The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

Published by Picador Books on March 4th

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Cornwall, 1972. Three keepers vanish from a remote lighthouse, miles from the shore. The entrance door is locked from the inside. The clocks have stopped. The Principal Keeper’s weather log describes a mighty storm, but the skies have been clear all week.;
What happened to those three men, out on the tower? The heavy sea whispers their names. The tide shifts beneath the swell, drowning ghosts. Can their secrets ever be recovered from the waves?
Twenty years later, the women they left behind are still struggling to move on. Helen, Jenny and Michelle should have been united by the tragedy, but instead it drove them apart. And then a writer approaches them. He wants to give them a chance to tell their side of the story. But only in confronting their darkest fears can the truth begin to surface . . .
Inspired by real events, The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex is an intoxicating and suspenseful mystery, an unforgettable story of love and grief that explores the way our fears blur the line between the real and the imagined.

What I Say

I have to be honest, when I first received a copy of The Lamplighters I wasn’t sure that it would be my kind of novel. The story of three lighthouse keepers going missing? I just didn’t think it would engage me at all.

I was completely wrong. The Lamplighters is a remarkably haunting and compelling story of how important our memories are, of those left behind when the unthinkable happens, and how the only people we truly know are ourselves.

In 1972, three Lighthouse Keepers; Arthur Black , Bill Walker and Vincent Bourne simply disappear from the Maiden Rock Lighthouse in Cornwall. The door is locked from the inside, the place is clean and the table is set for two people, and the clocks are set to 8.45. That’s it. No Lighthouse Keepers, no clues, and a mystery that lies unsolved for twenty years.

In 1992, an author called Dan Sharp wants to try and solve the locked door mystery that has had such a huge impact on the families that were left behind and the communities that had to deal with all the attention this brought on them. Dan decides to get in contact with the wives and girlfriend of the Lighthouse Keepers, and we meet Helen, who was married to Arthur, Jenny who was Bill’s wife, and Michelle who was going out with Vinnie at the time of his death. Helen and Jenny are keen to speak to Dan, but for some reason they are estranged from each other at a time when they should have been closer than ever. Michelle doesn’t want to get involved, and initially decides not to speak to Dan. What was interesting for me was that how in the background of this narrative, always seeming slightly ominous, was the ever present Trident organisation that has effectively paid off the families to ensure their silence and the women are very mindful of this.

The novel moves seamlessly between the two narratives – that of 1972 and 1992, where we see the reality of life for the men in a lighthouse, and the lives of the people who are left behind after they disappear. What Emma does so well when describing the daily routines of the men, is to show how repetitive and mundane but entirely necessary their roles are. Arthur as the senior lighthouse keeper is meticulous and incredibly proud of what he does, and he wants the other men to appreciate how important their jobs are. He may seem aloof and introspective, but his dour demeanour hides a tragedy that has served to put a wedge between himself and Helen. Bill seems to always be slightly resentful of Arthur, and although initially we may believe it is because he covets Arthur’s job, the truth is far more destructive. Vinnie is the youngest and enthusiastic about his new job, but we learn that he has spent time in prison, and has brought and hidden a gun onto the Lighthouse.

With all three men hiding something from each other, we start to see just how claustrophobic and isolated they are. Stuck in an inaccessible lighthouse, having lots of time to think about things as they do their jobs, little by little, cracks start to form between them. The fact that they have to work night shifts in rotation too, all add to the fact that the lines between daytime and night time become blurred, and their imaginations start to work overtime and we are never quite sure what is real and what is imagined. All the time, ever present is the unforgiving and powerful sea all around them, and as a reader you are all too aware of how all encompassing and dangerous nature is, and how they are completely at its mercy.

Meanwhile back in the Keeper’s Cottages, we see how Jenny and Helen are poles apart in their personalities, and we also discover that Bill constantly makes Jenny feel inadequate as he holds Helen up as to the wifely example she should aspire to. As we hear their stories in 1992, in the form of monologues they deliver while speaking to Dan, it adds an authenticity to the narrative. They tell us not only the reality of having to be a Lighthouse Keeper’s wife, but also help to fill in the stories of their husbands, so we start to fully understand exactly why Arthur and Bill living together in such an enclosed space can only lead to tragedy.

