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Harry is a high end drug dealer, in partnership with her lifelong friend and back-watcher Leon. One night she meets and falls for Becky, a dancer, who also waits tables in the family cafe and gives massages to strangers in hotel rooms. She notices Pete in the family cafe because he’s reading a book written by Becky’s estranged father. The two get talking then get together. Pete is Harry’s half brother but none of them realise the connection until Harry throws a surprise party for Pete. A surprise party at which Harry also discovers she knows Becky’s drug dealing uncles – and not in a good way.

THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES explodes into being as Leon, Harry and Becky are fleeing London with a suitcase full of money. The opening prose is pure poetry  and it only gets better and better. This book is gritty, funny, sexy and like nothing you’ve ever read before. Tempest has created characters that are so real it hurts sometimes. They are linked not just by the story she’s woven but by being variously abandoned and ambitious, and the bricks of their lives, from childhood upwards, are carefully laid and cemented together, generation on generation.

Tempest has captured London too, “cocksure, alert to danger, charming”, in particular parts of my south east corner where “The road is strewn with picked clean rib bones, and the faint smell of boozy piss mixes with the sweet rot of skunk smoke.” But she’s been clever enough not to let the city take centre stage, with a story and a pace that’s irrepressible.

A book about the bass line, THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES thrums with truth, from lines like “People are killing for Gods again. Money is killing us all.” to the way Tempest steadily unpicks the relationship women have with their bodies and their sexuality. It’s a book with purpose but never feels worthy. A book that’s incredibly daring but never tries too hard.

Tempest is a poet, a rapper and spoken word performer. She gives us phrases like “Harry’s voice is a broken window, letting the rain in.” and “She swallowed her doubt, but the hook stuck in the flesh of her mouth, pulling her upwards, away from him.” At times the words on the page feel like song lyrics, so I wasn’t surprised to learn after reading it that THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES is a companion piece to her Mercury Music Prize shortlisted debut album EVERYBODY DOWN.  It certainly made me sing. It made me want to fling open windows too and read passages to passers by, at the same time as wanting to hunker down and greedily savour every word in the peace of my own company.  Extraordinary.


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THE LANTERN by Deborah Lawrenson

the lantern by deborah lawrenson

There’s something very captivating about this sensual, mysterious novel. It evokes its Provencal setting through some gorgeous (if at times over wrought) language that appealed to all my senses, and the way it moves between past and present is seamless and bewitching. Yet overall I felt a bit irritated reading THE LANTERN and in large part I suspect that was because it crossed over every so often into the supernatural. Now I love a bit of supernatural or magic or fantasy in a book. I love a lot of it too, as evidenced by my reading the Harry Potter series about once a year. But these things have their place and, although I have no hard and fast rules, I don’t much like it when ghosts, spells, visitors from other planets or whatever arrive unannounced in a book that I am expecting to be the kind of book where such things do not occur. As it turns out, there are rational explanations for all the supernatural events that take place but none of that is revealed until very close to the end and, by that time,  I am afraid the damage had been done.

At the heart of THE LANTERN is a house called Les Genevriers that has been home to immense happiness and terrible heartbreak. When Eve and Dom, in the midst of a whirlwind romance, buy the house and start the long process of rescuing it from neglect they stir up all sorts of secrets about the previous inhabitants. The random objects Dom and Eve find in the overgrown garden and wonder over are precious memories to Benedicte Lincel, who grew up at Les Genevriers at the time of the Second World War and who is struggling to let go of the past. The house and the events that take place there link Eve and Dom’s story with Benedicte’s, until eventually the two collide with the shocking discovery of a body in the grounds of Les Genevriers.

The slightly oppressive nature of Les Genevriers once the summer has passed, feeds suspicions that Eve has been harbouring about Dom, and these feelings are heightened by his repeated disappearances, news reports of missing local teenage girls, and her lover’s brooding, uncommunicative nature. As she tries to find out the story behind Dom’s break up with his wife, Eve becomes more and more unsure about the man she has followed to the South of France. A friendship with a local French woman who knew Dom’s wife prompts even more questions and when Eve discovers that his ex had been researching the history of former owners of Le Genevriers, the house starts to feel more like a prison that a retreat.

