The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

‘My mother was famous, though she never wanted to be. Hers wasn’t the kind of fame anyone would wish for. Jaycee Dugard, Amanda Berry, Elizabeth Smart – that kind of thing, though my mother was none of them…’ This is the enticing opening of The Marsh King’s Daughter, both an enthralling, eerie and gut-wrenching thriller, and a stunning, poetic homage to the great outdoors.

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Helena is the grown-up daughter of a woman who was kidnapped as a teenager, and kept captive. Similarly to that other great novel Room, she was ensnared by a man asking for help finding his dog, but rather than being kept in a purpose-built ‘room’ she was then taken to his isolated cabin in Michigan to be his ‘wife’, keep his home and bear him children, before she had even turned 16. The family lived as Ojibwe, a Native American tribe, even though, as Helena notes wryly, ‘imagine my surprise when I discovered the mother of the man I’d always thought of as Ojibwa was blonde and white.’

At the age of twelve, having had no contact with the outside world, Helena was eventually able to flee with her mother, and after a two year manhunt, her father was jailed for life. But now, he has escaped, and Helena knows that he’ll be coming for her. Now married with two children, having successfully kept her past hidden until now, she plans to capture him first. No one knows the great outdoors like Jacob Holbrook. No one will be best placed to evade capture, leaving misleading trails for the police. No one will be able to keep up with him – except possibly Helena. As she sets off after him, the story cuts back and forth between Helena tracking her father, and the story of her childhood, how she and her mother eventually escaped, and how she was thrust, painfully unprepared, into a totally unfamiliar new world.

As a child, Helena idolised her father, who taught her how to kill, how to survive and how to move around unseen and unheard. In many ways, the way Helena tells it, hers was an idyllic, outdoorsy upbringing for someone who knew no better. But even then, although she evidently idolised her father, darkness flashes through. His harsh discipline extends to smashing down on a bruised hand to teach her not to be so clumsy, and locking her in a well for days on end. Reflecting on the aftermath, Helena rationally knows that everything her father did was wrong, but reader is justifiably unconvinced that she’ll be able to go through with capturing him. On the kidnap and rape of her mother, she reasons, ‘He wanted a wife. No woman in her right mind would have joined him on that ridge. When you look at the situation from that point of view, what else was he supposed to do?

Denied even a name, her mother gets fairly short shrift in Helena’s tale. Helena sympathises with her mother, who died shortly before the book opened, having never been able get over her years of captivity, and often regrets not having been more understanding of her plight, but whilst her father features vividly in her story, her mother feels like a sad mouse of a character, unable to help her daughter, or defend herself from the horrifying situation in which she’s found herself. Helena often questions her mother’s version of events, asserting that she even was happy in spite of herself on occasion.

All suitably depressing stuff, but what lifts the story from a great thriller to an exceptional novel are the stunning details of the outdoors that Helena loves, from crunching through snow, to stalking deer, and even just watching crows blend in with the trees. The natural world is both uplifting, and terrifying, for although Helena loves it, and can use it her advantage, we know her father can too. Who will triumph in the inevitable reckoning?

A completely breathtaking thriller, both terrifyingly suspenseful, and beautifully atmospheric, which, oddly, really made me want to go camping… Many thanks the utterly fabulous Ella Bowman, for urgently pressing this memorable and original book into my hands!

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne is published 29th June by Sphere.

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. 

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

When we first meet Eleanor, she is talking us through her routine, and tormenting a doctor. Afterwards, she is being mercilessly mocked by her coworkers, who are unaware that she is in earshot. And, to be quite honest, we can understand why.

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Eleanor is odd. She’s the coworker you don’t want to get stuck with in the office kitchen. She doesn’t pick up on social cues, and she’s judgemental. And this suits Eleanor just fine. Other than weekly conversations with her rather horrendous ‘Mummy’, she’s happy to avoid communication with other people. But could her life be about to change?

