Guest Post by Emma Dibdin: Cult Research.




To celebrate the release of her new book The Room by the Lake Emma Dibdin has written a guest post about her research into cults, the theme at the centre of the novel.  I would like to take this opportunity to thank Emma for writing this very interesting piece.


Cult Research by Emma Dibdin.

The idea to write about a cult came from a strange encounter I had years ago in Seattle, with a man on the street who was protesting against then-president Barack Obama. The man was very young, about my age at the time (early twenties), and his argument was very odd and illogical, as though he had learned it by rote or by brainwashing. He was polite, but dead-eyed, and the encounter haunted me, particularly when I learned he was part of a far-right “political movement” which is essentially a cult. They prey on young people, often people cut off from their own families, and that got me thinking about what would make someone psychologically vulnerable enough to be sucked in.

There are a lot of novels out there about cults, and I made a point of not reading any of them because don’t think that kind of direct influence is helpful when you’re in the “discovery phase” of writing fiction. What I did read was a lot of non-fiction, including biographies of cult leaders – Jim Jones, Bonnie Lu Nettles and Charles Manson in particular – and self-help books targeted at cult survivors and their families, with instructions on how to combat cult mind control. I listened to an extensive podcast interview with a cult survivor who spoke about the terrifying hallucinations he experienced after drinking drugged tea: a very specific blend of psychedelics and antidepressant drugs which I ended up using wholesale in The Room By The Lake.

The final piece of the puzzle, in writing the cult, was working out what it would actually look like day-to-day. It had to seem harmless and appealing enough on the outside that a reasonable person would be sucked in, and so I settled on this combination of an intense bootcamp and a therapeutic retreat. In 2014 when I wrote the bulk of the novel, I was doing a lot of classes at Barry’s Bootcamp (which I hasten to add is delightful and not a cult!), and thinking a lot about extreme exercise and dietary restriction, how this healthy desire to push yourself and live clean can become obsessional. For me, fiction isn’t about writing “what you know”, so much as taking little pieces from your own life and imagining them several shades darker.

The cult is really secondary to Caitlin’s psychological journey – it’s just the impetus that forces her to confront these long-held fears she’s had about her own sanity, because of the history of mental illness in her family. But I wanted to make sure that the depiction was as detailed and convincing as possible, as well as respectful to the horrific reality that actual cult survivors go through. One interviewee described his recovery process: “For the first three months when I got back, I thought i was still in the cult. I thought that real life was a hallucination.” That blurred line between reality and hallucination, and between dream and waking states, resonated with me and played a big role in the way I wrote Caitlin as the book developed.


Please take a look at this wonderful psychological thriller available to buy now.


Another Woman’s Husband by Gill Paul




1911 At the age of fifteen, carefree Mary Kirk and indomitable Wallis Warfield meet at summer camp.  Their friendship will survive heartbreaks, separation and the demands of the British Crown until  it is shattered by one unforgiven betrayal.

1997 Rachel’s romantic break in Paris with her fiancé ends in tragedy when the car ahead crashes.  Inside was Princess Diana.  Back in Brighton, Rachel is haunted by the accident, and intrigued to learn the princess had visited the ;art home of Wallis, Duchess of Windsor, only hours before the crash.  Soon, the discovery of a a long forgotten link to Wallis Simpson leads Rachel to the truth behind a scandal that shook the world….



Another Woman’s Husband is a beautiful novel, that seamlessly combines past and present, fiction and non fiction together.  In the present we follow Rachel’s story  as she deals with the aftermath of what she saw in the Alma Tunnel and that of her fiancé Alex, a television producer who decides to make a documentary about Diana and the crash.  Alex is determined to prove that Diana was murdered, and the accident was set up.  What I liked about this was that Gill Paul didn’t make Diana a character the book, it is never about her story per se, but about the reaction and theories at the time.

The other part of the book follows Wallis Simpson from the age of fifteen until her death.  The main emphasis is on the close friendship between Wallis and Mary Kirk.  Through Mary the reader sees how Wallis was viewed by others;  many books have been written, both fiction and non fiction a lot of which I have read over the years, but most just tell Wallis’ story not how she was seen by friends and acquaintances in America and Britain.  Gill Paul writes a balanced portrayal of Wallis, and includes some of the theories that followed her to her grave; did she have an affair with German Nazi Minister, Jaochim von Ribbentrop, her problems or dislike of sex, and was she complicit in giving information to the Nazi’s during the war.  I do have some sympathy for Wallis; she was portrayed as an evil woman who destroyed the British Monarchy, when in reality she found her self in a position she couldn’t get out of.  She never wanted to marry Edward VIII, but after his abdication she had no choice.

