“I’ve been to paradise, but I’ve never been to me”

Love & Fallout by Kathryn Simmonds

love and fallout Tessa is one of those middle-aged women that do causes. She co-runs a (failing) green charity running workshops for schools and colleges and she’s always got a local campaign on the go – this time saving the playing field from development. She doesn’t take much time for herself (or her family arguably) and lives in jeans and baggy jumpers. Her long-suffering best friend Maggie and husband Pete have had enough of this and as the novel starts they have organised a surprise TV makeover for her. The doorbell chimes:

Smiling at me is a thin woman in her early forties who has the gloss and wing-mirror cheekbones of a former fashion model. Behind her is a camera crew. A camera crew. And there, waving, is Maggie. For a few stupified seconds I can’t work it out: in some bizarre co-incidence she’s stopped by at exactly the same moment as a TV crew.
‘Are you Tessa Perry?’ asks the thin woman.
Partly shielded by the door and ready to close it at any moment, I confirm my identity.
‘Excellent,’ she says, ‘because we’re here to…’ Then she raises her arms along with her voice and everyone cries in unison, ‘Make you Over!’
The penny teeters, bright and coppery at the edge of my comprehension then drops into a slot and rolls away. Maggie has brought these people here. Before I know what’s happening, they’re piling inside.

Tessa is horrified, but when Pete says they’ll mention the Heston Fields campaign she reluctantly submits to get the publicity for it. When, after they’ve finished filming she’s left fully dressed and made up, Pete wants to go out. Tessa says ‘Right, give me ten minutes, I’ll just get changed.’ Exactly the wrong thing to say to Pete who had wanted to show her off.

Cut back to 1982, and Tessa having finished school is working in a dead-end job in Stevenage and has recently split up with her boyfriend. She decides to go and visit the anti-cruise protestors at Greenham Common, and maybe stay at the camp for a while. Surprisingly, her mum and dad are broadly supportive, realising that it’ll give her the break from Stevenage that she needs, and after all, she’ll not stay for long …

Tessa finally gets to Greenham, and finds a diverse band of women, young and old, mothers, grandmothers, Europeans, all are here. Bumping into a young woman called Rori, she finds a group to camp with at the Amber gate. She soon realises that life is not a bed of roses – it’s cold and muddy, water has to be carted from the standpipe, latrine trenches dug and so on. There is little direct action other than being there to witness what the military are doing. As in any group there are tensions – Angela who is one of the key organisers doesn’t think Tessa belongs there – indeed, Tessa doesn’t really know herself at first, but she gamely mucks in and makes herself useful. The strong bond that Tessa forges with Rori will become tested to its absolute limit over the months to come – there will be betrayals…

Interspersed with the Greenham sections are those charting the increasing disintegration of Tessa’s home life after the programme. If she doesn’t get funding, her charity will fold; she and Pete are going to relationship counselling – but it’s not going well; her children are alienated, especially her daughter Pippa. It takes a visit from Angela, who had seen her on the television, to bring her life back into perspective, finally bringing closure to her Greenham days.

I actually worked in Stevenage for a whole seventeen years and lived there for fifteen, first arriving in 1983 just after Tessa goes to Greenham. I lived in a couple of different estates, before ending up in a nicer newbuild development, but, having moved down there after living in Cambridge (where Tessa later lives!), I can understand why she’d want to move away from the indentikit houses, and the town centre certainly wasn’t up to much back then.

Simmonds builds a strong picture of what it was like to be at Greenham, and includes the real life events such as ‘Embrace the Base’ when 30,000 women linked arms around the perimeter, and when Tessa gets imprisoned after climbing the walls and dancing on the silos. We’re shown what a hard life it was and how everyone had to muck in, but also how much cheer the women were able to generate from their sisterhood. Although Tessa doesn’t get on with Angela in the camp having allied herself firmly with Rori – she herself becomes an Angela type later organising her causes, especially once her children don’t need her parenting so much.

Tessa is fallible though, taking Pete and her family’s silent acquiescence as permission to take them for granted. Thank goodness for the jolt caused by the TV show and the memories it brings back to the surface. Ignoring relationship ruts is not a good thing, and we hope that Tessa and Pete can find some kind of path forward; Tessa needs more of a makeover than just a new outfit. I found this aspect of the novel a little uncomfortable to read. Whatever her faults though, because Tessa is inherently a good person with good intentions we are on her side throughout the story.

