finch is as blurred and obscured as you’d expect of someone who could be good, neutral, or bad.

On the note of secondary characters, a special mention must be made for columnist Magnus Clore of The Spiritual Times, whose short reviews and general thoughts of the world of mediums provide a different perspective, an inventive way to add twists and interest to the plot, and an important bit of white space (by way of the reviews being short) during which to get your breath back before you plunge back into the proceedings; it’s easy to lose track of time when reading this book. You also have letters from various secondary characters – and the odd primary character – to Mrs Wood, which lends a different use of voice to the novel.

Suffice to say, given all of the above, that the book is big on women’s independence – being a medium was a very good way for women of the era to make their own money and way in society. Mrs Wood’s childhood in poverty and the choices she makes, during the time the novel takes place, to keep her standing – to keep her patrons and remain a successful medium, keeping rumours of fraud well away – form the backbone of the story, with Miss Finch’s own background adding to that.

The ending is very well done and incorporates a few different elements of the plot that have been woven in since the beginning. It may or may not surprise you – there are at least a couple of possibilities of where the book might go that begin to be laid early on – but whether or not it’s as you expected, you’ll likely agree that it is a fantastic ending regardless.

The Other Side Of Mrs Wood makes for a brilliant reading choice. Well plotted, well characterised, and an excellent balance of humour and seriousness, this book is one of the best books of this year and it’ll be interesting to see what Lucy Barker comes up with next. Just don’t expect a further exploration of fully-fledged spirit manifestations – as Mrs Wood would tell you, they probably don’t exist.

Publisher: 4th Estate (HarperCollins)
Pages: 389
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-59720-7
First Published: 13th June 2023
Date Reviewed: 17th November 2023

 
Amanda Geard – The Moon Gate

Book Cover of Amanda Geard's The Moon Gate

Amanda Geard did not know much abut her home country’s role in the war. Everything she knew was about Europe, not Australia. With this book, she has fixed that, and taught us all, too.

The Moon Gate follows a number of characters but three in particular, across three time periods. In the 1930s-40s, Grace has travelled from London to Tasmania to get away from the war and whilst neglected by her chaperone – her mother’s favourite, Rose – and her aunt, finds peace in both the cultural and literal landscape of her new home. In the 1970s, Willow and Ben are surprised to be named the beneficiaries of a trust that gives them a house n the west coast of Tasmania, and Ben wants to find out who their benefactor was. And in 2004, Libby is looking to find out more abut her father, Ben, who died in the Moorgate Tube Crash when he was visiting London on a mission to find out about her mother’s family.

The Moon Gate is a superb tale of grief and rebirth, focusing on aspects of history that are not well known.

Geard has written an incredibly immersive story that is worth every line of its 495 pages. Looking at three time periods, changing perspectives when it will add context and interest, and adding twist after twist after twist, The Moon Gate is an exemplary example of multi-narrative fiction that will sate the appetites of a great many readers of the genre. (I’d also like to note that the book has no filler sections – I really do mean it’s worth all those pages.)

It would be difficult not to say this is not a character-driven book – it absolutely is that – but the plot is thrilling nonetheless. And the theme work, whilst certainly running behind them, is not far off. You have Grace, a resident of Mayfair who is neglected by her mother in favour of the housekeeper’s daughter. Grace’s mother is a member of the British fascists and gives us the most memorable line of the book: ‘You are very difficult to love’. Spoiler alert but not really: there’s nothing wrong with Grace.

Then you have Ben in 1974-5. (His wife, Willow, isn’t seen so much here but her life spans two of the time periods, so she’s fully involved.) Ben is on a mostly one-man mission to find Willow’s birth parents because it makes sense to his that they are the people who bestowed upon Willow and Ben the house on the west coast. Ben’s mission is informed by his life in the system – having never known any parents at all, he is doubly keen to find Willow’s birth parents. And Libby, who has lost both her father and fiancé, trades a Tasmanian summer for a British winter, to find out if she can find out more about her father – her mother doesn’t know much and is quiet about what she does know.