This is a wonderfully atmospheric novel that brings to life an important period of British History.  Gill Paul’s writing makes this book a joy to read, the prose flows seamlessly and by the end both plot lines come together.  The characters are vividly brought to life and draw you into their lives so you feel you really know them by the end of the book. The relationships seem so natural and are very relatable.

This is the second book I have read by Gill Paul, I reviewed The Secret Wife last year, and it will not be the last.  This is a compelling read, full of detail and very well written, I highly recommend this for your reading shelf.



Teaching English in our Secondary Schools: A Teachers Perspective.


Today I have a guest post by a friend of mine, Daisy Jane Bell, who is an English Teacher in Fife.  So many of us got the reading bug from school, but with technology and social media playing such an important role in children’s lives I asked Daisy Jane to write about how English is taught in schools today, and the barriers she faces.  This is a fabulous piece and it gives us all something to think about.

I would like to take the opportunity to thank Daisy Jane for finding get time to write this piece for my blog.  She also runs a brilliant Facebook book group Hens Hooked on Books , where we have monthly book choices that we discuss at the end of the month.


My name is Daisy Jane. I am a Principal Teacher of English and I work in a large Secondary School, in Fife, Scotland.
My main job remit means I have the responsibility for all pupils, within the years of s1-2, and this responsibility relates to their educational, learning, personal and behaviour needs. I also teach and am responsible for other children in our Dept, aged 11-18 years, and more specifically those who are in my classes. I am second in charge in a Dept of 12 and have been in post, since 2002. Since qualifying, I have been employed in only 3 High schools, yet I have worked with many colleagues, ranging from students, to newly qualified teachers, including Guidance Staff, and Depute Head teachers. I believe that working with many professionals and such ‘diversity’ of teaching styles, ages and experiences, has, all-in-all, greatly benefitted me n my many pupils and staff.
In my 19 years of teaching, having graduated in December, 1998, with Distinction in Education, I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience of working with many professionals and teaching many different classes, ranging from low ability, smaller ‘set’ groups, to teaching larger, more challenging (learning n behaviour groups), to also stretching the needs of high flyers and gifted children/pupils. I have mentored many pupils, students n staff, as well as being a Personal Tutor, to many children, over the years. I have taught classes in the early broad, general education (curriculum years 1-3), right up to teaching, National 3/4, 5 and Higher and Advanced Higher. I have also been employed as a Higher English Tutor, one evening per week, at a local college, teaching and meeting the needs of mature students. I am currently also an appointed marker for National 5 and Higher, with the SQA ( SCOTTISH QUALIFICATION AUTHORITY.) Though my job is a demanding and constant one, I consider myself lucky n extremely privileged to have experienced teaching all levels n stages n that, I can and do, work in a job, which I still really, really enjoy. Teaching is a hugely demanding career, but a very rewarding one too.

Through my years in teaching, the teaching of English in schools, has changed and continues to do so. I personally believe that ‘change’ is good and is truly ‘part and parcel’ of effective teaching: we (as individuals and professionals) must change and develop, to consistently and constantly meet the diverse needs and ranges of our pupils. Society itself, is constantly changing, as is parenting n families within our 21st Century life and, therefore, continued change in education is essential to meet the needs of our workforce: the pupils and children we teach. This ongoing change often reflects in workload (in teaching, this is huge, not as some think only existent from the hours of 9a.m. – 3.30pm, Monday to Friday.) Preparation for teaching and the planning of our lessons and subject content is constant. Good, effective teachers, really, never stop, thinking and planning n researching n preparing! Ultimately, we have to be prepared to be ‘one step ahead’ of our classes and pupils. This input is driven by our initiative,  passion and enthusiasm.

