Book Review: Astral Travel

Astral Travel, by Elizabeth Baines, tells the story of a family raised in fear of the patriarch’s violence and unpredictable behaviour. It opens with his grown daughters, Jo and Cathy, together in a hospital following their own health scares. This reminds Jo of an episode during childhood. She has been digging into their past, into her interpretation of the memories that scar her, for a novel she is putting together about her wider family. The book centres on her father, Patrick Jackson, dead for ten years when she started writing about him. His actions still cast a long shadow over Jo’s existence.

“Patrick Jackson, my volatile, contradictory and entirely unfathomable father, around whom we’d always had to tiptoe”

Told from Jo’s perspective, the memories still perplex her. Patrick was an abusive misogynist – a popular charmer to those outside the family but a terror within. He would spend money freely in his bids to impress others while his wife struggled to feed and clothe herself and their children. Patrick regularly accepted work away from the ever changing homes they lived in, appearing not to enjoy spending time with his offspring.

Patrick was born and raised in poverty, in a small village in Ireland that he left aged sixteen. He met his wife, Gwen, when stationed near her family home in Wales during the Second World War. Gwen knew only the bare bones of her husband’s history – he relished the power of keeping secrets from her. He took the money she saved or borrowed from her parents and squandered it. Gwen was beautiful, hard-working and intelligent but cowed by Patrick’s deliberately cruel and controlling nature.

Such a family story could make for difficult reading but the writing focuses on the mystery behind why Patrick acted as he did. It acknowledges that a child’s memories may be flawed or incomplete. While always afraid of her father, Jo still longed for his love and understanding – to know him better. In writing her novel she seeks answers to the conundrum of his behaviour.

Within the family, Jo has long been regarded as a troublemaker – her complaints and questions provoking Patrick. When she is beaten she screams and then cries – raising the risk that neighbours may hear. She learns never to talk of her father’s actions. When she leaves and marries, secrets shared cause further trouble, and not just for her.

Jo feels closer to her mother from whom she learns much of the family history through Gwen’s anecdotes and reminiscences. Nevertheless, when Jo complains of her father’s behavior, it is Gwen who implores her not to try to speak of it to him. Always Gwen would claim, ‘Your Daddy loves you really’. It was a refrain Jo and Cathy could not help but question.

Gwen is happy that Jo is writing about her father and answers her questions about their past, albeit glossing over salient details that Jo grows desperate to understand. It is only when Gwen realises how this is affecting her daughter that she relents and offers a more factual account of secrets long kept. History can be rewritten when perspectives change.

The final reveal section had a different feel, the writing style factual rather than emotive. It was strengthened by Cathy’s reaction to subsequent discussion and how to move on. Family members, it seems, often disagree on what may be openly acknowledged and shared – even amongst themselves.

The author is a skilled writer, structuring this story to draw the reader into Jo’s world before opening up to provide a wider point of view. Patrick remains both a horror and an enigma, a victim but one who punished with deliberate brutality those deserving his love. His treatment of his son and the impact this had was particularly disturbing.

The family history going back several generations remained fascinating – the exploration of inherited impact a particular interest. In this vein, I would have welcomed more on its effect on Jo’s children. This was the only thread I felt was not covered sufficiently.

A longer book than many I read but one that never felt drawn out with unnecessary detail. The device of a novel within a novel, of memoir presented as fiction, worked well. A study of family and the many cracks in shared memory. A lingering and recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.


Book Review: My Mother’s Shadow

My Mother’s Shadow, by Nikola Scott, is not a book I would have chosen by the cover, looking as it does like some sort of romance. And it does have a romance thread, but underplayed enough not to detract from the main plot which involves a family secret kept for decades. When offered a proof I was told that the writing would appeal to those who enjoyed Kate Morton’s books (I remember liking The House at Riverton). Again, this comparative marketing often leaves me cold but the synopsis intrigued. I decided to put aside my prejudices and review.