There is much to admire in this debut novel from one of my favourite indie publishers, Seren Books. Tessa’s story is told with humour as well as truth and sadness. Who knows, if I had met Tessa in a Stevenage pub, I might have been inspired to join her in her quest and that is the mark of an engaging novel. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Love and Falloutby Kathryn Simmonds. Seren Books, June 2014, paperback original, 352 pages.

P.S. Quote at the top from ‘I’ve never been to me’ – by Ron Miller and Kenneth Hirsch, sung by Charlene – it reached No 1 in the UK in June 1982.

Looking for ‘Chap Last’

Thinkless by Sophie McCook

Thinkless_CarouselIt’s not often that I respond to a direct request from an author to review their book, but Sophie McCook wrote me a lovely note and she and her book sounded worth investigating. Thinkless comes from small publisher Limehouse Books in London, and Sophie who is based in Scotland has written for radio, TV and a wide range of other media and productions.

Actually once I saw the book’s cover on the Limehouse website, I was won over already. What you can’t see clearly in the small version to your left is, that amongst the tousled curls of the girl are words – see the detail below:

Thinkless_MainBook2 Capricious, Fickle, Undependable, Lovelorn, Naive and Mercenary are just some of these words – and they are all used to describe the main character – not usually all at once – but certainly in multiples! Miriam Short is in a real tangle (sorry!) – we’d better meet her …

I’m of no fixed salary, abode or career. I live in the moment, which I hear is very spiritual. The trouble is, the moments keep happening. I’m one long moment.
My ex-boyfriend maintains a holding pattern around my brain. Who knows when this obsession will end? Let’s call him Chap 1. All communication between us stopped. …
This black hole in my head is gradually growing. It’s sucking in the horizon and all the time, the city heat increases. I stuff Kleenex down my bra to stop the sweat river. I don’t have a fan. I have to get out of here.

Miriam is her father’s middle child. In her late twenties, she has an older sister and a younger brother – both by different mothers. Her father is currently with ‘Wife-to-be-Number-Four’. Having recently split up with her boyfriend, she’s reliant on her successful little brother to help her out by loaning her his flat while he’s off on business for she’s jobless and broke. It’s high summer though, London is sweltering, and the break-up with Chap 1 still hurts too much. When she sees an advert for a house/cat-sitter for three months, she sees a chance to escape.

So Miriam ends up in a hamlet called Toft Monks in Norfolk, cat-sitting for Marjory, who lives with her cats and many dogs in a tiny cottage full of blue things and dog-hair near Toft Hall, the local Manor. Luckily Marjory takes the dogs with her and leaves strict instructions about the Good Cats and the Bad Cat which can never be in the house at the same time.

To cut a long story short, it’s not long before Miriam meets the inhabitants of Toft Hall. There are two brothers: Kit, who’ll charm a woman into bed in moments it seems and Wym, who looks after the Hall and farm.  Then there’s Lord Hebbindon, known as Prop, their ageing father who is more than a little touched it seems and hates his wife the Marchese … As Kit is now Chap 2 (sic), Miriam asks him about their father…

‘But why is Prop Prop?’
‘Oh his name deserves a blue plaque. When he was seven, Prop and his father went hill-walking in North Wales with Lloyd George. Young Prop was the right height for the former Prime Minister to lean his elbow on, and he was leant on all the way up the mountain. From then on, he was a Prop.’
Aww.
I lie in his arms and shuffle through my brain index card and find this situation amazing. If sex were top-trumps, I feel I’ve scored well.
‘So in general, is it better being rich or being a Lord?’
Kit jumps on me.
‘You mercenary little cow!’

Miriam may project a laddette-ish attitude, but is she a gold-digger?  She would have you believe it’s much more complicated but, as the lost middle-child of a very dysfunctional family herself all she really needs is direction and to find that Chap Last – her true love.

