The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex — New Review, Bookclub Too

Cover: bookshop.org
Cover: thestorygraph.com

When book club nominated a book with a lighthouse on the cover, obviously I had to vote for it! The Lamplighters actually has two covers, both with lighthouses, but which give wildly different ideas of what the book is going to be like, so I was curious to see which one would prove more accurate.

A fifty-metre column of heroic Victorian engineering, the Maiden looms palely magnificent against the horizon, a stoic bastion of seafarers’ safety.

The Lamplighters, Emma Stonex

Like most of the lighthouse books on this blog, The Lamplighters is historical fiction, set when lighthouses were still manned rather than automatic, but it’s more recent than most, only going back to the 1970s. What also sets it apart is that it’s about a tower lighthouse, jutting directly out of the sea, where there isn’t space for keepers to bring their wives and families with them. Perhaps that was why it was difficult to keep the threads of the marriages straight. Arthur-and-Helen and Bill-and-Jenny merged into such a shapeless muddle that I had to make a note in my reading notebook which I referred back to every time there was a chapter from one of the wives’ perspectives.

Even after finishing The Lamplighters, it’s not entirely clear what happened in a couple of of the plots. Emma Stonex was clearly keeping information back from her readers, raising questions which you’d hope would be answered by the conclusion to the story. Except, several of them weren’t. Maybe it was intentional, because real life rarely offers neatly-wrapped solutions to every question, but in a novel billing itself as a mystery, it was more frustrating than thought-provoking.

The truth is that women are important to each other. More important than the men, and that isn’t what you’ll want to hear because this book, like all your others, is about the men, isn’t it? Men are interested in men.

The Lamplighters, Emma Stonex

Those plots which did feel complete were enjoyable, particularly the stories of those left behind: Jenny, Helen and the novelist Dan Sharp. (Michelle, despite being the most distinct of the female characters, sadly got a bit abandoned.) Bill’s storyline could have been more effectively handled, because the bare bones of it were interesting.

There was certainly a lot going on in The Lamplighters, arguably too much because no single plot or detail really got the attention and weight that it deserved. Maybe a less complex structure would’ve delivered the story with more impact. While I’ll be keeping this for lighthouse reasons, I won’t necessarily be running out to buy more books by Emma Stonex, unless one catches my interest or comes highly recommended.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall — Reread Review

Cover: bookshop.org

Skylarking is my second-favourite of my lighthouse books, and I’ve been looking forward to rereading it. I remember enjoying the atmosphere, and being pleased that the plot wasn’t about falsifying the identity of a child, since that was what The Lightkeeper’s Daughters and The Light Between Oceans had in common.

Unfortunately, reading Skylarking a second time, the one thing I vividly remembered from my previous read was the climax of the story. Knowing what was coming robbed the novel of some of its power and I found the whole plot somewhat underwhelming.

Knowing that he wanted nothing from me, no outburst or tears or thanks, I could just sit and let the humiliation find its place amongst all the rest of me.

Skylarking, Kate Mildenhall

At just over 200 pages, Sklyarking doesn’t deeply explore any of its themes, character or setting. Kate Mildenhall tells the story from Kate’s perspective; she and Albert are the characters who most vividly come to life, but even so, I didn’t feel any of Kate’s emotions had particular impact. The lighthouse and the life of a lighthouse keeper is mentioned, but not delved into. There are a few very shallow mentions of Australian Aboriginal people, which left me wondering what the point of including them was.

I still see it sometimes, in my dreams, my mind’s eye. I see it but not quite as it was, and I wonder what other imaginings I have mixed up with the truth of the past.

Skylarking, Kate Mildenhall

The prose is fine, but without the mystery of wondering what happened to carry me forward through it, it wasn’t more than that. I don’t mean to be harsh: this is an enjoyable read the first time, but it doesn’t hold up to repeated readings as well as some other books.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Lighthouse by P D James — Reread Review

Cover: bookshop.org

A lighthouse book that’s also a crime novel makes a nice change from all the historical fiction! I first read The Lighthouse while I was living in Cardiff, around the time my fascination with lighthouses actually began. I’d read other novels by P D James, or listened to them as audiobooks, but not in the right order. I actually confused DCI Adam Dalgleish with DS John Rebus for years before rereading this and realising that they’re different characters created by different authors!

A small group of suspects, if each was intelligent and prudent enough to keep his or her counsel and resist the fateful impulse to volunteer more than was asked, could complicate any investigation and devil the prosecution.

The Lighthouse, P D James

Despite this confusion on my part, the characters are the strongest part of The Lighthouse. Reading about Kate Miskin and Adam Dalgleish and Emma Lavenham made me wish I’d read the earlier books in the series so that I could better understand their relationships and history. By contrast, but showing equal skill, some of the one-off characters were so unpleasant that I actually hoped they might end up being murder victims. That said, I must confess that I struggled to keep straight the difference between the doctor, the lawyer and the vicar for the first half of the book. They all sort of melded into one professional English man archetype.

