Book No 42 (2015) : Dolly

dollyI was in the unfortunate position of having had to spend some time in the Minor Injuries Unit of our local hospital over the weekend. It turned out that it was long enough for me to be able to read the whole of Susan Hill’s short ghost tale ‘Dolly‘. (Actually, I was sitting there long enough to have read ‘War and Peace’, but that is a different story!)

The narrator is Edward, who recounts time spent at Iyot House, the home of his great-aunt, Aunt Kestrel (fabulous name!), and her dour maid, Mrs Mullen. The trio are joined by Edward’s cousin, Leonora, a flame-haired, unfathomable young girl with a foul temper. She both bewitches and confuses the young Edward, although Aunt Kestrel is more kindly and pragmatic in her approach to her great-niece, believing her to be over-indulged and spoiled. From the numerous gifts sent to Leonora by her mother, it certainly seems as if the youngster is used to getting her own way. But her heart’s desire is a doll, and although she knows exactly what she wants, her mother never sends the Indian Princess dolly. When Edward takes it upon himself to make sure that Leonora receives the gift of her dreams, his decision has frightening lifelong repercussions for everyone.

As I turned the last page of this book, the over-riding question in my mind was ‘why’? The plot just didn’t seem to conclude satisfactorily, as I was left wondering. In any novel, there is often ambiguity, leaving the reader to consider several options as to what might have happened, and this can be interesting and fun. But the ending of ‘Dolly‘ felt unfinished, as if Hill ran out of ideas before she had to meet her agent’s deadline. I was disappointed with ‘The Small Hand‘ last year and feel that maybe ‘The Woman in Black‘, which I found genuinely unsettling, remains unsurpassed.

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Book No 41 (2015) : The Summer of the Bear

summr of the bearJamie’s Dad, Nicky Fleming, was a diplomat based in Bonn and he died when he suffered a fall. The family members he left behind – wife, Letty, and teenage daughters Georgie and Alba, as well as Jamie, are trying to re-shape their lives to accommodate the gaping hole that Nicky has left. He wrote what might be a suicide note but Letty is sure that he would not have deserted his family. An investigation ensues and gradually a version of the truth begins to emerge.

When I was 7 years old, I lost my Dad. He was only 29. Only ‘lost’ is a euphemism of course, because actually he died. My Mum told me that he had had an accident and was dead. But although I thought I understood, I really didn’t. My memories of waiting for him to come back from Canada (the farthest away place my 7-year old mind could imagine) are very vivid. What I had failed to grasp is that dead was for ever. It is obvious to grown-ups, but it wasn’t obvious to me. My desperation when the truth hit, many months after my father’s death, was as crushing as the original news.

My own experiences came flooding back to me as I read Bella Pollen’s stunning novelThe Summer of the Bear’. Jamie’s mother tells him that his Dada has gone for a long, long time. Jamie knows that as Dada is lost, he will be searching for his family, even as far as the remote Hebridean  island where Jamie now lives with his Mum and 2 sisters. So Jamie throws lots of messages in bottles into the sea, each one containing a hand-drawn map with the location of the family’s house clearly marked. This image moved me to tears; in their efforts to protect Jamie, whose mind works in mysterious ways, the adults had blurred the edges of reality to such an extent, that the little boy comes to believe that his father has been re-incarnated into the body of a grizzly bear which has escaped on the island and so far evaded capture.

The narrative moves from Bonn to East Berlin, Ballanish in the Outer Hebrides to London, taking in the experiences of not only Letty and her children, but also the escaped bear, the Cold War and a suspected radiological contamination. Only an exceptional talent could weave together such disparate threads as these, to produce a tender, compelling and imaginative novel. I found it completely captivating, such was the power of Pollen’s characters; the islanders with their fears and fairytales, the commandeering Ambassadress, Nicky’s faithful friend Tom, and Ballanish itself.