Of course, this is a rom-com and things will get far more complicated before they can begin to detangle (to continue the hair analogies!), especially once Miriam’s sister turns up on the scene. Eventually we’ll get to see all the main characters for who they really are – there’s not so much of a difference between them and us in this novel as you may think. Of course we hope that all’s well that ends well too but we can have a chuckle along the way!

I thoroughly enjoyed Thinkless – it’s a comedy blend akin to Jilly Cooper meets The Archers with added London sassiness. Being a South Londoner myself and having survived living in Norfolk for two years at the start of my working career, I could strongly identify with Miriam’s fish out of water situation. Living there didn’t suit me – but maybe in this novel Miriam is ready?  Great fun. (7.5/10)

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Source: Author – Thank you and good luck with the book!
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

Thinkless by Sophie McCook. Pub Sept 2014 by Limehouse Books, trade paperback, 288 pages.

784 pages – Was it worth taking the time to read…

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The_goldfinch_by_donna_tart

It’s very likely that had our bookgroup not picked this novel, that The Goldfinch would have stayed on my shelves, unread, (beside Wolf Hall and The Luminaries), for much longer.

I had to read it (well, I could have cribbed notes but didn’t), but I’m so glad I took the time to read its 784 pages in hardback, the weight of which is almost enough to give you a wrist injury propping up the book. (Shame about how they plastered the paperback cover with plaudits by the way.) So much has been written about the book that I won’t dwell on the plot, just jot some thoughts down…

Tartt is a descriptive writer – she tells you everything about a scene – she wants you to see her vision, not to have your own about what you’re reading. This leads to some very long sections – for instance: the bit where Theo is back in New York and bumps into Platt Barbour who tells him all about his father’s death; this took acres of print – much like some of the scenes in James Jones’ From Here to Eternity (which is even longer at 900+ pages) where one poker game in the latrines took over twenty pages of small type.

While Tartt’s descriptive writing is lovely and you could, if you wanted to, relish every word, it is at the expense of pace and the novel always takes a long time to get anywhere. I know a lot of you did love her long-windedness but I longed for an editor to help produce the five hundred page literary thriller that lurks underneath all those extra words. It almost feels like heresy to say it, but I felt the same way about The Secret History when I read it twenty years ago. Don’t get me wrong, I did I really enjoy reading The Goldfinch, but the middle does sag a bit plotwise and could have been tauter.

There were, however, two things about The Goldfinch that I adored – the first is Hobie.

He was six foot four or six five, at least: haggard, noble-jawed, heavy, something about him suggesting the antique photos of Irish poets and pugilists that hung in the midtown pub where my father liked to drink. His hair was mostly gray, and needed cutting, and his skin an unhealthy white, with such deep purple shadows around his eyes that it was almost as if his nose had been broken. Over his clothes, a rich paisley robe with satin lapels fell almost to his ankles and flowed massively around him, like something a leading man might wear in a 1930s movie: worn, but still impressive.

I won’t begrudge Tartt her description of Hobie for first impressions do matter! (Note she uses ‘gray’ rather than grey – very poetic.) I immediately identified Hobie as a gentle giant Ron Perlman type but with some of the growl of Tom Waits – and an ideal surrogate father for Theo. Hobie was a real gent and I loved him.

The second is Boris – an out and out scoundrel, but his heart is in the right place when he befriends Theo. They met at school in Las Vegas:

The dark-haired boy scowled and sank deeper into his seat. He reminded me of the homeless-looking kids who stood around passing cigarettes back and forth on St. Mark’s Place, comparing scars, begging for change – same torn-up clothes and scrawny white arms; same black leather bracelets tangled at the wrists. Their multi-layered complexity was a sign I couldn’t read, though the general import was clear enough: different tribe, forget about it, I’m way too cool for you, don’t even try to talk to me. Such was my mistaken first impression of the only friend I made when I was in Vegas, and – as it turned out – one of the great friends of my life.

Although nothing in this novel is ordinary, these two characters lift the narrative immensely. Theo is very much a blank canvas and these two paint his life and help him to unchain himself from the goldfinch’s perch he would otherwise end up on. (Sorry! Couldn’t resist that last sentence.)

No-one in our book group hated the novel although some, like me, wished it could have been shorter. We had extensive discussions – somewhat unusual in a book that everyone liked, but not surprising for a novel of this quality, there was universal agreement that Hobie and Boris were utterly brilliant characters.