Benedicte’s older sister, Marthe, lost her sight as a young girl and as an adult was a world renowned parfumier. Like many of his generation, their brother Pierre decided that his future lay in getting rich as a factory worker rather than the back breaking work of rural life. Benedicte is the one who stayed at home, caring for her ageing mother and trying to keep Le Genevrier in one piece. When handsome Andre turns up one evening looking for board in return for work, Benedicte starts to feel she may have a future ahead of her and the two soon fall in love. But like everyone in this story, Andre has dark secrets and Benedicte’s heart gets broken – first by him, then by her sister, and finally by her prodigal, bitter and violent brother.

I definitely found Benedicte’s the most moving of the two narratives that make up the book – she’s a far stronger and interesting character than modern day Eve who is a bit too self obsessed and drippy for my liking. But it takes a while before her story really gets going and that also added to my frustration with THE LANTERN, as did the obvious but ultimately undeserved comparisons with Daphne DuMaurier’s REBECCA- a far superior book. There’s no doubt Lawrenson can write and the story is well plotted and richly told. She develops some interesting themes, most notably around blindness and passivity. So it’s a shame that I just didn’t get along with THE LANTERN as well as I might. If you do not have the same prejudices, you may well enjoy it – and at least you are forewarned.

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I was in Brighton last week and unexpectedly given a copy of this book by someone who had come across my blog and was amazed that I’d made it to this point in my life without reading any Neil Gaiman. I didn’t have time to explain that this blog only covers the books I’ve read since turning 40, especially as he was correct – there has been a Neil Gaiman shaped hole in my life until now. He comes highly recommended and not just by my friend. Of THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE, Joanne Harris declares “Some books you read. Some books you enjoy. But some books just swallow you up, heart and soul” and the novel won Book of the Year at the National Book Awards in 2013. So what’s all the fuss about?

A fairy take of the dark and dangerous kind, rather than the saccharine reinvention of the genre, Gaiman’s book captures the powerlessness, fear, beauty and trust of childhood. At it’s centre is an unhappy, lonely boy (nobody came to his 7th birthday party), whose name we never learn and who lives in the Sussex countryside next door to the remarkable Hempstock family, consisting of 3 generations of women. Lettie Hempstock, a few years older than him, offers to help out when an opal miner, who was lodging with the boy’s family, ends up dead, his kitten disappears and he has nightmare about a coin getting stuck in his throat that turns out to be real. Lettie explains these odd things are happening because a supernatural being has found its way into the world. But when the pair try to find the spirit and bind it, another force sneaks through the tear between two worlds via a worm hole that lodges itself in the narrator’s foot.

Enter Ursula Monkton, who takes up residence in the boy’s home as the new housekeeper. She seduces his father, deceives his mother and indulges his sister. It’s only our narrator who sees Ursula for the evil, destructive being she really is. Alienated from his family and locked in the attic by a vengeful Ursula, the boy flees to his neighbour’s one night, escaping via a window and down a drain pipe, surely what many a child dreams of doing though few wish for the horrors that require it. The Hempstocks come to the rescue and it involves some powerful magic. They remove the fragment of Ursula’s escape route that’s buried in his foot, confront Ursula and, when she refuses to leave voluntarily, call on “hunger birds” to devour her. These scavengers are ruthlessly efficient and once they’ve seen off Ursula, they turn their attention to the tiny bit of her that lives on in the boy’s heart, and will not return to their world unless they can fully complete their task. The Hempstocks try to keep him safe but the birds are angry at being thwarted and  start to destroy the surrounding world instead, devouring trees, sky and, our narrator fears, his own family and everything else besides. Unable to bear the weight of such responsibility, he runs out from the safety of the Hempstock’s farmhouse to offer himself up, but Lettie is on his heels and as the birds swoop in, she tries to protect him. Lettie’s grandmother finally sees the birds off but not before her granddaughter is badly hurt.

Gaiman’s story starts and ends in the present when our narrator is a grown man who occasionally visits his childhood home. When he’s there he recalls what happened to him as a boy, but those memories don’t get carried into his future, and nor does he tend to remember that he’s made previous visits. On each occasion he sees the Hempstock family, who feed him the wonderful meals that nourished him as a child, let him gaze upon the two moons that appear on different sides of their house, and reassure him that Lettie is safe and well, travelling in Australia. They also let him sit by the ocean at the end of the lane, which may only look like a small pond but which contains universe upon universe and whose waters contain knowledge about the nature of everything.

