Welcome to my book-blog. I spend as much time as I can within the pages of a book and hope you'll get some reading inspiration from my library. Catch me on Instagram as well as books.tea.and.me – I'm always looking for recommendations!
When a rare sixteenth-century manuscript lands on her desk courtesy of William, a struggling painter, shy book restorer Rose makes a startling discovery: it is a palimpsest. Beneath the text is a different document, one that’s been written over. What they discover is the secret diary of William’s ancestor, Giovanni Lomazzo, a Venetian painter who has just been commissioned by Venice’s most powerful admiral to paint a portrait of his favourite courtesan… it is a diary of forbidden love, dangerous political plots, and secrets that could destroy everyone involved.
Together, Rose and William work to solve the mystery of what happened to the secret lovers. As feelings develop between Rose and William, their own experience begins to mirror the affair that they’re uncovering, and each set of lovers is forced to confront the reality of their romance.
A richly detailed and sweeping page-turner, Margaux’s sumptuous portrait of late Renaissance Italy will have you falling headlong into history, slipping in and out of the shadows along the canals of Venice.
I do enjoy historical fiction, so was delighted to read The Lost Diary of Venice for its BLOG TOUR. This is a book of layers that moves from modern day back into the past to Renaissance Italy of the 1500s. There’s a meandering pace to the narrative; this is not a negative. It gives the reader time to savour the richness of the historical detail that clearly comes from a labour of love and superb historical research. I enjoyed the historical writing more than the modern day setting, but both are linked really well as we learn about obsession, needs, desires, love and longing.
The historical plot is rooted in actual history, a tale of artists, courtesans, spies, anti-Semitism and war. I loved the character and journey of Giovanni, an artist who is beginning to lose his sight; it is his reawakening under the care of the alluring, layered character of Chiara that really hold this book together.
There’s a great deal of character development and plotting that works so well in this book, even the villain of the piece is given a reason for his behaviour, of how trauma and pain has molded him into the cruel, detached bigot he has become at this point in the story.
In the modern day world, the past is awakened by the discovery of Giovanni’s diary and through this two people, who are feeling rather lost, connect with each other. It’s another layer from the author and the reader questions the connections we form in relationships, and how time alters our feelings and sometimes we lose a sense of what we had, or have lost. Can these things be regained? Or should we disconnect and find something more ‘real’ and ‘true’ in new experiences. I enjoyed the question of ‘what is real’ in these situations.
It’s a recommended read from me, so do consider The Lost Diary of Venice if you enjoy layered historical fiction with romance, war, culture, mystery and art – lovely escapism for 2020!
In rural Somerset in the middle of a blizzard, the unthinkable happens: a school is under siege. Children and teachers barricade themselves into classrooms, the library, the theatre. The headmaster lies wounded in the library, unable to help his trapped students and staff. Outside, a police psychiatrist must identify the gunmen, while parents gather desperate for news. In three intense hours, all must find the courage to stand up to evil and save the people they love.
Yet do I fear thy nature…
Phew! Thrilling, terrifying and the stuff of nightmares… but also deeply rooted in humanity, this is a narrative that hooks you from the opening page into a world of violence, fear and deep shock; when all too real terror strikes at the heart of a rural community.
I teach in a school, and the notion of ever being in such a situation is deeply traumatising; the construction of this novel pulls you in to a seemingly actual timeline and really does not let you go until the last page is turned.
The heart of this story is what humanity draws upon in the darkest of moments, of what lies with our hearts, our compassion, our resilience and is rooted in our communities, whether we know it or not.
I loved this book; it was a nail-biting experience from start to finish, but the beauty of the relationships and selfless behaviour under extreme pressures also kept emotional tears in my eyes, and turned a harrowing story of radicalisation, grief, loss and the willingness to sacrifice into something very special . A book that stays with you long after the closing page is turned.
Rosamund Lupton graduated from Cambridge University in 1986. After reviewing books for the Literary Reviews and being invited to join the Royal Court Theatre, she won a television play competition and subsequently worked as a screen writer. Her debut novel Sister, was a BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime, a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller, has been translated into over thirty languages and has international sales of over 1.5 million copies. It was the fastest-selling debut of 2010 by a British author, and was winner of the Richard and Judy Best Debut Novel of 2011 Award and the Strand Magazine Critics First Novel Award. Film rights of Sister are currently under option.