In answer to my question at the top – was it worth taking the time to read? Emphatically, Yes! (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, pub Oct 2013 by Little Brown. Abacus paperback 880 pages.

5 Characters in Search of a Theme Song

Love, Love Me Do by Mark Haysom

Love love me do

Looking at the title and cover of this book, I was expecting something light-hearted, a little bit sixties rock’n’roll, a bit Nick Hornby-ish if you will – and involving a caravan. Well the last bit was right, less so the others.

The title, that of the Beatles’ first hit single, is an anchor in time, and the book opens in 1963, Friday August the 2nd at 5.24am to be precise.

Young Baxter is dreading that later today he might have to go on a day-trip home to Brighton with his father. His mum, Christie, had said it’d be a good thing to have some time with his father, but Baxter doesn’t want to go – he wants to stay in the caravan, play in the grass and go and see Soldier in the woods.

A few hours later, Christie is again wondering why her husband Truman had sprung a surprise holiday on them – in a caravan on the edge of the Ashdown forest fifty miles inland from their home – and then abandoned them there without a car to go to work.

Not for the first time, Christie wondered whether she had ever truly loved him. …
And she had wanted him to love her. She was a little embarrassed to admit it, even now, even to herself; but more than being in love, what she had longed for then was the feeling of being loved by someone. …
But mostly what she felt now, she thought, as she knelt with her eyes still closed, trying to find just the right word for it, what she felt was that she had been overwhelmed by him. …
To begin with it had been excisitng to be with trumn, of course. To be wanted so much, to be pursued by a boy who was so tall and handsome; it was like nothing that had ever happened to her. …
…They had looked good together, people said. And, of course, there had been some defiance in it too. Because she had known her mother wouldn’t approve, it had made her all the more determined to go out with him in the first place.

It turns out that apart from be a charmer, Truman is a liar and a chancer, although Christie doesn’t know any of it. He’s a small-time con-man with an eye for the ladies and has a couple of mistresses on the go as well as Christie and their three children. He owes Mr Smith five grand – big money in those days. He had to do a disappearing act, hence the caravan, but he needs to go home – hence taking the boy with him for insurance. Mr Smith’s heavies can’t touch him with the boy…

What he doesn’t know is that Mr Smith has put Strachan on his trail. Strachan is a different class of heavy, older and looking to retire, well dressed – ‘You may not always be the best-looking man in the room,’ [his ma] she’d say to him, ‘but you can always be the man looking his best.’

The only character we’ve not really met yet is Soldier. He’s a tramp that lives in the woods, an ex-military man, obviously suffering from post traumatic stress even now although WWII ended 18 years ago. He talks to no-one, but Mrs. Chadney in the nearby farmhouse keeps an eye on him. 8-yr-old Baxter befriends him, and unbeknownst to Christie, Soldier is keeping an eye out for their safety too from the woods.

The story is told through the events of this single day, with lots of flashbacks to fill us in on the detail. We’ll find out about each of the five, their hopes and fears, their motivations, their searching for love – of whatever kind is on offer.

Christie, Baxter, Truman, Strachan and Soldier, each take turns in moving the story on through the day, each adding to the suspense. Will there be a showdown between Strachan and Truman at the end of the day? With the location setting, the build-up echoes Greene’s Brighton Rock a little – and we’ll get to find out a lot about Truman before the day is done.

This may be a debut novel, but Haysom is a newspaper man of long-standing and puts that to good use in an intriguing novel that is far more serious and far better than its cover would suggest. I really enjoyed it. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Love, Love Me Do by Mark Haysom, pub July 2014 by Piatkus, paperback original, 448 pages.

Mothers and Daughters again…

Clara’s Daughter by Meike Ziervogel

Layout 1The relationships between mothers and daughters, or daughters and their mothers – whichever way around you want to put it, is obviously something that fascinates Meike Ziervogel.

Her first novella, published away from her own Peirene publishing house was also about a mother and daughter, and the daughter’s own daughter. Magda, based on the life of that Magda – Goebbels that is – is an immensely powerful novella that looked hard at the dysfunctional relationship between the Nazi wife and her own mother, (read my review here).

