Archives for fiction

#BookReview ‘Munich’ by Robert Harris @Robert___Harris #spies #WW2

Robert Harris is a classy thriller writer at the top of his game. Munich is his re-telling of the September 1938 meetings between British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and German Chancellor Adolf Hitler. Both had public, and private, objectives. Chamberlain was a pragmatist; though he sought peace, he was prepared to accept a delay of war to enable our woefully-equipped armed forces to prepare. Hitler wanted all of Europe for Aryans, which meant war. All of this is well-documented. But Harris takes two fictional characters and places them into this real history, splicing their personal stories into the political drama. Hugh Legat and Paul von Hartmann met at Oxford in the early Thirties. In 1938, Legat is a junior private secretary to Chamberlain. Hartmann holds a similar position in the German government; he is also part of the anti-Hitler movement. They two men have not spoken or seen each other since a holiday in Munich with a girlfriend. We do not know why. Everyone in this story faces a personal decision of conscience: whether to be loyal to country, self, and family, or betray them. The costs are different for each person. For some; death. For others; isolation, loss of
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Categories: Book Love.

#BookReview ‘Pigeon Pie’ by Nancy Mitford #satire #historical

Pigeon Pie, the fourth novel of Nancy Mitford, was first published in 1940 by Hamish Hamilton. This was a serious error by its publisher given that Mitford wrote this light-hearted satire about wartime spying just before World War Two broke out in 1939. Not surprisingly, it was a commercial miss. Which is a shame. It is a funny, more tightly-plotted and disciplined novel than her first three and is a transition between her pre-war and post-war novels. At the outbreak of war, Lady Sophia Garfield enrols at her nearest First Aid Post and is put in charge of the office, folding and counting laundry and taking telephone calls. As the book is set during the first few months of war, the Phoney War, not a lot happens for Sophia except endless first aid drills. She teases an acquaintance, Olga – who poses in the press as a mysterious Mata Hari figure – and lunches with inept friends Ned and Fred who work at the Ministry of Information. Then Sophia stumbles on a nest of spies; or counter-spies, or counter-counter spies, she’s not sure which. Although her characters seem of a type with those of her first three novels – Mitford
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Categories: Book Love.

#Bookreview ‘The Marriage Plot’ by Jeffrey Eugenides #literary

The title of this, the third novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jeffrey Eugenides, refers to the entanglements of three students and the plotting of Victorian romance novels. The Marriage Plot tells of the romantic, sexual, philosophical, religious and literary coming togethers/going aparts of a literature student Madeleine Hanna, scientist Leonard Bankhead and theology student Mitchell Grammaticus at Brown University in 1982 America. It is a tale of youthful assumptions, experimentations, dreams and disappointments. Perhaps it is a tale which will strike a chord with people of the same age as Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell, rather than those who are older. None of the three main characters are particularly likeable and at times the book gets bogged down in literary theory, philosophy, science and religious theory. Leonard is brilliant but a manic depressive, something which colours the entire book. The portrayal of his illness is convincing and shows the knife edge of pharmaceutical dosage needed to maintain a healthy mental balance. Leonard yo-yo’s back and forth, coping and not coping, at times allowing his manic tendencies to win. Madeleine accuses him of liking being depressed all the time. Mitchell is the idealistic one who goes to India to work for Mother
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Gilead

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is a read like no other. A slow, contemplative journey through the memories of one man’s life, as he waits to die. In 1956, the Reverend John Ames writes a letter to his young son. It tugs the heartstrings. Robinson writes with a clear unadorned style drawing heavily on biblical texts but it is not a religious tract, it is the story of a man’s life, his memories, his regrets and loves. The first few lines grabbed me and didn’t let me go. Do not start reading this book if you are feeling impatient. Some passages are easy and quick to read, others deserve more thought. It unwinds slowly like a length of thread, telling us the story of John Ames, his father and grandfather, the legacy of the Ames family which has been inherited by the Reverend’s seven-year old son. I am not religious and some of the references will have passed me by. In the first half of the novel, I would think ‘oh no not another section about religion’, but as I read deeper into the book I became drawn into the stories of John Ames and his forebears and how their beliefs shaped
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Panic Room