Lupton’s critically acclaimed second novel Afterwards also went straight into the Sunday Times bestseller lists and was the No. 2 Sunday Times fiction bestseller of 2011. The Quality of Silence her third novel was a Sunday Times best seller and a Richard & Judy book club pick.
It is 1941. Hope’s father, Jenner, builds Liverpool Cathedral while the Luftwaffe’s bombs fall. It is 2014, and Hope cares for her husband Robert as Alzheimer’s destroys his personality.
Hope’s husband Robert is a retired civic sculptor. As Alzheimer’s unravels his mind, a secret he has kept for her threatens to emerge, breaking the fragile peace she has made with her parents’ memory: the truth of what happened to her mother during the Liverpool Blitz.
Hope brings in Louise to be home-carer. A young mother, the last resident of the Blackbird Estate, harassed by her ex-partner. But now they are together, can they find a way the past can’t hurt them?
I’m absolutely delighted to be a part of ‘The Blackbird’ Blog Tour for @HenninghamPress with thanks to David for the invitation. I’m also delighted to be adding a conversation between Claire Allen and Dr. Sophie Oliver.
Firstly, and importantly, I loved reading this book. It’s also a joy to look at and there are lovely little illustrations dotted throughout the pages.
The story is constructed via two narrative timelines, there’s a mix of character perspectives, and the reader moves between 1941 and 2014. I soon became absorbed in the unfolding stories, albeit initially contrasting in nature. From the war threatened city of Liverpool and those connected to the challenging building of its imposing, dominating Cathedral, and to London’s Blackbird Estate, which is dilapidated, and the tenants are slowly being evicted.
Forgive my oxymoronic phrasing, but there’s both simplicity and complexities in its syntax, expression and figurative style. It’s both minimal and detailed; there’s a deep control to the writing, and I loved it. For more than one reason, the book also resonated with me. Last year I visited Liverpool and spent time at the Cathedral with my daughter. It’s a stunning building, and whilst I was there, an organist was rehearsing; the music seemed to dominate every space and people were absorbing the atmosphere, and reflecting in their own ways. It was an almost sublime and cathartic experience – reading about its challenging construction brought back these memories.
Our family is also dealing with dementia at the moment, and it’s a very hard journey, so the story of Hope and Robert was very emotional for me. There’s loss, heart-break, turmoil, grief wrapped in its pages, but it’s also a story of how the past remains within us, construction of the physical and the spiritual, and how relationships form and break. I loved this historical character led novel and would highly recommend it.
Please keep reading for a discussion of this novel between the author and Dr. Sophie Oliver, lecturer in Modernism at the University of Liverpool.
Claire Allen and Dr Sophie Oliver discuss ‘The Blackbird’.
The Blackbird is preoccupied with construction, with building things, but also with things being destroyed. The book itself is carefully built around several storylines in different places and different times. How did you construct the novel? What was your process of building? Tell us about the components.
I began with characters and small, specific things about them. For example, with the older character, Hope, my starting point was when I noticed a small block of nineteen-thirties flats built in a gap between rather grander, older houses in one of the roads that leads up to Telegraph Hill, near where I live, and I imagined an elderly woman living there. Her character and elements of her story grew from that. And I had, for a long time, wanted to write a novel about the building of Liverpool Cathedral. I’d originally thought of a kind of multi-generational saga but, in the end, I found the old lady living on Telegraph Hill kind of wove herself into things and I decided she belonged in the novel about Liverpool.
With the construction/destruction theme, I did try to knit everything together with underpinning threads which run through the whole novel, and they all tended towards oppositions: as well as construction/destruction, I was also thinking about memory/truth, control/independence and the idea of random chance versus things being connected.
How do you teach your students how to ‘knit everything together’?
I tend to deal with structure on a micro level, rather than on the bigger scale. Partly because of the kind of creative writing courses I teach, which are made up of very short, free-standing sessions, generating new ideas each week, so we don’t work on shaping a single piece over a longer period of time.