Ziervogel’s second novella, Clara’s Daughter is a contemporary story set in leafy North London and may not have a famous protagonist, but is none the less powerful for that. Michele is a successful businesswoman, yet feels defined by her relationship with her ageing mother as Clara’s Daughter. Michele’s own children are grown-up and have flown the nest and now her job and her mother taking over again from her childrens’ needs have put Michele’s marriage under a terrible strain. Michele feels increasingly trapped – something will have to give, but Michele can’t let it be her.

Then Jim betrays her with a younger woman, and she starts to snap…

I take a pencil and snap it in half, just because I have to do something. I can’t sit here and do nothing. Then I am still, and the house is still, and I know it wasn’t enough simply to break a pencil. I want to do more. So I take the metal pen holder, turn slightly on my chair and throw it straight through the open door across the balcony and into the garden. The clattering noise as it hits the patio tells me I have achieved my aim. I get to my feet and pick up the two cushions from the chair and fling them into the garden too.

Having bagged up his clothes and got the need to throw things out of her system, Michele retaliates by phoning the builder and commissioning the conversion of their basement into a granny flat, something Jim hadn’t wanted (after having a fall, they had planned to move her mother into a retirement home). Her sister Hilary will be delighted with Michele taking on their mother…

This all unfolds within the first twenty pages of this novella. We really do get to feel Michele’s anger. Later we’ll see other sides of her, especially once her mother is installed. Clara, naturally enough, resents being moved out of her own home and her growing confusion with having to face new things is scarily real.  I have to say that the author absolutely nails it again – they all love each other, but find living together even more of a strain.

Reading about this unhappy family does make you stop and think about your own situation. It’s not an easy read; there are many elements in this story that undoubtedly will have happened, or may happen later to any of us. Meike successfully makes us sympathise with and understand both mother and daughter’s points of view right through to the story’s moving conclusion.

If mothers and daughters are something of an obsession for the author, the novella form is another. As many of you will know, Ziervogel is the founder of Peirene Press which publishes novellas in translation, in addition to those she writes herself. I’m a big fan of novellas and short novels, they allow a story to be told in full without diversions getting in the way of the arc and, for me, they are more satisfying than short stories. I’ll stick my neck out and christen Meike ‘Queen of the Novella’. I hope to read many more, whether written by her or published by her. Meanwhile I’d highly recommend that you get your hands on Clara’s Daughter. (9/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Clara’s Daughter by Meike Ziervogel. Salt Publishing, September 15th 2014, paperback original.

My last inbetweeny review from Shiny New Books

There’s still one of my reviews from what we editors have called the ‘Inbetweeny’ issue of Shiny New Books that I haven’t highlighted here on my own blog.

Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff

picture me gone

Picture Me Gone is a complex and intelligent exploration of parenthood and the effects that events can have upon relationships, seen through the eyes of twelve-year-old Mila who goes on a road trip with her father to find his missing best friend.

Being an American who has lived in London for twenty years or so, Meg Rosoff is more able than most to do justice to both sides of the pond.  She has now written seven YA novels, and they’re all different and each rather wonderful in their own way – I’d urge you to give one a try. Picture Me Gone could be a good starting point.

See the full review here.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further at Amazon UK, please click below:
Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff, 2013, Penguin paperback, 208 pages.

Drip-dry wash’n’wear?

Man-Made Fibre by Francine Stock

francine stock
Many of you may know journalist and TV/radio presenter Francine Stock from her time on Newsnight some years ago, and later on Radio 4’s arts programme Front Row and the Film Programme which she still presents. She has also written a couple of novels and a history of film. Man-Made Fibre is her second novel which was published back in 2002.

Here I have to declare an interest. For over seventeen years I worked for chemical giant Du Pont which is based in Wilmington, Delawre. Du Pont are pioneers in the field of man-made fibres thanks to their employee Wallace Carothers who is credited with discovering nylon back in 1935. I was in the electronic materials division, far removed from the fibres group, but the company’s mid-20th century history is so steeped in all the advances in making synthetic materials that I couldn’t pass by this title.

man-made fibreI wasn’t sure what to expect either, and was pleased to find that despite the cover, this novel is not at all fluffy. In fact it reminds me of nothing so much as the TV series Mad Men.  It’s set during the same years – the early 60s, has the same attention to detail and is a thoughtful exploration of the disintegration of a family. I couldn’t help but see Alan and Patsy as Don and Betty Draper (but English).