However, there are some issues, which we do become aware of and experience, on a daily basis. Teenagers today are extremely tech-savy!! Children today are involved in a huge technology culture. Their world is all: Mobile phones, Playstations and iPads! Technology is everywhere for them and it means everything to them. This reliance on and their addiction to such technology can and sadly, often does ‘hamper’ education, mainly shown via their desire to read books n review written language. Personal Reading is not a hobby or habit every child experiences, or enjoys. Ultimately, for many, their main daily need is to Tweet or Facebook or FaceTime their mates! The language they use for these sources is modified and simplistic and sadly, this often results in limited knowledge of and appreciation for language. Additionally, there is another word, many children detest: Homework!! That one word is laughable for and to, many youngsters today! Teachers cannot dictate that this additional study is completed. The choice to complete additional study, is a personal one. Also, sadly, in many modern homes, the environment does not lend itself to facilitating continued home study. For many, there is the issue of why they should do homework? Teachers continually face the issue of proving its worth in their overall education and it is a dilemma for many teachers, depts and schools. It’s an ongoing, never-ending battle!

On the other hand, many teachers, including myself have adapted and changed, to meet the demands and needs of our pupils. I now use more media sources in education, on a lesson or Unit basis. For example, audio recordings and other sources, support low ability pupils in many effective ways. Having such resources also support pupils who are prone to displaying high absenteeism. Radio, TV, adverts, film posters, trailers, newspapers, websites, comics, graphic novels, magazines and films are also, all used to support, deepen and enhance learning. Film is used regularly, to help pupils, visualise, appreciate and understand a written text. Due to many children not reading texts which challenge them, or books that are relevant to their age range, film can help them gain wider knowledge n a deeper understanding. Film, is a great asset to pupils n teachers alike!
Through the years, some ‘classic’ books and great literature have had to be shelved and are now perhaps ‘overlooked’ for more modern, relevant or topical texts. For example, only specific senior, ability levels, would perhaps enjoy books such as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, or Oliver Twist. Many of these texts are not chosen to be studied as much as before. However, other great texts, such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm and 1984, still remain popular and are good to show social impact and modern ideas. I guess, once you know your subject and classes and your pupils, teachers with a diverse range of reading, will know which specific texts their class may or would enjoy. I regularly try to engage pupil input and give them a choice, by revealing a short synopsis of each main text, or a ‘taster’ lesson, before we study each larger text. We have also been known to review a film trailer, to help guarantee interest and enhance overall pupil engagement.

In relation to the study of literature there are many, many texts which I love teaching, but some of my personal favourites include: Matilda by Roald Dahl, Goodnight Mr Tom, by Michelle Magorian, Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo, Of Mice n Men, by John Steinbeck, Dead Poet’s Society by N H Kleibaum, The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest by Ken Kesey, and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

To conclude, I still love teaching n working in education as much as, if not more than I did, when graduating. I personally love reading, communication, language n words n I am very, very lucky, as on a daily basis, I am allowed to deepen my knowledge, in this area, whilst helping others to do likewise. One great bugbear I do have, however, results when people, who are not in the teacher profession, comment on the ‘great holidays we have!’ Sadly, they do not appreciate that our holidays are used primarily to help us refuel, then they allow us ‘treasured’ time to think about our next term/session n the stages n ages of pupils whom we will soon meet n become responsible for teaching. Someone once said ‘teaching is a work of heart’ and I do believe this quote is very true. For all effective teachers n professionals, it is our love of subject, our pupils, and our job, which remains at the centre of our desire to install our knowledge and love in others. There is no better feeling in the world than helping a child to understand, acknowledge or appreciate an issue or outcome: seeing the recognition and pride on their face, or noting the spark in their eyes when they gain understanding, or praise or recognition, as they celebrate their own success, is a joy others do not experience in their careers, which remains, to me, unparalleled.

A Life in Books with Amy Sullivan of Novelgossip book review blog

Can you tell me a bit about yourself?

I’m Amy, a wife and mom to three kiddos, they’re 8, 5 and 2. I’m a readaholic, I finish a book every single day. (Most days) I don’t really have any other hobbies besides reading as my kids and their activities keep me busy!


What was you favourite book from childhood?

I loved the Babysitters Club series so much! I think it was the first series I ever read and I remember begging my mom to take me to the book store to get the latest one. I read them over and over again. I wanted best friends like the girls and I thought Claudia was so chic.