This is a beautifully written book in which the monsters and horrors of magical realism are nothing like as frightening as those the boy encounters in the real world. I was especially struck by how he tackles the idea that damage done to our hearts as children translates into emptiness and loneliness when we reach adulthood; by how big everything is, and how small we are in comparison, doesn’t have to be frightening and can be quite comforting; and by how a childhood where you realise adults are not invincible can feel like the most terrifying place on earth. Mythical, poignant and utterly convincing, Gaiman’s tale did indeed swallow me up.


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GUERNICA by Dave Boling


I didn’t know very much about what happened to Guernica before reading this book but it was a good excuse to find out more and very timely too, given several politicians and commentators have drawn parallels with what’s currently happening in Aleppo. The author’s end note also puts the events into an ongoing context: “Historians have disputed the death toll from the bombing of Guernica, by the act nonetheless remains at the taproot of the assaults against civilian populations that the world still grieves on an all too regular basis.”

He also notes that he deliberately chose to focus his novel less on the political background and more on the “poverty, oppression, instability, and disenfranchisement that common citizens would have felt.” He does so very effectively, despite the first half of the book being relentlessly positive and upbeat. As we meet the key characters and watch their lives unfold, I kept expecting things to go wrong; people to be stood up at the altar, miscarriages, betrayal or accidents. But these are people enjoying the simple things of life, happy with what they have and fully aware of being blessed. That doesn’t mean things are always easy, but they respond to problems with love, openness and a profound trust that things will work themselves out. They share, they talk and they dance.

At the centre of the story is Justo, his brothers Josepe and Xabier, his wife Mariangeles, their daughter, Miren, her best friend, the blind and orphaned Alaia, and two brothers, Dodo and Miguel. Miren has inherited her mother’s good nature and knack of being adored, “for drawing them near, as if initiating them into her own club of the unrelentingly well intended…She always opened a gate to somewhere they each wished to go. And then she listened.” She can dance on the rim of a wine glass, strides so her black plait swings like a pendulum, and rather than inducing envy, reminds people how life looked before it became complicated. Justo is a giant of a man, literally and metaphorically. His physical strength is matched by an inner sense of purpose that’s deployed protecting those whom he loves. When he tells his daughter’s fiancee about a ritual that involves biting off ram’s testicles, we cannot be sure if it’s fact or fiction, but that doesn’t really matter; it has the desired effect. Mariangeles keeps him in check most of the time and has a clarity of vision and sense of objectivity that makes her the ideal mouthpiece for the many of the historical and political facts Boling weaves into his pastoral idyll. The firebrand Dodo also bring this perspective but is more revolutionary than cool observer, perfectly conveying the Basque passion that throbs through the novel.

As I turned each page having my expectations of disaster confounded each time, there was, nonetheless, a sense of impending doom, after all a novel with such a title is not going to avoid tragedy. This sense was heightened by occasional vignettes starring historical figures such as Picasso, Luftwaffe pilot Von Richthofen and Basque president José Antonio Aguirre, and the effect is to underline the separation between the everyday lives being lived out in Guernica and the storm clouds gathering just out of sight. Miren sums it up when she  admits “these things happened but not to her, not here” and goes on “she felt that if she could just talk to Franco, sit down with him, she could straighten this all out, She could make him see the importance of stopping the war.” It’s a thought I have most days about men like Assad.

All of which makes the shock when it does arrive all the more profound. Not a book to read in public, if you can help it.

Boyling spans decades in the first half of the book, then we get a section that’s just one day: 26 April 1937. Things slow down as they are wont to do in moments of horror and pain. Every graphic detail is recollected, from the sounds to the smells, to the sensation of being lost in the town you’ve known since birth because it’s unrecognisable. A door cannot be shut because “the lower part of a man’s leg, still wearing a black espadrille” blocks it. People rammed into a shelter lick the walls “trying to suck in condensation to fend off the steaming heat”. The wheels of a pram kick up cockerels’ tails of dark fluid.