The story starts in suburbia. Alan and Patsy have three children and a nice house in a cul-de-sac which Patsy is transforming into her vision of a modern home…

And it was all beginning to come together. Through the serving hatch the eye could catch the golden tones of the living area-cum-dining-room-cum-study, altogether more convivial with the new wallpaper, diagonals again, the Scandinavian influence still effective. Open-plan but divided. Efficient yet decorative. With the duty to entertain that Alan’s job would increasing involve […] there would be fresh chances to express their style. Patsy and Alan – the Hopkinses at home.

Patsy’s vision of being the perfect hostess is thrown into stasis with one phone-call. Alan is a scientist working on developing new fibres for NextGen, a small British company newly absorbed into the Lavenirre group based in Delaware (surely a ringer for Du Pont!). Alan’s potential new product has attracted the attention of the head office and he is summonsed to the USA. But once there, they decide to keep him and Patsy and the family will have to transfer with him.

Over in Delaware, Alan is unaware of the angst and upheaval this is causing to Patsy. He’s thrown himself into the American lifestyle – looked after by his company mentor Ray, a fibres marketing man – who is used to playing hard at the weekends…

Ray applies the same efficiency to work. He wants to look after Alan so that Alan can deliver for the firm – and for himself, of course. This division of the corporation is very exciting – has been for fifteen years or so, thanks to Dr Carothers and nylon. You people did wonderful stuff with Terylene, but with Dacron – well, you have to admit, Alan, we had the edge. And frankly, the ball is in our court now. We’re the only ones who have the muscle to deplot these new polyesters.

So Lavenirre is definitely based on Du Pont! Terylene and Dacron are both tradenames for PET – polyester terephthalate – commonly called polyester. ICI discovered polyester in 1941 and Terylene was their name for it, Dacron Du Pont’s version. No prizes for guessing which persists today – in fact ICI’s polyester business was subsumed into Du Pont’s in 1997.

The company is endlessly helpful in helping Patsy with all the business of moving. Alan’s boss, the slimy Fred Rookin, takes a personal interest – but it is his chauffeur Jon that does the legwork and catches Patsy’s imagination.

Patsy is always so together, slightly aloof and looked up to by her friends. The only people she lets go with slightly are her neighbours, Evie and Donald, an older couple who are honorary aunt and uncle to her children. Evie and Donald, childless, adore the kids, they also enjoy their life knowing that Donald who is older and more infirm won’t necessarily have much left.  Occasionally Evie will  take over the narrative to give an outsider’s view of the Hopkins household.

Change is always difficult – to manage it well, all involved have to embrace it, and Patsy doesn’t – at least not in the way that Alan hopes for.  There are no easy answers in dealing with these family dilemmas and Stock doesn’t try to give any. As in Mad Men, you sense that there are to be no truly happy endings to this thoughtful and well-observed novel. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Man-made Fibre by Francine Stock, pub 2002. Out of print but s/h copies available.

A nasty piece of work is Oliver…

Apologies for not getting any posts up for a few days – it’s been a bit hectic – what with a first aid training course, back to school and all that entails, plus of course a wonderful quick trip down to London on Wednesday to have tea at the Wolseley Restaurant on Piccadilly with my three co-editors of Shiny New Books.  Can you believe it’s the first time the four of us have been together in the same place.

P1020045 compressed

In case you haven’t seen the proof – here it is (from L>R: Harriet, me, Victoria and Simon).  I’d also recommend the Wolseley as a posh but affordable place to go in the West End – a cream tea is £10.75+service, but you do need to book.  Originally a (Wolseley) car showroom, the restaurant is in the French grand café style, bustling with attentive waiters.

If you still haven’t signed up for the Shiny New Books newsletter, click on the logo to your right and send us your email address to get all the updates. New reviews are coming soon…

But back to my blog now. Despite being so busy, I have been reading quite a lot, and thus have a stack of books waiting to be written about.  Here’s one of them…

 

Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent

unravelling oliver

 I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her.