Geard’s focus, in the ‘first’ timeline WW2’s impact on Tasmania, lends the book a particular uniqueness; she looks at both civilian and military history. Geard has included a fair amount of information about West Coast Tasmania mining, Huon pine (a type of tree that doesn’t rot easily), and the book is pretty steeped in its historical local community, which is no mean feat when you consider that so much of the goings on happen at the house. As to military history, with one of the characters being involved as a soldier in the eastern theatre of the war, there is information as to the lives of Tasmanian soldiers, as well as the worries of the regular civilians.

And if we are to speak of the wider country, which we should, then we must include Banjo Paterson: Geard has woven the famed Australian poet’s work into her novel, using it to drive parts of her character’s lives forward as Grace starts to write herself.

Paramount to the book’s themes is the look at grief. Most people in The Moon Gate have lost someone, and there is a particular case where the reader witnesses a death themselves. Many people in the novel have lost a parent and some have lost their partners. Geard’s inclusion of the Moorgate Tube Crash warrants a mention because it is an absolutely important event in London to know about but certainly for this Brit, Geard’s book is the first she’s heard about it; much like Kate Thompson’s employment of the Bethnal Green Tube Disaster of WW2 (for The Little Wartime Library), it’s a piece of history that shouldn’t be forgotten. And talking of grief, Geard’s look at loss of one’s partner is wonderfully done in the form of Libby’s remembrance of Krish, which impacts the choices she makes.

The Moon Gate may deal with difficult subjects but the reading experience itself is absolutely sublime – I’ve used that word for this book before and I likely will again. And as I have also said before, this book puts Geard’s debut The Midnight House to shame; how she will continue to advance from here I do not know but I have every belief that she will.

Publisher: Headline Review (Hachette)
Pages: 495
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-472-28375-7
First Published: 14th July 2023
Date Reviewed: 18th August 2023

 
Elissa Soave – Ginger And Me

Book Cover of Elissa Soave's Ginger And Me

Elissa Soave set Ginger And Me in Uddingston, the town just outside Glasgow where she is from. She thought about the ordinary people there, including young mothers with their children in prams and thought of how they each have a story, and how the world of literature does not often have these women’s stories; when it does, they are not from the women’s points of view1. She wrote a first person narrative with that in mind.

In the book we meet Wendy, a nineteen-year-old bus driver who has recently lost her mother. She’s coping as much as she can but is inevitably struggling – she’s alone and although she tries to make friends, no one ever seems to like her. One day a young teen, Ginger, gets on the bus and the two begin a fledging friendship. Wendy’s also got Diane – a local writer whose Tweets she (Wendy) likes and replies to, which makes them friends. But we begin in prison where Wendy is being held after being found in Diane’s garden during a distressing event. Wendy just happened to be there and everyone misunderstands.

Ginger And Me is a superb novel of friendship, difference, and, as intimated, the working class. Soave’s story is extremely realistic, hard-hitting, and a reminder that we still have a long way to go in recognising, acknowledging, and understanding neuro-diversity, as well as factors that may or may not impact upon a person to make them the way they are. (‘May not’ because there are not always easy ‘reasons’ for things and, as Soave has said herself, she doesn’t want to use labels).

This is a character-driven novel in its entirety. Whilst the reader may be initially drawn in by the promise of a mystery to be solved (by them, because Wendy doesn’t understand it), you happily leave that behind you for a time as Wendy takes you back to the days (not long ago) when she worked on the buses in Uddingston. You meet her and her regular travellers, get a sense for her life lived quietly in her empty home, before Ginger comes on the scene, fifteen years old and a new passenger. We get a lot more description of Ginger than we do Wendy – she’s the character on the cover (in name and image) for a reason, and it’s evident straight away that she has a troubled home life and that Wendy hasn’t caught on to this. Ginger is a great character, easy to picture, easy to like and root for.

When Wendy goes to a writer’s group, which she informs her social worker about it (the social worker does very little but you can see why from the narrative Wendy gives her). In literary terms the group is great – Soave shows very well, through them, why people struggle with Wendy, and she also shows the cruelty of people, too. That last part is why they’re not so great in people terms.

As said, you don’t get labels here. You can come to your own conclusions about what’s ‘up’ with Wendy if you like, but the main point is to simply be more aware of difference and, due to the first person narrative, understand more by the end of it. Personally, I saw a few ‘options’, and I want to say this because this is a book that will definitely be defined by your own experience of life no matter who you are.

