The worst thing possible has happened. Richard and Juliette Willoughby’s son, Ewan, has died suddenly at the age of five. Starve Acre, their house by the moors was to be full of life but is now a haunted place.
Juliette convinced Ewan still lives there in some form, seeks the help of the Beacons, a seemingly benevolent group of occultists. Richard, to try and keep the boy out of his mind, has turned his attention to the field opposite the house, where he patiently digs the barren dirt in search of a legendary oak tree.
Starve Acre is a devastating new novel by the author of the prize-winning bestseller The Loney. It is a novel about the way in which grief splits the world in two and how, in searching for hope, we can so easily unearth horror.
I received a copy of this book from John Murray Press via NetGalley in return for an honest review.
Atmospheric, disturbing and poignant, ‘Starve Acre’, fuses the darkest human emotions with supernatural echoes. Richard and Juliette were hoping for an idyllic life in the country, although the place they chose had a dark history and little to recommend it. They lost their child Ewan, who before his death seemed haunted by dreams and voices, in the house and in the land that accompanied it.
The story is sad and sinister. You are undecided whether this is a journey into the dark and desperate grief of two bereaved parents. Or a haunting and possession, engineered by the dark echoes of the past residing in Starve Acre.
The setting and folklore woven into the story produce vivid imagery that evokes the horror unfolding. The desperation and the ways people cope with grief are explored, as is their vulnerability to manipulation and the dark paranormal forces drawn to such individuals.
The reader is left to put their interpretation on events but is left in no doubt that Juliette is in a dark place and may never return.
Veronica McCreedy lives in a mansion by the sea. She loves a nice cup of Darjeeling tea whilst watching a good wildlife documentary. And she’s never seen without her ruby-red lipstick, although these days Veronica is rarely seen by anyone because, at 85, her days are spent mostly at home, alone. She can be found either collecting litter from the beach (‘people who litter the countryside should be shot’), trying to locate her glasses (‘someone must have moved them’) or shouting instructions to her assistant, Eileen (‘Eileen, door!’). Veronica doesn’t have family or friends nearby. Not that she knows about, anyway . . . And she has no idea where she’s going to leave her considerable wealth when she dies. But today . . . today Veronica is going to make a decision that will change all of this. She is going on an intrepid journey – to save the penguins.
I received a copy of this book from Transworld Publishers in return for an honest review.
I was drawn to this book initially because my son has always loved penguins. This story has so much to recommend it.
The star of the show is, Veronica McCreedy, a virtual recluse, who feels at 85 years she still hasn’t made her mark on the world and has lots to offer. She dislikes how she looks because inside she is vibrant and young. Her life is steeped in tragedy, which has contributed to her current reclusive state.
Patrick is at a particularly low ebb in his life, and he becomes introverted and prickly with others. The story unfolds from Veronica and Patrick’s viewpoints, as they get to know each other. Through journals, we learn of Veronica’s past life and find it has some similarities with Patrick’s. Then there is a great adventure, which proves more significant than the geographical miles travelled.
The characters are believable and for the most part lovely. Everyone has their flaws but its this humanity that makes them relatable. Veronica’s relationship with Patrick and the people she encounters on her journey of self-discovery are humorous, poignant and uplifting.
The plot flows and the storytelling is engaging. The conservation message is implicit in Veronica’s quest for the penguins, Like so much in life, Veronica’s life is enriched as she works tirelessly in helping the penguins and Patrick. This is an original, story which entertains, informs and motivates, It gives hope to those of us, firmly on the wrong side of fifty, that we are still important, and can make a difference.
HAZEL PRIOR lives on Exmoor. . As well as writing, she works as a freelance harpist.
AN INTERVIEW WITH HAZEL PRIOR
VERONICA MCCREEDY, MY AGING HEROINE
Veronica McCreedy is eighty-six when she has her adventure with the penguins. Why did I want an old woman for my main character? I have some way to go before I reach her age, but, as I gather wrinkles, I find myself often reflecting about the pros and cons of ageing. Our society still seems to lead us to believe that it’s better in every way to be young. It would have us think that at 30 the best part of your life is over, at 40 nobody notices you anymore and from 50 onwards you may as well not exist – particularly if you’re a woman. The vast majority of novels seem to echo this view, with the protagonists finding fulfilment/tragedy/ happy-ever-after while still in their twenties. This is so wrong.