One thing I do focus on with students is how a good piece of writing can be a kind of choreographed plate-spinning exercise, in which the various separate elements that might be teased apart in creative writing classes are all working together. The trick is to keep all the plates spinning at the right speed and keep the joins seamless. So, for example, we will do an exercise on dialogue, but we also keep the ‘setting’ plate spinning and have the characters interacting with their environment while they’re speaking. And we keep the ‘character’ plate spinning by incorporating the characters’ movements, gestures, habitual actions, etc into the section of dialogue.
It’s funny because in The Blackbird, I felt that the threads you mention are actually visible. I think you can see the seams as a central part of the book. Not in a clunky way at all, not in the way you might want to iron them out – their visibility is poetic because the construction is also thematic. Perhaps it’s not always desirable to make the joins seamless?
That’s fantastic to hear! I’m really pleased that those thematic threads are visible because it’s always so difficult to know, when you’re writing something, how it’s going to work for the reader. And because the construction of the book is as much thematic as it is narrative I always imagine the themes, rather than the plot, as the skeleton that holds it all together and I absolutely do want that to be visible. So you’re right – it isn’t always desirable to have seamless joins. I suppose what I was talking about with the seamlessness was more the nuts and bolts stuff of how to put a passage of prose together so that it is fluid and as potent as it can be. And to avoid that thing where people will sometimes skip bits that describe the setting when they’re reading. If that descriptive passage also incorporates character development, for example, because it’s showing a character experiencing the setting, rather than just describing it from a more distanced, authorial point of view, then it feels more likely the reader won’t be tempted to skip it, and chances are it’ll be a richer, more effective few paragraphs into the bargain!
I’m new to Liverpool, having been in London for the best part of 20 years. You can see the cathedral in Liverpool from so many places in the city, and when I lived in south London I would pass the Heygate estate – which for me was brought to mind by the Blackbird estate – every day on the bus, until it was demolished. That symmetry pleased me, a sense of connection between the two cities that otherwise are only connected in my mind because I decided to move recently. How are the two cities connected for you? Is connection important in a wider sense?
Yes, my experience of watching the Heygate Estate gradually disappear as I passed it on the bus every day was very similar to yours and, in fact, The Blackbird Estate is very much based on the Heygate, (with a nod to other estates with bird names, eg The Nightingale Estate in Clapton, the Woodpecker Estate in New Cross, and an estate in Oxford called Blackbird Leys, which was at one time notorious for joyriding.)
The two cities are very connected for me in a personal sense, because they are the two main places I have lived. I grew up in Liverpool and lived there until I left to go to university, and I’ve now lived in London for well over 20 years. There was a time a few years ago when I became very aware of the fact that I was approaching the point where I would have lived in London for as long as I’d lived in Liverpool, and the question of where I belonged, where I was ‘from’, started to nag at me. I’ve now passed that pivot point and have lived in London for far longer than I ever lived in Liverpool, so I guess I’m now undeniably a Londoner, but I still find the idea of ‘belonging’ really interesting.
And yes, connection is something I find very important in a wider sense. I love reading novels where there are echoes and parallels between characters’ experiences or between different times and different stories and I’ve enjoyed creating my own echoes and connections in The Blackbird.
Are there any specific novels that influenced you?
William Golding’s The Spire was the most obvious influence, in the sense that the 1941 sections of The Blackbird have lots of narrative parallels with Golding’s novel. I also enjoyed playing around with the way I echoed the earlier text, so, for example, in my opening chapter I kept the beginning of The Spire very much in mind, but, instead of using sunlight to create a sense of joy and divine chosen-ness, which is how Golding begins The Spire, I tried to create a sense of discomfort.
I’m not sure there are any other similarly direct influences, but the idea of connection– the ability of some to see or seek connection and others to deny its existence or importance, and to what extent it is possible to bridge the divide between the two – was something I always had at the back of my mind as I was writing and creating relationships between characters.
I have a feeling that you think of ‘connection’ in a gendered way – the women in the novel are the ones building relationships, taking care of others. Is there something in that?