Unfortunately, the actual solving of The Murder in the Lighthouse (as this might be titled had it been written by Agatha Christie) left something to be desired. The SARS outbreak was interesting, especially living in a world where I still put on a mask to go to the shops, but it did take our main detective character out of the action at the crucial moment. When he ended up putting the pieces together from his sick bed, it didn’t read as inspired but rather as simply convenient. I won’t say there weren’t enough clues for a reader to solve this, because I think there probably were, but as someone who reads crime novels for the pleasure of the detective solving the case, this one was underwhelming.

The lighthouse was the last to disappear but even when its shaft had blurred into a pale spectre, the waves were still a white curdle against the blackening cliffs.

The Lighthouse, P D James

Even aside from the lighthouse, the setting of Combe Island was really interesting, but it didn’t come across terribly consistently. That was probably deliberate, to convey how a murder changes the atmosphere of a place, but it did add to my sense that everything wasn’t quite adding up the way I would have liked.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman — Reread Review

Though there’s not a lighthouse on the cover of The Light Between Oceans, it’s very much a lighthouse book. It might even be the book to kick off the trend of historical lighthouse books, especially as it was made into a film. For this reason, the setting is an automatic win for me. I just love books about lighthouses, and I especially enjoyed seeing Lucy reflect that love right back out of the pages. She calls herself ‘Lulu Lighthouse’, which is adorable, and talks about the light being a star. It even inspired me to make a soundscape. You can experience the atmosphere of Janus by clicking this link.

The Light Between Oceans is a very well-structured book and the story is compelling, especially once M L Stedman gets to the inciting incident which introduces a tension between Tom and Isabel that just keeps winding tighter and tighter until the climax. I would have liked a bit more of the courtroom drama that was hinted at, but there’s enough there to whet the appetite.

Time and again, Tom wondered at the hidden recesses of Isabel’s mind — the spaces where she managed to bury the turmoil his own mind couldn’t escape.

The Light Between Oceans, M L Stedman

The character development is exceptionally well-paced. Just as I had decided I didn’t trust Isabel to do the right thing, M L Stedman inserted a scene to soften her just enough that I was genuinely unsure which way she was going to go. Both times I’ve read this, I’ve cried at the ending, which is heart-wrenching, but not so unjust that it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Unfortunately, despite all these good things, I just couldn’t get past the prose. The narrative starts several sections in the present tense, then slips into the past tense in the middle of a paragraph. Since third person past tense is my default for narrative fiction, every time M L Stedman switched back into the present, it brought me out of the story. This happened all the way through and, while I’m sure there was a stylistic justification, I couldn’t track when the different tenses were used. There were issues with the perspective, too, jumping back and forth between characters. Early on, I noticed that we’d jumped from Isabel’s head to somehow knowing how cold Tom felt. I’m not sure if that persisted, perhaps I just stopped noticing it.

But if he doesn’t think about it too hard, he knows who he is and what he’s for. He just has to keep the light burning. Nothing more.

The Light Between Oceans, M L Stedman

The Light Between Oceans is a good book, but I am uniquely qualified to say that it’s not the best lighthouse book available. At least for now, Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall remains my favourite book with a lighthouse on the cover. That said, The Light Between Oceans does give us the perspective of the lighthouse keeper, rather than one of his family, and it gets extra points for that.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Lightkeeper’s Daughters by Jean E Pendziwol — Reread Review

The Lightkeeper’s Daughters is very much a story divided into halves. As well as a split between past and present, the book is also divided between two viewpoint characters. Each of those parts have weaknesses, but each also has at least one strength, which I suppose proves that all of them are necessary.

For example, Morgan’s relationship drama isn’t all that interesting. It had none of the raw emotion that books sometimes manage to capture. And yet, Morgan’s section near the end of the book when she’s recovering the water-logged journal is so captivating that I read it without even checking what page I was on.

My parents were in quiet conversation around the fire, and the moonlight made a window-shaped puddle of silver on our covers, Emily and I two tiny bumps beneath.


The Lightkeeper’s Daughters, Jean Pendziwol

On the whole, I was most interesting in the story of Elizabeth and Emily’s childhoods. The tension in the scene where they discover a ship about to be wrecked is probably The Lightkeeper’s Daughters‘ best scene. The family drama and the impact that the past has on the present is a little predictable, especially as I’ve read several other lighthouse books that work on a similar premise.

That said, Jean Pendziwol draws the reader through the story, which feels well-paced. The prose is enjoyable, especially in those parts that I’ve already mentioned, and the characters are mostly interesting.

For a season, the place flourished. The shelves in the general store were stocked with dry goods and an assortment of penny candy, the beach at Surprise Lake on the edge of the community was raked and opened for swimming, and evenings saw the shoreline dotted with bonfires.