We develop at different rates, but I suspect a person is never fully-formed. We are in a state of evolution throughout our lives. This evolution isn’t a steady process, but stagnates sometimes and then goes in spurts, depending on events and our reactions to them. I admire people who are hungry for life, who go out and seek new experiences regardless of their age. For example, a friend of mine started learning the harp at the age of ninety. And my neighbour’s father took up skydiving in his eighties. These are extreme examples, but we never stop dreaming, learning or having new adventures. Every year that passes adds to our rich bank of experiences, our store of stories. The logical conclusion is that the older you are, the more interesting you are – so wouldn’t an octogenarian be the perfect heroine?
VERONICA PAST AND PRESENT
I’m very aware that we all judge by appearances, and the first thing you’d notice about Veronica McCreedy if you met her might be her age. But I wanted to show her as a complete person; I wanted to make the reader review this initial impression. We get to see her as a young girl, too, and gradually some of the elements that have shaped her come to light. These days she has slipped into certain habits: tea-drinking, litter-picking and dishing out scorn, but there is much, much more to her than this. Look inside the dry old lady exterior and you will find a vitality and strength to rival that of many young people. And she cares deeply about things, much more than she’s prepared to let on.
Veronica’s advanced years also gave me the opportunity to explore wartime Britain. That time interests me particularly because my parents were alive then. My father was in the RAF. My mother – who would have been contemporary with Veronica – was a teenager, and her entire school was relocated to a country mansion in the north of England. (That’s where the similarity ends though!) As I researched, I became drawn into this poignant time in our history. There is something very nostalgic about an era without computers, traffic and smartphones, but at the same time, the whole population was living on a knife-edge. It seems that life was lived with added intensity on every level, people grasping whatever joy they could because the future was always in question. The moral values were completely different as well (oh, the shame of having a baby when you weren’t married! The double-shame of sleeping with the enemy!). So much food for thought…
The cruel side of getting old is, of course, the physical deterioration. Veronica is very conscious of this because as a girl she was exceptionally attractive. Her beauty brought her the benefits of (briefly) requited love and (eventually) a millionaire lifestyle, yet it also led her to shame and utter degradation. She misses her beauty, though. These days wealth has replaced it as her means of getting what she wants. It takes her a long time to realise that she doesn’t need to be so manipulative. There is another pathway to happiness if only she can learn to accept genuine human kindness.
Although Veronica is now robust for her years she’s deeply frustrated by the ageing process. Her body has become an encumbrance that won’t work as well as she wants it to and she hates the fact that she now has to operate within this unreliable vehicle. In a way, however, her body’s failings also serve her because she is eager to contradict naysayers and prove what she can do. She pushes herself to her limits. When her body nearly gives out, her spirit fights on. I believe this is the stuff of true heroism.
What Veronica’s experiences have given her – along with certain prejudices and a fear of forming close relationships – is resilience. This resilience is perhaps one of the reasons she’s so drawn to penguins.
Like Veronica, penguins are feisty and stubborn. They defy harsh conditions and refuse to be beaten. But, unlike Veronica, they communicate and cooperate. They live in a vast community and do everything together. Ever since Veronica’s teenage tragedies, she has remained closed to human contact (reflected by her obsession with keeping doors closed). As she witnesses the penguins’ mutual support system, Veronica begins to realise what has been lacking in her own life. Penguins are the perfect teachers for her.
I also wanted to write about penguins because:
• They are funny.
• They are very relatable. Let’s face it, they do look a bit like miniature humans and they act like us in many ways too.
• Adélies live in Antarctica – pretty powerful for a setting.
• I was inspired by my friend, Ursula, who made it her mission to tour the world taking photos of penguins after her husband died.
PANIC ABOUT THE PLANET
My job as a writer is to tell a good story and entertain people, not to preach. But I do like to deal with serious issues, wrap them up in a bit of fun and maybe provoke a thought or two. To the perceptive reader, my own values will doubtless show through. You can hardly miss the fact that I love wildlife and care deeply about it. So I’m bound to be worried…
I’m not a fan of doom-mongering, but it strikes me that our current environmental crisis can’t be ignored. There are many strands of thought here, and powerful feelings, too. Even though I, with my carbon footprint, am partly to blame, I am dismayed that lots of my favourite animals are hurtling towards extinction. A world without tigers, polar bears, gorillas, elephants, snow leopards… and of course, penguins? I’m mentally screaming at the mere idea. I don’t have any children but to leave such a legacy is surely a terrible abuse, both of the animals themselves and the next generation of humans.
