One of the benefits of being an author is that I have a stack of lovely books given to me to review, a mixture of advance copies and recently published. So for the past few weeks I’ve given myself over to indulgent reading (sorry, I mean work, it’s work I tell you!) and steered away from non-fiction and research.
The first one out of the box was One Night in Hartswood by Emma Denny who won the ‘Romance Includes You’ competition run by Mills & Boon to encourage LGBTQI+ writers, and it’s very easy to see why. This romance was not my usual reading matter. It’s set in the 14th Century and it has two male protagonists, but almost from the very first page, you are caught up in a romantic, dangerous almost fairytale world – and lost in it.
Raff and members of his family are escorting his sister to the castle belonging to her future in-laws. Penn, unknown to Raff, is the intended bridegroom. I loved Penn, he’s both the most unlikely of heroes and yet the best of heroes – a man who has no idea that he is a hero. He’s been raised to believe that he’s worthless, he has no self-esteem and he’s certainly no warrior. Raff on the other hand is a very competent warrior, seemingly a totally alpha male – but of course, all is not what is seems with him either. Both of them are outcasts. Oh, how I do love a good outcast romance. And both consider themselves in different ways unlovable. So, right from the start you’re really, really invested in them.
There’s tons of story in this, Romeo and Juliet in one sense with warring families, and echoes of the classic peripatetic comic novels of the 18th Century too, such as Tom Jones and Barry Lyndon, in terms of the journey they undertake together, the strangers they meet etc. But above all, this is a sweeping romance with contrasting highs and lows. It’s deeply sensual, it’s dramatic, and it is heart-breaking. Towards the end you get such an awful sense of doom, of lies unravelling, and I really began to wonder, how on earth can they possibly have any sort of happy ever after. Don’t read the last section on the bus as I did, unless you’re happy to sob in public. There is a happy ever after of course, a very satisfying one. This is a really wonderful story that proves exactly what the competition set out to do – romance really does include everyone. I loved it.
I was very fortunate to meet Adele Parks when she interviewed myself and Sarah Ferguson for the paperback launch of our first book together, Her Heart for a Compass. At the time, I was reading another of Adele’s books, Lies, Lies, Lies, and commented on how tricky it was to write an empathetic but unlikeable main protagonist. ‘Wait until you read my new book’, she said. I was fascinated to discover that she was writing a sex worker as the main character, and that she had actually spoken to a number of real life sex workers as part of her research. Sadly, we didn’t have much time to discuss it, but now I’ve read the book.
Dora is an escort and the main narrator. The book is told in first person, a style that personally I really enjoy when it’s done well (as this one is). Dora is a really well-drawn character. She’s tough, she’s pragmatic, she’s realistic. She’s her own woman, despite the fact that she earns her living being whatever kind of woman the men who pay her want her to be. She’s self-sufficient, she’s emotionally withdrawn, she doesn’t engage with the world, but she’s not cold, she’s doesn’t lack emotion. She makes her own rules, she runs her own life. She seems to tell it as it is. This is clever. You think Dora is being open with you. You think because she’s blunt, because she doesn’t try to pretty up her life, because she describes herself as a whore, that she’s telling you the truth about herself. Of course she isn’t. We’re being told the story through her eyes, that’s all. Of course, that means that there’s more to the story. And yet Adele Parks makes you forget this possibility. She lures you into to believing Dora’s point of view. So when the secrets start to come out, they’re a shock.
There are lots of secrets and lots of twists and turns. There’s a back story that surprises. There’s a front story that shocks. It’s pacy. It’s a classic page turner. It’s a difficult book to read at times, because Dora won’t let you feel sorry for her, and her life is often pitiable. You’re torn. Do you wish her a fairy tale ending? Do you condemn some of her choices? You ought to, but you can’t. That’s how well told it is. You get her. You can see why she’s done what she’s done. Why she is what she is. I did guess one of the big twists towards the end, but it didn’t spoil my enjoyment. It wasn’t about guessing, it was about going on the journey, taking every step with your eyes wide and with bated breath. It was about wishing and hoping that the story would go a different route but knowing it couldn’t. There was a sense of inevitability about some aspects of it that stayed true to Dora’s character, but it was not predictable. And the ending? Bravo Adele Parks for that! Was it an ending or a beginning? I loved it.
The Echoes of Love is the first book by Jenny Ashcroft that I’ve read, but it won’t be my last. It is set in Crete, 1936. Eleni, who is half-English and half-Cretan, spends all her summers with her dead mother’s family on the Greek island. She’s beautiful, fun, popular, and very happy, but so far untouched by love. Then Otto and his family arrive for a holiday in the villa next door, and the two fall head over heels in love. The romance is beautifully drawn. Eleni, though she tries to play it cool, is too honest and too much in love to do so, and Otto – oh, Otto is besotted. In that first year, they have to grasp every opportunity to meet in secret because Eleni is hidebound by the strict Cretan traditions and terrified her family will find out she has a boyfriend. Crete is a close-knit community where everyone knows everyone, and they all protect their own – take heed of this, it becomes very, very important!