The Lightkeeper’s Daughters, Jean Pendziwol

The setting is, of course, my favourite part of The Lightkeeper’s Daughters. I just love stories about lighthouses, especially ones that are still working. There’s a lovely sense of the community, especially during the summer months, which feels like something you don’t get any more. The fact that Elizabeth also clearly loved growing up at a lighthouse makes this particularly enjoyable to revisit.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn — New Review

The Salt Path was a gift from a friend who knows I collect and read books with lighthouses on the cover, and wasn’t the kind of book I’d usually pick up to read. The premise — a married couple, one of whom is diagnosed with a terminal illness, and who have lost their house, decide to walk the South West Coast Path — sounded like it was going to be self-consciously uplifting, which tends to grate on me.

“You’ll see many things, amazing things and suffer many set-backs, problems you’ll think you can’t overcome.” He reached forward and put his hand on Moth. “But you will overcome them, you’ll survive, and it will make you strong.” We looked at each other, wide-eyed, mouthing a silent ‘what?’. “And you’ll walk with a tortoise.”


The Salt Path, Raynor Winn

In actual fact, The Salt Path was more boring than anything else. While there are some nice descriptions of coastal scenes, nothing really happens. Ray and Moth walk, they camp, they eat and then they walk again. There’s some social commentary about homelessness, infrequent and brief meetings with other walkers, and just not a great deal else. It wasn’t bad — it was neither as grating or as depressing as it could have been, given the subject matter — but neither was it engaging. I found subject changes between one topic and another quite abrupt, and never really felt there was much point to anything.

The Salt Path did, at times, remind me of G K Chesterton’s The Rolling English Road, but that is both a quicker read and – in my opinion – a better one.

Next, I’ll be reading The Lost Letters of William Woolf by Helen Cullen.

Rating: 1 out of 5.

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter by Cherry Radford — New Review

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This is the first Lighthouse Book I’ve reviewed for this blog, but not the first I’ve read, and I’m sorry to say this was something of a disappointment. Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall and The Lightkeeper’s Daughters by Jean E Pendziwol were both excellent, and I think I would’ve enjoyed them even had they not been about lighthouses. The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter by Cherry Radford, on the other hand, I don’t think I would’ve picked up had it not been for the lighthouse connection. It sounded from the blurb like a fairly ordinary romance, and even featured the dreaded ‘secret from the past’ which I always assume will be something of a cliché.

Their friendship develops. So, she reads, did her father’s but shocking revelations cause Imogen to question whether she ever really knew him.

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter

The beginning of the book carried me along easily enough. I think this is the first time I’ve read a Lighthouse Book centred around a lighthouse in the UK, and also the first time the central lighthouse isn’t working. Imogen and her friend visit the lighthouses the same way I would, as a tourist attraction and holiday cottage, rather than being employed in the workings of the lighthouse. By the time I got to the middle of the book, though, I was definitely flagging. The language was fine, without being particularly noteworthy, and the story was a fairly generic romance. Even when, just past the middle of the book, everything started to happen, I still wasn’t that engaged.

Their friendship hangs in the air between their two separate lives, their paths don’t cross, there are no mutual friends to remind one of the other’s existence; at any time, their connection can disappear without consequence.

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter, Cherry Radford

I almost think I should have been more invested in this book than I was. I’ve never had a twitter romance, but I do have friends I’ve made online, who I only know online and who I connect with over IM clients and websites. Imogen’s experience doesn’t reflect mine at all, though. In fact, Imogen and Santiago being separated by a country’s breadth caused remarkably little angst, so I’m not sure why they couldn’t just as easily have been living in the same town. The book certainly picked up when they were together. I enjoyed those early chapters of Imogen being in Spain more than most of the rest of the book. I was particularly amused that Imogen shared my feelings about Les Misérables.

They’ve moved on to the bit that always lets it down: the stupid love-at-first-sight between Marius and Cosette. […] Now they’re singing the ‘In my life’ duet — it’s very pretty of course, but then so are they.

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter, Cherry Radford

The ending — and all the promised secret-related drama — seemed both contrived and rushed. I didn’t really get a sense that the characters had any strong feelings related to what they were discovering, it didn’t change anything about their lives. After reading The Thorn Birds, that was a bit of a disappointment. I suppose this was a much lighter, easier read, but it wasn’t very satisfying. I think if you like this kind of story, there are better examples out there — though, I admit, I’m only capable of recommending You’ve Got Mail as a comparison, because I haven’t read many books in this genre.

Next, I’ll be reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Bookish: Books with Lighthouses on the Cover

I don’t remember when my interest in lighthouses actually started. I know it was before university, because I used to tell my friends N and G that one day I wanted to live in a lighthouse. (N wanted to live in a narrowboat, and G wanted to live in a hot air balloon. We were an eccentrically ambitious lot.) Over the years, it’s become my thing, to the extent that people buy me (much appreciated) lighthouse trinkets, or recommend additions to my collection of books with lighthouses on the cover. A has even promised that if I read enough books with lighthouses on the cover, and rate them, she’ll do me some kind of spreadsheet!

iPiccy-collage

This is my collection as it currently stands – five books I have physical copies of, all of which have lighthouses on the cover. I haven’t read them all yet, but I hope to review all of them in time, as well as keep adding to my collection. I’ll be reviewing The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter by Cherry Radford soon, and I’ll do a special tag or category for lighthouse books.