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 27 (2014) : After I Left You

after i left youThrough hanging around on the Internet, I discovered ‘NetGalley’. It’s a site which allows reviewers to request complimentary copies of books, on the understanding that in return for the free copy, they
review the work and give feedback to the publisher. ‘After I Left You’ was the first of my requests to be accepted, so I was excited!

‘After I Left You’ is the story of Anna Jones, an Oxford graduate. Having moved on in life after University, an unexpected encounter with a former lover causes her to confront the traumatic events which over-shadowed her final days at St Bartholomew’s College. After so many years, can she gain some closure?

The book is written in the first person, switching between Anna’s current and former lives as she is drawn to reminisce about her student days spent in the company of a close circle of friends – Clarissa, Meg, Victor, Barnaby and Keith. As well as flashback, it uses several plot devices to progress the story, and also has some literary references. There are twists and turns, leading to the revelations of what happened to Anna at the Summer Ball.

I found this novel frustrating. I am extremely familiar with Oxford and felt that Ms Mercer failed to capture the magic of the city or the complexity of student life. Her characters felt flat, one-dimensional. Although the plot draws events to a conclusion, the whole book left me feeling dissatisfied. Sorry, but not a book I feel able to recommend.

Book No 14 (2014) : Last Bus to Woodstock

woodstockConsidering I have lived in Oxford for the best part of 20 years, it has taken me an inordinately long time to get around to reading an Inspector Morse mystery. ‘Last Bus to Woodstock’ was given to me as a birthday present by a friend, to help with the 50/50 challenge.

To start with I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to read the book without constant flashing images of John Thaw as Morse and Kevin Whately as Lewis, as per the TV series. But that didn’t happen at all – because the characters I imagined were completely different from Thaw and Whately. My Morse was tougher, sexier, more vibrant – and my Lewis was nowhere near as insipid as his ITV counterpart.

Sylvia and her friend are waiting at the bus stop one night, but decide instead to hitch a ride. Sylvia is later found murdered, in the back yard of the Black Prince pub. Morse and Lewis john thaware assigned to the case and eventually uncover the truth behind the events leading up to the death.

The plot to the murder mystery is intricate and tightly woven. However, I had some severe misgivings about the book. Firstly, I found it extremely frustrating that the clues were not planted throughout the narrative to allow me to work out whodunit. I don’t think I am a particularly dense reader, and the perpetrator turns out to be a character that has paid a fairly minor role in the drama. Morse has the details worked out by the end, and all is revealed in the last 20 pages. But, how frustrating. If there is no way to figure out the mystery, it just makes Inspector Morse (and Colin Dexter) seem like smug, supercilious know-it-alls.

dexterWhich brings me to Colin Dexter. Notwithstanding the fact that ‘Last Bus to Woodstock’ was published in 1975 and social attitudes may have changed, Dexter’s portrayals of women are at best disparaging, at worst verging on the misogynistic. Females are either angels or whores, Morse is attracted to a young nurse in uniform and there was an uncomfortable sense that some of the characters felt that young Sylvia may have been ‘asking for it’ based upon what she was wearing.

Colin Dexter’s work has been highly praised but, if this book is indicative of the rest of the series, I am not a fan.

One thing I would add is that this actual book is of a beautiful quality. This edition, published by Pan, has smooth, creamy white pages, super-clear font and a lustrous cover. A joy to hold in my hands.