We tend to treat wildlife as if it exists solely to serve our own purposes. It doesn’t. As Jackie Morris, illustrator of The Lost Words, states ‘We are not ‘stewards’ of the natural world, we are not something that stands apart from it. We are a very small part of an amazing ecosystem. The Earth is our home, but it is also the home to so many forms of life, life that is so astonishing, intelligence that puts our arrogance to shame’.
It’s not clever to destroy our own habitat. The effects of global warming have been well-documented. In addition to mass extinction, there are devastating consequences for humans: Floods, wildfires, malnutrition, disease… the list goes on and on. Scientists say we are horribly close to the point of no return, and if we don’t change our ways the planet will sooner or later become uninhabitable for us too. All this is now old news, but I just want to stress that this isn’t a bandwagon thing for me. In fact, I wrote my novel’s first draft before anyone had seen the David Attenborough programme or heard of Greta Thunberg. The publication of AWAY WITH THE PENGUINS is timely, though, and I’m glad that my quirky Antarctic story adds another small voice to the clamour for change.
Action is need on a vast scale and movements across the world are pushing politicians and businesses to act more responsibly regarding the future of the planet. But I think the little things matter, too. In my novel, Veronica spends her energy-saving a single penguin chick. To me, that is valid. We experience life as individuals and each individual is important, whether animal or human. I recently saw a photo of a baby turtle next to a hundred pieces of plastic that were found in its stomach. The shocking image was a reminder that everything we do has its consequences.
In my household we do our best in terms of everyday lifestyle. We grow our own beans, courgettes, potatoes etc; we spurn pesticides and slug pellets. We have a hybrid car and I can’t even remember the last time I got on a plane. I indulge in a rant whenever I see the words ‘packaging not currently recyclable’ and seek out some alternative on the supermarket shelves. I even use a bamboo toothbrush. Still, we often have that “If we’re doing it but nobody else bothers, what’s the point?” conversation. Then I think of the turtle. Yes, every little helps… And in fact more and more people are bothering. And if enough people bother, there’s hope.
In AWAY WITH THE PENGUINS I’ve hinted at a parallel situation. Wartime forced people into drastic action. During a national emergency, they managed to cooperate on a heart-warmingly huge scale. Women suddenly started working in all sectors. People dug up their gardens to grow food, they re-used everything, they used their initiative as never before. They gathered all their strength and kept on trying despite the odds stacked against them. Now that we have an international crisis that threatens life itself, perhaps we can finally get our act together?”
There are some things in life that only a dog can teach you.
A poignant, heart-wrenching, but ultimately uplifting novel about the unbreakable bond between a boy and his dog.
In the farming town of Riverside in Washington, Toby Fuller is feeling more alone than ever. Nothing Toby did was ever good enough for his father, but he never expected his father to leave, to abandon him and his mother forever. He loses hope until a scruffy golden retriever called Buddy follows him home from school.
Though he’s struggling to walk, Buddy matches Toby step for step, never taking his eyes off him, as if Toby is all he needs in the world. And from that day on Buddy never leaves Toby’s side.
Buddy shows Toby a loyalty that he has never known. But then disaster strikes and Toby’s life is changed forever. Will Buddy be able to give Toby the strength he needs to carry on?
I received a copy of this book from Bookouture via NetGalley in return for an honest review.
It’s not often I’m moved to tears by a story, but this made me cry. It’s written in an honest, heartwarming style, from Buddy, the Golden Retriever’s viewpoint and Toby’s point of view, the boy and later man he befriends. The beginning is poignant and believable, I’ve witnessed first hand how heartbroken dogs can be when they lose someone they love. I’ve shared a beautiful friendship with three dogs in my life, so far, one of which I’m still lucky enough to have.
The story is simple but effective. How the devotion of a dog, heals a broken child and gives hope to a broken man. The ending is so sad, but uplifting and makes you realise how lucky you are to have friendship and love in your life.
If you’ve ever shared your life with a dog, you will be affected by this story. If you haven’t, read it, and realise what you’ve been missing.
A cow looks out to sea, dreaming of a life that involves grass.