Panic Room by Robert Goddard starts in the voice of someone unnamed, someone who feels safe in a beautiful, calm place, who wants to stay there forever but who knows that is unrealistic. It made me ask so many questions: who is the speaker, where is this safe place and why isn’t it forever? It’s a while before we learn the identity of the first speaker. We are next introduced to Don Challenor, an ordinary middle-aged bloke, an estate agent who has been sacked, who is given a temporary job by his ex- wife Fran. To prepare for sale a multi-million property, Wortalleth West in Cornwall, for a client of Fran’s. Don jumps in his vintage MG to drive west, not realising how his life will change. In the house he sets about his job, taking photos and measurements in order to prepare the sales brochure. Except the dimensions of one room don’t make sense. There is a mystery void. A steel door which cannot be opened. Is it a panic room? Why is it there? What’s in it? Is it dangerous? Could someone be inside, watching? Or are they trapped? Why not simply ask the owner of the house?
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton is a whodunnit version of Groundhog Day set at a country house party. There is a twist: the Bill Murray character must live each day in a different body, a host, and solve a murder or never escape back to his normal life. I found this to be a tortuous, convoluted and mystifying plot, impossible to review without giving away clues (intentionally or not), but I will have a go. If you like conventional detective stories which follow the rules of crime fiction, presenting a challenge to be solved, this may not be for you. If you like going on a mystery journey where nothing is as it seems, you will like it. Mysteries work when the reader has something to cling onto, to make them identify with a character, to make them care, to give them someone to root for. This story has so many unknowns I spent most of the story in a state of confusion. Like Coco Chanel dressing for the evening and then removing two elements to ensure she wasn’t over-dressed, I finished this book wishing the author had undertaken a similar cutting exercise. The solution to
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Whistle in the Dark

Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey begins with an ending; a sixteen-year old girl, lost in the Peak District, has been found and is in hospital with her parents. Healey tells the story of the aftermath as Jen, Lana’s mother, tries desperately to unravel the truth of what happened to her daughter. In the face of Lana’s reluctance to speak, Jen’s desperation evolves into obsession and the story circles into myth, obfuscation and misunderstanding. For the reader, there is a lot to unravel. Told entirely from Jen’s POV, by halfway through I was beginning to question Jen’s state of mind and whether she was an unreliable narrator. There is a lot of smoke and shadows in the telling of this story, interwoven with the crystals of Jen’s friend Grace, the fibs of Lana’s schoolfriend Bethany, the pragmatic questioning and Instagram comments by Jen’s mother Lily, and Jen’s fertile imagination. There were times when it felt a little like being whizzed around in a washing machine. But through it all shines Healey’s ability to draw pictures with words, “The heavy summer foliage that lined the motorway seemed to have taken on its own light, as if the sun had splintered
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Vanishing Acts

This is the first book by Jodi Picoult which I have read, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I would describe Vanishing Acts as long, intriguing, multi-layered. Is it the greatest? No, but it makes me want to read more of her books. Her multiple-perspectives mean you get a 360° view of a situation and see how different people view the same thing, something we are not always privy to in real life. Delia Hopkins lives in New Hampshire with her widowed father Andrew and her daughter Sophie. She works with her own search-and-rescue bloodhound to find missing people. She is about to marry Eric, a friend since childhood. Everything seems happy, except for strange dreams which she cannot explain. ‘I am little, and he has just finished planting a lemon tree in our backyard. I am dancing around it. I want to make lemonade, but there isn’t any fruit because the tree is just a baby. How long will it take to grow one? I ask. A while, he tells me. I sit myself down in front of it to watch. He comes over and takes my hand. Come on, grilla, he says. If we’re going to sit
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Winter