The first few chapters were overwrought and my scepticism returned – I was tempted to stop reading at this point. I felt impatient with the giddy behaviour of the protagonist who appeared to lose her power of hearing, knock objects over or bump into things every time she was told something unexpected. The revelations she was offered initially generated denial rather than more natural curiosity.

The story makes use of the now popular trope of telling interlinked tales concurrently across two timelines. The first is written in the form of a diary and begins in the summer of 1958. Sixteen year old Elizabeth Holloway, the only child of George and Constance, is sent to stay in a coastal country house belonging to wealthy acquaintances of her mother. Constance is dying of cancer and does not wish her child to remember her as the husk she knows she will imminently become.

The second part of the story is set forty-two years later. Addie Harrington has been summoned to the family home by her domineering sister, Venetia, to mark the first anniversary of their mother’s death. Venetia revered her mother and has demanded that her belongings be left untouched, the house like a shrine. Their father has remained in a state of limbo since his beloved wife’s sudden and accidental demise.

Addie, who appears to be something of a doormat, had a difficult relationship with her mother, Lizzie, never believing that she fulfilled her exacting demands and expectations. Lizzie had attained a PhD and worked at a university. She wanted greater things for Addie than her chosen career as a baker. The reader is offered more detail than I personally needed about baking.

As Addie and Venetia prepare to leave their father at the family home the doorbell rings. A stranger introduces herself as Phoebe Roberts and tells them that she is looking for Mrs Elizabeth Harrington née Holloway, that she has recently discovered that Lizzie is her birth mother. Phoebe was born on the same day as Addie.

What unfolds is the story of a gilded summer and its dark aftermath. In the later timeline Addie and Phoebe are trying to discover why they were seperated at birth. Neither girl had been told that the other existed. The secret has come to light only because Phoebe came across a notebook written by Elizabeth during her confinement and kept by Phoebe’s adoptive parents.

There are twists and turns aplenty as threads of the mystery are revealed. Wider outcomes are easy to guess but the detail and reasoning are presented at a pace and with sufficient depth to keep the reader engaged. It offers a salutory lesson for those who look back at life in the 1950s as cosy, safe and innocent. The author states:

“Lace-curtain respectability and pre-war propriety relegated women, who’d gained a foothold in the male-dominated society during the war, who’d worked and played and propped uo their country, back to home, hearth and family, subjecting them to the hypocrisy and double standards of a Victorian morality that tolerated little errant behaviour.”

The denoument was reached thanks to the type of coincidence that has to be accepted in a story such as this. I suffered irritations such as the diaries remaining hidden given where they were placed. However, my interest had been piqued and retained, the plot developed with a few clever twists.

A tale of the personal costs of the underlying cruelties inflicted on young women who dared to have sex before marriage, regarded by many as reasonable punishment for moral deviance. The epilogue was rather too twee for my tastes but this was a congenial if unchallenging read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: Scandal

Scandal, by David Boyle, looks back at the time when Victorian society decided that homosexual behaviour should be criminalised and investigates why.  The research was inspired by the author’s great-great-grandfather, a respected banker and Justice of the Peace living with his wife and children in Dublin, who fled beyond British jurisdiction in 1884 when several of his known associates where put on trial in what became known as the Dublin Scandals. At that time sodomy was a crime but proving such a private act had occured was difficult. The Dublin Scandals were significant because they reported the facts of homosexual behaviour in newspapers and thereby whipped up public indignation.

The time frame was also a factor. Feminists were campaigning against child abuse, citing examples of pre-teen girls being sold by their poverty stricken families to brothels. Sexual behaviour was being discussed as never before and a prurient readership was agog. The perceived decadence of the arts, personified by those who circled Oscar Wilde, engendered moral outrage in their detractors. With public feeling behind the influentials who wished to drag down a bohemian elite, the stage was set to amend the law in regard to sexual behaviour, and to make gay sex a crime.

The details of the history are fascinating. These are wrapped around the author’s analysis of the life of his great-great-grandfather, Richard Boyle. Within the Boyle family archives, Richard had been erased and the author did not know why. What emerged when he went looking were links to the Dublin gay scene and a subsequent warrant issued for Richard’s arrest.