Otto and Eleni spend an idyllic summer snatching moments of bliss. The island and its inhabitants are so utterly beautifully drawn, it’s clear that to the author this is a very personal story. So much of the landscape resonated with me too, (for years I lived in Cyprus, which also means that the close-knit community, the ‘old-fashioned’ protectiveness was familiar). Sunlit skies, clear turquoise seas, stunning sunrises and sunsets – Eleni and Otto forget the real world, but it’s lurking ibn the background from the beginning, in Otto’s family. His mother’s MS has to be hidden from the Nazi party, the family friend Marianne’s presence in the villa has to be kept secret because Marianne is a Jew, and Lotte, another guest, whose father is a senior Nazi, would be appalled to discover that his daughter was mixing in such company. Poor Lotte, who is also in love with Otto, and whom no-one likes or trusts, and who as a reader you instinctively dislike too, because of her father’s affiliations.
But nothing is what it seems, and this is one of the many things this wonderful book proves. You don’t know who to trust. You cannot judge people by what they say or do in public. You take so much risks by being honest – it’s not only Eleni and Otto who are suppressing their real feelings. There’s not only a sense of a beautiful, idyllic romance in this section of the book, there’s a terrible sense of impending doom.
Because of course we know that WWII is about to happen and we know that Crete is going to be occupied and we know, no matter how much we hope otherwise, that loyalties are going to be tested. And we know that Otto and Eleni’s love can never, ever be. And so we turn the pages with a mix of hope and horror. It’s a hope though, that the author keeps stamping on, because the story is interspersed with the transcript of a post-war interview with a person (we don’t even know if they are a man or a woman) who was a collaborator.
The occupation of Crete was long and horrific. The people resisted, and the reprisals were utterly inhumane, yet still they resisted. War is not black and white, good versus evil, as this story shows. There are no winners and no losers. War is fought by real people with real feelings, with allegiances and loyalties that are constantly tested and stretched. Sometimes your feelings cannot be tamed. Love can’t be tamed, no matter how forbidden, ‘wrong’ or dangerous it is. And this is a love story – Eleni and Otto’s love story, but also the author’s love story with Crete and its people.
It’s a story of heroism, and the triumph of the human spirit – on every side. (And that’s a very difficult thing to do.) Otto is an officer in the German army. That makes him a Nazi. The enemy. A Nazi on paper, but not in his heart and soul. He’s still Otto. Parachuting into Crete, Otto wants his mission to fail, but he doesn’t want his men to die, not even the men whom he despises. They are men with families, and he doesn’t want to imagine those families bereft.
‘He hated what he’d become, and what he did, but he wanted his life; the chance at a future that held none of this in it, where he built houses rather than threw grenades at them.’
Years ago, at an Open University summer school, I attended a tutorial discussing resistance and collaboration in wartime. One woman insisted she’d ‘take her children into the hills and live off berries’ rather than co-operate with an occupier. Would she continue to resist if it put her children’s lives in danger, the lecturer asked, if she was starving? She insisted she would, and the more he questioned her, the more determined she was that she would. I could be wrong, she may well have been that courageous (or deluded, depending on your point of view) but for me, it was a real turning point in how I thought of collaboration and in understanding, in so much as anyone can understand who hasn’t been through it, of how torn and twisted you are likely to become, and how very, very desperate to survive. So reading about the strength of the Cretan resistance, of the price they all paid, made this book even more moving. Reading of Otto’s dilemma and the role he was expected to play in reprisals – and Otto can’t have been so very unusual – made the story heart-breaking.
I won’t say what happens. This was a deeply emotional read for me, and a very rare full five stars for fiction. It put me through the emotional wringer. I hoped and despaired and hoped and despaired, and in the end sobbed my way through the last fifty or so pages. In a good way or a bad way? I’m not going to say. What I will say though is, though I’m not a huge fan of endings and epilogues which tie up every loose knot, in this case it was very necessary and very satisfying.
Fyneshade by Kate Griffin will be published in May 2023.
Marta has been brought up by her French Grandmere, a woman who ‘died too soon to complete my education’. A woman whom the villagers called a witch. Witches, Marta says, in the first chapter of this book, ‘exist only in stories for children’. Grandmere is not a witch and neither is Marta but she should remember, says Grandmere, that stories often have great power. They hide the truth. So the reader is warned from the very beginning of this dark, Gothic tale, that nothing is as it seems.
***Major Spoiler Alert – in all that follows!!!***
Marta’s Grandmere dies, and Marta’s relations want the bewitching young woman out of the way, as do the parents of the wealthy young man who is in thrall to her, so they pack her off to a remote house to look after a troublesome young girl. Of course it’s winter and dark when she arrives. Her employer is a widower who is AWOL and not expected back. Beautiful Marta finds herself in a house full of very unlovely servants, a housekeeper who clearly has a few guilty secrets of her own, an ancient crone of a nanny, and a child who may possibly have Down Syndrome. So far, so deliciously Gothic.