That’s a really good point! I’d never really thought about it as being gendered, and it’s not something I did consciously in The Blackbird, but you’re absolutely right – it is the female characters who do more of the connecting and the relationship-building. Hmmm. It’s interesting, because in the novel I’ve been working on since The Blackbird, I have been developing two characters who are shaping up to be slightly Forsterian older women who just sense stuff. And my narrative point of view has, so far, been deliberately female-only, so I think there is definitely something in what you’re saying!
‘Sensing stuff’ suggests a way of knowing that isn’t about facts, but more about intuition, and it might even be faulty. There seems to be something similar happening with your approach to the past, for example, in The Blackbird. It’s partly a historical novel, half set in the 1940s, but apart from the war you quite deliberately avoid giving too much historical detail in terms of time and place. Can you say a bit more about your approach to the past generally?
Yes, I think that ‘sensing stuff’ is about intuition, and it can, as you suggest, sometimes be wrong. I think the character of Mary is maybe a good example of that: her tendency to see connections everywhere is certainly seen by her husband and her friend Thomas as something based too much on feeling and sensitivity. And I think I, too, thought rather as they did and felt that she tended to read too much into things. But it’s ambiguous, because in the end she is right about the need to accept one’s own responsibility and culpability and it’s Thomas’s inability to do that which makes her so disappointed in him.
The idea of ambiguity was really important to me, and I used the instability of memory, and offered alternative versions of what might have happened in the past, as ways of exploring this. I enjoyed not giving answers and exploiting the tension between that need to know ‘what really happened’ on the night Mary Jenner died, and the genuine possibilities that are offered by not knowing.
With the point you make about avoiding giving too much historical detail, I think maybe that’s to do with being so close-up to the characters rather than stepping a bit further back and taking a wider view that incorporates more of the surrounding time and place. It’s not necessarily another influence from The Spire, but that is a novel that does something similar, I think, although to a more extreme degree, in the sense that the whole book is from such an incredibly close-up, blinkered point of view that it is difficult to see anything outside the point of view of the main character, so you don’t really get a sense of a wider historical context. I think, in general, I tend to zoom in on characters, so perhaps the effect that has on historical period is that it gives only a partial view.
Claire Allen spent her childhood in Liverpool and lives in London. She teaches English literature and creative writing at City Lit. Her first two novels, The Mountains of Light (2004) and Protection (2006) were published by Headline Review. Her books have been translated into French and Greek.
Henningham Family Press
Henningham Family Press is the collaborative art and writing of David and Ping Henningham. We are both Artists and Authors, and we are curious about every aspect of writing, printing and publishing. We complete and represent our writing through fine art printmaking, bookbinding and performance.
Books and Prints are machines for communicating ideas, and the ideas that fascinate us tend to involve Money, History and Religion. We exploit the fact that reading makes the dead available for comment. We make live shows that bring our books and ideas to life.
HFP have teamed up with G.F Smith, paper merchant to Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, to celebrate small presses. All editions of the book will be covered with Gmund Urban, which uses “genuine pulverized cement” to recreate concrete’s subtle texture and sparkle. The Römerturm paper mill has created “tradition and dynamic modernism in one material.” Especially apt for a book that is set in a post-war housing estate: The Blackbird. It is a sculptural material, perfect for HFP’s hand-bindery.
WIN A COPY OF CLAIRE ALLEN’S ‘THE BLACKBIRD’
For a chance to win a copy of this book, please comment on this post, and I’ll add you into the prize draw. Winner chosen on Friday 14th August, 2020. The winner will be contacted shortly after. Huge thanks to David, at Henningham Family Press for the generous offer of the gifted book for this giveaway. The giveaway also runs across Twitter and Instagram.
I’ve just realised I didn’t post about my May and June reads, I think the ‘RONA’ pandemic has taken my focus away! I’ve been shutting down my costume and fancy dress hire shop (it sadly is a victim of RONA) and putting into stasis the Stage School, Touring Theatre, rehearsals rooms and other theatrical work, in the hope that they’ll come back to life in the future. So, like many others, these are tough times. If you’re having a difficult time too, I really wish you well, and keep the faith!