Winter by Ali Smith is second in her Seasonal Quartet but unconnected to its predecessor Autumn in terms of character and location. Like all Smith’s novels, it pays to read with patience. The story is at times choppy and sections seem unrelated; but have faith, it will make sense, connections will link up, characters will coincide and small details laid down early will connect to something much later. And simmering beneath the words is Smith’s anger at our unjust messed-up modern world where we don’t notice what’s going on around us and don’t seem to care. So much fiction today looks back at our history, Smith’s Seasonal Quartet is so modern if feels as if she is writing a page ahead of the one I am reading. First we meet two sisters, Sophia and Iris who are as unalike as sisters can be. Art, Sophia’s son, has had his Twitter identity stolen by his angry girlfriend. Charlotte is posting incorrect tweets about Art’s ‘Art in Nature’ blog and these untruths are now trending. Art, who has committed to taking Charlotte to his mother’s house in Cornwall for Christmas, instead invites a girl he sees sitting at a bus stop. Lux,
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Last of the Greenwoods

Clare Morrall is so good at writing about people on the margins. In The Last of the Greenwoods, Johnny and Nick Greenwood are estranged brothers who live separately in two abandoned, adjacent railway carriages; with shared kitchen and bathroom. They are adept at avoiding each other. Nick lives in Aphrodite on the right, Johnny in Demeter on the left. Aphrodite has horizontal blinds at the windows, open at a slant so someone inside can look out but no-one outside can see in. Demeter’s windows are unknowable with permanently drawn curtains. The carriages sit amidst trees and shrubs, hidden from the main road in Bromsgrove, West Midlands. They have been the brother’s world since they were boys. Until one day, into the lives of these emotionally separated but geographically close brothers comes a letter which reignites haunted memories. “The floor is vibrating under his feet, there’s a sensation of motion, as if the train has started to move. What’s happening? Is he slipping backwards, losing his place in the present and tumbling back to the past? How can this be?” The letter is from their older sister, Debs; the sister who was murdered when the boys were children. As the brothers
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock

Quite a few things in The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar are not as they seem. The mermaid, which may or not be real, is actually dead and quite gruesome. And the story starts with shipping merchant Mr Hancock, not Mrs. He is a widower. This story about London in 1785 is a full-on feast for the senses and at first is a bit overwhelming: wind ‘sings’, raindrops ‘burst’, skin is ‘scuffed and stained’, a face is ‘meaty’. But then I fell into the life of Jonah Hancock and wondered when the mermaid, and Mrs Hancock, would appear. Soon the captain of the Calliope, one of Jonah’s ships, returns homes without the ship but with a mermaid. The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock overflows with contrasts: Deptford and Mary-le-Bone are villages outside London, whales are dismembered and rendered beside the river but in nearby Blackheath the air is to be treasured. It seems unlikely that the path of Jonah, conservative, hard-working, will intersect with Angelica Neal, a former upper class prostitute. But thanks to the mermaid, they meet and their lives take different turns as a result. Gowar juxtaposes sumptuous silks, satins and pearls of the girls at Mrs
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Believers

The Believers by Zoe Heller is the story of a New York family and how serious illness challenges each person to consider in what they believe. The Litvinoffs are a Jewish family used by Heller as a prism to question our beliefs, not just religious but also motherhood, fidelity and politics. The story starts with the meeting of English student Audrey and American lawyer Joel, at a party in London in the Sixties. The action then shifts swiftly to 2002. Audrey and Joel live in New York, he is a prominent and outspoken radical lawyer, she does good works. They have two daughters, Rose and Karla, and adopted son Lenny. On the day he is due to appear in court representing a controversial defendant, Joel has a stroke. As he lays in a coma, Heller shows each of the family confronting the situation, its impact on their own lives, or not as the case may be. None of the characters are particularly likeable, and the storyline can be difficult in places, but I found the pages turned quickly as I wanted to know the ending. Of course, like life, there is no neat finale only more life to follow as
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth

Partly good and partly disappointing: The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth, the latest collection of short stories by William Boyd, is a bit of a curate’s egg. The shorter the stories, the more satisfying. Organised in three parts, the first comprises seven short stories. If asked for my favourite from Part 1, I would say the first, ‘The Man Who Liked Kissing Women’. Ludo Abernathy is an art dealer who has foresworn affairs, his previous dalliances having finished three marriages. Now, he sticks to kissing women. Except when he can’t resist the temptation of making a killing on a Lucien Freud painting. The title story, the longest in the anthology, makes up Part 2. It is more novella than short story, and I almost wish Boyd had developed it as such with a full plotline rather than letting Bethany Mellmoth drift from scene to scene. Bethany is a naïve twenty-something who drifts from boyfriend to boyfriend, dreaming of what she can do with her life but failing to make it happen. Each time it goes wrong, she gives up and moves back with her mother. It was a pleasant read but I’m unclear of Boyd’s central message – perhaps, the over-reliance
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Night Child

The Night Child by Anna Quinn caught me by surprise and took off racing from the first page so that I read half the book at my first sitting. But it is not a thriller, it was simply that I didn’t want to stop reading. I confess to selecting the book on my Kindle having forgotten the book blurb; perhaps I should do that more often. Nora Brown teaches teenagers about Shakespeare and poetry; so she knows about the imagination, imagery and dreams. Then one day at work, floating in front of her she sees the face of a blue-eyed girl, a face without a body. Quinn writes about Nora’s fear, panic, guilt, shame, with an insight into the private mind and this made me believe Nora from page one. Seeking answers, she talks to a psychiatrist and so starts an unravelling of Nora’s past, a past buried so deep she had no idea of its existence. As the revelations pick up pace, she must deal with a damaged teenager at school, decide whether to confront her unfaithful husband Paul, and reassure her six-year-old daughter Fiona. Stress layered on top of stress, which makes the child’s face appear more often.
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Categories: Book Love.

Connectedness: coming soon

I’m so excited that Connectedness my second novel, book two in the ‘Identity Detective’ series, will be published on May 10, 2018. This tale of art, adoption, romance and loss moves between now and the Eighties, from London’s art world to the bleak isolated cliffs of East Yorkshire and the hot orange blossom streets of Málaga, Spain. So what’s it all about? TO THE OUTSIDE WORLD, ARTIST JUSTINE TREE HAS IT ALL… BUT SHE ALSO HAS A SECRET THAT THREATENS TO DESTROY EVERYTHING Justine’s art sells around the world, but does anyone truly know her? When her mother dies, she returns to her childhood home in Yorkshire where she decides to confront her past. She asks journalist Rose Haldane to find the baby she gave away when she was an art student, but only when Rose starts to ask difficult questions does Justine truly understand what she must face. Is Justine strong enough to admit the secrets and lies of her past? To speak aloud the deeds she has hidden for 27 years, the real inspiration for her work that sells for millions of pounds. Could the truth trash her artistic reputation? Does Justine care more about her daughter, or her
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Categories: Adoption and My Novel: 'Connectedness'.

Book review: Offshore

This is a slim, powerful novel about a small community of people living on houseboats on the River Thames at Battersea Reach in 1960s London. Anchored on the southern shore, next to the warehouses, brewery and rubbish disposal centre, they long to be positioned on the prosperous Chelsea shore opposite. In Offshore, Penelope Fitzgerald draws you into the world of Dreadnought, Grace, Maurice, Lord Jim and Rochester – those are the boats – and their occupants. They live in close, intimate proximity as the boats are tied to each other, only one is fastened to the wharf. Despite this, each person lives in an individual island of loneliness caused by marriage, poverty, sexuality, or just being different. Their lives are governed by tidal movement. ‘On every barge on the Reach a very faint ominous tap, no louder than the door of a cupboard shutting, would be followed by louder ones from every strake, timber and weatherboard, a fusillade of thunderous creaking, and even groans that seemed human. The crazy old vessels, riding high in the water without cargo, awaited their owner’s return.’ The people are inter-dependent but don’t know it until a crisis happens. The catalyst is Nenna, a young
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: In the Midst of Winter