What type of books did you read as a teenager?IMG_1445

As a teenager I read V. C. Andrews, I loved the Flowers in the Attic series and after I finished that one I moved on to her others. Thinking back, it seems like I read books over and over again because I can still recall specific details from many of her books. I loved her Heaven series as well. I also devoured the Sweet Valley High series and read most of them. I was fascinated by twins and Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield were the epitome of cool to me.


When you were at school what was your favourite book you studied?

I remember reading Island of the Blue Dolphins for a book report and I didn’t think I would end up liking it but I loved it! Karana was such a tough little cookie.


IMG_1446What is your favourite classic book?

This sounds terrible, but I’m not a huge fan of classic literature. I did love the Great Gatsby, anything from the twenties reels me in, so glamorous and dazzling.




What would you consider to be one of the best books you have had over the last 5 years?

Oohh tough one! I loved Sirens by Jospeh Knox, it was such a crime fiction masterpiece in my opinion.


What book to you think you should read but never get round to?

To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s a travesty that I’ve never read it! I don’t know how I managed to get through high school without reading it?!


What do you consider to be your favourite book ?IMG_1447

I can’t possibly pick just one so I’ll cheat and pick a favorite series. The Will Trent series by Karin Slaughter is amazing. The characterization is astounding, the plot details are intricate and impressively executed, and she’s such a talented writer. Her books are gritty, dark and graphic which are all elements I love in crime fiction.


Is there a book that you have started but been unable to finish?

Sigh, yes. So far this year The Good Daughter by Alexandra Burt was one I thought I would like, the premise was intriguing. But it was very slow and it just didn’t hold my attention. I also gave up on the Fractured Life of Jimmy Dice by Ronan Ryan. It’s quirky and I just wasn’t in the right mood I think, but I’m going to try it again later.


511cDkD1VmLIf you were stranded on a desert Island which 2 books would you want to have with you?
Hmm something long I think. Maybe Stephen Kings 11/22/63 and maybe a chick lit to keep it lighthearted, probably a Kristan Higgins, all of her books are great. They’re like comfort food for me.



Kindle or Book?

Kindles are so convenient but nothing beats an actual book.

Did You See Melody by Sophie Hannah, Published August 24th.




Cara Burrows has spent a third of the family’s savings on a two week stay at a five star spa resort in Paradise Valley, Arizona.  She hasn’t told her husband and children where she is going.  Arriving late at night, exhausted and desperate, she lets herself into her hotel room and is shocked to find it already occupied by a man and a teenage girl.

A simple mistake on the part of the hotel receptionist – but Cara’s unease deepens when she works out that the girl she saw alive and well in the hotel room is somebody she can’t possibly have seen: the most famous murder victim in America, Melody Chapa, whose parents are serving life sentences for her murder.

Cara doesn’t know what to trust: everything she’s read and heard about the case, or the evidence of her own eyes.  Did she really see Melody?  And is she prepared to ask herself that question and answer it honestly if it means risking her own life?



Did You See Melody? Is the first book I have read by Sophie Hannah, so I come to this with fresh eyes and no preconceptions.  I say this because the press release does say it is a departure from her previous novels, and I have noticed in other reviews it has been commented on.  I really enjoyed this book, it is a great psychological thriller with an interesting premise at its centre; could a girl, whose parents were convicted for her murder seven years ago, still be alive and staying at a five star spa resort in Arizona.  It may seem a bit far fetched but, like all good crime and thriller novels it could happen.  It is a fast paced, utterly compelling read full of twists and turns to keep you guessing.  Sophie Hannah also writes with some wit, looking at American Justice TV shows and the American culture of having every thing at hand; buttons to press for a car to drive you around the spa so you don’t have to walk, another button to get waiter service to your sun lounger and even the rooms have a button to arrange fresh orange  delivered in a morning.

As well as the main plot there are chapters written by Melody when she was seven detailing her life when living with her parents.  These are troubling to read, there is no physical abuse but plenty of emotional abuse.  Also included are transcript of an American TV show, Justice with Bonnie, the followed the murder investigation of Melody Chapa, and her parents ultimate conviction.  This gives the reader the chance to learn more about the case and possible reasons for Melody’s disappearance;  it is also evidence of how much influence television has on these cases in America.