Emma’s slow drip feed of revelations about each character’s personalities adds to the undeniable tension both in the Lighthouse and between the women at home. No one is without fault or flaw, and it is impossible to not empathise with each person as their story is slowly revealed. The moment that Arthur makes a discovery that changes everything he believed he knew about his wife is beautifully understated, and this devastating revelation sets in motion a chain of events that culminates in Dan Sharp trying to uncover the mystery twenty years later.

To say anything about what happens next would spoil The Lamplighters for you, and I have no intention of doing that! What I will say is that as the novel draws to its conclusion, you really feel the sense of panic and despair that permeates the Lighthouse, and there is a sense of other worldliness which only serves to add to the tension as little by little the plots seamlessly falls into place. You understand how incredibly frustrated and bewildered the women must be, and how they are unable to really live their lives after what has happened to them, and that the burden on them since the disappearance has been all consuming and overwhelming.

The Lamplighters worked so well for me because it absolutely wrong footed me – I had it all worked out. Until I really didn’t! Emma has written a novel that not only captures the physical and emotional toll of working in a Lighthouse, and the secrets that are held within, but also gives a voice to those who are so overlooked in history – the women who are left behind to run the men’s world when they are not there. It is a sensitive and emotional novel that perfectly articulates how memory can be an all encompassing force, and that when we are left alone with our thoughts for a long time, they can be just what we need to comfort us, but also the very things that serve to destroy us.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Camilla Elworthy and Katie Bowden for my gifted copies.

Insatiable by Daisy Buchanan

Insatiable by Daisy Buchanan

Published by Sphere on February 11th 2021

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Stuck in a dead-end job, broken-hearted, broke and estranged from her best friend: Violet’s life is nothing like she thought it would be. She wants more – better friends, better sex, a better job – and she wants it now.
So, when Lottie – who looks like the woman Violet wants to be when she grows up – offers Violet the chance to join her exciting start-up, she bites. Only it soon becomes clear that Lottie and her husband Simon are not only inviting Violet into their company, they are also inviting her into their lives.
Seduced by their townhouse, their expensive candles and their Friday-night sex parties, Violet cannot tear herself away from Lottie, Simon or their friends. But is this really the more Violet yearns for? Will it grant her the satisfaction she is so desperately seeking?

Insatiable is about women and desire – lust, longing and the need to be loved. It is a story about being unable to tell whether you are running towards your future or simply running away from your past. The result is at once tender and sad, funny and hopeful.

What I Say

Now, if you know me at all by now – and let’s face it, you have had to hear my shouting about books for nigh on four years, you will have realised that I am somewhat a fan of Jilly Cooper. Why is that remotely relevant I hear you cry? Well, if you like me you love Jilly Cooper novels, you will adore Insatiable by Daisy Buchanan.

Yes, it is stuffed full with lots of sex, in every way you ever imagined, and for some scenes to be honest, I had to sit and work out how it was physically possible! It is also pertinent to mention that there is a sexual assault, and Daisy handles it sensitively and appropriately.

I have to say that you need to understand that Insatiable is so much more than a novel about sex. Daisy Buchanan has written a timely and thought provoking novel that addresses so many of the issues and concerns we all have – however old we are. It is a novel about greed and lust, of how we are all trying to work out who we are and how much of ourselves we want to share with the world, and most imporantly I felt, about how we are all increasingly falling for the idea that somehow the grass is always greener.

Violet is working in a seemingly thankless job in the art world, having little inclination and even less money, she exists from day to day and paycheck to paycheck. She ended her enagement to Mark as she realised she wasn’t in love with him, and couldn’t bear the thought of trying to pretend to be the perfect trophy wife. In the process she also lost her best friend Nadia after a furious row. Alone and needing company, she is using dating apps. When she uses her boss’ tickets for an art exhbition to meet her date – who stands her up, it is there that she meets the enigmatic and impossibly glamourous Lottie and Simon. They are in the process of starting an app for selling art, and want someone to help with their social media, and Violet seems to fit the bill perfectly.