The known facts of Richard’s life are presented with gaps filled in by suppositions based on his contemporaries and their reported behaviours. I found some of these sections a touch too whimsical. Nevertheless, what emerges is an idea of the impact the change in the law had at the time.

“Society in the 1890s was caught in the tension between the drive, not perhaps so much for purity, but for the possibility of innocence – and the drive for some kind of self-determination, self-definition. We are too: they are the two sides of any kind of gender or sexual politics – part demanding to take part, part demanding the right to refuse. These are not contradictory causes, but they tend to attract different kinds of people to the campaign.”

The desire to protect children from adult sexual proclivities was taken advantage of by those who hated homosexuals. Examples are cited of the unintended consequences, personal and political.

The writing style is patchy in places as it jumps between the investigative reporting and family history. This is still though an interesting read.

Book Review: The Other Mrs Walker


The Other Mrs Walker, by Mary Paulson-Ellis, is a story of family secrets, lives thwarted, and objects that speak from beyond the grave.

Margaret Penny, at close to fifty years old, returns to her elderly mother’s small flat in Edinburgh with no money, few possessions and fewer prospects. Her life has not turned out as she had hoped when she escaped to London without warning some thirty years previously. Her mother offers neither a welcome nor a rejection, she has never been one to share her thoughts. Her daughter learned young to follow her example: ‘tell no one’, ‘leave no trace’.

The two women attend the funeral of a local indigent where it is suggested that Margaret find work with the council tracing the family and assets of those who die alone that a funeral may be paid for. She is assigned an old woman, Mrs Walker, recently arrived in Edinburgh and found dead in her living room chair.

Margaret searches for clues as to who Mrs Walker was but all she finds are random objects in a freezing flat which reminds her of her mother’s home. She requires formal identification, paperwork, but has no hint of even a first name. She ponders her own nebulous past and uncertain future.

The story moves backwards and forwards to various years between 1929 and 2011. Snapshots of key incidents in the lives of the Walkers and Pennys are offered. It becomes clear early on that there are familial links but what they are is a mystery to be solved.

It begins with a tragedy – the death of two beautiful twins. What follows involves much that is untoward. There is betrayal, abandonment, thievery of home, possessions and children. Times were hard and love scarce. Subsistence was secured by nefarious means.

The jumping around in time and the style of writing offers the reader jigsaw puzzle pieces, knowledge gleaned ahead of and in more depth than is uncovered by Margaret. Each episode narrated provides clues as to who the protagonists were and are, and to why the many secrets have been kept.

There is a sense of isolation in the lives lived, a depth of sadness in what is left behind be it people or things. The picture painted of humanity is mordant, yet the girls in the story retain an affecting hopefulness as each works to escape the incarceration of their circumstances.

This is not a book to be rushed and offers much to consider. An intelligent but never difficult read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Mantle.

Book Review: A Place Called Winter


A Place Called Winter, by Patrick Gale, is a beautiful, sweeping saga of love and loss. Loosely based on the author’s own family history it tells the tale of Harry Cane, an English gentleman whose mother died giving birth to his brother when Harry was four years old. Cared for by a nursery maid until he was old enough to be sent away to school Harry barely knew his father who chose to grieve for his wife abroad. By the time he too died his boys had settled into a bachelor life of wealth and privilege, their only family each other.

Harry was an introvert with a stutter. He followed the expected conventions of the time but shunned social interaction when he could. Thanks to his brother’s more gregarious nature he was introduced to the woman who would become his wife. However, their settled life by the sea had to be abandoned when financial dealings went badly wrong. Soon after this Harry started an affair which, when discovered, led to his banishment abroad. He chose to seek a new life on the wild Canadian prairies, and ended up at a place called Winter.

Harry worked hard on his plot of land, made friends and settled down. He could not, however, rid himself of the attentions of a misogynist and bully who had taken an interest in him whilst on the boat to Canada. This man’s actions threatened to undo all that Harry had achieved.

