Book No 43 (2015) : The Blue

the blueFate must have been having a laugh when she gifted me with an innate love of the sea, coupled with debilitating motion sickness. As a child, twenty minutes on the 441 bus with my Nan, up Egham Hill to the Great Park was enough to leave me retching. So as I can’t be a real sailor, I have to take my sea-faring pleasures vicariously. Hence my choice of books such as Lucy Clarke’s ‘The Blue‘.

This intriguing thriller tells the story of Lana and Kitty, two best pals who have their own reasons for wanting to leave the UK. With a random spin of the globe, they head for the Philippines. The girls join the glorious yacht ‘The Blue’ and its eclectic crew. Although they have never sailed before, Lana and Kitty soon adapt to the idyllic life on board; swimming, snorkelling and camaraderie. They try their best to abide by the on-board rules of Aaron, the skipper, and form friendships with the rest of the crew – Joseph, Shell, Heinrich and Denny. But their trip starts to turn sour after a night of heavy drinking, when one of the crew members goes missing at sea.

Lucy Clarke is clearly a traveller. She captures the lure of the sea and adventure beautifully, transporting the reader to the clear blue waters of the ocean, but also describing the menace of stormy weather. I could feel the warm sun and smell the tang of salt in the air. As the mystery within the novel begins to unfold, I was drawn deeper into the story, keen to see the secrets of ‘The Blue‘ revealed. If, like me, you are an armchair mariner, this book will probably float your boat. It did mine.

Thank you to NetGalley for my copy of this book.

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.

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.

Book No 38 (2015) : The Paying Guests

paying guestsThis book reinforced the main reason why I fell in love with reading in the first place. I grew up, like so many youngsters of my age, on Enid Blyton, Noel Streatfeild and CS Lewis. During school holidays, rainy days and weekends, I would lose myself in a book, much to the frustration of my much more active sister who was always urging me to ‘do’ something! Reading was the gateway to other places and it still is. Sarah Waters’ ‘The Paying Guests‘ did what I love in a novel, which is to draw me into another world.

It is the 1920s and Frances Wray and her mother have been left in debt. Once a busy home, with two sons and servants, their Camberwell house is now echoing and lonely. Although only in her mid-20s, Frances has become a drudge, behind with the latest fashions, often with only her mother for company and lumbered with all the household chores. To make ends meet, the Wrays decide to take in lodgers, or ‘paying guests’. Lilian and Leonard Barber are a young married couple, whose presence brings the house to life. Frances and Lilian strike up a cautious friendship which develops into a passionate, illicit affair. The couple long to be together but are constrained by their situations. Then, one night, a terrible accident takes place which threatens to wreck their future. Can Lilian and Frances’ love survive this ultimate test?

Until I got a few chapters into the novel, I had forgotten that Waters writes about lesbian relationships and, in this instance, the setting is at at time when such romances were not publicly acceptable. The gender of the protagonists in ‘The Paying Guests‘ adds an extra twist to the novel; Frances Wray is complex and unconventional, with a past history of political activism. The setting is full of contemporaneous details such as fashion, decor, social expectations etc. London is unsettled in the wake of war, with veterans out of work and families grieving their lost men.

Part romance, part thriller, this book kept me engrossed throughout; the author achieved that very clever feat of keeping me rooting for the bad guy. I was even tempted to sneak it under the covers with a torch, just to find out what happened next!

Book No 37 (2015) : The Last Pier

the last pierRoma Tearne’s sixth novel is set against the backdrop of the last few days of peace before the Second World War was declared. Only 13-year old Cecilia’s life is not all that peaceful, amongst the comings and goings of Palmyra Farm. Her elder brother, Joe, is in love with Franca. the daughter of the Molinello family which runs the ice cream parlour in Bly.  At night her sister, Rose, climbs down the honeysuckle bush out into the dark, whilst her mother seems distracted. Added to the fact that Selwyn, her father, is often kept away from home by his various responsibilities and her Aunt Kitty seems to have taken against Rose, Cecilia’s life is complex. Pinky Wilson is surveying the land for war use, Bellamy the farm hand is always hanging around and Tom has already been evacuated from the city to Palmyra. Cecilia eavesdrops a lot, listening in on the conversations around her, trying to make sense of what is going on.

29 years later, Cecelia has returned to Palmyra, haunted by fragments of the past.   Rose is dead; she died during that 1939 summer, in tragic circumstances. As Cecilia pieces together her own recollections and finds some long-hidden family documents, the truth about Rose’s death is gradually revealed.

I’ve been mulling over my review for a couple of days since I finished ‘The Last Pier‘. On the one hand, I can appreciate Tearne’s exquisite writing; she has a turn of phrase which is often arresting and unexpected, but perfect in the choice of words she uses to convey a fleeting moment, a glance or an emotion. Her writing has an ethereal quality to it which is almost dreamlike. However, I found the writing almost too subtle. It was difficult to follow the plot, the threads joining together the elements of the story were very finely spun in some places, leaving me uncertain even at the end about what had actually happened.

In conclusion, all I can say is that ‘The Last Pier‘ didn’t really hit the spot for me. However, I would not want to put anyone off reading the novel, as its literary qualities are clearly not in question. I only hope that as Roma Tearne lives in Oxford, she doesn’t recognise me in Broad Street one day and deck me. Mind you, judging by her prose, she is far too elegant to do such a thing: she could probably knock me for six with a single, well-chosen sentence.

Thanks to NetGalley for my copy of the book.