On that note I will bring in the look at how we treat people and how we could (and need to) do better. The social worker, Saanvi, is a great starting point – she could do better, but should we point the finger at her or is her lack of support not just another symptom of the lack of funding and resources given to social care in this country? Same for the police, and for the regular people. Some people don’t accept Wendy, some do.

There is also a similar case to be made for Ginger. Ginger’s not Wendy, but there are things in her life that happen during the pages that should’ve been picked up by people tasked to check on them. Instead, Ginger drops off the radar of society; she did so a while ago.

Aside from Ginger, Saanvi, and the writing group, we have Diane. Wendy sees her as a friend purely after Diane ‘Likes’ a few of her Tweets. Diane is understandably in a middle place – she’s kind at events and as kind as she can be when Wendy turns up at her house (as we know happens, just from the prologue) but she’s of course freaked out by having a fan arrive at her door. The mystery becomes a driving force towards the end and doesn’t disappoint.

Ginger And Me is really great. It can be compared to Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine – it’s not the same but there are similarities. It is excellent.

Publisher: HQ (HarperCollins)
Pages: 357
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-45841-6
First Published: 21st July 2022
Date Reviewed: 18th August 2023

Footnotes

1 See my interview with Elissa Soave, episode 80 of the podcast.

 
May – August 2023 Reading Round Up

I read 16 books between May and August and I’m doing much better over all this year than in recent years. I’ve noticed that I said I was doing well back in April, too, which means general progress has been made. Most of the below books will be (or have been) featured on my podcast as I made a point of doing as many interviews as I could between May and the tail-end of July in order to be ahead as that’s something I hadn’t been able to do much of the last few years, either. It was both exhausting and totally exhilarating.

All books are works of fiction.

Book cover of Alex Hay's The Housekeepers Book cover of Amanda Geard's The Moon Gate Book cover of Eleanor Shearer's River Sing Me Home Book cover of Elissa Soave's Ginger And Me

Alex Hay: The Housekeepers – Mrs King, housekeeper of the de Vries mansion, has been fired from her post and is now planning to rob the place of the entirety of its contents along with other disgruntled parties during the time the new mistress of the house will be hosting a ball. Thrilling and hilarious from start to finish, perfectly plotted, perfectly everything.

Amanda Geard: The Moon Gate – In the 2000s, Libby travels from Tasmania to London to find out more about the research her father, Ben, was doing into her mother’s birth family when he was killed in the Moorgate Tube Crash; in the 1970s Ben seeks to find out who has given his wife and himself a house on the Tasmanian coast; in the 1940s Grace is sent to Tasmania along with her hateful companion to see out the war at her uncle’s home and, away from her awful mother, starts to blossom and find her people. A three-timeline historical novel with a strong set of mysteries behind it, this superb book looks at grief, WWII in Tasmania, and Australian poetry, and is worth every word of its almost 500 pages (in hardback).

Eleanor Shearer: River Sing Me Home – When the plantation owner announces that everyone is free but that they must carry on working for no money for several more years, Rachel escapes. She has children to look for, young people who were sold on elsewhere. This book looks at what the concept of freedom means through a number of lens, looks at motherhood, and of course slavery in the Caribbean. It’s done wonderfully.

Elissa Soave: Ginger And Me – Wendy’s mum has died and she’s struggling to cope; she doesn’t have any friends or people to turn to and no one really seems to like her. But then Ginger steps onto her bus and the two teenagers begin a friendship. However for some reason the reader doesn’t yet know, Wendy is recounting this from prison and Ginger is no longer alive. The writer Wendy was Twitter friends with may not be alive either. A stunning story of how people who don’t fit the proscribed norms fall off the radar, and the catastrophic things that can result from that; there is also a lot about friendship.

Book cover of Gill Paul's A Beautiful Rival Book cover of Jenni Keer's The Legacy Of Halesham Hall Book cover of Karen Hamilton's The Contest Book cover of Kristy Woodson Harvey's The Summer Of Songbirds

Gill Paul: A Beautiful Rival – The (fictionalised) story of cosmetics industry rivals, Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, Gill Paul starts her tale as the women are already pretty successful, as Rubinstein expands to the US where Arden is already established. The pair were both self-made women in a time when that was not at all the done thing but always ‘had’ to one up each other, starting with products and going so far as their romantic lives. Paul has kept to the history where she can but makes a few compelling deviations. The book in general is compelling and offers a lot about the women, the period, the amount of anti-Semitism during a time when people were fighting against Hitler, and, of course, advertising and product creation.