When they meet up to discuss the role, it seems very far from an ordinary job interview. Violet has done her social media research and has stumbled into Lottie and Simon’s world and has witnessed the seemingly insta perfect lives they lead. Understandably, she has started dreaming about how her life could change by being in their orbit. From the moment Violet sits down, she realises that she is totally attracted to Lottie, and the feeling seems to be mutual. By being so open, Violet gains herself entry into the world that Lottie and Simon inhabit, and a chance to meet their friends. The only thing that isn’t mentioned is that the group – Mimi, Richard, Max, Sasha and Lottie and Simon may swap anecdotes – but they also swap partners.

Violet’s introduction to them is eye opening as she seems to almost be a prize for Lottie and Simon to show off and share. Violet participates, but it’s never made clear what the rules are and what is appropriate to for her to do or not do. That for me was somewhat unsettling as a reader, in that Violet seems dazzled by their life, and wants to be part of it, but you always wonder how much Lottie and Simon actually cared for her. As the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Lottie and Simon have created a persona which when you look beyond the surface is far from the glossy, carefree existence they are showing to the world.

The thing is, as a reader you do understand Violet’s actions. Stuck in a seemingly thankless job, living in a far from glamourous bedsit, Lottie and Simon offer her that glimpse into a life she has only dreamed of. Violet is invited to Ibiza with the group, and it is there that things eventually come tumbling down after a shocking revelation. She is forced to face the fact that Lottie and Simon view her as little more than a plaything. It is testament to Daisy’s writing that you absolutely feel Violet’s pain and confusion, and also understand why she still makes excuses for their behaviour – however despicable it may seem to us. Violet is a young woman who is trying to determine who she is and wants and although initially she seems in control of her situation, increasingly it becomes clear she can only really take charge by making some life changing decisions.

I think that the novel worked so well because you get to know all the characters and the motivation for why they act as they do, and I felt that they were rounded and believable . You may not like them, or understand why they behave as they do, but Daisy succeeds in showing not only how they control the persona they present to the world, but also how even the seemingly most assured and confident people are peppered with self doubt and flaws.

Insatiable is defined as being impossible to satisfy, and as well as this being relevant to Violet in terms of sex, I also felt it applied to her relationship with food and eating. There are constant references to what people are eating, the meals that are being prepared, and I thought it was interesting how Violet uses food as a form of medication to soothe herself or to block out what she is going through. This is a subtle plot device which I felt added to the sensory experience this novel really is.

I really hope that Insatiable finds its way onto your bookish radar, and that people don’t focus on the fact that it has lots of sex, because I absolutely feel they would be doing a major disservice to this fabulous novel and Daisy’s brilliant writing. This is a novel about trying to find your way in the world when everyone else seems to have what you want and seems so much better at making a success of it all. It is about what we expect from women, from relationships and the increasing power that social media seems to have over all our lives. Perhaps most importantly it is about acknowledging and recognising female desire, and understanding that we can edit and filter our lives all we want, but only by being honest can we really find happiness.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you very much to Millie Seaward for my gifted copy.

A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies

A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies

Published by Sceptre Books

Available from All Good Bookshops and Online

A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies from Sceptre Books is a novel that not many of you may be aware of, but I was completely captivated by it when I read it recently. When I started to read it, I thought I would write an Instagram review, but sometimes you read a novel and the limited length of an Instagram post is not enough to convey what it meant to you and why you think lots of people should read it.

It is the story of a married couple, and the road they take to having a baby, as well as everything that follows. It is unusual in that it is written from the male perspective, but for me that was the very thing that drew me to this novel. I have read (and loved) so many books about parenting and motherhood, but they are mostly written from the female viewpoint, and I suppose I wanted to hear the other side of the experience.