I’d be willing to wager that almost every review of this novel will contain this quote. You can’t not include it really. It immediately sets the scene and introduces us to the monster of a man that is Oliver Ryan, and his long-suffering wife Alice. We don’t know why he did it, he doesn’t tell us, but it’s clear from the start that he’s a right bastard – and what’s more, he knows it.

Oliver Ryan is the successful author of a series of children’s books, written under the pseudonym Vincent Dax. Alice is an illustrator and they were paired by his publisher to work together and it went from there. They’ve been together for years now, childless, ‘When we got engaged, I made it very clear that children were not on the Agenda.’ Oliver describes Alice as ‘habitually obedient with just an occasional rebellion.’ You sense that she’d not the type of woman he’d usually go for, yet he does seem to care deeply for her in a way. So, why did he hit her then?

The author teases out Oliver’s past by getting those who know him best to tell of their experiences, amongst them are Alice’s former boyfriend Barney, Oliver’s only real teenaged pal (until it all goes wrong) Michael, his neighbour Moya with whom he’s been having an affair out of sheer laziness for ages and most notably perhaps – Véronique who now owns the French chateau where Oliver, Michael and Michael’s sister Laura worked one summer in the vineyards.

Their tales are interspersed with Oliver’s memories, mostly from his school days which sounded very grim. Oliver never knew his mother, and when his father remarried, he was sent away to the boarding school just up the road – so close he could watch his new half-brother growing up through binoculars from a high window.  He languishes there, ignored, not even going home during the holidays, effectively abandoned except for an annual duty visit from his father.  He tries hard to get his father’s attention, but it ain’t gonna happen – for his father has secrets too.

His father is the key that makes Oliver become what he is – a classic case of lack of nurture overcoming nature. Oliver becomes determined to show him that he doesn’t need him. He is handsome, charismatic and clever, but he takes risks and short cuts to further his ends and this will be his undoing.  The way he tramples on his friends and acquaintances and the consequences of his actions are truly shocking, as is his own family history when it is revealed.

When this unsolicited book arrived recently, I wasn’t sure whether I’d read it or not. I’m rather glad that I inspected it further though for it was a gripping read.  Debut author Liz Nugent has delivered a compelling and concise novel, something many first-time published novelists don’t manage. Each of the characters comes alive in their chapters, the only person we don’t hear from is Alice herself which when I thought about it was surprising at the time of reading, but upon reflection unnecessary to drive the narrative.

Nugent is Irish, and the atmosphere she has created in Unravelling Oliver reminds me of another novel of obsession by an Irish author, that I read a few years ago. That was The Illusionist by veteran author Jennifer Johnston (reviewed here, in which a relationship falls apart and the man within revealed have a rather different character.  That I can compare the two shows that Liz Nugent is an author to watch out for. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent. Pub March 6th, 2014 by Penguin Ireland, Trade paperback, 231 pages.
The Illusionist by Jennifer Johnston, paperback.

Annabel elsewhere – Jill Dawson & Val McDermid

Today I’m going to share links to two more of my reviews over at Shiny New Books. We’re still sending out the first newsletter to new subscribers, so click on the logo to your right and it’ll take you there. We also have a giveaway and an ‘Ideal Library’ competition running – details in the newsletter and on the SNBks front page.

The Tell Tale Heart - UK hardback coverThe first book I’d like to highlight is Jill Dawson’s wonderful new novel The Tell-Tale Heart – My Shiny New Books review.  Dawson is an author whose novels I always enjoy, (my blog review of her previous novel Lucky Bunny is here).

The Tell-Tale Heart is the story of a university professor and professional reprobate that needs a heart transplant, and his teenaged donor. This book is by an author writing at the height of her powers.  Full of hearty references, humour and sadness, and I loved it.

You can also read the SNBks interview with Jill Dawson here.

northangerThen we have something completely different…

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid is the second novel in a series of modern retellings of the works of Austen – My Shiny New Books review.

You never have paired Austen and McDermid together, but she has done it proud, producing a frothy teenage novel for the Twilight generation that keeps all the essential plot elements in, but works perfectly in the world of dating and texting, txtg.

Please feel free to comment on either of these novels here or on Shiny New Books.