There are a diverse cast of cast of memorable characters in this book; corrupt police officers, larger than life television personalities, a crazy older lady who thinks she sees Melody every time she stays at the resort, and the mother and daughter due who ooze sarcasm. I have to be honest and say I quite admired Cara Burrows as a character.  She is troubled by problems at home, and takes herself  half way around the world to sort out her feelings.  She is full of wit and sarcasm, in a typically English way at the American way of life; she is not used to the over the top American welcome and customer a, and is horrified at their justice system and trial through media.  Tarin Fry is Cara’s complete opposite, she is loud, nosey, rude to a point and use to being pampered.  Normally they would never have become friends but this mystery brings them together, and it is Tarin’s single minded determination that pushes the theory of Melody being alive.

Did You See Melody? is not an edge of your seat thriller, but it will grab your attention from the very start and keep you guessing until the last page;  I found it hard to put down and carried it with me all weekend picking it up at every chance, even whilst sitting with the dogs as they had their tea.  A fascinating, and compelling read that I highly recommend.



Hush Little Baby by Joanna Barnard















It is every families worst nightmare.  Sally and Richard take their ten month old son to the hospital with  a fever, a swollen arm and he won’t stop crying.  They discover his arm is broken, but how did it happen?  Sally, Richard and Richard’s teenage daughter, Martha, find themselves under suspicion.

Sally is exhausted by motherhood, she feels alone staying at home all day with Oliver.  Richard is feeling pushed out and angry with Sally, he works all day and just wants to relax when he comes home.  Martha resents Oliver, she is no longer her dad’s only child and finds herself on the outside looking in at his new wife and new baby.  All three have things to hide and reasons to hurt Oliver.



Hush Little Baby is one of those books that gets under your skin from the start.  It is every parents worst nightmare that their child gets harmed and they find themselves under suspicion.  It is the authenticity of the plot and is characters that make this a disturbing read.  The book is narrated by the three main characters, Sally, Richard and Martha.  Each character narrates their back story to this point, their actions that night and the effect it is having on them and those around them.  It also gives them a chance to air their suspicions of those around them.  None of the characters come out well; I found I had sympathy for Sally as the mother having her baby taken away and only allowed supervised visits where she is put under scrutiny.  She has a troubled background dealing with an eating disorder as a teenager and not having very understanding parents.  However, there is a selfish side to her and a whiff of suspicion.  Richard is really a despicable character in my view.  He is self centred, a narcissist, an adulterer and is one of those people who always blames their actions on others.  He is irresponsible in his duties as a father, especially to fifteen year old Martha who lives with Sally and himself.  Martha was the only character I really did empathise with.  At fifteen she is going through those terrible teenage years where you are trying to fit in at school, and are in-between childhood and adulthood.  It is no wonder she makes some bad choices in life given that her mother didn’t want her living with her so she had to move in with her father and his new wife Sally, and her father doesn’t give her the attention she deserves.  Obviously this breeds contempt where Sally and Oliver are concerned. I found I felt a bit voyeuristic to this families disintegration.

This is a well written book and a compelling read.  It deals with the controversial issues of self harm, eating disorders, OCD, drugs, infidelity and the taboos around parenthood.  All these issues are dealt with understanding and empathy and are in no way sensationalised.  I don’t know much about the social system but it seemed to be a realistic account of what could happen in the circumstances at the heart of this book.  I found this more suspenseful than the build up to what actually happened to Oliver, and as a whole I didn’t find it a ‘suspenseful’ novel, more a Domestic Noir.  It has been described as ‘The most gripping domestic suspense you’ll read this year’, but I found I was disappointed by the book.  I think the plot was a bit obvious and at times dragged on, I didn’t feel there was a build up of suspense and the ending was an anticlimax for me.





A Life in Books with David McCaffrey



Can you tell me a bit about yourself?

My name is David McCaffrey and I’m a 41 year old Infection Prevention and Control Lead Nurse, husband to a murdered wife, father to a murdered son and I shall have my revenge in this life or…oh, hang on, that’s Gladiator.

The IPC part is correct, I have a Jake, a Liam, a Kelly and an Obi (he’s the dog). I have been an author since November 2014 when my first novel was published, but it was a dream I had held all my life.

I’m also a huge geek, play the piano, love reading, knew martial arts once upon a time (too old now to remember most of it!) and once attended Danni Minogue’s 21st birthday party.



1. What was you favourite book from childhood?

I would have to say The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. There was just something 51XJtkp3ALL._SY346_magical about being able to enter a regular, household object and be transported to another land. I still try it in Ikea now.