A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself is a brilliantly observed and insightful novel about the realities of parenting and the shared experience and competitiveness that are unfortunately part of the everyday life of someone who has a child. The thing that stood out for me undoubtedly throughout reading this book is that this is really truthful and real about the choices and issues that arise when you become a parent.

The novel starts with the couple making the decision to have an abortion, after they discover the baby could have abnormalities. It really resonated with me, because I had to go through that after my son was born, he had to have genetic testing, which determined he had chromosome abnormalities. I really felt for the couple, and completely understood everything they were feeling and going through, because we had been through it too. It is coming to terms with the fact that there is nothing you could have possibly done, but at the same time you now have to navigate a world that you could never have anticipated.

This decision impacts on everything that happens afterwards, and when the wife (we never learn the couple’s names) falls pregnant again, all the same thoughts and fears are always present, and the parents wonder if they did the right thing choosing to have an abortion for their first pregnancy.
I thought it was also interesting to see how when the wife falls pregnant again and has to have a C section, how the mother is prioritised and so the dad has to work out where his place is. It makes you aware how the Mother understandably is the focus, but that the father’s experience is very different.

Peter Ho Davies also absolutely understands and totally conveys the relentless grind and mundanity of parenthood, how you function on so little sleep and how the baby takes over every single part of your life as you try to carry on. As the baby becomes a child, and they start school, there is the daily routine of cooking, cleaning, school runs, school admin as well as trying to cope with your own job, and you feel that your own identity becomes subsumed as you are known as someone’s mum or dad. However, what makes it all worth it, are the moments of pure unadulterated joy, the times when you feel that emotional connection with your child, and you forget everything else, and that is what is so perfectly related in this novel.

I also found it incredibly moving how the father and mother realise that their son is not like other children, and vacillate between wanting to try and find out whether there really are any issues, but at the same time want to protect him from the labelling and prejudice that determining an official diagnosis will bring. Understandably they want to wrap them in cotton wool and protect him from anything awful in the world, but at the same time they understand in finding out they have a way to access the help and support they need for their son.

The narrative is short and sharp, and there are so many lines and paragraphs that I wanted to underline and read again, because they are so perfect. The story of a marriage and the impact deciding to have a child has is something that will resonate with many readers, but it is also such a brilliant novel because it is a story of a marriage, and what happens over the years as you become so familiar with each other. It captures the time when you realise that this is what the rest of your life is going to be like, and that is something you can accept and embrace, or decide to make a change. The couple in the novel are at times very close, at times not communicating well and seem estranged from each other, but what underpins it all is the shared history and life they have lived, and the unspoken bond that holds them together as their child grows up.

I truly loved A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself for so many reasons. It articulates so perfectly what it means to be a parent; the constant worry, the small victories, the endless comparisons with other parents as to how they raise their children, and the fact that having children seem to entitle everyone to be able to publicly express their opinions about them. It is the most public and private, brilliant and difficult thing we will ever do, and we need more alternative narratives to broaden our understanding of what being a parent means for the fathers too.

Thank you very much to Sceptre Books for my gifted copy.

One Night New York by Lara Thompson

One Night, New York by Lara Thompson

Published by Virago on 14th January 2021

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

A thrilling debut novel of corruption and murder, set in the nightclubs, tenements and skyscrapers of 1930s New York.
At the top of the Empire State Building, on a freezing December night, two women hold their breath. Frances and Agnes are waiting for the man who has wronged them. They plan to seek the ultimate revenge.
Set over the course of a single night, One Night, New York is a detective story, a romance and a coming-of-age tale. It is also a story of old New York, of bohemian Greenwich Village between the wars, of floozies and artists and addicts, of a city that sucked in creatives and immigrants alike, lighting up the world, while all around America burned amid the heat of the Great Depression. It also marks the arrival of an exciting new talent on the Virago fiction list.

What I Say

One Night, New York is a glorious and absorbing delight of a book, that just explodes with energy on every page. It is ambitious in its scope, and perfectly captures the realities and sometimes unsavoury sides of living in New York in the 1930s.

