At First Light by Vanessa Lafaye

At First Light opens in 1993 with a murder in Key West. The victim is an elderly, wheelchair bound Klu Klux Klan official. The shooter, more surprisingly, is a 96 year old Cuban woman, Alicia Cortez, who will not say anything to the police except for ‘I did it. It was me.’ The answer lies in tragic events which took place over seventy years ago, just after the Great War, and there’s only one person that Alicia will share her story with.


The daughter of a Cuban father and an African mother, Alicia attracts plenty of attention when she arrives in Key West in 1919, fleeing scandal in Havana. Expecting employment in her cousin’s tea room, Alicia is horrified to learn that ‘Pearl’s Tea Room’ is in fact one of the nicer brothels in the area. Working with resentful prostitutes, and her mercenary cousin Beatriz, Alicia finds her place as best she can, until the Spanish influenza epidemic carries Beatriz away, and leaving her as the reluctant new madam of ‘Pearl’s Tea Room’. 

Another new arrival is John Morales, a war hero returned from France, haunted by he’s seen and done in battle. He lands to discover that whilst he was away, his father has died, and that there’s talk of Prohibition in Key West. Reckless and dangerous, John is determined not to get tied down with anyone, but as he and Alicia find themselves unwilling partners in the covert struggle against Prohibition, an attraction develops, soon turning into love. It’s scandalous behaviour, indeed illegal under Jim Crow laws, but doesn’t worry too many people, until the Klan come to Key West. John is determined to fight for Alicia, but maybe this once, he’s picked a fight he can’t win. 

Also present is young Dwayne Campbell, on the cusp of manhood, determined to prove himself to his Klansman father, but also to Alicia who he worships. Dwayne is desperate to please his father, but is torn by an unease about the Klan that he can’t shake. As the author explains in her note, At First Light is inspired by tragic events that were never resolved, yet the story wears its research lightly, giving an insight into how the Klan gained traction in the way that it did, and yet equally exposing its utter ridiculousness: “What in the world is a ‘klonklave’? And why did he call Pa a ‘Kludd’?” And yet despite this, their ideas are catching, and Dwayne makes a terrible mistake that will have repercussions for years to come. 

Having loved Vanessa Lafaye’s incredible debut Summertime, I was looking forward to reading her latest. Both joyous and tragic in equal measure, it’s a beautiful told and intensely readable account of a little known and shameful incident of Southern US history. The characterisation is utterly spot on; the tension is built carefully and effectively to a heartbreaking and explosive conclusion. On a happier note, fans will be delighted to read more about Dwayne Campbell’s childhood (with a possible answer given to the identity of Roy’s real father). But history – reality – rears its ugly head throughout: as in Summertime, the author has no qualms in killing off the characters you have grown to care about, as a reminder that sometimes stories don’t go the way you want them to.  

At First Light by Vanessa Lafaye is out now, published by Orion Books. 

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Blog tour: We All Begin As Strangers by Harriet Cummings 

Last year, I was on holiday with my family and my father told us the story of ‘The Fox’, who operated not far from where he grew up in Berkhamsted. He remembers a feeling that everyone was understandably on edge, and even on one occasion, when my grandparents were out, he pretended that he’d fallen asleep in the kitchen whilst studying so he didn’t have to go upstairs in the rambling, creaky house that he grew up in. As he told us a little more about the Fox, and what he did, my then-sixteen year old brother said furiously ‘You expect us to go to sleep after this?’ And indeed, we were staying in quite an isolated and not hugely secure house at the time… Malcolm Fairley was eventually arrested and jailed for his crimes. He was released under a new identity in 2012.

So when I received We All Begin As Strangers, I assumed I’d be reading a fictionalised version of the true events. But it quickly becomes apparent that what interests debut novelist Harriet Cummings more, rather than Fairley’s violent attacks on people, are reports that sometimes he would do no more than flick through people’s photo albums, build dens for himself in their houses, or even simply watch them in their sleep, before slipping away soundlessly.


Reminiscent of Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, We All Begin As Strangers is the story of a village filled wth secrets that its inhabitants are desperate to protect. But unlike Goats and Sheep, in which the residents come together to protect a terrible crime from being revealed, Harriet Cummings’ carefully drawn debut explores the secrets that the residents are desperate to keep hidden from each other, even their nearest and dearest.

