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.

Bookish: Pretending I Run a Book Shop

Like many readers, I sometimes fantasise about running my own book shop — being able to pick the books to order, helping customers find just the right book to read, organising to my heart’s content. (Some of this, perhaps, is influenced by the number of times my mum watched You’ve Got Mail when I was a teenager.) Most recently, Nickie and I talked about how amazing it would be to convert a lighthouse into a bookshop and combine my two loves!

I’m sure the reality is a lot more hard work than the fantasy. And sadly, The Open Book — an Airbnb where you can run a book shop (and blog about it) for the duration of your stay — is presumably still booked up several years into the future.

In the meantime, I write a book blog, and so I decided that I was within my rights to set myself up as an affiliate on Bookshop.org, an ‘online bookshop with a mission to financially support local, independent bookshops’. Not only do I potentially stand to make a small commission if anyone buys books from bookshop.org via my affiliate link, but I also get to curate my own book lists!

I’ve started with two categories. Lighthouse Books is a collection of books with lighthouses on the cover, or which feature lighthouses in content in some way. (You can read more about my interest in lighthouses in this post.) I haven’t added the lighthouse books I’ve yet to read, but I do have at least three sitting on my shelf waiting for me to get to them!

Homelover’s Tales is my list of books that I’d like to live in. Were I to visit The Open Book, this would be one of the displays I would put out. I would print out some of the beautiful descriptions of homes to ornament the display of these titles. Starting, always, with ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’

I’ll definitely add more lists over time. I want to add a list of fantasy heists, and my favourite fantasy novels, and possibly the creepy Agatha Christie books that send chills up my spine. Even if nobody every buys anything from list, or clicks on any of my affiliate links, I’ve enjoyed pretending that I run a book shop, even if it is a virtual one!

The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch — Firm Favourite

Cover: amazon.co.uk

Previous in the series: Red Seas Under Red Skies.

I have so many thoughts about The Republic of Thieves that I honestly don’t know where to begin! Everything I said about The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies still applies. These books might as well have been written specifically for me. They have con artists, pirates, theatrical troupes and a steadfast, loyal companion who will always be one of my favourite characters in anything ever. (I even started writing a parody song about him, which I may post if I ever get it finished.)

As in the first two books, I am a huge, huge fan of all the flashbacks to Locke’s younger days. It’s impossible to say that any one book has my favourite set of them, because I love them all, but I do absolutely love what we see of Sabetha in The Republic of Thieves. As Locke’s love interest, she had a lot to live up to, but she more than surpassed my expectations. There’s nothing simple or uncomplicated about Sabetha and yet, unlike some love interests I could name, she speaks plainly to Locke – both about her feelings and about their arguments.

“Let’s be obvious, me brute, you weasel.”
“Agreed. You brute, me charming mastermind. But there’s no sense in setting things too taut before we even know who we’re dealing with. Be a brute that plays nice until provoked.”
“So we’re not actually playing characters at all, then?”

The Republic of Thieves, Scott Lynch

I adore that they argue. It makes the relationship feel so much more real. A lot of what I love about it is the same as what I love about seeing Locke and Jean together. They know each other well to make each other miserable, and yet they’re still both trying to make things right. It feels a lot more adult than some fantasy relationships, and I think Sabetha has a lot to do with that.

Similarly, Locke and Jean talk about some pretty complex topics in The Republic of Thieves. They have a genuinely rational, erudite conversation about religious symbolism and nightmares. It’s conversations like that which allow me to maintain my faith in Scott Lynch. Even when he hints at some things I’m not the biggest fan of…

Which brings me to spoiler-territory! There is simply no point reviewing this book without talking about the big, potentially series-changing twist that happens. Consider yourself warned!

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison — Reread Review, Bookclub Edition.

The Goblin Emperor was recommended by Scott Lynch and so I originally bought a copy for Rebecca, who very kindly let me read it after she’d finished. I really enjoyed it, and knew I’d eventually buy a copy of my own. A new fantasy book club in London gave me the excuse I’d been looking for, and I settled down to remind myself what I’d enjoyed about it.

An exploration of privilege and constraint, a story of outsiders breaking in, an unapologetic love-letter to baroque and beautiful linguistic customs, and a story of compassion finding its way through cracks in the walls of despotism and greed, THE GOBLIN EMPEROR is worth the turn of every last page.

Scott Lynch

Maia is not your typical fantasy protagonist, but I was a whole 15 pages into The Goblin Emperor when I decided that I loved him. He’s undereducated, and naive to the ways of court life, but not so naive as to be insufferable. He’s also probably the best depiction I’ve seen of a POV character who’s very much still in recovery from abuse. Katherine Addison doesn’t dwell on the details in a way that’s uncomfortably tragic, but there are subtle ticks to the way Maia thinks that are fairly unmistakable. His character development is done really well. It was interesting to me that some of the book club readers said they didn’t know what the story was about, because to me it was obviously about Maia coming into his own as emperor, after years of not expecting to ever be a political figure.