Then comes the aftermath. Von Richthofen reflects on the bombing and judges it “a genesis moment” and “Effective. Modern. The new war.” Xabier is asked how many people died and replies “When you see a group of boys fused into a blackened mess, you don’t take an inventory. How many died? How many? Death was infinite.”The undead seeking family members, the grieving, the anger and the revenge. Whether that’s taking the lives of those responsible, saving lives, or just stubbornly continuing to live your own.  The children shipped to England for “rest, contentment and – more important still – peace”. Welcomed with open arms and nobody demanding dental checks to verify their age. And the painting, seen and admired around the world, and about which Picasso remarks, when asked by a German soldier “You did this, didn’t you”, “No. You did”. The steady, difficult tasks of rebuilding your home and your life, when everything has changed so dramatically and everywhere is haunted by those you have lost.

A sensual book of every day miracles, GUERNICA is far from perfect – it’s naive at times, suffers from a lack of political analysis and too many easy cliches – but there’s something about it that touched me deeply. Perhaps because, more than anything, it’s a reminder of what living a good life means; that love endures; that sometimes happiness is all the more sweet for the despair that precedes it. A reminder that “if you lose someone you love, you need to redistribute your feelings rather than surrender them. You give them to whoever is left, and the rest you turn towards something that will keep you moving forward”. And that, despite the weight of history, we still have much to learn as a human race about how to avoid the horrors of war.


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“They seek out signs and find them”

There’s much to recommend this book, including some incredibly evocative and luscious descriptions of the natural world that gave me real pangs of longing to visit the saltings and Blackwater estuary where much of it is set – or just to get outside and feel moss, ferns, and cold air as a means to escape an unnaturally humid September in London. Told over the course of the year, Perry charts the seasons and the ebb and flow of life in the Essex village of Aldwinter, and has conjured a cast of colourful, sparkling characters and a narrative that is both captivating and intellectually satisfying.

The serpent of the title is a black winged leviathan that Aldwinter’s residents  are blaming for poor crops, drownings, spoilt milk, ghost ships, disappearances and a hysteria that has claimed even the rector’s daughter. Neither horseshoes hung in the branches of Traitor’s Oak nor dead animals strung up alongside skulls seem to repel the beast, whose dark presence looms on every page. It draws newly widowed Cora Seagrave,with the promise of scientific discovery – perhaps it’s even a dinosaur that may have survived extinction – and the chance to be published alongside reputable women naturalists in a Victorian era fascinated by the gothic and the scientific in equal measure.

Cora strikes up an intense friendship with Aldwinter’s rector, William Ransome, whose beautiful, sickly wife, Stella, is an obsessive collector of shades of blue and rivals Cora’s autistic son, Francis, with her collection of objects. The novel is interspersed with various letters, which veer from cordiality, via flirtation, to deeply confessional. The pair’s growing attraction for one another is soon evident to their wider circle of acquaintances and friends, including talented surgeon, Imp or Luke Garrett, who replicates human vertebra in papier mache for a fancy dress party and is himself is head over heels in love with Cora; and Luke’s friend George Spencer, who “once let Luke stitch and restitch a long cut of his own to perfect his needlework”, and holds a candle for Cora’s companion and ardent socialist, Martha. The kindly Charles and Katherine Ambrose, bring political context to the novel, which has Martha’s attempts to improve the tenements of Bethnal Green as a sub plot.

Perry forces religion and science to rub up against one another and tackles Victorian morality head on. Ransome is certain that “rumors of monsters are nothing more than evidence that we have let go of the rope that tethers us to everything that’s good and certain” yet inhabits a world in which social housing tenants are evicted if they enjoy a drink or two, and he is driven literally wild by a woman who’s not his wife. Cora, modern and with the freedom afforded to women who are financially secure, scorns religion for being just as full of blood and brimstone as the pagansim to which the villagers revert at every opportunity. She instinctively worships the natural world, imbues it with mysticism and symbolism, sees herself as no higher than an animal, yet is always grasping at new ideas. Spending time with William renders her “brimming with things to offer” and incapable of not giving them. There’s no denying the biblical undertones that cast Cora in the role of an alternative, “gleaming, gleeful”, Essex serpent who has brought sexual voracity, notions of equality and knowledge to the village.