In the stiflingly hot summer of 1984 in the village of Heathcote, a mysterious figure called the Fox is creeping into people’s homes through backdoors, open windows, and moving things around, or leaving curious objects with them. He seems to know all their secrets, and is happy to let them know it.

The novel opens with Deloris, a Londoner who has moved to Heathcote to marry the rich and obnoxious Harvey. Stifled not only by the heat, but by the expectations of married life, and finding only escape in the soaps she watches obsessively, she almost welcomes the gossip around the Fox as a sign of some sort of excitement. Until the kind-hearted Anna, loved by all, goes missing. It is clear that the Fox is responsible. The villagers alternately rally together or turn against one another – for if the Fox can take Anna, he could too reveal all the secrets they the villagers have been harbouring. And he could be any one of them.

Harriet Cummings has built a cast of completely believable characters, all of whom are keeping often painful secrets which the Fox is trying to tease into plain view. It is here, for me, where this novel works best, in its representation of people, in all their weaknesses, follies, and small kindnesses. From Jim, the vicar desperately seeking redemption, to Stan who wants nothing more than acceptance from the rest of his village, and Brian the young copper, always wondering what could have been – all are incredibly, believably human. I also loved the 1980s setting building, from the references to Dallas (‘Oh J.R., how could you?‘), to the food (at a dinner party, Deloris serves vol au vents and blacmange, amongst other things.)

I enjoyed this surprisingly gentle, thoughtful debut, and I can’t help but wonder what people who lived through that tense time in Leighton Buzzard, Tring, Berkhamsted, will make of it…

And now, Harriet Cummings has very kindly joined me at Back to the Books Blog, to tell us a bit about the publishing process as part of her blog tour!


My Publishing Journey by Harriet Cummings

How did you find an agent?

I did a novel writing course with Faber Academy which culminated in an event where all the students read extracts of their work-in-progress to a room full of agents. A terrifying experience! But I got my wonderful agent off the back of this and we’ve worked together since.

What was your writing process like for this book?

I’d previously ditched another novel because I couldn’t work out a satisfying ending. With this one I came up with a plan first – nothing too detailed, just a couple of pages that included the key turning points in the story and, importantly, an ending I was excited about. This approach gave me a great sense of direction which meant I could really build up momentum in my writing.

I was fortunate to be able to devote three months to simply writing this book (I’m a freelance copywriter and able to juggle my time like this). Throwing myself into the writing meant I could become really absorbed in it without distractions of other work. I realise I was incredibly lucky this way!

Are you part of a writing group?

Yes, I’m part of a group with seven others. We take it in turns to share short stories or chapters of novels we’re working on, then get written notes and feedback from the others. I’ve found this process really useful and don’t think I’d have gotten a publishing deal without it. Apart from receiving lots of pointers, it’s gotten me used to sharing work and overcoming the fear of exposure. Having said all this I wouldn’t say it’s essential to always share work with others. Writing is incredibly subjective and arguably the best stories are not decided by a committee! I’d say people should do whatever feels right to them, even if that’s showing no one your work until you submit it to an agent or publisher.

Any surprises about the publishing industry?

Lots because I was fairly clueless to begin with! Before getting a book deal I didn’t really allow myself to think about what it’d be like, as if this would be tempting fate. There were then various things to learn about, say, the editorial process and how to go about generating publicity. (I used Twitter before but was nervous about shouting too much about my book, knowing this wasn’t the best approach.) But everyone has been very encouraging and supportive, not brusque or business-like in the slightest. One thing that has surprised me is how many people are involved in publishing a book – not just the editors and proofreader of the editorial team but also design, marketing, publicity and sales teams.

What advice would you give to other writers?

Write the book that makes you feel excited. The one you’d want to pull off a bookshelf. It’s so tempting to try and guess what the market will like and want. As writers of course we want to please others and to sell books. But the trouble is no one knows exactly what people will want after the months or years it can take to write and publish a book. More to the point, arguably you can only best write the books you personally believe in. The characters and settings you create can only be created by you. We need to each embrace our own individuality or else we’ll just create cultural litter.