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Source: Publishers – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Tell-tale Heart by Jill Dawson, pub Feb 2014 by Sceptre, Hardback 256pages.
Northanger Abbey (Austen Project 2) by Val McDermid, pub Mar 2014 by The Borough Press, Hardback 352 pages.

Discovering Barbara Comyns…

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

comyns vetsThis is the first novel by Comyns that I’ve read. I chose The Vet’s Daughter as one of two ideal starting points recommended by Simon, (the other was Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead).  I can say that it won’t be the last novel by her that I’ll read – well, I did buy a set of three and thus have Our Spoons Came From Woolworths and Sisters by a River already waiting.  I had no idea what to expect really, despite seeing a lot of love for this novel around the blogosphere …

The story is told by Alice, the daughter of a vet (obviously, I know). It is set in Edwardian times, and she lives with her parents in South London. The household is ruled with a rod of iron by her father.  Alice and her mother are not abused but are treated as mere drudges for the most part, and her father has little to do with either of them, taking all his meals in the front room surgery.

The day was nearly over and it was like most of the days I could remember: all overshadowed by my father and cleaning the cats’ cages and the smell of cabbage and my father’s scent. There were moments of peace, and sometimes sunlight outside. It was like that all the time.

One thing it appears that Alice’s father can’t cope with is death. People bring animals to him to be put down – he sells them on to a vivisectionist. When Alice’s mother becomes ill, he can’t cope with that either and avoids them even more, disappearing up to the pub, or out with a lady friend. When Alice’s mother dies, she is soon replaced by Rosa, a bawdy bar-maid who treats Alice badly. Poor Alice is confused and lonely, and has to get away. She is friendly with a locum vet, Henry Peebles, indeed she has the beginnings of a romantic infatuation with him. When he suggests she becomes a companion for his frail mother in Hampshire, she jumps at the chance, but Henry’s mother is mad and abused by the housekeeper. Alice’s confusion gets worse, and she discovers that she can channel this into psychic energy by levitating. I’m not giving this away as the clue is on the front cover of this edition of the book.

And then in the night it happened again and I was floating, definitely floating. The moonlight was streaming whitely through the window, and I could see the curtains gently flapping in the night wind. I’d left my bed, and except for a sheet, the clothes lay scattered on the floor. I gently floated about the room. Sometimes I went very close to the ceiling, but I wouldn’t touch it in case it made me fall to the ground. …
I don’t know how long I remained in the air like that; I should imagine about seven minutes. Then I can remember a feeling of great exhaustion stealing over me, and a longing for my bed. I willed myself down to it and it happened quite gently: one moment there was nothing beneath me but air, and then I felt my still warm mattress. I lay there almost fainting with tiredness before I could creep out and collect the blankets. Then a deep and dreamless sleep enveloped me.

Henry will turn out not to be ‘the one’, and Alice ends up back in Lambeth with her father, and increasingly troubled…

Given that this novel was first published in 1959, I somehow expected the levitation to be a dream but it was all quite real with Alice channelling her hurt and anger into a meditative state.  Back in the late 19th century, the Victorians thrilled in the supernatural; Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophists believed it could be explained by the earth’s magnetic field.  Fake mediums got big business from their elaborate ruses at séances.  Additionally, there have always been accounts of supernatural levitation through the centuries – sometimes seen as a transcendental state, other times caused by demonic posession – Alice’s being the former.

There is the nightmare quality of Alice’s life too. This is a very dark novel, owing much to the 19th century’s Gothic and sensation novels, a domestic story full of high drama. I did struggle to understand Alice’s father a bit. He is never physically abusive to her, but she is neglected, treated like an animal and never shown any signs of love until it is too late. Mind you, there’s not much evidence in the book that he’s much of a vet either, let alone being a nasty father.  We must remember that Alice is a young girl though, and it is her version of events that we are reading. That’s not to say it is wrong, but there is a certain naivety in parts and ironically given its darkness, moments of humour too.

The VMC edition has a foreword by Jane Gardam, as well as the author’s introduction which were both fascinating.  I shall definitely be reading more novels by Comyns – another great discovery thanks to the blogosphere. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Vet’s Daughter: A Virago Modern Classic (VMC) by Barbara Comyns, VMC paperback.