Jenni Keer: The Legacy Of Halesham Hall – Phoebe wants revenge; her father’s younger brother took the family estate from him in a wretched game led by her grandfather and with her father now dead, she will have the place herself thank you very much. Deciding to be honest with her effective uncle, Sidney (her father is not her blood relative), about her relation to him, Sidney lets her stay on below stairs, and Phoebe gets to work finding out the very last piece of the puzzle her grandfather set which Sidney never actually discovered. A good historical mystery with a fresh concept of board games and puzzles running through it, boasting a bit of cosy mystery and a very satisfying epilogue.

Karen Hamilton: The Contest – Blackmore Vintage Travel take their Very-Very Important Guests on annual contests where they are split into two teams. The employees of both teams vie for winning status – with it comes more money. But these are not the easiest holidays and there have been accidents, in particular the last trip which left one employee in a critical condition. Now, Florence and Jacob are vying for the crown – Jacob wants to impress his father, who owns the company, and Florence wants a bit of retribution. They’re to take their teams up Mt Kilimanjaro, impressing them with VIP flourishes. But there may be a killer among them. This book has a particularly good ending that is not at all obvious for at least a good while.

Kristy Woodson Harvey: The Summer Of Songbirds – June’s owned her girls’ summer camp for decades but the pandemic lockdowns have reduced the income to problematic levels and she may have to sell out to a house building company who’ll turn the camp into homes for the wealthy. When she lets her niece, Daphne, and friends Lainier and Mary Stuart know – they met at camp in their single digit years and have been friends ever since – the four begin a plan to get donations and funding to save the camp. It’ll be another summer they’ll never forget – Lainier is soon to be married but Daphne has good reason to hope it doesn’t happen, and the love of Daphne’s life, Lainier’s brother, is back in town. A fantastic read with a very special narrative voice; more about friendship than the camp but wonderful all the same.

Book cover of Nicolai Houm's The Gradual Disappearance Of Jane Ashland Book cover of Paula Cocozza's Speak To Me Book cover of Rachel Abbott's Don't Look Away Book cover of Radhika Sanghani's I Wish We Weren't Related

Nicolai Houm: The Gradual Disappearance Of Jane Ashland – A woman wakes up in a tent in a Norwegian National Park, knowing how she got there; scenes from the past couple of months show how she came to be in such a place. This is a novel about grief rather than a thriller – though it has an element of that – and a very good one at that.

Paula Cocozza: Speak To Me – Our narrator is feeling lonely and neglected in her relationship and life in general, and she very much misses the previous house her family lived in which, they moved away from to please her husband. Her husband, Kurt, is too involved with someone else – his mobile phone. Our narrator tells us all about this, while reminiscing over a past relationship and wishing to find her briefcase which is filled with letters.

Rachel Abbott: Don’t Look Away – The third book in the Stephanie King series, Nancy has moved temporarily to Cornwall after the death of her aunt to look at the cottage she’s been left and sell it. There are no good memories here – when she came her last, her mother had died and then her sister disappeared and her father died in an accident. But her plans to sell up and go back to London are paused when she finds her sister’s filled rucksack in the garden shed where the police didn’t bother to look, and there’s a van that seems to follow her wherever she goes. Meanwhile, a kid has found a skeleton in a cave that matches the year Nancy’s sister ran off but may not be the girl herself. A great thriller that starts off with a simple one-thread story and starts to expand quite a bit.

Radhika Sanghani: I Wish We Weren’t Related – Reeva and her sisters have to go and spend two weeks mourning their father with his relatives… except that their father died many years ago… didn’t he? And it’s not great – Reeva’s sister is engaged to her, Reeva’s, ex, and she doesn’t have a good relationship with her other sister, Sita, either. A well-done comedy that has a lot of heart and reality amongst its bonkers going on.

Book cover of Ronali Collings' Love & Other Dramas Book cover of Sylvia Mercedes' Bride Of The Shadow King Book cover of Sylvia Mercedes' Vow Of The Shadow King Book cover of Tasneem Abdur-Rashid's Finding Mr Perfectly Fine

Ronali Collings: Love & Other Dramas – Tania is newly divorced and looking to find herself, Priya did not receive a much hoped for promotion after giving her all to her long-standing employer, and Helen is discovering herself after years as an unhappy wife (unhappy is an understatement). The book covers their transitions to new milestones. One of the best books I’ve read this year – simple in premise but just so well done.