We All Begin As Strangers by Harriet Cummings is published by Orion on 20 April in hardback and eBook

Thanks so much to Virginia Woolstencroft, who has possibly the most enviable name in all of publishing, for the review copy and for inviting me to take part in this blog tour.

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

Purely by coincidence, I read this just after Emma Flint’s excellent Little Deaths, and despite the two very different settings, I was struck by the similarities. Both books are about men pursuing women at all costs, stopping at nothing to see them locked up, and both explore how easily mob mentality becomes whipped up. Increasingly, both of these themes seem disturbingly prescient.

In The Witchfinder’s Sister, Beth Underdown takes the historical figure of Matthew Hopkins, the self-proclaimed ‘witch-hunter general’ who records say sent at least 300 women to their deaths in just a couple of years. His motivation is mainly unknown, with the financial recompense from the villages he rid of witches suggested by some historians and his opponents as a key factor. With few records to give us any clues about Matthew Hopkins, and how he came to flourish, the author has invented Alice Hopkins, Matthew’s sister, who returns to Manningtree in Essex from London, pregnant and alone following the death of her husband. When they were growing up, Matthew was bullied by other children and shunned for the disfiguring burn marks on his face from a childhood accident. But now, he assists a group of powerful men who have suffered grievances, and have come to suspect witchcraft as the cause – and he enjoys this proximity to power. Alice watches, unable, or unwilling, to stop him, despite the urging of those around her. Penniless and with a baby on the way, she is dependent on Matthew’s charity. Anyway, witchcraft accusations are nothing new, but they’re usually thrown out before anything can happen. Also, she isn’t particularly fond of one of the accused women, having long worried that her late husband held a candle for her… but she has underestimated her brother’s zeal. As the number of women in gaol increases, Alice is no longer allowed to stand and watch, and is instead forced to take a more active role.

Whether Beth Underdown intended for modern parallels to be drawn between the witch trials of the 1600s, and the increasing polarisation of views of today, I don’t know. But as one of the accused muses ‘I suppose a person will confess to anything if they have not slept’, I found impossible not think of Donald Trump’s insistence that ‘torture absolutely works’. Initially convinced that ‘that can’t happen here’, Alice becomes increasingly complicit in her brother’s crimes, initially wanting to keep her head down, attempting to offset his mania through small acts of kindness, and only finding the will to stand up to him when it is too late. And that surely is the scariest bit – the age-old question: what would you do?

The book also subtly if intrinsically ties class and gender into the fear of witchcraft, with Alice’s mother in law theorising that rich men always expect those around them to resent their possessions and good fortune, and send ill-wishes their way. Alice herself ponders about how even insane and homeless men can be found gainful employment, but a lonely woman is a target. And Matthew’s witch-hunting zeal has as much to do with his hatred of women, as his piety, his unpopularity as a child, and his disappointment at not following his father’s footsteps to the ministry.

Well-researched, and genuinely unsettling, The Witchfinder’s Sister is a convincing, gripping and affecting account of the witch trials, exploring how fear and scapegoating spreads, why innocently standing by can never be so innocent, and how power becomes impossible to relinquish.

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown is published 2nd May by Viking

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Interesting footnote. Whilst looking for a jacket image for this review, I discovered that there was once a very sweet-looking pub called The Essex Serpent near Covent Garden. It is now a shoe shop. That’s a shame…


The Essex Serpent opens with Cora Seaborne, newly widowed but not unhappy about this – indeed, the novel is punctuated with memories of Michael’s cruelties small and large, from plucking several hairs from her head and leaving her with a small bald spot, to pressing a candlestick against her collarbone hard enough to scar. Given a new lease on life, she departs with her devoted companion Martha and her obsessive son Francis for Colchester to look for fossils, inspired by the fossil hunter Mary Anning. There, to her delight, rumours abound of the mythical Essex Serpent, picking off the locals one by one on the Essex coast in Aldwinter. Cora is convinced that it could be a new species and determines to track it down. When she arrives in Aldwinter, she meets the vicar, William Ransome, who is determined to crush rumours of the Essex Serpent, seeing it as a distraction from real faith. Having initially been very suspicious of the other, Cora and Will develop an extremely close friendship – agreeing on nothing, yet inexorably drawn to each other.