It starts on the 21st December 1932, with two women, Frances and Agnes, on the seventy-second floor of the Empire State Building waiting for an unamed person to arrive. Why they are there, and what they are about to do is not clear, but what is absolutely evident from the first page is that these women have a score to settle – whatever the cost.

The whole book is seeped in the atmosphere and the deceptively glamourous lives led by the artists, creative people and downright unsavoury characters who inhabit this world. New York is evolving and with its changing and growing skyline, and it is the ever present background in this world – all seeing, all encompassing and in every part of the plot. The descriptions of the people, places, clothes and the lives they lead mean that this is one of those novels that is totally entrenched in the world it depicts, that every page, every scene captivates the reader completely.

Frances is fleeing from her controlling parents in Kansas. She boards a train for New York to go and meet her brother Stanley, and it is there she meets the glamorous Jacks and her charismatic friend Dicky. They want to use Frances as part of a makeover for a story Jacks is writing. Dicky gives her his card and asks her to come and see them when she is settled in New York. Frances is unable to read, so has to take his word for what he has told her. From the moment she arrives in New York and meets Stanley, Frances is overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of the city, and you see this vast and confusing place very clearly through her eyes as she struggles to comprehend how she will ever fit in.

Frustrated by Stan’s attempts to keep her in their apartment, she eventually makes her way to Jacks and Dicky’s house, where she meets Agnes, the young woman who will change her life forever. Frances feels a connection and a deep attraction to Agnes, but this meeting also paves the way for Frances to ingratiate herself into the less picture perfect side of New York.

Her relationship with Stanley is becoming increasingly strained, as he refuses to tell her what he does at night, why he has been assaulted, or why there are bundles of money under the floorboards in their apartment. Frances is an incredibly smart and intuitive woman who knows that what Stanley is not telling her is far more worrying than what he is, and when she is faced with an incredible loss, she resolves to find the answers – however distressing that may be.

Agnes confides in Frances about her family, how her Mother is being cared for by nurses, and how her sister committed suicide after being blackmailed by the New York Police for having had risqué photos taken. Now Agnes is being blackmailed too, and Frances realises that in order for them to live their lives in peace, they are going to have to take matters into their own hands.

One Night, New York does not shy away from the darker side of the city at all, and in doing so it opens up a whole new narrative for the novel. It is a world where extortion and corruption at every level is rife, and women are a convenient commodity to be picked up, used and tossed aside when they have outlived their usefulness. The violence is brutal and shocking, but it is completely integral and necessary to understand the way in which this world functions, and why Frances and Agnes are so intent on revenge.

For me, the pace of the novel was perfectly pitched, and you cannot help but feel a connection to all the characters in this novel because Lara Thompson makes you care about what happens to them. One Night, New York is a bold and ambitious novel that works so well because not only does it immediately pull the reader right into the heart of the action, but Lara Thompson has created relatable characters whose flaws and vulnerabilities give them the courage to take matters into their own hands to achieve the lives that they deserve.

Thank you so much to Kimberley Nyamhondera, Grace Vincent and Virago Press for my gifted copy.

Some Body to Love by Alexandra Heminsley

Some Body to Love by Alexandra Heminsley

Published by Chatto and Windus

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

‘Today I sat on a bench facing the sea, the one where I waited for L to be born, and sobbed my heart out. I don’t know if I’ll ever recover.’
This note was written on 9 November 2017. As the seagulls squawked overhead and the sun dipped into the sea, Alexandra Heminsley’s world was turning inside out.
She’d just been told her then-husband was going to transition. The revelation threatened to shatter their brand new, still fragile, family.
But this vertiginous moment represented only the latest in a series of events that had left Alex feeling more and more dissociated from her own body, turning her into a seemingly unreliable narrator of her own reality.

Some Body to Love is Alex’s profoundly open-hearted memoir about losing her husband but gaining a best friend, and together bringing up a baby in a changing world. Its exploration of what it means to have a human body, to feel connected or severed from it, and how we might learn to accept our own, makes it a vital and inspiring contribution to some of the most complex and heated conversations of our times.