Such is the scope and sweep of ‘The Summer of the Bear‘ that even if you have never been bereaved, or set foot on a Scottish island, or read the (true) story of Hercules the bear, there will be something in this book to seduce you. I will definitely be hunting out Bella Pollen’s other work.

Book No 40 (2015) : Valentine Grey

valentine greyWe caught sight of Sandi Toksvig once, sitting under a tree at Simon and Garfunkel’s Hyde Park concert 10 years ago.  British reserve and politesse prevented me from disturbing her peace, although I have long been an admirer of her considerable talent and versatility as a journalist, writer, presenter and, more recently co-founder of the extremely important Women’s Equality Party. She has written several books and ‘Valentine Grey‘ is a work of historical fiction.

Valentine has spent her childhood as a free spirit in Assam, raised by her father and allowed to ride horses, shoot and run barefoot. All rather unseemly for a young woman and in 1897, when Valentine is aged 15, her father is persuaded that she should be sent to England. Once there, she struggles with the constraints of not only her clothes and shoes, but the restrictions of London society. Relief arrives in the form of her cousin, Reggie, a spirited young man who embarks upon a homosexual affair with a beautiful, flamboyant theatre performer. Valentine, Reggie and Frank are enjoying life, until Reg’s father signs him up to defend the British Empire in South Africa. Unwilling to leave Frank and totally unsuited to a soldier’s life, Reggie is looking for a way out. And so, disguised as a man, Valentine takes Reggie’s place. Embarking upon the adventure of her life, Valentine faces the horrors of war, but forms enduring relationships with the men of her Mess.

Judging by the extensive bibliography, the author undertook a huge amount of research into Victorian life and attitudes, together with the facts of the Boer War. The result is an utterly convincing novel, with the feisty Valentine at its heart. It examines the prevailing attitudes towards women and gays, views which Valentine herself seeks to influence and change.

I was enthralled by this book and read it in one sitting. It made me laugh and cry in equal measure. It also has one of the best closing paragraphs I have ever come across in a book.

Book No 39 (2015) : The Best of Times

best of timesAlthough generally a law-abiding citizen, I got caught for speeding a few months ago. Twice. As a result, I ended up attending a Speed Awareness Course, part of which involved watching a video reconstruction of a terrible motorway pile-up. The 1991 accident happened on a stretch of the M4 in Berkshire, when a van driver skidded into the central reservation.Within 19 seconds, 51 vehicles were involved, leaving 10 people dead and 25 injured. I found the video sobering and whilst discussing it with friends, they told me about the Penny Vincenzi novel ‘The Best of Times‘ which centres upon an M4 crash.

Various circumstances conspire to bring the cast of the book’s characters to the motorway on the 22nd August in question. Jonathan, a successful hospital consultant is with his lover, Abi. Mary is on her way to a reunion with a wartime sweetheart. Georgia hitches a lift with Paddy, a van driver whilst Toby and Barney are pulled over for speeding, late for Toby’s wedding. From above the motorway, William Grainger watches as the motorway horror unfolds. The novel follows the characters through the crash to the subsequent investigations and hospital treatments, as everyone affected tries to re-build their lives.

At almost 900 pages, ‘The Best of Times’ is quite a commitment. It could be an enjoyable read, but for several things. Firstly, and probably most importantly, the characters are totally unlikeable and overtly stereotypical: the men, almost without exception, are lying, cheating bastards, leaving behind them a trail of embittered women. The female characters are equally disagreeable, ranging from needy teen Georgia, to the arrogant and argumentative Linda to doormat Maeve. Secondly, the plot and sub-plots are almost twee, predictable and uninspiring – there was no real drama or surprise, everything turned out pretty much as it would in a fairytale. Thirdly, the book is way, way too long, resulting in me whizzing through the last 100-pages to tidy up the storylines. Had I not been writing a review, I honestly wouldn’t have bothered.

In the right hands, this could have been a skilful and sensitive exploration of the devastation caused by road traffic accidents. But, done the Ms Vincenzi way it was, well, a complete car crash of a book. I would definitely swerve to avoid this one.