Jan is also looking out to sea. He’s in Goa, dreaming of the passport-thief who stole his heart (and, indeed, his passport) forty-six years ago. Back then, fate kept bringing them together, but lately it seems to have given up.
Jan has not. In his long search, he has accidentally held a whole town at imaginary gunpoint in Soviet Russia, stalked the proprietors of an international illegal lamp-trafficking scam and done his very best to avoid any kind of work involving the packing of fish. Now he thinks if he just waits, if he just does nothing at all, maybe fate will find it easier to reunite them.
His story spans fifty-four years, ten countries, two imperfect criminals (and one rather perfect one), twenty-two different animals and an annoying teenager who just…
But maybe an annoying teenager is exactly what Jan needs to help him find the missing thief?
Featuring a menagerie of creatures, each with its own story to tell, We Are Animals is a quirky, heartwarming tale of lost love, unlikely friendships and the certainty of fate (or lack thereof).
For the first time in her life the cow noticed the sun setting, and it was glorious.
I received a copy of this book from the author in return for an honest review.
The imagery in this book is clever and enhances the everyday occurrences, making them something special. The description of the beach and its users seen through Manjan’s eyes is the first example of this. The people and the cow, all have an opinion and a purpose, as they share events from their lives. The animals’ actions and thoughts mirror the people throughout the book.
Manjan’s story is poignant and serendipitous. The author makes many of his astute observations through the man who has spent much of his life waiting. There is a balance of humour and sadness, which lets the reader appreciate the emotion and comical aspects of the story. Retrospectively, you learn how Jan ends up the beach in Goa. The people he meets along the way are diverse, and all add to his life journey. The characters are well written, they are authentic and relatable, and make this character-driven tale interesting.
Even if like me, you haven’t visited the places in the book, or didn’t live through the late twentieth century, which I did. the immersive story lets you experience each place and time, through its animal and human characters, and vivid imagery.
The hopeful ending encompasses the quirky nature of the story, whilst achieving a sense of completeness.
Tim Ewins has enjoyed an eight-year stand-up career alongside his accidental career in finance.
He has previously written for DNA Mumbai, had two short stories highly commended and published in Michael Terence Short Story Anthologies, and enjoyed a very brief acting stint (he’s in the film Bronson, somewhere in the background). He lives with his wife, son and dog in Bristol. We Are Animals is his first novel.
When Edie’s mother-in-law, Anna DeLuca, dies, she is relieved. Edie blames Anna for the accident that destroyed her family. So, when her will lures Edie to Sicily and the long-abandoned Villa Della Madonna del Mare, she sees through Anna’s games.
Suspecting Anna is meddling from beyond the grave to try to reunite her and her ex-husband, Joe, Edie is determined to leave Italy as soon as possible. But before she can, the villa starts to shed its mysterious secrets.
Who are the girls beside Anna in her childhood photos, and why has one of them been scratched out? Why does someone, or something, want them to leave the past untouched? The villa is a place where old ghosts feel at home, but does their legacy need to be laid to rest before Edie and Joe can move on…
Bestselling author Louise Douglas returns with a captivating, chilling and unforgettable tale of betrayal, jealousy and the mysteries hidden in every family history.
I received a copy of this book from Boldwood Books via NetGalley in return for an honest review.
‘The House by the Sea’, is an atmospheric, emotional family drama, with ghostly and menacing elements. On one level, it is a poignant family story, of loss, and the emotional damage losing a child wreaks to the parents left behind. Another level brings a story of forgiveness, new beginnings and learning to live again. Within this, there are dangerous secrets and strange supernatural influences entangled in the old villa and its gardens.
Set in Sicily, Edie and Joe are forced together, to claim and decide what to do with their inheritance from Joe’s, recently deceased mother, Anna. Edie blamed Anna for the death of her son Daniel, and Joe and Edie’s marriage disintegrated with his death. The villa is a character in its own right, in this story. Rundown, it still has a powerful appeal and draws Edie and Joe gradually together. There are many hidden secrets, some supernatural elements and mysteries to solve before Edie and Joe can begin their healing together.
The plot has many levels which are cleverly intertwined to reveal past secrets. Edie and Joe, are understandably complex damaged people, still grieving their lost son. This story has many poignant moments, but ultimately it is heartwarming and uplifting. The suspense builds as the story progresses, leading to an adrenaline-fueled climax, tinged with a tender, supernatural moment, which is both believable and necessary for the story to reach its positive conclusion.