As it happens, Eleanor treats this mockery with detached amusement – she has ‘always taken great pride in managing her life alone.’

Eleanor wears the same clothes every day. She eats the same pasta with pesto every day, except at on Fridays, when she has a margherita pizza, and drinks the same two bottles of Glenn’s Vodka every weekend.

But Eleanor Oliphant has fallen in love. A chance visit to a gig has opened her eyes to Johnnie Rivers, the talented frontman of The Pioneers. Determined that he is her one true love, Eleanor embarks on a personal and physical reinvention. This coincides with the arrival of the friendly Raymond, an IT engineer, who is with her when they witness an elderly man take a fall, and sit with him together when he takes a fall. Despite her disdain for Raymond (‘I noticed that he was wearing a duffle coat. A duffle coat! Surely they were the preserve of children and small bears?‘ Classic burn.) Eleanor finds herself drawn in with him and as they become close with Sammy, the elderly man, and his family, and starts to find that there is something to human companionship after all.

There’s a touching ‘personal growth’ story throughout, which if it hadn’t been delivered with such heartfelt emotional appeal, mixed with Eleanor’s trademark sharpness. Make no mistake – this isn’t a Hollywood-style makeover story, in which Eleanor gets the guy. Although she’s developing a new look for the really rather crummy Johnnie Rivers, through simple and small acts of kindness from others, she learns to appreciate herself and value her appearance for herself. An especially poignant moment comes after a haircut from Sammy’s daughter Laura, when Eleanor is moved to tears: “‘You’ve made me shiny, Laura’ I said…’Thank you for making me shiny.'”

But as her confidence grows, and her friendship with Raymond blossoms, the calls from Mummy keep on coming, and the ghosts of Eleanor’s childhood trauma, which is hinted at throughout, resurface explosively. And Eleanor will realise that being ‘completely fine’ might not be enough to live.

Both unbearably poignant, with laugh out loud comic touches, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is the story of a damaged woman who has alienated herself from other people, and a tale of small kindnesses, and how they can go a long way. A beautifully written and emotionally captivating debut from an exciting new writer.

Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo

The first thing that leapt out to me about this book was the title. A title which says joyous enthusiasm, exciting promise, all with its tongue firmly in its cheek. The second thing that really stands out at a glance is the exceptional cover design which, just to add in my tuppenny’s worth, really ought to be put forward for some kind of award. I’d describe it as ‘Lowry goes to Lagos’ – yes, you may have that for free Faber & Faber – and I bloody love it. Such a great jacket, such a great title. Can the inside possibly live up to such promise? (Spoiler: yes)


Welcome to Lagos brings together five disparate characters, all on the run, who find themselves in Lagos in search of a future: Chike, an officer and his private Yemi both having deserted after being ordered to massacre civilians; Fineboy, a militant with dreams of being a radio DJ; Isoken, who had escaped being raped by Fineboy and his fellow militants; and Oma, on the run from her rich but abusive husband. 

Thrown uneasily together by circumstance, the group finds shelter under a bridge, until they find an abandoned flat. Together, they make do, a tenderness growing between Oma and Chike, and Isoken coming to terms with the demons of her past. All until one night, Chief Sandayo, formerly the Education Minister before he fell out of favour with President (for reasons he doesn’t understand), crashes into their life with a suitcase of ‘liberated’ money. After some debate, they set about lavishly donating the money to schools – purchasing computers, books, and even playground equipment for schools whose education budget has been sifted away from them for too long. 

Inevitably, their philanthropy, along with the disappearance of a high-profile politician attracts attention. The press descends, and Sandayo is able to reposition himself as more than a ‘corrupt Nigerian politician’, but as a philanthropic benefactor. But how long can their luck last? 

Welcome to Lagos is a treat from start to finish, successfully juxtaposing the serious themes of corruption and state-sanctioned murder with a touching story of friendship, and trying to do the right thing. By turns touching, thought-provoking and funny, it’s packed with brilliantly-drawn characters, written with genuine affection, and who feel just as real as the larger-than-life character of Lagos itself, thrumming endlessly in the background. 

Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo is out now, published by Faber & Faber.

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 Possessions by Sara Flannery Murphy

‘The first time I meet Patrick Braddock, I’m wearing his wife’s lipstick.’

This is the eye-catching opening line from Sara Flannery Murphy’s ambitious debut, a ghost story and a psychological thriller rolled into one. Edie works at the Elysian Society as a ‘body’, people who channel the spirits of the dead so that their loved ones can keep in touch. There are rules of course. It’s a controlled environment. They can’t contact suicides, and they can’t contact people they don’t know, like the woman who attempts to solve a murder. Edie is the perfect body. Detached and distant from others, she is an expert at channelling the dead. Until she meets Patrick Braddock.

Patrick Braddock is contacting his glamorous wife Sylvia, who drowned in suspicious circumstances. To her surprise, Edie feels an instant connection to Patrick, and finds it harder and harder to shake Sylvia off, the longer she spends as her. Is she really falling for Patrick, or is she falling under the indomitable Sylvia’s spell? And to what extent is Patrick himself taking advantage of her? As Edie’s feelings for Patrick grow, she becomes increasingly obsessed with the mysterious circumstances around Sylvia’s death. Previously a guarded character, who hides from the reader as much as from those around her, and a model ‘body’, Edie finds herself taking greater and greater risks to stay close to Patrick and to uncover the truth. And despite her attempts to keep her own secrets hidden, Edie finds her past increasingly hard to conceal.

As a well as a riveting and uncanny ghost story, The Possessions is a perceptive exploration of our attitudes to death and grief. As Sylvia gets to know Patrick, the neighbourhood is in thrall to the murder of a young woman who the police have named ‘Hopeful Doe.’ Later when her true identity is revealed, there is almost a sense of deflation –  the ‘nameless, angelic girl’ has become ‘a specific woman.’ If we could talk to our dead, would it help us grieve? Or would it simply anchor us further to the past.

Enthralling, haunting, touching, and with more than a hint of a feminist dystopia, The Possessions, for me, marks Sara Flannery Murphy as one to watch.

The Possessions by Sara Flannery Murphy is out now, published by Scribe.  

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

Almost as fascinating as reading this scalpel-sharp examination of a destructive marriage is listening to the author Gwendoline Riley speak about it. Whilst interviewers from Marielle Frostrup on Open Book or Susie at Dulwich Books sought to judge either character one way or another, she had a different opinion each time, so it was with curiosity and interest that I picked up First Love.

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Neve, a writer in her thirties, is engaged in a turbulent and toxic marriage to the older Edwyn. From one moment, their relationship veers from the loving (‘we have a little cuddle…we don’t talk much in the evenings but we’re very affectionate’) to sheer vitriolic hostility, in which her advances are rejected and ridiculed, and vicious accusations are thrown around: ‘You’re like a baby, really, aren’t you? You won’t be happy until we’re both just crawling around this place in our own shit.’ 

As Neve traces the journey that led her to her relationship with Edwyn, we meet her strange and aggressive father who ate himself to death, and her prudish but oddly needy mother. We meet a musician, who Neve has never been able to forget, and a picture forms of a woman torn between wanting love and companionship, but also desperately craving independence, which itself chafes against Edwyn’s need to be needed and appreciated.

Riley captures with razor-like accuracy the intimate cruelties that only someone close to you can know can land, and the unique nature of cruelties within different relationships. But she writes just as perfectly about the pleasant and comforting moments spent with someone you know almost as well as you know yourself; the funny and often totally incomprehensible in-jokes that develop, the nicknames that you’d rather die than accidentally reveal (‘Mr Pusskins’ ‘my little smelly puss’).

First Novel is a masterpiece, sharply observed and strangely compelling – like watching a beautifully written car crash, you can’t look away.