So back to books, I thought I’d tag the May and June reads into my July reads blog post, so if you are interested then do keep scrolling. 🙂
Book totals: July 13, June 5, and May 18
Cape May by Chip Cheek – set in the 1950s and explores the loss of innocence; lots of potential, but soon turned into the unexpected, and not in a good way for me. Disappointed.
From Blood and Ash by Jennifer L. Armentrout – I enjoyed this, a fantasy novel about protected maidens waiting for Ascension, until one decides to make a different choice, and with the help of Hawke, changes her course.
The Official Downton Abbey Afternoon Tea Cookbook – delightful cookbook, full of cookery history and delicious recipes.
The First Lie by A.J. Park – entertaining thriller, about a man coming home to find his wife over the body of a dead man.
Daughters of Cornwall by Fern Brittain – an enjoyable family saga from 1914 to 2020.
Very Nearly Normal by Hannah Sunderland – funny rom-com and entertaining escapism, enjoyable.
A Murderous Relation (Veronica Speedwell 5) by Deanna Raybourn – the lastest book in the Speedwell and Stoker mysteries, always entertaining!
The Deck of Omens (The Devouring Grey 2) by Christine Lynn Herman – the second in the series set in Four Paths, and the Beast that threatens the town may once again return, enjoyable.
The Devouring Grey by Christine Lynn Herman – the first book in the duology, set in a town threatened by an ancient curse, and as a new girl arrives in town, she soon notices something is very wrong. Fun,
The Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren – Perfect summer garden read, lots of laughs and your predictable but necessary happy ever after.
You’re looking for your son. But she found him first.
When a little boy goes missing, his mother desperately wants to find him . . . before someone else does.
Libby would do anything for her three-year-old son Ethan. And after all they’ve been through, a holiday seems the perfect antidote for them both. Their hotel is peaceful, safe and friendly, yet Libby can’t help feeling that someone is watching her. Watching Ethan. Because, for years, Libby has lived with a secret.
Just days into their holiday, when Libby is starting to relax, Ethan steps into an elevator on his own, and the doors close before Libby can stop them. Moments later, Ethan is gone.
Libby thought she had been through the worst, but her nightmare is only just beginning. And in a desperate hunt for her son, it becomes clear she’s not the only one looking for him.
Who will find him first?
This book draws its horror from a mother’s worst nightmare: your child goes missing. It’s an incredibly tense thriller read with a strong emotional journey, and an additional layer to make this a twisty ride for the reader. It was a one sitting read for me, and once you start this reading the pace is intense and driven.
The story is about Libby, who finds herself in a nightmare situation early on in the book; slowly we find out that there’re dark secrets under the surface of the story. Libby is a single mother and whilst on holiday loses her son. It’s also Anna’s story, a young woman who, through desperate times, becomes involved in shady dealings with a surrogate business, and her story is entwined dramatically with Libby’s. I loved how the reader’s perspective is played with, as reveals are made; the final climax is incredibly tense, and heart-breaking.
This is a book about personal needs, relationships, motherhood, secrets and tragedy. I would have no hesitation recommending this thriller book. Out now!
Praise for ‘Lost You’:
‘A tense, heart-wrenching thriller’ T. M. Logan, author of The Holiday
‘A twisty, action-packed adventure that never draws breath and will strike an emotional chord in the heart of every mother’ Daily Mail
‘Far too few thrillers have genuine suspense, twists that give you goosebumps and – most importantly – characters that you really care about. Lost You has it all’ Mark Billingham
Delighted to be chatting about ‘Don’t Turn Around’ by Jessica Barry today, with thanks to Harvill Secker, and Jasmine at Penguin Random House. Please keep scrolling down for the book blurb, some bookish chat, about the author info, and a letter to the reader from Jessica Barry about ‘Don’t Turn Around’.
Two strangers, Cait and Rebecca, are driving across America. Cait’s job is to transport women to safety. Out of respect, she never asks any questions. Like most of the women, Rebecca is trying to escape something.
But what if Rebecca’s secrets put them both in danger? There’s a reason Cait chooses to keep on the road, helping strangers. She has a past of her own, and knows what it’s like to be followed.