The cast of supporting characters are authentic and although the story is gently paced, it is absorbing and you keep turning the pages wanting to know what next.
A lovely, poignant tale of love and loss and forgiveness.
Louise Douglas is the bestselling and brilliantly reviewed author of 6 novels including The Love of my Life and Missing You – an RNA award winner. The Secrets Between Us was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick. She lives in the West Country.
It’s been seven years since Holly Kennedy’s husband died – six since she read his final letter, urging Holly to find the courage to forge a new life.
She’s proud of all the ways in which she has grown and evolved. But when a group inspired by Gerry’s letters, calling themselves the PS, I Love You Club, approaches Holly asking for help, she finds herself drawn back into a world that she worked so hard to leave behind.
Reluctantly, Holly beings a relationship with the club, even as their friendship threatens to destroy the peace she believes she has achieved. As each of these people calls upon Holly to help them leave something meaningful behind for their loved ones, Holly will embark on a remarkable journey – one that will challenge her to ask whether embracing the future means betraying the past, and what it means to love someone forever…
Postscript draws you back into Holly’s world as if you never left. It is now seven years after Gerry’s death and Holly is feeling more confident that life can go on as Holly, and maybe even Holly and Gabriel. It is in this mindset that she agrees to her sister’s request, to take part in a podcast sharing her grief experience, and particularly Gerry’s letters, and what they meant for her.
Facing her grief again, even seven years on is difficult and you feel her pain and the real fear that she may slip back into the dark abyss if she examines her grief journey too closely. Nevertheless, she delivers and the response is positive, but someone seems too involved and Holly’s reaction is avoidance, and this has consequences.
What emerges as you progress with this story, is that Holly’s recovery is superficial. She manages to convince friends and family that she is moving on, and feels less pain, but deep down the grief and sense of loss remain.
Helping others leave their loved ones, messages to help them move on after death is not something Holly feels capable of initially. Her relationships with the P.S. I Love You Club members are an emotional journey for Holly. Her courage forces her to face up to her grief, and finally realise that moving on, doesn’t mean forgetting, or loving less.
There is a maturity in this book that comes with age and experience. Holly in Postscript is different from Holly in P.S. I Love You. Grief and loss change her irrevocably, and healing only comes from acceptance, and courage to embrace the change and the new person she has become.
Postscript’s stories of pain and pleasure, despair and hope and loss and love are emotive and life-affirming, and every bit as potent as the original story.
When the recently widowed Melinda Monroe sees an advert for a midwife in the remote town of Virgin River, she decides this is the perfect place to escape her heartache and to revitalise the nursing career she loves.
However, her hopes are dashed within an hour of arriving: the cabin is uninhabitable, the roads are treacherous and the local doctor wants nothing to do with her. But when a tiny baby is abandoned on a front porch, Mel must decide whether to stay and help or cut her losses and leave.
Helped by local barman, and former marine, Jack Sheridan Mel must face her past and finds that there may be a future in Virgin River after all.
I received a copy of this book from Mills and Boon in return for an honest review.
Virgin River begins with a familiar and popular trope in the romance genre, of grieving widow, starting over in a small town, away from everything she knew before. Bereaved Melinda, takes up a midwife and nurse practitioner post in a remote rural small town Virgin River. She is promised cosy accommodation, a thriving medical practice in need of her skills and a lovely town to live in.
What she finds is less than ideal. Layered on top of her perilous emotional state, she feels like getting back in her car and heading back to the city, even if the memories there are too painful to live with.
An emotional event makes her stay in the short term because she’s not a quitter, but a consummate professional and big-hearted woman. Little by little the town and its inhabitants draw her in and she begins to enjoy the generosity, caring spirit of a small town, even if it is accompanied by gossip and mostly well-meant interference.
This idyllic story, which captures the small town ethos, has authentic, relatable characters, who you long to know more about. They are why it is an engaging read. There are many other books in this series, so it is likely your favourite will get their own story told, in a later book.
The romance is gentle and sensitive taking account of Melinda’s loss. Although it reflects conservative values to women, this is in keeping with the culture and setting. Contemporary issues are explored too, again viewed from a small town point of view, which is interesting and realistic.
There is a successful TV series based on the Virgin River books, and the quality of the characters and charm of the contemporary story shows why this is the case.