Sylvia Mercedes: Bride Of The Shadow King – The Trolde king, Vor, needs a bride and the humans on the overworld swore their princess to him. That princess should be Ilsevel if the King has anything to do with it, and he sends her off to wed a king she does not particularly like. But when Vor came to meet the family, there was the oldest princess, Faraine, and it was love at first sight for both of them. When Faraine has to take Ilsevel’s place she’s not comfortable with the idea – it involves magic and deception – but she has to go ahead. Hopefully Vor will be happy, albeit that the humans are deceiving him. This book has a great fantasy romance premise and held much promise, until two plot twists that turned it into too much angst. The first was okay if upsetting – the reason Faraine goes instead of Ilsevel (because of course she will) but the way Vor handles it all is too much.

Sylvia Mercedes: Vow Of The Shadow King – The continuing story of no communication, no reason for there not to be happiness, and a scene that needs a trigger warning. I’d already bought the book. I will look for another series by Mercedes that can rival my favourite (the Venatrix Chronicles – it’s one of my favourite series full stop), but it is definitely not this one.

Tasneem Abdur-Rashid: Finding Mr Perfectly Fine – Zara’s mum has told her to find a husband pronto because if she’s not married in a year, by her 30th birthday, she’s off to Bangladesh. Zara joins a Muslim marriage app, and goes to a meet-up but then there’s also Adam from work. Adam’s only nominally a Muslim so it won’t work, but Zara’s drawn to him. At the same time, Hamza, from the meet-up offers a lot more of the things she’s looking for, she just isn’t particularly attracted to him. She’s got some decisions to make. Absolutely loved this one. Worth the lost sleep.

There were some excellent books this summer; just the couple I didn’t get on with. It was a fantastic time for reading and I’m happy I pushed myself. I’m currently making my way through Outlander Voyager – still, but I’m reading alongside watching which has been interesting – and I’ve Neil Ansell’s The Circling Sky currently on the back burner but soon to move forward again.

 
Eleanor Shearer – River Sing Me Home

Book Cover of Eleanor Shearer's River Sing Me Home

When Eleanor Shearer was in her mid teens, she went to an exhibition that looked at the stories of slavery and the impact on later generations of black people. It made its mark on her; when she finished her university Masters, in which her thesis was about the case for reparations for the Caribbean, she thought back to her initial idea for fiction and realised she already had a lot of the research done for a novel. River Sing Me Home was the excellent result.

The story follows Rachel who, after the plantation owner announces slavery has been ended but then goes on to say how everyone has been mandated to work several more years (the British said newly freed people would need time to adjust to their freedom…), decides to make a run for it and succeeds in escaping. Now free, she is in a position to search for the five children who were taken from her and sold elsewhere. She has no idea how far she will have to go – she’s starting with Barbados where she lives – but she’ll move mountains if she has to.

River Sing Me Home is a novel of great strength, love, and motherhood, which looks at what it means to be free, exploring the question via some of the different options Caribbean slaves took.

Shearer’s development and general creation of the characters is very good. We of course focus most on Rachel who we come to understand early but are given more and more of as time goes on. We meet Nobody, a man who decides to stay travelling with Rachel and, through a couple of tailors, one of Rachel’s children who has a massive impact on the story.

Set in the Caribbean, the story moves through a couple of islands as well as the colony of British Guinea in South America. Whilst of course based on historical fact, and also Shearer’s familial knowledge, the focus on this area of the world allows for full use of the theme of water, which is explored by Shearer with aplomb.

To discuss the contents further risks spoiling the book – suffice to say it looks at different aspects and results of escape, staying and making do, and at the concept of passing. It also shines a light on the Native People who were forced out of their lands.

River Sing Me Home shows a part of history that isn’t much known in the west. Wonderfully told and both harrowing and heartening in equal measure, it’s an excellent and important publication that will hopefully be read by many readers to come.

Publisher: Headline Review (Hachette)
Pages: 365
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-472-29136-3
First Published: 31st January 2023
Date Reviewed: 18th August 2023

 

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