This is primarily, for me, a book about love, and all the forms it can take, from friendship, and its ensuing friendly jealousies, to romantic love, requited or otherwise. Will is devoted in his love for his beautiful wife Stella, yet the deep friendship and love that builds between himself and Cora is something different and indescribable. Luke Garrett, the doctor and Cora’s close friend, loves Cora unrequitedly, but eventually finds solace in his friendship with a colleague. It is also about how love can motivate us, and change us – from George Spencer, who becomes an ardent defender of slum dwellers because of his love for the working class and socialist Martha.

It’s also a book about perceptions, and how we make assumptions and interpret signs as we wish to. Cora and Will have almost hilarious preconceptions of what the other will be like before becoming fast friends. And of course, everyone has their own ideas about the eponymous Serpent and what it means.It’s also about our own perceptions. Many of the characters are initially set up as Victorian stereotypes, from the working-class Martha, who is educated and an ardent socialist, to Stella Ransome, set up as the beautiful and frail, not-long-for-this-world vicar’s wife, but who subverts our expectations.

The Essex Serpent is beautifully written and warmly funny book, with the most stunning and evocative descriptions of nature and landscape – which has made the prospect of a holiday in Essex oddly tempting. It’s a clever and enchanting story about people, how we function and interact with each other, and with the world around us.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is out now, published by (appropriately) Serpent’s Tail

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

A confession. Not having been alive at the time of the 1976 heatwave, part of me always sort of resents books about them. We had one in London around 10 years ago – my father had to stand next to the drain with a bucket when we were showering so there was water for the plants, and Ken Livingstone recommended we didn’t flush loos ‘unless necessary’. Ripe ground for fiction surely? But I digress. This resentment doesn’t stop me actually enjoying the books in question, it’s just a small insight into my personal follies. 


The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is a book about mysteries, about how communities draw together, and the secrets our neighbours keep. When Mrs Creasey goes missing, ten year old Grace and her loyal friend Tilly decide to take matters into their own hands. Following advice from the vicar (sort of), they set out uncover as Brownies to ‘find God’ in their neighbours’ houses, on the logic that if they find Him, Mrs Creasey will return. Periodically, the perspective changes to that of the neighbours: Mrs Forbes, bullied by her sinister and controlling husband; Eric Lamb, still mourning the death of his wife; and Mr Creasey himself, who has withdrawn into obsessiveness following the disappearance of his wife. And it’s through them that we get to know Mrs Creasey. In addition, mysteries skip through the pages: a baby who was kidnapped many years ago, an unexplained fire, and suspicious meetings held at the British Legion. And Walter Bishop, one of the neighbours who keeps himself to himself, suspected by everyone of various misdemeanours, and shunned and persecuted accordingly. Is Walter Bishop one of the goats of the title, banished by the Lord for not looking after him? And who are the sheep? 

I found this a wonderful book to read, captivating, perceptive, funny, and with beautiful turns of phrase, such as that Mrs Morton is ‘rattling like a pebble in a life made for two.’ Grace is joy to read as a narrator – convincingly childlike, as she bosses Tilly around, and muddles through, and yet innocently wise as she observes the neighbours’ hypocrisies and absurdities. For instance, in the village hall following church, ‘No one mentioned Jesus. In fact, I don’t think anyone would have noticed if Jesus had walked in, unless He happened to be accompanied by an Artic roll.’ A very special debut. 

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon is out now in paperback from Borough Press. 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

It’s funny the number of people I’ve spoken to about this book who have immediately said that growing up, they always assumed that the Underground Railroad was a literal Underground Railroad. And then, usually at an embarrassingly older age, they realised that no, the slaves did not escape on the Tube. It’s this idea that Colson Whitehead plays with in his extraordinary novel. 