Book No 36 (2015) : The Children Act

children actIan McEwan’s is a Masterchef whose key ingredients are all carefully selected. With ‘The Children Act’ it’s as if the author has taken a much longer book and drained it through a sieve. All the wishy-washy, watery stuff has been siphoned off and the resultant literary reduction is smooth and palatable, but also deeply satisfying.

The book’s central character is a female High Court Judge practising in Family law, but the novel opens at a key point in her personal life rather than her professional one. Julia’s husband is contemplating an adulterous liaison with a young statistician and asks Julia to sanction the affair, on the basis that she and Jack no longer have a mutually fulfilling sex life. Julia is side-swiped by the request but clings to the belief that her marriage is worth saving. Whilst she is facing this intense personal challenge, the Judge is also dealing with her usual heavy workload. Divorce cases, access to children, the separation of conjoined twins, Julia has to rule on serious and life-changing cases. When the case of Adam Henry comes before her, there is not much time for a decision to be reached; Adam is opposing life-saving blood transfusions on the grounds that the procedure conflicts with his religious beliefs. At 17, is he mature enough to make the decision to refuse the treatment which will safe his life? That judgement is for Julia to make, and it is literally life or death. She gets to determine.

The Children Act’ examines not only the legal aspects of caring for families in society, (there are carefully-researched references to several landmark rulings), but also the immense skill required in the correct application of the law. McEwan explores ethics, religious belief and parental influence; as a reader I began to develop an appreciation of how difficult it must be to negotiate the complexities of the law and apply legal principles soundly. Within the book, because of the emotive nature of Adam’s situation, it is so easy to get side-tracked by moral or medical issues, when what the Judge must be concerned with is the law. The role of music and poetry is also important within the book; these art forms contrast with the formality of the law, providing outlets for self-expression, release and shared experiences.

I read ‘The Children Act‘ pretty much in one sitting; it is an interesting and thought-provoking read which succeeds on both emotional and cerebral levels. I put it down really feeling as if I had learned something. Quite an achievement for 224 pages. I’ve struggled with McEwan’s work in the past, but I am tempted now to re-visit some of his other work. A great read.

Book No 35 (2015) : The Daughter’s Secret

daughters secretHalf way through reading Eva Holland’s novel I dreamed that I had killed my baby: she had got too hot, so I wrapped her in cling film for warmth. Unfortunately though, I left her outside a lift and she died. The reason I mention this, is because ‘The Daughter’s Secret‘ tapped into that deep seam of anxiety which comes as part of the package of motherhood. Most of us are able to suppress it most of the time, telling ourselves that serial rapists, ravaging fire and motorway pile-ups are the exception rather than the norm. We push our fears to the back of our minds and get on with the school run. But Rosalind, mother of Stephanie, struggles to keep her anxiety under control at the best of times. So when her daughter goes missing and is found to have disappeared in the company of her Geography teacher, Nate Temperley, Ros’ worst fears are realised.

The novel opens at the point where Ros discovers that Temperley is about to be released from prison. Stephanie is struggling to cope at University, resorting to alcohol to blot out her pain and so her parents bring her home. Desperate to protect her daughter from her abductor’s influence, whilst battling her own personal demons, Rosalind is once again caught in a spiral of distress. The author exposes secrets and lies, as well as the role of instinct and desire within her character’s lives.

This thriller was the winner of the Good Housekeeping Novel Competition in 2014, an accolade which may send out a subliminal message that it is cosy, chick-lit fiction for women. But it is certainly not a comfortable read, concentrating as it does on the tensions of motherhood; as we try guide our children safely into adulthood, we crave to pull them back when they are threatened. The writing is taut and incisive, keeping me occupied for several hours and lingering in my mind even when I wasn’t reading. A great debut, although probably not for you if you tend to worry about your kids!

Thank you to NetGalley for my copy of this book.

Book No 34 : The Girl On the Train

Commuting is a tiresome business. Squashed, sweaty, no seats, same old, same old. Rachel travels in to Euston every day, but instead of doing something useful like reading a novel or teaching herself Mandarin, she stares out of the windows. The main object of her scrutiny is the street where she used to live with her husband, Tom. He still lives there but with his new wife, Anna and their baby, Evie. A few doors down Blenheim Road lives another young couple, Jason and Jess: Rachel watches and notices things about them, sees them out on their terrace together. Only they aren’t called Jason and Jess, that is just Rachel’s fantasy; their names are actually Scott and Megan. When Megan goes missing, Rachel may have seen something which could help find her. The difficulty is that Rachel drinks; and she drinks so much that sometimes she can’t remember exactly what she did see.

The novel is narrated by three alternate characters; Rachel, Megan and Anna. As the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that the three women are interlinked in more ways than were obvious at first. Despite the immense hype around this thriller, comparing it to other successful publications such as ‘Gone Girl‘ and ‘Before I Go to Sleep‘, I was not taken with it. Characters don’t have to be unfailingly kind, generous and witty for me to enjoy a book, there is a lot of enthralling literature about dark and evil people. But the cast of Hawkins’ book is perpetually gloomy; the females are unreliable and untrustworthy, the men are duplicitous and violent. Even the baby grizzles. As the narration itself is well-suited to a suburban London setting i.e grey and repetitive, the plot needed to be extraordinary to lift the novel out of the doldrums. Sadly, I didn’t think it was as although there is a twist in the end, it was predictable.

Two-thirds of the way through reading ‘The Girl on the Train‘, I pondered what I would do if the book was swept out of my hands by a huge tidal wave: would I be so desperate to discover Megan’s fate that I would swim against an oceanic tide to recover it? Sadly not, I concluded. I would have been quite happy to let it drift away. Hardly a recommendation, I know, but life is too short to be a trainspotter.