Review: The Secrets of Hartwood Hall by Katie Lumsden (2023)


It’s 1852 and Margaret Lennox, a young widow, is offered a position as governess at Hartwood Hall. She quickly accepts, hoping this isolated country house will allow her to leave her past behind.

Cut off from the village, Margaret soon starts to feel there’s something odd about her new home, despite her growing fondness for her bright, affectionate pupil, Louis. There are strange figures in the dark, tensions between servants and an abandoned east wing. Even stranger is the local gossip surrounding Mrs Eversham, Louis’s widowed mother, who is deeply distrusted in the village.

Margaret finds distraction in a forbidden relationship with the gardener, Paul. But despite his efforts to reassure her, Margaret is certain that everyone here has something hide. And as Margaret’s own past threatens to catch up with her, she must learn to trust her instincts before it’s too late…

The Secrets of Hartwood Hall is a chilling gothic mystery, and an authentic and atmospheric love letter to Victorian fiction.


Many thanks to the publishers and to the Squadpod for my proof copy of The Secrets of Hartwood Hall. This has been an excellent pick for our Squadpod bookclub, as there’s so much to discuss!

I really enjoyed this story. It’s such a clever mix of familiar Victorian motifs and refreshingly original twists. We have a young governess, but she’s no naive innocent – she’s both an experienced teacher (who takes her profession seriously, unlike some governesses in Victorian literature!) and a formerly married woman, whose husband has passed away. We also have a crumbling stately home, ripe for all sorts of ghostly gothic adventures, but again, there’s a new take: there is no master of the house house here, just Mrs Eversham, her son, and a handful of servants. Things also get steamier than your typical Victorian novel would allow, with Paul the hot gardener gracing us with his literary-crush-worthy presence!

I won’t go into the plot too much, as the way it plays out is all part of the joy of reading this book, but I will say that it’s a gripping read, one of those ‘just one more chapter’ books that keep you reading until way past your bedtime! I was so engrossed by the story and the characters – especially poor Louis, Margaret’s charge, who has experienced so little of the world that his trips to church with Margaret feel like an adventure. The author does a wonderful job of capturing his personality, and it is easy to see why Margaret grows so fond of him. Their bond is a lovely thing to see develop – and as I mentioned before, it’s refreshing to see a governess who actually does a great deal of teaching! There are characters to loathe as well, such as the nasty piece of work that is Susan – although I will give her credit for the tension she injects into the plot, as I came to dread her next move as much as Margaret does!

The writing is really strong – Hartwood Hall comes to life in all its creepy, lonely glory, and there are moments of genuine fear provoked by the gothic atmosphere and strange events. Margaret, too, feels complex and rounded as a character as she wrestles with her conscience and big life decisions. And – no spoilers – when the ‘secrets’ finally come to light, they are both unexpected and everything you’d want them to be.

I loved this book because it gave me all the vibes of those hefty Victorian novels I read at university but with a much pacier, more intriguing plot, and characters whose sensibilities spoke to me more – the best of both worlds, nineteenth century and contemporary, you might say! I will definitely be looking out for more from this author after reading this fantastic debut.

The Secrets of Hartwood Hall by Katie Lumsden is published by Michael Joseph and is available to purchase here.


Review: The Chosen by Elizabeth Lowry (2022)


One Wednesday morning in November 1912 the ageing Thomas Hardy, entombed by paper and books and increasingly estranged from his wife Emma, finds her dying in her bedroom. Between his speaking to her and taking her in his arms, she has gone.

The day before, he and Emma had exchanged bitter words – leading Hardy to wonder whether all husbands and wives end up as enemies to each other. His family and Florence Dugdale, the much younger woman with whom he has been in a relationship, assume that he will be happy and relieved to be set free. But he is left shattered by the loss.

Hardy’s bewilderment only increases when, sorting through Emma’s effects, he comes across a set of diaries that she had secretly kept about their life together, ominously titled ‘What I Think of My Husband’. He discovers what Emma had truly felt – that he had been cold, remote and incapable of ordinary human affection, and had kept her childless, a virtual prisoner for forty years. Why did they ever marry?

He is consumed by something worse than grief: a chaos in which all his certainties have been obliterated. He has to re-evaluate himself, and reimagine his unhappy wife as she was when they first met.

Hardy’s pained reflections on the choices he has made, and must now make, form a unique combination of love story and ghost story, by turns tender, surprising, comic and true. The Chosen – the extraordinary new novel by Elizabeth Lowry – hauntingly searches the unknowable spaces between man and wife; memory and regret; life and art.