Grace, the little girl she is sent to look after is, in Marta’s eyes, a pathetic, unlikeable soul she makes very little effort to get to know. Marta is there for one purpose only – because her destiny is linked, she believes, with the missing Sir William Pritchard, so she makes no effort with the servants, she doesn’t care if she isn’t liked. She makes an effort with Grace when she discovers that Grace can be of help to her, but Grace, from the very beginning, seems to understand that Marta is not to be trusted. It’s Grace who reminds us that Marta isn’t what she seems when we get so embroiled in the story (which is most of the time) and so keen to find out what happens next that we forget to question the nature of the narrator. It’s Grace, in her own way as ‘uncanny’ as Marta, who thwarts her and impedes her progress with the gorgeous heir, Grace’s brother Vaughan. Yes of course there’s a gorgeous heir. And of course Vaughan is so attractive to Marta because he’s wicked, wicked, wicked.
Like the intrepid Gothic heroine she purports to be, Marta is a match for every locked door and secret passageway, but this is the only way she resembles such timid scaredy-cats. Marta is scared of nothing. She is arrogant, she’s devious, she’s a liar and a thief. Not even the harp-playing ghost of Grace’s mother can frighten Marta. She is so supremely confident that she makes no effort to please. And yet I loved her. She has no redeeming features, save for one – the fact that she’s utterly oblivious of her vulnerability. She’s doomed to fail by the conventions of the Gothic novel in which she exists – or is she?
Here’s another thing that keeps you turning the pages. There’s nothing certain, not even the literary conventions. Fyneshade messes with your head. Is Martha a heroine or is she simply a nasty piece of work who’s going to get her come-uppance? Towards the end, that’s precisely what it looks like is going to happen – and oh, how I didn’t want it to.
The denouement was filmic, spectacular and OTT Gothic. Then came the ‘real’ ending, and the questions I should have been asking myself from the start finally started making themselves heard. Most importantly, the one that I should have asked from the beginning. If Marta isn’t a witch, who – or what – is she? I read on, waiting for an answer. I got to the end, and there it was, one final little note from the author pointing me at Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. I’d read it years ago and finished it, as so many do, utterly confused. I re-read it, with Fyneshade in mind. So many parallels that I’d missed. So many clues. Marta rarely eats. She’s forever pinching her cheeks to bring colour back into them. The dog and Grace both sense that there’s something very wrong with her. How did I miss it?
But what is it, exactly, that I missed? The Turn of the Screw is one of those ghost stories that might not be about a ghost. It’s often suggested that everything that happens is a figment of the governess’s imagination. Is this what Kate Griffin is suggesting here, with her cryptic end note? In the final chapter, we have Marta reading a newspaper clipping describing the terrible end that she (may have) brought about at Fyneshade, a story that ‘in moments of darkness’ she feeds from. Feeds from? When she arrives at her new posting, finally we are given the key in the man she meets ‘a mature and thrillingly dangerous version’ of the man she left behind at the beginning of the book, ‘plucked from the face of the earth and finished by an unholy hand’. There’s more, but I am not going to spoil it. Is he a ghost? Like Marta is, or has become, or always was? So many questions. Was Fyneshade one act in a play that they star in over and over again? Are we simply about to get another tale from Marta’s highly colourful imagination? Or is there something even darker at the heart of this story? Marta has had at least two miscarriages. She tells us they were induced – abortions in fact. But were they? Is she tragically unable to carry a child? Or tragically unable to conceive? At the heart of the Victorian world, a woman was defined by her ability to have a family.
Questions, questions. Could Marta, rather than being a beautiful, alluring, bewitching and unique woman, really be a little brown mouse of a governess trying to glamorise her postings? Or is she the woman she tells us she is, a powerful, gifted woman who is the victim of an even more powerful man? Was she ever real? Is she actually a ghost? I don’t have answers, and that is where the real genius of this story lies, in my view. The ending is what you make it. I suspect some readers won’t like this sort of ending, but I loved it. I was confused by it, it made me think and rethink. ’m sure when I reread it then I’ll have changed my mind about the ending, and then I’m pretty sure I’ll change my mind again.
Fyneshade is a spine-chilling and darkly funny story. At times it reminded me of the film, Southern Comfort – you have no idea who the goodies or the baddies are, you simply have this horrible sense of dread. It had echoes of The Others too, with some truly creepy moments, and some so totally and utterly revolting that they were funny (the odd machine in the black bedroom, for example, or the dismembered doll). One thing I’m sure about, and it’s this: I loved it.
Have you read any of these books? Do you have any similar recommendations? As ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
You can read all my reviews, good, bad and indifferent, over on Goodreads.