What I Say

Not that you all know, but this is actually my first blog review of 2021. I am sat in my dining room typing away, listening to the radio, with a cup of coffee to the right of me, and am very pleased to be able to be sitting upright to type this. Why is any of this remotely relevant to my review?

As I sit here typing this, I am currently recovering from Covid. Being able to read has not been possible for a few weeks, as the amount of energy required to pick up a book and read was way beyond my capabilities for a while. The thing is, I am so very pleased that I chose Alexandra’s book Some Body To Love, because her writing about her relationship with body and her life experiences could not have come at a better and more appropriate time for me, as mine was taken over by a virus that I had been trying so hard to avoid.

Alexandra’s book starts off making you believe it is heading in one direction, but when you start to read it, you realise that it is in fact epic in its scale, and certainly for me, made me think about not only what Alexandra has been through, but also how we view our own bodies and often internalise our own experiences.

When Alexandra married the love of her life, they decided after a time to try IVF, and it seemed like Alexandra was going to have the family life she longed for. However, things in her marriage had not been going well, and initially she believed it was due to the immense pressure the couple were under as they tried to get pregnant. In fact, her husband had decided that now he wanted to transition, and Alexandra was left reeling by the decision. Coupled with the fact that they had gone through immense emotional distress during her pregnancy when there was doubt that the embryo that had been implanted was hers, Alexandra was devastated. The idea of a cosy family unit was no more, and Alexandra had to determine what this meant for her and their son as they were now facing a very different life to the one she had anticipated.

This is not just a book about Alexandra’s marriage, or the reality of someone transitioning. Some Body To Love is profoundly affecting as it goes so much further and is also Alexandra’s candid and intensely personal memoir about her relationship with her body. She explains how when she was heavily pregnant, she was sexually assaulted on a train, and the immense pressure this put on her as she decided to press charges against the man. It is unbelievable to see the way in which she is treated, and the way in which her pregnancy is used against her by the defence.

What always seems to be in Alexandra’s mind is the importance of making her voice heard, to show people that this behaviour is not acceptable, and the way in which she is treated by some people as simply nothing more than a pile of pregnancy hormones is shameful.

At the centre of this book is always Alexandra’s relationship with her body, and how we are all complicit in how we present ourselves and react to others too. I am endlessly fascinated by the power and lure of Instagram, and the pressure that we are under to conform and be seen in a certain way. Alexandra writes so incisively about how even when you try to work within the seemingly open image of body positivity, that there are still ways in which it is seen as acceptable to do so. I loved the story of how Alexandra was meeting journalists to promote her book Running Like A Girl, and even though she wanted to present an honest and natural face to show people her real self, she was not deemed newsworthy until she adhered to the narrative that other people wanted to create for her.

I think that this is such an incredibly honest book that should start so many conversations about the realities of motherhood and parenting, the narratives we create for ourselves, and most importantly of the realities of what it means for someone to transition.

Hand on heart, I have had no experience in my life of anyone I know deciding to transition, and I had no frame of reference to understand the massive personal and emotional demands this has on both the person who is transitioning and those closest to them. I was also astounded by the misconceptions and attitudes of other people who projected their own thoughts and opinions onto an incredibly personal situation, and I think it is testament to Alexandra’s incredible resilience and empathy for her husband that you see how they adapt their family life to their new reality.

I finished Some Body To Love last week, and am constantly thinking about it. As a reader, Alexandra’s accessible and absorbing writing made me feel that it was as if she was sat next to me telling me what has happened in her life. I feel very privileged to have read it, and know that my knowledge and understanding of my own personal experiences, my relationship with my body and what it means for someone to transition have changed as a result of reading this book.

It is a raw, visceral and an incredible testament to the power of love and family, which permeates every single page and makes you feel hopeful about the world once again.

Thank you to Lucie Cuthbertston-Twiggs for my copy in exchange for an honest review.