Many thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of The Chosen in exchange for an honest review, and many apologies for taking so long post this! As penance (not really – I was very keen to go!), I recently took the book on a pilgrimage to Hardy’s Cottage, where he was born, and Max Gate, where he lived with Emma, hence the photos in this post.

I knew I would enjoy this novel, as I am a big fan of Hardy, and a Wessex girl to boot, but I have to admit I wasn’t expecting to be so caught up in the microcosm of time and place that the author creates in this book. It is appropriate that the late, great Hilary Mantel is quoted on the cover – Elizabeth Lowry’s Hardy comes to life as vividly as Mantel’s Cromwell, with that same almost uncanny quality of the writer seeming to possess the subject. Hardy’s innermost thoughts are laid bare, and as you’re reading, you believe them absolutely to be true.

The Chosen focuses on a specific time in Hardy’s long life, when his wife of forty years has passed away. Their relationship, so full of possibilities at the start, had become a twisted, bitter estrangement long before she dies, and yet he mourns deeply, so deeply, in fact, that he cannot shake the feeling that her presence lingers still. Hardy’s fragile state of mind, his ageing body, his accumulated disappointments, coat the pages of the novel in a fine dust of nostalgia and regret.

The depiction of grief for something long gone is almost unbearably poignant – it really moved me. The novel is an exploration of this very particular type of mourning, taking the essence of Hardy’s beautiful poem ‘The Voice,’ and building his world and his experiences back up around it. That is such a brave and brilliant premise for a novel – not to distil, but to expand, and I’m in awe of how the author pulls it off.

The prose is crisp and precise and wonderfully evocative – even in the most simple lines, there is so much to enjoy, from satisfying descriptions of the weather: “The rain of last week has thinned to a scrim,” to the image of Hardy as a boy licking jam off his fingers: “Jam is a daily treat he’s allowed because he is not strong. He licks his fingers slowly, trying to delay the disappointing moment when he will taste himself.”

This novel is jam-packed (sorry!) with perfect sentences, elevating domestic mundanities to things of beauty, and it is so clever, because this is exactly what a writer does, and here is a writer, doing it expertly, while capturing another brilliant writer on the page. It’s exactly the sort of layered, complex, carefully constructed but never artificial writing that honestly gets my nerdy writer side completely overwhelmed with excitement! I am really looking forward to reading more work by Elizabeth Lowry – I’m in awe of her talent.

This is not a warm, cosy, cheering book – if you know Hardy’s work, you know better than to expect that from a book about the writer – it is elegant and elegiac, rich with that particular tone of mourning that we also find in music, or in poetry. This novel meant a lot to me, because of its premise of giving yourself permission to mourn for something that really was over long ago, and I think it’s going to stay with me for a long time.

I’m going to finish this review by copying Hardy’s poem below, as it gives a much better sense of the feeling of this novel than my ramblings ever could:

The Voice

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!

Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?

Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.

Thomas Hardy, 1912

The Chosen by Elizabeth Lowry is published by riverrun and is available to purchase here.

Review: The Things That We Lost by Jyoti Patel (2023)


Nik has lots of questions about his late father but knows better than to ask his mother, Avani. It’s their unspoken rule.

When his grandfather dies, Nik has the opportunity to learn about the man he never met. Armed with a key and new knowledge about his parents’ past, Nik sets out to unlock the secrets that his mother has been holding onto his whole life.

As the carefully crafted portrait Avani has painted for her son begins to crack, and painful truths emerge, can the two of them find their way back to each other?

The Things That We Lost is a beautifully tender exploration of family, loss and the lengths to which we go to protect the ones we love.


Many thanks to the publisher for providing me with a proof copy in exchange for an honest review. Apologies for not managing to post this before publication!

The Things That We Lost is a beautiful debut. It is in some ways a quiet book, despite the dramatic events buried within it, focusing on the intricacies of family dynamics and the nuances of British Asian identity, and the novel is all the richer for it. The complexity of the characters brings them to life – Nik and Avani are especially layered and realistic, but all of the characters in the book exist within a web of unspoken words and past regrets that feels poignantly believable.

There is a steady accumulation of details, and of secrets, that carefully excavates the stories these characters carry within them. The way that Nik’s father, Elliot, gradually comes into focus is so cleverly done – sometimes when a character is only revealed to us through flashbacks, it can be hard to feel invested in him, but the author does a fantastic job of slowly bringing him out of the shadows of the past and letting us get to know him in a brilliant echo of the way that Nik, finally, comes to know more about his father.