A big book in lots of ways, including the number of pages, it is imbued with a heavy sense of mortality – as George says “sometimes I think we must be walking on shoals of bodies without realising it and all the earth’s a graveyard.” Yet it also visits Gordon’s by the Embankment, “where the walls drip into the candles” – and where I have spent more than one happy evening – and teaches us that hare’s fur is the colour of almonds fresh out of their shells. For Perry has written a novel that captures both the breadth and smallness of a moment in time, and one that puts location, plot and characters in their rightful place.  It makes for both a deeply pleasurable read and one that’s simultaneously rather dissatisfying, when all’s told.

“On turns the tilted world, and the starry hunter walks the Essex sky with his old dog at his heels.”




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THE MEMORY STONES by Caroline Brothers

the memory stones by caroline brothers

The last book of my idyllic summer holidays and one which I was only half way through before travelling back to England – a transition made all the more difficult by the latter half of the novel being set in part on a Greek island and evoking all that’s so beautiful about this part of the world. A place sorely missed now I am back in a London of which Brothers writes, people “seem to be permanently on the run” and where the pubs are “upholstered like old hookers in tat and ash pocked velvet”. The various locations she summons so effectively are merely backdrops though, for a deeply moving, painful and exquisitely written story about Argentina’s disappeared – and in particular one family, whose pregnant daughter, Graciela, is taken by the authorities one night, and whose lives thereafter are defined by that one event, that condemns them to an existence “in the half light of absence”.

Brother’s writing in the opening few pages is lyrical and laden with warnings, so much so that I found it a little inaccessible and nearly gave up. It’s worth the effort though and once the main story kicks in, this is a compelling read, in which the occasional passage of gorgeous poetry like prose add to the weight of history and power with which the book as a whole is infused.

There’s a strong plot, about which I don’t want to give away too much, but it’s the way that Brothers has captured the agony of waiting, of not knowing, that makes the book really stand out. At it’s heart are school teacher, Yolanda, and surgeon and occasional cartoonist, Osvaldo, who desperately search for any scrap of news about Graciela’s fate. The silence with which their quest is met is, as Yolanda reflects at one point, in relation to Jose, her daughter’s boyfriend, like being “plunged into a well so deep that it had swallowed even the echo of his fall”. She spends a lot of time in what she calls “a breadline for information”, alongside others also “queuing for a small ration of hope”. Both she and her husband long for nothing more than “ordinary life in all its insignificance” – the chance to be a normal family, where normal things happen instead of the most terrible and unbearable of losses; that of your child.

They do bear, it of course, but the emotional and physical price they pay is enormous. Brothers doesn’t shirk from the truth, and in particular we see how the parents’ relationship with their other child is damaged by the search for Graciela. In other characters we have an insight into the guilt of having survived or escaped, and the constant search to try to understand the randomness of it all. She gives us too the complexities of the positions each parent adopts during the novel. The pain and comfort of choosing to believe in disappearance rather than death. The twisted nature of hoping one’s child is in captivity enduring who knows what kind of torment and abuse, rather than in an unmarked grave. As Osvaldo writes “As long as there was doubt I could hold onto her; I could breathe life into the flame of her and keep that flickering alive.” It’s Yolanda’s actions though, in their simplicity, that really drove me to tears – each year she knits two garments for the grandchild she doesn’t even know exists. This passage from Osvaldo made the tears flow even more freely, in a book that I recommend reading in private unless you don’t mind openly weeping on the tube:

“So this is how it happens, how people disappear. It is a transformation in those who are left to wait and wonder, a clouding of the mind so gradual you do no notice until its surface has turned opaque. There is no shock, no sudden realisation. Instead, it happens like this, on a Tuesday afternoon in an empty apartment, with a pile of fading photographs and the rain. Graciela is alive in my memory, but my memory is starting to fade.”

One of Brothers’ characters, Ana, is interested in archaeology and through this, she explores “a fundamental fact about being human”: the need to commemorate past generations in some form and  “this need we have to lay the dead to rest.” What happened under the Argentinian Junta is relatively recent history but, the novelist reminds us, it’s part of a whole human history of suffering, of death and of remembering. Certainly THE MEMORY STONES  doesn’t avoid the torture and brutality of the Argentinian army, “the stupefying Pentothal injections; the night flights over the river that runs to the sea”. But this isn’t a book that is concerned with directly confronting the horrors inflicted on innocent civilians. Rather, it’s about the war waged indirectly on a whole population subjected to the torture of not knowing whether your loved ones have survived or what they have endured. It’s about the terrible cruelty of the imagination and  “how language fails us. How there is word like ‘widow’ or ‘orphan’ for the parent who loses a child.” And it’s about the extent to which we become what happens to us, and are ourselves whoever we turn out to be.