The plot is compelling but it is the style of writing that drew me in. The evocative prose put me into the heart of every scene as I felt each character’s pain, uncertainty, triumph and despair. Harry was a good man, ill equipped to cope with those who would take advantage of his nature. He was born into a time when society punished those who dared to find love outside of narrowly prescribed convention.

The unfolding story made my heart ache. The injustices of a narrow minded society hurt. That such prejudices still exist today, even if no longer enshrined in law, shows that we still have some way to go before we may consider ourselves a civilised society.

Read this exquisite story, enjoy the beauty of the writing, the depth of the plot. This book has the potential to change a reader’s way of thinking. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.  

Book Review: The Boy Who Loved Rain


The Boy Who Loved Rain, by Gerard Kelly, is a story about parenting, teenagers and the difficulties inherent in communicating with those we love. When the truth will hurt it can be hard to confront, especially when a lie has been perpetuated for many years.

Fourteen year old Colum suffers from recurring nightmares that he cannot explain. He feels numb, depressed and harbours suicidal thoughts. Despite an apparently loving and happy childhood he now feels alienated from his parents who put his moods and silence down to his age. His father has immersed himself in his work while his mother struggles to cope with their sullen, uncommunicative son. When serious issues at school are brought to her attention she recognises that he needs help but will not defy her husband’s wish to keep things within their church.

The church, religion, is a recurring theme that I felt was overdone. Having established its importance in the lives of several of the characters and the subsequent impact on their decision making I felt that it should have been given less prominence. I am now aware that this book is published by Lion Hudson who are ‘committed to publishing quality literature which is true to the Christian faith’ but I read it unaware of this, regarding it as I would any other work of fiction.

Putting that aside, the depiction of this troubled family was credible and universal. There were interesting issues of nature versus nurture to explore as well as the selective blindness that can occur when parents see their child as all he has been rather than what he is now. The apathy, simmering resentment and truculence of the teenager were well described.

I was less impressed with the subsequent mellowing of the boy as the friend and counsellor gradually uncovered and addressed the issues that were causing so much pain. I felt that, by the end, the teenage character had become a little too much how adults would like children to be. The development of the parents as the story progressed seemed more believable. I would be interested to know if the psychological issues explored had any basis in scientific fact.

The story is nicely written with plenty of food for thought about how we see ourselves and those we are close to. It will perhaps appeal more though to those who choose to live their lives by the tenets of the Christian church to which the key characters ascribe.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Lion Hudson.

Book Review: Patchwork Man


Patchwork Man, by D.B. Martin, is an intriguingly twisted story of complicated families. The first in a planned trilogy, it introduces us to QC Lawrence Juste, an eminent barrister with a sordid but secret history. Following the death of his wife he finds his past catching up with him, threatening to unravel the life he has worked so hard to create. As he confronts the family that he believes abandoned him, he discovers that he has been manipulated for many years by shadowy figures linked to his childhood. The convoluted interrelationships uncovered threaten to ruin him and those he has come to care for.

The young Lawrence Juste, or Kenny Juss as he was then, suffered many kinds of abuse. The reader is spared no detail as these are described along with his coping mechanisms. That this type of treatment undoubtedly happens made me feel an impotent despair, especially when it seemed that his attempts to rise above his victimhood were to be dashed. Bullying is not confined to childhood.

I found the intricate and interwoven threads of the plot difficult to keep track of at times. A series of family trees would have been useful, but would have taken the edge off the various revelations that were intrinsic to the pace and structure of the story. The book has a large cast of significant characters, many of whom will, I hope, be further developed in the sequels.

I found the writing challenging. It is certainly not a comfortable read with its casual violence and underbelly of cruelty, callousness and lies. Although poverty played its part, the wealthy could be just as twisted and evil. The author explores how low a man will sink to survive, how much of the better self he wishes to believe in will be sacrificed when he feels sufficiently threatened.

Knowing that some people are capable of this kind of behaviour gives the tale resonance. I liked the analogy of life as a patchwork of experiences, but it is depressing to consider that if circumstances prevailed then a tale as black as this could be true.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.