The writing is lyrical and gentle, but full of piercing insight. What I admired most about it is the fact that both Nik and Avani are such sympathetic characters, despite the fact that their actions are sometimes misguided. They feel so real – and we see Nik, especially, in so many different contexts that it feels like we get a rich and full picture of the many complicated strands of his personality. We come to a really deep understanding of their feelings and motivations, and by the end of the novel, which is left slightly open, the satisfaction comes from knowing that they have both taken ownership of their stories.

The Things That We Lost is an act of recovery, of excavation, of reclaiming the past and putting its pieces back together in the hands of those who need it most. It’s beautiful and moving, and it’s a book that will stay with me. I can’t wait to see what Jyoti Patel writes next.

The Things That We Lost by Jyoti Patel is out now with Merky Books and is available to purchase here.

Review: Aurora by Seraphina Madsen (2023)


The second novel by the author of the acclaimed Dodge and Burn (Dodo Ink, 2016) is surreal, speculative, read-in-one-sitting, feminist literary fiction inspired by The Master and Margarita and narrated by a djinn who is obsessed with the young American woman who has released him from a bottle.  

With sorcery, as everyone knows, there is no stopping it.” 


Born into Evangelical trailer trash poverty, Aurora finds her way into an elite prep school where she’s drawn into a circle of girls who form a Surrealist coven. Hell-bent on tapping into magic to subvert and transform reality, they encounter forces they should have left alone… A surreal adventure, an infernal fairy-tale, Aurora is a stunning novel that explores witchcraft from a radical new angle.


Huge thanks to Sam at Dodo Ink for sending me a copy of Aurora in exchange for an honest review. I did read this back in January but it has taken me a while to get my review up – apologies!

‘Witch lit’ is having a moment – it’s everywhere, it seems, and I for one am all for it. If you pick up Seraphina’s new novel expecting a bit of a spooky, hazily ambiguous, is magic real or isn’t it story, however, you’re in for a shock. This brilliant book feels more like a potentially dangerous source text, something I could imagine being locked up in the ‘strictly forbidden’ section of an occult library, perhaps put under a curse so that no one escapes reading it unscathed. I simultaneously absolutely loved it, and was genuinely afraid that in reading it, I was at risk of shattering my own notions of reality. That’s a powerful book right there.

The prose is a heady cocktail of the base and the sublime, sometimes switching modes within sentences, full of grit and beauty all at once. Narrated by a cherry pop downing djinn, whose footnotes zip forwards and backwards through the narrative, clarifying and complicating all at once, the story stretches and compresses time in a fascinating way. Sometimes years zip by within pages, at other times, a single episode is described in minute detail from several different perspectives. It’s mind-bendingly clever, and I felt disorientated whenever I took a (brief) break from reading.

Aurora is a compelling protagonist, and I found her as mesmerising as the narrator clearly does. Her early life, her treatment by the pastors, her grandmother’s determination for her to rise up out of the circumstances she was born into all make for a gripping start to the book. And we move on to the elite school, and the coven she forms with Sylvia and the Californian girls – there is a slight The Secret History vibe to this section, but the density of the intellectual and philosophical rigour behind the girls’ champagne-soaked exploration of magic sets it apart. Key texts are woven into the narrative – Jungian psychology, Surrealism, spiritualism of all kind, and so much more, thicken the intoxicating brew of the girls’ risky journey. As they go deeper into their investigations, you really feel that they are on the cusp of totally new discoveries – the narrative is so probing and urgent in its pursuit of the other side of reality that it creates a kind of tension and momentum that is unlike anything I’ve read before.

There is a shift again, towards the end of the book, and without spoilers, these sections were some of the hardest to read. Aurora’s power and trauma collide, and the results are dark and unexpected and shocking. It takes an incredibly skilled writer to drive a book of this intellectual heft to such a dramatic conclusion, and the last pages had me gasping out loud. There is so much in this book – art, literature, philosophy, religion, a sweet little bird called Dinky and an excellent black cat called Tu-tu – you’ll finish this with your mind fizzing and your sense of reality less stable than it was when you began. It’s an incredible achievement to write a novel from which the reader emerges dizzy and blinking, struggling to readjust, changed by what they just read, and that it what Seraphina Madsen has done with Aurora.

Aurora by Seraphina Madsen is published by Dodo Ink and is available to purchase here.