It’s difficult to do justice to THE MEMORY STONES without spoiling it for other readers, but this was easily the best book of my 10 days escape to the sunshine, and probably one of the most memorable I have read this year so far.



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THE MUSE by Jessie Burton

the muse by jessie burton

Weaving between  1930s Spain on the brink of civil war and 1960s London, this is the story of what happens when a remarkable and previously undiscovered painting is left to a young man named Lawrie. The artist, Isaac Robles, is thought to have perished during the civil war after producing only a handful of works, and when Lawrie Scott brings the painting to small London art gallery, the Skelton, it has a profound effect on one of the gallery’s co-directors,  the eccentric and utterly compelling Marjorie Quick.

Lawrie’s girlfriend Odelle, a young typist and wannabe writer who also works at the Skelton,  is determined to unearth the story of the painting’s provenance, especially when it seems that Marjorie, who is also something of a mentor, is deliberately leaving Odelle clues and prompting her to question whether Lawrie knows more than he is letting on about his inheritance. Odelle’s investigation, together with the Spanish flashbacks, soon reveal that the painting has an even more complex and mysterious past far than the one publicly attributed to it.


Odelle is a particular triumph. Not long ago arrived in London from Trinidad, she writes “revenge poems about the English weather”; is defined by the pressure of her desire to be a writer; and lives by the idea that “to think you have a second path is to be a fool”. Odelle stands out, as a black woman – the other secretary at her workplace, Pam, wears “enough black eye shadow to feed five Pharaohs” whilst the only make-up Odelle can find is “bad face poetry” with names such as “Blonde Corn” and “Buttermilk Nude” – and more importantly for her focus and determination.

Equally striking is Isaac Roble’s sister Teresa; fierce, brave and in love with 19 year old Olivia, a condiments heiress and daughter of  Austrian art dealer father Harold and glamorous but depressive Sarah, who have rented a finca for the summer of 1936. Teresa and Isaac arrive clutching seeds and offering to work for the family.  Falling headlong for Isaac, Olivia relinquishes a place at art college opts to stay in Spain and paint, rather than study. Isaac, also a painter is commissioned by Sarah to paint a portrait of her and her daughter, It’s terrible.

Teresa’s strength of will and ability to keep secrets seems to hold this set of volatile and feverish individuals together but she also possesses the power to blow them all apart.  One afternoon, as the civil war encroaches, Isaac hangs a sack stuffed with flour from a branch to help teach them all to shoot a gun and defend themselves. Teresa, on her first shot, aims for the knot: “The packed earth spilled everywhere and the game was ruined”.

It’s clear Burton delights in creating strong, interesting women characters and it’s definitely part of what make this and THE MINIATURIST so readable. She really knows how to tell a story too, and I was reeled in hook line and sinker from the opening scene, which features a toe less woman and a branch of the shoe shop Dolcis, to the final words. I love her evocative and arresting use of language too – a wardrobe is empty apart from “a percussive clutch of hangers” for example, whilst Olivia’s mother is an “English nettle”. The passion and colour of the parts of the novel set in Spain throb from the page and add layering to the sense of danger that Burton builds incredibly effectively, alongside the climactic revelations about Isaac, Olivia and Teresa.

But THE MUSE is more than a good story – it’s about life, love and  the power of the arts. As Odelle reflects at one point: “we studied men like him [Skelton’s Edmund Reede] at school – protected gentleman, rich gentleman, white gentleman, who picked up pens and wrote the world for the rest of us to read.” In both Odelle and Olivia we observe the importance of having a pure space in which to create, the role others can play in forcing talent into the open, and how being recognition or acclaim for a gift can inhibit it from flourishing.

Other reviewers have commented that these themes are rather apt, given the weight of expectation placed on any novelist to follow up a debut as successful as THE MINIATURIST and Burton’s openness about her fears and struggles in this respect. She seems to have overcome that though, and in THE MUSE has produced an impressive, authentic and expressive piece of work that I felt with my every fibre.

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