And there is someone right behind them, watching their every move…
Okay, when someone has said to me ‘don’t turn around’ it often strikes fear in me… in my world mainly because there’s some spider crawling towards me, or there’s someone I’m avoiding 😉 However, in Jessica Barry’s book, ‘Don’t Turn Around’ has more deadly consequences!
This is a new thriller read that jumps between the stories of two women: Cait and Rebecca. The narrative is choppy, and moves from a journey in ‘real time’ to Albuquerque to the months preceding the road trip. I really enjoyed the narrative splits; the reader is filling in the pieces during the higher paced momentum of the road trip. We begin to discover the missing pieces of these women’s lives and how they find themselves in the situation they are currently in. On the surface, Cait has collected Rebecca in secret to drive her to safety, although we soon realise there’s much more to both of their stories. So, what a hook! I was fully engaged right from the start in this tense, scary and layered thriller read. I really enjoyed the drama behind the road trip as the women become hunted by an unknown assailant, who is determine to scare, chase and hunt.
I really enjoyed the strength behind the female protagonists, both women have difficult back-stories but both use this to become braver, and stronger. There’s a lot of tension and drama in this book, and it’s genuinely hard to put it down.
I love books that make you question everything you are reading, and I’m sure, like me, you’ll have a whole page of questions when reading this book. The pacing works really well, holding enough back until the right moments: it’s great fun!
For me, what made this thriller different, was the depth of the backstories, the controversial storyline elements, the emotional and psychological complexities, and the strength of the women that were weaved into an action led chase thriller.
A heart-pounding, hurtling, drama packed ride with heart and empowerment holding it all together. Highly recommended for thriller readers who are looking for additional qualities in their stories.
Jessica Barry is a pseudonym for an American author who has lived and worked in London for the past fifteen years. Look for Me (previously published as Freefall), her debut thriller, has sold in more than twenty-two territories around the world and has also secured a major Hollywood film deal.
A gruesome discovery unravels a dark trail of murder and madness.
A six-year-old girl sneaks out of bed to capture a mermaid but instead discovers a dead body. Terrified and unable to make sense of what she sees, she locks the vision deep inside her mind.
Ten years later, Lily is introduced to the charismatic Flo and they become best friends. But Lily is guilt-ridden – she is hiding a terrible secret which has the power to destroy both their lives.
When Flo’s father is accused of killing a schoolgirl, the horrors of Lily’s past come bubbling to the surface. Lily knows that, whatever the consequences, she has to make things right. She must go back to the events of her childhood and face what happened at the boat house all those years ago.
Can Lily and Flo discover what is hiding in the murky waters of the lake before the killer strikes again?
‘The Cry of the Dark’ is a debut novel from Charlie Tyler that explores deep manipulation, darkness, abuse and family bonds. And, it all begins with a murder…
The story is told via a mix of multiple first-person narratives, via Lily, Grace and Flo, providing the reader with starkly alternative perspectives. It’s very soon clear that there’s something dark at play as the eerily casual response to a murder victim at a table is dealt with. The story develops into an interplay between two sisters and their lives, and as their memories surface we find out more about the past and why they are behaving as they are. Outside of this is the narrative of Lily’s friend Flo, which is needed to balance the storytelling, and her narrative becomes tragically and disturbingly joined up with the sisters, Lily and Grace, and leads to a heart-pounding climax.
There’s also the gradual uncovering of the past, of the childhood between two girls and fractured home-life around them. There’s an underscore of abuse and forbidden love.
I love the puzzle read structure, slow reveals are made and the pieces start coming together; this keeps you turning the pages. It’s a story wrapped in a psychological plot of manipulation and murder. There’s a study of grief and loss, identity, young love, passion and trauma. A strong character led debut novel.
Charlie has been writing for years but it was taking a creative writing course in 2018 which gave her the gentle kick she needed to finish her debut novel. Charlie is very much a morning person and likes nothing more than committing a fictional murder before her first coffee of the day. She studied Theology at Worcester College, Oxford and now lives in a Leicestershire village with her husband, three teenagers and golden retriever.