In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende is the story of three ordinary-looking people, people you would not glance at if you passed by them in the street, and their extra-ordinary lives. Each has faced loss and trauma, each feels isolated, lonely. Laced throughout this deceptive novel are themes of dislocation, grief, human trafficking and the courage to free oneself of these bonds. Set in modern-day Brooklyn and Guatemala, and 1970s Chile and Brazil, it is the story of people relocated thousands of miles away from family to new countries with strange languages and customs where against the odds they must begin a new life. Richard, Lucia and Evelyn are thrown together in Brooklyn, New York, during a momentous snowstorm. Evelyn, a young illegal immigrant from Guatemala, borrows her employer’s car and in the storm crashes into Richard. Richard is in his sixties, a loner, aesthete and reformed alcoholic, he lives his life according to routine. But when the car crash upsets his rigid ordered life, he is forced to halt his almost OCD existence and do unpredictable, often rash, things. When Evelyn turns up on his doorstep, hours after the crash, he is unable to understand her Spanish
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Heart’s Invisible Furies

From the first sentence I was entranced. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne starts with such an opening sentence, full of conflict, hypocrisy, resentment and hope, it made me want to gobble up the pages and not put the book down. I wasn’t disappointed. The Heart’s Invisible Furies is the life story of one man, Cyril Avery, but also of a country and its attitudes to sexuality. The story starts in Goleen, Ireland, in 1945; a country riven by loyalty to, and hatred of, the British, at the same time in thrall to its Catholic priests whose rules were hypocritical, illogical and cruel. Cyril narrates his story, starting with how his 16-year old mother was denounced in church by the family priest for being single and pregnant. She was thrown out of church and village by the priest and disowned by her family. On the train to Dublin she meets a teenager, Sean, also heading for the big city. Wanting to help someone so obviously alone, Sean offers to let Catherine stay at his digs until she finds lodging and a job. These first friends she make are some of the most important in her life, and re-appear at
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: Blow Your House Down

The words that immediately come to mind after finishing Blow Your House Down by Pat Barker are negative: unflinching, bleak, dark and depressing. This is a dark story of the women preyed upon by a killer, women living on the edge, surviving by selling their bodies to men at a time when prostitutes are being murdered. But other words also came to mind as I dwelled on the book afterwards: friendship, community, solidarity, defiance, vulnerability, strength. Slim, I read it in one sitting on a rainy afternoon, this is a powerful, compelling read. It pulls you into the women’s stories, makes you feel at one with them. Blow Your House Down is set in a Northern Town in the 1980s. The timing and setting draw inevitable links with the Yorkshire Ripper who preyed on prostitutes and lone women in the north and was arrested and convicted in 1981. Frightened but driven by the need for rent money or to feed their children, the women continue to walk the streets as the face of one of their own, Kath, the killer’s latest victim, looks down at them from a giant poster. The detail of their ordinary lives is described, starting with
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Categories: Book Love.

Book review: The Gustav Sonata

This novel is a remedy. If you have been reading too many fast-moving, cliff-hanging, emotionally-wringing new novels which don’t give you time to breathe, now sink into this. The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain is a sensitive portrayal of the friendship of two boys who meet at kindergarten and form a lifelong on-off friendship. Gustav and Anton are the products of their parents and upbringing, and the baggage they inherit. All of this is complicated by post-war Switzerland. The war seems, to them, irrelevant, but in fact it frames their whole lives. Gustav lives with his widowed mother Emilie in a small town in Switzerland. Money is tight and Emilie juggles jobs to manage. As a lonely toddler who misses a father he barely remembers, Gustav longs for more warmth from an emotionally-distant mother. She encourages him to ‘master himself’, his behaviour, his emotions, his ambitions. He accompanies her to her cleaning job at the local church, he helps by cleaning rubbish from beneath the grating; instead of throwing it away, he keeps it carefully in a tin. The only person with whom he shares these treasures is Anton, his first real friend. Visiting Anton’s home and meeting his parents,
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Categories: Book Love.