Maia noted when an hour had passed, and wondered if it was that the Lord Chancellor was unusually well hidden — most odd and unadmirable in a man planning a state funeral — or that he was trying to regain the whip hand by a calculated show of disrespect.

The Goblin Emperor, Katheraine Addison

Just as well-drawn and well-developed are the myriad other characters. My personal favourite is Csevet, who is keenly organised and politically savvy. Other popular bookclub choices were Maia’s lesbian pirate aunt, and Csethiro, daughter of a noble family who somehow convinced someone along the way to teach her how to duel. Even the antagonists are interestingly drawn, especially Sheveän, widow of the late heir to the throne.

What I’d most forgotten about The Goblin Emperor before rereading it is that it’s funny. There’s a lot of great word play, and several times I chuckled aloud. There’s also mention of, though sadly little detail about, a convent of lighthouse keepers, so I think I may have find my fantasy dream job.

“Lord Berenar says Osmer Orimar was concealing dishonesty of some considerable scope from Chavar.”
“Gracious,” said Csevet. “We would not have thought he had the intelligence.”
“It does not seem to have been very difficult.”

The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison

In the interests of fairness, I should admit that I had some trouble with the names. There is a glossary, which is some help, but occasionally it will either miss someone out, or list them by their last name — which is no help if you’ve encountered their first name in the text and want to be reminded of who they are. I was usually able to pick it up from context, and in the few instances where I couldn’t, it didn’t seem to really impact my understanding of the broader situation.

I’d recommend this to anyone who likes a different take on the fantasy genre, and perhaps particularly to anyone who enjoyed Spinning Silver.

Next, I’ll be reading Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Child from the Sea by Elizabeth Goudge — New Review

During my degree, my university halls of residence closed down their library, and offered students very cheap deals on all the books. Having read The Little White Horse as a child, I rescued two Elizabeth Goudge novels, which I dutifully put on a shelf and forgot about. In the intervening years, I borrowed a copy of The White Witch, memorable largely for the fact that at one point the narrative dives unexpectedly into the inner monologue of a horse. To say I didn’t know what to expect from The Child from the Sea would be an understatement. For most of the book, I wasn’t even sure which historical period it was set in. (My thanks to Nickie, who worked out that it was the English Civil war, and that Prince Charles was about to become Charles II.) As it turns out, protagonist Lucy Walter is a real person, as are most of the characters she interacts with.

When occasion demanded she could play the great lady very well indeed; and quite instinctively, for the golden thread of the Princess Ness was interwoven with the buccaneer, and for a short while she could enjoy the calm of gracious living.

The Child from the Sea, Elizabeth Goudge

The opening chapters were thoroughly enchanting. The evocative fairy tale language reminded me of my favourite descriptions of Moonacre Valley in The Little White Horse. I didn’t know before reading that the theme of home — one of my preoccupations — would be so important, and I was pleased with the number of entries I added to my blog of literary dwellings. Lucy was a home-maker in the style of a more down-to-earth Anne Shirley. Instead of imagining places more comforting than they are, Lucy makes them so with pictures and ornaments.

The blood and darkness vanished and Lucy’s mind was full of wine-cups and apples, steepled churches and lovely ladies in head-dresses tall and pointed like the steeples.

The Child from the Sea, Elizabeth Goudge

While these descriptions were enough to keep me reading, they were somewhat let down by the plot and characterisation. Lucy spends a lot of the book alone, and when the narrative is just a description of her circumstances, rather than a specific incident, I wasn’t quite sure what the point was. Even when they did happen, specific conversations between characters lacked immediacy. Elizabeth Goudge offered tantalising glimpses into the inner lives of Anne Hill and Lord Taaffe, and I sometimes wished I were reading a book about them, because their emotions seemed stronger and more well-realised. As much as I appreciated the perspectives of these minor characters, I did find the choice of when to switch into their narratives to be a little mystifying. When Lucy loses a beloved parent, one of the moments of what should be the highest emotion for her character, the narrative distances itself from her, and we only get to see her through the eyes of Lord Taaffe.

Politics is treated in a similar way. The Child from the Sea can’t seem to decide whether it is a novel about the English Civil War and the return to power of the monarchy or not. For much of the novel, Lucy is kept quite separate from the political situation, and the story being told is one of personal relationships. This would be fine, except that later on, the story takes a political turn, which feels quite disorientating. It’s not a total failure, and I was able to follow the politics to a degree, but it added to the sense that I was never quite sure what the book was about.

Overall, I’d recommend The Child from the Sea more for its descriptions and themes than its story or its characterisation.

Next, I’ll be reading Island by Aldous Huxley.

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.