Cora is a slave on a terrible plantation in Georgia, shunned even by the other slaves. When her fellow slave Caesar asks her to run away with him, Cora is initially reluctant, but three weeks later she agrees, thinking of her mother, the only runaway slave who was never caught. And from the moment when Cora and Caesar flee the plantation, boarding the Underground Railroad, to the final poignant chapters, we barely draw breath. The pair emerge in South Carolina, initially a paradise until a sinister scheme for controlling the black population is revealed. Cora keeps on, finding herself in North Carolina, where Negroes have been banned altogether, and where she must hide, Anne Frank-like. And on it goes. Cora keeps on, occasionally finding happiness, finding love, finding refuge, but with the terrifying slave hunter Ridgeway always on her heels, determined to catch her as he failed to catch her mother. 

Throughout the book, even the bit-players are fleshed out, from Ridgeway and how he became the most successful and feared slave hunter in the South; to Stevens, the Doctor and bodysnatcher; to Ajarry, Cora’s grandmother who was transported from her village in West Africa; to Mabel, the runaway who is both Cora’s driving force and the object of her burning resentment for abandoning her as a baby. The far reach of slavery, and how it interlinks in all their lives, and the lives of everyone in the United States, is thus sharply highlighted. 

The Underground Railroad does not spare us a detail of the horror endured by the slaves on the plantation, the runaways, the free blacks, or even the white people who assist them, however reluctantly or self-servingly. The stark, pared-back prose never lets us forget that Cora’s ‘freedom’ hangs on a knife edge, or that violence, murder and lynchings can be found around every corner. 

With a breathtaking pace which would put a traditional thriller to shame, at once playfully inventive and almost unbearably poignant, The Underground Railroad is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. 
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is out now, published by Fleet. 

Children of Icarus

I’m a huge fan of myths. I studied Latin at school, right up to A Level and I devoured stories of the Minotaur, Daedalus and Icarus and Hercules (yes, the Disney version). So when Georgia mentioned this book from Curious Fox, I knew it would be right up my street.

children of icarus.jpg

“It is Clara who is desperate to enter the labyrinth and it is Clara who is bright, strong, and fearless enough to take on any challenge. It is no surprise when she is chosen.

But so is the girl who has always lived in her shadow. Together they enter.

Within minutes, they are torn apart forever. Now the girl who has never left the city walls must fight to survive in a living nightmare, where one false turn with who to trust means a certain dead end.”

Think Maze Runner meets Gladiator when it comes to this book. A group of teenagers, thrown into a maze to become Icarii, though we never really know if that’s actually a goal they should be striving for. The creatures and dangers of the maze are horrendous, we are closed in, just like the narrator to its narrow walls and we are equally nauseated by watching what happens to the other teens around her.

I’ve got to say – at times I found the narrator a little too… pathetic? She freezes whenever faced with danger, she is silent to the point that it ruins her future and she doesn’t seem to get over this at all. But then, if I was shoved into a maze like this, I think I’d be pretty useless too. Plus, it’s a little refreshing to read someone who isn’t automatically the reluctant hero (Katniss, Harry Potter etc.)

I don’t want to give anything away, but as we watch the narrator in the maze, navigating through the various people she meets, we realise how much of an impact family, friends and emotional ties have in this incomprehensible maze. Everyone has a role, everyone has a story and they are fighting just to survive which must be exhausting when there is no hope of anything more. I actually enjoyed these quieter moments more, when you saw the effect their situation could have on their personality and mental state. Yet these moments were matched with throes of action.

I loved the rumours of the maze – the stories of what might happen to you and the mysterious creatures and possibly, people, who roam it. When our narrator is out on her own, we learn so much more and the tension towards the end of the book is palpable. You know, just like the narrator, that we are close to finding out the truth, to finding out what’s at the end of this trail of clues. And then the book ends – infuriating but brilliant because all I want to do is pick up the next in the series to find out what is happening.

At moments, I hated that we never knew who the narrator was. But mostly, I loved her elusiveness – a characteristic that lends herself to a new role by the end of the book. The excitement that builds as you realise what she might become, and the chances she might have in the maze is great.

This novel mixes the classic labyrinth and its monsters with new trials, relatable characters and an intriguing plot. Though at times I was frustrated with our narrator, I’m desperate to find out the truth behind the Icarri and what secrets the maze holds.

Children of Icarus by Caighlan Smith is out now from Curious Fox.