2. What type of books did you read as a teenager?

Mostly science fiction, the occasional horror book that was perhaps a little to adult for me (IT traumatised me as I’m sure it did most). I’ve always loved reading and find it sad nowadays she so many people say they don’t have any books in their house.


3. When you were at school what was your favourite book you studied?

Kes by Barry Hines. I think most teenagers studied that book. He had such a beautiful way with words establishing the relationship between a child and the kestrel and using it as an analogy for the challenges faced in life.



4. What is your favourite classic book?

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Moving, poignant, endlessly quotable and perhaps the greatest beginning and ending lines to a book ever.



5. What would you consider to be one of the best books you have had over the last 5 years?

Meg by my mentor and friend, Steve Alten, I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes and Dear Reflection by Jessica Bell. Meg because it’s about a giant prehistoric shark eating people, I Am Pilgrim because it is an exceptional espionage thriller ala 24 and Dear Reflection because it’s an emotional, personal and moving journey through the life of an extremely talented author, musician and master of many other things whom I have the fortune to have met and know.


6. What book to you think you should read but never get round to?

Probably Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy. I’ve seen the Alec Guinness version and the Gary Oldman remake (both exceptional), but never got around to reading the book. Now you’ve put the idea in my head, I might just download it now!


7. What do you consider to be your favourite book?51WTHSd9znL

Of all time? It has to be the aforementioned A Tale of Two Cities. That and Atonement by Ian McEwan.


8. Is there a book that you have started but been unable to finish?

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I started it and just couldn’t get into it at all. In fact, I found it a little boring. But someone told me to perservere with it, so I started it again a few months later and they were right. I ended up reading the entire trilogy. Excellent thrillers with a character in Lisbeth Salander you wish as an author you had created.


61okiEr8kTL9. If you were stranded on a desert Island which 2 books would you want to have with you?

Probably The Firm by John Grisham and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. One is an excellent thriller and the other is a truly moving and still unequaled tale of the repercussions of mankinds interference with the laws of nature.



10. Kindle or Book?

Book, every day of the week and twice on Sunday’s! I love the fact you can take ten books on holiday with you on one, small device, but you will never be able to replace the smell and feel of a good paperback!


David McCaffrey’s books are available to buy now.


The Return of the Courtesan by Victoria Blake




Venice 1576, a city destroyed by the plague, where Sebastiano da Canal has been a boatman all his life, employed by the writer Arentino, artist Titian and now Tullia Buffo, a famous Courtesan returned to the city.  He is the keeper of secrets, and scandal.  He also holds a grudge against Titian’s son, who he blames for the destruction of his family, and who has returned after the death of his father.

Tullia Buffo, once a famous courtesan, has also returned to Venice to find her house ransacked and herself without money.  Tullia sets out to set herself up again, make her house a place of knowledge, music and ultimately passion, and regain her place as the most renowned courtesan.

New York 2011 Aurora is a maid for a rich couple under investigation by the police.  The highlight of her job is being able to look up at painting of Saint Sebastian, that hangs in their hallway, that reminds her of her mother in Cuba whom she was separated from at five years old.

London 2011, Terry Jardine, a famous actor, is struggling after the death of his mother.  He visits the National Gallery to see Titian’s The Man with the Blue Sleeve, which is where he told his mother that he was gay, and a painting that speaks to him of his death.

As they deal with the problems in their lives, their stories cross time and continents but all come back to Venice and Titian.



I actually don’t know where to start my review as this novel just blew me away.  It is beautifully written, and researched with a cast of characters that drew me into their lives.  There are many voices in this book; Aurora and Alberto in New York; Terry and his new love Ludovico in London; Sebastian and Tullia in Venice.  At first it may seen that their stories are unconnected, but like a great painting their stories are like layers of paint that are gradually built up that eventually combine to make a masterpiece. Their different stories are told with great understanding and empathy, you feel invested in their lives, and care about where their future.  It is two of Titian’s paintings that connect these characters, The Man with the Blue Sleeve that hangs in the National Gallery London, which I am very fortunate to have seen, and The Resurrection of Saint Sebastian.  Victoria Blake’s writing brings these paintings to life, the detail of the quilted sleeve, its rich colour and the sumptuous cloth and Saint Sebastian’s pain, the detail of his face, the expression are all brought to life.  The paintings also represent that art transcends time, there is four hundred and fifty years between the timelines but still Titians art is able to touch peoples lives no matter where or when you are. Titian painted a couple of works featuring Saint Sebastian, but for the book it is there version taken from a polyptych, I have included images of both of these paintings at the end of my review.

Another theme is families; in particular those effected by the death of a family member that marks their lives; Terry and his mother, Aurora and her husband, Sebastiano and his father, Tullia who has lost children and her mother. These characters are very much defined by what has happened, but turn to Titian’s paintings as a solace, a place where they can turn in grief.

Most historical fiction based around Courtesan’s in Venice tells of a city of fun, Carnivale, of Masks and parties, but the only masks in The Return of the Courtesan are the masks of the plague doctor.  Venice is now a dark place,  decimated by the plague, it is a shadow of its former self; thousands died and many of the upper patrician class left to try and escape.  What is left is a city of ransacked houses where anything of any value has been stolen, it is dangerous to walk the streets after dark due to thieves.  In contrast the Venice of 2011 is a tourist haven, full of people taking in the wonderful architecture and art the city has to offer, a city of love and dreams. 

I found The Return of the Courtesan to be an erudite novel, as sumptuous as the paintings it describes.  It covers love, death, family, the power of art, human survival instincts, and also is part mystery.  It is written with knowledge, empathy and great detail to the plot and characters.  I can not praise this book highly enough, it is certainly one of the best novels I have read this year, which is quite an accolade as I have been privileged to read some wonderful books this year.

I should add the note that this book was previously published under the title Titian’s Boatman, a title I much prefer.












A Life in Books with Sam from Clues and Reviews



This evening I welcome fellow blogger Sam from Clues and Reviews to discuss books that  she has loved in A Life in Books.


Can you tell me a bit about yourself?

I’m Sam, the blogger behind Clues and Reviews. By day, I am a teacher and by night, I read mystery, suspense and thriller titles. Anything crime fiction? I’ll read it! Besides reading, I enjoy trying to take selfies with my dog (who is un-cooperative) and baking.


1. What was you favourite book from childhood?61301Zyi6QL

My first memory of really loving a book was Flowers in the Attic by V.C Andrews. My mom bought me a copy from a used bookstore when I was eight. My grandmother almost had a heart attack when she caught me reading it!


2. What type of books did you read as a teenager?

You’d probably be surprised to know that I loved any sort of teenage romance; if it had a title with a pun in it and a geeky girl who was in love with the popular boy, I was probably reading it.


51u7Vynu4nL3. When you were at school what was your favourite book you studied?

Night by Elie Wiesel. I am a history geek and have always been fascinated by human survival stories so this one really got under my skin; it was has always been one of my favourites to read and to teach. I am always in awe of his story and his ability to forgive.



4. What is your favourite classic book?

Ooh! Good question! I majored in English Literature in University so I have read many a classic. I have always been a huge fan of The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises. I am a huge fan of American expatriate literature. I also love anything by the Southern Gothic writers; Flannery O’Conner, William Faulker.


5. What would you consider to be one of the best books you have had over the last 551l6YcIN7dL years?

This is a hard question! I have read all kinds of amazing books- especially lately. I think one that I go back to and constantly recommend would be The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson. I had been in a book slump for a few years after I first stated teaching, I read this one and it reignited my love of reading.


6. What book to you think you should read but never get round to?

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I feel like it is a crime fiction staple but I never have enough time!


51eqYMqRNpL7. What do you consider to be your favourite book ?

You know, I couldn’t even answer this question if I tried! Depending on my mood and the time and the year, this would be continuously changing. I do know for sure I am always a fan of Ania Ahlborn books and I love Tess Gerritsen. I also am a huge fan of the Harry Potter series; I re-read them every year at Christmas time. I’d say those are all my favourites.


8. Is there a book that you have started but been unable to finish?
Yes and I always feel so guilty!


9. If you were stranded on a desert Island which 2 books would you want to have 5100RtgdrzLwith you?
Lord of the Flies and Robinson Crusoe. Maybe I’d be able to pick up some tips for survival!


10. Kindle or Book?
Book for sure; I love the smell and I’m too scared to bring my kindle into the bathtub!











A Life in Books with Jennifer S Alderson.



Earlier today I reviewed the brilliant The Lover’s Portrait by Jennifer S Alderson, and this evening Jennifer joins me to discuss A life in Books.


Can you tell me a bit about yourself?

Travel and writing have always been an important part of my life. My father was an industrial engineer and designed aluminum recycling plants, meaning me moved every two years. We started out in my birthplace of San Francisco and slowly made our way up north to Seattle, Washington where an accident ended his career and our relocations.
My earliest memories are of writing stories with my father, mostly Steve King inspired novellas. I wrote my first full-length murder mystery when I was thirteen. At school I always wrote for the school newspapers and yearbooks. I studied print and television journalism and worked as journalist for a few years before transitioning into the ICT sector where I made a career as a multimedia developer. Burnout led me to art history, and my father’s unexpected death at the age of sixty-one motivated me to pursue my dreams of writing a novel worthy of publication.
In November 2015 I published Down and Out in Kathmandu: A Backpacker Mystery, a travel thriller set in Nepal and Thailand. The Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery, an amateur sleuth mystery set in Amsterdam was released seven months later. I am overwhelmed to see the positive reaction to both by readers of all ages and nationalities. These are the first two books in what I hope will be a long running series following the adventures of culture and travel lover Zelda Richardson.
In May I released my third book, a travelogue entitled Notes of a Naive Traveler: Nepal and Thailand. This novella-length book contains excerpts from my travel journal and email back home. Readers seem to be enjoying their journey!
This winter I hope to release my fourth book, currently entitled Smuggler’s Deceit, another art mystery in the Adventures of Zelda Richardson series. This time readers will be transported to Papua New Guinea and follow along on anthropological expeditions as they try and solve mysteries of the past and present.


What was your favourite book from childhood?51AOGAZor9L

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I still have my great-grandmother’s hardback copy, complete with hand-painted illustrations.


What type of books did you read as a teenager?

Mystery and adventure were (and still are) my go-to genres: the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys Mysteries, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, and all of the Agatha Christie mysteries. Though my favorite were the Choose Your Own Adventure books; this wonderful series taught me early on there is no ‘right’ answer in life.


51btOLAf4lLWhen you were at school what was your favourite book you studied?

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. The author breaks every rule of writing, yet it is one of the most powerful books I have ever read. It is truly a revelation in style and technique and the story told is a surprise, in every way possible.



What is your favourite classic book?

On The Road by Jack Kerouac. This is a book I have read many times and will continue to re-read because it always reminds me to think outside the box and challenge social norms as well as peoples’ expectations. Besides, it’s beautifully written and contains several of my favorite book quotes, such as this line by Sal Paradise: “For life is holy and every moment is precious.”


What would you consider to be one of the best books you have had over the last 5 41A4oppupSLyears?

I have read so many wonderful books during the last five years, yet Het Diner (2010) by Herman Koch has probably stayed with me the longest. (It was translated from Dutch into English in 2013 as The Dinner). This is one of the most surprising and captivating books I’ve ever read. You will not guess what happens next, I almost guarantee it! It’s extraordinary well written but more importantly, well-conceived. I can’t say much about the story without ruining the plot, except buy it, you won’t be disappointed.
Two recent favorites are Bridge of Sighs and Dreams by Pamela Allegretto and Titian’s Boatman (renamed: The Return of the Courtesan) by Victoria Blake, published in 2015 and 2017 respectively. Both are beautifully written, absorbing historical fiction novels set in Italy, one of my favorite countries in the world.


What book to you think you should read but never get round to?

I am almost afraid to admit I have never read anything by Jane Austen or Sylvia Plath. Considering how highly regarded they are by most readers, I suppose I should read some of their works, one day.


What do you consider to be your favourite book?

On The Road by Jack Kerouac.


Is there a book that you have started but been unable to finish?

I am fascinated by Umberto Eco yet cannot seem to finish any of his books. I already had three of his novels collect dust on my bookshelf, then recently received his book On Ugliness as a gift. I still haven’t opened it but am determined to give it a go.

512kgZyolHLWhat are you reading now?
I just started reading Winter’s Mourning by Janice J. Richardson. It’s the second in a cozy mystery series set in a Canadian funeral home, and so far quite wonderful.

Kindle or Book?




Please take a look at my review for The Lover’s Portrait which I posted earlier today.

Down and Out in Kathmandu and The Lover’s Portrait are available now.